‘What are you looking for Norah?’ Hubert called to his daughter. His daughter glanced back at him from the rail of the boat, then narrowed her eyes towards the horizon again. ‘Pirates,’ she said in a grim voice. ‘Pirates?’ Hubert turned to where his wife stood at the tiller, her dark hair whipping in the breeze, and asked, ‘Madelaine, my love, have you been reading Norah that Walter Scott novel again?’ Madelaine considered the question for a moment, repressed a smile, and said, ‘No. I haven’t been reading it to her, Hu.’ Hubert smiled and nodded. ‘I see. Let me rephrase the question then. Did you give Norah the book to read by herself?’
Madelaine grinned back and then shrugged apologetically. ‘Oh in that case, yes, I did.’ Hubert sighed. ‘It’s all very well, mon vie, but you know that now Norah
has pirates in her head, she’ll panic every time she sees another ship.’ On the upside,’ his wife pointed out, ‘in the very unlikely event that there ever were any pirates, we’d certainly know about it in good time. And we have a magnificently literate eight-year-old child, which is a very rare thing, you know.’
Madelaine smiled proudly at Norah, who was fair like her father. Her long blonde plait was coming undone, and she had lost her ribbon.‘It’s not that I’m not proud of her, Madelaine,’ Hubert said. ‘I just wish we could find her some books about little faeries or something.’ Madelaine pulled a face. ‘Any stories she hears about faeries in this island might terrify her to death. Oh, for goodness sake, no, Norah!’ Madelaine gave her husband a little shove. ‘Stop her, Hu! She’s trying to climb the mast again.’ Hubert took two steps, swept his daughter into a hug and assured her that there wouldn’t be any pirates this close to land. Madelaine shouted so her voice was not stolen by the wind. ‘As far as I remember, Norah, all the old stories of pirates around Jersey happened to the west of the island.’ Hubert nodded. ‘Your mother is right, and that’s the other side of Jersey. We’re just coming around the east coast, towards Green Island, do you see it there with the grass on top? We’re heading for La Rocque harbour. Besides! Pirates only attack at night and in storms, when the wind blows the boat like this!’ Hubert spun his daughter around in circles until she screamed with delight.
‘Your father’s right,’ Madelaine laughed. ‘There won’t be pirates on sunny days like this. So stop worrying. Look how pretty the island is here! Hu will you take the tiller for a moment, I want to put on a shawl.’ ‘We’re heading just around those rocks sticking out on the coast ahead and we’ll be in sight of the harbour,’ Hubert assured his daughter as he stepped away to take the tiller. ‘We’re almost home and safe on dry land!’ He lowered his voice as he leant near his wife and whispered, ‘It’s not pirates that worry me, around here. Sailing past… that place…always puts me on edge.’
Hubert jutted his chin towards the land. Madelaine studied the coastline and compressed her lips, her easy smile fading. ‘It’s been a very long time, Hubert. We’ve never heard anything about them since.’ She shot him a quick grin and added, ‘Anyway, I don’t think you ever had much to worry about. They liked you just fine.’ ‘Nothing to worry about?’ Hubert snorted. ‘Having my mind enchanted until I didn’t know who I was, or what I wanted. I could have lost the woman I love. I’d say that was something to worry about! And they scared the bloody life out of me.’
Hubert stared grimly at the rocks as they approached. ‘They might have seemed kind for a little while, but for all we know, they may have been planning to drown me. Or eat me.’ ‘I rather think they had other things in mind.’ ‘Who had what in mind?’ Norah asked as she ran over. ‘Why are you only ever listening when I don’t want you to?’ Madelaine demanded fondly. ‘Yes, but who are you talking about?’ Norah asked, staring up at her with interested blue eyes. ‘Were talking about witches, love.’ Hubert gently tugged her plait. ‘Hu!’ Madelaine scolded. ‘I can’t believe I get told off for letting her read a storybook about pirates, and you’re telling her about witches!’ ‘I didn’t tell her anything! Anyway, Norah, it’s just an old legend, about a big rock where witches would sit and ask fishermen for fish. You’ll see it in a minute. I’ll point it out.’ ‘Will we see witches?’ Norah demanded. Madelaine smiled and pulled Norah into a quick hug, saying, ‘No, Norah. Daddy met some witches about ten years ago, but it’s nothing to worry about.’ ‘Witches aren’t real,’ Norah said. ‘Dad said so when the men killed that old lady, remember? Pirates are real though.’ ‘You told her witches aren’t real?’ Madelaine whispered as their daughter dashed forward to the prow. ‘You, of all people, told her that witches aren’t real?’
Hubert laughed. ‘You know what I meant. All those poor people that get accused of witchcraft, when they’re just making a poultice, or using herbs. People aren’t witches, is what I was trying to tell Norah. I don’t want her getting superstitious and thinking somebody she meets is a witch, just because they’ve got warts or a squint. Everyone’s gone bloody mad. There’s always some poor woman being accused for something ridiculous.’ ‘Like having a cat. Or living alone. Or sneezing on a Sunday.’ As they passed Green Island, the perfect blue of the sea was troubled by a rippling breeze that was raking its shining surface into choppy little peaks. Hubert and Madelaine both eyed the land ahead.Through the trees on the shore, they could just make out a high rocky outcropping of russet granite. The place known as Rocqueberg.
As Hubert hauled on a rope, the wind changed direction completely and the boom swung around so fast he had to duck. ‘Careful, Hu!’ Madelaine exclaimed. ‘I’m glad we’re nearly home. Can you take the tiller again? The current is too strong for me.’ The muscles in Hubert’s arm stood out as he began to fight to hold
the tiller steady. While their daughter watched the horizon to starboard for pirates, Madelaine and Hubert’s glances flicked again and again towards the land.
‘Nearly home,’ Hubert muttered again. Madelaine grabbed her coat as the wind grew colder. The blue sky above had turned misty white. The wind changed again, slowing them, and they became uncertain how to set their sail, as the wind blew first one way and then another. The boom swung back and forth, and Norah crouched down nervously as her parents fought to keep the boat on course.
The water seemed to swirl as erratically as the breeze. Norah crawled over to grab her cardigan and then announced loudly that she had left her hat in France. The sky grew darker while the ship made little progress. Hubert’s fists clenched suddenly around the rope he was pulling, and he froze. Madelaine looked at him curiously. When his eyes met hers, there was fear in them. ‘What’s wrong?’ Madelaine demanded, but a gust of wind stole her words. Hubert pointed to his ear and then to the sky as the rope fell slack from his hands. Madelaine listened. For a long moment she heard nothing except the wind. Then she caught it – it sounded so much like a whisper behind her ear that she spun around. ‘Thirteen…’ Then the wind began to roar.
Norah’s plait lifted and lashed behind her, strands of hair whipping around her startled face as she grabbed onto the rail. The boat leaned low to the water, suddenly speeding forward towards the rocks. Ropes strained as though they would snap.‘Lower the sail!’ Madelaine shouted, and Hubert nodded.
They struggled to release ropes and lower the canvas. The rigging fell loose around them. The boat lost momentum and floundered, dipping and rocking from side to side. The sky was growing darker. ‘Your thirteenth is ours!’
The whisper in the wind seared Madelaine’s ears so loudly that she gasped. Norah let out a little cry and sunk to the deck in fear. Hubert hugged her as a wave lifted the boat and pushed it with a lurch in the direction of the shore. The boat fell from the back of the wave’s peak with a stomach-churning dive. Then another huge wave hit them. They spun around, pressed helplessly against the rails. The sky darkened like night was falling as heavy storm clouds gathered and pressed down. A single flash of lightning blinded them, thunder roared, and within a moment it was raining as hard as if they had sailed beneath a waterfall.
Storms at sea often began fast and unexpectedly, but this was like nothing the couple had ever experienced. Madelaine’s clothes were soaked within seconds. Shapes twisted in the rain as something invisible stirred in the drops, and the hissing of water hitting the deck picked up the word thirteen and turned it to a repetitive roar. The rain came down so hard Madelaine could barely make out the shape of her husband and child. The deck shifted beneath her feet, and she slid
from one side of the boat to the other. ‘Mum!’ Norah’s shout made Madelaine crawl towards her husband and daughter who were hunched against the starboard rail. She wrapped her left arm around Hubert’s back and grabbed the rail tight with Norah clasped between them. The boat heaved high upon a wave and tipped to the right. Madelaine saw the sea lunge towards them with sickening speed, before the ship righted itself and began to spin, so swiftly that the land seemed to dance around them, so dizzying that Madelaine had to close her eyes. When the ship finally slowed, Madelaine saw what she had most dreaded to see. Dark figures were standing on the rocks of the shore.
They were silhouettes against a deep grey sky and beneath the trees. The Witches of Rocqueberg. ‘There’s a lot more witches than last time, Hu,’ Madelaine said, her hand clutched his shirt so hard she thought her fingernails might tear through. ‘Hubert, there’s so many of them!’ Something white blew past the mast, too fast to see, and Madelaine’s wet hair whipped into her eyes. A wave arced above the deck. A woman’s shadow curved within the water. As the wave crashed onto the deck the water reformed. It grew into a glittering, moving statue. The shape of a woman made of water. She looked at them with a cold smile, then ran to the rail, steps glittering with diamond drops, before diving back into the ocean.
‘Mum, did you see her?’ Norah shouted. ‘I know, Norah. Don’t look at them.’ Madelaine tried to cover her daughter’s eyes. ‘No! Please, mum. I want to see!’
Waves pushed them relentlessly towards the black rocks that marked the shore. The boat lurched towards the shadowy figures gathered there. The rain was relenting as swiftly as it had started. ‘Thirteenth.’ The Witches spoke the words together and the sound was echoed in the wash of the waves and the gusts of the air. That old tale,’ Hubert’s voice was rough with fear. ‘In the legend theWitches would do this to fisherman trying to make their way home. They used to demand the thirteenth fish from the catch as a toll before they would let them pass.’ ‘I remember,’ Madelaine said. ‘Do you happen to remember what happened if the fishermen hadn’t caught thirteen fish?’ Madelaine stared at him blankly. ‘Well, Dad?’ Norah asked Hubert. ‘What happened?’ ‘Nothing good, I imagine,’ said Madelaine slowly. ‘But we don’t have any fish,’ Norah pointed out. ‘That could be a problem.’ Hubert bit his lip. They looked towards the land. A wave crashed against the rocks, and from the receding white water the shapes of sleek, gleaming women slithered and climbed ashore. Figures as pale as clouds blew in
like torn cloth, spun, and formed into human shapes like smoke blown into invisible glass as they alighted in easy crouches.
Lightning flashed and a fire blazed into being beside the huge red rock of Rocqueberg. Female shapes danced from the depths of the flames, arms raised, hair
whipping. The earth beneath the trees erupted in tangles of roots and brambles that clawed upwards and wove themselves into what looked like grotesque, tangled puppets, that stumbled, then gained in grace with every step. They dusted the earth and leaves from their skin, then stood with their hair lifting in the wind. ‘Your thirteenth fish.’The voices were a chorus. ‘It must be every Witch in the islands!’ Hubert swore and Madelaine half-heartedly covered Norah’s ears. The boat grated against the rocks of the shore and the little family tumbled to the centre of the deck with the impact. Hubert held onto Madelaine and Norah, cushioning their fall as best he could.
‘Ow,’ Norah said, rolling over and rubbing her arm as she sat up. Rock scratched the hull as witches with fingers of sharp stone anchored them in place. ‘Please,’ Hubert clambered to his feet as Madelaine kneeled protectively in front of Norah. ‘Please. We’re not fishermen, but I am a fisherman’s son. I promise, if you let us make our way to the harbour, I will buy nets and I will put back out to sea and I will catch you as many fish as you like. For as long as you like! Just please don’t hurt my family.’ Madelaine slapped at him. ‘Hubert! Don’t make offers of lifelong service to fée creatures! What are you thinking?’ ‘The thirteenth fish of your catch.’ It was a single voice this time. A woman with golden hair and a voice as light as a breeze stepped forward from the crowd. ‘The thirteenth fish, or risk our wrath. You know how this works, don’t you, fisherman’s son? For centuries that has been the toll for fishermen to pass our rock. The thirteenth fish… or we raise the storm and wreck your little boat.’
Madelaine narrowed her eyes at the blonde Witch. ‘You can clearly see we have no fish!’ she said. ‘All we have is our daughter.’ ‘I’ll catch you fish! Any number of fish!’ Hubert said. ‘Oh stop, Hu!’ Madelaine clambered to her feet. ‘They don’t even want fish. They just want an excuse to cause chaos.’
Hubert turned and stared at her in horror. ‘Madelaine, for goodness’ sake, please don’t anger them!’ ‘Why not?’ Madelaine stood up, peeled off her soaking coat and threw it on the deck. ‘If they’re really going to sink our ship and risk murdering our daughter, then I’m not going to my watery grave without telling them exactly what I think of them!’ She wrung out her dark hair, flicked it over her shoulder and glared up at the witches defiantly. Norah suddenly called up to the Witches, ‘Why do you want a thirteenth fish?’ ‘Shh, sweetheart, please,’ Hubert said. The blonde Witch tilted her head and answered the child’s question.
‘It is the toll,’ she said. ‘It has always been the toll. Even for old friends.’
Hubert and Madelaine exchanged worried glances. ‘Yes, but why?’ Norah tried to step around her mother. ‘If you can change the weather and move the sea like this, then why do you need fishermen to catch you a fish? Surely you can catch your own fish.’ ‘It is the toll.’ A woman, dripping with water, tilted her head. ‘It has always been the toll.’ ‘Yes, but why?’ Norah insisted. ‘My daughter raises a good point,’ Madelaine said crossing her arms. ‘Why is it that you absurdly powerful women need some poor terrified fishermen to give you a sodding fish anyway?’ ‘It is the toll.’ A woman with leaves in her hair had a voice like the
creaking of trees in the wind. ‘We heard that part,’ Madelaine said patiently. ‘Since we don’t have a thirteenth fish, or any fish at all, we cannot pay the toll. Will you at least let my daughter out of the boat before you do whatever it is that you’re going to do to us?’ ‘What if we had thirteen of something else instead though?’ Norah asked, tilting her head to one side. There was a strange synchronicity of movement as every witch turned their heads to look at the child.
‘Well?’ Hubert asked, desperately. ‘What if we did happen to have thirteen of something else? Would that work? Because I think we might as it happens!’ Hubert was suddenly in motion, dragging luggage and crates from where they had been tightly lashed to the deck. He revealed a trapdoor that had previously been carefully concealed. ‘What if we had something better than a fish?’ Madelaine asked hopefully, ‘How about that? Would that work?’ ‘You’re really pretty,’ said Norah to the wind witch. The Witch twirled in the air and smiled, ‘Thank you, child. I know. Thirteen of what?' she asked, swirling closer, curious. With a jangle and a thump Hubert lifted out a crate of bottles and shoved them across the wet deck. ‘Ladies!’ Hubert held a bottle up like a salesman. ‘Behold the finest
cognac! All the way from France! Take all of it if you like. Just please, let our daughter go.’ ‘I hate it,’ Norah said with ill-timed honesty. ‘It’s absolutely
disgusting.’ ‘It’s not disgusting, and you shouldn’t have tried it,’ Madelaine said firmly. ‘Brandy isn’t for children. Hubert did you give our child brandy?’‘Of course I didn’t! She took a sip at the vineyard before I could stop her.’ The Witches drew closer. Those in the air floated like spirits. Two watery hands reached up from the sea, and a curious water witch poured herself onto the deck. She stood and looked at the crates and bottles, at the honey-amber liquid inside squat bottles packed in straw. ‘Do you have thirteen bottles?' she asked pointedly. ‘Yes! Yes? Hu, do we?’ Madelaine asked. Hubert began to pull out more crates, saying, ‘I’m sure we do. One dozen to sell and the bottle we got for ourselves. I’m afraid I’m not sure which one would be the thirteenth though, so–’‘That one.’ A watery hand pointed. ‘That is the thirteenth bottle.’ ‘How can you tell?’ Hubert asked. ‘We bought them all at the same time.’ ‘The thirteenth always glitters with a little dark magic,’ the wind witch said with a smile.‘I should warn you,’ said Madelaine. ‘If one of those fire witches touches that bottle, it’s going to explode like a cannonball.’ Another water witch poured onto the deck and stood up. She lifted the thirteenth bottle in her hand and looked questioningly to the other witches. ‘Take as many as you want,’ Hubert said holding two bottles out to the witches on the shore. ‘It’s a small payment for the lives of my family.’ ‘No. The toll is paid.’ A woman with claws of stone released the boat and the others stepped back, looking suddenly more human.
The wind witch nodded and fluttered to the earth. The water witch who held the bottle smiled. In the time that it took her to run three swift steps, skip over the rail, and land on the shore, she had turned into a normal girl with black hair, dressed in damp trousers and a white shirt. She looked every inch a fisherman’s daughter. Norah ran after her to the rail and asked, ‘How do they do that? I wish I could change like that!’ ‘No you don’t,’ Hubert said firmly. The wind witch laughed and raised a farewell hand before turning and running in bare feet after the girl with the bottle. A gentle wave lifted the boat and pulled them back from the land. ‘Is that it?’ Hubert asked. ‘Don’t question good luck, Hubert. Set the sail before they change their insane, fickle minds.’ ‘Right! Yes,’ Hubert jumped to help untangle ropes and hoist a sail, while Norah watched the witches from the rail. ‘I like them,’ Norah decided. ‘No you don’t, Norah!’ her father said. ‘Untangle that rope, Sweetheart, we’re in a bit of a mess here.’ Madelaine grabbed the tiller, and said, ‘Hubert, if they get absolutely legless and start a typhoon, they could destroy half the island.’ ‘If that happens, I promise to feel absolutely dreadful about it,’ Hubert said. ‘We’ll worry about that later. We escaped with our lives and our boat, and that’s good enough for me.’ The sail caught the breeze and their little boat surged forward over the calm sea towards La Rocque harbour.
Norah ran and stared towards the horizon and then shouted, ‘Mum?'
By Erren Michaels