From the mind of Megan Arkenberg

August 11, 2014

House of Shells

Posted by Megan Arkenberg with No comments
First published in FlagShip #2, September 2010. Full story behind cut.

* * *

Even through the roll of the surf, I could hear the drums beating from the Fort. Thum-burra-thum-thum-burra-thum. The Witchfinder’s heartbeat, Josias called it. They were hanging one of mine.

I sighed and shifted my weight, digging my heels a little deeper in the wave-lapped sand. There was something about missing a rogue wizard’s hanging that didn’t sit right with me, like missing a wedding, or the birth of a sister’s child. Josias Sykes had probably praised me in the denouncement, too, and I was missing my chance to dine with the Governor. Being His Majesty’s Witchfinder in the Most Valuable Colonies of the Antelian Sea did have its perks.

Unfortunately, my position also required me to find rogues, something that wasn’t likely to happen at a banquet held in my honor.

Salvar’s Beach had a reputation for being shadeless, unstable, and too close to the Fort to provide anything approaching true privacy. For these very reasons, it was my favorite place to do business. I lay down in the hot, water-logged sand, hands folded over the silk of my waistcoat, tricorn tipped down to shade my face from the sun. Another reason I regretted missing the rogue’s execution; I’d sacrificed one of my few opportunities to wear a gown.

“Madam Witchfinder?”

I jerked upright, sending the tricorn flying and sand-crusted strands of hair whipping around my face. “Who’s there?”

Something rustled in the palm branches behind me, and a young man stepped into my line of sight. His long, dark hair was unbraided, but I saw a deep purple ribbon tied around his wrist. A wizard, then; apprentice, judging from his youth. I narrowed my eyes.

“You should be up at the Fort, boy,” I said. “It doesn’t look good for your kind to miss a hanging.”

He pulled his sleeve down over the ribbon. “I’m Septimus Gresley, madam.”

“Really.” I raised an eyebrow, not bothering to hide my surprise. I’d expected a rogue informer to be older…and less magical.

With a shrug I tried to make nonchalant, I gestured for him to take a seat in the sand beside me. “I understand you have a rogue for me, Septimus.”

He knelt at my side, eyes wide and limbs tensed as though ready to bolt at a moment’s notice. His hands, roughened from spellwork, were folded in his lap.”It’s my mistress.”

“Your mistress?” I plucked at the ribbon knotted around his wrist. He stiffened but did not pull away. “She may be a rogue, boy, but this seems genuine enough to me.”

He shook his head. “She’s a bonewitch.”

As though a cloud had fallen across the sun, a darkness came over my vision and a chill crept along my exposed skin. I felt cold sweat soaking into the fine linen of my shirt.

“A bonewitch?” I repeated, my hand reflexively tracing a star on my breast to ward off evil.

“One of the Cha­lon.”

The air rushed from my lungs like a gust of wind. I leapt to my feet and began pacing the beach, stirring up clouds of sand. The name fell like a curse on my ears. I forced myself to repeat it.  

“A Ch­alon?”

He nodded.

A scion of the most ancient house of bonewizards and blood traitors in Ivrea? Here, in the Colonies? I pressed my palms over my eyelids and shuddered at the coolness of my own flesh.  What could possibly bring her here?

But I knew. Blessed Mother Lache, I knew. Who would think to find a Ch­alon in the middle of the Antelian Sea? Criminals of every kind lurked in the dense green islands and deep purple ocean—pirates and smugglers, murderers and spies, rogue wizards and heretics. But never a bonewitch. Never one of the Ch­alon.

I turned to Septimus with a carefully composed scowl. “You have proof?”

He pulled something from the pocket of his waistcoat and tossed it up to me. I caught it in one hand.

“It’s what bonewitches call a lie-finder,” he explained. “She kept it in her drawing room. I don’t think she’ll notice it missing…”

The thing looked like a oyster with a lock in the open edge. I ran my fingers over the top of it, raised it to my cheek to know the feel of it against my skin.

“There is only trace-magic here,” I said with a shake of my head. “And it’s clam shell, not bone.”

“Open it.”

I narrowed my eyes and pressed the lock between my fingers, murmuring a lay-spell under my breath. The shell popped open like a pocket watch.

The object inside was cased in gold, with a glass face and a single hand of oiled ebony. The words “Truth” and “Lie” appeared in golden script on opposite sides of the compass. More gold swirled around the center knob bearing the Cha­lon motto; Notemos Sacritas.

We hold the Truth.

Septimus cleared his throat hesitantly. “I couldn’t read the script…”

“It’s in Amarnian,” I said, closing the shell with a soft click. “The language of the Old ways.”


“Treason,” I agreed. I tossed the lie-finder into the sand and pulled out a purse from my waistcoat.

“Take this,” I said, flinging the fat velvet bag at Septimus. “Find a ship to take you to another island, or better yet, go back to Ivrea until the storm blows over.”

He scrambled for the purse, and that one motion made the thinness of his frame and the raggedness of his clothing as clear to me as though I’d seen it through a jeweler’s loupe. I pressed my lips in a frown. Whatever Josias might think, none of us did our duties out of loyalty.

“May Our Mother’s blessings go with you,” I said as he disappeared in the underbrush.  

Then I lifted the Chalon lie-finder from the sand at my feet and flung it into the sea. 
* * *


“My dear friends in this land of His Majesty the King, my brothers and sisters in the eyes of Our Blessed Mother…”


“We gather today in Her eyes with His blessing to see justice done upon our lost sister, Levanah Chalon…”

Actually, I reflected, His Majesty the King would not be aware of our lost sister’s execution for another two weeks at least. I waved my silk fan across my face and mentally congratulated myself on my foresight in keeping Josias Sykes unaware of that particular detail. Any day the Admiral could say King Eduard’s full title achieved holiday status in the Sykes house.  

Unfortunately for me, this was another holiday that would have to go unobserved, by my dressing maid at least. I glanced down at my scarlet coat and gray silk vest and hid my disgust with an extra-vigorous wave of my fan. A Duchess at heart, Josias liked to call me. I could only hope that Duchess would remain unrecognizable to Levanah Ch­alon.

She hadn’t changed much since I’d seen her last. That was in Ivrea, in the infamous Cha­lon trial at the Palace of Truth, when the Ch­alon patriarch had been sentenced to death and the rest of the family to life in Eduard’s dungeons. Apparently, Levanah managed to dodge that sentence by choosing exile in the Antelian Colonies.

She wore the Ch­alon colors, a gown of red and white brocade, not simple, but not nearly elegant enough to highlight the dark waves of her hair, the emerald glow of her eyes. Her slender wrists were emphasized by the blackness of the manacles around them. I thought the scarlet and bone-colored threads twisted into the hanging rope were a nice touch. 

“Levanah Cha­lon, for your crimes you have been sentenced to hang by the neck until dead. May Blessed Lache have mercy on your soul.”

As Josias’s voice faded and the hangman stepped forward, I fanned myself faster in annoyance. Hung by the neck until dead—I hated that phrase. As though it were a mercy to be killed on the gallows, instead of dragged down halfway through the spectacle to have your entrails torn out…

“Madam Witchfinder.”

I nearly jumped at the sound of Josias’s voice so close to my ear.

“I must congratulate you on your catch, my darling.”

I forced my lips to curve into a flirtatious smile. “Merely doing my duty to His Majesty and Her Blessedness. Much like yourself, Admiral.”

The softness of his hand on my shoulder was completely at odds with his voice as he looked out to the gallows. “And much like your dear friend the hangman.”

The noose had just slipped over Levanah’s head, loose enough still so as not to pin her hair against her throat. She was saying something, but the roar of the mob was too great for me to guess what. I saw the brightness of her gaze fade as her eyes slipped across the crowd, coming finally to rest on the steps where I stood locked in Josias’s grip. Something stirred at the corners of her lips.

“Oh, Blessed Mother…” I flung my fan up across my face, repeating to myself that all was well, that I had changed in the twelve years since the trial, that she couldn’t possibly make out my features at such a distance—

But I saw the sharp tilt of her chin as she reached up and grabbed the noose with her manacled hands, the triumphant twist of her smile. She recognized me.

“Madam Witchfinder!”

Her voice carried in the sudden stillness. I tossed my fan away and hardened my tone to equal hers.

“Madam Cha­lon. Do you know me?”

Baiting her, daring her, as I always had. Beside me, Josias raised his hand and gestured for the hangman to pause in his duty.

“Yes, I know you.” Levanah lowered her hands from the rope and extended them toward me. Not pleading—accusing. “You’re Muriam Ophiria Ch­alon. You’re my sister.”

Something rippled through the crowd, not a gasp or a murmur, but a horrible silence. It was as though the entire courtyard had stopped breathing. A hundred eyes turned to me, pining me to the spot.

Notemos Sacritas. I bowed my head and turned to Josias. “She speaks the truth, Admiral.”

A chill like the touch of ice ran down my arm as he snatched his hand from my shoulder. “Liar,” he said flatly, taking a step away from me. “Traitor!”

“Bonewitch!” someone else called. I never discovered who.

A sharp creaking sound echoed through the courtyard as the trapdoor dropped out from beneath Levanah’s feet. Her hands flew to her neck as she fought against the tightening noose.

Never before had I been sick at an execution; I wasn’t about to start now.

I grabbed the sword from Josias’s belt before he could collect himself. The crowd roared and fell back like water at low tide as I leapt from the steps and ran to the scaffold.

Witch or no witch, my sister’s face was the whitest I’d ever seen by the time I was close enough to slice through the hanging rope. She dropped the two feet to the courtyard stone and collapsed like a sail ripped from its forestay. I looped an arm around her waist, hauled her to her feet, and started running.

It was madness. We were in the middle of a fort commanded by the best trained and best armed soldiers in his Majesty’s army. Levanah couldn’t have told me her own name, much less cast a combat-worthy spell; I had no lay-spells worth the time it took to say them. The last time I’d raised a sword, it was in a duel against a cane-planter’s son with more gold than brains and a misbalanced sword besides. I’d also had more rum than blood in my veins—a condition I would not be loathe to reclaim in my present conundrum.

“Madam Witchfinder! Madam! Muriam!” Josias’s shrill voice was nearly lost in the chaos. “Come back here this instant!”

Josias, darling, I thought to myself, even if you had a full pardon and a purse full of gold at your side, it wouldn’t be worth the effort to come back. The angry mob had turned on itself like a serpent eating its own tail; no force of King or Goddess would pull me back through that churning mess.

“Farewell, Admiral!”  I called, saluting him jauntily with his own sword. Then I ran for the stairs.

Fortunately for me, Salvar’s Fort had been built to survive an attack by sea, not by land. That mean there was very little fortification on the side of terra firma. I dragged Lavanah up the flight of uneven steps, slid down the gate ramp on the other side, and began thrashing my way through the densely overgrown path to Salvar’s beach.

“Damn you, Muriam.”

If the muffled curse hadn’t come from the wrinkled mass of brocade on my arm, I would never have recognized it as Levanah’s. I paused for a moment to glance back at the Fort, where half Josias’s men scrambled to beat back the crowd and the other half swarmed down the gate ramp like a disturbed nest of fire ants. The distinct crack of musket fire echoed in the undergrowth to my left. We had been spotted.

“Look, Levanah,” I said, breaking into what passed for a run on the unstable trail. More shots sounded around us, but the path was too dark and too overgrown for the gunmen to get a clear shot. Small mercies, I reflected. “I took the work I could get—the work I could do! It’s not as though I owe the family any favors, do I?”

“You would have hung your own sister!” Her words were punctuated by a sharp cry as she stumbled over a fallen branch.

I let her lay there for a moment and looked over my shoulder. The palms behind us swayed and shook more than a light sea-breeze could account for. “Damn!” I hissed, clutching at Levanah’s shoulder.

She didn’t move.

“Are you mad?” I fought to keep my voice low, as if that would do us any good. “Do you want to get us killed?”

"Not us.” She pulled something out of the ground and extended it for me to examine. I felt bile rise in the back of my throat; what I had taken for a fallen tree branch was a bleached length of bone. “I’ve been using this beach as a cache for longer than you’ve been Witchfinder. You’ll be the once facing the noose if I don’t get an answer.”

The leaf-rustle was growing louder. I clenched my fists in helpless rage. “It kept me safe!” I shouted, disgusted to find tears of panic welling in my eyes.  “The Witchfinder isn’t likely to hang herself, is she? I was only doing my duty!  Please, Levanah, you can’t do this, not your own sister—”

She smiled sadly, raised the bone above her head, and disappeared.

“Bonewitch!” I screamed, forcing every scrap of anger in my body into the word. And then they were upon me.

Pain ripped through my leg like a bolt of lightning. I dropped to my knees in the mud, scrambling to cover my head, fight my assailants and pull the boot leather back from my wound all at once. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I was cursing the numbskull who’d put a bullet hole in boots that probably cost more than his entire wardrobe. The pain was stronger than I’d have believed possible, and my panic broke loose as I felt the blood collecting around my heel.

I rolled onto my back, still slashing with my sword at the three or four soldiers crowding around me. This part of the path was too dense for any more to join them, and too narrow for them to risk more fire. Small mercies. I dug my free hand into the dirt at my side, reaching deeper and deeper until I felt something hard and cold against my palm.

“Get back!” I shouted, raising it above my head. It was a knuckle bone, grimy and uneven. I clung onto the thing for dear life. “I am a Cha­lon, a scion of the most ancient house of bonewizards in the world! If you value your life, get back!”

Some small part of me—the part that wasn’t mad with pain and anger, the part that remembered something of the spells I had spent twelve years trying to forget—took one look at the thing in my hand and laughed until it cried. A knuckle bone? I winced at my own audacity. Blessed Mother, Muriam! You never were much good as a bonewitch.

I never much gave it a try, either.

The four closest gunmen were backing down, but I could see more crawling through the undergrowth to both sides of me, Josias at the front of the left column. I raised the bone over my head and murmured frantically, grasping for power I hadn’t used in more than a decade.  Bone magic wasn’t like lay spells. It wasn’t saying the right words so much as focusing your strength. I was finding it a little hard to focus at the moment.


Damn you, Admiral! Fortunately for me, my injured leg kept me on the ground, or I would have gained more bullet holes for my trouble. I closed my fist around the bone and pressed it to my lips, picturing the same image over and over; a wind coming from off the sea to blow back my assailants. Foolish, I knew, but the only thing I had the strength for...

If I had the strength for it…


I screamed in agony, my concentration shattering like glass. A bullet had ripped through my hand, just inches from my face. As I pressed my arm across my chest, fighting to staunch the blood flow from a deep gorge in my palm, I felt the knuckle bone slip from my grasp and vanish in the vine-tangled trail.

It was over; I knew it with every bone in my body. I was going to die here, curled up in the mud like a hunted animal, and it was going to hurt, and I couldn’t hold back a scream…

Something slapped against my face, wet and cold like sea-spray. Not musket fire. I opened my eyes a crack to find Levanah standing over me, salt-sparkling mist floating around her like a cloak.

She raised her hands, and a roar sounded through the branches behind me. I turned just in time to see, not a sea-gust like the one I had tried to conjure, but a full hurricane gale. I covered my face with my bloodied hands as the wind whipped around us, bending the trees down to the ground and flinging the soldiers back like rag dolls. My tricorn—the velvet one I only brought out for special occasions—vanished in the branches. I didn’t care.

When the gale died down, Levanah turned to me with an unreadable expression on her pale face. “Are you all right?”

 “I’ve never been better,” I said, almost forgetting the wound in my leg as I leapt to my feet. Almost. “Why did you come back?”

A small smile crept across her lips. “Because I need you.”

My confusion must have shown on my face, because she pulled something from a hidden pocket in her skirt. It was the Cha­lon lie-finder.

"Just ask."

I shook my head. “I’ll believe you this time, sister.” Then I laughed. “I suppose we’ll have a lot to talk about now.”

She laughed with me and wrapped her arm around my waist. “It can wait until we’re on the ship. Yes,” she added in response to my incredulous stare, “it seems my apprentice was planning to board one this afternoon, and would be quite happy to let us join him. I believe you met Septimus?” 

I nodded dumbly.

Levanah smiled, tugging me gently towards the beach. “Well, I figure it would be best for us to put aside our differences—for now, at least. We’ll need to work together.”

I stifled a gasp and we stepped out of the branches and onto Salvar’s beach. There, anchored in the deep purple of the Antelian Sea, was the most beautiful three-master I’d ever laid eyes on, the Ch­lon colors flapping smoothly in the breeze.

“You know,” Levanah said, “I never guessed how much I missed you until I saw you waving that ghastly fan.” She laughed loudly, clearly, like a seabird flying free above the water. “And you must admit, Muriam, you’ve been missing me, too.”

I never would have thought it until that moment, but looking up into the warm, care-free face of my sister, I knew it was the truth. After twelve years of lies, twelve years spent living in a house of shells and sand, I was coming home.

 I didn’t even need the lie-finder to prove it to me. 


Post a Comment