The cabin door flung open, banging against the wall. A scrawny elfling fell at Captain Joren Steele's feet. He saw small hands bound by twine, skin caked in dirt, and the pungent odor of fish wafted off the boy. Joren scrunched his nose.
"I caught him below, Cap'n. Stowaway." Tide narrowed his gaze at the elfling. Tide was hard, skilled, and a drow. But he always handled himself and what needed to be done on and off Joren's ship. Almost a mate, but not quite fitting. Drows could be downright menacing when they chose.
The elfling glared up at Joren with hate in his dark eyes. He couldn't have been more than thirteen, hadn't even grown into his elf ears yet. His clothes were mere scraps covering a thin frame. "Where did ya hitch a ride from, boy?"
He spat in Joren's face. Joren raised an eyebrow. The boy appeared as a brave little raccoon. He couldn't be angry. The child was scared but stood his ground. Out of the corner of Joren's eye, he spotted Tide's fist clenching.
"Tide, leave us."
The child held the captain's gaze as Tide's jaw clenched, but he backed out of the cabin and shut the door.
"Mind some manners. 'Tis me ship you be on." Joren wiped the spit from his cheek with his shirt. "We can do it your way, which is much harder on you. Or we can do it my way, and you might walk off me boat alive. Now where'd ya hitch on from?" He kept his voice low, even; he didn't want to scare the child too much, but wanted him to know 'twas serious business hoppin' on a pirate's boat with nary a permission.
The elfling's eyes widened, and he gulped. His tongue darted out to lick his dry, cracked lips. "The underground."
"Are ya gonna kill me?"
"Not yet. Come." Joren pointed out in front of him.
The boy shuffled on his knees closer to Joren. His body visibly shook as Joren grabbed the twine and set him loose.
"I like you. You have some fire in ya. What were you doin' underground? You with the drow?"
"No elfing way. They stole my dad. I was there to set him free. But I didn't know..." The boy's chin quivered. Joren waited. "I didn't know they took his soul."
The hard part of the conversation was Joren knew what the boy spoke of. Knew why it happened. But he had no intention of telling the boy the truth. "What happened?"
"I...I snuck to the underground. Angry the drow seized my dad. I watched them do it. They grabbed him, put him in a box. I knew where they would take him. Where else would a drow go but underground? So after I calmed Mama, I left. But..." He took a deep breath. "When I found him, they'd already stole his soul. His body was...empty. That's the only way I can explain it. So I ran for it. Saw your boat, and here I am."
It took guts to do what the elfling had done. To actually follow the drow, who were evil elves, soulless, and themselves lost. If he'd been caught, they'd have stripped him too. "I tell ya what I'm gonna do. If you leave me ship, say nothing about ever meetin' me or my men, then I won't hunt you down. I'll let you walk away harm-free, and I won't look back. But nobody better come lookin' for me 'cause of you either. You hear me?"
The boy nodded and tears fell down his dirty cheeks.
Satisfied, Joren stood and put his hands on the child's shoulders, turned him around, and walked him out of the cabin.
The sun brightened the sky, and Joren resisted the urge to cover his eyes as they adjusted to the light. Out on the deck, his crew of three, including Tide, worked to move crates. One picked a crate from the stack and then passed it down the line to Tide. Sweat dripped down their faces from the strenuous work as they continued without looking up at their captain. Joren let the boy's shoulders go. "Get off here and head home to your mama. This ain't no place for elflings."
The boy didn't say anything. Instead, he walked slowly toward the exit. Tide turned and nailed the child with a cold glare and then looked to Joren as if to ask if he would really let him go. Joren shrugged his shoulders and headed for his crew. He kept his eyes on the boy until he met the port deck safely. Tide handed him a crate, and Joren reached for it automatically. When his eyes finally left the boy, they found her.
The most powerful force in the elven realm is a soul on fire, burning in its passion. That's what her great-grandmother had told her when Pepper's ears had reached their mature length. It boiled down to soul mates. Every elf had one and, her grandmother informed her one day, Pepper would find hers. Gazing at the rough-looking captain set her soul ablaze. His stubble graced weathered skin. His muscles glistened as he lifted one box and then another, handing them over to his shipmates. A blue scrap of cloth covered the top part of his dark hair, and when he glanced her way, eyes the color of sapphires bored into her. At least Pepper thought they were looking at her. Only one problem with him being anyone's soul mate: Pepper was sure he was a pirate.
A shiver danced down her spine, reminding her she stood on a dock. She had just come from the drow tunnels. Elves bustled through their days. The smell of fresh fish seemed to be everywhere even though one fish stall out of the three had fish. They'd all be refilled by the end of the moon cycle, but the scent seemed to waft up from the wood planks she walked across.
Pepper rubbed her arms and clutched the small package in her hand. She had finally made it back from the underground, sent to fetch her grandmother's favorite spice. A drow called Damina made the ingredient and traded for items like flowers, apples, and fireflies from above ground as many drow didn't venture out much. The situation could potentially be dangerous. Drows, especially males, sought to devour souls, but Pepper hadn't been concerned for her safety. Her grandmother had been trading with the same drow for years. Pepper always met Damina on the outside of the tunnels. They carefully concealed themselves so neither came to harm. It had been part of the bargain in order to trade with the feral-ridden elf. A win for both sides.
Pepper considered the drow in general. They were created from an elfin disease called the feral. Every elf carried it within him, and no one could be sure when it would start, or how long it would take him to be consumed by it. An elf soul would be lost with little chance of finding its way. Pepper didn't believe they were soulless, more like diseased souls.
Becoming feral meant ruining one's own essence by eating other elf souls. She'd never actually seen a feral elf devour a soul, but she heard it wasn't pleasant. Pepper shuddered at the thought as she continued walking topside to the shipping platform. Once a soul had been taken from its body, the body usually died, though there were rumors of drow who kept the bodies spelled in order to create slaves.
Pepper shook the thoughts from her head. Slaves. The very word disgusted her, left a rancid taste in her mouth. The images of poor elves trapped without their essence made her sick to her stomach. She took a deep breath of the spring air wafting in from the treetops, which were bowing down to flitter over the waterfalls. The sound of the rushing water drowned out her thoughts. Some said there was a little cave tucked behind the waterfall, and she pictured the dark of it, the smell of fresh water mixed with wet earth.
Pepper stretched, closing her eyes and letting go of all the horrible parts of traveling belowground, like the trapped feeling and the dark. She rolled her shoulders, put her grandmother's spice in her jeans pocket, and watched her feet as she stepped off the dock.
"Watch out!" a deep voice boomed.
Pepper glanced up in time to see crates falling toward her. Her breath was knocked out of her as a solid form tackled her, rolling her out of the way. Her head hit the wood platform with a solid thud and a slamming pain. She caught her breath and blinked several times, readjusting her sight.
"Are you all right?"
Pepper turned toward the deep masculine voice, her body immediately reacting to the elf who had saved her. It was the blue-eyed captain. His brows knitted together in worry, and his perfect lips pinched to form a flat line across his face. A little stubble dusted his strong jaw. Her vision blurred, and dizziness swamped her as if she'd been drinking far too much glowworm whiskey. Pepper felt her body pull toward the captain. Her heart thundered and skin prickled as if... No, he couldn't be her mate. She must have knocked herself for a damn good loop because the next thing she recalled was leaning over with puckered lips and falling forward into him.
"Whoa there. I think your head's a bit tweaked from the fall."
"I'm sorry. You're just gorgeous." The words came from her, but she hadn't intended to actually speak them.
"Thankee." A grin spread across his mouth.
"Uh... Sorry. I, uh, thanks for saving me from the crates." Pepper started to stand and swayed. The captain caught her again.
"Perhaps 'tis best ya stay in me cabin a while. We wouldn't want ya fallin' down around here on your own. You can give a proper thanks later, love."
Had she heard him right? He wanted her to stay with him? Her heart thumped.
"I can't. I don't even know you."
"'Tis an easy fix. I'm Cap'n Steele. But you can call me by me first name, Joren." He flashed a smile.
"Pepper." She straightened, taking a deep breath to settle her nerves. "Just because I know your name doesn't mean I know you."
"Minor detail, love. We can discuss it in my cabin." Joren put his warm hand on the small of her back, carefully guiding her toward his ship. Her body moved despite her mind telling her it was a terrible idea.
"I really should get back." Pepper turned the other way, regaining control of her body.
"Help a pirate out and let me be sure you're fit for travelin'. Not long. A cup of water. I have tea if'n it be what ya like instead. I promise to keep me hands to me-self, unless you ask me otherwise." He put his hand out toward his ship. He left the decision fully up to Pepper.
She eyed his big boat. It had huge white sails rolled up. Lily had been hand painted in black against the tan outside lining. Pepper's mind reasoned he could take her below deck and, as a pirate, elfnap her with little thought of consequence on his part. The fact he named himself a pirate said as much. Yet she found herself wanting to go. A curiosity to see what the inside of his ship looked like, and perhaps in a small way, to see if he really would take her away. Her imagination ran wild as she nodded and stepped toward Joren's ship. Besides, he'd promised not to touch her, and he seemed sincere.
She could see herself set up as a shipmate, manning the helm, or perhaps below deck watching the water pass by—escape from land, escape from the boredom of her life. True, her grandmother might find it a bit difficult without her, but Pepper hadn't asked to be the one to take care of her for the rest of their lives. The task had been thrust upon her, and though she adored her grandmother, what if the water was where she should be? Pepper cracked a grin. Not in her lifetime would she be anything but what they called a land lover.
Joren walked beside her, guiding Pepper up the stairs and toward his cabin. It stood above deck, right under the big steering wheel, the door left ajar. Pepper's heart skipped in anticipation. She was with a pirate. On his ship.
He pushed the door all the way open and waited for her to move through the doorway first. Upon entering, she was surprised at the first thing she noticed: the smell of peppermint. She had expected clothes strewn all over, perhaps the smell of fish, or the stink of some foul dead creature. But it never came. Instead, the place shone bright by a big window toward the side, with long black curtains pulled back allowing the light inside. A small bed nestled in the corner, a square table with a map pinned on it stood in the middle of the room, and several cupboards and closets were set into the walls. Two chairs sat opposite each other at the table, and Joren gestured for her to take one.
Pepper sat in the one closest to the door. Her jeans bunched up at the bends in her legs, and she rolled the sleeves up on her black shirt. She double-checked her pocket for her grandmother's spice.
It wasn't there.
The dizziness returned. She patted herself down, standing abruptly. Not in her back pockets either. Wisp farts. She'd lost it. Probably when he saved her from the crates. She didn't remember seeing it lying on the ground. Then again, she hadn't paid much attention to what was on the floor beside her. Instead, her head and her body were much more attuned to the pirate standing before her.
"What is it, love?"
"My spice. I lost it." Pepper's head began to pound.
"Yes. For cooking. I traded a drow for it. It's for my grandmother. She can't travel below anymore. Her age keeps her from it, so she sends me. If I lost it..." What would her grandmother do? It was her favorite, and Pepper knew there wasn't any left in her home. She'd trusted Pepper with the goods. Expected the spice to return with her. They didn't have enough coppers for her to get more. Pepper pictured her grandmother's disappointed face. The last thing she wanted to do was fail her kin. She rubbed her temple.
"Sit before you fall again, love. I'll go check for ya. What's it in?"
"A little brown bag with a drawstring." Pepper squeezed her hands together, trying to appease the anxiety brewing up from inside her. Would it be so terrible if her grandmother didn't get the spice this time? She could manage without it, but Pepper doubted her own guilt would be relieved so easily. There were few things her grandmother loved, and Pepper had lost one of them. Plus, they'd spent needed money on the spice; to come back empty-handed after coming all this way...
Joren nodded. "I'll find it." He strolled out the cabin door.
Being alone in a pirate's cabin, while thrilling, tossed dread into Pepper's already anxious heart. She paced back and forth. Should she leave now? Maybe she would run into him, and they could find the spice together? The ship creaked and rocked with the water. Her stomach churned. She could wait for him to come back off the ship. Pepper rushed to the door. Her heart hammered in her chest for no other reason than she needed off the ship. Needed out of the elfing cabin and safe in the light of the sun. She threw open the door. A drow, tall, dark, and sneering, blocked her path. Pepper stopped and backtracked into the safety of the cabin.
"What have we here?"
"I was just leaving." Pepper gestured behind him. Her heart drummed as she wished for escape. Most drows were not like Damina.
A gleam came to his brown eyes. He looked as if he would eat her alive and enjoy it. Pepper's whole body shook.
"Aren't you a pretty little butterfly? What's your hurry?"
"Butterfly" no longer sounded like a good thing coming from his rank mouth.
"I have to get something back to my grandmother. She's waiting for me." Pepper took a step back, hoping he'd either come in and she could slip past him or he'd walk back, letting her go. If he knew someone awaited her, maybe he wouldn't bother with her.
"A grandmother? You know, the older they are, the sweeter their soul tastes." His eyelids dropped as if in memory. "Though families tend to have the same savoring taste as each other. Perhaps you will taste as sweet as I'm sure your grandmother does."
Pepper held her stomach. It flipped and threatened to spill its contents. The drow smelled like rotten eggs. The stench permeated the entire room, and the longer he stood there, the worse it became. She resisted the urge to cover her nose so she didn't offend him any more than her mere presence already did. "I wouldn't know, and I'm not very interested in finding out. I'd just like to get through please." She kept her voice even, low, and hopefully he saw it as respectful. She'd learned long ago many drow thought themselves better than regular elves. As if the disease gave them some higher meaning or godlike abilities to do as they will.
"What if I'd like a little taste before you go? Something small to tide me over. I promise not to rip your precious soul from your body. You're far too pretty to kill. I'll take a small nibble." A grin spread across his gray face. "You might even like it."
Horror filled her as she realized he didn't plan to let her leave.