It was ill luck that found Aphra tending the mother vine on Roanonck in a late August squall. It was a fate fouler still that found her watching as a pirate ship scuppered itself on the nearest Carolina barrier island.
She stood next to a live oak while the sailors launched a dingy, which began to row through the Hatteras inlet. The exploratory vessel had a small sail up, catching the first breath of oncoming gale as it sailed toward the empty northern water-plain of Roanonck Island’s only obvious port—and the northern acreage where Aphra was tending her stock.
Coming to the island this late in the year was a necessity. Aphra had hoped that the threat of hurricanes would allow her to tend the grapes in peace for a few weeks, but she underestimated the desperation of a pirate.
She retreated from the shoreline, heading back to her vines, her fingers numb from the cold. She assumed that they were coming to bury their treasure, as Blackbeard had on Wecocon, and as long as she kept away from them there, she shouldn’t be in danger. Tying up her pale, reed-colored hair, she put the pirates out of her mind and went to the mother vine.
The grapes were almost ready, velvety and near tender. In September, she would take them and make wine, or preserve and cure them for a long winter. The plant structure traveled along the whole island, and she walked along its ley lines, trimming off disease, pruning back errant vines. The roots she tended were steady and deep, and there was something to be said for grapes that kept congress in sand and soil, that held on, tenacious and stubborn.
It was an old craft, work that her mother had done, that her mother’s mother had done, handed down from when they lost track of lost colonies. The mother vine was the oldest vintage in the new world, a transatlantic scuppernong that she had been born for.
So, when the callous blades of a pirate spade cut deep into one of the mother vine’s deep and brackish roots, Aphra felt like her spine had split.
She cried out and was driven to her knees, bur and sea-oat clutching at the rough-spun cotton of her dress. It came again, a sharp hammer strike against her bone, and she gasped. She lurched forward, stumbled toward the pain that radiated out from the root system.
Aphra didn’t hesitate, clutching her shears. She ran through mud and switchgrass reed without thought of the cottonmouth that lay in the marsh. Now, the only danger was the pressing sharpness of a shovel tipped against her spine, the spade digging into her back, beating her forward.
She burst from the fenway, covered in mud, flora sticking out of her coat and trailing along her dress’ hem, a train of growth.
“Stop!” Aphra staggered toward the three men stabbing into the earth, tearing apart her mother-root, her mother vine. She could clearly see the chest they meant to hide. “Stop it!”
They were startled enough to do as she commanded, but the smallest of the trio immediately pulled out a pistol, aiming it at Aphra and pulling back the hammer. Aphra tripped and ended up on her knees, hands digging into the sandy soil. The mother vine’s root system covered the whole northern part of the island. It was too much to hope that they would find a site that wasn’t punishingly grown into.
“Stop, please,” Aphra muttered, the pain making her woozy. “I beg intercession—”
“Who are you?”
Aphra swallowed and looked up at the pirate, his features finely chiseled and hair well dark despite the time he spent in the sun. “Aphra Saer,” she said, “I keep the vines.”
All she needed was to reason with them. Get them to leave Roanonck; get them to move away from the mother root. Surely even pirates could be reasoned with.
“Christ a’mighty. Came out of the march like a catamount, din’ she?” The tall man with the spade spoke, standing up straight. Aphra could see the dark rich sap of the mother-root on the shovel, and her eyes widened. The pain faded, but anger burst forth, tannin on the tongue.
Aphra staggered upright, clutching her shears. She wasn’t thinking straight, the pain clouding her senses. Reason be damned. In her addled mind, she had no other course but recklessness, and attempted a deadly dash for the taller sailor, intending to force him away from the root.
The pistol came down on her temple, and a trickle of dark, burgundy blood dripped over her eyes as she blacked out.
Every mile put between Aphra and the mother vine made the sharpness fade and the emptiness inside of her yawn open wider and wider.
The cold woke her fully, a wave that knapped at her cheeks, carving breath from her lungs. She pushed herself to sit upright, hands spread on the beams beneath her. Her thoughts were sluggish as she oriented herself through the pounding at her temple. She must be on the ship she had seen on Chickehaulk. They were already at sea and taking her away from the Carolina low-tide islands.
Aphra had known the pirates would be hiding some scavenged treasure. She could have stayed quiet, borne the pain, but…How could she justify apathy when her roots were being butchered, when any part of her mother vine was in danger? She felt her gut churn at the thought.
Looking around, it seemed less of a military ship than she had first assumed and was more likely a fast bark for quick smuggling between the Caribbean and the colonies. It was probably something that stuck close to shore. That would help her. If she acted fast, she could call up a shoal to ground the boat and escape in the confusion.
She stood on untested legs and went to the iron of the cell door, wrapping her hands around the rods and finding them cracked with rust. Aphra swallowed, resting her forehead against the metal. She just needed a minute to draw on her Island, to find the magic in the buried and carved-out oyster shells.
“The others wanted to kill you.”
Aphra startled as the slight brigand came into view, her attention shattered like a wave on a breakwater.
“You came near enough,” Aphra murmured, her head pounding. “Why didn’t you?”
“Murder is never my first reaction, Miss Saer, regardless of instinct or assumption,” he said, standing in front of her. He was in a long jacket that might have been finely made if it had been protected from the elements and knee-tied breeches that were better suited to a military uniform. “Especially not when we come across a witch.”
Aphra’s eyes widened. She swallowed and shook her head, but her words didn’t come. She should have tried to get to him first, and not the man with the spade. She wished for the weight of her missing shears.
“No need to deny it,” the man said, standing out of her arm’s reach, tilting his head. “The other men might not recognize your particular Delphic nature; however, I have seen witchcraft in many forms, and it is especially patent as it begs for mercy.
“But where are my manners—” The man had a way of filling up space with a ready smile and a stance that kept him steady even in the storm that had come up. “My name is Absalom Hawk, and I, mistress witch, am at your service.”
“Then let me out,” Aphra said, hands still wrapped around the iron rods to keep her balance. “Drop me at Hatteras, I’ll make my way home.”
“Firstly, we’re just passing Cape Hatteras now, mistress. We’ve got our kill-devil, and we’re heading to Nassau before any more storms threaten our wares. Secondly, I am not the captain, and have no leave to make such decisions now that you’re on the Acheron.”
Aphra’s heart turned cold. They had made fast time. “I will scupper this ship on Wecocon,” she cursed, pulling on empty threats in her rush. “Teach’s end will be yours.”
“Teach died at a military injunction, dead by a coward’s sword. And unless you have a swift and sure method of communication with the Lord Proprietors, I’d say we’re relatively safe of his end,” Hawk said, raising his eyebrows.
“I want to go home,” Aphra’s voice didn’t waver, even as her vision swam. She staggered back and sat heavily on the bench, forcing herself to hold Hawk’s gaze. “Tell the captain to drop me on the barriers, or suffer my wrath.”
Panic rose in her swifter than any tide. She felt her throat tighten. She needed to get off this ship, immediately. If she was carried too far from the Island, she would wither, as would the vine.
“You’re far from hedge and willow, Miss Saer,” Hawk took a step forward. Did he sense her desperation? Her upset? “But I am keen to strike a bargain to put me in a position where I would be able to do as you ask. Help me, and I’ll return you home with your winsome looks, unholy wrath, and laden wealth intact.”
“I have no wealth,” Aphra said, too confused to protest too much, still woozy from the clock Hawk had given her perhaps six hours ago. Her magic was slipping from her hands as if it were sand. She could not pass the islands.
“No,” Hawk admitted, but he smirked and leaned in, and Aphra’s back ached along with her temple, “but stick with me, lass, and you’ll have as much as ye can carry.”
While the ship had made it off the Carolina island quickly, tacking across the heavy southern winds made travel slow. It was this weather that brought up the hurricanes and gales, but still, the bark sailed ever further away from Roanonck, and Aphra along with it.
Hawk wanted the Acheron, and she wanted to go home. It seemed a careless gamble, but what choice did she have? Could she even draw on enough power to give him what he wanted?
She could feel the shoreline, the wavering tidal islands that waxed and waned with a storm-gods furor. While she was near the islands, Aphra still held hope. She was beach-bred, swaddled in reedstalk, and suckled on oyster silk. Was she not still an island witch of the New World? Were her foremothers not tried in Salem? Was the witch of Pungo not drowned just ten years past?
Her power was that of the wave against the shore, the wind along the dunes, the flanks of the wild Spanish horses that ran along her coastline. She drew her breath from the bay laurel and crepe myrtle, and she was not done yet. She was brought up by the graveyard of the Atlantic, and it had plots to spare.
Aphra checked her pockets, the deep seams of her dress and petticoat. Besides a few trimmings, there was one grape cluster in her petticoat. It was an unripe grouping, softly green and not quite at the coppery-gold of maturity. They remained tight and tart and did not pull away from the mast easily. Aphra dug her nails into the stem to pluck one sour grape, putting it in her mouth.
The mother vine called to her. Her toil and tire filled her. She was a witch possessed by an ancient root that had survived far worse than this. It was a calling that had watched many storms pass over. She would not be left to wither so easily. She would make Hawk captain in exchange for safe passage. The other pirates had wanted to kill her. Hawk wanted to use her. So be it. Use was better than dead.
Her berth was near freezing, and the second sour grape she ate for power only abated it, wrapping Aphra in a layer of sand, soil, and broken crab shell. She pulled her shawl tighter over her shoulders and leaned over, waiting for her pirate to return at nightfall.
She was caught in a warren, dark and dank. Her paws were softly clawed. Her ears brushed the top of the tunnel and sent downy shudders through her small too-heart-fastly. Her too-light-stepping, her warmth in the brush. She rubbed her nose, and her whiskers caught the side of the earth.
There was a shudder, a foot above her, no; a slide, something muscled and heady, a snake in her home, an adder in her dray, come to kill her and swallow her brood whole—
Aphra shot up, eyes wide, and her head ruptured. She groaned and put a hand to her temple. She pressed her other hand to her face, expecting fur and whisker and finding only cold skin.
“We’re nearing the Lookout,” Hawk said, and Aphra heard something in his voice that wasn’t there before. “Have you thought on my proposal?”
It was night-time, and barely ten hours since the pirates shoved off Roanonck in half a gale with barely a prayer to bring them southerly.
“Bring me a man,” Aphra said, looking down at her hands and the harrow she would bring. “One of the captain’s.”
Hawk grinned at her, and Aphra saw something wonderful and joyous in him. He wasn’t just ready for violence but was thrilled by it. Without hesitation, he came forward and passed her the sharp pruning shears she had on the island. Aphra reached forward and took them, staring at the blades as Hawk near ran off, and wondered what was it about privateering that made men so keen for murder.
Wrapping her hands around the cold iron, she prepared herself. There was a horrible charisma in Hawk’s desire for blood, and she found herself seduced. She resolved her nerves. If this bloody work was her means of escape, she would not hesitate.
She overheard Hawk leading another man down into the hull. This would be one of the captain’s men. “There was a big storm that moved the shoal past Lookout along the oriens, but the woman knows the lay, a fisherman’s daughter—”
She was no such thing, but she shifted to keep the shears under her coat, doing her best to look small and scared.
Hawk and the navigator appeared, and as the man leaned forward to leer at her through the cell, Hawk slammed his face against the iron. He held a short blade and pressed it to the navigator’s neck, drawing a line of blood.
“One word and you’re dead,” he whispered, leaning in, somehow using his lesser weight to hold the portly navigator fast. Hawk looked up at Aphra, his eyes bright, grinning. “How do you want him, witch?”
“Witch?” The navigator hissed and tried to push away from Hawk. “You’ve damned us all!”
Aphra went to the cell door. The navigator began to thrash, and Aphra saw strain cross Hawk’s face. With a cry, she slammed her palm against Hawk’s blade, driving it into the navigator’s neck. Hawk pulled the knife across his vein and let the navigator’s blood onto the floor.
The man croaked, hands scrambling, and Hawk yanked open the cage, tossing the man in. Hawk jumped on top of him, driving the knife through his neck with all his weight, the point digging into the ship’s rib. He looked up at Aphra, who was holding her shears above him.
She could have killed Hawk in that second and taken her chance riding the galewhip sea to nearby shifted sands, but the power of blood was sweet, and she was a bitter vine unrooted in a darkening place.
And here, an opportunity. A vow made over a dying man was nigh unbreakable. So Aphra knelt and wrapped her hand around the Hawk’s.
“This ship will be yours to command, Absalom Hawk. You will hold the wheel sure as I hold blood.” It was an oath, and she pulled another pair of tart grapes out of her pocket, her hand covered in blood, and held them out to Hawk. He understood the nature of the bargain and ate them without protest. “Above this last breath, young fruit, I seal your fate to mine. A debt you will owe. So I say, so be it made.”
There was nothing in the oath that commanded it, but Aphra leaned forward and kissed Hawk as the navigator died under their hands.
Hawk smirked with a bloody mouth as she pulled away. Aphra wanted to chase the twist of his lips.
“We must work fast,” he said, standing up, letting Aphra take the body, spread it against the floor. “We have only a few moments before Cap’n Blake realizes his right-hand man’s missing.”
Aphra was ready. There were only a few spells severe enough for the outcome Hawk demanded; a ship delivered, and unto all others, destruction. He desired Biblical retribution, and she would be a plague. Such things required devastating her soul, but part of it was already buried under Roanonck’s sand. Were she delivered unto Nassau, she would have no hope of returning before springtime and would wither.
And so, for her preservation, Aphra bargained a portion of her soul away, dug her shears into the navigator’s side and began to cry. The dead man’s oath gave her strength, and quickly she pulled out the navigator’s liver, snipping at the veins and fat that surrounded it. It was heavy and rich with minerals, and it was as close to fertile soil as she could get.
Hawk had backed away from her, watching in horror as she cut open the organ, a foul smell washing through the lower ballast. She pulled out a strip, a vein; a grisly portion for a grisly god.
Aphra looked up at Hawk, holding the cut.
She had been mistaken. Hawk wasn’t horrified, but thrilled. He leaned forward like he was standing on the edge of the world, hanging over an ocean shark and serpent. He was far too handsome with bloody rouge pressed to his mouth. She kept his gaze and ate the vein, covering her mouth to force herself to swallow the man’s raw vein.
Offal eaten, Aphra set her jaw and placed the shears aside. She pulled out the last of the scuppernong cluster and gripped them tight, the scant juice of the fruit searing into the liver, causing it to curdle. She pressed the stem and season into the organ and leaned over. Here was the earthy, bloody food the seed could feast on. The exquisite magic of death and sorrow gave Aphra the push she needed.
The mother vine took root.
As the first curling sprig appeared out of the navigator’s liver, Hawk took Aphra’s wrist and dragged her out of the ballast to the gunnery deck. Assembled, there were a dozen pirates, just less than half of what would crew a sloop like this, and Aphra saw fear in their eyes. Their glances aimed at the pair of them, not just her.
“We are set to take the Acheron,” Hawk said, one hand clutching Aphra, the other a cutlass. “We go fast as ye ken, leave none of Captain Blake’s men alive.”
“There’s a storm ahead,” one of the men said. “We need all the hands we have to make it through.”
Hawk looked at Aphra. She shook her head. “I cannot go to Nassau.”
He nodded and looked at the men around him. “We take it now.”
It might have been the blood around her mouth that convinced the men to hold their tongues. The dress she wore, originally a light grey with some green embroidery, was now a bloody shroud, a dripping wine-red that surely made her seem a demon.
She clasped her shears tighter. One man did not matter to the mother vine, to her own calling. An entire crew of men did not matter. They paled in comparison to her island, to the olden calling she carried out year-on, year-in.
Hawk let go of Aphra’s hand and led the men onto the deck. Without hesitation, she heard a gunshot and then a yell. She closed her eyes and pressed her bloody fingers to her mouth, cold shears against her lips, whispering a growing song, a sowing song. She felt the mother vine take root in the keel of the boat, feasting on the dead navigator. She sent out her power, what she had, what dripped out from her and carried the vine in the blood.
Aphra carefully ascended to the top deck, following Hawk. She was shoal-bred. She would survive this.
On the main deck, the mutiny began in earnest. Pirates favored cruelty, and there was anger in each sailor. In their kiss, their co-mingled bloody vows, she tasted Hawk’s wound the world salted through his life. His anger was closely held, for the hand, he had been dealt, for the secrets and lies he had been forced to bear, the world who forced him to bear it. Aphra knew he was a man, but others were slow to catch up.
But here he was, all hands and fury, cutlass and pistol. His hair out of its ribbon, his men surrounding him. He had tenacity caught between his teeth. With the wind whipping around her like an old miracle, wine spread out from her blooded train, rippling out of her footsteps. It covered the ship in dark liquor as it touched the men who wished Hawk ill, it sprouted in them, the mother vine taking root in their liver. All of Captain Blake’s pirates fell with shocked, pained expressions on their faces, and were run through or shot sure-dead by Hawk’s corsairs.
It was vinegar and blood, the shuddering of men as they took their last breaths, the root germinating in their bodies.
A level up on the main deck, Blake dueled with Hawk. Aphra’s wine couldn’t flow upward to the small quarterdeck where they were engaged. The captain slashed at Hawk’s torso. Hawk was unable to turn fast enough, and his wide wound sprayed blood on the wheel.
Aphra gasped. If Hawk fell now, she had no chance of return.
The vines wrapped in the livers of lifeless men burst forth, the teak groaning under the invading root systems that drove themselves around bones and bore them down into the deck, the green runners twining around line and sheet. The ship’s sails turned red, the roots spreading slowly out of the musty soil that Aphra had made of pirate-men.
The bursting, dripping gore was enough to make the captain stutter, and even as Hawk clutched his torso, he managed to flip the flintlock in his hand and slam it down on the captain’s head. Blake slumped over the wheel, and Hawk pulled him off, eyes wide, mouth open, a seam of blood open along his mouth.
He raised his cutlass to a cheer from his men, and then his knees gave out, sending him to the deck.
“Make way,” Aphra pushed past the men to Hawk. “Aside!”
She tripped on her way up the quarterdeck’s stairs but crawled to the pirate.
“Aphra,” he wheezed, turning to look up at her. “The lads will see you to shore in my absence.”
“I gave my word to you, not them,” she said, pressing a hand against the mortal wound, ignoring the broken bindings that kept his chest flat, focusing on the wound. As if she could trust the rest of the crew to honor a dead pirate’s word. If Absalom bled out, she was as good as dead. “There is no greater power than a promise to die for another.”
“Awful kind of you,” Hawk murmured, blinking. Aphra dug into her pockets.
“You left me no choice, pirate,” Aphra hissed, drawing out her last clipping of the mother vine, a curling, clawed, and grasping thing that she had pruned off. “Join or die.”
“Welcome to the brethren, Miss Saer.”
Aphra took a deep breath, and she pushed the vine in the deep, bloody shorling across Hawk’s chest.
“I made a promise, Hawk,” she growled, drawing on the last of the power she could grasp within the truncated mother vine, digging into her own soul for the last bit of magic she could spare from her shattered heart. “And I’ll be damned if I don’t hold up my part.”
Hawk laughed, and Aphra wondered if he knew how absolute her words were. Fruit-borne damnation was true work.
Aphra leaned down and kissed him, angry, desperate, a frenzied final grasp for magic, his howl on her lips as he breathed his last.
When Aphra pulled back, she saw the net of fate drawing around Hawk closer and closer, an omphalos at the helm of the ship.
She had used up all her power, pulled at her disappearing shoreline and found none left. If this graft didn’t hold, she would be at the mercy of Hawk’s misled corsairs.
Looking up at the wine-red sails, she saw them full and trimmed tight, warmed by a heat that belied the storm on the horizon. She shifted back from Hawk and watched the mother vine take over his body, embedding itself into his bones, limning his muscles and tendons.
Aphra swallowed and glanced across the deck. Across the whole ship, bodies eaten by growth and vine became burial mounds. Hawk’s men were holding weapons ready, unsure, and scared.
“I need help,” she said.
The man who had been on shore with Hawk when they were burying treasure came over slowly, his gun still leveled at her. The ache in her back was gone, but she remembered keenly his spade in her spine.
“Stand him up.” Aphra stumbled across the wine-slick deck and reached down for Hawk’s arm. “He needs to hold the wheel.”
The sailor holstered his weapon and did most of the work of pulling Hawk upright. Aphra wrapped Hawk’s hands, one at a time, around the horns of the wheel. The tender, tendon-covered vines in his fingers moved under hers and then hardened to steady his grasp.
“What now?” The man asked.
Aphra didn’t look away from Hawk’s face, leaning in.
“Absalom Hawk,” she said, her voice wretched. “I have kept my word. I demand you keep yours.” She couldn’t see his chest rise, she couldn’t feel his pulse as she grasped his wrist, just the slide of a vine through a vein.
Achingly slow, Hawk opened his eyes. He blinked and turned to look at Aphra. She stepped back, the intensity of his gaze heavy. He pressed a hand to his chest, to the rooted seam where a scar would be.
“What is this?” He asked, voice far lower now than when she had met him.
“I have remade you as a daughter vine,” Aphra said, looking over the Acheron, the many reaching, grasping plants that were so enmeshed in the teak that it would be impossible to pry them out without rebuilding the whole bark rib to rail. “The captain of a mother-ship.”
“I can feel her,” Hawk said, his eyes huge as he looked at his hands, the way that leaves peeked out from his cuticles, threatening to grow forth. “The barnacles on her sides, the stays that hold her sails…”
His face was rapturous as he looked up at the red canvas.
The men on deck shifted, one came forward.
Hawk’s head snapped down, grinning at his crew, glorying in the magic that remade him.
“A stop at Cape Fear, mates, and then on to Nassau!”
Aphra turned away from Hawk, going to the beam, hand to the paling. She touched one of the vines that had made its way up the rail. The waves, already growing in the oncoming front, were washing across the deck. The sea was salting and scouring the blood and wine from the ship. Relief washed over her as well.
The Acheron was fully vitalized, a new woman, created in her mother’s image. Already the mast was turning ropy, the ancient root of Roanonck replacing the cured oak. The terminal protest came from the groaning hull as the figurehead dropped the last bit of wine and blood into the ocean, the coda of a brutal benefaction.
Aphra watched as the sails were trimmed when the new captain gestured, the sweet young vine in the sheet moved by Hawk’s accord. The Acheron answered to her daughter, master Absalom Hawk, the Captain of the ship.
Aphra tore her gaze away from the canvas and looked eastward towards Cape Fear, knowing that a tendril of her soul would be embedded in the Acheron as long as Hawk sailed it. He had the mother vine in his chest, holding his heart, wrapped around his ribs.
She took a deep breath, fingers against the paling’s branch. She would soon be back on Roanonck shores, but Absalom Hawk was her grown-in-blood scion. As the swans knew their way back to the Carolina islands in winter, Aphra knew that even after Hawk set her upon land, their grafted souls were bound by brine and bough.
She kept the vines. Even the salted ones.