The wind creaked against the shutters of the old pub, and the barkeep watched with dull eyes as the waters of the storm's rain seeped in between the ill-fitting slats. The Thormas brothers sat at a greasy table near the bar, their slick coats hanging from their seats as they murmured to each other over their ales and played their nightly game of cards. A little further on, a sickly looking fire guttered in the hearth, barely keeping itself lit against the dripping water that found its way around the chimney cap. Barney Cander sat next to it, dozing lightly in his favourite chair. He'd wake and stoke the flame before it went out; years of sitting in the same spot had given him a perfect sense for such things. No one else came, and the barkeep knew quite well no one else would. Nights like this were always the same on Turley Island.
When the door slammed open, the barkeep standing at the small cauldron behind burbling over a healthier fire in a nook behind the counter - not large enough to really be called a room - serving up stew for himself and his regulars. At the sudden "bang!" and rush of wind, he nearly dropped the cracked wooden dish in his hands. Setting it down with a presence of mind he normally had no use for, the barkeep turned back into the common room.
Framed against the blackness of the cloudy night beyond, a lanky stranger stood bedraggled in the doorway. Despite the rain cascading off his long coat, dripping from his airshipman's goggles, the man had a fool's grin, as though he'd found the greatest treasure ever beheld. He strode in easily, leaving a wet trail, as five pairs of eyes studied him with wary curiosity. Before Barney could threaten him with dismemberment, the stranger grabbed the door and forced it shut against the howling wind.
"Nice night," he offered, in the clipped and angled accents of a seasoned traveler. The barkeep could only grunt in reply.
The stranger shrugged off his coat, looked around for a hook, and then threw it folded over the nearest chair before folding his gangly frame into a stool by the bar. "That stew?" the stranger asked, pointing a long finger at the dishes the barkeep had been assembling moments earlier. Again, the barkeep grunted. "I'll take a plate as well, please. And a tankard of whatever they're drinking." The barkeep stopped himself from wondering how the stranger could even see them with his goggles white with fog.
At this, the barkeep remembered himself. "One pent f'the stew, one f'the beer," he informed the newcomer. He tried to smile welcomingly, but was pretty sure it came out something of a grimace. The Thormas brothers were still watching, their game forgotten, and Barney hadn't quite fallen back to sleep.
Though the price was twice what a local would pay, the stranger just kept grinning as he reached into a purse and drew out two tarnished copper coins. "I've no pent on me, but a tince is about the same. A little more value, I think." The barkeep looked at the curious coins. He'd heard of tince, but never seen one before. Well, copper was copper, and the stew would just go to waste if it wasn't eaten. He shrugged, pocketed the coins, and returned to the cauldron.
The stranger finished his beer nearly as soon as it was served, and flipped out a coin for another. He ate his stew quickly and silently, with none of the lip smacking and slurping chorus of the other patrons. Distracted by their food - the barkeep made no claims to being a great chef, but he knew as well as anyone that the stew was decent fare - the interest in the stranger began to wane somewhat.
As the stranger cleaned the last of his stew off his plate with a crust of bread, long before anyone else had made decent headway, another gust rattled the shutters along the windward wall. The stranger watched the water seeping in, and finally pushed his deeply fogged goggles up, revealing the faintly angled grey eyes of a Haoran from the North Isles. As soon as the din of clattering slats had subsided, the stranger spoke in a musing tone, his voice reverberating a little in the drafty stone room.
"You know, it was on a night like this that the Dread Lady went down, just out there in Bellany Bay. It's gotta be nigh on thirty years ago, now." He leaned back in his stool, his spine popping a little as he stretched. Once again, all eyes had snapped onto him, but this time the wary curiosity had been replaced with a sort of dull shock. "They say Alice, her captain, was born at sea in the waters around these isles, but who really knows? She was found as a stowaway, with no recollection of her family. 'Born to the waves', the old sailors called it. That was smack in the height of the Wintering War, and she was stowed on a merchant military ship, the Pillance. They were out on patrol, and Pillance's captain couldn't take her back to port, so he did what most would: he put her to work." The stranger stopped to take another quaff of his beer, then pushed the empty tankard to the barkeep with a nod before continuing.
"Little Alice Roberts took to sailing like a dog takes to shitting." The stranger's grin broadened. "She worked so hard and learned so well, the captain didn't send her away when next they took to port. He held her on, gave her room and board, and kept her swabbing the decks and sanding the woodwork. No one remembers how long she served on Pillance - could have been a month, could have been a year - but eventually she moved on. Not to land, never land for Little Alice. You know, if anyone ever tells me the beer on these little islands is swill again, I'm gonna break his teeth. This stuff is heaven," he pushed the again empty tankard at the bartender. "Seriously, I've had a lot of beer, and I just keep coming back.
"After a while, Little Alice started to get a reputation in ports all over Avalon. Hard not to notice a knee-height girl that can tie a bowline with one hand while fending off a grown swordsman with the other, but they say that's what Little Alice could do. That and much more. It was good luck to have her on your boat, and bad luck for anyone you'd run into, but no one could keep her for long. She'd just drift from ship to ship, learning tricks on each one and moving on when she'd drained the crew of their fresh ideas." The barkeep passed a fourth tankard to the stranger, wondering if he was secreting the beer away somewhere. The Thormas brothers' card game sat ignored on the table. Willis Thormas was leaning his chair against the leeward wall, picking his teeth with a dirty fingernail, while Beren and Gart rested their elbows on the table and watched the stranger with clear interest. The barkeep realised he, too, was staring at this thirsty storyteller. The man didn't seem to mind.
"By the time the war ended, 'Little' Alice was flowering into womanhood, taller than most men, with hair like fire and smooth olive skin. I'm guessing you folk haven't seen many olives out here, ya? Well, let's make that skin the colour of this beer." He took a demonstratory swig. "She'd let no man touch her, though. She'd spent enough time around sailors to know their wiles, and she was better with a sword than any man to set foot on deck or dock. No one could tell her what to do." At this, someone finally spoke: Barney coughed over by the fire, and didn't even bother to open his eyes.
"A'snot wha' I heared, stranger. I heared she were as free as any sailor-man, leavin' behind a hoste o' chilluns from as many loves."
The storyteller's grin never faltered, but his voice changed timbre just slightly, somehow stripping all of his geniality. "If you'd like to tell the story, be my guest! I wonder, though, how she could waste her time with a big belly when she was busy with... well, with what I was going to go on to say." Barney cracked open an eye, frowned ponderously, then nodded in acceptance. The stranger nodded back, and his warmth returned.
"Alice the Red, as she came to be known, was skilled enough to captain her own ship, but she was still too young and too poor. She kept moving from ship to ship, at first with merchants. That life soon became dull for the battleworn princess of the sea, though, and it wasn't long before Alice had found darker circles in which to ply her skills. Any pirate captain with Alice the Red on his crew was sure to be feared, but it was not her captain's name that was whispered in fearful tones by the wealth-bloated traders of the waves. Alice the Bloody, they called her, or Dread Alice. She'd set upon their ships with devilishly perfect ballista fire, splintering masts and ruining sails, and she'd be the first swinging aboard in the rigging. Her sabre cost many a man his life, and many more his dignity. There are men still alive who remember the chilling battle-laugh of Alice Roberts.
"Now, don't get any ideas, but I know a bit about piracy myself, and I can tell you it doesn't pay half as well as it sounds. It's a bit like fishing: some seasons the catch is rich, but sometimes you come up with nothing to show for your week's labour. Alice was the best, though, and she managed to hoard enough booty - what she didn't waste on wine, fine clothing, and finer weaponry, anyway - that she was ready for the next big change. And, as we all know, change was in the winds... literally. The war had started it, and Alice grew up in the war; she'd seen it coming for a while. As the airships took more and more to the skies, the old ways turned obsolete. Airships are unassailable to a seabound vessel. Alice commissioned her own Dread Lady the day the first true air port opened their gates.
"By what we're used to, Dread Lady would have been hardly more than a skiff. She was lightly armed, sail-powered (caloric fuel was hard to come by, forty years ago!), and simple of build. Even had she not been Alice the Red's ship, though, for her time the Dread Lady was a formidable foe for the complacent airmen of the day. She was a wolf in sheep's clothing, released on a flock that'd never seen so much as a puppy before. With Alice the Red at her helm, the Lady was the scourge of the skies. She was unstoppable! I daresay all the big air companies of the day formed out of fear of the Dread Lady herself, and her mad laughing queen.
"For ten years, Dread Lady ruled the skies. You all know more stories than I can tell you in a night. She preyed on sky and sea alike, pirate and merchant. No ship was too large for the madness of Alice the Bloody, no crew too skilled for her sword. No man nor woman could lay hand nor blade on her. She possessed a kind of magic; whether it be true dweomer or simply the magic of unparalleled skill, the world will never know for certain.
"All things end, though, and Alice Roberts was no exception." The stranger looked very sad for a moment before continuing. "A landlubbing swordsman, some petty noble known only as Flaxe, had heard tales of this unstoppable pirate beauty, and swore to hunt her down and tame her. Those that knew Flaxe were certain he could do it, as he was a fencer of skill seldom seen. Those that knew Alice the Bloody knew Flaxe would be lucky to escape with his manhood.
"No one's sure how long Flaxe tracked Dread Alice, but his ship met hers not a few leagues from here, right over Bellany Bay, in the dead of night during a storm like this. Their battle is the stuff dreams are made of, and a simple storyteller like myself can do it no justice. Somehow - some say by treachery, I say by luck - Flaxe got the better of Alice, and demanded she yield. The poor man had heard the tales, but never listened. Mad with rage, Alice grabbed his rapier with her sword hand and twisted aside. Flaxe, startled, moved without thinking. The keen edge of his blade took half Alice's hand, and left a deep gash down her flawless face. Horrified at what he'd done, Flaxe turned to run, but Alice would have nothing of it. She'd let no blade touch her before, and demanded revenge. She saw it was too late to go for Flaxe, in her weakened state; instead, she chose to deny him everything. She took the helm of Dread Lady in her half-hand and drove it down to the sea.
"Flaxe was perhaps a fool, but he was not an unlucky one. He reached his skiff and pushed off just in time, hitting the ocean with her keel as Dread Lady pushed down beneath the waves. Flaxe was the last man to see Alice the Red's living face, her life's blood draining into the sea as she screamed curses at him and sank into the dark waters of the bay.
"You'd think our story ends there," the stranger remarked, stretching again and finishing the dregs of another tankard (the barkeep had lost count long before). "This, though, is just where it gets interesting. Bellany Bay, usually a placid piece of water, became frought with storms of the sort that raged the night Alice Roberts rode Dread Lady to a watery grave. Storms, as I said, not much different from this one. More, fishers began to see a face in the waves and spray of the water, or in the clouds above the bay: the face of a beautiful woman, marred along one side by a long, deep scar. The face was invariably a sign that a violent storm was about to begin. Laughter could be heard in the winds... the mad, keening laughter of a warrior woman. I suppose I don't need to tell you all this: I can hear it in the wind this very night." The room fell silent for a moment, and everyone cocked their heads, listening to the very faint staccato they all knew could be heard in the howling storm. It sounded much more like laughter now than it had a few hours ago, before the stranger had arrived.
"Why it took Dread Alice so long to exact her revenge I'll never know. But then, who knows the will of a woman, let alone a mad dead woman. When I was a boy, more than twenty years ago and almost ten after her death, Alice was seen again. The first time was on the night of one of these terrible storms. They say a maelstrom formed in the bay, right above where the Dread Lady sank. That night, fishermen in a bar just like this saw a woman they swear up and down was Alice the Red, marching up the cliffs plain as day. She marched right on into town, her skin an unearthly pale and her hair as red as the sun, and commandeered the only airship moored there. Before the boat's captain had made it out of the tavern, Alice the Red had taken his ship to the sky, singlehanding it. The very wind obeyed her command, shifting to push her in the direction she wanted to go.
"That direction, of course, was inland: straight for the manor of Flaxe.
"Flaxe, it's said, had known for years that Alice would come for him again. He'd locked himself away from sky and sea, knowing she could watch him from there. It availed him none. Alice the Red moored her stolen ship just outside his estate and walked down the road to his manor, calm as the grave. The door was locked; as Alice stared it down, a gust of wind built up strong enough to burst that sturdy door into a pile of splinters. She kept going, into Flaxe's manor, her flaming hair whipping behind her in the air as it gathered into a storm, right there in the hall.
"Let it not be said that Flaxe was a coward. He took his sword and met Alice the Red in his foyer, for all the good it did him. She moved with the grace of the sea, and the speed of the wind. Flaxe had no chance. As he fell to the tiled floor of his manor in a pool of his heart's blood, Alice the Red turned without a word and walked out. Flaxe's manservant arrived just in time to see her fade away, dissolving in the sunlight until only a faint mist was left behind. Her vengeance satisfied, she has never been seen since." The barkeep reached to fill his tankard again, but the stranger lay his hand over the top. "No thanks, friend. I'll be pissing all night if I have any more."
The room sat in stillness for a moment. The wind had died down, though the rain could still be heard pounding on the tile roof above. Then the stranger stood, more graceful than he'd been when he arrived. His clothes and hair had mostly dried, and could be seen to be quite well-tailored, over a body more muscular than it had seemed at first. The nameless airman pulled his goggles down over his eyes again. "Thanks for the beer," he grinned. "And the audience. I do enjoy these stormy nights." He stepped back, grabbing his long coat from the chair he'd thrown it on and pulling it on in a smooth motion.
"Who are you?" the barkeep heard himself asking, as the stranger turned to leave.
As the tall man turned to reply, his now-dry hair shone red in the firelight. "You can call me Mick," he answered as he pulled open the door. The storm had almost abated. "Mick Roberts."
No one in the town could recall seeing the man's airship come or go that night, and he was never seen on Turley Island again. For many decades to come, though, the tale of Alice the Red as retold by Willis Thormas, and passed on by many others, graced the tables of many bars on many stormy nights.