So, first, a bit of explanation: muses are fickle things. At least mine are. I was plodding away on my Demoness series, but then the dreaded thing that all writers fear happened–I stalled out and my muses went running for cover. I’ve shelved it for now, but in the meantime I’ve latched onto something that has me even more excited. I was in a little bit of a rut (another thing writers fear).
When this happens, I usually consume everything I can related to my current project to get inspiration flowing again. I’d been reading George Washington’s Secret Six, which tells the story of the Culper Spy Ring, when I was reminded of the anecdote about a strange occurrence that happened after the Battle of Long Island in August of 1776. From there, an idea unraveled and I ran with it.
I’ve decided to share the short story I wrote here because it doesn’t exactly fit anywhere that I have planned, though it’s very much still going to be considered within the timeline. I’ve always enjoyed mixing established historical events with fantasy twists, so writing this was a lot of fun. And, it introduced me to a character I’ve come to love. I hope you like her, too!
MIST OVER BROOKLYN
A delicate rendering of a mortar and pestle shimmered in the waning moonlight, the wooden sign swinging languidly in the rain-soaked August breeze. To the dismissive passerby, the sign was either inconspicuous or created in error. The streets of New York City bore many other apothecary shops, but this one, unlike the others, had perched itself out of sight behind a boisterous coffee house. For those curious enough to venture into the nondescript, darkened alley below the sign, they discovered truth amidst rumor.
A wild-eyed sergeant, nearly saturated from the night’s storm, blue coat and buff colored breeches stained with dirt and smoke, dodged a horse-drawn coach lumbering over the uneven dirt lane. The sign above gave him no pause; he dove into the unlit passage with haste, one palm flattened against the top of his tricorn so it would not be lost.
Guided by nothing but his own memories, he navigated the sharp twists of the alley as rough brick scraped against his shoulders. His boots sloshed through mud, throwing more specks of dirt onto his already bedraggled uniform. His breath rang louder in his ears, his heart beat a rhythm fierce enough to propel itself out of his very chest. Sweat ran uncomfortably underneath the layers of his uniform, mingling with the acrid scents of battle. The stifling proximity of the hidden passage made him all the more aware of the time, and how little he had of it.
The alley carried him to a squat brick building tucked in a courtyard of sorts, though there was no green to be found. Stone and clapboard buildings created a fortress around this odd, two-story shop. It appeared as though it had been part of the coffee house in its former life, and he supposed that probably was the correct assumption given the proprietor’s ties to the young shop owner.
Two windows flanked the entrance, though their use was redundant given the absence of light in the shadow of buildings. Torches filled the space with a wavering orange glow. Several barrels were perched to the side of the shop, now half-full of fresh rainwater. The sergeant blinked in an attempt to recover from the oppressive dark and heaved the weighty door open. Creaking hinges announced his arrival, and with it, a cloud of tension that wrapped itself around his throat.
A man twice his age leaned against the shop’s lacquered wood counter. The sergeant held his breath as he let the door squeal shut, gaze transfixed on the man’s brilliant red coat. A captain, if his bleary eyes did not deceive him. The sight of the flintlock pistol at the officer’s hip made his stomach coil into a miserable knot, though the man appeared unconcerned.
Taking a few steadying breaths through his nose, he busied himself with admiring the peculiarities of the shop while the lobsterback finished his business. A large dog with feathery black fur and a strange white marking buried in her chest eyed him lazily from where she had sprawled beneath one of the windows, her chin resting on top of her paws. For the life of him, he could not recall the dog’s name.
He was grateful for the warmth inside the shop, though it would lull his fatigued, sore body to sleep if he lingered. The space was cramped in a way that suggested one would still find comfort within. Flickering beeswax candles stood wherever room could be found for them, to bring light into a place that had been drenched in indigo paint. Copper hardware from rows upon rows of drawers behind the counter shone in the buttery light, and he noticed the same copper details peeking out from all corners of the room. He inspected the well-worn spines of the dusty tomes collected on a bookcase set into the wall at the foot of the stairs. Some were in a language he couldn’t decipher.
Bundles of herbs and dried flowers hung from the ceiling. The entire room carried the scent of pungent spices and bergamot. Slim vials filled with colored liquids sat on shelves, their hues thrown onto the floor like stained glass by the candlelight. Handmade candles were arranged beside a few pewter bowls filled with handmade soaps wrapped in scraps of lace. Tea seemed to be the most prominent item on display. But as with nearly everything else among the shop’s wares, there was nothing ordinary about them.
He, like so many others, had sworn against the consumption of tea, but there was still profit to be found amongst Tory families and occupying British regulars. He eyed the officer out of the corner of his vision while examining the placard below the earthenware jars that held the tea. Magic-infused, they claimed, with their uses and properties listed under their given names. His heart quickened when the officer’s gaze flashed, briefly, to him. The dimly light confines of the room seemed only to push him ever closer to the enemy who currently breathed the same air.
With the heat of the officer’s stare upon him, he picked up a pewter jar and sniffed at the questionable powdery contents. He muted a sneeze in the crook of his arm when the powerful fragrance overwhelmed him. The sergeant winced when the officer cleared his throat, his booming voice engulfing the shop as if he had become irritated by the young sergeant’s interruption.
“Are you sure you’ve none to spare?” the officer asked. He gathered his hat from the countertop, a glass vial plugged with a cork stuffed into his large fist.
“What you’ve requested takes considerable skill and time,” the young woman behind the counter replied. Her voice was like silk, finely spun through the lilt of a Dutch accent. “And the expense would be far beyond the wages of a soldier, no matter the rank.”
“But not too rich for Washington’s blood, eh?”
The young sergeant tensed when the man’s stare fell upon him once more.
“That,” the young woman said evenly, “is not my doing, I assure you. How that man has escaped blade and bullet is something even I cannot explain.”
She waved her hand to dismiss his claim, but the captain scoffed. He held up the vial before he tucked it into a pocket.
“This’ll be all, then. Much obliged, Miss Hendriksen.” The lobsterback gaped at him on his way out the door, but he did not waver beneath it. “You keep out of trouble now.”
He did not know if the man was speaking to him or the young apothecary. He didn’t have the luxury of time to worry over it.
“Verity,” he stumbled over her name, caught up in the weight of responsibility that had been pressed upon him. Formalities had been lost after their first meeting, but his father had raised him otherwise.
“Miss Verity,” he corrected, “General Washington requires your services.”
“At this hour?”
He scowled. “You took no issue in helping a British officer.”
“Oh, calm yourself, Sergeant,” she chided.
Her cream colored petticoats swayed as she arranged containers and glassware on the shelves behind the counter. Loose, dark brown curls dangled near her temples, the rest of her hair arranged under a cap with lace trimmings. When first they met, he had been struck by her beauty, but somehow that infatuation had become muddled by the personality that lay beneath it.
“You know well that I have no interest in taking sides.”
“And I don’t see how you can be trusted if your allegiances remain ambiguous.”
“And yet your general trusts me enough to send a liaison before the sun has greeted the day,” she drawled. “Opportunity is far easier to find and more bountiful than loyalty.”
“This isn’t a matter of trust,” he told her. “This is desperation—we have precious little time, and—”
“I cannot undo the battle that was lost.”
“I’m well aware,” he said. “Washington has ordered an evacuation and it’s happening at this very moment while we stand here wasting our breath—”
“Then get on with it.”
“We’ve the cover of darkness but daylight is approaching…the rest of the men will never make it across the river without being picked off one at a time by the soldiers in those ships. We need something—anything to get them out. Please, Verity. The cost of this battle has already been far too great.”
“I work magic, not miracles.”
His gaze hardened. “Is that not one in the same?”
“My capabilities have limitations, sergeant. Do not presume to equate me with a higher power—it makes me terribly uncomfortable.” She dropped a haversack onto the counter, the noise echoing louder than necessary. Her visible frustrations only seemed to intensify her accent. “If your troops could not hold off the might of His Majesty’s army, then what ever shall I do about it?”
“I am not asking you to obliterate the enemy,” he snapped, fatigue dissolving into anger. “After all our prior liaisons, I thought you to be more creative.”
A slow grin worked itself onto her lips and eased the crease between her brows. “Can your general afford my services?”
Verity retrieved a few items without looking, stowing them into the haversack. He watched her move as though she and her shop were one. There once existed a time where he would have been impressed by the display, but the current situation had only made him frustrated by the triviality of her question.
Her insatiable quest for opportunity, while somewhat admirable, also made her prone to methods of exploitation.
“You’ll be paid to your satisfaction, you have my word. Now, if you please—”
She waved a hand at him. “Yes, yes, all right. Lead the way, then.”
Daylight had begun to encroach on the horizon as they made the journey to the shore. The sergeant carved out a path where Verity could work uninterrupted, for fear that her eccentricities would alarm the exhausted masses of the Continental army. Standing beside Verity, he peered out across the water, emotion seizing his throat.
Hunched silhouettes retreated from the shore and turned their backs from the ruin of battle. Defeat was not something any man wished to bear. The sergeant despised himself for allowing uncertainty to color his thoughts, but after such a disastrous blow to their forces, how could he not? The boat that had ferried him across the river an hour ago had been miserable—hopelessly quiet, he and his fellow soldiers had not the strength to meet each other’s eyes. There was a very delicate shift between a horrendous loss and a complete devastation that now hinged upon Verity’s resourceful abilities to concoct a way out of this.
Placing that sort of fate in her hands unnerved him.
Boats rippled the surface of the East River, tinged a murky blue-gray from the early morning sky. Verity knelt on the grass at water’s edge, pulling open her haversack. The young sergeant watched her with a mild note of curiosity. In all of their meetings, he had yet to witness the magic itself. She shook a powdery substance the color of dried rose petals into the water, dragging her fingertips below the surface.
“I’ll be needing a Tether,” she told him.
He understood, at once, the strange use of the word. Verity had told him before that the energy required to produce successful magic happened to be unwieldy. Therefore, it needed something to focus it; something human, for humans were alight with more energy than they knew what to do with. Verity’s price was not only monetary. She needed an inconsequential sacrifice from whoever called upon her. If she made the sacrifice herself, she’d once explained to him, it would dilute the magic’s effectiveness by draining her own energies. And Verity had to focus those elsewhere.
“Right.” The sergeant dropped to a knee. He tugged up his sleeve, exposing the pale flesh of his inner forearm to her. “Whatever you’ll need, I shall pay it.”
Verity exhaled an impatient sigh. “Bleeding you is unnecessary.”
Before he could protest, she plucked a stray hair from his head. He recoiled from the abrupt, fleeting sting that accompanied her intrusion.
“That should do it.”
The long, chestnut strand drifted onto the water’s surface. Verity produced a vial from her case filled with a liquid that looked suspiciously like rainwater that had been collected in one of her barrels. Draining all of the contents into the depths of the river, she flattened her palms against the wet grass.
“This will be easier without your breath upon my neck.”
He trampled the acerbic reply that threatened to come forth and retreated behind a scrawny patch of brush to observe. Verity dug her fingernails into the soft earth, her head bowed as if in prayer. The young sergeant thought that perhaps the comparison wasn’t far from its mark.
The sky grew brighter with each moment that passed. All of his muscles went rigid, awaiting the outcome of Verity’s steely concentration. Patience was soon abandoned when there was nothing to show for her efforts. The figures seated in the rowboats became clearer as the darkness of night left them in its wake. With his mouth agape, his eyes darted between the fleet of boats descending on the shore and the massive royal warships anchored along the river.
Mist began to rise from the surface of the water. He could scarcely make it out at first, but then it grew, wispy tendrils sweeping around them both. It spread—quickly, miraculously; he did not care now what her opinion was on the use of the word—outwards, enveloping the soldiers in the boats. The mist curled and undulated as it hovered over the river. As the temperature plummeted, the young sergeant could feel the change prickle against his exposed skin.
He shivered under layers of damp clothing. Dense coils of fog concealed the soldiers ferrying out of Brooklyn. The haze lingered, creating a ghostly redoubt between the two opposing forces that Verity could bend to her will. She let it blossom, thicker than gun smoke, as though she had commanded the very clouds from the sky to aid them in their crossing. His earlier frustration melted with the arrival of the day’s light, impressed by the scope of Verity’s power. Motionless, she sustained it for hours, until the very last boat reached the safety of the Manhattan shoreline.
Her shoulders drooped, and at once, the young sergeant knelt by her side. He offered a supportive touch to the middle of her back, brows knit together.
“Are you all right?”
Verity nodded. She was out of breath. “Suppose you wouldn’t mind leaving me here to rest.”
“No, I wouldn’t.” He smiled. “But I should think you’d be far happier in your own bed, where the threat of drowning is rather nonexistent.”
The young sergeant helped Verity up from the ground and kept a hold on her. “I promise you’ll find your way home, but first we have someone to meet.”
Guiding her unbalanced steps forward, they wove along the shore, covering the distance between themselves and the assemblage of troops. Verity’s miraculous fog still clung to the morning air, and the British were none the wiser. His own steps felt a little lighter than before, despite the loss they had suffered. This, at least, was a small victory.
A familiar figure stood at the shore, having departed the last boat. His uniform coat snapped in the chilly breeze, his stoic gaze turned to the opposite end of the river. The sergeant could not fathom the thoughts that drifted alongside it.
“General Washington, sir,” he called.
Though his face remained unchanged, the young sergeant caught the flicker of recognition in his general’s eyes.
“Ah, Miss Hendriksen,” Washington said, his words filled with admiration.
Once they reached the general, he took Verity’s hands between his own.
“History may never know of your contribution to the patriot cause, but I shall never forget it.”
If you’re curious about the “mysterious fog” that ferried Washington and his troops across the river, you can read it in the words of Benjamin Tallmadge. An excerpt:
“It was one of the most anxious, busy nights that I ever recollect, and being the third in which hardly any of us had closed our eyes in sleep, we were all greatly fatigued. As the dawn of the next day approached, those of us who rc~ained in the trenches became very anxious for our own safety, and when the dawn appeared there were several regiments still on duty. At this time a very dense fog began tu rise, and it seemed to settle in a peculiar manner over both encampments. I recollect this peculiar providential occurrence perfectly well; and so very dense was the atmosphere that I could scarcely discern a man at six yards’ distance.”
More information can be found HERE.
And, if you’d like a peek at Verity’s shop, check out the board on Pinterest!