Read Mistress of the Storm Online

Authors: M. L. Welsh

Mistress of the Storm

A DAVID FICKLING BOOK

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and
incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination
or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons,
living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Text copyright © 2010 by M. L. Welsh

All rights reserved. Published in the United States by David Fickling Books,
an imprint of Random House Children’s Books,
a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
Originally published in Great Britain by David Fickling Books,
an imprint of Random House Children’s Books,
a division of the Random House Group Ltd., London, in 2010.

David Fickling Books and the colophon are trademarks of David Fickling.

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Welsh, M. L.
Mistress of the Storm : a Verity Gallant tale / by M.L. Welsh. — 1st American ed.
p. cm.
Summary: After a stranger gives an ancient book to unpopular, twelve-year-old Verity Gallant,
she and her newfound friends, Henry and Martha, uncover secrets stirring in
the harbor town of Wellow and use them to face a powerful, vengeful witch.
eISBN: 978-0-375-89917-1
 [1. Books and reading—Fiction. 2. Friendship—Fiction. 3. Witches—Fiction.
4. Family life—Fiction. 5. Sailing—Fiction. 6. Fantasy.] I. Title.
PZ7.W46854Mis 2011
 [Fic]—dc22
2010018721

Random House Children’s Books supports the First Amendment
and celebrates the right to read.

v3.1

This book features many sisters but I have only one,
and so it is dedicated with love to Caroline
.

People ask me if I miss it. If I miss the adventure of smuggling. And the truth is, I do. I miss the thrill of the chase – I miss picking my way through the rocks, riding out a south-westerly as it batters the coast. Ours were skills that few could master – part practice, part secrets passed down through the generations, and part sheer hellcat daring
.

We were natural businessmen. It all came so easily to us: arranging finance; transporting goods; bartering with suppliers; charming … those who needed to be charmed. We loved every part of it. We loved the freedom money buys: with enough currency, no door in the land is locked to you. We loved our fine houses and rich clothes. We loved knowing we were as wealthy and powerful as any real Gentry
.

Do I regret it? I regret where it took me. I regret what I lost as a result. And if the exchange were mine to make, I’d swap every last penny of profit, every thrilling chase, every porcelain-skinned lady for the chance to tell the story anew
.

Contents
Book One
AUTUMN
Chapter One

Wellow library was quiet. Verity expected it to be quiet. She came here all the time and always had the run of it. Which is why it came as a shock to see a giant of a man kneeling on the floor, in tears.

Wellow is famed, of course. But it is remote too – a far-flung outpost of this great land we call Albion. And he was the most exotic man she had ever seen. Verity knew it wasn’t polite to stare, but she couldn’t help it. His skin was so dark it had a sheen of blue to it. Though hunched on the floor, he was clearly tall – well over six foot – and handsome, with high cheekbones, wide full lips and almond-shaped eyes. His clothes were equally foreign: a long velvet coat made of squares of chocolate brown, burnt orange and bottle green covered a white linen shirt and moleskin trousers. His boots were leather with soft flat soles.

Books were scattered on the floor all around him. In his lap lay a large red volume; his head was bowed over it as silent tears ran down his face. His hand clutched a tiny peg doll carved from a dark shiny wood. It was covered with a
few scraps of faded material which might once – a long time ago – have been brightly coloured. An air of unutterable sadness hung over him. Verity’s presence didn’t seem to have registered at all.

It was like finding a panther in your sitting room. Something so vital, so alive, was never meant for the dust-filled air of Wellow library. Verity was filled with an overwhelming urge to comfort the stranger. Without thinking, she took a step towards him … And broke the spell. He looked up as if the world had come into focus.

His cheeks were wet and his gaze direct. Slowly he took in everything about her – and more slowly still, the faintest and saddest of smiles appeared. He sprang up from the floor, clutching the book, and ran past Verity to the front door. With one swift push he was gone.

Verity stared in astonishment at the spot where he had been. Miss Cameron, the librarian, continued with her indexing at the entrance. Verity came to life. Running after the man, she burst through the double doors and chased him down the street. More than anything in the world she wanted to know who he was.

Wellow library sits at the junction of two cliff-top paths. One leads to the harbour. The visitor chose the other, running down the narrow track to Steephill Cove.

‘Wait,’ shouted Verity, sprinting. ‘Please wait.’

Below them on the shore lay the fishermen’s boats, their nets gathered in the bilges. Verity was going so fast she had to grab the iron railing every few seconds to steady herself.
The stranger didn’t slacken his pace in the slightest. He was on the shore now and heading for a small rowing boat beached there. He untied it and started pushing it out towards the sea.

Verity raced down the last few steps and across the sand. She stopped and stood on the beach, salt water gently soaking its way through her shoes, and called out one last time: ‘Please wait.’

Finally he looked up. Lost for words, Verity realized she didn’t have one good reason for chasing this man all the way down the cliff. Not one good reason. Just an overwhelming sense that it was important to do so.

‘You can’t …’ she started. ‘Take books from the library … without signing for them.’ Her cheeks burned pink with embarrassment. Surely she could think of something better to say than that?

The man looked with surprise at the book clutched in his hand. To Verity’s astonishment he laughed. A rich melodic sound.

‘Understanding the rules. Yes, that is very important.’ Staring at her for a second, he appeared to make a decision. He took something from his pocket and placed it on top of the book, passing both to her. ‘The storm is coming,’ he said, as if this were an explanation, then turned back to his task.

Verity stood on the shore. Clutching the book under one arm, she examined her other gift. It was a round wooden ball, clearly very old. The surface was smooth from
handling, and polished to a rich sheen. It looked a bit like a nut, with a joining seal along one side. Verity shook it. It rattled. She put it in her coat pocket.

She turned the book over to read its title.
On the Origin of Stories: A Disquisition
by Messrs R. Hodge, Heyworth & Helerley. Embossed on the red leather cover was a golden globe. She opened it and read the Foreword.

All things were created at the Lord of the Sky’s word
[it said].
All things were made by him, and without him nothing had life. But once he created our world, it was wild and untamed. And his people suffered greatly at the hands of the elements
.

So He of the Sky said, ‘I will give each element a Keeper, to control them and protect my people.’ And he read out a story of their beginning: of four sisters whose duty it was to control the elements. It was a joyous event, and as he spoke, the words fell from the sky. Each place where they landed around the world became a sacred one of special powers, so when a story was read aloud there, it would become true
.

Places where stories could become real? Verity thought of the many, many tales she’d read in her short life, and was enchanted. She looked through the rest of the book. It appeared to be a journal or catalogue of some kind. Why had the strange man run all the way down the cliff with it? And why had it moved him to tears?

It was windy, and clouds were skidding across the sky.
Verity noticed that the large, fast-moving one above her looked like an old woman.

Hundreds of years ago people believed that such visions were signs of things to come: portents, they called them. These days, with our sophisticated scientific understanding, we know this to be untrue. And most of the time we are right.

But now the storm was coming. And it would change Verity Gallant’s life for ever. Even though she – like a caterpillar wrapped in its chrysalis – knew nothing of it.

Long after the other members of her family had fallen asleep that night Verity was still awake, reading the red leather-bound book from cover to cover.

At first she told herself she was simply looking to see if there was something else tucked between the pages: a written note, some scribbled comments – anything that might explain the interest of the man in the library, or tell her why he had given it to her.

The entire book was about one of the four sisters mentioned in the Foreword: the Keeper of the Wind. The authors had travelled the whole world, it seemed, and each time they came upon a reference to her – be it in folklore, or a manuscript, or even in the architecture of a building – they noted it down.

As the hours passed, Verity grew ever more captivated by the book; or, to be precise, by its heroine. A woman whose ability to terrify only seemed to make her more
fascinating. Verity completely understood why the authors had been obsessed with her.

She was the most beautiful of the four
[she read, in an early chapter],
as if the Lord of the Sky had finally perfected his work in her. She could charm the moon itself from the night sky. Grown men would kill for the promise of her smile. Women fought for the sunshine of her attention. She could make a stone laugh if she chose to. She could draw tears from a mountain
.

(Vellum manuscript, Nordic region, believed to be a precursor of
Tales of Wiser Times)

Only when dawn started to break did Verity realize she had read the whole thing from cover to cover. And was still none the wiser.

The next morning Verity could be found in the kitchen, buttering toast. She surreptitiously rubbed her eyes and stifled a yawn. What had possessed her? How could she have spent a whole night reading
On the Origin of Stories: A Disquisition
by Messrs R. Hodge, Heyworth & Helerley?

Her sister, Poppy, was busily wolfing down breakfast, consumed by thoughts of her audition for the Christmas revue.

‘So
exciting
,’ she chattered as Mrs Gallant looked at her proudly. She was such a pretty little girl: petite in every way, with fair hair, clear blue eyes and a sunny charm that people instantly warmed to.

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