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.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Mistress of the Storm by M. L. Welsh. Copyright © 2011 by M. L. Welsh. Excerpted by permission of Yearling, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.