This is a somewhat longer story than the flash fiction I’ve been posting. I wrote it shortly after writing the first drafts of the Gbahn and Archipelago novels, and it takes place soon after the close of those novels. It’s a grim little psychological study of a man going insane. (And yes, I thought a lot about Captain Queeg and his strawberries while writing this.)
A Gbahn and Archipelago story
The beards were really what bothered him most. Captain Adenson frowned as he surveyed the deck of the Northstar. Of course, one might expect some relaxation of discipline in the relative calm that followed the Alliance – in a force that was less disciplined to begin with, that is. But some of the beards that adorned the faces of the men had to have been growing for years. It was like looking at a crew made up of bears.
The men rowing the launch that carried Adenson to his new command were little better. He dearly hoped that they were shoremen, not more members of his crew. At least the lieutenant sitting in the coxswain’s position in the stern was clean-shaven.
“A pleasure, sir,” the lieutenant said for the eighth or ninth time. That chattering nervousness, along with the surprisingly high voice, made Adenson think the lieutenant must have been far younger than he had first assumed. The boy might have been clean-shaven only because he was too young to shave, in fact. How many losses had Arland suffered in the war, to require the promotion of such a young officer?
“I was a midshipman at the battle of Whale Reef,” the lieutenant said, finally breaking out of his refrain. “On the Glorious. We watched you plow through our line – we’d never seen anything like it. We fired everything we had at you and you just kept at us.”
Whale Reef. Adenson’s name could no longer be spoken without Whale Reef in the same breath. It earned him fame across the North Bishopric. If only it had saved his career. “Glorious,” he uttered, not quite interested in sounding gracious. “The thirty-eight gunner?”
The little lieutenant beamed. “Yes, sir! Bowline, sir, Lieutenant Bowline.”
It wasn’t meant as an invitation for the boy to introduce himself, but there was little Adenson could do about it. He supposed that would be all it was now: alone among his erstwhile enemies, half of them swooning with adoration and the other half laughing at him behind their hands, grinning with casual hatred. A metallic tang soured his mouth as it had not since he was a midshipman himself, twelve years old and seasick on his first voyage. He wanted nothing more than to order the launch to turn around and row him back to shore, back across the water to the North Bishopric, even. But it wasn’t as if his admiral was going to take him back now. “Very well, Mr. Bowline. You’ve stowed my things in the cabin, of course. You’ll have taken care not to break my bottles of brandy. And you’ll inform my steward that I take my brandy in the evening. Alone.”
“Aye-aye, sir,” the lieutenant said, blinking in astonishment.
“What? Is there a problem?” His voice was rising and the oarsmen started to look very pointedly out at the water, as if the gulls were suddenly interesting. But a man had the right to a little peace, hadn’t he?
“Not at all sir, it’s only… It’s Miss Bowline, sir.”
“Good lord!” Adenson blurted. They’d put him on a ship with a woman. Bowline, Bowline – God above, the first lieutenant on the Northstar was called Bowline, something he’d forgotten from those commission papers. They’d given him a female second-in-command. Laughing at him behind their hands, indeed. Next they’d tell him he had a magician on board.
“Not anymore, sir.” The steward was a broad, sun-scorched old salt who called himself Finnson and was rather too talkative as he got Adenson settled into his cabin and poured his brandy. “We used to, we had two magicians aboard every ship. They did the navigation. But they had a bit of a falling out with the admiral, if you understand me.”
Adenson sat up stiffly in his chair. What was that supposed to mean? Of course all of Arland had to know, or at least suspect, that he had been thrown out of the North Bishopric navy, even if they didn’t know the nature of the argument that had so offended his admiral. But Adenson realized the steward was referring not to the North Bishopric admiral, but to the admiral of the Arland fleet. Adenson had been too swept up in his own worries to pay much notice to intrigue in the Arland command.
“So now we’ve got to do it all ourselves. Don’t tell anyone I said this,” Finnson added, dropping his voice in a way that was completely ineffectual, the thin bulkheads being no defense against the gossip that was rampant on every ship. “But we Arlanders aren’t much good at navigation. That’s why we hired you, sir, for this exploration voyage. You know navigation, you know the Northern waters, and what’s more, sir, you’re a damned fine fighter!” The steward grinned, showing a mouth full of gaps. Next he would say he lost those teeth at Whale Reef, no doubt. “That’ll be useful if we encounter anything hostile out there.”
And what will I fire at it, Adenson wanted to ask. The silverware? Northstar wasn’t outfitted like a warship, only a couple of bow chasers with their four-pound balls, looking more like lawn toys than munitions. There probably wasn’t enough powder on board to fire the cutlery, at that. Being hired by the enemy had always struck him as a suspicious proposition, though his other options had been too few to refuse it. Now he thought the whole expedition was probably a way of getting rid of him. He took his glass and settled back in his chair, gazing through the stern windows as the ship stood out from port and wondering if he could detect the scent of poison in the brandy.
That was when he saw the little skiff crossing his wake.
“Finnson, what is that?”
The steward leaned toward the window and squinted out. “That, sir? Just a fisherman, I think. These little villages on the shoreline are full of them.”
“But he’s not rowing.”
Finnson’s eyes creased so much they nearly disappeared in the leathery folds of his face. “He’s not? Maybe dragging a net, then.”
The steward was a fool. The man in the boat was dragging his hands in the water to move his vessel along. The man in the boat was a magician, and he was following the Northstar. Adenson would have pressed his point but Finnson chose that moment, finally, to take his leave. He also took the bottle. Adenson sniffed at his glass again, smelling nothing, but he dashed the liquor out against the stern windows anyway.
“Fair wind for the northern continent, sir,” chirped a diminutive voice as Adenson climbed the stair to his quarterdeck the next morning. It was Bowline’s watch. Adenson rubbed his cold chin to mask a frown. He would have to pay attention to the rotation so he could learn when the girl wasn’t going to be there. If she hadn’t acknowledged him in front of everyone, or if it had been windy enough to swallow that little voice, he’d have turned back down the stair and disappeared into his cabin as if he’d never come out. But the other two lieutenants were looking up at him now, the bosun, the sailing master, the two men holding the wheel, all facing him with bright, bearish faces. The sailors in the waist had paused in their polishing of brass and scrubbing of deck as well, all gazing up with knuckles to their brows. Some of the faces were soft and beardless. More women, lurking in the sea of the crowd like icebergs. If only magicians could be so easily detected.
“How long until we raise land, Mr. Anchorage?” Adenson asked the sailing master at the con. If he tried hard enough, he could figure out how not to talk to Bowline.
The master looked puzzled but touched his hat and said, “Within the week if the weather holds.”
“The cartographers are ready to start charting the coastline.” Bowline’s voice was insistent as a mockingbird. “As soon as you give the order. Would you like to see them?”
Adenson turned aft and pretended to inspect the spanker boom. “Why is that boat still following us?”
All three lieutenants turned to look. One of the bears responded. “Just some fishermen, sir. They have to come out this far sometimes. Not on our course at all.”
Adenson dearly hoped his officers were more accurate about fishing than they were about the weather. A gale blew in before the end of the second dogwatch.
“Take another reef in the maintopsail,” Adenson shouted over the wind, not addressing the order to anyone in particular. Sailors scrambled up the rigging to shorten sail and the ship slowed, just slightly, before being tossed on her beam by a sudden crosswind.
“Not expecting this!” Anchorage called out as the ship and her crew righted themselves. Damn the man, he sounded like he was laughing. “This is the sort of weather your whalers get when they go too far north.”
“I know what sort of weather they get,” snapped Adenson. In fact, he had never been on a whaler. He’d never even been north of the fortieth parallel. He’d seen bad storms, of course. They tended to dismast him just when he’d lost his last extra spars and was unable to make a jury rig.
“We’re in no hurry,” the girl piped up, just shrill enough to be heard. “We can heave to and wait out the gale.”
Adenson’s ears were starting to hurt from the whistle of forty-knot winds through the rigging. He hated that sound more than the banging of the big guns. It needled its way into his ears and split his skull. It was a sound to drive a man mad. “Hold the course,” he uttered stiffly, and went back down to his cabin.
“Hell of a wind, that.” Finnson weaved his way across the deck of the pitching cabin, pouring brandy as he went and spilling one, two, three large golden drops of it. “Half a dozen of the foretopmen have gone below already. Haven’t got the heart for it. Not many men do. It takes something to stand in the heart of a storm on a floating bit of wood – much as it does to sail into battle! But you’ll know that, won’t you, sir?”
Adenson turned his eyes from the steward’s grin and watched the drops of brandy slide across the floor.
Finnson set glass and bottle on the table, though he couldn’t let go of them without their rolling away. “I knew a fellow who was pressed into duty and he was so scared of storms, the sound of the wind and all, that he went to a magician and tried to pay her to for a potion to stop his ears.”
“Magicians don’t make potions,” Adenson blurted, regretting it instantly. But the steward didn’t seem to question how a captain from the North Bishopric, where magic was forbidden, would know anything about magicians.
“Well, I tried to tell him that. They can’t move anything that their hands aren’t on, I says to him. Unless you want them to stop your ears up for good, which I wouldn’t recommend as that’ll keep you from hearing captain’s orders, and that’ll get you flogged for disobeying. But the wench took his money and sold him something that looked like grease and smelled like piss, and of course it didn’t do a thing. He lost his nerve in some dirty weather, thirty hours pumping and reefing sails, and tossed himself over the side. Ironic, that – he did it just when the wind died down.”
“I don’t think magicians can really do anything at all,” Adenson added, but he said it beneath his breath. He didn’t want Finnson to tell him any more stories. He certainly didn’t want the man to suspect that Adenson had visited a magician once, and for something very similar.
On the third day of the storm they hove to: furled the sails, turned sideways to the wind, lashed the wheel, and came to a near stop. At least it quieted the screaming in the rigging. It also made the sailors restless, with no climbing or hauling to do. They started murmuring, they started whispering. Adenson couldn’t hear what they were saying, but he could guess. It was the same sort of whispering Adenson had heard on North Bishopric men-of-war every time an enemy got away from him because he didn’t have the weather gage, every time he had to strike his colors when he found himself outgunned. It was a sound that wasn’t silenced until Whale Reef.
Maybe he didn’t win that battle fairly, the whispers seemed to say, nagging at his ears with the wind. Maybe it was only luck and the weather gage, carrying him upwind of his enemies while the Arland ships were becalmed and unable to maneuver. The Arland fleet had encountered the main North Bishopric line earlier that day and they were tired and wounded, rigging parted and sails full of holes, half their crews below with injuries, running out of powder and shot. Only Adenson had remained behind, five miles west of the line, and maybe that clever tactic wasn’t cleverness at all but cowardice. Had he been signaled by his admiral, and threatened with court-martial if he didn’t come up and join the line of battle? Did you hear the rumor that he dropped his telescope over the side so he could pretend not to have seen the signal flags?
“How do they know?” muttered the captain over his brandy. “How in all hell could they have heard that rumor?”
“What was that, sir?” Finnson ducked in with a tray for his dinner and Adenson threw the brandy glass at him. The steward spluttered and staggered and Adenson put his back to him, refusing to turn around until he heard the door shut. Refusing to turn away from the windows until he could make out more clearly the shadow that darted among the blowing spray and the white crests of the twenty-foot waves.
Adenson clutched his hands tight until his nails dug into his flesh. “How is that boat still following me?”
“Storm’s died down, sir,” that girl said when he came up on deck. He was sure he’d worked out the order of the lieutenants’ shifts; she should not have been there. “Should we resume course?”
He was silent for so long that the sailing master cleared his throat and took off his hat, flushing to speak out of turn. “We’ve sighted a little island a few miles due west. By the looks of the sky, we might be in for another bad squall tonight. We could drop anchor in the lee of the island and wait it out. If you thought it wise, sir.” Anchorage twisted his hat in his hands and looked about him. “We just don’t know the weather in these parts well enough, sir. What do you think?”
He thought he would have to lie and say he did know the weather in these parts well enough. It wouldn’t be the first lie he’d told. If he showed anything like cowardice, the whispers would start up again. “Resume course, north-northwest for the Woldland shore.”
The gale hit them again in the middle watch, clouds blanking out the moon and the stars so thickly they couldn’t see the waves around them. Adenson tumbled out of his hammock and rolled across the deck of his narrow sleeping cabin, crashing into the bulkhead and smashing his shoulder with a white-hot pain. The shrieking in the rigging swallowed up his pathetic scream. “Take in sail!” cried that little, high voice above him. How was it the girl’s watch again? Adenson was losing hours. That magician in the boat must have stolen them. The ship pitched on the heavy seas, erratic as a mad horse without the wind to drive it forward.
In the morning watch the foremast went by the board. The remaining foretopmen who hadn’t gone below from fear or seasickness scrambled to find axes and knives to cut the standing rigging and free the broken mast before it capsized the ship with its dead weight. Adenson lay on his side on the floor of his cabin, clutching his throbbing arm and ignoring the girl as she tried to shout her report to him through the door. The ship gave a horrible lurch as the lines parted, threw him on his shoulder again, and the pain made the cabin spin. The lantern above his head rocked dangerously on his hook and he imagined it spilling its oil on him, lighting him up like an exploding shell.
Sometime later he opened his eyes again and found himself in darkness, the light having gone out in the storm. He didn’t think he was moving anymore but his body was too dull and stupid with pain to know what was real. He might have been on land. He might have been on Sand Island again, that inhospitable rock where they had stopped for water before Whale Reef, walking out over the dunes in search of the old man who was rumored to work magic.
You’ve got to help me, he told the man. I’m going into battle today, and I can’t lose.
The voice made no sound; he had to remember what it had said. Then don’t lose.
Adenson hissed with such a wretched intensity it burned his throat. But I can’t win.
A muddle of voices answered him, a hand on his nose and the back of his neck, a thick bitter syrup sliding down his throat. But that wasn’t right. The magician hadn’t given him anything at all, even when Adenson struck him across the face and threw him backward.
“Sir! Captain Adenson, sir!” A gray-bearded face presented itself before him, rocking slightly. The Northstar‘s surgeon. Adenson wasn’t on Sand Island at all. Outside a bell rang: ting-ting, ting-ting. How was it he could hear the bells over the storm?
“You should have called for me,” the surgeon said, signaling two more of the bear-men to haul Adenson to a sitting position. “That shoulder could have been dislocated, your arm broken into pieces with all that thrashing about.”
“Why have we stopped?” Adenson was shocked by the rasp that came out his his throat but he managed to conceal it. “Are we in the lee of that island?”
“Rigging the jury foremast, sir,” said one of the bears.
Adenson reached over his head with his one good arm, seized the draping fabric of his hammock, and dragged himself to his feet. “I said hold the course.”
“The wind was flogging us to pieces, sir!” spluttered the second lieutenant when Adenson came on deck. The girl, by some stroke of luck, wasn’t there. “We were lucky we didn’t lose the mainmast as well.”
“Then we’ll have to outrun the wind,” Adenson spat. And he cast a look over his shoulder, over the rail, to be certain that the magician in the boat, if he was still following, heard him.
Of course the magician would still be following, Adenson said to himself as the Northstar beat her way back into the wind. They had a way of knowing things – that was the rumor. It’s what North Bishopric sailors said about those magicians that the Arlanders used to carry on their ships. Navigation, they called it. Cheating, more like it. They’d send out a scout to look for weather and enemies, then report back to the rest of the line, miles away, the magicians talking to each other across the distance in some devilish way. If magicians could do that, surely they could have found out about that man Adenson had struck down on Sand Island. They could have found him, they could have followed him all this way, even though the storm.
“But it wasn’t my fault,” he hissed at the gale as Northstar came around to the windward side of the island. The rising spray on the waves spat back at him. He didn’t know the man was so weak, to be knocked down with one blow. He didn’t realize there was a hoe in the thin scrubby grass at the old man’s feet, and he couldn’t have guessed the man would land square on it and split his skull. Adenson hadn’t realized what had happened at all for several minutes – he’d thought it was part of the magician’s ruse. Then he leaned down to touch the man’s shoulder and his hand came back red with blood.
“It wasn’t my fault,” he’d muttered as he ran back to the man-of-war, trying to rub the blood from his hand. It was what he should have said to the admiral when he was called in days later, not to be given a medal for his victory at Whale Reef, but to be interrogated about the rumors of a murder on Sand Island. Instead he looked at the admiral’s chin and said, “Some men wouldn’t throw about such rumors when they were dallying with the bishop’s sister.”
So that was an end to his career. But he always thought that it was the trace of blood on his hand, his hand on the wheel of his ship, that won him Whale Reef.
“Raise more sail!” he shouted from the quarterdeck. The wind was so high now that he had to clutch the rail until splinters bit into his fingers to keep from being blown about. The he loosened his bad arm from the sling the surgeon had tied to get a better hold. It made the pain spring bright red through the laudanum haze, it made the rigging shriek at an unworldly pitch, it made the ship rise so high in the water the foretopmen lost their footing and tumbled aft, but they tore before the wind so fast the damned magician in his boat would never catch them.
Up crests and into troughs, plunging the bowsprit so deep it seemed it would never come up again, then heeling up so far it seemed they would flip over the stern, waves so high the wind dropped when they were between them, then they were snatched up and driven forward by fifty knots of screaming storm. There was no counting hours, no ringing bells, the sky so hidden by phosphorescent clouds and white foam and thirty-foot waves that Adenson had only the vaguest sense of day and night, and still he was at the rail, clutching it with hands gone numb in the cold and the pain, squaring his shoulders to the wind, imagining his feet had been fixed to the deck with tar to keep him there.
“Sir!” the girl cried, or one of the others, he didn’t know any more. “You must come below, you’ll be blown away!” But no, he could not move. The terrible song of the rigging screamed away until it deafened him. Good, he could no longer hear it. Below him three men strained at the wheel, struggling to hold the ship on her course. One of them turned to look over his shoulder and Adenson saw the blue rictus of his face, frozen in a horrified shout. Northstar had crashed down into a trough, and the master’s mate must have seen the following wave towering over them, thirty feet, forty feet, higher than the sky. “Rig a canvas behind the wheel!” Adenson shouted, though no one could hear him. “Keep the faint-hearted bastards from seeing behind them!”
But he looked back himself, wrenched his neck against the wind to cast a glance backward, and it was no wall of water that he saw.
“More sail! More sail!” Adenson shouted until he tasted blood in his mouth. No one heard him. No one on deck at all. He was alone in the storm, alone with the magician, unable to outrace him. “More sail!” he rasped, and tugged himself away from the rail. He clutched the life lines as he made his way down to the waist of the ship, pulling at the ropes until his hands were raw. Shouts emerged from the hiss of the wind, eyes following him from the shadows under the quarterdeck and the forecastle. Nothing but rats. He reached the mainmast shrouds and clung to them, looking up. No one had hoisted the maintopgallant. He’d ordered them to hoist the maintopgallant.
“I’ll do it myself,” he spat into the driving spray, starting to climb up the rigging, but he could not reach over his head with his bad arm. He hung with one hand tangled in the ratlines and one foot dangling above deck, thrashed about by the wind.
And still – and still the little boat followed.
Then a great tearing noise and the ship lurched backward. Something flapped in his face like an enormous white bat. The foresail had split. “Get it down!” Adenson shrieked. “Cut it free! Hoist another! Hoist another, damn you all!” The rats and the bears crept across the streaming deck to secure the torn pieces of the sail, and then they stopped. They stared at their captain hanging in the shrouds and did not move. The ship slowed perceptibly and tossed on the waves, and the magician was gaining on them.
Adenson fumbled at his waist with his ruined arm. He had a pistol, he was certain. He could fire it, he could make those sailors move, climb up into the rigging, replace the sail. But a figure was moving toward him, clinging to the life lines and moving into the waist. “Heave to!” it shouted.
No – Adenson couldn’t let it stop the ship. He would shoot it down first.
“Take in sail!” The sailors crept up onto the swaying masts at the figure’s voice, though they had disobeyed their own captain. That voice, that tiny chirping voice. It must be a magician’s voice, to command them like that. She was on his ship all along. Adenson worked the pistol free and pointed it at Bowline.
She only looked up at him, a few feet higher than her in the rigging. He had to blink furiously to keep the spray from his eyes, to bring her face into focus. She hardly blinked at all. “Sir, I’m sorry.”
“Get away from me!” Adenson growled, and he pulled the trigger. The hammer struck with an impact he felt without hearing, a thud that drove his eyes closed for an instant. But he opened them and Bowline still stood there. “You magician, you destroyed my pistol.”
“The powder got wet, sir.” She reached up for the weapon, and he could not stop her prying it from his fingers. “I’m sorry, sir.” Then she raised her voice, as the ship came around into that damned calm, “Captain Adenson, I must relieve you…”
“They’ll catch me!” he cried, looking wildly into the waves that rushed around them. What would the magician on the boat do – ram the hull? Cut a hole through and sink them instantly? Or pull the seas over the bulwarks and drown them? But he looked and saw nothing, no boat, no magician. The salt in the spray must have blinded him. He must have only imagined that he saw waves.
Had he imagined it all, then? But the pain in Adenson’s arm and the dull ringing in his ears would not have been so real, would they? He would not still see a red cast to his hand, the hand that he untangled from the rigging with some difficulty, if it had never had the magician’s blood on it?
Then don’t lose, the old man had said.
But I can’t win. It wasn’t those words that had driven Adenson to strike the magician across the ear as he turned away. It was something the man had said after, the magician’s last words.
Then don’t play.
“He did give me a spell,” Adenson whispered.
“Sir?” Bowline’s face creased as she tucked his pistol into her belt. She did not understand what he was saying. She understood less as he edged across the ratlines, out of her reach, suspended over the water. The pain in his shoulder had faded suddenly and he moved more easily than he thought he would. The old magician had given him exactly what he needed.
“Sir!” cried Bowline, her face suddenly wide with comprehension, but she could not catch him as he threw himself backward into the water.
©2013 Michelle M. Welch