by Michael Kingswood
The light from the brass oil lamp hanging from the ceiling above me swirled, sending shadows careening around the room as the lamp swung and twisted about on its chain. The corners of my little room flashed in and out of view as the shadows swam, and I imagined I was somehow not resting in a tiny locked, oak-walled cabin in a ship at sea but already down below in the depths, the whirling eddies sucking me down to the Locker, and my ultimate doom.
I swallowed as the ship lurched again, sending the cabin heaving to the side, and the lamp with it, the chain holding it to the ceiling sending forth a clatter of protest as its links relaxed from their embrace with each other and then snapped to again.
My stomach heaved and I tasted bile, and I pulled the threadbare wool blanket that was my only protection against the chill of the late-autumn passage up around my neck and swallowed hard, willing myself not to give in to the motion again, and feed still more dry heaves into the already almost-overflowing chamber pot that was just now sliding across the deck out of my reach, slopping some of the fluids from my previous heaves onto the floorboards behind it.
Vomit and salt and smoke and piss and salt and water and salt filled my nostrils, overpowering the small scent of the hardtack and dried meat dinner that my captors had placed in a tin bowl at the foot of my bunk when they’d last come in an eternity ago.
I stared at it without hunger; in fact the entire notion of eating set my stomach to heaving again.
But yet I must eat, if I had any hope of surviving this ordeal.
The ship heaved upward, then down as the bow crested a wave and then plunged into a trough, and I slid down toward the foot of the bunk, where my unwanted meal sat.
I tried to move my feet aside, but too slowly, and the bowl overturned, spilling its contents onto the deck a second before the chamberpot slid up next to them, sloshing a bit more of its contents.
My heart sank as I watched the food ruined, despite my lack of appetite, and despair settled over me.
Twelve days of this cursed passage. Twelve days since they had taken me, snug from my bedroll, and hauled me onto this God-forsaken scow. Locked me in this cabin, and showed me not a soul except for twice a day for meals, and once to empty the pot.
I racked my brain, but could not come up with any answer to that question.
The ship groaned, the timbers straining as it heeled to port now, and I heard the lines in the rigging on the weatherdeck above my little prison snapping. Then men’s voices raised in shouts of mixed chagrin and command.
I strained to pick out voices from amidst the din; anything to keep my mind off my roiling belly and the misery of my confines.
I had only seen two of the crew, who attended to my needs throughout the day. Neither had said so much as a word to me aside from a grunt, despite my attempts to strike up conversation.
The elder of the two, a man with a bulging belly, thinning grey hair, and an eyepatch over his left eye, had backhanded me last time he came in, to accentuate the point that he would not engage.
But I’d head more voices than that, and over the nearly two weeks since I’d come aboard I had sifted through them so I recognized a few.
The bosun was easy to pick out: a hard, raised voice, always speaking with command or threat. And a few of the mates. But the rest of the crew were merely disembodied voices, at least two dozen of them.
I didn’t know ships very well, but it seemed there had to be that many or more to handle a vessel this size.
Unless it was a ship of war.
But I couldn’t imagine a warship under a nation’s flag would treat a prisoner the way I had been treated. There was the etiquette of war to be followed; certainly I would have at least been told why I was aboard?
Or not. I was grasping for meaning, for an answer to my predicament, and I knew it.
But now, when I listened to the voices, straining to make out any of the voices I recognized, there was an undercurrent of alarm in the men’s shouts. I heard feet pounding on the deck above, then more shouts, and I thought I made out the bosun.
The ship heaved to starboard, and I fell out of my bunk, the blanket coming with me as I clung to it. I slammed into the oak frames of the cabin’s bulkhead.
My tongue erupted in hot pain and I tasted iron as my teeth came down, and I cried out.
A hard something struck my back, then wetness, and odiferous stink.
The damn chamberpot.
I was just righting myself, unsure whether to swear or scream or weep, when from the upper deck came new sounds. Ripping and snapping, and then a dreadful creaking that became a deafening crack.
And then the ship lurched back upright, and I rolled back to the bunk, striking it on my side.
Shouts from above became more fervent, fearful, and more groaning and cracking.
Then a dreadful crash to starboard, and the ship lurched again.
I managed to push myself to my feet, and my head struck the oil lamp.
The ship rocked more, and more erratically now, but it was different. More random, like the ship was no longer shoving through the waves but just being tossed.
I heard a voice from nearby, somewhere past the door to my cabin. “ – the lifeboats!”
A cold dread went up my spine, and the nausea from the ship’s tossing fled before my reason as I placed the change in the ship’s motion with that call.
Had the mainmast given way? Was that what the crash was about?
If that was the case, the ship’s rigging would be dragging in the water, and she would not be able to make way. She would be at the mercy of the waves until the crew could cut it free. If they –
A new crash, from port, sent me stumbling again, but this time the scent of water was joined with water itself, which streamed through the seam at the bottom of my cabin door.
“Oh God,” I said.
Or tried to say. My tongue was still screaming, and would not move as I wished it, so the words came out garbled.
But so what? The ship was taking on water.
I hurled myself at the door, shoulder striking the center of the sturdy oak.
It was sound, the lock solid. The door didn’t budge, only struck back at my shoulder with a bludgeon that sent me reeling back a step.
I ignored the new pain from my shoulder, and surged forward at the door again. It didn’t matter if I was hurt or not; if I didn’t get out of there and the ship went down…
Still the door held, but I thought I felt it move just a smidgeon against the locking mechanism.
“Help!” I shouted, and struck the door again.
More shouting from abovedecks, but now what professionalism there had been in the orders and reports was fading. I heard panic in the disembodied voices, and that chill in my spine grew colder.
Almost as cold as the water sloshing around my bare feet on the planking of the deck.
It was up to my ankles now, and I didn’t kid myself that it was going to lower any time soon. If anything, it was going up.
I struck the door again, and this time heard a crack of wood.
The door still looked firm, but the crack was distinct. And had the wood given way a little bit more?
I redoubled my effort, lowering my left shoulder and stepping back, then charging.
The crack this time was loud, and the door definitely gave. I could see a gap of about an inch around the seal where the latch and lock were holding it shut. One more good hit…
I would have kicked it, had I my boots. But when they’d taken me I had only a nightshirt and my undergarments on, and they had given me no other coverings except for the blanket.
So I tucked my shoulder again…and then I was through.
The door popped free, and I stumbled forward into the passageway beyond.
The water was deeper here. The seam of my door had kept some of the fluid from seeping in as quickly as it had been filling the rest of the ship. There were no lights except for the lamp in my cabin. I could only see a few feet to either side before darkness enveloped everything; a mixture of being belowdecks and the dark of night.
I hadn’t even realized it was night time. Though I supposed I should have. The meal that now was ruined and soggy, floating in the water and filth behind me, was the second of the day. But I hadn’t seen daylight in nigh on two weeks, so my internal clock was weird.
No time to worry over the hour now, though.
I vaguely recalled turning left from the ladderwell they had dragged me down when I first came aboard. If that were the case, the ladderwell to the weatherdeck should be to my left now.
I peered in that direction, bracing myself against another roll of the ship, and could see nothing.
Voices were still shouting from above, though they were fewer now.
Had the crew already begun abandoning ship? If so, I had little time.
I glanced behind me, considering the lamp. Any light would be helpful. But I quickly gave up on the notion; it was securely bolted to the ceiling and the chain was strong.
I’d have to go by feel.
Taking a moment to gather up the blanket, I moved forward, feeling my way with my feet and hands.
Blackness engulfed me, the feeble light from my cabin only a memory to my rear. The sound of waves pounding on the hull and wind whipping through the tatters of the rigging topside was more plain now, as was a more ominous tone: the flow of water.
She was going down, and despite the hypnotic call of those swirling shadows earlier, I had no desire to explore the Locker.
So I forced my halting feet forward, dragging my hand on the bulkhead to my right as I followed the passageway.
A fresh gust of wind and a lessening of the gloom foretold the ladderwell before I reached it. Renewed hope gave me greater speed, and I grasped the twine ropes on either side of the ladderwell and hauled myself up into the blowing wind and rain of a stormy night at sea.
The weatherdeck was even worse a scene than I had imagined.
I was correct; the mainmast had gone over. But so had the mizzen. Fouled lines and shattered pieces of wood that used to be deck fittings littered the entire scene, and I saw in the dim light from two lamps that somehow remained lit amidships a pair of bodies pinned beneath a pile of debris.
Up forward, a group of men were clambering toward the starboard side rail.
The wind was blowing from port, so I supposed the lifeboats would be launched from starboard to keep them close until all the men were aboard. But why would they be up forward…?
I turned after and saw my answer. The entire starboard side from midships aft was fouled, full of debris and lines. If the scene beyond was like that, no boat could hope to navigate that area of the ship.
The group up forward was small. Three, maybe four men.
All of whom had kept me prisoner below.
For a moment, I considered not joining them. Then I shook my head at my own idiocy.
Survive now. Worry about that later.
I hurried forward, dodging past the wreckage of the mainmast and its ropes and gear.
The deck was slick beneath my bare feet, and the ship was taking on a distinct list to starboard, and tilting downward by the stern.
Not much time left.
As I reached the bow the last of the men from the group I had seen was climbing over the ship’s rail.
He dropped out of sight, and I heard a voice from below say, “Pull for your lives, boys.”
The voice wasn’t one that I recognized from the inventory of voices I had made during my captivity. But I knew its meaning plain. They were commencing rowing, so they wouldn’t be near to the ship when she finally went down.
I picked up the pace, running across the more steeply leaning deck now.
“Wait!” I shouted.
I slipped as I neared the rail and slid the rest of the way. The wood of the rail struck my chest, and I coughed out a curse.
It hurt. But I couldn’t stop to consider that.
Below, the boat was already pushing away. The men were just dim shapes in the darkness, but I thought there were five of them. And they were moving, like they were pulling at the oars for all they were worth.
“Wait!” I said again, and pulled myself erect.
“What the—?“ came the voice I had heard. Then he cursed as I supposed he saw me.
A loud snapping from the stern turned my gaze that way, and I saw in the dim light of the remaining ship’s lamps a portion of the rail back there break, and then peel away,
The angle of the deck abruptly grew more steep, and I couldn’t wait any longer.
The boat was already a good ten or fifteen feet away, but I jumped anyway.
Water, cold and salty and dark as pitch, closed around me, and for a moment I hung there, unable to tell down from up.
Then I bobbed to the surface and took a quick breath.
“Wait!” I said, again, and began trying to crawl my way through the water toward the retreating boat.
But I had never been a seagoing man, never really spent much time learning the ways of water and how to swim. I could bob in a pond and pull my way across a shallow. But this…
The waves were choppy, the wind blowing, and the water so cold I felt the strength leaving my limbs more quickly than I ever imagined it could. And the blanket had tangled around my legs when I jumped, and was pulling me backward and down.
I kicked and squirmed, but that seemed to just make matters worse.
It seemed like the boat was getting farther away, not closer, and fear, lingering at the edge of my consciousness for as long as I could remember this night, clawed its way to the forefront.
I didn’t want to explore the Locker, but I was going to regardless.
My head went under, and I forced myself to the surface, but I could only get a quick breath and let out an even quicker, “Help!” before I went under again.
I managed to get up again. But I could barely get even a portion of a breath.
Then I was under, and all my strength was going. I couldn’t reach the surface no matter how I tried.
Darkness was all around, and I felt it reaching out to engulf me. The Locker calling to me.
I felt myself going to it…
Then powerful hands grasped me beneath my shoulders, and I felt myself hauled up to air once again.
I gasped in a great lungful as I flopped down onto hard wooden planking.
I lay there, coughing and heaving, for a short eternity. Then, at some point, I passed out.
I awoke to the sun shining down through scattered, puffy-white clouds overhead and air that was almost, but not quite warm. It wasn’t as chilly as the last several days onboard the ship had made it seem. But it was still far from comfortable.
I was lying in the bottom of the rowboat, between the feet of two men who were sitting on the raised planks of the rower’s positions, facing each other. They were dressed alike in sailors ankle-cut leggings, and each wore a woolen jacket cinched tight around his body. They were also alike in that they were both bearded, and wore their hair long and braided.
There their similarities faded, because one was blond and pale, the other dark of hair and skin, with a distrusting, squinty gaze.
Squinty snorted and nudged me with his boot. “He’s up,” he said, looking toward the stern of the boat.
At his nudge, I pushed myself up to a sitting position, though lower down than the two men since I was not up on a plank like they were. Still, I could see my initial thought from the night before—I presumed it was the night before—was incorrect. Instead of five men on the boat there were only four.
The other two were positioned at the bow and the stern, and also wore sailor attire. The man at the bow was noticeably younger than the others, and clean shaven with red-brown hair. The man at the stern, whom squinty had addressed, was broad of shoulder and only slightly lighter than squinty, with black hair that flowed loosely about his shoulders and dark, intelligent eyes.
He looked at me and scowled. “Who the hell are you?”
I blinked, surprised at the question. Then, glancing back at the other three men and seeing equal curiosity on their faces, I shrugged. “James Havlock,” I said. “Of Moreton.”
Not a bit of recognition at my name, but I saw one head nod slightly when I mentioned my home. Still, the men exchanged glances, and I saw a distinct lack of comfort in their demeanor.
Finally, the man at the bow said, “The cargo,” in a resigned tone of voice.
That wasn’t exactly the most comforting way to put it, though it did seem at least slightly more polite than prisoner.
Then again, it also had some other, more dire, implications.
“I was not on your ship by choice, if that’s what you mean,” I said, and raised an eyebrow at the man in the bow, who looked away.
Everyone was silent for a few seconds, the sailors just looking at me and me looking back. Finally, I shrugged my shoulders. “I don’t suppose you know why I was brought aboard any more than I do?”
Again glances between the four of them. Then the man in the stern shrugged in response. “We don’t get paid to ask questions, Havlock. Just sail the ship where Captain says to sail her.”
“And where was that?”
More silence, and I sighed. Then, with a bit of effort that became pained as my shoulder protested the movement, I boosted myself up onto one of the rower’s benches.
Squinty grunted and shifted to the side to give me room. After I got situated, I looked around.
And saw nothing but waves and sky as far as the eye could see in any direction.
My spirits weren’t exactly soaring. But now they sank like a stone.
“So do we know where we are?”
From behind me, the man in the stern said, “Near as I can tell, about fifty miles west of Point Lemas.” He paused, then cleared his throat. “But that’s just from a glance at the sailing master’s chart before I went up for watch last. Gods only know how far the storm blew us.”
I nodded, trying to remember my geography and not coming up with any encouraging. If memory served, the sea west of Point Lemas was broad, and though frequently traveled the sheer size of it would make coming across another ship difficult, if not impossible.
On the bright side, it did give me an idea of where the ship had been headed. Point Lemas was a goodly ways west and south of Moreton. In the direction of the Chalene Kingdom. I’d been there once, a long time ago, and it was enough to make me not want to go back. But I didn’t have any connections there. So why in the hell would someone want to kidnap me to take me there?
Shaking my head, I looked down and saw the rest of the bottom of the little craft empty now that I had left it.
Spirits hit rock bottom.
“No food or water,” I said.
Grunts and shaken heads all around.
“Wonderful. Do we have a plan?”
The man in the stern snorted out a resigned-sounding laugh.
I closed my eyes and hung my head. I got the distinct idea that it would have been better to have drowned.
Two days later, I decided that idea was correct.
We bobbed on the sea without any propulsion but the boat’s two oars. But though I thought it might be worthwhile to at least pull to the east toward where we thought land lay, even to my unseamanly mind the futility of that became apparent.
Rowing made for hard exertion, and slow going. That just meant a quicker death from thirst, with very nearly no hope of getting any return from the effort.
So why bother?
So we sat. And bobbed. Each of us in his own thoughts, at least at first.
I got the distinct impression the other men would have been more freely talkative if I hadn’t been there. And no wonder. I was a stranger, and an illicit one at that. They couldn’t have been eager to explain what had gone on with me on their ship if we happened upon some manner of authority or other.
For that matter, I was rather surprised when I awoke after that first night to find I was still in the boat. It surely must have crossed at least one of their minds to just toss me overboard, and rid themselves of the potential trouble.
Later on in the morning, I got up the nerve to ask why they hadn’t done that.
Squinty just grunted. “No seaman leaves another to drown.”
Which, I supposed, made sense. In a way.
The next morning, though, it seemed a moot point.
As I looked out at the barren horizon and licked lips that were cracked from salt and lack of water with a tongue that felt rough as a grinding stone in my mouth and that pained me with every movement, it seemed there would be no one for these men to have to explain me to after all.
And then as the day wore on, even that ironic thought fled, and my thoughts became nothing but a catalogue of miseries.
My companions were no better off.
We sat there like the living dead. Not moving. Not talking. Hardly even breathing. Each man of us slowly thirsting away in his own little place of despair.
I racked my brain for any reason I would have been selected for this fate. Had I offended someone way back when I had been in Chalene and didn’t know it, and they had only just tracked me down?
I didn’t think so, and anyway I didn’t hobnob with the kinds of people who had the resources to fund such a manhunt even if I had.
Someone closer to home, or in Moreton itself? But if that, why send me hundreds of miles across the sea to Moreton’s rival? Why not deal with me there?
Or maybe it was some god, just feeling frisky and deciding to tweak some random man’s destiny and I was the poor sod who caught his—more likely her—attention.
No answer was coming from the waves, the wind, or the sun, though. And as the day wore on and I felt my strength ebb, I became more certain those answers would ever elude me.
When I fell asleep the next night, I did not expect to see the morning.
I was so weak, so racked with pain and thirst, so sluggish in mind and body, that I welcomed that thought. Looked forward to oblivion, or whatever it was that came in the next world. It could not have been worse than the slow misery we were all enduring.
So when I cracked my eyes open in the morning, it was with a groan that was as much frustration as pain and despair.
Just let it end already!
But it didn’t. It kept on going, each moment worse than the last, without hope or respite.
At some point I managed to raise my head, and I looked out at the waves. I recall seeing the sunlight sparkling off of them, and that it looked to me like the reflections were in fact a little man made of light who was dancing from wavetop to wavetop, giggling with glee as his toes barely alighted before setting off again.
He was having such a fun time of it. I began to become jealous of him; why should he get to enjoy himself so, and we not partake in it also.
I reached out to try to grab him as he sped past, but my hand caught nothing but air.
“Bastard,” I said, just barely above a whisper, and let my hand fall into the water alongside the boat.
The cool wetness only made my thirst all the worse, but I couldn’t bring myself to pull my hand out. I just watched as the little light man danced, and trailed my fingers in the water, and became bemused when the little man struck into something dark and blocky-looking, then vanish.
I blinked, puzzled. What—?
The dark thing, out on the waves, was still there. But I couldn’t make it out; it was blurry, indistinct.
It was like a dark block, with something white above it, more curved. Was that—
“Sail!” said one of the other men. I couldn’t tell who, didn’t have the strength to look.
But the word filled me with joy, for a reason I couldn’t fathom at first. Until its meaning registered, and I grinned a cracked-lipped grin and let out a rasping approximation of a laugh.
Sail. Sail meant ship.
Which meant we were saved.
Somewhere in the back of my thirst-addled mind, I also registered that I just might be able to find out the answers to those questions after all.
And that made me laugh just a little bit louder.
A collection of Michael Kingswood’s published stories are available here: