By Ronan Frost
Copyright 2017 Ronan Frost
A nasal drone pierced Cal’s dreams and brought her to wakefulness, eyes opening to the unlatched jaw of the young man asleep next to her.
Well, this is awkward, she thought, sitting up with exaggerated slowness so as not wake the still slumbering form. A suffuse orange glow of sunlight filtered through the coarse weave of the curtains and the sounds of early morning in the city drifted in through the walls. Cal crossed the room and found the pile of clothes discarded hurriedly the previous night and sorted in from out, all the while staying quiet and casting occasional glances towards the bed and the shambles of the sheets only partially covering the man. She found her tag and rubbed her palm against its surface, blurring out the name that had been there, then searching through her clothing with a series of patting motions for a piece of chalk. Her clothes, a sheer black gown, had precious little pockets. Finally, she found a tiny stub of chalk in a jacket still hanging from a dilapidated nightstand, and, pinching it between thumb and forefinger, wrote her name upon the tag before affixing the pin to her chest.
She nodded a quick obligatory bow to the small wooden statuette of Haggmass crouching obscenely in a nook on the far side of the room, a tiny shiver like a breath of ice passing across her skin as it seemed the sunken eyes moved to track her. Cal did a double-take, but it was only a trick of the slanting light. She made the sign of the woven-eyed basket just to be sure, and her hand was on the rickety knob of the doorhandle when the form on the bed rolled over and a shaggy head rose up, blinking like a tortoise from the depths.
“Morning champ,” Cal said, not sure why she was whispering now that he was awake. She cleared her throat. “Sorry, can’t stay.”
The man squinted, having to raise a hand to his eyes against the bright morning sun now streaming through the partially open door framing him in a neat rectangle of light.
“Cal?” he said, reading the name badge.
Cal paused a moment, one foot outside the door, and gave a hesitant nod.
The man swung his legs from the bed and rested his head in his hands a moment as if recovering from a dizzy spell.
“By Haggmass, I saw how much you were drinking last night, but this feels way worse than it should.”
“Wait a minute, you were….?” Cal tapped a forefinger to the centre of her chest.
The man on the bed nodded with a rueful grin and waggled his finger in her direction.
“That was me.”
Cal couldn’t help but laugh, stepping back inside the room, the door still ajar.
“This doesn’t happen every day,” said the man, still sitting on the edge of the bed.
“Well you know what they say, the probability is higher in proximity.”
There was an awkward silence, and to Cal it felt as if the man were taking stock of himself, an inventory of that monologue the body fed to the mind, and she found herself glancing towards the door again.
“It’s getting late, and I really have to be going…” she said, tilting her head towards the door, and when the man seemed not to have noticed, placed her hand upon the doorknob and pushed the door open wider. The increased spill of light picked up motes of dust hanging in the air and now framed the entire bed and reached halfway up the adobe wall.
“Come see me soon,” said the man, his voice croaking as he raised his voice.
“You got it,” said Cal, turning her face away to conceal her expression, eyes rolling to the ceiling. She slipped her narrow body through the doorframe and walked with quick firm steps upon the stone walkway. She ran a fan of fingers through her hair, for a moment confused by its length and realizing it must be hopelessly tangled, before dropping her hand and hurrying on.
At least I know where I am, she thought, angling out into the street where already several heavily laden merchant carts were leaving trails in the road softened by morning dew. Cal paused at the smithy, where within, in the shadows and flickering yellow glow of the nascent forge, a small boy worked at a massive bellows. Cal smiled to herself and at the last moment diverted her footsteps and plunged into the chill dark air.
The smithy looked up, forced to catch his breath as his thin chest worked hard for air. He had stripped down to his undershirt and was sweating, thin arms trembling with fatigue.
“Looks like you could use a hand with that,” said Cal with a grin.
“That you Cal?”
Cal reached and angled the badge, but it was too dark within to read, and in any case, the smithy wasn’t looking. Instead, he had arched his back, hands pressed to his hips, to work out a stiffness in his spine. Cal looked at the forge, where the flames were only just beginning to lick at the wood.
“It’s not like you to be so late,” she said.
“I woke up in Durry.”
“That’s outside the perimeter, you’re entitled to a day off, you know.”
The boy grunted. “Yeah, and twice the work tomorrow? No thanks.”
“I’d help out, but…”
“Sure, I’ve heard that before.”
Cal looked down at herself and shrugged. She was about to launch into the story of his morning’s encounter, but the smithy had already taken up the handle of his bellows and was working again.
“Well, see you later,” said Cal. She ducked her head to the back wall of the forge to the statuette of Haggmass and gave a quick wave of her hand and took her leave.
The smith only grunted, but just as she was stepping back out onto the street he called out.
“Hey, Cal! One thing, as I passing the docks this morning. I heard there was some commotion down there. Some fella they dragged in.”
“Dragged in? What do you mean?”
“No idea. Some fool of a fisherman got himself shipwrecked, or some such. They were asking for you.”
“Is he dead?”
“Damn. I guess I’d better check it out.”
“You do that.”
And with that, the smithy pressed himself back to his task. Cal stepped back out into the warmth of the morning, momentarily closing her eyes and raising her face to the light like a basking lizard upon a rock. A cry and clatter of hooves made her snap open her eyes to the maw of a donkey’s mouth as it skittered to a stop, the man atop the cart raising himself off his seat and waving his arms in the air.
“You want to git yourself kilt?” the merchant squawked.
Cal took a step backwards, flustered for a moment, and the merchant flickered the reins and the cart jerked once again into motion. As he passed the merchant narrowed his eyes and shook his head disapprovingly. Cal reflected he wouldn’t be so quick to anger if he’d caught sight of her badge and seen exactly who it was he was mouthing off. As it was, she contented himself to returning the merchant’s gaze with cold appraisal, and the merchant must have sensed something for he quickly broke away and hunched his back, flicking the reins unnecessarily against the back of his already cantering donkey.
Cal thought about continuing on her way to the office that lay in the inner circle of the city, and leave whatever it was that waited at the docks until later. Nobody would blame her; officially she hadn’t been notified of anything… But after a spell of consideration Cal turned her steps towards the docks: she knew wouldn’t get a moment’s rest if what the smithy had said was true, especially if a death was involved.
She found a moment to regret not availing himself to the wash facilities of the house, especially now that memories of the previous night started to return.
The docks, she said half aloud, shaking her head, as if to steady herself with that thought.
The fisherman wasn’t difficult to find. A crowd still lingered about one of the outer jetties, the way they milled had a kind of settled manner, as if they knew they’d seen all the action they’d likely see today, but still reserved hope for a little more to come.
The guy wasn’t dead yet, judged Cal, as she strode out upon the planks, her narrow feet making neat little clipping noises. Sure enough, as the crowd saw the name badge they drew back like a tide drawing away from a beach.
In the centre of the cluster lay a man. Someone had propped his head up upon a folded towel, and placed a nearly full tankard of beer by his head that looked warm and flat and wholly unappetizing. Cal dropped to her haunches, obliged to keep her knees together with the tightness of her dress, and placed a hand to the man’s forehead. His eyes flickered beneath closed eyelids and his mouth moved, muttering some words to himself. His jaw was peppered with the stubble, and Cal noticed the exposed parts of his skin were red and blistering with extreme sunburn.
“Is nobody else here?” asked Cal, standing, then raising himself upon her toes (cursing her diminutive height) and scanning the crowd. The people looked at each other, nobody speaking, as if they batted an invisible ball of responsibility. Finally, one of them accepted the role of spokesman.
“You’re the first one here, officer.”
“Who found him?”
The spokesman jerked a thumb towards a figure further down the beach. Cal squinted against the glare of the morning sun from the waves and saw it was an old woman, her arms stretched as she untangled a net, her back to them.
“Krasir did, officer. Found him right here, we ain’t moved him at all, other than the towel, that is. We was waiting for you to show up.”
“Thank you, you’ve done the right thing, but right now we need some space. Let’s get this man inside, it’s getting warm out here already.”
“Officer,” said the spokesman hesitantly. He stopped and exchanged a glance with his nearest companion, who simply prodded him with an elbow and made a gesture with her gnarled chin.
“Yes?” said Cal, after the pause had grown long enough to be uncomfortable.
“Officer,” began the spokesman again. “It’s just that, well, nobody here knows him.”
“What do you mean? Nobody?”
“I mean, yes, the sunburn makes it hard to judge, but we’re pretty sure nobody here has been him.”
A quick murmur of assent passed around the gathered crowd. Cal ran his eyes over those assembled before him, judging there to be twenty to twenty-five people present. Of course, there was more than a few that he knew well.
“He’s a grown man. It’s impossible that nobody knows him,” dismissed Cal. “It’s just these strange clothes.”
“Unless…” started the spokesman.
Cal’s raised eyebrows silenced the man. She finished the sentence for him. “Someone not from the island? Is that what you were about to say? If I hear any such gossip being spread around town, then I’ll have every one of you run up in the booking hall.”
The spokesman spread his hands placating, likewise the crowd seemed to withdraw into itself. A few of those towards the fringes detached and tried to inconspicuously fragment away as if suddenly recalling a missed appointment. Cal gave a stern nod, pointed a finger at the spokesman and his squat companion.
“You, help me move him inside, and you, go and get Krasir and bring her up here. The rest of you, unless you have any more information, I suggest going back to your place of employment quick smart! And get this beer out of here and someone find me some water.”
Inside the shelter of the hut there was some fussing about as Cal swept an arm across the detritus littering the dockmaster’s desk and ordered blanket laid out upon it. The two of them lifted the slack and awkward weight of the man onto the makeshift bed. The cool within the building seemed to recover his senses a little, and his eyes opened a crack and he looked about. Cal lifted the water and touched it to the man’s parched lips, spilling a little to the floor as the man coughed and tried to speak.
“Easy now,” said Cal. “Drink up first, questions will come next.”
The man closed his eyes again and sipped a little of the water, then something seemed to trigger within him and he started to gulp and tried to tip the cup as if to empty the whole thing down his gullet in one convulsive movement. Cal applied gentle pressure and withdrew the cup before he could take more than a mouthful.
“Bit at a time, champ. Not keen to see any regurgitations.”
There was a quick knock at the door, and a burly man with broad chest admitted himself to the hut without waiting for reply. Cal read the man’s badge.
Cal turned to the spokesman and tossed her head towards the door. “You, get out there and see what’s happened to your scaly mate. I want Krasir in here right now.”
The spokesman bobbed and darted from the door.
“What’s the deal?” asked Helquuod.
“That’s what I’m just about to find out,” said Cal, turning back to the man. She raised her voice, aware that her feminine alto belied her authority to a certain extent. “Ok, time for a few questions. Come on, focus here.”
The man opened his eyes again and blinked few times.
“Water,” he croaked.
“Good, you can speak,” said Cal, raising the cup again to the man’s lips and letting him sip a little more. “Now, who are you, and who did you do this?”
The man spoke with a tongue that was thick with thirst, yet also hidden in that slur of words was a strange accent.
“Name? My name?”
“Yes, your name.”
“Later. Who are you?”
“Where did you come from?”
The man drew his wits together, focussing his eyes near upon his nose. “I’m Jonas Lark of Smallfield, of the King’s Ship Armedius.”
Cal exchanged a glance with Helquuod, who shook his head and rolled his eyes and muttered: “King, eh?”
Cal made the sign of woven-eyed basket with her interlocked fingers, a subconscious just-in-case gesture should Haggmass find offense.
“No more games, you’re treading on a mighty thin layer of ice,” warned Cal. “Fall through and you’ll see how deep the cesspit can be. What’s your real name?”
The man’s eyes started to regain their balance, allowing him to take in more of his surrounds, but evidently what he saw made no sense to him for he soon lay his head back down, exhausted.
Cal stood abruptly and crossed the hut, standing close to Helquuod, speaking in a low conspiratorial tone.
“Get up to Central, run through the card stacks. See if you can find any Jonas Lark.”
“Will do, boss.”
There came another knocking at the door, and Cal snatched it open to find Krasir standing there, a sullen look upon her face.
“Ah, Krasir, nice of you to finally join us. You were the one that found him?”
Krasir wasn’t sure to address Cal or the larger, more imposing form of Helquuod. Finally, she settled on casting her eyes back and forth between the two as she spoke.
“Yes, officer. I was pulling in my boats, saw him just a-laying there on the dock like a dried out ol’ fish.”
Cal snapped her fingers in Krasir’s face in an attempt to draw her attention, becoming infuriated at the back-and-forth movement of her eyes.
“Go with Helquuod, he’ll take your report down at the station.”
Krasir’s face pulled into a rictus of anguish.
“Aww but officer, I got me a whole stack of nets and if I don’t get them –”
“We’re looking at serious charges here,” cut off Cal. “Now, I suggest you cooperate, and get this over with sooner rather than later.”
Krasir bowed her head. “Yes officer.”
“Come on, let’s go,” said Helquuod, leading her out the door. He turned back and met Cal’s eyes a moment.
“You got everything under control here?”
“All good. Send for a cart as soon as you can, we’ve got to get this guy to the doc.”
“You think that’s wise? I mean, after the last few times…”
Cal made a face. “Got to follow protocol.”
“Right you are.” Helquuod made a brief salute with his forefinger and closed the door behind him.
“Now, my friend, time to tell me exactly what you know,” said Cal loudly, but before she had crossed half the distance from the door to the makeshift bed, she knew something was wrong. At Lark’s side in an instant she grabbed his shoulder and shook it roughly.
“Damn it!” Cal said. “You better not be asleep, you useless halfwit! Come on, wake up!”
It was already too late; Lark’s head lolled loosely about shoulders like a bobbled-headed doll. After some vigorous shaking his eyes cracked open and focussed with some difficulty upon Cal who stood over him, almost nose-to-nose.
Cal’s eyes narrowed. “That you, Lark?”
The man blinked a few times, eyes moving downwards to read Cal’s name badge, and croaking: “No, officer. I’m Haruul.”
Cal slammed her fist into the butt of her palm.
“What in the name of Haggmass happened?” said the man on the bed. “I feel terrible.”
“That’s exactly what we’re going to find out,” said Cal.
Lark didn’t show up until midday.
Cal was running through paperwork at her desk, a stub of a pencil gripped tightly between thumb and forefinger working in hard marks against the coarse parchment marking off lists of names, her mind not upon her work, when a junior officer knocked upon the half-open door and stuck his head around the corner. He didn’t need to say a word, for Cal read the expression upon his face in an instant.
“Where?” she asked.
Cal threw down her pencil and her chair skated back against the wall as she stood. The junior officer struggled to keep pace, speaking to Cal’s right elbow as they strode along, passing the cubicles of the other officers.
“They found her up near Highpass,” he said. “Talking nonsense, stumbling around and shouting at everyone.” He paused a moment as they were forced single file down a narrow corridor. “Took a few hours to get her here, caused some damage.” He stopped in his tracks atop a flight of wooden stairs leading down into the basement, as if he had hit an invisible wall. He craned his neck, watching as Cal descended, hoping to get a better angle and see what lay down there. Cal did not pause nor say any word, stepping deeper in a space lit only by bars of sunlight from the high narrow windows.
She leant her weight against the heavy iron door and it pushed inwards with a heavy groan. The room within was dark, devoid of natural lighting, and lit only by a sconce of candles upon a desk in the centre of the room. Helquuod turned at Cal’s entrance and grunted.
“Well?” Cal asked, her eyes seeking out the shadows in the far side of the room.
Helquuod gave a slight nod, but as Cal stepped forward he placed a hand on her forearm.
“Mad as a cut snake. Never seen anything like it. Busted herself up pretty good.”
“Yeah, well it’s about to get worse. She’s gotten someone killed.”
“Haggmass on a stick.”
“You said it.”
Cal grabbed the candle sconce from the otherwise bare desk as she strode forward, thrusting it before her and bringing the groaning and bucking shadow upon the wall into the pale circle of light. It was an old woman, wrists and ankles bound in shackles affixed to the stone wall. The space between metal and flesh was thickly padded and a wrap of material was bound around her bowed head. Cal saw a red stain upon the right side of the padding where blood had begun to soak through.
“Lark,” Cal said.
At the name, the woman raised her face to the light, her eyes as wide as a trapped beast.
“As chief protector of the five wards under the eye of Haggmass, I hereby formally charge you with the crime of self-harm leading to death,” Cal said.
“What is this place? Who am I?” Now that she no longer suffered from thirst, the accent came through heavy and strange. The old woman writhed against her chains, making them clatter against the stone. “Won’t someone tell me what the hell is going on? Look at me!” The old woman tried to indicate to her chest but the motions were abruptly halted as the chains snapped to full extension.
“What about you?”
One of Cal’s brows raised quizzically. “Yes…?
“This!” The old woman somehow seemed to actually be recoiling from her own body, writhing in a strange jerky motions, eyes downcast at the lumps where her sagging breasts rode like low dunes near upon her waist.
Cal exchanged a glance with Helquuod.
Helquuod shrugged. “Told you.”
The old woman suddenly rose her voice and shouted at them at the top of her aged lungs.
“Let me out of here you sons of bitches!”
Cal glanced back at the door, raising her eyebrows.
“No, I don’t think so. You’re not going anywhere.”
“Do you think it was the truth?”
Cal looked up and stopped stirring her mug. Withdrawing the spoon, she tapped it a few times against the rim then placed it perpendicular to the edge of her desk, and only then deigned to raise her eyes to the bulk of Helquuod’s figure outlined in the door of her office.
“What part?” she asked dryly. “About being from off the island? Or the convenient storm and shipwreck?”
“Just because it’s unlikely…”
“Nobody has come from outside the island since,” Cal waved her hand abstractly as she sought for the words, “since forever!”
Cal rubbed her jaw. “Well, yes. Since Haggmass. Over two hundred years.”
“It’s not to say it’s impossible.”
“It would account for a lot. That strange way of talking. Plus, nobody has seen that body before. How do you explain that? I think you should at least consider the possibility.”
Cal’s eyes narrowed. “I haven’t committed him yet, have I? Which means I am considering the possibility.”
Helquuod sensed the thawing atmosphere and stepped inside the office, closing the door behind him and moving around the chair and sat across from Cal.
“So what do we do about it?”
Helquuod was silent for a beat, his head giving a subtle bow.
“I’ll keep Lark awake. Should I tell him everything?”
“What do you mean?”
“About the island. If he really is from outside, then he has no idea about Haggmass. About any of this. No wonder he’s going out of his mind.”
Cal waved her arm dismissively. “Whatever. Just don’t let the creep go to sleep.”
Suddenly the door flew open and the young clerk burst into the room, breathless and gasping and flapping his hands.
Cal shook her head in bewilderment.
“What in the hell are you trying to say you idiot? Use your words!”
“The… prisoner. The old woman.”
Cal and Helquuod exchanged glances. Helquuod was already on his feet.
“Which prisoner? Lark?” asked Cal.
The clerk nodded.
“The cell is empty.”
“Son of a bitch!” Cal grabbed for her belt knife upon the desk and was strapping to it her waist as she pushed past the clerk into the corridor. She took long strides, vision narrowed into a tight window, focussed with bottled rage.
Cal breathed slowly through his nose as the man trod so close that for a moment he thought he had chosen his place of concealment poorly. Yet the figure passed by, and Cal’s shoulders relaxed and he let his blade fall back into its sheath at his belt. The moon shone overhead, only half full yet strong enough in the cloudless night to cast shadows upon the wooden decks, the wind now picking up from across the sea and causing a soft cacophony of creaks and clacks of the boats tied to the dock.
Cal moved out from behind the wooden barrels, bent at the waist, keeping a cautious distance from his quarry. It had taken nearly a week to track down leads, following a trail of clues that led him here, to this night, and this place. He knew Lark intended to flee the island, but his quarry was elusive, and he knew from experience that if Lark suspected anything he would flee, leaving Cal to try and track down the trail all over again.
He’d had some bad luck in his chase being laid up for two days, the first as a six month old infant incapable, despite his best efforts, of anything but a useless commando-style crawl across the floor. That was followed by something upon the far side of the spectrum, being confined to a bed with his bones aching with the profundity of age like smouldering cheese filling the marrow of his bones. He’d even had a moment to be concerned it might be the end of him. Fortunately, he had slept and drifted, and the body he was in at the present moment was well suited to the task; slender, athletic. From the deep-seated, healthy ache he guessed the exercise expert had been in this body only recently and given it a good work-over. That, plus some good diet from the last inhabitants, led to something as near as perfect as Cal could hope for.
Yes, it would be tonight. Tonight, he would get Lark once and for all.
He saw the figure move between shadows and dropped back just as he noticed the head swing about. Cal, too, froze. Lark stood like that for a long moment, head cocked listening and arms slightly out from his body, tensed. It reminded Cal of a deer, sniffing at the air, muscles in its flanks quivering. From his vantage, Cal now saw that Lark was a heavyset, slightly older man. He was reasonably sure he recognised the body and recalled how it had felt. Cal felt a growing sense of confidence – even if it came to all-out flight, he felt sure he could run him down. Given this motivational spur, Cal tempted fate and began to move again, knowing that there was no way Lark could escape now.
Cal was close now, only a score of strides away, surely unmissable in this moonlight. Lark, however, had seemed to relax, sensing nothing amiss in the faintly moving shadows and sighing creaks and occasional flutter of sleeping seagulls. He turned and was unwinding the rope affixing a small single-masted cutter to the docks. In quick motions he was done and jumped lithely onto the deck, the transfer of momentum shoving the boat sideways into the rocking waves and away from the dock.
Cal cursed under his breath, remembering that Lark was a sailor and no doubt adept upon the waters. He picked up his pace into a sprint and leapt across the widening gap, his knife out in his hand now. With a crash he landed atop the deck of the cutter, so swiftly that Lark saw only a dark shadow looming suddenly from the darkness, thumping across the boat and almost careered right over the deck and off the far side. There was a squeal of slipping feet and Cal’s body shot out horizontally and the knife flew out of his hand and arced into the air. The back of his head struck the deck with a resounded thwack and his ears filled with a heavy concussed roar, and a few seconds later his airborne knife plunged some distance away into the ocean with a plop of finality.
Cal felt as if he had been spinning about in a circle, his head bursting with sparks of pain. He heard footsteps approaching and he struggled to sit upright but the bright flashes grew stronger before his eyes and he felt his lunch returning as his stomach gave a violent spasm. Lark poked at Cal’s flank with the toe of his boot. Already the sail of the small boat was furled and the hull cut clean shushing lines of white froth as it moved from the harbour, shadows of the dock growing indistinct in the moonlight.
Cal felt himself being lifted from beneath the armpits and dragged a few steps. There was a pause, and Lark paced further away and then, seemingly reconsidering something, returned and crouched down.
“Can you swim?” Lark asked. “Hey, can you hear me? Can you swim?”
Cal blinked hard and tried to focus. His head was pounding, as if a great hammer were on the inside, caving holes in his skull. He tried to speak but his mouth only moved like a broken gate.
“Crap. Ok, then. Ok. You’re coming with me.”
Cal struggled, but could do nothing to resist as he felt his hands being drawn up behind him and tied to the coarse wooden railing. Through half-opened eyes he could only watch as Lark drew the sail tauter and sped the boat further from land.
Cal awoke to bright sunshine. He knew some considerable time had passed for he felt oddly disjointed and for a moment knew panic, the ground beneath him heaving. A fierce wind was whipping at his hair and he raised his head, finding he had slumped over the wheel of the ship. Behind him he heard whip crack and turning, saw the sail of the small boat moving backwards and forwards, unsecured and furiously belting in the wind.
Cal shook his head and worked his jaw, trying to clear his ears, for they felt full of wax and confusion. The deck pitched wildly and he grabbed at the wheel and it spun beneath his hand, causing the boat to slew to the right, the deck now at a precarious forty-five-degree angle to the waves.
“You want to get us both killed?” called a voice.
It took Cal a moment to figure out where it had come from, then he saw, beneath the small cabin, the body he had inhabited the previous night, tied tightly with coils of rope, bucking and working his arms in an attempt to free them.
“Straighten up, before she tips!”
Cal was back at the wheel and spun it with a heavy shove.
“No, the other way you idiot!”
Cal barked his knuckles on the spines of the wheel as he grabbed at it, then spun it the other way, and the craft straightened. Cal looked about, saw upon the horizon gathering storm clouds looking vast and powerful, his own place in the world suddenly very vulnerable.
“Lash down the mainsail,” shouted Lark against the roar of the wind.
“Where the hell are we?” said Cal, softly and half to himself.
“Do you hear me? Lash down the sail before it’s torn right off!”
“The what now?”
Lark squirmed and bucked.
“God damn it to hell, get me out of here!”
Cal took a few wobbly steps across the deck, grabbing at a fishman’s spike as he passed, holding it as weapon as he dropped to a crouch beside the bound man.
“Lark, you bastard, where have you taken us?”
“I’m not the one who tied you up. That was you.”
Lark gave a grunt.
“The irony is not lost.”
“You forgot that as soon as we both sleep, there’s conscious transfer? This far out to sea, nobody else around, no wonder it was a straight swap.”
“I didn’t intend to sleep!” snarled Lark. “Besides, it’s not a concept I can get my head around easily.”
“Your witch?” Lark spat. “Damned bitch can go to hell.”
Cal drew back, eyes narrowed. “Be careful what you say,” he said, making the sign of the woven-eyed basket. “We know from experience not to antagonise her.”
“Well, I think we’re far enough away and have problems enough of our own. Are you going to get me out of here, or are you going to let us both sink?”
Cal paused, a weighted the fisherman’s hook in his hand. “You know, I’m leaning towards the latter. You’ve pissed me off enough that I’m prepared to risk it on my own. We’re obviously close enough to the island for Haggmass’s spell to keep having an effect…” Cal attempted to stand, holding the handrail and craning his neck. He had to squint his eyes against the spray that was now beginning to pick up, the wind whipping across the tops of the waves and sheening the air with stinging briny projectiles.
“Oh, we’re far enough away from your witch,” said Lark. “Come on, untie me! You owe me.”
“Owe you? Now how in the hell do you figure that one?”
“The easiest thing would have been to kick you overboard.”
“That’d be typical. You’re a murderer.”
“The hell I am!”
Cal ran a hand across his face, wiping away the accumulated spray that beaded and sweated from his brows. He hawked and spat a lump of phlegm across the deck, the mucousy strands picked up by the wind and carried away horizontally like a tiny bolas.
“Intentional sabotage of a body causing death is a crime.”
“Tthis whole thing is madness!”
Cal stood now and put his back to Lark. The storm clouds were almost upon them now and the wind was pushing and tearing at his chest. If he relaxed for a moment it would have thrown him off-balance and surely into the broiling seas.
“By Haggmass, I’m starved,” said Cal. “When was the last time you fed this body?”
Lark glared. “I had other things to worry about.”
“Well, did you think to pack anything?”
“Like I said, I had other things to worry about. Some bastard jumped on my boat before I could load it up.”
“I was out of it.” Cal paused, wiped a hand across his brow and the salt that stung at his eyes. “You had all the time in the world.”
“I didn’t know how many of you… freaks were out there.”
“You’re all like some big incestuous family. Gives me the creeps!”
“Yeah, well, you don’t exactly fill me with bubbles of sunshine either.” Cal turned his back and, without looking, ran the curved blade of the knife under the loops of rope and gave the blade a quick sawing motion.
“God’s balls!” cried Lark.
Cal turned and saw Lark, his hands now freed and the rope caught in the wind, the ends severed and fluttering and whipping away overboard. Blood started to well from the deep scratch along Lark’s forearm.
“Why don’t you watch what you’re doing?” Lark snarled, holding the base of his forearm in a hard pinch to constrict the flow. “And great, we’ve lost our only rope!”
Cal shrugged. “Come on, I thought you said you were in a hurry to tie down something.”
“Yeah, with what, genius? That was the only rope.” Lark got to his feet, keeping in a low crouch, arms outspread for balance as he tottered across the heaving deck towards the mast and grasped hold of the spar. He began working in quick motions, drawing in the cloth and bundling it tight, fighting against the wind that tried to take it from his hands.
“Look, the bleeding has stopped already,” said Cal, indicating in the general offhand manner with his curved blade.
“Get over here and help me,” said Lark, in some distress as the boom swung against his bodyweight, forcing him to brace both feet against the deck.
Cal gave a sigh and crossed the deck in a motion not nearly as smooth as the one Lark had just demonstrated. The deck spun just as he was midway across and he ended up running near headlong into Lark’s arms.
“Bugger me dead!” cried Lark, narrowly avoiding the blade as it whistled past his ear as Cal fought for balance. “Put that thing down!”
Cal’s expression darkened as he drove the hook into the wood of the railing in a broad overhand arc, just as Lark was forced to put a hand back for balance. The pointed blade sank into the grain of the wood in the space between Lark’s thumb and forefinger. Lark simply looked dumbly at his hand for a moment, as if waiting for the sensation of pain to erupt, hardly believing his narrow escape. Then he saw Cal’s eyes.
“You bastard, you meant to do that!”
“Don’t forget who’s in charge. We turn back for the island.”
“In this? The storm takes us where it wants.”
“No. We go back, now.”
Lark threw out his hands in appeal. “We are going back.”
There was a pause, time made elastic and a moment barely long enough for the heart to constrict in one’s chest stretching, stretching as they both stared at each other. Finally time snapped back into reality and they both launched into a scramble to the back of the ship, grabbing for the wheel, fighting like two children over a toy as they tugged each to their own side. The boat hit the side of a wave and lurched sideways, the wind catching the still haemorrhaged sail, tilting up the crest of wave, and the deck dropped away at a precipitous pitch. Both of their feet flailed in a void as they held the ship’s wheel in a strange balance where if either were to slip, the wheel would spin with the weight of the other and surely cast them both into the sea. The strange tableau held as the boat tipped further and further, the boards of the hull tremulous as it seemed the boat itself fought the waves. Cal looked into Lark’s eyes as he hung there, holding the slippery tines of the wheel, seeing reflected in there his own fear.
Then the boat seemingly won its battle, forcing its girth back down and order was restored, the deck solid and water-washed beneath their feet. Neither man made a sound, for none was necessary. Instead, they both returned to the sail and without eye contact began to furl the sail as best as they were able.
“No, not the whole thing,” said Lark. “We need to keep some sail out.”
“Are you mad? In this wind?”
“Hey, are you the sailor or am I?”
“No need to get all prissy on me, princess.”
“Well, listen then. We need some sail to keep us moving and so the rudder will work. We won’t last a minute drifting about like a rubber duck.”
An exceptionally large gust of wind knocked them both from their balance. Cal blinked the salt water from his eyes and spat.
“Ok then, Captain. What exactly would you like to do?”
“Shut up and do what I say. Now, hold that line there, and don’t let go!”
Soon the boat no longer tilted as savagely. Lark returned to the helm and this time Cal did not stop him. Lark let the wheel spin beneath his hands before catching it again, turning the boat so she no longer reeled broadside, instead now plunging bow first into the waves that had grown so monstrous they loomed like mountains upon all sides. The clouds had taken on a luminous otherworldly hue, of oranges and deep violets, the whip-crack roar of lightning discharging unknowably vast power over their heads. At the crest of the wave the boat paused, then pitched downwards, rocketing and sending a plume of white froth in her wake. A sheet of heavy black water rose over the nose of the boat and peeled off either side. The planks underfoot made an almighty crack as they struck the surface of the water, Cal’s teeth rattling in his jaw like die in a cup. It sounded as if they had hit a wall of rock, but the hull of the little craft held together as once again their speed picked up with a belly-lightening acceleration.
“By Haggmass, you’re going to get us both killed!” cried Cal, bracing himself against a railing and feeling the knot of canvas in his fist beginning to slip.
Lark was forced to raise one hand from the wheel to shield his face from the driving spray so he could look Cal in the eye. “It’s your goddamn witch! This is not” – Lark was forced to focus his attention back to the wheel as the boat almost caught sideways. With a furious spin he caught the crest of a wave – “natural!”
“Already been in one shipwreck, about to make it two.”
Lark’s brows met in a middle of his forehead in a tight concentration of creases. “Would you shut up and let me concentrate you dumb mother-faaaaaarrrr-” his mouth still open, his word contorted as he suddenly vanished, the whole boat tipping and in the blinking of an eye everything was upside-down.
“Lark?” asked Cal.
The wash of cold was so sudden it seemed barely penetrate the very outer layers of Cal’s skin, so much so that at first he thought it was the tingling of nerves like when blood suddenly returns to a limb that has been slept upon. But then he felt water in his ears and pushing up into his nose and filling his sinuses and he was underwater and thrashing.
Still he didn’t feel cold, just the shock of the water. For a moment he thought he’d never find the surface. His head buzzed with the driving urge for breath and he spurted great bubbles of air as the water smacked the soft inner place deep in his throat, up inside his nose, a feeling he’d only ever had before when taken a mistimed swig of ale and had to come pouring back through his nostrils, only this time a hundred times worse for with every cough his lungs shrunk and there was nothing to drag in. He fought against the water that had become his entire world, craving for that lack, the absence of water that meant the air, anything to be free. His eyes open but he saw nothing but blurs, felt nothing but the water and the overwhelming knowledge that he could not swim.
And then his head fell from the world and for a moment everything seemed inverted; the vast bulk of the sea hanging somehow above, and he thought he’d fallen into some pocket, some void, but then everything spun and his eyes cleared and he was back in the storm, somehow clinging to a twisted plank that had once been a part of the boat and trying to breath and cough at the same time.
Now the cold hit him, sinking quickly into his core, making his body feel weighed, as if the pockets of his pants were laden with lead pellets, shoes heavy and flopping underwater. It was only his grip on the wood that kept him afloat, nose barely above the waves, water cupping into his ears. From this low everything was different, the world divided into two, the horizon lifted to his eyes; the storm above, and the water below.
His legs thrashing unseen beneath him, he felt the depth and the unknown, and an image flashed in his mind’s eye: of himself seen from far below, from the vantage of a circling shark, eying the helpless tender morsel of meat. Was it just his imagination, or was that a snout brushing past the billowing fabric of his pants. Despite himself, he worked his legs even harder, as if he could catch whatever circled there off-guard and knock it away.
Then he heard a shout, muffled in the wind and by the sloshing in his ears, but unmistakable.
“What the bloody hell are you doing?”
Cal paused, realising that he had been working himself into what could only be described as a frenzy. The waters around him, which he realised were white with foam and churning, calmed as he stopped.
“S… Sharks…” he said, not knowing why his teeth were chattering.
“Move over you idiot,” shouted Lark over the noise of the storm, and with a few powerful strokes was within reach of the plank.
“Get your own!” Cal started thrashing again. “This is mine!”
“It’s big enough for both of us.”
One of Cal’s feet found a target; the soft side of Lark’s flank. He fell away from the plank and his head disappeared beneath the inky blackness of the water, and for a brief instant Cal felt a stab of remorse, but it was short-lived, for Lark re-appeared a little further away, shaking his hair and coughing. Two more quick strokes and he was back at the plank.
“You’re weak,” Lark shouted. “I can see it. It wouldn’t take much for me to push you under. Now, are you going to share?”
“Are you still bleeding?”
“That cut, on your arm. Sharks, they’re attracted to blood.”
“Shut up and move over.”
Cal relinquished a corner and felt it sink alarmingly with the added weight.
“Hey! Watch it!”
“Stop thrashing your legs like that, you won’t last ten minutes.”
He hadn’t realised he was still kicking. With conscious effort, Cal slowed his legs. The wind pushed at them, but this low to the water it did little, and with most of their bodies beneath the waves it felt almost reassuring. Almost.
“There’s definitely sharks down there,” Cal muttered.
“Yeah, well there is or there isn’t. Not much we can do about that.” Lark paused as they were lifted to the crest of a tall wave, but in the darkness there was nothing to see but the flashes of lightning, and down the far side they went again with a vertiginous drop.
“Now what?” asked Cal.
“What? Shouldn’t we swim somewhere?”
In the darkness Lark did not answer, and Cal closed his eyes and tried to suppress the shivering that threatened to overtake his body.
They clung there for a long time, until at last, a star appeared, and then quite quickly after that, the whole sky cleared. The driving winds eased as they were quite suddenly ejected from the maw of the storm and discarded, forgotten. From one portion of the sky there came a faint light, the hint of dawn. The seas stretched away in all points of the compass, a vast, unmarked uniformity. The island was gone.
For a time, they bobbed up and down together in the overlapping waves, as if they were both dancing in time. Cal tried to break the synchronicity by sinking a little less of his weight upon the board, but it only served to fill his ears with sea water, and he quickly drew himself back. The silence had lasted untold hours between them, the only sounds the hollow clack-clack-clack of the wood as it tapped the surface of the water with each undulation.
“We’ve got to stay awake,” said Lark at last.
Cal’s mind snapped back to the present with a start, surprised to realise that his thoughts had wandered to the brink of heavy slumber, his hands about the board feeling far away.
“I was awake,” he growled.
“Fall asleep, and you’ll sink like a stone.”
“I was awake.” Cal blinked hard and raised his head, looking past Lark into the far distance. He swivelled his neck, scanning for any signs of the island, but it was a desultory search – he’d long since given up hope.
“I feel like I’m stuck in a dream,” said Lark. “A strange, strange dream. Nothing feels real. This isn’t me, this isn’t my body. I’m not here.”
Cal didn’t respond, but simply continued gazing out at the horizon as if something in the shifting mass of deep blue aroused some mild curiosity.
“I should have waited for my own body before I left, I guess. It feels wrong, to be in this one. As if I’ve stolen something that does not belong to me.”
Cal’s eyes snapped back to sharp focus. “You mean you don’t know?”
“Haggmass wept! You don’t know?”
“Well, how do I know when you won’t tell me what it is I don’t know?”
“The body you bought to the island, what do you think happened to it?”
That seemed to catch Lark in an unexpectedly soft place. “You mean, I’m dead?”
“Yeah, genius, you’re dead and I’m talking to myself.”
“No, I mean, my body… dead?”
“Don’t see how you can claim ownership of a body. But yeah, it’s dead.” Cal paused, and he seemed about to stop himself, but something in him made him speak, his voice very low. “And it the unlucky sod who happened along next with it.”
Cal felt something brush up against his leg. He was sure of it this time, this was no phantom of his imagination, yet he was so tired he didn’t care anymore.
“Yeah, well, sorry ain’t worth shit.”
“And that’s what you do? You’re some sort of law enforcer?”
Cal was slow to answer, his eyes back to the horizon.
“We keep records of who is in what. Everyone’s accountable.”
“You brand me a murderer, and that’s it? No trial, nothing?”
“Not much to discuss.”
“The whole godless mess is insane!”
Cal’s legs suddenly felt very heavy and it was taking more and more effort to keep his fingers wrapped about the board and he felt anger and frustration rise from his gut like a bad batch of beer. “What don’t you get about this, Lark? I’ve known our ways my entire life, I can’t imagine anything else. You want my opinion? I’m glad Haggmass cursed the island! Everyone gets a share in everything, the good and the bad. One body, luck of the draw and you’re in it for life? No way.”
“The whole concept is incredible, impossible even… Yet still, here we are.”
“Here we are. Floating in the middle of the ocean on a single plank of wood. Thanks to you.”
“Thanks to me…”
By degrees the sky had been growing brighter, so slowly that neither had actually noticed, but suddenly it was dawn. Cal stared at brightness until forced to look away.
“I’m a navigator,” said Lark after a time. “All my life at sea. Charting the oceans, months long voyages. And I’ve been thinking about it, and you know what your island reminds me of? Sidereal drift.”
There was a heavy silence and Cal made no reaction, his gaze upon the far distance and his mouth set in a hard line.
“Do you know what sidereal drift is?” asked Lark.
Cal’s gaze returned to Lark, hung there for a moment, and, as if he found nothing of interest there, returned his eyes to the horizon.
“Nope. But I’m sure you’re going to tell me.”
“Sidereal means with respect to the stars. And sidereal drift is the movement of the sun with respect to the stars. There is a dislocation – every day, the stars rise four minutes earlier, and over an entire year, the drift accumulates, passing through an entire rotation. And that’s your curse, a dislocation, a drift…”
Cal didn’t reply, and once again, they lapsed into silence.
The gentle rocking ground to a sudden halt.
The sun had flayed his skin and for Cal it was an effort to open his eyes. He felt something working at his arms and raised his head, protesting, realizing it was useless. His arms had seized into a curved form and it took some doing for those hands to prize away his grip upon the plank. He came away like a hermit crab from its shell.
Slowly his senses returned and he felt weight upon his feet and he realised it was land. It wasn’t moving, and he’d grown so used to the constant motion that the solidarity made him giddy. His eyes were still closed. He could open them if he wanted to, he thought, it’s just right now they felt quite heavy. Better to rest a moment.
He heard a voice, a light feminine voice lilted with accent, from somewhere close by his head.
“Where do you think they came from, they are as pale as river fish. Well, other than their faces.”
Another voice, a little further away, responded. “Look like cooked lobsters. Let’s get them inside.”
“What about this one?” came the first voice again.
“Looks like he’s dead. Leave him, we’ll come back in a minute, give me a hand here.”
He felt hands grasp him beneath the shoulders and he fancied he moved a little to accommodate better his rescuer’s grip.
So that’s it, Cal thought. Lark was gone. The realization brought with it a pang of unexpected sorrow, but he consoled himself with the thought that he had done his job.
Bafflingly, he heard Lark’s voice give a croaking thanks and just as his mind was working through the incongruity the hands beneath him dropped away and he found himself submerged. He flailed and flapped and choking was brought back out of the water, the voices exclaiming:
“Hey, this one wasn’t dead!”
Cal opened his eyes and squinting against the sun he saw a silhouette, a head framed by hair.
“Take it easy,” said Lark, laughing now as he approached.
“Just tell me… Where?”
Cal shook his head, trying to figure the name, but Lark spoke again before he could fully rally his thoughts, this time unable to keep the unrestrained joy from his voice.
“It’s not on the island. We made it! We’re free! It’s over!”
“Come on, relax! You’re in good hands here.”
Cal felt someone lift him into a sitting position. Twisting his head and blinking he saw it was a young girl, her skin tanned to a deep hearty bronze. She wore strangely designed and entirely foreign clothing, with deep sleeves and swirling patterns of red and gold, the gleaming dark tail of her bound hair hanging to her shoulders. Despite her slenderness she held him down with ease.
“Drink this,” the girl said.
Cal felt something being raised to face, and cool water stung against his cracked lips. Fresh water, washing away the salt. He sucked at the cup, head clear now, wanting only to fill his stomach with the cleanliness and purity of the fresh water.
“A little at a time,” the girl cautioned, removing the cup, but too late. The liquid caught in Cal’s throat and involuntarily his lungs compressed, releasing a spray into the air with his wracking cough. The girl, taken off-guard, wiped a hand across her face and turned aside, releasing her hold and standing as if she had been bitten. Lark took her place, dropping to a squat, his eyes level with Cal’s.
“I’ve got to be going now, friends and family to visit, they think I’m dead. Mind you,” he gave a laugh, patting at his belly, “I’m a different man now.”
“Come… back… you… bastard…”
“I’ll be seeing you. Take care now. No doubt the Royal Society will be calling on you too soon. Don’t go far!” He gave a laugh at his own joke, and then turned away muttering under his breath, “Fascinating, fascinating stuff!”
Cal tried to raise himself upon his elbows but fell back, and could do nothing but submit himself to the care of his wards. With eyes closed he felt himself being lifted onto a stretcher, hearing voices speaking in that same strange accent. Hands gripping the smooth wooden poles of his stretcher, the truth hit home. Lark was right: this was not the island.
Cal fought to stay awake, feeling himself being lifted into a wagon. He knew not how much time passed, but eventually his mind buckled and in that way of deep sleep passed right through the realm of dreams and into nothingness.
Cal awoke with a start, knowing a span of considerable hours had passed, raising upright in bed, heart racing, slender hand pressed to a fluttering heart. The fabric of the bedding was smooth under touch, obviously of a quality of workmanship far beyond what the island could produce. The room, too, was unfamiliar; the ceiling tall, the air still and holding a chill. A quick glance around the walls confirmed there was no statue of Haggmass, and Cal quickly made the sign of the woven-eyed basket to appease the witch for the lapse.
Naked, and crossing the room on unsteady feet, Cal threw apart thick heavy drapes of gold with a deeply satisfying swishing noise of wooden rings upon a metal rail, revealing a tall window that Cal thought for a moment to be empty of glass until, with palm outspread, met with the cool crystal: it had none of whorls and varying pitches of the stuff they used upon the island. Leaning closer, Cal saw the window opened upon a narrow alleyway where the slanting rays of the sun did not reach, the cobblestones smoothed and worn, deep in the heart of an old city, the stalls of shuttered shopfronts lining the walls. Cal worked at the catch and pushed open the window, letting a spill of chill air into the room and a wash of smells, the tang of some strange incense smoke and spices.
Cal felt a sudden pang of panic. Whatever this land was, it was not the island. And yet…
She looked down at herself, her skin bronzed, her limbs slender, dark hair hanging straight to her shoulders. It took a moment to realise as she turned her forearm over, examining it from all angles, and then her face broke out into a long, slow grin.