Chuck’s challenge this week is a continuation of last week’s project. Last week we wrote a 1000-word beginning to a story; this week, we continue somebody else’s story with another 1000 words.
I ran with a story begun by Nate F at Line Meets Sand. His work begins at the 1; mine takes over at the 2. His piece was untitled, and seeing as we’re not sure how it turns out yet, I’ll just title my piece: “Ashore.”
Finally some real rain—a decisive, if not delinquent, increase in ferocity compared to the drizzle that had hung suspended, noncommittal in the air for days. Water dripped from his longcoat as Josiah Leech lifted the last of the fancy trunks not yet aboard. His jaw tightened as he turned to make his way back to the Trinity. Whatever was locked in this particular trunk made it heavier than the others by far.
“That’s what April showers bring.
“And so do March showers. And May showers. And June showers.
“Mud. Mud. Fuckin’ mud,” he murmured as he trudged on, stubbornly wrenching his boots from the mire with each soggy step until, at last, he reached the docks.
Josiah’s stride narrowed to cross the thin, roughhewn board that connected the old galleon to the dock, but his pace never slowed. Just short of his destination, Josiah’s muddy right boot lost grip of the wood and he staggered forward, hands forsaking the trunk in order to grab the railing and prevent the Thames from claiming him. As he pulled himself back to his feet and onto the main deck, he watched the trunk hit slide to a stop next to the deckhouse. At least he had propelled it forward. Through rotten teeth, crows in the riggings laughed down at him.
“You’ll be payin’ recompense for damages caused by your imbecility,” said Bernard Ambrose. Without so much as a glance up from the manifest, the ship’s quartermaster addressed the nearest deck hand. “Master Clement, after securing the gangplank, do help Mr. Leach locate that trunk within Mr. Lambert’s stateroom. The grandiosity of it is clearly too much for but one man to bear.”
“Aye.” Francis Clement’s mouth spoke agreement as his eyes told Josiah something else. He too would rather be hoisting the normal cargo of woolen cloth instead of these thirty five haughty aristocrats and their weighty accoutrements. But in this rare moment of restraint, Francis held his tongue until they were below deck. “Gents will be the end of us. Had you slipped but one step further back, you’d been crushed between hull and wall. They know naught of what the sea brings yet they talk of hunting beasts and savages in uncharted lands. Worse, they’ve steered Captain Hore and Mr. Ambrose to folly. We’ve too many these trunks and too few stores.”
Josiah gave a single nod in agreement as he wondered from which gossiper the lad had stolen the words. They were too keen for Francis’ own mind, having been with him for only two voyages. “Aye, Francis. Let’s get this done and get to our stations.”
The pair carried the trunk through a narrow passageway formed by planks that had been hastily thrown up in the aft hold as a means to create apartments for their esteemed passengers. They rounded the last corner and dropped the trunk just inside the door of Mr. Lambert’s room. A heavy thud spread across the deck, shaking the makeshift walls.
“Reckon we should open it?” Francis asked. “Just to see.” Josiah paused, unsure if he saw inquisitiveness or fear lurking in Francis’ eyes. “Not to steal nothing. Christ, Josiah. I ain’t no thief.”
“That’ll be quite enough lads.” The steady voice came from somewhere inside the dark room. Francis was so overcome with fright that his clumsy escape made Josiah think of a rat thrown overboard, contorting its body frantically in search of land isn’t there. “You may be excused,” the voice continued. Josiah left with a nod, never having seen its owner.
Josiah approached the aft hatch and found clogged with sailors looking onto the main deck. “What delays?” he asked, pushing through. “I’m due at the wheel.”
“The passengers,” responded the originally named Mr. Cook. “They’re lined up at the rails like a boarding party of pirates. Yet instead of bearing muskets, they stand in the pouring rain, waving to all of London as if to the Queen herself.”
“Who do they suppose will dry their clothes and fancy hats?” asked Josiah, continuing to elbow through.
“We could hang ‘em from the foremast,” said the cook.
“The linens or the gentlemen?” Josiah asked as a matter of practicality.
During the voyage, the voyagers encountered storms typical of the North Atlantic and a few near collisions with icebergs hidden by fog. Nevertheless, most days were smooth and uneventful, even if the crew did keep below deck more so than usual. They weren’t so instructed. They preferred it to watching the highborns preen and puke.
Francis, or whoever he had parroted, was right about the stores; the crew had been on reduced rations for weeks when they finally spotted the New World. Strangely, the passengers didn’t seem nearly as distraught about this as the crew would have expected. Especially when repeated forays into the wilderness yielded nothing but hard roots and poultry herbs.
“Ho, landing party ahoy.” The announcement came from the crow’s nest. Josiah turned and gripped the railing with anticipation. The gentlemen cared little for the daily chores, yet they seemed to relish the opportunity to take landing parties ashore in pursuit of food.
“Mr. Lambert, what good news gives those with you cause to smile?” Captain Hore greeted the men with hope in his eyes.
Grins now absent, five of the six who left a day ago climbed back aboard as Mr. Lambert responded. “Not by Christ’s mercy, Captain. This is a terrible place. An awful creature came in the night and snatched young Mr. Clement. He wailed with terrible fright as it carried him into the wood.”
“Did you see the beast? Could it sustain us, just for a little while, if we return and overtake it?” asked Captain Hore in desperation.
“Nay, Captain. To be true, none saw this demon outright. The good Mr. Cook, for he was the one lying closest to poor Mr. Clement, did say that he felt a terrible shiver preceding the snatch. I fear that no good can come of another sortie. We must press on.”
Five days passed before Hore ordered another landfall. The rations were all but exhausted. The crew had grown gaunt and haunted-looking, and even the gentry aboard had tightened their belts. On the favorable side, the ship’s complement of rats had been dramatically reduced.
But when time came for a landing party to scout the shore, Lambert’s men refused. Like a plague, the legend of the monster on the shore had consumed the ship.
“The demon stalks us by night, and hides in the shadows by day,” said one.
“Eyes like moons in the wood, it has, and teeth like to pierce God’s own arse,” said another.
Cook, still shaken by the loss of Clement, bothered not with excuses. “I won’t go, and that’s that. I’d sooner walk the plank than go ashore with that hellspawn.”
In the darkest hour of the sixth night since the first landfall, Josiah wakened in a sweat.
As he shuffled onto the deck, bleary with exhaustion and hunger, he nearly bumped into a young woman, apparently out for a look at the stars. Somehow, she had not wasted away like the rest of the souls aboard; her cheeks were full and radiant, her eyes bright and deep. At first he thought she was a hallucination, lovely as she was, but the warmth of her was real enough.
His gaze drifted to other parts of her, which were similarly unblemished — Josiah had been many months at sea, after all — but meeting her eyes again, propriety seized him, and Josiah snatched his hat off his head. “Ma’am.”
“Mister Leech.” Her voice was full and warm, the purr of a pampered cat. “I need to go ashore.”
Josiah’s jaw worked without effect for a moment before his words found him. “Pardon me, miss, but nobody’s goin’ ashore until we send a landing party, and, well …”
“The monster, yes.”
Of course, she knew, but she said it with the off-handed impatience reserved for childish complaints. He felt silly, suddenly, and shuffled his feet on the water-swollen boards. “Right. And seein’ as nobody wants to volunteer, I reckon we’re all stuck aboard until –”
“Until the rats have been exhausted and we’re forced to eat each other? You know as well as I do, Mister Leech, that something must be done.”
The moon cast an unearthly pall across her bare shoulders. Josiah tugged his threadbare coat tighter, tried not to stare, but the cold of the night seemed to affect her as much as the starlight. But she was right — something had to be done. He nodded.
“I knew you’d see reason.”
“Beg pardon, miss –” he didn’t know her name, and he paused, but she did not offer it — “but even if I were to help you, the captain would never allow me to take one such as yourself off this ship.”
“Hore and his men,” she sneered with contempt, “are dead men walking.” She flicked her gaze up toward the crows’ nest; there, the watchman sagged in a heavy sleep. “We’ll not be spotted under the cover of the night.”
Sweat broke on Josiah’s lip and his scalp, cold and prickling. “Why me?”
She smiled, warm and terrible. “Because you know where my trunk is.”
And that’s when he knew. Hers was the voice in Lambert’s room.
The noise should have waked the dead. It would have, Josiah figured, but the sickness settled upon the Trinity had left them all somewhere between life and death, untroubled by bumps in the night.
He found the trunk in Lambert’s room, and under the watchful eyes of the lady, Josiah dragged it away. Lambert slumbered not a few meters away, but never batted an eye. The trunk was every bit as heavy as he remembered — more so, perhaps, or maybe that was just his own weakness — but the lady’s presence drove him like a lash.
Driven first by the fear of being caught, but more and more by the lady’s impatience, he hauled the trunk up from the cabins and onto the deck. It banged and scraped something terrible, but not a footstep nor a quickened snore rose in response.
With tremendous heaving and contortion, Josiah worked the bulky thing into a lifeboat. The ropes creaked their complaint, and he licked another sheen of sweat off his lips.
“Miss, pardon me for saying so, but I don’t know if –”
“It will hold,” she said, and that was an end of that. Josiah offered her a hand into the vessel — her touch sent a chill through him, but the night breeze more than explained that — then climbed in himself and began the laborious work of lowering the craft into the waves.
The Trinity shrank to a black speck amidst the riot of starlight behind them as Josiah rowed, the only sound the wet slap of the waves against the boat. Most highborns get green on a tiny craft like this, but the lady was unmoved. She stared past Josiah at the shore, one hand resting lightly on the trunk, the way a mother rests her hand on her sleeping child’s back.
The instant their tiny craft scraped the sand of the shore, a soul-rending shriek erupted from the treeline. A powder keg caught fire in Josiah’s chest. What had he done? Brought this lady and himself to their deaths upon this shore, and why? He didn’t even know why.
He stumbled out of the boat, into the freezing waves, and looked toward the land. It coalesced like a fog, a black shape blotting out the edges of the trees behind, great white orbs for eyes floating twenty — no, thirty — feet above the ground, a horrible maw of teeth and talons gleaming dully in the moonlight.
Josiah’s blood turned to ice, his thoughts and his sense deserted him. But out of the corner of his eye, he saw the lady, striding through the waves like an angel advancing against the devil himself, arms outstretched toward the creature.
“Josiah,” she cried, her voice like a crashing wave, “open the trunk.”