This is the prologue and partial chapter one. My entry for Save The Prologue contest.
A young man's attempt to escape the shame of his family name and the boredom of his dreary island home will take him on a wild journey. In a world powered by steam and clockwork, Lochlann West will sail to the end of the world, where the discovery of a forgotten ship and a terrible crime will uncover a plot that threatens the stability of the entire world...
Please note that as an author from the UK the following words are correctly spelt...
Neighbour, Harbour, Colour etc... Thanks...
THE TRAMP STEAMER
By Neil D Campbell
A signal flare lit the sky like a comet, and for the briefest moment The Northern Star shone like its celestial namesake.
Anthony West looked up at the arcing flare and drew an etched-silver pistol from the inside pocket of his frock coat. Glancing towards the periphery of the dock, West could see two of his lackeys struggling with a heavily laden cart that would more usually be yoked to oxen.
“Hurry lads!” he shouted. The men quickened their pace. Bells rang out in the night. West followed the sound to its source and stared up at the High Hill. Torchlight flickered on the higher terraces. They were on to him.
He turned back to watch his subordinates’ progress. The men had nearly reached the steamer’s berth. West looked up at his ship. Although a few oil lamps shone in her hurricane eaves she appeared deserted and in repose. West brushed past his men to stand on the wide wooden jetty where his ship sat at dock. He whistled curtly, and within seconds the steamer had sprung to life.
The twin red funnels of the great ship began to huff; thread-like wisps changing swiftly into great plumes of dark smoke. The pair struggled to get the cart over a makeshift gangplank. The nearest of the two fumbled, and the cart lost its footing, causing a woollen blanket to fall into the cold dark water, followed instantly by an armful of precious pewter and silverware. Anthony cursed the fools under his breath and snatching his bull-whip from his belt, he lashed out an impossible distance. The man smothered a scream as the blow opened a gash a hand-span wide on his bare shoulder. Working with renewed urgency, they struggled to get their burden on board.
West turned back to regard the city; the torchlight had reached the lower terraces, where the fat merchants kept their pretty villas and prettier wives. He sheathed his pistol; his gun would do him little good against the pursuing mob. He took a second to light an amber cigarette with a broken match, the smoke stinging his eyes. The pain jogged a memory. What had his sister Felicity said? Eyes the colour of tin. He liked the image and smiled to himself stroking his beard with a calloused hand.
Close, so very, very close!
Samson West followed the sound of the bells to the Lost Rock. There, by the Alarm bell, he found his mother crouching in the mud. In twenty years he’d never seen her leave the house without powder and rouge, but here she was kneeling in the rain wearing only her nightgown. As he draped his coat over her damp shoulders, she looked back at him with eyes as bleak as a thousand winters.
“He’s taken everything,” she said “Everything!”
Samson nodded and helped her to her feet. A crowd had formed around his mother, and Samson knew that there would be less than a handful of them who would not know to whom she was referring. The Port Marshal had arrived embarrassingly late; it seemed the whole town had made it to The High Hill before him. He had arrived so late that he’d probably learned most of the story from others making their way back from the spectacle.
“He's making for the wash,” he said to the Wests.
“Of course he is!” Margret replied. “He's no idiot. He’s heading for the Empire or perhaps Mismeer. Not even Anthony would dare the breach!” Samson looked the Marshall over. Did he really think Anthony would flee to the Gates? Or to the Steppes? Character aside, Anthony was one of the most cunning captains on the isles, did the fool think he would seek shelter on one of the neighbouring communities?
“We can't catch that ship. I assume you know that?” his question was aimed like a pistol at Margret. “Was it not you yourself who built him the fastest boat in the isles?” Margret nodded, but Samson also knew the answer.
Samson’s eyes returned to his mother. She said nothing, but he guessed her boast sounded less appealing, handed back to her. Samson knew there was not a sloop, schooner or barque on the isle could match her grace and speed.
“They will catch them, they must,” she replied. ”What of the frigates and corvettes? I presume they are to be sent in pursuit?”
“They are being prepared as we speak,” the Marshal replied, ”although I should warn you, some of the council will object to their use.”
“A gaggle of geese, they object to everything,” she retorted.
The crowd parted and a well dressed young woman strolled towards them.
“Felicity,” Samson said, “it’s good to see you.”
“And you brother,” she answered,” so he finally did it. I’m sorry I didn’t listen.” Samson shrugged his shoulders and turned to face his mother again. Felicity also focussed on the older woman.
“We'll catch him, mother ..... I’ll bring him back! There’ll be some reason for this madness I am sure of it.”
“I'm sure you’re right my dear. This is all some misunderstanding,” she turned to regard Samson. “Just bring him home .... Please!” she whispered to the pair. Samson knew his mother better than to think she actually believed they would succeed. To him her colourless tone was a poor attempt to hide her profound disbelief in their abilities.
Margret turned away from the official, to look out over the bay, Samson followed her gaze down into the harbour, the time for talking was over and there was nothing more to be achieved here on the High Hill.
“I’ll catch the bastard,” He said, noting with quiet satisfaction the sting his particular turn of phrase had caused his mother. With that bitter victory Samson left his sister and mother and made his way through the crowd towards the path to the dock.
The Northern Star was ready for departure. Anthony West followed his associates, kicking away their temporary gangplank. As he paused for a second to look down into the dark water where his man had lost a portion of his haul, he cursed again. Quite how much he had lost to the fumbling idiot would annoy him greatly on the coming voyage, and West made a mental note to make sure the offender would starve over the coming weeks for his ineptitude.
He knew the second he hit the quarterdeck that the ship was free of its moorings, the sway of the sea was clear to the seasoned sailor. He let out another shrill whistle, and the ship began to creep out of the port.
Samson's crew were already aboard The Western Dream. He had long suspected some treachery from his braggart brother and had insisted the ship be ready to respond to whatever subterfuge the hoodlum was planning. As he ran down the High Hill path, fatigue forced him to stop and catch his breath by the cathedral gardens. The over-powering scent of lavender clogged his throat as he fought for air. Portly and unused to such vigorous exercise it took him a moment to find his second wind, but rage drove him on and he pulled himself to his feet and hurried off once more toward the docks.
The Western Dream, his own ship. She was moored out in the bay. As soon as he reached the harbour he quickly boarded her tender; The Last Resort was a clockwork launch, sleek and fast, just shy of thirty feet. Once aboard he wasted no time, and within seconds Samson had her tearing towards her mother ship at full click.
Within the hour The Western Dream was in full pursuit. Samson stood on the bridge surrounded by his officers. “How far ahead is she?” He asked the helmsman.
“She has an hour on us at best and we're approaching twenty knots,” he replied.
An hour? Samson thought, it may as well be a week! Even at twenty knots they would never catch the faster ship.
“Any sign of my sister?” he asked the navigator. The young man shrugged, took a brass eyeglass to the port window and stared out into the dark seas behind them.
“She's gaining on us sir. She must be running in the red,” he replied.
“So she has joined the chase,” he said, ”she must have taken the funicular to the bay she couldn’t have passed me on the path. If we are to catch The Northern Star We’ll have to run the red ourselves! I want engineers by the boilers. We'll catch the son of a bitch even it means tearing this ship to pieces.” His order acknowledged, he took his own telescope to the port window.
Felicity definitely appeared to be gaining, but was veering wildly off to port. On a hunch he turned to the navigator; “Plot the course of The Southern Swell would you please. I have a feeling my sister may be planning something reckless.” With that, Samson left the bridge and went below.
Half an hour later a tinny voice in the com-pipes summoned him back to the bridge.
"She's heading for The Breach, sir," the navigator said, eyes as wild as the murderous waters he had just been plotting.
“The stupid bitch! Where in hell did she find that crew? Change heading, we have to stop her,” Samson ordered. The navigator looked helplessly around him, searching for some-one to talk his captain out of their imminent suicide. But The Western Dream was Samson's ship and his crew was loyal. The young man fumbled and scattered his pencils all over the chart, but he swallowed hard and began plotting a new course that would take them out of the placid waters of the wash and into the chaos of the breach.
Samson patted an iron wall of his ship as if she were a favourite niece. She was an ocean going vessel, strong, safe and easily capable of the month long journey to the empire. But to Samson’s Knowledge no ship had ever successfully crossed the breach. So many expeditions had been lost to its murderous waters that sailing even as close as this was illegal and in theory punishable by prison, but it was not the law that he feared. What had his father told him on their first voyage together? Beware the breach lad, remember in the history of the isles not a single ship has been able to determine even how wide the breach is.
His ship had only just altered course, but Samson could already feel the fury of the legendary waters. He looked nervously out across the dark sea, but it was a futile exercise Samson knew there was no definite border between the serene canal that formed the wash and the perpetually raging rip tides of the breach, only a steadily worsening sea, where the cold waters from the ice flows of the north met the wind driven swells of the southern ocean. Beyond the Wash, the Breach ran like an impassable barrier, a thousand miles of wild white treacherous water.
Minutes after the ship changed course she was already struggling. The swell had risen rapidly and the steamer was now traversing waves of ten feet and more, she was coping proudly, but the same could not have been said for The Southern Swell.
“How far off is she?” Samson asked his pilot.
“Too far sir, she's foundering. See for yourself,” the helmsman passed Samson his eyeglass and motioned him to port. Samson scrutinised the sea intently. He managed to catch the ship in the tiny glass eye for a just a second, twenty leagues ahead; the vessel had water pouring over her decks as she attempted to mount a peak of thirty or forty feet.
“She's on her beam ends!” Samson roared as he caught sight of the little ship toppling over. In that moment he saw his world shatter. The ship keeled over on the lip of a great wave, and careered down a wall of water on her side. Her lights went out as if some great entity had pinched out her wick. From somewhere aboard an unseen figure managed to launch a flare. It ascended at a poor angle, barely reaching the height of the highest wave.
“Quickly," Samson screamed into the com-pipes, "I want every man with a good set of eyes on the port side. Launch the flares, damn it, we'll not let them all drown.”
Within seconds the entire crew were gathered on the port decks of the ship, frantically scanning the nightmare waters for signs of life, but even Samson knew they were searching in vain. There was nothing out there in the dark night but the cold killing sea.
“How many?” Samson asked in a voice he'd borrowed from someone else, somehow stronger and braver than his own.
“Full complement sir, fifty - maybe more,” the helmsman answered unable to steal his eyes from the wheel.
The Western Dream clung to the sea for all she was worth, lurching and rolling in the violent ocean.
The minutes that followed were cruelly slow for Samson. There was nothing out there in the blackness but death. The ship pitched and rolled at awkward angles, but the choppy sea was taking its toll. In the gale force winds the first mate’s voice was barely audible.
“We must turn back sir, we're taking on water. The bilge pumps are having no effect. Please, sir, think of the men.” He roared. Samson couldn’t look at him he could only nod as he dismissed his crew-mate with a wave.
The pilot swung the great wheel back to starboard. Slowly The Western Dream returned to the wash. Samson looked out into the now placid water. The cloudy night had turned the sea the colour of midnight. He looked to the north and saw The Northern Star - not his quarry, but its bright namesake – which even now shone like a beacon through the foggy sky.
Samson and his crew returned to Havant that night shame and grief their only cargoes. As they inched their way back to the island, Samson discovered that half the able ships on Havant had joined the chase, but one by one they too had abandoned the race. The Western Dream had become the flagship of a failed fleet, limping sadly back the way she had come. Nearly fifty cogs and sloops crawled behind her, each one beaten, flying their colours at half-mast.
Twenty Years Later...
Lochlann heard the crowd before he saw it. Miranda had come to meet him and she raced down the grassy hill arms open and sporting a wide smile.
“You’ve drawn quite an audience.” She said as she hugged him. He returned the embrace with limp arms and Miranda seemed to sense some of his stress. “Are you sure you want to do this?” She asked with what sounded like sincere concern. Lochlann nodded.
“I always promised myself I’d leave when I reached twenty five,” he said. “If I can’t keep a promise to myself, I can’t keep promises at all.” He looked the navigator over. He had to tear his vision away from her sea-green eyes, so alluring was her gaze. Her skin appeared as white as ocean ice and her hair as black as a raven basking in moonless midnight. Every time he saw Miranda he had to pinch himself.
“Are you sure you want to come?” he asked her. ”They’re short of Star gazers in the Isles.” She laughed at his suggestion.
“Lochlann, you’d never got out of the bay without me.” He sniggered at her joke and she threaded an arm through his and prompted him towards the sound of the crowd.
“Come on my lad,” she said, ”we mustn’t keep the future waiting.”
A crowd stood politely in a great curve in front of the Rostrum. They parted as Lochlann made his way to the scant scaffold stage. Without hesitation, and with the calmest voice he could muster, he stepped onto the natural platform and began his speech.
"I, Lochlann West, am departing Havant for the Eastern Ocean. I am seeking crew for The Western Dream,” he said.
He looked out at the faces in the crowd. He hadn’t expected much support, but he wasn’t ready for the dismissive noises and shaking heads.
“She’s the soundest ship on the isles,” he asserted. But the majority of the onlookers were apparently losing interest and a good few stragglers on the edge started to wander off; as if they had heard this speech, or others very similar, too often in recent years.
Lochlann struggled to keep his composure despite the exodus, and focussed instead on an old grey beard regarding him keenly from off to one side of the dispersing throng. He felt sure he recognised the older sailor, but his name escaped him.
The crowd had diminished to hecklers, gossips and a handful of young peacocks.
"Insane! You're a mentalist, Lochlann," a young man jeered, drawing a few laughs from his comrades.
"You couldn't sail that boat of yours through the school pond," yelled another.
More insults followed. They were openly mocking him now, but despite their rebuffs Lochlann suspected that they secretly all wanted him to continue. He tried and succeeded in ignoring the abuse. Damn them, didn’t they know how hard this was already? A posse of old salts caught his eye, they had been watching his proposal intently from the start. Lochlann had hoped to find some support amongst them, but as his attention reached them, he realised he’d expected too much. He tried to pretend he couldn’t hear them, but Old Getty’s voice pierced the atmosphere like a sabre.
“Three this year, so far,” he announced to his fossilised cronies. “Madness is in fashion this spring I see.”
A thought surfaced and Lochlann spun back to face the old grey beard still standing off the left. Lochlann remembered him at last, Master Grey, Sarah’s father. Lochlann tried to will the sailor his condolences, wondering if the poor man thought him a monster for making such a motion so soon after his daughter’s ill fated voyage and tragic death. A feeling of shame took him, forcing him out of Grey’s line of sight.
Lochlann guessed his motion was near to collapse. He tried to empty of mind of doubt and focus on what had driven him to make his speech. He thought about his uncle Samson and the grand old steamer he had left to him. The Western Dream The soundest boat on the isles, his uncle had boasted.
He wondered what Samson would have thought of him now. Standing before half the town and announcing his suicide. He’d have probably been the first to sign up, if it wasn’t for his fear of the sea. A wave of sadness came over Lochlann. It had been Samson’s phobia of the ocean that had led him to a slow and bitter end at the bottom of a rum bottle.
Lochlann loved the ship almost as much as he had loved his uncle. She was a fine legacy but, like the other steamers the isle still claimed as her own, her heyday had passed. Costly on fuel, and too slow to chase the fish that formed the basis of the island’s economy, Lochlann knew that without him she’d had been retired years before. He thought about the other few iron puffers the isle still claimed, most served as restaurants, others as homes and the fine Eclipse had become a warehouse. Lochlann's steamer was among the largest on the island and, although he knew his uncle’s boast about her stability was justified, she drank almost as much as his uncle had. It seemed to Lochlann that only Old Getty's rust barge could claim to be less graceful in the water, and she at least had a purpose.
"Lad, I've no wish to see your name on the Lost Rock," Master Chambers called out. "I know you've got a heart for an adventure, but why don’t you sail the old gal to Catsport in the west? She'll likely fetch a good price on the markets and you can begin your adventures there," Chambers scratched his chin as he looked kindly up at Lochlann, but Lochlann refused to even acknowledge his question.
He had a point though. Lochlann knew his old steamer would be a highly fashionable commodity in the western imperial port. The island’s steamers had been a fad, visions of the future crafted by scientists and mad men. Only in the vast empire were steam ships still in mode. Simply too grand and too complicated for the simple and practical folk of the fair isles, the iron giants numbers dwindled every year.
Lochlann knew that here in the isles the fashion had changed; tall sleek ships fuelled by the wind were prized now. He’d seen some endowed with gas engines and some with great ornate clockwork motors, but the breeze still drove the majority. Only in the imperial ports, where travelers from all over the western continent fought to gain passage on the great steam ships, were the iron giants still valued. Lochlann tried to imagine the famed docks of Catsport, where thousands of passengers bustled round the kiosks and the steamer berths seeking escape to the west to the rogue ports, north to the holylands and South to the sandy hills of Mismeer and beyond.
Whilst it was indeed true that Lochlann could carve himself a career as a captain there, he had already dismissed the idea – partly for the love of his uncle and the old man's dreams, and partly for hatred of his father, who had taken the easy route north and west with his sister ship and the family's entire fortune. Lochlann thought of his mother, he had never known the woman, but his uncle had often told him of her beauty and fine soul. I wish you were here, I know you’d understand.
Lochlann had decided on the journey east for all of his reasons, but mostly because he loathed Havant, and he would happily sail to the end of the world if he could escape it.
"You can have me rust run, lad, when I'm gone," Old Getty shouted from the crowd. "Taking ma boat with me, you know. I'll no last forever."
Lochlann doubted this. Old Getty had been old before he was born and he was sure the ancient sailor would linger longer than the island itself. It was a kind offer, and heartfelt. Lochlann sighed, he would rather join his uncle than take up the repetitive rust run towing out the old hulks to drown when they were no longer able to float unaided. The trip to the Iron Isle where the old metal ships had all began and would eventually return was, Lochlann decided, possibly the dullest voyage one was able to make from the Island. The thought of repeating the process day in and day out made him sicker than the thought of a month of low-water.
"I leave in a week," Lochlann declared. "I've space for crew. Any salvage and commodities we find on the way, I’ll gladly share." He straightened his back and tried to appear as calm as he could, although he was heartsick as the meagre crowd thinned even more.
His oldest friend, Miranda, joined him on the stage. Her natural beauty was so striking that Lochlann wondered if more than one of the assembled dandies might now contemplate signing up just to be near her. He hoped not, he did not welcome the thought of their closeness being threatened by some cheap cavalier in fancy clothes. By her side, as always, was her brother Caspian.
He was a giant amongst the local population and Lochlann had often wondered whether he stood more towards seven feet than six. His wiry mop of auburn hair was disheveled as usual, but his sister had at least seen fit to keep it in the latest Brutus style. Lochlann knew that between the three of them they could pretty much sail the ship, although they would have no time for rest, and exhaustion would certainly take them before the first storm set in. Lochlann scanned the faces in crowd desperately searching for a hint of enthusiasm.Damn it I’ll sail with five if I have to.
Suddenly, the lone figure who had been eying Lochlann so intently from his stance a little apart from the rest of the onlookers spoke up.
"I'll sail with you, lad," Master Grey announced. "Your uncle was a friend a good one. With Sarah gone I've nought left here but sorrow." Lochlann’s head raised a touch. Grey was an imposing figure, one of the most renowned sailors in the Isles. Lochlann studied the man, his beard was full, but neatly clipped, and his hair was cut shorter than the prevailing fashion. He was dressed in the style of the Island’s gentry, with a long woollen over-coat and brocade cravat.
Knowing Gray was a prime asset for his crew, Lochlann crossed his fingers and held his breath while this news percolated through the suddenly animated crowd. It seemed to him that Gray's brave offer had put others to shame.
Lochlann’s attention was grabbed by a border debate in one of the dandy gangs. Assuming another round of abuse, he took a deep breath and stared hard at the group.
“We’ll come with you.” One of them shouted, pushing another of his comrades in front of him. They looked to Lochlann like players in some cheap romantic production, he was ready to dismiss them, but Miranda whispered in his ear.
“Stephens and McKay,” she said, “a decent pair, so long as don’t find a brothel in the maelstrom.” Lochlann suppressed a giggle and nodded a welcome to the pair.
From nowhere the tension was broken by song. Lochlann spun to face the source of the music. The sound came from one of Getty’s cronies and in a heartbeat they were all at it. Lochlann knew the shanty, it was an ode to the isle. Lochlann knew exactly why they were singing and his first smile, since he’d taken to the stand, escaped across his face. One of the old sailors was coming with him. Lochlann said nothing as the crowd completed their song. He knew the words and hummed along to himself as they crooned.
“The best way to leave you is drunk my dear... I’ll be home soon never fear my dear... I’ll take you with me and keep you near... Next time we meet I’ll be sober I swear...” the sailors let out a cheer as they finished and Lochlann watched as they crowded round one of their number and patted him on the back. After a few minutes the man fought his way through the gauntlet of farewells to stand before the platform.
“Albert Grimm,” he yelled, “at yer service.” Lochlann ran his eyes over the drunken sailor. He looked like an albino mutt. Wild white hair covered his face like an infection and the few patches of skin left visible ached of sunburn.
“Well met Albert,” he replied, surveying the crowd again, this time with eager eyes. He caught sight of a female figure dressed head to toenail in green silk, his image blurred as he tired to drag the lady into focus. As his focus returned he felt obliged to pinch himself. Standing in the middle of the crowd was a shimmerall.
“Going east?,” she asked in a voice that seemed to Lochlann to come from all around him. Lochlann couldn’t help but stare at the strange creature. He had never seen a shimmerall before, he doubted there were many on the island who had. Miranda nudged him from behind, obviously excited by the sight of the strange mermaid. She wore a sheer silken robe which hid her modesty, but only just. Lochlann found it impossible to gauge her age, she could have been twenty and she could have been fifty, but her lack of wrinkles was not the most dramatic thing about her complection, her skin was the colour of wet grass. He looked her over, trying his best not to linger on her slender finned legs. He could see the beginnings of her dorsal at the nape of her neck. She sensed to sense his curiosity and raised a webbed hand to cover it.
“Welcome to the crew,” he said smiling. Lochlann motioned to her and the others to join him on the platform, A few moments of wrangling followed, but soon they had all arrived on the scaffold and Lochlann turned to assess his new shipmates.
“We leave in a week,” he said to them in unison, “if you’d be so kind to sign up with Miranda.” The navigator motioned them to a table at the rear of the stage where she had laid out the ship’s ledger. The crowd had mostly departed, but the stragglers chose this opportunity to take their leave, some saluting the young man as they left. Lochlann waved the last of them off and turned to watch the proceedings. Miranda had collected most of their details and only the shimmerall had yet to sign the old leather book. Lochlann was pleased he had expected he might pick up a couple of wanderers, but four fine sailors and a shimmerall exceeded his mildest dreams.