by Elle Cyre
An old story that I started years ago but never continued...
The storm continued its relentless assault. The timbers of the weakened vessel creak and moan under the strain. The rain-laden canvas struggles to free itself as the wind races across the deck. The bedraggled crew clings to anything to avoid being pitched into the raging sea. Endless sheets of moisture pound the floundering ship.
I stagger against the deck rail as another wave tosses us. I can’t hear the screaming voices of my shipmates as they repeat the captain’s orders.
The battered ship lurches to a halt. I grasp the slimy rail as the whole vessel keels to starboard. Water splashes my drenched form. I sputter as it reaches my mouth and press my eyes closed. The waves rock the ship again. It stands firm where it has run aground, resisting the incessant beating the storm wielded.
“Captain!” Stone yells beside me. “We’ve ground a firm!”
I twist my neck to behold the captain who yet stood solid at the wheel above me. His hat and trench-coat are gone but that fire has not departed his eyes.
“Hold tight till I give ye orders!” he bawls.
He has to fight the wind to reach the further side of his perch. I am no expert seaman by any account, but our ship is clearly finished; that much I know. I wrap my arms around tight to the green wood and peer ahead through the storm. What has run us aground? Are we to be stranded upon the rocks in the midst of the ocean as I had been before on the last vessel?
The rain and sky and ocean all blend together in a darkened blur of blue. Through the mist I can discern a darker outline of a shore. We have struck land! Our ship is beyond saving but we will not be stranded! A refuge is in sight even as we lay against the rocks.
I point with my thin, white arm. “Land!”
Stone leans forward over me to peer in that direction. I can hear the sharp intake of his breath.
“Land ahoy!” he bellows. “Captain! We’ve struck land!”
His voice brushes close to my ear. I clamp one eye shut as I crane my neck around. Stone’s rugged face is still on my shoulder, staring as if he cannot believe his eyes. Then he cups his hands around his mouth and pivots.
“Captain! Land ahoy!”
The pirate captain swings down the stairs, still struggling to keep upright with the ship’s unpredictable tossing. He grabs the cabin window to stay his balance while he leers his one eye to detect the earth which we had first seen. There it is still, growing ever darker amid the storm, a welcoming sight to any sea-weary man.
“Reel down the boats!” he cries, turning to the rest of the ship. “Land ahoy, boys! We’re going ashore!”
Stone jumps to his feet to obey the man and grabs my shoulder. “Come on, James, there’s no delaying that order! We’ve got to hurry or this ship will break apart and send us all into water at the mercy of the waves.”
I struggle to get to my feet, my whole body feeling numb with dampness and cold. I stagger after Stone, grasping for any rope or rail to steady myself and fight the wind across the deck. There is the rest of the crew, the few that remain after the deadly confrontation with the other pirates. I check a sob which would threaten my resilience when I think of all those men which are no longer with us, especially George! How am I to survive without my brother by my side?
The long boats are already on the deck, thrown down in the storm’s rage, and the crew labors to secure them against the side. There is no time to sort through any belongings or salvage supplies. They have to move quickly if they are to survive this unearthly storm. I feel Stone grab me by the shoulders and then I am lifted down over the railing into the first of the boats. Two of the crew are already there, Longley, the first mate and Smack, the cook.
I am happy to see them. Even though they are all pirates, I have grown to like many of them during my short time with them. George and I had lost our parents and on our voyage to the new world our ship had met with a terrible misfortune. Most of the men had perished in the initial attack the pirates had wrought and the rest had been captured. But those pirates were not those who I am with now. They had come days later after my brother and I had emerged from our hiding places to find the desolate wreck which remained. We surely would have starved to death had Black Leaf and his crew not investigated the marooned vessel. They are pirates like the others but they did not hold us captive; they allowed us to join their crew.
“Shove off!” Black Leaf yells now as the long boat is filled.
The rope is let go and Stone and Bentley pick up the oars to row away from the precarious situation our ship is in. They strain hard as they fight against the waves and it is not long before Longley and Skinny, one of the mast crew, take over. Even Black Leaf takes a turn with them but I am not expected to help, my frail frame too obvious to conceal. George was my younger brother by two years but they all assumed he was older than I, for he was three inches taller and much stronger. But I had said nothing and did not comment now, knowing well the extent of my abilities. I have been teased and bullied before about my lack of strength, for which George used to defend me, but I know now that my lack of participation with the oars will be the last things on their minds if we reach land.
The waves rock violently and the icy water splashes over the sides of the boat to further soak my drenched feet. There is nothing to bail with so I use my hands, trying to be useful in some way, but the wind blows in twice the amount I am able to throw. Suddenly a great wave takes us, surging over the top and it sends us into the ocean, casting us out of the boat like dice. I try to close my eyes and mouth as I go under but I still get water in my windpipe. I cannot swim very well and would perish in deep water, but I hit the bottom a second after impact. I fight to the surface, gasping and coughing for air, and then Stone is beside me.
“You all right, James?” he asks.
My throat burns with the salt water and my nose is filled but I nod, choking out the liquid. The rest of the crew survive with equal or less irritation, the sandy shore saving them from a long struggle with the angry sea. We all crawl to shore, as drenched as physically possible and collapse in the dark sand as dead men. I lay on my face, panting in my exhaustion, and think that I won’t ever rise again. Let me sleep here forever. But Stone picks me up again, for I yet lie in the reach of the waves, and he drags me further along to the higher shore. There he tosses me down like a child and I roll over on my back, running a hand through my soaking hair. I am surprised to find it so short.
I shiver as the wind continues to blow but the rain is warmer than it could have been. The tropical island which has shipwrecked us is a far better place to be than the cold rocks farther north, but the storm is not letting up.
“Captain, I believe this is a hurricane,” I hear the first mate say. “It won’t let up anytime soon; it will only grow worse. We have to find some shelter.”
I know he is right, as do the rest of the men, but I do not relish the idea of laboring to build any sort of structure. Even without the perpetual wind and rain, I do not have any energy left within me. I hope the others are more encouraged, but when I turn my head in the sand to look over at them, I see the same dejected weariness that consumes me. Everyone is beat; it will take more than a simple suggestion to propel them to further exertion.
Black Leaf knows that better than I. He struggles to his feet, his eye patch missing now after his plunge. He peers at his men with his whole one, his brow furrowed, matching the nasty scar across the other side of his face.
“Longley is right, men!” he cries above the rain. “We won’t last long like this without a semblance of shelter. Get up, all of you! We need to find somewhere to rest! We cannot recover lying so exposed on this beach. This surf will only grow closer and rougher the longer we delay! Get up!”
His words serve to rouse Stone from his place beside me but I see only Longley copy him. The rest of the men are like me; too exhausted to care anymore. But Black Leaf is not going to let them give up so easily. He draws his sword and staggers across the wet sand toward the cook, prodding him with it as a farmer would do to his cattle. Another harsh order serves to make Smack roll over and get on his knees and the captain moves on to the next man. I sit up, not wishing to be pricked thus, but Black Leaf does not treat me as roughly. He simply motions with the sword to encourage me to rise.
“On your feet, lad,” His voice does not have the sharpness with which he has addressed the others. Perhaps he feels some sympathy for me. He knows how close George and I had always been to each other. He knows I feels his absence deeply.
“Let me help you, James,” Stone says, beside me still.
He gives me his hand and pulls me to my feet, keeping his stronger arm beneath mine for support. I use it willingly, thankful for his kindness, and make my way up the beach with him. The edge of the sand ends abruptly with shallow brush and taller trees shading stubby undergrowth. My shoes are so drenched that my feet are numb and they catch on every tangled vine or bit of grass that seek to trip me. Stone steadies me, keeping me upright, and we make our way under the swaying branches. The wind is less here but I feel its strength just the same, for the swirling trees only seem that more dangerous. Will they fall upon us?
Black Leaf brushes past us, still wielding his sword in front of him, hacking away any branch that seeks to snag him. The six of us stumble after him, following his lead into the dense forest, searching for any place that looks promising. We do not go far before coming across a swampy pond with a thicket of brush surrounding it. It looks like the ocean to me, its surface as rough as that endless water as the rain pours down upon it. Black Leaf stops to gaze at it for a time and then turns to us.
“We shall not go much further from here,” he says. “Drink your fill first. Fresh water may be scarcer the farther we make our way inward.”
His men obey, anxious to quench their thirst after the long battle on the sea. They have no supplies except what has not washed away, so fresh water will be a priority moving on. However, I can’t look at that water. It certainly does not look very ‘fresh’ to me, for I have seen clearer ponds before, but the fact that I am soaked from head to toe with the driving rain seemed rather ironic. I can wring my shirt out if I am that thirsty. But Stone helps me through the clutching twigs to where I can drink so I cup my hands and scoop the dirty water to my mouth. It does not taste that wretched; indeed, after drinking the stored water aboard the ship for so long, it does almost taste fresh. My mouth is still salty after my submergence in it, so it feels good to wash it away.
Black Leaf continues on with our quest to find some shelter and I do feel somewhat refreshed by my drink. I do not lean on Stone any longer but he still walks behind me in case I falter. I wondered sometimes why he is so considerate of me. He is not as rough in appearance as the other pirates, his face much softer than the captain and first mate, and not nearly as seasoned. There are no battle scars yet visible on his body and still his tanned complexion suggests that he has been long upon the sea. I have not been able to know his story as of yet, for I am barely knowledgeable of Black Leaf’s past, but I gather that he is not the same as the other men here with me. He had been kind to George and I, watching out for our needs, nursing us back to health when we were first found. He has a gentle touch and I know his charity is not confined just to me either. He is considerate of his companion’s needs just as much as his own.
We reach a large wall of rock which rises before us, several feet high, which appears to be the same height the further it continues to the left and right. Black Leaf scratches his head once or twice, looking up at the strange phenomenon, and I study it as well. In the dark storm, not much can be seen, but it almost looks like a natural wall blocks our way forward. There are trees growing all around it, on our side of it and it appears on the other side as well, but no roots grow on the top. Black Leaf turns about.
“Which of you is the lightest?” he asks.
“James is, Captain, by far,” Stone replies. “You want us to lift him up there?”
“Yes, hoist him into a tree and see if there is a way around this.”
So Stone seizes me by the waist and Longley bends down so he can lift me onto his shoulders. Then he stands up, bearing my weight easily, and brings me beside one of the larger trees. I scramble off into and make my way up into the branches with the speed I once had as a child, and reach a height where I can see over the strange wall. The tree sways in the storm, but the rain has lessened, so I can hold my place firmly. It appears that the wall is a few feet thick, covered with moss and vines, and the ground on the other side is the same level.
“It’s a wall!” I call to the others, my voice sounding very shrill in the wind.
“Is there a way around it can you see?” Black Leaf asks.
I strain my neck to look further on either side of the strange wall but it seems endless. However, there is a darker outline to my right and it looks to be a mound of fallen branches which are stacked against the rock.
“There!” I cry, pointing.
The others turn in unison, trying to discern what it is I have spotted through the storm.
“What is it?” Stone yells up at me.
“I think we can climb it!” I scream back.
Black Leaf turns his one eye on me. “Come down, James,” he orders, beckoning Stone to help me get down. Then he waves to the men to follow him to the north along the rock wall.
“I’ll catch you, James; jump!” Stone tells me.
I feel rather vulnerable in the swaying tree as the wind pitches it about and I do not want to attempt swinging down at such a height. Stone motions his arms one more time, inviting me down, and I decide to trust that he will indeed catch me. I loosen my foot from the tight crotch it is stuck in and lean out to jump. But a violent gust of wind comes whipping through the tree tops and I lose my grip on the slippery branches, sending me prematurely from my perch. I give a little scream and stretch out desperately toward Stone and he steps underneath to break my fall. I land safely in his arms and he staggers back a step with the impact. Then he sets me firmly back on my feet with a little grin and invites me to go first after the others.
My eyes did not deceived me; it is a mass of branches that I saw lying up against the rock. Two trees have fallen over and their decaying trunks lay against the wall at a climbable angle. The extended branches that remain serve like a ladder to scale the strange barrier and it is a simple matter for the weary men to climb over. Skinny is already on top of the mossy wall by the time Stone and I reach them, examining the descent route on the other side. Apparently he thinks it will be suitable, for he waves us to follow. The first mate, Longley, scrambles up after him and then turns around to help the captain scale it as well.
I grab a hold on the greasy logs and climb after the men, Stone right behind. He pauses to give Smack a hand and I reach the top to discover Skinny and Longley already down on the other side. They help Black Leaf down and I jump after, the ground sending a slight pain up my shins when I land. Then the rest of the crew are beside me as before and we continue on, the first obstacle conquered.
It is clear to me, on the other side of the rock obstruction, that it is actually a man-made wall. I can see the seams in the large rocks where they are visible beneath the moss and the designs chiseled in the smoother surfaces. Glancing around at my other surroundings, I detect looming shadows of other structures erected on the weird grounds. I am not sure what to think of it but my companions are only interested in getting out of the storm. Black Leaf points out a destination—the nearest ruins—and the pirates trudge that way, bent against the rain.
The structure appears to be standing alone in the overgrown yard but as we draw closer, I see the dark wall continues onward behind it. Its four walls were once covered by a solid roof, it seems, but it has given way over time; all that remains is the crumbled rocks. However, the east-most corner is somewhat intact with part of the roof yet balancing above it. Black Leaf waves his men in and the pirates crawl inside the dark hole to huddle for warmth. I go to my hands and knees, the soft earth clinging to my palms, and seek a welcome relief from the raging storm.