Alternate title: Dude, Where’s My Boat?
It’s taken a bit longer than I had expected, but I finally have another installment for you. This goes along with two other pieces in the same setting. I won’t claim that this is the final version of this story, but I do think it’s ready for your eyes. It might even, according to some of my proofreaders, be fun. Enjoy!
Jerome lay on the sandy hill, exhausted. He had pulled himself up to the line of trees, above the high tide mark, and fallen to his knees before slumping over onto his back. The sun was slowly lighting the sky from beyond the horizon, turning the east pinkish gray in anticipation. Lifting his head, Jerome could see the ship breaking apart on the reef. Much of it was still afloat, but it was all wrong. The wood was holding together, but it had been so battered by the waves and rocks that the only piece he could recognize was the bowsprit. That jutted into the sky, waving back and forth like a flagstaff whipped by wind as the swell dropped it time and again in the shallow water. It had separated a while earlier, breaking off the forward hull with a sickening crack that he had heard across the water. Soon enough there would be nothing but fragments and scattered driftwood, carried off by the rolling waves. Jerome found the fate of the ship a fitting metaphor for all civilized accomplishments. Who could claim that they had made something which would last more than a few heavy storms without being constantly repaired and rebuilt? Everything slowly fell apart, even as people tried to hold it together.
His head dropped back onto the sand. This was probably just his fatigue talking. He knew that he wasn’t usually this unhappy. He watched as the darkness of the night sky fled across the heavens towards the western horizon. Then again, he reflected, he usually hadn’t just been shipwrecked and marooned, likely to die far from home on an island in the New Sea. It was enough to make him want to cry, but he was just too tired.
Jerome woke to a pulsing heat pressing down on his entire body. His eyes struggled to open against the gummy residue which had sealed them shut, and as they did Jerome knew that he was in for a great deal of pain. Even just moving his eyelids left his face feeling as though it were on fire. He had slept through the early morning and into midday, and every part of him the sun had touched now sang like flame, his smallest movements feeling like he was being kissed by embers. His eyes watered from the bright light and tears began to crawl across his cheeks. Jerome grimaced and rolled over, pulling his broiled body deeper into the shade of the trees.
His mouth felt terrible, as though he had left wadded up cotton in it until it was as dry as a stone. Like the time when his mother had found him chewing on cotton as a child, and had him keep it in his mouth as punishment. He’d never liked the stuff after that. Sitting up and settling his back against a tree trunk, Jerome squinted against the bright light of day and looked out over the beach before him. He knew he would need water, and soon, but all that he saw was the endless sea.
The day was hot, but there was enough of a sea breeze to keep him cool if he stayed inside the tree line. Picking his course on a whim, he wandered west, looking for a spring or stream that he might drink from. Sea salt had dried and crusted on his skin, and as he walked it prickled on his painful sunburns. He could already tell that the island was larger than he had realized when he first saw it in the dark. As he walked, he carefully rubbed down his hatchet with his blanket, hoping that the wool would still have enough oil to protect the metal after its dunking in the sea. There were a few spots that looked like they were already beginning to rust. He purposefully pushed down thoughts of being lost with no tools, watching his hatchet rust into a fragile shapeless mallet. He had enough problems; he didn’t need to borrow future worries as well. He’d just have to take care of it as best he could.
The spot where he’d woken had been covered with flotsam from the wreck, and more of it seemed to be scattered along the coast. There were also a few bodies, already being picked apart by crabs and opportunistic seabirds. But as he came over a slight rise, a dune that had been colonized by a few more adventurous palms, he saw one that was as yet untouched. She was lying facedown, but he thought he recognized the blouse she wore. Anxious with hope and anticipation of disappointment, Jerome trotted downhill from the shade of the palms to squat down by her side.
He poked her shoulder, tapping where the skin was thin over the bone. “Hello?” He could already feel his skin protesting the sun’s malignant attention. Her dark skin was warm to the touch, but that might just be because of the sunlight. He tapped again, harder, and spoke a little louder, “Can you hear me? Are you alive?” Please, oh please, he thought to himself, just let there be another person alive after this catastrophe. “Helena, right? Helena?”
He thought he heard a response, but the sound of the waves shushing and slowly creeping up the sand before drifting back once more left him unsure. He reached forward from his squat with his left hand and placed his fingers against the woman’s throat, feeling for a pulse. He fumbled about, unsure. He distractedly checked his own throat with his other hand to make sure he had the right spot, and then he felt an iron grip around his left wrist. He looked down in surprise just in time to see the woman roll over away from him, her hand firmly wrapped around his wrist, pulling him across her and completely off balance. Suddenly she was on her back, he was sailing over her, and her right fist flashed up into his stomach. He crumpled over her, feeling sick, and felt the hand gripping his wrist relax, only to feel it settle again on his throat.
“Hey,” Jerome croaked, “stop!” The fingers on his windpipe tightened. His face was in the sand forehead first and he was blind, his eyes shut to keep the grit out. His throat felt as though it were seized in a vice. For what felt like long seconds, bringing back unwelcome memories of his first trial-by-combat, he quietly choked through the grip on his windpipe. He desperately tried to guess how long he had before he absolutely had to fight back in order to breathe, but nothing made sense. One moment he’d been trying to wake a woman lying in the sand, the next he’d been sailing through the air, pummeled in the stomach, and held in a chokehold. At least she hadn’t broken any of his bones yet. The tension on his throat slowly relaxed, and he felt the woman under him shift slightly.
“Oh,” her voice was husky, dried from hours without water or use just like his, and more than a little hoarse. “Jerome?” She shifted slightly again, worming her way out from under him. He rolled over to his right before shuffling his way off of her legs.
“Yeah, just me.” He gingerly wiped sand off his face with his right hand, doing his best not to make it hurt any more than it had to on his burns. His voice still sounded alien to him. “You’re alive.” He stated the obvious with a mixture of surprise and satisfaction, eyes shut as he finished picking off the last grains from where they had stuck in his eyebrows. “Can we, um, talk in the shade?”
There was silence for a moment. Then, “Yes, yes of course.” He’d been right, it was Helena, he could tell from her voice. She’d been one of the crew he’d actually spent some time with. She’d taught him a few dice games and a few knots, and then laughed at him when he’d tried to show off his fencing form. He was still embarrassed. Holding a proper guard position on a ship’s rolling deck was something that his tutors had never prepared him for, and probably not something they’d even thought about. He felt a twinge of regret. His rapier, along with all of his other things, was almost certainly lost now. His uncle had gotten it for him, good Ongolan steel, and brought it back with him from his last trip to the sub-continent. Now he had a hatchet that he had pulled from a dead crewmate. He didn’t want to think too hard about it, since he was sure that he could figure out who it was whose corpse he’d pulled up if he spent enough time on it.
They quietly made their way up to the tree line, idly brushing more sand from themselves as they went. Jerome was jealous of Helena’s darker skin: she clearly hadn’t burned as he had. It reminded him of how the Northmen had laughed at him for covering up on bright summer days, when he visited to spot good sheep while they were still out in pasture. Nearing the copse of palms, Helena looked back at him. “Have you found anyone else?”
Jerome smiled weakly. “Not that looked like they were alive.” He shook his head. “I didn’t bother to check to see who they were, the crabs were already on them.” Helena nodded, a sour twist to her mouth. She looked beyond tired, drop-dead exhausted.
They sat down in the shade, Helena leaning back against one of the trees. “I’m sorry for, um,” she looked awkwardly at Jerome. Bruises were slowly rising around his throat, her fingers clearly marked around his windpipe. Jerome shook his head, waving his hand back and forth to brush off the apology.
“It’s ok, really.” He gave her a sickly grin. “I’ve had worse from a Northman.”
Helena laughed, taking it as a joke. “Right, of course.” Jerome didn’t bother to correct her.
“So,” Jerome paused, unsure of how to ask his question, “do you think anyone else actually, you know,” he cleared his throat, “made it?” Helena’s silence unnerved him, and he rushed to fill the gap. “I mean, I saw other people alive on the spars, they could have made it just as easily as I did, right?”
Helena gave a wry smile. “Some of them certainly did.” She gestured at herself with her thumb. “But who knows how many of them came ashore anywhere near here?” She shrugged, “With those currents, the wreck has probably been spread all along this stretch of coast. There’s no saying that anyone came ashore anywhere nearby.”
Marcellus had made it. After setting up a makeshift camp with Helena, Jerome had continued searching for survivors and found him up in a tree, with what looked like a sharp rock held tightly in one hand. Jerome had marveled at the sight of the grumpy and worn down looking man hacking away energetically with the rock at the stem of a massive and fibrous-shelled nut. Jerome had seen them elsewhere, but hadn’t been sure of what to make of them.
Jerome announced his presence by clearing his throat loudly. “Hello up there Marcellus,” he called, standing a good distance away from the base of the tree in case Marcellus was startled and decided to react violently. Waking up Helena had taught him a lesson in that respect, and he was finally coming to appreciate what his fencing instructor had been trying to tell him about distance being the best defense. Marcellus turned his head and grimaced down at Jerome. It was close enough to a smile for the man that Jerome felt happy to see it.
“You made it.” Marcellus paused. From Jerome’s experience, normally Marcellus would have spit at this point in the conversation. Some combination of his pipe smoking and a general dislike for others made him as prone to expectorating as Jerome’s uncle Perkins claimed camels were. But though Marcellus worked his mouth around a little, looking like he was trying to gather up a gob, nothing came out. There was silence for a little longer, and Jerome reached up to shade his eyes as he watched the older man up in the tree. Finally, the older man continued, “Can’t say I was expecting that.”
Jerome smiled up at him. He had been so unhappy dealing with Marcellus aboard ship, but having most of the crew killed put a new light on things. It was good to see a familiar face, whether or not it was friendly. “You know, I didn’t really expect it either.” He came a little closer. “What are you trying to get at up there?”
Marcellus looked down at him and sighed. “These things are delicious,” he gestured at the fibrous nuts, “and they’ve got water in them. But they’re hard to cut down or open with naught but a sharp stone.” He held up the stone that he’d been using, his legs still wrapped around the trunk and his other hand firmly gripping the fronds above him.
“Would a hatchet help?” Jerome pulled the hatchet from where it rested in the back of his belt.
Marcellus eyed it with obvious envy. He dropped the stone to the sand below and scooted down the trunk. “Aye! Pass it here.” He put out his hand. Jerome passed it over and watched in amazement as the older man went back up the trunk far faster than he would have thought possible.
“So,” Jerome wondered whether this might be the time that he had his first real conversation with Marcellus, “have you had to do this sort of thing before?”
“Shut up, I’m working.” Marcellus put paid to any hope of having a long chat then and there. He skillfully chopped into the stem, dropping one, then two more nuts with economical whacks. He slowly skidded back down the tree and knelt by the nuts where they’d fallen. Two quick blows and a chunk flew off the top. Another two quick blows and a chunk came off the top of the second one. He left the third as it was and wiped off the hatchet on his breeches before handing it back to Jerome. He offered Jerome one of the opened nuts.
“Thank you,” Jerome was somewhat in awe of the man’s obvious skill. “Where’d you learn to do that?”
Marcellus ignored him, tipping back his nut and sipping from whatever was inside. “Ah, that’s good. Shut up and drink, then we can talk.” He plopped himself down against the base of the palm, feet splayed out in front of him with what Jerome guessed was a contented expression on his face. On someone else it might have been a faint scowl, or perhaps a look of concentration.
Jerome joined him, taking a spot on the palm’s trunk a little to the man’s right. He lifted and sipped from the nut, not sure what he ought to expect. It was amazing! He’d had some to drink from a small stream not that long ago, but this was delicious. The flavor was nearly unlike anything he’d had before, though it reminded him of a candy his uncle had once brought home. “What is this? This is delicious!”
“This is your lifesaver, boy. They’re safe to drink, they’ve usually got water in them, and there’s even a bit of nut-meat inside that you can scrape out if you crack it open further.” He scratched at his beard before taking another sip. “I hear they’re all over Elf-home, and some have even made it towards Toledo and Lisboa, though they rarely fruit.”
“What are they called?” Jerome drank deeply from his nut while he awaited Marcellus’ reply.
“Skullnuts, usually, cause they look like a head.” Draining his completely, Marcellus gave Jerome his first real smile and showed him the three soft dimples on the skin of the nut, arranged in a triangle. “Eyes and mouth, with the water of life within.” Marcellus’ grin was somewhat disturbing to see.
Jerome smiled weakly in reply. Beggars can’t be choosers, he repeated to himself in his head, and if I had to pick someone competent enough to help me survive after a wreck, it’d probably be him anyway. Jerome nervously emptied the rest of his skullnut.
By the time that Jerome had returned to the spot he and Helena had decided on for their camp, there was already a small shelter going up. Helena had pulled together palm fronds and tied them down to a pole, creating a makeshift canopy. She was totally engrossed in twisting more cordage, holding the far ends of the strands between her toes and slowly braiding them down their length.
“Helena!” Jerome called to her, a big smile on his face. He pointed excitedly at Marcellus, “See who I found?”
Helena looked up, one hand flashing to her belt as though to reach for a knife, then relaxing as she saw who it was that had called. She shook her head with a small tight smile. “You always did look like driftwood Marcellus,” she said as the two of them drew closer to her. “At least now I know it’s the truth.”
Marcellus actually smiled at her, and not with the frightening grin that he’d used earlier. “You’re too kind Helena.” He wandered over to a tree that was an easy talking distance from Helena’s and dropped to the sand beside it. “Your little boy is far too energetic for his own good,” he gestured casually at Jerome. Helena pursed her lips and nodded sagely. Jerome sighed. He should have known that it would be like this. None of them had actually thought very much of him on the boat, and even now that he had managed to survive the wreck they were still going to treat him as a child, despite being twenty years old. He didn’t know why he hadn’t expected as much.
“Well, while you two are busy complaining about my youth and vigor,” Jerome pointedly remained standing, “I’m going to go see if there are more people to find.” He chuckled as he thought of a final remark, “You can feel free to complain about your joints to each other, most honorable ancient ones.”
Marcellus sighed and replied, “Wait.” He laboriously rolled back up to his feet. “You’ve never done this before. You’d better have someone along to point out the important bits to you.” The resignation in his voice sounded very nearly comfortable. Jerome grinned. He knew that they weren’t in a good position, but if he had Marcellus and Helena to help him he felt pretty sure that they’d be able to make it to something better. Both of them seemed to know a good deal about how to take care of themselves here, and maybe he could pick up a few tricks along the way.
Jerome was tired. He was tired of being told that he was doing things wrong, he was tired of walking under the beating sun, and he was tired of the way that Marcellus forced him to do all the work any time something came up. Doing some of the work, most of the work even, that would have been ok. But any time that they came across something new that Marcellus thought would be useful, it was always Jerome’s job to pick it up, to find a new way to carry it, to do whatever he needed to carry it. He was growing to hate the old man and was starting to think, based on the ache in his legs and the many sore places in his back, shoulders, and arms, that there’d been some dreadful kind of mistake.
Finally he’d had enough. As Marcellus pointed out another good bit of wood that had come ashore, Jerome lost his patience. “Faugh! I won’t,” he dropped the load that he’d been carrying, balanced precariously in his arms, “I will not go and get yet another thing to carry along with me!” He glared at Marcellus, the pile of wood, nuts, fibers, and the occasional stone lying in the sand. His mind was elsewhere, but some small part of it was glad that he’d had the presence of mind to toss things down ahead of him rather than directly on his own feet.
Marcellus laughed at him. His weathered face had always contrasted with his tufty white beard, but somehow it seemed just right now as he stood there and laughed at Jerome. Jerome didn’t understand it, and that made him even more frustrated. “What?” He snapped the question at the older man. “What’s funny about this?”
Marcellus kept chuckling quietly, and rubbed at his eyes with the back of one wrist. “Oh, nothing boy. Just that it took you this long to stand up for yourself.” Jerome blinked in confusion. He was still angry, and he didn’t understand how what Marcellus had just said had anything to do with what he’d been talking about.
“Look,” he started. He tried to put more authority in his voice than he felt he had, and was certain that he’d failed. “I’ve been going along with your crazy requests because you know more about this than I do. But I’ve had it,” the vehemence in his voice surprised even him, “with just being treated as a pack mule on two legs!” Marcellus’ calm was the most frustrating part of the whole interaction. There wasn’t anything for him to get any purchase on. How was he supposed to know whether or not he was making a mark when the man just stood there, looking at him calmly? If anything, the chuckling had made things worse.
“Well then,” Marcellus continued evenly, “now that we know you’re not just some puppet or pack mule, how about you go ahead and keep carrying all these things?”
Jerome looked at him, and felt like tearing his hair out by the roots. It was a beautiful day, with a gloriously blue sky and clear blue-green water that rolled in gently in little waves along the beach. They stood under healthy palms, and some other trees that he didn’t know the names of grew only a little bit further inland, lending shade to the otherwise sweltering proceedings and letting the light breeze do its work to cool them. But he could appreciate none of it, instead feeling as though he’d been pushed into a corner by this chuckling little man. It didn’t help that he felt sure that Marcellus could beat him with little effort if it came to that.
Jerome cast about for words in reply. “I,” he stopped, his mind grasping for something, anything, “I can’t, I just can’t carry that much in my arms!”
“Who said anything,” Marcellus replied very reasonably, “about just using your arms?” Jerome stared at him as though he couldn’t understand what Marcellus was saying. How, he wondered, could he carry things without using his arms? Jerome’s eyes unfocused in thought, looking at things only he could see. How had he seen other people carry things without using their hands? A pack was out of the question, since he hadn’t the leather or cloth necessary. He could tie things to a line and drag them, but that would require a much larger amount of rope than he had. What else could he put together that would-, he interrupted his own thought with an abrupt realization. He covered his eyes and groaned, shoulders sagging in recognition of his own stupidity.
“We make a travois.” Jerome didn’t even bother stating it as a question. When Jerome took his hand away from his face, Marcellus was smiling at him. A real smile, like the one with which Marcellus’d greeted Helena.
“Right.” That was it. Just one word. Jerome wanted more, but realized he’d have to settle for just that smile for his congratulations. Then Marcellus surprised him by continuing. “You’ll be wanting to use your shirt for the canvas, though.”
Jerome groaned again. He would have been better off with just the smile. He’d already burned nearly everywhere else, burning across his chest and back couldn’t be that much worse. But he wasn’t looking forward to it.
Making the travois had taken longer than Jerome had realized it would. He’d been thinking of how easy it had been to make one with the Northmen, but had forgotten that they had already had all of the necessary pieces pre-made. Making your own rope to lash together your carrying poles added a considerable amount of time to the process. It was several hours later, with the sun slowly moving towards the horizon, before he managed to finally tie two poles together with his shirt strung up between them. Both frustrated and satisfied, Jerome set off once again, with Marcellus watching the load to make sure none of it came free while they went. The old man had spent the down time collecting even more things to carry and bringing them back to Jerome, taking short breaks from foraging to point out Jerome’s mistakes and give callous corrections.
As they returned to camp the poles jostled and bounced against Jerome’s palms, and by the time they made it back spots on his hands were tender and swollen, ready to blister. His fencing callus and the tough skin he’d developed from handling lines on the ship had helped a bit, but he was already feeling resentful of the travois. It was too useful to not use it, and he hated it for that.
Jerome could smell woodsmoke as they drew near, and looked at Marcellus in confusion. The older man shrugged, his silhouette a slightly darker outline against the sky’s deepening gloom. Twilight settled so quickly this close to the equator, another thing that Jerome was not yet used to. Jerome laid down the travois by some low shrubs, looking around to mark the spot in his mind so that he could find it again. He pulled the hatchet out from his belt and glanced back at Marcellus. Marcellus held up a hand and stepped quietly a little further into the shadows beneath the trees, barely visible with the last light of the purpling western sky. Jerome followed suit, staying low as best he could and hoping that his long and lanky frame wouldn’t give him away. He thought he could hear voices up ahead, but he wasn’t sure.
Tension pulled at his gut as he wormed his way forward, inching along on his belly as he moved through open spaces between trees. It was comforting, almost, using the things he’d learned in his time with the Northmen; but he couldn’t break the grip fear held on a tight knot in the small of his back. He’d been hungry the whole way back from their earlier impromptu camp, but that was forgotten now as he worried about what might have happened here to his friend Helena. There hadn’t been a fire before, and none of them had known how to make one without flint. So how could there be one now? Jerome had the only steel the three of them knew of, surely Helena hadn’t happened across a miraculous fire-starting kit?
Hearing voices again, Jerome froze and listened. There were two of them, speaking quietly. He couldn’t quite make out what either of them was saying, but the voices sounded familiar. Thoroughly unnerved, Jerome continued forward, inching his way up to a tree within sight of the camp they’d made. From his vantage point, he cautiously lifted his head, leaning out from behind the tree as slowly as he could, his eyes slitted so as to not catch the light and give himself away. There, sitting around a fire in the middle of the camp, was Helena and one of the other sailors that Jerome recognized. Kendrick was much shorter than Jerome, and only a few years older. He had light brown hair pulled back in a queue, an easy smile, and was holding a stick in his right hand. A crab was speared on the other end of it, toasting in the fire. He and Helena were talking quietly to each other over the crackling of the flames. Jerome felt foolish and relieved. He stood up and walked towards the fire, waving and smiling.
Jerome was surprised when Kendrick leapt to his feet in alarm, holding the speared crab out towards Jerome as though he would fight with it. “Who goes there,” yelped Kendrick, “halt!”
Jerome stumbled to a stop and looked at Kendrick in confusion. “Um,” he started, “it’s me, Jerome. You’re in my camp. Uh, my and Helena’s camp.” He belatedly realized that he had been waving the hatchet. After dragging himself through sand and dirt he cut an indistinct grimy figure, only made worse by gesticulating wildly with a shiny weapon. He shook himself and tried wiping off some of the sand. “Sorry to frighten you,” he smiled at Kendrick and Helena, happy to see them relax, “I’d been a bit worried myself, I hadn’t expected a fire.” He turned back to the dark and called quietly for Marcellus before looking again at his newfound friend.
Kendrick shook his head. “I knew you were supposed to be coming back, but,” he eyed Jerome again, perhaps a bit warily, “I hadn’t expected such a surprise.” He sat back down at the fire, putting the crab to the flames once more. “Sorry about that,” he waved his left hand at the crab, “maybe you’d like some to eat?”
Jerome nodded emphatically, coming a bit closer to the camp. Helena was squatting on her haunches, stifling what sounded suspiciously like giggles. Jerome happily assumed they were directed at Kendrick’s terrible crab-fencing stance and accepted a chunk of crab meat from her, freshly picked from its shell. Only as he popped it in his mouth did he recall the travois. He sighed and stood again.
Helena looked up at him, still fighting down a smile, “Off again? So soon?”
Jerome shrugged, “I left all the stuff we found out there in the dark, I should go get it.” He turned and reluctantly walked away from the fire. Its heat felt good on his back, warming him as the evening’s slight chill slowly settled in, falling away to only a hint of warmth as he moved further into the night. He wondered where Marcellus had gone until he heard him calling quietly from a little ways ahead.
“I thought you might want to be able to find the gear again in the dark, so I stuck by it.” That was unusually forthcoming for him, Jerome thought. Is it possible, he wondered, that he was nervous about a fight in the camp? He smiled at the thought, confident that the older man wouldn’t be able to see his expression in the dark.
“Right, well, you just point out where the carry poles are again and I’ll finish bringing this back.” Happy at having found another person alive, Twice as many of us now as there were before he thought contentedly, Jerome ignored the pain in his hands and dragged their carefully scrounged materials back towards the fire.
With another two people around, Jerome found himself far happier. It had been nice finding Helena, but it was simply depressing to think of all the other people who had died that night on the reef. His spirits lifted to know that they weren’t the only two who had gotten away. Somehow, even though he knew it was unlikely, finding two more people left him with the hope that there might be even more other survivors somewhere, whether or not he ever found them.
The marvel of the fire was quickly solved. Kendrick was only too proud to show off the fire piston that he had kept with him through the wreck. It was a fabulous little device, with the body and chamber made from a solid section of reed and the plunger made from a bit of carefully carved wood. By fitting a bit of tinder into the crevice at the end of the plunger, you could light your kindling simply by forcing the plunger into the chamber with a single quick stroke. Push it in, remove the plunger again, and there you had your first lit piece of kindling. Kendrick let Jerome try it out a few times; Jerome soon learned that one had to move quickly lest the newly lit tinder be starved of air for too long in the bottom of the plunger, but otherwise it seemed even easier than using flint and steel. Especially when he didn’t have any flint for his steel.
Even better though, from Jerome’s point of view, was the set of trumpets that Marcellus made for the four of them. On the previous day they’d come across several beautiful conch shells that Marcellus had insisted they pick up. The first one had simply been lying on the beach, but Marcellus had gone wading and swimming to look for the next few. Their meat had been added to that of the crabs that evening, and was delicious. But Marcellus had taken the shells and set to work with them the next day, borrowing Jerome’s hatchet for the time being while Jerome, Kendrick and Helena went out to look for more skullnuts, good wood, and whatever else they could find.
By the time they returned in the afternoon, Marcellus presented them with the beautiful shells. He’d cut a hole in the top of each of them and showed how easy it was to sound one. Though Jerome had thought they would just be for show, the noise was loud and carried clearly, and Jerome could just imagine how well he’d be able to hear them at a distance. His ears were a bit tender after he’d stood too close to Marcellus’ first blast. Jerome left Kendrick to man the travois and go gathering with Marcellus the next day, instead staying in camp with Helena so that he could learn enough to make a strap by which to carry his trumpet. It wasn’t difficult, but it took a long while, and it was evening before he was able to wear his newly made trumpet around with him wherever he went, without having to worry about it occupying his hands. The others saw it as they sat by the fire and soon had set about making their own.
It was a very nearly idyllic existence as far as Jerome was concerned. Except for the ever present shadow of his memories of the wreck, his days were happily full of purpose, activity, and interesting new things. He learned as much as he could by following Marcellus around, asking questions about the plants and animals that they could find. It seemed to him that this island was stocked full of plants and animals that were good to eat, and even had enough water for the four of them to live there happily for quite some time. He said as much to Marcellus on one of their trips out.
Marcellus’ response put a thin spine of fear deep through Jerome’s chest. “Aye. There’s a reason this is a paradise.” His voice was grim and quiet, and the older man seemed even more wary of their surroundings than usual. “It’s a garden, like those estate forests you’ll hear of in the country away from London.” He was silent for a few moments, and Jerome felt uncomfortable but not yet truly spooked. “Tree-rats are the gardeners, and they don’t take kindly to trespassers.” The way he spoke left Jerome with thoughts of being hunted, running like a fox from the mounted men in pursuit, hounds baying at his heels.
“They, um, are gardeners?” Jerome was afraid, but also confused. The tone of the conversation was so deeply at odds with the splendor of the day, but even now he could slowly feel his perspective changing. The welcoming shade of the trees, the pleasant greens and vibrant flowers of the bushes further in from shore became a place of dappled and quivering shadows, cover behind which lurked something that would hunt him down for fun. He’d always heard of tree-rats as having the best fur, and he knew that all of the latest fashions in the Old World demanded its silky luxuriance, but he’d never realized that the prey might hunt back. And he’d certainly never thought that they might be capable of maintaining such a paradise as this for themselves. “Surely you mean they just like to live here? Aren’t they simply savages?”
Marcellus stopped where he stood, not taking another step. Jerome lurched to a halt not much further on, looking back at Marcellus before slowly easing down the travois. He saw a plant nearby that Marcellus had recommended for using on his burnt skin and broke off a spiny, rubbery stalk to squeeze out some of the soothing gel before he thought about it. It was only as he was looking back questioningly at Marcellus that he stopped to wonder whether or not the keepers of such a place would appreciate him trampling through their garden and breaking up their plants. He paused with the juice dripping from his fingers, looking at the greenness of it and wondering whether it was balm or simply an incidental poison of sorts, like signing his own death warrant.
“Never, ever make the mistake of thinking them stupid Jerome.” Marcellus’s voice was grave. “They’re hunted for their furs, yes, but not like any wild animal. They hunt the trappers too. They’re the reason there’s so few colonies on the mainland.”
Jerome looked at Marcellus, his eyes wide. “I’d heard they were ferocious, but you mean that they plan it? They hit the settlements for a reason?”
“You’d have learned this if you’d spent more time out here. The only successful colonies that we’ve established are in places where the people have either treated with the tree-rats, or kept enough guns and blades at hand to hold onto their forts when the tree-rats attack. It’s a messy and bloody business, boy, and after you’ve seen enough of it you might even start to agree with their side of things.”
“How could I do that?” Jerome stared at Marcellus, dripping goo forgotten on his hand. “Aren’t we in the right to take the land they’re clearly not using?”
Marcellus snorted and finally trudged forward a bit to close up with Jerome. “No boy, they’re using the land alright. Just not as we’re used to it. And it’s certainly not in the colonies’ interests to say as much to others. Besides, such incredible news travels slowly.” He motioned for Jerome to pass him the stalk and applied the goo to Jerome’s back. “You might as well use it,” he muttered, “since you’ve already broken it.”
They started work on their raft. There was something a little fatalistic about it, since even Jerome knew that they wouldn’t be able to get very far by raft without some sort of sail. With only one hatchet between the four of them, there was plenty of time for those not cutting or trimming wood to make more cordage or go in search of food. Jerome preferred to spend his extra time combing the beach for some remnant of their old ship’s canvas. Every so often he would find another corpse ripening in the sun, or what was left of it after the ministrations of the local fauna. He did his best to bury the remains, with a small cairn to keep the other scavengers away. It was a morbid reminder of how fragile his position here really was.
Though he was still impressed by the beauty of the place, now he couldn’t help but notice how carefully tended everything seemed to be. The realization that he was living in someone else’s garden, and that that someone else might not appreciate having him there, gave him chills whenever he thought about it. They’d been lucky so far, in that they hadn’t seen any sign of the local tree-rats, but they all knew that such luck couldn’t last for long.
Slowly their raft took shape. They began stockpiling carefully emptied skullnuts, filling them with water. Jerome wasn’t impressed with how long the water lasted in any given nut, but it was better than setting sail without any water reserves at all. If everything went according to plan, they’d only leave the shore once they were able to hail a rescue of some sort. If worse came to worse and the tree-rats found them before they could hail a ship, at least they’d be able to follow the current down the coast and find a new campsite where they weren’t yet being hunted.
Neither Helena nor Kendrick knew as much about the islands as Marcellus did, and some nights they’d stay up listening to Marcellus’ stories about the first time he was wrecked in the waters of the New Sea. His tales were harrowing, and left the rest of them fearful but also full of hope. Marcellus had done it before, so surely the four of them could do it again. It couldn’t, Jerome reasoned to himself as he lay awake staring up towards the stars from his leafy bed, be that hard.
Jerome pushed back the hat he had tied together from palm fronds before lifting stream-water in the lovely shell trumpet Marcellus had made. By stopping the mouthpiece end of it, it served as an excellent makeshift drinking horn. He stood up from where he had been kneeling on the bank, shaking off his wet hands and letting the shell drop back on its strap, and looked over the shelter he and Helena had cobbled together. He was proud of it, though he certainly hadn’t told that to Marcellus. It wouldn’t have kept them warm in the northern highlands, but it didn’t have to. It gave them shade, would shelter them from rain if they ever saw any, and let a breeze come through to cool things down. It also wasn’t on top of any of the local anthills, nor was it the favored abode of one of the local snakes. Both of those were things that he had not truly come to appreciate until he’d seen Kendrick learning from his mistakes. Being woken by angry and hungry ants was not something he’d wish on anyone.
Smiling, Jerome wandered over to the fire pit they’d put together. He carefully coaxed the embers back to life, blowing gently down on them before feeding them with a little more fuel. He took the crab he’d stabbed on a stick and held it over the fire, keeping one eye on the crab and one on the flames. As he’d learned two weeks ago, roasted crab was better than raw crab, and either of them was a welcome change after such a long time with hardtack and salted pork and mutton. Birds called somewhere above him, and he laughed quietly to himself before calling back with his best imitation. Some of the local birds had taken to hanging around his camp, waiting for him to leave out tidbits that they could hop down and grab. He’d been quite taken by their calls, and tried to learn them as he went. Perhaps he could entice one into going home with him.
No one here knew what any of them were called, so he’d started naming them as well. That was the call of the red-winged crabber, a parrot that had particularly enjoyed the taste of crab meat. Jerome cawed back loudly, hoping to get a conversation going. He waited for a while, but the birds seemed to have gone silent. Disappointed, Jerome pulled his cooked crab from the fire and broke it open against a stone with the blunt back of his hatchet. Fishing out a sliver of crab meat, he tossed it on the ground a few feet from him and called again hopefully, before whistling Helena over from where he’d last seen her working on putting together a net from the palm fibers they’d acquired. Where Jerome just wanted to talk to the birds, Helena thought that they might make good food.
Jerome was surprised when Helena didn’t reply. He was even more surprised when a small creature ambled out of the underbrush towards him, walking with its front paws and almost hopping with its rear ones. It paused by the bit of crab meat, snaffled it up, and then stood up on its hind legs. It looked, as best as Jerome could guess, like a giant ferret. For a moment he simply sat and stared. The thing was balancing on its hind legs, tail splayed out behind it and front paws draped down at ease across its chest. It wasn’t until he looked at its paws that he realized what it was that he must be seeing. This must be one of the gardeners, the fabled tree-rats which so jealously guarded their territory. He hadn’t realized at first, because it was half-covered by fur, but the tree-rat in front of him was wearing a collection of tanned leather pouches strung around its torso like a bandolier. Hanging from the low side of the bandolier was a very large knife made of exquisitely flaked stone. Very large for a creature so small, that is, given that it probably came to three, maybe three and a half feet in height at most.
It licked its chops, and then bared its fangs at him in what he slowly realized was an approximation of a smile. And then it spoke.
“Well met good sir traveller. Prithee, knowest thou the reasonings for thine presence here, and the duration of thine stay?”
Jerome stared, jaw gaping. The tree-rat sidled slowly to its right, weaving its head back and forth for a moment before settling again. “Thou art not deaf, for thou hast heard the winged brethren of the trees, nor art thou dumb, for thou hast sung back to them. Perhaps thou art an idiot?”
Jerome spluttered. “I beg your pardon?” He blinked repeatedly, but the tree-rat was still there. He tried rubbing his eyes with the back of his right wrist, only remembering that he held the hatchet in that hand when its blade grazed gently across his left shoulder. He couldn’t believe his eyes. And he most certainly could not believe his ears.
“Was my question not sufficiently direct?” The tree-rat fell to all fours, took a few steps closer, and then hunched up and stood on its back feet once more. It spoke louder, slower, and more clearly than before. “Art. Thou. An. Idiot?”
Jerome was baffled. The tree-rat spoke like ancient literature, the way that they wrote near the end of the Great War. It was like listening to someone straight out of the history books, or from one of the old plays. He’d expected them to talk once he’d learned that they were more than savages, but he’d never thought that they’d sound like the tragedies the elf Senil Goritanien had written in the wake of the assassinations of the elven royal family. The tree-rat looked at him expectantly, its head at nearly the same height as Jerome’s.
Jerome finally got words out. “No, no, I’m not an idiot!” He went from feeling surprise to feeling insulted. “That’s incredibly rude!”
The tree-rat made short and quiet breathy humming noises in the back of its throat. They sounded almost like clucking, but it seemed more like the tree-rat was considering his statement. Finally, it ventured a reply.
“Wouldst thou not also agree that it is the height of rudeness to intrude, unasked and with no guest-right, upon lands which are not thine?” The tree-rat’s big black eyes stared at him. Suddenly Jerome was very aware of the fact that the tree-rat was within fifteen feet of him, and carrying a knife that looked more like a short sword for a creature its size. It hadn’t made any overt threat, but Jerome’s heart was starting to thump in his chest and he could feel the hair on the back of his neck beginning to rise.
“Um, yes, that would be very rude.” Jerome swallowed, trying to wet his throat. “But there might be circumstances in which such a thing could be acceptable, don’t you think? Like, say,” he gestured around him at the campsite he and Helena had made, “if you are just trying to make some shelter for yourself after your ship has sunk off the coast and you never intended to intrude in the first place?”
The tree-rat slowly nodded. “Thy argument holds some merit,” it allowed, “but might such a response as thine not also be used to justify any of the most scurrilous of activities upon the assumption of a trusting host?”
Jerome felt a little more calm now, for while the tree-rat’s archaic speech still seemed potentially threatening, the conversation felt more like what he might have expected from lessons with his tutors, or conversations with his mother. Of course, those conversations hadn’t had the undercurrent of potential imminent murder, but spending some time over the past two years in tense situations with the Northmen had increased Jerome’s tolerance for threats of personal violence. Just as Jerome opened his mouth to reply, a smile on his lips to counter the tension of the moment, he heard a scream. It came from the direction of the hut Marcellus had put together, a beautiful little lean-to that somehow reminded Jerome of a Northman’s cottage, but without the stone.
Jerome’s eyes darted towards the trees involuntarily, then back to his interlocutor. The tree-rat talking to him seemed unconcerned. Then again, Jerome had no idea how to read their body language, and it might simply be unconcerned because murdering them separately had been its plan all along.
Still careful to not appear threatening, Jerome pulled his long legs in beneath him so that he could be ready to move quickly. “You, um, wouldn’t happen to know what that was, would you?” He had completely forgotten his previous words, the verbal parry and riposte he’d honed to ensure his own safety on the island.
“I suspect that thy companion didst give offense in excess of his utility.” The tree-rat’s answer was quick and to the point, and its attention never left Jerome.
“So, uh,” Jerome could smell his own fear, that sour sweat that overpowered his usual scent, “has my utility been exceeded by my offense?”
The tree-rat looked at him, pondering for a few seconds. “No.” Jerome could feel his legs relaxing, nearly melting into the ground. And then the tree-rat continued, “But it is best to make sure.”
Jerome sprang to his feet with a surge that would have done any rabbit proud. He suddenly towered over the tree-rat, switching the sharpened stick with a speared crab to his right hand, hatchet to the other. Most people that he’d fought were surprised by his height, or at least unnerved by the speed with which he could use his height advantage. But the tree-rat seemed unfazed, hand-like paw coming up with its oversized dagger ready in its grip.
“Thou art simply making it harder for thyself,” the tree-rat settled into something that looked absurdly like an open fencing stance, hind legs bunched and ready to spring, “we shall simply hunt thee down shouldst thou resist.” Jerome took one look at the tree-rat’s confident readiness and fled. There was no way he could win this fight. He had a hatchet, a sharpened stick, a crab, and a shell trumpet, while the tree-rat had a flaked volcanic-glass knife. Left at that, he might have been able to pull something off; but he also knew that there were others nearby, and he’d already heard at least one of his friends die.
“Get to the raft! Launch the raft!” He yelled at the top of his lungs as he burst between the tree trunks which ringed the edge of the camp. His arms pumped desperately to match the pace of his legs. He risked a glance behind only to see the tree-rat bounding after him, bouncing along on all fours in an odd teeter-totter sort of motion that covered the distance too quickly. Jerome gave up yelling and saved his air for running, already feeling a stitch in his side. The hatchet was weighing him down. He forced himself to take deeper panting breaths, willing the stitch to go away as he pounded through the trees towards the beach. He could see Kendrick and Helena on the sand, already pushing the raft out into the water. They must have been fishing and crabbing to be out here and so nearly ready, but as he ran towards them Jerome saw arrows begin to fly from the tree line ahead. Kendrick and Helena dove for the cover of the far side of the raft, clearly trying to pull it further into the water while staying underneath it, but Jerome saw Helena catch an arrow in her leg as she slid over the far side, and he thought Kendrick had been hit by one as well. The raft lurched out further and another speckling of arrows peppered down on it, sinking their heads into the lashed tree trunks with hard thuds.
Jerome tore sideways, stumbling as he turned at speed on the mostly firm sand. He knew he had to keep himself out of the line of fire of those tree-rats that had set up in the canopy above him. He glimpsed a head poking up on the far side of the raft, then it went under once more and the raft lurched out further. His own breath was rasping in his chest, and he felt like he could taste blood at the back of his throat. He knew he wasn’t going to make it to the raft from here, but where else could he go? He ran on, hearing calls behind him and sensing more than seeing the angry tree-rats turn in his direction to give chase. He knew that something like this would only end in tears for him, unless he came up with something truly drastic. He tried not to think about not having seen Marcellus, and instead focused on putting one foot in front of the next, as fast as he could.
Jerome had the distinct impression that the tree-rats had let him go. He didn’t like what that suggested, but he was too glad to be alive to really think hard about it. Though he’d kept near the water, still able to hear it somewhere off to his left, the land had risen a great deal. He’d gone farther in the course of his run than he’d gone on most of his foraging trips, and he’d done his best to stick to firm ground, hoping that he might leave fewer tracks for the tree-rats to follow. He was winded and hungry, and the afternoon had long since turned towards evening again. It was dark, he had no food, and he’d lost nearly all his possessions once more. He still had the stick, since he’d seen no reason to drop it or the crab still stuck to its tip, and he still had the trumpet, though he was considering tossing it away at this point. He couldn’t see a good reason to keep something so heavy, awkward, and loud, but nor could he bring himself to drop the only reminder he had of Marcellus.
His other belongings were gone. The wool blanket was back in camp, and the hatchet had fallen out of his rope belt after he’d finally managed to slide it in while running. Lesson learned, he thought with chagrin, before checking to make sure he wasn’t muttering out loud. Anything you really want to have, you have to keep on your person. And be ready to run with it. He knew it wasn’t the most practical piece of advice, but it had the benefit of being fairly true. He squatted down in some bushes and pulled the crab off the end of the stick, looking around for a rock on which to crack its limbs open. The gurgling in his belly only grew louder as he beat the crab’s legs open with the butt of his stick, and it felt like his stomach was trying to eat all of his other organs in desperate revenge for being so mistreated. He felt a gobbet of drool slip from his lips unexpectedly, and wiped his chin in embarrassment, looking around to see if anyone had noticed before he remembered that he was alone.
That brought the day’s events home to him once more, and he could feel the cold and sadness settling in as he worked to eke every last bit of food out of the crab that he could. He scraped out a shallow pit in the hard dirt under a bush, away from the rocky outcropping where he’d pummeled his crab into dinner. He curled up there clutching the stick close to him, the conch shell still on its strap and shifted to rest just in front of him where he could see it easily. Swearing to himself that he’d wake before the morning sun, he closed his eyes and shivered, half from the cold that raised a chill on his skin and half with the tears that ran down his cheeks as he thought about his friends, almost certainly all dead.
Morning found Jerome already awake. Sleeping on hard dirt was just as unrestful as Jerome had expected it to be, and he felt stiff all over as he moved slowly out from under the bush and stood in the predawn light. He could feel his limbs stretching and straining, and felt more than heard several cracks from his joints and back. His eyes were still sore from crying, but they were dry for the moment as he looked around warily. He wasn’t sure where he was, really, and didn’t have any idea of where he should go. All he knew was that the tree-rats were definitely back the way that he had come, to the east. They might also be ahead of him, but he had no way of knowing until he ran into them. The sounds of the sea drew him closer to the coast, and he went in hopes of finding some skullnuts with which he might drown his thirst. As he came to the treeline, he was startled to find himself on top of a cliff and looking out over the water. There were certainly skullnut trees, and he climbed one to retrieve several, cursing his luck and wishing that he still had the hatchet.
He set the ones he’d been able to bring down on the ground, placing the sharp end of his stick over the soft spots and hitting the butt of the stick with a small rock to punch a hole. He looked about as he drank from the skullnuts, trying to get a sense for the land. He’d come much higher than he’d realized, gradually moving up a long slope, one that he’d always avoided for obvious reasons while dragging the travois. In his flight from the camp and the tree-rats, he’d left the shore far below him. The forest had changed a bit as well, though there were still some skullnut palms dotting the woods, especially here along the edge. Further in it had become denser, greener, and here and there he could hear birds and other animals moving about the canopy or calling to each other.
It was the birdcalls that warned him as he stood there. He could hear a strange silence off to the east, as the birds went quiet. He’d learned by now that they only did that near things that they thought were particularly dangerous or strange. Jerome tensed, unconsciously imitating the birds as he willed his body to silence. Every inch of his skin quivered in anticipation, expecting to be pierced or cut open at any moment, exquisitely sensitive to the subtle movements of the air around him. So it was that he felt more than saw that there was something wrong with one of the trees no more than fifty feet away, with the way that it swayed in the gentle morning breeze. He turned and bolted, empty skullnuts discarded behind him as he heard arrow shafts whisper into the ground where he had stood only moments before.
It was sport. He knew that now. They were pursuing him for sport. That knowledge simmered away somewhere inside him, even as he realized that it was hardly less than what was done to them for their pelts. They reminded him of the way the Northmen had behaved to those who didn’t follow their rules. Anyone who didn’t follow the rules might be an enemy. Enemies were killed, or at the very least disposed of. It was very simple.
Jerome’s lungs felt like they were disintegrating. He’d experienced his second wind what felt like hours ago, and had long since fell into a stumbling run that left his legs feeling as though they were on fire deep down inside the muscle. His chest ached, his throat was raw, and each breath he drew tasted of blood. He was nauseous, but he knew he couldn’t spare the time to vomit what little his stomach might have left in it. He wasn’t even hungry at this point. Sweat poured down his chest and back, dripped from his forehead into his eyes where it stung and blinded him and left him to crash through the undergrowth without warning. Ages ago he’d dropped the stick he’d been carrying in hopes of having some form of self-defense, and the only reason he hadn’t discarded the conch was because the effort of staying in motion and on his feet while pulling its strap off his shoulders would surely be too much for him.
The tree-rats had fallen behind him, content to harry him onwards rather than run him down. He had wondered, when they let him go that morning, why they hadn’t encircled him and killed him as he rushed into a trap. Maybe they were taking bets on how long they could drive him before them until he dropped. He had no way of knowing, and he had long since ceased to think about anything but putting one foot in front of the next. It was embarrassing in a way, to be the scion of such a successful family and city and yet to find himself here being chased through the jungle much the way some especially wealthy families would course prey with their hounds.
Jerome stumbled through yet another bush made invisible by his fatigue and sweat, crushing leaves and snapping branches in his wake. He’d left a clear path of destruction behind him, and even if the tree-rats were no longer following directly behind him they’d be able to follow the path he’d left as one might follow a well cropped and trodden path to find the nearest grazing meadow. It wasn’t for lack of trying to avoid leaving such signs, it was simply that he no longer had any capacity to pay attention to such things.
The next bush was very nearly his last. Its branches were far sturdier than the previous ones had been, more like a small tree than the previous whip-like things through which he’d pushed his way. One of them scraped a new gouge across his chest while another caught the loop that held his conch, the same one he’d so proudly made and tied on only a few days before. The loop rode up as he obliviously continued forward, and it finally came to full tension with the far end of the loop resting around his throat.
There was a straining moment, as Jerome felt his momentum slow and his balance shift perilously backwards, the freshly woven rope constricting the breath for which he labored. And then a snap as he took another stumbling step forward and the rope broke, leaving the shell behind him on the dirt, its tassels of broken fiber trailing from it. His momentum was broken as well, and Jerome’s long run slowly wound down to a plodding pace, a swaying stumble that wove drunkenly through the trees.
He could hear the sea again over the rushing of blood in his ears, but it seemed to come from all directions, shifting about with each step he took. He collapsed in a heap on sandy rocky soil only lightly covered with leaves and old fruit, and heaved up the last contents of his stomach, a watery bile that stung his throat and left him coughing. He rose to hands and knees, trying to move on just a little further, hoping that he might eke out another few minutes of his life. The ground turned to rock in its entirety, only grains of grit dusting its surface, and as Jerome looked up from his hunched position, he realized why the sound of the sea had shifted. He had run out onto a point.
It was broad, a wedge of cliff jutting out towards the sea, with the last twenty feet or so mostly covered in low and scattered scrub grass over the thin and sandy soil. If he hadn’t thought he was about to die, Jerome would have thrilled to see as far as he could from here. It was a stunning vista, a bright noon sun over rolling jungled hills which poured down into cliffs along the sea’s edge and rose up towards what looked to be forested mountain slopes to the north. The rocky coast ran east to west, inhospitable at best but beautiful in its power and harshness. This, Jerome thought to himself as he lay gasping for breath, is as nice a place to die as any. He stared back towards the jungle from which he’d run, looking to find his pursuers, watching for what he knew was his approaching death. It’s funny, that I should survive the shipwreck only to die as hunted prey, driven to desperation. He smiled sourly, though anyone watching would have called it a grimace. At least I held out for longer than I’d expected.
Catching sight of movement in the treetops, certain he’d found trace of his approaching killers, Jerome turned about to look out to sea and enjoy his last few moments. And there, gorgeous and bounding along on the breeze with her sails all set, was a ship. Jerome’s mind blanked. This was what he’d been hoping for, just a few days ago. He should run to the beach and tell the others to get the raft out to sea, they could signal the vessel and be pulled aboard, as no one would begrudge assisting the survivors of a wreck…
But he was stuck atop this cliff, and his friends were almost certainly dead. Their raft was miles away and already out on the water, though his friends aboard had likely succumbed to their wounds by now unless they’d been exceedingly lucky. And now he had no way to signal, since he’d lost his shell back in that bush. Jerome’s mind churned, stamping its way through the connections with the worst grinding sensation, made stupid by fatigue. He slowly stood, legs quavering beneath him, and tried waving down at the ship. He could see no response.
Yes, he’d lost his shell back on that bush. But how far away was that? He turned from the cliff’s edge and looked back towards the woods. The shuddering in the trees that spoke of his approaching hunters was closer now, moving at a comfortable pace, no sense of urgency with their prey cornered above the ocean. He could see the shell, back inside the tree line and easily nearby. It caught the light as shadows shifted across it, winking back at him with its magnificently glowing pinks and oranges. He broke into a painful trot.
Jerome kept his eyes on the treetops, looking to see what the tree-rats pursuing him would do. They closed with him at the same pace, perhaps even slowing somewhat and spreading out. They wanted to make sure he couldn’t escape. He bared his teeth in a harsh smile. He was certain that, one way or another, they’d be disappointed today.
Even as his muscles twitched and felt as though they would tear in protest, Jerome forced himself to reach the bush and bend down to pick up the shell. He turned back around and pushed himself once more, leaning into his fast walk and letting his feet catch up with him to prevent him from falling. As he approached the edge of the cliff, he leaned back, straightened up and came to a halt. He brought the shell to his lips, took as deep a breath as he could, and blew. The note burst loud and clear, echoing out across the water. He blew again, and a third time before he lowered the shell, panting and waving his arm. There was motion on the ship, new motion he hadn’t seen before. He risked a glance behind him, looking for some hint of his pursuers.
They were there, visible in the leafy palms. A number of the tree-rats hunched in the canopy, balancing lightly as the palms gently swayed and knocking arrows to the strings of their bows. A few others gathered on the ground, standing upright with long spears or knives in their paws, all facing him. There came a reply from the water, the clear tone of a horn blown three times in succession. Jerome saw the tree-rats beginning to draw their bows and he smiled. He looked back out to sea and blew his conch trumpet once again, a joyful note. Then he took two quick steps forward and leapt, even as he heard the snap of bowstrings and the hissing whisper of arrows.
The fall went on forever. Jerome’s body was a painful wreck and he could feel himself pitching forward as something slapped into his arm from behind, a bright searing sensation coming with it that seemed to suck color out of the world around him. He was barely conscious of the water approaching, and only just barely remembered to stretch out his legs ahead of him as he plunged in feet first.
The water was deep and inviting, warm but cooling slightly as he sank. Though the world still felt gray, he could feel as he moved down into the slightly cooler depths, passing through the layers of temperature and feeling them shudder over his skin. Shimmering light beckoned from somewhere ahead of him, and he had the strange sensation of no longer knowing which direction was up and which was down. Still puzzled, he felt himself slowly continuing his fall, now moving backwards.
Pain slowly pulled him back from the abyss of his confusion, focusing his thoughts on the sting and throb of the arrow which had punched through his left arm even as he realized that the bubbles he was watching drift from his mouth were his last lifeline to the rest of the world, to air. The edges of his vision were dimmer, somehow, and he thought he could hear a humming buzz slowly building, punctuated by a staccato beat. He strained his already overworked body and scissored his legs back and forth, following the bubbles which had fled from him.
His vision slowly collapsed into a darkening tunnel, but the light at the far end grew brighter and brighter as he rose back towards the surface. The buzzing pulsing drum grew louder, nearly overpowering him as he finally broke the surface and gasped for air. His left arm was in agony with every movement he made, and the sight of a wooden shaft protruding from his bicep, skin torn and bloody around its exit, was so intensely alien that he nearly couldn’t look away. Every wave, every tug of the water on the shaft brought a new surge of pain. Swimming was almost certainly out of the question and he didn’t think he’d be able to continue floating for very long.
Feeling lightheaded, Jerome forced himself to look away from the wound. He was floating some way away from the base of the cliff. He found it impossible to estimate distance from his current position, marveling instead at the sheer face of the cliff looming above him. Submerged rocks and broken bits of stone dotted the waters nearby, but left his current location at the tip of the point fairly clear. Surprised at the strange drag on his right hand, he found his fist still clenched around the shell trumpet as he swept it back and forth to keep himself on the surface. He smiled.
Raising the conch to his lips, he blatted out another call. He could make out the ship’s sails from where he floated, and saw with delight that it had come about to the wind and emptied its sails. The crew, he could see, was lowering a dinghy even as he watched.
The next few minutes felt like an eternity. Jerome was certain that he’d used his last strength to make one more blast on the trumpet, and he could feel himself slowly sinking further and further beneath the water. His gasping breaths became more and more infrequent, and he had to fight to keep his head above the water, waves slapping over his face and stinging his eyes even as they tore at his arrow wound.
Finally, choking on seawater, he could hear the flat slap of paddles moving towards him and the call of the coxswain. He gave a few last desperate kicks and raised the shell over his head, trying to wave it and catch the eyes of those in the boat even as he felt himself slipping down once more.
The sodden and bedraggled figure was pulled aboard the ship’s boat in a quick motion as two of the rowers grabbed him by the armpits and hauled him up. An arrow was thrust through his left arm, punching from the triceps out through the bicep, and blood leaked slowly from the wound to mix with the water of the bilge. He coughed and choked, gasping for air, and the coxswain leaned forward from where he sat to task two others to see to his care. The boat came about and began the haul back towards the ship. The rowers, facing aft, had plenty of time to stare at the harsh cliff over which the man had flung himself. Until they were chided into silence by the coxswain’s order to speed their strokes, they speculated amongst themselves as to why anyone would risk such a jump.
Jerome finally came to as the arrow was being pulled out through the wound it had caused, the fletched haft already broken off in preparation. His scream gave the ship’s carpenter, who also doubled as its surgeon, hope that he might survive after all. Jerome stared at the deep green skin of the woman standing over him, completely confused.
“How did I get,” he muttered dreamily to the orcish medic, “all the way back to the north?”
The surgeon smiled down at him, revealing her protruding canines. “You’re on board the Eskigerra, sailed by a confederacy of clans in service to the Marshals of the North, and headed for the trade routes outside Port-au-Prince.” Her curiosity peaked, she asked “You’ve been north before?”
Jerome’s gaze still had that slightly glazed look to it, and his head lolled about even as his right hand clutched at the boards to which he’d been strapped for surgery. “I’m on board a ship? Oh, thank you, finally. I love ships. I never want to be marooned again.”
Jerome's Tropical Vacation by Henry White is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.