THE FISH – Part 1
(A companion piece to Book 3, The War of the Four Isles.)
Roland of the Counting, he who was doomed to roam upon the face of the ocean for longer, and in stranger ways, than any other man known to history or legend – other perhaps than the famous Dow Amber – was no seaman by nature. Indeed, he grew up with no interest in sailing whatever, and if not for the War of the Four Isles, which called him from his comfortable home to serve with the Ship Kings fleets, he would never have gone to sea at all.
His tale begins when he was twenty years old. A rare specimen among his Ship Kings brethren, he had not by that age embarked upon even a short voyage, let alone traversed the deep oceans. There was some excuse for this failing, admittedly, in the fact that his homeland was the Kingdom of Creve, which was one of two kingdoms whose coastlines opened solely upon the sad, still waters of the Golden Millpond. There were no rising waves or roaring winds on these shorelines, and little to inspire a youth to seafaring.
But more than that, the Countings had no tradition of sailing. As their name testified, the accustomed family vocation was finance – and not just any finance, but the high finance of the state. Roland’s forbears had laboured within Creve’s treasury offices for generations, overseeing the kingdom’s moneyed affairs, and his father indeed was High Chancellor of the Exchequer, master of the royal coffers, and one of the most powerful men in the realm. Yet the Countings were not themselves of regal or even noble blood. Had they been, Roland’s life would have run a very different course, for the sons of high nobles were expected to seek an honourable naval career.
Free of such obligations, the Countings raised their sons in the study of bookkeeping and accountancy. After all, the Ship Kings fleets did not build themselves; it took vast amounts of money to launch and maintain so many vessels, and someone had to organise those funds, someone had to bend long hours over the profit and loss columns, otherwise the great naval heroes could never go off exploring or fighting … or whatever else it was they did at sea. If that dull burden must fall to the Countings, then they accepted it calmly, and meanwhile quietly enriched themselves and lived a very pleasant life in their city mansion and upon their country estates.
Roland fully expected to follow in this ancestral trade: he had the family knack for figures, and an inherited grasp of the financial mysteries, capital and interest, bonds and securities. At age twenty, he was already advancing rapidly through the ranks of junior treasury officials under the proud eye of his father. But then came disaster: war broke out with the rebellious Twin Isles, the Sea Lord himself burning with his great ship. Every able-bodied man in the Kingdoms was summoned to report to the fleets.
In itself, this upheaval may not have meant anything to Roland, for in the normal course of events his father could easily have arranged an exclusion for him from the call up. But alas, only a year earlier, the old king of Creve had died, and been succeeded by his middle-aged son, who was – uncharacteristically for his kingdom – an enthusiastic sailor and shipbuilder, and a firm ally of the kingdoms of Valdez and Castille, who were the driving powers behind the demand for all-out hostilities against the rebels.
The new king immediately sent his own son off to the war, and then insisted of all his nobles and high officials that they follow this example. Roland’s father was caught thus by the demands of obedience, and had no choice but to let his son’s enlistment proceed. The best he could do was to ensure that, befitting his esteemed position, Roland began his belated naval career not as a mere seaman, or even as a midshipman officer-in-training, but as a commissioned officer in full, with the rank of junior lieutenant.
Not that Roland was particularly grateful for this, for he found soon enough that a rank was no substitute for experience. He was assigned to a battleship, a craft only newly launched from the shipyards and christened with the name Revenge to mark the retribution that it would inflict upon the Twin Islander rebels. It was an impressive vessel, the pride of the Creve fleet, and it was another sign of his father’s importance that Roland, a green hand, had been given a place upon it. But the other officers were all far more seasoned men, and during the ship’s sea trials, they made it known to Roland how little they thought of an officer so inexperienced that he was undertaking his very first ocean voyage. True, his father was too powerful a figure for anyone to risk outright offence to the son, but their scorn was patent.
It didn’t help that Roland was the wrong shape to be a sailor. The best seamen were almost always the shorter, more compact men, built to move swiftly about the cramped interiors of ships, or to stand stable on pitching decks, or to climb lithely about the rigging. Roland, however, was tall and gangling. Below decks he was either always knocking his head against ceilings and doorways, or walking about painfully stooped. And on the open decks his long legs would stumble when the ship rolled even mildly, so that he was reeling and seasick in anything but the calmest of weather.
Nor did his manner endear him to his fellows. After all, there were always a few green hands on any ship, and with help they could soon enough rise to competence, if they were willing to learn. But Roland was not willing. He was too full of resentment; resentment that he had been plucked from his proper calling to go to sea in the first place; resentment that no one seemed to think he was anyone important; resentment that he felt wretched with seasickness most of the time; resentment of the crowded, smelly, damp life on board a ship; resentment of everything. He did not want to learn to be sailor, all he wanted was for the war to be over quickly, so that he could get off this awful ship and back to the landlocked life he was supposed to be living.
Roland didn’t even care who won the war, as long as it ended. But it didn’t end. It stretched on to a year, and then beyond, still with no conclusion in sight. Battles were won and battles were lost, and enormous amounts of money were wasted – Roland could imagine totting up the figures, shaking his head in despair, had he been home in the treasury – but nothing was ever decided. The only blessing amongst it all, as far as Roland was concerned, was that the Revenge did not fight in any of the major engagements. By happy chance (or unhappy, for those of the crew more martially minded) they always seemed to be posted elsewhere when the great battles developed and the cannon shot flew. So at least Roland’s life had not yet been threatened.
Even so, he grew no more at ease upon the sea. As time passed, indeed, loneliness and boredom were added to his list of woes, for he made not a single friend on board the Revenge, and was given no duties to occupy him. The friendlessness was in part because of his own sulking attitude, but he also possessed – though he didn’t know this himself – a high, reedy voice that others found annoying, combined with a natural shyness that made him appear even more aloof than he actually was. He was thus regarded as an arrogant prig by his fellow junior officers, and shunned. As for his lack of duties, that was because the senior staff would not trust him with any. After labouring in vain to educate him in seamanship, they had privately declared him unfit for any of a lieutenant’s usual responsibilities, and left his name off the duty roster. Were it not for the prestige of his father, they would have kicked him off the ship in ignominy, and banished him to the disgrace of shore work.
And then, two years into the war, a second disaster occurred, as bad as the first: Roland’s father, though in his prime and seemingly in perfect health, died abruptly of an attack to the heart. This left Roland not only fatherless, but now stripped of any protector within Creve’s higher circles of power. To the extent that his shipmates – even the captain – had borne his inadequacies in relative silence out of fear of the High Chancellor’s influence, they no longer needed to do so. In fact, had the news reach the Revenge while it was in port, the captain would have put Roland ashore forthwith – actually granting him his dearest wish. But the news was delivered by another ship while the Revenge was at sea, just embarked on a lengthy mission to the Twin Isles, so there was no choice but to keep Roland on board for the duration.
Nevertheless, the captain was now free to treat the sullen young officer with exactly the contempt that everyone felt for him. And hence Roland, lieutenant though he might be, was allotted a single humiliating duty to perform, one that was below even a midshipman’s calling.
He was assigned to look after the ship’s scapegoat.
Pietru of the Innocent.
Back home in the treasury wing of the royal palace, Roland had given little thought to scapegoats, or to their role upon Ship Kings vessels. If pressed, he might have said that the system was at least a convenient way to employ unfortunates who would otherwise be a financial burden to their communities. But he had no real belief that scapegoats actually protected a ship against the wiles of fate, nor did he distinguish between their different types. The crippled, the mad, the maimed – all were alike as far as he cared.
But he had since learned that in fact there were four classes of scapegoat, and that each could be identified by their surnames. One such class, for example, consisted of those who had been severely injured by accident. These unlucky souls took their new scapegoat names from the event that had so reduced them, or from the place where it had occurred. Hence the famous Ignella of the Cave, who had earned her scars in the notorious Ribbon cavern. (Battle injuries did not count: those badly wounded in battle did not become scapegoats, but were honourably retired with a naval pension.)
The other three classes were named by stricter convention. Those born disfigured at birth were universally called the Misthrown. Those who were plagued by visions and voices in their heads and other signs of madness were called the Sighted. And lastly came the Innocent – those born with no overt deformities, and who suffered no madness, but whose minds for some reason never reached maturity, but stayed forever childlike.
Such a one was the scapegoat Pietru, a man of some fifty years age by the calendar, but as simple in his manner as a boy of four or five. He had been appointed to the Revenge at its launch, having served for some twenty years previously on an older ship that was just then entering the yards for refitting. His former captain had given him a glowing testimonial at the exchange, saying that Pietru had seen his ship through many storms and long voyages, and even through the first battles of the war, in perfect safety.
The Revenge welcomed him thus. But once on board, he proved to be a demanding shipmate, for his mental simplicity was so great it was akin to having an infant loose on the vessel. Curious about everything and yet heedless of danger, Pietru repeatedly got under the crew’s feet as they heaved on spars or hauled at anchor chains, and on occasion only narrowly avoided causing serious accident and injury. At length, the captain assigned a watchdog (in actuality one of the young midshipmen) to accompany the scapegoat everywhere he went and ensure that he did no harm to himself or others.
It worked, but it was a tedious duty, and though it was rotated through the midshipmen in turn, they all grew tired of it, complaining constantly to the captain that it was beneath even their lowly stature. Thus, when Roland was rendered fatherless and without influence, the captain finally relieved the midshipmen all – and gave Roland the chore.
It was a vast insult to one the rank of lieutenant, yet Roland was powerless to protest: at sea a captain’s authority was more absolute than that of a king, let alone a dead High Chancellor. It was obey, or be thrown in the brig for insubordination. So swallowing his outrage, Roland reported to Pietru’s cabin as ordered. And for the next three months, as the Revenge and its three companion frigates sailed south and east for Twin Isles waters, his every waking hour was spent watching over the scapegoat.
And hating it.
Everything about Pietru of the Innocent annoyed him. For all Roland’s scrawniness and awkwardness of manner, he was neat in personal habits, and a fastidious dresser. Pietru’s clothes, in comparison, were always disordered and dishevelled, tugged the wrong way. And he was forever dirty. True, it was only in the way that any five-year-old boy was usually dirty, but it infuriated Roland all the same, having to clean his charge’s face of food stains, or wipe his running nose, or scrape the filth out from under his fingernails. And yet do all this he must, for the captain demanded that the scapegoat be presented neat and tidy at dinner every evening in the Great Cabin.
And whereas Roland was scarecrow thin, Pietru – who was nearly as tall as him – was as round and fleshy as a whale. And while it might be one thing to wrestle with a five-year-old boy as a last resort, when all other commands failed, it was another entirely to compel a giant fifty-year-old man into obedience. Many were the days that Roland went to his bed bruised and sore from the knocks Pietru had given him, even if unintentionally.
And that was the worst part of it, in a way – almost everything about Pietru was unintentional. The scapegoat didn’t even seem to be aware of how much Roland hated him. He remained ever blithe and cheerful, his big moon face, childlike despite the greying stubble on its chin, smiling vacantly; his laugh, as light as a girl’s, bubbling up without cause.
The only thing that made Pietru sad, indeed, was being confined to his cabin, for his great love was to patrol the ship, over and over. Every morning he would start on the high deck and work his way down, level by level, to the lowest hold, from whence he would retrace his path up to the high deck again, whereat he would start the whole tour over once more.
He moved at a child’s gambolling pace, running for a moment here, pausing for another there to laugh at some unidentifiable thing, then darting on, hands flapping in pleasure. The crew could well have been annoyed by this constant motion, and by his many interruptions of their work or rest, but in fact they greeted him always with patience and humour. He was their scapegoat. And if indeed he did knock someone over, or upend their gear, it was only Roland, his watchdog, who would suffer the resulting tirades.
Which of course only made Roland hate his charge all the more. And though he dared not make his hatred plain in public, in private, when he prepared Pietru for bed, or dressed him in the morning, he could reveal his loathing more openly, swearing at the scapegoat when he was slow to shrug on a shirt, rubbing brutally at his face with the wash cloth when he needed cleaning, or shoving him this way and that to get him to move.
But Pietru didn’t even seem to notice. He liked his watchdog, always breaking into a vast smile whenever Roland came into the cabin, and laughing cheerfully at all insults. He had even learned to say Roland’s name – a rare feat, for the scapegoat did not know the names of anyone else on board, or at least had never uttered them. But even this honour Roland only found annoying, for Pietru pronounced his name ‘Rowand’ in his childlike lisp, which made it sound much more like a woman’s name, and the rest of the junior officers had taken gleefully to addressing Roland in the same way.
But it wasn’t until the fourth month of this demeaning routine, with the Revenge and its small fleet almost arrived at their destination, that Roland finally lost his temper, and actually hit Pietru.
Later, he would blame it in part on the weather, for the fleet was now deep into the tropics, drawing nigh to the very Barrier Doldrums, in the waters known as the Southern Reach, southwest of the Twin Isles themselves – and it was hot, hotter than Roland had ever known, a breathless oven heat that seemed to beat upon the brow like a hammer upon a drum. Roland sweated and stank in a way he found quite offensive – and Pietru was even worse, his great face turning red and streaming sweat, his body odour overpowering, no matter how often Roland made him change his clothes.
But it was not the heat and discomfort alone that pushed Roland over the edge. The final straw was the incident with the bird.
It took place on a morning that had already been a frustrating one for Roland. The ship was all but becalmed, making the heat worse than ever, and Pietru had been especially aggravating during their first few rounds of the ship, moving too slowly, or stopping completely and ignoring all pleas to shift along. Finally, the scapegoat kicked over a bucket of dirty water being used by a scrubbing party on the main deck, then went rolling deliberately in the mess. Amid a chorus of abuse from the scrubbing gang, Roland had to drag Pietru away and then back to his cabin to change his filthy clothes.
Even that cabin was a sore point with Roland. His own cabin was a cramped affair on the lowest deck of the stern castle, but Pietru’s was on the uppermost deck, the same level as the captain’s. And it was huge, a great room with luxurious fittings and tall windows that could be opened wide. Roland would have given half his fortune for such quarters. (He did indeed have a fortune now, left to him by his father: or he would have it, if the war ever finished and he could go home.) His jealousy was made only the more galling by the fact that Pietru was oblivious to his own good fortune. The scapegoat could have been housed in a closet for all that he appeared to care.
Now, Roland opened the cabin door to find a disturbing surprise. The windows had been left open in hope of a breeze, and through them, while Roland and Pietru were out, a great bird had flown, and had alighted – exhausted by the look, or ill perhaps – on a chair just within.
Roland stared. It was months since the Revenge had sighted any birds at all, even so much as a seagull. But this was no common gull, it was far too large, and the wrong colour, for though its body was mostly white, its wings – spread across the chair – were a deep, dusty brown. Its great head had turned to them as they entered, but it did not rise to take flight, only remained sprawled ungainly where it was, its beak opening slightly and closing again, as if breathless, its dark eyes somehow conveying distress or pain.
Roland hesitated, unsure what to do; the creature was so unlikely and so big. But then he saw that the bird lay upon a dark uniform jacket that had been draped across the chair. His uniform jacket. He had left it there early that morning. Now it was smeared with great streaks of white excrement. The bird had relieved itself all over the fine material.
Roland’s taut temper snapped. The crew were on strict water rations in this heat, he would never be able to get the jacket clean again. ‘Get off it!’ he shouted at the bird, advancing. ‘Get out!’
The bird reared up, wings spread and thumping softly against the wall, but did not fly, it only screeched at him in anger or fear: a warning. Heedless, Roland grabbed at the jacket’s sleeve so that he might rip the garment free – and suddenly fire erupted in his hand. The bird had stabbed him with its beak! He stared at the bloody gash, and the bird shrieked at him again, clawing at the jacket with its taloned feet, tearing the fabric.
‘Oh, you filthy—!’ Beyond reason now – beyond realising that the bird must be ill and half-crazed with terror in this strange environment, and should simply be left alone – Roland took up a wooden stool from by the bed, and went at the creature in a killing rage, pummelling it as it squawked and screamed and fluttered its huge wings in desperation.
Then of a sudden he found himself spun about savagely, and Pietru was there, his usually bland face contorted now in huge alarm. ‘No, Rowand, no. Don’t hurt bird! Mustn’t hurt bird! Bring bad luck!’
Roland’s rage went from red to white hot. The simpleton was going to order him about? Hardly! With an almost jubilant release – giving vent to his months of frustration and humiliation at the scapegoat’s hands – he swung the stool and caught Pietru hard across the skull, and had the delight of seeing the hulking fool tumble away with a cry of pain. Then Roland was free to attend to the bird again. It was screaming still, crawling across the floor, one of its great wings dragging, and now it needed to be killed anyway, because it would never fly again. Roland went at it with a black ecstasy, his vision a blur of blood and white feathers flying, his rage all encompassing.
Then it was over. The bird was a crumpled, deflated bag on the floor, and Pietru was sobbing in the corner.
‘Oh shut up,’ Roland told him wearily. Moving with swift necessity – for he guessed without quite knowing why that no one else must see this – he took up the bird’s body and toppled it out the window, then gathered all the feathers too. As for his jacket, it was quite ruined …
‘Bad, bad,’ Pietru was weeping. ‘Bad luck coming now …’
‘Shut up, I said!’ But the anger had faded from Roland. He felt merely wretched and disgusted. He saw that Pietru had a gash on the crown of his head. ‘Here, let me see to that.’ But the scapegoat only went scrabbling away in terror, his wide eyes stricken with betrayal. ‘Oh, to the deeps with you then!’ Roland cursed, and stormed out of the room.
He’d had it, he really had. He would go to the captain and demand that someone else be appointed over Pietru.
Ah… but he already knew what the captain’s reply would be. There was no purpose in even asking. He was stuck with the position. And it would be even more difficult now, the scapegoat would no longer trust him. Roland shouldn’t have attacked him, of course, but by all the oceans, he could be only so patient. Pietru would just have to learn, that was all…
And yet when Roland returned after an hour to Pietru’s cabin, he found that the scapegoat had quite forgotten the incident, or forgiven it, and was eager only to be off on his rounds again. He let Roland tend his wound without complaint, and likewise waited blithely as Roland restored the cabin to order and scrubbed away the bloodstains; there were no more tears, and no more talk of ‘bad luck’, whatever that had meant. Roland could only shrug to himself. Pietru, it seemed, was too simple to even hold a grudge.
So the day returned to normal.
If Roland had been a true sailor, however, he would have known that there was no returning to normal now. He would have known that the bird he had killed was a King Shearwater, which was one of the breeds of great sea birds that roamed most of their lives upon the waves, along with albatrosses and gannets and frigatebirds and the like. Such magnificent creatures were held in awe and respect by all true seamen – and to injure or kill one was a grave offence to fate, initiating inevitable doom to the offender.
Had the rest of the crew learned of what he had done, Roland might well have found himself keelhauled, or set adrift and marooned, as an offering to fate in return. But no one knew, other than Pietru, and whatever memory lay behind the scapegoat’s bland face, he said nothing; and the bird’s bloody body, floating upon the water, fell far behind the ship.
But the very next day, the Revenge entered into battle.
The exact purpose for which the fleet had come to the southern seas was something Roland had never quite grasped, excluded as he was from the captain’s strategy meetings in the Great Cabin. He had presumed at first that it was merely to test the readiness of the Twin Islander patrols in the Southern Reach, the pathway to the mysterious Labyrinth Corridors, in which it was now known the enemy had secreted their shipyards.
But then he had overheard two of the Revenge’s marines in discussion, and learned that in fact their mission was to lure a Twin Islands patrol into combat and, by making use of a new weapon (it was a cannon that fired nets of some kind) capture one of their famous attack boats. That boat would then be used in a sneak assault on Pilot Island, in the hope of snatching a pilot, who could in turn reveal the hidden ways into the Labyrinth itself.
But then Roland heard of a different purpose again, in a hushed exchange between two of the senior officers. (It was because he was always in Pietru’s company, who everyone ignored as they would a child, that Roland too was ignored, and able to eavesdrop upon such secrets.) The fleet’s real intent, it seemed, had nothing at all to do with pilots, or with broaching the Labyrinth from the east. Rather, it was merely to convince the Twin Islanders that they were trying to do this, so as to distract them from the fact that the genuine Ship Kings assault would come from another direction entirely.
The truth of any of this, Roland could not judge. Nor did he much care. All he knew was that they were now deep in enemy waters, which was obviously dangerous. The last thing he needed, among all his troubles, was to end up in a battle. His fervent hope, indeed, was that he would see the war through without once being in a fight. But the day after the killing of the bird, at a sweltering noon, as Roland and Pietru were on their fifth peregrination about the ship since dawn, the long-dreaded cry went up from the lookouts.
‘Enemy ships! Enemy ships to the west!’
His heart abruptly thudding, Roland dragged Pietru – they happened to be on the high deck at the time – out of the way of the immediate frenzy that broke out with the call to battle stations, and over to a quiet spot by the rail. From there he looked out to the west. A haze was upon the sea, but emerging through it a few miles off were three sets of Twin Islander sails.
Roland sighed in some relief. At least his own fleet of four outnumbered the enemy, rather than the other way around. But now it was time for he and Pietru to get below, for they had no place out in the open if there was soon to be shot flying. But here Roland struck a terrible snag. For Pietru had taken hold of the rail and refused to let go. The great oaf seemed to think that something entertaining was afoot amid all the bustle and rumble of guns being run out, for he was laughing and jumping up and down, even as he gripped the rail – and Roland was powerless to drag him free.
Well, Roland thought hotly, he would just leave him there then, and get below himself. Except he couldn’t. It would be a sin unforgiveable, he knew, to everyone else on board. He was already hated and mocked, and it was shame enough that he had no useful role to play in the coming battle, but if he were to actively show cowardice now, and abandon the one duty that had been entrusted to him, then hatred and mockery would not be the end of it, he could well be court martialled and thrown into prison as well.
No, he had to stay with Pietru.
But maybe it would not be so bad – there might not even be a cannon battle, ship against ship, for that was not the way the Twin Islanders preferred to fight. Even now, as Roland glanced across the calm tropical waters, he could see that the enemy ships were turning away, deploying as they did so their attack boats, twelve of them in all. It was Roland’s first sight of the infamous craft, and they seemed as evil to him as scorpions might; black, sharp, and impelled by some unearthly power. Oh, yes, everyone knew by now that they were driven by engines, and fuelled by whale oil – but to Roland, who did not have a mechanical mind, it may as well have been witchcraft.
He jumped, as from below the Revenge’s first broadside exploded from the gun decks, long range volleys of grapeshot that pattered the sea about the advancing boats. Pietru jumped too, but with pleasure, laughing and clapping his hands – before clamping them to the rail again.
Roland gritted his teeth. Another broadside fired off, but seemed to do no more harm to the enemy than the first. The attack boats had fragmented into small hunting packs now, lining up for runs against the four Ship Kings vessels. Three boats were targeting the Revenge, curving about in an arc to approach from the stern. They weren’t fools then – for before setting out on this voyage, the Revenge had visited the shipyards to have its sides heavily reinforced as defence against Twin Islander ramming attacks.
The stern and the rudder were more vulnerable. Roland felt a queasy wrench of fear – what if the attacks struck home and the ship was sunk! And yet around him, the officers on the high deck seemed to be observing the enemy’s approach with a mysterious excitement, even glee.
‘Just where we want them!’ one lieutenant cried.
Less than a quarter mile behind, the three attack boats were now on their final runs, driving hard, white foam at their tails. On the Revenge, several swivel cannon had been set up along the stern rail, and these now fired off a volley that sent the enemy crews scurrying behind their shelters – but still the boats came on, one ranging out ahead of the other two.
Roland’s stomach rolled again. The things were unstoppable, less than a hundred yards off now, so close that Roland could clearly see the face of the lead boat’s young commander peering up from behind the iron embrasure that protected the wheel: he seemed to be grinning.
But then something amazing happened. Another volley rang out, but not from the swivel guns on the high deck, instead it came from below – from the windows of the Great Cabin! And in the air, huge nets were magically spreading themselves, and falling over the enemy.
Pietru was clapping his hands again – and for once Roland felt like joining him. Of course! He should have remembered that they had these new weapons. And wonderfully, they were working. The three attack boats were entangled in the nets, one running away out of control with its rudder jammed, the other two adrift, engines disabled, their crews fussing about their sterns. The swivel guns gave them another blast for good measure, but then the Revenge’s own motion was taking it out of range, and everything grew quiet.
Roland looked about to assess the rest of the battle, but between the day’s haze and the clouds of smoke, there was little to see, only the flash of gunfire off to the west. Slowly, the Revenge came round to bear broadside on to the stranded attack boats. But it seemed they were not to be fired on, for there was a bustle on the main deck, and soon three cutters, each loaded with armed marines, were launched across the water towards the enemy.
Roland watched in surprise. So the attack boats and their crews were to be taken prisoner? Interesting. He focussed on the craft that had led the assault. Its crew was waiting motionless on the narrow deck, studying the oncoming marines, while its young commander, a dark-haired officer of short stature, stared about desperately as if in search of some last rescue.
He certainly wasn’t grinning anymore, Roland noted with satisfaction, grinning bloodily himself for a moment.
But then Pietru gave a strange strangled cry, a sound that Roland had never heard him make, indecipherable, but alarming.
He turned: the scapegoat was pointing a fleshy arm directly down at the water, and following it Roland saw a mass of pale, stringy lines suddenly seething up from the deeps to surface all about the ship.
He froze in disbelief. It couldn’t be—
But then the cry went up from the main deck.
‘Ropes! White ropes!’
And so the horror began.
It was the moment – the capture lasted a few minutes at most – that would define the rest of Roland’s existence, removing him forever from the world he had known, and condemning him to a fate unique among mankind. Yet in the years that followed he would often be amazed by how little he remembered of it. Perhaps it was always like that with the sudden cataclysms that shattered lives: the mind simply could not commit the terror and consequence of such swift incidents to the humble realms of memory.
Had there been time to escape? If he had moved – in that very first instant – and leapt over the side, might he have cleared those grasping white ropes and made it to open water and rescue?
He didn’t recall even considering it. Many men certainly jumped to their deaths in the ensuing chaos, but not Roland. Oh, he understood the ship’s terrible danger, sure enough. Poor sailor though he was, he knew all the same of the dreaded Rope Fish and the fate of vessels caught in the embrace of such a creature, and so realised from the first just how doomed was the Revenge. But the knowledge seemed only to paralyse him. He did no more than take a single step back from the rail – Pietru, he noted, did the same – and then watched motionless, dreamlike, as the white ropes went swarming up the side of the ship and on, arching over the deck to latch on to the sails and rigging and spars above, creating, in mere moments, a great tented roof.
He didn’t remember crying out either, though screams were everywhere: screams of fear, screams of pain (for several seamen had been caught up in different ropes, and were being bodily torn apart) and, worst of all, the screams of despair, the wretched cries for help hurled across the water to the boats that were already drawing away in loathing, friend and foe alike. Those boats would never answer, they belonged now to another universe, one visible still to those on the Revenge, cruelly close, but forever cut off by the white strands enveloping the ship and seething in the water all around.
But at some point Roland’s paralysis must have broken, for he had scattered recollections from the ensuing hours that found him at one moment on the main deck, hacking futilely at the white ropes with a bayonet; at another, climbing madly into the rigging only to meet the white roof overhead; at another yet, jostling amid a crowd on the foredeck trying to climb out on the bowsprit in the hope that the beam might extend just far enough to enable a man to dive those last desperate yards beyond the ropes…
In vain, all in vain.
But even madness can maintain its grip only for so long. Finally, as if by common consent, a calm fell across the ship, a pause for breath as the shock and panic drained away, leaving the crew rational once more, and able to look about themselves with haggard but sober eyes to assess their position.
It was grim, to be sure. For one, they were alone. Out upon the sea, night was descending, and the fleets of friend and foe both had fled, abandoning the Revenge to face the first eve of its long purgatory without company. Nor would any ship ever return in search of them: even those still living on the Revenge were as good as dead now to their former comrades.
But how many in fact were still living? The captain called for a casualty report, and it soon emerged that of the ship’s six hundred and fifty crew, some two hundred and fifty were dead or missing. About forty of those were the seamen and marines who had launched on the cutters prior to the disaster, and so saved their own lives unwittingly. The rest were those who had drowned by leaping overboard into the embrace of the white ropes, or who had been torn apart by the tendrils as they rose.
Which left just four hundred survivors.
Four hundred, and the Rope Fish.
The thing held the Revenge tight in lethal embrace, its tendrils covering every inch of the hull, and then spreading in a thinner latticework – one that allowed ample air and light to pass through – up to the rigging and spars, leaving only the tops of the masts free. Beneath this canopy the open decks were clear of any intrusion by the ropes, and the lower decks were also clear, save that all the gunports were thickly blocked now by a white wall of webbing. The ship itself, meanwhile, was heavier, riding some eight feet lower in the water than it had ridden before, dragged down by the weight of its captor. And with only a few upper sails still spread, and the rudder jammed, they were drifting almost beam-on to the evening breeze, helpless to navigate.
Dishevelled, and bleeding from a cut over his eye, the captain strove all the same to sound confident. ‘Take heart, lads,’ he told the crew, ‘for we’re not dead yet. True, legend may have it that no ship has ever escaped the clutches of a monster such as this, but by the deeps, I intend that we will be the first ship to do so! We are men, are we not, with minds and reason and skilled hands, and this Fish is but a dumb beast for all its clinging ropes. I refuse to believe that given time and thought, we cannot free ourselves.’
In Roland’s elder years, these words would echo in his memory as self deluded fripperies, a child’s tantrum against being sent to bed, loud maybe, but of no purpose. Time would prove only that reason and skill were useless, and that the Fish was no dumb beast. Instead, it was—
Ah, but that was later.
Much, much later.
For now, in response to the captain’s speech, the crew did indeed rouse themselves from despair and take new heart. If it lay within the realm of human endeavour to do so, they would set themselves free.
Their first attempt, even as that first night deepened, involved trying to burn the white ropes away. Axes and knives had already been employed against the ropes in the initial frenzy, and proved ineffectual, for the tendrils were tougher than the toughest leather, somehow both springy and firm, and no ordinary blade could sever them. So now gunpowder was brought up from the magazines, and set alight against the tendrils where they clung to the upper hull. But although the flames flared bright in the darkness, and the white ropes took on a sooty appearance in response, they did not release their glue-hold on the hull, nor seem in any vital way to be damaged.
Below decks, meantime, a cannon was loaded and fired at the white wall that covered each of the gun ports. And although the shot did indeed blast a small hole briefly amid the ropes, new tendrils quickly rose from the sea and covered it over. And anyway, even if a gun port could be completely cleared, and a man could climb through, he would only find himself in a sea of the grasping tendrils, and so be dragged down to his death.
Fire and explosives thus did not seem to be the answer, so after further thought the carpenters were summoned, bringing not more axes or other blades, but saws, to see if the tendrils could be hacked through, rather than merely sliced. And at first it seemed the idea might prove fruitful. With much labour, and at the cost of dulling three saw blades, several of the white ropes were indeed hewn through along the level of the railing.
But again, more tendrils rose from the sea to replace them – the Rope Fish seemed to have an infinite supply. And anyway, below the cut, the tendrils still held firm against the rest of the hull, attached fast all the way down to the waterline and beneath. It was no use severing the ropes higher up. To have any affect in actually releasing the Revenge, a hundred men with a hundred saws would have to descended to the bottom of the ship, beneath the water, and there attempt to sever all the strands at once. But of course that was impossible. They did not have a hundred saws, and any man who descended even to the waterline would be snatched away instantly to be drowned.
Thus passed the first night in futility, and dawn broke over a chastened crew. Yes, further attempts and experiments were made with the saws in the following days, and with fire as well, before all such notions were abandoned – but it was clear even from the first morning that some other tactic would be required. After all, every other ship caught in this way must have tried both fire and blades, and had notoriously failed. What the Revenge needed was an idea that no other crew had yet thought of or attempted.
Only, what could it be?
Roland wracked his mind as much as anyone, but other than taking wing from the tip of the mainmast like a bird, could think of no likely means of escape. No one asked his opinion in any case. The captain made it clear that his duties remained the same as before, to keep Pietru out of harm’s way – and out of everyone else’s way too, for in truth, there was less patience now among the crew for the scapegoat’s wanderings. So Roland played no part in the efforts to free the ship. Instead, he shepherded Pietru about as best he could, hating the task as much as ever, and seeing less worth in it than ever, when in his own judgement they were all destined for death regardless.
The others, however, remained more hopeful. On the fifth day of their imprisonment, with the ship drifting north still, a new attempt was made at liberation. The weapons master had by then devised half a dozen large mines, each the size of a whisky barrel, waterproofed and packed with gunpowder, and heavily weighted to ensure that they would sink rapidly, even if the grasping white ropes did not seize them and drag them down.
At noon, they were dropped into the sea, three to each side of the ship, their fuses lit and set to detonate at a depth of two hundred feet. It was not known if the main body of the Rope Fish actually floated at this level, but it was held that such monsters must live at least that far down, for if they floated any shallower, then someone would have been able to describe the creatures before now. In clear water, it was possible to see as deep as a hundred and fifty feet, but in all history, no witness, gazing down from the surface at a Rope Fish, had ever glimpsed more than a great shadow, far, far below. So two hundred feet seemed a reasonable guess. If the monster was anywhere close, the mines must surely either kill it, or wound it enough to make it let go.
Down the mines splashed, and swiftly disappeared. Everyone counted off the time under their breaths, imagining the barrels sinking closer and closer to the giant form that hung beneath the ship; or maybe being drawn down by the Fish’s own ropes, the monster’s eyes – if it had them – coldly considering these strange devices with their brightly burning fuses, drawing them fatally to its bosom, until, until – WHUMP, WHUMP, WHUMP.
Roland, watching from the main deck, felt the mighty detonations through his feet, the whole ship juddering. For a moment afterwards there was nothing, then the ship seemed to lift a little, and finally, six great mounds of water rose from the sea, three on either hand, and broke into gouts of steam and spray, the crew cheering as the clouds rose to the sky.
But the cheers soon died. On the ocean’s surface, the white ropes had merely risen and parted with the explosions, and then closed over again; and in the gouts of water that had been thrown up, there were no fleshy parts or gush of blood or other sign that the creature below had been wounded. Nor did a single tendril release from the ship. The mines had failed.
That was only the first attempt, albeit. More mines were dropped over the following week, some deeper, some shallower, but all to as little purpose. Perhaps – said some – the main body of the fish was nowhere near the surface at all, but thousands of feet below, and so the mines were missing it entirely. But most came to the conclusion that it wouldn’t matter how accurate the mines were, the problem was there was just nothing solid enough in the monster for the weapons to damage. Most tales held that a Rope Fish was an amorphous creature in its main body, akin to an enormous jellyfish suspended beneath its millions of white tendrils. And how could an underwater explosion hurt something that was itself almost the consistency of water? It could simply flex and shift and bend around the detonation, as easily as did the white ropes on the surface. They might as well throw rocks at a cloud.
At length, with their supply of gunpowder running low, the captain ordered an end to the dropping of mines.
Some other way must be found.
They had by now been adrift for fully two weeks. And, strangely, life went on. In the first instant of the attack, men had leapt overboard to their deaths rather than face an existence trapped within the Fish’s clutches … and yet, now that the horror of the capture itself was passed, the ship’s routines held much as they had before. The cooks still served two hot meals a day from the galley, the officers still commanded from the high deck, the crew still scrubbed the decks and slept in their hammocks by night. There was no breakdown in discipline, and surprisingly little complaint. The reality was, the Fish, for all the dread of its name, caused no overt discomfort to its victims.
All it did was prevent them from sailing the ship.
Or did it? In the Great Cabin the navigators were now pondering this very question, as they formulated a new plan of escape.
The ship was adrift, true, but they had been marking its position closely all the same, for the white netting over the decks did not impede their view of the sky and stars. In the fortnight since the disaster they had travelled steadily north, and also slightly west – following, as would be expected, the dominant currents and winds of the Southern Reach waters. They now stood some few hundred miles to the south and east of the Twin Isles, and on their present track would in fact pass not far from the Red Island’s northeast coast.
Which raised an intriguing possibility – what would happen to the Rope Fish in shallow water? If the thing dangled many hundreds of feet below the ship, then surely it would be dragged along the sea bed in any waters less deep – a process it would not enjoy. If the crew could therefore ensure that the ship ran aground at Red Island, even be it enemy territory, then surely the creature must release the vessel, or be dragged aground itself!
Could they regain that much control of the ship? The upper masts still remained free, so limited sail could be set, and if the winds and currents cooperated, then maybe, maybe …
Maps were studied anxiously, angles measured. To their frustration, the navigators were forced to admit that Red Island probably lay beyond their reach. The currents would take them close, but not close enough. But look – there – a fair distance off Red Island’s coast, but only some hundred miles to the north of the ship, lay a charted series of reefs that were almost athwart their path. There was no land, albeit, but land itself did not matter, all they needed was a rising ocean floor. Indeed, all the better if they could free the ship in mid-ocean, and not on an enemy coast. And even if worst came to worst, better shipwreck upon a reef, surely, than the doom of slow captivity.
So it was decided. They would attempt to steer themselves upon the reefs. It needed only an alteration of a few points west of their current course in any case. Men were sent aloft to set what sails they might, but the main problem was the lack of a rudder, for it was still held fast – jammed flush against the stern – by the massed tendrils of the Fish, and no strength could turn it.
There were, however, ways known to steer a ship if a rudder had been lost, as happened betimes at sea. One was to trail sea anchors behind each side of the vessel, canvas drogues that could be opened or closed via lines from the deck, so that drag was created to the left or right, which would then turn the ship. It was rough steering at best, but it might serve their purpose – if the drogues could be made to function amid the floating tendrils of the Fish.
The first attempts were failures. The devices were immediately set upon by the ropes in the water, and dragged down. But then a novel solution was conceived. The Revenge still possessed the net-firing guns by which the Twin Islander boats had been disabled – they could be altered to fire a weighted drogue far out astern of the ship, beyond the range of the tendrils. (And ah, if only a man could be thrown so easily! But it was too far …)
It was tried – and success! The drogues duly landed in open water, and their lines, in rising from the sea to the high deck, remained just clear of the white ropes about the ship, and so were not dragged down.
They could steer. Only minimally, to be sure. But still, hopes on board rose to their highest levels since the capture. Now if only the wind and the currents held, in a matter of days they might well be free.
North crept the Revenge, bearing always the dead weight of its captor, and closer crept the reefs. And lo, the wind and currents held true… nevertheless, with the shallows still some fifty miles away by the navigators’ charts, the ship, to the dismay of all, began to veer eastwards. Slowly only, and by points only on the compass, but against the current, and in resistance to all the crew’s efforts to pull the ship north again, either by sail or by sea anchor.
There could be no doubt of it; beneath them, the Fish was exerting itself, and manoeuvring to avoid the shoals ahead. It had not been known until then that a Rope Fish was even capable of this, most opinion held that the monstrous things could only drift with tides and winds, along with their prey. But no, somehow, down in the deeps, the unknown shape knew of the peril ahead, and by dint of some mighty fins maybe, or perhaps by use of internal pulsing, as a giant squid might, was swimming to the east.
In later years, indeed, it would become obvious to Roland that the Rope Fish not only could swim and navigate in its own fashion, but that it was also, from its long wanderings, familiar with every mile of the ocean floor. For never once in all those years would the Revenge ever again come within sight of a shore or an isle or even a reef. The Fish avoided all such shallows, and held to its beloved deeps. But it should have been obvious perhaps even in those early days, for after all, who had ever heard of a Rope Fish washing ashore the way a helpless jellyfish might? It had never happened.
But desperation will often blind reason, and so the crew fought on for another two days after the eastward trend was noted. Their efforts were ever more febrile and frantic, however, and at last the navigators called an end to it – the reefs stood directly west of them by then, and out of all reach, and ahead lay only the vast inner wastes of the Middle Sea.
It was now that a truer despair came to the ship. This was not the panic and terror of the initial capture, this was a deeper, more debilitating sense of defeat, of knowing that they had tried everything within their power to escape, and failed. This was the hopelessness that is left when even the fantasies of escape are gone, and there remains only the wait for death.
There were some indeed who saw no point even in the waiting; it was now that the first suicides took place. They were not many – for even in despair, life is not easily surrendered – but quietly, in corners here and there about the ship, men armed themselves with pistols, or bayonets, or nooses formed from rope, and made the only escape that was left to them. And once begun, the trickle of suicides never ceased. In the months that followed, there was always the chance, when moving about the decks, of happening upon a body slumped amid a bloody pool, or dangling ghastly from an overhead beam.
And even though the majority of the crew foreswore such ends, and carried on with the necessities of life, a deadly lassitude now sank over the ship. It wasn’t an instant decline, or complete within a day or two, it was rather a gradual dwindling, a surrender of purpose that took place over several weeks, the Revenge drifting northeast all the while. But after a month, the lethargy was fixed. By then, many of the crew barely stirred from their hammocks even by day, seeking solace from their plight in sleep and dreams instead. Others roamed the ship restlessly, hollow eyed, withdrawing into mania and madness. True, there were a few who still clung to hope of rescue, climbing high in the rigging at every dawn to watch for a sail on the horizon, in the stubborn belief that a friendly ship might come to their aid. But most understand that this would never happen. Any ship that came near, and saw the white ropes, would flee forthwith. But the watchers watched for them anyway.
Roland was one of those who took mostly to bed. Never an optimist – at least, not since the war had begun and ruined his life – he saw no prospect in rescue or escape. Indeed, his sympathies lay with those who had taken their own lives, and so ended the farce. He toyed with the idea himself, but the fact was, it plain terrified him – for what if he was wrong? What if, the day after he committed the irrevocable act, the Fish magically grew bored with the Revenge and let the ship go? Or what if rescue, however unlikely and unimaginable, did come, just a day too late for Roland to see it? No … he couldn’t kill himself. He couldn’t even grasp how others had done it. How had they been so sure, so certain, that there was no chance of a mistake?
From such fears, he chose life. In the meanwhile, however, he saw little point in exerting himself, and thus remained much of the time in his cabin, sleeping in long, stupefied bouts, increasingly neglectful of his responsibility for Pietru. What did he care anymore what happened to the scapegoat? He had never cared anyway, he had only performed as watchdog because the captain had ordered him to do it. And these days the captain’s orders did not carry the weight they once had: indeed, since the failure to steer the Revenge upon the reef, the captain himself had rarely appeared on the high deck, and discipline about the ship was, like everything else, deteriorating.
Roland did still sit with Pietru at the evening meal in the Great Cabin, and helped him eat, for otherwise the scapegoat made a mess of the table and the other officers would complain. But beyond that, Pietru was left to make his rounds of the ship alone. And he did not like it. Every time he completed a lap of the vessel, he would pass by Roland’s door and knock heavily. ‘Rowand,’ would come the plaintive demand, ‘Rowand. Come out!’
In reply, Roland only ever buried his head in his pillow and cursed in silence, and waited for the knocking to stop. Why wouldn’t the great simpleton leave him alone? Didn’t he understand that they were all going to die? What was the point of endlessly patrolling the ship anymore?
And it seemed that Roland was not alone in such thoughts. He overheard two officers in the Great Cabin discussing the fact that the crew were increasingly short tempered with Pietru’s interference and interruptions. It was to be expected, perhaps: Pietru’s only role on board was to protect the ship against ill fortune, and he had patently failed to do that. So why should the crew tolerate his clumsy intrusions any longer?
‘You, Rowand,’ said one of the officers, suddenly noting that Roland was nearby. ‘You better watch out for him. Things could turn ugly, and the captain won’t take kindly to a murdered scapegoat.’
But the next morning, when the knocking came wheedling at his door – ‘Rowand, Rowand. Come out, Rowand.’ – Roland only squeezed his eyes shut and ignored it till it went away. Then he slept, and did not notice that the knocking did not return within the hour, as it should have, or the hour after that. And when knocking finally did come again, it wasn’t Pietru and his hapless pleading, it was the furious hammering of the ship’s first officer, summoning Roland immediately to sick bay, by captain’s order.
Confused and trembling, Roland went, and found the captain waiting by one of the beds, wherein lay a figure weeping in pain and wrapped in bloody bandages. It was Pietru, and he had been badly beaten.
‘He was found in the hold,’ the captain explained, pale and tight lipped with anger. ‘No one knows how long he was lying there, or who did this to him. The question is, where in all damnation were you?’
There was nothing Roland could say, he could only stare aghast: both of Pietru’s eyes were blackened, his nose was bloody, his scalp – to judge by the bandaging – was lacerated, and livid bruises were already showing on his fleshy arms. He must have been punched and kicked for a prolonged period. Someone, somewhere below, had finally lost their patience … and Pietru had been all alone, with no one to defend him. And Roland sensed that it was the loneliness – even more than the pain or humiliation – that made Pietru weep now, in great hitching sobs that were childlike and terrible.
‘From this moment on,’ said the captain icily, ‘you will spend your every moment, waking or not, with our scapegoat. And if one more scrap of harm comes to him, I will lock you in the brig and leave you there even as the rest of us die off one by one. Do you understand?’
Roland nodded numbly.
‘And find out who did this!’ snapped the captain to the first officer, before storming off. ‘They must be flogged!’
But they never did find out who had done it. The crew closed ranks on the matter. As for the captain, he remained in charge only a few weeks longer anyway. After all, what was the use of discipline or order on board the Revenge anymore? Mutiny was inevitable, once hope was gone.
It began over the wine ration. The daily issue had in fact been raised somewhat since their capture, to boost morale, but there were many among the crew who now questioned why it should be rationed at all. Why shouldn’t they be allowed to drink to their heart’s content every night? If all were doomed regardless, then what was the wine being saved for? The same question applied to food: why bother to stretch out their supply? Let everyone drink and feast while they may, since death was coming no matter what.
Wine barrels were stolen, and found smashed and empty in the lower holds. In response the captain cut the wine ration entirely and placed armed guards on the storerooms. Unwisely. That same night the crew rose up and overthrew not only the guards and the storerooms, but rampaged through the stern castle as well, ejecting all junior officers from their cabins, and killing outright the captain and the senior officers. The mutineers then took up home in the cabins of their former commanders, declared themselves in charge, and announced that all rationing was lifted forthwith.
There followed a week of non-stop debauch as the food and wine stores were plundered without let. The Revenge became a floating bedlam of drunkenness and gluttony, with almost everyone taking part, even the erstwhile junior officers. Only a few sober souls forswore the revelry, hiding out in the lower levels while the upper decks were awash, listening in fear and wonder to the shouts and laughter and singing from above, and also the gunshots and screams and sounds of breaking timber and glass.
Roland was one of the latter, not from any particular sense of propriety, but because he knew how unpopular he was with the crew, who might, in their drunkenness, assault or even kill him, as they had the captain. He felt unsafe enough even as it was, skulking on the lower decks. Yes, he did have his officer’s pistol with him still, which would be some defence, but not much in truth, for he had powder enough only for a single shot.
To make things worse, Pietru hid with him. The scapegoat had recovered enough from his beating to be able to walk again, but rather than blame Roland for that beating, he now refused to be out of Roland’s presence at all. As if it wasn’t already infuriating to be reduced to this scavenging existence below decks, without Pietru shambling behind all the while! But Roland could think of no way to be rid of him. No insult, no abuse could pierce the simpleton’s thick skull. There was nothing to be done but endure.
After a full week of orgiastic indulgence, a prolonged silence finally settled topside: the party was over. Now Roland and Pietru and the other abstemious hiders could emerge at last to survey the damage. And damage there was in plenty. The ship might have been through a hurricane, so bestrewn was it with filth and tangled lines and broken timbers – and corpses. Quite apart from those snoring off their excess in various corners, there were several dozen sleepers who would never wake again, some obviously murdered, some who had – in the fullness of inebriation – taken their own lives.
The wine hold, meanwhile, had been emptied, and a vast quantity of the ship’s food stores had been consumed, especially the meats and preserved fruit and other luxuries, much of it left to rot uneaten by the engorged feasters. Now only basic provisions, biscuit and grains, remained; a few month’s worth maybe if doled out with proper care – and there was little chance of that. The mutineers were surly and hung-over and regretful, perhaps, but that hardly meant they were prepared to return to disciplined ways.
Indeed, the Revenge never did come to proper order again. It was no longer a military ship at all, in fact, but merely a floating platform on which an increasingly bedraggled collection of survivors lingered in chaos and violence. Once the leading mutineers sobered up, they too saw how grim the food situation had become, and promptly seized most of the contents of the storerooms for themselves, stowing their booty in the stern castle, then barricading the doors. In response, the remainder of the crew mutinied against the mutineers and invaded the fortress, with a new set of ringleaders arising from the victors, who likewise set themselves apart from their fellows, and claimed the supplies as their own. And on it went through the next several weeks, mutiny following mutiny, until the upper decks came to be divided into armed camps, the separate territories of rival gangs who fought each other endlessly over the ever dwindling provisions.
Roland and Pietru, friendless and shunned by all such gangs alike, took permanently now to the no-man’s land of the lower decks, where they lived in pitiful squalor. To drink, they relied on collecting the water that dribbled down from the higher decks during rainstorms. As for food, the fact that they had any at all was due to the single piece of good fortune that Roland had experienced since the war began. In a corner of a plundered store room, hidden away behind a pile of filthy bedding – perhaps even secreted there by some foresighted seaman who had since been killed – he found a treasure beyond price: two small crates of dried biscuit. Doled out painfully at the rate of two or three portions a day, it was enough – just enough – to sustain life.
It would have lasted twice as long, of course, for one person, rather than two. And in a dark part of his heart, Roland might have well been prepared to let Pietru starve, for in their mutual isolation the scapegoat had become more grating than ever: his noises, his smell, his unpredictable behaviour. Surely it wasn’t Roland’s duty to surrender his own chances of survival for the sake of one who was scarcely aware of being alive at all?
But it wasn’t that simple. Roland could never manage to sneak away from Pietru to eat in private, so closely did the scapegoat dog his footsteps, and yet if he tried to eat without feeding Pietru as well, then the scapegoat would begin to hoot and laugh loudly, too noisy altogether – for someone might come to investigate, and that could not be allowed. The biscuit must be kept secret. Roland had moved the crates to the most secluded corner he could find … but the upper deck gangs still sent armed foraging parties down through the lower decks from time to time, hunting out the last of the ship’s rats for fresh meat, and Roland lived in terror of his treasure being found out.
So to silence Pietru he was forced to give the scapegoat his own biscuit to eat. Still, for every portion Pietru ate, Roland ate two. It seemed only fair. Roland was the one who had found the crates, after all. And the scapegoat never complained, he merely munched happily on whatever he was given, not seeming to expect more. Indeed, despite these desperately short rations, Pietru, as the weeks went by, appeared to lose little of his great bulk, while Roland himself became more and more gaunt. It was baffling.
And all the while, as the Revenge devoured itself in ever increasing wretchedness, the Rope Fish clung on, hidden below in the deeps, and seemingly imperturbable. If it was aware of the agonies and depravities of those it had imprisoned – indeed, if it was even capable of such awareness – it gave no sign. The only noticeable change in the monster, in the months since the ship’s capture, was that whereas its white ropes had been sticky and clinging as they had risen from the water – lethally so, for those men caught up in them – now they were smooth and hardened, like shiny leather.
But few of the crew took notice of the ropes anymore, their enfolding presence had become as commonplace as the sea and the sky, and as immutable. The battles for food were all the mattered. In this respect, however, Roland was different: for once every day his attention was drawn by force to the creature that held them. Pietru was the cause of this. The scapegoat had developed a bizarre form of … communion… with the Fish.
Exactly how it had started, Roland could not remember, other than that a few weeks after the capture, he began to notice the scapegoat stroking or prodding at the white ropes. Not in any effort to break them, but seemingly out of curiosity. The sensation of the white strands against his fingers appeared to fascinate Pietru in some way, for his expression would go thoughtful and distant, and then he would smile as if in great happiness.
This was on the main deck, in the days when Roland and Pietru were still free to roam the ship. Once they were confined to the lower decks, however, the only way the scapegoat could access the Fish was through the gun ports, each of which opened now to a translucent square of white strands, a section of the great caul woven about the ship. Pietru would push and poke at this wall – which gave elastically – until his hand was fully enveloped in it, chuckling to himself all the while, as Roland watched on in vague disgust.
For it was disgusting, to fuse with the Fish in such a way. What in the deeps did the scapegoat gain from such an experience? Once or twice, Pietru even glanced up to Roland and then nodded benignly to the other gun ports, all equally sheathed in white, as if to suggest that Roland follow his example. But that was insupportable. The Rope Fish was their enemy, their jailor and tormentor. Roland wasn’t going to fondle it.
And yet his thoughts would run on uneasily as he watched Pietru, an intuition stirring in his heart as the white tendrils gripped around the scapegoat’s hand. What was the creature, truly? What motives drove it? What was its purpose for holding them? Why had it taken them exactly when it did? Yes, Roland had heard all the theories by now – that these monsters sought only for buoyancy in their attacks, and imprisoned ships entirely by unlucky chance. But if it was a rare thing for a ship wandering idly upon the sea to be taken, then what was to be made of the Revenge, which was taken in mid battle, just as they were about to claim prisoners of their own?
The odds of that were astronomically high to Roland’s mathematical mind. Too high, indeed, to credit. It was almost as if the Fish had been acting outside of random chance, and instead was motivated by a specific purpose. And sometimes Roland would remember, chillingly, the scapegoat’s sobbing moan on the day he had killed the bird. Bad, bad – bad lucking coming now. Was that it, then? Had Roland brought this upon them all?
But his reason recoiled from the idea. It was a concept more monstrous than the Rope Fish itself, that the act of one man, in killing a bird, could bring such a doom down about a whole ship and the six hundred men of its crew. No, if there was ill fortune to be meted out for the slaying of the bird, then surely it would fall on Roland’s head alone…
And anyway, the capture hadn’t felt like that. It hadn’t felt like bad luck or punishment. It had felt more … preventative. As if the Fish had timed its intervention just so, to hinder the Revenge in some way. But to hinder them from doing what? Taking the Twin Islanders prisoner? But what could a few low ranking Twin Islanders matter, especially to a deep sea creature that could have no interest in the wars of men in the first place?
No – Roland would shrug – it was all impossible. And even if it wasn’t impossible, it didn’t matter. For nothing would change the fact that here they were, bound to the Fish in permanent embrace.
At length, Pietru’s communion would come to an end, the scapegoat returning to himself and withdrawing his hand from the ropes, and likewise Roland’s thoughts would run down, having gone nowhere and decided nothing. The two of them would then resume their skulking, sunless life, Roland doling out their tiny portions of biscuit for the day, and doing his best otherwise to ignore the hunger pangs and the fear and the boredom.
It was a dismal existence. Nor could it last forever, for the first crate of biscuit was already gone, and they had begun on the second. But as miserable a life as it was, Roland – who three years earlier would have gagged in revulsion if confronted with circumstances so squalid – had long since decided it was better than the eternal nothingness that was death.
Indeed, he was dimly surprised, through his fatigue and incipient scurvy, just how resolutely the urge for life still beat in him, when there was no hope or rational reason for it. Other men, far tougher and more commanding than him, had already succumb to despair and suicide. But Roland saw now that there was in fact an unguessed fortitude lying within him, at least as far as his own survival went. Whatever the degradation and suffering that might come, he would cling on until the very last. He did not want to die. And unlike the suicides, he could not imagine a time when he would want to die.
Decades later, of course, he would know better.
On the one hundred and sixtieth day since the capture of the ship – by Roland’s reckoning at least, but it was a reckoning he trusted, for though he was no sailor or navigator, he was still good at counting, totting up time as easily as he had once totted up money, the former, as it had proved, infinitely more valuable than the latter – he and Pietru ate the last of the biscuit.
That is, Roland ate the last of it. There were three remaining portions, and one should have gone to Pietru … and Roland had certainly intended to do that. But at the sight of those three mouldy slabs of meal, something cracked inside him and he gobbled all of them down while Pietru only watched with his mild eyes. What did it matter anymore, Roland told himself, it would make no difference to anyone now. But as soon as the last mouthful was gone, his excuses turned to ash, and he felt sick with self loathing. It was even worse that Pietru said not a word of accusation. When Roland kicked the worthless crate away and stalked off, the scapegoat only followed as tamely as ever.
So that was that. Five months they had lingered, but now it would end. What food remained on the Revenge was in the hands of two surviving gangs: some fifty or so seaman who had barricaded themselves in the stern castle, ranged against a slightly smaller group who had fortified the forecastle. Between these two encampments, the main deck lay as a bloodstained wasteland and battleground. From the battlements at either end of the ship, scarecrow guards, bony faced and black-lipped with scurvy, stared across at the enemy, muskets loaded with the last of the gun powder, jealously defending their final few barrels of biscuit and flour locked away within.
Aside from these two gangs, Roland and Pietru were the only others still living on the vessel. They had the freedom now to roam the lower decks as they might, for raiding parties no longer ventured out from the fortresses – but that freedom was of little benefit. They could search the ship over and over for some scrap or crust that had somehow been overlooked, but there was nothing to find. Nor was there any use in going to the fore or aft battlements and begging for either food or admittance. Neither would be granted.
It was time thus, Roland knew, to make a decision. Either he faced death by slow starvation – and he knew hunger well enough now to know how terrible that would be – or he could chose the quick and painless way: for Roland still had his pistol with him, and its single shot.
At least – if he used the pistol – he would finally be done with Pietru. Roland’s hatred for the scapegoat had by now reached a bone-deep constancy, an utter weariness for a weight that could never be put down. Almost it was reason enough, to be free of that great, idiot face, and the child voice with its endless importuning, ‘Rowand, Rowand, Rowand …’
But Roland still couldn’t do it, couldn’t bring himself to the final brink. He had to live on, weak and pain ridden and crippled though he was by hunger now, as day followed day and nothing changed. Knowing it was futile, he went begging at first one gang’s door, then the other, and received only sneers for reply. And knowing it was futile, he limped and then crawled around and around the ship, increasingly delirious, in the insane hope that somewhere, somehow, a single crust or rat or cockroach yet remained uneaten.
And Pietru followed, as witless as ever. Roland ached to be rid of him, to spend at least his last days of madness and pain alone. But still no insult or abuse could drive the scapegoat off, nor the weak blows that Roland occasionally rained on him. Indeed, the simpleton appeared to think that Roland’s desperate searches through the ship were almost a game, a continuation of Pietru’s own patrols. He would trail along with Roland, smiling and fondly patting the bulkheads and walls as he passed. And once a day still, he would drag Roland either by force or endless nagging to the ports on the lower gun deck, and kneel there, stroking and pulling at the white caul of the Fish, murmuring to himself in satisfaction, until his hand was eventually devoured.
Roland found this sight more nauseating every day. If only – he dreamed fervidly – if only Pietru would die first of the two of them, then Roland would be free. And the scapegoat should die first, by all that was fair, for after all he had been on half Roland’s rations through these last months.
But Pietru wouldn’t die. He didn’t even seem ill or tired. And as Roland’s hunger hollowed out within him to become an all consuming agony, he realised that if he was to have even one final day’s peace before he died, then he would have to kill Pietru. Why, it would even be worth using the single shot of the pistol that Roland had been saving for himself.
He mustered his determination through a last dreadful night. Yes. It had to be done. And quickly. It had been nineteen days now since Roland had eaten. Waves of black dizziness assailed him constantly, and soon the darkness would claim him forever, and it would be too late. So as the hundred and eightieth dawn since their capture broke across the sea, Roland made the promise to himself. Today would be the day of his liberation.
But when to do it exactly? Pietru, even in his innocence, might take fright at Roland suddenly putting the pistol to his head. Ah, but there was one long moment every day where the scapegoat was distracted and unaware – his strange communing with the Rope Fish’s strands.
That would be the time.
So they limped through one last morning, creeping painfully a final time about the empty decks, and so came at length to the accustomed gunport. As entranced as ever, Pietru knelt and began to massage the white sheath, which gradually enfolded his hand. Roland watched in terminal loathing. It was like the scapegoat was allowing himself to be swallowed…
But enough. It had to be now.
Roland pulled the pistol from his jacket, then loaded, primed and cocked it as silently as he could. Finally he raised it to the back of Pietru’s great balding head. The scapegoat was heedless. Really, Roland told himself, he was doing the simpleton a favour. They would both be released.
His grip tightened on the trigger.
Abruptly, Pietru’s head snapped round, as surely as if someone had shouted a warning, his usually gentle eyes burning and aware. He gave a single command. ‘Stop that!’ And Roland fell back, his finger gone nerveless. Somehow, in that instant, Pietru was a normal man, and furious.
‘I wasn’t,’ Roland babbled, ‘I didn’t mean…’
But already the anger in Pietru had died. The scapegoat pulled his hand free from the gunport and leaned towards Roland, his expression one now of puzzlement. ‘Rowand shoot Pietru? But why?’
‘Because we’re dying anyway!’ Roland screamed in sudden fury of his own. ‘Because there’s no more food, you fool!’
‘Food?’ The scapegoat sat back in apparent confusion. ‘Rowand wants something to eat? Rowand is hungry?’
‘Of course I am!’ Roland brandished a withered arm as evidence, fist clenched. ‘Can’t you see?’
Pietru gave a shake of his great head, as if Roland was missing something obvious. ‘If Rowand hungry, should have said so.’
The scapegoat turned again to the gunport as Roland watched in bafflement. Once more Pietru fondled and pulled at the white ropes, his expression going happy and far away.
Shoot him, Roland told himself, just get it done…
But now something was happening that he had not seen before. Instead of enfolding Pietru’s hand, the white ropes were writhing in a strange manner, peeling apart to show glimpses of daylight beyond, then rejoining again. Pietru chuckled to himself and nodded, as if an answer to a question. And then the white ropes opened a full hand’s-span wide, and something silvery appeared, drawn up from the sea below by many grasping tendrils, to be pushed through the gap. First one shape, and then another, then a third. They passed inwards and fell to the floor, each one flopping and gasping.
Roland stared in astonishment.
Fish. Three fish lay there, breathing their last.
‘Food,’ burbled Pietru happily. ‘Big Fish brings us little ones, if we ask. Go on Rowand, I got them for you. Eat.’
Roland stared a moment more, then dropped the gun, took up the first fish, and bit ravenously into its side, not caring that it was raw and un-cleaned and un-gutted, only revelling in the sensation of blood and flesh – of nourishment – blazing rich in his mouth.
Another part of his mind was already leaping ahead with the implications. The Rope Fish! Pietru could talk to the Rope Fish, and it could feed them! They could eat. They did not need to die. They could survive. And not just for a few more days or weeks. Why, if food could be summoned at will like this, then what was to stop them going on for months longer, for years even?
They were saved…
And indeed they were, in one meaning of the word at least.
In time, however – years and years into the future – Roland would come to grasp the full significance of the term indefinitely, and to understand the true nature of the bargain he had just struck. He would realise then that he hadn’t been saved at all. No. Rather, the opposite.
By that far off day, when it was too late, when he was long since weary of life and of wandering alone upon the ocean, when he was the withered captain of a ship of ghosts – by then Roland would have given anything to have his time over, and to react differently to Pietru’s miracle.
For if he had known from the first all that he would come to know in the decades in between, he would not have eaten the fish.
Instead, he would have shot himself on the spot.
END OF PART ONE
PARTS TWO AND THREE TO COME…