THE FISH – Part 2
(A companion piece to Book 3, The War of the Four Isles.)
By Roland’s count, it was on the one thousandth, nine hundredth and eighty-third evening of the Revenge’s captivity – well into the sixth year of their unending ordeal – that Pietru saw the first ghost.
‘Rowand! Rowand!’ came the scapegoat’s cry from the high deck, rousing Roland in the captain’s cabin below, where he had lain stretched in a dead sleep for most of the afternoon. He slept at all hours now, if he could, night or day; muddied, dreamless periods of unconsciousness that were his only escape from the tedium of life under the Fish. ‘Come quick!’
Roland groaned, but rose and went – though he did not go quickly. He did nothing quickly anymore. There was no point in haste when nothing ever changed, when nothing could ever change. Topside, he found Pietru at the forward rail, staring towards the bow. The scapegoat glanced at Roland, his round face gone pale, then pointed fearfully to the foredeck.
‘What?’ Roland asked wearily.
Pietru’s eyes widened. ‘Don’t you see him?’
Roland frowned as he peered forward. ‘See who?’ The foredeck was deserted. Of course it was. All the decks were deserted, topside and below, every cabin, every hold. Other than Pietru and himself, not a living soul remained upon the Revenge. ‘There’s no one there,’ he added.
Pietru shook his great head, vastly disturbed. ‘No. Old man is there. Old man, all wet. He’s looking at us right now.’
Roland shivered suddenly – but only against the chill, he assured himself, for he had come on deck without his jacket, and a cold wind was blowing across the sea. Night was coming on, and the sky, what could be seen of it through the great white canopy of the Fish, was a deep, overcast grey. Shadows dwelt on the horizon. But it wasn’t so dark yet that Roland could not behold the foredeck clearly. ‘There’s no one there,’ he repeated, irritated now, and yawning. ‘You’re losing your wits. You woke me up for nothing.’
Pietru shook his head again in distress, eyes never leaving the foredeck. ‘But he’s there, Rowand. Why can’t you see him?’
Roland hunched his shoulders resentfully. Six years of the bare existence that was their life on the Revenge had reduced him to a gaunt figure, bearded and pale and prematurely old. Pietru in comparison remained as full-fleshed as ever, and his face, fat and quite hairless, was perpetually young. It was just one more thing about the scapegoat that Roland hated. ‘I’m going back to bed,’ he said. ‘Don’t call me again for any of this nonsense.’
And he went, not looking back.
But an hour later, when a nagging in his heart got the better of him, Roland climbed reluctantly topside once more. He found the scapegoat still there, staring fixedly at the same empty spot in the darkness.
‘You really see someone?’ he asked.
Pietru gave a slow nod. ‘I told you,’ he said, voice far away. ‘It’s an old man. Old, and all wet, and dead. But watching us.’
Roland’s skin crawled. Dead? All wet, and dead? A ghost? Is that what Pietru meant? In his old life, Roland would have laughed at the very idea. He had never believed in ghosts. But here on the Revenge, adrift upon a desolate sea, alone in the dark and cold … here it was different. Here, it was all too easy to credit that restless shades of the dead could haunt the night.
But what had summoned such a spectre?
What did the thing want?
Roland shivered again, and this time the chill air could not be his excuse, as he was wearing a jacket now.
If tales were true, isn’t that what ghosts always wanted? Especially the ghosts of those who had died by violence? By murder? To seek out and be avenged upon those who had slain them?
And Roland knew all about murder.
Upon this very ship, he had slain ninety men and more.
On the one hundredth and eighty-first morning of the Revenge’s captivity – the morning after Pietru’s miraculous summoning of the fish – Roland woke in the gloom of the lower decks to a new sensation.
It took him a moment to realise the change, but then he had it. Of course, there was no hunger clawing at his belly! No agony of starvation. For yesterday, praise be to the deeps, after months of short rations and then weeks of outright famine, he had feasted. He had devoured the raw salty flesh of a living creature, and drunk of its precious blood.
And oh, how good it had been. But already – even as Roland came awake – two worrying questions presented themselves.
First, could Pietru repeat the miracle? Could the scapegoat commune once more with the Fish, and convince it to deliver up more food for them to eat? (At least, for Roland to eat. Pietru had eaten nothing. The scapegoat had only watched on, wrinkling his nose in disgust at the sight of Roland heedlessly swallowing scales and guts and all.)
And second, if Pietru could indeed call up more fish, then should Roland offer to share the bounty with the rest of the Revenge’s crew? Topside, in the two barricaded fortresses of the stern castle and the forecastle, close to a hundred men still lived in hunger. Oh, they were not as hungry as Roland had been prior to Pietru’s miracle, they had a little food still, hidden away in their strongholds. But they were slowly starving all the same.
Ah – but when Roland had gone begging to them in the weeks previous, those same men had only dismissed him in scorn. So why should he help them now? And anyway, Pietru had received just three fish yesterday. That wasn’t enough to divide between a hundred. Yes, it was possible Pietru could ask the Rope Fish to deliver a bigger catch, say fifty fish, but who knew how the monster would react? It might bridle at the demand, and refuse altogether.
No, Roland decided (in all reasonableness, he insisted to himself) it would be wiser to make no mention of the miracle. Indeed, it must be kept secret, for if the starving men topside knew of it, they would most likely come and kill Roland and snatch Pietru and his amazing ability for themselves.
So later that morning, when Roland took Pietru to the same port on the lower gun deck as the day before, all he said to the scapegoat was, ‘Get me three fish again, just the same as you did yesterday.’
Pietru nodded with compliant happiness, and knelt to the gun port, his hand immediately beginning to stroke and pull at the wall of white tendrils. Roland watched in fascination. It still seemed a loathsome activity, the way the scapegoat let himself be swallowed by the Fish’s grasping ropes. But Roland also observed it with a new respect, for in some mysterious manner the connection allowed Pietru to communicate with the monster.
It was a scapegoat thing, no doubt. Possibly Pietru’s childlike, brutish state of mind, his animal simpleness, allowed him to understand, and be understood in turn, by another animal. It was not an activity fit for a normal, intelligent man, of that Roland was sure. He would never surrender himself to the Fish in such a way. But there was no denying that for now it was an ability that made Pietru, ignorant innocent though he was, more useful than even the greatest man of intelligence and learning.
And sure enough, once again, as Pietru smiled and laughed, the tendrils in the gun port writhed and parted, and three living fish were deposited through the gap, to land leaping on the floor.
‘Good?’ asked Pietru.
‘Good,’ Roland replied, and fell to it.
He did not, however, merely grasp the fish and start to rip at them with his teeth, as he had yesterday. This time his hunger allowed him the patience to prepare a meal more carefully. He had ransacked the galley before coming here, and though it was long since empty of food, and stripped of most of its equipment, he had managed to find a small knife. Now, with inexpert but swift hands, he used that knife to scale and gut the three fish, so that he soon had six ragged fillets of clean white flesh ready to be eaten.
Oh, what he would give to be able to fry those fillets now, over a fire, in a hot pan, with pepper, and butter, and lemon!
But that could not be allowed. Yes, he could start a fire easily enough. There was timber aplenty about the ship, and whale oil too in the hold. But a fire would create smoke, and worse, the smell of frying fish would waft all through the ship. Even the faintest hint of it would be a golden lure to the starving men topside: they would tear the Revenge apart in search of the source. So no, Roland could not cook his fish. Not yet anyway.
He tucked in. And in truth, so malnourished was he even raw fish was a delight to be savoured. One fillet, two fillets, three. It was only as he was finishing the fourth that he glanced up at Pietru, and, as a guilty afterthought, offered the scapegoat one of the last two fillets.
Pietru lifted the fish gingerly and studied it a moment, then took an experimental bite. He chewed thoughtfully, not in any great pleasure it seemed, but nor in revulsion, swallowed, and took several bites more. But then his interest faded, and he lay the bulk of the fish down uneaten.
Roland shook his head. How could the scapegoat not be hungry? For that matter, how had Pietru kept his great bulk of fat intact through all these last months of low rations and then starvation? Obviously, he had some other source of nourishment. And as Roland chewed on the last of the fish, he found himself studying the white ropes in the gun port.
Was that how it was? When Pietru’s arm was enfolded within the Fish’s grasp, was something other than mere communication taking place? Was something – some form of nutrient – being fed to the scapegoat, passing through the pores of his skin, into his very blood?
Roland swallowed his last bite with difficulty. Well, if that was truly what was happening, then it was even more certain that he himself would never commune with the Rope Fish. To suckle from the monster as a baby did its mother – why, it was beyond disgusting, it was wrong. Even fish raw and cold and flavourless was better than that indignity.
His meal complete, Roland disposed of the remains down in the bilge, where the smell of the rotting carcasses would merge with the already foul water there, and rouse no suspicion. Then he retired to sleep.
So passed several weeks.
Every day Pietru would summon up fish, and every day Roland would eat them. Otherwise they kept to the lower decks. Roland would not allow Pietru to wander higher then the Second Gun, and certainly not all the way up to the open air. He did not want anyone in the two fortified camps to see that they were still alive. Far better if everyone else thought they had both died of starvation, as they would have by now, if not for the miracle of the fish.
As for what was happening in the fortified camps themselves, with the last of the food surely running low, Roland tried not to imagine. Occasionally he heard cries from above, and once the rushing of feet and the firing of muskets, and screams: a final battle, no doubt, over the last remnants of supplies. But after four further weeks, all such sounds had ceased.
Even then, Roland waited another fortnight, skulking with heroic patience in the lower levels, and with difficulty forcing Pietru to do the same, before the silence convinced him it might be safe to emerge.
Up they crept, through the Second Gun and the First, and so onto the main deck and into daylight for the first time in months. Everything was silent and still, the sky a pale grey, the air windless, the sea flat. It was an effect anyway of the Fish that the Revenge rolled less upon the water than of old, steadied by the immense counterweight hanging below, but today, in such calm conditions, the deck was as motionless as a desert plain, and as quiet.
‘Hullo!’ Roland called, his pistol cocked and ready.
No answer came. He turned to study the forecastle, then the stern castle, but no face appeared at the barricades, no challenge came in reply. The air rang hollow in Roland’s ear: an absence of everything.
He noted, however, that the foredeck barricades were all torn down, a result of the last battle, perhaps. He would look there first. With Pietru trailing behind, he mounted the stairs and climbed over the fallen embrasures. On the far side lay the first bodies. They were many days dead by the look, some shot, some stabbed, but there was little smell: so emaciated had the victims already been before death, the corpses were all but mummified.
Roland pressed on, descending to the chambers below, but all he found were the dead. In all, he counted nearly forty corpses, some evidently killed violently, others who had merely starved, to judge by their wretched poses. Away from the open air the smell was much worse, though it was not so much the stench of decay as it was the smell of too many men confined into too small a space, a stale miasma of sweat, excrement, and unwashed clothes. It must have been awful in there, in the last dying days of starvation.
Pietru hooted sadly as he stared about at the wreckage. ‘All dead. All hungry and dead. Did they want fish too, Rowand?’
For the first time, unease ran though Roland. He could have fed these men, maybe, if he had been prepared to try …
He shrugged it off, reminding himself that they had been happy to let him die of hunger, so why should he have done any differently? He ascended to the open sky again and led Pietru towards the stern castle.
It loomed up tall in the silence, a far more forbidding presence than the single-story forecastle. Its barricades still stood intact, but as Roland and Pietru climbed the stairs to the Captain’s Walk, no guard appeared at any of the gun slits to observe or deter them. Roland was free to climb over, and then to shove aside one of the barriers to make way for Pietru.
They passed inwards, down the wide passage that led to the Great Cabin. Roland remembered the hallway as a bright space of polished timbers, but now all was darkness, the windows shuttered, no lamps lit. Rubbish was strewn everywhere, and from all about came the same smell as in the forecastle, the charnel air of a closed tomb. Sure enough, as Roland peered into the doorways they passed by – the captain’s cabin, the first officer’s cabin – the corpses were waiting, sprawled in beds and chairs: raggedly thin shapes, black cavities of mouths yawning open for meals that would never come.
Fish … he could have brought them fish …
But no, damn it, the men here had refused Roland sustenance just as callously as had the men in the forecastle. He had reasoned this out already, weeks ago. If he had brought them food they would only have demanded to know how and where he had got it, and then most likely attacked and killed him to gain control over Pietru. He had done what was necessary to protect himself, that was all, no worse. It was not his responsibility that all these men were dead. It was not his fault. He hadn’t caused this. He hadn’t—
No. That was ridiculous …
They came to the Great Cabin and passed over the threshold. More wreckage, more filth, more pathetic corpses. The room had been used in part as a storeroom, to judge by the broken barrels and empty crates tossed about everywhere, and in part as barracks, for hammocks and bunks were scattered throughout, many bearing dead sleepers.
Nothing and no one moved there. That was it, then. Roland and Pietru were the last two left alive on the ship.
But no – Roland realised, starting – there, in a far corner, something stirred and lifted from a filthy mattress.
It was a hand, beckoning weakly. And a hoarse cry came, faint and helpless, ‘Who is it? Who’s there?’
Reluctant, and yet unable to resist, Roland drew closer to the man. He was naked and skeletal, teeth gone, tongue blackened, his bony head moving blindly, vision faded in the final throes of emaciation.
‘Who is it?’ the man pleaded.
Roland stared for a time, not wanting to answer. But somehow he could not refuse. ‘Roland of the Counting. And Pietru.’
The blind eyes searched still in confusion. ‘Roland? Pietru? No, no … they’re dead, they’re long dead.’
Roland only watched silently. He should have been able to recognise the man, he thought: but he couldn’t.
The figure tried to rise to its elbows, a ghastly, failed effort, but for a moment the dead-white eyes seemed to see. ‘Roland,’ the man gasped in disbelief. ‘But … how? What have you been eating? Where did you find it?’ And then, with sudden, terrible hope. ‘Give it to me! Quickly. For the love of all things afloat, please, if you have food, help me!’
And truly, Roland would have – so he told himself in the months and years afterwards – he really would have sent Pietru below in search of fish, forgiving the fact that this man, whoever he was, had been one those to refuse Roland himself food in virtually the same situation.
But he was not given the chance to be merciful. The man crumpled with his final words, a hand going to his chest in agony, as if the feeble organ beating there had burst with the effort of speech – then he slumped back with a groan, writhed a moment more, and fell still.
‘Fish, Rowand?’ Pietru enquired, mystified.
‘No,’ Roland replied. ‘No fish.’
On the high deck, in the cold darkness, Pietru stared still at the ghost on the foredeck. Finally, Roland voiced the fear in his heart.
‘The old man,’ he asked, ‘do you recognise him? Is he … was he one of the crew?’ And he waited in dread, the other questions asked only in his thoughts. Is he thin and wretched? Is his mouth black, his eyes blind, his arms and legs covered in sores? Is it one of the men I let die?
Has he come for me?
Pietru tilted his head. ‘No. Don’t know him.’
And yet, instead of relief, he felt only a chill confusion. If the spectre was not one of the Revenge’s dead crew, then who was it? If it had been one of Roland’s victims, returned to avenge itself – as dreadful as that would be – at least there would be an explanation.
But what was a stranger doing here?
Roland straightened abruptly. What was he talking about, strangers and spirits? There was nothing there. No apparition, no ghost. There were no such things. The scapegoat must be experiencing some form of hallucination, surely. A delirium vision born of their long isolation.
The conviction faded as fast as it had been born. The angle of Pietru’s head as he stared unfailingly at that same spot, the quiet, awed tone of his voice: there was no delirium or madness there. Only fact.
‘Who is he?’ Roland whispered, straining with his own eyes to see, even though there was nothing, nothing. ‘What does he want?’
Pietru gave no answer for a long time.
Then, ‘I think he drowned.’
Following the death of the last survivor in the Great Cabin, Roland, as the only remaining officer on board, could rightfully and lawfully declare himself the new captain of the Revenge. And so he did.
Oh, the pleasure and irony of it – he, Roland of the Counting, so incompetent, so maligned by all the others, now captain. And his first act of command was to light a fire in the galley and cook his daily fish. Though he had no butter, nor pepper, nor lemon, it was an ecstasy sublime. Even Pietru ate an entire fillet, little appetite though he had shown previously.
Next, Roland moved into the captain’s cabin.
It was not so simple as that, of course. The stern castle was a filth ridden tomb, and to make it habitable again, first the barricades needed to be torn down and the doors and windows thrown open again, then some fifty corpses needed to be removed, along with mounds of rubbish.
But Roland had nothing if not the time to spare, and he had the strength now too, with hot food warming his stomach.
So he began the labour that same day, and worked away steadily over the following weeks. The corpses were the worst of it, but by wrapping them in canvas, he was able to drag them – with Pietru’s help – out to the Captain’s Walk or to the main deck, and from there to the rail, where they could be manhandled over the side. The Fish took care of them after that, for as each bundle splashed heavily into the sea, the thousands of white ropes that floated there as ever would quickly seize them and drag them under.
Then it was mostly a matter of patient cleaning and airing and sifting through the wreckage. By the end of several weeks, Roland had the upper floor of the stern castle restored to near its original state: the captain’s quarters, Pietru’s quarters, and the Great Cabin, all ordered and neat once more. True, much of the finer furniture had been destroyed, and there was no replacing the broken glass in the windows, but Roland had scavenged chairs and tables and beds and sheets and cutlery enough to recreate at least a semblance, on this one upmost level, of the Revenge’s former dignity and beauty.
And strangely, the Revenge did seem beautiful to him now. In the days before the Fish came he had loathed the ship, when it had been a place of exile, and he a scorned outsider. But now that the vessel was his, it was all different. The gleam of brass, the touch of polished timber, the solid decking beneath his feet, all of it filled him with pride as he patrolled his small territory. Why, given time, he might restore the whole ship.
Still, it would be a vast labour, and while Roland’s health had improved greatly since the worst days of his starvation, he was yet suffering intermittent symptoms of scurvy, and was easily exhausted. The problem was, man could not live on fish alone: to be fully fit he also needed some form of fruit or vegetables. Which set Roland wondering. Could Pietru request only fish from their captor? Or could other foods be summoned as well?
It was an intriguing notion. Pietru was still descending every noon to the Third Gun deck to collect the daily supplies, and though Roland had not bothered to accompany him for some weeks, today he followed the scapegoat down to the gun port and posed a new request.
‘Not fish this time,’ he explained carefully. ‘I’m not hungry for fish, I’m hungry for other things. You know, vegetables. There won’t be vegetables down there, of course, but there will be things like kelp and seaweed. That’s what I want.’ And when Pietru only stared in puzzlement, Roland sighed, ‘Just ask for green things. Leafy things. Can you do that?’
‘Green things,’ the scapegoat repeated uncertainly, but nodding. ‘Leafy things.’ And he bent to the gun port.
Roland waited. Pietru frowned and muttered in doubt as the white tendrils enfolded his hand, but to Roland’s delight, when the caul writhed and parted, it was not fish that appeared, rather it was a mass of green matter, dripping wet. Deposited on the deck, it proved to be seaweeds of several types, some leafy and soft, others dense and spiky, tangled together. As a soggy heap, the kelps hardly looked appetising: but within an hour, Roland had them chopped and simmering in a hot soup. Drinking it down – the flavour was mildly bitter, but otherwise quite palatable – he fancied he could feel the new nourishment flooding directly into his veins.
From then on, every third day, he ordered green food instead of fish, and within another fortnight his scurvy was gone.
In appearance too Roland was becoming his old fastidious self again. In his time of banishment below decks his clothes had grown filthy and ragged, but during the restoration of the stern castle he had scrounged together several uniforms in neat condition. Also, he was now bathing regularly, in the captain’s tub no less, for water was one thing the Revenge had never lacked, even in the days of hunger. This was thanks in part to the Fish, for the monster had carried the ship away from the dry tropical south and into the rainy realms of the mid-latitudes; but thanks also to the crew, who before their deaths had set up waxed sails to catch the rain and funnel it into waiting barrels.
Life, in fact, in those first few months of his ascension, was very nearly pleasant for Roland. He was occupied every day with labour and purpose, his belly was full of hot food, he felt healthy and clean, and there was no one anymore to gainsay him, or to torment him over his lack of abilities. Many was the evening indeed that he would mount to the high deck, having dined his fill, to stand at the wheel in a masterful, satisfied pose, as if all was right with the world, and as if he was truly captain of a ship under sail.
But sometimes …
Sometimes, all of an instant, even as he stood proudly, hand upon the wheel, the illusion would shatter. Suddenly, he would become aware of the dreary, festooned lines of the Fish; suddenly he could see the tangled, useless rigging and the torn sails hanging limp; suddenly he could hear the silence of the great empty vessel, and smell the musk of decay and disuse from the decks below. And a sick horror would fill him. What did he think he was doing, playing at being captain? Was he going mad? Was he that blind to reality? For the reality was that he was a prisoner still, doomed to an eternity of this, and he was alone, utterly alone, apart from a simpleton who could barely speak. This was not a life; this was the very essence of damnation.
Despair would possess him them, and he would withdraw to his cabin, sometimes for days on end, losing all interest in the state of the ship or in his own condition, not bothering to wash or change clothes, or even to eat, and ignoring Pietru’s inquiring knocks on his door.
But eventually the demands of his body would reawaken in him – hunger, restlessness – and he would rise and emerge to the day, and begin work on some new project of restoration about the ship.
So passed a year.
The second ghost appeared to Pietru a few weeks after the first.
The scapegoat had been avoiding the foredeck ever since he had beheld the first apparition. When Roland asked why, he had replied, Old man is still there. He’s always there. Don’t want to go near him.
That was bad enough. But now Roland noticed that Pietru had become reluctant even to venture onto the main deck. When he did, he would shuffle nervously along the rails, glancing often to the foot of the mainmast, and giving the central region of the deck the widest berth he could.
‘What’s the matter now?’ Roland demanded finally. He was on the main deck to fill a bucket from one of the rain-collecting barrels, and Pietru was creeping elaborately along the left hand rail, in the same way, in pantomime, a thief might sneak past a sleeping guard dog.
The scapegoat ducked his head, nodding towards the mainmast. ‘I don’t like her,’ he whispered. ‘Don’t want her to look at me.’
‘Can’t you see? The woman?’
Roland’s impatience shrivelled up. He peered in sudden dread at the mast. ‘You can see a woman there?’
Pietru nodded, shuddering. ‘Young woman. Girl. Pretty, maybe, once. But now she’s dead. She has blood all over her dress.’
Roland shook his head. It was ridiculous. There was nothing and no one there, and the sun shone clear in a blue sky, leaving no shadows in which even the most fevered imagination might conjure a shape. And yet far from disbelief, he felt only an awful certainty that something really was there. Again, Pietru’s tone was too genuine, too sure, to be dismissed.
‘Do you know her?’ he asked faintly.
Pietru gave a groan. ‘Don’t know her. Don’t want to know her. The noises in her head – they hurt. Like broken glass.’
Broken glass? Images came to Roland of jagged slivers, and anger, and madness. Is that what Pietru meant? That the ghost was crazed? But who was she? No woman had ever sailed on the Revenge, not since the day of its launch, so why would such a spectre appear here now?
‘Has she said anything?’ he asked, fighting a nameless panic within himself. ‘Do you know what she wants?’
Pietru thought hard, searching for the right words. ‘She doesn’t speak, not to me. Doesn’t want me. I think she’s looking for someone else.’
‘For who? For me?’
‘Not you, not me. Someone else.’
‘There isn’t anyone else.’
The scapegoat shrugged. ‘Not yet,’ he said.
On the first anniversary of his captaincy, he and Pietru having been alone on the ship now for an entire year, Roland was moved by a nostalgic whim to study a precious document in his cabin. It was one of the Revenge’s sea charts, the only one that had survived the destruction of the mutinies. It was slashed and stained, but was legible still, and showed the northern half of the world: the Four Isles, the Middle Sea and the Outer Ocean.
How far – Roland wondered, staring at this map – had the Revenge drifted since its capture by the Fish, some six hundred days ago in all? And where, in the wilderness of the world’s oceans, were they now?
He had no real way of discovering. The ship’s navigational instruments – the sextants, the compasses, the time pieces – had all been lost or destroyed in the earlier chaos, and in any case the books that could have taught him how to use such instruments had also vanished. All Roland was left with were the few half-remembered lessons in navigation he had attended in his first months on board, and the sun and the stars above as a guide.
True, by reading the position of the constellations at night, and by marking the track of the sun overhead by day, and by knowing the date and season, Roland could gauge reasonably well the ship’s latitude. Such calculations confirmed indeed what the cool and rainy weather already suggested, that they had drifted into the middle and temperate zones of the sea, roughly halfway between the equator and the pole.
But their longitude? Where they stood east or west? In which body of water they even floated, the Middle Sea or the Outer Ocean? There Roland was blind, for to figure longitude one needed accurate clocks and detailed tables of figures and a sextant, none of which he possessed.
In this regard then, the Revenge was lost without hope. Still, Roland studied the map hungrily. It was the landmasses that drew him, the images of the four great Isles, green and gold jewels set amid the blue wasteland. How beautifully their coastlines were traced in ink, all crinkled with harbours and bays. If he could only sight such a shore again with his own eyes.
And who knew? Maybe the Revenge was near land even now? Maybe a coast waited just beyond the horizon? Oh, Roland no longer hoped that the Fish would ever allow itself to be washed aground, but if they at least drifted close enough to land to see it, to smell it, what a wonder that would be. To inhale the scents of earth again, to behold forests, or the glimmer of city lights, to know that life went on beyond this prison of white ropes …
Why, what was even happening now across the Four Isles? What of the war? Had it been won yet, or lost? Were fleets still battling upon the seas? Or were they all at home again in peace? And what about all those who had been lost meanwhile? Did people still remember what had befallen the Revenge, and speculate about its fate? Or had the ship been forgotten, just another vessel sacrificed to the tumult, never to be seen again?
Loneliness assailed Roland as he gazed at the map, and tears threatened in his eyes. Forget the war and the ship – did anyone remember him, or wonder where he was? His father was dead, but his mother had still been alive at the time of the Revenge’s capture – did she at least still think of Roland sometimes, and hope for this return? Or after six hundred days had even she given up, accepting that he was drowned, and would never come home?
It wasn’t fair.
It had never been fair.
Nothing Roland had ever done deserved this …
He might have wept then. But suddenly a new thought intruded, driving self pity away. Six hundred days in the grip of the Fish … that was a long time. A very long time for a hull to be squeezed by the white ropes.
Was there a limit to how long the ship could survive like this? The tales of Rope Fish that Roland remembered from his childhood gave little clear indication. Sometimes, those stories said, entangled ships had lingered so eternally that the crews had finally scuttled their own vessels to put an end to it. But there were also tales of hulls fracturing under a Fish’s grasp, and ships sinking rapidly with all hands. So which version was right? For that matter, from where did these reports and accounts originate anyway, if no one had ever survived a Rope Fish to tell of the experience?
Roland could not say. But he decided abruptly that he must inspect the ship forthwith. When had he last even visited the lower decks, or checked the level of the bilge? Anything might be happening down there.
He stashed the map away, took up a lamp, then descended through the gun decks, gazing about in distaste. How gloomy it all was, away from the neatness of the restored stern castle; down here everything still remained in the violent disarray of the mutinies, the mess compounded by nearly two years worth of dust and salt and mould. The timber frames still looked sound enough to Roland’s inexpert eye, but all other materials – hammocks, bedding, discarded clothes – were stiffened with mildew, or rotting.
In the levels below the gun decks, complete darkness waited. Roland lit his lamp and ventured on, descending to the lowest hold. He hadn’t been this far down since his days of banishment, and it felt now like visiting another world, one grim and cold and silent. Except, the silence wasn’t utter. Faint creaks and groans came to Roland’s straining ear – and then a more deadly sound, the slow plop and plunk of water dripping into water.
He reached the hatchway to the hold, and peering down, with the lamp extended, saw the telltale black gleam. The bilge had over-flowed and the hold was flooded, two or three feet deep by the look. And here and there about the walls, water seeped from dark, elongated stains.
It was happening already then. The pressure from the white ropes was slowly wrenching at the hull, opening fractures in the timbers and the nicre sheath. They might be only hairline cracks as yet, but no doubt they would in time grow into open breaches, letting in the sea.
And then the Revenge would sink.
Roland had to do something.
First, obviously, he must employ the pumps, and empty out the water that had already flooded in. It would be a dreadful chore, a labour of many days, for the pumps were meant to be operated by teams of four men at a time, and Roland was alone. Pietru would be no help. The scapegoat had the strength, yes, but not the patience to stick at a prolonged task.
But that was only the beginning, for even if Roland emptied the hold for now, the greater problem would remain. The Fish was crushing the ship. No amount of pumping would help, once the cracks widened too far.
Ah … but maybe here Pietru might be of more use?
Roland ascended to the dim light of the gun decks, and did not have to search for long – on the Second he found the scapegoat in the middle of one of his patrols, shambling along and muttering happily to himself. In former days, Pietru had insisted that Roland accompany him always on these endless meanderings, but of late he seemed quite content to roam alone – a mercy for which Roland was grateful. But he apprehended the scapegoat now, and dragged him down to the usual gun port on the Third.
‘Rowand hungry?’ asked Pietru.
‘No, not yet. I don’t want food. I want you to talk to the Fish. I want you to tell it something. Can you do that?’
The scapegoat furrowed his brow. ‘Talk to Fish?’
‘Yes. If you can ask for food, then surely you can ask other things. I want you to tell it that it is hurting the ship. It’s squeezing us too tight. It will crack the hull open soon, and sink us. We don’t want that to happen. Neither should the Fish, because then it would having nothing left to hold on to. So it needs to stop squeezing so hard. Do you understand?’
Pietru heaved a huge puff of breath. ‘Stop squeezing so hard, or we sink, and we don’t want that, not Fish either. Yes. I understand.’
‘And can you tell the Fish?’
‘Don’t know. Can try.’
And with that, the scapegoat knelt to the gun port.
The communion happened as it ever did, Pietru’s hand gradually consumed by the white caul. The scapegoat was talking to himself all the while, audibly at first, repeating stop squeezing so hard, stop squeezing so hard, but then falling away in indistinguishable murmurings.
A long time passed, Roland watching anxiously. Was it possible, what he asked of the scapegoat? Could the mind of the simpleton, and the mind of the Fish, truly exchange an abstract concept? Not a simple request for food, but a matter of cause and effect, of long term consequence?
Pietru looked up suddenly, his face strained. ‘Fish understands. Fish doesn’t want ship to break. Fish can squeeze less hard.’
Roland stared in amazement. And then a dazzling notion struck him. If this much was possible, then maybe—
‘Ask it to let us go!’ he blurted. ‘Tell it – tell it to just let us go!’
Pietru frowned. ‘Let us go?’
Roland nodded fervently. ‘Then we can go home!’ He gave no thought just then as to how that might be done exactly, how two people alone, neither of them seamen, could sail and navigate a ship that normally needed a crew of hundreds. The idea itself was too glorious. ‘Tell it now!’
The scapegoat hunched his shoulders doubtfully, but turned nevertheless to the gun port, his brow set in concentration.
But very soon he was shaking his head. ‘No. No no no …’ It came out in a moan, and he turned in distress to Roland. ‘Fish won’t let us go, doesn’t want to. Fish likes us. Fish loves us. It wants to keep us forever.’
Roland felt his blaze of hope fragment into a puff of embers. Yes … yes, of course. He should have known. It was one thing to encourage the Fish to preserve the ship, quite another to expect release.
‘But it will stop squeezing?’ he verified.
‘Yes, it will. But never let us go.’
And with that, Roland had to be satisfied.
Only much later, when one of his black moods was upon him, did it occur to Roland that perhaps he had made a terrible mistake. By then he had pumped out the flooded hold, and done what he could to caulk the leaks, and the Revenge was as sound again as it was ever likely to be.
But why had he done any of it at all?
Why not let the ship sink?
How else was this going to end? Pietru had said it, the Fish was never going to let them go. So if they did not sink, then … then what? Would they just go on like this, lingering and lingering? For years more, decades more? That was madness, surely. Better to finish it, long before then …
And yet … no.
In his heart, even in the midst of his deepest spells of misery and despair, Roland was still not ready to die.
So passed four years.
The third spectre appeared to Pietru shortly after the second. Its presence came to Roland’s attention when he realised one day that noon had passed and yet the scapegoat had not delivered the usual rations. When Roland searched out Pietru and pressed him about this, the scapegoat, lip quivering, broke down and admitted that he was too scared to go down to the gun port.
‘Scared of what?’ Roland demanded.
‘There’s a man on the stairs. Can’t go past him.’
‘Awful man, all white, with blood in his mouth.’
Roland groaned internally. ‘Show me.’
Reluctant yet obedient, Pietru led him to the main stairway and they descended. But on the second deck down, the scapegoat paused and pointed. ‘There,’ he said, indicating the next flight below.
Roland looked, but as he had expected, the stairs were empty.
‘There’s no man,’ he said, exasperation growing
‘He’s there. He’s looking up at us.’
‘You’ve got to stop this, Pietru. There’s no one on this ship but us. These people you think you see – they aren’t real. They can’t be.’
The scapegoat shook his head stubbornly. ‘This one is real. I’ve seen him before. Long ago. Far away from here.’
Roland blinked. ‘You … you know him?’
‘Not his name. Don’t know his name. But I know his face. I saw him before he was dead like this. More than once. It was on the big ship, the enormous ship, before it was burned. I went there sometimes with my old captain, to big meetings in a big room, with lots of kings and lords. I saw him there. He was one of the kings. Big man in a gold crown. Before he died.’
Roland gazed in wonder at the empty steps. A ghostly king? And not only that, but an actual person, someone that Pietru had seen in the flesh on visits to the long since burned Twelfth Kingdom? Once again, bewilderment blew in Roland’s heart. What could any of it mean?
‘How … how did he die?’ he asked the scapegoat.
Dread haunted Pietru’s eyes as he gazed down. ‘No air. It all turned to poison. Blood in his throat. And not just him, others too. Other kings, and dukes, and barons. All screaming. All dead, piled up.’
Poison? Suffocation? Kings and dukes and barons? A mass murder? Roland had never heard of any such event. He stared again to the place upon the stairs. ‘But why is he on this ship? What does he want here?’
The scapegoat’s voice was no more than a whisper. ‘There is someone he blames, someone he’s waiting for.’
Pietru didn’t seem to hear. He was staring beyond the stairs now, into infinity. ‘Other ghosts will come, king says. More like him.’
‘Hundreds of ghosts. So many dead, so angry.’
Fury ignited in Roland. This was all craziness. There was no spirit on the stairs. Not there, not anywhere. There was no such thing. He rounded on the scapegoat. ‘Stop it! I don’t want to know. I don’t care if you see a thousand more ghosts, stop telling me about them, okay?’
Pietru bent his head. ‘I’m sorry. I don’t want to see them. I’m scared of them. But I can’t help it. I can’t not see them.’
‘I don’t care. Just shut up about them. And go down by the other stairs to get the fish from now on. I’m not going to starve because you make these things up in your head. Do you understand me?’
Miserable, Pietru nodded, and went by the other stairs, and Roland got his fish as usual. And in the months that followed, whatever the scapegoat did or did not see, he said not a word about it.
Five and a half years into their ordeal, a ship came.
Ever since he had assumed the captaincy, Roland had searched the horizon three times every day, at dawn and noon and dusk, in the hope of sighting a sail, another vessel in all the waste of the ocean. Never had he been rewarded. So when he happened to glance out across the sea one mid-morning to behold a distant white speck, the shock was immense.
A ship! Another ship had found them!
He rushed to the rail, shouting and waving his arms madly. The vessel was miles off yet, advancing from the south, and of course its crew would not be able to see or hear him yet, but they must have noticed the Revenge itself by now, and would surely come closer to investigate.
And if they came close enough, then maybe …
He and Pietru might escape?
Roland’s eyes fell to the ropes that massed as ever in the water all about the ship. Escape how, exactly? There was still no way to leap beyond the Fish’s tendrils, even if the other ship came within fifty yards. And it would not come so close anyway. As soon as it was near enough to recognise the net of white strands draped about the Revenge, it would flee.
His hopes falling away, Roland watched the approaching sail with bitter expectancy. At any moment, no doubt, the ship would suddenly change course and veer away. Its captain would be studying the Revenge through his telescope even now, and very soon would grasp the danger.
But the vessel only came on.
Pietru appeared on deck, drawn by Roland’s shouts. The scapegoat’s broad face lit up in a smile. ‘Look,’ he said, pointing, ‘a ship.’
‘I see it,’ Roland replied. ‘Now shut up.’
They waited. Hope and dread battled in Roland – was the captain of the other ship a braver man than he had credited? Had the fellow seen the white ropes, but was determined to come near anyway?
In either case, the ship was not hurrying. Indeed, it bore only a single raised sail – on its foremast – which even to Roland’s un-seamanlike eye was an odd configuration, especially in the light winds of the day.
Indeed, it looked an odd vessel entirely, its rigging ragged, two of its masts bare and its hull streaked with black stains. Nor, as the ship came closer still, could Roland spy any seamen aloft, or on the decks.
An awful suspicion took root. He stared, begging silently that it would not be so, but as the vessel came on yet, no more than a mile off now, holding the same course as ever, the truth could no longer be denied.
It was a derelict.
Fire had swept through it, leaving the stern castle a charred wreck, and the forward hull was riddled with splintered holes, the evidence of cannon shot. Tangled lines and broken spars littered the deserted decks. Roland gazed hollowly, understanding. The vessel must be a casualty of some far-off and long-ago battle. Badly damaged, on fire, most likely it had been abandoned by its crew and left to burn and sink – but instead by some miracle (a rainstorm maybe had doused the flames) it had been preserved. And now, driven by its single rotting sail, it was wandering the oceans as an empty hulk.
Roland stared on. Here was no brave captain come to investigate, no crew standing ready to help. Here was only another lost vessel, crossing paths in all the emptiness of the sea with a fellow aimless wanderer. Holding its course, the derelict sailed silently by, passing a quarter mile off the Revenge’s bow. Roland could discern no banners or flags, nor any name, so could learn nothing of its identity or origins. He could not even tell which side it had fought on, only that it had lost its battle, only that it was useless to him …
‘Goodbye ship,’ Pietru said, waving.
Desolation came, crushing. Roland bowed his head. There would be no rescue. There would never be a rescue.
It was only now, indeed, surprised by the fierceness of his own disappointment, that Roland realised he had still been hoping for one. Through all these years, even though he had told himself there was no hope, even though he knew that no one had ever escaped a Rope Fish, still, it seemed, he had held on to the dream in his heart. Maybe that was the only reason he had stayed alive this long. Because he thought he might be free some day …
If so, the derelict ship had laid bare his foolishness. Rescue was delusion. Escape was delusion. He must accept that or go mad. He would never get to go home, never see land again or regain his old freedoms. This was all his life would ever be now. The Revenge. Pietru. And the Fish.
‘Why Rowand so sad?’ the scapegoat enquired.
At another time Roland might have raged at this, or struck out in fury, but not now. Now he only lifted his head forlornly.
‘What did we do, Pietru?’ he asked, his gaze taking in the sea and the Revenge and the departing ship all at once. ‘What did we do to deserve this?’
The scapegoat creased his brow, not understanding.
‘No, really,’ Roland pressed, ‘why was it us, in all the world, that the Fish chose? What crime did we ever commit that was so terrible it called for this punishment? I … I killed that bird, I know. But it can’t be that. Not just that. And anyway, you never did anything wrong.’
Comprehension seemed to dawn on Pietru’s face. ‘You think Fish caught ship because we did something bad?’
‘It’s that – or it’s ill luck beyond reason.’
‘But Rowand, no. Not bad luck. Not punishment either. That’s not why Fish came. Fish had nothing to do with us.’
Roland gave a bitter laugh. ‘No? How can you be so sure?’
‘Easy. Fish told me.’
There was a silence. ‘What do you mean?’ asked Roland, voice gone very cold. ‘What do you mean, the Fish told you?’
Pietru lifted his hand to the white canopy of tendrils, and gave the ropes a fond caress. ‘I talk to it.’
‘What, when you ask it for food?’
‘No. All the time now.’
Roland stared. Had it really come to that? Was the communication between the scapegoat and the Fish so casual now that they could simply talk about things at whim? He said, ‘And the day the Fish caught the ship? It didn’t come because of us, you said. Then why did it?’
‘It was told to.’
Roland reared back. ‘It was told to?’
Pietru nodded carelessly: the topic seemed to be of no great interest to him. ‘Fish had no choice, had to grab ship. It was told to.’
‘Told by who?!’
The scapegoat rolled his eyes. ‘I don’t know.’
‘Then ask the Fish, damn it! Right now!’
Roland’s urgency finally penetrated. Pietru blinked, and with a chastened frown took a firmer grip of the white ropes, his expression going far away, his lips moving silently as if in prayer. Roland had a momentary and uncanny vision of the monster far below in the deeps stirring massively in response, and at length – somehow – giving an answer.
Pietru said, ‘Fish don’t know either. Fish was alone and asleep in the sea, then something woke it up, something Fish couldn’t see, and made it move. Fish says it was like … like being poked with a stick. Fish wasn’t allowed to stop moving, not until it found the ship. And it had to be quick, it had to catch us before we caught the little boats that were in the water …’
Roland stared in renewed amazement. Before we caught the little boats. The attack boats, is that what the scapegoat meant? Roland had not forgotten. On that terrible day, the Revenge had been on the verge of taking several Twin Islands attack boats prisoner when the Fish struck. Later, Roland himself had speculated about the way the Fish had seemed to intervene as if to save those boats – and now Pietru was confirming his old suspicions. The Fish had not appeared by chance at all, it had been deliberately sent!
But sent by who? What agency was so powerful that a monster of the sea must bend to its commands, against all likelihood of fortune?
What else could it be but fortune itself?
What else could it be but fate itself?
‘Why?’ Roland demanded faintly. ‘Why did the boats matter so much? Who was in them that was so important?’
Who – he was really asking – was responsible for all this?
Pietru’s face was scrunched in concentration, still in commune with the creature below.
‘All men same to Fish. Fish don’t know names. But there was one man in one of the boats. Young man, little man. Fish was told – do not touch him, do not drown him. Leave that one be.’
Roland breathed out, transported back to the day, and to the memory of a face he had seen, staring up at the high deck of the Revenge – the young commander of the leading attack boat. It was him, Roland knew somehow. He was the one. But how could such a youth, a junior officer, matter so much to fate that it would warp nature itself to protect him?
Then came anger. It was irrelevant who the youth was! Who cared even if he had been a great captain, or the War Master of the Twin Islanders himself! Nothing made him worth the entire crew of the Revenge. Nothing made him worth Roland’s life. How dare fortune declare that Roland could be abandoned and cast aside, just so that another might go free!
Then, as quickly as it had risen, Roland’s fury leaked away. What did it matter now? Whatever the true reason the Fish has seized the Revenge, it was of no consequence anymore. The thing was done.
Except – it did matter, because it made their captivity feel even more meaningless than it had before. At least, before, Roland had been able to marvel at the cruel uniqueness of the event, which almost made it – and him – special. But to learn that they had been doomed not with any intent, but merely as a side effect, as a necessity to protect someone else; that shrank the whole affair to something mean and small and wretched.
Pietru had taken his hand away from the white ropes. He wiped his brow. ‘Head hurts. Talking with Fish is hard.’
Roland looked again to the derelict ship, receding away to the north. No, he could not even rail against fate, for fate wasn’t listening. It had dismissed all thought of them. Their purpose was served, their tiny role in the grand dramas of the age played and done. There was no epic story here, no fight for survival that would end in triumph. The Revenge was not the hero of any tale. It was a footnote of someone else’s history, already forgotten.
‘All right,’ he told the scapegoat, ‘that’s enough for now.’
Pietru shuffled off. And from that moment on Roland gave up any semblance of hope or effort in his exile. He ceased to care about his appearance and his clothes, or about the state of the ship and the water in the bilge. He ceased to watch for sails, or to try to chart their position on the map. He took to sleeping all day and night, and stared sightlessly when he was awake. He hoped for nothing any longer, expected nothing, attempted nothing.
He did only one thing. He kept himself alive. He ate his daily fish, and drank water from the rain barrels, and refused to die. That final step was still one he could not – or would not – take. Hopeless or not, irrelevant or not, it was his life still. And still he did not want that life to end.
Seven months later, the first ghost appeared.
After the third of the apparitions, Pietru – as Roland had demanded – stopped reporting the arrival of further spectres. But Roland knew all the same that more and more unseen shades were peopling the ship.
The scapegoat did not speak of them, but his manner gave patent clues to their presence: the way he ducked his head as he passed certain doorways; the way he would start suddenly, as if at some sound beyond Roland’s hearing, staring off with eyes wide; the way he avoided more and more areas of the ship, until he rarely left the stern castle anymore. Pietru held his tongue throughout, but he behaved as a man would who was hemmed all around by sights and sounds he could not bear to contemplate.
But that was the scapegoat’s problem, Roland told himself. There was nothing Roland could do about it. Indeed, as long as Pietru continued to muster his courage and descend to the Third Gun deck every day to collect the rations – and faithfully, the scapegoat did exactly that – then it was Roland’s policy to ignore Pietru and the question of ghosts entirely.
So passed more years yet.
Despite his fugue state, Roland kept count of those years, adding the days one by one in his head. He had no interest in the total anymore, but it was an action too deeply ingrained in him to stop. So he knew, without wanting to, when the two thousand days mark came and went.
And when the three thousand days mark passed.
And when the four thousand days mark drew near.
Ten years and more, since their capture.
Over a decade.
But these were just numbers, figures plucked from the air. They meant very little. The truer measurement of time lay in the age and decay that was visible about the ship, for although the hull of the Revenge, sheathed doubly in nicre and in the caul of the Fish, was proof against rot, everywhere else decline was advancing apace. Topside, the useless sails were now in tatters, and the rigging drooped slackly, ropes unwinding into frayed strands. The deck timbers, polish long since worn away, were beginning to warp and split. And below decks, a slimy scum of mould and dust covered everything, thickening year by year as woodworm chewed unchecked at the framework.
Then there was Roland himself. One mirror remained unbroken upon the ship, hanging in the Great Cabin, and when upon occasion Roland chose to study himself in the glass, he beheld there a figure withered far beyond his actual years. He had ceased all shaving and grooming, so his hair and beard had grown into wild matted nests. His clothes were rags, his teeth yellow, his skin pale and pasty for lack of sun or exercise. But his eyes were the worst. They were the eyes of the very old, of those whose minds were already departed and who only awaited death now; grey, watery and listless.
Why – Roland would observe grimly – he was all but a ghost himself now, one more spectre to join Pietru’s throng.
Then he would turn away from the mirror, and not look again for another week perhaps, or another month.
Or another year.
All the while, the Revenge drifted.
They had probably circled the world by now, the Fish and the ship together, driven only by the wind against the hull, and the currents in the sea: though whether they had done so east to west, or west to east, Roland could not say. He knew only that they had never wandered so far north as to reach the Unquiet Ice, nor so far south as to become enmeshed in the Barrier Doldrums. In the middle latitudes they had remained, crossing the Middle Sea and the Outer Ocean alike without sight of land or of another sail.
Or even of any living thing. No bird ever alighted upon the ship, no shark or whale ever swam near. No doubt, all such creatures were too wary of the Rope Fish and its tendrils. Nor did any other monster of the sea ever approach. At some point the Revenge must surely have drifted across the infamous abyss of the Blue Wilderness, where great serpents – so Roland had heard – were purported to rise roaring from the deep. But no such fantastic beasts ever troubled the Revenge. Perhaps there was an etiquette between monsters, so that one leviathan would not attempt to steal another’s prize.
In all, it meant that for year following year, there were no distractions or novelties to behold from the Revenge’s decks, nothing whatever to look at other than the sea and the sky. And Roland had learned that though both the sea and the sky were ever-changing, as wind and weather and seasons proceeded by, they were essentially always exactly the same. Each span of sea could have been any other span of sea, each slice of sky was no different from any slice of sky anywhere else. Without land to give reference, or instruments to measure by, the entire world was reduced to a single horizon of water that was never crossed and never left behind; an infinity of sameness.
Oh, there were storms, and great waves, and week-long gales … but the Rope Fish held the ship steady and secure through them all, better than the most skilled captain might, and Roland held no fear for their safety. Indeed, in time he ceased to notice the weather at all in any true sense. It was too fleeting. The seasons themselves became as swift moving to him as the endless days, and the wheel of the stars as monotonous as a whirling clock.
Who knows how long he might have gone on in such detachment and apathy – his whole life perhaps, seventy or eighty years sliding by in a grey haze, until at some point in his sleep he simply expired.
But as the eleventh anniversary of their capture came and went, one circumstance at last began to penetrate Roland’s torpor.
It was Pietru.
Something was wrong with him.
In truth, little though Roland had cared, the scapegoat had not been his old self for years now. Not since the ghosts had started appearing. His native happiness had faded as the apparitions crowded about him ever more densely, leaving him silent and sombre. But now it wasn’t just that he was unhappy, now he looked physically unwell. He was losing weight, even though he had always retained, until now, his great girth, succoured by his communion with the Fish. Also, his round face was becoming lined with age. And Roland was reminded, with an unpleasant shock, that although the scapegoat always seemed childlike, he was not young. Indeed, he was over sixty now.
He began to watch Pietru more closely. There was no mistake, the scapegoat was slowly wasting away. As ever, he ate no fish or kelp – but what about his other nourishment? Finally, Roland followed the scapegoat down to the Third Gun, the first time he had done so in some years, to observe the communion with the Fish, and the summoning of food.
The process had changed. Instead of coaxing the white ropes until they enfolded his hand, now Pietru merely placed his palm against the caul – a gentle pat of reminder – and promptly the ropes opened and the fish were passed through. The unearthly comingling of flesh, and the sharing of nutrients between scapegoat and monster, was no longer taking place.
‘Pietru,’ Roland said, ‘why don’t you do this the way you used to?’
The scapegoat shrugged. ‘Don’t want to.’
‘But aren’t you hungry? What are you doing for food? Don’t you keep yourself strong by talking with the Fish?’
‘I did. But don’t want that anymore.’
‘But if you don’t eat anything, and you don’t talk with the Fish, then you’ll get weak and thin. You’ll get sick.’
Pietru nodded his great head, complacent. How old he looked suddenly. ‘I know. I don’t mind. I’m tired. Want to go to sleep soon.’
And Roland knew what the scapegoat meant by sleep. Not simple rest, Pietru was talking about dying, about choosing to die.
Roland’s long apathy dissolved in an instant, and for the first time in half a decade he felt a genuine emotion – terror.
‘Pietru,’ he said sternly, trying to hide the fear, ‘you don’t want to do that. You don’t want to go to sleep.’
Pietru was undaunted. ‘Everyone sleeps one day.’
‘But that day can be years off yet,’ urged Roland, still striving for calm, even though the enormity was overwhelming his thoughts. If Pietru died, he would be alone. It was not that he had ever sought the scapegoat’s company, or had even really noticed him in these last years – but to be alone on the ship, alone in all the ocean, alone in all the years to come …
‘No,’ admonished Pietru, as if it was Roland who was the simpleton of the two. ‘Not later. I’m tired now. Sleep soon.’
‘But … but how will I get fish if you—’ For Roland had just realised this as well; without Pietru, there would be no food.
The scapegoat wasn’t listening. His eyes were roving about the deck uneasily, seeing things Roland could not see. ‘Don’t want to be here anymore, don’t like this ship anymore. Too many ghosts, everywhere, all the time. Don’t talk about them, you said. But I don’t like them.’
Roland stared about wildly. ‘No, you can tell me about them, if that will help. You don’t have to be scared of them.’
‘Not scared anymore, ghosts can’t do anything … but they are so angry, so unhappy, they hurt my head. Tired of ghosts. Tired of old man and his children, all drowned, tired of women who cries, tired of king with red lips, tired of frozen man, tired of cross soldier with knife in his heart, tired of family that is all burned, tired of silent captain so stern … there’s too many, too many, everywhere I look, waiting, waiting, waiting. Waiting forever.’
‘Waiting for what?’ Roland begged helplessly, as if the answer might somehow change Pietru’s mind. ‘Waiting for who?’
‘I don’t know. Don’t care. I say goodbye to them all. They can’t follow me now. I’ll be asleep soon. Very soon.’
And from that resolve, no matter how Roland argued against it in the weeks that followed, Pietru could not be shaken. He would not eat, and would not take sustenance from the Fish. His great fleshy body began to sag, his innocent face turning gaunt and hollow, his movements becoming ever slower. Roland could only watch in dread. There was a time when he had wanted to kill Pietru to be free of him. But not anymore. Now he would have given anything to keep the scapegoat alive. He did not want to be alone.
He tried to delay Pietru with guilt, reminding him over and over again. ‘But how will I get fish without you? I’ll starve if you go to sleep. I’ll die. You don’t want that to happen to me, do you?’
But Pietru never seemed to hear these pleas – except at the last, as he entered his final hours. By then the scapegoat was bedridden, too weak to go down to the gun deck any longer, and Roland had not eaten anything for two days. So his hunger was an actual thing as he reasoned one more time that Pietru must live on, so that Roland himself could live on.
The scapegoat sighed suddenly, and turned his head on the pillow, his eyes large in a face that had gone bony and alien. ‘Silly Rowand. You don’t need fish and horrible seaweed. You never did. Just talk to Fish, like me. You don’t need to eat when you do that, Fish fills you up.’
Roland recoiled. ‘You mean – but, I thought only you could—’
‘Anyone can do it. Even silly Rowand.’
These were almost the last coherent words Pietru uttered. He lingered for another day, asleep, or wandering in delirium. But at the very end, as a grey pallor stole across his skin, and as a calmness descended upon his labouring chest, the scapegoat’s eyes opened and seemed to regard the room with clarity. For a long moment he stared at the foot of the bed.
Then, ‘Another ghost is here, Rowand. Nice man. Wise man. He is kind, he has a glass of water. I think he was the last.’
And with that, Pietru sighed, a long exhalation of weariness that went on and on, and when it stopped, no other breath came.
Roland glanced bleakly to the foot of the bed. There was no one there. He returned his gaze to the lifeless scapegoat, who had faced death so fearlessly when Roland himself was still so afraid of it.
And he wept with loneliness.
For a week afterwards, he forestalled the inevitable. Hunger gnawed in his belly, an old and unwelcome acquaintance, every bit as awful as before. But he would not go to the Third Gun deck, or kneel there to extend his hand into the white caul to commune with the monster in the deeps.
Better death than that, surely. After all, what was there to live for now? He was alone, the ship was rotting around him, every hour was a weariness. So why not let starvation end it? Indeed, why not end it himself, and quickly? He could use his pistol, if the powder would still burn after all these years. The pain itself would be fleeting, no more. So what was stopping him?
What was he afraid of?
Roland didn’t know. Except that he was afraid; that as lonely and cold and pointless as his existence seemed now, it paled before the great freezing, howling nothingness of not existing at all.
In the meantime, with great labour, he wrapped Pietru in a shroud and managed to drag his body out to the Captain’s Walk, and from there to the side and over the railing. The corpse splashed down into the white ropes and was quickly devoured, and Roland had to wonder in loathing fascination – did the Fish recognise the scapegoat as it dragged him down? Was the monster also lonely? Did it miss Pietru and their conversations?
Was it waiting to talk with Roland now?
No, no, no. He would not do it.
Except, of course, he knew he would.
On the four thousandth, one hundredth and seventh day of the Revenge’s captivity, his hunger pangs unbearable, Roland discarded the last tatters of pride left to him, and descended to the gun deck.
For maybe an hour he knelt at the same port that Pietru had always used, staring at the white caul. Around him the Revenge was silent, and would be so forever; no other footstep would ever fall, no one else would ever cough or laugh or snore, no one would ever speak to him. To live for years more, decades more, in such isolation seemed terrible beyond thought.
But to not live …
Roland extended his hand, lightly touched the ropes. Even to do this much, he had to fight every instinct. Through all these years he had rigorously avoided contact with the tendrils. But in fact they were merely smooth at first, and cool to the touch, giving slightly. Nothing else happened. There was no enfolding, no communion. He pushed harder, wondering how the process was supposed to begin. Was he meant to reach out with his mind in some way? Should he invite the monster to respond somehow? But no, it felt ridiculous. It must have been a thing unique to Pietru after all …
Then something changed in the texture of the caul. The smoothness gave way to a roughness that gripped and caught at his fingers, almost as a cat’s tongue might. It was an uncanny feeling, and yet not unpleasant, and now – as Roland watched as if from a great distance – the ropes were rippling, and enfolding his hand. Heat seemed to burn his skin, not fire, but the heat of energy, rising up his arm, flooding his chest, setting his head aglow. A wind roared alive in his mind, a lifting gale, tugging at him, insistent.
He let go and flew away …
Ah. So that’s how it was.
He was himself still, and yet not himself alone, for he sailed on the wind with an Other. The Fish. There was no sense of the creature physically, no impression of what it looked like down in the deeps, it was simply a presence at his shoulder, unseen but immensely potent, a mind beside his mind, alien in every way, and yet sharing the one essential sameness: it lived, and it was aware that it lived. How this merging was possible, what strange interaction between his skin and the Fish’s tendrils was occurring, Roland did not know. He could experience only the result: the exchange of thought.
First he knew surprise from the Other. For he was not Pietru, and the Fish had known only Pietru before now. But after the surprise came acceptance and then a slow curiosity, as the Fish explored his soul. Roland could sense a complex series of observations and decisions being made within the Other’s mind, regarding himself, but could not grasp the meaning of it.
Meanwhile, strength flowed into him, given freely by the Fish – and it was wonderful, a bounty suffusing his blood from a supply infinitely vast. No wonder Pietru had ceased to have any interest in food, no wonder the scapegoat had always smiled and burbled to himself during communion, for this was like drawing the warmth of the sun directly into your heart.
And yet, in all the rush, Roland could imagine no way to talk to the Other, not the way Pietru apparently had. He was too swept away to shape coherent statements or questions, and the Fish’s mind was too incomprehensible. It would be like trying to make himself understood in a language he had never learned. The scapegoat, in his simpleness, must have managed it by instinct. Roland would have to learn it more laboriously.
He felt no concern, however. He would surely master the trick of it, given time. This was only his first communion, there would be others, he had no doubt of that now. So for the present he did not try to communicate, he merely bathed in the radiance, savouring his life renewed, until it seemed that he was too full of energy, too close to being burned rather than warmed, and he knew he must end the encounter. Reluctantly, he withdrew his hand.
The world spun for a while, as slowly his mind settled back to itself. He found that he was kneeling unharmed in front of the gun port. By the changing of the shadows he saw that half a day had passed: so long had he fed from the Fish’s bounty, so starved had he been. But the hunger was gone now. Health and vigour pulsed in him as if he had just finished a dozen great feasts. And yet he was also strangely exhausted. Roland rose, stumbled dazedly up to his cabin and his bed, then slept the deepest sleep he had known in an age.
And for once, he remembered his dreams. He was outside of his body, and studying it with a preternatural awareness, able to see every organ and bone and blood vessel within himself, and to understand their functions. And everywhere he looked he could see the corruption of age – even though he was only thirty four years old – and see how it was that time was slowly breaking down and degrading every piece of him, guaranteeing death.
But even as he watched, all that damage was being repaired: the infusion of energy from the Fish was doing more than just sating his hunger, it was moving through all the cells of his being and renewing them. His heart, his lungs, his bones, his muscles, his every sinew, they were all being made pure, as healthy as if both fully matured and yet newly born.
In the dream, exultation filled Roland. Why, he had only to commune like this with the monster every day, and every day the ravages of age and injury would be repaired. With the Fish’s help, he need never weaken, never sicken. Never die. He savoured the elation. Had Pietru realised this? Surely not: in his innocence the scapegoat must never have understood, otherwise why would he have ceased communion and let himself perish?
Pietru could have lived forever.
Roland would live forever.
He woke to the first hints of dawn, and to a profound sense of peace. Carefully, not daring to believe it was real, he rose and went to the Great Cabin to study himself in the mirror. At first glance, there was little sign of any transformation. He was still too thin, his beard still a tangled mess, his clothes still rags, his skin still scarred from a dozen minor injuries of old. The Fish had not transfigured him externally. But his eyes told the tale. They were a young man’s eyes again, bright and clear, the deadness that had clouded them in the years of despair now banished. It was true then, it must be. He had been rejuvenated from within, just as it had seemed in his dreams.
Filled with hope, with wonder, with joy, Roland strode out to the Captain’s Walk to await the sunrise. The chill embraced him, the sky overcast but glowing red, the air still, the sea calm and black, the silence complete. He turned from horizon to horizon, east and west, north and south, breathing in life, knowing he could have a thousand more such mornings, ten thousand more mornings, an infinity of mornings, if he wanted.
For he was immortal now.
Then he saw the old man.
The figure stood on the foredeck, a gaunt shape in the half light. Roland’s heart caught – had another miracle occurred? Had rescuers come during the night, and already boarded the Revenge?
He almost called out, but then the catch in his heart turned to ice. The figure was not looking at him, gave no sign it was even aware of him. It was only staring out to sea. And Roland remembered then. It was exactly there, on that very place on the foredeck, that Pietru had seen his first ghost. Later, the apparitions had filled the ship. But the first, the very first, had been an old man, standing and staring from the foredeck.
Dread clutched Roland. He had seen nothing that first time, convinced that the scapegoat was victim to hallucination, a trick of the mind. But this old man was no figment of imagination, no half-glimpsed shadow that might be confused for something else. He was solid flesh and blood.
But he couldn’t be. He couldn’t really be there. Could he? And if so, why had Roland not been able to see him before?
The Rope Fish. That was it. It had to be something to do with the Fish and its communion. It must have opened some sensitivity within Roland, to make him see things like this, things that weren’t real.
Or was it to see real things that were otherwise hidden?
The old man ignored Roland still, gazing out to sea with a patience that seemed somehow bitter and terrible.
What was he then?
A ghost? Truly?
Pietru had never wanted to know. But Roland wasn’t Pietru. His limbs gone stiff, he forced himself to descend the stairs and advance slowly across the main deck, eyes on the spectre all the while.
It was dressed in seafaring garb, a fisherman’s gear perhaps. I think he drowned, Pietru had said long ago. And at closer proximity Roland could see that the man’s clothes were damp, and that his lank hair hung wet across his bony face. If this truly was a ghost, a restless spirit returned from the dead, then yes, he may indeed have met his end by drowning.
Only, who was he, and why was he here? Roland, as had Pietru in his turn, did not recognise the man’s face. This was not one of the Revenge’s dead crew. He was a stranger. But there was an air of purpose about him all the same, the sense that he was here on the ship for a reason.
Roland was mounting the foredeck stairs now, and as he reached the top the figure stirred at last and turned its head slowly, to gaze directly at him. Roland froze, his faltering courage almost failing completely. The spectre spoke no word, but contempt radiated from the dead gaze as heavy as a physical blow. And yet Roland must know what the ghost wanted, or surely go mad, so he forced himself forward. A single step, two steps, then three …
At last he stood before the old man. He could smell mould now, stronger than the decaying air of the ship; the ripe, wet scent of flesh not long taken from the water and only now beginning to rot. All the while he had expected the ghost to challenge his approach, to utter some curse or warning – but the spectre held silent, only watched him with its eyes full of hate.
But hatred for what? For who?
For Roland himself?
No, it wasn’t that. The spectre was aware of his presence, yes, but Roland could sense that he was of no true importance to it, that he was little more than an interruption, an insect that had come crawling across the deck. The unyielding enmity was meant for another.
He licked his lips, dared a question. ‘Who are you?’
The old man only stared balefully.
‘Tell me,’ Roland insisted, voice quavering. ‘Who are you?’
Upon the horizon the sun was rising between shreds of cloud, and the ghost’s eyes reflected red like fire. It frowned direly, but spoke at last, in a voice that rasped with leashed fury. ‘It is no business of yours, fool and coward and murderer. But my name is Nathaniel Shear.’
Roland shuddered. Fool and coward and murderer. Yes, he was all of those. But the name Nathaniel Shear meant nothing to him, revealed nothing. ‘Why are you on this ship? What is it that you want?’
‘I wait,’ stated the ghost. ‘Until he comes.’
‘Until who comes?’
The spectre bared yellowed teeth. ‘The one for whom I was made to die. I, and all the others who are gathered here. All those of us sacrificed to make way for him – even you, coward – we wait.’ The old man turned to gaze again out to sea, a fierce satisfaction smouldering in his eyes. ‘Aye. Before the end, he will attend us, here on this cursed vessel. He and his scapegoat woman. And then, I promise by all the deeps, there shall be a reckoning.’
Roland swallowed. The others gathered here. Then there were more shades yet to reveal themselves, just as Pietru had said. A ship full of them. ‘But who do you mean?’ He was pleading now. ‘Who is coming?’
And with bitter glee, the ghost told him.
END OF PART TWO
PART THREE TO COME…