A flash of silver, p.1
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       A Flash of Silver, p.1

           David D Sharp
 
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A Flash of Silver
A Flash of Silver

  David D Sharp

  Copyright © 2013 David D Sharp

  All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, lent, re-sold or otherwise circulated without the prior written permission of the author.

  All characters and events within this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons or events is purely coincidental.

  Cover imagery courtesy of:

  Scott Robinson

  Brian Norwood

  Recommended listening:

  Roberto Cacciapaglia - Quarto Tempo

  Ludovico Einaudi - Divenire

  Shira Kammen - Music of Waters

  Table of contents:

  A Flash of Silver

  The Passing

  About the author

  A FLASH OF SILVER

  Roast potatoes, skins extra crispy, but still fluffy and buttery in the centre. A steak thick enough to need a good half hour’s chewing, swimming in a small pool of thick, sticky gravy and its own blood. Stacks of fresh beans and carrots on the side, a knob of butter slowly melting over them.

  Tupper was dreaming of food again.

  “Oi! Wake up this very instant, ye feckless little wretch,” growled Deeks. A bony hand pinched into Tupper’s shoulder, shaking him roughly back to consciousness.

  The young midshipman blinked into focus the lined, unforgiving face hovering just inches before him. Mr Deeks. At least it was only Deeks that had found him, and not one of the other officers or worse, the captain.

  “Ye havin’ nice dreams, scratch?”

  Tupper nodded, then realised that had been the incorrect choice. The back of the petty officer’s hand struck Tupper’s cheek, stinging in the bitter night air.

  “Yer task’s a simple un, scratch. All ye have to do is watch the sands, an’ when they run dry what do ye do?”

  “I chime the bell and turn the timer again, Mr Deeks. So that we do not lose track of time.”

  “Aye, very good. Now tell me this — how long ago did the sands run out?”

  Tupper followed Deeks’ gaze to the hourglass sitting empty at Tupper’s side. A horror took hold of him — he had missed the finish of the count.

  “How long? A few seconds? Minutes? Hours?!” Deeks’ eyes were aflame.

  Tupper winced in preparation for another slap, but this time the blow did not come. When he opened his eyes once more, Deeks had turned the hourglass and wore that familiar expression of half-leer, half-grin. Mr Deeks had been given the responsibility of minding Tupper, Kelso and the other more junior crewmen. He could be a brutal old sod when he wanted to, but more often than not, chose kindness over the whipping belt.

  “Ye were lucky, I watched the last grain spiral down myself but a moment ago. Now ring the bell.”

  Tupper did so, taking good care to hit the small brass hammer straight and true against the bell so that all could hear — twice, then twice again.

  “Sorry, Mr Deeks,” said Tupper.

  “And right ye are to be so too,” said Deeks, propping himself up against the capstan. “Ye know what the most precious commodity is on a ship like this scratch? Ah’ll tell ye — it ain’t water an’ it ain’t powder fer the guns. It’s time. That’s right — time. We lose track of what time we’re at then we can easily miss a tide or misjudge how much we have in the larder to get us back to land. Then we’d be in real trouble. An’ it’s worse than that — take a look around us, scratch. What do ye see?”

  Tupper scanned the darkness that surrounded the Windermere. A few dots of distant stars, the barest sliver of a moon and its occasional reflections in the crests of waves.

  “I see nothing, Mr Deeks,” said Tupper.

  “Exactly. When yer at sea ye can go days, weeks without seeing a thing on the horizon. Sometimes it can feel like we ain’t movin’ at all. Now imagine we didn’t have time to mark our progress by. How would we cope? How would we know how long it had been since we’d last seen our loved ones, or till we’d see ‘em again? Ah’ll tell ye what would happen then, scratch. Men would lose their minds. Slowly but surely. An’ if we didn’t find a port in time, I can assure ye, mighty awful things would happen.”

  Tupper felt a shudder run up and down his limbs at the thought of this. Mr Deeks said nothing more for a while, just sat there.

  “Mr Deeks?” Tupper asked eventually. “How old were you when you first came to sea?”

  “Younger than you are now, that’s fer sure. This is yer first proper voyage innit, scratch? Aye, well no to worry. The first one’s tough. An’ the second, an’ the third. But it’ll get easier. The body an’ the mind quickly grows accustomed to the nature of this life. The sea... well she’s a strange mistress that’s fer certain.”

  Tupper wasn’t sure whether this response actually made him feel better or worse.

  Mr Deeks seemed to be lost in thought again, staring out at the black waves. He snapped back to the moment abruptly.

  “Ye’ll do jus’ fine, scratch. But don’ let me ever catch ye dozing by that bell again! Ye hear?” Mr Deeks ruffled Tupper’s hair then headed off, his footsteps creaking as he descended below and out of earshot.

  Tupper was alone again. He knew somewhere up at the prow Ensign Radley was keeping watch as well, but there was no sight or sound of the man, for which Tupper was grateful. Ensign Radley had a cruel sense of humour, especially when directed towards the younger members of the crew.

  Normally there would be other sailors at work during the hours of darkness, slaving away to keep up the three-masted barque’s progress, transporting guns and supplies to Newfoundland. Over the past couple of days however, the wind had slowly ebbed away to nothing, leaving them stranded in a calm. There was nothing more to be done than sit and wait it out.

  All was still. There wasn’t even the familiar stretching and rubbing of the rigging overhead. Somewhere from below deck, one of the cattle lowed, no doubt in lament of its approaching fate as supper.

  Tupper found life hard aboard the Windermere. The labour was always gruelling, and the respites never long enough. But, at least during the daylight hours he had company and the threat of a beating to keep him occupied. Doing the middle watch, all alone in the darkness of night, was a far less appetising experience. He struggled to keep his eyes open and his wits alert. In truth, he had fallen asleep several times before Deeks had caught him out. When he did manage to keep himself awake though, his mind would begin to play games on him — transforming even the slightest trace of a shape out amongst the gloom into something hideous, terrifying. Sometimes the other sailors exchanged tall tales of things they had seen or heard of during their travels — legends, superstitions, monsters. Most were too incredulous to take much stock in, but sure enough, with nothing else to occupy his mind during the middle watch, Tupper would find them sneaking into his imagination and coming to life.

  From somewhere along the port side there came an abrupt, slopping sound, like something being cast into the water below. Tupper turned to look, but saw no sign of anyone else being along that side of the deck.

  “Ahoy there,” he called out. “That you, Radley? Mr Deeks?”

  No reply came. The night was soundless once more. Probably nothing, thought Tupper to himself. Then a different noise came from the same direction — hard to describe though. Wet. Slippery.

  “Hello?” said Tupper, curiosity drawing him over to investigate, though the backs of his arms prickled with trepidation. He reached the port side rail and looked from side to side. Definitely no one else around.

  Resting against the railing for a moment, the boy sighed, letting the sea air refresh him a little. As he was about to turn back to his station, he glanced downwards and noticed the decking beneath his feet was a darker shade than
the rest, dampened somehow. The wetness trailed inwards from the side of the deck, running beneath Tupper’s feet and beyond. Following its path, he managed to just catch a glimpse of something slithering out of sight behind one of the masts. What had it been? Something lingering around ankle level. Dark, yet it had reflected the starlight.

  Tupper huddled by the railing for a period, trying to gather his thoughts, and his pulse. Should he give chase or go and alert one of the officers below? If it turned out to be nothing then he would in no doubt be due a beating, so he decided further investigation was the only option. He advanced, following the wide swishing trail of whatever wet thing had been dragged aboard. The far side of the mast revealed nothing. Tupper allowed himself to exhale before hearing the same damp, slippery sound from behind again. Close this time.

  Turning, he found himself face to face with a vision unlike anything he had seen before. Although that was not true at all. During his first days aboard the Windermere, whilst they were still in port at Plymouth, Captain Dixon-Smythe had lined up Tupper and the other new recruits on deck before, one by one, shoving them overboard into the grimy water below. The purpose, apparently, had been to ensure that no man came aboard who was not capable of swimming. Tupper had never needed to swim in his life before, but he quickly learned that day, managing to pull himself to the granite steps leading back up to the sanctuary of the dockside. He could recall much about his short period down in the water though — the thick stench of recently expelled bilges, the plump corpse of a drowned cat drifting past, and worst of all, when his head had sunk beneath the surface, the netherworld of seaweed. The long fingers of kelp and dabberlocks reaching out to ensnare him. The pale green spurts of wrack, dancing like the hands of drowned sailors. In that moment he had developed an acute terror of — not drowning, or the water itself — but seaweed. Its very nature seemed unnatural and otherworldly to him. Even more so, now that it was here, standing before him. Somehow, his greatest fear had escaped its trappings of below the waves and come aboard the Windermere. A variety of types of seaweed had somehow clustered together, taking on the form of a man, or perhaps a woman. Individual strands slithered over one another in a never-ending dance, glistening in the half-light.

  Tupper wanted to scream, but found himself unable.

  “You are Edmund Harris Tuppington,” said the thing; its lips, thin rubbery flaps. Its voice was a thousand rocks being crushed by a thousand tides.

  “How... how do you know that?” asked Tupper. Nobody knew that.

  “You ran away from home. Couldn’t bear to watch your parents tearing each other apart any longer. Called yourself Tupper, got yourself a place aboard this ship. Off to see the world.” All that the creature said was true. “So far for one so young to have come. So far to have come and meet such an early end.”

  “What?” said Tupper, but only bubbles of air came from his mouth.

  “I would say that I was sorry,” continued the creature, its components dancing like wild hair now, as it drifted away from Tupper into the depths. “But I’m not. This is what I do.”

  Tupper darted his head about him wildly. He was underwater.

  Far above, faint pillars of light danced from the crescent moon. How had he descended so far without being aware? The practicalities of the situation seemed irrelevant for now. The sails of the Windermere drifted heavily as they descended. The deck below him was sinking away, and from the hatches and portholes came drifting the drowned bodies of the crew. They twisted and waltzed grotesquely in the ocean currents; hats and boots drifting free; eyes bulging outwards, glassy and white. Men Tupper had served with and recognised well. He knew most of their names; which were good company and which were to feared.

  One figure drew close to Tupper and he grabbed a hold, hoping somehow to try and save the man. As the figure slowly turned though, Tupper found himself faced suddenly with young Nicolas Kelso, unmistakeable with his cleft palate and smock of auburn hair. Kelso’s skin was a tender white, the veins beneath showing through, like icy cracks. The only true friend Tupper had aboard the ship. The other boy had taught Tupper how to play Bridge and Spit, and they had always done their best to protect the other from trouble, almost as often as they managed to get one another into it. Tupper screamed more bubbles, then began desperately to kick upwards.

  Every movement was exhausting and leaden. The dancing surface far above seemed to edge no closer. Tupper could feel he had little left to give, his veins and lungs were howling at him, and so he looked down once more at the shapes of the men he would soon be joining, fading into the gloom just as the creature that had taken them had.

  For a moment though, there came a slight shimmer, small but sharp. It came again and brighter this time — a flash of silver. A shape ascending from the deep, drawing closer and closer to the young sailor like an inverted falling star. It was a creature of some form — its body smooth and silvery. It approached with graceful haste. From the nose of the beast, a long spiral horn protruded sword-like, and with this, the creature spiked itself into Tupper’s clothing, hoisting himself upwards as it continued its rapid ascent. A handful of seconds later and the sanctuary of the surface was almost upon them. With one final push they broke through.

  * * *

  “Who are you?” asked Tupper.

  “I am the Narwhal, Maiden of the Ocean,” came the reply.

  “Oh. And who was that other thing... the monster?”

  “She goes by many names, but you may call her the Cruel Tide. She decided to take your ship.”

  “So she’s evil then?”

  “Tupper, the oceans are made up of many secrets. More than any man may ever hope to comprehend. Some of these secrets are benevolent, others malign. Most are just somewhere in between, existing in the only way they know how. The Tide may be cruel, but she is also a useful tool — she protects the seas, stops it from becoming too easy, too appealing, for men to plunder and abuse them.”

  Somewhere nearby, a fireplace crackled welcomingly. A grandfather clock gave a familiar tick — every tenth clunk slightly duller than the rest.

  “Where are we, Narwhal?” Tupper turned to face the creature. Though he could not see it with his eyes, he knew that it was still there beside him, a whispering at the verges of his mind.

  “You already know the answer to that, Tupper.”

  Tupper did know the answer. His sodden skin and clothing dripped into the thick, velvety rugs of Crookford House. This was his family home.

  The room in which they found themselves was dominated by a large, four-poster bed. Heavy, crimson drapes obscured the bed’s occupant, but the man’s wheezing could be heard clearly — jagged and painful.

  “This is my father’s room,” explained Tupper, though he suspected the Narwhal already knew more than he ever could, even about his own home. “He’s barely left it in months. He got sick. Mother was so angry, shouted at him so much. I never understood why — it wasn’t his fault he got sick.”

  Just being back here was making Tupper feel emotional, a swelling had gathered in his throat. The tang of vinegar clung to the air. He dared not move, to be able to see the withered, wasting man trapped in that bed.

  “I heard them fighting about it once. Mother called it sistis... syphalitis, or something.”

  “Syphilis,” replied the Narwhal. “One day the meaning of this will become clear to you, Tupper, but know this — people, like the ocean, are filled with many secrets. None of these things are absolutely good or absolutely wrong, just a mess somewhere in between.”

  The wheezing from the bed elevated suddenly into a hacking cough that sent Tupper awash with chills. He heard his father stumbling for, then managing to locate, the small bell he kept by the bedside. The man began ringing it desperately.

  “He’s calling for my mother,” whispered Tupper. All the servants had long been let go. He could already hear footsteps on the stairs below. “They’ll fight when she’s here. They’ll fight, Narwhal! Please, take me away from her
e.”

  The Narwhal blinked down at him. Its face had no features to convey expression or clue as to what it was thinking.

  “Take me away from here! Please! I don’t want to see, I don’t want to see.”

  The footsteps were drawing closer yet not louder. Their sound was being drowned out by the clanking of tankards, the singing of sea shanties and general jovialities.

  * * *

  “The Three Crowns,” said Tupper, moving to avoid a barmaid balancing two trays covered with empty tankards, but realising she didn’t really see him. He wasn’t actually there. “I came here to try and get a place aboard the Windermere.”

  “And there you are now,” said the Narwhal.

  Standing in the doorway, outlined by the bright morning sun, was a boy. Tupper recognised himself, surprised at how young his prior self now seemed. Eyes wide, still absorbing the many wonders and terrors of the world. His clothes were tattered and thick with grime. He’d thought far enough ahead to know that if he were to turn up in his proper clothing — pristine and well-stitched — there would be questions about who he was from the start. So he’d found a rag-and-bone-man and traded new clothes for old.

  Tupper and the Narwhal watched the youngster ask something of the barman then follow the answering finger to a booth on the far side of the bustling tavern. There, two men sat — one was Mr Deeks and the other, Cuthbert Farrow the quartermaster. Young Tupper spoke with them for a while, blushing as they laughed him off initially, then having a whispered discussion before continuing.

  “You offered them money. All that you had,” said the Narwhal. “It was a big risk, buying your way on board, but you were willing to take it.”

  Tupper nodded and watched the way Deeks and Farrow’s faces grew more attentive suddenly. Farrow looked uncertain, ready to send the youngster on his way, but Deeks had adopted his trademark lear-grin and overruled his colleague’s decision.

  “What would you have done if they had rejected you?” the Narwhal asked.

  “Tried another ship perhaps,” answered Tupper. “I’m not sure in honesty, this was as far as my plan extended.”

 
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