The man-of-war swung heavily round this impromptu anchor, and came sliding sideways down the face of a wave. The wall of water towered over the ship, and came crashing down, catching her broadside. The Porpoise heeled, spun around once. The next wave rose, and took her stern first, pulling the high aft deck below the water, whipping the masts through the air like snapping twigs.
It took three more waves to sink her; no time for escape for her hapless crew, but plenty for those of us watching to share their terror. There was a great bubbling flurry in the trough of a wave, and the man-of-war was gone.
Jamie’s arm was rigid as iron beneath my hand. All the men stared back, faces gone empty with horror. All save Innes, who crouched doggedly over the wheel, meeting each wave as it came.
A new wave rose up beside the rail and seemed to hover there, looming above me. The great wall of water was glassy clear; I could see suspended in it the debris and the men of the wrecked Porpoise, limbs outflung in grotesque ballet. The body of Thomas Leonard hung no more than ten feet from me, drowned mouth open in surprise, his long soft hair aswirl above the gilded collar of his coat.
Then the wave struck. I was snatched off the deck, and at once engulfed in chaos. Blind and deaf, unable to breathe, I was tumbled through space, my arms and legs wrenched awry by the force of the water.
Everything was dark; there was nothing but sensation, and all of that intense but indistinguishable. Pressure and noise and overwhelming cold. I couldn’t feel the pull of my clothing, or the jerk of the rope—if it was still there—around my waist. A sudden faint warmth swathed my legs, distinct in the surrounding cold as a cloud in a clear sky. Urine, I thought, but didn’t know whether it was my own, or the last touch of another human body, swallowed as I was in the belly of the wave.
My head hit something with a sickening crack, and suddenly I was coughing my lungs out on the deck of the pinnace, still miraculously afloat. I sat up slowly, choking and wheezing. My rope was still in place, yanked so tight about my waist that I was sure my lower ribs were broken. I jerked feebly at it, trying to breathe, and then Jamie was there, one arm around me, the other groping at his belt for a knife.
“Are ye all right?” he bellowed, his voice barely audible above the shrieking wind.
“No!” I tried to shout back, but it came out as no more than a wheeze. I shook my head, fumbling at my waist.
The sky was a queer purple-green, a color I had never seen before. Jamie sawed at the rope, his bent head spray-soaked and the color of mahogany, hair whipped across his face by the fury of the wind.
The rope popped and I gulped in air, ignoring a stabbing pain in my side and the stinging of raw skin about my waist. The ship was pitching wildly, the deck swinging up and down like a lawn glider. Jamie fell down on the deck, pulling me with him, and began to work his way on hands and knees toward the mast, some six feet away, dragging me.
My garments had been drenched through, plastered to me from my immersion in the wave. Now the blast of the wind was so great that it plucked my skirts away from my legs and flung them up, half-dried, to beat about my face like goose wings.
Jamie’s arm was tight as an iron bar across my chest. I clung to him, trying to aid our progress by shoving with my feet on the slippery deckboards. Smaller waves washed over the rail, sousing us intermittently, but no more huge monsters followed them.
Reaching hands grasped us and hauled us the last few feet, into the nominal shelter of the mast. Innes had tied the wheel over long since; as I looked forward, I saw lightning strike the sea ahead, making the spokes of the wheel spring out black, leaving an image like a spider’s web printed on my retina.
Speech was impossible—and unnecessary. Raeburn, Ian, Meldrum, and Lawrence were huddled against the mast, all tied; frightful as it was on deck, no one wanted to go below, to be tossed to and fro in bruising darkness, with no notion of what was happening overhead.
I was sitting on the deck, legs splayed, with the mast at my back and the line passed across my chest. The sky had gone lead-gray on one side, a deep, lucent green on the other, and lightning was striking at random over the surface of the sea, bright jags of brilliance across the dark. The wind was so loud that even the thunderclaps reached us only now and then, as muffled booms, like ships’ guns firing at a distance.
Then a bolt crashed down beside the ship, lightning and thunder together, close enough to hear the hiss of boiling water in the ringing aftermath of the thunderclap. The sharp reek of ozone flooded the air. Innes turned from the light, his tall, thin figure so sharply cut against the flash that he looked momentarily like a skeleton, black bones against the sky.
The momentary dazzle and his movement made it seem for an instant that he stood whole once more, two arms swinging, as though his missing limb had emerged from the ghost world to join him, here on the brink of eternity.
Oh, de headbone connected to de…neckbone. Joe Abernathy’s voice sang softly in memory. And de neckbone connected to de…backbone… I had a sudden hideous vision of the scattered limbs I had seen on the beach by the corpse of the Bruja, animated by the lightning, squirming and wriggling to reunite.
Dem bones, dem bones, are gonna walk around.
Now, hear de word of de Lawd!
Another clap of thunder and I screamed, not at the sound, but at the lightning bolt of memory. A skull in my hands, with empty eyes that had once been the green of the hurricane sky.
Jamie shouted something in my ear, but I couldn’t hear him. I could only shake my head in speechless shock, my skin rippling with horror.
My hair, like my skirts, was drying in the wind; the strands of it danced on my head, pulling at the roots. As it dried, I felt the crackle of static electricity where my hair brushed my cheek. There was a sudden movement among the sailors around me and I looked up, to see the spars and rigging above coated in the blue phosphorescence of St. Elmo’s fire.
A fireball dropped to the deck and rolled toward us, streaming phosphorescence. Jamie struck at it and it hopped delicately into the air and rolled away along the rail, leaving a scent of burning in its wake.
I looked up at Jamie to see if he was all right, and saw the loose ends of his hair standing out from his head, coated with fire and streaming backward like a demon’s. Streaks of vivid blue outlined the fingers of his hand when he brushed the hair from his face. Then he looked down, saw me, and grasped my hand. A jolt of electricity shot through us both with the touch, but he didn’t let go.
I couldn’t say how long it lasted; hours or days. Our mouths dried from the wind, and grew sticky with thirst. The sky went from gray to black, but there was no telling whether it was night, or only the coming of rain.
The rain, when it did come, was welcome. It came with the drenching roar of a tropical shower, a drumming audible even above the wind. Better yet, it was hail, not rain; the hailstones hit my skull like pebbles, but I didn’t care. I gathered the icy globules in both hands, and swallowed them half-melted, a cool benison to my tortured throat.
Meldrum and MacLeod crawled about the deck on hands and knees, scooping the hailstones into buckets and pots, anything that would hold water.
I slept intermittently, head lolling on Jamie’s shoulder, and woke to find the wind still screaming. Numb to terror now, I only waited. Whether we lived or died seemed of little consequence, if only the dreadful noise would stop.
There was no telling day from night, no way to keep time, while the sun hid its face. The darkness seemed a little lighter now and then, but whether it was by virtue of daylight or moonlight, I couldn’t tell. I slept, and woke, and slept again.
Then I woke, to find the wind a little quieter. The seas still heaved, and the tiny boat pitched like a cockleshell, throwing us up and dropping us with stomach-churning regularity. But the noise was less; I could hear, when MacGregor shouted to Ian to pass a cup of water. The men’s faces were chapped and raw, their lips cracked to bleeding by the whistling wind, but they were smiling.
“It’s gone by.” Jamie’s voice was low and husky in my ear, rusted by weather. “The storm’s past.”
It was; there were breaks in the lead-gray sky, and small flashes of a pale, fresh blue. I thought it must be early morning, sometime just past dawn, but couldn’t tell for sure.
While the hurricane had ceased to blow, there was still a strong wind, and the storm surge carried us at an amazing speed. Meldrum took the wheel from Innes, and bending to check the compass, gave a cry of surprise. The fireball that had come aboard during the storm had harmed no one, but the compass was now a melted mass of silver metal, the wooden casing around it untouched.
“Amazing!” said Lawrence, touching it reverently with one finger.
“Aye, and inconvenient, forbye,” said Innes dryly. He looked upward, toward the ragged remnants of the dashing clouds. “Much of a hand at celestial navigation, are ye, Mr. Stern?”
After much squinting at the rising sun and the remnants of the morning stars, Jamie, Innes, and Stern determined that our heading was roughly northeast.
“We must turn to the west,” Stern said, leaning over the crude chart with Jamie and Innes. “We do not know where we are, but any land must surely be to the west.”
Innes nodded, peering soberly at the chart, which showed a sprinkle of islands like coarse-ground pepper, floating on the waters of the Caribbean.
“Aye, that’s so,” he said. “We’ve been headed out to sea for God knows how long. The hull’s in one piece, but that’s all I’d say for it. As for the mast and sails—well, they’ll maybe hold for a time.” He sounded dubious in the extreme. “God knows where we may fetch up, though.”
Jamie grinned at him, dabbing at a trickle of blood from his cracked lip.
“So long as it’s land, Duncan, I’m no verra choosy about where.”
Innes quirked an eyebrow at him, a slight smile on his lips.
“Aye? And here I thought ye’d settled for sure on a sailor’s life, Mac Dubh; ye’re sae canty on deck. Why, ye havena puked once in the last twa days!”
“That’s because I havena eaten anything in the last twa days,” Jamie said wryly. “I dinna much care if the island we find first is English, French, Spanish, or Dutch, but I should be obliged if ye’d find one with food, Duncan.”
Innes wiped a hand across his mouth and swallowed painfully; the mention of food made everyone salivate, despite dry mouths.
“I’ll do my best, Mac Dubh,” he promised.
“Land! It’s land!” The call came at last, five days later, in a voice rendered so hoarse by wind and thirst that it was no more than a faint croak, but full of joy, nonetheless. I dashed up on deck to see, my feet slipping on the ladder rungs. Everyone was hanging over the rail, looking at the humped black shape on the horizon. It was far off, but undeniably land, solid and distinct.
“Where do you think we are?” I tried to say, but my voice was so hoarse, the words came out in a tiny whisper, and no one heard. It didn’t matter; if we were headed straight for the naval barracks at Antigua, I didn’t care.
The waves were running in huge, smooth swells, like the backs of whales. The wind was gusting now, and Innes called for the helmsman to bring the bow another point nearer the wind.