“Come to, man! I say, come to!”
A slap across the face and Julian snapped awake with a gasp of horror. In his mind’s eye he still saw the ship’s mainmast falling for him and his hands quaked in front of his face to protect himself from that phantom.
“Row, you fool!” Captain Molley snapped, throwing an oar grip into Julian’s trembling fingers.
Julian shook his head head and sat upright. All the world bobbed around him, and he came to the realization that he was in a lifeboat. Not on the ship, then? No. Evidently not. For there was the ship twenty feet behind them, mast broken and engulfed in flames!
Julian snapped around and plunged his oar into the water. He moved lazily, though, as if in a daze while comprehension still set in.
“Row, man!” the Captain shrieked from the back of the lifeboat, plunging his own oar earnestly on the starboard side.
Julian looked back. There was a chorus of cracking sounds as the ship’s wood, weakened by the fire, started collapsing under its own weight. The whole thing began folding inwards, and water was spewing out the portholes. It was sinking! And…Julian and Captain Molley were still so near to it that they would be dragged under in its vacuum!
“Captain–?” Julian asked in terror.
Finally Julian dug his oar into the water with earnest. The two men carved the water in a fervor, flailing back whole gallons of the stuff with each stroke. Their small craft lurched precipitously, bounding sideways through current of the ocean, threatening to tip into the drink any minute.
But they did not dare slow down. All the while they continued to hear the sounds of cracking and burning and spewing, all the while they tasted smoke and flecks of ash, all the while they imagined a chain about their ankles, pulling them back to the watery deep.
Then it happened. They heard a deafening roar of a frothing foment behind them, their oars skidded over the water as if it was glass, and their little craft lurched violently backwards. Both men lost their balance and slammed their faces into their knees. Never mind that, they simply sat right back up and scrabbled their oars madly in the sea, hoping against hope to feel friction again.
There came a loud popping sound, the water swelled back where the vacuum had been, and a long, tall wave lifted the men and their boat high into the air. Their hands gripped the edges of their vessel and tried to stay balance as they were rushed forward to safety. Death had refused their admittance today.
At last they came to a halt, and they rested their hands and panted heavily. Only after they had regained some composure did they turn around to see what remained of their ship and crew: naught but splintered beams and oil glossing the surface of the water.
“What–what happened?” Julian asked. “The last thing I remember was the mainmast falling towards me.”
“Yes, it hit you,” Captain Molley said simply, “and knocked you unconscious. Fortunately for you, you fell next to the lifeboat. I threw you in just before shoving off.”
“But–the rest of the crew?”
“All dead before I pushed off. If it hadn’t been necessary to save you…I would have stayed on the boat to go do with the rest.”
Julian shook his head in sorrow. He had been up above deck when things had started to go wrong on the ship, working the rigging while his mates had fought with the pirates down below.
“And the marauders?” he asked.
“It would seem that they did all go down with the ship.”
Captain Molley had managed to sink the corsair’s frigate, but not before the scoundrels had boarded his own ship, the Equinox. The pirate invaders, seeing that they had lost their own vessel, fought with a terrifying ferocity, desperate to take the Equinox for their very own. Somewhere in that chaos, a fire had broken out on their ship. It was that fire which had brought Julian down to the deck, just in time for the mast to collapse on him.
“Well we don’t have map or compass on us,” Captain Molley took stock of their situation, glancing about the tranquil water, as if half hoping to see his cabin chest ascending from the depths. But, of course, there was nothing. “We might as well accept the reality that this is a–delicate situation.”
The color drained from Julian’s face. “Just how far are we from land?”
“But I still have our heading,” Captain Molley continued confidently. “I know where we are, I know which way we’re pointed, and I know what we will do. We’re going to set ourselves that way,” he pointed northeast, “and we’re going to row back along the shipping route. If fortune continues to smile on us, we’ll find some merchant coming along the way.”
“So we’ll be rowing back towards…Port Smith?”
“Which port we left seven weeks ago?”
“We’re not any closer to the next port instead?”
“How much farther is it?”
“We can’t last seven weeks!”
“No. I did instruct First Mate Blythe to store a supply of food in each lifeboat, but what we have would barely last us a week. So we will hope to pass a merchant along our way. Or a naval ship. Or anything that we can hope for.”
“We will do what we can do. I have given you our course, now start row–” Captain Molley’s faced winced sharply and his hand instinctively flew to his side.
“Captain?” Julian asked in concern.
“No,” Captain Molley stated firmly and rose himself back to his full height. “Just a stray blow from one of those pirates, but I’m fine.”
To prove the point he took oar in hand and began rowing again. Only the slightest flicker in his eyes betrayed the pain that the action caused him. Julian saw it, but did not say any more on the matter. He simply turned and continued rowing.
They only went a few more feet when their attention was arrested by a flurry of splashes to port. A frantic voice rang across the water to them: “You! You there! Please help!”
“There’s a man there!” Captain Molley observed. “Turn to port!”
They turn their little vessel and quickly closed the distance. Just before they reached the sailor though, Julian slammed his oar into the water to halt them.
“Take no note of him, Captain, it’s a pirate!”
“No!” the floundering man cried. “You must help me! I can’t–I can’t–“
His head started bobbing beneath the rolling current.
“Let’s turn, Captain, he won’t be able to reach us if we row just a little farther.”
“Hold on a moment,” Captain Molley muttered.
“Captain!” Julian said incredulously. “You can’t be considering–“
“I haven’t decided. But this is a delicate…Pull him up. That’s it, pull him up. At the very least we’ll give him a quick death.”
“Pull him up!”
Looking like he would rather grab hold of a shark, Julian reached down and seized the man under the shoulders while Captain Molley leaned to the other side to balance out the shifting weight. A heave and a drag and the man was laid at the bottom of their lifeboat, in the middle, between the two other men. He rolled onto his belly and coughed water out onto the floor. Even after his lungs were clear he remained prostrate on the floor, limbs trembling for fear, half expecting to feel a knife between his shoulders at any moment.
“Look at me, pirate!” Captain Molley said sternly.
The man turned just enough to look at the captain out of the corners of his eyes. “Please sir, I surrender.”
“We’re hardly in a position to take on prisoners,” Captain Molley shook his head.
The pirate turned more fully to face the Captain and clasped his hands at his breast. Behind him, Julian was reaching for the rope coiled at the front of the boat.
“I am unarmed!” the pirate protested. “There’s just the one of me, and two of you!”
Captain Molley didn’t appear swayed.
“But more than that, I’m your shipmate now! Truly! You think I have any sort of loyalty to those back-stabbing pirates? I curse them!” He spat over the side of the boat.
“I’m far more concerned about your loyalty to your own skin. As soon as it was in your best interests, you’d cut our throats while we slept.”
“No sir! You can’t brand me the same as all them! Yes I’ve been wicked, to a degree, but never so cruel as that. I’m loyal! And here, you two are the only ones to be loyal to anymore. There’s no one else, it’s just us.” He gestured to Captain Molley, himself, and back towards Julian. As he did so he saw the length of rope Julian was wrapping around his hands. His eyes went wide with terror and he snapped back to Captain Molley. “We three are the crew now! We have to work together! You need me and I need you!”
“Not a lot of good you do us,” Captain Molley said darkly. “If anything, having more mouths is a problem.”
“I–I won’t eat. I won’t, you keep it all. I surrender, sir. I surrender to you! You have to protect me.”
The Captain’s brow furrowed, and it was clear that he was a man divided. All of his arguments against sparing the pirate went contrary to his sense of honor. With each pleading word his conscience was slowly being won over.
“Captain,” Julian raised his voice from behind, “this has gone on long enough. If he eats, we run out of food. If he doesn’t eat, he won’t have strength to row…. Honestly, even let out the fact that he’s a pirate. We couldn’t keep him even if he was another crewman!”
Captain Molley’s eyes flashed at that, and Julian realized immediately that he had said the wrong thing.
“Even if he was another crewman?!” he spat. “If you’d rather we make it two, then why not make it one?!”
“Go on, that’s the obvious next conclusion, isn’t it? Throw our prisoner overboard, then kill me off and keep all that’s left for yourself!”
“Sir, I never said any such thing! I would never attack you!”
“No, of course not,” Captain Molley said sarcastically. “Never even crossed your mind, I’m sure. Not that it would do you much good.” He pushed back the side of his coat and exposed the large knife held at his waist. Both Julian and the pirate leaned back. “You make me very nervous being my crew Mister Holstead. Very nervous indeed.”
All this while the pirate’s eyes had been darting about, weighing his two companions, one thought after another racing through his mind. At last he seemed to come to a final determination, and when he saw the opportunity to speak up he did so.
“Captain…I may actually be able to provide a solution. A way to save us all. I can see that it’s time to lay all my cards on the table….. So…you wouldn’t know it, but there’s actually a pirate’s cove quite near to here.”
“A pirate cove, a hideout for when we need to get away from patrols, or bunker down in a storm. It wouldn’t be on any of your maps. It’s a very small rock, not worth the ink, but bounteous in hidden supplies and refuge. We’re about–” he seemed to be doing some figuring in his head, “well, seeing that we’d be rowing, we’re about two weeks away.”
“And you know how to get there?”
“Aye,” the pirate nodded. “I do.”
On Monday we spoke about stories that are built around a single, critical idea. They either begin with a compelling premise, or they build up to a single lynch-pin finale. In some cases they do both.
Wait Until Dark, for example, opens with a very strong premise. A blind woman has unwittingly come into possession of a doll smuggled with drugs. A trio of criminals descend on her home, intent upon getting it from her by any means possible. This sharp imbalance of power makes the story fascinating to us, right from the get-go. It is a strong foundation, one which amply supports all the twists and turns that follow.
But then, all those twists and turns are actually working towards a penultimate finale. Everything that has come before is setting up for the final confrontation between that woman and the lead villain, after he has decided enough of all the games, he’s just going to hurt her until she gives him what he wants. They face each other down in a battle of wits, in which the woman proves that she has been severely underestimated by these men.
The premise suggests a great imbalance, where the poor woman is helpless. The payoff rejects that notion of helplessness, and changes all character and audience perceptions in a single stroke.
In this first section of this story we see how I am trying to start things off with my own compelling premise. The idea is very simple: a noble captain, a surly sailor, and a cutthroat pirate are alone in a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean, tied together under the most tenuous of stalemates. The pirate claims to know the location of the only refuge for miles, which is the crux of the bond between them. This, I feel, is a very promising premise, it is a foundation sown with intrigue, strong enough to support all manner of twisting threads, character drama, and rising tension.
These men are going to have to work together, but they certainly aren’t going to trust one another. And that friction is going to continue building up until it breaks out in our pivotal finale. Hopefully this will result in a story that, like Wait Until Dark, has two all-important lynch-pins. One at the very beginning and one at the very end, with a rich and engrossing story laid out in between.
But before we see it through, I want to say a little bit about that tension and friction between my main characters. It turns out that this sense of a fragile alliances is a staple of story-telling. There has long been a tradition of characters being bound together by need, but also harboring deep mistrust for one another. The friction of having to be together, but not wanting to be, is a place we love to experience as an audience. Let’s take a closer look at why that is with our next post, and then we’ll see how I maintain that tension in the next section of Boat of Three.