The Favored Son: Part Nine

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight

Tharol nodded solemnly, then turned and streaked down the hall. He heard the clatter of swords behind him, but he didn’t turn to see whether Master Zhaol would be able to hold the other two back or not. All that mattered now was getting to any of the other students who were still alive.

He raced out of the main abbey doors and across the grounds. There were no more stone columns to launch himself off of, but he pounded his feet into the hard earth and was lifted into the air by a force that far exceeded the amount he had thrust down. He sailed through the night, rose up higher and higher, then he peaked, and as he came down he expanded his Shraying Staff as a net of fine tendrils to slow his descent into something that wouldn’t shatter his legs!

He repeated this process, bounding in great leaps over the tall, silver-green grass, until he came to the entrance of the stone hedge maze. In the dark shadows he could just make out a scuffle taking place at the central archway.

Instead of leaping upwards, this time he propelled himself forward, streaking ahead like a loosed arrow. The dark figures raced up to him and he formed his Shraying Staff into a single-edged sword. He drew it back and swung it forward, trusting his reflexes to guide him, still not sure of his target. One of the bodies turned towards him and started to raise its arm in defense. For a brief moment Tharol saw its outline quaver, like the elders when they were shifting into and out of one another. Without hesitation he angled his already-swinging sword and let it cleave through that body.

The elder fell to the ground, dead.

Tharol’s feet hit the earth and he skidded to a halt in the midst of everyone else. Now he could make everyone out in the soft moonlight. His allies were huddled back-to-back, trying to hold off the remaining elders around them. They were Marvi, Bovik, Meelta, and Yaihs, the only other survivors of the night.

“Hold firm!” Tharol instructed. “I’ll try to throw back their first attack, and then the rest of you–“

“They’re doing it again!” Yaihs shrieked, and he pointed to one of the elders, who also started to quaver around her outline. She lost her features for a moment, and became an obscure mass. Then two figures separated and stepped apart from that mass: the same woman as before and Strawl. No one else emerged, though. Apparently Zhaol had taken Oni down with himself.

“Five of us and four with us,” the five elders counted in unison.

“Yeah, fall back,” Tharol panted, then lurched forward at the elders, swinging his sword wide. They easily sidestepped his blade, and the two elders nearest the stone hedge used the opportunity to reposition themselves in front of the entrance and cut off the youth’s retreat.

“It’s over!” Yaihs cried. His hands clutched the side of his head, panic set in, and then he began to quaver violently.

“He’s being taken!” Bovik yelled.

Tharol looked around frantically. What was he to do? He had pushed himself to places he didn’t even know he was capable of tonight, but even so the situation had slipped more and more out of his control. Now it was lurching out of his grasp entirely!

He roared in desperation and flung himself through the air at the elders blocking the youth’s retreat. The elders there were waiting for him, and no sooner did he touch ground than two swords pierced him, one in the leg and the other in his already-wounded shoulder.

“Just go!” he panted to the others, then thrust his Shraying Staff out as vines, momentarily restraining the elders there. He would hold them down for as long as he could, and after that he could only hope that the youth would find a way to save themselves.

Marvi, Bovik, and Meelta youth dashed past him. Three of the elders followed close behind. Yaihs–who was nearly fully taken over–and the two ensnared elders stayed with Tharol. Tharol regarded those two for a moment. It was Master Strawl in front of him, and Master Umir behind. Each was just about free from Tharol bonds.

Tharol looked down to the ground and panted heavily. There was no catching his breath, though, for his exhaustion went far beyond a shortage of air. His own life was flowing out of his wounds, leaving him closer and closer to darkness with every passing moment. Part of him wanted to just succumb to his wounds…but that would not help his friends.

With a shout Tharol drew back his vines, reforged his Shraying Staff into a sword, and thrust it at Strawl. Strawl blocked the blow, so Tharol immediately flung his sword backwards, extending it as a pole with the hope of catch Umir. A dull thud told him he had succeeded, but Tharol hadn’t hit him so hard as to take him out of action.

Back and forth Tharol flailed. His head snapped from one foe to another, watching for their own strokes and madly thrusting his weapon to parry them. His Shraying Staff changed form a dozen times. Now it was a shield to catch a thrust he couldn’t see properly, now it was a pole to punch through a small gap between Strawl’s arms, now it was a hooked blade to try and snag Umir’s weapon.

Tharol stopped thinking through the transitions anymore. He simply felt the flow of battle, turning and reacting by pure reflex. He moved as if in a dance. And when Yaihs was completely taken over and joined the fray, Tharol merely let his rhythms flow in that new quarry’s direction as well. He called on his limbs for strength and speed, and they responded.

That surprised Tharol. He should be bleeding out right now. He should be growing weaker and fainter, not stronger and surer. So confident did his body feel, that Tharol even drew out his standard blade with his other hand, and wielded it as if there was no hole through his shoulder.

Tharol was too preoccupied with the battle to examine himself closely, too distracted to see how the sections of his Shraying Staff were unfolding from their place on the weapon, and reassembling themselves over his wounds, forming as artificial muscle, tissue, and bone, all just as responsive to his commands as his natural flesh.

What he eventually did notice, though, was that the weapon in his hand was growing smaller and smaller. Eventually so much of the Shraying Staff had dissipated through his body that his weaponized arm had reverted back to its regular flesh and blood, holding nothing more than a small dagger in its palm.

Tharol frowned in confusion, but that moment’s hesitation was more than he could afford. Yais pinned Tharol’s natural sword against a rock. In exactly the same moment Strawl and Umir thrust their blades forward, each driving straight for Tharol’s heart.

But once again Tharol felt his way through. Instinct, more than memory, told him that Strawl and Umir had already cut him with those blades, stained their weapons with his blood, and thus surrendered control of them to him.

He opened his palms, and felt Strawl’s and Umir’s weapons forming in his hands. They were left defenseless. The flung themselves backward, out of reach. Tharol considered which of them to lunge after first, but before he could all three of his foes quavered and dissipated, no doubt merging back with the other elders pursuing Marvi, Bovik, and Meelta.

And so now Tharol must chase as well! He turned to the stone hedge entrance and rushed onward. Down the first pathway, on to the next, and to the next and the next. He beat on through the maze, faster than he had ever moved through it before.

As always, the walls began spinning in reaction to his every move. And at speeds like these, there was very little time to react to their erratic pivots. So once again, Tharol relied on instinct, dodging the extruded walls without a single thought, leaping over the stone risers by reflex, ducking under the popping-out ceilings on whim.

He thrust out one of his newly acquired Shraying Staff limbs as a claw, gripped the top of the stone hedge, and flung himself high into the air. The stone tapestry whirled up with him, continuing to surround and spring obstacles on every hand. He converted his other Shraying Staff into a claw as well, and used both to grip the tumbling stone and dodge and weave his way through.

Then he reached the height of his ascent and angled back downwards. The stone continued to warp around him, and now he formed his Shraying Staff arms into thin tendrils, scraping the edges of the stone as he slid down their chute. Every now and again a sudden barrier sprung at his feet, and he used those tendrils to seize on the rock and jerk himself to the left or right as needed.

Every now and then a stray block caught him. Every now and then he took each blow and tumbled into the dirt. But he simply rolled back onto his feet and continued on as if nothing had happened. It didn’t matter how hard it hurt, he had to keep moving forward.

A shout in the distance rang out, and he heaved himself forward, willing his body to find every small crevice and crack to slip through at only a moment’s notice. One wall spun out of his way, and beyond it he saw Meelta, collapsing with a sword through her heart. Bovik and Marvi were just beyond, and the elders were pressing in from every direction.

With a shout Tharol flung himself forward again, threw his Shraying Staff arms out as a protective web. They formed two half-circles that encompassed him and his companions, closing them all together in a thick-wired ball. The elders hacked at his netted barrier, but Tharol wasn’t sticking around to fight with them. With another cry he flung himself forward again, carrying all three of them forward through the maze.

Blades and walls and broken tendrils filled the air around them. It seemed a blow hit them from every direction at once, and it was only by sheer grit that they forced their way onward.

“We have to be near to the centrifuge now!” Bovik cried.

“It doesn’t matter,” Marvi wailed. “We won’t be able to figure out how to get in with them right on us.”

It was true. There wasn’t time to wait and puzzle out the right way in. They would be caught just outside of their sanctuary and have to take a last stand against the elders and Yaihs.

Or…not.

For right then each of the elders raised their hands forward, sent out a beam of light, and the walls directly ahead exploded into pieces, exposing the centrifuge beyond.

“They can do that?!” Bovik said in shock as the three bounded into the central clearing.

Tharol drew back his protective cage, and formed his arms back into blades. “They’re proving to us that there’s no sense in running anymore, and they’re right. We stand and fight here. Maybe we all die, or maybe one of us gets out alive. Either way we–“

A strange clicking noise from behind distracted Tharol in the middle of his sentence. Slowly he turned, and saw there the artificial creature that had been forming over the past weeks, the one he had spoken about to Reis before all this nightmare had begun.

It was moving now, and its head was complete. It stood nearly as tall as Tharol did on long, spindly legs. It had a horizontal body, angular features, and a head that was long, flat, and alert. It was pointing that head towards the elders.

“Um,” Tharol started to say, but then the artificial creature burst forward like a shot. It crossed ten yards with each bound, closing the distance to the elders in no time at all. The elders threw their Shraying Staffs up as shields, but the creature cleaved through them instantaneously. Its next strokes slew each foe instantaneously.

Just like that…the massacre was over. The artificial creature looked back at the youth, then turned and bounded deeper into the maze, lost to the sprawling pathways beyond. A deep sigh seemed to emanate from those dark chambers, the unclenching of a prolonged strain.

Tharol, Bovik, and Marvi stood there in silence for a long, long while. At first they stared blankly at the blasted hole in the centrifuge wall and at the corpses of their former masters and fellow student, Yaihs. Then they let their eyes silently roam over the broken columns and moss-covered boulders that were scattered all around. Everything was quiet and very, very still. There wasn’t even the sound of crickets or wind.

It was Bovik who finally spoke.

“What do we do now?”

With the spell of silence broken the other two youth came back to the present moment.

“There’s nothing,” Marvi shook her head. “Everyone’s gone.”

“We’re not,” Tharol countered. “We’re still here.”

“We’re three people! We were supposed to be an Order, we were supposed to carry the torch on. But–but–“

“But that flame’s gone out,” Bovik finished and Marvi nodded.

“That’s true,” Tharol nodded. “It’s gone now, and it isn’t coming back. Not for a long, long time at least…and maybe not ever.”

They all stood another moment in silence.

“So let’s go do something else,” Tharol said with conviction.

“What?” Bovik asked.

“Something. I don’t know. But let’s go out there. First we’ll just worry about surviving, and later, when we know more, we’ll build something new.”

“Of course you would say that,” Marvi frowned in contempt. “Leave this all behind and start something new, because you never did like the Order!”

“That’s not true. I loved the Order. It confounded me, but I loved it. Now, though, I think it was an imperfect structure built on a perfect idea. And for right now I want to get to know that underlying idea better. I can’t do anything more until I understand that. There’s so much we don’t know.”

Marvi pursed her lips and thought for a while before responding. “What about the traitor?”

“The what?”

“The traitor that Reis was telling us about. He believed it was you.”

Tharol shook his head. “I’m sorry to say this, but Reis was a fool.”

Marvi whimpered.

“It’s true. And the fact is, I think he was the traitor that his let medallion was warning of. Not knowingly so, but his fear-mongering and personal insecurities opened the door wide for tonight’s disaster. There’s no reason why twelve of us should have been killed tonight!”

“Marvi, it’s true–” Bovik started, but she held up her hand to stop him.

“Can you just–let me be? I don’t want to talk about this right now.”

Tharol and Bovik made eye contact and nodded. She clearly needed some time and space to mourn.

“Well…so what do we do now?” Bovik returned to his initial question.

Tharol turned from the hole in the wall, and looked over the top of the stone hedge maze to the sprawling valley outside of the abbey walls.

“I need to get away from tonight. I think we all do. My next step is out there…. Beyond that, I’ll figure it out as I go.”

“I’ll come with you,” Bovik agreed.

Marvi didn’t say anything, but nodded.

“Do you think the Invasion is happening out there, too?” Bovik asked.

“I expect so. But–at least we’re still together. Maybe we can find some more survivors, too.”

And then the three of them walked out into the night.

Well, there we are, all finished with The Favored Son. It’s been quite the journey, and quite the sprint to the finish! To be perfectly honest, I was starting to hate this story in the middle, because I had no idea where I was going with it. But here at the end I feel I finally settled into an understanding, things came together nicely, and I am quite pleased to add it to my collection.

Speaking of my collection, The Favored Son represents a special milestone for my short stories, and I’m going to do a little something to commemorate that. Come back on Monday where I’ll explain what I mean, and until then have a wonderful weekend!

Boat of Three: Part Five

person holding water
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Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

“How could it be three days?” Captain Molley shook his head in disbelief. “I would have died.”

“I gave you water, I gave you what food I could…you couldn’t take much. You lived, though I thought for sure you wouldn’t. But…it has been three days.”

“Ohh,” Captain Molley’s head fell into his hands. “Three days without a proper heading…there’s no telling where we are now. Miles off course, no doubt, but no notion of  which way, and how to correct it.”

“I’ve tried to keep us straight as I can.”

“But we were rowing at a slant. And neither you nor I can recall if it was at a slant to the east or a slant to the west.”

“Well, I haven’t been able to row very quickly on my own. Probably best to think of it as only a single day’s rowing.”

“But not a single day’s being pushed by the current. Three days of that alone is too much.”

Julian’s eyes narrowed. “Too much for what?”

“Julian…I barely trusted my own navigational skills to find this phantom cove, and I certainly don’t trust any other man’s navigation in the least.”

“But…what are you saying?”

“Forget about the cove. We’re never going to find it.”p

“But–but–it’s all that we have!”

“It was always a very slim chance. Our best chance, I suppose, but very slim even so. Now its just too narrow of a mark, too uncertain of a starting point, there’s just no way to see us from here to there anymore.”

“But there isn’t anything else for us.”

“We will turn east. What we still have is the ability to find is the trade route. We will recognize it by where the current runs against us the strongest. We will surrender ourselves to its mercy…and see if it sends us any vessel for our rescue.”

“Captain you know that there isn’t any other ship coming. You know it.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Sometimes–well–don’t take offence, Captain, but sometimes while going up and down the rigging one hears the conversations going on below. I’ve never been one for eavesdropping, but sometimes it just happens and it can’t be helped, I’m sure you can understand that.”

Captain Molley waved his hand dismissively, showing he didn’t care. “And what was it you heard?”

“When those pirates first came bearing down on us you told First Mate Blythe ‘they’ve got the weather gage, the better guns, and there’s not any other ship due to pass this way for another two months!’ So there aren’t any other merchants vessels scheduled to come and you know it!”

Captain Molley sighed. “Nothing scheduled, that is correct. But there is the occasional unregistered vessel that passes through these waters. You know this.”

“What? More pirates?! Savages?! This is who you want to be rescued by?”

“I would take my chances with any vessel at this point.”

“Surrender ourselves to their mercy?”

“What would you have me do, Julian?” Captain Molley held out his palms in exasperation. “There are no good options remaining.”

“Keep things in our own control. Push on as best we can towards the pirate’s cove.”

“No. We’re not sure where exactly it is, we’re not sure where we ourselves are anymore. You can’t chart a course between two unknowns! But finding back the trade route, that much we can manage.”

“What if it wasn’t two unknowns? What if we still had a general idea of where we were now?”

“I don’t see what you mean.”

“You say three days of drifting is too long. Well what amount of drifting would you still be willing to navigate from? What if it had only been a single day?”

“But it was three days.”

“But if it had only been one?”

“What is the point of that question? Why does it matter how much I would have been willing to risk, I am not willing to risk things as they are right now.”

Julian gnawed the inside his cheek awkwardly. Captain did not read anything in it, but Bartholomew, who had been following the entire conversation from nearly-shut eyes did. He suppressed a smile and silently turned matters over in his mind.

“Listen Julian,” Captain Molley said in a calm, yet firm manner, “you are not convinced, so be it. But I am the only one in this boat that can navigate, and I’m telling you that I frankly refuse to take these odds. There’s no use in trying to persuade me. I won’t do it, and so there is nothing left but to return to the trade route.”

Bartholomew coughed on cue.

“What? He’s awake!” Julian cried.

“I–” Bartholomew’s voice was extremely strained and cracked. “I can–lead us…I can lead us in.”

Julian rushed the water flask to Bartholomew’s lips. The pirate seized on it with a strength that belied his weakened appearance. He gulped down four overflowing mouthfuls before Captain Molley wrenched it away.

“Easy there. We still have to ration what little we have!” He secured the stopper with a firm twist.

“What were you saying just now?” Julian pressed Bartholomew eagerly.

“I know a way to still get to the cove,” Bartholomew’s voice broke and he remained laying flat on his back, but he spoke on with persistence. “There are–signs in the water. Things to watch for when you know them. If we try our best, if we get within fifteen miles of it…I’ll see the signs and I’ll be able to lead us in. We don’t have to be too accurate…just within fifteen miles would be enough.”

“What signs?” Captain Molley demanded. “A color in the water? A scent in the air? A spawning ground of whales? How do you tell it?”

Bartholomew simply shook his head.

“You won’t tell us?”

“If I tell…you will kill me.”

“What? Don’t be daft, man.”

He will kill me,” Bartholomew managed to lift a single finger towards Julian.

“No. He lashed out in a moment of passion, but he didn’t kill you when he could have, when you and I were both unconscious.”

Bartholomew just shook his head.

“Out with it man! None of us can survive if we don’t do this together.”

“We–can’t all survive. One of us has to die…and it isn’t going to be me.”

“He’s delirious,” Captain Molley shook his head. “Never made any mention of signs in the water before. Get some rest, man. Julian give us the bag of food, he and I need our strength.”

Julian picked up the bag, but only held it halfway to the Captain. “But…we still don’t know if Bartholomew will make it…in which case it would be a waste.”

Captain Molley lurched forward and seized the bag out of Julian’s hands. “Well of course he won’t make it if we starve him! We’re not counting any one of us out just yet.” He clucked his tongue and started to reach into the bag. “Now he and I will take an extra portion or two, to get back our energy after not eating these past three days.”

Julian gnawed the inside of his cheek again.

“Not for me,” Bartholomew sighed. “We can’t survive if we all eat. It’s too far to the cove.”

“What? You’re so concerned about us killing you, but willing to starve to death instead?” Captain Molley sneered. “Eat your food, our lot will be the same.”

“He has a point, Captain,” Julian piped up.

Captain Molley’s eyes narrowed. “So let him die to preserve food for the two of us? And he’s the one man who claims he can still bring you in to your precious cove? Surely even you can see that that doesn’t work.”

Julian opened his mouth to answer, but then closed it. An eternity seemed to pass between Captain and sailor, as both silently came to the same conclusions.

“Julian…what are you thinking?” Captain Molley asked very slowly.

Julian simply stared.

“So it’s like that, is it? I don’t suppose you’ve even considered that Bartholomew could be lying?”

“I can’t accept that.”

“So it has to be you or I then? And somehow I don’t believe you’re volunteering yourself as a sacrifice. No. You’re much more the sort to hide in the rigging and let other men do the dying for you, aren’t you?”

Julian scowled deeply.

The anger was riled in Captain now, and he abandoned any restraint. “You’re too much a coward to throw in your lot and let fate decide, aren’t you? You can’t just let things be, and that makes you such a nervous, shiftless weasel.”

“I’m not a coward!”

“No? And here about to murder a wounded man?” Captain Molley shook his head derisively. “But go on then, take me if you think you can manage it. I would remind you that I’m still armed!”

So saying, Captain Molley pushed back his coat and reached to his side. There he felt the sheath that was bound there…but nothing else.

Julian drew the knife out from the back of his trousers.

“So…” Captain Molley breathed.

The boat nearly overturned, nearly threw all three sailors into their watery grave right then and there. But somehow it stayed aright through the moment of violent struggle. The two men clawed each other’s life as best they could, tore each other like animals. And all the while Bartholomew lay in the bottom of the boat, eyes fixed on the sky above, a grim smile across his lips. A life-rending cry and the deed was done. Captain Molley’s limp corpse was tumbled over the edge and into the water.

Julian leaned panting against the side of the boat for support, the bloodied knife pierced into the wood at his side. He trembled in exhaustion and horror, his eyes blinked furiously, trying to shed tears but too dehydrated to actually form any.

And then two hands clamped around his neck from behind.

Bartholomew’s wiry fingers grasped with hidden strength, his arms crushed with feverish power. Julian thrashed about, but the pirate was very skilled in the art of killing another man. He managed to pin Julian down with one arm, then reached out with the other to take the knife.

Two moments later and Julian’s dead body tumbled out of the boat as well. The sailor rejoined his Captain in the sea. The ocean swallowed them both, and all their sins were forgotten.

Alone in the boat, Bartholomew ravaged the sack of food. He ate as much as he could, drank as much as he could. Then he grabbed two oars and started rowing away from that place. Rowing, rowing feverishly as the waves rolled on.

On Monday I spoke of stories where characters are at odds with themselves. Julian was my example in this story of a man who undoes himself. He accomplishes this in several ways. Initially he wanted to kill off Bartholomew to better survive, then later Captain Molley. Thus his ever-shifting nature deprived him of any ally. He was so desperate to keep himself alive, that he failed to account for the need of retaining any friends to save him.

But even more than this, he kept undermining his own hopes for rescue. Things were already very strained for reaching the pirate’s cove, but then he was the one that knocked out their guide. He was the one that aggravated Captain Molley into collapse. He was the one that stole food so that they didn’t have enough for them all. He was the one that covered his sins with lies, which lies broke Captain Molley’s hope in their plan. At the end he found himself fighting with Captain Molley and Bartholomew, but they were fights that he had only brought on himself.

Or had he? To an extent he made his own choices…but also he was deeply manipulated by Bartholomew along the way. The pirate sowed discord in the man at every point possible, taunting him into attacking himself, putting into his head the notion that one of their crew needed to die, and leaving poor Julian to carry out Bartholomew’s own dirty work for him. Julian may have been a sinner, but Bartholomew was the devil driving him.

Which ties into my earlier blog post about characters who are harboring secrets. It was stated a few times that Bartholomew was closely watching his companions, and it was implied that he had manipulative intent towards them. But what exactly he was trying to do and how he meant to do it remained a mystery up until the very end. Clearly he wasn’t so weak as he pretended, only acting so until one of the other two men had evened the odds for him.

But even after that much is cleared up, Bartholomew still retains many secrets, and he keeps them clear until the end. Just how much of what he did and said was true? How much of it was just a fabrication to build up tension? And the story’s biggest secret of them all: was the pirate’s cove he spoke of even real or not? Was that just a story to get the other men to see him as essential for their survival? At the very end, as he takes the oars and starts rowing, I came very close to saying whether he kept north towards the promised cove, or if he turned east towards the trade route. I repressed that urge, though., for this is a story about deceit, and so it was only right to end on a note of uncertainty.

Though…to be fair…if you understand the character and the themes, you should be able to tell which of those two endings would be the right one.

Even earlier I wrote a blog post about tension between allies, characters who are momentarily aligned in purpose, but not friendly to one another in the least. Clearly this story had that in spades. And specifically it had it in the flavor of natural enemies who we knew were going to come to blows sooner or later, and the only question was when that conflict would actually break out.

Choosing where to have that payoff was an interesting process. Really at just about any time I could have said “okay, that’s this person’s tipping point. Things fall out now.” In fact Captain Molley already came to that point when Julian had taken his feud with Bartholomew too far. And Julian came to that point previously when he hit Bartholomew in the head with the oar. But I intervened in both of those moments and delayed the ultimate fallout, because I wanted something more when that moment came.

I didn’t want the tension to break out because Julian had done something wrong. And I didn’t want it to break out because Captain Molley lost his temper. I didn’t even want it to break out because Bartholomew was pulling the other men’s strings. I wanted it to be because of all three of those conditions at the very same time. In earlier scenes there was one or two of these factors, but I was using those moments to foreshadow the end when all three would come to bear at once. In the end we reach the point that every man indulges in their worse nature at one and the same time, and then there aren’t any restraints left to save them. Only then, at that climax of tension, was the story finally ready for its end.

Last of all, I started this whole story with the idea of tales that begin with a key premise and end with a key culmination. In Boat of Three we began with this idea of a naval captain, a nervous sailor, and a scheming pirate caught together in a boat. It was a simple idea, one that can literally be summed up in a single sentence, but which already suggested all manner of drama.

The story ended with a single idea, too. Right from the get-go I had in mind this scene of Julian being cajoled into killing Captain Molley, leaving the door wide open for him to be murdered in turn. I had a clear image of a snake-in-the-grass mastermind that lay motionless and smiling in the bottom of the boat as lives were destroyed around him. And so the pivotal ending derives directly from the pivotal beginning.

And as I mentioned, each of these men’s personal contribution to the ending was rehearsed in individual scenes beforehand. I showed something about each of them, and then I showed it again later. This is a key pattern of storytelling: saying something and then restating it. On Monday I’d like to look more closely at this notion of reinforced messages, and then we’ll be off with a new tale on Thursday.

Boat of Three: Part Two

grayscale photo of boat on water
Photo by Josh Sorenson on Pexels.com

Part One

Julian shook his head firmly. “I don’t trust him, Captain. I don’t trust this man at all!”

“No, I don’t trust him, either,” Captain Molley sighed. “But frankly, that doesn’t have anything to do with it. Though I may not like it…he did surrender to us. Maritime law is very clear that he is now under our protection.”

“You can’t be serious!”

Captain ignored Julian, and spoke instead to the pirate. “Tell me, man, what is your name?”

“Bartholomew,” the pirate bowed his head. “Bartholomew Briggs. And…thank you Captain…for speaking up for me. I don’t know many that would.”

“Could you even speak up for yourself, Briggs?” Julian shot from behind. “What would you do if you were in our situation?”

“I am in your situation.”

“No. Me and Captain have been together for nearly a year now. We are two-of-a-kind. We’re crew! You’re something different.”

“I’m telling you, Julian,” Captain Molley strained, “Bartholomew is now a member of our crew as well.”

“Captain, no! There’s a difference in this boat, you must see that! What would you do, Briggs, if it was you and your captain in this boat, and you had come across one of us in the water?”

Bartholomew shrugged. “I’m a pirate…I suppose I would do what pirates do.”

“There, you see it, Captain?!” Julian exclaimed. “We can’t trust someone like this!”

“Like I said, trust has nothing to do with it.”

“Has nothing–?!” Julian’s words were lost in his incredulity.

Literally caught in the middle of the argument, Bartholomew suddenly gave out a wheezing laugh.

“What are you doing that for?” Julian snapped.

“Just the irony of it all.”

“What irony?”

“Oh, you say there’s a difference in this boat. Say that I don’t belong. Now I told you truly, if it had been be and my captain who came across you in the water, we would have cut your throat and been on our way.”

“Where’s the irony in that?”

“Why it’s the very same thing you want to do with me now, isn’t it? Seems you and I have a lot in common, Julian, quite a lot, indeed. In fact there is a difference in this crew, you’re right about that. But it’s that your Captain here is the only one of us who has any honor.”

“I’m nothing like you,” Julian spat. He stared darkly into the water for a time, then looked up to Captain Molley with deep anger. “Captain…I’ll never be able to forgive you for this.”

Captain Molley’s eyes narrowed, trying to discern the full weight of what Julian meant by that. He held the gaze for a few moments, then turned back to Bartholomew.

“What you have told us–about the pirate’s cove–this is true? You swear it?”

“What good would it do me to lie? I might as well die now, than deceive you and die later.”

“Do you swear it?”

“Yes, alright then. I swear it.”

“Well then, what is our bearing?”

Bartholomew craned around in his seat, his hands moving in front of his face, tracing lines on an invisible map.

“Well–I didn’t keep the charts myself,” he said nervously. “But–we’re about…a hundred miles southwest of Isla Barro? Yes?”

Captain Molley lowered his forehead to his hands and sighed heavily. Julian was far less reserved.

“You don’t know?! You really don’t know?! You’re planning to lead us back in with your best guess?!”

“I’m a sailor, not a navigator!” Bartholomew shot back. “You could do better, Julian?”

“Have you even seen a map of it?” Captain Molley asked pointedly.

“I’ve seen maps, and I know where it would be on the map, but obviously we don’t inscribe the mark where just anyone can see! Imagine if that canvas fell into the wrong hands! No, we keep it in our heads.”

Captain Molley reached into his coat and pulled a damp piece of parchment from one of his pockets.

“Show me that you know where we are.”

“Without a pen?”

“I have no pen. But trace things out with your finger, and I’ll follow along. To answer your question, we are two hundred miles south-by-southwest of Isla Barro. So what would that look like?”

Bartholomew swallowed and hovered his finger over the paper for a long while.

“It’s–it’s like–so, Isla Barro would be here, of course, in this corner. And we would be here…he drew a line down and slightly to the left.”

“Well at least he knows how a compass works,” Julian remarked sarcastically.

“Now the surrounding area,” Captain Molley urged.

“And–so– Venezuela is down here…a way’s. And Tartina is a bit up here, between us and Isla Barro. And Isla Veo is here, a bit before that.”

He rattled off a few more ports, common ones, in sequence heading back from where they were now, moving north-by-northeast, until he got back to Isla Barrow.

“And what is down here?” Captain Molley asked, prodding the paper further south-by-southwest.

“That’s–um–that’s Mina Terna? Or else Port Stephens?”

Captain Molley was dejected. “Because those were the two next ports that you heard your captain discussing berthing in.”

Bartholomew frowned and blinked quickly, as if he didn’t understand the accusation.

“You don’t know where you are, and you don’t know where you were headed. You only know where you’ve been, the line of ports your crew stopped in from Isla Barro to here.” Captain Molley traced his finger over the few places that Bartholomew had made mention of. “You don’t know the broader waters at all!”

“I do!”

“Can you tell me one thing that isn’t on this main line here? Anything that isn’t just reciting the last three weeks of your course?”

Bartholomew paused for a long while again. “Venezuela is…down this way,” he offered sheepishly.

“Useless.”

“No!” he cried. “Not useless. That cove I was telling you about, it’s back along the way we’ve come. We spied it on our way here, just a few days ago. I can get us back that far!”

“A needle in a haystack!” Julian spat.

“Well what would you prefer?” Bartholomew looked angrily back and forth at his companions. “I wish that I had a perfect tattoo of the map on my thigh, but I don’t! But what I do have is better than anything else either of you have to offer!”

Captain Molley and Julian quieted down at that. It was true. A needle in the haystack was still better chances than trying to move forward or back along their route, hoping for the odd merchant vessel to happen across their way.

Captain Molley sighed once more. “You just have to be honest with us, Bartholomew,” he said heavily. “We each have our part to play in this if we’re to survive, and we can’t afford to be holding secrets from each other. You have to be honest.”

Bartholomew nodded and tapped his finger back on the paper. “If we’re here, and Tartina was here, then the cove is…here.”

“Nearly straight north.”

“Nearly.”

“If your scale is right, seventy miles, against the current. How large is the island?”

“Maybe half-a-mile across? Small.”

“Alright. We move North, but in a narrow zigzag. Widen it out the further we go…cover a larger and larger area the closer we get.”

“But won’t that take quite a lot longer?” Julian asked with a tremor in his voice.

“Yes it will. You can be sure, we’re all going to get quite thinner over these next two weeks. But this is the best way forward.”

“Why better than moving for it in a straight line, then searching about if we happen to be a little off?” Bartholomew asked and Julian nodded.

“We will be off,” Captain Molley stressed. “Seventy miles? Without proper instruments? We’re blindfolded and throwing the dart backwards over our shoulder. I guarantee you we won’t hit a bulls-eye. And how would we know that we had now reached seventy miles and not sixty-five? Or eighty? And when we got there and saw no island, what direction then? Madly row due east, hoping it was there? And then when it wasn’t madly rowing back all the way back and continuing west? Spiraling in and out like dogs chasing their tails? No. We aren’t going to try and stick a perfect jab that’s sure to fail. We’re going to feel our way to it.”

Neither Julian nor Bartholomew appeared entirely convinced, but also neither of them could come up with as impressive of a speech as the Captain’s to counter his opinion. And so they lowered their eyes and made themselves ready for orders.

“Our heading…” Captain Molley pointed one arm towards the setting sun and moved the other in an arc from it until it was at a right angle, “is that direction. I’ll try to estimate our speed, and the amount of time we continue in this direction. When the stars get up we’ll correct course as needed, but for now we row straight.”

So saying, each man took hold of an oar and began their journey forward. As they did, the sun continued to sink in the sky, eventually extinguishing its flame in the eternal ocean, its last traces of light streaking out of the East, giving way to the encroaching night. Still the men rowed forward as dusk settled in, and stars began too peep out, and the onset of night fell on them. Still they worked. They worked, and they worked in total silence. Having no common ground for discussion, each was left to somberly reflect on how poor their chances were.

But though they did not vocally discuss how dire the situation was, each knew that that was where they other’s thoughts were. And every continuing moment of silence only reaffirmed to each man that the others were similarly being weighed by the poor chances of their situation. Indeed they communicated much of helplessness and resignation in their mutual silence.

What was there to be done, though? There might be a time for panic, a time for despair, a time for venting anger, but it was not now. Now was the time for waiting and watching.

It was Captain Molley who finally broke the tension. He pulled up his oar and set it across his lap. The other two men felt the greater burden of rowing the boat by themselves and looked back to him.

“We’ll need to conserve our strength,” he said to them. “We have to keep moving forward, but we have to have the energy to do that. We’re going to ration our food and sleep in shifts. One man rests while the other two continue rowing. Always two of us will be rowing. At the very least we have to prevent the current from undoing all our progress.”

The other two nodded.

“We’ll rest in two hour shifts. At the end of each cycle all three of us will row for six hours.”

Julian’s eyes narrowed. “Two hours of rest a day each?”

“Four. And twenty of rowing. Our bodies are going to break down over time. We will have to reassess that as we go along. But now, while we have our energy, we must do as much as we can. Make no mistake, this is no marathon. We must sprint if we are to survive.”

“A twenty hour sprint!”

“What would you have us do, Julian?”

Julian had no answer for that.

“We’ll let Bartholomew rest first–“

“Why him?”

“Everyone will get the same rest, Julian. It doesn’t matter who goes first.”

“Let him go first,” Bartholomew gestured to Julian. “I don’t mind. I’ll go last. And I don’t need two full hours. Maybe one.”

I’ll go last,” Captain Molley avowed.

“And when you do, Captain, might I suggest you move one seat further, to the very back of the boat. The better to feel if either of us was approaching.”

Julian and Captain Molley both narrowed their eyes and looked at Bartholomew suspiciously.

“And what exactly do you mean by that?” Captain Molley asked.

“What? You don’t think–? Well I’m sorry if I made you both uncomfortable, I’m just stating the facts here. Like I said before, Captain you are a man of integrity, one willing to endanger himself to save another. Julian–Mister Holstead, is it?–and I are made of blacker cloth. So when I’m sleeping and you’re awake Captain, I already know you won’t let any harm come to me. And when Julian sleeps he already knows you won’t let any harm come to him, either. But as there isn’t a man of honor to watch while you sleep, so best you should put yourself snug. Back where you could feel even the stealthiest of approaches. Is that–is that wrong?”

“Now you listen to me,” Julian breathed out darkly. “My wanting to rid the world of a murderer and a thief like you is one thing, but to suggest that I would ever do harm to a true shipmate?! There’s a world of difference in that! How dare you!”

But Captain Molley only looked down in contemplation. He did not share what it was he reflected on, but after a moment he quietly said. “No harm in taking all the possible precautions, though. I will sleep in the back.”

Julian’s eyes widened in hurt.

Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

On Monday I discussed how many stories feature a sense of hostility between protagonists, where they must work together, but do not like each other. In many cases, they don’t even trust each other.

That is certainly the case with my current story, and nowhere is that more clear than in the last exchange of this section. Bartholomew wears his cynical views on his sleeve, Julian is very vocal of his distrust of Bartholomew and his disagreement with the Captain Molley’s every decision, and with companions like these, who can blame Captain Molley and his own statement of doubt in them at the end.

But of course, by affirming his distrust in the other men, Captain Molley weakens their ability to trust him as well. Now they know what he thinks: that they might kill him for their own gain. And knowing that he thinks that, it doesn’t take much to start wondering how his own sense of loyalty to them is being eroded. What if he were to decide the only to way to be safe from their betrayal was to betray them first?

There is a significant moment in this final exchange, the part where Captain Molley sits in silent contemplation before announcing that he will indeed sleep in the back of the boat. I actually knew full well what he was thinking about, that moment where Julian suggested he wouldn’t rescue a third sailor, even if it was a proper shipmate. I went back and forth about whether I should share that part of his thought-process with the reader or not. In the end I chose not to, and I would like to consider the power in leaving elements of your character shrouded. On Monday I would like to explore this concept more, and then we will continue our voyage of distrust with the third section of Boat of Three next Thursday.