- The Sea Wolves
Nature raged through the night, and then close to dawn the storm abated, and the silence that fell was haunted.
The ship seemed to be moaning in pain. The sailors swarmed across the deck and up into the rigging, surprisingly quiet as they went about their post-storm activities, and it was Ghost’s loud shout that brought Jack up on deck for the first time in more than twenty-four hours.
“Young Jack!” he called from above, voice thundering through the mess and gangways much as the storm’s had. “On deck now. Something for you to see.”
Jack exited the galley, glancing back at Ghost’s closed stateroom door. Is Sabine still in there? he wondered, but there was no way he could find out. Not yet. The mess was empty, but in greater disarray than he’d ever seen it, with plates scattered across the floor and remnants of the meal spattered across all surfaces—walls, floor, ceiling, tables, benches. He’d have a busy time with the scrubbing brush later.
On deck, he breathed in deeply, realizing how much he’d missed this fresh air. There was a cool breeze blowing spray across the deck, but the sea was much calmer now, the swell wide and more forgiving. Behind them to the north and east, the sky was dark and angry.
The wolves were busy making sail and repairing damage wrought by the storm. A length of railing had been ripped away, and several lengths of rigging flapped in the breeze, rope ends frayed. One of the small boats—Jack had learned that they were used for boarding other ships, or going ashore, or hunting seals in northern climes—had vanished, smashed from its mooring. Jack caught his breath. One less chance to escape.
Ghost stood at the bow, looking back over his shoulder as he waited for Jack to join him. He was motionless amid this chaos. An island in the storm. Jack went to him, wondering what he would see.
“Did you enjoy the storm?” Ghost asked.
“No,” Jack said.
“I’m surprised. Confronted by an energy greater than your own, I thought your ego would take a battering.”
“Ego?” Ghost said with obvious surprise. “You truly believe I suffer from that affliction?”
“Perceptive as you are, I’m astonished you don’t see it,” Jack said. “Except that you’re not the one who suffers. That’s left to everyone around you.”
“Ego is comparative,” Ghost said. “I place myself in comparison to no one. I exist for myself and am comfortable with my own thoughts and considerations. That does not give me an ego. It gives me sense and logic. It’s only you, Jack, who apply the concerns of society and civility to me.”
“Maybe,” Jack said. “But if you’re so damned immune to anything outside yourself, why do you care what I think of you?”
Ghost leaned on the bow railing and looked down at where the ship sliced through the waves. He seemed contemplative, and for a moment Jack thought that he had reached the captain somehow. Perhaps it was not being ignored that would trouble the man, but being pitied.
“What makes you think I care?” Ghost asked at last, and Jack felt a shiver pass through him. It had nothing to do with the cool breeze, nor the fact that they had survived an incredible storm. But the man before him was cold as ice. At the heart of him must exist a void, the darkest of places, and these conversations were fireflies circling that void, mere distractions that would soon be swallowed by his dense, impenetrable heart.
But could any man truly be so distant? Even a creature like Ghost, who existed balanced somewhere between human and beast?
“You spend a night as a monster, and yet you crave the sort of conversation”—Jack waved a hand behind him at the rest of the ship—“no one else here can give you. You’re a man of contradictions.”
“I know my own mind.”
“As well as you think?”
“Of course. I have my needs, and they are many and varied. The meaning of life is to live, not to exist. Surely you’re a young man who will agree with that.”
“Yes, but not at the expense of others.”
“Others!” Ghost snorted. “I only live the life that most men crave. I’m true to myself, because I know that I am most important. Why live a lie? I’ll quote you Hawthorne, and you tell me if this is false: ‘No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself, and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.’”
Jack nodded, wondering how any man, beast or not, could have spent so much time pondering the philosophies of humanity and still remain so inhuman. And even as he wondered, he knew the answer: Ghost worked hard at it. The real question was, why? Why did he want to rid himself of any shred of compassion or empathy? Was it only so that he could live with the horrors he had committed, or was there some deeper purpose?
“You see!” Ghost said. “I’m at peace with who I am, and wear no false mask, however much your precious civilization says I should.”
“And yet aren’t you the ultimate two-faced man?”
“Ah, young Jack,” Ghost said, “you’re assuming the two faces are dissimilar.” He lit his pipe and leaned on the bow rail again, looking forward rather than back. His eyes glittered. He seemed to be focused on something ahead.
Ghost was trying to bend Jack to his philosophy of humanity, to draw out the wild he saw in his young captive. And if Sabine had been correct, he wanted Jack as some kind of mirror, so he could be certain he was everything Jack was not. But if Ghost wanted to draw out the beast in Jack, then Jack thought the opposite might also be possible—some trace of human emotion remained in Ghost.
“I can reach you,” Jack said, and Ghost glanced back, perhaps thinking for a moment that his prisoner planned to topple him over the bow. Ghost’s slightly startled expression—a quick blink, a falling of his smile—was Jack’s greatest victory yet.
“You can continue to try,” Ghost said, “but it will have to wait for another day.” He took a small telescope from his pocket and extended it, handing it to Jack. “South-southwest.”
Jack looked, sweeping the telescope slowly from the south toward the west. He missed it the first time and had to turn back before he saw the faint smudge of smoke on the horizon.
“The Weyden,” he said.
“Indeed,” Ghost said. He stood back from the railing, took a deep breath, and then clapped his hands. “Fresh sport. A good day for it!” He turned and shouted down the length of the Larsen, and Jack had no doubt that every crewman heard his voice. “Barely hours away, lads! Make haste.”
Jack’s heart fell. Barely hours.
“Fortuitous that the storm should pass before you found your quarry,” Jack said.
“We might’ve been lost in that storm, but she guided us through,” Ghost said, enjoying talking about Sabine. “Stayed in my cabin the whole time, reading the charts, scrying the wind and waves. Kept her starved, because that way she sees clearer. She’s quite hungry.”
He watched Jack for any reaction, but Jack bit down his anger. Now was not the time.
“I’d best get below,” Jack said.
“Aye, young Jack,” Ghost said. As Jack walked away, he heard the captain’s soft chuckle behind him, and it sounded like claws on wood.
He could set fire to the Larsen. It would be easy enough. Spread the cooking coals, encourage the flames with some of the fat stored in the galley. It would send a signal to the Weyden. It would cost him his life and possibly Sabine’s—either burning or drowning, or at Ghost’s hands—but if he could save the hundred or more lives on board the other ship, it would be a worthy sacrifice. But as soon as the idea presented itself, he rejected it. The flames would draw the other ship in, not drive it away. The code of the sea and basic decency would bring the captain of the Weyden to the aid of the burning Larsen. Ghost’s wolves would abandon their sinking vessel and take over the other. His sacrifice would be wasted.
He could steal one of the remaining skiffs, try to sail on ahead of the Larsen to warn the others. But that was foolishness, and he knew it. There was no way he could lower the boat overboard without being noticed, and it would be difficult to sail it on his own even if he did. They’d be down on him, and though he’d fight, they’d tear him apart in moments.
Some other signal, then. Some way to warn the Weyden that they were about to be attacked. He remembered seeing the Larsen appearing from the fog and slipping alongside the Umatilla, but this attack would be different, because it would be in broad daylight. And Sabine had said that they could change themselves at will. With such a brazen assault, would they need the added speed and savagery of their monstrous forms? Jack thought they might.
As he worked in the galley, agonizing about how he could warn the innocents aboard the Weyden about what was to come, he breathed in and caught her scent.
“You’ve led them to another day of murder,” he said softly.
“I have no choice.” Her voice was weak, wretched, and Jack turned around in surprise. Sabine stood in the galley doorway, her skin incredibly pale and her sunken eyes dark with exhaustion. She looked drawn and sick. She clung to the doorframe, so sad that his heart broke for her and belonged to her completely. Her malady was far more than physical.
“There’s always a choice,” Jack said.
“There are over a hundred people on that ship,” Sabine said. “Most, if not all, will die today. But if I refuse Ghost’s demands, then he will kill me.”
“Then it would be a brave sacrifice,” Jack said, though his heart cringed at the thought of Ghost harming this beautiful, damaged creature.
She stared at him for some time, and he could sense the turmoil roiling within her. When she spoke at last, he knew that he would remember her words forever.
“Jack, you have become so dear to me, so quickly,” she said, the confession spilling out of her, her eyes full of anguish and honesty. “And it pains me deeply to know how you must see me. Two nights ago you asked me if I loved him—”
Jack did not have to ask who she meant. Revulsion flickered across her face.
“Merely to have a man of decency think such a thing of me—especially one in whom I feel such instinctive trust, such … intimacy—I can’t endure it. No living soul knows my secrets, but something within me cries out to share them with you, Jack. I feel such guilt for your being here. I saw that night that you are a man of honor, and I know now that you deserve the truth.”
Jack nodded for her to go on, hope rising in him. If she could be honest with him, believe in him, their chances of survival would grow.
She took a deep breath before continuing. “Whoever kills me will breathe in my magic,” she said. “Imagine Ghost with my power, able to find anyone or anything he desires, whenever he likes. And now understand that he has no idea of the true extent of my abilities. That I have more powers than he can imagine, and they would be his as well. Think on that, Jack.”
“The lesser of two evils,” Jack said. “The lives that he takes now are only a fraction of those who would suffer.”
“Yes. I have considered suicide, but even then…” She shrugged. “I do not know if someone on board would inherit my gifts.”
“It’s eating you. Consuming you.” The dreadful weight of her predicament settled upon him. How had she lived with it?
“My secret is yours, now,” Sabine whispered.
Jack pulled her close, ignoring her cry of surprise. She was cool and fragile, and beneath her dress her body felt slight, as if eroding before the sea breeze. He could feel her spine and trace the curves of her ribs. But beauty still resided in her eyes, and Jack pressed his lips to hers, hoping to communicate everything in that kiss—his resolve and strength, his understanding of the wild within himself and determination to restrain it, control it. She kissed him back, and when he pulled away, he thought, I love you. But when he spoke, there was something more important to say.
“We’re going to save each other.”
“How sweet,” a voice said. Finn sauntered across the mess, Tree behind him. They seemed to block out the light and fill the space with darkness. “The captain will love this.”
“Aren’t you getting ready to kill?” Jack asked bitterly.
“Always ready for that, Cooky. Always. Now come with us. Ghost wants you locked away during the festivities.”
In spite of everything, Jack felt a moment of delight at the idea of being shut up with Sabine once again.
Finn’s grin stretched his mouth, reddening scars across his face. “Only you, boy,” he said. “Ghost needs the lady on deck.”
Sabine pulled him close, her lips pressed to his ear, but it was not a kiss she gave him. It was yet another secret.
“I know what to do,” she whispered.
Then she parted from him and slipped away. She squeezed Jack’s hand as she left, one simple gesture that communicated so much. We’re going to save each other, he’d told her. And now he knew that she believed that as well. No matter what Ghost might feel for her, the only emotion she had toward him was fear.
Finn came for Jack, manhandling him across the mess, shoving him into the side of the steep staircase, and Jack took the pain and bit back any thought of retribution. Perhaps he might have given Finn a fight, but not with Tree behind him, immovable and unstoppable. Better to let them believe they had him where they wanted him. But Jack made a vow there and then, as they tumbled him into the small, stinking hold where they’d kept the prisoners from the Umatilla: their time would come.
He heard bolts being thrown and padlocks clasped, and he thought of the room he and Sabine had been in that night. That had the most important locks on the inside, meant to keep the wolves out more than captives in. Where he was now was a true prison.