- The Sea Wolves
Jack and Sabine hauled the skiff onto the beach, each breaking wave aiding their efforts, until they were sure it would not be dragged back out to sea. Jack knelt and examined the hull, and the damage was even worse than he’d expected. There were three ragged holes, and several other boards were badly fractured. He could perform a repair job, he was sure, but it would not be quick. And without the correct tools, it would be ten times the challenge.
“It’s not good,” he said, but when he turned around, Sabine was facing away from him, looking across the beach and inland. She was so still that he thought she might have seen something dangerous or startling. But the scene was peaceful, and he took the moment to survey where they had landed.
Approaching the island, he’d been able to judge its width as perhaps half a mile. One end was mainly beach and low-lying land, the other rose steadily to a ridged hill perhaps two hundred feet high. It was crowned with a spine of sharp bare rock, but much of the rest of the island was green, cover broken here and there with protruding shoulders of stone. Birds called, insects buzzed, and somewhere to their left he heard the musical whisper of a stream finding the ocean.
There was no sign of habitation. The sandy beach was untrodden, and the jungle that grew to within twenty feet of the sea appeared untouched by human hands. The whole island exuded a wildness that was familiar to Jack, and that did little to unsettle him. At the same time it seemed to him that they were in the middle of a pause, as if the island was aware of their presence and was waiting to see what happened next. He had been subjected to such dispassionate scrutiny before. He wondered what the island saw.
“There are no people here,” Sabine said. “But there were once. Two men lived here for several years. Bad men, alone and lost. The shelter they built is beyond the spit of land to the north, close to the beach.”
“A shelter would be good,” Jack said. “So, you know all this?”
“I know it all. Each breath is history.”
“And you read it.”
“Well…” Sabine turned back to him, and he saw the remnants of a sad expression smiled away. “I live it, though only in brief flashes.” She looked pained, as if talking about her talents was revealing her darkest secrets.
“Come here,” Jack said, holding out his hand. “Help me with the food and water. We’ll walk and find this shelter. And if you feel like talking as we walk, I’d love to know more of your life. I want to know all of you.”
“Ghost,” she said. She looked past Jack and out to sea, and over the horizon storm clouds still hung like bruises on the sky. Lightning flashed there, so far away that the thunder never arrived.
“We beat him,” Jack said. “We won.”
He felt a rush of unalloyed joy at their escape, and he swept Sabine into his arms and hugged her tight. Dry land felt good beneath his feet, a mark of their survival, an acknowledgment of success. But when he released her and Sabine pulled slightly away so she could look into his eyes, her delight was less intense.
“But Ghost is not yet dead,” she said softly.
“That doesn’t matter. He might not be dead, but he’s many miles away.”
“And we are trapped on an island with a holed boat.”
Jack looked around again. There were fruit trees growing close to the stream running down the beach. Birds flitted from tree to tree. There would be fish, and farther inland perhaps small mammals inhabited some of the nooks and shadowy areas of the island’s topography. Even with violence still playing across the horizon, this place might well be paradise.
“Let’s find that shelter,” he said.
As they started walking, Sabine told him why she was a mystery to herself.
“I remember the Great Boston Fire of seventy-two. I watched downtown burn, and even though I brought rain, it was only a light autumn mist. It had little effect against such flames. I saw a man I cared about die that day—he was not the first, and will not be the last.”
They were walking along the gently curving beach, aiming for where a shoulder of land thrust out into the sea. Jack hoped they could climb this without needing to go too far inland, but he was not troubled. He enjoyed hearing Sabine’s voice, unconcerned at being overheard and unworried about whether Ghost would like what she was saying. Her voice sounded different, and perhaps the difference was that she was finally free.
As they started walking, Sabine told him why she was a mystery to herself.
“I was in Quebec during the Lower Canada Rebellion. I was looking for a man who might have had knowledge of my history, but I never found him, there or anywhere else. That was 1838. I remember watching the Colonials burning down three buildings where they thought rebels were hiding, only to find that they had fled the night before. They’d left their families behind, believing them to be safe. The screams that day … horrible.”
That was decades ago, Jack thought, but he did not speak. She had already told him that she was old—ancient, she had said—and he wondered how much further back she might go. He glanced sidelong at her; beautiful hair, radiant skin. Somehow she remained young, and he had the feeling that despite her age and sad wisdom, her heart remained youthful as well.
They left the beach and headed into the jungle, seeking a safe route over the ridge of land. Giant fronds hung from palm trees, creepers trailed across the ground, and blazing orchids spotted trunks and grew from rocks tumbled from higher inland.
“In the mid-seventeen hundreds I spent a lot of time in Europe. I worked for some time with Jean-Étienne Guettard as he created the first geological map of France. Time and the ages fascinated me back then, when I thought perhaps they could answer some of my own questions about myself. But nothing like me can exist in layers of rock or the formation of gems. My history is a vaguer thing.
“I had returned to America during 1608, through the Jamestown settlement.”
“Returned?” Jack asked. He tried blinking away the shock, heart thumping as he weighed the significance of what she claimed. And yet be believed her without a shadow of doubt. She had no reason to lie, and he felt the pain that excavating these memories inspired in her.
Sabine paused, and sunlight passing between heavy, moving leaves dappled her skin. “I have much more to tell,” she said. “Earlier memories are not so clear, and it’s difficult for me to recall the years.” She leaned against a tree, closing her eyes, and Jack went to her, fearing her ill.
“Sabine?” He held her arms and she was cool, and when she opened her eyes again, she was in control, calm and unconcerned at her surroundings. She stared only at Jack.
“How can you claim to love a creature such as me?” she asked, and Jack felt his stomach sink in despair and sympathy. Was she really so consumed by her own strangeness? Lesya had been aware of her abilities, but mad at the same time. Sabine was not mad … but did that mean the weight of her years must crush her down?
“I claim nothing,” Jack said. “My love for you is a fact. And if you truly believe yourself a creature, then I am a…” He scraped a shred of bark from the tree she leaned against, and an ant ran across his finger. “An ant. I am an ant.” He dug deeper, and a glistening grub was exposed. “Or a grub, born, living, and dying in the dark. Because you are a fine, proud creature compared to me.”
“No, Jack,” she said, smiling. “Proud once, perhaps. But I’m too old for that now.”
“You’re not old at all.” He thought of what he’d felt when he had first set eyes upon her, and all that he had seen of her since. “In my heart you’re Sabine, in her twenties. A weight of experience in her eyes, perhaps, but still my young Sabine.”
“Oh, Jack. It’s you who are so young.” With that, Sabine turned and started up the slope, heading for the low ridge from where they would stare down into the next small bay. And each step seemed to take her further back into the past.
“I met Leonardo da Vinci in 1502. An incredible man, he saw the enigma in me. I scared and fascinated him. He had such a beautiful mind, and for a short time I thought I had found someone similar to me.” Sabine brushed a heavy, hanging leaf aside, and water dropped down her back. She shivered.
“I watched the Mongols rampaging through China. Lived through a dozen outbreaks of what is now known as the Black Death. Witnessed the dreadful results of the Crusades.”
“Which Crusade?” Jack asked softly, because though it was impossible, he found it difficult not to believe Sabine. She was so convinced, and convincing.
“All of them.” She glanced over her shoulder, perspiration speckling her nose and forehead. She was beautiful. Jack looked away and squeezed his eyes closed, fisting his hands, making sure he was possessed of all his faculties. He had let Lesya enchant him for a time, and his obsession with her strange splendor had blinded him to the truth of her barely hidden madness. But that was not the case here, at all, and it never had been. Sabine was a delicate creature, and she and Jack had helped each other through the most dreadful of times.
She waited until he looked back at her before speaking again.
“I remember things from so long ago. Plagues and wars. A family that took me in to help with their farming, and who I helped in ways they could not understand.” She breathed a soft laugh. “They tried to burn me as a witch.”
“You have no scars,” Jack said. “Anywhere.”
“The memory of pain fades over time,” she said. “In this body, the memory of scars also disappears. And sometimes memories themselves…” She frowned, looked back up the slope. “I don’t think it’s far to the ridge.” When she started walking again, Jack reached out for her hand.
“You wanted to tell me this,” he said. “So finish it.”
She needed no prompting.
“There was a man in France who said he could help me discover the truth of what I am, but he was killed in a Viking raid. Once, in Jerusalem, I saw a demon in the streets and thought it had eyes like my own. I felt sand between my toes in Egypt, I almost drowned in Russia, and in Spain I was tortured for so, so long that…” She frowned. “I think I was their plaything. Village after village, year after year. Their eternally bloodied offering to the gods.”
“That’s awful,” Jack whispered.
“And that’s why it’s good I don’t really remember.” They walked on, and Jack looked at Sabine’s back when she took the lead. The climb became steeper, but she seemed unconcerned at the fall beneath them.
“You said if Ghost killed you, he would take your powers,” he said. “And yet you tell me you’ve lived for many centuries.”
“Nothing is truly immortal,” she said. “Ghost knows that, and he understands killing better than anyone I have ever met.” She paused, and the tension seemed to relax from her body. “Here we are.” They were standing on a narrow ridge perhaps fifty feet above both beaches, looking down at the beach beyond. It was a smaller bay than where they had landed, and more sheltered from the breaking waves, its waters gentle and clear.
“We might be here for a long time,” Jack said. Sabine did not reply. She looked unsettled.
“Come on,” she said. “Their shelter is on the beach, I think. Battered now, and in need of repair, but it will be somewhere we can remain for a while.”
“I’ll paddle the boat around,” Jack said. “Later, when we’ve rested enough that I can bail water at the same time. And then I’ll go hunting. I’ve hunted before. We’ll make a fire on the beach, cook some meat, and there’ll be plenty of fruit out there.”
As they walked, he thought of the time that lay ahead of them, and of his family, awaiting his return in San Francisco. Then there was his friend Merritt Sloper, who must surely now believe that Jack was dead, one of many victims of the pirate attack upon the Umatilla. He had responsibilities beyond the here and now that he should never let go. Lesya had persuaded him to forget; here, he had to remember.
The slope on this side was gentler, and Sabine confidently led the way until they were halfway down. She paused, head cocked, her right hand held out from her thigh and fingers spread. They caressed the air as if playing a piano, and then her shoulders slumped.
“This is where they died,” she said, pointing off between the low trees to their right. Farther out toward the sea, the land had fallen away from the ridge long ago to form a sheer cliff, softened now with plant growth but still ragged and sharp.
“Both of them?” Jack asked.
“I can put a hex on a living man, but I can’t read the thoughts of the dead.” Sabine started forward again, his beautiful mystery.
What else can you do? he wondered, and perhaps soon—when they had a fire lit and he’d brought the rest of their supplies from the boat—he would ask. But there was no rush.
They reached the beach and found the remains of the shelter built by the two doomed men. There was very little left—some cut branches, heavier logs buried in the sand, and the remains of a woven roof. But it was a start, and Jack relished the idea of some manual labor.
“Your turn to talk to me, Jack,” Sabine said. She lowered herself onto a log that might once have formed part of a wall, staring uncertainly out to sea.
“What is it?” Jack asked.
“Nothing.” She waved her hand. “Tell me about Lesya.”
“You really want me to…” Even the thought of that mad forest spirit chilled his blood beneath the sinking sun.
“Jack! I feel like a … freak. I’m blessed with this”—she touched her face and body—“perpetual youth. But cursed at the same time with the knowledge of age and the staggering passage of time. You can have no idea what it’s like living so long without knowing why, existing outside everyone and everything else without understanding what you really are. I’ve considered many explanations over the years—I’m a freak of nature, a demon. God, or the devil. But one thing I’ve always been is the only one of my kind.