- The Sea Wolves
“No,” Sabine said. “But I fear yours.”
Jack grinned. The fear slipped from Sabine’s face, and her beautiful smile suddenly gave him hope.
“Neither of us is going to die,” he said. “I already have a plan.”
He sat down and started peeling fruit.
“Breakfast,” he said. “We have time. And we need them to know we’re here, and to think we’re unaware of their approach. So we’ll leave as much evidence of our presence as we can.”
Sabine sat beside Jack and ate, and for a while silence hung around them. Jack could smell Sabine’s body, sense the heat of her where she almost, but not quite, touched his bare arm with hers, and her trust was comforting. As they ate, he thought through their situation. And as they finished their last piece of fruit, he knew what they had to do.
“We need to rescue Ghost. He’s the only chance we have of surviving an encounter with his brother.”
“Yes,” Sabine said, and Jack was not surprised at her agreement.
“Prevent Death from murdering him, and free whatever might be left of the Larsen’s crew.”
“Ghost will fight for me,” Sabine said softly. “Even after all this, I’m sure of that.”
“Precisely,” Jack said. “And we’ll have to help him and his wolves defeat Death and his crew.”
Sabine frowned. So beautiful, so old, so innocent, Jack thought, and his heart swelled once again with the love he felt for this woman. The thought of losing her was so terrible, and the challenges facing them were almost insurmountable. But his concept of the future did not allow defeat. He was not afraid.
“But how can the two of us possibly do that?” she asked.
“That’s where the previous tenants of this island can help,” he said. “Follow me. I have something to show you.”
It took them two hours to prepare. Two hours of hard, backbreaking work, during which time neither of them even entertained the possibility of failure. There could be no failure. Everything Jack now lived for, and everything he had found, depended on their plan succeeding.
When they had prepared as much as they could, they climbed the shoulder of land between the two beaches and looked out to sea. The Charon was clearly visible, perhaps three miles out and drifting toward them. Sabine tasted the air and told Jack that the engines were flooded, and that the big steamer was being driven by wind and wave power alone. Ghost and his crew were locked away belowdecks—she could not place them accurately—and Death himself rode the bow, watching as the island grew larger before them.
“He might see us up here,” Jack said.
“All the better if he does,” Sabine said.
They watched the ship together. It was close enough to see but too far away to make out any real detail. Jack stared at the vessel’s bow. Death might be there, but from here he was a speck, a blur. If their plan held together, so he would remain forevermore.
“It’ll work,” Jack said.
“I know,” Sabine replied. They were comforting each other and striving to convince themselves.
There were eventualities that could not be planned for in such a short time, but their scheme had enough fluidity to allow for these. Partly with subtlety and the element of surprise, but mostly with something that the monsters sailing toward them would understand only too well.
Couldn’t they have made landfall in the dark? Jack thought, grumbling to himself as he picked his way through a copse of prickly trees. He paused to test the breeze to make certain he remained downwind of the slightly listing steamship and its crew as they disembarked from the rowboats. As quietly as possible, he slid the last of the wooden barrels off from his shoulder and set it down with the four others that had remained intact enough to move. He could feel his pulse from his temples to the tips of his fingers. His throat had gone dry. He and Sabine were going to get only one opportunity at this, and failure would mean death.
For me, he thought. She might survive. And it was true, he wasn’t completely certain of the extent of Sabine’s powers. She could influence the weather, but could she lift herself up on the wind? It seemed impossible, but that word had become flexible of late.
Still, Jack knew that she would have told him about any abilities that would aid them against the sea wolves.
He took a deep breath and closed his eyes, picturing the camp where he had left her. Even now she would be stoking the flames of the fire they had built outside the ruin of that old encampment. The smoke had to continue to rise in order to lead Death’s crew away from their ship. Sabine had made herself bait.
Can you really do this, Sabine? Jack had asked her. Even with the ability to hex their minds and senses, can you elude them long enough to stay alive?
She had insisted that she could do it. She had once beguiled Ghost and his crew on board the Larsen, but Ghost had kept such close guard of her when they were at anchor that she had not been able to escape. Jack could only hope that her abilities were as subtle and effective as she claimed.
Hidden among those prickly trees, Jack watched the werewolves come ashore. He did not recognize any of them, but in the lead boat was a huge, muscular man with a thick beard and grizzled features. With his obvious pride, and his air of command and utter ruthlessness, there could be no mistaking him—this was Death Nilsson.
Jack took a long breath and let it out, feeling the breeze and listening to the trees rustling around him. If Sabine lost her concentration and the wind reversed itself, carrying Jack’s scent to the wolves, their plan would end in blood and death.
Dragging their boats onto the rocky beach, Death Nilsson and eleven members of his crew came ashore. The captain would have left some of his pack on board to guard Ghost and his remaining crew, no doubt, but though it was a steamship, the crew wouldn’t be much larger than twenty. At most there were eight of Death’s men on board.
Eight is too many, Jack thought. I can’t…
But he refused to let the thought go any further. There was no room for hesitation in their plan. Hesitation would kill them just as surely as claws or fangs.
With gestures, nods, and quietly growled commands, Death spread his pack out along the beach. Two of them dropped to their knees and snuffled along the rocks and sand until they reached the first of the jungle plants. The others simply waited. Death laid his head back and sniffed at the air, searching for a scent. They could all see the smoke rising from the fire beyond the rocks and on the next beach, and they would have picked up the scents that Jack and Sabine had left since their arrival … and perhaps the scent of Sabine herself, waiting for them right now, an easy target.
Come on, he thought, what are you waiting for? You know you have to at least go have a look. Might be someone good to eat.
The thought, so full of cynical levity, horrified him, but his frustration had an edge he could not control. Fully half a minute went by as Death considered the island. Several of his wolves walked toward the shoulder of rock jutting out between the beaches, and they climbed with a grace and agility that made Jack gasp, pulling themselves up using trees, rocks, and undergrowth. Once at the top, they peered down at the beach beyond, but still did not hurry in the direction of the campfire.
Then, at last, Death glanced out at his steamship—its entire hull was painted black, save where it had rammed the Larsen. When he turned back toward the beach, he wore a smile that chilled the blood in Jack’s veins. He uttered a command that seemed more bark than words, and the remaining werewolves ran toward the spit of land and the beach. They climbed as quickly as their companions, then disappeared beyond, Death among them.
Jack swallowed. They would be on the beach by now, and in the camp where Sabine had kept the fire burning. Jack’s deception had begun, and the clock was ticking.
He took a deep breath, looking at the rowboats on the beach and the steamship listing slightly just offshore—a great black behemoth—and then ran, hoisting one of the wooden barrels up onto his shoulder again.
As quietly as possible, relying on the crash of the surf to mask his steps from any wolf that might have remained out of sight nearby, he made it to the rowboats. He set the barrel down in one of them and pushed it off the beach, shoving it a short way out into the waves before he climbed in and began rowing.
The Charon loomed large and dark as the gates of Hades as he approached, throwing its cold shadow over him. His life might end at any moment with discovery by the wolves who must have remained on board, but all he could think about was Sabine. Would she be hiding in the trees? No, she was not Lesya. That was not where the strength of her magic lay. Though she had given him precious few details, Jack knew she would have slid into the ocean to evade the wolves. She would let them have her scent, and lead them on a chase across and around the island, keeping them occupied as long as she was able. Though she did not sing like the sirens of myth, she claimed that she could muddle the minds of men and wolves alike, and blind them to her presence. But until he saw her again—until he held her in his arms and felt her kiss upon his lips—he would fear for her, and grieve the life he dreamed they might have together.
Be safe, he thought, sending it out to her as if in prayer.
When he was close enough to hear the clank of wood and metal on board the steamship, he rowed even harder, maneuvering the rowboat beside the netting that dangled down the starboard side and tying on. From around his waist, where he had knotted it like a belt, he took the section of sail he had cut away from the small boat that had brought him and Sabine to the island. Swaddling the barrel in that cloth, he tied the ends of the cloth around his waist, the weight like a heavy anchor.
Jack snagged the thick rope netting, took a deep breath, and began to climb. Veins popped out on his forearms and biceps. Gravity fought hard, and with the effort it took to carry the barrel beneath him, it was all he could do to remain silent. As he climbed over the Charon’s railing—carefully lifting the barrel onto the deck and unwrapping it—he knew that the true peril had only just begun.
Crouched by the railing, Jack steadied his breathing. He reached out with his senses, feeling for the savage spirits of the sea wolves. Some were in the hold, and he knew it must be Ghost and the other survivors from the Larsen. One wolf was on deck, but at the other end of the ship. None were near enough to come upon Jack suddenly. He only had to choose his moment and he would be committed to this final gambit. And the moment was now. He rushed from his crouch, and there was no turning back.
Sabine had begun to influence the weather, and clouds were slowly gathering. The overcast sky diffused the day’s light to a dull gray, but even without much sunshine, he was exposed and vulnerable out in the open. The clock continued to tick.
The Charon was a double-masted steamer, but with its sails furled and its stacks silenced, it seemed like the moldering corpse of some ancient leviathan, floating upon the surface and drifting toward shore. Only the steamship’s anchor saved it from that fate, but from the way it listed slightly to starboard, it was clear that it had serious hull damage.
Jack climbed the short set of steps to the wheelhouse and risked a quick glance through the window. There was no sign of anyone within. The ship creaked and rocked gently beneath him as he hurried along the deck in a crouch, using the long above-deck cabin to shield him from view and then taking cover behind one of the smokestacks. The steamer was almost twice the length of the Larsen, with much more hold room—how could he hope to search the entire vessel for Ghost and his men without being discovered by Death’s guards? A moment of panic hit him, and then he heard the guttural laughter.
He cursed silently. If they came out onto the deck now, it would be almost impossible to avoid capture or death. But though he held his breath for long moments, awaiting discovery, no one emerged.
A patter of light rain began to fall: Sabine mustering her strength to bring down a new storm. Jack tried to push away thoughts of his love—if he started worrying about the cat-and-mouse game she was playing with Death, he would never finish the task he had come out to the Charon to accomplish.
He skulked along to the cabin and peered in a window, then ducked down quickly. He had sensed two of Death’s wolves inside, and there they were—playing cards and drinking rum or gin in what looked like the ship’s mess. That they had not yet caught his scent was either a miracle or the blessing of the alcohol they had consumed, and he knew that if he didn’t hurry, his luck could run out.
Jack moved away quickly and quietly. Those two weren’t the only wolves left on board, not with Ghost imprisoned here. But the last thing Death and his crew would be expecting was an assault on their ship from the island. Jack’s senses were not so acute that he could pinpoint the exact presence of each beast, so he hurried from hatch to hatch, listening for activity in the cargo holds below. He moved aft until he ran out of boat and realized that the prisoners must be in the only hold he had not checked—the forward hold, right at the bow.
If he went to the hatch on the foredeck, he would be in full view of anyone stepping into the wheelhouse. The two card-playing pirates did not look as if they would trouble themselves to take a wander around the ship anytime soon, so with luck he would not be seen. His focus was slipping, and it was impossible for him to touch so many animal spirits at once. But there would be guards posted below, in the gangway outside the hold door, or in the upper cabin where the stairs from the hold levels emerged. Getting past them would be difficult and time-consuming, and time was in short supply.
He would have to use the other way into the forward hold.
Crouched down, he hustled alongside the cabin until he reached the spot just before the wheelhouse where he had clambered aboard. Had anyone walked the deck in the minute since he had climbed over the railing, they would have to have been blind or drunk to miss the wooden barrel. Now Jack knelt by it, his trousers dampened by the sheen of drizzle that filmed the deck.