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Men Like Beasts

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Nevertheless man being in honour abideth not: he is like the beasts that perish.

Psalm 49:12

I said in mine heart concerning the estate of the sons of men, that God might manifest them, and that they might see that they themselves are beasts.

Ecclesiastes 3:18

 

Chapter 1: In Which a Dog is Not Led Away into a Cruel Fate

Irving

Lat. 69° 37' 42'' N., Long. 98° 41' W.

23 April, 1848

Lieutenant John Irving is not a man who is very fond of changes.

That is not to say that he is set upon having a boring life: he is quite proud of his career in the Discovery Service, which has included much discomfort and many challenges, even before he set out for the Arctic Circle.

So he stomachs the unexpected well enough.

He ignores the unexplained with practiced stubbornness.

He is disturbed only by that which is incomprehensible to his heightened sensibilities.

Sadly, this expedition has become a nightmarish combination of all of the aforementioned inconveniences.

Irving's complete faith in the divine forces beyond human reckoning does not allow him to often use words like 'despair' or 'hopelessness', even if the men around him have lately been dropping dead on a daily basis.

Besides, as he fervently hopes, the miserable life at Terror Camp will soon be a thing of the past.

As he returns from Captain Crozier's final briefing before tomorrow's departure, Irving passes by the pale, shivering men on tonight's watch. They merely nod in his direction, too tired to speak.

Irving would not normally tolerate this level of carelessness without a verbal reprimand, but many things have changed in the past weeks. Even Captain Crozier is not being afforded the proper respect and support that a leader of his rank might usually have. The captain has grown gaunt and harrowed, though he is fairly successful in hiding any discomfort.

Irving's own belly is so empty tonight that it is sticking right against his spine. He has kept a biscuit from lunch carefully wrapped away in one of his handkerchiefs, but pecking away at dry bread does not seem to be tricking his stomach into feeling any more fed.

Worse still, Irving knows that the search for wild game will only exhaust him further, the long walk opening up raw blisters and dark bruises. His weakened body seems to be accumulating more of those with every passing day, but they do not worry him as much as the two of his teeth which are becoming slightly loose.

Terror Camp is such an apt name for our current home, Irving thinks dolefully.

The terror of the scurvy eating away at them. The terror of the poisons they are ingesting with each opened Goldner can. The terror from the ice that has not been seen for some time, yet may perhaps still be lurking out of sight to devour hapless sailors.

Irving stops and suddenly shudders.

There is something wrong, he realises.

Wisps of fog are floating lazily among the tents, as if considering who of the sleepers will be infected next: with consumption or a bout of painful coughs or a horrid cold that never really fades away.

Yet the low mist is not what has caught his attention. Somewhere between the flapping of tent coverings in the wind and the low groans from the sick bay, there is an eerie silence. A lack of some background noise which he has grown used to in this sad place.

In any other myriad series of circumstances, Irving would have shaken away the odd feeling and gone off to huddle in his sleeping bag. In any other universe of could-be futures, he would have immediately fallen asleep and woken up feeling ready for a day of exploration.

In this particular fragment of time, Third Lieutenant John Irving slowly blinks.

He sighs.

With a resigned grumble, he forces himself to go check up on the dog.

The possible future shifts and shivers, like a narrow lead breaking through ice.

***

 

In the corner of the camp where the Newfoundlander is being kept, there should be familiar sounds: low woofs, or the shuffle of paws across cold shale and pebbles. Irving approaches closer, fully expecting the dog come to snuffle at him in hopeful curiosity.

(Poor Neptune isn’t being fed very well of late, either.)

Yet there is nothing inside the hastily erected enclosure, only the lonely whistle of wind. It has been warmer in recent days, but the nights are still dreadfully cold. He doubts that even a dog could be sleeping comfortably in such a wind.

Irving hurries forward and soon sees that the gate has been left unlocked.

'Oh no', he mumbles, quickly moving his lantern down towards the ground. There are faint traces of disturbed stones, as if of light footsteps passing by, yet no deep marks mar the ground.

Irving huffs a small breath of relief. For a split moment, he feared that the animal had been snatched away by something terrible.

Still, the problem remains. It is very important that the mischievous dog be found. He is their only guard whose nose can detect approaching intruders and whose sharp ears are free from the muffling effect of Welsh wigs and woolly scarves.

Irving squints towards the darkness and follows the trail, only a little way into the nearby stony hills. The lights of the camp are still quite close, so the dull fears that have become Irving's constant companions do not turn into sharp dread – yet.

Bits of rock shift beneath him as he climbs. Shadows play ominously against the fog and the frail light of his lamp. He decides that he will call over the guards and order them to look for Neptune in the morning, if he himself should not spot the dratted creature soon. A dog, no matter how useful a creation of God, is not worth risking his own life over.

'Neptune!' He calls out, as cheerily as his dry throat allows. 'Hullo! Are you there?’

There is no sight of the dog, but he does hear something very close to him, as if trying its best not to be heard. His heart skips a beat.

It is not the monster, Irving calms himself: I doubt it would wait so long to attack.

'Do you want food, Neptune?’ Irving ventures. ‘A nice meal for a very good boy? Here, I might have something on me that I was saving up for later…'

Irving opens up a pocket and shifts through it clumsily, until he triumphantly exposes a bit of crumbling biscuit to the night air.

‘It’s a special treat, see? All for you! Come here, boy!’

A brief struggle erupts from the darkness and something leaps to his side.

Irving is nearly knocked over by Neptune, the canine so delighted at the prospect of a snack that he has bodily dragged his handler into plain sight.

Holding the dog’s neck scruff is the thin hand of Cornelius Hickey, who looks as unpleasantly surprised to be spotted by Irving as Irving is of seeing him sneaking about in the dark. Something is glinting in the man’s free hand, but it is quickly shoved into his long coat - almost quickly enough for Irving not to notice what it is.

A knife?

Irving unwittingly takes several steps back, blinking rapidly. He wants to demand answers, but it suddenly strikes him that it is perfectly normal for a crew member to be carrying around a weapon in these hostile surroundings.

Embarrassed at his jittery response, Irving pretends to be adjusting the lamp’s intensity.

'What on earth are you doing at this hour, Mr Hickey?' He mutters in annoyance.

Why is it always the same men who are a source of trouble?

There is a briefest of silences, broken by the moist sounds of Neptune happily wolfing down the surprise gift of biscuit.

'Taking the dog out for a walk', the caulker's mate replies evenly, licking his dry lips. His hand reluctantly leaves the animal’s neck.

'Out here? In the night?'

Neptune waddles around them in a circle, whining for more biscuits.

'Oh yes. You see, I went out to take a shi-… to relieve myself, if you'll pardon me saying, Lieutenant. I was heading right back to my tent, right back to it, when I noticed our poor Neptune looking all alone in his cage. Thought he might like a bit of freedom.'

'That is very kind of you, Mr Hickey', Irving grumbles in faint disbelief, ignoring the man’s crassness. He was never aware of Hickey liking the ship’s dog all that much.

‘It just ain't right’, Hickey shrugs modestly, ‘Keeping a big dog cooped up like that with no exercise.'

'You are aware that we are leaving tomorrow?' Irving asks, without any trace of irony.

Many of the men have been showing signs of deteriorating reasoning capabilities and impaired memory. It is just another element of their exhaustion and worsened physical conditions.

‘Of course, sir. The hunting party.’ Hickey smiles broadly. ‘Honoured to be part of it, sir.’

'Exactly’, the lieutenant nods. ‘So there will be others left to, to, to go play with the dog.’

Irving always feels strangely flushed and self-aware around the caulker’s mate - and hates himself for it. There is no reason to allow the man’s behaviour to get under his skin. Hickey is after all only a petty officer (and an unsuccessful agitator to boot).

Irving pets Neptune’s head distractedly.

Hickey continues to smile distractingly.

'Well, I want you looking alert and lively tomorrow morning,’ Irving says finally. ‘Not falling asleep on your legs. Go get some rest.'

'Don't you worry yourself over me, Lieutenant. I don't seem to need much sleep.'

I’ll bet you do not, Irving thinks. Too busy instigating trouble for the rest of us, I’ll warrant.

'You should tell that to Dr Goodsir', Irving says aloud. ‘He might be able to help.’

‘Oh, why bother the good doctor? He has his hands full enough as it is, with worse cases than mine.’

‘That is true enough’, Irving sighs. He tries to think of some other advice he might impart.

Irving feels that every man serving in the Queen’s Navy is owed the wisdom of his superior officer in times of hardship: even lowly sorts of men, like Hickey, who seem tragically disinclined to work towards their own betterment.

‘Sheep’, he suggests helpfully.

He is rewarded with a confused and slightly alarmed look. Perhaps Hickey now thinks it is Irving who is losing his mind to scurvy.

‘You may try to imagine some dull pastoral activity, such as a flock of sheep leaping over a fence one by one. It should lull you to sleep’, Irving explains patiently.

He adds (hopefully, but without any real expectations): ‘I also find that repeating a favourite prayer helps to greatly calm my thoughts.’

 ‘I’ll be sure to try that, sir’, Hickey coughs, almost as if suppressing a laugh.

Irving feels his ears growing hot. Sometimes he thinks that none of the men appreciate the discreet work he tries to do for the benefit of their souls.

‘Will you be heading along back to camp now, sir?’ The smaller man asks as he approaches closer to Irving and scratches a little too roughly at Neptune’s back.

‘I should think so!’

‘Good. I can find my own way back. The fresh air seems to be agreeing with me.’

‘I don’t think it can compare to the agreeable warmth of a tent, Mr Hickey. It’s cold enough outside to freeze canned soup.’

Hickey shakes his head.

‘Those tents are all wet and nasty. The whole camp smells sick. I’ll sleep more nicely after a little walk with the dog. I promise to put Neptune back into his pen afterwards and all. Agreed?’

Irving does not agree. He hardly wants Hickey sneaking away somewhere, perhaps to meet up with fellow malcontents and conspire out of earshot from loyal crew members.

It is true he has not been doing anything suspicious tonight – at least, Irving thinks not – but Captain Crozier doesn’t trust the caulker’s mate, either, and that is reason enough for Irving to stay in his lofty position of perpetual mistrust towards the little man.

‘We will walk back together’, Irving stiffly replies. ‘Right now.’

He slowly trots back down the hill, his lantern bobbing in front of him. The dog leaps around, sliding down rocks and lolling his tongue enthusiastically. They both keep a bit of distance from the petty officer, who is following behind with sullen disappointment etched into his every feature.

Irving supposes it is because he has cut Hickey’s impromptu ‘shore leave’ a little short. He doesn’t understand the ill mood: it isn’t as if he has bodily dragged Hickey out from a full pub on a Saturday night. There’s nowhere to go, out here: just piles and piles of moonlit rocks.

‘You can get enough fresh air by the time we are back, if that’s what you wanted’, Irving tells him with certainty. He demonstrates.

‘Just take long breaths - through your nose, like this, that is very important. You must keep your throat clear of any night air. Everyone knows that is the fastest way to catch an illness of the lungs.’

Hickey shoots him a look of pure venom, which the lieutenant elects to ignore.

‘Go on then!’ Irving encourages.

Hickey’s jawline tightens in stubborn refusal.

‘Go on! It’s for your own good, you know!’

With an expression bordering on mutiny, Hickey swallows his pride and inhales loudly.

Under the watchful eye of his superior officer, he exhales in an equally exaggerated manner. His nostrils expand and contract quickly, making the tip of his long nose wobble. He looks more like a ship’s rat than ever before.

‘Well done! You may carry on just like that’, Irving praises. It is a pleasant surprise to have his good advice applied, for once at least. It gives him some measure of hope for tomorrow’s co-operation.

Hickey does not reply at all, sounding like a faulty locomotive as he pushes his thin frame past Neptune and takes the lead downhill.

Irving has to hurry the rest of the distance to the familiarity of the camp, not wanting to be left behind in the darkness. He does not quite appreciate the way that Hickey keeps glancing back at him, either, especially when he is breathing so aggressively.

The dog, blissfully unaware of any tension, skips and hops merrily between the two men.

This is the most fun Neptune has had in weeks.

***

 

As he tries to sleep that night, Irving feels – out of some frightful knowledge, deeply set into his chilled bones – that tomorrow will be a day of great changes for his life.

They will either find food or they will doom everyone to a slow decay brought on by starvation.

He has been given a great responsibility by the captain. It is a sign of trust. Irving only wishes he didn’t have to take Hickey along with his group, but he understands the decision. It is far better to occupy the caulker’s mate with something useful, far away from the camp, instead of allowing his bad influence to spread like rot among crew members.

Irving twists unhappily under the covers of his sleeping bag, pondering on every uncertainty or danger that the hunt may bring, until his hand touches the small Bible which he always keeps near his sleeping spot.

On a childish whim, he buries it under his many shirts and close to his heart. The Holy Book’s thin paper leaves are damp and they cling to his skin uncomfortably.

Yet it is the one source of true comfort he has left in this cold world.

Irving prays and prays, slowly breathes in and slowly breathes out, but he does not find sleep until it is almost dawn.

Chapter Text

Irving

Lat. 69° 37' 42'' N., Long. 98° 40' 58'' W.

24 April, 1848

Irving inwardly curses himself. They are so close to salvation and he has already made a mistake.

It’s the lack of sleep, he knows.

He woke up feeling so unrested and confused in the morning, that he had to stumble out of his tent and run towards morning muster.

On his way there, he was accosted by Mr Collins, who was in an unusually puerile mood and giggling like a madman. There was something very wrong going on with Mr Collins, but Irving really did not have time to ponder upon the matter and merely shoved the man aside with a snappish retort.

The giggles of Mr Collins shifted into confused sobs. He just slowly drooped to the ground, like a morose puppet having its strings cut.

The sight had shaken Irving more than he cared to admit, for he wondered if the man would not end up like poor Mr Morfin, if his madness reached a dangerously unpredictable level.

Irving was still buttoning up his peacoat and rearranging his messy hair when Captain Crozier arrived to wish them all good luck: a source of professional embarrassment which Irving hoped would be forgotten if he arrived with freshly caught venison or arctic fowl.

Irving had glanced back at the camp as they set out.

Many of the men had arrived at the fringes of the camp as a send-off. They were smiling, but their expressions belied their true, hungry desperation. A few of Dr Goodsir’s patients were there, too, presumably to be given a little hope.

Everyone was waving except for Mr Collins, still stuck in some world of his own. Dr Goodsir was pointing out Irving’s hunting party to him and showing how excited even Neptune was – allowing Mr Collins to gently pet the dog in wonder, as if he had never seen one before.

Dr Goodsir is always so kind and patient, Irving thought. He suddenly felt ashamed for his earlier un-Christian-like outburst towards a man who was so obviously ill.

So the last image Irving had of Terror Camp was that rag-tag group of well-wishers, every man among them looking broken and defeated. He wondered how many would still be standing by the end of the week.

It was not a happy thought.

As it is, in the here and now, Irving’s own head is still swimming not only with such negativity, but with tiredness and excitement and the beginnings of scurvy.

It is all affecting his good judgement.

And now the group of Inuit that he found have been spooked.

***

 

Irving should have left the other two, Farr and Hickey, at the top of the hill. He was not thinking properly.

With three unknown men approaching them simultaneously, the Inuit family traversing the wide fields of frozen gravel are understandably tense. They are dragging their sleds at a slow enough rate to catch up with, but all their weapons are raised and ready.

‘Please! Please, wait a moment!’

Had Irving gone alone, they surely would have sensed his friendly intentions at once. He feels very foolish.

Irving waves his arms wide, showing he is not holding any weapon. He smiles shyly. He greets them over and over.

The Inuit look at him with continued wariness, but they pause in their retreat. A few men lower their weapons slightly. A young child huddles closer to its mother.

‘Stay here and sit’, Irving suddenly instructs his subordinates in a hiss, motioning for them to stop when they are a few minutes away from the group.

‘Don’t do anything. I need you to look as non-threatening as possible.’

Farr lowers himself slowly, to sit with his bag across his knees, looking for all the world like a prim old maid clutching her best purse during Sunday Mass. Hickey has already flopped over and is stretching his legs across the rocks, with the practiced ease of a man who prefers idleness to honest work.

‘My name is Lieutenant John Irving of Her Majesty's Royal Navy.’

He swallows painfully, overcome with emotion. There is something about this moment - meeting living, breathing souls in this accursed wasteland - that burns itself into his memory.

‘John.’ He says, pointing at himself. The Bible, which in his hurry he forgot to take out from under his shirt this morning, prods at his ribs reassuringly. Irving feels the edges of his eyes grow moist. He is thankful to God in His infinite mercifulness for sending him this opportunity.

One of the Inuit men steps forward.

‘Koveyook’, he says.

‘Koveyook?’

‘Koveyook.’ The man affirms.

‘Koveyook’, Irving repeats, almost reverently.

‘Koveyook.’ The man places his hand over his chest. It cannot be more clear that it is his name.

‘John’, Irving says, pointing at himself again. ‘John.’

‘John’, the man intones, carefully, as if testing the word out.

Two of the Inuit are whispering at something behind Irving. He furrows his brows and turns his head in the direction of their gazes.

Hickey has a cigarette and is lighting it with a match. He is looking on at the unfolding introductions with – Irving cannot believe it – utter boredom. It is as if he is at a theatre and is not finding the play’s dialogue particularly inspiring. The smoke and the odour of tobacco have caught the native men’s attention.

Irving groans to himself. So much for dignified first impressions.

He ploughs on regardless.

‘My friends and I, we are, are… We're looking for game.’

Koveyook, of course, finds this sentence as equally relevant as if Irving had spoken it in Greek or Latin.

‘Food.’ Irving tries, lamely.

‘Food…’ Koveyook repeats carefully.

‘Food, yes.’ Irving nods. He glances aside, at the supplies on the sleds.

Koveyook must be a quick-witted man, or he has correctly taken in the weak and miserable appearance of the Englishmen, for he immediately catches onto what Irving is asking for. After exchanging a few words with another man, the Inuit’s leader returns with a slice of seal meat.

‘Yes’, Irving says, trembling. He takes the strip of meat with gratitude. ‘Thank you.’

He wants to devour it whole, but he takes his ship’s knife out instead and clumsily divides it into three equal parts. He slowly chews on his piece and feels his stomach rumble in appreciation.

‘Thank you’, he says again, washed over with relief at holding real food. He could repeat the thanks a thousand times and it would still not lose its meaning.

Koveyook pauses. He motions with his head brusquely, for Irving’s men to come closer.

‘Mr Thomas Farr’, Irving introduces, as Farr hurries forward to take his portion.

‘Mr Cornelius Hickey.’

Hickey smiles and winks at the Inuit, who do not smile back. He slurps as he eats and slowly licks his fingers clean.

Even the natives do not like him, Irving thinks with a small measure of satisfaction.

Irving makes a gift of his prized telescope. Koveyook is uncomfortable at the gesture, making Irving worry that he might have transgressed some societal rule, but it turns out that the hunter is merely thoughtful about what to give in return. After a round of halting, awkward communication, Irving is given to understand that they will receive a whole package of freshly killed seal. It is carefully wrapped in blubber and tightly stretched animal skin, so it will not spoil quickly.

Hickey leans back and grins. Farr begins to laugh and gleefully claps his hands.

Slowly, cautiously, the Inuit family begins to relax. Irving and his men receive another portion of raw meat. Soon everyone is sitting together around the sleds, Inuit and Englishmen all mixed together.

Irving keeps close to Koveyook, showing him how to adjust the telescope more finely.

Farr sits between old Asiajuk of the cautious face and Tiquerat of the two missing fingers. They are showing him how to cut the seal meat without the knife slipping.

Nauja, a girl of perhaps six years, runs excitedly back and forth between Hickey and her mother. She seems fascinated by the ginger hair of the caulker’s mate.

After their meal Koveyook explains, by means of signs and pantomime, that they will be leaving to hunt caribou. At least, Irving thinks it is caribou, by the way the man raises his hands over his head and positions them like antlers.

The family is not prepared to linger any longer, no matter how much Irving tries to convince them. Caribou are simply not expected to be found in the direction of Terror Camp.

Irving has to make a decision.

He will send one of the men home, to deliver the seal meat and give Captain Crozier news of what has happened today. The other man will stay behind with Irving and they will leave to hunt with their Inuit allies. Irving thinks their best chances of finding game are with Koveyook, who must know this territory and its seasonal animal migrations better than half-starved sailors from across the sea.

Irving itches to send Hickey back, but he ultimately decides against it. Keeping the conniving little man away from Terror Camp for a week or so may turn out to Captain Crozier’s best advantage.

Later that afternoon, Koveyook and his family prepare for the night, setting up a sealskin tent.

Irving and Hickey accompany Farr a short part of the way towards Terror Camp, over the ridgeline of the valley and out of sight of the Inuit. They actually end up sweating and huffing, unused to such exercise and the additional weight of the seal meat. Irving and Farr both have to take off their coats, while Hickey strips all the way down to his trousers.

When they have helped Farr along as much as Irving allows, they all shake hands and exchange delighted goodbyes. Farr jokes about exactly how much they will gorge themselves on caribou meat when Irving and Hickey bring back a good catch.

Then Farr is on his way, a small point of swift movement against the pattern of lonely rocks.

***

 

Irving stays at the ridgeline to watch the sun fade into dusk. He has folded his peacoat over his arm and is feeling like a proper hero.

He enjoys the lingering warmth of the last rays of light. He knows temperatures will drop as soon as night falls, but in this moment he can almost understand why Hickey has opted to walk bare-chested.

They reach the summit of the ridge in contented silence and admire the view. It is hardly a tall peak, yet they can see everything from here, bathed in a warm orange glow: from the direction of where the caribou are surely trotting towards their hunting party, to the distant Terror Camp, where their friends will soon be feasting on seal meat.

The wind too has tamed itself for the occasion, bringing a fresh smell of upcoming summer – and finally, miraculously, of hope for survival.

‘This is going to sound completely mad’, Irving exclaims. ‘But I think this may be one of the happiest days in my life.’

He puffs out his chest and stands tall, grinning at the sunset.

I am quite possibly the first Englishman to stand in this spot, Irving thinks, surveying the landscape with something approaching fondness. He scratches at his overgrown beard and wonders if the cartographers will allow him to name the meager peak after himself.

He thinks Irving Top has a lovely poetic ring to it.

‘That’s what we came here for, isn’t it?’ Irving enthuses. ‘With everything that has been happening on this forsaken voyage, we never got to be real explorers until now! How about that?’

He turns towards Hickey, still smiling.

His smile freezes at what he sees.

The knife hits Irving with a sickening thuck noise. It tears right through his many shirts, but stops halfway into his Bible. It sticks there like an axe in a tree.

‘Oh.’ Irving had completely forgotten about the book.

For less than a moment, Irving is too surprised to feel any anger. Then Hickey tries to dislodge the knife with one jerking movement, his cunning little rat’s eyes wide in confusion, and a hot rage rushes upwards through Irving like a fountain.

Irving rams his head down, hard, and breaks Hickey’s nose with one loud crack.

The little man nearly topples over, but regains his balance enough to lunge at Irving again. The force of the blow drops him to his knees, but Irving clutches at Hickey and pulls him down with him.

They scatter rocks and slide downhill, tumbling over each other in a violent frenzy. Irving manages to crush Hickey’s body against the ground at one point, but the scree is slippery and the diminutive caulker’s mate is fighting back like a demon. He barely resembles a human being now, with blood gushing freely from his nose and his yellowish-white teeth snapping at Irving like a beast.

Irving feels the knife slowly sticking through the book and into his ribcage. He feels pain and helplessness, fights Hickey’s hand pushing against his mouth and nose, shutting off all the air from his lungs.

Irving gasps and gasps, one hand still clawing at Hickey, the other trying to find a firm purchase anywhere on the sharp, sliding, icy rocks.

Hickey is straddling across his chest now, pinning him down with his full weight. He is dribbling blood all over the front of Irving and trying to free the knife, hacking out slices of pages from the book in the process.

Irving moans feebly. He scrabbles around blindly and grabs the first thing that his free hand is able to wrap its fingers around.

He slams a rock at Hickey’s head.

The petty officer goes rigid, momentarily stunned by the blow. Irving immediately repeats the process.

Hickey slashes the knife around, but his movements are irregular and uncoordinated. He only manages to graze Irving’s chest twice.

Irving slams the rock again. And again. And again. His aim is getting much weaker.

Hickey slumps forward and leans against Irving. Both men are panting, gasping, straining to stay conscious.

With a tremble, Hickey raises his knife to Irving’s throat. His eyes are bloodshot and unfocused. His mouth twitches in triumph.

Hickey faints. The knife clatters away from his limp hand.

Irving lays there a while, breathing in the smell of blood. He manages to free himself from under his attacker and stands up on shaking legs. Miraculously, he has not been hurt much. His cuts are stinging and he is bruised all over his back, but nothing seems to have gone very deep into his flesh.

Hickey looks almost peaceful. Strands of his ginger hair flutter against the wind. There is a great bulge at the side of his head and a little blood is trickling away from his scalp. His breathing is shallow and laboured.

Irving’s first impulse is to kill Hickey.

He picks up the knife and nearly does so, but what stops him is that he does not know exactly what to do with it. He tries to imagine inserting the knife into the softness of Hickey’s neck, or hitting his head wound several more times with a larger rock, or blowing his brains out with a hunting rifle, but these thoughts make him acutely uncomfortable.

Irving knows he is well within his rights to execute Hickey on the spot for mutiny, or madness, or whatever this attempted murder is – but Irving does not have it in him to deliberately slaughter a man lying battered and senseless on the ground.

Several thoughts trickle slowly through Irving’s confused mind.

Are the Inuit near?

What will they think, if I kill him?

What will they think, if they find us like this?

Why did Hickey want to kill me? What is wrong with him?

Has he gone mad like poor Morfin did? Like poor Collins?

There are bits and pieces of paper flying on the wind around him, like flakes of snow.

‘Oh! Not my best Bible, you bastard!’ Irving wails.

He kicks Hickey once. He kicks him a second time, for good measure.

Then Irving sits down and has a good old cry.

Chapter Text

Chapter 3: In Which Hickey Wakes Up, On Several Different Occasions

 

Hickey

Lat. 69° ?' ?'' N., Long. 98° ?' ?'' W.

25 April, 1848

Hickey wakes up.

The pain is incredible. His nose is throbbing and there is a heavy pressure in his head.

‘You are awake’, a man’s voice says, from somewhere near him.

The man sounds annoyed, but that’s never been rare for people around Hickey.

‘Wha-’, Hickey groans.

Words are difficult. His ears are ringing. The world is swimming through a dense and terrible fog.

What’s going on?

The man sitting next to him is quite tall. He has a handsome enough face, framed by a short beard and a dark fringe of hair, but his entire prim attitude causes an immediate dislike. Bizarrely, Hickey is sure that he knows this man from somewhere.

‘I have thought long and hard about what you did’, the man remarks grimly.

Then it comes to him.

Fucking Irving, Hickey thinks, frowning. What part of my life is he meddling into now?

 ‘As your officer, partial blame for the incident lies in me. I ought to have noticed that you were suffering an, an illness of the brain, not unlike the late Mr Morfin.’

Hickey tries to figure out what the hell he’s talking about. His head begins to ache. He gives up.

‘So I have decided I will not report you’, Irving sniffs in disgust. ‘Though plainly you don’t deserve my discretion. I explained to everyone, as best as I could, that you slipped and took a tumble down the ridge. They seemed to have understood. Technically speaking, it’s not even a lie - thus my conscience is clear.’

Hickey nods along and smiles beatifically. He seems to be in some kind of legal trouble (not an unusual thing), but if Irving is stupid enough to help him out, then Hickey certainly won’t try to stop him.

He forgets what happens next, but he supposes he allows himself a little nap, because everything suddenly turns black. He is feeling very tired, after all.

Even the cleverest of minds deserve a rest.

***

 

When he becomes aware of his surroundings, Irving is feeding him. The food is hot and chewy and frankly tastes of snot. Using his jaw is painful. Hickey tries to keep the meal down, but nausea wins over.

He leans to the side and throws up.

‘Ugh. Well, can’t say I didn’t expect that. Seal meat is heavy. You know, you should have made your mental condition known to Dr Goodsir before we had set off’, the lieutenant sighs, wiping Hickey’s face clean.

‘You are very irresponsible.’

‘Yeah’, Hickey agrees.

‘I myself was not hurt very badly’, Irving snaps. ‘Thank you so much for asking. God has been merciful.’

‘That’s nice of Him’, Hickey slurs.

‘I expect you to become a completely different person when you recover. Twice now have I stood silent after witnessing atrocious behaviour from you, fool that I am. A misguided third time will not be happening. Consider this your final warning.’

Irving continues to speak, droning on about God and sins and the importance of repentance, but his voice gradually fades away and all that is left is incessant ringing.

Hickey lies back, spinning through the fog, dizzily riding along waves of pain.

***

 

The man calling himself Hickey wakes up.

It is dark and the air smells of oil lamp and sweat.

His skin is burning, burning, burning. His muscles are taught. His bones tremble and ache.

‘Calm down!’

He is dying, he knows it.

He needs to leave. Someone is preventing his escape. He kicks and bites, but it’s no use.

‘Can you hear me, Hickey? Cease this at once!’

‘Who?’ The small man asks, looking around wildly. Dread tightens his guts. He knows that name, he knows who it belongs to: he doesn’t want that man anywhere near, not when he is so weak and in so much pain. ‘Where is he?’

‘Who? What do you mean?’

‘If he’s still outside, just tell Hickey to go away. Tell him I’m not here.’

‘Good Lord, man, pull yourself together. Your name is Hickey. I am Lieutenant Irving, also of the HMS Terror - remember me? Stop squirming. Look! How many fingers am I holding up?’

‘No’, he chokes out. ‘No, no, no. I’m not him. Damn him to a cold hell. He should have gone instead of me. None of this should’ve happened to me.’

‘Alright, let’s try a different angle’, Irving grumbles, patiently, rolling his eyes. ‘If you think I’m lying, could you please tell me your own name, sir?’

The struggling man introduces himself, with equal politeness, but he knows it won’t mean a thing: it isn’t the name of anyone that this Irving person has ever heard before.

‘Gibberish’, Irving says.

He wants to write it down, his name - his real name - but his fingers are trembling too much. He has no pen and no paper, besides. He doesn’t know what’ll happen if he dies without a name. How much would his carcass be worth to an anatomist? He reckons about eight guineas, because he wasn’t ever a very large man. Not much meat on him to cut apart and prod at.

He says so to Irving.

‘You’re mad. Stop scaring everyone with this demon talk.’

It’s getting too hot to think. There is fire burning through every pore of him. His skin is slick with a sheen of sweat. He traces his initials over his chest, over and over.

E.C.

E.C.

E.C.

That’s me. Won’t be a nobody’s corpse when I’m gone.

‘Just lie down’, Irving snaps, holding him down hard enough to bruise. ‘Enough nonsense. You’re behaving like a little boy, disturbing people from their rest. Shame on you. Go back to sleep.’

He shakes with anger. He’s not some stupid child, to be ordered about. He knows how to read and write and everything. He’s intelligent, even though they all look down on him. They’ll regret ever humiliating him.

They’ll all be dead before he is, anyway, all the damn cowardly hypocrite whore’s sons who think they’re better than him.

He’ll make sure of that. The other Hickey didn’t respect him either.

He says so to Irving.

Irving ought to respect him more, too.

‘I’m going to try tie you down now, alright?’ Irving replies evenly, sounding exhausted. ‘To keep you from opening up that cut again. There’s no other Cornelius Hickey coming here, so calm down, damn it. You’re making yourself bleed again, look.’

‘No’, Hickey says, through chattering teeth. He swings Irving’s hands away. ‘I know he won’t be coming. ’Cause I hid him too well. He’s buried deep.’

‘You are making a scene’, Irving hisses. ‘Come now, Hickey, we can try to break the fever with some ice.’

‘No, don’t call him over, don’t call me that, don’t, I don’t want him here’, Hickey moans, half-sobbing. ‘Don’t dig him out, please, sir, please don’t. I’ll hang if they ever find his body. They’ll hang me to death.’

‘Alright, alright, Mr Hic-… I mean, Mr E-… No. Oh, no. You know what, I’m not going to be bullied into playing along with your hallucinations.’

Irving tries to mop away the sweat from Hickey’s chest. The reaction makes him jump away, but not before he gets a swipe of fingernails to his face.

‘Don’t you dare hurt me! Don’t fucking touch me if you don’t mean to pay nothing!’ Hickey shrieks, for several minutes. ‘I won’t work for nothing! You pay me what you owe me, understand! Don’t touch me! I’ll kill you if you ever touch me again! I’ll kill you all!’

***

 

Hickey wakes up.

His surroundings smell vaguely of fish. He supposes he is loitering somewhere around the docks tonight. He was dreaming he was a sailor, of all things, hiding on board a ship with great white sails and wooden beams taller than trees. The ship was ramming itself into thick ice.

Why would we be doing that? Didn’t we know it’d just get stuck?

‘Drink’, he begs.

His throat is parched enough to want to murder a man for a pint of beer.

What he gets instead is a small bowl of plain water. He instinctively wants to spit it out, not wishing to swallow the rat’s piss that the city dares to call fit for human consumption: but this water tastes so wonderfully cool and fresh that he can’t stop gulping it down.

‘Easy now’, the man who is tending to him admonishes. ‘Don’t choke on it. I don’t want you throwing up again.’

‘Oh fuck off’, Hickey mutters. ‘I’m thirsty.’

Irving snorts angrily.

‘I know you are in a delusional fever’, he grumbles, ‘But you are not allowed to disrespect an officer in this manner, ever again.’

‘I didn’t do nothing, officer’, Hickey hiccups, suddenly cautious. ‘I was just taking a nap.’

‘I didn’t say –’

‘I have a home to go to and everything’, Hickey insists. ‘You don’t have to arrest me. I’m not a vagrant or a bum, officer, I swear.’

‘I am a naval officer, Mr Hickey, not a police officer! Good grief! I’ve finally had enough!’ Irving yells. Hickey winces. The shouting is giving him a headache.

The officer relents and pinches his nose. ‘Just how badly are you hurting?’

‘A lot’, Hickey admits. ‘What happened? Where am I?’

‘You… You don’t remember anything?’

‘No.’

‘You lost control of yourself, I am afraid. I had to subdue you. I might have been a little rough, but I don’t think the bruises are very bad. And you have been the absolute worst patient a man could ever ask for.’

Irving has taken away the bowl of water that he offered Hickey. He is now soaking strips of white fabric in it. He applies one strip to Hickey’s forehead. It is very cold and pleasant against his skin.

‘What’s important now is that you’re back in bed and behaving. You had a concussion and the wound got a little infected. Yet I think we are past the worst of it.’

The cogs of Hickey’s mind whir and struggle. He still doesn’t recall much about this Irving, but he supposes he understands their relationship well enough from what little information he has been given.

Hickey feels a surge of pride: he has done well for himself, even if the man has a self-proclaimed violent side. There isn’t a lot of people he knows in his life who would stay behind to tend to him. There isn’t anyone he knows who’d do that.

The bed is soft and the man sounds like a proper gentleman. He’ll tolerate a few beatings and bruises for that.

‘Thanks’, Hickey says, clutching Irving’s hand suddenly. ‘For being so damn nice to me and all, while I’m feeling out of sorts.’

‘That’s… quite alright.’

Hickey brings Irving’s hand closer and brushes his lips across the knuckles.

Irving whips his hand away as if stung, blushing furiously. He stumbles away from Hickey.

‘Hey, hey, don’t go!’ Hickey pleads.

‘Dear Lord’, Irving prays, dropping to his knees and trembling. ‘Thank you for sparing me of any witnesses to this madness. He knows not what he does, Lord. I implore you to heal his head and clean him of his deviant ways.’

‘Sorry if I did something wrong’, Hickey tries to butter Irving up. ‘I’ll behave more classy in the future - I can adapt really quick. You’ll see. I’ve just never fucked with a proper real officer before, that’s all.’

Irving sucks his breath in so sharply that it sounds like a cat o' nine tails slicing through the air.

‘We are not, nor have ever been, in, in, in any such... activities…’ Irving abruptly turns away and continues to pray. He ignores Hickey’s very existence.

‘I can’t take this much longer. I know you are testing me, Lord. Your humble servant will prevail, Lord. I only plead that you allow that he spares me some grief, for at least one day in his worthless, miserable, wasted life. Amen.’

‘Amen’, Hickey sighs unhappily.

***

 

Hickey wakes up.

He is on his throne in the stern of the pinnace, safely tucked away. There are frozen bodies all around him, but he pays them no heed. What are mere men to a God such as himself?

It is snowing. The monster is approaching his boat.

There are many fine things around him, which he has stolen and carefully arranged: heaps of wrapped chocolate and stacks of leather-bound Bibles and officer’s golden pocket watches.

He observes the beast creeping closer and closer, here and there disappearing from sight as it moves through the blizzard. By the time it reaches him, he is stuck frozen to the stern and cannot run.

Hickey wakes up.

He is mutilating himself, slicing away at his tongue. There are dead and dying men all around him, but he pays them no heed. What are mere men to a God such as himself?

He doesn’t feel like God. His tongue is slippery in his hand and blood is pooling from his mouth, all over his bearded chin and down his shirt like some Biblical flood.

The creature is looming above him. This time it is burnt and wounded all over its white hide, its raw blistering skin crackling as it draws closer.

It is dying, Hickey thinks. I am dying, too.

He holds his tongue out for it.

The monster’s breath is rancid, the smell of a thousand lifetimes worth of rotting flesh. It stares at Hickey with unfeeling eyes, as black and burning as twin coals, and for a moment Hickey thinks his gamble has really worked.

Then it opens its maw wide and shuts it firmly over his hand. With one swift tug, it rips half of Hickey’s arm away from his body.

No, Hickey wants to say, but he has no tongue. The only sound his mouth issues forth is a strangled yell.

He is picked up, as helpless as a rag doll. The great monster bows its long neck forward. A snap of its teeth, and it crunches Hickey’s spine in half.

With a sob, Hickey wakes up.

His tongue is still in his mouth. He licks his lips: they are very dry. He can’t move around much, because he is being held firmly down by someone sleeping next to him.

‘It ate me’, he says, in a small voice.

‘What is it?’ Irving’s voice is husky and half-awake.

Hickey feels the grip on him growing painfully tight.

‘What is it?’ Irving repeats sternly, more clearly this time. ‘Don’t move. Don’t try anything or so help me God I will knock you silly.’

‘The monster ate me.’ Hickey complains, shaking and shivering.

‘Lord, grant me patience. It’s the middle of the night and I have had a very long day of hard work, actually. Not that you’d know what that means.’

‘I cut my tongue out for it and everything and it still ate me.’

‘You have a fever, Hickey. So be quiet’, Irving mutters, ‘And go back to sleep.’

After a minute or so, Irving begins to snore. His grip relaxes. Hickey nuzzles his head into the curve between Irving’s neck and shoulder. He closes his eyes tightly, willing the nightmares away. He can still remember how the creature’s teeth felt against his spine.

Everything hurts, but he does just as Irving ordered: keeps very quiet and eventually goes back to sleep.

***

 

Hickey is awake.

The first thing he notices is that he would rather not have gained consciousness at all.

His head feels like he has split it open with a rusty saw and stuffed it full of whatever vile rot lurks at the bottom of Goldner cans.

Hickey tries to sit up.

The second thing he notices is that he is wrapped up as tightly as a new-born babe, under layers and layers of furs. He allows himself to slip out of focus for a while.

When is the last time he has felt so comfortable?

The third thing he notices is that he is being watched.

He knows it for a certainty, even before he sees anyone. He can feel their eyes on him. It is a special gift he has - or a talent he learned when he was very young: without it, he knows, he would have had his throat slit open before he was old enough to shave it.

He opens one eye slowly. There is a small child sitting shyly at the edge of the strange bed he has been tucked into. She is gazing at him with a fearful, fascinated expression.

As far as Hickey can remember, even through the thick fog of mush that is currently serving as his brain, there were definitely no little girls ever enlisted as sailors on either of the expedition’s ships.

There is something missing here. Some vital information.

He wants to tell the staring child to go fuck off somewhere else, but his mouth only emits a dry croaking sound. Hickey grunts and tosses himself the other away.

His eyes meet the serious face of a foreign-looking woman.

She is standing over him with a knife and a piece of frighteningly fresh meat.

‘Eh!’ Hickey squeaks, stumbling away and dropping from the bed. He moves away from the knife, grazing his hands and knees, shivering as he disentangles himself from the furs.

The fourth thing he notices is that he is stark naked - much to the amusement of the woman, who is laughing gently and saying something in a language he does not understand. She is hurrying over toward him, the dripping meat still tucked firmly in her fingers.

As his cheeks begin to mottle into a deep scarlet, Hickey gathers one of the furs around his naked body like a cloak. He begins to half-stumble, half-run, bare feet sliding across freezing rocks and into the pre-dawn darkness.

***

 

Hickey spins around, eyes darting left and right. He tries to find anything familiar-looking. He slows down his breathing.

In the distance, he can hear music. Some men out there are singing.

Hickey walks a little way towards the noise, panting with exertion. His legs are beginning to tremble. He must control his confusion and be clever now, if he wishes to live.

Right. What is going on? Where am I?

The song he hears is oddly familiar, though it is being sung in a strange language.

I’m in the native’s camp again, aren’t I? I killed Irving. I killed him. Then what happened?

A fire is crackling and the men laugh before beginning the same song again. Over and over they sing it, as Hickey approaches them with all the caution of a wild animal. He wishes he had a gun, or a steel weapon at least.

I remember having the knife. I stabbed Irving with it. He was smiling when I hit him. Where is it now?

Hickey doesn’t have it on his person now, that wonderfully sharp knife with his stolen name on it. He doesn’t have anything anymore: not even boots to protect his freezing toes.

I got real sick, didn’t I? I remember throwing up. I ate some of the seal meat and it made me ill. Was that before or after I left the native’s camp?

He slowly realises that the song is in English, even though the accent which the native men are using is barely understandable.

‘Hark!’

Hickey kneels suddenly, just out of reach of the light. He sees the group of native men clearly now, all huddled together in their furs, sitting in a circle and… singing Christmas carols?

‘The Herald Angels sing

Glory to the new-born King!

Peace on Earth, and Mercy mild,

God and Sinners reconciled!’

In their centre is Lieutenant Irving. He is in his officer’s uniform. Its front is filthy with dark, dry blood.

Yet he is not dead, though Hickey remembers pushing the blade in as deeply as he could.

Irving is standing there, as hale as can be, leading the song and waving around an animal’s loose rib like a conductor’s baton.

A ghost?

Able-bodied seaman Manson, who has barely more sense than a child, believes in ghosts. Hickey did not really believe in anything, not until now.

For a split moment, he believes with all of his heart, believes in the thing is that is clothed in Irving’s skin, the thing that has surely come to seek revenge on him for murder.

‘Joyful all ye Nations rise,

Join the Triumphs of the Skies!

Nature rise and worship him -’

Irving stops singing. He has noticed Hickey, on his knees in the darkness, staring with his mouth wide open. There is no time for Hickey to react.

Irving’s face suddenly splits into a wide smile.

It is in this precise moment that Hickey realises what is happening. The poison from the cans has finally done its deadly work.

His brilliant mind has gone completely, irreparably mad.

‘Oh, God’, says Hickey.

‘Hickey? Are you finally well? Oh, thank goodness - I thought you would be the end of me. Do come join us - you won’t believe everything that’s been going on! It is a glorious day.’

Hickey trots over and tumbles down next to the other men, right onto the cold rocks. His head is spinning and he feels a bit faint.

‘We found the herd, just as Mr Koveyook here said that we would. We are all saved!’

Hickey allows small fractions of the past few hours - or days, or weeks - to slowly come back to him.

‘Oh, God. Bugger it all.’

So he didn’t manage to kill Irving. He obviously didn’t reach Farr on time, either, to permanently dispatch him before he brought the meat back to camp.

‘There is no need to use such language, Hickey’, Irving says tersely, jogging over to help him stand.

‘Sorry’, Hickey mumbles.

Fucking shame, he thinks. He’ll have to keep a real low profile from now on, at least until they return back to Terror Camp. By then his mutiny will cut short any need for niceties. He’ll be needing Irving to haul back the caribou flesh, anyway. It’ll cement Hickey’s position as the rightful leader, that meat, if he’ll be the one to control who’ll be getting it.

‘And do put some clothes on’, Irving pleads. ‘For goodness sake.’

‘Right away, sir.’

So all in all, he decides that this failure is turning out for the better, really.

Then again, Cornelius Hickey wouldn’t be himself if he couldn’t use a bad situation to his advantage, now would he?

Chapter Text

Chapter 4: In Which a Wicked Cad Is Hanged

Irving

Lat. 69° ??' ??'' N., Long. 98° ??' ??'' W.

29 April, 1848

The day is perfect for a good hunt.

Two of the Inuit - Tiquerat and Amaruq - have already gone ahead to evaluate their best strategy.

Against the dull stones and retreating snow, an endless expanse of clear sky provides a shockingly blue burst of colour. Here and there, hardy little clumps of chickweed and bear sedge push up from the impoverished arctic soil.

As he pulls and tugs and scrambles forward, Irving considers the future.

Will their little hunting party really ensure enough food for the remaining survivors of the Franklin Expedition? He does not dare to imagine any other possibility.

‘Ai yei yai!’ Little Nauja sings.

Hickey has been afforded a seat on the very sled which Irving and Koveyook are working. Even without Dr Goodsir around to give medical advice, Irving is aware that ordering the scrawny man to pull his weight’s worth so soon would only cause a relapse.

The caulker’s mate is sharing a fur blanket with Nauja: they both whoop and cheer at every hillock that the two men manage to tow them across.

‘Ajaitlanguavinâgâluk!’ Koveyook exclaims to Hickey, shaking his head wryly.

‘Yes, you tell him, sir!’ Irving approves, even though he doesn’t understand the phrase.

He likes to think that complaining about Hickey’s behaviour is a cultural phenomenon which transcends all known languages.

Hickey falls silent, but a demure little half-smile continues to play across his face. Ever since his fever broke, in the early hours of the morning, he seems to have turned over a new leaf in earnest. He is much more obedient and agreeable than Irving has ever seen him before.

He even sat down next to Irving for morning prayers, as meek as a lamb, though he did not say any of the prayer words out loud.

It’s a reward from God Himself, Irving thinks. A well-earned respite after all the suffering he put me through in his brain-addled delirium.

That alone feels like a personal victory to Irving.

***

 

The sun is high and the barren landscape bounces off an uncomfortable light into Irving’s eyes.

‘Are you feeling very cosy back there?’ Irving grumbles to his subordinate.

His back and shoulders are aching terribly and there is something annoying about a third lieutenant hauling around a petty officer: a used-up dray animal with its obliviously satisfied load.

‘Oh yes’, Hickey replies, stretching around like a cat and folding his arms behind his neck.

He sighs contentedly. ‘I could get used to this.’

‘Well, you won’t be’, Irving grates. ‘Because I am kicking you out at the next hill. You need to start walking on your own two legs.’

‘That’s just what I was about to suggest, Lieutenant’, Hickey immediately agrees, his tone oily.

Irving does not believe him at all, but declines to comment.

‘Tuktu’, Nauja interrupts, tugging at Hickey’s sleeve.

She squirms out from under the fur blanket and leaps off the sled.

‘What’s she saying?’ Hickey asks, frowning.

‘Caribou!’ Irving breathes. ‘Look.’

Koveyook shares his telescope with Irving. There are at least two score of the animals, meandering together across the stony plains below them. At the sight of them, Irving’s heart begins to race.

The rest of the Inuit halt and begin to set up their camp. They have found a good spot, secluded against the wind by several large boulders. Nauja is already helping with unloading the cooking equipment. If the hunters are lucky, there will be a fine stew brewing tonight.

Irving quickly unties himself from the sled, ignoring the tent-making preparations and excitable chatter surrounding him.

This hunt will finally prove Irving’s worth as an officer. If Captain Crozier could promote his own steward to Third Lieutenant Jopson, why couldn’t there be a Second Lieutenant Irving in the near future?

With such optimism in mind, Irving unpacks his rifle and hurries forward, until he is abruptly stopped by a decisive wave of Koveyook’s hand.

Irving pauses, confused.

Koveyook beckons and leads him a small distance away, out of sight from the others. It takes some unflattering pantomime from the Inuit leader, acted out with a sort of apologetic kindness, to show Irving that he is considered too inept and lumbering to be out stalking caribou with the others.

The Englishmen will get their fair portion, Koveyook signs out as he speaks in rapid Inuktitut. He demonstrates the slicing of imaginary meat, into two equal parts.

Irving smiles as widely as possible and gives a firm nod.

The Inuit leader gently squeezes his hand before leaving to join the other hunters. He throws Irving a parting glance of understanding and sympathy.

Irving waves goodbye and remains standing there for a while, still smiling widely. The humiliation continues to bubble away unhappily.

***

 

‘The Inuit will be providing for us today’, Irving tells Hickey with resignation, when he finally returns to camp. ‘But we’ll get our full share, regardless of participation.’

He leans against one of the boulders, feeling equally useless to the lump of rock.

‘What did he say we should do?’ Hickey asks, settling down next to him.

Irving flushes slightly. ‘He begged us to stay behind and, erm, guard the members of his family who don’t hunt. I obliged, of course. These are very dangerous parts.’

My current social peers: a little girl and her mum, an old man and a brain-fevered sailor, Irving thinks glumly, but does not comment aloud.

‘Well then’, Hickey says cautiously. ‘That was good of our Mister Koveyook, if you don’t mind my saying, sir. You earned some rest after today’s hauling.’

‘But I’m sure I could have helped them’, Irving says, visibly deflating. ‘I had my hunting rifle ready with me and all.’

‘That’s where the problem lies. I don’t think they’ve seen fire weapons before’, Hickey says, idly picking away at something stuck in between two of his teeth. ‘We probably all look incompetent to them, running around with metal sticks.’

‘I know, I know’, Irving groans. ‘I didn’t want to be pushy yet, but we are running out of time. I can’t just show up to the hunt and transgress Koveyook’s authority. If only they would give me a chance!’

Hickey shrugs.

‘Go make your own chance. Show the old bloke how it’s done’, he says, jerking his head in the direction of Asiajuk.

‘You don’t need to make a kill. Just blow a few holes in something. He’ll probably believe you have magical powers and spread the good news.’

‘I shall do just that!’ Irving says, feeling a renewed glimmer of hope. He straightens his back and readjusts his uniform. ‘You must go set up a suitably impressive target for me to shoot at.’

‘Right away, sir’, Hickey grunts, getting to his feet.

‘Thank you, Hickey’, Irving suddenly intones, patting the caulker’s mate on the shoulder.

‘You see how nicely things can go, when you get along with others in Christian solidarity, instead of succumbing to mankind’s lowest drives?’

‘Of course’, Hickey replies, wrinkling his long nose as if repressing a deep desire to get away from Irving – or just itching to punch him.

‘If this trip has taught me anything’, Irving smiles, ignoring the distasteful expression, ‘It is that faithful perseverance and self-discipline are the keys to success. Fortunately, both are traits which I have been raised to fully embrace. With time and dedication, you may learn them also.’

‘Without a doubt’, the caulker’s mate responds. There does not seem to be an ounce of mockery in his voice, but Irving squints at him suspiciously all the same.

He is never quite sure, around Hickey.

***

 

Oh dear, Irving thinks.

For once, Hickey has outdone himself.

Using a few spare tent poles, a tall structure has been erected next to the Inuit camp. A rope hangs from the top. Half of the remaining seal meat has been strung up on it, drooping listlessly from a sharp hook of whale bone.

Irving stops at a respectable distance, wishing to demonstrate the range of his weapon as well as its firepower.

Hickey stands to the side, his hair cleanly combed and his thin frame arrested in a keen military posture. Nauja is next to him, drumming away dramatically on a little caribou-skin drum.

Asiajuk and Quamaniq have settled down to watch. Asiajuk is chewing on a piece of blubber.

Dusk lights the entire scene up in a morose reddish-orange glow.

The seal continues to hang sadly.

‘Don’t you think that’s a bit dark, Hickey?’ Irving finally manages. ‘It looks rather like a… gallows.’

‘That’s right. You did say you wanted something impressive’, Hickey smiles.

‘Yes, well done, but…’ Irving scratches at his beard and makes a face. ‘I don’t think it’s quite appropriate. It looks like we are torturing the poor dead thing.’

‘It was a very wicked seal, sir, a lowly cad among its whiskered brethren’, Hickey explains. ‘Capital punishment is the only way to go, believe me. It deserves everything it has coming to it. As judge and jury, I have already condemned it to death. You shall be my executioner.’

‘You are a very queer man, Mr Hickey’, Irving grumbles.

‘Oh, I try to be when I can, Lieutenant. Besides, you are forgetting the main value of a good public hanging.’

‘And what would that be?’ Irving fumbles around and manages to load the weapon.

‘Entertainment’, Hickey replies, retreating before Irving can respond.

Irving puts his fingers in his ears, to indicate to the Inuit that the gunshot will be loud. They merely nod and continue to stare at him.

‘Oh, well. Yes. Here goes’, Irving smiles nervously. He gulps down the spit stuck to the roof of his mouth.

It has been quite a while since he went hunting with his uncle and father. What he mostly remembers are the quails and rabbits, released only after being fattened well enough to be incapable of a fair chance of escape.

Unbidden, he feels that uncomfortably familiar pressure of being a youngster again, straining to please an altogether unpleasable parent. Only this time, he has to impress a small audience of a born-and-bred hunting nation instead.

Irving aims.

His first shot startles the Inuit - and does little else. His second shot, however, nicely hits the makeshift target. The seal wobbles and spins on its hook.

‘There we go!’ Irving says, slowly exhaling with relief.

‘Eh’, old Asiajuk remarks, chewing on his bit of blubber with no discernible change in expression.

Quamaniq swiftly stands up. She walks over to inspect the animal, prodding and pulling at the shotgun hole in its flesh, until she recovers a pellet. She holds it up for everyone else to see.

‘Puijik akkavâ?’ Nauja asks, peering out from behind Hickey.

‘Ee’, Quamaniq replies.

‘Ajulunngitanga’, Asiajuk remarks, as he finishes eating.

‘May I go with the men tomorrow?’ Irving asks him. He points in the direction of the herd.

‘Koveyook, Tiquerat and Amaruq. John Irving. Hunt caribou. Together. Food?’

There is a long pause. The old hunter makes an extended humming noise in his throat, as if considering the matter deeply, before he finally turns to face Irving.

‘Ee’, he says, and smiles.

‘Yes!’ Irving shouts, hooting with joy.

He spins Nauja around in a little dance and claps Hickey on the back. ‘Oh yes!’

***

 

Koveyook and his men return late, to the excitement of the entire camp.

Of the two field-dressed caribous which they brought in, one is distributed to the Englishmen, while the other is sliced apart and carefully stored away by the Inuit.

Irving takes care to pack the flesh exactly as Quamaniq does, wrapped up in deposits of fat and layers of tight skin to prevent it from spoiling.

A large portion of a flank goes into Quamaniq’s best pot, where it simmers all evening until it is ready for their communal meal. After long weeks of starvation, followed by days of chewing on cold blubber or fatty broth, Irving’s mouth waters at the mere sight and smell of freshly cooked meat.

Hickey devours from his bowl with an almost animalistic zeal - his illness had been keeping him from eating properly.

Irving says grace, before tucking in with slightly more dignity.

After supper, the Inuit place themselves within the tent in their accustomed positions, using their thick fur coats as bedspreads. The men lie near the equipment and weapons, the women next to the all-important quilliq, that peculiar fat-burning lamp which they use for light and cooking and heat.

The Englishmen are afforded their usual place, near the tent opening and well away from their kind hosts. Irving thinks he can thank Hickey for that, because the man’s feverish thrashing and wailing had greatly upset the Inuit’s rest.

From what Irving can understand, a few of the men still consider the caulker’s mate to be a little disturbed, an opinion that Irving cannot quite disagree with. Some of the nonsense that Hickey said during his illness still haunts Irving at night.

Yet after a day’s work of hauling a heavy sled - and with a happily full stomach - he is more than ready to blissfully fall sleep.

Irving closes the tent flap, rolls over to his side under the fur covers and squeezes Hickey close, trapping him firmly beneath his arm and leg.

‘Sir?’ Hickey’s face has tightened in alarm. His eyes shoot towards Irving in confusion. ‘What is-?’

‘You want to know what’s happening? This is how I’ve been keeping you from running off like a mad dog in your delirium. You’re welcome, by the way.’

‘Oh. Oh. Thank you? But I’m feeling so much better now.’

‘That’s right, you are’, Irving says. ‘But I still want a fair warning if you’ll be getting up to any nonsense. You scratch your nose, I’ll know it. You get up, I’ll want to know where you’re off to. Understood?’

If Hickey finds this sleeping arrangement uncomfortable, that is hardly Irving’s problem. There is such a thing as earning trust and Hickey has never been prolific at that.

‘I will have a bit of dirty work for you to get down to tomorrow, Mr Hickey’, Irving remarks suddenly. ‘I’d say it’s time for you to start earning your keep again, isn’t it? I do hope you aren’t squeamish much.’

‘No’, Hickey replies slowly, his eyes narrowing and his short ginger whiskers twitching. ‘I don’t think that I am, very much. What exactly did you have in mind for me, Lieutenant?’

‘Nothing that you are not already well-equipped for’, Irving says, yawning. ‘I’ve kept your boat knife, you see.’

He lists out the tasks, flashing down a perfect white-toothed smile at the man awkwardly huddled against him.

‘Skin down all the caribou carcasses I’ll bring in. Clean out their insides. Help with hacking the flesh into cuts. Oh, and you’ll need to remove all the entrails.’

Irving lets this all sink in before he adds:

‘I just have a feeling, for some mysterious reason, that you could be very competent at poking knives into things. It would be such a shame not to put that raw talent to honest work.’

There is no reply.

‘Well, good night, Mr Hickey.’

‘G’night.’

For the first time since Irving has known him, Hickey looks vaguely sheepish.

Chapter Text

Irving

Lat. 69° ??' ??'' N., Long. 98° ??' ??'' W.

2 May, 1848

 

It is a Sunday.

Life in the Inuit camp has been developing in unforeseeable ways, to say the least. Though he smiles and tries his best, Irving is in quiet turmoil.

For one thing, there is scant use for his golden officer's watch anymore, since all of his tasks are now done without a set hourly schedule in mind. His day is no longer divided into meetings or rotations of patrol shifts, or even fixed meal times. As a man who thrives on orderliness, this sudden lack of accustomed duties distresses Irving.

He does not speak his host's language, either. It is very difficult for Irving to follow Koveyook's instructions or understand any new information that the Inuit try to convey to him.

Vague confusion festers within him, a sickly feeling of being violently unmoored from all his careful, disciplined habits - only to be set adrift in a sea of uncertainty.

'If only I had an undamaged Bible with me', Irving tells Hickey, not for the first time. He feels that a bit of perusing through the Scriptures would quickly soothe his troubled mind on this holy day.

As it is, Irving is restless and cannot help pacing around, particularly as he oversees the caulker's mate in his new line of butcher's work. It would not surprise Irving one bit, if the well-known shirker should attempt neglecting his responsibilities.

So far, however, he has to begrudgingly give approval to his subordinate. Hickey is not shying away from preparing Irving's single catch of the day, a pitiful young buck.

That skinny little caribou is another unpleasant fact which itches at Irving's inmost self: a success so miserable it could almost count as a failure. He wishes he could assert his position as an exploration leader, somehow, instead of feeling like a secondary tagalong on his own mission.

For in spite of his advanced weaponry and formal education, Irving did not manage to imitate Tiquerat's resilient advances towards their prey, nor did he figure out the clever tactics of Koveyook and Amaruq. Neither did it help his confidence, the way the Inuit had seemed impressed at him having caught anything, as if he were a barely competent creature, a fledgling in their midst.

He had expected more of himself as an artillery-trained officer, Irving really had.

Patience, he tells himself.

'I do miss reading it', Irving sighs pointedly. 'But my heart aches to see a Holy Book so mangled. I cannot abide to look at it for too long, let alone turn what little is left of its pages.'

Irving admits that verbally haranguing the petty officer is proving to be a balm for his injured sense of importance, however mean-spirited the desire may be. Besides, it isn't as if Hickey does not deserve a regular round of complaints fired in his direction, just to keep him on his toes.

'Such a horrible business', Irving continues, persistent. 'It looks as though torn apart by a wild beast. In a way, I suppose, it was. For surely meaningless acts of destruction label their perpetuator as a particularly wretched being!'

'It really wasn't my intention to ruin your book, sir', Hickey grates, as he slices off the caribou's sex organs with slightly more viciousness than necessary.

He makes a long shallow cut, down from the exposed pelvic bone and all the way up to the animal's jawbone. With a horrible ripping noise, Hickey tears the skin loose, peels it slightly away and gets to work on the muscle layer.

As he cuts, he begins to whistle a profane little tune that Irving has heard the Terror's sailors sing before - but not within his earshot, if he could ever help it.

Irving winces.

There is always something vaguely concerning about the cheerful ease with which Hickey uses his boat knife. Irving feels acutely aware of the fact the he might have been quite a wound-riddled carcass himself, had he not overpowered Hickey's maddened attack.

'I don't care to think about your intentions on that awful day, Mr Hickey, or I fear my blood will run cold', Irving sniffs. 'I'm contented to merely grieve the loss of a valued possession.'

'I'll buy you a new one, an identical copy, the very moment we reach civilisation', Hickey huffs.

'Now that's a likely tale, isn't it?' Irving remarks, unimpressed.

'I swear it on my life, I'll run straight from the docks and into the nearest bookshop, sir, if only you'll stop badgering on about it, please. It's the only thing I've been hearing about all day.'

'No, thank you. I wouldn't want it, knowing it came from a man of your decayed moral calibre.'

'You are very outspoken, Lieutenant Irving, I'll give you that', Hickey laughs, his cunning eyes twinkling in amusement.

That the caulker's mate finds hilarity in having his vileness exposed is quite beyond Irving's understanding. He shakes his head in disapproval.

'In any case, it doesn't matter', Irving remarks. 'That Bible was a special gift from my mother, given to me right before I first boarded the training vessel HMS Excellent. It was for the occasion of the completion of my education, you see. Black-tinted calfskin covers and gilt lettering, too, very beautiful handiwork... Until you got your blade into it.'

Hickey grunts in annoyance, places aside the offending knife, and grabs at the caribou's windpipe with both hands. With a hard tug, the caribou's entrails drop free all the way to its midsection.

'Expensive, sir, was it?' Hickey asks casually, his breath hissing out between his teeth. He looks both irritable and jealous, an unhandsome combination on his rodent-like face.

'Very', Irving affirms with satisfaction. 'You would scarce be able to afford anything like it, on your pay.'

'Help me with rolling the carcass over, won't you?' Hickey says, abruptly shifting from the topic and scratching away at an itch on his long nose.

His fingers leave behind traces of clotting blood and several short caribou hairs. He does not seem to notice - or simply does not care.

'Gladly', Irving replies.

With a heave, they move the caribou to its side. Hickey makes short work of the tissue holding its intestines to the ribs. Cutting and cleaning a dead deer is hard work, particularly with no saws or fine kitchen knives, but he eventually gets the hang of it.

Amazingly, Hickey's target-shooting gallows turn out to be very useful for draining out the caribou, once they place the carcass into position and hoist it up.

While the Inuit make use of everything from their catch - flesh and fat, hide and antlers, even blood and intestines - the Englishmen know that some parts would simply spoil too quickly to be delivered to Terror Camp. So they decide to place the inner organs in a large pot, for Quamaniq to later use as she wishes.

They leave the blood to slowly drip away from the hanging caribou - a macabre sight to behold.

'Good work', Irving tells the petty officer.

'Right', Hickey says, without much visible enthusiasm. He picks up his knife again and prepares to collect the deer's loosened entrails into Quamaniq's pot.

'Hold on, just...' Irving makes an expression of faint distaste and takes out a cotton handkerchief from the pocket of his coat. He tries to wipe at Hickey's face, but the caulker's mate dodges away from his touch like a disobedient child.

'Here', Irving says, relenting, awkwardly holding out the handkerchief for him instead. 'You have a little blood on your face, there.'

'Ah.'

Hickey takes it and dutifully cleans away the specks of red. He wipes all the sweat from his brow, too, and blows his nose loudly. He then tries to return the amply used handkerchief.

'You can have it!' Irving quickly offers.

'You sure?'

'I have plenty more.'

'Very nice', Hickey admires before pocketing it. 'Would you look at it - a little flower embroidered in the corner and everything.'

'Just remember to wash it when we get back, do.'

'No, I'd meant to keep using it forever until it falls apart', Hickey rolls his eyes. 'If only you'd explain soap to me, sir, I'd be so much obliged. I used to try eating it, if there was nothing good left in the garbage.'

'Don't be so damnably cheeky', Irving complains, nearly stamping his foot in frustration.

'On today's menu: my many faults', Hickey fires out in reply.

'Again! Why you insist on continuously engaging in paltry insubordination, I'll never know. God knows you'd be clever enough to avoid punishment, if only you knew how to keep your mouth shut.'

'Please, sir, I'm begging you - lighten up a bit. We both know what this is really about.'

'Pray tell!'

'Oh, I'd rather I didn't.'

'Oh, I'd rather you did', Irving snaps. 'Go on, far be it from me to punish a man for speaking his mind, however twisted a thing it might be.'

Hickey cocks his head sideways and regards Irving this way and that, his lips curling into a sly-looking slant.

'You are aware, sir, that you're only miffed today because you didn't turn out as crack a shot as you'd advertised? Not very nice, taking it all out on poor old me. I'm only here to help, aren't I?'

Irving snorts like a bull.

'How very wrong a conclusion! I'm not displeased at all. Why, in fact, I firmly believe that tomorrow I'll do much better - I've learned all the ropes now, after all', he says, feeling a tad self-conscious. He grumbles peevishly:

'I would appreciate, however, if you kept your trivial comments to a bare minimum, Mr Hickey. I don't know if you fully understand, but we are not out on a day trip here. There are honest men's lives at stake. We still have much to do before we can return among them in good conscience.'

'I'm well aware, Lieutenant, sir. I have friends back at Terror Camp, too.'

As if, Irving thinks. Call them whatever you wish, but all you have are fellow malcontents and potential mutineers. There is precious little friendship among that sort of rabble.

'Mr Hickey, unless I have something to ask of you', Irving continues doggedly, 'Please refrain from speaking aloud any thoughts, especially those of an ill-mannered nature. Do so for your own betterment, if not for my peace of mind.'

'It would be my greatest pleasure, Lieutenant Irving', Hickey smiles aggressively, his eyes glinting with a thinly-veiled malevolence.

'Better luck on tomorrow's hunt!' He adds, as a final jab, before making an exaggerated motion of locking his mouth shut and throwing away an invisible key.

Irving sighs, leaving the caulker's mate to his bloody work.

True to his promise, Hickey continues the rest of the day in utter silence - annoying Irving only with his carefree whistling, as they are taught by Quamaniq how to make their own sled, for the purpose of hauling their catch back to Terror Camp.

Now all we need is for me to actually bring in some proper food, Irving thinks glumly. Or it will be a miserably empty sled we drag.

He looks at Hickey uncertainly. The petty officer's hands are busily employed: they are quick and long-fingered hands, sinewy, knotted with thin bones and delicate veins, and slightly calloused of skin; hands that look a little rough to the touch.

Even Quamaniq's soft palms, with their carefully neat movements, seem slightly less pampered than Irving's.

He frowns in despair and tries to think of the last time he had to do any real physical work, apart from plain mindless hauling.

A miracle, then, is what we might need.

***

 

Bedtime is gradually becoming a terrible affair.

Irving always sleeps with his full uniform on - minus the long coat, cold weather slops and double-buttoned jacket, of course - even as the days turn visibly longer and warmer. There are things such as appearances for an officer of Her Majesty's Royal Navy, even if he is currently living in a tent made of animal hides, where he has neither proper night clothes to wear, nor a mirror and scissors for trimming his beard in the morning.

With an unsurprising lack of a sense of decorum, Hickey does not concern himself with any such social expectations.

He opts to sleep wearing only his long johns, a fact which (in union with unsavoury details of the man's intimate history) makes Irving a little unsure of exactly where to place his hands while holding him securely in place at night.

Hickey doesn't even neatly fold away any of his discarded clothes, leaving them all in a pile until morning. Irving would expect more tidiness, even from a mere caulker's mate.

Yet these slight annoyances cannot compare to the true source of Irving's nightly misery.

Ever since he recovered from his fever, Hickey's sleep has turned out to be extraordinarily light. He complains about feeling crushed by Irving; he constantly wakes to focus on some faint noise or movement outside; he keeps pushing and twitching against Irving as he tosses in his sleep.

Irving, in turn, spends each night feeling increasingly tense and frustrated.

Thus the period of night-time, during which he ought to by rights be peacefully resting, instead transforms into acute discomfort for Irving - the heat and closeness of their bodies especially.

***

 

It is Monday.

Today's hunt has been no improvement to the last. It is incredible, how quickly the caribou scatter away, if ever they catch a single whiff of Irving's proximity. One misstep against the crumbling shale, a single moment of being positioned on the wrong side of the wind, and they are already off into the distance, lowing in alarm.

'Âset nakungajuk', Koveyook tells him, in a tone that holds no resentment - but he none-the-less accompanies those words with a restrictive motion of his arm; bidding Irving to wait at the side, while the others hunt.

Irving begins to feel clumsy and overly loud and slow and upset.

It is somehow even worse with no one to converse with, who could perhaps understand and comfort him. Irving craves to speak of his rising fears: he is tormented by the very thought of failing in his mission and jeopardising Terror Camp's survival. Yet the Inuit do not know enough of his language, and Irving still has just enough self-respect left to avoid any deeper interactions with Hickey.

For the caulker's mate is still plainly sulking, though his outer demeanour is as unconcerned and self-confident as always. He is spending much of his time today sauntering around camp with the child Nauja, collecting odds and ends, like old gut-strings and broken arrow tips.

'It's much as I suspected. You're very much a child yourself: playing around instead of being useful', Irving remarks, as he watches Nauja running off to hound her ever-patient mother into lending them a little hook of bone.

Hickey glares daggers at him.

'What's next, hmm, a game of hopscotch and Ring a Ring o' Rosie?' Irving suggests.

'I am being useful. She's showing how to make a snare trap', Hickey protests, assuming an expression of mild hurt. 'Like for hares and rabbits and things.'

'Fancy you'll catch much? Perhaps there are swarms of rodents out here for you to dissect. Perhaps it will be similar to stepping on incautious rats down in the filth of the hold, which I'm sure you've had plenty of experience with.'

Hickey shrugs listlessly, not rising to the bait, though his face grows dark with anger.

As Irving turns, he hears the petty officer muttering to himself, barely audible:

'Asshole. I'll do better than you anyway. So fuck you, Irving.'

Same to you, lowlife, Irving thinks. Aloud, almost in spite of himself, he says:

'You think I'm not aware of how badly I'm doing? You think it does not dishearten and worry me? Would that I had your support, instead of having insults hurled at me!'

'I'm just returning what I'm given! An eye for an eye, isn't it? And I'd help more', Hickey spits back, 'If only you'd let me go with those hunters. I have a gun, too, you know. It's you who're not letting me load it.'

'However much your obedience has improved, I don't think that arming you with a functional weapon would be a wise choice', Irving says simply.

'May I ask you something, Lieutenant?' Hickey says suddenly. 'Of course, if I am still allowed to speak?'

'Fire at will', Irving says bitterly. 'I begin to despair that there's a single force in the world that could stop you from talking.'

'You've been telling me a great deal about penitence these past days, a great deal indeed. How am I ever supposed to improve myself, if you won't let go of your, ah, hostile prejudices towards me?'

Irving blinks slowly.

'I don't have any prejudices. All I have are the plain facts of your base villainy and spiritual degeneracy.'

'Alright, granted', Hickey raises his hands, as if admitting defeat. 'I've been a real rascal, I have. But it makes a man right disinclined to change for the better, if he's slapped down the very moment he peeps his head up from grovelling in the dust.'

'A rascal? You were a proper murderous blackguard', Irving says coolly.

'Haven't I done everything you've told me to, since?' Hickey presses. 'Have I once complained of any work, no matter how nasty? Haven't I taken all your sermons to heart?'

'If you had, you wouldn't be calling my advice sermons. I tell you, if we were still on board the Terror, you'd have been locked away for other people's safety, if not immediately hanged. That you've been given a chance to improve speaks volumes about my tolerant character.'

Hickey wheezes.

'Oh, sir, please! Don't I tolerate much, too? Being stared at all day long, with you just looking for reasons to tell me off? And at night! I'm near squeezed to death - you'd think I was a man-eating tiger the way you keep me clamped down. How could I possibly be a danger to anyone, with such a guard breathing down my neck all the time?'

'That is rather the point of my behaviour. A safety measure, if you will.'

'If you think me so threatening, just tie me up at night. Would that perhaps better please you, sir?' There's an odd half-smile flickering at the corner of Hickey's lips that makes Irving flush slightly.

'What do you really want, Hickey?' Irving asks. 'What's this all about, then?'

'What do you mean?' Hickey's eyes narrow. He abruptly looks cautious.

'What am I not providing for you, as an officer? Do you just want me to say you're being a good lad now, and that all your past sins are forgotten? Or do you wish to weasel out some further personal gain?'

'Just a chance to prove my worth', Hickey says, tightening his fists. 'Or, if you believe I don't deserve a second chance no more, to be left in peace while I work. That's all I ask for, sir.'

'And what do you suppose you can do, to bring out this, this so very deeply-hidden worth?'

'Anything! Just give me something important to do, something that isn't raking around animal innards or washing your socks and handkerchiefs, for Christ's sake.'

'Prove you are trustworthy first', Irving says, ignoring the blasphemy with impatience. 'Then we may talk about your position. Prove it to me without a doubt - if you can.'

'I can and I will', Hickey snarls, straightening his narrow shoulders, defiant in the face of Irving's glare. 'If you'll allow it!'

'Allow it?' Irving titters humourlessly. 'You ask me permission to become a more decent man? Why, nothing would give me greater joy. I'll even aid you in the endeavour, if you shall in turn allow it.'

Hickey licks his chops.

'I shall.'

'Capital', Irving says, allowing himself small incredulous smile. 'Then we have ourselves a deal - on one condition only.'

'Fine. Name it!'

'You are to take the remains of my Bible and you are to read from it each evening, aloud, in my presence, until some measure of its good words have taken root in your mean spirit.'

'You're kidding me.'

'Not at all.'

'You said yourself that the book was in a terrible state. I can't read scraps of paper and expect to learn anything from them, now, can I?'

'Whole verses may yet be found intact, if you are patient and willing to explore the book. On my behalf, it pains me to even see it: for you, let its poor state stand as a testament to your misdeeds. Let it bring to light the deficiencies in your character, which you must now strive to overcome.'

Hickey sets his lips into a thin line and exhales. He nods slowly, ponderously.

'Then you agree?' Irving murmurs, gazing at Hickey sharply.

'What choice in the matter do I have? Yes, I agree, though you'll soon see it'll only be an indignity - to you and me both.'

‘You’ll soon see otherwise', Irving replies.

‘Âha!’ Nauja calls, rushing over to the Englishmen and pulling Hickey aside with some authority.

Her face is triumphant: she has obtained the hook for their rabbit-snare.

‘Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God’, Irving says fondly.

He adds, for Hickey's benefit: 'That was Mark 10:14, unless I am mistaken.'

‘I really have to go now’, Hickey says quickly, saluting Nauja smartly and slipping away from Irving like an eel.

Hickey may not obey his own superior officers properly, or show rightful reverence to any institution that represents good faith and order, but Irving sees that he treats the little Inuit girl with a sort of good-humoured respect.

So Irving leaves them be; he takes a short walk uphill, in the opposite direction of the two would-be trapper-hunters, until he finally settles himself at a vantage point atop a craggy outcropping of stone - the better to watch the Inuit camp below.

As Nauja teaches Hickey how to set up her rabbit snares, Quamaniq sweeps out the big sleeping tent and later deftly knits herself a new pair of grass-stockings. Koveyook and Asiajuk play at some amusing verbal game, while Tiquerat naps and Amaruq slowly carves out a figurine from a piece of antler.

Irving watches them all from his lonely perch, remaining unnoticed and irrelevant, a man quite apart from these scenes of domestic life.

He sits among the rocks as dusk settles over the land, stifling the light like a dark mourning veil. He ruminates on his failures as an officer, all alone, until the cooling night air finally bids Irving to descend, trembling and sneezing among his fellow men, and hiding his bleak thoughts behind a shallow smile.

***

 

It is Tuesday, probably, and Irving's prospects of success are lower than ever. He brought down only an elderly doe, by mere accident at that. The shock of his gunshot had made the creature bolt and break its leg.

Hardly a skilled huntsman's kill, cutting down an already dying animal. It was ugly to see and even uglier to recall later, as he bid Hickey to clean his blood-stained shirt-sleeves.

Yet it must not to be said that there is never any pleasantness to distract Irving from his melancholy thoughts, even out in the arctic wastelands: his new Inuit friends, at least, are kindness itself.

Irving frequently thanks God for the good fortune of finding Koveyook’s family.

Not only is their hunting knowledge vastly more effective, but the Inuit are readily helping the newcomers in additional ways, too: the sled is one thing Irving would have been poorly equipped to build, as is the small deerskin tent they are sewing up to provide shelter on the journey back.

There are many other small expressions of generosity bestowed upon the Englishmen, such as the hearty thick stews or roasted venison; or the frequent snacks of seal blubber, dried fish or pastes of sweet berries mixed in fat.

On clear evenings such as this one, they usually all sit down for a bit of relaxation as they eat. There are no newspapers to read, no finely cut glasses for sipping away at a strong drink, nor much in the way of deep conversation, due to the ever-present language barrier. Yet these occasions do more to lift Irving’s mood than any fancy soirée in a gentleman's club.

The whole group is always joking and laughing. Quamaniq herself proves no less respectable and spirited a hostess than any English lady holding a dinner party.

‘Delicious’, Irving tells her, giving a greasy smile of appreciation.

‘Akka!’ She replies, as always, doling him out a little more food; motioning for him in a motherly way to remember to wipe his mouth clean afterwards.

He gradually begins to use the phrase too: that cheerful cry of 'Akka!' as he hands over tools to his fellow hunters, or tosses an extra snack for Nauja. Irving supposes this would make Dr Goodsir feel very proud.

With a renewed pang of discomfort, Irving hopes that the doctor is still well, and that his roster of patients has not become unmanageable in the past days.

One thing, at least, holds some real promise: the new diet of fatty meat is indeed proving very beneficent to the Englishmen’s overall health. It is not unreasonable to presume the venison will help their crewmates to equal effect.

Irving himself already no longer bleeds from his pores; his ears have stopped ringing at every loud noise; his teeth and muscles feel much stronger.

Even Hickey’s pallid skin seems to have gained a slightly healthier hue of rosiness.

Slowly, slowly, Irving’s body begins to feel more energetic, too, more eager - almost giddily so.

Irving hopes it a good sign for his future endeavours.

***

 

It is already Wednesday, Irving believes. Or Thursday, perhaps. He can't quite recall.

Though their usual morning hunt only brought him one more doe - thus raising his current supply of meat into three small caribous and several arctic hares (courtesy of Hickey's traps) - there is one piece of happy news to celebrate.

On this day, all their new travel equipment is prepared at last.

The sled is sturdy and very light. The ropes to pull it are twined and knotted firmly together.

When they will be ready to go - when poor luckless Irving has caught enough deer to feed a hungry camp - they will only need to fasten up their packages of meat, bringing them over from where they currently lie cooled and safe in a nearby snow pile.

The small deerskin tent is a final gift from the Inuit. From what Irving can understand, the hides are old and only good to last another season, so they thankfully won't be missed much by Quamaniq.

Irving, with the aid of Hickey, learns to quickly erect or collapse the tent.

He decides to start using it immediately: they have imposed on their hosts long enough, sharing their very bedroom, as it were. Additionally, he is interested in testing out the durability of the tent, before they are far away and unable to appeal to Koveyook for help in fixing it.

On the evening before the Englishmen are to sleep in their tiny new space, they get an unexpected visit from Asiajuk and Nauja, the latter bouncing in eagerness to talk.

'Hullo. Good morning. Good night', the little girl recites solemnly. She has been catching words of her guest's language; she glows with obvious pride when Irving claps at her.

The old man goes inside half-crouching, peering closely at the skins and holding his face still, as if feeling for any unwanted breaches of air.

Nauja gives them a small bunch of beautiful blue flowers, making Hickey hang them up decoratively among the poles. Afterwards she just tumbles around admiring the tent and rearranging everything so that their meagre belongings use up even less space than previously.

When the tent's quality is confirmed to Asiajuk's liking, he nods with the air of an expert's approval. He motions for Nauja to follow him out, among peals of her light protesting - it is clear that the girl would prefer to stay and boss around the Englishmen a little longer.

'We'll see each other tomorrow', Irving tells her. 'We're only a few steps away from your tent, besides.'

Hickey cheerfully waves their guests goodbye, as Irving flattens and spreads out their fur-covered bed in preparation for the night.

'Aippalik', Nauja giggles in a half-hushed voice as she leaves, pointing back at Irving, who smiles in polite confusion.

'Eh, eh', Asiajuk quiets her, but he looks deeply amused all the same.

As Hickey is about to close the entrance flap, Irving stops him with a grip on his arm.

'You'll need the remaining light from outside.'

'For what?'

'For reading this', Irving says primly, handing Hickey the sad, dog-eared, ripped-apart mess that used to be his best Bible. 'Remember?'

'Oh God, do I ever', Hickey grumbles. 'Tomorrow, please?'

'No, right now, please.'

'Right.' Hickey sighs, with the air of a long-suffering martyr, and blindly opens a page. He sticks his index finger into it and opens his eyes to read what line he has chosen.

He is silent a long while. His mouth moves slightly and he pulls at his short ginger beard.

'Well?' Irving prompts him, leaning closer and peering over his shoulder.

'Wait a bit! I'm still memorising it!' Hickey snaps.

'I only want you to read a passage aloud and consider its meaning. You needn't learn it by heart.'

'But that's how I usually read aloud', Hickey says, sulkily.

'Nonsense! By memorising the text? Why on earth would you do that?'

'Because that way I get to practice it all in my head first', Hickey growls, jabbing a finger at the side of his temple.

'Then I can say all the words properly, without being laughed at for making a stupid reading mistake.'

He casts down the book resentfully.

'I told you this was a bad idea.'

'Mr Hickey', Irving says, mollified, patting him on the back lightly. 'I am deeply sorry if that has been your experience - but you must know, I myself would never, ever laugh at any man's reading of the Bible, no matter their level of literacy. So please, go on, at your own pace.'

Hickey looks at him with an unusual mixture of resentment and gratitude.

He reads, a little uncertainly:

'He that... hath pity upon the poor... lendeth unto the Lord; and that which he hath... given will he pay him again.'

'Very good! And what do you think that means, Mr Hickey?' Irving intones.

'That it's good to be nice to the poor, I guess', Hickey mutters.

'That's right! Isn't that a fine thing to consider? Now, try another passage.'

Hickey rustles through several clumps of torn paper. His face alights on a particular page with a sudden widening of his eyes.

Irving's heart soars a little. He wasn't expecting to witness Christian joy developing quite so soon, but perhaps his mild words of encouragement opened something up within Hickey.

'Blow upon... my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out', Hickey begins to read, with gusto. He lowers his voice sensually. 'Let my beloved... come... into his garden, and eat his... pleasant fruits.'

Irving folds a hand over his eyes in resignation, but doesn't say anything. Trust Hickey to stumble upon the Song of Songs in his first Bible reading.

The caulker's mate shifts his eyes left and right over the tattered page, scrounging around in hope for more intriguing snippets.

'Oh!' He puts his hand over his mouth, but even that can't hide much of his wide grin. 'Listen to this! It says that the beloved fellow put in his hand by the, uh, by the... hole of the -'

'I think that's enough for today', Irving interjects quickly.

'So what exactly is this?' Hickey asks enthusiastically, turning to his stony-faced superior officer and flourishing the book pages at him. 'It's very teasing to the imagination. You have to admit.'

'Don't be so lewd!' Irving exclaims. 'It's not about... Whatever you think it is about!'

'I meant no disrespect, honest! Could you explain, then, sir? I can't have understood these verses very well.'

'Later perhaps. It is bedtime now', Irving says tersely, closing the tent flap and abruptly ending their Bible reading.

They lie in silence for a while, squashed together in the darkness, in relative peace and quiet - though Hickey's belly keeps shaking a bit, as if he is still supressing a need to burst into laughter.

Annoyed, Irving shifts into a better sleeping position, using the opportunity to cut Hickey's amusement short.

'Ow!' Hickey yowls.

'What?' Irving demands innocently. It seems he is picking up a bit of Hickey's own deviousness. Well, he's earned the right - an eye for an eye, indeed. No turning the other cheek, when his own Bible is used as a joke against him!

'You just hit my head with your shoulder!' Hickey is indignant.

'Fine. I'll move', Irving whispers. 'Don't be so touchy.'

'Now your elbow is poking into my ribs.'

'What do you want from me? This is a tent, a very tiny one at that, not a seaside hotel. I can't magically make it any bigger on the inside.'

'Can't we sleep like normal people? I'm telling you again, if you really think I'll jump at you in the night, just tie me to a rock outside, instead of torturing me like this.'

'Alright, alright! Sleep however you like, you professional complaint-maker.'

'Oh, this is much better', Hickey exclaims, using the carte-blanche permission to immediately snuggle more comfortably under the furs.

Irving stiffens in regret: Hickey's right hand now relaxes across Irving's chest; his hip brushes against Irving's hip; his head rests at the curve of Irving's neck, making his cheeks feel suddenly hot.

'Yes', Hickey confides, with a breathy little sigh. 'It's so much nicer to sleep like this, than in your death-grip, Lieutenant - no offense.'

Irving buckles under his faint squirming. He feels an unusual jittery feeling rise in his lower abdomen, as if he'd actually quite like the movements against him to continue.

'Stop that', Irving begs, quickly trying to disengage.

'Sorry!'

'I can't fall asleep if you are rolling about the bed like a boat in a storm', Irving groans, reluctantly settling back under the furs and into the embrace.

'Perhaps we should go back to how we used to-'

'No need! I'll keep real still now, I promise.'

They end up dosing off quickly enough. Their tent holds up well against the rising wind, too, as they lie curled up together like dormice in a winter den.

Irving wakes while it is still dark outside, his whole body feeling slightly rigid and nervous, and the not-unpleasant, oddly jittery feeling still prevailing in the depths of his stomach.

He glances at Hickey, who is still fast asleep, his red hair thoroughly ruffled and his mouth hanging slightly open. Irving decides against disturbing him to request yet another change in positions.

He'd never hear the end of it.

***

 

In the early hours of the morning, it is Quamaniq who cuts their sleep short with some urgency.

She seems agitated and more than a little cross. With impatience, she waits outside while the men don their boots and outer clothing.

When they follow her, Irving is surprised to be led all the way out to Hickey’s gallows. There is nothing here of any interest, surely.

Yet Quamaniq looks hard to the hills and says, with distaste:

‘Nanuq.’

They stare at her without comprehension, until Hickey grabs Irving’s arm and points, too, at the distance between the hills.

A scrawny white form is slowly making its retreat among the rocks and ice.

Irving’s heart skips a beat, but his eyes correct his worst fears: the animal is hardly big enough to be an adult white bear, let alone that creature unspeakable and unholy. Still, even this sight rattles him, the memory of his fears of being mauled returning in full strength.

With a single loud shot of his rifle, Irving drives the adolescent cub further away.

Quamaniq kicks her fur-booted foot at the dry remains of deer blood on the gravel. With a rapid flow of words, and talented mimicking, she admonishes Irving and Hickey against leaving such scented traces for larger animals to find.

Irving nods fervently, looking contrite, while Hickey only chews the side of his lip, as irreverent as always.

‘We were very lucky!’ Irving exclaims hoarsely. ‘Imagine if it had found our venison.’

‘Or us’, Hickey adds darkly. ‘I doubt it’s a picky eater.’

Quamaniq bids the two Englishmen to clean the area. They wash all around the gallows, flooding the blood away with the water they manage to bring in from the surrounding clumps of melting ice.

‘ÂkKitaujuk.’ Quamaniq nods, when she feels they are done.

By the time Koveyook arrives to fetch Irving, the three of them are busily poking sharpened bones into the snow pile that hides their food supplies. A greedy snout may be less willing to explore too deeply, if it meets with sharp and unexpected pain.

It does not take the woman long to explain what had happened, and Irving is treated to another round of explanations upon the dangers of opportunistic predators - this time by Koveyook himself.

Irving feels as ashamed as a schoolboy caught misbehaving in class. Hickey, on the other hand, seems amused at his officer’s plight.

It must feel surreal to him, Irving supposes. To see someone else being considered a troublemaker for once.

‘UKauttiugiak ajunnatuk!’ Quamaniq complains to Koveyook, before they leave to hunt. He groans in agreement with her.

Irving is stopped from following, by a vice-like grip on his hand.

‘You’ll give me my ammunition, now’, Hickey demands. ‘If it decides to come back, I’m not taking on a bear with only a knife!’

Irving has no choice but to agree.

A part of him does wonder, though, if he is any safer around the certainty of a fully-armed Hickey, than the possibility of a white bear – which, after all, has only its claws and teeth, and very little dishonourable underhandedness to its killing methods.

***

 

Is it already Thursday? Or Friday even, or Saturday?

But he has done so very little!

How disappointed Captain Crozier will be, how heartbroken, when his promising young lieutenant arrives from a two-week hunting trip with barely enough meat to hold a single day's feast for their men.

In desperation - and having already allowed Hickey his own rifle - Irving extends him the right to follow the Inuit hunters. Irving himself walks with great care over the plain of shales, lagging behind as the others set a quicker pace with their thick-soled boots of fur.

To the surprise of all, Hickey earns more respect in this aspect of hunting. His footsteps are quick and so very quiet, quiet, quiet - like the scurry of a small rodent across a ship’s lines.

When he is deemed careful enough not to spook the animals away, as an experiment, Koveyook allows him to take a shot at an already injured caribou. It has retreated too far to be finished off by traditional methods. The Inuit stand to lose nothing if he misses.

Yet the shot is both successful and uncomfortably bloody. Hickey’s aim is a little off, true, so what was meant as a hit to the heart ends up spilling half of the caribou’s viscera.

With one animal thus downed, and Hickey elated into a kind of prideful bloodlust at his first kill, Irving finds himself feeling somewhat out of his depth.

They move among the maze of icy rock outcroppings and tall grasses, keeping clear of the wind’s path. Koveyook is still near them; Amaruq and Tiquerat have gone on their own mission, tracking a young buck downhill.

Koveyook motions for Irving to keep quiet. They sit in the sunlight for hours, in patient and resilient silence. Irving begins to feel very thirsty, his lips chapped and his face sweating as it reddens. Hickey, a little further away, looks no less exhausted and skin-blistered.

How is it possible to get so burned by an Arctic sun? Irving wonders.

Out of the light, a delicate step of hooves approaches them.

A snort of low breath, misting in the humid air.

There he is: a magnificent caribou stag, with prongs as large as branches.

Hickey twitches.

The stag’s ears flatten and he bolts.

Hickey fires - and misses.

Koveyook breathes out in disappointment.

By grace of God - and what other way to describe it? - the shot directs the stag right into the officer’s path, and it is Irving’s rifle that soon makes short work of the unfortunate creature.

The caribou is still kicking and squirming feebly as they near it: a gaping hole reddens its neck and its dark eyes are wide in fearful pain. Irving halts, momentarily nonplussed, but Koveyook hurries forward to end its suffering with one swift stroke of his stone knife.

 ‘And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth’, Irving quotes reverently, silently thanking the heavens for his first real contribution to the hunt.

He adds, with a small smile to Koveyook:

‘Into your hand are they delivered.’

Genesis seems so very fitting for the occasion. If it is indeed the will of God, this meat will create new life for his crewmates.

As Hickey quickly eviscerates and cleans the two caribou, right there on the rocks (since the gallows no longer look like such a practical option), Koveyook informs himself about the rifle’s technicalities.

He examines it and asks Irving to show him in detail how it is loaded and fired, how to keep it safe from going off by accident, and how to clean it. When Irving obliges, he nods with fresh understanding of the novelty weapon. Much like Lady Silence, Koveyook’s solemnity of manner lends a dignity to every occasion.

Irving’s kill feels much like a test he has finally passed, albeit with difficulty.

And when Tiquerat and Koveyook arrive with their own catch of a fattened young buck, a sort of holiday atmosphere descends upon the group, continuing until late at night.

Quamaniq prepares a roast and everyone gathers around the fire: a happy family anticipating a mouth-watering meal to accompany their celebrations.

Amaruq plays a little music on his drum. Nauja dances around Tiquerat, then Hickey, then Koveyook, then Irving. Even Quamaniq behaves warmly towards the Englishmen, so Irving knows his mistakes of the morning are forgiven, if not forgotten.

The closeness is contagious.

Sunburnt and grinning, Irving hugs and lifts Hickey slightly above the ground.

‘Hey now! Is this the behaviour of an officer on duty?’ Hickey remarks, but not looking at all displeased.

‘Oh, let’s consider this a day off! We’ve earned one, don’t you think?’

Their circumstances are unusual enough to warrant a lessening of obdurate Naval rules in favour of local flexibility, Irving feels. It is high time that he adjusts accordingly.

***

 

If he is to be entirely honest with himself, Irving secretly loves campfire occasions, for one particular aspect of them. Singing and clapping, enjoying a happy beat - those are a common sailor’s activity, not anything a respectable officer would usually be encouraged to indulge in.

What a shame!

But tonight, he is not really an officer, at least not in intent: only a man enjoying the simple company of his friends.

He is delighted to have taught the Inuit a few hymns, even some jolly little popular tunes. They have in turn trained him to a few of their own songs, amidst hoots of well-meaning laughter at his poor attempts at replicating the words. He only hopes, with fervour, that he is not unknowingly singing something lurid or un-Christian-like.

What he lacks in finesse of voice, Irving makes up for with unbridled enthusiasm alone. After much wheedling and prodding, he convinces Hickey to join in.

‘We will be singing Ye Servants of God, Your Master Proclaim. I think our friends might like it very much’, Irving tells him. ‘So don’t just mutter the words out. Try your best, alright?’

‘Ah. You see’, Hickey admits, scratching at his chin and twisting his long face into an expression of comical apology. ‘I don’t reckon I really know that one.’

‘Yes, you do. We sang it a few times during Divine Service, when Sir Franklin was still alive, may God rest his soul.’

‘Yeah. Only, I probably had one of those tatty old hymnals in front of me, back then, as a sort of cheat.’

Fairest Lord Jesus, Ruler of All Nature, perhaps?’

Hickey shrugs expansively and laughs, in a helpless sort of way.

‘Alright’, Irving says. ‘Why don’t you pick something out? I’ll follow! Something appropriate, mind you! There are women and children present, after all.’

‘They don’t even understand English, sir.’

‘I’m sure they could figure out that you were polluting our evening with a bawdy sailor’s tune.’

‘A folk song then! The kind of old music that everyone knows.’

‘Which folk song, exactly?’ Irving’s eyes narrow in suspicion.

‘I was thinking, A Brisk Young Sailor Courted Me?’

No, Mr Hickey, no’, Irving sucks in his breath. ‘Not a chance.’

Hickey nibbles at his lower lip, thinking.

The Unquiet Grave.’

Irving considers it carefully.

‘Yes’, he finally assents. ‘I think that one would be good.’

It is good.

It is beautiful, even. Hickey’s voice is not trained, but it does hold a certain light lilt and clear emotional precision, which render it quite enjoyable to the ear.

‘Cold blows the wind to my true love

And gently falls the rain.’

They start nicely, well enough to dampen Irving’s misgivings about the choice of song.

‘I never had but one true love

And in greenwood he lies slain.’

Irving falters at this part, having remembered the song’s death-sleeper as a she.

Perhaps a regional difference, he considers.

The pause makes him fall into silence, his attention drawn in too deeply to participate properly. Hickey glances at him uncertainly, but continues on his own:

‘The ghost did rise and speak:

“Why do you sit all on my grave

And will not let me sleep?”’

How curious, Irving thinks, with an odd wrench of something almost painful in his chest. That God should grant such a sweet gift to a tainted creature like Hickey.

Yet a more generous part of him considers: he perhaps has little right to condone Hickey so irrevocably for his past wrongdoings, now that they have an agreement made in fairness, the two of them.

For though the caulker’s mate succumbed to viciousness and weakness, may his officer not yet guide him out, with patience and faith?

It would bring Irving great joy to restore any man on a correct path, even more so to tackle the challenge of this particular sorry individual, if his spirit does indeed hide something of worth to plumb from the depths of his iniquities.

Irving is stirred from his charitable thoughts when he realises that Hickey has already begun a wholly different tune.

‘I once loved a boy and a bonny bonny boy

I loved him I vow and protest!

I loved him so well, there's no tongue can tell

Till I built him a berth on my breast.’

‘Oh, good grief’, Irving says, massaging his temples. It’s too late to stop him, so he powers through the rest of the risqué song with a kind of sour rictus grin.

When Tiquerat takes over with a gentler melody, Hickey takes a moment to lean over to Irving with a leering smile that he probably thinks impishly winsome. His eyes belie the mouth, though: they are set as cold and hard as ice.

With a burst of clarity, Irving realises that Hickey is anticipating admonishment; perhaps he is already relishing the thought of mocking it. Judging by the bristle in his demeanour, it is also clear that he will probably nurse resentments about Irving’s poor reaction anyway.

A contrary creature indeed, his Mr Hickey.

‘There!’ Hickey demands. ‘Was that so bad, Lieutenant?’

‘Not at all!’ Irving smiles back sagely, shoving him lightly away. He isn’t about to give him what he expects.

‘I may think you a scallywag, Mr Hickey, but I must say you have a remarkably lovely voice - when you’re not wasting it on foulness and deceit, naturally.’

To Irving’s great surprise, the honestly-spoken compliment halts whatever glib taunt Hickey had prepared in reply. All he is rendered capable of is a low murmur of ‘Thank you’, accompanied to a faint glowing of pride.

Perhaps there really is a modicum of hope to be had in finding recovery - even for such a misguided wretch?

Though certain events in the future will assuage him of the thought, on this night Irving likes to imagine so.

Chapter Text

Goodsir

Lat. 69° 37' 42'' N., Long. 98° 41' W.

8 May, 1848

 

From the private diary of Dr. Harry D.S.Goodsir:

 

Saturday, 8 May –

The ship’s dog, Neptune, has been keeping up a maddened Howling for three consecutive Nights now. Some of the Men are taking it as an ill Omen of things to come.

As a Matter of Interest, I examined Neptune and found not a single Scratch or sign of physical Ailment on him, apart from the same thinness about the ribs that we all share: Officers and Sailors and Ship’s animal alike.

A few of the Men have suggested shooting the poor Creature to use it for fresh Meat. Our Hunger has only deepened in the past week, though the worst Case of total Starvation has been somewhat postponed by the gift of fresh Seal Meat that Mr Farr brought, and the wild Arctic Hares that Lady Silence has been catching in some ingenious Traps of her own Invention. It is barely enough to stave off our Troubles, yet it will have to keep us alive until we are at open Sea and able to harvest the seals and fish.

Captain Crozier has doubled the guard shifts around the Perimeters of Terror Camp. He believes the dog to have sensed something large prowling along those High Ridges of hardened ice which made our path from the Ships to the Camp so very difficult to cross.

There has been no News of Lieutenant Irving’s hunting party. Our other hunting parties have not met any local Inuit, nor do they bring many fresh Supplies in, though we continue our Efforts.

Lady Silence (whom I must regretfully continue calling so within these pages, instead of her own Name given to me in Trust, lest this Diary ever end in the wrong hands) has expressed her Approval of the Inuit hunters’ Abilities. She believes they will find a Herd of caribou to replenish our Supplies.

I quickly learned that the people going with Lieutenant Irving are in Fact some of her dear old friends, particularly a Lady named Mrs Quamaniq and her young niece. She assumes they are on their way to their village on the other side of King William Land (or should we begin to call it King William Island?).

Yet no one from the hunting party has returned to us.

It may be a sign of Success that the hunt has merited lingering out on the hunting fields, or of some great and tragic Failure.

Lady Silence worries for the Fate of her friends. I believe she is uneasy because it is the Terror’s Caulker’s Mate who accompanied Lieutenant Irving – the diminutive Man who has already proven himself to be both dangerous and unpredictable. However, Hickey’s Departure has thankfully brought a level of Peace into the Camp. There are several other Men that Captain Crozier still keeps an eye on, chiefly those who requested being Armed with Shotguns, but their Mutterings have quieted down.

So there has not been an outbreak of violence or Mutiny so far: it is as if the whole Camp is holding its Breath, collectively waiting for some Event to sway our Fates into a new Direction and spring us all into Action, one way or another.

Needless to say, Captains Crozier and Fitzjames are preparing for us to leave the Area as soon as Possible, before any graver Complications arise than the Scurvy and Neptune’s warnings.

Captain Crozier means to leave behind a map with Notes of our planned Directions and perhaps a few Men of Trust to stay a while longer, if we may spare them, in the case of the hunting party returning to an emptied camp.

We believe that what may take us a Week to cross would be a matter of mere Days for our hunters to catch up with us. The Progress of several dozen frightened and starving Men is slow, gruelling Work, particularly since we must haul the heavy Boats and Equipment across an unforgiving Landscape.

In the meantime, I have been doing my best to serve the Expedition by these points:

 

1) Keeping the Men’s physical Health

This is my most desperate Undertaking and in many ways my most marked Failure. Since my last Entry into this Diary, I have lost six more Men to a high Fever accompanied to severe Vomiting. Funerals have become short and miserable Affairs that press heavily on all the Men’s Minds.

Several more Men are greatly weakened by Scurvy. We fear the most for Lieutenant Jopson, who has been unable to walk without Assistance in the past Days.

There are currently more than thirty Men in Total being kept in bed or showing up as constant visitors to our Sickbay Tents: it is becoming nearly a Third of our remaining Numbers. Some cases are solvable with the tools and Medicines we have on hand, but others must await better Conditions to treat properly.

If not for the help of Mr Bridgens, I fear I would already have collapsed under the Pressure.

As it is, we all do what we can.

We have kept those Patients with a dire Cough separate from the others. We have drained the raw blood of the Arctic Hares, at Lady Silence’s recommendation, as an additional Supplement for those Men whose own blood has weakened, or who are showing progressive signs of Scurvy.

We have called in the Men who have grown too silent or suspiciously listless, and in many Cases have found that they required urgent Treatment.

Lady Silence has noted my Exhaustion and is determined to see to all potential Problems before they should flare up and consume me. Lieutenant Little (who is being treated for a mildly infected Flesh Cut he received during a hunt) once fondly called her my Nurse, but she is in Truth becoming a Doctor treating the Medical practitioners themselves (if Mr Bridgens and myself may call ourselves thusly without overly shaming the Profession).

There is never enough Time.

There is never enough Strength left at the end of the Day to make additional rounds and see what I would otherwise have plainly noticed, if only my own Mind was clear and rested.

I cannot help every Patient as well I might otherwise have done, had Circumstances not deprived us of my Colleagues. It is often at Night that I think upon what Dr MacDonald might have advised me, had he been present at a particular Surgery or Examination.

My heart aches with the terrible Knowledge of what future Losses may occur.

This brings me to my second undertaking.

 

2) Combating Despair

We are at the point of no Return. If we do not find Rescue within the next months, most of us will surely Perish. It is beginning to show in all the Men’s Spirits.

Mr Collins has been particularly unwell in this sense. Lady Silence has been communicating to me the Details of his Instability: he sometimes weeps and sits without Awareness of his surroundings, while at other times he is unnaturally exuberant and joyful.

Lady Silence came up to me yesterday, as we were waiting in Line for our paltry Supper of Biscuit and cold thinned Soup.

She pulled at my sleeve and carefully motioned to Collins’ pockets. She was insistent and our Inspection revealed that Mr Collins had been medicating himself without my Knowledge, having partaken of the Peruvian to lift his Spirits to a Level of daily functioning. It is a very strong Substance and in time might have killed the poor Man or left him troubled with unpleasant Hallucinations and Visions.

He might well have been lost to us, quite soon, if not for Lady Silence’s timely help on this Matter. Though Mr Bridgens says the Blame is all his, I know it to be a Burden that lies squarely on my shoulders. I must keep my Medicines labelled more discreetly.

We have not told anyone else, though I hinted upon the Matter to Captain Crozier. He has quietly let the Matter go, on the Condition that we take a Care to avoid any such future Possibilities. To be punished for theft would do little but destroy the already deteriorated Morale of Mr Collins.

We are left with the Dilemma of how best to help his Case. We have agreed to give him very small Quantities of the dangerous Substance, but only on such Days when his Condition greatly worsens. He is never again to touch any of the Medicinal Supplies without myself present.

I have also asked Mr Collins to take special care of Neptune. Strangely enough, this Change of Routine appears to be working best of all. I see that he has found some true Comfort in the large dog’s affectionate Nature. It is also well that a strong Man like Mr Collins should be seen to care for our guard dog’s well-being.

We must all do what we can to protect each other. I refuse to leave any Man feeling abandoned to his Fate.

This brings me to the single point in my current Life that I may dare to call Happiness.

 

3) Learning Inuktitut

We had not given up on our Communication, Lady Silence and I, even after her Tongue suffered so great a Mutilation. On some Evenings I felt she alone kept me well enough in Mind to continue my Daily Work.

At first we attempted to understand each other either by aid of our Dictionary or by her expressive Gestures. Sometimes she pointed at a known word or combined several into a new Meaning. Sometimes she acted out whole sentences. Now it is enough for her to silently mouth words until I may repeat my Understanding of them to her Satisfaction.

The Dictionary has grown substantially. In recent days Captain Crozier and Mr Blanky have been of some help in this Endeavour, though it is plain that my dearest Friend still does not trust them quite as much.

They have seen the Importance of us having a Written Guide to speak Inuktitut. If all of us who know the Language should perish, our poor Men should not be left to their own Devices.

Such thoughts of Disquietude, where we plan for the Event of our Death, are becoming more frequent since Neptune’s howls began to pierce our sleep. Even Lady Silence, who has so far displayed only calm Acceptance about the Dangers we are surrounded with - and I would surely protect her with my own Life, if ever it came to a Fight - appears increasingly uneasy.

I wish I had more time to speak with her, but the Duties within the Sickbay Tents have left us all but wholly exhausted.

It is Comfort enough to know that we are both here for each other, should any need arise.

 

Saturday, 8 May –

I write this Addition to Today’s notes a little messily because my hands are unable to keep steady.

Neptune has not kept quiet for nearly Twenty-four Hours.

He is straining to break loose his Chain. Even Mr Collins is unable to calm him.

Tonight one of the Men on guard, Mr Seeley, claimed to have seen a tall Creature outlined against the moonlight. He arrived running to Camp, in a State of great Fearfulness and Agitation.

Mr Blanky thinks it must be our Monster. Lieutenant Hodgson claims it might be an ordinary white bear come to sniff at our Camp Site.

A closer look to the spot revealed only a protruding layer of dazzling white ice, which may have tricked our Lookout’s tired eyes. There are Marks upon the ground, as though the surrounding rocks have been disturbed, though whether that may have happened Yesterday or a Century ago, it is impossible to say.

Captain Crozier is ruling out no Possibilities.

I asked Lady Silence upon the various Theories and she is uncertain. She is very reluctant to speak about the Tuunbaq.

Her face was drawn tight and thoughtful as I left her to her Sleep.

 

Sunday, 9 May –

This morning she has disappeared from Terror Camp.

Part of me hopes that she has gone to seek out her own people, far away from our daily Terrors.

Part of me - a very selfish and unreasonable part, I freely admit - hopes that she would not have left Forever without us Two first saying our Goodbyes.

Only Time will tell what her Plans were.

Wherever my Friend has gone, I hope she will arrive safely!

Chapter Text

Hickey

Lat. 69° ??' ??'' N., Long. 98° ??' ??'' W.

8 May, 1848

It is the dead of night and Hickey can’t sleep.

He doesn't want to go back to Terror Camp, not so damn soon, but Irving is being insistent.

There's no point in leaving while they have it so good here, is there?

Hickey tosses under the furs of their bed, silently fuming. He has only just recently started feeling right again. His head has finally stopped hurting. He’s being kept warm and dry. He’s honestly better fed now than with the usual fare he'd been getting.

Freshly roasted meat and thick chewy stews are real, proper, mouth-watering food. It’s the sort of stuff he hadn't really had much chance to eat, even before he'd gone to freeze his arse off at the tip of the world. It feels good not to worry about whether he’ll manage to nab his next meal.

To return now to Terror Camp’s stinking mess of hungering sickness would be stark raving madness.

Fuck all that.

He reckons it'd be much better to take their time with leaving. They could smoke some of the meat they have for better keeping and preserve the rest in thick fat, just like Quamaniq does it. Food is the only currency of real value out here: it would be wise to arrive back late to the party, as it were, loaded with riches.

And if they encounter a mere dozen surviving men instead of a full hundred, what's the difference? They only need several to man a boat, anyway. It annoys Hickey to think of his hard-gained meat ending up doled out to useless patients, instead of used to strengthen the men who are hale enough to haul.

Of course, Hickey plans to leave with his own pinnace and crew long before he has to starve again, regardless of how many men actually survive. But it'd be nice if he could avoid a mutiny altogether. Just quietly assume leadership over what's left of everyone.

Less of a hassle, that - less of a risk.

Anyway, whenever he does come back, he'll be welcomed as a hero. He'll be like one of the apostles of old, with their baskets of magical bread and fishes, descending among the grateful rabble to spread the miracle of a full meal.

Hickey rolls his eyes at the mental image. Reading Irving's tattered Bible really has started rubbing off on him, though probably not in the way that Irving had hoped for. It isn't a bad thought, though. Imagine the high-and-mighty Crozier reduced to humbly begging food from the very man he had so wrongly humiliated!

A nice revenge that would be!

Though dabbing him with the boat knife and spitting on the corpse would be even nicer…

Hickey smiles at the thought, his ginger whiskers twitching in amusement.

At his side, the lieutenant turns fitfully in his sleep.

Hickey's grin slips a little.

He’s suddenly reminded of a small hitch in his plans.

Irving, now, that's a fine kettle of fish. Hickey is not entirely sure what to do about him.

Oh, he'd had the officer all figured out, long before they had left Terror Camp. A stuck-up, domineering piece of rosy-cheeked bourgeois shit. That’s what Irving is. Always had had it in for Hickey, too, as if he had correctly guessed something was off about the newly arrived caulker’s mate. It was hellishly annoying.

Irving, always lingering so near with his watchful stares and earnest Christian reproaches. Irving, always looking down upon him, as though he was a pile of stinking garbage washed out of the Thames.

Irving, Irving.

A dead man walking, Hickey had decided.

Oh, yes, indeed. Irving had to go, as soon as the opportunity arose. Plain and simple.

It wasn't even a necessity born out of mindless cruelty. No. It just made logical sense. Hickey had decided that he didn't need his future leadership undermined by someone like that. Best foot forward and no looking back: that's the only way to go, if he ever means to get out of this horrible place alive and kicking.

And yet…

These days they have a different arrangement, Irving and Hickey. They nestle together quite comfortably in their tent, quite comfortably indeed. They share warmth. They eat together. They sometimes even laugh together.

For lack of a better word, Irving is being genuinely kind.

(Hickey sometimes wonders if he hasn’t missed some vital detail. A niggling, half-formed doubt keeps creeping up, even though it’s bloody Irving in question, a man who’s horrified by the mere existence of someone like Hickey. If it were anyone but Irving, well, he’d have thought the kindness an excuse for something else entirely, something deliciously interesting.)

Now, he isn’t stupid. He already learned from Crozier never to confuse an officer’s whims of friendliness for any real understanding. He’ll not be making the same mistake with Irving. It sometimes strains Hickey’s shrivelled little soul to its very limits, all this pretending that the two of them are best pals. It’d be easier to cut things short, permanently.

On the other hand… There’s no need to look a gift horse in the mouth. If his superior officer well and truly wants to be nice, why, that’s an opportunity Hickey could use to his own advantage.

Unless, of course, Irving switches back to his old superiority the very moment they reach Terror Camp. He wouldn’t put it past the man to demand punishment for Hickey’s crimes of insubordination and willfully attacking an officer. And the one thing he really doesn’t need is another whipping to degrade his position in the eyes of the men he has so carefully been gathering to his cause…

Hickey groans in frustration.

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

Killing his new friend has become mighty tricky to plan out.

***

 

Silna

Lat. 69° 37' 42'' N., Long. 98° 41' W.

8 May, 1848

It takes Silna less time than she feared to find him, the great shadow moving against the thin glow of starlight. By then, her limbs are already stiff with exhaustion and barely responsive to her considerable force of will. Her breath runs ragged.

The soft skin of her neck prickles in the cool air, as the smell of dried blood begins to pervade: there are carcasses piled around Tuunbaq. Dead things which he has hunted down and only partially eaten, all of them covered with a thin layer of frost.

Silna begins to realise why Crozier’s men have had such poor luck finding bigger game.

When she comes as near to him as she dares, she sits cross-legged on the thin layer of ice and pretends to bide her time.

She recognises her hesitation to draw any closer for what it truly is: a worthless gesture of that old, bones-deep impulse of self-preservation; a silent warning of the crimson blood pumping through her veins, urging her to run away, back to the relative safety of the men’s camp.

She almost scoffs at that thought. Nothing and no one could save her against one such as him, not if he truly wanted her dead.

She keeps her back as straight as an arrow as she sits, doggedly patient. Her heart rattles on against the cavity of her chest. Her nails dig into her palms.

For she is afraid, more than she has ever been afraid in her life.

She sits as Tuunbaq circles her, restless.

He waves his great head from side to side, as if considering her. With a sudden lurch forward, he experimentally snaps his jaws at her, barely missing her face.

Silna does not flinch.

It is the one thing she has taught herself well in these past months, while living among the strangers who came unwanted to her home. She will never again show them weakness. Never will she be provoked into exposing what she feels in the depth of her mind, not to anyone.

Tuunbaq’s bear's lips are peeled back, the parted flaps of black skin exposing teeth as sharp as hunting knives. His eyes are more than human: they watch her with an uncanny shrewdness as he grinds his teeth and salivates, wondering how best to punish her.

Yet he does not advance any further. And she does not retreat.

This is how their first night passes.

As she waits for whatever will happen next, a half-fogged memory emerges. She was a child when she first saw him. Just a small thing, bundled up warmly in her amauti coat. Always running along on uncertain legs, at that stage, and too young to know true fear. Too young to doubt. She had reached out with chubby fists, she remembers now, and she had keened so loudly when her father had rushed to snatch her away. She wonders why all the noise had not prompted Tuunbaq to tear her into long strips of meat.

Silna remembers him as he was then, towering over her like a mountain, fresh water still streaming off his white fur and revealing cords of sleek muscles rippling beneath it. She remembers his noiseless steps upon the snow as he disappeared back into the dark waters, incomprehensively tolerant of the tiny intruder who had tried to touch the most powerful spirit of the north.

He has changed much these past seasons. It makes her stomach lurch in terror. He should not have changed, not ever. For Tuunbaq is ancient beyond all measurable years, and her people have marked their presence here for nearly ten thousand summers.

Tonight, Tuunbaq’s pelt looks worn down, like deerskin that has been used for several seasons too long. His flesh seems held together only by the lingering spells that bind him to his bones. His eyes are red-streaked with burst vessels and unyielding rage. Those eyes watch her now, glittering almost as vulnerably as those of the sick men she left back at the men’s camp.

Tuunbaq is cunning and patient, capable of a hunter’s deception. Only such a being would be capable of setting out to destroy a hundred armed men. Yet Silna knows his unexpected weakness to be no lie.

He needs her.

Tuunbaq has never gone so far south.

He does not belong away from all that he is, and all that he was, and all that he ever will be. It is not in his nature.

Silna buries her face into the smooth collar of her coat, a sudden shame crawling into her heart and festering there.

Tuunbaq is dirty and unhappy and he is dying, and he needs her, and Silna cannot help him because she is not her father, her dearest Aya.

She cannot communicate with Tuunbaq in the only way that matters. She does not know anything, except possibly how to die in pain, trying to find the tongue-less words that will never come to her.

Her father died before he could teach her.

No, he was killed by the men who are now lost in her land.

And she cannot - will not - help them either, though she pities them greatly. They have caused too much damage already.

She failed to save her father. Just as she will fail to save poor Harry, who is after all hardly responsible for the foolishness of his questionable companions.

Yet worst of all, worst of anything: if she is to die here, she won’t save her own people from the wrath of a spirit that has been violently unmoored from the natural balance of things.

She won’t save anyone.

It makes Silna want to weep.

***

 

Hickey

Lat. 69° ??' ??'' N., Long. 98° ??' ??'' W.

8 May, 1848

It is late afternoon and Hickey is busy cleaning out guts when the little Inuit girl finds him. It’s become a bit of a specialty of his, all the dirty work that follows a good hunt. The lieutenant never really took to that.

He’s making a nice tight cord from caribou intestines and thin string from the animal’s tendons. It’s a pretty straightforward business, if a little gruesome. Quamaniq showed Hickey how it was done, but left him to finish things off. She’s back at their camp, packing away their last catch with Irving and the other men.

There will be no more hunting with the Inuit, Irving had said. One more day to visit all the traps that Hickey set up and one more night to rest, then they will leave. Hickey tries not to think about it.

‘Ujagatsiamut kaulauguk’, Nauja suggests shyly, shoving a little stone hammer into Hickey’s face.

‘What?’

Ujagatsiamut kaulauguk’, she repeats, slowly.

‘I - don’t - understand’, Hickey enunciates, with exaggerated slowness. ‘What’m I supposed to do with this?’

She demonstrates. He takes the hammer from her, then, and repeats the gentle tapping. He slowly sluices out the last of the smelly mulch from the insides of the ropey, pink-and-purple guts. It’s easier than just pushing it out with his fingers, which are already slippery with all sorts of oozing foulness.

‘Tutsialaugit! Sing, Mister Hikki, sing!’ Nauja exclaims, sidling closer after a while of watching him work. She’s bored. She sings a little bit of one of Irving’s religious songs, trying to make Hickey join in, but he glowers at her until she bursts out giggling.

‘Oi!’ Hickey admonishes, when her curiosity gets her too close to his knife. He picks her up and places her aside. ‘Keep your fingers away while I cut, if you want to keep ‘em attached to your hand.’

When he’s finished up his work, he goes to sit next to Nauja. He cleans his hands on a scrap of old cloth and treats himself to a cigarette. It’s one of his very last, he notices with some regret.

They watch the clouds passing overhead. The days have become very long. The weather is still fine today, but it looks a little threatening for tomorrow. Perhaps he can press Irving into extending their stay…

‘Tunnutugumappâ’, the girl pleads, with a theatrical sigh. She gestures at a slab of caribou fat. Hickey cuts her a piece and throws it to her, as if feeding a stray puppy. Nauja catches it with a grin and sucks happily at the fat.

A hand touches Hickey lightly on the shoulder. It’s Irving, back from the camp.

‘Thank you. I think that’s all for today, Mr Hickey. I’ll help you clean up.’

‘Sure. Thanks.’

‘And I heard you singing, young lady’, Irving beams at Nauja. He claps. ‘Hark! The herald angels sing. Beautiful. Very good!’

Nauja grins back proudly, wiping at her greasy mouth with an equally greasy hand.

‘Won’t you go ahead now, Nauja? Wash up and go help your mother with the cooking. I need to talk with Mr Hickey here for a moment. Go back to camp, Nauja? Quamaniq, home. Understand?’

‘Yes, I understand. Goodbye’, Nauja salutes smartly.

She skips over the edge of weed-covered scree, all the while hollering a few verses of Hark! The herald angels sing, in a high, clear voice. Hickey sticks his tongue out at her and she shrieks at him in mock distress.

‘You know, I taught her that song’, Irving says happily. ‘One day, I hope, it might lead to something more. If we really are to establish regular trade routes through the far north, well, her people might… You know. I’m not much of a missionary, I confess, but even a joyful song is a start, wouldn’t you say?’

‘Yeah’, Hickey says, keeping his tone non-committal. He realises, with surprise, that he actually quite likes Nauja. She’s a fun kid. He finds himself hoping she won’t ever be treated to pushy, preachy meddling by the likes of Irving. Hickey’s had enough of that, himself. He’s had enough Bible passages in these past days to last him a dozen lifetimes.

‘It’s a curious thing’, Irving says. ‘You get along quite nicely with the child, don’t you, Mr Hickey? It rather warms my heart. Which reminds me: I came here because I wanted to talk to you. A moment while we are alone and at peace to speak candidly.’

Irving sits down next to Hickey. He keeps his hands neatly folded on his lap and pushes at a rock with the tip of his boot. He seems unsure of how to continue.

‘Is there a problem, sir?’

‘Oh, no, not at all! Only a bit of advice, if you’ll have it.’ Irving is smiling, a little shyly. ‘I thought, when we return to England, that I see no reason why you should not take a gamble and trust in my hopes for the future.’

‘Sir?’ Hickey smiles boyishly. He has no idea where Irving intends to take this conversation. That is reason enough for him to assume the default humbleness of a poor caulker’s mate out of his depth.

‘I have thought on matters long and hard’, Irving says. ‘I confess, I myself don’t know if I will be continuing my career in the Navy. This whole ordeal has been… I would not repeat it for anything. Then again, perhaps you feel differently?’

‘I don’t’, Hickey snorts. ‘This expedition was just a way out, for me. That’s all.’

It’s broad enough a statement for him not to mind sharing it.

(In the back of his mind, a dead young man rolls gently in his deep grave, somewhere at the bottom of a river in London. The one who should have been here instead. Hickey pushes the thought away.)

Irving nods earnestly. ‘I thought as much. You don’t have much waiting for you in England, do you, Mr Hickey? Have you considered your plans for when we find our way back there?’

‘Not much at all. And no.’

‘A naval officer with experience and leadership qualities, such as myself, might find good employment elsewhere’, Irving says with some self-satisfaction. ‘So might a petty officer, such as yourself, upon recommendation. If I decided to stay there, in England, and you needed someone to… Well. What I meant is, maybe I could help you…’ He trails off and gestures helplessly. ‘On your way.’

‘On my way to where?’ Hickey asks, genuine confusion creasing his brow.

‘Oh! On your way in, um, life. In general, is what I, I meant. I’d be as good a choice for that as anyone, wouldn’t I? And now is not a bad time to be looking towards the future, isn’t it, on the cusp of our return to the others?’

‘I suppose so’, Hickey agrees.

There is a sudden fluttering nervousness in the pit of his stomach, a barely-formed hope, that makes him supress an urge to put his palm on top of Irving’s folded hands.

‘You could leave all your past transgressions behind you, Mr Hickey. You have qualities you’ve hardly thought to put to good use.’

Hickey barks a laugh, at that, a burst of real amusement.

‘No, no, I mean it!’ Irving exclaims.

‘Your mind is sharp, Mr Hickey. You could apply yourself to any task, if only you’d find proper motivation to do it. I’ve seen you work. Your hands are very clever.’ He hesitates a moment. ‘Besides… Besides that, you have an easy manner. And a sense of humour. And, and, and a handsome smile.’

Hickey drops his gaze towards the aforementioned hands: they are calloused and still a little dirty with blood. He quickly folds them together in imitation of Irving.

There is a heat crawling up his face.

‘You’re so nice when you make an effort. People would like you’, Irving says. ‘I believe they really would, if you thought to expand your opportunities.’

‘I suppose’, Hickey mutters. The heat has reached all the way to his ears.

He opens his mouth to say something, he isn’t exactly sure what. He hasn’t had the time to imagine what he might say. He hasn’t had the time to imagine this might be possible.

You’re the one who’s nice. That is what he wants to tell Irving. His thoughts race. You have a handsome smile, too, but I like your eyes the best. You are so good to me. We could have an understanding, between the two of us. No one need know, if that’s how you'd want it.

‘You are a good man’, he says. His hand reaches forward.

‘Why, thank you! So that was my whole point. What’s to stop you settling down?’ Irving interrupts. ‘I could pull some connections and get you a steady job. You could socialise among decent people. Find a good Christian wife to keep you on the correct path. Children of your own. What better reward for…’

Irving falters to an awkward halt.

Hickey’s expression is clear enough.

The caulker’s mate lowers his hand and twists away at a discarded length of intestine, speechless with humiliation. He imagines a rope with which he could hang Irving. He swallows bile before looking up.

‘Oh, Lieutenant. Please don’t ever tell me anything like that, not ever again’, Hickey says lowly, pleasantly, his teeth bared like that of a fox prepared to bite its way out of a hound’s reach. ‘Thank you ever so much, sir.’

Irving rises and takes a step back from him. His eyes flash with some emotion between hurt and disgust.

They finish cleaning the kill area in uncomfortable silence. Hickey allows his rage to simmer down into something manageable.

You are so good to me, he thinks, closing his eyes. You are so good that I keep forgetting at what price your sick little kindnesses come.

***

 

Silna

Lat. 69° 37' 42'' N., Long. 98° 41' W.

8 May, 1848

All through the day she talks, withholding herself from food or water or rest.

Tuunbaq’s tongue is long and purplish-black. It cannot mimic human words. Her own tongue is severed. Strangely enough, that makes it easier for her to find a common language between them.

They are both thinking creatures, after all, with thoughts that run fast and cold and cheerless. In this way, at least, they belong to each other: alone and unable to expunge what ails their hearts.

If she could only keep his mind keenly diverted from vengeance, from wandering off in pursuit of the intruders, perhaps she could show him the importance of returning to the heart of his domain.

Silna talks in whatever way she can. Tuunbaq merely watches, unimpressed.

She scrawls explanations and platitudes with her knife on the remnants of ice. She twists her hands and fingers together to tell stories, just as children do in winter, when the shadows of the fat-lamps play against the pristine walls of the ice homes.

She carves away at a figurine, thoughtlessly. Her father was wont to do that, when he wished to keep his hands busy and his mind idle. The piece of bone slowly assumes the unthreatening shape of Harry Goodsir. A friend.

A mistake. At that, Tuunbaq becomes truly enraged.

He nearly takes a piece out of her, but he relents in mid-strike. Instead, the slam of his giant paw-hand hits hard enough against the ground next to her to split it into shards of ice and stone.

Silna lets out a sound. A small animal noise of pain. A final weakness.

Her eyes film over with hot salt water. She closes them shut, tightly, in anticipation.

No fatal blow ends her.

She can hear his words now, she realises. They are somewhere in the echo of broken ice. Somewhere in the breath of air above her: in the wind slithering through the teeth of the ice, in the lapping of sea-water at the edges of the land around her.

He speaks, finally her Tuunbaq speaks to her, and she cannot understand his words at all.

She is small, she is insignificant. She is unprepared. How dare she try to take her father’s place? How dare she try to protect the men who abandoned him so callously to the dark water? How dare she.

Silna sheds tears then, great shuddering sobs that cannot stop.

She weeps for her father, who she never got a chance to mourn properly. For her own people, who must not suffer for her failings. For Tuunbaq, so weakened and enraged. For poor, caring Harry. She cries for the ship’s dog, still howling in such anticipative fear of death. She cries even for the Englishmen, who now only want to leave.

She can do nothing. Her pleadings are for nothing. All her reverence for Tuunbaq, for this place she calls home, those are just broken words trapped within her.

Silna sits and proffers her meagre offering in silence: it’s only all the sorrows of her heart.

Tuunbaq approaches.

Slowly, slowly, slowly, he approaches.

His maw takes up her entire world.

It is all she can see, that black void behind his teeth, the approaching end.

His jaws open wide.

And Tuunbaq licks her face.

Silna gasps as he licks her tears up greedily. His tongue is rough and warm and prickly, like the comforting dabbing of a thick cloth against her face.

She laughs shakily, the first laughter since her old life ended. Silna laughs and laughs. She can’t help it.

He rumbles in return, huffing a warm breath at her. She lowers her face into his, without thinking, and for a moment their noses touch.

A greeting. An understanding.

Chapter Text

Hickey

Lat. 69° ??' ??'' N., Long. 98° ??' ??'' W.

8 May, 1848

Dinner is a wary affair.

Lieutenant Irving is trying to pretend their quarrel never happened. Fat chance of Hickey dancing to that tune.

What an asshole, he thinks. Just look at him, cutting his meat all careful-like, as if he’s eating off a china plate. A stuck-up prig with an ugly haircut. And to think I almost condescended to–

He stabs at a slice of pink tenderloin and devours it, chewing as if he holds a personal grudge against venison.

His mood is foul enough for him to finish the meal in uncharacteristic silence, though he does laugh raucously when Tiquerat and Amaruq take turns in imitating Asiajuk’s toothless munching behind the old man’s back.

He also makes a point of ignoring Irving’s vague remarks on how nice it would be to assist their companions in cleaning up. The pangs of Irving’s consciousness are no problem of his. If the good lieutenant wants to give him a direct order to wash Quamaniq’s cooking pots, Hickey feels certain that bloody Irving is capable of bloody doing so without mincing his bloody words.

In the end, the lieutenant heaves a burdened sigh and trudges off to do the work by himself. Good. Let the prim bastard get his own hands dirty for once.

Hickey yawns hugely and stretches himself out in front of the dying fire.

The others clear up the camp: tools and washed clothes are replaced in their proper places, a protesting Nauja is ushered off to bed, and the deerskin tents are checked for any weaknesses that a harsh wind might tear open.

‘Ilangani iKiasuttusuangupattajuk’, Koveyook remarks to Asiajuk, clicking his tongue lightly at Hickey as they pass by him, carrying the last of the leftovers from dinner.

 ‘A natural-born idler, you’re no doubt thinking’, Hickey says with a wink. ‘Well, you got me! That’s me alright.’

Asiajuk gives a lukewarm chuckle, as if humouring him. Koveyook merely shrugs.

‘That’s me alright’, Hickey mutters again, after they’ve left. ‘A real rotten apple and proud of it.’

Yet he doesn’t end up lazing around for much longer. It feels a little ridiculous to sit all alone in the half-light, he admits, especially once Quamaniq comes to extinguish the fire.

Hickey picks himself up and skulks off into the smaller tent, where the lack of Irving’s presence somehow grates on his nerves.

***

Silna

Lat. 69° 37' ??'' N., Long. 98° ??' W.

8 May, 1848

Silna is tired to her very bones.

Tuunbaq has shown no interest in leaving their secluded little den on the ice. When her speechless pleas left him unimpressed, she tried to demonstrate her wishes and began walking in a northward direction.

Her faint hopes that he might follow her were in vain. He immediately tensed and took to pacing around her in circles, with his powerful maws snapping and the thick hairs on his back bristling threateningly.

He was not a creature to change his mind so lightly, his growling seemed to tell her. So she stayed, instead, to keep vigil over Tuunbaq for all the long, long hours of the day.

Her eyelids grow ever more dry and heavy. They droop over her eyes and she has to force them open to keep focus. Beside her, Tuunbaq’s ribs slowly rise and fall. The closeness of his thick fur warms her better than any winter coat. As comforting as it is, this only makes her even sleepier.

It is as if he is waiting for something to happen, yet nothing at all changes around them. The whole day passes without a single disturbance. The spring sun melts a little more of the remaining ice, that is all, and a lone fox trots cautiously near them.

Still, their hiding place is not very pleasant at all: the animal carcasses continue to stare at Silna with their blank, soulless eyes, as if reproaching her. The ship’s dog can still be heard, too, howling in the distance as if his life depends upon it.

Perhaps it does. Silna shivers a little at that thought.

Tuunbaq’s inhuman eyes are alert. He surveys the bleak landscape around them with anticipative interest. As night approaches, his nose snuffles at the cooling air and his long tongue keeps licking at his chops.

Quiet, repetitive sounds.

For a brief moment, Silna falls asleep.

She shudders back into lucidity, mere heartbeats later, afraid that she has lost their connection. Tuunbaq nuzzles her, once, not seeming to resent her exhaustion. He watches her with amusement as she tries to work her arms and legs into wakefulness, and actually snorts when her stomach begins to loudly protest its hunger.

Tuunbaq pointedly noses in the direction of a torn flank of a caribou. Silna understands. She goes and has her supper alone.

She cuts thin strips of meat from those parts of the half-frozen caribou that have kept reasonably well. She eats the slices raw. They are a little crunchy and taste slightly sour on the remaining root of her tongue, but it is hardly the worst meal she has recently had. She is grateful that it isn’t watery soup and weevil-laced biscuits.

Having sated the worst of her need for food, Silna washes her face and hands in a puddle of icy water.

Tuunbaq waits. She resumes her place at his side, guardedly, but he barely pays her any heed. His full attention is currently directed towards the faraway men’s camp, where the lanterns of those who are on first watch glimmer against the dusky landscape.

Silna considers her situation pragmatically.

It is good to keep in mind that a longer daytime is fast advancing. It will soon consume all but the few remaining hours of semi-darkness. Her tribe has always loved this period of summer and its endless light. They will thrive off the richness of the land when it ripens into life, as the great herds of caribou cross their long journey towards the summer pastures.

Tuunbaq, by all she knows of him, exists as a creature of stealth and cold. It is likely he does not share the same sentiment as her people do towards warmer weather.

She hopes, if nothing else will affect him, that the approaching summer will be a sign for him to forsake his intentions of vengeance. She cannot imagine him venturing even further south in the thickening heat and oppressive sunlight.

His chest heaves beside her, low and rumbling, unaware of her deepmost thoughts. Tuunbaq seems to be resting. After a while of listening to him wheeze and snuffle, Silna’s own breathing evens out. Her senses slow down to an agreeable half-consciousness.

A cool wind closes around them. The world gradually grows still.

Silna dreams – or so she believes.

***

 

Hickey

Lat. 69° ??' ??'' N., Long. 98° ??' ??'' W.

8 May, 1848

Irving takes his precious time returning to the tent, preferring to linger outside and make broken conversation with a yawning Koveyook.

The two men muddle through an awkward series of polite nothings, until Hickey grows tired of listening in on their talk. He unpacks and rearranges his few belongings instead, before storing them away more tidily into his bag. He even has time to steal one of Irving’s spare combs - a nice little thing made of tortoiseshell. (He’ll hardly notice it gone, Hickey reckons, what with all the other fine possessions he’s got.)

When the lieutenant finally does arrive, he avoids meeting Hickey’s gaze.

It gives the caulker’s mate a vile sort of pleasure, knowing he can cause enough discomfort to turn that punch-worthy haughtiness into quiet embarrassment.

‘I am going to miss them’, Irving says, cautiously. He’s still hovering at the entrance, as if unsure of his welcome. ‘All our Inuit friends.’

‘Sure. They’re such nice people’, Hickey says. ‘When they make an effort.’

A little bit of bait, there.

Irving reddens, but doesn’t rise to it. He bends his head down and sheepishly slips into the tent.

‘I only wish I could have done more for Koveyook’, he mumbles. ‘He has helped us immensely. I never managed to properly benefit him and his family in return. Now there’s no opportunity left for it.’

‘I don’t think he minds’, Hickey shrugs.

Well, if he only knew what he was missing, I think he’d mind it very much indeed.’

‘Why? I reckon you already did everything you ought to, sir’, Hickey replies, experimentally adjusting his tone into deferential politeness. ‘Everything you possibly could’ve done.’

See, I’ve already forgotten your insults, Lieutenant Irving, Hickey thinks. Ain’t I just the ‘umblest, meekest sinner you ever did see?

‘Do you really think so?’ Predictably, Irving relaxes, just a little bit.

He’s so easy to string along.

He doesn’t know that revenge is a dish best served cold.

Hickey slowly undresses for the night. Irving begins to intensely study the texture of the furs piled at their feet.

‘Koveyook already knew we weren’t carrying much stuff to trade with’, Hickey adds. ‘Besides, everyone really liked your gift. They use your telescope a lot. It was a good price for taking us along on their hunt.’

‘Oh, goodness’, Irving laughs. ‘Not anything like that! I meant spiritual benefit, Mr Hickey.’

‘Ah. That. I reckon they’d still prefer another telescope or something else like it. Something practical, is what I’m saying.’

‘I do not believe it, Mr Hickey. They would accept the Good Word with gladness in their hearts. I just know it.’

Hickey kneels, stuffing his unfolded sailor’s clothes into the depths of his bag. ‘Believe whatever you want, sir, but they’re hunters through and through.’

He lies down and nudges his toes into the warmth of the furs. ‘They know you can’t get food on the table by clasping your hands together and praying.’

Irving exhales a sigh heavy with disappointment. He places his hand at his temple with a weary expression.

‘After all this time, Mr Hickey, you still sneer at the divine grace granted to us all. I don’t understand it. How can you? When it has recently done you so much good in repairing you from your own sinfulness?’

‘Oh God!’ Hickey bursts out in a roar, slamming his fist onto the floor. ‘Do you have to see everyone as something to repair?’

He sits up abruptly. As does Irving, looking wide-eyed and not a little startled.

Hickey isn’t playing this carefully at all, not anymore, but he suddenly doesn’t care. He’s feeling trapped and exposed, like he’s cornered himself by all this playing pretend at meekness. He hates being poked and prodded at by Irving, like he’s some disgusting little germinating creature under a magnifying glass.

He hates it.

‘I…’ Irving starts with a grimace. His voice is unusually quiet for someone who has just been screamed at by a subordinate. ‘I do know what’s on your mind, Mr Hickey, whatever you may think of me.’

I think nothing of you at all, Hickey fumes silently. You are nothing to me.

‘It was never my intention to agitate you’, Irving says, for all the world sounding sad. ‘Do believe me. And, please, forgive my manner. I now recognise it to be a tad forceful at times. I suppose… Well, I suppose I should better explain myself.’

Well, well. The apology is a proper surprise.

Hickey raises his eyebrows in open incredulity, but offers no remark in return.

‘We’ve been trapped out here a long time, haven’t we?’ Irving asks, without it being a real question. ‘From when we first set sail, I mean. It has been over three years.’

‘Three years’, Hickey mutters. His hand is still curled tightly into a fist.

Before he ever escaped England on board the Terror, he hadn’t expected to live that long, not with the looming debts and the threats and all the crushers out looking for him.

He can survive this, too - with patience.

It’s a heartening thought.

So Hickey unclenches his fist and smiles: privately, mockingly, behind the thick cover of his whiskers.

‘Three years, yes’, Irving continues gravely. ‘Yet I saw little enough of you. What with our different duties and our different, uhm, personal habits.’

‘I warrant you’d prefer not to have seen me at all, on that one particular day’, Hickey says, licking his lips in a viciously candid way. He knows exactly what habits Irving is thinking about.

‘That’s quite beside my point right now’, Irving interjects, in a flustered sort of way. ‘I only wanted to say, I’ve recently had the opportunity to, well, to get to understand you a little better. You don’t… I’m afraid you don’t have a very accessible nature, Mr Hickey. I used to think of you as such a source of complications.’

‘Yes, yes, yes’, Hickey groans in annoyance, rolling his eyes. ‘I’m a real nasty fellow. If this is about improving my behaviour when we return to the others, or reading more often from the Bible, or–’

‘It’s not about that at all’, Irving quickly assures him.

He places his hand on Hickey’s shoulder. Hickey glares daggers at the offending limb, but Irving doesn’t let go.

‘Please, just listen to me. I only want to be your friend, that’s all. I can only imagine what it’s like to be in such a position of utmost spiritual despair, as surely you must have been.  How else could you have entered a state of mind capable of… doing all the things you’ve, um, troubled me with?’

He squeezes Hickey’s shoulder tightly, briefly.

‘Yet I do know how it feels to be filled to the brim with all manner of lonely, hopeless thoughts. To thread across a place where one’s moral compunctions are in jeopardy of being forsaken.’

‘No’, Hickey snorts with bitter conviction. ‘You don’t know.’

And I don’t, either, come to that, he adds to himself. I reckon I never had any of these compunctions to start with. Whatever Irving thinks those might be.

Yes, I do, Mr Hickey. I do know. I was expecting this journey to be very different. A bit of an adventure, to be sure, a bit of a hazard. But not…’ Irving finally releases Hickey. He gestures widely, looking lost.

‘Without human connections, without proper friends to openly share one’s griefs and joys with, this environment quickly becomes rather taxing on the soul. I miss having such friends. I miss it dearly. And while I’ve always gotten along nicely enough with the other fellows, I never exactly found the kind of close camaraderie I’d have wished for.’

Irving sighs and leans back.

‘In that regard, I sometimes wonder if I might not have been happier serving under Sir Franklin. He was a good, religious man. I might have had more influence on the social side of things, over there. I did try on the Terror, once, but Captain Crozier did not seem the type to…’

Hickey cocks his head to one side.

Really? Lieutenant John Irving, gossiping on the captain in front of his most insubordinate underling?

‘Oh dear. I truly don’t mean to sound ungrateful’, Irving quickly amends. ‘He’s a brilliant captain. A seasoned master of his craft. But socially, he really is a bit of a, a, a, how to say it…’

‘A pissed-off Irishman?’ Hickey suggests, innocently.

‘That is mutinous talk, said in very poor taste’, Irving bristles, but without much genuine ire. ‘And as an officer I must not stand for it. But privately speaking, I’m afraid you might not be, as it were, entirely incorrect in that assessment, as crudely delivered as it was.’

‘Aw, poor Lieutenant Irving’, Hickey tuts. ‘What dark disappointments did Captain Crozier inflict upon your good heart?’

Irving gives him a resigned look as he curls up under the covers of their bed.

‘I know you’re making fun of me, Mr Hickey, but I’ll let it slide. If you must know, Captain Crozier showed scant enthusiasm for my suggestion of whipping up a stronger religious presence towards the men. It subsequently quite disheartened me in my idea of forming a Bible-reading group.’

‘I bet that would have been a roaring success’, Hickey says. ‘Sir, I’ve known sailors to be superstitious, and I’ve known them to be religious, aye - sometimes more so than ordinary folk - but I ain’t never heard of them making no little club out of it. If you’ll pardon my saying so.’

‘Well, you have lost that bet immediately’, Irving grumbles. ‘As a matter of fact, I’ll have you know, we had just such a reading group on a previous ship I trained on. Me and some other young lads. It was great fun, it really was! They were good Christian boys, all of them. Excellent chaps. Though… Though they never wrote back to me as much as I’d have liked, afterwards.’

Irving swallows loudly, as if in pain.

‘It all seems a world away to me, now. A sillier sort of time, after everything we’ve been through here. The Holy Ghost Boys, that’s what they used to call us. I can’t believe I still remember that.’

Hickey nearly spits.

‘The Holy what?’ He croaks out, before the laughter overtakes him.

‘It was just a rude nickname that stuck! Not my invention! Stop, no, stop it. Stop. Don’t laugh at me!’ Irving orders him, but he’s laughing now, too.

They cackle madly together, not caring one whit how they sound, until a grumpy voice from the other tent – old Asiajuk, Hickey assumes – bids them both to shut up and go to sleep. The plea is punctuated by a quick succession of what is doubtlessly a choice selection of Inuit swear words.

Hickey sniggers. Irving tries to shush him, but he is grinning too widely to be an effective stopper to Hickey’s high spirits.

‘Ah! Like two schoolboys’, Hickey says, eventually, wiping at his eyes. ‘Oh dearie me, Lieutenant. No better than that. All dignity out of the window, eh? I’ll give you this: you do keep surprising me. Not always in a bad way, mind.’

Irving’s grin fades.

‘I could… I could really use a friend, Mr Hickey’, he confides quietly. ‘Just one real friend. I’ve wanted it so very much. I only tried to help you become a better man, because I hoped…’

He trails off.

Hickey breathes in sharply.

‘I fear that everything is going to change when we go back’, Irving whispers. ‘All over again. It’s going to be so hard to get back home. And I’ve realised that I, well, I rather enjoy us talking together. I’d so much like to be your friend, you see. I hoped you might want to be mine, too.’

In the dim half-light, Irving suddenly looks very young. He begins to tug at the surface of their bedding of soft animal pelts, nervously pulling the hairs out, one by one.

‘I wanted to say that you don’t have to do anything, Mr Hickey, if it… if it annoys you. You don’t have to read the Bible anymore, if you really don’t want to. And you can tell me off whenever I’m being overbearing. I promise.’

Irving pauses, a little breathless. He quavers:

‘I value you enough, now, to know I cannot… I will not impose unsolicited changes on you. At least, not in those, um, matters which cause you great pain to talk of. Heaven knows you are an exceptional man, in your own unorthodox way, without any clumsy interventions of mine.’

Irving gives him a watery smile.

‘I just want… I’d like us to be there for each other, at the end of the day. Regardless of rank. Regardless of propriety. Just as real friends.’

He exhales.

‘What say you to that, Mr Hickey?’

Hickey smiles in return.

He almost doesn’t want to say it.

He almost wants to kiss Irving, just for having called him an exceptional man, in that grave quiet tone, like he’d actually meant it.

He almost doesn’t want to give an eye for an eye: but revenge is a dish best served cold and Irving has earned this, for everything he’s ever done, for everything he’s ruined for Hickey.

‘I reckon I’d have really liked that, too’, he tells Irving warmly. ‘The two of us, proper real friends. Can you imagine it?’

He drops his smile, regretfully, and shakes his head.

‘But I don’t think it’s worth pretending that either of us like the other all that very much. It’s just circumstances, what brought us here together, nothing else. Thanks for the offer, anyway, Lieutenant. It means a whole lot to a lowly person like me, coming from a man of your quality.’

Irving’s face crumbles. For a moment, his eyes blink rapidly. Then he nods, swallowing his disappointment and turning away.

It’s funny. Hickey doesn’t feel half as satisfied about it as he thought he would.

It wasn’t the smartest choice, he thinks, to decline an officer’s offer of support. It wasn’t smart to forget that Irving’s loneliness could now turn into something dangerously sour in the morning. It was a petty and childish thing to do.

Or perhaps it wasn’t.

He tells himself he’s better off without the burden of an ally like Irving. When the storm of change comes – and it will – Hickey would rather rely on the support of those men he can control, than the friendship of someone of Irving’s temperament. Irving’s real loyalties will always lie with Crozier, anyhow, whatever his private opinions of the Irish captain.

Because rank is rank and propriety is propriety, for men like Irving, whatever he may claim to the contrary.

There’ll always be a barrier between men like them two, between persons of such different stations in life. It’s the same damnable ladder Hickey’s always tried to climb, to little effect. It’s always the same story.

Still, Hickey can’t avoid a fleeting feeling of disappointment. He wonders why he really did it.

He sits awhile, alone, before shifting closer, momentarily brushing his face against Irving’s hair as he lays down. He expects to be shoved away, but Irving lets him sidle right next to him.

They move together, settling down as one, with Hickey clasped between Irving's outspread arm and the warm weight of his chest.

‘Good night’, Irving whispers to him, in a small, thin voice. ‘And sorry.’

‘Yeah. G’night’, Hickey says.

He adds, without any particular forethought: ‘Don’t worry about it.’

Irving doesn’t reply.

Hickey closes his eyes, but does not sleep.

***

 

Silna

Lat. 69° 37' ??'' N., Long. 98° ??' W.

8 May, 1848

In her dream, she walks unafraid.

She seems to walk forever, over ice and rock and snow, until finally the derelict ships stand before her. They look skeletal, like whale bones bleached upon an empty shore. Their port windows are darkened and dead. There is a faint miasma of soft, woody rot in the air.

Above, the torches of the aurora borealis light up the night, in colours more vivid than any she has ever seen with waking eyes. Everything else is still, lifeless, silent. Devoid of any human or animal presence.

There is a sense of disquietude, of something waiting – watching her.

Silna walks on.

She circles round and round, her heart pounding with an unnamed dread. There is nothing to give her a sense of time passing, there is no wind to stir the air, no footsteps to mark her passage, no movement of the stars.

A rapping noise startles her. A low, continuous knocking. It comes from beneath her feet.

From under the ice.

Silna walks. She stumbles through the cold night air, as the lights above her continue to play and dance in astonishing swarms of green, pink and blue. Silna knows where she is going. She knows where the sound is beckoning her.

Towards the cold, deep hole, drilled through the melting ice.

She sits at the side of the hole, pushing away the water containers and hauling ropes, and lets her feet drop in. A chill air wafts up from the blackness, smelling of ocean salt.

The rapping continues, echoing through the depths. It is fainter now, less urgent, almost lost in the drumming of the ocean against the jagged edges of the ice hole.

She knows now. She realises exactly what she will find down there. Within her, sickening apprehension wars with a fierce joy.

Silna lets herself drop.

She falls over the edge, painfully, and with a splash she descends into the dark, drowning waters.

***

 

Hickey

Lat. 69° ??' ??'' N., Long. 98° ??' ??'' W.

8 May, 1848

Irving is not having an easy night’s rest.

He buckles against Hickey in his sleep. The caulker’s mate shifts, accommodating himself to Irving’s weight against his hips. Yet the officer is at peace for only a short spell, before he begins to twist and turn, exhaling soft groans against Hickey’s ear. There’s nothing much to do but follow the pace and rhythm of Irving’s body, mirroring his movements until a comfortable position is found.

Nothing to do but lie still afterwards, until it all begins again.

After a while of this exercise, Hickey grows stiff - in more ways than one. It's a lover's embrace, for fuck's sake, and he doesn't for the life of him get how he’s come to this point.

And poor, ridiculous, God-fearing Irving still unaware of anything amiss.

It could be hilarious, the way they lie together, as two lovers might. It could be a chuckle indeed, if only it didn't make Hickey feel properly hot and bothered. For all that he despises the man, he wouldn’t mind having a go at Third Lieutenant John Irving right now.

The officer’s breathing tickles against the nape of Hickey’s neck. The slow stretching of limbs, the gentle rubbing against his back, the comfortable mussing of his hair, as they turn together in the warmth of the bed. It's enough. Hickey exhales shakily, the yearning throbbing hotly through him.

Hell, right now, he wouldn't mind Irving having a go at him, either: whatever pleases the dear lieutenant best.

Hickey bites his lower lip. Lord, it’s been a long while, hasn’t it?

He’s strung as tight as a fiddle string, to be sure, his body keen for any release. Not a scrap of hope for that here, though. All he can do is clench his thin frame tightly in restraint, cautious of being discovered. It’s just a bodily reaction, but it’s a dangerous one. A single reminder of his inclinations, as oh-so-polite society calls it - and Hickey is well and truly fucked.

Not literally speaking, of course. Unfortunately. So Hickey holds still and waits, keeping his mind elsewhere as Irving gradually relaxes into a calmer state of sleep.

His thoughts soon begin to rake across old wounds.

He hadn't ever had a chance to share a soft bed like this with Billy Gibson. Not even a hammock.

And he never would, thanks to Lieutenant Irving’s interventions. A kinder man would have just turned and left when he’d heard them fucking as they had, down in the deepest corner of the lowest deck, but Irving wouldn’t truly be Irving if he didn’t keep sticking his nose into other people’s business.

But he'd been right, Billy had. Hickey sees that now.

All the joy Hickey had gotten out of loving a proper, decent fellow for once – one who wouldn’t try to pick his pockets in the morning or drunkenly shove him away once he was done pleasuring – all of his heart, and it had only ever amounted to copulating like rats in the salty stench and darkness.

It wasn’t what Billy had deserved. It was filth. It was unfit for a human to tolerate. A lot of things Hickey did often were.

He shudders in sudden revulsion at the closeness of Irving’s body: he resents being held so tenderly by a man who’d rather see him flayed than loved. Irving said he wanted to be friends, proper real pals, but he’d be the very first man to order him whipped raw and bloody, if he ever so much as suspected any otherness to Hickey’s own advancements.

His desire slackens. Right now, there's nothing in the world that Hickey wants more than to jab his fingernails into Irving's face and claw his fucking eyes right out. That anger, at least, isn’t confusing. It’s a feeling he knows well.

Hickey clenches his teeth together until he fears they might break.

It’s so exhausting. The constant swinging between livid rage and furtive, begrudging arousal. The wish to hurt him as hard as he can. The wish to be gentle with him, instead, to please him as best as he possibly can, just to see him happy and smiling. It’s pathetic.

And all for what?

You have a remarkably lovely voice, Mr Hickey, Irving had told him.

Your mind is sharp, he had said. Your hands are very clever. You have a handsome smile.

Who’d told him things like that, ever before, in his entire life? Like he was worth something?

Hickey’s stomach twists into a painful knot.

Irving, Irving, Irving.

In the end, it all comes back to Irving.

You can’t have him, a small voice in the back of his mind reasons. You stupid, stupid little man. He’ll drop you as soon as you’re done being useful to him. Sooner, even, if he ever gets a drift of what you really are. So you’d best be watching your back, Mister ‘Hickey’, not bending it over for a man who wouldn’t even give you the time of day, not in any other circumstances.

It doesn’t matter much, anyway, all of it.

It’s just rot, keeping his mind from the real matters. Because he’s already got his plans, his old plans, and Irving never figured in those - except maybe as a corpse.

Slowly, fitfully, Hickey drifts away into something similar to sleep.

***

 

Silna

Elsewhere

Silna floats beneath the ice.

The cold can preserve the past, she knows. It can prolong the existence of things that would otherwise collapse into nothingness. It can become a form of kindness, sometimes, even as it can be a source of intense, heart-rending pain.

In very cold water, the dead decompose slowly enough for their bodies to stay down on the seabed. Their skin absorbs the water, peeling away from the deeper tissues like a blooming flower, as various sea creatures nibble away at the bloated flesh.

Silna knows this.

Her friend Goodsir likes to study such deep creatures; he has let her see his drawings of little scuttling crabs, so clever with their pincers, so greedy with their mouths. They value a good meal, as all living things do, if it settles easily on their path.

Cold water can also form a waxy, soapy substance from the fat within a body. For a little while, this substance protects the departed from the worst ravages of death. It is a kindness when that happens, at least for the families: to see a face nearly as if it were still living, and not as a broken collection of meat.

Silna has seen unfortunate seal hunters retrieved almost completely intact from icy waters, even if they had lain there trapped for an entire moon, frozen under the ice and just out of reach.

She has seen recognisable human remains lying peacefully for years and years, in the form of bones and scraps of clothing, lurking in the crystal clear depths that mark the place of their drowning.

Death holds few horrors for Silna, even in her dreams.

Even as she drifts in the liquid world beneath her land, herself unbreathing and undying, she is reasonably accepting of the details of mortality.

Yet still Silna has to gather all her courage to look her father in the face.

He is long dead.

He rotates slowly, in the darkness beneath the ice, pushed and pulled by the invisible movement of the tides. His body is waterlogged: bloated and softened by the ocean. His eyes are clouded. His clothes are undulating tangles of torn fur and scraps of cloth.

The lights of the aurora borealis, where it glistens down upon her from the opening in the ice, cast a pallid green glow.

Silna is cold and wet and she is shivering, but she is not afraid. How could she be?

Her father rests beside her: sightless, unknowing and unresponsive.

This hurts her more than she dares to admit.

Silna knows it would be impossible for him to be in this state of preservation, not her own dear Aya, not for so many moons since his passing. He would long ago have been reduced to bones.

It would be impossible, but this is a dream, where different rules abide. Down here all is silent and deadly, deadly cold.

Perhaps that surreal coldness is why she reaches towards him. Perhaps that is reason enough for her to gently place her warm, living hand on his softened cheek. Perhaps knowing it is a dream is what makes Silna unsurprised when it happens.

Her late father opens his mouth and speaks to her.