Full fathom five thy father lies,
Of his bones are coral made,
Those are pearls that were his eyes,
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change,
into something rich and strange,
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell,
Hark! now I hear them, ding-dong, bell.
It greeted James like a hand around his throat. The roof of the building caved at the edge of the eastern wing, and past the crumbling stoop the cliffside gave way and dragged the long-abandoned stables half-down toward the sea. Yet James Fitzjames was a man who had weathered malaria and monsoon alike, and though he shivered in his sodden uniform, his hands on his mount’s reins were steady. He requested this posting. Sought it out, in fact. Three months of soirées and dances and balls and dinners, and here was his harvest, this dilapidated hovel.
Beside him, Dundy turned and cracked a smile. “Well it’s not Merseyside, but it’s not the Euphrates either. As I said, they were only trying to rile us up with those stories.”
James arranged his features into something wry. “Rile you, perhaps,” he said with a smirk, and reined his horse away before Le Vesconte could reply.
He wheeled the animal before the rainswept caravan, thundering, “Men!” Twenty bedraggled heads swivelled round. “This is to be our home for the next twelve months, and on my word we will make it one! This rain is no welcome for us, but unload the carts. Tonight there will be warmth and food and dry beds.”
James set about assisting the men, whose motions were slow and their mood funereal. Many had tried to defer the posting, yet it was precisely that dread that James had leapt to follow, for there was no surer way to secure promotion than to take that job which frightens all others off. Even now he could recall the relief and gratitude in Sir John’s face when he had stepped forward, and that more than anything warmed him through the chill of the rain.
Some day soon, stay forever in warm comfortable drawing rooms. For now, there was work to be done. In truth, the HMS Dahut Royal Navy Outpost was little more than a shack tucked against the last lighthouse north. Past this was nothing, a vast expanse of wilderness and ice, of little use to anyone except perhaps fur trappers. But this was not yet nowhere, only its threshold.
As James watched, the main door clattered open and out stepped a dark haired man with eyes like a porcelain doll, hurrying across the rocky ground towards where the officers huddled, grimacing at the rain.
“Captain Fitzjames,” said the man, looking from face to face at a loss and extending a hand, “I’m Lieutenant Jopson. We weren’t expecting your party for another fortnight.”
James volunteered himself and took the hand in a firm grip. “We were blessed with favourable roads and good riding from Saint John. Is all well?”
“Of course. It’s only that Captain Crozier has been ill of late and I had hoped for a week or two more to allow him to recover.”
Captain Crozier’s infirmity was only to be expected, the rumours agreed on that, but Jopson’s skin looked gray, his cheeks hollow and his eyes dark, and he moved with the stiffness of a man recovering from an injury of his own. Most disturbing of all, there was a rough patch like porous stone which extended from shoulder to jaw. This held his neck like a brace, preventing him from turning his head. Good Christ, it could not be illness in the place.
Worry prickling through him, James smiled at Jopson. “How is the Captain anyway, after his accident?” he asked.
“As well as can be expected,” said Jopson, his eyes flicking back and forth between James and the bustle of activity around them, probably the most life this place had seen in months, “He’s readying himself for your arrival now.”
He gestured at James to follow, and along with Le Vesconte they passed through the worn double doors of the HMS Dahut. It was a rough place to be sure, but nothing so dire as the sickrooms in Syria or Zhenjiang, as he had feared. The dust on the windows rendered the light in the hall watery and meek, but there was life in the place still. Crozier’s crew lingered around the edges of the room, watching the newcomers from atop the landing or from inside doorways and laughing softly amongst themselves. But they were too far off to examine, to see whether their quietude was simply the habit of the place or something of greater concern.
As James watched the men, Le Vesconte leaned in to catch his ear, and with a gesture towards the stairway murmured, “That must be Captain Crozier.”
The stories matched the man. Though the rumours had never gained enough substance that the admiralty bothered investigating, Captain Francis Crozier was supposed to have been crippled when his ship foundered here some time ago. And here was a man descending with great care on a pair of crutches. In an instant James knew something was wrong, and cursed himself for getting so lost in memories of malaria that he had missed something so vital. This was a man like the underside of a ship, hoary haired and weathered, and more importantly missing a leg.
“Captain Crozier?” James called.
“Aye,” said the man in a booming voice, “It’s good to meet you at last, Captain Fitzjames.”
Though he struggled with his missing limb, Captain Crozier carried himself with a ferocious energy. They met halfway, James gripping Crozier’s rough hand with his smoother one. Crozier’s returning shake was full-bodied and rocked James on his feet. James stared at him, aghast.
“And your health? Lieutenant Jopson says you have taken ill,” James said.
“Ah, it’s only this old thing,” Crozier replied, patting his thigh.
James felt his eyebrows lift and schooled his face into a smile. “Ah,” he said, “well I trust you’re hale enough to oversee the transfer of power.”
“Oh yes. Our crews will work well together, I think.”
“When do you expect you’ll be on your way?”
With this, Crozier’s smile turned rueful. “Ah, there’s the thing. Captain Fitzjames, we won’t be able to leave just yet.”
James frowned. “My orders are to relieve your crew and take control of the base.”
“And you will, but my men must stay here for a few months longer at least.”
James’ eyes fell sharp on Crozier’s face, but the other man had only the same wry look he had carried with him this whole time. Crozier’s crew were staring at James, to a man. He was acutely aware that he was outnumbered.
With great cheer, James said, “Very well then, where should I house my men?”
“Ah! The east wing has beds enough for all.”
The conversation turned to the practicalities of housing so many in a space intended for so few. Crozier had planned ahead, and ensured there truly were beds and food enough (for there is no straighter path to a riot than no beds and no food). They would be eight a room, but it was still a much more generous allotment than any would receive shipside, even if the boards moaned in the wind and the walls had dry rot.
The tension in James’ shoulders made his war wounds ache. The difficulties he had been prepared to face - rough weather, isolation, lack of resources, even, yes, illness - these were familiar demons. Old companions even, long conquered again and again until he had beaten the fear from himself. But here he could feel movements where he could not see, leviathans brushing under his hull. He could charm men, or fight them if it came to that, but he could not set a plan against suspicion and confusion.
He handled Crozier with formality, keeping his face meticulously bland until he excused himself to check on the men. What he needed was a foothold, anything that would allow him to gain some understanding of what was happening around him. As he returned with Le Vesconte and Jopson, an opportunity presented itself. Hand on his shoulder, James gently swung Jopson around into an alcove.
“Where is Captain Crozier,” he asked, his voice low and significant.
Jopson was caught unready, no doubt expecting the admiralty to have sent some empty headed seat filler of a captain. “What do you mean?” he spluttered, “You just spoke to -”
“I wasn’t certain at first, but I have seen Crozier’s portrait. I know what he looks like, and that was not him, so I will repeat myself: What have you done with Captain Crozier?”
Jopson’s eyes grew impossibly wider, his mouth fell open and he held up a hand, then stumbling, “A moment, please, a moment, sir. I have to go -”
“No,” said James evenly, “you will explain it to me now. May I remind you that I have marines waiting outside?”
Jopson’s face went through several complicated motions. “I cannot explain it, Captain Fitzjames, please. I swear to that. I will speak to him, and you will see - please, just wait here and I’ll return.”
He ducked out from under James’ hand. There was an instant in which James nearly held him back, but propriety stayed him, and before he had a chance to consider his next action Jopson was gone. James watched his back retreat down the far hall, only hoping he had not already shown too much of his hand.
From behind him, Le Vesconte said, “I don’t recall ever seeing Crozier’s portrait.”
“That’s because there wasn’t one.” James turned to his friend, his expression grave. “I believe us to be in some danger, Dundy, and we should move with every caution. I have seen men lose their limbs, and I know a fresh injury from an old one. Whatever happened to that man’s leg, it happened recently.”
He granted himself a moment to recognize that he had impressed Dundy. It calmed the fear, to see himself judged able in another man’s eyes. It would be enough, perhaps.
Jopson returned shortly and bade James to follow. The walk was silent and strained, no one wishing to give away any ground. This was to be as much a game of strength as of wits, and James had won plenty of both in his time. If this was corruption, perhaps it could be a boon to him after all, were he to rout it.
To the west of the main hall, past a short corridor, they came upon a barred door with many locks; a great slab of oak, like an upturned table, rent through with metal rivulets. At this, Jopson stopped, his hands held in front of him, and said that this was captains’ business only. Le Vesconte protested, but James, whose need to know outweighed his sense of self-preservation, only assured him that he would be fine, and that Dundy should go back to the men. He did, however, keep a hand on his pistol.
The air was different here than in the base proper, more salt than must, the light softer, bluer, like a grotto at high tide. The room was well lived in, its armchairs and sofas worn and a fire crackling in the hearth. It was marked by the weathering of remoteness, the disrepair that builds in places where resources are too vital to bolster luxury. Looking at the curving walls of bare stone, James realized this must be the lowest floor of the lighthouse.
In his chest his heart flew, but James believed that with luck it did not show. Standing before the fireplace, James caught his reflection in the spoon of the brass hearth shovel. Left alone with his nerves, he was alarmed think anyone would see him so visibly rain-battered and harried. Keeping one hand on his gun, he smoothed the other through his windswept hair.
There were muffled sounds from upstairs, and as though through thick blankets, voices.
“Not enough we’ve had no support before they decide to replace us, but to send that show pony I saw outside? Ah, Jopson, it’s an insult, and it’s intended as one. Mark me.”
James snatched his hand back from his hair, something hot and unpleasant rushing through him. He held himself high as footsteps crossed the floor above, holding himself high-headed, hand never straying from his weapon.
He was ill-prepared for what descended the stairs, a thing with the face and outline of a man but with none of the sense of one, its precise shape concealed beneath a long greatcoat that swept the lip of each step as it descended in heavy, halting movements, back hunched unnaturally. There was something of the sea about this too, but not the realm of sailors and explorers. No, this was a thing of the furthest depths dragged up to a world in which it should not be housed. James could not take his eyes away, far past the point of rudeness, so repulsed was he by the sight. It was only then that James realized it had a human face and that the coat and hat were Naval issue.
“Captain Crozier?” he croaked.
Bitter amusement flashed across the features, reassuringly human despite the odd gray pallor of the skin. “As you say,” he said, his voice clear, jarring in its normality.
With the laborious way Captain Crozier moved down the stairs, James could see his coat bulge and ripple as if pressed from within. It was a blow, truly, to see such a thing.
“You’re staring,” Crozier said.
As if pulled by an invisible hand, James felt himself straighten out of drop-shouldered shock, his sense of propriety and carefully practiced solicitousness taking control as he launched into the same performer’s charm that had carried him through a thousand difficult meetings.
“My apologies, I didn’t introduce myself. I’m Captain James Fitzjames. I’m to be relieving you of command.” He found that he had already offered the thing his hand, realization dawning that he didn’t know whether Crozier had hands at all.
Crozier ignored the offered handshake, his arms crossed behind his back. “Well, Captain Fitzjames,” he said, “I think you can see now that won’t be happening.”
“No, I suppose not,” said James. It was then that his distress finally overrode his ingrained sense of control, and he burst out, “My god, man, what is happening here?”
Crozier’s gaze travelled over him from hair to boot. “It is of no concern to you. My men and I shouldn’t be any trouble, so long as yours are in order. Keep them from mingling too freely with mine, and keep them out of the lighthouse, that’s all.”
It was a ridiculous set of demands, impossible to follow with forty men in a space that could barely house twenty. That Crozier thought James a man to accept such a thing without explanation was an affront. “You can’t be serious.” James stepped forward. “If I’m not taking command, I’m taking my men and riding back to Saint John.”
One of Crozier’s eyebrows shot up. “Don’t think I didn’t see how close you came to raising your gun on me just now. Do you think the admiralty would be more polite?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. You need medicine. Your men need medicine.”
Crozier shrugged, the movement shifting more than just his shoulders. “Regardless, I am not offering you the choice. Good night, Captain Fitzjames.”
As Crozier turned, James saw something like frosted glass, or perhaps ice from beneath the hem of his coat. The surprise of this, more than anything, held James’ tongue as he was led from the room.
He had never before been afraid of the sea. Bored with it, yes, exhausted, overworked, lonely, and fascinated. He had been afraid of men, of the cruelties they could work, the fragility of their grasp and their ceaseless compromises, but the sea had always been the stick against all things were measured, never an actor in itself. Here, though, it seemed the world danced to an unknown tune.
Rushing outside, what he found was confusion, people scattered like beached fish. Crozier’s men appeared to have stepped in to assist with the unloading, but his own crew were visibly disturbed by their illness, and skirted away whenever they came close enough to brush against them. James could not blame them in the slightest, for it was entirely possible that their affliction was catching.
As James stepped back out into the rain, Le Vesconte caught his eye and leaned in so their shoulders brushed. “They’ve taken the guns, James,” he hissed, “and, according to Des Voeux, the nuts from the wheels. Did you meet Captain Crozier?”
“Yes. He is not well, Dundy.”
“I don’t understand any of this. These are good naval men, I know some of their faces. I’ve served with them before.”
On a sigh, James straightened. For better or worse, this was his disaster. “I don’t want the men to know. We’re in enough danger without tempting conflict against an armed foe. Make sure they remain calm. I will - try to negotiate, I suppose.”
Sailors are used to the quick-changing face of the sea, and live in places where the ground never ceases to shift under their feet. Right now he was hanging by a rope, but he had been raised atop ropes. He was afraid, yes, but he could recognize it. In fact he felt more steady than he had in weeks.
It seemed the man with the missing leg was as intent on finding James as James was on finding him. They met in the main hall, and he found himself greeted with far more warmth than he had been met with yet.
Wearing a grin and with a friendly gesture the man said, “Ah, Captain Fitzjames. I don’t believe I had the chance to introduce myself. Thomas Blanky. Come, let’s talk.”
James was taken to a small room off to one side of the main hall, an officer’s mess or a meeting place very much like a wardroom. Familiar territory, a small blessing. It was through the window of this room that he caught his first glimpse of the coast, and the waves so roiling that they just cusped the cliff’s edge. With a touch more fury they may well overcrest and drown them all. James fancied he wouldn’t mind that at this exact moment.
Blanky sat himself with difficulty, looking nearly as ragged as the rocks outside. He lit a pipe, and as he clenched it between his teeth his smile seemed more savage than jolly.
“So you’ve met our captain. Or what remains of him, at least,” he said.
“You seem like a reasonable man, Mr. Blanky,” said James, though he did not. Leaning in along the table, James implored him, “Whatever reasons you may have, let us go and I will see to it that no punishment meets you. I have the ear of Sir John Franklin, that counts for much.”
But the response he received was a cackle, and James had to resist the urge to scowl at the mockery. “Reasonable men in unreasonable times, Captain, make for unreasonable goings on. No, Francis is right, you need to stay.” He puffed at his pipe before gesturing emphatically with it. “I see no reason to keep you in the dark. We all have to live with each other now.”
“Well informed prisoners, then.”
That seemed to hit home, and the other man sagged with a heavy breath. “I’m not a man to deny reality, but you’ll have equal run of the place. Aside from our presence it should be exactly as you expected when you agreed to serve here.”
“Then why bother with all this, why not simply take your men and go anywhere you please?”
“It’s not that we don’t wish to leave, Captain, but that we can’t, mad as it may seem.”
“If you’re to tell me, tell me all of it. I’ll have no dark hinting.”
Something shone in Blanky’s eye, the glee of a man set to horrify. “Very well then, you’ll need to know how close our last voyage came to going the way of the Bounty. A little more lost love and you’d never have met a one of us - glad as you may have been for it.”
“I can’t say mutiny surprises me.”
“Ah, yes, well, it was the men Captain Crozier had flogged, you see. Stirred unrest, said he had gone too far, and they - weren’t wrong. Twelve court martials it ended with, three executions in all. Their leader, a Mr. Hickey, this was his revenge. Cursed us as he stood on the gallows.”
“So it’s to be a curse, then?”
“Don’t you laugh. I’ve never met a seafaring man who didn’t have some belief in him. You didn’t see that man with the noose around his neck. ‘Oh you love your captain,’ he said, ‘Well he doesn’t love you back,’ and he did something - obscene, really.” Blanky laughed and made a rude gesture. “Then he hung, just like that. It was only over the weeks that followed that we began to sicken. To change. The Captain worst of all, at times he’s little better than an animal. We sailed for Saint John, but the storms were rough and we were so very ill. This base was abandoned for some years when we took it for our own, and none too soon. The Terror was taken by seaweed and barnacle, and soon after our arrival gave up her last. Now she lies somewhere out there.” He nodded at the rain-spattered window.
James didn’t believe a word of it. He knew his scientific principles as well as any modern man, and he knew the sorts of wild things sailors could talk into themselves. But surely this could be explained. There must be some deeper game at work here. James was, after all, close to many powerful men. He would be quite the desirable game piece to many, he was sure. Crozier had plans for him, he was certain of that.
And yet he was haunted by the image of that figure on the stairs, and the thing like ice which had appeared from under its coat. Despite himself, he was shaken. It wasn’t the story, but this place, with its damp, thick air, and the sickness he could see in Blanky’s face. He crossed his arms over his chest.
“And you. How do you feel about Captain Crozier?” he asked.
To this, Blanky sucked long at his pipe, his answer slow to come. “Francis is a dear old friend of mine,” he said finally, “By now I know him better than my own family.”
James frowned, wondering at how anyone could tolerate that creature enough to compare it to family. He did not for a moment believe it to be a curse, but leprosy, advanced syphilis, or some other ravaging illness that cut through men of poor character. Men for whom closeness would mean not only potential exposure to sickness but to moral weakness.
“If some manner of contagious illness is passing through your crew, you will regret this decision for the rest of your life.”
Again, a laugh. “Settle your men, Captain Fitzjames, we’ve a long summer ahead of us.”
They were further afield than they realized, deeper into the wilds than James had let himself believe. Only a day’s ride, yes, but it was a day’s ride from any humanity at all, and without horses may as well have been all the way to Buenos Aires. And yet James found new purpose in that, as if by kicking free of their supports, he could move without restraint.
It was two days before he heard again from Captain Crozier. Two days of closed doors and turned backs. On the first morning he woke to find their carts and horses gone entirely. This he accepted with calm inevitability. He knew they were somewhere, as desperate and isolated men would not so easily throw away the means of escape. That he knew from all too painful experience. But the loss of the guns frightened him, and even his personal pistol had been stolen in the night, though he had locked his door.
Not all of Crozier’s men were so closed to him, though his fear of contamination kept James from sincere friendliness. They were ghoulish, Crozier’s men, with their strange growths and shadows under their skin. He had initially thought of stone, but it more than that it reminded him of the things that grow on ships’ hulls. There was life and colour in them, some like tree branches, others even soft like the leaves of an alien plant, or grass.
The answers he gleaned were meager. His weighty names, his questions of what ends his capture might serve, these meant nothing to most of them. That was to be expected, but it seemed that all of them believed so fully in Mr. Blanky’s story that they could not conceive of an alternative explanation for this conspiracy. They didn’t seem to think often of their captain, despite the widespread belief that he was the center of their illness. Instead, they blamed the mutineers, and this caused them to band tightly together, cleave to each other.
Crozier’s men frightened his, they even frightened James. With such close quarters, they were unavoidable, jockeying for space, and he despaired for what may happen if fear tipped into anger.
He understood now why the sea had become so repellant to him. He had always felt the pull of the far off and exotic but never, he thought, anything of the in-between places. To a man the sea is a wasteland, to be weathered, not loved. But now it was somehow laid newly bare, its face stripped away to reveal the haunting things which lurked just beneath. What foul things they were! How they ate away at man and soul alike! And that monstrosity in the lighthouse most of all - but then that was unfair. Crozier was terrible in the ways of men.
Crozier was absent almost entirely from the lives of his men, save for orders issued through the mouthpiece of Blanky and the notoriously harsh discipline meted out to troublemakers. Though not the worst James had ever seen, for he had lived with some truly horrific commands, Crozier’s discipline was far rougher than he found comfortable. It was not, however, a surprise.
All too often James found himself by the seaside, looking out upon that vast landless land, and found he missed it. But what he missed was, not the forward motion, the regularity, or a sane and familiar command, no. It was murkier than that, too deep sunk to be so easily dredged. It made him long for nothing more than the means to retire. Only escape to dull houses would calm the restless fluttering ever lodged in his chest.
This silence was broken an invitation from Captain Crozier to dinner. This, he thought, would be his first true opportunity to get through to the man. There were two possibilities. Firstly, that James’ suspicions were right and he was being used in some game - he knew all too intimately the lengths to which men go for advancement. In that case he was confident he could play-act Crozier into making some mistake. Otherwise, the madness in the base extended all the way to the top. If Crozier were a believer, James would need to win his trust in order to secure the release of his men.
To that end, he ensured Bridgens took extra care preparing his dress uniform. He curled his hair and wore his best cravat and gold stickpin, along with the vest he had specially ordered from London five months before. The irony of taking such pains on his appearance for a thing he found so repulsive was not lost on him, and to that end he made sure he looked a little rumpled, though fetchingly so. Careworn in a calculated way, to prevent him from embarrassing his dining companion by comparison.
The meal was to take place in the same round room at the bottom of the lighthouse. When he arrived, he found the furniture shifted to the periphery of the room and a large dining table arranged in the centre. There at the head of it stood Captain Crozier. He was no less harrowing than James remembered, though he seemed oddly different. Perhaps he was taller, or shorter, or his shoulders were broader, or more rounded. He would be eating in his coat and hat, James supposed, no matter how unseasonable or ill-mannered it was. James didn’t think he could bear to see him without either.
James set his most winning smile on his lips. “Captain Crozier,” he said, “I hope this evening finds you well.”
Crozier’s eyebrow went up, a gesture James recognized. “As well as this can be, I suppose,” he said with a self-deprecating smile, “I thought we might broker a peace between us. We are, after all, to be housemates. We may as well be civil.”
He waved for James to take a seat before moving to the other end, his step far more stumbling than James remembered, leaning heavily against the table. Now that he had more of an opportunity to observe, it was obvious that walking caused Crozier some little pain.
As it turned out, he did have hands, overlong and pale to the point of being pearly. Bony, clumsy things. James struggled not to stare at the unnatural way he gripped his fork. In fact, he seemed at moments to have too many hands, though he never let James see this clearly enough to be certain.
As dining companions went, Crozier was near to the worst James had ever encountered. Aside from the fact that he must tie his mind into knots to pretend he wasn’t trying to charm such a horror, Crozier glowered when James smiled, and grunted when he laughed. James was not only failing to win him over but losing what little ground he had to begin with. It seemed the man could hardly look at him without glaring, though he could scarcely imagine why. It was James who had won the right to glower and glare, not his jailor.
Nevertheless, he kept his tone light. “- and so I volunteered to deliver the mail, though I would need to walk over twelve hundred miles through the deserts of Iraq and Syria. I can tell you it was likely the most dangerous thing I’ve ever done, and that includes the time I was shot.”
“And did you ask the Queen if you could carry her on your back as well?”
James slapped the table. “Sir I have tried -” he closed his eyes a moment, letting out a forceful breath, “What is it you want of me? Since the moment I stepped into this room you have spoken to me like a child.”
Crozier let out a long, slow breath, his eyes closed. When he spoke, it was not with anger but with great weariness. “This is no place for pride, Captain Fitzjames, nor is it a place for shining naval heroes. My men and I are dying. If your carelessness will hasten that one minute, then what do your stories mean to me?”
His gut roiled with offense, the choler rising in him. But James swallowed back against it, knowing full well that a misstep here could have the direst consequences for more than himself alone. “Please understand that I act only with your best interest in mind,” he ground out, “Your men are ill. Allow a few of mine to leave and return with medicine. Don’t tell me that you couldn’t use a good doctor.”
But to this Crozier only looked resigned. “Ah,” he said, “at least now you’re honest. I told Jopson this meal was a fool plan.”
“If you will see reason for one moment - I have the ear of Sir John Franklin. He can rally food, medicine, ships, anything you could need to combat the illness among your men.”
At the mention of Franklin’s name, Crozier’s nostrils flared and his eyes widened. “Get out.”
James, now truly angry, found his response was nearly a shout, “Captain Crozier -”
“Leave. Now. We have nothing more to say to one another.”
Between the humiliation and the anger, James found he agreed.
That night, he told Le Vesconte that the only thing left for them was to recover their weapons. If they could not secure their release through diplomacy, then at least James was confident in his battlefield command experience.
But such a thing must be approached with an extreme of care. Relations between his men and Crozier’s were dire enough that the open possibility of armed conflict would be a match to tinder. Only trusted men could search, and had to do so in the utmost secrecy, as James did not like to dwell on the consequences if they were caught. They went through every foot of the base, into its waterlogged cellar and through its fragile attic, but couldn’t find a thing. Most of all was the loss of the horses, which were not so easily tucked away. Not one weapon appeared, not even the ones Crozier’s crew must have. At last they found the remains of the carts. Tinder.
Despite this, he found himself taking to the work with unexpected eagerness. He had found his sea legs again. Bolstered by the thought that this was a last hurrah, he could give all of himself to it. The severity of the situation only meant that it could further secure his glory, and so by leaning further into danger he would eventually find safety.
After a fruitless week, James turned his attention to the last unexplored corner: the lighthouse. It stood to reason, if Crozier had suffered mutiny before, that he would lock the guns away with himself.
The thought of the lighthouse, with its damp, salty air filled him with dread. The place was sick in the soul. Too still, too quiet, as if motion cost energy too precious to part with. An uncertain armistice between forces he could not recognize, where just beneath the still surface rushed riptides. Worse still was the unaccountable urge not to escape but to throw himself upon it, to drive himself in as far as he could go, the thought that only in this way could he perhaps overcome.
When he came to the great wooden door, he found it now barred and locked, and so turned his attention to gaining alternate entrance. He was a tall man, and a lean one, and this is how he wedged himself through one of the high, thin windows that ringed the bottom floor. It was dark within, the lamps unlit. He looked to the second floor and saw nothing but black. He determined that he was not afraid, no, he could not be afraid in this. What use would it serve, to be afraid?
James crept along the wall, listening for the smallest hint of movement. The stairway was a long spiral that no doubt twined around the building to its very top, bordered only by a short rusted bannister to prevent them from ending in a sheer drop. James wondered at the choice of a man who struggled to walk to live in a tower.
It took a long moment for his eyes to adjust to the dark of the second floor, and so it was first with doubt and then with slow dawning dread that he recognized the shapes of three or four people.
Though they had taken his gun, he was far from defenceless, and he readied himself retaliate against a blow. None came. Slowly, he realized these must be statues. But no. No, not statues.
Recognition washed over him like a storm swell. The porous stone, the protuberances, the soft grassy growths that seemed to wave and waver in a nonexistent breeze - they had taken over completely. Not one sliver of humanity glinted through the oranges, the greys, the greens these men were drowning in. Festooned like carnival costumes, mummified in bright bunting, they were held tightly in unnatural postures and stored here like old furniture. And for what? In hopes of a cure? Or was this a mausoleum? Did they live still?
James could not bear it, the thought of that kind of death. He had always assumed he would die in battle, something sudden and violent, was even prepared to face that tonight. This slow, slipping disappearance caught him deep and sickly. To have everything stolen from you, piece by piece, until all that was left behind was the barest outline of what you once were, that chilled him more than any violence.
Against the urge to flee, he pushed himself to ever greater caution. He loathed his hand for its trembling and his leg for its leaden weight. Pausing at the threshold of the next storey, rabbity tense, he found no movement, no creature poised to leap out of the shadows and dash him against the floor far below.
It was a bedroom. Much barer than the lived-in room on the first floor. To one end sat a plain bunk. Across from it, on the far wall, was a small desk. Aside from some shelves and trunks this was the extent of the furniture in the room. There was no rug to guard against the chill of the bare wood, nor curtains to block the early morning light. No guns either, nor anywhere to conceivably hide them in so empty a space.
He made to ascend further, but curiosity stayed him. There were papers on the desk, and the shelves bulged with handwritten documents. Alien though he may be, Crozier was still a naval captain, and the possibility of detailed records was too much for James to ignore.
But what sat atop the desk was not a logbook or report but a personal letter. It was addressed to, of all people, Sophia Cracroft. James stared at the name for some time, weighing it in his mind. But, good god, the letter he had written her…
I have finally become a danger to the men, Sophia.
Lord, to be expected to command men, when I cannot even command myself. And to think the only name we have is to call this a curse. It is absurd, an insult to any thinking man, and yet we have no sane explanation for any of it. It has already consumed my body and it is making its best effort for the rest of me, eating me from the outside in. I wouldn’t mind it, truly, if it wasn’t such a danger to the men.
I could have killed Blanky, would have killed him, if he were a man to let himself be killed. I am told that there was nothing of myself left when it happened, as if that is supposed to be some comfort.
I miss you. I am so very frightened.
There was more, but James couldn’t stand to read it, acutely embarrassed. He turned his mind to the salient point. Here, at least, was confirmation of what happened to Blanky’s leg.
But Sophia Cracroft, good god. It was absurd for it to be that same Sophia Cracroft, and yet it would explain the outburst he had triggered with the mention of Franklin. And there were more of the letters. Dozens of them, piled to the side of the desk, all unsent.
So absorbed his thoughts was James that he was slow to notice the sound behind him, like something heavy being dragged. He whirled, and found himself faced with something utterly unlike a man, only the barest shape of one, and far too large besides. It seemed the coat could now hardly contain whatever was underneath, the shoulders bulging as though stuffed with cotton. From where it parted he could see branching tendrils in blues and golds so vibrant they seemed to almost give off light. It reminded James of the bizarre creatures Goodsir had pulled from the depths of the ocean, an otherworldly sort of beauty about it, but to James that beauty merely stripped him of all bravery.
“Captain Crozier,” he stuttered, “I’m sorry I didn’t ask before I came in, but -”
With Crozier’s attack on Blanky fresh in his mind, James’ instinct was to reach for the nearest thing at hand to defend himself, the desk chair. He held it like a lion tamer, and as the other man drew too close jabbed out in warning.
The retaliatory blow was unexpected, and splintered the chair into a dozen shards. James froze, the only thing in his mind an image of his head in its place. It jolted through him like lightning.
He bolted. Even knowing it was impossible for Crozier to keep pace, he flung himself down the stairs as if death himself nipped at his heels.
As he climbed back out the way he came, he thought he could still see the man in the tower high above, outlined by the moonlight. There was no longer a choice before him. If he wasn’t able to get his men away from here he hardly dared to think of the consequence. The water was at their necks now. How long before it rose over their heads?
As he walked over the damp grass, he planned. The navy must know. They must know what had become of their man, to help Crozier if they could, or to study him if they could not. If this was contagious, it was imperative that they respond appropriately. But without the arms there was only so much that could be done. They could not fight. He was certain that Crozier would cut through them like a boat axe; that strength turned against a man meant death. Far more than simply being his captor, Crozier was without a doubt something monstrous and out of control. They needed to get out. If they could not, then Crozier must die.
Upon returning to the crew quarters, he gathered the officers and told them with all solemnity that there was no choice left but to walk. And, sitting six in a bedroom barely large enough for one, James was taken aback by their immediate and enthusiastic assent. Suddenly the exhaustion gave way to good cheer. This James met and built on, and soon they were deep into plotting escape.
It was a day’s ride to Saint John in good weather, three in bad, and so on foot the journey would take at least a week. Food must be obtained, of course, enough to carry two dozen men at peak exertion. They agreed that it was unlikely that men so ill would be able to catch up with a hale party, and so it was agreed that they would begin early the next morning, and take to the forests, where they may not be so easily found.
But then there was shouting, echoing up from below. Not simply raised voices but the sound of true anger, carrying across a distance that testified to their true volume. To a man, every officer leapt to his feet. God in heaven, James thought, Crozier must have escaped the tower to find him. Damn him for leaving them so open to danger.
Every officer rushed from the room. What they met was chaos. Men grappled and brawled, some having taken up spyglasses and brooms to use as bats. James could see his crew, he could see Crozier’s crew, but in such a state of disarray that the combatants weren’t divided evenly. James, rushing down the stairway to the main hall cried, “Control yourself, men!” but the room was so loud with shouting that he could hardly hear it himself.
A gunshot rang out. For a moment there was silence, and then the voice of Mr. Blanky roaring for the men to stand down. But then three of James’ men were behind him and Blanky still unsteady atop his wooden leg. Before James could take two breaths they were upon him, wresting the gun from his hands, and now James was diving himself into the fray, calling for order.
Things blurred after that. A blow to the head, it must have been, because he was on his knees and he could not stand, could hardly breathe at all. But then there was again silence.
Eyes unable to focus, James could just make out the unmistakable figure of Crozier standing above him, much recovered from whatever fit had taken him in the tower. He looked wild, his outline obscured by long white shapes which seemed to emerge from the collar of his jacket, but he carried himself as a man. He bellowed order, and every crewman obeyed, transfixed by the thing before them.
Another shot. He felt more than saw Crozier stumble, but he did not fall, nor did his voice let up.
James’ men bent to his word in awed fear, while Crozier’s own merely looked resigned. James struggled with difficulty to his feet, supported by Dundy. Looking down at himself, he realized he was spattered with blood.
A cut to the head and another to the arm were all James suffered, but Captain Crozier had been hit in the shoulder and needed more urgent care. The two of them retreated to the room at the base of the lighthouse with Dr. Goodsir, James pressing a cloth to his forehead to stem the bleeding while Goodsir prodded around the small area of Crozier’s upper arm he was willing to expose. He met James’ eye with dry amusement over Goodsir’s running commentary.
“Look at you. My god, I’ve never seen anything like it. Muscular hydrostats and cerata - are those rhinopores? I’ve never seen anything like it on a mammal, let alone a human. Is it possible you would let me -” and here he caught Crozier’s eye, the lowered brow and the narrowed lid, and recovered himself, coughing a little to hide his embarrassment. “You’re lucky, Captain, the bullet passed clean and shallow. This should heal without issue.”
“Small mercy for that, Doctor,” said Crozier.
Goodsir, still chagrined, stepped back. “If you’ll allow me a moment, I’ll fetch the iodine and sutures.”
Goodsir’s departure meant that James was alone again with Crozier. He was not quite so terrifying a figure now, awkwardly tugging his coat to cover as much of his bare shoulder as he dared. His skin was unnaturally pale, almost translucent, as if light could filter weakly through him. Behind him there appeared to be more of the branching shapes James had seen earlier, but they were less vibrant, muted now, and still beneath them he could see larger limbs. It was unlike any affliction James had ever seen before. He found himself thinking not of illness but again things of the deepest oceans.
What was James to make of this transformation, that this surly but shy figure could be the same creature he saw tonight in the tower? That the same man could lead men at one turn and at another tear a man’s leg from his body?
“I’ve seen to it that your men receive the full resources of the outpost,” Crozier was saying, “I take full responsibility for the incident, Captain Fitzjames.”
Of what James knew of Crozier, he would never have guessed this. He felt a trickle down his cheek and realized suddenly that he had released the cloth from his forehead wound. Flushing and trying to keep his embarrassment from showing, he said in a solemn tone, “We are sitting atop a powder keg. You can see that the present arrangement will not hold.”
Crozier shook his head. “No,” he agreed softly.
James continued, “Keeping so many men in close quarters, especially with a number so visibly ill, is more a strain than our present situation can bear.”
Crozier’s eye narrowed and thumping a fist against what James presumed to be a knee said with sudden strength, “Good god, man, can’t you see that I am well aware this is my fault?”
James’ mouth fell empty.
“Some of your men - only some of them, should be sent home,” Crozier said, “Not enough for the admiralty to take notice, a believable surplus.”
“You are terribly cynical.” The words slipped from James, worn thin and harried, and he regretted them instantly.
“And you have far too much faith in men you have no reason to trust. For the lives of myself and my crew, we cannot under any circumstances attract attention. They would kill us or lock us in cages, put us in exhibitions of biological rarities. Do you understand that?”
James did. He believed Crozier was in all sincerity in this, and any thought that he was playing any deeper game had long since been driven from his head. He closed his eyes. “You are a danger to my men as well,” he said, exhaustion in every word.
That simple acknowledgement, so matter-of-fact, drew James’ gaze back to Crozier’s face. Conviction was not a look he expected from the man. The wounds on his arm and head throbbed.
“This - this curse, then. There is some way of breaking it.”
“Well Captain Fitzjames,” said Crozier, the smirk clear in his voice, “are you coming ‘round to us at last?”
“I cannot stand to see someone possessed by a will so clearly not his own.”
“Your Dr. Goodsir seemed enthused about all of it.”
“Would that we could all live in a world as lovely as Dr. Goodsir’s.”
“Aye, but if you start going on about my delicate tendrils, I may need to throw you from the top of the lighthouse.”
The joke caught James off guard, and so did the laugher that bubbled up out of his throat. It wasn’t that it was particularly funny, but James was so desperate for warmth and good humour that he clung to it. Perhaps, then, he could find a way through this.
The door opened without knock or announcement and Goodsir bustled back into the room, carrying a large case. James composed himself in an instant, sobering and straightening from the slouch he caught himself in. It was only when Goodsir chirped “Ah good, you’ve stopped bleeding,” that he realized he hadn’t been holding the cloth to his head for some time.
Later, when Goodsir asked Crozier if he could sketch him, James could not repress a loud, inelegant snort.
Twelve men were sent in a schooner back to Saint John, told they were running liaison between the base and the city, the effect was of which was like stepping out of a burning building into clean air. Although James could never describe the HMS Dahut as hospitable, it was now less than hostile. Work could begin. James need no longer fear the sunrise and what new horror it would bring. Perhaps that was foolish.
Something had broken, collapsed, though he was not sure of what. The air was fresher, the tide rushed out of the place, and James for once felt freed from pressures he could not name.
He learned the base, he learned its moods and humours. He learned that the rain seemed to ease the discomfort of the ill, and that despite the state of the place, the lighthouse never went out, nor had they failed in a rescue or let up in their mapping of the area. They were visited by frequent storms, but on clear days the men would go out on the bay in small boats, hunting the wreck of the Terror, and this was considered something of a jolly game for men with little joy in their lives. Away from the strict gaze of their captain, they would try to upend each other, and splash and shout.
Now that they were no longer enemies, it was clear that Crozier did not like him. This was something of a shame, since James was finding a new and rapidly growing respect for the fellow. He had forgotten that this was a man who had been to both poles, who had been involved in the discovery of Antarctica. James never dared to ask the captain directly, but several of the men had served with Crozier before and offered up stories of his bravery in the face of frigid weather and starvation, how he had led his ship through a narrowing channel of mile-high ice and how many times he had slipped from the grasp of death with complete calm and self-assurance. And never did James forget what a triumph it would be to recover such a man for the navy.
The Captain had changed after the fight, chastened somewhat. He bore James grudgingly, but he bore him. And James, for his part, was fascinated by him. Here was a man who should by all rights be one of the most decorated explorers in England, and yet he was brought low not only by his unfortunate affliction but his own preference to behave like a self-punishing anchorite.
James understood the impulse. Indeed, had James suffered such a misfortune, he could not be certain he would have the gall to show his face at all. Though he spent much of his time sulking, when Crozier did take it upon himself to emerge, it was without any sign of self-doubt. James’ men recoiled at the sight of Crozier, open in their disgust, and yet Crozier somehow found it in himself to face them unflinchingly. His hunched gait was marked by physical discomfort, not nerves.
Which was not the same as ease. Never once had James seen him without his hat or coat. It was obvious to anyone who cared to see that no one was more frightened of Crozier than himself, that he tried desperately to rally his body into a human shape. By all appearances, this took no small amount of effort. James had seen him slip when weary, seen him have to quickly tug back offending limbs and rearrange himself into something passably normal. The unfortunate fact was that the end result was still uncanny, even distressing to look at.
Crozier kept to a tight group of people, where James was not so much welcome as viewed as a necessary burden. Their efforts were for the most part focused on finding a solution to their current situation, which Blanky and Jopson in particular viewed as breaking the curse. To that end, bulk of their attention was directed towards finding the wreck of the Terror. This left primarily James in charge of the intended duties of the base: organizing rescue efforts for fur trapping parties, cartography, and surveying for resources.
All too often James caught himself trying to impress Crozier, and rarely was this well received. Even knowing Crozier only tolerated his presence, James caught himself slipping again and again into what he recognized as party routines.
“You cannot imagine it if you’ve never been to the desert,” James found himself saying one evening as they cleared the remains of a meeting, “The emptiness and the heat, it’s unlike anywhere else on Earth. Utterly inhospitable to life, too. And yet we cannot help ourselves, can we?”
Crozier only grunted and immediately James regretted himself. This was the danger of a well-honed routine, that what would excite a middle aged banker would seem a hollow boast to a man who had seen the ends of the Earth. He tried again.
“Do you suppose they understand what it is they ask of us?” he said.
“I doubt they think at all.”
“Now that is unkind.”
Crozier passed James over with a look that spoke of fatigue. Of James, at least in part, he had no doubt. It stung, left him irritable and hunting for a retort.
What Crozier said was, “Three years we were supposed to sail on supplies that could barely carry us one. And you wonder why there was mutiny. We were an afterthought, a budgeting footnote. A surplus of men all piled in a boat and given busywork to keep us from running roughshod around London. You can thank your Sir John for that, by the way.”
James knew it shouldn’t matter that Crozier held him in contempt. After all, it had been barely a month since they were mortal enemies, and yet he found he craved respect. He hated himself for that, that he would so quickly seek out approval.
A change in tactic was needed. Though never a friend, James became a great scholar of Crozier. He approached him like a scientist, testing hypotheses and trying to reach a comprehensive theory that might explain the man. To understand why Jopson held some privileged position with a man who seemed to loathe any notion of being doted on, and what pattern could lie behind the days and nights that James found the lighthouse locked.
He found he had to adjust his stride when he walked with Crozier. He had been right, the man varied. Some days he was larger, some smaller, some faster, some slower. His gait changed. Never, though, was it easy.
Tonight he stood nearly half a foot shorter than James and seemed unable to hold himself fully upright, walking as if struggling with some cumbersome weight as they crossed the length of the base. James was careful to keep his eyes ahead.
With cheer, James said, “I’m very glad that you’ve consented to Goodsir’s tests. If this is something that can be explained scientifically, then we would be downright neglectful to ignore that route.”
Crozier shook his head, a melancholy smile on his face. “It is far from the worst discomfort I have suffered for this,” he said.
“Be of good cheer, if nothing else, this could be a great scientific achievement. Nothing like you has ever existed before. This could be historic.”
Crozier’s face closed, the smile vanishing and the eyes growing dark and far off. And too the levity dropped from James, replaced by something harsh and cutting.
When Crozier spoke again it was as from across a great distance. “Last night some of your men attempted to break into the lighthouse when it was barred to them.”
“I’ll take care of it,” said James quickly.
“You treat your men much too lightly. They need to behave as if a mistake here could cost them their lives, because it very well could.”
The walls of the place deteriorated over these months, growing damper and greener. Goodsir’s makeshift lab was in the highest part of the main building, where the air was a touch fresher and the light somehow clearer, free from the murky aura of the floors below. It was rare for Crozier to leave the lighthouse at all, let alone make a trek this far, and James could tell the distance cost him.
It was a simple enough battery of tests, and Goodsir knew by now to control his enthusiasm. James was sure he longed to do a full anatomical analysis, but the request alone would lose him his subject forever, and would doom his chances of finding a cure. While his other patients welcomed the excitement and viewed his gushing over their outgrowths with amusement, Crozier was no man to be so closely scrutinized, and James had spoken to Goodsir about the necessity of delicacy.
Tests meant exposure, and James averted his eyes conspicuously whenever Crozier was made to bare any part of himself he did not wish to be seen. He did, however, spy what appeared to be a tentacle growing from the middle of his forearm.
“It’s a pity we don’t have more modern equipment at hand, Captain,” Goodsir said as they finished, “I can scarcely dream of what we might find in a sample of your blood.”
“Newts and spiders, no doubt,” was the dry response.
Goodsir’s eyes darted away and back. “Well, you’ve been very patient with me, sir, I have everything I need for now.”
Crozier dredged up something like a smile and awkwardly patted Goodsir’s forearm. “For what it’s worth, Dr. Goodsir, I am grateful for the work you are doing here and truly I hope you are successful in your endeavour. I merely fear that we have ventured beyond the grasp of medicine.”
“I understood, Captain,” said Goodsir.
As both captains made to leave, Goodsir stayed James with a hand on his arm.
“Captain Fitzjames, if you’ll remain a moment longer. There is the matter I wished to discuss.”
James nodded a farewell at Crozier as he leaned against the side of the desk and gestured for Goodsir to proceed.
“It’s the men, sir,” said Goodsir, his voice very soft, “They are becoming ill.”
“Our men?” burst out of James’s mouth, “Sick how? Like the others?” Images of that night in the tower were all too easy to call to mind. He swallowed back against them.
James could tell from Goodsir’s eyes that his own expression must have been deeply troubled. “No, Captain, I see no evidence of the same changes. It’s small things, and vague ones: weakness, exhaustion, injuries that are slow to heal, men who must cease their duties because they cannot continue. I wouldn’t trouble you with it but that it seems to affect every one of us who remain.”
The words crashed through James like a felled spar. Good Christ, he had not pieced the thought together before. A thousand tiny moments presented themselves to him, their countenance suddenly sinister. He had run himself so ragged that he had not stopped to consider that it could be anything but exhaustion.
“Do you recall the injury I sustained in that fight a month or two ago?” James asked.
“Of course. It was such a minor cut I never thought to ask if it was still troubling you.”
James shrugged out of his jacket, unclasped his vest, and unbuttoned his shirt, exposing his left arm for Goodsir to examine. It was a small cut, yes, and not deep, but it was as red and raw as the moment it had been received, and as he lifted the bandage began again to bleed sluggishly.
Goodsir’s voice was little better than an inbreath. “Captain -”
“It doesn’t hurt particularly or cause me any trouble. I am hale otherwise.”
“Sir, this could be very serious.”
“Keep a close watch on the men and report to me the moment you have anything more material. Any new symptoms, anything to narrow this down. For now we will keep this sub rosa. There is enough unrest about without us encouraging it. We’ll keep the men off the base. Send them on long missions for two, three weeks at a time. Minimize the exposure. It’s too early to be certain of anything.”
James knew he must inform Crozier, of course, but nerves stayed him. He dreaded the reaction he may provoke in the other commander. It was not fear of retribution, that had long since passed. Instead he was concerned, not entirely charitably, over what sort of instability he might provoke in a man on whom he currently relied. He knew Crozier well enough to know that pinning more suffering on his affliction would not be well received.
It was nearly a week before he mustered the nerve, made imperative by the way his suggestion of sending his men north was so resoundly shot down at that night’s meeting.
As he passed the lighthouse entrance with Crozier, nearly without forethought he asked, “May I come in? There was something I wished to speak about with you.”
Though his expression didn’t budge, Crozier nodded and swept an arm in the direction of the door, the closest to a welcome James had ever seen from him. James followed, trying to rapidly prepare what he would say to the man. There was no telling how Crozier would react, whether he would dismiss the problem or lash out.
This line of thought was cut short. There, in the center of the room, stood Jopson. At least, James hoped he could still think of it as Jopson. What stood before them was not so much a man as a thing which should lie between the rocks and shoals, overgrown with leaves like bone in brilliant oranges, yellows, and purples, curling back on itself in brainlike ripples, and in between softer growths like thick grasses in no less lurid colours.
Jopson had struggled the last few weeks as motion and expression were smothered by the consuming tide, but James hadn’t realized just how far it had come. Neither had Crozier, from his stricken expression. For a moment the raw emotion on his face made James feel as if he had violated some deep and private place, but Crozier’s eyes flicked to his. Not you, it said, not this with you of all people.
With effort, James closed his eyes and stepped away from Crozier, which meant towards Jopson. Outside, a storm had swept in, drenching the remains of yesterday’s bonfire. He clasped his hands behind his back, standing ramrod straight. To see the figures upstairs was one thing, but far another for him to see this happen to one of his fellows. He must keep himself in hand. He could not afford to waver in front of the other captain.
Once he felt he had control over his voice, he said, “What do you do when something like this happens?” It was safe to keep their minds on the practical. It was the only way he knew to navigate this.
He could hear Crozier take a whistling breath through his nose and swallow. James did not look at him. “Not much to be done, once they’re like this,” he grunted.
James could not bear to look at Jopson, and so he kept his gaze on the window, out at the cliff and rain and the churning sea below. That same sea had dragged these men away and left behind only its own wreckage. The violence of Crozier’s curse made him turn back without thought.
“I told him,” said Crozier, “I told him that he should take the time to convalesce, to recover from exposure to -” he made a vague gesture. “I should have ordered him,” he hissed.
“You couldn’t have known.”
“Do you think this is the first time it’s happened to any of us? I know you saw them up there. You should leave here now. Bar the door.”
Crozier was not the same as he was minutes ago. James could see glimmers of strange colour, motions. James knew precisely what was to come, and he found he didn’t have it in himself to leave and let it run its course. God knew what Crozier would do, or how long it would take to get him back. He knew intervention here would make the man despise him, but he was already halfway there to begin with, it was only so little to lose.
“Absolutely not,” said James, “I’m not leaving you alone with - that.”
“You should be aware, Captain Fitzjames, that I cannot guarantee your continued safety tonight in this tower.”
“Little as you may like to believe, Francis, the crew needs her captain. Now of all times especially. Jopson is well liked, I do not know they will weather one of your absences in addition.”
“My absences, Sir, are not by choice.”
“Nevertheless I am staying. Come the worst - well, unlike Mr. Blanky, I dare say I am a damn sight faster than you are. I do not think you pose any real threat to me.”
This was not true in the least, but the bluff protected them both. It seemed he had succeeded in aggravating Crozier out of acute distress, at least, because at this the man looked just about ready to hurl James off the clifftop himself. If he could frustrate the man back from the edge, then so be it. A moment first, though, to allow them both to compose themselves.
“I will take him up with the others,” he said, gesturing at Jopson.
It was perhaps a poorly thought out offer, as Jopson was fully the weight of a man with the additional outcroppings besides, and James had to maneuver him with great care so as to not jostle his injured arm. But James was a strong man, and had spent much of his life hauling onboard ships and clambering over much worse contraptions than a simple staircase, and so the job was done. Wishing to give Crozier time and privacy, he lingered at the top of the stairs, careful to keep his gaze outwards towards the storm-drowned horizon and not toward the dreaded hall of statues this floor had become.
He knew the sea, knew its changing faces and its dangerous moods, but never had it seemed so foreign. What was he to make of this? It was no tame lapdog, but in all its wildness it could still be harnessed and ridden. Yet here it was breaking over its bounds into places it did not belong, reaching up and into human spaces. The world was turning, its balances shifting, centres of gravity overturning.
Crozier had not composed himself by the time he returned downstairs, though now his expression not sorrowful but pinched and flickering, as if engaged in some internal war. He seemed larger again, as he had done that night in the tower. There was movement beneath his greatcoat, as if something was trying to escape. He could see flutterings of colour, whites and greens and purples.
For the second time, James asked the question, “What do you normally do when this happens?”
Crozier glowered and was slow to respond, clearly weighing his desire to snap at James against the possible benefit of a straight answer.
“I walk up and down the tower,” he said.
Lord, of course it was that. How singularly painful must such a thing be for a man who could hardly walk in the first place, but James would not comment. With careful formality he said, “Then let’s do that and I shall fill you in on the latest report from the north.”
It was too much to talk about Jopson. James had never spoken to Crozier about so much as a parlor game; professional familiarity was all he had to offer. But naval spirit was a firmer thing to stand on than it may appear, and had carried him through grief and worse before.
He had never been this high in the tower, had only ascended it the once. It was an echoing, cold thing, the walls rimed with sea salt. But despite the howling of the wind outside and the slight rumbling it gave to the stone, it was dry as a tinderbox in there. James thanked the lord for that. He didn’t think his joints could take all this climbing in the damp below.
James could tell, of course, that Crozier was nothing short of mortified by his presence, but not so much that he could find it in himself to order James to leave. All too often, something escaped that should not, Crozier failed to make his gait too human, or to hold himself upright like one, and suddenly he would stop and straighten, snatch back the parts of himself he had not meant to display. However humiliating it was to expose himself to James like this, it likely paled in comparison to what would happen if he were alone. And to that end, James took care to fill the uncomfortable silences, to never let his gaze linger or betray anything that would not pass between officers on deck, and to never acknowledge any sign of pain in the other man.
Crozier snapped and barked, mocked and taunted, but bit by bit the cutting edge grew blunt, until he hardly fought at all.
And so James managed to fill an hour with irrelevancies dressed up as official reports. He even somehow managed to transform Des Voeux’s argument with Hodgson about the Sunday evening meal into evidence that their two crews had begun to develop a rapport, a job he was rather proud of. He wondered at the lamp room, which they never broached, and at how little of Crozier had written itself on what was ostensibly his home, but James kept such thoughts to himself. The storm gale whistled in through cracks in the stone and around window ledges, bringing with it the scent of salt.
Eventually James claimed weariness, to himself he called it for Crozier’s sake and not for his own disturbing exhaustion. But the job was a success. He saw the distance leave Crozier’s eyes and the rest of him start to settle. Not the strained acting James usually saw in him but something more natural, less human.
Returned then to the bottom floor, James lit a fire, long having since run out of even the smallest events he could spin into navy business. Instead he ran through just about anything that came to mind: his last posting, odd events from his childhood, nonsense, really.
When he rose, he found Crozier’s eyes focused on him, his expression considering. He was quiet now, his silences peaceful rather than strained. It wasn’t long after that that James was dismissed. This was delivered as an order. Regardless of their current situation, Crozier was technically his superior officer. To argue would be a battle James had not the strength to fight. In truth, though, he was glad for the escape.
It was only in the merciful privacy of his quarters that James allowed himself to bury his face in his hands and to fall into shuddering.
He became Francis to James after that. James never told him about the illness in his crew, but following that night he found he hardly had need to. It seemed he grew somewhat in Francis’ estimation, or that at least the man was more willing to give him an ear. Francis began assenting to James’ excursions for his men - long mapping expeditions, observations of the northern flora and fauna.
James had thought he would be envious of them, heading out into the wilds, but it seemed that the thing that drew him out to such places had come to him this time. It blew in on a storm gale and grew over floorboards. There was wet green algae that grew and needed to be scrubbed every day, lest the floors become dangerously slippery. Little white flowers of stone blossomed in corners. This place was being unmade. Everything civilized, everything built to withstand the ravages of nature, was eaten and they were laid bare to be torn apart by the wind and the waves.
Goodsir stayed. It was more than James could stand. James had lived through siege and shot and gunfire and shrapnel. And truly, for all his self-mythologizing, he did not think himself all that important. Himself he could allow to shoulder this sickness, but James could hardly abide by Goodsir’s presence. Yet he was powerless in this.
Despite James’ guilt, Goodsir had all the appearance of good health. A little wan, a little pale, but he conducted himself with the same energy he always had, and would turn James’ inquiries into his health back on himself. James learned to not question.
James was not half so lucky. It was weakness primarily, a clumsiness born of exhaustion. His lips and knuckles cracked. His skin lost its colour and his hair its lustre. He was cold all the time, a chill which could not be shaken even when he had broken and asked Goodsir if there was any way he could secure a warm bath.
He could not let Francis see. Meetings ran late, turned into meals he could hardly stomach. When they walked together, it was James who had to take care to overtax himself. But Francis’ smiles grew more frequent and less false. And James, in turn, found a rare and precious space in which he need not hold himself to expectation. Keeping up appearances for Francis was not only pointless but an intrusion. They were still not friends. At least, this was utterly unlike the comradery to which he considered friendship. Theirs was an alliance of empty places, a thing which could only grow without lattice or guidepost. They were bound together by a common solitude, like trees on a windswept hill which, having no other support, lean against each other. It was not pleasant or comfortable, but there was something else in it.
They both, in their own way, set the other against despair. James began to appear in the mornings after the lighthouse had been barred overnight, at first armed with formal reports, but it was Francis who gradually turned this into a source of great humour. It was a grace James hadn’t expected of him. They told jokes now, Francis delivering humorous anecdotes as official business. James was surprised to find that Francis could be quite funny.
Here, if in nothing else, James could see something shifting. And a lucky thing, too, because progress in all other areas had seized up. Despite their every effort, the wreck of the Terror would not be found, and some suspected it had fallen into a crevasse or under a rock’s edge and would never be found. James was all that was left. Were Francis to know of his illness, James was certain he would find himself ordered off the base. Francis was a man to prioritize his own guilt over the practical. James could not leave.
He wouldn’t let himself be troubled by the sickness. To be troubled by it meant fewer hands to help with the dying, it meant needing to keep Le Vesconte back at the base. To be troubled by it meant more Jopsons.
And what of it if he still tried to style his fraying hair? Francis’ teases were good natured these days, besides. What soul would judge him for filing his nails and polishing his boots? It kept him from waking to find his boots filled with brine and his jacket crusted with coral.
The men were not what they had been. James could hardly stomach looking at them now. They spoke as from across a great distance, half-buried in their own bodies. Blanky was the only one among them who still seemed fully himself, the others salt-eaten and sea-drowned. It was nearly weekly now that faces would vanish. The thought of it followed him, bit at his heart.
He could not remember the man who had arrived here all those months ago, with no fear in his breast. Whether he regretted his passing or was glad of it he couldn’t say, but he feared any sign that his soul, too, would be devoured. And so he polished his boots.
Even now Francis hid himself away. He could hardly bear to be seen even by men who suffered the same as he, still did everything in his power to conceal himself, and still failed utterly. The feeling seemed so deeply rooted that James had grown concerned.
“You need to give the men more of yourself,” James said one night, “They’re in a bad way and you keep yourself at such arm’s length. I fear what they may do if they decide they cannot trust their captain.”
“Not for lack of love. I am not well, you know that.”
“I’m not asking for you to run the rigging yourself, but you must see that the distance between you and the men has only grown in weight, and I fear it cannot bear the burden.”
“It is sane of them not to trust me. I failed their trust. I wear the consequences on my flesh.”
“If it were your punishment alone, why would it affect every man here? I don’t fully understand what happened with Mr. Hickey but is it not possible that this is a burden to be shared?”
“You’re right, you don’t understand what happened. The sort of man I have been. No, I cannot face them, and they would not have me if I did. You would have despised me too, and you would have been right to. I was drunk and happy to mete out violence to any man who crossed me. That is what they see in this curse, and my presence will only remind them of that.”
James had learned to read the signs of distress in Francis, the tightening of the mouth and the sloping of the shoulders. He knew that on this point he could destroy the fragile thing between them. And so that night he chose, perhaps unwisely, to preserve it. He did not mention the issue again.
And still the wreck of the Terror would not be found. There were other attempts, of course, to break the curse. Things that months ago James would have scoffed at as superstition. Unspoken water and holy wells, cunning folk’s tricks and toad bone rites. None of which did a thing, but left him stunned by his willingness to try. The desperation it must mean.
Francis shared his skepticism of these methods. In fact, James wasn’t certain that Francis truly believed it was a curse. At least did not believe in the possibility of a cure. In truth, Goodsir was the only one left whose methods James had any faith in. And it was Goodsir who delivered the only mote of hope James witnessed in all those months.
One day, Francis came to James with an unusual request, “Dr. Goodsir thinks that I should take up sea bathing as a treatment for my… condition.”
It was nearly August by then, and though this part of the world never reached high summer, they had been blessed by a string of pleasant warmth.
“I’m surprised you haven’t already,” said James, leaning back in his armchair, “Forgive me for saying but you seem more suited for sea than land.”
“Ah, you would be correct in that, but it’s not - that is to say, I have concerns, which I have voiced to Dr. Goodsir, about the possible effects the ocean may have. That is why I am asking for your assistance. You’re the only one here fool enough to not be afraid of me.”
James of course agreed. This was a show of trust greater than any James had expected, and it was because of this that his first response was apprehension. Their closeness was such that would never speak of itself, and he had never had cause to believe that Francis would be at all comfortable with James seeing him in any state less than painstaking concealment. In truth, James did not want to see him, did not want to have the illusion of his humanity broken, and feared that the revelation of his monstrosity would shatter the fragile peace between them.
And yet walking for Francis was at best difficult and often a source of pain. And James understood his fears, because he shared in them. It would be unforgivable for him to stay back if there was any possibility that Francis could lose himself in this. Francis hadn’t allowed himself to swim since the onset of all this, Not once.
There were tide-pools down on the rocks to the west, and it was these that Francis thought safest for a first attempt. They were contained, no deeper than a man’s waist, and offered at least the illusion that if the ocean triggered some catastrophic transformation, Francis wouldn’t be lost immediately to the depths.
The day was bright and pleasant, the breeze off the sea was gentle rather than rasping. They talked of inconsequential things, both in effort to conceal how difficult the walk to the shore was for them. Francis’ nerves were visible, and it was this in all likelihood which preserved James’ efforts to conceal his fragile health. James’ nerves were in truth no better. It was entirely possible that following today Francis would never again be able to meet his eye.
To that end, standing on the rocks on the shore, James ensured that his gaze remained on the tide pools rather than the other man. He was fair sick with worry. He had not realized how much this connection with Francis had come to mean to him. He stood so that a large rock blocked his view of the pool Francis had chosen. Their voices carried, painful in their mundanity.
The splash behind him told him that Francis was in the water now. Even from this distance James could hear his hiss, likely from the chill. The conversation, already listless, fell dead.
James kept Francis at his back. He didn’t want to look, didn’t want to see what might be lurking behind that rock. Great white and gold, strange-limbed and inhuman. The tide pools here teemed with life: gardens of aquatic flowers through which crawled tiny creatures of explosive colour. In the slow decay of the HMS Dahut he had forgotten this face of the sea. He remembered now standing on the sea shore with Goodsir, so long ago it could not be this lifetime, giddy with excitement as he was shown sea treasures in gold and aquamarine.
This was their world, he supposed. This small cup in the surface of a rock. The ocean was so vast and deep and still it made this space as well, small and self-contained. Only part of that larger universe in the marked intervals of the tide. And yet because of their smallness they had no conception of him looming above them, whether he wished them good or ill. If he took up a rock and placed it in the center of the pond, the whole of their geography would change.
He could take no more silence. He asked, “Is it helping?”
From across the rock he heard, “Well I’m not about to go dancing,” and then on a breath, “Yes, it’s helping. The pain is gone.”
James stood from his crouch and looked out at the expanse of the sea. The view was the same anywhere, and he was accustomed to it drawing him forth. Beside the open face of the sea, the winding halls of grand houses were little better than ropes and ties. But now the sight only left him with a dull regret. It was already in him, he need never seek it out again. It was the tremble in his hand and the buckle in his knee, and its tides ran through the blood stained bandage on his shoulder.
“What was it like in Antarctica?” he asked.
“It was,” Francis said and then paused as if considering. As with great significance, he pronounced, “cold.”
James snorted. “Come now, you were among the first people to ever set eyes on a new continent, and all you can say is ‘cold?’”
“You’ve never felt cold like it in your life. My hands still shake with it.”
“But there must be more to it than that. I’ve lived in some of the worst places that exist in this world, I know what is it is that that calls a man to it. You must have sought it out for a reason.
“I’ve no love of accolades.”
This simple statement scored him open. It was galling that still now Francis would think such a thing. That man had been scoured away by the wind and the waves, leaving only bare root clinging to rocky earth. What remained behind was not much, but it was not this.
“Well one could hardly accuse me of modesty,” James found himself saying, newly afraid that the thing between them would fall away and reveal only hollow air. “One cannot live on glory alone. If it had been only duty or advancement that carried me across Syria I doubt I would have survived. You must feel it, that there’s something out there, something you can only find in inhospitable places, past the furthest edge of the civilized world. Crossing the desert, I remember the heat and the thirst, yes, but there was silence too, and a kind of beauty in it, a- freedom, of a sort. You must understand that?”
The silence he was met with left him feeling suspended in the air, unsure whether he had fallen or leapt. It would be far worse than any monstrosity if Francis did not understand him in this. This was the last inch of him.
Then the voice, soft, “I’m sorry, James, it was only ever a job to me.”
James could not see Francis, though he so dearly wished to know what was in his face then, his voice a desperate branch flung across the oncoming distance between them. Perhaps, then, it didn’t matter that Francis did not already understand, impossibly, staggeringly, he found himself met somewhere else.
Soon the arctic was left and the conversation turned to the practicalities of treatment, this being the first and only success they captured in all the months James had been here. The anesthetic effects still lingered even far later when Francis was again in his coat and hat and they were heaving themselves back up the hill to the base. Francis seemed to walk better, his step lumbering but no longer a sumble.
As they passed from rocky shore to ragged grass he said, “I kept a parlor palm with me, when I was in Antarctica.”
This was so unexpected that James thought he misheard. “What, a houseplant?”
“Yes, in my cabin. Ross bought it for me in Merseyside before we set sail. It would have been nearly two years without any hint of green otherwise. I tended to it myself, even when we were skimming the Great Ice Barrier. It survived, too. I left it behind in Van Diemen’s Land.”
James found a grin fighting at his lips. “You should have brought it back to London with you. We could have given it a medal.”
“If we had stayed much longer they’d have owed the cook a medal,” Crozier laughed. “You know, when we went to claim the continent for the empire, the only flat bit of land we could find turned out to be made of solid penguin shit.”
Thrown into unexpected laughter, James exclaimed, “Good lord!”
“Stank to high heaven. James - ah, Ross, that is, I’ve never heard him curse like that in his life...”
That night they met with Blanky in the lighthouse room. Tasked with heading the search for the Terror, through downgrinding failure he had become as much a bulwark against despair. The man was nothing short of relentless, wrestling failure into submission by whatever means that remained to him. He held out staggeringly well against the onset of illness, or perhaps his steadfast tenacity merely rendered it invisible. His grin had lost none of its ferocity, though perhaps he had grayed somewhat.
Crozier sighed and ran a hand over his face. “I don’t suppose you’ll tell me we’ll keep blue skies and sunshine to carry us through the month.”
Blanky’s smile was rueful. “Another storm’s sweeping in. It’ll keep us in the doldrums for a few days, but give us time. We’ll have her.”
Not a man there believed it, but Blanky’s insistence was just about the only thing left to them, and so they moved on. There were logistics that needed attending. Goodsir’s focus on the search for a cure left only Crozier’s doctor, Stanley, to attend to the daily care of the sick. The man was a disaster for morale, especially among those on palliative care. With fewer men well enough to manage the daily running of the base, more and more fell on fewer necks, and it was becoming imperative that they find ways to prevent them from choking.
Later, when James and Blanky were making the journey back from the lighthouse to the officers’ quarters, he too began to waver.
Blanky shook his head, his eyes on a far wall. “We must begin to consider what is to be done if we never find the wreck,” he said.
“You’re the curse expert, Mr. Blanky, not I,” said James, pricking up in caution.
“I fear we’ve reached the limit of even my knowhow. What’s left is almost too grim to contemplate.”
James knew Blanky’s mercenary streak all too well. He dreaded what would follow.
“Contemplate it for me.”
The answer was slow in coming, delivered with a reluctance that made it clear Blanky had intended this admission all along. “It’s a terrible thing to say, Captain, but I fear we’ll only see this through when Captain Crozier is no longer with us.”
The pain in his expression was genuine, James had no doubt of that. He looked like a man who had just cut off a limb, and yet there was steel in his words. James could only think of the story Blanky had told him all those months ago, of mutiny and the man on the gallows and that, perhaps, this had been his intent.
James never again asked about this theory, and Blanky never again offered. The next day, he sent the men on the longest journey he could manage, two months due north to rescue fellow countrymen lost upon the ice. It was none too soon. He woke most mornings now with blood on his pillow. He could taste it most of the time now. He bruised easily, his flesh distressingly tender and given to aching.
And yet it did not trouble him terribly, because he had chosen it. He had faced far worse than this, after all. Here the quietus that visited the men was so gradual it seemed to merely carry them away, far from the howling shit-infested camps he recalled in his worst moments. And so it seemed unfair to concern himself too deeply with his own illness, not when he had found so strange a peace here, not when he was one of the strongest hands that remained, not when Francis had come to so rely on him. It hardly mattered, a feather weighed against an avalanche.
Towards the end of September, after nearly six months of searching, they found the Terror. She was tucked under the lip of the cliff face, so tide-torn that she could scarcely be described as a ship at all. Choked with seaweed, her hull had burst itself, green ribs splayed like flower petals and crowded out with fish. There was no way to rescue her for there was nothing to recover.
And so Francis stood on the cliff’s edge high above and with his men around him, formally renounced his captaincy. He was quiet that day, and what would have seemed hostility to James months ago became an unbearable shyness combined with the worry that he had not done his duty by those under his safekeeping.
By the time two weeks had passed, it was clear to all that nothing had come of it. There were three losses in those weeks, the last of which was Tom Hartnell, a man so widely liked that his disappearance in particular was a blow. The mood in the HMS Dahut turned dark. They had pegged their salvation on the Terror, they had prayed for it, put every last dreg of energy into it, and nothing had come. The only thing that remained before them was death.
There were rumblings, but none serious enough to warrant retaliation, and not a thing from Blanky. James was glad to not feel compelled to repeat what he had said to Francis, knew that it could only be taken as a betrayal by one of the few people he trusted, and feared the inevitable reaction. Whether he would have to lock himself away for days or weeks, for surely it was not a question of whether he would lose himself but of how long, and the possibility of permanence was not far from James’ mind.
They were sat in the lighthouse room the night after James’ men returned, James relaying the reports. It was just about the last thing that held the base together, this semblance of duty. Franics’ men were not capable of much any longer, but they did what little they could with the whole of themselves.
They talked so very much these days, James and Francis, their conversations suffused with a desperation born of despair. The intimacy brought such simultaneous joy and pain that James could not tell whether he longed for more of it or for it to cease entirely. He could hardly bear to be apart from Francis, never far from the fear that he would return to find the man he knew gone entirely.
No longer did Francis bother to hold himself to unnatural constraint for James. He ceased to snatch away the parts of him that did not fit under wraps and to hold himself so rigidly upright. Though James knew it should disturb him to see something so obviously monstrous, the effect was somehow a relief. An appendage quickly hidden disturbed more than one left unremarked on.
Across from James a limb which was not a leg was just visible beneath the coat, and at one point what was undoubtedly a third hand emerged to gesture emphatically. The colours in him tonight were muted, pearly, almost shining, like a ghost or gossamer. They had moods of their own, shifting much like everything else in him. The face, though, never changed.
“Oh I should mention,” said James, “the Hudson’s Bay Company sends their thanks for the schooner we leant to escort their trading party to Saint John.”
Francis smiled and waved a hand. “Yes, well, for their sakes I hope they stop getting themselves lost in the wilderness, though we both know they will not.”
James’ eye caught on a tentacle which curled around Francis’ neck, and which had not been present that morning. He paused, his eyes sliding away. “May I ask you an impertinent question?”
This was met with a soft snort. “God help me James I don’t think I could stop you.”
“Some days you seem - taller than others.”
Francis retreated somewhat, sitting straighter and concealing more, but his expression was no less fond. “Christ, is that it?” he laughed, “You got so solemn I thought you were coming for my life. Aye, some days I look taller because some days I am taller.”
“How is that possible?”
“I am not the same… manner of thing as any man or animal I know of. I have tides, flows and ebbs. I am not the same from one day to the next. At times, not one hour to the next.”
“It must be terrifying,” James said. He had not intended to. Many things passed between them, but not this.
It was a long moment before Francis spoke again, and when he did his eyes were fragile, “There’s no room for fear in this, you know that.”
“Not for fear, no, but perhaps - there is no reason for you to handle yourself so roughly. Some evenings I’ve seen you struggle to walk from one end of the hall to the other. Would it not be easier to sleep on a lower floor?”
“You know I have good reason for my choice.” His eyes closed, he fussed with his hat, his hand blocking his face. “That’s the odd thing about you, James, you’re the only person who would ever think to talk to me like I was any other man. I can’t decide if it’s brave or foolish.”
“Not like any other man, no, but you are -”
He stopped. Francis’ eyes had gone narrow and cold. He half rose from his seat, leaning forward toward James.
“What is it?” James asked.
He cursed himself for meeting Francis’ eye just then. He could see the recognition in it, awareness slotting into place as Francis realized that recognized the injury from the fight all those months ago. Dozens of odd looks James had received when he just couldn’t quite hide the pain coalesced into one awful realization.
“It wasn’t my imagination, then. You are ill.” Francis’ voice was dangerously quiet.
“It’s nothing. It causes me little trouble…”
Francis stood and crossed the space between their chairs. He reached out, and with one hand touched James’ left shoulder. It was a careful touch, downright gentle, and still James flinched.
Francis wrenched his hand back. With equal care, he said, “James I want you to take off your shirt.”
James had flinched earlier as well, when Francis knocked against him. He had smiled then, made a joke and launched with great energy into one of his well-worn stories. Francis’ frown had lingered only a moment; James hoped the incident had been forgotten entirely.
His instinct was to refuse. It would end the evening in an instant, probably throw them into conflict for days, but he could do it. It would wound Francis, possibly more than the trust between them could bear. And so he unbuttoned his shirt.
Blackened flesh radiated out from his wound, bruised deep beneath the skin and tender to the touch. It was worse than James remembered. These days he hardly dared to look at himself while dressing, did it only in the dark, hurriedly covering what was too distressing to face. It was nearly half his chest now, livid yellows, purples, and blacks.
Francis’ voice was hardly more than a whisper, “That’s why you were so keen to send your crew on a two month march. God in heaven, James, how long has it been like this?”
“I have the situation well in hand, I - I have survived far worse than this, Francis. I’ve been shot, I’ve shattered limbs. This is only a small thing, I’ll live.”
This had none of the effect he intended. Francis huffed a breath and pursed his lips, agitation written over every inch of him. “You worry about my walking up a flight of stairs when you’ve been putting yourself through this - and for what? We’re dying. There’s only so much good you can do.”
Francis’ eyes pierced him, but James could not look away. He was so very frightened of the emotion that flooded him, a thing so overpowering he could hardly think it came from within him, but it was his, God help him.
“We’re - foundering, yes,” said James, “but not yet lost.” He shrugged his shirt closed, fussing with the buttons. “Since I arrived here, I have never been asked who I know, what I’ve done, or god forbid who my father is. I’ve not been called on to shoot a man or fire a missile into lord knows what town. All that’s been asked of me is kindness. If among the dying is the only place that exists, then so be it.”
Francis’ face had fallen, collapsed in on itself. “You can’t stay, James,” he said.
James met this with a quivering smile. “You hate my stories so much you leave me no room to be anything but myself. Am I to walk away and just leave you to die?”
Of everything he had ever said to Francis, this was the most frightening. An admission whose eye he could never meet.
When the response came, it was little more than a whisper, “I don’t hate your stories.”
That night, a loud thumping on his door broke him from a dream of drowning. He awoke with a gasp. For a moment, the whole of his small room was illuminated by a flash of lightning. Rain drenched the window in waves. The storm had come.
Haphazardly pulling on a dressing gown, James crossed the room in a stride and opened the door to reveal Le Vesconte. They had barely spoken since his return, and in the half-light James could only think he looked skeletal, his mind insisting that the shadows flowing over his face were blood. Worst of all was the expression, a hollowness in the eyes that he was failing to conceal in any way.
“You’d best come quick,” he said by way of greeting. His tone was flat. “It’s Dr. Goodsir, James, Des Voeux found him lying in the upper hall not ten minutes ago. He’s dead.”
Trembling with emotion or weakness, James dressed rapidly. Only just enough to ensure he didn’t need to face the men in his nightshirt, he followed at a run to the room where they had lain Goodsir’s body. Even this winded him now. He gasped for breath.
They had lain Goodsir out like an anatomy cadaver, and only now did James see how wasted he had become. His skin was waxy and gray, and along his trunk there were several small nicks which had blossomed into black flowerings. His chest was little more than bone, not a hint of flesh left to him, and what that meant for his own body he had so carefully ignored. James couldn’t bear to see it any longer. He turned away.
With Goodsir gone that left only Dr. Stanley to care for the men. Francis would not come to them, and to them James had never been anything other than an outsider, not sharing in their affliction. James dreaded Stanley’s unimpeded influence on morale, and would even if his faith in Blanky remained unshaken.
Then, a terrible thought. “Has Captain Crozier been informed of the doctor’s death?” he asked.
“Yes, James,” was Dundy’s response.
Good Christ. The thought of Francis stole the strength from him, his voice hard and brittle as he said to Dundy, “Prepare the men to move when I give the order. We cannot stay here.”
Not him, of course. He could not leave, but the other men couldn’t afford a day’s more exposure. Not when this - God in heaven. He had to speak to Francis. It was all crashing in around him, now, he had not the strength to raise a hand against it. The air around Goodsir choked him, sent him stumbling into the hall. His only thought was of making it to Francis before -
For a moment the main hall was thrown into daylight by a storm flash and James could see the ground floor had been swallowed by floodwater. Through the back window, he could just catch a glimpse of waves finally breaching the clifftop, crashing over into the air and down upon the window pane. Ah, there it was. At last, at last.
The water was at his waist as he struggled to the lighthouse door. There, to his horror, was Blanky. Between his wooden leg and the water, the beam with which he barred the door held him up as he held it.
“He isn’t -” James rasped.
Blanky’s returning look was even, his mouth pinched. “You shouldn’t go in there, Captain Fitzjames,” he said.
“Never mind that. Tell me what happened.” He could feel his heart in his fingers, knew he was shaking with it.
“You know full well -”
“Christ,” James broke in, “Right, then. Nothing doing for it. I’ll signal you when the way is clear.”
He was already lifting the bar, gesturing at Blanky to unlock the door, and in the dark he could not see Blanky’s eye. “Captain…” he said, but he ventured no further.
“You heard me,” said James through gritted teeth.
The door opened with the sound of a torrent. It seemed the flood had not yet reached the tower, and as the door was sprung, the river of the hallway rushed in to fill the space. The armchairs were drowned, the fire flooded, and the table soaked to the armpit. The door behind him closed with a gush of water, and with the smothering clouds outside there was not a spark of light in the place.
Softly, he called Francis’ name. The tower was filled with the sound of dripping, but in a silent moment he thought he could hear something, perhaps a scraping or a knocking. James froze, his every muscle going tense. As quickly as he could manage, he crossed the room to take up the fire poker.
He stared at it, appalled to think that even now he behaved like a man trapped with a wild animal. Not now, not with Francis. Christ, the thought made his eyes burn. It would break him, he knew, if he were to repeat that first night in the tower. If it came to that, he could not fathom what he might do, whether he would lay himself down or take up arms. The thought of facing a thing which was not Francis made him feel physically ill, but he was needed. Francis needed him.
Slowly, so slowly he ascended the stairs. There were sounds up there, unmistakable now, rock grinding on rock, crunching. He had forgotten about them, and here now, crawling, clutching, that hall of statues, their bodies so calcified that with each movement they broke and bled at the joints, their useless faces turning this way and that without so much as a crack to see through. In their blank faces he could see the dead, and shifting now, not the men who had been lost to the coral, but all the dead he had ever known. And chief among them Goodsir, peeking through the cracks in the coral. James could have saved him, should have done better, should have, ah, could still save him, only had to reach across the room, if his body weren’t crumbling beneath him, if he had the life left...
He realized he was swaying and caught himself on the wall. When he looked again, he saw no faces at all.
The next floor was empty and perfectly still, with no response to his call. The flood below and the rain outside filled the space with the echoing sound of water. Above him stretched the long spiral of the staircase. A mere ten storeys, but in his current state he may as well be walking back to England . His legs could hardly carry him forward, they burned and trembled with the effort. Pain lanced up his side. Every so often, his lungs began to feel thick in his chest, a smothering sensation, and he was forced to stop and gasp for breath.
He would hardly keep his feet but for the thought of Francis. It drove him past the furthest edge of his ability, but he somehow found himself still moving. It was madness, what he felt. Even if Francis were a man like any other, it would still pass far beyond every rule of good company he knew of, outside allowable conduct in the navy, even beyond the edge of the law’s safekeeping. But Francis was not a man, and that was a problem far above any he had ever encountered before. Francis was not a man, and James loved him.
Behind him he could hear water, and felt the water of his blood pulled against him in tidal lock. It wanted him to sink, and so he climbed. It followed, dragged up behind him like an anchor.
Twenty feet from the top floor, he stopped, breathing, listening. Outside, the storm roared and cracked, but from above he heard nothing. Twice he had nearly passed out and feared a third. He could hardly lift the fire poker. Over the crest of the landing he could see the glare of the lantern swing past and for a moment fill the stairway with light.
There were guns in the lamp room, that was his first thought upon entering. He did not see Francis right away, as the glare of the lantern slowly swung over the pile of weapons. Francis was outside, half-bent over the the rail, or -
As the lamp hit it, the figure burst into light, turned silvery like the moon. Gone was the hat. Its face was a death mask clinging to the end of a long, tapering neck. Little more than a wax cast, bereft of motion, of breath and life. From there on down the full length of it there sprouted a multitude of structures like brilliant antlers, which waved and flowed with his every motion. The coat barely clung to the mass of the form, pulled and stretched by dozens of limbs. Under its skin cracked lightning, forking out, out into those branches. It was beautiful, and James hated it for that.
It recoiled from the light as if struck, near to leaping from the towertop. James cried out and it turned at the sound, moving with its head as an afterthought, its tendrils reaching toward him.
“Francis?” he hissed. He knew it was not.
The only response was a snuffling sound, like a dog scenting the air, then a long, low groan.
By some impulse buried too deep in the mind to account for, that sound lit panic in his breast. He found himself darting away, too far gone to think. Limping, James made for the guns, his mind filled with the image of that shattered chair, what that strength would do to his body. He couldn’t think, shaking so badly that he never hope to aim his weapon besides.
It came toward him. He could hardly lift the gun, a lead weight in his arm. Then the lantern was in his eyes. For a moment he saw nothing, free hand flying to his face to block the searing brightness.
Blinking, he saw it stooping forward, momentarily little more than a black shape. He could smell the scent of brine and he knew then that it was upon him, and so struck out, swinging the gun like a club. It connected - with what he wasn’t sure, and then was wrenched violently and flung away with a clatter.
At this distance he could see straight through the creature to the flash of lightning outside, wraithlike, but in it he found not the smallest fragment of Francis. He heard the sound of thunder, and then the light hit the thing again. It was lit like magnesium, every inch of it thrown into shocking relief. It made a sound like a buckling bough, falling against the wall, one of its arms by chance blocking James from the light so that he could slip away untouched.
The light tore it into shocking beauty, an explosion captured in searing white, shot through with golds and reds. James could not tear his eyes from it, caught transfixed. In its hollow skin he saw an immensity of stars, and he knew that way lay death. Yet there was an impulse, too firmly fixed to ignore, to reach out, to let it consume him, destroy him, whatever it was this made of people, transform and be undone.
There was water coming in over the balcony. Whether the waves had finally risen to meet him or whether the rain had grown all the more torrential, it sluiced the floor under his feet as he limped back towards the guns. The world was drowned, then. This was the last of it, this small island at the top of this tower, and all the sea around them.
The creature paced warily along the wall, favouring one of its arms. It was just them left, just him and this thing which was not Francis. This wounded animal. James barely had the strength to lift the gun, it yawed wildly as he tried to heft it high enough to take aim. He ended up nearly on the floor, crouching low to keep steady.
The lamp exploded in a shower of glass as the bullet struck, sucking the light from the room. All went still, save the water around his ankles. Dropping the weapon with a splash, he rose, and was for a moment caught by lightheadedness.
When he looked up, the creature had ventured forward, now tentative, lingering by the shattered lamp. James stepped toward it, and then fell, his legs giving way beneath him.
He could not stand. He could not stand and he could hear it moving, sloshing through the water towards him. He was soaked through, his hair plastered to his face by water or blood he could not tell. It hovered over him, its limbs surrounding him in a curtain of blue and white. James was certain now. Here was death, and it was only a small step forward that would plummet him into a new and vast unknown. He lay there and waited for a blow that did not fall.
James opened his eyes.
The face hovered above him, as still and cold as if it had been carved from stone. An ugly, dead thing in the middle of so much brilliance, corpse-like. He felt ill, looking at it.
On impulse, thoughtless really, he reached to touch it.
The creature seemed to sag, collapsing in on itself, writhing, dull blacks and iridescent blues warring over the skin. It sunk low to the ground, receding into a shapeless mass of limb, colour, branch, and light. James was helpless to do more than watch, hardly able to push himself up from the floor. He could see blood on him, though from where he did not know.
Time stretched and faded as James watched the creature struggle with itself, still wary but so tired he wished dearly for sleep. Slowly, slowly it stilled, the colours settling and fading.
“Francis?” he whispered again.
It shifted, in response to the name James was certain, righting itself, pulling desperately again at the coat, Francis’ first instinct again to conceal. His eyes were wide and glistening beneath the branches, his mouth fallen open.
“God in heaven, what are you doing here James?” Francis whispered back, “I could have killed you.”
Reality rushed back in. James felt like weeping, and then, appalled, realized he already was. Words were beyond him, he reached out and grabbed Francis’ sleeve, clutching at his arm.
“You aren’t hurt, are you James? Tell me I didn’t hurt you.”
“I’m - alright,” he croaked, “A little winded, but no less whole than this morning.”
He must have looked a fright, soaked like a wet cat and bleeding besides. James saw realization light Francis’ eye and before he could respond asked, “Can you stand?”
Francis shifted, sending waves lapping James’ thigh. “No. It’s not all come back to me yet.”
James had aimed for light amusement, but there was so little left in him that he choked on it. Francis’ brow sharpened and his mouth collapsed as panic registered. It was whisked away in an instant, but the fondness that replaced it was pinched.
“You’re shaking,” said Francis.
“Yes, if you hadn’t noticed this lighthouse is a tad draughty and I did just run up several hundred…” James trailed off, listing dangerously to one side, hand on his forehead.
“Hey, hey now, stay with me, James,” came the voice as if from a great distance. He could feel hands on his shoulders, and hissed as the left side of his chest was jostled. “Come on, talk to me.”
“’m alright,” he said.
Gently, so as to not aggravate his injuries, he felt Francis settle against him. Even through the coat it was a damn sight warmer than the stone wall or wooden floor. James opened his eyes to find that his head had sagged, and ah yes, there was the blood soaking through the thin linen of his shirt. The rain pounded against the windows, the panes rattling with the force of the wind.
“It hardly matters anyway,” James mumbled, “this is the end of the world."
It must have been hours they sat together that night, the last two people on Earth, and past the furthest edge of reality James found he had no secrets. It was not a confession because he had nothing to confess. Meaning and law had drowned with everything else, and for now this tiny island was ruled only by what mattered, and the thought, ‘I don’t know what you are, I only know that you are here with me.’
It did not last, it could not last. Soon it rose up around his neck, and he too was plunged under.
Things were slow after that. He looked up from below the waves and saw things without outline, the world gone watery and indistinct. When lightning struck the tower it did not fall but only bent, bowed, and turned gentle. He was sinking, down, down to deeper places. Beneath him there were stars, the firmament pulled inside-out. Travelling further out than he ever had before, center and periphery became one and the same. Past the furthest point of wilderness, he found freedoms too vast to comprehend. Perhaps Francis could make a home of this place, but this poor body could not withstand the pressures, the weight, the deep insistent pull of longings far greater than his own. Below the deeps he came to a place where the laws of the universe were first erected, faced the titan that stood there, and saw that he was headless.
Something wild and uncontrolled in him cried out to go further, to push on past his last limit into impossible possibility, to places where thought was existence and all the oceans of the world little more than a drink in a cupped palm. But he was less and less by instants, and knew that in this he would lose himself, and saw that this would mean the only death that matters.
Francis would have survived down there, creature of the deeps that he was. But never once willingly gone, never.
Observations passed by him like specimens under glass. He was bandaged. He hurt. He lay on a bed. He could not move. There were people he did not recognize.
There was a woman. She wore a white mob cap and apron. She brought him water, she washed his face. He could hardly lift his hand to hold her back when she tried to leave, and when he spoke it brought forth no voice.
There were more people. Their faces smeared in his memory, their voices a deathbed hush. None of them were Francis. In his sleep James was visited by fire, by a world gone loud with shouting, by gun smoke and blood.
And then there was Sir John. James hadn’t seen him in more than half a year now and, oh, how unfamiliar he had grown. James hardly remembered which smile he was to wear or how to clip the rough edges of his sentences. The early morning sun set him ablaze. James hardly dared look.
“Sir John,” he said, clearing his throat against the tremor in his voice.
“James,” and the word was filled with such warmth that for a moment James regretted every worry. “How are you feeling?”
In truth he felt lost and wretched, but that was never to be shown to this man. James managed something like a smile. “Well enough, I suppose,” he said.
It seemed that Franklin could hardly keep himself in hand, though, and soon enough burst out with, “Good God what happened James? The nurses said they’ve never seen injuries like it.”
James, unable to remember how he had ever spoken to him only managed, “The men. How are the men?”
“Your men,” said Sir John, tone paternal, “Report that Captain Crozier’s crew never left the HMS Dahut when they were ordered to, and that there was illness in the base, among other things. Is there a reason you did not contact the admiralty about this?”
This at last dredged the last reluctant pieces of James back to the present. He knew. Sir John knew, but of course he did, the men had no reason to keep James’ secrets. He had given them no cause for loyalty, had hardly seen them for months. And now he understood too all too well that the love between him and Sir John was built on sand. He could feel it shift and slide under his feet.
“I don’t remember,” he said. It was a weak bluff, he knew, but his head had been bandaged, and he thought perhaps this may win him sympathy.
Sir John’s eyes were shallow. “Then I am north this morning,” he said, “I shall check on your recovery upon my return.”
Two hours from now, perhaps James could have mustered a reply, but in this moment he was too recently awake, still could not remember the sensation of solid ground. He knew that Franklin understood this as a betrayal, and he was not wrong in that. The geography of James’ world had undergone a tectonic shift, and he could no longer point to which direction his loyalty once lay. There was nothing more to say between them.
It was only after Sir John left that James noticed the sound of birdsong and the flowers left by his bedside. The breeze carried the scent of the seaside. Across from him there was a painting, the kind which adorned so many tasteless middle class walls, a sloop casting nets as gulls circled overhead. Her crew of honest working lads, all burly cheer, hauled with enthusiasm under the bright sun. He knew then that it was lost to him, that world of pleasantries and propriety, which welcomed his sea-roughened hands only as the means by which charming tales were made, and he felt nothing at all,.
Sitting sent his head spiraling and brought bile to his throat, but it was merely another thing to be weathered. He moved by inches, his body rebelling at every turn. Legs thrown over the bed’s edge sent blood falling from where it was most needed, and he raised himself with measured breaths, slowly, slowly, hands resting against his thighs, half bent.
He had no means at his disposal, hardly had the strength to keep himself upright, but he could not stay. Not here, no, perhaps in a clay brick hut or potter’s shed, he could have stayed, but in this place he would find no rest. He could not fit himself between these four narrow walls without cutting off entire new-grown limbs. And so there only remained to throw himself again to the mercy of a heedless God. There were other kinds of death as well.
Dressing was a haphazard affair, and achieved exactly to the extent he was capable. Evidently Sir John had not seen fit to treat him like a criminal, or at least believed his injuries too severe for him to make the distance, because he was met with no resistance upon exiting his room. James felt strangely numb to it, weightless and loose. More than his own legs, it was a stolen broom which carried him through the hospital.
There through the grimy panes of the door he could see Sir John’s carriage still waiting for its man, along with its driver.
Tossing the broom aside and bursting through the doors, James cried, “Archie!” with gusto he did not have. “There’s been an incident on Erebus and I’ve been ordered to the dockyards immediately. Sir John says I’m to have one of the horses and that the pair of you will follow soon after.”
It was an absurd plan, he knew, and it staggered James to hear it leaving his lips. If it failed he had not the strength to flee.
“Those are his orders, Sir?” asked the driver. Not skeptical, no, but uncertain. He worried the reins with his thumbs.
“It is of the utmost urgency, we cannot waste time.”
Archie was a stolid man, not terribly bright but dependable, and James did truly feel ashamed for using him so egregiously. James realized then that he wasn't looking him in the eye, no, Archie was looking at the bandage on his forehead. Oh, James could only imagine he looked a fright, bloodless and thin as a nail.
“I’ll just go check with Sir John, shall I?” said Archie.
Franklin must have voiced no whisper to him of the suspicion that James was under, for he saw no reason not to leave James alone with the horses. He knew this would take Sir John away from him forever, and he found he did not care.
Feeling came back to him as he rode, finally firmly anchored back in his own body, and oh, it was almost more than he could bear. He could barely keep a grip on the horse, his head spinning mercilessly. A mile out of the city stopped and lashed himself to the animal with rope wound round the waist and thighs so he would not fall.
He was dying. He could only hope he would live long enough to reach the HMS Dahut before Sir John. Perhaps they were dying, but if so it must be on their terms. And Francis - he must be alive still, had the men not risen against him. There were so few of them left, though, and so weak. And Francis, just the thought of him made James sick with worry. Then he vomited from atop the horse.
It was a full day’s ride from Saint John, much of which James spent in a state of near unconsciousness, only maintaining his seat on the horse by virtue of being tied to it. But he could not let himself rest. His hands were black on the reins, blood in his mouth. He only hoped that death would be merciful for a precious few hours more.
Francis would understand, he was sure of that. Francis understood better than anyone else alive. And James knew that no matter how far out he was driven, he would always find warmth. He loved Francis all the more for that.
He arrived without ceremony, aching through everything he was made of. Blood plastered his shirt to his arm. He more fell than dismounted from the horse.
The wounds from the flood were stark on the Dahut’s wooden walls, which curled and bulged where it met the ground. Inside he was greeted by haunted stares, eyes which caught and clung, and how very few of them! He suffered to stand upright and did not meet a single eye, his path as straight and unwavering as he could manage, to the lighthouse door. He was certain he made an arresting picture. His hair was a snarl, eye sunken and bleeding, bleeding not just from his wounds but his nose and his nailbeds.
He was set upon by Blanky with Dr. Stanley in tow, the doctor loudly insisting that in the condition he was found he should not even be out of bed. James knew the horror in their gazes was not for his sake, despaired at the thought of what he may have interrupted by his arrival. He had no doubt of conspiracy. Others hovered around, gray and wraithlike. James passed them all by.
Never had the great oak lighthouse door weighed so much, nor had the familiarity of the room come as such a shock. The armchairs were still in place, and there was Francis sat in one. At a glance it could have been like any other evening, but for the water damaged hems and legs and the darkness in Francis’ gaze. The surprise on his face gave way in an instant to anger, and after a startled “James!” he swooped down on him to pull closed the door and seal out the listless flock of men who had followed.
“James what in God’s name are you doing here?” he asked.
“I had to come,” James managed, finding himself near to collapse the moment the need left him.
Francis looked more himself than James had feared, though orange tendrils slipped from every gap in his fabric. Seeing him now was like seeing him anew, and James felt the prick of tears in his eyes for it. They were the same, really, only Francis could never hide it.
“Sit down, you look like death,” and Francis by his elbow took him and deposited him in one of the chairs.
He was shaking, his hands trembling so badly he had to grip his knees to still them. Francis looked well, he assured himself. He alone of them would see the end of this, James was sure. Whether from some weakness of his own or the whims of the world, James was grateful that of all of them it would be Francis. James had chosen this, while Francis had fought every inch. Still fought it. James admired that.
“But you can’t have ridden all the way from Saint John, not in your condition,” he said, his voice soft, crouching next to James’ chair.
James was frightened by the weakness in his voice. “I couldn’t stay, not there. Francis - Francis I saw -”
Francis’ eyes were too much to look at, that new dawning sorrow that James too was ruined for the civilized world. He closed his own and heard Francis whisper, “Oh James.” James’ hand was taken in both of his long, pale ones and James felt the press of his lips. James wanted to lean into that comfort. He was so very tired. If he could finally sleep...
He came back to himself with a start. “He’s coming - Sir John. You need to take the men, get them out. It isn’t safe for any of you.”
James tried to stand but found he could not so much as push himself up off the chair. Francis stayed him with a gentle hand on his shoulder.
“You stay right here,” he said, “You don’t move. I’ll send for Dr. Stanley. I’ll - God in heaven, James I -” and then head whipping around cried, “Oh Christ!”
It took James entirely too long to realize that this was not an exclamation of frustration, that in fact the room had begun to fill with smoke. It filtered in around the edges of the door like a vengeful ghost. James did not have it left in him to be afraid.
“Francis,” he croaked, “Francis the men - there was talk of the curse only ending with your death.”
“From what quarters was this talk?”
James clenched his teeth, which made his jaw ache. He had hoped to avoid this, knew it would be like a knife to the stomach for Francis, but it must be done. In a tomb-hollow voice he said, “It was Mr. Blanky.”
He expected Francis’ face to crumple, his hands to slip from James and for him to draw back as if struck, but he only nodded, a soft smile on his lips. “He may be right yet, James,” he said.
“God, Francis, Francis no.”
He realized then what he had set in motion with his arrival, the looks on the men’s faces when he arrived. Blanky’s face swam before his eyes. How long had it been, and what had passed here since he left? He had come riding in to save them without realizing that the ground under their feet was so near to collapse. Francis knew already, God in heaven, had already accepted it.
“If there’s a fire we need to get those above us out,” said Francis, looking to the stairway, “They can’t save themselves, and neither of us are fit for the job.”
He rose from his crouch, moving with a certainty James had never seen before in him. Smoke poured into the room as the door opened, turning the air milky and foul. James sat numb, the love sucked from the room through that open door. He had never truly become one of them, after all, still the stranger, the near-enemy who had been thrown in their midst.
He was fit for nowhere, then. Nowhere save for the strange space he shared with Francis.
James could hear Francis’ bellow from his limp position in the chair, and this too was a shock.
“To me, men!” he cried, “To me! There are souls in the lighthouse who cannot save themselves. We need every hand!”
Bodies rushed past James. Whatever else the crew here may believe of Francis, mutinous or loyal, their love for their fellows was genuine and deep felt. The fallen outnumbered the well now. Those that remained had not the strength to carry much weight, but they pushed through all the same, heaving their fallen comrades on shaking shoulders.
James was lifted ungenerously by a man he did not recognize, hauled like a bundle of rags. Under the circumstances, James could hardly protest, but humiliation took him all the same. It was only after several minutes that he realized it was Little, his face so covered in growths that there was nearly none of him left. He could hear Francis directing the evacuation, his voice booming.
James was deposited on the cliffs along with the men who were no more. Slowly, as the men ceased their efforts and gathered in a disorganized band, James found it in himself to rise to his feet, clutching at the boulders nearby. Franics hovered over him, trying to take James’ arm for balance. James was weak a newborn fawn, but huffed and batted away the supporting hands.
Eyes were on him, but still more were on Francis. He stood on the cliff’s edge, his hat missing, his coat torn and burned. He was larger again now, gigantic, really. But there was no evidence of the vanishing in him, and he stood tall, majestic and eerily beautiful. There was no denying the stark truth of what he was, but after the horror of the evening not a soul batted an eye. For once Francis did grow surly under the attention but raised his head and met their eyes. For the first time he looked like the man who had conquered both poles, and now James understood.
Backlit by firelight James could see the gathering mob. There was real anger there, an anger that could only be born of grief.
“Men!” Francis cried standing on the clifftop, “It appears we are at our ends. The wreck of the Terror is unsalvageable and we have watched our brothers disappear one by one. I have kept myself separate for far too long. I know what has been running through your minds, and in truth it has not been far from mine as well. This curse was visited on me, and if you believe that it will only end with my death, and if that is the only way to save our friends, then I am willing to submit to it. If that is the only thing I can give to you, then I will give it.”
James felt as if he had been physically struck. A murmur went through the crowd, an unsettlement. And then a cry. And then a shot. Blue poured from Francis’ belly. He fell forward over himself. James threw himself at Francis, though he had no strength to hold him up. Together they sunk to the ground.
Then clifftop was wild with noise and motion. James couldn’t see a weapon. They had all been in the lighthouse, it would be all too easy for one of them to slip to the top and take one of the guns. The mob flung themselves every which way as James tried to drag the pair of them back to their feet. They had to get out, they could not stay, and James could hardly lift himself. He was clung to with limbs he didn’t have words for as Francis swayed.
And then James heard a familiar voice, “- get away! James! Get out of there!” before it was again drowned under.
He turned. The chaos had erupted into an all-out war, men grappling each other and wrestling over weapons, shots ringing out. And then in among them he saw him, Sir John.
“We need to go,” he said with urgency. Francis, God bless him, managed to recover his feet under him and drag himself agonizingly up, up until they were stumbling, crashing toward the docks. James again pushed past the limits of his own body, knowing that either way he would die.
Against the wild motion beside them, their pace felt like a crawl, moving by inches. “We can get to one of the boats,” James was gasping, “or you could swim. We can still get out of this.”
Francis did not reply. James hardly expected him to, needed to save his every breath for motion. His left shoulder more compromised than it had ever been, James had to make do with wedging his right under one of Francis’ arms. He could feel himself bleeding, from the forehead, the nose, and, god, he could not tell how much of the rest of it was sweat.
By some miracle they managed to carry themselves to the docks and past, down to the beach. The fire filled the water with eerie, red light. It was a long time the two stood staring, the distant sounds of fighting echoing back at them off the sea’s face.
“Go on then,” he said.
He could feel more than hear Francis’ rejection, a hardening of the muscles. “And where would I go? Just leave you to die?”
“I was always going to die, Francis.”
“James,” was all Francis said, his done a flat refusal.
James ended up bodily dragging the pair of them into the sea, the freezing water flooding his boots and numbing his feet, leaving him gasping, knocking the breath from him. But for Francis it did make a difference. He let go of James’ arm and waded deeper, up to his waist. In that night’s strange firelight, he looked otherworldly, his borders unclear, parts of him branching out and escaping, and lit as if from within. The gray-blue blood on his front formed empty splotches, cutting through the light reflected in him.
But then again a cry, “James, get back!”
There was Sir John, raising his gun, the basset hound who had wrest the fox by his neck. James, with a cry of “Hold your fire!” thrust himself between gun and target.
Francis too cried out for him to halt. To this Sir John only looked baffled, and James with mounting horror realized that he was watching one man unable to recognize another’s humanity.
The air was still and the sounds of battle muffled. The sea was at rest tonight, shining in reflected flame. James could hear Francis breathing next to him, wheezing around his injury. Sir John stood in indecision, his weapon held at tension, the waves just lapping the tips of his boots. James’ feet were cold.
“James, come here,” Franklin said slowly, as if he were reaching a hand to a lost child, ”I don’t know what you’re doing but I will overlook what happened to my horse if you stand down.”
Francis, his face cut deep with anger, had come up beside James. A heavy hand fell on James’ shoulder, and he felt himself sink a small ways into the sand. Francis said, “And if you hadn’t cared more about money than lives, perhaps none of us would be here.”
James made to grasp him with a hand. “Francis -”
“Or if you had not sent me north to get such an ill-fitting choice away from your niece -”
“Do not say another fucking word, Francis, do not.”
Sir John’s eyes narrowed, his scowl deepening, but James saw no recognition light on his face. Francis looked, well, utterly monstrous at that moment, looming over James and hardly able to keep his shape stable. To a stranger he must look as if he were trying to rip James to pieces.
Francis took another step forward and James grabbed for him. Whether he understood what was happening or no, Sir John was taking aim.
James opened his mouth to speak and issued forth only blood.
A crack sounded, echoing between cliff and sea. James flinched, tripping against Francis, who somehow remained steady. He did not fall. A long, terrible moment passed like a ship dragged scraping across rock. He felt the sea around him, and knew it too was listening.
Sir John fell to his knees. Behind him, Blanky stood with a stone held in both hands. The look on his face was not triumph but distress.
“We’d best get out of here, Francis,” he said.
James’ knees gave out in relief, but Francis, perhaps sea-hardened, somehow kept him aloft. Together they hobbled for the shore, James appalled by his rapidly growing weakness. It had taken his last, this. There was nothing left in him. James could hear Francis murmuring something, but it was as though his ears were packed with cotton.
He was lain on the sand in a dry place, something warm wrapped around him. Things came back to him, watery and half-dissolved.
Francis’ crew had emerged, most stumbling down the slope, but James could see faces peering down from the cliff’s edge. What happened to Sir John’s men, James could not say, but he knew far too well what desperation can awake in a man.
Francis was among them, talking. James could not make out what was being said, but what he could see on their faces was not loathing. They were so very few, gathered around Francis in a small cluster, bloody and singed.
Then Francis roared, “To the boats!”
A cry went up, a cheer, the likes of which hadn’t been heard in months. They burst into motion, like souls just freed from prison. They moved with determination, their eyes full of steel, not joy. Franics was deep among them. He could not haul for his wounds, but when he spoke they listened. They carried down food, they carried down the fallen, and all were loaded onto ships little better than rowboats.
James wasn’t sure how he made it to the boats, whether it was by his own power or otherwise. As they drifted into the sea, he could see the lighthouse, yellow and red in the glow of the smouldering wood. Shadows passed over it, black mouths yawning, and then a breaking rumble. It toppled, craning, crumbling, crashing down onto the main hall.
Slowly, bit by bit, he faded. He wasn’t sure how long it took, minutes or hours. He didn’t know their direction, hardly heard a word that was spoken, but he felt the rocking of the waves beneath him, and saw Francis’ eyes, the desperation in them. He was nearby, James could feel the warmth from him even when he could no longer hold his own eyes open. The sound of the sea muffled the shouting, everything was smothered under, and he was gently sinking down.
There were hands on him, then, and voices, but none of it passed through to understanding.
The next thing he was aware of was a desperate thirst. His throat burned with it, choking, scorching, so much so that it wrenched him back from dreams of fire. He must have called out for water, because soon a drink held to his lips, but his limbs were too heavy to move and as soon as the pain faded he was dragged back down into sleep.
In his dreams he saw the sea, as still as a mill pond. So much a mirror to the sky that the edges faded and vanished. He stood alone in the centre of a great sphere of blue, so vast and open that all possibility seemed only beyond the horizon. Ah, but he would not go, no, it was peaceful here. He longed so badly to rest.
He found himself again changed, and by what healing he could not know. He had receded, pulled back by demanding compromise with survival. And he was lesser for it, and mourned the loss, but marked by a newfound hybridity and strength. If there was no place for him, he would carve it out.
The next time James awoke there was a man he did not recognize. He sat on a chair a few yards away, head bowed and deep in concentration over a desk, worrying at a pen with his teeth. James’ first thought was that he looked like a morose bulldog, rather heavy and with thinning hair. And oh, oh God.
“Francis?” he croaked, his voice frighteningly brittle.
Francis jolted, pen dragging a dark blotch across the page. He whispered James’ name, and something in his tone made James feel very bare. “Are you back with us, James?”
His eyes were large and nearly luminous with the way the daylight caught them. Or rather, they had grown a touch wet. Francis crossed the room in a matter of strides and seated himself in the chair James had not noticed next to the bed.
“You’re shorter than I expected,” was what James mumbled.
Francis let out a noise which wasn’t quite a laugh, something manic and desperate taking residence in his face. “All these weeks and that’s all you have to say to me?”
“How long -”
“A month, nearly. The doctors - Christ, James, none of us knew if you were going to wake at all. They said, ah, but you’re - how are you feeling?” Francis fluttered around James, uncertain, not quite reaching out to him.
“Tired, mainly. Francis, what happened? Where are we? How did you -” He tried to gesture but found he could not lift his hand. Francis took it in his own and ran a thumb across the knuckles, a gesture so natural that James could only wonder how often it had been repeated while he slept.
“I don’t fully understand it, myself. Are you certain you want to hear it all, James? You’ve only just awoken, you should rest.”
“I can’t, not without knowing.”
Francis let out a breath, squeezing his hand and with the other reaching to fuss with James' hair, brushing it away from his face. “We sailed north,” he said, “I don’t know why it was north save that I suppose we preferred uncaring nature to death at the hands of people who are supposed to be our friends. You were in a bad way, God I - a couple hours in and I could barely stand, myself. I can’t account for it, but as we sailed the men started to come back from it. Whether it was being at sea again, or burning down that awful place, or - I really could only guess. We held a meeting, and by all hands decided to sail for Saint John to secure medical attention for the injured.”
“Most. It wasn’t easy. The, ah, the things on them fell off and they left behind - well, not all survived. But many. Many more than any of us expected.” A fragment of a smile flashed across his face. “I hope you don’t mind I made your sickroom my office, it was the only way I could secure you anywhere to rest away from the wards.”
Francis smiled. It creased his eyes. James wasn't sure he had ever seen Francis smile before.
It was three more weeks before James was able to so much as walk across the room, most of which was spent half-dozing. Francis worked ceaselessly, either writing letters or tending to James. He viewed it as nothing less than his utter duty to see that his men were well cared for, that the injured received treatment, the hale were welcomed back to the bosom of the navy, and that the dead were returned to their families, or tendered funeral arrangements. So much did this consume him that James would sometimes wake in the dead of night to find Francis still writing, the sickly candlelight deepening the creases of his face. Occasionally James could coax him into lying with him.
They were not easy months, James recovering gradually, as nails grow. But Francis, though he fussed, proved a steadier presence than any James had ever in his life. Like this they fell in love for the second time. If he had feared it would not survive being transplanted then all the more fool he. They talked ceaselessly. It was the only thing that carried him through the bedrest.
His arm never fully recovered, and even months later he could not walk any significant distance without the aid of a cane. Perhaps this was why Sir John showed him such mercy, seeming to have decided that his new infirmity was punishment enough for his actions and merely tendering him an honourable discharge. And that was a kindness, truly, much as James resented it quite loudly in private. Though Sir John’s recollection of that night was notably confused, the horse theft alone could have granted him a prison sentence.
Francis retired in solidarity. Or, at least, that was how he presented it to James. Most likely he retired because he could not stand another minute wearing that uniform. James had been on the receiving end of enough tirades about naval incompetence to know full well Francis’ feelings on the matter.
He strengthened, his wounds healed, and his hair grew glossy and clean. He never lost the cane. At three months, once they were confident James was well enough to be moved, they returned to England. Francis through contacts in the Discovery Service managed to secure them both positions with the Liverpool Observatory at Waterloo Dock.
It was not an easy life, as life never is. To be back at the mouth of the River Mersey felt like a mockery of James’ injuries. The work would leave him aching. But it was manageable, even when he was at his lowest, and interesting moreover. His head for numbers made him a valuable asset for coastal engineering. In Liverpool he could make the company of old naval friends if he wished, and when restlessness took him he could arrange for a small sloop to sail to some rugged spot and assist with surveying efforts.
And then there was Francis. Given Francis’ natural affinity for command and surprising expertise at magnetism, he was given ever greater leadership responsibilities, which he took to with an energy James had not yet seen in him.
Neither could tolerate the city, preferring to travel a short distance by boat. Their home was little more than a single floor, but it felt huge and empty compared to anything in their life before. Slowly, life accumulated in it. In plants and pans and falling leaves and dog eared books. And though never again could James bear a salon, or love a crowd, or keep the company of any other than the strange and outcast, neither did he feel the urge to throw himself to the wilds or dash himself upon the rocks. Like this, they lived.