Like a snake he crawled on his belly after the others and begged wretchedly to come with them.
Freezing stones burnt his worn flesh.
Though he called desperately for his Captain, none of the men disappearing below the curve of the landscape ahead looked back at him.
In the end all his hard work and love meant nothing.
In the end no one would spare him even a goodbye.
He scorned death in his heart. He would not surrender to it.
He Imagined his goal; his Captain before him. He struggled towards Crozier. Never a thought for what he would do if he could catch him.
Reaching him was a greater need than food, water, even air. He needed his Captain.
Thomas woke up in his bed.
He could barely walk, but he managed to prop himself up with an ice pick.
He looked out of the tent and saw the reality of his nightmare. He had been abandoned with the sick.
A death sentence. Without a last meal. Damn god and damn the captain’s blood. What did I do to deserve such a fate?
He noticed the other man in his tent watching him in a sad, confused daze.
“William, you should drink some water.” Jopson’s voice cracked dryly.
Wentzall shifted weakly in his bed, an empty drinking flask fell from his blankets and clattered on the ground. He reached his hand out desperately but he did not have the strength to get it.
Slowly, Jopson limped over to retrieve the flask and refilled it after using it to break the thin layer of ice on the tent’s water pail.
“You should try to conserve that.” Jopson advised as handed it back to Wentzall, who smiled gratefully at him.
“Thank you, sir.” Wentzall forced in a scratchy whisper before taking a sip.
With pain as his mistress, and only one good leg, Jopson struggled to don his coat and then limp into the next tent.
“Wait.. where are you going?” Wentzall asked fearfully, but he was barely audible.
Jopson encouraged the sick to wake and berth in one tent. To drink and eat. He was the only one with the strength to open the cans and he’d be gone soon.
Those who would wake pushed little envelopes, gold chains and watches at him, muttering the names of their loved ones with their last breaths.
“I’ll come back for you all. I promise.” Jopson told them as he left.
He ensured he was taking promethean matches, a water flask, one Goldners’ can and a compass. His pockets were fit to burst with additional paper notes and watches.
He was armed with his pick and Lieutenant Little’s pistol.
Little, Le Vesconte and a few other men were huddled in one of the many tents still belonging to the larger group, eating from the Goldners’ cans.
A fierce, northernly gale battered the tent canvas.
“Something’s coming… down from the North.” Little warned in foreboding.
The others fell quiet. There was a strange sound in the wind. A distorted moaning.
Little peaked out of the tent. Le Vesconte shuffled beside him but everyone else coward together and watched them.
“Can you see anything?” asked Le Vescotne.
“I can hear it… it sounds like something big.” George Chambers cautioned from behind them.
“The monster?” Helpman questioned and clung fearfully to the back of Le Vesconte’s tunic.
“I… don’t know.” Le Vesconte answered.
Slowly, Little stepped out of the tent with his rifle at the ready and looked around.
It was difficult to make anything out in the whirling mists surrounding the camp.
The haunting cries grew louder. Little could make out a tall, black smudge coming up the hill. It did not appear to be two legged.
Little was shrunken pupiled, white as snow and trembling from fear as he hurried back into the tent. He scrambled to hide behind the others and bury his head under the covers.
They watched him in confusion. There was a silent consensus that if Lieutenant Little was so frightened, whatever was coming must be truly horrible.
Helpman fidgeted and whimpered at the thought of it. “We’re dead, we’re dead…”
“Be quiet. I want to listen!” Le Vesconte hushed.
“It’s a ghost!” Little stammered.
“Rubbish. Don’t be such a coward!” Le Vesconte snapped.
“Alright then.” Little gulped, half petrified, he walked slowly out of the tent again. “I’ll go… I’ll go. I’m the one it wants.”
“Edward! Don’t!” Le Vesconte whispered.
When he looked at the shape again, Little soon realised how wrong he was, but by now nearly all the men in camp were cautiously regarding the gaunt figure stumbling into camp with an ice pick as a cane.
Jopson’s face was red with weeping, dark shadows ringed his eyes. He screamed so desperately he nearly tore his throat, and afterwards tasted blood.
“I am abandoned and bleeding! I am lost and no one can find me! I’m sick and no one can cure me!” he wailed, his voice growing weaker as he wore it down.
The other men gawked at him in fear and astonishment.
To them he was either a walking corpse or a lunatic.
Some men were so frightened of his screaming they hid themselves away, even after recognising him. Others examined him cautiously, from a safe distance, with their guns.
“Captain! You have killed me! I’m dead and no one can help me!” Jopson fell to his knees in the middle of camp and wept, “Where is my captain!?”
Little and Le Vesconte hesitated to approach him.
“No one fire! Everyone put your guns down!” Little shouted.
Only half the men still had an instinct to obey him.
“Please, don’t hurt him.” Little implored.
“The men can do as they please, Edward. You’ve no authority to tell them not to put him down if they think he’s dangerous.” Said Le Vesconte.
“Show them you’re not mad Thomas!” Little beckoned urgently.
“Where is my Captain!?” Jopson wheezed desperately.
“He’s not here.” Little informed him shakily.
“Not here?” Jopson gasped. His scorn was immediately quelled. His eyes turned cloudy. Now he sat and stared emptily at Little and Le Vesconte. “… then where is he?”
“Thomas, you must show the other’s you’ve not gone mad, they’re all frightened of you.” Little cautioned.
Jopson looked around in confusion and fear at the men surrounding him. “What should I do?” Thomas whimpered, his eyes now shimmering with desperation for Little’s help.
Slowly, afraid he may be shot along with Jopson, Little approached with his hand held out.
Jopson took it and Little helped him stand.
There was a gunshot fired, immediately followed by another, Thomas clamped his eyes shut and ducked behind Little.
When he opened his eyes again, he saw that one of the men in the ring had taken a shot at him but missed, and Little had in turn shot and killed the attacker.
“Who was that?” Jopson asked sadly.
“Pocock. I- I think.” Little answered exhaustedly.
“He’s nobody now.” Le Vesconte reminded coldly.
Little put an arm around Jopson's shoulders and guided him carefully into a tent. He helped the lad out of his coat and into a bed.
“Sorry, I smell like a thousand-year-old armpit.” Jopson murmured shyly.
“We all do.” Little assured him.
Mr Helpman brought him some tea and seemed relieved that Jopson was alive, but none of the others dared to go near him.
“You alright?” Helpman smiled.
“Edwin, in my coat pockets there’s watches, trinkets and letters from some of the sick men who were left behind, would you please take care of those for me? I don’t think I’ll be returning to England.” Jopson panted exhaustedly.
Helpman nodded sadly and began sorting through Jopson’s coat, which Little had folded up and placed nearby.
Le Vesconte lingered in the tent entrance with his arms folded. “Something’s off about this. It's not possible for a mortal man to walk thirty miles in his condition.”
“Maybe he’s getting better.” Said Little.
“It sounds as if you’ve been hauling in circles, sir. I traveled only twelve miles in six hours to catch up with you. And I traveled lightly.” Jopson explained meekly.
“Am I to believe a miserable manservant has a better sense of navigation then me?” Le Vesconte snorted.
“Why not? Mr Bridgens had better medical knowledge than you, sir.” Jopson reminded.
“I don’t believe you are Thomas Jopson. You’re something that’s ran away with his corpse.”
“You shut your mouth, Le Vesconte!” Little growled defensively.
“I’m not the only one thinking it, Edward.” Said Le Vesconte. “The other men are frightened; they need a scapegoat. There’s talk of burning him.”
“We must not revert to such barbarism.” Little insisted.
“Please, sir… where is the Captain?” Jopson muttered weakly and pulled at Little's tunic.
“I’m the Captain now, Thomas.” Little doted.
“Is he dead?” Jopson asked fearfully.
“I don’t know… the mutineers took him captive before we moved out.” Little confessed reluctantly.
“Why have you made no attempt to rescue him?” Jopson gasped in horror.
Jopson followed Little’s sad gaze, aimed at Le Vesconte.
Le Vescotne glared at both of them.
Jopson awaited some sort of answer from the Erebite Lieutenant.
After a long hesitation he gave one, “Crozier told us not to waste time going after him. To March south.”
“Admiralty protocol to rescue the captain outweighs the captain’s orders.” Jopson argued.
“There’s been a vote. Now all the men can do as they please. We all want to march south. Abandoning the sick and the Captain was no more drastic a decision than abandoning our ships. We do what we have to do to survive.” Le Vesconte reasoned.
“Do you actually intend to get home, sir?” Jopson asked with a disappointed and skeptical squint.
Le Vesconte nodded seriously.
“And after breaking every protocol what exactly do you intend to tell the court-martial?” Jopson questioned.
“Whatever I need to tell them to save my neck!” Le Vesconte bellowed.
“We’ll worry about court-martials when we actually get back to England.” Little advised.
“I have no intention of going back.” confessed Jopson. “…And yet, without the threat of a court-martial or the rules of the admiralty, I want to find Captain Crozier... or whatever's left of him. I see now how wrong I was, to curse him in my heart on the way here. He is not the one who abandoned me. You two… are the traitors.”
“You dig your own grave here with that talk, boy!” Le Vesconte yelled and stormed towards Jopson. “Call me a traitor again and I’ll throw you in the fire myself!”
“Traitor! Defector! Renegade! Judas!” Jopson called fearlessly, further provoking Le Vesconte’s wrath.
Helpman grew frightened and fled the tent.
Little stood up from where he was kneeling at Jopson’s side and grabbed Le Vesconte by the collar with ferocious force, “You keep away from him or I will cut your throat!”
“Try explaining that one to the admiralty!” Le Vesconte retorted.
“I won’t have to! I’ll cut your throat and then I will kill myself after!” Little roared. “Get out! Get out!” he shouted and forced Le Vesconte back.
Le Vesconte struggled out of Little’s grip and showed himself out.
Little pulled at the ropes on the tent entrance and knotted them tightly. “I suppose you still think I’m a traitor and all the other things too. And you still don’t trust me.” Little grumbled as he tried to make the tent more comfortable. “But listen, I tried to organize a rescue party for Captain Crozier but Le Vesconte wouldn’t have it. I couldn’t very well take on the mutineers by myself, they have guns. I’d be letting myself get shot for nothing!” Little exclaimed.
“…Thank you for protecting me. What would you like for me to do for you, sir?” Jopson asked softly.
Little stared at Jopson in astonishment. He felt a pang of guilt for leaving him behind, and for letting his thoughts turn still more selfish when Jopson offered to do something in return for his protection in such a warm, silky voice.
“…Just get some rest.” Little bade frustratedly and sat down a few feet away from Jopson.
“I will leave tomorrow morning. Before sunrise.” Jopson muttered tiredly.
“Where will you go?”
“Find the mutineers' camp. Save Captain Crozier.”
“All by yourself? But you’ll die!” Edward warned and shuffled closer to Thomas.
“I’m closer to death here than there.”
“Dundy’s not going to hurt you, Thomas. You deliberately provoked him, you know he’s lost his closest friends on this expedition. He considers his allegiance to dead men now. So, he believes he has betrayed nothing.” Edward reasoned.
“…What about the others?”
“I’ll talk to them. I’ll make it safe for you.”
“Come with me, Edward.” Thomas beckoned with big, pleading eyes.
Edward shook his head fearfully.
Thomas looked disappointedly at the floor.
“Please don’t go, Thomas.”
“Those words... coming out of your mouth… how very ironic.” Thomas scoffed.
“… what is your plan? …Just walk in and get shot?”
“Yes, Edward, I’m a complete idiot!” Jopson clucked sarcastically.
“Des Voeux shot Tom Hartnell on sight! For nothing!”
“… I didn’t know Hartnell was dead. If it were you me and him, we would have made a good rescue party.” Jopson said sadly.
“You see? It’s folly.” Edward hoped he was getting somewhere with his persuasions.
“I’ve had to contend with the pressure of being shot on sight many times before, it doesn’t frighten me.” Thomas pressed on.
“Will you try to join them? You are the last person they’d trust.” Edward emphasised.
“… It starts with a stake out. I will try to find out who is in which tent. Then at night I’ll sneak into the tents of the men who seem least loyal to Hickey and try to persuade them over to my side. It’s just like what Captain Fitzjames did in the Egyptian-Ottoman war.”
“You’re not Fitzjames. You’re not made of that.” Edward shook his head.
“It’s the best plan I can come up with.”
“What if you get taken prisoner? Hickey has a personal gripe against you. If he gets the chance, he may do worse things to you then just kill you.”
“I’ll do whatever it takes.”
“Damn your eyes. Why are you so persistent?” Edward sighed.
Thomas smiled sweetly up at Edward, “Because that’s my Job.” He answered.
“Oh Thomas… you’re so…” Edward breathed shyly.
“… never mind. Go to sleep.” He lay down next to the younger man.
Thomas shuffled closer to Edward and rearranged their covers, so they were sharing the extra layers. The warmth and comfort sent them both to sleep very quickly.
Thomas woke up at the crack of dawn, when the civil twilight seeped through the tent walls. He and Edward had wrapped their arms around each other at some point during the night.
Thomas gently wriggled out of the embrace.
It was not until the cold air flooded into the tent through the opened flap that Edward woke also.
“Thomas, wait.” Edward muttered wearily.
Thomas gave Edward one last pitiful look over his shoulder before stepping out.
Jopson was almost immediately ambushed. He struggled against his assailants, but he could not bring himself to use his ice pick on them, so he dropped it. With Le Vesconte’s hand over his mouth he could not shout for help.
Little heard his muffled cries and the rattle of the stones being kicked during the skirmish.
He loaded his rifle and came out of the tent.
Chambers and Helpman began shouting at Le Vesconte, Hammond, Sinclair and the rest of the small rabble harassing the third lieutenant, that they should leave Jopson alone.
Jopson screamed into Le Vesconte’s palm and dug the heels of his boots into the stones as he was dragged backwards, towards the fire.
Little fired a shot in the air, and everyone hit him with their eyes.
“Let him go, lads! This needn’t be a second mutiny!” He bellowed.
“Don’t you understand!? Your authority doesn’t mean anything anymore! We must show the men we are on their side!” Le Vesconte pulled his pistol on Little.
Jopson bit his captor’s hand, nearly losing some of his weakened teeth in the process.
Le Vesconte yelped in pain and threw Jopson backwards, at Hammond and Sinclair, who got to work tying his hands together behind his back and pulling him into the fire.
“Are you really this superstitious or are you just getting rid of me because I remind you that you still have a duty to someone other than yourself!?” Jopson questioned frantically.
“Be silent, you miserable creature!” Le Vesconte barked.
“Let him go or I’ll fire!” Little threatened waveringly.
“You don’t have the guts!” Le Vesconte snarled.
“Le Vesconte! You only let the men have a vote because you don’t know how to take care of them! Take responsibility and stop this hysteria!” Jopson appealed.
“I am in hell!” Le Vesconte screamed. “Hell, Jopson! Why are you trying to appeal to me now!? Don’t you see the men are starving? What use is a man who cannot haul? Other than that his flesh can be used to save the others!”
“Have you lost your mind!? Do you have any conception of what you’re doing, sir!?” Jopson begged fearfully.
Even after escaping from Hammond and Sinclair’s hands he fell to his knees without his ice pick to steady him and was quickly snatched up again. He could feel the painful heat of the flames against his back and hands.
Jopson was no sooner set alight then he was doused in water, Helpman had poured a bucket over the fire.
Having simultaneously wasted water and fire, Helpman had made himself the target of the rabble’s anger.
The other men turned on each other and Jopson was thrown aside.
He started crawling on his belly back to where his ice pick lay. Little quickly brought it to him and helped him stand.
“Run, Thomas! Just get out of here and stay away!” Little begged.
Little went to aid Helpman and the more reasonable half of the men in the fight.
Jopson limped quickly to the outskirts of the camp and took cover behind a boat sled.
He hurriedly took his dampened coat off, nearly yelping from the fear of water seeping through his other layers and fusing his clothes with his flesh. He felt his shirt and trousers worriedly and was relieved to find they were still dry.
He leaned back against the curved belly of the boat behind him and caught his breath.
He could hear the others still fighting and screaming at each other in the middle of camp.
There was a fur blanket and a pair of cold weather slops poking out from beneath the waterproof cover of the boat sled. Jopson quickly bundled himself in the extra layers. He draped the blanket over his shoulders like a cloak. Then he tied the sleeves of his dampened black coat around his neck so he would not have to waste time sorting his possessions out.
He made a steady, determined limp away from the camp.
Dundy isn't a bad guy, he just needs a steak.
Chapter 2: Burn The World
Jopson happens upon some good fortune when he shoots a snow fox for food. The fox was wearing a collar containing a message that could save the expedition.
At the centre of a vast, clean nothingness, Jopson sat down on the uncomfortable stones with a clumsy clatter and caught his breath. His legs felt like jelly after limping for his life from Camp Terror back to Sick-Camp, there was still a long way to go.
His black coat had dried out in the sun by now. He untied it from his neck and put it over his lap.
He had been carrying the one Goldners Can in his pocket since he left the previous day. He put a hole in it with his pick and drank a mouth full of its cold, salty contents.
He set the can down on a flat rock beside him and wiped his lips and bearded chin on the back of his fingerless-gloved hand.
Then he took out of the pocket of his black coat, a needle and bobbin.
With his boat knife he began cutting diamond shaped holes into his fur blanket.
Then he started sewing himself a fur coat.
He remembered one of the earliest, more conversational things Captain Crozier ever said to him.
On that first day out of the British port in 1939, Jopson was repairing a hole in the seam of the Captain’s warn down dinner jacket.
“The Inuit say the most important tool for survival is a needle. If you find yourself out on the tundra, and you can only carry so many things with you, choose a needle over a knife, they say. A hole in your clothes will kill you quicker than thirst or hunger.”
“Urm… might I ask what those people make their needles of, sir?” The boy questioned nervously.
“Out of bone, of course. They make use of every bit of an animal when they kill it.”
Thomas paused in his sewing when he saw a little, white creature approaching him from over the rocky tundra. A fox.
He did not miss the opportunity to shoot it with his pistol. But now he had only one bullet left. And he had intended to have more than one shot at Hickey.
He put his gun down, took another sip from his can, then continued to fashion his new garment.
The white, wolf-fur coat slipped over his skinny frame like a big jumper shirt, but with a hood. It was fashioned similarly to how the natives of that land dressed, but somewhat more crudely made because he had not had the opportunity to see how they did it first-hand, but he did know how to tailor. It made him look like a little polar bear.
It was wonderfully warm, he would shake like a leaf in the cold wind, no longer.
He perked up with excitement when he heard a seagull cawing. It landed to peck at the opened belly of the fox. Jopson took aim at that too.
He hauled himself up with his pick, now that he was trying to move, he realised how restricting and heavy his new coat was.
He’d not seen an arctic fox up close like this before, and he thought it a pretty, dog-like creature. He felt slightly guilty for killing it. Especially when he noticed the collar on its neck.
He took a message out of the tube on the fox’s collar. It was a message from a ship, HMS Investigator, with co-ordinates and instructions on how to be rescued.
Part of his conscience told him the right thing to do would be to go back to the larger group and give them the co-ordinates. The only co-ordinates he was interested in were the ones for the Mutineer camp.
But the thought of his abandonment made him bitter. He reasoned to himself that as he was meant to be dead, and those men had already tried to kill him a second time, it was time for him to become a ghost.
As far as the rest of the world was concerned, Thomas Jopson was a frozen cadaver.
No one mourned him. No one buried him. No one regarded him with any more concern than they did the mud on their boots.
Only one person might have shed a tear for him had he known he were dead. But Captain Crozier believed Thomas was alive. And Captain Crozier needed his help.
He put the message back in its tube and put the collar around his own wrist.
He ate the dead seagull in that sitting, since it was a fresh kill, he had no qualms about consuming it raw.
But he kept the fox meat in a newly sewn pouch of spare material and took the fox skin with him to be dried out and used later.
Once he had finished his work, he felt better than he had in weeks. Well fed, well rested and warm. But the light was waning.
Jopson spent that night in Sick-Camp.
At breakfast he divided his fox meat into halves, the first of which he made into enough broth to feed the remaining sick and himself equally. He knew he would not have been able to eat his own breakfast while listening to the others beg for food, it would have made him vomit.
He was the only one able to use the little cauldron and fire. He limped around doing what he could to make the others comfortable. He brought them all some tea and sipped some himself.
Outside the wind was gentle, and the sun was warm enough for him to take his shirt off and wipe himself down with a hot cloth. Finally, he was rid of that awful smell of sick and stale sweat which had followed him around for weeks now.
He set up a shaving station outside and rid himself of his beard. He looked disappointedly at the sores and bruises left on his face.
Genge was in a bad way, but watching Jopson from his bed, through the open tent flap. “That’s a waste of water, Lieutenant Jopson.” he warned faintly.
“Fear not, Mr Genge. It all comes out of my stores. I’m going away again this evening, and should I be captured or killed I want to make a more attractive corpse.” He informed Genge and the others proudly with a smile and a wink.
Genge smiled. “Don’t die.” He muttered.
Jopson fully cleaned, dried and re-dressed himself before preparing for what lay ahead.
He dressed his legs in the cream-coloured slops, tucked into his boots, and dressed his upper half in the wolf fur coat, which draped down to his knees. He believed this would be the best thing for blending into the landscape while he spied on the mutineers.
As it was quite warm and he needed to be nimble, he wore no additional layers underneath the coat other than his small clothes, and he tied his tools up in a pouch, beneath the coat and against his chest. He also tied his newly fashioned fox fur mittens and hat to cords on the outside of his coat so he could slip them on and off easily.
Before leaving he came to the sick tent again, with two buckets of water. “This is the last of my personal water supply.” He told them. He filled each of their personal flasks to the brim for them. He took out a small, black bottle and placed it next to the buckets. “Drink from the black bottle if the scurvy becomes too painful.” He advised them softly.
They all thanked him in their half-dead murmurs. Jopson fought back some tears.
“Sir.” Wentzall crackled, “You’ve been so kind to us, sir. But I cannot bare it, sir… will you bring the black bottle to me, please?”
Trembling, Jopson gave the bottle to Wentzall and quietly limped out of the foul-smelling tent.
He found Hickey’s camp where it had last been spotted. In the bosom of a shallow valley. He lay on his stomach and peaked over the curve of one of the hillocks. He started to suspect this was the same hill that was above Fitzjames’s grave.
He may yet discover Mr Blanky’s disregarded pocket watch.
He watched the Mutineers go about their business.
He counted five men with guns, Mr Hoar among them. He had suspected Mr Hoar’s backstabbing nature but was still surprised to see how Hickey trusted him with a gun.
Diggle, Hodgson and Goodsir were all still alive, but none could be trusted with weapons or to be alone. Jopson decided those were the men he had the best chance of convincing to be on his side.
Jopson’s ribs started to ache, he checked his watch. He had been surveying for over an hour and there was still no sign of Captain Crozier.
Perhaps he was being held in one of the tents? Could he have escaped or been killed already?
Jopson began pushing himself up and backwards, when he felt a sharp pain hit the back of his head. Everything went black.
When Jopson came to, he was lying atop a heap of blankets in a tent. He could tell it was astronomical twilight. That was about as dark as the sky got during April in this place. So it must have been close to midnight.
His head still hurt. His hands were tied together in front of himself and he had been stripped of everything but his thinnest layers of clothing.
His right leg was still too weak, he had no choice but to try and wriggle out of the tent.
He shuffled himself downwards and tried to untangle the rope of the tent with his feet, but this was impossible with his thick woollen socks on. He started thrashing and kicking.
A bottle of whiskey fell from a crate beside Jopson and smashed on the floor, leaving a pungent golden puddle on the linens there.
“Mr Jopson, Mr Jopson, please!” Called a fragile voice from behind him.
Jopson stilled and craned his head upwards to look behind himself.
He recognised Lieutenant Hodgson, bundled up at the back of the tent, blue eyes wide with trauma like a frightened bush baby.
Jopson heaved a deep sigh and stared helplessly at the ceiling.
“…How do you do, sir?” Jopson forced his polite tone. Right now, this man he considered jittery and ineffectual, might have been the only person who could help him.
“Miserable.” Hodgson admitted.
“We’ll see about remedying that.” Jopson assured with a grin.
“That’ll take some doing.” Hodgson managed a weak smile.
“Might you know how I ended up here? Who was it that struck me on the head?” Jopson asked.
Hodgson crawled closer to Jopson and whispered cautiously, “Des Voeux and Manson caught you spying on us and brought you back here. Hickey said he’d decide what to do about you in the morning.”
“I should very much like for you to untie my hands, sir.” Jopson gave Hodgson one of his winning smiles.
“I tried that already, Jopson. My own fingers feel like they’re on fire with frost bite, and the knot is too difficult for me to undo, I’m sorry.” Hodgson explained regretfully.
“Is Captain Crozier alive?” Jopson finally asked.
“Yes, he is.”
They shared a quiet laugh of relief.
“Oh, thank god. Thank god!” Jopson sobbed. “Oh, where is he?” he begged.
“In the same tent as Mr Diggle, guarded by Magnus Manson.”
“Thank you, George, Thank you.” Jopson gasped gratefully.
Hodgson looked sadly at Jopson. He had wanted to warn Jopson about the cannibalism but the very thought of confessing to it made him feel ill. He had figured out that he was probably next on the menu after Gibson was consumed, but if he could persuade the dark-haired lad to stay until morning, it might be Jopson who is eaten first. That would buy Hodgson more time. His hunger and desperation to survive far outweighed any concern he had for the younger man.
“Are you alright, George? You look like you’re going to be sick.” Jopson asked sympathetically.
“Ah… well… I’m very tired.” Hodgson choked. Manipulation was not the blonde’s forte; he was used to being very honest and open with people and had always expected honesty in return. The last time he told a lie he got a good smack across his face from one of his aunties.
“George, I can’t walk without a cane now… would you please take me to the Captain?”
“The men on watch only let two people in one tent at a time unless Hickey says otherwise.”
“I doubt there is a very disciplined watch out there. Let us just sneak by them.”
“… we should wait until morning.”
“Wait for that scumbag to decide what to do with me? Certainly not!” Jopson protested.
“If I were a braver man… I’d kill Mr Hickey myself… even though it would mean my death too… but I’m hungry and I want to live.” The terrified man confessed. Tears had not stopped dripping from Hodgson’s round, red eyes since Jopson had woken him up.
Jopson shuffled closer to Hodgson and leaned his forehead against the older man’s chest as an attempt to comfort him. Hodgson gave Jopson a fragile embrace in return.
Jopson could smell gun powder and noticed a Match box sticking out of Hodgson’s breast pocket. It was a frequently practiced game for younger explorers, to try and light a match using only one’s teeth. A lifesaving skill in Arctic conditions, Jopson had perfected it over the years but never seriously needed to do it until this moment.
Jopson pulled away from Hodgson quickly as he struck the Match. Hodgson leapt back in alarm.
Jopson spat the lit match onto the bed linens where the whiskey had been spilled.
Hodgson leapt up to stamp the little flame out with his boots, but he was too late, the flames set the whiskey puddle, the linens alight and began clawing its way up the tent wall.
Hodgson yelped in his panic and tore through the far tent wall with a shard of broken glass.
Jopson leapt out after him and rolled forwards and then onto his feet, only to fall to his knees when his right leg gave way again.
The freezing air needled him into near paralysis. He searched for some indication for which tent held Crozier, but his eyes caught an ice pick lying on the stones a few feet away and he crawled towards it.
He saw Des Voeux, rifle at the ready, running over to Hodgson, himself and the burning tent.
“What happened!?” Des Voeux asked furiously.
“F-Fire!” Hodgson stammered.
“I can see that but who’s the vazey bastard that started it!?” Des Voeux snapped.
Jopson had just managed to cut his bonds on the edge of the pick and was about to use it to help himself stand up, when a boot slammed down against the handle, pinning it, and his fingers against the ground.
Jopson was startled when he saw the golden initials of James Fitzjames on the side of the tall, black boot. And horrified when he looked up and saw that the man wearing the boots was Cornelius Hickey.
“Don’t make it worse for yourself, Jopson.” Hickey advised with a cruel grin.
The darkness of twilight yet lingered inside Hickey’s little tent.
Hickey guarded the entrance, sat on a crate with a gun over his lap.
Jopson was lying on the floor, toe to toe with Hickey, no longer bound but with nothing to help him limp away to freedom either.
“Did someone send you here?” Hickey poked with his typical shrewd, rat-faced grin. His eyes sparkled with cunning.
“No.” Jopson said in a low voice, staring angrily at the roof.
“So you were, as Mr Des Voeux put it, wandering the hills aimlessly.”
“I could have you killed at any time, Jopson. But I am merciful. I’ve offered you food and shelter. But you’ve repaid my mercy with brutality and disrespect.”
“The fire was an accident.”
Hickey narrowed his eyes at Jopson and snarled, “Look at me with your bright eyes when you lie to me.”
Jopson shifted his eyes to give Hickey a piercing glare. “I’ll burn the whole camp down unless I get what I want.” He swore.
Hickey sniggered and rolled his eyes, “What exactly do you plan to do once you have retrieved Mr Crozier?”
“You took the collar off my wrist, so you know it contained a message from HMS Investigator with co-ordinates on how to find other English-men with fresh supplies, we can hence forth be rescued.”
“And then I suppose you shall have single handily saved the expedition, Jopson? Imagine. A miserable creature like you.” Hickey snorted.
“Actually, the full credit goes to the little snow fox that delivered the message to me in the first place.” Jopson managed a little, triumphant smile.
“I’ve destroyed the message.” Hickey revealed with a smirk.
Jopson’s eyes widened in shock and he gasped, “Destroyed it? Why!?”
“I have no intention of returning to England.”
“I had few intentions myself when I came upon the message, but it would have been a great help to anyone else who did want to get home.” Jopson reasoned.
“Then why didn’t you turn back and give the message to Mr Little or Mr Le Vesconte?”
“Finding Captain Crozier seemed more important at the time. Had you let me alone, I still would have had time to bring the message and the Captain back to the larger group.”
“I can’t go back.” Hickey emphasised seriously, shuddering at the thought. “And so, I cannot return Mr Crozier to you. He’s going to play an especially important role in the ritual I have planned this evening.”
Jopson continued to glare at him.
“Private Armitage, sergeant Tozer, will you join us?” Hickey called.
“Private Armitage?” Jopson questioned as the other two men entered the tent.
“Take his clothes off.” Hickey ordered lightly.
“Do you intend to freeze him to death?” Tozer asked disapprovingly.
Hickey’s eyes turned from blue to black with dangerous excitement. “I’m just going to give him a little discipline.”
Chapter 3: The Water Is Wide
Thomas clings to the happy memory of his first face to face meeting with Captain Crozier while Hickey tortures and humiliates him.
Gonna be honest, I added the flashback at the beginning just to control the pacing of the story but I think it turned out to tie in pretty well. I know nothing about how their first meeting would have actually went, I'm just having fun with it.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
HMS Terror, London Docks, 1839.
Thomas was barely eighteen when he first set foot on HMS Terror.
He was astonished to find the intimidating floating fortress so nearly deserted that summer afternoon.
Seagulls over head rode on the same industrially polluted western breeze that tugged at his black locks.
Strong yet gently lapping, black waves remained strangled between the quay and the armored shell of Terror’s belly.
The lad crept past the old boatswain, who seemed to be the only man on watch and was snoring away with a bottle of rum in his hand.
He wandered into the wardroom mess. There the scent of the fresh, dark polish coating every oaken surface was nearly suffocating. Never had he been unsupervised in a place so vast and clean as this. He grinned at the thought that he should soon be the sole supervisor of the room. This is practically his. The officers shall be his guests.
“Oh Terror, you are a beautiful, over perfumed thing.” He whispered adoringly as he familiarised himself with everything in the room. Poking his nose in every vacant cupboard. Empty and clean, the way he liked it.
He heard footfalls over head and turned his ear to the sealing.
Muffled by the layers of wood and broken up by the creaking of the lightly swaying timbers, he could hear a man singing merrily overhead.
“The water is wide, I cannot get over~ Neither have I wings to fly~ Give me a boat that can carry two~ And both shall row, my love and I~.”
Thomas continued to check which of the sliding doors lead to which room, then snuck back into the hall and looked around.
Whoever was singing was stumbling slowly down the steps below the main hatch now. “A ship there is and she sails the sea~ She's loaded deep as deep can be~ But not so deep as the love I'm in~ I know not if I sink or swim~. Ouch! Christ! Wooden bitch!” The mysterious, merry chanter had stubbed his toe with a sharp thud on the way down.
Thomas nervously watched this heavy-footed fellow swaggering up the hallway and recognised at once from the man’s rather dishevelled uniform, that he was the Captain.
Thomas regarded his new master; a broad-shouldered man in his late thirties with short, golden hair, longer and unkemptly brushed to the side at the front. Slightly taller than average, but then Jopson was hardly taller than Crozier's shoulder.
With a bust lip and a black eye, and his uniform smelling of alcohol and tobacco smoke, even from a distance of several feet; it thus appeared the Captain had just come out of a bar fight.
The thought of it nearly terrified Thomas into hiding but he forced himself to be seen.
“I leaned my back against an oak--- Oh!” Crozier was startled out of his half-rats shanty when he noticed the unexpected presence of an angelic-faced young man. “Hullo there, I didn’t know there was anyone else aboard. You look a little lost.”
Thomas mumbled something timidly.
“Raise your head and speak up, man!” Crozier snapped at him impatiently with his hands on his hips, but he was grinning.
Thomas straightened his back and spoke more clearly, “You arranged to meet me at three, Captain!”
“Three O’clock… a yes, I did have an appointment with a Mr Thomas Jopson scheduled for three O’clock. Might you be he?”
Thomas nodded shyly.
“I hope I’ve not kept you waiting long. You could say I am late over a bad altercation. It was more like rough play.” Crozier smirked and shrugged. “We’ll talk in the great cabin.” Crozier gestured for the lad to follow him to the back of the ship.
The Captain sat at his little desk and read Jopson’s papers. He looked the boy over again; the lad had a truly immaculate appearance and omitted enough grace, elegance and poise for Crozier to forgive his nervousness and disreputable background.
“Shoulders back and head up my lad. You’re in the navy.” Crozier reminded gently. The lad was prone to stupor and hang his head as many men from his class do, but Crozier wouldn’t keep something slave-like near him and decided he would have to train that trait out of his bright new servant.
Jopson was very malleable under the slightest hint of Crozier’s opinion and corrected himself immediately.
Crozier only needed to glance at his whiskey bottle before Jopson brought it to him.
“You’re younger than I expected.”
“When were you born?”
It said so on the paper but it seemed Crozier did not believe it. It was common for men of Jopson’s class to not know much about the circumstances of their birth, or for them to lie about it. Most did not know who their own fathers were.
Weather it was true or not, Crozier would not hold Jopson in contempt for his class, however, as he’d been on the receiving end of that prejudice enough times.
“You have a very youthful face then.” Crozier concluded.
Jopson found this blunt and nearly brash statement comforting because it created the impression of familiarity. “That’s often said of me, sir.” He nodded, beaming brightly.
How that lovely smile would come to haunt Crozier in the end.
“I have something for your eye, sir.” Jopson offered him a small jar of healing ointment.
“Ah, Thank you. Would you, please?” Crozier gestured that Jopson should apply it to his black eye as he trusted the lad would know what amount should be administered and it was, after all, an unexpected offering.
Jopson’s heart fluttered as he gently rubbed the cold cream into the warm, dark , swelling circle around Crozier’s closed eye.
“Forgive me sir but, you don’t look at all like your portrait.”
There was a certain musculature to his new master's face that had not been correctly captured in that painting. Perhaps it came with age and experience?
“Do you think you could create a superior rendition?” Crozier snorted and smirked.
“No. Sorry, sir.” Jopson lowered his head.
“Keep your head up lad, I don’t want to have to tell you again. You’ve been a liberator of the world, under Captain George Byng, it’s time you liberated yourself.”
“Sir, my only real duty aboard the HMS Racer was to tend to the chickens, sir.” Jopson confessed modestly.
He put the ointment away and cleaned the residue from his hands with a cloth.
“George assured me of your abilities, Mr Jopson. He said you are an incredibly good listener, mature beyond your years and a favourite with the officers. But you don’t get along with lads your own age. He believes you are… what was his way of putting it… a parentified child. What do you make of that?”
Jopson shrugged and shuck his head. He was at a loss at the unfamiliar term and feeling yet more bashful as he was informed of Byng’s recommendation.
“So, you’ve lived in Marylebone your whole life then?”
“I have a prejudice yet to be proven wrong, that people who grew up in cities have a certain… artificial… or is it domesticated attribute to them. But then, tameness and servility are the qualities to be expected in a manservant. You were born into a cage my friend. But stay by my side and I might be able to get you out of it.”
“Thank you very much, sir.” Thomas replied sweetly, though he hadn’t fully understood half of the words he’d just heard and so he could not be offended by them. He was sure the Captain must be a very clever man with all his books, accomplishments and qualifications.
“Are you able to afford a decent cold weather coat? We are, after all, going to be travelling to the heart of the Antarctic.”
“I thought it gets hotter the further south one goes, sir.” Jopson answered in confusion.
“Good god, lad! Haven’t you ever looked at a globe?” Crozier gasped.
Jopson shook his head.
Crozier pointed at his globe on an axis he kept on one of the ship’s many book shelves and snapped, “Go and study it immediately! You’re not to leave this ship to collect your baggage until you can tell me where Coupang is!”
Jopson shuffled frightenedly over to the globe and inspected the tiny writing on it.
He decided he’d take his time. With any luck he’d be whisked away on this fantastic new adventure without his baggage.
- End of flashback -
Jopson let himself become limp as a boned fish.
He saw no point in struggling as Tozer and Armitage quickly disrobed him. He could not walk without the ice pick and Tozer was so much bigger and stronger than him, plus the Sergeant was not dyeing of scurvy.
He would not co-operate or look them in the eyes or try to reason with them. They were things, not men.
Jopson was rolled onto his belly, his bare skin already stung with sores and the cold.
His face was pressed into the course blankets beneath him.
“Keep him down. Tozer, sit on his legs.” Ordered Hickey.
Jopson felt a weight across the back of his legs, putting a painful pressure on his open scar. He could feel and smell the blood beginning to ooze from it.
Armitage gripped Jopson’s wrists and pulled them forwards, held them together above his head, so he felt like a strung-up pheasant.
Then Hickey spoke again, “You never received an order to come out here alone, nor to attempt to secure Mr Crozier. You have set alight to one of my tents, nearly killing Lieutenant Hodgson and yourself, destroying valuable supplies in the process. What will it be, Jopson? …Desertion, dereliction of duty, insubordination, brutality, disrespect... I really have my pick here, don't I?”
“Damn your blood with mine, Mr Hickey.” Jopson rasped dryly.
Jopson swallowed a yelp of pain as he felt the sting of a whip against his back. Hissed when he felt a second lash beside it. The third lash finally drew a stifled whimper.
As he was half starved the whip was hitting virtually nothing but skin and bone. He had never been lashed before, and had always been good at avoiding physical altercation, the torture was thus more painful than anything he could have imagined.
With each strike he began to feel as if his nerves had reached some numbing threshold, only to be proven wrong by a new mark.
Was his body not ruined enough? How much more could he be gnawed at and yet live?
“Thank goodness, you’re awake.” Dr Goodsir sighed in relief.
Jopson looked around himself with heavy eyes, he was in a larger tent now. The yellow beams of sunrise extended through the walls and cast long, faded shadows across the threshold.
He winced at the fiery sting of the open, bloody gashes down his back and up his leg.
“What’s happening?” Jopson’s voice crackled hazily.
“Mr Hickey thought he’d killed you.” Goodsir whispered miserably. “He had you brought here and asked me to… well… make a meal out of you. But you still had a pulse. So, I cleaned and salted your wounds instead. Hickey still thinks I am preparing you… I do not know what he will do when he discovers I’ve deceived him. But I expect he will kill you properly next time, so you should try to get away if you can.”
“Thank you, Dr Goodsir.” Jopson rasped, his eyes glimmering with gratitude. He pushed himself to sit up in the bed. Goodsir helped him.
“You… you don’t seem surprised.” Goodsir stammered nervously.
“After everything that’s happened… no, I’m not. I’ve travelled to the three camps.”
“There’s three now?”
“There may be four. Little and Le Vesconte left the sick behind and then turned on each other. I don’t know if they’ve become divided or if one was triumphant over the other.”
“What was the cause of such a feud?” Goodsir asked in astonishment.
“…they’re two…. quite different men. Difference of opinion… as I’ll put it.”
“Captain Crozier was right when he said you have a way of putting things mildly to make others feel more at ease.” Goodsir smiled sadly.
“He said that?” Jopson felt complimented.
Goodsir nodded and returned to Jopson his shirt, britches and worn, red jumper.
“Thank you. I want to see Captain Crozier. Does he know I’m here?” Jopson asked as he did up his buttons.
“He’s in the tent just next.” Goodsir gestured in the direction. “Hickey has clamped him in irons, you should go to him. If you can, please take as many of the others that will go with you and flee this place.”
“You must come with us, Doctor.” Jopson pressed.
“I will not leave this camp.” Goodsir confessed sadly.
“There is hope, Dr Goodsir. I have a message from the HMS Investigator. They’re looking for us. Perhaps your brother has come to look for you too. Wouldn’t you like to see him again? Hmm? We can find them.” Jopson implored.
Goodsir shook his head and shrugged. “This place is too vast. It is too far to walk with so little food. We could search for each other for years without ever crossing paths.”
“But Doctor, I have the co-ordinates. If we travel lightly, we can make it.”
“I’m glad you’ve got a chance. However, I cannot face my family or myself after what I have done. I did not partake in Mr Gibson’s flesh… but I did cut him to pieces on Hickey’s order.”
“The blame falls on Mr Hickey, not you. And I swear by all that is sacred, he’ll hang for his crimes.” Jopson insisted.
“Is anything sacred anymore, Lieutenant Jopson?” Goodsir despaired.
“You’ve done so much good, Dr Goodsir. We never would have made it this far without you. We need you. The mutineers knew they needed you which is why they kidnapped you in the first place!”
Goodsir hung his head in shame as he brought Jopson the ice pick, he muttered, “Quickly, go to your Captain, now. Before they catch you.”
“If you will not come with us… I’ll bring the rescue party to you.” Jopson avowed.
The Lieutenant steadied himself and found he had more control over his legs now than he had in recent days. But he still needed the pick.
He was not very stealthy as he hopped across the rocky ground.
Manson was stood outside Crozier’s tent with a gun over his shoulder and he stared gormlessly as Jopson limped up to him and assumed a most warm and friendly demeanour.
“Are you alright, Magnus? Do you want me to get you anything?”
Manson gave Jopson a foolish grin and said, “I thought you were dead.”
“Mr Hickey decided to keep me alive because I can fix clothes. He’s sent me to fix Captain Crozier’s coat.” Jopson lied with a sweet smile.
“Mr Hickey said I’m not to let anyone see Crozier.” Manson reported dimly, with eyes clouded like grey pebbles, with no intelligent thought behind them other than to uphold Hickey’s order.
“What harm can I do? I can barely walk, and if I misbehave, a big fellow like you could squash me between his fingers.” Jopson reasoned softly.
“… I should wake Mr Hickey and ask him if it’s ok.”
“Surely there’s no need to disturb the poor man on my account.”
Manson still looked unsure.
“Look. I will leave my ice pick out here with you. I cannot even stand with out it. This way you can be assured that I shall not be making any escape attempts.” Jopson persuaded silkily.
Manson nodded wearily. Something about the Captain’s Steward had always intimidated Manson, who had no real understanding of his own size and strength in comparison to the much smaller man.
It was the way in which Jopson could be unnervingly quiet. If he ever spoke it was discreet, brief, and in a mist of polite nothings. When one looked at him, in a supernatural way it seemed as if they were not meant to look at him. On Terror the other men found it difficult to ingratiate Jopson with their eyes too. If his once handsome and immaculate form was ever regarded, it was through secretive glimpses. For it seemed as if, through some unspoken rule, no one was permitted to see him other than Captain Crozier.
Now the yellow light of morning was turning grey as the white disk of the sun disappeared behind a thin sheet of cloud and appeared like the lure of an angler fish.
Jopson lay his pick on the floor at the mouth of the tent and crawled in, careful not to put pressure on his right shin.
Once he was fully into the warm little tent he sat up and quietly regarded his surroundings once more.
Mr Diggle was awake and staring in astonishment at Jopson, who looked at him with equal surprise at first, then gave a smile and bowed his head in a silent greeting.
Jopson then regarded Crozier; a thinned figure slumped in a half sitting, half lying position, either asleep or too tired to keep his eyes open, with his cold-weather slops jacket crumpled up over himself as a crude substitute for a blanket.
Crozier felt Jopson’s cold, fragile hand on his knee and looked up wearily.
The poor captain had a dark red cut across the bridge of his nose, another two cuts making a cross above his right eyebrow and a small cut across his lips. His hands were clamped in irons behind him. His fair hair had grown longer than Jopson had ever seen it, silver and copper blades of stubble covered his chin.
He was stunned into silence as he stared into the youthful, adoring face of his steward. Jopson looked angelic, illuminated in the daylight. Crozier was nearly lost in the endless depth of the lad’s ice coloured eyes.
“You… how can you be here?” Crozier breathed. He half expected to hear he was home, or in the next world.
“Captain… who did this to you?” Jopson gasped tearily and ran his fingers gently across the wounds on Crozier’s weathered face.
“I took a stumble… I’m alright.” Crozier assured with a smile.
Jopson detected a lie, he returned his hand to Crozier’s knee and squeezed.
"The Water Is Wide" (also called "O Waly, Waly" or simply "Waly, Waly") is a folk song of Scottish origin, based on lyrics that partly date to the 1600s. The loyalists sang it in 'The Bounty, 1984' after being cast away and I thought it was cute. I wanted to make 'Bring me a boat that will carry two, and we both shall row, my love and I' a nod to Jopson and Crozier's relationship, the fact they end up stuck so far away from home after being damned by mutineers.
Chapter 4: Offering
Jopson and Crozier are reunited at last. Unfortunately something very bad has happened to Mr Goodsir and Hickey is still a marauding psychopath leading his Mutineers down a road of death and destruction.
Many a night on Terror, stuck in the middle of that maze, Jopson found his sleep disturbed by a restless Lieutenant Little, rambling to him about things he had no real interest in understanding.
“Does a rock fall to the ground because it wants to, or is there some other mysterious force that drives it? Plato thus questioned. Perhaps it never occurred to him that the forces that draw people together and the force that draws all things to the ground were entirely separate and unrelated.”
“I’d like to know what mysterious force would be required for you to rest more peacefully, sir.” Jopson would often yawn in response.
But Little would not disappear until he had finished unloading his problems and questions for the night. It used to be all by-the-book and civilised.
Things used to make sense, be orderly and clean, and he used to be good at his job.
Now he was savage and purposeless, say for the mysterious pull, natural and unstoppable as gravity, drawing him to Crozier.
Diggle whispered, “Captain, should Jopson and I try to spring your irons? We could make a run for it.”
“Yes, we should leave as soon as possible.” Jopson whispered in eager agreement.
“Jopson, where is Lieutenant Little’s rescue party?” Crozier questioned in confusion.
“Gone, sir. They carried on south. No one is coming to rescue you… sir. We’ll have to get out on our own.” Jopson explained shakily.
“Why didn’t you go with the others?” Crozier asked sympathetically.
“…They had no place for a man who can barely walk, sir.” Jopson felt that was the best way to put it.
“So, you came here all by yourself? Just to tell me that.” Crozier could not help but give a quiet snort at the absurdity of their situation.
“I had to see you, sir.” Jopson insisted.
“You’ve more courage than sense, Jopson.” Crozier chided. Though he shook his head at the recklessness of it, his bloodied lips curled ever so slightly into a smile.
“Hope lives, sir. I have received a message from HMS Investigator. They’re looking for us.”
Diggle grinned and sat up, energised by the good news. But Crozier lowered his brow and gave this some serious thought.
“Does Mr Hickey know about this message?” Asked Crozier.
“I had it on my person when I was captured, sir. Hickey took all my possessions when I arrived in camp, so he read the message. He claims to have burnt it, sir, but I remember the co-ordinates.”
“… If I were Mr Hickey, I’d have killed the men who I did not trust to keep their mouths shut and taken the remainder back to the Investigator. Made up some balderdash about how I had taken charge and saved the others. What I don’t understand is why Mr Hickey hasn’t done it yet.” Crozier assessed.
“He told me he has no intentions of going back to England, sir.”
“He told you what!?” Diggle gasped.
“He said he needs you, sir, and everyone else in camp- for some sort of… ritual he has planned.” Jopson explained.
Diggle and Crozier both looked perturbed by this information.
There came a series of loud, metallic bangs from outside.
Jopson shuffled closer to Crozier and joined him in peeking through the open seam in the back corner of the tent, but there was no way to decern what was happening from there.
“Come out!” Mr Hickey shouted.
Mr Diggle paled and shuddered fearfully. “Something’s happened!” he stammered and scurried out of the tent.
Jopson and Crozier gave Diggle and then each other a concerned and bewildered look.
“Captain… what can I do to help you?” Jopson whispered, staring at Crozier with big, pleading eyes.
“…How’s your leg? Can you run?”
“Hardly, and not without a cane or pick, sorry, sir. You might have to leave me behind.”
“That will not happen.” Crozier swore.
Jopson nodded tearily.
Crozier squeezed Jopson’s shoulder and whispered, “Follow any signal I give you.”
“Captain… I know you think me foolish for coming here on my own.”
“I think you’re very brave.” Crozier assured.
Jopson shook his head humbly. “I wanted to confess to you.”
“Confess?” Crozier raised his eyebrows and then lowered them, he squinted in confusion and shook his head subtly.
“Will you hear me out, sir? Before it’s too late?” Jopson pleaded.
Crozier nodded, still not sure what to expect from the Lieutenant.
“For the past decade and a half my life has been an organised routine. Day in and day out, like a caterpillar’s repetitive motion across a leaf. The worm has no awareness of its place in the bigger picture and no room for growth and change. Yet I am drawn to you like a stone to the earth. I have finally come to ask myself what I have gained from my time with you.”
“Then it would appear, in all your pain and struggle, you have re-emerged from your cocoon of sick bed blankets a new, more reflective man.” Crozier complimented.
“I have always worked to ensure you had everything you needed and more than anything you desired, hoping that maybe… if I impressed you, if I could make you happy, you would depart unto me some careful wisdom. My whole life I have craved the spirit of enlightenment. That is why I wanted to join the discovery service. Even though I’m too stupid and low bread to be anything other than a manservant.” Jopson lowered his head shyly as his appeal came to an end.
“Epistemophile.” Crozier gave a soft, melancholic chuckle, “Who knows what endless forms most beautiful, what great understanding of the universe Thomas Jopson might have reached had he ever had the opportunity of a decent education.”
“I lap up whatever you can spare me, sir.”
Thomas thought he must have gone mad, because he still wanted whatever he could get from Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier. Even though both men were surely spent and close to dyeing, Thomas’s thoughts had not been all about his own survival but still about his duty to his captain.
“If my hands were not bound, I’d embrace you.” Crozier sighed.
Thomas wanted to throw his arms around his Captain and kiss his wounded face.
His desire was pierced by Mr Hickey’s voice calling impatiently from outside, “Come out, Mr Crozier. You too, Jopson. I know you are in there. Manson told me everything.”
Crozier poked his head out of the tent first.
His back and arms were killing him, he had been lying on them for hours, but he didn’t let the pain show, and reminded himself a British officer must always look in control and never whimpers, no matter how much pain he is in.
An exhausted looking Armitage was waiting outside with a gun. The frail, little, shaggy haired lad was struggling to keep his balance and not get blown away in the unrelenting wind.
Crozier stepped out and made a slow, steady path towards the middle of the camp.
He was halted by a growing sense of foreboding. A terror of unknown origin. If he took one more step, he knew he would learn from whence it came.
He raised an eyebrow and watched as Hickey marched past him into the tent behind. There came no sound nor motion indicating a struggle.
Hickey re-emerged from the tent, pulling Jopson by the hair. Jopson’s head was pulled back in Hickey’s grasp, his flashing, white throat thus bared. Something about the image reminded Crozier of a cat with a mouse in its teeth. Jopson kept his half open eyes on Crozier as he was pulled past him again and Crozier gawped at the spectacle.
Hickey released Jopson and let the dark-haired Lieutenant fall to his hands and knees near the middle of camp.
Jopson looked around himself with aching, bloodshot eyes. Before him was a long wooden table where sat seven shadowy figures with red meat on their plates; their heads bowed and their hands together as if saying grace, yet their postures were that of ravenous half-men.
Hickey took his place at the front of the table.
Jopson looked to his left. Des Voeux was standing guard, but unarmed. Behind the Erebite officer, Lieutenant Hodgson was sat on a bean crate, he seemed starkly isolated from the others. One of the blue and white fine china plates Jopson recognised from Terror’s Officer’s crockery set was placed over the blonde’s pressed together knees. He desperately clung to his knife and fork as if clinging to some semblance of civilisation, while the others ate from tin dishes with their hands.
Jopson turned his head right, where he discovered Dr Goodsir’s corpse, lying on an autopsy table with chunks of his flesh cut out. Jopson stared in silent outrage.
He heard a pained grunt from Crozier and looked behind himself.
Armitage was digging the cold steel of his gun into the reluctant Captain’s back, forcing him forwards.
Crozier was not fazed by the gun and he still carried himself with pride. He reminded Jopson of a stubborn ox that did not want to move.
Jopson altered his own posture from waiting on his hands and knees to kneeling with his legs folded beneath him and his hands resting on his thighs. He straightened his back, poised himself and closed his eyes. He appeared calm and patient, reminding the others of an easterner in meditation.
He heard Captain Crozier’s footfalls stop close beside him.
“Goodsir always wanted to help, didn’t he?” Hickey scoffed.
Crozier stared in repulsion at Mr Goodsir’s naked and mutilated body. “You’d waste this man? Of all men!?” He despaired in outrage.
“He wasted himself, Mr Crozier.” Des Voeux corrected lazily. “Piece of glass to the wrists.”
Hickey smirked and gloated, “If he only wanted to die, he could have... run out into the hills and starved.”
Jopson’s ears twitched at the metallic clinking of Armitage unlocking Crozier’s irons.
“But he didn't. He made a gift of himself for the rest of us, is the way I see it. And at the supper hour. Come and join us, you two. Let the men begin.” Hickey coaxed.
Jopson was unchangeable.
“Will not happen.” Crozier refused firmly.
“Private Armitage, bring Mr Crozier forward.” Hickey ordered.
Jopson heard rocks crunching under foot and Crozier letting out a pained yelp as Armitage punched him in the back with the butt of his gun.
Jopson looked up at Crozier worriedly, with a sharp, involuntary turn of his head. He bit his lip in anger as he watched Crozier stumble forward a few more steps.
Hickey gestured to the platter of meat at the front of the table.
Crozier’s honour remained bright, he straightened, put his shoulders back and shook his head in defiance. Jopson’s now curious and observant gaze passed from Crozier to Hickey.
“Mr Golding. Stand up.” Hickey ordered.
The trembling shadow at the end of the table stood up and revealed itself to be young Mr Golding. The lad looked confused and terrified.
Jopson watched how Crozier reacted to this subtle threat of cannibalising Golding. Jopson thought Golding deserved no less appropriate a fate for siding himself with the Mutineers. But then, to voice or act upon such an opinion would make one no better than a cannibal.
Crozier stared Hickey down a moment, but this had no effect on Hickey. Then the captain trudged across the rocky earth and plucked the butchers knife from the wooden slab upon which Goodsir lay.
He isn’t… he can’t…
Jopson stared with his mouth agape as Crozier carved off a slice from the sole of Dr Goodsir’s foot.
He felt nauseous and turned his head away.
That great dark hole that had first opened in his chest when he believed Crozier had abandoned him in sick camp was opening again now and threatening to unleash something awful. It was the demon the Le Vesconte saw in him. The same sort of shadowy ghoul the men at Mr Hickey’s table had become.
Jopson could not look at Crozier, the man he had thus far been so desperate to lay eyes upon.
If only time could reach its end now, or this great betrayal could stop his heart.
But nothing in his grim world changed. The watches were still ticking, the wind was still howling, the sun was still hidden in the turbid sky. His skin still prickled with cold and his stomach still rumbled with hunger.
Crozier plunged the knife back into the wooden slab with a violent thud. He glared in disgust at Hickey as he forced himself to eat the tiny piece of tough, grey flesh.
“You next, Mr Jopson. Mr Hoar, bring him his ice pick so he can stand.” Hickey ordered.
Jopson looked up when he heard Mr Hoar approach him and found a guilt stricken and pitiful face looking down at him.
Jopson shook his head at Hoar.
“Jopson, if you cannot walk on your own with the pick to Mr Goodsir, Mr Crozier will be eating of your flesh next. As was my original plan.” Hickey threatened.
Shakily, Jopson forced himself to stand without the pick. He gave Hoar a convicting glare before slowly stumbling towards Goodsir’s body. He felt as if his legs may give way any minute. He would spare no one a glance, he scorned them all in silence. He looked sadly a moment at Goodsir’s face.
“Let the men begin, Jopson.” Hickey called impatiently.
Jopson copied Croziers act of eating from the feet. As he swallowed the flavourless morsel, he had to stop himself from vomiting.
His legs gave way but instead of the sharp pain of the stones against his knees he felt Crozier’s comforting half-embrace as his Captain tried to steady him. “The pick, if you please, Mr Hoar.” Crozier requested.
Hoar looked cautiously at Hickey. Hickey smiled and rolled his eyes but then nodded to give Hoar permission to bring Jopson his pick.
Jopson leaned nearly all his weight onto it as Crozier’s comforting hands left him.
Hoar sat back down at the table, so did Des Voeux, and the ghouls began eating Goodsir.
Diggle and Hodgson saw the Captain’s signal not to eat and abided by it.
Hickey thus spoke, “After dinner we're climbing the hill, men. There's something needs doing now Mr Crozier's with us. A few of you will have parts to play as well. Mr Des Voeux...” Hickey stood up from the table and picked up a gun. “Do we still have with us that boat chain?”
“We do.” Des Voeux answered between mouthfuls of raw, human meat.
There was a sharp cracking sound Jopson felt in his teeth as Hickey hit Tozer in the back of the head with the rifle butt.
Tozer’s heavy, unconscious form slumped forwards onto the table.
Everyone looked on in confusion and alarm.
“Chain him up, Mr Des Voeux.” Hickey ordered casually, with a flick of his wrist.
“W-what? Why did you do that?” Des Voeux stuttered.
“Cinq ou six cents têtes coupées auraient assuré votre bonheur.” Hodgson answered in a delicate bout of French.
“Ha!” Crozier nodded and smiled at Hodgson.
“Why don’t you try speaking a language we all understand, Lieutenant Hodgson.” Hickey mocked.
“...Five or six hundred heads cut off would have assured your happiness.” Hodgson repeated.
“I’m detecting a slight there, Lieutenant. Am I not Merciful?” Hickey shrugged and approached Des Voeux. “Mr Des Voeux, use the boat chain to bind Tozer, Golding, Hodgson, Jopson and Crozier to the boat sled so they may haul.”
“Lieutenant Jopson is too sick to haul.” Hodgson pointed out with a hint of protectiveness in his tone while quietly complying with being chained to Tozer.
Jopson gave Hodgson a surprised look, that was the first time the blond had acknowledged his field rank.
“If the miserable creature cannot haul then I shall have to put him down.” Said Hickey.
“You’ll have to put me down too then.” Crozier moved protectively in front of Jopson.
“You needn’t waste your efforts, gentlemen.” Jopson rasped and limped past Crozier, towards the boat sled. “I can haul.” he insisted.
Jopson held his hand out towards Hodgson, who reluctantly gave him the chain. “L'homme a le droit de traiter avec ses oppresseurs en dévorant leurs cœurs palpitants.” Hodgson said, he was giving Jopson a clear-eyed, earnest look.
You know I don’t understand French.
Jopson smiled and Hodgson smiled back at him.
"I never realized you had such a dark sense of humor, George." Crozier remarked as he came to join them.
Yay, just by being there Jopson is helping to lift the spirits of the loyalists.
Chapter 5: Sacrifice
Jopson wakes up from a near-death exhaustion only to suffer further. Hickey tries to sacrifice his followers and prisoners to the Tuunbaq.
They had spent the past forty minutes hauling the boat sled in a giant, uphill ‘U’ shape.
Now they were atop the cliff that overlooked camp mutiny, but from where they came to finally rest the camp was not in sight. Before them were rows of silver hills stretching south into a misty horizon. The sun was swallowed by dark clouds, while the moon and stars shone freely in the twilight blue.
When Hickey screamed, “Hault!” Golding collapsed, and this caused an uncomfortable tug on the chains that nearly made the others lose their balance.
Hodgson was chained more directly to Golding, so he felt the tug the most and he turned around to look sympathetically down at the exhausted ship’s boy.
Diggle and Hoar, who were unarmed but not chained up, leant tiredly against the boat sledge while the armed men readied their rifles and took up their positions around the boat.
Jopson shifted his weight onto his pick and studied the landscape below the cliff.
He wondered if the tiny black dots gathered around a flickering orange light out there signified Little or Le Vesconte’s camp.
Surely no one in sick camp was able-bodied enough to make a fire. It could have been an Inuit’s light. He remembered once climbing a countryside hill in England, on one of his hunting trips, and seeing a lamp light twinkling in the window of a house twenty miles away.
That peaceful little campfire was in a world of its own then, so far away it may as well have been on the moon.
The horizon toppled.
Thomas no sooner comprehended that this was not an external phenomenon but that he had in fact lost his balance, when he felt the pain of the shale against his right side turn numb and everything faded to black.
“Jopson!” His captain’s voice echoed distantly in the darkness.
The sound of a train engine drummed in his head.
Jopson looked around the empty train compartment and wondered how he got there.
Wasn’t he just on King William island? The closest train would be somewhere in Canada… maybe?
However could he have afforded a first-class ticket? The carriage was so clean and richly coloured, the seats were velvet and everything else was made from a pale, varnished wood.
He stared out of the window at total blackness.
A light blue wisp floated in through the open window and lingered above the seat opposite Jopson. He gasped in awe as a being faded in around the little light. A man in a lieutenant’s parade-dress jacket, leaning his head out the window.
The man pulled his head in, closed the window and sat down opposite Jopson.
“Lieutenant Irving!” Jopson exclaimed in recognition of the spectre.
“I found some Inuit that were willing to share their game with us.” Irving told Jopson seriously.
“Yes... I know.” Jopson nodded sadly.
“Does the Captain know?”
“We all learnt what happened.”
“Good. I just wanted everyone to know, that I almost had it. I almost saved us.”
“We knew.” Jopson assured Irving.
“The Inuit told me we should stick to the south east if we wanted a good chance of running into caribou.”
“Thank you. We’ll try that.” Jopson stared out of the window. “…The fields look so beautiful in the moonlight.”
“That’s not moonlight, it’s starlight.” Irving corrected.
“Am I dead? John?”
“There’s still a glass partition between us.” Irving answered and pressed his hand against the glass that until then Jopson had not seen. Where it began and ended was still incomprehensible. Jopson reached out towards Irving and felt the glass between them also.
“…Where does this train go?” Jopson queried.
“Everywhere. What does your ticket say?”
“I don’t have one.”
“Did you check in your pocket?”
Jopson reached into his pocket, expecting it to be empty, but he found a little yellow ticket with his name and destination on.
“What does it say?” Irving asked.
“…Home.” Jopson answered in confusion.
"Do you want to go home?"
Jopson shook his head. "I want to go back to Terror."
“We should get off at the next station and have a look around.” Irving decided.
The train rolled to a gradual halt.
Irving stood up and took a few steps down the carriage before looking over his shoulder at Jopson. “Are you coming, Lieutenant?”
Thomas found he was able to follow Irving off the train and onto an empty platform, but the invisible glass partition was always between them.
The flagstone platform and cobble stone paths leading up to the giant, circular station house was all well lit by street lanterns but everything else was pitch black.
Jopson watched in confusion as Irving calmly emptied his pockets of pebbles. He took his boots off one by one and shook the dust and shale out, so there was a small pile of King William land rubble left on the platform.
“I’m quite sure If I’d been killed on the ice, I’d be emptying my boots of snow all day. I don’t envy Strong and Evans.” Irving sighed as he fixed his uniform. Jopson just stared at him in bewilderment. “You’re looking for a way out, aren’t you?” Irving asked. “Shall we look in here?” Jopson followed Irving into the station house.
Luggage and coats and tools and equipment were strewn across the benches.
“Where is everyone?” Jopson asked.
“They must have gone to sleep.” Irving replied cryptically.
“Is this place limbo?” Jopson asked.
“I thought so too at first. I don’t think anything anymore though.”
“Did it hurt when… you know…?”
“Of course. Very much. Both life and death are incredibly painful things to put up with.” Irving informed.
Jopson nodded quietly at him.
As if thinking about it was the cause, Irving’s knife wounds began bleeding again.
“What’s happening to you?” Jopson gasped worriedly.
“It’s alright. I cannot feel anything anymore. When anything dies it leaves a spark of energy disembodied in its place, like a footprint. You’ve gathered me together in the form you remembered me as.”
“There isn’t a heaven, then?” Jopson asked worriedly.
“You’ve conjured me down from an ether of star dust to greet you. It is a heaven of sorts. All energy in the universe is recycled. I may yet be reborn if chance puts all the pieces in the right place.”
“Are you like a ghost then?”
“More like a memory. John Irving is entirely obliterated but to think of someone or remember someone is to conjure a part of them.”
“What became of the others that died after you? Did you see them? Did you see Peglar and Fitzjames and Blanky?”
“They came and went.”
“What about Lieutenant Little? Is he still alive?”
“He must be.”
They were out of the station house now and on a path into the darkness.
“I want to keep on living, John.” Jopson said determinedly. “Is there some way for me to return?”
“It will take all your strength.” Irving warned.
Jopson winced, the wound on his leg began bleeding and stinging now. He fell to his knees with a pained yelp.
“If you were all dead you wouldn’t be able to feel anything.” Irving reminded.
“Right.” Jopson hissed through clenched teeth.
“You can climb out of here if you’re prepared to struggle back to life.” Irving assured.
A rope ladder unravelled beside Jopson, and he looked upwards to see where it led, but it only faded into darkness.
“However, if Hickey turns on you, and if Crozier does not help you, there’s nothing we can do.” said Irving.
“I’ve seen paintings of people trying to climb out of hell before. They always slip.”
“If this were hell, you’d have an eternity to carry on trying. But it is not. The longer you stay here the weaker and more scattered your spirit will become. Until you disappear like the others. So, climb with all you might, Thomas.” Irving advised gravely.
Jopson took firm hold of the rung above his head and pulled himself up.
“I hope you give Mr Hickey a taste of his own medicine.” Irving called up to him.
“I won’t need to, he’s his own worst enemy.” Jopson laughed.
“Thomas! Thomas wake up! You must get up! We’re nearly through!” Crozier pleaded and pulled Jopson into his arms to cradle him, with the lad’s back resting over the captain’s lap.
“Looks like he’s finally wasted himself.” Hickey quipped as he hopped aboard the boat and brandished his knife. He put one foot atop the bow like he had conquered something and was posing for an ennobling portrait. “Fire a shot! Private Pilkington, do it now!”
Crozier studied the inland paths; the direction Pilkington fired his shot and in which the creature would certainly approach. Hickey’s intentions were clear now.
“Here, Terror!” Hickey called with shrill aggression, as if calling forth an unruly dog.
Jopson stirred in Crozier's arms and his breath rattled in his chest.
“He needs water.” Crozier insisted.
Hickey rolled his eyes exaggeratedly with a whole swoop of his head while Diggle hurried to reach into the boat sled and bring Crozier a canteen.
“Thank you, Mr Diggle.” Crozier rasped dryly.
Hickey shot Diggle a glare that frightened him back into place beside the boat.
Crozier undid the stubborn bottle cap with his teeth and poured the last drops of snow-melt over Jopson’s lips, massaging the lad’s throat in a way that reminded him all too painfully of his last moments with James.
Jopson’s eyes fluttered open and he made a tired, grateful noise like a hum in the back of his throat. “Can I do anything for you, sir?”
Crozier was utterly relieved but also taken aback. He shook his head with a teary smile.
Jopson sat up on his own and Crozier patted his back.
“I saw Lieutenant Irving.” Jopson muttered.
“…Are you alright?” Crozier asked with his brow crinkled in worried confusion.
Jopson called up to Hickey, “Lieutenant Hickey! I beg of you to spare my life! There must be something I can give you in return for my freedom! Devotion, perhaps?”
“Now there’s an idea! Why don’t you swear your loyalty to me?” Hickey sneered as he hopped down from the boat with a crunch of shale. “Manson, if Crozier tries to intervene, you know what to do.”
Hickey grabbed a clump of Jopson’s long black hair and forced him to kneel. “I swear my loyalty to you, sir!” Jopson yelped in pain.
Hickey released his grip and barked, “Lick my boots, Jopson!”
Jopson stooped to kiss Hickey’s feet and received a kick to the face; a sharp ache shot through his head, his eyes filled up with water and he tasted blood in the back of his throat. His back was against the shale.
Crozier’s rage boiled and he fidgeted on his knees, but eyed Manson’s gun, still pointed at him, and he fought his urge to intervene.
“Hurts, doesn’t it?” Hickey spat. “Sort of like the lashing only you fainted after three strokes like a merry-ann. That was only number four, Jopson. Imagine if you had been put through what I was put through? What your beloved Captain put me through. While you watched. And laughed. Getting an eye full of my torn up back side.”
Jopson rolled onto his side dizzily. Dark red streaks trickled from his mouth and nose and joined to paint a ‘Y’ shape over his right cheek.
“Did you tell Captain Crozier all my dirty little secrets?” Hickey asked, standing over Jopson.
“I never snitched anything that would get a man hanged directly to the Captain. Yet I might have disparaged your character in front of Lieutenant Little a few times.” Jopson smirked, almost laughing like he had during Hickey’s lashing.
“Does that make you feel less guilty?” Hickey scoffed.
“More so, in fact. Transparency would have saved more lives. I made a mistake. I suppose, in a way, all this is my fault.” Jopson croaked as he forced himself to sit up again, his throat felt caked with iron. The blood gushed over his lips and chin and he tried to mop some up with his sleeve, which dyed the fabric red. “I… didn’t think people like you and I… could have such a severe impact on something as large and complex as the system that held the Captains in place… had anyone told me, I would have had a clearer conception of my duties.”
“You can always take comfort in the fact you never had a choice.” Hickey snorted. “Twas Mr Little, gutless dickhead that he is, who made all this possible. That day last autumn when I arranged the capture of the eski’ girl, Little wanted me court-martialled. He would have had me executed on the spot, but Crozier had his fetishes prioritised. You could put my survival down to Crozier then, but a drunken old Irish piss head is not very responsible for his own actions either. Little ought to have taken charge that day. He could have had me killed a long time ago, but fear was holding him back. He was a weak commander.”
Hodgson and Crozier exchanged a meaningful glance and stared enviously at the rifles of the other men.
“I don’t believe your prattle.” Jopson sputtered.
“That is of minor importance. What is of major bloody importance is that I believe yours.” Hickey snarled. “So, you say you never snitched and you’re not solely responsible for my damnation. In that case, I feel we are even after only four lashes.” Hickey turned to Manson and ordered him to lower his weapon.
“Lieutenant Little was far stronger than you, I’m certain.” Jopson breathed shakily.
“Oh well you’d know all about that now, wouldn’t you?” Hickey quipped as he hopped back aboard the boat.
“In spirit, in will, in mind… in body… stronger.” Jopson panted exhaustedly as he pulled himself to his feet, conjuring the same fire of determination, he had imagined while climbing the ladder out of limbo.
Crozier pulled his cravat out of his vest pocket and wiped some of the blood off Jopson’s face. Jopson put his hand against Crozier’s chest and gave him a light push, trying to prove he did not need any more help. Crozier forced Jopson to take the cravat and took a step back, still prepared to catch him should he fall.
“Where was our demon last seen?” Hickey demanded.
“South, two miles... staggering off a weak left side.” Armitage replied gristly.
“Let me off this chain!” Tozer roared and pulled desperately at his restraints.
“He is sick, then, the creature.” Crozier crackled tiredly; in his heart he thanked his poor friend Thomas Blanky for that.
Jopson gasped with relief and began fiddling with his collar.
“Cornelius!” Tozer snarled furiously and continued to rattle his chains in defiance. He sounded betrayed.
“He's sick from what he eats, Mr. Hickey.” Crozier said knowingly and took a few steps closer to Hickey so he could rest on the side of the boat furthest from the creature’s predicted direction of approach.
“Ah, hell.” Jopson hissed under his breath, taking the razor-blade he’d sown into his collar out had caused him to cut open one of his thumbs, but he managed to free it and proceeded to attempt to pick the lock on his cuff.
"Dis-moi ce que tu manges... je te dirai ce que tu es." sounded Hodgson's fragile voice.
“And in English, Mr Hodgson?” Hickey smirked.
“Tell me what you eat... and I will tell you what you are." Answered Hodgson.
“I detect a double meaning there.” Snarked Hickey.
Tozer squatted down and groaned in tired frustration as he ran his fingers over his sweaty, dirty face.
“Jopson?” Crozier called wearily, wondering what the lad was doing and why he had taken to ignoring him when he was usually so tentative.
Jopson was starting to lose his patience; a needle would have been more useful than a blade in this scenario. He tried grating the razor against the rusted nail in his cuff but that did him no good either. Nor did he have the strength the brake the blade in two, as two pieces might be better employed for the lock-picking.
“Jopson…?” Crozier tried again.
Hickey made a decree, “If we don't meet the creature soon... we set up a signal fire on this hill. Now, he may not have his senses. He may need help finding us.”
“Have we come here to give it a royal death, then?” Armitage stammered fearfully.
Des Voeux spoke up fiercely, “If it's ill, we should put every shot we have in its head and butcher it! Now, while it's weak!”
“I have a different plan.” said Hickey.
“Well, perhaps it's time you told us what that plan is.” Tozer grumbled.
Pilkington reached out to them earnestly, “That creature is everything we need: meat and fur. We could make at least ten greatcoats out of it and make it back to London full bricks!” He proposed eagerly.
“You think you're going back? No.” Hickey declared.
“Where else are we hoping to get?” Des Voeux snorted.
“I can't go back.” Hickey insisted.
Manson began to vomit. Diggle, Golding and Hodgson watched him worriedly but due to the angle of the boat no one else, not even Hickey, could see that it was blood Mr Manson was spluttering up. Hodgson had theorised that Goodsir’s corpse was poisoned from the start and now he felt those suspicions were affirmed. He was glad of it. He wondered if he would be quick enough to snatch Manson’s gun up for himself in the event Manson did collapse, before the private behind Manson shot him or Hickey brought his knife down into his back. Imagining those various ways to die dissuaded the blond-haired lieutenant. He looked to Crozier for some hint of guidance.
As if taking off a disguise, Hickey’s voice lowered, his manner changed. “A man called Cornelius Hickey told me this expedition was a year in the Polar Sea and then out the other side. He told me the ship's plan to stop at the Sandwich Islands, and the crew was going to dry out in the sun. ‘That’s the other side of the world,’ I thought. ‘A year's nothing.’ So I dabbed him, left him in Regent's Canal. And here I am instead.”
“You could have just joined up.” Crozier mocked and rolled his eyes.
“I was gonna show you my heels when we got to those islands.” The imposter purported with a wistful grin, “I was gonna hook it, start new. I had seen the drawings in the weeklies. Oahu. Maui. That sounded nice… No one told me I'd be freezing to death three bloody years instead, did they?” He snarled, cut and stabbed the arctic air with is knife as an expression if his fury.
Jopson stared at Crozier, imagining him being killed by the monster. He told himself they had to escape before it came. Jopson tried squeezing his hand through the cuff, even if it meant breaking every finger, he had to escape. He gave up using his free hand and tried to push it off with his boots. Something cracked, forcing a grunt from him, but the cuff was stuck around the thickest part of his hand now.
The imposter continued to proclaim darkly, “I've learnt what I needed to, so bugger London. I'm going forward. Only forward. So, call it with me now, boys. Come on, together!” He began singing at the top of his lungs, “God bless our native land, May heaven's protecting hand, Still guard our shores! May peace her power extends, foe--Come on! This has to carry, men! Come on!” The imposter bellowed.
The mutineers grumbled wearily to the tune. ♪ God bless ♪ ♪ Our native land ♪
“We're here! Bugger Victoria, we're here!” Screeched the imposter.
The gunroom steward turned ‘private’ gawked furiously at the imposter. Hodgson and Crozier watched Armitage in anticipation that he might turn his gun on the screaming, false Hickey.
“Bugger Nelson! Bugger Jesus! Bugger Joseph and Mary! Bugger the Archbishop of Canterbury! None ever wanted nothing from me!” The imposter howled.
Jopson stifled a yelp as he hacked into the side of his hand with the razor-blade. He tried hard to force it through cartilage and tendon, so he could rid himself entirely of his smallest finger and finally wriggle his hand out of the cuff.
“It's here. It's here!” Private Pilkington squawked frighteningly.
Hoar took aim, holding Hodgson's pistol shakily with both hands.
“Jopson! Stop it!” Crozier begged when he saw the blood and realized what Jopson was trying to do to himself.
“Captain… I’m nearly through.” Jopson wept. His bright blood pooled on the dark scree beneath him as he continued to saw threw the joints of his finger.
“Hand me your glass, Magnus.” The false Hickey requested. Manson lifted Irving’s spy glass up to the imposter with a broad, shaky, blood splattered hand.
The false Hickey unfolded the glass and watched the creature bounding towards them in the distance.
“Are we going to kill it or not?” Des Voeux cried impatiently through nearly shredded vocal cords.
“Let it come, Mr Des Voeux!” The imposter purred happily. He lowered his glass and quipped, “Open yourself to courage. What if we are not the heroes of this story?”
“It will go after those who are running… at first.” Crozier informed a very panicked Hodgson. “Jopson, stop that, you'll faint again. Come and take cover behind the boat.” He advised gruffly.
Jopson whimpered painfully as he finally severed his finger and he again tried to force the cuff off with his boots, screaming through gritted teeth as he pushed.
The imposter prattled on excitedly, “Every story you've been told about the holy throne of Britain has a shine on it, doesn't it? But I bet you never saw in Shoreditch the breath of a god in the air. Never met a man with his soul eaten out. There are holy things before us.”
“Magnus, Mr. Des Voeux, come forward to the others. Stagger your positions on a line. When it comes over the top it will have its head low, so anticipate that with your aim!” Tozer instructed.
Magnus began screaming in agony as he sputtered up more blood.
Jopson also let out a pained scream as he finally freed himself. He lay back, trying to catch his breath and keep calm. He tied Crozier’s already bloodstained cravat tightly around his mangled hand to stop the bleeding.
“Jopson! Get over here! Jopson! Get over here now!” Crozier demanded.
Jopson stumbled to his feet and held his pic over his chest like a brandished weapon. Crozier saw the intent intent in Jopson's eyes and leapt forward and grabbed the back of Jopson’s shirt, nearly tearing it right off as he yanked the lad back behind the boat. “Let go! Captain! Please!”
“You’ll be shot! Let Tozer take charge!” Crozier growled, he hooped his arms over Jopson’s chest to restrain him, pressing their bodies together tightly.
“Our empire is not the only empire. We've seen that now.” The imposter declared.
“If you run, you'll die! If you miss, we'll die!” Tozer bellowed. Then he frantically appealed to Armitage, “Tommy, give me your gun. I'm the best shot here!”
Armitage looked at Tozer hesitantly, then at Crozier, who nodded desperately at him. Armitage aimed his gun at the false Hickey.
Hoar showed the others his heels and ran for the hills. “There's nothing that way, Mr. Hoar!” hollered the imposter.
Though Manson had collapsed and could barely stay upright, he managed to take aim and blow a hole through Armitage’s chest before the gunroom steward could take his shot. “I'm sorry, Tom!” Manson sputtered.
“Captain! Let me take down Manson to leave Hickey open!” Jopson insisted, struggling against Crozier.
“He’ll be dead in a minute anyway!” yelled Crozier.
“It's before me!” Pilkington shouted.
“If you get your pick stuck in anything but the thing’s head, you’re done for.” Crozier warned Jopson.
“Hold, Private!” ordered the imposter.
The creature leapt up the cliff side and snatched Pilkington up in its jaws.
"The key, sir!" Jopson shouted as he pulled away from Crozier.
Jopson hobbled to Armitage’s ruin and fell forwards. He tried to yank the key ring from Armitage’s belt, but it was stuck. He hurried to undo the belt and secure the keys, and heard Crozier shouting behind him, “Diggle, don't run! Don't run!” Diggle screamed as the monster pinned him down and bit into his back. Jopson heard the demon gnarling, sucking and chewing on its newest victim.
“Come on! Come on!” Golding implored Jopson as the monster leapt closer.
“Jopson! You should be still!” Crozier beseeched. Jopson finally unsnagged the keys and threw them towards Crozier. “Stop moving!” Crozier yelled.
The Tuunbaq was a hair's breadth away from biting Jopson in half when its mouth was unexpectedly lit up with sparks. It recoiled. The creature began whaling and writhing in pain. Pawing its mouth in confusion.
At once Jopson took the opportunity to take Armitage’s gun and limp back behind Crozier, who had by now unchained himself and passed the key to Tozer.
A second firework shot by the creature, missing it's head by an inch but still startling it.
The false Hickey looked through his spy glass to see who was firing the rockets and shouted, “Manson! Shoot the man with the fireworks, he’ll ruin everything!”
Tozer freed himself, passed the keys to Hodgson and caught the rifle that Jopson threw to him.
The creature chased Golding, who was still chained up, under the boat. The impact of the creature swiping its talons beneath the sled knocked the false Hickey off balance and onto his back.
I like this anime trope of a journey through the spirit world being represented by a train but I'm not sure where it came from. The scene with Jopson and Irving in this is referencing spirited away, Night on the Galactic Railroad and the Divine comedy. I could totally right an afterlife fic inspired by the latter with Irving as Virgil but I wanted to propel this plot closer to it's ultimate conclusion instead of going off on a tangent.
Find out next time who the mysterious guy with the fireworks is, tho I think yall have probably figured it out already. ;)
Chapter 6: Requiem
The battle against the Tuunbaq continues.
Hodgson’s hands shook nervously as he struggled to undo his shackles.
“No! No! Captain!” Golding shrieked and grasped desperately at fistfuls of shale as monster angled for him.
Tozer fired a bullet at the demon’s skull.
The creature bled but shook away the pain and attacked Golding, this time managing to drag the boy away by his feet.
Hodgson was still chained to Golding and he fell forwards with the sharp pull, dropping his keys as he was dragged along the shale.
Jopson limped after the creature without fear. He plunged his Ice pick into the back of the thing’s neck as it stooped to maul Golding.
Jopson put his boot beside the pick, against the thing’s patching, white fur, and tried to pull the pick out for another crack at the thing. But it was well stuck, and the creature jolted up, flinging Jopson away. He landed on his back, now with nothing to prop himself up.
Unfortunately, his attack did not dissuade the monster from ripping Golding to pieces and sucking out his soul with a horrid screech.
Jopson tried to shuffle backwards using his good arm and good leg but he was terribly slow.
“There!” Jopson exclaimed when he spotted the keys next to a puddle of blood. He snatched them up.
He shuffled towards Hodgson and tried to undo his cuffs; he knew Hodgson’s fingers were frost bitten.
“Hurry!” Hodgson pleaded.
“Magnus, come and see.” Hickey called softly with a smile.
Manson uncurled himself from his cowering ball beside the boat sled and naively obeyed Hickey.
Tuunbaq crept slowly towards Manson, looking into his face. The terrified man started to cry like a child, his face screwed up and red.
After devouring Manson the creature lunged at Hodgson and Jopson, now with the chain rattling in its jaws, connecting its mouth to Hodgson.
Hodgson tried to crawl back under the boat, just nine feet away, but Jopson held him down. “Don’t move! It attacks anything that runs!” Jopson reminded.
Tozer walked steadily towards the creature with his gun aimed and fired a shot at the thing’s bulky shoulder, though he had been aiming for its head.
“Tozer, don’t get too close!” Crozier warned.
“I’m a marine first, Cap’n! The walls of our empire are its young men, and its borders the points of our rifles!” Tozer bellowed.
The bullet lodged itself in the demon’s already battered flesh, leaving a twisted little puncture like a poppy in its wake.
The creature was drawn away from Jopson and Hodgson.
It darted in Tozer’s direction.
“Pull the chain!” Jopson shouted.
Jopson and Hodgson tried to pull the chain together, but they were only dragged further along by the monster.
Tozer backed up carefully and took another shot. He got it just below the throat this time but seemed only to infuriate it further. Its muscular neck stretched forwards, propelling its ugly jaws around Tozer’s body, and he let out a horrified death scream.
It swallowed him.
Because he thought it might be distracted with Tozer, Crozier had made a break for Pilkington’s gun.
The creature charged at the Captain next, dragging Jopson and Hodgson along with it.
Hodgson lost his footing as the shale mounted beneath his boots, he fell forwards and hit his head on the rocks, blood trickled from his golden curls down his forehead. He was at once unconscious.
Jopson let the chain slip from his tired fingers. He stumbled back against the boat and landed near Manson’s corpse.
Jopson propped himself up on the boat edge and reached under the tarpaulin for one of the oars.
Crozier fired a shot at the creature but only grazed it. He stuffed the gun in its mouth when it tried to bite him and stifled an agonised yelp as he lost his left hand to its fangs. “Oh, God!” Gasped Crozier. He fell helplessly on his back, clutching the severed wrist tightly with an instinct to slow the bleeding.
It bit the gun in half and spat it back out on the ground.
“Captain!” Jopson limped quickly towards Crozier and bashed the monster in the face with the oar.
It roared and splintered the paddle in half with a bite. Jopson felt the impact of the snap tremor in his aching bones.
Then it stood up and tried to swipe at Crozier with its talons.
Jopson jumped in the way to protect Crozier and tried to run the sharp end of his splintered oar into it's face, but he was thrown barely conscious to the ground with a great gash across his chest.
Crozier picked up the splintered paddle and pointed it at the Tuunbaq’s neck, “Get away from him!” he cried in horror as the demon pinned Jopson down with a heavy claw and neared its jaws.
It seemed the creature could have finished its task of slaughtering Jopson, but something distracted it.
The false Hickey.
The imposter had blood running down his chin and under shirt now and he was holding his hand out to the demon, his own severed tongue lay flat across his bloodied palm. It took a long moment to assess the situation, which confused Crozier.
But its final verdict was to kill the imposter also.
First astonishing him by biting off his arm below the elbow.
The imposter cried out as the demon’s teeth slotted between his ribs and he was lifted into the air and shaken, rather like how a badger shakes its prey to death in its mouth. The imposter kicked his legs and clawed at the thing’s face in his last struggle.
As the false Hickey managed to gouge one of the creature’s eyes it roared, half like a man, half like a bear, and raked the long talons of one of its massive paws through the man’s stomach.
The lower half of the imposter’s body was thrown aside, his guts littered the rocks. As the creature made an effort to swallow the upper half, the imposter's bloodied lips took on a sickly, round shape, his eyes turned black and his body went limp.
Jopson pressed his face into Crozier’s shoulder as fear drove him to turn his head away.
Crozier gawped at the gore and felt the hot dampness of Jopson’s tears soaking into his shirt.
It occurred to him the creature had a fondness of terrifying its victims before consuming them.
It looked right at Crozier as it approached.
Crozier could think of nothing to do but pull Jopson closer.
Another firework struck the creature and it collapsed and squirmed.
“Captain.... pull... the chain.” Jopson gurgled and coughed up blood.
Crozier gripped the chain with his right hand and pulled with all his might.
Jopson tried to help him, they had a pair of working hands between them.
The creature squirmed as its fur was burnt by the ash of the last rocket.
Meanwhile Jopson and Crozier did their best to choke it.
Its powerful thrashing gradually slowed.
A soup of putrid meat spilled from the creature’s mouth, it twitched, snorted and sputtered.
Once they were sure it was dead, they slackened.
They lay on the beach, staring tiredly into each other’s eyes.
Jopson and Crozier were both losing a lot of blood and they watched dizzily as Lieutenant Little ran towards them, shouting out to them.
When Silna arrived at the spot of the Tuunbaq’s demise, which may have been appropriately named ‘the cliff of dead demons’, she found Lieutenant Little sat on a large rock with the last firework across his lap.
He was staring at the horizon, waiting to die.
He did not even flinch at her presence.
The sun, which would not set for another five months, burned as a distant golden orb lingering above the mist. The purple and pink, civil twilight sky seemed scarred by long, flat bands of cloud and a few stars yet remained.
Silna observed the carnage and broken tools strewn about the battlefield and watched Little cautiously for a moment.
She had a vague idea that this kabloona was the quiet one that ferried the other long striders between the two big ships. He had been crying, his eyes were swollen and red.
She was not sure what part he had played in the blood bath.
Silna had wondered if that one was sick with something because he always looked like he was in pain, but he had no injuries.
She approached the Tuunbaq carefully, mournfully. She knelt beside it and poured some water from her pouch into its great mouth to see if it would stir.
She was sorry it was dead.
“Do you want some chocolate?” croaked Lieutenant Little, holding out a piece to her.
She shook her head at him determinedly.
He shrugged and grumbled something about ‘Trade’ and ate the strange, dark, bitter thing himself.
It caught Silna’s eye that Aglooka’s hand was missing. She went over to him and looked him over. He was breathing.
She slapped him in the face, he groaned faintly.
Little flinched, he had cauterised and bandaged the stump earlier and the pain of it had caused Crozier to pass out. He had tried to get Crozier to wake up again by shaking him and giving him water but had never thought to slap him. Surely he was in enough pain already.
Crozier opened his eyes half lidded and looked around himself in a daze.
“Captain!” Little shouted in relief and knelt next to Crozier, offering him the rest of his chocolate. “Edward… you came after all?” Crozier rasped before taking a nibble of the sweet.
“I was looking for Thomas.”
“Jopson?” Crozier asked in surprise and they both looked worriedly at the unconscious lad.
Silna took Jopson’s mangled hand between hers and unraveled the bloodied cravat.
“What’s she doing?” Little asked defensively.
“Just trying to help, don’t worry.” Crozier assured him tiredly. Jopson stirred and whimpered faintly as Silna pulled the twisted bones back into place.
“Utterpok omayok?” asked Crozier.
Silna shrugged to show she did not know.
“Qanuittumiinngaatittinirmut Ikajuqtauvik. Utiqtilli nakalli.” Crozier gestured to the nature of Jopson’s wounds. “Maggorluk?”
Silna ran back to her sled and dragged it closer to them. She placed a small, light caribou skin bag atop Crozier’s chest. Then she turned her efforts towards pulling Jopson onto the sled.
Edward helped Francis sit up. Francis made a pained noise. He looked inside the bag and smiled, for it was filled with moss and other dried little arctic plants. He inhaled the scent of it deeply through his nose and allowed Edward to do the same.
“Imeq?” Francis asked softly and gestured to his mouth.
Silna gave him her water pouch and he in turn passed it to Edward. “Edward, I think George had a bad tumble on the rocks there and hit his head. Will you see if you can wake him up?” Francis asked.
Edward pulled the cords on the little herb bag shut and returned it to Silna. Then he hurried over to where Hodgson lay and tried to wake him up.
“Ilauvigili?” Francis asked Silna, ensuring his tone came across as a polite offer not a demand.
She nodded seriously at him and he smiled gratefully.
Inuktitut translations (I looked at several untrustworthy online dictionaries for these, so sorry.)
Utterpok omayok? – Come back alive? (I couldn't find a word for 'stay' ,'remain' or 'recover' in this context so I thought this was the closest to what Francis was trying to say. which was to see if Silna had an opinion on the severity of Jopson's condition.)
qanuittumiinngaatittinirmut Ikajuqtauvik – (Formal/sensitive way of asking for) help
Utiqtilli nakalli. – Undo cut/ Heal wound.
Maggorluk? - Moss?
Imeq? – Water?
Ilauvigili? – Join in?
I'm sort of stumped that I never got round to writing a scene where Jopson and Little work together to combat Tuunbaq, they sort of do it hear (with Crozier) but Jopson is right in Tuunbaq's face and Little's pretty far away flinging rockets at it, I guess that's speaking to the nature of their character and dynamic cause Little's more cautious and strategic and Jopson's just like 'Aah! Got to save my Captain!'.
Little had to still seem pretty far away and everyone else had to be dead or pinned down in order for Hickey to seem realistically confidant in trying to offer his tongue to the Tuunbaq when he did.
Chapter 7: Only Time
Little looks after Jopson while the others are on a hunting trip.
Thomas gazed up at the wind-swept canvas ceiling through eyes barely cracked open, like green crescents.
Voices faded into his ringing ears, he closed his eyes and listened to them speak.
“How soon can we move on? I’m afraid of what will become of the others if we don't rejoin them soon.” Hodgson warbled.
“To hell with the others.” Little growled.
“There were our men, Edward.”
“They drove me out.”
“Many were our friends. People we drank with… who told us about their families waiting for them back in England. It’s our duty to protect those men!” Hodgson cried.
“The best of them are dead. I can tell you with certainty that Jopson and I won’t be welcomed back into that coven of cannibals.” Little grumbled.
“All this savagery out of desperation, surely. Isn’t that right, Captain? If we bring them ample supplies and tell them we have a map to the rescue party, they will return to civility and come with us. Won’t they?” Hodgson appealed.
There was a long pause.
“We will all walk south when Jopson is well enough to be moved. Then we will find out what happened to our men.” Crozier decided in a dry, gravelly voice.
The Captain was exhausted. Jopson wished he could have brought him something to help but he could barely move.
“Believe me, George, I’m just as impatient as you are.” Crozier assured.
Thomas felt someone stroking his hair gently and he cracked his eyes open again.
“How do you feel?” Crozier asked, brushing away the long black locks that had fallen over Jopson’s face.
Jopson was too tired to answer, he fell back to sleep but for the first time in weeks he looked peaceful.
When he woke up again it was to the scent of fox soup arousing his hunger.
He turned onto his side and watched the man sat cross legged at his bed side, eating. Little looked thin and tired. His big, dark brown eyes and long, pointed nose were familiar features poking out of his hair and beard, which had grown long and straight. He was far from the well-kept officer and gentleman Jopson recalled serving on Terror.
Little stopped eating and stared at Jopson in astonishment. “You… you’re awake?” he stumbled in surprise.
Jopson stared curiously up at him.
“Here, you need it more than I do.” Little offered the bowl to him.
Jopson didn’t have the strength to sit up on his own yet and it took him a moment to understand Little’s show of incompetence; it would appear he’d never tended to someone in a sick bed before and didn’t know what to do.
Jopson’s attempt to speak came out as a saw, dry, wheeze. His chest ached immensely, as if the polar-bear demon was still lugging its paw down on his ribs.
He moved his hand to fumble blindly beneath his covers in search of the wound.
Little asked him to repeat himself and brought his ear closer to Jopson’s mouth, but he still could not understand.
“Hold on…” Little requested hurriedly.
He put the bowl down next to Jopson and began gathering anything soft he could find in the tent, including his own coat.
He lifted Jopson to sit upright gently and stuffed the spare fabric behind his back to keep him supported. “Is that better?”
Jopson beamed gratefully at him.
Little looked down bashfully and remembered the half-eaten bowl of stew.
He held a spoon full up to Jopson’s chapped lips.
Jopson watched Little carefully with his wide, piercing orbs as he closed his mouth around the little wooden spoon.
“Mind your manners, Thomas; slurping and staring that way.” Little chastised playfully.
Once the soup was all used up Little moved the extra bundles to one side and helped Jopson lie down.
“Are you a first son?” Jopson rasped weakly.
“What?” Little had heard him; he was just surprised by the question. He fished his hand inside a nearby knapsack as he spoke. “Erm… no I'm the middle child… one of fourteen. Why?”
Jopson replied slowly and meekly but Little listen patiently. “Aren’t you gentry? Didn’t your father want you to inherit land and go into politics?”
“There.” Little produced a tiny pair of nail scissors from the knapsack.
He took Jopson’s hand in his and began snipping the younger man’s long, dirty fingernails as he answered, “I come from a land owning family but my father was a second son and so he was sent into the navy and became a purser. My uncle has no sons so I might still inherit his property. But I never wanted that life… my family was critical of my spending habits, my career choices. Even after I made first lieutenant. I still have an ear for politics though.”
“How does it feel not being able to vote?” Jopson giggled.
“Now, now, don’t torment me. I never rubbed your nose in it, did I?” Little chuckled.
“I think you did once, but you were very drunk, so I forgive you.” Jopson said sweetly.
“I… I’m sorry.” Little retreated into melancholia again.
Jopson reached out to him and pulled gently at his sleeve to snap him out of his revelry.
“If I could go back in time, I’d give the old me a right thump.” Little assured.
“He wouldn’t deserve that.” Jopson protested softly.
“I didn’t know whether to look down on you or be impressed by you.”
“You describe me as one of your pinned insects.” Jopson humoured.
Little finished cutting the nails on Jopson’s right hand and lay it gently back down.
“It shouldn’t have been so complicated.” Little sighed as he reached for Jopson’s furthest hand.
Little hesitated when he saw how Jopson’s smallest finger and everything below it down to the wrist had been hacked off and scar tissue was forming over it.
He looked disgusted by it and this made Jopson feel deformed, but the younger man did not let his anxiety show for long.
“…I’ve changed too.” Jopson spoke softly.
Little started snipping again and whispered, “I know.”
Jopson turned his eyes back to the crack at the top of the tent and watched the clouds though it.
“Don’t get too comfortable, I shan’t always be waiting on you hand and foot like this.” Little jested with a smirk.
Jopson laughed tiredly.
“How does it feel being the one getting looked after for once?” Little poked playfully.
“This isn’t the first time…” Jopson rasped.
He looked at Little again, the older man saddened at this apparent cheapening of his efforts.
He had cut the last nail now anyway, so it was time to let Jopson’s hand go.
Jopson continued, “When I came down with the scurvy… Francis… came to care for me several times. He cleaned me and tried to heal my wounds… he would tell me stories and sing to me. And before that, when I came down with a stomach bug in Disko Bay… and when I was sick on the Ross expedition… he was… always there for me.”
Little hunched. He seemed pushed away and disheartened, but he thought carefully for a moment and finally ushered, “I know. I cannot measure up to him. I will not try to. Presently he is out hunting with Silence and George, so I’m afraid I can’t summon him for you. Seeing you awake at last will please him more than you know.”
“Oh no…Ned… I think I’m going to sneeze…” Jopson warned, taking on that fogginess one gets while trying to suppress the inevitable.
Little straightened and widened his eyes with mutual anxiousness, “No, no! Don’t do that! Your lungs are still too fragile, the wound may reopen!”
“I know… I’m trying not to, but I don’t think I can… stop it…” Jopson stammered and held his nose.
“Try to think about something else!” Little pleaded.
“Oh… tell me about Neptune!”
“Yes, how did the Captain come to purchase him?”
“Old Nep was given to the crew by Lady Franklin… but it was Francis and I who ended up taking care of him… he found it difficult at first... to move about the ship. I used to have to carry him backwards over my shoulders up and down the stairs… but once he figured his way around, he was near uncatchable, except when he was napping. He had better sea-legs than any human sailor I yet witnessed.”
Little laughed lightly.
Just when it seemed Jopson might have overcome his urge, he gave in to a violent sneeze.
He clutched his chest and curled up into a ball beneath his covers, moaning and whining at the agony.
“Oh Thomas! Are you hurt?” Little asked worriedly and stroked Jopson’s shoulder through the blankets.
Jopson spluttered thrice into his hand, then pulled it away from his face.
Little gawked at the fresh blood shimmering on Jopson’s lips and palm.
“Oh no.” Little bawled sympathetically and pulled the younger man into a tight hug. “Poor Tom… you’ll be alright…” He hoped.
Jopson tried to hug Little back, to cling onto him for dear life, and he just about managed it before exhaustion turned his body limp again.
Little lay Jopson down gently.
He checked Jopson’s pulse and breathing. Then gave the medical kit bag a serious stare of consideration before delving into it.
“Sorry, I’m going to have to check if the wound has re-opened and change your bandages.” Little stammered and gulped nervously. Jopson probably could not hear him, but he felt he had to say this just in case.
It bothered Little to the point of blushing just to see a bare neck or ankle exposed, especially when such soft, creamy flesh was at his fingertips. He hated himself for it. Jopson was sick and barely conscious, how could he let his thoughts turn indulgent at a time like this?
Jopson looked far less like the ruin of a man he had appeared as weeks earlier. The sores on his face had healed, his once gaunt and yellowing body had fleshed out and turned fair again, if not a little meek, and his beard was starting to grow again but it was still thin enough to be considered stubble.
Little gave Jopson’s cheek a gentle stroke and grumbled, “This would be a lot easier if you were awake.”
He started fumbling with Jopson’s shirt buttons.
The delicate throat had already been exposed but inspecting the gentle curves of the lad’s collar bone made Little feel lightheaded.
“Well, you just have to let the rest of us care for you… weather you like it or not.” Little muttered and slid the next button from its eyelet.
“I don’t know if you’ve been awake enough to notice, but Captain Crozier has been chewing your food for you.” Little rasped sadly. “I would have liked to be the one feeding you in that way but I’m afraid I may have a tooth infection from eating so much chocolate and not much of anything else when I was in the coven of Cannibals. My saliva is too poisonous. Even for a kiss. There’s nothing for it. The bicarbonate soda is fully depleted. My teeth hurt more every day. It will probably kill me. When the infection spreads to my blood. Only time will tell.”
Little had successfully depressed and repressed himself again but now his nerves were steadier, and his arousal gone.
He opened Jopson’s shirt with hands that trembled from grief and he glared at the fresh blood soaking through the bandages around Jopson’s chest.
“Just don’t die before I do, Thomas… promise?” Little managed a hopeful smile.
Thomas was startled awake.
It was so cold.
His breath hitched in his panic and rose from his lips in faint white plumes.
Two voices were rising in anger beyond the tent walls.
This was something Jopson had not believed he would ever live to witness; either his ears were playing tricks on him or Little and Crozier were arguing.
More than arguing.
And at a time like this?
Chapter 8: Oak and Sycamore
It's getting cold so they will have to move south soon. Crozier and Hodgson want to take a route through the abandoned camps in search of survivors but Jopson is still very weak and Little is worried the journey may prove too dangerous for them.
Jopson listened to the raised voices through the rippling tent canvas while he shivered beneath his blankets.
“After everything I’ve taught you how could you make such a foolhardy proposal?” Crozier questioned furiously.
“Sir James Clark Ross’s rescue party is searching for us on Fox island, north of the ships!” Little reasoned defensively.
“Walk North!? In August! Are you mad!?” Crozier barked back.
“You’re just as mad as I am! To want to travel through the main camp! I told you what is waiting for us there! What became of the others! Why don’t you believe me!?” Little sounded desperate.
The two people he loved most were now fighting.
Jopson wanted to intervene but he knew better than to raise his voice in his condition. And what is more, these are still his superior officers.
It saddened him that this was the first time he might have had the opportunity to see and talk with Crozier in a relaxed environment since the mutiny, but his beloved Captain was far too preoccupied with chastising poor Edward.
A miserable affair.
More so than when he had been confronted by death because the prospect of rest takes the edge off mortal fears. To be awoken by frantic scuffling and distressed tempers, on the other hand, that needled him worse than anything.
He would have wept if he weren't so stoic, but his eyes turned moist and his habitual, under-pressure smile pinched at his lips.
“That is the fastest route to where we hope to get!” The captain emphasized.
“And where’s that? The icy marshes of northern candida?” Little scoffed.
“Lady Silence says her people are camped nearby on the path south. She wants me to tell them how Tuunbaq died.” Crozier explained.
“She’ll take you in but the rest of us are not welcome!” Little despaired.
With dread rattling away in his chest, Jopson forced himself to sit up in bed. He made a pained noise and held his hand to his chest.
Lady Silence was the only person in the tent with him. She looked up from her carving to observe Jopson as he rotated himself, so his legs hung off the bedside.
He took a quiet moment to regard her in turn. She seemed surprised he was up. Perhaps rather concerned.
He held out his hand to her to see if she would understand the greeting, but she gave him the little boat she was carving, thinking that he had wanted to look at it.
“If I can have some sort of conference with what’s akin to the local authority, I may be able to build us a road out of here.” Crozier argued.
“I’ll not quarrel with you sir. At least let me take Jopson on a different route, I won’t take him back to that place.” Little pleaded.
“It was a difficult decision for me to leave him alone with you after what you did. But I had no choice.”
“After what I did!?”
“However! However, I had some faith that you would still be here when we returned. That you would not try to move him until we all agreed he was well enough.”
“I had no more of a choice than you did, sir!” Little’s voice cracked with emotion.
“If you go ahead of us into unknown territories, I can’t predict what will happen.” Crozier persisted gravely.
Jopson wordlessly showed he was impressed by the carving before returning it to the ever judicious Lady Silence. He was trying to think of a way to ask her to fetch Hodgson. Presumably he was not preoccupied with the debate. If he had indeed returned from their hunting trip.
Now what was the Netsilik word for yellow?
“Sun… sungaartoq…” Jopson spoke with a weak voice and gestured to his hair.
The girl only looked more confused.
Crozier’s hair was still quite gold also, perhaps it was not a very distinguishing feature.
Jopson thought he should try in English just in case. “Please, can you bring Lieutenant Hodgson?”
She stood up and brought his boots and pick closer to him so he could reach them if he wanted to get out of bed.
“Thank you very much, but I…” Jopson muttered and paused to listen.
Little responded hoarsely to Crozier, “I won’t abandon him, sir, I swear. We will meet you up ahead in less than two days’ time. You have my word, Captain.”
“The last three times you gave me your word you broke it.” Crozier lowered his voice, but his Irish temper was still glowing in his words, “You may as well have condemned that lad to death, leaving him alone in the sick camp as you did. It is the same sort of thing now. Abandoning the men at the drop of a hat.”
“No… Please don’t say that.” Little trembled.
“There was no rescue party, just a dog running away from undisciplined men with his tale between his legs. And you were no decent caretaker for Thomas in his sleep. How could I leave him with you?”
Little went quiet.
Jopson felt he had no choice but to start getting his boots on and try and confront Little and Crozier.
Rank be damned. There is nothing left of that in this place!
“You’ll come with us back to the larger camp and act like a commander, or you can wonder off alone in the hills, but I won’t leave Thomas with you.” Crozier said firmly.
That was the Captain’s final verdict.
“I don’t want to be a commander… I don’t want to be in this anymore and neither do you. I quit.” Little grumbled.
“You can’t quit. The navy's the only life you've ever know.” Crozier huffed.
“Get off my back!” Little shouted.
Jopson had only just taken his first unsteady step away from his bed when Crozier trudged moodily into the tent.
Crozier paused and exchanged an equally astonished look with Jopson. He was going to speak but thought better of it. Perhaps he did not want to alert Little to the fact Jopson may have heard the entire thing. It might reignite the argument and Crozier was clearly done with this.
Jopson had to remind himself that Crozier was not prone to drink anymore and therefore would not lash out unreasonably if Little continued to contradict him.
Jopson’s timidity quickly overtook him as Crozier marched up to him with startling speed.
“Sir…” Jopson gasped as Crozier pulled him into a careful hug.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know you could hear us.” Crozier whispered. “Please rest, Thomas.” He pleaded and gently guided Thomas to lie back in the bed.
“It’s cold.” Jopson managed. his throat bobbing anxiously.
“I know, we need to start moving south as soon as possible.” Crozier put his hand on Jopson's forehead and confirmed the lad was not feverish.
“I’m ready.” Jopson said weakly.
“We’ll have dinner first.”
“What’s happening? Why were you two fighting? Where’s Lieutenant Hodgson? I heard his voice when I was last awake so he must still be alive.”
“Be calm, Thomas… George and Edward are just gutting the seals we caught. They’ll join us promptly.” Crozier assured with a worried smile.
“Sir… I’m frightened… Neddy will wonder off by himself…” Jopson sniffled and clutched at Crozier’s coat.
“He won’t go anywhere without you… we’re sorry to have caused you a panic.” Crozier replaced Jopson’s grip on his coat with his own hand and Jopson squeezed tightly as he could. When they were in Antarctica together Crozier had asked Jopson to squeeze his hand to prove he was getting stronger when recovering from his sickness.
“I can… I can handle it… sir… I just want to see that everyone is safe…” Jopson hiccuped. “Promise you won’t fight anymore… please.”
“How are you fairing?”
“Better, sir.” Jopson panted.
“Be honest.” Crozier pressed.
“…My legs and my head feel strange… like my blood is too thick.” Jopson confessed reluctantly. “What is that, Captain? Is my blood congealing?”
“You’re in shock. Take a deep breath.”
“It hurts to breathe.”
“Edward told me your claw marks opened up a bit when you sneezed. Is that the truth?”
“He hasn’t made you exert yourself in any way?”
“No sir… he never has. I am sure I exert him far more than he ever could me.” Jopson managed a humoured smile and a gentle laugh.
Crozier looked relieved.
“Ah look who’s up.” Hodgson chirped when he and Little brought dinner into the tent. Little was close behind him.
“Oh lord, Thomas, how long have you been awake?” Little asked worriedly.
“Not long.” Jopson assured and propped his head up on his elbow. “What’s for dinner?”
“A great deal of raw seal blubber. It reeks to high heaven!” Hodgson informed; he made a face to show he didn’t like the taste of it, but he was going to eat it anyway.
Lady silence was of course entitled to the only chair in the tent, while the others sat on boxes and barrels and Jopson stayed in his bed. Everyone sat in a circle and they were facing each other more or less. Sharing food and eating together in this way was certainly a comfort as opposed to eating alone and outside like a dog.
“It rather tastes like milk-chocolate mousse the colder one gets.” Hodgson remarked happily.
“More like bacon rind.” Little reported contrarily.
Thomas held a piece of bloodied blubber on his tongue. The taste of it had indeed sweetened with time; now it tasted more like butter and rather less like another creature’s cold snot.
“Did you get the hang of gutting, George?” Crozier asked conversationally.
“Edward showed me how… he’s had a lot more experience with this sort of thing. My aunties never allowed me to go hunting, they thought it inhumane. But Edward used to hunt and fox and prepare the game on his uncle’s own estate for sport, why don’t you tell us all more about that, Edward?” Hodgson requested.
Edward lowered his head in serious thought, and it seemed at first like he did not want to respond. “It wasn’t all that interesting. Just sport.” He muttered.
“Did you ever catch any poachers?” Hodgson asked eagerly.
Little and Jopson shared a brief glance.
Little looked back down at his plate and Jopson lifted his eyes to look at anything other than Edward.
“I did.” Little gave a modest shrug. “We were allowed to shoot anyone who trespassed on our land.”
Jopson could not help but wonder if he ever had. “Where was that?” He asked calmly.
“Hornsey, in Middlesex.” Little answered.
“I’ve been there… nice place.” Jopson nodded.
“It is.” Little affirmed stiffly.
“Especially in summer… Sundays reading under that giant oak tree at Hornsey park, thirty steps around, that makes it three hundred years old.” Jopson reminisced happily.
“They cut down that tree in 41… to make space for a new railway and bridge.” Little informed.
“Oh… that’s a shame.” Jopson sighed softly.
“I wish they’d plant more trees near cities.” Hodson remarked with his chin rested in his palm.
“I’ve almost forgot what a tree looks like by now.” Little huffed.
Jopson shuffled about and retrieved a book from behind his bunk.
“I found a sycamore leaf in Dr Goodsir’s journal. Look.” Jopson gave the leaf to Little, who was sat closest to him.
Little studied it with an enlightened expression, and he laughed. That was a rare sight.
When he grew board of it, he passed the leaf on to Hodgson, so he could entertain himself with the far-off memories of its origin. “Four years is a long time.” Hodgson breathed wistfully.
Silence had not seen such a large leaf before, she fidgeted to get a look at it also. Hodgson did indeed decide to give it to her with a friendly nod.
“Hand me Dr Goodsir’s Journal, Jopson.” Crozier requested.
Silence held the delicate leaf between her thumbs and kept her eyes on the familiar Journal as Jopson handed it to Crozier.
“His Inuktitut dictionary is in here.” Crozier confirmed after looking inside.
“Well there’s something worth taking with us.” Hodgson nodded. “I’d offer to throw my own journal aside to make room for it but I abandoned all my possessions in camp Terror, months ago. I feel rather like a Tibetan monk now.”
“I didn’t bring anything from Le Vesconte’s camp but chocolate and fireworks. That’s all used up now.” Little reported seriously.
“Did you have much to bring, Jopson?” Crozier asked.
“If I do say so myself, sir, I fashioned a rather reliable survival kit before Hickey confiscated it.” Jopson recalled.
“You’ll have to give Hickey’s tent a thorough search before we leave and decide what you’re taking with you.” Crozier advised.
“I can assist if I’m not required anywhere else.” Little afforded.
Crozier grunted disapprovingly but nodded, as if to indicate he had predicted Little would grasp at any promptly available ploy to be alone with Jopson again.
“Your help would be most appreciated, sir.” Jopson smiled.
“You’re not to call me ‘sir’ or ‘Lieutenant’ ever again. I’ve quit the navy as of today.” Little insisted.
“I haven’t dismissed you.” Crozier Grumbled.
“What’s stopping you?” Little agitated.
Crozier ignored him.
“I won’t be a commander. Dis-rate me. Dis-rank me for those three promises you said I broke.” Little pleaded of Crozier.
Crozier decided to mock deafness to his plea.
“Please don’t you two start that all over again.” Hodgson grumbled tiresomely.
“I know what you think.” Little snarled at the second Lieutenant.
"What does Thomas want?" Crozier said to no one in particular.
Little narrowed his eyes at Jopson. “How about it, Thomas? It's time you voice your opinion. You cannot run or fight. If the cannibals are still occupying the main camp, they will be picking your bones clean by tomorrow morning… that’s if you stay with Crozier and Hodgson. If you want to live you should come with me, we’ll take a different rout.”
“We must all stay together.” Jopson determined.
Little’s expression darkened further and he hung his head. “Well that’s a kick in the teeth.” He hissed.
“You’re not an arctic veteran.” Thomas reminded. “And I quite fancy my chances in the company of one. I shan’t leave my captain’s side.”
“You expediently leave out the fact that you’re thoroughly acquainted with the polar regions yourself, Thomas.” Little reminded. “Far more so than I am.”
“I might collapse at any moment along the journey you propose, and you’d be fumbling to get a tent up by yourself with bares about.” Jopson predicted. “Or something along those lines.”
“Well thanks for the vote of confidence.” Little grumbled sarcastically.
“I’m not trying to upset you, Ned.” Jopson assured.
It did nothing for Little's stubbornly melancholic temper. The dark-eyed man only snorted and folded his arms.
“God I’m bored out of my wits!” Hodgson bemoaned and lay back on the lumpy floor. “Bland food, tone deaf company, no music, no alcohol, no tea, just hot water and raw blubber. It’s cold and I want to play my piano!”
“Wined him up and watch him complain.” Little mocked dryly.
“Come now, George, don’t you usually have an old poem or story to recount?” Crozier encouraged.
Hodgson gave this some thought.
Jopson limped out of Goodsir’s tent with Little close behind him, prepared to steady the younger man if he lost his footing.
The wind was bitter and tormentingly strong.
The sky was whiskey amber as the sun drew close to the horizon.
Jopson paused and looked around the abandoned camp. It was much the same as when he had last seen it. But the table were Goodsir had been devoured lay empty.
“Was Dr Goodsir given a decent burial, then?” Jopson asked mournfully.
“Yes… Lady Silence was of course horrified to see what became of him, and it did occur to her that we might be in some way responsible, but Crozier reassured her. She trusts him.”
Jopson nodded and carried on into Hickey’s tent.
Both men were relieved to be out of the harrowing arctic atmosphere again.
This tent was darker and smaller than Goodsir’s. Its contents were less organised.
Little’s boot brushed against a discarded lamp. He picked it up and lit it while Jopson began searching.
“Bring that light closer if you please.” Jopson called.
Little stood over him while Jopson perched on his hands and knees and searched the wooden boxes.
“Say, Ned, where is Tibet anyhow?” Jopson asked.
“Between India and China.” Little answered.
“Alexander the Great got as far is the Himalayas of the Tibetan boarder with India on his conquest of the globe, but his army couldn’t get through the mountain range. And the young general became convinced that Prometheus was imprisoned on one of the tallest peaks, waiting to be rescued. Do you know the story of Prometheus?”
“Yep. He stole fire from god and gave it to man. That is why the big, instant light match company branded themselves ‘Promethean’.”
“It’s quite charming how you relate everything back to a domestic task or household item.”
“I expect Alexander never found Prometheus.” Jopson found Little's pistol and he opened it to check it for bullets and powder but it was empty and he cast it aside.
“No. But there are still many unexplored and nameless peaks of the Himalayas. Perhaps Prometheus will be rescued yet.”
“Ah, here they are.” Jopson pulled out the fur coat, mittens and hat that he had made in sick camp.
“Where did you get this stuff?” Little gasped as Jopson put his warmer layers on.
“I made it.” Jopson answered proudly.
“They’re wonderful. You look just like a little polar bear, Tommy.” Little chuckled.
“Here, try this on.” Jopson put the fox fur hat on Little’s head.
Little started laughing. “I’ve never worn a hat with a tail before.”
“Keep it on while we travel, I don’t want you to catch cold.” Jopson advised sweetly and gave Little a peck on the cheek which rather embarrassed the older man.
Edward flushed bright red. Then he leaned forward to kiss Thomas back, but the lad giggled and pushed him away.
“Your beard is so coarse! You look like a lumberjack. Please give yourself a cut at your soonest possible convenience, will you.” Thomas teased.
Edward gave him an eager nod and then followed Thomas out of the tent.
Chapter 9: Port in a Teacup
Jopson and his companions renew their journey south and make two new, unexpected additions to their party along the way.
“Some colour in your cheeks at last, Edward.” Crozier observed with a dull grin as Little and Jopson made their return to the larger tent.
Little’s blush darkened but he quietly got to work packing his things for the journey, showing his back to the others.
Jopson could not help but give his master a sympathetic study, Crozier looked physically and emotionally drained.
Crozier pulled his cold weather slops over his head and Jopson limped over to him to help him belt and button up.
“You don’t have to do that, Thomas. You’re hurt.” Crozier rasped softly and placed a hand on the lad’s shoulder.
“So are you, sir.” Jopson’s smile was angelic, “Wouldn’t want you catching cold or frostbite now, would we, sir?”
Crozier nearly laughed but for the melancholia weighing him down, he let Jopson finish.
“You work fast, even now.” Crozier praised with a whisper.
Once Jopson was sure Crozier was wrapped up safely he noticed Hodgson was nervously awaiting the opportunity to consult him.
The blond lieutenant had a torn slops jacket bundled up in his arms.
“Urm… Jopson… these are… Manson’s cold weather slops. The monster bit right through them but they are the warmest garments I could find besides the slops Edward and Francis have already claimed.” Hodgson explained.
Jopson looked at Little when he was mentioned and saw that he was using hair scissors to trim his beard.
“It’s not an appropriate request for one Lieutenant to make to another but… do you think you could please patch them up before we head out?” Hodgson seemed very apologetic and reluctant to make this request.
“This won’t take two ticks.” Jopson assured as he took the garments in hand. He hobbled over to his bed to sit, placed the coat over his lap and got to work. “I’m glad I could be of some assistance to you, but I must query as to at what point sewing stopped being a required skill for a lieutenant? Captain Crozier can sew, albite sloppily, and all the marines were good at sewing.”
“I can sew, just not as well as you can.” Hodgson excused. “You have got what… eight- or nine-years’ experience in ensuring cold weather gear is appropriate for arctic conditions? I do not have the patience to stitch a sturdy patch. My threads will often end up too sparse and too few.”
Jopson gave Hodgson a brief, curious look, ended with a deliberate smile, before continuing to stitch. He wondered why it had only just occurred to him now, but Hodgson was naturally a chipper person. Naïve to negativity and a positive thinker, yet he had looked miserable and red eyed as a funeral goer for months now. He wondered when Hodgson changed.
The man was fond of Irving and Gibson, would consoling him over their deaths be possible? He pondered. Then again, we’re not out of the woods yet. There is still much to be miserable about.
Jopson would have liked to sing while he worked, like he used to; a potential remedy to all their frigidness, but he would not chance the strain on his lungs while Tuunbaq's mark still seared his flesh, even to hum a tune. He could ask Hodgson to sing, but it seemed improper. So was asking him what was wrong and advising him to be more positive. All the same, a happy person with a sad face is difficult to look at. Jopson considers himself quite the opposite.
“Lieutenant Irving tried to repair his own socks once and sowed them shut.” Jopson recalled.
“Really?” Hodgson gave an ever so faint chuckle.
Jopson gave him another smile as he ran the last stitches through the cloth. Then he bit the thread.
“John Irving and I had an agreement.” Hodgson informed as he took the garments back.
“You were close.” Jopson remarked gently.
“We agreed it sounded right, that if one was morally distinguished god would be more merciful, more likely to save us.” Hodgson elaborated.
Jopson replied with a meaningful nod.
“…Looks like we made a mistake.” Hodgson deliberated.
“Looks like.” Jopson muttered.
“Thank you for your help.” Said Hodgson.
“My pleasure.” Jopson bowed his head gracefully.
“You’re a good showman, Thomas.” Crozier observed mischievously. “I should rather have promoted you to commander than third field lieutenant.” He mocked playfully.
“Your compliments are warmly accepted as always, Captain.” Jopson chirped with a light laugh.
“Well once George and I are gone the ranks will be exhausted and he will be your commander, Mr Crozier.” Little grumbled.
Crozier was unpleasantly baffled by this remark.
Jopson turned his attention to Little. “Come sit by me, Nedy, I’ll tidy your sideburns up for you.” he offered.
Little obeyed wordlessly and with a sullen idiom that lightened only when Thomas took the scissors from him and cupped his cheek.
“Belay your misery for one moment, will you?” Jopson requested. “Stop worrying about what’s going to happen and try to appreciate the time we have.”
“I’ll try.” Little murmured.
“Don’t wag your chin while I’m cutting your beard.” Jopson tutted.
They started their journey south again and Jopson was raggedy, always pushing himself to limp a few extra feet and stifling what were gradually becoming more frequent, agonised gasps.
They had not travelled far before the pain in Jopson’s leg and ribs had him stumbling forwards and clutching his chest.
The others stopped to watch him worriedly.
“Thomas?” Crozier called to him gravely.
“I’m alright.” Jopson winced.
“We’ll slow our pace for you.” Crozier offered sympathetically.
Jopson nodded his thanks.
He propped himself up with his ice pick and coughed a thin spray of blood droplets into his palm. It looked like red paint sprayed from a toothbrush. He wiped it off on his slops, leaving a second smeared, crimson handprint beside a first on his breast.
Jopson was about to start limping again but all to quickly found himself being picked up and cradled like a bride by Little.
“Put me down, I can walk.” Jopson protested feebly.
Little put him on the sled and started tucking him in with layers of blankets. He gave Jopson a gentle push every time he tried to sit up. “You’re not walking.” Little insisted firmly. “I’m going to pull you there. The more rest you get the better.”
“Might he freeze if he doesn’t keep his blood flowing with the exercise though?” Hodgson warned.
“Not if we make sure he’s bundled up properly.” Little put another layer over Jopson and made sure his head was wrapped up snugly. Jopson found it difficult to hear through the layers.
Little took the ropes of the sled from Silence and Crozier and started pulling.
“Don’t overexert yourself, Edward. Let me help.” Hodgson requested stubbornly and took hold of the rope.
Jopson choked a barely audible apology for the inconvenience he was causing.
From its hiding place the sun was hitting some smaller, closer wisps of cloud that overlapped the bubbly, charcoal grey sky, and those fairer clouds seemed as bright as white fire. The wind was blowing them quickly overhead.
Jopson’s gaze flicked downward and he saw that Crozier and Silence were walking at the back of their convoy now. Crozier had given him a very forlorn look to see him try to speak, but eventually the Captain’s attention drifted towards asking Lady Silence questions in her native language. They were surely yes-or-no questions, for all she could do was nod or shake her head in response.
Jopson slowly pealed back the fabric of the collapsed sick camp tent to see who was lying in its entrance with his hand extended.
It was Gench. Frozen solid. Skin blue with rigor mortis and shale dust worked into the flesh by the strong wind.
Jopson stroked his dead subordinate’s light brown hair and sadly muttered, “You’re home.”
“Most of these men appear to have taken poison to ease their passing.” Little observed.
Jopson turned to him and saw that he was inspecting the empty black bottle. Jopson stood up and looked at Little with a furrowed brow. He decided not to tell him he was the one who gave them the poison.
Little looked at Jopson, just wondering if he would say something, when he decided Jopson was going to remain silent he entertained himself by pulling his hand back and throwing the bottle as far across the lake of shale as he could manage. It smashed into a dozen little pieces with a high-pitched crash.
“You shouldn’t do that, Edward.” Crozier cautioned lightly.
“It’s not as if anyone’s going to come back here.” Little grumbled.
“You’ll put Lady Silence in a bad mood if you clutter up the landscape with broken glass. This place is her home after all.” Hodgson highlighted.
Silence was indeed giving Little a disapproving glare.
“Should we say something?” Hodgson asked, referring to leaving the dead.
“All good men who died in the line of duty.” Little attempted to console and patted Hodgson on the shoulder as he walked past him.
“When did you become so cold?” Hodgson asked Little, but he was ignored.
“That must be the best he can manage, don’t hold it against him.” Jopson softly appealed.
He wanted to participate with Hodgson. He stood by him and together they gave sick-camp one last, depressed look over.
“Ashes to ashes… I suppose.” Hodgson muttered. “Do you remember the rest?”
“We’re not at sea. One of Mr Peglar’s poems would be more appropriate.” Jopson recommended.
“Oceans of your own were in your hearts and I saw them through your eyes. Such oceans. I hope you found your shores.” Jopson offered. As he finished, he thought he noticed movement in one of the abandoned tents and he studied it sharply.
“Amen.” Hodgson nodded. He was surprised when Jopson began limping to the other tent as opposed to making his way back to the sledge. Concerned, Hodgson called out to Little.
Jopson had ensured the sick all berth in the middle tent with their supplies so no one should really have been in the other tent, perhaps there was a survivor…
“Is someone there?” Jopson asked anxiously before he pulled back the canvas.
It may have been dark, and the man may have been desperately trying to hide his face and play dead, but there was no doubt about it, Jopson had found Edmund Hoar.
Of course, it made perfect sense that Hoar would have ran back to where he had last seen camp when he realized Hickey intended to use him as a human sacrifice to the Tuunbaq.
Jopson took a step closer and Hoar began to shake, he was not particularly good at keeping up his pretence.
“Edmund.” Jopson spoke gently.
Hoar made a cry of distress but it was muffled by the fabric he was pressing into his face.
“Edmund… don’t be afraid, I want to help you.” Jopson offered quietly.
“Then let me alone, I beg of you!” whimpered Hoar.
“Can I get you anything? We have food and water.” Jopson offered.
“What food? More corpses?” Hoar spat.
“Seal, man, I can’t taste the difference. How should I know if you’re telling me the truth?”
Jopson lost his patience and snapped, “I would sooner starve than do something like that!”
Although Hoar had not turned to face Jopson yet, it was clear the anger in his voice had served to further frighten Hoar. The younger man began to weep quietly.
“Thomas, please don’t wonder off by yourself, it’s dangerous.” Little’s voice called from behind.
Jopson, who was now kneeling beside Hoar, looked over his shoulder and saw that Little was stood half in the doorway, holding the canvas back.
“I’m not alone.” Jopson shrugged.
“Did you find a survivor?” Little asked.
“It’s Mr Hoar.” Jopson explained with a hint of a smile.
“Traitors can’t be trusted.” Little said seriously, a cold look in his eyes.
Jopson winced and pressed his hand to his forehead. “No, it’s not right to leave him here. Can’t we just give him a chance?” he gave Little a pleading look.
Little’s stern, serious extraction was broken by a heavy sigh. “He’s yours, do as you will. But he lives by the minute if you ask me.” Little said dismissively and turned to leave. When Jopson looked back at Hoar, the younger steward had finally lifted his face from the bedding and turned to face Jopson. He had his dirty hands clasped together tightly and a desperate, frightened look in his eyes. The sight rather startled Jopson.
“Please forgive me, Thomas.” Hoar begged tearily. “I knew you’d be furious about me helping Hickey kill Neptune but really we put him out of his misery, didn’t we? He was an old dog anyway.”
Jopson’s eyes darkened. “What?” he growled.
“He would not have lasted much longer, and we needed the meat.”
“’E’d travelled the world that dog ‘ad!” Jopson exclaimed. “He may have been old, but he had a lot of life left in him. He kept Captain Crozier company through his sickness. He helped us fetch water and stay alert to the presence of bears. If you had not killed Neptune, then Gench, Collins, Reed; all the men who were injured and killed at the camp terror clear; they would still be alive, and we would still have a god damn chance! Every member of a ship’s crew is a vital addition, even a dog! All our lives are stacked against each other!”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” Hoar wept.
“So get up, sailor!” Jopson ordered and stood up.
Confused, Hoar slowly got to his feet.
“Tell me your life is still worth something.” Jopson ordered.
“My life… if still… worth… something.” Hoar stuttered between sniffles as he wiped his nose on his sleeve.
“Our lives are still stacked against each other and we’re still a crew.”
“I’d really rather be on my own, Thomas, please. I think I have better chances on my own.”
“If you insist, I’ll let you alone, but go ask Captain if he can spare some lunch for you first. You shouldn’t make such an important decision on an empty stomach.” Jopson advised firmly and he held the entrance open to encourage Hoar to step out.
Hoar stepped back. Jopson was not sure why.
The younger man turned his attention to the wooden barrel at the back of the tent. He reached his arms into the barrel and Jopson prepared in case he was making for a weapon but was calm in case he was not.
“Come on.” Edmund whispered gently. He pulled a bundle out of the barrel and cradled it affectionately.
Jopson relaxed and smiled.
Due to it’s size, he could have half mistaken the little creature fidgeting inside the cloth bundle for a human baby, but soon its thin, silver tail and tiny, fluffy, triangle-shaped ears fell into view.
“Is that a husky?” Jopson asked, pleasantly astonished.
Edmund gave Thomas a meek, melancholic smile. “Yeah. The mother looked like a fox from far away, so I shot it for food. When I went to inspect the body, I realized it was a dog with a pup. They must have strayed from one of the Eskimo parties.”
Jopson nodded in agreement.
“I tried to feed it but it won’t eat.” Hoar explained.
“It looks like it’s still weening age. It needs it’s mother’s milk.” Jopson informed.
“Damn it.” Hoar sighed heavily.
“How long do you think it’s been without milk?”
“I killed the mother two days ago. Wasn’t much meat on her.”
“If the pup's healthy and hydrated it might last another day yet. Captain says we’ll be at the Eskimo camp before sundown, it should be possible to introduce it to a foster mother if the closer encampment has dogs.”
Hoar came out of the tent, cradling the puppy to his chest and Jopson joined him, still limping with his ice pick.
“Does it have a name?” Jopson asked.
“It’s a female so… I was thinking Sasha.” Hoar suggested.
Jopson beamed with aproval.
“What are you two grinning about then?” Crozier asked as Hoar and Jopson rejoined the group. Little must have already informed Crozier that Mr Hoar was alive and would probably be joining them.
Under Little’s careful supervision, Jopson was encouraged to once again ride the sled to the next camp. Little warned everyone that they should approach strategically in case they were met with hostility from the men ahead, but they found the camp to be empty, say for the abandoned personals, scientific equipment and books left behind.
“Too empty, I’d say.” Little cautioned as he scrutinised the camp. “Where are the bodies? I know at least five men died here and Le Vesconte would not have wasted time and energy burying them.”
“That’s right, this is the very spot where Mr Pocock fell.” Jopson agreed. The lad was sat sideways on the sledge with his boots on the shale and his arms folded over his knees.
“The fiends probably consumed them.” Little gravely concluded.
Hoar came to sit next to him and Jopson silently handed him a jar of seal fat and instructed him to use it as fuel to heat up some drinking water.
Little drifted further into the abandoned camp with his hands sunk into his pockets and began scanning the scattered tomes for something of interest. Occasionally he used the toe of his boot to close the windswept pages so he could read the title on it's front cover.
Silence and Hodgson went off separately to scavenge from the camp.
Hoar poured a small portion of the fat into a tin dish, lit it, and set up the little tin kettle above it. “Any tea leaves, Thomas?” He asked when he observed Jopson setting out the tea set.
“Afraid not. But hot water is still better than cold.” Jopson replied.
Jopson observed a forlorn look in Crozier’s eye as he too flitted through the strewn about books, equipment and instruments.
“We are at the end of science.” Crozier lamented under his breath and sat on the shale near the sled. He hid his face in his hands.
Jopson shuffled up behind him and hugged him. “We’re going to be ok, Captain. You’ll see.” He assured.
Crozier looked up and put his hand over Jopson’s which were clasped together over his scarf. “You’ve got good cold climate hands.” Crozier remarked.
“You said that to me when we first met, remember?” Jopson giggled.
“I don’t remember how we first met. Seems to me you were always with me.” Crozier spoke tenderly.
“It’s been a very long time.” Jopson agreed and tightened the hug, pressing his chin into Crozier’s shoulder blade.
Crozier stroked Jopson’s hand, then his arm, which was sleeved in soft white fur, the tired old captain found it pleasant to run his fingers through it.
“Yes! There it is! Haha!” Hodgson cheered noisily when he finished pouring through the abandoned sea-chests and crates.
“What did you find, George?” Little asked as he started walking towards him.
“The bloody Port, man!” Hodgson rejoiced, cradling the bottle.
“Ah, you should give a ration to Thomas, it’ll help with his chest pains.” Crozier advised.
“I can have some?” Jopson questioned eagerly.
“There’s no way you’re getting it! This is mine!” Hodgson declared cagily.
“By what right?” Little asked with his hands on his hips. “Fitzjames bought the Port rations all the way from Portugal! It’s not like he willed them to you!”
“But I found it!” Hodgson pleaded desperately and held the bottle to his chest.
“Share it out equally, boys. Don’t squabble.” Crozier ordered firmly.
“Can we open it now?” Little asked.
“Not yet. Save it until we reach the native encampment.” Ruled Crozier.
“Ah, we shall need a corkscrew and glasses.” Hodgson stated and renewed his search for them.
Hoar quietly began pouring the hot water rations into the little teacups and Jopson watched him eagerly.
“I can get the cork out with my teeth.” Said Crozier. “As for glasses you can use the teacups. Thomas is still clinging to the set for dear life.”
“I’m very fond of this set. We’ve had it since we left Hobart.” Jopson reminded as he passed Crozier a cup and then took one himself.
“Drink port out of a teacup? What devilry is this? Why I’ve never heard of something more ridiculous!” Hodgson warbled.
“Desperate times call for desperate measures, George.” Crozier chuckled with a wink. He raised his cup to the second Lieutenant before taking a sip.
Hello slice-of-life/Studio Gibli 'Ma' vibes, my old friend. My flare for the dramatic and perilous will return in full next chapter, but for now, here is a puppy. ฅ^•ﻌ•^ฅ
Chapter 10: In The Flesh
Five survivors of the expedition make it to the safety of the Netsilik camp and each struggles in his own way to adapt to a new life. They have barely recovered from everything they've been through when Silna vanishes and Francis decides he is to set off again in search of her.
In calm, autumn sunshine, Thomas limped across the netsilik camp, finally without the use of a pick or cane.
He crouched and shuffled into the animal skin tent he had been sharing with the other four Englishmen. The shelter created a burnt animal fat and dried meat smell that reminded Thomas of a previous employer in the old country who had been overly fond of taxidermy and kept his walls always decorated with an army of stuffed stag-heads. It took a moment for his eyes to adapt to the darkness within the shelter, the white rocks outside had left him temporarily dazzled and everything seemed shrouded in a green mist for a short while. No little oil dish was burning. He had to feel his way forward on his hands and knees with caution as he moved further away from the entrance.
He heard a very faint hiss of breathing. “Who’s in here then?” he questioned.
“Only me.” He recognized Edward Little's voice. He could just about make out the other man’s silhouette against the skins, which filtered in a very dim yellow light that his eyes were just beginning to get used to.
“Edward... I asked the medicine woman if she could help my friend with a tooth infection and she gave me this. It might not save your teeth, but it is meant to ward off infections of the blood. Apparently, you are to drink a whole bottle daily until you recover. If it tastes as bad as it smells, I do not envy you.” Thomas explained tenderly.
The concoction was in a reused, small, brown, glass bottle, which was no surprise considering the amount of rubbish left behind by not only their own but also previous polar expeditions.
“Thank you.” Edward muttered as he accepted the gift and began slowly unwinding the cord that kept it sealed.
“You’re a man of few words, Edward Little.” Thomas chuckled.
“…Have the natives given you a name yet?”
“They’re calling me Tuuq. Because I take an ice pick with me everywhere. What have they been calling you?”
“Aklaq. I presume that's because I have blacker features than the rest of you.” Sadness and exhaustion yet permeated Edward’s muttering, despite the fact they had already taken three days rest and been fed and watered without lifting a finger ever since Francis made his negotiations with the netsilik chief, Yakone.
Thomas had never been so spoiled in his life.
On that first day when Francis and Lady silence, who Thomas had by now learnt was called Silna, had emerged from Yakone's tent, the captain put a hand on Thomas’s shoulder and said gravely, “The chief has asked if anyone else in our group knows the native language. I told him you know enough for a basic conversation and now he says he wants to talk to you alone.”
“Me, sir? Are you sure about this?” Thomas was astonished but Francis gave him a reassuring nod and a hopeful smile, followed by a light push in the right direction.
After some fumbling Thomas did manage to answer some of Yakone's more basic questions with what little Inuktitut he had to work with.
“I’ve learnt from your captain and from Silna that you saw Tuunbaq die. What was it like?” Yakone queried.
“Urm… I wasn’t trying to kill it… I didn’t know that it could be killed. I just wanted to keep my captain safe.”
“You killed Tunnbaq? Your captain told me it was the leader of a band of traitors among you what killed Tuunbaq.”
“No, no, I’m in no way trying to claim responsibility.” Thomas excused fearfully. “Err... what my captain spoke of likely caused it the greatest harm, but it was not meant… we all dealt it blows. I was not fully awake when it died. All I remember is my captain.”
“Your captain is still the leader of your group?”
“I can’t speak for the others.”
“But for yourself?”
Not sure how to put it, Thomas simply gave a meaningful nod.
The Netsilik man looked ever serious and after a thoughtful pause and a deep breath through his nose, he revealed to Thomas what he knew; “The rest of your captain’s men have settled in a camp to the east now.”
“They’re alive?” Thomas gasped, his eyes widened.
“Their skin has turned from white to blue and they have turned to the last resort for food. Their camp lies littered with human bones and their leader has wrapped his face in golden chains. We do not hunt in that area anymore. It’s dangerous.”
Thomas’s brow furrowed as he recalled his previous encounter with them. “Does my captain know what’s happened to them?”
“No. You should stay away from them. Will you tell your captain?”
“For his own safety he must not know about it.”
Yakone shrugged and said, “Then it would seem he is no longer your leader.”
That was painful to hear. Thomas decided he would have to consider things carefully. “I am… the lowest of my group… I will ask the others for guidance.”
“What role do you play in your group?”
“To look after Francis… I’ve known him for twice as long as the others.”
“Then why do you need to ask the others? It sounds to me you know what’s best for him.”
Presently Edward was grumbling about the awful taste of his medicine and he slumped back into the caribou furs that lined the ground and made up his bed.
“Edward… what if Le Vesconte is still alive? We never found him, or the others.” Thomas probed carefully.
“That is an interesting speculation.” Edward droned with disinterest.
“Captain’s got his strength back. He will want to have another look for survivors soon. What if we find them but they’ve gone even more savage than they were during our previous encounter?”
“They were spooked by your presence. And you were quite a ghastly sight. But I do not expect anything could frighten them more now than themselves.”
“Nedy, what happened after I left on that day?” Thomas asked gently, he made himself comfortable, sitting nearer and facing Edward. “How come you never told me the whole story?”
“Edwin Helpman and George chambers were…” Edward trailed off. “You know you could sit here and speculate about a lot of things!” He said crossly. “Such as did they or did they not find game? Do they still have bullets or is their armory depleted? Is Henry Le Vesconte alive or dead? I don’t know the answers to these questions… and as far as I’m concerned, they don’t matter. The whole thing is absurd.” He insisted, with more energy in his face and hands than he had expressed in months.
He paused to catch his breath, as he had quite roused himself in anger, and he could tell Thomas also needed a moment to accept his proclamation.
Edward rolled from his side onto his back and muttered, “We five survivors are alone. There’s not been a sniff of another sailor since we got here.”
Thomas was perched on his knees beside Edward and he only needed to move one of his knees a little in order to straddle him. The action startled Edward and he tried to wriggle out of it but stopped when he realised Thomas was determined to keep him there.
“What on earth do you think you’re doing, Thomas?!” Edward gasped.
“People find themselves in absurd situations all the time, don’t they?” Thomas questioned provocatively.
“Get off before you cause trouble!”
“I’m not causing any trouble; I’m just sitting here.” Thomas played coy and rolled his hips forward and back once or twice before Edward gripped him by the waist to stop him. Too late, Thomas could feel Edward getting aroused through their trousers.
“You’re being troublesome.” Edward stammered, his cheeks turning scarlet.
“I… I haven’t felt anything down there in three years, Thomas, don’t toy with me like this.” He whispered nervously.
“Sometimes troublesome things can just sit there waiting for you to do something about them. Ignoring it does not make it go away.”
“Alright, I see your point…”
Thomas’s ears twitched when he heard someone else coming into the tent and he crawled off Edward in a hurry and sat cross legged on the furs just next to him. Edward’s disappointed groan was unmissable.
“Hello, George.” Thomas chirped.
“Oh, I’m sorry, who’s here?” George questioned with a slight trembling in his gentle tone.
“Thomas and Nedward.” The youngest man chimed.
“My apologies gentlemen, it’s getting dark out already. Francis will join us soon; he’s just melting some snow for water outside.” George explained as he started pulling his boots and socks off.
“That bloody stinks to high heaven, George!” Edward complained. Jopson giggled quietly.
“Well we’re all going to have to take our boots off some time and I’m not going to do it outside!” George excused.
“Nedy, when did you last take your boots off? Your feet are going to stink worse than George’s, I assure you.” Thomas laughed and he also began taking his boots and socks off.
“For god’s sake. Both of you.” Little grumbled and pressed his face into the covers to shield his nose.
“Best get it all over an done with at once.” Thomas reminded.
“Then you should have waited for Crozier and Hoar to get back.” Edward grumbled.
“Mr Hoar shan’t be joining us tonight; He’s already smitten with a native girl.” George reported.
“That was quick.” Edward snarled.
“I was not expecting that.” Thomas admitted humouredly.
“I don’t understand it.” George scoffed.
“Which part?” Thomas asked in light, playful mockery, drawing a little chuckle from Edward. Having made his own feet bare he gripped Edward’s boots and started taking them off for him now.
“Well, each to his own when it comes to a man’s taste in women, I suppose… but I could never work up the courage to sleep with a woman I’ve hardly known for three days.” George confessed frankly.
“That’s because you’re an officer and a gentleman.” Thomas winked.
“Our dear Thomas on the other hand is used to doing the bear with all sorts of unorthodox partners.” Edward teased.
“Hugs work wonders, old man. You should partake more often.” Thomas quipped in return.
“Don’t you ‘old man’ me, Thomas.” Edward chided playfully and ruffled Thomas’s hair. Messed, the lad’s thick dark fringe nearly covered his eyes. “You remind me of ol’ Nep with your hair that way.” Edward laughed.
Thomas blushed and smirked while he slicked his hair back into place.
“Let’s set up a light in here.” George recommended and he cleared a space in the middle of the tent to place the oil dish.
“Is there a spare rag that can be used as a wick or am I required to sacrifice yet another of my socks?” Jopson questioned with a grin and a tilt of his head.
“Hand them over, Jopson. You can sew yourself new ones out of caribou skin.” George declared and held his hand out towards Thomas.
“Go catch me a caribou then, George, off you go.” Jopson snorted.
“Someone help me tear these into strips, I don’t have all my strength back yet.” Thomas sighed after a failed attempt at ripping the fabric.
“Maybe one of the natives will provide us with a new taper after we’ve used up this one.” Little suggested. He ripped it into strips and handed them to George, who set up the little light, no brighter than a candle.
“You know we’re quickly running out of things to trade with these people.” Thomas reminded, he was smiling but there was frustration on his tongue and in the crinkle of his brow. “I swapped my fox skin mittens for your medicine, Ned.”
“Surely they were worth more than that one dose!” Edward exclaimed.
“Oh, they were.” The younger man assured. “The medicine woman was very grateful and said she’d give me whatever I wanted for the duration of my stay. So, we are all sorted for medicine. But tapers, blades and socks are quickly depleting.” Thomas warned.
Just as he came to the end of his sentence Francis came into the tent and handed George a full animal skin of water and grunted, “Some of us should be well enough to start learning how to hunt soon.” he began to undress himself. “We can pay these people back for all their help in time.”
“Would you like for me to help you with anything, sir?” Thomas asked.
“No, I’m alright." Francis declined. "But Thomas, do not be pushing yourself to walk around without a cane just because you think it looks good, you’ll hurt yourself.”
“Of course, sir.”
George had drunk a good quarter of the water supply already before he passed it to Edward. Lastly it came to Thomas.
When they slept Thomas always found himself wedged closely between Francis and Edward, the others gladly declined sleeping in the middle because it was too ‘claustrophobic’ and so Thomas had the privilege of occupying one of the warmest and snuggest places in their little tent.
Sharing heat with Francis was no new or immodest experience for him.
Following Francis’s lead, Thomas was the second-quickest to adopt the Inuit custom of sleeping naked under the caribou furs, but George was still reluctant to take off his underthings and Edward had spent the first few nights fully clothed, sleeping even with his coat and boots while underneath the furs.
“Counter to what may be your instincts, Nedy, it is much warmer this way.” Thomas insisted with a bright smile while lying next to him, their faces only inches away.
It would seem poor Edward placed a certain romance in nudity. Surely, he was not so bashful when he had been serving in hotter climates, it had likely gotten worse with the increased layering and covering of the arctic lifestyle they were accustomed to aboard the ships. Had the men been more open minded they could have slept soundly without so much as burning the coal for the ship’s boiler, huddling together is something all cold-climate and furry mammals learn to do sooner or later.
Edward’s dark eyes glimmered with Jealousy as he watched one of Crozier’s arms slide unconsciously over Thomas’s slim, bare waist, beneath the caribou skins.
Thomas had no reaction to the motion but he studied Edward’s misery with an innocent and sympathetic expression.
Francis had slept soundly as a kitten since they had arrived, however for Edward there were only uncomfortable, freezing and sleep deprived nights. He barely left the tent due to his exhaustion and foulness of temper. He slept what little he could in the afternoon when the sun warmed the air of the shelter. He dreaded how the days were quickly darkening and shortening now, in autumn. The winter would surely kill him or turn him into something ghastly.
Edward nearly jumped out of his skin when he felt Thomas’s nimble fingers undoing his coat buttons.
“Relax.” Thomas whispered.
If the action of moving onto Edward’s tunic and then shirt buttons had truly irked him the larger, stronger man would surely have been able to protest. But he stayed still and tried his best to comply with Thomas’s order.
A warm hand delved slowly beneath the now opened layers of Edward’s clothing and roamed gently over the cold flesh that covered his ribs. “You see, I’m warmer than your uniform.” Thomas murmured.
“I can’t very well wear you instead.” Edward whispered frustratedly.
Thomas’s apple cheeks flushed rosily, he bit his knuckle and stifled a laugh, not wanting to wake the others.
The whiteness that seeps in through a tent in the twilight of sunrise is purifying in the sense that it feels natural to arise with the sun, regardless of how little one has slept prior. Sunshine in the weakness of its birth should surely be much dimmer than morning eyes perceive it. On a good morning, the faintest sound is loud, and the weakest sunlight is bright, and every fiber of ones being knows it is time to start anew.
On this morning, Thomas sat up and looked around himself, and saw that Edward and George were fast asleep, but that Francis was missing. Francis was not prone to leave the tent so early and unannounced, so Thomas was immediately prompted to get himself dressed in fresh furs and find out what had become of the captain.
Francis was searching the camp for Silna, he looked on the verge of tears, and Thomas just about caught the chief’s explanation for her disappearance as he handed Francis the little wooden boat which Silna had carved for him as a gift.
“Alone is the way for her now. Everyone accepts this.” Said Yakone.
Francis could not accept it; Thomas knew him to be too stubborn to so easily let go of someone he trusted so much.
Thomas was about to go to Francis when he felt something tug twice on the hem of his caribou skin coat and he looked down to see a little inuit girl trying to get his attention.
Thomas recognised her, she was the youngest child of the family that owned the dogs and had taken Sasha in, if he remembered correctly her name was Sura.
He smiled and greeted her in Inuktitut.
“Do you want to see the puppy?” she asked.
“Hello, Tuuq, have you come to check up on Sasha?” Sura’s mother, Aariak, asked after the child had led Thomas into their tent.
“Yes.” Thomas affirmed.
Little Sasha ran straight to Thomas and he knelt to pet her. She already looked bigger and her fur looked thicker and glossier than it had three days prior. Thomas was frustrated at his own lack of native words to express his joy, after giving her a good fuss he looked up and asked, “Where is Ipiktok?” For that was what the locals had named Edmund Hoar.
“Ipiktok has gone hunting with Kiki.” Aariak replied, she barely looked up as she was busy grinding herbs in a little stone bowl.
“Kiki…” Thomas nodded, that was the name of Aariak’s eldest daughter, who Hoar had become ‘smitten with’ as George put it.
Aside from his time sharing a breakfast of fish with Aariak, Sura and the dogs, Thomas kept an eye on Francis all morning.
When it became clear Francis was about to set out alone in search of Silna, Thomas finally intervened.
“Leaving us so soon, captain?” Thomas asked with the grace of a butler singing farewells to a house guest.
Francis carried on silently and determinedly, pulling a sled along the snow-powdered rocks.
“You know, I’m an idiot and I’m going to follow you without provisions if you don’t stop and take a moment to consult the rest of us about your latest plan of action.” Thomas declared, walking along side Francis.
“I just want to say goodbye to Silna. Properly. Don’t follow me.” Francis insisted irritably.
“I’m going to follow you.” Thomas laughed.
“If you come, Edward will try and follow you and George will not stand for being the only white man left in camp, so he’ll follow Edward.”
“Then perhaps we should all go and plan the journey properly.” Thomas advised.
Francis stood still and heaved a heavy sigh. He was thinking things through for a silent while.
“How do you even know where Silna has gone?” Thomas asked.
Francis just held the wooden boat up in a gesture.
“You think she’s gone back to Terror and Erebus?”
“I think she’s headed in that direction, yes.”
Tuuq: Ice pick (Thomas’s Inuit name)
Aklaq: Black Bear (Edward’s Inuit name)
Yakone: Red Aroara
Sura: Green Leaf
Ipiktok: Keen (Edmund’s Inuit name.)
Chapter 11: No Good
From what I can tell Inuktitut is a minimalistic language that does not beat around the bush, thusly when Thomas and Francis are speaking to the Inuit, they are blunt and lose their quirky, Victorian inflections. None of the Inuktitut characters thus far try to communicate in English but the Inuktitut conversations are written in English for our convenience, but in a style I felt mimicked the minimalism of Inuktitut.
Look out for dead dogs and period-typical racism ahead.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Thomas sat cross legged, idly on the floor of Aariak’s tent, with two grown huskies resting either side of him while he watched the older woman prepare another dose of medicine. Now he hoped to learn for himself how to make it.
Sura was in the tent too but the little girl was barely noticeable as she played quietly with her small Ulu-knife.
Sasha was in Thomas’s lap again, giving his hand harmless biting and growling as she tried to entice him to play. But he remained quite disinterested in the puppy while he spoke with Aariak.
“We leave tomorrow morning. I wish to take a dog.” He requested.
“Kiki and Ipiktok took six of my dogs to pull their sled. Only the three remain. Sasha’s too small and must be nursed by Nago, and Chu is no good.” Aariak declined quite bluntly.
“No good?” Thomas quirked an eye brown. Chu was the large, all-white dog to his right. He petted its head experimentally and Chu opened one bright blue-green eye to peak at him and groaned like something old, this was an old dog.
“Lately he’s gotten worse. He refuses to hunt or eat anymore. He’s useless, disobedient.” Aariak complained.
“Did Chu vomit, or eat anything strange?” Thomas enquired.
“No… if he doesn’t eat something soon, we may have to put him out of his misery.”
“Did you check his teeth?”
“He snaps if I try.” She sighed.
Jopson tried to check Chu’s teeth and the dog did indeed snap and growl at him in warning at first. When he showed he was not afraid and had a gentle touch the beast settled and allowed him to inspect its gums.
“As I thought.” Thomas remarked.
“He’s got a tooth infection. I wonder if he’ll take Edward’s medicine…” Thomas looked over, by now the medicine was freshly bottled and he plucked it from the stone slate Aariak had laid it upon.
Aariak scowled at him and shook her head. “You’re being stupid, Tuqq. Aklaq will not be pleased with you if he finds out you’ve wasted his medicine on a dog.”
“He certainly will be.” Thomas chuckled in light dismissal as he emptied the bright green elixir into the dog’s bowl.
Thomas moved the bowl closer to Chu and encouraged the dog to dip his dark snout into it. He petted Chu’s head when the dog began lapping.
Aariak folded her arms crossly and said, “If you want another dose for today you can make it yourself.”
“Watch me and let me know how well I do.” Thomas requested with a sweet smile.
“Did Tuqq give the medicine to Chu because he’s part dog?” Sura asked suddenly.
“Sura, where did you hear something like that?” Aariak laughed nervously and sounded bothered by her child’s remark.
Thomas laughed silently but didn’t look up from his work.
“Tingiyok said kabloona are the offspring of a dog and a disobedient woman. That’s why they’re hairy, loud and have green eyes.” Sura explained innocently.
“I highly doubt that.” Aariak scoffed but she did give Thomas a quizzical look, wanting him to confirm or deny the accusation, he presumed.
“I assure you I’m wholly human. I’m just from really far away. If you travel far enough, you’ll meet all sorts of odd-looking people.” Thomas chuckled.
“Where are you from?” Suga asked.
“A place called England.”
“Is that in the spirit world? Maybe our shaman can send you back.” Sura suggested.
“Even further away than that I’m afraid. Even in a great ship that rides the wind it takes a long time to get there. But this is not the furthest from home I have been. Many years ago, I travelled to the other end of the earth, with Aglooka.”
“Do kabloona have to travel so far because they are so terrible at hunting?” Sura enquired innocently.
“No…. we do not hunt often; we usually grow food instead. It’s a lot easier back home.” Thomas explained.
“Then why leave? What were you looking for?”
Thomas thought a moment. Explaining it was his job or duty would not have been much of an answer to the little Inuit girl. “Well… we wanted to see it.”
“All there is to see. And then draw it on a big map.” He answered with a smile.
“Mama I cut my finger!” Sura whined and held up her hand. The tip of her little finger was bleeding.
“It’s not so bad, just lick the blood away.” Aariak sighed.
“Is it really ok for Sura to be playing with a knife like that?” Thomas asked.
Aariak gave him a puzzled look. “How else is she supposed to learn how to use it?” Thomas just shrugged and turned his attention back to making the medicine.
When he found Edward, he was stood near the edge of a cliff, looking out at the southern horizon where a blue moon hung, low and full.
“You look very dramatic, Nedy!” Thomas called playfully as he approached. “You remind me of a painting, 'Man Contemplating the Moon', I think.”
Edward seemed startled as he looked over his shoulder. He relaxed and offered up a sad smile when Thomas came to stand next to him. They looked south together.
“I feel more like the ‘wanderer above the sea of fog’.” Edward returned with a weak warmth. Thomas chuckled lightly.
They stood in that cool arctic wind and enjoyed the exotic, wintry view for a quiet moment. Then Edward lowered his head with a miserable sigh. “How I miss those galleries, theatres and the opera houses of London and Edinburgh. The beauty and splendour of old England.” He longed desperately.
Thomas hesitated to respond, his attempt at reassurance was about to border on contradiction. “Man’s works are inferior to nature, or so a Mr J. D. Hooker once purported to me.”
Edward’s shimmering, coal black eye shifted to Thomas with a lecturing gleam. “Do you know the philosophy of Romanticism?”
“Can’t say it’s a very practical knowledge.” Thomas shrugged.
The dark eyes flickered back to the horizon. “Well… perhaps some men can make a work of art with the horrors and obscenities of the world cut out of it. I support that.”
“Perhaps.” Thomas assured and bowed his head from habit. “I was just on my way to tell you that Mrs Aariak cannot spare us any dogs.”
Edward tutted disappointedly.
“But she has shown me how to make your medicine and given me enough roots and herbs for another two doses. Our trip is estimated to be three days long including the return so… it should be enough.”
“Alright.” Edward clapped Thomas twice on the shoulder as he turned to make his way back to camp, “Let’s get packing then.”
“Aye.” Thomas grinned as he followed Edward, satisfied that the older man’s spirit seemed to be on the mend.
Thomas walked beside Edward and smiled at him. Edward responded with an inquisitive grimace.
“Edward, when are you going to make up with Francis?”
“I knew you were going to pester me about that sooner or later.” Edward grumbled.
Thomas pulled back in surprise and grinned nervously. “You were more secure with yourself when you trusted Francis.”
Edward turned to look at him an snarled, “I’ve been civil enough with him, having no choice but to share a bed with him for the past four days, but I’m not going to be his dog anymore, I can’t go back to that. Neither should you. Think of yourself for once, will you.”
“Are you suggesting I should have let him wonder off in search of Silna alone?” Thomas narrowed his bright blue-green eyes at Edward.
“Yes! That would have been better for all of us!”
“We’re a team and we should stick together. Don’t forget the tale of John Fryer.” Thomas lectured back.
“Thomas, we don’t even know if the Eskimo will gladly rendezvous with us after the mission. They told us they’d be migrating south but we don’t know for sure they won’t throw us off track.”
“John Fryer couldn’t settle his differences with his captain either. Stranded on a little pacific islet of cannibals, he refused to eat with the other sailors and built his own fire which got out of control and blew the crew’s cover to the natives. Everyone nearly died.” Thomas recounted.
“Yes, Thomas, I know, every sailor knows that story, even the green horns.” Edward sighed tiresomely.
“Then stick with the rest of us and put your faith in our captain. He’ll bring us home.”
Edward shook his head and made an irritated exhale through his nose.
When they got back to their tent Thomas was provided with enough furs to start sewing a new coat. He found that the large, blunt bone needle he’d been provided with could only puncture the tough skins with great force, he concluded this would take much longer than his usual needle work.
“I was unsuccessful in procuring a dog for our trip, Francis.” Thomas reported, he was still not quite used to calling everyone by their first name, it made him nervous.
“We shan’t get anywhere by drawn sled then.” George concluded.
“It takes years to learn how to operate a dog sled.” Francis scoffed. “We need a dog to help us navigate and watch for bears.”
“I couldn’t persuade Aariak to spare any, of the dogs that remain in camp, one is needed to nurse the puppies and the other is sick.” Thomas explained.
“We’ll take the sick dog. I do not care what she says. Steal it if you have to.” Francis insisted.
“Oh… alright.” Thomas submitted reluctantly; stealing was awfully against his principles but what Francis wanted was far more important than that.
“I’m not going to say this twice, I’d really prefer you two stayed behind.” Francis sighed tiresomely as he wound a rope around his bundle of supplies.
“I shan’t be dissuaded.” Edward repeated stubbornly and accompanied his declaration with a glare.
Francis snorted a laugh and finished tying the knot.
Thomas looked up from his sewing and addressed George with a hopeful smile, “Are you sure you want to come George?”
Francis jumped in and made a case for George to stay, “I think it would be good to keep an emissary among the Inuit to make it easier for us to find our way back to the tribe.”
George shook his head and argued nervously, ‘Thomas would make a better agent than I. And I wouldn't want to be stuck with the natives all on my own after hearing what happened to that poor missionary, David Mathews in Tierra del Fuego. All most all his belongings were plundered and his vegetable garden was trampled to death!”
“But that was in Tierra del Fuego, George, the Inuit have very different customs and attitudes, if you do them no harm they’ll do no harm to you.” Francis assured.
“All the same. Safety in numbers.” George insisted.
They walked for many hours before settling in a shale pit where they were protected from the wind. They set up a tarp and laid out some furs on the ground.
Chu was secured to a rope and peg outside, but when it started to snow the large white dog came in and snuggled up with them.
Everyone huddled together around an oil-candle and tucked into some raw seal meat they had brought with them.
After swallowing a mouthful of greasy seal fat, George scrunched his nose up and warbled, “How can a creature be so much fat and so little meat?!”
“Consider yourself lucky.” Jopson giggled. “The blubber is the most important part. Back home our local butcher was a womanizer, and for many years he cut the fat from the cuts my mother ordered, because she would not have him. Now I’m making up for all the fat I’ve missed out on.” Jopson sated before slurping up a quart of blubber from his boat knife.
“If we ever encounter this man you speak of, Thomas, remind me to give him a decent punch to the face, will you?” Little gleaned, bringing about laughter from both of his younger companions.
The next day was exceptionally windy and dark, it seemed to threaten to hale again all morning, but it did not.
A thin blanket of glistening white snow covered the rocky tundra now.
The travelers came upon the anomaly of an abandoned dog sled, the dogs were waiting around patiently in their harnesses but there was no sign of the occupants.
“They’re Aariak’s dogs alright.” Jopson observed seriously and he went over to pet them. He was accompanied by Chu, who went to the front of the sled and greeted the leader of the runners by bumping noses with him.
“But in that case Kiki and Edmund should be nearby.” Hodgson reminded, sounding confused and worried as he searched around for some clue as to which direction they may have gone in. “It’s very odd for them to have left the sled in a place like this.” Said Hodgson.
“Edward, hand me a glass.” Crozier requested and held his hand out to Little.
Through the glass, Crozier studied the landscape and caught a thin, dark figure at the top of the eastern hillock, it was approaching them slowly.
“There’s a man there, but he looks so covered in coal soot I don’t recognise him.” Crozier explained, he gave the glass to Little and pointed where he should look.
“Do you think he’s one of ours?” Little asked.
“He’s wearing western clothes if I’m not mistaken.” Crozier nodded.
“May I see?” Hodgson requested, Little passed the glass to the blond haired man.
“Then it can’t be Edmund Hoar, he burnt all his clothes when he took up the Inuit furs.” Jopson informed.
“And there’s no way Hoar would get that skinny in two days.” Hodgson observed and laughed nervously.
Little put his hands on his hips and his body language was starting to revert to that of Crozier’s second in command. “Well he’s coming this way, Francis, it’s your call, shall we go see him?”
“Yes, he must be a survivor, we should see if we can help him.” Crozier decided, he gave Hodgson a pat on the shoulder, and Hodgson returned the glass to Little and went to help Crozier haul their sled.
“You don’t think it’s dangerous, Edward?” Jopson asked.
“The man’s alone. He probably ran away from the others.” Speculated Little.
“Perhaps he knows where the others are.” Hodgson said hopefully.
“Let’s hope not.” Little whispered to Jopson.
“It’s John Murray! Erebus’s sail maker!” Jopson exclaimed when he recognised the wiry, half-dead man limping towards them.
“What’s that on your face, sailor?” Little questioned authoritatively. Murray seemed to be covered head to toe in some sort of dark substance, but up close the Terror officers were no longer certain it was coal dust.
A pair of wide, bloodshot, blue eyes peered out from Murray’s dark, gaunt, middle-aged face, enshrouded in thick, dirty, graying curls.
The sail maker had been solely preoccupied with reaching the dog sled and had not responded to the other sailors crowding around him until he heard his name.
He looked at the officers clean, pink faces with fleeting interest. “Ghosts.” Murray dismissed.
“We’re not ghosts, I’m your captain, damn your eyes! You will salute and tell me where you are camped, Mr Murray!” Crozier snapped.
“Murray pointed a shaking hand at Hodgson, who appeared quite spooked by the gesture and ducked behind Little fearfully.
“You were eaten by the creature.” Murray foretold in a voice that was weak and hoarse.
“Nonsense.” Little grumbled and folded his arms, fixing Murray a glare.
“You starved to death.” Murray told Little. Little turned pale and his arms fell to his sides.
“You froze to death.” Murray told Jopson, the lad fixed Murray with a skeptical look and winced at the walking corpse’s foul breath.
“And you… you’ll be dead in a year or two even if you do go to live with the natives. Who’re you joking?” Murray asked Crozier with conviction. The Ulsterman just gawped in astonishment at this prediction.
Confused, the others followed Murray and continued to try and get him to explain himself, but he ignored them quietly until they had all returned to the dog sled.
“Ah, this is what I was sent to find.” Murray said, as if recalling something he had forgotten. He rummaged through his shirts and pulled out a richly carved, silver whistle. It was remarkably polished considering it’ hung on the neck of a man so covered in all manner of nuisance.
Murray blew the whistle and it made an awfully loud and grating high pitched noise for which the officer’s covered their ears and the dogs flattened their ears and whined.
“You’ll never figure out how to operate that sled you know.” Crozier said.
“Meat.” Murray muttered and took out his boat knife.
Before anyone had time to react, Murray had slit Chu’s throat, a spray of blood painted the on-looker’s horrified faces.
The dogs that were still tied up became restless and started barking at Murray, but they would not move.
“Damn you man! What do you think you’re doing!?” Little growled as he wiped the blood of his face with a fur mitten gloved hand.
If Murray had intended to answer he had no time to do so before Jopson struck him furiously in the back of the head with a club.
“Jopson, you’ve killed him!” Hodgson shouted.
Thomas was immediately frightened of his own wrath when he saw he had caved Murray’s skull in and certainly killed the sail maker, he supposed he’d meant only to knock him out so he wouldn’t harm another of the dogs.
“Damn it!” Jopson screamed as he fell to his knees and watched Chu whimpering and bleeding out in front of him.
He gave the dog a few gentle strokes before it passed. “For god’s sake, why does everyone keep killing my dogs!?” Thomas wept.
Little crouched beside Jopson and patted him on his back sympathetically.
“Thomas… you alright?”
“I’m a thief and a murderer!” The younger man sobbed.
“No you’re not!” Little denied firmly.
“I’m miserable, I can’t go home after everything I’ve done!” Jopson hid his face in his hands.
“Thomas.” He heard Crozier say in a softer tone. He looked up and saw Crozier was kneeling in front of him. He patted Thomas on the shoulder, “It’s alright, son, it’s going to be alright.” Crozier assured warmly.
For a second Thomas really believed Francis and he smiled back feebly.
“We’ve got company.” Hodgson observed rather calmly.
The others stood up, quite alarmed, and observed four men, equally dark and thin as Murray, running down the eastern hillock, towards them.
Most of this chapter was inspired by the Inuktitut accounts and some mythology thrown in there, in no way first hand, just little notes I've picked up over the years as the lost Franklin expedition was a house-hold topic long before the Terror book or Tv series came out and I wanted to work in some of the ideas that came to mind when I first heard the Inuit accounts.
Please leave a comment and let me know what you think, next chapter should be out sooner or later but I can't tell when.
Chapter 12: The White Pavilion
The events of the past few months have been far bleaker from Henry Le Vesconte's perspective. Thomas Jopson gets stuck in a rut more or less.
The first half of this chapter is from Le Vesconte's perspective. I wanted to handle him somewhat respectfully because I feel bad about portraying any of these poor men as outright villains, even if they have gone mad with led poisoning and starvation. This is a work of fiction, I don't mean to offend the descendants, same goes if I make any accidental errors in my depiction of Inuit culture.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Le Vesconte awoke with the reluctantly rising autumn sun and discovered the only memento he had left of James Fitzjames was disintegrating around him. Its woven, woollen threads were wearing and tearing due to the strain he had inflicted on it, because he had not taken it off since that day.
He and his men, who he liked to think of as volunteers, though they might actually have been following him because they felt they had no choice, had fashioned from wood, canvas, flaxen sails, rope and paper, quite the spacious communal shelter, which they named The White Pavilion.
Here Le Vesconte found himself sat on the wolf blanket where he slept, with Fitzjames’s woolly jumper in his hands, wiping away his tears with it. It still smelt like James, like rose water and the open sea, but that must have been a delusion, he could no longer tell the difference between James’s sweat and his own.
All around him the cloud-like walls of his tomb rippled with a soft grace.
He looked at the fifteen sailors who lay huddled on the Pavilion floor, he was not certain who among them had survived the night, beyond the fact that the Sail Maker was still very much alive and watching him with sparkling, sympathetic eyes.
“Mr Murray, do you think you could fix this for me?” Le Vesconte whispered.
“I think I can.” Replied Murray. The Sail Maker grunted with pain and effort as he slowly brought himself to stand up. He managed to smile at Le Vesconte as he took the jumper in hand, then he sat on a crate and disappeared into his work.
“Mercy.” Whispered Le Vesconte.
“I’m going for lookout duty.” Hammond announced hoarsely as he got himself into his slops.
“I’ll come with you.” Croaked John Cowie; a rusty headed Erebite stoker. “Maybe we’ll find breakfast.”
“Don’t get your hopes up, old man.” Scoffed Hammond.
“Bonne chance.” Muttered the silver-haired ex-Lieutenant.
Thomas Jopson’s arrival in Le Vesconte and Little’s joint camp months prior had been an incredibly chaotic and cruel event for Le Vesconte also.
Jopson was fanatically loyal to Crozier, to a degree that, in Le Vesconte’s mind, bordered on the imbecilic.
He had been glad to get rid of the manipulative little pest by leaving him in sick camp.
While Henry Le Vesconte sat on his blankets, whittling at a human leg bone with his boat knife, it irked him to recall that petty servant’s self-oppressive manner; desperate to maintain a rigid authority structure as if his humble place was anointed by god, and as if Captain Crozier deserved to be the new, unquestionable deity of their hellish little colony, to reign without question with a cat O’nines.
Henry knew Edward Little had been grappling with loyalty for the Captain ever since the trumpery surrounding Irving’s death. Whenever Edward thought of going his own way, however, the commander seemed to cower. In time it became clear; Commander Little was too frightened to act independent to the wisdom of an arctic veteran.
That seemed reasonable in a way.
But Crozier was the only arctic veteran left, and Le Vesconte did not trust him. He knew Crozier gave Fitzjames the poison. The wretch helped Fitzjames kill himself. Le Vesconte could not forgive it. A murder-suicide.
His slumber was regularly plagued by nightmares of finding Fitzjames slowly being consumed in the forest of suicide on the second ring of hell.
Henry had puzzled things out; he wanted to rebel against whatever systems brought about this disaster, and if he reintroduced democracy and gave the men back their freedom in their final days, he could be easy with himself.
But then Thomas Jopson happened.
Jopson gave Little and the others who still felt a ‘pull of Loyalty’ a backbone, and the camp collapsed into a civil dispute that resulted in several deaths, including Pocock, Helpmann and Chambers.
Jopson vanished after he had done his damage.
Little held his ground a few days, still trying to rally loyalists to save Crozier and causing all manner of unrest before Le Vesconte drove him out.
Things settled down quickly after Le Vesconte had established his rule, he was certain the men who volunteered to haul with him were doing so out of their own freedom of will and he was proud of them, grateful for their help.
Two more men woke up and started whispering to each other as they moved about the shelter. Le Vesconte’s attention returned to the present, he looked up from his bone carving, while blowing the granules off it and checking if it worked; he had fashioned a flute.
One of the men was William Rhodes; a thirty-two-year-old with sleek, dark hair tied back in a plait and a burn scar on his left cheek, who had formerly been The Terror’s quarter master.
The other was Robert Sinclair; a twenty-six-year-old with curly tea-coloured hair, formerly The Erebus’s Captain of the Foretop.
They had sat themselves down on the floor again and began cracking bones open in order to collect the marrow.
“Lieutenant Le Vesconte…” John Hammond called as he stepped into the pavilion.
“John, how many times must I ask you to call me ‘Dundy’?” Henry questioned with a tired sigh.
“Sorry... Dundy… Cowie and I took two Eski’s prisoner. At least we thought they were Eski’s from a far, but one of them is Mr Hoar!” Hammond reported excitedly.
Sinclair and Rhodes fell silent and looked at each other before staring back at Hammond and Le Vesconte.
“Don’t talk to them, just tie them up and put them in the pig pen.” Le Vesconte grumbled.
“Wh- Why?” Hammond questioned worriedly.
Le Vesconte practiced two notes on the human-bone flute before answering simply, “It’s easier to consume them if we don’t think about them as people.”
“I see.” Hammond agreed. “I’d rather eat one of them than one of my friends. The Eskimo can’t understand us anyway, we should start with that, it’ll be easiest to eat her.”
“Yes, and we should butcher it right away, I’m fucking starving!” Sinclair supported.
“No, we should butcher Hoar first. The girl’s retaliations will be easier to subdue. Hoar was always a quiet one, and he joined the mutineers so we know he’s scum anyway, I wouldn’t care if you killed him.” Rhodes reckoned.
“Would you like to be the one to kill him, Rhodes?” Le Vesconte prodded disapprovingly, he felt there was an implication that Rhodes did not want to do the dirty work himself.
“Actually, it would be my pleasure.” Rhodes sneered.
“How would you do it?” Le Vesconte questioned and pointed to him with the flute.
Rhodes turned introspective and lowered his head.
“Not so easy without a gun, is it, smart arse?” Sinclair teased.
“Er… John, you’ve gutted a man with your bayonet before, haven’t you? Perhaps you should do it?” Rhodes questioned Hammond.
“I never did!” the marine gasped. “I’ve never stabbed a man in my life, it was always shooting for me!”
“For god’s sake, I’ll do it, a boat knife’s as quick and merciful as anything, if you know how to use it right.” Le Vesconte grumbled. He tossed the flute aside, draped the wolf blanket over his shoulders and stood up.
“Dundy, wait.” Sinclair requested, Le Vesconte turned to look at the younger man. “Before you go out, I’d like to help clean your piercings. It’s only fair since I’m the one who broke your mirror.” Sinclair offered shyly.
Le Vesconte gave him a silent, serious nod and the gold pocket watch chains of his dead friends jingled faintly as they clung to his mutilated face and ears.
“LE VESCONTE! WAIT!” Hoar shrieked with fear as Le Vesconte brought the knife to his neck.
Henry pulled back, this was more difficult than he thought it would be, Hoar was only a lad and Sir John Franklin had been so fond of him.
Perhaps he should have asked Rhodes to do this after all.
“Don’t do this! You don’t have to eat us! We came here via dog sled! We left them about half a mile west. Wouldn’t you rather eat a dog than a person!?” Hoar pleaded.
“How many dogs?” growled Le Vesconte.
“A lot… erm… six.” Hoar fumbled nervously.
“I’ll gather volunteers to search for the dogs. But… if we don’t find them… we’ll be very hungry when we get back.” Le Vesconte warned before storming out of the little ‘pig pen’ tent.
“God damn you, Le Vesconte! Untie me you French bastard!” He heard Hoar scream after him, struggle uselessly against the ropes that held him, and then burst into a fit of stifled weeping. The native girl spoke to him very softly in her language, trying to consolidate him.
“Hammond!” Le Vesconte barked.
Hammond marched up to him briskly, maintaining a marine’s gait. “Le Vesconte?”
“I can’t stand to hear those to chattering away like that. I want you to cut out their tongues. Pigs shan’t speak.” Henry demanded furiously.
Hammond gawped at him in disbelief. “Are you certain?”
“It’s your choice. Help me to feed you. Or go it alone.” Le Vesconte offered coolly and carried on back to the pavilion without sparing Hammond a second glance.
“I’ve fixed it for you, sir.” Murray’s quiet, gentle voice stopped Le Vesconte in his tracks and he looked at the Sail Maker, holding Fitzjames’s repaired jumper out to him. “Thank you, Murray.”
Little, Crozier and Hodgson had their attention on the dark figures ascending the hillock.
Jopson’s companions paid him no notice as he rushed to unleash the dogs from their sled.
The approaching men seemed to be in a hurry despite their sickly, exhausted gaits.
Crozier stopped them at about two hundred paces by bellowing in his captain’s voice, “Halt! Announce yourselves!”
Meanwhile, the dogs sat obediently and watched Jopson steal the silver whistle from Murray’s corpse.
“Is that the bloody captain!?” Sinclair could be heard shouting in astonishment.
The four gaunt figures seemed to discuss lowly amongst themselves, then one of them shouted, “Rhodes, Sinclair, Cowie, and Le Vesconte!” This tall, gaunt, silver haired wild man gestured to each of his followers and then to himself at the end. #
“They’ve survived this long! Isn’t that a miracle!?” Hodgson exclaimed joyously, looking at Crozier and then Little.
“Oh, damn my miserable silence, George!” Little snarled and shook his head, “These men are insane cannibals, not to be trusted!”
“But…” Hodgson quite stuttered, not sure what to think. Before he could fumble any further Le Vesconte called out to them,
“I want a peaceful negotiation for the dogs!”
“Lieutenant Le Vesconte, you may approach us alone, with your hands on your head!” Crozier called.
Le Vesconte did as he was told but made no ‘Aye Captain’, he was silent.
Jopson had thought to take Murray’s whistle in case he got lost but he knew the dogs didn’t like it, so he whistled with his own lips and called them together to follow him, which they did.
He ran and ran with nothing on his mind but to get away from Le Vesconte and his men, to take the dogs somewhere safe.
Now the snow was deeper than his boots, he waded through it with difficulty, the pain in his right leg had returned with immensity but he never separated himself from his ice pick, he used it to ease the pain of every second step.
Snowflakes cascading down from the heavy, black sky blocked his view of the landscape ahead and clung to his eyelashes. His eyes stung with frozen tears.
He was struck, as if by thunder, or the wrath of some ancient, pagan force, by the realization that he was lost in a blizzard, that he had left his companions behind, at the mercy of blood thirsty cannibals madden by led.
The dogs watched him pace back and forth in the snow ditch he had formed with his wading, while he asked himself if he should try to run back the way he came. But he would not have the energy to return. Even if he could, by some great feat of strength, make his way back to them, he would not have the strength to protect them.
Now he was forgetting which direction he was going.
Suddenly the snow beneath him gave way and he fell down a previously obscured crevice in the old ice. He managed to hook his pickaxe into the mouth of the hole, and he tried to pull himself out. The dogs gathered around the hole and barked at him worriedly and encouragingly.
He anchored one of his arms in the snowy surface above him and tried to pull himself up. One off the dogs came to his aid, it wrapped its jaws around his raised forearm and tried to pull him out, but it startled him, he slipped, and fell into the darkness.
“Don’t rush into a squall alone, Edward!” Le Vesconte implored, stepping in front of Little to block his path as he tried to pursue Jopson.
“I’ve got to find him before he freezes to death!” Little panicked.
“Poor Thomas must have been frightened out of his wits to run into that.” Hodgson remarked in astonishment.
Everyone regarded in awe the enormous swelling and twisting of charcoal and silver storm clouds forming in the western planes.
“Thomas was startled but he’s not slow witted, he has a whistle, an ice pick and the dogs, so he has the means to make a shelter, stay warm and rendezvous with other people when he feels so inclined. I trust he can take care of himself.” Crozier observed steadily.
This calmed Little down enough not to fling himself at Le Vesconte and tear the bastard to pieces for getting in his way.
“I want to help you, Edward.” Le Vesconte insisted.
“Why the sudden change of heart?” Little snarled.
“No change. Jopson has my dogs. I so prefer to eat any other animal than a man.” Le Vesconte assured. “Come back to our camp, some of my men will volunteer to help you find Jopson and the dogs when the blizzard dies down sufficiently.”
“The storm is coming for us; we shouldn’t be fussy about where we shelter.” Crozier advised. “How far is your camp, Le Vesconte? I want to see it.”
“Just on the other side of that hill, there.” Le Vesconte pointed east.
Little stared at the strange, low, swirling clouds, drifting ever closer.
“Will you shelter with us commander, or wait out here to die?” Crozier asked him.
Everyone else was walking east now but Crozier stayed with Little, waiting for him to make up his mind.
“Are you certain Thomas will survive in that?” Little questioned, regarding Crozier with shimmering, black eyes.
“Thomas is certain. Is that enough for you?”
Little stared sorrowfully at the squall again.
“He wouldn’t have gone into it if he weren’t sure of himself.” said Crozier.
“No, of course not.” Little held back a sob.
“Find him when the storm passes, Edward.” Crozier encouraged and clapped Little’s shoulder twice for good measure.
When they entered the Pavilion, they joined the remaining survivors around a very dim seal blubber candle.
A dozen pairs of hungry, bloodshot eyes and faces that were blued by led poisoning and blackened by a mask of blood and sores, turned to stare at the new arrivals.
That was enough to startle Hodgson into a paranoid state, he was finally starting to regret his previously voiced desire to re-join and assist these men, they did not quite seem like men at all now.
“I beg of you all to remain calm. Crozier has not come here to be your tyrant. He only wishes to shelter from the storm.” Said Le Vesconte.
“We do not want to share the White Pavilion with the officers! Send them away! To the Pig Pen!” Came various disgruntled shouts.
“’The pig pen’? What is that? The other tent we passed; the one Sergeant Hammond is guarding?” Hodgson questioned Le Vesconte persistently and really with a tone that proved he had no idea about the horrible purpose of that tent.
“I cannot put you there.” Le Vesconte said seriously.
“Might we use your row-boat as a shelter, Dundy?” Hodgson asked.
“We will build a separate shelter.” Crozier added earnestly, a little nervously, “That is if you… or perhaps someone else… is willing to sit with us and give a report on your situation here. Let us know how we can help.” Crozier requested, almost warmly.
“I’ll answer your questions.” Le Vesconte decided stiffly. “There’s something I want to discuss with you, too.”
“Where’s John Murray?” one of Le Vesconte’s volunteers questioned with sudden anger.
“Thomas Jopson murdered him!” Sinclair announced before Rhodes or Le Vesconte could shut him up.
“And where is he? Did you kill him!?” came enraged shouts from the starving ones in the White Pavilion.
“He got away.” Answered Sinclair, Rhodes grabbed his arm and hushed him.
“He should hang!"
“Hunt him down and kill him!”
“To the gallows with the murderer!”
The air of the great shelter was starting to heat up with anger and unrest.
“You’re the murderers!” Little shouted in Jopson’s defense.
“Mr Cowie and Mr Rhodes have brought back meat!” Le Vesconte announced loudly and gestured that Rhodes and Cowie begin sharing out the butchered flesh of the white dog and of Mr Murray. The subject of Mr Jopson’s punishment was immediately forgotten.
Before Thomas came too, he dreamt he was in Aariak’s igloo.
On four occasions he had heard the old woman put Sura to sleep with the same story, from listening his grasp of Inuktitut had greatly improved.
“In ancient times there was no separation between land and sea,
between day and night,
between summer and winter,
between humans and animals.
All spirits were in control of their own magic and could take whatever form they wanted.
Then greed threw the world out of balance.
Prince Hare asked the sun to stay up longer in summer so his people could get fat on the grass, and in return, he sacrificed his people’s magic.
Princess Fox asked the sun to stay low during the winter, so her people could steal food from the great hunters, which were men, that is why it gets so dark for so long in winter, but if it did not the foxes would go hungry and disappear, and that would be no good either.
Man was always greediest of all and sacrificed his powers so he could hunt his brother animals, which is why we say, ‘I’m sorry, brother’, when we kill an animal for food.”
Thomas sat in the darkness of that crevice, until his eyes adjusted, and he could see the poor, whimpering dog that had fallen in with him, had broken its leg during the fall.
He moved each of his limbs experimentally. To his tremendous relief, he was not any more crippled than he had been before the fall.
A search for his pickaxe commenced.
Above him he saw a great, dim, blueish light flickering, and he understood it to be the snow-covered mouth of the crevice he had fallen through.
The pit was at least as deep as a house. He was surrounded by dark turquoise walls of ancient ice.
He eventually found what he was searching for, half anchored in the ice at his feet.
With his boat knife he cut a thick splint out of the wooden handle of the axe and, after straightening out the poor dog’s snapped foreleg bone, he tied that splint to the injured limb with strips of caribou leather.
The dog continued to whine but it snuggled up with Thomas once his operation was finished.
He stroked its fluffy, starkly black and white coat, until it fell asleep.
“We must find a way out of here, after the storm.” Thomas whispered.
Engineering a situation where our protagonists end up in Le Vesconte's camp has been trickier and taken longer to recount than I expected, I prey this wasn't as convoluted to read as it felt to write. I make this up as I go along and I'm always trying to shake things up and increase the stakes while keeping the plot at least somewhat consistent.
EdwardNotSoLittle was a big help in brainstorming an approach to this chapter, there's a lot of elements and characters to keep track of and a lot of different ways it could have gone.
I got some of my Inuit research from: https://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/stories/020020-3100-e.html#:~:text=According%20to%20Inuit%20tradition%2C%20there,lived%20together%20as%20one%20species.
Chapter 13: Unspeakable
Cannibalism, led poisoning, dog abuse, drug intoxication and tongues getting cut off; all the usual *The Terror* chaos.
Thomas keeps a little metal water flask under his parka, keeps it from freezing with his own body heat, but he still finds the last drops bitterly cool to swallow.
A sharp inward breath causes him to choke on the water, every time he splutters out the Tuunbaq’s claw marks ache in his chest and a little plume of breath fogs his vision.
A horrible screaming sound frightens him, he yelps and covers his ears. The ice walls either side of him are ever so slowly drawing in with the intention of crushing him in time.
The husky by his side starts barking as if to warn the giant glacier not to approach any further.
The ice goes back to sleep suddenly.
Now Thomas and Storm can hear that the blizzard above them has passed.
Thomas packs his empty flask with snow and tries to melt it by holding it under his arm, beneath the parka, but it is painfully frigid. He feels like he is torturing himself, like when he chopped off his own finger.
He ties the flask to his hip beneath the coat. Presses his back against one wall and his feet against the opposite, then tries to push himself toward the exit, but he slips, again, as he did every other time.
This time he hurts himself enough to try a different tactic. He tries to crawl up using his ice pic, but the angle of the wall makes it impossible for him to escape.
“Edward. Wake up. The storm has died down.” Le Vesconte’s low voice startled Little from a half-sleep.
He’d drifted off some time while Le Vesconte, Hodgson and Crozier were discussing the status of the camp: They had exhausted the meat supply left over from the civil skirmish. The coal box and the armoury were as empty as the pantry now. They almost ran out of fresh water, but yesterday’s snow fall saved them from dying of thirst.
Little and his present company were sheltered in a beached rowboat with the tarp tented over the mast. Each wrapped in blankets and crammed together around a candle.
Little turned to Hodgson, who was sat shoulder to shoulder with him, “You let me sleep? You shouldn’t have done that.” Little croaked at him.
Hodgson gave him a very sleepy look and said nothing.
“Go to the Pavilion and ask for Rhodes and Sinclair, they’ll help you find Jopson and the dogs.” Le Vesconte instructed Little seriously.
“Do Rhodes and Sinclair owe you their allegiance? I thought you abolished the command structure in your perverse little colony?” Little mocked bitterly.
“Edward, the man’s offering to help you!” Hodgson gasped in naïve astonishment at Little’s rudeness.
Little replied with a low, bemused grunt. He gave them all a stale grimace.
“Those who remain by my side do so out of their own free will.” Thus spoke Le Vesconte, “You three are also free to leave whenever you please.”
“Why don’t you two come with me? We’ll take Thomas and the dogs to a safer place than this.” Little pleaded of Crozier and Hodgson.
“We still have much to discuss here, Edward.” Crozier reminded. “We’ve negotiated that no harm will come to our party, and that includes Thomas, so long as the dogs are delivered. Rhodes and Sinclair are Le Vesconte’s guarantors, to ensure the transaction goes smoothly."
“I have no reason to trust that Rhodes and Sinclair won’t try to kill me once we are over the western hill.” Little grumbled.
“Have them walk in front of you, and ensure you are better armed than they are.” Crozier advised, something shone in his hand, he discreetly passed a pistol to Little.
“You’ve still got powder? How’d you get a hold of that?” Hodgson queried.
“I’ve been saving it. This pistol was loaded when this expedition began but is still yet to fire a shot.” Crozier enlightened.
“Is that… James’s?” Le Vesconte whispered in surprise.
Crozier smiled knowingly. He patted Little on the shoulder to send him off. “Find him, Edward. There’s no time to take him back to Yakone’s camp. Bring him here before he freezes.”
Thomas had fallen asleep next to the dog when he was awoken by Edwards voice. It was a joy he could not believe. “Thomas! Are you alright?” Little shouted pressingly.
“I’m fine! Storm broke his leg on the way down but I’m alright!” Thomas yelled back with pleased relief and stroked the dog’s black and white head.
“How deep is that hole?” Little asked.
“A story or two, I’m not sure!” Jopson answered.
“Lucky lad.” Rhodes remarked with surprise.
Little took a few paces back and anchored his ice pick in the ground. He tied one end of the rope around the pick and the other around his waist, then he pulled experimentally on it, testing his weight against both rope and anchor.
“Rhodes, Sinclair, lower me down, will you?” Little asked and held out to them the slackened and folded, middle part of the rope.
“Lieutenant. We found the dogs and we helped you find your favourite. That was the deal we made. We’re not obliged to assist you any further.” Sinclair proclaimed disgruntledly.
“Thomas has a sixth dog down there with him, that could keep your lot fed for another couple of days, won’t Le Vesconte be disappointed to learn you returned without all the dogs in question?” Little inquired gruffly, his eyebrows capped his dark eyes, low and heavy in a deepening scowl.
“Lower yourself.” Sinclair snubbed.
“If I lower myself my arms will be tired by the time I reach Thomas.” Little explained impatiently.
“Perhaps I should go down there instead, Lieutenant Little.” Rhodes offered and passed an untrustworthy glance in Sinclair’s direction.
“No.” Little grumbled, “Just look at you, Mr Rhodes. You’re falling apart. I don’t believe that you have the strength to carry Thomas, or the dog. But if you share the weight of the rope with Sinclair… Well that’s the only way about this, says I.”
“I’ve tried climbing out with my pick, but I can’t get past the part where the wall inclines inward! If you throw the rope down to me, I reckon I can get Storm and myself out. You ought not to trouble yourself, Edward!” Thomas called.
“Don’t risk overexerting yourself, you’ll re-open your wounds!” Little pleaded.
Little was lowered down, and the first thing he did once level with Thomas was embrace him.
“I’m sorry I ever called you a coward, Neddy. You don’t have to prove yourself to me, I know how brave you are. I know it.” Thomas spoke ever so softly and ran his fingers over the back of Edward’s head.
“No, you were right. I shouldn’t have abandoned you; I’m still making things up to you, Tommy.”
“Don’t dally! I’m losing my toes here!” Rhodes pleaded impatiently above them.
They untangled their arms from around each other and shared a look of awkwardly bottled up affection, both smiling with their cheeks flushing a warm pink.
“I’ll take you up first and then the dogs.” Little began unfastening the rope around Jopson’s waist.
“Who’s up there with you?”
“Le Vesconte’s men.”
“Edward, they’ll kill me when you come back to fetch Storm!” Jopson implored.
“If I bring your dog up first they’ll head back to camp without us and I’m not certain I know the way by heart.” Little whispered. He secretively gave Jopson the gun, gestured for him not to remark about it and hide it in his parka.
“Are Hodgson and Crozier alright?” asked Jopson.
“Never better, but we have to move.” Little persisted.
Little and Jopson were being pulled up when the rope suddenly slackened and they both fell quite a painful distance, smashed into the pit’s icy floor.
Storm started barking irritably.
“What the hell happened?” Little questioned with his hand on his aching head.
There was no answer from above. Not even a remark from one of the dogs. Everything up there was suddenly silent.
Sinclair had taken the pickaxe to Rhodes’ head and confiscated the dogs for himself but there was no way for Little to see that from where he was.
Little’s face whitened when he realized Jopson may have taken the fall badly, the lad was out cold.
“Thomas!” Little gasped.
He knelt over Jopson and stroked his cheek with a thickly mitten-gloved hand. He had to think to take the mitten and under glove off before feeling for Jopson’s pulse with his benumbed fingers.
It was still warm and beating.
Little teared up in choked, silent relief.
Then he watched in confusion as blood trickled down the ice wall.
“Wake up!” a man growled; Thomas yelped as he was kicked in the stomach.
His throat felt caked in rust.
Where was he now? A Tent? He looked about himself wearily and saw that Edmund and Kiki were also in the tent. They both looked terrified and were sat on the floor with their hands tied behind their backs and blood trickling from their mouths.
Thomas tried to see if he could recognise the face of the man who kicked him. A name didn’t come to him straight away. The man was all gaunt, disheveled and covered in that mysterious dark substance, which Thomas had started to suspect was dried blood.
Thomas’s hands were also tied behind his back and his walk was shaky as the dirty brute led him quickly out of the tent by the scuff of his neck.
His head was incredibly foggy, this man was barking orders at him, he made him kneel on the shale outside.
The wind was weak, it was dark and there was fire in front of him, heating up his face. There was a boiling cauldron with a man’s leg in it. Half-eaten with the boot still attached, the sight made Thomas want to vomit.
He shook his head to try and get his senses.
The faces of the other people sitting by the fire came into view: Francis and George were gawping at him as if they hardly recognised him.
“Mr Little says he’s dying.” A gravelly voice spoke out.
Thomas looked at the man sat on a crate, the opposite side of the fire. Through the flames he could make out Le Vesconte’s face; the man had mutilated himself, pierced his own face with pocket-watch chains. He was also wearing a necklace of human teeth.
Thomas let out a worried gasp, he fidgeted and looked around, there were other, thin, dirty creatures sat around the camp, holding pointed sticks and looking with anger and fear at Thomas, Francis and George. There could not have been more than ten of them left though.
Thomas realized the man sat in Le Vesconte’s shadow with his head between his knees, was most certainly Edward Little.
“He tried to make his medicine by himself and believes he’s poisoned himself. Apparently, you’re the only one who might be able to help him, or so he says.” Le Vesconte explained and made a gesture for the man behind Thomas untied his wrists.
Thomas ran benumbed fingers gently along the raw skin where the ropes had burned his wrists.
Francis held something out to Thomas, and he wondered why he would need a pencil and book. He tried to speak, to inquire, but his mouth felt numb, he couldn't manage any words. There was a horrible, burning, metallic taste in his mouth.
Francis was watching him dreadfully, as if he expected him to write the secret to calling the universe to end… something terribly grave had either happened or was about to happen, but Thomas knew nothing about it.
The book was some sort of printed novel, the lad was too tired to bother to check the title, but the inside cover was blank, and he wrote on it, ‘Symptoms?’.
“List your symptoms, Edward.” Francis requested with a concerned voice.
“I… I” Edward struggled. He flopped onto his side and sprawled out on the ground and looked at the sky. “My… it’s too ridiculous!” He started to laugh in an odd way.
“He’s been vomiting and laughing uncontrollably, hallucinating, and he can’t finish sentences.” George explained worriedly.
Another burst of laughter arose from Edward.
“And he’s not drunk, he’s not drank anything strange other than that medicine you packed.” Francis explained, also quite baffled.
If he solved this too quickly, Thomas thought, he may not be much use to Le Vesconte afterwards. He wondered why Le Vesconte was doing this, trying to help Edward but treating him like a prisoner. Was it something to do with rank or social standing? He tried to speak again but the same problem as last time arose, he remembered he’d have to write down what he wanted to say.
Francis read what Thomas wrote again; “What are his hallucinations about?”
Little blabbed loudly and incoherently; “The ground is a giant brain! Horrible! But when I close my eyes to get away from it… I’m being eaten by dragons! I don’t have a body anymore and things that should not move, move, and all your faces look like sea sponges and coral! I think I can see my own mind!”
“I do believe the poor fellow has completely lost his marbles.” George muttered sadly.
“Earlier he said he could see the aurora.” Francis informed.
Thomas looked up, the sky was starless and pitch black. He was certain of the answer now. He felt he had no choice but to write it down, they would surely see some humor in the matter, even with how strange everything had gotten.
Thomas had made two strokes of his pencil and then hesitated because Edward, sniggering, had wearily staggered to his feet. The man’s manner was lackadaisical and entirely unlike is usual circumspect self. “I know what I’ve got to do now… an opportunity for us both to regain our honour. Le Vesconte. I challenge you to a duel!” Edward declared with a keen grin.
“NO!” Francis and George both exclaimed at once. Thomas would have also if he could find any words at all.
“Swords! You have my sword, don’t you?” Little questioned eagerly.
“Sergeant Hammond, bring out our parade cutlasses, if you please.” Le Vesconte spoke to the man behind Thomas and he trudged away.
“I can’t believe all the rubbish you’re still lugging around with you.” Crozier snorted.
“Edward, what are you doing!? You’re hallucinating, a blind man could beat you in a duel!” preached George.
“If I win, you’ve got to let everyone go.” Edward told Le Vesconte.
“You and George and Mr Crozier are all free to leave.” Le Vesconte scoffed and shrugged.
“No! You’ve got to let Thomas go! And Edmund Hoar, and his girl!” Little insisted.
“And if you lose, Hoar and the girl stay in the pig pen, and Thomas Jopson is sent to the gallows.” Le Vesconte retorted.
Pig pen? Thomas pondered, it surely referred to the tent in which the prisoners were being held.
“Who among your lot has the energy to build gallows?” Crozier derided.
Hammond hurried back with the commander’s parade swords.
“Hammond, you’re my second, don’t take your eyes off me.” Le Vesconte ordered gruffly, and Hammond nodded. “Select your second, Mr Little.”
“George.” Edward addressed his chosen second.
George stood up with a reluctant expression.
Edward and Le Vesconte chose their ground and made their stances a few feet from the fire.
Spectators sat in intense silence, wondering who would make the first move.
“Fear not, your corpse won’t go to waste.” Le Vesconte quipped.
“Yours will.” Little retorted.
The hazel haired man made the first move, a quick, silent charge and swing towards Le Vesconte’s neck. His silver haired opponent blocked the blow, the sparks flying from the blades clashing made Thomas flinch. He nearly jumped out of his skin, Le Vesconte certainly had the upper hand for that instanced and could easily have veered his blade in a ‘U’ shape and stuck Little in the stomach.
Le Vesconte was not exactly in good health though, his reaction time was slow enough for Little to parry back just in time and adjust his stance.
The opportunity to escape occurred to Thomas now, there was only one instinct it did not override and that was to wonder what Francis’s plan was.
He turned to him, gave him a hopeful stare, Francis always had a plan.
Crozier was watching the fight with unwavering interest, he played Thomas no mind. The lad noticed worriedly that his Captain’s fists where balled very tightly, his knuckles were turning white.
Thomas looked behind himself. Three of Le Vesconte’s men stood there, they might get in the way, but behind them was the last boat and a channel which may or may not have contained leads.
The last chance to get away.
Jopson was so close to springing to his feet and making a break for it, but he looked back at the sound of Little yelping in agony.
Le Vesconte had delivered a slash to Little’s arm, which drew a hole in the sleeve, a thin red line on the exposed skin. The wound itself was not too dangerous but the attack had made Little lose his balance and now he knew he was done for.
A downward cut from Le Vesconte nearly cleaved Little’s skull in half, it might have if Hodgson had not jumped in the way and deflected the sword with the hilt of the Indian-style, finely carved, silver handled knife he was wielding.
With this intervention Hodgson had completely broken the etiquette of the duel and Hammond set upon him like a wild animal, trying to wrestle him for the knife.
Jopson sprung to his feet, his first thought was to defend Little, while Le Vesconte was preparing for another attack.
He managed a few steps before collapsing under his bad leg, he plummeted forwards and watched helplessly from the ground as the match continued. Thomas remembered the pistol Little gave him before he was knocked out. He fished through the inside of his coat for it, aimed it at Le Vesconte, but he was worried he may accidentally shoot Little as the two men continued to fight.
Thomas lowered the gun with an angry, disappointed snort.
“Thomas! Come with me!” Crozier barked.
Jopson limped in Crozier's direction now, towards the prisoner’s tent.
Crozier went inside to set Edmund and Kiki and Storm the dog free while Jopson stood guard, he only needed to point the pistol at Le Vesconte’s men to keep them at bay.
“Help us push the boat out.” Crozier requested in return for cutting Edmund and Kiki’s bonds.
Jopson, Crozier, Kiki and Hoar began pushing the boat out.
A sharpened stick flew by Jopson’s head, followed by a few rocks.
“Take cover behind the boat. I’m going back for Edward and George.” Crozier entailed before hurrying back to intervene in the blade fight.
Jopson picked up a rock and through it at the head of one of the led poisoned ones, then he ducked behind the boat as a shower of rocks where thrown back at him by various opponents.
Kiki let out a yelp when a rock hit her head and she slumped backwards on the shale, unconscious.
Hoar flew into a rage and picked up the sharpened stick that had been thrown earlier, he ran into the mob and Jopson watched in horror as he lost the fight and was clubbed to death with bones.
Storm tried to bite some of the attacking men but Jopson whistled for him not to stray too far from his side.
He couldn't see what was happening to Francis, Edward and George from where he was hiding.
He looked at Kiki, a trickle of blood was dribbling over her forehead, she had a concussion at the very least.
He picked the girl up, put her in the boat and started pushing again with all his might. Storm hopped into the boat to stand guard over her.
Jopson slipped and his face and chest slammed into the flat surface of the ice at the boarder of the channel, the boat went skidding ahead a few feet and dipped down into the water with a splash.
Oh no, the boat’s in the lead, it’ll drift away!
A ghastly pang of panic shot through Thomas, for he hadn't the strength to pull himself up.
It was Francis who helped him up, and practically carried him to the boat. George and Edward jumped in after them.
They were chased out into the channel, rocks still pummeling their little lifeboat, but they made it.
Some of their assailants fell through the ice.
Now they were being carried by this precious little lead, into nowhere and the long arctic night.
A metallic squeak and a yellow light got Thomas’s attention. Francis was lighting a lamp.
“Go master the rudder, George.” Francis requested.
George quietly and carefully shuffled to the back of the boat and sat down with his hand on the rudder.
“Is everyone else really cold and wet?” Edward asked, his teeth chattering.
“Oh Aye.” Francis affirmed.
“What happened to Mr Hoar and the girl?” Hodgson asked.
“Kiki was knocked out. I do not know if she’ll make it. I saw Mr Hoar murdered. They smashed his skull in.” Francis informed gravely.
“Serves him right for joining Hickey’s mutiny.” Edward sneered.
Don’t say that! Thomas thought, he gave Little a shove.
Little blinked at him in surprise.
You’re still high off your rocker, aren’t you? Thomas wanted to question, almost as frustrated with Edward as he was when his mother was doped up on laudanum.
Why wasn’t his tongue working, did he just have a saw throat?
“Do you still have a pencil?” Little asked him quite sympathetically.
That surprised Thomas, if Edward was still high, it would take a lot more than a brawl to get him down so fast.
Thomas took the pencil out of his pocket and waved it in front of Edward.
Edward reached into his pocket and gave Thomas some scraps of clean paper.
Thomas gave Edward a confused study, it was clear Edward was waiting in anticipation for him to write something down.
Thomas straightened the crinkled paper out against the empty bench board in front of him and scribbled, “The mushrooms were not part of the medicine.” He held the note up to Edward.
“Why did you put them in the medical kit then!?” Edward blurted out in astonishment.
Thomas plucked the scrap of paper from between Edwards fingers and wrote, “Aariak gave us them because you looked depressed, I wasn’t going to use them.”
“So I’m not going to die of poisoning?” Edward gasped in relief.
Thomas shook his head seriously.
“Did you have a good trip, Edward?” Crozier sniggered.
“No, I had an awful one. I’ve got a headache. And I’m tired and hungry too.” He grumbled.
“We’re all tired and hungry.” Francis chuckled lightly.
“What’s wrong with my tongue?” Thomas scribbled on his next note.
Everyone looked at him very solemnly, no one was prepared to answer him yet.
This is probably the second-to-last chapter!
Chapter 14: Wreck
J.C.R is still looking for Francis. Everyone meets up with Silna again. Thomas and Ned go check out the wreck of the Terror.
Cold, hungry, sleep deprived, defeated; Sir James Clark Ross returned to his ship and watched with heavy eyes, dark as storm clouds as the Investigator hoisted its anchor and drifted away from Somerset Island, into a sea of pancake ice.
His gaze lingered on the misty, desolate shore. “They really have disappeared, haven’t they?” He muttered.
He was snapped from his uncharacteristic melancholia by a shout, “Heads up, Sir James!” he flinched and without thinking he caught whatever it was the gunnery sergeant, Mr Abernathy, had thrown at him.
It was an apple, a large, shiny red one at that.
“Thomas…” Ross chuckled lightly.
“You should go below and Eat, Sir James. If you stay up here much longer, you’ll freeze.” Abernathy advised in his north Scottish brogue. He was quite a gentle giant of a man and his voice was friendly to Ross’s Frozen ears.
Ross looked back at the water, his smile disappeared, he leaned further over the frosty bow and stared at the bubbling currents that bounced off The Investigator’s hull.
“As those men lay dying, they must have wondered what they’d accomplished. Left behind. Done worth remembering. The answers to all their hopes and questions is probably, ‘No’.” Ross muttered quietly as he settled down in his cabin, but Abernathy heard him well, he lingered in the doorway with his muscular arms folded over his broad chest, looking sympathetically at his captain.
“Believe you me, the men responsible for this should be keelhauled.” Abernathy sighed and rubbed one of his eyes drowsily.
“I do feel partly to blame.” Ross reasoned, “If I’d acted sooner… but I had too much faith in the admiralty.” He whispered disappointedly to himself.
“Well there’s no need to have you thrown overboard. You’re putting yourself through hell already.” Abernathy chuckled. His familiar manner was a privilege that came with having saved Ross’s life on several occasions, both at fury beach and on the expedition to the heart of Antarctica. All this experience and Mr Abernathy was more than a decade younger than James Clark Ross.
“I was meant to tell Francis’s family what happened to him.” Ross looked at Abernathy, his piercing orbs sparkling with woe. “I knew that was going to be difficult. But having found nothing… I don’t know what that feeling is.”
“Emptiness, I think, Sir James.” Abernathy assured him earnestly.
“Emptiness…” Ross repeated softly to see if the word could provide a vessel for his emotions. “The universe is mostly emptiness.” he recalled floatily, he was thinking deeply, of the emptiness between stars and comparing it to the emptiness between himself and Francis. Yes, he could walk forever in Francis’s direction but never reach him.
“Aye, and it feels more so as time stretches a man thin.” Abernathy agreed, though he likely interpreted Ross’s statement in a different way to how it was meant.
“Beloved men and boys cherished by those who yet live, torn from us. Parts of our souls have been ripped out. There is no catharsis for us unless we find something of them. These men cannot return with their shields are on them. Habius Corpus?” Ross shook his head and sighed miserably.
“No need to be composing an epitaph just yet, Sir James.” Abernathy smiled and gave Ross a reassuring nod. “I beg of you not to surrender hope, Captain. We’ll find out what happened to them. Graves at the very least.”
Finally, a smile returned to Ross’s lips and faith softened the anguish in his dark blue eyes.
“Just before he disappeared, he sent me a letter telling me how lonely he was, wishing he could see me. That fool never should have come here.” Ross shook his head and gazed at Francis’s letter, which lay open on his tiny writing desk, pinned down by a glass paper weight of a polar bear.
A rickety little rowboat bobbed against the icy shore at the end of the lead, causing a cracking sound that awoke its sleeping occupants. Luck would have it, Jopson and his companions spotted the faint, golden glow of an igloo situated within walking distance and they set out in its direction.
The wintry terrane they hauled the boat over was not the smoothest, it almost made them feel ill to be labouring in this way again. Thomas’s lithe frame felt unexpectedly heavy, after a few limps he fell to his knees and coughed up a mouth full of bloody bile. The others softly urged him to join Kiki in the boat. The Inuit girl had been knocked unconscious during that evening’s troubles and was yet to awaken.
Unable to speak, Thomas had to show them he was fine hobbling beside the boat and not putting any extra weight on the others.
The little igloo they reached was hidden at the foot of an ice ridge.
Francis projected a polite, formal greeting in Inuktitut and shortly after Silna stuck her familiar, hooded head out of the narrow entrance way.
Francis let out a quiet, relieved chuckle while Silna stared at her guests in astonishment and recognised their faces.
Her expression quickly turned serious as the cold night air began numbing her nose, she gestured for them to come in by swooping a mittened hand in a circle before disappearing back under the arch.
“Qujanaq.” Francis uttered gratefully.
“Is she inviting us in?” George asked cluelessly.
Francis nodded at him.
“It’s going to be pretty cramped in there, isn’t it?” Edward questioned with a raised eyebrow.
“It’s bigger on the inside.” Francis quipped.
Thomas climbed into the boat and hooked Kiki’s arm over his shoulder to lift her.
“Belay that Thomas! You’re in no condition to perform heavy lifting. Let George and Edward carry the girl in!” Francis snapped.
Inside the igloo was a ridge of packed ice about knee high with some furs piled over it, this was where Silna gestured for George and Edward to lay Kiki down.
“Lady Silence doesn’t look very pleased to have company.” George observed.
“I’m sure we’re a great inconvenience.” Edward grumbled.
Silna held Kiki’s head up to help her to drink some water. Kiki winced and made an incredibly quiet, pained noise but did not open her eyes.
In Inuktitut, Francis proclaimed to Silna that Kiki had been hit on the head during an accident and he could not testify to the severity of her injury. For now, she was left to rest in Silna’s bed.
The floor of the eight-foot-high and ten-foot circumference dome was made of compacted snow and extremely cold despite the warmth of the air in the shelter. To sit on the ground, Silna took off her parka and folded it up beneath her as a cushion. Inuktitut wear a thin vest of animal skin under their parkas, the material is porous, so it doesn’t develop the scent of stale sweat that cotton cloth does, and it’s breathability helps stop water clinging and freezing to the body.
Silna was far from nude but seeing a woman in a sleeveless garment that also fully exposed her neck and collar bone was perhaps even more likely to make a Victorian man blush. This cultural pause of nervousness was brief, and the white men copied Silna’s way of sitting on one's coat to make themselves comfortable.
One of the reasons Silna used to wince at these men while she was living on the ships with them is that they stank of sweat masked thickly by perfume and tobacco; they were all foreign, unnatural, unhealthy smells that made her scrunch up her nose but since wearing the Inuktitut clothing the men had became much more natural and clean smelling in her opinion.
Francis gave Silna an extra bag of seal blubber and a little jar of Marmalade as a gift. Since it was universally breakfast time they started eating together while Francis tried to explain to Silna why he had come looking for her and everything that had happened on the way. This was all in her language, Thomas understood it but Edward and George barely picked up a word; so they just ate quietly and did not pay much attention to anything other than the peculiar, spiral shape of the dome’s interior walls.
Francis explained that it is his people’s custom to say a proper goodbye with a meal, a gift exchange and a send-off, particularly when one feels incredibly grateful to a person they shall never see or hear of again. He explained he had learnt from talking with Yakone the true extent of her efforts to protect his crew from the Tuunbaq, that it was because she believed she had to take her father’s place as it’s shaman. He wanted her to know he did not consider her a failure in her duties even though the rest of her village did, she had worked so hard and that surely counted for something. That it was not fair, in his opinion, that she should be exiled from the rest of her people. He said he was sorry he had not understood better and sooner and been of more help.
She just smiled sadly at him and nodded her head now and again.
Thomas had looked melancholic all morning.
A certain chill had appeared in his already ice-coloured eyes.
He dwelled on the numbness in his mouth and the fact he had lost the ability to speak two languages. Now he could only be silent and do what he was told like a good servant. Le Vesconte had never accepted him as a Lieutenant despite all the hard work he had put into impressing his comrades and gaining their respect. This was surely some contrived method of putting Thomas back in his place. To remain a low born man who cannot think for himself or have a vote or a say.
Francis addressed Edward, George and himself, “We should go hunting in pairs. Silna tells me the wreck of the Terror is visible from the north side of the pressure ridge. One of the pairs ought to retrace our footsteps from our springtime exodus and see if we can pick up any useful discarded items.” He said this quite like an order.
Mention of the Terror made Thomas’s heartbeat rise as he remembered all his years aboard her. She was built brand new around his mind, and then with a sickly feeling he recalled the decay and imagined it acting fast and tearing her to pieces.
“I’ll go north with Thomas.” Edward elected gruffly.
“Do you approve, Thomas?” Crozier questioned with a worried, searching gaze.
Thomas gave a careless shrug.
“Then George can come Ice fishing with me.” Francis nodded at George.
“I’d be happy to, sir.” George accepted with a pleased, little smile.
Thomas wanted to speak. He really wanted to. He had more sentences crashing around in his head than ever before.
When he abruptly exited the Igloo, he was very calm and quiet. The others were not sure how to ask him where he was going or why because they knew he could not answer.
He crawled out of the little snow house and walked slowly to the rowboat, where he climbed inside and sat.
He squinted at the dazzling disk of the sun riding over the glassy ice folds. Then his attention lingered on the rope attached to the folded-up sail.
He leaned forward to untie the rope from the mast and began unravelling it. As he watched and listened to the long cable zip around the sail and mast, it reminded him of the long snakes he had seen in Australia years ago. A thick blanket of snow isolated the sounds of the boat while the surrounding landscape was muted.
Once the entire rope was coiled in his hands, he lay it at his feet, next to the tattered old book Francis had given him to write in. He bent lower to flip the pages with his thumb and confirmed that there were none free of print.
“Thomas, do you know what you look like? Coming out here all alone and immediately procuring yourself a rope?” He heard Edward’s voice question him gravely.
Thomas straightened his back so he could look at Edward. He stared for a long moment into Edward’s soft, brown eyes, wondering how best to communicate.
A sad, nervous smile pulled at Thomas’s lips and he shrugged. Of course, he knew how it looked.
He brought the pickaxe over his lap and studied the gunnel of the boat, choosing a spot to hack. Edward jumped back in alarm as Thomas tore a large splinter from the boat.
“Blimey Thomas! What on earth are you up to? Are you going to dismantle the entire boat!?” Edward shrieked.
Thomas put the axe down and stared at him. He was totally still and silent for a moment and Edward’s shock melted away into curiosity.
Once Thomas could see Edward had calmed, he shook his head at him. Then he carefully lay the axe at his feet. He got to work picking the wooden stake in his lap into smaller splinters with his boat knife.
“What are you doing?” Edward questioned again softly.
Thomas paused to smile at him and pointed at the sun as if to give the older man a clue, but this only seemed to confuse him even more.
Thomas quickly got back to making a series of sharp, pegs out of the wood.
“Should I leave you alone?” Edward asked worriedly.
Thomas shook his head.
“I suspect you’re making extra work for yourself…”
Thomas nodded contently.
“Perhaps you’re making some kind of animal trap?”
He denied this with another shake of his head.
A dozen wooden pegs clattered together as Thomas lay them on the floor with his other tools and then picked up the rope. Edward watched curiously as Thomas hopped out of the boat.
Being watched made Thomas feel nervous, as if he were some sort of silent play actor and he was performing for the former commander of the Terror.
He tied the rope to the front of the boat where a hauling cable would usually be fastened, then walked away, letting the twine slide through his hands but keeping it taut, until he came to a pillar of ice at the foot of the pressure ridge. He lassoed the pillar and suspended the rope roughly three feet above the ground.
“That would be useful for drying things out, like fish, if we had any. Maybe Francis and George will catch some.” Edward complimented as he followed him.
Edward watched in confusion as Thomas began ripping pages out of the book. The lad’s intention was to bleach the paper by hanging it out in the sun, so he could write on it. During his first attempt to drive the splinter through the page and into the rope he ripped the paper too much and found the rope unexpectedly tough. But he made his second attempt easier by making a few incisions with his knife.
Putting each of the dozen pages up took a while and to pass the time he tried to recite the English Alphabet in order to figure out what words he could manage without the use of his tongue. He told himself, to lose a tongue or part of one’s tongue is an injury like any other and must be overcome even if it remains an impediment, just like having nine fingers and only one good leg. “A, B, -, -, E, F, guhg, huh, I, -, K, -, M, -, O, P, Q, R, -, -, U, V, wuh, X, …I… Y, -.” He pursed his lips to stop himself from making too ridiculous a noise when he could not say the letters.
Before he had finished Kiki emerged from the igloo, rubbing her injured, aching head in a daze. She’d come out to get some air and take a guess at how the day's weather might continue. She ended up watching Taaq/Thomas in fascination. It looked as though he was casting some exotic spell on the unusual material he was hanging out. Her people wrote their language in the snow and carved it into their trinkets. Having in the past scavenged a few books left behind by the Kabloona, she had presumed the only use for them was for burning until now.
In all his adventures Thomas had never burnt a book, even in the direst and coldest of situations, because he had learnt from Captain Crozier a greater use for them; the pages could be scrunched up and stuffed between sheets or layers of clothing for extra insulation.
Thomas could say “I” with the tip of the stump in his mouth and “Y” with great effort, though it seemed slightly different from his usual pronouncements. “G, and K” also sounded gurgled and required great effort, he feared he might swallow what was left of the annunciation muscle at the back of his throat. Never in his life was he more aware of which part of the tongue was used to make what sound.
“I… am… okay… I’m okay.” He whispered to himself. That was the first sentence he figured out he could still say. It was not exactly true but being able to say it made him feel a lot better.
“Thomas you spoke!” Edward exclaimed ecstatically. “You spoke without a tongue, how did you do it?”
Thomas thought a moment. There was no way to address Edward with his limits, and no way to say anything negative. He could say ‘Aye and ‘yeah’ and nod his head like always. He could not say ‘No, Ney or Don’t’, but he could shout ‘Oy!’ if he wanted to protest something urgently. He certainly could not call ‘Ned.’ His pondering was at an end when he felt Edward pulling him into a tight hug.
“You’re okay, Thomas.” Edward repeated.
“…Yeah.” Thomas uttered sentimentally and returned the hug. He pressed his face into the soft, grey fur of Edward’s coat and tried not to let the emotions overwhelm him too much. His frozen tear ducts ached.
Thomas wriggled out of the hug when he saw George curiously pluck one of the pages from the line. “Oy!” Thomas shouted. He stepped towards George but his frustrations with the man disappeared when he realised what the blonde-haired man was doing with the page. He had very simply and quickly fashioned a paper crane.
“Please leave those alone, George, can’t you see that Thomas is trying to bleach the paper?” Francis sighed, being the first to correctly figure out Thomas’s intentions.
“Oh, I’m sorry.” George apologized shyly.
Thomas quickly tore another two pages from the book and tried to request with hand gestures that he wanted George to show him how to make a paper crane, as the art form was completely new to him.
“Oh, you want to see how I make them?”
Thomas smiled and nodded eagerly.
George very slowly indicated how to do it and Thomas imitated each fold carefully.
“I learnt this when I was serving in the orient, it’s a Japanese art called Origami.” George informed him.
Thomas nodded attentively.
“…I read a book on sign language once. That’s talking with your hands. I’d be happy to practice with you when we get back from hunting.” George offered, to Thomas’s delight.
Thomas and Edward walked side by side, leaving footsteps along the frozen coastline, they barely spoke to one another.
It was not so easy to expose one’s open mouth to such severe cold, or to speak with a muffler on anyway. But Edward gave the uncharacteristically miserable young man at his side a concerned glance now and then as he tried to think of something to say.
Thomas had a much keener eye for their designated task, and he paused repeatedly to pull small, half submerged objects of value out of the snowy bank, which he mostly gave to Edward to carry.
When they could see they were halfway to the shipwreck, Thomas halted and Edward watched him curiously.
It’s a good idea to put a check point here and bury some of the things we’ve picked up so far to save us having to carry them an unnecessary distance. Thought Thomas.
Will he understand if I just start making one?
Thomas remembered there was a desert of stones beneath these inches of snow and he brushed some of the white flakes aside to begin digging out some rocks and arranging them in a circle.
“You’re making a kern?”
Thomas nodded at him.
“But we can see where we came from and where we are going. What’s the point?” Edward questioned and furrowed his brow in concern. He was always worried now that Thomas had a good reason for his actions, even if he couldn’t explain it.
Edward squatted near Thomas and started piling up rocks with him. “I suppose a few kerns marking the way is useful just in case the weather changes for the worst.” He assessed.
Thomas looked at him in acknowledgement but made no sign of having an opinion on the statement.
“To think you used to be the happier and more talkative fellow aboard Terror.” Edward remarked. “Between the two of us, I mean. Neither of us are chatter boxes, that’s for sure.”
Thomas laughed softly. It warmed Edward to see his companion looking happy again. It was doing tasks and making himself useful that seemed to alleviate the lad’s anxiety best.
Thomas was also greatly pleased at how easily he had been understood, and he started humming to himself as they continued their construction of the kern. Edward recognised the tune, an old song, not a sea-shanty because it was bad luck to sing them on land, but he knew some of the words for this song and he tried to sing in time with Thomas.
“As I was walking all the day, I heard two ravens mocking me, and one onto the other did say; where were we ganging down to day? Oh, where were we ganging down today?” Their voices vibrated in each other’s chests and they laughed together at the end of the verse.
They buried their findings in the rock pile and carried on.
The grand, creaking, black husk of the ice-beached HMS Terror was increasingly haunting to be hold as they trudged on through the blue snow in her shadow. Edward stopped and stared, hesitating to approach, but Thomas picked up his pace and marched up to a hole in the ship’s belly here the ice had pierced her.
“Wait, Thomas, don’t go near it, it’s not safe. It’s falling to pieces!” Edward pleaded.
Thomas cautiously entered the ship, Edward felt like he had no choice but to follow him.
It was pitch black in the hull, Thomas sniffed the stale air audibly; the walls smelt of rotten wood and the scent of rust omitted from the boiler, near where the hole opened out. But to his surprise there was hardly a scent of fleshy decay. Not a trace of the great army of rats that used to populate this lowest floor. Nor was there any scent of the men who had been left on the ship, though they had surely died from the cold or hunger by now. As he wondered about this, he heard the crunch of a rat’s skeleton beneath his boot. It occurred to him that what last was alive in Terror had consumed itself, the men and the rats probably picked each other’s bones clean.
They searched for anything they thought useful and easy to carry back. Thomas found a whale oil lamp on the floor and was able to use it to light their way up to the orlop. The familiar smell of putrid cans was overwhelmingly disgusting despite the toxic slop lying in an impenetrably frozen puddle. They covered their noses with their mufflers and leaves, and hurried up the ladder to the lower deck, not even bothering to search the orlop further.
Both men ogled in amazement at the lopsided, deserted lower deck. Icicles were hanging from the walls and tables; everything was covered in a layer of frost. The floor was very slippery with ice and tilted at an angle so that forced them to skid towards to further wall. They had to climb in order to reach the hallway. As they made their way up the hall, to the stern they had to use the wall for support and move very carefully and keep each-other from falling.
Their search continued into the officer’s mess and great room, and they confirmed now that they were the only two souls onboard.
"I wonder what happend to the others... I think we should turn back, Thomas, this ship's a death trap.”
Edward followed Thomas into the old first-officer’s cabin. “Thomas, I didn’t leave anything useful in here.” He was cut off when Thomas’s lips held his in a soft kiss.
His Heartbeat rattled deafeningly in his ears, he melted into it and conquered the lad’s mouth in return.
They paused to catch their breath and found it had turned to heavy, white plumes in the chilly air of the abandoned ship.
Edward was ensnared in Thomas's hypnotically attractive gaze, wondering what he was meant to do next. When he felt Thomas's fingers stroking his arousal, he realised it was not his to decide. Thomas undid the leather toggles on the front of both of their caribou skin britches and pressed their bodies flush against each other. Edward’s back was pressed into the wall now. Thomas held both their manhood’s tightly in his ungloved hand and provided sensual friction by thrusting his hips.
Edward clamped his eyes shut nervously, he was afraid to look down at the act, it seemed too obscene to look at, despite it feeling so good. "I love you." Edward moaned softly, almost whimpering the words.
Thomas moaned into his ear in return, just the wanton note that seemed to beg for Edward to make the next move.
Thomas grazed his sensitive lips over the bristles on Edward's cheek and then left a trail of little kisses along his jaw and throat.
Edward's mind was too misty to think straight. He wrapped his arms around Thomas and nuzzled and kissed his neck in a tender display of affection.
Thomas felt one of Edward's cold, bare hands trail downwards, beneath his white furred trousers, to cup one of his buttocks. The other hand raised to cradle the back of his head, entangle fingers in his hair and pull him into another long, heated kiss. He relaxed into Edward's kiss, and into the teasing caresses of the other man’s fingers in the warmth of his britches. Edward rolled the soft flesh in his hands and at last admitted his lust to himself. He had wanted full reign over Crozier's young steward's perfect body ever since he laid eyes on him. Now after three years of repression and even guilt, he held the presently injured and spoiled lad in his arms, like a wounded butterfly fluttering in his hands, and knew not what to do, other than to love him.
Looks like there's still some stuff to wrap up here so there will be one last chapter after this.