It was a bitter cold day in October. I had layered myself with my wool clothing to stay warm as I made my way down to the boat. Being a part of a commercial fishing enterprise had its perks and setbacks. Near-freezing temperatures being some of the worst without the mention of possible death with each passing hour. However, the pay was worth the risk of death for anyone brave enough to endure the hardships.
My sister Augustine had visited me yesterday evening to see me off for another three months at sea. She begged and pleaded with me to decline the venture but my stubborn will refused to concede to her. If every fisherman declined to venture into uncharted waters for the possible unknown advantage that lay in wait for them, mankind would have starved ages ago.
However, this time she might have been right.
With a heavy thump my boots hit the upper deck of the Hoodwink. My breath materializing before me, I took in the excitement at hand.
The Hoodwink’s captain, Mortimer C. Roughstone, was not an abusive captain, but one that demanded respect. Catching his eye, I lifted a hand to signal that I was at service.
With a nod he shouted over the clamor, “To your station, Master Holt.”
Nodding, I raced below to claim my hammock for the trip. I was extremely thankful for the new gloves my sister had brought me. Several members of the crew had lost fingers due to frostbite and I did not want to be included among their numbers.
With things in order, I return to the upper deck to see to my post. Men were shouting as various ropes were loosed and others tightened down. Everyone had a job and did it well.
Captain Roughstone was a shepherd before turning his life over to the sea and carried his sling with him always. If one was caught slacking on the job, a musket ball to the torso was expected within seconds of the Captain seeing them as he was deadly accurate. He didn’t believe in using gun powder due to the moisture of the sea and he could take out eight men before the fastest man could reload a pistol. The precision of Captain Roughstone was something I deeply admired.
With the Hoodwink underway, I wrapped my scarf around my face to keep from breathing the cold air. Learning small tricks like this proved to my benefit numerous times on the various winter expeditions upon the Hoodwink. Others among the crew did likewise.
With the ship safely out to sea and under full sail, the captain roused us all. “Gentlemen! Gather together!” I took my place among the others as we listened to the captain’s orders.
“Gentlemen, as many of you know, we are fishermen.” Many of the men gave whoops and hurrahs at this statement of pride. “But what many of you don’t know is that we are sent on other expeditions during the winter months when fishing is the hardest. This is one of those expeditions. I wasn’t able to tell you until now due to the secrecy of the mission. While I can’t tell you our direct heading or purpose of going there, I can tell you that this is our highest paying voyage yet.”
All of the men gave loud hurrahs at this statement because Captain Roughstone was a generous man when it came to payments and the last voyage had set us up for months of feasting and drinking. The list to join the Hoodwink’s crew lengthened with each flamboyant story told by members of the crew.
“The King himself has entrusted us with a voyage that has been declined by numerous greater vessels than the Hoodwink. I have no doubt in my mind that this voyage will forever change our fortunes should we succeed.” Captain Roughstone paused as he collected his thoughts. “What you don’t know about this mission will get you killed. I pray that I not lose a single man, but fate so often has different views on the lives of men.”
The entire crew was silent at this point, not many of us had undertaken something as dangerous as this mission was playing out to be.
“The King’s voyage is to find an island in the uncharted waters to establish a trade route with. He wishes to establish the longest trade in the world, even at your expense. None of us have ever gone this far from home before and some of you may not return. We must look out for one another if we are to succeed in our mission. What you need to know is this: we are to retrieve evidence of the island and return it to the King. Should we succeed in our mission, the King has personally promised that every man aboard this ship will live a life of luxury for the end of his days.”
That was all the crew needed to hear to explode in hearty cheers. As for me, I swallowed a lump in my throat.
As the cheering died down at the gesture of Captain Roughstone, he concluded, “The success of this mission depends upon each and every one of you doing your duty without fail. If you fail, we all fail. Master Holt, to my quarters. The rest of you, to your posts.”
It was rare that one be invited to the captain’s quarters. I didn’t know what to expect.
Making my way through the bustle of people, I knocked on the door.
“Enter Master Holt,” he was deep inside his quarters judging by his muffled voice.
Swinging the heavy door inward, I stepped inside and closed it behind me. The windows at the rear of the room filtered the light that illuminated the room. I could see a cedarwood incense burning on the corner of his desk. The gentle rolling smoke lifting up to the ceiling helped to take the smell of fish and saltwater out of the air. This finally explained why I could smell the trees of my homeland strong upon my captain.
Sweeping my glance around the room proved to glean little more information about the captain. Maps and charts lined the walls and a washing stand over in the corner reinforced the fact that Captain Roughstone paid attention to the details of life.
“Take a seat Master Holt.” He was looking out the window without any intention in mind. “Do you know why I called you here?”
I had no clue so I took my dagger out of its sheath and used the handle to tap twice on the arm of the chair I sat in.
“I thought not.” He turned back to me and walked back to his desk and sat down. “We both know that you are the most challenged of the crew, would you agree?”
A single tap revealed my answer.
“I won’t deny that I’m glad you are aboard, son. Besides my first-mate Finn, you are the only other person on the Hoodwink I feel I can trust.”
I gave a single tap.
“While I wish that we could speak as countrymen do among their brethren, we are disadvantaged by your state of being.”
I could never tell a lie nor hide one. I gave another single tap.
“Has anyone ever entrusted you with a secret?” He had a piercing look about his eyes.
“Do you still hold true to it to this day?”
“Good. I want to be able to depend on someone should something happen to Finn. We’re on a dangerous mission Master Holt, bear that at the forefront of your mind. You’re dismissed.”
I nodded and returned my dagger to its sheath. An unexpected weight had been added to my load. Would I be able to bear it when the time came?
For several days, it was as if nothing had transpired between the captain and I. Keeping my nose to my work allowed my mind to relax and enjoy the sea.
The sea can be a wonderful blessing to those that want to escape the land life. However, it can also be a curse to those that are unfortunate enough to be caught in its grasp.
A terrible storm had built in the west and we were caught in its path as it unleashed its fury upon us. Each of us was responsible for our own lifeline. This was one of Captain Roughstone’s rules. If you wanted to die sooner than others then simple neglect would bring death to you quickly.
I hated storms this time of year because one not only had to stay warm but also dry if you wanted to survive. With the ship heaving skyward and crashing down without relent, I wondered if this would be my last day.
I prayed to God for us to be spared.
The storm laughed at us as it tossed us around with glee. Had the sun been visible, it would be kissing the horizon soon, leaving us alone for the night to endure.
There was no use trying to light the oil lamps because the waves were engulfing the deck and soaking everything in sight.
Captain Roughstone ordered everyone below deck for an all night in. With Finn at the wheel holding the ship ahull, and Captain Roughstone keeping a close eye on the dogvane, the hours crawled by as it was near impossible to sleep in the hammocks due to the movement.
Several of the men became sick in the night from the relentless tossing of the ship. Even the most sea-hardy of the crew admitted to this being one of the worst storms they’ve ever endured.
In the early hours of the morning, the storm finally subsided allowing the crew to assess the damage done to the Hoodwink. After a careful inspection issued by Finn, no damage could be found except some lengths of rope were adrift.
Due to ferocity of the storm, Captain Roughstone declared that we were horribly off-course. It would take nothing short of a miracle to get the Hoodwink to their destination with the supplies on board. Disappearing into his quarters, he worked out the details of their situation. The rest of the crew were under Finn’s command while the Hoodwink sped to a nearby island.
Due to my inability to carry on a lively conversation, even without the crew speaking to me, I could tell that something was brewing among the crew. What it was, I did not know.
We were put on a strict ration schedule until we landed at the island. Our supply of salted pork would last us several more weeks but our water supply was getting dangerously low. The cook would often gather small jars of snow and melt it near the cook fire to help lengthen our supply.
After two days, land was spotted and hope took hold of the crew. Save for one.
Out of all the men on board, I disliked Copper the most. Just saying his name left a bad taste in my mouth. He was an irritable man unafraid to cut his losses at any given time. To me he seemed self-centered and cold-hearted but to the rest of the crew, he was a hardworking equal.
Circling the island, we located a place for anchorage. We were farther south than I had ever been and the temperature was tolerable with a coat. The trees of the island were unlike any I had seen before. They reminded me of the pines back home except these were three times as large. The ground surrounding the trees was a red so dark it resembled a spilt inkwell.
An ominous feeling crept up my neck as the rowboats slid up the beach of the island. I was glad to have my feet ashore and not with anchor watch.
The crew scattered as they began gathering dry wood for cook fires. A newcomer named Flint began gathering the large pine cones from under the trees. As he reached down for another, he shrieked with pain. Many of the crew raced to his cry only to stop short in fear when they saw what happened. His skin had been pierced with the tree’s needles. The tree shuddered and rained down more needles on Flint as he dropped to the ground in pain. No one dared risk their life to save him.
He lay there in pain as the roots of the tree slowly began moving up and around his body. Within a minute his body was no longer visible. It was then we realized that the deep red around the tree’s base was the blood of its former victims.
This island was indeed deceptive and dangerous.
The deathly silence of the night told us that we were either the only ones on the island or that we were in harm’s reach. No birds called during the night. No small animals scratched at the ground. It was nothing but deathly silence and that set everyone on edge.
The next morning proved that our difficulties would not relent. A thick fog had developed and visibility was rendered to around five paces making it impossible to see the Hoodwink from the beach.
Captain Roughstone ordered fresh water to be sought out and brought to camp. I was enlisted alongside Copper and several others.
We were each armed with fishing spears and hooks if we didn’t already posses a weapon. I was given a pole hook to compliment my onyx-embellished dagger that I carried.
Setting out, we circumvented the pines out of deadly fear of them. With Finn leading, our task for the day was to find a fresh water supply.
With the realization that even the plants of the island were dangerous, our progress was slow. After traveling two miles inward, Finn called a short rest.
Mounting a large smooth stone, I stretched out my legs and took a draft from my canteen. With it only half-full, I had to keep a conscious thought about how much I drank if it was to last.
Suddenly without warning the stone raised itself up several feet and began moving. I quickly jumped off and ran towards the other men. Turning back to see what was about to kill me I saw that what I thought was a stone was merely a large turtle sauntering off into the woods.
Copper let out a hearty laugh, “What’s the matter lad? Scared of a turtle? Maybe you’ve not got what it takes to be among us men.” The rest of the group except Finn joined in on the merriment of the situation.
Finn finally barked out, “Quiet! If the turtles are this large here and even the trees can kill a man, I hate to find out what else is on this God-forsaken island. Let’s move out.”
Copper was still chuckling to himself under his breath as we gathered our gear and trudged deeper into the woods. We were only three miles from base camp but it felt like I was the only one in the world. My silence was an ever-expanding void separating me from all mankind.
After several more hours, Finn called a halt to break camp for the evening. I was reluctant to camp here, but I had my orders.
Several men including myself began gathering wood for the fire. While we were in warmer waters than the time of year should have produced, a fire was still necessary at night. I walked southward in hopes of getting some peace from Copper if only for a few minutes. Finn had warned us not to go far, but I wanted to rid myself of Copper’s tormenting voice.
No sooner had I walked beyond earshot did a dark figure leap from the tree boughs and land heavily on me crashing us both to the ground. I thrashed and struck at the figure only to have a calloused heavy hand strike me against the temple sending me to darkness.
I awoke the next morning to a stinging feeling on my left cheek. Reaching a hand up to my face I felt a large slimy object stuck fast. As I pulled with all my strength, I felt it loosen until finally it came off. A large palm-sized leech was squirming in my hand as the blood ran down my face. I pulled out my knife and made an end to this beast.
With a quick look around I could see other leeches coming in my direction. Without anymore attached to me, I left the area to find the rest of the group.
The campsite was wrecked. No one was around and no bodies were present either. Something bad had happened and I suspected it involved the creature that struck me unconscious.
I raced over those those few miles towards base camp with a pace unmatched by any of the crew. Breaking upon the beach, I saw that the other members of the crew were still safe.
Drawing upon my reserve of strength, I flew down the beach to Captain Roughstone. Waving my hands frantically as I ran, Captain Roughstone and the others came to meet me.
I was out of breath and a canteen of water was given me to drink. The questions were flying from all around me but I was unable to answer them so I did the only thing I could.
I slowly drew out my dagger with the onyx stone in the hilt and took a drop of blood from my finger and placed it on one side of the stone and beckoned Captain Roughstone to do the same.
As soon as he placed his finger on the opposite side of the stone, I was able to exchange thoughts with the captain about the capturing of the crew members and my struggle with the dark figure through a single thought.
Captain Roughstone was deeply grieved by this turn of events.
This was a story that was specifically written for a contest and here is the parameters that surrounded it.
Must be an original story with less than 3,000 words and contain the following prompts:
- Action: Capturing
- Emotion: Cold-hearted
- Object: An onyx-embellished dagger
I hope that you enjoy this story. If you like what you read, please share it with your friends.