Council Of Fire – Snippet 03
“It’s just a storm, General. Nothing unnatural about that.”
“And the bright light on the horizon? What might that be, my Lord?”
“I wish I knew. Please feel free to give me your thoughts, sir. I am sure you will do so whether I solicit them or not.”
Wolfe appeared ready with an angry response, but seemed to bite it back. “I am concerned for the welfare of the royal person we carry aboard,” he said. “I assume that you are doing whatever you can to get us away from this storm.”
“I have only so much control,” Saunders said. He wanted to add the words as you know, but concluded that Wolfe probably had no idea what was involved in making an Atlantic crossing–he likely spent most of them hurling his dinner over the side or collapsed on his bed. “And the royal person is an officer of this ship. A valued senior officer who, despite his youth, has more than proved his mettle.”
“Nevertheless, if anything were to happen to him–”
“I fail to see where this discussion is going, General. Perhaps you will be so kind as to let me attend to my business.”
“If I can be of assistance–”
“You can stay out of the way, sir. And for pity’s sake try not to be washed overboard. I might be court-martialed if I lost His Highness, but if I were to lose you it would be endless paperwork.”
The storm blew harder and harder. General Wolfe bravely stayed abovedeck, but out of the way of the sailors and well back from the railings–which was just as well, Saunders thought; four able seamen were washed overboard as Neptune pitched and struggled at waves and in wind he had never seen in any Atlantic crossing–or anywhere at sea, ever in his life; not rounding the Cape of Good Hope, not circumnavigating the globe with Lord Anson in Centurion.
And unlike any storm he had ever known, it was cast in an unearthly pall of yellowish-gray light that dominated the eastern sky from the horizon to forty degrees azimuth–like a huge sun that gave no warmth. There was no point in trying to raise signal flags, since there was no one in sight to spy them.
There was no dawn–at least none to be seen from the decks of Neptune–but when the ship’s chronometer recorded a time a few bells after sunrise, a cloud of glowing mist gathered aft of the ship, emanating–so it seemed–from the glow at the horizon. Neptune was making a remarkable headway, a steady eight knots due westward by the compass. The cloud moved considerably faster, overtaking the ship and cloaking it for two to three minutes, making sight nearly impossible and smothering sound.
Saunders was unwilling to stray very far from the pilothouse. He could not even make out his own quarterdeck. As he looked out across the main deck, though, he thought he made out a familiar figure-a tall man dressed in a uniform of antique style, who gazed sternly back at him.
“My God,” he said to no one in particular. “Admiral Wager–I–”
He began to move toward the figure but nearly collided with Wolfe, who looked more gaunt and sick than usual, but his eyes were frantic. In total violation of decorum or protocol, he grasped Saunders by the shoulders.
“It’s Neddy,” Wolfe said. “My Lord Admiral, why is Neddy aboard this ship?”
Then, suddenly, Wolfe seemed to realize what he was doing and let go of Saunders. “I’m–I’m sorry, My Lord. I beg your pardon. But look–” he gestured toward where the admiral had seen his long-dead superior, Sir Charles Wager, Admiral of the White.
Now he saw nothing at all. “What are you talking about, man? And who is Neddy?”
“My . . . my brother, My Lord. My brother Edward. But . . . he died. Long ago, in Flanders, when we were both on campaign with the Pragmatic Army.”
Wolfe looked away, then back at Saunders with a fierce expression. “But I saw him so clearly–dear old Ned–”
Saunders had a sickening feeling in the pit of his stomach. He had seen someone as well: Sir Charles Wager, sixteen years in the grave. It made no more sense than Wolfe’s vision of his dead brother.
“Pull yourself together, General,” he said after a moment. “The fog–this blasted fog is playing tricks on your eyes. And if you are seeing things, everyone else might be as well.
“Mr. Prince!” he called out. “Mr. Prince, are you on deck?”
From somewhere in the murk he heard an answer–something inarticulate, between a cry and a shout.
“Mr. Prince! This is the admiral. Report, sir!”
Prince Edward seemed to stagger out of the fog, like a man who hadn’t gotten his sea-legs–or, Saunders thought to himself, like a man who had seen a ghost. The prince stopped and straightened, offering a smart salute–but Saunders could see some pain, or perhaps fright, on his face.
“Reporting, My Lord,” he said.
“Call the roll of the watch, Mr. Prince. See to it that the men are all accounted for. At this speed we’ll come out of this fog shortly, and I’ll want us to be properly manned and the sails correctly trimmed.”
The prince hesitated for only a moment and then said, “Very good, sir.” He saluted again and turned, vanishing into the fog.
“You saw something,” Wolfe said quietly. “You saw someone. And so did he.”
“We’ll discuss this later, General,” Saunders said, pushing past Wolfe and out of the pilothouse.
Fifteen hours after it began it began to subside, with Neptune still making headway westward–but there was no other means of determining their location other than to note that the ship was beset with ice floes, suggesting that they had been driven far to the north. Neptune was alone in a partially frozen sea, with a leaden sky above and choppy, icy water beneath.
There was no other ship in sight.
The sea giveth and the sea taketh away. But it was unclear just then what the sea had given them.