Authors: Will Hill
For Mary Shelley, who laid the path.
And for Stephen King, who first showed me where it led.
Table of Contents
Lars Bernsen stood on the deck of the
, his eyes fixed on the horizon, and cursed his greed for bringing his ship and crew this far north. They had sailed out of Tromsø more than a month earlier, harpoons sharpened and greased, sails patched and mended, hold empty and waiting. The minke whales had been moving, their migration north bringing them within a day’s sail of the Norwegian shore, and Bernsen had been determined that the
would claim her share, as she always had.
For days and weeks, they had toiled, sticking the fast, agile beasts with point after point, roping them and drowning them and hauling them aboard, where their blubber was packed and stored and their bones boiled and carefully stacked, ready to be turned into corsets in the boutiques of Paris. When the hold was full, Bernsen had been about to give his crew the order to make for home, an order that always provoked celebration on the slippery deck, when his lookout had called down from the main mast, urging him to look to the north-west.
Bernsen had crossed the deck, and looked out over the starboard rail. In the distance, a pod of humpback whales was making its way steadily north: five at least, maybe seven, or even eight. At the centre was a male, easily forty feet in length; as he watched, the animal’s huge tail fin rose from the water and crashed down, sending an explosion of frothing white water into the air. The meat, oil and bone of a forty-foot humpback would almost double the
’s return on the trip, and it was not in Bernsen’s nature to ignore such an opportunity when it presented itself. He had climbed on to the quarterdeck, keeping his eyes locked on the distant whales. He spun the wheel, called for full sail, and began to bring his ship around after them.
“Ice ahead,” said Rolstad. “Thick.”
Bernsen nodded. His first mate was right; less than ten miles ahead of them was the southern edge of the Arctic ice shelf, the point at which they would be forced to turn back. For six days, he had pushed his crew after the humpbacks, without success; the huge animals had seemed to possess a supernatural ability to evade the ship, disappearing below the freezing grey water for long minutes at a time, then racing north as Bernsen’s crew struggled to relocate them. On two maddening occasions he had managed to get alongside them, and had ordered harpoons thrown. But they had whistled harmlessly into the waves, missing the whales by little more than inches.
Two days previously, Rolstad had suggested, in his usual gruff manner, that perhaps it would be wise to let them go. Bernsen had not replied, and his old friend had not mentioned the idea again. In truth, Lars knew that his behaviour was becoming irrational, but he no longer cared. He was irked by his failure to kill the humpbacks; it had taken on a personal dimension for him, as though it were
failure, despite the hold groaning with the remains of the minkes.
So he had continued to chase them north, as the temperature dropped, and the icebergs became bigger and more frequent. His crew were visibly unhappy, although all were too stoical to say so. They were alone, far beyond the rest of the Norwegian fleet. They had seen only a single ship in the last week, a vessel heading for England under the captaincy of a man named Walton that had passed them the previous day. They had tied up and exchanged pleasantries, but there had been a wild look about Walton, and Bernsen had allowed their encounter to end quickly; there had been dread rising from the very deck of Walton’s ship, drawn thickly on the faces of his crew, and he had wanted no part of whatever had befallen them.
“About time to turn back,” said Rolstad. His beard was thick with ice, but his eyes were clear, and his rumbling voice was steady.
Bernsen grunted. Far ahead, he saw the breaking water where the whales were swimming, as though they were mocking him, but he knew his first mate was right; there was no disputing the evidence of his own eyes. There was simply no chance that the
would catch the humpbacks before they disappeared beneath the ice shelf and out of reach forever.
“Bring her about,” he said. “Make for home.”
Rolstad nodded, and stepped across to the wheel. Bernsen walked down from the quarterdeck, up to the prow, and stared at the horizon, not wanting to see the whales escape, but unable to tear his gaze away. He watched the male lift its tail from the water a final time, a gesture that seemed deliberately meant for him, and then the pod was gone, the last churned water of their passing lapping against the solid ice that stretched to the horizon, rising in ranges of distant mountains to the north and spreading out to the east and west in an impossibly vast landscape of white.
He was about to turn away when something caught his eye. It was a dark speck on one of the thousands of chunks of ice bobbing at the edge of the field, rising and falling with the ocean currents beneath them. It was no more than half a mile north of the
, and the dark shape, whatever it was, seemed already too big to be a seal.
Bernsen felt the ship begin to turn to port. “Keep this course!” he shouted, and pointed a gloved hand at the dark blot on the landscape. The momentum changed beneath him as the ship came about, and he gripped the deck rail, keeping his eyes locked on the approaching slab of ice.
Rolstad appeared beside him. “What is it?” he asked.
“Something on the ice,” said Bernsen. “Straight ahead.”
“I see it.”
crept forward, ice thudding against her hull in a constant drumbeat. The wind blew from the north, chilling Bernsen’s bones and making his eyes water. The tears froze almost instantly on his cheeks, and he wiped them away with the back of his gloved hand, trying to focus on the dark shape. It was close now, a spreadeagled smudge of black against the white ice. He watched in silence as it came closer and closer, unable to comprehend what he was seeing, his mind searching for an explanation.
“My God,” said Rolstad, his voice low. “Do you see?”
“I see,” said Bernsen. “I do not believe it, but I see.”
Lying on the floating chunk of ice was the motionless figure of a man, wrapped in layers of sealskin. He was huge, that much was clear, even lying down; his limbs were thick, and his head, hidden beneath a fur-lined hood, was large and rectangular. Bernsen stared down at the man, his mind racing.
What is any man doing this far north, alone? Was he part of Walton’s expedition? Did they abandon him here?
Then the man moved his arm, and Bernsen fought back a scream as his heart froze as solid as the ice that surrounded him.
The man who was currently going by the name of John Wallace twisted his thick wrists against the ropes, searching for any looseness, and found none. He was not surprised; McTavish had done the binding, and the small, hard Scot had a way with a rope. Wallace had seen him truss up the skinned carcass of a deer in mere minutes, the animal still warm and wet with melted snow when it was slung across McTavish’s broad shoulders, the knots so constricting that barely a trickle of blood flowed from it.
“Dinnae try it, devil.”
Wallace looked up. McTavish was staring at him with narrow eyes that glowed orange in the light of the fire. He was holding his knife in a hand that was perfectly steady, despite the freezing cold. Beyond him, Wallace could see the pale face of Paterson; the younger man was huddled as near to the flames as he dared, his eyes full of fear. Standing guard at the edge of their camp, axes dangling at their sides, were Grant and Munro. Their gazes were fixed on the darkness of the forest, and he could see only their backs. Lying on a blanket, his eyes closed, his chest rising and falling weakly, was Scott.
Wallace nodded, and grimaced as pain shot down his neck and across his shoulders. He didn’t know what he had been hit with – he suspected a tree branch – but it had raised a lump the size of an egg. He was almost glad he couldn’t touch it; he was worried that he would feel broken bone shift beneath his fingers.
“I’m not doing anything,” he said.
“Aye,” said McTavish. “An’ keep it that wae.”
The pot hung over the fire began to boil, and the smell of dried rabbit filled Wallace’s mouth with saliva. McTavish gave him a hard look, then went to tend to it, slopping the stew out into wooden bowls and passing them out. The men ate hungrily; shock and fear had not diminished their appetites. Wallace watched them silently, knowing it would be a waste of time to ask for a bowl of his own.
Attempted murderers did not receive favours.
The Norwegians who had pulled him, more dead than alive, from the Arctic ice, had made it clear, via a combination of hand gestures and broken English, that they had not expected him to survive. He had woken in the galley of their ship, a whaling vessel that stank of blubber and meat, too weak to move, unable to answer their two most pressing questions, for different reasons.
Why he had been on the ice was a story he would never tell anyone; it was nobody’s business apart from his and his creator’s, and Victor Frankenstein’s mortal remains had been borne south on Walton’s ship, their fate unknown.
Nor would he give them his name. Not only because he didn’t have one, but because the reason why would be impossible for him to explain, and equally impossible for them to believe.
The crew of the whaling ship had taken his behaviour, which he assumed must have appeared strange at the very least, with reasonable good humour. They had nursed him slowly back to health, so efficiently that when the ship made port in Tromsø he had been able to help them unload their catch, thereby contributing some small usefulness in return for the preservation of his life.
He had left the dock without a single possession to his name, beyond the clothes he was wearing, and headed south.
That had been six years ago.
“It bit him,” said Wallace. “I saw it bite him. Keep a close eye.”
McTavish spat thickly into the fire. “I’m watchin’
, devil. That’s whar ah’m fixin’ ma eyes.”
“Then you’re looking in the wrong place,” said Wallace. “If it comes back, remember that I tried to make you see sense.”
“Aye,” said McTavish. “When yer swingin’ from a rope up at Factory, we’ll be sure an’ remember that. Eh, lads?”
Grant managed a small laugh, but Paterson made no sound. He was staring into the fire, his face a mask of concern.
You saw something, didn’t you?
You were nearest, and you won’t speak against McTavish, but you saw. I can see it in your eyes.
You saw the wendigo.
He had made his way south as far as Bergen, taking a day’s work here, a week’s there. His destitute appearance meant a great many homes would not open their doors to him, even though he could see candlelight and shadows through their windows. Those of a stronger, or kinder, disposition were invariably astonished by the immediate evidence of his education. As a result, he had spent as many days teaching numbers and letters to children as he did ploughing fields and chopping wood.
In Bergen, he boarded a ship bound for Aberdeen, and endured hellish days and nights as the vessel was churned by the slate grey of the North Sea. He staggered on to the dock with the rest of the crew and passengers, and almost flattened a man wearing a smart suit and a prodigious moustache, clutching a sheaf of printed leaflets in his hand.