Authors: Nicholas Anderson
Dane Hallander watched the mother
duck shift her weight to better spread herself over her clutch of eggs.
She quacked at him, as if annoyed by his intrusion on her privacy.
"How about that one?"
Dane said, turning from the box.
Leech glanced in
the box as he continued down the trail. He turned a frown on
"You think your
father put these here so they'd have a nice place to live?"
be a better reason than most."
how fond he is of duck eggs."
she probably has him beat there all the same."
amazing we bring back anything at all from these trips."
you upset about? He eats just fine as it is; and besides, you've made a
new friend." Dane jabbed a thumb over his shoulder in the direction
of the occupied box.
Leech sighed and
stepped from the nest back to the trail. "Let's get back. If
we're gone any longer he'll be mad we didn't bring more back."
"Enough with the eggs.
Don't you feel the least
bit bad we built those boxes to trick them into thinking they're a safe place
to nest so we can steal their eggs?”
“To that I’ll
answer, as would any loyal subject, it’s not about my feelings, it’s about your
I always hoped you were more
interesting than that.”
publicly, at least.” Leech stopped in his tracks. “Oh, why do I
even bother?” He trotted back to the box and slipped the single egg from
his basket under the duck. She jabbed his hand as he withdrew it.
He turned to Dane and shrugged.
“You can tell your dad we made an investment in the future of his duck egg enterprise.”
As the two men
came out of the marsh and onto the beach, they saw a lone ship with a black and
white striped sail approaching the harbor. “You heard what they’re
saying about Bax’s slave girl?” Leech asked.
said, feeling glummer than ever, “I’ve heard.”
“You two used to
terrorize me,” Leech said. “Do you remember how you would fly straight at
me, yelling, ‘Duck, sucker,’ and if I didn’t hit the dirt you’d knock me
down? Only, half the time I ducked you ended up kicking me in the head as
you jumped over me anyway.”
that,” Dane said.
“You always say
“Well, you keep
bringing it up.”
mentioned it because you and Bax used to be inseparable. Now you won’t
even speak to each other.”
I’m not sure if anything else has.”
“Did I change?”
Dane said. “Or did I just die and forget to tell my legs to stop moving?”
diagnose that for you.”
thanks. I’d rather not know. Just be glad I’m not still kicking you
in the head, sucker.”
“That was mostly
Bax. He never had your vertical.”
Dane halted to
watch the ship. "That's one of the Haven ships."
be; what would it be doing here?"
is. Just look at it."
“What's that on
Dane had noticed
it, too. Across the thick black and white vertical stripes of canvas, a
large mark had been painted in red. The mark looked like a plus sign, but
at this distance and with the sail slack and the black and white bars it was
hard to be sure.
“What are they
doing here?” Leech said. “They know they're only supposed to come at
wrong," Dane said.
something's wrong. Your father gave express orders the Haven ships should
only enter under cover of darkness."
mean, where is everybody?"
For the first
time, Leech really looked at the ship, not just its mast and outline. No
oars protruded from the gunwale. Yet the ship was moving against the
wind. He did not see anyone on the deck or the lookout platform atop the
yard. "A ghost ship," he said under his breath.
on," Dane said. He dropped his basket and ran towards the
had gathered on the beach and a handful more were watching from the
docks. No one other than Dane and Leech moved to approach the ship.
The ship had entered the harbor and was heading for the south side of the
beach, to the left of the main three docks as one looked out at it from the
beach. Leech halted at the waterline as Dane waded in. "Don't
get any closer," he called to Dane, "It may be cursed."
forward through the surf, the waves slapping against his thighs. He
called back over his shoulder, "Cursed? Where’s the fearless man of
science, now? Come on. The crew may be sick or hurt. They could
need your help."
Leech shook his
head and then waded in after his friend. A mooring rope dangled into the surf
near the prow of the ship. Dane grabbed hold of it and pulled himself
aboard. At first he did not see anyone, not even any bodies. The
deck was a jumble of barrels and nets and rope. "Hello," he
pulled himself over the gunwale behind Dane.
Dane called again, glancing up and down the length of the deck once more.
From in front of him, beyond a pile of nets and tarps, there came a
hoarse, raspy sound, like a cry but hardly louder than a whisper, and then the
sound of something scraping across the deck. The scraping stopped and was
replaced by a series of short, rattling respirations, almost like panting.
Dane wondered if it had been a mistake to leave his knife with his basket on
the hill. Nodding to Leech to follow him, he crept around the pile of
rope and cloth. A sudden jolt shook them as the boat struck the
beach. Dane crouched down and clutched at the netting to keep from being
thrown backwards. Then he continued aft. He made it to the rear of
A single body
lay on its back near the stern. At first Dane thought it a corpse and his
eyes darted around in search of what else could have made the sounds.
Suddenly, the figure raised its head. It was an old man. The hair
was mostly gone from on top of his head and his beard was scraggly and
gray. Dane’s stomach constricted and a chill washed over him when he saw
the face. He glanced back at the sail and found that, whatever the mark
had been made with, it had bled through the canvas so its reverse image showed
on this side. He turned back to the man. The same mark had been
branded in his forehead.
The man held a
broken rod in his hand. He started when he saw the two men and gave a
little cry. He seemed to be trying to push himself backwards or into a
sitting position but he hardly moved. He extended his arm though,
pointing the jagged stump of the rod towards them. As the initial shock of
the burn mark receded, the man's eyes caught Dane's attention. They were
a pleasant blue color but they were wild, unfocused. Dane had seen men in
combat go into a state of shock where their eyes refused to latch on to
The thousand-yard stare.
almost like being blind. This man's eyes were like that.
there?" the man called.
Dane took a step
back," the man said. The stick wobbled in his hand.
alright, we're friends," Dane said. "You've made it back to port."
The man's eyes
fell on him and the veil seemed to lift from them. He dropped his stick
and let his arm fall to the deck. "You're home," Dane said.
The man closed
his eyes and squeezed them still more tightly shut. A
"shhh-shhhing" noise slipped from his lips and, although no tears ran
on his cheeks, Dane knew he was crying.
beside him and worked his arm beneath the man's shoulders to help him sit up a
little. His eyes opened to slits. Leech opened his canteen and held
it to the man's lips. Dane listened to the glugging noise and watched the
man's Adam’s apple drive up and down his thin neck. Most of the water ran
down his chin and then he coughed most of the rest of it back up.
from the colony; from Haven?" Dane asked.
The man did not
answer. His eyes were clouding over again and it seemed his strength was
failing; as though his spirit's temple was caving in on itself, threatening to
bury him inside. Dane feared they had over-excited him by coming aboard,
that he'd ran through the hours he had left to live in a matter of seconds.
get him inside," Leech said.
The man opened
his mouth. "It's alright. You're alright," Dane
said. "Everything's going to be OK. Just take it easy."
“I have to tell
you," the man began.
me. They chose to let me go."
Dane asked. He leaned close to the man's mouth.
The man's eyes
suddenly went very wide and he seemed to be looking past Dane, as though
something terrifying were standing over Dane's shoulder. Dane looked
back. There was nothing there. The man's mouth worked and his
Adam's apple hammered up and down. He pushed Dane away and moved as
though he were trying to sit up. Dane crouched back, giving the man
space. Suddenly, the man went limp, as though his final strength had gone
out from him like a breath. He flopped down on his back and his head
struck the deck planks with such a noise that Dane started. Dane looked
at the old figure for a long moment before turning to Leech. Leech
moved past Dane to crouch by the man. He put two fingers to the man's
throat and held them there for several seconds. He frowned. He
moved his fingers to the man's wrist and waited a few more seconds, then shook
his head. He leaned forward, placing his cheek just above the man’s
lips. Then he turned to Dane and nodded.
you think?" Leech asked.
“I don't know,”
Dane said. “I've never seen it before."
The crowd of
gawkers had pushed its way up towards Arvis Hallander’s fortress-house, which
overlooked the harbor, bearing the news of the strange arrival. Dane, who
felt no need to be his father’s tale-bearer, had stayed on the beach.
Leech, who had insisted they cover the body and stand guard over it, sat beside
him in the sand. They were discussing the mark stained on the sail and
branded on the man.
the symbol of one of the other houses?" Leech asked.
I'm familiar with."
familiar with all of them."
said, I don't know." Dane looked at the image. He traced it in
the sand. It looked like this:
backwards seven,” Dane said.
seven,” Leech said.
be some kind of weapon or tool?
A scythe or a
him a doubtful glance. "What, you think it’s some kind of laborers’
throwing out ideas," Dane said. "What about a broken
Leech said. “If somebody wanted to send the message our garrison on Haven
shrugged. "Although sending back a lone survivor would seem to say
as much in itself.”
frowned. Before sitting down with Leech to analyze the symbol he had
tried to keep his mind from wandering towards the possibility a hostile force
had taken Haven, branded a lone survivor, and sent him back as a boast.
It had not escaped his notice that, when Leech and he started to talk about the
symbol, this was the first path they went down. He tried to steer the
conversation in another direction, if only to postpone the inevitable.
"What if it's not the mark of another house? What if it’s something
the people on Haven made up to symbolize outcasts, people who got kicked out of
the community for one reason or another?"
but why would they waste a whole ship to send back a single outcast? They
could have just brought him back with the next shipment of ore.”
stole the ship. Maybe that's why the first thing he said was, ‘They let
me go. They sent me.’”
"It was the
only thing he said," Leech said.
Dane was silent
for a moment. "Or maybe he was sick, and they wanted to get him off
the island. Maybe the symbol was supposed to signal disease or
other recognized symbols for those things."
“Or maybe it's
the other way around. Maybe everyone on the colony is sick and they sent
him back to get help. Maybe he was sicker than they realized."