In The Wreckage

By Simon J. Townley

Action & adventure, General fiction, Young adult, Literary fiction, Sci-Fi

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20 mins

In The Wreckage
A Tale of Two Brothers

Chapter One

A sultry wind from the south-west tussled his hair, blowing through his thin cotton shirt. Conall Hawkins lowered his binoculars and wiped sweat from his forehead. Mid-morning and the heat was building, every year hotter than the last: hotter, drier and more desperate.
He crouched on the ground next to his brother. Faro sat with his back to a rock reading a book, battered and torn, about machines and engines, ships, planes and rockets. Impossible stories of flying to the moon.
Conall took the cloth from the case and wiped the lenses of his binoculars. “You seen Rufus?”
“Down a rabbit hole.” Faro pointed to a patch of scraggy grass pitted with burrows.
Conall stood up and tracked with the glasses until he spotted the terrier. The rabbits had gone to ground and the dog sprawled in long grass waiting for his prey to make a false move. Conall scanned across farmland and the Bressay Sound and refocused on the shimmering horizon to the north, a blur of blue and grey.
“Sit down.” Faro didn’t look up from his book. “There’s nothing to see, never is.”
Conall turned in a circle surveying empty ocean flecked with white spray. Faro had it right. There was nothing to see, never had been, not in the five long years since the last ship called at Lerwick and that had sailed by, afraid of slavers or disease. The stream of refugees had withered and dried leaving Shetland becalmed.
He scanned the ocean one last time, then stopped, refocused the glasses, his hands trembling, breath an iron lump in his lungs. On the horizon he saw a speck, nothing more but a speck that grew. It came this way. He looked away then back again: it was still there, a sail, dazzling white. He clutched the glasses tighter. At last, a sail, but a ship from the south, the wrong direction. It couldn’t be them.
He lowered his binoculars, handed them to his brother. “Coming straight for us. No fishing boat, she’s huge.”
Faro had the same scruffy black hair as Conall, the piercing blue eyes, the high forehead and penetrating stare. But at twenty, he was five years older, taller and stronger. Faro grunted, as if he thought Conall was imagining things, but he stood up, put the glasses to his eyes and stared to the south.
Conall sat on the ground in the cool of his brother’s shadow, surveying the horizon.
“A white hull,” Faro said at last, “three masts. A monster.” Excitement simmered in his voice. “A steel hull, I swear.”
Conall squinted at the ship, a smudge of white against sea and sky.
“She’s got an engine below decks, I’ll bet,” Faro said. “Oil or coal. I know ships.”
From books, old and yellowed, nothing more, but Conall said nothing. He stood up, reached out to take his binoculars. “Let me see.”
Faro kept the glasses fixed to his eyes. “We should head into town, tell people she’s coming. We saw her first.”
Conall took hold of his binoculars, tugged them from his brother’s hands.
“I wonder what she’s carrying,” Faro said, “she’s heading for Norway, she’ll stop here, for sure, they could be slavers though. Come on, let’s get a closer look.” Faro set off, without waiting for Conall, charging down the hillside, running towards Lerwick, the only place on Shetland where the white ship might make port.


Conall ran through the cobbled streets of the town towards the harbour, following Faro as he shouted to shopkeepers and tradesmen, to fishermen sitting in doorways mending nets and women in the alleyways, hanging up their washing
“It’s a sailing ship,” Faro yelled, intent on being first with the news. “Coming from the south, a sailing ship, you’ll see.” But the townsfolk watched grim-faced, not willing to stir themselves on the word of Faro Hawkins.
The brothers ran to the new harbour and stared across the Bressay Sound, waiting for the sails to appear. The town of Lerwick had retreated uphill as sea levels rose, and the old jetties were drowned. The townsfolk had scavenged stones from half-submerged houses to build a new harbour, large enough for their fishing boats but too small for trading ships. The approaches remained treacherous and shallow, full of half-fallen walls, and crumbling rooftops poking through the waves. The ship must anchor offshore, and the crews come to land by row-boat, if they came at all.
Conall was first to spot the sails poking above the rocky coastline. He pointed to the south, calling on the fishermen to look up from their nets. Still the townsfolk ignored the boys. Only when the ship rounded the headland, her white hull dazzling in the morning sunshine, did the news spread. Now it was wildfire, excitement flowing across the town, voices raised, the sound of feet running from every direction.
“A steel hull, didn’t I say?” Faro stood tall, sticking out his chest, explaining how she was a three masted barque, you could tell by the rig.
The crew were busy taking in the sails. Conall counted more than twenty bustling on deck and in the rigging.
“They’re putting down a boat,” Faro shouted. “The crew are coming ashore.”
Faro grabbed Conall’s arm and dragged him forward, as if the boys should form the welcoming committee, but the town leaders had already gathered by the steps to the new harbour and the boys were pushed back.
Conall could see nothing for the press of bodies in front of him. “Let’s get up the hill, see what’s happening.”
Faro ignored him and barged past a group of women, “I want to hear what they’re saying,” he yelled over his shoulder.
Conall held Rufus tight to his chest and fought his way back through the crush of people, seeking clear air and room to move. The sailors wouldn’t talk, not here on the dockside with this crowd and the barrage of noise. The council leaders would take the captain to the town hall to get news and discuss trade. But what of the crew? Across the Sound two row-boats headed from the ship, carrying more than a dozen men between them.
As a boy Conall had devoured the novels in the library of Lerwick, a communal reading room by the docks. He’d read enough stories of treasure hunts and pirate ships to know what happened next. These were sailors, coming ashore for food and drink, for women and entertainment.
They’d make for an inn. The Old Broch was the closest, the one the fishermen used after days at sea. Conall had worked at the inn, cleaning tables and washing up when they were busy. The landlord might need him now, if these people arrived, unexpected, demanding food and drink in the middle of the day.
He looked for Faro but his brother was lost in the throng by the harbour steps. Conall ran towards the inn, Rufus at his heels. The landlord, a burly man by the name of Ben Harwood, stood in the doorway with his wife and daughter, watching the harbour. Conall rushed up to him.“You’ll be needing help, if you’re short-handed.”
“Maybe,” Ben said, his arms crossed, legs astride, standing in his doorway, king of his own world.
The man’s wife, Mary, whispered something to their daughter, who gave a complaining moan but disappeared inside. “I don’t want her serving. No telling who these people are. Might be slavers for all we know,” Mary said. “Put the boy on the tables, keep the girl out of sight.”
“They’ll take an able-bodied lad soon enough, if they’re slavers,” Ben said.
“But he’s not my son and I’d sooner risk him, if it’s all the same to you,” she said.
Ben looked at Conall and gave a shrug, one man to another, admitting he had little say, and the boy could take the risks if he saw fit. “I’ll pay you in food, guess that’s what you need most. Where’s your brother got to?”
“By the harbour.”
“Trying to run the place as usual? Make the tables ready. I’m for the kitchen. Let’s see what these sailors bring to trade.”
Conall told Rufus to stay outside and busied himself in the main bar, glancing out the windows whenever he could. Across the bay, the ship rocked at anchor. Crewmen cleaned the decks, climbed masts to inspect rigging, and sat in the shade out of the midday heat. The town leaders led their guests towards the hall, but sure enough a group of sailors broke away and headed for The Old Broch.
They wore trousers cut off and frayed below the knee, cotton shirts blustering in the breeze, and an assortment of hats of cotton and wool, black, blue, green and red, that made them look like a gang of pirates in the old books.
Conall shouted to Ben Harwood to tell him the sailors were coming. The landlord rushed from the kitchen and stood stout and determined in his doorway. He waved the sailors forward, standing aside to guide them safely in, but he blocked the entrance to his own townsfolk. “It’s not the pageant,” Ben shouted to the crowd. “No one’s coming in unless they’re eating, drinking and paying on the spot. No credit. No hanging around.”
Conall stood by the bar as the sailors stomped inside, led by a bear of a man with a gnarled and craggy face, carrying a walking stick, though he didn’t seem to need it. A straggle of beard, six inches long, dangled from his chin, braided with red and blue beads. His eyes were dark and deep-set, his forehead wrinkled and scarred. He lifted a broad brimmed hat in mock welcome to Conall, bowed low, and tapped his stick on a table by the window. “Bring us beer,” he said. “Unless you’ve got something stronger?” His canines glinted as he grinned, his eyes shining with mischief.
“Finest whisky in Shetland,” Ben Harwood said as he followed the group of sailors across the bar, ten of them, including the man with the cane, rough-looking and tired, as if they’d spent weeks at sea. “You’ll be wanting to eat I expect, beer’s best with a meal.”
“Bring it all, whisky and beer and the best food,” the man with the stick bellowed, as if competing with a North Sea gale.
“You’ll be having gold or silver, or looking to trade I’d say.” Ben almost whispered the words, as if apologising for having to raise so sensitive a matter.
“Don’t worry, we’ve plenty to pay with,” said the man with the cane. “Good as our word, men of the sea, we never cheat a man who brings good ale.”
Ben scurried to the kitchen while Mary poured beer, and the bar filled with townsfolk. Conall carried glasses and a bottle of whisky to the table. The man with the cane grasped the bottle and poured, handing a glass to each of the sailors, and the last to Conall.
“Drink with me boy,” the man said, “it’s only polite.”
“I shouldn’t, not while working.” Conall glanced over his shoulder towards the bar and the kitchen where Ben was cooking.
“Nonsense,” the man said. “I insist.” He slugged his whisky and roared with satisfaction, then fixed Conall with a stare.
He raised the glass to his lips, let droplets of whisky run over his tongue, musty and fierce, burning with buried flavours. The sailor grabbed the glass and upended it into Conall’s mouth. He spluttered as he swallowed, feeling the fiery tang at the back of his throat.
“That’s better, what do they call you boy?”
“Conall Hawkins, sir.”
“Gaelic eh? But you’re not from Shetland. Talk different to the rest of these I’d say.”
“Brought as children, by our parents. On the way north.”
“Ah, north, everyone goes north. And where are your parents now?”
Conall dodged the question. “More beer, sir?”
“Fill them up boy. I’m Jonah Argent and these are my crew.”
“Are you the captain?”
“That I’m not. Not on this voyage. First mate of The Arkady, at your service, though I’ve been captain, had my own ship, in the day.”
Conall gazed through the window to the bay where the ship swayed in the midday sunshine. “She’s beautiful.”
“She should be,” Argent said. “Seven years these folks spent refitting her, doing it with hand tools, making her ready and watertight and now she’s the best ship afloat. With the best crew too.”
The sailors roared their approval and took long swigs of beer. Ben arrived from the kitchen carrying a tray of plates. “Don’t stand here talking,” he hissed at Conall. “Sell drinks to this lot.” He gestured with his chin over his shoulder at the gawking townsfolk. “Get their money while we’ve got a show for ‘em to watch.”
Conall hurried behind the bar to help Mary serve, keeping an eye on the sailors. Where were they heading, and what cargo did they carry? Who rebuilt that ship and why? He had to find a way to get back to the table and hear more about their voyage.
Ben whistled to him from the kitchen and waved him inside. The smell of cooking meats and vegetables made Conall’s stomach churn with hunger.
“You stay away from that crowd, you hear,” Ben said. “Serve their drinks, laugh at their jokes and make them welcome, but don’t trust them, whatever you do.”
“They seem all right to me.”
“That man’s a scoundrel. Been running a pub for twenty years and I know a rascal when I see one. Stay away from him.”
“They’re not slavers.”
“Ask me they’d do most things for profit. You’ve been warned, can’t say fairer than that.”
Conall made his way back to the bar, filled a pitcher of beer and pushed his way through the crowd. He topped up their drinks and listened as the sailors told tales of life on the mainland.
Jonah Argent spoke of troubled times, food shortages and droughts, wars over water one day and then sudden floods the next. Desperate farmers whose top soil had blown away. Hot winds from the desert that had crept into the heartland of Europe.
Conall listened to snatches of talk as he wove through the crowd. The townsfolk groaned as they listened to Argent’s tale. The world to the south had been closed to the people of Shetland, none willing to make the sea journey to Scotland in their fishing boats. They lacked the wood, the tools, the know-how to build bigger ships.
Once the sailors had finished eating, the townsfolk began to drift away. Ben called Conall into the kitchens and gave him a meal. He wolfed it down, bread and potatoes and goat meat, carrots and cabbage in a hot stew. He finished one bowl and gladly accepted a second. By the time he finished, his stomach felt as full as it had in a long time. “Can I take something for Faro?”
Ben shrugged, but nodded. He wrapped half a loaf of bread in paper along with cheese and two apples, and handed it to Conall. “There’s more, if you come back later, help clean up this mess.”
“Back in an hour.”
“Make sure of it.”
He left by the back door, whistled for Rufus and headed towards the harbour. A crowd loitered outside the town hall where the captain from the ship was meeting with the council leaders. They waited for news, hoping this ship was the start of something, a trade route opening, the revival of the old world. Conall spotted his brother sitting in a doorway, scowling. He handed Faro the bread and cheese. “Learnt anything?”
“Enough,” Faro said. “Where’s this from?”
Conall told him of the inn, the sailors, and Ben’s offer of more food.
“No time,” Faro said. “The ship’s not staying long, I heard the captain. They sail before sunset.”
“We can still get work, Ben will need us.”
“We won’t be here.” Faro lurched to his feet. “They’re going north. To the arctic. To Svalbard. I heard one of the sailors.”
Svalbard. The word echoed like a bell back and forth between the two boys. The wild land to the north, free now of ice, the stories said. Their parents had been heading for the archipelago, for the island of Spitsbergen, to make a new home.
Conall remembered little of them. Blurred faces, strong arms, a comforting voice, moments of kindness. A feeling of safety. Then they were gone. They’d set out as a family for the far north, but the boys had been left behind, when Conall was only five. Without Faro, he could never have survived.
He looked across the Bressay Sound to the ship, then back to his brother. “We can’t leave. They might come back. They’ll look for us here.”
“Ten years,” Faro’s voice was angry, bitter. “They’re not coming back. Understand? I’m getting on that ship. Come if you want or stay here. It’s up to you.”
“The sailors’ll want payment, we’ve nothing to trade.”
“We’re not asking. We sneak on board, hide ’til they’ve sailed. Even if they find us, we’ll make it to Norway. It’s a start. Better than being stuck here.”
Conall grimaced. How would Jonah Argent and his crew at The Old Broch deal with a pair of stowaways? “They’ll throw us off.”
“I’m going to try,” Faro said. “I’m sick of waiting.”
It was no idle threat. Conall would be left alone on Shetland, and the townsfolk, even the kind ones, would never take one of the Hawkins boys to their hearts. He would always be an outsider, an incomer: flotsam washed up on the island. “How do we get aboard? They’ll see us.”
“They’re doing a trade,” Faro said. “Tools and maps and old tech from the south. For hay and straw.”
Conall looked at his brother, puzzled. Faro shrugged. “They need it for something.”
“How does that help us?”
“You’ll see,” Faro said with a smirk. “Good thing you’ve got me here, if you can’t figure it out.” Faro threw the last of the bread to his brother and gestured for him to follow.
Conall looked over his shoulder towards the Broch, thinking of Ben and his offer of another meal. He could work there, if he stayed on Shetland. But his brother had protected him all these years, his only family. His only friend. The only one he could trust. They looked after each other. They were brothers.
“Enough of this dump,” Faro yelled as Conall ran to catch up. “Get your things together, anything you want to take. We can’t carry much. Tthis is our chance. We’re going to Svalbard. Good riddance Shetland. We’re going north.”

Chapter Two

Conall clutched a battered leather shoulder bag against his chest, surveying the room where he’d lived these past ten years. Only one section of the half-ruined house still gave any shelter. They’d patched together enough of a roof to keep them dry but fierce winds off the North Sea whipped through the old building. An improvised shelf held rough wooden carvings he’d made as a child. Conall picked up a model boat, turned it over in his hand, examining the workmanship. Not so bad. But leave it, leave them all. Take only the essentials – and the binoculars, above all things.
They were his prized possession, discovered years before in the wreckage of a trawler, skewered on a windswept headland: a relic of the old world forgotten by the fishermen of Lerwick, home only to crabs and ghosts and barnacles, until the Hawkins boys came exploring, dreaming of hidden gold. Faro was the oldest, so he went first, clambering on board and rushing to the wheelhouse, but he found nothing. Conall explored the bones of the ships, and it was there, hanging from the transom, exposed like the rib of a great whale, he spotted the binoculars. He remembered holding them in his hands for the first time, the smoothness of the cold steel, the smell of the leather strap – and the envy on Faro’s face when he saw what Conall had found. No one could make lenses like that anymore, not on Shetland, not anywhere.
Conall had carried them proudly from the ship, taking the binoculars to a vantage point on the headland to gaze across the ocean. How old had he been: nine or ten? So many years spent waiting, hoping, dreaming – and gazing to sea.
He tucked the glasses into the bag and gathered up the dog’s blanket. He squashed it into the bag. “In you get.”
Rufus looked at him, ears raised. Conall picked him up, using a calm voice to put the terrier at ease, and tucked him on top of the blanket. The dog fitted but there was little room left. He’d leave his spare shirt and socks, but the wool jacket might come in useful, on a sea voyage to the arctic. He’d carry it loose, and it had two pockets he could stuff with things. He looked through a pile of books, scavenged from deserted houses or given him by townsfolk. He’d leave the novels, read repeatedly until they became old friends. He picked up a battered book that had belonged to his parents, a natural history of the arctic, from the days when it was frozen: ice, snow and bitter cold. Slipping the book into a pocket of his coat, he looked through what remained: histories and manuals and travel books, lives of famous men. The photographs in the botany textbook had faded with age, the illustrations of plants and trees barely legible. But the book was filled with wonders, plants treasured for their flowers, their colour and beauty. Exotic trees and shrubs that grew so fast they had to be hacked back in Autumn. On Shetland, even grass and wheat struggled in the parched summers. He tucked the book into a pocket and slung the jacket over his arm.
Leave the bedding, the shells collected from the beach, the plate and cooking tools. He pressed a pocket knife into the bag where Rufus had snuggled into the blanket. The dog opened one eye and gave a mournful stare. “You’d best keep quiet. And still.” He took a last look at the ruin that had been his only home and stepped outside to where his brother waited, staring to sea.
“You’re taking the dog?” Faro said. “Leave him, he’ll be safer on shore.”
Conall had found the terrier on the town dump two years back, abandoned as a pup, and the two of them had bonded on sight, never parted since. “I can’t. No one’ll feed him.”
“He’d better not give us away,” Faro said. “Come on, we’ll miss our chance.”


The brothers headed to the harbour where three cart loads of hay and straw stood ready to be loaded on boats and taken to The Arkady. Faro volunteered to help in return for a chance to see the boat up close and the town mayor waved them forward, happy to use free labour. He stood beside the captain of the ship, a bearded man in his fifties with a weather-beaten face tanned by long hours in the sun.
Conall stared at the man, getting his measure. He had a serious face, stood tall and straight and strong, but somehow he didn’t look born to the sea, not like Jonah Argent. He wasn’t the best sailor on board, that was clear. He was captain because he owned the boat, or built it, or led the expedition.
Conall and Faro grabbed pitch forks and began to load the hay into large sacks which they stacked on a twelve-foot row-boat. When no one was looking, Conall slung his bag into the back of the boat. He lowered it carefully to avoid hurting Rufus and whispered to the dog to keep quiet. The bag wriggled and writhed but Rufus held his bark. Once the boat was filled the two boys leapt in. Two fishermen took up the oars, and the boat pulled away from shore towards the waiting ship.
A line of faces along the ship’s deck watched them draw closer. He recognised Jonah and others from the inn. A woman in her late thirties, maybe older, leaned on the rail, dressed in a white blouse and grey trousers, her hair tied back. She had her arm around a girl, Conall’s age, he guessed, maybe younger. He glimpsed her face and long brown hair, almost black, then she was gone.
The fishermen pulled the row-boat alongside The Arkady and the crew lowered ropes to haul up the sacks. Conall helped Faro tie them securely while the fishermen kept the boat steady, firm against the keel.
Faro shouted up to the sailors. “Where do you need the hay? Below decks? We’ll move it, for a look around the boat.”
Jonah’s face appeared, staring down at Conall. “You do all the jobs in this town boy? Aye, come up if you want, save us the bother and we’ve got a ship to prepare. But take care and don’t steal anything. It’s ship’s law on here.”
They hoisted the hay aboard and Faro told the fishermen to row back without them. “We’ll get the last boat,” he said. They clambered up a rope ladder, Conall with the bag slung over his shoulder. Rufus wriggled, whimpering. Conall hushed the dog softly.
Argent told them to move the hay to the bottom deck, ordered one of the sailors to show them the way, then stomped off, shouting about stays and buntlines, lifts and leeches, yelling to the men scrambling in the rigging.
Conall looked up at the masts and the bewildering web of lines and cables, ropes and sails. The tallest mast must have been a hundred and fifty feet high. The last of the fuel on Shetland had run dry long ago and the small fishing boats had been converted to sail power. But no one had tried to build a larger sail ship, one that could cross the ocean. From the muddle of masts and ropes, he could see why. It was a task beyond them.
Faro pushed him in the back. “Get on with it.”
Conall picked up a sack and followed Faro towards the back of the ship where a sailor waited, waving his hands in the air in annoyance. “Throw them,” he said. The boys dropped the sacks which thumped onto the deck below. As they clambered down, a deep animal groaning filled the confined space. A cow. Then more noises. Pigs and sheep. Conall reached the bottom of the steps and stood on the lower deck in a narrow hallway, with rooms on either side. The noises came from the stern, along the corridor. The ship smelt like a floating farmyard.
“Down there.” The sailor pointed to a narrow gap. A ladder led into the gloom of the hold at the bottom of the ship. They threw the sacks down and climbed after them. “Sacks at the stern, away from the fuel barrels. You know your way now,” yelled the sailor.
The hold was cramped and dingy, barely high enough to stand. Around the steps, metal barrels had been secured to the sides of the ship by a chain. In the centre of the room stood a diesel engine, cold, quiet and lifeless. Beyond the engine, boxes of supplies had been stored next to a stack of hay. Faro clambered past the engine and told Conall to hand through the sacks. Conall put his bag on the deck, opening it up to check on Rufus.
“Give me that,” Faro said. He took the bag and stored it behind the hay.
Conall craned his neck to peer round and check on the dog. If they were ordered off the boat, Rufus would be alone down here. But there was no way to carry the bag up and down those stairs while lugging sacks of hay on his back. “Stay there boy. I’ll be back, I promise.”
Faro jabbed him in the chest, pointing back towards the steps.
“We need water.” He whispered the words, unsure how far his voice would travel in the boat. “And food. What will we eat?”
“Worry about that when we’ve sailed,” Faro said.
Two more row-boats arrived from shore laden with sacks. The boys spent an hour moving them down to the hold, as the row-boats returned again and again with more supplies. Finally the last of the hay arrived and there were only three sacks left on deck. The row-boat bobbed on the water, manned by a different crew, men unaware that Conall and Faro were on board.
The boys each grabbed a sack. Faro went first. Conall paused, looking around the ship. The sailors were busy, shouting orders, stowing supplies, getting the ship ready. No one noticed them. A boat headed out from shore and Conall recognised the captain sitting at the front.
Conall mouthed a silent farewell to the town of Lerwick and his hilltop lookout, then slipped down the steps, following Faro into the hold. “I say we wait here.”
“What about the last sack?”
“If we go back, they might notice. The row-boat was leaving, I’m sure of it.”
They stacked the hay sacks around themselves, building a den where they could hide. Conall let Rufus out of the bag but held him close, listening to the sounds of the ship, and the sailors making her ready. His heart pounded. They were heading into the unknown. He’d miss the island, the views across the headlands, the oceans, the dawns and sunsets. But Shetland had never felt like home. They’d never been accepted by the locals, who had enough troubles of their own without looking after orphans dumped on their doorstep.
Jonah’s shouts from on deck mingled with the banging of the captain’s row-boat against the hull. Conall held his breath at the sound of footsteps on the ladder down to the hold. A man muttered in the gloom, tinkering with the engine. It throbbed into life but even the thrum of the engine close by couldn’t drown out the clanging of the anchor chain being hauled in. Gently, almost imperceptibly, The Arkady began to move.
It wouldn’t take long to clear the Sound, the thin channel of water between the Shetland mainland and the Isle of Bressay. Then the crew would put out the sail, to save the precious fuel. Rufus clawed at the sacking impatiently. Conall gripped him, holding his sides, imploring the dog to stay silent. He sensed Faro next to him tensing in anger. But the man by the engine hadn’t heard. The engineer kept muttering to himself, while up above they heard the sailors rushing around on deck, pulling on ropes, barking commands, winding winches and tugging at the sails. A shout came from above and the man in the gloom slowed the engine until it stopped. His footsteps receded upwards. A light clicked off, and they were alone in the dark.


The rocking of the ship increased as they pulled away from the inland waters into the north Atlantic swell. Conall and Faro lay motionless in the darkness of the hold, surrounded by the jumble of sails, cables and ropes, tools and supplies. Above them animals shuffled and stamped, heavy hooves clonking on the wooden deck.
Conall’s mouth was dry and he longed for water. He hadn’t eaten since leaving the inn. Where would they find food? They’d have to sneak around the cramped ship somehow, even though every available space was used for storage or living quarters.
“How far to Svalbard? How long will it take?”
“Ten days, twenty, I don’t know” Faro said. “Depends how often they stop. They’ll head for Norway, work their way up the coast. They’ll need to stock up again I guess, hay and fresh water.”
Once darkness fell they slipped out from behind the sacks, barefoot to reduce the sound of their feet on the decking. They crept along the length of the ship in pitch blackness, arms in front of their faces, feeling for obstacles. Any sound on this ship might carry. Sailors could be sleeping above their heads, only inches away.
They squeezed past the engine towards the steps at the rear. On the middle deck they emerged into a dim light. Electric lamps cast enough glow to move more freely. “A battery, or a generator,” Faro whispered. “Wind power, maybe.”
Faro led the way past cabins on either side, a workshop and a washroom, until they came to an open area the full width of the ship. A shelf of books stood at one end, and a table with a chess board, packs of cards. Faro crossed the room slowly, put his ear against the door and listened, then eased it open.
As Conall stepped through the door the smell of animals and dung, food and straw intensified, a deep, earthy scent, pungent in the enclosed room. He felt the heat of the animals, their presence in the dark, sleeping but stirring, aware that someone was in their space. A calf shuffled off to his left. There was no light except the faint glow of the moon through portholes. He put his hand on Faro’s shoulder and followed him into the centre of the room. It took a few moments, but his eyes got used to the darkness. The calf was standing up, watching them. He moved closer, counted seven calves in all, half grown. No adult cows. He moved the pens, counting lambs, piglets, young goats.
“Easier to transport,” Faro whispered. “Young ones live longer, take up less room.”
At the far side of the room they found an enclosure that was home to chickens and a rooster, ducks, and seven geese. Conall climbed in and took four chicken eggs. As he clambered out, he heard Faro rustling through bags. “Carrots,” Faro said, “for the pigs. Better than nothing.”
Conall showed him the eggs. “We’ve no way to cook them.”
“Eat them raw.”
They each cracked an egg and swallowed it down. The gloopy white of it slithered down his throat and Conall almost coughed and retched.
“Not that bad,” Faro said. He cracked a second and gulped it down. Conall followed suit. It was food. “Is there water?”
“There’s a barrel here, fed by a pipe from up on deck. Rainwater,” Faro said. “It’ll be all right.” He opened the tap, put his mouth underneath and slurped the water as it splashed across his face. Conall scooped up handfuls of it and brought it to his lips. It tasted clean but musty. “Where’d they get all this stuff?” Conall ran his hand down the side of the barrel, examining the texture. He’d seen plastics before, remnants of the old world that survived on Shetland, but it was scarce. Irreplaceable.
“Mainland I guess, lots more of it there,” Faro said. Conall examined more bags in the corner of the room but found only feed pellets and rotting vegetables no human would touch. He opened boxes and crates, pressing his hands inside, and brought out potatoes, carrots and turnips neatly stowed. A smaller wooden box had been filled with neat rows of seeds. “They’ve got everything to set up a farm,” he said. “It doesn’t seem fair to take them, they’ve gone to all this trouble.”
“We need proper food,” Faro said. “Kitchen must be on the top deck. Most of the cabins too.”
“We’d never reach it,” Conall said, “not without being seen.”
Above their heads the wood creaked as someone walked along the deck. Conall froze, barely breathing. Had they been heard? What would the sailors do when they found they had stowaways on board? They’d never stay hidden for ten days or more, not on a ship so cramped and crowded.
“Back to the hold,” Faro whispered. “There’ll be a watch on the top deck.”
The boys tiptoed towards the door, nearly there when they heard footsteps heading straight for them. Conall retreated into the darkness of the room. He found himself standing hard against the cow pen, a calf nuzzling his hand with its wet nose.
They waited, silent. The door swung open. A hand fumbled for a switch. The light flickered and took, dim and yellowed but enough to leave them exposed, clearly visible.
A girl, the one Conall had seen on deck, stepped into the room. She saw them, froze, and opened her mouth about to scream.
Faro tensed beside him, as if about to rush the girl. Madness. There was no way to silence or threaten her. Conall put his hands together in front of his face in a gesture of supplication, a prayer for mercy, his expression imploring the girl not to yell out. “Please, don’t give us away.”
The girl laughed. Too loud. “You’re stowaways. Now this ship really does have everything.”
Faro put his finger over his lips, asking her to be quiet.
“I should tell my father. When did you get on board?”
“A few hours ago,” Faro whispered, “at Lerwick.”
“You were on the row-boat,” she said, “helping with the hay. No wonder you were so helpful. I’m surprised Jonah didn’t stop you. It’s not like him to fall for a trick like that.”
Conall stepped out from behind Faro. “I guess he knows all the tricks.”
“He invented them,” she said.
Conall looked the girl over. Her thin, angular face would be pretty enough in daylight, but in the dim, yellow glow it appeared etched and ghostly. He felt something kick hard in his guts and knew it had nothing to do with raw eggs.
“Help us,” Faro said. “We’re looking for our parents.”
She gave him a look, as if she didn’t believe a word.
Conall glanced at Faro. His voice sounded wrong, as if he didn’t believe it himself. “We’ve been stuck on Shetland ten years. They travelled north.”
“Left you behind?”
“We don’t know. One day they were gone.”
“The day a ship sailed for Svalbard,” Faro said.
“It was a mix up.”
“Or something.”
The girl looked at her feet. “My father’ll kill me. He’s bound to find you in the end.”
Conall stepped closer to the girl. “Don’t give us away. We won’t say anything, we’ll keep it secret. If we make it to Norway, they can put us ashore. If they find us out here…”
“Jonah’ll throw you to the fishes,” she said. “Or feed you to the pigs.”
For an instant, Conall thought she meant it. Then he saw a smile flicker across her face. “All right,” she said. “But you can’t hide in here. We check on the animals every hour.”
“We’re in the hold,” Faro said.
“Best place,” she said. “Stay there.”
“We need food and water, for my dog, too.”
“You brought a dog? What kind? What’s his name? Jonah’ll throw him overboard. All right, I’ll do what I can. Get back down there, I have to check the animals and report. Don’t come up here, they’ll see you for sure. And don’t steal our eggs.”
Faro touched the girl’s arm in thanks, and gestured for Conall to lead the way.
When they got back to the hold and had settled in behind the sacks, Rufus licked Conall’s hands, tasting the remains of raw egg.
“She was all right,” Faro said, his voice low but confident and self-assured. “I think I might enjoy this voyage.”



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