(Please enjoy this excerpt from Conjured–not yet published)
By evening, the ship was rocking heavily, and the wind’s tempo had elevated to a feral roar that penetrated the thick walls. Sage was curled in her berth as her stomach rose and fell. She was troubled by the collective dithery among the sailors. The men had been right. Mr. Nile’s whistling had come to fruition, and now the winds were stirring up the ocean. She wondered at the strength of the Saturna; tales of shipwrecks were far from rare.
Many of the passengers were vomiting in waste buckets while others tried to seek comfort in their beds. Poor Eleanor lay despondent beside her, moaning with the rhythmic creaking and rocking of the ship.
“You must distract yourself. Pretend you are sitting by a lake soaking in the sun,” Sage said. “When I am feeling poorly…”
She spotted Mr. Street descending into steerage with a peevish expression. He pulled off a dripping hat and stationed himself at the foot of the stairs. “All hot food has been cancelled! No fires allowed!”
The din of conversation exploded in the room.
“Do you plan on starving us?” asked a dirty-looking man with a neckerchief secured around his neck.
“Will coffee be brought down?” cried a woman. “The poster promised nightly coffee.”
“This is what worries you?” cried Mr. Street. “Food and drink? You may comfort your poor stomachs for cold potatoes and black bread will be distributed presently.”
“The crew are really worried,” Eleanor observed as she peered through her eyelashes. “Food, ugh. I’d sooner dance naked than suck on a morsel of bread.”
“If the crew’s worried, then I’m worried too,” Sage responded. “The wind makes it sound as if a kraken has taken hold of the ship.”
Her belly knotted when the steward’s gaze landed on her like a white-hot branding iron. He maneuvered through the crowd and looked up at her. “Our lord and king is waiting for you in his quarters.”
A baby was wailing a few berths away, its irritating peals amplifying her dread of seeing the captain again. “You said only moments ago that there is no hot food tonight.”
Mr. Street slumped against the ladder. “The captain is tired and still must eat.”
Sage pulled her pendant this way and that, contemplating on how she might politely decline.
“Just go,” Eleanor groaned beside her. “Make the captain happy. I’ll look forward to your sweet tales of love.”
“Eleanor,” Sage hissed. “He’s old enough to be my father. There will be no tales beyond the art of the cutlery or discussions of his sextant.”
“His age does not countervail courtship,” she replied as she peered out through a fluttering of lashes. “He’s the captain of his own ship. A disadvantaged girl should not be so picky.”
Disadvantaged. Sage glared at her bedmate, stung by the word. Disadvantaged. Homely. Poor. All words that were applied to milkmaids, nursemaids, or any woman required to get her hands dirty to survive.
“He’s accustomed to getting his own way,” Mr. Street added as if this might stoke compliance. “He’s up for command of a steamship and will bloody well get it.”
Sage reluctantly thought of her father, a self-righteous man who spewed scripture when it suited him. ‘Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you!’ This was her father’s responses for nearly all monetary requests including lighting the fires when the house became chilly. His frugalness taught her to be more resentful than thankful, but he was right on this one thing. Captain Breckinridge was taking her to her grandparents without a ticket, and she needed to be more grateful.
“He doesn’t have all day,” Mr. Street prompted.
“Of course not. Forgive me for being indecisive,” Sage said glumly as she turned and climbed from the berth. “I’ve no right to complain, when I alone get a reprieve from these cramped quarters.”
Sage followed the steward up to the main deck where she was struck by a ferocious wind that spewed fat raindrops horizontally across the sky. Walnut-sized water stains soaked into her dress. “Is this normal?” she cried as she secured Mr. Street’s arm.
“Hardly,” Mr. Street answered. “This is no regular summer storm.”
A few lookouts were still on deck, shouting to each other above the gale. Beyond the railing, the Atlantic was flexing her muscles with rolling gray swells.
“Don’t let go!” Mr. Street called over the din of the wind. “I don’t want to lose any more passengers overboard!”
“Mr. Street, that is not funny!” Sage cried, but she tightened her hold of his arm. They shuffled together against a driving wind towards the captain’s quarters that stood like a snug cabin, oblivious to the storm outside.
By the time she entered the captain’s quarters, she was breathless, and her dress was sticking to her skin. She pushed long strands of hair out of her eyes as the water continued to spray behind her.
“Thank you, Mr. Street,” the captain said as he jotted something down in his ledger. “You may leave.”
“Yes, sir. I believe Roy will be along shortly.” The door whistled and groaned as the steward fought to close it behind him. Finally, the door latched, and the storm was howling outside once again.
The captain turned from his ledger and looked up in surprise. “Miss Roche, your hair. It’s as striking as your eyes.”
“Captain, what of the storm? Everyone is sick down below, and the babies are crying for want of milk.”
The captain waved her to her seat. “I don’t want you to worry. Seasickness is part of every voyage. It will pass just as the storm.”
“Then the storm is not severe?” Sage wiped the water from her arms as she sat, but her attention kept returning to the gray sky on the other side of the glass. The wind seemed to possess hundreds of invisible fists that pounded on the panels, threatening to shatter them.
The captain glanced towards the window as if the storm was of no consequence. “The winds are not cooperating, but we are gybing the stern towards the eye of the storm.”
“What does that mean?” Sage asked.
The captain gave a dim smile. “It means you should not worry. This is my time, Miss Roche, I’d much rather talk about you.” He rose with a glance and disappeared into his sleeping quarters before returning with a feathered woman’s hat and fancy leather shoes. “I’d have you wear these tonight.”
“Captain!” Sage cried. “You are teasing me so. It is storming outside, and I’d be less rattled in a nest of snakes.”
“It’s my one indulgence,” the captain said with a gaze so velvety, it was disturbing. “These items belonged to my beloved Pearl. I’d see them come alive on you.” He set them on the table, rearranged them, then took his own seat.
As the floor swayed beneath her, Sage stared at the shoe’s expensive white leather before picking one of them up and taking inventory of its heel and size.
“They will look enchanting on your feet,” the captain urged with a nod.
Sage looked up at the captain as her throat grew thick. The shoes were too perfect and the lavender ribbons too shiny. The shoes had never been worn.
Unceremoniously, she kicked off her own scuffed boots and slipped the dainty heels over stocking feet. She’d get dinner over with quickly.
“Tie the bow with large loops,” the captain directed as he pressed a finger to his lips.
Sage finished the second bow then turned her foot from side to side wanting to laugh at the absurdity of it all. “They are wholly impractical, but they make my boots look like mourning wear.”
“These are not shoes for tramping around a plantation,” the captain said. There was a knock at the door, and he looked up with a stern brow. “Roy, come in.”
The same boy as the previous night entered with two bowls of food that he nestled in the crook of his arm. Newt apologizes that there’s no meat tonight.”
“It’s of no consequence to me,” the captain said as he waved the boy away.
Sage’s gaze moved hungrily over the biscuits and cold potatoes. She hadn’t eaten since morning when she devoured a slice of black bread and two boiled eggs.
The captain leaned against his seat with a relaxed smile. “Put the hat on.”
Drained of all argument, Sage stuffed the ornamental piece on her head and cocked it. A large ostrich feather flopped to the side and dangled by her cheek. “The salt, please.” She motioned to the salt cellar beside the captain’s elbow.
Captain Breckinridge studied Sage a moment before picking up the small ceramic vessel and extending it to her.
“Not like that,” Sage said, realizing her poor choice of words. “Slide it to me. One never passes salt without terrible consequences.”
The captain gave a waggish smile. “This is exactly the sort of distraction I needed, Miss Roche. I shall enjoy our time together.” He pushed the cellar across the table with a single finger. “Now you shall tell me the terrible consequences of passing salt.”
Sage sprinkled salt on her potatoes then cut them into small bites. “You truly don’t know?”
“I wish to be enlightened.”
Sage took a bite of potato then paused to chew. “It’s something my mother taught me. One never passes salt. It’s symbolic of cutting ties with someone—it can lead to death.”
“And you believe this old wives’ tale?”
“It’s not just a ‘tale’,” Sage said without looking up. “I’ve heard stories.”
“Stories, I see. How did your mother, a presumably educated plantation mistress, come to believe in such superstitious folklore?”
Mama. Sage forced a swallow as she tenderly recollected the past. “Her nurse maid, Lovely, was from Haiti. She taught her the traditions of her country. I suppose I picked up some of it. Most of the slaves on the plantation mix Christianity with their own African traditions. It’s not unusual.”
The captain chortled as he wiped his mouth. “What’s unusual is you, Miss Roche. I wonder if you’ve ever jumped bulls and stomped about with a painted face. I’ve been to Africa and seen things that would make your blood curdle. There can only be irreverence when heathenism is mixed with Christianity.”
Sage looked back angrily as the captain shoveled in another bite and smiled around his masticated food. He thought himself superior to her. “Do you not have any beliefs based on superstition?”
“Certainly not. I’m a sea captain. I make all my decisions based on science and numbers.”
“May I ask what has happened to Mr. Niles? He was brought to you earlier for the crime of whistling.”
Captain Breckinridge waved his fork towards the door. “Mr. Niles is up in the crow’s nest where he belongs.”
Sage’s gaze shot to the racing black clouds on the other side of the window. The winds continued to roar and rattle the beaded glass. “Right at this very moment?”
“Till the men cool down. He’ll work a double watch up there.”
“Then you believe his whistling brought on the winds?”
“Miss Roche, I’m an educated man. I don’t believe in such superstitions either on land or at sea, but I do respect my men’s beliefs. It helps to maintain morale.”
“But you don’t respect my beliefs?”
The captain’s gaze moved over Sage’s face like an unwelcome caress. “Indeed, you are right. I shall try to be more tolerant of what you have to say.”
Sage looked down at her lap, not feeling like any victory had been won. She didn’t want the tolerance and understanding for which she’d inadvertently fought.
The captain continued to ask her unwelcome questions about her family, life on a plantation, and even her opinions on the treatment of yellow fever. The captain listened to her with eyes locked, appearing to be enraptured by her trinkets of thought, and agreeing to everything she said in comical wholeheartedness. But it was plain to Sage that her opinions had transitioned from silly girl to planter’s elite in a matter of moments. She couldn’t trust him.
Throughout the evening, she kept her answers brief and politely returned the occasional question. But from the moment the captain belittled her fears on passing the salt, she wanted to return to the dank quarters in the bowels of the ship.
“Thank the cook for preparing the meal,” Sage said when the last bite was digesting. “Sometimes simple meals are the best ones.” She stooped over to untie the fancy bows holding her feet hostage.
“You’ll pull that ribbon slowly, Miss Roche,” The captain ordered as he moistened his lips. “Your tiny feet remind me of Pearl’s feet. They were as white and dainty as a doll’s.”
“They are only feet,” Sage said as she slipped the dainty shoes off. “And these shoes are exceptionally tight.” Blood rushed into her feet as she wiggled and flexed her stockinged toes.
The captain was craning over the side of the table. “I’ll put your boots on if you want. I’m not above dressing a woman’s foot.”
Sage grabbed her boots and stuffed her feet inside. “I’m perfectly capable, sir. You’re too familiar with me and will not make such an offer again.” She haphazardly secured her laces but felt the weight of the captain’s stare on her every movement.
The captain looked affronted. “I’m not allowed to compliment you, and now I may not even help you? Any other guttersnipe lost to the streets of New Orleans would be grateful to have the attentions of a sea captain.”
A stiff rain began to pelt against the glass. “Am I excused, sir?”
There was a long silence before the captain extended a hand. “My wife’s hat, madam. I trust no one shall die if you pass it to me directly?”
Sage looked warily at the captain’s blunt fingertips before removing the hat and placing it on the table between them. “One can never be certain.”
“One last thing, Miss Roche.”
Sage stood, anxious to leave, but her attention dropped to a small trickle of water that had rolled in from underneath the door. “Captain?”
“I’d gladly move you to first class if only you’d sit in my lap.”
Her attention reverted to the captain, stunned by his salacious offer. “Good evening, sir.”
Sage woke to screams and a frightening jolt as she tumbled like a rolling pin towards the edge of the berth. The night had taken an eternity. Each time the ship careened in an unpredictable direction; men would curse, and women would shriek and call on God. From the darkness, the acidic stench of vomit rose.
“Eleanor!” Sage cried, when she couldn’t find the older woman. An eerie gray light trickled from above illuminating an empty blanket beside her. Dawn had arrived.
“Oh, ohhh!” came Eleanor’s voice from below.
Sage looked over the side of the berth and found her friend on her hands and knees in inches of standing water. “Oh, Eleanor!” She splashed into the water and tugged on her arm. Dozens of other passengers were also staggering to their feet.
“Are we sinking?” Eleanor cried as she stood on wobbly legs. “The ceiling is raining!”
Sage looked up at the giant globes of water running along the planked ceiling. Her heart drummed wildly. “It’s just a storm, a terrible storm.”
The ship suddenly rolled in the opposite direction, and Sage’s stomach dropped as she grappled for the berth’s ladder.
“Misery me!” Eleanor exclaimed beside her. “I think the ship is sinking.”
Dozens of people were pushing their way towards the deck steps with coats and satchels while others clung to the tops of the tables like gray cygnets on their mother’s back.
“The captain would tell us if we were evacuating the ship,” Sage replied as she pushed the older woman back into the berth. At once the ship gave a long shuddering groan that resonated throughout her limbs.
“I don’t care beans for this storm,” Eleanor gasped, as the ship rocked violently in a new direction.
At once an unlit lantern shattered to the floor. Moments later, the ship careened again, and a black wave of water rolled along the floorboards. “We are being tossed about like a cork, but at least we are floating.”
Mr. Street broke through the crowd with large black eyes. His hair was spiky and wet, and water streamed from his coat. The bell was clanking rhythmically above. “Ladies and gentlemen! Attention, please! May I assure you that the ship is not sinking! Unless you wished to be washed away at sea, the safest place for you is right here in steerage! Do not attempt to climb above! It’s not safe!”
The ship groaned again and listed hard to portside. People’s luggage crashed into the water, and an elderly woman fell to her shoulder with a bird-like shriek.
“What’s happening up there?” a young woman cried as she tightened a damp shawl. “The bell’s ringing!”
“I fear we have found ourselves in the jaws of a hurricane!” Mr. Street announced as he wiped water from his eyes. “We’re doing everything we can!”
Sage’s heart seized as she looked back at Eleanor.
“We’re all going to die!” the woman wailed. “Ships don’t survive hurricanes at sea.”
“Do you think that’s true?” Eleanor asked softly. “Do you think we’ll ever see London?”
“We’ll be eating bangers and mash in no time,” Sage said with a weak smile. “Captain Breckinridge seems very confident.”
A myriad of frightened voices clashed behind blankets and partitions while a young mother paced in front of her berth, soothing her crying baby.
“The captain has changed course,” Mr. Street announced. “We are steering east towards the ‘low side’ of the storm. We hope to ride out the waves there.”
“Where is there?”
Mr. Street seemed to search for the speaker before giving up. “I don’t know.”
“How long will it take to get there?” someone else cried.
“There’s no way of telling how big the storm is,” Mr. Street answered. He looked around with a blanched expression. “A day, maybe more.”
“How long will the storm last?”
“Tarnation, man, there’s no way of knowing that either!”
“Shouldn’t we be heading to the closest port?” a white-haired man asked. “To wait out the storm?”
At once the ship listed forcefully, and the cargo bellowed below. Mr. Street steadied himself against the thick mast. “Getting too close to land means lots of rocks. The ship would be dashed to bits with us inside. We’re safest over water.” He shook his head as if he didn’t believe this last point before turning and disappearing up the stairs.
Sage climbed back into her berth then closed her eyes to say a silent prayer. She’d read the headlines—ships sank all the time. Even with Saturna’s great length and weight, the great vessel was a tiny matchbox compared to the power of the sea.
With tears beading in her eyes, she thought of her mother and wondered if she would follow her so soon to the grave. It was unfair. God knew she hadn’t even lived yet. She was a graceful dancer but had never been invited to a ball. She’d been schooled in Latin, science, and history but had no companion with whom to converse. There’d been no opportunity to get married, make love, or even have a baby.
The Saturna continued to rain seawater and bellow like a wounded ox as the great ship was tossed violently back and forth. Sometime in the afternoon, there was a thunderous cracking from an upper deck, followed by a second boom and a terrible shuddering that resounded throughout the entire vessel.
“What was that!” someone cried.
The din of screaming arose in the upper decks along with the constant clanking of the bell.
“I fear to guess,” Eleanor said.
“You and I both know what it was,” Sage said as she stared at the ceiling paralyzed.
“Misery me, it was the mast.”
“It had to be.”
A man from first-class stumbled down the stairs and then pulled himself up again. “The mainmast is broken! We’ve lost half our sails!”
Sage sat up, terrified but uncertain what she should do.
“What does that mean?” cried a woman with a toddler on her hip.
“Are we still sailing east?” someone else cried.
“Half our sails,” Eleanor muttered. “Good heavens. We’re spinning in place like a top.”
“Heaven help us,” Sage whispered. Hurricanes didn’t float in and out like temperamental summer storms. They lingered. And lingered. How much longer could the Saturna stay afloat?
The minutes passed before there was a thunderous splintering and shimmying that reverberated through Sage’s body. With a gasp, she met the hooded gaze of a whiskery old man clinging to a wooden beam.
A stunned silence was followed by a cacophony of screams as the ship violently shuddered before listing hard towards starboard.
“What was that?” Sage cried as she wedged herself between the wall and the bunk’s ladder. “Oh blamed! Something else has happened!” Water then sloshed from the ceiling, drenching some of the passengers.
“The ship’s breaking!” someone screamed. “I can hear it!”
Sage’s chest throbbed as her gaze shot to the plank walls. The ship was not righting herself as she should.
The roar of passengers drowned out the wind, and something crashed overhead.
“She’s sinking, isn’t she?” Eleanor cried. “I’m going up!” She hefted herself onto the ladder as the ship buoyed. “Oh-oh-oh!”
“Eleanor!” Sage dropped down into ankle deep water. “We should stay together!”
An officer ducked his head down from the middle of the stairs. “Cargo is completely underwater! The ship is going down! Pray to God!” His head suddenly struck the ceiling as the ship bobbled forward. There was a flash of blood on his forehead before he crumpled into the water below.
“The lifeboats,” Sage gasped at the same time a crowd of passengers rushed past her like a panicked herd of cattle. Inhaling deeply, she pressed her back to the ladder but then screamed when Eleanor was knocked down face first into the water. Her frail body immediately disappeared beneath the frightened throng.
“Get off her! Get off her!” Sage yelled. The seconds passed before a small perimeter opened around her friend. She crouched down beside Eleanor and lifted her face from the water. “Oh blamed! Wake up!” She turned her body over and shook her vigorously, but Eleanor’s eyes had become dim and glassy. “Someone help! Help!”
Sage looked up, but an enormous herd of passengers were tumbling towards the stairs, eclipsing nearly all the light with their wool coats and skirts.
As she turned back, she was face to face with the old man she’d seen earlier. “She’s already gone,” he said gently. “Was she your mother?”
“No, sir,” Sage said grief-stricken. “I can hardly believe she’s gone. She was fine only moments ago.”
The ship gave a terrible shudder like a blazing barn on the verge of collapsing. Sage lunged and caught hold of the ladder as the floor suddenly rose and fell.
“Perhaps she died of fright,” the old man said as he placed one of Eleanor’s hands on top of the other. The motion seemed natural to him as if he were used to arranging the limbs of the dead.
Sage studied the old man’s face. Gullies seemed to be carved around his mouth from a lifetime of smiling. He was being kind. They both knew the other passengers had caused Eleanor to drown. “I think I may very well die of fright.”
“I’m scared too.” He gave a resigned smile. “I fought hundreds of Indians in the Battle of Tippecanoe, survived yellow fever, and Walter McIntosh’s bullet to the jaw.” The old man traced a crooked finger along his jaw. “I never imagined I would go this way.”
Sage searched for the invisible scar. “I’m so sorry.”
“You’re sorry?” The old man chuckled. “I’ll hold you responsible, eh?” He patted Sage’s knee.
Sage lifted her face towards a distant voice breaking through the chaos and the darkness.
“Are you Miss Roche?” the old man asked.
“Yes,” Sage said, startled to hear her name aloud. I don’t know anyone, she wanted to say, but she was acquainted with the captain. He alone knew her real name.
Sage stood as the voice grew then craned towards a square opening of light above. “Captain?”
The grave furrowed face of Captain Breckinridge appeared in the forward hatch. He seemed disoriented as he searched the darkness. “Miss Roche!” he boomed. “If you wish to live five minutes more you will come up deck now!”
“I’m trapped!” Sage cried as water sprayed from above. Hundreds of passengers were still clogging the narrow passageway. It seemed everyone’s destination was the main deck—even hers. A chance in the ocean was no chance at all, but outside, there was at least light and air.
“Dash it all!” the captain roared before disappearing.
Sage stared at the forward hatch a few moments before her hopes dwindled. God help her, she was to choke on the darkness before drowning in the sea. Defeated, she pushed towards the rear of the crowd.
It occurred to her, that like her mother, she’d die during the month of August, during a waning moon, by the actions of her father. Curse him! He’d been the one to drive her onto the Saturna.
The groaning sound of fracturing wood resonated through the ship as the passengers were jostled together like bag of tin soldiers. Sage bit her lip and fell onto another woman wrapped in a scarf. “Uff-da!” the woman cried.
“I’m sorry!” Sage said as she staggered to her feet. She reached for a beam to steady herself then staggered as the floor bobbed.
Ahead passengers screamed as a fight broke out. Dark forms tangled, and someone tumbled from the steps into an angry hive of people.
Sage turned and was shocked to see the captain’s face once again in the open hatch. A fat rope had been lowered from the sky and was gently swaying with the motions of the ship.
Sage stared at the rope, both enticed and frightened by the serpentine movements.
“Grab it, now!”
Sage ran and lunged onto the rope as the ship groaned and turned further on her side. “Hurry!” she screamed upwards. At once she began to rise.
A pair of men took notice of Sage’s exit and rushed towards the rope.
“No! You’ll make me fall!” Sage cried. “You can be next!”
“Get back!” the captain roared, “or I’ll blow your barmy brains in!”
“Don’t leave me down here!”
“Pull me up! Pull me up!” one of the men cried.
Ignoring the captain’s warning, they both jumped for the retreating cord, but the rope slipped from their fingers and wiggled out of reach.
As her head appeared over the floor of second class, Sage threw her arms onto the muddy floors and pulled herself up. She found herself surrounded by rows of tiny cabins and the wreckage of people’s personal belongings: clothing, false teeth, grooming items, and toys. The first and second-class passengers were vigorously fighting for ownership of the steep steps at the distant end of the floor. Sage’s chest constricted with fear, and she looked back at the captain. “How did you get down here?”
Both the captain’s hair and clothing were saturated with water. His coat had been discarded, and his shirt and vest were open to his navel exposing an alabaster chest and an abundance of silvery hair.
“Follow me,” Captain Breckinridge ordered steadily. He began to navigate the sloped corridors by grabbing beams and cabin walls undeterred by the relentless rocking.
Sage’s gaze moved to the captain’s broad back and the large revolver holstered on his waist. A revolver! Her heart pumped wildly as she gladly followed the only man who could offer her a sliver of hope.
At the end of a long corridor, they reached a wooden cabinet with double doors. The captain thrust them open to reveal a ladder suspended in a shaft that ran through all four levels of the ship. “Get in,” Captain Breckinridge ordered. “The ladder’s for the ease of the boatswain.”
Sage wiped her hands on her skirt before thrusting herself into the cabinet. “It’s little more than a coffin!” she breathed.
“Climb!” the captain roared. “We’ve not a moment to lose!”
Sage glanced into the black shaft below and thought she saw the shimmering glaze of water before hurriedly climbing towards the small patch of light above.
When Sage emerged onto the main deck, she found no sign of salvation. It was vigorously raining, and crowds of panicked people roared above the winds and dangled over every ship rail and precipice like melted frosting. The fractured main mast had found a resting place across the hull and was now bobbing in the turbulent swells.
A few men had been washed into the angry sea and were flailing alongside an enormous white sail that dragged like the sodden train of a corpse’s gown.
The remaining passengers pulsated angrily towards a small lifeboat that was being lowered by a pair of waterlogged sailors.
“Step closer and I’ll give ya an anointing ya’ll never forget!” a third crewman cried. “There’s not room for another soul!”
The din of voices and wind overlapped:
“No, you’ll sink us!”
The boat was packed with terrified women and children. Below them, the jaws of the ocean leapt and snapped.
“The lifeboat—it’s full!” Sage cried. “Where are the others?” Her gaze shot to the empty davits.
“There’s still a dinghy in tow,” Captain Breckinridge said as he brushed past a torn flapping sail. The few remaining sails blustered wildly above. “Stewart’s holding it for me.”
Sage searched the waves for the working vessel before stumbling over a wooden deadeye as the ship rose and fell with a crashing wave. She gasped and pushed damp hair from her face as she followed the lumbering gait of the captain. They moved around a pair of red-faced men pumping the giant wheels of a bilge pump. The ship was sinking, likely from some internal damage to the hull, but still these men worked heroically to return a trickle of water back to the sea. It was a hopeless gesture—a slap to a kraken’s great tentacle.
Guilt churned and rose inside of Sage as she followed the captain through crowds of distraught passengers clutching to life by clinging to a dying ship. Only a day earlier, she despised the captain for being his favorite, now she was grateful for his attentions and hated herself for it.
“What am I to do with my child?” cried a mother as she stumbled after the captain. She was wearing a trimmed bonnet and white gloves. A wailing toddler was pressed against her chest. “Where’s our boat?”
Sage looked up to Captain Breckinridge, but he only flexed his jaw and pushed past a pair of crewmen pulling a mate out of the water.
“Captain!” the woman cried following after them. “Where’s our boat?”
At once there was a great squelching sound, and the ship seemed to rumble. Captain Breckinridge turned to catch Sage at the same time she snatched a broken rigging dangling from above. But instead of supporting her, something broke free and fell from the sky, hitting her bluntly on the head.
Sage grunted and buckled into the decking as passengers screamed around her. The floor beneath her rotated, and she peered dizzily at the tackle block near her knees. She touched the throbbing lump on the back of her scalp and pulled back slippery, red fingertips.
The captain dropped beside her. “Can you move?”
“I can do the jig if it’s required of me.”
The captain helped Sage to her feet as the ship continued to list. Sage winced against the pelting rain then felt the large hand of the captain snake around her waist. It was no time to be outraged. She leaned into his sturdy frame as they navigated towards the stern where a man with a red beard stood watch. Stewart.
“You’ve come at last,” Stewart hollered with a grimace. He tipped his hat, and a stream of water spilled out. “I had the mind you weren’t coming back.”
“You’ll lower the girl down first. She’s been injured.”
Sage pushed aside her hair to study the crashing waves below. The workboat seemed as small as a salmon fighting its way through white-water rapids. A giant wave curled over the boat, and for a moment it disappeared in a froth of white before bobbing back up again.
“I don’t swim a jot,” Sage cried, her throat tightening in dread. “I’ll drown!”
“Probably,” Captain Breckinridge roared over the wind, “but it’s less of a certainty than staying on the Saturna. She’s going headlong into a watery grave.”
It wasn’t true; the once grand ship was rolling over like a submissive dog, but she was going down. “Hurry!” Sage cried as she lifted her arms allowing Stewart to tie a rope around her waist. Her head swam with pain as she sucked in the cold, wet air, her gaze fixed on the turbulent water below.
The captain pulled the working boat in and with shaking limbs, Sage crawled over the edge of the ship and snagged hold of the dinghy’s tethered line. She lowered herself only a foot before a mob of passengers appeared above.
“Another lifeboat!” was the collective cry.
A half a dozen men threw their legs over the edge of the ship, fighting with each other to grab hold of the line first. The turbulence rocked Sage violently, and she dropped into the choppy waters below with only a hiccup of air before being shrouded by the cold swarming waters of the Atlantic.
Terror buzzed through her as she blindly kicked and clawed at the water. Her head briefly broke the steely surface, and she glimpsed a rush of people coming over the edge of the ship before a large wave curled over and submerged her once more. She thrashed to and fro in a watery fog with no sense of direction. Suddenly, she heard the muffled but unmistakable sound of gunfire just before she was struck in the head. Lighting flashed in her eyes and then everything went dark.
Sage woke to the pounding of wind in her ears and the pelting of rain on her skin. She shivered violently and peered over the edge of the dinghy, startled to see giant swells of gray water rising and dropping around her, each one threating to crush the tiny boat. Captain Breckinridge and Stewart vigorously bailed water from the small dinghy. They were both drenched, hatless, and as red as a cock’s comb.
No one else was aboard.
Through wet lashes, Sage scanned the swells for the Saturna, but it was no longer in sight. God forgive her. She was still alive when hundreds were already dead or headed straight to Davy Jones’ Locker.
She watched her two companions warily. One scoundrel or the other had pulled her from the throat of the ocean. Slowly she remembered hearing gunfire and wondered if Captain Breckinridge might have killed someone to save his own skin—and hers. The thought sickened her. She didn’t understand why the captain singled her out, but his motives felt as black as a demon’s tail.
Sage touched her temple with a wince, but the effort made her periphery darken and her head sway dizzily. She was not well, but it seemed of no consequence compared to her imminent danger. “I can’t swim,” she rasped, hooking an arm through a bundle of rope.
The captain turned to look at her, and his cheeks filled. “You demonstrated that quite well!”
“Sink like an anchor, you do,” Steward called. “Hold on tight and stay in the boat; you’ll not be rescued again!” He gave the captain an unhappy look.
Sage’s vision darkened as a giant wave lifted the small boat, but the inevitable fall didn’t come. The ocean seemed very far away. Softer—almost tame. Sage loosened her grasp of the rope.
It seemed her mother was near—perhaps beside her in the boat.
“You, my robin, may believe in superstition!” the captain bellowed through a muffled fog, “but I believe in providence! I’d meant to untie the damn dinghy before leaving Orleans!”
The pet name throbbed inside Sage’s head before everything went dark.