Council Of Fire – Snippet 09
This is the end of the world
Aboard HMS Namur
The coast was more visible in the morning, with the seas calm and the wind scarcely blowing–the best sort of weather for a survey. It became gradually clearer that this land was not the Cape Verde Islands, but was some land hitherto unknown. What at first was taken for snowcaps turned out to be the pale color of the land itself. It was stark, almost like the Dover chalk-cliffs, bare of vegetation.
Boscawen summoned the slave Gustavus to his quarterdeck. Once again, he was impressed with the young black man’s poise and lack of fear. Unlike Perry, the boatswain, he seemed to have no inhibition to tread upon the private area of the ship’s commander.
“Gustavus,” Boscawen said. “Do you recognize this coast?”
Gustavus looked out at the pale mountains; Boscawen took his spyglass and handed it to Gustavus, who took it and placed it to his eye. After a moment he lowered it, his face showing alarm.
“What is it? Do you know this place?”
“It . . . O’Brien spoke of this, My Lord.”
“O’Brien? The Irish lad with the dreams?”
“The seer, My Lord. Yes. He called this the Place of Bone.”
“That’s rather ominous.” Boscawen reclaimed his spyglass and surveyed the land–which did seem to have the pallor of a bleached skeleton. “He dreamed of this, I suppose.”
“It was in his visions, sir.”
“You seem to be making very careful distinctions, Gustavus. You are well-spoken. Take care that your tongue does not become too clever.”
“I apologize if I have given offense, my Lord.”
“No.” Boscawen snapped the spyglass shut and secured it at his belt. “Tell me what the unfortunate lad said of this ‘Place of Bone.'”
“He said . . . that it would rise out of the sea at the time of the fiery star, and that it would form a boundary between this world and the next.”
“That is what he said, my Lord.”
“That is very interesting. I think that we should have a closer look at this ‘Place of Bone,’ don’t you think?”
Gustavus’ face registered surprise, and even fear. “Oh, no, my Lord, no! We should not go to that place, no, never!”
“Even if I order it?”
“I . . . would take many lashes for defying you, my Lord, but no, at the peril of my soul, no!”
“What makes you so fearful?”
“I . . . do not know.”
“You know very well indeed.” Boscawen grabbed Gustavus’ shoulder and turned the young man to face him. “What is it, boy? What do you fear? Ghosties and ghouls?”
Again, the slave surprised the admiral by looking directly at him, seemingly without fear.
“Will you punish me if I say yes, my Lord?”
Boscawen took out his spyglass and scanned the horizon, looking from north to south. As far as he could make out, the bone-pale mountains lay ahead–where no mountains should rightfully be.
If he was going to return Namur to home waters, he would have to find a way around them. If there was, inexplicably, no way, then he would never see England, or Frances, or his children again.
“No, Gustavus,” he said at last. “I will not punish you for being afraid. For I am afraid as well.” He lowered the spyglass to his side and looked at the young black man. “But if you will come with me, I shall be less afraid.”
The sailing-master cast the log and determined that they were in shallow enough water to counsel against coming closer to the shore; accordingly, Boscawen caused his barge–somewhat battered by the storm, but still intact–to be lowered. He chose Lieutenant Pascal and six able seamen, as well as Gustavus, to accompany him, leaving Marshal in command of Namur. All, other than Gustavus, were armed with cutlass and pistol.
They rowed slowly into the shallows. From a distance, Boscawen made out a figure on the beach, sitting atop a large bone-pale rock; it was a young man, sitting with his knees drawn up in front of him.
Through the spyglass, the admiral recognized the figure as the Irish lad, O’Brien, who had gone over in the storm.
Another impossibility, he thought. As the barge came aground, Gustavus–and some of the landing party–recognized O’Brien as well. He looked drawn and tired, but his eyes seemed to give off an unearthly glow.
None of the others seemed the least interested in setting foot on the shore. Boscawen waited for a moment, then stepped into the shallow water, taking a few steps on to the shore. At his gesture, Gustavus joined him, remaining slightly behind and to his left.
O’Brien straightened out his legs and dropped on to the sand. He was wearing what remained of his cabin-boy’s uniform, lacking a cap or shoes; the jersey and trews looked as if they had been dragged through the ocean. He did not seem to notice.
“Stop,” he said, holding out his right hand, just as Boscawen stepped onto the land. The word seemed to echo up and down the beach.
“I beg your pardon?” Boscawen said. “We–”
“This is not your place, Admiral,” O’Brien said. “This is our place now. You have no business here.”
“You were kind to me,” the young man answered, his voice returning to something like its normal timbre. “I remember that. In courtesy to you, I will offer what explanation you can understand.
“The world has changed, Admiral Edward Boscawen. The comet has changed it in a great way, just as it once changed it in a small way. Things are beginning to awaken. This is the end of the world. It belongs to us now, and you will be best served by going the way you came–and not returning.”
“What is this place? What are these mountains?”
“This is the Place of Bone, Admiral. This is the end of the world. There is no land beyond.” He gestured behind him, at the pale-colored ridge, and when he turned back to face Boscawen, his eyes were glowing crimson. All around them, in crevasses and shadows formed by the piled-up rocks by the shore, Boscawen, Gustavus and the landing party could see other pairs of crimson eyes looking out at them–first a few, then a dozen, then hundreds.
“I tell you this in return for your kindness,” O’Brien said. “But if you do not go now, there will be no way to stop those who wish you ill.”
“What of you? We feared you were dead.”
“I am not dead,” O’Brien said, and the fearful tone had returned to his voice. “I am born anew. Now go, Admiral. And do not return.”
Boscawen thought of what he might say; he exchanged a glance with Gustavus, who might have been terrified, but remained close by. Then, with the dignity born of gentle birth, and courage beyond what he knew he possessed, Admiral Edward Boscawen turned and walked away into the shallow water, leaving O’Brien and the Place of Bone behind.