“In the begynnynge …”
White stars shone fiercely over the deep black waters of the North Sea as the Greyhound slid into Blakeney port. Newly arrived from Europe and riding low in the water, she groaned and listed as the helmsman brought her in alongside the quay. Ropes were cast, oars shipped, lanterns lit, and the gangway lowered to the shore. After two long days their voyage was over.
Captain Thomas Shannen crossed himself and sent up a prayer of thanks to Saint Brendan. It had been a rough crossing from Vissingen, and he was glad to have it behind him. The sooner he could get his cargo unloaded the better. There was one consignment in particular he was especially keen to be rid of.
But as he peered over the gunwales, searching the quayside for a familiar face amongst the crowds of dockers, his hopes of a swift resolution to this murky business faded. His contact was not here—and that could mean only one thing.
Keeping his expression carefully neutral, the captain pushed himself away from the rail and made his way to a hatch amidships. His crew were bustling about the deck, making fast and and preparing to unload. After a quick check to make sure he wasn’t being watched, he lowered himself into the black hole.
In the damp dripping darkness of the hold, boxes and crates were stacked high and lashed together with thick ropes that creaked and strained with the restless swaying of the craft. The captain squeezed between them, feeling his way until his fingers lighted on rough canvas. He explored the material, checking for any rip or tear, and found nothing. So they hadn’t been discovered yet. But there was no time to waste. He should get rid of the things now—toss them overboard, and hang the expense. It wasn’t worth the risk.
He drew his knife and began cutting away at the canvas, sawing an opening just wide enough to thrust his arm through. Wisps of hay scratched at his hand as he burrowed it deep into the bale within, fingers searching for the package he knew to be hidden there. After a heart-stopping minute they closed on a bulky oilcloth bundle; he gripped and pulled it out, and stood with it clasped to his chest.
He whipped round, half-blinded by a flare of torchlight in the darkness. He recognised the voice: it was his first mate, a Dutch lad called Anders, but he couldn’t see him against the glare.
“Careful with that flame,” he said huskily, drawing his overcoat around the package. “All this hay. Could have an accident. Is everything all right?”
“I was about to ask you the same,” Anders said. There was an edge to his voice, and it was higher than usual. “What were you doing down here?”
“Checking the cargo,” the captain replied. A thought nudged at him. “More to the point, what are you doing here?”
He was aware of a change in the atmosphere above them: where there had been the busy clump of boots, the general babble of shouts and curses, and all the noise and bustle of a ship at port, now there was an empty hole of silence. Unease darkened into fear.
“Anders?” He took a step towards the light, which moved back. “Anders, what’s going on?”
“Just wait a moment, captain,” Anders said. “Just you wait there.”
“Wait for what?”
The captain tightened his grip on the knife, wondering whether he would be able to do it. Anders was a good lad, with a promising future in the merchant navy. But if it came down to one or the other of them he knew which it would be.
“You’ve been a good captain to me,” Anders said, his voice wavering. “I couldn’t have asked for better. But … well, I can’t stand by while the law’s being disregarded, you see?”
New sounds above them now: boots marching up the gangway in time; the clink and rattle of metal; a barked order.
“What did you do, boy?” the captain demanded.
“Just wait there,” Anders answered faintly. “Just wait there …”
The captain sprang, and the knife struck air as the torch fell to the deck and Anders disappeared into the shadows. Flames caught on the nearest bale, racing through the tightly-packed hay. The captain stumbled away, shielding his eyes from the light and heat. For a moment he forgot his fear and fury, forgot the boots on the deck above. All he could think of was escape.
He staggered back the way he had come, as behind him the hungry flames swept through the hold, catching on wood and cloth, hay and oil, searching greedily for fuel. For one terrible second it seemed he had missed the ladder to the upper deck—then his fumbling hands fell on the rung, and he scrambled up away from the lashing heat and clouds of thick black smoke.
The cool night air was a blessed relief as he emerged, coughing and panting, and slumped on the edge of the hatch. For a moment he lay there, breathing deeply, sucking in great lungfuls to soothe his burning chest. But his rest was short-lived. A heavy hand seized his coat and hauled him up, and he found himself facing a company of armed soldiers with grim faces. Behind them stood Anders, his face pale and his eyes wide.
For a moment there was silence. Then the ranks of soldiers parted and a man stepped forwards. He was small and stooped, his hair thinning and his cloak much too big for him. Behind him rose two mountains of men with identical features, stone-faced and expressionless.
“Captain Thomas Shannen?” the man said; then, without waiting for an answer, he continued: “You are hereby placed under arrest for crimes against the crown and church: namely, the possession of heretical texts with intent to distribute, mmm?” The last noise was a sort of rising hum that made the captain shiver. The man nodded to one of soldiers. “Take it.”
The soldier reached out and grabbed the oilcloth bundle from the captain’s unresisting hands. He handed it to the balding man, who unwrapped it, revealing three small volumes, roughly bound, with plain covers. The captain watched with a sinking heart as the man opened one of the books and glanced over the title page. He snorted and closed the book.
“Take him away,” he said. He turned to Anders. “Thank you for your service. The king is grateful, as is the pope and your God, mmm?”
Anders said nothing, and looked down at his feet as shackles were placed on the captain’s wrists, and two of the soldiers forced him to stumble in stunned silence towards the gangway.
The balding man glanced again at the books in his hand, then at the hatch in the deck, from which smoke was rising. Already the planks beneath their feet were growing warm. With a lazy flick of his wrist he tossed the books down the hole into the flames, then turned without a word and followed his men.
The books landed in the bottom of the hold, which now shone with hellish firelight. One of them fell open, and for a moment words could be seen, printed in dense black lines: “In the begynnynge was that worde, and that worde was with god: and god was …”
Flames caught on the parchment, and the page blossomed and curled, and the words were swallowed up in the fire.
I hope you enjoyed this sample.
‘Through Water & Fire’ is my next book, which will be released in 2023. If you’re interested in hearing more about the book, you can sign up to my mailing list to get updates.