Into the Unknown – a historical short story

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Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

The weather in the tropics seemed unhealthily hot, so it didn’t surprise Christopher Weaver to find that the ship’s food supplies were turning bad. Back in London, he would have used his wealth to acquire more food, just as he had bought these supplies for the expedition. But out here on the ocean, halfway between the court of Queen Elizabeth and the Americas, there were no wholesalers.

“I suppose we turn around, then,” he said, peering at the stinking meat and mouldy flour. It was the first time he had been part of such an expedition, out to explore the New World, find trade routes to the orient, perhaps rob a Spanish treasure galley or two, but certain actions seemed self-evident, and turning your face away from disaster was one.

“Don’t be absurd, Kit.” Sir Thomas de Poole, the expedition’s captain, slapped Christopher on the back. “I can call you Kit, can’t I?”

“Well, I—”

“Kit, these things happen all the time. We’ll pick up fresh provisions in the Indies.”

Around them, the ship’s timbers creaked beneath the strain of the ocean and the sails.

“Do we still have enough to get to the Indies?”

“Kit, Kit, Kit.” Sir Thomas shook his head and squeezed Weaver’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, your investment is safe. I will make sure that this voyage is profitable. And why did you come along if not for the glory of overcoming terrible odds?”

When he put it like that, Weaver felt a swelling in his chest, followed by a sense of embarrassment at his previous timidity.

“Of course,” he said. “On we go.”

#

Working as a merchant out of London’s bustling docks, Weaver had seen his share of leaky barrels, but they seemed much more menacing when his only source of drinking water was seeping away.

“Shame we can’t drink the ocean,” he said with a half-hearted attempt at a smile, looking out across the endless blue expanse. A length of rigging was tied off just beside where he stood, and he clung to that taught rope, steadying himself in a dangerously shifting world.

“Kit, Kit, Kit,” Sir Thomas said, shaking his head. “Don’t even joke about such things.”

“Sorry. Will we have to turn back now?”

He felt awkward asking it, but also relieved. The reality of an ocean voyage, the cramped quarters, salty supplies, and blank views, was proving quite unpleasant.

“Ha, good one!” Sir Thomas said. “Of course not. We’ll refill when we strike land.”

“Will that be soon?”

“Soon enough, as long as our charts are correct.”

“What if they aren’t? I really think we should turn back.”

“Remember why you’re here,” Sir Thomas said, wrapping an arm around Weaver’s shoulders. “To experience the wonder of the wide world. Would you turn back from that just because of a few warped barrel staves?”

Weaver hesitated. He had often enthused about the world’s wonders to help sell exotic wares, but he had never seen them himself. Perhaps he should be the sort of person who could speak with confidence about the Americas and the Orient. Someone more like Sir Thomas.

“Of course not,” he said. “On we go.”

#

The storm was still visible on the horizon when Weaver crept out onto the bustling deck. The shattered top of a mast lay in a tangle of rigging, and where the rudder had been there was a splintered stump.

“The lads are building a replacement already,” Sir Thomas said, appearing beside him. “Should see us through until we can get it properly fixed.”

“Should see us through?”

“Exactly.”

“Should see us through?” Weaver stared at Sir Thomas, aghast. “We can’t go on with a broken ship, hoping that a few bits of plank will ‘see us through’.”

“We’ve been through worse, these lads and me.”

Weaver felt sick to his stomach, a gift granted him by physical fear, social anxiety, and the endless, inescapable rocking of the waves.

“I’m really not sure that—”

“Nobody likes a whinger, Kit. What did you come on this expedition for if not the thrill of scraping by on ingenuity, courage, and God-given English luck?”

“The money!” Weaver yelled, turning to face his tormentor. “You promised me trade deals, rare artifacts, a cut of the spoils. Not glory, not wonder, not the thrill of survival, but fat stacks of gold, which I will never see if we starve to death while drifting rudderless around the Spanish Main. Now I must insist, as the prime funder of this expedition, that we turn back for England at once!”

Weaver glared as Sir Thomas, and the knight captain frowned. As the frustration that had given him such unexpected confidence faded, Weaver became terribly aware that only one of them wore a sword, and it wasn’t him.

Then Sir Thomas grinned.

“Oh, Kit, you are an absolute hoot! What a hilarious notion, that we could turn back now, when we’re more than halfway gone and short of supplies. For a moment there, you almost had me going.”

Weaver stared at him, at the splinter remnants of the rudder, at the hatch that hid their depleted stores.

He was going to die, thanks to this lunatic.

No. He was smart. He was capable. He had built his own business from the ground up. Let no man ever say that Kit Weaver gave in when things got tough.

“I’ve done some carpentry in my time,” he said, rolling up his sleeves. “Tell me about what we need for the rudder.”

###

I’ve been reading a lot recently about the 16th century voyages out of Europe, in which adventurers set forth to explore the world in the name of discovery, trade, and profit. Though we mostly talk about the successes, Weaver’s experience reflects the disastrous reality of so many voyages. A lot of ships sank and a lot of men died finding routes around the world, but those who came back were raised up as heroes.

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What if someone had conquered the Vikings, someone claiming to be their gods?

What if King Arthur’s knights met a very different metal-clad warrior?

What if you were ordered to execute a statue, and hanging just didn’t seem to work?

These short stories explore different aspects of history, some of them grounded in reality, some alternative takes on the past as we know it. Stories of daring and defiance; of love and of loss; of noble lords and exasperated peasants.

From a Foreign Shore is available now in all ebook formats.