Chapter 1 - Ships that Pass by A.J. Hall
From the Hundred Year War to the Crimea,
With a lance and a musket and a Roman spear.
To all of the men who have stood with no fear,
In the service of the King.
Before you met your fate be sure you did not forsake,
your lover, may not be around anymore.
The Clash: The Card Cheat
They brought the wounded in well after two that morning. It was usually in the dark hours, so as to dodge Voldemort’s patrols. Draco lay listening. They had got off lightly this time, it seemed - some moans; a few screams; fast, low official muttering as the Healers carried out triage. During the nights when he had still been unable to move the sounds had sometimes sounded like the tormented in hell, and he had had to endure them, frozen, often until dawn until the nurses had time to see to him. This was the first consignment of wounded to arrive since he had been allowed to leave his bed. After about ten minutes listening in the dark he could stand it no longer. Dragging on his robes he padded barefoot down to the receiving station that had once been the great house’s ballroom.
Nothing had prepared him for the miasma of blood and stench of scorched flesh that hit him as he opened the door. He retched, helplessly, and swayed on his still unsteady legs. One of the nurses, a Hufflepuff girl who should have been sitting her OWLS next month, caught him before he fell, and guided him towards a stool in a corner near a stretcher.
“You shouldn’t have come down,” she scolded. “We’ve got enough on our plates without -“
Draco shook off her arm, which was gloved with blood to the elbow, and stared disbelievingly down at the patient on the stretcher. The blanket was soaked with blood already, and the nauseating barbecue stench rose thickly from it. The hump under the blanket was wrong - there was nothing where the legs ought to be -
Allen’s eyes glittered bright with pain, and whatever potion they had given him to ease the pain. His voice rasped.
“Jeez! How’re you doing, gorgeous? I always swore you’d turn into a heartbreaker once you lost your puppy fat -“
Draco surprised the Hufflepuff girl in a look of scandalised disbelief that momentarily recalled the giggling teenager he remembered from school.
“He’s a very old friend,” Draco snapped irritably at her. Her face changed instantly - sudden pity, and then professional armour shuttering down tightly over it.
“Oh! In that case, could you sit with him until - I have to clean up, I’m due in theatre -“
Draco’s hand snaked out and grabbed her elbow as she was turning.
“And isn’t Allen due in theatre? Surely you can’t have any worse than -“
“I’m sorry,” she said, and fled. Allen looked up at him.
“They don’t have time to waste on a no-hoper,” he said gently. Draco sank down onto the stool and reached blindly out for Allen’s hand.
“Anyway what’ve you been up to, mate? Nice to see you playing for the right side at last. Ditched that no-good girlfriend of yours, I hope?”
Draco blinked. Allen’s eyes challenged him. I may be dying but we don’t give in. The Wanderers never give in. Remember that.
“Um, oh, Pansy? Yes, ages ago. That summer. She’s - I think last time I heard she was doing comms for the Death Eaters - she was always good with owls. Out at Goyle’s place in Shropshire -“
Allen’s eyes glittered more brightly.
“Ah. Not - any more, she isn’t. As of about - four hours ago - your friend Goyle doesn’t have a place in Shropshire. And if you think we look a bit chewed up -“
He was overtaken by a sudden fit of coughing. Draco fumbled in the sleeve of his robe and passed him a handkerchief.
“Thanks, mate. Tell your ma, next time you see her - I won 5 Galleons off Rikki when she came over to us. I always liked your ma. Shame she married such a bastard -“
He coughed again. This time, when he had finished, he was silent for a long time.
The shadows in the room danced. The house-elves who were serving as ward orderlies levitated those scheduled for theatre into the ante room for prepping in an orderly procession. Once the duty Healer strode rapidly past, pausing to crouch next to a stretcher in the far corner. As she stood up she moved the blanket gently up to cover the patient’s face.
The window must be open behind those velvet curtains; every so often a faint breeze blew in from outside. At times Allen thought he could smell the sea.
Because he was a wizard, and had been a powerful one, and was dying, he could see the others in the room, the ones that the merely living brushed through. They had been drawn by fear, and doubt, and the smell of blood. Unformed, unclear, ancient powers of corruption. What does a Dementor look like without its robes? he had asked once. Perhaps, now, he had his answer. They were gathered thickly behind the boy sitting by his stretcher.
The tallest one looked at him over Draco’s head.
You are dying, and we will have him. You will die on the turn of the tide. You can do nothing for him now.
I guess you must have missed the last Thunderers/Wanderers final when I played the last quarter with a broken jaw and four teeth missing, and both our Beaters were in intensive care for a week. Too bad, mate. The Wanderers never give up.
“Wand,” Allen rasped aloud. He had been silent so long Draco jumped.
“Wand!” he repeated impatiently.
After a brief search Draco found it and passed it to him. He gripped it with all the strength he had. The eucalyptus wood was cool and silky under his fingers. He thought the spell, rather than saying it.
Alea iacta est.
The pain vanished. So did the receiving station. He was suddenly elsewhere, standing on the feet that in that other world were bloody wreckage somewhere in Shropshire. He was in the front room of a cottage, stone built, cold and smelling of damp. The storm outside beat upon the windows. The only light came from the candle stub between his fingers. The wick was already guttering, and the room was draughty. In the room next door there was something very horrible. He knew that the light would soon fail, and then there would be nothing to stop it coming in.
He looked steadily at the candle.
One act of kindness, born out of love.
Suddenly the candle seemed a little thicker, a little longer. The flame flickered less. The shadows retreated. His breathing became more even.
One act of kindness, born out of the memory of love.
He was no longer holding a candle. In the palm of his hand was a terra-cotta lamp of Roman design, heavy with oil. The warm yellow light made an island around him.
In the other room the thing stirred. The exhalation of long-drowned flesh drifted through the gap between the stone flags and the ill-fitting wooden door.
You cannot win in here and your toy lamp will not burn in the storm outside. What then?
“Then I need a better lamp,” he said aloud.
One act of mercy, born out of justice and the hope to deserve love.
“Rudge & Sons, Ships Chandlers, Falmouth. Patent Pending.”
The copperplate lettering was deeply cut into the worn and polished brass of the hurricane lantern. It had been old the first time he had seen it, and too heavy for him to lift. The old man had grinned at him, watching him try, and then lifted it easily up onto the mantelpiece, sending the shadows rushing back into their proper places. There had been a storm blowing that night, too, he remembered.
“You don’t need to worry about old Bertha. Little bit of wind like that ain’t going to bother her none. Sailed more miles than I have, has Bertha. Four times round the Horn, and down through the China seas, when ships were ships. The Devil in hell ain’t found a wind yet that’ll blow out old Bertha when her wants to stay lit.”
He could lift it easily now. He swung the lantern, searching for the door to the garden. It was where he knew it must be, where it had always been. He turned on the threshold and lifted Bertha high above his head, shining her light into every corner of the room he was leaving. The connecting door to the back room was slightly ajar. Nothing moved, however, and after a moment he went out into the night.
The rain had stopped for the moment, but the wind was still blowing hard. Below him the sea must be boiling over the Manacles: he could see the red sectored light on St. Anthony Head blinking on and off.
God help those caught at sea on a night like this.
He swung Bertha to light the path in front of him, and went down to the beach.
There was a gig, upside down on trestles above the tangled line of seaweed which marked the high water mark of the Spring tide-line. He placed his great-grandfather’s lantern with care in its lee, and walked down to the water’s edge. The waves were breaking white on the rocks at the mouth of the cove.
He licked his lips, and yelled into the darkness.
“Well I’m here! Come out and fight!”
It had sounded loud in his head; out here his defiance was lost in the roar of the wind.
Fight? Why should we fight? You have lost already. You will never return. You cannot find the way back.
“Now, the old trawlermen, they didn’t need none of this radar to know where they was. It was in the blood, you see. They could smell their way home by the seaweed and the way the mud was stirring, when it was fog banks from the Dover Straits all the way up to the Kiel Canal, that the old Kaiser had built to spite the Prince of Wales, the year he lost the race off St. Catherine’s Point, when old Jackie Fisher tipped the Prince the wink there was fog a-coming, and he shipped from Cowes with a crew of Lowestoft trawlermen. If you can read the signs, bor, you’ve no call to be feared of fog. Eh - it’s them other gurt blind idiots you’ve need to be feared of when it closes in, not the fog.”
I am back. You cannot defeat me that easily.
A squall came through, blotting out the glow of Falmouth town lights across the Bay as though they had been in another continent, another century. Hail hit him in the face like pelted gravel. The wind screamed in his ears, and the biting cold cut through his robes as though they had been tissue paper. The rising waves crashing near his feet broke into his face. He blinked the salt water away, only for another wave to hit him, and then another. As he blinked the salt trapped under his eyelids sandpapered the surface of his eyes. He retreated up the beach towards the pool of light cast by the lantern, as the biggest wave yet reared sluggishly up, and then came pounding down on the sand.
You cannot fight the sea; you know that in your blood. And we, we are stronger than the sea. We were here before ever the land divided from the waters; we will be here when the seas dry and the mountains fall. All you have is a little time, and you waste it struggling against us for a worthless soul. Give him up: let yourself rest.
“They never called it a truer thing, the graveyard watch. There’s more ships gone down between two and six of the clock than on all the other watches put together. That’s when the hands get careless, like. That’s when you have to keep your eyes well peeled for what’s really there, and not steer for what you’d like to believe you can see, bor. Keep checking the log, and smell the wind, and trust the old boat. If her starts to ride uneasy, then get yourself to the side and start looking for breaking water. But if you trust the boat, and listen to her, then she’ll get you home.”
He sat down on the shingle, settling his chin on his knees, resting his back against the solid clinker built hull, staring up Channel into the night. Warmth came up off the lantern, a blessing, like the feel of his father’s arms carrying him home when he had fallen asleep at the pantomime as a very little boy. When Voldemort was first in power, in the days before his mother lost her way in the fog, and no-one had found her to bring her home.
The lifeboat crew doesn’t ask if the ship’s worth saving before they launch. Only where it is. They work out what they need to do when they get there.
Out on the eastern horizon there was the faintest glow of grey behind the black. It had stopped raining. The wind eased; the small waves hissed on the sand as they edged their way up the beach. As the grey light strengthened he held up his hand, spreading his fingers before his face. They were distinct, but drained of colour, already those of a corpse.
Slowly the cove opened up around him. He could see out into the Channel; the thin stick of an east cardinal buoy tossed among a mass of grey waves with white crests, far out on the horizon. Beyond it the tiny white sail of a yacht laboured in the swell, wearily picking its way in from sea toward Falmouth or the Helford River.
The lantern still burned palely, its glow swallowed up in the strengthening light. He pulled himself stiffly to his feet, and tipped his head upwards. The edge of the cloud line was moving swiftly eastwards, and a clear cold sky spread behind it from the west.
There was a high, sweet cry, and the drumming of wings. The oystercatchers, the white on their wings tinted pink with the dawn, came swooping down to land on the beach, hunting for what the storm had brought in. They scurried before the little waves, which edged up the beach, and then retreated. Already an exposed three feet of so of shingle shone fresh washed in the sunlight below the line of seawrack.
Allen stood for a moment on the beach, and saw the whole world flawless, new made of blue and gold in the sunrise. Above him on the cliff he knew the cottage’s doors and windows stood open to the fresh gorse-scented breeze blowing from the downs.
A victory. A gift.
By an effort of pure will he concentrated everything around him into an inexpressibly bright point, no bigger than the eye of a needle, and sent his spirit diving through it.
In the receiving station day had broken. A hopeless grey light streamed over the stretchers through the gap in the curtains. Draco stirred out of a half doze as Allen’s hand suddenly tightened around his fingers.
“I reckon - this is about it, mate. I wish - we could have met a lot later, and none of this war garbage, either. You were - so bloody young - and you can’t make up people’s minds for them, anyhow -“
He paused to cough.
“Too stuffy in here. Open the window properly for me, will you?”
It had stuck a prim six inches away from the sill. Draco kicked at the swollen frame, swore, and pulled out his wand. Under the releasing charm’s influence the whole thing swung crazily wide.
“Don’t let them ever say - you can’t come back. Don’t - give up, either. You can - always find a way home if you keep looking. Always. There’ll be people ready to come out and find you, too. And never think - that you aren’t worth looking for -“
Impulsively, Draco slipped his arm around Allen’s shoulders and kissed him lightly on the lips. Allen grinned lazily up at him.
“Come off it, mate, what’s with the Nelson bollocks, eh?”
His left hand tightened over Draco’s. His right gestured in the air. Draco blindly found the wand, and passed it to him.
“Thanks, mate. You’ll do, you know.”
He gripped the wand tighter, and looked straight into Draco’s eyes.
Between one heartbeat and the next Allen was not. Through the open window Draco could hear the oystercatchers calling on the shore far below.