Elizabeth the Soupmaker paced alone on the deck of the pinnace Deliverance, willing it to go faster, farther from the cracked bones and scraping of young marrow that inspired her name, when there came shouted warning of an approaching boat.
New people. Her heart fluttered.
But only for a moment.
Jamestown lay behind several twists of the river, yet neither distance nor the delinquent warmth of spring could lift its shadow from her.
Other passengers rushed to the gunwale out of boredom or anxiety, but they gave Elizabeth wide berth. Even the colonists newly arrived from Bermuda with the third supply refused to look at her--they had, still not grasping the truth of the Jamestown winter, days ago asked "why is she called Soupmaker?"
Responses were whispered; eyes widened in disbelief and horror.
Those whispers would follow her all the way back to England, she knew. Nineteen years and she was already done for this world.
She wanted to hate the other survivors--for their feigned innocence, their attempts to pile their own sins upon her--but she could not. They had all suffered when the ice... the hunger...
The Deliverance lurched as it, along with its sister ship Patience, came to. She turned her attention to the cause of the warning.
The boat was small. A canoe, like the natural inhabitants used, but the three occupants were dressed like Englishmen. Tattered, though, and darkened by exposure to the sun.
A hard voice shot up from the canoe. "Ho there! Where do you sail with such haste, and with so many? Does Jamestown suffer?"
Elizabeth looked to where the bridge rose dark against the sky. Captain Newport stood unmoving. Wind played with his formless right sleeve, which was pinned up to where, his sailors had told her with pride, he had lost an arm to a saber. "Where do you hail from?" he called.
"South, sirs. We are the end of an expedition aimed towards..." The man paused and bent down. There was a hurried discussion in the canoe, then the man stood again. "Sir, there are privateers and rogues about. I understand your reticence. My name is John Dare, late of London. I carry strange tidings to Jamestown, but it seems I should first confer with you. Will you allow me to board?"
With the captain's assent, the men paddled to the rough sides of the Deliverance, cut so recently from Bermuda cedar the island's smell still clung to them. Two men--Dare and a hunched man with a sallow face--climbed aboard. Following behind them, a third man, hulking huge, plucked the canoe out of the water one-handed and dropped it to the deck with a jaunty whistle.
"What do you suppose they are discussing?" Elizabeth said to Williken, a weathered, whiskered surgeon, and the only one from Jamestown that still spoke to her--if only to complain.
Williken shrugged, his emaciated shoulders stick-like beneath his shirt. "Important leader-like things, I have no doubt. Who to kill, how best to lie. Perhaps devising a new method to tax those who barely possess the flesh on their own bones."
Slouched against the gunwale at her other side, a man still thick despite the winter's hardships doubled over with racking coughs and curled a lip. "Though some laid claim to the flesh on others' bones." His laugh was cut short by another series of coughs.
Elizabeth had once feared Governor Percy--former governor, she reminded herself; just 'Percy' now--and even respected him in the unthinking way that well-trained children have. Now, she fixed him with a cold stare and repressed the urge to kick him in the jaw.
"Your decision must weigh heavily upon you," she said. "No doubt London society will understand the circumstances of the order you gave me."
Before Percy could respond, she turned back to the group of men speaking in low voices at the bow. Captain Newport faced the newcomers, rigid as a carved figurehead, his back to the crew and passengers. The new governor, Sir Thomas Gates, stood to the side, watching the passing tangles of scrub pine with the same scowl he'd worn since he first saw what had become of the settlement. John Dare and the sallow man stood before them; seen up close, they looked almost as haggard as the Jamestown survivors. Hair and clothes salt-stiffened, faces pinched. Dare was doing most of the talking, it seemed, but Elizabeth was too far away to make anything out. She considered asking Percy to introduce himself and listen. Surely they would include the outgoing governor in their discussion despite his recent disgrace. But the haunted winter had taught her hard lessons about relying on others. With a deep breath, she crept closer.
"--cannot possibly return with you." Dare's voice was strained. "We will simply join the others at Jamestown--"
"Mr. Dare," said the captain. "You misunderstand. There are no settlers at Jamestown. There is no food. There is no clean water."
"But surely a reprieve--"
"We are the reprieve. Or were, before our ship was bit by reef at Discovery Bay. You asked if Jamestown suffers? It did indeed suffer. And stranded on the shores of Bermuda, we knew of their want. We built these pinnaces from the wreckage as fast as we were able, and hoped that with the breath of God in our sails..." The captain bowed his head. "Now we are merely the evacuation. Jamestown is lost."
Dare cursed. He looked for a moment like Percy or Williken, or no doubt like Elizabeth herself: worn to a shadow, overwrought.
His sallow companion stepped forward, leaning his head forward in an almost reptilian manner. "There is another way," he said, holding one hand in front of his face like a priest at benediction. "Perhaps. A moment, sirs." Tipping his head, he pulled John Dare to the side and the two whispered to each other. Dare responded in harsh tones several times, but the other man remained stone-faced, eyes gleaming. Finally, they stepped back.
"I am called Shew," said the sallow man, inclining his head toward the captain. "Mr. Dare's partner, of a sort, in our expedition. And what I am about to tell you, I trust you will keep in the strictest confidence, on your honors as gentlemen and servants of the crown."
Governor Gates raised his eyebrows at this and turned to listen.
Elizabeth crept closer.
Shew continued. "You say 'to England,' for there is no food. No water. No safety." He continually stroked at the pocket of his jacket. "But I say all of that and more--much more--is here, or near. To the south, there is a colony thought lost..." He let his words hang.
Captain Newport scratched at his beard. "You speak of Roanoke? We will find no comfort there. It has been visited, Mr. Shew, and no one was ever found on that cursed island. The dead give paltry welcome."
Shew smiled, showing his teeth, but his eyes did not move. "Dead, perhaps so, yes, perhaps... there are many possibilities. But the colony itself is there. Buildings, gardens. Roanoke is a lung waiting for air."
Governor Gates held up a hand and shook his head. "We left those same things in Jamestown. There can be no further risks to--"
Shew pulled an object from his jacket and raised his hands as if cradling a baby bird. Something within, hidden from Elizabeth's view but visible to the captain and the governor, glowed red. The governor's eyes widened; his protests died on his lips. He rocked forward, hands outstretched, only for Shew to stash the mysterious item back in his jacket.
"Secret things--powerful things--demand our attentions now." Shew's eyes flicked directly to Elizabeth. "We are all of us brought to this moment by the divine machinations of Providence."
Elizabeth froze, heart pounding, but she held his gaze until the captain's shoulder blocked her line of sight. There was further discussion on the bridge, but she could hear nothing but blood rushing in her head and the memories of a mother's distant cry: "God save us!"
Shew did not approach her, not that day nor during the night.
Out from the mouth of the James River the next morn, Governor Gates ordered the Patience, under the command of Admiral Somers, to sail to Bermuda for more supplies and to return to civilization the most dire cases among the Jamestown survivors.
The Deliverance turned south to Roanoke.
When Shew finally spoke to her, it was in the heat and reek of the crowded passenger deck, in a whisper from behind. Elizabeth did not even register what the man said before she drove an elbow into his stomach and spun to face him. He looked less sinister, she mused, gasping for air on his knees.
"One should never sneak up on a lady," she said, a trembling hand on the rigid boning knife strapped to her side.
To her astonishment, Shew laughed. "Oh yes," he said, his voice cracking. "Here we have the beating heart of Jamestown!"
When he stood back up, she saw he was taller even than the captain. He stepped toward her and it took all her resolve to not step back.
"Tell me," said Shew, "do you believe in magic?"
"No." Her voice wavered. Already some of the passengers were watching, no doubt entertaining dark thoughts of witchery, the natural sequel to her winter butchery.
"And if I told you it was real?"
"I would say you speak with the Devil's own tongue."
Shew laughed again. "With such a tongue I could speak to the angels, but alas!" He leaned forward. "I have only my own."
"Enough of this." John Dare came pushing through the crowded deck. Passengers drifted away from his stern tone, pretending abrupt lack of interest in the conversation. "Shew, leave the girl be. Go with Samuel." He gestured at the stairs where their giant companion stood grinning, the only uncrowded person in the room.
"My apologies, young lady," continued Dare. "I feel I should also offer an assurance of safety, but you seem to have your security well in hand."
She blushed and jerked her hand away from the boning knife, but John Dare was smiling. She remembered suddenly, like remembering the precise taste of wildflower honey, what a real smile looked like, and only blushed the more.
As Dare left them, Shew inclined his head and whispered, "I should tell you: your reputation precedes you, Soupmaker."
Elizabeth looked away. Her mind filled with the popping of joints, the sobs outside the cabin, the mouthwatering smell that had arisen, using the girl's tendons and bones for broth.
Shew made a soft, breathless noise. "I have so many questions for you." He scuttled off, joining Dare and Samuel to go topside.
"So." It was Williken's voice. "Those gentlemen are certainly up to something. I saw the big one fiddling with the ship's boat when the captain was in the galley."
Elizabeth turned to him, glad for something to focus on. "Not everything is nefarious, Williken."
Williken snorted twice--his version of a laugh. "In this so-called New World, the only things not nefarious are nefariously so. They should be trusted all the less. Besides, a dashing young man of resources on a secret expedition with some kind of... of... philosopher? Death and destruction, Elizabeth, mark me." He tugged on his beard. "I wonder if they need a surgeon."
"You think they are nefarious schemers and you want to go with them?"
"I will be glad to sever myself from these liplickers." He glared at several of the eavesdroppers, who tsked but did not turn away. "And what is your plan, girl?"
Elizabeth frowned. "To Roanoke, I suppose."
"Wherever the ship carries you, eh?" He shook his head. "You'll never be anything but The Soupmaker like that."
"Well then to England!" She threw her arms up in exasperation. "Perhaps I would be free of this then."
"And what awaits you in England? Infamy, at the least. Perhaps the gallows."
She had not considered this possibility, but it made a terrible kind of sense. "She... she had died already," she whispered. "We drew lots. Percy said..." The defense sounded weak, even to her. She could feel the chill of the cell, see the breathless looks of horror like the ones now surrounding her but a million times over. Marched bloody-footed over cobblestones to endless shame or to death.
It would not end in whispers, but in accusations. Condemnation. Damnation.
But surely the others...
No. They would allow her to bear the consequences alone.
The passengers' coughing breath shrouded her; dizziness spiraled within. And as she swayed, eyes closed, she thought of the glow hidden in Shew's hands like a sunrise.
"We know nothing about John Dare," she finally said.
Williken shrugged. "We know he knows what happened at Jamestown. What we did. Yet still he treats you with respect."
Fear gnawed at her--the same fear that had stalked the winter frost. Marveling at the strange comfort of it, she realized she had not really left Jamestown at all. It still crouched on her and bit at her and disguised complacency as decision.
It was time to leave.
They caught Dare and Samuel untying the ship's shallop in the middle of the night, just as Williken predicted. Shew already sat in the small boat, hands on the oars, head bowed as if in prayer. Although his eyes were closed, he signaled at their approach.
"Ah," whispered Dare. "Hello."
"We are coming with you," said Elizabeth.
Samuel glared and hushed them.
"This shallop is nicer than the canoe, you see," said Dare, ignoring them both. "Nice little craft. Good for exploring, and, oh, sneaking away."
"It will be difficult to sneak," said Williken, eyes narrowed, "if someone raises the alarm."
Dare chuckled. "We are not thieves, sir. We go with the governor's blessing. We just go... discreetly."
Williken looked disappointed.
Finished untying the ship's boat, Samuel crept down the side of the Deliverance to take his place at the oars, but John Dare leaned back and studied them.
After a long pause, he spoke. "I know why you're here. But you have no idea where we are going."
"True," said Elizabeth. "But I know where I'm going if I stay."
"And for my part, I just don't like these people very much any more," said Williken.
Dare smiled, but shook his head. "It is far too dangerous. I'm sorry."
He straightened, but before he could start his climb down to the boat Elizabeth grabbed his arm. "Mr. Dare," she said. From below, Samuel shushed them again but she pressed on. "You may not need us, I understand. But you will come to value us. Mr. Williken is a skilled surgeon, and I... I am a survivor. My mother died in the fall, and two brothers with her. Dysentary. My father died in the winter, of which you have no doubt heard much, but I, Mr. Dare, I came through the ice and I carried many ungrateful souls with me. But my people are gone, and these people don't want me, and so I am coming with you." She realized her shaking hands had dug into Dare's arm, and Williken was pressing gently on her shoulder to calm her. She blushed and released her grip. "Wherever that may be," she finished quietly.
John Dare glanced down at the shallop, then back to Elizabeth, a strange look on his face. Finally he whispered, "I, too, have lost my family." A bootscrape silenced them momentarily, and Percy appeared, his face sour at the sight of the other two survivors from the Jamestown winter.
"Our final crew member," said Dare, expressionless. "The governor's man, you see."
As they climbed into the waiting craft--Elizabeth nimble, Percy drunk and grumbling, Williken rather like a falling bird--Shew pulled a small item from his jacket and held it before him. "A taste of our destination," he said. It was a stone, smooth, roughly the size of his palm. Elizabeth saw within it a flicker, just a hint, then all at once it grew brighter, a deeper red, a thing not of this world.
Shew grinned, his face ghastly in the stone's light, then he slid it back into his pocket where it immediately darkened.
"God's blood, I didn't think it mattered where we went," said Williken, finally arranging himself in the boat. "But... where are we going?"
Oars creaked; John Dare chuckled, his face inscrutable in the shadows. "To find a hole in the world, Mr. Williken."
In Croatan Sound west of Roanoke, Shew pointed at a tremor over the water. "There," he said. "Our gateway. Whether to Heaven, or to Hell." His laugh echoed like a shout in church.
Williken grumbled and spat. "You have a special way of calming the mind."
"Stop rowing," Dare ordered.
Elizabeth squinted, but all she saw was a shimmer like rising heat--nothing like the warp in the world she had imagined.
"Do not let it deceive you," said Dare, noting her expression. "It is there; it simply hides."
"Like the Devil," muttered Percy, shaking his head.
"Very like," whispered Shew with a smile.
"We must approach it from the southeast," said Dare. "You will see it then. And as we approach, we cannot turn in the slightest."
Williken snorted. "In this raft? With two men on the oars?" He noticed Elizabeth's look and amended, "three on the oars. Pardon. But two or three, Mr. Dare, the ocean shall do with us as she pleases."
"I have been here before," said Dare. "And we did not hold her straight. As soon as the prow touched the threshold, it caught a new current and twisted to the side. The aft swung around the side of the boundary... It may look insubstantial, Mr. Williken, but this thing split us like a log."
There was a pause.
"I see," said Williken, scratching at his nose. "We hold her straight, then."
The closer they got, the more clear the portal became. Sky the wrong shade of blue and whitecaps cresting sideways traced a rough circle ringed by silver haze, and through it a second sun, smaller, burning white.
As Dare had warned, the shallop twisted hard as it entered, caught in a flow of water almost perpendicular to that in the Sound.
"To port!" Dare shouted, trying to hold his oar down in the rush. Elizabeth, Samuel, and Williken all heaved at the oars, blinded by shooting spray and deafened by the cracking groans of the hull, steering with all their might into the cross-current.
There was a rush of air like a fire catching, then Elizabeth opened her eyes to new water, turquoise and placid. An unseasonably warm wind blew across the boat and smells came with it, strange and sweet and foreign to her. The air itself seemed richer--somehow energizing. For the first time since autumn she felt she could take a full breath, and she did so again and again, the rush of oxygen a revelation.
Then she looked up.
First she saw John Dare, wet hair flattened against the sides of his face, his jaw clenched hard, his eyes watering. Shew knelt beside him, his entire body trembling, whispering frantically in Latin. He held his stone in his hands and bent sometimes to kiss or lick it. The smack of his lips, the way they shone pale in the sun, brought Elizabeth back to the colony, knife in hand and crouched...
She quickly looked away.
Beyond the ship there rose from this strange sea a dozen or more islands. Some were as small as the boat, all either rock worn bare or encrusted with iridescent growths, flat like scales or ridged and geometric like barnacles. But the island directly ahead was the size of Roanoke or larger, and dark with foliage except for a towering bone-white horn as tall as ten masts, jutting at an angle from the top of an ivied cliffside.
Elizabeth's attention was only broken when John Dare fell to his knees. "Praise God," he said. "It's real."
A few hundred yards from the big island, hot air wrapping around the crew like a blanket, a sudden swell cast them in momentary shadow. When it hit, it knocked the boat sideways and threw a tangle of thin, pale fibers across the bow.
"Some kind of seaweed?" said Percy.
The smell of it hit them then, a wall of bile reek and oceanic rot. Elizabeth gagged; her eyes watered; everything blurred.
She heard Percy's voice choke out, "disgusting," and saw the clouded shape of his arm reach out to throw the stuff overboard. As soon as he touched it, the seaweed convulsed and thrashed, and with a shriek of splitting wood the shallop rocked hard to port. On the starboard side, Elizabeth's oar hit nothing but air and she fell, tangled in rope and limbs.
Someone--Percy?--screamed. Elizabeth, crashing against a sharp edge of wood, squeezed her eyes shut to try to clear her vision. A spray of liquid, too hot to be seawater even in this warm place, hit her in the face. Percy's screams bubbled and became muffled; everyone else was shouting.
When she opened her eyes, she saw Percy bound almost head to foot by the sickly white cords, which now pulsed and quivered. His arm, clutched in another tangle of the stuff, had been ripped from his body and lifted far above their heads.
Samuel struck at the fibers with an ax, spraying a coagulated white liquid across the passengers. A new swell rose beneath the boat, and the swell became a shadow, and the shadow became... an island? The shallop rocked precariously, an ark on the mountaintop, as hundreds more translucent cords--tentacles, Elizabeth realized with horror--coiled about it.
"Run!" Dare leapt from the boat and ran along the glistening black mass that had displaced the water from the boat all the way to the island. Samuel, ax in hand, followed, and Elizabeth saw that when he landed the entire ground pulsated as if it were a single, soft thing. Like skin...
Her mind rejected the possibility.
She was out of the boat before she realized it. The ground was soft but slippery as an icy dock, too difficult to walk on. She scrambled on all fours toward the island. So close to the shining surface, a stink like low tide made her gag and retch. Behind her, Williken marked his passage with puffing breaths and loud curses.
The ground--the body beneath them--shivered.
As she approached the beach, a new movement beneath her, tectonic in scale, rolled her onto her back and sent her skidding. Far behind her, beneath the shallop, new limbs rose from the depths, thicker and ridged with hooks or fangs at the tips. Yet there stood Shew, still in the boat, holding aloft his stone when three of the mouths grabbed him and pulled him backward into the sea. Within the shadowed spray, the glow of his strange artifact dimmed, faltered, and extinguished.
The thing beneath them trembled and groaned and began to submerge, its departure marked by a sucking riptide. Elizabeth and Williken grabbed at each other and hauled themselves forward against the might of the ocean, closer to the beach, closer, until their hands hit sand instead of skin. Just as she felt they would falter, Dare and Samuel appeared and pulled them ashore.
Behind them, the boat--and Percy and Shew with it--was gone. The water was calm, as if the thing had never been.
Together, the four staggered to shore and collapsed.
The shore of the big island was twenty feet of pearlescent sand sloping gently up to a tangle of bright floral undergrowth where Dare and Samuel crouched in conversation. A forest of dark broad-leafed trees--less dense than they appeared from a distance--spread out in all directions behind the shock of reds and yellows, except to the south where the island rose sharply to the cliff-tops and the horn.
Walking on the land, touching the knife-edged rocks, smelling the sour breath of the flowers dangling like church bells from the black vines, these things broke the spell of unreality that had held Elizabeth since midwinter.
The shadow of Jamestown lifted, and the weight of England with it.
"What is this place?" asked Williken.
"Shew said the portal leads to Heaven."
"He said Heaven or Hell, and his uncertainty on that point somewhat undermines his authority. So without reference to Shew's mystical fictions, which seem to have done him little good in the end... what is this place really?" Williken watched a small white-shelled creature creep sideways then flip itself into the ground and burrow. "Death and destruction, I said, yes, yes, I remember, and yet I followed them. Still... I didn't expect to be marooned on a mysterious world with no hope of escape." He kicked sand over the creature's hole. "At least not so quickly."
Elizabeth looked around as if the island itself would provide an answer. Her gaze drifted up to the horn. She smiled. "You were with me in Jamestown," she said. "But for the hand of God, we are already dead. Let us see what Providence has for us in this new world."
(Confused? So are we, but for some reason the first episode of Charlotte's story won't connect with any of the others! If you're reading through from the start, use the "Next" link to access episode three, and the "Next-Next" link to access episode four and onward!)
Next Month: The story of Roanoke begins in earnest as Elizabeth comes to learn that this is not merely an opportunity to forget the past and look to the future - there are more risks than just fantastical monster to beware of...