Work has begun on writing Tidewater (as opposed to just researching and outlining it), and I am having a blast! I haven't felt such a sense of adventure with my writing for a long time. It's refreshing to put my brain into a different historical setting and to spend time with a new set of historical characters.
I just finished the prologue, and thought it would be fun to share it. Keep in mind this is a totally unedited draft...I literally just finished writing it a few minutes ago...so you'll probably find some mistakes, and it will probably be polished up and changed some before I publish the entire book. But for now, it's kind of fun to take a look at the raw beginnings of a new novel.
APRIL 26, 1607
He was far away, reclining on a bed of cool silk, the sweat drying on his skin. The window was unshuttered. A breeze moved the long wisp of curtain, carrying a scent of rosemary into Antonia’s chamber, bringing with it the rich perfume of Constantinople in elegant decay: the dust of hot brick; ancient incense from the church on the hill; fish offal sharp and salty at the wharf; the inoffensive, homey tang of horse dung drying on the bare streets. Antonia moved from behind her screen, dipped a rag into a basin, and the water fell like stars over her smooth skin. I should like to see it, she said, her voice distant and wavering in memory, an echo from a lost shore. He could no longer recall her face – not with any accuracy, though he remembered that she was beautiful. He did know her voice. The subtle rich smoke of it. The water pattering down her shoulder, tracing over the curve of her hip, puddling under her small foot. See what? he asked. His Greek was near as bad as his French, but she understood him well enough. The world, she said. All of it. I want to see it all.
He could smell her still – her and Constantinople, and the rosemary. The memory shut out the stink of the brig, the reek of peat tar and his own piss. Antonia’s bed was softer than the narrow plank where he huddled; he no longer felt the damp roughness of the wood, nor the splinters pressing through his clothing. The Susan Constant heeled. He cursed and braced himself; the chains of his fetters clanked. A cry came through the thick boards of the deck, muffled, but even in the brig he could hear the joy and relief in the man’s voice.
He pressed himself against the Susan Constant’s curved rib, bobbed his head to peer through a chink in the wood. But only sunlight came through. It hurt his eyes, made the tears stream down his face and into his long, matted beard.
Footfalls on the deck above. A grunt, an oath, and with a squeal of hinges the trap opened. Light as bright and shocking as the flesh of a lemon fell into the small chamber. With it came a great gust of fresh air, carrying the scent of a new world. It was rich and green, damp, spicy, fertile. It startled him, how much it smelled like the coast of England.
“Aye.” His voice grated like the hinge.
He waited for an explanation, perhaps even a word of congratulation that they had made it, after all, to the New World. Instead a ladder dropped into his rat-hole, a sad thing made of worn rope and faded dowels. He climbed it gingerly.
Wingfield was waiting. He stood straddle-legged, the sun gleaming on the neat jut of his red beard, his body moving with unconscious ease as the Susan Constant dipped into the gentle trough of a wave and rolled up to its white crest. Edward-Maria Wingfield rode a ship as easily as some men ride horses. The damnable creature pointed ever upward as surely as a compass needle points north, as if God Himself had tied a line to Wingfield’s helmet and kept him permanently in divine plumb. He was the only shareholder of the Virginia Company to set sail for the New World, and he thought his wealth had given him the right of leadership. Some of the men, fivescore and four all told, agreed with him. Wingfield did cut a dashing figure, Smith grudgingly conceded, in his perfectly polished steel armor. A foolish figure, too. One storm, one slip on a wet deck, and Edward-Maria Wingfield would find himself and his fine armor beautifying the sea floor. Smith had warned him not to wear the stuff on the Susan Constant. The warning had been scorned and dismissed, as ever.
All the men were on their feet, swaying with less grace than Wingfield, even after so many months at sea. The deck was crowded – the whole ship was crowded. It was a freighter, a trade ship, and not a large one. Its hold was outfitted to transport goods, not men. The Virginia Company had purchased it for a song, and songs were a good bit less dear than gold. Beyond the crowd, Smith could make out the two sails of the Godspeed beating toward the deep green arc of a bay. A thrill of dense forest spread north and south, fading far off into a blue haze. Southeastward, lagging behind, the Discovery was a smudge on the horizon.
“Clackety-clack,” one of the men jeered, pantomiming his own hands in chains.
“In fetters again, Smith,” another called – a smoother voice, one of the many useless gentlemen who plagued the voyage. A smoother voice, aye, but no less mocking. “Just like in the Ottoman, eh, lads?”
The men laughed. No one believed him about what had happened after Antonia. He was already a slave when he’d been gifted to the Greek woman, taken as booty after a misstep with the Tartars. His too-trusting master had sent him to Constantinople to guard the door of his mistress. It wasn’t Smith’s fault that she had fallen in love, though what Antonia had seen in Smith, short and broad as a half-grown bear, he never knew. But once his master knew, it had been the cane for Antonia – that soft white flesh raised in red stripes – and a sale into hard labor in the Crimea for Smith.
Let the men laugh. Their scorn changed nothing. Their mockery was a good deal easier to bear than the iron collar round his neck had been. They did not believe him, when he told them how he’d taken up his scythe in his Turkish master’s field and struck the man off his own horse, even as he rode to beat Smith for insolence. Let them call him a fool and a knave. Smith still could hear the rush of his scythe through the air, the crack of it upon the Turk’s head. He could see even now, five years later, the stillness of his master as he lay in the furrow of his own field. He recalled how his master’s horse had shifted and pranced when Smith had raised his foot to the stirrup and clambered aboard. Muscovy and freedom were not far off.
Laughter changed nothing.
“And here we are at last, lads,” Wingfield said. He spoke in his gentleman’s voice, the orator’s voice, booming out across the waves as if an audience of fishes might hear and applaud. “The New World. Each man behold it – even,” with a glance at Smith, “mutineers – and give thanks to God.”
“Amen,” the more pious sort murmured.
Smith kept his eyes on Wingfield, but in his heart he did thank merciful Christ. They would go ashore soon, the locked box with sealed orders from the Virginia Company would be opened, and Wingfield would no longer hold sway, by order of their employers. Smith didn’t need to hope for it; he knew it would be so. God had shown him favor in the past, and He would again. Smith’s days of wearing chains, whether in the Crimea or Constantinople, or in a ship’s brig, were over.
The Susan Constant breasted the last high wave at the bay’s mouth and sailed into smoother water. Wingfield set about ordering the men, placing them in ranks according to class, eyeing them with all the pomposity and bluster of a general. “We will send a party ashore,” the man declared, tugging at his red beard.
Smith shifted; his chains rattled. “I would advise against it.”
Wingfield rounded on him. “Shut your mouth, Smith. I’ll deal with you later.”
“No doubt,” said Smith, half feeling the bite of a rope around his neck, but unable to stop himself from speaking on. “Still, I would advise against it.”
“I have no use for your advice.”
“You might, if you had any sense.”
Wingfield was on him in two furious strides. Smith did not cower, but he braced himself for a blow. It never came. Wingfield’s face was very close to his own, and his breath was hot with anger.
“You tried to set my men against me…”
“I did not, and they aren’t your men. You aren’t even the captain of this ship. It’s Newport’s command, or had you forgotten?”
“Shut up. You incited mutiny. Why in God’s good name you believe I should have any use for your advice, or for any part of you, is a mystery to me. Now keep your mouth well shut when your betters speak.”
Matthew Scrivener cleared his throat. “Your pardon, Master Wingfield. Perhaps we ought to hear Smith’s reasons.”
Scrivener, sallow though he was from the long voyage, still held a gleam of bright awareness in his eye. He was possessed of that trait which was most scarce in gentlemen: intelligence.
Wingfield’s eyes narrowed with anger, but Scrivener spoke on:
“After all, sir, the box has not been opened. You are not the governor of the colony yet.”
Wingfield fairly choked on his red-faced rage. Smith ran his fingers through the mess of his beard to hide his grin.
“Very well. Advise us, John Smith, you font of wisdom.”
“We don’t yet know the state of the naturals. Be they friends or be they foes? None of us can say. We ought to anchor in the bay, as near as we might come to the shore, and bide our time. The naturals will show themselves, soon or late. They know we are here already, or I’m a virgin girl.”
One of the men grabbed his cod through his trousers and waggled it in his fist, shouting to Smith a most indecent proposal.
“The state of the naturals? Friends or foes? Don’t be a fool. You’ve read the reports from Spain. They’re eager to trade, and once we bring them the Christ, they’ll be more eager for us still. They’re savages – they need our guidance, Smith. They’re like babes in a wood, waiting for a guiding hand to raise them up to civilization, to show them the light and the path.”
“Truly?” said Smith. “You don’t suppose they may be hostile to us – see us as invaders?” He cast a significant glance about the crowd. There were plenty in London – even in King James’ court – who disparaged the very thought of colonization. If the Virginia Company had faced such widespread opposition to the colony – resistance on the grounds that England had no right to wrest from the naturals their own God-given land – then surely at least a few of the men on this voyage felt the same.
“Don’t be naïve.” Wingfield pointed into the crowd. “Archer, choose five men. You’ll go ashore with me. I’ll need two sailors to row the landing boat. Smith, allow me to offer you advice in turn. Keep your useless thoughts to yourself unless the governor requests them.”
Smith watched from the rail as Gabriel Archer directed his men into the boat; he stood well back from the lines when the sailors lowered the little vessel to the waves. A pair of brave oars ran out, and the silent sailors in Archer’s crew began to row.
Scrivener made his way to Smith’s side. “The mutiny charges are thin, Smith; we all know that, even the men who hate you. We’ll be on land soon, and they’ll be in a generous mood. It will come to nothing – nothing but Wingfield’s spite.”
“I know it.”
Scrivener looked at him steadily for a long moment. Smith could feel the intensity of the man’s gaze, but he kept his eyes on the boat. It was small now, making haste for the yellow line of the shore.
At last Scrivener said, “It’s only your tongue damns you.”
“My tongue, and my common birth. You’re the only one of them who doesn’t think the slit he came out of confers some divine aura.”
Scrivener sniffed at the indelicacy.
“Sorry,” Smith said.
“Listen, old boy: if you’d only give over to Wingfield once in a while, be more cooperative, less…less haughty…”
“I’ll be hanged if I let that red popinjay strut about the colony as if he owns it.”
“He fair does. He is a shareholder.”
“And it might come to hanging one day, Smith. Not this time, and maybe not the next. But soon or late…” Scrivener trailed off. The boat entered the surf, grounded on the strand. “I’d be sorry to see you hanged. Christ knows there aren’t enough good men on this voyage. We can’t spare a one. Not even the commoners.”
Smith turned to him with a rebuke, but he saw the humor sparkling in Scrivener’s eyes. The man laid a hand on his shoulder and squeezed. Though Scrivener was slight and only a gentlemen unused to real work, his grip was hard and sure.
They watched in tense silence as the landing party made their way up the strand. The men on the shore arrayed themselves in a rough half-circle and moved tentatively toward the dense stands of salt grass and wiry brush. After a time they ventured further, poking about with the muzzles of their matchlocks, turning this way and that to stare at the landscape which was suddenly surrounding them, holding them, lulling them.
“So far, so well,” Scrivener said.
And in that moment, Smith caught a quick blur, a black shape slipping between the trunks of two thin trees.
“Merciful Christ,” Smith said.
“They don’t see….” He cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted with all his might. “Ahoy!”
But the landing party could not hear him over the pounding of the surf, and neither did they see what Smith could see from the vantage of the Susan Constant’s deck: the glide of tense, muscular bodies approaching, the sinister crouch, the flick of a deadly hand-sign among the seaside brush.
One of them rose up from the seagrass, a full head taller than any Englishman, the glaring face split red and black like a devil from a child’s nightmare. In one rapid, unthinking movement the natural raised a bow, drew, released; before Smith’s eyes could track the first arrow another was on the string, and then it was flying. The strand exploded in a confusion of bodies, the red-and-black of the naturals rising from concealment, the panicked flash of sun on armor as the men turned and cried out and blundered into one another. Somebody got off a shot; a ball of powder smoke expanded in slow motion; an instant later the report of the fired matchlock cracked across Smith’s ears. Somebody – Archer, Smith thought – held aloft both hands in a pleading gesture, and fell back on the sand, writhing.
“Cannon,” somebody bellowed in warning. Smith clapped his hands to his ears in the same instant the cannon fired. The Susan Constant shuddered, a deep, bone-jarring, sickening tremor. The sulfurous stink of gunpowder burned Smith’s nostrils and eyes.
The devils on the shore fled.
The landing party scrambled back to their boat and rowed frantically for the Susan Constant. By the time they were hauled aboard, Wingfield was shaking and pale. He kept whatever great oratory he’d composed to himself.
The men hauled Archer out of the boat, lay him carefully on the deck. The man made a repetitive rasping grunt which now and then turned to a high-pitched squeal of panic before he controlled himself and fell back to his gentlemanly grunting. Smith pushed through the crowd and gazed down at Archer. Each hand streamed blood, pierced right through the palms with a pair of sturdy arrows. Another man, one of the sailors, clutched at his thigh where another matched set of arrows bristled.
“Right,” Scrivener shouted. “Bring some rum to dull their wits. Russell, boil a pot of wine. We’ll need to clean their wounds. Where’s the ship’s boy? Thomas Savage, bring me your sewing kit.”
Wingfield turned to stare out at the shore, and made no move to direct the men. Smith sidled up to him.
“Unfortunate,” Smith said quietly.
The glare Wingfield turned on him was sharp and dangerous, thick with loathing.
“I do think,” Smith murmured, trying, for Scrivener’s sake, to put some deference into his words, “that now would be an ideal time to open the box.”
“The box,” Wingfield burst out. He took a threatening step toward Smith, and Smith thought for one welcome moment that Wingfield might strike him, might give him the chance to retaliate. Then the man reined himself in, and seized the point of his beard in a shaking fist. “An excellent idea, John Smith.”
The sealed box was sent for, and once the men’s wounds were well in hand, Wingfied unsheathed his dagger, broke the wax with a flourish, and pried open the lid. The parchment inside was tidily rolled. It hissed as it came open in Wingfield’s hands.
“By decree of the Virginia Company,” Wingfield said, voice booming, “a ruling council of seven is appointed. The council shall consist of: Edward-Maria Wingfield, gentleman and shareholder…” he took a long and savory moment to stare into Smith’s eyes. “Bartholomew Gosnold, gentleman and shareholder; John Ratcliffe, gentleman; Christopher Newport, captain of the Susan Constant; George Kendall, gentleman and investor; John Martin, gentleman…”
Wingfield stopped short. The men on the deck shuffled, jostling one another, murmuring.
“And?” Matthew Scrivener prompted.
“And John Smith, soldier and adventurer,” Wingfield concluded. His mouth twisted, a sour, hate-filled leer.
Smith stepped to Wingfield’s side. He held out his wrists to his fellow councilman, presenting the fetters lock side up. He had come to a new world, and John Smith would never wear chains again.