Episode 17: The Leviathan Belle
I peered over the railing, watching the murky brown swirls of the James River twist and twirl around random branches and floating debris caught in the current as the steamboat chugged forward. The raging waters reminded me of the gnarled tree roots that plagued my dream.
Like the lacy icing on tiers of a wedding cake, all three decks of the steamboat the Leviathan Belle were beautifully trimmed. The top two were for the passengers, but we slipped the captain a few extra notes to allow us to stay on the bottom tier and leave our horses tethered to a railing. Last ones on, first ones off was our thinking. Since the boat was filled to capacity, it took little persuading beyond the money passed under the table and the promise to stick close to the horses.
Fingering the wedge of smooth obsidian glass on the leather cord around my neck, the charm Ellie had given me, my thoughts floated to the horrors lurking in the woods, demon trees and rotting undead corpses.
Even in the shade of the lower level, the sun found the charm and flashed off its smooth, dark surface. The gleam caught my attention, revealing something embedded deep within the glass, an imperfection or object suspended within the crystal. I held it up by the cord, letting it dangle in front of my nose as I strained for a closer look.
The deck rocked as the mighty boat pushed its way down the river. The horses whinnied, shaking me from my thoughts, and I released the leather cord, letting the prism fall to my chest. The glass was cool against the skin beneath the neck of my shirt. I turned to tend our horses, who restlessly pranced as their reins constricted their movement.
“They don’t seem to like the Leviathan Belle much.” Al said, petting his horse’s muzzle while trying to feed her an apple. “It’s alright, girl. We’ll be there soon.”
The horse threw her head back and raised her hind legs in the air, like the blades of Pa’s windmill. The whites of her eyes and teeth flashed.
“Easy. Easy.” Al backed away, took a chomp out of the apple, and joined me at the rail.
“I don’t blame ‘em much,” I said. “Hooves are for rambling through meadows and racing down dirt roads.”
Al finished the apple in a couple bites and tossed the core over the side of the boat. “Maybe we should have left them behind.”
“We’re going to need them when we get to Richmond,” I said. “Time is something we don’t have much of and I want to take care of business and get back to Maddie…”
“—and Miss Ellie.” A glimmer of mischief sparked in Al’s eyes.
Ignoring his teasing gaze, I closing my eyes and let the breeze brush the hair from my face. I could feel his mocking stare burn into the back of my skull. “And yes—back to Ellie.” My fingers instinctively went to the pendant when I said her name.
He chuckled, making me want to avoid his brotherly pestering even more.
I opened my eyes and peered deep into the woods lining the riverbank, watching the thicket of mossy limbs and shadowed crevices pass by. I stared long and hard into the shifting shadows, imaginary phantoms stalking us from the shade. My thoughts went back to the forest surrounding Albright Acres. Were there sinister forces encroaching on the family homestead—and the people I loved—this very minute?
“Hey, snap out of it.” Al shook my shoulder, pulling me from my thoughts. The slapping of the steam-powered paddle wheel gently churned at the back of the ship. “I guess the horses ain’t the only things spooked.”
I turned back to Al. “Just a little antsy to get off this thing.”
“I know. I’m not sure I like this either, but it sure beats sittin’ in the saddle for five days.” Al kicked his boot onto the lower rail, balanced his weight forward, and leaned on his knee.
I nodded, and caught myself fidgeting with Ellie’s charm again. Al’s gaze landed on it, and I let it fall from my fingers. It was too late for him not to notice.
“Hey, what’s that? Are you wearing jewelry?” His eyes lit up—he noticed.
“Oh, it’s nothing.” I fumbled trying to hide it inside my shirt.
“Yeah? Is it something your girl gave you,” Al said in a sickly sweet tone.
“Give it a rest. It’s just a little token, a charm for a safe return, and with everything that’s been going lately, we could use every bit of luck we can get.” I changed the subject. “So where do you think Ana ran off to?
Al scratched his head and rubbed his chin. “I’m not sure what to make of it. I thought we had a connection. You’d think she would have at least said goodbye or something.” His voice dripped with unnatural sarcasm, almost covering the disappointment in his words.
“Oh, I’m sure it was hard for her to pull herself away from a charmer such as yourself,” I teased. My thoughts went to our ride through the woods and when we came across her empty campsite. There was no steam-powered coach or pot of stew simmering over the fire—not even a snare to trap us. A smouldering pile of charred logs and some wheel tracks in the dirt were the only pieces of evidence left behind. “Funny though, there wasn’t much showing she was ever there.”
“I hope the blood-sucking tree didn’t get her,” Al said, tripping over his words.
“That’s not funny.”
“Come on, Pike. You don’t really believe any of that Jubokko mumbo jumbo, do you?”
“All I’m saying is a lot of crazy stuff has happened since we’ve come home, and we don’t exactly have explanations for most of it.”
Baku drifted out from the shadows of the deck like a phantom, the sound of his voice startling us. “Captain says we’ll make Richmond by morning.”
“The sooner the better,” I said.
“Thirsty?” Baku handed Al a canteen.
He peered into the black hole of the canteen and gave it a sniff.
“It’s water. Sorry, no whiskey.” Baku chuckled, and I couldn’t stop the smirk playing on my lips.
A deckhand whistled, and we both turned to see him standing high on the boat’s railing, thrusting his torso out over the bow and into the daylight, and pointing at the sky. “Look! It’s an airship, an airship!” He hollered and threw his hand up to shield his eyes from the blazing sun. His announcement summoned passengers and crew to the side of the ship.
Drifting closer than it should have, a metal carriage suspended from a gigantic balloon passed over the stern of the steamboat.
A trio of poshly dressed patrons—man, woman, and young boy—sauntered up to the railing next to us. Bored with the passenger accommodations above, no doubt, they must have wandered their way down here to explore the underbelly of the ship. Their faces filled with excitement as they peered up into the sky.
The woman was youthful and elegantly dressed in the softest shade of pink. Her ringlet curls bounced and the grand hoop of her skirt swooshed as she brushed by us and took her place at a vacant spot on the railing. Her gaze caught Al’s and he winked at her, making her cheeks blush and match the hue of her gown.
“What’s that? What’s that?” The boy said, fighting his way to the top of the railing.
The dapper gentleman clenched the back of the boy’s shirt to prevent him from falling over the edge. “A zeppelin, son.” The man addressed the child with a loving tone while throwing Al a dirty look.
The air machine swung by, passing us on on our starboard side. It was high in the air, but close enough so we could hear the faint sputtering of its engines.
I pulled the hatchet from my holster and pushed the button to release the miniature spyglass from the handle. Bringing the device to my eye, I extended the scope and turned the lens like a kaleidoscope, and the flight carriage of the airship came into crisp focus. There was movement inside, but I was not able to hone in on the crew or passengers.
I scanned the gleaming copper and rivets as the ship drifted by. It looked like a larger version of the downed airship at Albright Acres, and a symbol molded into the metal wall of the flight carriage caught my eye. I’d seen it so many times in recent days as I went through the paperwork in Pa’s study. The insignia was embossed in the metal, just like in the wax seals of envelopes and the signatures of numerous letters. “Blacksmiths,” I whispered.
“Come again?” There was a tinge of alarm in Baku’s voice.
“There’s an insignia on the side of the airship.” I handed the looking glass to him. “I’ve seen it before. Take a look.”
“Let me see. Let me see.” Al sounded like the little-boy passenger still stretching over the railing, trying to hold onto his view of the airship as it floated by.
Baku took a noticeably hard swallow as he peered through the glass.
The zeppelin overtook us and pulled out of viewing range before Al had a chance to look. Soon a trail of exhaust was all that was left of the airborne carriage, now just a speck as it cruised toward the horizon and rounded the river bend.
We slept on the deck that night, swapping war stories for tales of Baku’s travels until one by one we fell asleep. I was the first to nod off and the last to wake, stirred by the clamor of deckhands preparing the boat for docking.
As I stood and stretched, I looked across the water and beheld the Richmond skyline.
“We made good time.” Baku appeared next to me and leaned on the railing.
I nodded, watching the men work in the shipyard and the construction crews bustling along the shore, repairing the war-damaged city. My thoughts drifted back to Albright Acres. Would we find what we needed to rebuild our lives in the vaults deep within the Bank of Richmond? Somehow I knew it would take more than a will to solve our problems.
Stay tuned! We’re taking the summer to work on multiple projects, including more episodes of SPLINTER! Episodes will resume at the beginning of September! See you then.