The Passage of the Coral Horn.
By D. Nathan Hilliard
“Unable to move anything but his eyes, he just stared at me. I wiped the ichor off my dagger, met his gaze, and then slashed his wrist. There really wasn’t anything that needed saying.
After all, we were both professionals.”
—Cargill of Khrem, from The Ways of Khrem.
“Is it still back there, Croe?”
The weathered old mariner squinted down at the young deckhand, then back astern over the tiller. The crevices in his salt baked skin were like chasms, adding years to a visage already cracked by age. His pale blue eyes appeared washed out from uncounted decades sailing the sun drenched Cambriatic Sea, but the boy knew he had the sharpest vision of the crew.
“Aye, lad. It’s still back there. Where else would it be?”
“And you’re sure it’s Tagarr?”
“Aye,” the old man chuckled, “It’s a Tagarr two-master. You worried about something, Ros?”
“Well, it’s just—it’s just that I’ve heard the Tagarr can be dangerous if encountered alone out on the open sea.” Ros tried to sound unconcerned, but the stories weighed on his mind. He idly swabbed the sun-baked deck with his long handled brush so he could stay near the steersman and talk uninterrupted.
“They can be…sometimes.” The old man replied. His relaxed demeanor suggested he didn’t feel this to be one of those times.
“Because of their god?”
“Aye, lad. Because of their god. Moleg demands sacrifice for each successful voyage of a Tagarr ship, or the next one might not be so successful…if you know what I mean…and the Tagarr are pretty damn fanatical about seeing he gets it. Now a little fishing skiff can get away with the sacrifice of a few fish, but bigger boats and longer voyages…well, I guess you could say the price goes up.”
The boy peered at the tiny dot on the horizon.
“But a two-master, that’s a pretty big ship. Right?”
“Aye. Big enough to incur the price you’re worrying about, if that’s what you mean.”
“So the stories are true!” The boy realized the entire crew knew this was his first voyage, so he really had no reason to avoid looking ignorant.
“They’re true.” The old man grunted. “The big Tagarr ships bring back a live man…or woman or child, I suppose…and the crew takes him up the side of Mount Omber. That’s where the idol of Moleg is. It’s this huge, ugly stone head with a big open mouth. And that mouth is full of fire, like a furnace. Some Tagarr say that’s really Moleg’s head, and that he’s buried up to his neck in the mountain. You can see the mouth and eyes of the idol glowing at night, even when you’re a half day offshore from the island.”
“And they throw him inside?”
“Aye. They throw them in the mouth…alive.”
“And you’re sure that’s a Tagarr ship out there?” Ros forgot about his deck scrubbing for a moment, and cast another worried look at the distant speck.
“It’s a Tagarr,” the old man assured him with a chuckle, “but you can quit worrying about him. He’s heading the same way we are. That means he’s either heading to do business in Khrem, or more likely to pick up goods in Khrem and then keep heading north to trade along the shores of the Akartic. Either way, he won’t be worrying about grabbing a sacrifice until it’s time to head back…and then he’ll probably just buy a slave up north, or grab some straggler from one of the coastal villages. If I were you I would worry more about Topai catching you standing here jawing, than another merchant ship. Topai is a lot closer.”
Croe nodded towards the foredeck, where the brutish first mate emerged from the door to the lower decks.
Stripped to the waist, with his topknot pulled up high, the squat man looked every bit the tribesman from the Southern Continent. His muscular torso gleamed under the noonday sun, with the two tribal brands shining white against the swarthy skin of his chest. But it was the short lash that he carried at his belt that concerned Ros the most.
While Topai might not be excessive with its use, he still wouldn’t hesitate to bring it into play if he caught somebody shirking from their assigned duties. Ros had only felt the sting of that lash once, but he had no desire to repeat the experience.
He bent to the task of scrubbing the deck, leaving the conversation with Croe till after he finished the chore. Once done, he would have an hour or two to rest before being sent up to inspect the sails in the afternoon calm. He knew his current job amounted to mere busy work, but it would still earn him a stripe if he got caught sloughing off. There were only ten crewmen on the Coral Horn, but it took a creative first mate to see that they didn’t become too idle on the small Hessellian vessel.
Anyways, he wanted to be in Topai’s and Captain Roth’s good graces when they reached Khrem in four days. Shore leave in the greatest city known to man was a reward he had no intention of endangering this late in the trip. And Croe said he would get a third of his pay when they arrived, in case he wanted to buy anything while there. Just the thought of wandering the huge city filled him with anticipation.
Perhaps a little bauble from the markets of Khrem would be just the thing to convince a certain young brunette back home that he counted amongst the type worth waiting for while out on long sea voyages. Come to think of it, some kind of ring…something foreign looking and exotic…might just be what the situation called for. It would prove he could be counted on to raise her out of the poverty of her mother’s hut.
He could picture himself pulling the ring from a little cloth bag, and reveling in Anilee’s delighted squeals!
Then there would be kissing. Oh yes…kissing, and holding, and burying his face in her neck and hair. He could imagine the scent of her hair. He would kiss her ears, then her neck, then…
“You keep holding brush like that…” Topai’s brusk voice intruded, “…you marry it.”
Ros came back out of his daydream to the hoots and laughter of the rest of the crew. He held the long pole of the brush against his cheek, clutched in both hands in a way not at all useful for scrubbing. A glance to his right revealed the old steersman looking out to sea, slowly losing the battle to hide his own amusement. It was the first time he had seen Croe smile the entire voyage.
“Only at sea two weeks,” Topai trudged away, shaking his head. “Two weeks and hugging brush. Three weeks…he kiss it for sure.”
Hilarity now rocked the decks.
The blood rushing to his face, Ros ducked his head and went back to scrubbing the deck…his crewmates calling out good natured suggestions on where to take his brush on their first date when the boat reached Khrem.
Ros jerked awake in his hammock, instantly alert. Light blossomed from the nearby lantern as Pelig the Cook, carried out his assigned alarm duty with practiced speed. Nobody spoke as the other inhabitants of the cramped forward compartment leapt to their assigned duties with practiced precision…with Ros’ role being to lie still and stay out of the way as the more experienced crewmen bent to their tasks.
Within thirty seconds, the other five crewmen had completed their preparations and headed up on deck, leaving Ros behind. The young sailor slipped down to the floor as the last of his older shipmates left the room, and turned to take care of his own job in this situation. Moving with rehearsed rapidity, he unhooked and stowed the hammocks, leaving clear room to work or move in case they needed the forward compartment for any reason.
As he worked, he kept one ear trained for sounds from above, trying to divine the nature of the emergency. His first thought centered on the Tagarr freighter shadowing them on the horizon earlier. Croe hadn’t been concerned, but when it came to being thrown alive into the burning mouths of foreign gods, Ros chose to follow the voices of his own fears as opposed to the glib guarantees of others.
After shoving the last hammock in place, he did a quick survey of the floor to make sure it remained clear of any other obstacles, then headed out on deck.
Topside, the full moon hung against a cloudless vault of stars, over a sea almost as calm as glass.
Only the lanterns beside the doors to the lower decks glowed in the night, giving soft illumination of the deck but little else. The captain and crew were lined up against the starboard rail, peering out into the night and talking in hushed voices. The murmured tones against the gentle creak of the ship filled the night with portent, and Ros hurried to the rail to join his shipmates. Following the pointing arms of his comrades, he gazed out into the moonlit sea.
It was a ship.
The specter of the Tagarr vessel reared in his mind, but then he realized this ship lay forward and to starboard. A black silhouette against the waters, it sat about half a mile out in unnatural silence. No glint of lantern or snatch of conversation came back from the distant craft.
“What can you see, Croe?” The Captain’s baritone cut through the dark. “Why the hell is she running without lights?” He uttered this last more to himself.
“She’s Palidesian, sir. At least that’s her make.” The old man squinted out into the night, while the Captain beside him tried to use his spyglass. “A three-master…well over 400 tons. We’d have to get closer for me to tell you more than that.”
Once again, Ros found himself astounded at the old man’s eyesight. He knew the steersman was Palidesian himself, and surely familiar with his nation’s ship designs, but to see the details necessary to make that determination in this darkness was amazing. The only thing he could tell about the distant ship was she was much bigger than the Coral Horn.
“She must see us,” the Captain lowered the glass and frowned at the distant ship. “We have our lanterns lit, and we’re sitting right here big as brass.
“Could she be hiding from something?” this from the second mate, Barnas.
“Out here?” the Captain mused aloud. “And from what? I imagine even that Tagarr freighter behind us would rather hunt smaller prey than tangle with the likes of her. We’re also too far out for coastal pirates, and she shouldn’t be worrying about any hostile navies this close to Khrem.”
“You got me, Cap’n,” the second mate shrugged. “But there she sits…all dark and quiet as a shut temple.”
The Captain pinched his lower lip and glowered out at the mysterious hulk.
“Topai!” he yelled. “Ring the bell. Let’s be polite and make sure she knows we’re here.”
The ship’s bell rang out over the dark waters, a lonely peal swallowed without a hint of an echo by the Cambriatic night. The first mate rang in three sets of three, the standard greeting and announcement of one’s presence on these waters, and then waited. The crew leaned on the rail, trying to hear anything in return from the distant ship.
No bell, shout, nor any other form of hail came from the hulk. Nothing but silence answered the call of the Coral Horn’s bell. The crew broke out in nervous muttering, uneasy in the presence of the mute giant, and for the first time Ros began to worry about something other than the Tagarr to the aft. Even an unfriendly reply to steer clear would have been welcome at this point.
“Alright then,” the Captain scratched his beard. “I reckon we’ve given anybody over there fair warning we’re here. Let’s take a closer look.”
The eyes of the entire crew settled on the portly Captain.
“Topai!” Captain Roth ignored their looks. “You take the helm and steer us towards her. Croe, you stay here and let us know if you see anything. Barnas, you get some men to hang a couple more lanterns. I want to be sure that ship sees us coming, but I don’t want us to light up to the point it makes the Tagarr back there curious. The rest of you look sharp and get to your stations.”
As if freed from a spell, the men broke away from the railing and scurried to their various places on the ship. Ros moved to the railing near the Captain, ready to run and fetch anything requested, or carry orders not convenient to shout. Normally nervous about being this close to the master of the ship, the boy actually felt grateful about his place as this would let him listen in on whatever talk transpired between Croe and the Captain.
With only the faintest of breezes available, the ship moved slowly even under full sail. The distance between the two vessels closed with agonizing slowness, giving the old steersman more time to look the other craft over.
“Captain,” he reported after they closed about half the distance, “I think she’s a derelict.”
“That would explain the lack of response,” the portly Hessellian replied, “but what are you going by?” He continued to stare suspiciously at the approaching hulk.
“The sails, Captain. The jib is torn, probably from that storm two nights ago, and hasn’t been repaired. Can’t see them too clearly yet, but a lot of the other sails ain’t hanging right either.”
“You think they abandoned ship? In a storm? It wasn’t much of a storm, but I can’t see anybody wanting to ride it out in a lifeboat. And the storm shouldn’t have been much threat to that ship.”
“Probably before, Captain. Like you said, it wasn’t much of a storm, but I’m sure they would have struck their sails if they had been aboard when it hit.”
“Plague ship, maybe?”
“Perhaps,” the old sailor grunted. “But I ain’t never heard of a plague that killed off every single member of a crew, especially on a ship that size, and all at the same time. That ship’s been adrift for at least three days, but not more than five. Besides, I can see one of the lifeboats missing…but only one. Somebody got off, but left a lot of people behind.”
“Then it could be plague, and the survivors took the boat.”
“Maybe,” Croe shrugged in the darkness, “but it don’t feel right. That still leaves an awful lot of people suddenly up and dying at the same time. You would think there would be a few still dragging themselves around, maybe able to reach their bell and answer our hail.”
The Captain grunted, and the trio watched the distant hulk draw closer.
Ros peered aft, scanning the horizon for any sign of the Tagarr ship he knew had to be back there. There were a couple of tiny points of light on the horizon that could have been ship lanterns, or merely stars. Either way, it was still at least a couple of hours back unless the wind picked up. He wondered if the sound of their bell had carried that far.
“Captain,” Croe’s soft voice spoke again in the dark, “I know that ship. That’s the Princess Argentia.”
Ros looked back to see the great vessel now even closer, the tops of its masts silhouetted against the low moon. This close, even he could see how its sails hung in disarray.
“You sure about that?” the Captain sounded skeptical, making his Hessellian accent more pronounced. “The Princess Argentia runs silk between Anckot and Khrem. She’s a pretty far off course if that’s her.”
“About four days off course if she were abandoned while coming around the Pillar of Antus, which would jibe with the condition of her sails.” The old steersman leaned forward and pointed at the masts of the approaching ship, “See that double crow’s nest? Ain’t no other ship got one set up like that. That’s the Princess Argentia, no doubt about it.”
Ros followed the man’s finger, squinting at the odd shaped mass silhouetted against the moon at the top of the main mast. He didn’t know how it differed from others, but made a mental note that it did.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” Captain Roth mused, “it is her. I don’t see any plague banners hanging from her crosstrees, though. You, Croe?”
“No, Captain,” the old man frowned up at the looming ship. “That don’t mean they were being terribly picky about custom at the time though.”
“I had a drink once with Captain Orless of the Princess Argentia,” Captain Roth muttered, “and he struck me as a meticulous man…the real picky type.” He scratched his beard thoughtfully for another minute then turned around. “Topai! I want you to pull along side of her in her shadow. That way the Tagarr will only see one dot in the dark when they get closer, instead of two. It’ll be a while before they’re close enough to make out that ship is too big to be us.”
“Aye.” The first mate grunted without further comment and adjusted the heading.
“Barnas! Belay that order on the lanterns! Get the men together for a boarding party.”
“Aye, aye, Captain! Weapons?”
“Break out the sabers. I don’t think we’re going to need them, but it won’t hurt to be careful.”
“Aye, Captain!” The second mate slid down from the crosstree after dousing the lanterns and headed below decks.
“What are you thinking, Captain?” It wasn’t a challenge, merely a mild request from the old steersman.
“I’m thinking, Croe, that shore pirates have been known to base themselves around the Pillar of Antus this time of year. I’m thinking if there were enough of them, and they had a rash leader, they just might feel brave enough to tackle something like the Princess Argentia. I’m thinking they tried to swarm her with shore boats.”
“That would be a hell of a fight,” Croe whistled softly.
“Aye, and the pirates might not have realized that until they were aboard and couldn’t run. Then neither side can surrender, and they fight down to the last remaining stragglers.”
“Which would probably be from the crew of the Princess,” Croe mused.
“Aye, but maybe not enough left to man her.”
“Especially with a storm coming on.”
“Exactly, and they’re close to shore so breaking out a lifeboat and making for land is a sensible alternative.”
“But what about the sails?”
“I figure the pirates made the mistake of wanting to take the ship whole for their own use.”
“Damnation.” the old sailor shook his head. “I suppose that would fit the picture in front of us, Captain.” Despite saying that, he didn’t look happy.
“Aye, and I’m figuring one more thing. While they would have taken the ship’s strongbox with them, the rest of it will still be in there. Just one crate of those silks would be worth ten times our entire cargo. And I’m betting we can fit four of them on the Coral Horn, maybe six if the Tagarr give us the time. And there will be plenty left behind to keep the Tagarr busy.”
By this time, the rest of the crew had gathered round and were listening to the conversation with large eyes and intent faces.
“You hear that, men?” Captain Roth turned and addressed them, “If we can get four crates of silk off her…just four…all of your shares jump from one to forty-one. Just like that.” He snapped his fingers. “Even young Ros here can set himself up well…with a real girl if he wants, too.”
The men laughed and cheered, and if any held apprehensions about the approaching hulk, they must have vanished with the snap of Captain Roth’s fingers and the thought of those shares. The crew leapt into action, gathering the ropes and tools needed for boarding.
“You hear that, Croe?” Ros exulted, ignoring the joke at his expense. “We’re going to be rich!”
With her sails now struck, the Coral Horn drifted with slow silence past the prow and into the shadow of the much larger ship. The dark outline of the prow covered one sailor after another, as they stood lined up on the railing, the darkness swallowing each of them in turn.
“Ready grapples,” Barnas called. “Heave!”
Three lines snaked through the night air, arcing over the railing of the Princess Argentia. One after another they drug and snagged, jerking the smaller ship to a stop. The crew moved with the speed born of both eagerness and anxiety, hauling on the ropes to pull the two ships tighter together. Topai moved among them, making sure the lines were secured properly.
“Okay,” the Captain spoke in a hushed tone. “We want to do this fast and right. We’re going up there, and doing a quick search of the deck. Barnas you take two men forward with you, I’ll take two men aft with me. After we cover the main deck, we’ll move down into the lower decks and holds.
“Topai,” he continued. “You stay on the Horn, along with Croe, Pelig, and the boy. Cover that last lantern. It won’t look right to the Tagarr out there, sitting beside the shadow of the ship instead of on it. We’ll break it out again once we’ve secured the crates of silk and we’re ready to move them to the Horn. Croe, take your station at the tiller. We’re lashed tight but we might need to change that in a hurry.”
Men moved with purpose in the dark, two scurrying up the ropes to the deck of the big ship and dropping a rope ladder for the rest below.
Croe gestured at him, and Ros followed the steersman aft, where the two of them could watch the activity from a distance.
“They ain’t even looking for survivors now,” the old man muttered where only Ros could hear. “Gods help the poor bastard if they find one.”
“What do you mean?” Ros looked over at the shadow of the steersman.
The mariner watched the shadows of the crew clamber up the sides of the ship before answering.
“I mean if you hear a cry or scream, you just shut your mouth and don’t mention it after this is over. Understood?”
The boy could only gape at the old sailor.
“Understood?” Croe demanded again.
“Yes, sir,” Ros gulped.
As the two of them watched the silhouette of the last crewman disappear over the railing of the Princess Argentia above, Ros found his enthusiasm of earlier gone. Now a sour feeling rose in his throat as he considered the old man’s words.
“So we’re pirates, then?” he whispered.
“We’re men out on the ocean with an opportunity to get rich and nobody looking,” the old sailor grunted. “That kind of reduces the rules to…suggestions.”
“Boy,” Croe rounded on the young crewman, “you think very carefully about ever using that word again. Those crewmates of yours won’t thank you for using it… maybe because it might cut just a little too close to the bone, but that won’t help your cause any. The fact is they didn’t come out here hunting for spoil, that’s what a pirate does, but they just had it land in their laps.”
“You still think they’re doing the wrong thing, don’t you Croe?”
“I think they’re blinded by visions of gold, and they ain’t thinking this through. They ain’t willing to consider any idea that doesn’t put those crates of silks on our decks. For instance, the first thing shore pirates tend to do is fire a big ship’s sails so it can’t run, yet there they hang.”
“But the Captain said…”
“The Captain said what he wanted to believe, even though they could have gotten more sails later.”
The young man stared at his older shipmate in dawning realization.
“You’re scared about something!”
“Shhh!!! Damn right, I am!” the old man hissed. “So would the rest of the crew be if the Captain hadn’t dangled all that silk in front of their faces. This ain’t right.”
“So you do think it’s wrong.”
“Not like that, you damn fool. You can moralize about it to yourself later. That’s what you get to do after everything is over and you get away alive. Right now I’m saying there’s something wrong with this whole situation. What in the watery hells can wipe out almost an entire crew of a big ship like that and force the rest to abandon ship at the same time?”
The lack of sureness usually present in the old man’s voice was beginning to unnerve the young sailor.
“And look at that,” Croe pointed up into the tangled silhouette of the bigger ship’s riggings.”They had their lanterns hung. Whatever it was, happened at night. Those men abandoned ship at night, with a storm coming.” He fished a large chunk of tobacco out of his tunic pocket and bit off a piece. The steersman continued to watch the big derelict while he chewed and got the wad situated correctly in his cheek. Then he spat over the railing before speaking again. “No lad, I got a funny feeling you can rest easy over us cutting some poor survivor’s throat. I don’t think there’s anybody over there.”
Ros digested that piece of information, while the pair of them stood in the darkness by the tiller.
He had felt sick over the possibility that they might be raiding a ship with survivors aboard, but now Croe had him spooked even worse. Tales of ghost ships he heard as a boy rose in his mind, along with their lurid endings of dragging unlucky sailors who messed with them down to the watery hells. The hulk that loomed over them fit the descriptions of those stories with uncomfortable accuracy.
Ros tried to keep his fears to himself, not wanting to look more like a wet behind the ears kid than he was, but he found himself becoming seriously concerned over the length of time since they had heard anything from the boarding party. He started counting to himself silently, promising himself that he wouldn’t say anything until he had counted to three hundred. The last thing he wanted was another lecture tonight.
He only made it to one hundred and eighty.
“Boy,” the old steersman ordered quietly in the dark, “go tell Topai I said something is wrong. Tell him I think we might need to be ready for trouble. Don’t say nothing, just go. Now.”
Ros didn’t have to be told twice.
He moved along the railing and down the steps to the middeck. After two weeks on board the Coral Horn, he had his sea legs, but moving on the small craft in darkness like this was a new experience. It took him a few seconds to locate the first mate, standing by the main mast in the darkness.
“Topai,” he whispered, the old man’s demeanor rubbing off on him. “Croe says something’s wrong. He said to tell you to be ready for trouble.”
The squat native stood there silently with his arms folded, peering up at the bigger ship. Ros started to doubt if the man even heard him, but then the first mate grunted and nodded for him to follow. He strode to the door to the aft compartment, opened it, and stepped inside. Ros waited at the door, forbidden to enter the aft crew compartment without explicit orders. This was where the officers bunked, and the weapons were stored.
Topai emerged a moment later with four sabers under his arm. Saying nothing, he handed three to the young sailor then resumed his place beside the main mast.
Ros wondered if the man ever spoke more than twenty words on a given day.
With harried care, he hustled back to Croe and handed him one of the sabers. The old steersman took it without comment, then surprised the boy by giving it a few test flourishes. He handled the weapon with a skill that surprised the young sailor, drawing an exclamation of surprise.
“Gods, Croe!” he whispered, “Where did you learn to handle a sword like that?”
“The school of necessity. Now go give Pelig his so he won’t be standing there with nothing but his thumb up his butt. Tell him I said it ain’t a cleaver so to try not to stab himself in the foot with it…come to think of it, that goes for you to.”
“Thanks a lot.”
“You’re welcome. Now get on with it.”
Ros grumbled as he headed forwards again. Being the junior member of the crew and doing all the fetching and carrying was bad enough without being on the receiving end of every barb and joke…it never stopped, even in times like this. Using the rail as his guide, he worked his way back to where he remembered the cook taking a station at the furthest rope.
He passed Topai down on the middeck, but the stolid first mate did or said nothing to acknowledge him. The man simply stood there, continuing to watch the rail of the bigger ship above, as unreadable as a post.
Coming up on the foredeck, he scanned the darkness. Even with his dark adjusted eyes, it took him a moment to locate the cook leaning over the rail.
“Pelig!” he whispered with urgency. “Croe thinks we got trouble. I got you a saber.”
Pelig did not acknowledge his presence.
No answer came from the black shadow bent over the rail, and Ros came to realize the cook hadn’t moved since he arrived.
“Pelig? Are you sick?”
He felt stupid the second he said it. The cook had been sailing these seas for the past twenty years, and probably wouldn’t appreciate the insinuation of sea sickness from a newcomer like him.
But that feeling passed after a few more seconds when the man still didn’t respond.
“Pelig?” He reached for the cook’s shoulder.
That’s when several things happened at once.
Just before his hand fell on Pelig’s shoulder, the cook’s outline writhed in a way that made no sense at all. His back seemed to grow a hump that moved of its own accord, and in a way that brought every hair on Ros’ body erect. It hissed, but before it could move further the cook’s knees buckled, and caused his body to flop backwards from the rail and sprawl on top of whatever crawled on his back.
Ros shrieked at the sight of segmented legs struggling by his foot from beneath the body, and fell over backwards himself.
“Topai!” Croe’s voice barked. “We need light! Now!”
At any other time he would have stopped and marveled at the tone the old man used while addressing the first mate, but at the moment he was too busy trying to scuttle away from the thing struggling to free itself from beneath the cook. He didn’t know if it was some kind of crab or what, but he knew it didn’t belong there and didn’t want near it. He just wished he could see the thing better.
A second later he changed his mind.
Topai reached the top of the stairs to the foredeck, holding the lantern high and bringing the small forward deck under its illumination. In the soft golden glow of the light, the pale gray creature that struggled to free itself from under the cook came into sharp relief.
It was a spider.
And it had a body about the size of Ros’ fist.
It’s hard, shiny legs scrabbled at the deck and, with a final twist and jerk, it pulled itself free. It wasted no time at all in righting itself and scuttling straight for the young sailor with raised fangs.
Ros shrieked and slashed the saber at it as he crabbed backwards.
The blade hit the spider with a brittle “crunch,” snapping one of its legs and sending the thing skidding across the deck. It recovered in an instant and came straight back with relentless ferocity. Ros continued crawling backwards, while trying to regain his feet at the same time. He left a trail of blood where the saber had cut into his foot after hitting the spider, and his ankle folded as he tried to put more weight on it.
Ros went down with a scream, trying to twist to keep the approaching horror in sight. The maneuver resulted in him landing on his sword arm, pinning it beneath him. He had just enough time to see the creature close the gap and gather itself for a leap…
…when it disappeared with a crunchy squelch under Topai’s boot.
“Spider’s dead,” the first mate grunted. “Stop yelling.”
The young sailor realized he had still been screaming, and fought to recover control.
He hoped Topai was too busy to notice any new odors in the chaos, or he would really be in for a good ribbing. He would need to sneak down to his locker for his spare pants at the first opportunity. Fortunately, it appeared the first mate had other demands on his attention.
“Topai!” Croe called from the other end of the boat. “The ropes!”
Topai turned and raised the lantern, illuminating a vista that caused even the taciturn tribesman to gasp.
The railing of the Princess Argentia was alive with spiders…all as big as or bigger than the one they had just killed. Even worse, several were now making their way down the ropes lashing the two ships together.
Croe had already cut the rope at the rear of the ship and was moving towards the one amid ship. The whites of the old man’s eyes showed wide in the dim light of the lantern, even at half a ship’s length.
“Wait!” the first mate yelled. “The Captain!”
“He’s dead! They’re all dead! And if we don’t cut these ropes, we’re dead too!”
A spider leaped at the old man from the line he was hacking at, but Croe swatted it out of the air with an expert swipe of the saber. The steersman wasted no time in getting back to work on the rope.
Topai only hesitated a second, then strode towards the line that the cook had been manning. With two powerful swings of his saber he severed it. The sound of several splashes accompanied the rope falling limp against the side of the bigger vessel as a group of spiders plummeted to the water below.
“Boy!” the first mate shouted. “Man a pole. We have to push off!” He marched down to where the poles were secured along the midship railing and pulled two free. Tossing one to the steersman, the two men snaked the poles out over the railing and placed the ends against the hull of the bigger vessel. Backs and arms strained as they leaned into the task.
Ros stumbled to his feet and limped over to grab a pole of his own.
Pulling one free, he hobbled over a few feet to give the two men room, then ran the length of ash out to touch the opposite hull. The boy flinched as a pale gray form fell past the shaft and into the sea. Then he leaned into the pole with all his might, fear powering his muscles. It felt like he was pushing against a cliff face, nothing seemed to budge.
The Coral Horn did not mass half that of the larger ship, but this still counted as a job for six men. With only half that, nothing happened in a hurry.
Again, the three men strained against the poles, pushing with everything they had to separate themselves from the infested ship. More gray shapes started to fall from the upper rail, and Topai was forced to drop his pole when a spider the size of a dinner plate landed on the shaft and scuttled towards him. But since it was a six man job, three more poles lay at the ready to be grabbed. The first mate had another one in hand within a second and went back to work.
After an agonizing pause…long enough that Ros lost a pole to a spider as well, and had to fetch another…the boy realized he had to lean far over the railing to continue to push against the Princess Argentia. The ships had begun to drift apart.
“Pull’em in,” the steersman called. “That’s got her done. Now let’s light these other lanterns. These bastards don’t like light, and we need to see if any more of them are aboard anyways.”
Again Ros thought it odd to hear the old man giving orders, but if Topai didn’t object then he had nothing to say either. The three crewmen moved swiftly, bringing one lantern after another to light, till the whole deck glowed in the night. Two more spiders were discovered crawling along the ships railing and were quickly dispatched.
After scouring the deck for more spiders, and finding it clean, Ros moved aft to where the two other men were kneeling beside the cook.
“Is he dead?”
“No,” the old steersman grunted, setting the lantern beside Pelig’s head. “Not yet.”
The cook lay there, sprawled on his back where he had fallen earlier. His eyes were open, staring at the sky, but only the gentle rise and fall of his chest gave any indication of life. He neither moved nor spoke, and Ros wondered if he were truly conscious.
“Pelig!” Croe spoke sharply. “Pelig, look at me if you can.”
For a moment, nothing…then ever so slowly one eye drifted over to stare at the old man.
“Damn,” the steersman muttered. “He must have bitten you good. Usually people still have the power to blink. The eyes are always the last to go.”
“You know what this is?” Ros demanded. “Tell us about it!”
“Pelig,” Croe waved the boy back as he continued to address the stricken man, “listen to me. You’ve been bitten by a Felk Spider. I’m sorry, but I ain’t going to lie to you…you’re going to die.”
Hearing that last statement, Ros lost all desire to intrude. He looked at the two sailors kneeling beside the third in the lantern light, and for the first time truly felt like a boy amongst men.
“I know you can’t answer me,” the old man continued, “so I’m just going to assume you don’t know what that means. Its poison paralyzes you…permanently. There ain’t any medicine for it, and even if there was we’re out here at sea. But it’s worse than that. It dissolves you inside, over time, but it won’t let you die. That way the spider can keep coming back and feeding on you. We killed it, so that ain’t gonna happen, but its poison is already in you.”
Ros tried to make out any movement from the cook, any sign that he could somehow fight the effects of the little monster’s bite, but the man just lay limp. His one eye still stared at the old seaman, while the other gazed at the sky.
“So here is the hell of it,” Croe summed up, “we can let you lie here and the poison will continue to liquefy your insides over the course of the next week while you starve to death…or I can finish it sooner. I’ll wait till dawn, so you can see the sun again, but then you let me know. Me and the lads have work to do, so I’ll be back to check on you later. I’ll leave this lantern with you.”
With that he rose and motioned to the other two to follow him forwards.
“What’s a Felk Spider?” Ros fell into step beside him. Topai grunted his agreement with this question from behind.
“It’s a nasty beast,” the Palidesian stopped and leaned against the main mast, “that lives in caves along the Palidesian coast…some of the same caves that Blue Sea Moths use to lay eggs that hatch into silk grubs. Normally the silk grubs feed on the bat guano, the dire rats feed on the silk grubs, and the Felk Spiders feed on the dire rats. But silk growers clean out the caves of rats and spiders, and keep the grubs and bats happy.”
“Ugh! They have caves full of those huge things? Why don’t they eat the grubs?”
“Because the grubs are too small, boy. Those ‘huge things’ you just saw are hatchlings.”
“Hatchlings…babies. And I’m willing to bet about four days old. That’s what ran those men off the Princess Argentia at night. They had an egg sack full of death hatch somewhere in the holds beneath them. The Gods only know how many of that crew are lying in their hammocks over there, still alive, getting fed on…probably most of them since the spiders haven’t eaten each other yet.
As the ships drifted further apart, Ros could see the rigging and sails of the Princess Argentia now alive with crawling arachnids. They scuttled up and down the lines, along the railings, and back and forth amongst the spars. The big ship almost seemed to squirm in the moonlight.
“How big do they get?” he wondered aloud.
“A full grown Felk spider has a leg span of about six feet. They grow fast, usually eating each other after hatching. When I was a boy I used to work in a silk mine. If we found an egg sack about to hatch, we cleared out and waited a couple of weeks. Then there would only be one or two left to contend with…but they’d be mostly grown.”
“Damn.” It was the only contribution Topai made to the conversation.
The three sailors watched the big ship recede into the night, their own smaller vessel suddenly much bigger around them.
“Topai,” Croe muttered in the dark, “we have to hoist our main sail. I know it’s just the three of us, but we still got the Tagarr back there, and now we’re a target.”
“But,” Ros objected, “you said the Tagarr wouldn’t be a threat to us.”
“Remember what I told you about opportunities falling into people’s laps, and how the rules become suggestions when nobody is watching? Well that’s us now. I’m sure the Tagarr aren’t planning anything, but we don’t need to be hanging around and giving them the chance to figure out there are just the three of us over here. That’s when we would start looking like one of those ‘opportunities.’ You understand?”
“Yes, sir.” The young sailor gulped, visions of stone idols with furnaces for mouths rearing once again in his mind. He realized right then that, if he survived this, it would be his last voyage. His little village was now enough world for him, and he could find an apprenticeship as a blacksmith or cobbler.
Anilee would prefer a man who stayed home anyways.
“It’s smoke, alright. They must have fired her.”
Croe’s voice, and Topai’s answering grunt cut through Ros’ dreams of ghost ships and crawling horrors.
The young sailor woke, stiff and sore, laying on the aft deck next to a large coil of rope. He opened his eyes to brilliant blue skies and a mid-morning sun. Raising a hand to shield his eyes, the boy groaned at the pain the movement triggered.
His body still ached from the effort of raising the sails last night, an effort that resulted in only partial success. The jib and the foresail were up, but the mainsail had simply proven too heavy for the three of them. They had finally given up sometime before dawn as the wind started to rise.
Ros had been stumbling from fatigue, not to mention the saber cut in his foot, when Croe told him to get some sleep. He hadn’t needed to be told twice and simply collapsed next to the rope coil, using its angled shape for a pillow. Now his body screamed from the combination of injury, abuse, and poor choice of beds.
And as he lay there taking inventory of his various cramps and pangs, he remembered Pelig. However much he hurt now, the cook’s situation reminded him how much worse things could have been. Rolling his head over, he looked across midship to the fore where the man had sprawled.
He squinted in the bright light, bringing the foredeck into focus.
The cook was gone.
Ros felt queasy as the implications of that hit home.
Pelig must have made his decision at dawn, and Croe took care of it as he promised. The fact that they didn’t wake him only reaffirmed to him his junior status amongst the remnants of the crew. All the same, he was glad they left him out of it…but he found himself wondering if it was Croe or Topai who delivered the act of mercy.
Rolling his head back the other way, he spotted the two men standing by the tiller. They both peered aft, with Topai using the Captain’s spyglass.
Topai IS the captain now, he reminded himself. Or at least he should be.
Which meant he needed to be up and ready in case they needed him. The young sailor harbored no desire to find out how Captain Topai would wake a seaman guilty of oversleeping. Ros reached up and grabbed the rail, then pulled himself upright in halting steps. He put weight on his wounded foot in increments, encouraged when it held his weight.
It still hurt like nine devils though, so he maintained his grip on the rail as he made his way over to the two men. They ignored his approach, continuing to stare out over the waters behind them. Following their gaze he spotted the tiny bump on the horizon.
“What is that?”
“Smoke,” the steersman replied. “It looks like the Tagarr found the ship. I’m guessing they’re taking care of the problem.”
“They’re burning the whole ship?”
“It’s a solution.”
“Yeah, but all that silk!” Ros shook his head at the thought of the Tagarr just burning a fortune.
“Won’t do you a damn bit of good if you’re dead. They’re just being practical, and doing all those poor bastards aboard her a favor at the same time.”
“Why’s it green?”
“What?” Croe looked up at Topai’s question.
“Why green smoke?” He handed the spyglass over to the old steersman.
For the first time in Ros’ memory, the sharp eyed Palidesian put the spyglass to his eye. He stood there, gazing out at the distant speck, shifting the large lump of tobacco in his cheek. The old man frowned and spat into the water, without removing the glass.
“You’re right,” he grunted. “It’s green. Ain’t near as much of it as there should be either.”
He continued to stare through the spyglass for another long moment. Then the old man lowered the telescope, his face covered with sudden alarm.
“Those are smudge pots! They knew! Somehow those bastards knew and they were ready for it!” He turned to the other two crewmen, who stared at him in confusion. “We got to get that mainsail up. We ain’t just survivors…we’re witnesses! And we got to get out of here, right now!”
“What?” Ros and Topai uttered in unison. “Why?”
“Smudge pots, you damn idiots!” the old man waved his arms at them, then stopped and put his face in his hand in an obvious effort to collect himself. “They’re using smudge pots. That’s the same thing we used on the rare occasion we needed to clean spiders out of a cave. We used a type of resin that made a green smoke that killed the spiders. The same type the Tagarr are using back there right now.”
The two sailors looked at him blankly.
“Don’t you get it?” Croe sighed in exasperation. “They knew! They were carrying the exact type of smudge pots needed to wipe out a ship full of Felk spiders, even though such a thing has never happened before. I had been wondering how an egg sac the size of a burlap bag full of potatoes could have accidently gotten aboard a ship. Well, it didn’t! It was snuck aboard by somebody working for the Tagarr.”
“Eggs hatch later,” Topai concluded, “Tagarr show up and get big ship full of silk without a fight. Nobody knows nothing.”
“Exactly,” the old man growled. “Except we showed up and boarded her first. And now here we sit, on the horizon, watching the smoke of their smudge pots.”
Ros had listened to this exchange with dismay, once again shocked at the lawlessness that peeked out from under the veneer of honest trade on the high seas. When he got to Khrem, he intended to sign on with a nice respectable caravan and take the long way home. He was mulling over how much safer that would be when the implications of Croe’s last statement sank in.
“Oh gods!” the young deckhand whispered aloud. “If they think we’ve figured out what they’ve done…”
“Now you get it, kid. We’re in trouble. It won’t take them long to realize some of those bodies on the Princess ain’t part of her crew…and there’s only one other ship in the area.”
“But what do we do? We tried to get the mainsail up last night, and couldn’t”
“I don’t know, but we better figure something out. If we don’t get it up, we got no hope of outrunning them. We might be able to stay ahead of them for a day, maybe two with just our foresails…but Khrem’s four days away.
“What if we lighten our load?”
“Good thinking, kid. But those bales of wool are too heavy. We could get a few off, but it would take too long and we would wear ourselves out before removing enough to matter.”
“Cargo pulley.” Topai spoke up.
“Yeah, that would help. But we would still be needing more hands to get the bales into position in the hold.”
“Use it for the mainsail.” The tribesman replied.
Croe stared at the first mate for a second, then slapped his hand to his forehead.
“Of course! Damn, I’m getting old! Why didn’t I think of that!”
“Huh?” Ros looked back and forth between the two men in confusion.
“It’s a big block and tackle we have for really heavy cargo,” the old steersman explained. “Don’t use it often, so it’s stored down in the hold. Topai just suggested hauling it up the main mast, then using it to raise the mainsail. It would be slow, but it would work.”
“I’ll go get it.” The squat tribesman turned and headed for the door to the lower decks.
“Okay, while you’re doing that me and the boy will run a pulley line up the mast so we can pull it into position.” The steersman tied the tiller to keep the same heading, then motioned for Ros to follow.
For the next five minutes they struggled together to pull a large pulley and a coil of rope up to the level of the bottom of the topsail. Beneath them, Topai lugged an even larger block and tackle out onto the main deck, then returned below decks. Meanwhile, the two on the mast came back down to the deck for a second pulley.
“What’s this one for?” Ros grunted as they started making their way up the rigging again.
“The block and tackle ain’t long enough to raise the sail in one go. So we got to raise it, secure it to another rope. Then raise the block and tackle, secure it beneath the crow’s nest, then use it to pull the mainsail up the rest of the way. We can do it, it’s just going to be some hard work.”
“But we’ll be able to outrun the Tagarr?”
“Yeah, with our mainsail up and them loaded down, we ought to be able to keep ahead of them.”
“And then what?”
“And then we’ll see when we get there. Let’s just get there first.”
Ros couldn’t argue with that, so he bent back to his task.
The two sailors wrestled the pulley into place then worked their weary way back down to the main deck. Ros went over to the water barrel for a drink, while the older sailor went to check on the tiller. The water was tepid from sitting out in the sun, and tasted of the barrel, but the boy still had to force himself not to drink too much. He settled for wetting a rag and throwing it over his head instead.
“Where did Topai go?” he asked, joining Croe on the aft deck.
“To get some grease for the block and tackle.”
“How long will that take?”
“Not this long.”
Ros looked over in puzzlement at the steersman. The old man leaned on the tiller, watching the door to the forward compartment with a scowl on his face.
“You think I should go help him?” the young crewman offered.
“No. I think we’ll just wait right here. If he ain’t back in a few more minutes we’ll go ahead and start hoisting that block and tackle ourselves. We can do it now that we have the pulleys up.”
“But,” the boy gaped at the old man. “What about Topai?”
“He can help if he ever gets back.”
“Alright, lad! That’s got her! C’mon down!”
Ros whimpered in both relief and fatigue as he began the descent back down the Coral Horn’s rigging for what seemed the hundredth time.
Below, he could see Croe tie off the last of the lines to the mainsail, securing it in place. The lowering sun cast his shadow out over the deck, a bent black outline on the weathered planks. He had no idea how old the steersman really was, but the man had kept pace and carried his end of the work all day. The old man seemed as tough and durable as leather.
Ros gingerly made his way to the deck, and fought the urge to collapse where he stood. Gathering his strength, he tottered on rubbery legs back to the aft deck where the old man now rested beside his tiller, and flopped down on an overturned bucket next to the rail.
“You did good, lad,” the steersman chuckled. “Before today, I would have never thought two men could have done that.”
“And we’re done, right?”
“Aye. As far as the sail goes…unless a storm comes up, of course.”
“Right,” the young sailor groaned.
Ros sat there, watching the wind fill the mainsail, and started to feel a sense of pride over what the two of them had accomplished. The Coral Horn was meant to manned by fourteen men, but generally ran on a crew of ten to save costs. Now it was being manned by three…or two, so it seemed.
“Topai ain’t coming back up, is he.” Ros stared somberly at the door to the lower decks.
“I figure not.”
“Only if he’s lucky.”
Ros considered the ramifications of that.
“Yeah,” Croe bit a plug out of the wad of tobacco he carried. “Yeah, that about sums it up.”
The two of them sat there, gazing in gloomy silence at the door.
Ros thought of the stoic tribesman, laying there in the dark with a large pale spider feeding on him. He wondered if Topai could still feel everything…his insides slowly dissolving, the lance of the spider’s fangs every time it fed. He wondered if the man lay down there, facing in such a way he could see the spider approach each time it got hungry. However harsh the first mate had been to him, he hadn’t been cruel, and the thought of him lying alone in the dark with that thing turned Ros’ gut.
Something had to be done.
“Maybe we should check to see if he’s close to the door.”
“Maybe we can help him…at least pull him out of there.”
“He saved my life last night, Croe. Maybe if we…”
“I SAID NO!”
“By all the Gods, why not?!” Ros was stunned to find himself standing, almost nose to nose with the elder seaman, almost quivering with outrage. His outburst appeared to momentarily surprise Croe as well. The steersman glared at him in shock for a second before recovering.
“Because,” the old sailor growled in a low tone, “as long as that spider has him to feed on, it’ll stay down there. I imagine at that size it could live off him for a week. But they only feed on living creatures, and if we sneak down there and kill Topai then the next time that thing gets hungry, it will wait till night and come up here. Is that what you want, boy?
Ros swallowed, trying to meet the man’s gaze.
“Well?” Croe demanded. “What about it? Do you want to spend the next four nights looking over your shoulder and in every shadow? Because it will come, and it will be sneaky about it. You could put your hand down on the rail right beside it, turn around and find it hanging on the mast beside your head, or it might jump out from behind a barrel or coil of rope when you walk past and bite your leg. Or you might just go to sleep and wake up unable to move and find the damn thing sucking out your guts. You want that? But I guarantee that won’t happen as long as it’s not hungry.”
Ros stared at him in agonized indecision.
“You’re sure about that?” It made him sick to even ask it.
“It’s a cave creature, Ros, and it will stay below if it has any choice in the matter,” the old man turned away and looked out over the waters at the setting sun. “I’m just giving it that choice.”
“But it’s not the only one faced with a choice, Croe. We’re making a choice here too.”
“No, we’re not. When one of the choices is staying alive, there ain’t any other choices. Survival ain’t a choice, it’s the outcome of doing what you have to do.”
“And you can live with that?”
“Living is the whole point.”
Ros clenched his jaw and turned away. He stared at the door to the lower decks again.
Four nights, he realized. Four nights with the Tagarr behind us and a monster below us. And every night that monster stays below, is another day closer to Khrem…and another day the man who saved my life is down there getting eaten alive.
The young sailor slowly pulled himself to his feet and picked up the saber he had left laying beside the coil of rope earlier. Using it as a makeshift cane, he hobbled back down onto the main deck. Croe paid no attention, just shifted position to better watch the setting sun.
Ros limped to the door that Topai had disappeared into earlier and stopped.
He licked his lips, and stared at the worn handle. He knew from his few trips through it that it descended to the officer’s berths, then doubled back down to the forward hold. Gripping the saber with his right hand, he reached out a shaky left for the latch. With infinite care, he pulled the door open, revealing a dark portal barely penetrated by the reddening light of the dying day. The gentle creaks of the rocking ships timbers issued up out of the blackness.
A glance back over his shoulder revealed Croe to still be ignoring him, looking out over the railing to the west. The old man leaned forward, spat over the railing, then went back to watching the sunset.
Croe had made his choice.
Ros turned back to face the blackness before him. It was time to make his…
Anilee hustled back from the kitchen, carrying four more platters of mutton for the new caravan arrivals.
Merchants and farmers dickered at many of the tables, while a group of local lads matched wits and luck with a traveling dice player on the floor back by the fireplace. Other travelers stood around or sat at the bar. She made her way through them with care, still not having totally mastered the skill of moving while carrying the platters.
The first two platters were delivered with care, immediately attacked by the two ravenous caravan guards who belched a thanks in her direction. The third elicited a satisfied grunt from rug trader in a greasy turban. With a sigh of relief, she safely delivered the last to a ragged looking traveler in a leather hat before turning back towards the kitchen.
“Thank you, Anilee.”
She stopped, almost stumbling, when the recognition of that voice sank in…a voice she hadn’t heard in two years. The young barmaid closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and then slowly turned to face the sitting figure.
“Yeah, I guess so.”
He looked so much older…his skin weathered to a rough tan, and his eyes faded by too much sun. His face wasn’t lined, not yet, but the haggard shadows of their precursors were evident. He looked ten years older, instead of two.
“Ros! I thought you were dead! Your ship never came back.”
“We ran into some trouble. Most of us didn’t make it.”
“Oh.” It sounded inadequate, even to her ears. “I – I‘m glad you’re alright.”
“Yeah.” Ros looked at her, then down at the plate of food. He didn’t appear hungry.
Anilee stared at the young man she used to know, dreading what she had to say next.
“I married Conlee, the tavern keeper’s son.”
“I heard. He’s a good man. Solid future.”
That stung…even though she didn’t see a hint of venom in those pale eyes.
“It had been seven months. I thought you were dead.”
“Yes,” he stood and readjusted the hat on his head, “I do. You did what you had to do. There aren’t any choices Anilee, there never are.”
“We all do what we have to do. And most of the time we kid ourselves into thinking we chose to,” he looked at the floor for a moment, and then met her eyes. “We are what we are, and the world is what it is. There aren’t really any decisions. I’m glad everything turned out alright for you.”
There was not even the slightest hint of judgment in his voice, but Anilee found she wanted away from this new Ros. Something about him bothered her. The Ros she knew could have never said the words this man spoke…not and meant them. He was a stranger wearing the weathered face of a young man she once loved. She watched him turn and walk to the door, relieved that he was leaving.
But before he left, she needed to know…
“Yes?” He paused at the door, and looked back.
“What happened to you out there?”
He stared back at her for a moment, across the room and what seemed a thousand years.
“I thought I had a choice…and found out I actually didn’t.” He flashed the bleakest smile she had ever seen. “But I can live with it, because that’s the point. I had four whole days to figure that out.”
“I don’t understand.”
“That’s okay, you don’t need to. It’s really better that way,” he opened the door. “Goodbye, Anilee. Be well.”
“Be well, Ros.”
With that, he stepped back out of the door and into the world.
I hope you enjoyed, The Passage of the Coral Horn. Like other stories in The Tales of Nur series, it features places and/or creatures mentioned in my novel, The Ways of Khrem. In this case, the Felk Spider is the central creature to this story. It also appears in the novel, but in the form of a full grown monster encountered by the main character, Cargill, in the depths of the Undercity.