The Mad God’s Scepter, by Edward McDermott

Brant had thought he’d prepared for all contingencies in his assignment to escort a young noble woman across the seas. When his ship is forced to take shelter in the cove of a lost island, he realizes he had not counted on the curse of an ancient god!

 

Below the thunders of the upper deep;

Far far beneath in the abysmal sea,

His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep

The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee

About his shadowy sides; above him swell

Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;

And far away into the sickly light,

From many a wondrous grot and secret cell

Unnumber’d and enormous polypi

Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.

There hath he lain for ages and will lie

Battening upon huge seaworms in his sleep,

Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;

Then once by man and angels to be seen,

In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.

—Alfred, Lord Tennyson

In the oldest part of the city, short, narrow streets led nowhere. The wharfs were close and sailors from a hundred ports wandered about with the men and women who preyed on such. Beauties in diaphanous clothing wearing bells on their ankles made a special type of music as they strolled along. They offered the promise of love and caring for an hour, at only the cost of one small silver coin.

Brant, the bastard son of the duke of Barella, pulled his cloak about him and kept his hand on the hilt of his poniard. The cutpurses here would slit his throat for his doublet and count themselves rich.

Not that any but the boldest would have tried. Any judge of men could see the fellow in the cloak had shoulders as broad as any son of the sea who rowed for a living. He strode the street with the arrogance of a lion and the terrible power of a panther.

After walking another block, Brant found the sign of the ‘Laughing Sailor’ and entered. He stood for a moment by the door before crossing the room and climbing the stairs to the more refined seating. There mates and captains as well as burghers often sat and haggled over a ship’s cargo. He did find a ship’s captain and a burgher waiting for him, well back from the balcony, close to the fire and talking in low tones.

“If ever I saw two men plotting some doom,” Brant said, with a laugh, “it is you two. If I were the guard, I would arrest you simply because you look guilty.”

“Jest not about the guard,” the burgher replied as he stood and hugged the younger man. “If you say a demon’s name, he will hear you. So with the guard.”

“Come, to business,” the Captain said. “There’s no gold in waiting. My cargo is disgorged. Either give me your commission or let me search out some other cargo.”

“All in good time,” the burgher said. “You will sail with my commission and my gold but only when I say so. First, let us see this ship you boast of. Come, take us aboard now.”

Scowling, the Captain acquiesced. They left the tavern and walked to the wharfs. Once aboard, they inspected everything from the standing rigging to the ballast.

In the Captain’s cabin over a bottle of red wine, Brant gave his judgment. “She is well cared for and well founded. I cannot say if she is as swift as the Captain claims, without diving underneath to inspect the bottom.”

“Dive, if you wish,” the Captain said sourly. “I had her beached and her bottom scraped not a year ago.”

The burgher sighed with relief. “I hoped you would approve. While many ships anchor in the harbor, only a few meet our needs, a sound ship and a solid crew.”

“Yes, a solid crew,” The Captain replied. “They sail for a portion of the profit. Some may have been pirates in another time, but I ask no questions, only that they are good sailors and will stand by the ship when trouble starts.”

The burgher moved the wine cups and the candle from the center of the table and spread out a piece of parchment. “There’s the contract. One month, carrying such men and cargo as I specify to a destination that will be made known to you after the ship leaves harbor. Half now and the rest when you return,” concluded the burgher, placing a small sack beside the candle.

The Captain hefted the bag and tossed it into the drawer with the pen and ink. “We’re both men of our word.”

Brant lifted his cup of wine and said, “I will drink to that.”

 

Three hours later Brant returned with thirty battle-hardened men, sworn to him on the hilts of their swords with oaths of loyalty that brooked no breakage. Hard, scarred men. Mercenaries to some; a band of brothers to themselves. Each man carried his own shield, sword, and poniard as well a bow and quiver of arrows. They marched up the gangplank and made the ship their own with a calm assurance that allowed no refusal.

The mate, Mahendra, roused the Captain at the sight of them and he came on deck with sleep still in his eyes.

“Ho, Captain,” Brant said, as he oversaw his troops and their baggage. “We sail on the afternoon tide. Rouse your sailors to help. The burgher’s servants should be here within the hour.”

“This afternoon? Impossible. We must bring on food and water for the voyage. Tomorrow at the earliest.”

“Supplies, better than those the usual chandler would supply, will arrive within the hour, and fresh water casks and some of beer as well. Sound the orders, open the hatches and start to make room.”

The Captain ordered Mahendra to rouse the crew and clear the hold. The mercenaries lounged around the boat but stayed clear of the mariners. They were familiar with the ways of ships.

“What of the cargo?” the Captain asked. “It’s size and weight. Is it fragile? I must know how to stow it.”

Brant laughed. “Worry not. The cargo will use your cabin. You can share the mate’s space with me, and he can sleep with the sailors. If he is one too eager with a clout, he might find the space with my tigers more comfortable.”

“Tigers?” Then the Captain understood and looked at the mercenaries. “Yes, your tigers. I had thought a man as noble as you above leading such as these.”

“Captain, I’ll tell you a simple tale. It’s a common one. A noble lord with a barren wife got a young maid with child. The bastard son was born and loved as truly as an heir. The barren wife died, and an alliance brought a new bride. She bore an heir and two more sons. So I was raised with all the education and training of a lord but knowing that my younger half-brother would take my father’s place.”

“Wine?”

“No. Not until we have left and returned. What could  a young man do who was neither noble in birth, nor base in training? I could have become a priest, or a captain of the guard, or perhaps a trader. My father would have given me enough to live comfortably, but steel rusts without use. Only by war can I rise to the station I was raised to. Hence, my dogs of war.”

“Our cargo must be valuable,” The Captain said. “A company such as yours, small though it be, is not without cost.”

“A cargo rich in gold and love,” Brant replied. “You will see and understand before the day is over.”

“Our destination?”

“When we clear the harbor. The burgher has even supplied the needed charts. I cannot vouch for them, for I know little of such things.”

“Charts from a strange hand? I would be a fool to trust such.”

Brant shrugged. “My men will have a space in the hold. They will care for themselves. They do not answer to you or your mate. If they should interfere with the running of the ship, be quick to tell them so but use words. No man alive can whip them. I will see to their discipline and to their watches, for they will guard both day and night until we return home.”

 

When the burgher arrived and stepped aboard, he examined everything and seemed pleased with the arrangements. After that, his servants carried aboard several large chests, down-filled mattresses and pillows. All this went to the Captain’s cabin.

Once completed, the burgher turned to Brant and gave him a package of papers sealed in an envelope of fine leather that had been sewn shut.

“Here are the charts and the destination. Give this to the Captain once you are clear of the shore. And this,” he said, taking out a second, smaller but similarly sealed package, “is for the bridegroom.”

Brant took the packages and stowed them inside his tunic, close to his heart. “As you wish.”

The burgher turned to the Captain. “My daughter sails to meet her bridegroom on your ship. She goes with her dowry and only one companion.”

The burgher stopped. He looked at the ship and back toward the dock. His hands trembled, and he pulled out a handkerchief and blew his nose.

“The trading houses around the middle sea are tied to each other by alliances. Like the lords, we sometimes have little choice but to arrange marriages for our children. Still, it hurts to let your youngest sail away and never return.”

Brant reached and grasped the burgher’s shoulder. “Is it a good match for her? Is he a kind and gentle man?”

“Yes.”

“Then you do what a father should. You provide for your daughter, giving her a husband that will give her comfort and a place where she can be the mistress of the house.”

“How can I know for certain?”

“Not even the gods read the future with certainty. Say your goodbyes within the carriage, so none of your servants will see your tears.”

The Captain and Brant watched as the burgher went ashore.

“Have you children?” the Captain asked.

“None that I know of. Until I attain a station, I will find no fathers with eligible daughters knocking at my door. At my father’s house, the kitchen wenches might have been willing, but my mother would have known and I could not have borne her silent disapproval. And who tracks what happens to the women who follow the army. You?”

“Much like you. A Captain is wedded to his ship. It is his home, his duty, his mistress and his love. Someday, when I have sufficient wealth, I will go ashore and find a girl. She need not come with a dowry but must be gentle and kind and good, and hopefully pleasant looking. I will find a small country inn, where the neighbors come to drink, and I will sit behind the bar and sometimes tell stories about my youth. There I will grow a parcel of sons and daughters and gray hair.”

Brant said nothing. All men have a dream. It is the nature of men.

Two figures, cloaked with hoods pulled over their heads, climbed out of the coach. Nothing but their feet and their hands and the tips of their noses could be seen. They climbed aboard, and Brant led them to what was now their cabin.

No sooner had the door closed than the Captain shouted orders. The ropes were thrown off, and the boat moved away from the quay. As the tide pulled it toward the sea, its sails were raised, the sailors singing chants as they hauled in the ropes.

 

An hour later, the ship pulled clear of the headland. In the west, the sun hung less than a hand’s breadth over the sea. Brant stood on the side of the poop deck, watching and judging the skill of Captain and crew and saying nothing. Now that the ship was free of the harbor, the Captain turned and held out his hand. After Brant handed him the package, the Captain left the deck.

Just as the sun touched the horizon, the Captain returned and altered the course. The sails were trimmed, and the voyage began.

“One more thing, Captain,” Brant said, quietly, when the adjustments had been completed. “A simple word but one you should spread to your crew. The burgher’s daughter and her companion are a most precious cargo. They should be treated as ladies of high estate. If any man were to do otherwise…. Well, gelding would be the least punishment.”

“What of your tigers?” the Captain asked. “They don’t have the look of household servants—or lapdogs.”

“I have already given them the word. Any such infraction would cost the company its payment, and that makes those women more valuable to my tigers than their own mothers.”

“Understood. I find that I don’t like this arrangement. You, sir, are too quick to abrogate my power. Be careful it doesn’t create harm. Do you know our destination?”

“In all things about the safety and handling of the boat, I defer to your expertise,” Brant replied smoothly. “I do not know the destination. One port is much the same as another I would expect.”

“Hmmph. Well, tell your men to keep their bows ready but to loose no shafts until I give you the word. We steer a careful course. In the waters we will traverse, the difference between a pirate and a revenue cutter is a small point. With luck we will see no other sails.”

Still, the Captain had a worried look that hadn’t been there when he had gone below. Something about their destination or the course they must follow had altered the man’s demeanor. Brant shrugged. That was not his concern. Instead, he walked the length of the ship and spoke to his men, warning them that the sickness of the seas might strike any man.

By the next morning, Brant had become the victim of his own warning. The mate, Mahendra, smiled to see others upset at the unceasing motion of the ship on the ocean. Brant could not entirely fault him. It must be a bitter meal, to lose his bed to others.

The motion had also struck down one of the women. The other had traded her plain serving maid dress for a man’s shirt and pants, with a bright red shawl drawn into a belt. Her white feet were bare, as was her head, and her lustrous brown hair was drawn into a bun and trapped under a knit cap. If it were not for her form, she could have passed for one of the crew—perhaps a cabin boy, but no boy had hips like that.

Brant watched her as she traveled over every part of the ship. She peered into crannies, talked with the cook, climbed the mast, learned to tie a rope and the purpose of each line. Her name was Tamara, and she stood tall and slender like the date palm. Her speech was noble, her manners perfect. Her smile made grizzled sailors stop and spend their time teaching her this and that.

Brant noticed that every man watched out for the girl. She had become the ship’s mascot, and both the mercenaries and the crew had awarded her the position. Another person might have been spoilt by the attention, but this one was too sweet for that. Brant would have liked to talk to her but found no reason.

During the day, the Captain ordered a continuous watch from the highest mast. At night the ship ran with nearly no lights, and those were carefully shielded. The ship ran close to the wind, and she cut the waves like a tuna before the porpoises. Still, the Captain paced when he should have sat. He stared out over the water as if not trusting the lookout.

On the third day he spoke to Brant. “We have been lucky so far. We will pass within sight of land after dark, and the night will keep us hidden. If you have a god, pray for a cloudy night—one that will hide the moon and us from prying eyes. And pray for wind. With the wind, we can run with the best of them, but if the air is still, the pirates have all the advantage. They can put fifty or a hundred men at the oars.”

“Are pirates so common?”

“No more than brigands on a road in a land without castles. It is the nature of the lawless places that the strong take from the weak. The sea has no law but the law of the winds and the waves.”

The next day the lookout cried out that ships were in pursuit. Three vessels. The Captain changed the ship’s tack so that it took best advantage of the wind, and they sailed away from the true course and the known markers. Still, the pursuers followed.

Brant drew up his mercenaries in full kit—the sight of them lined up in a military formation stiffened the backs of the sailors. He inspected each man’s weapons. The ship was filled with the sound of men sharpening swords that day.

That night the Captain stood the watch.

“Perhaps we will sail too far from home for them?” Brant suggested.

“No. They will pursue us until there is no chance of success. Should they grow short on water, they will only become more desperate, planning to return home with the water from our barrels. A storm is our best hope. Otherwise, your tigers will have a chance to prove themselves.”

The weather failed them. The wind eased back and slowly faded away until the sails hung limp as cats paws of zephyrs played with them. The pirates lowered sails and unshipped oars.

The Captain ordered his sails lowered, and the crew rowed, but it didn’t take a skilled eye to see the pirates were gaining with every hour.

“How long until the sun sets?” Brant asked.

“Two hours.”

“Captain, I know little of the sea but I know battle. On this ship we are like soldiers in a castle. The sides of your ship are our battlements; we are besieged. There are no sally ports, no maneuvers. We cannot escape. We must fight.”

“We can still hope for a wind tonight.”

“If we must fight,” Brant continued. “Our best hope is to battle one ship at a time. After dark, we should alter our course to strike one of their ships.  They will not suspect that strategy, nor will they realize you have so large a force of fighting men aboard.”

“What good will that do?”

“Perhaps with one ship destroyed, the remaining two will be reluctant to attack us. If nothing else, we will face fewer arrows tomorrow.”

“We have a couple hours between twilight and the rising of the moon to alter our course. We can hope it works. Otherwise, tomorrow we fight for our lives,” the Captain replied. “I’m going to eat and rest.”

Brant knocked at the door, and Tamara answered.

“I must speak to your mistress,” he said.

“We are more sisters than mistress and servant,” Tamara replied as she let him inside the cabin. “What would you speak to us about?”

Brant explained the situation. “Until the fighting begins, no lights can show on the boat. After the fighting starts, stay inside this cabin. I will knock on the door to tell you when all is safe.”

“Knock and speak, but take care,” Tamara said. Her hand went to the sash around her waist and drew a knife such as a fisherman might use to fillet his catch. The blade was long and thin and sharp, the handle simple wood, worn to a satin sheen by much use. “I know where to cut.”

Brant nodded, careful not to smile. The kitten had claws. “If there is fighting, even if we destroy one pirate ship, the other two may still pursue us. If the situation becomes desperate, I may suggest we steal the Captain’s gig and leave this ship for the pirates to pursue. It would be a dangerous chance. You must be prepared to flee at a moment’s notice.”

Tamara dismissed Brant with a curt nod.

The moon was still down after twilight faded, and only the stars gave light. Brant’s mercenaries replaced the weary sailors at the oars. The Captain sniffed as if he could smell wind and snorted in disgust. Then he changed the ship’s course to one at right angles to the old. No lamps were lit, no candles burned. No one sharpened swords or spoke above a whisper. The ship glided through the water on its oars, a wraith.

Above the deck, the sharpest eyes stared into the blackness searching for the pirate ship. Brant spaced his archers on the forward deck. He stored grappling hooks along the rails. A ship’s boy waited for the word that would send him to the cook’s fire to bring back embers. Balls of cloth sat in pails of oil. Brant expected to use fire and steel to destroy the raider when the opportunity came.

One hour passed. Then another. The third hour was nearly gone when a whisper caught Brant’s attention. There in the distance, less than a mile way, he could see the lights of the pirate ship.

“What should we do?” the Captain asked.

“If we were certain to slip by, I would try that course. But if it fails they would be onto us, raising alarm. They could harry us with arrows and slow our pace even further until the other ships arrive. If we close on them quickly and silently, we can attack with a force they do not expect.”

“Your men will fight?”

“They were born to the bow and the sword. They will fight for the simple pleasure of it. Besides, wouldn’t a pirate ship have treasure?”

“Maybe but only if they have caught another merchant ship between their harbor and spotting us. Pirates do not save much. What they cannot rape or steal, they burn. The money in their hands is spent as quickly as they stole it.”

Brant laughed. “You speak from some experience. Steer for the pirate, and we will give them steel instead of gold and coals instead of rubies.”

The distance closed with agonizing slowness. Five minutes, then another and another passed. The sailors now handled the oars, and Brant’s tigers waited.

The moon began to peak over the horizon. The pirate ship was five hundred yards away, then four, then three. Brant held his breath. No alarm had been sounded.

The Captain aimed his ship dead at the pirate. One hundred yards. Now fifty.

“What ho?” a voice from the pirate ship cried.

“Arrows, fire,” whispered Brant and thirty bows sang. Now the ships were only yards apart.

The Captain at the tiller cried for one more desperate sweep of the oars then ordered them pulled in. His ship glided forward, its bow catching the oars of one side of the pirate, breaking them and mangling those that worked them.

“Grappling hooks,” shouted Brant. “Arrows off. Fire at will.”

A man born to the bow can pluck an arrow from its place, draw it to his ear, aim and release it in one continuous action. At a distance of a few feet, the arrows spread death to any unshielded pirate.

The grappling hooks snatched at the ships and pulled them together with a fierce jerk that parted some of the ropes. However, others held. With a roar, Brant jumped across the space onto the deck of the pirate ship, his shield on his shoulder and his sword swinging to cut both man and rigging.  His tigers dropped their bows and followed.

Half the pirate crew had been sleeping, and they were still groggy when the attack came. They staggered without armor from their hammocks, their heads bare. They were experienced killers, but this was a different foe. Brant’s men fought as a unit, each relying on the shield and sword of the mate beside them. They marched down the deck killing all before them. A few desperate pirates jumped into the sea rather than face their swords. The battle ended in minutes.

“Kill any that remain alive,” Brant ordered. “Take what you want, but I plan to sink her soon.”

He clambered back on the merchant ship and climbed up the poop deck stairs to where the Captain stood. “How do we sink her?”

“Fire would be most effective, but the other pirates would be certain to notice that.”

“Suggestions?”

“Too late.”

Brant turned to see that the pirate ship was already ablaze. Some fool had knocked over a lantern and the fire spread quickly. He now understood why sailors feared fire above all other things on their wooden ships.

“Back to me now,” he shouted at his men. “Cut the lines, push off. Watch for sparks. Get those pails of oil covered. We won’t need them now.”

The sailors returned to their oars and pulled with a will. One pirate ship had been destroyed but two remained. Every man prayed for a fog, a wind, or a cloudy night. Behind them, the pirate ship burned like a beacon on the sea. Every man aboard knew that the sinking inferno would act as a beacon and bring the remaining pirates after them.

All night the crew manned the oars, praying for a change in the weather—just before dawn, their prayers were rewarded. At first the clouds scudded across the sky. The sun rose, clothed in red. The wind began to blow. They stowed the oars and raised the sails gladly. Later, they were shortened as the strength of the wind rose.

All through the day the ship raced with the Captain at the helm and the lookout searching through the rain for any sign of danger. Three days and three nights the ship was blown and battered, and when the fourth day began and the wind started to die, a distant shore could be seen.

“What country is that?” Brant asked the Captain.

“Only the gods know. Far beyond my charts and perhaps any mariner’s dreams. All I know is that the ship needs repairs. We’ll scout the shore for a safe inlet. Once the sails and rigging are fixed, and we have landed fresh water, we’ll be off again.”

As they sailed closer to the shore, they saw no works of man along the strand, only a dark and oppressive jungle. No one aboard found the coast, with its strange sounds, appealing. Suddenly the surf opened into a bay. They sailed in and dropped anchor. The sailors’ weary muscles now had some respite from the sea.

Brant ordered watch on watch and inspected everyone as the sailors and soldiers slept in any spot where they could find some comfort. When the sun rose, work began repairing the rigging and the sails.

“My mistress wishes to know—how long will this racket continue?” the saucy-eyed Tamara asked Brant as she climbed onto the poop deck to watch all the activity. “Are you not afraid that the noise will draw the pirates or possibly other foes from within the jungle?”

“I doubt the pirates followed us through that storm,” Brant replied with a laugh. “The work must be done. The Captain has said so, and it is his ship.”

“And you report to the Captain?”

“I sail on his ship, part of the cargo, until the burgher’s daughter is delivered to her bridegroom,” Brant said with a smile.

“So you are committed until then. And I was hoping that there would be some chance to go ashore. Who knows what could lie within that jungle, what spices, what sweet flowers, or precious stones?”

“More likely poisonous snakes and noxious weeds.”

“Still, it would be worth some exploring.”

Brant laughed. “What of the enemies you thought were lurking in the woods and we had awakened by the repairs.”

She smiled. “You are a soldier. Ask the Captain and he will tell you that an anchorage like this would be defended in some way if any civilized people lived in this area.”

“And we are not the first to sail here from a storm,” Brant replied. “If the others had found wealth within the jungle, they would have stayed and built the defenses you mentioned. So, by this argument, there can be nothing of worth ashore.”

She laughed. “You argue better than a soldier, more like a priest.”

“I have been schooled in both.”

Tamara turned but looked back with a smile, “I shall consider that as a warning. What the soldier does not take with his valor, the priest may steal with his words. The Captain will want to fill the water barrels before we leave, so you will command a shore party. My mistress will wish me to be part of it so that I can report any possibilities for trade back to her.”

“Are you now a seer? Do you have unnatural powers? You see the future, and you enchant the crew. Perhaps you will put a spell on me as well.”

She laughed again and left Brant thinking of her as he inspected his tigers and made certain every man had a full quiver of arrows.

Tamara’s prophecy proved accurate. No sooner was the work completed on the rigging than the Captain wanted a shore party to fill the water casks.

“A small one, only a few hours,” the Captain argued. “The pinnace will do the job nicely. My sailors will row and fill the casks. Some of your men should guard the party. I do not like this haunted harbor.”

“Why do you call it that?” Brant asked.

“Look at this anchorage. You could hide a fleet in here, safe from the worst storm. Yet no one uses it. Worse still, no one has mapped it. That means that no ship has ever returned from here with charts and logs since men have gone to sea. Surely we are not the first to come here, yet no report of this place exists. I will sleep better when I am in a known port, drinking wine and laughing at my own superstition.”

“We will fetch water quickly and sail with the next tide,” Brant replied.

The crew lowered the pinnace and manned it. Brant, with his five most trusted tigers, climbed down the side to it. After the pinnace was clear of the ship, Tamara crawled from under a canvas cover, grinning with pleasure at outwitting the Captain and Brant. Brant shrugged. There were too many things about this supposed servant that bothered him. First mate Mahendra, leader of this expedition, scowled but ignored her.

The seamen rowed along the shore, probing under the verdant green for a stream or river and a landing spot. When they found the water too brackish for their needs, the men rowed upstream, with the oppressive jungle on every side. Above, the trees overhung the water.

“Here,” Mahendra said, “The tide is turning. Can you not feel it? But you are not at the oars. We will tie up to the water’s edge. Wait, see that? There is a stream that flows into this river. We will stop there and take the casks upward to be filled.”

The pinnace came close to shore and grounded. Soldiers stepped into the waist high water holding their bows above their heads and clambered onto dry land. Brant led the way, his sword in hand. Once under the trees, the view changed from green to brown. If felt like an immense church, the trees as the pillars that held up the leafy roof. The temperature was cooler and the wind silenced. The men whispered in reverence.

Little undergrowth interfered as the casks were manhandled onto dry land and rolled uphill. A few hundred steps led the men to the stream’s source, a strange, silent and untouched pond—a perfect circle.

“Unnatural,” a subdued Tamara said as she looked at it. “We should leave it be. There are other places to find water.”

Mahendra ignored her. Instead, he opened the first cask and pushed it into the pond to fill. The ripples ranged outward from the cask to the center of the pond and then to the farthest edges.

“Half an hour and we’ll have filled these barrels. Then back to the pinnace. Two hours and we’ll let the tide carry us to the ship.”

Less confident than their First Mate, the men worked hastily, frightened by the silence that surrounded them. They spoke in whispers. Brant noticed another ripple. Where had that come from? What had disturbed the silent water? He could see nothing.

One sailor, waist-deep in the pool to hold a cask down so as to fill it, suddenly startled. “What the…” He disappeared with a splash.

“Look lively,” Brant hissed to his men, unsheathing his sword once more. He roughly grabbed Tamara and pulled her behind him as he faced the pool.  The cask suddenly disappeared under the water. Moments later the shattered ribs of oak floated to the surface.

Suddenly, long serpentine tentacles spurted out of the water and whipped around anything close to the pool. Soldier and sailor were equally caught by surprise. Arrows had no impact on the monstrosities.  Fast as they came, Brant slashed out with his sword at anything that came close. Pushing Tamara behind him, he backed away from the pool.

“Men to me,” he shouted. The remnants of his soldiers dashed to his side. The sailors that had not fled at the first sight of the monsters struggled helplessly as they were dragged into the pool.  Mahendra, an ax in hand, hewed about him. One tentacle caught his ankle, and he hacked at it so closely that he trimmed his boot. Then he ran.

Slowly, carefully, through the jungle they retreated. They heard a bellow louder than any animal could make. Between them and the pinnace came a thrashing sound, a thundering and thumping that shook the leaves on the tallest trees. Brant could feel its steps through the soles of his boots. Something enormous trod through the jungle in their direction.  They were caught between the approaching unknown terror and the tentacles of the pool.

“You go that way, I’ll go this way,” Brant shouted. “One beast cannot follow two trails. Circle around and return to the pinnace. Tamara, you are with me.” Brant pulled her after him. They ran silently and quickly at right angles to the approaching monster.

The jungle faded away, and the grass grew long—taller than a man. Brant could see nothing but the grass immediately before his face.  He slowed to a walk, the roots of the grass everywhere and eager to trip a careless foot. The sound of the monster had died away. It had either stopped its charge or gone in some other direction.

“There,” Tamara whispered, pointing to the left. At first Brant didn’t see it. Then he looked higher. It appeared to be a wall of rock. There might be a cave they could hide in.

Brant realized his mistake when they reached the wall. This was no natural formation but something hewn by men. Stones were set upon each other so tightly that nothing had been able to breach it. Now they were trapped against the wall, should anything be hunting them and following their trail.

He tried to scramble up the wall, but the stones were too smooth and the joints too narrow to give him purchase. Tamara pulled him to the left. That made sense, back toward the river. They followed the wall until a broken postern gate gave them another choice. Tamara slipped through it, her curiosity now overcoming her fear.

“Come back,” Brant whispered.

“Just for a moment. We might find something. Besides, whatever made those sounds can’t fit through here.”

That last bit of logic convinced Brant. They snuck through the doorway and beyond the wall. At once they were in a dark passage. Fortunately, another door let them climb to a higher level where some sunlight could reach. Climbing again, they reached the top of a small tower.

In the distance they could see the jungle and beyond it the bay. On the other side was nothing but black rock. The wall enclosed over a square mile of buildings. Beyond the structures, Brant could see a wall and then jungle again.

“What do you think this is?” Tamara asked in amazement.

“It looks like a fortified city to me,” Brant replied.

“Where are the people? Where are the soldiers?”

“It must have been abandoned years ago.”

“But not too long. Otherwise, the jungle would have grown over the wall,” Tamara said.

“I don’t know about that. See the grass? See how it makes a circle around this city?”

“Something within protects it still.”

“And if it protects the city from the jungle, what else does it protect it from?”

Was there some monster lurking in those stone paved streets for them? Or had some unknown hideous specter already been dispatched to the very spot where they stood? Stay or go? Brant found the stone walls comforting. Whatever came for them would face his sword, and he planned to give a good accounting.

“We are here,” he said after a second. “If death comes for us, there is little we can do. Until that moment, let us explore this city to find it secrets and possibly its treasures.”

Tamara nodded. Perhaps she didn’t trust her voice.

Despite the brave words, they crept through the city streets, making no sound. The streets’ paving stones were untouched by dirt or grime. No plants sprang up between them. No blown sand or wind-tossed leaves covered them. Had they been freshly swept that morning?

Along the street, Brant searched for something familiar. In every city he had ever walked around, he had seen taverns, brothels, bazaars and artisans. Signs over doorways should be shouting in loud colors, but here there were none. Each door was identical to the next, solid wood slabs with sturdy hinges. No numbers, no signs, no individual markings of any kind.

Thirsty, Tamara was first to notice the sound. Her hand on his shoulder was enough to stop Brant in his tracks. She motioned, and he listened. The music of running water reminded him how dry his mouth was. They followed the sound to a square before the city’s most impressive structure and found a fountain.

Tamara started to go to the water, but Brant held her back.

“No. Remember the pool. To touch it may awaken death in some hideous form. This is a trap for any creature that ventures within these walls. All life needs water.”

Tamara swallowed silently, her hand clinging to him, her eyes darting in all directions. At the far side of the square they could see more steps rising up to the sky.

They kept to the edges of the square and, once on the opposite side, climbed the steps. The walls were covered with carvings. They depicted great wars, chariots with horses breathing fire, and captured prisoners yoked together and led away. On the second level, the floor was a map. In the center of the map was a raised chair—no, a throne. On the throne lay a long rod—a scepter—as if it had been left there only a few moments ago.

Tamara froze.

“We must go,” she whispered. “Now.”

“Why?”

“I recognize the symbol on the tip of that scepter and all the evil that it implies. It is the Kraken.”

Brant searched the space for danger. Aside from the pillars that held up the roof and the throne with its rod, he could see nothing. He looked to the pillars again. Heads hung from each pillar. Only the skulls remained, and those appeared liable to crumble to dust at a touch. Each skull had been nailed to its pillar with a spike of gold driven through the left eye socket. He started to reach, but Tamara pulled at his arm.

“It is another trap, like the pool.”

He pulled back. Too late. Something hissed and began to slither in the shadows. Brant did not hesitate. With a few quick steps, he reached the throne and plucked the scepter from its place. It felt heavier than he expected, with gold and jewels—a fortune that could buy him a kingdom if he survived.

“Tamara, run,” he said, and they raced down the steps and through the streets of the city. Behind them, an obscene slurping sound grew closer. Tamara found the gate, and they raced through it, laughing. The oppressive mood that had held them in the city broke under the sun, in the golden grass.

“Straight this way,” Brant commanded. “It will take us to the river.”

“I would swim back to the ship if I must,” Tamara gasped.

“No,” Brant replied. “We need the pinnace. Besides, the others may have reached it.”

They raced through the grass and into the jungle. The pinnace remained moored but empty. Tamara scurried on. Brant followed. They paused, waiting to see if any soldiers or sailors were hiding in the woods. None appeared. Another hideous bellow from the jungle convinced Brant that none still lived.

He cut the rope with a single swipe of his sword and forced the pinnace from shore with an oar. He heard a crashing in the woods. Turning, he saw a figure leaping from the shore into the water, only a few feet from the pinnace.

“For the love of the gods, don’t leave me here,” cried Mahendra as he desperately swam toward the pinnace. Brant held out his hand and pulled the mate from the water and into the boat.

“What happened to the rest?”

“That monster pursued us. It was as tall as a ship’s side, made of gray leather—not fur—and bellowed as it charged. Some stood to face it, and it ran them down, its enormous feet crushing them. Arrows seemed to bounce off of its hide, and a knife couldn’t draw blood. Others it gored with its horns. I saw it, and I ran. After it had killed the rest, I could hear it searching—hunting for me. I pulled myself up into the trees on a vine where it couldn’t reach me. Then you returned to the boat and distracted it.”

Brant realized the rest. The monster Mahendra described must have been what they had heard earlier. When it sensed they came to the boat it had followed them. For some reason it stopped suddenly at the river’s edge. This gave Mahendra a chance to slide back to the forest floor and sneak toward the boat. When he saw that Brant was leaving, he’d desperately thrown himself into the water.

“We are safe now,” Brant said.

Tamara shivered. “The Kraken.”

“What?” Mahendra asked.

“We found the sign of the Kraken in the city,” Brant replied in short bursts as he rowed. The pinnace was heavy. Even with the tide on their side, it needed more than two men at the oars.

“My family,” Mahendra said, “have been sailors since before time. I remember stories about the Kraken. ‘The scourge’, they were called. Black ships with raiding on their mind. They attacked for gold and slaves, which they took back to their god and sacrificed to him. This was before my grandfather’s grandfather’s time, so I cannot say how long ago. I do not know why they were called such. Perhaps they worshiped the Kraken and so took it as a symbol.”

Tamara spoke. “The Kraken were sea monsters as large as floating islands, with long tentacles that could tear a ship apart.”

“I will stand and fight man or beast,” Brant puffed out, “but what good is a sword against an island? What became of those raiders?”

“I don’t know. Only that they stopped coming as suddenly as a winter storm breaks. For years after their last raid, men in watchtowers kept a lookout for them.”

“I wonder why I never heard tales of them,” Brant said.

“You grew up in a high house, a lord with land and domains,” Mahendra replied. “The tales told where the smell of the sea is strong are different tales. The Kraken never raided inland.”

The pinnace reached the mouth of the river. There in the distance, they could see their ship. A pod of river dolphins burst past them, leaping and bounding in the water, chattering to themselves. Something large moved beneath the boat.

“Did you see that?” whispered Mahendra.

“Pull in your oar and be silent for your life,” commanded Brant, unsheathing his sword. What good would a sword do against so large a monster? The darkness passed away. Perhaps he had seen only a formation—a sandbar—they had crossed.

Still they kept the oars in, letting the wind and the current drive them closer to their ship. When they drifted close enough, a few strokes of the oars brought them to its side.

“Where are my men and my barrels?” the Captain demanded as the three stepped aboard.

“Dead,” Brant said. “Cast off and let us leave this cursed shore before more evil follows us. Here is a bonus for our troubles.”

With his knife, Brant began to pry the precious stones on the scepter from their settings. For each one he put in his own wallet, he tossed another to the crew and remaining men of his command. Only Tamara and Mahendra were not cheered by the precious baubles.

“Raise the anchor,” the Captain shouted.

The men stood to the winch and pushed with a will, but the anchor would not rise. It felt as if something was holding onto it.

“Cut us loose,” Brant cried.

“An anchor is a costly thing to lose,” The Captain replied.

Brant flung him another stone. The anchor rode was cut, and the ship moved free on the tide as the men sprang to the ropes to raise the sails. Then the ship was jostled as if by a mighty wave. A scraping sound could be heard coming from beneath the hull. The sails strained, but the boat made no headway.

“Throw it overboard,” Tamara shouted, pointing to the scepter. “The Kraken wants his scepter back. Oh God, save us.”

From out of the sea came tentacles which grasped the boat both fore and aft and on either side. Brant acted with instinct, dropping the scepter and springing to the nearest tentacle, his sword in hand, but the blade bounced off the rubbery skin. Sheathing his sword, he picked up a boarding ax, used to sever lines and limbs. His first swing cut through the skin, and blue-green ochre fell on the deck. Another stroke and another, he made. It felt like hewing an enormous rubbery tree that was plated with scales. The timbers of the boat began to creak.

Tamara took up the scepter and threw it over the side. This sacrifice did not stop the attack.

“Fire,” Brant said. He pulled the cover off one of the pots of oil and poured it onto the monstrous flesh nearest to him then set it afire with a bit of coal from the cook’s stove. The oil burst into flames that flowed over the hideous flesh and down to the water. The tentacle pulled back.

Tamara grabbed another pail of oil and, splashing it on another tentacle that rose from the sea, followed it with a burning torch.

Mahendra and the crew imitated Brant’s attack and the ship sprang forward on the wind toward the opening of the bay. The monster did not follow, but the sounds of its unearthly keening made a memory. On long night passages for years, the survivors would recall that sound.

“You threw away a fortune,” Brant said to Tamara.

“The Kraken would never have abandoned its scepter,” she replied.

“A waste,” he said.

“There will be other fortunes for you to capture.”

“Not the scepter, but you. Married to a trader, keeping house.”

“Quiet—that is my secret. Besides, the bridegroom is a timid man whom I will rule easily.”

He wanted to reach for her, crush her to his side and ask her if she truly wanted a man who could be ruled. Or did she want to… To what? To sleep by the ropes in his camp and rise with a shout and a tramp with the sun and moon for her lamp? A man like him sold his sword to men like her father. Instead of speaking, he remained silent.

She waited and waited. When she understood he wouldn’t speak she left the deck. They never spoke again.

As the ship cleared the bay’s mouth, no one relaxed. Instead, they waited, with lit torches and pails of oil ready. During the following days and nights, they kept double watches on half rations of water, anticipating another attack, until they reached their final destination.

As the Captain and Brant stood by the wheel in the night, they saw the lighthouse that marked their intended port. The Captain turned to Brant and said, “I think I will sell this ship and travel inland until I cannot smell the sea. I will find a tavern to buy and a wife for company.”

Edward McDermott spends his spare time pursuing a writing career. Aside from writing, Edward takes time for sailing, fencing, and working as a movie extra. His web page is: http://www.edwardmcdermott.net/

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