Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Bloodymare (short story)

This is one of my few fantasy stories. I wrote it about two years ago.

The Bloodymare
by Grant Gougler

The man with the giant fists stood on the rear deck of the prison ship and watched the windmill burn in the distance. Although the propeller was engulfed in flames, the wind still managed to spin the skeletal remains. Once the island had receded to the horizon, all twenty stories of the structure collapsed into an avalanche of cobblestone and dust. Its sounded like thunder reverberating across the water.

Scandakar could make out the cheers of the Amarillo Soldiers, the thousand-man army which had just burned the entire village to the ground.

He shook his head and reached for the cigarette between his lips, but his arms were restricted. A chain, several links too short, was binding his handcuffs to the shackles around his ankles. He turned to Dwoit for assistance. Scandakar's old friend took the butt and pitched it behind the boat where the massive props churned phosphorescent sea life into neon blue brilliance.

“Why would fate bring the two of us back together like this?” Dwoit wondered aloud.

Scandakar didn’t have an answer. He didn’t have answers for much of anything since the injury. Things were the way they were. Always would be. That was the extent of his philosophy. His half-brain couldn’t come up with anything more complicated than that, anyway.

“How many of my comrades were captured?” Scandakar asked.

“Four, including you. The one called Brennan—your leader, right?—he was shot down by our archers. Another one did himself in with a dagger.”

“That was probably Wiznick,” Scandakar said. He clicked his tongue and gave an imperceptible shake of his head.

The sun was setting port side. The oblong moon had appeared, small, red, and brilliant. Its lopsided crescent was greatly magnified by atmospheric trickery. Scandakar could not remember seeing the moon so big. Memories like that were probably in the other half of his brain. No telling where that had ended up. A gutter, maybe.

“I take it there are Marshals on board?” Scandakar asked.

“Three, including Marshal Hunt. Have you heard of him?”

“Don’t know. I don’t remember things so well since....” Scandacar’s massive finger pointed at the dent in the side of his skull. He would have raised his hand higher, but his wrists were jerked to a stop by the chains.

Dwoit said, “Your friend who killed himself? You can damn well bet he knew of Hunt.” He turned away from the ocean and rested his back against the rail. “All you have to do is tell Marshal Hunt your secret and he'll let you go. He's a fair man.”

“I’m not that stupid. Look at what he had the Amarillo Soldiers do to that village. A thousand people dead. For what? Because they harbored a handful of pirates? Where’s the justice in that?”

“What could possibly be so important you would willingly stay on a ship like this? I’d sell my own family out to get off this damn thing and I’m not even a prisoner here.”

“I said I truly don't know. Not anymore.”

“We’re practically brothers, Scan’. You can tell me.

For the first time in his adult life, Scandakar looked his old friend in the eye. “When they caught me the first time, back in Moontown, they messed my head up pretty bad. My ability to find my way around—that’s what got scrambled the worst. It changed me, Dwoit. I'm not the same person you knew. I can't be the same person, even if I tried... and I have.”

“You don’t remember anything at all?”

“Only that it's real. I’m from a continent, Dwoit. Thousands of acres of dry land, maybe even millions.”

Dwoit stiffened. “Millions?”

“I remember walking the coasts,” Scandakar said. “I could walk and walk and never come back to where I started. It’s real. I wouldn’t forget that. I just don’t remember how to get there.”

“They say it’s impossible for land that big to be lost, Scandakar.”

“The Amarillo Army knows it exists. Why else would they be after me?”

“Why the fuck is that freak still up here?” someone called, shattering the ocean's tranquility with his booming voice.

Dwoit straightened to attention. Scandakar turned and discovered a broad-shouldered man with a curlicue mustache and muttonchops was approaching. His uniform was gray. A holstered musket rested on each hip.

Marshals didn’t wear badges and spurs like the Amarillo Soldiers. Things like that made noise. Noise made it harder to sneak up on your prey. Instead, Marshals identified rank by the colors of a single armband, made of cloth.

This Marshal’s armband was yellow. The hotter the color, the higher the rank.

“Don’t you look at me,” the Marshal snapped at Scandakar. To Dwoit: “I asked you a question, Deckmaster.”

“The prisoner and I were childhood friends. I thought maybe he would tell me what you wanted to know.” Hastily he added, “Sir.”

“You’re going to be sorry if Hunt hears about this. Look at the size of that freak’s fists. Even with those shackles on he could easily—”

“Don’t,” Scandakar said, irritated by the lameness of the show. To his old friend: “You’re Marshal Hunt. I’ve known it since you brought me on board.”

The other man had been reaching for his club. Dwoit held an arm out to halt him. In a matter of seconds, his weak demeanor melted away. He stared back, eyes drawing narrow. His snarl revealed the white, perfect teeth of a wealthy man. In other words, not the teeth of a deckmaster.

“How did you guess?” Dwoit asked.

“Your family is the wealthiest I've ever seen. You expect me to believe you became a lowly deckmaster?”

“I’m sorry, brother. Perhaps your head injury isn't as bad as I thought.” Dwoit turned to the deckmaster with whom he had swapped roles. “Take him below. And take off that fucking armband before you disgrace it any longer.”

#

Three levels below, the real deckmaster unbolted and flung open a massive trapdoor. Beneath it was the final set of stairs on the Bloodymare. A stench, which the crew had tried to mask with lemon peels, cascaded over Scandakar. It reeked of every bodily waste he could imagine. The smell of rotting flesh lingered there as well as it was probably days before a deceased prisoner was removed, if ever.

Scandakar stood by as the deckmaster lit his lantern.

“Go on,” the deckmaster said, shoving him forward.

Against every instinct in his muscles, Scandakar trudged downward into darkness. The deckmaster followed him into the cell block, his lantern chasing the shadows of bars across the walls and withering figures. Scandakar found it strange how the hopeless eyes of the other prisoners seemed to sparkle in the firelight. The men who were still strong enough to stand extended their arms beyond the steel cages, begging for morsels. Those who were too weak to stand lay in tangled piles on the floor, mustering pathetic moans and death rattles.

It was a place of protruding rib cages, scraggly hair, and sheer insanity. And it was Scandakar’s new home. The only thing he could ever look forward to would be much, much worse than this.

As the deckmaster locked him away in a cell with an elderly man, his eyes appeared on the other side of the bars.

“I’ve seen Hunt’s interrogations before,” said the deckmaster. “You’re strong, but not strong enough—no one is. Save yourself several months of suffering, lad. Please.”

Scandakar extended his bound wrists towards the bars. “Aren’t you going to uncuff me?”

“With fists like that? You'll wear those cuffs until the day you die.”

#

Scandakar had grown a beard by the time Dwoit visited his cell. As much as the lantern burned his eyes, the man with the giant fists strained to keep them wide. Dwoit paused to raise his light on Old Man Acers, Scandakar's cellmate. Acers was standing with his malnourished back pressed against the bars, jittering his toothless jaw in a chant of madness as he masturbated.

“I figured you would have killed him by now,” Dwoit said.

“He’s a kid killer," said Scandakar. "He deserves to rot.”

“Good point.”

The fragile old man tottered around and squinted at the lantern.

“Margaret?” he asked. A cracked and leathery tongue appeared briefly to dance over his chapped lips and rotten teeth. “Is dat you, woman?”

“Get back,” Dwoit barked, banging a club against the bars.

“Margaret! What’re you doing, you old bitch?”

Scandakar grabbed the man by his long gray hair and flung him into a corner. The man whimpered dryly. For a moment his back arched as he began to rise. Then, with a long sigh of defeat, he deflated and stayed put.

“Thanks,” Dwoit said. Scandakar could see his old friend clearly as he set the lantern down. He was still dressed in the clothes of a civilian. “I brought you bread.”

As soon as the bread appeared, the other prisoners moaned, which sounded like a cacophony of tortured ghosts. Dwoit shouted at them to shut up. Then there were only the whispers of madness.

Scandakar shoved his giant hands through the bars and took the offering. It had been charred, but the texture and the hint of honey was downright luxurious compared to what prisoners usually got: leftovers which periodically drained out of the garbage chutes above their heads. Scandakar devoured the bread in seconds.

“So how do I address you?” Scandakar asked, finding the last bite painful to swallow on his dry throat. “Dwoit or Marshal?”

“I prefer my old name, but they make us choose new ones when we become Marshals. Right now I’m not coming to you as a Marshal, though. Right now, I'm the person you knew when we were boys. I'm afraid this is the last time you ever see this side of me.”

“What made you choose the name Hunt?”

“Hunting was what I loved to do.”

“Now you do it for a living.”

“It’s in my blood.” Dwoit took a seat outside the cell. “We made a hell of a team, you and me. With you I could venture farther, deeper into the swampland than I ever dared. I think it was because your sense of geography was in your blood.”

Scandakar shook his head. “That’s gone now.”

“I don’t believe it is. I don’t care how badly someone caved my skull in, I could still do what I do, better than anyone else. You can’t forget what comes naturally, what makes a man the man he is. Even with half a brain, you're still the same person I knew so many years ago. I can sense it.”

“So is this the beginning of the interrogation?”

Only the beginning. We’re currently traveling through the Gordon Straights. It’s the last land my crew will see for weeks, which means we’ll be docking in the next day or so. Following that, I’ll interrogate you properly.”

“What happens when you fail to break me?”

“I will spare you none of the brutality I gave the criminals before you.”

“I don’t doubt that.”

“You must remember, though, it’s all for show," Dwoit said with a sad smile. "If the esteemed Marshal Hunt showed mercy, word of it would spread to every corner of the ocean. It’s a shame, too. As far as I’m concerned, you meant more than a flesh brother could have ever meant to me. I truly wish I could help you help yourself, Scan'.”

“But you can’t,” Scandakar said. “I understand that. Whatever happens, I won’t blame you.”

“Just confess, brother.”

“I told you I can’t.”

“Then make something up, damn it! Tell me the location is far away from here! Send us on a goose chase!”

“That would only prolong my suffering. I imagine then you would only have to beat me even harder for lying.”

“Beat?” Dwoit asked, a funny smile on his face. “Is that what you think will happen to you? I’ll give you a simple beating? No. It will be far worse than that. I promise you.”

#

The Bloodymare had stopped for many hours. The stillness brought sickness to Scandakar’s stomach. Or maybe it was his diet of kitchen run-off, the lack of water, scurvy, and the steady degradation of bone and muscle. They had apparently docked at the Gordon Straights.

After a night or two of the nauseating stillness, the ship was underway again. They would be coming for him soon.

One day Scandakar heard the bolt slide on the trapdoor. A blinding wedge of candlelight spread across the cell block. Then he heard two pairs of boots stomp down the creaky stairs and along the aisle. One pair of boots belonged to a young Marshal who wore a white armband. The other pair belonged to the deckmaster. The men unlocked the door to Scandakar’s cell and tossed him a burlap hood.

“Put it on,” the Marshal said with a malicious grin. “You don’t want to keep Hunt waiting. Believe you me.”

#

Scandakar was led through what sounded like an engine room, what felt like a furnace, and what smelled like a kitchen. Then the scent of oak and freshly polished brass let him know they had not taken him to any typical room of interrogation. Indeed, when the two men whipped off his hood he found he was in a private stateroom, which looked out over the ocean from the ship's quarterdeck.

In front of him was a desk. On the other side of the desk was a leather chair, riveted with gold. The back of the chair faced Scandakar. The person sitting in it, presumably Dwoit, faced the large view of ocean behind Bloodymare.

A third Marshal, older than Dwoit, was squat at the fireplace, heating a poker which was beginning to glow. Beside him was a tall-backed chair with leather straps for the occupant’s head, neck, and each of the limbs.

Scandakar’s blood ran cold when he saw the hole in the seat of the chair.

“Blood is dangerous on a ship,” Dwoit explained, spinning around to face his old friend as he lit a pipe. “Especially on a floor as polished as this one. That’s why we use red hot instruments.”

The Marshal who had helped the deckmaster deliver Scandakar joined the other Marshal's side, taking from the mantelshelf a hollow ivory horn. The horn, Scandakar knew, would be used to prevent scarring on the outside of his body. Short of a proper medical examination, it would appear as if he keeled over for reasons unknown.

“Dwoit,” Scandakar said, beginning to struggle. The deckmaster slammed his fist against the dented side of Scandakar’s skull. Scandakar ignored the warning. “Dwoit, please. Don't do this.”

“You will refer to me as Marshal Hunt whenever I wear this uniform,” his old friend said. His armband was red, which signified a rank equivalent to captain. He hunched over the desk and rested his chin on folded hands. “You know, I really have been trying to save you. Had you told me what I want to know, I could have negotiated your release. Now I have to make damn sure you really did forget. Deckmaster?”

The deckmaster turned and opened the door. Two more members of Hunt's crew jerked another prisoner into the room, his head hooded and his frail legs dragging helplessly across the floor. He cried out as they yanked his tattered pants down around his ankles and strapped him to the torture chair. The Marshal at the fireplace smirked as he rotated the glowing iron back and forth.

“Don’t,” Scandakar whispered, regaining some of the strength he needed to hold himself upright. His voice, however, was still weak. “This man is innocent.”

“Hardly,” Hunt said. “But look at it this way, brother: if you know of the location of your homeland, all you have to do is tell me and you can spare this man’s suffering.”

The hooded prisoner cried out. One of his captors pinned his head against the seatback as the other fastened straps across his temples and chin. Meanwhile the eager young Marshal squatted beside the chair with the horn in one hand and a wooden mallet in the other.

“And if you truly don’t remember,” Marshal Hunt continued, “you can comfort yourself with the knowledge there was nothing you could do to save him.”

“Shall I gag him?” the older Marshal asked, drawing the poker from the fire.

“No. I want Scandakar to hear this man's screams every time he closes his eyes.”

#

That night, Scandakar was sitting in the corner of his cell, resting though he knew sleep would never come. Old Man Acers’ sanity had devolved another notch. Now he could no longer form words. He was only capable of bird calls and incoherent mumbling. Occasionally he would flap his arms like wings.

“Acers,” Scandakar said softly.

“Ka!”

“You want to know a secret?”

“Ka?”

“I’m a bad man, Ace’. I’ve killed a lot of people. Some of them deserved it, but most of them probably didn’t. I regret the ones who didn’t, but I have this temper. When the only thing you’ve got going in life is a pair of fists, you tend to fall back on that, you know?”

“Ka,” the old man said with an understanding tone.

“Yet I was never as bad as you were. The only reason I joined those pirates is because they traveled uncharted waters a lot. I thought maybe one day we might stumble upon my homeland.” Scandakar sighed. “One day we did.”

“Ka-ka.”

“I should have never left.”

“Kaaaaa.”

“Anyway, I think what you are now—”

“Ka! Ka!”

“—is nothing more than the shell of the man who committed your crimes.” Scandakar rose to his feet and towered over the crazy old man. “I believe the evil departed with your sanity. So I’m sorry I have to do this, Acers. I really am.”

Scandakar seized Acers with his giant fists and broke every bone in the man’s arms and legs, one after the other. The other prisoners howled in response to Acer’s screams.

Several minutes later, the trapdoor was flung open and the deckmaster came down with a lantern, shouting, “Shut up! Shut up, all of you!”

The deckmaster lifted his lantern high and moved to the end of the cell block to see what had gotten into the old man. What he saw first, in a jiggling mound on the floor, was Acers. His shackles and chains had been yanked right off of his body. When he realized he was standing too close to the bars, it was too late: Scandakar had a noose of chain and had looped it around his enemy's wrist.

The deckmaster’s screams joined Acer’s in a brief moment of harmonized agony. Then Scandakar jerked him, and his big ring of keys, through the narrow opening in the bars.

The lantern hit the floor. And the guard’s scream was cut short.

#

The ensuing revolt lasted the better part of an hour. Unfortunately for Scandakar, the number of able and willing prisoners was more or less equal to that of armed guards. Even so, the impromptu army capitalized on the element of surprise as they swept the levels of the ship. The ratio of armed to unarmed reversed almost immediately.

In the end, half of Marshal Hunt’s crew fell in battle. The other half abandoned ship and swam for the harbor where they had recently docked. They would never make it.

Marshal Hunt had locked himself in his quarters, holed up behind his desk with a couple of muskets. Scandakar ordered his army to batter the door down. As the prisoners gained access to the room, Hunt fell someone with his first shot, but missed entirely with the second. Just as they descended upon him for the final blow, Scandakar stopped them with a sharp whistle.

“This one’s mine,” he told them. And not one of the prisoners dared to ignore the order.

#

The following morning, Bloodymare was well underway with its new crew. Now Scandakar toured the cell block, which contained only the one prisoner: Marshal Hunt. 

The man with the giant fists brought him a loaf of bread. Hunt took it greedily and began to devour it. Then he stopped, as if only then realizing he would need to ration it. He glanced up from the bread and caught Scandakar’s eye.

“Show me mercy, Scandakar. I was the one who convinced my family to take you in."

Scadakar shook his head. "That was a boy named Dwoit. You're Marshal Hunt."

"This is how you're going to repay me?”

Scandakar sat on the free side of the bars cross-legged. He lit a cigarette and said, “This ship is mine now. I intend to use it to search for my homeland.”

“You bastard,” Hunt said softly.

In a sudden fit of rage, Hunt hurled his bread at Scandakar. The man with the giant fists had only to move his head a few inches to dodge it. The bread bounced off the wall behind him and landed in a puddle of urine. Within seconds a rat had scurried away with it.

When Scandakar turned his attention back to Hunt, the man was weeping.

“You wanted to know where I come from,” Scandakar told him. “All you have to do is hold onto your sanity until we get there.”

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