Fiction: A Ship with No Mast

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By Stephen Eldridge

The rain battered the oiled cloths wrapped around Gabbin’s body, forcing itself through the single fold that he’d left for air. The lifeboat was small and rapidly taking on water. He had no illusions about his chances of survival – even if he were willing to disturb the relative warmth of his shelter to begin bailing, the tiny vessel had no defense against the wind and the vicious waves. This was a hungry storm and Gabbin was only a morsel.

He was content to drown – he had already lived longer than a man of his nature ought – but he was unhappy that he must do it blind. Rain and wave had robbed him of any chance to see his end coming, no matter how intently he peered out from the layers of his den. He had no lantern and the storm had eaten the stars. There was a vague grey glow that could be mistaken for moonlight, but it was impotent as a ghost. Even when the wind wasn’t making his eyes stream, he could hardly see the prow of his own boat.

Which was why he didn’t notice the ship until it was on top of him.

At first, Gabbin didn’t understand what he was seeing. Then he had a moment of irrational terror – perhaps it was all true. Perhaps the Brine Prince really did exist, roaming the sea to collect the damned souls of pirates and castaways. But Gabbin was practical by nature, and that practicality had kept him alive when superstition had gotten other men killed. He soon saw the ship for what it was: a slim hope of survival.

Shouting was useless – his voice was shredded by the wind and no one on a ship’s crew would be idle enough to answer stray cries when battling a storm. As usual, his hopes lay in his own abilities. Bracing himself against the cold, he sloughed off his protective layers and reached for the bag stowed under his seat. He yanked it out, discarding the contents one by one – matches; a short-sword; even his charts, which would have brought him a profit at any port in the Northern Sea – until he reached the one thing that he cared about. He ran the rope through his hands, working out knots and kinks, and then got to his feet. Forcing himself upright despite the tumbling of his boat, he swung the grapple around and launched it up. The wind took it and it sank, useless, into the sea. Cursing his impatience, Gabbin pulled the grapple back in. The effort of fighting the water nearly ruined him, but at last his breath returned. He waited for even the briefest lull in the wind and the rocking of his boat. Gabbin hurled the grapple again and, this time, it bounced off the hull of the ship. He knew he had little time before the ship was dragged away, his own vessel capsised, or he was defeated by exhaustion. His hands shook with cold and fear, but he swung the grapple until its motion was steady. His instant came, a wisp of calm, and he threw.

***

Another man would have said the ship was cursed. It took Gabbin three days to recover the strength the sea had stolen from him, and in that time he noticed many strange things about the vessel that had saved him. It had no mast, for a start; neither did it have oars, nor even a rudder, so far as he could tell. It was painted a deep green, which was a mad thing to do to a ship, as no paint could survive a voyage. But then, the whole ship had the smell of ornament to it. Every bit of wood not meant to be stood on seemed to be carved into some manner of fish or serpent. It had a vast store of treasure, but Gabbin was beyond caring about anything but food and fuel. Amazingly, the ship also had a vast and varied larder full of fresh fruits, bread, meat, and even soft cheese – food totally unfit for sea travel. If he’d been less hungry, or if he hadn’t resigned himself to death only hours before clawing his way aboard, he wouldn’t have touched it for fear of plague or poison. But it all looked remarkably clean, so he had stuffed himself. Minutes later, he’d emptied his stomach into the ocean, though he couldn’t honestly blame anyone but himself for that.

The strangest thing about this small ship floating in the middle of the Northern Sea with magnificent provisions, and a horde of gold and treasure, was that it didn’t have a living soul on board. There was no sign that anyone had ever been on board – no clothes, no bowls, not even any cabins. Only the girl and she was dead.

Apart from being dead, though, she was quite beautiful. In the midst of the hold, surrounded by treasure, she lay in a raised silver sarcophagus with a glass lid sealed to preserve her corpse. And preserved it was. If it hadn’t been for the coffin and the fact that she hadn’t moved for three days, he never would have believed she was dead. She was from one of the Sea Cities of the East, he suspected, pale of skin, but with exceptionally dark-brown hair and a slight build. He thought she looked about twenty, but her sleep – no, death, he had to remind himself – made it hard to say. She wore a flowing white dress bedecked with silver, sapphire and aquamarine. Entwined in her hair was a thin silver crown and, by this, Gabbin took her for a princess. He had never seen a princess before. He found the experience strangely thrilling. If it weren’t for the slight complication of her death, this would have closely approximated Gabbin’s dearest fantasy.

The long and short of the situation was this – Gabbin had stumbled upon some sort of heathen funeral ship and now he faced a very short life filled with lavish comfort. The ship was clearly not meant to go anywhere. Presumably, it was intended to drift the seas with its precious cargo until it was dragged down into the Brine Prince’s court, at which time, the dead princess would reawaken and feast for eternity with all her possessions, or some other mystical nonsense. He was still lost at sea; he was just lost on a prettier ship. Even the food, excellent though it was, would be inedible within days. This stroke of luck had bought him only a few weeks – less, if he broke down and tried to eat the rotting meat. His only hope was for a passing ship to sight him and rescue him, but, as that had essentially already happened once, he suspected his reserves of good fortune were running dry.

The sensible thing, it seemed, was to eat and drink his way through the larder as quickly as he could and then live off his fat when the remainder rotted. There were, Gabbin knew, worse fates that a pirate could meet on the high seas.

***

As the days stretched on, Gabbin was forced to re-evaluate his plan. Inexplicably, the food showed no signs of spoiling and nor did the dead princess. What’s more, days of eating good food, sleeping on stolen silks, and imagining ways to spend a horde of gold had rekindled his desire to live after the storm had so nearly extinguished it. And the girl … well, she had rekindled something, too, and he didn’t want to die before it could be satisfied.

He had avoided her, at first. Gabbin had never enjoyed the killing that went along with his profession and corpses put an uncomfortable burden on his conscience. He considered himself above the nonsensical superstitions of other seamen, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that, somewhere, the shades of the restless dead were gossiping about him. Every dead body stared up at him, saying, “We know you, Gabbin. You’ve earned a reputation. And when you join us, we’ll treat you as befits a man of your stature ….”

But he had begun sneaking looks. He was a man and she was the first woman he’d seen in nearly a year. There could be no harm in looking – after all, the coffin had been designed for display, hadn’t it? And when another listless week passed and he began talking to her, that was simple make-believe. He knew she was dead; he knew he was speaking only to himself – but it felt good to talk. He wasn’t insane; he was alone. And he was desperate for someone to help him figure out how to steer a rudderless ship to port.

He named her ‘Margarite’.

Now that the storm had passed, Gabbin was impressed by how smoothly the ship sat in the water. The pitch was so mild he might’ve been walking on land. For a pirate who’d spent more years on sea than most men lived, it was disconcerting. More disconcerting was the fact that the days were getting shorter. The current of the Northern Sea should be moving them slowly West, yet they were cutting a steady course North, toward the Top of the World. He related these events to Margarite with growing trepidation. Even aside from the strangeness of their course, the fact was that there were no settlements to the North. If they had any hope of being rescued, it lay in stumbling onto a shipping lane or coming closer to shore. Their current bearing led only to a freezing death on an ice floe.

Loneliness and worry gnawed at Gabbin. The vastness of the sea was oppressive. For the first time in his life, he retreated from the upper deck entirely. He spent whole days leaned against Margarite’s coffin, drinking from a cask of wine and bouncing gold coins off the walls of the hold. It was getting colder, and he longed more and more for the warmth of a woman’s touch. Margarite would be no help, there, of course, but she still looked soft and welcoming. It was more than Gabbin could bear to look at her through the icy glass.

After perhaps a month, his will broke. He awoke that morning having dreamt of her and the agony of longing for her refused to retreat with his sleep. He grabbed a silver knife from among the treasures littering the hold and forced it beneath the glass lid of the casket. Gabbin’s heart pounded as he pried the crystalline sheet loose, sending a nervous thrill through him that he hadn’t felt since his first woman years before. As the lid gave way, the coffin made a gasping noise, as if it had taken a breath. For a petrified moment, Gabbin was certain that the corpse would crumble, rotting away at the very touch of the harsh sea air, but the moment passed and Margarite was as beautiful as ever. He pushed the glass away. It shattered on the floor and he jumped, certain someone had heard the crash. But of course the only one there to hear was Margarite and she was undisturbed. Breathing harder, Gabbin let a hand creep down into the casket and brush the curl of her hair. His fingers trembled and he pulled back. He turned away, sinking against the silver casket. He ran his hands over his face, through his growing beard, and discovered that he was weeping.

Working his fists, Gabbin pushed himself back up. He refused to bawl like a child. He refused to let himself go mad. He wanted the girl, right or wrong, and she was dead and unlikely to mind. There was no reason not to just take what he wanted and get on with the business of freezing to death at the Top of the World.

Yet, looking down at her, he felt something other than lust. He recognised it, but he pushed the thought away as impractical. He reached down and pushed her dress up. He suffered another moment of shock when he saw that the princess wasn’t wearing any undergarments. The strangeness of this circumstance made him hesitate, but then the sight of her overcame him and he was pulling off his trousers. The casket was wide enough that he could climb on top of her, as if they were sharing a bed. He fought the urge to kiss her, but he pressed his face against her neck. He could almost imagine she was warm.

As he entered her, she began to scream.

Gabbin fell flailing off of the coffin and onto the shards of glass littering the floor. Margarite was sitting up, gasping and crying. Gabbin didn’t know what to do; he didn’t understand what was happening. His mind had surely cracked. Yet, Margarite was wailing in one of the Eastern tongues – could a madman imagine a foreign language? He didn’t know. But he knew he didn’t want to hear Margarite scream, anymore. “Quiet,” he said, his voice strangely faint after weeks of muttering to a corpse. “Quiet,” he tried again, and this time the word was a sharp bark.

Margarite’s cries settled down into low, shuddering sobs. She glared up at him, reddened eyes flashing beneath her almost-black curls. She said something else he didn’t understand. Her voice was shrill and the syllables unfamiliar, but he was still pleased by the sound of another voice. Suddenly, she thrust herself out of the casket and onto the floor, slippered feet crunching on glass. She grabbed a handful of coins and hurled them at him furiously.

The shock of the cold metal against his feverish skin brought Gabbin back to his senses. “Stop it,” he spat. “Speak sense or be silent.” It was strange, he had been sharing his thoughts with Margarite for a month, but now she was a stranger.

There was a sound of rolling thunder in the distance and Gabbin noticed that, for the first time since the storm had passed, the ship was rocking.

The girl yelled something else and Gabbin was surprised to hear a word he recognised. He had never been a scholar, but he knew the word for whore in a dozen languages. One-night bride, the Easterners said, to hide their sins behind a pretense of marriage. The girl was obviously no common tart, though, so Gabbin assumed she was insulting his mother. To drive the point home, she leapt at him and slapped him across the face. Then she sank back, pressing her palms to her eyes in a failed attempt to hold back her tears.

“I don’t understand your jabber,” Gabbin growled. “And I don’t have time for it, either.” That was a lie, of course. He had all the time in the world – or, at least, as long as it would take them both to freeze in the lonely North.

Margarite wept harder. She spoke again and, this time, the words came slowly, bitterly. Marok was one and it nagged at Gabbin’s memory. It had the sound of a name. He repeated it, rolling it over his tongue in the hopes of jogging its meaning loose. As he spoke, Margarite screamed in frustration and cast herself to the ground.

The ship was swaying harder now and it was all Gabbin could do to keep his feet. The girl was beyond reason, he could see that, but he still ached for her. Now that he’d been denied, it seemed almost as though she’d done it on purpose, luring him in only to cast him away at the moment of fulfillment. “Stop crying, you little cow,” he hissed at her. “If being fucked in your sleep is the worst thing this life has in store for you, consider yourself lucky.”

The girl hurled another handful of gold at him with an angry yell.

Enraged, Gabbin walked over to her and pushed her back against the pile of treasure. Her eyes went wide and she tried to struggle away, but he held her fast. When she saw it was hopeless, she shut her eyes tight and began to recite something that had the cadence of a prayer. There was the word again, Marok, and Gabbin remembered. A pagan sea god – he’d heard Eastern sailors pray to him many times. Usually just before they died. “Stop it,” he commanded. Perhaps she didn’t understand, but Gabbin took her prayer as defiance. Every time she repeated that word, his blood grew hotter. “There is no Marok!” he finally yelled, shaking her. He couldn’t have explained why the prayers made him so furious; he just knew that you couldn’t give the sea a name and make her love you with prayers and sacrifices. The sea didn’t listen. She was a cold-hearted bitch and Gabbin liked her that way.

The girl trembled. She repeated her chant breathlessly. Even crying – even praying – she was beautiful. Gabbin fought with the urge to finish what he’d started in her casket. As he held her, the ship gave an enormous lurch and knocked them both to the floor in a shower of gold. Margarite cried harder. Ignoring her, Gabbin staggered upright and ran to the stairs. If they’d hit an iceberg, they were doomed. If they’d hit land, they might just have a chance.

He burst through the doors to the deck and out into a wild, battering rain. The shock of the cold almost knocked him down, but a month of glutting himself had left him insulated against the worst of it. The world was a twilight of grey clouds and green ocean, where neither sun nor moon held sway. He could hardly see for the downpour, but there was no land in sight. Whatever they had struck had to be in the water. A whale, perhaps, or a squid.

Another shock ran through the vessel and nearly pitched Gabbin overboard. He felt his jaw crack against the railings, tasted blood, and felt teeth loosen. He pushed himself back up and saw something slick and black sinking beneath the waves. A whale, it had to be a whale.

A scream cut through the hammering of rain on wood, and he turned. Margarite had emerged from belowdecks, her white dress plastered to her body by rain, her once-perfect curls a sodden tangle. She screamed out at the storm in her strange tongue. Marok! she cried, gesturing wildly to herself and to Gabbin and to the sea. One-night bride¸ Gabbin thought, and realised what that meant. And now she was making excuses, blaming him for what had happened, as if the sea and storm would spare her if she could only explain herself.

Another burst of irrational anger came over him. He wanted to walk over to her, to scream at her or beat her until she begged him for mercy and not some false god. Gabbin was only a man, but he was real and if she had a hope of salvation from this hell of a storm, it was him.

The sea grew dark around the ship. The whale was surfacing again, trying to capsise them. Gabbin skidded across the deck toward Margarite, catching her as the vessel lurched once more. She screamed and battered him, but the cold seemed to have sapped her strength. He held her as the thing rose.

The waves parted. A great black shape loomed on the port side of the ship. Suddenly, the sky spun overhead and the sea was rushing toward them. Gabbin lost Margarite, and then lost the deck beneath him and found himself falling toward the great deep. But instead of falling into the hungry waves, he slammed into the starboard rail. Some part of his leg snapped. As he howled his pain into the wind, something soft and wet slid into him. When he realised it was Margarite, he clutched her close to him. In her terror, she clutched him back.

The deck lurched again as something huge and black wrapped around the stern, so heavy that the ship tilted toward it. The icy sea rushed up around the rail, swirling around their waists. Gabbin pawed at the deck, but the slick pine gave no purchase. He turned his eyes down, hoping to see Margarite looking back up at him. Instead, the cursed girl had her eyes closed, praying again. The ship shuddered and the sea rose around her. Gabbin felt a pang of horror as she released him. For a moment, he clutched her harder – she was his now. He had taken her; what kind of bride would she be to her sea god now? But she was dead weight, dragging him down – and try as he might, Gabbin could not win a tug of war with the sea. He let her go and she sank into the dark water. He pulled his eyes from the drowning girl and tried to stay afloat.

The ship was doomed; that much was clear. Cold had numbed his legs so that he couldn’t even remember which one was broken. He needed to find something that would float; some bit of wood or a barrel, or anything that might keep him from freezing to death in the frigid water, that might hide him from the great, dark thing that was dragging down the ship. Still hanging onto the sinking deck, he scoured the sea for hope.

Something moved in the water. Not the horror from the deep, but rather, something small and white and red. It floated up out of the shadows, swirling toward him, and he grabbed it.

It was Margarite’s dress, stained with blood.

Gabbin pushed himself away from the deck and began to swim. He knew the churning of the water would attract notice, but he was beyond caring. Darkness moved beneath him, something titanic with eel-black skin. Deep in the abyss, he glimpsed something he couldn’t understand. Great whirls of water flowed into a cavernous mouth full of needle-like teeth. The current caught him and he began to spiral down.

Marok. The thought forced its way into his mind, and turned his aching muscles warm and weightless. He couldn’t feel the water, anymore. The ship sinking behind him concerned him no more than the bloody dress still clutched in his numb fingers. As the abyss swallowed him, he realised that he had been wrong. The sea had a name. But it made no difference; no prayer or sacrifice would make him love you.

Bio: Stephen Eldridge is the author of several nonfiction books for children and young adults, including Trace Evidence: Dead People Do Tell Tales for Enslow Publishers. This is his fiction debut and he’s grateful to finally be working in a medium where Lovecraftian horrors are not only allowed, but encouraged.

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