A Disgusting Trade

This is my first, and so far only try at a fantasy story. I was listening to a lot of Falconer when I wrote it, and my head was full of ships and wind and magic. I think it turned out alright, but I’ll likely stick to sci-fi and speculative from now on 🙂

~Jonas

Continuous crisp wind ruffled Jarkko’s blond hair as he stared up into the night sky. The stars and moon were still obscured by clouds. He missed the comfort of their sight, though they would have been no help to him in this strange territory.

The ship creaked and swayed beneath his feet as it was pushed ever onward by the Wind Caller’s ways. They all had been long at sea, long enough to give Jarkko pause when considering their course. Elric had always navigated well, but these were new lands to them all; it was a possibility that the constant cloud cover had sent them awry.

A rat scurried across his feet. He kicked at it and gripped his sword hilt. The little creatures were becoming more aggressive of late, perhaps spurred by the colder weather.

Jarkko moved toward the stern. He watched the Caller’s hands wave, pushing an endless wind into the sails. The old man’s face was crinkled and weathered. His eyes were smoothed over with skin, having been burned out decades ago. The other younger one, kept chained below deck, would meet a similar fate once they had delivered him to the buyer.

“Jarkko, old badger!” Weslin called out as he approached. The man’s bulky frame was easily identifiable even in the dark. “Your turn to feed the freak, if memory serves.”

“Aye, I don’t doubt your ability to count, Wes.”

“How many more turns? It is a such bother to deal with these untrained ones,” Weslin growled. “I will be relieved when we are back to our normal fare!”

“True words. The pay was hardly worth this inconvenience.”

“And this endless sea! Sometimes I wonder if Elric – Arg!” Weslin kicked at a rat climbing on his foot. “Buggers are getting brave!”

“Aye, must be getting hungry, they’ve been at sea as long as us.” Jarkko patted his friend’s shoulder. “And I know you are hungry for some fresh meat as well!”

“Oh, off with you!” Weslen took a swing at Jarkko’s gut.

“I’m off!” Jarkko laughed.

The steps creaked beneath his feet as he made his way below. He stopped to take a heel of bread and fill a mug of water from the rations.

He paused at the door to the holding room to plug his ears with balls of wax from his belt pouch. The words of these Callers contained much power, and this one yet kept his tongue, unlike the old man above.

With the wax secured in his ears and the sound of his own breath loud in his head, he pulled open the door.

Six cells were lined against one wall of the room. Although usually packed full of captured slaves to be sold, now only one cell at the far end held a prisoner. He carried the food toward it, blood pumping loudly in his stopped ears.

He reached the last cell and the prisoner came into view. His thin pale frame turned to face Jarkko; a bald head and bald face, not even eyebrows were present. A rat perched on the prisoners fingers, held close to the man’s face. Jarkko had time to wonder if he would try to eat it before the Caller’s shining bright ice blue eyes connected with his. Jarkko turned away, adrenaline pumping in his veins; power shined bright in those eyes.

Keeping his gaze averted, he opened the cell door and placed the bread and water on the floor. As he did, a rat scurried past him and away, then two more quickly followed. This man’s cell was heavily infested, it seemed. Jarkko hoped they were not damaging to the prisoners health, but was too wary to look at the man again.

With his head down he quickly shut and locked the cell door, and retreated back above.

The cold wind refreshed Jarkko’s senses. Weslin saw him shaking his head and running his hands through his hair.

“He get to you? Those eyes are strange eh?”

“It’s as if I can feel them on me still, how much longer must we travel with this demon of a man!”

“It can’t be much longer yet.” Weslin pulled at his thick beard. “Why, we’ve been sailing on this wicked wind for… well…” Weslin tried to recall how long it had been.

“We must talk to Elric about- blast!” A rat scurried onto Jarkko’s foot and he kicked it away.

“What possesses these vermin of late?” said Weslin, watching the rodent hurry away.

“The gods only know.” Jarkko shrugged and turned to lean against the bulwark.

There was silence but for the creaking of the deck and the soft splashing of the waves as the two men stared into the dark.

Jarkko felt that he had forgotten something. He had been about to do something but couldn’t remember what. He was searching his memory when he saw something moving in the water. A slab of ice was floating along the waves next to the ship.

“What the…” Jarkko squinted his eyes and pointed. “You seeing what I see, Wes?” It was difficult to make out in the clouded night, but once seen there was no mistaking it.

“Ice?” Weslin turned to look at him, his face pale. “How can we possibly be this far off course?”

“Elric,” said Jarkko.

After only one step he shouted in pain and surprise. A large brown rat sunk its teeth into his leg and hung on, squirming and pulling at his flesh. With a roar Jarkko drew his sword and slashed at the rodent, cutting it easily in two. It fell to the deck, steam rising from its insides.

“I see you are not rusty with the sword!” Weslin bellowed with laughter.

Jarkko kicked the corpse across the deck and pointed his sword to the bow, where Elric was at the helm. “We’re talking to Elric, now.”

As they rushed to the bow, the few men remaining on deck turned to look at them. Jarkko saw more, and larger, pieces of ice. He silently cursed his eyes for missing such a warning. They were certain to be hundreds of miles off course by now, and still heading further.

Jarkko reached the navigator and grabbed his shoulder, turning him around. Elric stared blankly, his eyes gaunt and his skin pale.

“Why are we so far off course!” Jarkko shook him, but he did not respond. “Why are…”

A rat was perched on Elrics shoulder, mostly obscured by the man’s long curled hair. It’s nose was buried in Elrics ear.

“These vermin are cursed!” Jarkko snatched the rat in his hand and threw it to the deck. It landed with a thud and slinked away.

Elrics face cleared and his eyes widened. “Where are we?”

“You tell me!” Jarkko swept his hand at the frozen waters.

“I don’t… I…”

There was a shout from the men behind them. Jarko and Weslin turned to see a swarm of rats moving across the deck. They flowed out of cracks and corners and from below, forming into a line, dozens and dozens of them, moving at speed. They raced across the ship and leaped into the sea.

Jarkko stared dumbfounded; the rats were not swimming on the water, but downward into the dark, toward some unknown goal. He and Weslin watched until the last rat had gone into the icy depths, only then did they realize that the wind had stopped, and the ship was now still.

Jarkko looked to the Wind Caller. The old man’s arms were lowered, and a grin was on his wrinkled face.

“Hey! Who ordered you-” A great creaking, snapping and splashing interrupted him, and he turned to see a dark shape rising out of the water ahead of them, towering over the ship. Chunks of ice fell from it and splashed into the sea.

As it moved toward them the clouds opened, allowing the moon to shine down on the shape, illuminating it.

Shining ice-blue scales reflected starlight and sea-green fins dripped water. Great, white teeth as long as Jarkko’s sword hung below eyes that swirled like whirlpools.

“Arrows!” Jarkko called, and the men rushed to their longbows.

Jarkko backed away as the serpentine figure grew closer. Arrows bounced uselessly off its scales as it lowered its head towards the deck.

Its teeth sunk into the wood of the ship and Jarkko charged toward it with a yell, his sword drawn. He was knocked back by a burst of fetid wind from the creatures mouth. He gagged at the smell of rot and struggled to stand up. The ship shook beneath him. A shattering crunch filled the air as the deck was torn up in the creatures mouth. Splinters of wood rained down as it flung the pieces into the water.

Jarkko regained his feet and backed away, holding up his sword. The creature was motionless. It’s head hung over the hole in the deck and waited in silence, breath steaming out of its mouth.

“Release me now and you will be spared.” The voice was calm and soft, yet bold and strong. It rang clear in Jarkko’s head, seeming to come from all directions, and none.

He knew who must possess such a voice.

He and Weslin looked at each other, then at the serpent, arrows still bouncing harmlessly off its scales.

“I don’t think there is much of a choice,” said Weslin.

“Alright, let’s go.”

They edged their way up to the hole, the beast’s breath hot on their faces. Its storming eyes followed their movements but its maw did not move at them.

Jarkko climbed down the broken steps to the interior of the holding room. He could see the prisoner standing with his manacled hands held outward, his face calm and motionless. Above them the great beast’s head cast a shadow over the cell.

“Don’t look at him!” Weslin said, “The wax! The wax!” But Jarkko was already opening the cell door.

The prisoners icy eyes locked with his, and this time Jarkko could not look away. He was bound, frozen in place, his will had no effect on his limbs or mouth. A gentle voice floated into his ears, and opened him a single course of motion.

“Unlock my chains.”

Jarkko moved, his body following the only path it could take. His hand moved inexorably toward the manacles. His fingers inserted the key and turned it in the only way they could. All the while his eyes maintained contact with the Caller’s.

The manacles fell to the ground with a clatter and the man walked out of the cell, Jarkko felt his body turning against his will to continue facing him. The Caller leaned in close to Jarkko’s face.

“Slavery is a disgusting trade.”

With those words Jarkko felt the hold on him dissipate and he lurched forward, but the prisoner leaped up out of his reach to land on the deck with shocking agility.

They looked up to watch as the Caller climbed onto the beasts head. The great serpent lifted from the deck and released a terrible shriek before moving away from the ship into the cold waters.

It cut through the waves and sped into the dark.

“I knew that one was bad news from the start,” said Weslin. “I hope that creature swallows him whole.”

“Aye,” said Jarkko, but he felt a pull of sympathy at the thought of freedom. He imagined the thrill of escape and felt an urge to get back up top and feel the cold wind on his face.

On deck he looked down once more at the bars of the cell. He thought of himself trapped there. He looked at the manacles and chains and felt nothing but revulsion toward them.

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