Last week's Pocket Fiction focused on the port towns to the west of Meria, the setting for Claws of the Chimera. Gathered loosely into the Lutran Confederacy, the towns are a haven for anyone looking for a freer life. Giant otters and men walk side by side, some seeking a life of piracy, others looking for lawful lines of work. Sometimes that work takes them out to sea; other times it takes them upriver, into Gyb or Laurice territory. Check out this post for some of the research I did while writing this story.
Tark is one of the more piratical residents. Together with Guthry, his human friend, they're more often than not on the wrong side of the law. Today, though, their crimes have caught up with them...
I opened my eyes with a gasp. Almost immediately the pain in my head spiked, and I raised a paw to block the harsh sunlight. The sick feeling in my stomach grew with every aching breath and I rolled onto my front, coughing up a mouthful of phlegm onto the hard-packed sand.
Staggering to my feet, I looked around. The impact of the cannon shot had thrown me into a little blind, behind some of the brown rocks that littered the beach. Fragments of memory came back to me: running with Guthry, the goods on his back, a shout before the blast, and then darkness.
Everything ached as I stumbled around the rocks, looking up and down the deserted shoreline. Where was Guthry? A few metres away the sand opened up into a crater, about ten feet across, like an open grave. Giving the hole a wide berth, I moved on up the beach.
A mess of footprints lead up to a scuffed depression in the sand, clear signs that something had been examined, dragged. They lead back down to a line in the sand, the sort of mark a longboat’s keel might make when pulled up onto the shore. Narrowing my eyes, I stared out over the choppy waves.
Perhaps a mile away a large galley was waiting, its small sails reefed and oars shipped. My breath caught in my throat as I looked at the pennants fluttering in the stiff breeze.
Not just any; the Red Hand. The most prolific in all the Lutran Confederacy.
I looked back to the town. The militia there wouldn’t put to sea against the Hand. They were too poorly-maintained, too weak. One or two otters might have a mind to attack the longboat, but by the time we got there they would be on board already. Easy targets in the water. Already the little craft was coming alongside the hull of the galley.
Nothing else for it. I took a few deep breaths, then closed the flaps over my nostrils and ears. The lapping of the waves was swallowed by the rushing sound of blood through my head as I took a few scuttling steps down the sand and slid into the water.
For a while, the world shrank down to just the undulating waves and me. My hind legs, toes spread to better use the webbing between them, quickly began to ache, but I forced the pain down, falling into a comfortable rhythm. Dive. Swim, until my lungs burn with the urge to breathe. Turn. Surface. Gasp in sea-spray air. Repeat.
About two thirds of the way there I paused, only my head above the surface. The longboat was being winched up onto the galley, everyone already aboard, and I watched the oars for any sign that they were being readied.
Another breath and back below the waves. Below the surface all was quiet, the water a clear sapphire, and I kicked until the black hull of the boat loomed ahead of me. Muscles straining, I came up against its side and surfaced slowly.
Above, I could hear the humans shouting, their voices mingling with the few otters in the crew. I swam slowly towards the stern, cursing the poor quality of the hull, its complete lack of ornamentation if you ignored the barnacles and ooze that coated the planks. It wasn’t until the rudder that I was able to haul myself out of the water, guard hairs dripping, and up to the small gallery below the poop. Exhausted, I dragged myself over the wooden balcony and lay on the deck.
With a shudder, the ship began to move as the oars sliced into the water. The fore and aft sails were unfurled, each one causing the ship to lurch forward slightly as it snapped in the breeze. Raising my head, I looked around, whiskers forward. There were two ways off the gallery, one to each side, and a wall of thick glass panes looked into what seemed to be the captain’s cabin. A large desk filled most of the room, piled high with charts and half-covered by a swathe of cloth I recognised as a Wintersea flag. A bed lay to one side, empty bottles rolling as the galley rode the waves.
“Guthry Dorn, in the flesh. For now.” My heart lurched as I recognised the voice of Captain Gisk coming from above me, and I tore my attention away from the window. “Took us a while, but we found you. Thought we wouldn’t, I bet.”
I heard the sound of someone spitting, and then the thump of a fist hitting flesh, and then someone wearing boots striding around the deck. “Soil my boat with yer spittle, would ye? Two months we hunted you and your little rat friend. Now he’s dead, blown to pieces, and you’re here. We’re gonna string you up at every port. No-one steals from the Red Hand and gets away with it.”
Guthry coughed and spat again, sending something – a tooth? – rattling onto the deck. Gisk merely chuckled. “Take him below and chain him to an oar. Maybe some hard labour will teach him a little respect.”
I peered around the corner, head low, just in time to see the struggling form of Guthry being lead down the stairs. His hair was matted, one of his trouser legs torn off at the knee, but otherwise unharmed.
As I watched, two crew otters trotted up the stairs, bundles of rope clutched in their mouths. My hopes of being able to pass as crew sank as I saw they weren’t just wearing red collars; they had been branded, a thick black hand-shaped mark burnt through their fur and skin. Perhaps at night I’d be unchallenged, but during the day?
My body low, I crept towards the underside of the stairs, keeping as close to the cabin’s outer wall as possible. Several barrels and crates were piled under the stairs, and I stole behind them, hunkering down in the shadows. As the ship ploughed westward, I curled up, gathering my strength.
Night fell, and the moon began its sojourn across the sky. Picked out in silvery light, the ship took on an ethereal quality, unreal. Traffic on the deck quietened, both the otters and humans contingent going belowdecks. As the night rolled on, only the susurration of the waves and the creaking of the timbers disturbed the silence. I uncurled, stretched, and crept out from under the stairs.
The quarterdeck deck was narrow, the stairs up to the poop embracing it like the arms of a lover; the door to the Captain’s cabin was the only distinguishing feature, and instead I trotted down to the main deck. The wind blew down off the poop deck, bringing only fresh air. No-one stood at the wheel. A single man was slumped against the main mast, a bottle gripped loosely in his hand, staring glumly out across the dark waters.
In four quick steps I was behind him, one clawed paw reaching up to smother his mouth and nose. The rancid stench of his body cloyed in my nostrils, but I held him to me until his chest stopped heaving, his body stopped convulsing. Gently, I laid him down on the deck.
The door leading belowdecks opened with a creak that made my fur puff, but no answering calls came from within. I crept into the darker interior, my eyes slowly adjusting to the dim lanternlight.
Two decks down, I came across the slaves. Chained to oars, three to a bench, it was impossible to tell where any of them hailed from. All were wearing a simple loincloth, their hair grown into long straggles and beards hung from skin turned to leather by wind and work. They slumped over the oars, asleep, as I padded slowly down the centre.
I found Guthry at the back. His mouth was a mass of blood and his eyes were swollen almost shut, but when I laid my paw on his thigh they fluttered open.
“Tark,” he whispered. “What the hell are you doing here?”
I lifted a claw to my mouth, wishing for just a moment that I could speak as the humans did. His chains were sturdy, his feet attached to a loop of metal on the floor and his hands to the oar. Something was wrong with his legs, but I couldn’t place it.
“Get off the ship, Tark. Don’t let them catch you too,” Guthry mumbled. He shoved weakly at my head, the chains clinking.
The slave next to Guthry, a big man whose arms were covered in sores, grunted into wakefulness at the sound. His eyes met mine, then travelled back along my body to my unmarked flank.
“Hey,” he said, voice hoarse. “You’re not Red Hand. Can you get us off this ship?”
Guthry ignored him and put a hand on my neck. “Tark, I’m serious. Go. I’m done; they broke my legs, they do it to all the slaves.” More eyes were opening around us as the silence was broken, more slaves beginning to call out. I looked around me as hands began to grasp towards me, long clawed fingers tugging at my fur.
One last time I nuzzled Guthry’s hair, breathing in his scent, and then he pulled away. “Go!”
As I turned and ran, somewhere upon the deck an alarm bell was starting to ring. The stairwell was a confusion of bodies, otter and man alike, pushing and shoving; voices raised in confusion, and up above a man shouting ‘Intruder!’
As soon as I was topside, I pitched over the side, falling through dark air towards the blacker depths. Barely a splash marked my escape.
Within my breast a burning was growing, with every stroke of my legs. The Red Hand would pay for Guthry’s life.