The Far Unknown
I almost used the title of this story as the name of my blog. Meanwhile, this was written for the November 2018 Fantasy-Faction.com challenge, in which we chose from several "ship" pictures and wrote a story about one of them. Enjoy.
he lure of Aelf gold sent Marinhall to Mitgar’s dungeons and doomed the Grom. Stronger than steel and shinier than a seaman’s eye at the sight of dry land, a blades-worth of aelfgeld could ransom a king — or send a sailor beyond his charts, into the far unknown.
On a raw, miserable morning, we rowed Weaver out of Cape Vale harbor and pointed her prow to the frozen seas at the bottom of the world. Karadal stood in the bow, his silver hair flat against his skull, looking like death. I wheeled my chair next to the Aelf and secured it to the rail. He acknowledged me with a nod. “Captain Bucket.”
“So,” I ventured. “What’s it like to live for a thousand years?”
Aelves are notorious for keeping their own counsel. But after a minute, he looked down at me and said, “What is it like to be a legless grotesque?”
“Probably a lot less boring,” I answered.
I saw him hold back a smile, and figured we were off to a good start.
Weaver was my boat. I designed her, paid her making, and hired her crew. If you’re damned to be a legless grotesque, I recommend being a wealthy one. And you can always be wealthier and less bored, which is why I hired Weaver out when Karadal came onto her decks looking for a captain greedy and foolish enough to take him south.
Two months there, he said, and two months back. Prepare for ice and storms. Take weapons for the unexpected. Five hundred standard gold now plus expenses, and your weight in aelfgeld after we get there. Wherever there was.
I doubled the crew’s pay and promised them shares. Some left, but enough stayed. I’d treated them well, and Weaver was a comfortable ship, due to my inventions.
My men trusted me.
We hit a storm six weeks out and barely won through. When the skies cleared, we were off-course and had to beat back against the current with half our spread of sail. I had charts, but the sun barely showed itself, the compass spun randomly, and the nighttime stars grew strange.
The Aelf and I were in the bow at sunset. I’d wrapped myself in furs, while he stood in the same light tunic he’d worn each day.
“You said it would be easy.” I knocked a thin sheen of ice off my chair wheels with the back of a hand ax. If I didn’t keep up with it, it would freeze in one place, and me with it. Perhaps I could attach a set of sled runners to the bottom.
“No, Captain Bucket, I said it might be the most dangerous journey you ever undertake.”
“Well, you definitely didn’t mention the ice.”
“I remember saying something about it. You said it might be worth a bit of frostbite to earn my gold.”
“Just so long as you don’t get us lost,” I said.
He smiled thinly and raised one elegant arm, pointing to a horizon fanged with the blue peaks of distant bergs. “That way.”
A crawling mist rose around the ship during the night. The man on watch reported distant drumming that made his skin crawl, which I said was probably just lice, but Karadal looked grim.
Weaver began to churn through greasy slop. I’d designed an ice ram, and we lowered that in place. But with the sails flat and the oarsmen struggling, we couldn’t break through the thickening pack. Finally, as dawn groped the sky, we looked out on a frozen world blanketed by low fog, glazing everything from the decks to the masts to the shrouds.
Karadal left his place at the bow to stand beside my chair, which was now frozen in place and useless. “You said your men could fight.”
“I think half of them have turned pirate and back more than once,” I said.
“Then now would be the time to break out the cutlasses. This is no natural fog.”
We assembled at the rail, the men hefting their weapons. I pulled myself onto a barrel top.
Karadal stood like a flame. “Children of men! You have followed Mr. Bucket for the promise of riches.” He paused as drumming started again in the fog. “Now, if you want to live, you must follow me. Because,” he added, with grim humor, “My people are coming.”
“Your people?” one of the men ventured. He shrunk back from the Aelve’s eyes, and added, “My lord.”
“Younger than I. Children, really. But dangerous to such as you.”
The men groaned as one. Though Karadal was likely the only Aelf any of them had seen, every story told how terrible they were in battle. These were just sailors. For all my bragging, maybe a third had ever seen a real fight.
We strung boarding nets and waited. The drums encircled Weaver, but the clinging mist kept any glimpse of the Aelves hidden. I dragged myself down to my workshop, ripped the wheels off a spare chair, and madly hammered sled runners to the bottom. I pulled a crossbow from one cabinet, then one of my favorite inventions from another. I triggered the counter-weight on the lifting platform and was carried back up to the open deck.
I had nothing to offer in terms of battle tactics. Karadal strode from man to man, giving words of encouragement.
I didn’t trust him. Maybe it was the way he’d deftly deflected every question about where we were going and why. Maybe it was that an Aelf’s promise of gold was simply too good to be believed.
Around us, the drums rose again. Men began to weep from terror. Voices in the mist called “Glaetha! Glaetha!” More voices echoed the call.
I hailed Karadal. “Glaetha?”
“My language,” said the Aelf. He sounded distracted. “There is no translation, but you might say it means ‘father’.” I must grunted my incomprehension. “I told you,” he added. “Children. Very jealous children.”
Aelves swarmed out of the fog: tall, graceful, keening, wielding lightning. Weaver and her crew never stood a chance. Men I'd known and laughed with died with their swords hardly lifted. My cabin boy was sliced in two like a sausage for dinner. The ship caught fire, even under its sheath of ice.
I saw it all from the corners of my eyes, because I kept them entirely on Karadal; and when he slipped over the side during the confusion, I released a ramp and slid after him.
With powerful pushes on improvised poles, I managed to trail the Aelf at some distance. I dragged my invention behind in its canvas bag.
A hundred yards beyond the ship, the mist cleared. Karadal was a dot running south, but his footprints showed plainly on the fresh powder. Though it sickened me to think it, whatever the Aelf children were doing with my crew, I prayed they’d be a long time at it.
I was gasping for breath, arms shaking, when I saw an island of bare rock rising from the ice. Karadal disappeared around the far side. When I reached it an hour later, I almost despaired of following, until I noticed a path carved into the ledge. I abandoned my sled and my invention. I took the cross bow.
Up, I told myself, dragging my useless body from carven step to carven step. Up, and up.
At the top, I looked down into a hollow bowl in the ledge. All around me, the rock walls were covered with glyphs. The place echoed of age and secrets.
Karadal stood in the bottom, surrounded by a vast pyre of wood. I was past wonderment, and didn’t stop to think how it had gotten there. As I watched, he raised an arm and conjured a ball of fire in his hand.
I yelled down from my perch above. “If you’d wanted help killing yourself, Karadal, you only had to ask.”
He looked up, surprised, and I saw my death in his eyes. He’d never intended any human to see this place. I leveled the crossbow and shot him between the eyes. The blazing ball dropped from his hand and exploded in the pyre. Somehow, the Aelf still lived. I expected him to scream as the fire rose, but instead he sang.
When it was over, when the wood was embers, he was gone. In his place stood a golden skeleton, and on the glowing rock at its feet lay three squalling babes.
Glaetha, father. Right.
I throttled the evil bastard’s whelps, took his golden skull for payment, and crawled back to my sled. I untied my invention’s canvas bag and assembled it as quickly as I could.
I expected the other Aelves to return at any moment. Their eerie call of Glaetha! Glaetha! sounded in the distance just as my kite scaled the sky and I sledded away, the kite's long tether pulling me faster and faster across the lonely, frozen sea.
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