Chapter 4ish: Puncture the Brine
The sea was calm. The tide shifted lazily beneath the afternoon sun like a field of lovers beneath a glimmering expanse of frothing sheets. Wind gently brushed the surface, spraying the it with beads of clear, saline water. A burst of spray pierced the surface. There was another, then another and another. A pod of whales, hulking animals, as long as a trader's barque, began to surface, exhaling their totems of foam and taking in giant gulps of the cool sea air. Their bumpy heads were covered with knobs and tubercles, taking in the warm, afternoon sun on their smooth, wet bodies. As they punctured the brine, they revealed stubby fins on their backs, which disappeared quickly, giving way to their wide tails, which splashed froth to and fro. When they were finished, they dove back beneath the surface, where several more of their kin had cornered a great school of fish. The frightened creatures, mackerel and carp, numbering in the thousands swarmed together in a tight ball, trying to avoid the huge whales and their wide open traps.
They slid gracefully through the water, like a flock of vultures riding a thermal draft around a rotting carcass. Overhead, a gull rode an updraft, watching carefully as a few of them plunged into the deep. The panic stricken school fled, some breaching through into the air when they ran out of water to climb. Other whales moved in circles, forcing air through their blowholes. Great clouds of bubbles rushed out, blocking the fishes' escape route, tightening the circle around them like a hand around a throat.
At the apex of the column, a few of the whales sailed through the cloud, mouths agape, taking both fish and water into their cavernous mouths in gluttonous amounts. The fearful prey scattered to flee, but were herded back together as a curtain of bubbles cut off their escape. When the whales had had as much as they could take, they pushed the water through the dozens of baleen plates lining their mouths, straining their food from the water in a white froth of bubbles. They then swallowed their meal and plunged back beneath the cloud to allow their kin to feed. They sang haunting songs as they attacked, terrorizing their prey as they swallowed them whole and still wriggling. As their circle wrapped more and more tightly around the terrified school of fish, they became more and more frenzied. A pair of the whales shot through the cloud of prey and breached the surface, landing hard, mouths full, driving the unfortunate fish into a ball, before being herded back to the surface where the onslaught continued in the shallows.
Before long, the life had been squeezed from the column of fish like a crushed windpipe and the whales moved on, fat and happy with their hunt. A few survivors fled to the bottom, seeking shelter amidst the labyrinths of coral caves. The whale pod drifted lazily through the dark low water, nuzzling one another and singing their sea chanty. Three times they broke the surface together, taking in huge gasps of air after loosing their spray fountains and three times they plunged again to the depths to relax amidst the cool shadows.
As they considered their fourth breath, they noticed another pod above them. Though they could not count them, hundreds of dark shapes floated over their heads, spots of indigo, moving through the turquoise water, shimmering with the light of the descending sun. The shadows fell below them in columns of darkness and what little light could penetrate the depths filtered down in streamers of green and gold as the water above frothed and danced with the chop.
Intrigued, the matriarch of the pod, a massive creature with long, gnarled fins and a handful of deep scars crosshatching her back, inched up to investigate the strange shapes. Her family followed closely on her broad tail. As they neared, the top of the sea, the dark shapes were discovered to not be another family of whales, but something very different, moving slowly on top of the water. The whales recognized the shapes and bumped them gently on their underbellies, revealing hard, unforgiving frames. Still curious, the pod breached, breaking through the water amidst the strange outlines. They loosed their columns of froth and gazed inquisitively at them.
A massive armada, hundreds of ships, made of hard, dark woods, drove through the gentle currents. Oars sliced through the surface, knocking some of the whales on their bumpy backs. Broad sails, patched and splotched with stains and sun, stamped with emblems of various animals captured the wind and harnessed it to push the fleet forward. Their prowpieces and figureheads took the forms of animals as well. Among the ships, galloped wooden horses. Eagles flew and owls glided, frogs slipped between the wave crests, bears lumbered forth, lions sailed in prides and wolves in packs, jaguars lurked among the riggings, boars cut their way through the sea with their tusks, huge eyes dotted some of the prows, like the eyes of the curious whale pod, turtle heads peered curiously at the afts of the ships ahead of them, ibexes and rams charged headlong into the surf, accompanied by stags and bulls.
Many of the ships bore one or two sails, as well as a double bank of oarsmen on either side. The decks were wide and flat, railed on either side with narrow wooden beams. Round shields of leather and wood lined the gunwales. Swords and spears lay in stockpiles below the main deck in the cargo hold, a labyrinth of hammocks and bedrolls. Skulls lined the walls.
The vessels were crewed by creatures, not unlike men insofar as they walked about the decks on two legs and stood upright, but there the resemblance ended. They were hairless. Their skin was dark, but in a way unlike that of the men of the southern tropics. They were seared like steaks, left to crisp over a flame. The flesh was augmented with bubbling blisters and open sores covering much of the exposed skin. Nearly black eyes like those of a blood lusting shark peered out of their skulls. Some of the strange folk were blind, donning cloth wrappings around their heads over the eyes, while a select few retained a white sclera, though rivers of burst blood vessels stained them red and left a mad look across their faces. Most of the crewmen were scarcely clad. Their clothes were made of animal hides of some sort, but none with fur. The garments were scaly and black, fashioned into vests or open shirts and threadbare breeches frayed about the ankles and calves. They rowed ferociously to the beat of heavy drums, which rumbled from the afts of each vessel. The fleet rolled forth like a storm cloud above the crystal clear blue of the sea.
Some of the larger ships, three and four masted galleys bore darker cargo in their holds. Battling and sparring, in the darkness, hundreds of warriors slashed and beat one another with wooden swords and spears. Bruised, bloodied and sweating sticky rivers, they clashed. They wore eagle feathers and the horns of tufted owls, bear skins, wolf hides and lion pelts. Some wore spotted jaguar cloaks while others wore the horns of rams or bulls and the antlers of stags. There were boar’s tusks and turtle shells. Some had painted themselves green and hopped about like mad frogs as they thwarted their opponents. A select few had painted themselves blue, huge, hulking men who bore huge hammers and knocked their companions to the ship’s floor while others wore helms upon their heads plumed with horse hair. The combat was savage, brutal and unending.
At the core of the argosy, sailed a ring of massive warships, gaff-rigged with crudely wrapped cords, cutting through the waves and ripples and replacing them with their own churning wakes. Driven by huge, stained sails of hides grotesquely stitched together in mismatched quilt of skin and sinew, the vessels cut through the water swiftly, their hulls bumping into the confused sea animals, without knowledge, care or remorse. The crews chanted in an old, unfamiliar tongue as they pushed and pulled on the wooden paddles to the steady rumble of large round drums. Skulls and bones beyond count lined the gunwales in huge racks. Rows of eyeless sockets watched the crew as they went about their duties and the boatswains as they disciplined their underlings for slacking. From the highest masts, they flew flags of tattered cloth, each with a strange emblems and below in the cargo hold, beneath the battling warriors in their animal likenesses, another army brooded.
Sitting in the darkest, wettest chambers of the arks, were battalions of soldiers: heavy breathing, thickly armored, restless, hungry, furious, soldiers. Their armor was unpolished steel, plates banded together with tough leather and laid over rings of black steel mail, laid over thick hardened skins. Their faces were masked in iron and hide and small gems carved of black glass. The stones caught what light they could on their sharp edges and sent it fleeing the darkness. They wore pairs of jagged swords on their belts. In their hands they gripped tall pikes, hard wood and harder steel tips. Their shields were square, the only thing soft about them being their corners. Bossed with skulls, not all human, they were stained black, banded with rough iron and stretched from the warriors’ necks to their knees. Hardened boots wrapped their feet and greaves and vambraces of a like with their grim armor offered protection for their arms and legs. Their hands were great mitts, encased in leather coated with spiked steel articulations. They stood like a garden of gravestones, aligned in ranks and packed tightly into the belly of the frigates. Above one battalion, was a wooden floor which housed more of them, then their battling wild men in their animal pelts and war paints, then the rowers, and finally the open sky and sea.
Each ship was captained by a wild pack of warriors that had been sprinkled throughout the fleet. They stood tall at the helms, donning fine boots, made of leather and long coats, draped over roughspun shirts or simply their hard muscled, crackly skinned chests. Some had wide brimmed hats, while others wore nothing, but a bandana or simply the shimmering glint of the top of their head. From each of their belts, a curved sword hung, craft of black steel, unpolished after forging. On their backs, many wore javelins and and light harpoons. The captains were about as alike as their crafts, uniform only in purpose and destination. They dogged their ships forward, keeping the armada in formation around the mighty flagship.
At the heart of the fleet, sailed the bellwether, a massive juggernaut, larger by far than those in its wake and at its bow. Seven thick masts rose up from the deck, like ancient trees growing in a dense forest, each bearing a pair of massive sails emblazoned with animalistic emblems of bears and wolves and lions. Ropes coiled around each trunk like constricting vines and a spider's web of netting and other cords had been tangled above the main deck securing the sails, which held the wind hostage as it drove the ship forward. The bow was decorated with the effigy of a woman, tied in black chains and screaming silently into the salty spray. The water wet her face and body, making her imprisonment all the worse. Dozens of rafts, the size of small fishing vessels lined each side, lashed to the gunwales with rough sinews.
The crew was no different from the rest of the fleet made up of strong-backed, burned-looking men in poor cloth. Below deck, beneath the pumping oarsmen and the dueling animal warriors and the silent, black armored brutes in their silence, caged beasts slept, rocked by the waves into a gentle lazy slumber. But the creatures were not gentle or lazy. They bore fangs like wolves and tusks like wild boars. Their skin was scorched clean and scabbed over, blistered in most places and patched with rough, bristly hair in others. Their backs were ridged and their breath rattled through their noses as if every respiration drew a tumult of stones down a hollow corridor. The deck was patrolled by spearmen, who carried long wooden poles crowned with glistening obsidian points fitted into the wood and bound in leather.
The steering wheel was captained by a similar man as the other craft, but taller and more decorated on his coat than the rest. He bore medals and small tokens of glinting gems and gold to show his high office. Across his back he wore a bow and a quiver of arrows, fletched in red and blue and vibrant green. His frame was bigger and more muscled than the rest, his skin bearing patches of deep mahogany between the crepitant carbuncles. He bore a brilliant dark cap with a ragged red feather poking out of the top and a band peppered with pointed teeth. About his neck he wore a necklace of bones and feathers of bright crimson and blacks so deep they seemed blue in the blaze of the sun.
As the whale pod breached and splash along with the armada, the sailors became excited and wrought with joy, as they had not been since leaving port. The voyage had been long and tortuous, lasting several moons. When their stores ran out there was little food but what the sea had to offer. Many of the sailors, rushed to port and stern, pointing excitedly as the creatures breached and spouted their plumes.
The uproar carried through an open window into the cabin of the highest-ranking sailor among them. Master of the Fleet, Commander of any army that bore his banner, his blood was ancient, royal, and cursed, running black through his veins. He was a stout man with a hunched back, his skin dark and flaky like his underlings. There was no hair on his wrinkled head. Above his narrowed eyes, a pair of bony ridges formed his brow. He sat in a high backed chair of shimmering ebony stone, dotted with rubies with several scarlet cushions to raise him up to the table. About his little frame a robe of dark sepia covered him from the neck to below his bare toes. He looked like a small boy sitting at a table for which he was too young.
Laid out before him was a broad desk, carved of fire-hardened woods and inlaid with bone and ivory. Maps and old scrolls and a handful of stacked books had been scattered across the surface of the wood, lit by rough candles and a low-hanging corona filled with burning oil. A stick of charcoal was clenched in his little three pronged hand, furiously scratching marks on the parchment in front of him like a badger burrowing into the ground. His beady eyes shot back and forth as he scrawled the words. His lips were pressed tightly together as he worked. He looked up suddenly, scanning an unfurled bit of parchment beside him, then resumed his assault with the charred stick.
His chamber was thick with the smell of sulphur and smoke, which seemed to radiate from his body, seeping through ulcers and sores. Hard brows furrowed, hand pinning down the page, he scribbled the final lines of a scrawl and folded the leaf several times. Then holding the message shut, he poured a dribble of hot, black wax over the flap and pressed his seal down hard on it, letting it cool for a moment before removing it. He laboriously pushed himself up from his chair, using both hands flat on the tabletop. He landed on the carpeted floor and took a black cane, crowned by a round ball of obsidian fashioned in the shape of a screaming skull and hobbled across the room. His gait was slow and unsteady, his back hunched over, and his demeanor sour at best. He reached his destination with some difficulty and fastened the note to the leg of what looked like a vulture, but had many feathers missing and scorch marks covering much of its body as if it had escaped a cook’s oven before a feast. The head was bald and at its crown, the top of its skull jabbed through the skin as it peeled away. Blind white eyes peered around at nothing. He stroked the beast's head and ran a hand down its back. It gave a squawk and picked at some of the dead skin on his hand. Flakes fell to the floor like ash. He took a strip of red meat from a nearby bucket and fed it to the bird, who choked it down whole.
Then, it beat its wings strenuously, taking off with difficulty but finally finding its way to a large, open window where it hopped into the air and took off with surprising success into the salty sea air. The little man followed its trail and watched the bird with his beady eyes as it became a distant black spot among the blue of sea and sky. He stared fondly as it climbed higher and higher into the sky before turning east to fly with the wind. His attention was drawn then by a sharp column of mist that shot up into the air. He stared closer and saw a pair of whales breach the sea's surface, taking in what air they could and rolling over in the cool water. A third leapt almost completely free and landed hard with a great splash. The wave it created nearly capsized one of the smaller nearby vessels. Men were knocked overboard, but quickly pulled themselves back up onto the deck, dripping and cursing as the salty water stung their open wounds. The little man let a smile crease his face, but no warmth came from it. The wrinkled lips pressed together tightly, bent like a tree branch threatening to break.
He turned his back to the porthole and limped forward passing the large desk and chair. His little legs bore him across the room, slowly, as he padded his way over the rugged fur carpet. Books littered the floor on either side of the cabin, having fallen from the shabby shelves during the voyage or been taken down and not returned to their place. On either side of the chamber a pair of ladders stood offering access to the highest tomes.
The little man approached the wide double doors and with his cane gave one of them a soft wrap. At once both were pulled open, revealing a pair of guards in black steel armor, swords, shields and their long pikes with them. The doors creaked as they opened. A small outer chamber joined the corridors running along either side of the ship. There was a door to the lower decks ahead of the little man, but he steered to the starboard side, passing his guards as they bowed. The small figure passed them and began his steady trek down the corridor. Another pair of warriors fell in on his flanks, walking with their spears like old men with staves. They took small steps as they followed, wafting silently across the floorboards like clouds of thick black smoke.
Hanging braziers dangled from the timbers, burning red against the shadows and dark timbers. The light did little to illuminate the passage, but it chased away the shadows. It was a long, deliberate journey, but the little man made it down the long hall and found himself at the base of an enormous staircase, beside it however, a small corridor, which lead to a small lift. He stepped inside and turned to face his men, giving them a small nod. One of them closed the hatch, while the other took hold of a rope and began to pull. They raised their lord up in the box and returned to their posts. When the basket reached the main deck, a bell chimed and another dark figure was there to open the gate. From the wide shaft of the mast, the little man in his robe emerged and approached the starboard rail.
The deck was abuzz with activity. All the crew had busied themselves with the spectacle, abandoning their posts, even if for the briefest of moments to catch a glimpse of the hulking creatures. One of the men took was so excited he failed to see his tiny commander and barreled into him, knocking him hard to the ground like a wrinkly, black doll. The little cane with its black skull went careening away. In his rising, the man was furious, but when he saw whom he had knocked to the hard deck, he fell to his knees. Tears began to stream down his face. His language was strange.
“Please, mighty warlord.” he begged, crawling on his hands and knees. “Please, I did not see you.” The words were harsh and he seemed to be in pain, not from the fall as he spoke. He crawled toward the little man as he scrambled to find his footing again. The guards grabbed the man, one on each arm and forced him to his feet. The mighty warlord pushed himself to his feet like a baby learning to walk. He hobbled slowly to where his cane had landed and leaned hard on it. Then he turned, his eyes boring holes into the man. The crewman winced at his gaze and averted his eyes. “Please, my lord, I did not see you!” The would-be-warlord croaked a command and the man fell silent. He hobbled closer and glared up at the sailor with his tiny black eyes. The man quivered and squirmed, but the steel-clad guards held him firm. The warlord prodded the man’s legs with his cane, then looked to his guards and issued a command with a single word. At the phrase, the sailor wailed and began fighting against the armored soldiers, but they dragged him to the edge of the cargo hold and hurled him into the pit of warring fighters.
“Make him tender!” one of them ordered through his grim helm in his grimmer tongue. “He feeds the beasts.” The warlord limped to the starboard gunwale. The crewmen around him bowed and backed away. The little man peered through a gap in the rails at the curious whales as they breached and let out their breaths, taking in huge gulps of air and nudging the undersides of the ships. He watched for a moment, breathing in the briny sea air. He motioned to one of his guards and the soldier approached, bending his knee to put his large head at the height of his commander.
He whispered a word in the soldier’s ear an order. At once the warrior straightened his back and turned and unleashed a mighty roar, a word, perhaps, but certainly a command. The midshipmen ran to large round gongs and hammered them relentlessly, repeating the command roared by their warlord’s escort. The gongs rang thickly from one ship to another. Below, in the cargo holds, the battling warriors pricked their ears at the sound and halted their sparring. When the command reached their ears in the settling dust, they dropped their wooden playthings and took up sturdier weapons, still carved of wood, but fitted with blades of black obsidian, chipped and sharpened with edges deadlier than steel. They took up jagged black glass knives and spears of the same make as their swords. They had slings for launching javelins with great power. The painted warriors filed out of their war pit and filed into ranks on the main decks of their ships, all beneath the thunderous rumble of the drums. They unfurled huge nets and waited with discipline second only to the legions of heavy armored men below their feet.
Their little commander pushed himself onto a crate and looked down at the pod of whales. He watched them as they rolled playfully in the water. The youngest members of the group stuck their noses high out of the water, gazing up at the strange creatures aboard their hardened crafts. Some of the half grown whales had taken to knocking jovially into the smaller craft. The pod’s elders mainly swam on, expecting the young to catch up when they were finished with their tomfoolery. Then the warlord gave the order. With a single word, the warriors, spear and sword in hand, cast ropes down into the water, sliding gracefully down and swimming, while others leapt over the sides of the ships, coming down hard upon the backs of the humpbacks. Some landed in the water and paddled their way to the animals, while others hit their targets and immediately got to work. They hacked and slashed at the tough, slippery skin of the creatures, cutting through the blubber and fat to the creatures hearty meat. On deck shafts were loosed and the whales were harpooned, stabbed, piked and skewered by the crackly warriors. A great cry rose up, first from the hunters, then from their prey. The drums rumbled across armada as the water reddened and frothed. The nets were lowered to catch the bodies and falling bits of meat as they were cleaved from the bones.
The order had circulated to the other ships and all around the fleet, the crystaline blue of the water became stained with scarlet, salted with the pale yellow of floating bits of blubber. The surrounding sailors, threw their own ropes and grappling hooks to drag the animals closer for the slaughter, their mouths dripping with a blood-lusty saliva. Archers took to the decks and the rigging and loosed their shafts into the sea, aiming for the eyes, blinding the poor creatures as they thrashed and fought for their lives. Like a band struck up, the sailors let their bowstrings twang forward, loosing the heavy bolts and harpoons in a harmonious song that punctured the brine and the soft flesh of the creatures swimming in it. A handful of lines snapped as the whales struggled and tried to pull away and swim off. Any that made it free of one ship fell victim to another. Some of them dove to the safety of deeper water, but when their need for air drove them back to the surface, they were greeted with carnage.
The order was given to reload and fire again. That moment came and went. Then again. The lines grew taught and the sea water turned a sickly garnet as it filled with blood and drifting entrails. The animals wailed and sang dying tunes as point after point pierced them. Some of the soldiers tore of bits of meat and blubber with their hands and devoured it fresh from the backs of the still living animals. The gentle giants surged and fought as long and hard as they could, trying to flee, but before long, the wild fighting dwindled to weary tugs and the weary beasts found peace, the last beats of their hearts drowned out by the thundering drums on the decks of the savage naval force, and the hungry cries of the crew.
The cords tightened as the animals slowed, to be dragged behind or alongside the ships. From the lower decks and the kitchens, a horde of butchers emerged, cleavers and carving knives of jade and ivory and bone and obsidian in their hands. They placed the blades between their teeth before leaping over the railings to climb down the ropes and join their brethren. They came upon the dying animals like a horde of termites, consuming a noble forest, and before the animals’ eyes had closed sliced into their thick layers of blubber to get at the meat below. Others lowered themselves into the longboats and rowed toward the corpses to collect what they could before other scavengers arrived. There was only silence from the whales as they drifted off to their dreams of sea and family, resigning to their killers' blades and hooks and ropes.
Thick trails of blood broiled behind, which would soon call the attention of sharks and sea birds. The sailors started songs of their own, chanting to the beat of the drums, riding the carcasses until they began to fill with water and sink into the nets. They hurled chunks of flesh onto the decks of the life rafts and hoisted huge slabs up onto the decks of the carracks and galleons. Blood soaked the wood. The fleet sailed on, triangular dorsal fins already rising from the depths on their tails. The little commander watched briefly, then returned to his lift. One of the guards closed the gate while the other tugged on the ropes and he was gone below.