The sound of lapping waves was faint and peaceful, at first. But eventually it caused something in Bahari’s mind to take notice. He awoke with a jerk. He was sitting at the stern of his cargo ship and the rudder handle was an arm’s reach away, swaying back and forth in unison with the ocean swells. He grabbed the handle and steadied it, cursing himself for his carelessness.
He looked out across the deck of the ship, laden with cargo, and could not see much farther than the bow. A thick fog had rolled in while he slept, reducing visibility to almost nothing. The mainsail was full with a breeze coming from the northwest. Bahari took a deep breath and exhaled, trying to calm himself; sound was his only navigational tool now. Then he heard it again, the sound of waves breaking off the port bow. Leaning to the side, he pulled on the rudder until the boat slowly began to turn starboard and away from the shoreline. He had obviously drifted off course while he slept and immediately felt guilty for endangering the lives of his crew who were asleep below deck.
That would be my luck! He envisioned the boat smashed into thousands of pieces, washing up onto the shoreline for miles. It sickened him to think of how hard he had worked to get where he was. One careless act could have ruined it all. But the feeling of guilt was quickly replaced by a sense of relief at waking up before anything went wrong.
Bahari kept his south-westerly course for almost an hour, listening intently for the sound of waves. When they had faded to almost nothing, he felt confident that he had reached a safe distance from shore and turned the boat back to the south, resuming his course for Bastul. He could feel the pull of sleep dragging him down and knew that if he stayed in his seat he would only fall asleep again. After securing the rudder handle with a loop of rope and taking a drink from the waterskin stowed beneath his seat, he rose to his feet and walked across the deck, stretching his legs. His tunic was uncomfortably twisted and stuck to his body as if he had just come back from a swim in the ocean. He tried to peel it away from his skin and reposition it, but gave up after a while. He wished he could take it off altogether, but there were laws against that. Citizens of the Orudan Empire were not allowed to be seen wearing only a loincloth. Such dress was only appropriate for slaves, who must not feel a sense of camaraderie with their masters, even in something as seemingly insignificant as clothing.
…although, it would be much more comfortable, especially in this warm, humid air.
He meandered across the deck, walking around crates of fruit and olives, until he found himself standing at the bow of the ship. The fog was starting to thin.
Bahari sat down on a wooden crate and watched the water as it passed by in small ripples. Immediately, his thoughts drifted toward his financial troubles. The growing season had been rough this year, and it meant that he wouldn’t be able to pay his debts unless he traveled to Nucotu, where he could get more money for his cargo, and bring back some valuable items on the return trip. But the return trip had been grueling so far—two straight days without sleep.
That’s the problem with this line of work—too much time to think and worry. Maybe I’ll just have someone take over for me in the morning so I can get some sleep.
Over the next hour, the fog lifted completely and the moon began to carve out the texture of the ocean with its dull light. Bahari rose from his position at the bow and walked back toward the stern, trying to keep from staying in one place too long; the threat of sleep was still heavy on his mind. Suddenly, he stopped in his tracks. On the eastern horizon, a bank of low clouds was rolling away to the south, revealing nothing but ocean as far as the eye could see. There was no land in sight. He scanned the horizon, which was now clear for miles in every direction, but saw nothing. He started to panic as he retraced the night’s events in his mind.
And then it hit him. “I missed the turn!” he said out loud. As soon as the thought came to him, everything made sense. Just after midnight he should have reached a section of the coastline that jogged sharply to the east. But he missed it and must have kept heading south, all the while moving farther away from the coast. When he awoke in the fog and heard the crashing waves, it was the western side of the reef which paralleled the coastline.
Bahari glanced over the port side of the boat and searched the water for some sign of confirmation that he was right. It only took a few minutes before he could make out a sandbar reflecting the moonlight from shallow water, only fifty yards away on the port side. He slumped down into his chair and buried his face in his hands. He was going to have to turn around and sail back to the northern tip of the reef.
I’ve just lost a whole day of travel. I’m not going to make my deadline! How can I explain this to Quartus? He’s going to think…
Bahari’s thoughts trailed off as his eyes settled on something in the water to the south. A few hundred yards away, just off the starboard side of the bow was a void in the water that didn’t reflect the moonlight. At first he thought it might be a sandbar or a small island of rock, but after a few seconds it became clear that the void was moving toward him.
He stooped and pulled out a small wooden box from underneath his bench seat. It contained a looking glass that he had purchased a few years ago. Lifting it to his eye, he scanned the water and found that the object was a ship, roughly the same size as his own. It was shaped strangely with a high bow and low, wide sails. Though it was difficult to tell at this distance, Bahari’s ocean-going experience told him that is was moving much quicker than his own vessel.
But that doesn’t make sense. It’s heading almost straight into the wind.
It was obviously not an Orudan patrol, which Bahari could expect to encounter at regular intervals while sailing along the coast. This ship was bearing no flag or standard of any kind and—thanks to Bahari’s carelessness—they were nowhere near the coast. He stomped his foot on the deck.
“Wake up,” he yelled to the crew underneath.
There was no response.
He stomped again and repeated himself several times before he heard grumblings from his crew.
One of the men shouted a question in his native tongue.
“I’m turning the boat around. Get ready to row.”
He set down the looking glass and untied the rudder handle. Grabbing it with both hands, he set his feet in a wide stance and pulled with all his weight. The ship pitched slightly as it swung sluggishly to the starboard side. The sails began to droop and eventually went slack altogether as the ship came about to the north.
Bahari stomped on the deck once again. “Row as hard as you can…we’ve got pirates behind us!”
Sixteen long oars slid out of the boat from oval slots along each side of the hull, their blades landing with a splash in the water. The boat began to lurch forward like a wounded animal struggling to regain its footing. Bahari ran across the deck and began to take in the sails and secure them to the mast. He shot a quick glance behind and was startled by how much distance the other boat had already covered. He couldn’t understand how it could be moving so quickly into the wind. He hadn’t seen any oars, but even if they were rowing, it was impossible to move that fast.
He secured the last of the sails and took his place back at the rudder. He doubted that the other boat was actually a pirate ship. The Orud patrol had cleared these waters of pirates years ago, but he couldn’t think of anything better to say. And there was something menacing about the other ship that told him they were in danger.
All of a sudden, a scraping noise sounded from below and the boat began to lose speed. Bahari could hear the murmur of confusion from his crew as their rowing efforts were being hindered. He leaned on the rudder to move the ship away from the reef and instantly the scraping stopped. For a few minutes, the only sounds above the silence were the voices of his crew rowing in unison, bringing the ship back up to top speed. Bahari looked back and watched in amazement as the pursuing ship turned back toward their starboard side, cutting through the water with full sails.
Abruptly, a crunch reverberated through the hull and the ship ground to a halt on the reef, pitching slightly to the port side. Bahari was thrown forward, landing awkwardly on the deck. He quickly grabbed the nearest crate and pulled himself back to his feet. The confused crew came up from below, cursing in their native language, wondering what was happening. But Bahari wasn’t paying them any attention; he was staring with dismay at the silent form of their pursuer, which had already closed the distance and was heading straight for their stranded boat. Within a few seconds it became clear that the menacing ship wasn’t going to stop.
“Grab on to something,” he yelled, but before they were able to, the boat shuddered and rolled sharply to the starboard side, throwing everyone to the deck. The impact came sooner than Bahari expected and his confusion only worsened when he regained his footing and got his first good look at the other ship. He stared at a serpent’s head carved into the high prow only a few feet away from the port side of Bahari’s ship. The boat was a strange sight to behold; its mast and mainsail sat at a backward angle to the deck. The ship was completely black, including the sails and ropes. There was movement on deck, but the crew of the enemy boat was dressed in black as well, appearing as shifting shadows. The moonlight was insufficient for Bahari to see what the men were doing, but it took only a few seconds before grappling hooks came whistling over the railing to bite into the wooden deck. Bahari fought back the fear in his chest to voice his outrage at this attack.
“What is the meaning of this?” he shouted into the night, but his question went unanswered. “How dare you attack a citizen of the Empire!”
“Stay where you are or you will be shot.” The clear, low voice was commanding, leaving the impression that its owner was used to being obeyed. The sound of running footsteps was followed shortly by a line of archers assembling along the starboard side of the enemy ship. Two men slid a plank across the short distance between the two boats, and the man who gave the order stepped from the shadows into the moonlight.
He was almost a full head taller than Bahari and emitted intimidation that was even visible in the body language of the men around him. Just like the other soldiers, the Commander was dressed completely in black. His long-sleeved tunic fell just above his thighs and was gathered at the waist by a leather belt which held a short sword at his left side. He wore black trousers that fell to his calves and boots that laced up his legs, just above the ankle. His chest was covered by a cuirass of boiled leather, with a cloak fastened at his shoulders and falling to the back of his legs. His manner of dress was strange to Bahari, whose only point of military reference was the Orudan soldiers in Bastul. These men were definitely not Orudan soldiers.
Bahari looked over his shoulder and noticed that his crew had assembled in a huddled mass behind him, possibly expecting some measure of protection. He knew he was inadequate to protect them, but turned to give them the only thing he could—a word of encouragement. Before he was able to open his mouth, one of his men bolted across the ship, heading for the railing. He only made it a few steps before he pitched forward and fell to the deck with multiple arrows sprouting from his back.
“I will not tell you again,” the Commander shouted.
Bahari turned back and watched as the Commander strode arrogantly across the plank, dropping onto the deck with a short hop. Six other soldiers followed him, dressed similarly, but wearing leather helmets and lacking cloaks. Their swords gleamed with reflected moonlight.
“Who is in charge here?” the Commander asked.
“I am,” Bahari answered timidly. He made no effort to conceal himself, realizing that he was the only one on the ship who wasn’t a dark-skinned slave.
The Commander walked over to Bahari. “Wrong,” he stated and grabbed him by the throat, pulling him close so that their faces were almost touching. “I am in charge.” He glanced over Bahari’s shoulder at the frightened crew. “Guard them,” he shouted.
Immediately, the soldiers surrounded the slaves.
The Commander pulled Bahari a few steps away from the commotion. “What are you doing in these waters?” he asked in a suddenly calm voice.
“I…uh,” Bahari stammered for a few seconds, trying to remember what he was doing out here. “I am a merchant. I am delivering a shipment to Bastul from Nucotu.”
The Commander eyed him suspiciously for a while before deciding that his story was true. Then a smile slowly crept across his face. “Well, isn’t that unfortunate. You took a wrong turn and now it has cost all of you your lives.” Still holding Bahari by the throat, he turned to the men guarding Bahari’s crew. “Kill them,” he commanded.
Bahari began to struggle, but the Commander’s grip only tightened until it threatened to crush his windpipe. He could only watch helplessly as the soldiers began to hack their swords into the huddled group of slaves. One by one they began to drop to the deck, slipping on their own blood. One managed to break free of the soldiers and started to run, only to receive a slashing sword across his back. His feet immediately lost strength and he crumpled forward onto the deck.
Rage flooded Bahari’s mind, overpowering his fear. He lashed out at the Commander, punching his clenched fist toward the man’s face. The Commander reflexively flinched and Bahari’s knuckles glanced off the bottom of his chin and struck his throat with a hollow crunch.
Instantly, the grip on Bahari’s neck loosened and he was free from his captor.
The Commander stumbled back, grabbing his throat and fighting for breath.
Bahari saw his opportunity and took it. He lunged at the Commander, dropping his shoulder, and slammed into the tall man’s chest, driving him to the deck.
Panic seized Bahari’s mind and he started running, without a purpose other than to get away from this madness. He saw the opening in the deck near the bow that led down to crew’s quarters and altered his course slightly, heading for the door. As he ran, he felt a quick puff of air from a passing arrow brush across the bridge of his nose. Somewhere to his left, he heard the dull thud of another bolt as it struck the deck. The doorway was now only a few steps away and Bahari jumped, headfirst, toward the concealing darkness. Suddenly, his left leg exploded with pain. He pulled his hands toward his face and tightened his body into a ball to prepare for the impact. His jump was a little short and he landed painfully on his left shoulder at the top step, tumbling down the short flight of stairs.
Fighting the pain, Bahari rose out of the shallow water that had filled the lower level of the boat. Surging through the knee-deep flood, he hurried toward the stern of the ship where his quarters were located. Making his way around several crates that had worked loose of their ropes, he passed a section of the port hull where water gushed into the ship through a puncture wound left by a serpent-headed battering ram. Bahari stumbled on without slowing, realizing in an instant why the enemy ship was able to stop short of crashing into his freighter.
The sound of pursuing footsteps could be heard above him, moving in the direction of the stairs at the bow. Bahari reached the stern and stepped into his room, bolting the door shut for the first time that he could remember. Now that he was momentarily safe, Bahari reached down to the back of his left thigh and felt the shaft of an arrow protruding from his leg. He pulled gently, but stopped as waves of pain raced up his leg, making him feel suddenly nauseous.
All of a sudden, something crashed into the door and it bowed slightly inward. Outside the door, he could hear the voices of his pursuers who had found his hiding place. He quickly looked around for a weapon to defend himself, but instead noticed the porthole above his bed. It was just large enough to squeeze through, but he knew the arrow sticking out from his leg would cause a problem.
Again, a crash sounded at the door and the thick wood flexed, threatening to break but for the strength of the iron hinges bolted across its planks.
They’ll break it eventually!
Bahari grabbed the shaft of the arrow as close to his leg as he dared touch, and broke it with a quick snap of the wrist. The feathered part of the arrow came off in his hand, leaving the rest of the shaft and the arrowhead in his leg. The sharp pain made his stomach turn.
Now there was shouting outside the door, followed by another loud crash.
Bahari tried to ignore the pain in his leg as he climbed onto his bed and leaned on the wall for balance. The porthole was now at eye-level and he pushed it open, catching a brief glimpse of the moonlight reflected on the ocean.
He gripped the sill of the porthole with both hands and jumped, relying mostly on the strength of his right leg, while pulling with his arms. Squeezing his upper body through the hole proved more difficult than he thought it would be. With the water in sight, he no longer thought about the men behind him. He simply leaned forward and let gravity pull the rest of his body out of the porthole.
It was a short fall into the water below, the world becoming suddenly silent. For a moment Bahari felt a small measure of peace. But it didn’t last long as his need for air drove him back to the surface. Once more, his ears were assaulted by the sound of yelling and more running footsteps, which he hoped would conceal his escape.
Quietly, he moved to the hull of his ship to keep from being seen from above. His leg was throbbing now.
I have to think quickly. I have to hide…but where?
Treading water was getting difficult with his leg wound and he knew he couldn’t keep it up for long.
Where can I hide that they won’t look for me?
Then it came to him. On their boat! He knew it wasn’t possible to board their ship without getting caught, but maybe he could hide along the hull.
He tried to calm his breathing, then sucked in a big gulp of air, diving beneath the surface. He kicked his one good leg and clawed with his hands along the underside of his boat. The sounds of the soldiers above were muffled and echoing as if he were listening from far away. He felt safer down here, detached from the horrible things that took place above him. When he reached the keel, he pushed off and swam with all of his might for the other boat. It took longer than he expected and he was out of breath by the time he reached it.
He knew that he couldn’t surface between the boats without getting caught, so he dove deeper, trying to fight the panic of drowning as he struggled to get underneath the enemy boat. To his surprise, the hull of the ship was shallow and he soon found himself on the other side, heading for the surface. His lungs were burning now and he had to fight the urge to open his mouth and breathe in the water around him. Just as quickly as the thought came to him, his head broke free of the water on the port side of the enemy ship and he gasped for air as silently as he could.
Though still vulnerable, he was farther away from the commotion now and used the opportunity to search along the ship for somewhere to hide. The hull was completely smooth, just as he expected it to be, and he was unable to find a handhold. He made his way cautiously to the stern and found, to his relief, an alcove where the anchor was suspended from a chain that exited the hull of the ship. Bahari swam underneath the anchor, into the shadows of the alcove and gripped the anchor with both hands.
The passing seconds seemed like hours to him as he hung in the water, holding the rusting metal. Occasionally, scraps of coherent sentences floated to him from above deck.
“…leave him there. He’ll go down with the ship!”
Bahari hoped that the men outside the door to his room had given up on their chase. As long as they were unable to get into the room, they would think that he remained there for the safety that it offered. If they got into the room they would see the open window and know that he was outside the ship. Within a few minutes, he could hear the sound of marching footsteps getting louder as the soldiers left his boat and boarded their own.
The sky was beginning to lighten in the east, which was the only direction that Bahari could see past the anchor and the confines of the alcove. With miles of ocean surrounding him on every side, he started to wonder what he was going to do if the enemy stopped looking for him. Without warning, the ship lurched backwards, putting an end to his wondering as he struggled to hold on to the anchor. Then he heard the voices of men yelling in unison and the ship lurched again. He counted five such motions, accompanied by a shuddering vibration that moved through the hull of the ship each time. On the last attempt, they pulled the battering ram free of Bahari’s ship, allowing the weight of the water inside the hull to drag it down the side of the reef. As the enemy ship turned back to the south, Bahari watched from his hiding spot as his cargo ship rolled to the port side and slipped beneath the surface. Everything he had worked for, everything that made his way of life possible came to an end in that moment. Within minutes, the boat was gone, with only an area of bubbles and floating debris to show where it had been.
Despair threatened to overtake him, but he fought it off, realizing the urgency of his situation. What am I going to do now? I can’t hang on to this anchor forever. Even now, the jagged, rusted metal was biting into his hands. Even if he could hold on, he would be in greater danger once the ship reached its port. No, I’ve got to get free of this boat without them seeing me! Suddenly, the ship began to turn around and as they came back to the sight of the attack, Bahari realized that they were looking for survivors.
Isn’t it enough that you attacked us and sank my ship? Is it really necessary to make sure that we’re all dead? Pirates would be satisfied with looting and sinking the ship. As soon as the thought came to his mind, Bahari was faced with the obvious conclusion. These were not pirates.
Who are these people? What are they doing out here? Are they looking for something, protecting something, hiding from something? It is an outrage that a citizen of the Empire would be attacked like this!
As they passed the attack area once more, Bahari hoped to come in contact with some debris that he could hide behind, but the ship stayed just barely out of the wreck area. Then as they moved further to the south, he noticed a barrel floating a few yards away. The sky was still mostly dark, offering a small measure of concealment and he knew that the opportunity would not present itself again. So, taking a deep breath, Bahari ducked under the water and pushed off of the boat. The saltwater stung his eyes and it was too dark to make out the barrel. He continued to kick his good leg and paddle with one arm while the other was outstretched, feeling for the barrel. At first, he thought that he had passed it and started to panic, knowing that he couldn’t go to the surface to look. But then his hand touched something firm. Swimming underneath it, he surfaced, taking caution to keep the floating barrel between him and the enemy ship. He waited, for what seemed like an eternity, before risking a peek from behind the barrel. When he did, he saw that the ship was only a dark silhouette on the brightening horizon. For the first time since the attack began, Bahari breathed a sigh of relief.
He floated in the water for a moment, clinging to the barrel, trying to come to grips with what had just happened. His most immediate threat was now sailing to the south, but in many ways, his current situation was worse. Now what do I do? I’m floating in the middle of the ocean and I don’t even know where I am or how to get to land! He shook his head to clear his mind.
He had been heading south along the coast from Nucotu when he missed the turn and ended up on the west side of the reef. As close as he could figure, he was still well north of the halfway point between the two cities and many miles west of the shore. With a dangerous reef in between! He would have several days’ journey before he could reach the shore. That’s if the tides don’t carry me past the southern tip! For that amount of time, he would need food and water.
Then, as the sky continued to lighten in the east, a smile formed on Bahari’s face. All around him, scattered in the dawn light, were crates of fruit drifting away from the sight of the attack. If the gods are merciful, I should reach land within a few days. And then the Governor will know about this!
Copyright 2008-2010 by Jason Tesar
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