The Drowning Moon, is a complete and unpublished short story that I offered up for the Movember Charity if I hit $100 in donations (http://ca.movember.com/mospace/619692/). It hit that in my first day, so thanks to you all who contributed and remember, you can still contribute to my quest to grow a ’stache for charity!
The Drowning Moon
By: Lucien Soulban
The galleon’s hold is dark and Ernesto’s cage generous in its ration of suffering. It is short for any man’s height, and offers naught but rough iron to lean against or sit upon. This is the White Inquisition’s doing, this discomfort a whetting of the appetite for the cruelties to come. Soon they’ll crucify him while he lies face-down and remove his ribs one at a time until there is nothing to support the weight of his lungs. He’ll suffocate. Then the White Inquisition’s priests will resuscitate him back to full life to prolong his anguish.
The boat sways and groans, adding to Ernesto’s misery. The smell of stale vomit is rancid in his nostrils, but it is a soft justice for a man who once consigned others to this fate. If death awaits him in the coming moments, then Ernesto welcomes it.
Ernesto shares the darkness with two companions. The first are his own prayers to the God Belastus, which he recites intermittently with the fervor of the faithfully distracted. Somehow, praying to the very Divinity contributing to one’s despair is a bitter and unwelcome allowance, but Ernesto knows of no other God.
Ernesto’s second companion is the old man, Donato, accused of practicing witchcraft without Temple sanction. Now Donato endures the anguish of the cell, his tongue severed for uttering pagan curses against the captain.
The unkempt and frail looking Donato should be silent company, but the old man always has his means.
“You pray?” a voice asks. “I thought slavers never prayed.”
Ernesto looks down at his feet and sees the red glint of rat’s eyes in the darkness. “For all the good it will do,” Ernesto responds, unperturbed.
“The savage, was she worth it?” the rat asks.
“At the time, I might have said no.”
The rat chuckles with the old man’s voice. “But now?”
“I — I don’t know. Better I’d killed her than loved her,” Ernesto says, sorrow dusking his voice.
“Her suffering was brief compared to what the White Inquisition has planned for you.”
“No less than what I deserve.”
“Strange talk for one who has deflowered his share of slaves.”
“This one was different. And you?” Ernesto asks the rat. He glances at the corner of darkness where Donato sits, and sees patches of pale skin. “Can you claim a better time of it? The captain died.”
“And for that the Inquisition will scour my sight, then my nose. My fingers will find their way into some mongrel’s mouth, I’m sure. But I’ll be long absent by then.”
“I didn’t know rats made comfortable homes.”
“Perhaps not,” the rat replies with a squeaking chuckle, “but they fornicate often.”
Ernesto laughs, nearly winding his sorry lungs in the process; but it feels good, a momentary blessing for his savaged spirits.
“Be patient, my young companion” the rat says. “Your doom is not upon you yet.”
Ernesto brings his face to the bars, the bristles of his cheeks grating against the rusting iron. “What do you mean?” he asks.
“Can you not feel it?” the rat responds. “A storm grows in the breast of the sea…”
Ernesto listens, and hears the salted winds polish the galleon’s hull with their breath.
“… and we are still well past The Line,” the rat says, jumping out of Ernesto’s cage into the darkness. “Someone hears your prayers.”
“Belastus has never heeded my prayers before,” Ernesto responds, scratching his stubble. “Why would he listen now?”
“Who said it was Belastus who heeds you?” the rat asks from the shadows. “It’s a pagan storm outside.”
Cold wind and ice water conspire against the sure-footed, but the ship’s maestre, Dias, ignores the rabid foam and waves clawing at the galleon’s ribs. The Montcada will persevere despite her protesting timbers.
The prow cuts up through the high swells before the ship cascades down the spines of waves. The night storm is in full glory, hammering back the fleet of fifty ships that attempt their trespass, but the Temple’s sailors will not be denied their fortunes. A kingdom’s wealth of exotic riches glut the flotilla’s hold from stem to stern.
The cutlass scars across Dias’ cheek and nose, and the nicks on his bald scalp speak well enough of his bravery in service to the Temple. But this is a heretic’s storm, and they are still far from The Line where the currents fold back upon themselves in rows of thundering white surf. Here, beyond the borders of civilized seas, the stars wander from their celestial stations. Here, all that awaits trespassers is the cold, black depth and an anonymous grave with waves for a headstone.
The ocean is a poor host tonight.
Guiding himself along the rails, Dias makes his way up the stairs, to where the pilot fights wheel and storm to keep the ship aligned in her course.
“I did not brave the tempers of shirtless savages to lose our plunder to the abyss,” Dias says with a snarl. “We are still repaying the merchant guilds for the ships lost last year!”
The pilot nods, but says nothing.
Dias squints against the rain…
…the waters unexpectedly swell beneath his ship, offering it heavenward in the palm of its hand. And as quick as that, the waters fall away with lurching speed; the Montcada drops into the white-water valley between peaks, a new wave surging high above her, dwarfing her mainmast.
Careening — sliding down the wave’s face is another ship, heading straight for the Montcada. In the moment before the two collide, Dias sees she is a barque, a three-master with her surviving sails shredded and flapping in wild flight, her hull skipping down the steep-sloped waters. Black barnacles encrust her hide and even the figurehead appears scabbed.
The frightened pilot spins the wheel starboard to avoid the inevitable collision, but it is too late. In that one terrible moment of reckoning, Dias recognizes the unique figurehead of the Elizabetta, the same Elizabetta that vanished beyond The Line last year.
Ernesto slams against the ceiling of his cage, upended by the rolling ship. The bars bite into his skin with their rusty teeth and barrels splinter against crates. For the moment, Ernesto is glad to be inside the cage and not sleeping with the other sailors on the cannon deck, between the 16 and 24 pounders.
The ship screams with each snapped timber while water cascades down the hull of the upturned vessel. Down is up and somewhere inside the Montcada, Ernesto hears water flooding in. Whatever rammed and overturned them, rendered the galleon a mortal wound through which water pours.
“Not the response you expected?” a familiar voice asks.
“Donato?” Ernesto says staring around the hold. “We struck something.”
Ernesto finds the rat standing by Donato’s cage, sniffing at the thick black pool collecting around the old man’s head. Even from his position, Ernesto can see the exposed ivory of Donato’s split scalp and the sparkling darkness lying within the hollow gash.
“Donato!” Ernesto cries.
“Dead,” says the rat. “Not the magnificent end I’d envisioned, but death nonetheless. Nothing left now but for us rats to abandon ship.”
“We must escape,” Ernesto cries, kicking the cage door with his back braced against the bars.
“You can’t escape,” the rat says. “Can’t escape your own prayers.”
Ernesto hears more water filling the ship’s lungs. “Help me, damn you!”
Donato the Rat pads off into the darkness, pausing to look back at Ernesto with gleaming red eyes. “What happened to suffering for your hand in the fate of that young savage? ‘No less than I deserve,’ you said. Or are you so quick to forget your promises?”
“I have no wish to drown!”
“I almost drowned once,” the rat says. “It was… euphoric.”
“Ah, Ernesto. How like a rat you are. I could learn from you, but, perhaps you should learn to be a man, instead of merely aping one. Besides, how can I help you,” the rat says, heading deeper into the darkness, “when I am but a rat myself? Squeak.”
Ernesto’s final, exhausted kick bounces harmlessly off the cell door; he collapses into a miserable, teary-eyed pile, grieving at his anticipated drowning. The Montcada is listing, her upturned bow deeper into the waters than her stern, the decks equally sloped. Yet the storm is surprisingly quiet and few waves slap the ship’s hull.
Somewhere in the distance, Ernesto hears the steady, hollow chime of glass. It sounds like a chandelier disturbed by the winds, or the restless jangle of keys.
Ernesto stiffens at the sound of his name. It is a whisper with barely the strength to rustle cobwebs. But hear it he does. Ernesto studies the shadow-wreathed deck, the silhouette of shattered crates and barrels suddenly alien. Ernesto seeks the mundane in each object. He gasps, then spits a curse at the pile of spilt coconuts. They look like grotesque monkey heads, all staring back at him.
Someone grunts. It sounds labored, but natural.
“Help!” Ernesto cries, pounding raw fists against the bars.
Santo, a common filcher with eight fingers left to show for his poor skills, pulls himself up through the main hatch on what is now the floor. He is sopping wet, his black hair and beard glistening, and frozen shivers rattling his bones despite his heavy frame. Santo moves over the debris, hugging himself with a steely cold grip.
“Santo, thank the Heavens,” Ernesto says, pushing his face against the bars and scratching his cheeks. “Free me!”
Santo grunts, his teeth bared and clenched tight against the cold. He surveys the debris a quick moment before grabbing a thick wood shaft. Santo swings the makeshift club against the door, finally battering open the rust-eaten lock. Ernesto cries out in relief, and pushes away from his cage; he claps the shorter Santo across the back. Santo grunts again and leans against the hull with his arms crossed tight. He continues shivering.
Ernesto’s joints pop and snap as he straightens. His calves remain tight, like knots of rope. His back protests and sends daggered stabs down his spine.
“What happened?” Ernesto says.
“Our belly. She is to the sky,” Santo says, clamping down on his chattering teeth with little success. “We sink.”
Santo shakes his head. He pushes himself from the wall, his eyes darting, seeking. “Do not know,” he says, his words cut icy short.
“Where are the others?”
Santo ignores the question and rummages through the debris, kicking whatever fails his scrutiny. Ernesto grabs Santo’s shoulder and spins him around, ready to force an answer from him. But Ernesto stops upon bringing the shorter man to bear. The eyes staring back at him are wild, nearly broken of civilization. Ernesto recognizes the look. He sees something of himself in that wild urge to survive.
“Sorry,” Ernesto says quickly, stepping back.
Santo continues staring, his eyes glazed — polished like hard wood — cords of muscles stitched down his neck. Ernesto waits, expecting Santo to lunge for his throat the way dogs bring down their opponents, but Santo inhales sharply, regaining what little composure remains him. He turns and continues searching the hold, smashing the already ruined crates with more vigor than before.
Ernesto waits patiently, but the sound of distant water plies on his nerves. It laps at the ship’s interior walls, sipping the blood-soaked wood.
Ernesto hears the voice, but Santo doesn’t react and continues searching. He waits for the voice’s return, then realizes he will be most displeased if it does. “What are you looking for?” Ernesto asks quickly.
“Axe,” Santo says, not bothering to turn around.
He suddenly imagines Santo standing above his dismembered body. Ernesto quickly looks around and searches for a weapon with which to defend himself… just in case. He barely trusted Santo before this calamity, and who seems even more unstable now.
“Why?” Ernesto asks. He wraps his fingers around a makeshift club and considers smashing the portly man across the back of the head. It would be safer this way, but…
…but, Santo did save his life and Ernesto has lost the taste for blood. Santo frightens him, but something about murder robs Ernesto of his strength. In his thoughts, the savage girl watches and Ernesto feels hollowed by her gaze. He can’t even pronounce her name, much less the hundreds of others he consigned to the shackles; her condition would never, should never, have moved him to pity… just another exotic slave. Now, however, he sees her sinking, heavy leg irons around her reddened ankles, vanishing into the ocean’s blackness — her trusting innocence a mask of panic — her screams a plume of bubbles. Does she believe he betrayed her? Does she hate him for whatever promise he failed to produce? Why does he see her face and not the faces of the others? The thought is too much for Ernesto to bear. He never would have cared before… why now? Who is this woman to him? He doesn’t love her. He simply feels horribly responsible. He never felt responsible before.
The club hangs at Ernesto’s side. He’s embarrassed, ashamed of contemplating murder so easily; ashamed it came so easily to him before.
“Why?” Ernesto says again in a defeated whisper.
“To chop through hull,” Santo says. “Only way out.”
“You’ll never cut through the hull. Better we swim out, under the ship, before she sinks.”
Santo turns and faces Ernesto with two vacant eyes, his shoulders humble and cracked by his ordeal. Ernesto sees the drought of reason in his expression.
“No. You go, to whatever hell waits you,” Santo says nodding to the main hatch. He averts his eyes from its dark mouth. “Not me. I take chances here. If you value your worthless hide… you do same.”
“What are you talking about?”
But Santo turns away and shuffles through the debris, offering nothing more.
Ernesto stares at the hatch, unable to tear his gaze from whatever bewitching shadows pull at his attention. Beyond, the ocean caresses the walls and Ernesto is certain that the waters await him. He wants to help Santo chop at the hull, but he knows it is futile; he can’t explain why.
How can he not face the very fate he inflicted upon another soul? The Inquisition cast her over the railing, certainly, but he had his part in her misfortunes. Ernesto can see the slave girl falling into the abyss, her arms stretched out for him. The hatch beckons, its pull stronger than Ernesto’s own baser instincts. This isn’t fate, Ernesto thinks to himself, moving toward the hatch. This is justice.
Lowering himself through the hatch, Ernesto gasps at the freezing waters lapping at his feet, the ocean drinking of him. He drops into the darkness; water rushes up and clenches his chest, forcing shocked air from his lungs. Ernesto shudders violently at the cold. It constricts his muscles, seemingly to the snapping. Suddenly, the hatch above him is impossibly distant and all too inviting. It encourages him back up. His conscience, however, demands satisfaction of him, demands better with a moral fury he once lacked.
If this is my reckoning, Ernesto thinks, so be it.
The hull’s interior is a wood shell against which the ocean rages. Ernesto shuffles through the dark waters, careful of what lays underfoot on the overturned ceiling. He distracts himself from considering the crew’s fate, at the mercy of a rolling ship and 16-pounders knocked loose of their fittings. Still, while barrels and sacks float upon the water’s surface, Ernesto sees no corpses. No bodies to evidence the fate of his crushed and minced comrades. He continues forward despite every civilized reservation prodding his instincts. He slogs towards the ship’s stern.
His name again, the woman’s voice bolder this time. Ernesto spins around in the water, scattering the echoes and trying to find the speaker. At the distant edge of the darkness, however, Ernesto sees a body floating face down. It bobs and drifts near a column.
It is the first corpse Ernesto’s seen since arriving here.
He moves toward the body, but stops with a terrified gasp. Something in the black water drifts past his leg and Ernesto feels dead weight drag across his thigh. He kicks it away, reflexively, like the startled flail of an arm when a spider lands upon it. Still, something jabs lightly into his leg and Ernesto senses it’s a body trapped beneath debris. He backpedals and hits another column, but the sensation persists. Something pulls at his trouser leg with a light, weak grip. Ernesto kicks hard, and screams a curse, but more hands touch his legs with their soft press. The water is full of corpses that he can not see.
Gritting his teeth, Ernesto kicks his legs and swats at them, but there is nothing there. The sensation is gone.
Ernesto looks up; the floating body has drifted closer. Its skin is honey-brown, with more exposed flesh than propriety allows. The curve of the back is graceful and smooth… a woman’s. Perhaps it’s a slave from the Inquisitor’s quarters below his very feet, but there is a warm familiarity to her flesh. He feels it on his lips. It excites his fingertips.
The body floats closer. Ernesto moans. No waves propel this corpse, but approach she does with the lazy sway of driftwood. Ernesto retreats toward the stern — where the deck slopes up. Yet still, the corpse drifts toward him with a strange attraction — a magnet seeking its lodestar.
Ernesto is stomach deep in cold water and splashing waves, trying to move more quickly, trying to steer away the corpse. The corpse, however, drifts serenely against the interceding waves. She will not be denied.
Ernesto is hip-deep in ocean, his feet slipping against the slick deck. Hands pull at his pants with their feather-light grips.
The corpse is arm’s length from Ernesto now and, he, thigh-deep in water. He pushes and scrambles, a desperate swimmer clawing for the beach of exposed deck mere yards away. Surely the corpse won’t follow him on the rough wood shore.
It doesn’t need to.
Ernesto falls through a hole at his feet, where a cannon has likely broken through the ceiling.
The waters close their fist above Ernesto’s head and he is suddenly swimming in the flooded deck.
Hands caress Ernesto, and there is naught but the darkness as his witness.
The sensation punches through Ernesto’s belly and wiggles its fingers. For a brief second, the warmth of his urine flushes the water, providing a brief respite from the cold.
Ernesto holds his breath and claws and kicks at his fluid surroundings, desperate to anchor his senses to the touch of a wall or the edges of the hole that swallowed him. He is lost and upended, no longer certain of up and down. Already, the profound darkness clouds his eyes from any sense of dimension or direction, while the water muffles his hearing. Somewhere distant, the cascade of glass continues its chime and Ernesto finds an odd comfort in its persistent, discordant rhythms. He kicks. He swims. And still he feels stationary, buoyed in the darkness.
If only he can find some leverage for his fingers, or even his feet, but they grow leaden and clumsy. He pushes himself through a doorway, vaguely aware of objects floating just beyond the periphery of certainty.
Ernesto replays his life in all the telling, split-second moments that affected his decisions. He laments the hundreds of cruelties he heaped upon others, all borne from barely a moment’s forethought — if that. He mourns the casual decisions of his life, each one conspiring to draw him closer to this fate. He even considers offering a prayer to Belastus, but the thought escapes him in a small choke of bubbles. Better he sacrifice his prayers to the poor native girl. She is more deserving of them.
An odd sense of tranquility settles over Ernesto. His thoughts detach from any concern or worry. He is above that now and almost euphoric in the calm. He feels comfortable in a fashion unknown to him before. Ernesto feels the overwhelming urge to draw a desperate lungful of his surroundings, regardless the consequence. The impulse is greater than his will. His body, however, continues fighting, continues swimming.
Something rough jolts Ernesto’s thoughts… an unwelcome sensation.
He’s touched wood, and the bracing chill of air. He pushes toward it with a sudden fury, slamming his head against the ceiling. He isn’t certain of anything except that the air pocket is barely six inches deep. Ernesto tries again, this time angling his face so his nose and lips hit air first.
Ernesto breaks the surface, and immediately inhales with a sudden and terrible gasp that wounds his chest. His nose touches the upturned floor intermittently, and Ernesto knows his breathing pocket is but a thin layer between the water and the deck.
He breathes slowly, saturating his aching lungs. It is a brief salvation, and he knows he needs a better plan. The thought occurs to him that he can measure the slope of the deck by how quickly his nose touches the floor. The more space he has to breath, the likelier he is heading for the stern.
There is movement next to Ernesto, though the darkness betrays nothing to his blind eyes. He freezes, listening for whatever sound will aid him, but silence is all that returns. Strands of long hair touch his face, brushing his cheek with their spider’s weight. Ernesto screams and pushes away, his hands touching the cold, bare skin of the corpse. She is in here, with him. He cannot see her, but he can feel her drift closer. Hands touch his legs and arms, the casual whisper of fingertips. Ernesto dives beneath the surface and swims blindly, trying to flee his pursuer.
Ernesto’s lungs ache with the familiar twinge of suffocation. No panicked laments this time, however. No regrets. He hits flat wall and scrambles left, then right. He touches the door’s frame and pushes through, suddenly surprised when the water rushes past him and pulls him inside by the shoulders. He kicks upward, waiting to strike the floor again; he finds air instead.
The scrabbling gasp for life follows, deep and pained; Ernesto fights the swelling, tidal give and take of water that is only chest deep here. The jingle of glass is stronger in this room. Ernesto is in the stern gallery, a makeshift hold for the Inquisition, once below the Great Cabin. Where the gallery windows should be are gaping holes that reveal a surprisingly calm, if dark, sea beyond. The windows rise and dip above the ocean, emptying her wound of seawater before the waters surge back, in greater volume. The Montcada is finally sinking.
The evacuating waters push Ernesto toward the breach. He grabs a wood beam to anchor himself.
“The end approaches you,” a voice says.
Ernesto recognizes the squeaking timbre, but he cannot see the rat in the room. “I thought you’d fled?” Ernesto growls.
“It’s a strange thing. I seem to be more cat than rat. I didn’t get far before my curiosity got the better of me.”
In the ship’s groans and wind-chime song of glass, Ernesto hears something knock against the door behind him. It continues bumping with the slow, certain cadence of flotsam on lazy waves, battering itself against the pier. It is of hollow timbre, and Ernesto can almost see the corpse’s head lightly hitting the door, trying to enter.
The ocean now scratches at his collarbone. Ernesto wants to flee, yet, something holds him back, holds the scrabbling panic at bay, if barely. In a life where instinct once ruled over Ernesto with the strength of convictions, he senses a decision of greater import awaiting him.
“What do you wait for?” Donato asks. “Won’t you let her in?”
“Why does she task me?” Ernesto asks, searching for the rat.
“A rather inelegant question, Ernesto. I thought better of you.”
“I care not what you thought,” Ernesto says, frightened enough to be angry. “What have I done to deserve this? I cared for her.”
The slow rapping continues.
“You’ve only cared for yourself, Ernesto.”
“Perhaps. But that was before I met her.”
“You deceive yourself, my young friend. You never truly cared for her. You feel guilty about her fate, certainly, but it was a fate you added to with your lust. You promised her freedom, and instead the Inquisition drowned her. You feel guilty for betraying her trust, and have conveniently mistaken guilt for compassion. It is understandable, given your unfamiliarity with either sentiment. But at least, it appears enough.”
“Enough? Enough for what?”
“To die with some dignity, not crushed or broken as the others here. She’s given you the opportunity to settle the affairs of your own soul.”
“She? The pagan girl?” Ernesto catches sight of twin embers in the darkness, watching him from the perch of a floating shelf — Donato.
“Or her goddess. I know these gods, Ernesto, these pagan celestials.”
Ernesto approaches Donato, careful to measure his steps with the influx of water, the ocean’s fingers clamped firmly about his neck. The water is still rising.
“I see you, rat,” Ernesto says.
“I know,” Donato replies, “but do not blame me for something of your doing. You prayed for release… salvation.”
“I prayed for NONE of this, Donato!” Ernesto pushes forward and grabs the rat; he is intent on crushing him.
“But you did,” the rat says, unafraid. “You prayed while atop the watery temple of a pagan goddess. And it is she who heeds your prayers, not Belastus. Beware of prayers, Ernesto, for it is not always who you expect who answers them.”
“Who is she?” Ernesto asks.
“The blessing and curse of native sailors and fishermen. She is bountiful but demanding. She takes her tribute from those who navigate her waters, dragging down those she chooses as sacrifices. But she also blesses her worshippers with the visions that beset the drowning before they die.”
“What are you talking about?” Ernesto grip slips. The sound of chiming glass grows stronger.
“She is a drowning moon, Ernesto, and I once felt her touch. I witnessed her glory. Belastus is nothing compared to her. See how she reclaims her people, the slaves you took, and their treasures? Where is the tri-horned God’s retort in this affront to His priests? His vessels? Isn’t it apt? He is driftwood in her ocean.”
Ernesto screams in frustration and begins squeezing Donato’s frail body, but…
“You’re offered a second chance,” Donato cries, “and you would seal it with murder? A rat killing a rat, then!”
The words strike Ernesto with a mallet’s weight. He cannot murder anymore. It is too much, the face of the slave girl falling into the darkness. The faces of everyone he brokered falling alongside her. Ernesto drops the rat back on the shelf, his sensibilities assaulted. He looks around, the familiar surge of panic constricting his throat. His feet no longer touch the ceiling below, and he floats. Dizziness engulfs him, the waves around him grow mute against the rush of blood in his own ears and the beautiful sound of glass. Ernesto wants to escape, to leave this place. But the bumping against the door grows more persistent.
“You venture down here with questions, yet flee when the answers arrive,” Donato says. “Open the door.”
“I’ll die,” Ernesto cries, finally certain that fate offers him no more years in this mortal coil.
“We all die,” Donato responds, “I more often than others, it seems. But very few of us die with dignity. Open the door. You’ve run your course.”
The ceiling approaches, forcing Ernesto to crane his head back to breath. Darkness overtakes the room and the breach vanishes below the waves.
Ernesto doesn’t bother breathing. He slips beneath the waters and, by the fading light, opens the door with the last of his air spent on an apology.
She sweeps past him, her embrace cold but welcome; something pulls them both through the hole and down into the darkness of the deep.
All about Ernesto is the shimmering rain of gold trinkets, the steady tumbling cascade of pagan coins, chalices, dishes and jewelry as they spill overboard and drop into the salted abyss below — his symphony of glass.
Ernesto gasps and she holds him tighter. Her lips meet his. He breathes the water from her lungs for the desperate want of air. Death does not come with the sudden seizures that afflict other sailors with spasms and agony. Instead Ernesto feels at peace, his concerns dissolved.
The torrential surface slips away, its sea-foam fists battering the flotilla of ships that will never see safe harbor. Men close to death are pulled through the wounds of those vessels, each one a sacrifice for their affront to the Goddesses’ people. The two dead lovers sink down to the bottom, however, both locked in each other’s embrace, their lips forever joined in the long peace of the deep.