…in darkness shalt thou conquer…

Chapter 4, part 2

Aidan of Dredstoke — Image by L M Glegg

Note: To read part 1 of this chapter, click here

Before anyone could speak, a horde of apparitions began to appear on the warship. Like bubbles forming on the water’s surface, one by one their spectral shapes became visible, then multiplied in rapid succession as they spread out across their transport. They were skeletons dressed in the sun-bleached, worn rags of pirates, and they covered every inch of the deck — some were clinging to the masts, while others popped out from portholes and gun apertures in the hull.
 
For a moment, the commanding silence of the strange fog persisted while each group stared inquisitively at the other. Then, without warning, a thousand shrieks split the air. As if they were starving rats attacking a fresh carcass, the spectres leaped down onto the galley. They swarmed the deck with flailing cutlasses, and forced the stunned soldiers up against the rails.

“Get Aidan below!” yelled a young knight named Lief. He dashed across the deck and, with a vicious stroke of his sword, cut at the figure that wore the trappings of a captain. The blade sliced cleanly through the spectral captain’s neck and left nothing but an aimless wisp of smoke trailing in the air. The skeletal ghost grabbed the knight’s arm as he attempted a return stroke, then pushed his cracked skull into Lief’s face and rasped through a lipless sneer, “Why? Will he be safe there?”

The captain’s hollow laughter echoed off the swirling haze as he forcefully released Lief’s arm, then, with inhuman strength, pushed him well aside. He stood in the center of the deck and made a visual inspection of his new prisoners, gloating from the ease of his conquest. After several moments he found what he sought, and his clicking bones echoed off the silencing mist as he approached Aidan.

No one spoke while the captain, apparently still enjoying the shock and alarm his sudden attack had produced, patiently scrutinized his quarry further. After a few moments, a bony scowl locked his jaw. “Lower your weapons in the presence of a king, you fools,” he commanded his men. “For I address the seed of the Lion, do I not?” he asked, returning his gaze to Aidan.

Aidan nodded rigidly. “I am Rurik’s son.”

“And you have returned to rescue the heritage he labored to maintain.”

“That is the task I have been given.”

“Noble task indeed, young king,” the captain replied with a hint of sarcasm. He turned in the direction of Dredstoke’s shore. Like a wolf smelling the fear in its prey, he arched his head to the sky and drew audible breaths through the hollow cavity in the center of his skull — all that remained of his nose. “Your land reeks of evil,” he informed Aidan as he faced him again. “The signs in the sky these past nights are a harbinger of doom.” The captain paused and threw a brief glance back toward Dredstoke, then growled, “You have not an inkling of what is about to be unleashed upon your people.”

Aidan stared in the distance toward his homeland as well. His jaw tightened and nostrils flared with determination. “That matters little. I am bound by an oath I made to my father.”

“And are you ready to die for that oath?”

“I vowed that as long as I had breath within me, our kingdom would not fall.” Aidan stared deep into the voids that had once held the captain’s eyes. “And whether I am reunited with him today or a century from now, I will be able to tell him I held true to my word.”

“And a spirit-guide has appeared to inform you that the time has come to make good on your vow,” the pirate stated without hesitation.

Aidan’s expression of surprise was answer enough, but he confirmed the statement nonetheless. “Raechayle has not led me astray thus far.”

The captain took a few short paces back and forth as if deciding what to do while he considered Aidan’s words. “And would your resolve remain if you were to discover that we are your first test? You have not been boarded without purpose,” he snarled in a dark voice, again piercing Aidan with his cavernous eyes.

The ringing of steel sounded from the perimeters of the deck as every one of Aidan’s men unsheathed his sword. The shock of their ordeal had worn off — both strength and blood were now rising from this threat.

“Even if we knew it to be a lost cause, should you choose to cross arms with us, we would not die without a fight,” Aidan assured the captain.

“Choose? Choose!?” the captain roared with a gravelly laugh and turned to his crew. “Did you hear that, mates?! The king himself has granted us free will.” They responded with a peal of laughter, their voices a legion strong.

The din at last rumbled away, and the captain resumed his thoughtful paces. “We are those who have sold our rights as men. We are the Bereft — the power of choice was taken from us long ago. Our every movement, every action, lies at the beck and call of the capricious wench who has been given domain over this cursed pool. Her smallest wish becomes our command — her most frivolous whims, our burden. And there are times she longs to hear men sing her praises…..” The captain stopped and glared at Aidan, letting the encapsulating silence reign once more. He moved close, his hollow eye sockets narrowing into slits. “…..then again, she has moods where she craves to feast on the panicked screams of those caught in the talons of her fury. And when she hungers for male flesh, she is rarely denied her due.”

Aidan swallowed a lump in his throat and grasped the hilt of his sword, ready with the others to make a futile attempt at survival.

The captain stepped back before speaking again. “But fate does not fall hard on you this day, for we have been sent to bring you a gift.”

A small object plopped onto the deck at Aidan’s feet. He looked down to see a leather-bound book, faded and worn with age.

The ghostly captain nodded for Aidan to retrieve it as he addressed him a final time. “Everything you gain from this point forward will have to be earned, young lion. I would guard that book with your life; the answers you seek exist nowhere else.” A brief pause allowed Aidan to give the tattered volume a cursory examination. “And pray you never lay eyes upon me again — our next meeting may end quite differently.”

Suddenly, a stiff breeze swept across the galley, ruffling the pages Aidan now held. The captain jerked his head to the horizon, then hurried toward his warship as he shouted, “To the decks, you dogs! I feel the summons of the mistress.”
 
Again, the rabid shrieks accompanied the horde of apparitions as they scrambled back to their ship — every one of them leaping, scratching, clawing as if some unthinkable punishment awaited any hapless stragglers. When the last one finally scampered aboard, as swiftly as it had appeared, the carrack melted from sight.

…to be continued…

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Author’s Note: This novel is a work in progress, and may differ from what is published here when it is completed. If you’d like exclusive access to short chapters of lore and backstory from my fictitious kingdom of Nordaka, visit the Tavern on my website.
Cover Art by L M Glegg

Copyright L M Glegg 1997–2019. All rights reserved.