Down the River
Upon the ship Ocean Blight
Herman and Stefan stood upon the deck amidship with the rest of the foremast men. Like everyone else they were staring up at the poop deck where Captain Bart was clutching the mizzenmast and looking back down at them. A few moments of quiet passed – not complete silence, for the ship creaked and there were sounds from the other ships and boats nearby, but it was a soundlesness that was rare upon the Ocean Blight.
Eventually, the Captain spoke. Before the Battle of the Dunes he would have shouted, but now, bearing a whip-lash scar from that fight down the left hand side of his face, his eyes always wide and his complexion not what anyone would call healthy, he addressed them quietly. They all leaned forwards, straining to hear.
“The ship ain’t goin’ much further up this river, and she certainly ain’t going through the swamp ahead. I say we leave her here, with a skelet …”
Here the captain suddenly stopped, and frowned. It took a while for the slower crewmen to work out why, but when they heard the mutters of “Manaan protect us” and such like, and the general murmurs about cursing the ship, they eventually realised. No one wanted a ‘skeleton crew’ on board!
The Captain stroked the scar on his cheek, then went on,
“I mean to say some guards. We’ll put a guard crew on her, while the rest of us take the boats. We’ll put the pinnace together for one, and the towed boat too. What say you?”
“I ain’t going ashore to build no pinnace,” shouted one of those at the front of the crowd.
Loud murmurs of agreement spread through the rest, as several of them could not help but glance once more at the shifting mangroves at the river’s edge to see once more the creeping presence of the undead – here a hat and a torn shirt, there a bloody face and a deathly grimace, and elsewhere clouds of buzzing flies or the rusty muzzle of an ill-kept handgun. The Bosun Jan Mostert stepped up by the side of the captain, his bald pate shining in the sun, golden earrings glinting and his massive, flared muzzle pistol couched on his hip. He wore no shirt, not having done so since the Battle of the Dunes, when he had stumbled and put his arm elbow deep into the swollen, foetid belly of a zombie, so fouling his shirt that he had torn it off and thrown it into the sea on his way back to the fleet.
“There’s no need to go ashore,” Mostert told them all, grinning, in a voice much more certain than the captain’s. “We can fit her together on the deck.”
“That’s alright then, ain’t it?” said the fellow who had spoken up before.
There were several ‘ayes’ amongst the crew, but all on the poop deck could tell that their usual boisterousness was absent. Stefanus cleared his throat nervously and raised a hand.
“I want to speak.”
The Quartermaster, Lisbeth Boone, furrowed her brow. “You do?” she asked, sounding surprised.
There was no answer, but everyone knew it was her place to run proceedings should council be called for.
“Then speak on, man,” she conceded, “for all have their proper say on this ship.”
Stefanus glanced at Herman, who gestured with a nod to encourage him.
“The Captain ain’t well,” he said. “We all see that.”
Nods and ayes of agreement rippled through the gathered crew.
“So, that in mind, I say we ought to decide upon another captain, temporary like, until he’s well enough to lead us again.”
All waited for the captain to speak, but he said nothing. Instead it was the Bosun who glared at Stefanus and shouted.
“S’pose you’ve someone in mind?”
“Don’t you go getting me wrong. This ain’t a mutiny,” said Stefanus quickly. “You know that. Just a call for a vote, to know the crew’s mind concernin’ that which plainly needs deciding.”
Lisbeth drew her cutlass from its scabbard and pointed it at the men.
“I say when there’s to be a vote, and only when enough of you demand it.”
Herman was the first to respond.
“We do demand it.” And all those around him gave a loud ‘aye’.
The captain took this opportunity, as if relieved that a decision was being made and all by the proper procedure, to sit himself down on a crate by the gunwhale.
“Then as per the articles we’ll have a vote,” said Lisbeth. “Are all present?”
“Aye” came the cry from everyone on the main deck. Then a moment later came a cry of “Nay” from behind Lisbeth. It was the ship’s boy, little Adolfus Korpel.
“Who’s missing?” she asked.
“Martin,” said the boy. “He’s below deck in his hammock. He ain’t yet recovered from his wound.”
Lisbeth looked confused. “I thought he was dead.”
“Not dead, no. He’s just badly. I spoke to him this morning.”
Spinning back round to face the crew, Lisbeth pointed her blade at Stefanus. “You want a vote, then you fetch him. Take Herman with you the better to help him up here.”
The two of them stepped over to the hatch, then disappeared down the ladder into the darkness below.
“Martin?” called Stefanus. “Where are you?”
There was no answer.
“You asleep?” ventured Herman, in whispered voice.
Stefanus glanced at him as if he were mad.
“What?” asked Herman. “I didn’t want to disturb him.”
Then realisation dawned on him. He chuckled and shrugged his shoulders. “You check starboard and I’ll go larboard.”
It was Herman who found him first, and he called his mate over. The two of them then stood a while, looking at the hammock. Martin was covered by a blanket, only the back of his head showing because he faced the hull.
“Shake a leg, Martin” ordered Herman. “We’re voting on a Captain.”
There was no movement in response. Apart from the slow swaying of the hammock from side to side, rocked by the gentle motion of the ship, there was no sign of any life at all under the blanket. Not even breathing.
“I think,” began Herman, “… well, you know … it was bad wound. You can smell how it festered. I reckon he’s …”
He stopped suddenly, blanched, then stepped back. Stefanus did the same. Herman drew his gully knife, while Stefanus swept his cutlass from out from the sash at his waist.
“You think maybe he’ll …?” began Herman.
“O’ course he will,” interrupted Stefanus before Herman could finish. “It’s happened to all the others who died. This river’s cursed. It’s Galdabash’s doing, and it won’t stop ‘til he goes away.”
“So do we …?” Once more Herman failed to complete his words, and instead gestured with his knife at his neck.
That very moment, the bloodstained blanket twitched. Martin began to roll over onto his back, one arm pulling at the edge of the hammock. When his face appeared they could see his eyes had rolled back in the sockets so that only the whites, or more accurately the yellows, were visible.
A moment later and Martin was in two pieces, divided neatly at the belly by the vicious swipe of Stefanus’ razor sharp cutlass, the halves of the neatly sliced hammock hanging down either side. Neither half of him was moving any more.
A minute later and Stefanus’ head reappeared at the hatch. Everyone on the deck turned to look.
“Martin won’t be voting,” he said as he tossed his bloodied blade out onto the deck and clambered out.
He helped Herman up too, then turned to face the others. Several made holy signs, others frowned, and one cursed, “Gods be damned.”
Stefanus sniffed, then declared, “What’s done is done. Let’s get on with it.”