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Adventure Fantasy Gay

This story contains themes or mentions of physical violence, gore, or abuse.

“Forward! Onward! Take the bastard head on!”

The struggling ship burst through the dark crest of a wave several masts high, then plunged in a downward heave. For a moment, gravity seemed to leave the Yggdrasil and the crew leaned backwards to prevent the great vessel from tipping over, and then the ship crashed upon the narrow wavelength, before it began to rise up towards the peak of the next monstrous wave. 

The storm had endured three days and nights, each sunset threatening to bring more formidable towering waves, ceaseless in their brutality. 

Jed had long forgotten what it was to be dry and warm. He fancied that the rain and seawater had seeped beneath his skin, penetrating the bloodstream, and fused within his bones, sometimes before this morning. Although he was here only to care for the horses locked securely in the hull, it was often more difficult to be below deck than above; the rocking motion made one terribly queasy, and it was easier to vomit one's guts up over the railing than upon an inclining floor. 

He had begun spending more time hovering by the stern, clinging to the mizzenmast and scanning the horizon fruitlessly in search of land.

He also found it fascinating to watch the men at work, each a master of their craft, determined to reach their goal. There was something quite mesmerising in the rhythm of the oarsmen, the confidence of the captain, the strength of the riggers. At the very least it successfully distracted Jed from the queasy terror that threatened to overwhelm him, the fear and uncertainty that the wind and rain would see them all at the bottom of the ocean.

The helmsman spun the wheel this way and that in bewilderingly rapid motions that Jed had not the sailor’s knowledge to comprehend, each one calculated to keep him and his crew above the surface of the dark depths.

The oarsmen were nearing their limits, their movements becoming less united, more ragged, and ever weaker. But still they pushed on, desperation lending them strength.

Above the deck, on the slippery spars, a small team of men worked the sails, struggling to limit their exposure to the unforgiving wind. How they kept their balance on the narrow beams in these conditions, Jed did not know; the captain had offered to tie Jed to the mast to keep him from being blown overboard, and Jed would have taken him up on his offer had he not cared what the lead rigger thought of him.

For the tall man pulling at the sails—expertly leading a manoeuvre called tacking to avoid the brunt of the storm—had grown to be Jed’s only friend onboard, and certainly the only one who thought Jed more than a lowly stable boy, and went out of his way to make sure he was comfortable, and had someone to talk to.

His name was Geldam, and, silhouetted against the lightning strikes amidst the thunderous clouds shaped like so many leviathan, he struck an impressive figure. His strong hands tugged at the bracers with the controlled strength and precision of a seasoned sailor, but even he had his teeth gritted with the effort, eyes wild with the fear of the sea. In the downpour, his clothes clung to his body like a second skin, exposing every hardworking muscle and tendon to the salty spray. Tied tightly around his neck was a striking crimson scarf that Geldam seldom removed.

Jed wondered idly if the scarf had been a gift, perhaps from a mother or lover. What woman, he mused, had loved Geldam enough to bestow such as quality vestment? Jed knew fabrics like no other, and Geldam’s crimson scarf was certainly the most valuable item of clothing that any of the men wore. And he must love it dearly to withstand the jibes that were directed at him for his sense of style; Jed had heard some horrible things indeed said about Geldam behind his back—all undeserving, in his eyes.

Geldam did not see Jed watching him—every fibre of his being was focused on staying alive, and helping the rest of the crew to do so. But while no role onboard this apparently damned vessel was safe, the riggers faced perhaps the greatest peril. Standing upon the spars protruding from the central masts offered a great risk—multiplied significantly by the gales of winds and the colossal waves—of slipping and breaking one’s neck upon the rolling deck below. 

It was a risk that Geldam succumbed to.

“Aback!” he roared, signalling the men that the wind now fell upon the wrong side of the sails. “Aback! Release the sail! Let it free!”

But the ship had already begun to heel, leaning dangerously towards its starboard side.  

“Abandon oars!” the captain bellowed. “To port, to port, ye bastards!”

The men rushed to the leftmost side of the boat and pushed with all their might as the next wave crashed onto the deck. As the boat sluggishly obeyed the laws of gravity and the masts rightened once more, Geldam reached for his line. Thrown off balance by the weight of the wave, he missed, fingers grazing the fibre.

Jed shouted a cry of alarm as Geldam toppled from the spar. His neighbour abandoned his own line to grab his shoulder, and for a moment both swayed above the deck. Then the movement of the ship sent Geldam’s line back to his hand and he gripped tightly, anchoring himself.

“Stable sweep! Lend a hand or get below board!”

Jed tore his eyes from Geldam and came face-to-chest with Skadi, the towering oar master who managed to intimidate so many crew members into doing his bidding. Jed had heard tales of Skadi before joining the crew, heard of the drugs he had pushed, the money he had taken, the throats he had slit. Jed still slept with a knife under his knapsack; Skadi had seen the small pouch holding the pearl necklace Jed was bringing his mother in Farcorners, and a greedy gleam appeared in his eyes whenever they crossed paths.

“Go on,” ordered Skadi. “There’s no place for you here.”

Jed nodded his assent, but Skadi didn’t see; the next wave had broken upon the Yggdrasil’s stern, sending him staggering sideways against the mast.

“Below deck,” Skadi growled. “Or I’ll toss you overboard myself.”

As he pulled open the grating on the deck and lowered himself below, Jed glanced up at Geldam again. The rigger had watched the encounter while he worked, and now he met Jed’s eyes. He offered a brief, strained smile. It said, Don’t worry. I’ve got your back.

Jed tried for a smile of his own, and gave Geldam a wave. Then he let the grating fall shut, returning to the dark and damp of the cabin. 

It was impossible for dozens of men to spend day in and day out on a sailing ship, eating, sleeping, and often dying together, and not form an unshakeable kind of kinship. But Jed would have no part in that camaraderie. He never had.

Instead, he sought company with the horses. Though their masters were up above sacrificing their health and warmth for the journey’s success, they understood none of that. All they knew was the thunderous roaring of the waves, the wraith like shrieks of the wind, and the turmoil of being thrown from side to side in the confined hull, legs cramped and flanks damp. 

Jed took up a brush and started combing their manes, whispering soothing words and patting their flanks. He focused on the task, trying to ignore the bedlam outside. 

It was when he had moved on to the last horse in the makeshift stables that the ship lurched violently, sending the horses crashing into each other.

Beyond the hull, a great mass seemed to be stirring. 

Slimy feelers squelched against the wood, blotting out what little light seeped through the portholes. Jed went to the glass, peered out at the dark underwater realm—and a grey slab of flesh covered over the window, pulsing with ancient life, oozing black ink. 

Jed leapt back with a cry - there were horrible pink eyes embedded in the thing’s flesh, rolling madly. Drawn to his movement, the eyes fixed upon Jed.

He stared back at the thing, vaguely aware of the horses’ frantic neighing and the panicked shouts of the crew above deck. 

Someone cleared their throat ostentatiously.

Jed turned, expecting to see Skadi or the captain, but hoping for Geldam. Instead, he was met with a tall, thin man in a fine cloth waistcoat. He had a friendly face behind his dark beard, and had his hands tucked lazily away in his pockets.

“Pardon me, young man,” said the man, “but everybody else seemed rather too busy for a chat.”

Jed stared at the man. Something was not quite right with his face, but he thought it impolite to say so. Instead he asked, “Who the hell are you?”

The man chuckled. “Oh, you wouldn’t have heard of me. But you might have heard of my master.” His eyes went to the window and he half-smiled. “Why, its name is legend among all sailors, though those who see it rarely live to tell the tale. Will you be the exception, I wonder?”

Jed’s fear had become a cold, sinking dread, as though he was already a corpse on the ocean floor. “The Kraken,” he said hollowly.

“Ah, good, so you do know.” The man went over to the porthole. “An oversimplification of its true name, but rather more memorable, I believe.”

“Help us!” Jed cried, watching as the slimy feelers undulated against the portholes, listening as the men took up their guns and swords against the gargantuan foe. “Order the beast to stand down! We are honest men, neither pirates nor colonisers. We have families, loved ones, and children relying on our journey, our provisions. We have done no wrong.”

The man shook his head. “The kraken is not born from evil, nor does it birth it. Instead, it seeks to quell, to punish. It is a beast not of terror or damnation but of justice. And so, I, my master’s representative, offer a single member of each ship’s crew a solemn choice.”

Jed hardly dared to ask, with shaky breath, “What choice is that?”

“To sacrifice one member of the crew, one who is deemed a great sinner by his peers, or to have the entire vessel sunk.”

“Why ask for sacrifice at all?” Jed asked. “It is perilous enough crossing the seas, but you have made men fear for their lives, made widows and orphans of their loved ones, claimed so many ships for the Kraken.”

“Jed, Jed, Jed,” the man scolded him. “You do not understand. It is not about who lives or dies. It is about balance. A balance that, were it disturbed, we would all be very sorry indeed.”

“Why?” Jed demanded. “Why must one die?”

The man’s face seemed to darken and age before Jed’s eyes. “It is the way of the world as our gods command. And heaven abandon any who disobey the gods.”

The longer the conversation drew on, the louder and more terrified the screams above deck grew. Gunshots sounded and shells clattered to the deck. Wet bodies shook the masts and the wood of the hull creaked as the Kraken’s body enveloped the Yggdrasil.

Jed had to ask, “What do people normally choose to do?”

The man shrugged. “Funnily enough, most don’t listen, they just go straight for the guns and cannons. They damn their vessel, their friends, and themselves.”

“Why would they do that?”

“You would be surprised at the lengths to which men would go to live free from guilt. And the forces they believe they can overcome.”

There came a thud from directly above, a wet smack of skull upon wood, and blood began to deep through the deck and pool at Jed’s feet. The valiant screams of the crew carried on with the roar of the storm and the unhurried, methodical movements of the kraken as it picked them off, one at a time.

“So, what about you, Jed? To what lengths will you go for the good of the men? Surely there’s someone you wish to live, if not yourself, and someone you wish to die. It’d be unnatural if there weren’t. So, is there or isn’t there?”

Jed thought long and hard, but in the end only asked, “What must I do?”

The man considered him seriously. “You agree then that the life of one sailor is nothing when compared to a whole ship’s crew? That one who his peers deem a sinner is the only acceptable choice for the sacrifice?"

Jed hesitated a long while before answering. His mother, ever concerned for his development since his brother had turned to crime, had seen fit to bestow upon him several lessons in ethical philosophy, should he ever find himself in an unassailable moral quandary. But none of that was of use now. All he could do was decide and suffer the consequences.

“Yes, I do,” he said, at length.

“It is decided, then,” said the man, pleased. “A member of the crew who is considered a great sinner shall be accepted as sacrifice, and the Yggdrasil shall pass safely across the channel and once again make land.”

Jed swallowed, then, the hairs on the nape of his neck raised, asked, “Who will it be?”

“Why, that would be telling, my dear boy, and if there’s one adage that has endured these past millennia, it is this: the sea speaks only to the dead, and dead men speak to no one.” He frowned. “That wasn’t quite right, but you understand, yes?”

Jed shook his head sadly. “I do not understand much of it at all.”

“I sincerely hope that one day, you will. Farewell, Jed.”

Just as suddenly as he had appeared, the strange man vanished, dissolving into water that splashed upon the cabin floor.

Like a cloud passing from under the sun, the Kraken’s body withdrew from the Yggdrasil and light returned through the porthole. The ship rocked to and fro several times, and miraculously become still.

The howling of the wind had ceased, as had the abrasion of the torrential downpour. There were only the groans of relief from the crew and the creaking of the ship. 

Some time passed, and the Yggdrasil’s crew simply soaked in the sunshine, their clothes dripping onto the deck, enjoying their much-needed respite.

Only Jed moved, lifting the grate and emerging from below to survey the damage. The foremast had been destroyed, lying in splintered fragments on the bow. The wheel was also in pieces. Several men lay lifeless on the deck, blood pooling around their bodies.

Jed looked away from the prone figures, bile rising in his throat. It could have been any of the dead, then, that had been sacrificed. There were dozens of men on board; there was no use counting them one by one to see which one he had chosen to sentence. He did not have to live with the guilt of his choice if he knew not who had been sacrificed. It might have been Skadi, who was widely known for his lecherous sins and greed-driven violence; he could only be called a great sinner, couldn’t he? Indeed, Skadi’s body was nowhere to be found on the deck, nor was his great lumbering form to be seen amongst the oarsmen.

Instead of surveying the dead, Jed’s eyes went to the horizon, cut open with a red sunset. Golden atop the deadly blue sea, land presented itself to the Yggdrasil. The crew had begun to notice, and in turn they all pointed and shaded their eyes, and one by one they began to rejoice. The journey was soon to be over. 

None had yet noticed that from the highest yardarm hung a limp form, suspended by the neck, swaying in the calm breeze. The glare of the sun and the mutilation of its body rendered the figure’s features unrecognisable. 

But in the bright light, one could hardly ignore the distinctive fluttering of its crimson scarf. 

March 09, 2024 04:54

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1 comment

Spruce Popsicle
19:20 Apr 18, 2024

I was first drawn into this story because of the Norse connections in the names (I think it’s really interesting how you connected the Norse mythology to the names in your story). Then, I became entranced in your description of the setting and characters. I was invested in what was about to happen. Finally, I think I literally let out a gasp when I read that last line. It wasn’t that I didn’t know it was coming, but still… I feel betrayed. Overall, amazing story.


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