DEAD IN THE WATER



DEAD IN THE WATER, by Josh Wolf:

We should have heeded Merlin, Gawain thought as the moon sank behind the trees. Across from him in the tiny coracle Lamorak and hulking Glachis snored like two metal clad bears in the darkness.

The three of them were floating at the center of a small lake, held in place by their anchor stone. Enormous trees grew at the very edge of the water, leaving only a thin strip of rocky bank on all sides.

Somehow, the Fey drew their power and their protection from these trees. The strange creatures that had pursued them through the trackless wood the day before had not left the forest canopy to follow them out onto the water. They had flowed, like smoke, back into the forest and began a maddening cacophony of  piping and drumming.  Sometimes the sounds were close, sometimes far.  They would stop sometimes and there would be a while, an hour or so, of peace.  Such a peace was upon the small lake now, and while Galchis and Lamorak slept, Gawain took no comfort from the quiet.

He peered up at the small circle of sky. So the Fey had at least one weakness, though he could not imagine how he would ever return to report it to Arthur. Lancelot had dragged them into this godforsaken wood, following rumors of fairies. Fairies. He nearly laughed.

Merlin had warned him not to take this fool’s errand in the first place. “You will only find madness in the Forest Sauvage,” the old man had said.

Why had he ever let Lancelot goad him into coming? He sighed and looked at Lamorak twitching next to him. The answer was right there. Lamorak and young Griflet, both of them newly knighted and stupid, had volunteered immediately, and someone had to keep them alive. Though he never spoke of it to anyone, he had sworn to himself that he would protect them all, even great Glachis, from Lancelot’s foolishness.

He snorted in the quiet air. He hadn’t been much good to them yet. They were outmatched. Gawain doubted there were enough swords in all of Camelot to face the host that lurked here.

Damn Lancelot to hell.

But who had left the boat here, waiting on the bank for the five of them to find? And why? It was both fortress and prison.

He scratched his long hair and looked at the sky. A heavy mist was rising. Behind the clouds, the sun would be coming up soon. How in Christ’s name were they going to get out of this one? Something nudged the soft skin of their ox-hide boat from below, and he cast his eyes over the edge in time to see a dark shape vanish.

Our situation is not improving.

He heard howling pipes begin to play in the distance, punctuated by the booming of large skin drums. Perhaps the Fey had caught up with Lancelot. He sniffed. Not bloody likely. But if any of them were to get out this alive, it would be that crazy bastard. The man had only sought refuge in the boat an hour before calling the rest of them cowards, jumping overboard, and swimming to shore with his armor on. He had been more frenzied than Gawain had ever seen him. Young Sir Griflet had followed, taking a moment to remove his own armor before wishing them Godspeed, and pulling the mass of metal skin behind him in a leather sack. The last Gawain had seen of the two, they were disappearing with swords drawn into the shadows of that deadly wood, Lancelot already screaming death and murder in the name of his Queen.

Gawain shook his head. He had actually begged Griflet to stay in the boat with them, but the young fool had only smiled in a shadowy attempt at courage before leaping overboard.

Gawain’s gut seized at the memory. He guessed that the Fey had set up a complete blockade of the surrounding hills. If anyone could get through alive it would be Lancelot, but the man had been howling like a demon.

Not the way I would have gone about it.

Time passed and the sound of the water lapping at the edge of the boat came to him like a whisper.

At dawn the Fey returned to the banks, emerging silently despite the din they had kept up all night. Gawain rubbed his wet face and craned his neck to observe as many of them as he could.

They arrived in disorder, like a mob, but once more, the lake was completely surrounded. Even from that distance, the rank smell of them was overpowering.

He remembered the many minstrel stories he’d listened to in warm halls, stories of noble-visaged elven lords and ladies taking lucky mortals to their beds. He scratched his beard. All glamour and horseshit.

On the bank directly across from him stood two of the creatures, eight feet tall with the heads of badgers and the arms and legs of men. Next to them stood two hare headed women with enormous breasts, a furred, rat faced man with elongated, blue-black crab claws for hands, and a monstrous hound with the tongue of a serpent.

The hound stood on its hind legs. It had great, long nailed human hands instead of forepaws.

Gawain grabbed the boat’s edges. “Wake up,” he said. “For the love of Christ, wake up.”

Lamorak and Glachis sat up, the latter so quickly that the tiny coracle nearly capsized.

“Gently” Gawain said, then pointed at the hound.

Two of the badger-headed creatures stepped down to the bank, with Sir Griflet dangling between them. They held him by the armpits, and from the way his head lolled around, Gawain guessed that he was barely conscious.

“If only I had my bow,” Glachis said, fingering the lodestone — a gift from Merlin — that hung around his neck.

“There are so many,” Lamorak whispered in a pinched voice. “Which would you shoot?”

“Griflet, of course,” Glachis muttered. “This is going to go very badly for him. Poor boy.” He spat. “Sir Griflet, of all knights, should not have followed Lancelot out of this boat.”

“Everyone cracks eventually,” Gawain said. “Merlin warned us it would happen. Even Lancelot was in rare form when they reached the shore.”

“They don’t appear to have captured him, though,” Glachis rumbled. “Lucky man. How could he have gotten past them?”

“Maybe he started skulking as soon as he was out of our sight,” Gawain said. “Or maybe, my Greek friend, he’s dead already.”

The crab-clawed man stepped up to Griflet and lifted his head off his chest. With a horrible snip, he sliced through the man’s neck and sent his head rolling into the shallow water.

From the boat, Gawain could just see Griflet’s pale face protruding from the surface near the lake’s edge, eyes staring blankly at the sky.

Crab-claw thrust his long, needle-like pincers into the neck hole of Griflet’s armor and began pulling out organs and tossing them to the other creatures on the bank. Furred and scaled Fey caught Griflet’s heart, part of his lungs, and an unrecognizable mass of muscle. Cheers keened from the bank as each piece of flesh sailed through the air.

Gawain felt something loosening inside of him. He turned his head away and closed his eyes tightly.

When they were done, the whole horde disappeared silently back into the trees.

The three men sat in silence themselves for some minutes, their small boat rocking gently on the still water.

Gawain’s brow and armor dripped with condensation from the mist that was rising with the day. He resisted the dark urge to look back at Griflet’s face near the shore.

“Well,” Glachis finally said. “That didn’t go so badly. I was expecting much worse for him.”

Lamorak’s pale eyes went wide. “Much worse?” he said, spit flying from his cracked lips. “You speak in jest, sir, and out of turn. I’ll take you to task for it when we get back.”

Gawain managed a tired smile. “We’re not getting back.” He sighed. He wanted to comfort the young knight, to block out the horror that surrounded them, but it no longer seemed worth the effort. He had failed to honor his own quiet oath to protect them.

“There may be a way,” Glachis rumbled, his eyes distant and unfocused. “It is said there are tunnels that run beneath the earth. Many of them have gateways below the mirrored waters of lakes such as this, but,” he swallowed audibly and looked over his shoulder at the water, “but they are dry once you pass inside.”

“Now it is you who speak in jest,” Gawain said, almost smiling.

Glachis shook his enormous head. “As a boy I heard tales of Herakles, how he escaped the island of Phylos through an undersea tunnel after being abandoned by the Argonauts.”

Gawain leaned forward and stared at him. The Grecian was panting in his heavy armor. “Glachis, what the hell are you talking about?”

“If I only possessed the knowledge,” Glachis said, looking from Gawain to Lamorak, “I could swim to one of these tunnels and then walk on dry ground until I emerged among the high cliffs of my homeland.”

Lamorak’s eyes grew even wider. “There are no tunnels under the lakes of England,” he said.

What was this? Gawain rubbed his forehead. Glachis was no foolish stripling.

“If you possessed the knowledge?” Gawain said, taking the time to enunciate each word. “Are you suggesting that the three of us, in our ignorance, jump into these dark waters and swim down into the godless depths to seek a tunnel that may or may not exist, in hopes that it will lead us back to Arthur?”

Glachis regarded him with hooded eyes. “Anywhere is better than here,” he said.

“Oh really? I wonder if Griflet would agree?”

“You always have a clever objection, don’t you?” Glachis said, “Take heed. The Fey avoid this water.” He swept his arms around, then raised them as though giving a benediction. “Clearly they have no power over the lake. This is our realm. Our one true pathway home is below the surface.”

“There are strange beasts in this pool, Glachis,” Gawain whispered. “I’ve felt them touching the skin of the coracle.” He took a breath. “Do not do this.”

“I’m not swimming in that foul murk,” Lamorak sputtered. He shook his head violently back and forth.

Glachis turned to him, then looked back at Gawain. “So it’s true,” he said, “what they say all along the Mediterranean.”

He paused, and Gawain nearly took the bait.

“The men of this island are all cowards,” Glachis said, and began to unbuckle his breastplate.

“I’m not from this island,” Gawain snapped as the big Greek removed his armor methodically, piece by piece, and set it in the bottom of the coracle. “I’m from Orkney, and I wish now that I had never left it.”

“I wish you had never left it as well,” Glachis said and drew a dirk from his waist. He stuck it in his mouth with one hairy hand.

Gawain regarded the lodestone hanging from the Grecian’s neck, Merlin’s lodestone, a shard of brown rock carved in the shape of a long finger. It hung on a leather cord, and one painted tip pointed toward the horizon. The wizard had given it to Glachis when they set out.

“It fell from the stars,” the old magician had said in his soft voice as he hung it around the Grecian’s neck, “and it always points north. The trees of the Forest Sauvage blot out the sky, and even if they did not, the Fey have thrown a gray mantle over the sun. You cannot fight the Fey, but sometimes they can be eluded.”

Gawain licked his lips. Here was the charm, their one sure guide through the forest, and the fool was about to jump into the lake with it. Another lost soul he could not protect. He felt the world breaking apart around him.

“Leave us the lodestone,” he whispered. “You will not need it. If you find your tunnel, it will only lead in one direction.”

Glachis removed the dirk from between his teeth. He scratched his cheek, lifted the stone and regarded it in the gray light. His hand shook, and for a moment, Gawain feared he would toss the lodestone overboard.

“The tunnel may break into two,” Glachis said slowly. “How will I know which direction to take?” He gazed back at Gawain and smiled again, saying, “No, I think I will keep it. Merlin gave it to me. He never trusted Lancelot. Besides, are you planning an expedition back into the forest? What are your plans?”

Gawain didn’t answer. With the lodestone, he could perhaps still save Lamorak, lead him past the Fey somehow. He considered attacking the big man, trying to take it from him, then decided against it. They would surely capsize the boat. Besides, there was something low and unseemly about attacking a fellow knight when things were going badly. Whatever madness had seized Griflet and Lancelot had taken the Grecian as well. But he tried one more time anyway.

“Please Glacis. Don’t go down there. Stay in the boat. We’ll think of some way out. We always do. Please.”

“You have no plan, Gawain,” Glachis boomed. “This isn’t another giant we can outwit and hew down. You can’t save us this time, so I’m going to save myself. Trust me. Water is a Greek’s element. I could swim before I could walk.”

Gawain glanced at Lamorak for help, but the young man would not meet his eyes.

He took a great, shuddering breath. So be it. “It’s very discourteous of you to leave me with this whelp,” he said to Glachis. “He’s nearly as useless as you are.”

The big Greek held out his hand. “You’ve been a brother in battle,” he said.

Gawain forced himself to take the hand and squeeze it. “Farewell, Grecian. Perhaps we’ll share a drink in heaven.”

Glachis slipped overboard without so much as a splash for all of his bulk.

Gawain hung his head over the wooden rail and watched the knight’s big form slowly disappear into the depths, his muscular legs kicking a steady rhythm.

For a long time, Lamorak did not speak, but his darkened eyes darted continually from Gawain to the bank, then to the water. Eventually he began whispering to himself, and after a few moments, Gawain realized that he was repeating the same phrase over and over. Rather than interrupt, he leaned forward, straining his ears until he caught Lamorak’s words:

“Anything is better than getting in the water. Anything is better than getting in the water.”

Sweet Mary, he was losing Lamorak as well. He looked at the sky, hoping for a glimpse of sun, but the clouds remained as unbroken as Merlin had said they would. If only he could fly. Christ’s blood. He closed his eyes, trying to ignore Lamorak’s muttering, and eventually fell into a fitful sleep.

When he awoke, the day felt old and Lamorak was dead, run through the belly with his own sword. His blood soaked the bottom of the coracle in a star shaped pattern. Gawain took a ragged breath. Poor man. What mad promises had he made to himself before the sword entered his guts?

And how had he missed it? Gawain had always prided himself on being a light sleeper, impossible to surprise. Yet Lamorak had removed his breastplate and managed to skewer himself in a rocking coracle without waking him. How? He hid his face in his wet hands. He was finally alone, having failed every last one of them. If he didn’t escape, Lancelot would probably lead even more poor victims into this mad land.

“You could try killing yourself, too,” a deep voice spoke on his left, “but from the looks of you, I doubt you will.”

Startled, Gawain, grabbed his sword and peered over the edge. Below him a brown fish at least fifteen feet long lay half-submerged in the water. The bulbous black eyes on the front of its face gazed back at him.

Protruding from the fish’s thick-lipped mouth was a human arm, waving gently near the water’s surface. The hand and wrist were unmistakably thatched with dark hair. Gawain felt his grip on the sword go weak.

“Galchis…,” he whispered.

The fish flexed an oily, rainbow colored dorsal fin and smacked his great lips together, making Glachis’s arm wave all the more.

“Yes,” it said. “I rarely get up to the surface these days.” He swished the water with his tail. “But he inspired me and here I am, in the open air, to try and convince you to follow your comrade’s example and jump in.”

“Why?” Gawain snapped. “So you can feast on me as well?”

“Precisely,” the fish answered, “and if you give yourself a moment to ponder the alternatives, you’ll realize that it is a very good offer.” He paused, waiting perhaps for Gawain to object, then went on. “Those friends of mine on the bank will not let you through their ranks. The sight of humans drives them wild with bloodlust, as you have no doubt experienced already, so you can forget escaping in that direction. They fear me enough to stay out of the water, but you must have realized by now that my boat, which you so kindly obliged me by entering, is only a temporary refuge.”

“This is your boat?”

“Call it a lure,” the fish said.

Gawain gritted his teeth. “Do the Fey drive us to it in order to feed you?”

“Oh, no,” the fish said. “They hunt you because you are an abomination to them, but since they will not follow you onto the water, I sometimes catch what they cannot.”

Glachis’s arm continued to wave.

My God, Gawain thought. Why doesn’t it bite the thing off or swallow it?

He rubbed his eyes with one hand as a wild idea came to him.

Sweet Mary, could he still be alive in there? Swallowed whole and kept breathing through some necromancy?

As if reading his thoughts, the fish belched and said, “Your friend is not digesting well. My body requires live flesh. It’s feeding him air while it breaks him down, but he struggles endlessly. Why don’t you come in? You may still have time to save him, you know. You look like a brave man, even though you could not protect them.”

Gawain stared back.

“That’s right, I know of your failed oath. I can taste your pain. But it isn’t too late to redeem yourself, is it? Here’s one of them right here if you’re willing to come in and get him. You could still save a single friend. Or you could take the cowardly road of that other one there, and fall on your own sword. But I have heard — and correct me if I’m wrong — that your God extracts a certain level of punishment from suicides. And who can blame Him, really?”

Gawain took a deep breath. Maybe the fish spoke true. Glachis could still be saved.

Unbidden, the story of Jonah in the belly of the whale came to his mind. Was it not written in the scriptures that a man survived three days in the belly of a fish? God allows these things to happen. Perhaps it was even a test of his faith, of his very knighthood.

“I can do it,” he said. “Griflet and Lamorak had to die to get me to this point. It was their destiny to die in front of me, to test me, so that I can prove my faith. I am a true knight.”

“Yes,” said the fish, and his voice seemed to come from inside Gawain’s own head. “Just come in and free him.”

“Yes, come and save me, Gawain,” Glachis said from somewhere below. His voice was calm and hopeful.

Gawain rose to his knees, paused as an acrid smell came forth from the fish’s mouth, then lunged forward and thrust his sword through the skin of the coracle, both hands gripping the hilt. The fish saw it coming and pivoted away, but it was too late. As its head bent below the surface, the point of Gawain’s sword pierced one of the great round eyes. He twisted the blade, pushing deeper as the creature’s great tail thrashed back and forth.

Lamorak’s body toppled over into the bottom of the boat, and water bubbled through the tear in the side as the fish rolled over and slid loose.

Before it could get away, Gawain jumped into the water, still clutching his sword. Immediately, he began to sink. He felt the fish diving next to him, and he grabbed at its dorsal fin with his left hand and stabbed again and again with his right. The beast twisted beneath him, going straight down into to the dark green water, but he held on even as the current tugged at his hair and the light faded. Gurgling words seemed to echo around him but they made no sense, and he blocked them out. There was only the dorsal fin and his sword in the rushing darkness. No letting go and no end to the stabbing, even as the current sped by, pressing him down and draining his strength.

Then it was over. The fish became still and started to float back up. Gawain’s lungs burned and the blood pounded in his head but still he dared not let go of the lifeless creature. Without it, he could not rise.

After what felt like an eternity of drifting upward, they finally surfaced together. Gawain gasped and opened his eyes just as Glachis’s hand brushed his face, the fish’s lips hugging it tightly. He sputtered and turned away.  The boat was still close by, though it sat noticeably lower in the water, and with the last of his strength, he clambered aboard and lay prone.

It took him several moments to gather the strength to sit up and glance around at the bank. His whole body was shaking in his armor, but no vengeful horde appeared to protest the killing of the fish. How much time was there until they returned?

As if in answer, the Fey drums struck up once more, still some distance away.

“Hang on Glachis!” he shouted in a hoarse voice. “I’m coming, brother! I can still save you. Griflet and Lamorak did not die in vain.”

His sword was still stuck in the fish’s head, and he reached out and used it like a lever to guide the beast alongside of the coracle. Then, drawing his dirk, he slashed the anchor cord loose and tied the end of it to the sword’s hide bound grip.

“I’ve got you. I’ll get you out of there.”

He pushed Lamorak’s body back into a sitting position and fumbled around the bloody mess on the floor of the boat until he found the leaf shaped paddle they had used to move away from the shore. Then he paddled like mad for the bank, towing the dead fish behind him.

When he reached the shallows, he threw down the paddle, jumped into the waist deep water and waded quickly around to the dead fish. Great horns blasted, echoing off the hills, and he shuddered. They were closer.

“Don’t die, Glachis.” He spoke calmly. He would make it. His faith was strong. Glachis would be saved.

With one hand, he pulled his blade from the fish and shook it loose from the anchor cord. With the other hand, he grasped a speckled pectoral fin and rolled the whole fish over, exposing a pale, spotted belly. Glachis’s arm still hung from the great-lipped mouth. Gawain wiped his dripping face with a bare hand.

As he cut a slit down the belly, working carefully with the long sword, a fresh breeze that smelled faintly of seawater blew over the forest canopy.

He tore at the fish’s insides, and when his fingers brushed against a warm slippery hand, he grasped it and pulled as hard as he could.

From out of the severed belly came an arm, a shoulder, and finally Glacis’s head, still connected to his body. The thick face was frozen, wide-eyed in a look of bloated, weedy horror.

Gawain closed his eyes, then forced them open again. “A stillbirth, then?” he whispered. “I’m sorry my brother.” He looked at the bloody surface of the water around him, and in his reflection he saw a haggard, gore-soaked madman.

“A test of my faith, indeed,” he said and spat into the water. “I told you myself that everyone cracks eventually,” he whispered to the head cradled in his bloody hands, “but at least I avenged you, Grecian.”

Shrill pipes erupted above him, accompanied by the skin drums. They were coming down the wooded ridge to the water.

Gawain glanced up. The coracle had drifted out into the lake. He hadn’t secured it. Lamorak’s dead back was turned to him as if in final dismissal.

“Christ’s blood!” he screamed.

He looked at Glachis. Around the Grecian’s dead neck hung the lodestone. Gawain lifted it off, hung it around his own neck, and closed Glachis’s eyes. Then he closed his own again and took a deep breath.

You cannot fight the Fey, Merlin had said, but they can sometimes be eluded.

Gawain wiped his face again, but his hand felt slimy. He spat. “Damn Lancelot to hell,” he said, “and damn me, too.”

He pulled the dead man the rest of the way free from the fish and set him on the shore, then ran along the bank, parallel to the approaching mob, trying desperately to think of a way out. His wet armor was heavy and stiff.

They would be visible in seconds, and then he was done for. Where to hide? He glanced around. The water? He couldn’t hope to hold his breath long enough. He pulled his tangled hair loose from a grasping branch of oak and looked up.

The tree. It towered over him like a mountain. In an instant he was scrambling up through the lower limbs, thankful that the Fey made enough noise to mask the sound of breaking branches.

When he was twenty feet above the ground, they came into view below. He froze, holding his breath as he peered at them through the thick canopy.

The mob stopped as well, but they weren’t looking at him. Every one of them, for thirty yards in either direction stared in silence at the body of the fish on the bank. From his vantage point, he could just see it bobbing on the shore.

Gawain let his breath out silently. A great cry rose up below, hundreds of voices, and as one they broke ranks and charged the dead fish.

He had once seen starving dogs fighting over the dead body of a foot soldier after a battle. This was very similar. The Fey seemed to forget everything in their eagerness to get at the fish and tear it to pieces. Fights erupted. A hound-headed man tore at the feathered woman next to him. The sound was terrible, and as he squinted at them, Gawain realized that they were eating the fish as they ripped it apart.

He looked away. There was no one beneath him in either direction. Their blockade had fallen at last. This was his chance.

He crept down through the branches, wincing every time one of them cracked, but none of the Fey turned to look in his direction. When he hit the ground, he glanced at their backs, then ran directly up the slope, bent low. No cry of alarm or outrage followed him.

He sprinted until he thought his chest would burst, dodging trees and undergrowth, the sound of his own breath loud in his ears. After cresting the slope and descending into the next valley, he allowed himself a moment to pause and catch his breath. He held the lodestone up. The painted end pointed up the next slope, and he ran on in that direction. The forest was already so dark that the oncoming night would hardly be an impediment.

He would run and walk until his legs gave out, then hide in some hollow or other and sleep until he had the strength to move again.

With luck and God’s Grace, in two days time he would walk through the gates of Camelot.

And if Lancelot was there, he would challenge the bastard himself.

_________________________________________________

Josh Wolf is a librarian adrift on Midwestern seas. Check out his serial story, The Iron Border, at Friedfiction.com or visit him on the web at www.zkythians.blogspot.com.


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