by ROBERT ARCHER
hile half asleep in a huddled mass of soiled, rank fur, and dreaming of Fiddler’s Green, the men of HMS Tartarus are awakened by the sound of a scrape. All at once they stir, careful though, not to make so much as a whimper or groan from the aged boards. A pall of cold hangs over them all, freezing the air that escapes their lungs, boring through attenuated limbs down to the bone. Meanwhile, the scrape echoes throughout the hold like the soft clink of glassware. Metal on ice. Or even bare, fingernails on ice. Slow, like a metronome in its steady rhythm.
It is difficult to know just where the scrape is coming from; similar abrasions have been heard outside the walls of the hold for weeks now, ever since the first attack. Some fear that the scrape comes from the rime-sealed trapdoor that leads up to the gun deck, just below the frozen wasteland of rotting tack and sails. Perhaps one of the forsaken ones climbed the hull in the night when none could hear, broke open the trapdoor, and began to hack away at the last ingress to the hold? If so, then they are all doomed—there is no way out. There are no more places to hide.
A couple of the braver men are willing to investigate, but they are held back with dead stares from their mates. They know that any sudden noise may awaken the other forsaken crewmen either up on deck or bivouacked on the snow outside. If it is only a lone scraper, or two, mad with hunger, then the crew can withstand the assault—they have enough muskets and powder to hold out for another few days. If the others come . . .. . . they will find a feast.
In the moments that follow, most of the men pray silently to an aloof God for mercy, deliverance, or—if those will not be meted out—a quick death: a surer form of liberation from the harrowers and the ceaseless, never-ending cold than anything any God can offer. Most have never encountered death before this; their maiden voyage upon the seas. One man among them may evince stoic resolve, but it is only a façade. In every man’s heart there is insurmountable terror: the ultimate mind-killer, driving all other thoughts to the fringes of consciousness.
As if in fleering counterpoint, the scrape continues its measured attack on the ice. For some of the crew, it matches the beating of their frail hearts, so close to the end.
Despair grips them all; they are without their captain, without a natural leader. Without hope. There is no way out, and every man among them knows it. There is no way out. Twelve men lie in the hold, and they cannot get out.
Ere long, the scraping ends, abruptly. A tense silence follows as the men listen for the faintest sounds their aural senses can discern. Time passes. For how long, none can say. When the quietude is brought to a close by the sound of retreating footfalls, each man feels a slight breeze of relief waft over him. No one knows if the thing is trudging back to its forsaken mates to recruit more sappers or giving up its dig for the day.
When they hear nothing, not even the desolate sough of the wind, the crew of HMS Tartarus rise. Casting off thick fur blankets, the thrice-cloaked men wait for their blood to flow. They rub their hands, stick close together and stretch their weakened muscles. Some waste no time and head straight for the muskets and powder, which are both wrapped in sheets—a vain attempt to stave off the all-pervading cold.
Gunnar, a whaler and bear hunter from Iceland picked up by the crew half a year ago, who speaks Pidgin English with a heavy Norse accent, arms each of the men, including himself. Many stories he has shared with the men in their besieged hull; tales from his pagan ancestors of Hrímþúrsar, the Frost-Giants of the far north.
Some regard him with grudging respect. Others are outright hostile to his foreign presence. And yet, they follow the man’s orders because he is now the last man of authority left in their midst after the death of the First Mate, Mr. Whyte, whose frozen corpse, along with the rest who fell from illness, lies in the aft section of the hull. They will follow his orders, and delay their inevitable fate as long as possible, even if for only another day or two.
Upon receiving their guns, three men position themselves around the door. They crouch, ready to fire at a moment’s notice, though their limbs have been slowed by the ever-present chill. The rest of the crew are given their meagre rations: a piece of rime-flaked biscuit and salted pork for each man. Their purpose is not so much nutrition as it is mastication—exercising the jaw muscles. The crew huddle together with their portions, rarely speaking to one another. An ill day for talk.
On better days though, the men have reminisced about the ship’s voyage; how good and fine it had all started back at home; how the seas grew wilder and the winds colder the farther north they sailed; how they came upon Gunnar in his boat off the coast of Canada; how the vessel sailed into the far north; how the ice closed in on them as the ship tried in vain to find a passage through the Arctic Sea; how one by one, the crew fell ill with scurvy and fever; how supplies began to diminish; how a third of the crew were cast off into the gelid wilderness—the forsaken, the ones who turned ravenous in their hunger and sated their empty stomachs with human flesh; how they attacked the ship one night, killing Captain Solomon Reeve and carrying his bloodied corpse back to their tents, driving the rest of the men down below, where they remain.
And whenever they spoke of these events, the crewmen always did so with low, stolid voices. It was not altogether pleasant to relive those memories, but there was little else to do except for sharing warmth underneath blankets.
When they are finished chewing their rations, the men sit in a demilune around Gunnar. The red-bearded Norseman wishes to recite the tale of how Þór, the thunder god, went fishing for the Midgarðsormr. Several of the other men shout down such an idea and demand a Christian story be told; Jonah in the whale, for example, or the trials of Job. Those who stand guard by the sealed door grit their teeth in annoyance.
Hours pass. The icy wind cries relentlessly. A few men sleep, fixed to their seats among the boards. Dreams rarely come to them; instead, they dwell on the past and wonder what might have been and what could have been. When had it all gone wrong? The moment HMS Tartarus weighed anchor and departed from the port? Or was it the moment when Captain Reeve—his mind full of vainglory and dreams of naval promotion—ordered the ship to sail straight on into the encroaching claws of ice, against the desperate counsel of Gunnar and others accustomed to sailing the northern seas?
Was it the moment the forsaken ones were ostracized from the ship and forced, at the barrel of a musket, to leave the ship lest they infect the rest of the men with their cannibalistic thirst and mutinous spirit? Could they even be blamed for their hunger? The Arctic wind casts a strange feeling on men from the south. Is Gunnar right, they wonder; could there really be Hrímþúrsar out in the lonesome wasteland, weaving their influence upon the ice and the snow and the wind, driving the men who forgot them insane?
There are no answers. For the men, there is only the situation at hand and the increasingly fewer means by which to stave off their ineluctable deaths. At first, they said they would gladly die fighting; now, they’re not so sure.
Later that day, the footfalls come again. Every crewman rouses from sleep or sloth and grips their muskets tight. Heavy, slow footsteps echo throughout the hold—a multitude of them cause the wood to vibrate ever so slightly. Each man checks the powder in his gun, their hands trembling and their hearts beating faster and faster. One falls from the terror and does not move. His fellows ignore his passing, thinking of nothing else aside from the nearing footfalls of the forsaken ones.
Soon the scraping begins once more; only this time, more than one scraper works on the ice. A man close to the door raises three fingers to his comrades. Three of the forsaken scrape away at the trapdoor. One has a pickaxe. Metal on ice. The others dig with their fingers, thrashing wildly and snarling like beasts. Claws on rime.
The spirit of the crewmen rise as one; three of the fallen will not be a challenge. If the door is opened, then the three crouching below will fire—point blank—at their ravenous besiegers, blasting off their faces for good. A kindle of hope lights in some; what if they are the only three left? If so, then the crew can make the trek south towards civilization, or, at the very least, the settlements of Eskimos—or Skrælingjar, as Gunnar calls them. With the help of God, they can return to warmth, to food aplenty, to home.
But just as sudden as it arose, the fire is snuffed. Scrapings come from the sides of the hull, and there are many of them. Metal on ice. The picks are swung with force and speed, breaking the ice that lines the derelict walls. The crewmen of HMS Tartarus panic, waving their muskets at each section of the hull that is struck in turn. Gunnar, with his harpoon at his side, orders them to stand their ground and take aim.
Terror, sheer terror, burns within each man. The forsaken ones are scraping, digging, hacking away from all sides. There is no way out for the crew. They cannot get out.
One pickaxe—chipped with brown rust—breaks through the hull. A scream of hunger-driven triumph rises above the frosty gale. The scrapes and attacks come faster and stronger now.
Muskets fire. The acrid smoke of gunpowder floods the hull, sparks fly from flintlock. Bullet holes line the break in the wall. With fear-stricken and gloved hands, the men try to reload their weapons as quickly as they can before the forsaken return.
At the same time, the scrapers manage to cut the ice sealing the trapdoor to the hull. They open it. Pale violet faces with black lips and red eyes peer down at their quondam compatriots, their sclerous jaws beginning to widen to either a collective roar or rictus grin. The three crouched below let loose a volley of lead.
Smoke fills the hull again, as do the screams. Only one of the forsaken falls from its wounds; the rest pounce on the three crouched men. Yellowed teeth tear into cold flesh. Blood from the victims—and their assailants—gushes forth onto the boards.
There is no longer any order. The remaining men fire in the direction of the trapdoor. More gaps emerge in the hull. Cold creeps into the hull, and with it, gusts of blinding snow. Gunnar charges forward and impales one of the forsaken with his harpoon just before the other snaps his neck. The Icelander falls with a thud.
Another fusillade takes down the last forsaken one. Its glazed, bloodshot eyes stare up into nothingness. Ferric lifeblood pours from its wounds.
Seven men remain, and there is no telling how many forsaken are outside, slashing at the hull, waiting to run in and quench their thirst. The seven men have nowhere to hide. They cannot get out.
Last minute prayers to God are useless, they realize. Their end has come. Eternal judgment at the Gates of Heaven lies just a few moments away. For some, suicide is out of the question—it will damn them to Hell despite all their good deeds. For others, there is no such compunction.
With knives hidden in their coats, five men slit their throats after offering one last supplication to their Lord and to their families back home. They fall. By now, the gaps in the hull have become so large that crimson-eyed things, mad with hunger, leer at the pieces of meat still alive.
Two men, the last survivors of HMS Tartarus, and there is no place for them to hide. They cannot get out. The slavering roars of the forsaken climb to a din. They cannot get out. The cold Arctic wind, the beating of the Frost-Giant Hræsvelgr’s wings, howls all around them. Two men, and they cannot get out.
Robert Archer lives a bookworm’s dream: to live across the street from a library! He can be found there on most days; or, when he is at Citrus College in Glendora, California, he can be seen in the campus library. He lives close by in La Verne. When he is not reading, or studying for classes, he likes to play electric guitar, go jogging, and—weather permitting—swimming. Some of his favorite authors include Neil Gaiman and Stephen King. One day, he will write a novel; but for now, he is content with composing short stories.
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