Swords v. Cthulhu is our newest genre-blending anthology of original fiction, and as it shambles toward its summertime publication we’re going to be posting excerpts from each of the stories. Today’s teaser comes from Carlos Orsi’s “The Argonaut,” which might have been called “Errol Flynn Goes to Hell.”
How I became a stowaway in the cargo hold of Beldur Reis’ corsair ship, sleeping on the old, rotting shelves once used to transport slaves, eating rats raw and drinking rain water that passed through cracks in the deck above, has no bearing in what follows. Suffice it to say that I was there when they attacked a Maltese vessel, which needs must remain nameless. The battle occurred at night, in the rain, by the blaze of torches and flashes of lightning. I don’t know why old, cunning Captain Beldur decided to engage under such conditions. Perhaps he was compelled by what I found later.
The blasts, the clangs, the screams–all that I heard, as expected. I smelled smoke and gunpowder, scorched flesh and fresh blood, all the scents of battle any man with naval experience might anticipate. What I had not expected was what came after the fighting died down–silence. Deep, disturbing human silence. I could hear the rain pelting the deck. I even imagined I could listen to the blood, spilt, running, slowly mixing with raindrops in rivulets. I heard some small fires cracking.
But there were no voices. No cries or shouts or cheers, no songs, no roars. Not even footsteps. I waited, keeping myself awake all through the night. First, the rain stopped, and the thunder. Then the thin moonbeams that filtered through knotholes in the planks above started to fade, replaced by caustic, razor-sharp slivers of sunlight. It was time for breakfast, the first rat of the day, but I didn’t know what to do. There was no perceptible sign of human life on the deck over my head.
The ship started to heel. Ever so gently, at first.
Beldur’s vessel had been a slaveship before circumstances forced the captain to become a corsair for the Pasha in Tripoli, so the upper shelf of the cargo hold where I hid was poorly insulated and leaky–human cargo have a higher tolerance to unwholesome humidity than spices and wine casks. And things trickled down, of course, so there was always one or two feet of black, stinking water pooled at the very bottom of the hold. Now, as the ship moved in the ominous silence of the morning, I heard its splash. It unnerved me, that small, dark pond. It seemed almost pregnant.
I climbed down from the old slaves’ compartment, dropping into the hold proper. I landed close to the pond, my unshod feet slipping on the slimy planks. From there I moved among the crates, peeking inside them to see assorted pieces of iron, silver, and bronze, exquisite pottery, jars of scented oil sealed with wax–one of them cracked, exhaling an enticing perfume–and a few smaller boxes containing jewels and gold. For a moment, the silence of the ship felt welcome—if everybody else was dead, everything here would be mine. The thought produced a taut smile, but the pleasure did not last. In my heart I knew that until I found myself free of the ship and whatever had befallen her I was no better off than I was before, with but torn breeches and an ancient cutlass to my name.
I climbed the stairs out of the hold, quietly as I could, and took a deep breath. Maybe I should wait longer? A full day, perhaps two, before I risked exposing myself? Old Beldur knew me from long ago, and if he still lived I was sure I wouldn’t be even less welcome on his ship than a random stowaway. But the silence, insistent, stubborn, was too much to bear…
For the rest, get Swords v. Cthulhu from Stone Skin Press
Carlos Orsi is a Brazilian writer and journalist. His horror and sf short stories have won some of the major awards for speculative fiction in his native country. In English, his work has appeared in venues as diverse as Crypt of Cthulhu and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. He lives in the state of São Paulo with his wife Renata and Violet, a big, mysterious cat that probably hails from Ulthar.