The ship creaked under the weight of its departure. It lurched forward, moving slowly like an enraged creature, the small splashes of water forming an awkward and angry snarl. Minutes passed as the vessel began to pick up speed, carving a violent v-shaped path of destruction through the water until in it burst forth from the harbour in a final violent spray of force. It was swiftly followed by cheers.
The ship itself was monolithic. Heavy wood had been used to comprise an invincible hull of magnificent proportions. The various holds and compartments which littered the inside of the ship were flawlessly crafted, each aspect of their construction perfect in both its beauty and it’s practicality. Gigantic sails billowed outwards with a heavy magnificence and the mast they were attached to seemed to scrape the heavens with an elegance of movement that seemed to be ethereal.
By contrast, the crew were earth-bound. A motley assortment of weathered and beaten sailors, urchins barely old enough to be called men and freelancers found in slums comprised the potent mixture of ragged professionalism, inexperience and desperation which was tasked with the protection of the ship. Smith belonged to this mixture.
By all accounts he was a lanky man, his spindly and starved complexion brought to light by the torn and watered shirt that clung to his chest. His face was a tired and ghastly affair. Although technically comprised of the same muscle tissue and warm blood that makes up any human face due to his bone structure it seemed to be set in a permanent frown and his starved complexion had drawn away any warmth which could be found in his cheeks.
Aged 19, he had very little experience of life and even less of sailing. His frail structure appeared barely able to support his own weight for the length of a day, let alone hoist a sail or carry a weight. He moved around the ship awkwardly, often appearing unsure of what he was being ordered to do. Ropes felt awkward in his hands, falling either painfully taut or ashamedly limp, weights fell beyond his grasp, crushing or bruising his hands in the process and sails became ragged knots under even his most careful supervision.
Despite his potent inadequacy as a sailor Smith calmly held his poise as the ship pulled away from the calm and amiable waters which surrounded the harbour and drifted outwards onto an almost picturesque horizon. He had no idea where the ship was headed, nor had he any desire to know and as a cool breeze ran through his hair, caressing his pores and delighting his skin, he felt as he imagined a gallant hero of myth might.
The first few days of the voyage passed in a haze. Each day Smith would rise with the wind, perform the tasks he was commanded to by his superiors as they desperately attempted to tame the, admittedly favourable, gusts of air which buffeted the ship, and then slump to the deck in a flourish of satisfied exhaustion.
Through careful observation and patient application he began to learn how to perform some of the menial tasks that plagued his existence on the ship. He quickly learnt how to hold a rope correctly, balance weights and perform a variety of manoeuvres with the heavy sail cloth.
In the few moments he had free to eat Smith would observe the crew. By and large they were thoroughly unremarkable and exactly what one would expect: mutually assured in their unshaven and motley arrangement. However, there were two who caught Smith's eye.
The first was the captain. A giant of a man he stood high above the rest of the crew, his muscle bound body casting a fierce shadow of intimidation over the deck with a reach that far exceeded the captain's own. His face was a medley of scars, each radiating with a tale of lost passion or despair which culminated in and burst forth from the captain's eyes in a heavy set green. He was a man of power and alluring mystery. Each part of his body, every sinew of his face told one thousand stories, each more staggeringly impossible than the last.
The second was a mariner. To look at he was thin, tall and thoroughly unremarkable, as unshaven and unkempt in his normality as the rest of the crew. To observe he was fascinating. Unlike the rest of the crew he seemed to provide no purpose, simply wandering from one end of the deck to the other, occasionally stopping to whisper something in the captain's ear. Smith seldom saw him eat or drink and never saw him sleep.
On occasion the mariner would stop walking, carefully draw a thin vile of powder from the inside pocket of his jacket and snort loudly sending a ripple of murmurs throughout the crew before walking to the prow of the ship and staring at the ocean silently for hours on end.
It happened suddenly and without warning. The waters surrounding the ship fell still and silent, the wind picked up and the rope in Smith’s hands went taut. Then the STORM-BLAST hit.
The world quickly became a chaotic whirlpool of destruction. It started with the rain, which beat down on his face cutting through his skin with an almost deadly poise. The wind followed, battering the ship and knocking it astray with a violent explosion of force. Finally the sea, once an amiable and pleasant force, now spat, growled and snarled at the crew. Control of the ship had been lost. It was all Smith could do to hang limply from his rope.
He spun, clinging to the rope with his cold, clammy and fear-ridden hands for what seemed to be an eternity. His head shook from side to side, caught in the momentum of the storm and Smith’s vision became blurred, the whirlwind surrounding him was an obscure haze of blue, brown and black. He couldn’t hear anything save the inharmonious screeching of the wind as it tore rainwater down from the sky and slammed it to deck. Smith began to lose his grip on the rope, which was now laden with rainwater and turgid. He slammed to the deck and knew nothing more.
Smith woke up with a jolt, a thin layer of ice covering his face.
Smith began to pull himself upright. At first he carefully moved with a skilful elegance, all the while acutely aware of the deterioration that had occurred in his muscles. He used the splintered remains of the ship’s decking to hoist himself upright and pushed the heels of his boots in between the, now cracked, wooden planks which comprised the floor to prevent himself from falling.
Once he was upright Smith began to look around what remained of the ship. The invincible hull was starting to crack, a thin seam running from the tip right down to the curved fixture which seemed to resemble a floor on the outside of the heavy wood which built up this structure, the once flawless holds and compartments were now a brutally un-organised mess of cracked wood and scattered cargo, and the sails which had once blown in the winds with the magnificence of the Gods were now soaked and torn far beyond their former glory.
The crew had fared no better. The pithy mixture of experience and inadequacy which had been tasked with the protection of the ship was now united in its failure. They lay strewn about the ship in varying states of consciousness, as wretched and helpless as corpses. Besides Smith, only the mariner stood upright.
The man was stood with his back to the rest of the crew as if he could not bear to look upon them. He appeared not to have suffered from the storm at all, his posture holding the same hunched and angry disposition as it always did. The vial that had previously held a thin white powder lay cracked and empty at his side.
Smith now turned his attention to the terrain surrounding the ship. He recoiled in shock almost immediately.
He could see nothing but ice.
The horizon to which he had become accustomed was gone and had been replaced with a maze constructed out of broken blocks of ice which stretched out far beyond what the naked eye could comprehend. The birds which often glided above the ship in favourable weather had vanished and were replaced with an eerie stillness which could drown even the noblest man's heart in a current of despair.
A windless chill swept over the ship and caressed each pore of Smith's body with a sudden shiver of fear, forcing him to expel the words,
“What happened?” in a meek, almost muted voice.
The question seemed to stir the mariner from whatever state of mind he had been residing as he began to slowly turn his head to face Smith. His beard flitted slightly back and forth as he moved his mouth to parrot the motion of speaking.
His voice was cracked and dirty. A monotonous and vague sound devoid of emotion, his words seemed to seep out of his mouth and into the air with the poise and authority of a demon.
“We got hit by a storm, it blew us south. Far south.”
With this the man was done and he quickly returned to ignoring the ship and its crew. As there was no wind to catch, Smith lay back down upon the cold hard decking and fell asleep.
Days passed and one by one the crew pulled themselves upright and asked the mariner the same question that Smith had. He always replied with the same answer, in exactly the same cold, cracked and emotionless voice he had used when addressing Smith, then the crew member would lie back down and sleep until he needed to eat.
Even the captain was at a loss and as he tried to rally his crew out of the slumbers of apathy and uncaring the mariner would simply stare at him. His gaze saying more about the frivolity of action without reason than his words ever could. Then the captain lay down and that was that.
Occasionally the ice would creak or roar like an animal and the crew would feel fear for a few seconds. Then the ice would stop and return to silence as if it had never even spoken at all and the crew would forget about it until it happened again.
This was all there was.
Smith would never recall what time it was when the ALBATROSS brought the ship some wind to catch. He would never be able to know if the sun was rising or setting or even how time suddenly snapped back into place and emotions re-aligned themselves to represent the situation. Most importantly, Smith would not remember the mariner's grimace, not until it was far too late. He would only remember seeing the giant bird fly in, dragging the wind with it, all the while silhouetted against the burning liquid fire of redemption and the loud barked orders issued by the captain.
The urgency and immediacy of sailing returned to the crew and the ship was quickly made sea-worthy once more. A week passed in this way and things seemed to return to normal. Often the ALBATROSS would land upon the ship and nestle with the crew, on occasion attempting to steal their foods. It didn't matter, the bird had brought the wind which was keeping the crew alive; no-one seemed to care about a few pieces of food. Except the mariner.
It was on one of the few occasions that the bird landed on the ship that the mariner's crossbow would be loaded, carefully aimed at the ALBATROSS and fired. In response, the ALBATROSS would simply slump to the ground. Dead. The wind kept blowing.
The mariner never offered any apology. The bird was dead and the wind still blew, to him he had done nothing wrong. To the crew he had committed an act of heresy. Over the next few days and weeks Smith and his fellow ship mates became increasingly violent towards the mariner. They all knew that his life depended upon the wind holding.
The bird's corpse was kept on board the ship; no-one could bear to part with it.
Days still progressed in the same manner. The crew still rose with the wind and did their utmost to keep the ship on track, the mariner still paced back and forth along the deck, only pausing to whisper in the captain's ear and Smith was once more a potently inadequate sailor, whatever knowledge he had gained lost during his time in the south.
Day's got hotter, supplies began to run low and the crew, including Smith, grew more and more irritable. Smith began the resent the mariner along with his fellow crew-members, never fully understanding why the man never engaged in any physical labour or what purpose he served. Then it happened.
The wind stopped.
The molten sun burnt down upon Smith's back, burning his skin and bringing his mind ever closer to cracking. His throat was parched and he was helpless to do anything about it, the last of the water had gone. For a fleeting moment he considered it odd that he could not drink when surrounded by water. Then he fell temporarily unconscious. Three days had passed since the wind stopped.
The first day had passed in a collection of heated and angry cluster of debates between the mariner and the rest of the crew. The crew cursed his name, lamenting him to the Gods themselves, some of them even attempting to physically harm him. No conclusion about the mariner's fate had been reached on this day.
The second day passed in much the same way the first. Again the mariner was cursed and condemned and again no conclusion was reached regarding the mariner's fate. The only difference posed upon on the second day was the use of most of the water to quench the cracked throats of those arguing.
The third day was by far the most memorable. One of the crew had noticed the dead and rotting ALBATROSS lying in the corner of one of the ship's holds and a decision was made. The mariner would not be put to death; he would however bare his sin for the rest of his life. The ALBATROSS was hung around his neck.
Smith woke up again. Not much had changed since he had last been conscious. The crew still lay strewn about the boat, either unconscious and dying, or conscious and dying, there was still no water and the mariner still hung limply to the mast, the mangled, rotting and putrid corpse of the ALBATROSS slung around his neck like a cross. Occasionally he would curse and scream, gibbering about spirits cloaked in black and spectral ships.
Smith tried to pull himself upright using every sinew of his body in the same way as he had in the south. It was no use, he just collapsed of exhaustion. Then the mist came.
Smith lost track of everything. The mist seeped over every pore of his being, clouding his mind and antagonising his senses. With the last of his will he tried to scream, nothing but a low croak passed his lips. Then he heard him.
The low broken thud of the mariner’s boot next to his head.
Smith pulled his eyes open and stared upwards at the man. The mariner’s eyes were a blaze, as if all the fury of hell was spilling forth from them, his hair was matted and seemed to form horns around his scalp and the ALBATROSS was nothing but a skeleton, an inverse rib-cage to the mariner’s own frail, starved complexion.
“I’ve won! I’ve won!” and Smith tried to move away from him but it was already too late. The knife in the mariner’s hands had already plunged deep into Smith’s neck.
As Smith flitted past the mariner’s head and into the unknown, he looked down and saw the accumulated blood of the crew spill onto the deck as the mariner walked his patrol, this time whispering in everyone’s ear.