Grin, Grimlyn Grim
by Morris Jacks
part 1 of 2
I have smuggled goods past the places on maps marked “Where Monsters Lie.” I’ve seen what most believe are a bard’s fluff and fancy, but there is one creature that haunts me in the dark, and a smuggler’s dreams, full of gold and women, wind and spray, don’t easily darken. I’ve sat up straight in my cabin, eyes wide, stinging with sweat, woken by the grin of the Grimlyn.
I plodded down the dock that day, oblivious as a court jester to what was coming. I listened to the clonk of my boots on the old boards and saw my first mate, Toddle, standing by the Willow Witch. She was a pretty sight, two masts, rigged for speed, with oars for tight work in her hold. She was resting light in the water, her rigging rattled across the soft swells like a song.
Toddle wasn’t alone, The Killman was with him. He wasn’t Killman, he was The Killman. All the hands called him that, and he brought the richest rewards to the craziest smugglers. He wore the same hat he always did, a fancy mess with stolen plumage from a dozen birds floating around it. I suppose he thought of it as some kind of crown, but he was just a man with money in Slopton. No kings would be abided there.
He held a box and I wondered at it. Every job I’d done for The Killman was a heavy load, sailing through swamps or worse, the King’s navy aiming a few canons my way, but there was no loading going on, only the tall man with the box.
“Toddle, what’s the trouble, mate?” I said. I had been watching him wave his arms at The Killman.
“Captain, tell this fool we won’t do it? He must be a fool just to ask.”
“Watch who you call a fool, friend. You could find a fool’s fate,” The Killman said. His hand slipped down to the sword resting at his belt. It was said he knew how to use it, though I never saw him slice even a melon with it.
“Calm down you two, no need for cross words. What foolish thing are you asking, Killman?” I never called him The Killman.
“Nothing foolish, Captain,” he said with his mouth tight. “I was merely trying to give this man your cargo. I’m paying you a generous fee to deliver it to the witch.”
She lived on the smallest island of the Chain. Some said she was a witch. The sillier said a witch of the Blood, exiled to the island by the High Council.
“Well that sounds right, Toddle? We do have to take the cargo if we mean to deliver.” I smiled at Toddle who was struggling not to say what he wanted to say. The dirty scarf under his bearded chin could have been choking him, he was too blue to speak.
“Did you bring the half, Killman? Then we’ll see to the cargo.” The “half” was the smugglers incentive to go, half the pay; and the “second”, the other half paid on delivery, was the incentive to get the cargo there. A moral agreement, I’ve always thought.
“Here.” The Killman handed me a pouch and I could tell by the weight it was enough for me and the crew to spend a great many nights in ale and women. I wondered, as I had since he offered me the job, what we’d be delivering to cause him to stake so much.
I tossed the bag to Toddle and said, “Well, tell me what the trouble is, but weigh it against that bag, friend, because it’s a heavy bag.”
“Aye, it is, Captain. But take a look at that box, and tell me if a fool would take this bag for the sake of that. Because I’d say he would,” Toddle said.
“Oh, Toddle,” I said, frustrated with him.
I took a step toward The Killman. His face was lost in the dark fluff of his mustache, the tip of his nose and his eyes were visible, and I noticed in those eyes a tension. His lips curved out from under the oiled hair and his smile was no true smile. He was scared. I saw it in a moment, and knew it. I can read people. Instincts born of a smuggler’s life, where most men are as likely to stab you as pay you. He held the box with two hands. Elaborate symbols covered it, laid out fast but sure in charcoal, wizard’s glyphs.
“Just a box,” The Killman said.
I knew what it meant. Glyphs were used for two reasons: to keep something out, or to keep something in. I saw the animal symbol. I’d seen it on dozens of cages in the market at Arjishra, where merchants sold the most exotic beasts imagined by the Gods.
I thought it could be a pet for a lonely witch, but why the glyphs and why so many?
“That’s more glyphs than I seen on a kindsnake. It must be something deadly, Captain. You could be risking the whole crew,” Toddle huffed.
“What is it Killman?” I said.
“What’s the difference, Sid?” he said. Sidney Simple, they call me in the taverns and alleys. They call me Captain on my boat, or taste the back of their eye as I poke it down their throat.
“It won’t get out. I had Crimen the Cal seal the box. He’s the only sorcerer worth the money in this pit, and you know he’s only here because the King’s wrath still lingers for him in the civilized world.” Crimen the Cal was a true sorcerer and everything I’d ever paid him to do, he’d done and done well.
I looked the box over again, only two hands tall and two wide, a small box. A strange design straddled the top, a triangle in a square, and painted on each side was a dark red circle with two diagonal lines, almost like an eye. On each corner of each side, the jagged slash of a claw seemed to scar the space: the animal rune.
“The difference is another bag of gold, Killman. I won’t risk playing with magic in the middle of the ocean, or the mutiny of a frightened crew.” I didn’t mean it, I couldn’t refuse the amount of gold on the table if I had to choose between it and my pinky finger, but a smuggler knows when to push. Killman wanted me to take the box. He leaned toward me over the weather-beaten boards, the box in his outstretched palms. He couldn’t wait to be rid of it.
“All right,” he said and a quick nod of his head shook the feathers of his hat. He reached behind and beneath his cape and a bag was in his hand.
Now I was scared. No argument, no bargaining, and the bag already at his side. No one carried that much gold on the docks. The Killman was no smuggler’s sucker. What was in that box?
“Double what we agreed,” he said.
I took the bag and tossed it to Toddle, who fumbled it and the one he already held until I was sure Bob, the bilge boy, would be diving in the bay to fish out our gold. He got himself together and I said, “Bring it on board, count it.”
I reached out for the box. The Killman dropped it into my hands.
“Don’t worry Sid, the second will be as big on the other side.” The “other side” was the cargo’s destination, and for the crew it also meant the bottom of the ocean.
“Crimen said to tell you: don’t let the moonlight hit the box, especially in two days, when it’s full. Why? I don’t know. He’s the sorcerer,” The Killman said. He turned to walk away, then turned back and said, “And the King thanks you, Sid. You’re doing the realm a service.” He smiled and went skipping down the dock looking happier than I’d ever seen him to part with two thousand coins. His damn sword flapped like a nargod’s tail at his side, and I hoped he’d fall into the bay despite the fact I was a rich man.
I’d heard the King sent some of his less respectable work through Slopton, but that was the first time I’d been called on. I wondered what the hell it was I’d just sold my crew, and boat, to deliver.
I hopped over the rail onto the deck of my lady, the Willow Witch, and the crew all stared at me hard and silent. Toddle had told all.
“You’re rich men, mates, so keep your cold eyes for another Captain who gives a damn.” I never let them think I could be questioned, and then all their questions became pointless. “Get ready to sail.”
* * *
The sun had slipped to the other side and the moon, like a gold coin, hung over the small swells we crossed. I rested on the starboard rail, leaning with the boat as it heeled slightly in the wind. The thick wood settled comfortably in my lower back. I was contemplating the growing breeze and the sinister-looking clouds that were piling up like silver cotton in the glow of the full moon. Old Jinson had told me a storm was chasing us. “Gonna catch us Cap, gonna blow too, like the breath of Arnock.”
We had made good time, and the crew was calm enough despite the fears of Toddle. The box was in my quarters behind some old boots in the closet. The easiest cargo I had in years, and no one seemed to want it but some old witch. Most things I carry are stolen and wanted back, or stolen and looking to be stolen again.
“Up in the crow’s-nest, what do you see?” I shouted. I figured he saw nothing different from what I saw, but I had a bad feeling in my gut about this trip. Ever since The Killman coughed up gold with barely a wince, I had a stomach full of rancid milk.
“All’s clear, Captain. A storm’s at our tail and the moon’s lighting the sky like a candle,” Christian called down.
“Where’s Bob? It’s his watch ain’t it lad?” My sick belly suddenly twisted even tighter. Bob was more curious than a cat and dumb as a buttle ox.
“Right after you came on deck, Cap, he asked me to take the watch. I figured he had to pee,” Christian said.
With growing dread and a feeling of malice I took off my hat and leaned out over the ocean. I saw the twinkle I feared. The round porthole to my room, unlatched as I left it, flickered orange and shadow.
“Bob, you fool, get out of my cabin,” I shouted, doubting he’d hear me over the smack of the waves on the hull or the building wind’s hush. As I turned to run below, I noticed the hapless white eye of the moon peering into the porthole of my cabin, reaching in with its bright arms, searching for a little box.
“Bob, I’m going to slit you from your manhood to your nose if you touch it,” I yelled.
I shouted every expletive I knew as I traversed the deck. Toddle knelt under the night sky when he saw me and started praying to the Nine.
Simple John, who had the rudder, yelled, “Is it the King’s navy, Captain?”
I ignored him. I leapt down the short flight of stairs to the door of my cabin. It was open just enough for the candle light to slip through. I smashed it wide with the flat of my palm and winced when I remembered that my wooden chest with the bottle of dragon drops inside was behind it. I heard a crash but no crackle of glass. That was good. I would need a drink for what was laid out in front of me.
The pale light of the moon had found its way through the portal and was wrapped like a mortuary blanket over the goosefeather mattress I had bought in Illan. There the box rested. It was open.
I saw Bob staring at me. He hadn’t heard a damn thing I’d shouted because he stared at me as though I were his dead mom undrowned and on his birthday come to give him a kiss. In his lap was something.
My first thought was a rat, all matted fur and a long tail, but then it stood up on two legs and smiled at me. It had white pointed teeth. I thought it was a monkey for a moment, then I saw the eyes. The thing knew me. I don’t mean who I was, but it had knowledge of me, understood me to be there for him. Intelligence dwelled in its hairy noggin. Dead dark eyes, like midnight in a cave, sized me up, measured my being and then the smile grew and it had too many teeth for its tiny mouth.
“Bob,” I said, “what did you do, lad?”
“I ain’t done nothin’, Captain.”
“Grab a hold of it, Bob.” He looked at me and the creature looked at Bob. It was still smiling. I believe it was revulsion I saw cross Bob’s face. Even though it was sitting in his lap, the thought of handling it was repulsive to him.
I started to walk toward him. It was a small cabin, only a few steps and I’d get it, stick it back in the box.
“Lad, you let it out. Now if you don’t want to feel my knuckles all over your face, you’ll hold onto it until I get to you.” I talked softly and walked quickly and quietly.
One step, the thing looked at Bob, smiling insanely. Two steps, the thing glanced at me and its left eyelid slid slowly closed, winking at me. The third step was quick.
“It’s a grimlyn,” Bob said as it leapt off his lap and landed on the shelf over his head where my leather-bound log sat.
After the forth step I stood over Bob and would have had it, if it were still on his knee. I reached up to get it. My hands closed as quickly as they could, fingertips and knuckles smashed painfully, stirring swirls in the puff of smoke that was left of where the grimlyn had been.
I stared at the drifting puff and behind me heard the scurry of clawed feet on boards. When I turned I saw it slip through the door. I leapt back the way I’d come. When I got to the short hall it was gone.
“Toddle, get down here, you barnacled whale,” I yelled, “Toddle!”
I went back into the room and whacked Bob on the head with the back of my hand. Little did I know I’d soon regret every hurt I had done him.
“I should send you to the other side with a rock hat, boy. How dare you touch it? And to open it was plain foolish.”
“I didn’t open it, Captain,” he said as he rubbed his head with the side of his palm. “I just put it on your bunk. I wanted to see the runes. Crimen taught me a few and I wanted to see if I could figure out what was in it. But somehow it just opened and that grimlyn jumped out.”
“What in all the oceans of the world is a grimlyn?”
Copyright © 2010 by Morris Jacks