A native of Ames, Iowa, Dave loves writing, reading, boardgames, computer games, improv comedy, pizza, barbarian movies, and the cheaper end of the Taco Bell menu. Also, his wife and kids. He is the author of seven novels, four puzzle card games in the Dr. Esker series, and the classic video game Snood. He spent 25 years as a geology professor but now writes and designs games full time.

Tide’s End

by Dave Dobson

The others were singing, but Jonas could hear her above them. Only she would have words. The Emira. “Where are you, Man?” Her voice was cold and wet, a harshness he had not heard for many years. It was muffled through the hull, but of course it could be heard through the oak and pitch, almost as if she were in the hold with him. Their voices were made to carry.

“I have a name,” he growled. The ship creaked as it listed to port, grinding along the reef. He made his way through the upper hold to the steep stairs to the lower hold. There must be some weight he could offload, something he could move, to get the ship off the reef. The Montrésor wasn’t hard aground; not if she were still scraping. Perhaps only a few hundredweight would be enough. That much he could lift alone.

How have you resisted?” she asked. “Are you deaf?

A silly question, thought Jonas, one he could hardly be expected to answer if he were. He glanced around the hold. The crates of sugar and barrels of rum were far too heavy, and he had no time for the winch. The shot? He studied the net sacks full of shot, tied up next to the two six-pounders. The sacks, full as they were, would be too heavy for Jonas, even if he dragged them, but he could unload a few balls first. Kalani, with his broad brown shoulders, could have carried a full sack easily, but he’d been the first to succumb to the song. He must now lay lifeless below, his last thoughts of yearning and desire and soft, yielding warmth, lurching suddenly to terror. Jonas hoped Kalani had drowned before his flesh was punctured by the claws and teeth of the mermaid coven. That would be a mercy.

The coven had dined well. Nine from the ship were gone. Jonas was the only crew remaining. Hardly enough to sail. But if he could get off the reef, he could at least get the ship away. The coven might not follow. They’d prefer the shallows near the coral. Much more to eat there, warm waters for comfort, and an easy trap for ships, as the Montrésor had proven. As much as they’d fed already, they’d let him go rather than venture from the reef. Or so Jonas hoped.

We can come for you. There is no escape, Man. Better to succumb. Your passing will be gentle.” A threat, and then a lie. Mermaids were cruel by nature, and his death would be anything but gentle. The threat was more difficult to evaluate. Would they venture on board? Their lithe forms granted grace in the water, but steps and ladders and hard planking turned a tail into a liability. They might also think him better armed than he was. He hoped that was the case. The bosun’s pistol he bore could take one of them, if his aim were true, but after that, barring time to reload, he’d be stuck with nothing more than a cargo hook. He could climb the rigging, where they could not follow, but that was no escape. Just a slow thirsty death.

He shook his head. No time for those thoughts. He needed to shed weight. To float the Montrésor. What came after could wait, though sailing a ship of this size alone was not really possible. But there was no other option. He pulled shot from the net bag, one ball at a time, letting them thump and roll on the deck below.

He grew doubtful. This was slow, and all the shot in the ship might not be enough weight. The song soared louder, and the melody changed. It was powerful now, so strong even he felt the draw, though it was easy enough to resist. He could hear at least five parts in brazen harmony. A big coven, then. This Emira must be strong or old to lead so many. Perhaps both. He stopped, his arms aching from the work. He looked once more around the hold.

A bit of breeze blew down through the open hatch, and as it circulated, the odor from the bilge buffeted him. The water there. Could he pump it clear? Or at least enough to float? Perhaps, although that, too, might be beyond the strength of one man. The pump was not well maintained. It did not draw water quickly, and it normally required two men. If the ship were leaking, if the collision with the reef had opened new gaps, it would be a losing battle to empty the bilge even as the sea rushed in.

He dropped two more balls on the planking below, then stopped. The pump, then. It was worth a try before he spent all his strength carrying the shot up two steep stairways and over to the rail. He made his way back up to the deck and around to the pump.

I see you, Man.”

Jonas was tempted to look over the side, but he focused on cranking the pump wheel. “I care not.”

You should. For I am your doom.”

That may be.” The pump loosened up after the first few cranks, and he began to make some progress. A trickle became a steady flow. This might work.

Why do you not follow the song? Does it not call to you?

Odd. She should know. Was she a new Emira after all? “It calls, but I am stronger.”

Your kind cannot be stronger.

Jonas would not reply, and the Emira spoke no further. The coven’s song grew louder, more complex. More powerful. Jonas’ arms ached, but the foul bilgewater flowed freely. Jonas could feel the ship shifting, still dragging and scraping on the reef, but rocking more and more as the waves passed under. And moving. The gentle current and the incessant waves guided the Montrésor along the reef as each swell lifted her a bit. Could this work? It had to work.

Then the song cut off. A soaring seventh, aching for resolution but finding none. The Emira had ended the song early. Jonas kept pumping.

Are you without desire, Man?

She must be newly risen from the Coven, then. There was much she did not know. It didn’t matter if one loved, or longed, or lusted, or even if one were gelded entirely. The song would still call to the soul, if not the loins. Perhaps with even more strength.

“I told you, the song calls, but I am stronger.”

That cannot be, Man.

“And still, it is.”

Are my maidens not beautiful to your gaze? Do you not desire them?” There was a pause. “Do you desire men instead?”

Jonas laughed despite himself, despite the sweat soaking his chest, despite the ache and strain in his arms and back. “I do.” It was not a lie. And it might serve to confuse this unlearned Emira. To buy him some more time.

The direction of his compass in matters of love had nothing to do with anything. She should know that. The song called to all. Had they not just an hour before lured Annabella to her death? She had no longing for women, yet she’d gone over the side with the rest, entranced and undeterred. Poor girl. Barely eighteen, with a short life already full of pain. Now ended, even as it seemed to be on the mend. The loss of Annabella cut the deepest. Of her and Henry, Jonas amended. The rest of the sailors were a mix, some passing honest and moral, others utter knaves. The sea battered even the truest timbers, and all eventually bent to some extent.

Henry hadn’t. Not yet. A good lad. He’d taken Annabella under his wing. Helped her escape from the plantation, at risk of arrest, and paid for her passage. Handsomely. Jonas was surprised the captain had agreed to take on a fugitive, but silver spoke louder to him than any magistrate. And Henry had a great deal of silver.

Jonas wondered if Henry had known his love for Annabella was returned. Jonas assumed such words had never been spoken between them. There hadn’t been much time, and Henry was reticent to a fault. But the growing bond between the two was clear to anyone with a penny’s worth of sense. Jonas hoped Henry had known Annabella loved him. That, at least, might salve some of the pain and terror of his end.

The flow of water from the pump slowed as Jonas tired. He would have to stop before he dropped lifeless to the deck. He felt the ship move and rock beneath him. Perhaps the water had been enough. Perhaps the ship could now be freed.

He felt the ship rotate around its point of contact with the reef. Still stuck at the bow, though not as tight in as before. But she was spinning in the current now. And the wind had shifted. The wind that had driven them landward now blew westerly. A significant change from before, when the captain had lowered all but the jib to drop anchor, intent on dispatching a boat to shore for water and perhaps some fruit. That’s when the songs began, when all the others went over the side to their deaths. And then the Montrésor had drifted into the reef, adding a new nightmare atop the other.

If Jonas could raise sail now, and pull it across this new wind, that might be enough to back the ship off the reef. To get underway again, and away from this place. He had no strategy beyond that. He made his way to the mainsail. It was heavy, but with the winch, he should be able to raise it. He tightened down the boom with the mainsheet line at what he hoped would be a proper angle, then pulled the halyard to the winch, wrapping it tight around.

Boom. Something struck the starboard hull. Something heavy. Away from the reef. What were they doing? Boom. Again, and again. Jonas left the halyard and ran to the side.

There were so many of them. This coven was huge. Fifteen strong at least, perhaps twenty, tails thrashing, their bare shoulders glistening in the surf. Between them, they bore a great timber with a metal cap. A ram. Where had they found such a thing? Modern ships, with sails and guns, had no use for such a primitive weapon. It had to be from an earlier time, when ships moved on the backs of oarsmen, when they clashed prow to hull amid the waves. Perhaps the coven had looted it from an ancient wreck. Or perhaps they’d improvised it from scraps of modern vessels they’d destroyed. It mattered little. Boom. The ram struck the side again. Boom. The sisters of the coven lacked a ship’s mass, but they were agile, their tails strong, and they moved as one. Jonas could see the Montrésor’s hull splintering with each impact.

The Emira swam alongside the others, not deigning to assist in their efforts. She was an impressive matriarch, her green hair trailing behind her in the water. Twice as large as her sisters. Her eyes locked with his, and he could hear her clear as if she spoke at his side. “We need no song, Man. We can take you even so.

Jonas ran back to the winch and cranked. The sail rose into the gray afternoon sky, slow, like an old man climbing steps. It snapped wide as the wind picked up, lashing back against the mainsheet line that held it, and Jonas could feel the ship lurch away from the reef. Still, the ram thudded against the ship, every impact a giant’s footstep. Jonas cranked until the sail was full. Should he raise another? The foresail? He was so weary. The ship ground off the reef with a terrible scrape, then ran free, spinning in the current and forced along by the wind. His heart leapt. Free.

Boom. Even as the ship moved, they assaulted it. Boom. Jonas ran to the foresail and struggled with its halyard. The ship shifted in the wind as it spun, and the mainsail snapped taut, the boom catching on the mainsheet line.

Crunch. No. Not that. Splintering, cracking, rushing, bubbles. Barely perceptibly at first, the ship listed towards starboard, and the deck took on a tilt. There was a thump as the bow keel hit bottom again, sliding into the sand of the forereef, and the stern sank further, seeking its own resting spot. There the Montrésor would sit, rocking in the waves, until a storm broke her to pieces. She would sail no more.

Your doom is at hand, Man. Why not succumb to the melody? Surely it must be easier to give in. It will all be the same in the end.” The coven’s voices rose again, a minor chord, then another that spread higher and lower, adding notes and counterpoint as it grew. The damp air rang with seductive tones.

Jonas took a breath. Closed his eyes. A moment. A moment to push back the fear, to settle his mind. There must still be a way to save what he needed to save. There had to be.

He went over to starboard. The coven was below, their mouths open in song, their dead eyes staring at him, their pointed claws exposed as they reached upwards, beckoning. The Emira swam behind them, using slow swipes of her tail to maintain position, her arms out to her sides. A majestic specimen, he had to admit. He had not seen any with her size and beauty, cruel though it might be.

“You have not led your coven long.” Jonas shouted to be heard over the song.

The Emira looked at him, then waved a hand. The song faded as the coven dropped out, one by one this time, lips closing over sharp fangs. “You puzzle me, Man. How do you know this? How do you know our ways?”

Jonas felt the stern settle to the bottom. The Montrésor was low in the water, tilted upward at twenty degrees. But she had come to rest. She would sink no further. That was a blessing, albeit a small one. “You and your sisters have fed well already today on my companions and friends. Would not a solution to this riddle be of more use than eating me?”

You flatter yourself, Man. What use could your story possibly be?”

Jonas thought he heard curiosity in her denial. “If I can resist your wiles, others might as well. Your coven could starve. The sea would swallow your bones.” Perhaps a tad overdramatic, but the Emira he had known before enjoyed colorful threats. “How many moons have you led your sisters? It cannot be more than five or six.”

The Emira was silent for a bit. She and the coven stared at him. “I awoke three moons ago. We have taken five ships in that time. My coven prospers. I lead with strength.”

You inherited your power,” said Jonas. “You could not have birthed such a large coven in that short time.”

The Emira’s features twisted with displeasure. “I have spawned four. And these sisters would be as nothing without the wisdom of my command.

“No. You are a pale reflection of your Mother’s strength.” Jonas made his way to the companionway. He hoped the hold had not flooded too deeply for what he wished to do. Needed to do.

Perhaps I shall devour you just to quiet you. I tire of this.”

He looked down the steep stairs. There was a little water, but the galley was mostly clear. But he needed to make it aftward, towards the cabins, down toward where the stern met the waves. “Hold a moment, Emira,” he shouted. “There is still the mystery of how I can resist your songs. Were you more experienced, you might know this.” He drew the pistol and took a few steps down the stairs.

You think to bargain this knowledge for your life?” The Emira’s words were laden with scorn. “How you petty creatures rail against your destiny.”

The galley steps were flooded with murky water at the base. Perhaps a foot of water there. Jonas waited a moment to study the rate it was rising. Slow enough. Or so he hoped. He descended the steps and splashed into the galley. The cabins would be farther underwater because of the tilt of the ship. Too deep already? No. It must not be. He sloshed through the galley and into the narrow corridor leading to the cabins. The water was up to his thighs now. He drew the pistol from his belt and held it higher, keeping it from the water. Perhaps he should have left it on the deck.

The cabin he sought was the large one at the rear. The water would be at his waist there, judging from how much of the door was still exposed. That would make recovering what he wanted to recover difficult. The water might already have risen too high inside. It could be too late.

He felt a sharp stab to his calf, then a rake of claws on his ankle. One of the mermaids was inside. The hole they’d made must be bigger than he’d imagined. The only light here was from the open hatch behind, at the top of the galley stairs. Not near enough to see her. The salt water stung the wound, an angry, intense pain. He hoped he was not bleeding much. He thought about using the pistol, but he had only a vague sense of where she was. He’d have a single shot. It would be foolish to try to reload down here. His cartridges were likely ruined already.

As he scanned the darkness, struggling to see movement beneath the ripples, he heard a slosh and saw a dull gleam. A scaly tail disappearing down the stairs to the hold. She was retreating. Or summoning her sisters.

He moved forward, pushing against the water, to reach the second cabin, where Henry and Annabella had bunked. In separate berths, as Henry had insisted, though that was not much face saved. It was scandalous that he and she had shared the cabin, but hardly more so than his flight with her from the plantation. And the captain would not grant them separate cabins. There were only three. The captain would never give his up, and Schmidt, the mate, would not have taken well to being cast out. So together they’d stayed in the guest cabin.

It was hard to open the door against the weight of water. There wasn’t much current, but it was still difficult. He got the door open a crack, then slid a hand in and pulled some more. The displaced water flowed around and inward. The cabin was flooded, as he expected, but not deep. Not yet. Please, not too deep. The cabin portholes allowed some light in, despite being underwater. If only he could get the door a bit wider, he could slip in.

He heard a sound behind him, a disruption. Something more than the constant gurgle and knock of the water around him. A splash, then dripping. He turned. The silhouette of a woman, wet hair stuck to her neck and bare shoulders. Her eyes gleaming in the dark. She opened her mouth and sound poured forth. So loud. So strong. Jonas felt the tug deep in his chest. A yearning. A pull. A hunger, almost.

But not strong enough. Not nearly. He leveled the pistol and fired. The blast was dreadful in the confined space, and his ears rang. The woman’s head snapped back, and her song cut off, and with it came an abrupt cessation of its magnetic pull. She slid under the water, a black ichor staining the surface, spreading as she sank below. A smell of burning and sulfur filled the air as the smoke spread from the flintlock and the barrel.

The Emira’s voice was as ice. “You worm. You excrement. You flotsam. Whence comes your temerity, Man? But answer not. It matters little. You will not survive the hour. I will rend your flesh myself. I will flay you one strip at a time.”

Was she one of your daughters, Emira?” Jonas shouted, trying to keep his tone saucy. He dropped the pistol and put two hands on the cabin door, forcing it farther. His eyes were almost adjusted to the gloom.

They are all my daughters, Man.”

You know what I mean. She was yours. Your rage tells the tale.”

The coven’s song rose again, though he felt far less pull from this distance. The Emira’s voice came again, pressing into his skull. “I carry in my belly her sister. You have accomplished nothing. My coven yet grows, and it shall grow more, fed by your flesh and your blood.”

There it was. A chance, hidden in her taunting. His only chance now. He pushed into the cabin, the water at his chest. He cast his eyes about in the gloom. What he sought had to be here, somewhere. Please, let it not be below the water already.

There. A basket floating on the water, persisting in defiance of the coven, of the attack, of the sinking of the ship. He reached a hand in, and soft cloth met his fingers. Dry inside still. A minor miracle. He pulled the basket over to him and raised it up, holding it carefully above his shoulders, above the water. As quickly as he could push through the water, he made his way out of the cabin. He was leaving behind Henry’s silver, but Jonas had no time for that.

He sloshed through the galley towards the stairs. He spied the cook’s carving knife in a slot in the wall. A weapon, perhaps, now that the pistol was gone, though it was not a knife meant for fighting. He grabbed it and tucked it in his belt under the small of his back. It was awkward climbing the stairs with the basket, but he held it behind him and made his way up. The afternoon glow hit his face, and the tropical air enveloped him with warmth and moisture. The ship was steady now, although he could feel the slap of the waves and hear the scrape and snap of coral as the ship settled into place.

Now he’d need to wait for an opportunity. One that might not even arise. The coven’s song was loud, ululating up and down in a blaze of chords and harmonies. They were giving all they had. It was beautiful, and terrible, and it brought memories to his mind. Sunswept beaches, shapes moving in the shallows, blood on the foamy waves. He thrust them down, as he always did. They did not bear revisiting.

The song rose, broadened, then resolved into a bright, clarion chord. The voices cut off as one. The deck was treacherous, canted aftward, but he could navigate it with care. He got to the main mast and set the basket down against a supply chest. The sail behind him stretched tight against the wind, rippling in the breeze, straining, though it would never again move the ship. He moved down the boom to the mainsheet line, which held the boom against the wind. He looked back. When the coven came, they’d come from the stern. The rail there was low, wet with spray and breaking waves. That would be their easiest access. He doubted they’d come up from the hold.

Are you prepared for eternity, Man?”

I am.” Jonas longed for a pistol. There were many in the captain’s cabin, for use if the ship were under threat of boarding, but they were too far and too wet. No help.

An arm came over the aft rail. Shapely, slender. A face followed. One of the coven, but not the Emira. The mermaid pulled herself up and over the rail, tail kicking and slapping. Her power was remarkable, but Jonas well knew how strong they were. The mermaid slid up the deck, pulling herself forward with her arms and pushing with her tail. He stood still, one hand on the mainsheet line. This maiden had curly dark hair, hanging in bunches around her head and shoulders. Her dull black eyes stared at him, and her mouth twisted upward. She stopped, inclined her head just a bit to the side, then retreated back to the port rail. She laced an arm through it and sat back, her tail curled beneath her.

Jonas heard a screech of rage, then a rush of chittering syllables. The mermaids’ own language, one he recognized but had never mastered, as it held sounds his mouth could not make. The Emira was angry, no doubt wondering why her maiden had not attacked. She was giving the others orders.

Another mermaid rose above the aft rail, this one with hair of red gold. She pulled herself up and over, and like the one before, she approached, then stopped. This one studied the basket as well. Her lips parted, revealing her fangs and pointed incisors, but she would not come nearer. She joined her sister at the side.

What sway do you hold over them, Man? This should not be.”

Come see for yourself. Your grip weakens, and mine grows.”

Your lies will avail you naught.” There was a stream of chitters from the water behind the ship. The curly-haired mermaid answered back, a few staccato shrieks. She would not be capable of much language – merely yes and no, joy and pain. And hunger.

Your pistol is gone. You are powerless.”

Jonas saw another arm come over the rear rail. It was huge, near twice as thick and long as his. The Emira. She pulled herself up and swung her tail over the rail in one fluid motion, an image of grace and confidence. She slid up the deck like a serpent, her tail making broad curves. She had no need to use her arms.

You smell…” The Emira sniffed the air. “But how?” Then she saw the basket. “You guard another. A prideful, futile effort.” She laughed. “How has that one resisted our song? Is she as you are?”

She didn’t resist. She just can’t walk.” Jonas glanced down at the baby. Annabella’s baby, Maria. Her eyes were wide now, no longer entranced by the song. She’d always been a calm one. A sweet, sweet child.

My sisters may not touch you, but I can. My will is far stronger than their instincts.”

I know.”

The Emira’s brow furrowed, but then her face set in an expression of rage. Of wrath. “I shall dine on your entrails, Man.” She pushed forward, closing fast.

Jonas pulled the knife from his belt and slashed at the taut mainsheet line beside him, the one restraining the sail. The captain was a miser, so the manila rope was old and had begun to rot in places. It took a few quick strokes, but the knife blade cut through much of it, and the wind did the rest. Jonas crouched, and the boom swung over him and around, catching the Emira across the chest and fouling her in the sheet. She struggled to push it away, but for a moment there was an opening. Jonas ran forward, and his blade slid through her ribs, piercing her heart.

Man…” She slid down, clutching the boom. “Or are you man at all?” Then the light left her eyes, and she sank to the deck. Jonas ran to the basket and pulled out Maria, stripping the swaddling from her. She was so tiny. But this would work. Had to work. Jonas returned to the Emira and cut her open, a long slice from above her waist to halfway down her tail. Gore spilled forth, but Jonas spied what he was after. The amnion, in which her offspring grew. The precious fluid within would guarantee Maria’s safety from the mermaids. Its scent would identify her forever as a new sister of this coven. They would protect her, nurture her, feed her. When a new Emira rose from the sisters, Maria would yet live in safety. Already part of the coven, as Jonas had been, with his coven, after he was orphaned as a boy. He had almost no memories of life before the coven, but he remembered his father coating him with the oily liquid, struggling to complete the task as he lay bleeding next to the dead Emira. So long ago.

One of the maidens approached. The one with curly hair. Her skin was the same color as Maria’s. Jonas held out the baby. She squalled now, and glistened with fluid in the afternoon light. The maiden took Maria and held her close, nuzzling Maria’s head with her lips. Not a preface to devouring her, but a gentle gesture, one of care, of soothing. Maria cooed, and then she latched onto the mermaid’s breast.

Maria was safe. Perhaps one day she would leave this coven as he had and live again among people. Without any language, that might be difficult. But she had a far better chance with the coven than with Jonas, shipwrecked and alone on a barren island.

At least he was a good swimmer. His childhood had granted him that. He took a step back, nodded to the mermaid, then turned and dove over the side. The Montrésor scraped and shuddered in the waves.

Copyright 2024 by Dave Dobson