Breaker

“He’s got to leave the cabin soon. Right?” asked Casper. He glanced uneasily at the door to the captain’s cabin and shivered. The rest of the crew was keeping a careful distance from it – and the guest within. “Surely he’s got to come and help us at some point?” The two men leaned on the railing of the ship, facing the field of ice that held their ship in place. Artem pondered for a moment – lining up his tobacco on the rolling paper. “Well,” he began slowly, “Who can predict something that ain’t fully human? But I suppose it depends on when he’ll finally run out of food.”

“When do you think that’ll be?”

Artem scratched his chin. “Eats at a fair clip. We can’t have many stocks left.”

“I don’t think they work like us,” Casper grimaced, “Never known a man who could eat so much. Or one who didn’t need water.”

“Seems none of the natural laws apply to a Breaker.” Artem glanced nervously over his shoulder as he uttered the last word. The deck was thick with haggard sailors moving here and there, repairing and maintaining. The ones out on the ice with pickaxes were the important ones – the captain was just keeping everyone else busy. All the men – even the meanest and possessing of the fewest teeth – steered clear of the door and the barrels of food laid in front of it. The result was a sparse clearing that only made the doorway more ominous. Casper suspected the captain would sooner starve every single sailor to death rather than risk missing the delivery of one leg of lamb to their guest’s plate. He could probably eat everything on this ship – Casper, Artem, and the captain’s cat included – and no-one would dare try to stop him. Not that he’d get the chance; even the cat kept a wide berth. “I’ve never seen one before, you know,” mused Casper.

“Count yourself lucky.”

“You’ve seen him?”

“No. Captain brought him aboard a few stops back in the dead of night. No, I met one at a northern port a few years back.”

“What was he like?”

Artem lit his cigar, “Big.” Casper did not fail to note the shaking in his hands. Artem forestalled any future mention of the topic by sparking up a cigar and jamming it firmly into his mouth. A door opened behind them and, with a short intake of breath, Casper whispered, “He’s out.”

“What?”

“Not him, the captain.” The only one among them to wear a suit, the captain emerged from belowdecks and moved thoughtfully to the railing on the other side. “I’d begun to think the drink had claimed him,” said Artem.

“From the smell of him, I’m beginning to wish it had.”

They watched the captain standing on the ice, inspecting the progress below with a cross between detached contempt and anxious worry. He hovered on the deck behind them for far too long, dithering here and there. They could see his eyes flicker to the cabin door. His eyes met Casper’s briefly – red-rimmed and bloodshot. The captain smiled cruelly and Casper cursed inwardly. Artem had no such compulsions and cursed out loud. He came over and clasped their shoulders, “Willing to help an old man? Our guest must be roused after all. I would ask, but I’m busy with… overseeing.” Artem and Casper exchanged glances but, given the rather less than intact nature of the last man to disobey the captain’s orders, they just nodded. The captain hurried away down the extended gangplank and onto the ice, ostensibly to check on the progress of the workers there. They turned and crossed the deck. The Breaker had demanded the captain’s cabin and – for all his cruelty and cheapness – the captain had agreed. One did not cross a Breaker. At least, that is, if one is overly fond of one’s limbs. Especially on a trip through the ice floes this risky where their intervention could mean the difference between a timely arrival or a slow death from frostbite. Even Artem, a mass of tattoos and muscle who outweighed most small villages, couldn’t hide his shaking hands as they drew near to the cabin. When he saw Casper looking, he curled his hands into fists and set his jaw. His knuckles were white. As they walked towards the cabin, they exchanged terse pleasantries with some of the sailors. Nobody was in the mood for chatter but, as people noticed where they were going, the crowd parted around them. Casper caught looks of pity and even a “poor boy” from one of the older deckhands. A few paces short of the door, Artem broke and ran off. The other sailors let him through, sympathetic to the last. Casper was midway through joining him when a thought struck him. What would a Breaker look like in person? Most myths painted them as slavering monsters with a taste for human flesh and eyes that glowed blue in the dark. With that image fixed in his head, Casper was seriously considering risking certain reprisal at the hands of the captain rather than what lay behind that door. He took a shaky breath and knocked softly three times. It seemed like the bustling deck froze around him. No response. Again. No response. He sighed. No other help was coming. Not in this time of year, not in this desperate passage that only the truly insane – or truly broke – would traverse. There was no other way. He entered the cabin. Immediately, he was hit by the stench of human sweat and rancid food. The cabin was dark and musty, filled almost entirely with a huge table filled to the brim with food – both old and new. Piled high with ham hocks, slabs of meat, and what looked to be an entire horse’s head. All this food they’d brought aboard – a major expense, but as the saying went: “Starve a Breaker, meet your maker.” His father had called the saying ‘trite but necessarily blunt’. The window’s shutter was half-torn and hanging loosely down over the only window, filtering in a cold, blue light on the far wall. He was reminded of the image of a dragon’s lair, carpeted thickly with the bleached bones of lost children. Deep in the corner of the room, something massive shifted. Casper’s breath felt trapped in his chest. “Hello?” A deep grunt came in response and a shaggy head lifted off a half-collapsed bed. The man struggled to a sitting position, and his face happened to catch the light. His eyes were beady, set in a doughy, misshapen face. The Breaker rose with surprising agility and seized him with a hand roughly the size of a large dinner plate. He hurled him away, grumbling angrily. He acted like a man with a hangover and he seemed extraordinarily sensitive to light, squinting and holding an arm up. “What?” The Breaker rumbled, advancing across the cabin. Soon, he had Casper’s arm engulfed in a great paw of a hand. He felt as though his arm might break. “The Captain… the cap-“ The grunting grew louder and more insistent as Casper struggled. “Out. Out!” shouted his attacker, pushing him towards the door. Casper managed to slip out of his grasp and, in spite of what every instinct was screaming at him, he spun around and placed himself in the far corner of the room from the door. “Look, we’re in real danger. You can’t just ignore this. The ship’s trapped-“

For the first time, the Breaker spoke in what passed for full sentences. “You think I do not know? I feel it in tremble of wood,” he tapped the wall and stamped his foot. He seemed almost angry at the sound. “The ice cries out.”

“Then you’ll know you’re trapped with us.”

He snorted. “In this cold? I am strong. You die. I wait for next ship to come.” In his eyes, there was the look of a man defeated. He ignored Casper and went to return to bed. Casper felt a strange kind of anger boiling up inside him. Who was this man who ate all their food while they starved and yet refused to help in their time of need? “We paid you for this. Coward.” The words were out of his mouth before he knew it. The giant rose and cornered him. There was murder in those eyes. He found himself recalling what the tales said a Breaker could do with a single touch. As the shadow of the Breaker fell over him, he cringed. He squeaked out a last, “Please. We’ll die out here.” He closed his eyes and braced himself for a blow that never came. Instead, came the sound of the door opening. There was no invitation, but Casper took his lack of broken limbs as a sign. The giant extended no hand to help him up and Casper struggled to follow. The sailors on deck all froze. One man dropped a bundle of wood he had been carrying to the furnace and prostrated before the thick-featured Breaker. For his part, he seemed to ignore them. The workers on the ice scattered like a shoal of tropical fish on his arrival. He braced himself and placed one palm against the ice. Now that he had passed, the rest of the crew crowded to the deck to watch. Casper’s skin crawled and he felt, more than heard, a low hum. It was like he was back, laying his head on his father’s chest as a child and hearing him speak. After a moment, where he cocked his head to the side, as if listening to something, the Breaker seemed to pulse. Waves of shimmering air spread out from him in waves and the ice around him cracked. The ship lurched and Artem fell to his knees along with some other sailors. The Breaker staggered and fell, remaining on the ice. He seemed somehow smaller, bruised and battered, as if the act had taken kilograms off him. The ice was split and, slowly with a huge grinding sound, the segments began to drift apart. The sailors hurriedly picked up the Breaker and their tools and brought them back on board before they floated away. They laid the Breaker down silently, gently, but then scurried off as far as they could get on the deck of a ship. Casper went to join him, to the consternation of others. Artem grabbed his arm but shrunk back when the Breaker looked at what had caused the commotion. Casper sat a safe distance away and spoke to him as the other sailors returned to work. “Can you do that again, if we get stuck?”

He shook his head. “You dig,” he gestured at one of the pickaxes they had been using.

“But what if the ice is this thick again? We can’t break it that way.”

“Ha,” the Breaker smiled, “Then you pray.”

 

 

By Daniel Harrington

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