Ferryman’s Bluff [1,350 words]

This short story is posted in Fiction, Short Stories, and Fantasy.

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Ferryman’s Bluff

by Rick Cook Jr

They collapsed in a heap on the ferry as it pulled away. Rangold was first to his feet, sneering and jeering at the group of five on the pier, who were shouting and cursing.

“Hah,” Rangold shouted. “This is last time you see us empty-handed!” He turned and dropped his trousers to the group, who all averted their gazes or threw rocks. One bounced off Rangold’s rump and he jumped up, yelping. The surprised expression on Rangold’s broad face almost made Murce laugh. Almost.

“Enough, Ran,” said Murcell. “You know better than to antagonize them.”

Rangold pulled his trousers up, rubbing his bottom. “Sorry, Murce. It just first time we beat them!”

Murce smiled. “I know. But we’re better than that. This is no friendly competition.”

“Sure it is,” said Doxie from the other side of the ferry. She had settled into her furs and was unstringing her bow. “A competition, anyways. There’s a prize and there are competing sides.” She rolled the string up and closed it over in her wax case, then began to loosen her waist-length auburn hair from its braid.

“A competition suggests fairness, Adoxen,” Cahnor said. He raised his hood against the choppy spray, and clutched his bag so that his precious books might not be ruined.

“You both are right, I suppose,” Murcell admitted. “Cane, your manuscripts?”

Cahnor eyed him from inside his hood and said, “Unless we sink, your precious map will be okay.”

Murcell nodded and turned to the shore again. Taynor and his motley had gone, probably to find another crossing. The River Sedlin was widest here, its further shore lost in the morning mist. Murcell stroked his beard, considering Taynor and his shrunken retinue. Who had been missing? It was unusual for them to lose the advantage, without more of a brawl. He shook his head of worry and approached the ferryman.

“How long in the crossing?”

The ferryman sucked his teeth in a show of consideration. His exagerrated features were almost comical, but somehow familiar. The ferryman nodded and said, “There’s a few snags and brambles to navigate, and I have to take us slower ’cause you demanded we leave immediately, in cover of darkness.”

“These are excuses, good ferryman. My aim is not to urge you faster, but to gauge how soon we can be quit of the river and on our way.”

“Even so, sir, even so. Better part of an hour to have out on the wild shore.” His smile unnerved Murcell.

“Have we met before?” he asked. “I feel as if I know your features.”

The ferryman blinked once and then laughed. “You must have seen one of my brothers in town, sir!” He grinned again, as if at a joke. “There’s four of us, all told. And two sisters who have the good fortune not to look like the rest of us.”

Murcell’s worry eased and he shook the ferryman’s hand, slipping him another silver coin. “We’re in good hands, then. I’ll leave you to concentrate.”

The ferryman nodded and turned back to poling the ferry, whistling as he did.

“Heave, Rangold!” came Doxie’s voice from behind. Murcell turned to see Rangold hauling Doxie up over the side of the ferry by her breeches, in nothing but her shift above the waist. She had been upside down.

“Here now, what the hell are you getting into?” Murcell called, stalking over.

Rangold dropped Doxie to the deck of the ferry, where she rolled and came to her feet. Her hair was soaked clean through and steam lifted from it in the morning air.

“Whew!” she exclaimed, “I wasn’t expecting it to be so cold.” She dug into her pack and searched for something.

Murcell sighed. “Ran, what’s the rule?”

Rangold came to attention and lowered his head. “No let Dox talk me into shenanigans.”

“Why’d you do it this time?”

Rangold’s face lit up like a bonfire. “She- I-“

“He got to hold me by the butt so I could wash my hair,” she said, coming up empty from her pack. “Cane. Give it back.”

Cahnor grunted, but produced her fine ivory comb from his robe and tossed it to her. “If I find any of your stringy black hairs in it this time, I’m pitching you over the side, ‘scripts be damned.”

Cahnor chuffed but did not respond.

Rangold stared ahead while Doxie got her tunic over her head. Murcell was about to start lecturing the group when the ferry lurched, heaving and crashing up against something. Cahnor tilted forward still clutching his pack and Murcell fell back on his ass. Rangold grabbed hold of Doxie while her head was still in her tunic, holding her steady.

Murcell leapt to his feet and turned to the prow, shouting, “I thought you were taking it slow-” but the ferryman was gone.

“Did he go over the front?” Cahnor asked.

“He jump,” Rangold said. “Before crash.”

Murcell dashed to the front of the ferry and peered around. A thick tangle of tree limb and rock held them fast, but the ferryman was nowhere to be seen.

“Over there!” Doxie yelled. Murcell followed her pointing finger and saw the man in a small canoe, paddling back the direction they’d all come. And out of the morning fog another ferry materialized, carrying Taynor and his crew. The canoe met with the ferry and the ferryman was hauled aboard, laughing.

The ferry coasted by out of all but earshot, and Taynor shouted to them, “Perhaps you should pay more attention to the crew you hire!” as they all laughed and jeered. Rangold clutched the rock that had hit his rump and launched it across the water. For a brief moment Murcell thought it was going to make it, and Taynor’s lackies scattered, but the stone fell short and splashed into the water half a dozen feet short.

Doxie was stringing her bow, readying an arrow. Murcell put a hand on her shoulder. “You’re going to waste all your arrows.”

“Not a waste if I hit that little sneak-thief.”

“But you won’t.”

She huffed and lowered her bow. “Gods, I’ll still feel better.”

“You can shoot a deer. When we cross the Sedlin.”

She sighed. “No fun.”

Cahnor collected himself and got to his feet. “This is hardly ideal, Murcell.”

“Thank you for always pointing that out, Cane.”

“So how do we cross now? There’s a big difference in dunking one’s head for vanity and taking a half-hour swim in these frigid waters.”

“Says the man who steals my comb every day.”

Rangold sniffed the air. “It rain soon.”

“Rangold, would you help me brush my hair?” Doxie asked, settling into a crossed-leg position.

Rangold sat down behind her with a big grin and began to separate her hair into combable strands, picking out debris from the river as he went.

Cahnor scoffed and Murcell sighed.

“Well, we can either try and untangle the ferry, or swim as fast as we can.”

Cahnor’s eyes widened. “My manuscripts, the map!”

“I have enough wax to seal the most important stuff,” Doxie replied, combing out a strand of her hair in front while Rangold worked the back.

“But- this is my life’s work!”

Murcell groaned. “You’ll just have to measure your life’s work against your life, Cane.”

“We can wait for proper morning and flag down some help,” Cahnor suggested.

“And lose another half a day or more?” Doxie said. “Damnit, we were so close to getting a lead on those slugs. Chaps my ass they’re gonna get the gold. It’ll be spent in a weekend of wine, women, and gambling.”

“Enough arguing. Get your hair settled, Adoxen. I need you both if we’re going to free the ferry from its tangle.”

“We go for swim?” Rangold asked.

“I think so, Ran,” Murcell muttered, stripping his cloak and tunic, unstrapping the daggers and sword, his belt, his boots. “I bloody well think so.”

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Hope you enjoyed this little vignette into what I may eventually turn into a fantasy adventure, with fun and interesting characters, danger and intrigue at every turn, and a proper good story!

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