We were at dock. I estimate we were about halfway through the night. I awoke at the same moment, I later learned, as several men on the boat, awakened by the unnatural sound—and how soon we had learned to distinguish the natural from the unnatural in this alien landscape!—of oars dipping into the river, the smooth sloughing of a canoe’s belly propelled across the surface. Perhaps too smooth; perhaps this is what alerted us. I opened my eyes, sat up. At that instant a hideous war scream pierced the relative silence of the night. A surge of alarm like snake’s venom squirted through my body. I leapt to my feet as the first of our attackers leapt aboard our boat.
Naked black men, but painted, with yellow and white stripes across their torsos, lines up and down their arms and legs that made them resemble skeletons, white face paint that lent their heads the appearance of bald skulls. Catching us as they did unawares, they greeted two of our numbers with the tips of their spears, pinning their still-prostrate forms to the deck. But we met the rest of them with our swords.
I’d drawn my own weapon from its sheath even as I had rolled to my feet. I had scant training as a warrior, save the little I had received from Dalmontenes, but instinct had compensated, had put my sword in my hand soon enough. I had my feet beneath me when the first of the skeleton-men came at me.
Holding his spear two-handed, he jabbed at my chest. I parried the blow with my sword. The skinny shaft of the spear appeared weak but deceived the eye; it took the edge of my blade without breaking or being cut in two.
The black man, as thin almost as any true skeleton, also deceived in that he looked weak, but the blow he delivered to the side of my head, swinging the butt of his spear around in a flash, using the momentum of my own strike with the sword to empower his response, carried strength enough behind it that it almost knocked me down, knocked me out. I staggered back, my ears ringing, as the head of the spear again sought to bury itself in the flesh of my belly. A downward sweep of my sword blocked it, though the spear grazed my thigh, sharp enough to open a stinging cut. My return slash with the sword carried no momentum behind it, owing to the sharpness of the blade for the cut it made to the man’s abdomen.
“Always keep your sword sharpened,” Dalmontenes had instructed me. I thanked him in my thoughts.
The skeleton-man again swung the shaft of his spear around to connect with my head, but this time I managed to duck. The effort left him open and I drove my sword point-first into his abdomen, this time with my full strength behind it. It transfixed him. Putting my hand against his face I shoved him, pulling my blade free; he toppled over the side of the ship into the water.
I did not at that moment mark it as such, but this constituted a milestone for me: the first time I had slain a man while in the form of a man myself. I could not attribute this life taken to the beast. Later on, and often since, I would grieve for this particular rite of passage.
I had no time to ponder such things, then. A skeleton-man jabbed me in the back. By God’s grace—should I count it as such?—the point of this second spear struck my belt and failed to penetrate. Did God deny grace to this naked savage, in that the light aboard the Medusa’s Kiss, provided by two sentry lanterns, one in the bow and one in the stern, proved insufficient to illuminate the scene, making it more difficult, perhaps, for my would-be killer to aim? Would God take this man’s life, he no less a man for his savagery, to salvage mine? Did I need such providence, when I had the blood of the beast in my veins? I doubt the wound would have killed me. But a kidney pierced-through, halved by the tip of the spear would have hurt greatly. I choose to thank God rather than thanking chance that the spear missed its mark.
I pivoted with my sword. The skeleton-man leapt back out of its reach. He jabbed at me again. I felt dizzy from the blow to my head and unsure of my footing, but I managed to parry. Again I slashed at him, only to find him out of range. He jabbed, stepping in as he did so, and we closed before I could employ my sword, its blade pinned against my chest by the shaft of his pear. This skeleton looked as skinny as the first, but he had strength enough to hold me.
He butted his forehead against the bridge of my nose. I staggered, almost losing my grip on him. My eyes blurred with tears. Had I fallen, he no doubt would have run me through. But I didn’t fall. Instead I leapt in, seized his throat with my teeth and bit down. I tasted blood.
With a shriek choked off in his throat, he pushed back from me. I saw an opening and brought the edge of my sword down hard on his shoulder at the base of his neck. He toppled. A second chop from my blade cleaved the grinning skull painted on his face.
Little skill as a warrior, but I had instinct. The instinct of a man for self-preservation? No. The instinct of the Cynocephalus, the werewolf, which had led me, without any forethought, to employ my teeth, to tear out my enemy’s throat. Even without the transformation, the beast made its presence known.
By the time I finished with my second opponent—the second life I had taken as Reprobus the man, not the Doghead—the battle had ended. Most of the black men had fared the same as the two with whom I had fought. We Marmorca had lost three men and another two were wounded, one with serious wounds. I estimate there had been some twenty of the attackers, in two long canoes, and we had killed all but four or five. I felt no sorrow for them at the time. My head felt like a drum being pounded upon by heavy sticks. At that moment I felt glad to have repaid the injury.
“Oran?” I hollered.
“Here, my lord!” he said, coming over to me. “I am unharmed. I confess that I lay upon the deck until the attack was over.”
“At least nobody tripped over you,” I said. I did not show the relief that I felt to find him alive and whole.
“I have little reason as of yet,” Oran said, “to alter my opinion regarding these black-skinned men. I still believe they come from Hell. In fact, I am starting to believe that Hell is exactly where we now are!”
In the days that followed, I am sad to say, he would find reasons aplenty to hold to this viewpoint.