“Prospects” by James Baldwin

Sarif’s knuckles whitened as the wave tilted the little tin boat back  at first, then forwards. In the rag tag vessels around him a murmur of unease chorused like the warning song of some flock dwelling Terradact. The jungle was eerily silent all of a sudden, as though unseen eyes anticipated what was about to happen and stopped whatever they were doing to spectate. But nothing happened, at least, not immediately. The gentle sound of the river lapping against the boat’s sides seemed suddenly deafening as they waited for the unknown.

Fear. Sarif had known fear all his life. Paddy workers were taken all the time. You knew from an early age that the most dangerous job was working the outer paddies; the ones closest to the jungle edge. Sometimes there would be a scream, occasionally a triumphant roar. If you turned your head quick enough you might catch a glimpse of a giant beast darting back in to the forest, prey hanging limply from its jaws.

Where he was from, the northern Kwara Flats it was usually Yutta’s or Allosors, both fearsome beasts no doubt, but it was the fabled Ghost Killer with which mothers scared their children in to good behaviour. The storytellers claimed it was as quiet as a spring breeze, and as invisible as fear itself.

What was certainly true was that the slave masters of the Iron Guild cared nothing for the paddy workers under their control. That was why, when his mother died, Sarif ran away to find his fortune. And so now he found himself here, wet and uncomfortable in a convoy of nervously hopeful prospectors, risking the dangers of the Interior for the intangible promise of treasure and riches. Their journey had already seen death and suffering, but in that it was no different to his slave life. Brutality and danger was all he’d ever known, more or less. The prospectors were rough people, Hard as Creet as the saying went. Several people had already gone missing in the nights, and Sarif didn’t think they’d been taken by forest predators. But again, the fear and uncertainty, the lack of trust or friendship, all those things were normal as day to him.

The boat swayed again, and this time Sarif’s stomach churned in anticipation. With a roar a colossal toothed snout shot out of the water, clamping a boat in its grip and carrying it up in to the air with the momentum of its attack. The monster was huge. At first Sarif thought it was a Spine Beast, but as it turned in the air he saw there was no back crest. A Krokodil then, at least 10 metres long.

The Ford
The Ford

But there was no time to think. As the best splashed back in to the water two boats either side capsized, and suddenly the water was alive with snapping jaws. Sarif grabbed an oar and shouted to his boat mates as he began reaching for a Dverg boy thrashing to stay afloat. The boy gripped the oar frantically, all around him was churning water and screams and Serif began to pull him in.

“Leave him!”. The voice was that of a middle aged human, tinged with anger and fear. It was Jorgen, the de-facto leader of their boat, although in truth just another prospector.

“Damned if I will” Sarif shouted, gripping the boy’s arm. Out of nowhere an oar struck the Dverg from behind Sarif, who turned to find Jorgen swinging it for a second blow. Serif jerked backwards, lifting the Dverg up in the water. He used his other arm to elbow Jorgen in the stomach, doubling him over, and using the reprieve to haul the boy half out of the water and over the side of the boat. There were cries of dismay as the boat tilted, but now someone was holding Jorgen back while another pair of hands were helping haul the dazed Dverg back to the boat. He fell in to the boat like a bag of wet rice, and lay there panting. Jorgen broke free of his antagonist, looking around him before fixing Sarif with a deadly gaze.

The water was calm now. Blood mingled with the wreckage of one boat and the capsized hulls of two more. No more than a few floating rags of clothing showed that people had ever been in them. Far off to the other bank of the river several monitor lizards sat in the sun, watching the scene with prehistoric indifference.

“Thanks” the young Dverg managed after coughing up water. “Garien” he smiled, albeit a little unconvincingly. He offered a thick hand, and Sarif shook it, suddenly understanding. “I’m Sarif” he replied. Garien’s eyes darted over to Jorgen, who sat at the prow of the boat, glaring at them both.

“I think you just made an enemy” he said with a half smile. Sarif nodded.

“I think we both did” he replied with a grin.