By Mark Sumner
from Black Gate 13, copyright © 2009 by New Epoch Press. All rights Reserved.
“There’s something up there,” said Miss Marlowe.
All eyes turned to the upstream side of the boat. The something in the water was a dark oval, nearly the size of a man. I thought at first that it was some animal, paddling toward us, but as it swam into the lights, its true nature was revealed. “It’s them,” I said. “It’s the antriders.”
It was a raft, similar in structure to the ones the creatures had built at Caney Creek, though this one seemed more boat than bridge. It was perhaps a yard in width, and nearly twice that in length, and loaded from front to back with the glistening bodies of antriders. No sooner had this first craft entered the circle of light around the ferry, than a second one came into view.
“Go!” shouted Sergeant Norris. “God’s sakes man, get us away from here.”
Pellion barked a command to his assistant and the two men hurried to press their poles into the mud. From almost the first moment, it was clear that they would not be fast enough. The boat moved along well enough once started, but it was in no hurry to begin its motion. The antriders would strike our side before we could get away.
“Stand ready,” I called. I braced myself at the rail, ready to fend off the insects as they attempted their boarding party.
I need not have bothered. Miss Marlowe stretched and took down the lantern from the top of one of the corner posts. When the antrider raft was no more than a two yards shy of the ferry, she tossed the lantern right into the center of them.
The lantern passed straight on through the intruder’s creation, punching a hole that let in the river, but not without setting dry leaves and antriders alike on fire. Before it had moved another yard through the water, the antrider raft was disintegrating, falling apart in a flurry of sparks. The water around the collapsing structure boiled with drowning insects.
Private Hadley cheered, and the rest of us soon joined him.
“Good thinking, Missy,” said Pellion, but when Sergeant Norris went to grab a lantern to throw at the second raft, the ferryman stopped him. “We can dodge that one easy as sink it,” Pellion said, “and save me a lantern.” He bent to his pole and his prediction proved correct. The second antrider raft went past along the southern nose of the ferry, missing us by no more than a yard. The insect craft, and the thousand or more passengers it carried, soon vanished in the fog.
“Where do you think they’ll fetch up?” asked Sergeant Norris.
There was no good answer to his question, and we all looked at each other uncomfortably. The antriders might be swept into an eddy, or snared against a bank, but every day a hundred of more logs completed the trip down to St. George. The antriders might be in the capital before we could even reach them with word of warning.
“Another coming!” called Pellion’s assistant.
We hurried back to the upstream side of the raft and saw several more dark forms in the fog. Some of these shapes were clearly bound to strike us, and I started for another of the lanterns, but Pellion warned me off again. “Logs,” he said. “They’re just logs.”
There was great relief, but we still had to deal with the dangers of collision. Pellion and his hand moved around and raised their poles toward the first log, so they might slow its force and keep us from being struck a damaging blow.
“Careful now,” Pellion said. “Move it off southwise.” His pole landed solidly on the front of the log and the ferryman grunted as he absorbed the impact. “Ease it off,” he called to his helper. “Ease it off.”
The second man put his pole in place and began to push. A moment later, he began to scream.
Antriders. Antriders by the hundreds were swarming up the side of the log and scurrying up the poles toward the men. Pellion hurled his pole away at once, and it splashed in the water beside us, but his helper held his pole as the riders came closer, screaming as they moved toward his fingers.
The antriders passed over the man’s arms and across his shoulders. They jumped from his body down to the raft. One went right into his open mouth and his scream ending with a fit of coughing as he finally dropped the pole and stepped back from the side.
All of us were jumping and shouting, kicking at the antriders. The sergeant bellowed as he was speared by a knight. The ferryman fell to the deck and rolled over and over, giving strangled cries. I was run through on both legs, and had the unpleasant experience of feeling an antrider scurry up my leg, under my shirt, and emerge to jab me in the back of the neck. I slapped at it furiously, and said things that would have made me blush in other circumstances. It would have embarrassed me still had not others, Miss Marlowe included, said far worse.
The log that the insects had been riding collided against the side of the ferry with enough force to send me staggering. Someone was more than staggered, as I heard splashing on the downstream side of the raft. Before I could render assistance, another antrider struck at the back of my leg and I was back to my personal battle.
The ferry was shaken again by another log. “There’s more of them,” said Sergeant Norris.
A lantern whistled overhead and smashed against one of the logs. The night was pushed away by an explosion of light and even from twenty feet away I felt the rush of heat. The ferryman who had held onto the pole was lying near one corner of the raft. His clothes were soaked through with blood and I could not tell if he was alive or dead. Sergeant Norris was near him, dancing like a mad Scotsman as he brought his boots down on one insect after another, each one dispensed with a curse. Pellion was on his knees at the rail, trying to push away the logs that had jammed against us. I could see him shake as antriders jabbed at him, but he did not stop his work. Miss Marlowe was off to my right. Her shirt was torn open at the shoulder and blood was streaming from the corner of her mouth. I moved to help her, but she waved me away.
“Private Hadley,” she said. “See to him.”
The complete version of “The Naturalist, Part III — St. George and the Antriders” appears in Black Gate 13.