The Hazard of Lake Erie
If the British fleet strikes across the lake now, we’re doomed. The threat worried at Haz’s insides like a festering ulcer, yet the balmy spring sun eased his apprehension, which melted as the spray coursed up over the bowsprit and cooled his face. So much cleaner than the sea, without the scouring salt tang that raked nostrils and gritted eyes. The crack of wind through sails and rigging played on his ears, and the roll of the deck was more solid beneath his boots than the ground could ever be.
Haz rested on the Porcupine’s rail and gazed out over Lake Erie’s azure glory, stretching as far as he could see. Behind them, Fort Presque Isle stood sentinel at the bay’s entrance, a squat wood and mud fortification. They buried Mad Anthony there, he mused. The remembrance induced a strange melancholy, a sad yet whimsical brooding about life’s fickle winds.
His brother Matthew, little more than a boy, joined him at the rail. “Trouble with the new sailors?”
The question jolted Haz back to current concerns. They had just launched the twin schooners Porcupine and Tigress, the modest beginnings of a new fleet. Unfortunately, few Navy regulars could be spared, so the larger share of the crew was made up of local sailors, lax in discipline. The disparate ranks were having a hard time integrating.
“They’re green as new-cut timber, but they know these waters better than King George knows his tea,” Haz replied. “They’ll do, Matt.”
Haz, broad-shouldered, with sea-foam eyes and long black hair tied back with a leather thong, loomed high above his slim-figured younger brother. Matt would fill out in time, but would never grow so tall.
“Will they be ready in time?” Matt asked.
“You’ve more questions than pimples on your chin, and those’re too many to count.” He chuckled and slapped the rail. “They’ll be ready, or they won’t.” He gave a fatalistic shrug. He’d do his best to instill discipline in them. Their prospects didn’t set Haz afire with optimism.
“A sail, a sail!” came down from the crow’s nest. “A ship rounding the peninsula from the east!”
“The British? We’ll be smashed to kindling,” Matt cried.
“Or we’ll feast on pickled herring,” Haz said with a grin, clapping his brother on the shoulder.
The ketch Ohio rounded the headland and breasted the water toward them. Haz was expecting the cargo ship from Sandusky, carrying supplies to reinforce their stomachs.
Haz cupped his hands around his mouth, but hesitated amidst an ominous stillness. A shadow descended across the water, obscuring the Ohio from sight. The deck lurched, falling from beneath him. Instinct and his sea legs saved him from spilling overboard. One arm looped around the rail, he looked up and around. Bright afternoon had become lowering night. Lightning forked across the sky, limning the scene in jerky light. Sheets of rain flogged the ship. Tearing sailcloth and sailors’ screams were barely discernable over the storm’s din. Swelling waves pounded the Porcupine’s hull.
A devil storm from out of nowhere. He was relieved to see Matt hugging the mainmast.
“Look, it’s Jenny Greenteeth,” a Navy man yelled into the gusting rain.
A waterspout appeared between the two ships. A perverse female form took shape within its mist-masked waters, with pale green skin, seaweed hair, and jaundiced eyes, sickly yet piercing. Wind howled from her nose; lightning spewed from her mouth. She beckoned with a clawed hand. The water spun up and around the thing, mercifully obscuring her figure.
A ghostly voice, soft yet audible despite the roaring storm, teased out over the waves, tickling Haz’s ears. It cooed a heartrending siren song of deadly beauty:
“Come into the water, love,
Dance beneath the waves,
Where dwell the bones of sailor-lads,
Inside my saffron cave.”
“It’s the Storm Hag of Lake Erie,” a local sailor wailed. An impish laugh echoed out over the water. The man’s eyes grew as wild as the lake, his face twisting into a horrified rictus. He flung away his line and dove for a hatch, leaving the sail he was working to secure flapping free.
The snapping sail cut through Haz’s malaise. Coming back to himself, he assessed their situation in a blink. “You there, secure the forecourse!” A sailor leapt to the task. “Helmsman, keep us off the rocks.”
He choked off his orders and gaped at the lake. There, amidst the heaving waves, flailed a beautiful young woman in a yellow dress. Dark hair plastered against tanned skin, outlining a fragile face. Struggling to remain afloat, she mouthed words, but they were lost to the wind. Can’t let the poor waif drown.
“Matt,” Haz cried, stripping off his jacket, “you have the helm. Don’t give up the ship!”
“Wait,” his brother called, but Haz leapt over the rail, diving straight for the drowning woman. Hands struck icy liquid, then his consciousness winked out, swallowed by the lake.
Haz blinked, trying to stretch his eyes fully open. I didn’t drown. He lay on something hard and lumpy. Like stumbling from bed without having had enough sleep, Haz couldn’t seem to wake up. Amorphous golden-yellow light filled his vision. He forced his eyes open again and noticed a rounded ceiling of rock above him. Walls curved down to either side, meeting with the stony cave floor beneath him. These strange stones gave off the odd color, creating the shimmering light he first noted. A saffron cave, Haz realized, sitting upright.
“He is awake,” a throaty feminine voice said behind him.
He scrabbled on his hands and knees to face the beautiful thing he had so foolishly tried to save. Only she saved me. The thought made him flush with shame. Odd. Her hair’s combed out, her dress pleated and full, yet her skin glistens as with moisture. And he himself, though chilled, realized he was dry.
The distant crash of waves against rocks shook him free of his stunned observations. The reality of the situation flooded his mind.
“The ships, my brother,” Haz cried, leaping to his feet. The woman shied away. “I must get back. The storm…” He couldn’t form his horror into words.
“Be at peace. Your brother and your precious wooden constructs are safe, for now.”
“How do you know? Has the storm abated? What—”
“Calm yourself,” she cooed in a low, soothing voice. “The storm has not abated. It is…paused.”
“What do you mean?” Haz’s brow wrinkled for a tick, then his eyes widened. “You’re the Sea Hag of Lake Erie.”
“I am no hag,” she hissed, crouching as if to flee. “Am I hideous to you?”
“I beg your pardon. You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.”
She cocked her head in curiosity.
“What may I call you?”
He grinned at her. “Haz, like my little brother does.”
“Haz.” She formed the word slowly, deliberately.
“What’s your name?”
“I have not spoken it for many years. I used to commune with the native men of this land, the Children of the Earth who dress in skins and traverse my waters in their small craft. They worshipped me, and called me Eriene, after which they named these waters. My waters.”
“Eriene,” Haz said. “I wish I could say it’s a pleasure. Why do you change your appearance so?”
“To lure men to their death.”
“But why? Many men have died at your hands. I would call this evil.”
“Because of what your men did to me, Haz, or tried to do.”
“My men have done nothing to you, Eriene, I’m sure of it.”
Eriene looked deep into his eyes, as if plumbing his soul through them for his true nature. Haz couldn’t maintain eye contact and looked away, down at the saffron rocks.
“You truly wish to know,” she said. “Long ago, at the world’s dawn, my mother Nyx touched all water, and nixies sprung to life. I was born in my cave, and given dominion over this lake. I danced through time, finding joy in my resplendent home. When the Children of the Earth came, I communed with them. They brought me gifts and did me homage, and I gave them fish and free passage. I thought all men must be as wise and compassionate as them, so when the Pale Men came, I welcomed them too.
“But they brought pain with them, and wicked magics. They snuck into the grove on the promontory above my cave to enact a ritual, to bind me to their will. I summoned a storm and slew them. Their ritual, though not complete, has pained me ever since. It is a canker on my soul, a thorn in my being I cannot worry free. No longer can I ascend to the grove, so I am helpless to destroy it.”
“So you lash out at the men who wronged you,” Haz surmised.
“I never harm the Children of the Earth, but woe betide any of the Pale Men I discover upon my waters.”
“Why did you spare me, then?”
Eriene hesitated before she spoke. “I use my song to lure men to their deaths. You leapt into the water, true, yet…yet you did not leap at my song’s beckoning. You tried to save me. A stupid act, but a selfless one. I froze the moment in time and brought you to my cave to find out why. As I watched you slumber, I felt an odd energy in the water churning through your blood. You share the water of heroes, did you know?”
He chuckled. “My family’s descended from William Wallace, it’s said. I thought it a family legend.”
“You should know by now the truth of legends,” Eriene said with an arch smile. “You are a good man, Haz. I shall return you to land before I unleash my storm once more. Your selflessness has saved your life.”
His head reeled back as if she’d slapped him. “But you’re still going to destroy the ships? We’ll lose the war!”
“Your war matters nothing to me or my waters.”
Eriene stepped forward, reaching a hand toward Haz’s brow, but he flinched back from her touch. His mind worked rapidly, snatching at a solution to his dilemma.
“What if I destroy their magic for you? Will you spare them all?”
“You cannot, it is impossible.” Eriene shook her head. “You have not the power or knowledge.”
“I have the blood of heroes coursing through my veins, you said it yourself.”
“Perhaps,” she mused. “Haz, you would do this for me?”
“For my people,” he corrected her. When he considered her face, though, the pure innocence reflected there, he paused. There was savagery there too, but it only reflected the cruelty the Pale Men had inflicted upon her. “For you as well, sweet Eriene. God help me, for you as well.”
She cupped a hand over his cheek and gave him a sad smile. “I fear you charge to your death, but I must allow you. It is a chance to rid myself of this wrenching pain.”
“What evils must I conquer to defeat the ritual?”
“I cannot know. It is located in the grove above my cave, where I have not been able to go since they visited this plague upon me. I can guide you to the beach, no further.”
Haz gave a roguish grin. “Damn it to Hell, I’ll do it.”
Eriene led him to the cave entrance, which spilled out onto a narrow pebbled beach. Afternoon sun reflected off the beach, bathing the area in weird saffron light. Haz glanced up and down the shoreline, looking for landmarks, but could not make out his location. To his left a small footpath cut back and forth up the side of a steep cliff. Trees grew all the way to the edge of the promontory, their giant roots protruding here and there from the cliff face, Allegheny vines woven amongst them.
Onward and upward. Haz nodded once at Eriene and began the ascent.
Ten minutes’ time found him only halfway up, making slow progress. A sudden hammer blow of air smashed into the crown of his head. A buffeting wind sought to separate him from the path, beating down at him with brutal ferocity. Quick wits and nimble feet kept him alive. Haz hunched his shoulders in, went flat onto his stomach, and slid backward several feet, moving with the wind rather than fighting against it. There a root formed an elbow jutting out of the packed earth. Haz hooked his arm through the loop and held tight. His feet scrabbled at the path, frantic to find purchase and ride out the wind.
For a moment Haz wondered why Eriene would betray him so, yet the lake remained calm. The wind had attacked him from above. An effect of the ritual, then.
He slid forward on his stomach, as high as he could without letting the root go. With it clasped tight in his fist, he snagged another root higher up the path. Gritting his teeth, Haz let go the first root and hauled himself higher. So he went, a few feet at a time, using the roots as a hand ladder. Once the wind tore him from the cliff, and he dangled precariously in the air. The root held strong, and Haz fought to regain the path. Further up, the wind threw him off again; the root snapped just as he rolled back to safety.
He toiled on, making his way from root to root. By the time he reached the top, hands and knees bloodied, lips chapped and eyes dried, Haz could hardly move. He flopped onto his belly between two saplings and rolled onto his back, gasping for breath. The wind screamed hatred at him, then ceased.
The sun poked in scattered rays through the thick foliage, caressing his face as he endeavored to slow his breathing. Every muscle in his body ached, crying out for rest. A young man full of vitality, Haz was ready to continue within minutes. He climbed to his feet and flexed his sword hand, working the muscles loose, then drew his spadroon, slipping the hand past the proud eagle’s head on the pommel to grasp the familiar ivory grip. Haz preferred to have steel in his fist to meet the next challenge, whatever it may be.
He made his way inland. The trees soon gave way to a large clearing covered in lush grass with clusters of huge rocks half buried in the ground. Beyond the verdant turf ranged a stand of willow trees, more than Haz could count. That must be the grove. Wary of what might await him amongst the drooping greenery, Haz strode onto the sward to cross into the waiting willows.
The sunny sky gave no warning, but the hairs on his arms and the back of his neck spiked his senses. Haz, an experienced sailor, knew what it portended. He rolled to his right, hiding behind a boulder. Lightning crackled down, changing direction midair to pummel the earth where he had stood but a moment before, gouging a hole in the grass and loam beneath. Under normal circumstances, finding a low place would have provided protection, but this lightning was alive, abuzz with malevolent intent. Haz gave up his cover and ran away from where he crouched, diving behind another rock. The boulder cracked behind him, the lightning’s passage so close his shirt clung with an odd tingling to his back.
Though Haz kept ahead of the lightning, it would catch him soon enough. He wracked his mind for solutions. Getting in amongst the trees would do no good; the lightning was too intelligent, and would search him out.
Frustration mounted in him as he thought of the death and loss his failure would mean. Ships and men wiped away, aye, but a nation too. Haz’s own country. The British would burn the young Stars and Stripes, and drag its people back under the Union Jack’s harsh parentage. The notion made him tremble with rage. Not if I have anything to say about it, by God!
The lightning would follow wherever he went, a hellish, elemental monster. Well, if it doesn’t have to follow the rules of nature, neither do I. After all, he had the blood of heroes in him. And lightning is nothing to a hero. Haz stopped running, stood firmly in place, and waited. As the lightning forked down at him with a gleeful sizzle, he flexed his arm and thrust his sword high above. Like plunging it up into the belly of an enormous dragon, Haz felt resistance as steel met lightning. He should have died in that moment; he should have been fried to cinders. Instead, power thrummed along his sword, racing down into his body, energizing his blood. He felt able to shift mountains with a shrug, or cut through the hull of a ship with his spadroon. Haz stalked into the willow grove, every muscle in his body quivering with preternatural strength.
He passed between two trunks. A passing breeze rustled the elongated leaves, revealing no dangers. Haz crept on, sword hefted before him, deeper into the forest. Soon he reached another clearing, a circular glade at the heart of the grove. A large, flat stone marked the middle, with what must be the ritual’s physical component perched atop it. He crept forward to gain a closer look. The moment he set foot inside the glade, they came for him.
Haz faced away from the pagan altar and backed toward it, looking all around. Dead men emerged from the woods, likely the cultists Eriene had vanquished years ago. Willow leaves framed their faces like tendrils of hair as they pushed through. Rotten flesh sloughed from their bones as they stumbled on, reaching their arms toward him. He counted ten in all, and though he’d not killed more than a handful of men in ship-to-ship combat, and never faced more than two at once, the lightning power sang in his blood. Ten? Pah, I could handle fifty now!
From his left, his right, before and behind, the dead men encircled him and advanced, like a tightening noose. They’d be on him in moments. Good, now they can’t get away.
“For God and country,” Haz cried, bounding to the attack. His spadoon crunched into a collarbone. Yanking the sword free from the rot-softened bones, he whirled and struck the head from a second undead man. He hacked at a third as the rest closed in, clawing at him with blackened nails. Haz ducked and cut and spun and stabbed, spilling stinking ichor and pulped organs all over the glen in a disgusting massacre.
Haz didn’t escape harm himself. Long scratches marked his arms and shoulders. A wicked gash opened on his thigh, hobbling him. The lightning’s magic faded; his spadroon seemed to weigh twenty pounds. He fell to his belly to avoid a deadly blow. With a final surge Haz swept his sword up as he stood, lopping the legs from one and, with a swift backhanded stroke, taking the top of the head off another. He went to one knee, half-waddling and half-crawling over the body of the legless one. He placed the point of his blade over its eye and leaned on the hilt, driving the sword through what was left of its brain. He slumped forward, victorious, utterly spent.
If he lay down for the rest his body cried out for, Haz knew he would never rise. He’d die, only to become a new sentinel guarding the hateful site. With agonizing slowness he dragged himself forward, past the newly dead remains and to the stone altar. A cloth doll of blue fabric had been nailed by its hands and feet to a St. Andrew’s cross made of driftwood planks. The cross lay on the altar, the doll’s featureless face upturned to the sun. The cultists had crafted a tiny crown made of briar stalks and pressed it onto the doll’s head, securing it there by the thorns. This is the sickness; I have the cure. Haz raised his spadroon high overhead.
Yet he hesitated. Would simply destroying the thing work? Or would he slay Eriene along with the ritual fetish? The sword slumped low at his side. If I don’t hack it apart, how will I undo its magic? Haz worried at the puzzle with his mind. Perhaps I can cast it into the lake? Or burn it? Neither felt right.
Then it came to him. The ritual had been conceived through greed by evil men seeking to snatch a power that wasn’t theirs. Freedom, then. She needs freed from the ritual. Fixing on this realization, Haz pulled the thorny crown gently from the doll’s head and cast it on the ground. Using the point of his sword, he worked each of the four nails from the planks, freeing the doll’s appendages. He cradled the tortured thing in his arms, and waited for Eriene to appear.
She didn’t come. I must not be finished. Do I even have the power to free her? Perhaps power was the answer once again. Haz stumbled through the glade and from the grove, clutching the doll to his breast. This time he was prepared when he stepped onto the sward. He offered the doll to the sky in supplication, with a silent prayer that he was doing the right thing.
Something punched the back of his head, followed by a stinging shock. Haz’s body went rigid and he fell back onto the sward. His eyes stared straight up, his vision filled with forks of lightning.
“Oh, Haz,” he heard as the lightning disappeared and the sky cleared. “Why would you do such a thing?” Eriene sat on the grass, his head cradled in her lap.
“You destroyed a great magic. It needed time for the effects to wear off.”
She stroked his brow. “Hush now, rest. You have earned peace, and my eternal gratitude.”
Though Haz tried to keep his eyes open they drifted shut, Eriene’s beauteous visage first blurring, then disappearing as darkness overtook him.
“—up, Captain, wake up.”
Something beat at his chest. Haz coughed. A geyser of water gushed from his lips. The pain of his wounds was gone.
“Captain Perry, wake up, sir.”
Captain Oliver Hazard Perry opened his eyes and gained his feet with assistance. His brother Matt lent him a steadying arm. He glanced around the Porcupine’s deck, and saw the Tigress bobbing on a calm lake beyond the rail.
“I thought we’d lost you,” Matt said. “Why the devil did you leap in like that?”
“Never mind,” Haz said. He felt nothing of the physical trials he had endured so recently. Or did I endure them? Perhaps it had been but a dream.
“You will thrive upon my waters, Haz. You and no other. Go win your war.” Eriene’s voice echoed in his ears.
“Never mind,” he repeated. “We will meet the enemy, Matt, and they will be ours.”
Brandon Ketchum is a speculative fiction writer from Pittsburgh, PA. He has attended Cascade Writers Workshops, In Your Write Mind Workshops, and the Nebulas. His work has appeared in a variety of publications.