Notes: First of all, thank you to everyone – friends, family and complete strangers who followed this blog last week – for your support on my Preface blog last week. It has given me a lot of encouragement to share this story with you, so please know that it is greatly appreciated.This chapter was redrafted several times before I was happy with it, and was key in shaping the world that I wanted to build for this story. It took me a while to land on a character to base the Prologue around, and I played around with a few different personalities before I landed on Wright the shipbuilder. I really enjoyed researching shipbuilding and piracy in the Middle Ages as well, so I hope that shines through and this is an enjoyable read. Whilst this is low fantasy, please note that this is mature low fantasy, and so there are references to sex, violence, gore and all of the other nasties that occur in these types of stories, so if you are adverse to anything like this, then this story probably won’t be for you. For everyone else, I hope you enjoy and please let me know what you think in the comments below. (Also please excuse the formatting, Word is not a friend of mine!)
Rostral columns decorated the horizon of The Free Islands almost as commonly as trees. Wright had become so used to seeing them that it was a strange and foreign thing to arrive at a dock where they didn’t dominate the landscape. Whenever he gazed upon them, he would be stuck admiring the craftsmanship, and felt a tug of disappointment knowing it had been unceremoniously torn from its hull. The ram on The Warrior’s Wife inspired him, and he spent most of his days standing by the bow, his body leant over the peak to get the best view of the rhinoceros-sculpted prow that curved back towards the ship like a tsunami.
They were close now. He could almost hear the sound of the bells ringing, the splash of men leaping from the dock as their bodies smacked against the water, and the panicked screams of women as the nightmarish tales of The Warrior’s Wife that their children told each other around a fire became more real than they could ever have imagined. Wright recalled that sacking a town used to be much more difficult when he was a younger man. Then, coastal towns were prepared for the arrival of Free Men and either fought back or gave offerings to spare their people. In times past, the offering was generous enough, but Free Men cared less and less for booty as the years fell away and their coffers inflated, and nowadays the lure of rape and violence was too much for a sea-weary oarsman to resist. In response, the towns increased their defences and archers were mounted on houses, docks were manned with soldiers, and blockades of ships were positioned on the coastline to defend them from their enemies.
Of all the towns that learned how to protect themselves, none were quite as successful as Barajas. It became known to Free Men as the impregnable town, built on a steep slope so sheer it was an angle away from being a cliff face. Its crude coastal-pine houses were layered on top of each other from the beach to the hilltop, and the rooftops were protected by archers who benefited from the vantage point of an eagle.
There were three lines of defence in Barajas. Line one consisted of a blockade of twenty ships linked together by flax rope that stretched across the bay. Not only did this stop a fleet from entering the dock in force, on each ship were archers that awaited unfriendly visitors and loosed their flaming arrows should they be disturbed. Line two consisted of even more archers who sat atop the houses that overlooked the dock, who rained arrows down on the men who tried to land on their shores. Line three were the soldiers who manned the docks and fought the final few men who somehow managed to make it past the first two lines.
The problem with this form of defence however, Wright knew, was that if you remove line one from the equation, then lines two and three will be stretched too thin to fight off an incoming fleet. Luckily for Olon the Vile, Captain of The Warrior’s Wife, his advisor and close friend was Wright, the most renowned shipwright in the New World. Most men wouldn’t be aware that it only took an experienced docker around a third of a night to identify the weakest point of eighteen twenty-yard ropes, even less would know that they would do the job for eighth the price of what a whore charges for the same length of time.
Knowing this, in the dead of night, Olon the Vile sent ten canoes of twenty of his oarsmen and an experienced docker to hack at the ropes that tied the ships together. Usually this would take an entire evening and would disturb the archers from their slumber – enough time for the defending town to regroup and reinforce their defences for the following night. However, the oarsmen knew precisely where to cut the rope, meaning it took them only a third of the night. This left an entire third of a night of darkness to kill the archers, burn the fleet and sink the ships, allowing a clear pathway for the Free Men to dock and plunder the impregnable town of Barajas.
As soon as the great red sun rose over the hilly shoreline of the ancient country of Filos, light shone onto the charred pine that littered their bay. Though their panic was born at dawn, the fates of the Filosi of Barajas would be sealed under the light of The God of Life. The oarsmen were the first to disembark the warship, and swarmed around the fleeing solders like locust. As Wright predicted, the defeated blockade stole their nerve and the smart men retreated. Those who stayed, along with Barajas’ famous archers, were picked off by Olon’s own arrows in a matter of moments.
Wright stayed on the ship as the rest of the men scrambled across the deck to get to the town. Standing on his left was Olon, the most feared Captain on the Earth. His sleek black hair bounced on his shoulders in the wind, he had a crooked nose that hung over two strips of hair on his upper lip and curled up at each end like the prow of his ship. The pointed end of his goatee flapped against his throat. Olon looked back at Wright and frowned.
“I wait for the last man before I take my spoils, brother,” Olon told him.
“The town is yours, captain. The ship beneath my feet is satisfaction enough,” Wright smiled.
“It is bad luck for a captain to leave the ship whilst it is still manned and you have lived too simple a life for a Free Man. Go and take what you will. I am growing impatient.”
Wright turned to face Olon. “I will not leave this ship of my own accord, captain.”
“Is that so?” Olon raised his eyebrows. Wright nodded and stood firm and straight under the mast, the ancient flag of House Black – a black sword on a quartered field of grey and white within a shield emblem – flickered in the wind. It served as both homage and mockery to the family who commissioned and previously owned the ship before Olon took it for himself. “I suppose you give me no choice,” Olon smiled mischievously and grasped Wright by his collar and his belt and rushed him overboard, as they ran with the momentum, Wright grabbed at Olon’s jacket and pulled him with him until they both fell off the boat and landed in the water with a huge splash. Cold as the water was, it was a relief from the intensity of the southern sun and Wright allowed his body to rise to the top naturally, enjoying the silence underneath the water while it lasted.
When they emerged, Olon stared at him incredulously and smacked the water in a tantrum. “I swear on Natos, Wright I’m going to carve your chest open and eat your heart!” Olon screamed.
“I’ve heard you make that threat a thousand times and you’ve still never done it!” Wright laughed. “At least you were the last one off the ship.”
Olon shook his head and laughed with him. “You must be the only man on earth who isn’t terrified of me.”
“Every other man on earth only knows you from the stories.”
By the time they found themselves on the dock, the oarsmen had already moved further up into the town, burning the houses they had plundered. The finest treasures would be stored in the church and the palace, which would be well-guarded and not easily overrun. The rest of their fleet were beginning to dock and the town would soon be ravaged by five-hundred more Free Men. As usual, the younger men broke into homes, raped the women, and then kill the men. The more experienced among them preferred to test their mettle and fight the guards to steal their finer garments, mail and swords. Once they had their fill, they would converge at the town centre and await the arrival of Olon who would lead the charge into the church and the palace to seize the greatest prizes.
The next ship to dock was Karlair, captained by Beirus the Unbroken, named so after a Skaerman broke his back during his voyage to discover the northern-most island of the tribal archipelago of Skaer. The tribal beast left him to die in the snow, but Beirus found refuge in a cave and his men found him and brought him back to his ship. Against all odds, he survived and eventually healed, giving him the reputation as the toughest bastard on the Free Islands. Following Beirus were the brothers Edwin and Markor of Algard, former War Commanders from Ismann who fled in exile after their Warlord accused them of attempting to stage a coup. Most nobles fled east to the Old World when they are sent to exile, but the brothers were sick of living under another man’s rule and chose a life that required no homage, no taxes and no arse-kissing. Edwin’s ship was named Uncaged, and Markor’s was Enita’s Legacy, named afterthe niece he adored.
Olon and Wright stepped aside as the rest of the men launched the second wave of attack on Barajas. Wright was soaking wet from head to toe but felt the warmth of the rising sun against his torso, he covered his eyes to keep the sun out of them and watched as the men stormed their way uphill. As they scattered and the dock emptied, Edwin and Markor approached Olon and extended their hands one by one to greet him.
“Well travelled, Captain,” Edwin nodded.
“A well-executed plan indeed,” Markor added.
“My arse is for sitting and shitting, not for kissing, lads,” Olon scoffed and slapped Markor on the back.
Behind them, Beirus approached slowly, surveying the dock and the fleet before landing his gaze on Wright. Beirus was a broad-shouldered man with a roll of fat underneath his chin and a wide jaw. His hair was cut short, white at the sides with flecks of grey on top. As he joined the group, he looked him up and down and eyed him with contempt.
“Morning swim was it?” Beirus mocked.
“A day as warm as this requires a refreshing dip,” Wright smirked.
“You will address me as Captain, Wright.”
“You are not his captain, brother,” Olon intervened. “I am.”
“Perhaps then, he should be dismissed. After all, this is a meeting of captains.”
“If it wasn’t for Wright, we wouldn’t be standing here right now about to seize enough plunder to keep us for six months on the seas. The man knows boats and oars like you know goats and whores,” Olon joked, though only Markor joined the laughter.
“Make your jokes, but it does not do for our reputation when you’re frolicking in the water with one of your men. We have all built reputations which serve us well, if we lose the fear, we lose our power. Remember that,” Beirus strode past them towards the town.
Olon turned around and spat, which landed a yard behind Beirus who didn’t even glance back. “No one has ever feared the Skaerman’s bitch,” Olon shouted, but Beirus just continued walking.
The town square was filled with bodies. Some were lying still in pools of blood, others were cowering and covering their heads, some were naked and bruised with wet faces and a blank, distant stare. Most had been tied together and propped up in seated positions with oarsmen standing over them wielding their swords and daggers to keep them subdued. Wright watched as Olon counted the living and assumed he was calculating in his mind how much he would earn in ransoms for their survival.
The church stood proudly over the town square with a wide row of about ten steps that gradually grew narrower the closer they came to the large wooden doors. The church’s outer surface was limestone stone painted white, which featured painted murals of old legends and tales from The Book of Life & Death. To the left of the door was a seven-foot tall painting of Natos, with his honey-coloured skin and green eyes, Jivana was on the right with her pale features, long nose and golden hair, between them both was the Symmetry of Earth, a six-pointed symbol that embodied the faith of much of the New World.
Suddenly the church doors burst open and a man rolled down the steps and landed at the feet of Olon who looked down at the man and then back up to the church doors. Standing at the doors was Beirus who marched down the steps making sure to tread his victim into the ground before meeting Olon face to face.
“Beirus…you appear to have dropped something,” Olon joked and the surrounding oarsmen laughed. “Who is this fellow and why is he at my feet?”
“This, captain, is Abbot Tomis – the foolish man who will not give up the treasury. I promised him that I would either deliver the gold or his broken bones to your feet,”
Olon considered him for a moment. “I must be honest, Beirus. I would have much preferred the gold.” A laugh started again and Beirus shot Olon a look. “However! As you have gone to the trouble of delivering this man to my feet so graciously, I will show him mercy…providing he tells me where we can find the wealth.” Olon declared. “Markor, Edwin. Abbot Tomis appears to have lost the use of his legs, perhaps you can assist him so I might look him in the eye.” At once, Morkar and Edwin hoisted the man to his feet and snapped his head back by his hair so he was forced to look at Olon. “Do you know who I am, Abbot?”
The Abbot stared blankly past him until Morkar drove his knee into his lower back, which caused the man to wail in pain. “Yes … yes!”
“So tell the people!” Olon roared and opened his arms wide.
“What? Speak so the whole town can hear you. I want them to hear it from the hilltops!”
“Olon the Vile!” Abbot Tomis shouted and dropped his head until Edwin pulled it back again.
“Olon the Vile!” Olon repeated. “Yet perhaps they will name me Olon the Merciful after today. Tell me, Abbot, where do you hide your treasury?”
Abbot Tomis scrunched up his wrinkled face and looked Olon dead in the eye. “We are not afraid of you or your people! You’ll have to kill me first!”
“I said I will give you mercy, Abbot, so you will not die today. However, for every moment that I stand here waiting for the location of your treasury, I will kill one of your people. So far, I would say I have been standing here for about three moments, so…you, you, and you…” Olon pointed towards the three oarsmen standing closest to the church steps. “… cut their throats.”
The square erupted with panicked cries from the townspeople, but it was too late. Within a moment all three oarsmen had slashed the throats of their captives and let them fall and bleed out onto the stone paving of the square. Hysterical screams filled the air, men wailed and children cried as Abbot Tomis stared speechless at the scene, his lips trembling. Beirus nodded in approval as Wright turned away from the bloodshed, hiding the horror on his face.
“You monster! You vile beast!” Abbot Tomis cried.
“You killed them, and you will kill them all if you don’t tell me where it is, Abbot. Of that you have my word. We are approaching another moment, brother. What is it to be?”
Wright had never lifted anything quite so heavy. In total the treasury amounted to five chests of gold, silver and bronze coinage, jewelled goblets, precious crowns and rare artefacts that Olon calculated to last the fleet another eight months on the seas, and that was if they didn’t plunder a single town in that time. Olon had agreed Wright would receive two per hundred of the total wealth if he gained them access to the town, and Olon always stuck to his word.
The total didn’t include hostages either, of which they kept ten. The men were killed unless someone claimed them and paid their ransom, whilst the women and children who survived the journey would be sold as slaves across the sea in Amenti or The Old World. In truth, they couldn’t take many more. The captains had expected more of a fight, and thus expected to lose a lot more men than they did. Apart from a handful of unlucky or foolish oarsmen, almost all of them who walked off their ships walked back onto them.
The Warrior’s Wife could only hold one chest of gold, whilst Karlair and Uncaged took two each, being larger, rounder ships more suited to carrying cargo. The hostages would travel on Enita’s Legacy. They set sail again by mid-afternoon, keen to reach The Molten Isles by nightfall in order to rest for the evening with their bounty secure, far away from the retaliation of Filos. By the time they gathered a fleet large enough to challenge them, they would be halfway across the ocean towards the Old World.
As soon as they heaved the chest into Olon’s cabin, Wright stretched his back and breathed a deep sigh, he felt a slap on his back and a finger and a thumb grasp the back of his neck firmly.
“Tell me, Wright,” Olon said, “What are you going to do with your share of the bounty?”
Wright thought for a moment. “I’m going to build the greatest ship the world has ever seen.”
Olon smiled, about to make a joke, but instead he gazed at Wright with a proud grin. “I have no doubt you will. Perhaps I will buy it from you,” Olon nudged him.
“If you can afford it.”
“Or I could just take it,” Olon patted him on the shoulder and walked back out onto the deck.
Twilight crept up on the fleet as the celebrations distracted the crew from the passing of time. The wind was strong with them, so the oarsmen were allowed some time to regather their energies following their earlier efforts in Barajas. Even Wright allowed himself a swig or two of bunbo, a crude liquid made of fermented wheatgrass which could blind a man in a large enough quantity, but in small doses it warmed the stomach and calmed the mind. Soon they would be able to drink and sing shanties to their heart’s content as rested on the beach of a remote island in the middle of the Molten Ocean.
The Molten Isles were a group of over a thousand small islands that littered the sea with turquoise waters, white beaches and palm trees the height of castles. To Wright, they were useless things. Too soft to use as timber for shipbuilding, and nowhere near strong or even enough to be used for making oars – it would suffice for a hut and primitive weapons such as bows and spears, but there were much finer options on The Free Islands and the continent. The Warrior’s Wife was made from a mix of fir and pine. Fir made the ship lightweight and easy to manoeuvre, whilst the pine reinforced the inner-parts of the hull with a denser and more resilient timber. Only the keel was made from something else – oak, a wood so tough that it could withstand the constant hauling of the ship to shore. It was the greatest ship ever built, and Wright was certain he was the only man alive who knew how to build a better one.
It was a dream that reduced him to staring across the ocean, picturing how it would look balanced on the water, how he would make it, what problems he would face, but the dream was always overtaken by the thoughts of his dear, Agnes. If Wright was the greatest shipbuilder in the New World, then Agnes was the greatest oar-maker. It was delicate work. Each young fir has many skins, like an onion, and each layer must be removed carefully and perfectly even in order for the oar shaft to maintain its strength. The work took time, patience and an attention to detail so minute that only those with years of practice could consistently make effective oars. An oarsman only owned three things in this world – his cushion, his oar-loop and his oar – everything else was secondary, for without these items he could not be an oarsman, he would only be a man. Agnes ensured that these men only ever needed one oar so long as they lived.
He thought of her as the Great Galla began to take shape in the sky, and he longed to hold her hand in his and to press his stubbly face against her soft cheeks and hold her in his arms again. She’d asked him not to leave, fearful that Olon would lead him into depravity. Wright knew he had no choice. If he was ever going to build the ship that he dreamed of, he needed to strike a deal with his old friend, he needed to do what all Free Men did. Free Men did not wait for their dreams, they took them and made no apologies for it. He would continue the trip and return with more riches than he had ever known, enough to build ships for the rest of his days on earth. For that, Wright thought, I would risk a thousand lifetimes of depravity.
Wright watched as the men hauled the ship to shore and collapsed in exhaustion under the moonlit sky. It was a small beach on the edge of a deep forest, and the heat was as intense in the evening as it was during the day. Sweat fell from his forehead and stung his eyes; he rubbed them with his knuckles and beheld the soft sand that looked as appealing as a large feather bed. The oarsmen stumbled off the boat bereft of energy and deprived of sleep with no more than their cushion, oar and loop in their possession. Olon followed them and glanced at Wright to exit the ship before him – he was too tired to argue and wandered out in front to find a spot to sleep.
Men were strewn across the sand holding bottles of bunbo to their chests as they drifted off to sleep in the humid air. Olon had arranged his archers in strategic positions around the edges of the trees whilst the Captains sat around a small fire planning their next moves. Wright had no desire to be sat with them, he had no desire to fraternise with the men either, he was more than happy gazing out across the ocean, listening to the waves as they licked the wax-coated timbers of the ships.
As the fires died down across the beach, Wright felt the patch of sand next to him shift and a glass bottle was placed into his palms, which he grasped with his long fingers.
“We move again at dawn,” Olon whispered. “There’s a fleet on our tail.”
Wright took a swig that burned his throat and warmed his stomach. “How many?”
“Too many to be another gang…not quite enough to be an army.”
“Can we fight them off?”
“I’d rather we didn’t. We need every man on board to get us to the Old World. We’re far away from home, speed is our best option.”
“Well, speed is what she was made for,” Wright smiled and gestured to The Warrior’s Wife.
“It is strange. The world doesn’t remember the man who built it, few can recall which Black owned it first … the only name they know for certain is the man who stole it.”
“Our curiosity is piqued by the morbid,” Wright pondered.
“Olon the Vile agrees with you.”
“Do you ever get used to it? Killing I mean?” Wright took a swig from the bottle.
The Captain sighed. “Beirus once described it like being a whore,” Olon began. “The first time you get fucked it hurts, the pain is too much to bear, you feel shame and ache and guilt for days afterwards. After a while, you become used to it, it isn’t enjoyable, but you no longer feel pain – just discomfort. Then, after more time, you may begin to enjoy it, some may even crave it and lust for it to the point you feel you must hide your desire from others. If you do it too much though, then that lust becomes harder to satisfy, you fuck more, you fuck one person, then tens of people, then hundreds of people and soon you fuck so much that you no longer do it because you enjoy it … you do it because you have to do it …you do it until you feel nothing at all. All of a sudden you are a famous whore, everybody wants to know how you do it, everybody thinks you are some sort of lust-filled demon…and nobody remembers that the whore was once a maiden…was, like everybody, an innocent child trying to find their way in the world…until they were forced to fuck because they had no other option. So yes…I suppose I am used to it. Beirus is probably the only man I know who actively enjoys it, and not just to impress those around him. I doubt he even remembers the first man he killed; I assume they all just blur into one for him. I still remember my first time, though. That I will never forget.”
“I promise you, I will never ask you about that.”
“I know, and one day I will tell you the truth of it, when we are old and decrepit, before a younger man cuts me down to fuel his own legend. Of that I promise you,” Olon tried to take the bottle from his hand. Wright felt the warmth of Olon’s palm against his fingers briefly as he pulled it back. Their eyes met for a moment. The captain yanked the bottle back and Wright released it. Olon got to his feet and strolled back to the simmering embers of his fire, and Wright was alone again.
It wasn’t long until the waves were the only sound he could hear and the stars twirled and twinkled in the void behind his eyelids, the swirling strips of light danced like wisps and constellated to form vibrant figures that lured him into unconsciousness. He could smell gusts of smoke entwined with salt and charred bark and tasted metal as if a blooded dagger was being pressed against the back of his tongue. A soothing graze gently scraped the side of his neck, the graze turned to a scratch until he felt an intense heat that startled him awake and his eyes bulged from their sockets.
He tried to jump up and scramble back, but found himself under a heavy weight. As Wright awakened, he felt a warm liquid slide down the back of his neck towards his shoulder blade. He wriggled again, but the pain deepened. The smell of bunbo wafted into his nostrils as he stared up at Beirus who straddled him with a blade held against Wright’s throat. Starlight twinkled in the captain’s eyes that failed to focus on anything but the blood that trickled onto the fat man’s thick hands. Wright couldn’t speak. He couldn’t move – trapped beneath the weight of Beirus the Unbroken.
“Beirus,” a voice called. “Get off him now.”
Beirus didn’t respond. He didn’t even look up at the sound of Olon ordering him to release his friend. Wright tried to catch his eye, but Beirus refused to meet them. The dagger dug deeper into his skin, though the pain softened slightly. All he could see was Beirus’ opaque silhouette looming over him against the Great Galla.
“I’m a Free Man and a captain, it’s my right to challenge him,” Beirus slurred.
“And what challenge do you expect to get from a sleeping man? A sleeping man you’ve now wounded. Free Men fight fair, Beirus.”
Beirus scoffed and eased the weight on Wright before the lug stumbled to his feet. Wright stayed still for a moment and wiped the blood from his neck. The wound was superficial and made to feel more substantial because of the sweat around his throat. Wright got to his feet and looked around him to see that all of the men had gathered in a circle. Beirus threw his arm up into the air and slashed his left palm with the blade before he threw it to the floor.
“Now it is fair.”
A roar went up around the beach. Wright wiped the sweat from his eyes and tried to find Olon in the crowd to no avail. Beirus was drunk and blooded, with fire burning behind his grey eyes, the encouragement of the oarsmen echoing around his head. Wright looked around again for a route to escape, but the Free Men would not allow it. They were thirsty for blood, desperate for entertainment and drunk from bunbo and victory.
Wright had no choice. He raised his fists to his chin, but Beirus was in no mood for a civilised fight, he charged at Wright like a boar and took him down back onto the sand and threw a fist at him that crashed into his skull like a battering ram. Everything went black and every blow thereafter sounded like a distant drum and felt like nothing more than a throb from a bad headache.
As the sound of the waves became more distant, the throb in Wright’s temple sharpened into agony, he went to touch it, but found his wrist restricted against some kind of rope. The shipwright couldn’t bring himself to open his eyes yet, it felt as if they had been forced shut and stitched together. Twisting his wrists against what bound him, he realised that it wasn’t rope, but something much thinner and tauter like some kind of vine. Still he heard the drumming sound, only now it was closer and reverberated around his injured skull.
When Wright finally opened his eyes, the light of the sun pierced them in an instant and he shut them once again. It was directly above him, which indicated midday. He remembered little before he fell asleep, listening to the waves wash against The Warrior’s Wife. Then it came back to him in a rush. Beirus’ blade, the taste of blood and a blow that knocked Wright back into his dreams. Now he was awake, and alive – meaning that Beirus must have been pulled from him or Wright’s limpness gave the captain enough cause to believe that he was already dead.
In that moment, Wright realised that he was alive when he shouldn’t be. Free Men did not leave a challenge unfinished, which means someone interrupted them. Suddenly he began picking up noises that weren’t completely swallowed by the drum, it was the sound of people, and they were talking, but not in a way that Wright could understand. At first it was mumbling, then there were scoffs and laughter and lowered tones, but none of the words made any sense to him. He opened his eyes again, and the light had disappeared. In its place were enormous leaves, the largest he’d ever seen attached to trees far taller than he had ever known and in some areas, they cast a canopy so vast that even the sun couldn’t penetrate it.
He was moving. No, not just moving. He was being carried. Lifting his head, he saw that his feet were bound and were being held by a dark-skinned man with a long black ponytail that had been braided and tied up in a neat knot at the small of his back. Muscles burst from his shoulders and his triceps, but his torso was as slender as a knife.
“H-help…p-please,” he tried to yell, only for the sound to crack against the dryness of his throat.
“Eluwei,” the one who held his head scolded.
Wright was too weak to try to yell again, and soon keeping his eyes open took too much energy to expend and he drifted back into unconsciousness.
Boom. Boom. Boom.
The drumming stopped. Wright’s eyes opened and he found himself staring into a fire. The smell of charcoal made him feel sick as it reached his nostrils, and he wretched. Suddenly a soft hand touched the back of his neck and gripped his hair gently, pulling it back as his mouth suddenly filled with water. It tasted so pure and clean that he couldn’t help but gulp it down and grab onto the clay pot that it was poured from. The pot was soon pulled away from him forcefully and he took several exasperated breaths and let the droplets fall from his face and onto the grass beneath him.
“Easy…easy,” a female voice soothed him and rubbed his back. She had a lovely tone to her voice and an accent which filled him with calm.
“Where am I?” Wright finally gathered the energy to ask.
“Amuyele,” she replied as if it answered his question unequivocally.
Wright looked up to see the woman that had given him water. She was short, curvaceous and naked but for a skirt made of long grass and a face covered in swirling patterns made out of clay paint. On her bottom lip was a cherry coloured stain the size of a berry and her eyes were dark with soft, rounded cheeks beneath them. Leaning against a bamboo tree behind her was a wooden spear almost as long as an oar with a pointed slate tip. For a moment he took note of it and noticed the crudeness of the craft, as primitive and unpolished as he’d ever seen.
“You speak the common tongue?”
The woman made a gesture with two of her fingers, “little.”
“Not know. I hear big noise…lots of scream…we go to beach to see…big blue fire float on water like magic…you were all we found unburned.”
Wright tried to piece it all together. Then the word stuck to him like a brand…unburned…the men, the ships, Olon…could they all be dead? He thought.
“You must take me back to the beach. I must know what happened.”
She studied him for a moment and then shook her head. “No…sign from Gods…we build boats and leave before more death. Island is cursed,” she told him stubbornly.
“Please…I must see it for myself, I must know what happened to my people,” he pleaded.
The lady scoffed. “Not much left to see, but still…no. We hurry. Boat take time to build.”
“I can help…I…I build boats. I built many boats…fast…and strong,” Wright flexed his bicep.
“You help make boat if I let you see beach?”
“Yes, anything…please…I need to go there,” Wright said, resigned.
She looked at him pitifully with a sideways glance and nodded. “Okay. We go now.”
As they walked through the deep forest, Wright noticed that his neck had been bandaged. His pain soon turned to a dull ache as they wandered through the jungle. His companion hacked away at the vines and overgrowth that threatened to slow their path with a large curved blade similar to that of which he once encountered in Dourle, a port city within the Amentian Empire. Wright didn’t know the exact location of Amuleye, all he knew was that it was one of over a thousand islands in the vicinity.
“What is your name?”
“Tsegyusè,” she replied curtly.
“Che…gu…say,” Wright sounded it out. She turned around and furrowed her eyebrows and looked at him as if he was stupid.
As they approached the beach, Tsegyusè stopped abruptly and ushered him forward with the blade. She stepped behind him and put the point into his spine. “You look, then we go. We build boat, then we leave. Yes?”
“Yes,” Wright muttered.
Wright felt the sand beneath his toes that mingled with the fallen leaves and the sharp twigs that had fallen from the trees. Soon there were none left and he saw that the beach was covered in burnt logs and driftwood from the soft sand to the tide. The tide had gone out, and the beach seemed much larger in the light of the burning sun. He wandered out towards the beach. There was no blue fire dancing on the water, the ships he was expecting to see were not burned in position, they were gone. As Wright approached a patch of burned wood, he felt bile leap up from his stomach and onto the sand in front of him. The smell swarmed his insides like locust and he spat out the last remnants of sick. The stink was so putrid that it lingered in the air. A group of flies were buzzing around the patch of wood.
It was then Wright noticed that the charred wood that lay by his feet had appendages stretching from it like fingers. He surveyed the beach again, looking over the hundreds of charred lumps that littered the sand, burned to a crisp and covered in flies. They all had fingers too. A gust of wind blew past; the leaves bent and wavered whilst Wright stared blankly out to sea and ash rained over him.