Around him, floating debris stood testament to the death throes of The Albatross and her battle with Nature’s spite.
“Balls of a hairy goat!” The oath came with a surge of elation. Salvation lay beyond a final line of breakers. Caleath’s determination returned when he saw the fractured spar of the mizzen mast dumped on a narrow beach. He renewed his hold on a waterlogged barrel and struggled against the storm’s spent fury.
He gulped air before the next wave struck. The crashing foam tore the barrel from his grasp.
Without support, the weight of his companion’s body dragged him underwater. After keeping the blacksmith alive for so long, Caleath refused to lose him within sight of land.
Panic drove adrenaline through pulsing veins and gave him the strength to heave his burden to the surface. Despite salt water trying to fill his lungs, he remained afloat until the maelstrom dumped him onto solid ground.
Slumped on a beach beneath driving rain, he could not relax. With each successive wave, he lugged his companion’s body higher onto the shore. A greedy undertow dissolved the sand beneath his feet, but Caleath held ground against Nature’s fickle temper. Dragging air into tortured lungs, he waited for the next incoming surge.
Having survived the shipwreck, he hoped saving the life of his companion might serve toward providing redemption for the dark morass of his past.
A tumble of rocks offered protection from the wind. In their care, Caleath examined his shipmate. He cleaned a calloused finger, gritty with sand, and searched for a pulse or the telltale warmth of living flesh. Life pumped beneath clammy skin, and the smith still breathed in ragged spurts. With a sigh of satisfaction, Caleath relaxed.
Eyes closed. Fatigue plagued every cell of his body. To succumb to dreams before dawn meant facing the ghosts that haunted his nights. Instead, he mulled over the task ahead, concentrating on how he would escape this accursed planet.
Only then could he focus on revenge.
With a curse, he vowed to punish the man who abducted him and left him stranded on this world where sorcerers and slavery existed.
Anger warmed his blood while he contemplated how Ephraim would die.
* * * *
Despite his determination, sleep overwhelmed him but offered no peace of mind.
Scrutinized by the sightless eyes of drowned men, panic plagued his dreams. Hungry for vengeance and corrupted by the stench of watery decay, their angry spirits sought to destroy his sanity.
In his vision, strands of hair washed like seaweed across the disintegrating flesh of dead sailors. Tides of marine scavengers reduced humanity to bare bone and memory.
Ghostly accusations spread on the current to drown him in guilt. Lifeless skulls and partially devoured corpses of the recently drowned whispered curses. They laid the blame for their demise on his shoulders.
Fleshless fingers reached through the depths to draw him into Death’s grasp while
parasitic wraiths gnawed at his soul and his lungs filled with the fetor of a carnivore’s breath.
Caleath woke from the nightmare. Daylight drove barbs into his eyes, forcing him to blink before he could focus on the muzzle of a salivating wolf.
Fangs gleamed inches from his face and amber eyes regarded him without blinking.
Hunger, thirst, and the will to survive overcame any fear a wolf might evoke. Terror dissolved before a snarl. Caleath lifted an arm to fend off the creature’s curious approach. When the wolf backed away, hackle and tail raised, he knew the beast would not hinder his escape from this planet.
Nothing would ruin his chance of escape. Not an angry wolf, nor reoccurring
nightmares, nor Death herself could stop him while nanobots flowed in his bloodstream.
Two things struck him as unfortunate. The arm he tried to lift remained bound to his companion’s unconscious body. Sodden rope limited movement and brought the present situation into focus.
Memories roused. He managed to survive the shipwreck, spent days adrift in a storm-ridden ocean and succeeded in keeping the smith alive. Being one handed, now, was a minor problem.
A new menace needed sorting.
Stilling his racing heartbeat, Caleath focused on the weight of cold steel against the flesh of his neck. Heavy enough to draw blood the blade glinted in the sunlight. Caleath could see white knuckles strangling the sword’s hilt.
“Riante tol?” The voice of a young man trembled, but pressure applied to the blade emphasized each word. Caleath half closed his eyes. As if drifting off for a few seconds, he maneuvered his other hand to ensure nothing hampered its movement.
While the wolf stood close enough to share warmth, Caleath accessed data stored on microchips in his brain.
These implanted discs, the size of a single cell, carried information he collected during his lifetime. Able to download and utilize knowledge in an instant, he accessed languages, culture, or geography from across a dozen galaxies.
Technology from his home world stood him in good stead when he extracted the youth’s language from stored data. He drew on souvenirs of another galaxy, collected during his previous career as a surveyor of unexplored planets.
“You can call me…Caleath.” He survived the shipwreck, now he deserved a fresh start. His new persona tried to swallow, but a parched throat made the simple task difficult. Blistered lips bled from days in salt and sun. Coarse words drew a snarl from the wolf. “Call off your dog. I will not hurt you.”
The youth’s gaze flicked from the horizon to the cliffs. He seemed to want time to think.
The sword weighed heavy on Caleath’s neck while lines of anxiety creased the flesh around the boy’s eyes.
Before the youth made a decision, Caleath moved. His fist smashed against the wolf’s jaw.
The creature recoiled with a yelp. When the young man’s attention faltered, Caleath twisted one arm around the flat of the blade that rested across his neck.
His hand grasped the haft of the sword, while he used his bodyweight to lever the weapon free of the youth’s hand. Before he slammed the blade into the sand, out of harm’s way, Caleath used the sword to free himself from the rough hemp rope.
“You won’t need that. You’re likely to get hurt.” He brushed sand from his hands. “This man needs help.”
Recovering its dignity, the wolf growled and remained out of reach. The youth’s eyes widened and sweat beaded on his brow. His gaze dropped to his empty hands before he wiped them on his leggings.
“What is your name?” Caleath prompted conversation while he struggled to lift his companion. With a grunt, he managed to hoist the older man’s arm across his shoulder. Only then did he take stock of the youth’s homespun garments and ingeniously tailored skins.
From bare feet to his head of sandy hair the boy exuded health and vitality. His expression seemed honest and unused to the shadow of fear that haunted his brow.
Green eyes glinted in the dawn light while the youth watched Caleath.
“Gwilt. My name is Gwilt.”
Glancing at the boy’s bare feet Caleath nodded.
“You live near here. Help me get this man to shelter and you can have any of the bounty we can salvage.”
“I could have killed you.” Gwilt shaded his eyes as he scanned the strewn wreckage. “So this could all have been mine anyhow.”
Caleath perused the storm torn headland where he crawled ashore. Wooden chests, barrels, and shattered wreckage from The Albatross littered the beach.
With a smile, he hoisted his burden higher. The boy might have been right, only Caleath did not intend to die, nor would he allow his companion to come to harm.
“You might find my death a little hard to arrange. You missed the opportunity, Gwilt.” Caleath took a tentative step. “I take your point though. I shall rely on your generosity.” As he shifted his weight, pain ripped across his back and cramps from starvation made him stagger.
The older man slid from his grasp and Caleath doubled over fighting the pain. The startled wolf lunged forward, drawing a curse from Caleath’s cracked lips.
“Cyd. No!” Before the creature connected with flesh, Gwilt grabbed its thick fur.
Caleath took a moment to recover. He lifted himself, trying to make light his weakness by scuffing the soft sand and debris snagging his feet.
The youth seemed to appraise every movement. When Gwilt released the animal, he cast his gaze over Caleath’s clothing. Feeling naked before such scrutiny, Caleath brushed accumulated sand from his attire. He tugged the sleeve of his shirt and coat to cover an implant lying beneath the skin of his forearm.
If the boy shared the wolf’s distrust… No, the idea did not bear thinking about.
On a good day, he knew he appeared unkempt and he had heard the intensity of his gaze, alone, could be frightening.
Sand shifted beneath his bare feet as he adjusted tattered leggings dragged awry when the smith slumped against him. He shrugged the coarse hemp shirt he wore higher onto his shoulders. Days in the water reduced the garment to little more than rags and his coat had seen better days. Salt encrusted the clothes he wore. Stained, torn, and too large for his slight frame, they told a sorry tale.
Matted blond hair fell across eyes, once described as the color of an ocean on a sultry day.
Exposed flesh on Caleath’s ankles and wrists showed recent injury and caused the youth’s expression to narrow while tight creases tugged at the corners of his eyes. Caleath tried to appear unconcerned. He could not afford the youth reneging on his offer of aid. A sudden impatient energy spurred him into action.
“Come on, Chesney.” Caleath identified his companion, negating the need for introductions.
Again, he struggled to lift the other man.
Chesney, in contrast to Caleath’s ragged garb, dressed well. He wore a linen shirt,
embroidered waistcoat and leather leggings. Brass buttons decorated his shirt and a tooled belt complimented his fancy vest. Gwilt’s soft intake of breath showed he appreciated the quality of Chesney’s garments. The old man’s boots alone would fetch, with a little restoration, more than a full-grown boar.
A much larger man, older, with a rotund gut, his clothes bore days in the ocean without serious damage. Gray hair contrasted with skin burnt bright red from the sun. On exposed extremities sunburned blisters wept. A coarse beard coated in dried salt obscured cracked and bleeding lips. The only sign of life from the smith, apart from the occasional groan, was a snail trail of dribble running across the man’s chin.
“Here, I’ll help you,” the boy offered, as if reaching a decision. “It’s a fair way. Will you make it?”
“Needs must.” Caleath accepted the boy’s help with unspoken relief. “Adder’s spit!” He fought to keep his feet. “I need food.” He spoke as a mantra to himself rather than for Gwilt’s benefit.
“We have plenty of food.” Gwilt wrinkled his nose. “Hot and filling.”
Measuring the boy in a glance, Caleath decided hunger did not create problems for the strapping youth. Nor did malnutrition ever give Chesney much grief, judging from the man’s weight grinding into his shoulder.
The wolf circled the strange trio as they started onto the beach. Although each step demanded resolve, Caleath took his share of Chesney’s weight. He dragged his companion in silence.
Blood from recent wounds spread warmth inside his shirt. Caleath’s bare feet squelched through damp sand where Gwilt guided them past piles of kelp strewn across the beach.
Negotiating through rocks and soft sand left Caleath breathless beyond caring.
Chesney groaned once and Caleath paused to adjust the man’s weight. He took a moment to catch his breath and survey the beach. A fickle wind brought the scent of damp earth, salt, kelp, and the rank stench of rotting flesh.
Two bodies lay wasted on the sand. A third floated like a bloated tick in the eddy of each wave. Distended flesh bubbled where maggots writhed beneath translucent skin. Jagged rocks flayed open wounds. The fetid stench of decomposing bowel ebbed and flowed with the tide.
Caleath gagged and made a silent vow to see the men buried before he rested.
At the end of the sweeping beach, a track wound around a rugged headland. Caleath met Gwilt’s unspoken question with a resigned shrug. With no other choice, he needed to face the cliff. The climb took longer and seemed more dangerous than it appeared from the beach.
Caleath struggled to keep on his feet. The wolf followed close, but he could find no extra energy to waste on cursing the creature.
With a final effort, he reached the summit. While Gwilt lowered Chesney to the ground, Caleath sank to his knees. A cold wind pummeled the headland, turning Chesney’s lips a shade of blue and the smith’s hands felt as cold as death. Caleath removed his coat; no longer concerned if Gwilt realized recent injuries came from a flogging.
If the young man still accepted his presence without feeling threatened, the future boded well. He wrapped the tattered fabric of his jacket around Chesney and shivered when the gale tried to tear the shirt from his back. He could see good sense in Gwilt’s already dry skins. The boy seemed not to feel the cold.
“How far now?” Caleath could not stop his teeth chattering. Gwilt scrambled to his feet, grabbed Chesney and lifted him without effort. He gestured with his chin to a hut snuggled into the lee of the cliff.
“You go on ahead. I can manage your friend.” Gwilt started forward. “You obviously need your strength.”
With a nod, Caleath accepted the youth’s help. He did not have the energy to question the boy’s hospitality. He would cope with with whatever motivated the youth later.
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