A Version of Chapter One: EXILED: Autumn's Peril

“A tumultuous storm tore the stricken 
vessel asunder. Hungry waves wallowed the ship and all those who sailed on her.” 
The minstrel looks into the eyes of a young man gripping his empty flagon with white-knuckled calm. She strums a riffle of chords and continues. “Do not despair. Hope lives on.”

The evening crowd falls silent. As if compelled by magic they edge closer to hear the minstrel’s words. 

“Having survived six summers stranded on the northern landmass of this world, our star traveler’s obsession with escape grows. Sailing aboard The Albatross, he seized an opportunity, risking more than life in his desperate need to reach the southern continent.

Despite being bound by dark sorcery and slavery, his sabotage forced The Albatross toward the edge of the world where Nature’s sullen fury destroyed the ship.

Now our hero must survive for his plan to unfold…” 

* * * * *

 Determination drove him. 

Caleath 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. Legs kicking, he surfaced among the floating debris—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 tenacity 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.

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 tide 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 under 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 provide 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 pulsed at a fast but weak pace beneath clammy skin. The smith's breath came in gurgling spurts.

Caleath pressed on the man's chest. Seawater spilled from the slack mouth with every forced exhalation. “Chesney, come on man, you aren’t going to die. Not now.” 

Caleath pinched the smith’s bearded cheek and shook him gently. His action prompted a faint expelling of breath. No more water in the lungs. “It’s not long till dawn. Stay with me.” Caleath began to untie the rough rope binding him to the smith, wincing as pain spread with returning warmth. He glanced into the darkness crowding the rock strewn beach. The wind whispered accusations and shadows came to life.

Again Caleath checked Chesney’s breathing. “Can you hear them?” He tossed aside the hemp rope, pulling the tattered ends of his shirt sleeves over his bleeding wrist. “They are waiting for you to die or for me to fall asleep. Ghosts. Feel their hate?”

Chesney didn’t react. His body though radiated heat and Caleath edged closer, as meager warmth permeated shivering flesh. He needed Chesney to survive. The smith risked his life to save him. He would not fail the man. Not now.

“Chesney, listen to me… Stay with me.” He felt a muscle twitch in the man’s arm and although exhausted he concentrated on keeping the smith from sinking into a coma. “I don’t know why you saved me.” 

A violent shiver shook Caleath. 

Memories of being chained in the flooded hold of the sinking Albatross overwhelmed him. He clutched his arms around his chest. Blood still seeped from the wounds at his wrists, where cold iron tore skin and flesh. He swallowed, remembering the taste of terror as the ship rolled and water closed over his head. 

Nanobots in his blood wouldn't let him drown. These microscopic machines from his home planet ensured his survival. Immortality lost its allure with the prospect of spending decades at the bottom of the sea until the wood deteriorated enough to release him. Since purveyors of dark magic had found themselves an unquenchable source in Caleath, he often regretted no longer having the option of a quick, clean death.

Alive. Chained to a wreck while ribbons of blood invited predators to feed on his flesh. Living flesh. His fate if the smith hadn't released him.

The science needed to understand Caleath's longevity evaded the primitive natives of this planet. They called him daemon. Magic they could deal with. Science they failed to understand.

“Did you believe the stories, smith?” Caleath asked, not expecting an answer. “I never wanted the ship to sink. Wasn’t my fault. No one will believe me though, will they?”

The smith’s breathing faltered. Caleath rested a hand on the man’s rotund chest. His fingers caressed the rich brocade decorating he smith’s vest. “This world is a globe. We could never sail off the edge as the crew feared. I needed to find this southern continent.” Caleath listened as the wind dropped for a few heartbeats. Pounding surf drowned the ghoulish voices whispering at the edge of hearing. “I have to get off this planet, Chesney. There is a man I must kill.”

The smith’s breathing settled into an even rhythm. Caleath patted he man’s ample girth feeling his body heat return. Damp but alive, Caleath felt confident the man would survive.

“You’ve made a small fortune from my pain, haven’t you?” 

Caleath couldn’t blame the smith. For breaking into the flooded hold, risking his own life to save a maligned slave, Caleath forgave him his gains through betting. 

Freedom though, meant Caleath could shed the persona of the gladiatorial slave Wrath. After sending two dread lords to their watery graves, Caleath no longer needed to fear Governor Elensor, the man who claimed to own Wrath. Whatever wealth the smith garnered from Caleath’s role as Elensor’s prize fighter, those days were past. 

Now he called himself Caleath, the name he had selected while planning his escape. The name of a free man, bent on leaving this planet and returning to the stars.

When Chesney began to snore, Caleath relaxed.

His eyes closed. Fatigue plagued every cell of his high-tech body. To succumb to dreams before dawn meant facing the ghosts who 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 Caleath 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 could ruin his chance of escape. Not an angry wolf, nor recurring nightmares, nor Death herself could stop him while nanobots flowed in his bloodstream.

A second problem struck into his consciousness. A new menace needed sorting. Cold steel touched 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 hand to ensure nothing hampered its scope of action.

While the wolf stood close enough to share warmth, Caleath accessed data stored on microchips in his brain.

 These implants, the size of a single cell, carried information he collected during his lifetime. Able to access knowledge in an instant, he searched through languages, cultures, or geographies from across a dozen galaxies. His home planet's technology stood him in good stead when he extracted the youth’s language from stored data. He drew on research material from another galaxy, collected during his previous career as a surveyor of unexplored planets.

“You can call me Caleath.” He 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, as if to win time to consider his options.  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 ducked from under the blade. His fist smashed against the wolf’s jaw. The creature recoiled with a yelp. When the young man’s attention rekindled, Caleath grasped the haft of the sword and wrenched the weapon free of the youth’s grasp. Caleath slammed the blade into the sand, out of harm’s reach.

“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 but 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 sun-tanned toes 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.

No comments: