Saturday, October 25, 2014

Rule of Sword: Chapter One

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Chapter One: Castaway
           They make no sound, the eascann nimhe, the deadly sea eels that fill the waters between the isles of Eire and the Continent. Their teeth are serrated and their eyes flash yellow, demon glows in the storm slashed sea. The ship, the Sea Hawk, groaned beneath my feet and lightning flashed overhead. The eels’ eyes glowed again. The rain fell so hard, like stones against the deck. A drumbeat scarcely faster than my heart. 

           I couldn’t find Eamon, I screamed for him. One of the sailors tried to take me back below, but I would not go. I gripped the rail and kept looking for my brother. I could not lose him. I would not lose him.
           “Eamon!” I shouted against the howling wind. “Eamon!”
           “He is taken by the sea,” the sailor shouted. “We must go down below!”
           “No, I will not leave him!” I struggled to free myself from the man’s grip and then there came a horrible screech. The ship crashed and I was thrown to the deck. It was the sound of wood tearing. The hull…
           “We’ve struck rocks!” came the captain’s shout. I could not see the rocks even looking through the rails. All I could see were the eels writhing in the ocean beneath me. I could not breathe. The ship shifted hard beneath me, and I was rolled toward the rail and slammed into it with bruising force. We were sinking and the ship was turning over. I could see the water getting closer. The eels eyes like yellow fires in the water.
           Brighd, I don’t want to die.
           I found myself upon a stony shore cast cold against the spiny shells of beached sea creatures. I had no clear idea of where it was I came to be and the only sound willing to pass my buzzing ears were the shrill cries of sea birds in flight overheard. No doubt drawn by the scent of dying fish and flesh.
           The burn of salt crusted wounds drove me staggering to my feet. I noted first cliffs bracing the desolate beach I had been cast to and not a single landmark could I identify. This land was never my homeland. It bore a grey turbulent ocean and the cliffs were an unfamiliar black rock where grew purple flowers I did not recognize.
           A cave was cut into the base of one nearby cliff.
           By some fortune, a sailor’s trunk had washed up on my lonely shore—along with scraps of sail and debris from the ship. I dragged it further ashore lest it be carried away by a high tide. The trunk was heavy, but I was determined. All my own possessions were lost with the ship but the clothes on my back.
           The cave was my goal and even if it took what little strength I had left from being tossed in the stormy sea, I managed to drag the trunk inside. I rested on its bulk for a moment before heading back out to gather driftwood for a fire and then out again to steal fish from the birds.
           My melancholy dragged at my limbs along with my wounds and bruises, but I would not give it leash until I had the fire going and was sated on fish. Every friend I had made on the journey was no doubt lost to the hungry ocean. How I had survived I could not fathom, given what I recalled of the sharp teeth and monstrous creatures that had awaited all who fell into the ocean’s embrace during the storm.
           Those wicked eels I had been told of in bedtime stories by Father before his passing had been more real and more ruthless than even in my childhood imaginings. They had torn apart a man in front of my eyes and I knew that any innocence I might still retain was gone with it. The light had not so much faded as been ripped from his eyes. I had no heart left in me for innocence.
           My own survival was a miracle, but one I could not hope to have happened twice. Which meant, in spite of my not wanting it to, that the only family I had left had died in that storm by drowning or eel.
           I swallowed, throat dry but with no fresh water to quench my thirst. I turned instead my attention to the trunk. There was a name written in sprawling uneven letters on the lid.
           Samuel James Tailor
           It was, I realized, the belongings of the Sea Hawk’s youngest crew member. A youth who had been kind to me. We’d played cards even. The three of us. Me, Sam and…Eamon. At the thought of my brother’s name I felt tears welling and dashed them aside. There was no time for tears. I prised open the trunk to discover the contents were damp, but not damaged overmuch. There was a knife there, and clothing I dared to think would fit me.
           I had no other recourse but to switch out of my clothes and into the dead boy’s. My own were tattered and bloody. With no fresh water I had little hope of washing out my injuries, but I could at least fight off the cold and illness.
           I stripped quickly and dressed, bandaging up what I could and making an effort to get out the splinters. Never in my life had I thought I would wish for a surgeon’s help…
           Splinters removed as best I could in the dying light, I added wood to the fire and huddled as close as I dared. Come morning I would find a way off the beach. I would discover where it was that I had landed, and I would uncover some way of making it onward.
           “Is anyone in there?” A man called, his voice echoing about the cave.
           I blinked the sleep from my eyes and dragged myself to my feet. I saw the silhouette of a man, framed by the light of morning and the cave’s entrance. “I am here,” I called back warily. I could see he wore a sword on his hip and the cut of his clothes seemed military in style.
           As I drew closer, I could see his face. This man wore his hair cut short, hidden by a smart soldier’s cap. Brass buttons stood in rows on his jacket front and braid on his shoulders. A soldier to be certain. I could not clearly see the insignia just yet. I paused, and he came towards me.
           This man was old enough to be my father, his moustache grey with care and skin tanned by an outdoor life. Eyes the grey of stone. Though not overly tall he was certainly fit and held himself with dignity.
           “A boy,” the man said. “Did you come off the shipwreck, boy?”
           “I did, sir. And where is it I have landed?”
           “This island is Lochlan,” he said.
           Lochlan, technically the island was part of Her Majesty’s Empire, but it was on the edge of her Isles and had a standing regiment of sorts attached to the Lochlan Military Academy. No doubt that was what this man was a part of. His uniform was the dark blue of Her Majesty’s army when posted outside of the capital, but still on the isles. The insignia, however, was unfamiliar to me. I had known we’d be passing by Lochlan on our way to Prussia. My brother would have been disappointed with me for not recalling the stories of the Black Cliffs of Lochlan.
           “I see. Thank you, sir.” I stepped closer and then passed him to exit the cave.
           “Are you injured?”
           “I—took a few scrapes,” I admitted. Outside the cave were more soldiers, at least a dozen. I had no notion of how they got down here. There must have been a path of some sort.
           The soldier took step with me, motioning a man over. “A survivor, milord.”
           This man was younger; firmly a man and nowhere near a boy though I could see some flush of youth in his features. He wore a uniform as well, of finer quality than the soldier’s and with more braid and insignia. His hat was finer as well.
           He had a strong chin, a dark head of hair under the hat and a bit of beard that made it look as though he’d forgotten to shave that morning. Watchful hazel eyes peered down at me from under his hat and I felt uncomfortably short. I had a guess to his identity. Her Majesty’s cousin, Lord Rathbone, had been put charge of the island five years past. This man had all the bearing, and I noted on his hand he wore a ring with the royal bear.
           “Your name, boy?”
           “Charlie, milord.” I ducked my head. “Charlie Ridley, of Loch Mor.”
           “Ridley…I feel I should know the name.” He shook his head. “I am Lord Rathbone, this is my lieutenant, Anthony.”
           I felt a moment’s tension at the thought of him recognizing my surname, and felt ridiculously stupid for having given it so readily. I nodded to Anthony.
           “What was the ship called?” Lord Rathbone asked.
           “It was the Sea Hawk, milord. There were some thirty souls aboard, including myself—and my brother.” I felt my chest tighten. “I—I dare not hope; have you found any other survivors?”
           A sad expression settled over the Lord’s face and he shook his head. “I am sorry to say I have not.” He looked to Anthony. “Bring Master Ridley along; such discussions should not be had on dreary beaches.”
           “I will, milord.”
           Lord Rathbone shouted to his men and they gathered up while Anthony remained with me.
           “Come along then, boy, his lordship will see to it your wounds are tended to.”
           I nodded. “Is he a kind man sir?”
           Anthony mulled that over for a long moment. “He is a fair man.”
           “I cannot complain then.” I followed Anthony across the beach and then up a winding trail hidden against the cliff face to the very top where horses waited.
           “Do you ride?”
           “I do.” It was the one activity my father had not complained of my enjoyment in.
           “I’ll put you in front of me then.” Anthony helped me onto the speckled grey he identified as his own and mounted up behind me. I had ridden double with Eamon many times.
           As the horses took us further away from the beach, and the sea that had taken my brother, I felt the tears once again attacking. Anthony, very kindly, did not mention it.
           Lord Rathbone’s estate was as much a fortification as a manor house. There were strong walls on three sides and a cliff that sheared off into the sea on the fourth. The grounds were large inside the walls, with trees and gardens taking up much of the space between the first walls and another set inside. These were not as tall but I felt their heavy presence just as much.
           Inside these walls was the manor itself. The main house had two wings that jutted out in front of it to form a horseshoe shape around a large stone courtyard. The cliff at the manor’s back faced directly north, and to the west of the manor there was a sandy field I recognized for equestrian practices and near it there was a stable and paddock for grazing.
           I knew there was a town nearby from Eamon talking on the ship about the areas of Lochlan. Eamon loved travel journals and geography very much. He would have loved the purple flowered grass that seemed to cover over all the cliff sides and valleys. Eamon was a scholar at heart for all our father had wanted him to be a soldier—the both of us had proved ourselves to be capable as both and rebellious to boot.
           I had to get clear of Lochlan and make way to Prussia where the Crown’s reach had not extended. I would keep the promise I had made to my brother.
           The soldiers rode their horses into the courtyard where youths in uniform waited to take charge of them. Anthony helped me down off his horse and handed the reins off to one of the boys.
           “Cadets,” he said at my questioning look. “From all over the Empire.”
           Lochlan was a safe place to train cadets, while having the advantage of being strange terrain. I nodded in understanding. His Lordship broke off conversation with a cluster of his men and most of them headed off with the cadets and horses. He approached Anthony and me.
           “I have sent word ahead to my surgeon.” He looked at me. “He will have a look at your injuries.”
           “Thank you, milord.”
           “After you have cleaned up we will talk.”
           “Yes milord.”
           “I’ll leave him in your charge for now, Anthony.”
           “Yes milord.”
           Satisfied, Lord Rathbone headed off inside.
           Anthony took my elbow. “You’ll be on your best behavior.”
           “I will, sir.”
           He nodded sharply and hurried me inside. I had not enough time to examine my surroundings as we passed through the entryway and into hallways to an area of the house which was clearly meant for soldiers. The halls were plain and the floors stone. The one look I got into a room revealed a utilitarian bedroom neatly made up.
           “The cadet’s hall,” Anthony explained. “They tend to acquire more injuries than our soldiers so the surgeon keeps quarters near them.”
           I took in this information as he hustled me into a set of rooms at the end of the cadet’s hall. The first room was a familiar exam room like any I’d seen in hospitals or surgeon’s shops. I had never much trusted them, not after Mother bled to death on one’s table, but there was little choice now.
           “Richard,” Anthony called out.
           From a room off the exam area a stout, dark haired man entered. He wore a surgeon’s white coat, and a sour expression. “Which one’s injured this time? Thomas again?” And then he looked up and saw me. “A survivor from the shipwreck?”
           “Indeed.” Anthony nodded. “The only one.”
           Richard set his pale eyes on me and frowned. He glanced back at Anthony. “All right. Come back in an hour or so.”
           Anthony nodded. “Right then.” He looked at me. “You do as he says.”
           “I will, sir.’
           Anthony left me alone with the surgeon; I could feel the stiffness of my shoulders and spine. I did not want to be here. Even if I was injured.
           “You look like a rabbit, I won’t eat you.” He stepped forward and patted the top of his wooden exam table. “Hop up here so I can listen to your lungs.”
           “I—do not like surgeons, sir.”
           “That’s all right.”
           I got up on the table and he pulled a Learedscope from his pocket. Even the medicos used them. It had two earpieces that formed a Y shape with a long tube as the stroke and flat cup at the end that captured the sound. He had me breathe for him. After several breaths he came around to look at me. “No crackling, they sound solid enough. Now, where’s all the blood come from?”
           “Some splinters,” I pulled up the sleeve of my shirt to show the ragged wounds in my arms, “And I was bit by an eel.” I pulled up my pant leg to reveal the circular wound with its rough bandage.
           Richard shook his head. “You got lucky. The sea water must have washed the wound out well or you’d be dead already. Those eels are poisonous.” He headed to a cabinet for bandages and water and cloths. “I’ll clean these out well and then it’s into the tub with you.” He soaked a cloth in water and set to my arm. “I’m sure his lordship will be wanting to talk to you.”
           “What will become of me?”
           The surgeon paused for a moment. “He’s a fair man the lord. Have you any family?”
           “The last of my family went down with the ship.” I felt my voice catch and resolutely ignored it.
           “You have my deepest sympathy.” He sounded very sincere and that broke me. It was the first anyone had acknowledged my loss. “Oh—lad.”
           “He was all I had left. My brother.”
           I decided then that Richard was a very kind man, even if the lord was not, for he put his arms around me without a care for his white coat, smoothing the tangled mess of my hair down and trying to soothe me.
           I wanted so much to be strong and grown up, but at that moment I could not find it in myself. At fourteen years of age I was completely alone in the world. I had no idea what I was going to do next, how I was going to get to Prussia or what I would do if I got there. There was no notion of what I would do if the lord recalled why he knew the name of Ridley.
           “Come now lad; let’s get you into a bath. The sooner you speak to his lordship the sooner I can get you fed.”
           I wiped tears and mucus off my face and nodded. My day was far from over yet.
           Once I was clean—and thankfully having convinced Richard I could bathe without help—dressed and no longer looking like a piece of seaweed with legs and eyes, I was presented to his Lordship again by Anthony. My bandages itched but I refused to scratch them. The clothes I’d been given were a cast off uniform from a cadet. Grey, with black wooden buttons and no braiding at all.
           I was received in a parlor with a very military flavor to it. Nothing at all like my mother’s had been. The walls were plain and the furniture utilitarian. Clearly his Lordship was a bachelor. A fire was lit in the stone hearth and his Lordship sat next to it, smoking a cigarette with one leg flung over the arm of the wood and leather chair.
           “Ah, there he is.” He straightened and looked at me. With his hat off I could see the defined point of his Widow’s peak and the slight curl to his dark hair. He looked like a bird of prey.
           “Milord.” I bowed easily.
           “You clean up rather well,” he remarked. “No serious injuries then?” he asked Anthony.
           “No milord,” his lieutenant replied. “Some scrapes and splinters and an eel bite he had God’s grace to survive.”
           Lord Rathbone nodded. “How old are you boy?”
           “Fourteen, milord.”
           He nodded. “An orphan?”
           “My mother has been dead nearly five years now and my father died six months ago. My brother and I were headed—” I swallowed and paused. “He had found a position.”
           “And he was on the ship with you?”
           I nodded.
           “And you have no other family?”
           “He was all I had in the world, milord.” Saying that made me want to cry all over again.
           “Ridley…Ridley…Your father, he wasn’t Sir Eamon Ridley?”
           Congratulations, Charlie, you made a mess of this already.
           “He was, milord.”
           “Your father did a great service for our Empire.”
           “Thank you, milord.”
           “I will not dishonor him by sending you away.” He stood up suddenly. “Anthony, find Charles a place with the cadets until I can contact the Crown regarding Sir Eamon’s Legacy.”
           Anthony nodded. “Yes milord.”
           Lord Rathbone looked at me. “Work hard to honor your father’s memory young man.”
           “I will, milord.”
           The interview was very sharply over and Anthony was leading me out of the parlor by my elbow. I had to wonder what would happen when Lord Rathbone did hear back. My father’s Legacy had been clear in regards to Eamon and I. Eamon’s life arranged to follow in my father’s footsteps as a soldier and advisor to Her Majesty and I…
           I was never what my father wanted in a daughter.  

Chapter Two

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