The site my prologue has been hosted on up to this point is going to expire in the near future, so I'm posting it here, and then I'll link the button on the sidebar to this post. It's the prologue and first chapter of my book, and it's undergone quite a few changes since I first posted it on the blog, let alone first wrote it. I'd appreciate any feedback! (The cover is only a temporary one, by the way. Click on it for the full view, and click here to read about how I made it)
Only a sliver of the moon peeked through the cloudy darkness of the night sky, as if the orb couldn’t bear to watch below. Deep shadows shrouded the mountain cliffs and valleys. No owls hooted, no crickets chirped, and no monsters stirred—only an eerie silence, as though nature itself was in a somber mood. Mystery hung in the air like a subtle, foreboding mist. Something terrible had happened, and the moon knew it.
The craggy mountain pass held only stillness save for one figure; Isaac Ganthorn hastily climbed and scurried his way up the slope. He held a package against his body, hidden by the flap of his cloak.
He wheezed and gasped as he fled up the slope, cursing the thin mountain air. In the dim light he stumbled over tree roots, rocks and bushes. His staccato breaths and hurried steps intruded on the night’s stillness like an impudent funeral guest, making him feel like the only living being on Earth. But he knew he wasn’t alone.
With an anxious backward glance he ran harder. The extra speed, however, only caused him to stumble more. He knew that his black cloak, the standard Marauder garb, would not hide him even in the night. Not from the thing that hunted him.
A splash sounded up to him as his legs plunged into deepening water. He stopped. Cold water seeped into his boots and bit at his legs. A flash of lightning cracked up the night sky behind him. For a single second he found himself staring down at his rippling reflection in the lake. It shocked him to see fear—the emotion that always masked his victim’s faces — now on his own pale face, framed by his long nose and the two narrow streaks of silvery hair.
So this was what fear felt like.
The terrifying realization poured a burst of fuel on his fear. He turned and ran from the image, but a tree root snared his foot and sent him rolling. With a final thud he lay sprawled on the dew-covered ground. The parcel bounced out of his grasp. It let out a short, distressed cry with each bump.
“Hush!” Isaac pleaded, crawling frantically forward with another glance at the unrevealing blackness behind him. He looked down at the blanket wrapped infant before him, and felt the urge to leave it as it lay, to be rid of the burden it had proven to be. But even as the thought crossed his mind, he knew he couldn’t. The consequences would be too terrible.
A second strike of lightning flushed out the darkness. And Isaac saw it. The flood of light revealed its curved, murderous beak and outstretched wings as it prepared to swoop down on him.
“NO!” he screamed. He curled up, his heart beating what he knew were its final beats. But only another rumble of thunder came. He lifted his head and looked cautiously into the darkness. A third flash, the final of the night, illuminated nothing but a twisted branch at the top of the tree.
Pull yourself together, Ganthorn!
Breathing heavily, he picked up the infant and rose again into a run.Deliver it, and this will all be over.
At the top of the next hill, he caught a whiff of sulfur and felt the warm mists of a nearby hot spring waft over him. He stopped and breathed in deep bouts of it. His muscles slackened, as though the smell had a calming effect. Safety. He wanted to remain in that cloud of steam forever, occupying himself only with soaking up its warmth.
But he saw his destination ahead, and though his instincts screamed otherwise, he knew the protection extended there as well.
He snuck into the village, nestled in an obscure crevice between two mountains, just as described. Slowing down as much as he could, he crept between the houses and huts. None of the windows were illuminated by the glow of a light; it was much too late for honest folk to be awake.
Feeling his way along the buildings, he arrived at a particularly rich, if unkempt house at the far end of the village. Unlike the other houses, this one did have a faint glow of light revealing the window frames, waiting for him like a lighthouse beacon after a long voyage. A black curtain hanging in one of the windows confirmed this house as the one he sought.
Stepping as silently as possible, he placed the baby on the doorstep. For a brief moment his eyes met those of the child; they stared up at him with curiosity. The sincerity in the child’s eyes was chilling, and in that instant the image was etched into Isaac’s mind forever. Turning his head away abruptly, he stole away into the darkness. The night swallowed him as seamlessly as a serene lake absorbing a raindrop.
* * *
Not an instant passed before the door of the house opened a crack, and a glaring eye peered at the bundle on the steps. The door creaked fully open, releasing a flood of light and revealing the wide figure of Grixxler. The shadowy light highlighted his hairy upper lip, his balding dome, and his sneering countenance. Grixxler looked at the patch of blackness through which Isaac had disappeared, scanned the surroundings suspiciously, and then snatched the baby up and closed the door.
Inside, the house was lavishly furnished, the works of true craftsmen on display. Exotic rugs lined the wooden floors, books filled the numerous shelves, and slate inlayed the table. The light glowing from Grixxler’s lantern saturated the room with a warm, golden touch.
He held the loaf-sized child an awkward distance away, studying it. “Why did I ever get involved with those confounded Marauders?” He snatched a small piece of crumpled paper stashed inside the baby’s blanket. After setting him down on the table, Grixxler unfolded the message.
“Ganthorn,” he breathed, his eyes scanning.
Grixxler looked up again at the baby boy. “Well, Micah,” he said with a crooked grin, putting a pointed emphasis on the name, “it looks like I have myself a new shepherd boy.” He stuffed the parchment into his lantern and turned as the cackling flame consumed it. A brief flood of bright light filled the room. When the light mellowed, the flame left behind a shrunken, charcoaled fragment that shortly disintegrated. And with that scrap of paper died any chance Micah had at a normal life.
YEARS LATER AND MILES AWAY . . .
An unblemished sky smiled down on the day of the inn’s obliteration. In fact, nearly every aspect of that fateful day mirrored normalcy, which made the explosion that marked its end all the more sudden.
The Inn—as it was called—stood on the corner of Heather Bay, looking out upon the vast Kepled Sea like a lonely maiden waiting for her sailor to sail home. Being so far from any port, or civilization for that matter, one wouldn’t think The Inn would attract enough visitors to stay in business. But travelers seemed to find it at such a time that they were weary from their voyage and ready for a warm bed that didn’t rock and a warm meal or two among new company.
In the late spring and summer, when the surrounding trees were filled out in vibrant greens, and various songbirds danced and whistled about, the place had a quaint, busy mood. Then visitors would leisurely stroll the stepping stone walkways through the gardens and along the nearby Otter Creek, where the soothing sound of the rippling stream could be heard over the subtle roar of the distant Spring River. But now, in early spring, the dull browns from winter hadn’t yet given way. And the budding life evident in traces of green sprouting from the ground and the tree limbs wasn’t enough to offset the stagnant feel and look of the place.
An abandoned boat yard neighbored The Inn, where various tools and scraps of lumber lay scattered about, rusting and rotting away. Amidst it, like a set of wale ribs, lay the half-finished wooden skeleton of a ship’s hull. Winter had rotted its once fresh color to a shade of brown similar to the one that dominated the surroundings.
On the water immediately past the beach sat a maze of wooden docking. The left side was reserved for 12 identical virgin ships that had been constructed in the nearby boat yard. With cabins designed to house four, these ships were built primarily for agility and maneuverability, according to the haggled old sailors that frequented The Inn.
The right side of the dock was allotted for the ships of The Inn’s visitors. On this chilly morning it was full, which was unusual for early spring.
* * *
Inside The Inn, Robbyn, the young innkeeper, lay next to the humming woodstove upon the warm cobblestone kitchen floor. As she lay, a few pioneering strands of light peered through the pot-sized kitchen window. Wrapped in a wool blanket, she watched the emerging sun for a few precious moments.
“Another beautiful morning,” she said aloud, as she had every fair-weathered morning for the past seven years. Rising to her knees, she rubbed the fatigue from her eyes. A lock of her long, wavy copper hair swung into view before falling behind her shoulders as she gathered her hair with a band. She completed the next step of her morning routine with a prayer. And then began another long day nearly identical to all the ones before it.
Or so she thought.
She grabbed the cream-colored apron from a nearby peg and tied it deftly around her waist. Working with the efficiency and precision that only years of repetition could produce, Robbyn stoked the fire up to a hearty rumble, retrieved an assortment of cast iron pots and pans hanging from the ceiling. The reflection of one of her river pool green eyes flashed back at her off one of the shinier pans. She set to work cooking breakfast. The food supplies were running low, she noted. But the supply ship would arrive tomorrow.
Taking a spare moment while she waited for the eggs to cook, Robbyn peeked through the kitchen doorway and into the main room. A few of the guests had already wakened and were groggily seated amongst the wooden tables.
“Good morning!” Robbyn said, an oil soaked spatula in hand. The room seemed to brighten at her entrance. The guests sat up and each gave her a warm greeting.
She turned back to the kitchen and, beginning to hum, put the leftover coffee on the stove to warm. She grabbed the straw broom and worked her way around the kitchen, pulling the dust out of the crevices. The coffee heated shortly and Robbyn bustled out into the main room, now much fuller, with the coffee and platter of mugs in hand.
“Nobody wants any coffee, do they?” She asked the room with a playful grin. This was met with roars of mock disapproval by the seamen.
“I thought not.” Robbyn laughed. She made her way around the table, leaving a steaming mug of coffee at each hand. She had to make two rounds, as each cup was greedily downed behind her.
“Captain Will must be starving you men!” She said as she poured the last cup.
“You have no idea, Robbyn,” one sailor said before disappearing behind his cup.
“Have you ever been to sea?” another asked as his hands hovered over the steam curling from his mug.
“Only once,” Robbyn said before moving on to the other guests. “I definitely prefer dry land.” This launched the sailors into a discussion about the life of a sailor, and its many advantages and disadvantages. A steady chatter arose in her wake, and she left the room a livelier place than when she’d entered it. That’s more like it, she thought.
The day wore on as usual. Robbyn served breakfast, cleaned the rooms, and prepared the midday meal. Some of the guests filtered out through the day. But at noon most of them remained, including Captain Will’s sailors. After Robbyn served the meal, she seized the first opportunity of the day to rest. She plopped gratefully into one of few empty chairs in the room, adjacent to Will’s table. The room buzzed with chatter. Talk hovered, as it had for the months, around the infamous Marauder, James Kestrel, and his upcoming execution. Robbyn tuned into a nearby conversation.
“My cousin’s going to his hanging,” bragged a younger man.
“Him and all of Gable,” Will laughed.
“What’s this I hear,” Robbyn inquired, “about the Marauders coming out of hiding?”
This caught the attention of the people at Robbyn’s table.
“It’s true,” agreed a plump, finely dressed woman. “We’ve always known they wouldn’t remain dormant forever, and now I think it’s only a matter of days.”
“I don’t think so,” argued an older man with a sparse beard. “After being gone for fourteen years—”
“—Seven,” Will said. “They came out of hiding for one raid, seven years ago.”
“Fine then.” The old man waved his hands irritably. “After being gone forseven years I think it’s safe to say they’ve left for good. Most likely they’re lounging in paradise on some faraway tropical island.”
“Paradise?” Will snorted. “I’ve gotten into scrapes with the Marauders myself, and so have many of the men here,” he waved his arm toward his nodding crew, “and let me just say this: the Marauders aren’t the pesky, disorganized looters they used to be. They’re not after riches anymore. They’re after power. You know as well as I do they had the Caelum Flute just before they disappeared. If it was treasure they were after, they could have traded it for all the gold they could ever want. But they kept it, tapped its secrets. I think they planned to use it for something terrible.”
“Which is . . .” the older man said, his arms folded and his eyebrows arched skeptically.
“Say what you will,” Will said, “but I think they planned to take over Gable . . . still do.”
Now it was the old man’s turn to snort. “You seem to know a lot about them for an innocent civilian.” Before Will could respond, the old man continued. “Tell me this: Why now? Why would the Marauders attack now and not five years ago, or in the next decade for that matter?
“Because,” the plump woman answered for Will, “James Kestrel’s hanging is next month.”
“You people and your conspiracies,” the old man said. “So now the Marauders are going to break into the castle dungeon as well?”
“Why not?” said a sailor on the other side of Will. “He was their Head Captain and master plotter. Freeing him seems like a good move to me.”
“Not when he’s held in the most secure dungeon in the world,” said the old man. “No visitors, guards round the clock, cells in the tallest tower right in the heart of the greatest castle in the world. There’s a reason no one’s ever escaped from it.”
This was met with a defeated silence. Robbyn was about to point out that this was a very good thing when Will spoke again, in a low voice. “It helps when you have seven years to plot.”
“They’ve plotted seven years to free one man? I don’t care if he’s their Head Captain or not, that’s ridiculous,” a younger man said.
“Not for one man,” Will said, his eyes wide, “for the power to rule the world. James Kestrel had the flute last. Only he knows where he buried it before he was captured.”
“Nothing but a legend,” the old man grumbled under his breath.
Several sailors opened their mouths to object when darkness covered the room. The chatter died as people looked around in confusion. Robbyn looked toward the door, which had been propped open to let light in. A humongous, bear-like mass eclipsed the doorway. With a booted step through the threshold, it ducked and entered The Inn.
The light rippled back, revealing a giant man. He stretched up to his full height, his head inches from the wooden beams of the ceiling. He had wild, dark brown hair that grew down into a tangled beard and was tied into a bushy bundle down his back. His rolled up sleeves revealed what looked like matted fur along his arm. But even through the fur the sinewy muscles in his arms strained against his sleeves. His clothing looked like various scraps of dark cloth sewn together. The crooked, untidy stitch suggested that he’d fashioned it himself. About his shoulders hung an enormous, dark gray cloak that could have been cut from a sail . . . with a dull knife. His wild, stark blue eyes, nearly lost beneath his overgrown-hedge-like eyebrows, squinted about the silent room as if searching for a threat, before calmly coming back to the table before him.
“Hello, Drift,” Robbyn said, springing from her chair. She willed the people behind her to quit staring and get back to their conversations. But the room remained quiet. “How can I help you?” She asked, offering an inviting smile.
“Could you spare me a room for one night, Robbyn?” he said in a deep rumble of a voice.
“Always.” She swung her open hand to lead inside. “Have a seat. Can I get you anything to eat?”
He shook his head. “No, but thanks.” He found a seat in the corner, nodding his bushy head courteously as he sat down.
“Hey, could yeh top me off over here?” called the old man from Robbyn’s table. He raised his mug. As if on cue, the rest of the room trickled back into chatter.
“One moment,” Robbyn said. She flitted into the kitchen, retrieved the pitcher and refilled his mug beside him.
As she poured, his eyes wandered to the white stripping wrapped around her left forearm. “Say, Robbyn,” he said, “have you ever mentioned what’s underneath that bandage you always wear? It can’t be an injury, can it? You’ve worn it for too long.”
Robbyn felt her smile waver, like a candlelight suddenly struck by a breath of air. She stopped pouring and her right hand instinctively closed around her left forearm, around the bandage that hid her darkest secret. All at once, her throat felt dry. With a quick look around at the attentive, curious eyes, she regained her smile.
“A map,” She said. All those watching leaned in collectively in anticipation.
“A map?” The old man raised one eyebrow. “Of what?”
Robbyn waited for effect before responding, still smiling. “That’s between me and James Kestrel,” she said with a wink.
The immediate area, especially the sailors’ table, exploded in hearty roars of laughter. Robbyn turned and left the room still buzzing. But once she entered the kitchen her smile faded. Feeling dizzy, she staggered against the wall, sank to the stone floor, and burst into tears. For several minutes she sat, with her hands covering her face, and let the tears shudder out. When she finished, she wiped her eyes and slowly unraveled the bandage with shaking fingers.
The strip of cloth fell away and revealed a black ink design etched into her skin; an “S” bearing a horizontal rod with a bucket at each end. Countless hours of scrubbing hadn’t done anything to this cursed emblem that would forever mark her as a slave, remind her of her past and cloud her future. Keeping The Inn was supposed to keep her mind off of the terrible situation she was in. But lately it only made matters worse. And more and more frequently Robbyn was taken back to the haunting days of her childhood.
At seven years of age she had been a happy, simple youngster with two parents, living on the coast far to the south of The Inn. But that all changed one windy fall evening when black clad, dagger wielding Marauders ransacked their village, killed her parents, and captured her and other villagers. They were sold into slavery; each of their left forearms inked with the cursed mark. Ryefield Carpenter, the wealthy owner of The Inn who had made his fortune building ships, bought Robbyn. The first thing he did was wrap her wrist with cloth, tell her never to take it off in public, and tell no one that she was a slave. Then he put her to work under Martha, his aging wife.
The years wore by, Martha died of old age, and Robbyn was put in charge of The Inn. Meanwhile Ryefield grew less and less able bodied. Robbyn, over time, grew accustomed to her role and came to think of Ryefield, a kind old man once you got to know him, as more of a father than a master. Ryefield, likewise, came to think of Robbyn as a daughter.
At the arrival of winter, Ryefield dismissed the boat builders, as he did every winter, until spring. Going into The Inn, he refused dinner, only saying, “I’m very tired,” and went upstairs to bed. He passed away in the night, left no will, and had no family that Robbyn knew of. Thus, under the law of Gable, all of Ryefield’s possessions, including The Inn and Robbyn herself, would fall into the possession of the next person to claim them.
Frightened by this prospect, Robbyn told no one of Ryefield’s death. So, as a young girl still mourning, Robbyn was left completely alone with no idea what to do.
But the guests kept coming, and Robbyn kept doing what she knew and loved to do; she ran an inn. Busy days were her happiest. She almost completely forgot about her plight on those days. But when The Inn was quiet she was left with no veil between her and the question she had no answer to: How long could her secret remain undiscovered? Worse still were the times when a new guest would ask for the owner. Armed only with an unconvincing, “I’m her,” Robbyn hated the responses that inevitably followed: “You?! But you’re not even a full grown woman! Why, you’re just a girl!”
Ryefield took a yearly trip north during the winter, so nobody had suspected anything yet. But with the temperatures warming fast, people would undoubtedly start asking about him. In late spring the boat builders would be back, searching for work.
Robbyn sighed. She kept trying to convince herself that she was free to go. But she just couldn’t bring herself to leave The Inn. It was her home. What would she do when she left?
Robbyn sighed again, sniffed and rose to her feet. “Have faith.” She said aloud before a silent prayer. She blinked herself back into composure and took a deep breath. Just as she was about to head back out into the main room a commotion erupted from it.
A scuffle ensued, followed by three inn-shaking crashes. Robbyn burst through the door to find quite a scene. Drift was holding the old man by the collar high up in the air. The old man’s aghast, white face could be seen between the rafters. His legs swung freely beneath him. The sailors surrounded the two, posed as if ready for a fight. A trail of toppled tables and chairs marked where the chase had occurred.
“Pay the good innkeeper!” Drift growled through bared teeth, glaring up at the man. He shook him slightly, causing his head to bump against one of the rafters.
The old man dove a shaking hand into his pocket and pulled it back out with a collection of coins that jingled to the floor.
Drift lowered him slowly to the ground and he scampered out the door like a freed rabbit as soon as Drift unclenched his massive hand.
“Ungrateful whelp!” one of the sailors called after him.
“He tried to run away without paying,” Will explained upon noticing Robbyn at the kitchen entrance.
Drift bent over and, with difficulty due to his thick fingers, pulled the coins from the floor. “At least he left you a tip,” Drift grunted as he offered his calloused fist. Robbyn held out her cupped hands and received the money.
“Well,” she said, hoping her eyes weren’t red and puffy from her tears, “it’s a good thing I have such good men around. Thank you.”
In truth, The Inn was frequented by such “regulars” who stayed at least once a year, friends of Robbyn’s from previous visits. Robbyn never had to worry about a fight breaking out, or someone taking advantage of her with these people around.
“We’ll take care of this mess,” Will said. The sailors quickly propped up the chairs and tables and mopped up the spilt food.
“And now,” Will said when everything had been set back up, “we must be off.” The sailors formed a line and each gave Robbyn a hug on their way out. She couldn’t suppress a smile at the sheepishness of these haggard, sea tempered men as they stepped forward and wrapped her in their wiry arms. Will was last. “Our stay has been, as always, nothing short of the best.” He said as they embraced. He proffered a sack of coins.
Robbyn accepted the payment. “You guys have a safe voyage.” She said as they filed out the door.
“I’ll be in my ship,” Drift said, his deep, rumbling voice stopping several nearby conversations mid-sentence. He cast an accusing eye around the room before cracking his knotted knuckles. “Let me know if another one breaks for it.”
Robbyn glanced at the other guests, many of them looking at Drift out of the corner of his or her eye. “I really don’t think it’s going to be a problem, Drift.”
Drift grunted, turned and passed back through the door. In his wake, a blanket of shadow was cast over the room and then torn away as he passed through the doorway. He walked up the dock to his ship, The Wooden Swan, a tiny vessel with a sail that wouldn’t have provided enough fabric for his cloak. Oversized oars hung out either side of the boat. Drift planted one booted foot in the boat, sending it veering slightly. As it steadied he placed the other foot in and carefully, steadily balanced his way down into the cramped cabin made smaller by the large amount of space Drift’s body consumed. He eased into his chair, preparing for a long day of studying his charts.
Into the afternoon, the guests gradually filtered out and set sail. The day wore into evening, and Robbyn witnessed the golden orb of the sun dip toward the sea, and rest on the downy bedding of a pink-saturated cloud cluster. As she set to work washing the dishes, she hummed with enthusiasm, feeling much better as a direct result, she was sure, of the hugs from the sailors. She tapped into a rhythm and before long was drying the last dish.
Suddenly, she jolted in surprise. Her song cut off mid-note. The dish in her hand slipped, plunged, and shattered. She leaned against the washbasin and peered through the window, almost afraid to look. Something flashed into view and then disappeared—something black. Like a deer alarmed at a snapped twig, she froze, her eyes trained on the window. She pleaded inwardly for a crow or a blackbird to hop into view. But after several agonizing seconds nothing appeared.
It’s happening all over again, she thought helplessly, her heart now thumping in panic. Fear clogged her mind, blurring her thoughts. Looking down, she saw that her arms were frozen in time, still holding an imaginary plate. She loosened them and grabbed the cast iron rod used to stoke the fire, using both quivering hands to hold it upright. Then she leaned against the wall beside the doorway, monitoring her breathing and listening to her heart race. She took a deep, shaky breath, and with faltering steps made her cautious way into the main hall. Long forgotten memories poured vividly through her mind, burning like reopened scar tissue.
Another swish of black—the trailing edge of a cloak disappeared up the flight of stairs. For a brief moment, perhaps the most terrifying one, Robbyn wondered if she was imagining things. Was she losing her mind? But as she turned the corner all uncertainties were instantly quelled. For bearing over her, with a couple dozen men behind him, stood a smug, black cloaked man. The shine of his golden tooth detracted her attention only momentarily from the shadowy, black eyes that sent a tingling chill down her spine. The cold indifference was striking; it was like looking into the eyes of a mountain lion. Atop his dark head sat a crooked crown, copiously jeweled with brightly colored gems. Robbyn stood inches away, she knew, from the Marauder King. It was nothing short of a nightmare spilled into the real world.
“Robbyn,” he said playfully. Robbyn’s heart fluttered. She felt herself plunged into a new level of terror at hearing her name uttered so casually by those evil lips. Something triggered, and the full force of her pent up, anxious energy snapped forth in the form of an upward swinging fire rod. With a resounding clang, the iron made contact. Robbyn gasped, taken aback at what she’d done.
But the swing missed high, and sent the King’s crown sailing across the room. It bounced off the far wall, and rolled slowly before the legion of waiting Marauders, depositing a single red ruby on the wooden floor before their transfixed eyes.
“I—” Robbyn started apologetically, as though she’d just spilled a cup of wine over a guest.
Shaking with outrage, The King’s ring and bracelet covered hands flew to his tangled mess of thin, black hair.
“YOU—INSOLENT—YOU . . .” His words fumbled over one another in their attempt to attack her. His glittering fingers shot forward, hovering inches from Robbyn’s face. But he stopped short, as though repelled by some invisible force. A twisted grimace contorted his face; an involuntary symptom of the turmoil brewing behind it.
After a few tense moments, the storm broke. The angry waves of his visage smoothed. With a meek jangling of jewelry, his hand fell away, unblocking Robbyn’s view of the Marauder King.
Robbyn let out a breath, but too soon.
The hand shot to Robbyn’s left wrist, closing around the bandage. Robbyn yanked back in reflex, but the hand only ratcheted tighter until she dropped to her knees in pain. With a flick of the wrist, her arm was laid bare. The mark of the slave, now hazed with a red, hand-shaped imprint, was open for others to see for the first time in years. The King looked disappointedly down at Robbyn, as though he’d just uncovered a stash of goods she’d stolen.
“Tie her to that chair!” he ordered, whirling around with a sweeping murderous glance at his crew. The assortment of grizzled assassins and thieves widened their eyes in fear—an almost comical spectacle. They flew to his bidding.
“NOW!” he screamed, spittle flying from his mouth, even though the task was nearly complete when he said it. Falling into a rhythm, the King bellowed a string of orders. The mass of black erupted forth in a wave, nimbly obeying his commands—raiding the supplies, filling the ships, and spreading straw. They gave the crown a wide berth, but kept glancing at it out of the corners of their eyes.
The King then spoke quietly. “We’re going to burn this place to the ground.” He whirled around, pointing a quivering finger at Robbyn as a team of Marauders bound to a chair with thick, seaman’s rope, “and you’re going to burn with it.”
Robbyn took the death sentence wordlessly as mounds of straw were spread around her. She felt distant, as though she were only a spectator to the terrible event happening to her, only the witness of some legend that her guests might argue about in the future. Nothing she did, it seemed, would affect the outcome of what was happening.
She watched the King as he, satisfied that every man was busy, walked casually over to his crown. He snatched it up, and then the loose ruby. A feeling of renewal seemed to pass over the King with the familiar headpiece in place.
As the mountains of straw grew, Robbyn was cut off from the collection of smug-faced, torch-wielding Marauders that surrounded her. The tightly wrapped rope cut into her skin, leaving no room to even wiggle. Reality was beginning to set in. She took a deep breath and exhaled in an attempt to still her pumping heart and stared up at the rough-hewn wooden beams of the ceiling. The last piece of the world left for her to observe, she realized with a pang. She tried to think about the good memories that these beams had witnessed over the years, the friends she’d made and the good news that had been delivered. Despite the panic and fear that her second encounter with the Marauders had evoked, she rummaged through her mind for some way to escape, an endeavor for which the twisting grains of the ceiling, however map-like, offered no enlightenment.
But she continued to study those lines leading to nowhere even as they were obscured by an ever-thickening layer of smoke. A cackling rose to a deafening pitch as the fire greedily dug into the straw. But Robbyn refused to give up hope, despite how frustratingly helpless she felt. She had the feeling that it wasn’t her time. She clung desperately to that fragment of optimism even as the cloud of smoke stung her eyes and throat, harvesting tears and inducing retches.
Everything around her, even the growing, voracious flames, faded through a veil of gray. Robbyn felt hopelessly trapped. The heat was unbearable, pressing in from all sides. She painfully looked down and saw fire climbing its way up her apron. Her breath became labored as she inhaled a fresh batch of bitter, staccato smoke. Even as she shut her eyes tight, she could still see fire. Finally, surrendering herself to her fate, Robbyn prayed to God, and passed out. Her chin fell limp.
Outside The Inn, still poring over logs and charts, Drift heard a commotion and was summoned from the numbness of technical thought. Curious, he lifted the lantern from his desk and turned to investigate, but stopped cold. Someone was sneaking onto his ship. The harsh stench of an assailant filled his nostrils. Clenching his fists, but keeping his back turned, he waited as the intruder crept noiselessly over the deck. Each silent step, however expertly placed, shifted the balance of the ship an almost undetectable amount. Drift felt each subtle vibration like a spider feels a wriggling fly caught in its web. The intruder stopped. The boat steadied. Several seconds passed in complete stillness.
Then, without notice, the cabin door flew open, revealing a dagger-armed Marauder barely visible against the dark night behind him. But Drift was way ahead of him. Before the cabin door even hit the wall, the giant sprang into action. He lifted himself by the short cabin rafters, and crashed down hard, ramming his shoulder into the wall. The Wooden Swan pitched violently, knocking the Marauder off his feet and causing his dagger to sink into the door post. Without a moment’s hesitation, Drift dashed the short distance to his prone foe, navigating the wildly rocking boat with an agility and precision that only years spent at sea could create.
With a massive hand he grabbed the struggling Marauder by the cloak, stepped out into the cool night air and flung him like a spear. The Marauder sailed over an adjacent ship, flailing like a panicked fish, before shattering the water’s surface.
Quickly, Drift surveyed his surroundings. The Inn was on fire, with flames licking out the windows and clouds of smoke spilling into the sky. His survey, at that point, stopped. He didn’t notice the area was crawling with black cloaks as they loaded Ryefield’s ships with supplies from The Inn and patrolled the neighboring woods. Nor did he notice that at the far end of the dock sat The Marauder’s infamous vessel, Lady Midnight, the enormous, black-hulled, black-sailed ship that transported the Marauders to their crimes. He didn’t see that at that moment a cluster of Marauders were loading some sort of contraption from Lady Midnight onto one of Ryefield’s ships.
As soon as he spotted the flames, he breathed one word: “Robbyn.” Then all the other aspects of his surroundings came into focus.
Fighting against his every instinct to charge the enemy with swinging fists, Drift racked his brain for some sort of plan. Some incoherent pieces of a strategy came into focus, and he resolved to fill in the foggy areas later.
Jumping to action, Drift tore the dagger from his door post, flooded into his cabin, and grabbed his fire-starting box from the desk. He fumbled with them as he rushed back out into the pale moonlight, resenting his slow fingers. Finally, Drift had the flint, steel, and dried cedar bark in hand. With a downward strike that grinded half the flint away, a shower of sparks ignited the cedar bark. The thin strands of the bark crumbled and smoked, glowing faintly at Drift’s encouraging breaths. Eyeing the growing flame of The Inn anxiously, he ripped a patch from his dark cloak, wrapped the smoking cedar and hurled the package into a nearby ship, the farthest of Reyfield’s from The Inn.
“What’s that?!” a Marauder, the first among several investigating the splash to notice Drift, called from the bank.
“Is that a bear?” a second said, straining to see in the meager light.
“No, it’s a . . . it’s a human!”
“You three, after it!”
The three appointed Marauders drew their daggers and melted into the shadows, their eyes locked on their large target.
Drift didn’t wait for them. With a roar that sounded far from human, he charged The Inn. Careening around the corner of the docks, Drift shoved each of his three pursuers into the water with a meaty forearm, not even slowing down. His rage built with his momentum. Any black cloak that stood in his way as he powered up the beach was flattened. One brave Marauder sped straight toward the stampeding giant, and bounced off him like a skipping stone.
“Seize him! Seize him!” the King cried. But it was too late.
Drift barreled through the smoking inn door at the crest of his momentum. Not bothering to narrow himself, his huge build took a substantial chunk of the surrounding door frame with him. As the broken door fell away, flame rushed at him from around its edges. Surrounded, Drift covered his head and didn’t break stride.
The giant’s legs crunched into what felt like a dining table, and he toppled forward, landing on the floor with an earth-rumbling crash. But he found himself in a world separate from the scrambling Marauders, a world surrounded by fire. He stood in an area clear of flame, however scorching it felt. The clouds of smoke gnawed at Drift’s eyes as he looked urgently around for Robbyn. But through his watery eyes he could only see flame everywhere.
“Robbyn!” he roared, choking on the insidious smoke.
And there she was: a small, wilted form, with flame closing around her. Her hair looked like a much duller version of the flames that surrounded her and her skin was charred and sodden. With a rush of fury at the evil that could so mercilessly do such a thing to this girl, Drift yanked the Marauder’s dagger from his belt, rushed forward, and sliced through her bonds. He lifted her from the hungry mouth of fire. A few small flames feeding on Robbyn’s clothing were extinguished with the pressing of a massive hand. Robbyn coughed through her unconsciousness.
“She’s alive,” Drift breathed with relief.
With the flame dead, Drift pressed Robbyn’s body to himself and whirled about for his escape. But, surrounded by identical walls of flame, there was no way to discern which way the door was.
With a rumble, a large chunk from the burning rafters dislodged itself and crash-landed at Drift’s feet. The building leaned several inches from this loss of support.
Sensing his shortness of time, Drift was forced to guess. He steeled himself and thundered in the direction he happened to be pointing at. He closed his eyes, gritted his teeth, and cradled Robbyn in his colossal arms as they breeched the wall of pure inferno. Ignoring the searing pain, his powerful legs pumped, oblivious to whatever they found traction on. A series of dining tables splintered into kindling beneath him. Breaking free, he put on a burst of speed. He saw the inn wall in front of him appear milliseconds before he crashed through it in a cascade of burning, fragmented wood. They appeared only feet away from the door Drift had originally entered through. The giant gratefully gulped in the fresh, cool air. Never before had anything tasted so sweet, though it was slightly tainted by the bitter taste of residual smoke.
The Marauders were still scrambling, crowding the doorways a safe distance from the flame to The King’s screamed orders.
“Get in there! Kill him!”
Drift didn’t slow down; he simply lowered his shoulder and kept his legs churning. He shot past the Marauders before they could react to his bursting through the wall. His booted feet thundered back up the dock and Drift leapt into his ship. A shockwave spread from the bobbing boat as Drift cut The Wooden Swan from the dock and unfurled the sail with a slice of the Marauder’s dagger. He set Robbyn gently on the deck. Seeing her frail, sooty face summoned a new gush of energy.
He leapt into his rowing seat, stashed the knife in his belt, and grabbed the two familiar handles. The sinew in his arms bulged as he heaved on the paddles, separating The Wooden Swan from the dock. In the darkness he could just make out his pursuers pouring into one of Ryefield’s ships.He heaved again on the oars, spurting the ship seaward, feeding on the momentum of the first heave.
“Bring them back dead!” the King wailed. “Your heads are on the line! All of you!”
The Marauders had the ship in motion, and were navigating the maze of docks. Drift cast a backward glance. Nothing stood between him and the Ocean. The Wooden Swan slowly distanced itself from the imminent Marauder ships as Drift’s gigantic arms fell into a rhythm, carving away at the water.
A cool breeze wafted over the perspiration already collecting on his skin and filled the sail, lending The Wooden Swan extra power, but lending the larger sail of his pursuers more. He dug harder, grunting with each pull.
The Inn was shrinking fast, the Marauder ship more slowly.
Hot and sweat-soaked, Drift somehow reached into himself and found the power to pull harder. The guttural noises grew louder with the effort. The Inn was steadily growing brighter, outlining the pursuing ship sharply.
As soon as those ships were a satisfactory distance behind, Drift dropped the oars. He sprang to his feet and lashed the wheel in place. With a final glance at their hunters, he gathered Robbyn in his arms and crossed to the opposite side of his ship where they were hidden from view by his cabin. As noiselessly as his frame would allow, he slipped over the edge and plunged into the sea.
Totally submerged, the cool water felt soothing around his hot, sweaty body for an instant. Then the water turned frigid. Ignoring this sensation, Drift squeezed Robbyn to himself and kicked hard for The Inn, hovering a safe distance below the surface to avoid detection. He waited for the ships to pass, itching to take Robbyn to the surface. He could almost feel the water pouring into her lungs. The wait seemed to go on forever, and Drift nearly decided to bring her up regardless of whether the Marauders would see them or not.
Then the hull of a ship glided over him, its ridge missing him by inches. As it rode over them, they were pulled backward by its wake.
Scrambling furiously to break free, Drift powered for the surface. Upon breaching the sky he held Robbyn’s head above the surface for several moments as the water came spluttering out. Then he remembered to take a breath himself. Once her coughing stopped and his cavernous lungs had been filled, he flipped over onto his back, holding Robbyn to his chest, and doggedly backstroked for shore. He watched as the ships continued their pursuit of the unmanned vessel, completely fooled.
Within minutes he was dragging himself and Robbyn up the sandy beach in a shower of salt water and sand. They were adjacent to The Inn, which now had angry flames pouring from every window, releasing thick billows of smoke into the night sky. The bold, shimmering light that shot from the mass of flame cast long, animated shadows past every, rock, plant, and toiling Marauder. The King was standing only feet from the flame, arms spread wide and eyes closed peacefully, a satisfied grin on his face, as if he were enjoying a refreshing spring breeze.
From the shadows, Drift shot a glance at the ship he’d set fire to on the far side of The Inn. Smoke was snaking up unnoticed from the cabin windows, but there was no visible flame.
“Come on!” Drift breathed.
He crept through the undergrowth noiselessly. At the edge of his cover he crouched and waited, his muscles ready to spring, with Robbyn cradled in his arms.
BANG! An earsplitting explosion rocked the beach. A menacing rumble followed, like a roll of thunder. Everyone whipped around to see the ship farthest from The Inn fully ablaze; a miniature version of The Inn itself. The fire was eating at the sails of two neighboring ships as well.
“Put it out!” screamed the King. “You pelicans! Put it out!” The Marauders scrambled for a means of dousing the flame.
Drift sprinted behind a series of turned backs unnoticed.
But time was short now. The burning ship could only hold their attention for so long.
Not slowing, he tip-toed up the dock with long, bounding strides, as if he were clearing several hurdles with each step. He risked a brief glance that revealed the Marauders were still distracted by the burning ship. A ring of them were scooping buckets of water on as the King cursed and harassed everyone in sight. Just as Drift and Robbyn disappeared behind the black hull of Lady Midnight, The Inn collapsed into a broken, smoldering pile, sending up a shower of red ash and embers. This drew the attention of a few of the Marauders, including the King, but they quickly returned their focus to the burning ship.
Drift crept around the giant hull of the black ship. Somehow the shadow it cast seemed darker than it should have been. And as Drift passed into this darkness, an unsettling feeling washed over him. Robbyn, though still unconscious, shivered.
But within this shadow sat their escape: one of Ryefield’s ships. Drift boarded the deck of the vessel, opened the cabin door and placed Robbyn gently in the hammock. He then slashed the rope binding the ship to the dock and unfurled the sail. As the ship lurched forward, Drift steered the wheel away from open sea. Using Lady Midnight to hide their getaway from the Marauders, he hugged the shoreline until they faded to safety, The Inn nothing but a shrinking bright streak on the dark horizon.