The storm was the worst I’d ever seen. The sea swelled up on all sides, as if the entire ocean had come alive with a taste for man.
After five hours, a smasher, the largest wave, larger than any of us knew was possible, rose up from the port side and flipped the Red Hawk over in the middle of the night.
I was an old salt, experienced with the sea in all of her mercurial natures; I knew I would die out here one day. I always thought it would be at the hands of some bloody Royal in their dapper booties swinging onboard, pistols flaring, my mates screaming an’ cussing a blue streak.
That was the only way for an honest pirate to die. A ball to the chest knocking you to your back. A sword thrust through the gut, the stinking breath of a man in your face happier that it’s you than him, his viscous smile the last thing you see as you head to hell.
That is how I expected to die. It’s how, if there were gods for pirates, not saying there were mind you, but if there were, that’s how pirates pray to die.
What we never want is to be washed overboard in a storm with a good ships gear flying around you. Watched the spar flapping around the deck, as it knocked my mates into the sea, skulls busted open, lines on deck flew through the air, almost as if they were alive tangling barefooted men and dragging them to the Locker, choking, screaming their fury to a uncaring ocean.
No, there was only one thing worst than drowning at sea, the quick rush of water choking off your breath, the red hot burning in your lungs, then blackness. It was surviving your ship going down into that inky darkness.
It was surviving the storm, clinging to what was once your home. To a piece of something that took you places, gave you the opportunity to carve your way into history. Your ship is more than just your home. It becomes a piece of what you are.
Scrubbing its decks, you become intimate with its sounds, creaking, moaning against the sea, you learn to hear the leaks while you sleep, and how to find them whilst you bail out the presence of the sea. Your mistress. Your second love. You are married to your ship. But you are in love with the sea. But like any mistress, she is temperamental and liable to kill your wife if you aren’t paying attention.
When the storm broke two days later, there was almost nothing that would tell me the Hawk and her sixty men had ever existed, excepting me. And the Banarabas would soon take care of that this time of year.
It was hot, hellishly so. And this being summer, I would have my pick of ways to die, since I had the foolish notion to cling to life past my ship sinking and surviving the storm only to bake in the summer sun.
I did have the unhappy alternative of being eaten by yellow fin sharks, which in three or four more days might seem a happy alternative to dying of thirst. I saw a number of them a day after the Hawk went down but the strong currents of the Banarabas pulled me away from the ship.
Having always been slight of build perhaps they decided I was just a bit to skinny to be a good meal worth their time. Now my captain on the other hand, if they could find his rotten crotched ass, and didn’t die from one of his numerous diseases, would have had a grand meal indeed. Only man I know who would seek a healer, only to be told they were only able to cure six of his eight or nine acquired ailments. Quiet as it was kept the Hawk kept on the move to keep his pecker from rottin’ off. A different healer in every port or so it was said.
After the third night, my water was close to running out but I had a bit of hope. Not too much, a pirate learns early to keep expectations low, that way you’re never disappointed. The Great Bear pointed north and if I reckoned the map and the path of the storm, we were in a region peppered with islands capable of keeping a man from starving to death, maybe even with enough trees to try making a raft or canoe. I didn’t have much more than my boatswain knife but I had been shipwrecked with less.
Now, all I had to do was to let the current do its work. I entered into the last race every sailor dreads. A race against death. Would it be the sun, would it be the sharks, or would it be madness, sunstruck, drinking seawater screaming madly into the burning sun until I went blind.
The scrap of wood I was floating with held out for eight days. Then it waterlogged and began to sink. I took off my pantaloons and tied off the ends and blew them up, filling them with air. The nasty fabric was oiled and held the water out turning them into water bouys. I tied them around my waist and floated on my back. I pissed into my second water canteen and choked back that piss on day nine. On day ten, I finished the rest. I kept my eye on the horizon.
I kept turning myself over during the day to protect myself from sunburn. Yes, I was already black as night and my hair was nappy and encrusted with salt but the sun at sea makes no distinctions ’bout color, and will happily burn my teak skin as easily as it would Northerners. By now, one of those blond berserkers would be in hell, skin burning and blistering, and sea water only makes it worst.
I counted my blessings few as they were.
Then I had one more. I could see an island in the distance. At this level in the ocean, it was only about six or eight miles away but the current was pulling me in the opposite direction. I hadn’t had anything to eat decent in days. The last thing I ate was a small yellow shark that decided I might be big enough to test and I happily cut out his eyes and feasted on his sweet flesh. I ate my fill before I let the rest float off. That was six days ago. The others decided to steer clear.
I turned over and began my slow swim against the current. I watched the sun rise and set before I was a mile or less away from the island. As the darkness settled in I focused on the stars and kept swimming. I arrived in the middle of the night with just enough strength to pass out on the shore.
I woke with the rising tide splashing into my mouth. The day was already half gone. It was cloudy and smelled like rain, but it was mostly just the threat of rain, my weather knee confirmed my suspicions as I limped up the beach and put my pants back on. The ground was a rough mix of course sand and sharp seashells. No paradise this. Once I had a chance to look around I realized the only benefit the island was going to offer me was a dry, shark-less place to die.
The shoal around the outer edge of the island was only about a half mile wide, it turned into a sheer cliff face, easily a hundred feet tall in some places, a bit more in others. I couldn’t tell what was on top of the cliff but I could see roots and vines stretching over the side and even a few trees growing out of the cliff face.
Circling the island a few times, I realized I was going to have to climb up one of these sheer cliffs. It wasn’t as if I had many choices. What little strength I had left would desert me soon. I wasn’t a spring chicken but I had grown accustomed to living and not prepared to just lie back and die just yet.
On my next circle of the island, I sought any sign of water flowing down from the top of the cliff. If there were roots, trees, maybe there was a freshwater spring. It wasn’t uncommon on islands like these. One side of the island had more roots and vines running down the face of it. I decided there might be water underneath that cover and it might make the climb a bit easier as well.
I rested during the night underneath the section of the cliff I was to climb that morning. As I woke, in the early morning, droplets of water fell from the vines above me. First a trickle then a stream. I drank that stream until it dried up. As it tapered off it continued to dribble down the wall. I licked water from the rocks until it dried. My blistered lips never tasted anything as sweet.
I dreamed of home. I hadn’t thought about Lindon for at a score of years. My daughter’s likely full grown and wouldn’t have good words for her baba even if she knew where I was. We didn’t get along. She was always telling me I was too old to be out raiding the king’s ships. She was just like her mother, inclined to give me her opinion of everything whether I wanted it or not. My second wife was also of that nature, so she and my daughter got along well.
When she married I came to her wedding and got no love for the visit. My being drunk probably didn’t endear me to her husband and the brawl that broke out when my mates had a bit to drink did cut her festivities short.
No more time. These old bones have to climb now or not at all. I see her face before me as I start climbing. I promise I will come to see her if I get out of here. Now all I have time for is making my way up the cliff. The rock face has plenty of handholds. The early climb is easy enough for a half-starved old man to manage.
The sun is on the far side of the island for the first half of the day. I don’t see it’s light until the early afternoon. Once it crests the edge of the rock face it was as if a club had struck me full on in the face. My skin burned anew, having grown accustomed to the shade and my arms and legs weakened. I struggled to hold my position.
Sweat beaded up on my brow in the first few moments. The weakness went all the way through me, and for a moment, I entertained letting it take me. But the habit of living went through me again. I kept going. But I was slower, more deliberate. I was dreaming while I climbed.
“Ngato, we aren’t supposed to be here on the pier.” I was terrified. Ngato just smiled his toothless grin and plunged ahead.
“Hurry up, Fayro, there are blood oranges at the end of this journey, remember?” His energy and enthusiasm were contagious and was swept up in the moment when I remembered how delicious blood oranges were.
The pier was crowded with travelers from all over the Twenty Kingdoms and each more fantastic than the one before. We saw the legendary Faceless Mages, who wore burkas to hide their entire bodies except for their golden glowing eyes. They were reputed to be so hideous, to see them without their masks was to die, one’s blood turned to ice in your very veins. As I ran by them, one looked at me and met my eyes. I could not look away, I remember that stare, a look so deep, for a moment, my short life passed before my eyes. I stood there transfixed.
This moment of inattention probably saved my life. Ngato had run ahead and as he was going to the trade ship, T’nipr, a draft horse was spooked and broke away from his handlers and ran up the pier knocking people and products in every direction. Ngato was one of those things taking flight.
I saw what was about to happen and I rushed to try to save my friend. As I tried to run to him, the Faceless Mage reached out and grabbed my arm. His grip was steel; squirm as I might, and I was used to escaping adults, I could not break free. I watched as Ngato fell over the side of the pier between the great Royal ship Nekinesser. The Royal Marines turned to look but did nothing to help him.
His screams, as he was crushed against the pier wall and the hull of the Nekinesser haunts me still. The Faceless Mage released me but put his hand on my shoulder.
“Can you help him?” I pleaded with the enigmatic mage.
“No, little one, where your friend goes, none may follow. But know he feels no pain now. Weep no longer.” The mage reached down and touched my forehead. He looked off into the distance.
“You will know a life of hardship. Of suffering. Long voyages filled with adventure, the hatred of men and the love of women. You will outlive all of those things. You will find yourself lost and without hope. On that day you will remember me and my gift to you. What you lost will be found.”
We walked to the edge of the pier as the Royal Marines brought Ngato’s body to the top of the pier. The Faceless Mage stood there with me at his side and no one paid us any never mind at all. The Marines waited until the body could be recovered and taken away.
I went to them to thank them for their gentle treatment of my friend. “Excuse me, sir. I am Fayro bin Anyro and I wanted to thank you for recovering my friend for a proper burial.”
“Didn’t do it fer you, lad. Twer up to me, he would rot there he would’ve. The boatswain didn’t want yer friend attracting damned birds, shittin’ all over our cargo. Now move along before I has to get nasty.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. No respect for the dead. I spit on his boots and turned away. I heard the ring of steel slipping from its sheath. I waited expecting to be struck down.
“Don’t.” the whispered voice of the Faceless Mage wafted over my shoulder and landed on the Royal Marine and his sword froze midstroke. I glanced over my shoulder as the Faceless Mage approached the man.
“He will out-live you by thirty years from this moment. Fate has already decreed this, I have spoken his doom, would you interfere with this?”
“No.” The nasty bravado was gone, only the sound of a frightened man could be heard. “Go, Fayro of Anyro, go to your fate.”
I had tears in my eyes and the journey to Ngato’s house seemed all too short. Ngato mother clutched his broken body. I tried to explain what happened but she could not be consoled. Her wails trailed me home, the prized blood orange which took us so far from home was forgotten. I vowed to never eat another.
I had climbed another third of the way, but without rope, I could move no faster. I finally reached the foliage and what appeared to be a tree growing from the side of cliff face. It probably once was on the top plain area and its deep roots have allowed it to stay connected even after the cliff eroded away around it. Before the sun set, I made my way to it and after testing it, used some of the short vines and roots to belay myself there for the night.
I had stopped sweating right before sunset. I would need water and a lot of it very soon. One more day either way.
I felt every one of my three score summers come dawn’s first light. From my height on the cliff face, I could see much farther than I had been able to at any other time since I arrived. There were no other islands within view and the sea was turbulent and troubled. That meant it might be a long time between rescues.
I caught as much of the morning run-off as I could, almost able to drink my fill. The water renewed me and gave me confidence my flagging strength had sapped away. My hands trembled with exertion. Even with the hardening of sea life and swinging a Sanri sword for years, my callused fingers were aching with this final effort. It seemed the very rock resisted my efforts to climb, I slipped more than once. The last thirty feet were the most treacherous and I did my best to make fewer mistakes than I had earlier.
I reached the very lip. As I put my left hand onto it, I slid it along the top to test the resilience. It would hold. But I had reached the limits of my endurance. Try as I might, I could not lift myself to the top. My body began to tremble, then quake.
My breath came fast, my heart pounded in my chest. I held myself there by my will alone.
I became a pirate because I hated the King’s Marines. I wasn’t that fond of the King either, to be honest, but he lived five countries way from our land of Nicenar and was only the ruler because his armies had conquered this region two or three generations ago. Our people refused to resist his tyranny because the country was peaceful and tribal warfare had been reduced in his reign.
But my father called it the peace of the grave. The king had not improved our land, only impoverished it by taxing it to death. My father became a pirate to strike back at the king and his allies. In the beginning they ignored us because we were so few but our knowledge of the waterways gave us an advantage and made us bold. And for the last twenty years, other nations joined our pirate war and the King was forced to acknowledge our efforts.
The last five years had almost seemed as if it were going to be worth having spent nearly two score on the deck of a ship somewhere. The King’s strength lie in his navies and their ability to suppress populations by bringing armies and Marines to those locations. Without the ability to support his occupation troops, areas under his control became bolder. The pirate hordes had grown numerous and well armed, making each conflict more dangerous for the Royals than it had in quite some time.
My time on the Red Hawk was both challenging and fruitful. The Captain, Olie Modo, fat, vile and disgusting as he was still led the Hawk well and fairly. His plans more often than not worked exactly as promised and when they didn’t he improvised well. It is not a surprise he would be taken out by a storm, and not the Royal Navy. He was a force of nature himself.
“Eat it. Unless you want sailor’s sickness.” the ship’s doctor stared at me while motioning at the shriveled blood orange in front of me.
“I don’t eat those. I vowed never to do so in memory of a friend.”
The doctor reached into a barrel and pulled out three more, only a bit less shriveled than the one before me. “I’m touched by your devotion. And if we were going to be out here for only a few more days, I would let you get sick until you get home. But we will be out here for weeks. You will need be fit enough to swing a sword and do your job, so will you eat the oranges or do I have to make you?”
“You don’t understand.”
“Nor do I want to. I am responsible for your health and until we can get some limes, which I prefer, these blood oranges will have to do. Now eat.”
The rind is tough, difficult to peel, the scent of it fills my nose and my eyes water. Each bite, even as dry as these had become was still a tiny slice of heaven. The doctor stood there drinking his rum and mumbling about the quality of pirates these days.
I slipped from the edge.
I thought I had recovered enough. I knew I would have to try before the sun got overhead. Once that happened I was done for and I knew it. Bracing my feet, knees tight, I pulled myself up to the edge, but the light of the sun and a flock of birds I startled flew toward me, filling my eyes with blinding light and the thunder of wings.
I fell back.
Someone caught my arm. A strong grip. Firm. Resolute. They lifted me as I would a small child and brought me into a bear-hug. Billowing fabric rustled in the wind and flapped around my shriveled form. It was the burka of a Faceless Mage.
“You made it, brother. I was told to expect you.”
“Do I know you, Master Mage? I didn’t care in that moment, I was so relieved to be standing on solid ground, surrounded by trees, grass and what appeared to be a small bubbling spring in a nearby cove.
“Yes, Fayro. It’s me Ngato.” He took off his mask and reached into his mouth. He removed his hand and revealed and his telltale gap of his four missing top teeth, kicked out by a mule when he turned twelve. In his hand was a piece of wood or ivory shaped like teeth.
He smiled that devil’s smile which always preceded us getting into trouble. He popped his teeth back in and slid his mask back on.
“Ngato, I saw you…die. How can you be here with me?” Sitting down in the cove, I filled my canteen and washed my face, my hair, my arms and cleaned myself up. Ngato said nothing until I was finished.
“Walk with me.” We walked out of the cove and out into the sun. My nakedness did not bother me. I was happy to be free of those clothes. We walked out and began walking toward the cliff. I was filled with apprehension. Then it passed almost as mysteriously as it appeared. I knew what it was.
“Do you want to see?”
“Do I have to?”
“No. But it helps.”
I looked. There was below me, far below me the shape of a man, bedraggled, bearded, haggard, his mouth tight, defiant even in death. An old man past his prime, now past beyond all caring.
“We never did get that orange…”
“Funny, I just happen to have one right here under this robe.” He pulled his hand from out of his sleeve and a perfect round, fully ripe blood orange almost magically appeared. He tore it in half, sundering its perfect shape with an almost savage glee. He tears into his half with juices running down his chin.
I copy his movements feeling free and a sense of exhilaration I haven’t known in a long time. “Care to explain the robe?”
“It’s a long story.” he smirked, chewing noisily.
“I hear I’ve got time.”
Blood Orange © Thaddeus Howze 2013. All Rights Reserved
Image: Pirate in a Storm, 2006, © Peter Lee (Peterconcept) a DeviantArt artist.