The sea glistened emerald under the baking summer sun. Before the bow the waves broke as the Flying Fox cut across Uhuna's Mirror, heading south to the desert of Aslistan. On the deck, watching the rolling hills of Enstrait disappear below the horizon, Lena Spaulding finally let herself believe it was beginning. After ten years of planning and preparation, waiting for the moment she could finally leave, it was a little hard to fully accept that she was finally one her way. But there was no mistaking the rocking of the deck blower her feet, or the fresh spray of the sea cooling her face, the harsh smell of the saltwater and the ship. The swooping sensation in her gut was from more than just the swell of the waves as Enstrait finally disappeared behind, leaving only the sea ahead.
Only when she was sure that no trace of her old home could be seen did she turn away, looking now to the front as the bow rose and fell, breaking apart the waves. The sea was calm, and the sky empty of clouds, and although she didn't normally entertain such thoughts she couldn't help but feel it was a good omen for her voyage. From the helm the captain bellowed an order and one of the crew hurried past her to carry it out. She had little knowledge of seafaring terms, and indeed part of her reason for choosing the Flying Fox had been to learn a little while she travelled. The little two-masted ship could be sailed easily by only four or five crew members, and since someday she could find herself in charge of such a vessel it was important to know how. She watched closely as the crew-man adjusted one of the lines and saw the sail tauten, the ship pulling noticeably faster now.
They were making good time, having left with the dawn. It was now mid-afternoon and already they had reached open water. The crossing to Aslistan was three days in good weather, and the captain seemed confident they would make that deadline. She watched him wrestle the wheel a quarter-turn and the sails caught another hard breath of wind. Their route was the shortest crossing available, Closa port in Enstrait to Esewamphis in Aslistan. Perfect for a small ship, perfect for a quick trade route, and perfect for someone who wanted a quick journey away with few questions asked. Some of the other passengers were on the deck with her, and for the first time since boarding she took the opportunity to study them.
Standing by the quarterdeck in the shade of the sail was an elegantly dressed man she knew from many years ago, though he clearly didn't recognise her. Viscount Hunlin of Enstrait was a controversial figure by all accounts. She had first met him not long after her father's death, where her mother had called him a snake behind his back. At her mother's funeral he had somewhat loudly and drunkenly lamented the passing of such a beautiful lady and assured her that he would do anything to help her. She hadn't called on him, and had barely spared a thought his way. To see him again had been a shock, but he hadn't even looked her way as he boarded. She was a far cry from the delicate Noble's daughter he would have expected. He had use of the best passenger cabin, naturally, but travelled without an entourage. She suspected a scandal had necessitated his sudden and discreet voyage.
A thin, wiry man with an unpleasant smile loitered near the mast, watching the comings and goings of the crew and passengers. His clothes were scruffy and covered in patches, and earlier she had seen the flash of pale white skin on his chest that spoke of a branding. Only Hutanian prisons still branded their prisoners in that way. And they very rarely let them go free.
That only left three more passengers, one of whom was standing by the door that led to the best passenger quarters and the captain's bunk. Lena knew that in he second passenger bunk was the mysterious girl she had so far only glimpsed. As she boarded she had been flanked by two men and steered directly to the quarters. One of the men was now in his cabin below deck while the other stood guard. He was definitely a soldier, it showed in the way he stood, the way his eyes darted about, tracking movement. He had appraised and evaluated all of them with a single glance after taking his post. He didn't carry a sword or long weapon, but his clothes were padded leather, and from the bulge Lena suspected a mail shirt as well. At his belt a plain knife in a simple scabbard., in short he looked like he was trying to fit in with regular people, but hadn't quite perfected the art.
She wondered about who the two men were guarding. From the glimpse she guessed the girl to be about her own age, although she wore makeup to appear older. She was much lighter skinned than Lena, and the pale skin stood out against long hair so dark it was almost black. She had been dressed in finery even Lena had never known and at least three trunks of her had been put into the cargo hold. Compared to Lena's small case contained mostly books and some cloths it was an almost obscene amount of luggage. All of it together pegged her as nobility, and with two guards pretty major nobility at that. Lena's father had had two guards, her mother one who died along with her. Lena knew firsthand that guards were no guarantee of safety.
She stayed on deck until the sun began to sink low enough that the captain ordered lanterns lit, then went below to her cabin. There were eight identical bunks on the bottom floor of the ship, and hers was the third on the right. She stopped for a moment outside the door of the second bodyguard, but it sounded like he was asleep. In her own cabin there was nothing more Han a bed and a desk with a seat bolted to it. Her satchel was right where she had left it under the desk, and she took it as she sat down, taking out her diary, pen and ink-pot. The journal was only her latest one, back home she had another nine store in her family vault, one for every year since her mother had died.
Though the rocking of the ship made it a challenge to write she managed to recount the day's events from meeting the captain to boarding to setting sail. It was by no means her most exiting entry, but then that was never the point. It had been one of her father's old friends who had suggested the idea to her. If she was in a habit of writing something every day, no matter how trivial, then when she might need to relate something troubling it would be easier. She still wasn't sure, writing about hard days was still hard, but she also kept at it.
She stayed in her room until after dark, reading about the ancient city of Ofloit. It was in ruins now of course, but according to her research it had been the last known storage site for the Ring of (NAME). No other adventurer had ever claimed it, so there was still a chance she could find it. She tried to keep her excitement at the idea reasonable. She still needed to GED to the dig site, actually find the ring and even then it was only the first step on her journey. Unable to sleep, her thoughts still racing and the unfamiliar noises of the ship keeping her up, she walked back out and to the stairs.
The floor above held the crew's quarters, where at this hour most of the men would be resting. Up on deck the First Mate was at the helm while the third seaman kept an eye on the boat. She had been introduced to the captain, a weathered man named Calder, and the First Mate, Taron from Rudal, but she had yet to learn the names of the others. As she stood at the top of the stairs and waited for her eyes to adapt to the dim light of the lamps and the stars, she realised th st there were two more people up, standing right at the prow of the ship. One looked huge and hulking, the other much slighter, probably not much taller than Lena herself. Curious, she wandered over.
As soon as she was within five paces the man mountain moved, placing himself between the two women and holding up one hand as the other disappeared behind his back. "That's close enough," he said. "Please step back." His tone was calm and even, yet still seemed to hint at unspeakable bodily harm if she disobeyed.
"It's alright Sadon," the girl said. "Not everyone is a fearsome assassin."
Her guard frowned, but stepped to one side, and Lena walked up to meet the girl.
"I'm Miriela," she said with a smile. "Sorry about him, he's a bit intense about strangers."
"I'm Lena. Lena Iro-, Lena Spaulding." Her mistake couldn't have been more obvious, but Miriela didn't comment on it.
"It's nice to meet you," she said instead. "Honestly it's nice to meet anyone."
Lena wasn't quite sure how to phrase her answer. "The rest of the passengers retired for the night."
"Yes, and now it's apparently safe for me to come out." There was scorn in her voice, most of it directed to Sadon the bodyguard, who to his credit continued his determined imitation of a statue rather than responding. "It's frustrating enough having to take this trip. Not being allowed out is just one more thing." She endeared over to the edge of the ship, leaning against the rails and looking down at the sea. Lena walked over as well. "I suppose it's not so bad," she went on. "It's nice to have sow peace and quiet."
Now that she had stepped into the lamplight Lena could see that she was stunningly pretty. Her skin was so pale it actually shone in the moonlight, and as she grinned a small dimple put a shadow on her cheek. Her nose was probably a little too big for her face, but it only seemed to make her better to look at. Her jaw was soft and feminine, her mouth small but full, and her smile was intoxicating. Lena had never seen anyone quite so beautiful.
She realised she was staring, and hadn't spoken in quite some time. "So why are you going to Aslistan?" She asked.
"Oh." Miriela's face fell. She dropped back onto the deck. "It's a family matter."
"Ah." Lena sensed there was a lot more to the story, but she knew better than to pry.
"How about you? What's your story?"
"I'm going to explore some of the ruins. There are some fascinating artefact's still buried under the sands there."
"There aren't enough ancient ruins in Enstrait?" Miriela asked with a grin. "I know Rudal has one or two as well."
"My area of study was always a bit more southern." For a moment she was actually tempted to tell this complete stranger the full story, but then the moment passed. "I should probably get some sleep."
"Of course." Miriela smoothed her dress and curtsied in the Rudalian court style. "It was nice to meet you Lena Iro-Spaulding." A grin tugged at the corners of her mouth that Lena couldn't help but return.
She curtsied as well, though without a dress it felt very awkward. "It was nice meeting you as well."
She left Miriela on the deck looking out at the stars and went back to her bunk, falling into her bed and closing her eyes. It wasn't long before she drifted to sleep, Miriela's face at the front of her mind.
The second day brought storm clouds and rough sea. The viscount stayed in his cabin, as did Miriela. Lena and the day bodyguard were the only ones on deck besides the crew, ho were scurrying about tying down rope and securing the sails. The waves rolled and pulled at the ship, throwing them across the sea as Lena clung to the railings. She had no idea how the bodyguard was still standing. The captain didn't seem too concerned, although his orders were definitely coming more frequently now. One of the sailors made his way over to her and yelled over the roar of the water. "You should get below miss."
"I'm fine," she shouted back. "Shouldn't we be trying to find shelter?"
"In open waters?" He barked a laugh. "Our only choice is to ride her out now. We're in the bitch now, just gotta rut her into submission." And with another laugh he went back to his post.
In the end Lena was forced below as the storm continued to rage. She sat on her bed and tried to read before giving up and leaning back against the wall, trying to keep from being sick. But for the entire day the storms pushed the ship across the sea and rocked her near to sinking. When the storm finally abated the captain called them onto the deck.
"I'll not lie," he began once they were assembled. "We've taken a pounding today, and I'm afeared for the Fox. We're off course and near three days now from safe harbour in both directions. But there is an island that might not be more than an evening's travel. I propose to rest there a day while we inspect the ship and make sure she's sound. If there are any objections I'll have team now."
There were no objections though, and the captain nodded, turning to his First Mate. "Taron, ready the crew. We sail as soon as we're able."
The crew moved in earnest to unfurl the sail again and prepare the ship. Lena went back below, not wanting to be in the way, and took out her journal again. The ship soon began to move again, gentler than before. She finished the entry and packed her things away, slipping her satchel over her shoulder and venturing back out onto the deck, where the sun was just beginning to sink below the horizon. Only one other passenger was on deck, the other bodyguard for Miriela, standing guard as before. She ignored him and went to the front of the ship, seeing a dark bulge in the near distance growing larger. There was still no hint of moon in the sky, but the stars were bright enough to see by. The crew were just hanging out the lanterns when a glint of light caught her eye.
"What's that?" She called, pointing to where it was moving across the sky.
"Shooting star miss," one of the seamen replied.
"Bit close for that," Taron said.
"Never mind it," the captain told them all. "Mind your posts."
The crew went back to sailing, bu Lena kept watching the ball of light. It went in a high arc into the sky, then began to fall rapidly.
"Not a shooting star," she shouted. "It's coming right for us."
It dropped into the sea right in front of them and for a moment nothing happened. Then with a roar like thunder the water was blasted into a wave that threw the ship back, so steep they were nearly vertical. Lena tumbled down the deck for one terrifying moment before the ship righted again, the crew sprawled across the deck or tangled in the ropes. As they fought to free themselves another two globes of light emerged from the darkness, much faster than before. They flew over the ship to land in the Qatar behind. Another enormous wave hit them, along with a raging buffet of wind that made the sails snap and flutter. This time they were shoved forwards, the island looming much closer.
"We're under attack!" Taron yelled.
"Turn us around," the captain shouted, spinning the wheel hard around. But the winds were against them and another two globes of light were already overhead. Lena ran for the stairs to get below decks but a blast of wind spun her back to the floor.
By the time she got back to her feet they were nearly at the island. Waves were breaking over jagged rocks and through the darkness she could see a mountain rising from the centre. Three magical blasts shot from the peak even as she watched. They crashed into the sea and the world exploded, winds and water assaulting them and coming close to capsizing them. Lena was tossed clean into the mast, all the breath forced out of her. She lay on the deck gasping and trying to find something to cling to.
Hands slipped under her shoulders and forced her up, someone much stronger than her dragging her across to the side of the ship. She found her feet and looked over to see the First Mate struggling with a rope.
"Help me!" He shouted to her, and she looked down to see a thick rope tied to a small dinghy.
"What about the others?" She asked as she hauled on the rope to try and lift the boat.
"Below getting the passengers."
The dinghy slid over the edge of the railings and hung suspended over the sea for a moment. Lena felt her muscles burn as she struggled to hold it aloft. The ship tilted again, and she was slammed against the rails while Taron let the rope slip for a moment. The dinghy lurched to one side and banged against the side of the ship.
It happened so fast she didn't even realise what had happened. One moment she was straining to hold the rope while the ship rolled back, then she was tipped forwards and over Tye edge, her arms and legs cracking against the sides of the dinghy. There was a brief sensation of flight and the next thing she knew the sea seemed much rougher. She reached out for something to hold and grasped someone's arm. She yelped and sat, looking over to see Taron lying in the boat next to her, blood running down the side of his face. She shook him a few times but he just groaned.
"Okay," she muttered as she clambered up to a better vantage point. "No problem. I can handle this." She found the island, then turned to see the ship breaking apart, the sails torn away as the masts snapped in two. "Oh no."
She looked around frantically for anything the dinghy might have, and came up with a single paddle. She dragged it through the water a few times but it had no effect. She gave up and watched helplessly as the Flying Fox broke amidships, the two halves breaking again as a massive wave crashed through them and towards the island, dragging what was left of the ship over the rocks. Lena threw herself over Taron as the edge of the wave caught them and spun the dinghy away across the sea.
When they righted Lena checked their position again. The wave had blown them almost clear of the island, and while the pieces of the ship were heading straight for the shoreline their little dinghy was going to miss it completely. She started to paddle again, desperately trying to bring them back to land, but a strong current had them now and was carrying them away. She realised she was crying, and the strange noise she heard was her own voice whimpering
A hand closed on her shoulder and the paddle was taken off her. She turned to see Taron driving it through the water in a strong, steady rhythm. The current still had them, but he worked with it to bring them in a sweeping curve back towards the island. Thankfully the magical attacks had stopped, the storms dying down and leaving the current their only enemy. The beach disappeared from view but they could see clearly an inlet of water into the centre of the island. Taron was clearly aiming for it, but his strokes were weakening.
Above the roar of the waves and the breaking of timber a shrill cry reached them. Lena looked out to see someone waving at them from the waves. She squinted and made out the shapes of two people, clinging desperately to a raft. The cry came again, and she grabbed Taron by the shoulder.
"We have to help!" She shouted.
He shook his head, too exhausted even to speak, but before she could find an argument he keeled over again, the paddle slipping from his hands.
Lena snatched the paddle up before it fell into the water and began to drive it hard through the waves, finding strength she never knew she had. The dinghy turned and began to close on the plank of wood. As she drew closer she realised that one of the people was Miriela, waving and screaming for help. Next to her was one of the bodyguards, one arm around her waist and the other locked onto the plank. They were caught in the current, being swept out to sea. Lena rowed harder and they came within arm's reach. She dropped the paddle and stretched out her arm, half leaning out of the dinghy as she struggled to reach.
Miriela caught her wrists and Lena gripped her arms tightly back, pulling as hard as she could and managing to bring the plank and the dinghy together. The bodyguard rook over, heaving Miriela into the boat and hauling himself aboard, grabbing the paddle and pulling hard for the island. Compared to Lena and Daron's efforts they were now flying through the water, the surf visible as a beach ahead.
Too late they realised the surf concealed rocks. The bodyguard struggled to bring them clear but there was nothing he could do. The paddle was ripped out of his hands and the dinghy spun, turning the broad side to face the rocks. There was a wrenching crash as they hit and Lena was sent flying, not even able to scream before she hit the water and was dragged under. She breathed in, jerking as salt water filled her lungs. Pain seared through her arm and shoulder as she spiralled in freezing blackness. Something clamped hard on her wrist and she felt a shock of cold air on her face. Her chest convulsed and she vomited the water she had swallowed.
Her vision was going grey at the edges, but ahead she could see the beach, much closer now. As she began to lose conscious she became aware of something pulling her along, and the touch of light fingers on her shoulder, but as she turned to look the world shifted sideways and she blacked out.