Year 5- Prologue
Calmly, Jerimah watched as the gentle ocean waves rolled into one another and slopped onto the shore, hungrily lapping at his naked feet. He relished the feeling the cold waves gave him; It was as if the mysterious lands of the west were beckoning to him, encouraging him to step into the blue and out to the unknown.
Would that I could, he thought wistfully as his eyes traced the pink and crimson outline of the horizon. He watched as the shimmering gold sun slowly sank below the endlessly rolling waves of the sea. Small, translucent clouds drifted by it, whispering their farewells. So to, did Jerimah. There goes another day marked by absolutely nothing. He shook his head and sighed. Jerimah wanted nothing more than to experience a different life, just for a bit. Perhaps step into the shoes of an infamous pirate, or partake in a grand battle as a glorious knight. Anything but remaining at boring, old Humbledown, the village that he was born in and, most likely, would die in.
His silent meditation was broken by the din of clattering, wooden swords. He sighed again and turned around to investigate the source of the disturbance. Jack and Rosby were at it again.
"I'm not fat!", bellowed a portly boy of about thirteen years. Large goblets of sweat flew from his pimply cheeks as he swung his sword wildly at his brother. Jack simply smirked and stood still, playfully brushing aside his brother's angry blows with a sword in his one hand. It reminded Jerimah of a horse's tail lazily swatting at flies. Rosby paused, panting and flustered. "I'm gonna tell Mom what you said!"
Jack chuckled at that. He was sixteen years old, and it was apparent that he did not care. "I could give a rat's arse about what that old lady thinks. She can't even get up and cook us a meal since Papa died, let alone care for what we tell each other." He looked Rosby up and down. "Though, looking at you, I'd say she's fallen back to her old habits and left me out in the cold."
Rosby opened his pudgy lips and sputtered, "You- You... No she's not!" He roared and dove back into another desperate attack. Evidently, however, Jack was done playing games. He swung his sword up just as his brother's sword came down, smacking him in the hand and sending the wooden toy flying.
Rosby fell to his knees, gripping his hand and seething. "You hurt me!"
Jack shrugged. "It doesn't matter, I won."
"It's not about winning, it's about being a good brother!" He looked at his swollen hand in horror. "I think you broke it!"
Jack's icy blue eyes and thin lips remained unmoved. "Perhaps I'll hit you again and show what it's like to be me." He waved a stumped arm in front of his face.
"Enough, you two", Jerimah cut in before Rosby could yell again. He was beginning to wonder why he enjoyed their company. There were lots of kids in the cliff- side village, any number of them could be more agreeable than Jack and Rosby. There is no such thing as peace with these two. "Rosby, nothing's broken. If there was, you'd be screaming a whole lot louder right now. And Jack, lighten up on him, at least while I'm around. Can't you two find someplace else to fight?"
"Stop telling us what to do, Jerimah! You're no better than us, and you're not even a grown up either."
Jack conceded Rosby's point. "You have been really bossy lately. Maybe you could be our new mother? Our old one isn't doing too well."
Jeremiah sighed and looked back out across the ocean. He tucked his greasy, brown hair behind his ear. Now would be a great time to be someone else. He opened his mouth to give a clever response to Jack's stupid jape when he noticed a tiny, black shape in the distant horizon. When he squinted, he could make out a small flag flapping in the wind. A ship! He felt worms of excitement wriggling in his belly. He remained quiet and watched the ship grow bigger. Jack and Rosby were arguing about whether sand came from the wind or the sea when Jerimah interrupted them. "Look!" He pointed at the slowly enlarging, black spot on the horizon.
"Whoa," Rosby said, eyes grown wide. Jack was less impressed. "It's just a ship", he stated.
"How often do ships steer anywhere near this place?" Jack was quiet then. They all knew the answer to that.
"Even so, can we watch it please? I've never seen a ship before", Rosby pleaded.
And so they did, and as the sun sank lower beneath the water, the ship grew larger. Soon, they were able to see its ropes and masts. The flag it sported was of Lysena, a densely forested land on the opposite side of the ocean. As it got closer, Jerimah could see that there was no crew on the deck, or indeed, anywhere at all.
"You still think it's passing by?" Jerimah asked, never taking his eyes off the ship. Jack made no move except to shake his head. Not even be could believe what they were seeing.
After what seemed to be hours, the massive, wooden ship finally drifted to shore no more than a quarter mile away from them. They were in utter silence as it groaned and began settling in the sand. They stood erect and still for a long time, not a single one of them daring to breathe a word. Finally Rosby spoke up. "Maybe we should leave now." His voice quivered as it came out of his short, trembling body.
"Little brother, for once you're actually right'." He started to turn and glanced at Jerimah. "Come on, Jerimah."
Jerimah looked at Jack, then returned his gaze to the hulking watercraft. "I'm not leaving yet." The ship had entranced him. The words left his mouth before he even knew he was saying them. "I'm gonna climb up on it, maybe look around a bit."
Jack stared at him, dumbfounded. "A creepy ship just appeared out of nowhere at the turn of night and almost beached itself right on top of us, and you want to board it?"
Jerimah nodded solemnly. "I do."
Jack stared at him again, but this time it was accompanied by a wide, toothy grin. "This is why I like you! You do the mad things that me and Rosby can only dream of doing, oh wait until the maidens hear of this!" He whistled. "After tonight, there's no way they'll be able to resist Jerimah the brave!"
Jerimah laughed at that. "So you're leaving then?"
Jack nodded. "No offense, but you couldn't pay me money to get me anywhere near that thing. Besides, me and Rosby have work to do at home."
"Then you be careful heading back home." Jerimah nodded towards the cliffs.
"As if anyone could hurt me! I'm the best fighter in all of Zagar!"
They scooped up the swords, and together began to walk away. "Please don't get hurt, Jerimah! You're one of my only friends!", Rosby called out one last time. Smiling, Jerimah watched as they walked away together, bickering about who would have to clean the outhouse that night. He turned back to the ship and the smile melted off his face. It was replaced by the furrowed brows and tight mouth of determination.
Tonight, something is finally going to happen to me. He had never been so sure of anything in his life as he took his first step into the frigid blue and out into the unknown.
* * * * * * * *
Night had waved its black hand over the sky, breathing life to a multitude of stars by the time Jerimah climbed over the ship's splintery railing and plopped ungracefully on to the deck. Trembling, he pushed himself up and sat with his back against the railing. The climb was much harder than he thought it would be. He mulled over his milky white hands, now dotted with a dozen splinters. His arms screamed in silent agony and his mind swam lightly. Twice, he had come perilously close to falling, losing his footing on the slick wood. Sighing, he leaned his head back and let the cool ocean breeze kiss his cheek.
He breathed it in deeply, feeling the smell of salt and night slowly revive him to his senses. That was when he noticed the stench, an odor accompanying the previous, pleasant scents. Slowly, he stood up to his feet, the hairs on the back of his neck pointed out like needles. That's the smell of death. He could feel his heart quicken. The blackness around him began lightening up as his eyes became accustomed to the darkness. There were dark lumps of... Something strewn across the deck. He took a hard breath as suspicions began to grow. They can't be... He began walking torward the nearest lump with small, timid steps, the splinters in his feet protesting the whole way. As he got closer, he realized that it was a blanket, probably hiding something foul underneath. He stopped and paused within arm's reach. A small shiver tickled his spine and dread made his bowels want to empty right then and there.
He knew what he was going to see when he pulled the blanket back, but he wasn't prepared to see the blank, empty state of a dead child. Her mouth hung perpetually open in a silent scream for help that would never come. The congealed blood in her sliced throat contrasted gruesomely with the powdery paleness of her cold face.
Jerimah jerked his head away and expelled the clam soup that he had for supper. He lifted a shaking hand to his face wipe away the vomit and tears. Who could do this to a little girl? He slowly turned his head around and took in the slaughter that was the ship's deck. Somebody had to pay for this. He brushed himself of and stood back up. He was disturbed but not deterred. He momentarily glanced back at the dead girl, and a lance of fear and doubt shot through him. No, he thought, quickly suppressing the feelings. There's nothing here but corpses and corpses never hurt anyone.
Bolstered by the mental encouragement, Jerimah began to head toward the captain's cabin, carefully picking his way around the dark lumps in his path. He reached the heavy oak door and halted, running his fingers over the gold-indentation of an apple tree in full bloom. It started with its roots at the bottom of the door and ran all the way to the glimmering leaves tickling the top doorframe. This must have been a very rich ship. For a moment, he thought of theiving the storage area and was immediately shamed by the thought. I'm here to solve a mass murder, not steal like a petty thief. Shaking his head, he pushed the door inwards. It silently gave away and opened up into a room dimly lit by candles.
And the scene the flickering flames revealed to him was pure horror. Blood was spread on the walls, it stained the bedsheets, and it puddled on the floor. There were human limb bones piled in a corner, orange-yellow still spotted with specks of red flesh. And sitting huddled in the other corner was a shock that almost made Jerimah piss his breeches. It was a man, and it was breathing. Jerimah made a sharp intake of breath and the man's crusted eyelids fluttered open.
For a long time, he simply sat there, staring at Jerimah through foggy brown eyes as if he was seeing straight into his soul itself. The stare made Jerimah feel naked. He shivered and tried to ignore the voice in he back of his head, the voice that wanted him to turn and flee from this scraggly fiend and his death boat. He could feel fear burning in his gut as he stammered,"H-Hello?" The man regarded him coolly and maintained his placid stare. Jerimah noticed that he was very young when he finally whispered,"Are you here to kill me?"
Jerimah shook his head. "Ah", the man simply said. He turned his gaze up to the ceiling and slid his eyelids back over his eyes. "A pity you aren't", he muttered softly.
Suddenly, Jerimah remembered the dead, little girl and the dozens more just like her rotting under the moon. He balled his fists as a thought began slithering its way into his mind. Here is the man responsible. "Did you kill them back there?", he asked pointedly. The man remained still, eyes closed and chest rising and falling with each ragged breath. Jerimah glanced at the pile of bones in the corner and the connection struck him. "You ate them!" Jerimah was now being fueled by anger. He felt ready to beat the scraggly man to a pulp.
"You would accuse me of crimes as heinous as murder without evidence?" The man snorted. "Reminds me of someone I used to know..."
Jerimah was unmoved. "Answer me." The man harumphed, eyes fully awake now. "Yes. Is that what you want to hear? Will you do me the favor of ending my miserable existence now?"
He sighed, then closed his eyes again. "No, young one. I did not kill those people."
Young one? Jerimah blinked. The man in front of him was scarcely a few years older than himself. How could he presume to to call him young? But, Jerimah's hardened heart quickly turned to empathy as he watched the firelight glimmer in the transparent tears running down the man's face. Perhaps he wasn't the one responsible. "But you still ate them."
His eyes flew back open. "Aye, I did. But I didn't kill them."
"Then... Who did?"
The man took a deep breath and tried to push himself up to a sitting position. His back gave out just as he looked like he might make it though, and he fell violently forward. His whole body was rattling with coughs as Jerimah rushed to help the man up. He was incredibly light and Jerimah easily pushed him back up and leaned him against the wall. The mans eyes danced in a silent thank you.
"Perhaps.... Perhaps I should tell you. It'll help lighten the load on my chest. He coughed again and sent his whole body into spasms. When he was done, he wiped the blood away from his lips with a sleeve. "I fear I don't have much time left", he rasped.
Jerimah nodded and grabbed a stool that he could use to sit on. Something told him that this was going to be a long story, but that didn't matter. He wanted to know what happened on the ship.
"My name", The man began,"Edric- Edric Grayson."