SWORD & FIRE CHAPTER 5

V O L . ID Y N A S T Y

AXEL CREED

“Now and then.

The friction between time present and past. The ambition of a legacy envisioned flush against the weight of a dynasty inherited. At this cogent juncture, the destinies of men are oft defined.

At the end of the Age of Peace, this was such a moment.”

(Seer Tomrin, the TrueHeart)

The Freedmen of Liberty Rock

CHAPTER 5JED

Sword & Fire, Chapter 5: Jed

LOCATION:
The Testing Sea,
Contested Waters

His lungs burned as though speared with a red-hot iron and the throttling pressure of the world of water cinched his chest tightly, but still he swam on. Grimacing as the brine seared his most-recent lacerations, he forced himself forward. The farther he could get, concealed underwater, the more certain he felt of pulling off this improbable escape.

Jed kept his lids closed lest the salt water singe his blood-shot eyes. He pulled hard with his arms and kicked furiously with his legs. Swim! Damn you. Swim for your life! he urged himself onward. Raw instinct, coupled with his natural sense of direction, guided him East—away from land and to the great deep of the sea.

Determined to make his stroke of fortune count, Jed knew it would not be long before the prison guards detected his escape. The Watchkeeper had been thrilled to have a Royal under his watch. Taking great delight in tormenting the fallen prince of Drook, the malicious keeper had ensured that at least one guard harass him every night in the name of “curing his insanity.”

Jed had no intention of returning to the dank, dark hole of his incarceration. Seven hundred and twenty-two days and nights in Talca Raz was long enough. More than enough. The moment this heaven-sent opportunity proffered itself, he resolved to never spend another heartbeat in the hellhole. For life or limb, swim!

In haste, he almost gulped down a mouthful of ice-cold sea as he thrashed desperately at the pillars of water before him, slowly pulling farther and farther away from his purgatory. Sentenced for heresy, masked as insanity. By my own kin. The pain across his chest screamed, and the pressing ache in his head vexed him. Still, he knew he must place as much distance between himself and the cursed prison as possible before daring to surface for air.

Where the man responsible for his good fortune was, he could not tell. Courageously, Jed had dived first, plunging into the ocean a hundred feet below the sewage pipes from which they’d crawled. In truth, the plunge was naught compared to the crawl. The thirty-foot serpent-like wriggle through the muck and mire of a thousand sickly, rotten men required courage and more than a strong stomach. The hideous, hell-awful reek would stop a ravening drax in rabid pursuit of an easy feast. While the biting sea water had flushed the scum from his body, it did little to scour the stench that drilled into his very senses. After enduring the pipes, the jump was less onerous to master. At least for me it was. The big man was terrified.

His deliverer had followed him over the cliff’s edge. He was certain. While the sound of the man’s entrance under the surface was mute, the reverberating force of his heavy weight breaching the surf, displacing water, was sufficient evidence that the man had found the fortitude to face his fear of heights. He must be trailing in my wake.

Without the big man’s daring escape, and his one blunder, Jed would still be rotting away. And having succumbed to a crippling despair of late, hope had slipped from his grip like a writhing, squirming eel. This strange twist of fate was an answer to a prayer he’d long stopped praying, akin to a miracle he no longer even had the faith to conceive. Like a sudden lightning bolt scorching an unsuspecting old oak tree, torching the timeworn wood in a blaze of flame, the foudroyant event served to ignite a new dauntless fire in him. Now, I shall be free … or alas! Fight to the death.

The sword was his weapon of choice for hand-to-hand combat, although his ability with lance and bow had won him many a tournament. This fame, coupled with his controversial antics, had also won him the love of the “witless dolts”, as his father was disposed to branding the very people he was avowed to serve. If Jed had learnt to dance to his father’s tune and play second fiddle to his cruel twin brother, he would never have suffered the cold belly of Talca Raz.

“You ought to use your charm over these simpletons to serve the Drook name and further our dynasty’s cause, but nay! Blood and hell! You undermine our very way of life with your treacherous heresy.” He could still hear his father’s gruff and goading voice in his head.

Now, neither his skill with a weapon nor his storied family history could save him. To earn his freedom, he would gladly enter the fray with a latrine sponge or a scullery knife. However, naught could prepare him for this life-or-death struggle against the freezing waters of the Testing Sea—in the Old Tongue, Kraca Doz, meaning literally, The Sea That Purges. This was now a fight against himself. He would hold his breath to the point of death. Whatever it took, to escape under the cloak of water.

Jed tried to relax his mind despite the intense desire for air, the exertion of his arms and legs and the pummelling pressure on his head and chest. Thoughts of better times, though they were few, wouldn’t stick as the irresistible urge to surface dominated his entire being.

His lungs screamed for relief. Air! I need air.

His resolve countered: No! Swim or be condemned. Farther still!

At last, his instinct for survival kicked in, and against his will, his frantic mind and oxygen-starved body forced him up. With the battle lost, he broke the water’s surface and gasped in heady gulps of air. His abused lungs rejoiced initially before straining at the inrushing snap of the cold. Inhaling so deep and so quick, he thought his chest might explode. The severe pain was trumped only by a relief that was greater still. Air!

Doggedness kicked in again, and he plunged hurriedly underwater expecting to feel the sharp iron stab of an arrow to end his life in the choppy sea waters, offering the scaly creatures of the ocean, large and small, queer and fearsome, a bag of skin and bones on which to nibble and gnaw.

But no abrupt, piercing pain followed. Death did not come knocking. Perchance, I’m in the clear. The idea that the guards awatch the eastern, seaside tower had not spotted him, momentarily stoked his hopes. Or is my body so benumbed I feel not their quills?

Jed tugged on the columns of water and kicked feverishly. With his hands numb with cold, he no longer had feeling in his legs. Still he dared not surface again. If they see me, they’ll give chase and slay me in haste. No quarter given. No one ever escaped from Talca Raz alive. Only death offered release.

With teeth chattering and jaw muscles clenching, the Scourge of Drook cut through the black undersea world until his lungs were again at bursting point. He surfaced reluctantly, allowing himself only one urgent refill of air before submerging once more. And this he did many times, until the ache in his head threatened to tear his very soul apart and shimmering white dots appeared in his vision.

Breaking the surface for a final time in a frantic fit and splash of desperation, he quaffed down mouthfuls of chilled night air as one who’d escaped hell’s salt and brimstone. With every muscle strained beyond limit and his body and mind beyond exhaustion, for a fatal instant, he almost sank into a watery grave. And he would have, had his resolve not returned through a desperate petition that arose from the very depths of his soul: “Wonder Above! Save me!”

Jed Drook had not prayer for many months, but somehow, knowing he was at his end, this cry for help stoked the fledgling hope his escape had kindled. Indeed, it filled his being with a newfound fortitude to prevail. By Wonder, I do not die this way!

He sucked in air like a man preparing for battle, allowing his body to refuel, even as he treaded the bitterly cold water. Pumping his arms and legs to keep the blood flowing through his body, he staved off the dreaded numbness that was threatening to overpower him. Resolve deepened. Conviction sharpened. Jed snapped open his eyes for the first time, and despite the sting of salt, he gasped in awe. Though he could not see land, having swum so far, the blackness twinkled lustrously with a billion bright stars, and the pale three-quarter moon threw silver light across the vast ocean, an expanse that dazzled with yellow and orange and purple light, mirroring the heavenly bodies overhead.

It was quite simply the most beautiful sight he’d ever seen. “Wonder Above,” he said, the words springing forth unbidden.

The moment almost overwhelmed him; he had not seen the moon or stars for nigh on two years. Nor had he seen the sun, buried in his dungeon grave. Jed’s once strong, lean body was stripped of muscle mass and his natural fitness and vigour drained by the confines of his eight-by-ten-foot tomb cell. But the eye-watering spectacle revived his beleaguered soul.

“The firmament is more glorious than I can remember,” he marvelled out loud in praise, even as he kept his head above the lick of the water. “I want to live,” he said, demanding his emaciated body keep pace with his strength of will.

He took in another lung full of air as a tingle ran down his spine. The soft moonlight danced on the ocean swells driven as they were like beasts of burden by a blustery breeze from the southeast. The silence was deafening, the vastness rousing. For a heartbeat, Jed thought he might be the only living soul in a world of sparkling light and never-ending water, but then the faint slap-slap of someone swimming behind him was a reminder that he was not alone. Ah, the big man made it.

Despite the well-lit night sky, he could not yet see his deliverer, having left the man far behind. Jed did not know him, having only met him an hour before. Who he was, why he was incarcerated, and how he’d forged an escape plan, were amongst the many questions Jed harboured of his fellow escapee. The man to whom he was now in debt.

Jed did know two things. Firstly, in executing a near-perfect breakout, his deliverer made one small mistake. Following the sewer tunnel, the man’s escape route ran fortuitously along the back of Jed’s dungeon. Stumbling in the dark, the big, burly man with midnight skin had tripped and fallen heavily against the back wall of the cell. Corroded by a leak in the sewer line, a three-by-four foot hole cracked open under the force of Midnight’s fall.

In an awkward five-count standoff, the man with perfectly white ivories and large brown eyes had invited Jed to join him with a wave of his massive hand. I assume he sought to avoid a skirmish that might alert the guards. Or maybe there’s a gentle heart in the big man?

The second thing Jed knew was couched in the only thing Midnight had said. After crawling clear of the sewage pipe and dislodging the remaining rocks between them and escape, the big man had told him to swim East—for some miles from the shore, in this vast sweep of the Testing Sea, fishing boats were at work. The Islanders, as Jed’s kin called them disdainfully—Freedmen, as they preferred—trawled the seas at night, fishing under the shroud of darkness, lest they face the force and ferocity of the fishing ships of the greedy Mainlanders.

Midnight seemed certain that a boat or two might come near enough to the coastline, chasing a shoal of Scooners, the Islanders’ staple catch. Supposedly, it was the season in which the plump yellow-tailed fish returned to spawn in the shallow natal coves on the mainland coast. Jed knew naught of the habits of the creatures and little and less about maritime subsistence. What did nag at his mind was the reality that wherever thousands of plump small fish massed, larger hungry fish were certain to follow. If I don’t sink, I shall most like be eaten, he chuckled inwardly.

Their plan, if one could call it a plan, was a foolhardy, even desperate, roll of the dice. However, there had been scant time to discuss the unfavourable odds with the big burly man. Bung in a bucket, Jed snickered to himself. We had but one hand to play.

Jed continued swimming East at a slow pace, listening to Midnight’s heavy and weary arms slap the water behind him; he swam gradually, allowing the man to make up distance. Merely treading water would have been a waste of energy, and a certain drain on his resolve. His determined movement forward kept the cold from calcifying his bones and the fear from enervating his mind. Even if my destination is aught but sure. Using the stars as his guide, keeping his eyes fixed on the glittering horizon, Jed’s steady strokes through the water allowed his body to recharge and his mind to remain sharp. If I am swimming to a watery grave, I do so as a free man, he told himself.

At least half-an-hour passed before he heard Midnight’s gravelly voice, exhausted and desperate—mirroring the very feelings he sought to deny. “Oi. Yous! Wait up.”

Jed pulled up, his arms and legs pounding at the cold water to keep his head high above the swells. Turning around to face his deliverer, he asked, “Where are the boats you spoke of, friend?”

Midnight coughed and spluttered. “Yous … yous swim like a fish, matey.”

“Like you, I have no gills to speak of,” Jed felt an odd smile tug at his cold-numbed cheeks. “If there is no help soon, we’ll both be naught but fish food.”

“Easy, matey. The boats be in this vicinity soon by me watch of the moon. Scooners make for the shore, you see,” Midnight said assuredly. “There! A river of them tasty beauties not far off.” He flapped a tired hand to point to a glistening disturbance of the ocean surface not fifty feet away, which Jed only now noticed. “I trawled this stretch of sea for many a year before your kin, them Mainlanders sank hooks into me.”

Jed spat out water he accidentally ingested. “They weren’t kin of mine.”

Eight days short of two years, buried in the dark, cut off from the world, had not dulled his mind to the ever-increasing hostilities between Mainlanders and Islanders. An age-long tension exacerbated by his war-mongering grandfather no less. The late King of the Eastgate had sought to annex Liberty Rock, but he lost half his fleet to a freak tempest that dragged his armada and ambitions to the bottom of the aptly named Testing Sea. It proved the final spike in the casket of his inglorious reign, as the heavens seemed to conspire against his efforts to subdue Pangaia under One Throne—ending what was now called the War of Shame. The disgust Jed harboured of his own Clade was palpable. “I am as glad to be off the Mainland as you are.”

“Aye. Freedom is a gift, Mainlander,” a gleam of light flashed across Midnight’s eyes, and a smirk played on his dark face. Tiny bubbles of water clung to his thick matted hair, sparkling in the moonlight. “Yous and your fancy tongue will be round my kinfolk soon.”

“Looking forward to it,” said Jed without flinching. He felt no fear. On the Mainland or the Island, he would have to fight for his life. “I would rather meet your kinfolk, come what may, than be eaten by the predators in this bay.”

“You Mainlanders talk funny,” Midnight scoffed at the harmony in Jed’s voice. “But fear not, matey. You’ll freeze first before the Leviathan feasts on your scrawny frame. The current here is too cold. The big fish in these channels are ones we Freedmen eat. No man-eaters at this time of the year.” He spat out a mouthful of water as his teeth chattered. “I’s going to feast on some scrummy Scooner as soon as I’s saved.”

“Well, then I prefer not to freeze,” said Jed surprised by how strong he felt. “Pray tell. Where are your kinfolk?”

“Aye,” Midnight coughed, fighting to keep his head above water. “Patience, matey.”

“Patience shall not favour you,” said Jed equal parts jest and concern. “I can tread water longer still, but you … you have suffered longer in Talca Raz than I, it seems. Your strength—”

“Listen!” said Midnight, fresh fire fuelling his dark, weary eyes.

Jed listened earnestly. The faint sound of voices now carried on the breeze along the ocean’s surface.

“Me people,” smiled Midnight. “So, good to hear! I’s safe now. Best you start praying, matey.”

“Worry about yourself first. We are not yet dry.”

“Block your lugs,” said Midnight as he smacked his lips together. “I’s going to blow them loud.”

Jed found a wry smile, and then wished he had covered his ears. Midnight let out an almighty whistle that the Islanders were notorious for—a shrill, ear-splitting noise. While once used as a battle cry, the whistle was now a proud sign to identify as a Freedman; it was many decades since the Islanders’ host last mustered.

In response to Midnight’s shrill sound, two or three whistles returned from the voices afar, bouncing loud and trill off the water’s surface. Midnight whistled again excitedly, delirious with expectation, his strength waxing visibly by the count. “I’s free, matey. I’s free! First man to escape foul Talca Raz. Yous, matey,” he chuckled, not unkindly, “yous going from one dungeon to the next. Though you might expect kinder treatment.”

If Jed could have shrugged his shoulders he would have, but he was using all his wits and vigour to stay afloat. That said, he couldn’t help but like the man to whom he owed a life debt.

As the massive thirty-foot trawler drew alongside them, Jed counted seven men on board—evidently curious about the queer bounty floating in the choppy chill waters.

“Oi! I’s here,” shouted Midnight. “Escaped from Talca Raz, I did.”

“Lo! Me eyes play some tricks,” said a deep voice from the fishing boat, “but I’s say I behold some ghoul in the waters.”

“No ghoul, Patch,” Midnight laughed merrily, his face glowing. “I’s me! Trout in the flesh. The scurvy Mainlanders broke whips on me back, they did.”

“Trout!” said the same voice in astonishment. “I be gilled. It is you, mate.” Then it barked: “What you lot gawking at, eh? Haul him out! Make haste!”

“What? Trout you say?” asked another voice in near disbelief, this one high-pitched and nasal. “Codswallop! He be gone too many damn years now.”

“Oi! Stop squabbling and pull me out!” yelled Trout, his smile all sparkling white teeth, near enough to match the twinkling stars above. “The cold gnaws me toes off by now!”

Two pairs of strong arms struggled to pull the large, waterlogged man from the waters. Two more pairs of hands, and much huffing and puffing, finally brought success. Assuming Jed was a friend of their long-lost kin, he was plucked easily from the water by a single pair of strong arms.

Collapsing on the deck next to Trout, whose name he now knew, Jed realised just how cold he was. The cool south-easterly blew straight through him, and he clutched the hard roughspun blanket thrown his way, trying in vain to thaw the chill. Everything that could chatter chattered and everything that could shiver shivered. Have I ever been so cold? The skin on his hands and bare feet looked like some white, wrinkled, half-dead creature hauled from the deepest sea. Even so, I am alive, he chuckled to himself.

“Goods to see you, Trout. But who be your scrawny matey?” asked the big, deep-voiced fisherman with a patch across his left eye, as he stroked at his scraggly facial hair.

“Long, long tale to tell, Patch,” said Trout shivering, “but he be no friend of mine. Caught a ride on me escape, he did.”

“Say what?” asked a smaller red-headed fisherman with a terrible scar running from under his chin, along his cheek and finishing just below his right eye. “So, who then be the mangy landlubber?” he asked, grinding his crooked teeth into a smirk that was as ugly as the weeping sores that covered his mouth.

Seemingly forgetting the noxious level of animosity between Islanders and Mainlanders, Trout replied: “A Mainlander. He escaped with—”

“A Mainlander!” groaned all seven fishermen in vehement protest.

Jed felt his chest tauten, and his fists instinctively clench.

Scar-face drew a ten-inch knife from his belt, his features all crooked and skew. “I’m going to gut me a Mainlander.”

Before he could take one step towards Jed, Patch interjected: “No, he be mine, he is! I’ll ring his scrawny neck with me bare hands, I will!” And with that, Patch launched himself forward, his bent, filthy fingers extended, his ruddy, weather-worn face twisted in venomous rage.

Jed jumped to his feet, and spun on his heels, dodging the flying fisherman’s tackle. Deflecting the man’s momentum, Jed sent his eye-patched assailant crashing into the boat’s railing. With a crunch of bone against wood, Patch’s body crumpled on the deck of the boat and lay limp. The grisly, one-eyed Islander had evidently expected easy prey. Jed exhaled in momentary relief, but tensed as a shout pierced the air.

“Die Mainlander scosh!” Scar-face yelled charging at Jed with his knife held high.

Scosh? Instinct kicked in, and years of training buried under betrayal and two years of torment surfaced at the quick. Stepping inside the deadly arc of the slashing blade, Jed blocked the man’s knife arm with his left, burying his right fist into his assailant’s mug. The man’s head snapped back, his shriek drowning out the sound of cracking bone. Jed followed up his initial blow with a rapid double fire left and right to the man’s stomach. As Scar-face buckled under the attack, Jed jammed his knee into the man’s face, knocking him out cold. The man’s blade went twirling overboard as he crashed heavily onto the deck. That’ll teach you for calling me scosh, whatever it may be.

“Who’s next?” he snarled, staring down the remaining five fishermen who were left dumbstruck at his ferocious display of pace and power. He knew his movements were more sluggish than they once were, and the fury in his blows was diminished by the withered strength of his muscles. However, he was up against fishermen. Tough, rugged and hard-working. But fishermen nevertheless. Scrappers not soldiers. Jed Drook was a warrior, a reluctant one, but a good one.

“Let’s carve this plucky Mainlander’s belly open,” said the fisherman with the nasally, high-pitched timbre. He spat a mouthful of tabacum onto the deck and drew his blade. His red-inflamed nostrils flared on a carbuncle of a snout. “I say we use his mainland flesh for Scooner bait.”

“You lot need to work on your heckling,” Jed chuckled out the side of his mouth. He felt more alive than he had in years as the adrenalin coursed through his veins and his heart hammered against his chest. He had handled the foray with an adroit swiftness that belied the harsh consequences of his captivity, and he clicked his knuckles in anticipation of another assault that he could repel. As long as they came at him one at a time, he was certain he’d prevail. Break two more and the rest shall cave, he told himself confidently.

“Come! Who’s next then?” His eyes locked on the five fishermen. While he was aware that Patch was slowly regaining consciousness behind his left shoulder, the man was groggy and bloodied. He no longer poses a threat.

Itching for the next attack, he did not account for Trout standing just behind him, to the right.

“Oi, Mainlander,” said the big man who had delivered him from Talca Raz.

“What?” Jed stole a glance his way, alarmed that he had failed to factor in the threat he might pose.

“Night, night!”

Oh, bung in a buck—

Before he could rally, his vision filled with the sight of Trout’s knuckled fist. The crunch of bone on bone, and the instant piercing pain that shot through his head, whipped Jed backwards. The Scourge of Drook crashed onto the boat’s deck with a solid thud. A million bright lights burned in his field of vision and then, in an instant, everything turned pitch black.

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