Story by Myke Edwards / Illustration by Joseph Velasquez
With a smile, Clay drew his cutlass. With stone walls to both sides and a balcony overlooking the ocean behind him, his heart threatened to hammer its way out of his chest. Three armored guards blocked any other chance of escape. Not that it bothered Clay; he had been in tighter spots over the past three years while travelling with his Uncle Tyree.
Next to him, Tyree drew back his double-headed battle axe, laughing low and harsh. At the end of the hall stood Boy, Tyree’s slave, black as night and bare-chested. Taller and more muscular than most men, he hoisted a barrel above his turban-clad head.
One of the guards snarled. “You pirates are trespassing! You mean to make off with the Baron’s riches? We have a nice dark dungeon for you.”
“Give it up now, scum,” another said.
Tyree laughed again. “Never! We’ve fought our way out of worse!”
Clay’s heart fluttered even faster, yet his hand maintained its grip on his sword. These guards all brandished swords of their own, as well as breastplates and helmets, significantly more protected than the three intruders. Even more guards marched throughout the other floors of the turret. Regardless, Tyree’s crew couldn’t surrender, not now.
“Duck.” A man of few words, Clay and Tyree knew to listen when Boy spoke.
They dropped to the cold stone floor. The barrel soared overhead, liquid sloshing inside. Before the guards moved, it crashed into them with a resounding clang. Boy grabbed Clay’s vest and hefted him to his feet. Tyree already stood, hunting dagger in his hand.
Tyree stabbed each of the three guards in the throat. Blood spurted, but the men remained unmoving. With a crooked grin, he wiped the blade clean.
“We need to move,” Boy said in his thick Tirsleen accent. “Now.”
“I agree,” Tyree said. He looked at Clay. “That diadem is around here somewhere.”
Clay nodded, but rolled his eyes the instant his uncle turned around. Boy may have been a slave, but Tyree didn’t always need to have the last word. Back on his father’s farm, a slave would only take orders, but that was in the past.
Quick and quiet, they moved down the hall. Aside from these guards and a serving woman on the second floor, the trio’s journey through the Baron’s tower had been fairly uneventful. Clay loved these early morning raids, right before sunrise, even if it meant less sleep than usual.
The hall ended in a junction, branching to the left and right. Ceiling-length windows lined the hall in front of them. Pink skies illuminated their faces, while a light breeze fluttered in.
The entire top floor acted as an observation deck. Rumor had it that the Baron and his wife enjoyed watching ships coming and going from their barony, Thornlis. Even if they had been watching when the Chiro arrived, they probably would have ignored the small sloop, taking it for a fishing boat. No one ever suspected such a small craft or its crew capable of so many successful raids.
Getting in and upstairs was easy. This fabled diadem—sapphire encrusted pure silver—may have been carefully hidden, but the armored guards gave Clay a sinking feeling that they drew closer. His uncle had a knack to find anything with little to no knowledge of its whereabouts. Rarely did they have to rely on blind luck and Boy’s brute strength, like now.
Other guards would surely be on their way soon. Clay looked down both hallways. A red curtain hung from the ceiling at each end. He cleared his throat.
“We should split up.”
Tyree stared down the hall to the left, like he noticed something that Clay glossed over. He pointed, shaking his head.
“This way. Let’s go.”
Boy took point, scrutinizing every aspect of the floor, walls, ceiling and carpet. Traps never managed to match his reflexes, and poisons had no effect on him. Once he reached the curtain, he nodded Clay and Tyree towards him.
Tyree ignored the only door in the hall. Clay wanted to stop and look inside, just in case something interesting or worthwhile may have been in the room, but he knew better. Tyree would smack him upside the head if he veered off course.
The hall turned to the left and ultimately led back to the stairs they just came from. Clay sighed, but Tyree remained resilient.
“Don’t fret, Nephew.” He walked half-way down the hall to a seemingly normal area of the brick wall. With a quick rap of his knuckles, four bricks slid into the wall.
Boy reached in, shook his head, and thrust his arm all the way in to his shoulder. After a thick minute, Clay heard a click.
“What was that?” Tyree asked.
“No clue,” Boy said. “There is nothing in here.”
Chain links clanked, each coming quicker than the last. Clay’s wide eyes looked to his uncle.
“Go,” Tyree said.
Clay and Boy ran. Years of heavy drinking and chronic tobacco use left Tyree several paces behind. Five steps down the stairs, Clay and Boy turned to watch for him.
A portcullis slammed to the floor, just at the edge of the staircase. At least, it would have, had Tyree not been standing directly underneath.
Bile rose in Clay’s throat as he watched, helpless, as it impaled Tyree from the top down. It had been three years since he had seen a slave’s back torn open from whipping, but even that had seemed tame in comparison to this.
The portcullis stopped at Tyree’s waist, his body split from front to back. Blood sprayed on the walls as intestines and slimy bags of innards oozed to the floor. Tyree’s lungs, blackened from tobacco, heaved their ultimate breaths, shriveling with a final wheeze. A frozen look of harried escape forever remained on his face.
Clay wanted to turn away, but the sight of his uncle torn to shreds forced him to stop. His mouth hung open, words wanting to escape, to beg his uncle’s forgiveness for not helping, to gasp a breath barely out of reach. The weight of the portcullis won, and slammed to the floor. His body still standing, Tyree’s heart petered to a halt, while Clay’s picked up in speed.
A meaty hand wrapped tight around his bicep. Boy tugged Clay toward him, their faces inches apart.
“He is dead. We must go. Now.” Boy pushed Clay and reached over to grab Tyree’s mighty axe.
Clay stumbled down the stairs. He managed to catch his footing enough to run to the next level. Boy followed, the axe slung over a shoulder.
At the last step, the landing branched in three directions. Ahead and to the left both sounded loud and metallic. Clay heard nothing to the right. They needed to become ghosts, and fast. Clay pointed to the right. Boy nodded.
They scurried down the uncarpeted hall. It curved with the shape of the tower, ending at a door in the wall. Both darted inside.
Boy stood at the door, open just a crack. “Silent.”
Bookcases and chaise lounges sat around the room, most likely a reading room or study. Sunlight streamed through a lone window, filling the room with golden light. Rumpled pillows and cushions on a couch told him someone had been there recently, possibly the night before. Servants would definitely come by to straighten it at some point, but not while intruders roamed the halls. Regardless, Clay wanted to be out of this room—and the tower—soon.
He sat on a méridienne, calming his breathing. Clay never expected Tyree to die so young, only thirty years old. They shared the same sun-kissed, bronzed complexion, blonde hair, and small but muscular frame. Unlike Tyree, Clay did not have a brazen disregard for safety, and wanted to live forever. Would he be able to pick up where Tyree left off?
This mission sounded like suicide from the beginning, but Clay never second guessed his uncle, the man he never imagined would die. His stomach flipped and tightened, prompting him to lie back on the red velvet cushions.
Eventually, Boy let out a slow breath. His eyes met Clay’s. “The hall is silent. For now,. Guards always come back.”
Clay stood up and stretched. He ached, his body and mind tight. Part of him wanted to grieve for his uncle and all that the man had provided, but a part of him felt relieved. They all knew what this life entailed.
“I guess we’re not finding that diadem now.”
“We will,” Boy said. He sat on a purple footstool next to the door. “We just need to wait.” No matter the situation, he always spoke in the same thick, matter-of-fact tone.
In the silence, Clay realized something.
“What’s your name?”
“Boy.” He said it without hesitation.
“No. Your real name.”
For the first time in three years, Boy actually looked surprised.
“Styg,” he said after a time. “My name is Styg.”
“Well. Styg…you’re free. Tyree’s dead, and I’m not your master. You can go wherever you want. Once we get out of here, at least.”
Boy, now Styg, stared at Clay. Clay flashed a crooked smile, another inheritance from his uncle.
“I want to go with you. This is the life I want.”
“You don’t want to go back to Tirsleen? Rejoin your people in your homeland?”
Styg scoffed. “Tirsleen is a desert. Why go back when I have the whole world?”
Clay nodded. “I stashed away with Tyree to get away from my birthright, too.” He sighed, realizing for the first time ever he had no idea what his future truly held. “I don’t want to give up this life. But you’re not a slave. Not anymore.”
“I never felt like a slave. Not with Tyree.”
“Even though he made you do all the dangerous work?”
Styg shrugged. “Poisons have no effect on me. I can take a beating.”
The scars on Styg’s body proved that. The tall, muscular man had started out as a lowly hand on Clay’s father’s farm. Ever since Clay could remember, he had seen Tirsleen slaves arrive, go to other farms in trade, and even die.
Three years ago, during Clay’s sixteenth birthday celebration, his father had mentioned that when he died, Clay would gain all his lands and holdings, including the farm and its slaves. Clay hated the idea of a person being forced into grueling labor for nothing more than meager food and shelter, no matter what.
For the three-day long fete, Uncle Tyree arrived for the festivities. After a hushed conversation with Clay’s father, Tyree went out to the fields. An hour later, he returned to the manor house with Boy, his new assistant, informing the family of his intentions to become a private trader.
Living in the landlocked plains, Clay had always dreamed of going off in search of adventure, and hid himself in the back of Tyree’s wagon. Amused at his nephew’s ingenuity, Tyree agreed to keep him around “just in case.” Clay hadn’t seen his family since.
The thing that struck him the most over the past three years was Boy—Styg. A man so tall that the top of Clay’s head barely reached his shoulders and able reach things other people needed a stepstool to grasp. A man so muscular that he threw cannonballs one-handed in battle, often causing severe damage. A man with nary a hair on his entire body. Because of this, he always wore a purple cotton scarf wrapped around his head, its ends hanging down to his shoulders. Aside from the scarf, he only wore baggy pants. Never a shirt or boots, not even in the screaming winds of winter, although he occasionally wrapped himself in a blanket in rain and snow.
Clay ran a hand through his short blond hair. A woman in the last harbor they moored at—their names escaped him—said that his blond hair made his green eyes sparkle. Before leaving her room the next morning, she pierced both of Clay’s earlobes with emerald studs he had stolen from The Redfern, a pirate captain who turned out to be all bark and no bite.
“They match your eyes,” the woman had told him.
Clay ran a thumb over one of them, feeling somewhat calmer.
“This floor remains clear,” Styg rumbled.
Clay shook his thoughts away. “Should we go?”
“The diadem is close. Tyree was wrong.”
“How do you know?”
“Tyree never knew where he was going. He would wander about until he found things. The highest floor is hardest to escape, so he started there.”
More often than not, Tyree would have Clay and Styg stand guard while he went to find their prize. The few times Clay actually watched his uncle sniff something out would take longer than it should have. He laughed at the thought.
“I guess I just never paid attention,” Clay said.
“Start. We need to be careful.”
Clay walked over to the small window, early morning warmth wafting in. He rested his hand on a sconce attached to the wall. Waves lapped up on the shore below. Birds soared through the air, while a fishing boat reeled in last night’s nets.
Clay shifted to the left, putting more weight on the sconce. It collapsed into the wall, its home brick sliding inward. His blood froze, but nothing else happened.
“What was that?” Styg asked. He stood, looking at the collapsed brick.
“I don’t know,” Clay said. “It just—” His words were cut off at the sound of stone scraping against stone. Off to the side, part of the wall slid out. A secret door!
“How many times did Tyree tell us to check for secret doors?” Damn his earlier exhaustion, a real adventurer would have cleared the room before taking a rest. “What do you think’s in there?”
Styg walked over to the new discovery. “Stay there. It might be—” A puff of pink smoke shot up into his face. Styg squeezed his eyes and mouth shut, absorbing the gas. He finished with a cough. “Poison.”
Clay stood back, thankful for Styg’s unnatural ability. He never understood how it worked, but couldn’t complain. Not only had it gotten them out of some potentially deadly situations, it had actually managed to get them what they needed.
Clay saw it in the alcove, sitting atop a small pedestal, shining like someone polished it on a daily basis.
Why the baron kept nothing but a jewel-encrusted diadem separate from the rest of his riches was beyond Clay. Then again, he had witnessed more erratic and ridiculous behaviors from the wealthy and minor royalty in the past three years than he ever thought possible.
Styg grabbed it and looked at Clay. “We need to leave. Now.”
Not wanting to join his uncle, Clay agreed. He led the way to the door, but stopped before leaving.
“How? There’s no way out.”
Styg nodded. “There is. The simplest way is often the best.”
With a shudder, Clay had to agree. He had dived from atop waterfalls. Would this be any different? He left the room.
They sprinted through the halls, only stopping at intersections to listen for anything coming their way. When they heard nothing, they rushed back up the stairs. With day in full swing, Clay wondered if the baron paced around up there, waiting. If so, he had his sword while Styg hefted Tyree’s double-headed battle axe.
Tyree’s corpse remained at the top of the stairs. Clay tried not to look, but the metallic scent of so much blood hung thick in the air.
A cacophony of clatter came from downstairs. Clay and Styg froze.
“Upstairs, come on!” The bellowing voice echoed through the stone hall. The sound of armor-clad guards came their way.
“We need to lift it,” Styg said. “There is no other choice.”
Clay swallowed down the lump in his throat, but nodded. Eyes on the floor, he gripped the lower bars of the portcullis and hefted. Both of the men, strong and conditioned to all of the heavy tasks a sailing ship required, strained against the gate. With a deep groan, Styg nodded to the small space they had managed to open.
Clay slithered beneath, heart racing. Styg remained, sweat running down his bare chest and shoulders, somehow still holding up the portcullis. One of the dead guards from earlier lay nearby; Clay dragged him over and under the iron bars.
Styg let go. The portcullis slammed down, a sharp point denting the man’s armor. Still, two feet of space remained. He slid under, joining Clay with a clap on his back.
“Now we run.”
Clay nodded and took off down the hall. He looked back at Styg, a few steps behind.
“We’re almost there…we can make it!”
Styg grunted in response. Mostly in surprise, it seemed, as a crossbow bolt pierced his right shoulder. The big man stopped in place, looking at the fresh wound.
Clay knew that Styg felt pain, even though it hardly affected him. Blood streaming down his chest, Styg bellowed a war cry.
At the top of the stairs, a man reloaded his crossbow. Two other men flanked him, training bows with nocked arrows at the intruders. Two more guards held the portcullis open. None wore plate armor, but studded leather.
The man with the crossbow seemed ready to give the order to loose. Behind the portcullis, a mass of guards swarmed, all armed with swords and shields or loaded crossbows. The lump in Clay’s stomach expanded and pulsed. He saw Styg standing firm, ready to fight.
“Styg…We need to go. Now.”
“We can fight.”
“Yes, but I’d like to live to see the sunset. I hear it’s lovely this time of year.”
The crossbowman yelled “Fire!”
A flurry of bolts was enough to cause Styg to change his mind. He ran past Clay, dragging the axe with his non-injured arm. One bolt struck to the left of his spine. Two more flew past, landing in the wall. Styg continued his retreat.
“Seaweed stuffed turtle carcasses!” Clay followed, ducking down as he moved. Something heavier than an arrow whizzed through the air. The dagger clanged against the wall and clattered to the floor. Warmth oozed down his side. Approaching sounds of metal and flapping leather grew louder and faster.
Clay broke into a full run, gaining on Styg. A red-hot poker dug into his side with every step. Clutching above his left hip, thick, viscous seepage covered his fingers. He wanted to stop, to scream, but they had reached the balcony.
With every movement, flashes of white obscured Clay’s vision. He fought the urge to pass out as Styg pulled him up to the stone railing. Teeth gritted, he rubbed his emerald earrings and pushed off with his feet. Soaring through the air, his stomach lurched as he plummeted toward the warm, tropical water.
He hit the water, immediately pulling himself up to the surface. Gasping for air and swimming fast, it took all his concentration to stay afloat, trying his best to ignore the salt in his wound. Despite the pain, smacking face first into the water reminded him of this life, of what remained behind and what lay on the horizon. Seconds later, Styg hit the water next to him. A pair of crossbow bolts shot into the water behind them, but the pirates swam away, leaving the screaming guards in their wake. More missiles kissed the water, eliciting more expletives from above.
Clay wanted nothing more than to remain on the warm sands at the foot of the tower, but he needed to move. They crawled ashore and ran along the beach, soon coming upon the Chiro, hidden away in a cove buried under brambles and small trees. Clay jumped onboard and raised the sail while Styg pushed off.
Their sloop only boasted enough cargo space for minor caches. This worked quite well, however, when someone only wanted a small amount of grain or lumber or other goods shipped. It also allowed them to retrieve lost, stolen or hidden treasures and artifacts while managing to keep a low profile.
If they didn’t hurry out, Clay expected the guards to follow in boats of their own, no doubt loaded with cannons and boarding hooks. Fortunately, the wind blew in their favor.
The baron’s small turret faded behind them as the sea and sky carried them away, diadem in hand. They both slumped against the rail, still breathing heavy. Styg had already removed the crossbow bolts, wrapping his shoulder as the sloop cruised along. He would dress the wound in his back next, but not ask for help, ever.
Clay shrugged off his vest, holding it tight against his wound. Nothing more than a scratch, it would stop bleeding eventually. Other than that, his muscles ached and his head swam, cured by a few hours’ sleep. He reached into a small compartment next to the ship’s wheel, hiding Tyree’s tobacco pouch.
Very rarely did he smoke, but it always managed to soothe his nerves and relax his tangled thoughts. Clay packed and lit the wooden pipe, savoring the cherry tobacco. He let the smoke slip from his mouth and nostrils, the same as Tyree always did. Holding the pipe up to the sky, Clay held a hand over his heart.
“To you, Uncle. Luck on your grandest adventure.” The corners of his eyes burned, but Clay knew that the man had prepared him for nearly anything the world had to offer.
“Where to, Captain Clay?” Styg asked.
“Just call me Clay.” He wiped his eyes with the back of his wrist. “Let’s get this diadem to its rightful owner, and then lay low for a while.”
“And then go where the winds take us.” Styg laughed, his words a close imitation of Tyree.
Clay smiled, leaning back against the rail. Puffing at his pipe, he mused out at the sea, and his new life ahead.
“Hobos; The Devil; and James Dean’s Car” By Tracy S. Morris
Illustration by Cesar Valtierra