The deer dipped its snout in the river, idling in the chill. Early mornings on the island knew only the abuses of ocean winds, hands that had shaped the island for thousands of years. With only the sound of water babbling over rocks to sooth its nerves, the creature continued to stand calmly in the waters.
For a moment the stag raised its head, ears twitching nervously. When it seemed to confirm that there was no reason to be skittish, it resumed its feeding. As it dipped its snout once more into the waters, a silver tail wrapped itself tightly around the beast’s mouth, holding on as the stag thrashed about wildly. Running back to the shore the deer shook its head violently as it tried to dislodge the silver serpent that had so deftly secured it, but the little serpent was steadfast in its hold.
Seeing an opportunity, the serpent reared back and then lunged at the stag’s eye, bursting it like a grape underfoot and slithering into the creature’s skull. The deer convulsed as it withstood the torments of its hunter, finally collapsing to the ground in a shuddering heap.
When the serpent finally emerged again from the carcass, Dego and Shem emerged from the cover of the bushes, awestruck.
“I think we found a use for your pet,” Shem said half-mockingly.
“That was brutal…” Dego approached the creature cautiously as it slithered in and out of the carcass, creating new pathways when it found its way impeded. He held his hand out nearby and waited for the serpent to notice him waiting there. “Here boy, come here Silverhide.”
The nickname caught the serpent’s attention, suddenly changing course and slithering up Dego’s arm to nestle around his shoulder.
“Silverhide? When did you come up with that one?” Shem knelt and examined the corpse. He stuck his fingers into the different holes, marveling at the speed and efficiency at which the serpent had torn apart its prey.
“I just figured it was a fitting name, and it didn’t have one, so…Silverhide.” Dego scratched his pet on the back of its head, slimy scales that bristled to the touch. “Admiring his handiwork?” Dego asked demurely.
“I think that we can tell your father we found a use for the creature,” Shem said with a smile. “It can take your place in the daily hunts.”
The suggestion did not sit well with Dego. “I should try to find a way to limit its hunger.”
“Limit its hunger? That serpent –“ he chuckled, “Silverhide, is the only thing I’ve seen with a bigger appetite than yours.”
“Har har,” Dego mocked. He knew it was true though. For the past two days the boys had been wandering the island trying to figure out what the creature did besides eat and sleep. Acar had joked that Dego was the only fitting owner for such a creature and Dego did not take it as an insult. The village had latched on to the idea though. After eating the boar at the hunter’s feast, Silverhide had slept the entire following day. They had spent the next day following it around, but all it did was find bare rocks in the sun and coil up under the warm rays.
“After seeing it gobble up that stag, I think we should step it up and see what else it can kill.” Shem ran his hand over the serpent like he would a new spear. He went to pick it up but Silverhide clamped down hard on the boy’s thumb. “OW!” He pulled his hand back and began sucking on his thumb, much to Dego’s delight.
“What?” He said, noting Shem’s look of pure annoyance. “Not my fault you don’t know how to handle him.” He scratched Silverhide on the back of the head, the creature chirped joyfully.
“Maybe I should tell your father about how uncontrollable it is. Maybe he’ll turn the thing into a belt!” Shem’s threat was hollow, but the mere words made Dego shiver. He was growing attached to Silverhide.
“You wouldn’t dare!” He shouted. “Don’t you dare or I’ll –“
The boys fell silent as Silverhide slithered off Dego’s arm and across the ground, darting between the grass to a rock that peaked out of ground. The serpent slid on and perched itself, erect, on the rock, staring out to the sea in the distance.
“What was that all about?” Shem said. “Not seen it do that before.”
Dego nodded, rising to his feet and walking over cautiously. “Silverhide? What is it?” He looked out to the sea, squinting.
“I don’t see anything out there. Maybe he just heard something in the grass.” Shem lay down on the ground, stretching out in the sun.
“I don’t know…” Dego continued to examine the horizon, eventually conceding that nothing could warrant the serpent’s reaction. His stomach growled, snapping Silverhide out of its trance. “I’m pretty hungry. We’ve been watching him eat enough. I could murder a stag myself.”
“Really?” Shem turned to his friend, smirking. “I would love to see that.”
“Well, maybe not ‘murder,’ but I am starving…” Dego scooped Silverhide up. “Come on little guy, let’s go see what’s for breakfast.”
* * *
The boat slid through the water, cutting through the choppy waves with ease on the efforts of men who suffered the mixed fortune of being sunbaked and chilled to the bone by the sea winds.
“I told ya, didn’ I?” Goldlock shouted back to his men. “Best damn craft we could find and it works like a charm.”
The men grunted their agreement, knowing that the only reason they were able to move at all was through their own efforts and no thanks to their rum-swilling captain. His better days were behind him, his stomach taking up most of his torso. His limbs were not the strongest, giving him the appearance of a crude doll made out of an apple and some sticks.
Knocking back another swig of rum from his jug, Goldlock turned to survey the island ahead, wiping excess rum that had dribbled over his fat lip on to his scraggled beard. “That there boys is a mystery island, a pirates dream. Who knows what swag the Fanged Harrier would have left here?”
“Do you really think – uhn – that he would have brought it here?” The youngest crewman, a shaggy-short haired boy by the name of Ursa, had a habit of asking questions, even obvious ones. When he first joined the ship, the captain had found his name, Galen, to be ‘a name for a landlubber’ and declared he be called Ursa. None of the crew was fond of their new names and rarely used them away from Goldlock’s hearing.
Goldlock shot the boy a slanted glare. “Do I think he brought Royce’s treasure here? Of course I do. Told me hi’self once that he had a little hide away along the Abyss; an island that wouldn’t show up on any chart, a place that would be safe even from the likes of the Royal Navy of Gennessee.”
“But I had heard he lost it at sea being chased by a naval officer,” the boy retorted.
“Do you really think the Fanged Harrier, scourge of the seas, would be so dumb as to not leave his treasure somewhere safe? It’s practically pirate code,” Goldlock explained with a smug satisfaction.
The reassurance brought relative ease to the rowers. None of them could read a chart, much less tell their captain whether or not this was the island he was seeking, but they had grown used to Goldlock’s flights of fancy and followed him even on wild chases like this. Sometimes he got lucky; sometimes he had nothing but his rum to comfort him.
“I can’t wait to get me hands on that treasure,” a man by the unfortunate name of Brownstreak said. “I would love to get me a house on the Rodasian coast. Not many a man get to live in the King’s realm, y’know.”
“Who would wanna live on that rotten island? I thought you was a man of Nutia?”
“Well, I may ‘ave been born in Nutia, but I’ve not been a man of Nutia for many years.” He wiped his nose quickly with the back of his hand, the chill sea air getting the better of him. “I would gladly live in Gennessee if it meant a life of luxury.”
“It would mean a life of slavery, of constant gratitude to that two-bit king who sits on the throne,” Goldlock interjected. He did not like it when his men began to dream. Dreams led to mutiny, and mutiny meant he could lose his ship. The Sandy Shores was a prize vessel he had inherited from the previous captain, the Silver Spirit, though many said that Goldlock had failed to live up to the infamy of the Spirit.
He planned to change all that with the capture of Royce’s treasure.
“What do you think the treasure is?” Ursa asked, the water leveling out as they neared the shore of the island. “I bet it’s got to be something like a crown jewel.”
“A crown jewel?” Carver and Snips, a pair of stubbled, chubby, curly-haired wise-cracks let out a cackle that would have scared a hyena. “A crown jewel isn’t enough to send the entire bleedin’ navy after.”
“It can’t be something that important. He hasn’t sent out any of his champions to find it.” Ursa might have been young, but his reasoning was uncanny. The lad’s mind scared Goldlock more than any gun or blade. The captain was just thankful the boy couldn’t shoot a cow off a fly.
“Nah, I think it’s just the opposite,” Brownstreak said. “Why send out your big guns if you’re wanting to keep it hush-hush? If he was sending out Blenheim or Livingston after it, you’d have every kingdom on the continent chasing whatever it is he’s so desperate to reclaim.” The pirate smiled and nodded. “Mark my words: this is something rarer than a crown jewel.”
“Indeed,” Goldlock agreed. “Between yous and me, I think we’re chasing after some sort o’ weapon. A rare device that might help him finally move off his rocky shores.”
“What if it was a familiar?”
The rowing ceased, every man turning to look at the feeble geezer who sat at the back of the boat. Gonzo was the longest-serving navigator of any vessel, famed across the seas for his skill and cunning. Goldlock was forced to fight a fair few battles simply to retain possession of the fossil, but it was all worth it. They had found the Harrier’s secret island, after all.
“A familiar?” Ursa repeated, the words clumsy and uncomfortable on his tongue. “A familiar.”
“Ha! Another ruddy familiar?” Goldlock shook his head. “Why would he do this just to get another bleedin’ familiar? He’s already got a small army of champions, all of them strong enough to handle one of the continental kingdoms with ease. He wouldn’t give a rat’s chopped off tail about another one.”
The men dismissed the idea and continued rowing, their pace quickened by the slacker waters near the shore and the promise of a small respite once they had touched down.
Just before reaching the shore the bottom of the boat let out a low groan as it scraped against the shallow rocky seabed.
“Well lads, this is where we hoof it,” Goldlock said, throwing himself out of the boat and into the waters, a high-pitched yelp escaping his lips.
“That cold, eh captain?” Snips said, chuckling.
“Get out before I put a bullet between your eyes,” he growled. “Gonzo, stay with the boat, you’ll only slow us down.”
The men followed their captain’s example, dropping into the frigid water and wading barefoot across the rocks and shells that littered the seafloor before finally reaching the soft sandy beach. Most of the men fell in exhaustion on the ground, the sand warm after sitting under the sun for most of the morning.
“What are you all doing?” Goldlock demanded. “We have a whole island to scour!” He drew a pistol out of the holster he wore across his chest and unsheathed his sword, a sickly blade that was chipped in more than a few places.
“Captain, this is a ‘secret’ island, isn’t it?” Ursa said.
“…yes,” Goldlock said cautiously.
“Then no one knows it’s here and no one will be chasing us. We can take half an hour and rest.” The boy pointed to the sky. “Diphos has only just reached its morning peak.”
Goldlock looked skyward and studied the small moon that was drifting glacially under the sun, greater Aphos looming just above the horizon.
“Fine,” the captain acquiesced. “We can rest a little while. When I say we move though, we move!” He re-holstered his pistol and squatted on the ground. Taking a soggy orange from his pocket, he peeled it thoughtfully. When he was younger, the Silver Spirit had taught him how to track time by the positions of the moons, a skill that had come in handy many times over his life, but mostly to pass time during the quieter voyages. Now he watched the smaller moon drift down towards the horizon.
When he had grown weary of watching the moons, Goldlock made his way to the top of the beach where sand gave way to grass and hills. “Ursa! Come here lad, we should start mapping out this place so that we can make use of it after this venture.”
Ursa joined the captain, unrolling a piece of thin leather and using a small knife to etch out the visible shore-line. “The leather is still a bit wet, sir.”
“Just etch, lad.” He scanned the area, noting the features. “Two mountains flank a low-lying valley, not a sign of civilization in sight.”
Ursa looked up from his etching, pointing with the knife towards the base of one of the mountains. “What about the smoke over there?”
Goldlock followed his young ward’s gaze. “Oh. Hm.” He scratched his chin. “Right. I guess we have some natives to worry about, then…”