“What are you standing around for?” the captain shouted. In a fluid motion he drew his pistol and pressed it against Dego’s forehead, making a tiny clank sound. The pistol made a thunderous crack and flew apart in the captain’s hand, much to his shrieking horror.
“Captain Goldlock!” Ursa leapt to his captain’s aid, taking his shirt off and wrapping it around the bloodied stump where the captain’s hand had been.
Goldlock did not hesitate for an instant, shouting out order after bloody order demanding Dego’s head. His men were wise, though; each of them had seen the power of a familiar in use, and no one was willing to engage one now.
“Captain, I think we should cut our losses and flee,” Brownstreak suggested.
Goldlock glared at his crew, his face growing red with anger. “Flee? FLEE? I trust my life to you scum everyday we’re on that ship, and now you abandon me?” He pointed a fat finger at Dego, gritting his teeth before shouting: “Whoever gets that familiar will get the money we make from selling it!”
The promised bounty was tempting. Cowards transformed instantly into optimists, drawing their blades.
“All of it?” A short, fat pirate asked.
“At least half!” Goldlock said, turning back to Dego, enraged. “If you get it, leave the brat to me! I’m going to skin him and wear his hide as a belt!”
While the captain had been shouting, Dego had not moved a muscle.
Why do you not move, child? Are you afraid? With your hands you can tear the arms off the meat-men. The effort would be small.
“Who are you?” Dego whimpered.
“Who?” Goldlock leaned on Ursa as he leveraged himself up. He shook his bloodied stump in Dego’s face, drops of blood splattering on the boy. “Who am I? I am the fearsome Goldlock, captain of the Sandy Shores, apprentice to the Silver Spirit, scourge of the Western Gulf and the man who will be your death!”
“Not you,” Dego said carelessly, swatting away the stump to the chorus of cracking bone as Goldlock’s arm turned to rubber. An almost inhuman howl escaped into the air. Dego stared at his hand, sheathed in metal and glistening in the sun. “Wow…”
I told you. At this moment, you could easily wring the neck of every filthy pirate in your village. It would be so easy.
“But it wouldn’t be right,” Dego whispered. Before he realized what was going on, a dozen men were on him with swords, blades swinging in from all sides. Dego threw his arms in front of him, steel shattering against his skin and causing the pirates to scream in terror.
“He’s not human!” Brownlock shouted.
“No, he’s a champion now. We’ll have no chance!” the short, dumpy pirate said. He turned to the captain and said, “Pardon your offer, captain, but no man is going to put a scratch on that lad now. Keep your promise; I’ll just take your ship.”
“I’m with snips,” Brownlock said, his voice quivering. “Keep your gold. I’ll take my life any day.” The men abandoned their poorer fortune, turning tail and running as swiftly as their feet could carry them beyond the wooden walls and back out into the Goddess’ Valley. Goldlock let out curse after curse upon his men. He leaned on Ursa, staring warily at the villagers who found the courage now to stand before him. Clumsily drawing his final pistol with his weaker hand, he grunted to the boy.
“I’ve wasted two shots on the likes of you…I’ll make sure this one finds its mark if anyone comes after us,” Goldlock said with wavering conviction. He glanced uneasily at Dego as he backed away. “I’ll not harm anyone as long as you let us leave. You’re ok with that, aren’t you, lad?”
No! Do not let them get away! You can end their lives…just do it! DO IT!
“Yes,” Dego answered hesitantly. He stumbled forward, catching himself before he fell over. As Goldlock finally made his way out of the village, Dego looked around, the village swimming before his eyes. “Does…does anyone know…how to…?”
He collapsed to his knees, the world fading.
* * *
The world was dark, almost invisible, but Dego could feel it shifting around him; slowly, subtly, but it was moving. He tried to reach out for something, anything that felt solid, but it seemed that he was dragging himself through mud.
This is the one?
“Who said that?” Dego whipped his head around, but he could see no one. The voice came from everywhere, and he gave up, hanging limply.
I am disappointed in your choice, young one. I will be surprised if he lasts. The tone was grating, a burned and tired voice.
He can do it, I know he can. A second voice; tinny and hollow.
Dego felt a pain running down the side of his head. The voices began to bicker back and forth, the meaning of their debate beyond him.
“I wish you would just stop…”
“Stop? I can stop if you want, but I would not advise it.”
Dego realized that his eyes were still closed, and with a small effort he opened them, the light of day stinging them. Above him hovered the Shaman, a wrinkled face that smiled warmly.
“Where…?” He tried to turn his head but a sharp ache in his neck prevented him from doing so.
“I wouldn’t move if I were you,” Acar wryly advised.
The villagers stood around him, muttering under their breath. His eyes roamed from face to visible face, Shem and his parents not among them.
“How did I…?”
“I don’t know. It was a strange thing that happened to you.” The shaman gently rubbed some herbs on Dego’s chest, a pungent aroma filling his nostrils and forcing him to cough. “One moment you were standing there, a shining warrior…then you fell over and you were normal again, your body bruised. Well,” he poked Dego’s tender arms, “at least your arms were. And your thick head.”
“Looks like he took a rock to the head,” Tulla joked from the side. She crouched over Dego, prodding the boy’s forehead over and over. “Do you feel good? You did a stupid thing. You could have died.”
Dego’s winces were a more than adequate answer. Acar sternly glared at Tulla, raising a bony hand and flicking the girl’s nose. “Stop that.”
“Sorry…” Tulla backed away, melting into the crowd.
“You’re not too seriously hurt, but I would advise resting for the day. Oh…” Acar leaned back as Silverhide slithered onto Dego’s chest, flicking away the herbs and coiling just below the boy’s neck.
“Hey buddy.” Dego struggled to pet the serpent, but Silverhide seemed to appreciate the gesture. “I’m just going to lie here for a bit…”
“You do that,” Acar said reassuringly as he dragged Dego’s lids over his eyes.
* * *
When Dego next awoke, he was laid out in his hut, roused by a cool breeze wandering in through the door. Silverhide slid down into his lap, unable to keep itself rooted on Dego’s chest as the boy sat up. It hissed at him viciously.
“Calm down. You’re not the one hurting.” He sat up as best he could, wincing the whole time. This was why he let Shem do all the heavy lifting. After some time he was able to finally stand, finding his spear against the wall to support himself. Silverhide wrapped itself around his arm, but it loosened up when he gave his arm a small shake.
Hobbling outside, he found that night had settled in on the island and strangely, the eldest members of the village had gathered around the fire. Their voices were fierce, and he was scared to go any closer. One of the tribesmen noticed Dego and he pointed the boy out to the others, an uncomfortable hush taking hold of the group.
Dego, against his better judgment, approached the fire ring and leaned against a rock. “What are you talking about?”
Acar motioned for Dego to join them, asking Galen to help his son into the circle. Dego sat between his father and the shaman, and he had not felt so small since he was a child. Amongst the gathered members were the newly inducted hunters and several women, his mother and Tulla among them.
“What’s going on?”
“Dego…do you know what that creature is?” Acar asked.
Dego looked at Silverhide, momentarily hypnotized by the orange glow of the fire dancing on its scales. “Not really. The pirate called it a familiar, though. What’s a familiar?”
“We do not know,” Acar answered sadly. “All we know, though, is that even when those men were afraid of you, they were willing to attack you just to get their hands on it. You are my grandson, the spawn of my daughter and this…” He waved limply at Galen, much to the hunter’s annoyance.
“Now is not the time, old man.”
“Watch your tone, young man,” Acar said. “Dego…what I say is difficult, but I have talked at length with the tribe and we have come to a decision.” He sighed wearily. “We do not understand the world beyond our shores. On rare occasion men from outside have found themselves here, and when they came here they brought with them all manner of trouble and disrupted our tribe’s life. Dego…I am sorry, but you must leave.”
The words smacked Dego across the face like a club. He felt his jaw slacken and hang open.
“Yes, Dego. If even lowly men are willing to risk their lives for this creature, what would better men do?” Acar steepled his fingers and nodded. “Yes…I think that there will be more like those pirates who will come here if they hear about your pet.”
“I…I wouldn’t have let them go if I knew that…”
“Nor would you have killed them if you had known.” Acar gave the boy’s hair a soft tussle. “That’s one thing I admire about you, Dego. You are more your mother’s child than you know.”
“Can’t I just get rid of him?” Silverhide hissed at the suggestion. Dego began to wonder just how much the creature could understand.
“Do you want to?”
Dego hung his head, going over the question. “No, I don’t think so.”
“I don’t think you can. The pirate said that it would bond with you…I don’t think you can leave that creature if you wanted. It’s a shame we’ll never know, but I feel the less we know, the better.”
Dego looked at the other tribesmen, pleadingly. “Is this what you all think?” He looked to those who he had known for years. “Pura? Andi? Shem?”
The younger tribesmen nodded, unable to look their friend in the eye.
“When do I have to leave?” Dego asked flatly.
“The sooner, the better. Many years ago, a man named Samuel stayed with us for some time, and when he left, he left some things…mainly useless yellow metal, but he also left a wooden vessel that seems made for the water. We will send you off in that, and the Gods will take you the rest of the way.” Acar placed a hand on Dego’s shoulder, squeezing as much as he could. “I am sorry Dego. If there were any other choice, I would take it.”
“I know…” Dego turned and hugged his grandfather tightly. He wondered if the shaman was aware of what was going on, but the tribe learned long ago not to ask. The answer would most likely scare them.
“I have something I wish to say,” Shem interrupted as he stood up. “Dego is my closest friend. I know better than most how little chance this squirt has in the world outside. I can’t let him go alone.”
“Does that mean…?” Galen scoffed. “You’re going to leave with him? Don’t be foolish, boy.”
“I’m not a boy. I am a hunter of this tribe and I will do as I see fit. I will not abandon Dego to…that.” He waved vaguely to the world beyond the shore, but even he had no idea what waited out there. “With me, he at least stands a chance of surviving.”
“Guns and steel had no effect on him when he was bonded with that creature, what will you be able to do for him?” Galen’s voice barely hid his worry. The tribe had waited years for Shem to become a hunter, and losing him now would be a tragedy.
“He doesn’t know how that happened, and who knows if he can do it again. Besides, he won’t kill for food; he needs someone to feed him.”
“Galen, we cannot dissuade him. He is too much like his father,” Acar said with a wry smile.
“I’d like to think so,” Shem said bluntly.
“No, I do not think you understand Shem. Your father was not a member of this tribe, not a hunter or a gatherer like the rest of us. Did you never wonder why you alone bear a head of hair like dirt while the rest of us are dark as the night?”
“Acar, don’t…” The protest of the hunter’s mother died away.
“Mera…isn’t it time? You cannot protect him forever, especially now that he is determined to leave.”
Mera nodded morosely. “Shem, Samuel was your father.”
“He washed up on our shore years ago in the craft, another tied to it with scraps of food and torn cloth inside. He was near death when I found him and brought him back to the village. Galen and the others wanted to slay him immediately, but I could not let them. I do not know why, and Acar told them he could not allow it either. While I healed him, we came to care for each other…though he did not seem to care to stay when he found that I was with child.”
Shem shook his head, angrily saying, “No…my father wasn’t a pirate like those…those monsters yesterday. He was a great man, a…a…” He stopped when his mother began to stroke his hair, cooing softly.
“Shem, he was a pirate and a scoundrel and he was always going to leave. He said he was no father, and maybe he wasn’t, but he was looking for a reason to return to the world outside. That is where you belong. You and Dego should leave.”
“He was a…filthy pirate like those men…”
“No. He was a man, just like you have become. You should find him. I am sure he is still out there somewhere, thinking of you.” She smiled gently and lifted Shem’s face so that she could look him in the eye. “I think this is the best thing for you to do.”
“I love you, mother,” he said after a moment.
“I love you too, Shem.” She kissed him on the forehead. “But you don’t belong here. It’s not right.”
The tribesmen sat in uncomfortable silence, the crackling of the fire the only sound to disturb the night.
“Does that mean Shem is going to be a pirate too?” Dego asked.
Shem walked over and punched Dego on the back of the head. “Shut it. If I’m going to leave with you, we’re not going to talk about this.”
“Right.” Dego twiddled his thumbs. “I guess there’s not much to say anyway.”
“Indeed,” Acar agreed. “You should get some rest; there is a long path ahead of you.”
* * *
The waves lazily lapped the shore as Dego and Shem pushed the boat into the water. The craft rocked violently and Dego was beginning to question the sense in getting in.
“So this is the boat your father arrived in. It’s a bit weird that you’re leaving in it.”
“What! It is weird!” He tossed his spear into the boat with a clatter and then made sure that the food they had been given was securely tied up in the animal skins. He was hoping that Silverhide would be able to find itself fish in the water as they traveled, otherwise they would not last more than a few days.
“I would have thought someone would come to say good-bye,” Dego noted sadly.
“Well…they’re scared of you and ashamed of me. I’m not surprised.” Shem gave the boat a final shove and finally freed it from the sand. He held on tightly as he waited for Dego to get in. “I still don’t see how we’re meant to travel in this.”
“That’s why we have this,” Dego said, holding up the thin deer hide that Acar had given them. He had explained that Samuel had given it to him and explained the way wind could drive a boat, but he had never tried it before. Dego was unsure how he felt as an experiment. “I think we’ll have to trust the Gods on this one.”
“Gods be damned,” Shem spat. Dego decided not to pursue the topic.
Shem looked back at the island. “I can’t imagine what the world is like beyond.”
“Might as well get it over with. What’s the phrase? Better to snap the neck than slit the throat?”
Shem shrugged and began to climb into the boat when he heard his name being shouted. Looking back, he saw Tulla running over the hills to the beach.
“Tulla? What are you doing here?”
The girl doubled over, out of breath, but when she was finally calmed down, she stood up and smiled as best she could. “I’m sorry. The others didn’t think I should come here, but…I couldn’t imagine you leaving without saying good-bye.”
Dego smacked his head before he remembered that he was still hurting. The pain would not let him forget again.
“Shem, there aren’t any other men on the island like you. I have to say, it’s going to be slim pickings around here with you gone.”
“Ha! Yea, and Dego too,” Shem chuckled.
“…yes, and Dego too.”
Shem started pushing the boat off when he stopped again, turning to Tulla and saying, “Why don’t you come with us?”
“What?” She said, startled. “Leave with you?”
“Why not? As you said, things will be scarce, and you’ll be wasted on those people.” His malice was thinly veiled.
“I…I can’t just leave.” She rubbed her arm nervously, biting her lip as her eyes darted back and forth.
“Why not? You have your knife with you and you’re wearing the only skin you have.”
“Hey! My father killed these foxes himself!” She covered her mouth and calmed down. “I’m sorry, I just…what would my parents say?”
“Who cares? Parents can’t be trusted,” Shem held his hand out for her. “Come on. No one else here is worth you sticking around.”
Hearing such high praise brought a quiet blush to her cheeks. “Shem…it’s easy for you to just leave. Dego is your best friend, I can’t imagine you two being separated, by land or by sea. It’s not the same for me.”
“Not the same?” Shem laughed. “When we were five and a wolf cornered the two of us in a mud pit, who was it that sliced his nose and scared him off? Who was it that stood up for me when I was still scrawny and only as strong as Dego?”
Dego perked his head up from the boat, frowning. “You know, I’m getting really sick of you saying –”
“He and I are like the tusks on a boar, but you’ve been around too. Besides, who’s left here? Pura?” He smirked. “You’ll be a lonely sun amongst feeble stars. You don’t belong here anymore than we do.” He held his hand out again. “Come on.”
Dego knew that her feelings were getting the best of her, and he knew what her answer was going to be. Without saying a word she took Shem’s hand and started wading into the water. Shem helped her into the boat and pushed off, throwing himself in and sitting totally still until the boat stopped rocking. When they settled, Dego took his spear and pierced the skin, unfolding the skin as Acar had described until it was able to catch the wind. Quickly placing it in a tube built into the bottom of the boat, the spear rattled about but did not fall out.
The wind picked them up and pushed the boat out into the choppy waters. Tulla looked back at the island as they slid through the waters, but she knew as well as the others that they were now too far to turn back. Even if they wanted to, none of them knew how to.
They were in the hands of the Gods now.