For once, the cove was calm.
We would not be so lucky as to have the Great Ships smash themselves upon the rocks. There was an evil afoot here that would spell our end.
It was Tilda and I who were to swim out to the rocks to raise the sea-chain and keep a watch for the coming vessels. What was to happen was inevitable; nothing could stop it now. Everything was already in motion. All we could do was to try to hold it off long enough to give everyone else a chance.
So it was that Tilda and I climbed onto the great black rocks near the centre of the cove. It was beautiful, but a different kind than I was used to. Storms and raging tempests held their own terrible beauty in this place. But for once the howling winds and waves were absent in a time when they could have saved us. We knew how to live with them; the invaders did not. It was of no matter now and therefore there was no use hoping a maelstrom would appear to shield us from the world outside. Never would there be another storm for me. I whispered a silent curse that once the invaders glutted themselves at our expense, they would be destroyed by an avenging tempest that would ravage their fleet and tear them to shreds in the wind. Instead, the water was calm and the sky clear. I just drank it in. I knew there was no coming back from this. Strange that our doom would be greeted by such a sight.
The sea glittered in the golden light. A vast swath of pale blue-green satin, strewn with a thousand golden diamonds that dazzled my eyes, lay before me. Then I turned to the mouth of the cove with its great gaping maw of black jagged teeth. That was all our cove really was, the jaws of an immense beast. The black mountains that ringed the cove seemed flat and dull compared to the magical expanse that flowed and shimmered between the pitted onyx outcroppings. The only break in those bleak peaks was the single hole that lay directly across from us.
And through that single hole would come the Armada. Even now, though the sun shone down on Tilda and me, the gap revealed nothing but fog and great slate gray clouds that hovered just over the two jutting peaks that framed the channel. It was from amid those clouds that the great black ships would spring. Suddenly, no matter the brightness overhead, something in me dimmed. Perhaps because of that, the sun seemed to shine brighter. I knew exactly what drew ever closer and exactly what had to come, and yet some fluttering little spark was trying desperately to remain alive.
Oh, how that hurt.
So while the rest of me was beginning to numb, that sharp little flicker was fighting still.
Beside me, Tilda looked to the gap, her short auburn hair sparkling with droplets of glimmering water and her strong profile cutting a sharp contrast to the sun-lit backdrop. The day was still so bright. It took a great deal of effort to tear our attention from the water to the task at hand.
Carefully, we descended along the edge on the far side of the cluster of rocks that shielded our home, finding the tiny cave hidden in its deep crevices with little difficulty. No one knew exactly where the sea chain had come from, only that it was very old and that it would block any unwanted vessels from reaching our beach. A part of me hoped they would be shredded against it. It was a last ditch effort to hold off the interlopers that threatened our tiny civilization.
The air within the cave was dank and stagnant, nearly causing Tilda to retch, while the unforgiving mouth of rock obliterated the brightness that existed outside. Finding the mechanisms didn’t prove too difficult, but activating them took a little longer. No one still living could remember anyone ever needing to use the sea-chain, much less knowing how to use it. After some fiddling though, Tilda and I managed to bring the machine to life. The aged innards clanked and groaned and the acrid scent of grinding metal and burning salt filled our noses.
Thankfully, it didn’t take long to raise the sea-chain, despite the amount of rust and sea salt that coated the iron housing and mechanisms that controlled our only defense. It wouldn’t stop the invaders for long, but it would slow them down. Hopefully, long enough for the others to disappear into the forests that abutted our cove. With that task done, all there was left to do was wait. Almost as one, Tilda and I turned away from the ugly station that hid the chain housing and scrambled back up the side of the massive rock where it was secreted away. The climb back up the slick rock face was far more treacherous than the descent. More than once, Tilda and I nearly lost our footing, almost plunging into the foamy surf that still wore relentlessly against the rock-base. Once we reached the surface, we filled our lungs with good fresh air, clearing the staleness that had seemed to crush in on us.
Together we watched the gap. There was nothing to be said, nothing to be done. We had one last task left, and we would see it through. Hours passed agonizingly slowly, but eventually our time was up. We felt the mark of that deadly passage of time before we saw it. It came far too quickly. It was then that my heart, calm until that moment, began to pound.
First one, then four, then dozens of black galleons appeared out of the fog like phantoms, slowly but surely coming into focus, their great sails swollen to fat black bellies in the unnatural wind that drove them. At first, we thought our eyes were tricking us, but, in my heart, I knew they had arrived. First, they were fluttering patches in the fog, but then they darkened until the Armada emerged while the monstrous miasma seemed to melt away from them at the touch of the blinding sun. Finally, dozens upon dozens of ships were before us, ready to breach the channel and swarm our cove.
As the first ones appeared, I turned and bellowed and waved, screaming to anyone who remained that the ships had arrived, that they were here. A few feet from me, Tilda raced to the bell near the edge of the barren outcropping. Like the chain, it was from farther back than living memory reached, but it still rang clearly over the water as if it were only a fraction of its age.
It was then that I sank to the ground, my back to the threat. There was no fighting left to be done; we had done all that we could. I tried my best to silence the desperate voice calling me to keep fighting. Instead I watched with a sinking heart as Tilda stumbled to sit at my side, no longer feeling the rock beneath me, no longer caring to watch the certain advance, for the Armada was approaching. The inevitable was marching closer, and it made me sick at heart to resign to it. I was a survivor; my father had said so repeatedly as I grew. I wasn’t like him. I wasn’t a fighter or a warrior, but simply accepting the certain doom that awaited us grated against my deepest instincts just as I knew they would have grated against his. Simply lying down and allowing this to happen was against my nature.
That’s why everyone I knew and loved had been shocked when I had volunteered for this task, knowing perfectly well what would be asked of me. But, more than a survivor, I’m a loner. What they needed was someone made to be a leader, someone with the potential to save our people. That was not I. I had no illusions to the contrary, so I volunteered for this task as I knew I must. I had no choice. It was either me or another.
Yet as the drug took hold, I felt a peace overtake me. The feeling of hopeless, frustrating helplessness vanished to be replaced with a calm resignation. It was a different one than the bitter sensation of moments, hours, even days ago. I could see the same realization dawning in Tilda’s clouded eyes. This was the end. There would be no reprieve, no chance to turn back, no stopping this. I thought this comprehension would hurt the same way it hurt before, when there was still a glimmer of hope. Strange, how the chance of salvation is a pain unto itself. There was a peace in letting go, in turning oneself over to the hands of fate.
The drug worked well, and I knew it would be all over soon. All will to fight was gone. Tilda and I, despite the wishes of our hearts to survive, to fight until our last breath, were still in the proverbial quiet before the storm. Perhaps that was because we would not have to struggle to ride it out. To journey to the rocks was to decline any chance to flee or continue on, leaving us at the whim of the invaders. This way, any knowledge they could pry from us would die with our bodies.
The numbness had spread, and though I could still move and feel my body in a strange, almost extrasensory way, all sensation had left me. On the other side of the outcropping I was propped against, the sickening screams and splintering of the ships against the sea-chain were quieting as the rest of the Armada realized the deadly trap below the water. Already I could hear the angry shouts and grating of boats against the shore of the outcropping on which we lay. Each sound seemed to come from far away, or perhaps from under the waves. The multitude of crunching footsteps that approached were muffled to my ears.
As I watched the orchestrators of our doom file past on foot, I couldn’t help but marvel at them. It was as though, while still in my body, I was completely detached, waiting for the last threads to be cut. As the Magistrate filed past, his purple and yellow leather robes caked with salt and light streaming around him, I could see that, as far as he was concerned, we were little more than an inconvenience to him. One small twitch of his hand and a nameless, faceless follower detached from the column of troops scrambling over our weatherworn outcropping. The aide withdrew a small wood-handled blade from his faded red robes as he stood above us, shielding us from the sun as his shadow crept over our bodies. I watched without any feeling at all as he slid the sharp little blade deftly between first Tilda’s, then my ribs to pierce our steadfast, undaunted hearts. Then, without so much as a word, he wiped the gleaming blade on my breeches, leaving a shiny crimson streak against the fabric, before it disappeared back into his robes.
The blood seeping from Tilda’s chest seemed astonishingly surreal, as did the faint sensation of warmth flowing between my fingers as I quietly and reflexively raised my hand to my own wound. For a split second, a flash of desire to leap to my feet and slay the Magistrate arose within me, but it was gone just as quickly. The survivor that still held on within me shied away from provoking any such confrontation. Anyway, I no longer could, even if I had wanted to. With that quick sliding stroke, the last threads had been cut. Tilda and I were free.
There was no pain; I had not even felt the blade. I only saw the evidence of my mortality bleeding away. I slowly turned my gaze away from Tilda to find the shore. She was already gone; her eyes half-lidded and pale from the effects of the drug. The cut of the knife had done little to her. The look in her eyes as I had stepped forward to volunteer for this task had shown pity. She had always thought I would fight until the end, and in a way I suppose she had been right. The drug was taking far longer on me than it had her. My heart had fought harder against the inevitable so the blade still had a purpose when it reached my breast.
At least this way I would not have to watch the Outsiders destroy my home and hunt down my people while the drug battled to stop my heart.
I turned my gaze once again to the sea as my limbs grew cold, all trace of life and movement gone from them. The sun still shone down on us, abnormally bright to my dazzled eyes. The water still shimmered like diamonds against the vivid hues of the sea, though the ships with their spiky masts had begun to blur as my sight slowly surrendered to shock and the drug. I no longer breathed, and for an instant, one singular, unending moment, everything seemed quiet and tranquil, peaceful and unending.
Then, as the moment stretched into eternity, I was gone.