With a coy toss of her raven curls, a woman dropped easily down into the salty waves below, disturbing the water with a mighty splash. An admiring whistle cut the air, drawing an indignant huff from her. It was followed by a cackling voice that sawed the air, “Thank you mightily, wench. Th’ map will show you treasures beyon’ your wildest dreams.”
Sloshing through the water, Skyla ignored the owner of the voice, a rugged pirate with an equally rugged bird perched on his shoulders. Had she turned back to look at him she might have seen the wicked glint in his eye, the one that wasn’t covered by a stained scrap of cloth. Maybe if she had seen, she’d realize that something wasn’t quite right about her recent purchase.
Instead, the woman stubbornly wallowed through the shallow water, thoroughly soaking her boots and her breeches up to her knees. Her toes would be cold for ages and wrinklier than winter stored apples. While she struggled through the water, she stuffed an age-worn map into her satchel, a worn bag slung comfortably over her shoulders and resting on her hip.
The pirate captain smirked at her back, before bellowing for the oars to be brought out, his pegged leg thumping against the floor of his boat. He marched to the wheel with a confident air, resting his scarred palms on the scored wood. Rows of nicked oars thrust out of the side of the pirate ship, plunging into the water at his call. With the tide to ride, the ship was quickly carried back out to sea. It wasn’t long before it was turning into a vague smear on the horizon.
While the ship retreated back out into the unknown of the sea, Skyla still battled against the swirl of water and sucking sand around her feet. The tide tugged insistently at her legs, making each step a battle for balance.
The slowness of her pace marked nearly a half hour before Skyla reached the shore, a long expanse of sparkling white sand. After a few steps away from the sea, she gracelessly plunked her butt down, reaching to tug her boots off. She upended what seemed like a gallon of salt water from each shoe, grumbling low curses at the bitterly cold water.
She rubbed her hands over her chilled feet, jerking her socks off with two sharp pulls; her toes were numb from the near freezing temperature of the sea. When her hands failed to warm her poor toes, she cast a furtive glance to each side, scanning the beach with a keen eye.
When she saw the coast was barren of any human presence beyond her own, she leaned close to her feet, cupping her hands around them. With a whispered word that seemed to burn in the very air, a soft red heat bloomed between her palms. The tiny fire danced sedately between her hands, flickering with a gentle glow.
She brought the flame close to her feet and a sigh of bliss escaped her lips as the numbness retreated, the pruney wrinkles disappearing under the fire cupped in her palms. She considered her boots and socks for a long minute before bringing the fire to them. There was a faint hiss as steam rose, curling lazily in the air as the water was carefully heated away.
It took her only a few more seconds to complete her work and with a satisfied look, she murmured her thanks, dismissing the fire from her fingers. She wasted no time, immediately jamming her feet back in the now dry shoes. She heaved herself upwards and dusted her hands across her backside, dislodging the fine grains of sand.
“Now, where in the gods do I go?” she sighed, looking up and down the beach with disgust. “I should have asked him for a map of this godforsaken place.” A nearby seagull squawked at her where it plundered the tide pools for dinner.
She peered hard into the distance, squinting at the glare of the sun. There was a blotch on the horizon, looking suspiciously like a very large building. “I know there is a fort somewhere around here… is that is?” She mused this to herself, and the gull, propping her hands on her hips as she studied the dark splotch.
When her scrutiny yielded no results, she sighed noisily through her nose. “Well, walking is better than standing around, wasting daylight,” she mumbled. The woman decided to take a chance on that blob, silently praying to herself it was the fort and not a waste of her time. With a renewed sense of determination and a jaunty wave of farewell to the bird, Skyla marched her way down the beach, leaving a trail of footprints in the water washed sand.
After walking for nearly two hours, the blob on the horizon was finally shaping up into a large mess of buildings, halfway hidden by towering walls. She could just barely make out the shape of a massive drawbridge, laid over what she suspected was a moat. Unfortunately, the fort wasn’t on the beach she still walked along, instead, it was perched about a mile away from the edge of a cliff that lined the beach.
Skyla cursed noisily at the realization, stomping around in the sand, waving her hands around furiously. If any other soul had been around, they might have laughed at the spectacle of the woman. Between one step and the next, she stomped a little too vigorously in the soft, shifting ground and ended up sprawling face first into a small dune of the white sand.
She rose from it, spitting grit and curses everywhere. “Damn beach with its stupid sand and stupid cliff,” she growled as she struggled back to standing up and quickly set about to brushing herself off.
She crossed her arms grumpily over her chest, staring at the cliff with a weary expression. Her anger suddenly disappeared, like a candle flame that was blown out. “Yelling won’t get me anywhere, I might as well just march on.”
She winced at the thought of trying to climb that steep face but nonetheless, she started forward again, taking more care with where she set each foot. One of her ankles was protesting slightly, sore from her unexpected tumble. She was lucky that it hadn’t broken or sprained.
“I’ll have sand in my hair for weeks,” she muttered grumpily as she walked, running her hands through the black curls, dislodging a fine shower of grit with each pass. She lifted the hem of her loose linen shirt, shaking the sand from it vigorously. She was sure there was a pile of sand in each of her boots, and in other places that sand had no business being at.
As she walked nearer to the cliff face, she began to see a small slice at the top of it. Each step closer started defining the gap until she realised there was a steep pathway that led to the top of the cliff. An exhale of relief bubbled free of her lips, bringing with it a new energy in her step as she hurried. The sun was sinking on the horizon and she was sure the drawbridge would rise soon to lock her out for the night.
The path was narrow as it cut through the cliff; she noticed how she took up most of the path. It encouraged her to squeeze closer to the rocky walls, unease a sharp chill in her skin.
A few rocks littered the ground, sediments crunching under each step of her boots. She used the walls to help herself climb, reaching out to pull herself forward up the steep trail. She nearly slipped on a slick stone, barely catching herself before she went sprawling. She was far too accident prone for her health.
It took her half an hours’ time to navigate the path, the stars starting to twinkle in the soon to be night sky by the time she came to the end of the pathway. The sun stained the sky with an explosion of red and purple, a sunset she would usually pause to admire but time was not on her side this day. She dropped her dignity behind her as she sprinted for the gates.
She barely made it to the bridge, hearing the shout for it to be raised even as she stomped across the wood. “Wait, wait!” she shouted, waving her arms toward the two guards at the end of the bridge. They didn’t respond, just glowered darkly at her as she desperately put on a new surge of speed, skidding to a stop just as the drawbridge started rising.
One of the guards snorted, looking at her with disappointment. “Yah just had to ruin our fun, didn’ yah? It’d’ve been fun to see yah swim in the moat,” he rumbled at her at the drawbridge slammed to a close behind her.
She bit her tongue, swallowing back a sharp retort. The last thing she needed was a quarrel with the guards. Instead, she kindly asked in a falsely sweet voice, “May I have directions toward the nearest inn?”
The other guard shrugged, gesturing toward the dirty streets with a careless wave of his hand. “Follow th’ street til yah see a sign with a woman holdin’ a’ ale in her hand. Th’ Lively Wench is th’ only inn we have,” he sounded vaguely apologetic. Skyla suspected the inn wasn’t going to be a good establishment, but she flipped him a coin nonetheless as she hurried on her way, throwing a vague thank you over her shoulder.
As she fully entered the fort, she passed a sign that was marked with black, bold words. “Welcome to Fort Determination.” She sadly didn’t feel very determined, just frustrated and weary of the day. This fort looked like a pig sty, the streets running with piss and stinking to the heavens. This was going to be a long night, she mused as she walked onwards, only desiring to find the inn. She hoped it wasn’t infested with unsavory creatures, but she was almost willing to risk lice and robbers for a place to sleep that tonight.