Chapter 6: The First Gift
Colin awoke again on the shore. The surf echoed in his ears and his hands grasped the coarse sand of terra firma under him. I’m alive. He opened his eyes and saw he was staring at the back of the girl who had pulled him from the water. Her body was illuminated in the dim moonlight and as he looked around he saw they were between some sand dunes and a copse of olive trees. The girl held a glowing conch shell, and a soft blue light danced across her face as, of its own accord, it sounded a single note.
“What in the Maker’s name?” She wondered before quickly covering it with a leather rag and stowing it in a nearby pack. Moving past him, she peered past the branches of one tree to a nearby path and turned back to face him.
“Don’t speak. The Queen’s men approach.”
“Wh-wh-what’s going on?” Colin shook his head. He glanced over to the donkey. It ate at some grass nearby. Colin rubbed his eyes. Dreams within dreams.
“Hush!” the girl whispered, then walked out onto the path.
Colin sat up and leaned forward, spying from behind the tree in front of him. A young man, maybe only a few years older than himself, rode a white horse up to her. The man wore what looked to be a padded vest and tunic richly embroidered in red and purple. Three knights in worn chain armor rode behind him.
The young officer reined in his horse when he saw the girl standing there in the shadows. “I’m Egan, Chief Warrant Officer of Gilead. Forgive me if I startled you,” he said, his eyes instantly meeting hers.
“Egan, I remember you. Have your eyes grown so dim since our last lesson? You lead these men now?” The girl looked past him to his men and fidgeted with her dress.
Egan glanced back at the soldiers behind him and shifted in his saddle. “Of course, I remember you. You’re the court scullery maid.” He winked subtlely at her. “We’re patrolling for a soothsayer . . . an old man, he leans on a staff. Have you come across such in your, ah, travels?”
“Has Gilead no viler enemy than an old man? I’d think there’d be a greater need for the Chief Warrant Officer elsewhere.” The girl smiled and nodded out across the shore to the dark sea beyond.
Colin followed her gaze. He could barely make out ships of some kind in the distance, lit by torchlights onboard. How far up the coast am I? Or am I just drunk and delusional, passed out on the beach? Maybe I washed up behind the jetty.
Egan dismounted and motioned to his men. “Head back to the city, and report to Salain at the docks. There’s nothing here.”
“Sir, we still need to search the cottage,” one of the soldiers replied.
“I said we’re done here!” Egan snapped.
The soldier saluted him. “Understood.” The three knights turned around and headed back towards the moors.
Egan turned back to the girl. “We can speak more freely now, Princess. The recruits are loyal to the crown but have no understanding of who wears it.”
“It’s been some time since I last saw you. Are you well?” the girl asked.
“Well enough, though the Queen seems to favor me as an errand-boy and not much else at this point. The city guard has been stripped down from five thousand honest men to a mere five hundred, most of which care little for the job.”
“I miss our training. The swordplay was the only highlight of my days before I left. Though I fear I’ve not improved or had a chance to,” the girl said.
“What skill you have may serve you well, Princess. I can keep your whereabouts hidden for a time, but sooner or later, the Queen will find out. She has eyes throughout the kingdom.”
Colin peered out from the shadows of the trees. I’ve stumbled into a Dungeons & Dragons convention, great. No, no good. I need out of here, now. He stood and moved around the olive trees. “H-hey I need to--”
Egan grabbed him by the collar and threw him against the ground, “Hold knave! Where did you come from?”
“G-Get off me!” Colin yelled and threw a wild punch at the man’s face.
Egan dodged the blow and slammed his fist into the side of Colin’s head.
“Egan, stop! He’s not a threat!” the girl cried. “I fished him out of the water. He’s some fool who fell off a ship.”
Egan pointed toward the ships in the distance. “If it’s a ship, then chances are he’s from the Amorite fleet. I’ll not report you to queen Mariselle, but I can’t let a spy roam freely!”
“Look at him,” the girl sighed. “Does he look like a spy?”
Colin stared up at Egan’s disgusted face. He wanted to tear it off.
“No,” Egan said. “He’s a scrub at best.”
“Yes, so leave us.” The girl touched Egan’s arm. “Take your watch to our shores. My friend awaits us.”
Egan’s face softened. “Is he well? Does he have need of anything?”
The girl shook her head. “No. Only to see our fair kingdom restored.”
Egan nodded. “Then I’ll say farewell, Princess. Should you have a need, please find me.” He hoisted himself up onto his horse. “Safe journeys.”
“And to you.” The girl smiled at him.
Egan turned his steed and rode off. The girl looked down at Colin.
Colin lay still, holding his pounding head as his eyes swam. He moaned.
The donkey approached the girl and said, “I hope this one’s worth the trouble.”
The girl turned to the donkey. “He’ll need better care than I can give here. Would you?”
The donkey sighed and brushed his muzzle into Colin’s face. With a huff, he breathed, “Rest.”
Light and shadow shifted into a solitary point in Colin’s eyes and he felt his legs buckle while his consciousness ebbed away.
He awoke on a straw mat, covered with a hide. He’d lost time. He hadn’t been asleep, but he had no memory of how he’d come to be here. Above his head a small earthen oil lamp hung, its flame flickering with a slight breeze that danced across his aching cheek.
Water, I was drowning, rocks, and fighting a . . . . Colin sat up. There, sitting at the foot of his bed was an ancient man. Wrinkles ran their course in every direction on his face and up to his bald scalp. Only a smattering of long gray hair grew to the sides. His milky white eyes suggested a complete lack of vision, yet he stared at Colin directly. The figure leaned on a wooden staff as he sat, his head slightly nodding.
Colin slowly brought his hand up and waved it in front of the centenarian. The old man remained still and silent. Colin looked around. The room appeared to be made of a stucco-like substance, off-white in color, made from some kind of stone, with a thatched roof several feet overhead. A kiln sat in the opposite corner, and several hooks and small nets hung from the rafters, holding various fruits, gourds, and dried plants.
Great, I’ve gone from Shrek to Little House on the Prairie, Colin thought as he slowly leaned back against the wall and sighed.
“Ah, you’re awake I see,” the man suddenly said. “Well, not as I see, no, but certainly you’ve awakened.” The old man stood with a slight groan. “Alexandra and Balaam were right in bringing you to me. I daresay it’s the safest place you could’ve rested.”
“W-who are you?” Colin’s voice scratched out, his throat still raw from the saltwater.
“I am Samuel, seer, and soothsayer to King Braeden, though he hasn’t called on me in quite some time. Who might you be?”
Colin. The thought was clear as day in his mind but Colin gasped at his name. As if the words died in his throat. He tried again. Colin. Damnit. He wheezed but the words wouldn’t come. Only the multitude of bruises across his body called out as he moved his legs. Colin winced.
“Ah? Speak up, boy. My hearing is going the way of my sight these days.”
Potter. He wasn’t kidding, I can’t seem to say it. The bastard. Colin pictured his own name in his mind, but when his throat strained to speak the syllables, it was silent. He shook his head. “I-I’ve lost my n-name I guess. It’s a long story.”
“A boy with no name? Well, well.” Samuel turned his head slightly as if Colin’s reply had jogged his memory in some fashion. “To be unnamed can be a blessing or a curse.”
“How did I get here? Where am I?”
“That would be the work of Balaam. He has a peculiar talent I’ve never quite understood. He can make people forget things for a short time by breathing on them – though I rather think the stink of his breath leads one to shock more than anything else.”
A soft knocking came from the door.
“Come,” Samuel called.
The door opened and the girl from the beach entered, followed by the donkey.
“I stowed the conch in Balaam’s pack. I think it will be safe there, at least for now,” she said.
“We may have no further use for it but leave it there for now. Time will tell,” Samuel replied.
The girl looked at Colin warily. “You don’t think he’s . . . ,”
“I don’t know what I think. I only know what was written.” Samuel sighed as he stood and hobbled towards her. She guided him to a simple wooden table near the bed, and he sat again on a handcrafted wooden stool.
“My offer stands. He’s a bilge rat if ever I saw one,” Balaam snorted.
“You d-do talk!” Colin shouted, his voice finally escaping its captivity.
The donkey rolled his eyes. “Yes, and you stutter. Now that we’ve spoken the obvious, be silent.”
“Both of you be silent!” Samuel pounded the table with his fist. “This infernal racket will bring the guards and I have enough worries.”
“Wh-Where am I? What is this p-place? Wh-who are you? How’d I g-get here?” Give me some reason for my dementia, so the docs at the asylum will know what anti-psychotic to inject me with.
The girl handed Samuel an earthen cup and he drank from it deeply before answering. “I already told you who I am, as for these two . . .,”
“Samuel, don’t. He may be a spy,” the girl warned.
“If he is, my dear, then it’s already too late for us. Let no corrupt communication proceed from thy mouth, but what is good, edifying and grace unto the hearers, or so the Logos says,” Samuel continued as he motioned towards the girl. “She is Alexandra, daughter to the high king and shield maiden defender of the kingdom of Gilead, and this one . . . .”
Balaam trotted forward and lifted his head as he presented himself. “Balaam, royal prophet and Duke of the Seven Western Isles, Earl of Chestnut and . . ..”
“He’s a donkey.” Samuel dismissed Balaam with a wave of his hand.
Balaam’s muzzle sneered, “It wasn’t always so! I was sent with a fleet to present a gift.”
“And if the gift was chattering away like a fool and passing gas, then it’s been given ten times over! Now be silent!” Samuel ordered.
“What brings you to our shores?” Alexandra asked. “You don’t look like an Amorite. Your face is clean of their markings unless they’ve started to brand their spies differently.” Her eyes pierced Colin’s.
Colin saw the likeness of Jennifer in Alexandra’s face again and shook his head, “Y-you l-look just like h-her. You could be Jen’s twin.”
“Who is this Jen? Is she as strange as you?” Alexandra asked.
“Sh-sh-she’s,” the words again stuck in Colin’s throat. Whenever it was important, the words got in the way of one another. He could feel his cheeks flush, the frustration he’d felt his entire life was about to boil over.
“Shhhh,” Samuel hushed Colin quietly and turned to Alexandra. “Help me to him.”
Alexandra gently helped the old man to his feet and sat him next to Colin on the bed. Samuel ran his finger across Colin’s face. Colin pulled back.
“Be still, boy. This affliction has caused you much pain. Let me do a kindness.”
Colin relaxed and allowed Samuel to lay his hands across his face again. Then Samuel spoke a single word, as light as a whisper, but in a deeper octave than any human could make.
“Libera”, he whispered and the sound echoed through the room and a breeze of fresh air flew across Colin’s face, ruffling his hair.
Colin felt the tightness rise from his throat and disappear.
“Stutter no more,” Samuel said and smiled.