Wisked From The Sea
As the wind blew through her raven black hair, Maria looked out upon the never-ending sea. The waves kissed the sky as they reached out to the horizon for all eternity, gently numbing the orange hue that was the setting sun. It was a beauty of the life that Maria once knew, when her daughter was born. Both were filled with a sensation of unending joy and of sadness. Sadness filled her because the day had to end to bring forth such a beautiful sight. It was as she knew life: something had to die to be able to know peace.
"Mother, where are we going?" asked Maria's six-year-old daughter, Isabella.
Maria picked her up and held her closely to her body, the rough-hewn trousers and tunics they both wore rubbing coarsely against their skin. Mother and daughter both had long, flowing black hair that shone like obsidian, and skin as smooth and light as the finest silk, like that of the royal class. Maria had a regal beauty to her, and Isabella a look of simple innocence, as a child her age should.
"We are taking this boat to a land far from our home. No more knights bothering us, or nobles demanding us to do things. We can start new lives there."
Isabella pulled herself closer to her mother. "What about Papa? Will he be able to find us where we are going?"
Maria's throat tightened. "Yes, he will be able to find us wherever we go. God will make sure his angel finds us."
"I hope so, mum," Isabella said as she laid her head on Maria's shoulder.
Isabella's father had been dead for five years now. He had been killed by some highwaymen when he refused to give up his money. It was all the gold and silver coins that he and Maria ever had, just enough to be able to buy their own plot of land. It would have bought them their freedom from the state of near slavery that they lived in. They would have no longer been serfs to a cruel noble, but landowners who could make their own futures and destiny.
The fate that awaited Maria and her daughter was now uncertain. In her homeland, Maria knew how to live, whom she could trust, and who her enemies were. Once the ship entered port, Maria would be a stranger in an unknown world, with only her wits to help her and her daughter survive. Fate was the only thing that they could count on now. There was only one constant in Maria's life, that fate would interfere with her happiness and bring about a new change, sometimes not for the better.
Ahead on the horizon, just beyond the setting sun, a shadow was slowly growing. Shades of deep gray billowed and exploded from the sea like a single, living entity, rising to untold heights in the sky. From within this animate cloud, flashes of lightning burst to the ocean and onto itself again. A violent rumble pierced the air as the sea started to pitch and peak. The sunset was no longer visible now; the storm had obscured it with its veil of darkness.
"Come on Isabella, let's get below deck. We'll be safer there," Maria said as she carried her daughter into the main hold.
The chamber was filled with boxes and crates that were roped down to the deck. The small candles that lit the hold barely provided enough light for one to see, leaving many of the corners filled with shadows. The heavy scent of garlic hung in the air, mixed with the aroma of dried fish and the sweet smell of the sea.
Isabella pulled herself tighter to her mother, "Mum, I'm scared."
Maria kissed Isabella on the top of the head, then spoke in a reassuring voice, "It will be all right, little one. It's just a storm, we'll pass through it quickly."
In Maria's heart she knew that nothing was that simple. This storm was here for a reason; nothing like this happened by accident, and there was always a purpose to it.
Holding tightly to her daughter, her only reason to live, Maria sat down against one of the boxes and prayed silently to herself, hoping that Isabella would survive the storm. If Maria died, it meant nothing to her, but the thought of her only child not surviving would be the ultimate loss to her. The child was all she had left of her humanity; she gave her life, nourished her, helped her grow, and loved her above everything else. To lose Isabella would destroy Maria's spirit completely, for she was the only thing left that proved Maria had existed.
Above her, Maria was barely aware of the shouts of the sailors giving orders. She could feel Isabella grow heavy in her arms as she drifted into sleep. Maria tried to keep her eyes open, but exhaustion took over and darkness slowly intruded over her eyes.
Above the crashing of the waves upon the rocks, a sheer cliff face jutted out of the sea, growing into a continent that stretched further than the eye or the mind could see. In this vertical slab of stone, a natural cavern looked out upon the dark blue waters towards the setting sun. The pounding of the wind and the flowing of water for thousands of years had created tunnels that twisted and wound their way through the earth, forging this cavern. High on the rock face, in the mouth of the cave, a man wearing a hooded gray cloak stood watching the sea birds flying. His face was veiled in shadow, but one could feel his eyes through the darkness.
He scanned the waters, searching for something he felt would be there. He didn't know what it would be, only that an object of importance would be coming towards him soon and that he had to be there to see it. Each second that passed felt like hours, his impatience with time working upon his nerves. He didn't even know if he should trust what he felt, his instincts had brought him so much trouble in the past. Even still, he waited there at the doorway to a maze in an eternal night, looking for something that he didn't know.
Just within his sight, the billowing white sails of a sea born vessel crept into view. It looked like reflection of light off the water at first, but colors painted onto the wooden hull gave it form and shape. He studied it for a few moments, but turned away when he heard a clap of thunder. Ahead of the vessel, a storm front was moving in rapidly, building its force with every bit of sky it concealed. The blackened clouds threw a shadow across the world below, choking off the remaining light in the sky. There was nothing that could be done now; the ship would have to deal with the storm on its own. If it survived, the phantom figure would investigate it further, if not, then he would return to his life of a lonely shadow.
As he ventured into the cavern system, the lone figure began to doubt his feelings again. He didn't know if the apprehension he felt about the future was because of what or whom he was supposed to discover aboard the ship, or something of far greater importance. He pushed those thoughts to the back of his mind as he withdrew to the safety that only the solid walls of a cave could offer.
Maria attempted to open her eyes, but all she could see was infinite darkness, as light was unable to intrude upon her reality. There were no stars, no moon, not even torches or candlelight. Maria knew that this could not be anywhere on board the ship that Isabella and she were on. No matter where one was on the vessel, some form of light was visible. This place was far different, even the scents in the air were not the same. The air was almost deathly cold, with a moist feel to it. Each breath that Maria took made her lungs burn slightly as the frigid air rushed into them. There was only a vague trace of the sea here, but it was overpowered by a deep, musty scent, like that of confined space. There was also another scent that she couldn't identify. It was almost fragrant, like the finest roses, but also with the deeper, stronger feel of smoke from a fire.
Maria reached into her pouch, searching for a small tinderbox that she owned. The brass case brushed against her skin as she searched, sending a slight chill up her spine. She wrapped her hand around the cold exterior of the box and drew it out, setting what she felt to be the bottom of the case onto the uneven floor beneath her. As she fumbled to find the flint and the steel in the case, Maria took notice of what sounded like wind to her. The source seemed to be very close, almost within a few paces, but she did not dare investigate it before she could see.
Maria struck the steel against the flint several times until the tinder in the box caught fire. The light wouldn't last long, but it would be enough for her to learn where she was, and perhaps find a way out. The flickering flame steadily grew in the box, casting an unbalanced hue in all directions. Slowly, a floor of solid rock became visible, followed by the sloping walls of a cavern. She could not, however, see Isabella around her at all. In the direction that Maria heard the sound of wind, she could see what appeared to be a monstrous pile of blankets.
As she moved closer to the pile, it became obvious that this was something alive, for there was a steady pattern of rising and falling in the center part, like something breathing. Maria could see that it was covered in a thick fur with was replaced by feathers further up the body. She stifled a gasp as she realized what it was that she was seeing. This creature was something that even the bravest of men feared, that caused even the hardest of warriors to tremble. She had stumbled upon a Gryphon, a beast that was part lion and part eagle. The creature was asleep now, but could awaken at any time if Maria made any noise.
From an adjoining cavern, Maria could hear the echoing of footsteps. She closed the tinderbox, snuffing the flames, then settled back down where she was lying before. At first, all she saw was the dull glow of a candle slowly making its way closer to her. With a steady and deliberate pace, a figure wearing a hooded cloak came into view, holding a candelabra in one hand and a blanket of some kind in the other. This person was obviously a man by his build, wearing a dark green tunic that covered part of his sandy brown trousers. Stuck in his belt there was a large dagger with a sword style cross guard and pommel on it, but it was pushed so far back that didn't look like he was ready to use it.
Maria barely opened her eyes as she watched the hooded man go over to where the Gryphon lay asleep, rubbing the back of its head a few times. He turned towards her and started to unfold the heavy blanket that he carried, making to lay it over her body. Maria kept perfectly still as he did so, allowing him to keep the impression that she was still asleep. He knelt beside her to make sure that she was completely covered, but in doing so, he gave Maria the advantage that she needed.
With the skill and reflexes of a cat, Maria had thrown the figure back and drew his dagger from him. She dove upon him and held him down with the dagger at his throat.
"Where's my daughter?" Maria demanded as she pressed the weapon against the neck of her faceless prisoner.
"She's safe," the hooded figure whispered softly, almost gently. "She's in the adjoining cave where I was cleaning a small scrape she had on her arm."
"If you are lying, I'll cut your throat right now."
"I swear to you, by the blood of my people that what I say is true," the phantom said as Maria carefully let him stand.
The figure removed his hood slowly, so as not to show any signs of hostility. His face was of a young man, very handsome and seeming only to be a few years older than Maria was. He had golden brown hair, with shadowy eyes that lent no hint if he were a friend or a foe.
"Show me my daughter, now!" Maria ordered while pointing the weapon at the man.
The figure bowed slightly and replied, "As you wish. Follow me, please."
As Maria was being led out, she heard a small movement behind her. She paid no attention to it at first, not wanting her prisoner to leave her sight, but it soon became a set of heavy footfalls following her. Maria could hear the sounds of heavy breathing, like the ones she heard when she was in last chamber. They were close, but not close enough to be threatening, at least not yet. Maria stopped and turned around very deliberately to see what was following her.
Standing in front of her with its wings tucked into its sides, the Gryphon looked back at Maria with fear in its eyes. The head of the creature was over two feet taller than Maria, but still it seemed that this beast was dumbstruck with terror. Maria thrust the dagger forward, it an attempt to ward off the beast. To her surprise, the Gryphon made no attempt to strike back, instead it hunched over and began to back away from Maria. From deep within its throat, the creature began to make a soft whimpering sound, like that of a frightened child.
"Osiris!" the stranger called out as he ran to the creature.
The Gryphon lowered its body as the figure rushed to it and put his arm around its neck, trying to comfort it. The Gryphon that looked so strong and powerful was reduced to a helpless form, fearful of someone half its size holding a simple dagger.
"Put that away, now!" the man said earnestly to her.
Maria hesitated, thinking about what could happen if she dropped the weapon.
"I said put it away! I came to offer you help. Your ship had crashed and I drew you out from the sea. You in turn attack me with my own blade, a blade that has never been used to harm another living soul even once. Then, you go and frighten poor Osiris so that he is afraid even to move. He is still just a cub, and was just curious about you. He is so tame that he wouldn't even harm a bird flying around him."
Maria lowered her head in shame, dropping the dagger to the cave floor. "I'm sorry..."
"I would hope so," the cloaked figure interrupted. "Your daughter is just down this passageway. She's eating her supper right now, if you would care for any. I'll be along in a few minutes; I need to comfort Osiris."
Maria continued down the passageway, finding that candles had been lit along the walls. Behind her, she could hear the sound of the Gryphon crying and its master trying to calm it down. She felt so guilty for what she had done. She had attacked him with no apparent reason, except for her own paranoia. There were so many things that she was used to doing in her former homeland, not trusting people, thinking that everyone had ulterior motives, and preparing that everyone was an enemy. She had forgotten that she was in a new land now, and that Isabella and her would have to adapt quickly.
Ahead of her, Maria could see the light growing brighter, and she could hear the sounds of her daughter laughing. Maria broke into a run as she dashed ahead, the desire to see Isabella overwhelming her. Isabella was sitting on a chair that was far too big for her next to an equally large table. A dark, multicolored mat made out of many different types of leather covered the floor of the modestly sized chamber. On the far side of the chamber there was a carved stone fire pit with a natural chimney above it to vent the smoke. Above this fire a round pot hung from a steel bar, with the sweet scent of herbs and other delectable items drifting out of it, making Maria's stomach rumble a little.
The walls of the room had shelves filled with assorted clay pots, jars and other items upon them, along with a few less common items. One of these was a sword with a very graceful hilt leaning up against a simple wooden bed, while another was a large staff that looked quite capable of being a combat weapon. Maria put these behind her as she went over to her little girl and picked her up and kissed her.
"Mother!" Isabella squealed as she hugged her.
"How are you, little one? Are you all right?" Maria asked as she carried Isabella back to the table.
"I'm fine, mum. Erik made an owwie on my arm feel better, let me pet his big kitty, and made me a yummy stew," Isabella answered as she picked up a small bowl on the table and began to sip her meal.
"That's his name, little one? Erik?"
"Uh-huh," Isabella replied as a little bit of broth ran down her chin. "He just went to give you another blanket. Erik asked if he could wake you up earlier, but I told him no, that you can be a little cranky when you wake up. He told me that most people are like that."
Maria wiped her daughter's face with her sleeve, and then sat down on one of the other two chairs at the table.
"Oh, and what else did he tell you?" Maria queried, trying as gently as possible to get as much information as she could from her little girl.
"He told me that he found us lying on a piece of the boat, and that we were going to hit the rocks if he hadn't picked us up with that big kitty of his."
"Did he now? Is there anything else he said?" asked Maria, trying to hold back her desire to ask a direct question.
"He said that you raised me to be a very polite and nice young lady," Isabella stopped as she bit gently on her lower lip. "I like him, mum. He's very handsome. Don't you think so too?"
Maria hesitated as she tried to think of a reply. To her benefit, Erik entered the chamber from the passageway that she had come from.
"Hi, Erik!" Isabella squealed as she climbed down from her chair and scurried over to him.
"Hi, Isabella. Did you finish your dinner?" Erik asked as he went over to the pot and filled a bowl with the stew in the pot.
"Yep, ate it all up. Can I have another bowl full?"
Erik smiled and knelt down to Isabella's level, "Sorry, but I think three is your limit. Now go wash your face and hands, and when you come back, I'll have a treat for you."
Isabella ran into one of the smaller tunnels, giggling the whole time.
"She's an adorable girl," Erik said to Maria. "Makes me realize what I have missed since I started to live in these caverns."
Erik went over to one of the cupboards on the cave wall and brought out a loaf of bread, still soft and warm. He placed the food before Maria and took a seat across from her, sitting with a very distinct and proud manor.
"I do not have much, but I will share all of it with you, if it would help you in any way," Erik said politely as he looked down at the table, trying to avoid looking directly at Maria.
"Thank you, it is most kind of you to do so."
Erik nodded, his expression seeming distant. "It is my honor to do so. However, I would like to apologize for losing my temper. It was an improper thing for me to do, and I am very sorry for it."
Maria gave Erik a pleasant smile. "You had a right to do so. I should be the one apologizing. You have done far more for me than anyone else would do in my homeland."
Erik looked up, a timid smile on his face. "Again, it is my honor."
Maria looked into Erik's eyes, caught in how they seemed so gentle in the low light. It made her want to trust him that he was exactly what he appeared to be. She could see that Erik was nothing more than a simple young man with a heart of kindness that would give to those who needed it. Even through the shadows, Maria could also see that he was lonely, his eyes trying to cover that emotion.
"Thank you. I am Maria Cervantes."
"A pleasure, mi'lady Cervantes. I am Erik Hinds."