by M J Lewis
A novel I have submitted to a publisher. This is the revised prologue after their comments
|After a publishers comments this is the revised Prologue. I would like some constructive comments before I re-submit. If this goes well I would be looking for proof readers to review the remaining work.
Along the calm shore, with the waves gently lapping at his boots, Thomas stood and looked out across the flat water. It was quiet, always was the morning after a storm and he liked it. He was out early, the tide was out and the sun just peaking over the horizon. Soon the shallows would be busy with fishing boats throwing and hauling nets and the shore busy with beggar boys digging for shellfish to earn a copper at market. But right now it was peaceful. He carried on his walk along the beach, tossing over a piece of driftwood with his foot and taking note of the seabirds finally starting to appear in the peach coloured sky, calling to the new day stretching their wings in graceful loops, rises and dives as if to unheard song.
Yes, a peaceful stroll along an idyllic beach was exactly how Thomas liked to start his day. No better way to clear the cobwebs from his head before a days toil at his farm half a mile inland. The morning was chill but not unpleasantly so, he had a good set of hide boots and a woollen hat knitted by his wife Clair. A good woman, Clair, and he considered himself a lucky man. The farm would be a much poorer place were she not there to keep him on the straight and narrow. They would have gone under half a score of times had she not been keeping the books! Thomas didn't have a head for numbers. The endless totting and tallying made his head spin until the numbers all blurred to one! No, Thomas's place was outdoors caring for the horses that made up the bulk of their income.
He kept walking, heading for the dunes that were just coming into view in the distance, absently taking note of the gulls calling challenges to each other. The sea really was calm this morning, barely a ripple of wave. He stepped over another piece of driftwood half buried in the sand while he watched a great sea bird bobbing and diving, plucking small fish from the water. He loved this part of Arduaz. That's why he chose to settle here after his time in the army. The pension he received on his retirement for his service as the chief stable hand to his regiment was substantial for a man of his station and it was just enough to set him and Clair up on a small farm in the coastal town of Weolington. The horses were good here too, sturdy and strong for working the fields. Not like those skittish inland breeds.
They were happy here, he and Clair. The only thing they were missing was a nipper or two, someone to teach and to carry on with the stables once he was old. Clair always wanted a son. She says boys are easier than girls!
''Giv'em a stick and sum’fin to swing it at and they're happy all day!'' she would say.
Probably right about that! He mused to himself. But children had never come for Thomas and Clair. Though not for lack of trying! The woman was insatiable when the mood got her!
The sound of gulls brought him out of his reverie just as he stumbled on yet another piece of driftwood. He looked at the offending piece and noticed one edge was painted blue. Couldn't have swept far then, he thought. He cast his eyes around and was surprised to see more wood, on the beach and in the sea. And there! Is that a barrel?! And was that canvas? The sound of gulls once more caught his attention. He followed the sound towards the dunes, forgetting entirely about his morning stroll, watching the growing accumulation of flotsam. Not just wood now but other items like rope and fruit, scrolls and clothing. He thought he had a good idea of what had happened and what he would find. The gulls were louder now, their raucous calling drowning out the hush of the sea, though he could not see them yet beyond the dunes.
As he rounded the first dune he was struck dumb by the scene of destruction before him. A ship had been cast across the beach in pieces, a galleon if he had to guess, it was certainly big enough. There was debris everywhere, crates and barrels in abundance, shattered wood and parchments too, and all the other items one might find on a ship of this size stretched along the shore almost as far as he could see. It took him a moment to shake off the shock of finding so large a vessel in such a state of demolition. Countless gulls were picking through the detritus, eating whatever waterlogged rations they could find. He started to search the wreckage for signs of life, a vessel like this must have had dozens of crew and passengers, and judging by the quality of some of the items strewn across the sand they must have been important passengers! He searched for some time but having found or heard nothing he started to inspect the crates and barrels hoping for something of worth.
Got to be something here, he thought as he wandered around the wreckage. He checked inside barrels and crates, usually finding food like fruit and black bread filled with seeds and even one that contained salted meat! He continued his search, sending gulls scattering as he got close. There was so much of use here! Trunks full of fabric and silk! Waterlogged but still in as good condition as could be expected. Clair'll love that! He thought. And there a jewellery box heavy with earrings and necklaces! She'll love that too! He half pulled half dug a buried crate from the sand and opened it, inside were stoppered jars of spices. He found another crate, fastened with buckles and sealed with tar or wax. Inside it was filled with fine leather! Dry as a bone and fresh from the tannery. Imagine the saddles from that! All these items he took to the outskirts of the wreckage and stacked neatly to be collected later.
He walked on, examining the wreckage as he went and making his way to the largest intact section of the ship. That’s where he found them. Looking through the ruptured hull he saw a dozen or so crates all tossed about. The glint of gold caught his eye at once. He pried the closest crate open and inside was gold and silver coins. He opened another which was packed with all manner of trinkets. Candelabras, cutlery, hairbrushes and even small mirrors. All made from gold, silver or bronze and set with ivory or precious stones.
Gonna need some help with this. He decided. He turned to head back to the farm when something caught his eye under one of the crates. He reached down lifting the crate a fraction and fished it out. It was a small box made from the most stunning wood he'd ever seen, almost black, the grain swirling with oranges and polished to a mirror sheen. It was fastened with two gleaming brass buckles. As he opened it, the buckles freeing with a satisfying pop, he was struck dumb for the second time that day. Inside, resting on purple silk cushion, was an amulet. The most impressive piece of jewellery he had ever seen. Made of gold inlaid with silver and shaped almost like a star the pendent was impressive enough, but set into it was a sapphire of such size and perfection that it made him gasp. Even the necklace was a masterpiece, a beautiful chain of twisted strands almost like rope made from the palest gold. He stared at this magnificent amulet for long moments, losing himself in the faceted surface: seeing himself reflected fifty times over, he almost thought the stone looked back at him. Eventually he closed the box. He tucked it into his jacket and set off back to the farm.
He made it back double time, rushing through the main gate almost running in his haste. The farm was waking up now and he saw Bruce, his foreman, headed for the barn on his morning rounds.
“Bruce! Just the man! Grab two lads and get the wagon pulled round to the gate. Got a job for ya!”
Bruce opened his mouth to speak but Thomas didn’t give him chance as he jogged past and swept through the farmhouse door.
“Wha's all that noise about?” a woman asked, kneading bread in the kitchen, flour on her hands.
“Nothing dear, just sum’fin down on the beach need a hand with.” He replied casually to his wife Clair, taking his sword and sheath from the mantle and sliding it onto his belt.
“Sum’fin that requires a sword, too?” Clair asked without so much as lifting her head from her work.
“Well ya never know, who else might want this sum’fin.” He replied smoothly, walking over and placing the box and amulet deliberately on the table next to her. “Sum'fin that will change our lives for good!
Her kneading stopped for a moment, as she glanced at the box, then continued.
“Right, love, best be off Bruce'll be waitin' with the wagon.”
“Best not keep him then and behave yourself master Thomas” She responded, finally lifting her head to reveal crystal blue eyes with a look that Thomas knew well.
Thomas nodded his reply and turned for the door.
“And remember you mean more to me than all the jewels and riches in the land. She called as he closed the door behind him. With a shake of his head he smiled and jogged over to the gate where the wagon and crew were just coming into view.
“Right lads, ya gonna like this but we need to be quick!'' Without another word Thomas jumped up into the seat of the wagon, he whipped the reins sending the two horses into a trot down the bumpy track.
“You gonna tell us wha you got planned for us this mornin’? asked Bruce. Now Bruce was a hard worker, large shovel hands and powerful shoulders. The best yard hand he’d had, and he was smart too, he had a head for numbers but played the dimwit. The other lads were just as curious, wondering why they'd been called out on an errand so early in the day.
“Sum’fin that could change all our lives Bruce my boy.”
The ride back down to the beach was quick, following a track that ran behind the beach and above the dunes. They were higher here and Thomas enjoyed the look of surprise and awe on his crews faces as the shattered ship came into view.
“Bugger me!” said Bruce, followed by a low whistle from one of the lads. Thomas chuckled.
From this elevation he could really appreciate the scale of the wreck. Must've been a grand ship indeed! He thought as he watched the debris floating and bobbing as far as the eye could see. He looked back along the beach and something caught his eye. Two horses stood grazing on the scrub at the foot of the dunes a few hundred yards away.
Damn! Are we too late? He thought to himself. He stopped the cart. The horses were lean and athletic looking, with standard tack and saddles. That meant they most likely carried scouts or guardsmen. He looked at the wreck again, scanning left to right. There, one man was looking in the smashed open crates and there, further along, another peering in the darkness of the wreckage looking for something. They weren't the Kings men, that he was certain of, and he didn’t recall the emblem on their yellow tabards, a black bird on a red sun.
“Look on yer face says you didn't expect any company?” Bruce said. Thomas shot his friend a look and started speaking.
“Kev, you stay with the wagon and keep it out of sight” pointing back the way they had come.
“The rest of us'll go take a closer look.” He hopped down from the cart and went to move forward but stopped and turned.
“I assume you all got sum’fin sharp?” he asked. All producing they crept forward, staying low as they descended the dunes and slipped into the wreckage, using the debris as cover. They moved quietly between the heaps of timber and broken crates until they were yards away from the first soldier. He could see the second coming back this way, both were lightly armed scouts and he could make out their words now. “Seems a King's ship sinks just as easy as any other” the first soldier was saying.
“It would appear so. Can’t see any survivors so I guess we just report the wreckage to Lord Blackhaven.” the second replied.
“We’ll take another look around to make sure first.” The first one said and they both split up to take another tour.
“Make sure you check in that big piece of hull up that end. If any crew are hiding it’ll be in there” the first scout called a moment later.
Thomas waited for few moments to let the scouts split up then turned to Bruce and the others and signalled to move back.
“That’s the Kings ship. Cam I need you to send word to the guard, grab one of the horses from the wagon and get moving.” Thomas said. Cam got up to move and from between his ribs burst a length of steel just as a gloved hand grabbed his throat from behind. Cams eyes were wide with shock. “Wha’s this then?” The scout said quietly. Thomas and Bruce stood up, blades ready. Cam’s face was going pale and blood spurted from his mouth as he coughed. He looked at Thomas and Thomas met the boy’s gaze. Hardening his face and reversing his grip on his knife, Cam buried it to the hilt in his attackers thigh. The scout cried out in pain. With a burst of blood he yanked his blade free and clubbed Cam to the head with the pommel, sending him sprawling into Bruce.
The scout wrenched the knife out of his leg and threw it to the ground just as Thomas rushed him, trying to take the advantage. Thomas’s blade swung down hard. The scout hastily parried with an upward slash, and carried the movement round, aiming the point at the old soldiers groin. Damn he’s fast! Thought Thomas as he made a desperate parry of his own. His return swipe was aimed at his adversary’s head but the scout was too quick, ducking under the blade and kicking out with his injured leg. It caught Thomas in the gut like a hammer blow, doubling him over. With a twist and flick he disarmed the rusty old soldier. Thomas didn’t think. He threw himself at the scout and bore him to the ground, grabbing his sword arm by the wrist and trying to pin his injured leg with a knee. He twisted the sword free from his opponents grip but took some heavy punches from the scouts free hand, dazing him momentarily. They struggled together in the sand rolling over, fists flying until Thomas was sat on the man’s chest and with one heavy head butt he put the man out. He was breathing hard and his face throbbed. Wrestling was never his favourite drill.
Standing up he picked up his sword and, after pushing the point into the scout’s heart, replaced it in its sheath. Taking a quick look around for the second man he crept back to Bruce who was still in cover. He looked at Cam, the boy was still breathing shallowly, blood leaked over his chin and the sand beneath him was crimson. He was already pale and Thomas knew there was no saving him. Thomas felt a sharp pang of guilt at what he had unwittingly led these boys into.
“Stay with him Bruce.” He knelt beside the boy. “You’re alright lad, you did good. We’ll get you back to Clair, she’ll fix you up right enough.
He stood up, angry now. He could see the other man looking for something in the gaping hole which held the crates with all the treasure. He slipped out into the open and, stooping low, slowly made his way across the sand.
At first he didn’t notice it but moments before he reached the oblivious soldier he heard it again, faint at first but growing louder as he ducked from barrel to barrel. The unmistakeable screech of an infant child. He knelt frozen to the spot.
What should I do? Can’t let him take that child! Before he could finish the thought, he had already stepped out behind soldier.
“Can I help you with something?” He asked loudly making the figure jump and spin around, sword flashing from its sheath. He swung fast without a word and Thomas parried it away and struck the man with the hilt of his own sword, bloodying his foe. The soldier snarled lurching forward and attacked with several quick jabs and swipes which Thomas hurriedly pushed aside. It took a moment for Thomas to find an opening but find it he did. The sideways slash came and this time he didn't parry, he dodged it, overbalancing his opponent. Not so rusty now, old man! He thought to himself. With a step to his left he pushed his sword forward past his opponents poorly positioned blade and pierced his throat. The man's eyes were wide as he slid from the blade, as wide as Cam's had been scant moments before.
Sheathing his blade he walked over to where the scout had been searching and listened. The infant was still crying. It didn’t take long to find it, following the cry he walked until he stood right above the figure of an infant child swaddled in sea-soaked blankets, hungry and cold but otherwise unhurt. Thomas gathered up the bundle and, replacing the sodden blankets for his coat, held him close to his chest to keep him warm.
"Best get you home, matey. Clair'll love you, been wanting a little chappie see." he spoke softly to the child. He heard heavy footfalls and looked up to see Bruce approaching.
“Cam?” he asked. Bruce just shook his head, the gesture of a man who has seen these things too often.
“Where’s this sum’fin?” Bruce asked.
“Check that hull over there, you'll know it once you see it. I'll send Kev down. You'll need a hand.” He spoke as he wiped the babies face of sand and pushed a lock of hair out of his eyes. With a smile he started back to the farm.