A symphony of madness whirled around him, endless and unrelenting. The world was nothing but trembling shades of light and dark, clashes of thunder, hammer blows from sea and sky filling his head with echoes of half-remembered angry voices, with every moment that passed both a torture and a blessing.
Through the endless curtains of spray he could see the mammoth waves rising like glittering mountains, each grabbing the vessel in an icy fist and throwing it into the night atop its foaming crest, resting on the trembling pinnacle for the briefest moment with the wet world spread out below like a writhing blanket, before thrusting it down into broiling troughs so deep and dark and tempestuous that he thought every descent would be his last. There was nothing to do but wait and hope that life would cling to him, for he could do little now to cling to it.
Cassius looked up to the teetering waves through salt-stung eyes as the vessel rose again, seeing vast faces move like phantoms amongst the swells, whispering his name above the din with spume-filled mouths.
He heard the mast groan at his back, felt the shudder rush along his spine as the tattered shards of the mainsail whipped and cracked above him. He had never before felt so weak. Death would come soon, of that there could be no doubt. He closed his eyes and looked back, wondering how the simple life he knew half a world away could have led to this – adrift and alone on the cold ocean, hands bound, spirit broken, teetering on the verge of madness.
His elder brother, Abrahin, was a naval captain and had been granted command of his first ship, setting sail from Smyrna on the dawn after the last full moon. He and Cassius had sat out in the fields beside the ruin of Lysimachus’ wall with their father’s herd on the night before he left, reminiscing on their youth by the embers of the fire and the soft glow of the stars. They had set out from the stables when the moon was beginning its descent, gone through the roughshod tracks on the rugged pine-fringed hills to meet the merchant road from Ephesus, and onward with the few early travellers towards Smyrna with her broad paved streets and bustling docks. They had said their farewells at the gatehouse and parted, neither of them knowing it would be the last time their paths would ever cross.
On the return journey through the hills in the pre-dawn, Cassius had passed a sprawling olive tree in which he and his brother had built a tree-house as young boys and decided that the horses could follow their noses for the last half-league or so whilst he set to climbing the tree to look out across the bay. The sun had been peeking across the hills as he made it through the maze of branches to the aged platform at the tree’s highest point, painting the goat’s-thorn-covered land below in jagged shards of lemon and white. He had heard the faint rumble of hooves as he watched a Bee-eater dancing through the sky in search of prey, faint and fractured, and as he turned to listen, wondering what had startled the horses to make them return, the first of the figures had appeared from around a bend in the track.
As he ducked in close to the shaded bough they had thundered towards him, a host of mounted men appearing from the direction of his home, a dozen or so dressed in chainmail and hooded cloaks, every thread as black as the mood they conveyed. Cassius did not have time to question who they were or why they were here, for as they thundered past he had the strangest feeling, sure that the men were a portent of some terrible occurrence.
As the rumbling disappeared across the hills, Cassius had climbed down and ran for home with the darkest feeling he had ever known settling in his heart, falling to his hands and knees as he entered the courtyard and saw the bodies. His mother was hanging from the branches of the lemon tree her own grandfather had planted, swaying softly like ripening fruit, the rope buried deep in the soft flesh of her throat. His father lay at her feet, blood soaking his golden robes, his tongue cut from his bloodied mouth and lying on his chest like some morsel the hounds had discarded. Servants and stable-hands lay here and there around the courtyard, young men and woman of Cassius’ age, heads crushed against the blood-soaked marble, throats lying open like second mouths, insides steaming on the polished marble. The sights and smells were almost too much to bear. Cassius had never seen such wastage, such wanton destruction, never felt such a sense of hopelessness as he had in that moment.
The armed figure had appeared like a ghost, stepping from out of the shadowed doorway, black cloak billowing, sword glinting in the sunlight as it moved through a wide arc to cleave Cassius head from his shoulders. Cassius had closed his eyes and prepared to join the others, feeling a sudden weightlessness, wondering distantly why he heard his scream so clearly but felt no pain. When he opened his eyes he had found the Stranger – an old man with eyes that twinkled like stars, grey of hair and pale of skin, dressed in strange garb not of this land, the blade in his hand buried deep between the ribs of the black-garbed man. The Stranger too had been struck for as the old man let go of his blade he had stumbled backwards into Cassius’ arms, a strange and out-of-place smile playing on his lips, as the blood from the wound in his neck washed across Cassius, its tang potent.
The Stranger had uttered a few words in the moments before he died, sparse words in a foreign tongue which seemed to hold some inherent meaning for Cassius though they were beyond his understanding, and as the spark in his eyes had drifted away, mutated into a cold glassy stare, Cassius had looked down and saw the object in his palm, a heavy necklace placed there by the Stranger, an ordinary key of dark metal and aged stones hanging from the chain. The sensations it had brought to life within Cassius as he held it were far from ordinary – the surge that raced through him was the most marvellous moment of his entire life, and all at once he had known he must flee, had understood that he had been given the key in order to keep it safe, out of the hands of men like those who had slain his kin, slain the Stranger and taken Cassius’ own life from him, pointed him on a dark and unwanted path.
The sound of approaching horses had stirred him and he had found his feet, placed the chain around his neck and moved into the house as if in a dream, gathering a pouch of gold pieces and a short-sword from his father’s quarters, before running to the solace of the hills, wanting nothing more than to fade away, remove himself from the world.
Cassius had not stopped running since that day. He had gone to the docks and sought passage on the first vessel he could find, a merchant ship filled with silks bound for Sicily, hidden away in the captain’s quarters at the cost of half his gold. From Sicily he had sought passage to Corsica, and onward to Grimaud, heading north on foot through the rolling green hills when his gold ran out, blending in with travellers heading west through unknown lands towards Gascony, every move prompted by the key, showing him the way when he was lost, leading him from danger, pulling him towards some distant, unknown place that called out to him in the depths of the night, a wordless cry from somewhere far beyond the horizon.
The empty ship had seemed like a miracle when he finally made it to the docks of La Rochelle, waiting as if for him, a vision as he had seen it in fractured dreams. That it was the place he was meant to find he had no doubt.The moon was high as he made his way through a breach in the dock wall and rushed up the gangplank, making at once for an opening on the main deck that led to the darkness of the holds. Once inside he had crawled away to a shadowed corner where he lay down on the warped floor behind a stack of barrels and grasped the chain around his neck tight as if in thanks. An aching tiredness had overwhelmed him as he merged with the darkness, pulling him towards sudden and unwanted sleep.
He had awakened some time later to the pulse of the open ocean beneath him. How much time had passed he had no idea, but there was neither sight nor sound of whoever manned the ship and by the impenetrable darkness he knew that the door to the hold had been sealed. Creeping up the stairs and nudging the wood with his shoulder confirmed this.
The heady scent of sweat in the air had told him he was not alone. He had sensed the forms in the grimy darkness as he felt his way along the walls and by the clanking of chains and groaning of bonds he knew the others were prisoners. He had moved around the hold and set about freeing those he encountered with a flick of the blade here, a hammer of the pommel there, placing his hands over their mouths and signalling for quiet. Some had cried out in languages he did not understand, hugged him or bowed in supplication as though he were a saviour. There were others who sat immobile and wept, women and young children with laddered ribs, thin mothers with babies at breast, chained just as the men were, aboard the ship for no reason Cassius could understand. He had set them free each and every one, realising that his only hope lay with escaping the hold and commandeering the ship, drawing whoever waited above into the darkness.
When he felt ready he had filled his lungs and let out a guttural scream, sending the others, women and children especially, into fits of hysterics. A fusillade of footsteps had battered the deck as Cassius ducked beneath the stairs, crouching behind a salt-filled barrel. Nine men descended the stairs with angry shouts and, as they blundered off into the darkness, Cassius had seized the moment and made his escape, rushing to the waiting shadows of the deckhouse.
With the brisk winds hurling around him he had waited and listened, hoping the prisoners would seize their chance, realise that numbers were on their side. By the yells and screams he guessed that they had not but knew there was no other way. He had crept along the wall of the deckhouse and darted up the staircase to the helm. The wheel was unmanned, tied into position, and as he glanced to his back he had realised that the deck was empty, the unknown men busy below. He had jumped back down the steps and ran to the mouth of the hold. It had been silent but for the hiss of the wind and he thought that perhaps a stroke of luck had befallen him and the captives had taken the ship, but he had heard a sound that turned his flesh to ice – footsteps from behind, moving fast, and others from below, rushing for the stairwell.
With deftness he knew his attackers would not expect, Cassius had fallen to his knees and thrust his blade into the figure emerging from the stairwell. He had almost died himself when the recipient of his blade slumped into the pallid light, blood bubbling on his lips. It was a child, a scrawny boy with a gloss of utter disbelief in his eyes. The world had shrank as Cassius watched the pool of seeping crimson, felt the warmth of the child’s blood slip down the blade and into his palm.
On his chest the key had throbbed.
Now, with every moment that passed, his thoughts turned to that instant when the body had freed itself from the blade, the wound wheezing and puckering, the questioning eyes asking Cassius why he would do such a thing, how he could save a life one moment and end it the next. And yet, even with the blood of the innocent on his blade and the shame in his heart, a spark of purpose still flowed through him, holding him to life against the fever burning through him and the driving cold of the furious sea, readying to drag him under as it had the men who had tied him to the mast – knights with robes of white and crosses of red upon their breasts, torn away as a freak wave had engulfed the ship, the sword held at Cassius’ throat disappearing along with the hand that held it, the glowing eyes which had beheld the key dragged away to the depths of the abyss, the deck wiped clean as though some higher power was on Cassius’ side.
Again the faces called and laughed from the towering walls of water as a fork of lighting limned the vessel in a patina of silver and pulled him back to the present, laughed and called as they loomed over him and dispersed into the night, only to be replaced with the yawning mouths of others, rising up on the next waves.
He ignored them as best he could. There was a greater task at hand, thrumming in the object that sat just out of reach against his chest, begging him to break free and learn what he must do, pulling against him like a fist gripped tight around his heart. The proximity of it made him want to scream, to urge the key to rise up and come to him, to break free from its chain and rest in his palm. He knew as surely as he knew anything that this was what the talisman wanted – to divulge its secrets, to seep with revelation – why else had it kept him safe thus far? Yet he knew it was hopeless. The key could no more free itself than he could. The ship was adrift, buffeted by the clashing fury of the sea, listing slightly as though water had found a way into her hull. He was bound to the mast, wrists bloodied, spirit broken, sickness burning in his every fibre. He could see no end to this other than death, and with it, the death of everything. The key and its secrets would be lost with him and darkness would anchor its taint onto places of light, dimming them with sickness until all was blight and pestilence.
Cassius, Cassius, the waters whispered.
“I am here!” he screamed as the ship rose groaning above another trembling peak. “Take me! Take me now, damn you!”
His voice was swallowed in the din as the waves rose up around. There was no answer save the groaning of the ship as she threatened to tear herself apart.
With a final act of willpower Cassius strained against the sodden cords that bound his hands, pulling his body forward with a gargantuan effort, screaming against the clouds of spray as the coarse fibre bit deep into the skin of his wrists. He could feel some leeway now and pulled forward shearing skin from muscle as he ground his teeth and fought the rising tide of blackness. He felt the cord strike bone and almost succumbed to the void as his bindings glanced off a nerve, until finally, against all odds, freedom.
Sloughs of flesh fell from his palms like the skin of a rotten apple as he pushed, torn and bloody hands slipping through the sodden bonds, skin hanging in tattered shards. He fell forward and left two clotted smears on the salt-soaked deck. The pain felt good, affirming his existence. He rubbed his hands roughly across the deck, agony flaring white as life flowed once again through his deadened veins.
Time slowed as Cassius reached up and grasped the key tight in a bloody palm. And as he waited, eyes fixed on the cold dark metal as though it might make everything better, the galley rose up too quickly from the depths of a broiling trench, turning on a six-pence as it burst through the body of a mammoth wave, tearing wood from wood, metal from metal in one tumultuous crash. Cassius saw none of this as he lost himself in the glittering pinpricks dancing within the key. He felt nothing but warmth as his eyes roved the depths of those cold metallic valleys that seemed as vast as galaxies, each glowing speck brighter than all the stars of the firmament, obscuring a hundred-thousand more that rested beneath.
Colours flared in his head as he was thrust back to the present and found himself standing impossibly erect as the ship bent and shook, turning on its side as the mast shattered and tore a vast hole in the deck; as the skin of the ocean swept over the boat and took him in its cold, crushing grip; as the last shattered remains of the ship were thrown from the crest of the wave and swallowed completely by the frothing, festering sea.
The waters froze like black ice about him, holding him in a hellish embrace. He was beyond pain in that moment, beyond the frozen grasp of the waters, lost in the heady currents that coursed from the key even now, holding him to life. The angry waters grew still as he drifted deeper. The din of the storm filtered away until everything was dark depths and broken pieces of wood, leading him ever downward. It did not matter for he was lost in the sights the key had thrust upon him, the memories of every hand that had touched its lines and known that secrets had lurked there flowing into him as he floated towards oblivion, blurring with his own until his self was forgotten.
A million sights burned into him, each a masterpiece, each a paragon of crispness and reality, some to be understood, others centuries, millennia beyond him, and as one sight came to the fore and held its space in his mind’s eye – there to be cherished and longed for, to be striven towards, a reason to live – Cassius began to understand what he must do.
It angered him to think that he might lose this glory, that this light might sink to the silt in darkness below. Straining against the redness seeping into his eyes, Cassius focussed on that reason to live and began to struggle upwards, flailing his limbs wildly, screaming into the waters as the sights from the key flickered and dimmed.
All at once he was above the water.
He looked around, confused, shielding his eyes against the light. The sun was high in the sky. The ocean was flat like a mirror. There was no sign of the ship.
He did not question any of it.
Grasping the key in a bloodied palm, Cassius began to swim towards the suggestion of a shore on the horizon, reaching out for the place he had been shown, knowing now what he must do to see that this power which had chosen him would achieve that which it ached for.