Monday, December 22, 2014

Journey to Miranga Island

Part II: Crossing the Threshold

        In the skiff, no one spoke.  Declan kept his eyes on Saltana, dead ahead.  The closer their little boat got  to the ethereal threshold; the wall of light and shadow that separated the land of the living from the land of the dead; the more excitement the young lord felt.  He narrowed his gaze, hoping the land would be clearer to view now that they were closer to it.
“Can you make out anything Balric?  Near or far, it all looks the same to me,” Declan said.
But Balric wasn’t looking at Saltana.  He was huddled at the tail end of the skiff with his eyes on the ocean’s edge.  It held calmly, contained by the threshold like it was soup and the translucent wall was the rim of a bowl.  The water did not push through, nor did it come back in on itself.  In fact, there were no ripples at all; as though the mighty ocean acknowledged this thing as its limitation.  
Balric did not feel as calm though.  They were very close to the threshold now and at any moment they would start passing through.  “I wonder what’ll happen to us in there.  Will we age more quickly inside?  So that only two old men land in Saltana?  Or what if our little boat breaks up on the wall?”  Balric’s mind was racing again.  In answer to his rising panic he pulled out a scroll from his satchel, broke the seal and began scribbling.
“Balric!  Doodling?”  Declan was incredulous.
“Writin actually, sir.  Had a lovely idea for the start of my memoirs,” Balric said, in a higher pitch than he had intended.
“Boatman, how many men have successfully crossed over into Saltana?”  Delclan asked.
“Successfully?  Everyone who’s tried boyo.  One hundred percent o’you bonies ends up in Saltana sooner or later,” the ferryman chuckled while keeping his attention  on the wall before them.
“Ignore him Balric,” Declan reassured.  “The point is, we’re about to do what few  dare to do and your face is buried in that scroll.  I promise you, there are no questions you could possibly have that are as amazing as what lies before us in this present moment.”
“Scuse me, boatman?  How many livin souls have successfully come back from Saltana?”  Balric asked.
“No no!”  Declan yelled before the ferryman had a chance to respond.  “We can’t think too far ahead Balric.  We must…”
“HOLD ON!”  the ferryman shouted from the front of the skiff.  Declan turned towards their pilot with lightning speed.  Balric stuck his head out over the side of their boat to get a clear view of what lay before them. 
The skiff was just about to make contact with the ethereal wall.  Balric grabbed onto the side of the boat he was leaning towards, dropping his parchment and pen in the process.  Declan turned his body fully to face what was coming.  They pierced the ethereal wall.  Declan and Balric braced themselves for resistance, as though the wall would put up a fight to let them through.  But there was no fight.  They passed through the barrier easily, as though it were an old aunt welcoming them to a Sunday feast. 
Halfway through.  Balric looked over to his master with a mixture of fear and concern; “I hope the lad is alright,” he thought.  But Declan was more than alright.  His eyes were alight with a wild spirit of adventure that he had only experienced a few times in his young life.
Three quarters through now.  The aunt was so eager.  Balric couldn’t bear anymore and bent his head low, looking at the bottom of the skiff while waiting blindly to hear and feel what came next.  Nothing came.  After what felt like several minutes, he looked up again.  They were engulfed.  Shades of things passed them by: small islands bearing a single tree, or bushes that seemed to sit on the surface of the water.  But none of them were real.  “Well,” Balric thought, “real enough for this place, maybe.  But ya can’t touch’em.  I much prefer our world, where things can be touched.”
“HAHAHAHA!”  Balric’s thoughts were suddenly dashed by the high-pitched cackles of the ferryman.  “I do so love doin that to bonies like you wha cross over for the first time.  Haha, stupid bonies.”
Declan’s head moved rapidly this way and that as he seemed to be taking in everything around them.  Balric was just about to call out when the lad suddenly turned to his left and went to the side of the skiff, taking a seat next to the nervous manservant.  Slowly, Declan bent over the edge of the boat to look at the water below.  Then, Balric saw the boy’s hand move slowly towards the water…
“MASTER!”  Balric yelled as he pulled Declan away from the edge.  The young lord was whipped around quickly, looking the stout servant square in the eye.  Balric was taken aback; for on Declan’s face was a smile so wide that he thought for a moment that this place had put the boy under some sort of spell.  
“What are ya doin?”
“It’s alright Balric,” Declan replied calmly.  “Look for yourself.”
Declan turned back, away from Balric, to look over the side of the skiff again.  Balric turned to his own side of the boat and put his hands on it.  “You can do this,” he thought to himself.  “Ya can’t be scared of everythin.  Declan’s right.  Just let go, and look.”  With that, Balric willed his head over the edge.
As hazy and foggy as the threshold had been all around them, the surface beneath them was vividly clear.  For what they were sailing on was not water, but what seemed to be the night sky itself.  “We’re sailin on a sea of stars!”  Balric thought, so moved by the sight that he had to breathe in deep at the marvel of it; as though simply looking was not enough. 
The moon’s reflection - “Is it a reflection?” – shone so brightly that Balric immediately turned his head skyward to see where it was.  But above, he could only make out the shape of the moon.  There was no color, no sparkle, no light at all; just a pale imitation of the reflection cast below them.
“Amazin!”  Balric said, barely above a whisper.
“Yes Balric!  Exactly!”  Declan said as he clapped his manservant on the shoulder.  “Stop worrying, and embrace the adventure.”
“I just wish I knew what we were up against in Saltana,” Balric replied.
“We DO know Balric.  It’s a bazaar.  We’re dealing with merchants.  And if you’ve dealt with one you’ve dealt with them all,” Declan proclaimed.
“Both right and wrong,” the voice of the ferryman came back to them from the front of the boat.
“Which one of us?”  Declan demanded.
“Both of ya boyo.  Bazaar merchants are scheming, plottin, connivin wretches it’s true.  They’ll do whatever it takes to make a sale and Saltana’s no different.  In fact, I’d say it’s worse,” the ferryman concluded as he turned his hooded face back to them.
“There, you see?  We’ll just keep on our toes and all will be well,” Declan said with an easy smile.
“Scuse me sir, but you said we were right and wrong.  What makes us wrong?”  Balric asked.
“First of all, yer headed to the land o’the dead.  That makes Saltana the bazaar o’the dead.  Understand?”
“So, the merchants…they’re all ghosts?”  Balric prodded.
“Exactly boyo.  Ghosts, ghouls, folk of the non-livin sort,” the ferryman replied.
“Really?  A ghost bazaar?  How exciting!”  Declan stood up in the skiff and absently drew his sword in response to the fervor mounting within him.
“Swords won’t work on them,” the ferryman said.  “Like any merchant, hagglin’s yer best bet.  But that’s where things get real interestin.”
Declan sheathed his sword and sat back down quietly in anticipation of what the ferryman would say next.
“How so?”  Balric pressed, feeling the same impatient curiosity as his master.
“Saltana is a bazaar to the two o’you, but to the merchants workin it, s’more like a prison.  Ya see, these were the worst sorts o’liars an cheats in life.  Greedy an vicious; makin money was their only aim, an they didn’t care who they had to stab in the back to do it.  But now that they’ve died, well…Saltana’s doomed them to the same fate.  Forced’em to sell to the few livin folk who pass through.  An if they can sell ya one o’their wares, they’re freed from Saltana.  Allowed to pass on an be at peace.  If not…then there’s no escape.”
“Well, that’s unsettlin,” Balric said quietly.
“Not at all my dear Balric.  They’re still merchants.  It doesn’t change how we haggle,” Declan said confidently.
“Maybe not, boyo, but ya must admit yer facin a sort o’desperation ya’ve not encountered in livin sellers,” the ferryman replied.  “Sides, hagglin requires you to have somethin the merchant wants.  An I can tell ya now, ya don’t have much to offer’em.”
“Oh?”  Declan asked, with a small smirk on his face.
“Ya think these ghosts are interested in yer money or valuables?”
“Yes.  Because you just told me they were,” Declan replied.
“In life, they certainly would have been,” Balric said, not looking at either his master or the boatman.  “But in death…they’ll want whatever frees them.”
“Always good to have the fat friend, eh bonie?”  the ferryman scoffed at Declan.  “Leastaways, those that have more brains than you to help ya along.”
“You know something boatman?”  Declan replied as the smile he was wearing disappeared.  “I’m doing all this to find my long lost sister.  Perhaps when I do, I could introduce you.”
“Don’t…you…DARE!”  the ferryman shouted.  “Ya find the right person when yer MEANT TO!”
“Excuse me!”  Balric interjected, standing up as quick as he could and placing himself in between their pilot and his master.  “No need for tempers to flare up.”
“Yer right boyo,” the ferryman agreed.  “Cause we’re here.”
The skiff stopped suddenly, or rather, was stopped.  Declan and Balric toppled over in the boat from its impact against something neither of them could see.  The fog had grown so thick all around them that they couldn’t make out anything.  The ferryman waved his large oar, dissipating some of the fog, allowing his passengers some limited visibility .  Declan and Balric looked up and could make out an old looking wooden dock as what was responsible for their small collision, but beyond it they could see nothing more.
“We’re come to Saltana, as agreed.  Now get off my boat,” the ferryman said coldly.
The pair quickly scrambled past their pilot and climbed onto the dock.  Once they had, the boatman pushed off and turned his skiff around, making his way back from where they had come.
“Wait sir!”  Balric yelled out.  “You told us money doesn’t interest these ghosts.  Then what are we to barter with?”

“There’s only one thing ya both have that they’re interested in boyo,” the ferryman shouted back at them just before he disappeared into the fog.  “A livin soul!”  

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Journey to Miranga Island

Part I: The Map

The breeze was lighter than Declan expected at the end of the world.  The Windy Biscuit, his beautiful ship, rocked gently in the calm sea as the sun sank in the west.  Before him lay the edge of the ocean and beyond that was the ethereal threshold; a wall of light and darkness that stood as a translucent barrier between the world of the living and the world of the dead.  Looking through it, Declan could see land and trees and all manner of other things he might find in his own world.  But they were wrong somehow.  There was just enough light to make out shapes, but that’s all they were; shadows without substance, like an artist’s outline before filling in the paint.  No matter.  Twilight was approaching, and at any moment now the ferryman would arrive to take Declan and his manservant Balric across the threshold into that land.
“Twilight’s approachin,” Balric said as he neared his master on the forecastle deck.  “Ya think this fella’ll show?”
Declan exhaled and leaned on his knee, propped up by a box, as he looked out toward the horizon.  “He’ll show Balric.  This is the only part of the world where he would, if the legends are true.”
“Tha’s just it sir.  We’re only followin stories here.  S’pose they are true, an he shows up.  What then?  Will he really ferry us across that wall there?  If so, what’ll he want for it?  Will he bring us back?  If not, how do we get back?”  Balric’s speech was getting faster and faster as his mouth raced to ask all the questions that were popping into his mind.
“Peace Balric, please,” Declan said as he turned to his manservant.  “You’re thinking too far ahead my friend.  One step at a time, and our first step is getting to the bazaar across that threshold.  Once we’re there, our next task is to find the map to Miranga Island.  Simple, you see?”
“It’s just a question of HOW we do all those things sir.  Tha’s all I’m gettin at,” Balric said as he pulled a fresh scroll from the satchel slung at his side.  He broke its seal, took a pen from his pocket and began scribbling furiously.
“We simply DO them Balric.  That’s what it means to be a man of action.  Don’t think, just do.  That’s how I’ve lived my whole life and I’m too old to change now.”
“You’re naught more’n twenty-five master,” Balric said without taking his eyes off the parchment he was scribbling on.
“Yes, but an old twenty-five,” Declan said as he looked back toward the threshold and placed his hands on his hips.  “That’s what LaFoe did to me all those years ago.  When he stole my sister.  God only knows what he’s done to her, but to me?  He’s aged me before my time.  You almost have to respect him don’t you?”
“Who sir?”  Balric asked, with head still bowed to his work.  He had gotten exceptionally good at discerning when Declan had a reverie to share and in those times Balric knew the lad didn’t want to be interrupted.  “Better to let him talk through it,” he thought to himself.
“LaFoe!  It’s quite the masterstroke to hide the only map to your lair in the land of the dead.  To tell the truth, I expected less from the second deadliest pirate on the seas.  Over ten years we’ve been searching Balric!  To think, a lord’s son and his faithful servant steered to living on the high seas.  Learning the bitter taste of desperation with each new adventure, undertaken for even a rumor of LaFoe.  Driven by the actions of this man we’ve never met, yet sworn to kill.  And we are so close now.  Just on the cusp of tasting victory…and it looks delicious!”  Declan exclaimed as he puffed out his chest.
Scratch, scratch, scratch
“Are you still writing?” Declan asked with frustration.  Yet when he turned to face his manservant and saw the portly fellow’s wounded eyes, Declan immediately softened.  “If you’re that concerned, then you can stay here.  I’d think no less of you my friend.”
“Not a chance are you goin anywhere without me, master!”  Balric exclaimed.  “I volunteered to serve you to the end and  I won’t abandon you now.  As for this, well, it’s just a little doodle.  Drawin out this beautiful landscape here with a lovely X to mark the ship.  Pardon my head bobbin up an down sir, but I’m terrible at drawin from memory.  I need to keep my subject in sight, so to speak.  Anyway, I figured I’d put this doodle in a bottle and send it out toward that island we passed some days ago.  Tide’s headin that way.  I’ve written a little note too, explainin our situation.  I know the prospects of any help are slim, but no sense in not giving ourselves every chance,” Balric said while his gaze went from left to right and his pen moved like a conductor’s baton.
“Oh Balric, you’re always so worried.  You don’t live life in scribbles and drawings, you live it by…well, by DOING!”  Declan said enthusiastically with a smile.
“All due respect sir, but ya can’t DO without plannin first.  Otherwise nothin really gets done, as my Uncle Faustus used to say,” Balric replied as he turned his attention back on his doodle.
The sun approached the horizon and twilight was finally upon them.  Declan suddenly felt a chill and instinctively pulled his coat in.  Everything went quiet around him, including Balric’s scribbling.  This was it.  If the ferryman was going to show, it had to be now.
Scratch, scratch, scratch
“Balric, the hour is upon us!  How can you doodle at a time like this?”  Declan whispered heatedly.
“Beggin yer pardon sir, but that’s not me,” Balric whispered back.
Scratch, scratch, scratch
Declan walked over to the railing of the ship and put his hand on it as he slowly edged his head over the side.  His eyes first focused on the ethereal wall before him, taking in the shapes and shadows within.  Then he looked down towards the water, and smiled.  On the sea below was a small skiff piloted by a figure fully cloaked wearing a great hood so that no part of himself was exposed save for what appeared to be black hands holding a large oar.  
“Well, it’s about time boyo!”  the figure said with a booming voice that made Declan jump back from the railing.
Balric came up behind his master to catch him.  After exchanging a glance of surprise, the pair returned to the railing and looked over.
“I’ve been scratching here for damn near twenty minutes!”  the figure shouted angrily.  “One thing I canna abide is time wasters!  Have ya any idea how full my schedule is?!”
“Sorry!  So sorry.  We didn’t hear you until now.  My name is Declan Bruntfodder and this is Balric.  He’s my manservant,” Declan said with all the polite airs befitting a gentleman of his station.
“Well, isn’t that special for the two o’ya!  I don’t care about names lad.  Nor however much money ya have, nor how buxom yer daughters are.  Believe me, I’ve no trouble attractin ladies!  I don’t need yer help, understand?!”  the ferryman raged.
“O’course sir!  We didn’t mean to offend,” Balric chimed in quickly.
“Spare me, fatty!”  the ferryman barked.  “Let’s get right to it, as there’s very little time now.  Ya want to get to Saltana and ya need me to take ya.  Am I right?”  he asked sardonically.
“No no, good boatman!  We’re looking to get across the threshold there.  We want to go to the land of the dead, not this Saltana you mention,” Declan said as patiently and politely as he could when faced with such rudeness.
“Oh, I see.  The land o’the dead, o’course.  I don’t suppose such a land would need a name.  No, why would it?  I’m sure the spirits over there love referring to it as ‘the land o’the dead.’  They’ve no shortage o’time, after all.  O’course, in life all you mortals can’t help but name everything.  But yer right, I’m sure once ya die all those old habits just disappear.  Wanna give up smokin?  Well, that’s easy - just get yerself run over by a horse-drawn carriage!”  the ferryman said with such a venomous sarcasm that Declan wanted to draw his sword then and there.
“Forgive my ignorance,” Declan said with a forced smile and gritted teeth.  “I did not realize it had a name.  Yes, good fellow, we seek to cross into Saltana.”
“Right.  Fantastic.  What’ll ya give me as payment?”  the figure said as he stretched out his hand.
“Payment?”  Declan asked.
“Aye.  And I don’t accept promises o’lusty young maids.  I do fine on me own, believe you me!”  the ferryman shouted again.
“What is it ya do accept, sir?”  Balric jumped in.
“Why is it I need to have this conversation every time someone wants to cross?  Not just every couple’a times.  EVERY…SINGLE…TIME!  Do ya know how long I’ve lived lads?  I’ve been here since the beginning.  Since the first man was first born and e’er I shall remain til the last man is no more.  So can ya imagine how many times I’ve had to spell it out for every IDIOT that comes here…”
“Sorry sir!”  Balric said quickly as he saw his master was getting a bit red in the face from listening to this vitriol.  “We meant no offense, but we’ve never done this before.  We have to get to the bazaar on the other side o’the threshold.  Please.  It’s a matter o’life an death!”
“It’s ALWAYS a matter o’life an death!  But never mind.  To take ya past the threshold into Saltana, I’ll need a token from the world o’the livin,” the ferryman said.
“Any token?”  Balric asked quickly, his mind racing.  “It doesn’t have to be anythin specific, like gold or jewels or…”
“Gods help ya boyo, if ya say ‘three well-read daughters who are liberal-minded enough to be ok with marryin the same bloke.’  Believe me, I know a thing or two about seducin well-read young ladies!  Lotsa time to read on this job!”  the ferryman spat.
“I thought you said you had a full schedule before…” Declan began in retaliation.
“Sir!”  Balric shouted, cutting off his master.  “We wouldn’t insult ya by offering a handsome man like yourself anythin of the sort.  Truth be told, if you’ve some advice for me, haha.  But regarding this price to cross, would this do?”
Balric pulled out an old dagger he kept at his waist and presented it to the ferryman.  It was a very plain dagger; with a brown leather handle and notched in the blade from overuse.  “Still, if all he needs is a token from the world o’the livin then this should do as well as any other,” Balric thought.
“Well, well, well,” the ferryman chortled.  “The fat man has some brains in that bulbous head.  It must be hard fer ya to find hats, eh?  Aye boyo, the dagger’ll do fine.  Toss it here.”
Balric tossed him the dagger from atop the Windy Biscuit.  Then, he hurriedly grabbed the ship’s rope ladder and hitched it tight to the railing.  Declan went first, eager to begin the journey.  Balric followed after, and with a plop fell off the last rung into the skiff.
“Looks like yer slave’s found a way to get ya to Saltana quicker’n my boat.  Careful, fat man, or or you’ll turn us all over!”  the ferryman yelled.
“Manservant,” Balric started defiantly.  He caught himself and took a deep breath.  “Sorry sir, but speakin of Saltana, when we’re done there and ready to come back…well, I was wonderin how we summon you.”
“There’s no summonin me boyo!”  the ferryman bristled.  “Every evenin at twilight I patrol these waters on the border, and take across any as can pay my toll.  When I get there I take back anyone on the docks, so long as they can afford it.  But I can only bring back those who’ve been there for twenty-four hours or less.  Once ya pass a day in Saltana, ya become a part of it.”
“I don’t like the sound o’that,” Balric thought.  “I can tell time by the sun and stars easy enough.  But what if there are no sun and stars?  And my beautiful pocket watch needs fixin.  But never mind that,” Balric looked up at the ferryman as he remembered something the curmudgeonly fellow had just said.  “Pardon sir, but what did ya mean when ya said you bring those back as can afford it?”
“There’s no time Balric!”  Declan declared.  “The sun is sinking fast and we must be on our way.  Saltana awaits!  And from there, Miranga Island.  And from there, Martin LaFoe.  And from THERE, my dear sweet sister.  Forward ferryman!  Take us through the threshold, to the land of the dead.”