Black Flags on the Horizon

Chapter One of a work in progress 

 

 

I

 

    The fibres felt rough against her palm. The sun was beating down relentlessly, and a line of sweat was beginning to form on her brow. Yet she stood still, she had to be patient.

     The brine glared back at her, defiant in its calm, as she stared at the miniscule ripples that were beginning to form where the coir disappeared into the depths of the endless turquoise mirror. The rope began to creep through her fingers; gentle nibbles accentuated with aggressive tugs.

     Still, Sona stood, steadying her breath as she gripped her toes around the curved edge of the exposed brain coral. Soon, she thought to herself, trying to ignore the growing sting of sweat in her eyes and the curious damsel fish pecking at her feet.

     Without warning the rope yanked forwards, toppling her from her perch. The water greeted her, erupting in a fury of foam and noise that made its former crystalline appearance seem alien.

     Sona gripped the line as it dragged her deeper; the fall had surprised her, but not enough for her to forget to take a final breath. The reef shone around her in all its de-focused glory; an infinite array of fluorescent shapes cascading within themselves, enveloped in the all-consuming darkness of the submerged horizon. 

     Where are you taking me, little friend?

     Hand over hand, she pulled herself along the line towards her catch as they sliced through the mirage. The chaotic mosaic below her had now given way to the pastel blue hues of the lagoon.

     At the end of the rope, a vast silhouette began to take shape. Broad oars curved down, rested and then rowed again, propelling the behemoth along.

     No, no, no, no! It can’t be! Give me a sailfish, a shark, the bloody Sultana’s robes! Anything but you, gentle one!

                Her suspicions were confirmed as she drew closer. It wasn’t a fish, but an enormous leatherback turtle. Horrified, she loosens her grip on the rope and rushes upwards; breaking the surface to be greeted by the blinding rays of the tropical sun.

     Her island now resembled a petite caterpillar creeping along the edge of the world. The line had now gone slack and the ocean once again fell calm.

     The closest resemblance of land was a sandbank that gleamed like silver set in ivory at the end of the lagoon. Perhaps she could swim to it and catch her breath.

     Her contemplation was shattered by the sound of water erupting behind her. The leatherback had surfaced. Blood streamed down its beak, where the hook at the end of her rope was firmly lodged.

     Letting go, she swam towards the creature, and cradled its head within her arms.

     Come with me… I will try to make it better…

     Holding on to its back, she swam towards the sandbank, gently pushing the behemoth along in front of her. It stared back at her with a cool indifference that was perhaps more reflective of its reptilian nature than its actual emotions.

     Soon they reached the shore and Sona set to work removing the hook. The beast did not struggle and continued to stare at her unflinchingly as she held its head with one hand and twisted the hook with the other. The blood streaming onto the sand matched the scarlet tones which had begun to appear on the horizon as the earth turned away from the suns embrace. With a sickening squish, the hook came free, slashing crimson across Sona’s face.

     Before she could wipe it off, a glimmering on the horizon caught her eye. There, silhouetted against the burning façade of the atmosphere, was a line of five unfamiliar ships; their velvety black flags withering gently against the afternoon breeze.

     They didn't look like dhoni. The cut of the bow was much higher and the surfaces of the much larger and far slower moving ships were encrusted with all manner of gold, silver and precious gems; indeed there were more treasures on just on the mast of the leading ship than Sona had seen here entire life. Latticed silver and gold, wrapped around spiralling tendrils of jade and Ivory, ending in a figurehead encrusted with glittering rubies, which twisted back down its length towards the ship.

     As she pondered whether she should wave towards the ship, she abruptly noticed that some of the rubies were tumbling down into the water; except that instead of sinking they appeared to dissolve, darkening the depths in its wake.

    Sona’s skin crawled as she struggled to move against the weight of the dark thoughts that were flooding her mind.

     Who would do such a thing? Why would someone do such a thing?

     A wet flipper slapped her leg and she broke free of the blizzard to lay flat, her slim figure hidden behind the hefty frame of the beached reptile.

     I had almost forgotten about you, thank you, dear friend.

     It stared back at her, and though its eyes were as steely as ever, the message was clear. The figurehead was now clearly visible and Sona bit her lip as she tried to suppress the nausea.

     It was a monk. Her eyes were burnt out and the stump of her head was secured onto the end of the gaudy mast by the twisting of her braided hair. The serene expression gracing her sown together lips did nothing to ease Sona's distress.

     I have to warn them!

     Before the panicked thought could materialise into action, the leatherback raised its flipper and placed it over her head, obscuring the grim parade from view.

     Let me go, I have to warn them.

     Go now, they will all still die, but so will you, and with you, the universe.

     You know my family is going to die? And yet you leave me here helpless when I should be at their side? How could you be so heartless?  Let me go!

     The flipper lifted, but before Sona could get up again, it slammed down again against the back of her neck; and her vision erupted with the light of a thousand lost galaxies.

     All of existence is suffering, and you child, must live through it all.