Chapter 1

The Old Man and the Sea


Jorgen left the comfortable warmth of his bed. First sliding his old legs out over the edge of the threadbare cot, and then following through with his own momentum. His back creaked as he stretched out the kinks that inevitably arose from sleeping on the thin hay-stuffed mat. But as a senior nearing his sixth decade of life, he was well accustomed to the hardships of the world. With a yawn, he scratched the areas of his body that demanded attention while hoping that the fleas weren’t back again and he was just sorely in need of another shower.

He sighed wearily, remembering that it had been longer than a week since he’d last cleansed himself. He had the water, but not the time. There was never enough of it to go around these days, it seemed, and having been slowed down by old age had helped none at all. His wife, Begonia, who had been misfortunate enough to carry the moniker Beg as a child and through her childhood, had seen to it that his needs were met. Before her passing, that is. Without her, he was less than optimal. Perhaps even downright useless, a  formless lump of clay that had little more purpose in the world than any other mound of unshapen earth.

Brutus, the mangy mutt he fed—a stray that kept wandering back for more food, to Jorgen’s dismay—was curled into himself on the floor before the hearth. Or at least, what he called a hearth; it was little more than an ashen pit, whereupon he lit fires for extra warmth.

Jorgen blinked. How had Brutus gotten inside?

Looking about the room provided him with a likely explanation. The window was open. He chose to believe that he’d left it open last night due to summer’s warm temperament, and not because someone had broken into his home in the middle of the night and decided that he had nothing of value worth thieving. Had that been the case, he would’ve been rightly insulted that they left without also deciding to put Jorgen out of his misery, for he was the one who had to live in this squalor. The thought surled him.

Eyeing the canine askance, he considered the beast. “You don’t have fleas do you?” he accused. His voice was gravelly with sleep and disuse. Apart from occasional trips to the market, Brutus remained his sole conversational companion.

“I mean it.” he said, scratching his rear. “If you do have fleas, then no more scraps for you. You hear?” he threatened.” Seeing Brutus’s blank expression, he clarified. “That means, no meat.”

Brutus’s head snapped up at the mention of meat, and Jorgen sighed. He should’ve expected that, he supposed. A yawn ripped its way out from his empty stomach. To his surprise, Brutus yawned as well. “Tsk. Lazy mongrel.” he muttered, huffing his way into the kitchen.

Brutus, who had gotten up when his perceived master had entered the room, stayed on his heels, and despite the man’s acerbic words, he patted the dog’s head quite fondly. This was their ritual, of sorts. It was what they did every day. Save, it wasn’t every day Jorgen found that a stray dog might’ve broken into his house while he slept.

He eyed Brutus again, calculatingly, eyes narrowed. Having been a young man once, he had experienced both the valor and horrors of war, had borne witness to the machinations of magical beings and all manner of things he’d once thought impossible. Old age had only honed his suspicious nature of the mundane. It had instilled within him a potent dose of paranoia. He trusted no one. And… no thing.

“Hmm.” He hummed. “You’re… a dog, right?” He asked dumbly.

Brutus tilted his head, and Jorgen righted his own, only then realizing that he had been doing the same thing. As a younger man, he might’ve fought back a bout of embarrassment or concerted self-consciousness, but now, in his advanced age, having seen more seasons than bosoms heaved, he felt none of the frivolities that accompanied youth. He was content to leave the fretting to the young. So, when he cleared his throat, and looked about the room, he told himself it was because he smelled smoke and was checking to see the fire had been put out. Nodding to himself, he confirmed that there weren’t any embers left on in the rakes. The fact that he hadn’t started a fire last night notwithstanding. He turned back to Brutus.

“What I mean is…” he trailed off. What did he mean? “You’re not one of those…” He mimed a hand gesture that could’ve meant anything. “You know, changing magic-people—uh, shape-shifters—are you?”

Brutus rolled his head, following Jorgen’s hands until the man abruptly stopped.

Are you?” He reiterated, emphasizing and pointing accusingly.

Brutus licked his finger.

Jorgen sighed, reaching an obvious conclusion: of course Brutus was just a dog. He had seen the dimwitted animal sniffing around the business end of other animals, and anything else with a business end for that matter. Had even seen Brutus gratefully lapping up the expelled bile of a pitiful drunk who emptied himself from both ends. If the dog was magic, he was royalty and soon to be crowned king.

“Come on, then.” he said, grouchily, in no small part due to the annoyance he felt for himself. “Breakfast’s not going to make itself.”

Jorgen was a fisherman. He had porridge and fish for breakfast. Begonia hated fish, and refused to use the ingredient if the savings permitted the expense. They were never wealthy or well-off, so the savings hardly ever permitted it, but she managed to make do, turning the most common and inexpensive ingredients into a hearty home cooked production.

He tastelessly spooned more porridge into his mouth. In his wife’s absence, he had fish every day, and for every meal.

Brutus whined, licking drool from the blackened rounds of his lips. Jorgen stared back impassively. “What?”

The dog barked. Jorgen knew very well what, but persisted. “What?”

Bark!

He didn’t smile, but his lips quirked upwards by a miniscule amount. It was fleeting.

“Oh, very well, you mangy mutt. I’ll share.” He tossed some fish and bread on the floorboards, and watched Brutus animatedly gobble up the scraps. The distraction made his own food easier to palette.

He remembered eating with such passion and vigor once. Maybe that’s why he kept the dog around, to remind him of a time that he wasn’t quite ready or willing to forget. A pang of longing lanced through his chest, and he quickly amended the thought. Brutus existed to distract him, solely. In his twilight years, he found that it was what he was most in need of from the animal. Though he would never admit it to himself, much less aloud.

It was still early, and morning’s light found them out by the quay, where Jorgen hoisted down his boat from the docks, a small vessel which was little more than a rowboat. But it was his own to command, and on it, he was his own captain. Brutus had followed him out to the docks this morning, currently contenting himself by barking at and chasing the scattered pox of gulls along the rocky shore.

“Dumb dog.” Jorgen said. The last time Brutus had run amok along the shoreline, he suffered a gash to the paw which nearly severed the top layer of skin clean off the pad. And yet, there he went again. “Definitely not magic. You can’t be stupid and a mage.” He muttered under his breath while cranking the winch to release the bindings. Then he unrigged the mooring.

Stepping onto the boat, his posture immediately straightened. His erect back felt more natural aboard the vessel. For the moment, he left behind his existence of simply being Jorgen the Fisherman. Stepping outside of his life and into his memories, he reclaimed his old title as Captain of the ship. Having served on the warship Bartholomyduring the last great conflict, some thirty odd years ago, he had never forgotten the feel of being in command. There was nothing else quite like it in the world. So, he seized it, reclaiming it in a grab to retain the last vestiges of his expiring life. Knowing that eventually his memories would wither and die with the passing of time, and that soon afterward he would dutifully follow.

Brutus had changed tactics and was barking at the water, attempting to intimidate the lapping waves from cresting along the shoreline. Captain Jorgen shook his head, nonplussed.

“Oy! I’m setting off. You coming or going?” It wasn’t a command, just a question. He didn’t own Brutus. No one did. Neither did he want ownership or would accept it if it was being offered. Brutus was his own animal, and Jorgen preferred to think that the dog recognized the value of the freedom he so effortlessly and recklessly wielded.

Brutus barked and ran off, sending a flock of milling white gulls squalling into the air. Jorgen shrugged, content with having been provided an answer, regardless of the outcome, and set off. Kicking off bodily from the shore, he effortlessly regained his balance, a symptom of his veteran sea legs.

He wasn’t upset that Brutus hadn’t joined him. It wasn’t the first time, nor would it be the last, and besides, there was only so much for an energetic dog to do freely on a small boat, including its business. No, the solitude would be appreciated. So in true fashion to his daily excursions, he prepared himself for a minor voyage and settled into the worn, wooden bench with a bottle of the drink at his fingers. He would lose himself in reminiscence during the day, usually only returning after the sun had fully set, and only after remembering that he to feed Brutus dinner. He’d slept out on the waters more than once before, only to return to the piteous whines of his hungry friend. The animal was useless on its own.

Briny waters reflected the orange hues of the morning sun, and were less than lukewarm. In the winters, they were icy. In the summer months, they ran warm all through the night. At this time of year, they would be less than pleasant to splash in, but not too uncomfortable after the fact. By the time Jorgen returned, he would be laden down with his haul, a sizable catch.

Hours passed by before he checked the position of the sun again. At first, It had been on the horizon, now it was nearer to the other end than the center. His barrel, the one he used for storing his catch, was nearly full already. The fish flopped and writhed noisily within the rounded container. He had even showered, much to the displeasured shouts of other nearby fishermen who also happened to be getting an early morning’s start only to be graced by a view of Jorgen’s bare behind. A seaman’s bath, as it was known in the navy. But perhaps he should’ve waited until he was further away from shore?

He was alone now, just him and the fish. And the birds, he amended after a moment. But then he looked up, and realized that he had been right the first time. Where were the birds? Usually they circled the fishing boats, either seeing or sensing the fish that have been served up quite literally in a barrel, like opportunistic vultures; which wasn’t too far from their breed, he supposed.

Jorgen blinked.

“How odd…” he remarked to himself.

An unexpected swell caused him to drop his bottle, emptying out the last swig of the brew he’d been nurturing all day. Jorgen sat up, jarred to attention from his musings. Swells don’t just magically appear in the middle of the ocean. Waves are only a phenomenon of the coast. Even a child knew as much.

Looking left, front, and center, he saw nothing. Another swell rocked his boat, sending him tumbling forward onto his hands. The ship settled, and he wheeled around to glare at what he was sure loomed behind.

A ship! He cursed.

But when Jorgen turned, he saw nothing. No ship. No swells. The sea was as deserted as it was vast. He blinked.

“What in the…”

The air in front of him shivered, shimmering like heat rising off hot cobblestone, while an icy chill wormed its way down his spine. He felt an oppressing weight bearing down on him from all sides. The very air itself became denser. It felt saturated, heavy. Then, like a stone breaking the surface of the water, he passed through the veil of something… else, something otherworldly. Magic. His mind supplied the answer.

The pressure dissipated, and he could breathe again. It lifted entirely before he could draw more than a few breathes. Then he saw them. Mirages reflected back at him, appearing near inexistent to the naked eye before taking form. Those which had been hidden within a dimensional pocket of reality by invisibility were now visible. He held onto the barrel of fish for balance, and not necessarily in case he was caught in the wake of another swell.

Jorgen was left speechless, unbelieving of what he was seeing, despite of what lay undeniably ahead, practically dancing in his vision. No, not a ship; a warship. An entire fleet of them. Each adorned with the banner of Isolde, a neighboring nation from the continent. What were they doing here?

Jorgen felt his bowels loosen when his mind readily supplied the answer. Isolde was infamously nefarious. And as a young man, he might’ve naively believed them to be a convey, perhaps on an errand of diplomacy. That young boy had been thrown into the fray of warfare and conflict, having been baptized by its fires. He wasn’t naïve. They had come for war. Now, in the face of overwhelming odds, the barrel completely held him up upright as his body sagged in disbelief against it.

Jorgen he wasn’t young anymore. As a young man, he might’ve stood a chance of fleeing. Perhaps he might’ve warned a watchmen and raised the alarm, providing those few crucial moments of readiness which might’ve made all the difference. He had survived his ordeals, after all. Experience had taught him that survival had more to do with luck and the blessings of the Gods than by any amount of skill a man could possibly possess, although that too helped. A lot.

Jorgen stood on the deck of his small fishing vessel, a tiny fish among an armada of sharks. His stained white shirt billowed in the breeze, as lofty as his head of gray hair; what remained of it. His wizened face was quickly stripped of any semblance of emotion, for what expression does one adopt in the face of the unthinkable? Shock, fear, and animosity all seemed inadequate. Hiis mien blank, he subconsciously struggled to find an emotion worthy to emote. All the while, his mind raced in the background, coming to an unavoidable conclusion: he was going to die. They had been spotted, and clearly they meant to strike with surprise. He was old, feeble, armed with naught but a fishing pole. He had never been touched by magic; few in a generation ever were. And in the absurd face of this mighty fleet, he was inconsequential.

Weathered hands slacked, and the wooden pole he had unconsciously been clutching clattered to the deck. He couldn’t hear it over the din of rumbling waves and the breeze blowing in his ear. In it, he heard the ocean sing a sad song. Commands were being shouted on the deck of the nearest warship. They were carried on the wind, yet remained indistinguishable. He swallowed, fighting to stay on his feet. If he was to die today, deprived of valor on the battlefield, he could at least die standing. He prayed to the Gods one last time.

He didn’t think of Brutus, wouldn’t think of him, unable to stand the thought of what would become of his friend if he weren’t around to feed him scraps.

A massive ship, easily the size of a small town, and propelled by more sails than he could possibly count, cut through his path, directly where his own had been placed. The smaller vessel was evicted by the displaced mass of one enormous ship. Dozens more followed suit in formation behind the flagship. As they drew nearer, he heard them. The soldiers on the deck were jeering, pointing in his direction. He looked up, tearing his gaze away from the portholes, each with massive cannons breeching the side of the hull, and saw the rail lined with uniformed soldiers.

Jorgen flinched as the first shot struck wide, breaching through the water’s surface on the port side with a splash. He had accepted his death, yet his heart refused to quit, beating a mile a minute as if knowing the end drew nearer. Despite this fear however, Jorgen stared down his impending death with a proud heart, and refused to flinch again. The following shot struck the helm, merely a few feet scant from his position, and he prided himself on not outwardly reacting.

Then he heard them. They were laughing. They had come for war, and they were laughing. At him, he realized.

Jorgen’s blood boiled. Half lost in recollection, because his mind still couldn’t fathom the sheer proportions of what was occurring, he rekindled an expired fire in his belly. He felt keenly the tang of steel, the warmth of blood, and saw the dying light fading from the enemy’s eyes. His enemies.

His blood raged. It sang. The wind picked up in a chorused choir.

Jorgen squared his shoulders, and took in a shuddering breath. His back straightened, and his fists clenched at his sides. He was a young man again, a veteran marine. The shaking of his legs ceased. He stood as resolute and obstinately immovable as a tree stump. He glared at these invading foreigners—men who had thought to sail into these peaceful waters and bring war to his home—with all the hatred he could muster. Something shifted in the breeze. The very air felt changed, charged. Even the squalls quieted.

“This is Atreia!” Jorgan screamed. His overexerted throat was burning with emotion. It thundered, echoing off the hull of one ship to be heard on the deck of another, and so on it carried. “And you are not welcome!”

The sea itself fell silent, it seemed. The men weren’t laughing anymore. They were staring, bewildered—some outright gaping—at the old man who was either brave or foolhardy enough to bark angrily at an entire armada.

“Go home!” Jorgen shouted. Lost in the moment, he was far removed from the present. Instead,  he was back on the battlefield. “If you came for blood, you will find it! But it will be your blood!” How many enemies had he mowed down? How much blood had he spilled? He stared across the echoing phantoms of his past and into the present, overlapping the two, knowing that soon it would be an entire ocean’s worth.

He saw motion on the nearest deck. Surrounded by ships full of enemies, all of their attention directed at him, he felt pride well in his chest. He was Atreian by blood, and these foreigners would soon learn that his homeland, like himself, would not yield to outsiders. On deck, only one man moved; a captain shoved a rifleman, and pointed at Jorgen. The man raised his weapon, aimed, and Jorgen saw the white-yellow flash of the muzzle.

He saw his wife next, and their sons and daughters. Young, before they grew to have families of their own. He stood at Begonia’s bedside as she fell ill, and until she finally lost the will to continue fighting an uphill battle with her ailment. He stood in front of her grave, and the deep pain of sorrow and regret was more profound than any mortal wound. So, when the bullet impacted his chest, dying his white shirt crimson, he hardly felt anything at all.

He grinned up at his executors, teeth bloody. “You’re all going to die.” He said hoarsely, far too lowly to be heard across such a spanning distance. From the decks, before his vision blurred too much to see straight, the men were much more animated. They must be laughing again, he thought. Fools…

A massive set of swells bulged to life, then surged outward as the large ship cut through the tame sea. It struck his small vessel with force. The momentum carried him overboard, and he fell into the waters.

Begonia, I’ve already had a bath today, he thought.

Jorgen’s boat capsized, joining its owner below and spilling his catch back into the sea. The fish he caught earlier swam around his withered frame, encircling him. Were they trying to comfort him? Not wanting to stay trapped, but knowing, perhaps instinctually, that something far worse than he lay in those waters, the fish departed as the final light of life left Jorgen’s eyes and the weathered orbs glazed over dully. What that was became apparent as large keels manifested and disappeared, slashing through the water like a school of sharks intent on tracking their next prey.