The Edge of the World
Previously, the boy is traded to an English sailing ship. Finally back among his own people, he begins to feel hope that he might find his friend and make it home. However, he learns that the captain is embroiled in a vendetta with his arch nemesis, Captain Joyce…
The boy was confined below the deck for a day, for a violent storm turned the sky to black, and the rain fell in torrents. The wind came on them so suddenly it swept the Valantis low into a valley where the crew had to fight through the night to douse the canvas before they struck ground. They were all of them sleepless and exhausted when they finally brought her into a mountain alcove and moored her to a cliff. Then rain beat against the deck; lightning split the sky; the wind howled through the rigging; the storm lashed the mountains of Antaria with a vengeance. The streams and rivers were swollen, and the trees were bent with the fury of the wind. The boy bent over a bucket and retched, for the horrid swaying of the ship beneath his feet made him terribly sick. But when the storm broke, and the boy found his way to the land of the living once more, he looked out from the bow at the quiet world to which he’d been confined, and realized it was pleasant. The air smelled clean. The mist was rolling back from granite crags that bordered a clear blue lake where the crystalline sky and haggard clouds reflected in its surface like a mirror; and everywhere was the smell of damp evergreens and the clean feel of a world made new after a heavy rain.
“We’re two days late now,” said the captain morosely. “I fear Joyce may already be ahead of us, and if he’s already in the headwaters of the Rift we’ll be hard pressed to win it back from the guns of the iron beast.”
The ship’s gunner, a man named Billy Harrack, just laughed. “Captain, we’re the faster, and we ain’t short on powder or shot.”
“Just the same,” answered the captain. “I’d rather not meet Joyce again so soon. When the wind picks up we must raise all canvas and pull hard for the Rift.”
They weren’t long in the waiting, and soon the ship was climbing once more; then the helmsman brought them around and pointed the bow at the pinnacle mountains that marked the horizon like a line of ragged teeth.
They ran before a strong wind the rest of the way. The boy would’ve liked to see what sort of land was Antaria, the lost world, but they were often in the clouds, and all he could make out below were vast empty fields of white that must be clouds. He caught glimpses of ragged mountain ranges at times, however, and once or twice he saw rivers wending their way through dense jungles. But when the stars were hanging low over their heads, the lookout cried out, “Rift ahead!” The boy, who’d been sound asleep in his bunk, leapt out of bed to see about the commotion; and, coming on deck, he could see before them by the pale light of the moon that the obsidian spires were come very near and were standing only just a few leagues distant, looking horrid and great and black and foreboding. The crewmen who were near pointed out the low pass between the sheer mountain peaks, and they said, “See, the Rift passes through those, and on beyond is the Passage of the Moon where the Indians believe the Farlong flew in their hundreds many years ago.”
Captain Colder stood next to the helmsman, and when the boy climbed to the poop deck, the two were scanning the dark horizon and the night-shaded valleys below them. “If Joyce is here he can’t hide his ugly ship,” said the captain. “That pig is too big.”
“But there’s so much space,” said the boy quietly to himself, for there were hundreds of valleys and heaths and hillocks and bogs running every which way; and even a great steamer could be sitting just beyond the next hill and still be out of sight for some time.
“And if he ain’t here then where is he?” asked the helmsman, “for I ain’t seeing nothing but the black spit of the Rift cliffs and all that empty ground down there we’ve already crawled all over the last time.”
They were apprehensive, the boy thought. He didn’t understand why until the boom of the guns far below shook the night. It sounded like thunder in the air, and he could see the canon flash across the valley and much below them.
“Hard to port and evade the devils!” cried Colder at once. “Bring us around for a broadside, Sir!” Before the sailor could answer he was already descending the steps three at a time, shouting, “To your stations, men! Full mast and man the guns!”
The boy trembled: he was going to be in a battle, and that was terribly exciting. He rushed to the bulwark to watch the canons flashing in the dark. Erickson was there, the cook watching the gauging shots below stolidly. “Don’t worry, son,” he said. “They’re much too far off to hit us yet. They’re only checking the distance.”
“Is it Joyce?” asked the boy.
The sailor nodded. “The devil’s own are sitting down their in their iron beast shooting volleys at us, thinking they’re so tough behind their shell. Just you wait till we get in for a broadside, and then we’ll see how thick those plates really are. We’ve beaten her back twice and I doubt she’ll take another.”
“Will they try to take the Rift?” asked the boy.
“Undoubtedly!” answered Mister Erickson. “Joyce has been trying to get that bloody thing into the stream ever since he found it! But we hold the higher ground, and that heavy beast won’t make the climb while we’re here—come now, move away from the rail and below, for we’ll be coming in for a volley soon.”
The boy did as he was told, and when they were below on the gun deck in the close quarters of the ship, he watched in fascination at the men who were loading the guns and pulling them to. But he had only a moment, for Mister Erickson shouted, “Bring a powder keg, son! No idle hands on the deck, or Mister Harrack will have your hide!”
The boy had never served aboard a sailing ship, let alone a war ship, and the work was uncommon to him. But it took little skill to haul the kegs and shot to the gunners, and he fell into a routine, feeling now at last like his life had some purpose to it. He kept at his task until all the canons were readied. Although he could see nothing through the portholes now, the battery chiefs were watching the night passing by outside, and their raised hands were enough to tell him plainly that they were nearly within range. He waited with bated breath; then the voice of Mister Harrack shouting “Fire!” rang out through the deck, and the guns answered so loud that the boy was shaken to the planking, his ears pounding with the concussion.
They loaded and fired the guns three more times before a halt was called. In the dark the boy looked around at the stony faces of the sailors. They were used to the life, he realized, and it affected them little; he, on the other hand, was badly shaken. How many runs and raids had those men made, and here he was, a boy from Norward – oh, what a hardened criminal! – and he shaking in his boots.
One of the other powder boys was nearby, his face and hands stained with the residue of the canonfire. The boy handed him a rag and asked what they were about.
“We’ve changed our course,” said the other boy. “We’re going up, I think.”
And there could be no mistake: the ship was certainly climbing higher, and when the boy looked up through the hatch at the night he thought he could see an island fast approaching.
At his back a sailor asked, “Did we get them?” But the answer came back that the devils were moving off toward the inlands, unscathed and doubtless madder than hornets.
They weighed anchor off an narrow crag of rock floating in the sky over the Rift, and there the gun crews were ordered to reload and standby. Captain Colder said, “Joyce has turned and run like a dog, but he’s likely to return.”
“Are we gonna give them chase then, Captain?” asked one of the men.
But the captain shook his head and turned away without saying another word.
Dawn came on the little party and their ship, and the sky over the mountainous countries of that world turned to grey, then gold, then vibrant rose and crimson at last with the sun casting her arms over the rim. The boy stood on the deck of the little ship on the wind of a strange world where islands floated in the clouds, and he saw beneath the light of dawn a great chasm in the mountains of obsidian standing where the crewmen had said the Rift was. It reached like the gash of a finger in the earth. But this chasm didn’t run along the horizon like a canyon, it ran vertically into the sky, until he could no longer see it. Where there ought to have been a ring of blue sky beyond the obsidian heights was only an empty blackness; and the world, instead of marching on like it should, pulled back and ran up like the side of a box from the inside. And as he peered up at the vibrant blue over head, he now saw plainly there was a hole up there, like a great round skylight to the world below, and something was on the other side: a sky beyond the sky.
“What is that?” he asked Mister Erickson, who’d just come to the deck to light a cigarette.
“That’s the Rift, boy,” answered the sailor through cupped hands. “That’s our way home.”
“And can we sail through it, straight up and into the sky?” the boy asked, amazed that anything so wonderful could be true.
“Yes,” answered the sailor. “It runs like a river back to our world, though when you are on it you don’t feel that you are travelling upward in any sort of way.”
The boy thought about that for a moment. “Then what is keeping the captain from commanding the voyage home?”
“Captain Joyce is,” said Mister Erickson with a look in his eyes that was pure hatred. “The mad devil can never be allowed to get that great iron ship of his through the Rift, or all is lost.”
The boy didn’t really understand, but he knew how he would get home now; and though it seemed an absurd thing to sail a river that ran into the sky, he knew it must be possible, for how else had a wooden sailing ship come into that world?
He was still pondering this when the clear calm of morning and the cheerful noise of the crew about their work was interrupted by the terrible report of an explosion that shook the ship beneath his feet and threw the boy to the deck. It was canonfire, he thought! He looked about, for the enemy must have come upon them quite suddenly.
“Who’s shooting at us?” cried a sailor who’d clutched at the main mast to steady himself.
“That was a powder burst!” replied another who was picking himself up from the shock of the explosion.
A second blast trembled in the ship again, and the vessel listed hard to starboard. The boy caught an unwitting glance downward: they had anchored against the little island, but they were still some way above the only land in sight that might offer them embeachment for repairs – a mountain lake ringed in by walls of stone. It loomed closer, and the boy thought for certain they would be destroyed on the waters.
“Hold on, son!” cried Mister Erickson, who’d caught the boy by the collar to keep him from falling overboard. The boy clutched at the sailor and the bulwark in desperation, for as the ship listed he thought surely he must fall to his death.
A third shock went through the ship, and this time the boy could see the splinters of wood and flame where the hull had been burst outward like the face of a cliff that had been dynamited. It was the powder keg, he realized, and that meant only one thing: one of the crew was sabotaging their plans. With that the sailor and the boy both lost their hold, and as the boy clung to the railing with sweaty fingers, and the sailor scrambled to reach him, they both knew it was hopeless. The last thing the boy saw before he fell was the airman, Mister Cooper, standing on the poop deck yelling down, “Save yourself, Erickson; I have the boy!” before he dove headlong from the ship.
The boy hit the water with a sharp smack that took the air from his lungs and left him sinking for a sickening moment before he found himself again and could fight for the surface. His head broke water to the dismal sight of Captain Colder’s ship high over his head, falling in a gout of flame. Detonations still sounded as the powder kegs ignited, and debris was rained on the little lake and the forest that surrounded it like the fallout from a hurricane.
The boy struggled toward the shore, but his movements were morbidly restricted. But presently Mister Cooper was there, and one arm around the boy’s shoulders, he helped him to the silty bank. For a time they both coughed up mouthfuls of the clear mountain water and watched in silence as the ship, now engulfed in fire, struck the edge of the little island with a deep rumble in the earth, then sank out of sight over the edge, gone with her captain and her crew.
When the boy could finally speak he said, “Someone traitored and murdered them, Sir. How else would the powder ignite?”
Mister Cooper pulled himself up on the rocks at the shore of the lake and drained the water from his boots. “You might be right,” he agreed. He pulled his boots back on, and as he rose, he said, “Captain Colder is resourceful. All may not be lost, and we certainly can’t count it so till we’ve seen it.” He went to the edge of the island, where the last spindly trees sprouted awkwardly from the rocks, and beyond was nothing but clouds and air. He just looked for a time, his eyes squint and watching. Then at last: “They’re lost to me eyes.”
And now the hopelessness of the situation set itself upon the boy. He put his face in his hands and cried, for all hope he’d had of finding his friend and getting home were burned with the captain and his ship, and he and the airman were stranded on the island in the sky.
This work is written by AD Bane and published by adbane.com. It is solely the property of ADBane.com and may not be reproduced in part or in whole for any reason except at the exclusive permission of the author. © 2018 ADBane.com