Off the Coast of England
Gawyn shoved the lock of his chained hands toward his brother. “Open them, Damien,” he urged, his voice a conspiratorial whisper. But even the hushed tone of his words couldn’t hide his growing excitement.
The wood beneath Damien’s bare feet creaked as a wave struck the hull of the ship. Damien instinctively braced himself for the gentle roll of the ship. In the moonlight piercing the slats of the floorboards above, he could make out the lock on his brother’s manacles. He steadied his shaking hand and thrust one of the keys into it. It fit on the first try. Damien stifled his jubilance. It was a good omen if there ever was one.
The ship rocked again. They were in port, anchored in the bay off the southeast coast of England. Captain Blackmoore and most of the crew were in town spending what little they made on the last crossing to France, stocking up for their next trip. There was no better time to escape. It had taken years for the right moment to present itself, years of watching and waiting and planning, but he had finally managed to sneak the key to their locks away from their brutish taskmaster. Damien turned the key, holding his breath. With a tiny clink, Gawyn’s manacles fell open. The sound of freedom. Damien sighed a breath of victory, barely able to keep the smile from his lips.
A grunt and cough came from the front of the galley.
Damien snapped his head around to stare at Otis. A stray beam of moonlight pierced the dark interior of the hold, shining directly on their sleeping taskmaster. Damien grit his teeth, trying to be quiet and patient. He watched Otis’s closed eyes and mouth, watched the fat man’s nostrils flare, listened to him snort and grunt. He fought down his growing impatience, waiting for the right moment to make his move. The ship slowly rocked to and fro, the gentle motion pushing Otis deeper into sleep. Drool accumulated in the corner of the brute’s mouth and oozed from between his corpulent lips.
Damien glanced at Gawyn with wide eyes.
Gawyn placed his leg next to Damien, displaying the keyhole of his ankle shackles for him. He waved his hand urgently for Damien to continue.
Damien shoved the same key he used on Gawyn’s manacles into the lock.
“Hurry,” Gawyn whispered.
Damien took a deep breath. He had watched the sun rise and set through the floorboards of the main galley above them for four years, two months and three days. He and Gawyn had been children when they came on board, he a mere twelve summers. Damien still remembered his father standing on the shore as Captain Blackmoore directed them up the gangplank of the ship. The sun had been shining that day, but its bright rays had not reached their father’s eyes. Damien recalled the look of satisfaction darkening his father’s stare… and the sack he held in his hand when he turned away, walking out of their lives forever. He sold them into bondage for a mere bag of coin.
Damien also remembered the promise he made that night as he comforted a sobbing Gawyn in a black corner of the ship.
They would be free one day.
Damien clenched his teeth as he turned the key. The irons around Gawyn’s ankle fell open, sliding to the ground. Gawyn was free!
Triumph bloomed in Damien’s chest and he moved to his own leg shackle, but his hands shook so badly he had to stop. He took a deep breath, forcing himself to stay calm, then shoved the key into the metal lock and turned it with vicious determination. Freedom. But the lock remained engaged. It was the wrong key. He tried another, but again no luck. Desperate, he searched the ring for another key. Despite his best efforts to keep them steady, his hands trembled again, rattling the keys. He did not pause; he was too anxious, too desperate. Freedom. It was within his grasp. He tried a third key from the ring and this time the lock of his leg manacle opened, the heavy metal slipping from his ankle. He lifted triumphant eyes to Gawyn…
And gasped! His brother had already moved from the bench and was at Otis’s side. He stopped before the massive man and stared down at him, obviously trying to figure out the best way around him. To Damien’s horror, Gawyn lifted a leg high into the air over the ogre’s bulbous belly.
Suddenly, the ship lurched, pitching to one side. Damien froze as Gawyn staggered.
For an eternity, Gawyn teetered on one foot, suspended over Otis’s stomach.
The ship rode the wave, rocking from side to side.
Gawyn fluttered his arms wildly to keep his balance.
Damien slowly stood, his eyes wide in dreaded disbelief.
Gawyn lost his balance, falling like a freshly cut tree onto the giant’s stomach with a sickening meaty slap.
With a sharp grunt, Otis opened his eyes in surprise. He reacted amazingly quickly for a fat man just woken from a sound slumber. His massive arms encircled Gawyn, catching him around the waist. “Got you!” he growled.
Gawyn kicked and flailed but the ogre’s grip was too strong, too tight. “Damien!” his brother shouted with a gasp.
Damien leapt on Otis from behind, wrapping the chain of his manacled wrists around the giant’s neck.
Otis gagged and reached behind him with one hand, feeling for his attacker. He still held Gawyn tightly around the waist as his free hand flailed about for Damien.
Damien evaded the hand, and pulled the chain tight. His arm muscles were strong from years of pulling the heavy oars. He grimaced as he tugged at the metal links, digging them deeper into Otis’s fleshy neck.
Otis’s eyes bulged and his hand grew taut, releasing Gawyn.
Gawyn leapt free of Otis and dashed for the wooden stairs that led to the deck above.
Otis reached over his head with both hands now, desperately searching for Damien, but Damien leaned back, away from the thrashing appendages. Behind him, Damien could hear the other slaves stirring, their astonished voices growing louder with each passing moment. Some urged him on, others called him a dead fool. He ignored them all, keeping his hold firm on the chains encircling the taskmaster’s fat neck.
Over the giant’s shoulder, Damien watched with growing panic as Gawyn began to climb the stairs. He had to go with Gawyn! He had to make it out. There would never be another chance. He released his grip on Otis and dove past the ogre, moving for the stairs behind Gawyn. He landed hard on the wooden steps and pain speared through his side, but he moved immediately, scrambling up the steps.
Freedom was within his reach. Ahead of him, Gawyn swung the hatch open. Black night poured into the ship’s hold; stars twinkled overhead in the night sky. It was a glorious sight. Damien’s heart ached to be above ship, to be free. He was so close… so close…
Suddenly, a fleshy hand encircled his ankle and jerked him violently back into the pit of darkness. Damien’s chin clunked hard on the wood as he thumped down the steps. The coppery taste of blood seeped into his mouth. He clawed forward with his manacled hands, frantically trying to sink his nails into the wooden stairs, desperate for any kind of grip he could find. Damien kicked at the hand, but Otis pulled him down another step and his kick missed the mark.
Damien looked back up toward his freedom. Gawyn paused at the entry to reach back for him. Damien stretched up, pushing his manacled hands forward, willing his fingers to reach Gawyn, just inches away from grasping his brother’s hand. One more surge and he would be free. One more…
Otis yanked him back, pulling him out of Gawyn’s reach.
Gawyn hovered at the opening, indecisive. Finally, he straightened. “I’ll be back for you, Damien. I swear.”
No. The word welled in Damien’s throat, in his heart. Then, the hatch slammed shut, sealing him back in hell. No!
Otis grabbed Damien by the scruff of his ripped tunic and hauled him to his feet. “You worthless, good for nothing wretch!” He punched him hard on his cheek. “Ya want to see what’s up there so badly?”
Damien’s head ached from the blow; bright white spots of light flashed before his eyes. Otis moved up the stairs, pulling a dazed Damien behind him.
The hatch opened and for a moment, despite all the pain, Damien tasted freedom. The fresh air purified the staleness in his lungs. The night was clean and cool against his hot skin.
And then heaven vanished and hell returned as Otis shoved him forward, slamming him into a thick wooden beam. Damien plowed into it with the force of a rock hurled from a sling. His world spun and his body dropped to the deck of the ship. He managed to glance up at the captain’s cabin and saw the name of the ship carved just above the door. The Redemption. The word swam across his vision. Yes, redemption, his pain-fogged mind thought. Gawyn is waiting in the darkness to deliver me from this evil.
He felt himself being lifted, saw Otis’s twisted face, saw his lips move, but he could not understand what the huge man had just said. All Damien knew was that Gawyn would set him free. He had promised to come back.
Otis spun Damien around and stretched his arms above his head. Damien glanced up to see the chain between his wrist manacles being draped over a large hook in the main mast. The manacles dug into his flesh, the rough metal edges slicing into his skin. A ripping sound filled the night as what was left of his tunic was torn from his back.
Gawyn will return. He promised to come back. Brothers always keep their promises. He won’t leave me.
Damien looked dazedly beyond the edge of the wooden pole he was now hooked to, searching the shadows of the ship for his brother. Was Gawyn behind the crates of supplies to his left? Or the netting to his right?
His mind was so foggy he didn’t realize what was happening until the first snap of the whip cracked the air behind him. His body stiffened in anticipation and dread.
Gawyn, where are you?
The whip snapped again, this time finding its mark, landing with biting accuracy on the surface of Damien’s flesh. He winced as hot pain flared through his back. His body jerked away from the coil of the whip as a second lash struck him, the thin tip of the cord digging deeper. He grit his teeth and squeezed his eyes tight.
A shout to his right drew Damien’s attention. Hope bloomed inside of him. It was Gawyn. It had to be Gawyn.
A shadow darted across the star-lit deck from behind the netting and the dark shape leapt over the side of the ship. Damien heard the distant splash of his brother’s freedom. Other crewmembers ran to the rail of the ship, peering into the dark waters below.
The whip savagely bit his back again and again and Damien’s chin dropped to his chest in anguished defeat. Just before blackness took him, he knew the truth.
Gawyn was not coming to set him free.
Angel’s Assassin also available in trade paperback – $9.95