Edith's father asks her to come with him on a mission to sail past the edge of the world - but great sacrifices will need to be made to succeed; by Jace Killan.
"Again with this nonsense, Cap?" I said.
My father started to speak, but refrained, instead making his way to the docks. He preferred being called Cap, being the most experienced seaman around, though a growing number in the kingdom thought him insane - including me.
I spat and hurried to catch up. Mother was probably turning in her grave to see her teenage daughter behaving so uncomely. But I took after Cap, from his soft blue eyes to his large stature, even his sailor habits.
I was only eighteen, yet I knew more about the trade than most sailors. I accompanied Cap on many journeys to sea, but he never took me to the edge and I never protested.
Most knew about the edge and stayed away, but when he was a cabin boy on the Genesis, the captain and crew celebrated a racing victory by getting drunk, as was the custom, only this particular time they forgot to lay anchor. When the crew awoke, they were poised on the edge of the world. Where the ocean fell into an abyss, the veil kept the ship from doing the same.
"Edith, I want you to come with me this time." Cap toyed with his grey whiskers, which he only did when he was nervous.
I shrugged him off with a roll of my eyes.
He persisted. "If we're successful, and I suspect we will be, we won't be returning."
"What do you mean?" Now I toyed with a few strands of my brown hair.
"Come, see for yourself."
My father led me to the shipyard. Gulls soared over the breaking waves, calling occasionally amidst the constant hum of wind and tide. The sun settled on the calm horizon, turning the sky and water a spectacle of color.
We walked up the docking platform to Cap's ship, a schooner known as Eden's Gate. She wasn't the largest ship, but she was one of the fastest. The only vessel quicker belonged to the king, a twenty-eight-gunned frigate, The Lion's Mouth.
Cap directed me to the front of the ship where a carved wooden spire, the bowsprit, extended out over the water. I climbed onto it, as I often had the old one, a plain red-stained oak that matched the rest of the ship. The new bowsprit seemed to be made of glossy ivory. To balance, I held the ropes stretching down from the foremast to the bowsprit's tip.
Below the carved spire I expected to see the figurehead, Eden, a topless maiden carved into the ship's face. Instead I encountered the head and forequarters of a charging stallion, its mane furled and nostrils flared.
"It's beautiful," I said.
"Look closer." Cap motioned me out farther. Usually he'd chide me for going this far.
I sat down and scooted to the tip, where a bit of sinew secured a two-foot spiraled horn. Though I had often seen unicorns in the fields outside of town, I had never been close enough to examine one's horn. It looked like porcelain with bits of hide clinging to its base and flecks of blood tinting the spiraled crevices dark red.
I returned to the deck. "What happened to it?"
"Him," Cap corrected. "His name was Re'em and he, like the king, believed in our cause."
"To pass beyond the veil?"
"Yes. It will work this time."
I couldn't count the number of occasions I had heard that claim, but each of the expeditions ended the same way. When Cap returned home, he also returned to the bottle, drinking himself into a stupor. And each time I had to nurse him back to reality.
Cap touched my cheek. "Edith, I know it's been hard on you, dealing with an old kook."
A tear escaped my eye; I shirked off the pain. "It's fine. I just wish you'd quit chasing this dream. I mean, say you find a way through the veil. What then? You fall into the abyss and die? That's what you've wasted your life for?"
"It won't be like that. There's more there. I've seen it."
"The garden?" Cap often spoke of a garden that he had seen beyond the veil.
"Yes," Cap said. "I know it's hard to understand, and it doesn't fit into this world of ours, but I can feel with every bit of my soul that there is something on the other side for us."
"Okay, sure, why not. I should go so I can keep you from binging when it doesn't work out." The comment seemed to sting Cap more than I had intended. I tried to change the subject. "The name Eden's Gate doesn't fit the new figurehead."
"You're absolutely right. We'll need a new one. Names are very important, you know. What with the new figurehead, oh and I almost forgot." Cap opened his coat, exposing a folded canvas flag. "The king gave us new colors."
We were interrupted by the sound of boots and laughter, hearty and obnoxious grunts. Sailors.
Cap directed his men to secure the rigging and prep the sails. They also loaded the ship's hold with enough food to last a few weeks' journey and potable water.
"Where's Andrew?" Cap shouted to the men. They only shrugged in reply.
Cap treated Andrew like a son, and Cap had given his blessing for me and Andrew to wed. The one problem was that I couldn't stand the arrogant boy. He was too full of himself to deserve someone like me.
Cap motioned to a crewman to sound the whistle, calling the other men to the deck. I took my father's side.
"Gents." Cap cleared his throat. "We've had many adventures and I'm grateful to each of you for your loyalty. Let's travel to the veil once more, but this time we will pass through to the other side."
The small group cheered and stomped. How could they still be supportive after so many failures?
Cap glanced around; I knew he was looking for Andrew. Cap wouldn't be able to wait much longer. The greater tide would soon go out. The sun had already dipped below the horizon and a sliver of the large moon peaked over the distant mountains. If Andrew didn't arrive soon we'd have to wait to the hour before dawn, when the smaller tide came in.
"Well, men, let's make sail!" Cap said. In shouts, the crew confirmed that they had heard the order.
Cap must have recognized the voice behind the snarl. He whispered in my ear to hide behind two nearby barrels of gunpowder. I ignored my instinct to protest and buried myself in a stack of hay behind the barrels. I peeped through a thin sliver of air between the two kegs.
A stout man approached, dressed in a charcoal breastplate bearing the lion's head. Several guardsmen followed in similar garb.
"Sir Lucas." My father looked up into the sky as if in supplication. "I thought we settled this argument earlier in the king's chamber."
Lucas laughed. "You're a fool, as was the king." He withdrew a sword.
"He shouldn't have trusted you." Lucas spat. "You've brought nothing but shame to our kingdom through your lies and promises. You've animated the foolish with tales of something greater, and in so doing have fostered ingratitude to God for what He has given us."
"I've seen God. He's behind the veil, Lucas. And I serve Him."
"If that were true, why has God sent me to stop you?" Lucas didn't wait for a reply; he rammed his sword through Cap's midsection. "Ask the king if it was worth it when you see him."
Cap tried to speak, but only a gurgle left his mouth. Lucas withdrew the sword and Cap fell on his face, dead.
I wanted to scream. I wished for a rifle, a pistol, a sword, anything. I wanted to fight, but I stayed hidden, sobbing quietly. Lucas' men engaged the crewmembers unprepared for battle. Cap would have been proud of his men who fought with great courage in the face of imminent death, using whatever weapons or tools were at their disposal, but an oar or length of chain was no match against armored men with swords and muskets. The fight lasted only a few minutes and ended with the entire crew dead.
Lucas and his guards reassembled and started to depart.
With the increasing moonlight, I spotted a musket leaning against the wheel. I crept for it when Lucas turned my way. Perhaps he had heard me. Fear gnawed at my chest like a lion ravaging its prey. I didn't breathe. I didn't dare. Lucas turned and spat on Cap, then directed his guards to leave. He following behind.
I hurried to the musket, took it, and pointed it at Lucas in the distance. I squeezed the trigger. Nothing happened. The rifle had already been discharged and I hadn't the time to reload. I tossed the rifle to the deck and started to cry.
By the sound of things, the king could be numbered amongst those who'd lost their lives for this failure of an expedition. With the king gone, Lucas would be in charge of the kingdom. If I wanted to live, I had to head out to sea, but with the greater tide out, the ship would run aground in the harbor. I'd have to wait until just before dawn to make way.
And what then? I wouldn't last a fortnight at sea and surely Lucas would pursue me once he discovered the ship's disappearance. I could fire a cannon but couldn't possibly outrun The Lion's Mouth.
Why had Lucas been so hell-bent on keeping Cap from going to the veil? Cap wasn't hurting anyone or anything. His endeavor, though crazy, would have no effect on the kingdom. So why fight it?
I heard footsteps on the dock. A tall, slender man approached, so I hid myself.
The man knelt by Cap's body and turned him onto his back, crying softly. "I failed you, my friend. I'm sorry."
It was Andrew.
"Where were you?" I asked, coming out of hiding.
Andrew turned, drawing a six-inch blade.
"Edith," he said, dropping the knife and wrapping his muscular arms around me. "I'm so glad you're all right. What happened? Where are the rest of the men?"
Under ordinary circumstances I would have pushed Andrew away but after seeing my father killed along with his men, I welcomed a friendly embrace. "It was Lucas. He and his guards killed everyone except me."
"I'm sorry I wasn't here for them." He released me and looked into my eyes. "For you."
I couldn't recall ever hearing Andrew apologize for anything before this evening.
"Where were you?" I asked again.
"Did your father tell you about the horn?" Andrew said, pointedly not answering my question.
"I saw it. So what?"
"Re'em the unicorn gave it to us." Andrew paused, seemingly lost in thought. I waited for him to continue. "Cap told him of our plight. Re'em said that..."
I cut him off. "Unicorns talk?"
"Of course. He said there was only one way to pass through the veil and that he would help us if we so desired. We begged for his aid. He dipped his head and asked me to take his horn and use it to pierce the veil. I pulled..." Andrew gulped hard. "It came off so easily. I swear I didn't know what would happen."
Moisture formed in Andrew's eyes.
"What?" I asked.
"Re'em fell to the ground. Blood spurted from his crown... there was so much blood. I tried to reattach the horn. I tried to help. He seemed to be in tremendous pain, and I the cause. I could do nothing but cry. After about an hour of agony, the unicorn drew its last breath and passed."
I had never seen Andrew so moved about anything other than himself. I wanted to hug him, as he had me, but I resisted.
"Do you think the horn will really pass through the veil?" I asked.
"I have faith it will work," Andrew said. "Re'em told us that his horn would guide us through the veil, but to pass we needed to have faith. He also said that no one can go alone. We can only pass through if we go with those we love and who love us because we'd need to help each other out."
"You're making that up."
"No, I promise. That's why I thought I had failed Re'em, seeing your father dead."
"What's on the other side? A garden?" I asked.
"Maybe. That's what Cap thought."
"But what if it's something else, like a world of serpents that try to poison you? What if it's a world of hatred and misery?"
"Have hope, Edith. Your father had hope. He, Re'em, the king, our shipmates, they've all given their lives for you and me to have this opportunity."
"So the king is dead?" I said.
"That's why I was late. I passed by the cave where we buried Re'em's body. It was gone. Besides Cap and I, the king was the only other to know. I went to confront him but found his majesty lying dead in his chamber."
We spoke for several hours more before the smaller tide came in. In the light of both moons, we unloaded the ship of all but a week's worth of supplies, further sealing our fate if we failed.
I remembered the canvas flag and retrieved it from under Cap's coat. It was no longer off-white but crimson red, having been saturated with blood. On it was sketched a unicorn poised on its hindquarters, its front legs kicking into the air.
"Shall we hoist the colors, Captain?" Andrew asked.
"With Cap dead, it's your ship now, though I'd like to stay on as your first mate if you don't mind." Andrew smiled.
I chuckled. "I suppose that'd be all right."
We ran up the new flag, then wrapped Cap's body in the old one. It took awhile but we gathered the rest of the men too. Once we were safely out at sea, we'd hold a proper burial.
The ship needed a name. I thought for a moment, staring at the new flag. "Eden's Gate doesn't work with the new colors or figurehead. Let's call her The Red Unicorn."
"The Red Unicorn. I like it."
Just before dawn, we raised the mainsail and jib and made our way through the harbor, out to open sea.
With Andrew at the wheel, I rested in a rocking hammock below deck, reflecting on our conversation earlier. I wanted for Cap to be right. Though I had never met Re'em, I had seen his horn. I wanted to believe it would let us pass to the other side - and I hoped that when we did, it would be worth the sacrifices made.
When I emerged, the sun was close to setting. The sails, tethered to the main and foremast were full of wind, causing the ship to lean slightly to one side as it glided over the water.
I filled my lungs with the cool salty air.
"Good evening," Andrew said, waving from behind the wheel. He wore a pair of overalls without a shirt. His arms were bronzed and toned.
"It looks as though you've let me sleep the day away."
"I'd rather sail during the day than at night." Andrew tied a lanyard around the wheel so it wouldn't sway. "Shall we bury Cap now?"
We each grabbed one end of the body, wrapped in the ship's old colors, and respectfully lowered him overboard. We repeated the procedure for the rest of the crew.
"You should say something," Andrew said.
"A psalm maybe?" I withdrew a small book containing versus of scripture from the prayers of old ship captains and read aloud, "Death is not the end of old things but the beginning of new things." I closed the book and cleared my throat. "Cap tried until his dying breath to leave this world, and now he is afforded the opportunity. May he sail ever on in peace under God's wind. Amen."
"Amen," Andrew said.
We spoke of Cap as the sun settled below the horizon. When Andrew was visibly tired, he took his leave and I returned to the helm.
I grabbed hold of the spokes, feeling the resistance. The ship wanted to turn to starboard, away from the wind. I held firm as if telling the vessel I knew better. If we turned starboard, the sails would loosen and we'd slow. Cap had taught me that sailing was a sort of partnership. The wind's pressure that kept us moving; a wise captain steered into it, enabling his ship to travel swiftly in the right direction.
The waves were amiable, soldiers of God's wind. They went as instructed, bearing our vessel, sustaining our flight.
For several days we continued with the routine, Andrew sailing by day and I by night. Perhaps I didn't know him as well as I thought, or possibly he had changed. Whatever the reason, Andrew filled my thoughts at night when I was at the helm. I looked forward to our time together, several hours each morning and a few more in the evening. I enjoyed our talks and he made me laugh.
Andrew shook me awake. The dawn air was cool and crisp and the wind blew hard and constant.
He pointed at a dark object in the distance, a ship. He handed me the looking glass. On the bow of the vessel was a lion's face, its mouth open wide. Lucas had found us.
"How far till the veil?" I asked.
"Another hour or so, but Lucas will be on us before then."
"Best adjust the sails then," I directed. "Make sure we're at full speed. I'll take the swivels."
Bracketed to the rail at the stern were two swivel cannons. We had loaded them the day prior, but I checked the wicks to make sure they were still dry.
The Lion's Mouth grew closer. A crack sounded in the distance, followed by a splash twenty yards away.
I responded by lighting a fuse and tilting the cannon at a forty-five-degree angle. The blast was near deafening.
My shot fell short off the frigate's port side. I had forgot to adjust for the wind. With the second swivel, I aimed to starboard, dropping my angle. I didn't see a corresponding splash, and upon further inspection found that my ball had hit the lion's mane, knocking off a large piece. Hopefully it would be enough for the frigate to take on water.
I loaded the cannon again, adding first the powder and then the ball. I packed it with a stick, inserted another wick, and lit it, repeating my last aim.
Instead of a pop, the cannon hissed like a serpent. The ball rolled out of the cannon and plopped into the water. I had forgotten the hay. I imagined Lucas and his men laughing at my failure. The thought of Andrew seeing my error was worse. I stole a glance over my shoulder.
He shot me a smile. He had noticed.
Three distinct pops sounded in the distance. I ducked, knowing full well Lucas was in range. The first cannonball slammed into the deck, splintering wood before it bounced over into the water. The second landed just off our starboard hull, and the third smashed into the swivel cannon next to me. The ball bent the cannon's tip, rendering it useless.
I repeated the arming procedure on the remaining swivel, this time adding a wad of straw after the powder. I held the cannonball in my hand and offered a prayer before loading it and packing it tight. "Save me from the lion's mouth: for thou hast heard me from the horns of the unicorns."
I placed a wick and aimed.
Lucas stood at the frigate's bow behind three men reloading their own cannons. I settled my aim on Lucas and lit the wick, but I quickly redirected when I spotted a man pulling black powder from a barrel. My ball hit its mark, smashing into the keg of gunpowder. The frigate's bow erupted in an explosion, tossing two men overboard. Lucas retreated, directing his helmsman to turn starboard. They intended to pulverize us with their broadside cannons.
I raced to Andrew and took the wheel while he hurried up the mainmast.
The sea stretched out from us, reflecting the light blue sky, but where the sky continued the ocean stopped. Instead the waves turned downward cascading over the edge into what appeared to be a dark abyss. We had reached the veil.
"Point the nose right at it," Andrew shouted. He tightened lanyards on the topsail, trying to gain greater speed.
I turned to port. In roughly five minutes, we would find out if the unicorn horn was worth the price.
Andrew crawled down and retook the wheel.
The Lion's Mouth had lost a little distance in their maneuver to starboard. I relaxed, breathing deep.
My moment was cut short when all twenty-eight guns blasted from the frigate's hull. Most of the balls hit The Red Unicorn low in the stern. Several others missed to either side.
"The wind has changed because of the veil," Andrew said. "Take the wheel."
I did as instructed and Andrew messed with the rigging of the jib. As he lowered it to its boom, The Red Unicorn rocked toward the veil, slower and steadier now.
Andrew relieved me and I climbed out onto the bowsprit to get a better look at this veil I had heard so much about. Water cascaded over the edge of the world. At first there was only darkness beyond the edge, an abyss, but as we glided closer I saw stars strung together into galaxies. Worlds flashed before my eyes as well as multitudes of people, countless races, and infinite spans of creations and wonders. For the first time I knew what Cap had felt and why he'd wanted so badly to pass through. God was here, showing me His masterpieces. From a single flower, designed to grow and give new life, to a man who had the free will to take life away, I saw everything. I saw God.
My gaze settled on a garden far in the distance. As I thought on it, the paradise drew nearer. I wondered if it was the garden Cap had told me about. Lush green plants and blooming flowers spread across an orchard of mature trees.
I snapped out of my vision, nearly knocked off the bowsprit as The Lion's Mouth rammed our stern. The unicorn's horn swung with the rest of the bowsprit, just missing the veil as the ship turned to port. Andrew fought with the wheel, trying to redirect us, but we had become sandwiched between the frigate and the veil.
"Get the horn!" Andrew pointed at the bowsprit. He disappeared below deck.
I hurried out to the tip of the bowsprit and loosened the sinew. Gripping the horn tight, I scooted back to the deck.
"It ends here," Lucas said. He had boarded the schooner and aimed his musket at me. He fired before I could protest, grazing my shoulder and knocking me to the deck. The horn rolled across the floor and came to rest at Lucas' feet.
Three blasts sounded and our ship shook from Andrew firing the broadside cannons, hopefully damaging the frigate's hull enough to sink her.
My belly was damp. I thought it was blood, but it also felt cold. The sea had overcome one of the schooner's hulls and quickly covered the deck - we were sinking. My thoughts turned to Andrew in the ship's hold, surely full of water.
I fought the pain and struggled to remain conscious.
Andrew emerged from below, sopping wet, and tackled Lucas. Lucas threw Andrew to the water covered deck and sunk the rifle's blade into Andrew's side, pinning him down. Andrew struggled for a moment, seemingly in pain before falling unconscious.
Lucas returned his attention to me, picking up the horn and laughing. "You fool! You're just as ignorant as your father, and soon you'll be just as dead."
"Why do you care if we go through the veil?" I yelled back.
"If God wanted us to go somewhere else, He would have put us there instead of here. Why do you want to disturb the way of things? The way of God?"
Lucas was afraid of change. Yet change had come all the same.
I pondered his words. Did God want us to stay in this world? No. In the past week, I had felt a subtle confirmation that God was sustaining our voyage and encouraging us to pass through the veil. So had God intended for Cap to die? Or had it been a result of free will? I felt the same subtle confirmation burn within me. Passing through the veil was our choice and God's will. We had formed a partnership, Him sustaining our righteous efforts.
I rose to my feet with new vigor and determination and charged at Lucas, hitting him in the chest with my wounded shoulder. He tripped over Andrew and dropped the horn. Pain shot down my arm as I tripped over him, but I didn't dare stop. I splashed through the water to the horn and picked it up.
Lucas rose and drew his sword, the very blade that had killed my father. He lunged at me and I dodged. I swung the horn back at him, meeting his blade that shattered into bits.
Lucas froze, his face white with fear.
I felt the power of the horn in my hand and knew that I could use it to end Lucas. But the action seemed unholy; it would desecrate Re'em's sacrifice. I gripped the narrower end and swung the butt of the horn, hitting Lucas in the head. He fell to the deck with a splash, unconscious.
I hurried to Andrew, who had disappeared below the blood-filled water. After removing the musket, I sat him up and slapped his back until he coughed up water.
"Let's go," I pleaded.
With Andrew's arm around my shoulder and mine around his waist, we hobbled to the edge of the ship. I thought of what Re'em had told Andrew. I had faith that the horn would work it. And I had grown to love Andrew. I sensed he felt the same.
I extended the horn and we stepped off the boat - and through the veil.
The horn transformed in my grip, extending and then growing a mane. It took the shape of a steed's head. From its base it sprouted fore and hindquarters and a tail. We sat atop a magnificent red unicorn - Re'em.
I awoke in a pile of leaves, a gentle breeze tickling my naked body. Next to me slept a man, also naked, with a scar across his ribs. I touched it and he stirred.
"Do I know you?" he asked.
I wasn't sure. I wasn't certain of anything. My mind chased memories that vanished before I could bring them to the forefront.
"I'm..." I started to answer, but didn't know how to finish.
"You don't know your name?"
I shook my head. "What's yours?"
"I don't remember."
"Well, names are very important," I said. "What should I call you?"
"Adam." He smiled.
"I like that. And you can call me Eve."