This story is by Kyle Lockhaven and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
The enemy captured me before I could get vital information back to my people. The worst part was that the information I had obtained all but guaranteed us victory.
Don’t panic, I reminded myself.
I was searching for any possibility of escape from my cell when I overheard a conversation between two of my guards down a dark hallway.
“This guy is gonna have the ride of his life tomorrow,” the older, gruffer one said.
“What do you mean?” a younger guard asked.
“He’s been sentenced to ‘Death By Catapult’.”
“We’re going to launch him over the castle walls and into Espejo Bay.”
My chest felt tight, my heart racing inside of it. I closed my eyes, took in a deep breath through my nose, and let it out through my mouth.
“That’ll be entertaining,” the young one said. “But wouldn’t it be easier to just do a normal execution?”
“Well, their mighty fleet of old fishing boats is on its way to attack the castle,” the gruff guard said with a chuckle. “And our king figures that the sight of one of their own flying through the air to certain death will sow fear into their feeble hearts. We’re even going to attach one of their own flags to him. It will be quite a sight!”
“Maybe he’ll hit one of their ships.”
“I think that would be an added bonus. Imagine that. Sinking a ship with a human projectile. Ha!”
Before his death last year at the hands of my captors, my father had taught me a lot. Most important, according to him, was to always try and stay present. The meaning was twofold. First, it meant to take life as it came. Don’t dwell in the past or worry about the future. Live in the moment. The second was meant for use in situations like this. “Don’t panic” was his mantra. Panicking made survival nearly impossible. Any task could be accomplished, any enemy beaten, if enough thought and resolve were used. My father had been a warrior before I was born, before he settled down to the life of a family man/fisherman near the Cliffs of Sabiduría.
I searched around the cell again for any means of escape. I found none. I did find a rock with a sharp edge that came to point. It gave me an idea about tomorrow. I put it in an inside pocket that was stitched into my shirt.
There was no chance of sleep that night. Instead, I paced my cell and thought. By daybreak, I had a plan.
The guards unlocked my cell and seized me from either side. The thought occurred to me to break free and run, but they had brought backup. Two more guards walked in front of us and two more behind.
As we exited the dungeon I had to close my eyes and face downward. The morning sun was a blinding contrast to my gloomy cell. When my eyes adjusted, I looked up to see the apparatus that was to kill me. It was much bigger than I had imagined.
A tall, frail man approached me holding a shirt. With the help of the guards, he put the shirt on over the one I was wearing. It had the flag of my people sewn vertically to the back of it.
They marched me up a makeshift wooden staircase and threw me in the catapult’s bucket. The staircase was rolled away.
It was deep. It reminded me of the time I had fallen into a hole as a small child. I had panicked then. But once the fear had subsided I was able to think it out and crawl out with a foot and hand on each side of the hole’s walls.
I took off the shirt they had put on me, took the sharp rock from my pocket, and began to cut the stitching that connected the flag. It didn’t take long.
I felt movement as the bucket was being pulled towards the ground. The launch was imminent.
I poked holes into all four corners of the flag. I put my arms through the top two and my legs thought the bottom two.
I plastered myself to the bottom of the bucket and said a prayer.
I heard the order given to launch. The rope was cut.
My stomach felt as if it was ripped from my body. I couldn’t breath. My field of vision became extremely narrow. Everything in my periphery was a blur. Air roared in my ears. I nearly passed out.
Time seemed to slow way down. After the shock of the initial acceleration, there was a split second when I actually appreciated the view, as crazy as that sounds. I couldn’t help but notice what a beautiful morning it was. The sunlight sparkled off of the water. The calm, clear bay reflected every ship in our fleet like they had perfect, underwater twins.
The flag that was meant to be a kind of parachute and slow my descent was immediately ripped from my limbs.
That was a bad idea, I thought.
Don’t panic. Plan B.
Another of the things my father had taught me about was cliff diving. It was the past time in our village when we were nothing more than a peaceful fishing community. There were competitions held every summer. The cliffs had several different jump points, with varying heights. On the tallest point you couldn’t dive head first. The highest part of the Cliffs of Sabiduría was about 200 feet high.
I was probably higher than that at this point, but not by much. I figured that maybe the angle in which I was about to hit the water could help me. I could only hope. There wasn’t much of an option now. At least I was heading towards water and not one of our boats.
I pointed my feet in the direction I was flying. I crossed my legs and flexed them tight together. My right hand covered my mouth and nose while my left hand held my right arm in place. I took in a deep breath just before impact.
It felt as if I had smashed into the castle wall. I nearly lost consciousness again. My right leg exploded in pain.
I looked up. The surface seemed far away.
I kept the air in my lungs and tried to swim towards more. I quickly found that my right leg was worthless. The pain was excruciating. I wanted to scream, but I somehow kept the precious air inside. I kicked with my left leg and took frantic butterfly strokes upward. My lungs screamed for me to exhale, but I had been taught to keep the air in until close to surfacing.
My vision began to darken. I could see the bottom of a fishing vessel above me. Something had been thrown out of it, into the water. I could see the sun wavering in the sky like a mirage. The boat slowly disappeared. Then all I could see was a pinpoint of bright light. It looked like a star.
I was treading water under the white cliffs of my village. Stars formed a fantastic band across the night sky. Torches had been lit and placed from the water’s surface, all the way up the cliff face. I looked up just in time to see my father jumping from the top. He came down in a straight, graceful line and made almost no splash. In a moment, he resurfaced with a smile.
Warmth spread from my chest out to my fingertips.
“Hello, son,” he said.
It felt surreal.
“I’m so proud of you,” he said. “You did what you had to do.”
“But, I failed.”
“There are no failures, only opportunities for knowledge.”
He swam closer to me. “I have one final lesson for you,” he said. “Don’t let this experience, or any other, leave you bitter. This world can be terrible, and beautiful. Fight against the terrible when necessary, but focus on the beauty at all times. Live with love in your heart, son. Love is much more important than anything I could teach you about war.” A broader smile than I’d ever seen on him crossed his entire face. His eyes reflected peace. It seemed as if a burden had been lifted.
“That sounds good,” I said. “But this isn’t real. I died.”
He put his hand on my chest. “I love you.”
Salt water shot up from my mouth. I choked on it and gasped for air. The sun shone bright in the cloudless, blue sky.
I was surrounded by people I recognized. People from my village.
My chest was on fire. My leg throbbed. But I was alive.
“Welcome aboard, son,” the captain, and friend of my father, said. “I’ve never seen anything like that in all my days! You’re as tough as they come. I’d say you’re even tougher than your old man.” He cleared his throat. “It’s great to see you. We thought you’d been captured and killed for sure.”
Someone was tying a board to my broken leg. Another person gave me something to drink. It burned my throat.
“Turn starboard,” I said between coughs.
“What’s that?” the captain said.
“Turn starboard. The entire fleet. Get everyone to turn starboard. Now.”
“I found out that a full scale peasant uprising inside the castle is imminent,” I said, two to three words at a time. “We are to land north of the castle. We will be let in the north gate and joined by their forces.”
A boulder smashed through the mast of the ship, sending splinters of wood raining down on top of us.
The captain jumped over me to shield me from falling debris. “Are you absolutely sure?”
“Yes, sir.” I said.
“Send the signal to turn to starboard immediately,” he yelled out to his crew.
I heard the deep rumble of a drum. A coded signal to the fleet.
I lifted my head up to see as the ships around us followed the command. Our ship was dead in the water, but I saw the crew readying the rowboat for deployment.
Four people carefully picked me up and brought me to the rowboat. One of them was a close friend of mine. “Hey, buddy,” he said.
“Hi,” I said through clenched teeth. Moving sent bolts of agony through my leg.
I lay in the bottom of that boat, staring at the clear, blue sky and contemplating my luck. I was thankful that I was able to pass on the information I had acquired. My contact on the inside had risked so much.
Once we made landfall, my friend helped prop me up.
I watched as our improvised army marched toward the north gate. I smiled with relief as the gate opened as planned and the
insurgent army joined them.
As I sat there in the rowboat, watching the battle unfold, I reflected on the near-death experience I had just gone through.
In everything my father taught me, I always thought that there was a little more he wanted to say. I felt that there was something else, under the surface, that he longed to let out. He was tough, traditional, and teaching me how to become a man. I had often wondered, what else does he want to say to me? Why is it so hard for him to say it out loud? Is it advise about being a warrior? Or something else?
Now I thought I might know.