Gift of the Master

By Robert Fluegel All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Adventure

Passage

We reached the shores of Inachus the next morning and it wasn’t what I expected. The surface of the water was perfectly calm. Even the temperature changed from hot and sticky to nice and comfortable. I could feel a strong breeze blowing my hair but there wasn’t so much as a ripple on the surface.

Aoki and Unbar went off scouting while Mardel and I waited.

“Where do we go from here?” I asked, as we sat on our horses, staring at the strange water.

“Wineska,” Mardel pointed to the north. “It is a small harbor town where we might find passage on the sea. It won’t be easy. Very few ships will venture out on these waters. They are sacred to worshippers of Inachus… perhaps to Inachus himself. They come to the water’s edge the day of New Year to worship and make sacrifice. The first fruits of their fields and animals are given up to the goddess for another year of plenty.”

Unbar’s appearance in the distance ended our conversation. “No luck, nobody will even swim in the sea let alone stick a boat in.” He said shaking his head. “They say it is sacrilege.”

“Perhaps Aoki has been successful. Here she comes,” said Mardel, watching to the north.

“No luck,” she said without any further explanation.

We decided our best bet was to head up the beach towards the city of Wineska. The ride was enjoyable. The terrain at times slowed the trip which gave me more time to enjoy the scenery. There were stretches of beach with the whitest sand I had ever seen and stretches with no beach with high banks dropping off straight into the water below. These were a little more treacherous and had to be navigated with care. The ground was soft, the trail narrow, forcing us closer to the edge.

I loosed the reins, letting my horse pick its own way along the narrow trail. The land bordering the sea was mostly wooded with a type of unfamiliar tree. They were the tallest trees I had ever seen. The trunks were as big as eight Unbars at the base, the top growth creating a canopy blocking out sun and rain. There was little undergrowth so I could see for some distance into the trees.

I had always disliked the stretches in books where adventurers moved from one place to another and nothing happened. I often wished the author would skip those parts and just continue with the action but if I had my wish I would have missed the most enjoyable part of the journey so far. I found myself wishing the story had lingered in the “boring” parts a little longer so I didn’t have to rush away to the action so quickly.

It was mid-afternoon when we finally reached the small harbor village of Wineska. Wagons were coming and going, all loaded down with goods of different varieties.

We entered the village in a line of wagons of every height and length, waiting for those ahead to clear before working their way forward. Of all the things I thought I would see inside a book, a traffic jam was surely the last! By the time we reached the city center, we were worn out from the long day, waiting for merchants to clear the road ahead. Unbar suggested we find an inn and look for a ship the next day.

We sat quietly eating a meal of fried potatoes and spicy sausages, listening to the conversations around us. A group of loud, finely dressed merchants sat around a table next to us.

A short man as wide as he was tall did most of the talking. Something he said got our immediate attention. “Rumor has it an army has left Jurulus, heading this way.”

“Nay, Hilgis. You believe every rumor you hear! Next you will be presenting doom prophecies to us as fact. Tain’t anyone heard of any army coming from Jurulus or anywhere else,” scoffed a tall stranger sitting with his back to us.

“Believe what you will Natanial, but war is coming, and that is bad for business,” The rotund man replied.

We looked at each other, meaning without words passing between us. We knew a reason why an army would be sent this way.

“We need to find a boat first thing tomorrow morning and leave this city as quick as possible,” I voiced the thought we all shared.

The next morning, after a wonderful night sleeping on a bed again for the first time in weeks, we packed our horses and walked down to the docks. Three small ships were docked, two unloading cargo through a system of pulleys fastened to nets surrounding boxes of goods. The third and largest was in the process of loading cargo into its hold through the same type of pulleys. It had a large rose painted on the bow.

I thought about asking Unbar to negotiate passage for us but when I saw the ashen look on the warrior’s face, I decided against it. Unbar had been acting strange ever since we reached the shores of Inachus. He had not said more than a few words on the journey to Wineska. His usual jovial nature was replaced by a quiet, detached gloominess.

“Aoki, could you see if they have room for passengers?” I decided a ship full of sailors might respond better to Aoki anyway.

She climbed a long wooden ramp onto the ship’s deck and was gone from sight for some time. When she returned she was followed by a man with dark skin, white baggy trousers and no shirt. The whites of his eyes and his teeth stood out in stark contrast to his dark features.

“So these are the famous Travelers, they-who-are-known-throughout-the-lands.” The dark man spoke with a thick accent, slurring his words.

“Findle has agreed to offer us passage on the “Rose” but we will have to sleep on deck and it will cost us most of our remaining gold.” Aoki nimbly jumped from the ramp to the ground and began to unpack Grinny, her stallion.

“What about our horses?”asked Unbar, perking up for the first time all day. “They can’t go on the ship. Perhaps I should stay here with them and you can meet me back here when you are done.”

The entire group looked at the warrior with such shock that he immediately added, “It was only a suggestion.”

“Your horses will be just fine on the deck he-who-is-afraid-of-the-water,” said Findle, walking up the long ramp from the ship.

“I’m not afraid of anything,” Unbar yelled but I could see it. Findle was right. Unbar clearly did not want to go out on that ship. Trying to hold back a smile I could see that Aoki and Mardel were trying with varying degrees of success to do the same which only lowered my resolve. A bit of a laugh escaped me. I hoped no one heard me but then Aoki laughed a little too and was joined by Mardel and then we were all laughing—all except poor Unbar, who didn’t think it was funny at all. Not wanting to lose any more pride, he put on his best battle face and with a snarl walked his black stallion up the ramp first.

I was impressed with the man’s courage. He had to be scared to death and had gone on anyway. When we reached the deck and found a place to tie off our horses we were shown to a spot on deck that would be our sleeping area.

Findle scrambled around the deck, overseeing every job. He returned once we were settled. “You must remove your armor, man-who-was-white-who-is-now-green.”

I looked and sure enough, Unbar had a slight greenish hue to him. I took a few casual steps away from the big man just in case, but Unbar was able to keep his breakfast down for the time being.

“Why do I have to take my armor off?” Unbar asked, clearly annoyed with Findle’s astute observations of his condition.

“Because if you fell over the side in armor you would sink like a rock, he-who-has-muscles-in-his-arms-and-his-head.”

I couldn’t help it; I let out another laugh. The strange captain clearly didn’t mind antagonizing a man twice his size. Unbar didn’t look in any condition to intimidate anyone at the moment though. He just scowled at the man and went about removing his armor after which he plopped himself down on the deck.

Findle turned his attention to Aoki and his visage changed. “You will have my cabin. If there is anything you require, anyone on board will be happy to serve you she-who-shines-like-a-green-emerald-in-an-evening-sky.”

“Thank you,” said Aoki graciously, “but I am used to the night air and being with my fellow Travelers. I don’t require special arrangements.”

Findle seemed shocked.

“You must also remove your armor, she-who-must-not-sink-or-the-world-would-be-less-lovely.”

Aoki smiled, “My armor is very special. It was made by druids and is stronger than any armor made of metal but is light enough that I can swim quite comfortably in it. I will be just fine in my armor, he-who-worries-for-no-reason.”

He did not understand that she was having a little fun at his expense. Her comments seemed to cause him to worship her more. Aoki could only sigh at Findle’s adoration of her.

When the ship was loaded, the Rose set out to sea but not the way I expected. A smaller ship in the harbor attached a tow line and men on board that smaller craft were able to pull the much larger vessel out of its mooring into the open water. Once clear, long oars on each side of the ship slipped out and I heard a very loud, deep voice below us begin a chant. The men at the oars followed perfectly in unison. Findle stood alongside Aoki watching the oarsmen do their job as the ship began to move first slowly, then at an ever increasing speed. As much as I had wanted to see a sailing ship I was mesmerized by the oars working in perfect harmony, pulling the ship through the water. Findle was not as impressed.

“Bah, look at port side twenty-one, he is the new guy and always out of rhythm. He will learn quickly or be back swabbing decks I tell you, man-who-is-moved-by-the-sea.”

Findle was already walking away. The man had a strange way of speaking but he was able to read people better than just about anyone I knew. Findle moved along the deck and was finally lost to sight when he descended below. I heard two men’s loud voices from below, the coxswain calling out the strokes and Findle yelling at the oarsman number twenty-one. Findle emerged a short time later.

“You have sails. Why don’t you use them?” asked Mardel when Findle returned.

“The Sea of Inachus is always calm, no wind on its surface to propel a vessel except on that rare occasion when the goddess is angry. Then the wind blows a gale. Inachus is the great mediator, she-who-rules-the-middle, she-who-is-in-the-middle, she-who-is-the-middle.”

“Don’t your rowers get tired after a while?” I asked.

“That is why we have two crews of rowers and even a third if we are desperate. They don’t have to row the entire trip. Sea Inachus has powerful surface currents so we row mostly to those currents and then ride along until we must leave them. Then we row out through calm waters to the next set of currents until reaching our destinations on the western shore. Those who worship the God hate the village we have just left and hate the village we are heading to. They hate us even more for desecrating their sacred body of water. They say the currents are their God’s tears being shed for the sins they have committed. So they believe we travel on the power of their sins.”

“What do you believe?” I asked, intrigued.

“I can only say that I do nothing to disrespect the sea. I dump nothing in it. I don’t bother Inachus and so far, she doesn’t bother me, man-of-a-thousand-questions.”

I looked out at the peaceful sea and behind us at the village and the shore growing smaller by the moment, listening to the cadence of the coxswain, taking us farther from shore and closer to our next adventure.

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