Black Iron's Glory - Chapter 120





Claude didn't sleep a wink that following night. He spent half the night on the mast in two three-hour shifts, and the other half tossing and turning below decks, unable to close his eyes. His first shift below decks he couldn't sleep for worry. By the time of his second shift below decks he was tired enough to fall asleep, but the wind had picked up and the waves were rocking the ship violently. The small galliot was built and furnished for calm-water sailing. It had no hammocks for its crew, only several simple wooden beds, and the hull and deck boards creaked, croaked, and moaned violently under the strain of the open ocean waves. If Claude could sleep through one, he could not sleep through them both.

The portion of the crew off shift with him had little trouble falling asleep, however, though Claude doubted it was a comfortable rest. Makro had manned the wheel personally until two that night before handing the ship over to Krin and turning in for the remainder of the night.

Claude could not imagine how the captain could even stay on his bed, much less sleep, in this weather, but when he checked he saw the captain had had one of the men tie him to his bed and he was snoring contently. Claude managed to achieve the same result as his tie-in was concerned, but the violent rocking deprived him of any and all respite.

Welikro chirped in every now again to let whoever was at the wheel know it was clear ahead, the waves rammed the half-frozen hull incessantly, and the ship creaked an moaned with a voice of her own.

Claude found himself lamenting the poor state of his new world's technology and understanding of the world, but there was little he could do.

Krin and Ankess were on duty. Krin was a little older than Ankess, in is mid-thirties, and had worked as a sailor for more than seven years. Ankess was a quiet man. He had no choice but to become a sailor. He had few other prospects given his family's poverty. He had been a sailor for just two years and was barely more than a greenhorn.

Krin stood relaxedly behind the wheel, just one hand on it, but one ear strained constantly for any warnings from the crow's nest.

Ankess kept himself busy at the bow and checked the black void ahead every couple of seconds for any sign of obstacles. Nighttime sailing was incredibly dangerous anywhere but the middle of the ocean and was generally done only under dire circumstances.

Claude emerged from his cabin, half heaving on his earlier dinner, cheeks somewhat green, and stumbled along the deck to the helm. Krin smiled at him.

"Not asleep? Those two snoring too much?" he asked.

Krin was more talkative than he'd been so far on the trip. Helm duty could be very boring, and an ear to which to yap was welcome.

"Yeah, the snoring's bad. You'd swear they were each dragging a boat behind them."

"Haha, that's actually a pretty good way of putting it! That's why they usually have the nightshift. I always make sure I'm below when they're up top and up top when they're below. Can't get any sleep otherwise. But when you're tired enough, you can sleep through anything, even that."

The two chatted boring nothings for half an hour.

"Hold the wheel for a moment, will you? I need to light a smoke."

Claude obliged and Krin took out a large, roughly carved, pipe. It had much the same texture as a ship's hull, which Claude decided was hardly surprising. Krin dragged out a wad of tobacco and stuffed the cup. He struck a fire starter, held it over the cup, and puffed. Several unhappy puffs later the first smoke barked out between his lips. He inhaled deeply with his next draw, and more sighed the smoke out through his nose.

"Ah, that's the spot..." Krin smiled, tying the small bag with his tobacco again, "Nubissia really does have the best tobacco. Every self-respecting sailor smokes it. Only newbies and the uncultured smoke anything else. It burns the cold and weariness out of you like nothing else, and I've heard it can even help treat a couple ailments."

Claude frowned at the smoke's spicy offence, but didn't say anything. He could handle his father's tobacco much better. He still didn't like it, but at least his father's had a rich, almost creamy aroma, rather than this smell of burnt Indian curry.

"Want a puff?" Krin offered unwillingly.

Claude shook his head.

"Why don't you wrap the tobacco in paper like a small sausage and smoke it that way? You won't need a pipe that way," Claude asked.

"I suppose a pauper might do that. But no cultured smoker would be caught dead with such a thing. The pipe is half the taste, you know. It changes the longer you smoke it, and each pipe's flavour varies depending on what it burned before. Tobacco is expensive even at the best of times, and Nubissian tobacco is even more so. You can't waste it on the half-flavour of a paper-stick. Besides, pipes give you a dignified air, paper-sticks just make you look poor."

Claude merely shrugged. He had little interest in debating the aesthetic virtues of pipe versus cigarette smoking. It had just been an off-hand remark, anyway. So he stopped paying attention to Krin, who was still babbling on about those very aesthetic values.

Krin had fallen in love with the pipe and the leaves when, as a greenhorn, he'd been offered, and accepted, a puff from a veteran sailor. Even now, decades later, he still dedicated half his income to the holy leaf. He'd just had to get himself a pipe immediately back then, but he'd not had much money, and so had made himself one out of a piece of deadwood to be cast away from a damaged railing. He still smoked with that pipe today.

The black slowly turned into a dark grey as the sun rose above the invisible horizon and Claude sighed with relief. The sky was still the same lifeless grey, but he was actually happy about that. If it had turned white, it would have snowed, but that lifeless grey meant they wouldn't face snow just yet. That could change at the drop of a hat, of course, but for now all seemed well.

Welikro made his shivering descent from the crow's nest, small icicles dangling from his frozen hood. He took off his half-frozen gloves and handed them to Claude.

"What's the time? How much further to Krulu?"

Claude took the gloves gratefully. Krin had given them the gloves and Ankess the hood. The three sailors were themselves grateful they had been spared crow's duty, so they weren't too stingy with their warm clothes. It was also thanks to that gratefulness that they agreed to go to Krulu Atoll before returning to dock.

"The sun is still on its way up, so it should be about five. Get some rest. Krin said we'll be there in another four or so hours, and we should see the island in one, if this is just cloud cover and not mist," Claude replied, fixing the cap.

Captains still relied on constellation charts and north-needles to navigate, coupled with extensive sea charts, all of which were still much the same as they'd been at the time of the war. If at all possible, however, the captains preferred the constellations over the needle. Needles were notoriously finicky and inaccurate. It was still infinitely better than nothing at all, but it was generally relegated to backup duty for cloudy nights. North-needles worked quite well on earth, with its stable and orderly magnetic fields, but this world was much younger and had far more chaotic magma flows which screwed with the magnetic fields, making 'magnetic north' a very fluid concept.

Claude was in the nest for about an hour when he spotted the atoll. The mist had cleared, but the clouds were still the same lifeless grey and darkening. He was on his way down when Makro stepped out onto the deck with a lazy yawn.

The two boys had a sandwich each and a cup of tea. Makro had tea as well, though he only rarely sipped from the cup. Mostly it just sat on the railing beside him, clasped in his hand, as he stared at the steadily growing blotch of black on the grey ocean that was Krulu Atoll.

"I've been here many times," Makro said to no one in particular when Claude walked by, "If not for the frequent storms, I would really like to start a tavern here. Ships stop here all the time. I can't think of a better retirement than running a little inn where I can drink ale all day and listen to all the sailors' tales."

Claude glanced at him, but said nothing. He was not a seaman; he knew next to nothing about sailing and things related to it. He knew even less what to say to this particular captain. He did not think he and a tavern were a good match. Sailors had always been heavy drinkers, but he was a sailor's sailor when it came to drinking. So much so that more than a couple taverns had banned him, half of them for his debts, and the other half for his fights.

The captain sighed again, then turned his gaze to Claude.

"How will you search for him? Surely you aren't planning to go ashore. The best I can do is circle the island from a safe distance. The weather is too on the edge and can change too quickly. We don't have the anchor to hold in this weather. We'll be dashed on the rocks. And if we go ashore, we won't be able to get the ship away from the atoll in time it the weather starts changing. And my sailor's gut tells me it's going to change for the worse sometime today."

Claude nodded.

"Alright. Wero and I will keep watch from the crow's nest."

Makro smiled.

"I hope you're right. I want to find him, too. As for why he'd be here instead of further south, it's because the captain isn't going to the southern kingdoms at all, is he?"

Claude's eyes nearly fell out.

"Where did you hear that?"

The captain smiled, downed his tea, and turned to the helm.

Miltiny closed in on the atoll over the next three hours.

"Claude! Look! Isn't that Eyke's boat?!" Welikro shouted right next to Claude suddenly.

His shout drew everyone on the boat's attention and they followed the boy's gaze. Indeed. Not far from the shore a familiar mast pierced the water's surface.

"I don't know, I can't tell!" Claude howled, "Captain, take us there! Quick!"

Makro nodded and brought the ship around. They had just about closed the distance by half when Welikro shouted again.

"Someone's on the beach!"

He squinted for several long moments, then--

"--It's Eyke! I recognize his pants! It's the boxy green ones! It's him! He's collapsed on the beach!"

Makro brought the galliot about a hundred metres from the shore and they launched the dinghy. Welikro jumped off about ten metres from the shore itself and half-swam the rest of the way, darting for Eriksson's body.

"Eyke, Eyke!" Welikro shouted.

His steps slowed as he closed, then stopped about three metres from the other boy. Eriksson had not so much as twitched the entire time. The boy collapsed beside his friend and started crying.

Makro rushed past him and flipped the body over. He pressed his fingers to the boy's neck and felt for several long seconds.

"He's still alive! He's still breathing! It's weak, and he's ice-cold, but he's still alive!"

"What--?"

Welikro instantly forgot his tears and leapt to Eriksson, clasping his hand.

"He's ice cold but his forehead is burning up," Makro said, continuing his inspection, "He's badly cut and he's lost a lot of blood. Get him to the ship immediately! We're going home, now!"





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