Black Iron's Glory - Chapter 28

The boat Old Sunny rented them was called Arrowfish, as in the fish that sped like an arrow and was agile. There were too many such boats in Whitestag. Nobody really cared about their names. The names weren't even recorded in the town hall's property and sales registers.

The ship had three below-deck spaces. The deck's planks were actually both the roof and the hatch that lead down to them, so one had to remove the planks to gain access. All the spaces were small, but the middle one, being in the widest portion of the boat, was the largest. It had a small cot for the crew to take turns sleeping between their shifts. It was very uncomfortable in rougher waters, but there wasn't enough headroom for a hammock. The small cabin in the nose of the ship was used for storage, charcoal, firewood, and utensils were all stored there.

The rear-most space was the livewell. The entire space was filled with a metal container in which water from the lake held the caught fish. A cork stopper could be plugged out at the bottom to let water in.

Balinga was fifty kilometres at its longest and ten kilometres at its widest. One end as separated from the sea by only a small sandbank, which came and went throughout the year, and even the smallest sea swell or rainfall could breach, the other end terminated in Kemda Swamp. Balinga was less a lake than it was a lagoon in that it was basically a basin in which fresh water from the river and the swamp mixed with the saltwater of the sea spilling over the sandbank. The lake wasn't very deep either, becoming as big as it was because the terrain was very flat.

The combination of all these factors, resulted in about a third of the lake, the portion the furthest from the sandbank and closest to the swamp, being mostly pure fresh water, the third in the middle was a mix of both fresh and saltwater, progressing in a gradient from purely fresh to purely salt across it, and the third nearest the sandbank was almost pure saltwater. Whitestag stood just inside the middle third and its water was ever-so-slightly salty.

The rare situation in which the town found itself, meant it caught a unique collection of fish. For example, most of the dried longtail swordfish was given to the royal family as the town's tribute. The swordfish couldn't be transported freshly to the capital because it was so far away. The fish couldn't be kept alive for the journey, and they would rot too quickly if they weren't preserved, so they were dried and shipped like that.

"Raise the sails! Arrowfish will now depart!" Eriksson shouted seriously, holding the tiller.

Welikro undid the moorings and Claude undid the brail and let the single weatherworn square sail of the boat unfurl and catch the wind. Borkal pushed against the jetty with the punt. The boat at first did nothing, then slowly began shifting away from the side.

Borkal stood at the bow, stretched his middle finger and gave it a lick before waving it in the air.

"No wind! What's the point of the sail?!"

"Can't hurt!" Eriksson returned, "There's bound to be at least some, and it should pick up as we get further out!" he shouted from the stern.

"Don't slack off!" he shouted at Claude and Welikro, "Start rowing. We won't get there until midnight if we wait for wind!"

The two frowned at him furiously, but swung out the oars and started rowing.

It took them ten minutes and a lot of sweat and moaning to make a hundred metres from shore. A light breeze picked up and the sail bulged ever so slightly.

"Alright, you guys can stop now," Eriksson said once he felt the breeze would hold.

Welikro was the first to swing his oar back on board, though Claude wasn't far behind. Claude rubbed his shoulders as he stared thankfully at the sail.

"Damn, I was not expecting to have to row..." Claude complained.

"You're too weak. You should practice rowing more. Look at Wero, he's perfectly fine," Eriksson shot back.

"How long will we have to sail?" Borkal asked.

Eriksson looked at the sail like he knew what he was doing for a few moments before answering.

"The wind's pretty tame, so probably two or three hours."

"Why do we have to dock by the outpost? Why not just cross the lake and beach by the mountain? It won't even take an hour.” Borkal complained.

Eriksson smiled, shaking his head.

“You’re not a fisherman, or sailor for that matter. Everyone knows that part of the island shore is nothing but a swamp, there's nowhere to beach. Just check all the logs and plants there when we pass it. You'll drown the moment you step off the boat.

“It may be much shorter, but it certainly isn't a way. We'll still have to sail up the coast to the outpost, we'll only have wasted our time.”

Claude turned to Welikro.

“Didn’t you go to Egret with your dad? Did you moor by the outpost as well?"

"No, we didn't," the boy said proudly, "We didn't even use a boat. It was winter, that whole area was frozen solid. We travelled by sleds."

Right now it was the 5th month. Spring was in full bloom and everything was thawed. There was no easy way ashore apart from the outpost.

That didn't mean he found sitting around on such a small boat for several hours any less boring. Eriksson, seeing his resentment, offered him a way out. He took out his net and two fishing poles. There was no point in wasting good fishing time, after all. They might as well start catching while they crawled down the lake. And since they were going to fish, why not make a competition out of it. Borkal and Welikro grabbed the two poles and settled in each to a side of the tiller. Eriksson, still holding the tiller, shouted for them to start and both poles flung their hooks into the water.

Claude just leaned against the cap rail and stared at the sky. White clouds floated by slowly and the sun beat down on him in turns with the shade of the clouds. The water glittered as waves disrupted the mirror. Small dots, probably other fishing boats, dotted the horizon.

He only had a few minutes of peace, however, before the two 'fishermen' started shouting. Their lines had tangled and they were fighting over who was to blame.

"Take the tiller while I sort this out." Eriksson said, glancing at Claude.

Come to think of it, no one really knew what they were doing right now beside Eriksson. He lived and breathed sail and probably spent more time on boats or working on them than he did anything else, beside attending school, of course. He was known as a handy boy even among seasoned sailors and fishermen. The Altroni family truly had a worthy heir.

Claude didn't doubt at least part of it was the men trying to butter up Eriksson's father, but by the same token, at least part of it was genuine praise. Eriksson only needed half a minute to untangle the mess of lines. He told the two to cast their lines to each side of the ship instead so they were father apart before returning to the tiller.

"We're on course, we can just fix the tiller in place. No need to bother with it all the time," Claude said.

"No, you shouldn't ever fix a tiller or a wheel. We can't just sail in a straight line, you know. The lake is big, but it isn't deep, we have to sail around reefs and sandbanks every now and again. Not to mention that we have to adjust as the wind shifts to keep our course straight. And then there's the currents… They're not very strong in the lake, but the boat is much smaller than ships would be at sea."

Claude nodded.

"Okay. I didn't think about all of that. I always thought you only had to point the ship in the right direction and there you go."

"You don't even think about everything constantly once you get used to it, but that doesn't mean it doesn't still have to be done," Eriksson tested the wind again, "Hold the tiller again. The wind isn't strong enough to shift the sail on its own. I have to go give it a tug."

The two switched out again and Claude took the chance to learn as much as he could from his friend. Eriksson, for his part, was delighted to see his friend take an interest in sailing, and happily told him everything he knew, watered down so a landlubber could understand it, of course. Time passed quickly and Borkal and Welikro were still dry when the outpost came into view.

Claude had read that the sea used to be far more dangerous than it was these days. Pirates, for one, were a far bigger and direct threat than they were nowadays. Whitestag had it much better than most, but it wasn't untouched. The sandbank that separated Balinga from the sea was also incomplete at the time, not enough sediment had deposited to fill it, so ships could sail right into the lagoon and straight to Whitestag's waterfront.

In response to their attacks, the region's militia built the small stone outpost right next to the channel.

Whitestag formed its own militia and expanded the small outpost into a small fort. It was originally only used to warn the town by smoke signal of approaching pirates. But it became known as the Stone Outpost, and it had been called that ever since, even after it was abandoned when the threat of pirates faded away.

Not long after the outpost's expansion, people started trapping the channel. Fishing boats were small enough, and had shallow enough drafts that they didn't have to sail in the channel, but the larger pirate ships would run aground if they tried to sail out of the channel, and so the channel could be trapped to stop them from getting in without affecting the local industry.

The outpost was occupied by the kingdom's military a few years before the civil war and turned into a proper fortress again, though its name stuck. One of the army's brigades was at the fort when Stellin IX started the war, but they got to the town too late and were forced to surrender.

They later accepted Stellin IX's offer of recruitment and left with him, leaving the fort once again abandoned. The outpost had not come back into use since.

"Let me do it," Eriksson said as they got closer and took hold of the tiller.

"See it? The channel runs right by it there. We'll moor there," Eriksson said.

"That should work, yes. We can leave the net there as well. We'll check it when we pack up."

Eriksson nodded, smiling.

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