Once the boat was far enough from the island that the grivven couldn’t walk back by touching the sand below the water, the man behind him put away his knife. “You won’t do anything stupid, right, straw man?”
“If I was going to do something, I would have done it by now.” And the options, not that he would take them, were growing fewer by the minute. Telbarisk knew how to swim enough to stay afloat and move forward with scooping motions, but he could no longer convince himself that he could make it back to shore if he jumped out of the boat.
The men joked and said crude things while they rowed, the ship appearing larger and larger. Telbarisk admired it, having never seen something so grand and majestic. He looked up and saw trees with clouds clinging to them, the ground made of curved wooden branches. There was a fairy tale he had enjoyed greatly as a child about a man being whisked away to foreign lands on a cloud-island. A shiver went down his spine when he saw the creation in front of him.
As they grew closer, Telbarisk began to see the thing for what it really was. The clouds were large cloths attached to straight, dead trees with ropes. The hull was made from pieces of wood that curved. A part of him felt disappointed that there was nothing enchanting about the ship. It was a vessel, a vehicle. Nothing more.
The bald man with the beard climbed up the ladder first. “Captain,” he yelled, “you’re going to want to see what we brought back!”
The man with the knife nudged Telbarisk up the ladder, holding his weapon out but not touching Tel’s flesh. He climbed, his bare feet wrapping around the rungs. When he reached the top, he pulled his legs over the railing and almost fell when the ship lurched with the waves.
The captain, a man with a shaved head, loose jowls, and a large gut, stood not too far off. “A straw man? Puh. What use is he to me?”
“Whatever use you want,” the bearded man said. “He’s not trained, but he can learn. I’d make him an OS and promote Tirik to AB, if I were you, Captain.”
“Which you’re not.” He looked Telbarisk up and down. “Well, he’s certainly tall. Might not have to climb the masts to do what you men do.”
“No, sir! Not with a reach like his.”
“Of course, he’ll be rubbish belowdeck. There’s no way he’s going to fit down there. Might not be able to find him a suitable bed.”
“Well, I’m sure we can find a good place for him…”
“Captain,” a voice said from the staircase, “the men have secured the provisions. I hope it will be enough until…” The first mate stopped cold when he saw Telbarisk on the deck. “What is he doing here?”
“Meet our new ordinary seaman, Mr., uh, what did you say his name was?” the captain asked the bearded man.
“Telbarisk!” the first mate answered, before he shoved the bearded man against the wall of the forecastle. “What have you done, Atchell? This man gave us as much food as we could take, from his own meager supplies, and you gang-pressed him?”
The bearded man held up his hands. “He came of his own accord. Right, straw man?”
Telbarisk didn’t know how to answer. He would rather be on the island, but he’d much rather not be dead. “He was…very persuasive,” he answered carefully.
The first mate glared at Atchell, but let go of his shirt after a few tense moments. Jormé turned sharply to address his superior officer. “Seems things are in order, captain. We should be able to set sail when the winds take us.”
His last statement interested Telbarisk. Did they follow kouriya, too? Did the universal tide guide them as well?
“Atchell, show our newest crew member the ship,” the captain said. The bearded man saluted with a snap and led Telbarisk down the companionway. As they descended, Tel heard the first mate arguing with the captain, his voice in angry opposition to the more confident and more suave captain’s. It sounded like he might have been trying to convince his superior to return Tel to his home. He appreciated the gesture, but he knew things were already moving ahead. He was stuck here.
The tour was brief and functioned mostly of Atchell pointing to an area, telling Telbarisk what it was, then stating that he wasn’t allowed to go there. These places consisted of the cargo hold, the officers’ mess, the captain’s quarters, the officers’ quarters, the forecastle, the poop deck, the quarter deck, and the brig. “Unless you want to stay in the brig,” he said with a toothy grin, “in which case all you need to do is punch the captain.”
Telbarisk didn’t mind being prohibited from the decks below. Atchell had to duck slightly when they moved through the gun deck, which meant that Tel was bent over at the waist and needed to balance himself with the beams and the wall. He was relieved when Atchell brought him back up the deck.
“There’s no room in the gun deck for you to sleep. You’ll have to sleep out here, somewhere,” he said, grinning again.
“Thank you,” Telbarisk said, bowing his neck slightly. It was a great kindness to let him sleep under the stars, out in the open and not in the cramped and musty decks below.
Atchell didn’t react like Telbarisk thought he would. He looked surprised for a moment, then he narrowed his eyes. He spat on the floor and went below, leaving Tel by himself, confused.
Over the next week, the crew attempted to find jobs for Telbarisk. He could reach some of the rigging with ease, but didn’t work as fast as the nimble-footed sailors. He was also slow at climbing and felt uncomfortable with heights. They thought that his size would give him an advantage with carrying heavy weights. He did not better than any crew member one and a half to two feet shorter than him. After a few days, they gave up.
The beginning of his time on the ship was rough for Tel. He felt inadequate, as if he were taking up necessary space and resources. The crew members helped reinforce this by giving him nasty looks and either speaking poorly and loudly about him, or ignoring him all together. He spent most of his time on the forecastle, watching everyone and hoping someone would speak with him. Jormé was busy with the men and often looked harried. Telbarisk had wisely left him alone.
The perishable food from Ouyard Island had been divvied out quickly, with higher rations of broccoli and strawberries given to the men with advanced stages of scurvy. The remaining food hoarded and traded amongst the men. With no friends and nothing to bargain, Telbarisk was forced to eat hardtack and pickled food. Even the salted pork was off limits (not that he would have eaten it if he had known what it was).
Telbarisk took to making himself scarce. He’d often shimmy out beyond the bowsprit onto the jib boom and feel the wind in his face, to stay out of everyone’s way. Of course, that was when there was wind. Several times they picked up and set the ship on course, only to die again a few hours later. The disappointment was felt across the ship, making the men cross.
“How are you at navigating?” Jormé asked Telbarisk during his second week aboard. It was the first time he’d found a moment and had apologized for not attending to him. “Do your people read the stars or use anything else to keep track of time?”
It sounded like a conversational question, not in the same tone people used when they asked him about his skills. “We chart the skies to see the past and the future. It is where the hayinfal come from, what makes things happen.”
“Hayinfal. What does that mean?”
“The hayinfal are…spirits, maybe, or events. There is no assent amongst my people as to what they are. They watch from the sky and wait until the right moment. Then, they fall to our world. Sometimes they enter men and watch over them. Sometimes they take the shape of something great unfolding. Every once in a while, they fall into an unborn child and become a person.”
“How can you tell if a man is a hayinfal?”
“They will act beyond normalcy. Most people are content with the cycles of life, birth, childhood, adulthood, old age, and death. They master a job, marry, have children, and leave it all behind when they die. They pass through the world with no man in future the wiser to their former existence. A hayinfal will never settle for this. They discover places and create new cities, they make art beyond beauty, they commune with gods and the ancestors, they ask new questions and have them answered.”
The first mate laughed briefly. “I discovered your lands. Could I be a hayinfal?”
“My lands were already discovered, by my people and the elves that live there. You do have a touch of it in you, however. You are not satisfied staying in one place. You must move, across the seas and to new places whereas I’m guessing many people from the place you grew up people never left.”
“That is true. So few of the people from my hometown have left, nor will they ever. Perhaps you’re right, then, about my wanderlust meaning I’m a hayanfal. I feel antsy when the wind doesn’t blow. I don’t want to die out here, of thirst or hunger on the seas. If I must die, I want it to be in a storm or in a battle with pirates.”
“Why don’t the men move the ship?” he asked.
“You mean why don’t we row? The Gueylard is too small to keep oars or a rowing crew. We are at the wind’s mercy, becalmed until Kabidon and Queyella decide to work together and bless our ship with full sails.”
It was in that moment that Telbarisk realized something profound. For that week and a half, he had thought the ship’s momentum had been withheld for some reason. Maybe they were waiting for something, or perhaps the captain was teaching his men a lesson. When the first mate spoke of his gods and the position they were in, Telbarisk understood that there was no plan, no punishment, no control. They were at the mercy of the elements.
Telbarisk thanked Jormé for his time when he made to leave. Left alone, he thought about his realization and discovered that he alone was able to help their situation. With all the jobs they had tried to get him to perform, it was the one they hadn’t offered him that he could help them the best with. He laid back on the forecastle, starting up at the fading light above him, and began.