Ebb (Chapter 6 Part 4)
On the first day Chaff learned that he loved the ocean. He loved the feeling of the planks rolling underneath him, he loved the smell of sea salt in the air, and he loved the gentle caress of the waves against the hull of the Kazakhal kapaz barge as it plowed around Oldsea towards the Moscon Peninsula. He was going a world away, and the ghosts of the past could no longer haunt him.
Every day thereafter, Chaff learned something new. Prav taught him how he charted his way across the sea, and how, when the treacherous stars shone overhead, he used arithmetic like the electors to find his way. Armand showed him fat mackerelcod and searobins that he fished straight out of the ocean, although the silent mudmaker would not tell Chaff how it was done or even what the fish were called. Wozek had even let him ride on the spiderwhale’s back as it swam beside the boat, and Chaff had clung onto its slippery skin in a half-terrified, half-exhilarated joy.
Today, he learned how much Lookout hated the sea.
“You want something else to eat?” asked Chaff, watching Lookout’s breakfast drift away on the waves.
“No, Chaff, the last thing I want to do is eat…” grumbled Lookout. She was breathing heavily, and her face was pale and sickly. Surreptitiously, Chaff checked her leg, but it seemed whole and healthy enough. Whatever Lookout’s sudden bout of sickness was, it had nothing to do with her old injury.
“It’s just that you spit it all out,” said Chaff. Shadows under the water nibbled away at the food falling from the sky as he stared. “You gotta be hungry again, yeah?”
“If you try to feed me anything, I will puke on you,” said Lookout. She hobbled away, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. “I’m going to go lie down.”
Chaff watched Lookout go, his back on the railing. He looked toward the big guy, who was standing by the mast and glaring unceasingly at the crow’s nest. “How you doing, big guy?” he asked.
The camelopard did not look at Chaff, but one of his nostrils flared. Chaff didn’t know if the big guy was trying to stave off Lookout’s sickness or if he really was just that mad about a place for humans to go that was taller than him.
“Why she sick?” asked Chaff. He dug one of his fingers into his mouth and ran his nail along his teeth. “Something she eats? Am I going to be sick too?”
The big guy had no answer for him. Chaff couldn’t even remember what he had for breakfast; fish were involved, he was sure, although he couldn’t remember what kind. A lot of things were getting harder to remember.
“It ain’t what she et,” said one of the crew, poking his head out of the crow’s nest. The moment the sailor revealed himself, the big guy lowered his head and began waving it side to side, and Chaff got up immediately. It turned out he was mad about someone being above him.
“Easy there, big guy,” said Chaff, putting a comforting hand on the big guy’s side. “Don’t want you knocking down the sails now.” He squinted at the sailor in the crow’s nest. Stubble had grown all around the man’s chin. His skin was brown, his hair was unkempt, and his clothes were both. He wore a single brass stud in his left ear, and looked at Chaff with eyes that seemed much too sharp for a man so filthy. “Who you? What you say?”
“It ain’t what she et,” repeated the man up above. He leaned on the railing of his little platform, grinning at the big guy. “Sea sickness, it be called. The moving and the rocking and the rolling gets to some people. Not you, though, eh? Took to it right away, you did.”
“She gets sick from moving?” asked Chaff, face wrinkled in confusion. “But she moves all the time, yeah? How come now?”
“You ever feel the earth quaking ‘neath your feet, chil’? The shaking and shuddering and heaving is enough to make anyone lose their stomach,” said the man, perched comfortably on his nest so high. Overhead, a few winter gulls circled, and Chaff eyed them nervously. They were perhaps the only part of the sea that he did not like.
He did remember earthquakes. Why, the earth itself had rolled beneath his feet in the Quiet Marsh not so long ago. That had made him sick with fear. Perhaps Lookout was just afraid.
“Storm’s coming, too,” continued the man. “The winds of the Lady Fall tell us, if you speak her tongue. Waves are getting worse. You can taste it in the air.”
“Storms is good, yeah?” said Chaff, staring where the man stared. The sky was so blue it hurt, but if the man said a storm was coming then a storm must have been coming. “Lots of water. Drinking water, not the salty yuck.”
The man laughed. “You don’t know seasick until you’ve been in a proper Oldsea storm, chil’.”
Chaff glared at him. He wasn’t sure what the man was laughing at, but he was fairly certain that he was the butt of the joke.
Leaning back over the railing, the man raised an eyebrow. “Does Wozek’s pup have teeth? You have something to say to me?”
The boy looked down, his cheeks red. He didn’t mean to get caught. He was about to take the camelopard and walk away, when a little voice whispered in his head.
How do you ever expect to get closer to where you want to go, if you’re always running away?
You’re always running away.
Chaff turned around and stood as straight as he could, his chest puffed out. “Don’t laugh at me!” he shouted, up to the man in the crow’s nest. Up at the head of the barge, he could see out of the corner of his eye Wozek and some of the men he was talking to look up.
“So he can bark,” said the man, smiling. There was a mischievous twinkle in his eye. “Can he bite?”
“Don’t talk to me like that,” said Chaff. “Or I’ll set the big guy on you.”
The man’s grin grew wider. “He can climb, can he?”
Chaff put a hand on the big guy’s tabula. “I can make him.”
He clapped his hands together and hooted. Chaff stared at him, nonplussed. “Word to the wise, chil’, but tabula can’t make anyone do anything they just can’t do. You can’t make that beast climb no more’n I can make a fish fly.” He grinned. “Or turn a yellow-bellied kid like you into whatever it is you want to-.”
“Will you stop antagonizing him, Drael, you fieldman bastard?” said Wozek, intervening. Part of Chaff felt indignant, that he couldn’t finish the fight alone. The other part felt relieved, that he wouldn’t have to.
“No offense meant, goodman Wozek,” said Drael, dipping his head. “Just teaching this here chil’ the way of the world. You’d think he’s just had his Fallow, the way he prattles on.”
“I can say that about you too,” said Wozek, and he put an arm around Chaff’s shoulder. Chaff squirmed. It didn’t feel like Wozek being so much protective as possessive. “And what’s that I hear about a storm?”
Drael grinned. “It’s coming.”
“Yes, well, tell the captain next time before us,” snarled Wozek, and he spun around, taking Chaff with him. The big guy was about to follow, but Wozek put a hand up. “Chaff, keep the beast here. The boat’s shaky enough as it is, we don’t want to go tipping it over.”
“You stay back, big guy,” said Chaff, doing his best to turn around with Wozek’s firm hand still on his shoulder. “And eat his stinky hair next time he come out, yeah?”
The big guy, who had looked annoyed at being told to stay, flicked his ears and straightened, mollified by the prospect of revenge.
“Of all the things you just had to bring along, it was him,” sighed Wozek, as he led Chaff away. “All the other animals we left in the city to summon on the other side, but the one thing you couldn’t go without…” He looked down at Chaff and ruffled his hair, like a man petting a houndbeast. “Ah, well. So long as it’s just this one time and I don’t have to drag him back to Kazakhal.”
Back to Kazakhal? Chaff wondered Wozek meant by that. Of course, he and the big guy were sticking together. Perhaps Wozek meant that Chaff wasn’t coming back either. He didn’t know where he was going after he found Jova—Jova, Jova, that was her name, Jova—but he was sure it wouldn’t be Kazakhal. Perhaps she would know.
“Pay no mind to Drael,” Wozek continued. “He’s an alsval idiot who runs his mouth, but he means well.”
“He sounds different from the fieldmen I knew,” said Chaff. Drael’s accent was somehow sharper and faster than the Alswell drawl Chaff had grown used to listening to.
Wozek nodded. “Got ears like the Lady Fall, don’t you? You’re right, he’s not your typical fieldman.” Wozek looked over his shoulder at the mast. “A farmer picked him up right after Fallow and brought him to the Seat of the King. He’s only been free for about three years.”
That made Chaff look up. “That was when the revolution started!”
Wozek smirked and ruffled his hair. “Can’t get anything past you, can I? He was one of Banden’s men, that’s right. Only good thing about him, in my opinion.”
“Why-?” Chaff began, but he was cut off.
“Captain!” shouted Wozek, waving towards a woman at the steering wheel. “Drael has something to tell you.”
The woman looked up, nodded, and moved past them without another word. The captain didn’t talk to Chaff much, except when the big guy needed feeding: as far as he could tell, she was capable, intelligent, and diligent in her work. But even if she was the captain, always, always, Wozek was in charge.
“You wanted to say something to me, Chaff?” asked Wozek, after the captain had gone.
“I’s just wondering why you coming with us.” Chaff looked at his feet (clean of mud and dirt for perhaps the first time in his life), and twiddled his thumbs. “It’s weird, yeah? Coming all this way just for me. Bringing everybody with you.”
Wozek smiled. “Chaff, I mean nothing by this, but it’s not all about you. Everybody here wants to go.”
Chaff looked around. Wozek’s people turned their heads away when he stared at them; was it just his imagination, or were they avoiding his gaze?
“We go to Moscoleon first. You’ll finish your business there, and we’ll prepare for our journey further north to the Seat of the King,” said Wozek. He knelt down to so that he could look Chaff in the eye. “We want to join Banden. We want to be part of his revolution. And I hope you’ll join us.”
The boy stared at Wozek, unsure what he was asking. He had never been part of a revolution before. He didn’t know what that entailed.
Wozek put a gentle hand on Chaff’s shoulder, not pushy, just present. His smile was still friendly, his eyes still reasonable. “Your talent would be…appreciated.”
That made Chaff take a step back. Lookout had warned him about this.
Immediately, Wozek let Chaff go. He seemed to have known that he had crossed a line. How did he know? How could he read people’s faces so easily? “It’s OK if you don’t want to,” he said. “I won’t push you. But I strongly encourage you to consider it.”
“Why are you doing it? Do you know the king?” Chaff asked, before he could stop himself. He bit his tongue. He hadn’t meant to sound so impudent.
“I wish I did,” said Wozek, wistfully. “I saw him once, giving one of his speeches. It was like…like having the Lady Summer’s fire poured into my ears. His words made light, his voice burned away lies until all I saw was truth. The Fifth Age of man has come, Chaff, and the time for kings is no more. I want to be part of that. We all do.”
It sounded like a load of nonsense to Chaff, but he had the sense at least to not say that out loud. There was something that irked him, though. “I thought Banden was a king, though?” he asked. Had he remembered it wrong?
“No,” snapped Wozek, quickly. “No. His opponents and enemies are the only ones that call him a king, even as they also name him traitor and usurper. He knows he is just a man. He knows he has killed the last king of Albumere.”
Chaff looked back down. How could just one man cause this much…pain? Banden’s war had pushed Loom to her betrayal. His war had sent the fieldmen into Shira Hay, and his war had sent the nomads out. And what was he even fighting for? Chaff could understand killing someone for food, for clothes, for a bed to sleep in and for the safety of the things that were precious to him. But freedom? Freedom was nebulous. Freedom had never fed Chaff or kept him warm at night.
Wozek squeezed Chaff’s shoulder. “I’ll let you think about it.”
He walked away, and he left Chaff alone, among the bustling crew. The sailors’ face were drawn with worry: not despair or fear, just a tense, tight anxiety. Chaff looked ahead and saw an advancing line of bruised clouds on the horizon. The waves were getting choppier and more violent, and the wind was picking up strength. Perhaps Drael wasn’t such an idiot after all.
Chaff backed out of the way as the crew set to rigging the sails, to turning the wheels, to greasing the hinges or whatever it was they did to steer the barge. By the mast, the big guy was starting to stamp his hooves, his eyes rolling as people ran around and under him.
“Hey, hey, big guy,” said Chaff, ducking around the sailors to make his way to his friend. “It’s OK. Shh. Got nothing to worry ‘bout. Just a little rain, yeah? Maybe there’s lightning. We hold some bark up, get hit, and you eat the burned bit. You like the burned bits, yeah? Course you do. Course you do, big guy.”
Despite the crescendo of activity around him, Chaff felt no fear. How could he? He was by the sea, and he liked the sea. It made him feel safe, even as the clouds advanced and the winds grew stronger.
“I’m not running away this time,” said Chaff, out loud. He held the big guy close, and the camelopard towered above him, warm and close. Together, they were indomitable. “No running away no more, that’s right.”
“Chaff!” shouted Wozek, as he started to head below decks. “It’s going to get miserable up here. Get down, where it’ll be dry.”
Chaff looked up at the camelopard. “Nah. If the big guy stays, I stay. I don’t like leaving my friends behind.”
Wozek’s face changed slowly. First he looked concerned, then a slow smile spread across his face, and then he hid it. “I see,” he said. And then he walked away, down, where Chaff’s other friend was sleeping.
Posted on April 28, 2014, in 6.04, Chapter 6 (Ebb & Flow) and tagged adventure, Big Guy, Chaff, creative writing, Drael, fantasy, Lookout, novel, original characters, Sail, story, web fiction, web serial, webfiction, Wozek, writing. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.