Traveling on the Allusi proved to be one of the more memorable non-combat experiences Giele had in his life. He’d never been out to sea before, instead sticking to riverboats. Seafaring travel was much different; it took him three days to recover from his seasickness and two more after that to get his sea legs. Tarvy took care of Giele during his illness, bringing him water when he could stomach it and a bucket when he couldn’t. When Giele emerged blinking into the sunlight for the first time and felt the wind on his face with no sign of Aelfland anywhere, he knew he’d made the right choice.
Captain Fiskelius ran a tight ship with one eye always directed at his bottom line. When the wind blew the right direction, his crew lifted the steam-driven outrigger paddle wheels clear of the water to reduce drag and spread the sails wide. When the wind blew the wrong way, sails were stowed and the steam boiler sent the paddles whirring into noisy motion. And when the air was becalmed, it became Piprel’s job to provide suitable gusts.
Piprel was a wizard who’d signed on as contract labor for the Allusi in return for transport to Verigo. Well, first and foremost he was a drunk, and somehow it became Giele’s job on board to keep control of him and to monitor his wine intake. Giele had seen men in the Army who were trying to kill themselves with drink, and more than a few who succeeded. Piprel had many of the same characteristics about him of the combat-shocked soldier. Whatever he was running from in Aelfland gave him nightmares that he softened through the frequent application of booze. Giele’s first night on board, deep in the throes of his own seasickness-induced misery, Piprel screamed himself awake in the early low bells, slapping away at things apparent to him alone. Delirium took him at random, where he would curse or scream at the visions from his pickled mind. Thus Giele spent much of the voyage keeping an eye on him and calming him through soothing words or, more often, another sip of grog.
“What’s the matter with your face?” he’d asked Giele in his slurred voice when they first met. He made no gestures to ward off evil, nor did he spit or hiss. “Looks kind of like a waxing moon.” His own face wasn’t much better than Giele’s: far too slender, framed by unkempt hair that was stringy and greasy, with the ruddy nose and cheeks and rheumy eyes of the perpetual drunkard. Despite his prodigious appetite, most of what he ate wound up vomited into the Aeresic, so his bones stuck out like he was starving. He eschewed most clothing on shipboard, preferring to bake away under the merciless sun in short pants and nothing else. His skin burned, then peeled, only to burn again.
Until his offhand remark, it hadn’t occurred to Giele that the moon was crescent not just when waning, but on its way toward fullness. Perhaps he was himself waxing now, returning from the darkness of the new moon. He squeezed Piprel’s shoulder. Piprel belched sour wine in Giele’s face, and the moment ended.
Tarvy had purchased some supplies on Giele’s behalf, and had returned to the Allusi shortly before the Captain raised anchor and headed out to sea on a puff of steam. He’d selected a hardy mix of clothing that would last for months, maybe even years with careful laundering.
He had been to Verigo once before on a mission, and was returning after a year’s sojourn in Aelfland. He intended to travel to the frontier and bring the Word to those Elves and Dwarves who lived at the very edge of civilization. He and Giele spoke at length about life in the new world, and to a lesser extent about his faith.
Giele never had much use for the Church of Aelfland. The extent of his relationship with the Elven God was the occasional epithet. He didn’t pray, attend services, or participate in any of the Full moon rituals which formed the cornerstone of Elven faith. Seeing young soldiers impaled on spears, poisoned by their own excrement, screaming with every breath, tended to shake one’s faith in the existence of a higher power. He told as much to Tarvy.
“I understand,” said the Padre. “Other soldiers have expressed similar sentiments to me. They want to know how God can allow such atrocities to take place when they are taught from birth that God loves us.”
“Well? Do you have an answer for that?”
Tarvy smiled and adjusted his glasses. “I do not. It is foolish for us to consider that we might understand the motives, whims, and wishes of our creator, any more than a stalk of wheat may understand us, its planter.”
“But we harvest wheat, and wheat doesn’t think.”
“Doesn’t it? Perhaps Elfkind is a field of wheat, tended by God. We must likewise be harvested, and rotated with other crops in order to provide better sustenance.”
“Now God is a farmer, cutting us down and threshing us to be baked into bread?” Giele smiled. “You’re making me hungry.”
A week into the voyage, Giele discussed his history in the Army and the nature of his own journey with Tarvy. Since by his own admission he didn’t keep up very well with current events, Tarvy had heard none of the criers detailing Giele’s punishment at the King’s hands nor seen any of the posters. “Your scar isn’t a mark of evil,” he said. “It’s a weight upon your soul. Like any muscle, the more weight it carries over time, the stronger it becomes.”
“It’s a weight I wish I could put down.”
“The weights we cannot drop are those which bring us the most strength.”
Giele found an odd comfort in that statement.
To his credit, Tarvy did not proselytize or flaunt his beliefs beyond the occasional mild theological discussion, which he filled with so many metaphors that Giele often fell asleep more confused than ever. Tarvy made for an agreeable roommate in the tiny cabin they shared.
They spent most of their time on the deck, careful to stay out of the way of the sailors. So far, they had enjoyed a pleasant voyage under skies filled with fluffy white clouds that chased one another in gentle spiral patterns. Every day was warmer than the last as the Allusi crossed into the tropical climes.
Like the sailors, Tarvy and Giele had taken to wearing naught but trousers, letting the sun bake the Autumnal chill from their bones. Every once in awhile Giele would glance down at his chest and wonder whose it was, for his should have been decorated with an elaborate tattoo. Then he’d grow so melancholy that even Piprel would offer him a sip from his bottle. Giele always refused; that was a road upon which he didn’t wish to take the first step. The three passengers were an oddly-mismatched bunch. Piprel’s body had wasted under the spell of constant alcohol, and his skin showed many burst veins beneath its surface. Giele’s own skin had drawn tight from a reduced appetite and what little winter fat stores he’d built up had vanished, leaving him as wiry as ever. Tarvy, on the other hand, had muscles which even made sailors’ eyes widen. The young Padre delighted in helping with the physical aspects of sailing from coiling ropes to folding sails.
“How does a man of faith develop such strength?” Giele asked him one day after observing him lift a coil of rope that had taken two of Fisk’s sailors to move.
“God has seen fit to bless me with this body. Far be it from me to reject God’s gifts. Besides, womenfolk find it appealing.” He chuckled.
Giele knew some of the younger Padres didn’t hold with the notion of celibacy. Tarvy subscribed to that philosophy as well. Giele smiled. He guessed that Tarvy would explain it as another of God’s gifts that he didn’t reject.
“Is it this hot in Verigo?” Giele took his hat off and flapped some of the stifling hot and moist air at his face with it.
“It is,” said Tarvy. “Although as you move further inland the air becomes much drier and quite a bit more tolerable. You’ll want to wear a hat to keep the sun off your head. I’ve seen more than one tourist faint from the constant heat. Besides, when it rains, you’ll be glad of the extra protection.”
Beltius paused as he passed by us on some errand. “Rain, eh? Best you get ready for some. Storm’s a-comin’.” He pointed to a smudge of clouds on the horizon.
“What is it you’ll require of us, Mate Beltius?” Giele asked.
“Stay out of the way, mostly,” Beltius said. “And you might get some tea into the mage. We’ll probably need him before the day is done.”
Giele looked over to his cabin where Piprel was sleeping off the previous evening’s drink. Giele had questioned Captain Fiskelius about the wisdom of providing the mage with so much alcohol during the trip, but had received a stony glare and a “bugger off” in return.
“Shall I awaken the poor fellow?” asked Tarvy.
“No, I’ll do it. He already doesn’t like me and I’m used to dealing with recalcitrance.”
Piprel lay on the floor alongside the bunks where the motion of the Allusi must have tossed him out at some point. He wore naught but rough-spun breeches. His dark, unkempt hair stuck out like the tuft of a thistle. The cabin stank of the grog which sweated from his very pores. Giele kicked at the soles of Piprel’s bare feet as he snored on the wooden deck. He muttered in his sleep and curled up into a ball. Impatient with the mage’s slumber, Giele bent down until he was right beside him and bawled in his ear. “On your feet, soldier! Duty calls!”
“God’s Blood!” He clapped his hands over his ears. “What’d you do that for?”
“Time to work, Mage.” Giele hauled Piprel to his feet. Giele’s nose wrinkled at the sour odors of Piprel’s unwashed body and stale vomit on his breath.
The mage gasped at the sudden motion, and then staggered over to the rail to drain his bladder into the Aeresic. “How about a li’l drink of something? It appears I’m empty again.”
“Nothing but tea for you. Mate Beltius says a storm is coming and they’ll need your services. Time to sober up.”
“Bugger that, rut face.”
Giele sighed as Piprel staggered for the aft cabin where the cook stored the wine. Some men couldn’t be reasoned with, and for those times Giele had learned a few tricks. Before Piprel opened the galley door, Giele snaked his arm underneath the mage’s, angled it up behind his head, and gave a firm pinch to one of Piprel’s earlobes. Piprel shrieked.
Keeping hold of his ear, Giele hauled him over to the mainmast and slammed him up against it. He cursed Giele, his lineage, the ship, the ship’s lineage, the Captain, the ocean, and the bloody great Universe of Buggering Mystery as Giele lashed him to the mast and proceeded to fling bucket after bucket of seawater in his face. Eventually his protests died down and Giele fed him tea and hardtack until he reached a level of lucid drunkenness.
Over the next two hours, the sea grew choppy and great towering thunderheads rushed in towards the ship. The wind shifted direction and the Captain ordered all sails lowered. Beltius and his crew dropped the paddle wheels and for awhile they made good time, keeping ahead of the storm. The Allusi’s boilers hissed as the Captain ordered full speed ahead. The wheels kicked up great sprays higher even than the foamy crests of waves as the Allusi dove into troughs and climbed mountains of water. Soon, though, the angry blasts of thunder became audible even over the roaring of the steam engine and the wind.
“It’s no good,” shouted Fisk. “I’d hope we’d outrun the bugger, but it looks like we’re in for it, lubbers.” He bellowed at the crew to lock down the paddle wheels. As outriggers, they’d help keep the small ship afloat as the rough waters increased. “You ready to earn your passage?” This last was directed at Piprel, who glared from where Giele had lashed him to the mast.
The mage nodded as he gazed, terrified, at the waves crashing around the Allusi. “I can’t work like this. I need freedom of movement.”
“Untie him,” said Fisk. “You’ll have to at least keep a line about your waist, mage.”
“Very well. God’s Blood, I need a drink.”
Giele removed the ropes that bound Piprel and secured a new rope around his waist to the mast. “Good enough?”
Fisk nodded. “Keep the ship upright and on a northerly heading, however you can.” He turned to look at Giele. “You better get to your berth, Scarface.”
“Captain, I’ll stay on deck with Piprel. He might need help.”
“I will stay as well,” said Tarvy. “Your men will be busy with the ship, Captain. We will attend to Piprel’s needs.”
“Damned fool lubbers, this is a storm, not a buggerin’ stroll through a garden!”
“The risk is ours to assume, Captain,” Giele said.
“Fine, do what you want. But don’t ask me to jump in the bloody drink when you get washed overboard.” Fisk stalked up toward the poop deck where he could best keep watch over his ship as it braved the storm.
Rain drove in their faces as they lashed themselves to the mainmast. Tarvy and Giele bound themselves to Piprel by a short length of rope, allowing enough slack that Piprel could traverse the length and breadth of the main deck as needed with the other two Elves staying beside him. Giele reasoned that if the main mast went, the ship was already lost and it wouldn’t matter much what they were tied to at that point. “What do you need us to do?” he shouted over the gale.
“Help me to stand,” said Piprel. “If I lose my footing, I may lose the boat.”
Giele didn’t understand the explanation, but he could keep Piprel on his feet. With Tarvy supporting him on one side and Giele on the other, Piprel began to chant an incantation. Bluish green energy flowed down his body from his upraised hands and out his feet where it spread across the deck in concentric circles.
Giele had not spent a lot of time around mages. Some Army units had magic specialists, but the 136th never did. Most mages abhorred combat and preferred to remain safe, ensconced in their studies surrounded by texts and people more cultured than soldiers were. Being around one made Giele feel uncomfortable, for he didn’t understand magic, and as a soldier, anything he didn’t understand was a potential threat.
The Allusi lurched and shuddered as Piprel’s magic tried to wrest it from the storm’s grip. Piprel stood amidships, his thin arms over his head as if daring the storm to do its worst. He chanted nonstop and the energy ebbed and flowed from him, making his hair stand on end even as it was whipped by the gale. He seemed stronger now that the power had taken hold, and Tarvy and Giele could brace him instead of outright supporting him. The deck shuddered in a peculiar way that made the hair on Giele’s neck stand up. The bobbing of the small ship ceased as an strange and different motion took hold of it. A giant, invisible hand plucked it right out of the water and the Allusi rose up into the air above the tallest waves. Giele saw foam splashing the hull on all sides, shaped like fingers. Two massive columns of water like arms rose from the waves and held the Allusi aloft. The ferocious wind whipped Giele’s hat off into the darkness. The ship spun around in a slow, graceful circle as Piprel sought his direction.
“North, blast you!” bawled Captain Fisk from the poop deck, barely audible over the whistling of the rigging. He pointed to starboard. “That way!”