Equivocal Destines

By Raymond Clarke

Fantasy

Paperback, eBook

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460
3 mins

Barge On!

After what sadly constituted breakfast, lunch and probably dinner too, the captain had a stern conversation with them. Their final judgement was that he was a hard man, but a fair one.
“This ere’s me’ barge, The Pretty Sloth. She’s me’ life, me’ wife and me’ motha'. Above all though, she’s me’ income. Evrythin’ I ’ave’s in ’er an’ I won’t ’ave you lot messin’ ’er up. Ya’ got me?” Clearly, the name was ironic, by the look of the rock-sized dents in the cargo crates. It may once have been true, but now neither pretty not sloth seemed an apt fit.
A quick round of nods from his reluctant guests and they got down to business. He insisted that they pay their way on his barge. He was a merchant after all, and they weren’t really in need.
“We’re goin’ ta’ Fort Poyden, coz’ I dun’ wanna die today. You don’t like it, start swimmin'.” He shoved a thumb out in the direction of the shore for emphasis. “If you’re still ’ere in 5, you’d better be workin'. You two’re useful...”, he nudged his head towards Albila and Argrefan, being the gesticular ballerina that he was, ”... but what abou’ you?” He looked Taal up and down but didn’t seem overly unimpressed. “Cn’ ya’ sail?”
On discovering that Taal was a water wizard of some useful, if limited, power, a gruelling deal was struck. It was expensive to employ even a single elemental wizard for long, boring barge runs, and to have two so close at hand was an uncommon gift, especially if he didn’t have to pay one.
The cities offered nothing but shame for a water wizard, but Taal was finding that out in the wilderness, their skills were highly sought-after, even if only for purely pragmatic reasons. Shamed they may be, but also well-compensated.
With little to negotiate with, it was agreed that Albila would do everything she could for all of the injured, first and foremost, the captain’s crew. Argrefan would provide security and insurance against horde patrols and Taal would do what waterers did Nidola-over. He would keep the barge’s water barrels full, and do his best to empty them by scrubbing a decade of neglect off of every surface. Argrefan was issued the barge’s stock bow and quiver, his blades being of no use on a barge when the hordes were on the shores, while Taal was directed towards the well-worn mop, and a hammer and chisel for those hard-to-remove stains.
Taal quickly found himself doing his least favourite work, out in the sun, heading directly away from home-sweet-hell with the girl of his dreams who didn’t seem at all interested and her over-protective brother. But at least he wasn’t back in Takel.
They started on their temporary assignments while Taal wondered how Reh and his mother were doing? If Takelberorl was attacked again, with the same ferocity as Daidlene, there might be nothing, and no-one, left to go home to. It seemed to be the building trend.
As he worked and daydreamed, the barge was making impressive time. Stagiel wasn’t very powerful, or very skilled if the first mate’s barbs were to be listened to, but at least he could keep it up at that mediocre level. He had endurance.
Taal’s job turned out to be a lot easier than he thought it would be, and he didn’t even use the mop. He kept it at hand, but only for show. With his magic, he could scrub away even the more ingrained stains with ease. Grease and mould washed away with almost no effort. He kept the pace much slower than he was capable of, in case he finished too soon and the captain gave him another task. Instead, he spent most of his time watching Nidola fly by as he feigned effort.
Up close, the barge was easily recognisable as one of the classic designs. It was a simple wooden boat made by lashing together planks of wood and tarring them to make them waterproof. There was no bilge packed with ballast to keep it low in the water and stable, as in a true sailing ship. There was just a single layer of wood and tar topped with cargo and grumpy, salty seamen.
The River, up in Takelberorl, was ten metres wide and The Pretty Sloth was built to fit, so it was a little under five metres wide to allow two to pass each other. It was a lot longer however. It had to be at least ten, perhaps fifteen metres long. It was hard to tell with the fortification/cargo crates lining both sides and the front.
Its construction appeared sturdy, and well-maintained, even if her captain didn’t believe in cleanliness, or hygiene. Several of the worn-out planks had recently been replaced and re-tarred and many more were a bit older still, so in desperate need of replacing. Only one or two seemed in need or replacing. Most were liberally decorated with mould and dried food scraps though. It didn’t make her unseaworthy. Just disgusting.
At the rear was what loosely qualified as the captain’s cabin/chair. To its right was an open-topped crate containing a random heap of equipment and tools that were needed to keep people alive on the water. After meals, their single cauldron was washed out in the river and tossed into the crate. The stock weapons, cleaning tools and miscellaneous other junk was dumped haphazardly in there too. To the left of the captain’s cabin were two big barrels of muddy water. It explained a lot about their meal.


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