The railing running along the main deck was slick with seawater as the ship jerked in the waves. They were sailing through a maze of jagged rocky outcrops scattered around the small island in front of them. To make matters worse, a storm was rolling in from the East. Harta dug his nails into the splintering wood as his bare feet slid across the panels of the deck.
“Oi, how fares it?” Mersupio shouted as picked his way across the slick deck from the captain’s quarters, hand against his forehead to shield his face from the rain.
“Better knowing there ain’t no need to swab the deck when it clears.”
Mersupio hocked and spit over the railing into the frothy sea below, “Aye, but he will have you do it anyway.”
Harta shrugged and eased his grip on the railing. “What’s the word?” He nodded toward the captain’s quarters.
Mersupio leaned his elbows on the railing, like he were watching the sun set on a cool summer’s night. “He thinks we are getting close.”
“He always thinks we are close! One step behind, just missed it, a few more leagues. Hell, last moon he told Jaquey he could smell the trail.”
“Aye, you speak the truth.” The ship rocked and the sailing apprentice swayed with the waves. “He thinks this island is their hiding spot and the rocks and weather is protection. Like a labyrinth we have to get through.”
“Well, he may be on to something there.”
Harta turned back toward the stern of the ship and watched the bowsprit as they crashed through the raging waves. The light was fading behind the storm clouds, bringing a ghostly glow to the world, and a shadowy darkness to the ship.
Below deck, in the crew quarters, the crew settled into their hammocks and cots for the night. They knew little sleep would come to them, but Harta had grown used to sleeping through storms. He faced the ceiling as the ship rocked the sleeping crew scattered around him to a restless sleep. Raymeer snored like the little pig Captain always says he is, as loud as any cannon. Harta stayed awake dreaming about the wonders this island could hold, as he did with every new island they thought was the one. Gold, women, mystery. Could the captain be right, and strange creatures exist?
Where had he heard it from? I know he couldn’t have read it, being Mersupio is the only of the crew who knows any sort of reading or writing. The best day this ship saw was when we raised the ship he was steward of. Even then we were only so desperate for food after the Captain bled us dry for another few days of hard sailing.
Harta let out a deep sigh and let himself become immersed in his revere until morning.
“Land, ho! Land, ho!” Shouting from above deck woke the men in the crew quarters out of their troubled sleep.
Jaquey pulled his trousers to his waist and clutched the rope around the band, not stopping to tie it as he ran after the other crew above deck. They emerged blinking in the rising sun, not a storm cloud in sight. The Captain stood on the main deck, hands on his hips and his feet apart. Emmet was stationed in the crow's nest, pointing in front of them.
A booming laughter escaped the Captain and he turned to face the crew as they gathered on the deck.
“You see,” his voice sounded like rats drowning in the open ocean. “We have passed their test! They are allowing us to see their motherland, and soon our eyes will feast upon them.”
Before the ship loomed an island with one large mountain in the center. Harta could see from coast to coast, so he guessed it to be small in overall size. The shore was blossoming with green trees and shrubs, shining brilliantly in the morning sun.
The ship docked and most of the crew members climbed into the row boats on the side of the ship, they left Jaquey, Harman, and a few others to tend to the ship in their absence. Harta dragged his oar through the water alongside Mersupio’s and watched the island grow taller with every stroke. The clear water and calm nature of the island created a sinking pit in his stomach. The Captain stood still as a plank even though the waves splashed along the side of the small boat.
They hit sand and the crew hopped out to pull the boat to shore. Harta’s barefeet sunk into the wet sand as he waded to shore with the rest of the crew. The warm sand wriggled its way in between his toes, making them itch. He approached the trees that lined the short beach. The vegetation was young and hardly touched by any life. The line of trees that looked dense from the ship was actually only a few rows deep. Harta turned down the beach. The tree line stopped less than a league away.
“Do ya smell it boys?” The Captain took a deep breath in.”They are here!”
He turned to face his crew, his dark beard standing out against the green vegetation. “Split up, two men in each direction down the beach. They stay in the water, so look for streams and grottos. Mersupio and I will go for higher ground. Sometimes creatures gather in the same place. We will find the evidence on this island!” He took a step forward, the sun shining off the buckle of his black boots. “And when we do, I’ll be rich!”
Raymeer matched Harta’s steps as he started down the beach, breathing heavy from the effort. “Do ya think we’ll find ‘em?”
Harta shrugged and scanned the landscape before them. The shore turned to rocks shortly after the treeline taper off. He noticed there were no shadows of birds, no droppings on the rocks, no scurry of critter to escape their sight. He cast a quick glance over his shoulder at the other groups. This isn’t going to end well.
A stream cut the beach in half, falling off from up the mountain. It was a few rowboats wide and deep enough to swim.
“Reckon they could swim up it?” Raymeer peered into the water.
Harta shrugged again and changed course to follow the stream, “Only one way to find out.”
The stream curved through the land, following the ups and downs of the landscapes. Not much vegetation grew along the side or from the bottom of the stream bed itself. Harta kept an eye out for anything the Captain would like to know of; gold, dropped treasure, scales from one of their tails.
“I ain’t seeing nothing,” Raymeer kicked a pebble into the stream and it sunk to the bottom with a plunck. “Do ya think the Captain is right about this island?”
Harta shrugged, not wanting to say anything that would make Raymeer run back and tell Captain. “He thinks this is the place.”
“Well yeah, I know that. But what do ya think?”
Harta stepped over a small rotting log on the side of the stream, “I think we could search better if ya stopped talking.”
Raymeer scoffed and huffed over the log, “I was just tryin’ to make conversation.”
The sun was beating down on them by the time they found the source of the stream, a bubbling underground hot spring. Harta sighed inwardly and turned toward the beach. They were high above it now and could easily see the ship bobbing in the waves. He had lost count on which island this was that they had visited in nearly three years of sailing after Captain’s fever dreams.
Harta stepped away from Raymeer, who was catching his breath next to the stream, and started down the slope toward the beach. His feet did their best to grip the stones, but found them porous and caught every callous on the bottom of his feet. He returned to the sail boats with cuts on his feet and the sun high above his head.
He heard the Captain’s booming voice carryover the trees before he and Mersupio emerged from the vegetation.
“Aye, m’boy!” The Captain turned his course toward Harta. “Any signs of ‘em?”
Harta shook his head and the Captain frowned for a brief moment.
“Oh, well I ‘ave confident that the other boys will find something. We saw a grotto thataway,” he pointed down the opposite direction of the beach.
After some moments of the Captain leaving and coming back again, determined to find evidence that they inhabit this island, the rest of the crew trickled back.
“That grotto was empty,” Lolio says as he crossed his arm across his chest. “Not even a single fish scurrying about.”
Harta leaned his hip against one of the rowboats.
“We didn’t see a footprint of any kind,” Mersupio put in.
“I’m startin’ to think they’re not even real.”
“What was your first clue?” Harta interrupted. “The years of chasing after nothin’? The wild stories about half fish ladies, with hair as long as their tails?”
“Calm, Harta.” Mersupio held out a hand.
The Captain came into view down the beach and the crew went silent and still.
“I still ‘ave hope, boys!” He called down the beach. “They’re hiding from us. Mersupio, ready a boat, we will sail around the island.”
Mersupio’s head dropped, but he walked toward one of the rowboats. They took off and sailed close to the shoreline. Harta pulled himself into the other boat as they rounded the island.
“I’m going back to the ship,” he announced as began to push off. After a moment the remaining crew joined him. Their short sail back to the ship was a silent one.
Jaquey met them on the deck with an excited smile, “Ya find ‘em?”
Harta shook his head and watched the smile drop from Jaquey’s face. The whole crew had seemed to have lost their elasticity. So much time spent chasing creatures that haven’t been seen in centuries, the shadow of a fish could send them into a couple moon search off course. The weeks spent with little food, no water, hot and tired, hadn’t paid off in the end.
“This is it for me,” Harta said to the crew members around him. “I won’t follow him again.”
“He will leave you here. You know once he steps back on this ship we will sail to another island, and another form there,” Raymeer said.
“Did this one have any provisions? There ‘asn’t been anything fresh in those barrels in weeks,” Jaquey asked.
“Nothing. Not even a mouse.” Harta said.
Jaquey turned his palms upwards, “What can we do?”
The crew started to slowly disperse around the deck.
“We can take control,” Harta said, loudly.
Heads whipped around toward him, “What, like a mutiny?” Raymeer asked.
“Not like a mutiny, a mutiny. Look at the shape we are in. When is the last time we have been to a tavern to drink our fill? When did the ship last get repairs? I ‘aven’t seen a woman’s bosom in moons.” Harta started to pace in front of the crew. “I don’t even know the name of the things he’s looking for.”
“Mer-something,” Elliott called from the crow’s nest.
“Maids!” Jaquey shouted.
“Maids-something?” Raymeer asked.
“It doesn’t matter!” Harta slammed a fist on the raining of the main deck.
“But he thinks one of these things will bring us money,” Elliott called down.
“Who would keep all the money?” Harta asked.
Raymeer looked down at his feet, “Captain would.”
The crew exchanged silent looks and shuffled on their feet. After a few silent moments, Raymeer spoke up.
“Down with Captain.”
The sun was starting to slip behind the horizon when Mersupio brought the row boat alongside the main ship docked off the island. The Captain and him had searched every shore, grotto, and stream on that island.
“We will watch over the waters tonight, they don’t always come out during the day, you see,” The Captain was saying.
“Really.” Mersupio tied a knot in the rope and pulled them up using the pulley.
“Men like me use the daylight hours to see best, as you know how poor my eyes are at night. So they hide from us, from me!”
“Fascinating,” Mersupio’s hands were slow with the pulley.
“They boys must be well rested, send a team out to sit and watch the waters on the island tonight.”
Mersupio’s head crested the deck and his hands stopped in their tracks. The crew was scattered round the deck, hunched and holding ropes. His eyes met Harta’s, who was closest to the railing, and he nodded slowly. He turned his head toward the Captain, who was watching the water and still going on about those creatures.
“Sire, look there!” Mersupio used one hand to point offshore.
“What, lad?” The Captain stood, teetering the boat, and peered out over sea.
“I sworn I saw something with my eyes, I did. Keep looking out there.” He continued to slowly raise the boat.
They were at the end of the pulley, top of the rope, end of the line. The Captain still scanned the ocean that stretched out before him. Mersupio climbed on board the ship and smiled at Harta.
“I reckon I ‘ave an easier way than those ropes,” He stuck a thumb toward Jaquey, pulled out a knife, and severed the rope holding the rowboat with the Captain in it.