Friday Fiction: Of Merchant and Magic Part 3

Chapter 3: The Water Road Home


“Easy.” The lead great hauler tossed her head, smelling the sea. “Yes, you will go to the brooding pens after this,” Tycho agreed. Perhaps it was a sign that he truly needed to return home, his talking to the birds. But the birds seemed rather wise and thoughtful compared to some of the people in the caravan. The prospect of a Free Cities’ ship and home seemed even better than it had when he left Guill, autumn storms included.

The white seabirds circled overhead, then turned and swept downstream to Platport proper. The caravan leader waved a blue and white flag, and the wagons and carts, and men’s knees, creaked into motion. He’d sold well, and carried his own goods, spices and aromatic wood, and four hundredweight of the fine southern fiber that sold so easily farther east. It came from the stems of the plant, that much he knew, and he wondered if it would grow north of Liambruu. If not, it was one of only three useful things the kingdom had produced this season. The great haulers leaned against their harnesses as the wagon slurped through a muddy stretch of road. Autumn brought rain, and rain ruined the summer roads. The birds wide feet left holes that water and mire seeped into. He’d put his staff in the wagon. It slid more than it helped in the mud, and no one would attack a caravan this close to Platport.

At least he was not at the end of the line today. He’d moved up to third position. Tomorrow he’d be back at the tail but the sky looked dry, and they had one more day until they reached Platport, Maarsdam be praised. The great hauler tossed her head and he gave her some more rope. She shook but did not stop pulling. The birds knew where they’d been born and wanted to return there. So did their handler. He could see the thin dark line poking up from the horizon that marked the tower of the temple of Donwah at the edge of the port. Had the gods planed the land flat for a reason? Or had they simply grown tired of making hills and mountains and seas and opted to smooth the land and call it good? Because it was good, and the grain had ripened well. A few grazing beasts glanced up as the caravan passed, and Tycho eyed their fat flanks and sleek hides. The ruddy and white brindled one had promise, but white meant an uneven hide, and he sighed a little. White skin thin skin, red skin good skin he repeated for the thousandth time at least.

“Ho, Tycho,” Talman called, slowing his pace to walk beside Tycho. His senior journeyman, Lont, slowed as well. “Anything more on the stinking coins?”

“Nay. The market meester found three more, low value, all Platport. No one would claim them, but a fine-baker found two of them.”

Lont made the horns with his left hand and spat. “The council of Platport will not be pleased.”

Tycho snorted a little. “No. They might even be a little upset.”

Talman grimaced and shook his head. “A little. Have the smiths named the metal?”

“Not that I heard, although there is talk that it is lead with something added, plus silver, but that is market talk.”

The taller man grunted. “Give the mint mages something to do this winter.”

“Aye.” But if the mages could not “see” the false metal, then how could they name it? Tycho had turned that over and over since the trafeld, and still could not thing of an answer. But he was not a mage, as he well knew, and perhaps they had ways they preferred not to discuss outside their trade halls. They likely did. All crafts did, except sailors. No one could keep sailors quiet, or so it seemed to him.

Three days later he watched the great crane lifting the last barrels into the hold of the Leaping Fish, the ship that would take him home. The open-sided wooden driving wheel creaked and he heard panting as four apprentices walked inside the wheel, working the ropes that pulled the barrels up. As they walked, strong men pushed on a long beam, turning the entire crane from the land side to the ship side. Tycho imagined that he was inside the crane house, the round base of the machinery. He heard drum beats, and the apprentices stopped, then quickly changed directions, facing the other way and lowering the barrel into the open hold access. The crane’s long neck hung over the ship, and he wondered if there were any truth to the story that someone far to the south had a crane that used no pulleys, but the entire neck rose and lowered. He studied the neck, thinking of the enormous beam and its supports, and thought about what would happen if the apprentices or prisoners working the mechanism slipped or didn’t listen to the drums. He winced.

“Ought wrong, Meester Tycho?”

“No. Thinking about the story of the southern crane with the dipping neck instead of pulleys, and if it slipped.”

The assistant harbormaster looked from the crane to the ship and back. “There’s be more than one barrel and a few sailors broken if it went wrong.”

“Aye. I think it is no more than a story, or a wine dream.”

“Aye.” He went his way and Tycho returned to his inn. He collected his belongings and a few more late letters that had arrived for him, left a half ring for the maid who’d washed his shirts, and carried everything down to the ship.

He’d watched his trade goods loaded already, and the mage in charge of water-out spells had assured him that all was well. “So long as no water comes in from above, this will last a month.”

“Good.” He’d paid top rates for the spells, and had flinched a little inside at the twenty vlaat cost. But the fiber alone would bring over eighty vlaat, and if it got wet, he’d have to put it overboard before it caught fire. Better to spend the spell money and pray to Maarsdam than to hope for Maarsdam’s favor alone. And Donwah of the waters had been known to strike cocky ship masters, leaving their passengers and cargo to suffer as well. No thank you.

Tycho waited until all the cargo had been loaded before calling up the ramp “Hail the ship.”

“Hail the land, come aboard.”

Tycho staggered little as he walked up the narrow and steep ramp, then down the ladder onto the deck. The sturdy ship rocked just a touch already as the river waves licked her sides. He’d seen one of the Chin’mai ships when he was young, the deep-sea ships that didn’t rock, but also couldn’t come far inland. He liked the koogs better, even if they did roll. The tide would be turning with the wind, or so the priestess of Donwah had said, and they’d be leaving with the wind and tide. The men on deck acknowledged him, then returned to their work. He carried his things down to the first deck and stowed them, hung his hammock, and made himself comfortable for the moment. The sailors didn’t like having spare bodies on deck when they loaded.

Tycho awoke in time to see the port disappearing as the ship rounded the headland on Plats River. The temple spire pointed to the cream-blue sky like a guiding needle pointed south. He squinted at the sun, thought about the tides and the time of year, and made a private wager that they’d stop at Strade for the night instead of risking the shoals near the headland.

He lost the wager. The full moon made a silver sea road, and the Leaping Fish continued on, past the low, dark land on either side of the river. He smelled smoke, and marsh, and the clean salt of the true sea somewhere ahead of them. The sails puffed a little as the night’s off-shore wind pushed them toward the sea. He staggered a little as he walked across the deck and looked down the long drop to the river. A few orange and silver fish jumped, chasing the bugs that lingered over the water. Heavy steps came up behind him, and he turned and saluted the ship’s master.

“Too smooth to be feedin’ fish. Or you celebrate too much this noon?” Henk Wesserman always sounded as if he were speaking through the end of an empty barrel, as if the gods had put an echo in his voice for their own amusement.

“Neh, watchin’ the land pass and wonderin’ how far upriver sea-floods go.” Both men made horns, warning off any ill luck.

“All the way. There’s a story I heard, back when I was a rope-man, ‘bout a storm in my great-grandfather’s day it would have been. Washed away every farm from the big rocks there,” he pointed with his chin, “to the sea proper, and put water into every building as far upstream as Tynsford and deepened the channel into Platport. That much I believe. But the man said there’d been a great island off the shore where the shoals are now, and that Donwah took it in a night and a day, drowned everything on it and turned it into sea. That sounds too strange for my ears.”

“Huh.” Tycho considered the last big winter storm five years before. “Donwah does as she will, but that does sound like the story about the women of the Chin’mai with fishtails.”

“Maybe during the time of cold the storms were that bad, but now? Neh. Not that they’re not bad enough,” Henk added quickly, lest the goddess take offense.

“Aye. May that one five years past be the worst I see, and I’ll be content. The one what put the schaef on the council chamber balcony,” he added for the shipmaster’s benefit.

Henk scratched his head under his flat wool cap, then nodded once. “Aye. I was in Maans’hill for that one. Glad to be up on the ridge for once I was. Flood not as bad as in the other four cities.”

“Huh.” Maybe that big bend in the river had slowed the water. Or the marshes around the city hill had just filled up like a giant moat. Either might happen and probably did, depending on the wind and the water.

“Any news from the land side?”

Tycho sifted rumor and observation as he scratched his nose. “Nothing new since the trafeld. You know about the false coin?”

“Aye. Bad cess to whoever’s makin’ ‘em.”

“Agreed. More have been found, mostly Platport but one from Chin’mai, if you can believe that.”

Henk’s eyes bulged a little under his thick black eyebrows, then he snorted. “Anyone stupid enough to pass off such bad false coin would be stupid enough to copy coin no one accepts. Chin’mai?”

Tycho raised his right hand. “Maarsrodi hear me, Donwah my witness, I have one from Guill that looks like a Chin’mai coin, but badly made, and it stinks like the others.”

Henk crossed his arms and leaned on the deck-rail, watching the land easing past. “Bagh,” he said at last. “I don’t like this.”

“No one does. A lot of mint mages are going to be busy this winter, or so market talk says.”

“Aye that.”

Tycho left Henk leaning on the rail and watching the land pass. He needed to sleep, and he’d never yet had a long sea passage that didn’t meet a storm. Sleep in the fair and work in the storm, that was the rule of a koog at sea. He stripped to the shorts and rolled into his hammock, asleep in moments.


The koog stayed close to land, stopping twice for water and provisions, and once to wait out contrary winds. Tycho wanted to be home, but Donwah had her ways and who was he to argue with the ship’s master? As the only passenger he couldn’t blame anyone else for being impatient, unlike some men he knew. And he’d sailed before. He’d have more success teaching a fish to drum-dance than persuading Henk and the men to skip a water stop. Instead he read the letters that had been sent to him at Platport, went over the season’s trade, considered what might be in demand next season based on the state of the lands he’d seen and the market talk, and wondered if the letters of credit from Liambruu would still be under ban next year. If so, it might make some things more difficult and he’d need to see about hiring another heavy cart for goods and coin.

Three days out from Rhonari, as they rounded the Great Headland, the wind began pushing them faster and faster, blowing from the west. The sea felt smooth, too smooth, and Tycho joined the crew tying things down and making certain the hatch-locks and sealing spells and caulk looked good, as best he could. They’d reached the one stretch of coast without safe anchorage, and would have to ride the storm in the open water, making those checks triply important. “I’ll check the ballast pump,” he told Henk.

The master looked at him sideways, and for good reason. No one with sense worked on the ballast pump if they could do anything else. Just the miasmas and stench were enough to chase away those in their right minds. Tycho let the sailors make up their own reasons for his willingness to take on such a nasty job, and the only one that did not require the ability to see or use magic. Henk’s broad shoulders rose and fell and he turned his attention to the rigging. Tycho took that as approval and worked his way down two decks, then wiggled through a tight gap between the ballast stone freight and around barrels of something until he found the pumps. They were in the same place on every koog, and he ran his hands over the leathers, pinching them here and there, and tugging a little where they attached to the handles. The leather moved with suppleness, not cracked or stiff, and he did not feel any leaks or holes. The rest of the pump was ready, as best he could tell without light. He didn’t want to risk striking a light unless he had to.

On his way back up, Tycho tugged on the chains holding the barrels, and kicked at some of the stones. They didn’t move. He’d already made certain that his own cargo was secure, and his possessions as well. Should he go on deck, or wait below? On deck, in the bow castle where he’d be out of the way for now. He had a sense that he’d be down below soon enough.

Three glasses passed before the main weight of the storm slammed into the Leaping Fish. Tycho added his prayers to those of the crew, a rope wrapped around his waist, one arm hooked around the support closest to his cubby. The koog pitched up and down, dropping into the trough between the waves, then rising up with the water before dropping again. The wind pushed them hard, even with the sails down and the slant-mast taken in. Tycho listened to the water on the hull, the wind roaring as it raced around the ship, and prayed that he wouldn’t hear the sound of something moving below him. Once, ten years before, he’d had to help secure barrels of fish that broke loose during a storm. He’d broken his leg, and the other man had died, crushed between the hull and the fish. He couldn’t feel a pattern to the waves, just up, up, then down, with sideways wiggles that his stomach did not like at all. He hoped they could keep running with the wind on open water, and that the storm would not turn sideways. Koogs did not like wind from the side, not storm winds.

The next day, when the cloud-dark sky turned paler, the wind faded and the waves eased, although Tycho’s stomach warned that he’d not be eating anything soon if he was wise. As the weather calmed outside the ship, he untied the rope and coiled it, then ventured up the ladder onto the deck. Four of the men clustered on the left side of the ship, looking down. One hauled up on a rope, pulling something out of the water Tycho guessed, and he made his careful way around the mast and the ropes coiled in tubs on deck to see what it was. A piece of painted wood came aboard and the men all went to one knee, heads bowed and bare. Donwah had claimed the Marshman’s Pride for her own, or at least had taken a chunk of it.

“They left port two days before we did,” one of the sailor-apprentices said, voice trembling a little. “How did we catch them?”

With a grappling-hook, Tycho observed to himself, then begged Donwah for pardon. She was not forgiving of slights or disrespect. “Perhaps their cargo shifted,” he speculated.

The others got to their feet. “Perhaps,” Henk allowed, then pointed. “You, get a rope and toss it!” Tycho caught a glimpse of what looked like a mast or other long, round piece of ship with a man on it. He hurried to help anchor the rescue rope while the apprentice lowered the rope-net over the side, in case the man could be pulled that close to the ship. “Neh, get your staff, Tycho, in case he’s not what he seems.”

“Aye.” Tycho hurried as best he could below decks and returned with his heavy merchant’s staff. He waited, both hands on the heavy wood and iron, as the sailors pulled the rope-net up the ship’s tall side, and a man with it. He wore a grey-tan shirt and canvas trousers, all soaked through. The men dragged him over the side-rail and dumped him onto the wooden deck.

“Donwah be thanked,” the stranger gasped. He coughed, wheezed, and coughed again. “Cargo broke loose. Others were below, trying to secure it and pump. Water through hull seams, got worse with storm, then chain broke or pulled lose. I didn’t see it, heard and felt it. Then a wave caught us sideways.” He coughed again, and managed to get to hands and knees. Tycho relaxed and planted the butt of the staff in a tiny dip in the deck planks, leaning on the staff. Then he shivered as he thought about how easily the sturdy ship had been taken by the sea. Did he know anyone on board? Probably. Donwah took her toll of merchants every year, be they apprentices or senior masters. That was the price of using the sea.

Henk crouched down on his hunkers beside the man and asked something. The man shook his head, coughed again, and answered. Henk stood. “He’s one of ours. No pirates right now, thanks be.”

The sailors salvaged a few things that floated past, mostly bales of fabric and some grain sacks and other things. The bodies they left to the goddess. Tycho wondered which mage had cast the protective spells on the bales and sacks. If he could find out, he’d hire the man next year if he came back via Platport. Very few charms or spells could stand up to great waters for any length of time, and these had been in the water for at least half a day. That kind of protection was worth every vlaat. Were the charms good in rain? If so, he might have some canvas charmed and use that on the wagons. But that was if they got into port and he went south next season. Tycho looked at the seals on the bales and grain.

“You know these?” Henk asked.

“Yes. These, and those. I’m not certain about this one, but there were two new cloth merchants at Umfeld who worked with some men from, oh, the city where they make that very fine almost netting.” He struggled to remember the name of the place. It had not sent anything to the great trade fair before. “Argh. I’m getting old. It could be one of theirs, or someone newly made master. I don’t know all the cloth marks.”

“Well, it was the Marshman’s Pride, so they can be tracked from that.” Two of the mages in Rhonari specialized in matching marks to owners over distances. They were law-court mages, and this would come under the laws of salvage, so they’d be called in anyway.

Tycho leaned closer, steadying himself with his staff. Something about the seal on the grain sack seemed odd, as if it had been done in haste, or had been rubbed away in part. On impulse he reached down and rubbed the edge of the seal, then sniffed. “Sh— ah,” he caught himself before he cursed and angered the sea goddess. “Maarsdam to my hand. It smells like the stinking coins.”

“What?” Henk almost knocked Tycho over as he lunged for the big sack. He rubbed the seal and sniffed for himself. “Well done! But damn, that’s strange. We’re not putting them in the hold, but keep them on deck. If someone’s put a malediction on them, I don’t want them down below.”

Could a malediction stay after the dunking the sacks had gotten? If it was part of the preservation charms perhaps, but did magic work like that? Tycho couldn’t remember.

After that, the last day of the journey passed quietly and without excitement. No pilot fish joined them, to Tycho’s mild disappointment, but they tended to stay farther south this time of year or so he’d heard. That evening, as the sky cleared, they turned into the mouth of the Rhonar River. From here it would be an easy sail to the port, if the wind cooperated. Otherwise they could unload and go overland, although he didn’t want to spend the money. The low, wet land eased by, and he noted the farm houses and barns on their mounds of earth, little islands in the great green and brown sweep of land around the river. Where the sea and river ended and the land began remained a mystery, changing with the tides and storms. Some folk thought the land around the four port cities was uncanny since it belonged to Korvaal and Donwah both. Tycho couldn’t judge one way or another. He just knew which ways were safe for man, safe for beast, or safe for wagon and cart. Several lords had learned the hard way that the men of the north could hide in the marshes and watch armies drown, as well as fighting on land and sea.

“Spire in sight,” the man on top of the main mast called the next morning.

“Donwah be blessed,” everyone chorused, and Tycho went to one knee as he gave thanks. Maarsdam be willing, they’d dock before sunset.

Leaping Fish, with a little help from the small boats of the tugging men, docked two hours before dark. Tycho had changed from his boat clothes into his home clothes, knee-length deep blue robe with squirrel-fur trim, leather leggings, black belt with his long-knife, and a soft, black hat embroidered with the symbols of Maarsrodi and Rhonari. He waited until the ramp had been lowered from the deck to the dock, then shouldered his gear. Staff in hand, he walked carefully down the steep wooden ramp, mindful that the solid ground would rock for a day or so until he got land-legs back.

“What news, Tycho Galnaar,” the dockmaster asked.

“You heard about Marshman’s Pride?”


“Lost in the storm three days past, one survivor brought back on this ship,” he pointed with the back of his head. Naming the ship brought bad luck until all the salt had been washed off her hull by the river. “Some cargo as well.”

The dockmaster shook all over, as if he’d gotten wet. “Not sure if she was due in here or not.”

“Other news is about false coin south of the Gheel.”

“We’ve heard that.” He smiled, a lopsided baring of small, yellow teeth. “Wagers were on how many you’d bring home.”

Tycho chuckled. “Four, from two different cities supposedly.”

“Well damn. I had eight.” He stepped to the side, watching the men starting to unload cargo and the man in ill-fitting, borrowed clothes who struggled down the ramp. Tycho nodded and walked up the pier, slowly, taking his time and leaning on his staff. He smelled the tannery and wrinkled his nose. The wind had shifted, then. Over all the harbor smells came the city, woodsmoke and dung and the heavy scent of the wares-houses, a bit like wet wool but not exactly. He caught a whiff of late fish and the tempting aroma of something fried. Fried things never agreed with him, being too hot and dry for his cold nature, but still, perhaps after he paid his respects at the temple but before he went home. Gerta wouldn’t know.

He stopped at the carved wooden pillar marking the edge of the city, and bowed. “Hail to proud Rhonari, free city of the north.” He recited, then bowed again. Proud city, free city, his city. Once he crossed the line of paler stone set into the dirt he would be in city law and city duty. With a happy heart he crossed the threshold.

(C) 2017 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved


7 thoughts on “Friday Fiction: Of Merchant and Magic Part 3

  1. Interesting variation – from (magically?) counterfeit coins to counterfeit seals on bales. (Would that make their contents baleful?)


  2. Besides the not-magic, it’s amazing how appreciated one can become by willingly taking on the most loathed jobs. And nobody will bother you (assuming you do it something approximating right), lest they wind up having to do the job. I would imagine that crew would not mind having him as passenger again, if only for that one thing.

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