Akii cried out to the Ihonian ship in his own tongue, and was answered by a black shape upon the rail. As a rope was thrown over Akii knotted it fast to the boat, fixing it to the hull of the larger vessel. The other sailors were already stowing their oars as other ropes came over the side, a man’s height above them. Sailors were already reaching down, and one called to the hunters in Nordran, “Alright there lads. Grab my hand eh, let’s get you aboard.”
Karl grabbed his hand as his men were hauled aboard by others who ignored them as soon as they were over the side, and leaping down after them to tie ropes to barrels and crates, hauling them up over the side in seconds. They used pulleys attached to the spars high above them to lift some of the larger crates, but most were picked up and thrown over the side by a sailor, to another who caught the weight and passed it on.
The unloading took less time than it had to load, and before the Nordrans had found their feet, the boat was empty and Akii was yelling at the sailors to set to again. The boat was cast off and it was soon out in the water again.
“Are they not coming?” Karl asked the Nordran who’d greeted him.
“Soon enough. They’ve got a couple more loads to pick up.” The Nordran sailor replied. “Don’t know where we’ll put it all, but sure enough we’ll find space somewhere.” As Karl looked around the deck he couldn’t see that there was space even for their own baggage, let alone any more. The sailors were experts at packing though, and there wasn’t a spare inch unused. Crates were wedged in against bales, barrels were pressed in against the sides, their curve following the curve of the ship. Bolts of cloth were pressed in wherever there was the smallest gap.
The Nordrans stumbled over bolts and bales as they tried to find a place to stand where they weren’t in the way of the swarm of sailors that surrounded them. “Where do we… shall we go under the deck?” Karl asked.
“No room under there for a mouse I’m afraid.” The sailor replied. Every spare inch is being used for storage. Damn Ihonians don’t miss a trick do they? Passengers on top of a full cargo. Hope you’re not paying much for this.” He turned back to his work. There were sailors above them, around them, below them. All brown from the sun, barefoot, and stripped to the waist, running along ropes like rats, and scaling masts like they were staircases. They were calling to each other constantly, in Amoric, Nordran, Laoedic, and Scidian among others. How any of them understood each other was anyone’s guess, since there can’t have been more than two or three even from the same country. Above the uproar there was one man standing on the poop deck yelling at them all at the top of his voice. He was a tall black Ihonian, dressed in a doublet with huge puffed shoulders, and around his open throat was a gold chain larger than Akii’s. He was screaming curses in Amoric. He may not have learnt anything else of the language, but he was fluent in insults.
“Hurry up you bastards, you whoresons, you laggards, you pissers”, he cried with gusto, extravagant gestures, and flecks of spit, “Not there, there, you begger, goatfucker, midden.” He knew his insults, Karl thought, though how useful such streams of invective were at getting the ship loaded and ready to sail was anyone’s guess. Another Ihonian was down on the deck, seemingly everywhere with a quill and parchment, noting, marking the bales and crates, checking against lists. Sometimes he looked up and cried out something to the cursing Ihonian, who stopped yelling at the crew for a moment and answered the scribe in a surprisingly calm voice, though the language was unintelligible to Karl.
“Fuck.” Karl muttered to himself. He turned to Jared. “Get the lads bunked out of the way eh. I’m gonna go hunt for the shipmaster.” Jared gave him a look and shrugged. Karl headed off, clambering over the crates that the deck was covered with, almost two high. He grabbed the scribe. “Where’s Nash?” he asked. The scribe looked up.
“Master Nash, up aft on the stern deck.” He pointed to the back of the boat where the space between the mainmast and the stern was covered over with a solid wooden structure. To get up to the stern deck Karl had to clamber up a narrow and steep ladder. He lept up it in two. He was faced with another scene of chaos. A sun-browned face hidden by a huge beard was yelling at an Ihonian who was answering in short barks of instruction that didn’t seem to resolve the bearded man’s frustrations in any way. They were standing around a number of charts and instruments spread out on a crate. The bearded man was dressed well, and wore a cap, and a thick, well-cut cape about him to keep out the morning chill. He looked to be in his forties, and if Karl was any judge, he was Suanese. He looked up at Karl’s approach.
“Ah, yes, the passengers. More cargo, more delays. Perhaps you can tell him. I don’t appear to be able to get through myself.”
“I’m looking for Master Nash.” Karl replied shortly. The Suanese man blinked. He continued, “We’ve got to be getting underway. The tide’s already turning. We’re late to set sail already. And this man wants more cargo. We don’t have time if we want to sail today.”
“We sail today.” The tall Ihonian replied fiercely. “We take more cargo fast. Then sail.”
“Damn you sir, we need to hie anchor now.”
Karl decided to ignore them. “Where’s Nash?” he demanded. The Ihonian jerked a thumb to a structure built on top of the stern deck. It was a small cabin situated right at the back. Thin wooden sides, and a short roof. Karl strode over to it, ignoring the rolling of the deck as best he could, which had got more extravagant even after climbing up this short distance from the main deck. He grabbed the door of the cabin and hauled it open, not bothering to knock.
The cabin was tiny. A single stride forward would have sent Karl crashing into the desk which seemed to fill the res t of the cramped room. The space was lit by a hatch propped up behind the man who was sat behind the desk, seemingly comfortable, despite the lack of room even to stretch out his legs.
The dark-skinned man was tall, with a broad nose and a stocky build. His cheekbones were high, and his forehead was round with a broad band of polished black wood sat atop, around which a strip of brightly coloured woven cloth was twisted, with its tail dangling to the back of his ear. A large triangle of gold shone on his chest, hung on a short necklace. A richly embroidered gold-thread waistcoat was open to the waist, showing a rich white shirt. And he wore a flowing cloak of thin, fine blue material about his shoulders. His face was clean shaven except for a pointed beard about his chin, which shone with oil, and his black hair was worn short, cropped close to his skull. His face was smooth, though there were lines of age about his eyes and mouth. Sitting on his bench behind the desk, writing with a metal-tipped pen upon the open page of a large book, the man radiated quiet authority. Karl had barely met him before, dealing mainly with Akii, while the Shipmaster sat quietly at the table, watching. But then Nash had been wearing a Scindian merchant’s cap, and a short cape about his shoulders, so as not to stand out more than his face forced him to. Wearing these Ihonian clothes, outlandish to Karl’s eyes, seemed though to invest him in the authority of his position as the Scindian garments had shrouded him.
Nash looked up, and smiled quickly.
“My friend.” he said brightly in well-spoken Amoric, without a trace of the accent that marred Akii’s tongue. “Welcome to the Sankofa, my fine ship. You arrive well I trust.”
“I did, thank you, but my men have nowhere to sit. We paid well for passage, and not to perch on the rails like gulls.”
“Never fear my friend. There is room enough for all. Loading is always a difficult time, finding space for everything necessary for voyage, and my new sailors do not know this ship well yet. They will stow all away. Just wait, and within a few days, you will be shocked at how space will be made. There is, what, nine of your men, with the mage, and I have thirty crew. They will go through provisions like locusts. A few days out to sea and you will have more space than you know.”
As he spoke, the man rose, and shaking his arm free from his voluminous sleeve, he reached out across to Karl and grabbed his hand by the wrist, shaking it firmly. He pulled himself out from behind the desk and took Karl by the shoulders, stooping slightly against the low ceiling he pulled Karl out into the morning light.
“See, do they not already clear your provisions away?” he gestured to the ship, still a hive of chaotic activity, thick with curses in twenty different tongues. Without waiting for Karl’s reply, he stepped over to the crate where the bearded Suanese sailor and the tall Ihonian stood.
“Andron, are ready to sail.” The bearded man pulled his cap from his head. “Master Nash, the tide is going out, we must sail now…” But Nash grabbed him by the shoulders. “Do not fear my friend, all will go well. Just a moment and we will be away.”
“A moment, it was just a moment, half an hour ago.”
“Do not worry, I will worry about the time, you worry about the rocks beneath the waves, and the clouds in the sky.” He turned to the Ihonian. “Chitundu, the cargo is aboard yes.” The man nodded, but replied in Ihonian. Nash switched to the language, and shared some brief bursts of query and answer. He turned to the man he’d called Andron. “Chitundu will make the ship ready, the anchor will be raised, the sails lowered. The last cargo will be here in moments and they will find us prepared.”
Chitundu turned to the rail where the other Ihonian was yelling curses at the crew. He put his hand on the Ihonian’s shoulder, and he immediately quieted. Chitundu cried out “Make ready for sail,” in a voice loud enough to carry to the top of the mainmast. The crew seemed to become even more urgent and chaotic, though it wouldn’t have seemed to be possible, some dropped to gather about a great winch set into the deck, which they began to pull at, a crewman to each spoke, and a great rope was wound around the middle as they turned it. Meanwhile other crewmen were about the spars, suspended above the deck, locked onto the wood by powerful thighs as they hauled at the knots that kept the sails aloft, dropping the canvass down to hang loose, before being pulled taught with other ropes and rigging.
Karl watched all this, impressed with the efficiency of the crew. Nash had said they didn’t know the ship well, but they seemed to know their work well enough. Chitundu vaulted over the rail onto the main deck below, and set to work among the men, directing their activities with short words, and sharp gestures, grabbing ropes himself to lend an extra hand where needed.
As Karl watched beside the shipmaster, Jared appeared, clambering up onto the poop deck beside them.
“Karl, the men are settled, but perched on crates, where they can. Do we have any berth?”
Nash grabbed Jared’s hand by the wrist and shook it firmly. “Ah, yes, your own bosun, we have not yet met one another.”
“Jared,” he replied, taken aback by the broad-shouldered Ihonian in his outlandish clothes.
“My name is Ngobo Nash, Master of this fine vessel. You are most welcome. I apologise for the disarray, and ask only your kind patience.” He grabbed Jared by the shoulders, fixing him with his eyes, “All will be fine my friend, I see you and your men are strong and healthy, I am assured you can cope with momentary discomfort. And your voyage will be swift and comfortable very shortly. My personal guarantee.” He pressed his open palm to his chest.
“Well…” Jared looked at Karl, his eyebrow raised. “I suppose we can put up with it for a short time.”
“A very short time, yes.” Nash smiled easily. “And for the two of you, we have cabins made ready. My own you have seen.” He gestured to the short cabin Karl had entered at the back of the stern deck. “My bosun Chitundu has the one next to it, and the two of you will be most comfortable in this one here,” he gestured to a tiny hut that seemed too small for the two of them to stand up in, but as he opened the door, it seemed too small for one of them. A bed was raised to stomach height, with a chest beneath it, and another bunk a metre above it, pressed up against the short ceiling. The floor space before the bunks was almost completely taken up by a small cupboard with a bowl of water and a jug atop it.
“Very comfortable, you will both be so, yes.” Nash exclaimed. “And your neighbour, Andron, the pilot I have recruited to take us south. He has his own cabin, for his measurements and calculations, of course.” The four cabins took up the majority of the stern deck, despite their small size. They seemed fragile things, with thin plank walls that would keep the wind out, but not the cold.