**UPDATED** (This was once in Chapter 3 of HUNTSMAN: Book One of The Hunted Mage Trilogy. I have made modifications!)
Avitus rubbed at his eyes, felt the grit from lack of sleep and too much smoke from the cheap lamp oil in the tavern where he sat. It was his third tavern in a long night. He thought it approached dawn outside. He could not be sure.
He lowered his hands and rapped his knuckles several times on the table.
The man across from him had his head tucked into the crook of his elbow and lifted it slowly, his bleary gaze meeting his slowly.
The Frank huffed out his cheeks and groaned loudly.
“So…we are agreed?” Avitus asked as he reached out to grasp the man’s forearm.
The sailor took a pull from a wooden mug before him and Avitus felt his throat clench. He had drunk far too much of this local brew. It was too bitter for his tastes, almost thick. He could still feel it coating his mouth.
Drinking was the price of making deals with sailors.
“Oui, oui. We have agreeing.” The Frank waved toward the surly barkeep for more beer. Avitus stood to leave. “Twenty mens, two chiefs. You drink more?”
The deal had taken forever to achieve. The Frank served as the second in command aboard a trading ship that would leave two days hence to return to a duchy in Francia. His Greek was horrific and Avitus knew too little of the other man’s speech.
It was the last bargain he needed to make this night. He let go the other man’s arm from the sealing of their deal and shook his head adamantly.
“No. Non! I must return to my ship. No.” He turned and made for the door, ignoring the plaintive cries of the sailor behind him. The Frank would regret sealing their bargain before he was finished drinking. Avitus had plied him well with drinks to reach their agreement.
It was later than he had feared. He nudged open the timber door of the tavern and winced as the morning sun made his eyes water and squint at the assault upon them. After so many hours of drinking and lack of sleep, his head throbbed as well.
It is high time I left that sort of drinking to the younger men, Avitus thought. He made his way slowly though Stadi, wandered through the curving streets and narrow alleys of the town as he retraced his steps to the waterfront.
They called it a city, the locals did, and even the name, Stadi, was ‘city’ in their maddening tongue but it was simply a swollen village. It was growing steadily. Even a seaman like Avitus could see the signs of new huts and fresh roads all about. It was haphazard, without design. His third foray down a street that simply ended against a row of sod-roofed hovels had shown him that.
He had finally found a guide, and spent an hour trying to learn some words of his language. The red-cheeked man spoke very little. He simply grinned at Avitus’ attempts to converse.
It was a devilishly tricky language. He knew three languages passably well, and knew enough of four more to trade in the ports. Most sailors could get by that way but this place…it was like no tongue Avitus had ever known.
He would have to learn it. The complexity of it taunted him.
He found himself at the docks well before his midday prediction and pushed himself through the crowds and merchant stalls to approach his ship.
He still loved the sight of her, even with the sails furled and all nicks and gouges from the battles she had seen.
He paused at the plank and watched for a moment. His crew was rushing about the deck, and he could hear the shouts of the bow officer and the helmsman giving orders and hurling insults at the men. It was as he had expected. He would wager that none of the crew had slept much.
Avitus had left them with too much to do for the crew to be finished yet. He would push them, this last time, as he pushed himself. He would see them home again if it killed him…or them.
He walked slowly across the plank and stepped over the rail to the deck below. He turned back ran his hand across the smooth wood of the rail, worn down to a shine from the passing of hands and rope across its surface.
She is a good ship, he mused. I have been proud to call her ‘home’.
He made his way toward the helm, skirting clusters of men and supplies, and looked closely at the piles of gear and supplies strewn about his decks.
They are my decks no longer, truth be told.
The thought made him strangely maudlin for a moment.
Drusus had done well, he saw with satisfaction. They had less than a day’s work left to the chore if he gauged rightly. It was a sorry task he had left the man and the crew was sure to be cursing them both soundly when their backs were turned. They would sing a different tune soon enough when Tullius broke the news of his orders.
He passed a large pile of canvas sacks and a herd of men standing around them midway down the ship, saw the men’s eyes dart away from his. He passed them by and could hear the sullen mutterings in his wake.
He approached the helm and could see one of the helmsmen standing before Drusus, gesturing to the captain’s shelter with sharp pointing motions.
Ah, Gallus…it would have to be you making the most fuss. Our little rooster, Avitus thought. He smiled at the small man’s flapping about as Drusus ignored him. Not much longer, Drusus, and he will be someone else’s thorn…
He passed by the spat and almost made it to the captain’s shelter without becoming involved with their argument. Gallus caught sight of him and called out.
“Bandophorus, Drusus is demanding another…”
Avitus cut off his words with a single finger, pointed at the small man as a warning.
“Drusus does as I command him, helmsman! You should do as he commands, unless you prefer a flogging?” Avitus stared at the kybernete, and for a long moment, Avitus thought he might take the whipping to press his complaint. Gallus looked away with a muttered apology.
Avitus almost felt sorry for the man. He was all blustery wind and no sail. He was a constant source of contention among the officers, yet he backed down so easily he could gain no following among the men to rally to his divisive causes.
The smaller man shot a venomous glare toward Drusus and turned to depart when Avitus took him by the neck and pressed into the muscle and nerves just above his shoulder.
Gallus winced and turned to the banner bearer with a submissive duck of his head.
Avitus lowered his voice so that none but the helmsman could hear.
“You will do as Drusus commands, or by God I will leave you here. With nothing, Gallus. Naught but your skin and that torn from the flogging you will take from each man aboard. We have no time for your posturing. Now go!”
He could hear the rapid padding of Gallus’ feet running from the helm. He did not watch the man depart. He strode to the captain’s shelter and swept his way past the door flap with an elbow.
He could not see for a moment as he entered the darkened room after the brilliant sunshine without. Slowly, he made out the shape of Tullius hunched over his barrel again.
As he drew closer, he could see a mound of canvas pouches on the floor by the barrel. Tullius had his logbook open and a stacked pile of coins in the center of a ragged square of the sailcloth. He used a length of twine to tie the square into yet another small pouch. He dropped it with a clink onto the pile. Avitus could see a small pile of slightly larger pouches separated on the far side of the barrel.
The muster-out coin for the younger men and the older. We will be ready soon.
Avitus lowered himself onto a chest with a sigh and nodded to the captain.
“I found two ships, traders. Their captains were willing to take on some men. They work some on the trip south and we pay less coin now. One ship was due to depart today but they will wait until dawn tomorrow for twenty-five of our men. The other ship…the captain was of a mind to stay the winter. He had wintered here before and it took very little persuasion to convince him to set sail sooner.” He tugged at his beard as he spoke, brushed it down with his palm and felt weariness settle onto him. “Again, twenty-five men.
“I hope that they will hold to our agreement but I cannot be sure. I know that they are not slavers, so the men should have no troubles if they obey. I will bring the men to the ships and reaffirm my deal with their officers. It is the best I can do in the time we have.”
Tullius stood back from his task and nodded. He reached out to clap a hand on Avitus’ shoulder.
“You have done more than any of us could have accomplished in your stead. I confess you are more suited to captain this ship than I. I only thought to give them coin and let them go. You…you found them ships home when there should be none. Why they assigned this ship to me when you lost the last captain still befuddles me.”
Avitus laughed. “No one may be of a mind to thank me before this trip is over. These ships are not short of crew as we are. It will be crowded and the men will be required to work some. I imagine the duties will be ones the primary crews like least but…it will get them home.”
Tullius began to bag up the stacks of gold once more, and checked another list in his ledger. Avitus closed his eyes and leaned his head against a cask.
For a long moment he sat, quiet. He could feel sleep reaching for him, wrapping his head in its muffling embrace, so he stood and stretched. Tullius threw him a sachet of coin. The purse was larger, by far, than those of the sailors but that was as it should be, given his years in service as a banner bearer. It was lighter than he had hoped, lighter than he needed it to be.
“Your pay, my friend. Not as much as you deserve, in my opinion.” Tullius reached out to clasp his forearm. “It has been an honor to serve with you, Avitus. I hope that we may work together again. I am sure that the Empire will find a place for us when we return. You, at least, will find a posting, for returning so many of bloody Basil’s sailors to him when he least expects them. You will be the hero of the Aegean fleet, you organized bastard, you!”
“I doubt that but you have my thanks as well. You were a decent man to serve.” Avitus took a step backward. “Permission to address the crew, sir?”
Tullius’ eyes narrowed at that.
“They need to know now, you think?”
“I think they ought to know. My orders through Drusus are odd enough to make them nervous; we denied them shore leave and worked them like slaves through the night. They deserve to know their fate.”
“As you will, then.” Tullius turned back to his tallies as Avitus left the shelter.
Again, the brightness of the midday sun pained him. He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, then opened them wide to relieve the dull ache in his skull.
“Boukinator,” he roared. “Assemble the men!”
Rufus gave a start then leapt to his trumpet and began shouting orders.
It did not take long for the crew to form their ranks on the decking before the helm. They had all been working under the watchful eyes of the helmsmen and bow officer.
Avitus could see the tension of the men in the sullen glares they cast at the officers before them. He could see some of the more rebellious muttering quietly to the sailors around them in the ranks.
Avitus had risen through the ranks to become a banner bearer. The griping of sailors was nothing new to him, and he knew how to shock the surly mien from their faces as well.
“Attention to the bandophoros!” Rufus yelled, and handed the horn to Avitus.
He strode to the tiller with all eyes upon him. He never enjoyed speaking before so many but he had grown accustomed to it. He cleared his throat.
“The captain’s orders…are to dismiss this crew!” Avitus paused a moment and laughed to himself. The faces of the men changed slowly at his words.
It was only a moment that he let them think on his words. The riotous yells erupted almost at once.
The older men’s eyes narrowed and their jaws clenched as they waited for him to speak further. Some of them closed their eyes and mouthed silent prayers for the wives and children they feared they might never see again. To a man, they waited for his next words. They had served enough time in the Emperor’s fleets to know that Avitus would have more to say.
Many of the younger men simply waited as well. They shifted from foot to foot and cast furtive glances at the older men, taking their examples and waiting for his next words.
They will do well when they get home. Tullius will find them some postings, Avitus thought.
The remaining men either bellowed in outrage or failed to understand what he meant. Most yelled belligerent questions at him and each other. There were a few among them not clever enough to grasp his words.
Avitus could see the simple-minded among the crew looking about them and growing frightened by the shouts and angry faces. He was sorry he had let his last words linger as long as they had, for their sakes.
In the moment it took the crew to react to his announcement, the helmsmen and bow officer all began yelling the crowd into silence.
“The ship has been sold to a local king. No instructions are set forth in the orders as to how to get you home,” Avitus yelled through the trumpet when it grew quiet once more. He stared over the horn and looked steadily at each of the men in the forward rows.
“The captain has hoarded the coins given him for expenses during this trip, and has managed to make your muster-out payments in full. You have coin coming to you but we are a long way from home.”
He could see heads nod in understanding as he spoke, and Avitus could see the old man, Secondus, grin at the boy he had berated the day before and gesture at him with a smug nod.
“I have found ships willing to take men with them. One leaves on the morrow, the other two soon after. We can buy passage for those willing to work their way south. These ships have full crews. The work they give you will be the worst they have.”
All eyes were upon him now and there was no muttering or cursing any longer. An unnatural quiet settled over the ship.
“One ship will bear for Constantinople bearing the captain as per his orders. He will take a score and five of you with him. We will choose those men by lot from the men with the least time served. Another score and five will take ship for Cyprus, again, chosen by lot from the remaining men. The rest are bound for Corsica in the Ligurian Sea.”
A rustling began in the crowd of men before him, whispers and dark looks.
“Why do the younglings go straight home? I have family outside the city back home,” one of the older men grew bold enough to shout. The muttering began again at that. Avitus waved Drusus back as the bow officer stepped forward to strike the man.
“You have more time served, Maruis! You have more pay coming to you and more experience at sea than these boys do. If I send them to Corsica, they have too little coin to pay passage and too little skill to hire onto a ship bound home.” Avitus glared at the older man until his returned stare wavered and broke.
He dropped the trumpet and glared at the men, bellowing his next words unaided.
“This is to give each man the best chance of getting home. If any among you dislike this arrangement, you can stay here and pound bloody sand looking for anyone to hire you on in a manner more to your liking. The bow officer has already begun to divide our remaining supplies so that each of will have rations for the journey. This will help you conserve your coin. With luck, and if you can keep from drinking it away, you may all have coin to give your kin when you see your homes again.
“The fleets have left us here. It is up to us to make sure we get home. The choice belongs to each of you. Any man that ships out…you will take whatever task given you and you will show those men what it means to crew with the Byzantine navy!”
A ragged cheer arose from some of them but it quickly died out.
“I wish you all Godspeed. Helmsmen, see to the lots. The ship to Cyprus leaves at dawn. Carry on!”
He handed the horn to the boukinator and stepped away. The silence behind him unnerved him.
He had never heard a ship’s crew so quiet.