The boat was a galliot, a twin-masted fishing ship. The owners of such vessels had to be quite wealthy, at least in the town's middle-classes.
Most gallioteers fished out in Sharkmouth Bay, in a particular tooth to the north of Lake Balinga. The tooth was a half-moon five kilometres across and about as deep into the land. It was the most popular spot for fish to congregate since its position relative to the bay's mouth made it the calmest of all the bay's teeth. The more adventurous fished out in the bay, near its mouth, but few, if any, dared venture beyond the bay into the open ocean. Sturdy as galliots were, they had neither the keels to handle the waves, the sails to withstand the wind, nor the anchors to hold fast in the ocean currents; and their captains generally lacked experience sailing on the open ocean -- something often more deadly than an ill-seaworthy vessel.
This meant they missed out on the most valuable fish, which generally kept to the open ocean, but their less valuable prey in the bay came in schools, so netting was far more profitable. Not to mention the calmer currents meant normal nets could be used, nets had to be far more reinforced to be used in the ocean, and those were prohibitively expensive to the likes of gallioteers.
Galliots were usually manned by five or six sailors, three of whom doubled as netmen. The captains were generally the ship owners as well, though there were a few who were hired by the ship's actual owners. Usually this was the case when a son who had pursued a non-fishing career inherited a ship from his father. And there were the occasional conglomerates where each captain, and sometimes crewmen as well, owned a stake in a conglomerate corporation and thus collectively owned all the ships through the organisation. Whitestag had about a hundred galliots, which formed the bulk of the town's fishing fleet.
Claude and Welikro were aboard the Miltiny, one of the older in the fleet at twenty years. Her captain was Syblon, a young captain who'd inherited her from his father. His wife was with child and expecting it this winter, and he'd run the boat ashore for the last two months and winter while he waited with his wife for the child to come.
Eilina had begged the captain to help her find her son, hoping his own imminent fatherhood would move his heart to her aid. He'd promised her Miltiny, but had refused to captain her himself, so she'd found another to captain the ship, a man named Makro.
Makro was a captain-for-hire. He had no ship of his own. Instead, he specialised in for-hire jobs for others with a ship but neither captain no skills to be one themselves. He generally handled cargo or fishing jobs for an upfront hiring fee and a commission on any profits made. He'd been down on his luck lately, however, thanks to several jobs that had ended sourly and given him the reputation as a scoundrel and sneak.
He'd never had a good reputation to begin with, it had to be said. He was a habitual gambler and fornicator, and spent more money on women and bets than clothes and food. Most good captains who did not start out with a ship inheritance, saved up enough for their first ship in a couple of good years, and traded up ships every five to eight years, working their way up the ladder in size until they found the ship with which they were satisfied. Not Makro, however. He'd been a captain for ten years and he still lived from paycheck to paycheck. He didn't have a single fenny's savings to his name.
Most of Syblon's crew had taken the opportunity to head to families afield of town and were thus out of reach. Luckily Eilina had found three sailors willing to take on the job at the same time she'd come across the voyage's captain -- all in Mermaid. The crew had, however, only agreed to a five-day voyage.
The three sailors were Ankess, Welik, and Krin -- old acquaintances of Makro's. Claude couldn't decide whether their names sounded real, or like aliases. When he asked the captain about it, he said most sailors had pseudonyms chosen by the crew and captain. Names had to be short, simple, unique among the crew, and easy to hear over the incessant noise inherent to the sea and ships.
Claude and Welikro quickly learned that, despite his bad reputation, the captain had a fair and amenable personality. It turned out he knew them quite well as well. He'd worked intimately with their fathers on a number of occasions. Though he could not be called a friend of their fathers', he was certainly a good acquaintance.
Claude knew he was playing up his relationship with the two boys' fathers at least somewhat, but it still allowed him some room for relaxation. He could trust, at least, that the crew would take their job serious, if only for the five days to which they'd agreed. Offending Claude and Welikro would not do their careers or general lives in town and the surrounding areas well, so the two could trust them to not muck about.
Makro's bad reputation was definitely not for his skills as a captain, which was another welcome blessing, and the three men in his crew were excellent sailors as well. Despite being the minimum crew possible for a galliot, they kept it sailing as if with full complement. The two boys had thought they'd be kept busy making up for the three crew-slots, but the other left them with hardly anything more to do than stand around and look busy.
Under the tender and capable ministrations of the captain and his three-man crew, Miltiny slid back and forth across the channel as she made her way up to and past Egret and into the bay.
The entire crew relaxed markedly once they passed the island, and each grabbed some alcohol. Makro got his hands on one of his bottles of whiskey, while the sailors took to the ale. The split had already been finalised before they'd set sail. The sailors were given a bottle of whiskey for each of the five days, and the rest went to the captain. Since neither of the boys had been hired for the job, they only got ale.
Claude took the chance to hear from the captain what the plan was before he got so drunk Claude might not understand what he was saying. They were going to circle the bay along the shore to check if he hadn't run aground or washed ashore. The crew and himself were to man the sails and wheel, and the boys would play crow up in the crow's nest.
Claude clambered up the mast with ill-practiced movements, only to give up about five-sixths of the way and sliding back down. There was no way either he or Welikro, or indeed any of the crew, were going to man the crow's nest. The winter winds were simply too sharp. They'd die of hypothermia a third of the way into their shift. He couldn't give up that easily however, he would never be able to live with himself of his absence from the mast meant they missed Eriksson, so he got extra warm clothes out of his bag, and put as much of it on as he could fit over his other clothes, and clambered back up the mast.
He could hardly see anything, however. The cold wind cut right through his eyes and blinded him. He could see nothing for the front thirty degrees to either side of their direction of sail, and could only barely make out vague shapes for the next fifty. He could only really spot for the rearward hundred and either to two hundred degrees, looking back along their path, and only by blocking the wind with a hand. As such he could not keep an eye on any one side of the ship for more than a minute before having to switch to his warmed hand and slipping his frozen hand back under his clothes for thawing.
The summer sea was a world of life, a bed of thriving organisms, but the winter sea was an empty void, an endless abyss of death. Even the sky hid itself behind dark-grey-to-black clouds, and the horizon was no less shy. The water surface may be devoid of life, but it was not devoid of activity, however. Waves bounced back and forth between the shores endlessly, driven by the frigid, merciless winter winds.
He and Welikro switched watch every three hours for three days straight, but they had no sign of Eriksson, in fact, they had no sign of anything besides grey nothingness. Even the shore, just one hundred to two hundred metres away most of the time, was just a ghost peeking out of the misty, grey void that had swallowed them since they'd left Lake Balinga. For three days, he had switched with Welikro nonstop now to keep watch up on the mast. But they hadn't found a single trace of Eriksson's small fishing boat.
They anchored by the bay's mouth for the third night, and the captain informed the boys they were heading back starting the next morning. Welikro blew up at him, Makro had agreed to five days of searching, not five days of sailing. Whatever time it took to get back to the dock was outside of the five days for which he'd been hired. But it did little to change the captain's mind. He just shrugged and said they were heading home in the morning. If the boys wanted to keep searching, they'd have to swim.
Besides, he'd said, the mist was thickening by the hour, and the wind had cooled considerably, not to mention that it was also blowing steadily and incessantly from the sea. These three factors together always spelt a blizzard. If they were caught out on the water in it, they would need rescuing themselves.
They'd found neither trace nor wake of Eriksson in their three days of searching, anyway. He was either out in the open ocean, or back on Lake Balinga, possible already docked and in his mother's arms. The captain carefully didn't mention the third possibility, that he'd been dragged under without a trace as happened so often in these early winter waters.
Welikro was struck dumb, but Claude's mind was still working. From how he knew Eriksson, where would the boy be waiting for the fleet? Borkal knew about the fleet's mission from his father, and Claude doubted Eriksson's father would not have told him as well. Eyke might have gone as far north as the Sea of Storms.
"I think I know where he is," Claude said.
"Where?" Welikro half belched.
"Krulu Island," Claude answered confidently.
Makro put down his whiskey bottle and frowned.
"Impossible, why would he go there?"
Krulu Atoll was on the southern edge of the Sea of Storms. A small outcrop of rock, sanded over by the wind and waves into a tiny stretch of beach and a small palm grove. Legend said it was the remnants of an ancient volcano, the caldera of which had since formed a small, self-replenishing freshwater lake in the middle of the atoll. It was quite a popular pit-stop for ships. Though too small to provide food other than what could be fished out of the waters off its beach, the lake provided ample fresh water.
It might have become a popular getaway or picnic spot for the rich as they toured the coast on their private or hired ships, but it was battered by weekly storms for more than half the year thanks to its location on the edge of the Sea of Storms. The storm surges frequently swamped the entire atoll save the lake, which was elevated above the normal sea level by several dozen metres thanks to the hard volcanic rock which had yet to give in and crumble to the sea's regular battering. That was a big reason why the grove was exclusively palm trees. It had no underbrush and no smaller plants. They had neither the height nor the roots to survive the storm surges in the atoll's loose sand.
The island, abundant in fish despite its general, acute lack of other resources, was named after the massive shoals of krulu, a regional species of flying fish, which fed off the coral reefs that stretched for kilometres around the atoll when they migrated past twice a year.
"Are you sure Eyke went to Krulu? Isn't his father taking the fleet further south? I thought the idea was to avoid the Sea of Storms," Makro asked.
Claude shook his head.
"He'll be there. I heard him say something about using the caldera's rim to watch the ocean. The waters there is abundant with the last of the krulu migration this time of year as well, so he won't lack food. It's just a day-and-a-half's sailing from here. If he isn't there, we can head straight home. Please?!"
"And you?" Makro asked, glancing in Welikro's direction, "You think Eyke will be there as well?"
Welikro didn't know why Claude was being so insistent, but he knew his friend enough to trust him, whatever his reasons may be.
"I stand with Claude. He has always had a sense for these things. Eyke will be there. If he's not, we'll just go home immediately."
Makro eyed the two boys for a long moment, then sighed.
"Fine. We'll set sail again at daybreak and sail through the night. We turn back immediately if we can't find him. Let's pray our luck holds and this--" He shoved his finger upwards -- there was no sky to which to point. "--doesn't turn into a blizzard like a fear it will."