THE BOAT was crude, rough planks lashed with scraps of wire, plastic, plaited vines. It had no sail, no keel, only thwarts for the rowers, a rudder, a pointed prow. An outrigger had been added as an afterthought but even so the vessel was as seaworthy as a coracle.
The skipper, bare feet hard on the bottom, bare chest reflecting the sun, yelled the order. His voice was bigger than it should be… too big when compared with the stark cage of his ribs, the skeletal planes of his face.
"Row, damn you!" he yelled. "Row!"
Dumarest grunted as he threw his weight on his oar. Like the boat itself it was crudely fashioned by men who had scant knowledge and less skill. A boat, to them, was something which floated. They knew nothing of balance, correct ratios, the art which turned dead wood into a thing alive. They had simply built a platform from which to raid the sea.
He grunted again as he tugged at the stubborn pole with the flattened end. Water oozed from between the planks and wet his bare feet. The sun was hot on his naked back. He had won his place because he was big, because he seemed fit, because he could swim. Megan was guarding his clothes.
"There!" The skipper pointed and leaned his weight against the rudder. Something had broken the surface and he headed toward it. "Faster!" he yelled. "Faster!"
They did their best. None of them were strong; strength needs food. None of them were fat; travelers could never be. All were desperate—starvation was too real a threat. So they flung their weight at the oars, gasping in the heat, fevered in their hunting frenzy.
The skipper tensed as they drew close to the spot he had marked. He would get two shares of whatever they caught. Three would go to the owner of the boat safe on shore. The rest would get one share each.
"Steady!" He eased the rudder and dashed sweat from his eyes. He was over-anxious and knew it but it had been too long since he'd made a catch. Small fish, sure, with half of them going back for bait. Skinny, fleshless things of little nutritional value, costing more strength to get than they gave. But whatever had broken the surface had been big. "Carl!" he ordered. "Get set!"
A tall, thin, caricature of a man nodded, dropped his oar, took up his place in the prow. He hefted a harpoon attached to a coil of rope. He looked over his shoulder at the skipper.
"All set, Abe."
"Watch it!" Abe squinted against the sun. The leaden surface of the sea broke, roiled, something hard and gray flashing in the ruby light. "There, Carl! There!"
The harpoon darted forward, the barbs biting deep. Immediately Carl dived for his oar. Dumarest knocked him aside.
"The rope, man! Watch the rope!"
"Get out of my way!" Carl clawed for his oar as the rope ran out. The boat jerked, began to move. Desperately the skipper yelled orders.
"Back! Back for your lives!"
The water threshed as the crude oars lashed the swell. It was like trying to halt the movement of a glacier. The rope thrummed as the prow began to tilt forward. Water streamed over the gunwale.
"The rope!" Dumarest reached out, snatched a knife from the belt of the harpooner, and dragged the edge across the fiber. It parted, the short end lashing back, the prow rising. Beneath them something moved and broke the surface beyond the stern.
"You fool!" Carl snatched back the knife. "You've lost us the rope."
"Better that than our lives." Dumarest looked at the skipper. "Is this how you go fishing?"
"Do you know of a better way?" He was on safe ground. He had fished this sea before, Dumarest hadn't. "Without nets how else do you think we can catch the big ones? We stick them, tire them, drag them to shore. Without a rope how can we do that?"
His anger was justified. The fish had been big, perhaps three days eating for them all and with some left over. He opened his mouth to vent more of his rage then closed it as a man yelled.
"Look, Abe. Blood!"
A thin red film darkened the surface. A thin something trailed across it and Carl shouted his recognition.
He dived before anyone could stop him. He plunged smoothly beneath the waves and rose swimming, heading toward the thin strand of the rope. He grabbed it, turned, began to swim back to the boat. He reached it, clawed at the gunwale, and began to heave himself aboard. He couldn't make it and clung gasping to the rough wood.
"Help him." Abe searched the sea with anxious eyes. "Hurry!"
Dumarest reached the clinging man, clamped his hands around Carl's upper arms, adjusted his weight for the upward pull.
"Thanks," said Carl. "I guess—" He broke off, a peculiar expression on his face. It lasted for about three seconds; then he began to scream.
Dumarest realized why when he dragged the man into the boat. Both his legs had been severed above the knees.