The winter wind came in off the river and cut its way through the trees, causing your campfire to flicker and thrash at the air as though fighting to live. You draw your cloak more tightly about your shoulders and lean a little closer to the golden glow of the struggling flame. The cold still bites at you, but there is nothing for it.
“Four more hours of this.” Dorby bites at the words angrily, looking in your direction. “They should have been here yesterday. Why are we still waiting? Ship’s gotta sail soon, and I’m damned tired of this ‘keepin’ watch’ business. We’re sailors, not soldiers. If the ground don’t sway beneath my feet, I ain’t having any part of it.”
The others look your way as well. They’re all thinking the same thing. This is a strange job, and none of them are happy that it’s running over due for its payoff. “The bonus arranged by the captain will see us all harboring warm and happy this winter.” You assure them again, as you’ve often had to recently.
“Aye, you say that, but what if they don’t show? Rivers running shallow this Fall. It was risky to bring Iron Soul down this far, and riskier still to do so with such low supplies. If we get stuck here, we have nothing to last through the cold seasons.” It’s a fair statement. It has certainly crossed your mind on more than one occasion. What if they don’t show? How long do you wait for passengers, even ones paying as much as they are promising?
The captain had risked it all to take this job. If his gamble pays off, and these people show before the river runs too low to sail out, no man in the crew will be walking away without a small fortune to their name. If the captain took the wrong bet, then there are a hundred different ways things might end with the crew freezing to death in this accursed place. River runs are risky in the summer, but this late in the Fall . . .
“We ran low supply so we wouldn’t get hung up on the rocks after we load our passengers.” You assure the others, and it’s the truth. Running light means you can sail higher in the water, and if the ship makes it back to the sea, you’ll reach your destination inside a week. That’s rough running on an empty stomach, but not unsurvivable. “I know you’re cold and miserable. I’m cold and miserable. I hate this place as much as each of you do, but I’m out here on my shift just like the rest of you, and your captain takes a shift as well.”
“During the day he does.” One of the other men snorts.
“Well, he’s the captain, and it’s his ship. That he stands out here at all is a show of respect most captains wouldn’t give you.” It’s not hard to like the captain. While they may be right that he took a nice, relatively warm, day shift for himself, at least he stood beside his men, uncomfortable and cold on the shore. You’ve served enough men to know the good from the bad, and this captain hasn’t lead you astray. Not yet.
The wind snaps viciously through the trees again, and you try in vain to fall deeper into your cloak. You’re now one full day over the latest day the passengers were supposed to arrive. There is a tenth of their promised fare sitting in a lockbox on the ship, but that is a tenth that doesn’t really belong to you, not if the law comes into it. The contract is for “on delivery to destination” and no one has been delivered.
“Maybe they’re dead? Froze to death on the road.” Dorby almost seems cheerful at the thought. “We could tell the captain they’re dead. Then we’d get to . . . “
“Wait, did you see that?” Vella sits up straight and points down the road into the dark. “Tell me someone else saw that?”
“Saw what?” Dorby is squinting out into the night.
“I saw a man with a torch over that crest there!” Everyone is standing as Vella’s face brightens.
For a moment you see another glow at the reaches of your vision. “That might be them.” You say, mostly under your breath. Then a bit more loudly. “This might be it. Let’s setup a team to go meet them, then we can send word back to the ship and get moving faster. Volunteers?”
No one raises their hand and you let out a sigh. Of course not. No one in their right mind volunteers for anything. Ever.
You’re certainly not marching down the road in the dark. If the captain can skip out on some of the less pleasant jobs, so can the first mate. “Alright, Dorby, Reed and Zayla, you are on it. Go see what’s what, and if it’s them, hurry back here so we get send someone back to the ship to start preparations to leave.”
“Fine, if there are no volunteers it’ll be Vella, Kindle and myself.” You sigh and shake your head. It’s important the men respect you, and besides, getting up and moving might help you warm up some. At least, that is what you tell yourself as you move away from the fire.