The sun pressed down through the cloudless sky onto a tiny dock on a tiny island, onto the single, tiny ship moored there, and onto the lone figure who disembarked onto the pier. On his back was strapped a long and ornate spear and, wrapped in a waxed cloth for protection, the unmistakable outlines of a harp. Shifting his gear and adjusting his balance, he cast one last look back to his vessel before starting his walk towards land. From here the island was a dismal sight, a rocky outcropping in the sea devoid of life or vegetation. It's inhabitants, such as they were, clearly eked out their humble existence from the sea alone, a supposition quickly proved factual as an old fisherman came into view, sitting on the edge of the pier with a simple hand-made rod and line.
The newcomer could see now how unusual the heat of the day was to this region, for trickles of sweat rolled down the old man's brow and neck. The warmth was not a problem for the sailor known as the musician. He was foreign to these shores, and in his distant homeland such heat was commonplace. His olive skin was well accustomed to the sun. Not so these pink Iatkosi, who wilted under the heat much like a prune.
"Excuse me," the musician said. He spoke the language of Iatkos fluently, with only a small trace of the accent of his homeland. "I wonder if you could help me?"
The old man with the fishing line seemed not to have heard, for he made no motion nor gave any acknowledgment that he was being addressed. The musician attempted again, raising his voice louder.
"Pardon me, sir," he shouted slowly, "Could you direct me to the establishment known as the Salty Sailor?"
The old man spoke in a mumble without turning to look. "What fer?"
The musician was somewhat taken aback by the question. "I have an important mission here on this island and I was told to start there."
The fisherman shook his head in disgust and jerked a thumb towards the mainland. "O'er there," was his only comment. Looking in that direction, the musician could see several shacks and shanties that housed the local residents, but nothing that appeared to be a tavern.
"What great hospitality," the foreigner mumbled to himself in his own language. Rolling his eyes, he passed by the old man in the general direction that had been indicated.
Not for the first time, he began to wonder if the task that had been given him was not only impossible but foolish as well. But he had never been one to give up nor to shirk a duty laid upon him, and certainly his respect for Philandros, his captain, had been earned on many occasions on that cursed voyage. So while he might be inclined to think that this little quest was nothing more than a random act of desperation, a sign that the old captain was grasping at his final straws, he could not have refused the obligation once the task had been offered. Besides, it was nice to get off the ship for a little while, and if he ever had to pull at the oars again it would be too soon. The musician took a moment to offer a prayer - not to these strange Iatkosi gods and goddesses of whom he had heard much, but to the single god of his homeland far away. It was in that god's service that he had come to this strange place; surely he would be aided in this task as well.
The little collection of housing could barely be called a town or even a village. The shacks that housed the locals looked so flimsy that one would expect them to be blown away at the slightest storm, and yet, somehow, human habitation here had clearly endured, stubbornly refusing to give way to the elements. The musician walked among them, peering for any sign of a commercial establishment. He almost passed it. A small weather-worn sign with almost illegible writing announced one of the shacks, barely larger than any of its neighbors, as the tavern called the Salty Sailor. The musician took a deep breath and stepped inside.
Staring down into his mug, Ericious was confronted with a most depressing sight. No man welcomes the sight of an empty glass, a dry bottom mocking his thirst and his desire for oblivion. Hadn't he just started on this tankard? He sure as hell wasn't drunk enough yet; the burning anger and frustration that kept him up at night had not nearly been quenched. But what to do? The fat bastard of an owner in this ridiculous little excuse for tavern was not a friend of the common man, no sir. He'd insisted on coin in exchange for beer. Coin! How bourgeoisie! And Ericious of Peace was not a man of coin - never had been, never would be. Coin turned men into animals, he'd seen it often enough. Thus, no beer for Ericious' mighty thirst. He'd had to convince the fat man to give him the last two mugs of beer on credit, and he had a feeling the pig would not consent to a third.
He scowled. Nothing had gone as planned. He was needed in the city, with his brothers, laying the groundwork for the revolution, not wasting away on this backwater island, stranded. Again he asked himself if his flight had been too hasty. Things got a little too hot and he had run like a coward! And what was his crime, compared to the crimes perpetuated by the nobility every single day upon the working poor? He had only intended to be gone a short while, a day or two. He hadn't expected all the wind to dry up, leaving him on the blasted Hook of all places, with not a single ship in sight. He had to get back to Peace, by any means. But until a ship deigned to stop by this pathetic spit of an island, all he could do was drink.
He looked up from the mug and noticed that, as usual, the tavern was empty except for the owner and himself. Ericious cleared his throat, preparing to exercise his charm to coerce the fat owner to grant him another mug of beer on credit, when a stranger stepped into the tavern, at once occupying his attention.
He was not an ordinary man, this foreigner. That he was a foreigner was obvious even in the first glance. His dark skin was almost the color of bronze, and there was a pronounced sharpness about his features that borrowed nothing from the look of the descendants of Iatkos. His demeanor was one of both confidence and humility, a man who was not afraid and felt no need to prove himself to anybody. He was the sort of person not easy to forget. Ericious had not seen this man around on the island, which suggested...
"Excuse me," the stranger said, and Ericious noted his strange accent, one he had not heard before.
"Hello, stranger," the fat man said, "You were on that ship that just docked, I suppose?"
The newcomer nodded. Ericious was all ears now. A ship! At last!
"Aye," the fat man replied, "What'll it be, mainlander? We've got beer or beer."
The foreigner blinked in confusion. "My choice is beer.... or beer?"
"Yes," the owner replied testily, "Oh, wait. And also beer. What'll it be?"
"I must decline, I'm afraid."
"What!? You don't like beer?"
The stranger smirked slightly. "I didn't say that."
"Oh, I see," the fat man said, turning red, "You don't want any of my beer. My beer's not good enough for you."
"I'm sure it's perfectly adequate," was the stranger's reply, with just enough of a hint of condescension to sent the tavern owner into near apoplexy. "I'm afraid I don't have time for a drink at any rate. I am in need of information for a most important mission."
The fat owner set to wiping down the bar vigorously, a show of concern for cleanliness that Ericious had not seen once in the Salty Sailor before then. "Well, I'm afraid I can't help you."
The stranger's eyes swept to Ericious then. "I have heard rumors," he said, "That there are men on this island with power to summon the wind."
Silence greeted this strange announcement. The fat man wrinkled his thick brow. "Don't know nothin' about that."
"Can you point me in the direction of someone who might?" the stranger asked.
"Maybe I don't feel much like helping you, you foreign bastard! Since my beer isn't good enough for you and all! Get out, damn you. You're disturbing my customers."
Ericious looked at the empty tavern and made the mistake of smirking. This did not go unnoticed.
"You too, you freeloader!" the fat man roared, "I've had enough of you around here, fiddling with things all the time. Get out!"
There was the matter of the open tab for two mugs of beer, but Ericious saw his chance to make a graceful exit without having to deal with such complications. He slammed his empty tankard on the bar in a show of rage. "This is just one more example of how the current economic system is designed to keep an honest man down! I denounce you!"
"Out! Oh, the Maiden spare me these fools. Out!"
And with that Ericious found himself out on the street along with the foreign man whose ship was his best hope of going home. Perfect.
"Any chance you know something of what I seek?" The stranger was staring at him calmly. Ericious racked his brain, trying to remember having heard any rumors during his stay on the Hook that might be helpful. He cursed himself for spending most of the time in the tavern in silence.
The foreigner took his hesitation as a sign. "Very well, then," he said, "I'll be on my way. Good day."
"Wait, wait!" Ericious licked his lips. "I, uh... I've just remembered. I did hear something along those lines. Yes, men who can control the weather. Why, yes, of course! Can't believe I didn't think of it earlier."
"And you can lead me to one?"
The stranger narrowed his eyes. "What was that the tavern owner said about fiddling with things?"
Ericious shrugged. "Nervous habit. Can't keep my hands to myself. No big deal." He clasped his hands behind his back as if to illustrate his point. "I'm Ericious, by the way. Friends call me Eri."
"Well, Ericious," the stranger replied, "My name is Ein Sof."
"Ein what now?"
The foreigner sighed. With a neutral smile, he gestured for the other man to lead on.
The man called Ein Sof in his native country was beginning to have serious doubts about his eager-to-help local guide. The man seemed like he barely knew the lay of the land at all, and, frankly, seemed almost to picking the direction he was going entirely at random.
Oh, it had started encouragingly enough. The fellow named Ericious seemed trustworthy. He was quite young, barely into his manhood, clean-shaved and fresh-faced. He looked quite thin, almost sickly, and the musician wondered how many good meals the lad had enjoyed in his life. Not many, was the safest bet. And yet within that scrawny fame beat a stout heart, Ein Sof suspected. There was a fire in the kid's eyes, a purpose of some kind. It was increasingly rare to meet somebody with that look.
Thus, Ein Sof had been willing to trust in Ericious' good intentions, but suspicion quickly crowded in. After agreeing to serve as a guide, the man had indicated a path to the left, which the two had followed for a while past a few shacks and sheds. Eventually the guide had, after a moment of hesitation, taken another left, which caused Ein Sof's eyebrows to raise. It was only later, though, when Ericious pointed out yet another left turn, that the musician began to entertain serious concerns about the man's sincerity and/or sanity. Yet, he said nothing. He would give the man an opportunity to prove himself - the god of his homeland would expect no less. Perhaps, Ein Sof mused, they had been brought together for a reason.
Their current path was taking them away from the collection of houses that made up the main part of human settlement on the Hook. In fact, it appeared as though there was absolutely nothing ahead of them, and the musician wondered what this Ericious fellow was playing at. After some time, they passed another old fisherman, looking for all the world like an exact duplicate of the one Ein Sof had questioned on the pier.
"Don't stray too far," the old man gruffed at them, "That crazy hermit out there doesn't like visitors!"
Ein Sof treated his guide to a puzzled look. "Crazy hermit?" he asked.
The man shifted his eyes nervously. "Well, yeah! Of course. That's who we are going to see. Obviously."
At this point the musician realized he had lost all confidence in the man, yet still he said nothing. Perhaps it was mere curiosity. How long would this charade to continue? One almost had to admire the man's perverse dedication. Ein Sof was content, for the moment at least, to watch a man try to improvise his way out of a tightening knot.
It wasn't long, however, before the faint rocky path they were following disappeared entirely, leaving them with no clear indication of where to go next. Ericious stood in place, considering the dilemma with a look of deep concentration.
"You don't have any idea where you are going do you," Ein Sof said at last.
"A moment please," the would-be guide said, "Just getting my bearings."
Well, Ein Sof thought to himself, enough is enough.
Mander was in the middle of a lengthy nap, and a rather pleasant one too, when he was prodded awake by the rare sound of human voices. He noted the unusual phenomenon with some annoyance, then with a throaty grumble attempted to roll over and descend once more into sleep. But the voices only grew in volume, and Mander could now hear that they belonged to two men clearly in the middle of some kind of argument. Half-asleep, he sifted through all the curses he knew (and he knew quite a few) to find the one that best fit his feelings about having his rest so rudely interrupted. The one he chose was both so filthy and so well-suited to the situation that he couldn't help but chuckle to himself with pride, which had the effect of bringing him fully into the waking world.
Growling in the back of his throat, Mander pulled himself to his feet. Time to see just what all the fuss was about, he decided. And although he was definitely irate, he couldn't help but smile just ever so slightly. Annoyance or not, he was about to have some damn company for once.
"And so you thought you'd just waste my time?" the foreigner asked with a grimace.
In response, Ericious let out a sigh and put on the best performance of a martyr he could summon. "Well, excuse me for trying to help you! That's gratitude for you."
The man with the strange-sounding name crossed his arms in front of him. "Really. And you thought leading me all the way out here was helpful.... how exactly?"
Ericious was attempting to craft a pithy response when a figure stormed into view that put an instant stop to his train of thought. Even the foreign sailor was thoroughly distracted at the sight of this newcomer. He looked to be heading into the twilight years of his life, though he thundered towards them with the vim and vigor of a much younger man. A long, unkempt beard framed his weather-worn face, and he was only barely dressed in a simply draped tunic that had its fair share of holes, clearly protecting the man from the elements in only the most abstract sense. Ericious' initial impression, after the shock, was that he was now facing a deranged lunatic.
"What's all this, then?" the man spat out in fast-paced Iatkosi, and Ericious instantly recognized the accent of his native city, "Is there a reason you two are standing here growling at each other like wild cats, or do you wander about waking everybody up from naps?"
The two men who had been arguing now stared in stunned silence, while the rather imposing man tapped his foot with impatience.
Ein Sof spoke first. "I seek the men of legend who can summon the wind and command the waves. This man claimed he could lead me to one."
But the old man was no longer listening. "Yes, yes. Enough of all that. Listen, do either of you play shells? Fancy a match, eh?"
The musician exchanged a puzzled glance with Ericious, who shrugged. "That's not a game we have in my homeland," Ein Sof said.
The wild man's eyes lit up at that. "No problem, I'll teach you," he said, turning back towards the way he came, "Come on, then."
"Won't be much of a match if I'm just learning the game," the musician protested.
"Not to worry," the hermit called over his shoulder, "You'll still be better than Meraxes!"
Ein Sof seemed to consider for a moment, looking up towards the heavens thoughtfully. Then, shaking his head, he started off after the man. Ericious joined him, deep in his own thoughts. The old hermit was unlike anything he'd ever seen before - why then, did the man look so familiar?
The question puzzled him all through the short walk to the beach, where a ragged collection of boards barely clinging together proved to be the old man's home. There was barely room inside for the hermit's meager possessions, let alone all three men, but somehow they managed. A crab was scuttling across the sandy floor of the shack, looking perfectly content and at ease at the sudden arrival of the three humans. The old man picked the creature up and set it to the side and proceeded to draw out a grid in the sand eagerly.
"What is your name?" Ein Sof asked.
"Mander," the old man answered, focused on his task of making the grid just so. "It will be nice to have a real opponent again, let me tell you."
"What of your friend?"
The hermit snorted, not looking up. "Friend? What friend? I don't have any friends."
"Meraxes?" Ein Sof pressed, "You mentioned him earlier?"
Mander indicated the nearby crab. "Oh, he's useless. Always plays the same moves. Very predictable. Boring!"
Ein Sof and Ericious shared a glance once again. The fisherman had not been exaggerating when they called the old man crazy. Still, he seemed harmless enough, though Ericious was at a loss to explain the foreigners patience for the hermit's eccentricities, particularly when he had seemed so intent upon his mysterious task just moments before.
"Right," Mander said, producing a small bag of shells that he dumped out on the ground. "The rules are simple. See, the object of the game is..."
Ericious found himself tuning out Mander's instructions. The old familiar itch was climbing up his back and down his arms. It often happened when he was in a new environment, around new people and things. His fingers started to twitch, eager to reach out and pass over everything in sight, processing new tactile sensations. His eyes roamed hungrily around the little shack, taking in potential targets.
But Mander owned almost nothing. Besides his little bag of shells, the old hermit only had a fired clay chamber pot (which furnished the shack with a distinctive aroma), a few fishing rods and nets, and, most interestingly, a sharpened bronze trident leaning against one wall. The last object snared Ericious' attention. It looked so smooth, so inviting... and the itch was growing stronger now, until his fingers were acting almost of their own accord, and before he knew it his hands were reaching out to brush the trident, to poke, to prod, to explore...
With a crash, the trident slid from its balanced place against the wall and collided with the chamber pot, which itself turned over, cracking, and spilling its unappealing contents out into the floor of the shack. The other two, who had been ignoring Ericious in their talk of the game of shells, suddenly fell silent and looked up at him in shock.
"It wasn't me," Ericious announced, lamely. "I mean. It was like that when I got here." He clasped his hands behind his back to stop the twitching.
By the Gods, I'm a bad liar, he thought.
Frowning at his chamber pot, Mander felt his annoyance return and considered, just for a moment, giving the young man a serious talking-to. But, in the end, it wasn't really worth the bother. It was only a clay pot after all, and it had seemed only an accident. The important thing was that he had visitors, and Mander found himself a bit surprised by how much the prospect had excited him. He must have been more lonely than he realized. Not like Meraxes had been a good conversationalist lately.
"Right, then," Mander said, "Think you're ready to try a game?"
The foreign man named Ein Sof nodded. "Yes, I think so. But what is the wager?"
Mander grinned. "Oh, you want to make this interesting, huh? Seems a bit unfair, you being a beginner and all. Alright. When I win, you have to teach me a game from your homeland, wherever it is you are from."
The other man nodded. "Fair. And if I win, you must tell me everything you know about what I seek."
Excited as he was to play, this wager did make Mander pause for a brief moment. A small risk, he decided. It was the lad's first game, after all. "Agreed," he said, "Now, I'll make the first move."
Surveying the grid, he placed his first shell in one of his favorite starting positions. After a moment, Ein Sof placed one as well. Mander suppressed a smirk at his opponent's tactically disadvantageous opening placement. Classic beginner's mistake.
"So," Mander said, placing his second shell, "Important mission, eh? You from the ship that pulled up earlier today?"
The musician was studying the board thoughtfully. "Yes," he replied, "We're on our way to Peace, and its important we get there immediately."
Out of the corner of his eye, Mander noticed the other lad start to fidget again in excitement. Sweet Lady of Chains, he better not break something else, Mander said to himself, though he quickly tempered the thought with a quick reminder that he really had nothing of so great of value that it would be missed. Except Meraxes. He reached out casually and pulled the crab closer to him.
That settled, Mander made his next move. Things were going quite well. He quickly admonished himself not to gloat too much once he won. Wouldn't do to have the foreign man so crushed that he wouldn't want to play again!
But then Ein Sof placed his next shell, and Mander felt his eyebrows raise. A good move. Maybe there was some real potential in the lad. The move was easily countered, of course. He put his next shell in just the right spot. But his opponent placed next in a spot Mander had not expected at all, and as Mander placed his final shell to counter he couldn't shake a sudden feeling of disease. And then Ein Sof took his final move, and the old hermit stared at the board in shock.
"Did I do alright?" the foreigner asked in full humility, but there was a slight smile on his face.
Mander blinked up at him. "You won," he said. "You won." The old man tried to remember the last time he had been so utterly and thoroughly delighted.
Ein Sof acknowledge his victory with a nod. "Now, I believe we had a wager?"
"Oh, yes. Well, it could be I do know something of the kind of power you seek... When I was younger, I once served on a ship in a capacity that would afford me some small knowledge of, you know, this and that..." Oh, how best to say it?
But at this moment Ericious, who had been studying Mander's face curiously, exploded from silence with an excited shout. "I've got it! No wonder you look so familar! You look just like the First Speaker, Anaximedes! It's uncanny.... Wait. Mander? Anaxamander?"
The old man stood up as stiff as a board. "WHAT!?" he shouted, his voice booming in panic. In a blink his arms flew together into a mighty clap, but when his hands met the sound of a storm's thunder rumbled inside the little shack, shaking the flimsy walls and momentarily stunning the other two men. That done, Mander made his escape, running towards the door as quickly as his aging legs could carry him. In his haste, however, he had forgotten about the over-turned chamber pot, which now lay between him and the exit. His feet caught the pot with a painful smack, and he fell face first into his own filth.
While he was still trying to figure out what had gone wrong, his two guests were already helping Mander to his feet. Don't cry, now, Mander, he said to himself, Keep some dignity.
"Well," Ein Sof said at last, "I see now that you are exactly what I have been seeking after all."
Ericious poked the foreigner in the arm. "Didn't I tell you? All thanks to me!"
"Well, you'd never have found him without me! I told you I'd take you to a weather wizard, and I did!"
"Completely by accident," Ein Sof said with a dismissive gesture.
"Did you say First Speaker?" Mander said at last, and the others stopped their squabbling to look at him. "Anaximedes is First Speaker of Peace now?"
Ericious nodded. "He was elected last year."
"And how... how do you know what he looks like? Have you seen my brother?"
The other man's face went blank. "Well, um... Yes, you could say I've taken quite an interest in political figures. I've seen the Speaker and his lovely home, but... likely he never saw me. Though his personal guards certainly did...." He trailed off into silence.
"Did you rob him?" Ein Sof asked at last, somewhat incredulous.
"It's not theft, its justice!" Ericious snapped, "The nobility have been robbing us for generations, earing their gold through the sweat and blood of the working classes! They are nothing but parasites."
Ein Sof pointed to the old man. "Well, he's a noble too, isn't he?"
Ericious seemed to take in that point, then turned to look at the hermit with a puzzled look on his face.
"A noble? What nonsense! Where'd you get that idea?" Mander snapped.
The musician furrowed a brow. "You just said the First Speaker was your brother."
"That's a filthy lie!" the old man said, grabbing Ein Sof's tunic threateningly, "Don't you go about repeating it! I've spent many years choosing not to be related to that imbecile and I don't intend to start now!"
Ein Sof looked at the old man somberly. "Mander, Anaxamander, whatever your name is. My captain, Philandros, has authorized me to make an offer of employment for your... special skills, on behalf of the Council and their envoy, Eugenios Milekrates. You will be well rewarded with whatever you want, if you will help us. The wind has gone, as you have surely noticed, and we must reach Peace immediately. We need a strong breeze in our sails or we'll never make it. It's of vital importance. My captain can tell you more if you come with me to the ship, but I'll tell you this: the city itself is in great danger."
Silence greeted the musician's offer. Mander ran a hand through his beard, deep in thought. The Madman's game, this twist of events. He had sworn every vow he knew to give up that life and forget everything from his past. And yet.... Some things could not be left alone. The city in danger. His idiot brother in a position of great power. The nobility still exploiting the weak. No, you couldn't just close your eyes to all of that. As long as he was ignorant of the events in the bigger world, he could just enjoy his simple life, but now that he knew... Well, knowing carried a certain kind of responsibility. His blissful ignorance had been shattered. He cursed himself for welcoming the idea of visitors. Some hermit I turned out to be.
"I'll go," Mander said at last, "But we take him with us." He pointed to Ericious.
"He knows too much, he does. I want to keep my eyes on him."
"I don't think the captain will just consent to another random passenger."
"We'll say he's my apprentice. Hear that, boy? You're coming with me to Peace, like it or not."
Ericious suddenly seemed to be at war with his own face, as he fought to keep a large smile from spreading there. His hands fidgeted excitedly.
"Let me get my things," Mander said. He stood up, picked up Meraxes and the trident, and then turned back to the foreigner. "Ok, let's go."
"The crab too?"
"Of course. Don't be daft!" Mander said, "Hold on one moment. A quick bath before we go." And he trotted out of the shack towards the sea.