The wind tugged at Simon’s grizzled hair, tossing a fine spray in his eyes. He wrapped a scarf around his neck and closed the last of his stew-pots. Taking the yoke on his shoulders, he pulled his vendor’s cart up the road that led from the wharfs to the town. Night had long since fallen, all the people had gone inside for the night, and there were no more sales to be made. It was time to retire for the evening, prepare for the next day, and perhaps sleep a while.
As he passed from one faint circle of torchlight to the next he sensed that he was being watched. The years had dulled his sight, perhaps, and weakened his grip, but his ears were still perfect, and he could sense motion before he could even hear the footfalls behind him. Simon kept straight on — his ‘shadow’ was not pursuing, merely following. After a few more strides Simon’s keen hearing noted a second follower. Simon judged that this one had been running, by the unevenness of the steps. The lack of sharp sounds in their tread indicated that neither was shod, and the tenor of their breathing spoke of youth. Simon continued on, his pace unaltered. He passed the houses and storefronts, some showing the warmth of light, some just dark. The wheels of his cart made a calm, familiar clunking sound as they passed from cobblestone to dirt and back again. His destination was a small hut at the end of a short, dark alley. That was home. By the time he reached it his two tails had grown five more. Simon parked the cart firmly beside one wall, and carefully drew out his small lamp. With a practiced hand he lit it from the last dying coals of his portable stove. He walked over to the small stone stoop and sat down, then held the lamp up and aimed the light out.
Three pale faces gathered together out of the gloom. Sharp eyes darted about, and sharp noses sniffed the air. Dirt competed with wariness on these visages, but neither could conceal the hunger in the children’s eyes. As they stepped into the light, Simon stood perfectly still, not wanting to startle either them or the four others that hovered on the edge of the light.
“Good evening to you, Simon,” the oldest of the boys said in a voice both clear and polite. How was the selling today?” None of the boys looked directly at Simon. They instead swarmed around his cart, peering in all the nooks and crannies, smelling the aroma coming from within, but never actually touching anything.
“Well,” replied Simon, in a deprecating tone, “you know how the folk are when it starts to get a chill in the air.”
“Tighter than guard’s fist,” agreed the smaller of the boys. Simon knew him to be one of the oldest ones. “Maybe we can help you. We’d like to buy some stew off ya.”
Simon nodded. This was a ancient transaction, one he had participated in for years. Simon stepped up to the cart, and the boys flowed like quicksilver away, slipping back into the shadows for a moment, to reappear shyly as he hung the lamp from a hook and opened the lids to expose his wares.
“What will you want tonight?” asked Simon, taking a tough, limp round of bread from a basket on the side of the cart. The bread was a new item. For years he had wanted a way to serve the stew without the need for the bowls, which had to be washed later, but only recently had he perfected the art of making a bread able to hold the stew without becoming sodden.
“Just the first one, there,” the tallest said, stepping back up to the cart. Simon ladled a steaming blob onto the bread and handed it to the boy, who carefully extended two hands to take it. Resting on the cart was a bronze penny. Simon hadn’t even seen him lay it down. The next child stepped up and Simon repeated the gesture, receiving the coin from the boy’s hand.
“I’d like the sun-sweet,” announced the next boy firmly. In his hand lay two pennies. From the darkness stifled giggles trickled in. Simon took the offering, and returned him a Scrod penny for change before opening the smaller pot on the end. The odor of the fiery mix made Simon’s eyes water as he slapped it on the bread and handed it to his diminutive patron.
Once the first few boys had taken their food safely, the remaining children were emboldened to approach, offering their meager pay for Simon’s delicacy. They retired to the edge of the darkness to eat, leaving a small stack of coins on the edge of Simon’s cart. As the age and condition of the children diminished, Simon’s eyes grew softer and more sympathetic, and the portions grew larger and larger. Finally all were seated on the alley’s dirt floor, and Simon retired as well, taking a small sack of tubers and a knife over to the steps.
Simon watched the boys as he cubed roots for the next day’s stew. The boys ranged in age from ten to fifteen. They were all skinny as rails, and their clothes were a mix of colors, styles, and quality, from good fabric to patched rags. The older ones sported tatoos on their arms, one that Simon recognized as Liriss’ mark. All had long, matted hair, and more than one was missing teeth, no doubt lost brawling in back alleys. Even now their conversation took the form of challenges and verbal jousting.
A burst of laughter drew his attention. “What are you laughing at?” Simon asked.
“It’s Josey,” the tall one replied. “He took a stub from a mark today!” This revelation brought a gale of laughter from the assembled group. Josey, one of the younger boys, stood up and tried to take the coin in question away from the older boy, who held it up out of reach and danced about, to the joy and delight of the other children. Simon got up, setting aside his bag of roots. He approached the tall boy, who extended a small metal disk to him. Josey stood there, frowning, arms folded, as Simon looked the artifact over.
“He said it was a real coin where he was from,” Josey muttered. His scowl was so deep it looked as if his chin were about to fall off onto the ground.
“Did he?” Simon commented, turning the metal disk over in the light. It was some sort of steel, but silver rather than grey, and stamped with a fine, clear impression. The date showed the coin to be years old, yet it showed no signs of wear. Simon had never seen its like. Still, an unknown coin in Dargon was worth only what it could be melted down for, and no fire in Dargon would melt this coin.
“Josey,” laughed the smaller, older boy, “Josey, he, … he can’t see too good!” His words could barely squeeze out between his chuckles.
“Josey likes the shiney coins better,” volunteered one of the younger boys.
Josey made like to say something in his defense, but the tall one cut him off. “Josey don’ know nothin’! There ain’t nothin’ better than gold!” So saying he drew out from his shirt a leather necklace holding a gold coin, or so it looked. While the other boys ooohed and aaahed, Simon could see that it was really just a brass disk with a hole in the middle, burnished bright, but of little value. None of the boys had likely seen much gold, and probably just assumed that any metal that was yellow and not bronze was gold.
“Well,” Simon said, returning to his seat, turning Josey’s coin over and over before his face, “I know that some *think* that there’s nothing better than gold.” A quiet fell over the boys. They watched in silence as Simon made himself comfortable on his stoop. This too was an ancient transaction, one even older than the first. The boys drew a little closer, their attention riveted now on Simon. Once he was assured that he had their attention, Simon continued.
“You see, there once was a sailor I knew, who thought that there was nothing better than gold. Why, he *lived* for gold! There was nothing he wouldn’t do for gold. In fact, he once said that he would sell his *right eye* for gold!!” There came an awed murmur from the seven listeners. Simon relaxed, leaning against the door, assured of his audience. “Well, one day, this sailor, he was a sailin’ by himself, in a little boat, out by a tropical island …”
Sun is man’s friend, when it shines on a verdant field of grain, or on a lonely stranger, sojourning across a cold winter’s landscape. It is the friend of the soldier, who stands watch over his comrades before battle, and the friend of the lover, who watches for her love to come up the lane. But the sun is not the friend of the sailor who rows alone on the flat ocean, with no fresh water to drink, and no shade to cover his burning eyes. The sun flashes in every wavelet, blinding and disorienting. It dazzles the eyes, masking subtle clues that can show the way to a saving island, and creates illusions that fool the mind.
Simon had been rowing all night, and it was now noon. The sun smote down mercilessly, uncaring. Nowhere was there relief from it — nowhere Simon could look to escape it. Finally Simon drew the paddles in from the gunwales of his tiny coracle and rested. So dazzled was he by the millions of sparkling reflections that he was no longer sure which way he was headed. He tried to shade his eyes from the glare, but the light came from all around. Simon was lost.
Or perhaps more lost was the best term for what Simon was. Never in his five years of sailing had Simon been out of sight of the shore, but today was Simon’s second month without seeing the mainland. Never in his five years had Simon not known how far from home he was, but while Simon knew that home was a long way off, he didn’t know just how far. The storm that had dragged them off course and smashed their ship on some tiny island had also drowned the captain, leaving the four remaining crew rudderless and chaotic.
Of the four, Simon alone had wanted to try to continue on to Mandraka, their destination. A young man ablaze with a lust for glory and riches, he had heard tales of the friendly southern country, with easy wealth awaiting any who could make the long arduous trip. Simon knew with the certainty of the young that his fate rested in that exotic land. His fame awaited him, dormant, restless for the touch of his eager hand. He had hurriedly fabricated this tiny ship of thin wooden slats and leather so as to continue his voyage. Thus it was that Simon now found himself, alone, lost, a small man in a tiny, hand–made coracle, a brown dot amid a glittering sea of warm salt water.
For many menes Simon just sat, despondent. He covered his eyes with his hands, blocking out the sun, but his imagination provided unseen dangers too large to ignore, and he had to look about. Nothing. He tried staring into the bottom of the coracle, but that made his neck stiff. He hung his head over the side, staring straight into the water, but even there the sun glimmered at him feebly. Or did it? Simon stared harder. There was something down there, just below the surface.
Simon grabbed his paddle and stuck it down into the water. It didn’t touch bottom, but Simon could now see that the bottom was only a few hands-breadths further down. And sitting on the bottom, gleaming in the sun, was gold. Not just gold, either, but a lot of gold, piles of gold, mounds of gold! It was a treasure trove! The sandy bottom was just littered with gold! Simon’s heart fluttered. At last!! Here it was, sitting before his amazed eyes! No need to continue on to Mandraka; his wealth lay before him, requiring nothing more of him but that he put out his hand and take it.
Simon didn’t hesitate. He reached into the bottom of the coracle and grabbed his sea-anchor. He flung it out, rising up and diving over the side of his small craft even before the wood and cloth device hit the water. Once over the side he swam straight to the bottom, which was barely deeper than he was tall. He scooped up a coin, and struggled back to the surface.
Simon flung the water from his hair and held the coin up before his eyes, treading water hard. It was gold alright — its weight left no doubt about that. And there were hundreds of them down there, lying amid the rotting fragments of long-smashed caskets. Simon swam to his craft and tossed the coin inside. Taking a deep breath, he dove again. This time he took two coins in each hand. His trip to the surface was slower, but he made it, and tossed the gold inside the boat. On the next trip he tried three coins, but that was too much — he couldn’t float to the top with the extra weight. He dropped one from each hand, and hit the surface with fire in his lungs. The two joined the others in the boat while Simon panted, clinging carefully to his tipsy little ship.
Once he got his breath back, Simon went back down again. Down, up, down, up — a pattern quickly formed. After several trips he noted with alarm how low the coracle was in the water. He must have tipped it partly when he dove overboard. Leaning carefully over the side of the craft, he grabbed the leather bucket he had tied to the side and bailed some of the water out. After a few buckets of water, the craft floated high enough that Simon felt comfortable going down for more gold. The trips were getting easier, as he fell into the rhythm of it. A deep breath, a twist and a kick, arms outstretched and hands grabbing two coins, then a turn and a push off the bottom, bursting into the air and tossing the coins in the boat. Four became eight, eight became sixteen, sixteen blurred into a growing cache that dampened the little boat’s roll and stretched its thin skin. Soon he had to rest, but the lure of the riches under his dangling feet was too much to ignore for long. Back down he went, diving until his arms trembled and his lungs burned and he had to stop. His rest was longer this time, but even before the ache left his arms he returned to his labor. Diving down, Simon reached the bottom, grabbed four coins, turned to put his feet on the bottom, and found himself face to face with the dead, black eyes of a grey shark.
Had anyone been watching, they almost would have seen a man walk on water. As it was Simon’s knees came up above the waves on his return trip. He arched his body and for a moment was staring straight down into his coracle, the gleaming coins mocking him from its dark depths. Then he landed on it, and two things happened. With barely a plop the overloaded craft sank beneath the waves, and Simon finally realized that he had more important things to think about than gold.
“So how did he get out of it?” Josey asked. “Did the sharks eat him?”
“In a moment,” Simon replied. “They ate him, and his boat, and the paddles, and his anchor too. And to this day, anyone sailing across that sand bar can see the gold lying on the bottom, and the sharks circling about it, waiting for another bite of foolish sailor.” Simon cocked an eye at his enthralled audience. “In fact, you can still see the very shark that ate him.” A few of the older eyebrows arched a bit. Simon continued. “It’s easy to tell, because it swims like *this*,” and with that Simon got up and hunkered down in front of the boys, his cheeks puffed out and his arms akimbo as if cradling a great, pendulous belly. As the boys roared with laughter Simon wiggled his behind and dashed from boy to boy, thrusting his face in theirs and acting the part of the gravid fish. After a long mene, when the laughter started to fade he re- took his seat. Taking the strange coin he flipped it into the air, watching it spin in the feeble light of the flickering lamp. Josey rose to grab it, but Simon snatched it out of the air first, eliciting snickers from the other boys and a grin from Josey. Simon eyed the coin.
“You know, I’ve never seen this sort of coin before. It might just be worth something. How much did the stranger say it was?”
“A penny and a half,” Josey replied.
Simon dug a two pennies from his coin sack and flipped them to the child. “Here. We’ll call it even.”
“Right.” Josey pocketed the pennies rapidly, as if afraid that Simon would take them back. Just then his head swivelled to face the main road, as did every other small head there. Simon looked up. Two torches were heading their way. Guardsmen. In a moment the seven boys were gone, back into the shadows that gave them their name. Simon shook his head, and returned to preparing his roots. After a moment the guards finally arrived, stomping like a couple of cows.
“Hello, Simon,” the one said. “Here for the night?”
“Yes,” Simon replied. “Would you like a bit of stew before I turn in?” He made as if to rise.
“No, no,” the guard assured. “We just thought we heard other voices, that’s all. You all right?”
“All right. Good night.”
They walked off, leaving Simon alone. He set his sack and knife down again, and drew out his coin pouch. He carefully counted each disc, not including Josey’s steel one. When he was done, he mentally compared the take against what he had paid for flour and oil that morning. He nodded with satisfaction. He had almost broken even. He wouldn’t have to dip into his savings for another week. Returning the pouch to its place, Simon finished his chores. He paused a moment to examine the strange coin again. There was a story here, but it would have to wait for morning. Moving inside his tiny hovel, he doused the lamp, and breathed some prayers for peace and safety. Then he lay and watched the light of the stars through the open window until he fell asleep.