Chapter 1: Sammy
Updated: Mar 11
With a small bucket of bait in one hand and a dilapidated old crutch in the other, I slowly made my way across the beach. Each step was a challenge, as the heavily saturated sand swallowed up my crutch, rendering it nearly useless. The breeze coming in across the open water carried the tang of salty air, the promise of bountiful fishing, and the hope for better days ahead. Inhaling deeply, I savored the night's briny fragrance. The waves' slow, rhythmic harmonies brushed against the shore, adding to the enchanting ambiance. At the water's edge, in the still darkness, every sense sprang to life, imbuing the moment with a sense of magical splendor.
The full moon, and its pale silver halo, cast an ethereal glow across the Gaelinora Sea, its reflection rippling across the surface of the dark water. I had once heard a legend that spoke of how, on the three nights of the full moon when the goddess Medeina fully showed her face, mooneyes, the sweetest and most succulent fish in the north, would rise from the depths to beg her to take them to her celestial realm.
Filled with a sense of desperate optimism, I found myself a reasonably comfortable place to sit and unwrapped the thin strips of fish I used as bait. They were the smelly leftovers from yesterday’s failed fishing trip. But this time, as I placed the strip of fish on the hook, I knew tonight would be better. The excitement was already building in me as I cast out my line, encouraged by the possibilities of what the coming hours might bring.
The chilly night air made my bad leg ache. The walk from the city to this desolate and windswept shoreline hadn’t helped much, either. However, the discomfort was a small price to pay for the rewards that awaited me. In past months, with the fish I had caught during the three nights of the full moon, I had been able to earn enough gold to provide for my family until Medeina returned to grace the night sky with her presence. Except tonight was the third and final night that the goddess would fully gaze upon the sea, and I had yet to catch a single fish.
The gathering night breeze whipped across the open sea, pushing waves towards me until they crashed upon the shore. The winds here were a like a hungry, living thing, searching for any patch of exposed skin, just waiting for a moment to bite at it.
The dark grey clouds rolling in from the south didn’t dissuade me. I didn’t mind fishing in the rain. It was summer and, even though the nights were still bitter cold, my heavy oilskin cloak kept me warm and dry – mostly. I pulled it tight around my shoulders, trying to protect what little warmth I had left in me. During the long, lonely hours waiting for a fish to bite, it was all too easy to let the cold seep into your bones, leaving you permanently chilled. Vigilance and pure stubbornness were the keys to success out here.
I exhaled heavily and watched the frosty vapor from my breath dissipate into the night air. It was the third night of the full moon and I had yet to catch a single fish. Tonight was my last chance. Even if I had a good night, it likely wouldn’t be enough, but some gold was better than no gold at all. If I couldn’t make enough at the market, I could work the docks or find a fishing vessel in need of an extra hand. One way or another, I’d find a way to make ends meet.
Getting work wasn’t easy for me though, not with my bad leg. Standing without the aid of my crutch was both difficult and painful. Nobody wanted to hire a cripple, not when there were so many able-bodied men and women vying for the same job. My little brother suffered from the same affliction, as did my mother. None of us was in any position to find work. My mother occasionally took on jobs with the local merchants. Although I had no idea what she did for them, I feared for her. She always looked ill when she returned. She would avert her gaze when she came through the door and go straight to her bed. With her face buried deep into her pillow, she’d pull her blankets tight around her petite frame and cry herself to sleep. There was no hiding the tears, not in the tiny house with only a single room that served as kitchen, living room, and bedroom.
As the hours ticked by, the moon tracked its path across the night sky, and the wind never ceased, continuing to drive ever-growing waves against the shore. I had to move away from the edge lest I be soaked by a large roller. The clouds that had blown in from the south passed by with barely a drop of rain.
I tugged gently on my line, trying to give my sad piece of bait some life, hoping it might look more appealing to a mooneye. The only bites I had been getting so far were from midges, and small carnivorous fishes known as biters. They were barely bigger than a man’s hand, and by all accounts, they were teeth and a tail, and very little else. Having them around was never good. They’d strip my hook clean before a mooneye had any hope of seeing it. Like the mooneyes, they, too, came up to the surface on the full moon, perhaps to say their prayers to Medeina.
Then, in the dead of the night, when the only sounds were my breath and the constant crashing of waves along the shoreline, I got my first nibble. It was tentative at first, just like a mooneye’s. Tap, tap, tap, then nothing. I blew out a breath and pulled in my line. As expected, my hook was bare, the bait having been stripped from it.
“Triton, help me,” I called out over the vast stretch of black water, hoping the sea god might hear my plea. “Don’t let me go home empty handed. Not again.” Neither Triton nor the sea answered me. They never did. I knew it was a waste of breath to pray, but when all else failed, what harm could it do? I didn’t actually believe in the sea god, but it was best to not take any chances.
Trying to keep my spirits up, I softly whistled a tune while I put some fresh bait on my hook. Again, with hopeful anticipation, I cast my line into the water. The bait had barely sunk beneath the surface when I felt another tug. One sharp pull, and that was it.
“Some help you are,” I said as I started pulling in my line again. When I found the bare hook yet again, I shook my fist at the wind. It was blowing directly into my face, making it difficult to cast out beyond the shelf to where I knew the water was deeper, to where the biters didn’t congregate.
This pattern of having biters steal my chances of success continued until I was down to my last morsel of fish. With a heavy sigh, I carefully threaded my final strip of bait onto a hook. This time, I tried tying a rock to my line. I found one that was about the size of my fist. It would be heavy enough to cut through the wind, but not so heavy that I couldn’t throw it past the deep-water shelf. With all my might, I cast my line out, hoping, praying that it would make it beyond where the biters amassed. I watched as my stone flew over the waves, well beyond where my earlier casts had reached. I quickly let out more line, doing what I could to help the stone carry the bait straight down.
I waited patiently for several minutes until I was certain the rock had dragged my hook down to the sea floor. It was then that I started to gently pull in the slack line, only stopping when I felt the slightest bit of tension. It was important to make sure the line was taut, otherwise I’d never feel the gentle bite of the mooneye.
As time slowly passed, the wind continued to be relentless. I pulled my oilskin cloak tighter around myself, trying to fend off the cold while stifling a yawn. I hadn't slept much in the past two days, spending every night out by the sea. But I dared not let myself fall asleep. Staying awake could mean the difference between my family surviving the month or my mother having to do whatever she did to make some coin.
A tiny tug on my line made my pulse race. Despite the relentless wind whistling in my ears, I could hear the thrum of my pounding heartbeat. I prayed to the gods that it wasn’t those blasted biters. I prayed to Triton. I prayed to Medeina. I even prayed to Boreas, the north wind, that the nibble I felt was not filling me with false hope. If it was, they'd strip my bait, and I'd be forced to return home with nothing to show for my efforts.
As I let out a bit of line, I whispered to the sea, "Be a mooneye." I didn't want the fish to feel the string when it took my bait. Holding my breath, another pair of tiny tugs pulled on my line. And then another. And another. It felt like a mooneye. They had a pattern when they took my line. Tug. Tug, tug. Tug, tug, yank.
Just like I had hoped, the tiny tugs turned into a mighty pull, nearly dragging me into the surf. Quickly as I could, I wrapped the fishing line around my forearm and started to drag the fish to shore. My oilskin cloak was perfect for this. It was thick and heavy, and it completely protected my skin from getting cut by the line if the fish suddenly pulled hard. There was a real danger of being dragged into the salty depths if the fish was stronger than I was, but it was a risk I was willing to take.
Each step was agonizing. With my crutch propped tight under one arm, I hobbled inland, dragging what felt like a leviathan along with me. I was working my way to where the beach was sandy, to where I could safely heave the fish ashore, but the mooneye had other plans. My catch was pulling me along the coastline to where it was rocky and the footing was precarious at best. Had I not had to use a crutch, it still would have been difficult, but in my condition, the challenge seemed insurmountable.
While the fish continued to drag me along, my heart pounded like the hooves of a charging warhorse. I had never fought anything this powerful. If it was a mooneye, and I prayed to the gods it was, this one catch could set my family for the month. Maybe more.
Panic was setting in. The longer I had the fish on the line, the more likely the biters would get to it. If they did, they'd strip it bare before I landed it. It was at that point a new fear gripped me. What if a water dragon, a Makara, saw it and decided to rob me of my prize? They were known to inhabit these waters. I pushed the notion from my mind. I was looking for problems that weren’t there. I already enough to worry about that I didn’t need to include fantastic tales of giant horned sea serpents.
While the salty surf pounded the shore, I continued battling the fish. Sometimes it felt like I was making headway, bringing in some line. Other times it was like the fish was playing with me, dragging me along, forcing me to venture near the water's edge, to where a rogue wave might come in and wash me out to sea.
It was when the rocks appeared to be getting larger, rougher, sharper, that I saw what I hoped would be my salvation. A blessedly large, flat rock jutted out into the growing surf. It was plenty big enough for me to stand on and it would provide a welcome respite from the treacherous rocks and a good platform from which to drag in the fish.
Abandoning my crutch, I scrambled across the rocks, doing my best to not break a leg as I rushed over the uneven terrain. A sudden tug pulled me off balance, twisting my crippled leg, drawing a scream of agony from me.
Just as I finished righting myself, the line went limp.