Hugh had no idea how he maintained a hold on the barrel, but he did. Through hours of being tossed about in the tempest, he held firm to both the barrel and Theoson. Hugh was exhausted and drowsy by the time the waters calmed.
When the sun rose on the mildly rolling waters the next morning, Hugh saw that they were alone. There were no other survivors in sight, nor even anything else floating nearby. It was just the two of them, clutching each other and the barrel, bobbing gently in a sea of greenish-blue water.
“We need to start swimming,” said Theoson. “The sooner we start, the more likely we are to make it to the shore before we get too tired and we drown.”
“I can’t really drown,” said Hugh. “I’m buoyant.” He let go of the barrel and floated on his back.
“Well, lucky you,” said Theoson. “This may be the one time in my life I wished I had some fat on my bones.”
“You’ve got the barrel,” said Hugh.
“I can’t sleep clutching a barrel,” he said. “But no matter, I can go days without sleep. And lucky for us, this barrel is full of wine. If we can reach the shore, we will have plenty to drink.”
They couldn’t return to the Ruby Isles. The strong current was pushing them the other way. Theoson said the shortest swim to land would be the shore to the west. They swam while pushing and leaning on the barrel for three days.
On that third day, they spotted seagulls. Shortly after that, a dolphin approached and swam around them as they continued on. By that evening, they saw a sandy shore in the distance, and they reached it by just after nightfall, much to their relief. They lay panting in the sand, the waves licking their feet periodically.
The dolphin slid onto the beach and turned into a beautiful young woman, who stood over them now, naked, smiling. “Tell me, sailors, are you victims of that storm that passed through? Perhaps you’re criminals or stowaways thrown off your ship?”
They were both laying on their back, on the brink of falling into a deep sleep. Hugh turned his head to her and said, “The storm. This was our third day since the shipwreck.”
“What’s in the barrel?” she asked, rubbing her hand over it.
“Wine,” said Hugh.
“Let me quench your thirst, then,” she said, pulling the cork.
Hugh sat up and lifted the barrel like it were a mug and gulped down copious amounts of it, all while Theoson squinted at him in the moonlight. Hugh noticed this eventually and gently tipped some into Theoson’s mouth.
“I never met a cyclops before,” said the girl.
“My name’s Hugh,” he replied. “And this is my friend and mentor, Theoson.”
She walked up to Hugh and offered her hand, palm down, which he awkwardly grasped and rotated in order to shake. She grinned and said, “They call me Doris.”
Hugh took another big swig of wine, then asked, “Could you perhaps tell me where we are, Doris?”
“These are the Crystal Shores, silly,” she said, shaking her head.
“I could have told you that,” said Theoson.
“How do we get to Polity from here?” Hugh asked.
Doris looked at Theoson, and he waved his hand to her and said to go ahead.
“It’s not like you can just go to Polity from here at the moment. You have to cross through the mountains, and you’d never survive the journey in this season. It’s winter there already. There’s probably several feet of snow and nothing alive for miles at a stretch. It’s best to wait for the spring thaw.”
“Which is five months from now,” added Theoson.
“Correct,” said Doris.
“So what do we do in the meantime?” asked Hugh.
“That’s up to you,” said Doris, sitting down next to Hugh. “But why leave? You could stay here. There’s something about you… who was your mother?”
“She was a water nymph, as well,” Hugh replied.
“I knew there was a little nymph in you,” she said, playfully slapping him on the thigh. “You know, I wouldn’t mind a little cyclops in me.” She ran her finger up and down his arm a few times.
“Well, then,” said Hugh, standing up suddenly. “I guess we should find a place to sleep until morning.”
“We’re past the high water line,” said Theoson, making no motion to get up. “This will be fine.”
“Okay,” Hugh replied, moving a bit away and lying back down on the beach.
Doris stood up and looked down at Hugh. “What kind of man refuses the kindness of a nymph?”
“The exhausted kind,” said Hugh, rolling away from her.
“Are you promised to another?” she asked. “It’s not as though she will ever find out.”
Hugh just lay there, cold and still soaking wet.
“Fine, I respect you maintaining your honor,” she said after a short while. “I will find you tomorrow when you are rested.” She jumped back into the waves and became a dolphin again.
Hugh woke up to the shaking of Theoson. “Get up,” he said. “We have to move into the shade. We’ll get baked in the sun if we stay here.”
Hugh took the barrel with them to a large tree nearby with vast tangles of roots above the ground. It formed a covered space big enough for Theoson to crawl inside, while Hugh leaned against it, letting it shield him from the heat.
Hugh was again awoken, this time the sky was dark.
“It’s almost morning,” said Theoson. “We need food, and preferably a stream to drink from.”
They walked along the beach for a bit before Doris showed up, jumping out of the water a dolphin and landing on the sandy shore a young woman. “Need some help?” she asked.
“We need food and water,” said Theoson.
“You need a water fruit,” she said. She led them off quite a ways, all the while hunger made Hugh so weak that with each step he took, he wasn’t entirely sure if he could take another.
Finally, they came to a stream emptying into the ocean. A thick tangle of mangrove trees grew where the two met. She climbed the tree and plucked an oval shaped fruit from it. “You can eat the outside, but first take a bite and pour the contents into your mouth. Like this.” She bit a large chunk, chewed and swallowed it, then tilted the fruit over her head. Pink liquid poured into her mouth. She picked two more and threw them down to Hugh and Theoson.
Theoson consumed four, while Hugh had three dozen. Later, Hugh would have some of the worst shits in his life; four of them within the span of an hour or two, to be precise.
Still, the two of them had the energy to continue on, leaving Doris at the shore, who told them to return if they needed help. They filled their satchels with fruit and walked towards the distant peaks.
“You know,” Theoson began, once they were out of sight of the mangroves. “It was almost as if you wanted to get away from her.”
“Yeah,” Hugh said.
“Is this a characteristic possessed by ever cyclops?” he asked.
“And what characteristic is that?”
Theoson laughed. “That you’re such a prude. You wouldn’t sleep with the whore I got for you. You wouldn’t sleep with Doris. You won’t even sleep with that Theora girl across the river from you, even though everyone knows you never take your eye off of her when she’s nearby.”
Hugh stopped walking.
“Come on, no need to get prissy about it,” said Theoson, turning over his shoulder. “I just want to know… what do you have against sex?”
Hugh caught up to Theoson and they continued on, then he said, “It’s not the sex.”
“So you’re fine with sex?” Theoson asked.
“I guess, though I never had any. I hear it’s enjoyable, in fact.”
“So what’s stopping you?” asked Theoson, staring at Hugh’s crotch.
Hugh sighed. “It’s not that either.”
“My children are fated to bring pain and misery to the world,” he said.
Theoson nodded, thinking silently for a bit. “That is a noble decision then, deciding to not have any children… or any sex, for that matter.”
“I don’t do it to be noble.”
“Which makes it even nobler, still,” Theoson replied, winking. “Tell me, are there any aspects of your life that aren’t dictated by fate?”
“Only the unimportant bits.”
“And what’s that like?”
Hugh sighed as they trudged on. “It’s… it’s very excruciating. I feel like I would be better off if I didn’t know what I know.”
“That’s the problem with knowledge, isn’t it?” Theoson remarked. “You can’t unknow it.”
“I never asked to know it in the first place.”
“So you’re some victim of knowledge? Is that it?”
“I suppose,” Hugh said.
Theoson wheeled around and punched Hugh in the groin, causing him to stop and double over in pain. “No, now you’re a victim. Before, you were just a whiner.”
Hugh stood hunched over, grabbing his crotch, “Why did you hit me?”
Theoson reach up and smacked him in the face. “I think you forgot what real pain is. I’m reminding you. Maybe if you keep that in mind in the future, you won’t be so inclined to complain about how a little knowledge is excruciating.”
Hugh groaned as he stood up, rubbing his sore parts. They continued on in silence for a while before Theoson began singing a song about man lost at sea, trying to get home to his family.
Around midday, they came to a small village with a dozen small huts. A man with a long spear walked out to meet them. He wordlessly waved them to follow him, which they did.
They were seated around a small fire and given gourds full of fresh water, which Hugh and Theoson drank down. Hugh reached into his purse and took out a gold coin, handing it to the man who had greeted them, but he shook his head and crossed his arms, refusing to take it.
“They won’t take our money,” said Theoson. “Like most primitive peoples, they treat outsiders with the utmost courtesy. It will be enough repayment if we are simply on our best behavior.”
“Well, that’s kind of them,” said Hugh.
“Don’t kid yourself,” said Theoson, smiling. “Besides the fact that you could single handedly kill every man, woman and child in this village, they do it to honor Xeno, the Diva of travelers and guests. Most city dwellers tend to ignore the old rites of hospitality, but not these people. They realize that we rely on each other, and they know that those who wander the world survive by the kindness of others.”
“They still seem kind to me,” Hugh replied.
“They are kind because they would want others to be kind to them.”
“Is that so wrong?” asked Hugh.
“Generosity is its own virtue,” Theoson replied.
A woman brought them bowls with a thick vegetable soup, which was spiced in such a way that it gave Hugh a sweat. Still, it was delicious. Theoson and Hugh spent the rest of the day with them, spearing fish in the shallows. At nightfall, they were given beds, Theoson in a hut with the man who greeted them, Hugh just outside, as he could not fit indoors.
To be continued…