In the predawn hours, the village of Khal finally surrendered the heat of the previous day. The two hours immediately before sunrise offered a brief respite, allowing the citizenry a chance to work free of sweat. Even though many of the merchants started their workday this early, Harqad usually began his day even earlier.
Born in Khal, Harqad was used to the heat. He was accustomed to the fact that even small tasks could turn into laborious undertakings in the searing temperature. No stranger to labor, his hands bore the scars of a man who had spent his life hauling on ropes and working with timber. His weather-beaten face told of countless hours endured on the open seas. He didn't sail on the large galleys like those floating in the harbor. Nor did he travel on one of the sleek, fast ships of a trading company. He sailed his own vessel, something rarely seen on the quays of Khal. He took to the seas like a sparrow to flight, an urge pushing him to travel wherever the wind might push him.
Harqad made a decent living by taking small cargos from Khal and delivering them to the tiny fishing communities speckling the northern coast of Qalia. The size of his dhow allowed him to travel where larger galleys could not. Small inlets and waterways were no hurdle for the sleek boat. Most trade to the inland settlements went overland on the backs of beasts, or more recently, drawn by large caravan wagons. But several months ago, he had made a lucrative trip east up the Qa River and made landfall just north of Mekalia, beating the best times of the caravans by days. Although the gnomes of Mekalia had been known to distrust and cheat most outsiders, Harqad received a decent sum for his cargo of linen, mostly due to his gentle nature and his skill of negotiation.
On his return to Khal, Harqad shared the story of his trip in the taverns and back trading rooms. Since then, others had tried the voyage, but only those with small vessels were matching his success. However, a small boat didn't guarantee safe passage. The way was treacherous, with a series of rapids and several narrow passages waiting for the inattentive or novice sailor. The wind also had to be favorable to sail east against the strong current as the river wound its way down from the foothills. That only happened for a few weeks of each summer.
Harqad lived decently in all meanings of the word. He was slow to anger, a gentle soul. His grandmother had nicknamed him "Dove" for his calm and serene heart. Harqad also was fortunate to be able to provide for his necessities for living. His home, though small in comparison to those of the rich sea captains of the trade fleets, sat between the city wall and a large merchant house. Its location sheltered it from the majority of the intense heat of the summer. Although not luxurious, the furnishings were comfortable and he treated them with care.
The sailor didn't hold much interest in the trappings of status or wealth. As long as he could afford to prepare meals and keep his dhow in service, he was happy. That dhow, affectionately named "The Gray Dove", was the center of his being. His world was tied to the "Dove" whether it was fighting against the wind to deliver him and his small cargo to a safe port or a gently swaying bed he laid on to watch the stars on a clear and cool night. She was his companion on journeys, not just of physical distance, but also journeys that brought him contentment. He felt at peace standing on the slowing surging decks of planed cedar.
Harqad pulled on a simple sleeveless linen shirt and serviceable trousers. His feet, accustomed to the rigors of life at sea, were generally bare, but this morning he wore a pair of leather sandals. He kept his hair short, no more than an inch in length, and followed the practice of shaving, unlike most sailors.
His breakfast consisted of a bowl of cold porridge and a piece of flat bread. Harqad ate quickly and left for the harbor. Along the way, he could hear the activity of merchants and sailors preparing for their day from the houses and shops.
He made his way past a few merchants setting up their stall to sell freshly baked bread and produce; a quick wave to them gained him a greeting and an orange thrown in return. As he reached the docks, he heard a piercing whistle, and he turned to see Harbormaster Jalel beckoning him over to a small dockside desk
"Good morning, Harqad," Jalel said. "Did you hear the request for traders to head to Ahgram?"
"No, I didn't. Who put the request out this time?"
Jalel leaned back in his chair, laying his arms across his prodigious belly and began to chuckle.
"That, my friend, is the humorous part. He just hasn't learned, even after all his previous failures. Qaraf is still trying to strike out on his own."
Harqad looked at Jalel. "I thought his trading license was revoked. How can he back a new venture?"
"It was. Remember, he married Fatis' widow? She retained a trading license through that marriage. Qaraf put the request out as a venture of Fatis Trading. Word spread quickly last night and traders were lining up to be part of it." Jalel chuckled. "That is, until someone named the true backer."
"That someone being you?"
"Perhaps," Jalel chortled. The huge rolling laugh brought tears to his eyes.
"My friend, don't you think you have punished him enough? It has been two years since that incident."
"Incident?" exclaimed Jalel. "It was no mere incident. He is lucky I haven't had him killed."
"Careful, you never know what eyes and ears are about," cautioned Harqad, turning to look about them.
"It doesn't matter. At least, not to me. Do you know how much he cost me? I was almost out of this job. Finally, after seven years. I had repaid my debt. I was going to sail again. Then he takes my money, my boat money, and I am stuck again."
"Well, I think you share some of that blame," Harqad said. "You did give him your money knowing his history."
"Bah, you are starting to sound like all the others!" exclaimed Jalel. "He tricked me! I still can't believe he hasn't been killed."
"So when will you feel you have gotten your revenge?"
"When he is dead."
"Perhaps that day will come soon then."
"Never soon enough." Jalel picked up his quill and began writing in his log. "Now, what can I put down for your destination today? Any cargo?"
"No cargo today," smiled Harqad. "And as for a destination, I don't have a set one. I think I will head up the coast."
"You sure you aren't going to join the 'Fatis venture'?"
"I wouldn't be able to pay its cost."
Jalel looked at him, confusion showing on his face. "Cost?"
"Certainly." A small smile broke on Harqad face. "Having to avoid the sell-swords you'd send after me for doing business with your nemesis would cost me too much sleep, my friend." Harqad winked at Jalel.
"My friend," the Harbormaster laughed, "you tempt fate I think. My wrath might notice you soon enough anyways." Jalel laughed again and then waved his hand dismissively at Harqad. "Now go, get that eyesore of a boat out of my harbor."
"The Gray Dove is a jewel. Perhaps, you forget how it allowed me to fish you out of the water last month."
"I forget nothing," said Jalel, waving his hands about. "Be safe, Harqad. I wait for your tales of adventure. Go with the wind."
Harqad returned the sailors' blessing with the standard reply. "I go where the wind takes me."