The Seagull’s mooring line gave Rabbit easy access, and he was below the deck at the bow of the Seagull in a few moments. Then he waited, listening intently, but he heard nothing. In all probability, most of the crew were still ashore, enjoying their fifth, or maybe sixth, “last drink.”
He crept forward in the darkness with one hand outstretched. After he had gone no more than a few feet, his hand touched a wooden panel. He located two metal hinges on one side and the handle on the other. “This has to be it,” he exulted. He carefully opened the door, wincing as the hinges squealed. Then he reached inside, and his hand encountered well-coiled rope.
He carefully checked his water flask and the half loaf of bread he’d brought with him, and then he crawled inside his temporary home and quietly pulled the door shut behind him.
He remained in the rope locker for two days to make sure that the Seagull was a long way out to sea. Then he braced himself and went up onto the deck. “Where would I find the cap’n?” he asked a sailor who was leaning on the rail.
“Back near the stern,” the sailor replied. He looked more closely at Rabbit. “You’re a new man, ain’t you? I don’t think I’ve ever seen you afore.”
“Fairly new,” Rabbit replied evasively. Then he braced himself and walked on back to the stern. He’d never actually met Sorgan Hook-Beak, but the captain wasn’t too hard to recognize. His broken nose was a clear indication of how he’d come by his name. “Ho, Cap’n,” he called.
Sorgan broke off the conversation he’d been holding with two other men. “Who are you?” he demanded.
“My name’s Rabbit, and I’m the new smith here on the Seagull.”
“How did you come up with that peculiar notion, little man?” a sailor with enormous hands demanded.
“I came across a man named Borkad back in Weros, and he sold me his position here on the Seagull. Since I’m probably the best smith in the whole Land of Maag, the Seagull’s lucky that I chose her, rather than some other ship.”
“It don’t look t’me like you’re even big enough to pick a hammer up, much less swing one,” a huge sailor standing at Hook-Beak’s side scoffed.
“I manage,” Rabbit said tersely.
“I don’t see that we’ve got much choice, Ox,” Hook-Beak said. “Nobody could find Borkad before we sailed out from Weros, so now we’re out here without a smith. Let’s not make up our minds until we see what this little man can do.”
And that, of course, had been the one thing that Rabbit had really wanted.
“That’s a mighty fine looking weapon,” the man called Ox said admiringly when Rabbit presented him a well-made war axe.
“That is a pretty good-looking axe there,” the one called Ham-Hand agreed. “It looks to me like we might just have come up lucky. The little fellow ain’t none too big, but he seems t’know what he’s doing. It’s up t’you, cap’n, but I’d say that we might want t’keep him. Old Borkad couldn’ta made an axe like that one in a hunnerd years.”
“Let me see that,” Sorgan said, taking the axe from Ox. He looked closely at it, absently scraping his thumb across the edge.
“Careful, Cap’n,” Ox warned him. “She’s sharp enough t’shave with.”
Sorgan gave the axe a couple of experimental swings. “Not bad at all,” he admitted. “What’s your name, little man?”
“They call me Rabbit, Cap’n, probably because I can run about twice as fast as anybody else.”
“Don’t run off right now. We’ll give it a try and see how you’re going to work out, but I’m getting a hunch that you’re going to be with us for quite a long time.”
“Whatever suits you, Cap’n,” Rabbit agreed, resisting a strong urge to dance for joy.
Rabbit discovered that there were a few drawbacks to life at sea. The weather wasn’t always calm and sunny, and sometimes the wind was ferocious. There was also the tiresome business of standing watch. It was sort of necessary, of course, but standing in the bow of the Seagull looking at empty water could get very boring after a few hours.
Night watch, of course, was even worse. The hours seemed to drag by so slowly that each night on watch seemed to last for a week or more.
Rabbit could never really recall just exactly when it was that he became aware of the fact that the stars were not always in the same place in the night sky. At first he was quite certain that like the sun and the moon, they rose and set as they circled the world; but as he watched them more closely, he came to realize that it wasn’t that way at all. He didn’t mention his speculation to the other sailors on the Seagull, but his curiosity even led him to volunteer for night watch.
After a few months of close observation, it came to him that it was not the stars that were moving. It was the Seagull. If she was sailing east, certain stars—or groups of stars—rose higher in the night sky. If she was sailing westward, back toward the Land of Maag, they sank back down toward the eastern horizon.
Then one night it dawned on him that the friendly stars had been giving him the exact location of the Seagull every time he looked up at them.
He thought that was terribly nice of them.
Rabbit had always been painfully aware of the fact that the men of the Land of Maag who were of “normal” size viewed small men as defective—not only in their stature but also in their mental capabilities. The notion that small size meant small brains was locked in stone in the general Maag consciousness, and Rabbit carefully and very gradually began to take advantage of that prevailing prejudice. If he pretended to be simpleminded, he could quite easily avoid the more unpleasant chores on board the Seagull. The crew recognized his skill as a smith, but over the years they all seemed to reach the conclusion that his mind shut down when the fire in his forge went out. That suited Rabbit right down to the ground. To his way of looking at things, “easy” outranked “hard” more than just a little bit.
Things were going along very well for Rabbit, but then on a summer day, just after the men of the Seagull had looted yet another slow-moving Trogite ship, a sudden sea current grabbed the Seagull and swept her off in an easterly direction, and no amount of rowing by the oarsmen could pull her free.
Rabbit was more than a little worried as the Seagull rushed eastward. The stars were telling him that she was moving faster and farther than he’d ever thought possible. It was obvious—to Rabbit, at least—that something very unnatural was going on here.