The oars dipped into the water silently. Apart from their gentle splashing, the only sound that was heard aboard the longship was the creaking and moaning of wood.

Kauko plucked at his fur. Different shores brought legions of different critters, but he was always surprised that anything could survive in this cold at all; fur-bugs were everywhere, even in places where he would not have chosen to be, were it not for the pay.

“A dangerous venture, this sailing by night,” the man next to Kauko said. He was a balding, furless, scrawny thing. Kauko knew him for a wealthy northern merchant--indeed the main financer of this ship--and had by his dress and manner reckoned him a miser.

Kauko blew air out his nose: a magnificent sound that rarely failed to impress and was even more intimidating in the freezing cold when Kauko’s breath conjured up a veritable cloud of mist. When the man seemed unimpressed, Kauko muttered some words in his deep, musical tongue.

“I know they keep watch through the night,” the man said. “They have to see us, even on a clouded night as this one. And you know what’ll happen when we’re spotted?” The man whistled in imitation of an arrow, poked himself in the chest, and hung his head as if dead.

“And even if they don’t see us," he said, "we risk running aground or onto a sandbank; you couldn’t even see a Buggane shit in this moonlight, by God’s Death.

“Which do you prefer, goat-man? The guard’s arrow or the freezing water? I reckon we shall get closely acquainted with one or the other tonight, and that little pale bugger will lead us straight to it.”

The man gestured at the odd little Alp that stood on the ship’s bow. He was a bit smaller than most Alps Kauko had seen; about two feet shorter than a full-grown man, which made him half Kauko’s size. Unlike other Alps, he was covered in thin, white fur, and seemed indeed a very pale, almost sickly, thing. He held the rigging with both hands, one foot on the shield plank, and peered out into the darkness.

“It’s a breed of Alp,” the man said. “The men call it a Lob. Somehow, the silly little bugger managed to convince our bright star of a captain that it can find any port in the dark.” The man gave a short, cynical chuckle. “My pecker can find any port in the dark, too, doesn’t mean it should pilot a ship.”

He nudged Kauko and laughed at his own joke. When Kauko didn’t humor him, the man’s face darkened.

“So which should do for you, goat-man? Sea’s freezing bite or the guard’s barbed arrow?”

Kauko was silent.

“Me,” he said. “I prefer the arrow. I was always a fighting man. I’ll leave the icy teeth of the sea and the gentle kiss of the fishes to the mariners.”

The man made a dismissive gesture when Kauko did not reply. Silence returned to the longship, disturbed only by the splash of the oars as they softly broke the sea’s surface.

#