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.
Kauko saw the lights in the distance; it was a big city, to be sure. They were upwind of it, but he fancied he could smell roast meat and dark ale on the cold north wind; it had been a while since he had had a good meal.
“Broenwic,” the man next to Kauko said. “The City of Bridges. It was built by the Ulder people, you know?” He spat on the ship’s black deck. “Heathen sods.”
Kauko shifted his weight.
“Uisce Cathair, the Ulder used to call it.” The man’s voice was sharp as a knife. “They ruled here a few centuries ago. But when the Sorfolk came along, it turned out their skin paint didn’t quite do the trick against arrows. . .
“Although I’m sure those arrows would be but pinpricks to you, what with your fancy skin and all.” The man rapped his knuckles on the thick, horn plating that covered Kauko’s forearms.
Kauko drew in his arm and gave an angry snort in the man’s face. For a moment, the man seemed taken aback by the hostile gesture; then he relaxed, sat back, and stared into the black of night.
The man was worse than most smugglers Kauko had accompanied. The profession always attracted the arrogant and the unseemly, but most of them left Kauko alone, either because they feared him or because they thought it beneath themselves to fraternize with the guards. Kauko was fine with that.
Without a word, Kauko veered up from the bench and walked towards the ship’s bow, where the pale little Lob stood peering into the moonless night. The ship bobbed but a little on these calm waters and--although his height worked against him--it was easy for Kauko to maintain his footing; a childhood spent in the mountains had made him more surefooted than many a mariner.
Kauko stopped just a yard short of the bow and watched as the city lights slowly came closer. There was the harbor district: lanterns lined the many bridges that connected its docks, and some of the wider avenues and larger warehouses were illuminated as well. Smaller lights moved about: torches or lamps carried by the city’s inhabitants as they went about their nightly business.
A sharp thud made Kauko jump. The Lob in front of him gave a tired, almost resigned sigh and sank down onto the ship’s bow.
For a moment, the Lob’s fall seemed comical. Then, years of training and experience took over and Kauko dropped to the cold, black deck.
“To arms!” He cried. Kauko’s voice was quite commanding, even if he wasn’t shouting, and when he employed it to its fullest, it was as thunder.
Everywhere on the ship, men jumped for cover behind the shield planks and fumbled with their bows and axes, while rowers leaned forward in their seats to offer as small a target as possible.
Under the bench where Kauko had sat a moment ago now lay the merchant who had pestered him. He gave Kauko a terrible, death-defying grin.
“Look like arrows it is!” He shouted over the fray.
Even though the hail of arrows had ended, most mariners still huddled against the shield plank. There were moans and cries all about the ship, but none dared leave cover for fear of being shot. The captain was nowhere in sight. Considering the disorder and lack of command, it was likely he was dead already.
Kauko considered escape. As their ship hadn’t been boarded yet, there was still a chance to get away and try to swim to Broenwic’s shores; the men of that city would not look suspiciously on one of Kauko’s kind: Gettefolk were a common sight in these parts. But the water seemed dark and cold, and the shore was far away still.
“Here they come. . .” said one of the mariners.
Out of the dark night came a square white sail. The dark hull of the vessel that bore it was still concealed in the blackness. Kauko considered the plunge into the cold water: weighed against a trip to the scaffold by way of Broenwic’s cold and dark dungeons, the icy black deep began to look more favorable.
“Get ready, men,” said an elder mariner. The men around Kauko gripped the hafts of their axes firmly. Several mariners chanced to rise quickly and lift a shield from the shield plank.
Kauko sighed. He turned his head to face the merchant, who still lay under the bench where they had sat together less than an hour before.
“So you can speak, after all. Come over here.”
Kauko raised an eyebrow. Despite the dark night, he saw a smile on the merchant’s face--inappropriate. . . yet intriguing.
Kauko deigned not to go on all fours like a beast, but still he crouched low for fear of arrows. He made his way slowly to the merchant, who watched him come with a sardonic smile. When Kauko was close, he spoke: “Death comes for us all, goat-man. . . But I may yet have a way for you to postpone that inevitable encounter.”
The merchant reached into his pouch--his movements made awkward by the limited space underneath the bench--and retrieved from it a pendant: it was a dagger the size of a man’s little finger, set with precious stones.
“Although the Dead God is no more,” the merchant said, “He lives on in each of His followers, and the lives of those who heed His teachings are sacred to Him. He is very unlike the Wendel you worship here in the west, who have few interests beyond satisfying their most base urges.”
Kauko stared at the pendant as it caught the starlight. It was beautifully crafted: such jewelry was beyond the skills of men on Adelfán.
“The Dead God, Damas of the Dagger, recognizes strength,” the merchant said. His eyes pierced Kauko’s and his face took on a solemn expression. “And so do I.”
The merchant extended his hand towards Kauko. Between thumb and index finger he presented the pendant.
“I spoke earlier of two choices, but what do you say to a third choice, goat-man? Will you choose water’s freezing bite or the guard’s barbed arrow? Or perhaps will you choose the Grace of the Dead God?”
As battle was joined all around Kauko and the night sky came to life with the cries of victory and defeat, the pendant flickered with an unearthly light and an unearthly promise, and the merchant’s voice echoed through Kauko’s mind. . .
“Will you choose the Grace of the Dead God?”