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.