The Nordrans waited silently by the quayside with their baggage. The personal arms and luggage of the hunters took up a chest each, and the group’s provisions for the journey, carefully purchased days ago and brought here by porters to await their embarkation, consisted of a number of barrels and crates of salted pork, hard-tack, oil, vinegar, cheese, beans and almonds, as well as several large barrels of fresh water.
Amos had haggled as best he could in an unfamiliar tongue and foreign coin, but the provisions still seemed very little to feed the eight of them for the entire journey. It was almost impossible not to be cheated in some way by the quick minds and hands of the local merchants, but they could only hope that Amos had got the better of the deal, and only been charged too much coin.
The hunters looked up as one of the boats labouring in the water grew closer and seemed to be working its way towards them. Slowly, against the tide, the powerful strokes of the rowers dragged it up against the quayside, and one of the sailors threw a rope onshore, followed y himself. He bound the boat tightly as the other sailors descended on them. There were four sailors dressed in thin jerkins, with their sleeves rolled to their elbows. At the prow squatted another man, who watched the sailors work with a cold eye. He was dressed in a heavy doublet, with wide shoulders, and a large red felt cap upon his head. He was dressed in a rich blue but a coarse weave. He had a thin gold chain around his neck. But what astonished the Nordrans was his face, his skin was as dark as a Ylessian, and they could not look at him without a shiver going down them at the thought of those magelords. Suddenly he leapt up, flinging himself out of the boat onto the shore and landing like a cat. He nodded to the men and his eye caught Karl’s.
“My friend Karl is it not?” he asked in a thick accent that the men had never heard before. Karl nodded.
“Ready all. Very good. My men will aboard your belonging. You get up now. Quick quick. The ship is waiting.” Karl nodded and moved towards the boat, quickly followed by the others. The sailors, a motley group that were certainly not Ihonian by birth, moved quickly about them as they boarded the boat, hauling barrels onto their shoulders as though they were full of feathers. The Nordrans were strong, the mountains didn’t breed weak shoulders, but even they were astonished to see how the sailors worked. As they settled into the boat at the prow, the Ihonian called to the four sailors as they loaded the boat, seeming to have filled half the vessel in the time it took for the Nordrans to have climbed aboard.
“Move it on there, my good boys, strong and quick, yes, yes.” He nodded to Karl. “My sailors are strong. We pay only for best in city. No one fools a Soboan”
Thom turned to Caleb, “What’s a Soboan?” Caleb shook his head and shrugged. He felt it was very unlikely that these sailors were the best in Scindia. But they weren’t fresh from their mother’s apron strings, that was for sure. They knew their stuff, and worked fast, with no wasted movement. In minutes the boat was full and the sailors were settled again with their oars in their hands. The Ihonian was untying the knot on shore and with another cat-like leap, landed in the boat with barely a rock of the sides. He was across the benches ad beside the Nordrans before the sailros had even finished their first stroke of the oars.
“Friends, I have met your Karl before, but let me introduce me. I am Akii, and I am, ship’s mate you call it I think. I run the crew for the Bosun. Any problems, you come to me. Anything you need. And if I can’t help I tell you where to go yes.” His wide grin couldn’t tell them whether he was making a joke or not. He settled back in the prow, and smiled at them all, but his eyes were cold as he scanned the sailors. Karl had been a bit taken aback the first time he’d met the Ihonian in the tavern taproom, the black man’s wide smile had disarmed him at first.
But Karl was used to dealing with all sorts of people and he soon realised that the smile hid a mind that was a cross between an owl and a hawk. A ship’s mate was never a fool, or they didn’t last long. And this one had made it across an ocean. Six weeks without land they said it took. He couldn’t imagine what it must take to keep a crew running for that length of time, through storms, disease, and dissent. Akii was definitely one not to underestimate.
The rowers hauled on their oars. Now with the early tide, they drove the boat quickly across the water. As they pulled out around the headland of the quay into the straits the waves picked up, and a sharp cold wind gusted in against them. The sailors didn’t slow, their bare arms slick with sweat as they hauled. And the straits were thick with ships. There were so many, anchored, or already pulling out into the main channel to ride the tide out to open sea.
The ships were large and small, the smallest barely bigger than the boat, fishing vessels perhaps, already aboard and ready to head out to sea now the sun was halfway above the horizon. The larger ships were tall, many with single masts, others with two or three, merchant cogs mostly, long and low in the water, already heavy with goods ready to sail the trade routes. There were barques, coast-huggers, and even a handful of greater cogs, naos with 100 tuns of hold or more. Among them all, the Nordran’s immediately saw the ship they were heading for.
It stood proud upon the waves, larger than the others, two decks it must be, three masts, and a huge stern castle that overhung the waves that lapped at its rear. While the other ships’ sterns ended at a single post like their prows, this one ended at two, with a flat rear. It made it look sleeker and more agile among the waves. The sails were still furled, the anchor still down, but even so, it seemed to step lightly between the waves as the wind picked up and tried to catch at the canvass hung above it. The ropes that held the masts aloft taughtened and stretched, the creaking sound of hemp twisted as tight as it could go carried across the waves.
“Best ship in the world yes?” Akii exclaimed. “Nothing like her you people have. She’ll go clean across the ocean, no worry.” Karl and the hunters had sailed across the northern straits in a single-masted cog. It had been ten paces from prow to stern, and nothing but the hold under the main deck. He knew little about ships, but ten years ago when he’d been looking to buy a boat he’d done some research. Apart from size, the Agean merchant vessels were a basic design, unchanged much for centuries, capable of coastal trade, and short hops only, dangerous in open ocean.
But the Ionians were generations ahead. Their ships were faster, more weather-worthy, capable of holding more, and taking it further from land than anything the Ageans had. The Ihonians hadn’t built a ship. They’d built a machine designed to travel between worlds.