The town of Bhardrow was smaller than Tam had expected. From the tales of Mh'repha, the hunters and the traders who had accompanied them, it had seemed to him that the fishing capital of the Nephilim lands must be even larger than Harr – I did finally find out what the town of the Claw was named, he wrily added. Claw, in their language. But the town before him, the town they were about to enter, was less than a quarter the size of the mountain village they had left. Evidently, Harr was one of the most populous city-states of them all, and Mh'repha had eventually told him that no other city for many leagues around was as big an importer. The gold mines paid for it all, she had said, and were one of the reasons that the Claw was in a constant state of readiness for an attack by the Greywraith, who had been after the mines for generations.
The town before them was also named after the tribe that had built it – Bhardrow, which Tam was able to translate to something approaching “River forest.” The tribe was well-off from being the only provider of fish for a long distance around – a delicacy that was worth much to its trading partners.
Still, after seeing the large town of Harr, built into the very face of the mountain, Bhardrow's low and straw-thatched houses looked poor and provincial by comparison.
“You have not yet seen their ships, Tam,” Mh'repha said, seeming almost to read Tam's mind. “They may not build luxuriously, but they do have money to spend.
“They spend most of their time on their ships, you see. Fishing journeys looking for the best spot up and down the river for days of travel around – some of them even go as far as the sea, which is a journey of a month from here. When they do make landfall, it is only to go out again soon, so they like to build their ships more expensively than their houses. What we see here is more of an over-night place than a city.”
Indeed, as Tam now looked around him, he could see that the streets were curiously empty and deserted. They had yet to encounter more than three of the Bhardrow clan on their journey through the city, and that included the guards who had greeted them at the wooden gate. Tam had put the emptiness down to the early hour at which they had come – the sun was just beginning to poke over the trees to the east – but he now realized that the town would not be much more busy at noon than now.
“Where do we go next?” He asked Mh'repha.
“We are here,” she said aloud, her hands motioning for him to watch, “for a simple trading expedition. The traders will exchange some of the gold we have brought with us for fish, which they and their pack animals will bring back to Harr. They will also pay for passage south, up the river to the Ratbane city.” Her hands wove a different sentence in the curious secret gestures of the Claw. <we will leave half-way through the journey, where we have determined the cavern lies.> Aloud, she continued: “The hunters will continue the journey south, all the way to Ratbane. <On a diplomatic envoy that the Greywraith are not officially supposed to know anything about, but that will appear to be the secret reason for our journey. We are entering trade negotiations with the Ratbane, and are acting secretive about this.>
<All the hunters?> Tam asked with his own gestures. <I thought at least some of them would stay with us. Will all of the hunters go down to Ratbane?>
<None of the hunters will go. The envoy will be postponed with apologies, and none of us will go to Ratbane.>
<Have the Bhardrow agreed to play along?>
<Much as we regret stringing along one of our allies, the Bhardrow don't know a thing about it. They will be as surprised as our Greywraith observers when we disappear. The idea is not to keep our mission completely secret, only to keep it secret as long as possible.>
Aloud, Tam replied: “Then let us find a ship!”
Mh'repha's description had been an under-estimation. Once they saw the port district, Tam realized whee all the gold that the Bhardrow were gaining from their fish industry was being spent: Tall stone buildings – quaried miles away, possibly imported from Harr, for the ground was soft and muddy here – quays that extended for a long distance down the river, where a multitude of vessels lay anchored. Tam, whose home town of Avtris was far from open water, had only heard of ships before and was fascinated.
The Claw traders who had accompanied them had already gone about their own business, taking their part of the gold with them to conduct their fish trade. Meanwhile, Chamh'rov had taken charge of the hunters and had asked around for a fishing captain who was travelling up-stream past the city of Ratbane.
It had quickly transpired that the fishing season was bad this year. They had met the traders once again while taking lunch at the inn, and they had been fuming.
“They tell us the price has doubled this time. Everything – herring, salmon, mharron. We have been comparing prices all morning, and we'll be lucky if we can get half what we expected.” They had parted, both groups seeking desperately to lessen their costs. The hunters, too, had discovered it was not easy to find a ship.
“South?” The captain spat. “Only a fool would go there at this time. Everything with sails is headed down the river to the mouth of the sea; that's the only place to fish this year. Past Ratbane, you can find nothing.”
“We could offer more gold for the passage,” Chamh'rov suggested, but the captain shook his head.
“Not that much.” His eyes lit up. “But wait! I know someone you could ask...”
Siphra was waiting in the Sea Tiger bar, as the grizzled captain had suggested.
If the other captain had looked like an old sea-bear who had been born on a ship, then Siphra took that to new heights. Her fur was matted and grey, and in some places rubbed bare by the wind and the salt. She sat in a corner, brooding darkly over a mug of ale. She hardly looked up when Mh'repha sat down at her table – Chamh'rov had stayed behind on the quay to ask other captains, and only Tam and Phamh'rir had come along –, but muttered something that might have been a greeting.
She looked incredulous at the offer.
“Down south?” She looked at Mh'repha's face for the joke, but found none. In spite of this, she let out a series of barking guffaws that sounded similar to a cough. It turned into a real cough, and she reached for a gulp from her mug.
“It must have been old Raphor sent you to me.” She laughed. “He didn't tell you what was up either, I am sure.
“So here's the story. My ship's... well, it's in some disrepair. I kept meaning to fix it, but then I fell ill early this year and wasn't able to lift a finger for months. As for my crew... they skipped out on me after the last journey. Not profitable enough, and after the last storm, people are beginning to say I draw bad luck.
“Once that happens, there's no way anyone will take berth on your ship again. Well, there are a few sailors here that aren't superstitious, but even they're not going to work on a ship that damaged – there are far better opportunities. So with a ship with one sail and no crew, I'm just about the only one who won't sail north to the sea this winter.
“Which means my ship is about the only one you'll find that could take you south. In a manner of speaking.”
Mh'repha raised her eyebrows. “What manner of speaking are we talking about here?”
“It's dirty, rotten and full of holes. And there's nobody to crew it. You're welcome.” She laughed again. “Raphor is a fool. He's probably thinking he tossed a huge opportunity my way. There is just no way that...” her head bowed down to the table again.
<I advise against.> Phamh'rir's gestures were swift and subtle. If Mh'repha hadn't been watching for them, she would have mistaken them for merely an itch he was scratching. <We cannot risk a disaster.>
<You're welcome to try and find a different captain,> Mh'repha responded. <You heard Raphor earlier.>
<Pray tell, how are we going to sail a ship without a crew?>
<We don't need a full crew where we're going. And there are eight of us.>
<Three of whom have set foot on a ship before, and none who have sailed one.>
Tam interrupted with a gesture of his own. <We should take Siphra up on this offer. The journey is short and will not require much manpower. Besides, it looks like she really needs that job. It's the only chance she has at staying in business,> he added with a side-long glance at the captain who was still staring at her ale, too far lost in thought (or stupor, Tam considered) to wonder why the three were remaining so oddly silent.
Mh'repha turned suddenly, looking sharply at him, then casting an appraising look over at the weather-bitten captain. After a moment, she raised her eyebrows, then she gazed intently at the floor, looking a bit sheepish.
Holy crystals and the blades that carve them, it hit Tam as he noticed the reaction. Is she jealous? He realized he needed to file that thought away for later, but his heart could not not help skipping a beat.
Mh'repha, meanwhile, shrugged and said aloud: “If you say so...” Tam sensed a determined decision to cover up her first reaction as best as she could. In her confusion, she had even forgotten to stick to the secret gestures.
Siphra perked up, the words seemed to have penetrated her lethargy. She looked questioningly up at the healer. “Say what?”
“We have decided. We need to reach Ratbane as quickly as possible, and any ship is better than none.” Phamh'rir scowled. <If you are going to decide this based on your--> Mh'repha calmly reached back and gripped his hand to prevent him from speaking on. “We can repay you adequately for the trip.”
“That is so kind of you,” Siphra said without much conviction. “Now if you can conjure up a crew that can man my ship too, you have a deal,” she bitterly added. “Because you three won't do. Even at the best of times, my brig needs more than five sailors to function. Now, with all the leaks, we have to man the bilge practically around the clock, and that requires two more.”
“There are eight of us. The leader of our expedition and the others are still at the quay, looking around for alternatives.” Mh'repha grinned. “I expect they shall join us presently.” And if not? If he's found another ship that's in better condition? She was suddenly strangely regretful of having to turn down Siphra's offer after having considered it before.
The line of thought was interrupted as the tavern door opened briefly to allow five Nephilim in, the best collective description for whom would probably be “bedraggled”.
“We've looked all over the place!” Chamh'rov said by way of greeting. “Nothing. No ship worth salt is going south for any sum of gold.”
Siphra grinned. “It looks like you'll have to put up with one that's not worth a grain.” She gestured at Mh'repha. “We may have reached a deal.”
Mh'repha hesitated briefly, evidently debating whether to talk to Chamh'rov in the Common or in the secret hand signals. Evidently, she opted for openness, for she said aloud: “Siphra here is willing to take us south on her ship. For--” she hesitated, and looked questioningly at the captain.
Siphra looked somewhat surprised at being asked to name her own price. She thought for a few seconds, calculating. “Eighty khershen, ten per passenger.” Mh'repha raised her eyebrows and signalled to Tam, who was looking a bit confused. <That's dirt cheap, if you must know, even for having to crew. We'd expected to pay more than five times that sum. It comes to about 10 pieces of the gold we're carrying.>
She replied, turning to Siphra. “But that's not all. We are going to pay you a bonus upon arrival of course. Of... she looked at Chamh'rov, judging his expression.
“Twice the original price, let's say. That should be sufficient, I hope.”
Then, she added: “The catch, Chamh'rov, is that there's no crew. We're going to have to do much of the work ourselves.”
Chamh'rov scowled for only a second, but realized a lost cause when he saw one. “That will be no problem.”
Mh'arriimh', indeed, looked fascinated. “We are going to sail the ship? That is wonderful, I always wanted to---” she cut herself off as she realized the looks the other Nephilim were giving her. Is she crazy? Siphra's expression seemed to say.
“Sailing a ship, dear Mh'arriimh, may not be entirely what you thought it to be,” Mh'repha hesitantly answered.
“We're going to spend half our time sweating, and the other half cursing,” Siphra drily added. “There is no way we can positively crew a ship with me the only sailor and eight of you lubbers, but we'll manage for the distance you want to go and no further. There is just no way we can possibly do this, but I'll be darned if we aren't going to try.
“Oh, and we are going to need two at the bilge,” she added.
Mh'repha smiled a fiendish smile, looking first at Tam and then at Mh'arriimh'. “I know just who is going to do that.”