The Haka slid smoothly down the back of the swell and glided over the next like a bird in flight. The brightly painted dragonhead glittered with a fine patina of salt and seemed to sing in the sunshine. Admiral Silasvo Merikarhu stood at the bow with his arm around the dragon prow like he was embracing a trusted pet, and felt joy and peace as the salt-tinged breeze washed over him. The Haka loved the sea, and Silasvo loved it with her. The sail swelled tight against its rigging and pushed the Haka so fast it seemed to skim over the waves. Up, up she would rise, skating on the surface with a lover’s touch. Down, down she would go, sliding down the wave like a gull on the wing. Silasvo, the Old Sea Bear, was in his element and was truly a happy man. The creator blessed him with his fate and he could ask for nothing more. He had all he wanted.
Behind him, tending to their weapons and the ship, was his crew. 80 warriors and sailors, all men of the sea. Near the stern, the small cooking fire grilled fish, and though the sea breeze kept him from smelling it he knew it would taste just fine, for Janu was a good cook. The bronze shields lashed along the side caught the occasional splash and helped keep the deck dry. Around the mainmast, a leather tarp covered the bulk of the ship and saved the men from sunburn and spray. Up the mainmast and hanging in a woven seat was the lookout, his height giving his eyes a mighty reach. The ballista behind him was of Savo make and was painted in bright colors with fancy scrollwork on the mainframe. The Haka was a seabird with razor talons and piercing eyes, and the Sea Bear rode on her back. The Haka was a shark cutting through the water with blinding speed and the Sea Bear was her brain, her will.
“Ship Ho! Port Bow!” the lookout cried.
The ship exploded into activity as the men gathered their weapons and stowed their gear. Some, when they reached their posts, strained their eyes over the shield wall to try and spot their quarry. Silasvo raised his arm straight up in the air, then moved it slowly down and left. The Dragon swung its face, looking for its prey, until the lookout cried, “Bows On!” Silasvo’s hand went up, and the boat ceased its turn. As he made his way aft he stepped around the oars and around the men, interfering with no job. They knew where they were supposed to be and it was his job to stay out of their way. Two sailors gathered buckets of seawater in case of fires. The men nodded at him and smiled. Their morale was high and they were ready.
“What type of ship?” he called to his lookout.
“Looks like a fisher!” the lookout cried back after a pause.
They caught the fishing boat quickly and easily. They overhauled it so fast that it struck its single triangular sail without a whimper. There was no choice. Oars were thrust out to brake the fast moving longship, and the sail was furled. Soon the fishing boat and the Haka were lashed side by side.
Silasvo interrogated the owner while his wife and a small boy cowered weeping in the bottom of their boat. The fisherman relaxed a bit when he discovered the Haka was crewed by Host, for he knew that he would not be captured and made a slave. But he knew nothing useful; he was a fisherman from a small village to the south, and was simply feeding himself and his family. Still somewhat fearful, he offered to sell the ship some fish, and Silasvo returned to his crew with a bag of beautiful red snapper. As the smiling fisherman put the silver in his leather pouch Silasvo knew that if he met this man again he would be seen as a friend.
“Merikarhu, these are fine fish you’ve bought,” Janu declared when he got the snapper. He said nothing more but went to work cleaning them with a fury. Snapper was always a treat.
Such an uncomplicated life. The Haka sprinted away from the fisher and again danced through the waves. Always they stayed in sight of the coast. And it was a sad fact for Silasvo that the shoreline would interrupt their time on the ocean when they found the Pearl River. A longship was not only handy on the sea, but it was a fine and speedy riverboat as well. Shallow of draft and not excessively beamy, the Haka could make its way up rivers that even small galleys would be hard-pressed to follow. They could fight or run as they wished, and nothing on the water could catch a longship that wanted to run. Silasvo ran his hand over the tarp covering the ballista. And nothing could run from a longship that wanted to catch it either.
They could see spring storms in the distance as they came to the promontory that marked the Pearl River. The wind had shifted and they had to tack to bring the ship into its mouth, but the Haka responded with alacrity. The light touch needed on the Haka’s helm was unique to the longships Silasvo had captained. The seabirds were thick around the small delta and their cries were raucous. The Haka cut through the sharp line where the brown river water met the blue water of the ocean, and the dragon lunged toward the river, anxious to get into this new body of water. Silasvo had been on the Lohikaerme when this river had been discovered, but he had not been on any of the other voyages up it, so for both himself and the Haka this was a new experience. The budding greenery around here was so different from the jungles of home. This was northland forest and northern praire. He had heard that you could sail the Pearl almost to the Bay of Ushko, but no one knew that for sure. He would not be going that far.
“Campfires, starboard bow!” cried the lookout.
Heads snapped around and looked up.
“Count,” Silasvo hollered back.
There was a long pause. “Ten, Merikarhu! I count ten. Maybe more farther away!”
There was not supposed to be anyone near the coast. “Rig for combat!”
The crew exploded into activity. Soon all were armed and armored, and the oarsmen sat on their benches with their oars at the read.
Hannu, the second in command, came to stand beside Silasvo. “All is ready, Vanha Merikarhu.”
Silasvo smiled, they were very quick.
“Now, Hannu, we don’t look for a fight, but I would hate like hell to get up this river and have hostiles waiting for me below.”
“Are they waiting, maybe, for us to appear?”
“No, they would not leave their fires burning like that. I think they’re here for their own reasons.”
“A shore party.”
“No. If they’re here when we get back then we’ll check them out. For now we have to get our silver to its destination.”
“We want to be a long ways away by nightfall for sure.”
“Yes, for sure.”
The boat slid through the brown water, the wind dying within the rising banks of the land. The river spilled out from between some hills and the air became very still here. They would have to row. As the boat moved up the river, Silasvo looked hard at the diminishing plumes of smoke. They would definitely have to find out who those people were.