Lyca woke with a start. Her dreams had been wild and she had barely slept, but she realized now that things were okay. Okay? I must be going mad. Mavis and Jamie gone… Locke dead… Sherylyn dying… and Geoffrey, well…
Among all that had gone wrong, Geoffrey did seem to be pulling through. The day that the riverfolk arrived – the day of the attack – Lyca and Sherylyn had been rushed to the Straulks’ home and tended to as much as could be done. When she finally convinced them to let her return home she had arrived to find Geoffrey sitting at the table with Shenya Wyndhill, spooning out two big bowls of crow soup and patiently waiting for her to return. His fever seemed to be gone. Shenya told Lyca that as soon as he had heard what happened he climbed out of bed and insisted on going to see her. My little hero.
She busied herself changing the wrappings on her leg. The rags needed to be replaced every morning where the lynx had clawed through her flesh to keep the blood poison from spreading. At first her bandages stank of pus and rot, but each day the wound healed a little, and she grew stronger. There would be a gnarly scar, for sure – the beast had sliced damn near down to the bone. Lyca was certain she’d never run again. At least I can walk.
Geoffrey was still asleep, nestled in his pile of blankets and whistling through his nose. The fire crackled quietly, and Lyca eased carefully into her clothes to sit for a while. It seems so peaceful now. Even the snow is beautiful. Outside the stained, milky window the frozen stream by her cabin lay glistening like strands of silver in the weak morning glow. An icicle chimed as it fell from the eave. She wished she could stay there for good, listening to the world by the heat of the stove. Bugger it all, she thought angrily, and rose to prepare for the council.
The day the riverfolk arrived something came over the town – a sense of urgency. It had been too long without word from the capitol, and two of their own young men had traipsed off into the further to seek for answers, but finally Rivermouth’s eyes were open to the danger that crept toward them. The riverfolk were kind enough, but hard. They had journeyed three days from Greepetown after admitting defeat to winter and had suffered losses on the way. A young boy had succumbed to the cold on the second night, and a newborn babe had been snatched from her mother’s arms by a starving kreehawk. Their leader was Gerrik Hull, a hunter who had led the group south to find refuge. Not all of their people had come, though. Gerrik explained that half the town had refused to leave their homes. “You’ll lead us to our deaths, Hull,” his wife’s brother had told him. Her name was Hellyn.
Lyca woke Geoffrey with a gentle shake. “There’s hot water in the pot,” she told him, “put in a scoop of sap and drink up. I’ll get us some food when I’m back, okay?”
The boy’s face was still deathly thin, but his wide brown eyes were brighter now. His skin had lost the yellow hue and he spoke with more strength than before. He slept often but ate well. “Okay. Will you be quick, sissy?”
“As quick as I can, squirt.” She pinched his nose.
The front room of Straulk’s trading shop had been cleared out to make room. The shelves had all been pushed against the walls, and the two slender tables that served as Mr Straulk’s counter had been set end to end. There weren’t enough chairs and stools so most stood around, looking nervous. Lyca took notice of the Greepetown woman who had lost her baby, sitting near one end of the table. Her face was gaunt – eyes blank. Sherylyn was absent – her wounds were too grievous, and Lyca wondered whether she would survive.
“There’s a brave lass,” announced Tiny when she came in. He was a quarter man taller than most, strong as a bull and with a belly that sagged beyond the limits of his belt. “Grab y’self a seat now and get off that leg.” The big man dragged back a remaining stool and ushered her in.
“Your wound – how is it?” asked Gerrik.
“Better, much. I really can’t thank you enough.”
“Yah, she’s a tough one, our Lyca,” said Shenya. Her voice was kind as ever, but her eyes were filled with worry. Lyca could only guess how she was dealing with her sister’s near fatal encounter with the lynx.
A few more came in after she sat down. Most of them riverfolk, whose names she did not know, but also came Felicia’s Aunt Bekka, and lastly Alek and Maya, with their twins.
“Aye,” said Mr Straulk. “Should we get on with this business, then?” A murmur of agreement was heard around the room.
“These are times of grave danger, none can deny.” said Old Crewe, who sat with his withered hands resting on the table’s edge. “Our friends to the north here present us with an option. One that we didn’t have before.”
“And a burden.” Straulk’s voice was low, but loud enough that everyone could hear. Lyca’s cheeks burned with sudden anger.
“We did not wish to bring hardship to your town, mister merchant.” It was Gerrik, from the end of the table.
“Anyone to think that would be a fool,” said Susan. Mr Straulk glared at her.
“Regardless, the choice we make today will almost certainly decide the fates of many.” Old Crewe looked around at the faces in the room. “But there are questions that need be answered first.”
“Aye,” muttered a few. The room was quiet for a moment.
“Your people, Gerrik, have lived on the Whitewater for years.” said Lyca. “You don’t rely on aid as we do. Why is it that this winter is different from any other?”
The riverfolk leader started to speak but held back. There’s something else, Lyca thought, something else he doesn’t want to say. It was his wife who spoke instead.
“Our people have put strain on you all, it’s plain,” said Hellyn, “but you must understand that we had no choice but leave Greepetown. The winds were fierce, food might not have lasted us. That much we could have suffered out as usual, like you say but…” She paused, glancing at Gerrik for a second. “But then we heard about the raiders.”
“Hellyn, those are just rumours.”
“Are they?” said another of the Riverfolk – a dark haired boy in his teens. “That man you found, though…”
Mr Straulk looked unsettled. “What’s this news? And why is this the first we’ve heard of it.?”
“Only rumours,” Gerrik said weakly. “We never saw them, not with our own eyes. It may not be true.”
“The man saw them with his own eyes. Surely that’s enough? If you didn’t believe it why would you agree to leave?” Hellyn pressed him.
“I’d rather not take chances when it comes to my family, you know that. But still, it’s hearsay.”
An explanation would be appreciated, I think,” said Tiny.
Gerrik spoke slowly and carefully. This is no tale he wants to tell. “I was returning from a hunt. Empty-handed. I was in earshot of the rapids when I heard something… strange. I thought it might be a moose, or maybe a stray keywing come down from the highlands. So I got closer and there was blood on the snow. No small amount of blood.” He glanced around at the waiting faces. “It was a trapper. Lost, weary. He had taken an arrow to the gut. He was talking madness, sick from blood poison. My first thought was he must have fallen on his own shaft.”
“Tell them what you told us,” said Hellyn.
Straulk’s impatience was overflowing. “You’d best not be hiding something important, Hull. You’re a guest here, remember that.” He’s so suspicious, thought Lyca. Mavis is so much like him.
“The poor sod had lost a lot of blood,” Gerrik said. “He might have even been dream-walking at that point. He was on the edge of death. When the poison gets in your blood you see strange things, everybody knows that.”
“He was attacked,” the brown-haired youth said. “By a band of raiders.”
“He thought he’d been attacked.” People were muttering now. The air tightened.
“How many men?” Tiny’s red face was strained with worry. “Hull, if there’s raiders attacking innocent people we need to know. I need to protect me and mine.”
“That’s why I wanted to tell you all, at once. I want to be clear that I’m not sure whether what this fellow said was true or not, but…” he struggled for words.
“But it convinced you. Some part of you, at least.” Lyca spoke up.
“Aye,” said Gerrik. “The part that loves my kin.” He turned to Tiny. “He said it was men and women. I don’t know how many, but a small group, at least. Men and women in tarred leather, armed with spears and bows.”
“When was this?” Shenya’s face was pale.
“Five days before we left Greepetown. We tried to gather as many as possible, but not everybody believed the tale. We dared not linger longer than that.” Gerrik looked to Mr Straulk. “Had I any reason to believe this man’s tale completely, I would have told you immediately. I didn’t want to spread panic.”
“You believed it enough to flee your home!” The merchant was visibly angry. “You believed it enough to leave half your people behind to escape and run to our land!”
“The cold, the conditions… We couldn’t risk adding the chance of violence-”
“My brother and wedsister are dead and dying, and you drag raiders here!?” Straulk burst, spraying spittle through the air.
“ENOUGH!” boomed Tiny, slamming a club fist onto the table. “Seat yourself or I will, Straulk. Best you remember that if not for these people Sherylyn would be dead and cold already.”
The merchant shrank, and when he spoke again he did so quietly. “If not for Lyca, Sherylyn would be dead. Not for some river man.” He sent a final glare across the table at Gerrik and left, letting his own door slam shut behind him.
“Mr Straulk is still in grief. We all are. Don’t let him make you think you’re not welcome here.” Lyca said.
“Thank you,” said Hellyn. Her husband was silent.
“We have yet to decide,” Old Crewe wavered. “Do we stay, or do we go?”
There was a silence that seemed to last forever. The townsfolk had waited long enough to have council, and none of them had wanted the time to come. Even with what the riverfolk had brought, they would not have enough supplies for everyone to last out the winter. There was a chance that help would come, but many had little hope for Jamie and Mavis. A large portion considered them dead, including Mavis’ own father.
They had agreed without question – but with hesitation from the merchant – that Gerrik and his people would be welcome to stay, and with that agreement they knew there would come a dreaded crossroads. None had spoken aloud of it but finally feeble Old Crewe was the one to say it. Stay or go.
“It’s harsh to hear it so plainly.” Thom said, from Shenya’s side.
“True,” said the mapmaker, “but the answer is clear to me. We will not last the winter here.”
“Mavis and Jamie will bring help as soon as they reach Lhorrenhelm,” Lyca said.
“Given they survive,” said Maya. “And who’s to say the capitol will send help? From what I can tell, they’ve abandoned us.”
“What of Sherylyn?” Shenya asked the table. “If we take the journey she won’t make it. There’s no way she’s fit to travel, right Susan?”
Susan shook her head. “The beast’s claws are foul. Sherylyn’s cuts are festering now as bad as ever. And the fever… Helena says she can’t get it to stop.”
“She will have comfort on our sleds,” Gerrik said. “We can wrap her in furs and tend to her along the way. The rest of us will take turns sleeping and leading the moose.”
“And keeping watch,” added Hellyn.
“I’ll not sleep,” said Tiny, “not with this talk of raiders. I’d rather slip through the ice like a swile than be speared like one.”
“Speak not of such things, child,” said Missus Bekka. Her husband and son had both drowned years ago, before Felicia came into her care. “Use your fear, don’t bend to it. We’ll all have enough of it to face soon.” Tiny said no word but nodded respectfully.
“Have we decided?” asked Maya, rising. “Shall we gather our things? I say Aye.”
“Aye,” said her husband. “Aye,” said Old Crewe, and Shenya and Thom. “Aye,” said Tiny, and Missus Bekka. Slowly, the room came to it’s decision, although Lyca thought that here and there she heard a “nay” from the crowd.
“Aye,” she said, and stood from her stool. She winced as the raw flesh around her wound tightened. I must be strong, she thought. We must all be strong. Like Geoffrey.