There was still smoke drifting from a few chimneys when they left. Rivermouth, for the first time in centuries, was empty.
She had been up most of the night, gathering what supplies they had that could fit in their three old canvas packs. Food stuffs and tools first. Then clothes – the warmest furs and cloaks they had. Next, Lyca gathered the things she couldn’t bear to leave behind. An old brass flute Mavis had given her. A belt hatchet, for whatever good it might do. The musty hare-paw charm that had once been her mother’s. That morning, she and Geoffrey had gathered their bags, Lyca’s alder crutch, and made their way to the ice to meet with the others.
It was strangely quiet with so many people gathered together. Very few spoke, other than quips about the weather or the necessary precautions. Most were stone-faced and quietly packing their families onto the huge sleds that stood waiting as the Riverfolk fed their moose and tightened harness straps.
Her leg was still far from healed. Each step brought a stab of hot pain that seemed to shoot from her thigh to her heart, and the wrappings were still coming off soiled and stinking. Yet, this day was better than the last, and that was a good thing.
The five massive sleds stood like strange, sloped huts on the ice. Lyca saw that smoke was spitting from slender chimneys in their roofs, which meant there must be stoves on the inside. She spotted Old Crewe leaning against the nearest sled and limped over.
“Morning to you,” she said.
“To you as well,” he replied. “It is good or bad?”
“Aye, that it is.”
Within the hour they had pulled away from Rivermouth. The cabins, the trading post, the stead all stood still as stones and empty as air. No axes splitting wood. No doors slamming shut with the wind. No voices, no songs, no secrets. Through driving snow and blistering wind they dredged on throughout the day. Men and women, bayfolk and riverfolk alike made turns walking and resting in the sleds. It took two people to guide the three pairs of moose hauling each sled, and more were needed to walk ahead and prod the ice with poles in search of weaknesses or holes. Lyca had been forced to remain inside with the old and the sick – those who were too weak or in too much pain to walk beside the sleds.
She felt guilty for not helping lead with the others, but otherwise she didn’t mind it in the sled. She sat with Geoffrey and Old Crewe and Missus Bekka, listening to the elders’ tales from wayback about people long gone and deeds that had mostly been forgotten. Below them, the great wooden skis slid on, grinding across edges of ice and swishing over pools of fresh-fallen snow. As the day wore on, Lyca kept pulling back the flap of the sled door to see where they were. By late morning they passed Quartz Cove, which seemed as empty and quiet as Rivermouth now was. The tiny stove crackled away. Fuelled by wet sticks and turpentine, fat and old rope. Between tales the silence became broken by Sherylyn’s whimpers. Every time the sled hit an upthrust ice pan she would moan with pain. Lyca wasn’t sure whether the older woman was awake or asleep half the time. Either way, she feared Sherylyn would soon join her husband in death.
The sun had just begun to dip as they approached Passer’s Point, and a team was sent to converse with the Lightkeeper about the happenings of the last few days. Lyca chewed her fingers with anticipation but was relieved to hear of Jamie and Mavis’ passing through. The word from the Lightkeeper was that the two men had nearly drowned in their attempt to reach the stead, and that Jamie had nearly been lost to the water. However, it seemed that they had left the stead in good spirits, if under prepared. She couldn’t lose hope now. Hope was all they had. Stranger still was that a message had been intended for Old Crewe from the High Keeper of Lhorrenhelm, but the Lightkeeper didn’t know what it was. Old Crewe didn’t speak of it, which Lyca thought was odd.
From Passer’s Point they cut straight across the ice to the western shore. The decision to do so had taken much contemplation, and no shortage of unkind words between Gerrik Hull and Mr Straulk. In the end, though, the old merchant gave in. They would be in the lee of the western cliffs, and the ice near to shore would be more solid there.
On through the evening and into the dark the great moose plowed, over the ice edges sharp as axes and snow drifts high as a man’s waist at times. The travellers supped on a thin broth that contained some oily trace of fish and wherein floated the sparse remains of a withered root or two. The Lightkeeper had spared them a small bag of salt, which helped. His stores were not entirely low, but he refused to part with more than the salt, insisting that his purpose was to maintain those who lost their way. There were always those who lost their way.
The first night, Lyca’s sleep came in fits. She would drift off slowly into some lofty dream, only to be awoken moments later by a jolt of the sled, or a voice crying out in the night. Once, she woke in a tearful mess, convinced beyond reason that they had broken through the ice and were all going to drown, but Missus Bekka brought her back to her senses with a swift slap on the cheek.
“Your leg will not bear your burden – let your wits do the walking.”
“But we’re drowning,” she muttered, breathless. To her surprise, the old woman laughed and patted her gingerly on the shoulder.
“Dear Lyca, we will not drown.”
“Aye,” came a deep voice from the flap of the sled door. Tiny, coming in from the cold to swap with another traveller. “We won’t drown. You’d freeze before any water got in yer lungs.”
That first night seemed to last forever. More dreams came and went. She was in a field, surrounded by the skeletal remains of houses. She was stabbing a giant lynx, over and over, blood splattering in her eyes. She was swaying atop a wall of stone, as an angry sea boiled a hundred feet below.
Daybreak brought some sense of relief. Missus Bekka assured her she must have been in a fever, as she had been mumbling and rolling about in her sleep. Lyca changed her wrappings and found that while they were still dirty, the smell was less strong now. Someone announced that they were in the shadow of the western cliffs and Lyca limped her way to the flap to look outside. The sight that met her was astonishing – a sheer face, reaching to dizzying heights and decorated in a forest of thousands of crystal clear icicles. A frozen waterfall. As the bleak winter sun crept higher and let a few blades of light through the black clouds, rainbows shot from the cliff face like flames. Her eyes watered as orbs of perfect blue, silver, red and violet shivered in the morning air. A moment later it was gone, and the ice became cold and still once again.
The day moved on as the one before had done, with the grinding, shuffling pace of their five-sled caravan. Once, near midday, a riverfolk boy in his teens came to check on Sherylyn and spent more than enough time confirming that Lyca was indeed well.
“The boy fancies you,” said Old Crewe with a devilish grin.
“The boy is too young to know what’s good for him. He didn’t smell my rags this morning,” she joked. “Still, I had been that young when Mavis first came knocking on Mother’s door.”
“Do you remember much about your mother?” he asked. “I knew never my own.”
“My mother…” she stopped for a moment, to think. “My father died when I was young, before squirt here was born,” she said, ruffling Geoffrey’s hair. “My mother was a strong woman. Hands like talons. When she’d be fletching I’d watch her fingers moving, zipping off vanes from feather, yanking twine so tight you’d think it’d cut through her skin. She used to say Father called her ‘hide hands’ when they first met.” She laughed. “Hide hands, can you imagine!”
“He must’ve got some tellings off from her for that,” Old Crewe chuckled.
“I’ll bet he did. She could be soft when she wanted to be, though. Hands like leather, but they were gentler than water.”
“I don’t remember,” Geoffrey said, his eyes welling up.
“Shush now,” Lyca said. She pulled him close. “Momma loved you, squirt. She’d be so proud of you.”
Nightfall came with whispers of torchlight along the eastern shore, but Tiny assured them it was too dark and blurred by snow to see anything for sure. It was probably hunters.
“What if it’s the men? Mavis and Jamie?” she prodded. “What if they got trapped, or injured?” Tiny only shook his head at that.
“They’d be farther south by now. And besides, it’s too many lights to be them, if it’s torches we’re all squintin’ at.”
“How many?” asked the riverfolk teen, now resting inside.
“Two dozen or more, I reckon,” he said, and squeezed his huge frame through the door and back into the freezing night. “Cursin’ wind,” Lyca heard a voice outside say.
Hours dragged on and the walking kept switching with the resting, the resting with the walking. Lyca dozed off, more deeply than the night before, and it was some time before she woke again.
“Beggin’ pardon,” Old Crewe said, sitting back down in his nest of furs and blankets. “Fire nearly went out. Had to tend to the stove.”
“Don’t beg any pardons, I’m glad you didn’t let us shiver. Bad dreams and such, y’know.”
“No more’n usual,” the old man said. Lyca had been dreaming again. Not of ghost towns or monsters but of her mother. Old Crewe must have seen something of it in her face. “Something botherin’ you?”
“It’s nothing, really,” she said. Old Crewe’s pondering expression made her want to tell all, though. The old mapmaker had been kind. There was a long pause.
“My mother,” Lyca started. “I lied to you, Mister Crewe, about Momma.” It wasn’t easy. “My father was dead long before I could remember him. Crushed under the weight of some tree felled by a careless young woodsman he was teaching. Happened just a couple of years after I was born. Momma was all I knew growing up. And Geoffrey… he doesn’t know.” She looked over at the young boy, who was snoring lightly in his sleep.
Old Crewe leaned in as far as his bent back would allow. “Doesn’t know what, Lyca?”
“Geoffrey’s not my true brother.” The words came out tasting sour. “Geoffrey’s father was a stranger. Some… man. My mother and him met when I was young. I never even knew who he was. I only knew he was the reason Momma would take a trip to Quartz Cove once a week for a summer. Must have been some miner, I suppose.”
Old Crewe’s mouth was in a frown, but his eyes were kind. “What became of him?” he asked.
“I don’t know, for sure. He disappeared a few months before Geoffrey was born. I didn’t care. I didn’t know him anyways. All I wanted was a little brother or a sister. But the day he was born, that’s when Momma…” Remembering was poison. “That’s when she died.”
“Lyca, Lyca,” the old man said quietly. “You must miss her very much.”
It was quiet for a long time. Lyca listened to the little fire crackling, and occasionally a moose snorted out in the dark. It was perhaps an hour before the mapmaker spoke again.
“Beggin’ pardon again, Lyca. You weren’t the only one who lied.”
“What do you mean?” she asked, confused.
“My hometown isn’t Greepetown, like I told you before.”
“No, not hardly. Didn’t you think it strange, that of all these riverfolk, none seemed to recognize me?”
She had thought it was strange, but she hadn’t given it much thought. “Yes, now that you mention it, I did notice that. Then where are you from, Mister Crewe?”
Old Crewe looked around the tent quietly, listening carefully to the sounds of snores and Sherylyn’s soft whimpering. “I’ll tell you all about that sometime soon, when there are fewer ears around.”
Lyca thought of something. “And the letter that the lightkeeper mentioned, do you know what that was about?”
“I have an idea,” he said, nodding solemnly. “But it’s best you get some sleep. Ask again when we reach the capitol, and I’ll tell you all I know. If anybody’s earned that much, it’s you.” The old man closed his eyes and the sled went silent.
But Lyca didn’t sleep. Her mind was alive with thoughts of the strange dreams, and of her mother. She pulled her brother’s blanket a little tighter to keep out the cold and leaned back in her furs, waiting for the sun to rise.