“We’ll make landfall in a day, Ratt reckons,” said the captain of the Cormorant to his daughter. “I bet him a cask o’ black beer I’ll get us there before the sun rises on the morrow.”
“Isn’t the beer sour?” she asked.
“Don’t make a bet you don’t mind losing,” he replied, winking. “Ratt won’t know the difference anyways. That git’ll drink anything that makes his head spin.”
“Ratt’s not half bad, Poppa.”
“Aye, s’long as he keeps his mouth shut. Never heard so many lies come outta one hole before. Why d’ya think I keeps him up in the crow’s nest?” The captain snorted and spat over the gunwale, clacking his tongue when it hit the water.
“What about the things he’s been saying about our… passenger?” She glanced sideways at her father. “Are those lies too?”
“I wouldn’t worry too much ’bout what Ratt says about him, Rory.”
Rory squinted. “But he says we can’t trust men like the Iri’khul. Says they’re savage like. Says they’ve got no respect for regular people.”
The captain frowned. “Y’never been away from the shield for more than a week at sea til now. Y’never seen places I have, or people. I’ve been all over the south coast of Lhor. Seen the shores o’ glass four times. Been farther east than anyone I reckon in hundreds o’ years. I’ve sailed south to Iri’kh more’n once in my day, I’ll grant ye, and done a good deal o’ trading there. They ain’t so different from you or I. Might look different, believe in a few other things but that’s bout the size of it.”
“So, they’re not killers, then?” Rory asked.
The captain snorted again. “All men are killers when they need be. Don’t take a name to make a killer. Jus’ takes conditions.”
“I know.” The captain spat before turning away. “Killer or not, ye needn’t worry bout him til we get ashore. Bugger’s sick as a swile pup. Can’t handle the water.”
That much was a relief, at least. Rory hadn’t been aboard when the crew had brought the Iri’khul onto the Cormorant, and the mysterious passenger had been secluded to his cabin below deck since they left port at Koppet. All her father had told her was that the southerner was requested in Lhorrenhelm by the High Keeper. In Rory’s mind, it meant only two possible things: he was being brought to answer for some terrible crime, or he was a man of importance. After hearing Ratt’s talk of wild tree-men and the horrors committed in the dark forests of the south, Rory assumed that the former was more likely.
She squinted at the horizon ahead and thought that she could see a sliver of land, but it was too far to be sure, and dusk was approaching. Overhead, stars were winking into view. When she was still a little girl her mother told her that people had names for shapes in the stars before the time of the dark war. Heroes and monsters that lived forever in the night skies, coming and going with the turn of the years. Sometimes on clear nights she would lie on the deck of her father’s ship and look for the shapes in the lights above, but all she could ever see were specks dotted here and there. There seemed no more sense in the stars to her than in dust motes stirred from a musty blanket.
The water was unusually calm for winter, but the air unforgivably cold. This time of year, most ships north of the Shield would be staying at port, save for important runs. Their captains would spend the coldest months living off the spoils from the last season of ferrying, trading and smuggling. Rory’s father had more bravery than most, she figured. Then again, what choice did her father have but answer the call of the High Keeper at Lhorrenhelm? What consequence would have befallen her family had he denied and stayed ashore? It was ill will to say no to the powers that protect, and Lhorrenhelm was a city with a reputation for prowling on men of the sea. More of mother’s tales, she thought. Perhaps as foolish as the shapes in the stars.
Rather than take that chance, her father agreed and ordered his men to chop the ice away from the Cormorant with mauls and axes and they were on their way north the following evening. They were greeted by a blood-red sunset that deckhand Alto said meant safe sailing. He had been right, for the most part. The fourth day greeted them with snow, the fifth with wind, sharper than good steel. She had asked her father how long the blizzard would last, but he only laughed, spat, and said “This is no blizzard, girl. This is but a belch from the Further.”
The storm only lasted a night, but it was a long one. She busied herself in the galley, aiding the six-fingered cook, Rolf, with fish stew and listening to the Iri’khul retching in his cabin down the passageway. Once during the night Rolf bid her to carry him a bowl of broth to calm his stomach, but when she knocked on the cabin door the only answer was the sound of dry heaving and coughing. She left the bowl outside the door, but the rolling of the ship knocked it over, leaving only a cold stain on the planks. She didn’t mind though. Better to scrub floorboards than face the Iri’khul.
Leaning over the gunwale, she gazed north and thought she could see a faint light in the distance. Burning a deep red, not like the white light of the stars. Blood red. That would be the Lightkeeper’s tower, warning of the ragged reef on which so many ships had been torn asunder. Beacon of safety, she thought with a grimace. Drowning frightened her. For as long as she could remember, Rory would wake up in the night, cold and sweating and gasping for breath. “I’m drowning!” she would tell her mother, but her mother always said “Hush, child. You’re safe.” That was when she was younger. In those days she would scream in the night. Now she was stronger, harder. Now she refused to let anyone hear her cry or see her fear, but it was there all the same.
When her drowning dream came that night, Rory couldn’t bear to lie down again. She swore she could taste the salt in her throat, feel the deep, stabbing cold in her lungs. It was cold, though, damn cold. Curiously quiet, and still. She decided to go on deck for some air.
Outside the wind had calmed, and the Cormorant was drifting through the water as smoothly as a fish. The water was smooth as glass, and to the north she could see that red glow burning closer and brighter than before and tainted with flickers of orange from time to time. She could see other lights too, smaller and dimmer. And the stars, where had they gone? The sky was dark with thick, brooding clouds, and only here and there the moon’s glow sifted though in ghostly beams.
“A beautiful night for walking in dark,” said a deep, quiet voice behind her.
Rory spun round and saw that sitting on the deck, leaning limply against the mast behind her was the shape of a man. As he stood, he towered over her head. Rory thought he must have been at least seven feet tall, with arms that hung nearly to his knees. His long face was framed with a mane of brown hair (though in her mind she thought it was fur) that grew thick about his neck and hung over the front of his cloak. His brow was hard set, and his shoulders were as broad as a man and a half, but something about him seemed oddly frail.
“Are you afraid of me, young one?” the Iri’khul asked of her.
Rory shook her head. “No,” she lied.
He smiled. “Good. I have been alone for long, ulu’k. Too sick for talk for long.” He walked near to her, holding the gunwale for support.
Rory shifted a few inches away from him. “What did you call me? Oolook?”
“Ulu’k. It means ‘friend’ in my home tongue.” He made a gesture, brushing his long thumb over his heart.
“I’m not your friend,” she said.
“Uru’k is my friend. Ulu’k is friend to Iri’kh. Your people are friend to my people.” He closed his eyes, looking sad. “Were friend, I mean. Before the dark.”
Rory looked at the southerner’s face and felt suddenly unafraid. He was being kind to her. Ratt is full of shit after all. “Ulu’k,” she said, attempting to imitate the gesture.
He laughed weakly and shook his head. “Another word for me. But you understand. I can be ulu’k for you.” He looked into the water below and looked like he was about to be sick again, but after a moment regained his composure. “I am not good with floating on water.”
“I didn’t think so,” she said. “We’ll be there soon, though.”
“Good,” he said. He turned to her. “I am Krikka Kol I’khir. Maybe only Krikka better for you?”
“Krikka,” she said. “My name’s Rory Halk. My father is the captain.”
“Roooar-reee,” he said, sounding it out. “Your name is hard, ulu’k. I will practice.” He pointed at the red-orange light to the north. “I come to counsel the High Keeper. Bring many histories. Scrolls from the Hidden Hall.”
“The Hidden Hall?” Rory asked, intrigued. “What do you do there?”
“It is where we keep histories,” he said, shrugging. “In Iri’kh all histories are written, and we keep them safe in the Hidden Hall. All things, true or made up. We have histories of your lands too. And Lhor, also. Some histories that been not read for long time. Old things, from when these lands were young. Long before ulu’k or Krikka come into world. Histories the High Keeper wants.”
“So… you’re like a librarian?” Rory laughed. The idea of the great, hairy Iri’kh sorting through papers seemed absurd.
“This is who keeps histories?” Krikka asked.
“Yah, sort of.”
“Then I am a lie-barren. Good,” he said smiling. “You been to Lhorrenhelm before, ulu’k?”
“No, never, have you?”
“Oh,” she said. A glow was rising in the east. “You scared?”
“Some. Why do you come here, for first time?”
Rory looked to the north again, at the city flickering into life ahead. “I don’t know, Krikka.” Wish I did. “My father insisted I come with him this time, even though he never brings me to the capitol. I can’t help but feel something’s on his mind.”
Krikka gave her a studying look, before promptly vomiting over the gunwale. “Ahk’ik!” Rory supposed he was swearing. Then he said, “I hope your visit is good, ulu’k.”
“Aye,” said Rory, “me too.”