On the morning before their arrival at Lhorrenhelm, Sherylyn awoke briefly. Her body stopped shaking in terrible fits, and her eyes became clear for a moment. It was in that short time Susan had called to Mister Straulk and he had come rushing to her side, followed by his wed daughters, Shenya and Sasha. When they had gathered close around her, and a crowd of Rivermouth folk had squeezed into the sled, she spoke to Straulk, asking “Where is Locke? Where is my love?” Then Mister Straulk had failed to answer, and only shook his head. She nodded, as though she had already known. “Let my ashes fall where his have gone, back to the land with my love. Let Aer carry me away with him.”
“Don’t speak of such things, Sis,” said Shenya, “you’re here now. It’ll be okay.”
But Sherylyn only smiled at her sisters. Her eyes were full of tears, but it seemed that they were happy. “Yes,” she said to them. Finally, she turned to Lyca. “Yes it will.” Then, as gently as falling asleep, she died, and the Wyndhill sisters wept for a long while.
Before their grief had a chance to settle, the company had reached its destination. Lyca had now opted to ride outside on the sled front. While walking for long was still a burden, she couldn’t bear to remain inside with the grievers, and she was curious to see these new lands. They had come at last to the cliff face of Reef Head, the raised plateau on which the capitol sat high above the sea and saw many miles for every way but the northwest, where the Ridge bent sharply away along the coast. Working their way around the cliff, the group had grown uneasy. Here, the ice was broken at places, and Many were not sure how they would make their way into the city without having to turn back and attempt a climb – something that many of them would be unable to do.
At last, they had come within sight of a ledge that had been carved into the cliff. It was a sort of half-tunnel, a good twenty or more feet deep and sitting perhaps ten feet above the high water mark on the rock. There were guards standing on it in sparse pairs, wrapped tight against the damp, freezing air in oiled cloaks and wearing high, black boots made of swile hide. They were holding spears, with blades as long as arms, and they yelled for the company to stop.
“Who are you,” one cried, “and what is your business?”
“We come from White Bay, and the Whitewater,” announced Hellyn.” Our homes have been threatened, and we come seeking shelter from those who would do us harm.”
Another guard, this one seeming to wear the outfit of a higher rank, answered her. “Tell us more.”
Gerrik walked closer to the ledge. “Raiders have been sighted in our lands. Several lives have already been lost. And my friends from Rivermouth here are short of provisions.”
The higher ranking guard paused before speaking. “Rivermouth? Then you have received the request from the High Keeper? Is the mapmaker with you?”
“Aye,” Lyca said, rising unsteadily. “Mister Crewe is with us, but we received no request. And that is not all. We have received no shipment since Snareset. Our people have come upon hard times.”
“That is regretful news,” said the guard.
“Regretful?” boomed Tiny. “Bugger me, yes it’s regretful. What of the agreement between our merchant and the capitol? What of our trade for winter supplies?”
“Careful,” Lyca said to him quietly. The guards gave her an uneasy feeling. She had never been faced with a spear made with the intent to fight men.
“By order of the High Keeper of Lhorrenhelm, all transport of goods to White Bay has been cancelled. With the shortage of crops this past year and the prospect of war in the north, the capitol has chosen to…”
“What?!” Lyca shouted, unable to contain herself.
“…has chosen to reduce its presence until the proper military action has been decided upon. There have already been casualties, and absolute caution must be taken in our dealings with the Eru peoples and sympathizers in the north of Lhor.”
“Gods above and below, what of protecting your people? Is Lhorrenhelm not the beacon of our country?” Straulk asked, now walking from the sled where his dead wed daughter lay. “Will you not permit us entry?”
The guard in command looked them over for a while. “You have, in your company, a certain Arron Crewe?”
“Aye,” the old man said, standing with his gnarled cane. “I am he.”
“That is good,” the guard said. “Have your company any business or trade to offer the city?”
“We are poor and starving, and filled with grief for our lost loved ones. We come asking for help. Will you not give it us?” Lyca demanded.
“Where it is earned, cripple,” spat the guard. His eyes flashed with a sudden anger, but it faded quickly. “Have you business or not?”
“We have furs, tanned and cured.” said Gerrik.
“Our service,” said Lyca. “We can offer our strength.”
“Aye,” said Tiny. “We would not have come this far if we weren’t hardy folk, guard.” He said the last word mockingly, but just so.
Finally the guard nodded. “Very well,” he said, and made a signal to a pair of guards nearby. They rushed over and unwound a sturdy stair-ladder, which dropped to the ice. “But you must be taken before the High Keeper at once. Then it will be decided what service you can provide. Come now, and quickly.”
Untrusting at first, the company gathered their packs from the sleds and began to climb onto the ledge. The children and elders went first, aided by the guards. Old Crewe got many curious and strange looks from everybody as he made his way up the stair-ladder, but nobody said a word. They had to leave the sleds and moose behind, as there was no way to get them onto the ledge, but the guards assured them that they would be collected and payed for by the capitol. Gerrik looked sad to leave the beasts behind, and he gave the guard in command a grudging glance when he climbed up.
They were lead along the ledge, passing other guards here and there, and passed slowly around the great cliff. After a while the ice gave way to water, deep and dark. The wind from the ocean here was bracing, and Geoffrey buried his face in Lyca’s furs as they walked. At last, they came to the great Harbour Gate of Lhorrenhelm.
The city, built on the foundations of some ancient Eru temple, was protected against outside forces as well as any place in the north of Lhor. Guarded by steep cliffs on all sides and backed by the Western Ridge, it was no wonder that this was the place where mankind had begun to recover after the Dark War. Being a center of trade, the great harbour would be an access point for any attacking party, but this much had been accounted for well, as Lyca could now see with her own eyes.
A great, two-sided gate of wood and iron stretched across the harbour opening, which was at least a hundred feet from side to side. The gate itself hung high enough over the water that a small craft might pass under, but any ship bearing sail or even a high keel would be caught and denied entry. On either side of the Harbour Gate, holes in the cliff face revealed the faces of archers and flickering torches. The gate was shut.
They passed through a small doorway at its base and continued along the ledge into the city harbour, which was itself many times the size of any village Lyca had ever seen. It’s sides – like the surrounding coastline – were sheer granite that ran upwards to dizzying heights, and along the rough rocky walls shacks, huts, ladders and walkways were built from many-coloured beams of wood of varying origin. Above and below the harbour walkways and huts sat, connected together and resting on one another like some vertical maze of engineering that Lyca could have imagined only in a dream. Here and there, great chains and ropes were strung along the cliffs. Some, it seemed, were supporting the woodwork, but from others baskets and boxes were hanging and being sent quickly from one side of the harbour to another. Gods, she thought, what world have we stepped into? At her side, Geoffrey’s face was slack with amazement, and he seemed unable to say anything but “Wow.”
The guards led them on, up what seemed to be a main walkway that spiralled around the wall of the great harbour. The smells of smoke, fish and tar drifted around the harbour and their snow in the air. Lyca’s leg was aching, and it was hard to keep going, but then she saw it…
Rising over the cliff edge, a monolith of pale stone stood threatening against the sky. At its peak, a great beacon of red and orange glowed like a star above the city. The Lightkeeper’s tower. That’s where they’re taking us. That’s where Mavis and Jamie will be.
“Hellyn,” Lyca called to the woman walking in front of her. Hellyn came back to her side and offered her arm for support. “No, I’m okay. It’s something else.”
“What troubles you?” she asked. Then, lowering her voice, she said “It’s the guards, isn’t it?”
Lyca nodded. “Yah, that’s about right. Something about what he said.” She leaned close to Hellyn and made her voice a whisper. “This talk of war. Military action? What service have we promised to provide, I wonder?”
“I fear the same as you, friend.” Hellyn nodded at the Lightkeeper’s tower up ahead. “We’ll soon find out, I think. And Oyewa help us, may we find news of your two friends.” She held out her arm again. “Come. Your leg needs more time to heal.”
“Aye,” Lyca said, and taking Hellyn’s arm, she walked on. We’ll soon find out.