Can I do this?

In 2012, I started writing a fantasy novel titled The Keeping of the Light – a story focussed around three point of view characters trying to survive in a post-war country where ancient magic seems to be coming back to life, with dangerous implications. The tale follows their personal journeys as they are forced to leave their homes and try to make sense of an unfamiliar and unfair world.

Pretty vague, I know, but if you’re looking for details, the rough drafts of the first 19 chapters or so are available on this website.

The thing that bothers me is I never finished writing the novel. About 3 years ago I reached the 50000 word mark and just… stopped. I ran out of steam. The tale had grown too large, too overwhelming, and looking back, I found that there were many errors and blunders that would need to be reworked and rewritten in irder for the story to be cohesive and clear. Also, my writing approach and ideas had changed, meaning the atory that I wanted to tell wasn’t the same as the story I had set out to tell. I didn’t feel like I was ready to tackle this task, and because I was focussed on my personal and professional life, writing came to a standstill. Since then, I have yet to write another word of the book.

I think I lost my drive.

Lately, though, I have spent a lot of time thinking about the story. I have always known the ending that I wanted to work towards, but I became overwhelemed with how to get there. Now, though, I’ve spent some time re-evaluating and I think I know where I want to go with the story.

I’m going to try to finish it.

I don’t know if it will be good, and I don’t know if anybody will like it, but I have to try. I want to finish this book, even if it is a peice of hot garbage because at least then I can say that I’ve done it. Then, if it takes me another 8 years to write another draft, then so be it – this is the story that I set out ti write, and It’s what led me to create this blog in the first place. It’s what got me writing, and I owe it to the story and these characters – and most if all, myself – to make it complete.

Happy writing.

The Definition of Fog (a short story)

fog(1)

noun

1. [common noun] A thick(2) cloud of moisture in the atmosphere at low altitude near the earth’s surface that restricts visibility to less than 1km.

‘the flight was delayed due to thick fog’

2. [well that’s an understatement] Thick? You’re damned right it’s thick in these parts. I’ve got a sample of it sealed up in a jam jar around around somewhere that I could show you if you like. Thicker than frozen peanut butter, it is. I chipped it off the corner of a fog bank back when I was a bachelor and held onto it for safekeeping, just in case inquisitive folks like yourself came around and had questions. You can guarantee I like to be prepared for these sorts of things, being the expert that I am on the subject. The problem is getting it out of the jar to show it off, though. The bloody stuff is stickier(3) than wet glue. Now, it’s not quite as bad as it used to be in the old days, but it’s still enough to trip you up if you don’t mind where you’re walking when it rolls into town.

3. [that’s just the thing!] Nobody considers the stickiness of the stuff. My goodness, I remember walking back from the cobbler or the market on a damp morning and having to wash my hair three or four times to get all the fog out of it! It was like syrup – all gloopy and stringy – and sometimes you’d get it all jammed up behind your ears or clogged in the corner of your eye and it would take a dog’s age of digging around with a wet rag to get it all wiped off. I recall more than one embarrassing moment where I got caught with a finger halfway up my nose while I was trying to hook the stuff out. I shouldn’t have felt ashamed, though, because everybody and their mother-in-law was doing it in those days. It wasn’t uncommon to see – during a bought of particularly heavy fog – a crowd of your neighbours strutting down the road with one hand covering their eyes and the other picking away at their nostrils with wild abandon. It was a constant irritation – not that any of us had any time(4) to complain about it in those days.

4. [we just got on with our lives] Consider this: you are a fisherman who works every day. You want to get out on the water (assuming you are not an underwater fisherman) before daybreak to make sure you find a good spot. You could get up at 5 o’clock, dress yourself, eat, and make your way down to the harbour. By the time you loaded your lunch, your bait (all prepared the night before, of course) and yourself into the boat and rowed out to sea, you could probably get in position and be ready to start by sunrise at around 6 o’clock. Sounds reasonable, right?

Now, consider the following: in order to get yourself from your house to the harbour, you need to accommodate for the bank of fog that rolled into town the night before. You spend 10 minutes trying to shove the door open (and many people switched to inward-swinging doors to avoid this) only to be faced with a blinding-thick, sticky mass of fog all piled up against the side of your house and blocking the road downtown. What’s a sorry fisherman to do but grab the axe and shovel and dig yourself a tunnel(5) to get to work in the morning? And then, upon reaching the harbour an hour or so later, you find your boat piled 10 or 12 feet high with wet, sticky fog and need to dedicate another hour – at least – scooping the blasted thing out so it doesn’t capsize with all of the added weight. Most folks had to get up as early as 2 o’clock in the morning to make it out on the water on time, and some became partially nocturnal to accomodate for the extra planning and preparations.

5. [and it was dangerous work, mind you] Oh, I remember one poor fellow who – in the process of digging a tunnel from his front door to the market – found himself in a very unfortunate situation. A pickle, as they say. He had made it about halfway to the market – about 50 yards deep into the fog – when the wind picked up. Now, the wind is a wonderful thing when it’s foggy because it will blow the stuff away, but a seaward breeze can be a frightful thing when you’ve got yourself burrowed into a bank of fog the size of a small mountain. As a result, the whole mighty pile of fog – with that poor fellow trapped inside – blew itself about 10 miles offshore at 8 o’clock in the morning. Visibility being as poor as it was, he didn’t even notice he’d been carried away until he finished digging his way out the other side of the bank and nearly fell overboard. Luckily, another shift of direction in the wind carried the fellow to a small island, where he was treated to some fine hospitality by the local lighthouse(6) keeper. By the time he was able to hitch a ride back home, we’d given him up for dead. He was always bitter about that, and argued that a week was hardly enough time for his wife to remarry and sell the house in the process.

6. [the lighthouse keepers had it hard back then] Those poor souls had their hands full, that’s for sure. My great uncle – I’ll call him my grandfather’s brother from here on, to avoid confusion – used to work as a lighthouse keeper back in the day. He moved out there at the young age of 14 to work and stayed there until he was too old to look after himself any longer. At that point my father and my father’s cousins made arrangements and had the poor fellow put in a home so some nice nurses would blend up his food for him and give him a sponge bath once in a while. Before he went senile he used to tell me stories about things that happenned out there at the lighthouse. They would spend much of their time tending to the fog cutters as they used to call them – great, long blades that would be hoisted up on masts along the shoreline surrounding the lighthouse. These were used to slice up the fog bank as it rolled in and stop it from piling up against the lighthouse and blocking the beacon altogether.

According to my grandfather’s brother, sometimes sea creatures would get tangled up amongst the fog banks and be carried for days at a time through the air. The fog, you see, would graze the surface of the ocean and if a creature was near the surface of the water it ran the risk of being sucked up into the fog and whisked away with the wind. Taking advantage of this, my grandfather’s brother and my grandfather’s brother’s wife used to set up great butterfly nets behind the fog cutters, all in an effort to catch the fish as they fell out of the sky. It was not uncommon to see a school of mackerel or a sea turtle or even monstrous sharks gliding through the air on a particularly foggy day, basking on the wind like paper kites.

People today will tell you that much of the sea life has disappeared but my grandfather’s brother would disagree with their argument. In his final days of clear-headedness he would tell us stories of the many creatures that were lifted up by the fog. Fog, as we all know, rises away in time. Those thick banks that we used to curse did eventually lift up and drift off into the clouds, and the fishes and creatures trapped within must have risen up with them. My grandfather’s brother believed to his final day that after the many years of drifting and rising fog there was now a second ocean floating in the sky, above the one we know, and that if we were to explore above the clouds with a keen eye we would find the creatures that had been spirited away – the schools of fish, the turtles, the jellyfishes, the seals, the auks, the krakens, the sting rays, the schools of capelin and bait herring, the swordfish, the tuna, the great sea birds, the megalodon sharks, the long-necked sea reptiles, the last of the great whales – all safe, all still swimming and thriving and breaching on the wind under yet another endless sea of stars and constellations, far from the hooks and lines of fishermen far below. “Oceans under oceans under oceans,” he would say, staring out the window of his sterile little room. He would watch for hours on end at the long clouds rolling by, every now and then chuckling to himself and nodding his head, though I was never quick enough to catch whatever it was that he had seen.

All nonsense, I’m sure.

Everwander (teaser prologue for a new fantasy novel)

Just off the coast of Hreyn, the Byrgena fought its way through the storm. Her sails buckled and snapped in the wind, sending sheets of rain slapping down onto the deck where the crew worked desperately. The harbour was not far away now, and their long journey was nearly at an end, but the storm was pushing them wildly off course, toward the breakers that threatened to drown them all.

At the helm, the captain tried his best to command a safe route, but things were quickly falling apart. They’d already lost a deckhand to the waves, and he shuddered at the thought of what might happen should they sink and lose their secret cargo. He could hardly believe their luck. They’d been sailing for a fortnight and three, and had so far not encountered more than a stubborn lull in the wind for a day around the halfway point. But this… this was unexpected. And so close to the end as well. It was as though something didn’t want them to reach land. Curses, he thought savagely, now the gods have given up on me. He shook his head for thinking it – he was a pious man, for the most part – but a storm like this made you wonder…

The sun was still far below the horizon. The only light came from the moon and the lanterner’s lamps tied to the centre mast, but the reddish glow they cast over the scene was beginning to make things look worse. His crew were being thrown about like some child’s playthings, and he could just barely maintain his grip of the helm. Then, like a scream, the wind came in a great gale that nearly knocked him over the side. The sail ripped like a sheet of parchment and came tumbling to drape over the bow of the Byrgena like a cowl. They were headed straight for the breakers now.

The captain could hear his crew shouting, praying, looking for a command, but there was nothing he could say. He’d spent his whole life on the water, and had faced many storms before. He’d returned from pirate dens with kidnapped duchesses and a hull of treasure to boot. He’d single-handedly slain the leviathan beast that had besieged Gyrtown when he was just a teen. He’d slept in the jungles of Iri’kh and heard their nightmare tales of the dreaded Ga’bhak, the shadow demon. In his home country they sang songs of him in taverns and halls, and his name was listed among the great heroes of ages gone by – heroes the likes of Ithel, Alwin, and Uhlohi.

But, nodding, the captain agreed that there was little and less that he could do. There was a creaking and rumbling from below deck, and he knew then that their cargo had broken free. Grimacing, the captain removed his satchel and passed it to the first mate, who accepted it relunctantly.

“Abandon ship,” he commanded. The crew looked at him oddly – they would never have expected this to happen. Surely, they thought, he must know some way out of this. But the captain’s face was grave, and he commanded them again, in a quiet growl that was only just audible above the roaring of the wind,

“Abandon ship.”

“But, Captain,” insisted the first mate, “the lifeboats… we’ve lost them.”

The captain looked to his first mate who he’d known for years – whom he considered a worthy leader and a brave man. He considered him, above all else, a friend. He would trust him with his life, and had done so through many perilous journeys into lands unknown. He heard the rumbling sound from below deck again. The Captain looked to his friend of many years, then to the rest of the crew. He nodded. “Then swim. There is no hope here. If you stay onboard, you will die, and I will not have it.”

The crew still didn’t move, so the captain drew his sword from its sheath. It was curved and terrible, and seemed to reflect no light other than the light of the lanterner’s lamps, making it glow a blood-red in his hand. It cut the wind in two where he held it aloft, and the crew – even the first mate – shuddered when they looked upon it. Its name was as sharp as most blades themselves. The captain’s face grew dark, and he pointed his sword at the crew. “I command you to get off my ship. Jump over the side, or I will be forced to slay you myself.”

The crew listened. Fearful of the captain’s blade and his sudden change of character, they turned and leapt from the ship into the boiling waters below – even those of them who did not know how to swim. The last to jump was the first mate. He stopped and turned to look at the captain face to face. He knew the captain better than anyone else, and when he looked into his eyes, he could see that the anger was not true. The captain would never harm his crew – they were a family to him, and more precious than any treasure or praise.

And looking closer still, the first mate saw, with horror, that the captain was afraid.

“Go,” said the captain, and the first mate leapt from the bow.

Alone on his ship, the captain turned and descended the stairs to the deck below. In the darkness of the hull, he could faintly see the door of the great iron cage swinging back and forth with the swaying of the ship. Several chains lay broken on the floor – their links twisted and torn apart. The prisoner was loose, and was hiding somewhere in the ship.

The captain lifted his terrible blade to his face, thought for a moment, and whispered something to it. With a sudden vividness that put the lamps above to shame, the blade of the sword grew alight with a glow that illuminated the inside of the ship. Standing near the bow end was the prisoner, staring him down with a face like smoke. All that could be seen of the prisoner’s identity was their eyes – cold and silver, like scoured steel below the rust.

Moving like lightning, the captain dashed toward the prisoner, who was armed with a pair of swords from the rack. They met in a clashing of steel and light, and with a powerful slash, the captain cut the prisoner’s blades clean in two – their deadly halves clanging to the planks. The captain took his chance then, and plunged his own glowing weapon into the prisoner’s chest, nailing him to the wall. But the prisoner laughed, chanted some words, and the broken blades flew through the air to slice at the captain’s back.

Wounded, the captain rolled out of the way before turning to look at his opponent. With a scream like a hurricane, the prisoner grabbed at the blade buried in his chest. There was a creaking as it slowly loosened from the wood, but the captain knew he had a little time.

He staggered to the weapons rack and took the largest axe he could find. He whispered to it, and the axe head began to glow like the sword. He stared at the prisoner’s hidden face. The two met eyes for a second.

“Fool,” said the prisoner in a voice like venom, “I cannot be killed by steel and strength alone. You will meet your death this night.”

But the captain did not falter. Fear was past him now. He knew what he must do. He was a legend. He was a hero. He was brave. “Aye,” he growled at the prisoner. “I will.”

He ran and swung the axe with all the might that his bloodied shoulders could muster. In mid-swing, he chanted a word that seemed a thousand times louder than the raging storm. The axe crashed into the hull of the ship with an immense force. Cracks ran through the wood, sending splinters flying and water spouting into the ship. The captain yanked it free, and a great stream of water flowed through.

“Fool!” the prisoner shouted, but the captain did not listen. He stood back then swung the axe a second time, his chant slicing through the night like some greater thing than the weapon he wielded. The hull creaked and groaned as more splits ran through the wood. Water was gushing into the ship now. The captain was up to his knees.

As he pulled the axe free once more, the prisoner’s glare intensified. Through the smoky illusion that hid his face, the prisoner’s eyes were like chasms. Their lunar hue deepened, and the captain felt that he was not looking into the eyes of a man, but through a window into nothingness.

Then, raising the glowing axe high above his head, the captain chanted a final time. The axe in his hand and the sword in the prisoner’s chest glowed white-hot, filling the ship with an impossible light, and when the captain swung it was with a speed and strength that none had ever seen.

The axe struck like lightning, square in the prisoner’s chest – the force was so great that the hull behind him gave way to a yawning blackness. The water came rushing in.

In the early morning darkness, the first mate dragged himself onto the Hreynish shore and coughed up the briny water that had nearly drowned him. He looked out to the sea, and saw the Byrgena shudder with a sound like thunder. There was a flash. A scream. And then the lamps went out.

The Keeping of the Light – Chapter 19 – Guardian of Histories

“Will you help me with these histories, U’luk?” Krikka Kol I’khir’s seven foot frame was hunched under the weight of the massive load he was carrying. An enormous chest, made of leather and dark wood and large enough to serve as a youngster’s coffin, was strapped to his back. Under each arm he held a toughly woven basket, both filled to the brim with books, scrolls and even a number of tablets that looked to be carved from stone.

“Yah. Here,” said Rory. She accepted one of the baskets and was surprised by how heavy it was in her arms.

“What are you going to do with all of them?”

“Do? I do nothing with them. Only carry. And look after.”

“Well, where are we carrying them, then?”

“There,” Krikka said, nodding his head toward the High Keeper’s tower. “High Keeper wants to read the histories. Wants to learn about the old days. Learn for bad times, I think.”

Rory struggled to keep up with the Iri’khul, whose every step equalled two her own. “Whaddya mean, bad times? What’s happening?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know, U’luk. Could be war. I hope not. Krikka hope for be gone before that comes.”
War. Rory glanced at the pale stone monolith and shivered. The orange-red beacon seemed as bright in the day as it had in the night. “Last time there was war, my people suffered.”

“All people suffered. My own too, U’luk.”

“Aye, but mine suffered here.”

It took them a while to make their way up out of the maze of the harbour. Before turning out on the cobble street, Rory glanced back at the water far below. The Cormorant was being tied to the docks, and she could see some of the city guards talking with her father. It puzzled her why he had sent her off with Krikka when Lhorrenhelm seemed such an easy place to get lost.

At a corner there was a man in ragged clothes selling pickled herring, two for a shim, and Rory bought a couple for Krikka and herself. Krikka’s face puckered when he chewed the whole little fish. He forced a smile and thanked Rory anyways, and they walked on. They passed other stalls. Two women with freshly spun wool. A one-eyed fletcher who promised his arrows would pierce even the oldest swile’s hide. An old crone selling charms carved from wood, stone and formed with clay. The streets were swarming with people of all ages, from children toting baskets of fish to elders shuffling three-legged on their knobbly canes.

Rory mapped out the city as they walked. On the seaward side of town, nearest the harbour, the streets ran crooked and narrow, and buildings in between were leaning almost haphazardly, like trees on a harsh coast. Here, the cobble was scarcely wide enough for a cart to be pulled in places, and there were points where Krikka had to stop and squeeze through openings that came almost to a point.

Everywhere where the sounds of life: children screaming and dogs barking and dishes clattering and breaking, followed cheers or shouts from pubs and miniature squares were merchants and beggars alike gathered and made themselves heard. There was a sort of healthy dirtiness to it – becoming unhealthy from time to time – that felt alive. And everywhere was the stink of smoke and fish. It reminded her a bit of a larger, more bustling Koppet, and Rory’s unease lifted gradually.

After making at least two complete circles, they found their way out onto the tower road. It was a straight way, and wide, that ran from the fields in the foothills right to the High Keeper’s tower at the cliff’s edge. From here Rory could see that the buildings on the western side of town were stronger, older, but no less weathered than the teetering structures on the harbour side. As they continued walking the tower road Rory noticed many of the buildings had foundations of solid carved stone that were older still.

At last, they came to the front steps of the Tower. A guard stepped forward, clad in oiled leathers. He was armed with a spear.

“Who are you, and what is your business?” he said. The guard looked at Krikka with disgust.

“How many of my people come to you in a year, guard?” Krikka frowned.

“Who are you, and what is your business?”

“How many in ten years, I wonder?”

“Who are you, and wh-”

“Krikka Kol I’khir, of Ohnk-bal. Of Iri’kh. Guardian of histories and left hand for La’k Kol Kha’zik, Hi’h Ka’yn of Ohnk-bal.” The guard looked at Rory and she nodded, pretending to know who or what a Hi’h Ka’yn was.

“Left hand?” the guard asked, raising an eyebrow.

Krikka smiled, smugly. “La’k Kol Kha’zik is left handed, guard.”

After a moment’s hesitation, he nodded. “And the girl?”

“This is my U’luk. Companion for today. She is daughter for Captain-”

“Captain Alvan Halk. Here at the request of the High Keeper,” said Rory. She was getting tired of introductions and something about the guard’s attitude was making her uncomfortable. She started for the door but the guard snapped the butt of his spear down hard in front of her.

“Yillon,” he called to another guard who was standing nearby. “Take these two to the Court Hall.”

“Follow me, then,” said the guard named Yillon, and he lead them through the giant doors at the tower’s base.

The first room they entered was long and narrow, and seemed more like a hallway than a room to itself. Still, it was larger on its own than any building Rory had ever been in, save for the dry dock at Hammerfall where she’d been in her youth. The only window was above the main entrance – a narrow slit carved into the pale stone of the wall. The long side walls were lined with smaller doorways, some open and some closed, and here and there were stairs that led up or down into shadow. They were heading towards the opposite end of the hall, where an open doorway led to a brightly lit room where it seemed many people were talking. Her attention wasn’t on where they were heading, rather on the surface of the walls and ceiling. There was something strange about the look of the place.

Here and there were pockets of air or protrusions of stone that didn’t seem to belong. The carved walls were more than rough – they were completely irregular. It was as though whatever people had been assigned the task of mining out the rock kept running into sections of stone that refused to be cut, like running a knife through meat and bringing it up in a bone. The more she stared, the more Rory felt as though she were not walking through a hallway, but into the gullet of some unfathomably large beast. She struggled for something to take her mind off of it.

“Do you know the name of the cliff?” she asked Krikka.

Krikka shook his head.

“Reef Head.”

“Part of me thinks I used to know this,” said Krikka.

“Wouldn’t surprise me. It’s a really old name. It comes from the war.” Rory stared cautiously at the back of the guard’s head walking in front of them. “They used to reef ships here. Light up the tower with mast lamps and lure them into the shallows. In low tide or a storm they’d break up on the rocks and then the city folk would go down and drag for goods. Collect the rest that washed ashore. You know what they did with survivors?”

The guard snorted.

Krikka drew a finger across his throat.

“Yep.”

They were nearly at the door when the guard named Yillon stopped and turned to them. “You will remember your place as guests of the High Keeper. You will speak only when requested. I’ll ask you to turn over any weapons before entering the Hall. Are you armed?”

Rory and Krikka both looked at each other before shaking their heads. Beside the guard on a sturdy table there was already a large pile of axes, knives, spears, a number of hunting bows and full quivers, and what looked like a pair of crude wooden crutches.

“Very well.” The guard stared at them for a long moment before finally stepping aside and snapping his spear down hard on the floor. “You may enter.”

The Court Hall was crowded. Four individuals who, Rory supposed, must be figures of authority were standing at the far end on a raised platform. In the center of the Hall was a group of very tired looking people. Some were holding toddlers or embracing, and more than a few were teary-eyed. Among them were an old man clutching a sack of maps, a triplet of women who must have been sisters, a young boy holding the hand of a crippled blonde woman, who looked only a few years older than Rory, and a man who could almost have matched Krikka in height. A few of the folk turned to look at them when they entered the Hall, but most went back to their conversations right away. All except one.

He was young – perhaps twenty – and was standing next to the crippled woman and another man of about the same age. He looked cold, tired and hungry. His heavy winter clothes were tattered and torn, his beard wiry and untrimmed. He had the slightly stunned look of somebody who had just been slapped in the face, and he was staring straight at Rory as though he knew who she was.

Tempest (a poem)

pilgrims, nomads, sentinels against the fury of the coast:
backs bent sidelong,
straining, still,
they sway with loving ease under the eye of that relentless ghost.
the ocean draws its breath.

that salt-stained silhouette of shore under a frosted glow:
a mirror pool,
watchful gaze.
thunderclaps of memory accost the tidal mouths below.
she smiles in her sleep.

in dreams aquatic, giants, titans cry their hopes and fears alike:
the air collapses,
crystalline.
the column pauses, dreading, waiting in anticipation for the strike.
and yet, the dawn arrives.

Well, hello there.

Hi, readers. It’s been long time since the blog was last active, so first of all I’d like to say thanks for being patient. I’ve been working on a project that has taken up most of my time but now that I have a little more availability, I’m going to be posting on mmo ore regular basis.

Some things to watch out for in the coming months:

  • More short stories, both horror and otherwise
  • More poetry
  • More book reviews

Also, the thing I’m most excited about, which is…

More chapters of my novel in progress, The Keeping of the Light!

All of this, plus more, coming soon. Thanks all and, remember,

Keep writing.

The Town That Moved (a short story)

Up on the plateau over the Silver Valley, there’s a wooded ridge of hills that runs from the southwest to the north in a wide arc. During the autumn and winter, the sun only shines on the northern side of those hills in the evening, just before sunset, and the trees that live there grow slow and old. There used to be a little stream that ran down from that place long ago, winding its way across the plateau floor before finally diving down into the valley in it’s slow approach to the sea. The stream, they say, was clear as crystal, so clean and unspoiled that looking at the streambed on a calm day, sometimes it was impossible to tell whether there was water flowing through it. It was said that if you scooped up a handful of this water to take a drink, it would appear as though you held nothing in your hands but air, and upon swallowing there was no taste of earth or salt or mineral, only pure refreshment and a general revival of the senses that came with good rest.

The people that lived in the valley drank of the water every day, and it was said that many of the folk there experienced unnatural long life and good health. It was also said that as the years went by, the townsfolk gradually moved their way upstream and away from the sea. Their houses were torn down and rebuilt over and over throughout the years, until a point where it seemed that the whole community moved as a single, driven organism. They worked and moved with a purpose, drinking of the water from that perfect little stream and building and rebuilding their houses and working their way, slowly but with determination, up through the valley toward the plateau.

A few years after the movement began, travelers would come to the town in the valley but would stand in confusion when they found no people, no houses, no town, at the end of the lonely highway. They found only the little stream as it slid patiently between the stones of the streambed toward its eventual destination at the coast. These travelers would remark and shout upon hearing that, having made their way through the length of the valley and starting the climb into the highlands, the townsfolk had given up building houses altogether and now kept themselves in little huts that lent themselves more readily to the constant tearing down and rebuilding if those people and their habits. There came a time, as well, where the people found it more appropriate to give up their huts for the warmth and comfort of tents, as the stony plains of the plateau did not lend themselves to the building of foundations and wooden frames. They took up spears and arrows and dedicated themselves to the chasing and killing of the noble caribou, and fashioned their hides into coverings for those little tents that had become their homes. They ate of the caribou and became masters of harvesting their milk for the making of many fine cheeses and dishes, and there came a moment where the people thought to follow the caribou away to the south in their great migration. However, the people decided against it, for they could not bear to leave the little stream for long.

They continued upstream, raising their young and teaching them in the ways of building strong tents and hunting the caribou when they were near. Travelers came few and far between along that cracked and dusty road now, and when they did they brought with them great spyglasses and binoculars to glimpse the people from the roadside. They watched as though watching film, passively, never thinking to interact or interject; not knowing that they could ever reach those townsfolk who once lived so near to the sea. The travelers watched and read magazines and talked among themselves about what pretty, colorful houses the people used to live in back when this was a real town, and eventually they would pack up their cars and return home, leaving their names written on the road sign in permanent marker and leaving little bags of garbage along the roadside to be inspected by the birds and rats once they drove away. Eventually the travelers stopped coming to the Silver Valley altogether, writing it off as a waste of time after reading the poor reviews from previous visitors and choosing other, more interesting venues to explore.

It is only natural, then, that nobody was watching when the people stopped building their tents and began to sleep under the stars in the open air. No outsiders witnessed when they stopped eating the flesh of the caribou and started eating among the caribou, grazing slowly on their hands and knees over the ancient plateau, holding their noses high in anticipation when a whisper of wolves came whistling through the crowd. As with all things, the interest in those people returned, and the new generation of travelers found their way to the old sign post at the end of the broken road, signing their own names and leaving their own garbage and watching through high-powered telescopes as the townsfolk loped naked over the plains, chasing and playing and laughing in their learned language. Many of the travelers wrote stories about the townsfolk and their ways, using them as allegory in great, sweeping tales of fiction, but sales were poor and those authors eventually took up more fruitful careers in finance and advertising, but they continued watching with renewed interest because by that time everybody knew of the people that had once lived in the valley.

It is an unlikely turn of events, then, that nobody was watching at the moment the townsfolk reached the ridge of hills and disappeared into the woods, kicking off the last of their shoes and garments and they followed the stream into the perpetual shade of those hills to drink and sleep and play. Outcry came at the loss of the townsfolk, and the travelers slept by the roadside and wept, holding up candles throughout the night and calling their loved ones to say that it was all, finally, over. A few curious outsiders did eventually return to the old, rusted sign at the end of the dirt road, and wandered the valley in search of artifacts and trinkets to be kept in museums. Their efforts did eventually turn up little bags of petrified and ancient garbage, which were carefully tagged and organized and placed in glass cases to be photographed and studied for centuries to come in universities and colleges and internet forums.

Once the excavations were done and the crews returned home over the old path, the obscure few who returned to the valley sometimes searched out the little stream in hopes of drinking that clear, clean water that used to flow down from the hills, but with the passage of time it was hard to tell the streambed from the tracks of animals and excavating machines, and all of the water they could find was stagnant and muddy. The stream could no longer be found among the bushes and stones of the ancient valley, and as the patience of adventurous individuals waned, people stopped looking for it altogether, and instead turned to watch the rolling of waves along the coast with their backs turned to the memory of the little stream. Sometimes, they talk about the stream and the town and the people that lived there, and sometimes they still tell stories inspired by those poorly sold books of ages ago, but for the most part now, everybody is in agreement that it’s unlikely the stream was ever there in the first place.

The Keeping of the Light – Chapter 18 – Arrival at the Harbour Gate

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.

The Keeping of the Light – Chapter 17 – The Darkness

The sound of horns came echoing down the cold stone corridor. Lhorrenhelm was opening its harbour to an incoming ship. There were voices too, but he couldn’t pick out what they were saying.

“How long will they keep us here?” Jamie asked his comrades. Felicia’s amethyst hung cold against his chest.

“Until they have decided what to do with us,” said Hektor.

“Until they hang us,” said Mavis.

“Until you die,” said the darkness. The man in the cell next to them was such a torment, Jamie wondered whether the guards had placed him there to drive prisoners mad. The man the voice belonged to gave a different name every time they asked it of him, and seemed to want nothing more than to dampen their spirits even lower than they had fallen. He spoke often of death.

The trio had been half-dragged, half-carried through the city square gates and up the steps to the High Keeper’s tower. There was a moment where Jamie thought the guards were taking them to the High Keeper herself, and he had smiled in relief. It had not lasted long. The guards took them down, down, over steps carved into the stone of the headland on which the tower stood. Their possessions were taken from them – food, tools, weapons all. The small bag of rings brought a grim expression to the guards’ faces when they seized it, and in a second of panic Jamie had cried “Shalsa! Shalsa and the raiders. The Oyen is with them!” but the guards merely stared at him and locked the bars shut. The darkness had laughed and welcomed them to his home.

It was the third morning since their capture, judging by the sliver of light that was poking through the slit of a window down the corridor. It was the only other light besides a torch that flickered a few cells down. Mavis had spent most of his time pacing. Hektor, bickering with the darkness. Jamie, staring into the barred hole in the center of their cell that plunged out of sight. He had no idea how deep it went, but at times he thought he heard waves crashing below.

“She wont talk to you. She don’t talk to crazies,” said the darkness.

“Shut your mouth,” said Hektor. His voice was hoarse.

“Hehe, you’re crazier than me. Crazier than old Yanny. They hung him,” said the darkness.

“Gods, would you shut it?” Hektor rubbed his eyes, clearly frustrated.

“Yanny-yilly, swinging silly, hanging in the wind, hehe!” the darkness sang. He clapped at delight when Hektor cursed him, his mother, and his mother’s mother.

“Lyca,” Mavis said. “Gods above and below, Jamie, we said we’d bring back help.”

“I know,” he said, staring into the hole. “But they have to let us out, they have to at least listen to us. We haven’t done anything.”

“Swinging, swinging in the wind. You’ll hang, you will, you crazy lot,” said the darkness. Hektor ground his teeth.

“He’s right,” Mavis said. “They think we killed those guards and took the rings. You saw, Jamie, they all wear rings. Every guard, man or woman.”

“Murder, murder, lies and flies,” said the darkness.

“They can’t,” said Jamie. “They have to at least listen.”

“It was a stupid idea.” Mavis looked at Jamie, his face flushed. “Your stupid idea.”

“Easy, Hunter,” said Hektor. “It’s bad enough with sing-song over there getting under our skins. We best not fight each other.”

The darkness laughed. “Sing-song, hang-long…”

“SHUT UP!” they yelled in unison.

“Well it was my stupid idea or what, Mave? Sit around and starve? Let Geoffrey die?” Jamie’s face felt hot.

“We could have persuaded Mikhal to be a little more generous, if you ask me,” Mavis said.

“Gods, Mavis, he saved our lives-”

Your life,” he interjected. “It was you who needed saving. Your plan and your life. Whose fault is it we’re here?”

Jamie stood up, fists tight. Why is he being so damned idiotic? “My fault, is it? If you could’ve kept your mouth shut when those raiders showed up-”

“Lads…” Hektor said, helplessly.

“And what, Jamie? Huh? Let them kill us? Gods, at least I give a shit about making it back. I’d swear you were trying to get us killed, leading us here.”

“Of course I care. And what’s your big push? So excited to run back to Lyca and be the big hero for her, are you? Did you forget why we left in the first place?”

“I’m doing this for Geoffrey, you ass.” Mavis glared at him.

“You don’t give a shit about Geoffrey, you’re just-”

Mavis slammed a fist into Jamie’s face and sent him reeling backwards into the stone wall. “Fight, fight! Kill, KILL!” said the darkness. Hektor jumped to his feet and grabbed Mavis by the shoulders, holding him back.

“Say what you want,” Mavis said, through gritted teeth, “the only reason you wanted to do this was because you wanted to find Felicia. You selfish ass.”

Jamie rubbed his jaw, thinking desperately for something to fire back with, but he couldn’t find the words. Mavis’ words hit so close to the truth that he simply let them sink in for a moment. The two friends stared at each other. Slowly, their breathing quieted, and Mavis stopped struggling under Hektor’s hold.

“I’m sorry, Mave,” Jamie finally said. “And you, Hektor. I’m sorry I dragged you both into this.”

Mavis seemed to be suddenly fascinated by the ground at his feet. He stared down, rubbing his knuckles. “Yeah… well… sorry about the… you know…”

Hektor shook his head and sat back on the cold floor. “Y’lads got it out then?” They nodded. “Good.”

“Oh, why so quiet, friendly-friends?” asked the darkness. Nobody bothered to answer, not even Hektor. The three of them sat in silence, each awkwardly tending to some small, irrelevant task. In the distance Jamie could hear more horns, and some commotion echoing up through the hole in the floor.

“Two mice outside my cell. Squeak!” said the darkness suddenly.

“Gods, do you ever speak anything that isn’t nonsense?” asked Hektor. Jamie was convinced that if he rolled his eyes any farther, they might get stuck inside his head.

“Oh, I know lots, friendlies. Lots of good squeaky things. Ask me one question, and I’ll give you two answers, hehe!” the darkness replied.

“Oh gods, here we go,” said Hektor.

“Alright then, sing-song. What’s the Oyen? Make yourself useful, ’cause I’m dying to know.” Jamie asked.

“Oh, don’t encourage him, Jamie,” Mavis groaned.

“Hehe, I know lots of that,” said the darkness. “Two answers for you.”

“Go on, then. Surprise me,” Jamie said.

“It’s near and far away,” he said.

“That’s very helpful,” Mavis said.

“No no, I’m not done,” the darkness said. “It’s old and new to you.”

“Kill me,” said Hektor.

“No, better is…” The darkness paused. “No, never mind. Stupid question, friendlies. You asked it all wrong. Hehe.”

It looked as though Hektor was about to erupt into an insult session with the man, but at that moment voices could be heard coming down the corridor. “D’ya hear that?” Mavis asked. The others nodded. They walked cautiously to the bars and tried to peer out. It was a group of guards. Three men, two women. Each was armed with a short spear, and one of them was carrying rope.

“Yanny-yilly, swinging silly…” the darkness sang.

The guards stopped in front of the trio’s cell, and the man with the rope stared for a moment before speaking to them.

“You spoke of a name when you were arrested,” he said. “Speak it again, clearly.”

Jamie nodded nervously, and said, “Shalsa.”

The guard with the rope looked at his fellow guards. They each returned his glance with a short nod. Finally, he turned back to Jamie. “Very well. Hold your hands behind your back.”

“Where are you taking us?” Mavis asked.

“Quiet, prisoner. Hands behind your back. We’re granting your wish. You’re coming to see the High Keeper.”

The Keeping of the Light – Chapter 16 – The Captain’s Daughter

“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 guess.”

“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?”

“No.”

“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.”