“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.
“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.
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.