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.”

Advertisements

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.”

The Keeping of the Light – Chapter 15 – Leaving and Dreaming

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?”

“Sad.”

“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.”

“I do.”

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.”

“Really?”

“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.

Thoughts on a Sunday morning

It’s almost noon, and I’m sitting outside with my coffee. Cars are driving by, there are ducks flying, and it’s one of the warmest days we’ve had this year so far. I really enjoy slow, lazy mornings like this one.

I figured since I’m not really doing anything productive, I’ll make a little update here about what I’m working at right now.

I posted yesterday about my new collection of poems that I’m editing and finishing, but I’ve got some other stuff in the works as well. I’ve been making an effort to post more chapters of my fantasy novel The Keeping of the Light lately, and with good reason: I’ve written more chapters. I’d been on somewhat of a hiatus from the novel since early last year, and have been focusing on other things. That changed a couple of weeks ago when I started reading over my progress so far.

When I stopped writing last year, my plan was to take a short break from the project to decide a direction for one of the main characters. However, a short break became a long break and that long break turned into a year.

Coming back to the project after all this time, and reading my work up until now, the direction is clear. Honestly I can’t believe it took me this long to figure it out.

Now, I’m posting at least a chapter a day until I’m up to my current progress, and then i can finally start posting the new chapters. I’m really looking forward to seeing things how things turn out from here.

On top of that, I’m also prepping another book review, something I’ve only done once so far. Keep an eye out for that.

And hey, look at that: my coffee is gone. Damn. Should I grab my computer and get to work? Should I get another cup? Maybe I should just sit here for another hour and read for a while.

While I’m trying to decide what to do with my day, I hope you enjoy yours, wherever you happen to be.

Happy writing.

The Keeping of the Light – Chapter 14 – Lhorrenhelm

Jamie closed his eyes tight against the world and bit his tongue so hard he tasted blood. Gods, why did I have to look down? The rope around his chest seemed tight enough to squeeze the life out of him. He panicked and let go with one hand – tugging at the rope. He had to loosen it. He couldn’t breathe.

“Jamie!” Mavis said, above him and to his right. “Take a deep breath – slow. That’s it. You’re alright. You’re alright aren’t you?”

“Yah,” he managed, finally opening his eyes again. “I’m good. Lost my footing for a second.”

“We’ll rest when we reach the ledge,” Mavis said, “won’t be much longer, I think. Just take your time and don’t look down.”

“Think of fire, Jamie,” said Hektor from below. “Fire and hot stew and warm beer – that’s what’s over this cliff. Think about your friend. Lyca, right?”

Jamie nodded. “I’m good. Let’s keep going.” He focused as hard as he could on the rock face before him and Mavis’ choice of hand and foot holds above. We’re almost there, he thought. Finally.

It was seven days ago that they had been forced to flee to the west shore. Seven days since the grinning man and Shalsa and their band of tarred raiders had driven them off with spears and arrows, taking their only source of food. Or was it eight days? It was hard to remember. Jamie tried to count the meals he had eaten since – it was the best way to keep track of time. Each day they ate a ration chunk of swile meat – smaller than the palm of a man’s hand, and raw – and a bit of tack. The tack had run out three days ago, and Jamie was sure they had eaten tack four days in a row. No, it was five. Five days with tack, three with just meat. Eight days since their escape. Or is it nine?

Jamie had come to think of it as an escape but that was wrong too – they had been allowed to run. Forced to run. He remembered the spears and arrows singing through the air after them and Shalsa’s crazed taunting. The laughter. That horrible, amused laughter of the grinning man and his devils.

The message was still a mystery to Jamie and the others. The Oyen is with us? The nightmare only became more confusing when they opened the bag that had been given to them. Jamie emptied the contents into his hand, finding thirty-six bronze rings, many stained with dried blood. These people were murderers.

Now, it seemed, the nightmare was coming to an end. According to Hektor’s memory and Jamie and Mavis’ rough estimation, they should reach the capitol before sundown. The sky had brightened, the sunlight was stronger. If it would stop snowing for a damned minute, they might be able to see open sky. To their right, a sheer face of ice, toothed at the top by fangs of ancient frozen stone, ghostly in the clouds above. To their left, the Further faded into open ocean, and ice was spreading, breaking into pieces and being swept out along the shore by the ever-westerly winds. In their face and below their hands and feet lay the great stone cliff that they were climbing. Thirty feet up – maybe forty – the safety of the plateau waited, where the lands and city of Lhorrenhelm were nestled between the Western Ridge and the sea. Jamie dared not guess how many feet the fall was to the ground below.

The journey since fleeing to the western shore had been a treacherous one. On the eastern side, the Further sloped gently under the steep cliffs, leaving a belt of forest along the water’s edge. Here, the cliffs plummeted all the way down to the shore. No trees, no paths, just stretches of rocky till that threatened to give way to a slide into the water at each step. To cross the ice again was suicide – facing the raiders again would be certain death, and the closer they got to open ocean, the more erratic the ice conditions became. What should have been a few days hike had become a struggle to survive.

Twenty feet was all that remained until they were on level ground again. Jamie thought of the warmth of hot hearths and soup, stew, beer and strong, sweet wine. He could almost taste it. The thought excited him, but it came with an aftershock of guilt every time. Lyca, Geoffrey, the Straulks, the sisters… all those faces of home that were rationing out kelp and months-old root and scraps of meat at every meal. They would not have those luxuries for quite some time now.

By now no ships were moving in the bay. The journey back to Rivermouth would have to be by sled. The capitol had to have some tamers with moose or reindeer to spare. They had coin, but Jamie didn’t know whether it would be enough. He’d only ever traded a few coppers for traps in the past, and had no idea what a sled would cost, let alone beasts to haul it. Everything the people of their village had, or admitted to having, was in a tiny purse in his pack. Jamie didn’t want to lose it all on a bad bargain.

Ten feet above him, Mavis let out a cry. Jamie locked onto the rock face as tightly as possible – bracing his body against the shock when the line would go tight…

But then Mavis cried out again, and again. He shouted and whooped and started to laugh. He wasn’t falling – he was there!

“It’s beautiful!” he gasped. His voice was hoarse with cold and hunger. “It’s the most fucking beautiful field of snow I ever saw! Oh, Jamie-boy you’ll die when you see it!”

“Soon enough…” Jamie shouted back.

“Quit yer gabberin’ and help us up, Hunter!” said Hektor from below.

Hand over hand, foot over foot, Jamie made his way up, aided by Mavis pulling slowly from a few feet up, and then…

White! Everything was white. Blinding white. He was on the edge of the plateau, which stretched on and on for acres, rolling with gentle, low hills and specked here and there with brown where dead vegetable stalks jutted from beneath the snow. In the distance, Jamie could see buildings, towers, lights, and the brightest light of them all, shining like a red-and-orange star stop the highest lightkeeper’s tower in the north.

“Boys!” Jamie said, as Hektor climbed to his feet beside him. “We’re here.”

“You lead the way, lad,” Hektor puffed, slapping his hands together to get the blood flowing in his fingers. “But let’s get these ropes off first, yah?”

“Yah,” said Jamie, weakly. “To hell with these ropes.”

Beneath their feet the snow crunched and squeaked and their breaths drifted lazily around their heads in puffs of steam. It was colder up here, with no shelter from the wind, but their walking kept them warm, and the growing lights ahead of them kept them marching on. Hours later they were among huts, and then houses, and the buildings grew and grew. More and more were made of stone and they could feel the path beneath their feet harden from the spongy, half-frozen mud to slush-covered cobble.

Doors opened on either side as people looked out, astonished, at the strangers who had just wandered into their streets from the snowfield. A few greeted them, cautiously, but most stood behind their doors, and a few made it clear that they were armed. People were shouting to one another. Somebody was waving a torch in their faces…

Mavis was the first to fall. He tripped in his own feet and toppled in seemingly slow-motion to the snow. At first, he struggled, but then gave up and lay unmoving.

Hektor was next. They put his arms behind his back but didn’t get the fight they expected when he slumped lazily to his knees and closed his eyes – he was sleeping, knelt on the ground.

There were more around Jamie now, shouting something… why were they being so damned loud? And why did they all look so alarmed? He just wanted to sleep. And some food maybe… and…

“Help us?” he murmured, as a hand closed around his arm. There was a bronze ring on its finger. They all had bronze rings, these people. Jamie felt his knees buckle as they kicked him from behind and he collapsed in the road, face down with a mouthful of dirty snow.

The Keeping of the Light – Chapter 13 – Riverfolk and Raiders

Lyca woke with a start. Her dreams had been wild and she had barely slept, but she realized now that things were okay. Okay? I must be going mad. Mavis and Jamie gone… Locke dead… Sherylyn dying… and Geoffrey, well…

Among all that had gone wrong, Geoffrey did seem to be pulling through. The day that the riverfolk arrived – the day of the attack – Lyca and Sherylyn had been rushed to the Straulks’ home and tended to as much as could be done. When she finally convinced them to let her return home she had arrived to find Geoffrey sitting at the table with Shenya Wyndhill, spooning out two big bowls of crow soup and patiently waiting for her to return. His fever seemed to be gone. Shenya told Lyca that as soon as he had heard what happened he climbed out of bed and insisted on going to see her. My little hero.

She busied herself changing the wrappings on her leg. The rags needed to be replaced every morning where the lynx had clawed through her flesh to keep the blood poison from spreading. At first her bandages stank of pus and rot, but each day the wound healed a little, and she grew stronger. There would be a gnarly scar, for sure – the beast had sliced damn near down to the bone. Lyca was certain she’d never run again. At least I can walk.

Geoffrey was still asleep, nestled in his pile of blankets and whistling through his nose. The fire crackled quietly, and Lyca eased carefully into her clothes to sit for a while. It seems so peaceful now. Even the snow is beautiful. Outside the stained, milky window the frozen stream by her cabin lay glistening like strands of silver in the weak morning glow. An icicle chimed as it fell from the eave. She wished she could stay there for good, listening to the world by the heat of the stove. Bugger it all, she thought angrily, and rose to prepare for the council.

The day the riverfolk arrived something came over the town – a sense of urgency. It had been too long without word from the capitol, and two of their own young men had traipsed off into the further to seek for answers, but finally Rivermouth’s eyes were open to the danger that crept toward them. The riverfolk were kind enough, but hard. They had journeyed three days from Greepetown after admitting defeat to winter and had suffered losses on the way. A young boy had succumbed to the cold on the second night, and a newborn babe had been snatched from her mother’s arms by a starving kreehawk. Their leader was Gerrik Hull, a hunter who had led the group south to find refuge. Not all of their people had come, though. Gerrik explained that half the town had refused to leave their homes. “You’ll lead us to our deaths, Hull,” his wife’s brother had told him. Her name was Hellyn.

Lyca woke Geoffrey with a gentle shake. “There’s hot water in the pot,” she told him, “put in a scoop of sap and drink up. I’ll get us some food when I’m back, okay?”

The boy’s face was still deathly thin, but his wide brown eyes were brighter now. His skin had lost the yellow hue and he spoke with more strength than before. He slept often but ate well. “Okay. Will you be quick, sissy?”

“As quick as I can, squirt.” She pinched his nose.

The front room of Straulk’s trading shop had been cleared out to make room. The shelves had all been pushed against the walls, and the two slender tables that served as Mr Straulk’s counter had been set end to end. There weren’t enough chairs and stools so most stood around, looking nervous. Lyca took notice of the Greepetown woman who had lost her baby, sitting near one end of the table. Her face was gaunt – eyes blank. Sherylyn was absent – her wounds were too grievous, and Lyca wondered whether she would survive.

“There’s a brave lass,” announced Tiny when she came in. He was a quarter man taller than most, strong as a bull and with a belly that sagged beyond the limits of his belt. “Grab y’self a seat now and get off that leg.” The big man dragged back a remaining stool and ushered her in.

“Your wound – how is it?” asked Gerrik.

“Better, much. I really can’t thank you enough.”

“Yah, she’s a tough one, our Lyca,” said Shenya. Her voice was kind as ever, but her eyes were filled with worry. Lyca could only guess how she was dealing with her sister’s near fatal encounter with the lynx.

A few more came in after she sat down. Most of them riverfolk, whose names she did not know, but also came Felicia’s Aunt Bekka, and lastly Alek and Maya, with their twins.

“Aye,” said Mr Straulk. “Should we get on with this business, then?” A murmur of agreement was heard around the room.

“These are times of grave danger, none can deny.” said Old Crewe, who sat with his withered hands resting on the table’s edge. “Our friends to the north here present us with an option. One that we didn’t have before.”

“And a burden.” Straulk’s voice was low, but loud enough that everyone could hear. Lyca’s cheeks burned with sudden anger.

“We did not wish to bring hardship to your town, mister merchant.” It was Gerrik, from the end of the table.

“Anyone to think that would be a fool,” said Susan. Mr Straulk glared at her.

“Regardless, the choice we make today will almost certainly decide the fates of many.” Old Crewe looked around at the faces in the room. “But there are questions that need be answered first.”

“Aye,” muttered a few. The room was quiet for a moment.

“Your people, Gerrik, have lived on the Whitewater for years.” said Lyca. “You don’t rely on aid as we do. Why is it that this winter is different from any other?”

The riverfolk leader started to speak but held back. There’s something else, Lyca thought, something else he doesn’t want to say. It was his wife who spoke instead.

“Our people have put strain on you all, it’s plain,” said Hellyn, “but you must understand that we had no choice but leave Greepetown. The winds were fierce, food might not have lasted us. That much we could have suffered out as usual, like you say but…” She paused, glancing at Gerrik for a second. “But then we heard about the raiders.”

“Hellyn, those are just rumours.”

“Are they?” said another of the Riverfolk – a dark haired boy in his teens. “That man you found, though…”

Mr Straulk looked unsettled. “What’s this news? And why is this the first we’ve heard of it.?”

“Only rumours,” Gerrik said weakly. “We never saw them, not with our own eyes. It may not be true.”

“The man saw them with his own eyes. Surely that’s enough? If you didn’t believe it why would you agree to leave?” Hellyn pressed him.

“I’d rather not take chances when it comes to my family, you know that. But still, it’s hearsay.”

An explanation would be appreciated, I think,” said Tiny.

Gerrik spoke slowly and carefully. This is no tale he wants to tell. “I was returning from a hunt. Empty-handed. I was in earshot of the rapids when I heard something… strange. I thought it might be a moose, or maybe a stray keywing come down from the highlands. So I got closer and there was blood on the snow. No small amount of blood.” He glanced around at the waiting faces. “It was a trapper. Lost, weary. He had taken an arrow to the gut. He was talking madness, sick from blood poison. My first thought was he must have fallen on his own shaft.”

“Tell them what you told us,” said Hellyn.

Straulk’s impatience was overflowing. “You’d best not be hiding something important, Hull. You’re a guest here, remember that.” He’s so suspicious, thought Lyca. Mavis is so much like him.

“The poor sod had lost a lot of blood,” Gerrik said. “He might have even been dream-walking at that point. He was on the edge of death. When the poison gets in your blood you see strange things, everybody knows that.”

“He was attacked,” the brown-haired youth said. “By a band of raiders.”

“He thought he’d been attacked.” People were muttering now. The air tightened.

“How many men?” Tiny’s red face was strained with worry. “Hull, if there’s raiders attacking innocent people we need to know. I need to protect me and mine.”

“That’s why I wanted to tell you all, at once. I want to be clear that I’m not sure whether what this fellow said was true or not, but…” he struggled for words.

“But it convinced you. Some part of you, at least.” Lyca spoke up.

“Aye,” said Gerrik. “The part that loves my kin.” He turned to Tiny. “He said it was men and women. I don’t know how many, but a small group, at least. Men and women in tarred leather, armed with spears and bows.”

“When was this?” Shenya’s face was pale.

“Five days before we left Greepetown. We tried to gather as many as possible, but not everybody believed the tale. We dared not linger longer than that.” Gerrik looked to Mr Straulk. “Had I any reason to believe this man’s tale completely, I would have told you immediately. I didn’t want to spread panic.”

“You believed it enough to flee your home!” The merchant was visibly angry. “You believed it enough to leave half your people behind to escape and run to our land!”

“The cold, the conditions… We couldn’t risk adding the chance of violence-”

“My brother and wedsister are dead and dying, and you drag raiders here!?” Straulk burst, spraying spittle through the air.

ENOUGH!” boomed Tiny, slamming a club fist onto the table. “Seat yourself or I will, Straulk. Best you remember that if not for these people Sherylyn would be dead and cold already.”

The merchant shrank, and when he spoke again he did so quietly. “If not for Lyca, Sherylyn would be dead. Not for some river man.” He sent a final glare across the table at Gerrik and left, letting his own door slam shut behind him.

“Mr Straulk is still in grief. We all are. Don’t let him make you think you’re not welcome here.” Lyca said.

“Thank you,” said Hellyn. Her husband was silent.

“We have yet to decide,” Old Crewe wavered. “Do we stay, or do we go?”

There was a silence that seemed to last forever. The townsfolk had waited long enough to have council, and none of them had wanted the time to come. Even with what the riverfolk had brought, they would not have enough supplies for everyone to last out the winter. There was a chance that help would come, but many had little hope for Jamie and Mavis. A large portion considered them dead, including Mavis’ own father.

They had agreed without question – but with hesitation from the merchant – that Gerrik and his people would be welcome to stay, and with that agreement they knew there would come a dreaded crossroads. None had spoken aloud of it but finally feeble Old Crewe was the one to say it. Stay or go.

“It’s harsh to hear it so plainly.” Thom said, from Shenya’s side.

“True,” said the mapmaker, “but the answer is clear to me. We will not last the winter here.”

“Mavis and Jamie will bring help as soon as they reach Lhorrenhelm,” Lyca said.

“Given they survive,” said Maya. “And who’s to say the capitol will send help? From what I can tell, they’ve abandoned us.”

“What of Sherylyn?” Shenya asked the table. “If we take the journey she won’t make it. There’s no way she’s fit to travel, right Susan?”

Susan shook her head. “The beast’s claws are foul. Sherylyn’s cuts are festering now as bad as ever. And the fever… Helena says she can’t get it to stop.”

“She will have comfort on our sleds,” Gerrik said. “We can wrap her in furs and tend to her along the way. The rest of us will take turns sleeping and leading the moose.”

“And keeping watch,” added Hellyn.

“I’ll not sleep,” said Tiny, “not with this talk of raiders. I’d rather slip through the ice like a swile than be speared like one.”

“Speak not of such things, child,” said Missus Bekka. Her husband and son had both drowned years ago, before Felicia came into her care. “Use your fear, don’t bend to it. We’ll all have enough of it to face soon.” Tiny said no word but nodded respectfully.

“Have we decided?” asked Maya, rising. “Shall we gather our things? I say Aye.”

“Aye,” said her husband. “Aye,” said Old Crewe, and Shenya and Thom. “Aye,” said Tiny, and Missus Bekka. Slowly, the room came to it’s decision, although Lyca thought that here and there she heard a “nay” from the crowd.

“Aye,” she said, and stood from her stool. She winced as the raw flesh around her wound tightened. I must be strong, she thought. We must all be strong. Like Geoffrey.

The Keeping of the Light – Chapter 12 – The Grinning Man

The trio, led by Mavis, crept warily on through the night. Guided by the light of their flickering torches, they stepped precariously from pan to pan as the never-ending field of ice before them shifting with the movement of the water beneath. Inches lay between them and the icy depths of the Further.

This is madness, Jamie thought to himself as the white surface creaked and groaned. Once already he had fallen into the winter water and was not eager to do so again – especially being so far from shore and any hope of lighting a fire.

“We ought to look for holes, I say,” said Mavis, “where they come up to the surface to breathe.”

“Aye,” agreed Hektor from the back of the line.

“Any sign of the other lights, Hektor?” Jamie asked over his shoulder.

“None,” replied the older man, who was spying around with his eyeglass. “And lets keep it that way. No man has good reason to be on the ice at this time of night unless they are as starved as we are.”

“Perhaps they’ve succeeded in their hunt and returned home?” said Mavis.

“I doubt,” Jamie said. “There are no settlements on the West shore other than Birchbanks, and that is miles to the North of here. Lhorrenhelm is farther south.”

“I agree with Jamie. They would not have gone back this fast. Their torches should still be visible.” Hektor took another cautious look along the facing shoreline. “Nothing but black.”

“They must have camped for the night, then.”

“I hope so, Mave,” said Jamie. “I have a really bad feeling about meeting strangers out here in the dark. Especially those which douse their torches.”

They crept on, using their makeshift spears to test the sturdiness of each ice pan before walking onto it. Hektor started a low chant, half singing and half humming the words to himself as they moved on with their hunt:

            “The night is cold and winter long,
            and winds of western wilds sweep,
            but my fire is warm and whisky strong,
            and I must fight away the sleep.

            The trapper’s trail o’er hill and field,
            goes silently across the land.
            From traps I plea that none will steal
            the fruits of labours of my hand.

            Now come ye back just one last time,
            to northern reaches through the snow.
            But the greatest treasures I shall find
            are paths that lead my feet back home.

            The trapper’s trail o’er valley wide,
            leads restless men all to their catch,
            but wander not too long my friend…”

Hektor’s song trailed off. Something else had caught his attention. “Did ye hear that, lads?” he said, after a moment’s pause. The other two stopped.

“What?” Mavis and Jamie asked in unison.

“Shhh!” Hektor hissed, holding up his torch to silence silence them. “Listen.”

The trio held their breath. Jamie strained his ears hard, hearing nothing but the gentle whispering of drifting snow and his own heartbeat – which had grown faster and louder.

“I don’t hear…” he started, but then stopped. He could hear a faint noise, like the gentle stirring of water. Looking at his feet, his mind suddenly sprang into action. It’s coming from beneath us! He dropped to his knees and pressed his ear hard onto the ice.

“What in Aer’s name are you doing?” Mavis asked in disbelief.

“Bubbles,” he answered slowly. Sure enough, he could hear bubbles thudding softly against the underside of the ice pan, gathering together to form a pocket of air. “Something below us is moving!”

“Ha-ho!” Hektor heaved a hoarse laugh of excitement. “Mavis, quick – watch the edge of the ice!”

Mavis sprang into action. Readying his spear and raising his torch, he stared hard at the thin seam of water surrounding the ice on which they stood.

“There!” he said, aiming his spear at the westernmost edge of the ice. A gargling bunch of bubbles was squeezing up between the ice. Then, they stopped.

“It’s not coming to the surface?” Jamie groaned with disappointment, getting back to his feet. Mavis looked heartbroken. However, Hektor had not lost his spirit.

“What are you waiting for?” he pressed to his younger companions. “Follow them, lads!” follow the air! The beast will have to come to the surface to breathe soon!”

Jamie and Mavis came to their senses immediately. Raising their torches high to spread the light, the three men hurried onto the next ice pan just in time to see more bubbles appear at its far edge. Mavis paused as the ice shifted slightly under the sudden weight.

“Don’t stop, Hunter!” Hektor said hurriedly. “We cannot lose sight of the trail.”

“Run!” Jamie shouted, now feeling the intensity of the hunger in his stomach.

Mavis lead them onward. They scrambled and leapt from pan to pan, barely keeping up with the stream of bubbles that was emerging before them. They ran with torches held on high, ever westward, keeping balance with their modest spears. Once, Hektor slipped, but Jamie yanked him ahead before he could fall backwards into the briny abyss. After what felt like hours they came to a skidding halt on a huge pan of ice. It was rough and uneven, and looked like a small floating island made of smaller pieces frozen together. In a depression at the center of the ice drift was a large hole, smooth around the edges and roughly six feet across. Bubbles erupted furiously from it.

“This is it,” Jamie croaked as they hid behind a mound of snow.

“Ready your spears.” Hektor whispered.

“And keep your torches high,” Mavis added, “it might blind the creature and confuse it. We need all the surprise we can get.” The bubbling stopped, and they all help their breath.

After a second of silence something emerged slowly from the center of the ice hole. A massive head – like that of a short-snouted, whiskered bear – rose out of the water. It sniffed and snorted, spraying icy mist from its nostrils. It had large, black eyes and slick fur that was pale grey. It gazed curiously at the flickering torchlight for a heartbeat, and then disappeared below the water in a splash. The swile had gone.

“No…” Hektor groaned. Mavis swore and threw down his spear. Jamie got to his feet and kicked at the mound of snow they had hidden behind.

It moved.

The three men jumped back as cracks form in the snow crust covered the mound. Jamie had thought it was ice but no – it was moving. It was alive! A rumbling groaning snort was erupting and steam was rising as the enormous swile before them shivered sheets of glazed frost from its back.

Mavis scrambled to grab up his spear as the other two men lurched at the animal, pressing with all their weight to puncture the thick skin of the water beast, now writhing before them. Mavis stabbed now too, and blood was running onto the ice sheet. The animal fought, but its life was over. Hektor drew back and gave a final stab at the back of the creature’s neck and the deed was done. A head the size of a man’s torso fell limply to the ice – tusks and all.

“Shit,” Jamie said, grinning with disbelief. Hektor roared with triumphant laughter.

“Behold, the mighty Hunter!” he sang, and pounded Mavis on the back. They rapped spears together and cheered and Mavis knelt down to start cutting off slabs of meat. They wouldn’t be able to take it all back to the shore – there was too much. But now they had food, real food. Mavis had loaded two chunks of warm black flesh into Jamie’s pack when around them, torches suddenly flared into life.

“The hell – who’s there!?” Hektor shouted, raising his spear.

“Show yourselves!” Jamie said, following suit. A muffled, amused sort of laughter echoed back to them in response.

“I offer you our most sincere gratitude,” came a man’s voice, calm and cold. “For this feast you have provided.” Mavis stood up, brandishing his knife and baring his teeth.

“You will leave us,” he blared at the faceless taunter, hidden behind tattered scarf and blackened hood, “this beast is ours. We’ve earned it!” More cruel laughter. More torches lit up. Jamie was trying to count them now. Nine. Twelve. Sixteen. More and more faces lit up, all wrapped in scarves and wearing coats of dark leather, greasy and tattered. Nineteen. They carried short spears with long, evil blades and their eyes glinted with something that seemed like hunger. Twenty-four. Twenty-five.

“Mavis,” Jamie said, hushed, “look around.” But his friend was shaking with anger.

“We will leave you this beast now,” Hektor said, slowly but with commanding tone. “We will go-”

“No!” Mavis was livid. He waved his knife in the air. “YOU will leave now. Leave us be!” Hektor put a hand on his shoulder.

“We will go now, to hunt elsewhere.”

“Mavis, Listen. Let’s do what Hektor says, let’s go now.” Jamie could hear his own voice shaking, with anger but stronger was the fear. The crowd gathering around them was blocking the way they had come. The would have to run for it but… He peered back over his shoulder at the Western Ridge looming over them, outlined by pale blue moonlight.

“Go?” The cruel voice sifted through the drifting snow to them. “That is fair. We do not wish to do harm. But tell me – where will you go?” The half circle of figures moved closer. Each had a spear – some had bows. “Where do you call home?”

“We come from the capitol,” Hektor announced with some convincing authority. “We will move southward to hunt, out of your territory. Take this meat, consider it a token of peace.” Jamie could see that Hektor was gripping his spear tightly – preparing to throw it if need be.

“The capitol?” The man pulled down his scarf and spat onto the ice. He smiled, revealing yellow, jagged teeth. “Ah, so you are scampering away to the great city of the north,” he said mockingly. “Tell me, hunter-men,” he raised his own spear, “where does your allegiance lay? To Lhorrenhelm? To the High Keeper?”

“Aye,” said Hektor, “to the High Keeper.” Jamie held his breath. He hoped Hektor knew what he was talking about.

This seemed to satisfy the grinning man. He slid a tongue across his crusted lips and paused for a moment. “It seems you have found yourselves in a state of happy consequences, my hunter-men.”

“What?” asked a rasping voice from one of the other figures. This one sounded like a woman. “Just let them run off?” She pulled her scarf down as well, revealing a face smeared with tar and littered with iron rings. “These swine?”

“Not empty-handed, Shalsa,” said the grinning man. He turned back to the trio standing before the dead swile. “You will deliver us a message, hunter-men. You will leave this beast and you will take our message to the capitol. To the High Keeper. You will do this.” He offered his ugly smile again. The woman named Shalsa did not look pleased.

“This one had best leave his spear on the ground, as well,” she said, pointing a jagged blade at Hektor. “His voice is smooth but his eyes say ‘kill, kill.’ The capitol does not send hunters this far north in winter. They came for us, not swiles.”

“Now, now, Shalsa. These ones have value to us, not like the last.” He pulled a small cloth bag from a pocket.

“What is your message?” Jamie asked, eyeing the bag.

“This,” said the grinning man, swinging it back and forth. “Take this directly to your High Keeper. I want you to lay it at her miserable feet and tell her this: The Oyen is with us.” He tossed the bag to Jamie’s feet. “Hear me, scruff? The Oyen is with us. Can you handle that?”

Jamie nodded, terrified, and picked it up.

“And now,” the man said, walking backwards to where his comrades stood, “you run.”

The trio started backing away, slowly.

“He said, RUN!” shrieked Shalsa, and at that second six spears flew through the air, stabbing into the ground at their feet. The three men tore off, scrambling as fast as they could across the ice as more spears and arrows grazed threateningly close by them. The slipped and fell, climbed to their feet and ran and fell over and over again, and all the while they could hear the crowd’s laughter and Shalsa’s shouts of “RUN, SWINE, RUN! RUN!”

They didn’t stop until they collapsed onto the rocky western shore, gasping for breath and wincing at the pain in their feet and lungs. They spent the night there, nestled uncomfortably among the boulders and watching the torches burning a mile away out on the ice. Jamie was fitful, waking up every few minutes and staring off into the night, expecting to see toothy grins and tar-stained faces laughing in the darkness. In those moments where Jamie was awake he could see Hektor staring stone-faced at the torchlight.

The night was long and cold.

What NaNoWriMo Taught Me

This could be a huge post, but I’ll keep it moderately short, as my education via NaNoWriMo can be summed up in one sentence:

I can’t write a book in a month.

Now, there’s a few reasons. One is my style. I’m a slow writer without a doubt when it comes to large projects. I get excited, then work frantically, then lose interest, and then become absent for a while. Then the cycle starts anew. It’s probably the most important reason I’m not a professional writer – I’m not reliable when it comes to time constraints and deadlines for a story.

Next is my inherent inability to judge scope. What I mean by this, is that I constantly over or underestimate the size and scale of my projects when I start them out. One of the novels I’m working on started out as a poem. After two pages, I decided to make it a short story. Eighty pages later, I’ve decided I may as well give in and admit it’s a full-length novel. The Keeping of the Light is facing a similar dilemma: I keep telling myself it’s a one-off, but the truth is clear: the story is too big, and the lore is too complex. It’s almost definitely going to become a two or three-part series.

And then came Everwander, my NaNoWriMo project. I thought that writing a story in my pre-existing fantasy universe would speed things along and make me spend less time on lore and mechanics, but what happened is the exact opposite. Since stating Everwander, I’ve spent more time working out magic systems, languages, cultures and geographies than ever before. With TKOTL, I opened a can of worms. With this project, I’ve started dissecting the worms.

Needless to say, I’ve come nowhere close to finishing the project this month. NaNoWriMo has been an unsuccessful venture for me – but I won’t say that it’s been a complete failure. I’ve learned a very valuable thing from this experience: I can’t rush my writing.

As many times as I’ve impatiently waited for the release of a new novel or part of a series, I can honestly say now that I see why deadlines get pushed and wait times are underestimated. I started out the month planning to write at least 50,000 words, and ended up writing only 7,134 words. Also, I haven’t written so much as a chapter title since the 6th of November. My stories are going to take their time, whether I want to or not.

So I may as well take my time and do it right. The book will be finished, but who can say when. When it is, I’ll let you know. Until then, keep looking for new chapters posted here. Thanks for reading, and happy writing. Cheers.

The Keeping of the Light – Chapter 11 – Tooth and Claw

Lyca grasped a handful of coarse black feathers and yanked hard. The crow – stiff and half covered in drifting snow – was frozen hard to the ice. Finally, she tore it away, leaving a black stain where it lay. Then she wrapped her bare hands in the folds of her coat and headed back to her cabin, carrying the biggest meal they had seen for weeks.

Geoffrey was shaking in his bed when she got there. He was mumbling in his sleep with words she could not decipher. She wiped cold sweat from his forehead and puled the blankets tighter around his neck. The fever was getting worse.

Featherless, the bird looked a sorrowful scrap of scrap. Tight-drawn skin. Sharp edges of bones jutting out at awkward angles. With slender hands she gutted the crow, keeping what she could, and tossed it into a pot with some root and salt. Slowly, the bubbling mixture released a scent into the air that seemed foreign and forgotten – cooking meat. Her mouth watered. Noticing the fire was getting low, she wrapped herself in layers again to fetch more wood.

As she filled her arms with wood, she noticed that things felt oddly still. The wind had ceased and the bay seemed quiet in the crisp winter air.

At that moment, a shrill sound tore through the forest – a scream. Instinct kicked in. Lyca readied herself to run back to the cabin and defend against whatever beast might have made it, but then she listened more carefully. It was a woman’s voice.

Heart pounding, she ran in the direction of the scream. It was full of pain and fear and crackling in an inhuman way that filled Lyca’s mind with dread. She ran hard, hoping beyond hope that there was some way she could help whoever it was. Down the path. Through the trees. Onto the shore trail.

Another shriek pierced the frosty air – it was coming from the river. Somebody has fallen through the ice!

She forced her legs to carry her faster, biting back the sharp pain that was stabbing in her lungs. Finally, she broke out of the trees and onto the shoreline at the mouth of the river, and her eyes widened in horror.

A stones throw from shore amid great boulders and chunks of ice lay Mavis’ Uncle Locke – trembling and covered in blood, his hands clutching at his throat. His wife, Sherylen, was standing her ground to the right of him holding an axe and swinging it wildly about as a lynx the size of a bear was brandishing its red-stained fangs at her, ready to attack.

Without thinking, Lyca started scrambling toward the ghastly scene – frantically trying to reach them before the cat made its move.

“HEY!” she bellowed, closing in on the confrontation. “Sherylyn, run! GET BACK!”

At that moment Sherylyn spun around, sobbing uncontrollably and still brandishing the axe like a sword. The lynx saw it’s chance and sprang forward, reaching out with massive paws and revealing claws the length of carpenter’s nails.

“BEHIND YOU!” Lyca screamed.

The older woman swung her whole body her attacker, the axe gliding through the air like a club. Just as the great beast would have torn into her and taken her to the ground, the blunt of the axe head smashing into one of its outstretched paws – hooking a claw and ripping it loose.

The lynx roared – a terrible, ear piercing shriek – and fell to the ice, taking Sherylyn down with it.

Lyca had reached them now. Not knowing what else to do, she yanked her small knife from its sheath and threw herself onto the pile. She stabbed frantically into the grey fur of the cat’s back. One… two… three… four times she plunged the blade into its flesh. More terrible shrieks. A second later she was lying dazed on her back. The lynx had thrown her off and was now focused on her. Her head was throbbing and there was a gash in her lower leg that felt as though hot coals had been forced inside.

“GET AWAY!” came Sherylyn’s voice, trembling with fear and anger. “AWAY FROM THEM!” She raised the axe high, ready to cleave the lynx’s ribs.

It was no use. Before she had even begun to swing the axe the great cat had whipped back at her, knocking her to the ice and opening fresh wounds on her arms and hands. It didn’t seem to faze the lynx that Lyca’s knife was still driven to the hilt in its back.

Lyca rose unsteadily to her feet. Her leg was weak, and she was dizzy. Bracing herself against a rock, she saw Locke lying a few feet behind her. An enormous chunk of flesh had been torn away from where his neck met his shoulder. As his head lolled sickly from side to side, he reached out a shaking arm. Lyca thought for a second he wanted her help, but then she realized he was pointing at something on the ice.

The axe, which had been knocked out of Sherylyn’s hands, was lying just a quick sprint from the rock Lyca was leaning against. She made a move for it but stopped. The lynx had returned its attention to her again. For a moment it stood still as some nightmarish statue in three legs, its injured paw dripping red onto the ice. Orange slit eyes stared into hers. Tufted ears pointed straight up. The ragged, blood-matted fur on its back quivered horribly as it produced a low, scraping hiss. Slowly, its mouth stretched into what seemed an evil, hungry grin.

Lyca heaved herself at it.

The lynx pounced to kill, and an instant before its claws and teeth would have shredded her neck, Lyca lunged down onto the ice, sliding under the cat’s airborne body. She grabbed the axe before lurching to an abrupt halt against Sherylyn’s limp figure. Forcing herself to her feet, she swung the axe back over her shoulder in preparation to deliver a killing blow. Instead of the expected heaviness at the end of her swing, however, she felt a sudden jerk and the handle went light.

The axe head and slipped off.

Wounded and holding a useless stick, Lyca stared as the Lynx wheeled round and charged at her. There were voices of other villagers shouting from the shore, but she couldn’t pick them out. Tears burned in her eyes as she watched her attacker leap into the air with every intention of tearing her limb from limb.

“Geoffrey…” she whispered.

Something black streaked over her head – just brushing the hood of her fur coat. There was a sickening squelch of dry metal on bone as a long spear slid effortlessly into the roof of the cat’s mouth and out the back of its head. The lynx crumpled in mid-air and fell limply to the ice at her feet.

Trembling, Lyca turned around.

Before her stood a young man holding a second spear. Behind him stood other men and women, brandishing spears and bows at the ready. They were all standing in front of sleds with three skis towed by six huge moose, which snorted steam from their frosted nostrils.

“Are there others?” asked the man.

Lyca couldn’t speak.

“I said are there others? Other beasts?” the man asked, louder this time.

She tried to say no but couldn’t. Instead, she shook her head.

“Lower your weapons!” he shouted to the crowd of strangers. Slowly, they lowered their spears and unstrung their arrows, looking cautiously at their surroundings. “These people are injured – we must help them back to shore.” Then, to Lyca, he came closer and said, “Is that your village, there? Where are we?” There was kindness in his voice.

Now grabbing the bleeding wound on her leg, Lyca finally forced herself to speak.

“Rivermouth,” she managed. “This is Rivermouth.”

The Keeping of the Light – Chapter 10 – Fire on the Ice

The distant shrieking of some raptor sifted through the drifting snow as the trio of travellers made their way along the shore path. They trudged on, crunching burnt squirrel bones between their teeth and cursing the frigid air that invaded their clothes. Hektor would join them on their journey with hopes of finding a new territory in the foothills of the Western Ridge. For two days and the night between they moved without the slightest hint of other people, but on the second night the setting sun brought an unfamiliar sight from across the ice.

“Torches on the west shore,” Jamie told his companions as he peered through Hektor’s spyglass. “At least a dozen of them,… moving southward.”

“Same lot you saw the other night?” asked Mavis.

“Can’t tell. Could be.”

“Hunting for swiles, no doubt,” said Hektor, accepting the device.

“Perhaps.” Jamie had an uneasy feeling about the lights on the other shore since he had seen them the night Hektor joined their party. Until now he had thought he might have imagined them, but now they were certain that there were people over there. The light-bearers were likely travellers like themselves, but they had already been lucky once with Hektor. Being lucky twice in a row was unlikely.

Their new companion was rather profound at storytelling, they soon found out, and never seemed to run out of little tales or songs to share when they stopped for a rest and a spruce needle tea. Some of the stories were true, some probably made up, Jamie thought. Earlier that morning, while they were packing up for another day’s walk, he shared a story he had heard years ago from a sailor in Dhevon.

“There’s this young feller from Dhevon,” he said, “who kills the captain of a freighter and takes the ship. He sails it off in the middle of the night, planning to take it to Lhorrenhelm and sell it to the merchants along with the cargo. This young killer, though, he’s no seaman. Halfway across the mouth of the Further he gets himself caught in a gale and blown far south off course. He’s lost, scared and drifting on the open ocean. He struggles for days to find sight of land but on the eleventh day…” Hektor paused for affect, fixing his shoulder straps. “… on the eleventh day he sees a ship in the distance, just barely sees it through the fog. This young killer’s panicked and starved out of his wits, so guess what he does?”

Jamie and Mavis shrugged, clueless.

“He sets the sails on fire, hoping that the other ship will see him through the fog. And it looks like it’s working. The ship is coming closer, and closer, and closer. But the thing is – he realizes – the ship he had seen wasn’t sailing towards him. It was anchored near shore, and it was him who was drifting towards it! By the time the fog clears up and the idiot’s stolen ship drifts close enough to see other ships and the port, the fire’s spread everywhere and the freighter sinks, meaning he’s got to swim ashore. He’d been drifting towards land the whole time, straight to the capitol. Course, by the time he got there, word had already gotten round and the folks there marked him as a killer and thief, and banished him off to the Barrens to die.”

“What happened then?” Mavis asked, unwillingly drawn in.

“Whaddya mean?”

“What happened to the ship thief?” Jamie pleaded.

“I’unno. Died I guess.”

“Well what’s the meaning of that story, then?” said Mavis, annoyed.

“Meaning?” Hektor laughed. “Don’t go fuckin’ killing people and stealing their shit.”

That night as they were doing the usual setup, Jamie once again spied the torches in the distance. He pointed them out to the others. Hektor joined him with the spyglass. “A group of hunter, you think, lads?”

“Probably,” said Mavis. He dragged out the response, as though he wasn’t entirely convincing himself.

“Let’s just hope they stay where they are, and we’ll give the same courtesy,” Jamie said, watching the lights flickering. The miles-wide field of drifting ice separating them did nothing to ease his mind.

The companions boiled spruce and berries and tossed in a scrawny gull that Mavis managed to shoot down that day. They took turns tending the pot and fire and spying the torches and when the meal was done they passed around the pot, drank the broth and lay down to sleep, terribly hungry.

The next morning followed suit – packing up their gear and tools and setting off again in a blur of shrouded sunrise. Jamie felt that something was different, and the others seemed to feel it too. He was beginning to feel weak, and the constant hunger seemed to mulch him from the inside out, making every hour of travel more painful than before. They had food but it was not enough to give them strength for such a long journey. By the time they stopped for camp the following night the trio had decided that they would need to fin some sustenance to better fuel the remaining days of their trek.

“We ought to follow suit of the others,” Hektor suggested, cracking a cake of hard tack into halves and attempting to bite off a chunk.

“Go on the ice?” Jamie asked.

“Aye, and fetch ourselves some meat. A swile would keep us for a week. What say you, Mavis?”

Mavis was silent.

“Well, you are the hunter of us three, correct?”

“Birds, deer, yes. But I’ve not been on the ice before,” Mavis said. He was clearly disturbed by the thought of wandering onto the ever-shifting and groaning ice field. “I can’t say I’d know where to start, but one of those fat bastards would do us a mighty bit of good.”

“We’d need to make some torches,” Jamie said. He stood up and grabbed a slender stick from their little woodpile. “And spears too. We shouldn’t risk losing any of your arrows.”

“Make them damn sharp,” said Hektor. “They’ve got blubber on em thicker than your arm. They’ll have to be barbed as well.”

An hour later and with the sun well set, the three men stood at the shore and made their first tentative steps onto the ice. Holding their torches high and tied at the waist by a length of rope, they made their way out into the darkness.