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.

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A few updates and odd little things

Hey readers, for those of you who use Twitter, I’ve created an account to help publicize the blog. I will be using it to share my thoughts and bits of info that don’t make it into the blog. If you’re interested, check me out at:

https://twitter.com/kdanielsauthor?s=09

Let’s see what I can do with 140 characters or less.

I’ve finally concluded Deep Sleep and part 2 is available now right here on the blog. It has also been submitted to creepypasta.com where I hope it is received well.

On another note, NaNoWriMo is coming up, and fast, and I’m planning on participating again this year. Not sure what I’ll be working on, but I’ll share details here once it’s been decided.

Lastly, keep an eye out for the first chapter of my upcoming short story/novella, One Final Round: a horror story in five parts. Expect that to premiere around Halloween.

That’s all for now.

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.”