The clinker-built whaler lay trapped between the twin worlds of darkling sea and shadow-limned night. His hooded features cast in Gothic, chiselled hues, Ander stood at the tiller and raised his guttering torch in the traditional salute of farewell. In the bottom of the whaler, two bodies wrapped in sheets lay revealed in its grimy yellow penumbra. He took stock of the small contingent assigned the unpleasant task of burial detail. Death was a time for families and shared grief, not for disposal at the hands of near-strangers.
'Will you not say a final word over them, Sir?' an oarsmen prompted.
All eyes were upon him, causing him to feel weighted down by the invisible burden of responsibility.
Two young men lie dead at my feet, and I can think of nothing to say . . . where are the words of comfort that should spring unbidden to my lips? Can it be that the manner of their death has tied my tongue?
A voice pierced his reverie like a pronouncement of murder. 'Why will you not speak? Do you intend to damn us all? Ander . . . Captain . . . you must say something!'
At that, he rediscovered his tongue and addressed the crew. 'You ask me for fitting words . . . all right, I will speak. Tell me, which words shall I utter? That this fine fellow failed to secure himself, and so lost his footing and fell from the rigging? That the other was crushed in a fool's bid to secure cargo in rough seas? How shall I say how they died? How shall I say this to their loved ones? Were I to state that these poor souls died well, I would be lying.
'Tell me: how shall I find fit words that will release them?'
'Leave it to a cleric,' one of the less imaginative oarsman grunted, 'and let us be done with it. It is the role of a cleric to speak fitting words, and to write letters to bereaved kinfolk.'
The men grumbled their disagreement. Ander well understood their reticence. They were superstitious about a night burial and rightly feared attracting the spirits of the Dead. Mixed rain and snow swirled thick about them like a promise of violence; the night-black water lay deep and viscid with cold, and seemed to suck at the whaler as though wishing to swallow it into black oblivion and sea-death.
Ander gave the order, and felt the burden of their apprehension as they shifted the death-heavy corpses over the gunnels. With a sound like a sigh, the weighted bodies sank into the eternal deep. But for several long moments the oarsmen ached after them, their eyes full of the fear that they had incurred a curse.
Cold-stiff hands and aching shoulders hauled on the guys tied to the fore and aft cleats of the whaler until it was drawn back on board the ship. As he stepped onto the mist-slick deck, Ander thought about bed and dry clothes . . . but the memory of the fallen sailors dogged him, chided him for seeking comfort when all comfort in this world and the next had been denied them. Was it really possible that they were gone? Had those laughing young men truly done all their living in so short a time?
He focussed his eyes, found that they had been drawn on their own towards land, to the port town of Arseula that lay dark and concealed in pre-winter mist. The place appeared as still and lifeless as a tomb! It was possible that an inn or two in this Northern Udin town was open.
The possibility was enough. Ander found that his spirit and his legs were restless, in need of exercise. He would walk into town and back. If the inns were closed along the way, so be it!
His legs aching dully from the long climb up the hill, Ander discovered to his relief that the old roadhouse at the end of town was open. Like many Norlandermen he came to this inn because it was reminiscent of those found in his home in the far north. Its structure was of rough-hewn beams and thick planks of oak, its walls of plaster and straw, its ground floor flagged with stone and covered with reed mats, its dim light provided by a central fireplace and by eight massive, round iron chandeliers, which hung from the ceiling beams from iron chains.
Though not in uniform, he still wore the coat of light mail all Norlandermen officers wore beneath their armour made of tiny overlapping rings that shone like silver and made an almost inaudible tinkling noise like breaking shards of ice. His wolf-pelt cape he discarded on a chair to his left. From the waist down he was dressed in heavy leather leggings and hobnailed military boots; hence the matting on the floor. Leather shoes lasted no time at all without hobnails, and conversely, floors, whether of stone or wood, lasted no time at all without matting of some sort.
Ander soon discovered that the roadhouse had been about to close its doors for the night, but had reopened them the moment the sullen skies had opened up, sending dock workers and travellers alike scurrying for shelter, a hot fire, and a stiff drink to rekindle the inner fires.
'Excuse me, Sir . . . may I sit at your table? All the others are full.' Seeing his look, she blurted, 'I don't intend to stay long: just long enough to find who I'm looking for.'
She was of a little less than average height, her hair bobbed in the way that novice Udin soldiers cut their hair. That she, too, was an off-duty soldier was apparent by her dress, and by the arms she bore: a short-sword and dagger at her belt. Because of their difference in age, to Ander she seemed very young. He estimated her age at somewhere around eighteen, allowing for the manner in which the Udin naturally appeared younger than they really were. Her features were clear-skinned, and bore the distinctive slightly oriental cast of the Udin; her hair and eyebrows were a peculiar blonde colour that was almost black at the roots, and a rich yellow-gold at the tips. Though well-proportioned and comely, there was something naïvely and appealingly guileless about the girl, about her features and her attitude, that Ander instantly liked. Gesturing to the chair in the corner to his right, he said, frowning, having noticed something that didn't sit right, 'You're Udin?' She nodded, though guardedly. 'Udin military,' he added. She reacted by going rigid, not looking at him. 'Out of uniform. Against Udin military regulations, as I understand them-'
'Ex-military,' she enounced, tersely. 'My companions and I were expelled early this afternoon.'
'May I ask why?'
She turned to look him in the eye, her expression unreadable, her jaw set in a way that he would later find to be characteristic. 'There has been a change in requirements regarding the height, size, weight, and physical strength of Udin women serving in the military. We were singled out and summarily dismissed.'
His responding indignance prompted Ander to say, 'I hope they gave you enough of your pay to get you home again!'
'There was a competency hearing, prior to our dismissal,' she said in a hard voice that, though carefully flat, yet belied her emotion. 'It was decided that since we were not fit to be in Udin's army, it was therefore deemed unseemly that we should be paid for our incompetence, or provided with transportation back to our homeland.'
'Are you telling me,' Ander asked her, unable to accept her words at face value, 'that you are stranded here, penniless, without the means to return home?'
She huffed in angry exasperation. 'The six of us are stranded here, penniless as you say, without the means to leave, or to support ourselves, except by-' she choked off her flow of words and left the thought unsaid. For a fleeting instant, to Ander's mind came unbidden a vision of a band of female brigands roaming the northern woods, pursued by a host of soldiers bearing torches, hunting dogs running ahead, baying.
At that moment, a server came by bearing a prodigiously large tray filled with earthenware pitchers and flagons. Ander bought a pitcher of the spiced, potent mead sold in these parts, and asked for a pair of clean flagons. The server raised his eyebrow at this, but did as the Norlanderman bade him do with the sort of long-suffering air of one who well knows that Northerners are fastidious about cleanliness, but is willing to put up with their strange idiosyncrasies. When the man left, and Ander proceeded to pour the young woman a flagon, she reacted by placing her hand over the top.
'No, thank you.'
'You don't drink?'
'I do not take charity!' she bit off, tersely.
Taking the flagon from her and filling it, the northern soldier said, 'Don't talk nonsense! It would only be charity if you had asked for it.' They sat in silence for some time, during which she didn't touch her drink. Instead, her attention was consumed with watching the occupants of the roadhouse, looking, perhaps, for a familiar face. Ander assumed, and rightly, that she had found one when her gaze locked on to someone, and she let out a hissing gasp of angry surprise. Following the line of her gaze, all he could see was a large group of traders near the fire, a nondescript-looking painted harlot sitting in their midst, as drunk as they were, and responding to their drunken ogling and fondling. His young companion was suddenly gone, moving towards this group. He watched, curious to discover the object of her attention. With a curious sinking feeling in the pit of his belly, he watched as she went straight to the painted woman. The table at which she was sitting became uncomfortably silent as the two began speaking in their lilting Udin tongue. After some time, Ander's young companion looked up, seeking him out, perhaps to see if he had left, he thought. She turned back to her companion, said some words, and then returned to his table. She was deathly pale. After a moment, she picked up the flagon of ale as would a man, and downed it in one long draught. Refilling it for her from the pitcher, he said quietly, 'Can it be that you know that woman? It does not seem likely.'
His young guest swallowed audibly before answering. 'Her name . . . her name is Shela. She was one of we six who were dismissed. She has told me that she has no pride left. Tonight, she will sell her body-'
Shocked, he looked at her askance to see that her eyes were full of unshed tears. Thinking only to distract her for the moment, he decided to make introductions. 'My name is Ander. You have not yet told me your own.'
'Sir?' her attention snapped back into the moment. 'Your pardon! My name is-' she hesitated, then continued in a subdued voice, as though shamed by making some admission. 'My name is Irena Eritraea. Irena Eritraea Worren.'
'Worren,' Ander mused, thinking that the name sounded familiar. He soon had it. The Udin identified themselves by first name, Clan and County, respectively. Worren was a rugged, inland County, thickly forested but logged only with great difficulty; poor in resources, but rich in hard-working, tough people. In all of Udin, only the women of Worren County girded themselves as soldiers. Without the sole Country of Worren, not only their own people, but those from the southern countries of Otar and Talimar, thought of such women as unwomanly, and disdained those of Worren County as uncultured, ignorant, uncouth, provincial, plain, and undesirable. The truth, however, bore little resemblance to the reality. 'Then you are from Worren County,' Ander said in a bemused tone tinged with gentle, humorous irony. 'That would explain your reticence in telling me your name.'
When he finished speaking, something in his voice prompted her to say, without meeting his eye, 'I suppose you disapprove of women in the military.'
'There are a good many women in our military,' he told her, smiling at her reaction.
'But-' she blurted, 'I have never seen any!' The inflection of her voice sounded as though she asked a question.
'No, and you will not,' he told her, putting on a more serious face, despite the smile at her youthfulness that remained in his eyes. 'To avoid possible unpleasantness and confrontation, they do not travel on ships that enter ports such as this, where southern attitudes prevail.'
'My friends and I,' she said in a rush, 'could we gain passage on board your ship? We are all-
well- most of us are skilled, and we are all hard-working. You wouldn't have to pay us,' she
added, hopefully. 'Just our board and keep is all we would ask-'
Ander put up a hand to forestall her, even as he was struck by a guilty feeling, as though he were fending off responsibility for the young woman's plight. 'Think what you are asking! When our ship leaves, it will be returning inorth/i, and then we will be changing ships and continuing north, heading out over the ice-fields. Arseula is as far south as my people venture. You know nothing about working in or enduring cold weather. You are neither equipped nor dressed for such a venture-'
'The alternative for such as me,' Irena said in a tight voice, 'is to lower myself to what Shela has gone to do. Arseula is a small, isolated town, and unattached women here have but one choice in life- they must either sell themselves, or work somewhere as menial labour, giving that away which they would sell in the bargain, or they must become some man's concubine. In the end, the result is the same.'
Ander sighed, and to his own surprise found himself juggling the logistics of taking on a number of inexperienced hands. Though her indirect pleas were not aimed at him, personally, still, they struck home with the impact of accusations made of chunks of ice. At last, considering, he allowed, 'Where are the rest of your friends? Do you know?' She watched him carefully as he said this, and he was left with the distinct impression that she sensed or hoped that some line within himself had been crossed in her favour.
She blurted, 'Perhaps at one of the taverns . . . ? I do not know-'
'Well then, youngster, I suggest you finish your ale. We'll start with the Cross-eyed Gull.'
She looked up at him in surprise. 'That was one I was trying to find earlier, but I couldn't find it.'
Ander gave her a look. 'That doesn't surprise me. The entrance is off a back alley in the warehouse district. I sincerely hope your friends haven't gone there. Are they armed, like yourself?'
'Besides myself, only Kira and T'cha own their own weapons. The others' were taken back . . . confiscated.' She suddenly narrowed her scrutiny of Ander, and caught him completely off-guard by asking, 'Are you an honourable man? Is it true that all Norlandermen men are . . . moral?'
Her words had the effect of splashing cold water on wilted lettuce. Despite the fact that his mind was made up, Ander wasn't taken with the notion of helping the young woman and her friends. But a lifetime of living up to a deep-rooted moral code has a way of superseding rest, self-indulgence, social and moral indolence. Without replying, he finished his ale quickly, and got to his feet. With a curt nod, he said, 'Come.'
She followed in his wake as though answering the call of a cavalry trumpet.
There was a moment's awkwardness as they came upon a table of his shipmates, who looked up, speculation in their eyes. It wasn't until that moment that she fully realised the depth of her imposition. She was about to apologise for the inanity of her request, but a knowing look from Ander before he returned his attention to his men silenced her.
'Gentlemen! Those of you who are armed will finish quickly and come with me. We are going to search for this young woman's companions.' All of the men, it turned out, were armed, not trusting the heavily-armed rick-rack that frequented such places.
As the heavy wooden door thudded closed behind them, sealing away all warmth and laughter and light, they found themselves forging ahead into darkness, stinging sleet mixed with wet snow coating their shoulders and hair with a frozen rheum, their hobnailed boots crunching on the treacherously frozen cobbles. The wind howled in their ears so loudly that they had to shout to make each other heard. One of the men, with a hopeful glance in Ander's direction, remarked that since they were going to an inn, they could possibly stop for a drink and warm up.
Ander didn't comment.
The warehouse district was situated in the worst possible area for such a journey on such an evening- on a steep knoll of land, now made treacherous with half-frozen slush, with narrow streets that funnelled the wind, and it was a frustratingly convoluted warren, with blind alleys, and one main street which lined the waterfront. From below came the creaking of floating wharfs, the groan of rigging, and ships' guards riding against the docks with the swells. Beyond, looming into the blackness, reared a dark, heavily forested peninsula, like a giant's outthrust shoulder deflecting the sea's fury.
Irena's companions were not in the Cross-eyed Gull. To Ander's surprise, and despite its proximity to the docks, they found the place to be nearly deserted; only a number of old regulars talked quietly in the dim interior, seated near the fire. That left only the Derelict Toad. The men groaned at that, as did Ander himself, though inwardly. It was all the way back, up and over the top of the hill, a short distance, perhaps half a mile. But half a mile of soaking, stinging sleet, howling wind, wet feet, and crunching, half-frozen slush.
Ander decided on a circuitous route, turning to the right and taking the wide main road used by heavy carts. This road was flagged with stone, rose at the most gradual gradient, and passed the largest buildings along the way. Most of the large mercantile buildings lay along this route, hence its width- carts could pull off the road and unload without obstructing traffic.
They were just turning the corner of the top of the first loop, when a faint sound caught their attention. 'That sounded like Kira's voice!' Irena blurted.
'Did any of you notice which direction it came from?' Ander queried. Met with silence, he snapped, 'Spread out in two's! Return here and recall everyone if and when you find something.' When Irena looked a question at him as the others left, all twenty-eight of them, he said, 'Someone must remain to maintain the rallying point.' Until now, exertion had allowed her to withstand the cold, but now that they had stopped she was showing signs of suffering. She wore no headgear, her ears and nose were red, and even in the darkness Ander could tell that her lips were turning blue-
He turned at the sound of running feet. It was Rufus, a tall, burley, red-headed fellow. 'Found 'em, sir! Four women. Two-dozen men. Armed, and drunk.' He had added the words and drunk meaningly. 'Conran stayed behind to keep an eye on things.'
Ander nodded curtly and gave three short, trilling whistles- the signal for the group to reform. Within moments a plan was formed, and they had surrounded the house. It was more of a barn, having but a single room, little or no furniture, a small fireplace, and was lighted only by a few candles which burned dimly. The four women were backed into a corner. Two of them, whom Ander assumed to be Kira and T'cha, stood in front with swords drawn. The remaining two women guarded their sides, auxiliary daggers at the ready, doing what they could to avoid being outflanked.
To Ander's consternation, some of the men were Udin.
'Irena,' Ander whispered to her, 'explain to me what transpires here!'
He heard her swallow reflexively, and at the sight of her fearful, wide-eyed look, found himself struggling with an instinctive, protective feeling towards her.
'That big man, the one with the black broadsword? That's V'tan, the weaponsmaster. You see those two in dark brown, over there in the corner? They're slavers; I don't know their names, but I know what they want.'
Udin and slavers in the same breath! Something inside Ander curdled and seemed to turn over in his chest. The Udin as a whole were generally well-behaved in the presence of the Norlandermen, but some were not to be trusted when backs were turned. They, like slavers under such circumstances, could without warning become intractable, vicious, and unreasoning. The Norlandermen were faced with only two options here: they could walk away, knowing what would happen; or there would be a bloodbath, with the very real possibility that relations between the Udin and the Norlandermani would be marred.
Glowering, Ander chewed curses like gristle. 'Conran! Rufus! Pick a man each and cover the two windows. Irena, stay out here with Heca. The rest of you, stand ready.' Ander removed his heavy cape and placed it about Irena's shaking shoulders.
Though the heavy doors were barred, this was easily remedied by inserting a sword between them, lifting the bar, and kicking them unceremoniously inward. The tormentors surrounding the women were so besotted that they became aware of the Norlandermen only when one of their number noticed the cold draft, turned around, and stopped in mid-sentence, yelling, 'Somebody close the bloody-'
Almost as a man, the Udin turned to face the intruders who had brought the chill, empty night with them. Ander felt his insides tighten involuntarily, for the last man to turn about did so with unhurried, potentially murderous violence in every line of his frame. V'tan was a great, black-bearded giant of a man, towering over everyone present. Ander nodded inwardly to himself as the giant's eyes sought him out. Here was a man whose main strength lay in identifying and slaying the leaders of others!
The giant approach Ander with a disturbing, almost casual watchfulness, and when he drew near Ander was offended by his breath, which was as offensively rancid as his stinking black bearskin cloak. His speech slurred by drink, he said, 'Whaddaya want, little man? You got business here?'
'Let the women leave,' Ander said in a quiet, clipped tone.
Perhaps exaggerating his drunkenness, V'tan made a show of turning about and considering the four, before turning back to Ander in the same manner. 'Got nothing to do with you. They're my crew, an' I c'n do's I like.'
'They are not your crew,' Ander said evenly. 'You released them from further service earlier today.'
'Ya can't have 'em,' V'tan said, staggering slightly, but in a way that made Ander watch his sword arm carefully, rather than cause his any amusement. 'They b'long to me!'
'Slavery is illegal,' Ander responded without rancour, not rising to the bait.
'So who're you?' V'tan jeered. 'The law?'
This prompted an icy smile from Ander, even as he took note of the mob mentality of V'tan's soldiers, silently willing his own men to be on their guard. It was in his mind that both he and V'tan knew that Arseula was literally outside the law. Each Udin County had its own minor King or chieftan, and made its own local laws, but Arseula resided in an outlying area that was claimed by Udin, overall, but was part of an outlying territory rather than a County. Each territory existed in a state of legal limbo, what law there was, residing in the nearest person of the highest social or military standing, if and when such a person was available to lend his services as arbiter. Knowing who the highest ranking person in the area was at any given time was, of course, next to impossible. As a result, summary action taken by individuals who assumed themselves to be the highest ranking person available, such as that the Norlandermen were presently witness too, was all too commonplace.
'You're drunk, V'tan,' Ander said, hoping the big man would take this proferred opening and back down, 'and in violation of your own laws, if not a number of long-standing bans and treaties. Release your hostages, or I will place you and your men under arrest, and hand you over to your own authorities.'
At the sound of his own name, V'tan started, belying that his drunkenness was part pretense.
'How do you know my name? I have never seen you before, and I never forget a name. Or a face.' The threat in his tone was implicit, calculating. Ander decided that he had been right to watch the big man's sword arm.
Nodding inwardly at how skilfully the big man vied for the offensive advantage, Ander decided to make him sweat for attempting to assert his authority when he clearly had no business doing so. 'Certain of your superiors asked me to keep an eye on your behaviour. Had I jurisdiction in this matter, I would arrest you, and summarily hang your two slaver companions! Regardless, I do have the authority to enforce the law, to the extent that I am witness to a crime in the very act of its being committed. You will release your hostages. Now. Or I will act, without mercy, and with extreme prejudice.'
There was no sign of drunkenness in V'tan's visage now. In one fluid motion, he drew his huge black broadsword, and pronounced, not yelled, 'Kill the bitches,' even as he advanced.
The big man couldn't conceal his surprise at the disciplined manner in which Ander's men parted, giving the two men room to square off. He was used to wading into the midst of a mêlée, taking advantage of his greater height and reach to hack down preoccupied opponents to the left and right, an act that normally struck fear into his intended target- the opposing leader.
As V'tan checked his approach, fractionally, Ander felt the giant's scrutiny narrow, with something like suspicion . . .
And then, with unbelievable speed, the attack came!
In that first instant, when sword met sword in a shower of sparks and rang like a pair of steel anvils, Ander knew then that this was the very moment that every other opponent had been cut down; he knew, too, by some elusive cue that couldn't be expressed in words that for the first time in his life, V'tan tasted doubt.
Though the big man's men had been holding their own, the doubt of their leader shook them fundamentally. They began crowding closer, looking for any opening with which to backstab Ander, who had recovered himself, and now rained blows on the giant with deadly skill-
Ander turned his head just in time to catch the flat of a blade full across the side of his face. His ears ringing, he found himself half-sitting in a stunned, senseless daze . . .
. . . and stared in wonder as a dream that resembled Irena took up his sword in one hand, a fallen enemy's blade in the other, and hurled herself at V'tan, spinning like a dervish, a blade-whistling, dancing, silvery blur that grew dim, even as she swam before his eyes in a lunatic pirouette of Death . . .
. . . and then there was nothing.
'By the gods, Ander! Can you hear me?'
He felt slightly nauseous, and sore all over. His right side felt cramped, stiff, and threatened
extreme pain were he to move. He did recognise, however, that he was in the infirmary of the Ice
Queen, and that the surgeon who attended him was none other than Kenastus, the ship's surgeon.
'How long have we been under way?' Ander asked him.
'For two days, now.'
'I see. Send Rufus to me.'
'Rufus is dead,' Kenastus told him in blunt tones. 'The slavers killed both him and one other who blocked a window, and made their escape. I am told that the Udin fought like demons.'
'Is Conran alive?'
'Then send him to me.'
Conran arrived moments later, looking tired and worn. He was a dark, curly-haired man, thick of feature, heavy bearded and barrel-chested. He and Rufus had been friends for many years.
'Two,' Conran muttered. 'Rufus and Falo. Three wounded, including yourself. The little one, Irena, fought like a hellcat. Just about eviscerated that bastard V'tan; I don't know how he managed to survive and walk away from wounds like that. Men like him are . . . well . . . inhuman.'
'Did we manage to get any of theirs?'
'Nineteen of the bastards,' he muttered with grim satisfaction. 'Arrogant sons of whores. They seemed to think-'
'The wounded,' Ander prompted, wanting facts, not stories.
'Ah, well, two of the women, Kira and Irena, and Vario. The first of the women, a minor stab-wound; the second, sprained wrist, bruised ribs; Vario took a slash to the forearm, right to the bone. Minor injury. Clean wound. He'll be back on duty in two weeks.'
'The slavers?' Ander was falling back towards sleep, unwilling, but having to make conversation.
'All three managed to escape-'
'Three? Who were all those others?'
Conran sighed. 'The rest- we have no idea who they were or where they were from. They were Southerners, by all accounts, but Southerners from where remains the question.'
Ander heard a moan from nearby. It took him a moment to realise that Irena's bunk was
adjacent to his own.
'Kenastus!' Ander said to the surgeon, who was attending to her, 'What is that young woman doing in the infirmary?'
'She is injured, of course! I can move her, if you like,' the elderly surgeon said, a hint of asperity in his voice, 'but this is the infirmary, after all-'
'Your pardon, I wasn't thinking,' Ander muttered apologetically. Only the Norlander ships which ventured south were entirely male-dominated, and had no facilities and quarters for the female crew members. Something made him glance over at the young woman, prompting him to ask, 'Why is she breathing like that?'
'Pneumonia,' Kenastus replied. 'These Southerners seem prone to it, until they become acclimatized. That is; assuming they live through it.'
'Is it catching?' Ander asked, purely out of ignorant concern. 'Do her companions carry the
disease as well?'
Kenastus sighed and responded patiently, 'Pneumonia is what we physicians and surgeons refer to as a condition, as opposed to a disease. For example, a broken arm is a condition, as are bruises, cuts, burns, frostbite, white blindness, and so on. In the case of pneumonia, it is most often a condition of the lungs brought on by prolonged exposure to dampness and cold, when proper attire is lacking, or absent altogether. On the other hand, yellow pox is a disease, as are fevers of the body and head, ravisher's itch; in short, diseases are lesser members of plague, and as such are communicable, by air, by touch, by lack of cleanliness, by exchange of bodily fluids such as blood, sputum, and so on. Your chances of catching pneumonia from her,' he pronounced with finality, 'is about as likely as a ninety-year-old woman suffering from the menses. Unless, of course,' he added with a humorous tic, 'she has come down with one of those rare forms of pneumonia which are brought about by disease.' Before Ander could respond to this, the physician actually allowed one of his rare, wintery smiles, and said, 'I jest. The young woman's condition poses no threat to anyone on board this ship.'
Kenastus left, still smiling. Ander rolled onto his left side, the only part of him that was not stiff or painful, and considered the young woman as she slept. Her left wrist had been bound in a sling, he knew, and her shoulder had been bound, but nothing of her was visible save her face, which was slightly flushed. The rest of her was wrapped warmly in layers of heavy blankets and furs. Vario lay in the bunk above her, and he assumed the other woman, Kira, to be above himself. Looking above to the bottom of the upper bunk, he noticed that the interlaced khaki bands above were bellied out, belying the presence of a body.
Some time after falling asleep, he was awakened by the sound of quiet, feminine conversation. He knew the speaker to be T'cha, as Irena sometimes used her name. She sat on the edge of Irena's bunk, and he listened for a time to their lilting Udin tongue, trying to ascertain where one word ended and the next began. It was a unique language, unlike any other, and by all accounts very difficult to learn. Neither T'cha, Kira, nor Dielu, the fourth member of their party, wore their hair bobbed short, as did Irena, and he was later to find that this had to do with rank; rank, of course, having its privaledges. Kira had been a cook, T'cha a military engineer-surveyor-ballistics expert. At the time, he knew nothing of this, and assumed hair length to be a mere matter of preference.
Eventually, Irena noticed his scrutiny, causing T'cha to stop speaking and turn to him as well. Despite being lithe, fit, and strong, this woman, a fair bit older than Irena, was disconcertingly attractive, and feminine in a way that civilian women simply were not. At the moment, however, both women watched him with open worry. A quiet question from above made him realize that Kira, too, was awake; he assumed she had asked what suddenly had the other's sudden, rapt attention. T'cha said something in return, and nodded in Ander's direction. He felt and heard Kira shift above him.
'On behalf of my fellow crew-members,' T'cha said, addressing Ander formally, 'Irena, Dielu, Kira, Myrrn and myself, may I ask some questions regarding your intentions?'
'Two of our crew were killed facilitating your rescue,' he replied, without sounding accusing. 'Our captain is going to expect the five of you to fill in to the best of your abilities. You will be quartered together and integrated into the ship's routine.'
After a moment's consideration, he added, 'We will ask certain questions of you, such as What was this business of changing soldiering requirements in mid-stream? What is happening in Udin, and What is happening, in general, in the south, in Otar, Talimar, and beyond?'
'We have heard strange rumours,' T'cha said, 'but they defy belief. For myself, I do not believe them.'
'And what have you heard?'
'That Talimar is no more,' she said in a low voice. 'That Talimar has been overrun, that the
remainder of its citizens have fled to Otar, and fight side-by-side with the Otari and those of Udin, that the fighting is desperate, and that the defenders are losing ground by the day, being driven steadily north. Such a thing does not seem possible.'
'Damnation!' During this exchange, he noticed that Irena had fallen asleep. He indicated this with a nod to T'cha, who stood, gently tucked the young woman back into her blankets and furs, crossed to his bunk, and said, 'May I?' indicating that she wished to sit on the side of his bed, so that they could converse quietly while the others slept. He nodded, and noted with relief that unmistakable clean smell that comes from soap and water, emanating from the woman's form. Not all of Udin's citizenry was noted for its personal hygiene, though there were great variances in personal standards, as there are within all countries.
'How old is Irena?' he asked, more from a need to renew the conversation than from curiosity. The answer he got, however, was much more perplexing than he had bargained for.
'She has just passed her fifteenth birthday,' T'cha said, an unmistakable note of relief in her voice. 'Dielu didn't think that she would survive thus far.' To the question in his eyes, she said, 'Dielu is the fourth member of our group. Shela was the sixth. Shela,' she said, her features set, though from anger or despair he couldn't tell, 'elected to remain in Arseula.'
'How long did it take to wear her down?' he asked, 'To make her do . . . what she was doing, at the time we left.' Even as he said those words, he began to see the person behind the mask; the
desolation in seeing her companion degrade herself; the very personal effect it had on the
remaining five women.
'If you are asking whether this was a gradual thing that occurred over time, that the matter of our dispossession came as a final blow, the answer is simply, "No." She made her decision almost
instantly. She is that sort of person, who reacts to circumstances as they change, and adapts without question. And before you tell me that she had other options, or that the six of us should have banded together and either tried to fight our way back to Udin or find a trade more savory than the one Shela chose for herself, I would remind you that six unattached women, soldiers that we are, are no match for large bands of slavers who augment their numbers with mercenaries who aid them in their abductions. Shela chose life, as a whore. The five of us that remained chose rather to fight to the death; that is what was transpiring when you and your men intervened on our behalf.'
'What is Dielu's occupation?' he asked. 'And Irena's.'
T'cha smiled ruefully in response. 'Irena, you will find, has a way of being overly-conscientious where her duties are concerned. As a result, she will either often disappear for long periods at a time, preoccupied with a task she has miscomprehended entirely, or you will find her under foot, asking you many times to explain a simple question that she seems unable to see the simple answer of. In a word, she is young, and tries too hard.
'Dielu . . . she is a hard one to describe. She is one of those people so unassuming and so
competent as to practically be invisible. She is a navigator by trade, but is more at home in the
rigging. She knows the secret navigator's art, but she will only use it if the ship is lost, or if some dire peril arises.'
'I have heard of the secret navigator's art,' he said, frowning, 'but only as rumour. 'All I
know of it is that certain navigators have the talent to find a ship's exact position, not just
longitudinally. How does she do this? Have you actually seen it done?'
T'cha shook her head. 'Never. When the captain asks it of her, she takes a few readings, disappears into her cabin for a time, returns a quarter hour later, tells him where we are, and the best course to set.'
'She goes to her cabin?' he wondered. 'What could she possibly do there that she couldn't do on deck. How could she possibly descry the ship's position from a standpoint of utter blindness. Unless she has something to hide-'
'It is called the secret navigator's art!' T'cha reminded him with asperity. 'Were she to tell everyone, there would be no need for her special talent, though I can tell you that her little secret lies in two small iron-bound wooden boxes, both locked, always, one of which makes a clicking sound. Incidently, I was told to ask you something about something called an ice dock, but I can't remember what it was, or what the name of the dock was. The important thing, it seemed to me, was that some kind of big rail should be waiting for us when we arrive there tomorrow evening.'
'An ice-dock,' Ander told her with a smile, 'is a massive barge, heavily constructed to
withstand direct contact with the polar ice sheet. On it are several warehouses containing goods
destined for the North and South. When we arrive there, we will dock, unload our cargo, and
'A big rail simply refers to one type of ship we use. A rail is the most common type of ice ship. At first glance, it looks a bit like a seagoing vessel, but the similarity ends there. A rail runs along the ice on a central keel that is capped with metal. As well, there are one or two outriggers that allow the craft to stand upright. The outriggers are fitted with angular chines that bite into the ice, and are used to steer the ship.
'The biggest of the rail ships are simply called big rails. There are a variety of smaller craft, some of which are carried on board the rails. These small craft are called skiffs, and are collapsable. There's nothing much to them but a triangular sail, a triangular frame of wood, three blades to ride the ice, leather netting set into the frame to sit upon and transport goods, and a tiller. They are very fast, and are used for scouting, reconnaisance, and at times, fun and leisure.'
She looked a question at this. 'How so?'
'You'll see,' he told her. It was then that something caught his eye, that was laying on the shelf where Irena's belongings had been placed. 'What sort of shoes are those? May I see them?' Apprehensively, T'cha brought the shoes to him to examine. 'What the Devil? How can she fight in these, let alone walk in them? They must add six inches to her height.'
'She manages, somehow,' T'cha said, her look belying some guilt over having allowed this discovery, while also conveying concern mixed with an equal awe. 'It is a drawback when she's
called on to fight. It was no doubt because of these that she lost her balance and was felled. The
only reason she's survived this long is because of the ungainly way she fights. The fact that she's
off-balance acts as a distraction on her opponent- except she's learned to deal with it, to use it to her advantage. She's learned to be fast. Very fast. The problem is- and this is what Dielu and I were always afraid would happen- the problem is that if she was ever to come up against an opponent like V'tan, whom she couldn't speedily despatch, then the tables would be turned, and she would be killed.'
'Yes, but why does she wear them at all?' Ander prompted, as T'cha was noticeably skirting around the subject.
At that, T'cha replied somewhat defensively. 'It was the only way she could make the height requirements!'
Ander lay on his back and heaved a sigh. 'Well, I'm afraid, now that I know, the game's up. She won't be returning to active duty. Do not give me that look! She is far too young. Norlandermen men and women are not permitted to enter the service of the Crown until they reach the age of majority, which is twenty. I know that things are done differently in Udin, but you are not in Udin now.'
Considering the sleeping girl, T'cha muttered, 'What will happen to her, then?'
Ander considered his reply for several long moments before answering.
'She will have to become someone's ward . . . whose, I don't know as yet. If it were possible, she would be sent packing, back home to her parents-'
'She was orphaned, two years ago,' T'cha cut him off, tersely. 'Her parents were murdered by a group of those fanatical clerics who've been coming up from the south. The clerics were caught and put to death, and their Mother Church apologized, claiming that the monastic societies are a fringe element that the Mother Church has limited power to control.'
'But-' he prompted, seeing from her expression that she left something unsaid.
She hesitated fractionally. Then, holding him with her eyes, as though daring him to accuse her of falsehood, she said, 'It is obvious, to me at least, that the Mother Church is directly involved with the Monastic Movement, and is somehow also involved with the forces driving their way north.'
Ander stared, knowing the truth in his ears for what it was. 'Why? What do they hope to gain? What are they about?'
'They are fanatics!' she replied, anger in her voice. 'They do not reason. They lie. They murder. Their justification for their actions is that any who do not believe as they do are pagans and heretics, and as such are summarily murdered. They believe,' she said, succinctly, 'that they
have the right to force their beliefs upon anyone and everyone, and that their beliefs are the only
beliefs that are true. Their purpose is not only to conquer the world, but to force it to think as they
do. They are the most evil, despicable creatures that I've ever encountered. They make someone
like V'tan look like a saint.'
He remained silent for some time, digesting this. Then, with a sigh, 'Irena will become my ward. I have three daughters, one of them older than Irena, one the same age, and one younger. They will welcome a new addition.' He was forced to smile at T'cha's reaction. 'It won't hurt her to live as a child for a while.'
T'cha's consternation was palpable. 'She is no child! She has had a hard life, and has known little kindness-'
'You miscomprehend me. Life at my home is far from indolent. My daughters are not ineffectual maidens. They are warriors. And hunters-' He laughed at the expression on T'cha's face. 'What?'
Colouring slightly, she stammered, 'If that is so, then who makes your home? Your wife? And sons, if you have any?'
His smile faded, but not entirely. 'My wife is dead. You needn't look at me like that! She has been gone twelve years- it is an old grief. She was taken by a fever no physician could identify. I have two sons- one is my eldest, the other is the twin of my daughter who is Irena's age.
'All of us share equally in making our home. That is our way; not unlike you Udin from Worren County. Assuredly, the conditions of our lives differ considerably from your own, but the manner in which we are socially organized bears a striking resemblance.'
She was silent several moments, bent in introspect. Then, 'I would know a thing: how are my companions and I to obtain suitable attire, once we reach more northerly climes?'
'Suitable clothing will be supplied, once we reach Dawnton's Landing, the ice dock where we will unload our cargo and change ships.' He smiled at the thought. 'I must warn you; we will soon reach cooler latitudes. Your friends and yourself will find yourselves spending most of your time in the galley, where the greatest warmth is afforded. And-' his smile broadened, 'do not be afraid to ask for more blankets. You will need them! And don't be surprised if you find yourselves reluctant to leave your warm beds come each morning. Rising and bathing are a trial in the north, even for those of us who have lived there all our lives. Only our homes are free from these discomforts. Well, to be truthful, most of our homes. Those less well-built, or poorer, are inclined to be somewhat . . . inhospitable.'
Two days later, rousing himself and leaving the infirmary, despite Kenastus' protestations, Ander made his way to the captain's quarters. He found captain Danver alone in his spacious cabin at the rear of the ship, pondering a number of communications. The burly fellow, dressed only in breeches, long grey underwear and suspenders, looked up in surprise, appraising Ander sceptically.
'Back already?' He said in an exaggerated, long-suffering tone. 'Thought I was going to have a little peace for at least a week or two.'
Smiling, Ander seated himself, though a little unsteadily.
His scrutiny narrowing, the captain said, 'I'm restricting your duties, at least until our arrival at Dawnton's. I don't want you dropping dead on me.'
Knowing better than to argue with his captain's assessmant, Ander said, 'I'll be taking away the
youngest of your new recruits, Irena, as my ward-'
'Ah, I thought that one was a little young to be playing soldier,' Danver said with a father's ire. 'What about her parents, or her immediate family?'
'My understanding is that she has none. That knowledge prompted my decision.'
The captain nodded. Then, indicating the pile of correspondence before him, he said, 'Ander, have you heard anything concerning events in the south?'
He shrugged. 'What I have heard is hearsay. Rumour has it that Talimar has fallen, and that Otar is beset. I have doubts about what I hear, however, because it is claimed that Otar, Talimar and Udin have united against this threat to the south. Such a thing is not only unheard of, but goes
against all that I know of the relationships between those three countries. Udin and Talimar have
been at war for untold generations, and Otar, which lies between them, has been and remained forever neutral.'
The captain belied no reaction, but said, 'Of the monastics which plague these three countries; what do you know of them?'
Ander shrugged. 'I have heard that they are a dangerous nuisance, but little more. I have heard that they have committed unconscionable acts not sanctioned by their mother church, and that the connexion between themselves and their mother church is tenable, at best.'
Danver's look was unreadable. 'Your perception is too much like my own and too many others to be mere coincidence. It is my opinion that this perception has been cultivated by the monastics and the church, both of them working closely together. And it is my further opinion that this perception is a deliberately misleading connivance.
'Consider: I have before me a number of communications from friends of mine, from Udin,
Otar and Talimar. They tell me that, despite appearances, the monastic's Mother Church is bent upon conquest, and that the monastics themselves are directly involved. I have it on good authority that they have been sent from the church, that their affiliation is neither indirect nor unsanctioned. Moreover, it would seem that they are more than simply the eyes and ears of the church; in truth, the atrocities they have committed have been ordered by the church. As well, they have been sent to interfere with and undermine the sovereignty of those nations the church wishes to subjugate, by sowing discord and discontent, by corrupting and misleading the gullible, and by enslaving the minds of the vulnerable and credulous.
'I have been informed also,' he continued in a lower voice, 'that the Order of Monastics, as they style themselves, are a caste of brainwashed fanatics, that they are the church's most potent weapon. It is difficult for the average person to doubt one who is absolutely convinced in his own
beliefs, whether his beliefs are with or without foundation. There is the unfortunate tendency in
many or most people to equate certainty with truth. And don't smile! I do not think you as yet
appreciate the danger, should these dangerous fanatics succeed. I tell you, Ander, it is their intent
to subjugate the world! And they are succeeding!
He sighed. 'We know all too little about the lands occupied by the monastic's mother church. But they are vast, Ander! They have conquered many countries, and have subjugated their armies, which are now their armies. And now they have turned their minds north and west to the coastal countries. Talimar fell in a matter of weeks. Otar is sorely beset, and forced to retreat, despite inflicting bitter losses upon their enemy. When Otar falls- and it will fall- Udin will be crushed. When that happens, we will be the next to feel the axe upon our necks.'
Ander was silent for several moments, thinking. At last, he muttered, 'If what you say is so, then we should be raising an army . . . but no, that would be foolish. Fighting a war in southern climes would be suicide. It is not what we know. It would be better . . .' he raised an eyebrow at the inescapable revelation.
'Aye, I can see that you've arrived at the same conclusion as myself,' captain Danver said. 'Meet them on our own ground, and on our own terms.'
'But what of our neighbours to the south?' Ander said.
Danver gave him a measuring look. 'We have but two choices. Abandon or evacuate them. All of them; every last man, woman and child.'
'But they would not survive!' Ander protested. 'They know not how to survive in the North! Even were we to help them, our resources would be quickly and dangerously depleted!'
'That would be true, of course,' Danver said, 'at least in the beginning. But they would soon learn. Besides,' he said, his eyes hard, 'I doubt very much that the monastics' Mother Church will find the North to their liking. For a while, a year at least, they would be confined to the most southerly edge of the polar ice sheet, where we could easily deal with them. Over time, of course, their numbers and experience would increase. But by then, our southerly neighbours would be hardened, trained, and self-sufficient.' His grin was like the blade of a scimitar. 'And we could simply lead the Mother Church into areas of the north that are far more deadly, pitiless and uncompromising than they could ever hope to be.'
Ander, however, wasn't so certain.
'These monastics . . .' he muttered. 'The worst accounts, that until now I had given no credence to . . . there are claims that they have conquered many countries, heedless of their losses, and are single-minded in their pursuit of conquest. No one seems to know from whence they originated on their perverse road of invasiveness and murder, but these same tales claim that they have adapted themselves to untold climes, forest, desert, mountain, sea, jungle, and the stars know what else.' He sighed, his gaze locked in the elsewhere vision of his thoughts like a sighted man questioning his ability to see. 'Will the North fall too, I wonder?'