Another sleepless night. Often the creaks and groans of the Deep's Glory or the constant pulsing splash of the sea buried the soft pitter-patter of feet. But sometimes, when the pendulum lurching of the ship kept Liam awake with queasiness, he saw the flicker of a shadow beneath the door as a figured past the candle in the hall, and he knew Claire was up again. When Liam had first noticed Claire slipping out of bed, he had followed behind her, up the stairs to the stern of the ship. She had not talked about it then, though, only about memories of the past, or dreams of the future. She seemed to prefer the isolation, so after a while Liam left her alone. But still he noticed.
Tonight when he noticed Claire's flicker as she blocked the light of the lamp, something moved him to follow. It had been a month since they had shared their last nighttime talk, which really had consisted of less than ten words between them. The seclusion was gnawing at Liam, and Claire's silence and solemn reservation were not something he was used to. So he dropped from his bunk and pulled the door open silently. He peeked around the corner, just in time to see Claire's feet disappear up the stairs, and he made his way down the hall.
The night air was wet and cool and salty above deck. There was something about the sea at night that was unnerving to behold. Beyond the torches of the ship, the endless ocean was warmed only by the light of the stars, and the silver glow of the moon. All around darkness swallowed the horizon, leaving Liam ever wondering if they had come upon the edge of the world.
Tonight the moon was full above them, as it had been when Liam's sword slew Welch so very long ago. Liam shivered and walked up the ship to where Claire was looking into the dark beyond. The wind whipped at her face, and twirled her hair like golden ribbon behind her. She did not even turn to Liam as he came up beside her. Liam saw her eyes were closed as she stood with her hand on the prow. She was breathing in the night, her chest rising and falling steadily as she swallowed the salty sea air. "Claire?"
"I couldn't sleep," she said simply. It was enough to discourage Liam. Worry bit at him.
"When can you? Seems to me you're up more nights than you are abed."
Claire had nothing to say back to him. She was a stone. It was her impenetrability that was most difficult for Liam. He had worn at her like the sea, yet she did not budge, she did not give. When he had talked to Durant about it some weeks ago, the sayer's simple explanation had been that she has a lot on her mind. Surely the task of saving the world was no small burden. But the tension, and the shell she had built, frightened Liam more than any evil beast or Immortal king. Liam wanted the Claire he loved back; the smiling, bubblingly bright girl. She was his light in the tunnel, but now it seemed the warmth had gone, and only a cold, dim glow remained.
"Do you remember when we were children," Liam started to say, unsure of whether Claire would respond or if she was even paying attention, "the year of the dry summer, when it didn't rain for months on end? The year the drought was so bad, the corn was small and shriveled, and its leaves were like razors?"
"I remember. The year of the great fire."
At least she was listening to him tonight.
"That's the year. The great fire engulfed the forest to the southeast, and the fields as well, and by the time the flames were extinguished nothing was left but soot. I remember walking among the ashes, hundreds of people wandering with wide eyes and open mouths. It was so quiet in the wake of that devastation. All any of us could see was destruction, a mass graveyard for thousand-year-old trees, and shrubs, and flowers, and all sorts of creatures. But then you stood in the midst of us, among those much older than we were, and you said to us, 'There's not much left now. But now the young plants can grow up like their fathers, and one day there will be a whole new generation of beauty.' You could see the beauty, Claire. You could see the good. You've always been able to see the good."
Claire looked into the horizon, averting her gaze from Liam. "That fire destroyed the forest, and the livelihood of a hundred farmers." Liam could hear the tremble in her voice, and he could tell she was close to tears. She shivered. "It's cold out here. I'm going inside."
Before she could move, Liam reached across her back and set his hand on her shoulder. He pulled her closer to his side, where warmth radiated from beneath his clothes. Nothing came from Claire. She was stiff, and as cold as stone. Slowly she loosened up, and she laid her head on his shoulder. Then she began to cry. Liam held her tighter as her tears streamed warm from her face and splashed on the deck below, to be lost among the droplets of the sea. She cried in silence, save for the occasional hiccup, and she cried for a long time. Liam did not know whether to be glad he had broken through the stone, or sad he had reached the dammed emotion beyond. He was a bit of both. For now, he held Claire tight, knowing tomorrow they would arrive make port.
The seaside city of Bronwall was one of three charted settlements in the far north. The rest of the continent was harsh, barren, and deserted. Each of the cities sat between two seas: to the south an ocean of water, and to the north of snow. The stories said the cities were little more than a few hovels of snow built close around a fire. The land beyond belonged to the wolves, and that was exactly where they were headed. The thought sent a shiver down Liam's spine.
He took consolation in the knowledge that Bronwall meant civilization, however meager it may be. Liam felt as if they had sailed right away from the rest of the world. It had been three months since the Deep's Glory had set sail. Three long months of seclusion, greeting the same faces each day. From the outside world there came no word, no stories, no updates. Even messenger pigeons could not find their way to a vessel at sea. They had crossed paths with a merchant vessel of the coast of Farost nearly a month back, but they had seemed more interested in selling supplies than relaying information. Liam looked forward to the brief oasis of society in this desert of seclusion.
The breath of the ocean had thoroughly soaked through Liam's trousers by the time he and Claire retired to the dry rooms below deck. Liam walked Claire to her door and bade her goodnight.
"Sleep well, Liam," was her response, before disappearing into her room. Liam slipped through the doorway to his own room, where Durant and Evlein snored softly. Liam flung his soaking pants into the corner and climbed into his bunk. He ran his fingers through his wet hair. It had grown down to his shoulders during the voyage. The tossing and turning of the ship rocked him into an uneasy sleep, a sleep full of fret and worry.
Morning came far too soon, to the song of the crow's nest. "Land-ho!" It went, bringing Liam from his uneasy slumber. By the time he had dropped out of bed and put on some clothes, Durant and Evlein had already deserted the chamber. Liam dragged himself above deck, still rubbing the sleep from his eyes. The morning sun peeked a cold yellow above the sea, blue as ice. On the horizon the land of frost and snow ran white and jagged.
Liam shivered as the cold breeze whipped through his trousers and thin linen shirt. The air seemed colder than it had last night; it chilled Liam's throat as he drank it the sharp morning breeze. He shoved his hands into his pockets as he stood beside his companions. Evlein and Risa squinted as Durant surveyed the horizon with his looking glass. Claire looked with eyes that did not care to see. The captain came up behind them and looked on with them. "Best start collecting your things," he said to them as the shore slowly came up on them. "We'll be docking soon enough."
Liam packed his meager possessions into a sturdy wool cloth and slung it over his shoulder. It held Liam's extra pair of clothes and his lucky dice. He tied the pack shut with a hempen rope and knotted it so he could wear it off his back. Liam donned a warm fur coat the King had given the Ridgewood Five as a parting gift, and pulled on gloves and boots to match. Durant was taking his time deliberately positioning his possessions with care and precision, while Evlein was trying to fit all his books into one bag. The young magicker had spent the better part of the voyage with his nose in musty old pages. They both threw on their furs, gave the tiny room one more sweeping look, and they started back into the hallway. The captain awaited them with Risa and Claire. They wore heavy furs and thick boots. "The rest of your belongings are in the cargohold and will be unloaded within the hour." They ascended the wooden stair as the captain talked. "I must recommend you head out with all speed. The days in the far north are short, and the nights are long and brutal."
"We shall start off as soon as we know where we are going," Durant said. "We've no inkling of where in the great icy north we might find the Dwarven halls."
"When we needed to find the Giants, they grew a huge white tree to guide our way," Evlein chimed in. "It doesn't look like there's anything on the horizon but snow and hills and more snow."
Bronwalls' harbor was far too small to dock the Deep's Glory, so the ship dropped anchor some distance from shore and the Ridgewood Five was lowered into the sea in a small wooden rowboat. The stories of the city had painted a vivid picture in Liam's mind, and the true Bronwall was not far off. The city, or so it was called (it was little more than a fishing village, in reality) sat beside a small forest of pine trees. The docks were of wood, as was the hall in the center of town, but all other structures were built from ice and snow, as if they had risen from the very ground. Liam could feel eyes boring into him as the rowboat sloshed ashore. As the rowboat was paddled back to the Deep's Glory and the Ridgewood Five walked to the docks, they passed townsfolk who leered from beneath their ragged hoods and fur cloaks. Everyone seemed to hunch and huddle, as if to keep the warm from leaving them. People here looked smaller.
As the ship was being unloaded, the captain came ashore and pointed them to the wooden building Liam had seen coming ashore. It stuck out like a sore thumb against the grey sky, and it was one of the few structures in Bronwall that was taller than Durant. "If you're to get any help from around here, you're like to find it at the town center. These northerners keep their own council, with chosen officials and public meetings and such. You'd be best to remember than Bronwall is a city state, independent of any king or kingdom, so they've no loyalties to take into consideration. All I can do is wish you luck."
They walked through the city, and Liam had not taken three steps before snow had soaked through his boots and stockings. He would need to find new boots, he realized. The ice water clung to his skin and made him shiver from the feet up.
It did not take them long to walk across Bronwall. The town hall looked even smaller up close than it had at a distance. It would have been no larger than a small chapel in Braime, but here in the far north it may as well have been a palace. They walked through a thatched door and were hit with a wave of heat. In the center of the hall, a roaring fire devoured itself in a great pit. Around the fire five men and two women sat legs crossed on the ground. It was hard to tell the two genders apart; the men's hair grew all down their backs, and the women's grew so unkempt that the manes were easily mistaken for beards. They all wore thick furs.
"The southern strangers have arrived from their southern lands," said one man, whose hair was mostly grey.
"They strut into our halls as if it is their own," one of the women spat. "Their arrogance stinks of Braime."
"Does Dashala speak truly, southern strangers?" The man asked again. "We have hosted many explorers from the kingdom of Braime, seeking the ancient mysteries and treasures the far north is said to hold. None have ever returned. Have you too come to throw away your lives in the pursuit of golden halls and ancient legends?"
Durant stepped forward and bowed to the council of northerners. "It is true we hail from Braime, sir. We are indeed strangers in a strange land, one to us that seems hostile and foreboding, and we have come to your council of duly elected officials to ask for your assistance."
Dashala leaned forward, her eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Why have you come, southerners? Would you ask us in which direction you should go to meet your death? Or have you come to request supplies and mounts, to be taken into the great white waste and never seen again?"
"Both, madame. It is not personal fortune we seek, nor fame nor glory. We have come at the behest of the Immortals, to convene with the Dwarves."
"The Immortals? Who are the Immortals, and what makes you think they have survived in the north any better than men?"
"The Immortals are southern gods, Dashala," the man explained. "This man is a servant of his southern gods. The Dwarves he seeks are the men who hide in their halls."
A growl swept over the council. Durant was taken aback, and Evlein looked on with wide eyes, suddenly full of worry. Dashala hissed in their direction. "These southerners disembarked their boat and come to us, with questions of how to find their selfish gods, and they expect help freely? They have the wits of true southerners, and the vanity of the Bremish."
"We northerners have no love for your Dwarves, I fear," the man explained. "They sit in their halls, supping on a feast that never ends beside a fire that never dies, while we shiver in the cold and struggled just to keep full stomachs."
"It pains me to hear of your suffering," Durant sympathized. "If you will not make a gift of your assistance, we have gold to compensate you with."
"We are a practical people, you Bremish priest," Dashala said. Her stare was every bit as cold as the rest of the far north. "We've no desire for your trinkets and shiny things."
"What can I offer you then, that you would help us in our quest?"
"There's naught you can offer us that we would say yes to."
The man said nothing, instead fingering his beard as he eyed Liam and the rest. His eyes seemed to crawl across Liam's skin like spiders. They saw through him as if he was made of glass. It was impossible to discern the man's emotion from beneath his mess of facial hair. "I would not be so hasty to cast these five back into the cold," he said softly. "There is much to be gained from brokering a deal with them."
"A deal? Has your grey old head finally lost its wits, Ribald?" Rashala squealed.
"Your hatred for the hall-dwellers has blinded you from what could be," The man named Ribald turned back to the Five. Even from beneath his beard, Liam could see the curve of a smile. "You must forgive my daughter, honored guests. She is so very much like I was in my youth: hot-headed, rash, and sometimes a bit harsh. If you can chisel down her icy exterior, you will find a fiery heart beneath."
Rashala's cheeks burned as red as any fiery heart might. "Ribald, I would not have you speak in such a manner in front of these strangers."
The old man ignored his daughter, and continued speaking. "There is little known of these Dwarves you seek, other than they keep to themselves in their golden halls behind enormous locked doors. I might tell you where to find them, but I would need you to make me a promise first."
"Anything," Durant said, and Liam cringed. He never liked owing people things.
"If you should come upon your Dwarves, and they should welcome you into their halls, and invite you to feast with them, and you should succeed in your quest, I would have you ask one favor of these Immortals. You must plead them to open their halls to their lesser brothers in the north, to eat and be warm for a while. You must ask them to spread their warmth across the icy plateaus of the north, so we might live easy in the land of our ancestors. I would have you promise this."
For a while the only conversation came from the fire, who crackled and snapped madly among the silence. The Immortals were not ones to interfere lightly in mortal affairs, that much was known by all five of the southerners in the room. The Dwarves would never consent to sharing with the likes of barbarians. Even in the legends of the Tome, the Dwarves were the greediest of the Immortals, and so they had hidden beneath the earth where the Angels of the heavens and the Giants of the surface could not steal their Dwarven treasures. Everything the Ridgewood Five knew, they had drawn from the Tome.
Finally Father Durant broke the silence. "…I will ask them as much. I will kneel and ask them to grant you their divine mercy, that they might share their food and fires with you."
But it won't do any good, more like than not, Liam thought. Durant's promise seemed enough to please Ribald, however. "It warms my heart to hear it. The halls you seek are located at the top of the world. Leave Bronwall and go north, until you can go no farther. Then you will find your Dwarves, and you will speak on our behalf." This brought a guttural shout of approval from the rest of the council. Durant bowed deeply.
"Thank you, Ribald. Your kindness will not be forgotten." If Liam had thought that their cue to leave, he was mistaken. The rest of the council must have shared the thought, because they went into private conversation amongst one another after Durant had finished speaking. After a moment, Rashala noticed they still stood before the fire.
"Is there more you would take from us?" She seethed.
"We need mounts, milady," Durant said boldly.
"I'm no 'milady'," Rashala snorted. A few of the council members chuckled. "And you shall have no mounts. It is a week-long journey to the top of the world, and there are few in history who have made it and returned to tell the tale. Bronwall will not waste her mounts of people she does not trust on a quest that makes no difference to her."
"But if Claire doesn't make it to the Immortals, darkness will devour the world!" Evlein said. A round of bawdy laughter burst forth from the council. It seemed Rashala and her father were the only ones who did not chuckle.
"Every night, darkness devours our world, little southern boy. And every winter, darkness takes these lands in an eternal grip. The folk of Bronwall go months without seeing the light of day. Darkness doesn't worry us, boy."
"We have supplies to trade," Durant said suddenly. All eyes fell on him. "We came north on a voyage chartered with the King of Braime himself. Aboard the Deep's Glory there are enough supplies to feed an army for three months. Food, water, clothes, medicines, all conveniently packed. We would take what we need for two week's journey, and the rest would belong to the people of Bronwall. You can breed more mounts, but an opportunity like this cannot be reproduced."
Liam could not believe his ears. The supplies aboard the Deep's Glory were for the Ridgewood Five, so that they could survive in the harsh wasteland of the north. Mounts would make no matter if everyone starved or froze to death before they reached the Dwarves. From their expressions, Evlein and Risa had similar concerns. Claire looked to the council with a stoic face, awaiting their response. Liam's eyes darted to Rashala.
Her father addressed his guests and the council. "I do not object to this proposal. If any one of you would protest, speak your concerns now." It seemed everyone was waiting for Rashala to say something. But she only sat and stroked her chin, very much like her father did, only she was missing the beard.
"If we give you mounts, we are like never to see them again. They will freeze with you, and their lives and their meat and their strength will be wasted to the snow. But your offer tempts me, and my thoughts are for my people and their well-being. Your offer is agreeable."
Durant let out a sigh of relief and Liam felt the tension dissipate.
"We shall have our supplies first, to see you commit no treachery," Rashala warned them.
"I will have the captain of our vessel deliver the supplies here immediately," Durant said with another bow.
"Good. I will send word to the stablemaster you are to have mounts to ride upon. Make your way there as fast as your feet will carry you. The day is spent, and night falls quickly in the north."
They found the captain waiting for them outside the hall, leaning against the sturdy wooden wall breathing warmth into his hands. He told them he hoped the conversation had gone well, and Durant explained to him the deal he had brokered. The captain frowned. "Those supplies were yours to do with what you would, but a week's worth of supplies should hardly get you to the top of the world. If you were to lose yourselves in the white wastes, even for a few days…"
"We will count on the good will of the Immortals to guide us to the Dwarven halls and back safe and supplied."
"Without food and aid to keep them safe, I will not be able to send guards to escort you," the captain warned. Durant nodded.
"Travelling the far north with an escort was never our plan, nor was it our fate," Durant said with confidence. "It must be the Ridgewood Five to bring Claire to the Dwarves, no more. I confess, if I had it my way, the boys would still be back in Ridgewood."
"I will have the supplies unloaded immediately," the captain said. "You should go now, to the stables, so you can be off while the sun still shines ahead. We shall wait here for three weeks, but no more. If you are not back by that time, we must assume you…," the captain trailed off with some uncertainty as they turned to leave. He looked at Claire. "This may be the last time we speak. I can only pray that the Immortals will see you through this safe and sound, so that you may sail again with me some day."
With that he was off to the harbor, and they were off to the stables. The stables were not open like in Braime; it was a wide building of wood like the town hall, only it was wider and was not as tall. To enter they slid a heavy door to the side and stepped into the musty warmth of the musty warmth. The place smelled like animal hair and wood and feed and fire. The most peculiar animals Liam had ever seen trodded about in small rectangular corrals. They were great bundles of hair, with small horns on their large heads and thick legs that ended at broad, padded feet. "They're called ison." A squat stable boy waddled over to them with a grin on his face. "You're not the first southerners to gape at them. Steeds of the north, folk from your land tend to call them, but they're more than that. Your bloody steeds wouldn't last a day in the snow and cold we've got up here. They've got four bellies, and once they've eaten their full they can go weeks eating naught but snowflakes."
"They're fascinating!" Evlein raved. They were quite the sight, Liam agreed.
"The council sent someone over saying I was to give you three of them. I don't know how you convinced the council to give you southerners our ison, but I'll most like never see them again."
"Three? We're going to have to ride double."
"Doesn't matter one bit to me how you ride," the stable boy said. He brought three of the ison from their stalls and led them outside. The Ridgewood Five followed him into the frosty sunlight. Evlein and Risa mounted the largest of the three ison, and Durant took the smallest, leaving Claire and Liam to share the remaining ison. "Bloody waste of three strong animals…" the stable boy was muttering as the Five rode off on their ison back toward the docks. Liam held the reins at the front of the ison while Claire held onto Liam from behind. The creature's strut was much heavier than a horse's, and it swayed back and forth enough that Liam was worried he may fall right off its back.
The first mate was waiting at the dock with their supplies. Compared to the crates that had been unloaded from the Deep's Glory, the half dozen sacks that awaited them seemed pitiful and hopelessly inadequate. Nonetheless, the Five slung the packs across the isons' backs, and prepared to step into the snowy beyond. Together they waved goodbye to the crew who had come aboard. Most of the shiphands looked as if they were waving their final farewell. They seemed sure the Ridgewood Five was headed toward certain death. Part of Liam could not help but agree with them.
Together they reared their mounts and started off through Bronwall. They passed the small snow houses and met but a few faces, as cold and hard as the ice around them. The structures became fewer as they neared the edge of town, and soon there was nothing but snow to either side. A desert of wild snow and whipping wind engulfed them as they took their first steps into the desert of the far north. Liam squinted to keep the biting gusts from his eyes, and Claire tightened her grip around him to keep from falling off the ison. Liam pulled his hood over his ears to keep the cold nip of frostbite at bay. There was no path before them as they trudged through the snow. They had only Durant's brass compass to tell them they were going north. The sun was hidden behind a sky of grey. Behind them a wall of white veiled the horizon.
The ison seemed to have very little problem navigating the slippery ice and deep drifts of snow they crossed. They meandered along at a steady pace, the harsh gusts of wind never seeming to bother them. Soon enough time was as lost to Liam as the feeling in his toes. In an attempt to keep his fingers from freezing, he curled and flexed them every few minutes. His digits quickly stiffened anyhow, and every time he pulled them from the reins they ached with a warm pain.
Minutes in the snow turned to hours, and the hours passed like the white flakes on the wind. Time blended into a cold grey mess, and Liam could not say whether it was still morning or if it had passed into afternoon. The only thing Liam was sure of was that his nose was about to freeze right off.
Night fell quickly in the far north. One moment Liam was looking above his head at the grey light that came from the clouds above, and then the sun was gone and they were walking through a frosty desert of darkness. The night was as black as pitch. Liam could hardly see five steps ahead of him. If it hadn't been so cold Liam may had been lulled to sleep by the rock of the ison's stride. The temperature seemed to have fallen with the sun. His very bones were chilled.
"When do we stop to make camp?" Liam yelled. He found his teeth chattering as he opened his mouth. His words were carried off with the wind. Liam shouted again, and this time Durant shook his head.
"We don't stop," Liam heard him say over the squall. "We can't build a fire with nothing, and if we stop in the night we'll freeze to death. Sleep while you ride."
Liam shut his eyes as the night passed, but he could not sleep. He was too busy shivering. Looking to Evlein and Risa atop their ison, he could see they were in a similar situation. Evlein nearly fell off the creature a few times. They both looked miserable. Durant's eyes were forward, squinting away from the biting breeze. Finally Liam shouted to the sayer. "Durant, we have to stop. We won't be able to sleep like this."
Father Durant looked at the miserable faces all about him, then nodded in resignation. They dismounted and found themselves knee-deep in snow. "We'll have to dig out somewhere to sleep," Durant said. "To keep us warm and safe from the wind. Everyone help out; it will get your blood pumping."
Liam knelt beside Durant, Risa and Claire to carve out of the snow somewhere to sleep. Liam scooped handfuls of snow with his thick fur gloves and flung it away, only to find it replaced by more snow brought on the gusts. Evlein leapt to his feet beside Liam. "Why didn't I think of it before!"
Evlein raised his hands and began to whisper in that ancient language of the Immortals. The snow began to twist and writhe before them, and when Evlein flicked his wrist a large mound of snow twirled and packed together. The young magicker made a motion like he was pulling a large chain, and a doorway carved itself out of the mound. After a few flourishes of the hands and much muttering a large, inviting igloo stood before them. They cheered and climbed into the snow structure one by one. The entryway was just large enough to fit Durant, and the area inside was small and cozy. The Ridgewood Five wasted little time unrolling their heavy blankets and huddling together for warmth.
Outside the wind beat against the wall of the snow-house. From time to time an ison roared.
"They'll be fine," Risa said when Claire asked if they would be alright in the cold. "This is their natural climate."
It sounded to Liam like it made good sense, so, tight between Evlein and Claire, he drifted off into a cold, cramped sleep.