The Northerner: I

On a ridge overlooking the sea, high above the cobbled streets and shuttered windows of the port city of Sabestello, loomed the ochre walls of Albasol Castle. The castle was neither large nor fortified by Izben standards, but the arched dome of its central chapel held its own sort of grandeur; a pious reverence that captured the minds of even the least godly of men. On evenings when the sun shone red across the waters of Deep Harbor the castle's sandstone walls would sink to a ruddy orange while the chapel roof, raised high above the curtain walls, would gleam like a golden flame reaching high into the darkening sky.

On this night, however, Kerim Ragvaldsen could see little of the sandstone castle. The night was still young and the waning crescent moon had yet to fully rise into the darkened sky, framing Albasol Castle as little more than a silhouette far in the distance.

The early autumn wind cut through the cobbled streets around him, rattling shutters as it wailed its keening dirge for those who would listen. With a slight shudder, Kerim pulled his velvet lined, sheepskin cloak more tightly around his shoulders. It was unseasonably cold, and the frigid blusters chilled the young man to the bone and set his loose brown locks dancing before his eyes.

Thick walled, sand colored buildings surrounded him. Some had second levels with balconies, some, third levels, but the majority of the buildings were squat, drab things made with clay and sandstone. Wooden shutters normally opened wide to admit the gentle sea breezes were closed and barred against the chill, and only the hardiest of city goers still ventured the streets as the lamp lighters battled against the vagrant gusts. A storm was coming, every local of Sabestello knew, the first of the autumn gales.

They get worse every year, Kerim thought gloomily as he looked out across Deep Harbor. Far out to sea, a roiling cloud bank could be seen, illuminated as it was by flashes of intra-cloud lightning and the occasional bolt that ventured down to strike the surface of the water. Beneath him, his tawny palfrey whickered and sidestepped nervously as the booming sound of thunder hit the shore. Kerim tugged at the horse's reins, bringing the beast to heel and setting it off at a gentle canter up the cobbles.

The clip-clop of the horse's steel shod hooves echoed eerily off the walls in accordance with the peeling claps of thunder that shook the gates and shutters with increasing frequency and intensity. Cursing the weather, Kerim kicked his steed into a trot as he made his way towards Sabestello's Eastern gate. He did not have far to go.

After only a few lazy curves of the narrow lane, Kerim reined in his palfrey on the edge of a large square. Across from him rose the outer wall of Sabestello, parted in the center by a wooden gate large enough for five men to walk abreast. Though less impressive than the curtain walls of Albasol castle, the outer wall of Sabestello still stood close to twenty paces high, and its gates, though lacking iron, were reinforced with heavy oaken timbers as thick as a man's thigh. It marked the edge of the port city's expansion, and more importantly to Kerim, the edge of Duke Primo Valerio di Pietro's authority.

A soldier bearing a tabard with the golden sun of Albasol leaned heavily on his pollaxe before the gate. His shadow flickered from the oil lamps burning brightly on either side of the gate and it stretched out towards Kerim across the courtyard. Atop the wall, the bobbing light of a torch marked a second Albasol soldier as he made his nightly rounds.

Kerim watched them carefully from the safety of the darkness that ringed the courtyard. Neither seemed likely to cause hindrance.

From behind him came the clatter of wooden wheels and he turned in his saddle to watch a handcart emerge out of the murky darkness. The cart was pulled by two bulky northerners. Each man's breath rose through the night air in a cloud of steam before him as the two labored their burden up the cobbled street. As the two men drew even with Kerim they allowed the cart to come to a halt and lowered the forward yoke to the ground.

The larger of the two, Dalibrat by name, arched his back and rolled his shoulders as he worked through the heavy knots therein.

"Ye'dravi, Kerim," Dalibrat grunted, using the traditional Galvik greeting, "how went your business this eve?"

"Ye'dravi, Dalibrat," Kerim nodded to the big man, then to his companion, "ye'dravi, Imritj. Business was well."

Leaning back so as to view the interior of the cart, Kerim nodded at the large bundle of sand colored canvas which hung haphazardly out of the back.

"It would seem that yours went equally well."

Dalibrat grunted again and reached down for the cart's handled yoke once more.

Kerim frowned at the northerner's casual dismissal, but he wisely held his tongue. Dalibrat would never dare to dismiss him so easily if his father, Ragvald, were present. Crime lord was perhaps too strong a word to describe his father; man of fortune was how Kerim would have dubbed him. Either way, no one showed disrespect to Ragvald, not even his enemies, but Kerim had not yet earned that level of veneration. He longed for the day.

"Kerim," his father loved to say, "respect is not a gift to be given; it must be earned."

Earned. He gave an inward, lamenting sigh. Yes, he longed for the respect his father garnered, but the means by which Ragvald and the rest of the Clan secured their level of infamy chafed against his sense of morality. Was he weaker than them? Unable to face the harsh realities of life? Perhaps so.

Those who had traveled south with his father those long years before had been raised in the frigid, unforgiving lands of the far north where the slightest signs of a weak spirit meant a slow and painful death. Yet even the Southrons his father employed seemed to be able to tolerate the brutality called for by their line of work. In fact, some of the olive skinned Southerners seemed to relish the violence far more than the clansmen who shared Kerim's ancestral blood.

It had long been a point of contention between his father and him, and he often questioned how far he was willing to go to win his father's love. Or was he winning the man's respect? Often the lines blurred. Tonight, though, pushed the boundaries of the extent of Kerim's willing involvement.

"Kerim," Dalibrat's heavy northern accent emphasized the irritation in his voice, "are you going to handle the gate or not?"

Startled, Kerim looked up to see that the soldier atop the wall had nearly reached the end of his patrol far off down the barricade, well out of earshot of the Eastern gate. You will earn no respect without focus, he chided himself as he shook the last of his speculations from his mind.

With a sigh that was drowned out by a particularly loud peel of thunder, Kerim slid off his horse and led it out into the courtyard by the reins. He gave a low whistle as he reached the center of the courtyard. Across the way, the slouched soldier straightened and a matching whistle wafted back to Kerim, scarcely audible over the growing gale. He grinned and picked up his pace.

From inside of a small coin pouch at his waist he withdrew three silver coins – scales, they were called – and held them tightly in the gloved palm of his hand, held in place by one curled finger. The price of silence in Sabestello.

As he neared the gate he raised his coin-laden hand and hailed the man. "Greetings friend. It looks to be a long, cold night tonight. You look as if a brandy blanket would do you well."

"Aye," agreed the soldier, reaching out and clasping hands firmly with Kerim, "that it will be. But you know the laws, Ragvaldsen, no liquor within the city walls."

A spark of pride jumped involuntarily inside Kerim at the man's recognition, though it was tempered by the use of his surname. Galvik surnames took on the elongated form of the father figure's first name, marking each child by their patriarch. Still, the man had recognized him! Perhaps he was beginning to accumulate some degree of respect after all.

"And curses be upon the Primo and his white marble chair for that," Kerim said with what he thought was his best understanding smile.

As the two men released their grip, a flash of silver was left in the soldier's hand, though it quickly disappeared up the man's sleeve. Kerim silently congratulated himself on the subtlety of the exchange.

"My companions and I need pass through the gate, quietly, you'll understand," he continued, getting right to business.

The soldier nodded, he was familiar with the procedure. He gestured past Kerim into the courtyard. "These are the companions you speak of?"

Looking back Kerim watched as Dalibrat and Imritj hauled their cart through the center of the square. Both were strong men and the cart moved steadily, yet the muscles in each of their necks and shoulders bulged with the exertion.

"Aye," agreed Kerim, "those are they."

Stepping out from the wall, the soldier looked back and forth to ensure they remained undisturbed before hurrying over to the winch which lifted the great locking bar across the back of the gate.

Kerim thanked the northern Gods of his father's people that the ruckus of the great gate opening was drowned out by the still swelling storm. The winch moved painfully slow and he couldn't stop himself from looking up and down the square. Someone had to have heard, hadn't they?

Though time seemed to crawl, the soldier had the gate mostly open before Dalibrat and Imritj reached them. The two northerners didn't pause for pleasantries in their task but continued to haul their burden through the now ajar gate.

As the cart passed through the partially open, oaken doors of the gate one of the wheels clipped the edge and jostled the cart to the side. From within the bundle of canvas a low, agonized moan was heard. The canvas, too, jerked feebly, looking for all the world like a giant moth straining to burst from its cocoon at the end of a tenday.

Kerim scowled and glanced at the soldier, only to find the man returning his glance with a look both warning and questioning. The man had seen. Worse, the man had heard. Kerim's scowl deepened. The unforeseen costs of business.

Shrugging, Kerim clapped the man on the shoulder. "The night is cold, come to Northern Hospitality once you are relieved. You will find a golden shield worth of credit waiting for you there."

Reaching in to his coin purse once more he withdrew another silver scale and slapped it into the gawking soldier's palm. "For your trouble."

Another moan sounded from the tunnel that crossed beneath the wall, drawing both of their attention as it echoed up the stone passage. Kerim sighed again and prayed for patience.

Frowning, he pulled another coin forth and added it to the first. "You will also have a free fuck, all on the generosity of Kerim Ragvaldsen."

The man glanced about nervously once more before looking down at the two extra coins clutched in his gloved hand and nodding his thanks. "You have my gratitude for your generosity, but Ragvaldsen, this will not blow back to me, right?"

"Let us hope not."

The man did not seem comforted. "Truly, this cannot come back. Duke Primo has been most displeased with the corruption among the ranks; I would lose more than just my pay for this. Please, tell your father."

Kerim frowned; Duke Primo Valerio di Pietro had been a thorn in his father's side since he had returned from his pilgrimage to The Cradle nearly three years ago. Whisper enough holy words in a man's ear and he thinks himself a saint. Corruption had always been a part of the military, it was part of how the blasted thing ran and the only thing keeping the men satisfied with their meager pay.

It had been Duke Primo who banned whores and liquors from within the city proper, not that Ragvald had particularly minded that display of piety; it had made the old northerner rich.

Kerim nodded and shook the man's hand once more. "I will. Now I must be gone from this place, or we may both yet end up swinging from chains above Deep Harbor."

Taking his horse by the reins once more, Kerim followed Dalibrat and Imritj through the gated passage at a light jog. The horse's steel-shod hooves echoed painfully loud around the short tunnel, overpowering the sound of another of Kerim's trademark sighs. He never enjoyed handling uncomfortable situations or people, they made him feel…well, they made him feel uncomfortable!

But Ragvald wanted him to take over the family business, no matter how mismatched and under-prepared he was. Blood was blood, after all. Kerim just wished he could just take over the whores and liquors; he was good at those and enjoyed them to boot. Maybe Dalibrat, or Haakon, or even Mannek could take over the rest.

Fucking and drinking. Both waited for him in copious quantities only a short ride away. Aahh, if only Ragvald could hold respect for that. Still, the thought of those not-too-distant comforts did wonders for Kerim's spirits.

A smile replaced the young Northerner's scowl and by the time he exited the tunnel on the outside of the city wall he was nearly skipping. He didn't mind the last mile ride back to the inn, not even when the ice cold rain began to fall.

Authors Note: Normally I write chapters that are between four and eight thousand words, but I find that people on this site are often intimidated by lengthy chapters like that (though most novels have chapters that long, it must be something about having it on paper). Because of that, I am going to try to break my story up into shorter, more time efficient chapters. Who knows, maybe it will inspire me to write faster also. Let me know if you guys think it works, or if you think you could handle the longer chapters.