The Bears of Abarask
Norik awoke on the cold deck of his small skiff to the sound of heavy rain drumming against the planks. The wind had dropped and a pale sun flickered behind the clouds, although it was barely two hours past midnight. He could not remember rain like this. Although he had known only fourteen summers in his short life, every one that he could remember had been dry and chilled. Normally the summer storms would bring no more than a few thin wisps of snow, a mild dusting on the impenetrable plateau of sea ice which hemmed in his narrow whaling grounds.
To the east, the barren, brown coastline of Gavask was a blur, but Norik knew that in such weather his village would be swamped. For generations his people had built their houses on stilts, lifting them clear of the clammy permafrost below. Today he imagined the seawater lapping at their thresholds and hoped that the aged poles would not disintegrate in the churning inundation.
He sat up and looked back at the smelly mass which still occupied most of the stern section of his compact craft. Wrapped in bloodied sailcloth, the whale calf had not moved since he stowed it there last night. He had stalked the pod for seven hours, deep into the illuminated night, and was almost collapsing with exhaustion when his chance had finally come. The whales had been confused by the proliferation of chunky ice slabs which had littered their feeding range this year. The calf had become separated and he had taken it with a lucky thrust of his bone spear. It had died almost instantly and had been small enough for him to hoik it aboard in one fluid movement.
Norik was mildly relieved to see his catch still neatly trussed where he had left it. It was not unknown in these waters for bears to follow the smaller whaling vessels and scavenge their catch while the hunters slept. But there had been fewer bears this year. They could no longer trust the ice. This heavy, vertical downpour would only hasten the melt. There was no wind to sail with. Norik gathered his sealskin cloak around his shoulders, lifted the wide hood, took to his feet and clasped the single oar, the polished, weatherworn antler of a gigantic elk mounted on a sturdy wooden stanchion at the stern, just aft of the freshly killed whale. He was only a few kilometers from the shore. He could paddle home in time for breakfast.
For an instant Norik registered a five-metre wall of ice suddenly forced up from the water to his right. He felt the deck beneath him tip over suddenly and watched in horror as his catch slid back into the water. The freezing ocean hit him full in the face as he floundered, struggling to release the bone clasp of his heavy cloak. Beneath the water he became calmer. He could see the dead whale bobbing on the surface in front of him. As the cloak fell away he kicked towards it, only to be knocked sideways as the disturbed ice sheet fell back to its horizontal orientation.
Norik felt himself choking on water and scrambled madly against the surface of the ice towards the pale daylight and the speckled membrane of the rain-pelted surface. He broke through and gasped deeply. He coughed, blew the water from his nose and gasped again. He could not see far beyond the level of the ice to which he clung, but the inverted triangular sail and mast of a raider ship was unmistakable. A crudely painted fox head sneered at him from the canvas. He cursed himself for not looking to the south. So intent on home had he been, on the welcome he might receive from a hungry and grateful family. He had forgotten to be wary of the warlord Argun who held Norik's village in thrall and whose henchmen came and went as they pleased.
Norik pushed away from the ice and swam to the floating whale. Looking around he spied his skiff, still upright a few metres away. He knew he had only minutes to get out of the water before his body surrendered to the cold. He gritted his teeth in grim determination and kicked to the boat.
The village was a stinking mire. Normally the raider would have been grounded on a solid beach thirty metres from the stilted huts. Now it was tethered to the largest of them like a bloated horse, rocking gently in the muddy water as the rain continued to pound it. Around twenty metres in length the raider was a swift, easily maneuverable sailcraft. Its broad flat deck could carry a small band of armed men with space below to sleep and stow plunder. The gunwales were low to allow warriors easy access on and off during an attack. The bow was tapered to a sharp point which allowed better progress through icy water while the stern was wide with a single porthole at the rear so the captain could look back with satisfaction on the smoking ruins of whatever hapless fishing village had last been visited.
Norik drew his skiff slowly alongside. Soaked and shivering he had torn away his outer clothes and rowed with all his strength in pursuit of the arrogant raider. He tied his boat up to the small length of stilt that poked above the encroaching sea, hefted the whale calf onto his shoulder and jumped to the doorstep. Within he could hear the sounds of voices arguing loudly. But he could already feel the warmth of the fire inside on his bare chest and that drove him. He shoved the door open, stepped in, cast the whale to the floor and sank to his knees in front of the roaring fireplace.
For a few moments the hall was silent but for the crackling flames and the persistent dripping of the rainwater from Norik's hair onto the wooden floor.
"My son!" It was a woman's voice, his mother. "He is cold, let me cover him."
"Wait!" A man's voice, one Norik did not recognize. "Vard, get him up. Let me have a look at him." Norik felt two strong hands grasp him by the shoulders and wrench him to his feet. He gasped, shivering a little still in his damp trousers, his long red hair clinging to his skin. He blacked out for a moment with the sudden blood rush, wobbled, reached out. He was aware that his mother was trying to reach him. Another man stepped in front of her and pushed her back.
"Get your filthy hands off her!" Norik heard his own voice. Felt himself striding forward, throwing off the grip of the big man who'd pulled him up and lashing out with his fist at the other. His hand connected with metal, a jagged helmet which flew off the man's head as he staggered backwards and collided with a table. The tabletop was just a board perched on two smaller stools. It sprung to a vertical position as the man's weight hit the end of and cracked him sharply on the back of the head. Several tankards of mead flew across the room, leaving a trail of their contents across the floor and Norik's back as he turned to face the big man. Something which felt like a tree trunk hit him in the stomach and he doubled over, winded, gasping for air. His knees gave way and he collapsed to the floor, curled up. Again he felt the fire, the comfort. He decided not to try and get up again for a while. The big man lifted a foot to kick him.
"Enough!" It was the voice of the first man who had spoken. "Woman, another mead, and one for your son. He will need it." Norik had been dimly aware of a man sitting at the table, richly clad, bearded with dark hair. "Vard, let him get his breath back then bring him to me. And throw this fool in the sea in the meantime."
The big man grunted. Two others lifted the body of the man Norik had punched and dragged him outside. There was a dull splash. Did I kill him? He's as good as dead now in any case. Norik slowly pushed himself back up onto his hands and knees and looked around. This was the long hall, the largest building in the village where the handful of families who eked out a living here came together to eat. The room was oblong, around six metres wide with rows of roughly hewn benches and cobbled together tables like the one which had just collapsed. There were few trees in this region, and furniture tended to be either salvaged flotsam or other items which no longer served their original purpose. In the centre of the room was a large fire pit fed with sods of peat. Above it the otherwise pitched roof of the hall curved into a wide, inverted funnel shape, a broad chimney which allowed the thick smoke to billow out into the rain outside.
Norik felt pain in his right hand. Looking down he saw blood, and realized that he had cut his hand punching the man. He also noticed that the fire was struggling. The peat must be damp. There was too much smoke and not enough heat. It would be a grim day. He wished he could have caught a bigger whale.
Most of the village elders were in the hall. His mother, his aunts and uncles and a few old fishermen sat huddled on some of the outer benches. A couple of fishwives were inspecting the whale calf, tutting silently but not daring yet to get to work on it. There were eight others with the richly dressed stranger. The two men who had disposed of their fallen comrade now stood by the door. The big man stood close to his master now, glaring at Norik through the visor of his helmet. The others sat close to the rich man, looking rather awkward now that their tabletop had collapsed.
To the rich man's left sat a very, very old-looking man with a straggly white beard and sightless white eyes, his head fixed forward with an expression of tired bemusement. Despite his age, he was heavily built, his bare arms wiry and knotted, covered in tattoos.
To the old man's left sat a dark-skinned warrior from the south, a foreigner, something Norik had never seen before in his life. He was powerfully built, half shrouded in animal skins and armour made of a thick grey leather which reminded Norik of walrus skin. There was a strange glass knife in his belt and a spear and wide shield leaning against his bench. His countenance was stern, as if he was becoming impatient with the farce which had just played out in front of him.
The man to the southerner's left seemed to find far more humour in the situation. He was also a foreigner, to Norik his skin was sallow and his eyes appeared to be in a permanent squint. His face was sharply pointed, outlined by a sharp black moustache and a neatly plaited beard which showed strands of grey. When he grinned his face became lined like a dried fruit, but he exuded energy and enthusiasm. He wore thick leather armour and a strangely curved bow was leaning against his stool.
Sitting close to this man's left, and sharing his amusement was a woman. Similarly garbed in leather and fur, her olive-skinned face was scarred with two isosceles triangles set side by side on her left cheek. Her black hair was shaved at the sides with the crown wound into long matted strands, tied together at the top and allowed to droop over the back and sides of her head. There were two long, vicious-looking knives strapped to her legs. Norik stared at her with intense curiosity for a moment, unsure whether to be entranced or terrified. She met his gaze, blew him a kiss then smiled broadly, revealing a row of sharpened teeth.
The final companion, to the woman's left, appeared to be asleep. He was a very heavily built northern warrior, even larger than the man called Vard who had punched Norik in the stomach. He was wrapped in fewer furs than the others, less bothered by the cold. His bare arms were like tree trunks and he wore spiked, metal bracelets on his wrists. There was a wolf-skin draped over his otherwise bare shoulders, the beast's stuffed head still hanging down on one side. His hair was long and yellow and matted, like his beard. He wore leather trousers and heavy fur boots. A large battleaxe rested against his body as he slept, snoring loudly and dribbling into his beard.
"Come here boy," said the rich man. "I have a proposition for you."
Norik stood up, wincing a little from the pain and exhaustion. His mother approached again, noticing the blood on his hand. She took it and started to wrap a cloth around it. He tried to brush her away but she was insistent this time. Feeling a little embarrassed he allowed her to bind the small cut as he took a seat in front of the rich man and his companions. One of his aunts brought a tray of mead for each of them except the sleeping northerner. The southern warrior looked at his in disgust and passed it to the old man beside him, who had already spilled his own tankard in a vain attempt to help himself.
"You nearly drowned me out there," complained Norik. "I almost lost my catch because of your carelessness." The rich man smiled at him.
"I must apologise, my ship's captain is not well equipped to navigate unexpected obstacles, hence my visit." He looked at the blind man beside him, who was now slurping his companion's unwanted mead with great enthusiasm. "Unfortunately it seems all the sailors of this village are away for the summer, hunting whales in the deep ocean. All but one that is." He held eye contact with Norik, a piercing, arrogant gaze which oozed defiance and entitlement. Norik realized that, beneath his black beard, the man was young, only a few years older than himself.
"You are not Argun, who are you? Who are you to command us?" Norik remembered the presence of the heavily armed strangers after the petulant outburst left his mouth.
"Argun is my father. I am Tirgun, his second son, Prince of Gavask. You and everyone in this village will do as I say." Norik wanted to talk back but thought better of it this time. Tirgun's imperious expression relaxed again and he smiled. "But let us not quarrel further. I did not come here to butcher old men and women. I need a good sailor and you have proven your worth in that respect beyond any doubt. If the men of this place are away then you will have to do. And I am sure that a lad like you will not hesitate to join in this adventure."
"Why do you need us? Aren't there already warriors who will join you?"
"Pledged to my older brother to a man, apart from Vard and three others, one of whom you just killed. None of them know one end of a ship from the other. Wollam here is the only sea captain I could find." He glanced again at the old man beside him, who now seemed to be coughing uncontrollably, having drunk his breakfast mead too quickly.
"What adventure?" Norik was suspicious but becoming curious. He was too young still to travel with the men on their long hunting voyages, but old enough to resent the fact.
"Have you heard tales of Abarask boy?"
"Only from old women when they want to scare the children. A frozen island, home to witches and evil spirits who live forever, surrounded by sheets of ice extending to every horizon. It doesn't exist."
"Fortunate for me that my father and older brother would agree with you. However, Ajeb here thinks differently, do you not?" Tirgun turned to the grinning bowman. Norik was surprised to hear that he could speak their language.
"I was in the city of Ezima a year ago," he began. "You will not know it, it is far to the south and east of here, in warmer, drier lands. Its people are very wise, they know much that has been forgotten, legends of past ages which you would think of as fanciful tales for children. They have written accounts of such things stored in the vaults of their observatory. Normally they are closely guarded, but every so often something slips out, some scrap of information which might bring a price to the right merchant or mercenary adventurer."
"Written accounts? Observatory? Information? What are you talking about?" Norik had seen or heard nothing of such things. If they were not concerned with survival at sea and the migratory patterns of whales they were of little use."
"Forgive me, I gave more detail than required. To get to the point, I encountered a merchant in the markets around Ezima who had obtained proof. A Topographer of the city with a weakness for the houses of pleasure, looking to clear his debts and buy the silence of those who might expose him, had traded precious evidence of some terrible weapon that his kinfolk had gone to great lengths to hide millennia ago."
"Houses of pleasure?" Norik had lost the thread after that mention. Ajeb chuckled.
"You're still a little young I think." He explained the important part again.
"So where is this weapon supposed to be?" asked Norik, once he had regained his focus.
"Deep beyond the edge of the ice wall, in a region where no man can survive for long or journey by sail or sledge. On a rocky island surrounded by sheets of ice extending to every horizon."
"Abarask! But how do we find it? How can we reach it if it is surrounded by ice?"
"Did you not notice the weather boy?" Tirgun interjected.
"Of course, and my name is Norik."
"Well, Norik, you will know then that this summer has been uncommonly warm and that the ice is melting. Ajeb has a chart which will allow us to sail to the secret island. It is only a week's sailing from here, and it is reachable for the first time in living memory."
"Why do you need this weapon?"
"My father is old, he will not see many more winters. Then my brother will become the Lord of Gavask and will not want to be troubled with any … competition. As the warriors of Gavask are loyal to my brother, it would suit me to be armed with something he does not have. Something which can remove him and allow me to assume the lordship. You should be proud to have the opportunity to aid your future lord in his ascendency."
"And that is when we get paid?" The southern warrior had spoken. Norik was amazed that he too had mastered the northern language.
"Indeed," said Tirgun. "Norik, I should introduce you to my other recruits. Ajeb here is an archer from the plains. He will name the rest for you."
"A more fearsome band of merciless killers has never been assembled in this frozen country," said the bowman. He gestured to the southerner who had spoken. "This is Imerk, a deadly spearman of the baboon-infested hills of Admacenia." He indicated the woman. "This is Mirenna of Balat, assassin, thief and poisoner. She has left a trail of stolen fortunes and murdered husbands across half the world." The woman winked at Norik then licked her lips, flashing once more her fearsome sharpened teeth. Ajeb turned to the sleeping northern giant. "And this is Geert, the mad axeman of Vigask." Norik gasped in recognition of the name.
"The raiders of Vigask are our enemies, a race of merciless, bloodthirsty killers. Why is he here?"
"It seems that Geert was unable to adhere to their ethical code and was regarded as unpredictably savage and destructive, even by their standards."
"Why is he asleep?"
"Mirenna spiked his brandy. It is always safer for him to be unconscious during negotiations."
"As you can see, we have the fighters to overcome any obstacles we might encounter, although I doubt we will find anything alive at Abarask," said Tirgun. "But we do require the services of at least one competent sailor. What do you say Norik?"
"You're all completely insane. Why should I come with you?"
"Because if you don't we will butcher everyone in your village in front of you then skin you alive and leave your flesh for the dogs."
"Fine. When do we leave?"
Almost blind as he was, Wollam possessed an uncanny ability to pilot the raider ship into the icy northern waters. Norik's job was to adjust the sails on Wollam's commands, and stand at the prow using the butt of his harpoon spear to fend off the large chunks of float ice. Typically Tirgun would stand behind him staring into the distance, his thick black furs wrapped around him and billowing in the biting wind. Wollam would stand at the keel, Ajeb at his side, whispering details from the precious chart. They tended to be most active during the brief hours of darkness when, during the breaks in the rain, undimmed starlight set out a series of skymarks which seemed almost tangible to the ancient sea captain. Tirgun's men and the other southerners tended to keep below deck, sheltering as best they could from the cold and relentless rain, although they all rushed onto the deck when Geert had first regained consciousness. Initally the giant had raged at Norik whom he did not recognize and had accused of betraying him back to his people in Vigask. Ajeb and Mirenna had managed to calm him down, although he had promised to eat Norik first in the event that they became stranded in the ice.
Ten days passed and Tirgun became impatient. He cursed Ajeb for leading them on a wild goose chase, and Wollam for being a blind incompetent. Norik explained that the ice was forcing them to go more slowly, at which Tirgun ordered Vard and his other two retainers to assist with their spear butts at the prow of the ship. This seemed to cause another layer of resentment from the brutish Vard and his henchmen, whose names were Boruk and Svark. They would barely speak to Norik and glared at him whenever he looked at them. The ship, an old and somewhat ropey raider called The Fox picked up its progress northward through the fractured ice. Daily sheets of dark rain obscured the pale sun and stirred the congested water. Norik was grateful for the stinking seal skins he'd inherited from his older cousin the previous spring. He seemed to fare better than Tirgun's henchmen for whom the endless vigil brought nothing but misery.
At sunrise on the eleventh day, after barely an hour's sleep, Norik crawled to the side of the ship to relieve himself and saw it. The first vertical feature he had seen in the endless mosaic of ice and water. A small, rocky mound elevated enough to peek over the horizon no more than a few more hours of laborious ice punting away. As the clouds cleared, sunlight danced across the mound in momentary bright speckles, as if the rocks had been deliberately cut and polished like antique gems. Ajeb yelled with excitement when he saw it and Tirgun commanded his men to work with all haste.
By mid morning they had pushed aside the last few blocks of ice calved from a glacier which had covered the northern ocean for a hundred thousand years. The Fox grounded itself gently on the stony beach of Abarask. Norik was exhausted but the mercenaries sprang from the ship with the alertness of hungry wolves. Imerk, Ajeb, Geert and Mirenna moved instinctively to four equidistant points around the prow, a carved wooden fox head which now gazed down at them from a height of four metres above the pebbles. They took semi squat positions, their weapons poised, scanning the gently rising hill which appeared to comprise the entire island. Vard leapt down next, flanked by Boruk and Svark. Tirgun dropped down behind them and strode forward with his retainers forming a protective triad around him.
Norik stretched out on the deck. Let them go and find their cursed weapons and give me some rest before we punt ourselves home for another week and a half.
"Boy, get down here!" Tirgun was calling, no longer bothering to remember Norik's name. He felt Wollam nudge him with his foot.
"Best get down there lad," he said. "You come this far in one piece. Be a shame to get the wrong side of him now. Here, take a swig of this. My own brandy. I never let that Balati bitch get near it." Norik drank from the pungent leather bottle that was pushed into his mouth. His throat felt on fire! Something rushed into his head and he felt alive and dizzy at the same time. He tried to speak but just coughed as his voice evaporated. Wollam chuckled and heaved him to his feet. He's a lot stronger than the old men in my village.
Norik scrabbled about the deck for his harpoon and jumped down onto the beach. The stones were infirm, water-logged. He sank almost to his knees as he landed. The others were advancing towards higher ground and he staggered after them. Ajeb ran ahead and began skirting the hill. After a few minutes he called to them.
"Over here, there are steps!"
Tirgun rushed forwards, his men scrambling to keep pace. He had drawn his sword. The three mercenaries stalked after them, constantly watching the landscape. Norik ambled along behind them all, leaning heavily on his harpoon in places to keep himself steady. Ajeb had paused at the foot of a winding stone stairway. It was weatherworn almost to the point of disappearing back into the natural rock from which it had been hewn. Only the artificial regularity of its strata betrayed its existence.
"I suggest we continue to circle the hill," said Ajeb. "There may be other paths and it would be better for us to be able to approach the summit from all directions at once than to leave an open escape path."
"Let the ghosts escape if they want to," said Tirgun. "I didn't come here to draw another map. Advance!" Ajeb exchanged glances with Imerk, who shook his head subtly. Ajeb raised his eyebrows for a second, then mounted the first step.
Although the rocks were still icy in places, the going was no great challenge for these hardened adventurers. Before long they reached what looked like man-made structures. Rows of sharply cut stone slabs aligned against earthen mounds, clustered close together on either side of the stairway. As the hill leveled out, the stairway itself soon became a winding path through the strange buildings. That was the point where the rain returned. The ground was already soft having been drenched for weeks. Now beneath a renewed onslaught their narrow path became a virtual river. Norik could feel the chill water beginning to soak through his boots. Within a few minutes they were up to their knees and struggling to make headway. Then Norik noticed the girl.
She stood perfectly still as if oblivious to the rain, on the grassy roof of one of the low buildings, a few metres to their left and down an even narrower channel between the structures. She looked young, a child hardly any older than Norik. She was thin, wearing a ragged grey robe which clung to her in the rain. Her skin was very pale, her hair a dull, yellowy white and her face seemed strange to Norik, as if it had been flattened a little. He turned to approach her, drawn by his curiosity. Vard noticed and waded after him through the mud, pulling Norik backwards with a large hand on his shoulder. The girl reacted suddenly, lifting her bare, twig-like arms and screaming something unrecognizable. Only then did Norik notice that her eyes were a pinkish red. Suddenly she crouched down then swung herself head first over the threshold of the structure on which she had been standing.
"Get her!" shouted Vard. Boruk and Svark barged past Norik and vanished into the building. Norik felt himself pulled backwards and toppled into the mud as Vard wrenched him out of the way. Tirgun tried to follow but Imerk's hand was on his arm, holding him back.
"Wait you fools!" called Ajeb. He had nocked an arrow to his bow and was about to shoot, but Vard had already disappeared into the darkened entrance. Tirgun moved again to follow but Imerk held him firm. He looked back at the warrior in fury but was met simply with an admonishing finger, commanding stillness.
"Torches," said Ajeb. Mirenna was already lighting an oiled rag wrapped around a thick piece of wood. This was no easy task in the heavy rain, but using her cloak as cover she succeeded. She passed the first torch to Imerk who sheltered it beneath his shield, then lit another which she gave to Geert and a third which she passed to Tirgun. Tirgun approached the entrance and called out for Vard in a slightly wavering voice. There was no response. Ajeb let loose an arrow into the darkness then swiftly prepared another.
Geert heaved Norik out of the mud and handed him his torch. Then, with his battle axe poised he said simply, "move!" Soaking, cold, caked in dirt, Norik shambled forward, using the harpoon spear to steady himself while he held the torch out in his left hand. He stepped inside.
Norik noticed that the ground was hard and dry. The floor of the threshold sloped upwards so that the rain drained away from it. He found himself in a circular cave, the inside lined with piled stones, and opposite him a narrow tunnel leading down into the hillside. There was a dank, musty smell of ancient mould mixed with something more pungent. Norik was reminded of the odour his whales exuded when they died, but without the benefit of fresh air. He stepped up into the mouth of the tunnel and began to advance. Within seconds his torchlight fell across something on the ground in front of him. Boots! It was Boruk, unmoving, lying face down on the cold earth. There was something around his throat. A length of leather twine twisted around a piece of wood at the back of his neck.
"Vard!" called Norik into the darkness. "Can you hear me?" There was an angry shriek in response from somewhere down the passage. Not words or curses as such but some amalgam of the two, partially muffled. Norik felt himself shoved to one side by Geert, who snatched the torch from his hand and charged down the corridor, bellowing something akin to the sound of a walrus being bitten on the tail by an orca.
Imerk, Mirenna and Ajeb followed suit, although with greater caution than their northern companion. Tirgun stopped when he reached Norik.
"Stay with me boy," he said, a slight wavering in his voice. "Let them earn their share." Norik gripped his harpoon spear, sweating with fear despite the chill air. Tirgun's torch flickered as an ill-smelling waft of air emanated from the darkness. Distant sounds of a stuggle came to them. The occasional crack of metal on rock, Vard's voice again shouting in panic, another roar from Geert, a brief scream from someone. Then for a few moments silence. Norik stared into the darkness, his eyes painting weird shapes and colours onto the blackness. He looked at Tirgun's face for a moment. Despite the heat of the torch it was pale. His eyes seemed anxious, avoiding Norik's own. Then footsteps and a flickering torchlight coming back up the passage. It was Mirenna.
"You can come, it is safe, for now," she said.
They walked for a minute or two along the passage. Svark lay propped up against the wall on their left as they passed, his throat cut. Norik shuddered at the expression of fear and confusion on his face. Further down they found the others in a wide chamber with four passageways leading off it. Six pale bodies were piled in the centre of the chamber: four men and two women. Like the girl that Norik had seen, their skin and hair was almost white and they were dressed in tattered robes which were thin and sun-blenched, now soaked in blood. Two of the dead appeared to have been shot with arrows, although Ajeb must already have retrieved these from them. Three others bore puncture wounds from a spear or knife. One man was missing his head altogether. Geert stood over the corpse using a piece of the man's robe to wipe his axe. Imerk and Ajeb watched the entrances to the passageways, ready for more attackers. Vard was on all fours, gasping and shaking. There were red marks around his throat but he seemed otherwise unhurt. Ajeb looked at Tirgun when they entered.
"It would appear that your two henchmen were taken silently from behind. Vard had come this far without noticing. It was only the boy's call which alerted him and he was able to hold off his would-be assassin until we arrived. Thereafter it was butchery."
Tirgun surveyed the pile of bodies in disgust, covering his mouth and nose with a gloved hand as he did so. Norik noticed that one of the dead women was wearing something on their wrist, a strange amulet bound with leather.
"Boy, get that for me," said Tirgun. Norik knelt down by the stinking corpse and hacked the leather strap off with the sharp edge of his harpoon. A ring of stones were set into the leather, which was heavily worn and darkened. Norik passed the object to the young prince. Tirgun examined the amulet for a moment then tutted and threw it into a corner. Norik followed it with his eyes, peering after it into the darkness.
"These witches were anxious to protect something," he said. "But where is it? Where is the child we saw? How did they get behind my men in a narrow tunnel?"
"There are hidden alcoves in the passage behind us," said Mirenna. "They may lead to other tunnels. I think all of these stone hovels are linked under the ground. It will take us days to search it fully."
"Let them hide," said Geert. "My axe will smell them out. She has tasted their blood and brains and hungers for more."
"You will not see them coming," said Vard. "They move silently and attack from behind like cowards and women." He spat on the ground as he regained his feet, somewhat unsteadily it appeared to Norik. "Warriors are not trained to fight that way."
"There is only so much training you can give to a fool before you realize you are wasting your time," said Mirenna. "Go and hide on the ship while we do the work." Geert chuckled but Vard drew his sword in fury and stepped towards Mirenna threateningly. He froze in mid swing. She had hardly seemed to move yet in a moment the tip of her knife was at his throat. She smiled broadly into his terrified eyes.
"Enough!" shouted Tirgun. "We need to decide which way to go."
"Look at this!" said Norik, forgetting himself. "The amulet is glowing." Out of reach of the torchlight, Norik had realized that some of the stones on the amulet were giving off a pale blue glow. He picked it up again and rotated it in his hands. As he turned it, different stones became illuminated. "I think this will tell us the way to go."
"Or the way someone wants us to go," suggested Imerk. "Why would the people who live here require such a device?"
"I have seen something similar in Ezima," said Ajeb. The Topographers wore devices on their wrist which had many functions, most of which were a mystery to those not from that city. I think the stones on the amulet are reacting to the presence of something important for these people. If whatever it is were to be stolen, then the stones would lead the guardians to it."
"The weapon," said Tirgun. "It is decided. We follow the stones. Boy …"
"My name is Norik," said the whaler. "And yes, I am leading the way … again." He tied the amulet to his left wrist and edged down the central passageway, following the direction of the dully glowing stones. He found that whenever a torch was moved close to him, it became impossible to read the stones. Thus he led the party into blackness.
The passageway continued for a short distance before reaching another junction. Here the directing stones reacted immediately and indicated a left turn. Further and further into the dank hillside, Norik tracked the secret of Aberask. Although he kept a close eye on the glowing stones, he began to feel as if he would be able to find their goal simply by following his nose. The pungent smell he had noticed on entering the tunnel was becoming more and more overpowering. The amulet indicated another turn and he began to perceive a glimmering blue light ahead. As Norik followed the faint glow he began to hear sounds, the laughing of a child and the playful snarls of small animals.
Around another turn to the right, Norik was confronted with the entrance to a small chamber, dimly lit from glowing alcoves around the edges and in its midst the girl that he had seen before on top of the low building. She sat cross-legged on the tiled floor of the chamber, ignoring him completely, fully engaged with the two white bear cubs which scrambled at each other in her lap. He stopped and stared at her for a moment, unable to reconcile the scene with the terrors which this place had so far presented. Tentatively, Norik took a step forward. He was aware of movement behind him and to either side. Mirenna had crept silently into position on his right. Ajeb stood in the shadows to his left, his bow drawn, unmoving. Norik gave the archer a questioning look. Ajeb nodded.
Norik slowly walked into the chamber, his knuckles white around the harpoon spear, the amulet now glowing brightly on his wrist. He was in a circular space with another opening opposite the one by which he had entered. The floor was decorated with a spiraling pattern of tiles which looked green and white in the dull light. The girl sat in the very centre of this pattern. As he continued to approach her, he could see now that there were twelve small alcoves around the circumference. Inside ten of them was a sleeping bear cub, white and furry like the two which played with the girl. Above each glowed a blue crystal, a larger version of the one in his amulet. The air in the chamber was humid and far warmer than the surrounding tunnels. Chewed bones, debris and droppings were littered around the edge of the floor beneath the alcoves, adding to the unpleasantly pungent atmosphere.
Norik stepped closer to the girl, placed the butt of his spear on the ground and, using it to steady himself, squatted down so that he was closer to her level. One of the bear cubs began to chew at the wooden shaft of his harpoon. The girl giggled and looked up at him for the first time. Her pink eyes looked even stranger in the blue aura. She seemed to be staring through him, as if she was gazing into his past. Her expression was distant, emotionless.
Norik smiled at her nervously. He held up the glowing amulet and began to ask her a question. "Where …"
"Jurak ga na sorabbat!" shrieked the girl suddenly. She clutched one of the bear cubs to her chest and immediately a round hole opened in the floor beneath her. She fell through it and slid away. The other cub released Norik's spear from its jaws and tried to follow her but he grabbed it by the scruff and held onto it as he toppled backwards. It twisted in his grip and snarled, trying to bite his wrist. Ajeb and Mirenna were in the room in a moment, followed shortly by the others. Vard snatched the cub from him and lifted it up close to his face to inspect it while the rest of Norik's companions stared into the hole. Squirming wildly, the cub slashed at Vard's face with one claw, drawing blood from his right cheek. Roaring in rage and pain the burly henchman lifted his sword to gut the little animal. Norik realized that the gem in his amulet was now shining a bright red colour. At the same moment a deafening roar emanated from the opening on the opposite side of the room. A massive shape swept into the chamber, scattering the mercenaries and crushing Vard beneath its enormous bulk.
Norik was thrown to one side and curled into a ball as soon as he came to rest against the wall of the chamber. The intense roaring continued and he felt splatters of blood on his hair and arms. Another roar came, this time from a man. Geert was still standing, waving his axe towards the giant creature in front of him. As Norik slowly regained enough courage to peek towards the centre of the room, he could see now that an enormous adult bear had torn into them. The creature's noise was stifled briefly by the remnants of Vard's neck, which it shook vigorously until the now dead henchman's head flew across the room towards Norik while the remainder of his lifeless body slid into the hole that the girl had disappeared into, followed by the cub, its white pelt now soaked in blood.
Geert struck the bear with his axe, a glancing blow to the jaws which broke a tooth or two but succeeded only in maddening the creature further. Froth and blood drooled from the creature's jaws as it lunged toward the northern berserker. Geert swung again to parry while at the same time Imerk stepped in behind him and thrust his spear into the beast's chest. The bear bellowed in pain, catching Geert on the forearm with its claws before snapping Imerk's spear like a twig. Norik was suddenly aware that there was an arrow sticking out the back of the bear's head. Looking to his right he could see that Ajeb had regained his feet and was already loosing another shaft into the animal's neck. The bear tried to turn towards him, the end of Imerk's spear still embedded in its body, but met with a flaming torch to the face from Mirenna. It howled in fury, rolling over its heavy bulk towards Geert, who this time was ready for it. The northerner brought his axe cleanly down on the bear's neck as it was prone before him. Although he did not decapitate it completely, Norik could hear the crunch of its neck bones snapping and saw that it became immediately limp with only a faint twitch of its claws to tell of the furious power that it had borne.
Geert leant heavily on his axe for a moment, took a deep breath then stooped, took a handful of blood from the dead bear's neck and smeared it across his face before letting out another bellow which Norik thought might have been even louder than the bear's.
"If there are any more of them, we know they will be awake now," said Ajeb, peering into the dark tunnel from which the bear had appeared, another arrow ready in his bow.
"Not these ones," said Mirenna, inspecting the cubs which still appeared to be fast asleep in their alcoves. "Let's take their pelts while we can." She drew her knife.
"No!" shouted Norik. "That is what drew the bear before. Something happened to my amulet when the bear was threatened." Mirenna shot him a calculating look and replaced her knife.
"Pagan sorcery," she spat. "Not what I signed up for."
"Neither were you paid to skin a few bears," said Tirgun, who had finally entered the room. "I suggest you follow the girl. Doubtless she has fled to wherever the weapons are hidden. What does your amulet indicate now boy?"
"Nothing," said Norik. "I think it led to the bears…and my name is …"
"Norik," said Ajeb. "And you are a boy and the only one of us small enough to squeeze down that chute. Apart from Mirenna perhaps." The woman glared at him.
"I agree with Tirgun," said Imerk, his glass knife now drawn. "If the amulet no longer works then the secret way the girl took is our best choice. You two should go while we watch this chamber."
Mirenna was looking down the narrow, circular shaft. "Your henchman's carcass is blocking the way Prince," she said. "We need to pull him out first." She crawled into the hole, which led to a vertical drop as far as Norik could see, and fastened a rope around Vard's boots. Geert and Imerk heaved the headless corpse out with ease. Setting the body to one side, Mirenna removed the rope and then looped it around Norik's waist.
"This rope is thirty metres long," she told him. "But I'm sure the shaft will level out sooner than that or the girl would have fallen to her death. You go first. When you find what we are looking for, give three tugs and I will follow you. Your harpoon is too long to be any use down there, take this." She handed him one of her knives, a long stiletto, viciously sharp. "Don't fall on it." She grinned. Norik placed the blade between his teeth, gripped the rope with both hands and reversed into the hole while Imerk and Geert continued to hold the other end.
Vard's blood had made the side of the tunnel slippery for a few metres, and as the darkness enveloped him, Norik felt as if he were squirming down a narrow chimney with no sense of how far the bottom was. The view above him shrank to a dim blue circle and he could barely make out the faces of Mirenna and Tirgun as they peered after him. Mirenna had been correct however, as Norik's feet struck ground long before the rope reached its full extent. Initially the shaft became sloped before leveling out completely and widening into another tunnel, smaller but not dissimilar to those above. It was completely dark however. No light shone from his amulet. And it was cold, almost intensely so. The stone walls here were moist with condensation. None of the warmth from the chamber above penetrated here. Norik steadied himself and took the knife from his mouth.
"Throw down a torch," he called up to Mirenna. A flaming stick hurtled down to him, the flash ruining his night vision for a moment. Shielding his eyes he picked it up, almost burning his fingers in the process. The flame illuminated a long tunnel, precisely carved into clean stonework with an arched ceiling. The walls looked smooth, almost polished. He could see the shadows of entrances to both sides spaced evenly along the tunnel's length. There was no visible movement, but in the distance he could hear faint scrabbling noises from the two cubs. Norik gave three firm tugs to the rope and above he could hear the sound of Mirenna squeezing herself into the shaft.
Cautiously, Norik stalked along the passageway. He paused at the first side-entrance, another arch-shaped opening leading to his right, and peeked into it as silently as he could. A short tunnel led to another circular chamber. In its centre was a rectangular dias on which lay the body of a man. The flesh had decomposed to bones, but he still wore robes similar to those worn by the attackers above. Gleaming metal objects inlaid with gems rested on his wrists and chest. Around the edge the chamber were more alcoves, although no blue glow emanated from these. Norik edged his way into the chamber, and as he did so the torchlight flickered across more bones within the alcoves. He gasped. The broad skulls of animals stared back at him. Bears he guessed, although without their flesh they might have been the giants from the stories he had been told as a child by the old women of his village. A sound behind him made Norik jump, dropping the knife into the darkness.
"They're all the same – dead men and bears." Mirenna had moved quickly and silently to check the other chambers, shrouding the dim glow of her torch behind her cloak as she moved. "I think the girl's in the last one. Come quickly." In a second she was gone. Norik scrabbled on the floor to find his knife then ran after her. She was already at the end of the tunnel, peering into the final chamber on the left before the tunnel ended in another circular chamber. Norik joined her and looked into the chamber. The room was the same as the one he had just entered. There was a large, rectangular, stone slab in the centre. The girl sat on it, cross-legged, slowly sipping from a clay cup. Her pink eyes glanced up silently at Norik then returned to focus on her drink. Unlike the other chambers this one seemed to perfectly clean. There were no bones and most of the alcoves in the wall were empty. The two bear cubs were now curled up asleep together in one of them. The girl drained her cup then dropped it onto the stone tiled floor. It smashed with a soft clatter, the sound quickly absorbed into the surrounding earth. Mirenna slowly lifted her dagger but Norik raised his hand to discourage her, not daring to touch her directly. The girl stretched out her legs on the stone plinth and slowly lay back, her arms resting either side of her. She did not move again.
Norik stepped forward quickly and put his ear down to the girl's face. He could feel the slightest trace of warmth on his skin from her shallow breath. She was already in a deep sleep.
Mirenna stepped forward with her dagger still drawn.
"We should make sure of her," she said.
"No," said Norik. "Look at her amulet."
The thin metal band on the girl's wrist had started to glow with a pale light. Beginning with a dull red colour it changed its tint from orange to yellow, green to blue to purple and back to red, slowly fading in its overall intensity with each transition.
"I don't think she's going to wake up. Something in the drink has made her like this."
"Watch her," said Mirenna, slipping the bracelet from the girl's wrist. "Those dead men are all wearing things like this. They must be the weapons that Tirgun wants. I will gather them and we can go." She opened a leather bag that had been hanging from her belt and moved quickly from chamber to chamber, stripping the dead of their regalia.
Nothing moved in the chamber. The girl and the bear cubs slept so far as Norik could tell, although their breathing and heartbeats were almost imperceptible. After a minute or two Norik's curiosity drew him to the final chamber at the end of the tunnel which stood almost adjacent to the room where the girl slept. Unlike the other chambers this one contained no bodies, no rectangular slabs. Instead a circular font stood in the centre and in some of the alcoves around the edges were clay bottles and cups like the one the girl had dropped. Norik gazed into the font. It was mostly empty, but in the bottom was a clear, waxy liquid. Without really thinking, Norik took a clay bottle from one of the alcoves. Feeling that it was empty he removed its stopper, dipped it into the font and scooped out some of the fluid. Silently he replaced the stopper and slipped the bottle into his pouch.
"I told you to watch the girl!" Mirenna was running back along the tunnel towards him, her bag now rattling from the metal objects inside. Norik rushed back to the girl's chamber. As he turned the corner something warm and hairy hit him in the face. He stumbled, dropped his torch and was plunged into darkness. He heard the high itched roar of an enraged cub. Could hear the scratching as its claws scrambled on the cold stone tiles. Wildly he lashed out into the darkness with his knife, unable to locate the direction of attack. Suddenly Mirenna uncovered her torch from her cloak. She was only a metre or so away from him. The bear cub was at her feet, its eyes dark pools of rage above dripping jaws, focused directly on Norik. Mirenna's blade flashed downwards and in a second the small bear was dead. She lifted her torch towards Norik.
"You're cut," she said. "There's blood on your face."
Norik touched his cheek, felt the warm liquid dripping down his chin.
"Only a scratch," he said. "Let's go before the other one wakes up."
Mirenna was already running back down the passageway. He scampered after her. She pulled herself up the rope with practised ease. As she climbed, Norik could see that the contents of her bag emitted light of different colours. The amulets and necklaces had reacted to being disturbed. Norik had no idea what this meant, but was certain that it was time to leave. He heaved himself up the rope and into the narrowing chute, up towards the flickering torchlight of the other mercenaries. A loud roar sounded as he clambered out of the shaft.
"Another bear," said Ajeb who still peered, bow at the ready, into the tunnel from which the first fully grown bear had emerged. "A big one. Time to go." Geert and Imerk had already advanced back into the maze of passageways, followed by Tirgun who had waited only long enough to satisfy himself that Mirenna had returned with a full bag. She and Norik followed with Ajeb guarding the rear.
"I don't remember the way out," Norik gasped. "How do we know where we're going?"
"Imerk will know," said Ajeb. "He would never go anywhere without learning the way back, with or without his eyes. These things you will learn, if you live long enough. Now run!" He fired an arrow into the darkness behind them. Another shattering roar emanated from the gloom. As he ran, Ajeb was fitting another arrow to his bow. Norik could hear now the sound of something heavy moving on the stone ground behind them. He sprinted more quickly after the fading lights of the others in front of him.
They reached the chamber of bodies. Imerk was waiting by the far entrance. Tirgun and Geert had already left, Mirenna behind them. Norik could see that her bag was glowing more brightly now as she made her way along the final passageway. She no longer carried a torch. She had thrown it onto the heap of corpses. Already their rags were in flames. Ajeb took a small flask of something from the sash around his body and emptied it onto the ground by the entrance of the chamber. He fitted another arrow to his bow. The head of this arrow was bound tightly with cloth which he lit from the pyre. He nodded to Imerk, who left, then indicated with his head for Norik to do the same. The advancing bear roared again and as Norik ran he could hear its galloping paws. Ajeb's bow twanged and immediately there was a loud rushing sound. Cold air was sucked down the passage ahead of him and behind the heat felt suddenly intense. All the way to the surface the walls of the tunnel were now lit with a flickering orange glow. Norik ran, aware of Ajeb passing him in the passage, jumping over the bodies of Boruk and Svark, aware too of the insistent roar of the bear behind them as it thrashed in the flames. Seconds later he burst into a freezing, starlit night.
Norik did not stop running until he reached the Fox. Geert and Imerk were already putting their shoulders against the crusted hull when he arrived. Wollam had been asleep, had woken in confusion and now yelled curses down at them from the deck. Mirenna, Ajeb, Norik and even Tirgun joined in the desperate effort to get the small ship afloat again, and Norik sagged in relief as the vessel began to move across the icy sand and slide into the darkened surf. Their last torch had long since been abandoned so they worked for the most part in complete darkness. The eerie glow from Mirenna's bag was their only illumination until Wollam came to his senses enough to light the ship's lanterns. Norik was the last of them to scramble aboard as the ship finally freed itself from the beach. As he pulled himself up a ear-splitting bellow swept down from the hill. A screaming ball of fire tore down the path from the stone complex, across the beach and plunged steaming into the sea. Thereafter Norik could hear the enraged bear roaring and crashing in the water, but could see nothing. Already Wollam had unfurled the Fox's sails and a mild summer breeze carried them southward from Abarask.
Below decks, in the relative warmth of the ship's cabin, Mirenna emptied the contents of her bag onto the upturned barrel which passed for Wollam's chart table. The skipper himself had remained on deck, gazing blindly into the starlight with a refreshing wind on his face, the most favourable weather they had experienced in weeks. Already the low hills of Aberask had vanished into the distance as the first strands of half-light from the pale polar dawn glinted off the ever-more dispersed slabs of float-ice. As the ship moved further from the island, the glow from the various amulets and talismans had faded. Tirgun examined each of the trinkets in turn, a look of increasing frustration burning on his face.
"They do nothing!" he spat. "Worthless costume jewellery for the dead. Ajeb, make them work." Tirgun threw a bracelet to the archer who turned it over in his hands thoughtfully.
"It seems the gems respond to the presence of something," he said. "Perhaps it was the bears, although I cannot imagine why. There may be wisdom in the observatory in Ezima which can help."
"I will be amazed if that blind old fool on deck can steer us as far as our next dinner," said Tirgun. "I have not the time, the money nor the men for an expedition to the South. I need the weapon."
"And we need our share," said Imerk. "If you don't want these trinkets then at least let us divide them up so that we can make something of this journey. I know where we can sell these for enough coin to take us back to places where summer means something more than a cold dawn in the middle of the night."
"You would take my share to your stinking southern hole?" growled Geert. "Who was it killed the bear when your pathetic spear snapped like a twig?"
"Calm down my friends," said Ajeb. "I think Wollam has another cask of brandy down here somewhere. Let us drink to our survival, and to the memory of those brave men who died in the service of their Prince."
Tirgun sniffed. "Damn fools," he mumbled. "Boy, help him fetch the liquor." Norik, who had been staring at the strange collection of artefacts, looked up to speak but Ajeb interrupted.
"His name is Norik, and he's probably too young for brandy, but he deserves his share like the rest of us. Give me a hand lad, this brandy may be stale but it'll warm us up a bit." Reluctantly Norik got to his feet and helped Ajeb disentangle a small barrel from a pile of sacks and boxes. The others continued their examination of the treasure. Mirenna selected a slender bracelet encrusted with red, blue, green and amber gems. She attempted to slide it onto her wrist, found it too tight and cast it away with a grunt.
"Your arm will bear a new scar Geert," she said, looking at the northerner's wound as he rummaged through the pile. "That beast cut you deep." Geert snarled at her, snatching up the largest amulet he could find and scraping it across the half-congealed scab on his forearm. Norik froze in fear. The gem on the amulet had flashed momentarily with a bright red glow.
"Don't make a mess of that," snapped Imerk, seemingly oblivious to the flash. "We need to get a good price for these." Geert spat on the floor and growled again. Norik tried to catch his breath. It doesn't mean anything. The bears are far away now. It's just an amulet.
Norik helped Ajeb drag the cask of brandy towards the table. With his knife Ajeb levered the top off the barrel and dipped a tin cup into the grog within. He offered it to Geert.
"Here, time to celebrate."
Geert stared at the cup with a puzzled look for a moment, then began to shake. Norik was convinced that there was fear in his eyes for a moment, although this quickly turned to the usual look of uncontained fury. Geert screamed, an animal noise pitched higher than his usual battle roars. With his bloody arm he swept the cup from Ajeb's hand. It flew across the cabin, hitting Imerk full in the face and spilling its contents all over the table. The Admacene warrior drew his glass knife in a moment and sprang up to confront the northerner.
Ajeb rose to his feet, began to say something but Geert had already launched himself across the table towards Imerk, scattering the plundered jewellery in all directions as he did so. The two heavily built men connected and rolled together across the floor, crashing into the recently displaced pile of stores.
Tirgun rose and backed towards the stepway up to the raider's main deck. His face was pale, sweat glistened and Norik could see that he too was shaking in fear. Mirenna and Ajeb tried to pull Imerk and Geert apart. Geert had established himself on top now, using his greater body weight while Imerk flailed with his knife. He turned briefly to throw Mirenna across the room with one arm before slamming Ajeb headfirst into the cabin's wall. He screamed again before lunging towards Imerk's throat with both hands and biting down at his face. Imerk turned his head to one side and let out a stifled scream as Geert bit his ear. With his left hand he held Geert's head down in place, close against him. Geert bucked with his whole body, suddenly trapped in the act of murder. Slowly Imerk's grip forced Geert's slavering face to one side, exposing one eye to the glass knife in his right hand. Norik looked away as the needle blade plunged into Geert's left eye socket and buried itself deep in his brain. The screaming stopped.
Imerk, the side of his head matted in blood, gasped in pain as he eased himself slowly out from the dead bulk on top of him. Ajeb, picking himself up from the ruined stores, helped Imerk to free himself. Tirgun sat back down at the table, heavily, breathing deeply. He nodded to Norik.
"I know, pick them up Boy," sneered the young whaler.
"Cut the big one of his wrist then throw that stinking carcass overboard," said Tirgun. "Then all of you get out!" The Prince buried his face in his hands and slumped across the table. Mirenna looked at him in disgust for a moment, then wrapped her cloak around herself and stomped up the stepway to the deck. Ajeb and Imerk dragged Geert by his legs behind her. Imerk having forced the large amulet off Geert's wrist and thrown it back onto the table. Norik, who had been gathering the other pieces shuddered again. The gem had flashed red when Imerk touched it. Hastily he placed the "weapons" around the sullen Tirgun and followed the rest onto the deck.
The day passed without much talk. The rain kept away, the breeze held and there was little need for Norik to punt away float-ice as he had on the outward journey. It still felt cold, but for Norik and Wollam this was the mildest of Summers. Imerk huddled under a cloak nursing his ruined ear, shivering, his bare scalp shining with sweat despite the icy breeze. Norik too felt a little feverish. It was no surprise that he should be tired and shocked by his ordeal, but he was also nauseous despite his strong sea legs, and found that as he rested on deck he would drift into strange dreams, hallucinations of the dead warriors, the bears and the girl with the pink eyes. After a few hours his limbs ached and he felt the need to lean over the gunwale and dip his face into the chilled water. The salt water tasted strange on his lips. He experienced a sudden vision of Vard as the bear took his head off, Geert's bloody arm, the knife entering his eye socket, the cub suddenly scratching Norik's face in the darkness. He retched and rolled back onto the deck, staggered unsteadily to his feet and asked Wollam for something to do.
Ajeb and Mirenna slept soundly beneath their cloaks as Norik swabbed the deck, on into the sunlit evening. Even Wollam dozed, sat with his back against the wheel.
"We are cursed," came a voice. Imerk too was restless. "We should not have robbed the graves of those witches. Nothing good will come of it. This is just the start. The Prince has had us wake devils who should have been left to sleep. He has brought curses on us all." The warrior cast away his cloak and wobbled to his feet, a bloody bandage now wrapped around his head, covering his left ear. He put his hand on the shaft of the mop that Norik had been using to clean the deck.
"Let me help you," he said. "You lost your harpoon on the island? Let me make you a new one. We may need to catch some fish before we are home." Imerk stared into Norik's eyes. Norik could see that the southerner's pupils were dilated, his eyes bloodshot. He seemed to be staring into the distance, straight through Norik's head. Through my eyes into my brain! Imerk twitched, regained his focus and smiled. "You're a good boy…" he said.
Norik released the mop, returned to the bough and curled up to watch the slow sunset. Behind him the sound of Imerk whittling at the pole with his knife soothed him to an exhausted sleep.
When Norik awoke he was aware that the sun had shifted. Although the light was the same dull orange, the shadows had moved and somebody was standing over him, a dark shape against the grey clouds. Norik rubbed his eyes. He must have slept through the swift polar night and awoken with the early sunrise. He shivered. A rancid smell met his nostrils. The man in front of him was Tirgun. He recognized the thick fur cloak. But something wasn't right. His posture was strange, as if he was slumped forward on something, his head drooping out of sight. Norik got to his feet.
"Prince…Tirgun?" he asked. There was no response. He took a step forward, level with the leaning figure and gasped. Tirgun's body had been propped up with a sharpened pole, the point having been rammed through his throat while the butt end was wedged into the deck in a knothole between two planks. Blood had soaked into the length of the wooden shaft, staining it dark red, but Norik could easily recognize it as the mop-shaft he had given to Imerk a few hours earlier.
Tirgun's hair hung forward over his face. Norik lifted it a little. Lifeless eyes lolled in their sockets, the jaw slack, the neat beard matted with blood. Disturbed, the fine balance of the pole collapsed and the limp body slipped silently over the bow and into the water. The sharpened mop pole clattered onto the deck.
"Man overboard!" Wollam croaked, roused by the faint but familiar splash. "Get up! Who is it?" He was stood back at the wheel in a moment, but still unable to see much beyond the end of his own nose. Ajeb and Mirenna were awake and on their feet in seconds.
"It was Tirgun," said Norik. "He was already dead." Ajeb looked over the side. Tirgun's broad black cloak was easily visible floating in the calm water.
"He's right," said Ajeb.
"You killed him?" asked Mirenna, drawing her dagger. "How are we supposed to get paid now?"
"No. I think it was Imerk. But he used my mop…"
"Where is the ferocious mop murderer?" asked Ajeb.
"He is below deck," said Wollam. "I can feel the weight in the ship. He is moving down there."
Mirenna tried to the door to the cabin. "He's blocked it with something."
"Look!" called Norik, staring at the icy water behind the ship. "He's throwing something out of the port-hole." Small wooden boxes of dried fish, stale loaves, even a clay bottle of brandy could be seen bobbing in the water momentarily before disappearing.
"What's that splashing noise?" said Mirenna, frowning.
"Water supplies," said Wollam. "He's going to kill us all."
Ajeb launched himself at the cabin door, a flying kick. His leg made a nasty crunching sound and he bounced off to one side, rolling over the deck and clutching at his knee. Norik could see the pain and panic in his eyes although he was gritting his teeth. He's afraid, but more afraid of showing it.
"I told you he'd blocked it with something," said Mirenna. "If we could have kicked it down I'd have been in there and killed him by now. Is there another way down Wollam?"
"Under the water butt at the front, there's a hatch. It's narrow, but you'll fit."
"How can you tell?" Mirenna grinned at him.
"You sound thin."
The water butt on deck was nearly empty. The small amount of fresh water left within had frozen in the night, so they could move it easily without risk of losing any. Ajeb found that he could not stand up without intense pain. He sat instead propped against a gunwale, his bow drawn. Norik and Wollam dragged the butt to one side, exposing the outline of a small, circular wooden panel in the deck. There was no handle but a small indentation carved into the edge could be used to raise it.
"Keep the hatch in the shade when we open it," said Mirenna in a low voice to Norik. "Use your cloak. I don't want him to see me coming." Norik nodded and removed his ragged cloak. "Wollam, raise the hatch when I tell you." The old man crouched down, felt around the edge of the hatch for the indentation and waited. Mirenna removed her own cloak, unsheathed two daggers from her belt and stood poised in front of the hatch. Norik stood on the other side, using his cloak to shade the panel. "Now!" she whispered. Wollam raised the hatch and Mirenna leapt catlike, head-first into the opening. Silently the old man lowered the panel back into place as Mirenna's boots disappeared into the darkness.
Norik looked at Ajeb, who seemed more composed now. "Why is he doing this?" he asked. "One by one everyone is going mad."
"When Geert became enraged I thought nothing of it," said Ajeb. "He is like that at the best of times. But Imerk? For a southerner from the parched dry hills of Admacenia he has a mind like ice."
"Last night, he was acting strangely," said Norik. "He seemed unwell…"
"As were you I recall. How is the cut you received from that bear cub?"
Norik touched his face. The flesh was still tender, swollen where the cub's claw had torn it. He remembered his strange reaction to the seawater, his fever and aching limbs. "Not so bad, the fever has passed."
"You saw something when Imerk cut the amulet from Geert's wrist," said Ajeb. "I noticed the fear in your eyes."
"I've been afraid since we got to the island," said Norik. "I don't understand these weapons, but they change colour when something bad happens. The amulet flashed red when Geert touched it, before he went mad. The same with Imerk."
Ajeb relaxed his arms, put down the bow and rummaged in Mirenna's bag which had lain on the deck, close to him. He fished out the largest piece. "This one?" He tossed it to Norik who caught it without thinking. The gem in the amulet gave off a dull yellow glow. Norik stared at it, puzzled for a moment, then threw it at Ajeb.
"You were tricking me! It was red when the others touched it. Not like this."
Ajeb picked up the amulet. The gem remained a dull ruby, unchanged. Ajeb smiled and held the trinket out to Wollam.
"What is it?" asked the captain, unable to see what was being proferred.
"What do you make of this?" asked Ajeb. "Have you ever come across anything like this before?"
Wollam took the amulet, ran his fingers around it, held it to his nose and mouth, bit into it. The stone remained dull.
"No, not like anything I've come across before. Its not iron, not like we use in our swords. Maybe copper. And its not solid. Its made of layers. Very thin. There's something carved into it inside, but no way to get into it as far as I can tell. Not much of a weapon if you ask me." He threw it back in Ajeb's general direction. Ajeb caught it and put it back in the bag.
"No, I agree, not much of a weapon," said Ajeb. "How far is it to Gavask now?"
"About four days if we keep this wind," said Wollam.
"And how long before we die of thirst?"
"Three days," said the old man. "Unless…" There was a loud splash from the rear of the ship. "Never mind," he finished, grimly. There were loud noises from the cabin, someone shifting heavy objects. Ajeb recovered his bow and nocked an arrow. The door opened. Mirenna emerged, blood soaking the front of her body and limbs, spattered on her face and in her hair. There was a deep gash on her left forearm, which she pressed tightly with a piece of rag to staunch the flow.
"He bit me …" she murmered, looking slightly dazed.
"Imerk?" said Ajeb.
"Pushed him through the porthole," she said. "Cut his throat. Would've killed any other man straight away. Not him. Kept biting, scratching, hissing at me. Had to throw him out."
"We must bind that wound," said Ajeb. "Norik, help me up." Mirenna sagged to her knees on the deck. Norik replaced her cloak around her shoulders and tore strips from his own cloth which Ajeb wrapped around her bleeding arm.
"That's right, keep her fresh," said Wollam. "She just wasted our best source of nourishment for the rest of the trip. Better get to fishing lad, or next one to die'll be dinner."
Norik looked up at the old captain and shuddered.
The sharpened mop pole was not strong enough to pierce the skin of a herring, let along the whales that Norik was used to hunting. Using one of Mirenna's long daggers he was able to rig up a more robust harpoon, although he doubted the shaft would be long enough. Nevertheless he felt a sense of peace in this familiar purpose. It was as if he had been briefly released from the continuous ordeal of terror which had begun when they first entered the tunnels on Abarask. As the distended day drew on to evening and the sun settled close to the western horizon, he knew their best opportunity to hunt would arise. They would need to furl the sails though, still themselves in the water and wait, thereby delaying their return to Gavask and the certainty of food and fresh water.
With his makeshift harpoon Norik stood ready at the prow. Around him all was silence. The Fox drifted gently, Wollam dozing at the wheel while Ajeb and Mirenna were already fast asleep beneath their furs on the deck. All trace of Norik's fever had passed. His sense of responsibility and control had returned. As the only capable whaler left in his village for the summer he understood his importance, trusted himself, his instincts and his determination to survive. As the faintest trace of daylight remained in the depths of night, his patience was rewarded. A fat whale, five metres in length with enough meat to feed a small army, surfaced directly in front of him. He struck home cleanly with the spear. Although the whale initially dived, trailing a stream of blood, he knew it would be dead within minutes. His eyes scanned the surface. Already seabirds were circling above, drawn by the tell-tale redness in the water. About a hundred metres from the ship the carcass surfaced.
"That's as good a catch as I've seen in fifty years." Wollam's voice in the twilight made Norik jump. He had approached silently.
"You heard?" said Norik.
"Aye, and I know the smell of a fresh whale. Let's get over there while there's still some left." While the two mercenaries continued their oblivious slumber, Norik helped Wollam to steer the Fox back towards the floating whale, its position still established in the gloom by the stark silhouettes of frenzied gulls which took off together when the ship's prow finally bumped up against the already lacerated carcass.
"It's too heavy to bring aboard," said Wollam. "We'd capsize before we got it over the gunwales, even if we had the strength to do that. You'll need to get in the water and lash it to the side."
"Its lucky I don't feel the cold," lied Norik, gritting his teeth.
"Aye, good lad," said Wollam. "Best cut a few slices while you're down there. I'm famished."
Dropping the remains of his cloak on the deck, Norik took Mirenna's dagger between his teeth and dived into the water. Wollam draped some heavy rope over the whale's body. Gasping in the freezing water, Norik dived under the whale with the line and did his best to fasten it to the side of the ship. After several attempts he felt the meat was secure and set about carving some pieces with the dagger, barely able to feel his hands any more. One by one he threw slivers of meat onto the deck, one each for Wollam and the mercenaries, a fourth for himself.
He had been fumbling for several minutes before he looked up. The brief polar night had fully set in. It was too dark for him to see the ship properly and Wollam had not lit the lamps. He reached out for the side and felt … nothing. He felt for the rope binding the whale, pulled at it. It was slack. He pulled it in, felt the severed strands. Wollam had cut him loose! Shivering he clung to the slimy carcass and pulled himself out of the water, spreading his weight as thinly as he could.
"Wollam!" he called. "Ajeb! Mirenna! Help me!"
"Sorry lad," said Wollam quietly. "I could hear in your voice the amulet did something strange when you touched it. Maybe not like the other two, but best not take any chances. If its all the same I'm happier having you at arm's length for now. Best have a bite lad, will keep you warm inside and give you water too. There's a lot of water to be had from the blood. You'll do alright, a tough boy like you." Norik huddled onto the whale's torn hide, curled himself and nibbled on the fillet.
Within an hour, dawn had ignited over the cold ocean. The wind was picking up again and Norik could see people stirring on the deck of the Fox, perhaps forty metres away from the body of the whale on which he was floating. Wollam unfurling the sail, the smell of a cooking fire.
Norik checked himself. He still had Mirenna's dagger and his pouch containing the small bottle of fluid he had taken from the font on the island. He had nothing else. He thought of the girl sleeping in her chamber deep beneath the hill. The bears, curled up. He knew such creatures could sleep through an entire winter. Could the islanders do that too? Surely there wasn't enough food for them on the island to stay active all year round. The girl had slept deeply after drinking the fluid. A useful tool but hardly a weapon. They had found no weapon and yet six men were already dead. He felt the scar on his cheek again. It seemed to be healing. He felt no fever or nausea, just the coldness and fatigue. He took a deep breath, put the knife in his belt and slipped silently into the water.
His hand scraped against something, the familiar texture of barnacle-encrusted timber below the water line. He broke the surface for only the second time in his swim. He sucked in air as gently as he could and looked at the shape hanging above him. Aft – the porthole still open wide where Mirenna had pushed Imerk into the sea, barely a metre above the waterline. Gently wedging the dagger between two planks he levered himself up, grasped the window frame with his left hand and pulled himself slowly into the opening. Shivering he paused, allowed the water to run from his body, silent against the timber. Inside the cabin was dark, empty but for the broken boxes, detritus and torn sacking littered about the floor. As quietly as he could Norik lowered himself inside and crept slowly to the front section, past the blood-stained stepway to the deck. The door to the outside swung half open, from time to time bumping with a dull thud against the doorframe in the rising breeze. The first such thud made Norik gasp in fear. Thereafter he anticipated the irregular swings as best he could, timing his breaths so that that the clatter masked them. He concentrated too on holding himself, aware of Wollam's sensitivity to the slightest changes in weight below deck. He imagined himself a limpet, creeping slowly across the surface of the vessel, clinging for life. The fore section of the cabin was a cargo hold. There were a few empty barrels standing beneath the shaft which Mirenna had used to attack Imerk. It was steep and narrow, designed for loading foodstuffs, not people. Norik climbed onto the barrel and felt around the shaft with his arms. There was nothing to grip onto and the opening onto the deck, now closed, was a good half-metre beyond his reach. He looked around. A few rusty meat hooks were screwed into the crossbeams which supported the deck above. Among the debris in the main cabin was Imerk's cloak, made with the thick hide of some southern beast. It looked strong, but was close to the foot of the stepway.
Norik slipped slowly down from the barrel, his heart thumping now, and snuck back across the cabin. Moving more quickly he grabbed the cloak just as the early sunlight shone upon it. Looking up to his left Norik froze as he saw the cabin door wide open. Wollam stood silhouetted in the doorway, facing directly into the cabin. A voice called from behind him, Ajeb.
"Where's the boy?"
"Froze in the water trying to land the whale," said the old man turning away. He can't see what's right in front of him!
Norik snatched up the cloak and scrambled back to the hold. He could hear muffled voices above. Ajeb was arguing with Mirenna and Wollam about something. He could not make out their words. Who can I trust? Who wants me dead? Who is going to go insane next?
Suspending the cloak between two meat hooks, Norik made a sling strong enough to support his weight beneath the shaft. He stepped up, barely keeping his balance as his body continued shivering uncontrollably. He squirmed into the shaft holding the dagger in front of him. He took a deep breath to try and steady himself, then touched gently at the hatch. It moved. The water butt had never been replaced. He breathed again, edged the hatch open a little more, pushed himself a little higher, found himself peeking across the deck.
The Fox's planks gave out a russet glow in the dawn light. Ajeb squatted awkwardly, close to the small cooking fire they had made on the deck, toasting three large slivers of whalemeat impaled on the end of one of his arrows. Mirenna sat by the gunwale, huddled in her cloak, shivering. Wollam was dragging another barrel of something across the deck.
"If the boy was struggling in the night, trying to feed us, we might have helped him," said Ajeb. "He is the only one I'd trust to sail us back to Gavask in the right direction."
"Some help you'd be with your crooked knee Ajeb," said Mirenna. "Better him than us. The old man said he'd have us back in four days. How long now? At least we know we won't starve."
"Once we've set sail, three days with this wind," said Wollam.
"We should go back for the whale at least," said Ajeb.
"No time," said Wollam. "We need to take the wind while we can." He shifted the barrel into position close to the mast, then unraveled a line of rigging, using the heavy barrel as an anchor point. The raider's broad triangular sail unfurled, grey and stained, a red fox head painted broadly in the centre. Ajeb tried to rise, winced in pain and resettled into his half squat. He reached out towards Mirenna, proffering their spitted fillets on his arrow. Mirenna stared at them strangely. Her mouth began to gibber, her skin paled and her nostrils flared.
"Perhaps you're not hungry," said Ajeb, quickly returning the arrow to the fire. He scrambled across the deck to Mirenna's bag which lay open by the gunwale. He took the large amulet from the top of the bag and turned to Mirenna, but she was on him, dagger drawn, before he could say anything. Ajeb must have used the amulet to try and fend off Mirenna's attack, because Norik saw a momentary flash of red as they collided. They rolled over together across the deck and came to rest with Mirenna on top. Ajeb pushed upwards with both arms as Mirenna slashed down again with her knife, her own wounded arm dripping with blood. The blow caught Ajeb's elbow and seared along his left upper arm. He screamed in pain and lashed out with his right fist, punching Mirenna's jaw and knocking her off him. She dropped the knife, but sprang back onto Ajeb with renewed frenzy, her mouth frothing. She lunged her face forward, going to bite Ajeb's face. Something pulled her backwards.
Wollam had moved behind her as the struggle progressed, a loop of rope in his hands, the other end still attached to the mast. Silently he had stepped in, dropped the noose over Mirenna's head and stepped back, tugging the other end. The Balati assassin was jerked into the air, her arms and legs flailing. Her face began to swell, her reddened eyed bulging. Lashing out she caught Wollam's beard and wrenched him towards her. Despite the man's bulk she was able to lift him off the ground to her level with one arm, increasing her own weight and the tightness of the noose in the process. Her jaws bit down on his face spasmodically and he fell to the ground, blood spurting from one cheek, matting his white beard. Mirenna shuddered and jerked for a few seconds then went still, swinging gently in the breeze. Wollam crawled across the deck towards the barrel that he had been moving earlier.
Norik popped the hatch and squirmed out of the chute. He ran over to Ajeb who had lain, barely moving, in a pool of his own blood. He opened his eyes weakly when Norik reached him, and smiled.
"Its just a knife wound," he said. "She didn't bite me. Unlike our dear captain."
Norik pointed the knife towards Wollam. "You have it now," he said. "The weapon is inside you already."
"I know," gasped Wollam, his face twisted in pain. "That's why this ship can never put ashore." He reached out and pushed over the barrel. The sail rolled itself up suddenly, Mirenna's body slammed onto the deck and a thick, yellow liquid spilled out and onto the cooking fire. Whale oil!
Half of the deck was alight in seconds. Wollam was consumed in flame, grinning blindly as his beard turned to ash, the flesh burned from his face. Soon Norik realized he was staring at a blackened skull attached to a body which still appeared to be crawling across the deck. He put his hands under Ajeb's arms, struggled to drag the larger man to the side of the ship, lifted him to standing as best he could then pitched both of them into the water as the fire flared up behind them.
Ajeb lay still in the deep fissure that Norik had carved into the whale's belly. He looked up with wandering eyes as Norik cleaned and bound his wound. The olive-skinned arm was tightly-muscled and bore numerous scars with a dozen skull tattoos spaced irregularly along its length. Some kind of bird had been carved into the skin of his wrist.
"Is this a pigeon?" asked Norik. "Why did they carve it into you?"
"It's a vulture," said Ajeb. "And the story is too long to tell now. I think that draft you gave me is working."
"It will help you sleep while the whale keeps you warm," said Norik. "You won't need food or water for a few days I think. I can get us to Gavask in that time with these." Norik tapped the two blackened planks that he had lashed to the side of the whale, salvaged from the charred wreckage of the Fox.
"What does the amulet look like?" asked Ajeb.
"On me, still the same dull yellow glow. I'm not sick. I think those who are scratched by the bear cubs are protected from the weapon. The adult bears were used to harbour the weapon itself. They slept in the hill for generations and were only woken when under attack. The weapon was passed through one injury to the next, turning men sick and insane, filled with a deadly, insatiable rage. As it went through us, from Geert to Imerk to Mirenna to Wollam, not to mention Tirgun and the others. I think it died in the flames with the Fox. I don't think I have it anymore. What do you think?"
Ajeb did not answer. He was already deeply asleep. Norik shrugged, unfastened his makeshift oars and paddled for home as a fiery midnight sun set slowly behind him.