The whale, its tail, the dolphin, its tale,
the sing-song-sing, calling the sailor or warning the sailor?
The seal’s bark knows it’s not a dog,
yet knows not the man beyond understanding,
the landing, the reef, the shallow waters and the deeps,
where fancy says the dragon sleeps.
But I looked into the dragon’s eye
and stepped inside. Never came back. Not all the way.
A luxurious prison never fully entered, and never left behind.
–Tomes of the Touched
The fifth day aboard the Entiyu Emoño found Ivin brooding alone, seated against the mainmast. The Luxuns went about their work aboard ship, while amongst the clansfolk there was banter and even laughter here and there, but far more tears and curses. He knew they didn’t leave him alone because he wanted to be alone; they left him alone because everyone wrapped themselves in their knitted groups of friends and their own emotional losses. Solineus, Lelishen, and the Luxun Captain were the few people he bothered to expend more than a few words on.
Voices and the clack of sticks brought his eyes from the deck. Solineus and Alu traded blows with wasters, the girl having badgered him into sword lessons the day before. Farmers and city-folk who’d never considered wielding a sword before the last couple of weeks gathered to watch, but they weren’t alone. Sailors and warriors looked on in fascination, imitating the poses and motions. They saluted the Sun, the Moon, the Earth, and the Waves, striking air with empty hands. Whatever training they’d had in the past, it didn’t meet the precision the girl received. Given a few weeks she might have skill enough to give some older boys a beating or two.
Ivin held edged steel by the age of seven and trained for another decade, but the tips on both leverage and judging the pressure of the opponent’s weapon in the bind on her second day with wooden blades were both beyond her and finer than he’d heard in his life, putting words to things Ivin learned through welts and bruises. The man’s easy grace with a blade in his hand struck envy into every warrior’s heart. Ivin watched the man and his smile for Alu, but ghosts of Istinjoln bloomed in his mind’s eye. How did a man without memories fight with such skill?
Some men carried two swords, some an axe and sword, but most still used a shield, with the second weapon a spare in battle. A skeleton gave Solineus two swords, and a couple days later he’s hewing demons as if born with blades instead of hands. To be skilled was one thing, gifted yet another, but the deft precision of the man’s blows were uncanny. When Ivin asked, all he got was a shrug.
A shrieking giggle broke his thoughts, and his eyes flipped to Kinesee, who struggled against the tickles of Lelishen. The sisters were the only children on the ship, a blessing, a reminder of why they needed to live to see the future. They needed a touch of hope in these dark days and seeing children who’d lost so much smile and laugh, forget their woes for even a flicker, gave everyone a lift.
The cry of land from the crow’s nest brought him to his feet, but it was still a good while before the coast came into view beyond bristling masts on the horizon. The walled town of Inster housed maybe seven thousand Teks, but by now Silone refugees outnumbered them. There were larger cities with deep harbors and more supplies they could’ve sailed for, but those were dangerous; Inster and the Choerkin had traded more goods than blows for decades.
Ivin felt as if he could breathe for the first time since Eliles stepped onto the docks of the Watch as the ship drew closer to land. Cooped up on the Entiyu Emoño with nothing but memories to keep him busy grated his nerves, he needed dry land and a purpose.
The ship drew into the shallow coast, and Ivin stood with his gear packed as Captain Intœño stepped to his side. Anchors splashed into the sea, the clangor of rattling chains drowning out the calls of seagulls for several flickers. The man’s feather-hair puffed and relaxed, glinting with blues and greens in its black veins. “You and your friends, we’ll make sure you’re on the first longboat.”
Ivin glanced down at the blue-skinned man, met his golden-topaz eyes. “Thank you.” If all foreigners were as generous as these Luxuns there’d be little fear of the future, but he knew better. Initial word spoke of the Hidreng tolerating the Silone, but that’d been before leaving Herald’s Watch. Thousands more people were scattered along the coast by now, and an official peace needed forged as soon as possible. Roplin had made for the mainland days before them, leading the initial wave of flight from the Watch, but his brother was less a diplomat than Ivin, and no doubt had a thousand problems on his hands.
Solineus, Lelishen, and he were first aboard a longboat as promised, along with the sisters and their pesky goat. Luxun sailors powered the oars with surprising strength considering their slender frames and stature. Ivin sat in silence, lulled by the steady rhythm of oars in the water as he admired their pale blue skin and vibrantly colored hair… or feathers. He wasn’t sure what to call the growth. A noble and giving people, showing kindness to people so different from their own.
“Have you ever been to Hidreng?”
It took several moments to realize Lelishen spoke to him. “What? No, met a few traders and sailors, is all.”
The woman nodded. “You’ve heard of Sin Medor?”
“A city, sure.”
“Yes, the ruling seat of the Duchy of Medor, held by the Kederan family for the past century and a half. But the Duke of Medor is old, grown used to plush chairs, and is of little concern. Your first worry will be the Bishop of Sin Medor, last I knew she was a dull but persistent knife by the name of Postrel. The Bishop serves as the Overseer, acting liaison between the Duke and His High Grace Lomik the Fourth, who will be the real problem.”
Ivin groaned. “Another priest?”
“Get accustomed to it and be grateful it’s the Hidreng you’re dealing with. Pulvuer is their deity amongst the Hokandit Pantheon.”
“Is he like Sol, the king of their gods?”
“The king’s son. Argin was the king, but he was murdered along with his wife by his daughter, Fikeze, during the God Wars, or so they say. Pulvuer is Fikeze’s half-brother, and they are at war.”
“So not only do I have to worry about the politics of mortals, I have to slog my way through bickering false gods?”
She laughed. “They are one and the same in the Hundred Kingdoms, but it is the words of men you will have to find peace with. The Hidreng have a standing army, armored cavalry… they need them to survive. They won’t want to waste warriors and supplies on killing your people, but tread soft.”
Ivin nodded. He’d heard the stories of the hundred Tek kingdoms that stretched a thousand miles to the south, of sprawling cities and armies counting into the tens of thousands, of single battles which counted the dead in numbers greater than the population of any Fost. There would be no war, no serious battle, the Silone could win on Hidreng ground.
The longboat took them east of Inster’s docks, weaving through fishing boats until the Luxun’s put up their oars and jumped into the surf with bare feet and calves, unflinching in cold waters. They hauled the boat to rest on the graveled beach, making certain it didn’t rock and tip as they disembarked.
“Tengkur!” Kinesee yelled as the goat dashed between Ivin’s legs and hop-skipped down the beach, and Alu grabbed Kinesee’s cloak to keep her from giving chase, but the goat didn’t escape for long, returning to butt Ivin in the leg.
Ivin chuckled. “I’m not the only one happy to step on solid ground.”
A chaotic encampment of crude tents spread up and down the coast as far as his eye could see. Several Hidreng traders stood in impromptu shops hawking salt, canvas, and other vitals, including alcohol. No doubt profit was one motive, but keeping all these people out of the small city was another.
“We should find my brother.” He spotted a horse weaving through the tents with Roplin in its saddle before his thought finished. Word of Luxun banners traveled fast.
Roplin dismounted and pounded Ivin’s shoulders in an embrace. “Where’s Eliles?”
Ivin stifled his emotions with tight lips. “She stayed behind to stop the Shadows.”
“I thought she… I’m sorry.”
“Never mind that, I’ll explain later. How’s Rikis? It’d be good to see him.”
“No worse, no better. He’ll live, but how much strength he regains… No one knows.”
The news wasn’t great, but better than he’d feared, and it brought a peculiar pang of optimism. “Where’s Eredin?”
“He took sail further up coast to get an accounting of survivors from the northern Clans. I’d take you to visit Rikis, but there are matters to discuss. We’ve just got a message from the Hidreng offering, demanding, to meet halfway between here and Sin Medor. I’ll attend while you keep the calm here.”
Ivin nodded but Lelishen stepped close. “No. Offer to meet outside Sin Medor, it will help convince them you respect their authority. But, send Ivin.”
“Me?” Ivin spoke little Tekit, and the last time he thought to negotiate, he started a war.
“They’re testing you. You want to show respect, but not too much. Kings wouldn’t travel for this meeting unless with another king, and this way, we’re more apt to meet face to face with the Overseer rather than an underling. I meeting halfway would be half of a meeting. I’ll ride with you, and Solineus, we’ll make his claim to represent Clan Emudar, unless closer Clanblood has arrived.”
Roplin grunted, casting the woman a peevish glare. “I’m no king.”
“It doesn’t matter what title you bear, fool child.”
“Fool child, is it?” Roplin stared at the woman. “I don’t like it, but I’d be a true fool not to accept your advice.” And Ivin suspected that deep down Roplin was more than happy to lay the burden on his little brother. “I’ll make sure to get the message out. How long to reach Sin Medor?”
Lelishen said, “Set the meet for a week from tomorrow, gives us time to settle in, and for them to think.”
Solineus interrupted. “If I might… have you happened to see a tinker with a couple donkeys named Ears?”
Roplin flashed a crooked smile. “Ilpen? Aye. That one’s been right handy, he’s set up amongst a group of smiths over that rise yonder.”
Solineus looked to Ivin. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to take the girls and say hello to the man. Let him know about Eliles.”
Both Ivin and Roplin nodded, and the trio plus one horned beast made their way through the tents. Ivin glanced to his brother. “What have we missed?”
Roplin led his horse. “Walk and talk. Inster’s people have been more generous than expected, and our fisherfolk do well in these waters, but there’ve been incidents. A couple brawls and shouting matches, the only dead thus far are our own and by our own hands. If it were spring, we might build a decent village to survive the winter, maybe plant crops even, but with winter on the way? The bergs will get dangerous for fishing too.”
“Ice might not be so much a danger this year.” Ivin chuckled at the cockeyed glance he got. “Sorry, go on.”
“Outside of camp, I’ve only got rumors to judge by. It’s said some folks didn’t make it as far as Hidreng, and the Brotna slaughtered them, fed them to the sea. What I’ve heard, many Emudar boats landed in those parts.”
Lelishen asked, “Any word of the Emudar family? The Mikjehemluts?”
“Assassinations. I’ve heard of them from every Fost. But who lived, who died, no way to tell the truth thus far. Hells, I’ve heard we’re dead.” He laughed. “We didn’t get so lucky.”
Roplin led them to the crown of a hill and handed his reins to a young boy, and stepped through the flap of a proper tent brought over from the Watch, with fitted elk hide and clean hewn poles. The room held chairs and tables from the Watch, but they’d left behind those in the hall where Kotin died.
Ivin sat, his ass and back enjoying a proper chair with cushions. The three stared across the table at each other until Roplin spoke again, his eyes settling on Lelishen.
“So, now uh, when and how should we send writ to the Edan?”
She looked at him with soft brown eyes, but they faded until blue sparkling with silver shown through, and her round human face gave way to high cheekbones and angular jaw. Ivin knew she wasn’t human, but the transformation was startling. The woman held an inhuman elegance. “I’m certain they know the rudiments of the situation by now, if the Shadows spread far enough north, Silone will have landed on the shores of the Eleris.”
Roplin rubbed his eyes. “That didn’t answer my question.”
“There may not be a right answer. I recommend you wait until I come back from the meet with the Hidreng. I’ll have Captain Intœño take me to the Eleris soon as I get back. If I bear the message, I know it will get to the proper eyes.”
The flap of the tent flipped open, a mustached warrior peeking inside at them before he stepped aside for a silver-haired woman. Ivin smiled. He hadn’t seen her since his mother’s passing, but despite the gray hair and wrinkles, her blue eyes, straight shoulders, and dignified air gave her away as Tedeu, Lady of Clan Ravinrin. Soon after Peneluple’s death, Tedeu’s husband died, leaving the Clan in her hands. Ivin knew Kotin communicated with her, but the woman was too busy to visit the Watch.
“Ivin, I’ll be… The spitting image of your mother.”
“It’s great to see you again, Lady Tedeu.” He bowed, but she strode to him, pinched his cheeks, and gave him a hug.
“I’m so sorry for your losses.”
“Your family? I’d heard all the Clans—”
“They missed me, my boy, missed me. My sons and the Lord Findus are well also.” Findus was her second husband, as Ivin recalled. Lanklin had been her first, a warrior of high repute, who died in a battle at sea with Brotna raiders. Her boys he didn’t remember meeting. “Lanklin’s brothers, their sons and wives… dead or at least missing far as we know. Luck and a keen eye saved us.”
“I don’t care how, it’s good to see a friendly face.”
“I won’t be friendly long, I stopped by for words with your brother.” The woman’s eyes hardened. “Why’d I have to wait on rumor to hear about the Hidreng meeting? And who the Hells is this strange woman?”
Roplin squirmed in his seat. “I was seeing to the Luxun ship—“
Ivin smirked and stepped in, although he doubted there was any way the Lady didn’t recognize a Trelelunin. “This is Lelishen of Eleris.”
Tedeu cast the Woodkin a perfunctory smile for a split flicker before pinning her glare back to Roplin. “I expect a Ravinrin to ride with you, my boy.”
Roplin nodded. “Our Clans have been great friends, your kin would’ve been invited, of course, but seems I’ll be sitting here with you. Lelishen has offered to guide Ivin and Solineus to Sin Medor.”
She cocked her head. “Solineus. A Mikjehemlut, if I’m right? That is good, I’d worried for the Emudar. One of my boys, Tudwan I think, will ride with you.”
Ivin smiled. “As you wish.”
Tedeu sauntered to the table, eyeballing the black shield with its arrowheads on Ivin’s back, and sat. “You’ve become some sort of porcupine, my boy. So, which clans will ride with us?”
Roplin planted his elbows on the table and unfurled a scroll littered with names, many crossed off, some circled. “There isn’t a Broldun here I’d trust with a song, and from what I’ve heard”—he pointed to names—“Borun Mulharth is alive, wounded, but he’s encamped well east and north of here. So are most ranking members of the more northern Clans. Gorum Bulubar is dead, survived by his wife, Heshiu.”
“A decent woman and wise,” said Tedeu.
“She heads the Bulubar Clan now. Lansdir Ulrikt and her entire family are dead except a young daughter, but we’ve word of a couple cousins, Rins and Henrikt.”
Ivin looked over his brother’s shoulder, scanning the parchment. “There’s a Broldun here?”
“Aye, Polus, but we’ve word of closer Clanblood further out.”
Tedeu snorted. “Leave that spitting-fish out of this. Ravinrin, Choerkin, Emudar, we’re the closest of heart and mind. We don’t need some bickering Broldun going mouthy on our hosts.”
Ivin said, “We should send him an invite.”
Roplin’s glare didn’t hide his disgust. “You said yourself the Broldun was with Ulrikt.”
Ivin sat, propped his feet on the table. “A Broldun. As many of them as died, they weren’t all behind Ulrikt and the Shadows of Man.”
Tedeu swatted Ivin’s feet from the table. “Your mother would be ashamed.”
“Of inviting a Broldun or my feet?”
“Both. This one lived, why? He’s here instead of further east with his kin, why?”
Ivin gauged the woman’s eyes before speaking. “I don’t know this Polus Broldun from a weed, but it’s no time to be poking any clan in the eye when Hidreng armies could sit on the horizon any day. Slight them now, we might pay later.”
Roplin said, “It’s you risking your neck on the bastard. You sure? Right then, best not put it off before he comes storming in like our lady here. Joslin! Where did that boy get to?”
The boy’s head slipped through the tent’s flap. “Yes, sir?”
“Find Puxele, have her track down… invite Polus Broldun to our tent in regards to a meet with the Hidreng.”
The boy nodded and darted away.
Roplin gazed at Ivin over propped elbows and tented fingers. “How about you tell us what happened with Eliles while we wait?”
Ivin bowed his head and related the tale.
* * *
Solineus found Ilpen sweating beside a fire, hammering horseshoes, and he already looked like he’d taken in his belt a three notches. He told the tinker of Elilês’s sacrifice while the girls and Tengkur acquainted themselves with Ears and Ears, and Ilpen took a seat on a stool, his face contorted.
“She were alive the last you knew? In the fire?”
“Nothing outside of a god will harm her now. Maybe not then.”
“I’d heard she weren’t dead, I asked the Choerkin boy the other day. Don’t know what to think, figured on seeing her again.”
Kinesee snuck beside the man with a big smile, bouncing on her toes, itching to talk. It took several moments for Ilpen to notice her. “Aye, young lady? I’ve seen that look afore, what you want?”
“Do you work with more than iron?”
“Most times I work copper, why ya ask?”
Kinesee pulled her pearl from her pocket. “I need somethin’ real good to hold this, strong, necklace maybe? No way I can lose it.”
“A setting? Now just how’s a young lass gonna come up with the songs to pay for my valuable time, eh?”
Solineus chuckled. “I wouldn’t dicker with her, or the price will be your sanity.”
“Hmm, well.” Ilpen eyeballed her. “Perhaps she could help with these infernal donkeys?”
“A bargain struck.” Ilpen shook the girl’s hand while she bounced.
“I want a sword,” said Âlu.
“Now that’s plum beyond my expertise, and hard to come by.”
Solineus said, “You can have your great-grandfather’s sword when I deem you ready.”
The girl beamed as Ilpen asked, “She any good?”
“She’s on par with the Elder here, but she’s improving.”
“Hey! I could whoop on that donkey.”
Ilpen grinned. “Don’t you go underestimating four-leggers.”
Âlu rolled her eyes and ran her hand between the Elder’s ears as Solineus changed subjects. “Your family, they’re well?”
“Oh hells, yes!” The man’s jowls jiggled with fervent nods. “Thanks to Puxelê. She got us down to Jimlun, they’d barely heard of nothing happening up north yet, so we managed to get the entire village on boats. It was right slow at first, but a bunch of us caught on with an Emudar cog a day out.”
“Emudar? Nah, not I know of anyway, they hadn’t heard of demons either when came ‘cross them.”
Solineus didn’t know how to feel about the lack of word on his family since he couldn’t remember a single one. “Well, girls, we’d best be heading back. We’ll catch up with the donkeys a bit later, get that pearl set. You know where the Choerkin tent sits?”
Ilpen pointed. “Yonder about ten minutes, just follow the ridge line, that’ll walk you a crooked line straight to it.”
Solineus guided the girls and nudged the goat’s butt to keep from tripping over her as they wound between tents and through people who worked, cleaned, and haggled over prices. It was amazing how life moved on despite the tragedy these people suffered, riven from their homes, many losing loved ones. Of course, that was what he had done. He’d lost his memories, so in a sense, he lost everything, but in a matter of days he’d taken two girls and their family as his own, made alliances, and even found himself falling for a woman. Not that the Trelelûnin would ever feel the same, just because she looked human didn’t make her so.
Might as well as fall in love with a perfect vision in my dreams.
Thunder rolled and he glanced to the south. The sky was blue above, but thunderheads billowed black on the horizon. He prodded the goat and smiled at the girls. “Let’s get a move on before we get drenched.”
The walls of the Choerkin tent whipped in strong gusts by the time he and the girls found their way. They ducked inside happy to be dry. Ivin and Rôplin sat at a table with an older woman, staring at him, but Lelishên wasn’t here. “Looks like we got a good one blowing in.”
Ivin stood and waved him to the table. “Solineus Mikjehemlut, this is Tedêu, head of the Râvinrin. The girls are Âlu and Kinesee.”
The girls curtsied and spoke in unison. “Nice to meet you, m’lady.” Kinesee added, “And this is Têngkur, my goat.”
Solineus bowed his head before making his way to a chair. “If we’ve met before, my pardons. I hit my head when the Restên sank, and remember very little.”
“So the boys were telling me. No, we’ve never had the pleasure since before you started walking, though I’ve known many of your kin. I do hope more find their way to the mainland.”
The flap of the tent opened and Puxelê slipped through in front of a broad chested man. His head was bald but a shaggy red beard stretched from his chin to the middle of his chest. He made his way to the table with muscle bound strides and slammed a bottle on the table. “Choerkin, Choerkin, Lady Râvinrin.” He nodded to each before looking to Solineus. “And who the hells are you?”
Rôplin said, “Solineus Mikjehemlut, of Clan Emudar, this is Polus Broldun.”
Solineus smiled. “The one who gutted your Lord Priest.”
The man’s eyes snapped wide, but he chuckled. “Dûnkôl wasn’t a whoreson, a son-of-a-bitch who won’t be missed by many. But he was kin, you’d do well to watch your words.”
“I just didn’t want you to hear it from anyone else. All things under the sun where they can be seen.”
“Well enough.” Polus’ voice was bass and raspy as he grabbed the cork on the bottle and popped it. “It’s been decades since Broldun and Choerkin sat at the same table, we’d best drink, mmm? Glasses? I’ll start.” He took a drink from the bottle and wiped his mouth before Jôslin nabbed the whiskey and poured for the remaining group. “Now, why the Hells am I here?”
Rôplin said, “My brother Ivin, Solineus, Tûdwân Râvinrin, and a Trelelûnin woman will be riding to Sîn Medor to meet with the Hîdrêng. We’d like to invite you along.”
“A sad godsdamned day when I’m the Broldun picked for talking. I’ve kin elsewhere, if we send word.”
Ivin said, “I don’t think we want to keep the Overseer waiting.”
“Mmm. Every Tek I ever met was a fly’s breath from a coward. I’d say let ‘em wait, but no one ain’t ever accused me of tact.” He chuckled, and held his glass for Jôslin to pour. “I’ll ride with you any damned day you like, but a question has to be answered first. What the hells are we looking for from the Hîdrêng?”
“That’s what we’re here to decide on, I think,” said Ivin.
“Mmm. What’s the best we hope for, what’s the least we take? I might lack in tact but I ain’t stupid. If they offer up our settling, but we bow to their whims, what then, mmm?”
Solineus was loathe to admit it, but the man had a point. They were like drunks spurring their horses into the woods, they needed to stop to think or some branch would knock them to their asses. In this case, the branch bore an edge. Solineus said, “What’s our goal? To take Kaludor from the demons and return home. That’s what we ask for time to do.”
“And what, they feed our women and children as we sail back and forth?”
Ivin said, “We feed our own, we’ve fisherfolk—“
“Mmm, a Hîdrêng ship sails into that bay of yours and leaves with a mess of fish, whose fish are those? What makes us worth those fish?”
Solineus caught sight of Lelishên entering the tent and smiled. There was no way around their lack of cards to play, and the one they had was blind. He said, “The threat of war with the Êdân.”
“And what makes you think the Woodkin give a goat’s shit about us? No offense to this fine critter here on the table.”
Kinesee grabbed Têngkur by a horn and pulled her back to the ground, blushing.
Lelishên said, “The threat might be enough, for a time. The Hîdrêng have opportunistic neighbors to the west and south, pulling men from their borders, let alone the Eleris, would invite trouble. We’ll make sure the Overseer realizes we’re aware of their weakness.”
“Mmm. What’s our fallback? Bastard gives us two months, six, a year to skedaddle, what then?”
Rôplin said, “Soon as these talks are done, Lelishên will speak with the Êdân. We won’t know what we can manage until then. A temporary truce, anything to keep the peace for now.”
“Mmm. That’s the best we got?”
Solineus said, “I reckon so.”
Rôplin asked, “Will you speak for the Broldun?”
Polus threw back his drink and waved an empty glass at Jôslin, and quaffed another, shaking his head with a grin. “The plan is half-assed and still bloody in the middle, and you’ll hate me more than you already do for saying it, but I’m in.”
Solineus fought a grin. His head lacked a single memory of a Broldun except the one he killed, but he was having a hard time disliking this one. They stood and raised their glasses in salute.
Rôplin said, “To new alliances and old.”
“Mmm. To survival!”
“Survival.” Solineus couldn’t argue with the sentiment. For the time being it wasn’t the most they could hope for, but it might be the best they could expect.
Thunder crackled and heavy rain drummed the tent’s hide, driven by a gust. All the more reason to sit, finish the bottle, and discuss possibilities.