Part 1: The City
It came to pass that the Ancestors spoke unto Karin: Thou shalt speak all that we command thee. And the Ancestors said: we will give thee tablets of stone, and a law, and commandments. These islands are your lands. Your children's lands. None shall lay claim to them whilst you follow these laws. For you are stewards over this archipelago and have dominion over all therein.
It shall come to pass that others will desireth this for their own. And this will be your covenant: thou shall strike down without mercy any man, woman or child.
Any who come from outside shall reap this judgment.
Book of Commands 1:12
Caerlin Kengarl stared towards the distant Bay of Kelmardos, her destination a distant smudge. There was going to be a spectacular sunrise, with a slice of fierce vermillion already catching the wrinkled underbelly of the blanket cloud shrouding the eastern sky. Red sky in the morning, sailor’s warning. It was what her father would have said, not that she had ever listened to him.
She stood with her hand against the cold wood of the main mast. Her boat, The Piper, moved slowly, making the most of the westerly, which soughed through the rigging above her, a rhythmic clanking keeping time with the wash of water under the prow. The Piper was a trading vessel, and whilst not built for speed, it was practical, with two masts, a small cabin, a space below for the galley, sleeping dormitory and hold, which took up most of the space. Designed for island hopping and large river navigation, for the last six months the boat had been her charge. She felt wistful about the approaching end to this arrangement.
The River Harnon coursed slowly through the plains, the flow swollen with recent rainfall. It would get worse, with many villages from this point down to the sea raised on stilts to avoid flooding in the spring. At Borignan - a small stilt settlement - the river’s course narrowed slightly, cutting through a rocky granite outcrop, which formed a cliff face on the south side. During the pre-dawn glow, both banks were dark and quiet except for the early morning birdcalls. Caerlin stared at the dawn light as if searching for hope, her brow furrowed, her hand pushing errant strands of dark hair back into her topknot. She chewed the inside of her cheek.
“O’er there. Caerlin. Real quiet,” said Luddiniel Kheroum, her first mate, his baritone cutting through the morning air. She saw the glow of flame again. They travelled by early morning gloom or twilight to avoid questions and to have the river to themselves. The presence on the north bank of the Harnon probably meant nothing, but they had to be careful. She could feel the boat changing direction, a degree starboard towards the cliff, and unconsciously she checked the presence of her knife, tucked against her thigh. She took out a brass telescopic lens, recently acquired from the capital, Kendrach, and wiped moisture off the glassy surface with a polishing cloth. She pressed it to her eye, the metal slick against her skin. Nothing.
The flow nearer the cliff was faster, the boat bobbing slightly as it caught in the current. She could sense as much as see movement, as Luddiniel adjusted the halyard on the rear sail. The black granite cliff slid past with increasing speed. “Watch that current Lud,” she said.
“I'm on it. Scaerne, get the wheel.”
He came forward, passing Caerlin with his solid frame, arms thicker than her legs, scarred and worn from his time at sea. He grinned, his eyes catching hers, before adjusting the front sail. The unlikely friendship had formed whilst working the route from Yarln to Helrinn. When she had been offered The Piper and the lucrative job of running the Harnon, he had jumped at the opportunity to crew a river freight. His fifty years had taken their toll, his features forming a chaotic mix: a broken nose, cauliflower ears and a jagged scar under one eye. Wrinkled and blotched from being in the sun, his time on The Piper had led to some of his former muscle relaxing into fat. A small tummy spilled over his belt in a way it never used to. His arms were large, but had an undefined look that came from excess. Caerlin knew he still intimidated those who didn’t know him. Despite his softening body, he would hold his own in a fight.
“We can follow this current up past the cliff. Another mile or so,” she said, looking ahead at the rose tinted valley to where the lowering cliff met the riverbank, dark coniferous trees overhanging the channel. “I don't think there's any bother. We would know by now.”
Lud pulled himself up onto the wooden cabin roof next to her. “What d’you think of Scaerne?”
“Why?” Caerlin looked back at the most recent addition to her small crew. She needed at least two others to sail the Piper. Scaerne had seemed ideal: experienced, in need of work, a little desperate and happy not asking too many questions.
“I'm not sure. Last night, when you were asleep. She didn't know I was on deck. She seemed different. More awake.”
Scaerne certainly appeared distracted. It was as if she were hiding something - as if she were preoccupied too much of the time.
“Also, back in Gospirden. She seemed to know that bastard Ghoerden. I thought I saw him wink at her. Watch yourself.”
“That ‘bastard’ Ghoerden is the reason we're making money,” she replied.
“That might be. Something's up though.”
Caerlin coughed, nodding astern as Scaerne approached. She was lithe and skinny, her dark hair cut tight to her head; she could have easily passed for a young militiaman. Her only nod to femininity was a stylised flower and vine tattoo that ran up her right arm from her wrist. She moved with a dancer’s ease across the deck.
“It's all locked down Lud. I can't see any more lights.” She sat herself next to him. “What's for breakfast? I'm starving.” He was the ship’s cook, being the only one who actually would. He pulled a rueful smile.
“Oats. Nothing much left now till we get to Kendrach.” He got up with a final look at Caerlin and headed through the companionway to the small cabin doorway and down the tiny flight of steps to the galley. Scaerne stood up next to her, gazing back at the village.
“I used to know someone in that village. A boy,” she said. “Soft as butter, kind, romantic and a lousy lover.” She smiled to herself. “It didn't last long.”
“What're you going to do in Kendrach, Scaerne?” Caerlin looked carefully at the woman, examining her. Scaerne continued to stare at the stilt settlement.
“I don't know. Some money in my pocket. A bit of time in the city of dreams. See what kind of trouble I can get into.” She trailed off, biting her lip. “You?”
“Business mainly. Need to get the vegetables sold and cleared out.” The boat’s hold was full of root vegetables, the turnips and potatoes hiding the real business - chaulka - which none of the crew openly talked about. Chaulka, the herb that grew in the volcanic altitudes of Yarln, the chief ingredient of Farrx, or Far X as the dealers called it. As the drug of choice among wealthier Kendrachians, Gheordian had become wealthy through its illegal transportation down the Harnon.
But, so will I.
Caerlin pushed the thought away. She was gripping the guardrail so tightly her knuckles were white. Scaerne was watching her, and - for the merest second - she caught something. A cunning awareness, quickly hidden.
“This sky makes me worry a little. About the future,” Scaerne said, gesturing towards the horizon's deepening red glow. “Do you ever think about the future Caerlin?”
“No. I focus on the job in hand. When I get home, I might think about the future." This was a lie. All she thought about was the future. This would be her last trip on The Piper and once she had delivered the goods, she would be gone and they would never find her.
“This is good. You're lucky you know.” Scaerne got to her feet and headed towards the galley. “I'm going to help with the breakfast.”