Mir’kadi, Eighteenth of Sund’im
Rime thickened along the Swoughünd’s hull until she began to list sideways. The cries of her captain pierced the morning fog, sending sailors scampering into the frozen harbor. They descended along the docks with pickaxes and clubs, ready to break the ship free of the ice.
Ice floes the size of barges had washed down from upriver into the channel, where they buckled upon each other and blocked access to the sea. Somewhere in the fog, Gøran heard the crack of wood. Eight carracks loaded with lumber, precious furs and ore had fallen prey to the ice. If he didn’t act quickly the ships would be crushed.
“Ring the bell or we’ll lose the fleet,” Gøran yelled.
A ruddy-cheeked urchin bolted up the snowdrifts, falling several times before reaching the lookouts’ hill. “Ring the bell!” he cried. “Ring the bell!”
Over the splintering wood, groaning ice and the cries of men a bell began to toll. It rang twice, paused, then rang twice again. The pattern repeated, piercing the fog that enveloped the Thrommish city of Thyra. A quarter-hour passed before the first peasants armed with clubs ambled down to the docks.
“Fight the ice!” Gøran yelled, running alongside his men.
Armed with a hammer, the sea captain joined the fray. He had planned to sail to the southern port of Carr at week’s end. No one could have anticipated a deep freeze for at least another month.
More and more people poured onto the docks until the sound of breaking ice became a roar. Somewhere, the ice cracked, followed by screams as half-frozen men fell into the frigid waters. Gøran cursed his luck, beating the side of the ship with renewed vigor.
The sun rose to the cries and songs of tired men. The first ship to escape her icy prison was the Erika. Her hull bobbed up and righted. The force snapped her mizzenmast in two. The mast swung, suspended by ropes, then crashed to the quarterdeck. The sound of splintering wood ground against Gøran’s ears. It was a nightmarish, dreaded sound.
The cold seeped under the hides, invading every pocket of warmth. Beneath his mittens, the skin of Gøran’s hands was reddened and cracked. Gøran worked alongside his men until his vision grew bleary and his limbs shook. It was past midday before the temperature rose high enough to dislodge the ice. Only then did Gøran seek the refuge of his cabin.
“You do not fear being crushed by the frost gods, do you?” Gøran asked, closing the door behind him.
Under the pile of furs strewn upon Gøran’s bed, someone stirred. “Gods do not write men’s destinies,” a female voice replied.
“But women certainly do,” said Gøran, his mood growing lighter.
A woman twenty years Gøran’s junior, with green eyes and olive skin, surfaced bare-breasted from beneath the covers. “Come, find your warmth between my thighs,” she crooned, pulling the covers aside.
The myriad of wrinkles on Gøran’s face crinkled as he smiled, feasting on the goose bumps that raced across Vira’s naked body. The petite Calantian girl had inspired more joy in the last three months than all of his wives combined. The Bissatiel man shrugged off his cloak and kicked off his boots. The girl licked her lips suggestively while her lover peeled his tunic from his chest.
Gøran dropped his shirt on the floor and unbuckled his breeches. In two steps, he crossed his cabin to the foot of the bed. He threw the covers over his head and crawled beneath them. The squeals of the woman filled the room as he closed his cold-chapped hands around her ankles. Gøran pulled her down and was about to pry her legs apart when he was interrupted by a heavy knock at his door.
“What?” Gøran cried out.
His first mate’s voice came muffled. “Urgent news, captain. A Whisperer has ridden north from Lyrin.”
Gøran eased himself from the pelts and buckled his pants as he crossed the room. He opened the door. “A Whisperer, you say?”
The first mate eyed the woman in Gøran’s bed appreciatively. “Yes, he demands to see you immediately.”
Gøran straightened and slicked back his snow-white locks. “Go,” he hissed to the woman.
Without a word, Vira slipped on her fur boots and wrapped herself in a pelt. She walked past the two men with a polite nod. “I’ll be in the galley warming my belly with your wine.”
“The nerve on that one,” said the first mate.
Gøran’s eyes were grim. “It seems we cannot appease the gods this day. Escort the riders to the chart room.”
Gøran closed his cabin door and turned to face the door that connected his cabin with the chart room. He had heard of the mysterious sect of Seh’nahiel messengers who rode like the wind, but had never met one in person. Rumor told that they rode fearlessly to their destinations, passing unseen even through the midst of battles. Neither inclement weather nor adverse terrain deterred the Whisperers. Gøran’s palms began to sweat.
He opened the door to the chart room and closed it behind him. He took a seat behind his cluttered desk and waited.
Gøran stood as a strong wind slammed the door open. Charts and maps flew from their shelves. Oil lamps were extinguished. Three riders cloaked in crimson, bearing the sigils of A’diel, stepped into the room. Their feet made no sound upon the weathered planks. The wind died down in Gøran’s cabin, but continued to buffet the riders. Their long hair and cloaks whipped about as if caught in an unseen storm.
Two of the riders stood on either side of the door, hands over the pommel of their blades as the man in the center moved forward. “You are Captain Gøran Rarikian, Commander of the Northern Fleet of Thyra?”
Gøran straightened to his full height. “I am.”
The man pushed his hood back to reveal a gaunt, yet hauntingly beautiful face. “I am Anadern Stormsinger, Twelfth Herald of the City of A’diel.” The door to the chart room was slammed shut by a sudden gust of wind. “I have ridden north from Lyrin to deliver a message from Ther’oldo Ers, the Blackspur Ambassador in Reyza. Will you accept its delivery?”
Gøran nodded. “Yes.”
The Whisperer’s slim body convulsed as if hit by lightning. Gøran flinched, taking a step back. He watched in awe as the young man entered a trance, continuing to tremble. The uncanny wind picked up, whirling around him like a supernatural tempest. An inner light shone from the depths of Anadern’s sea-green eyes. Through his lips came a foreign, disembodied voice. “Captain Rarikian, listen carefully. On the seventh of Sund’im, Tan’os Ensther was murdered along with most of his household staff. His daughter, Avaren, recently betrothed to Jarle Rigo Iarris, is missing. The Jarle has issued a public decree accusing a local thief by the name of Jarle Jadien of the deed. But I have good reason to suspect Rigo’s newfound ally, the Dessian Ambassador Neylen Akkalon, as the true culprit. I will do everything within my power to learn more about this heinous crime and recover Tan’os’ daughter. Such dire news should not come to our Strommarch from the mouth of a stranger. I leave it to you to inform Rhiess Ensther of his father’s death. May the glories of Cel grant you fair weather.”
As the last word was uttered, the Whisperer’s body grew limp. In an instant his two protectors were at his side. With a respectful nod in Gøran’s direction, they supported their comrade until the wind quieted. Anadern stood with the help of his men. “We are sworn to secrecy under penalty of death. Our lips and hearts are sealed. We require your permission to depart. Do you give us leave?”
Gøran narrowed his eyes. “Your reputation precedes you. I don’t imagine you would take no for an answer.”
Though he was visibly exhausted, a knowing smile blossomed on Anadern’s face. “A mere formality, Captain,” he said, managing a shallow bow. “May fortune smile upon you.”
A storm brewed behind Gøran’s gray eyes as he nodded his consent.