Thirty

The last thing Sulma grabbed was her broom. She had taken little else with her–a few extra pelts, a few pounds of cured meat, a small textile she could perhaps use as a lean-to. None of it would do her much good if she couldn’t find the man in the dark leathers. She’d seen his face, but not the path to him. But she couldn’t wait any longer. Her broom could come with her and she would dust the path as she walked it, until its destination became clear.

“Sulma!”

It was Baultu’u, running up behind her, trying to catch up. She kept walking.

“Sulma!” he called again. He had no intention of allowing her to leave.

“Let her go,” she heard another yell.

She saw Baruli’i lingering near the edge of camp, watching her go. The old crone was shaking her head. She always was a judgmental cow. The worst of the other shamans. Sulma could feel Baruli’i’s eyes boring into the back of her skull as she walked, and an impulse took over. Sulma spun around and barked, “How do you feel, Baruli’i? Condemning a poor, scared soul to death. And for what? Choosing peace over war? I don’t recognize this tribe anymore.”

“You’re only lucky you were a never a warrior to begin with,” Baruli’i snarled back. “Or I’d gladly send a Retriever to bring you to heel, too.”

“I’d like to see you try!”

Baultu’u slowed his jog as he came up next to Baruli’i. “Don’t trade barbs with her. It’s the last thing we need.”

“You’re the only one who cares if she goes.”

“Well he can stop caring!” Sulma shouted back. “I don’t need his concern. How’d you see it, anyway? You good-for-nothing’s always had the vision of an earthworm.”

Baruli’i laughed vindictively.

“Don’t,” Baultu’u warned.

But Baruli’i knew it would sever them for good. It was for the best of the tribe. “You loon,” she crowed. “We didn’t have to see it. We heard it…from you!”

Sulma stopped dead in her tracks and clenched her fists. She could stomach a lot, but this aspersion was too much to bear. “That’s a lie,” she roared. But all at once, it hit her. She knew the only person she had told, the only way they could trace the information back to her…The knife in her back dropped her to her knees. “No,” she choked. “You didn’t.” She looked up, wrath beaming out of her wild, wounded eyes. “You son of a bitch.” She gripped Baultu’u with a look that crushed him. It was not hatred. That he could have accepted. But this was something more primal. A revulsion that rooted deeper in her gut, producing the rotten, wormed fruit of disgust. “You don’t need the Godsmiths’ clarity,” she said. “You need their forgiveness.”

***

Akura’a looked at the dwarves like they must be joking. “This?”

Haveraul nodded, his grin as wide as his gut. “You ever been?”

She shook her head.

“Much easier than hoofin’ it across the continent. Faster.”

Her neck craned, trying to take the whole of the ship in. The sun was filtered through the linen sails, and the light that painted her face was soft and diffuse. The wind billowed the fabric and plucked the rigging like a string instrument.

“We take small boats on the inland rivers, the meres. But this…”

“Don’t tell me an orc is scared of the water,” Rovel said.

“Don’t know,” Haver said. “They’re pretty solid. Prolly do sink like stones. In fact, we know this one does!” His heavy, chugging guffaw drew the attention of some of the others crowding the pier and Laterra socked him.

“Shut up, you old coot.”

They all started up the gangplank, but Akura’a stayed put.

The four circled round on the deck, unsure what to do.

“She’s broken,” Laterra said matter-of-factly. “Don’t know that there’s nothin’ we can do for her.”

“We can’t just leave her, though,” Rovel said, scratching at his beard.

“‘Course not,” Haveraul said. “Wouldn’t dream of it.”

“But if it’s gonna be like this every step of the way…we can’t take her, either,” Rovel reckoned, playing out both sides of the argument. “I mean, it’s hard enough making it in the Far-flungs if you’re healthy and strappin’. You show up a shell…won’t last long at all.”

Darben had enough–“Are your souls as calloused as your gnarled feet? What kinda dwarves are ye?”

“Darb’s right,” Haveraul said. “We’ll do what dwarves do best: exactly what we can.” He walked back down the gangplank to get her. She was completely frozen in place. Her pupils were the only thing that moved as she sized the ship up, examining it as if it were a problem to solve. He said nothing, and instead, simply extended his hand to her.

She looked at is as skeptically as she did the vessel.

He insisted, holding his fingers out even wider.

Her posture slackened and her eyes quit buzzing nervously. She held her hand out and took his. She tried to be delicate–it was so much smaller than hers–but his grip was firm and comforting.

He nodded cheerfully and began back up the ramp with Akura’a just a step behind.

Laterra was busy checking their wares one last time, making sure everything was secured in the carts, but Darben and Rovel were leaned against the rail and watched them walk up.

“Don’t worry,” Rovel said, “I’ll keep ya entertained. Won’t even give you time to think ‘bout the sea serpents lurkin just a few fathoms deep.” He winked and Darben just rolled his eyes. “Got lotsa good tales best told at sea. Even better: most of ‘em got tunes. Call ‘em ‘chanteys!”

“If only he had the voice for it,” Haveraul said. “C’mon, lass. I’ll show you ‘round below deck. And be prepared: it might take you a minute to get your sea legs.”

None of them noticed the figure perched on the cliff just to the west of the city. Its scaly, muted green skin provided perfect cover among the moss-dusted rocks, and he stood stone-still as the water continued to beat relentlessly against the shore below. The gargoyle’s eyes narrowed, locked onto his prey. His hunt was nearly at its close.

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