7

Alarm

The thanoi called Long-Swim Greatfin died during the short, ghostly night, not with a sudden collapse but with a gradual slumping along the cockpit bench. He uttered no distinguishable sound, made no dramatic final gestures. Indeed Kerrick didn’t at first notice that the soft, sonorous breathing had ceased.

The elf had fully raised his three sails and marked a course along the Icereach coast, still heading west. The winds were strong from the north-the night had brought the first real rush of summer air-and Cutter heeled hard against the pressure, fairly flying over the waves, bumping rhythmically into the crests before lunging into every trough. With water slapping against the hull, and clouds often obscuring the waxing moon, the elf failed to notice his passenger’s lifeless state until the first predawn light suffused the sky.

The walrus-man’s eyes stared dully in death. Gently Kerrick closed them. He removed the golden collar and set it in the cabin. After a pause, he lifted the tusk on the leather strap from around the creature’s neck, setting the surprisingly lightweight object on the cockpit bench. Then he covered the body with a tarp, wrapped it tightly, and slowly eased it over the side. He shivered, even though the sun had appeared above the horizon, spilling rays that warmed the elf, his boat, and the sea. From the depths of his memory came a short prayer for the sea-dead, a chant from the early days of the Fallabrine clan:

From the waters to the waters, Ending and beginning, There is always the ocean. There is only the ocean.@@

The watery burial site quickly fell behind as the boat surged eagerly forward. Kerrick stayed at the tiller, clenching the wooden shaft far more tightly than he needed to.

“What’s in there?”

The elf looked up in shock as Coraltop Netfisher ambled around the cabin to join him in the cockpit. The kender’s hair was tied in a long topknot, and he was clad in the green tunic and leggings that had-eight years earlier-been his standard outfit. It had been that long since Kerrick had seen his old shipmate, and the elf found the sudden appearance stunning and disconcerting.

“Coraltop?” blurted the elf. “Is it you!” He paused, shaking his head against a sudden, disorienting sense of dizziness. “Or did I fall and knock my head?”

With a sudden lunge Kerrick reached out and seized the kender by his wrist. The elf squeezed hard, feeling the most astonishing thing he could imagine-flesh and bone beneath his grip. He stared into Coraltop’s face, saw his old companion scowl angrily, squirming and pulling away with startling strength and energy.

“Hey-that hurts! Let go of me!”

Only then did Kerrick realize that he was still clutching the thin but wiry arm. “Sorry,” he said, released his grip. “I just… had to see if you were real.”

How could he be real? But if he wasn’t real, what was he? Looking at him, Kerrick found himself chuckling in amazement, for whatever was the explanation he felt himself pleased at the sight of his old shipmate.

“It’s good to see you, old friend,” he said.

Coraltop breezed past, sat down, and kicked his feet against the locker under the bench. “So, what is in that tusk?” he asked. “Did you look yet? Are you going to look? Cuz I’ll look if you don’t want to, but I think one of us should take a look-”

“Yes, I was going to take a look… eventually.”

“It’s hollow, isn’t it?” Coraltop asked enthusiastically. Yes, Kerrick realized, it was hollow, some kind of storage tube that seemed tightly sealed. A glance revealed the cap at one end, which he promptly unscrewed, while Coraltop hopped to his feet, stood at his side, and danced from foot to foot trying to see.

“Look! A piece of paper! Is it a map-maybe a treasure map? I wonder if there’s diamonds! You know, I’ve always wanted to have a nice diamond or two. I hope it’s a map to diamonds! If it’s a map, can we go there-will you take me?”

“It looks more like a letter,” Kerrick interrupted, having removed and unrolled the piece of parchment while the kender prattled on.

“A letter, not a map?” Coraltop said with an exaggerated pout. He plopped down on the bench, crossed his arms, then brightened. “Well, what does it say?”

“I’m trying to figure it out,” replied the elf, squinting at a script that was exceptionally ornate, apparently inscribed by a rather clumsy hand using a very blunt pen. The words were vaguely legible. It was a struggle to recognize the symbols and the words.

“Read it out loud!” insisted his companion, and Kerrick obliged. Even though the missive was short, deciphering the fancy script made his progress somewhat halting.

“‘My Dear Queen Mother,’ it begins. Let’s see, mmm… ‘Thank you for the treasure you sent, in the hands of this loyal thanoi-’”

“I told you it was about treasure!” the kender proclaimed with glee. “Does it mention diamonds? Does it say how many there are?”

The elf ignored the questions, speaking slowly, concentrating. “‘We now have the means to our end, as you are no doubt aware. I cannot tell you exactly when we will act. My wife and I are in some disagreement on this point. However, I assure you that we will take action. When we do so, our objective will be accomplished. Brackenrock will be utterly and completely destroyed.’” Kerrick felt a chill. His hand was shaking as he finished. “It’s signed by Grimwar Bane, King of Suderhold.”

“It doesn’t say where the treasure is?” Coraltop pressed. “Or even if there’s diamonds? I really really hoped there’d be diamonds….”

Kerrick was barely listening. He scrutinized the words again, read the letter a third time to make sure he had made no mistake understanding the message. Then he slumped back against the transom and looked at his companion with a sense of frustration mingled with deep fear.

“What is it?” Coraltop asked. “No diamonds?”

The elf shook his head. “Worse. It means that Moreen and her people are in grave danger.” He looked at the sea, dazzling in the new morning, and at the coastline slipping past a few miles to port. He thought of home and thought of Brackenrock. There was no choice-his duty was clear.

“It means,” he said bitterly, thoughts of Silvanesti vanishing, “that I have to go back there and warn her.”

The wind held fair for three days, and Kerrick slept at the tiller each night. Coraltop Netfisher settled in as if he had never left, and the elf noted-even if Coraltop was imaginary-the little fellow seemed to eat plenty of fish and drink lots of fresh water. As well he frequently sampled the flask of warqat the elf had brought along, loudly smacking his lips and complaining about the stinging burn, the harsh taste, then helping himself to more.

The elf studied the letter, taking it out to read and reread, wondering about what kind of weapon could level Brackenrock. How would it work? No doubt there was magic at work… foul magic worked by this mysterious “alchemist.”

Despite the many questions in his mind, Kerrick had no doubt about one thing: The letter described a real threat. The elf would have bet his sailboat and all his gold upon that.

On the last night of his return voyage he awakened with a start to the memory of a haunting dream, a dream of loss and tragedy and lives wasted. There were familiar images, a shipfitter’s shop with forge alight, a shining ring held out to Kerrick by a strong hand, and a shadowy presence that vanished before the young elf could speak. He knew, instinctively, this was a dream about his father.

He stayed awake the rest of that brief night, allowing Coraltop to have the bunk in the cabin while he remained on deck and watched the arrival of the clear dawn. As the sun poked into view again, he spied the heights of Brackenrock off the starboard bow. When he went to awaken his shipmate, he half-expected what he found. The kender had vanished and could not be located anywhere on the boat.

He was once again alone as he steered Cutter into the harbor, where he wasted no time tossing his lines to the wharf. A crowd of Arktos had gathered as soon as he sailed into sight, and willing hands made the boat fast, while cheerful boatmen greeted him. Kerrick bounded onto the wharf, shoving past the welcoming handclasps.

“Stow the sails for me,” he told several eager lads, then looked up the steep road climbing away from the harbor. “I’ve got to see Moreen.”

“Do you believe it?” Moreen fixed an eye on Kerrick, knowing that he couldn’t lie to her even if he’d wanted to. “Could it be some kind of trick?”

“I believed it enough to turn around and come back here,” he said impatiently. “Long-Swim Greatfin was on a mission for the ogre king-or queen-that much I know. He was wounded badly, fatally as it turned out, and the wounds looked like shark bites. I’m certain that wasn’t any ruse. And he was wearing that ornament.”

He gestured to the royal collar, shining gold on the table before the chiefwoman. Other Arktos-Bruni and Mouse among them-were in the great hall, standing in a loose ring a few paces away from the table where they talked. The elf pointed at the letter, which Moreen held in her hand. “This was inside an ivory tube, borne by the thanoi on his return toward the island he called ‘Dracoheim’.”

“I had hoped for more time to prepare for the next attack on Brackenrock, though I knew it would come someday,” the chiefwoman said soberly. “Still, I allowed myself to believe that it would not happen for many, many years. Now it would appear that our time is short, and our need to prepare is immediate. Thank you for bringing this fortuitous warning. Did the thanoi give you any sense of when this attack would occur?”

“Not really,” the elf admitted. “It’s in the works, I would guess. This year, probably.” He was impressed by her coolness, by the detachment and steadiness with which she appeared to shift from peace to war.

She addressed all of them. “With our people scattered across the coast, I don’t know how we can stand against a full-strength attack-if they have some new terror to unleash. I’d like to know what that weapon is, how we can prepare for it!”

“I have already cast the bones,” declared Dinekki, her voice carrying through the great hall even though she had just entered from the far door. The shaman was stooped, small, and rather far away, but her presence seemed larger than that of anyone else in the room. Kerrick immediately felt better now that she was here.

The elder hobbled slowly across the floor, and the elf saw Moreen bite her lip with impatience, though she stood still and waited for the elder to cross the large room.

“Welcome back,” the shaman said to Kerrick, and he was surprised to note the mischievous twinkle in her eye. “It is good to see you here, where you belong.”

“What did you learn, Grandmother?” asked Moreen, the urgency of the question underlined by her clipped tone. Kerrick, meanwhile, was strangely moved by her words. His regret and frustration about turning back were gone-he felt that Dinekki was right. This was where he belonged, at least now, in this hour of need.

“The danger is real but not imminent. That is, it does not lurk just beyond sunset, or tomorrow’s dawn,” replied the elder. “Chislev in her mercy revealed much to me, and I know that the ogres have not yet made necessary preparations to depart their stronghold.”

“That gives us some time, another week at the very least and hopefully longer,” Moreen said quickly. She addressed the gathered Arktos. “Send runners to each village along the coast. Tell the people we need them here, in Brackenrock. They should bring their livestock and move here at once.”

She turned and walked away from the table, then abruptly wheeled. Her face was grave, her eyes introspective. When she looked up she spoke, not to Kerrick, but to Dinekki.

“I must send a message to Strongwind Whalebone and arrange an immediate meeting,” she said. “I fear we need the help of the Highlander leaders, and he is the only one who can rally the clans.” She turned back to the elf. “Kerrick, will you take me across the strait as soon as he can see me?”

He hesitated. His last hope of going home was dashed by her request. And he had not come back to take Moreen to plead for the help of the man who so steadfastly sought an alliance with her by marriage. Her eyes widened, her expression strangely imploring, and he could not deny her.

“Yes, of course,” the elf replied firmly, though, inside, he felt a kernel of the old resentment and a growing fear of coming events.

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