Chapter Two Castaways
“Anything?” Tavia snatched her dark hair back, struggling to rescue it from a savage gust of cold wind.
“Nothing,” Oirion said. He shook his head wearily, his gray hair whipping around in his face as he sank onto a boulder. They had been scouring the shore all day and had seen neither wreckage nor signs of life, animal or otherwise. Life on this lone mountain of stone was harsh and promising to get harder.
“A few clams,” said Riven, folding his arms over his chest. He kicked open the filthy red scarf at his feet, exposing a dozen clams scarcely bigger than coins.
“We need to move on,” Tavia said, disgusted at the lack of find. They had hunted the shore and found little, and in the few trips out in the grassland that surrounded them, they had found even less.
“I don’t like it,” Kelly growled. Her great mass emerged from the mouth of the cave, the cave that had been their home for far too long. Her muscular bulk filled most of the entrance. “At least here we have shelter.” She had made more trips out into the grass than the others and liked it less every time.
Tavia retied her lashing hair with a long cotton string and then turned to the larger woman. “I don’t like it any more than you do, but we need to do something. We can’t stay here forever,” she said with a short tone, her diplomacy nearly at an end. Ivan had been in a seriously pestering mood all day and had worn on them all. Tavia was not upset at Kelly; it was just the situation wearing on her.
“Dave.” Oirion looked over to the only sailor in the group, the captain’s son.
Dave sat on the edge of a shelf of gray volcanic rock, using the last sunlight to sharpen his Purtan dagger. He looked up at the sound of Oirion’s voice. His sandy hair swirled in the wind for a moment, obscuring his sun-tanned face.
“What do you think?” Oirion asked.
“May one hope to find survivors?” Theo interjected over Oirion’s question. The nobleman was detached from his wife, a rare thing. He stood, arms wrapped around his thin frame, looking unhappy and lost.
“I doubt it. Not on this shore. They would’ve lit fires or come up the beach,” Dave said, not bothering to try to tame his hair. His focus went back to the silver-bladed weapon in his hand. “This peak is the only landmark on the coast; anyone looking would already have headed for it. No, we’re on our own.”
“I don’t like the grass,” Kelly inserted absently.
Nor did Oirion, but to him, complaining was as useless as fear.
Kelly turned and went back up the path to the cave, with Tavia and Riven following. Tavia needed to check on her young son.
Riven was so disgusted with the meager findings that he left them where he had dropped them. Oirion heaved himself up off the boulder and folded the scarf around the clams. He turned to trudge up the short steep path to the cave where the others had gone.
Riven stood like a stone sentry with his arms folded, his legs like spread tree trunks. The dwarf’s eyes narrowed as he squinted off to the horizon, studying the clouds that were gathering in the distance. As Oirion reached him, he considered saying something about the grass, the impending storm, the clams, the need to move on, but thinking better of it, merely raised an eyebrow and let the other priest pass. There was nothing he hadn’t said already.
The sun was setting as Oirion and the others entered the jagged cave entrance. The wind began to drop off as it always seemed to before a storm. Riven stood, scanning the landscape outside, looking for light or life. He heard only the wind stirring and sighing in the tall grass. Alphen, the greater moon, rose slowly over the eastern horizon. From inside the cave, he could hear Dave sharpening his dagger again, the sound of a clean smooth stroke even Riven had to admire.
Ah, the attention Dave gave to that knife was worthy of a woman. Where would a ship-boy get a dagger like that? It had to be worth a small fortune… and what was that magic choker with the stone in the hollow of his throat? The cleric left his thoughts and his post to join the others in the cave.
Riven paused just inside the cave door, not ready to go all the way in yet. He looked over at Dave and could see the crystals twinkling from the two dangling ends of the leather thong around his neck, catching even the faintest light. He would have liked to look that article over for clues to its origin and purpose. The power within it was just another thing here that provided frustration to the increasing list of questions and riddles of this place, questions that seemed to have no answers.
Riven was well aware that as humble as the young man was, he had picked up some training in much more than sailing. At any rate, he must have learned some form of magical shielding because Riven’s efforts to figure him out had failed so far. The solid dwarf looked from the captain’s son back to the grassland beyond.
Folding his arms over his chest, he tried not to show his restlessness. Where was Shannon? He wasn’t in the cave, but it was early yet. The tall Purtan rarely came in before dark.
Riven’s thoughts wandered as the clouds began to move in. They were left stranded without food, maps, or weapons to speak of, on the north shore of a continent, forbidden and cut off from the rest of the world. What he would give for that store of mail, swords, and sundry implements of war stacked in the ship’s hold. Might they still be rescued? He discarded the thought. They had discussed a salvage attempt awhile ago. Even if the ship had remained hung up on those spears of rock for some time, the force of the waves would have rendered salvage likely impossible or foolhardy at best.
Riven’s broad brow wrinkled as he wondered whether the rocks had claimed the other lifeboats, smashing each into a whirling splintered collection of flotsam and mangled bodies. Impossible to say, but the idea lingered and reoccurred often in his dreams.
It had been one month of misery and near starvation. Now, whatever supplies the captain and his men had thrown into the packs and boats as they rushed off the tilting deck were pretty much gone. If the captain hadn’t been so well prepared, they would have had to move out sooner. Riven again looked out over the hissing grass. He felt his nerves prickle and his shields shiver in some warning that he had never felt before.
Riven’s skills were insufficient to keep these people alive, much less lead them to safety, he feared. He doubted that his and Oirion’s leadership, even combined, would be enough to last for much longer. If the two of them had been here alone, they could have gotten on much better. This time, though, they were burdened with civilians.
Riven couldn’t help wondering if God was testing them. What was the greater sin; to leave the helpless or to have two powerful priests die trying to save them?
He sighed heavily. He knew the answer. Even the Dwarven practicality in him rebelled against the idea of the slow death those inside would endure if he abandoned them. It was his obligation to stay and aid them.
Turning, he crouched and peered into the back of the cave where the fire was. Reviewing the forms huddled around a reluctant fire, he tried not to be bitter. Ivan, an erect rhino in the firelight, was shifting his massive body this way and that, attempting to fish beneath his mail with an old bone. Ha! That fashionable monolith, that bald, jewel-bedecked bull couldn’t reach his own itching hump in all that glittering chain mail.
What a hollow life Ivan had, killing for gold. Riven shook his head. He had attempted to reform the brute early on in the trip, but the gladiator was in his prime. Both wealthy and famous for it, he wasn’t about to admit that his lifestyle was wrong and certainly not that it might be unholy.
Riven couldn’t help hoping that the unreachable itch would eat through to the man’s breastbone. He grumbled at himself for his lack of compassion and empathy. Too many years out in the Wilds fighting warped hells in unnamed wildernesses had hardened him and made him a bit cynical. He was less the priest he had hoped to be and more of the Dwarven warrior his family would have wanted, but just enough of each to be neither.
Tavia had moved from the firelight to her bed, a few paces toward the cave wall. She was laying her son down, murmuring something against his cheek. For a moment, firelight caught her face and gave a hidden glimmer of how pretty she was, even under the burden of her life. During the time they had spent shivering in the cave, Riven had found himself admiring the quiet woman. She had strength uncommon in a peasant, and something else… a kind of mystery about her. Her face and arms were brown and lean from day after day in the sun, likely toiling in fields. Her shoulder length hair was snatched back and tied off with a string. No doubt about it, this was a woman of resource, even though she was compromised by the child in her arms.
The kid was a problem. He was a cute little thing: five years old, blond-haired and blue-eyed, usually with a cheerful smile. Even Riven had developed some sort of rude, paternal warmth for the boy. But now, in this sober moment, he knew that the child was going to cost them a great deal. Worst of all, he was completely deaf. He slept now, a virtual nursling curled in his mother’s arms, consuming nearly every bit of her strength that might have been put to better use.
Unable to be still, Riven left the cave mouth to pace. He placed his hands on his hips, considering the murky grassy expanse. Something could be creeping in all that waving grass, and he would probably never be able to perceive it until too late. Grass and wind, nothing but grass and steady never-ceasing wind. It was wrong. Where were the animals?
He had never had any use for flatlands, but this place, he swore, was infected with some malignant spirit.
Riven climbed deeper into the mouth of the cave. Smelling the smoke of the campfire, he paused. There was a safety in smoke, one of the four vapors, a basic substance of the near-lost art of the ancient Dwarven Priesthood to which his grandfather belonged. Riven smiled wryly at the thought of the old man. He would probably have known how to deal with this situation. But then, with a different priesthood came different abilities.
“Hac en suizt, nogg egh suizant…”Riven muttered to himself, reciting a bit of the ancient smoke incantation, something the old man would mutter whenever he entered a cave.
Riven walked into the dancing firelight. Ivan looked up at him as he entered, forgetting his itch. A jovial flash of teeth warned him that the man had some stupid jest in mind. Ivan winked at the other great warrior of the group who was sitting across the fire from him, but Kelly didn’t give any response at all.
“Hungry?” Ivan grunted at Riven, smirking and brandishing the bone like some kind of treat. Ivan’s voice seemed, to Riven, steeped in gluttony, lust, and stupidity. Another dwarf might have killed the giant for his racial jokes, but Riven, feeling one coming, merely cocked an eyebrow.
“No.” As annoyed as he was, Riven was still a priest.
At least this time the jest was at Riven and not Tavia. For whatever reason, Ivan was relentless in his torment against the woman. At first she had ignored him, but she was clearly getting tired and was very annoyed by his harassment. They all were.
“A dog refuses a bone?” said Ivan, dropping his jaw in mock alarm. He chortled and slapped the dwarf on the back over the racial slang.
“A delectable treat, I am sure, but no thanks just the same,” said Riven, stepping away from the fire. He picked up a chunk of wood, which the others had missed, from the floor of the cave and then returned. Ivan, still chuckling, tossed his bone into the flames. Riven chafed. Bones contained a being’s power; one did not just toss them into flame. Didn’t the half-wit know that fire released energies?
“Ehoc mof maleough,” Riven murmured softly, trying not to snarl the words. He dropped the wood into the fire with seeming innocence. Embers and sparks flew up into Ivan’s leggings.
Ivan swore and slapped his shins, trying to save his fine Elven-beaded boots, then whirled around to spit some threat at Riven. Riven had already walked to the back of the cave and knelt to arrange the beach grass that constituted his mattress. He turned and sat cross-legged, his back against the wall of volcanic tuff.
Comfortable, he watched Ivan seat himself, muttering something to Kelly. His expression Riven could not discern through the smoke. Riven had decided that he liked Kelly in a distant sort of way. She had kept to herself on the voyage, obviously hesitant to expose her extensive tattoos. She had dropped most of everything she had carried, lightening the load to keep them from sinking. Ivan had not. He would have killed not only himself, but the rest of them as well, before he let go of his wealth of weapons and jewelry.
Outside, thunder warned of the coming storm. The small fire’s light barely flickered through the cave’s darkness, and talk dropped off as each person tried to find a warm nook to curl up in.
Riven hunkered down in Dwarven fashion, attempting to conserve heat, and tried to pray. His thoughts strayed back to the fact that he was so uneasy and that he couldn’t find the source. His brain felt clouded and that bothered him, but even as he tried to focus on the problem, his thoughts wandered. He drifted out of trance and into sleep.