“We should find Halmert and tell him of the giant,” Aleah said as Shaw adjusted the large holdall on his shoulder. He nodded and raised his chin, looking behind her. She turned and saw a man approaching, his relief apparent.
“Good morning, good morning, good morning, Craetwyrthas! Welcome to Ersahome! Welcome… haha!” Thom Halmert was a stout, barrel chested man. His large face one of pronounced features, his hands and feet twice the size of most men’s. His clothes were all thick, heavy, ship workers style, treated wool and oilskin bibs and heavy seaboots, which seemed by the wear on them to have been used just this morning to kick a dozen obstinate stones to sand. “Let’s go get breakfast, eh? Help you get your legs back from the sea, as it were. Here, then, Shaw—yeh… yes, Shaw! Shaw! Yes. Here we go,” he said as he plucked the holdall from Shaw’s shoulder like an old sock only halfway full of thistledown. “Come along! Come along! Oh, and you, Miss Aah—? …Alma? Ally? No. Aleah it is! Pretty as a summer sunrise sure enough, ‘cept you’re all in green, aren’t you just? Pleasure to meet you!”
Shaw and Aleah looked at each other, each imagining that they’d soon be exhausted due to simple proximity to Mr Halmert. As they sat in the small tavern just off the pier, called The Sea Foal, gazing out the propped-open double doors at the breakwater, the docks, carved pilings, and indolent, so-far-flightless gulls, Shaw hoarsely whispered, mimicking Halmert’s cadence, “He’s going to talk us to death, sure enough, sure enough, sure he is! And you’ll be dead, Miss Almawhatisit? Dead in green, won’t you be?”
Aleah snorted and clapped her hands over her mouth, her eyes narrowing accusatively at him. Once she could control her laughter without having to stifle herself, she mouthed the word “Stop” at him, her face pink with mirth and embarrassment, and chuckled quietly to herself. She looked around the place. Passengers were gathering along with some folks who must be locals. They looked like people from the north of King’s Isle to Aleah, and their accents were as often odd as familiar. As she watched all the people coming in and going out, she hardly touched her plate. It was covered nearly three inches deep in hashed potatoes, cut and seasoned potato wedges, cherry tomatoes, spinach, chunks of blue cheese, mushrooms, sausage, scrambled eggs, and various green and purple herbs, and the smell alone had left her feeling fairly stuffed. She watched, somewhat in disbelief, as Shaw shoveled his breakfast into his face as if he’d be saving up hunger for just this occasion. Halmert, meanwhile, was nowhere to be seen, but his booming voice kept drifting to them from somewhere relatively nearby. Finally, she said, “He’s certainly friendly enough.”
“He would be,” Shaw said. “I’m fresh from Chimera’s Landing and you’re a skilled healer and friend of Fer—”
“Shhh!” She warned him. “Not here.”
“All right, all right,” he said. “But we’re off the Isle now and this is the big, bad world, so I’m betting nobody’s quite so prone to misgivings over your suspected friendship with”—he made a vague gesture with his hand, careless of the fork and potato—”one of them.” He saw the look on her face and sighed. “Sorry. Fine. You’re right.”
“Places and times, brother. Places. And. Times.”
After some while, Halmert returned. He seemed a tad calmer, now, and more serious. Shaw guessed that he was the sort of man who became gregarious directly in proportion to the degree of discomfort he was feeling. His present demeanor made Shaw feel less apprehensive.
He pulled out a chair, turned it around, and sat on it. Its wood protested, but he paid it no mind. “All right, then. I’ve got a room secured for meeting the other members of the expedition, and they’re all arrived. If you’re good and done, we’ll head over there. Your gear will be stowed in your room by the time you arrive there, hey? So….” He smiled, rose from the chair, and spun it back into place with a wood-scraping clatter.
Aleah rose first. “I’m ready,” she said, and pulled from her robe’s left sleeve a pendant, which she had secreted there until now. She fastened the slender platinum chain around her neck, and the strange jewel, like green ice or mercury or sapphire, momentarily sparkled as it touched her skin. There was an odd lull in conversation precisely then, causing The Sea Foal to fall silent for a second. It was as if everyone was surprised by the lull, and then it was over.
But Halmert gazed at the jewel. “I’ve seen a piece like that before,” he said slowly. “How did you come across it? Was it a… a gift?”
“Yes,” she said. “Shall we go?”
“Yes, Mr Halmert. Let’s?” Shaw added, eyeing his sister like she was crazy.
Thom Halmert was not the only one to take notice of Aleah’s pendant that morning.
“…And my axe!” the dwarf was saying as they entered. He looked at Halmert, then Shaw, and then did a double-take on Aleah, took three surprisingly long strides, hopped up on a table between them, and pointed at the pendant. “By all the ice of the north, where did you get that pendant, woman? Tell me now and true.”
Aleah was, to say the least, taken aback. This was the fist Iron dwarf she had ever seen. Unlike their very social cousins, the Müde, who had visited King’s Isle for centuries and long ago established a healthy trading alliance with the humans there, Iron dwarves were mostly the stuff of legend. Whatever rumors there were of the Isle’s alliances with the friendly dwarves, Iron dwarves were simply not commonly seen outside the lands known as Far Stone Hearth, home of all dwarves, many mountains, countless volcanoes,—and wyrms.
The dwarf was eyeing her intently as he stood on the table, his bright yellow eyes unsettling to Aleah.
“It was a gift from a Ferali,” she said.
And then everyone was looking at her.
Serenía was the only other person in the party to have met a Ferali. She was quick to get between Aleah and the others there. “You all knew already that I’d met one before,” she said, “so let’s not get riled up now. The priestess is just another like me.”
“Quite right! Right she is! Everyone sit down and let’s get the introductions out of the way. Explanations and personal anecdotes and shocking revelations will wait, hey?” Halmert was quick to direct the dwarf, Krimkikt, and Serenía back to the long table where they’d been seated.
“Just a token of its affection, I guess,” the dwarf muttered as he sat.
“There’s no l in token,” Serenía said to him.
“It’s my accent, then? Leave me be. I want to know how she got a gift from one of them. You didn’t get one, eh? It’s an omen, good or ill. An omen.”
Serennía momentarily glared at him as she folded her arms and hunched her shoulders.
Halmert bade Aleah and Shaw sit. “You’ve met Krimkikt. This is Serenía.” (“Call me Sere,” she said.) “This is Ben, and this one’s Gareth.” The two men nodded but barely vocalized a greeting.
Everyone nodded, shook hands, seemed friendly, though the dwarf seemed reticent to look at Aleah for more time than it took to cast suspicion at her.
Then Aleah suddenly remembered something. Oh, wonderful. Don’t let me be the one, she thought, and kicked Shaw’s ankle under the table. He looked at her, puzzled, and she mouthed the word. His face fell, but he nodded.
“We saw a giant on our approach. Late into the night, some mere hours from Craftland’s Point,” Shaw said.
“Ohhh nay, nay, nay,” Krimkikt said, and ran a hand over his face.
This news set the table at a roar for a bit, and as the siblings shared the details, the disquiet settled into the marrow of this first meeting. It was some time before poor Thom Halmert was able to get everyone calmed and quieted, though he was very, very, very friendly about it.
To be continued.
Tharia: Roads to Adventure by James Pomeroy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.