CHAPTER TWENTY: EXILE (4/4)

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The plates of ice beneath the raft grew steadily larger until they were no longer fractured and buoyant but solid and firm. By now, the black-stone city was just half-a-mile away.

"Niroba," said the girl.

The long-legged woman stopped her rowing and allowed the raft to skid to a gentle halt by the foot of a shallow mountain.

The girl climbed out of the sack and back onto the deck. "Velin eba ikke."

The woman lay the pole down and crept silently off the deck and onto the ice. She never took her eyes off the girl as she retreated on all fours. She stopped by a break in the ice and lowered herself through the crack. The last thing Sol saw of her was her white eyes before she slipped beneath the ice and vanished.

"I've never seen a Qalupalik so well-trained," said Goone. "You'll have to tell me your secret."

The girl ignored him and lifted her face to the sky. She whistled a single high note which the wind carried high. The sound had only just faded when Sol saw a shape bounding down the side of the mountain

"What is that?" said Anyel.

"It looks like a wolf," said Harg.

"Don't let him hear you say that," said the girl. "He's an Amarok. Calling him a wolf would be like calling you a Gremlin."

As the Amarok leapt from a high rock and landed in front of the raft, his true size was revealed. He was the size of a large bear and as muscular as a bull. His fur was silver with an impressive mane of hair like that of a lion's.

"Were there any problems?" asked the Amarok. His voice was deep and rich, a purr infused into every syllable.

"None," said the girl. "The ship and its prisoners are ours. Why? Did you doubt we could do it, Khota?"

"I am just suspicious of good fortune. We know so little of it."

"You should have more faith." She pointed her wand at the deck and a length of rope appeared, anchored to the raft. There was a large hoop on the other end which she held up. "Are you ready?"

The beast called Khota padded towards her lowered his head. The girl slipped the hoop over his neck where it buried itself in his mane. The Amarok turned and broke into a gentle trot towards the black-stone city, pulling the raft, now a sledge, behind him.

*   *   *

The first buildings they passed were simple shacks, each one as welcoming as a tomb. They had doors and chimneys but no windows. The sledge had barely enough room to pass between them and occasionally scraped past their walls as Khota navigated through the winding paths.

They were passing one of the shacks when its door swung open and a small being stepped out, wrapped from head to toe in matted brown fur and carrying a netted sack over one shoulder. It took one look at Khota and rushed back inside and closed the door.

Further on they passed two beings walking in their direction—one tall, one short—also wrapped in furs. The sacks over their shoulders were filled with tangles of what looked like slimy black string. They stepped aside as the sledge passed them, but the air was already thick with the pungent smell of manure.

"What's that godawful smell?" said Harg.

"Sour-weed," said the girl. "It's ration day."

"Sour-weed?" said Goone. "I didn't think anything could grow here."

"It's the only thing we can grow. It can only be harvested from the northern-most coast—but only then during certain months of the year. We stockpile it and give it out once a month."

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