Monday, June 6, 2016

The Iron Lily (Part 8)

The sky had taken on a sheen that told Halthor dawn was due. He did not wait for daybreak to get on his way. When he awoke, he bought bread from the innkeeper and a jug of ale. He was riding out of Wynnwode as the watchman was grumbling into his bowl of gruel at the opposite end of the town. Moving farther southward, Halthor noted that Wynnwode seemed a flat place at the top of a hill. When he came to the river Isben at the next valley, he swore.

Not only was he only a few scant hours away from Wynnwode, the ferry across the river was locked in place by ice and the ferryman's hut looked as it may be deserted. Halthor looked back along the slate road to Starhaven. He saw the dark blue-grey stone visible beneath the rime of ice at the water's edge. It seemed as though the road went down into the river and marched across. Halthor had no illusions that his gift pony from Wye was strong enough or tall enough to ford the river. Nor was he mad enough to attempt to cross it himself. He looked towards the east and saw the arms of the forest come up close to the water. To the west, the river narrowed and grew louder.

Deciding he may find a means to cross in the trees, Halthor took hold of the pony's halter and began to lead it along the river's edge. He had walked halfway to the trees when a voice shouted from the far side of the river. Halthor looked south and saw the ferryman hustling to the barge. "He'll probably charge me double for this," Halthor muttered but he turned and walked west to the crossing. He reached the road almost before the ferryman. The ferryman was almost a shapeless lump beneath his furred cloak and heavy woolens. He looked over at Halthor and then to his pony.

"Three groat for the beast, two for you," the ferryman said as he looked up at the weather. "Storm coming," the ferryman muttered, "Get on or go back." Halthor lead the grey pony on to the barge, noting with some surprise that it was an honest boat rather than a raft of rough hewen logs. The dog with the red ears yapped at something northward of them. The ferryman looked over Halthor's shoulder. He saw a small group of men hustling over the hill. The ferryman squinted. "Eh, one more and they'll have to wait for spring," he said, deducing accurately that Halthor was attempting to escape pursuit.

"Get on the water, I'll pay you when we're across," Halthor answered. The ferryman poled the barge away from the water. Halthor turned and motioned for the dog to come to him. The dog ran around in a circle. Halthor shook his head. Just when he thought that the dog was going to remain on the northern bank, the dog lept. When the dog landed on the barge, the ferryman started slightly and the pony chuffed with displeasure. Halthor looked sternly down at the dog. "Bad dog," he said. The dog whined and covered its muzzle with a paw. The ferryman watched the exchange out of the corner of his eye and laughed.

"Bad as a child, he is," the ferryman said with a chuckle, "Lollygag and mischief. That's what you get with the fey hounds, you know." Halthor looked over at the ferryman with curiosity. The ferryman noticed a chunk of ice drifting between them and their goal. He pushed it aside with his pole. When they came to the shore, the ferryman looked over expectantly at Halthor. The dog trotted off the barge with its tail wagging gleefully. Halthor opened his sack and pulled out five heavy silver groat coins. As he dropped them in the ferryman's hand, the older man nodded with approval. "Full groat coins," he said thoughtfully, "You're an honest man. Rare around these parts."

As Halthor lead the pony off of the barge, the ferryman motioned towards the road. "Go on a good league or two. A traveler's rest is kept by my brother not far from the cherry grove. The village here... it is an ill place for a northern man like you," the ferryman said. Halthor looked over, surprised by the ferryman's statement. "Only a man from the north would pay with full groat coins for a short trip like that," the ferryman said, "I knew one long time ago. If he kept his coins in his pocket, he'd have kept his head. It was a shame. I did like him. Harald was a foolish but good man." Halthor nodded.

He started through the village and noted that the people seemed reluctant to go about their business. At the tall temple of the Storm Lord, a goat bleated in its pen. A priest was breaking the ice in its trough with a long stick. Halthor felt the pull to stop at the temple. Thus, he lead his pony behind him to the fence. The priest looked over at him, his expression initially one of annoyance at the interruption. Then his eyes widened slightly and he blinked. The priest motioned Halthor over to the gate into the pen. Halthor approached and the priest opened the gate.

With a gesture, he motioned Halthor to lead his pony into the pen. The priest took hold of the pony's halter and lead it to the stall. He swung the door that stood open before taking the packs off of the pony. In a bit of a rush, the priest haphazardly buried them in the pile of hay at the back of the stall. He slipped the halter off of the pony and hung it up on a hook. The priest then set out a pail of grain for the shaggy haired pony. He then walked up to Halthor and gestured towards the temple.

Halthor, who had concluded the priest must have been mute, followed the old man's guidance. They walked into the great room and Halthor found it impossible to resist the sigh of pleasure at the warmth from the braziers. The priest motioned Halthor to sit in the sanctuary before he disappeared off around a doorway and down a narrow hall. Halthor walked into the sanctuary. He sat down on the bench nearest to the door. At the far end of the space, a roughly worked statue of the Storm Lord stood. To Halthor's experienced eye, he could tell that the statue was cut from a single massive piece of wood. Nearly the size of a man, the statue had a fierce air about it. The sharp, angular features of the icon seemed deliberately made to exaggerate the ferocity of the Victorious Sun.

Halthor was contemplating the statue when the priest walked up and put a hand on his shoulder. The builder looked over. The priest held out to him a small sack. Halthor took the sack and started to look into it. The priest put a hand over the opening of the sack and shook his head. He then pantomimed eating. Halthor realized that the sack held some food in it and he set it down. "I thank you, good father," Halthor said politely, "I must go farther down the road before night, though." The priest shook his head and pointed up at the ceiling. He made a gesture as though something were falling from the sky. "I know a storm is due," Halthor answered, "I want to make to the traveler's rest." The priest's expression hardened and he shook his head. He took a candle from the stack waiting for petitioners to light and place before the icon. The priest mimed blowing out the candle and covered his eyes. "Of course dark is going to fall," Halthor said, "Night comes every day."

The priest shook his head again. Again, he mimed signs of darkness. Halthor looked at the mute man in confusion. The priest looked at Halthor critically. He pantomimed holding a book. "Do I know letters?" Halthor asked, grasping at what the priest could be seeking to know. The priest nodded is grey head. "Only a little," Halthor replied, "My master taught me what I needed to tend his business." The priest gave a look of small relief. He clapped a hand on Halthor's shoulder and motioned for the builder to follow him. As Halthor followed the priest out of the sanctuary and down the small hallway to his living quarters, he wondered how a single old man could maintain the temple by himself.

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