Friday, May 30, 2008

Ki'iri by L.E. Bryce

The storm had been a violent one, wreaking havoc on the docks of Sirilon. During the night, great waves had crashed against the pilings, tearing ships and smaller vessels loose from their moorings and throwing the wreckage ashore. Divine anger it might have seemed, but all knew that a stormy sea was the opposite--the joining of Air and Water in passion.

Even among the faithful, there were plenty who snorted at the notion of godly lovemaking, and aired their opinions with the morning fog. "If the Lord Min would have the sense to be gentler with His consort," grumbled Antáno, "we'd not have to contend with the neighbors' endless bloody cursing."

Daro listened quietly to his grandfather, nodding occasionally to indicate his attention, if not necessarily his agreement. Their fishermen neighbors complained in fair weather as well as foul, and generally kept their boats in such poor condition that they were likely to fall apart even on a calm sea.

"In any case," Antáno went on, "the storm's passed and I'll not have to listen anymore this day to that sot Shias go on about the Lady's tits. Blasphemous old fart. Were it my wife he was talking about, I'd strike him dead, see if I wouldn't."

But the Lord of the Winds obviously did not care what mortals might say or think, as Shias had always been free with his colorful epithets. Daro did not expect the old fisherman to be struck by lightning anytime soon.

Besides, Antáno had said plenty of similar things to and about Daro's grandmother while she still lived. It was part of the daily banter in Sirilon's dockside neighborhoods, and no one thought anything of it.

"Now I've got a bit of business aboard Endine's sloop and that'll take a while, see if it doesn't with his tongue," Antáno was saying. "I'll leave it to you to see to the hrill, boy, as they're like to have come back by now."

"Endine's ship is still afloat?" asked Daro.

Antáno shrugged. "It was bobbing up and down on its moorings as late as yesterday, lad, and I've no doubt it weathered last night. He knows how to take care of his boats, that one does. The only thing of Endine's I'd expect to find in the water is his son after too much ale. Now I promised him a senu's advice and there's like to be good coin in it for us. Run along now, and if the hrill ask where I am, tell them the old windbag'll talk to them later, eh?"

Daro ducked back into the cottage to finish his portion of the oatmeal that was warming over the fire, then drew his sealskin long coat on over his clothing as his aunt swept the kitchen hearth.

Outside, the air was chill, but already the sun was beginning to peep from behind the clouds that were now far beyond the white cliffs of the city. The day would be brisk and gray, but the last wisps of the storm had already blown inland.

Moist gravel crunched under his boots as he moved down the beach toward the quay where he and his grandfather did their work. The senu's cottage stood in a quiet neighborhood away from the busier wharves and shipyards, but the violence of the storm had reached even the most outlying areas of the harbor. Bits of broken wood and seaweed littered the beach in all directions, while closer to the water, brushed by the drawing and receding surf was a dark, glossy corpse. Daro gave a start, but after a moment saw it was a dead seal, not one of the sacred hrill. He quickly made the sign of the Lady and moved on.

Even before he reached the end of the quay, he heard the voices begin in his head. Like a gaggle of excited children, the hrill clamored in the water, eager to talk to him. He smiled and leaned over the stout wooden railing, gripping it as he reached out to touch each shiny wet snout that was offered him, and bade them take turns with their news. Some of it was gossip, but unlike men hrill were straightforward with their information, and wasted little time in telling Daro where were the best places to shelter or find mates, and where the most abundant schools of fish could be found. Daro memorized these last bits of information, for they were worth coin among the fishermen.

By nature, hrill were a talkative lot. Daro enjoyed their company and on warm days swam with them. Sacred to the Lady of the Waters, they were known to rescue drowning men from shipwrecks. To kill one, either by guile or accident, was a crime, and the fishermen who plied their trade in the bay took pains not to entangle the creatures in their nets.

Daro's head ached by the time the hrill left him. He slowly straightened from his crouching position and rubbed his temples vigorously. So many voices, all wanting to be heard at once, could be maddening. His aunt would have a cup of hot bergamot tea and a cold compress waiting for him, and for the rest of the day Antáno would remind her to speak in whispers.

Stretching stiff limbs, he turned to go when he caught a glimpse of silver and sable flashing through the water that lapped against the quay. A rounded snout gently broke the surface, and dark eyes questioned him.

What is your name, fair one? asked a voice.

His headache forgotten, he bent over the gray water. It was a hrill, but none he had ever seen before. They never asked his name, for among them were no names that he might pronounce, and they did not seem to know what such a thing was.

"I-I am Daro," he answered, extending a hand in its fingerless leather glove to touch the hrill's snout. "I would ask your name, but I know you have none."

The creature made a clicking noise. This was, Daro understood, laughter of a sort for their kind. You are a senu who speaks to the hrill, it said matter-of-factly. I saw you with them before.