“My father could remember it,” piped up the old dwarf. “He made the journey when he was a little boy.”
My father paused a moment, his thoughts scattered by the unexpected interruption. I looked over the heads of the crowd, back to the warren and its neat rows of bright-colored doors, and it occurred to me for the first time that I must actually leave this land of my birth and travel to another land, a strange land, a land that would have no doors leading into the safe, dark sanctuary of the mountain.
My eyes filled with tears. I lowered my head, ashamed to have anyone (particularly Hartmut) see me cry.
“A new realm awaits us, a seamoon large enough for all three races—humans, elves, dwarves—to live on, each in our own separate realm, but each trading, working together, sharing to build a prosperous world.
“The trip will be long,” my father continued, “and tiring. And when we arrive, we face backbreaking labor and toil to rebuild our homes and businesses. It will be difficult to leave Gargan. Much that we love and value must, of necessity, be left behind us. But that which we prize and cherish above all else, we take with us. And that is each other. We could leave behind everything, every coin, every stitch of clothing, every cooking pot and cradle and bed, and, because we have each other, the dwarven nation would arrive at its destination strong and prepared to go forth and establish our greatness on this new world!”
My father, during his speech, had put his arm around my mother. My mother clasped hold of my hand. Our people cheered loudly. My tears dried.
“As long as we have each other,” I said to myself. “As long as we are together, this new land will be our home.”
I peeped shyly at Hartmut. His eyes were shining. He smiled at me, only for me. Everything was said between us in that look, that smile. The marriage contests can’t be rigged, but most dwarves know the outcome in advance. My father spoke on, discussing how, for the first time in Chelestran history, humans and elves and dwarves would be making the Sun Chase together. In times past, we’d done the Sun Chase, of course, hastening after the seasun that drifts endlessly through the water that is our world. But then it had been the dwarves alone, fleeing the approaching longnight of ice that would slowly encase our seamoon.
I shoved the unhappy thought of leaving my homeland from my mind, began to think about the fun times aboard ship with Alake and Sabia. I’d tell them about Hartmut, point him out. Not that any human female or elven maid could properly appreciate how handsome he is.
My father coughed. I saw him staring at me. My mother nudged me in the ribs. I came back to the proceedings instantly, feeling my face burning. I held in my hand the lock of my hair, already cut and tied with a bright blue ribbon. My father handed me the hammer, my mother the nail. I took them both, turned to the broad wooden beam of the sun-chaser that towered high above me. The crowd was quiet, waiting for the chance to cheer wildly when the ceremony was completed.
Feeling all eyes (two eyes in particular) on me, I twined the ribboned lock of hair firmly around the nail, put the nail to the wooden hull, and was just about to rap the nail smartly with the hammer, when I heard a low murmur sweep through the crowd. It reminded me of the rising of the sea during one of the rare Chelestran storms.
My first thought, I remember, was one of extreme irritation that something or someone was ruining my big moment. Aware that the crowd’s attention had been drawn from me, I lowered the hammer and glanced around indignantly to see what all the fuss was about.
Every Gargan—man, woman, and child—was staring out to sea. Some were pointing. Those shorter than the rest were standing on tiptoe, craning their necks to get a look.
“It figures,” I grumbled, endeavoring to peer around the submersible and not having much luck. “Alake and Sabia have come after all, right in the middle of everything. Well, their timing was bad, but at least they’ll be here to watch. I can always start over.”
But I could tell by the expressions on the faces of the dwarves standing below me, who had clear view out to sea, that whatever was coming wasn’t one of the gaily decorated swan ships we build for the elves, or one of the sturdy fishing ships we build for the humans. These would have been welcomed with much beard-wagging and the occasional hand-wave, about as demonstrative as dwarves ever get. Now beards were being stroked—a sign of dwarven unease—and mothers were quickly rounding up children who had strayed. The marshall of the dwarven army ran to the platform.
“Vater, you must see this!” he shouted.
“Stay here,” my father ordered us, and descending the platform, he hurried after the marshall.
The ceremony was obviously ruined. I was angry about that, angry about the fact that I couldn’t see a thing, angry at Father for dashing off. I stood clutching the hammer and the lock of hair and cursed the fate that made me a princess, left me standing on this stupid platform when every other person in Gargan had a clear view of what was going on.
I didn’t dare disobey my father—a dwarf maid who did that would have her side whiskers clipped in punishment, a humiliating experience—but surely it wouldn’t hurt if I moved to the end of the platform. Perhaps I could see from there. I had taken a step and could hear my mother draw in her breath to order me back when Hartmut jumped up onto the platform and ran to us.
“The Vater has commanded me to keep you and your daughter safe in his absence, Muter,” he said, with a respectful bow to my mother.
His eyes were on me, however.
Perhaps fate knew what it was about, after all. I decided to stay where I was.
“What’s happening?” my mother was asking anxiously.
“A disturbance in the sea, nothing more,” said Hartmut casually. “An oil slick of some sort is spreading and a few people thought they saw heads sticking up out of it, but I think they’re looking through the bottom of an ale mug. Most likely it’s a school of fish. The boats are setting out to investigate.” My mother seemed reassured. I wasn’t. I saw Hartmut’s eyes stray to his marshall, watching for orders. And though he was making a gallant attempt to smile, his face was grim.
“I think, Muter,” he continued, “that until we establish just what’s causing this oil slick, it might be wise if you were to step down from this platform.”
“You’re right, young man. Grundle, give me that hammer. You look silly standing there, hanging onto it. I’m going to go join your father. No, Grundle, you stay with the young guard.” My mother bustled off the platform and sallied out into the crowd after my father. I sent my thanks and my blessing after her.
“I don’t think you look silly,” Hartmut said to me. “I think you look splendid.”
I edged closer to the young dwarf, and now that my hand was free of the hammer, it could accidentally find its way into his hand. The boats were putting off from the beach, their rowers pulling on the oars, shooting out to sea. We left the platform and, along with the rest of the population of Gargan, hurried down to the water’s edge.
“What do you think it is?” I asked in a low voice. “I don’t know,” said Hartmut, allowing his trouble to show now that we were alone. “We’ve heard odd tales all week. The dolphins report strange creatures swimming the Goodsea. Serpents whose skin is covered with oil that fouls the water and poisons any fish unlucky enough to wander into it.”
“Where did they come from?” I drew nearer. “No one knows. According to the dolphins, when the seasun began altering its course, it thawed out several seamoons that have been frozen for the One knows how long. Perhaps these creatures came from one of those moons.”
“Look!” I gasped. “Something’s happening.” Most of the dwarves in their small boats had ceased to row. Some had shipped their oars and sat motionless in the water, staring out to sea. Others had nervously begun to pull back for shore. I could see nothing except the oil on the water—a greenish, brownish slime that smoothed out the waves and left a film on the sides of the boats it touched. I could smell it, too; a noxious odor that made me sick to my stomach.