The Hidden City is all one story. There are only two reasons I'm dividing it into two: one, so that the Quest for Rinaria has ten parts, and two, because there was a perfect place for a cliffhanger. Don't worry, the second part is more or less finished. I'll have it up either today, or this weekend.
The Quest for Rinaria, Part IX
The Hidden City
“How could she have followed us?” Zuryzel exclaimed.
Shartalla spat foul-tasting brackish water out of her mouth. “Beats me! She’s Winterblade’s problem, though, not ours.”
Zuryzel peered through the steam as the barely visible but unmistakable shape of the Nygoan. She wasn’t following Wynraser, but rather sailing back to the shore. Just a moment ago, there had been a series of flashes from the cliff top to their starboard; Shartalla hadn’t recognized the signals, so they had to be meant for Nygoan.
“Do you think the others have made it?” Zuryzel asked Shartalla nervously.
The pine marten shrugged. “Beats me.”
She was leaning out on the bowsprit, scanning the water to make sure it didn’t shallow suddenly. Zuryzel stood on the deck, holding tightly to the railing, listening with one ear to the shouts of the crew on the deck and to her friend with the other. “I certainly hope Dejuday is enjoying himself.”
“Give it a rest, Zyna,” Shartalla called back, sounding bored.
“Sorry,” Zuryzel quickly apologized.
She was still furious, though – Shartalla could hear it. Dejuday would have to answer for subtly slipping away from the crew of the Wynraser.
Shartalla was puzzled – why would he do that? He hadn’t exactly encouraged Zuryzel to stay on the Wynraser (in fact, he hadn’t said anything at all) but why not go with her?
Zuryzel was far less puzzled than Shartalla. Dejuday was of common birth, and there were those in Wraith Mouse society who would consider him an unsuitable mate for the only daughter of their beloved King Hokadra. Dejuday had a thick skin, and usually ignored sentiments like that. He didn’t really feel the need to prove himself worthy to anyone but Zuryzel; sometimes, however, he did seem to want to prove that he was unafraid of gossip or speculation. Zuryzel was fairly sure that most of the pirates were as bewildered as Shartalla, and Dejuday must have known they were speculating about it.
There had never been a time when Dejuday could not be frustrating, especially to Zuryzel. The princess seriously doubted there ever would be such a time.
A shout from the lookout jolted Zuryzel out of her frustrated reflections. Shartalla stood up on the bowsprit and stared at the shore. “What is that?”
They had sailed past the gray, rocky edges and were now sailing parallel with the mountain. The ground was rocky and steep, but it at least had vegetation in the form of low, faded green shrubs. Standing in between two folds of ground was a tall, ruined stone structure.
“It looks like a watchtower,” Zuryzel offered.
“But watching for what?” Shartalla exclaimed.
“Does it matter?” Zuryzel demanded, excitement building in her voice. “Shartalla, we’re almost there!”
“Why not there now?” Shartalla called back, looking puzzled. “Maybe the watchtower was s’posed t’ look o’er the city!”
“Look at the ground,” Zuryzel replied. “It’s too steep for building, and there’s no rock for foundation.”
“Bearing, Cap’n?” called Skorlaid.
“Steady as she goes!” Shartalla yelled back.
“I ain’t leaving her!”
“That’s a stupid thing t’ say! She’s fine! An’ you bein’ ’ere won’t impact ’er recovery!”
Eneng and Snowhawk had been arguing for almost an hour. Winterblade had fallen into fitful unconsciousness, now swathed in fresh bandages soaked in aloe, thanks to Tine. Once Tine had pronounced Winterblade “likely out of danger,” Snowhawk insisted that Eneng accompany her and her boarding party to rendezvous with Korep and the rest of their crews. Eneng had scornfully recalled her earlier statement, that Rinaria was nothing but a fable. Snowhawk retorted that she wanted to make sure the three other crews wouldn’t launch an assault against her own ship, to which Eneng sharply retorted, “Then go yerself!”
“What, so they c’n kill me on sight?” Snowhawk had snapped. “I don’t think so!”
And so it went. The truth was that Eneng was loath to leave his sister alone in the paws of her archenemy’s creatures (again,) and the only compromise that Snowhawk could come up with left her uncomfortably vulnerable.
It was Tine who spoke the words that both captains were afraid to speak aloud. She twisted around to face Eneng and said, “Yer sister’ll be perfectly safe ’ere, Captain Eneng. She’ll come t’ no harm.”
Eneng glowered at Snowhawk as he replied to Tine. “If only I ’ad some evidence o’ yer captain’s honor.”
Snowhawk glared furiously at Tine. She had been hoping to avoid this.
The healer glanced at her captain and flinched away from Snowhawk’s glare. “I – I meant – maybe I could go – like a hostage,” she stammered.
“A good idea,” Eneng agreed. “But what if ’Blade takes a turn fer the worse? She’d need a healer around.”
Tine suddenly realized the gravity of her mistake and ducked her head. “I–it was only an idea. Guess it were a bad one.”
“Actu’lly, it’s a great idea,” Eneng answered her smoothly. “’ere’re my terms, Snowhawk. You want me t’ help make sure there’s no fighting between the crews? All right– just hand o’er yer sword an’ yer knives. If anything ’appens t’ you, yer crew c’n kill Winterblade. If anything ’appens t’ Winterblade, I kill you.” He gave her a facetiously pleasant smile. “Take or leave?”
Snowhawk ripped her sword from its sheath and threw it on the ground at Eneng’s paws. She then withdrew the knives from her sleeve and her boot. “Happy?”
“Ecstatic,” Eneng replied cheerfully as he gathered up her weapons. He tucked her naked sword through his belt, and Snowhawk fervently hoped it cut off his tail.
“Crew, stay here,” Snowhawk added, her voice echoing. “An’ make sure the first mate doesn’t move Nygoan. I’ll be back ’fore long.”
Eneng led the way out of the tiny little grotto. Snowhawk considered pricking his shoulder with the knife hidden at her shoulder … but no. One day it might be useful for him not to know about it.
Korep had never been more grateful for Ksheygha and her skills at handling difficult crews. His difficult crew. He had his paws full keeping Eneng and Winterblade’s under control.
Under most circumstances, pirates never took orders from another captain. But when Winterblade’s crewferret climbed back across the chasm and shakily reported what he knew – that Winterblade had fallen but somehow survived, and that Eneng told him to return to the other crews – it created a special circumstance.
Now the large mass of pirates stood at the luminous blue river in the mid-morning light. There was a wide rock that stuck out into it, which would make for easy jumping across. Normally Korep, who knew Shartalla must be waiting for them by now, would have urged the pirates to keep moving. But given that two of their captains were behind them – or should have been behind them, anyway…
On the far side of the river, Korep’s sharp eyes picked out two ferrets climbing the smooth slope from the beach. One was Eneng. The other was not Winterblade.
“Is that Snowhawk?” Ksheygha asked at his shoulder.
“I think so,” Korep replied, stunned.
He gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze, indicating that she should follow him; then he stepped onto the rock that jutted out into the river, mentally gauged the distance, then took two running steps and leaped.
He cleared the river easily and turned to make sure Ksheygha could make the leap. She looked nervous, but she also looked determined not to show any signs of frailty. It took her four preparatory steps, but she also made it across.
By the time she landed, Eneng and Snowhawk had made it up the slope. Korep now turned to face them, and as the panted to a halt a little in front of him and Ksheygha, he said, “I’m sensin’ there’s a story ’ere.”
By the time Eneng and Snowhawk had finished telling about Winterblade and the glacier, Ksheygha’s mind was spinning.
“The caverns you rested in – go back to those,” she said urgently. “Those are the important part.”
All three captains turned to stare at her. “Not ’ow Snowhawk found us?” Eneng asked.
“Or how t’ get the crews up that glacier?” Korep added.
“This is about that,” Ksheygha explained quickly. “Merchants carrying a heavy load of goods couldn’t scale a glacier like you did. There must have been a road cut into the ice, and I think those little caverns you rested in are the remains of that road. That must be how merchants used to get to Rinaria!”
At the word Rinaria, Snowhawk rolled her eyes and ground her teeth. “Great. Y’ ’ad me right until then. Rinaria is a myth. It’s a wild gull chase fer grown sailors. It’s –”
She broke off when Ksheygha reached into her vest and took out the roll of clues.
“Remember when we were in Myanka and you wanted to know if something was being ‘hided?’” Ksheygha prompted her. “This was it. We found an old list of directions – sort of – to Rinaria. They were written before the Dark Ages, before Rinaria was lost. Here – you can look at them.”
She extended the roll of parchments to Snowhawk, who didn’t take them. The pirate captain had an odd expression on her face. It almost looked like she didn’t want to believe them.
“Where d’ they lead?” she asked coldly.
Ksheygha pointed to the glacier. “To the top of the ‘Icy Cliff.’ We should be able to see something from the top of the cliff.”
“We didn’t see anything but the sea from up there,” Snowhawk said flatly, and no one missed the disappointment she strove to keep hidden.
But Ksheygha was more sure of herself than she had ever been in her life. “There’s a volcano on this island,” she pressed on, as if Snowhawk hadn’t even spoken. “It must have erupted at some point, and melted some of the glacier, which means it’s smaller than it used to be. Rinaria must be on the other side of the mountain – once we get over there, we can at least see more!”
Her word was, as always, enough for Korep. He turned back to the crews on the other side of the river and called, “Cross over! No shovin’!”
Eneng made a confirmatory gesture to his and Winterblade’s crew. Snowhawk didn’t move a muscle as they began to cross over. Ksheygha met her eyes – she was so young. Probably the youngest captain there. And like all young creatures, her hopes could soar to spiraling heights and plummet to sickening depths at the faintest change in the wind.
“It’s real,” Ksheygha repeated insistently.
“It can’t be,” Snowhawk replied expressionlessly.
Her hopes had been dashed to pieces too many times, Ksheygha realized. She wondered what to say to reassure the young captain.
Fortunately, Eneng knew what to say. “A bet, then,” he said challengingly. “If it’s real, you tell us ’ow y’ followed us without us noticin’. If it’s not, I’ll pay y’ ’alf the money y’ lost t’ Winterblade.”
Snowhawk’s eyes snapped to his face. His eyes glinted with a dare. “All right,” she said baitingly. “I’ll take y’ up on that.”
Eneng let Korep lead the way up the Icy Cliff – he had had enough of path-breaking on that thing.
The pirates started at the base of the cliff; with so many sharp eyes, they soon found a crevice near enough to the ground that it required no climbing to reach, only a small step. The fact that the sunlight was now directly overhead meant that the little crevices in the glacier cast faint shadows. Eneng could barely pick them out, but Korep’s watchferrets could see them far better, and they called out directions to their captain as he and two of his crew carefully picked their way from the lowest crevice to one a little higher.
“They zigzag a mite,” Snowhawk observed. She stood beside Eneng at the stern of the great crowd, watching as Ksheygha carefully directed the creatures on the ground to follow Korep.
“It’ll only be a little b’fore they ’ave t’ start peggin’ ropes int’ the ice,” Eneng added thoughtfully. “T’ ’elp with changin’ levels.”
Snowhawk nodded thoughtfully. Then she gave a jerk of her head. “I’m goin’ back t’ my crew t’ update ’em. Want t’ come with an’ check on yer sister?”
Eneng felt a rush of gratitude for her. He knew perfectly well that she wouldn’t have offered if he didn’t have her sword in his belt, but still, he would be glad to make sure his sister was well.
Spotting his bosun, he called the ferret over and gave him a quick set of instructions. Snowhawk waited patiently until Eneng finished conversing with his crewferret; she then turned and led the way back down the gentle slope, to the thrashed-up beach, and then back toward the grotto where Snowhawk’s crew waited.
This being the fourth time they had navigated the uneven shore, they were able to practically run, leaping easily from rock to rock and crossing the occasional dip with a few swift strides.
“Somethin’ just occurred t’ me,” Eneng panted. “Since we’re the first creatures t’ see this island since they started makin’ seacharts, does that mean we get t’ name the places ’round the island?”
“Too late,” Snowhawk called back. “I already named this beach Squidfight Shoals.”
She slowed down a little. “Well, look at the ground! It looks like tentacles lashed the beach up!”
“Yeah, but why squid?” Eneng persisted.
“Because Octopusfight Shoals is a mouthful,” Snowhawk replied lightly.
“You just made that up, didn’ you?” Eneng challenged.
“I made it up last night,” Snowhawk retorted.
With that, they found themselves outside the grotto.
The first thing Eneng saw was Winterblade. Comically swathed in bandages, except for her head, which merely dripped with green aloe ointment, she sat back against a rock in the coolest part of the grotto, trying to sip from a flask. Tine sat nearby, energetically talking to the captain. More of Snowhawk’s crew had arrived, including a scar-faced male ferret that Snowhawk immediately crossed to and began to confer with; Eneng supposed this was her first mate.
Ignoring all of Snowhawk’s crew, he crept across the rocks and sat down beside his sister. Inside, his heart was crying for relief, but his voice bore no sign of that relief when he spoke.
“So y’re awake. I really ’ope you ain’t bitten the paw that healed you, ’Blade.”
“I’ll bite yer paw if y’ don’t shut up,” she snarled in reply.
Eneng rolled his eyes and stood up, his heart dancing at his sister’s bold response. She would be all right, he knew it in his fur!
But still, he really should keep her away from Snowhawk’s crew.
Said captain raised her voice and addressed her crew. “First mate will take the Nygoan around the island an’ catch up t’ the Wynraser. I want a party o’ fifteen t’ ’company me.” She turned to face Eneng. “Yer sister c’n either wait ’ere fer ’er own crew or ’itch a ride on Nygoan.”
Before Eneng could answer politely, Winterblade snarled what he been about to say with far less tact. “I ain’t settin’ a paw aboard yer tub, Snow’awk!”
The words came out slightly muddled, thanks to the burns on Winterblade’s tongue, but the venom in her voice was unaffected. Snowhawk’s eyes flashed like lightning, but all she said was, “Suit yerself. Wait fer yer crew, then.”
“I c’n walk,” Winterblade snarled, pushing aside her flask and grasping the rock wall for support.
“It’d be best if y’ didn’,” Tine said hurriedly.
“I ain’t a child,” Winterblade snapped. “Don’ tell me what t’ do.”
Eneng knew from experience that Winterblade’s remark was born out of sheer bad temper, not any disrespect for the young healer, but Snowhawk either didn’t know that or didn’t care, because her temper snapped.
“She saved yer life, Winterblade,” the black-eyed captain half-shouted. “Don’ be rude t’ her!”
There was a tone in that challenge that Eneng knew well, but would never have expected to come from Snowhawk: the tone of a devoted captain’s protectiveness for the weakest member of her crew. It was the same tone with which Redseg had once snapped down other captains who were disdainful of Winterblade.
His sister, however, was only concerned with not backing down. “If she’s so good, then why can’t I walk?”
That was a ridiculous statement, its only purpose being to goad Snowhawk, and after a heartbeat the other female captain recognized that. She sneered disdainfully at the bandaged figure of her enemy and said calmly, “I saved yer life too, Winterblade. So shove that down yer bilges an’ swill it!”
“C’n we quit arguin’?” Eneng snapped, suddenly impatient. “Korep’ll be wonderin’ whats become of us. ’Blade, ’ere’s what we’ll do: you wait ’ere, an’ I’ll send yer crew back t’ you. You c’n figure out what needs t’ be done once they’re back ’ere. Tine, is she stable enough t’ wait by ’erself fer a bit?”
Tine nodded confidently. “As long as she don’t move.”
Eneng shrugged. “Well then – Nygoan sails, then the shore party moves out.”
“If y’ please, Cap’n,” Tine spoke up boldly, “I’ll go with the shore party. That way I c’n show Winterblade’s crew where this place is.”
Snowhawk didn’t look very comfortable with that, but she nodded wordlessly.
“Well, then, Cap’n Snowhawk, I’d suggest we get goin’ b’fore we get left be’ind,” Eneng added, his tone reasonable and negotiable.
Snowhawk turned back to her first mate. “Get back t’ the Nygoan, an’ send the longboat back with some rope. Also – in my seachest is a pair o’ sharkshide gloves. Send ’em back o’er, too.”
As the fist mate selected ferrets to help him row the longboat back to the Nygoan, Eneng murmured to Snowhawk, “Why’d you need gloves?”
For answer, Snowhawk held up her paws. The burns from when she’d snagged Winterblade were festering, and there were some places where it looked like the climb had rubbed the hide away entirely. But Snowhawk hadn’t displayed a single trace of pain all day!
“Why don’t y’ get Tine t’ dress ’em?” he asked, stunned.
Snowhawk shrugged. “They don’t bother me none. But I don’t fancy addin’ rope burns to ’em.”
Korep felt young again – not that he was particularly aged, but now he felt downright young! The ice cold, instead of seeping past his fur and into his bones, seemed to swirl around him, ruffling his fur and bathing his face, but not piercing him. It felt wonderful!
Climbing felt wonderful too, he reflected. Glancing down, he saw the line of pirates inching along the ice, grabbing the rope when it had been nailed in, and talking and laughing with anticipation. Ksheygha had left her post at the base of the cliff to Eneng; Snowhawk remained at the stern of the mass of pirates with her crew.
Korep was not unduly troubled by her presence – all he knew about her, he knew from Winterblade, Zuryzel, and Dejuday. He knew Zuryzel’s brother Mokimshim was paying her to do something – that unnerved him – but he didn’t know what it was. Mercenaries offered a variety of services, and since it would look extremely suspicious if the most popular child of Hokadra and Demeda died by a mercenary’s blade, Korep seriously doubted she was under orders to do anything but watch Zuryzel. At least for the time being.
No matter – he was nearly to the top of the ice!
The last vertical stretch baffled him – there wasn’t a single crevice anywhere. This would involve scaling and rope-climbing, and part of him was tempted to call Eneng or Snowhawk up for that. But he wordlessly drew two of his daggers, both of which were a lot duller than they had been at the base of the cliff. Uncoiling the rope behind them, he and his two crewferrets pulled their way up the last bit of smooth ice. And then their paws were on the mountain.
“Don’t look like much of a climb from ’ere,” one of the ferrets noted.
“Looks c’n be deceivin’,” Korep murmured. “Let’s regroup some ’ere.”
They drove the rope into the ice with their last peg, and then stepped away from the edge to allow more pirates to climb onto solid ground. A lot of them groaned, rubbing their shoulders and necks, muttering about the tough climb.
“Eneng an’ Snowhawk climbed the whole thing last night,” Korep muttered. “That lot’d better stop bellyachin’.”
The words weren’t completely out of his mouth when Ksheygha’s face appeared over the ice. Her amber eyes twinkled, and she hauled herself onto the mountain with a surge of energy that Korep hadn’t seen from her since … gliding gulls, he didn’t know since when.
“Almost there!” she cried as she hurried up to him. “What’s everyone groaning about? They’re about to become wealthy!”
“Assumin’ there really is treasure in Rinaria,” Korep reminded her. Then he winced. “Sorry – guess Snowhawk’s cynicism is contagious.”
“Is that why we didn’t invite her along in the first place?” Ksheygha smirked. “Come on. If nothing else, the route to Rinaria will be worth a fortune!”
All at once, Korep laughed. “Time t’ get crackin’, then?”
“Aye,” Ksheygha agreed. “Time it is!”
Korep quickly shouted, “Start movin’ for’ard!” Then he and Ksheygha began the last leg of the hike without waiting for their crews. About twenty strides up the slope, near to where the mountain’s shoulder ridged, he glanced back and saw the mass of pirates about ten strides behind.
The ground to their right – north – got progressively steeper, as did the ground before them, while to their left, the earth began to fall away. Looking down, Korep noticed the plants were scraggly and the soil was changing from red to black. Hm – volcanic.
“More climbing,” Ksheygha noted at one point. A ridge flowed away from the mountain’s summit, crossing in front of them and then curving back east, almost like a great dragon’s tail.
“But I think once we get t’ the top o’ that ridge, we’ll be able t’ see the other side,” Korep panted.
“And Rinaria,” Ksheygha agreed.
Korep looked behind them again; the crews were starting to catch up. But he wanted to share the next moment with Ksheygha – be it triumph or heartbreak, he wanted to share it with her.
“C’mon!” he said quietly, and quickened his stride.
Ksheygha kept pace with him, her eyes gleaming. Only ten paces to the ridge … five … three …
They caught their first sight of what lay beyond the mountain and their paws sped up even more. When the ground before them changed direction, they stopped and stared, panting. When Ksheygha caught her breath, she whispered…