The ancient forest had a silence to it that was oppressive, broken only by the muted steps of a horse. Yet the man who rode seemed oblivious to the fact that he was the sole source of noise in the green halls, unimpressed by the trunks that reached high than the walls of any church, closed his eyes to the to patterns of sunlight and greenery that rivaled any stained glass for intricacy. He simply rode; his mouth and face twisted into an unpleasant expression. It was the face of the elders talking about how degenerate the youth had become, it was the face of the conqueror telling their captives how inferior they were. It weighed and measured his surroundings in a heartbeat and found fault with them, forever barring them from the ranks of the holy and beautiful.
His horse, now that was a different matter. Akan's face changed the moment he looked down upon the grey stallion, shifting from disproval to pride. From the tip of his black tail to the hooves on his feet and the blood in his veins, the horse was precious, beautiful, wondrous. The man could recite Danneh's bloodline back twelve generations, a bloodline compromised of prize stallions and fine broodmares. His own family was only slightly less prestigious. Though he was the second son of his count father – that is, if one only counted trueborn sons – it was a generally acknowledged fact that Akan would inherit the lands after his older brother drank and whored his way into an early grave.
He sniffed contemptuously as he finally deigned to look at one of the trees, rather than through it. The large, unwieldy things would provide a haven for lawbreakers and other rogues, and the soil they occupied could be better put to the plow, feeding the area and giving the lord his just tithe. The very fact that such a forest existed, and for such a distance, showed to him the lack of any strong lord, further decreasing his opinion of these northern lords.
There was none of this weakness in the south. None of these tracts of land left to fallow, under the excuse that they harbored spirits. None of these small hamlets and villages scattered far and between, in the few places where the untamed forest had left glade large enough for human habitations. Forests were cut down to small, manageable sizes, large enough that a lord could run his hounds in hunt, large enough that wood could be collected, but never left this large. Never large enough that a man could walk for days without seeing the sky but between leaves and branches. Ridiculous to do such a thing, when the king could tax a lord for all the lands he held, whether or not the land produced money. So far as he could tell, the forest he was currently stuck in didn't even have a lord.
"Damn northerners," he muttered sourly, his voice seeming loud and sharp in the still forest. It didn't help that the huge trees leached all the water from the soil, making it hard for the smaller plants to grow. He had to spend much of his day keeping an eye open for glades where Danneh could graze. The few rude hamlets he had come across were compromised of rickety hovels from which dirty haired women peeked out, their snot-nosed brats looking around from behind their mother's skirts. Of the men he saw very little, though he had seen a dark haired man one twilight. He'd been looking for a place to picket Danneh when a shadow had shifted, revealing a man whose eyes betrayed with a flicker anger and a strange feralness. He had said nothing, simply staring the count's son down, one hand holding a strangely long bow, the other a correspondingly long arrow. Finally, after Akan had looked away, he had slipped off.
He didn't want to be in the north, wouldn't have been in the north under ordinary circumstances. But his count father was a man steeped in traditions, and as long as he was lord of his lands, his kin and people would follow his traditions. Normally Akan had no objections to his father's traditions. They were sensible and pragmatic, yet still allowed a count and his sons the leeway that they of noble birth deserved. For instance, bastard children were required to be acknowledged with a small purse of coin, but no further obligations were held to the father. Yet a journey to the ten holy places of Eire was also required of the heir to the holding by his count father's traditions, and two of them were in this godforsaken northern land. And to add insult to injury, his younger brother Ranydd – his only legitimate younger brother – had insisted on being granted the chance to fulfill the requirements. The fool had set off for the northlands first, and Akan half expected to come across his bones some night.
Akan sighed and consulted the worn map that he carried always, carefully folded in the pouch on his belt that hung next to his sword. It was a good, sturdy sword – none of the fancy metalwork or jewel-encrusted hilts that his drunken brother favoured – crafted by some of Eire's finest metal smiths. It had been a gift on his eighteenth birthday, just as Danneh had been a gift on his sixteenth and the matching dagger a gift on his tenth. If he was reading the map correctly, he should come across the northern channel within the next day or so. From there he would have to find a ferryman to take him across to the island where the old priests kept their vigil, that he could get their sigil to prove to his count father that he had truly gone through all of Eire. The precious sigils that he had already collected were wrapped in wax paper and tucked into his underclothing, so that even if his belt pouch were stolen, he wouldn't have to go back to all the territory he had already covered.
Two left, he thought with a sigh. Two holy places left to visit, two sigils left to collect, two more journeys before he would be home. The priests at the other places had known how to treat a traveling count's son, but who knew how these barbaric northerners thought? Strange, uncanny people that they were, they'd likely as soon shoot him as look at him. He remembered the gaze of that northern man and shivered slightly. "Damn northerners," he repeated harshly. Damn their land, damn their traditions, and damn their thrice damned forests.
He glanced upwards, critically. He didn't take the chance to admire the play of leaves, sunlight and sky, didn't wonder about the great heights of the trees. He simply frowned at the sky and tried to discern what time it was. Then the few patches of whitish sky that he could see began to glow faintly orange and red, and he knew he saw sundown. Extremely inconvenient, those trees. Made doing anything hard. He couldn't understand why the northerners would want the trees to stay around, and he didn't want to. They were odd and better kept at arm's length. At arrow range would be even better, but only if they didn't have those oddly long bows.
The trees before him clustered together as though conspiring to keep him from reaching his goal, their branches lower than their greater cousins, touching his head until he angrily knocked them off. It was the change in Danneh's footsteps that alerted him first to what the shorter trees should have told them – now he could hear grass and small plants crunching under the stallion's hooves. Akan squinted and looked forward, trying to determine what was before him. Another of the clearings? Hopefully an uninhabited one. The looks those northerners gave him, as though he were some sort of a freak. Like they were ones to talk.
A breeze whispered through the branches, carrying the scent of greenery and water with it. Interested now, Akan nudged Danneh with his knees, urging him forward. The wind blew again, a bit stronger this time, smelling of pine and salt. A slow smile crossed the count's son's face as he realized what it meant. Salt water. He had reached the northern channel. Tomorrow he would be able to find a ferryman to get him across the water, the day after he would have made it to the other side. Then he would be well on his way to having only one place left to visit before he could return home. Before he could get out of these damnable northlands.
He broke through a screen of vine-like plants and growth, Danneh whuffing his disproval at being made to pass through such a mass. The setting sun shone a brilliant red to his left, giving his brown hair an almost chestnut appearance. It reflected off the dark waters of the northern channel, waters that were as smooth as any lady's mirror but for the ripples caused by the slight breeze that had brought the scent of salt water. He laughed and brought his arms up as though to embrace the sky he had only seen in pieces for almost a month. Then he set Danneh to picking his way down the gentle slope to the beach. From there he would have to find the mouth of a river, where he could get fresh water for the pair of them. Feeling in far better cheer than he had for the past month, he nudged Danneh again, eager for the next day to come so that he could find the ferryman.
Akan glanced out across the waters, trying to catch a glimpse of the island he made way for. But there was no dark smudge on the horizon, not a hint of the holy place. He shrugged it off pragmatically. The ferryman would be able to show him where it was. An icy finger trailed its leisurely way up his spine and he stiffened, Danneh pausing as he sensed his rider's tension. There would be a ferryman, wouldn't there? There had to be one – the priests couldn't be completely isolated! After a few moments of panic he forced himself to relax once more. If there was no ferryman, then he would find a boat. If there was no one willing to sell him his boat, there would be one willing to loan it. If there was no one willing to loan it, he could stow away in one or steal it. He would find a way. He had to.
The sun was down by the time Akan finished setting up a rough camp at the edge of the river. He sat by the small fire, keeping one eye on the picketed stallion as he browsed through the grass. Finally satisfied that Danneh wouldn't get up to any mischief, he set about going through his stores of food. There wasn't much left, but the priests at the holy place would certainly help him to replenish it. Even if they were too poor to give up any of their food except in trade, he could afford to give them some coins. That store had gone far further than he had expected.
As he brought a piece of slightly stale bread to his mouth, he thought he heard footsteps in the undergrowth. Wary of the northerners, he drew his sword quickly, hastily putting his dinner down with the other. The blade gleamed in the firelight, apparently scaring whatever creature that had chosen to come near his camp away, for he heard nothing more for a few moments. Then, just as he picked his food up once more, he heard the crunch of a plant being trodden underfoot. It was closer than the earlier sounds, and he reached for his sword once more.
A soft giggle held him still, though not as transfixed as when his stalker came into sight. Her dark hair was left loose to curl slightly at the ends, pointing upwards as though to show something in the sky. It framed her small, pointed face and only emphasized her large eyes of some dark, nameless colour. She smiled, and her even teeth winked at him before her lips closed shut once more. Her soft, curving body was more than hinted at beneath her draping shirt and close-fitting skirt. The only thing that didn't match was the cloak she dropped to the ground, made of one whole fur. He swallowed tightly as she brought up one small, white hand. This was no northerner. She belonged to the south, the land of the gentle ladies and kind sun. What was she doing here?
She laughed again, quietly, as she came to stand next to him. Heat, soft and warming, seemed to radiate from her, and she looked up at him, her eyes dark and penetrating. Reached out and gently touched his cheek, brought it down to run along his jaw line, feeling the coarseness of a jaw that had been shaved perhaps twice in the past month, the last time four days ago. Then she tilted her head to one side, considering the man before her. With another smile, she placed first one hand, then the other, on his shoulders and pulled him down into a kiss.
Before he allowed himself to fall into the woman's snare, Akan amended his earlier thought.
The northlands were only twice-damned.
As always, Akan awoke slowly, first taking a moment to savour the satiated, heavy feeling in his bones, then another to enjoy the last dregs of sleep before they slipped completely from his mind. He could remember snippets of the night before, fuzzy little pieces of memory that fused together to add to the warmth that had settled into his bones. The woman, whoever she was, was certainly no gentle southern lady. Oh, she could pass for one of them in beauty and perhaps even mannerism, but she wasn't one of the naïve, silk-wrapped ninnies that fathers were so fond of flaunting. She was more akin to the older, more practiced ladies, the ones who were as dedicated hunters as men, as practiced in their arts as a warrior.
He shifted slightly and paused. Shifted again. The warm pressure that had been against his back ever since they had settled down to actual sleep was gone, though recently. It was likely that disappearance that had awakened him. He opened his eyes and sat up, wondering where the sylph-like woman he had spent the night with had gone to.
Her cloak was still on the ground where she had abandoned it, but her clothing was missing. It hadn't gone far, though, for the dark haired woman sat near the fire, carefully feeding it with twigs as she looked through something. Dark eyes dancing, she held up his small clothes, her expression clearly wondering why on earth a grown man would wear something so patently absurd. A small packet fell out and she picked it up and began to unwrap it.
The count's son saw it in an instant. She had been going through his things! And now – now she held the sigils of the eight holy places he had visited! Fury replacing the contentment that had been settling in the pit of his stomach, he stood sharply upright, ignoring the fact that he was completely nude. The woman looked up and smiled, though he now knew that it was a fake smile, and any innocence or kindness that she slipped into it was only another example of her craftiness.
Forget the northlands being only twice-damned. They were nine times damned!
He lunged at her, and the unsuspecting woman – but she was only pretending to be surprised, of course – fell back, dropping the wax paper. He ignored it when he saw that it wasn't near enough the small fire to be at risk, focusing instead on the traitorous wench. He backhanded her when she struggled upright, knocking her back another few paces. He continued to do so, shoving her back into a tree.
"Don't look so surprised, little whore," he hissed. "You've played this game before, haven't you, tricking men into trusting you before you stole from them. Didn't expect me to wake up so soon, did you? Bet you were planning on killing me afterwards, too." He grabbed her arm and pulled her onto her feet, lifting his dagger as he did so. "Whore. Thief. Bastard child of a race of whores and thieves." He punctuated each pronouncement with a blow to her arms or head.
She squirmed and tried to escape, but he simply tightened his grip on the thief's arm. Sidestepping her attempt to kick him in the balls, he retaliated by punching her in the stomach, carefully ensuring that the blade of the dagger never touched her. Tears ran down her face and she bowed her head. He put his knife under her chin and pressed upwards, forcing her to look him in the eye or slit her own throat. Tears still slipped silently out of her eyes, but she never made a sound, simply staring at him. His anger reached the boiling point and he slashed out with the blade, cutting her deeply in the throat. Her last breath sighed out and he found himself holding a corpse up to a tree.
Letting the body slide to the ground, he looked quickly around and saw her cloak. He snatched it up and wrapped the body, then threw it into the river, spiting into the water as he did so. No prayer crossed his lips for her soul, no plea for compassion to a god. There was no reason to pray for the soul of a thief and whore, no reason to beg forgiveness for killing such a creature. Why should there be? They were only so much trash. He stuck his hands into the water a little further upriver and let the blood wash off of them, and then silently went about cleaning and packing his camp.
Danneh had no comment about the death of the woman, simply shifting restlessly as he places the packs on his back again. He even refrained from his favourite trick of holding air in his belly to make Akan's life even more impossible. He was in the saddle moments later, no signs of what had passed on the grassy bank except for a small piece of charred wood and a few bloodstains on the bare earth below the tree. Idly, he twisted his neck a few times to get the cricks out, nudging the grey stallion with his knees as he did so. It was time to find a ferryman.
An hour later, all thoughts of the woman had vanished from his mind as he enjoyed the scent of pine and salt water. His own home was near the ocean, and much of his childhood had been spent on the beach. As for the pine, well, even though there were no such trees on his father's land, his mother's kin had a small stand of pines next to their keep. A few decorative branches were sent over every year at the Winter Solstice, and pine had also gained the association of family in his mind.
Around noon he heard voices talking in the rough language of the northerners. He also heard other sounds – childish shrieks of delight, splashing water, the thwack of sticks on sticks. Danneh swung his head up and snorted, recognizing the smells of humans. Akan had no love for the northern folk, but he allowed the horse to pick up his pace, hoping to find someone who could direct him to a ferryman, or better yet, the ferryman himself.
The stallion's hoof steps were muffled against the wet sand of the beach, but none of the people in the little cove seemed especially surprised to see the horse or its rider. Children – the youngest completely naked and the older ones dressed to varying degrees – chased one another around the beach, shouting. To the count's son they delegated a moment of curiosity, to the horse another few heartbeats, and then they resumed their earlier activity. Others – mostly children on the verge of adolescence – sat on a few large rocks scattered around the water's edge, dangling their feet in the dark waters and throwing stones and sticks. A collection of ramshackle huts decorated the area nearest the high cliff at the back of the beach.
An old man, his hair grey and stringy, with patches of baldness showing through, dozed in front of one of these huts. His hands were folded in his lap, his expression peaceful and a long pole lay beside him. His clothing was as ragged as that of any other northlander Akan had seen, and he would have dismissed him out of hand had it not been for that pole.
He dismounted easily and started towards the old man, intent on discovering if he were the ferryman. Children swarmed behind him to touch Danneh's flanks, tail and mane, gabbling all the while in their rough tongue. Before he could reach out to touch the man's shoulder, however, a younger person stepped out from the door of the hovel. His hair was a deep, almost black brown, a colour as dark as his eyes. His garb was plain and slightly less ragged than that of the elderly man, and his tunic had a hood attached to it.
"Is he the ferryman?" Akan asked the youngster.
The adolescent tilted his head to one side, a slight frown creasing his forehead. Then it was replaced by a smile. "No – he father father. Long time ago, yes. Now, me."
Ah. So he had found a ferryman. "You can take me across the water? To the island?"
The teen glanced out at the channel. "Yes. Take half day. Sun down when arrive."
"Good. Let's get going, then."
The boy folded his arms. "How pay?"
Akan sighed impatiently, and then reached into his belt pouch to produce a silver coin. "In coin."
Instantly, all traces of reluctance vanished from his face. "We go!" He began shouting in his own tongue, and children scattered everywhere. Then the ferryman ducked back into the hut to retrieve a long pole, carved with odd symbols and with a few shells on top. He didn't seem at all ashamed about carrying something that would have been considered a prop for a play or a foolish toy back in the southern parts of Eire. Then he strode off down the beach, forcing the count's son to trail after him.
One of the places recently vacated by the children turned out to be a large, flat raft. Poles had been driven into the four corners, as well as in the center of each side, and rope tied around it at three heights to prevent people from falling out. The ferryman waved him in, frowned at the horse and sighed, but let Danneh board too. "You clean," he said firmly, looking directly at the stallion. Combined with his tone of voice, there was no mistaking what he meant. Inwardly, Akan curled his lip – him, a noble's son, cleaning up dung? But outwardly, he only nodded. No sense in angering the ferryman.
The boy seized hold of a long, water-soaked rope that was attached to the shore to help keep his balance. A hole had been bored into the large stone, and something – clay, perhaps – was holding a stout pole upright. The rope was attached to this at one end; the other disappeared into the water. It fed through the lowest height of rope at the left-hand side of the raft. Then the ferryman began shouting at the children, who shrieked with delight as they ran towards the raft. For one moment Akan thought that the whole flock of children would be coming with them, and he seriously considered finding another way across. But they only ran to the edge of the raft and began to push it further into the water, aided by the boy's pushes with that ridiculously decorated pole.
The youngsters began calling out to the ferryman, waving their hands and smiling broadly. He waved back almost absently, using the pole to thrust first on one side, then on the other. Akan noted with some interest that the rope continued to feed through the holes. After a few moments of thought, he concluded that the rope must be attached somewhere at the other end in order to keep the ferryman from losing his way. Surprisingly intelligent, considering it was an idea coming from the northerners.
"You from south?" the boy asked, staring straight ahead as though he could see the island already.
"Ah… What's name?"
"Akan." He glanced back at the mainland. The children had resumed their earlier game of tag, not even looking to see where the dark-haired teen had gone. Not wanting to seem impolite, although a northlander was hardly someone to judge another person's level of politesse, he added, "Yours?"
The silence resumed. After a time, Rhael placed his pole on the raft and took hold of the rope. Then he began pulling on it, hand over hand style, dragging the raft forwards. As though he could sense Akan's curious look, he muttered, "Too deep for pole."
"Are those your siblings?" he asked, trying to hide the fact that he hadn't known that. It was obvious, when he thought about it, but he certainly wasn't going to admit that to a northerner. Southern pride.
"Some. Cousins, too. Others…" He shrugged and kept pulling. "Others have no tie. Just here."
And that was the end of that conversation. Instead of risking treading on dangerous ground – which might well end up with him having no ground under his feet – he began daydreaming about his homecoming. He father would be proud to see him back, of course, and his eldest brother would be dead. In some sort of a fight? No, that was too noble for the drunkard. Akan pondered possible deaths for his brother, and then settled with having him pitch out of a window while drunk. Considering his brother, it was entirely possible. His younger legitimate brother would be back, too, but he would have given up long before he'd found even the first sigil. He would be abashed and ashamed, and would bow his head to his older brother's judgment. There would be a great feast – there would be people watching for him, certainly – and he would have place of honor next to his father. He would even be declared the new count at the evening's end, and everyone would cheer for him, and the arms master would swear allegiance, and all the visiting nobles would wonder why their son's couldn't be like him.
The combination of the sound of dark water slapping on wood, the warm sunlight and the salt water smell began to make him drowsy, and he slipped off into a light sleep, his hand carefully curled around his belt pouch. The dreams followed the same pattern as his earlier fantasy, and when Rhael glanced back at his passenger, he saw he was asleep, a faint smile on his face. The count's son never heard the sound of other creatures in the water, sounds that the ferryman ignored. Danneh, too, ignored them after whuffing his displeasure at being on the water.
Akan blinked himself awake, looking around the small raft. As the ferryman had said, it was past sundown, and a sliver of the moon that hadn't been visible the night before now shone down on the dark water. Faint ripples blurred the reflection, but aside from that, all was peaceful. He looked at the island. Just as he had guessed, there was a post to match the one on the mainland, the rope feeding through it. There cost was thickly forested, and the trees were even taller than the ones he had been through earlier.
"You pay now?"
With a sigh, Akan fished through his belt pouch and presented the boy with one copper coin and two silvers. "How am I ever going to find the holy place?" he asked himself.
"Holy place?" Rhael was leaning on that ridiculous pole of his, his dark eyes measuring. "You go there?" He began rubbing his copper coin with his thumb, and the count's son smiled inwardly. Best that he didn't rub the silver coins – they were lead slugs covered with silver gilt. The copper, for once, was more valuable.
"Yes," he replied impatiently. Why would he have been asking how he would find it if he wasn't going there? Northlanders were as dense as the southerners gave them credit for. "You know how to get there?"
The boy nodded. "Take hand." He held it up to the sky, fingers touching one another, and waited for Akan to copy him. "Moon touch little finger." He adjusted his hand's position to suit the boy's instructions. "We get there, moon touch longest finger." The northerner squatted down and started untying the guiding rope from the raft, and then tied the rope back to the post on the shore.
"What are you doing?"
The boy stared at him for a long moment before answering. "Rope does not lead to holy place. Untie, then follow shore." He picked up his pole once more and shoved off of the shallow sandbank he had landed on, moving further offshore before stopping once more and walking behind Akan. "Easier to steer here."
He listened to the play of water against the raft and the shore, wondering what this northern holy place would look like. Nowhere near as fine as the southern ones, with their high spires and elaborately carved stone and wood walls. They couldn't have anything as impressive as the jewels and tapestries that ornamented everything. Nothing as glorious as the burial places of kings and great leaders. Indeed, he couldn't see what the barbaric northlands could possibly have to be holy.
He looked around and frowned. The shore was only vaguely visible. Did Rhael know what he was doing? Maybe the boy wasn't strong enough to fight against the current without the aid of the guiding rope. More out of concern for his own clothing than anything – if his clothes got wet, then he would lose the sigils – he turned around to see what the ferryman was doing.
A knife brushed gently along his neck, freezing him. "What are you doing?" he demanded.
"Can't you guess?" Cold fury filled that voice, making it as dark as the waters that surrounded them and burning away all traces of the northern accent. "Or perhaps you gave Aislin even less warning than this."
Akan swallowed hard, and his Adam's apple scraped against the blade. "Aislin?" The woman. He'd completely forgotten about her. And if this boy was so concerned about her, then she must have been promised to him. "She broke faith with you," he replied calmly. "What woman would do that to her promised husband?"
The teen's hand clenched on his shoulder and hauled him upright, then turned him to face dark eyes that had gone even darker with rage. "Aislin," Rhael said, coldly and clearly emphasizing each word, "was my sister."
Sister. That was a completely different case. "You claim blood debt, then?" He would fight him to the death, sink his body carefully. He wouldn't let another come on his trail. He had to get home, had to claim his true title, had to prove how superior he was to his brothers. He could kill this boy. He wasn't anything impressive.
Something flickered in the ferryman's dark, angry eyes. "Aislin… was not yet my sister. So I cannot claim blood debt." Akan could have laughed. No northerner, no matter how foolish, would try to challenge a southlander without a blood debt to back his actions. He was safe.
The water sloshed against the raft, and Rhael planted his pole in the water to keep the boat steady. "No… I cannot claim blood debt. But there are those who can," he added in a hiss.
The count's son didn't know why. He turned around to where the teen's dark eyes stared with a grim sort of satisfaction, fury and pleasure warring for contention. A man stood on the edge of the raft, his wet brown hair almost black from the water, his eyes a nameless, dark colour. He wore no clothing, and his entire lean, white body was clearly visible. But in one hand dangled a cloak. A fur-covered cloak of the same creature that Aislin's had been made of, slightly larger. He recognized the fur now. Sealskin.
That was the last thing he saw, for the large, lean man stepped forward and slammed his fist into Akan's head, grabbing Rhael's knife with the other. He was already falling into unconsciousness when the knife stabbed into his heart.
Rhael leaned almost casually against the decorated pole he used to push his raft in the shallower waters, looking out over the channel as he waited for Altes to collect the blood debt to his satisfaction. He was, after all, Aislin's father, and his anger was even worse than the ferryman's. After a few moments, he heard the soft splash of a body falling into the water, and knew that he had finished.
"Well?" the selkie asked the human, his voice still holding a sharp anger. But it wasn't at Rhael, and the teen knew it. "You've helped me to claim my debt. What price do you want?"
The boy sighed as he turned to face Altes. "You know my price. What I asked for you yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that. My request has never changed."
"Lad, you know I can't grant that," he said, shaking his head slowly. Cia is a selkie, and there are only two ways for a selkie to wed one of the landfolk. You would have to steal her skin and trap her on land forever, and I would never let you do that."
"I would never do that!" Rhael shouted. "You know that," he added in a softer voice. "Never to Cia." He looked the selkie in the eye. "And the other way is for a human to gain a second skin."
"I can't do that. The sea folk have never done that."
"Yes you have!"
"Who told you such a thing?"
"Aislin did…" The ferryman shook his head and trailed off sorrowfully. "She told me that if I could get enough coin, collected enough favours from you, I might someday be able to get a sealskin." His dark eyes hardened. "Are you saying that Aislin lied?"
"No. She told the truth. She was never supposed to tell anyone that…" The selkie stared at the blood on the floor. A few seconds later, a wave rushed up onto the raft and whipped it away. "Lad, Rhael, even with me owing you this sort of debt, it's still not enough for a sealskin."
He bent over and lifted the pouch he had stolen from the southerner a few moments before he'd confronted him. It had coins in it, some true gold and silver, others like the fakes he had been paid with. "Is this enough?"
"Not quite…" Then the selkie smiled and turned around as the stallion nudged his back. "This, though, this is a fine creature. We have no use for horses, but…" He looked at it critically. "I'm certain you would be able to sell it for enough to buy a sealskin, along with those coins and the debt." Altes crossed his arms. "But you're also paying the bride price for a lord's daughter."
Silently, Rhael reached into the pocket of his tunic and pulled out a small pouch. As he passed it to the selkie lord, he allowed the top to fall open, revealing the contents. The man bit back an oath when he saw what was within. True gold, true silver, pearls and coral and all kinds of gems.
"Where did you get this from?"
The ferryman smiled, shrugged. "I'd save them. I found gems when I found abandoned ships, so I'd keep them. I might get paid more than I needed to feed the family, so I'd hide away the excess for Cia. This one…" He tugged a silver chain and it came free from the rest of the metal. At the end were several finely cut diamonds, and hooked onto the string was a matching ring. "This was a gift from the last southlander to pass through." The northerner frowned slightly. "You know, he looked a bit like that one."
Altes nodded. "His name was Ranydd. I remember; he was doing something so that he could claim his land. He tossed a few coins for us, too. For the sea folk, he said." Then, contemptuously, "That one wouldn't have done that to Aislin."
"Is it enough?" Rhael asked anxiously.
"It's enough." The selkie smiled. "Ask the priests, son-to-be, and I'm sure they'll sell the horse for you."
Rhael beamed. "Thank you, Altes. But… don't you have to ask Cia first?"
The selkie lord snorted. "Cia's been nagging me for the past two moons to let her wed you. I doubt I'd have to ask permission." Then he donned his sealskin and dove into the water. The ferryman resettled his grip on the pole, and quietly set off for the holy place to sell the horse.