The Emerald of the Northern Sea
The ship was headed home, to an island very far away from the continent Kalen had left, and they wouldn’t arrive for at least two and a half more weeks.
The boy slept for most of the first three days in the ship’s warm bunk room, only occasionally disturbed by the stupendous snores of some of the sailors. Every few hours, he was woken by the red-bearded man—Jorn—who would spoon soup and crushed crackers into his mouth until he was full to bursting.
Jorn told him all about the ship and the ocean and his wife, Shelba, who hated the sea almost as much as Kalen did. She sounded like an intelligent person.
Some of the sailors took Kalen’s fear of the vast wetness beyond the safe walls of the ship in stride, but others seemed to think he might be cured of his loathing. To these men, the fact that he’d somehow survived in the freezing waters was proof that he had a seaman’s constitution, and the fact that he was unbothered by the rolling, rocking motion of the boat meant he had good legs.
These sailors approached him regularly with stories about the wonders of the sea and even small gifts, trying to entice him above decks. Kalen enjoyed stories, and he was very pleased with their offerings. He’d collected a wooden whistle, a packet of dried fish, and a lumpy pink pearl. But once he left the safety of the bunk room, he refused to set foot outside the ship.
Instead, he explored the cargo.
The ship was hauling many crates and barrels full of supplies, but these were not to be opened. No matter…the cargo that interested Kalen was running about in a pen made of stacked crates in the center of the hold.
Piglets. Twelve small, spotted pink piglets and an exhausted sow. Apparently there had been another sow, but she’d died not long before Kalen was found. Hence, the abundance of fresh pork soup aboard.
The pigs belonged to Jorn, who’d left Shelba and the island behind for the purpose of purchasing them. (And also because his younger brother Holv had finally become captain of this ship, which belonged to their family, and Jorn was being supportive of his first long voyage.)
While Kalen sat in the straw, selecting first one piglet and then another to hold, Jorn explained that they were a special kind of pig. They were famous even in places beyond the mighty continent, and he had been saving up to buy them for several years.
The pigs required a peculiar diet and luxurious treatment, and if you gave them these things they would grow up to be very delicious.
“Except for this one,” said Kalen, having finally settled on a particular piglet that was more enjoyable than all the others. It was little enough that he could hold it well in his lap, and being lazier than its fellows, it seemed disinclined to run away from him. It had small black ears and a wet nose.
“I think that one will probably taste the same as all the rest,” Jorn said in an amused voice.
“This one is mine, though,” Kalen said matter of factly. “So nobody will ever get to taste it.”
The other sailors had given him things. Jorn, being his favorite of them all, would obviously give him something, too. And what he wanted was this warm, plump piglet.
Jorn stroked his beard and stared at Kalen for a long time. “Aye, Kalen,” he said at last. “That one will be yours.”
“Her name is Sleepynerth,” Kalen said promptly. “But that’s too long, so she ought to be called Sleepy.”
“Sleepy it is,” said Jorn. “Mind you, small man, I don’t think Shelba will take too kindly to having her in the house. She’ll have to do her sleeping with the other pigs.”
This was how Kalen learned that he would be living with Jorn and his wife when the voyage across the ocean was over. He had questions about this, and Jorn explained the matter to him carefully several times.
The sea Kalen hated so much was sacred. She brought gifts to men, and what a man took from the belly of the sea was his. Oftentimes, the sea was much wiser than the men who sailed her. Kalen was proof of this.
Jorn had gone looking for the pigs. One day, he’d hoped to sell them and their offspring and buy the talents of a particular wizarn.
He and Shelba could not have children, and though there were a few wizarns on the island, none could help them. Some years, however, a more powerful wizarn arrived from far away. She brought healing potions to trade with the islanders. Maybe she could give Shelba a child.
“So I thought,” said Jorn, leaning over a crate to tousle Kalen’s hair. “But the sea, she is smarter than me. And she is more powerful than any wizarn. Shelba will be glad I left for pigs and returned with a son.”
Over the next few days, Jorn managed to coax Kalen onto the deck several times. They had discovered that the ocean bothered the boy less if there was something in sight besides the water. So when he was called up to the deck it was always to observe some point of interest.
Once it was a school of small fish that leaped out of the water and sailed through the air. Another time it was a rocky island covered in huge, pale birds. Kalen’s favorite by far, though, were the whales.
The ship sailed near a pod of the enormous beasts, and Kalen’s eyes widened at the sheer size of them. Their backs and tails broke the surface of the sea like leathery islands. They spouted water into the air from a hole on top of their heads.
Kalen, with Sleepy the piglet gripped tightly in his arms, was so enchanted by the sight of them that for a moment he forgot to be afraid of the ocean at all. He leaned over the railing and stared.
“Look, look!” he said, pointing at a flash of orange deep in the water. “One of them is on fire!”
This prompted a great deal of interest from the sailors, who all gathered around him. There was indeed an orange light coming from somewhere in the center of the pod, one that swam along with the other whales even though it hadn’t yet breached the surface.
Everyone began to talk excitedly and point, discussing what the light might be. All other business on the ship was abandoned in favor of following the pod and examining the glow beneath the dark waves. Nearly half an hour later, the glowing thing finally breached the surf.
It was a smaller whale, a calf, and on top of its head two stripes of light shone brilliantly orange.
The sailors were thrown into absolute chaos by the sight. Jorn grabbed Kalen and Sleepy and pulled them away from the railing so that they wouldn’t accidentally be knocked overboard.
The young whale was a rare beast, he explained. The glowing stripes were proof it had some of the same powers that a wizarn did inside its flesh.
“It’s a practitioner?” Kalen asked. He was pleased he still remembered the word from his conversation with Tomas, and he was even more pleased that he had managed to figure out that a practitioner was somehow the same thing as Jorn’s wizarn.
Jorn considered the question. “It is not like a human wizarn, small man,” he said after a moment. “But it holds more power inside it than a normal whale. If it grows up, it will be a king of the sea.”
“Why wouldn’t it grow up?”
“It’s a thing of power, but it’s frail still. It is not a king yet. It might be taken from the sea by men.”
And, indeed, there was an argument on deck now. Half the sailors wanted to kill the glowing whale for its flesh, which was extremely valuable. And the other half wanted to leave it out of respect for the gods of the ocean, as any other calf would be left. Only adult whales could be hunted under normal circumstances.
A vote would be taken.
The young sailor with the half-grown black beard—Dort—approached Jorn. He was rubbing his long, thin nose, an uncertain look on his face. “What will you vote, Jorn?” he asked.
“I will not vote,” said Jorn, laying his hand on top of Kalen’s head. “I have the greatest prize from this trip already. It would not be fair to everyone else to take more.”
“I don’t know what to choose,” said Dort, sounding worried. “The money would be good, but what if the gods are angered? Maybe I won’t vote either.”
“A man of the crew should vote,” Jorn advised. “Else they’ll think you’re less a part of things than the rest.”
Dort’s face fell even lower.
“Is it a decision where both sides are maybe right and maybe wrong?” Kalen asked curiously. “And there’s no way for your head to be sure between the two?”
“Aye,” said Dort. “I am split right down the middle. I think both choices are equal.”
“I can help!” Kalen said excitedly. “You may hold Sleepy for me.” He thrust the piglet at the startled Dort, and from the hidden pocket Tomas had stitched inside his tunic, Kalen took the gift his brother had given him.
It was a large gold coin with strange symbols drawn on either side. Both Dort and Jorn’s eyes widened at the sight of it, but Kalen was too excited to notice.
Finally, the necessary circumstances had arisen!
Tomas had been very clear on how and when the coin was to be used. First, Kalen must only ask it questions when his thoughts were precisely divided down the middle. One always had to use their brain first and only ask for the coin’s help when choices couldn’t be made in any other way.
Second, Kalen mustn’t expect the coin to always be right. In fact, he should expect it to only be right a tiny bit more than half the time. “It will be wrong so often, you’re never even sure it works,” Tomas had said. “But I know it must, because Father spent days making them for us. He wouldn’t have wasted his time for no reason.”
“Will your Father be mad you gave it away?” Kalen asked.
“Our Father. And I won’t ever tell him,” said Tomas. “He made one for Rella and our big brothers and sisters. I’ll borrow one of their coins if I really need it.”
Thirdly, Tomas had taught Kalen how to tell one side of the coin from the other. The elaborate pattern of symbols was almost identical on both sides, but at the precise center of each there was a difference. On one side was a tiny nine-pointed star. On the other was an equally tiny circle.
The star was yes. The circle was no.
Finally, Tomas had told him the most important rule. You couldn’t ever ask the coin about the same subject twice. It would break it.
Now, Kalen thought, you just imbue the coin with your magic, ask the question, and flip it!
Of course…Tomas had not told him how to imbue anything with magic. He’d said that it was something like sticking a part of yourself into the coin, and Kalen would figure it out eventually. Probably right after he learned how to read.
Kalen couldn’t figure it all out right here and now, though, so instead he licked the coin on both sides. Hopefully, putting part of himself on the coin instead of inside it was almost the same thing.
“Should Dort vote to kill the baby whale?” he asked the coin. Then, he flipped it the way Tomas had shown him.
He was supposed to catch the coin before it landed, but he wasn’t very coordinated. Especially when he was shivering out here in the cold ocean wind. It smacked into the decking with a pleasant plinking sound and rolled a short distance. Kalen stepped over to where it had fallen and crouched down to examine it.
“It says no,” he informed Dort. “You should vote no.”
He grabbed the coin, and turned to the two men, feeling very pleased to have made such an important decision so simply.
They were both giving him the strangest looks.
“What kind of coin is that?” asked Dort. “I’ve never seen a gold piece that big, and it’s covered all over in wizarn marks.”
Jorn made a shushing motion at him, then leaned over and whispered something. Dort nodded before passing Sleepy to him and leaving.
“Come here, small man,” said Jorn, holding the piglet in one hand and gesturing to Kalen with his other. “Let’s go back below decks.”
In the hold, surrounded by the snuffling sounds of pigs and the creaking of the ship, Jorn asked Kalen about the coin.
Oh no. Here was another need for a lie. Kalen didn’t like lying to Jorn anymore, but he couldn’t betray Tomas. Maybe only a small lie, then?
“It’s mine,” said Kalen. “My family gave it to me before the ship sank in the ocean.”
He showed Jorn the hidden pocket in his tunic where the coin was kept. It was a piece of Tomas’s blue silk shirt, stitched into place by clumsy hands. Jorn touched the haphazard stitching. “Well, it’s a wonder you’ve managed to keep it at all,” he said, more to himself than Kalen.
He examined the coin next, turning it over in his thick fingers. “Doesn't look to be any kind of money I’ve seen. Though, if it’s gold all the way through it’s a fine amount of it. Is it a god’s token maybe? Were your family followers of one of them?”
Not knowing what a god’s token was, or if the Orellens followed any particular deity, Kalen shrugged.
“Mayhap it’s a good fortune charm,” Jorn mused. “Like the people from the Fog Islands use. But such things are usually nailed above a house’s door, and never taken on journeys.”
“I was told it was for making decisions,” said Kalen. “But that I shouldn’t expect it to be right a lot of the time.”
“Ha!” said Jorn, smiling at him and handing the coin back. “Such is the nature of coins and dice. All right, then. You should keep it hidden until Dort fixes it for you. I doubt any of the men on this ship would take it from you, but others are not the same. And it’s the sort of thing that will cause talk either way. Many folk are superstitious about the work of wizarns.”
Above decks, the vote was concluded, and Dort appeared in the hold a few minutes later looking relieved. “We won’t kill the whale calf. It’s been settled.”
He borrowed the coin from Kalen, then, and pressed it into a ball of wax he’d brought along in his pocket. “So I remember the size of it,” he said, peeling the coin away from the wax and handing it back to Kalen.
This whole exchange was mysterious and pointless, as far as the boy was concerned. But a few days later, Dort found him eating roast fish on ship’s crackers in the kitchen and showed him what he’d done. He’d carved a clever case for the coin out of some kind of bone. It was in two round pieces, just a bit bigger than the coin itself, with grooves cut into them so that they could be fitted together.
“You put a bit of the wax in,” said Dort, showing Kalen how to do it. “Then the coin… which side is the face, by the way?”
“That side is yes,” said Kalen, pointing.
Dort nodded. He fitted the coin into its new case, packing it with wax so it wouldn’t rattle around, then he fit the groves together with a small twist and handed it to Kalen. “This side is your face,” he said, pointing to the side with a rough, birdlike shape carved into it. “Or your yes. And the blank side is your no. That way you don’t have to take the coin out to flip it if you’re around other folk.”
The coin was now much more unwieldy, being nearly the size of Kalen’s palm in its case. But he didn’t want it to be stolen, so he thanked Dort.
“Will you flip it for me sometimes?” asked Dort, looking at the case curiously. “A man needs an answer once in a while, and a wizarn coin is surely better than a regular one.”
“Yes,” Kalen agreed, feeling magnanimous. “But you have to follow all the rules or it won’t work right.”
A week later, with a bone-covered coin in his pocket and a piglet in his arms, Kalen stepped out onto the ship’s deck to see their destination finally coming into view on the horizon. As he watched the island approach, he soon realized it was huge. Not at all like the little rocky place that had been covered in birds. This island was mountainous, and it was forested—from nearly the tops of the peaks down to the stony beaches—with an endless swath of deep green fir trees.
“The people of the big land—the continent—call it the Emerald of the Northern Sea,” said Jorn. “But for us it is Hemarland.”
“Hemarland,” Kalen repeated.
“Aye,” said Jorn, laying a hand on his shoulder. “This is our home.”