The women of the island Sort are known in all the Reaches for their craft. They collect the lumps of black volcanic glass that wash up on the dark sands which gave the island its name, and use arcane methods to shape them into ethereal vessels. The intricate designs painted on these mysterious objects are believed to be of ancient and magical origin. And it is true that for centuries, mages and lords have voyaged north, braving the inhospitable waters surrounding the Allernots and the fierce ice storms of the North Reach, to bring back one of these woman-made obsidian treasures, rumoured to be so thin as to shatter from the slightest draft of wind, yet capable of holding a mage's power, even his life force. They are thus highly coveted by mages, by the ones who wish to steal such potentialities from others and use for themselves, and by those who wish to keep theirs safely hidden away.
From the turbulent days of the early reign of king Lebannen, when pirates and slavers were making a stand against the might of Havnor and Roke, comes the story of a young girl named Fura who made that perilous voyage, alone in a skiff, towards the edge of the world. Sailing from her home island of Oranéa past the Teeth and the Andrades, she steered in a wide circle around Ferrins and carefully navigated the treacherous Allernots before finally she came upon the black sands.
She dragged her little boat up on the dark shore and stood a while, looking round. The island was flat compared to the rolling hills of her home, and flatter still compared to the mighty peak of Gont. She had sailed into a little natural harbour, forks of land snaking out on either side of her. There were no buildings or boats other than her skiff, only the black sands, stretching far on either side, and, ahead, a dark pine forest. Fura walked inward, towards the trees. The ones nearest to the water were tormented, straggly things, knotted and windswept. Behind them, protected from the winds by their ill-fated friends, towered others, straight as boat masts, tall and thick. "The strong hide behind the weak" Fura thought. As she walked, the clouds split and sunshine burst forth, but under these trees was a perpetual twilight, with only flecks of gold here and there on the pine covered ground where sunlight found its way through the canopies above. She took off her shoes to dry them, and walked barefoot on the prickly, yet smooth, needle carpet. She sniffed the air, surprised. As her feet struck the sun-warmed patches a familiar scent floated upwards. Marzipan!
She grew tired quickly, having pushed on through the night without rest in her little boat, and when she found a moss covered tree stump she sat down a while, listening to the forest. She carried a leather food bag over her shoulder, it was nearly empty. She thought she could hear water, looked around until she found the stream and drank long and deep; the water was very sweet, and tasted of iron. She ate the last of her food; hard rye bread, cheese, a dozen nuts and half an apple. It tasted very good. She carried on walking.
The forest thinned out and gradually shrank away until she was walking through shrubland. The ground was covered with grasses and herbs, many of which were unfamiliar to her, and she plucked a few and sniffed at them thoughtfully, rubbing the stem of a brown flower between her thumb and finger. It smelled like brushroot, and the flower looked similar, but the leaves were very different. As she pondered the strange yet familiar plant she picked up a different scent, smoke from a wood-fire. "There is a house nearby", she thought. She walked on, and came upon a small winding path, and, following it, she found a little cottage, hidden behind a great hazelnut tree, the biggest one she had seen. A low door, painted black, stood slightly ajar. She pushed it open and stepped through.
A frostberry wreath hung above the hearth, bound with white ribbons. Silvery pine and green juniper boughs had been braided and intertwined with brown twigs studded with plump, red berries. The cottage was sparse, but clean and warm and comfortable, a scent of pine soap hanging in the air (the marzipan scent had been pine, she realized), along with cinnamon, the musk of dried herbs and sweet bread baking on a hot stone in the ashes. There was a table and two chairs, a bed in a corner and a big chest, and little else.
From underneath the heaps of blankets on the bed someone spoke. "Close that door quickly, wretched child, or you will let out all the warmth!" She obeyed swiftly, startled by the voice, which was hoarse and thin, yet sharp. There came a sound like a bird trying to cough, then a rustle of coarse woolen blankets, and a head appeared by the end of the bed; a sand colored orb crowned in a cloud of fine white down. One eye opened and peered at her. "Come closer, let me have a look at you, girl." Fura took a few steps across the single room of the house and sat on the edge of the bed. A hand appeared, was stretched out to her, palm up, in the customary greeting of the North Reach. She placed her own palm on the outstretched one, which was very cold, with skin like rumpled paper. "Welcome, child.” The old woman’s eyes were green with flecks of dark amber. "The fire is dying. There is a basket by the hearth, and firewood outside."
When Fura returned with the basket full of split logs, the woman stood by the hearth, stirring the embers with a poker. Her thin body was bent and twisted with age and a life of hard labour. "There is soup, and bread" she said and gestured at the table. Fura sat on one of the chairs. "It is getting colder. Soon the snow will come, and the sea will freeze around the island.“ the woman sighed, and fed some logs to the fire. “The whalers have left for the North Reach already, and will not return until the solstice. When the Sun returns, it will surely be welcome. But for now, there is only cold… and warmth.” She smiled, and blinked at Fura, who was too tired to answer. Before long, the fire awakened, flames flickered, and the room came alive with a dance of shadows stretching and shrinking across the floor and walls. The shadow of the little woman grew long and short and long again, distorting and pulsating.
That night Fura slept on the floor by the warm hearth, on a mattress stuffed with hay, wrapped tightly in her cloak. Morning came too soon; she was dreaming a dream heavy with prophecy when a huge speckled cat, licking her nose, awakened her. “Careful child, Thorn is a moody little beast!” The woman sat on her chair, smiling at Fura (or Thorn), eating porridge. She patted her lap and the cat leapt onto it, circled thrice on her knee before curling up, and began to purr. “Breakfast in this pot, here, if you are hungry. If you would like some tea, leaves are in that box, there.” she pointed to a little shelf. “I would make it for you but…” The cat looked up and peered at Fura, who thought she could read its thoughts. “I’m verrry comforrrtable on this lap.” he said to her. “I can manage.” she replied, and stood and stretched. She poured hot water on the leaves and followed the old woman’s pointing around the room, equipping herself with bowl and spoon, bread and cheese and onion.
She wanted to speak, but she waited, not knowing how to ask for the thing, not knowing what the thing was, just that it was why she was there. They ate in silence as Thorn demonstrated his vibrato. Afterwards, Fura washed the bowls and spoons and made fresh tea. She sat and sipped; it was an invigorating brew; some herb she did not know, native to the island, no doubt. The woman drank her steaming tea in two great gulps. “I trust you are rested.” Fura nodded. “It’s a dangerous thing,” the woman said then, and as she spoke, her voice changed, becoming hoarse and sharp, like it had been the night before. “It is a fearful thing you are looking for. Why should I give it to you?” Fura’s heart was thumping, and as the woman spoke, her hands grew cold and started to tremble. The woman must give it to her. She sensed this was a test, and chose her words carefully. “It is an evil thing, yes, and for a terrible purpose. But give it to me you will, for without it, an even greater evil will be born into the world.”
The woman stared at Fura, and as she did, the flecks of amber in her eyes seemed to come alive, like fire. She nodded and smiled sadly. “Child, I know who you are, I have seen it. When I was a young woman, a man came to me, a lord Lavekk, from the south. You see, my mother was a black glass master and her work is still the finest ever made on Sort. She always told me that her craft and skill was fed by the island itself, by the underground, where the black glass is formed. More precious than gold or ivory could pay for, the price for her work was power, and the people who came to us paid willingly. Why would they not give up a tiny part of themselves, when they could take what she sold them and use it to steal power back again, as much as they had given and more besides? So they reasoned, for they were greedy, and the greedy have no wisdom. They sailed away from here with their black glass vessels and did unspeakable things, but in the end they paid the price; they left part of their lives behind in payment to the Old Powers of Sort. Come with me.” She stood up and walked out the low door, and Fura followed.
They crossed the shrubland, with its scented grasses and strange herbs, and entered the pine forest, going north. They walked in silence. The pines grew shorter and thicker and fewer, and gradually became a meadow where massive yew trees stood guard along the path. The path snaked and twisted, then ended abruptly. Before them was a great chasm in the ground. The woman held up her hand in warning. “Careful, child.” Fura stared into the hole. It was pitch black down there and it seemed without bottom. “This is the Sort Swallow. It is a place of ancient and terrible power. This is where I took the southern lord, like the others, to pay my mother’s price. He stood where you stand now and I gave him the special tea. He vomited his blood and his power into the swallow, paid the price. Then I gave him the vessel, and he held it and looked at me and laughed, and my heart filled with dread. He jumped into the chasm. I ran back to the village, and when I told my mother what had happened she fell down in a stroke. I have waited ever since. I knew one of the two would come; either The Lord Lavekk would crawl out, or the girl who can destroy him would crawl in. I built my cottage in between the black sands and the black swallow, and there I waited for one of the two to arrive. And here you are.” She smiled.
Her feet frozen to the ground, hands heavy and throbbing, Fura listened to the story. When it was told, the woman reached into her cloak and pulled out the thing Fura had come for: the black glass dagger, its edge sharp and jagged and terrible. “It is why you came.” The woman fixed her with her fiery eyes. Fura nodded. “What you must do is terrible and dangerous, yes. Yet it must be done. Lord Lavekk leapt in because he knew that the Swallow held the might of the Old Powers, as well as the power of all those people who had come before him to pay the price. With the black vessel, he could take all of that power for himself and grow to become a truly terrible being, a creature that none can resist. The Sort Swallow is bottomless, yet leads many places. You must enter, find him there, and kill him.”
Fura stared down into the dark void; it seemed to rise up to meet her. A cold mist came wafting up from the chasm, carrying a cold stench, a reek of fear and rage. Her heart sank, but she stretched out her hand and took the black blade.
No one knows for certain if this old story has any truth in it, but there is a song in the North Reach which tells of a girl child who fell into a hole in the earth. She got lost in the underground and saw many terrible things. She battled a giant black spider-creature and defeated it. Two moons later at Sunreturn, and far from Sort on the island of Way, she crawled out of a mouldywarp burrow, as a grown and beautiful woman. And, curiously, on Way a local custom exists where, at Sunreturn, young men go out onto the meadows and put down spiced honey cakes at openings in the ground. It is believed that doing so will increase one's chances of attracting a lover in the coming year.