My Brother’s Keeper – Second Interlude (text)

Blackness.

Everywhere… everything… blackness. That was the first thing Kayeen noticed but the second followed close on its heels. He was alone. It wasn’t just that there were no people around. There was nothing. As dark as it was, somebody could have been a foot away and he wouldn’t have been able to see them. No. This darkness was more than being unaware of what was around. It was more than that. He wasn’t laying on a bed like he should have been. Kayeen reached out but there was nothing to feel. He stretched his legs out beneath him but there was no ground. There was nothing.

“Hello?”

Kayeen called out but he could not even hear his own voice. It wasn’t just that it sounded hollow. It was more than the fact that there was no echo or anything like that. His mouth had opened and he had voiced the words, but no sound had come. He tried again. Again, nothing.

Kayeen looked up and down. He turned. He placed his hand so close to his face he felt it touching his nose but still he could not see it. Kayeen began to panic.

“Is anybody there?!”

Even if somebody was, they could not have heard him. Kayeen could hear the words in his head. He even had put his hands to his throat and mouth and felt the words being formed. He had screamed the question out as loud as he could, but there was no sound. There was nothing. Nothing but the blackness.

Kayeen could feel his heart racing. He had never been so scared in his life. His eyes darted this way and that but there was nothing to see. His hands and legs stretched and kicked and reached, but there was nothing to feel. Nothing to touch.

“What is this?” Kayeen called into the silence. “Where am I?”

“Not where… when.”

Kayeen heard the response in his head even though no sound reached his ears. He turned around but still, there was nothing there. He could not pinpoint where he had heard the voice. It had simply appeared in his head.

“I haven’t brought you anywhere else. You are still exactly where you were in the cabin on the Blue Spray. But now you are there before.”

“Before what?” Kayeen asked.

“Everything. Before the beginning. Before time itself.”

The voice he heard was not his own. It could not be said that these were his own thoughts and words or even a voice like he would hear in his mind when he imagined or remembered the words of another. It was… different. It wasn’t just different in quality, timbre, or tone. It was different in kind. There was no way he could ever really explain it to another or even understand it himself. The words, the thoughts… they just were.

“Are you ready?”

“Ready for what?” Kayeen thought his response. He didn’t even bother trying to form the words. There was no point.

“The beginning.”

Something turned Kayeen around. But that doesn’t explain it right. He wasn’t being turned so much as re-positioned. There were no hands. There was no sense of touch at all. Something, somehow, had moved him a bit to the right and tilted him upward.

Then there was nothing again. Kayeen had not even realized that he had felt some… presence… until it was gone again, but that voice, that presence, had brought calm with it. It had brought peace, and now that it was gone the panic was beginning to rise up again. The darkness, the nothingness, threatened to overwhelm him…

“Let there be light.”

The voice seemed much louder than it had before. This time it didn’t seem to be speaking to him in his mind. No, he had actually heard it shouting a command into the darkness. That voice carried so much authority that Kayeen looked down at his hands and truly believed that they would be glowing. It was almost a disappointment to find out that everything was still just as dark as it had been a moment before. Then he saw it. Directly ahead was there a tiny pinprick of light.

“There it is.” He heard the voice say.

“What is it?”

“Everything that is. It is all of time. It is all of space. Every star, moon, and planet. The air you breath, the sounds you hear, every animal and bird and creature of the sea, the wind and waves, the sunrises and sunsets seen by millions of lovers, all of the laughter and tears of ten thousand generations, the wars, the nations, the love, the pain and so much more. All of reality as you understand it has just been born and is growing even now.”

Indeed it was growing. Even during that short speech, the tiny dot seemed to have grown brighter. For a time there was silence as Kayeen tried to grasp what the voice that had spoken how on earth could that tiny dot of light contain… everything? Another thought followed close on its heels, just how far away was that little dot?

“It is already larger than you can begin to imagine and further away than you think but it is also heading our way at a speed you couldn’t possibly fathom.”

Kayeen thought about that for a moment. “I can imagine pretty fast.”

The voice laughed. It was not derision so much as amusement.

“What? I can.”

There was almost a smile in the words Kayeen heard next. “Your imagination is limited by your experience. You have spent your entire childhood being raised in a tiny unknown forest on the far corner of the fifth and smallest of eleven planets rotating around your below-average sized sun. You have only begun to strike out from that forest and explore a small portion of one corner of one of the continents on your planet.

“You have lived for less than two decades and have spoken to just over a hundred people total in that short life. You have read an insignificantly small fraction of all that has been written, which is but a tiny portion of all the literature yet to come. You speak only one of the hundreds of languages on your planet and although you have an above average potential for creative magic you are still but a drop in the ocean of the vastness of time and space.”

Kayeen chewed on that thought for a while. How many people had lived in the generations who had come before him? How many would live on in the years past his death? How many people were living now, eating and drinking, waking and sleeping, living and dying all over the world even now who were, and always would be, completely unaware of his existence? How much power did he, could he ever truly have? True power was to be able to speak out four words and have the universe resonate in response.

Even as he had listened and thought, that white dot continued to grow. It was now nearly as big as his thumbnail and he could almost imagine that he could visibly watch it expand larger. No, it was not his imagination. He really could see it expand and as it did so, the pace of that growth gradually increased. When that white dot was the size of his fist the Creator spoke again.

“It is wisdom to recognize your place in the world. It brings humility. Know also that among the tens of billions of people who will walk the earth. You are unique. You are special. I love you, Kayeen, my child, and you are mine.”

Until those last three words, Kayeen could literally feel the warmth and love enveloping him. But those last words reminded him of another dream on another night. Someone else, as different as night and day from the Creator had said the same thing to him. When Kayeen remembered that other, the awe and humility he felt when thinking of the Creator was gone. All that remained was jealousy. Here was a God who could speak the universe into being with four words. That was true power. Kayeen envied it.

“I belong to nobody.”

Kayeen sensed a sadness. A presence he had not even realized was there suddenly was gone. Even as that light grew larger and larger right up to the moment it enveloped him, he was all alone.

 

–     –     –     –     –

 

She woke up shivering. Her body was as cold as ice. There was a blanket around her, but it was grossly inadequate to the task of giving her any warmth. Nadezha tried to force her body into stillness as she curled up as tightly as she could. It was no good. Every single exhale brought with it another shiver. The soreness throughout her body told her that she had been shaking for a while before rising to consciousness.

The blanket over her would not cover both her head and her feet when she stretched out. The tingling in her toes told her that they were the priority and she pulled the blanket down over her feet. That left her face was exposed to the icy air. Immediately, Nadezha’s nose and ears began screaming in protest. Nadezha opened her eyes. Nothing. She blinked. Still, there was nothing to see. Reluctantly she pulled one of her hands out from under her armpit and placed it in front of her face. There wasn’t even a shading of deeper blackness. She could see nothing.

“Good morning.”

The voice startled her and she scurried back under the blanket. When she curled as tightly as she could, the blanket did cover her entire body. Nadezha imagined what she must look like, a little mouse shivering under the blanket. She remained there as her fear was replaced by the silence and the cold. She could hear nothing beyond her breath and the shaking of her body against the blanket and the cold stone floor below her. Eventually, she did work up enough nerve to peak out from under the blanket.

‘I was wondering when you would wake up. You have been sleeping for days.”

At the first sound of that voice, Nadezha dropped her head back under the blanket. It wasn’t a frightening voice, rather, it sounded friendly and slightly amused.

“You do know that blanket does not hide you.”

The voice seemed to expect an answer and eventually, reluctantly Nadezha quietly answered, “Yes.”

“So why do you continue to hide?”

Nadezha thought about that for a moment. Slowly she poked her head back out of the blanket. The cold still beat at her face as she looked around. It was just as though her eyes were still shut tight. There was absolutely nothing to see.

“I can’t see you. I don’t know where you are.”

“Yes, the darkness is a problem, but what is the greater problem?”

Nadezha did not need to think before answering this time, “The cold.”

“Yes, the dark and the cold. I have given you an ability that can overcome both of these problems.”

Nadezha knew immediately what the voice was talking about.

“No.”

Her answer echoed into the darkness and for a time there was no response. “Why no?” She thought to herself. She had been taught that it was evil. She had been taught that it was an abomination. What had she done to become an abomination? She didn’t feel any different. She didn’t think she was any different. Then again, she was a murderer.

“You are not a murderer.”

The voice spoke into the darkness so quickly after her last thought that Nadezha wondered if she had voiced it out loud. The voice spoke again.

“If he had not died, where would you be?”

“I would be dead.”

“Just you?”

“No. Avril would have died as well.”

“That young man, Avril, willingly placed his life on the line to save yours, did he not?”

“He did.”

“In turn, you sacrificed something you value far more than life to save him, did you not?”

“I did.”

It was almost as if this mysterious voice was reading her mind when it prompted her to continue, “But…”

“But I killed a man.”

“Let me show you something.”

Before her, Nadezha saw the forest where the confrontation with the Drepti had taken place. With the view of a bird in a branch above, she watched as Avril and the Drepti squared off. Nadezha’s breath caught when she realized it was Davit. Twice Davit came at Avril and was thrown aside. The third time, he kicked Avril square in the chest and landed just feet from Nadezha. She watched with breath held as her image on the ground lit Davit’s face on fire. Then she was seeing what went beyond her memory. The Drepti continued moving forward through the pain, blindly trying to get at her even as the flames spread. She saw Avril jump to his feet and in one fluid motion draw his sword and take off Davit’s head.

“You did not kill him. In a way, Avril did not kill him either. Davit killed himself when he put on the cloak of the Drepti. More than that, he died when he chose to continue beyond any possible hope of success. Nadezha, my sweet child, you do not need to condemn yourself where I do not condemn you.”

At these words, Nadezha broke down and wept. She curled back into a ball under the blanket, brought her hands to her face, and sobbed. All the fear, all the condemnation, all the anxiety, and all the guilt came pouring out of her through the tears spilling from her eyes. For a time everything else was silence as the voice, the Creator, let her work through her sorrow. After what seemed like hours, the tears gradually stilled. As they did so, Nadezha noticed the cold coming back. Until then, she had not even noticed how much warmer the room had been as she wept.

“You can provide heat.”

“I can. Every day I provide that and so much more, but in this room so can you.”

“How can I light a fire when there’s nothing to burn?”

“There is something. I have created a fireplace ready to be set alight.”

Nadezha looked about almost expecting to somewhere see this fireplace. All she saw was the same darkness.

“I can’t see it.”

“No. With your eyes, you cannot. Close them. Look beyond your normal senses.”

Nadezha closed her eyes. She was about to speak again when she vaguely saw, no sensed, no… There was no way for her to describe the image growing in clarity and certainty. She just knew where the fireplace was.

“Good. Now set it ablaze.”

Nadezha reached towards the wood. There was a blinding explosion of light and heat and sound as the wood, the fireplace, and half the wall on that side of the room caught fire. From behind her, she heard a good-natured laugh. She did nothing but somehow the fire everywhere except where it should have been disappeared.

“Right aim, but we definitely need to work on that control. Here try this…”

Nadezha turned to see a man about the age of her father but with older eyes and a younger, more innocent smile looking at her. This man seemed to have a radiance of his own and Nadezha wondered how the room could have been so dark if he had been there the whole time. In this man’s right hand, held between thumb and forefinger, was a small twig.

“Try lighting this.”

“But I’ll burn you.”

That smile came back. “I am not too worried about that.”

Nadezha tried to create the smallest flame she possibly could. A tiny wisp of smoke appeared on the end of the twig.

“A little more.”

The twig, the hand, and half the Creator’s forearm burst into flame. He simply smiled and the flame somehow seemed to be swallowed up into the palm of his hand. Then he pinched his fingers back together and a new, different twig, was there.

“Try again.”

She did try again, and again, and again. Over and over she was creating either too much or too little flame. Occasionally she would do it just right but then the next time, it was off again. When she finally was able to create on the twigs a candle sized flame three times in a row the Creator suddenly disappeared. On the ground near where he had been was a large row of different sized sticks and twigs and even some twine.

His voice spoke into the room. “Now that you have learned control, practice turning these to ash without creating a flame. When you feel you are ready, wake up. Your friends have need of you. Nadezha, even though you do not always see me, I am always near.”

Nadezha set to work.

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My Brother’s Keeper – Chapter 12 (text)

The others were all sitting and waiting when Kayeen came limping into the officer’s cabin. The table looked empty with only Sagami, Tiev, and Damyan seated. The last time Kayeen was in this room, there were eight others with him. The last time…

“First thing’s first,” Kayeen said. “What have you done with that boy?”

Sagami answered, “He is in the hold, along with Varlam, the guy who shot Foglaid.”

“What is the normal punishment for mutiny?”

Tiev answered this time, “There’s a plank, sir. We chain their hands together, put weights on their feet, then make them walk off the side of the ship.”

“Sound’s perfect. I am sure the whole crew is supposed to watch the spectacle?”

“Of course, sir.”

“Make sure Yashin gets a front row view. Did any of the swordsmen who attacked survive?”

“No, sir,” Tiev said.

“Too bad. Two traitors are not enough. Draw lots among those who have refused to join. One officer and two crewmen will get the privilege of joining the show. Have them go first, then Varlam, then the boy. After that, throw Yashin off the side. No plank. No weights. Just shove him off. I want his death to be a slow one.”

The other three men simply nodded. After a brief moment of silence, Kayeen turned to Damyan.

“How is Foglaid?”

“I don’t know,” the Ranger answered. “I have done everything I can with my small ability to heal. Now he sleeps. He was so close to death, I don’t know if he will ever wake up. If he does, I do not know if all, or even part of his mind will wake with him. A better healer might know more. I have done what I can.”

“What are his chances of a full recovery?”

In answer, Damyan simply shrugged.

“He took an arrow for me. Thank you for trying, but if you have done what you can, then it is time to pass his care to someone else. Talk with Tiev to chose the best man for the task, teach him what he needs to do, then leave it be. It is in the Creator’s hands now.”

The other three men all caught the tone of bitterness in this last sentence, but none dared comment. Kayeen let out a long sigh and then continued, “Where are we headed?”

Between them, Tiev and Sagami told him about Buse. They pulled out a map and showed how it was cut off from adjacent lands by mountains. Individuals could cross through the many passes, but not armies. At least, not easily. They mentioned the town’s small size and mediocre port as additional reasons why only two of the smaller houses even bothered to keep a trading post there. Mostly, Buse was a simple fishing village. It wasn’t by any stretch the best port to winter in but it was unquestionably the safest.

From there, they told him the condition of the Mist and what had been done with the crew. Some of this had been told him by Damyan earlier, but hearing the report in full by the two experienced officers gave him a much better picture. Kayeen worked out a schedule with them where he could meet with the Mist’s crew a few at a time in small groups to see who could be reliably recruited.

Just when they thought they were done, Kayeen threw out a surprise question: “Do you know who I am?”

The other two men looked back at him with blank stares, but Damyan slowly, hesitantly nodded his head. When Kayeen looked at him, the Ranger quietly said, “I think I do.”

“Care to share your guess?”

“Your parents are Andrei and Yevenna?” Damyan said it as half a statement and half a question. Sagami at first started to smirk, but when he realized that the guess was right he muttered, “Flaming moah.” Tiev slightly elbowed him. Sagami put a hand to his mouth but continued to mumble one imprecation after another.

Kayeen’s next question at first seemed unrelated, “I’ve heard bits and pieces but it is hard to sift rumor from fact. Tell me true, does the Society still exist?”

When Damyan nodded yes, Sagami broke into another quiet string of curses. Next to him, Tiev was torn between his own shock at these two revelations and his desire to hear his friend’s surprising compendium of curse words. He never knew how creative Sagami could be.

Damyan ignored the two and went on, “The world thought we had all been wiped out during the Troubles. That was closer to the truth than we would like to admit, but in the decades since, we have slowly been rebuilding. There is a subterranean city underneath the old, abandoned Tsion. Right now there are probably about two hundred members living there along with about a thousand students. There are perhaps another two hundred Rangers who crisscross the world running messages and errands and also looking for young ones we can bring back to train. Then there is probably another thousand members scattered throughout the world living seemingly normal lives with no one realizing they have the Talent.”

It was clear that Sagami had done the math as “… bloody two and a half thousand burning sheep’s…” could be heard slightly clearer than the flow cursing before and after it. Tiev elbowed him again, but he still did not stop.

Kayeen asked, “So part of your job is to hunt down kids with the Talent so you can brainwash them into your Society before their neighbors might find out they’re witches and kill them, right?”

Damyan nodded. it was clear by looking that he agreed with the essence, but not the wording of Kayeen’s question.

“Was that what you were planning to do with me?”

Again, more hesitantly, he nodded.

“So slavery or death, that were to have been my choices?”

“I wouldn’t consider joining the Society anything close to slavery.”

Kayeen slammed his fists down on the table before Damyan had even finished. “My parents are still slaves to the Society. How long has it been since they were exiled, forty years? Fifty? They both still have the Talent. Neither one has used it even once in all that time. Who would know? The Society has outcast them and then forgotten all about them. Still, they follow your stupid laws. Not me! I am a slave to no man! Never!”

Again, kayeen slammed both hands down on the table. At the same time, he stood so quickly the bench toppled behind him. The other three just watched in silence as he limped out, banging his staff with each step. He slammed the door on his exit and since it bounced slightly back open, he slammed it again.

 

–     –     –     –     –

 

Avril sat in silence with Gavril as the two warmed themselves by the fire they had started inside the old abandoned building just outside of town. Nadezha lay under their blankets by the wall. She could be asleep. She could be dead. Apart from the faint but steady heartbeat, there seemed to be no difference. Neither men seemed to be in the mood for conversation.

 

“What happened to her?” Gavril asked?

“I don’t know. He was attacking her when I took him from behind.

Gavril removed the makeshift bandage Avril had made on Nadezha’s wounded arm. After checking it closely he began to rewrap the bandage. “We will have to clean this better, but there is no sign of poison. Not from this wound. Did he manage any other cuts?”

“I don’t know. He never was close to her until the end. I don’t think so.”

Gavril closely examined the girl from head to toe while Avril watched and waited in anxious silence. As he was waiting, he began to realize how much his chest hurt from the White Cloak’s kick. Nothing was broken but there was going to be a sizable bruise and it did hurt a bit when he breathed in too hard.

“Nothing,” Gavril said. “She has some scrapes on her right hand, but I don’t think they came from the fight. There is only that one cut which isn’t really all that deep. She fainted, which is good because that means we can safely move her. We need to get away from here and into town as quickly as we can.”

The two of them took turns carrying her the short distance remaining. Nadezha was both short and petite but both men were pushing the point of exhaustion. The building Gavril led them to could not have arrived soon enough.

 

Over and over Avril replayed the events from three days ago. His mind went over the fight. He pushed himself to try and remember what had happened. Most importantly, he tried to reason what the assassin could have done to Nadezha while his head seemed to be exploding in flame. Avril could not even begin to guess what had happened, but nobody simply faints and then remains unconscious for days on end.

After that first day, Gavril would leave before the sun rose and not return until dinnertime. He would return bearing food for the two of them and enough to spare Avril could save some for breakfast. While Gavril was out, Avril would melt some snow collected from behind the house and give the water to Nadezha. If he tried to give her anything more than a slow steady drip, she would only start to choke. For the past two days, he had spent hours just sitting there, giving her water. He would sit there helping her drink while closely watching the almost imperceptible rising and falling of her breath.

Besides their diminutive height, Nadezha bore little resemblance to Yvenna, Avril’s mother and the only other woman he knew. Where his mother had jet black hair, Nadezha’s was the brown of rich earth. Nadezha was much lighter skinned than Yvenna and even lighter than Avril himself but still darker than both Gavril and Andrei. Yvenna had creases at her brow and on the corners of her eyes developed from years of care and the hard living of the north. Nadezha’s features seemed more delicate. Although she remained completely expressionless and unresponsive, Avril felt as though she was hiding a deep pain behind those closed eyes.

Gavril’s return in the evenings did little to liven their temporary shelter. Both men were used to solitude and comfortable with silence. Avril shared what had happened in the fight and Gavril explained why it had seemed so difficult for Avril to push the assassin. Gavril was actually surprised the boy had done as much as he had and shared some other ways Avril could counter the White Cloak’s speed, agility, and magic resistant cloak in the future. He couldn’t emphasize enough that their wisest tactic was to try and avoid them altogether. Beyond that, there was little conversation.

They sat around that small fire in silence. There was a slight whistling of the wind pushing through the patchy roof. Outside snow came down burying all tracks and covering the world in layers of white as it had been doing almost nonstop since their arrival. Occasionally a stronger gust would push against the old building stirring up a wooden rattle. Once or twice there would be a deep crunching sound as segments of the white buildup abandoned the slanted roof to crash into the piles on the ground below.

Gavril stood and stretched before laying himself against the ground a bit further from the fire. There were no blankets for the two men as Nadezha was buried under both. Gavril leaned up on one elbow facing Avril who was still seated near the fire. “I will be back earlier tomorrow. Around noon. Have everything ready to go the moment I arrive. It’s time we push on.”

“Has there been news of my brother?”

Gavril gave a slight negative nod of his head before turning to lay back and closing his eyes. Almost immediately he was asleep. Avril sat for a few moments more by the fire before using his magic to fan the flame’s heat towards the rocks set there for that purpose. Those rocks would radiate that heat most of the night and combined with the snow’s insulation all would be fine until morning.

“Let her wake. Creator, if ever you’ve heard my plea, let her wake.” Avril repeated that request over and over almost as a mantra for what seemed like hours until sleep finally took him.

 

There was no sunlight when he finally returned to the land of the living. Gavril had left long since but he had built up the flame before going and the large room was still on the cool side of comfortable. Avril lay on his back for a while. The snow and wind outside had stopped but even without the distraction, and with his magic enhanced senses, he could barely hear Nadezha’s breathing. She was still in her deep sleep.

Slowly he got up and began his morning routine. He grabbed a piece of hard cheese and let it play around in his mouth as he added wood to the fire then grabbed some snow from just outside the back door. The stuff was about two feet high right at the door but more than twice that further out. There was no snow falling but the sky above was still dark and overcast. For a while, Avril simply stood there by that open door looking out at the picturesque view of the white blanketing the trees and branches in the sparse woods as far as he could see. It was so different from the misty gray of his shrouded forest and the barren openness of the frozen desert around it.

Back inside he was just finishing up repacking their few belongings when he heard the clopping of horses hooves against frozen ground stopping where the little-used trail came closest to the house. There was the crunching of multiple sets of footsteps as men continued forward and Avril was standing and watching the door when two strangers burst through it.

“Good. You’re ready.” The taller one said after a brief look around the open building. “Gavril bids you come. Quickly.”

While he was talking, the other man had walked over to Nadezha, scooped her up, and headed back out into the cold. The man who had spoken cast a nervous glance at Avril’s scabbard before the smile returned to his face and he waved Avril forward. They all plowed their way through the snow and toward a large carriage being pulled by four horses. The first man disappeared inside with Nadezha then reappeared a moment later with a large, thick pair of gloves.

“Before hopping in, would you be so kind as to put these on?” The man behind him yet uncomfortably close asked Avril. Confused, he complied and as soon as they covered his hands, the silent one grabbed his wrists in a vice-like grip and backed into the carriage leading Avril along. Once he was inside, Avril saw that Gavril was already inside. His hands were also in gloves but also bound together on his lap but he did not seem worried in the least. As the horses began to move forward again, the talker apologized for the inconvenience while his companion began wrapping another length of rope around Avril’s wrists.

 

–     –     –     –     –

 

The clearing they had been moving toward for protection against the White Knife had become a camp. It seemed to have taken forever for Paeder to build a travois on which to lay his oversized and seriously injured cousin. Neither he nor his injured, exhausted new companion, Rowyh had any talent in healing. By the time they had managed to stop the blood flow from Wilhelm’s neck, the giant had lost so much blood that he looked white.

Rowyh’s cut on his back was not nearly as deep or as debilitating as it looked. Even still, the poor kid was so exhausted he fell asleep face to the ground almost the instant they had stopped moving. He remained in that position dead to the world for the remainder of the day and through the night. Paeder had covered him against the cold of the evening and checked his pulse and breathing a few times but the real concern was his cousin.

Wilhelm drifted in and out of consciousness. The wound to his neck was hot as open flame and it was clear that even breathing was painful for him. Even after Paeder was able to force him to drink, the pale complexion did not change. The only color the large man showed was a spreading deep red around the injury which showed that the infection was defeating his body’s defenses.

The camp became a deathwatch. The next day Rowyh woke and the two took turns watching and caring for Wilhelm. They did what they could but both knew that their efforts were futile. Late in that day, after multiple failed attempts, Rowyh was finally able to successfully use his farsight. That only put an end to the faint hope of outside aid. There was no one who might be able to help that could get to them in time. Wilhelm’s fate was sealed.

Paeder fought against this fate. He did everything he could. Over and over again he forced more water down his cousin’s throat. He held him as still as he could whenever Wilhelm would begin randomly thrashing out in his fevered sleep. The older man drifted into and out of consciousness but even when awake, he didn’t seem very aware of his surroundings. There was no recognition in his eyes when he would look towards the two others. It was almost a relief when, early on the fourth day, his eyes closed for the last time.

 

Rowyh left to gather some more firewood and to give Paeder some space to grieve. He did his best to resist the urge to scratch against the persistent itch along the edges of his wound on his back. The itch told him that he was healing well, but that brought more guilt than comfort. A stranger, a men he never knew and had barely had the chance to even meet had died in his place. This big blond knight had sacrificed himself to save a Mitsremi boy who had brought nothing but trouble in his wake.

He wandered aimlessly through the forest near their camp for hours returning without picking up a single stick for the fire. When he finally made his way back to their site, Paeder hadn’t moved. He was still planted in the same spot, at Wilhelm’s side, he had been when Rowyh left. The only sign of movement was the steady flow of tears from bloodshot eyes and the occasional shuddering born from silent tears.

Paeder turned to face Rowyh when he noticed him returning. With the heel of his right hand, he wiped his cheek as another tear rolled down. “Can you help?” He looked towards their gear. Rowyh saw the small spade among the other equipment and understood. Over the next couple hours, the two hollowed out a small grave for their fallen companion. Paeder dug with the spade while Rowyh used a sturdy stick as a lever to work the many larger rocks out of the chosen spot. It was well after dusk before the body was laid to rest and the ground replaced to form the familiar graveside mound. Following tradition, Wilhelm’s longsword was buried nearly to the hilt as a grave marker.

Rowyh again backed off giving him space as Paeder stood vigil at the grave. Sleep caught the Seer and carried him away. Through the night and past dawn, Paeder remained standing there, staring at that buried sword. Consciousness returned and Rowyh stretched himself awake to see Paeder still standing vigil. Once the sun was a good two inches above the horizon he finally began to stir from his spot. He looked towards Rowyh and asked with a deep and scratchy voice, “What now?”

Rowyh had been expecting the question and had already seen the answer. “North. There’s a blacksmith we must still meet along the way, but our fate lies far to the north.”

Future Past 2B

My table companion drifted off at that moment. For a while, he simply sat there looking out from our balcony at the Mediterranean Sea. It was as though I had no longer existed for him as he became lost in the memories of another time. I called the waiter over, he cleared away our plates and I ordered us each a tea. It is common here in this culture to sit and enjoy tea and conversation long after the meals were done so I felt no hurry to rush this story. When the waiter returned with our drinks, my new friend seemed to have drifted back into our reality.

I was only with them for about eight months. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t seem like that much time, but the friendships I made on waking from that abduction are the most meaningful relationships in my life. I still can’t wrap my mind around the fact that none of those friends will ever exist.

He paused at that thought.

Will they exist? In a couple hundred years, will they be born into this new existence that we all created? Who will they be? What will they be like? Will there even be another me?

I have seen and read my share of time travel fiction to know the various theories others have put to these same questions, but it did not seem like the right moment for me to interject any ideas. The very fact this man was still sitting here with me and had not long ago faded into oblivion meant that at least some of those theories were wrong. Take that, Marty McFly.

Anyways, where were we?

“You had blacked out in the van,” I offered.

Yes. Yes. When I came to, I was strapped into a hospital bed. It took me a minute for my vision to clear. I had a horrible headache and there was some ringing in left ear. Someone heard me groaning and came in from the room next door.

“Welcome back to the world of the living.”

I said nothing as this man walked past me and looked on the screen by my bed. I am guessing that it showed him my vitals, but I was and am completely unfamiliar about anything to do with the medical profession.

“Looks good. About as can be expected.” He walked around so that I could fully see him. “I am going to remove your wrist and ankle restraints but we need to keep your neck brace intact for a little while longer, OK?”

I moaned something that he took for assent. He nodded and slowly unbuckled and loosened the braces that held my arms in place. He talked as he did so.

“These braces were not to imprison you but rather to hold you still. The work we were doing on your chip and its connections to your brain was very delicate and we could not risk even the slightest of movement.”

I reached up to feel the back of my neck, but a metal brace was still holding my head in place.

“I am guessing you have three or four more days with that one, but I’m your nurse, not your technician so…” He shrugged.

My hand instead found my left ear which was still ringing. “My ear.”

“Ah, yes. We have implanted a receiver inside your drum. That will probably be the last thing to go on. Are you feeling any dizziness or nausea?”

I shook my head no.

“Good, good. There’s some ringing though?”

I nodded yes.

“Yes. That should fade with time. Make sure you let us know if you are still hearing it after another day or two. Do you feel up for some food?”

Again, I nodded yes.

“Excellent. I will have some brought in shortly. You haven’t had anything solid in over three weeks so we will take that slow. Soon, you will be feeling like new.”

I grunted something like a thank you.

“Speaking of new, how do you like your hand?”

 

 

Future Past (chapter 1)

“I am not from the past or the future. I am from both.”

I leaned back in my chair wondering how to respond to that. Part of me was thinking that the man sitting across from me was insane. Another part was already trying to think up logical scenarios where this seemingly contradictory statement could be explained. The man at the table with me was content to leave it at that for the moment while the wheels in my head turned. Well, I had come all this way, what would be the harm in hearing him out?

Instead of continuing on with an explanation, the man pulled off his finger. Yes, you read that right. He pulled off his finger. With his thumb and index finger of his left hand, he squeezed the index finger of his right hand near the second knuckle. There was an audible click, then he twisted the finger about ninety degrees and the top half of his finger came right off.

What I saw when he passed it across to me looked like it could have belonged to Data of Star Trek. At the moment, though my mind instead went to a much better sci-fi universe. I asked myself, “I wonder if Luke could have done this?” Maybe the American government has technology like this but certainly not here. There are metal detectors everywhere, in this country. How on earth is he able to evade them?

The finger, or half a finger, was lighter than I would have expected. Although the inside was metallic, it weighed no more than I would expect a real finger to weigh. Of course, I’ve never carried around a half of someone’s finger so I wouldn’t know for sure. It isn’t the type of experience one normally has unless maybe you were a policeman or a doctor. I don’t know. Do they even deal with extraneous body parts like this? Clearly, my mind was rambling in a thousand directions trying to put this surreal experience in some sort of context.

“Could I please have my finger back? Our waiter is coming over.”

There was a slight French accent to the man’s otherwise perfect English. That accent wasn’t one I could place. I have a friend from France and many other acquaintances from various French-speaking African nations. I am part of an international community living in a city a few hours drive from where this meeting was taking place. I hear a large variety of English all the time, but this man’s accent was different in a way I couldn’t quite place.

He had just snapped his finger back in place when the waiter came over to take our order. For a minute or two, after he left, there was silence. My companion at the table seemed comfortable with it. I wasn’t, but I had no idea what to say. I couldn’t take my eyes off his hand. There was absolutely no sign of a joint from where he had just detached that finger. None. It looked just as real as my own. Was his whole hand artificial? The whole arm? Am I talking to a Terminator? His hand had hair and veins and even a scar or two.

He held his hand up and made a fist. “It looks good, doesn’t it? This hand is state of the art even where I am from. It wasn’t the replacement I was originally given. That looked more like a metallic bird claw and you could hear it every time I used the monstrosity. You see, I lost my hand as a punishment for theft. Sharia Law. I wish I could say I was caught trying to feed my starving family or something like that. No. I was just a kid who started out with a noble cause but then let greed get in the way. That is a story that begins a couple hundred years into a future that no longer exists.”

– – – – – – – – – –

The loud pounding on my door woke me up with a jolt. I had unintentionally fallen asleep on my couch and it took me a second to get my bearings. With the next pounding, my panic went into overdrive and I sprang into action. I grabbed both my laptops off my desk and threw them into the tub. I had two five-gallon drums of a fast acting acid under my sink and I poured them over the computer. I poured them too quickly but my adrenaline made the splatter burning into my left foot barely noticeable.

Dropping the buckets into the sizzling tub, I spun back into the living room. I grabbed my external drive and my… well, I guess you would call it a tablet. Anyways, I took both and threw them into my trash incinerator in the kitchen. As soon as I pushed start, a loud splintering told me someone had broken through the front door. I ran in the opposite direction through the open door between my kitchen and the balcony. Without even slowing down I jumped. The loud cracking of gunfire told me that I had almost been too late.

Now, I had planned for such an escape. I hoped I never would need to use it, but if I were caught with what I had on those computers a lot of people would be in deep trouble. I myself would end up receiving a sentence of crucifixion, and the loss of my right hand and left foot (not necessarily in that order). Since I ended up coming away with only the loss of my hand as well as some horrible memories, I figure I was pretty lucky. I guess you could say my plan of escape half worked.

Where was I? Oh yes. As I said, I had practiced that jump many times in the sim gym. At least, I had practiced something similar. What I had planned and prepared for was to swing over the side of the balcony, then do a series of controlled drops to the second-floor balcony, the first, and then to the ground. My controlled, VR practice in the gym ended up being nothing like the panicked leap of reality.

I barely managed to catch the rail of the second-floor balcony below me. My body swung back in so hard I lost my vision and almost lost my grip. On impact, I felt lancing pain shoot up the entire right side of my body. Trying to ignore it, I braced myself, took a deep breath, and dropped. Too late I saw that the family on the first floor had washed their rug and it was now hanging over the rail I was supposed to catch. I wasn’t able to grip the rail through that obstacle and spun out of control the remaining half floor to the ground. I landed hard on my back, my head smacked the sidewalk, and then that heavy rug landed on me.

I tried to throw it off and start to run but after two faltering steps, I was back on my face vomiting. My world was spinning and I was fighting to keep it from going black. I had almost made it back to my feet when I was violently shoved back to the ground from behind. I got my hands under me only to be kicked hard in my already sore ribs. With a groan, I rolled to my back to find two police officers, in their black and red, with weapons drawn on me. it was then that I blacked out completely.

When I came to, I was in a hospital bed with a policeman by my side. Apparently, I had suffered two broken ribs, a severe concussion, and various scrapes and bruises. For the next two days, I was stuck in that bed with that detective. He never questioned me. He never said a word to me at all and only conversed professionally with the one doctor and nurse assigned to my care. I quickly realized that I was not in a hospital but in a special “recovery” room inside the police station itself.

On the morning of my third day since waking, the doctor signed off on me. The IV came out and the detective pulled some blood red prison clothes out of a drawer. Once I was dressed, he led me down the hall to another room where my week of hell was to begin.

You see, I had always had a rebellious streak. It was this attitude that caused me to embrace Christianity in my early teens. My parents knew and argued with me incessantly about the fact that I had befriended the two Christians in my school. What they did not know was that I had become one. Nobody did. Honestly, I don’t think at that point I was one. Not really. I was just a rebellious kid. Rebellious and greedy. It was that greed which got me caught.

In high school, and then in university I was studying computer science. I was on my way to being a programmer. On the side, I started using my newly acquired knowledge to help the Church. You see, any Christian is allowed to practice their faith openly. Obviously, there are numerous restrictions and legal loopholes that make it difficult to do anything, but as People of the Book, Jews and Christians are officially allowed to continue in their religion. They still must pay the jizyah and will only be allowed to work in menial labor jobs, but at least they don’t have to fear for their life. At least, not much. I have been reading your history and it seems to me that Christians and Jews in my world are roughly equal to how minorities were treated in South Africa and the Jim Crow era of the US.

Anyways, this is only true for those born and registered as Christian. For those born and registered as a Muslim, being discovered as having converted to Christianity means death. There are Christians whose parents and grandparents for generations have been Christian but there is no point in the line where one can safely switch. You can’t register your children as a different faith when they are born and you cannot change your own registration away from Islam and so millions of Christians are living in hiding.

I had been recruited into a group that was clandestinely offering a way out. We were creating new identities for people, false backgrounds, and histories that said they had been born and raised as Christians. We would then move these believers to another part of the world where they knew nobody and no one knew them where they can begin a new life openly practicing their faith. I did some work with the backgrounds but mostly my job was financing. I had created a program that added a few halala to the surcharges and transaction fees at certain banks when activated. I would activate the program for a few minutes each day, randomly switching banks and areas hit each time it was running. The income created for this would partly go towards bribes and the cost of business and it partly would be given to the families to help them with the transition of moving and setting up roots in their new life.

That was the way it was supposed to work. Unknown to anyone else in the group, I had recently adjusted the program to switch over when it was supposed to be “done”. The switch had it funneling money into an account I created for myself instead of the ones we were using for our operation. First I only ran it for a few seconds, then a full minute. That time became longer and longer as I grew more and more greedy. By the time I was caught I had already nested away enough that I could have lived comfortably for decades. I kept telling myself I would stop soon. I kept setting riyal amounts at which point I would stop. But I couldn’t. Not yet.

Then it was too late. I was running the program for my own gain just moments before they were knocking on my door. I had been able to remove evidence of what I was really supposed to be doing but there was no way to eliminate my geolocation to the deposits into that private account. They had me for theft and they suspected of a whole lot more. They knew that what I had stolen was far more than what was in my account. Did I have another account? Was that money going to someone or something else? Had it been spent? Did I have accomplices? It was questions like these that they would spend the next week sending me through hell to dig out the answers.

They wanted answers but I gave them nothing. They strapped me into that chair and connected the nodes that would trigger various parts of my brain. Without leaving a mark or using any other stimuli, they could directly influence the fear and pain centers of my brain. For someone who has never gone through the experience, there is no way to even begin to describe the amount of horror and torment they were able to inflict. But even as they did their worst to make my life a living hell, I told them nothing. When I was in that room hearing their questions, threats, and shouts and experiencing their torture I would simply recite over and over again the Surah Al-Fatihah:

In the name of the most gracious and merciful God. 
Praise be to God the Lord of the universe.
Most gracious. Most merciful.
Master of the day of judgment.
You alone we worship.
To You alone we ask for help.
Guide us in the right path.
It is the path of those You bless,
Not of those who deserve death
Or of those who stray.

Once back in my room I would rock and weep. They would randomly turn on and off the lights and blare noise and music as well as intervals of silence. The goal was to prevent me from sleeping but I do not think I would have been able to sleep even if they left me in peace. Through light and dark, noise and silence I would simply curl myself in a corner, rock back and forth and silently mutter over and over the Shepherd’s Psalm and Jesus’ Prayer.

The Lord is my Shepherd, I want for nothing.
He gives me rest in green meadows.
He leads me beside peaceful streams. 
He restores my strength.
He guides me along the right path that I might honor His Name.
Even though I walk through death’s valley,
I will fear no evil for You are with me.
Your rod and Your staff are my comfort.
You prepare a feast for me in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil.
My portion overflows in blessing.
Truly, goodness and mercy will pursue me all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Our Father in heaven,
Let Your Name be made holy.
Let Your Kingdom come.
Let Your Will be done.
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our bread for today.
Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.
Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from the Evil One.
For Yours forever is the Kingdom, the Glory, and the Power forever. Amen.

At first, I was reciting each of these as a means to cover the bases. I considered myself a Christian, but even if I was wrong perhaps God would still hear me and bring an end to my suffering and torment. Very early in that week, however, all of these prayers began to speak to me in the depths of my soul. Each in their own way sustained me through was was easily the most difficult point of my life up to that point. It almost wasn’t enough. I learned later that my interrogation only lasted a week, but at the time I was going through it, it felt like an eternity. Almost more so than what was to happen less than a year later, that week was the biggest turning in my life. That torture ripped my childish innocence and naivete right out of me and left in its place a broken and scarred man.

I had come to the point in my room where I decided I would simply end it all. The next time I was brought in for interrogation I would spill everything I knew. In a way, this was a form of suicide for me. I knew that my life was forfeit as soon as I began to speak but at this point, death was an escape, not something to be feared. If only my own life was at stake I doubt I could have made it past the second day. It was fear for those who my knowledge would drag down with me that had kept my lips sealed to this point. But I could go no further. Fortunately, by the grace of God, I didn’t need to. The next time they dragged me from my room, it was not for another interrogation but rather to face the judge.

We don’t have the barbaric legal system you all seem so fond of. We don’t have some overly complicated system where anyone rich enough to hire a team of lawyers can buy their innocence. Our criminal system isn’t open to the public where it can become a circus of media frenzy. Our sentencing doesn’t steal years of life away from those guilty of crimes taking minutes to commit. It doesn’t create a breeding ground where those incarcerated for years end up being spit back into society ten times worse a man than when they were first locked up. No, the justice system I faced was far from perfect, but it seems to me far better than the one I see in this world I am now stuck in.

After that week of torture, I was brought into a utilitarian where a qadi, a judge, sat behind a large black desk. I was invited to sit in the only other chair in the room facing him. One guard remained at attention just inside the door while the other one who escorted me left to go about his business. For the first few minutes in that room, I sat in silence where the only sound was the scratching of the judge’s pen on paper. I am sure his making me wait was only an affectation and that at this point he was quite familiar with my case and any accompanying paperwork was long since completed. Judgment had been passed and this meeting was a formality. Finally, he put his pen down, cleared his throat, and looked down at me.

“You have been found guilty of class four theft. You have taken an amount exceeding 1.6 million riyals from… ” his eyebrows went up as he looked from his paper up at me, “over three million people? Impressive. Do you have anything to say for yourself?”

“I’m sorry?” I offered.

“I am sure you are. At this point, I am sure you are.” He briefly looked over my haggard countenance before picking up another paper and continuing on. “Your sentencing is as follows: First, obviously, your assets have all been frozen and auctioned off to pay back what you have stolen. Until the balance is paid off, or until you die, twenty percent of all future income will also be garnished to pay back your debt. Second, you will lose your hand, as prescribed by God, for your theft. You will be given a government issued replacement. After one year you are free to upgrade it at your own expense if you so wish. Finally, you will be tagged with a parole chip. This will give us your location and also monitor all of your computer activity. This chip will remain intact for a period of no less than ten years. Any attempt to destroy, tamper, or bypass this chip will result in you being brought in for questioning. I am quite sure that at this point that is something would most studiously like to avoid. Any questions?”

That was it. I walked out of that room into a processing center where I was tagged and then another room where they took my hand. They injected me first so the amputation itself was not unbearably painful. It was about three hours later when the pain-numbing drugs began to wear off that I truly experienced the horror.

For the first couple days, I lay on my bed feeling too nauseous to try doing anything. The judge warned me that my assets would be seized and auctioned off to help cover repayment of my debt. Well, he wasn’t kidding. They left me my apartment, but it was close to empty as one could imagine. I had a bed but no sheets blankets or even pillows for it. My couch, lamps, shelves, table and chairs, pictures, rugs… it was all gone. They had brought in one rickety wooden chair and a tiny table barely worth the name as a replacement. My kitchen was stripped of everything even including my stove and fridge. Now I had one cup, one plate, one fork, knife, and spoon, and they generously left what was remaining from my 100 pack of napkins.

I found out later that they did keep an itemized list of everything they took along with its auction sale price. I would say that the low prices people paid for most of it can only be called criminal, but I think that is the whole point. What wasn’t sold was given away to charity and an “estimated” value was credited toward the debt I had to repay. A new pair of socks can be sold anywhere for a few Riyal but apparently, my thirteen used pair are only worth 26 Halalas.

They left me a contact who works as a recruiter finding employment for convicted felons. It took me until a good way into my fourth day before my hunger began to grow stronger than my pain and I dragged myself out of my apartment, still wearing the same set of clothes I had been arrested in, and went to visit this man. He connected me with a trading company called Zilzar. For the next eight months I worked as an overqualified, but grossly underpaid tech service drone for them. It was because of a contact I made there, and because of my amputation, that I was sent down the head-spinning road that took me more than a thousand years into the past.

Future Past Chapter 2A

I was lost in thought as I walked back to my hotel. As was my habit, I took an indirect and more picturesque route back. The sun had set but the sky had not fully grown dark. To my left, I could hear the waters of the Mediterranean Sea gently lapping against the rocks. Before me, the green and grey mountains rose up to be topped in a cloudy purple mist. This should be a beautiful sight, but I barely noticed.

I generally consider myself a good judge of character but my mind warred against the gut feeling I had that this man was telling me the truth. I mean, the hand is a pretty incredible piece of evidence, but maybe the technology for that really does exist somewhere. It has to. The idea that this guy is from some alternate future is just too much to believe. So why does my heart say to believe him?

It wasn’t until the wee hours of the morning that I finally fell asleep. It seemed that as soon as I did, my alarm was waking me back up. Why hadn’t I changed the time on that thing? I dragged myself out of bed and reluctantly began my day but the time seemed to drag. We agreed to meet together at ten for kahvaltı, for a traditional Turkish breakfast. The clock seemed to advance slower and slower as that time grew close.

I was showered, dressed, and out the door a good twenty minutes earlier than I needed to be. The sun was already high in the sky as I walked in the opposite direction from the evening before. I had done my best to fortify myself with a healthy dose of skepticism today. Even still, there was no denying my eagerness to hear more of his story.

To my pleasant surprise, he had already arrived at the cafe we had agreed on. He was waiting for me just outside the entrance. We exchanged pleasantries and found seats at an outdoor table on the second-floor balcony. He looked over my notes from the night before as I ordered our breakfasts. As soon as the waiter left, he launched right back into his story. Apparently, he was as eager to share as I was to hear.

 

It was about eight months after I began working at Zilzar when I had an encounter that again changed the direction of my life. Many of us all worked the same hours and it was not uncommon for us all to arrive around the same time. I found myself walking up to the front entrance at almost the same time as another man who had started working there a couple months after I did. We were in different departments so I had seen him around a few times but didn’t even know his name. I certainly wasn’t expecting the greeting he gave me in a barely audible voice.

“Christos anesti.”

“Alithos anesti.” My response was instant and immediately I was wishing I could eat those words. Had I just given myself away? The coworker who had given me the first half of that Christian greeting said nothing else. He didn’t have time as we both entered the building, passed security, and then went our respective ways.

Despite the air conditioning, I was sweating throughout the day. I found myself creating and then correcting stupid mistakes all day long. I couldn’t keep my mind focused on anything I was supposed to be doing. This apprehension only grew when I noticed around lunch time a note had been stuffed in my pocket. It read, “Al-Razi Square. 9PM. Tonight.”

The square was a small park about ten blocks from my apartment. I found myself watching the clock until the moment I could finally clock out and head home. Once back at my place, I found myself watching the clock again as I paced back and forth in my tiny apartment. The day seemed to drag and my anticipation for what would happen only grew. My mind played back every interaction I could ever possibly have had with this coworker I barely knew. Was there any sign I might have given him that I am a Christian? Was there anything I had noticed that identified him as one? Was this a trap? As I paced back and forth, back and forth I could hear every slow tick of the clock in my living room. My mind created ever more fanciful and unrealistic scenarios for what would happen. Do I go? Dare I not?

I never made it to that park. The time came for me to leave. I put on my shoes, locked my door, and walked down the three flights of stairs to exit my building. The night was dark and quiet. I was so focused on the mysterious appointment at the park that I did not notice the van slowly approaching until it was right on me. I did see the door slide open and two men jump out, but they moved so quickly that I barely had time to react. Before I took three steps, they were on me. These men were strong. I tried to struggle but I was like a child in their hands. In just a couple panicked heartbeats, a black bag was over my head, my hands were cuffed behind my back, and I had been stuffed into the van. I couldn’t see a thing but I could hear the two men clamber in behind me. The door creaked in protest as it slid shut.

“Go. Go.”

My head banged into something hard as the vehicle lurched forward.

“Watch it.”

“Sorry.”

Someone from the front called back to my two abductors, “How long until we are ready?”

“I’m checking that now.”

I felt a prick in the back of my neck where my monitoring chip had been implanted. Strong arms gripped me as the van jerked hard.

“Hold him still!”

“I’m trying! Hey, warn me when you’re turning.”

The voice from the front responded, “We’ve got a hard left coming up and then we are straight and smooth for a bit.”

A few seconds later we made another turn. Through it all, I was too terrified to resist. My fear and memories had taken me back to that horrible interrogation eight months earlier. Without realizing I was speaking out loud, I had begun quickly quoting the Shepherd’s Psalm. After a moment the man holding me heard and began quietly reciting it in unison with me. Following his lead, we gradually slowed it to a more normal pace and my fear also slowly began to come down.

After the left turn, I again felt the prick in the back of my neck. The other man in the back of the van called up to the voice in the front, “OK… OK. It looks like we will have proper charge in about four minutes.”

The voice in front answered, “Perfect. I can get us to the drop point with about thirty seconds to spare.”

For the next couple of minutes, we drove around in relative silence. After a couple of rounds through the psalm, the second abductor joined in with us. I had no idea what was happening to me or who these people were, but there was a peace that was gaining strength to war against the utter fear the abduction and memories of torture had thrown me into. Eventually, the van rolled to a stop.

“We’re there.”

When we brought the psalm to its conclusion once again, the voice I guessed to be the leader broke in, “OK. Listen. This is really going to hurt, but it should be a quick pain. Are you ready?”

I hesitantly nodded. The voice said, “OK. I will see you on the other side, brother.”

Lightning struck my neck. Then the blackness took me.

 

My Brother’s Keeper – Chapter 11 (text)

— Kayeen —

The taking of the Mist was easy compared to all the excitement that had gone before it. The ship had barely enough mast remaining to limp around. The sail for the main mast was unable to be replaced and the patched foresail and mizzen were just barely enough to navigate with. The crew of the Mist was being chained together in groups of three for now until they could sort through those who would be willing to work under Kayeen. Until then, the grouped prisoners could still perform most of the work and move around the ship without posing any serious risk.

Damyan had healed Kayeen who was now asleep in his cabin. The other officers, along with Nicholai and Varlam were locked up for the time being. Only Yashin was kept separate. The arrow had been removed from Foglaid and he remained at death’s door. Damyan had a fair amount of knowledge with healing but bringing someone back from such a serious injury stretched his ability. Far more was involved than the mending of broken bones or healing of burns that he was more familiar with.

Tiev was now nominally in charge of both ships but he was unsure what to do. They could not remain at sea, and they dared not return to Takino now. They were limping along toward the small harbor town of Busan but Tiev desperately hoped that Kayeen would wake before they arrived.

Sagami’s head popped up over the railing as he climbed toward him. Tiev had the older man overseeing the activities aboard the Mist but he was to report back every few hours. He had just returned for the second time. Looking up at Tiev, Sagami said, “Still not sure? I tell you Busan is the best port for us. It’s small but with a good deep harbor for wintering. Reaching the town by land is almost impossible, especially for this time of year.”

“It can only hold a couple ships, what if it is already full up when we arrive?”

“In that case we better hope he’s recovered,” Sagami said nodding towards the cabin where Kayeen had still not awaken.

“And if he’s not?”

“If he doesn’t wake soon… well, let’s not talk trouble till that trouble brews. Neither of us wants to be heard saying things we might regret later.”

Tiev grunted agreement. Sagami continued, “Don’t over think this. We’ve cast our lots. Now we just have to see how the chips fall. The pips I’m seeing tell me that Busan is the only winning hand we’re holding.”

Tiev could only smile in amusement. Sagami could always mix his metaphors with the best of them. It didn’t change the fact he was right. All they could do now was make haste slowly toward the port and hope Kayeen would wake soon.

 

It was over a day and a half later before Kayeen did wake. The sun had just set when his eyes opened. The cabin smelled of beef stew and he rolled to his side, eyes locking on the bowl. How long had he been out? The bowl was not steaming but it was still warm so it could not have been long. Then again, the direction of the light in the room told him it was late in the day so it had to have been at least eight or nine hours. Figuring that out caused the memory of how and why he had wound up in this bed to roll over him like a tidal wave. He had to get up and see what had happened since he blacked out. But first… he was ravenous.

Damyan poked his head in the door just as Kayeen was finishing the bowl.

“Where’s the meat?”

Damyan shot up an eyebrow.

“All that is in this bowl is some broth and vegetables. Where’s the meat?”

“You will be eating almost nonstop for the next couple days. But you’ve been out for more than two days. First, we need to get something in you that you can hold down.”

“Bloody ashes, two days?” Kayeen nearly jumped to his feet but almost as quickly found himself back on the bed when his weakness rushed to his head. “I guess I do have you to thank I’m alive at all. My stomach is fine. Go and get me some meat.” Damyan turned to go but Kayeen amended his command. “Actually the meat can wait for a few minutes. First, tell me everything that happened while I was out.”

Damyan shared what he knew about the taking of the Mist, Foglaid’s injury, and the locking up of the assailants and the officers but Kayeen wanted more. “How badly did I damage the Mist? Where are we headed now?”

“I can’t answer either of these. Tiev could but I have been staying close to you when I’m not trying again to improve Foglaid’s condition. I knew you would want to speak with me when you woke.”

“Then it’s time to find out. We will need to find a safe harbor.”

Kayeen shrugged off Damyan’s assistance, but almost fell to his face as soon as he tried that second step. Taking this injury was an unwelcome twist on his plans. He couldn’t afford to remain an invalid any longer. Kayeen had begun to realize that what he thought of as instinct or intuition was really, somehow coming from the sword. It had guided him well in taking both ships, teaming with the right people, and trapping the Ranger, but his close brush death demonstrated that there were serious limitations. He needed to learn to become even more ruthless than what it seemed to be pushing him towards becoming.

“Get me a cane or a staff. I need to get out of this room. Don’t make me have to crawl out.”

Damyan turned and left to go get him one. Almost immediately the Ranger’s eyes were drawn to a young boy almost completely hidden behind a barrel. It was the boy’s Talent that drew his attention but that must be impossible. How could a child so young already be carrying the Talent?

 

— Nadezha, Avril, Gavril —

 

Avril and Nadezha pushed forward through the woods as fast as they could. She had given up trying to slow the others down and wasn’t even trying to lay a trail for anyone who might be following anymore. They were still about an hour from Slobodsky and she was now just as eager as the other two in reaching the town and its warmth.

Gavril followed behind them doing what he could to mask their trail. It was impossible to hide it completely, but he was hoping that he was doing a good enough job to slow anyone who might be following long enough for the three of them to get to town. He was just beginning to think he might be successful when he realized that he could not hear the two still walking a short ways ahead. Just as he paused to listen, he heard the rasping metal of Avril drawing his sword.

Arvil put his hand up motioning for Gavril to stop when he heard the Ranger coming up from behind them. Gavril saw the signal and stopped. Avril then put his hand on Nadezha’s arm and closed his eyes to listen. Behind him, Gavril did the same. From behind, there was the normal noise you would expect. A flutter of wings told of a pair of Goshawks taking flight. At various distances, the chatter of squirrels was heard. Before them, the forest was unusually silent. There was a human intruder in the woods and their presence was being revealed to the Talents of a Ranger. About two hundred yards out both men could hear the soft slow footsteps of someone moving cautiously towards them. The pace and lack of normal noise made it clear that this was no ordinary traveler in these woods. The assassin was ahead of them.

Gavril put a hand up to his mouth then worked his way forward to the other two. Nadezha was looking left and right with eyes as big as saucers but Avril still had his eyes closed and was perfectly still. He was still listening. Gavril motioned for Nadezha to remain silent then reached out to touch Avril’s arm. The boy opened his eyes looking right at him. Gavril pointed off towards the southeast with a questioning look. Avril nodded. He then motioned like he was searching. Avril at first did not understand and then it dawned on him what Gavril was suggesting. The White Knives had guessed where they were headed and one had swung around to get there first. That assassin was now waiting for them to stumble towards him in their hurry to get to Slobodsky.

Using hand motions Gavril signaled for Avril to head around to the north and then make for the town. Gavril was going to head closer to the White Knife and then lead it towards the river south of town. Avril nodded and the two quietly headed off while Gavril began moving towards those footsteps. He could breathe a little easier now. It would be much easier confronting a lone White Knife on his own rather than having to try and protect an inexperienced, exhausted young man and a girl who had a death wish.

Gavril did not silence his footsteps with magic at first as he moved forward. A White Knife did not use magic and would have to be far closer before the Ranger could be seen or heard. Twice Gavril paused to listen again. He could tell the general distance and direction of his enemy but that large distance and his opponent’s extraordinary skill still kept him from knowing anything more. It was during his third stop that he realized there was trouble. He could now hear three people running. The first two were making much more noise and the third was closing in. Gavril pulled his long knife then took off running with a curse. His plan had failed.

 

Nadezha sneezed. Avril stopped and put a hand out to stop her as well. She looked at him guiltily then made a quiet, fake cough. Avril closed his eyes to listen but almost immediately opened them again. He grabbed Nadezha’s arm and pulled her forward at a run. To his surprise, she didn’t try to break away or stop but ran right along with him. Now that death might be imminent, her survival instincts seemed to be at war with her longing to get them all killed.

Avril did not dare to pause again to identify his pursuer’s location. There was no need. Instinct told him to stop and turn just as the White Knife came into sight behind them. The man in a flowing white robe came to a stop about ten paces away. He pulled out two daggers and then seemed to measure up Avril as he began pacing sideways. Avril stepped slightly to the left to position himself between Nadezha and the White Knife.

The White Knife’s pacing was slowly bringing him closer to the two, but he was also moving to keep himself between his targets and their destination. Avril heard the other man speaking to him with the same accent Nadezha used.

“The Witch is behind me and the girl knows her duty. Put your sword down and I will let you live.”

“No,” Avril responded. “You will have to kill me before I let her die.”

The White Knife shrugged. “Very well.”

The assassin shot straight towards Avril with both knives drawn. Avril started to drop to one knee while making an upward motion with his free hand. The White Knife seemed surprised for a brief instant as he was launched up and over his two targets. He recovered and twisted himself while still in the air so that he landed facing them again. Once more he headed straight towards them. This time Avril pushed him off to the right. The assassin seemed to be expecting to throw downward and so he once again had to twist to recover from being pushed with magic. His agility in recovering from the pushes seemed to be almost superhuman but Avril’s strength and ability to use magic had clearly left him surprised.

A third time the White Knife ran forward but this time he moved in jerking motions altering his direction and speed. Twice Avril tried to push him with magic and failed. It felt to him like trying to grab a heavy rock while his hands were covered in grease. He just could not get a grip. Before Avril could try to push him a third time, the White Knife literally kicked off Avril’s chest to flip around and face Nadezha. The force of that kick knocked Avril to the ground.

Nadezha had only ever done one thing with magic. In a moment of panicked instinct, when she saw Avril fall, she did it again. Even as the White Knife, the Drepti, was landing three feet away, her hand instinctively went up. The only part of his body not protected by his magic resistant white cloak was his eyes and the bridge of his nose. They burst into flame. The assassin screamed out in pain but even as he was blinded and hurt he thrust forward stabbing at Nadezha. The blade missed by inches as she stumbled backward. His entire face and the hood of his cloak was now on fire but again he thrust toward the sound of her falling. This time the dagger cut her right arm about halfway between the elbow and the wrist. Before he could thrust a third time Avril’s sword severed the flaming head from his body. Instantly the assassin’s screams of pain were cut off as the head dropped to the ground with a thud.

Avril turned toward Nadezha to see she had fallen unconscious. Gavril burst through the woods at that instant just as Avril reached to tear a part of his cloak to bandage her arm.

 

— Dahlia, Sting, Bloodeye —

 

Artois was a perfectly located city for Dahlia’s purpose. It was situated right where the Mozel River flowed into the Madon. All trade flowing from those two rivers and from another major tributary, the Oren, flowed into the city of Artois. The Gaol settlements in that direction traded with the Roma and Cymri and upriver traffic brought trade from the Mitsrem to the south. Artois was also the western end of a major road connecting the coastal cities to the east below the Finger. Few other cities in the world could claim to be at the center of so much trade and information.

It was just her luck that Dahlia received orders almost instantaneously from two different directions. From the northeast, by way road overland, Krushev sent word to her to leave the boys and head north. Coming upriver by horse from Abdos in the south was a request from Aatzaz. Apparently, a boy with the Farsight had escaped his clutches and was heading north. He had sent a White to track him down. The assassin was headed overland to the northwest but if the witch had traveled by river on one of the barges he should be arriving in Artois within the next few days.

She could take the boys by road eastward and hand them off in the town of Estwic to an associate, Acharn. Another option would be to stay here with them and wait for a sign of the arrival of this escaped boy with the Sight. Artois was a decent city to winter in, a bit too far north for her tastes, but the thought of being stuck here with two, possibly three miscreants made her mind up. She was not a babysitter. It was not a difficult decision which set of orders she would follow.

“Wait one day before sending a reply on to Aatzaz. Tell him I’ve left the boys with Acharn and continued on to the sea on my way north. Let him know you’ve passed on his message to Estwic but don’t let him know I’ve already seen it. Send another message to Krushev immediately. Let him know I’ve finished up a task for Aatzaz and that I will be wintering at Estwic with plans to head north past the Fingers as soon as winter breaks.”

Chasur just grunted and began writing the messages on slips that would be sent off by a pigeon to their respective destinations at the time ordered. He was a surly man and not much of a talker but that made him perfect for his job. Officially, Chasur was in the employ of Aatzaz but many other merchants used his message system for a price. A portion was supposed to be passed along to his distant boss, but most was his to keep. Since technically Dahlia was also in the employ of Aatzaz, he couldn’t charge her for the messages and the free use of his birds. That made him even more surly than normal.

Dahlia sighed as she worked her way back toward the room she was renting. it was directly across the alley from the room that Sting and Bloodeye had claimed for their own. She didn’t like letting them keep to themselves away from her but they didn’t want to move. She did not feel adventurous enough to go in to their room as they did by swinging down from the roof. Neither was she about to scale ten feet of wall every time she wanted to enter or leave their hideout. When she came close to their home, Dahlia picked up a stone and threw it into their open window. A head appeared, saw her, and then disappeared again.

About ten seconds later the head reappeared. Sting checked to make sure no one was around then he climbed out his window and down to the alley with Bloodeye right behind him. She was still amazed at how quickly the two of them could work their way down.

“Another witch is in town. He’s asking after three men. Two match your descriptions, the third is the man we killed.”

“You killed.” Sting amended.

Dahlia’s look shot daggers. “Yes, I killed,” she glared. “Because you two couldn’t.”

“How do we know he’s a witch?” Bloodeye asked.

“One of my contacts works for them. I…”

“You’re using a witch’s eyes?”

“The fool doesn’t realize what he’s telling me is anything more than idle chat. The man likes to brag. But if I get spotted with you two, we are all dead.”

“So what,” Sting said. “We’ll just kill him like the last one.”

Dahlia bristled, but she did her best not to let it show. “You two were lucky I showed up last time. If you want my help, you will use it to escape, not to kill. I won’t risk myself like that again.”

Sting looked at Bloodeye. He shrugged.

“I guess we’re running.”

Dahlia made herself look relieved. She hoped she wasn’t overdoing it.

“The docks aren’t safe anymore. That’s where he’s looking for you now. Grab what you need, but not so much that you draw attention. Meet me at the Silver Wheel in thirty minutes. You know where that is?”

Both boys just looked at her. How dare she question their knowledge of Artois. Dahlia couldn’t wait for the opportunity to take them down a notch. She watched as they scaled the wall to their room with as much speed and ease as they came down. It didn’t seem natural for them to do it with such ease but she was almost positive neither of them was actually using magic to accomplish the feat. She had to get them out of their comfort zone. She had to get them out of Artois.

An hour later they were all on the road and Dahlia was relieved to know neither of the boys had any experience riding horses. Her words and her look for them was all sympathy that they certainly did not appreciate. Still, she wasn’t about to give them any tips or pointers that would make their ride any easier. She was fine letting them arriving in Estwic cold, tired, and saddle sore. She couldn’t wait for the moment she could them off to Acharn. Then she could stop having to pretend to be a friend to the brats. She was willing to ride through the night to hurry that moment. However, if they insisted on stopping somewhere for the night, she was sure she could arrange for their evening to be cold, frightening, and sleepless as well. These city boys were clearly out of their element.

Both of the boys were riding scared, clinging to the horse as if afraid they would fall off without constant vigilance. Considering their posture, Dahlia was surprised they had both somehow managed to stay in the saddle this far. They rode like this for hours on end through the night getting incrementally more and more pain. It was clear that both desperately wanted to stop but, aside from a few breaks to walk the horses and stretch their legs that were more sore at each break, they continued on. The groans and moaning became a regular chorus pushing aside any other conversation. Dahlia could only imagine the pain both boys were going through but in their pride and the presence of a beautiful, older traveling companion, neither would give in or even offer an audible word of complaint.

It was past time for breakfast when the three passed through the gates of Coreltuvi, an inland defensive fort and suburb of Estwic. The place was large enough in its own right but it was nothing compared to the city in which they had been raised. Before the village even came into view the salty smell of the ocean began to permeate the air and Sting had strung his bow in anticipation, and desperate hope, of journey’s end. After a night in the saddle, his muscles painfully protested an action that he normally could do without thought. He endured the pain. This would be the first time in a strange city and he was not about to enter unprepared. Bloodeye watched him remount and then turned his eye on Dahlia. She could tell he was growing suspicious. Perhaps she should have let them stop for the night. Even in her own eyes, her pity looked fake by this point. No matter, she only had to get them to the inn.

Both boys groaned when they passed by the first two inns. They were tired and hungry and desperately wanted to stop but they continued to follow. She led them up a couple streets and took a right heading south. Just past the next intersection, they passed an inn bearing the name Ragged Staff. The three turned in towards the stable where two boys lazily got up to help with their horses. Both almost immediately ran off when another man darkened the entrance.

The man took two steps toward Bloodeye but suddenly stopped as he saw that Sting had already jumped from his horse and had his bow drawn. Dahlia was close enough she could slice the bowstring with her knife but just as she started to move she felt a pain in her hand. Another thrown dagger had pierced it. Her own knife had fallen from her grip and both weapons fell to the floor as she clutched her wounded hand to her breast. She heard a cry cut off in a gurgle and turned to see an arrow sticking from the neck of Acharn. Sting now had turned and his bow was aimed right at her. To the left, Bloodeye had another dagger already in hand.

“Now you’re going to tell us what’s really going on.”

Both boys looked ready to do murder again and Dahlia’s mind worked furiously as to how she could recover the situation.

My Brother’s Keeper – Chapter 10 (text)

When Kayeen reentered the inn he found that someone had taken Damyan up to a room. He wanted to talk with the Ranger again but that could wait. Tiev now sat with Foglaid at his table and Kayeen walked over to join them.

“I thought you were going to kill him. What have you done?” Tiev asked as Kayeen found his seat.

“He makes everything else easier. We’re short on men already. How many have we turned?”

“We’ve only got two of the officers but about two thirds the crew are in our pocket. That stunt you pulled beheading Givat and tying his boys up to the mast cowed most and inspired some. Time won’t help no more. I don’t think we’ll win over anyone else.”

“There’s no need to pacify the rest,” Kayeen said. “We can hold them below with Damyan to guard until after we’ve taken the Mist.

“Can he be trusted?”

“More than either of you.”

Kayeen looked at the other two men. Tiev met his gaze and, after a moment, gave a nod. Foglaid seemed to be intensely scrutinizing the grain pattern of the tabletop. His complete loyalty was still in question but for now, there was nothing to do about it. He was too much of a coward to pose any true threat.

“Tiev, stay with Yashin. We don’t want him knowing what’s really happening until it is too late. Foglaid, start spreading the word to our crew that it is happening this run. I’ll wake Damyan and let him in on our plan. I’ll see you both aboard the Blue Spray.

 

Just after sunset, all were on the ship and Takino was a city vanishing in the distance. As soon as Kayeen began pulling on the wind, Yashin looked at him in surprise and anger. He realized that they were moving off course but he was wise enough to realize that a confrontation now could be deadly. He knew he was losing grip on his crew. He’d sent word to his father letting him know of the situation but for the time being, he just had to wait. Most of the crew would ride with whoever had the upper hand. They would be his again as soon as he was able to call in outside help.

Through the night they skipped across the water at a pace that Kayeen had found sustainable over the long run. It wasn’t nearly the speed he had put on at first, but the young man had proven that he could maintain this speed almost indefinitely and it was still nearly twice what the Blue Spray used to do on her best day.

“Ship ho!”

A lookout in the crows nest called down the sighting. Yashin should have been in bed but had chosen to remain on deck with the night watch. It seemed most of the crew was awake and about and there was an air of expectation that only intensified with the sighting.

Kayeen looked over and nodded to Foglaid and Damyan then turned toward the captain. “Yashin, I’d like to see you in my cabin. Tiev, wake any officers not already up and about and have them all meet us there.”

Tiev would have to be dealt with, Yashin thought. He was clearly Kayeen’s man now. A pity his ambition would cost him. He was a fine officer and ready for his own crew. Now he would be blacklisted by the houses. Once this mess was cleaned up, he wouldn’t even make captain on a decades-old fishing trawler.

Yashin entered the captain’s cabin that had, until recently, been his. Kayeen followed him in and immediately the captain rounded on the boy. “What are you doing? Is that the Mist you’ve had us chasing down all night?”

“Yes.”

“For what? We can’t hold all her cargo, we’re nearly full ourselves. Are you going to sink her? Is this all about some vendetta?”

“I’m going to take her.”

After a brief pause of shock, laughter poured out from deep within his belly. Kayeen’s ambition was starting to exceed his grasp. After a couple successes, the impetuous boy thinks he’s invincible. Yashin figured he should try to encourage this endeavor since the more Kayeen tried to hold, the easier it would be to shake it all out of his grasp. It was too late in the season to pass Storm’s Bend. There was no way to keep the ships at sea all winter. They would have to harbor soon and all the harbors are controlled by the houses. Now the boy would have two ships to watch while he still inspired no loyalty that lasted beyond eyesight. Yashin tried not to let the hope show through on his face, but he was sure he had failed miserably.

One by one the other seven men entered the room and took seats around the officers’ table. Tiev came in last, shut the door, and remained standing behind Nicholai, Yashin’s only son. Kayeen looked over to Tiev and asked, “Which ones are for us?”

Tiev nodded to Sagami and patted Nicholai’s shoulder. Yashin’s eyes nearly popped from his head. He tried to stand and found himself bound by magic. “What have you done!”

Nicholai looked at his father but quickly looked down and away.

“Tiev, tie the rest up. Sagami, you’re with me. Nicholai, grab a bow and join the men gathering on the forecastle.”

Yashin continued to struggle vainly against the bonds of both rope and magic long after the others were gone. His vision was a haze of rage.

Kayeen and Sagami went out onto the deck and were met by Foglaid. Everyone else was a bustle of activity as they were being armed and gathering into position.

“Ta… ta… two dead. Theirs. We ha… have one sailor wi… with a cut up arm. Wa… one of theirs ka… killed by a sailor. The… the other tried to reeeesist then just dra… dra… dropped dead.”

Either recognizing Kayeen’s frustration or out of pity for Foglaid, a nearby sailor took the initiative to jump in. “Damyan yelled something fierce at the guy and, when he dropped, the witch just slumped down crying. That ended any more resistance right quick. Jore walked Damyan below deck where they’re holding the prisoners. Everyone up here now is your man.”

Kayeen nodded thanks to the sailor without even bothering to recall his name. He had no idea who Jore was either but he was glad to know his orders had been carried out. Tiev had arrived right at the end of the sailor’s report and Kayeen turned to him, “What do you think?”

“We shoot past them then swing around to have them with the rising sun to our backs. It should be bloodless but there’s no sense giving up the advantages of position and surprise.”

“You still think we can do this without violence?

“Their captain isn’t much liked. You say you’re from the houses to bring him to justice and they’ll hand you the man on a silver platter. By the time they realize the truth we will already have them in our pocket. You sure you’re strong enough?”

“I’ll have to be, won’t I?”

 

Within the hour they had moved into position as the grey of predawn lightened up the sky behind them. Nicholai was on the forecastle with his older friend,  Varlam. “I want him.”

“Shut it. Look at you bouncing. You’re too nervous. You take Foglaid. I’ve got the witch. I’m a better shot anyway.”

“What are we waiting for? Let’s do this.”

“I know you’re steamed about cap and all. But calm yourself. When we’re closer, all eyes will be turned away. Everyone’s too ready for action now. Too alert.”

The two waited along with three other pairs of archers spread out along the forecastle. They waited and watched as the two ships drew ever closer. The other ship grew steadily larger and, as predicted, every eye was focused on the Mist. On the deck, most of the men were ready with grappling ropes and swords. Sagani and Foglaid were a bit behind the rest and the weaselly man had his back to the two.

“Soon.” Varlam put a steadying hand on the boy’s shoulder. He hated asking a fourteen-year-old boy to do this but he was Urnov’s man and the plan was the best they had for the moment. He hated having to keep Yashin in the dark but the cap had been too closely watched. “Very soon now.”

“No. Now.”

Nicholai raised his bow and released. Varlam cursed then swung his bow toward the quarterdeck and fired.

 

“Duck!”

Kayeen heard Tiev call out and turned just as an arrow struck him below the shoulder in his left arm. Two of the men closest rushed up the quarterdeck with swords drawn. Quick as thought, Kayeen raised and launched a small ball of fire towards the foremast of the other ship. Tiev engaged one of the men but the other swung at Kayeen before he had pulled his own sword free. The blade cut into his right arm and his sword clattered to the ground behind him. He threw himself backward, falling to the ground and narrowly avoided another slash. His right arm flung out to catch his sword as it flew in the air toward him while his left arm protected his head by taking another cut. He thrust his sword forward and the assailant was flung through the air over the side of the ship. Kayeen struggled to his knees and pointed toward the other ship. A much larger ball of fire flew forward to strike at the mainmast.

Tiev had taken a cut on his cheek and another near the ribs but he had killed his man. On the deck, Foglaid was lying face down on the deck with an arrow between his shoulders. Everyone else was staring up at the quarterdeck. Kayeen pointed his sword toward the forecastle and eight bows were pulled from the archers’ hands to fly into the sea.

Kayeen looked towards the Mist and the crew that was desperately trying to put out two fires blazing through the sails. He made a waving motion and the fires went out. His voice came booming over both ships and crossed miles of ocean.

“Put all weapons down and hands in the air or I will burn you to ash!”

He saw those on the other ship quickly start to comply. Closer by, Damyan was running across the deck towards him. Kayeen slumped to the ground. Everything went to black.

 

–     –     –     –     –

 

Lazlo followed the trail with a heavy heart. Istvana had seen the writing on the ground, erased it, and immediately came to get him. Officially nobody else would ever know, but everybody knew. Lazlo headed north to find his daughter and burn her corpse. As soon as he left the Zingari settlement, word began spreading like wildfire from one whispered ear to another. Nadezha was nowhere to be found. Lazlo was out looking for her. He would return alone and her name would never be spoken again. It had happened before with his nephew and before that, a brother. Rumor spoke to him of an uncle as well. Four in one family, why had they been so cursed?

For more than two hours he continued north into the bitter cold before coming to the place his daughter had been just hours before. He did not find what he expected to find and this both relieved and frightened him. At first, he wondered if someone else had gone ahead of him to spare him the necessity, but no, there had been no other tracks. He sniffed the air and did not sense any burning nearby. Coming closer to investigate he found two lengths of rope cleanly severed. He found the blood stain on the ground where his daughter had fallen. Her scuff marks were clear where she rose to her feet and backed up to the cliff. There were the footprints of the two others who had been here, but no trail leading away.

Every Zingari knew a level of field craft. It was necessary for a wandering people to have some measure of knowledge to survive, but Lazlo was a respected older man. He left the hunting and even most of the trading to those with younger, nimbler bodies. He had not needed to use those skills for years and even as a youth he was far from the best in those areas. From what he could gather, two others prevented the death, injured, and then kidnapped his daughter. Now they were covering their tracks as they left. He could try to follow but with his lack of skills, he would only fall further and further behind. He needed the Drepti. Normally, they would only hunt down witches but if his daughter had magic and was still alive, that should be reason enough to save her. Her death now might be a rescue from an even worse fate.

 

“How much of a lead do we have? When will someone be coming to follow you?”

“I don’t know. This is not something we speak of.”

Gavril sighed. “Surely you’ve heard whispers. Do we have a day? An hour?”

“More than an hour. Two, maybe three. My father will not want to find me still alive but he will not wait long enough that somebody else might stumble upon my body. It doesn’t matter though. We will all be dead soon.”

Avril opened his mouth to argue the point but Gavril silenced him with a look. The three were heading towards Slobodsky. it was a small outpost in the northeast of Kyev. The town was about twice the size of Trapper’s Point but served the same function on the south side of the mountains. Trappers on this side of the mountains would bring their goods to Slobodsky where they would be shipped downriver on rafts southeast to Shinjuku. There they would be loaded on riverboats for the ride to Takino. Gavril’s original plan was to use this shipping route to get to Kayeen. If the boy was right Kayeen could possibly have already been there and gone, but it was too late in the season to escape the gulf. If he had not already done so by now, he would need to put up somewhere for winter.

That original plan was now less important than getting to Slobodsky for safety. Alone, he was much better off in the wild. As talented as the White Knives were, they wouldn’t dare hunt down a Ranger in the wild. If  Avril was well rested, the two would still be safer in the wild. Their weariness and the addition of Nadezha to their company changed the equation. Their only chance for survival now was to hole up somewhere where entrances and exits could be easily covered until he and the boy were recovered from their journey through the pass. If they didn’t get to Slobodsky before the White Knives caught up to them, they didn’t stand a chance.

“How many White Knives, how many Drepti, are in the settlement?”

“A dozen. No, thirteen,” Nadezha answered.

Gavril just grunted in response. There was maybe twice that in the whole world. No chance that half of them all happened to be here through the winter. He guessed there would be three or four plus a few teachers and maybe ten students. The girl’s exaggerated answer gave him hope that even that estimate might be high. Beyond that, the teachers would never leave their students and the students would never range too far. So the further they went the less the threat of numbers would be. The best case scenario would be that only one was sent at first. They might possibly survive that and then have more time for a real escape before the rest picked up the chase. Any other scenario that Gavril could foresee ended in all their deaths.

 

–     –     –     –     –

Rowyh sat on the ground with his back leaning on the trunk of a tree while the older of the two blond giants stood guard next to him. The man seemed to instinctively keep himself between Rowyh and the forest around him even though he never looked down. His sword remained out at his side and his eyes continued to dart toward every sound and movement the wind or some animal made in the distance.

The skinnier one walked towards the two ponies and pulled out two canteens. He looked to be more at ease but that look was deceptive. He was just as quick to glance up at any perceived movement in the wild. His longsword was sheathed but from somewhere he had pulled out a knife that was twice the length of the daggers that had been used against him. For a moment he held that knife between his teeth as he wrapped a strip of cloth around the cut on the back of his neck. He then used water from one of the canteens to clean the cut on his cheek.

“Do you have a name?”

Rowyh was watching the other man and was exhausted enough that he did not recognize that the big man near him was speaking.

“My name’s Willhelm. That’s Paeder. What do they call you?”

“Sorry, my name is Rowyh.”

“Rowyh. Huh, you’re a bit young to be a bard.”

“That’s Riyah. Rowyh is dreamer. They say as a boy I always had my head in the clouds.

“Your parents had some foresight with that name. I’m assuming, with a White Knife after you, that you’re a Seer?”

“Yes. We call it Farsight, though.”

“Are you strong enough to use it now?”

“No. I haven’t been able to for nearly two days. I didn’t think I would be able to make it to you in time.”

Willhelm grunted at this. “It was a close-run thing. Couldn’t get much closer. It would have been nice to know if that assassin is still out there.”

Rowyh nodded in agreement. Then he blushed when he realized that this Willhelm would not have been able to see the gesture. Through the entire conversation, he did not once stop looking out at the trees around them.

A canteen landed on the ground right between Rowyh’s legs. His head came up in surprise and banged the tree behind him.

“Sorry,” Paeder said. “Didn’t mean to scare you. You look like you could drink both these down and then some.”

Rowyh rubbed the back of his head as he replied, “Thank you. And thank you both for saving my life.”

“We’re not done doing that yet. That White Knife is still out there and he’s not going to give up the opportunity to take out two people with the Talent.”

Rowyh looked up toward Willhelm at that. He knew that all three had the Talent, but for some reason, this man was not acknowledging that the younger one knew magic. When he thought about it, he saw nothing during the fight to show that Paeder did. Then again, if the White Knife was close enough to be listening, why give away a potential advantage? Plus, if he and Willhelm were both killed, perhaps the White Knife would not bother with killing Paeder too.

It seemed Paeder’s thoughts spun in a similar direction and he did not like it. He said nothing about it, though, when he looked down towards Rowyh. “Can you ride a pony? We need to get moving. Unless it’s safer to stay here?”

Willhelm shook his head no at the question. “There’s a clearing ahead closer to the river. We will make camp there. It will give us a good line of sight for a good distance in every direction. Rowyh, you will have to ride but do your best to stay low. If this assassin is still close, he will most likely try again before we reach it. The best weapon White Knives have against a Pusher is surprise.

Rowyh mounted up and they had covered little more than half the distance to that clearing when Willhelm was proven right. Both swordsmen were so intent looking out that they did not see what was right above them. The White Knife fell from a branch above straight down towards Rowyh. Willhelm shouted, “No!” and used his Talent to throw the Mitsremi boy from the pony. A knife thrust forward to cut along Rowyh’s back as the boy was launched through the air.

Paeder reached up to catch a leg and pulled him down behind him while he spun bringing his sword up in a guard stance. At the same time, Willhelm swung through the air right above the pony’s head. He was too late. The White Knife had landed with both feet on the pony and jumped back up to flip right over Willhelm. The swordsman spun around as a knife embedded itself just below his jaw on the right side. He swung wildly but the assassin jumped away with contemptuous ease. Ignoring the knife for the moment, Willhelm turned to position his sword and set himself in a guard position. The White Knife had backed away and was now working his way behind the ponies to come against the other two.

Paeder’s face was red with rage as he faced the man cautiously coming towards him. He saw the blood flowing from the knife wound his cousin had taken and yelled out, “Enough!”

It was as if an invisible hand had grabbed the assassin and slammed him against the ground. The White Knife tried to bring his hands up to block the fall but the action only succeeded in breaking both arms. He tried to ignore the pain and scramble to his feet but he was not in time. Paeder rushed forward and hacked down inelegantly between his neck and shoulder. He raised his sword and kicked out. The White Knife used the kick to try and throw himself away from his attacker but was pulled back with magic to be impaled on Paeder’s sword. he died instantly.

Paeder turned toward his cousin to see that he had dropped his sword and both hands were trying to staunch the blood flow around the knife. Rowyh was on his hands and knees on the other side still bleeding in pain as well but both men were looking at Paeder in shock. He turned toward Willhelm first. He ripped a strip off the bottom of his tunic and placed it in Willhelm’s hands. Then he held the knife carefully and pulled it straight back so as to avoid making the incision any larger. As soon as it was out, Willhelm took the cloth and pushed it against the wound.

When Paeder had helped lay Willhelm down with his head elevated, he turned toward the stranger who had brought all this trouble on his heels. Rowyh had already pulled his own cloak up so Paeder could see the slash along his back. It was a six-inch cut about halfway up the back but it did not look deep. Paeder had him remain on his hands and knees. He used some more water from the canteen to wash out the wound then ripped another strip from the tunic. He wrapped the strip tightly around Rowyh then had him lay face down on the ground.

Paeder turned back to look at the dead White Knife. The man looked so small and frail now as he lay motionless on the ground. He wiped the long sword he had dropped after the fight on that red stained cloak. Sheathing it, he turned to survey the scene around him. This was not a good place to remain, but how was he supposed to get one injured and exhausted young man, two frightened and quivering ponies, and his dying cousin to a better camp? The fight was over but his work was just beginning.