Defiantly, the tree held tightly to its one remaining leaf. As gust upon gust of wind ripped through its branches declaring to the world that an early winter had arrived in this barren land, the leaf remained. Many others had fallen that day, but the last leaf obstinately held on. It was the last survivor in a seasonal battle that inevitably stripped the tree bare. Still, the leaf held on. The leaf held on until finally, it could do so no more. The north wind battered its breath against the lonely tree and when it managed to gain the upper hand, that leaf broke free.
Riding the current of this frigid wind, the leaf floated and fluttered far from its home. Now rising, now falling, the curly edged, brown, dying and decaying leaf painted a lively counterpoint to the bleak, barren landscape that was part and parcel of early September in the north country. Spinning in its dance, this leaf finally came to rest on an unused path a short distance to the east of the lonely tree from which it was launched. As it gently touched down, the leaf was immediately ground into nothing by a big black boot.
Gavril again pulled his hood tightly to his head. Another blast of wind struggled to throw it off while hurling daggers of cold at his nose and ears. He knew what he was in for when he agreed to seek the exiles out, but the knowing and the experience were two very different things. “This is ridiculous” he muttered to himself. “Nobody can possibly live here.” Removing his hand from deep inside its pocket he looked again at his Finder. Ever since he had left behind Trappers Point, he was beginning to doubt if Raval’s invention truly worked. Everybody at the Point tried to convince him that nobody lived this far north.
In defiance of those doubts, the Finder continued to point north. Gavril shook his head, shrugged his shoulders and tried again to tighten his cloak against the frigid cold. He passed by the huge tree and continued in a straight line towards the even more unnatural mist that marked the north end of nowhere. As he trudged onward another gust of wind unbalanced the heavy package on his shoulders. Reaching up to better settle the weight created an opening near his neck that sent icicles of pain down his chest. Gavril let out a painful cough and quickly tightened his hood. “If it is this bad now,” he thought, “what must it be like when deep winter truly sets in?”
Again the young Ranger shrugged off that feeling that he was on a pointless suicide mission. He had a growing dread that there was nobody ahead and he was walking forward toward a lonely frozen death. He just had to trust that this Finder would work as he continued on. Gavril knew what was in the package he was delivering. Well, he at least had a general idea of what it was. The rub was that no matter how hard he tried, no matter what angle he approached the mystery, he could not fathom the implications of this delivery. His mind had been working on the mental puzzle since even before he had first set out on this journey. The swords remained a riddle that he still could not solve, So he continued northward leaving hope and warmth behind and the cold and the cloud ahead.
Gavril continued to trudge forward until he reached the edge of the strange mist. The wind was blowing as hard as ever but it seemed to have no effect on it. Some fog was being blown away by the wind, but more was rising up from the ground to replace it as quickly as it dissipated on the fringes.
Gavril was so heavily bundled up that he did not realize that as he moved forward the ground was incrementally becoming warmer. When he moved deeper in, he felt the wind die down while the mist continued to thicken until the traveler was completely shrouded by the mysterious fog.
The distant sound of a boot against stone broke a silence that had become the norm in Andrei’s existence. The sound he heard conveyed to him a traveler’s fumbling incompetence in walking through the fog. No animal would be that loud, but what hunter or traveler would dream of daring to brave the mist? Even the hardiest of seal hunters seldom ventured further up the coast than the Lonely Oak. All of those hunters would have left for warmer lands at least two or three weeks back. As the footsteps drew nearer Andrei sat back to wait. He leaned back in his sturdy chair just as a shrill whistle told him that his wife Yvenna was heating water for tea. He smiled. She seemed to have a sixth sense at times. Usually, that sixth sense came into play when he was getting himself into trouble. She had a sense of what was coming eleven years back as well. If only he had listened at that time perhaps they would not have spent more than a decade in exile.
“What does this mean?” Yvenna asked as she ducked and walked past the curtain separating the entrance room from deeper parts of the cave. The system of caverns was first formed from steam vents and changes in temperature. Years back Andrei had found one of those, expanded it, and made it habitable through years of hard work. With little else to occupy their time, the two had continued to expand on his early efforts and made quite a comfortable home for themselves.
“You know it was only a matter of time.” Andrei said, “When we first left, everybody scattered. That was the only thing that kept us alive. They should have killed us for what we did. I would have killed us for what we did. The Creator knows plenty of others died at that time. Even as we are hunted to extinction, there is too much Talent remaining in the world, too many Gifts, for someone not to track us down eventually.”
Andrei lit a small twig at the lamp next to his chair. He then used that twig to light his pipe. This done, he lifted the lamp up and placed it on its wall mount. With the angled mirrors behind it, the extra light added to the warm glow of the cavernous room. Yvenna walked up behind her husband and put her hand on his shoulder. The physical touch helped settle the nerves of both. Andrei patted her hand. “We sure made a nice run of it, didn’t we, Yev?”
Before she could answer a voice called out from beyond the entrance, “Hello!”
Andrei looked back at Yvenna and raised a questioning eyebrow. She hesitated for a second then shook her head no. He gave a resigned shrug and called out, “Come in!”
The couple waited as their visitor made his way through the low, winding entrance. The huge stranger displayed an imposing presence as he straightened up when he finally entered the room. For a moment he stood there in amazement while taking in the room around him.
“You’ve got to be dying underneath all those layers,” Yvenna said. “Why don’t I help you out of that bear you’re wearing.”
Gavril eyed the petite woman warily as he reluctantly allowed her to help him out of his thick bearskin cloak as well as the thinner cured leather wrap underneath. Despite her small frame, the woman demonstrated a surprising strength as she effortlessly hung both wrap and cloak on hooks in the wall high overhead. Gavril used the momentary distraction to steal a survey his surroundings.
Behind him was the dark entrance he had just crossed. Above it was one of the three torches in the room burning away any remnants of mist that might wander into the cave. To his left was an unnaturally straight wall almost twelve feet high that domed inward near the top bringing the center of the room to a height of about fourteen or fifteen feet. The room was about eight feet wide at the entrance, bulging to about twelve feet just beyond center, then tapering to around ten feet at the far end. There, a curtain hinted at another shorter tunnel that led deeper into the cave.
Above each entrance burned a torch and Gavril saw a third above the two chairs positioned along the left wall. Behind each torch, mirrors were reflecting the light in a homey, uneven glow around the room. Between the two chairs was a three-tiered bookshelf containing about thirty well-worn volumes. Between the larger chair and the far entrance were a narrow table and a stool. Scattered on that table were sheaves of paper as well as a quill and ink jar.
Jutting from the other main wall there were various pegs and hooks from knee height on up to as far as a hand can reach. Most pegs stood empty but a few contained traps and there were spears leaning against some of the lower ones. These pegs ran the entire length of the twenty-five foot right wall. On a couple pegs nearest him were hung some cloaks and wraps.
“Over ten years to work at it, and this is all the home we have built.”
Although a couple inches shorter than Gavril, the man who spoke would be considered fairly tall to most people. His reddish-brown hair, thick mustache, light complexion, and thick build belied his origin as Kyevan born and would allow him to blend in from Novgra to Ursk.
The man’s petite wife, however, definitely seemed out of place in these northern climes. Her tiny five-foot frame, black hair and eyes, and dark almond skin pointed to a Mistren heritage or possibly from northern Mumbi if she had been upper caste.
Gavril’s gaze hardened as he looked Andrei in the eye. All he saw was a man, an average, normal man, and this frustrated him. He did not see the evil villain his mind had created. Neither did he see a couple bowed under and overcome with remorse. Here before him were the worst criminals in history yet all he saw was an ordinary man with a fairly attractive wife living in a rugged, yet cozy underground home.
Andrei saw his visitors gaze harden and said, “If you’re here to kill us, you’d best get on with it. I don’t think I could stand much chance of stopping you.”
“I only wish my Talents ran in that direction,” Gavril said. “I’m not an assassin, I’m a Ranger, and I’ve been sent to give you this.”
Gavril swung the package off his back and let it clatter to the ground. At the same time, he pulled a parchment letter from his breast pocket and dropped that as well. In three long strides, he reached the wall where his cloaks had been hung. Violently pulling the thick bearskin, he heard a rip as it was yanked free from the peg in the wall. He turned around to find that Yvenna had placed her small frame between him and the exit. “Please don’t.” She said, “Come nightfall you’ll freeze out there.”
Gavril pointed at her and said, “I have a message for you of my own. You’re pregnant. Twins.”
Yvenna put a hand to her mouth and took an involuntary step back. Gavril bulled past her and headed down the tunnel to the cave’s mouth. The small woman, still in shock, watched him retreat into the darkness until the bend in the rock took him from sight.