Out in the open, there were two things Kayeen could not bear: the cold and the brightness. As he came closer to the southern end of the forest, both of these assailed his senses. His first plan had been to head out immediately after collecting his sword and the provisions he had been laying aside. This plan ended as he neared the edge of the forest. The protection of the mist held at bay the cold and as that protection waned, so did his resolve. Reluctantly, he settled into a small cave even though he knew the delay would cost him his head start. Sleep did not come easy and when he found himself still lying in that cave, cold and wet, two hours before dawn, Kayeen gave up. He repackaged his sleeping roll, pulled out a strip of dried meat, and continued on. The cold he walked into that morning was worse than the dead of winter within the forest. He knew in his mind how bad it would be, but an intellectual understanding could never compete with the harshness of reality. Not only was it cold, it was bleak. Kayeen had spent a life in a perpetual fog and he was used to shades of grey. He expected the outside world to be vibrant with the colors his parents reminisced about when they bemoaned their lot. Instead, there was the bluish sky of false dawn, the brown and grey of a dead and rocky landscape, and the occasional dirty white of a dusting of snow being pushed along, west to east, by the harsh wind.
Kayeen pulled his coat tight against the wind and trudged on. As the sun began to rise, it transformed the grey sky into a glorious blue. This far north there was almost never enough moisture in the air to cloud the sky. The relatively flat terrain also did little to impede his view. Few other places on earth could display the majesty and nearness of the heavens, but Kayeen did not see it. All he saw was the bright glare of the sun ahead of him and to the left. He adjusted his hood to try and block that intense glare and kept his gaze on his feet as he continued southward.
He was not walking long when Kayeen came to the one thing that broke the monotony of the landscape. At first, the tree was little more than a speck on the horizon. It wasn’t until he got closer that Kayeen began to appreciate its immensity. It was huge. The wind was as strong here as anywhere but it seemed to have almost no effect on the giant’s branches. As Kayeen watched it, this lonely oak seemed to call to him. At the same time, it also stirred up fear. No tree should be able to survive a winter this far north. Not even grass grows in the prime of summer yet this tree was standing tall and strong and proud.
Kayeen gripped the hilt of his sword and angled his walk so that the tree passed far to his right. He was passing it by when warmth and relief seemed to flow up from his hand that still gripped the sword at his side. There was a destiny ahead of him. There was a world to conquer.
Gavril was exhausted. He was a messenger, a Ranger. He could go and had gone days on end traveling without sleep. He could cover ground as fast as anyone alive, but he had never pushed himself as hard as he had been doing these past four days. It had been almost twenty-four hours since the last time he had stopped to eat. There was no place to purchase food and there was no opportunity to forage this far north. Eating was not an option. There had been no time.
No time for what? Gavril felt a sense of urgency to be somewhere, to stop something from happening, but he did not know what. He had not at first even known where he was going. He had been traveling north for days before he knew for sure that his destination would take him back to an encounter he had nearly twenty years back. He had spent only a few life-changing minutes in that home half a lifetime ago, but now he was returning. He did not know why but he did know where he was going.
Gavril pulled his cloak tighter against himself as the wind bit needles into his face and hands. He left the last scraggly remnants of the forest behind a few hours back and the coast was on the wrong side of the prevailing winds to have any moderating effect on the temperature. The sun rising was doing its feeble best to warm the day but Gavril was moving northward into ever colder environs at such a pace that, for him, the biting cold remained steady.
Anticipation and questions flashed through his mind. Gavril did his best to remember everything he could from that brief encounter over eighteen years ago. What would Andrei and Yevenna look like now? Twins. Were they boys or girls? They would be young adults now. Were they still living with their parents? What would it have been like for them to be raised by such corrupt parents? Most importantly, why after all this time did he feel such an urgency to return now? What had happened?
Such questions and more took on an even greater urgency as Gavril came closer and closer to that mysterious forest on the northern edge of the world. He was so caught up in these thoughts that he at first did not notice the person on the horizon heading in his direction. Once he did, Gavril stopped and watched him come. He realized this young man must be one of the twins. The same sixth sense that had been pulling him north now told him that this was the person he needed to meet. The Talent that made him such a good Ranger now sent him a clear message: he must go back. Gavril planted his feet, folded his arms, and studied the young man coming towards him.
As soon as Gavril figured Kayeen had come into earshot, he cried out, “You must return!”
Kayeen stopped dead in his tracks. For a moment the two stood there sizing each other up. The only sound was the whistling wind whipping a small stone across the broken ground between them. Kayeen finally began moving forward again as he called out, “Who are you?”
As he watched Kayeen advance, Gavril said again, “You must return!”
Kayeen continued walking forward. “Who are you? What are you talking about?”
They were close enough now that Gavril could clearly see the confusion on the handsome young man’s face. Beyond the visible, he could also see the conflict, the struggle, playing out inside this boy.
“You must return. You are not ready for the path you have set before yourself.”
“I don’t know you. What are you talking about?”
Gavril pointed to the sword and scabbard tucked into a leather belt at Kayeen’s waist. “You aren’t ready for that. If you leave home now both it and you will be corrupted and destroyed.”
Kayeen had not expected this as his first ever conversation with someone outside his family. He was still confused, but the audacity of this stranger to order him about caused him to get defensive and angry.
“You don’t know me. You have no idea what I can or cannot handle.”
They were now just a few yards apart. Pride, anger, and defensiveness swelled up as Gavril put his hand out motioning for Kayeen to stop. “Before you were born, boy, I carried that sword to your parents. I’ve lived more, gone further, and seen more than almost anyone alive. Everywhere I go I see the same thing: impetuous children who think they are ready to play at being adults. You’re not ready yet to take on the world. Go back home.”
His words were harsher than he had intended. Part of it was a lack of patience from his exhaustion, but Gavril could almost feel that something was trying to stir up a confrontation and he had fallen prey to it. Throughout the short rant, Kayeen was trying to move forward but his feet seemed to be planted in the ground. He’s using magic on me, he thought. In anger Kayeen backhanded the air in front of him. Gavril was shocked at the strength of the blow as he was thrown to his left. With his left hand, he slowed his descent while he pulled at Kayeen’s feet with his right.
Kayeen’s head hit the ground hard when his feet were pulled out from under him. His arms flailed as he was then pulled into the air upside down. He reached toward the ground but it was too far away to touch. Instead, he reached up towards his feet and the invisible grip that held them in the air.
Gavril dusted himself off and began walking towards his captive. “Now are you ready to listen?”
Kayeen did not answer as he continued his futile struggle to free himself. Gavril sighed and went on, “Can you feel it? Can you feel that sword whispering in your mind and playing with your emotions? That sword is dangerous. It wants to master you, but you must learn to rule over it.”
Slowly Kayeen was lowered to the ground. He used his hands to keep from bumping his head again. Gavril continued talking as Kayeen was being settled. “In time you might learn to do so but not yet and certainly not on your own. I can return with you. You need your parents to help. You need your brother to help. If you leave now you’ll put everyone you meet in danger and will throw away your own destiny.”
Kayeen regained his footing ignoring the hand that was offered to him. He stood straight as he faced down the older man. Then he looked beyond him and held up his hand. Gavril was still turning to see it when the rock struck him in the head from behind. On impact, he crumpled to the ground.
Kayeen looked down at the bleeding and unconscious man. “I control my destiny. Not you. Not some sword. Not even the Creator Himself. I do.”
He then turned and walked away leaving his victim to the fate of the elements.
– – – – –
When Avril came home in the late afternoon the cave was quiet. Young Sevi was sitting in his father’s chair waiting for him.
“They’re waiting for you.”
“At the table.”
Avril grunted his thanks and started to walk on. Just as he lowered his head to go, Sevi spoke again.
Avril stopped to look at his younger brother.
“Is he really gone?”
“Are you going too?”
Avril didn’t know how to answer that. He didn’t even know for himself what his answer would be.
“Let’s see what mom and dad have to say first.”
Sevi sighed and shook his head. “You’re going” he mumbled, but Avril didn’t hear it. He had already moved further into their home.
When he straightened back up, Avril noticed two wooden boxes on the table. In both boxes, he recognized his father’s craftsmanship. They were functional, well made but unadorned, and the larger of the two was empty. Both boxes had the weathered look that belied the fact they had spent almost two decades hidden in a small cave.
It was the slightly smaller, still closed box that grabbed Avril’s attention. It pulled to him. It sang to him. “Sang” wasn’t quite the right word, but there wasn’t a better one. The draw was so strong that Avril was surprised when he finally noticed that both parents were sitting at the table watching him.
“Do you hear that?” He asked.
Both his parents looked confused.
“Its… I don’t know how to explain it. Something in that box is… its… in my head.”
Andrei arched his eyebrow and muttered, “So that’s how he found them.”
Avril turned to his father, “What?”
“You’ve been following him, haven’t you?”
When Avril nodded, Andrei continued. “We’ve been wondering how Kayeen found this. The black must have been in his head just as…”
“We’re getting ahead of ourselves,” Yevenna interrupted. She shot her husband a sharp look and when he had the grace to look embarrassed, she continued, “Perhaps you should read this first.”
She pointed to a letter on the table that Avril had not previously noticed. Like the boxes, Avril guessed that it was older than he was. He picked up the yellowed paper and began to read:
I’m guessing I am the last person you would expect to be writing you. I know I never thought I would. I thought we were rid of you and it tears at me that I have to write this. But I have no choice.
In case you’ve been holding on to a seed of hope let me end it now. It’s dead. You killed it, impossible as that sounds. The Tree wasn’t supposed to die. It was the Tree of Life, after all. But somehow you managed it. It took its time in dying, but in the end, we weren’t able to save it. With its passing went a lot of what we held to be true. Obviously, both life and magic continue in the world. But magic is no longer safe for us. We are no longer safe. Our role as Guardians is gone, the Society has scattered to the wind and in many lands we are now hunted. Tsyon continues but the city is only a shell of its former self.
In its last days, the Tree dropped two final seeds. There were some that wanted to plant them, but in response to a prophesy, and to prevent another evil to be added to yours, Mykl, myself, and a few others stole these seeds and used them as a core for these two swords.
It was that prophesy which brings them now, with this letter, to your children. Young Gavril has not heard this prophesy nor read this letter. Please do not share it with him. You two have already caused enough trouble for our world and this is just its latest manifestation:
Two seeds two swords
From one Tree
And then one more
Two exiles two children
From one crime
And then a third
Two lives two paths
From one rivalry
And then one more
Two teachers two schools
From one goal
And then a third
Two battles two flights
Then one death
And then one more
And then a third
Part of me doesn’t want to give you these swords. You clearly cannot be trusted but I don’t see as I have much of a choice. Like most prophesies this one begs more questions than it answers, but one thing is clear, you and your children are named. I have little hope for the world. If we’re right the seeds in these swords are now the only thing holding it together. And now they are in your hands. The Creator Help us all.
Avril read through the letter. Then he read it again. He nodded towards the box. “So its a sword in there calling to me?”
Instead of answering, his father opened up the box and pulled out the sword. It was a thin flamberge with a large pearl for its pommel. Coming down from that pommel was a red leather grip wrapped around ivory. A one-handed sword, it had a silver hand guard that ended in a serpent’s head. The handguard snaked around the cross guard which was also made of two dove’s heads. The ricasso of this sword was red leather that actually seemed to fade into the white steel blade. The scabbard of this blade was a deep red mahogany. The locket was a simple flame made of silver with one thin line that waved down its length and formed into a teardrop at the chape.
With a measure of awe and hesitation, Avril reached out to take the sword. Even as he was reaching out, the sword literally jumped into his hand. The moment he clasped it, Avril arched his back and his parents saw only the whites of his wide open eyes. A moment later he seemed to return to himself and said to his parents:
“It has begun.”