Kayeen continued pushing himself forward in shock. He had killed a man. Even if the stranger who had confronted him was still alive when he left, there was no chance the man would ever be able to survive the elements. Leaving him there felt worse than throwing the rock itself. That had been hurled in the heat of the moment but just abandoning the man… Guilt gnawed away at his thoughts as Kayeen felt himself being compelled forward.
He had passed through Trappers Point stopping only long enough for a meal with the last of the inhabitants before passing on. Many who came to work these inhospitable lands did so to get away from civilization so none of the others closing up home and shop bothered to pry. They must have been curious as to where the new stranger had come from but between his growing guilt and the fact that, for the first time in his life he was among strangers, Kayeen was not inclined to talk. Every look of curiosity he received, the young man interpreted as a glare of accusation. Kayeen was sure, somehow, everyone would know what he had done as sure as if it were branded to his forehead.
Once beyond the Point, Kayeen turned east towards the ocean. He had seen his father’s map enough to know that the only way he could get south of the Great North Range was to get directly to the coast and then board a ship into Kazani territory. Both Kazan and Kyev claimed this part of the range as well as the patch of barren ice and scraggly forest above but, apart from a small amount of fur trading that took place, there was nothing to make either nation waste resources to make good on that claim.
Kayeen spent the last of his coin at the port in securing his passage south. He overpaid but the captain was suspicious enough of this reclusive young man who was out of place to gouge him for everything he could. Thus Kayeen, tormented and alone, left the far north behind him forever.
– – – – –
When Gavril gained consciousness, he was shaking. Never in his life did he feel as sore as he did now. His entire body felt exhausted but his left upper body felt especially sore and both hands and feet were being attacked by needles. Internal alarm bells traveled past his racing heartbeat to his brain and Gavril struggled to his feet.
He tried to stir himself but as soon as he did the pounding in his head began and Gavril remembered the confrontation that had brought him to this place. For a brief moment, he thought of going after the young man. Instinct and his Rangers training overrode this urge. His own unlikely survival was far more important and his only hope for that was in the opposite direction. He needed to make it to the misty forest he remembered from his distant past.
Gavril pushed past his headache and his pain as he struggled to his feet. Blackness threatened to engulf him as he rose but he did not wait for the dizziness to stop or his vision to return before starting his slow trek northward. He pushed himself as hard as the pain and his quickly depleting energy reserves allowed. It would not be enough and Garvil knew it. He was in a race against the dropping temperature, the setting sun, and a broken body that was systematically shutting itself down and there was not a chance he would win.
With increasing frequency, his mind began to drift and Gavril had to use every mental discipline he knew to keep himself moving northward and to resist the temptation to begin stripping off his clothes. His mind began shutting itself down bit by bit and his ability to focus and remember his purpose began fading while, at the same time, the part of his brain regulating body temperature was also misfiring. As odd as it may seem, even as Gavril froze to death, he thought he was too hot.
The moment he started to open up his cloak the icy cold snapped him back to reality. Gavril was jolted back to full consciousness only to realize a cruel truth. He had passed the point of no return. The battle was lost. He took a few more steps forward then sat himself down. His headache was only a dull memory, his soreness barely registered even as his legs continued to shake from atrophy. All Gavril knew was that he was tired. The world faded to black as he drifted off to sleep.
Out of the blackness, Gavril heard the echo of footsteps on a stone floor. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness around him, Gavril saw a young boy of about ten walking towards him. He looked young but when they locked eyes, the Ranger saw in the boy a wisdom of lifetimes. Gavril was lost in that gaze. For a while, the child looked back at him with both sadness and love. He finally said, “It is not yet time for you to join me.”
Gavril asked, “What?”
“It is not yet time for you to come home. I have more for you to do.”
Gavril looked around at the empty darkness, “This is home?”
The boy laughed with the richness of simple joy. He reached out and for the first time, Gavril saw what looked like a glowing ball about 4 inches in diameter in his hand.
Gavril reached out and as soon as he touched the ball a warmth seemed to suffuse his entire body.
“Your name is Gavril.” The boy said.
“Your name is Gavril,” he said again. “You are Gavril, my messenger. Remember that and the rest, in time, will return.”
“I don’t understand,” Gavril said.
“Sleep now. Next time you see me, we will not be parted.”
Gavril stared in confusion as he watched the boy walk away back into the darkness. Left alone in this mysterious, empty place he whispered, “Gavril. My name is Gavril.”
Avril jumped up from the table and began running toward the front of their home. He had almost left the cave when he stopped and turned to his father who was entering the front room right behind him.
“We will need to make a stretcher.”
His father was too confused as to what was happening to question or to argue. Behind him, Yvenna began to enter the room and Avril said to her, “If we get him back here alive he will be close to death. Frozen.” He turned back to his father, “Come on. We don’t have much time.”
After they had gone Yvenna and Sevi went back to the room in their cave from which they drew their hot water. Most of the room was too low for even Yvenna to stand up straight. It stretched back at this low height for about eight feet with an artificially flat floor. This part was wide enough that Yvenna was not quite able to touch both sides simultaneously. The footing was secure thanks to the gravel that had been imported but both sides and ceiling were slick from the steam. This came up from the pool near the back and it mostly escaped through a vent in the same area. In that back end near the pool, the ceiling rose to almost ten feet. Sevi scampered around to this backend to pull down the stopper made to prevent most of the steam from escaping. At the same time, Yvenna draped an old hide over the entrance. Just like that the room was turned into a sauna.
It was into this room, in the dead of night, that Avril and her husband brought a man who looked like a long gone frozen corpse. There didn’t seem to be any hope of him returning to the world of the living. At one time Yvenna had been a healer with promising talent. Now, any remedies offered were limited to the mundane. She knew how to treat exposure to cold as well as anyone, but it frustrated her that she no longer had access to the magic that had been so much a part of her life.
She did what she could to bring her patient’s core temperature up. She also talked her son through the process of simple delving and taught him how to warm the man from the inside but she dared not have him do more. Even that much was a risk since she could not see beyond her eyes and touch exactly what Avril was doing. Over time, to her surprise, it became clear that if the man survived he would lose no extremities to the ice. Still, her patient remained unconscious.
It was more than three days later when Avril was sitting with their patient that he heard the man mutter, “Gavril. My name is Gavril.” The man whom Avril had only met through his parent’s memories and that brief reference in the letter, had returned to the land of the living.
– – – – –
“Keep that sword up! Ignore the burn.”
Paeder knew that his sword had not fallen an inch. His eyes narrowed at the arms master’s shouts, but he dared not even glance in that direction. His focus was only for his older brother, Galad, who was closing on him with the cocky grin of a combatant who knows he will win. The younger brother simply matched that grin with his own look of fierce determination and muttered, “Bring it.” Ignoring the fire racing from his wrists to his shoulders, Paeder brought his two-handed practice sword around to parry his larger opponent’s first blow.
Around and around Galad and his attack went while Paeder remained fixed in one spot. He only occasionally shifted to keep facing his brother. Every thrust of Galad’s practice sword was parried by the lead filled wooden sword of his brother. Once or twice Paeder’s sword would arrive a fraction of a second too late and leave a mark that would be added to his collection of bruises. Despite this, no matter how hard the blow, no matter how fierce the attack, Galad could not force his brother from the spot he had chosen to root himself in.
Balric, the arms master, would sporadically shout out instructions to one of the two boys, but for the most part, he simply let them spar. The real instruction would come later when he sparred with them individually. At that time he would exploit the faults he was making a mental note of now. With a rueful shake of the head, Balric thought again about how difficult that was becoming. In two years at the most, Galad would be his match. And Paeder… although Paeder was barely fifteen he could already hold his own against most full grown men. The boy had grown nearly six inches this past year. His only true fault was that he had not yet adapted to his growing body. Balric had convinced the boy’s parents to send him to Skorgen where he could be trained by the best. On his sixteenth birthday, that is where he would be going.
The two boys were still sparring when Tesric, one of the household servants, appeared at the entrance to the yard and bowed his head respectfully. After ignoring him for a minute, Balric motioned the servant to come over. The boys continued their swordplay while Balric and Tesric had a brief conversation on the side. Finally, Balric shouted in his deep baritone, “Enough!”
Galad began walking away when he felt a sharp thwack on his bottom. Surprised and angry, he turned around. Grinning, his brother said, “You dance too much.”
Balric roared with laughter. “Aye, he does. And you stand there planted like a tree taking your lumps like a dumb ox.”
All four of them were laughing as the boys returned their practice swords and began shedding their pads.
“You boys go ahead with skinny here. I’ll clean up the yard and meet you at the Watch.”
Balric called everybody skinny who was untrained with the claymore. The three of them began making their way up the path while the bulky arms master stood at the entrance watching them go. His vision blurred as he grinned watching the two sweat-soaked boys pumping the tight-lipped servant for information. It wasn’t until they were well out of sight that he allowed himself to rub the tears from his eyes and cheek.
“We have a visitor.”
“Yes, you’ve said that already. Will you tell us nothing more?”
Tesric pretended not to hear Galad’s question while he watched a hawk circling high over the shore to their west. The three of them were heading a bit more to the northwest from the spot where the bird was hunting. The Watch was a small keep built around a lighthouse at the top of a cliff rising from the violent sea. The Watch was the clan’s least profitable holding, but it was also one of the most important. The ocean’s tides tended to push ships close to the treacherous shore in this area. Without the lighthouse at the Watch, many an unwary captain would shatter his ship along the rocks rising from the water near the base of the cliff.
“Is it her?” Paeder asked.
He laughed along with Tesric while Galad’s face turned a deep enough red to match his hair.
“You can ask but I cannot say. I am honor bound to stay silent. I’m sure the two of you will find out soon enough.”
With that statement, the conversation immediately turned to other more innocuous topics. It was dishonorable to try and get a man to break his oath and the McLoren’s motto was “Honor Above Everything”. So while Paeder kept trying to steer the conversation towards Galad’s betrothed, Galad tried desperately to turn it in any and every other direction. Tesric gladly played the antagonist stirring up the sibling rivalry with every opening he found. This banter continued all the way up the steep path to the Watch.
Almost as soon as they passed through the thick oak front doors a tall solid blonde man shouted in surprise, crossed the hall in a couple strides, and wrapped Galad in a vice of a hug. After commenting on the boy becoming a man, bruising both his shoulders and popping his back, this familiar stranger released the poor young man from his friendly torture and turned his attention toward Paeder. Gripping both the boys’ shoulders with his meaty hands he said, “And you. You were still holding your mothers’ skirts and trailing with unsure steps when I last saw you. I’ve missed all your growing and, aye, there’s been plenty of it.”
“Willhelm?” Galad asked hesitantly.
“Aye, it’s me. The legend in the flesh.”
“But you’re supposed to be… Why?” Galad broke off his question as the answer began to dawn on him. His eyes grew wide in shock as he inadvertently looked toward Paeder. Galad’s reaction caused the implications of his cousin’s visit to sink in for the younger brother as well.
“But how can that be?” Paeder asked, “I’ve never shown any signs.”