Yashin saw everything. He was the captain of his ship but also the son and the former heir of one of the greatest trading families so attention to detail had been instilled in him right from his mother’s milk. He noticed the young hooded man enter the tavern and watched as he looked around and spoke to one of the serving girls. She nodded the stranger in Yashin’s direction. By the time he had approached, Yashin had Kayeen fairly accurately sized up.
“I already know what you’re looking for. What makes you think you might have found it with me?”
At first, Kayeen didn’t know how to respond. He had adopted a persona of arrogance since entering Aisu (or Funatsukibaisu according to historians and menial functionaries) but this arrogance was a cover. He was in the shock of being in community for his first time. All of his life he had only interacted with his immediate family. The necessity of speaking with people he did not know was still daunting for him. He did his best to hide this as he said: “I’ve asked around and everyone points to you.”
“Course they do. But its too late in the season for trade. You’re not Kazani. So what brings a young stranger up here to the north end of nowhere? And why would he not have made arrangements already? What are you running from?”
Kayeen rubbed the stubble of a growing beard whose sparseness betrayed his youth. He was searching for an answer but Yashin spoke first, trying to keep the young man off balance.
“You’ve got too many secrets. All as poorly kept as the sword you’re trying to hide. Is that your method of payment? A stolen sword?”
“The sword is mine.”
Yashin smiled at this but chose not to argue the point yet. “So how do you plan to pay?”
“Not with coin.”
“Obviously,” Yashin slapped his hands down on the table and made as if he was preparing to leave. “We’re wasting each other’s time.”
Kayeen brought his right hand up and turned his palm facing in. Yashin found that he was unable to move.
“Just hear me out.” Yashin watched through gritted teeth as the young boy looked around and then settled his gaze through the open window. “You see that flag over there?”
“Yes,” Yashin said.
Kayeen fluttered his index and middle fingers. Across the street, a breeze caused the trading house standard they were both watching begin to flap. It could not have been a coincidence since it was fluttering in a different direction than everything around it.
“Your parents did well to hide you all this time,” Yashin said. “So you go and throw it all away with one foolish proposal?”
Seeing the young man across from him trying hard to mask his confusion, Yashin continued. “With one word I can end your life. Even those who would ignore what you can do in private would join in a riot to kill you out of fear in sharing your fate. You’re too young to remember the troubles, aren’t you?”
Kayeen grasped hold of the only part of that he fully understood in his reply, “Don’t think you would survive my death. If you mean to betray me, it is the last thing you will do.”
Yashin intended to sit back in his chair but he forgot that he was still being magically held in place. He shuddered. “And here is our conundrum. You don’t dare let me out of your sight, but we cannot possibly be together forever. My life is risked in exposing you. But if I don’t I might die for harboring a witch. So tell me, how strong can you make that wind and for how long can you maintain it?”
– – – – –
“Gavril. My name is Gavril.”
Sevi jumped to his feet when he heard the stranger muttering. He took one look at him and then ran from the room to get his mother. In no time flat, all four were trying to crowd into the room and Yvenna had to shoo her husband and two sons away. Andrei returned to his chair in the main room but the two boys remained just outside with their heads peeking in.
Gavril started to rise but a gentle hand on his chest held him in place. His eyes slowly regained focus and he saw above him a figure straight out of memory. The small woman could not possibly be the same one he remembered. She looked to have aged less than a year over the past two decades.
“There’s no need to try to rise. We found you on death’s doorstep nearly four days ago and you’ve had nothing to eat in the time since. Just lay still and let us see if we can’t get something more into you.”
“Wha… what?” Gavril tried to speak but his mind could not coalesce around a coherent thought. Instead, he meekly opened his mouth to the prodding spoon and swallowed the rich warm broth. In time he would be able… Time. There is no time.
That thought was just forming as, after about four spoonfuls, Gavril faded back into oblivion.
Avril went back to grab his pack as soon as he saw Gavril fall back asleep. While waiting for Gavril to regain consciousness, he had prepared to leave. For some reason, he felt compelled to catch up with Kayeen. He felt that his brother needed him, but he did not think he could follow Kayeen alone. His plan had originally been to leave as with Gavril, but as he watched the older man drift back to sleep, Avril’s impatience got the better of him.
It was still early enough in the day for him to get a good distance before settling in for the night. Carrying wood for fuel with him would weigh and slow him down quite a bit, but it would be necessary once he left the shrouded forest. To be caught unprepared at night was certain death. Gavril was proof of that. Going slow might mean that Kayeen would get further and further ahead, but waiting for Gavril would only widen that gap further.
With this logic, Avril trudged onward, but even as he did, part of him knew that he was making the wrong decision. He had no idea what the world outside his protected home had in store for him. When he did manage to catch up with his brother, Avril had no idea what he would do or say. He had no idea how Kayeen would react. Even as his love for his brother drew him onward, Avril’s doubts and fears began pulling him back. The internal battle continued until he began to draw closer to the tree.
Further south the trees at this time of year would be beginning to bud. This far north of the Great Range, no tree should be able to grow at any time. This giant, lonely oak was not only standing tall and proud but it still held on to most of its leaves in defiance to the bitter cold. Avril slightly altered course to walk directly towards this tree and as he did so he saw a young boy in its branches.
At first, he thought the boy was just his imagination or an illusion created by the light and the tangle of branches. He drew closer and it became clear that the boy really was there. He was about the same age as Sevi and just sat there in the branches watching Avril approach. While he watched, the boy changed his position and effortlessly dropped down out of the tree. It was only then that Avril noticed that the boy had no coat. He seemed as oblivious to the cold as was the tree from which he came.
“You need to listen to your sword.”
Avril stared dumbly at the boy who gave this unexpected advice. It was repeated.
“You need to listen to your sword. It has been telling you from the moment you left to go back. It is good that you want to pursue your brother, but you are not meant to go this road alone.”
Avril found his voice, “Who are you?”
The boy shrugged. “I am. And that sword, its mine.” He tapped the trunk of the tree beside him, “This tree is mine too.” The boy looked right in Avril’s eye and then said, “And so are you.”
Avril was confused by this cryptic answer. He continued to stare while the boy began climbing back up the tree and out of sight. He continued to puzzle over what he saw and heard as he turned and walked all the way back home.
– – – – –
“He’s still with us.”
“Ashes and crypts! What does it take to lose this guy?”
Bloodeye did not answer. He was too busy scanning rooftops for a good vantage point. Sting looked over his shoulder at his partner and vehemently shook his head no.
“It’s not about to happen, Blood. The patrol, fine. Even one of the soldiers. I can do that. But he’s one of them.”
“So? So I kill him and he puts a hex on me. Or worse, I miss and only give him a scratch. Then he’s mad and bloody burns me to a cinder. You too unless he’s got no brains.”
“You don’t miss. And he can’t put a hex on you if he’s dead.”
“So now you’re the expert on witches? How do you know what they can do?”
Bloodeye didn’t bother replying. He had found his perch and was busy making his way to it. For all his protests Sting was right behind him. The two had worked as a team for nearly three years now. Bloodeye was a master at close up fighting of any type and Sting was the deadliest man in all of Gaol with a short bow. When someone saw Sting for the first time, they usually made the mistake of underestimating him. He was scrawny for a seventeen-year-old. He would have been considered scrawny even if he were two years younger. In fact, Bloodeye, although he was barely fifteen, looked and acted the older of the two.
With the practiced confidence of two young thieves who knew their city well, the boys winded their way through the alleys of Artois. Turning one corner they reached what looked to be a dead end. He then pushed away from the building so that he was straddling the wall like one would a horse. He raised himself up and then walked across the wall up onto the roof on the far side. Sting slung the short bow across his back and began the same process a few steps behind him. When the two were both up on the roof, they began making their way from rooftop to rooftop with as much confidence and ease as other people walked the streets below.
Suddenly, Bloodeye stopped and dropped turning his body so that his head was peeking over the edge of the roof. Sting copied the motion coming up beside him. He didn’t know what Bloodeye had seen but he didn’t doubt for an instant the younger boy saw something. There was a reason he always took point. Bloodeye’s ability to spot a target or a patrol looking in their direction was uncanny.
“There, near where we first entered the alley.”
Sting grunted. The man who had been following them was at the entrance to the alley facing the street. There was a look of confusion on his face as he examined something he was holding in both hands. This late at night there was nobody else on the street.
Bloodeye spoke with such a voice of authority that Sting had his bow up and an arrow knocked before he knew what was happening. The hand gripping the bow briefly pointed towards his target before the arrow was released with a thwang. The tracker looked up and raised his hand as the arrow flew straight at him. It froze in midair just inches from his neck. Following the path of the arrow back, the man spotted the heads of the two boys peering over the roof frozen in stunned disbelief. He pointed towards them with a closed fist and then looked up and down the street as though trying to figure how to get up on to the roof.
Bloodeye’s mind raced in the delirium of panic. He couldn’t move. It was as if his body had instantly turned into a statue of stone. His mind could command but his arms and legs would not obey. His eyes could move in their sockets, but their lids would not even blink. Even if he were not claustrophobic it would be enough to send him into a frenzied state of insanity.
Both the thieves were too tied up in their own problems to notice the beautiful woman with a knife in her hand sneak up behind the man on the street. They did not notice the knife that came up and slashed his throat. They did not see the blood spill out of him, but they did feel the bonds holding them in place weaken as his life ebbed away. Without looking down they both took off running as soon as they could. Neither of them noticed that the corpse of their enemy was being dragged out of the street into the alley.
Fast as the wind, the two ran as though their life depended on it. Rooftop to rooftop they soared making jumps and skirting ledges they normally wouldn’t dream of risking had not fear given them wings. They made a circle of nearly the entire district before coming back to a familiar rooftop. Still panicked, Bloodeye grabbed one of the two ropes laying on the slightly tilted roof and jumped off the side of the old abandoned building. His momentum while holding the rope swung him down and into the open window of the attic that was their home. Before the younger man could move out of the way, Sting came crashing into him from behind. The impact sent both of them sprawling and for a minute both lay where they fell sucking air.
From the far corner of the attic, they heard a woman’s voice, “Typical men. I do all the work while you two run around getting all winded for nothing.”
Before the shock of a stranger in their home even fully registered, Bloodeye had launched himself from laying on his belly into a crouch with a dagger in both hands. Sting’s bow had fallen out of immediate reach and as he rolled from his back on to one knee he felt naked drawing his short sword instead. He could use the weapon with a fair amount of skill but it was his partner who was master of short work. Sting preferred to pick off his victims from a distance.
“Please boys, if I meant you harm I would have struck when you two oafs had crashed into each other. So let’s say you put those toys away before you cut yourself, OK?”
Despite her bold words, there was a definite touch of fear to the strange woman’s voice. For a few deadly seconds nobody moved. Bloodeye finally spoke, “Sting, the light.”
The light would level the playing field a little since the woman would have had longer to adjust her eyes to the darkness. More important than that, Sting’s short bow was on the floor right below the mirror-backed lamp. Bloodeye had given Sting an excuse to put it within reach without raising suspicion. After sheathing his sword, Sting lit the lamp and then squatted down right next to the fallen bow.
When the lamp was lit both young men turned toward the tall woman who was, for her part, ignoring them while examining their room. She had both her hands hidden inside the drab brown robe of an aesthete with the hood pulled so far forward that one could barely make out her nose, her full red lips, and the delicate chin below them. After taking in the quality of the items in the now illuminated room, the strange lady spoke:
“Two feather mattresses, strikers and an oil lamp with mirrors among other things, and you’re wearing solid though quite dirty boots and wielding some plain looking but very well made weapons. Though you try to hide it, it is apparent you two urchins have done quite well for yourselves.”
Unfazed, with his shoulder leaning against the wall, Sting pulled an arrow from his quiver and knocked it.
“Lady, we ain’t urchins.”
The lady shot back through clenched teeth, “And I’m no lady, street rat.”
“Don’t worry, that won’t take the fun out of…”
“Enough banter,” Bloodeye interrupted. “Who are you and why are you here?”
“I’m here for the same reason the two of you are. This attic looked like a great place for someone who wants to stay hidden to make a home.”
“How do we know she’s not with him?”
Quick as either boy could blink, her hand threw the knife she’d held hidden in her robe at the ground.
“See the blood on that knife? That’s from the throat of the man you couldn’t kill.”
Looking right at Sting she continued, “You may think you’re Hawk of the Titans come back from the dead but you’re not worthy even to wipe the dust off his shoes. You couldn’t even hit your mark from eighty feet and it took a woman to finish off what you started. Thanks to me there’s one less of those pukes and you have a few months reprieve before they send a few more men to take you.”
“What do you mean take me?”
“You know magic.”
Both boys laughed. Spike returned the arrow to its quiver and unstrung his bow while he said to their visitor, “Well miss ‘I’m not a lady’, I think you crawled into the wrong attic.”
There are only two reasons for a witch to crawl out of one of their holes. One is to manipulate kings and lords and the other is to kidnap and brainwash some poor fool with the spark. So, should I be kneeling milord?”
With a touch of panic in his voice Sting replied, “Burns, woman, Bloody burn to ashes. Don’t you think I’d know if I was a witch?”
“You’ve got some trick, don’t you? You do something the same way every time that makes you jump farther or keeps you from falling or perhaps,” she said with a knowing smile, “to woo the ladies?”
“You point.” Bloodeye said turning from Sting to the woman, “He points at his target. I’ve never seen another archer do that.”
“Stuff it Blood.”
Sting turned to stare out the attic window. With his profile silhouetted against the predawn gray sky, the other two could see Sting shaking.
“There might be another way.” This unwanted visitor offered, “I might be able to help you escape their clutches.”