Kayeen’s cloak whipped about him almost like a cape as he walked towards the docks. His dark brown eyebrows were furrowed in concentration as he moved towards the Blue Spray. The boat had two large triangular masts, both pointing towards the bow, one in front of the other. In addition, there were about twenty oars on both port and starboard. “We won’t be needing those anymore” Kayeen muttered to himself. “You’re not much, but I’ve got to start somewhere.”
Looking at his hooded six-foot frame, nobody would guess that Kayeen was only a few days beyond eighteen. Seeing the covered sword at his side, nobody would guess that he did not truly know how to use it. Although he had picked it up for the first time just a few months back, already he carried it, and himself, as if the two were one.
The katana was the weapon of choice for most men in Kazan, but Kayeen carried the bastard sword at his side rather than the shorter curved blade at his back. It made him immediately stand out while walking the street but Kayeen’s long muscular frame was better suited for his larger weapon. Beyond his build, however, Kayeen had a maturity, a look, that seemed to keep potential trouble at arm’s length.
“You’re early!” Yashin called from the deck. The wariness, the unease, that he seemed to show back at the tavern seemed to have melted away now that he was on the familiar home of his deck.
“I didn’t dare arrive late,” Kayeen called back with a grin.
Yashin laughed as he responded, “You don’t trust me?”
“I wouldn’t trust myself if our roles were reversed,” Kayeen replied as he joined in the laughter. There was still a tension in the air that both men did their best to mask. He started to step up on the gangplank but paused as he noticed the few sailors in eyesight pause in their activities and turn their eyes towards him. Kayeen stepped back and grabbed one wrist with the other behind his back. “Permission to come aboard, sir!” He called up.
Yashin redoubled his laughter. “You’re a quick study for a land lubber. Come on up, young man.”
With that, Kayeen walked aboard his first ship. At this point, nobody else knew that the Blue Spray was now his. When he stepped on to the deck, Kayeen’s mind was still trying to figure out the best way to break this news to his new crew. He was still undecided if Yashin would be better suited as a first mate or if he would need to be forced into an early retirement at the bottom of the sea.
The day was turning out to be a beautiful one and soon the Blue Spray pushed off from the dosk and unfurled its sails. The sun was still nearing its peak on its daily westward journey and there were a few patchy clouds making their way in the opposite direction. The waves were about as still as they ever would be and the very slight breeze barely pushed against the sails as the ship lazily made its way out to sea. Once clear of the port, the Blue Spray began working its way towards the sun.
Kayeen began his journey leaning back on a small stool that was precariously propped against the side of the ship. His arms were hanging loosely over the rail to either side. A gust of wind pushed his hood back and his almost black hair was fighting to break free from the tie that held it in place. Atop his now clean-shaven face, Kayeen’s eyes were flitting everywhere in contrast to his motionless body. First, he was watching a cloud, then he was smiling at the way the flag danced in the slight breeze whose direction he was altering, then he would watch one of the sailors busy at one of their tasks.
Yashin was standing on the poop deck with his arms folded over his muscular chest. First, he would watch the fading shore, then he would study the newest member of his crew. When Kayeen first arrived, Yashin noticed the grumbling of some of the men who watched the boy relax into his favorite spot even before the Blue Spray was freed from the dock. He also noticed how those glances changed one by one as crewmen realized that they were not moving in quite the same direction as the clouds and tide should have been pulling them. Some men were now shooting suspicious or nervous glances his way or towards Kayeen but all appreciated not having to man the oars and no one dared speak out. Even at this gentle pace, Yashin figured that they could shave hours off their schedule.
When he could no longer see the shore through his glass, Yashin called out to Kayeen, “Alright boy! Game’s over. Time to see what you’ve really got!”
Kayeen stood up and in one fluid motion pulled his cloak off and draped it over his right shoulder. With his left hand, he pulled the string that had been holding the cover over his sword in place. All across the ship, you could hear an audible gasp as everyone’s eyes were turned toward the ruby pommel above where Kayeen grasped the hilt. Kayeen held the sword in his left hand while his right shot out toward the main mast. Like an avalanche, a wind fell into both sails and threw them out to their fullest. The entire ship lurched forward as the Blue Spray started skipping over the water at an impossible speed.
Yashin’s eyes instantly looked over the arch of the straining mast from castle to deck. Satisfied that his baby could handle the strain he roared with laughter and joy. He cupped his hands to his mouth and bellowed at Kayeen, “There’s no need to kill yourself with the first gust! Pace yourself, boy!”
Kayeen just grinned and shouted back, “This is nothing! Just tell me when you need to change direction!”
Yashin simply responded with a renewed bout of hearty laughter. The rest of the crewmen were looking fearfully between the two thinking they both had gone insane. Many were muttering curses or prayers of protection under their breath. More than a few, though, continued to cast covetous glances at Kayeen’s sword.
– – – – –
The time after Gavril regained consciousness passed like a whirlwind. Avril did his best to properly say his goodbyes to his family and did all he could to prepare for the journey and help Gavril regain his strength. Gavril himself was frustrated at his helplessness. He knew that even once they were on the move it would still be a while before they could move fast enough to match pace with Kayeen. That speed was not enough. He had to recover quickly that they might begin to catch up with him. Before that, Gavril needed to send out a warning to others. Kayeen was a danger to himself and to anyone he came in contact with. If he used his Talent openly, it could end up being a spark that could set off a whole new round of Troubles.
Another need to hurry was the weather. Already, this late in the year, there was a serious danger in being this far north. That danger would only increase the longer they waited. If Gavril and Avril did not set out now, they would not be able to do so until late spring. So with tearful goodbyes and last minute reminders, Avril left the only home he knew his entire life and set out with a weak and weary Gavril towards the south.
The two limped beyond the mist and into the frozen tundra. Gavril had to admire the stoicism with which Avril had accepted his fate. Right from the start of the journey the boy had not once looked back. Every now and then it appeared as though his emotions were about to break through but Avril would simply duck his head and increase his gait for a bit until he managed to put them back in check. The unbearable cold and sharp wind probably helped in this regard since the effort to keep moving and stay warm soon dominated both men’s thoughts.
Because he was so focused on trying to keep putting one foot in front of another, Gavril did not notice at first the tree on the southwest horizon. When he finally did, it became a focus for him. The tree’s slow growth on the horizon was an easy way to note their progress in an otherwise flat bleak landscape. Step after limping step, he began to realize the strangeness of that tree. In a land that was too frigid to grow even the sparsest grass, in an environment legendary for its strong winds, the largest most perfect tree he had ever seen was growing tall and proud. It almost looked like…
Avril continued on for about ten paces before he realized that his companion was no longer next to him. He looked back over his shoulder to see that Gavril had stopped in his tracks and was staring straight ahead. He walked back to him and asked, “Are you alright?”
Gavril answered with a question of his own, “Do you know what that tree looks like?”
Avril was confused, “An oak?”
“Yes, but… well, you never would have seen it but that oak looks like the Tree of Life.”
Avril was to cold and distracted to fully understand. “Isn’t that the tree my parents killed? Was that an oak too?”
Gavril was growing too excited to even notice the cold. “Yes, but no. The Tree was an oak, but it was much more. It grew on the edge of a desert and I guess you could call this…” He waved his hand expansively at the flat, frozen landscape barren of all life around them, “a desert. The tree was supposed to never die. And it had other qualities.”
Avril looked blankly at his older companion. Gavril started walking forward again and Avril turned to join him. When he reached Gavril’s side, the older man asked, “Tell me what you know about this tree. What do you call it, The Lonely Oak?”
Avril started to answer and as he did so, he began to grasp what Gavril was implying. “Well, this tree is as far south as I have ever been. The western coast here is where the trappers will hunt seal. As soon as they see this tree, they know they have gone far enough north and will turn for the coast. Mom and dad…”
A gust of wind blew Avril’s hood over his face. He fixed it and continued walking on without Gavril hearing the end of his statement. Gavril waited a bit and then prompted him to continue. “I didn’t catch that last bit. What did you say?”
“Mom and dad came here to meet a trader. Sevyrn, I think his name was.”
“That wasn’t what you were going to say the first time, was it?”
“Well, that is all I am going to say.”
“I just need you to understand what this tree might mean. This tree could be the salvation of all of us who have the Talent. Your parents are doing to this tree what they tried and failed to do to the Tree of Life, aren’t they? They haven’t aged a day in nearly twenty years. They’re successfully making the elixir of life, aren’t they?”
Being distracted by his excitement, Gavril didn’t notice the fist heading for his jaw until it had already made impact. After being knocked flat on his butt, he looked up to see Avril pointing down and shaking with rage.
“You people exiled them! You sent them away and took from them everything they knew and loved! You forced them into the hard existence they have tried to turn into a life! If this is the Tree of Life, it followed or brought them here. It’s theirs. It didn’t abandon them, you did! I will not let you force them from their home again!”
Avril tried to draw his sword free but the cold seemed to have frozen it to its scabbard. It wouldn’t budge. He grabbed the scabbard with his left hand and pulled as hard as he could with his right. Suddenly the sword jerked free. It went from being stuck to flying beyond his grip as it hurtled through the air. About ten feet away, it landed point first deep into the ground. Avril went over to it and tried to pull it free, but the frozen ground refused to yield it up. He braced himself and pulled with both hands… then he pulled again and again. Soon anger gave way to frustration as the sword refused to budge. Gavril recovered from his pain and shock to stand and walk over to where Avril continued to wrestle with his sword. Eventually, the two managed to pull it free and Gavril said, “Come, lad, we need to continue south. Let us speak no more of this Tree until later. If we don’t make it to Trapper’s Point by dusk we will not survive this night.”
– – – – –
The staff cracked down on the back of Malik’s legs, dropping him to his knees. His hands struck the tiled ground before him and the old man blinked trying to push back the pain blurring his vision. He raised his head to look at the sandaled feet before him. A voice from somewhere above those feet spoke out:
“Shame? Don’t speak to me of shame. Speak to me of loss. How do you plan to cover my losses? I have years of training invested in Rowyh, how am I to get it back? The food he ate, the clothes he wore, the bed he slept in were all mine. How do you plan to pay me back for all this? I’ve made contracts and conducted business with the expectation of his service. Will you now cover my losses?
“The shame belongs to you and Rowyh. You will have to bear it for the rest of your miserable lives. My losses will not be borne. I will have him back.”
Aatzaz snapped his fingers and a white-robed man seemed to appear out of nowhere. Aatzaz commanded this man wearing the cloak of an assassin, “The boy must be returned to me as soon as possible. He must have a sharp mind and clear eyesight when I next see him. Beyond that, do what you must.”
Malik watched the assassin nod. There was a flowing billow of white as the man spun on his heels and began walking away. Malik glanced forward for a second to the cruel merchant who had been apprenticing his grandson before looking back at that assassin. During that short glance away, he lost sight of the retreating killer. He was still trying to figure out where and how he had disappeared when he heard the click of a door shutting behind him.
Aatzaz’s voice brought his attention back. “Take him to a room below. Bring his granddaughters to me unharmed. Their mother… do what you want with her.”
One of Malik’s guards grunted in acknowledgment and the two began dragging Malik away. Long after they were gone Aatzaz still remained rooted in place lost in deep thought. The only sound in the room was the gentle gurgling of a fountain near the back of the large reception room and an occasional rustling of one of the tapestries along the walls as it was caught by a breeze. A small salamander walked unnoticed for nearly the entire length of the east wall before the rich merchant finally seemed to come to a decision. He rubbed his bald head once before striding the length of the room towards a tapestry in the back. When he got close, a hand from behind it pulled the tapestry to one side revealing the hidden entrance to a hallway. Aatzaz strode through it without slowing down and the hidden guard opening the way stepped out to follow him.
From deeper in, a door to the right opened and out stepped another man shaved bald but without the thick braid atop Aatzaz’s head. This younger man bowed his head as his master stopped before him. Aatzaz frowned for a moment at the smudge of ink on his scribe’s right cheek then said to him, “We need word sent to our friend in the north. The Farsight’s Talent has been proven but for now, he has slipped my grasp. It may be weeks before he can be returned but, rest assured, if he is alive I will have him back. Is everything moving according to plan in Kazan?”
When his master finished dictating, the scribe repeated everything back verbatim. Aatzaz then asked, “Has Dalia managed to snare those two miscreants in Artois yet?”
The scribe answered, “We have no word yet, master.”
“Let me know as soon as you do.”
“Of course, master.”
Aatzaz turned and continued walking deeper into his home with the guard following closely on his heels.
Rowyh came to a crossroads. He had been following the river upstream to the north but now he was unsure which way to go. At this branch, there were two rivers he could follow, one led northeast and the other northwest. Maps were never an interest for him and Rowyh now mentally kicked himself for not bringing one along in his hurry to leave. Which one was the true river? Which was just a tributary? Just by looking from this vantage there was no way to tell.
Nervousness grew inside him as he realized he would have to use his Sight. Rowyh had only used it the one time before in the presence of his greatfather. In that first Sight, he was supposed to have lived a lifetime. It was always done that way so that everyone blessed with the Sight would also use their gift wisely. The experience would temper their ability with a lifetime of accumulated wisdom and knowledge. Rowyh’s first experience was unlike what he had been led to expect. Beyond that, it was cut short when his greatfather failed to hold him up. Unlike most with the Sight, Rowyh was still a young adult in mind as well as in body.
He put his travel pack on the ground then settled on his knees before it. Rowyh closed his eyes, breathed deeply, and then slowly opened them back up. His ears became more attuned to the rippling of the water where the two rivers joined. Slowly, slowly, this bubbling sound grew deeper as the water seemed to reduce its speed. A hummingbird hovered near a tree and, as he focused on it, the bird grew larger. Everything else on the periphery seemed to disappear. The blur of the wings grew more distinct until he was able to see each up and down flap. Sight and sound both continued to slow until, finally, the bird seemed frozen in place with its wings angled slightly upward. The hummingbird, like everything else, faded to black as Rowyh felt his consciousness rise upward.
He looked down to see the two branches of the river before him. The northeastern branch continued to meander in a generally northern direction until it eventually faded away into a small mountain range. Beyond that range, the land was flat for a while before coming to a much larger range far to the north. That range continued off to the east and it was here, along the shore in the far northeast that the storm he had once seen was still brewing. Beyond that range, still northeast but not so far as the distant shore, was the star he had once seen. Unlike before that star was now joined by another, smaller light.
Rowyh narrowed his Sight so that all he had seen faded into the distance. He came back to the place where the two rivers branched and began following the other river to the northwest. The river continued moving in this direction for a few miles before angling towards a more westerly course. He was about to leave it and return to his body when he saw two rocks rolling from the hilly lands in the west towards the source of this river. There was a solidness, a goodness about these rocks but Rowyh was confused as to why he was seeing them. From what he understood, this type of use of his Sight only showed him things important to his personal future. He watched those rocks for a while before returning again to the point from which he began.
Confused, Rowyh changed direction again and began questing to the south. He followed the river towards the home he had left behind but before he got very far, Rowyh saw a white blade pointed right at him. It was moving towards him at an unnatural speed. Seeing this blade brought such a fear that he snapped back into his body. He breathed in a panicked breath as he fell forward. His hands slapped the ground just before his face could bang against it. For a moment Rowyh lay there on the ground sucking in the air until he could get his fear and disorientation under control Before he had fully recovered, he pulled himself to his feet, grabbed his pack, and began running along the riverbank towards the northwest.