Kayeen was exhausted. He took off his shoes and literally fell backward onto his bunk. For three days he had pushed himself to the brink in a foolish attempt to show off. Because of the constant wind he was able to create, they had skipped over some of the smaller ports to arrive at the first major stop on their journey. Yashin had let them stay there only a day and that had not been nearly enough time for Kayeen to recuperate. He had just finished off a much milder four-hour shift pulling wind and already he was at his breaking point. This can’t continue. That was his last thought as Kayeen drifted off to sleep while still halfway through unbuckling his sword belt.
Suddenly, Kayeen woke with a start. Not fully alert, he sat up with a jolt and his right hand reached across for his sword. Where he expected to grasp the hilt, he only found air. Kayeen looked down in surprise and this motion caused the knife to miss. A thrust that should have killed him only ended up cutting a slash just over his right eye. The blood started flowing down, stinging and blinding him, and someone’s meaty hand covered his mouth while pushing him back to his bunk. Kayeen used both hands and all of his strength to try and pull that hand away but he was so exhausted that did not have the strength to even move the hand enough to breathe. His body was too weak from the taxing he had been putting it through and his mind was too panicked to be able to focus.
“Stop struggling and you will be able to rest soon,” a raspy voice whispered in his ear. “Ya can’t do much magic when you’re dead, can ya? I says ya can’t do much more anyways but there’s no point in taking any chances, is there?”
Kayeen tried unsuccessfully to bite down on the hand over his mouth. His weakening struggle grew more desperate as his vision started to fade.
The voice leaned in again to taunt him. “What a surprise everyone’ll have in the morning when you’re disappeared along with the entire night watch. Of course by then we will be long gone with your sword and you’ll be, unghh.”
The assailant broke off with a grunt as Kayeen’s knee reached its target. He gave up trying to pull the hands from over his mouth and instead reached out toward his sword. Instantly, it whipped across the room and landed in his grasp. When his hand clasped around it, a surge of power flowed through Kayeen. A blind swing caused the sword’s pommel to smack against his attacker’s head. The hand left his mouth and Kayeen gulped in air.
All of this happened too quickly, the others in the room were still staring in shock as Kayeen brought a hand up and they were all magically held in place. Kayeen kept a steady eye on the other three sailors as he pointed the blade’s edge against the throat of the unconscious man crumpled by his bedside. He spoke to them, “You made a mistake in letting that fool talk too much. he reminded me of what I needed.”
About an hour later, Yashin awoke to a gentle, nervous knocking at his cabin door. It felt as though he had only just gone to sleep and his internal clock told him that it was far too early for anyone to be knocking. His first mate knocked again and when the captain grunted in acknowledgment the man called in, “Uh, sir, I think you might need to see this.”
Muttering something about incompetent fools, Yashin threw on his robe and trudged out onto the deck. It was looking to be another beautiful day. The light of predawn along the eastern sky was just beginning to show. That, combined with a full moon, provided plenty of light. There were a few clouds that seemed to be gathering just over the eastern horizon. The gentle waves were slowly pulling the Blue Spray south to southeast. The air was still cold enough this morning for his breath to form a heavy fog and goose bumps rose up on his arm.
Yashin froze in his tracks. Almost directly in front of him, the captain found three of his crewmen standing in a circle with their backs to the main mast. A rope wound round and round them from their feet up to their knees holding them securely in place. Another similar rope was holding their arms overhead, secure to the mast as well. Each of the three sailors was gagged and all three were staring blankly ahead as if in a drunken stupor.
The mast, with its occupants, was at first blocking his line of sight, so Yashin received an even greater shock when he took another step forward. On the deck, looking straight him was a head. To each side of that corpseless head was a large black boot. Following those boots up, Yashin took in the sight of Kayeen watching him. He was leaning lazily forward in his stool with his elbows resting on his knees. In his right hand, which was almost touching the hair of that head, Kayeen held his unsheathed sword. That beautiful, blood-drenched sword was stretched out with its point resting on the deck to the left.
Twice Yashin opened his mouth to say something but nothing came out. He was not normally an indecisive man but the scene before him left him at a loss. When his eyes finally locked with Kayeen’s the younger man said to him, “There’s going to be a few changes around here.”
– – – – –
Daylight seemed cold but it was nothing compared to the frigid torture that settled in as the sun began to set in the sky. During the daytime, the wind would frequently kick up strong gusts, but as night began to close the stronger wind became the norm and it would only occasionally abate. Both travelers held their cloaks close and set their faces against the wind, trudging southward as quickly as they could. Before the sun set hope began to rise as they would occasionally see a small, scraggly evergreen dotting the landscape. Even as the temperature continued to drop, the density of the trees around them grew and they began to get some real protection against the wind.
Trapper’s Point was no regular town. It was more of a collection of buildings that were occupied less than half the year. It was a meeting place and a way station for those who made their living in the far north. A few days before their arrival, the last resident had boarded up and left for warmer climes. Nobody tried to live here once winter set in.
Although everything was boarded up to protect against storms and animals, nothing was locked. The main reason for this was simply because there was no need. Nobody in their right mind would remain this far north and there was nothing of real value left behind. Another reason was one of hospitality. Anybody straggling into town late would probably be freezing, injured, and desperate. Nobody, if arriving in that situation, would want to find death while trying to break their way into what could have been a life-saving shelter. It was this second reason that Gavril and Avril took advantage of as they entered the ghost town. Even unbarred, it took Gavril a moment to work the latch on the door with his frozen fingers. Before the door was fully opened, he was through and rushing towards the fireplace. Clumsily, he dropped a couple logs into the fireplace. His right hand, clenched in a fist, poked out from inside his sleeve and he slowly worked his fingers open. As Gavril did so, a fire grew on the logs tumbled together in the pit.
The room swiftly grew in warmth and both weary travelers gradually removed one layer after another. At some point, Avril had pulled some of the frozen meat from a pack and strung it near the fire. Before it had even thawed enough to sink their teeth into, both men had pulled off a piece and began gnawing at it in their hunger. Avril began unrolling their sleeping pads and Gavril pulled himself on to a stool.
With darkness outside and the wind rattling the walls and boarded windows, Gavil said, “I promised not to tell you more about the Tree until later. I think now is as good a time as any.”
Avril settled on top of his pad to listen as Gavril began talking in a teaching voice, “In the days when the earth was young, nothing grew or lived anywhere on the planet. The entire world was very much like what we saw today in the frozen tundra. Everything was bleak and barren as far as the eye could see.
“Then the Creator made a path from the heavens to earth and out from that path came a brilliant light. This light was the first that the earth had seen and it chased away the darkness. In that light, the Creator saw the potential for the earth and what He could make of it.
“From another place in the heavens, He reached up and pulled a tap and water came pouring down and flowed all over the land. Then, wading into the water, He pulled the land up high in some places and dug it deep in others. All the water flowed into the recesses of the deep and in this way, the mountains and oceans were formed.
“The Creator then began to walk all across the earth and everywhere His foot touched the ground, trees began to grow. Every time His robe brushed against the grasses, flowers, and bushes began to grow. In this way the earth became alive.
“The Creator then looked back at the pathway to heaven from which He first came to the earth. He did not want to leave it open at all times so He caused that path to spin and swing. As it spun around the earth, the sky would grow dark whenever the pathway fell below the horizon. Then the Creator took some sand from one of the ocean shores into His hand. Holding it close to His lips, the Creator blew gently and that sand began to glow. He threw this glowing sand into the sky and where it came to rest, we now see stars.
“The Creator looked across everything He had made at this point and He was very pleased. There was steadfastness in the mountains. There was power in the oceans. There was beauty in the trees, and there was fragility in the flowers. Everything was beautiful and everything was good, but the life the earth knew was still very stagnant. So the Creator pulled in some of the winds and filled them with all types of birds and insects that scattered over the earth. The Creator then gathered up some of the ground of the earth and from it, He formed all of the animals that walk and crawl over the land.
“Again the Creator…” Gavril had been so engrossed in the cadence of his own story that he only now noticed that poor Avril was already fast asleep. The older man slid off his stool onto his own pad muttering, “He’s certainly no Ranger yet.”
Gavril did his best to try to imagine what it must have been like to watch the Creator at work but as his mind wandered off into dreams, all he could picture was a young boy laughing everything into existence.
– – – – –
Paeder felt a boot nudging his ribs.
“Up, I said!”
He rolled over to see Willhelm standing above him in full battle gear. The boot that kicked him was light brown leather that went up to his calf. There was a thin metal rod on the outstep. The leg behind that boot was well toned and as thick as a trunk. From the knee up it was covered by a woolen tunic. A woven leather belt cinched the waist and also held the scabbard for the claymore that came almost to the ground. Above the tunic, covering most of the chest, shoulders, and back was a dark chain mail mantle. The neck was hidden by Wilhelm’s thick blonde beard that also covered most of his face and was tucked into a conical helmet that had metal guards coming over his ears and nose. All this Paeder saw as he stared up at his evil, grinning cousin. What he did not see was a sunrise or, for that matter, any light proclaiming its soon arrival.
Wilhelm nudged him one more time with his boot and said, “In ten minutes I’m coming at you whether you are ready or not.”
Paeder groaned something about injustice and started to roll out of his bed. Ten minutes later the torture really began when his older companion began thumping him with the practice rod. Willhelm made no allowance for Paeder’s tired body and sluggish reactions. He made no allowance for the fact that Paeder had traveled further yesterday than he ever been in his life. He simply spent the next two hours thumping Paeder up one side and down the other of their makeshift practice yard.
When the two hours were finally over, Paeder collapsed on the ground as Willhelm began to prepare breakfast. It was nearly ready when the sun broke the horizon. Willhelm handed Paeder a cup of tea and said, “It looks like Balric is getting soft in his old age.”
Paeder choked on his first sip. Not even father had the courage to call Balric, the arms master, soft. When he recovered he asked, “Why even do all this? If I am supposed to have the Talent, why don’t you work on teaching me that?”
“Be very wary of your Talent.” Willhelm answered, “You start using it out of convenience and you’ll find yourself using it at the wrong time, someone sees it, and you’re running for your life. You use it to get out of a scrape, and you just might find yourself in a bigger one. People fear magic. They hate it. People fear the sword. They respect it. The difference between the two is the difference between a helping hand or a knife in the back.”
“Why?” Paeder asked. “I mean, I know about the Troubles, and the traitors killing the Tree and all that, but I don’t get how two people killing one tree sparked the Troubles all over the world. Why do we still live in its shadow so much later?”
Willhelm thought about his answer as the two began packing their gear back on to the ponies. Finally, he said, “You and I can’t imagine what its like for everyone in the world to believe the same thing. Today some new myths and histories are beginning to grow, but for our generation religion doesn’t have the place it once did for those before us. There was a time nearly everyone in the world believed the same thing.
“You know how the legend goes that when the Creator was making the animals, he fashioned man and then gave them life and intelligence by feeding them the seeds from the Tree of Life. Although those that came after did not have to eat from the Tree, it was still believed that their life was tied into it. If the Tree died, so would mankind. This wasn’t just a religion, it was accepted as fact by nearly everybody. When Andrei and Yvenna tried to tap into the magic of the Tree, they exposed the fable for what it was. They didn’t just kill a tree, for most people’s worldviews, they killed God.