Kayeen awoke with a start. Despite the cold and the fact he had tossed his blankets on the floor in his sleep, his bed was drenched with sweat. He heard the surf breaking against the rocks and for a panicked moment, he felt that he was still in the dream. Never before had his nightmares been so vivid. Never before had he experienced a dream whose fear and pain followed him into reality. The pain made him unsure what his reality actually was until, from somewhere below, he heard the sound of dishes clattering.
Slowly, he let out his breath. He had not even realized he was holding it in. Then, with a groan, Kayeen sat up and pumped his hands into and out of fists trying to get the blood flowing through his arms and hands. His neck popped as he rolled his head trying to work out the soreness from that miserable bed. He tunneled into his tunic and, yawning, shrugged on his boots and stood up. For a second he had to steady himself as his vision briefly darkened. There was little chance breakfast would be ready but he should be able to get a good cup of coffee. Returning to sleep after that dream was certainly not an option.
The stairs creaked as Kayeen came down the stairs and saw that there was already two men sitting in the inn’s dining area. The man on his right Kayeen immediately recognized as Tiev, the first mate on the Blue Spray. The other man was shorter and scrawny. He carried himself with a restless nervousness. The stranger was constantly in motion and kept glancing from left to right. His nervousness went up a notch as soon as Kayeen stepped into view. Curious, he walked directly over to their table.
“What brings you two down here so early?” Kayeen asked as he pulled out a chair.
Tiev responded, “I didn’t expect you down here so soon, but I’m glad you are. This here is Foglaid and I think you might want to hear what he has to say.”
Kayeen looked at Foglaid. The other man looked to him like a weasel with a blond beard. He had a nervous twitch that made it seem as though he was sniffing the air. Unable to make eye contact, the man had to work up the courage just to ask, “You’re a pusher?” Kayeen looked at him blankly. When Foglaid finally noticed that his question wasn’t understood, he made some random hand motions then asked, “You do magic?”
The cook coming into the room gave Kayeen a moment to think about how he should answer. Wiping his hands on his apron the large man came over to the table and said, “I’m sorry, I don’t usually have customers this early. I can get you some eggs, and coffee, of course, but it will be a while before my first loaves are finished. If you would like I can get you some kasha or goyaki but regular eggs would be quicker.
The cook looked injured when the other two simply asked for coffee. Kayeen ordered eggs as well. Once the larger man retreated back into his kitchen Kayeen turned back to Foglaid and said, “Why are you asking?”
The weasel seemed to wilt before the steely glare. He took a deep breath and answered, “I represent some people… powerful people. If you are a pusher, if you can… you know. We might be able to work out a mutually beneficial arrangement. We can help protect you from everybody.”
kayeen sat back in his chair and folded his hands behind his head. For a while, he seemed to be looking straight ahead at nothing. This presented possibilities that, moments ago, he did not realize existed. Finally, he turned his head toward Foglaid and said, “Talk to me.”
– – – – –
Gavril awoke to an unfamiliar scratching sound. He groaned and rolled over to see Avril, on his hands and knees in the center of the room. That was where the scratching noise was coming from, but at first, he had no idea what Avril was doing. It was a map. Gavril sat up in his bed to get a better perspective. The map was actually pretty accurate. This surprised him since Avril seemed to be making the entire thing out of memory.
When Avril saw his companion was awake, he pointed to a spot on the map and asked, “Where is this?”
“You tell me. You’re the one drawing the map.”
“I don’t know but this,” he tapped that spot on the map, “is where we need to go.”
“Well, that’s Takino. Why do we need to go there?”
“It’s where Kayeen is.”
Gavril yawned and muttered to himself, “It’s too early for this.” He walked over to the fire pit and grabbed another piece of charcoal. With it, he made a point just off Avril’s map. To Avril, he said, “Even if he managed to find a boat that had not left yet, and even if that boat left port as soon as he found it, and even if they traveled with perfect winds, he could not have managed to get beyond here.”
“You’re wrong. This is where he is, I know it.”
Gavril marked another spot even further off the drawn map which was about where Trapper’s Point should be. He then began filling in the blank space between Avril’s map and that northern point. He asked, “And how do you know that?”
Avril began telling his dream while Gavril continued to expand the map. The older man soon became so caught up in what Avril was saying that he put his own makeshift chalk aside. He realized as he listened that either Avril had far more knowledge of the outside world than he had let on or else this was a true Dream.
When Avril was finished, Gavril sketched a rough outline of the Great North Range. “There is a quicker way to get to Takino.” He drew a line through the range heading towards the southeast. “Few ever take it because the way is too narrow for a team laden with cargo. We will be facing temperatures just as cold as we had yesterday but there will be no place to shelter at night and we will have to travel straight through for three, maybe four days without sleep. There will not be the wind we have experienced but there is a worse danger… an avalanche. Outside of that possibility, with the Talent, we should not have too much trouble until we get to here.”
Avril looked at the circle Gavril drew at the southern edge of the Range. “What’s there?”
“That’s where the Zingari live.”
For a moment Gavril shook his head remembering how little his companion knew of the outside world. “They are nomads. Travelers. Even before the Troubles, they had made it their life’s mission to hunt down and kill anyone with the Talent. According to their beliefs, magic is an abomination in the eyes of the Creator and those with the Talent are actually tools of the enemy. For most of time, the Zingari were outcasts, but after your parents… well, now they are held in high esteem. The Zingari make a living as traveling traders and craftsmen. They are especially talented with wood and leather armor and making small arms. All this, however, is only a way for them to finance their true mission which is to eliminate magic from the world.
“Before the Troubles, most people believed that the Tree of Life was what the Creator planted to help sustain all life and that he gave to some people the Talent that they might be guardians of the Tree. The Zingari claimed that we were not guarding the Tree but rather keeping the rest of the world from it. They believed we were preventing the rest of the world from being able to truly know the Creator. They claimed that only when we were all destroyed could the world finally come to know peace. After your parents did what they did, the Zingari stopped being a fringe group of radicals. Suddenly they were the spearhead of the worlds attempt to purge the world of those with the Talent. After the Troubles died down, most of the world settled back to normal. Most believe we have nearly all been killed off and those who survived in hiding cannot do much more damage. But the Zingari maintain their hunt with the world’s blessing.
“You said they were nomads, so how can you say this is where they live?”
Gavril shook his head. “At any given time a large majority are on the move in various caravans around the world but they do keep permanent settlements in each of its four corners. This is their northeast settlement. Having settlements helps them pass along information. Every group will know what others have been up to and have seen. They are also places of shelter for the pregnant and those with the very young can let their children grow. Each settlement also has a school of White Knives.”
“Is there no way, if we pass through the Range, to avoid them?”
“We will certainly try. But remember, to make it through the mountains, we will go days without sleep. We will be exhausted in mind, body, and Talent. If we leave any mark of our passing, the White Knives will be on our trail, and we will most certainly die.”
– – – – –
Her eyes jolted open, but her mind and the rest of her body were much slower in coming awake. It was completely dark outside and nothing else in the Zingari settlement was stirring. Then she heard it again. There was a scratching sound near the top of the tent. Nadezha tried to adjust her eyesight to the darkness, but with an overcast sky in the dead of night, there was nothing to adjust. She could try as hard as she might, but there was no silhouette to help her determine what was making that scratching sound. Most likely it was a broken branch that was being pushed by the wind. If she did not take care of it that scratching would most likely keep her awake all night and wear a hole through the tent by morning. Nadezha grumbled in her mind as she began to stir from her bed.
Suddenly the lamp flicked on. The brightness blinded her and the young girl, about sixteen, nearly yelped as she scrambled to the far edge of her bed and clutched the blanket around her. She lowered her head and rapidly blinked to try and adjust her vision to the sudden brightness. There was no one else in the room. There was no sound of someone outside. Nobody had come into the room, but there was no other way that lamp could have been lit. Nadezha mentally went through a list of the victims to her endless stream of pranks but her mind went blank. She could think of no one living here who would try to pull off such a prank. In her tired state, she could not even think of how it had been done.
She reached out to snuff the wick but before her hand had extended more than halfway, the light went out. This time Nadezha did yelp. Curiosity mixed with confusion and fear. Slowly all three were replaced with horror as she began to realize the unthinkable. The occasional scratching overhead now went completely unnoticed. Fully awake and desperately afraid, Nadezha wracked her brain for any other possible explanation. She was still searching for something as the light of predawn began creeping into the world around her. Soon others would be up and about and if it was true, everyone would know. How could they not?
There was only one way to know if her fears were true. Nadezha reluctantly pointed toward the lamp. The tiny flickering flame that appeared seemed to mimic her reluctance. She drew back her hand in horror and just as quickly, the flame disappeared. After holding her breath for an eternity of seconds, she tried to still her racing heart and pointed toward the lamp again. This time the flame was stronger but it danced about as though it was being tossed around by a nonexistent wind.
About eight years back something like this had happened to a cousin. Everybody knew the story even though nobody ever talked about it. Nadezha thought of him as she picked up that treasonous lamp and left her tent. Briefly, she cringed as the cold autumn air brought to her attention that she was still in her nightclothes, but it did not matter. Nothing mattered anymore except her one last duty. She arrived at her destination and took down a length of rope from its hook. Just outside she knelt to the ground and wrote in the dirt the same words her cousin had written. They were also the same words many others stretching back through time had written in a sad, unspoken Zingari tradition:
The Zingari remain pure
I go with honor
Her knees were wet with the morning dew as Nadezha stood to her feet and slowly began walking northward. In a few hours, someone from her family would follow her trail that would lead to whichever tree she chose to hand herself in. They would take her down and burn her body. There would be no burial. She was an abomination. There was no ceremony or remembrance for one who carried an abomination. The only way to destroy that abomination was to completely destroy, in body and memory, its carrier.