Damyan rode into the outskirts of Takino weary and bedraggled. His poor horse was in even worse shape. It probably would not recover from this chase and it was the second horse the Ranger had run to the ground. He patted the animal gently on the neck as it stumbled toward the inn. Two slashes about an inch long on the left side of the doorpost marked his destination for him. Most likely the marks were intended for Gavril, not himself but all surviving Rangers had their informants use the same marks so that if one was killed, another could still access their eyes and ears. “Where is Gavril anyways,” Damyan thought, “and why isn’t he the one chasing down this young man?”
Walking through the door, he made as though he was scratching his neck while surreptitiously scanning the room. He let out a sigh and sat down at the nearest open table. There was no one here he recognized and if Gavril’s informant was in here they were not giving the countersign. The thought of having to find another horse and setting out for another town wearied Damyan almost to breaking.
A serving girl came and took his order and it was not until she began walking away that his weary senses noticed something they should have right away. There was something off about the room. There was a tension in the air. A group of sailors was drinking and gambling at one end of the room. At first glance, these men seemed like a typical bunch but as he watched, Damyan realized that their revelry seemed a bit forced. Nearly all of them were sending occasional quick glances towards something behind him to the left.
His server came over with a mug of ale and Damyan used its arrival as an opportunity to reposition himself so that he could glance in that direction. Only two tables were occupied. The first one held a small man with a blond beard who was so nervous his entire body was quivering. At the other table sat a young man, probably around twenty, with his hood up and a dark shadow of a beard. The young man was staring straight back at Damyan.
“He is the one” Damyan thought as the two made eye contact. Damyan was not a good one for tact and usually didn’t even bother trying. He figured it was easier to just get the message out and let the chips fall as they would. He stood up and started to walk over wishing he had Gavril’s flair for the dramatic statement. Instead, as he slid into the only other chair at the table he said, “Hello, I’m Damyan.”
The young man said nothing in reply. He simply planted his elbows on the table, folded his hands, and rested his chin on them while staring straight back. After an awkward moment, the Ranger continued, “You certainly move fast. I’ve been on your trail for a while now trying to catch up and give you a message… Well, um, that message is that the path you are on is not set in stone. Evil wants you, but you must stand against it.”
Kayeen made a slow deliberate blink before replying, “Another man gave me pretty much the same message.” He waited until he saw the recognition in the other man’s eyes before continuing, “I killed him.”
Those three words struck Damyan like lightning. He sat back in his chair stunned and unbelieving and did not notice until it was too late that the young man had made a motion freezing him in place. Damyan tried to push against those binds but magic demanded focus. The shock and turmoil of what he had just heard prevented his mind from using the discipline and strength needed to break the magic holding him.
Satisfied that the other man was unable to move Kayeen asked, “Foglaid, is he the one?”
The nervous little man at the next table over was looking everywhere but at the two men sitting near him, “Well, um, what is happening right now?”
“I locked him in place. I can feel a push against me but it is pitifully weak. Quite sad, really.”
“I… I don’t think you’d feel any, um, well, he couldn’t, if he wasn’t… not, you know.”
Kayeen snickered at the fear emanating from both of the other men. He pulled his sword from its scabbard and laid it on the table between himself and the man he had trapped. The inn grew quiet as the others in the room forgot about their dice and cups. Those employed at the inn scurried away like rats. Damyan recognized the workmanship and muttered the sword maker’s name.
“Mykl?” Kayeen asked, “Was that the sword’s name? It’s not anymore. After stealing it from my father and killing your friend, I decided to name it Death. Quite appropriate, don’t you think?”
Damyan looked up at the young man but he had no idea what to say. He was still frozen from the shoulders down, and again he was given another piece of information that didn’t add up. Who could this boy’s father be to have access to a sword made by Mykl? Suddenly, the bond holding him was gone and he heard Kayeen say, “Stretch out your hand.” Almost as a reflex, he started to stand but quickly realized that in his present state of mind he would be hopelessly outmatched in a battle of magic. He needed to first find an opportunity to retreat and regroup. He needed time to process Gavril’s death. For now, he would just have to play along. Damyan placed his hand, palm face up, on the table as he lowered himself back into his seat.
Kayeen gripped the hilt of the sword and placed the flat of the blade on Damyan’s outstretched hand. “What is your name?”
“Damyan, I want you to repeat back exactly what I say, understood?”
“I Damyan, do solemnly swear, to obey Kayeen, son of Andrei, in every command given to me. Where no command is given, I do promise, to conduct myself, as I believe he would have me act.”
The Ranger repeated back each phrase in turn. He was shocked at learning that his opponent was the son of that traitor and also amused at what this young man was trying to do. As soon as he said the word, “act” the sword pulled sharply away leaving a gash in the palm of his hand that immediately began trickling blood. The son of Andrei then cut his own finger on the blade and said, “I Kayeen, do accept your oath.” He touched his bleeding finger to Damyan’s gash. The Ranger closed his hand and pulled it away as a warmth seemed to push from that hand through his body.
Damyan was on his feet before the words even registered.
Horror began to fill his mind as, against his will, his body lowered itself back into the seat.
“Place your hands on the table.”
Damyan began to shake almost as much as the man who was watching the confrontation from the next table over. “This is not possible.”
Kayeen laughed and leaned back in his seat. “Well, well. Foglaid, would you believe this? It actually worked.”
“I, I… you, um, you said you would kill him.”
“Well, there doesn’t seem to be any need of that anymore, does there?”
Kayeen ignored the frightened little man and turned back to Damyan. “We will be leaving sometime late in the afternoon tomorrow. I am on the Blue Spray. You will find the ship and be on it, but first, you look tired. Get some sleep.”
Every eye in the place followed Kayeen as he stood up and walked out of the inn. before he was halfway to the door, Damyan’s head was down on the table and he was dead to the world. The noise of his snoring was the only sound in the room.”
– – – – –
The journey through the Great North Range was just as difficult as Gavril had promised and more. As much as he wanted to rest, it was not possible. If they were to stop without heat the two would fall into a sleep they would never wake from. If they stopped to rest with one maintaining a fire, the risked weakening the snow around them enough to trigger an avalanche. This was dangerous enough without their increasing the odds of failure. Gavril showed Avril the trick of warming his clothes through magic but it required much of their quickly depleting energy and concentration. A trick like that is difficult to maintain at a low enough temperature that their clothes do not burn. The cold was just as bad as promised but fortunately, they did not have to deal with the winds. The mountains around them served to break that off. Twice, they heard a deep rumbling that accompanied what felt like an earthquake. The second time Gavril pointed behind them. Avril saw massive amounts of snow sliding down from a mountain peak to their north. They had just passed that way a few hours earlier.
More and more they seemed to be going downhill now instead of up. Gavril warned him that this was even more dangerous. There was a tendency to give in to momentum and lose the concentration that was necessary in every step. Avril did his best to focus but step by step he became more like a walking zombie. All thought, all emotion, all concentration was long since gone. All he knew was cold and pain and hunger. Finally, they turned a bend and he saw before him the most beautiful of sights. Spread out before him was a beautiful horizon. There was an abundance of evergreen trees occasionally speckled with the gold or brown of another tree that had not quite lost all its leaves. Most beautiful of all, in the view ahead, there were no mountains. They were through.
Gavril led them forward and down for another couple hours before finding a sheltered spot between three pines. he built up the snow on two sides and warmed some rocks. Then, for the first time in days, both settled into a dreamless sleep.
It seemed only minutes later when Avril woke to find Gavril’s hand over his mouth. Every bone and muscle in his body ached and he started to groan in pain when he heard Gavril whispering in his ear, “Quiet. We have company.”
Satisfied that his young companion would obey his order, Gavril removed his hand. Avril listened for a bit then heard the sound of someone making their way towards them and, if he was correct, that person was softly crying. Avril had spent the last couple years tracking his brother through the shrouded forest to the north and Gavril had years of experience as a Ranger. Both knew enough woodcraft to recognize someone was out there who did not know, or care, to maintain silence. Whoever it was, they were not an immediate threat.
Silently, the two reached an agreement to go out and assess the situation. Avril began moving and stretching to get the blood flowing through his body again while Gavril repacked what little they had before they headed out. The two worked their way around to a position downwind and a bit behind the other person in the forest. They came into sight at about the same time the girl they were tracking came to a stop and began working the rope in her hands into a noose. She had already tied one end to a branch and was standing precariously on a rock about two feet off the ground.
They could not see her tears from their vantage point but their effect was obvious in the clumsiness of the girl’s actions in trying to form the noose. Twice she had to undo it and start over before apparently getting it right. Avril watched in silent horror as he realized what was going on. He saw the girl with the fixed noose, this time she seemed to be satisfied with the knot. She pulled it tight and tested the strength of the rope connected to the branch above her. The girl slipped her head through the noose and tightened it from behind. Then she kicked away the rock below her. Without even thinking Avril reached out his hand. The rope broke and the girl dropped, like a rag doll, to the ground. Beside him, Gavril’s eyes widened in shock and the older man muttered to himself, “We’re dead.”
– – – – –
Paeder faced his cousin with the tip of his sword touching the ground in front of him. His feet were squared and his eyes focused on his slightly taller cousin. Willhelm walked towards him holding his long sword over his right shoulder, his left hand on his hip. When he was just out of range, he stopped and swung the sword off the shoulder to point it in salute at his sparring partner. As he stepped forward, the older cousin swung the sword in a high arc overhead coming down with force at Paeder’s head. Blade met blade with a loud clang that reverberated through Paeder’s body. He used the backlash to swing around towards Willhelm’s lead foot. Again the swords clashed and Willhelm’s counter came faster than seemed possible. Paeder stepped and leaned back as the other sword sliced the air just inches in front of his chin.
The two squared again with blades touching. Both began a clockwise circle around that point. Willhelm pushed Paeder’s sword back and spun towards him. His sword followed in a waist-high arc aimed to end in Paeder’s chest. The younger met this easily from a guarded stance but the momentum of the swing sent another jolt of pain down his arms. Back and forth the two went. Paeder remained primarily on defense as he kept his feet planted firmly in place. Willhelm was larger and faster but he also used more extravagant movements. He had more momentum with his attack that continually pained his younger opponent to block but as time wore on, he wore down.
After what seemed an eternity of back and forth, Paeder sensed that his time had come and launched into a furious assault. Willhelm blocked four strong blows in quick succession before a sweep at his legs forced him off balance. He was not braced for the next block and as his sword was swept aside he simply let it go. Paeder’s eyes widened in surprise even as he continued an arc that now threatened to take off his cousin’s head. Time seemed to slow as, in horror, he watched his sword swing forward. Suddenly, he was looking up towards the sky and his sword made a hard impact on the stone just an instant before his back made an even more painful impact on the same.
Dazed, he let go of his sword and groaned. From somewhere beyond his feet he heard the hearty laughter of his cousin. It took a few breaths and a curse before Paeder was even able to roll to his side. The chain mail rattled as he pulled it over his head so he could rub his back. Willhelm leaned on his sword with his left hand as he offered his right. Paeder took the hand and groaned again as he was helped to his feet. He rolled his head to try and ward off the sudden blackness that threatened to fell him.
“That,” Willhelm said, “is the proper time to use magic.”
“I had you there.”
“If that were true, you would have been the one helping me to my feet.”
“No, you lost focus. You were so caught up in delivering a telling blow that you were not ready.”
“But you said not to use magic. Had anyone else been watching the battle…”
“They would have thought you slipped on a rock,” Willhelm interrupted. “I said to be very wary when you use it. It is a weapon in your arsenal, but not your only, or even your greatest one.”
He tapped his finger against Paeder’s head. “This here is your greatest weapon.
“You are cunning in a sword fight. You know how to adapt to your opponent’s tactics, but not everyone fights with a long sword. When coming against an archer’s bow, an assassin’s knife, or the gladius and shield, your opponent will always be faster. A small push or pull can not only save your life but keep any witnesses from knowing you have the talent.”
The two began packing their weapons and armor as Paeder chewed on his cousin’s words. The advice seemed sound but he wondered if it was only a cover for a panicked reaction. He had finally bested his older cousin only to be cheated at the end.
Rowyh forced himself to put one foot in front of the other. He had been running for three days straight, eating as he moved, and slowing to a walk for as brief a time as possible until he was able to run again. The past two days he pushed himself beyond exhaustion and then pushed even further. He continued on long after the sun had fallen only stopping to drop in exhaustion for a brief sleep. Each morning he rose long before the sun and immediately used his Sight. It was a race he did not think he would win but he must reach those rocks before the knife overtook him. As fast as he went, that knife was moving faster. As far as he traveled, it came further. Now he was slowing down. He wanted to push forward at the same speed but it was all he could do to just put one foot in front of the other. The end was coming. He knew it and part of him wished for the end.
Paeder and Willhelm had finished packing up and were on their way. Just before leaving they filled their skins from the spring at which they had spent the night and were now following down out of the hills. They had not been moving long before Paeder noticed how much the land was changing. He was used to the rocky coast and rolling hills that grew little besides rocks and weeds. The lower regions they were now entering as they traveled east to southeast seemed much more fertile. The stream they traveled soon joined with another, and then another growing in size and speed. The scraggly trees became straighter, taller, and more plentiful.
The two were plodding along at a leisurely pace when suddenly Willhelm said, “c’mon” and kicked his pony into a laughable imitation of a run.
Paeder spurred his pony along calling out, “What is it?”
“Look inside yourself.”Willhelm called over his shoulder, “Do you feel it?”
Paeder put his head down trying to urge his pony into greater speed to catch up. As he did so, he also checked his own emotions and feelings. He did feel a need to keep up with Willhelm and even pass him. It was a desire to race, but was that simply because they had picked up their speed or was it something more? He did not know. Either way, he spurred his pony on toward greater speed again.
They continued on neck and neck for about fifteen minutes when Paeder felt a sudden sense of danger. At almost the exact same moment Willhelm pulled his pony up short. Before it had even completely stopped moving he threw himself off the side and began reaching for his pack. About five paces ahead, Paeder did the same. He was still pulling his mantle over his head and Willhelm was snapping his helmet in when a bedraggled Mitsremi boy came running along the bend. He saw the two donning their armor and collapsed to the ground with a sigh. Paeder was closer and rushed forward to the boy. He reached him and had just bent over to see if he was OK when Willhelm yelled, “Down!” Paeder instantly ducked and felt a knife slice along the back of his neck. He instinctively turned towards the blur that had moved past him just in time to bring up his helmet, still in his left hand, to deflect another knife thrust. Even as Paeder blocked that, the white-cloaked assailant punched out with the other hand toward his stomach. The knife in that hand cut into his thick wool tunic but did not pierce the skin.
Even as he ran forward to help his cousin, Willhelm thrust out with his hand trying to push the assailant away. The man literally spun in the air in reaction to the magic. While still horizontal, he landed both feet against the trunk of a tree and sprung back towards Paeder. Paeder felt the knife slicing at his cheek as he tried to dodge away from the man who literally jumped right past him. He spun around just in time to see the man in white land in a crouch, both arms up with a knife in each hand. A branch flew through the air towards him but the assassin ducked below it, the knuckles of both gloved hands hit the ground, and he pivoted to sweep the legs out from under Paeder.
Rather than try to jump the kick, Paeder pivoted and braced. The foot kicked against the metal rod in his boot but somehow, impossibly, the assassin’s other foot kicked against his chain mantle and the assassin literally jumped off Paeder creating separation. Paeder staggered backward almost falling over the Mitsremi boy even as another rock launched through the air narrowly missing the assassin. Willhelm skidded to a halt placing himself between the two with his sword out.
The assassin remained in a defensive stance about five feet away and slowly began backing up. Willhelm stepped forward guarding Paeder as he hastily put his helmet on and drew his sword. He stepped up and to the right as Willhelm shifted a little to the left, both keeping a wary eye on the attacker who was now about ten feet away and still slowly backing up. When he had doubled that distance, the man turned and ran. Paeder started to lower his guard but turned to see that Willhelm had not. He ground his sword and reached up to cover the cut on his cheek. “He’s gone.”
Willhelm continued to scan the forest around him maintaining his guard. “No, he’s not.”