When Kayeen reentered the inn he found that someone had taken Damyan up to a room. He wanted to talk with the Ranger again but that could wait. Tiev now sat with Foglaid at his table and Kayeen walked over to join them.
“I thought you were going to kill him. What have you done?” Tiev asked as Kayeen found his seat.
“He makes everything else easier. We’re short on men already. How many have we turned?”
“We’ve only got two of the officers but about two thirds the crew are in our pocket. That stunt you pulled beheading Givat and tying his boys up to the mast cowed most and inspired some. Time won’t help no more. I don’t think we’ll win over anyone else.”
“There’s no need to pacify the rest,” Kayeen said. “We can hold them below with Damyan to guard until after we’ve taken the Mist.”
“Can he be trusted?”
“More than either of you.”
Kayeen looked at the other two men. Tiev met his gaze and, after a moment, gave a nod. Foglaid seemed to be intensely scrutinizing the grain pattern of the tabletop. His complete loyalty was still in question but for now, there was nothing to do about it. He was too much of a coward to pose any true threat.
“Tiev, stay with Yashin. We don’t want him knowing what’s really happening until it is too late. Foglaid, start spreading the word to our crew that it is happening this run. I’ll wake Damyan and let him in on our plan. I’ll see you both aboard the Blue Spray.
Just after sunset, all were on the ship and Takino was a city vanishing in the distance. As soon as Kayeen began pulling on the wind, Yashin looked at him in surprise and anger. He realized that they were moving off course but he was wise enough to realize that a confrontation now could be deadly. He knew he was losing grip on his crew. He’d sent word to his father letting him know of the situation but for the time being, he just had to wait. Most of the crew would ride with whoever had the upper hand. They would be his again as soon as he was able to call in outside help.
Through the night they skipped across the water at a pace that Kayeen had found sustainable over the long run. It wasn’t nearly the speed he had put on at first, but the young man had proven that he could maintain this speed almost indefinitely and it was still nearly twice what the Blue Spray used to do on her best day.
A lookout in the crows nest called down the sighting. Yashin should have been in bed but had chosen to remain on deck with the night watch. It seemed most of the crew was awake and about and there was an air of expectation that only intensified with the sighting.
Kayeen looked over and nodded to Foglaid and Damyan then turned toward the captain. “Yashin, I’d like to see you in my cabin. Tiev, wake any officers not already up and about and have them all meet us there.”
Tiev would have to be dealt with, Yashin thought. He was clearly Kayeen’s man now. A pity his ambition would cost him. He was a fine officer and ready for his own crew. Now he would be blacklisted by the houses. Once this mess was cleaned up, he wouldn’t even make captain on a decades-old fishing trawler.
Yashin entered the captain’s cabin that had, until recently, been his. Kayeen followed him in and immediately the captain rounded on the boy. “What are you doing? Is that the Mist you’ve had us chasing down all night?”
“For what? We can’t hold all her cargo, we’re nearly full ourselves. Are you going to sink her? Is this all about some vendetta?”
“I’m going to take her.”
After a brief pause of shock, laughter poured out from deep within his belly. Kayeen’s ambition was starting to exceed his grasp. After a couple successes, the impetuous boy thinks he’s invincible. Yashin figured he should try to encourage this endeavor since the more Kayeen tried to hold, the easier it would be to shake it all out of his grasp. It was too late in the season to pass Storm’s Bend. There was no way to keep the ships at sea all winter. They would have to harbor soon and all the harbors are controlled by the houses. Now the boy would have two ships to watch while he still inspired no loyalty that lasted beyond eyesight. Yashin tried not to let the hope show through on his face, but he was sure he had failed miserably.
One by one the other seven men entered the room and took seats around the officers’ table. Tiev came in last, shut the door, and remained standing behind Nicholai, Yashin’s only son. Kayeen looked over to Tiev and asked, “Which ones are for us?”
Tiev nodded to Sagami and patted Nicholai’s shoulder. Yashin’s eyes nearly popped from his head. He tried to stand and found himself bound by magic. “What have you done!”
Nicholai looked at his father but quickly looked down and away.
“Tiev, tie the rest up. Sagami, you’re with me. Nicholai, grab a bow and join the men gathering on the forecastle.”
Yashin continued to struggle vainly against the bonds of both rope and magic long after the others were gone. His vision was a haze of rage.
Kayeen and Sagami went out onto the deck and were met by Foglaid. Everyone else was a bustle of activity as they were being armed and gathering into position.
“Ta… ta… two dead. Theirs. We ha… have one sailor wi… with a cut up arm. Wa… one of theirs ka… killed by a sailor. The… the other tried to reeeesist then just dra… dra… dropped dead.”
Either recognizing Kayeen’s frustration or out of pity for Foglaid, a nearby sailor took the initiative to jump in. “Damyan yelled something fierce at the guy and, when he dropped, the witch just slumped down crying. That ended any more resistance right quick. Jore walked Damyan below deck where they’re holding the prisoners. Everyone up here now is your man.”
Kayeen nodded thanks to the sailor without even bothering to recall his name. He had no idea who Jore was either but he was glad to know his orders had been carried out. Tiev had arrived right at the end of the sailor’s report and Kayeen turned to him, “What do you think?”
“We shoot past them then swing around to have them with the rising sun to our backs. It should be bloodless but there’s no sense giving up the advantages of position and surprise.”
“You still think we can do this without violence?
“Their captain isn’t much liked. You say you’re from the houses to bring him to justice and they’ll hand you the man on a silver platter. By the time they realize the truth we will already have them in our pocket. You sure you’re strong enough?”
“I’ll have to be, won’t I?”
Within the hour they had moved into position as the grey of predawn lightened up the sky behind them. Nicholai was on the forecastle with his older friend, Varlam. “I want him.”
“Shut it. Look at you bouncing. You’re too nervous. You take Foglaid. I’ve got the witch. I’m a better shot anyway.”
“What are we waiting for? Let’s do this.”
“I know you’re steamed about cap and all. But calm yourself. When we’re closer, all eyes will be turned away. Everyone’s too ready for action now. Too alert.”
The two waited along with three other pairs of archers spread out along the forecastle. They waited and watched as the two ships drew ever closer. The other ship grew steadily larger and, as predicted, every eye was focused on the Mist. On the deck, most of the men were ready with grappling ropes and swords. Sagani and Foglaid were a bit behind the rest and the weaselly man had his back to the two.
“Soon.” Varlam put a steadying hand on the boy’s shoulder. He hated asking a fourteen-year-old boy to do this but he was Urnov’s man and the plan was the best they had for the moment. He hated having to keep Yashin in the dark but the cap had been too closely watched. “Very soon now.”
Nicholai raised his bow and released. Varlam cursed then swung his bow toward the quarterdeck and fired.
Kayeen heard Tiev call out and turned just as an arrow struck him below the shoulder in his left arm. Two of the men closest rushed up the quarterdeck with swords drawn. Quick as thought, Kayeen raised and launched a small ball of fire towards the foremast of the other ship. Tiev engaged one of the men but the other swung at Kayeen before he had pulled his own sword free. The blade cut into his right arm and his sword clattered to the ground behind him. He threw himself backward, falling to the ground and narrowly avoided another slash. His right arm flung out to catch his sword as it flew in the air toward him while his left arm protected his head by taking another cut. He thrust his sword forward and the assailant was flung through the air over the side of the ship. Kayeen struggled to his knees and pointed toward the other ship. A much larger ball of fire flew forward to strike at the mainmast.
Tiev had taken a cut on his cheek and another near the ribs but he had killed his man. On the deck, Foglaid was lying face down on the deck with an arrow between his shoulders. Everyone else was staring up at the quarterdeck. Kayeen pointed his sword toward the forecastle and eight bows were pulled from the archers’ hands to fly into the sea.
Kayeen looked towards the Mist and the crew that was desperately trying to put out two fires blazing through the sails. He made a waving motion and the fires went out. His voice came booming over both ships and crossed miles of ocean.
“Put all weapons down and hands in the air or I will burn you to ash!”
He saw those on the other ship quickly start to comply. Closer by, Damyan was running across the deck towards him. Kayeen slumped to the ground. Everything went to black.
– – – – –
Lazlo followed the trail with a heavy heart. Istvana had seen the writing on the ground, erased it, and immediately came to get him. Officially nobody else would ever know, but everybody knew. Lazlo headed north to find his daughter and burn her corpse. As soon as he left the Zingari settlement, word began spreading like wildfire from one whispered ear to another. Nadezha was nowhere to be found. Lazlo was out looking for her. He would return alone and her name would never be spoken again. It had happened before with his nephew and before that, a brother. Rumor spoke to him of an uncle as well. Four in one family, why had they been so cursed?
For more than two hours he continued north into the bitter cold before coming to the place his daughter had been just hours before. He did not find what he expected to find and this both relieved and frightened him. At first, he wondered if someone else had gone ahead of him to spare him the necessity, but no, there had been no other tracks. He sniffed the air and did not sense any burning nearby. Coming closer to investigate he found two lengths of rope cleanly severed. He found the blood stain on the ground where his daughter had fallen. Her scuff marks were clear where she rose to her feet and backed up to the cliff. There were the footprints of the two others who had been here, but no trail leading away.
Every Zingari knew a level of field craft. It was necessary for a wandering people to have some measure of knowledge to survive, but Lazlo was a respected older man. He left the hunting and even most of the trading to those with younger, nimbler bodies. He had not needed to use those skills for years and even as a youth he was far from the best in those areas. From what he could gather, two others prevented the death, injured, and then kidnapped his daughter. Now they were covering their tracks as they left. He could try to follow but with his lack of skills, he would only fall further and further behind. He needed the Drepti. Normally, they would only hunt down witches but if his daughter had magic and was still alive, that should be reason enough to save her. Her death now might be a rescue from an even worse fate.
“How much of a lead do we have? When will someone be coming to follow you?”
“I don’t know. This is not something we speak of.”
Gavril sighed. “Surely you’ve heard whispers. Do we have a day? An hour?”
“More than an hour. Two, maybe three. My father will not want to find me still alive but he will not wait long enough that somebody else might stumble upon my body. It doesn’t matter though. We will all be dead soon.”
Avril opened his mouth to argue the point but Gavril silenced him with a look. The three were heading towards Slobodsky. it was a small outpost in the northeast of Kyev. The town was about twice the size of Trapper’s Point but served the same function on the south side of the mountains. Trappers on this side of the mountains would bring their goods to Slobodsky where they would be shipped downriver on rafts southeast to Shinjuku. There they would be loaded on riverboats for the ride to Takino. Gavril’s original plan was to use this shipping route to get to Kayeen. If the boy was right Kayeen could possibly have already been there and gone, but it was too late in the season to escape the gulf. If he had not already done so by now, he would need to put up somewhere for winter.
That original plan was now less important than getting to Slobodsky for safety. Alone, he was much better off in the wild. As talented as the White Knives were, they wouldn’t dare hunt down a Ranger in the wild. If Avril was well rested, the two would still be safer in the wild. Their weariness and the addition of Nadezha to their company changed the equation. Their only chance for survival now was to hole up somewhere where entrances and exits could be easily covered until he and the boy were recovered from their journey through the pass. If they didn’t get to Slobodsky before the White Knives caught up to them, they didn’t stand a chance.
“How many White Knives, how many Drepti, are in the settlement?”
“A dozen. No, thirteen,” Nadezha answered.
Gavril just grunted in response. There was maybe twice that in the whole world. No chance that half of them all happened to be here through the winter. He guessed there would be three or four plus a few teachers and maybe ten students. The girl’s exaggerated answer gave him hope that even that estimate might be high. Beyond that, the teachers would never leave their students and the students would never range too far. So the further they went the less the threat of numbers would be. The best case scenario would be that only one was sent at first. They might possibly survive that and then have more time for a real escape before the rest picked up the chase. Any other scenario that Gavril could foresee ended in all their deaths.
– – – – –
Rowyh sat on the ground with his back leaning on the trunk of a tree while the older of the two blond giants stood guard next to him. The man seemed to instinctively keep himself between Rowyh and the forest around him even though he never looked down. His sword remained out at his side and his eyes continued to dart toward every sound and movement the wind or some animal made in the distance.
The skinnier one walked towards the two ponies and pulled out two canteens. He looked to be more at ease but that look was deceptive. He was just as quick to glance up at any perceived movement in the wild. His longsword was sheathed but from somewhere he had pulled out a knife that was twice the length of the daggers that had been used against him. For a moment he held that knife between his teeth as he wrapped a strip of cloth around the cut on the back of his neck. He then used water from one of the canteens to clean the cut on his cheek.
“Do you have a name?”
Rowyh was watching the other man and was exhausted enough that he did not recognize that the big man near him was speaking.
“My name’s Willhelm. That’s Paeder. What do they call you?”
“Sorry, my name is Rowyh.”
“Rowyh. Huh, you’re a bit young to be a bard.”
“That’s Riyah. Rowyh is dreamer. They say as a boy I always had my head in the clouds.
“Your parents had some foresight with that name. I’m assuming, with a White Knife after you, that you’re a Seer?”
“Yes. We call it Farsight, though.”
“Are you strong enough to use it now?”
“No. I haven’t been able to for nearly two days. I didn’t think I would be able to make it to you in time.”
Willhelm grunted at this. “It was a close-run thing. Couldn’t get much closer. It would have been nice to know if that assassin is still out there.”
Rowyh nodded in agreement. Then he blushed when he realized that this Willhelm would not have been able to see the gesture. Through the entire conversation, he did not once stop looking out at the trees around them.
A canteen landed on the ground right between Rowyh’s legs. His head came up in surprise and banged the tree behind him.
“Sorry,” Paeder said. “Didn’t mean to scare you. You look like you could drink both these down and then some.”
Rowyh rubbed the back of his head as he replied, “Thank you. And thank you both for saving my life.”
“We’re not done doing that yet. That White Knife is still out there and he’s not going to give up the opportunity to take out two people with the Talent.”
Rowyh looked up toward Willhelm at that. He knew that all three had the Talent, but for some reason, this man was not acknowledging that the younger one knew magic. When he thought about it, he saw nothing during the fight to show that Paeder did. Then again, if the White Knife was close enough to be listening, why give away a potential advantage? Plus, if he and Willhelm were both killed, perhaps the White Knife would not bother with killing Paeder too.
It seemed Paeder’s thoughts spun in a similar direction and he did not like it. He said nothing about it, though, when he looked down towards Rowyh. “Can you ride a pony? We need to get moving. Unless it’s safer to stay here?”
Willhelm shook his head no at the question. “There’s a clearing ahead closer to the river. We will make camp there. It will give us a good line of sight for a good distance in every direction. Rowyh, you will have to ride but do your best to stay low. If this assassin is still close, he will most likely try again before we reach it. The best weapon White Knives have against a Pusher is surprise.
Rowyh mounted up and they had covered little more than half the distance to that clearing when Willhelm was proven right. Both swordsmen were so intent looking out that they did not see what was right above them. The White Knife fell from a branch above straight down towards Rowyh. Willhelm shouted, “No!” and used his Talent to throw the Mitsremi boy from the pony. A knife thrust forward to cut along Rowyh’s back as the boy was launched through the air.
Paeder reached up to catch a leg and pulled him down behind him while he spun bringing his sword up in a guard stance. At the same time, Willhelm swung through the air right above the pony’s head. He was too late. The White Knife had landed with both feet on the pony and jumped back up to flip right over Willhelm. The swordsman spun around as a knife embedded itself just below his jaw on the right side. He swung wildly but the assassin jumped away with contemptuous ease. Ignoring the knife for the moment, Willhelm turned to position his sword and set himself in a guard position. The White Knife had backed away and was now working his way behind the ponies to come against the other two.
Paeder’s face was red with rage as he faced the man cautiously coming towards him. He saw the blood flowing from the knife wound his cousin had taken and yelled out, “Enough!”
It was as if an invisible hand had grabbed the assassin and slammed him against the ground. The White Knife tried to bring his hands up to block the fall but the action only succeeded in breaking both arms. He tried to ignore the pain and scramble to his feet but he was not in time. Paeder rushed forward and hacked down inelegantly between his neck and shoulder. He raised his sword and kicked out. The White Knife used the kick to try and throw himself away from his attacker but was pulled back with magic to be impaled on Paeder’s sword. he died instantly.
Paeder turned toward his cousin to see that he had dropped his sword and both hands were trying to staunch the blood flow around the knife. Rowyh was on his hands and knees on the other side still bleeding in pain as well but both men were looking at Paeder in shock. He turned toward Willhelm first. He ripped a strip off the bottom of his tunic and placed it in Willhelm’s hands. Then he held the knife carefully and pulled it straight back so as to avoid making the incision any larger. As soon as it was out, Willhelm took the cloth and pushed it against the wound.
When Paeder had helped lay Willhelm down with his head elevated, he turned toward the stranger who had brought all this trouble on his heels. Rowyh had already pulled his own cloak up so Paeder could see the slash along his back. It was a six-inch cut about halfway up the back but it did not look deep. Paeder had him remain on his hands and knees. He used some more water from the canteen to wash out the wound then ripped another strip from the tunic. He wrapped the strip tightly around Rowyh then had him lay face down on the ground.
Paeder turned back to look at the dead White Knife. The man looked so small and frail now as he lay motionless on the ground. He wiped the long sword he had dropped after the fight on that red stained cloak. Sheathing it, he turned to survey the scene around him. This was not a good place to remain, but how was he supposed to get one injured and exhausted young man, two frightened and quivering ponies, and his dying cousin to a better camp? The fight was over but his work was just beginning.