— Kayeen —
The taking of the Mist was easy compared to all the excitement that had gone before it. The ship had barely enough mast remaining to limp around. The sail for the main mast was unable to be replaced and the patched foresail and mizzen were just barely enough to navigate with. The crew of the Mist was being chained together in groups of three for now until they could sort through those who would be willing to work under Kayeen. Until then, the grouped prisoners could still perform most of the work and move around the ship without posing any serious risk.
Damyan had healed Kayeen who was now asleep in his cabin. The other officers, along with Nicholai and Varlam were locked up for the time being. Only Yashin was kept separate. The arrow had been removed from Foglaid and he remained at death’s door. Damyan had a fair amount of knowledge with healing but bringing someone back from such a serious injury stretched his ability. Far more was involved than the mending of broken bones or healing of burns that he was more familiar with.
Tiev was now nominally in charge of both ships but he was unsure what to do. They could not remain at sea, and they dared not return to Takino now. They were limping along toward the small harbor town of Busan but Tiev desperately hoped that Kayeen would wake before they arrived.
Sagami’s head popped up over the railing as he climbed toward him. Tiev had the older man overseeing the activities aboard the Mist but he was to report back every few hours. He had just returned for the second time. Looking up at Tiev, Sagami said, “Still not sure? I tell you Busan is the best port for us. It’s small but with a good deep harbor for wintering. Reaching the town by land is almost impossible, especially for this time of year.”
“It can only hold a couple ships, what if it is already full up when we arrive?”
“In that case we better hope he’s recovered,” Sagami said nodding towards the cabin where Kayeen had still not awaken.
“And if he’s not?”
“If he doesn’t wake soon… well, let’s not talk trouble till that trouble brews. Neither of us wants to be heard saying things we might regret later.”
Tiev grunted agreement. Sagami continued, “Don’t over think this. We’ve cast our lots. Now we just have to see how the chips fall. The pips I’m seeing tell me that Busan is the only winning hand we’re holding.”
Tiev could only smile in amusement. Sagami could always mix his metaphors with the best of them. It didn’t change the fact he was right. All they could do now was make haste slowly toward the port and hope Kayeen would wake soon.
It was over a day and a half later before Kayeen did wake. The sun had just set when his eyes opened. The cabin smelled of beef stew and he rolled to his side, eyes locking on the bowl. How long had he been out? The bowl was not steaming but it was still warm so it could not have been long. Then again, the direction of the light in the room told him it was late in the day so it had to have been at least eight or nine hours. Figuring that out caused the memory of how and why he had wound up in this bed to roll over him like a tidal wave. He had to get up and see what had happened since he blacked out. But first… he was ravenous.
Damyan poked his head in the door just as Kayeen was finishing the bowl.
“Where’s the meat?”
Damyan shot up an eyebrow.
“All that is in this bowl is some broth and vegetables. Where’s the meat?”
“You will be eating almost nonstop for the next couple days. But you’ve been out for more than two days. First, we need to get something in you that you can hold down.”
“Bloody ashes, two days?” Kayeen nearly jumped to his feet but almost as quickly found himself back on the bed when his weakness rushed to his head. “I guess I do have you to thank I’m alive at all. My stomach is fine. Go and get me some meat.” Damyan turned to go but Kayeen amended his command. “Actually the meat can wait for a few minutes. First, tell me everything that happened while I was out.”
Damyan shared what he knew about the taking of the Mist, Foglaid’s injury, and the locking up of the assailants and the officers but Kayeen wanted more. “How badly did I damage the Mist? Where are we headed now?”
“I can’t answer either of these. Tiev could but I have been staying close to you when I’m not trying again to improve Foglaid’s condition. I knew you would want to speak with me when you woke.”
“Then it’s time to find out. We will need to find a safe harbor.”
Kayeen shrugged off Damyan’s assistance, but almost fell to his face as soon as he tried that second step. Taking this injury was an unwelcome twist on his plans. He couldn’t afford to remain an invalid any longer. Kayeen had begun to realize that what he thought of as instinct or intuition was really, somehow coming from the sword. It had guided him well in taking both ships, teaming with the right people, and trapping the Ranger, but his close brush death demonstrated that there were serious limitations. He needed to learn to become even more ruthless than what it seemed to be pushing him towards becoming.
“Get me a cane or a staff. I need to get out of this room. Don’t make me have to crawl out.”
Damyan turned and left to go get him one. Almost immediately the Ranger’s eyes were drawn to a young boy almost completely hidden behind a barrel. It was the boy’s Talent that drew his attention but that must be impossible. How could a child so young already be carrying the Talent?
— Nadezha, Avril, Gavril —
Avril and Nadezha pushed forward through the woods as fast as they could. She had given up trying to slow the others down and wasn’t even trying to lay a trail for anyone who might be following anymore. They were still about an hour from Slobodsky and she was now just as eager as the other two in reaching the town and its warmth.
Gavril followed behind them doing what he could to mask their trail. It was impossible to hide it completely, but he was hoping that he was doing a good enough job to slow anyone who might be following long enough for the three of them to get to town. He was just beginning to think he might be successful when he realized that he could not hear the two still walking a short ways ahead. Just as he paused to listen, he heard the rasping metal of Avril drawing his sword.
Arvil put his hand up motioning for Gavril to stop when he heard the Ranger coming up from behind them. Gavril saw the signal and stopped. Avril then put his hand on Nadezha’s arm and closed his eyes to listen. Behind him, Gavril did the same. From behind, there was the normal noise you would expect. A flutter of wings told of a pair of Goshawks taking flight. At various distances, the chatter of squirrels was heard. Before them, the forest was unusually silent. There was a human intruder in the woods and their presence was being revealed to the Talents of a Ranger. About two hundred yards out both men could hear the soft slow footsteps of someone moving cautiously towards them. The pace and lack of normal noise made it clear that this was no ordinary traveler in these woods. The assassin was ahead of them.
Gavril put a hand up to his mouth then worked his way forward to the other two. Nadezha was looking left and right with eyes as big as saucers but Avril still had his eyes closed and was perfectly still. He was still listening. Gavril motioned for Nadezha to remain silent then reached out to touch Avril’s arm. The boy opened his eyes looking right at him. Gavril pointed off towards the southeast with a questioning look. Avril nodded. He then motioned like he was searching. Avril at first did not understand and then it dawned on him what Gavril was suggesting. The White Knives had guessed where they were headed and one had swung around to get there first. That assassin was now waiting for them to stumble towards him in their hurry to get to Slobodsky.
Using hand motions Gavril signaled for Avril to head around to the north and then make for the town. Gavril was going to head closer to the White Knife and then lead it towards the river south of town. Avril nodded and the two quietly headed off while Gavril began moving towards those footsteps. He could breathe a little easier now. It would be much easier confronting a lone White Knife on his own rather than having to try and protect an inexperienced, exhausted young man and a girl who had a death wish.
Gavril did not silence his footsteps with magic at first as he moved forward. A White Knife did not use magic and would have to be far closer before the Ranger could be seen or heard. Twice Gavril paused to listen again. He could tell the general distance and direction of his enemy but that large distance and his opponent’s extraordinary skill still kept him from knowing anything more. It was during his third stop that he realized there was trouble. He could now hear three people running. The first two were making much more noise and the third was closing in. Gavril pulled his long knife then took off running with a curse. His plan had failed.
Nadezha sneezed. Avril stopped and put a hand out to stop her as well. She looked at him guiltily then made a quiet, fake cough. Avril closed his eyes to listen but almost immediately opened them again. He grabbed Nadezha’s arm and pulled her forward at a run. To his surprise, she didn’t try to break away or stop but ran right along with him. Now that death might be imminent, her survival instincts seemed to be at war with her longing to get them all killed.
Avril did not dare to pause again to identify his pursuer’s location. There was no need. Instinct told him to stop and turn just as the White Knife came into sight behind them. The man in a flowing white robe came to a stop about ten paces away. He pulled out two daggers and then seemed to measure up Avril as he began pacing sideways. Avril stepped slightly to the left to position himself between Nadezha and the White Knife.
The White Knife’s pacing was slowly bringing him closer to the two, but he was also moving to keep himself between his targets and their destination. Avril heard the other man speaking to him with the same accent Nadezha used.
“The Witch is behind me and the girl knows her duty. Put your sword down and I will let you live.”
“No,” Avril responded. “You will have to kill me before I let her die.”
The White Knife shrugged. “Very well.”
The assassin shot straight towards Avril with both knives drawn. Avril started to drop to one knee while making an upward motion with his free hand. The White Knife seemed surprised for a brief instant as he was launched up and over his two targets. He recovered and twisted himself while still in the air so that he landed facing them again. Once more he headed straight towards them. This time Avril pushed him off to the right. The assassin seemed to be expecting to throw downward and so he once again had to twist to recover from being pushed with magic. His agility in recovering from the pushes seemed to be almost superhuman but Avril’s strength and ability to use magic had clearly left him surprised.
A third time the White Knife ran forward but this time he moved in jerking motions altering his direction and speed. Twice Avril tried to push him with magic and failed. It felt to him like trying to grab a heavy rock while his hands were covered in grease. He just could not get a grip. Before Avril could try to push him a third time, the White Knife literally kicked off Avril’s chest to flip around and face Nadezha. The force of that kick knocked Avril to the ground.
Nadezha had only ever done one thing with magic. In a moment of panicked instinct, when she saw Avril fall, she did it again. Even as the White Knife, the Drepti, was landing three feet away, her hand instinctively went up. The only part of his body not protected by his magic resistant white cloak was his eyes and the bridge of his nose. They burst into flame. The assassin screamed out in pain but even as he was blinded and hurt he thrust forward stabbing at Nadezha. The blade missed by inches as she stumbled backward. His entire face and the hood of his cloak was now on fire but again he thrust toward the sound of her falling. This time the dagger cut her right arm about halfway between the elbow and the wrist. Before he could thrust a third time Avril’s sword severed the flaming head from his body. Instantly the assassin’s screams of pain were cut off as the head dropped to the ground with a thud.
Avril turned toward Nadezha to see she had fallen unconscious. Gavril burst through the woods at that instant just as Avril reached to tear a part of his cloak to bandage her arm.
— Dahlia, Sting, Bloodeye —
Artois was a perfectly located city for Dahlia’s purpose. It was situated right where the Mozel River flowed into the Madon. All trade flowing from those two rivers and from another major tributary, the Oren, flowed into the city of Artois. The Gaol settlements in that direction traded with the Roma and Cymri and upriver traffic brought trade from the Mitsrem to the south. Artois was also the western end of a major road connecting the coastal cities to the east below the Finger. Few other cities in the world could claim to be at the center of so much trade and information.
It was just her luck that Dahlia received orders almost instantaneously from two different directions. From the northeast, by way road overland, Krushev sent word to her to leave the boys and head north. Coming upriver by horse from Abdos in the south was a request from Aatzaz. Apparently, a boy with the Farsight had escaped his clutches and was heading north. He had sent a White to track him down. The assassin was headed overland to the northwest but if the witch had traveled by river on one of the barges he should be arriving in Artois within the next few days.
She could take the boys by road eastward and hand them off in the town of Estwic to an associate, Acharn. Another option would be to stay here with them and wait for a sign of the arrival of this escaped boy with the Sight. Artois was a decent city to winter in, a bit too far north for her tastes, but the thought of being stuck here with two, possibly three miscreants made her mind up. She was not a babysitter. It was not a difficult decision which set of orders she would follow.
“Wait one day before sending a reply on to Aatzaz. Tell him I’ve left the boys with Acharn and continued on to the sea on my way north. Let him know you’ve passed on his message to Estwic but don’t let him know I’ve already seen it. Send another message to Krushev immediately. Let him know I’ve finished up a task for Aatzaz and that I will be wintering at Estwic with plans to head north past the Fingers as soon as winter breaks.”
Chasur just grunted and began writing the messages on slips that would be sent off by a pigeon to their respective destinations at the time ordered. He was a surly man and not much of a talker but that made him perfect for his job. Officially, Chasur was in the employ of Aatzaz but many other merchants used his message system for a price. A portion was supposed to be passed along to his distant boss, but most was his to keep. Since technically Dahlia was also in the employ of Aatzaz, he couldn’t charge her for the messages and the free use of his birds. That made him even more surly than normal.
Dahlia sighed as she worked her way back toward the room she was renting. it was directly across the alley from the room that Sting and Bloodeye had claimed for their own. She didn’t like letting them keep to themselves away from her but they didn’t want to move. She did not feel adventurous enough to go in to their room as they did by swinging down from the roof. Neither was she about to scale ten feet of wall every time she wanted to enter or leave their hideout. When she came close to their home, Dahlia picked up a stone and threw it into their open window. A head appeared, saw her, and then disappeared again.
About ten seconds later the head reappeared. Sting checked to make sure no one was around then he climbed out his window and down to the alley with Bloodeye right behind him. She was still amazed at how quickly the two of them could work their way down.
“Another witch is in town. He’s asking after three men. Two match your descriptions, the third is the man we killed.”
“You killed.” Sting amended.
Dahlia’s look shot daggers. “Yes, I killed,” she glared. “Because you two couldn’t.”
“How do we know he’s a witch?” Bloodeye asked.
“One of my contacts works for them. I…”
“You’re using a witch’s eyes?”
“The fool doesn’t realize what he’s telling me is anything more than idle chat. The man likes to brag. But if I get spotted with you two, we are all dead.”
“So what,” Sting said. “We’ll just kill him like the last one.”
Dahlia bristled, but she did her best not to let it show. “You two were lucky I showed up last time. If you want my help, you will use it to escape, not to kill. I won’t risk myself like that again.”
Sting looked at Bloodeye. He shrugged.
“I guess we’re running.”
Dahlia made herself look relieved. She hoped she wasn’t overdoing it.
“The docks aren’t safe anymore. That’s where he’s looking for you now. Grab what you need, but not so much that you draw attention. Meet me at the Silver Wheel in thirty minutes. You know where that is?”
Both boys just looked at her. How dare she question their knowledge of Artois. Dahlia couldn’t wait for the opportunity to take them down a notch. She watched as they scaled the wall to their room with as much speed and ease as they came down. It didn’t seem natural for them to do it with such ease but she was almost positive neither of them was actually using magic to accomplish the feat. She had to get them out of their comfort zone. She had to get them out of Artois.
An hour later they were all on the road and Dahlia was relieved to know neither of the boys had any experience riding horses. Her words and her look for them was all sympathy that they certainly did not appreciate. Still, she wasn’t about to give them any tips or pointers that would make their ride any easier. She was fine letting them arriving in Estwic cold, tired, and saddle sore. She couldn’t wait for the moment she could them off to Acharn. Then she could stop having to pretend to be a friend to the brats. She was willing to ride through the night to hurry that moment. However, if they insisted on stopping somewhere for the night, she was sure she could arrange for their evening to be cold, frightening, and sleepless as well. These city boys were clearly out of their element.
Both of the boys were riding scared, clinging to the horse as if afraid they would fall off without constant vigilance. Considering their posture, Dahlia was surprised they had both somehow managed to stay in the saddle this far. They rode like this for hours on end through the night getting incrementally more and more pain. It was clear that both desperately wanted to stop but, aside from a few breaks to walk the horses and stretch their legs that were more sore at each break, they continued on. The groans and moaning became a regular chorus pushing aside any other conversation. Dahlia could only imagine the pain both boys were going through but in their pride and the presence of a beautiful, older traveling companion, neither would give in or even offer an audible word of complaint.
It was past time for breakfast when the three passed through the gates of Coreltuvi, an inland defensive fort and suburb of Estwic. The place was large enough in its own right but it was nothing compared to the city in which they had been raised. Before the village even came into view the salty smell of the ocean began to permeate the air and Sting had strung his bow in anticipation, and desperate hope, of journey’s end. After a night in the saddle, his muscles painfully protested an action that he normally could do without thought. He endured the pain. This would be the first time in a strange city and he was not about to enter unprepared. Bloodeye watched him remount and then turned his eye on Dahlia. She could tell he was growing suspicious. Perhaps she should have let them stop for the night. Even in her own eyes, her pity looked fake by this point. No matter, she only had to get them to the inn.
Both boys groaned when they passed by the first two inns. They were tired and hungry and desperately wanted to stop but they continued to follow. She led them up a couple streets and took a right heading south. Just past the next intersection, they passed an inn bearing the name Ragged Staff. The three turned in towards the stable where two boys lazily got up to help with their horses. Both almost immediately ran off when another man darkened the entrance.
The man took two steps toward Bloodeye but suddenly stopped as he saw that Sting had already jumped from his horse and had his bow drawn. Dahlia was close enough she could slice the bowstring with her knife but just as she started to move she felt a pain in her hand. Another thrown dagger had pierced it. Her own knife had fallen from her grip and both weapons fell to the floor as she clutched her wounded hand to her breast. She heard a cry cut off in a gurgle and turned to see an arrow sticking from the neck of Acharn. Sting now had turned and his bow was aimed right at her. To the left, Bloodeye had another dagger already in hand.
“Now you’re going to tell us what’s really going on.”
Both boys looked ready to do murder again and Dahlia’s mind worked furiously as to how she could recover the situation.