The others were all sitting and waiting when Kayeen came limping into the officer’s cabin. The table looked empty with only Sagami, Tiev, and Damyan seated. The last time Kayeen was in this room, there were eight others with him. The last time…
“First thing’s first,” Kayeen said. “What have you done with that boy?”
Sagami answered, “He is in the hold, along with Varlam, the guy who shot Foglaid.”
“What is the normal punishment for mutiny?”
Tiev answered this time, “There’s a plank, sir. We chain their hands together, put weights on their feet, then make them walk off the side of the ship.”
“Sound’s perfect. I am sure the whole crew is supposed to watch the spectacle?”
“Of course, sir.”
“Make sure Yashin gets a front row view. Did any of the swordsmen who attacked survive?”
“No, sir,” Tiev said.
“Too bad. Two traitors are not enough. Draw lots among those who have refused to join. One officer and two crewmen will get the privilege of joining the show. Have them go first, then Varlam, then the boy. After that, throw Yashin off the side. No plank. No weights. Just shove him off. I want his death to be a slow one.”
The other three men simply nodded. After a brief moment of silence, Kayeen turned to Damyan.
“How is Foglaid?”
“I don’t know,” the Ranger answered. “I have done everything I can with my small ability to heal. Now he sleeps. He was so close to death, I don’t know if he will ever wake up. If he does, I do not know if all, or even part of his mind will wake with him. A better healer might know more. I have done what I can.”
“What are his chances of a full recovery?”
In answer, Damyan simply shrugged.
“He took an arrow for me. Thank you for trying, but if you have done what you can, then it is time to pass his care to someone else. Talk with Tiev to chose the best man for the task, teach him what he needs to do, then leave it be. It is in the Creator’s hands now.”
The other three men all caught the tone of bitterness in this last sentence, but none dared comment. Kayeen let out a long sigh and then continued, “Where are we headed?”
Between them, Tiev and Sagami told him about Buse. They pulled out a map and showed how it was cut off from adjacent lands by mountains. Individuals could cross through the many passes, but not armies. At least, not easily. They mentioned the town’s small size and mediocre port as additional reasons why only two of the smaller houses even bothered to keep a trading post there. Mostly, Buse was a simple fishing village. It wasn’t by any stretch the best port to winter in but it was unquestionably the safest.
From there, they told him the condition of the Mist and what had been done with the crew. Some of this had been told him by Damyan earlier, but hearing the report in full by the two experienced officers gave him a much better picture. Kayeen worked out a schedule with them where he could meet with the Mist’s crew a few at a time in small groups to see who could be reliably recruited.
Just when they thought they were done, Kayeen threw out a surprise question: “Do you know who I am?”
The other two men looked back at him with blank stares, but Damyan slowly, hesitantly nodded his head. When Kayeen looked at him, the Ranger quietly said, “I think I do.”
“Care to share your guess?”
“Your parents are Andrei and Yevenna?” Damyan said it as half a statement and half a question. Sagami at first started to smirk, but when he realized that the guess was right he muttered, “Flaming moah.” Tiev slightly elbowed him. Sagami put a hand to his mouth but continued to mumble one imprecation after another.
Kayeen’s next question at first seemed unrelated, “I’ve heard bits and pieces but it is hard to sift rumor from fact. Tell me true, does the Society still exist?”
When Damyan nodded yes, Sagami broke into another quiet string of curses. Next to him, Tiev was torn between his own shock at these two revelations and his desire to hear his friend’s surprising compendium of curse words. He never knew how creative Sagami could be.
Damyan ignored the two and went on, “The world thought we had all been wiped out during the Troubles. That was closer to the truth than we would like to admit, but in the decades since, we have slowly been rebuilding. There is a subterranean city underneath the old, abandoned Tsion. Right now there are probably about two hundred members living there along with about a thousand students. There are perhaps another two hundred Rangers who crisscross the world running messages and errands and also looking for young ones we can bring back to train. Then there is probably another thousand members scattered throughout the world living seemingly normal lives with no one realizing they have the Talent.”
It was clear that Sagami had done the math as “… bloody two and a half thousand burning sheep’s…” could be heard slightly clearer than the flow cursing before and after it. Tiev elbowed him again, but he still did not stop.
Kayeen asked, “So part of your job is to hunt down kids with the Talent so you can brainwash them into your Society before their neighbors might find out they’re witches and kill them, right?”
Damyan nodded. it was clear by looking that he agreed with the essence, but not the wording of Kayeen’s question.
“Was that what you were planning to do with me?”
Again, more hesitantly, he nodded.
“So slavery or death, that were to have been my choices?”
“I wouldn’t consider joining the Society anything close to slavery.”
Kayeen slammed his fists down on the table before Damyan had even finished. “My parents are still slaves to the Society. How long has it been since they were exiled, forty years? Fifty? They both still have the Talent. Neither one has used it even once in all that time. Who would know? The Society has outcast them and then forgotten all about them. Still, they follow your stupid laws. Not me! I am a slave to no man! Never!”
Again, kayeen slammed both hands down on the table. At the same time, he stood so quickly the bench toppled behind him. The other three just watched in silence as he limped out, banging his staff with each step. He slammed the door on his exit and since it bounced slightly back open, he slammed it again.
– – – – –
Avril sat in silence with Gavril as the two warmed themselves by the fire they had started inside the old abandoned building just outside of town. Nadezha lay under their blankets by the wall. She could be asleep. She could be dead. Apart from the faint but steady heartbeat, there seemed to be no difference. Neither men seemed to be in the mood for conversation.
“What happened to her?” Gavril asked?
“I don’t know. He was attacking her when I took him from behind.
Gavril removed the makeshift bandage Avril had made on Nadezha’s wounded arm. After checking it closely he began to rewrap the bandage. “We will have to clean this better, but there is no sign of poison. Not from this wound. Did he manage any other cuts?”
“I don’t know. He never was close to her until the end. I don’t think so.”
Gavril closely examined the girl from head to toe while Avril watched and waited in anxious silence. As he was waiting, he began to realize how much his chest hurt from the White Cloak’s kick. Nothing was broken but there was going to be a sizable bruise and it did hurt a bit when he breathed in too hard.
“Nothing,” Gavril said. “She has some scrapes on her right hand, but I don’t think they came from the fight. There is only that one cut which isn’t really all that deep. She fainted, which is good because that means we can safely move her. We need to get away from here and into town as quickly as we can.”
The two of them took turns carrying her the short distance remaining. Nadezha was both short and petite but both men were pushing the point of exhaustion. The building Gavril led them to could not have arrived soon enough.
Over and over Avril replayed the events from three days ago. His mind went over the fight. He pushed himself to try and remember what had happened. Most importantly, he tried to reason what the assassin could have done to Nadezha while his head seemed to be exploding in flame. Avril could not even begin to guess what had happened, but nobody simply faints and then remains unconscious for days on end.
After that first day, Gavril would leave before the sun rose and not return until dinnertime. He would return bearing food for the two of them and enough to spare Avril could save some for breakfast. While Gavril was out, Avril would melt some snow collected from behind the house and give the water to Nadezha. If he tried to give her anything more than a slow steady drip, she would only start to choke. For the past two days, he had spent hours just sitting there, giving her water. He would sit there helping her drink while closely watching the almost imperceptible rising and falling of her breath.
Besides their diminutive height, Nadezha bore little resemblance to Yvenna, Avril’s mother and the only other woman he knew. Where his mother had jet black hair, Nadezha’s was the brown of rich earth. Nadezha was much lighter skinned than Yvenna and even lighter than Avril himself but still darker than both Gavril and Andrei. Yvenna had creases at her brow and on the corners of her eyes developed from years of care and the hard living of the north. Nadezha’s features seemed more delicate. Although she remained completely expressionless and unresponsive, Avril felt as though she was hiding a deep pain behind those closed eyes.
Gavril’s return in the evenings did little to liven their temporary shelter. Both men were used to solitude and comfortable with silence. Avril shared what had happened in the fight and Gavril explained why it had seemed so difficult for Avril to push the assassin. Gavril was actually surprised the boy had done as much as he had and shared some other ways Avril could counter the White Cloak’s speed, agility, and magic resistant cloak in the future. He couldn’t emphasize enough that their wisest tactic was to try and avoid them altogether. Beyond that, there was little conversation.
They sat around that small fire in silence. There was a slight whistling of the wind pushing through the patchy roof. Outside snow came down burying all tracks and covering the world in layers of white as it had been doing almost nonstop since their arrival. Occasionally a stronger gust would push against the old building stirring up a wooden rattle. Once or twice there would be a deep crunching sound as segments of the white buildup abandoned the slanted roof to crash into the piles on the ground below.
Gavril stood and stretched before laying himself against the ground a bit further from the fire. There were no blankets for the two men as Nadezha was buried under both. Gavril leaned up on one elbow facing Avril who was still seated near the fire. “I will be back earlier tomorrow. Around noon. Have everything ready to go the moment I arrive. It’s time we push on.”
“Has there been news of my brother?”
Gavril gave a slight negative nod of his head before turning to lay back and closing his eyes. Almost immediately he was asleep. Avril sat for a few moments more by the fire before using his magic to fan the flame’s heat towards the rocks set there for that purpose. Those rocks would radiate that heat most of the night and combined with the snow’s insulation all would be fine until morning.
“Let her wake. Creator, if ever you’ve heard my plea, let her wake.” Avril repeated that request over and over almost as a mantra for what seemed like hours until sleep finally took him.
There was no sunlight when he finally returned to the land of the living. Gavril had left long since but he had built up the flame before going and the large room was still on the cool side of comfortable. Avril lay on his back for a while. The snow and wind outside had stopped but even without the distraction, and with his magic enhanced senses, he could barely hear Nadezha’s breathing. She was still in her deep sleep.
Slowly he got up and began his morning routine. He grabbed a piece of hard cheese and let it play around in his mouth as he added wood to the fire then grabbed some snow from just outside the back door. The stuff was about two feet high right at the door but more than twice that further out. There was no snow falling but the sky above was still dark and overcast. For a while, Avril simply stood there by that open door looking out at the picturesque view of the white blanketing the trees and branches in the sparse woods as far as he could see. It was so different from the misty gray of his shrouded forest and the barren openness of the frozen desert around it.
Back inside he was just finishing up repacking their few belongings when he heard the clopping of horses hooves against frozen ground stopping where the little-used trail came closest to the house. There was the crunching of multiple sets of footsteps as men continued forward and Avril was standing and watching the door when two strangers burst through it.
“Good. You’re ready.” The taller one said after a brief look around the open building. “Gavril bids you come. Quickly.”
While he was talking, the other man had walked over to Nadezha, scooped her up, and headed back out into the cold. The man who had spoken cast a nervous glance at Avril’s scabbard before the smile returned to his face and he waved Avril forward. They all plowed their way through the snow and toward a large carriage being pulled by four horses. The first man disappeared inside with Nadezha then reappeared a moment later with a large, thick pair of gloves.
“Before hopping in, would you be so kind as to put these on?” The man behind him yet uncomfortably close asked Avril. Confused, he complied and as soon as they covered his hands, the silent one grabbed his wrists in a vice-like grip and backed into the carriage leading Avril along. Once he was inside, Avril saw that Gavril was already inside. His hands were also in gloves but also bound together on his lap but he did not seem worried in the least. As the horses began to move forward again, the talker apologized for the inconvenience while his companion began wrapping another length of rope around Avril’s wrists.
– – – – –
The clearing they had been moving toward for protection against the White Knife had become a camp. It seemed to have taken forever for Paeder to build a travois on which to lay his oversized and seriously injured cousin. Neither he nor his injured, exhausted new companion, Rowyh had any talent in healing. By the time they had managed to stop the blood flow from Wilhelm’s neck, the giant had lost so much blood that he looked white.
Rowyh’s cut on his back was not nearly as deep or as debilitating as it looked. Even still, the poor kid was so exhausted he fell asleep face to the ground almost the instant they had stopped moving. He remained in that position dead to the world for the remainder of the day and through the night. Paeder had covered him against the cold of the evening and checked his pulse and breathing a few times but the real concern was his cousin.
Wilhelm drifted in and out of consciousness. The wound to his neck was hot as open flame and it was clear that even breathing was painful for him. Even after Paeder was able to force him to drink, the pale complexion did not change. The only color the large man showed was a spreading deep red around the injury which showed that the infection was defeating his body’s defenses.
The camp became a deathwatch. The next day Rowyh woke and the two took turns watching and caring for Wilhelm. They did what they could but both knew that their efforts were futile. Late in that day, after multiple failed attempts, Rowyh was finally able to successfully use his farsight. That only put an end to the faint hope of outside aid. There was no one who might be able to help that could get to them in time. Wilhelm’s fate was sealed.
Paeder fought against this fate. He did everything he could. Over and over again he forced more water down his cousin’s throat. He held him as still as he could whenever Wilhelm would begin randomly thrashing out in his fevered sleep. The older man drifted into and out of consciousness but even when awake, he didn’t seem very aware of his surroundings. There was no recognition in his eyes when he would look towards the two others. It was almost a relief when, early on the fourth day, his eyes closed for the last time.
Rowyh left to gather some more firewood and to give Paeder some space to grieve. He did his best to resist the urge to scratch against the persistent itch along the edges of his wound on his back. The itch told him that he was healing well, but that brought more guilt than comfort. A stranger, a men he never knew and had barely had the chance to even meet had died in his place. This big blond knight had sacrificed himself to save a Mitsremi boy who had brought nothing but trouble in his wake.
He wandered aimlessly through the forest near their camp for hours returning without picking up a single stick for the fire. When he finally made his way back to their site, Paeder hadn’t moved. He was still planted in the same spot, at Wilhelm’s side, he had been when Rowyh left. The only sign of movement was the steady flow of tears from bloodshot eyes and the occasional shuddering born from silent tears.
Paeder turned to face Rowyh when he noticed him returning. With the heel of his right hand, he wiped his cheek as another tear rolled down. “Can you help?” He looked towards their gear. Rowyh saw the small spade among the other equipment and understood. Over the next couple hours, the two hollowed out a small grave for their fallen companion. Paeder dug with the spade while Rowyh used a sturdy stick as a lever to work the many larger rocks out of the chosen spot. It was well after dusk before the body was laid to rest and the ground replaced to form the familiar graveside mound. Following tradition, Wilhelm’s longsword was buried nearly to the hilt as a grave marker.
Rowyh again backed off giving him space as Paeder stood vigil at the grave. Sleep caught the Seer and carried him away. Through the night and past dawn, Paeder remained standing there, staring at that buried sword. Consciousness returned and Rowyh stretched himself awake to see Paeder still standing vigil. Once the sun was a good two inches above the horizon he finally began to stir from his spot. He looked towards Rowyh and asked with a deep and scratchy voice, “What now?”
Rowyh had been expecting the question and had already seen the answer. “North. There’s a blacksmith we must still meet along the way, but our fate lies far to the north.”