My Brother’s Keeper – Second Interlude (text)

Blackness.

Everywhere… everything… blackness. That was the first thing Kayeen noticed but the second followed close on its heels. He was alone. It wasn’t just that there were no people around. There was nothing. As dark as it was, somebody could have been a foot away and he wouldn’t have been able to see them. No. This darkness was more than being unaware of what was around. It was more than that. He wasn’t laying on a bed like he should have been. Kayeen reached out but there was nothing to feel. He stretched his legs out beneath him but there was no ground. There was nothing.

“Hello?”

Kayeen called out but he could not even hear his own voice. It wasn’t just that it sounded hollow. It was more than the fact that there was no echo or anything like that. His mouth had opened and he had voiced the words, but no sound had come. He tried again. Again, nothing.

Kayeen looked up and down. He turned. He placed his hand so close to his face he felt it touching his nose but still he could not see it. Kayeen began to panic.

“Is anybody there?!”

Even if somebody was, they could not have heard him. Kayeen could hear the words in his head. He even had put his hands to his throat and mouth and felt the words being formed. He had screamed the question out as loud as he could, but there was no sound. There was nothing. Nothing but the blackness.

Kayeen could feel his heart racing. He had never been so scared in his life. His eyes darted this way and that but there was nothing to see. His hands and legs stretched and kicked and reached, but there was nothing to feel. Nothing to touch.

“What is this?” Kayeen called into the silence. “Where am I?”

“Not where… when.”

Kayeen heard the response in his head even though no sound reached his ears. He turned around but still, there was nothing there. He could not pinpoint where he had heard the voice. It had simply appeared in his head.

“I haven’t brought you anywhere else. You are still exactly where you were in the cabin on the Blue Spray. But now you are there before.”

“Before what?” Kayeen asked.

“Everything. Before the beginning. Before time itself.”

The voice he heard was not his own. It could not be said that these were his own thoughts and words or even a voice like he would hear in his mind when he imagined or remembered the words of another. It was… different. It wasn’t just different in quality, timbre, or tone. It was different in kind. There was no way he could ever really explain it to another or even understand it himself. The words, the thoughts… they just were.

“Are you ready?”

“Ready for what?” Kayeen thought his response. He didn’t even bother trying to form the words. There was no point.

“The beginning.”

Something turned Kayeen around. But that doesn’t explain it right. He wasn’t being turned so much as re-positioned. There were no hands. There was no sense of touch at all. Something, somehow, had moved him a bit to the right and tilted him upward.

Then there was nothing again. Kayeen had not even realized that he had felt some… presence… until it was gone again, but that voice, that presence, had brought calm with it. It had brought peace, and now that it was gone the panic was beginning to rise up again. The darkness, the nothingness, threatened to overwhelm him…

“Let there be light.”

The voice seemed much louder than it had before. This time it didn’t seem to be speaking to him in his mind. No, he had actually heard it shouting a command into the darkness. That voice carried so much authority that Kayeen looked down at his hands and truly believed that they would be glowing. It was almost a disappointment to find out that everything was still just as dark as it had been a moment before. Then he saw it. Directly ahead was there a tiny pinprick of light.

“There it is.” He heard the voice say.

“What is it?”

“Everything that is. It is all of time. It is all of space. Every star, moon, and planet. The air you breath, the sounds you hear, every animal and bird and creature of the sea, the wind and waves, the sunrises and sunsets seen by millions of lovers, all of the laughter and tears of ten thousand generations, the wars, the nations, the love, the pain and so much more. All of reality as you understand it has just been born and is growing even now.”

Indeed it was growing. Even during that short speech, the tiny dot seemed to have grown brighter. For a time there was silence as Kayeen tried to grasp what the voice that had spoken how on earth could that tiny dot of light contain… everything? Another thought followed close on its heels, just how far away was that little dot?

“It is already larger than you can begin to imagine and further away than you think but it is also heading our way at a speed you couldn’t possibly fathom.”

Kayeen thought about that for a moment. “I can imagine pretty fast.”

The voice laughed. It was not derision so much as amusement.

“What? I can.”

There was almost a smile in the words Kayeen heard next. “Your imagination is limited by your experience. You have spent your entire childhood being raised in a tiny unknown forest on the far corner of the fifth and smallest of eleven planets rotating around your below-average sized sun. You have only begun to strike out from that forest and explore a small portion of one corner of one of the continents on your planet.

“You have lived for less than two decades and have spoken to just over a hundred people total in that short life. You have read an insignificantly small fraction of all that has been written, which is but a tiny portion of all the literature yet to come. You speak only one of the hundreds of languages on your planet and although you have an above average potential for creative magic you are still but a drop in the ocean of the vastness of time and space.”

Kayeen chewed on that thought for a while. How many people had lived in the generations who had come before him? How many would live on in the years past his death? How many people were living now, eating and drinking, waking and sleeping, living and dying all over the world even now who were, and always would be, completely unaware of his existence? How much power did he, could he ever truly have? True power was to be able to speak out four words and have the universe resonate in response.

Even as he had listened and thought, that white dot continued to grow. It was now nearly as big as his thumbnail and he could almost imagine that he could visibly watch it expand larger. No, it was not his imagination. He really could see it expand and as it did so, the pace of that growth gradually increased. When that white dot was the size of his fist the Creator spoke again.

“It is wisdom to recognize your place in the world. It brings humility. Know also that among the tens of billions of people who will walk the earth. You are unique. You are special. I love you, Kayeen, my child, and you are mine.”

Until those last three words, Kayeen could literally feel the warmth and love enveloping him. But those last words reminded him of another dream on another night. Someone else, as different as night and day from the Creator had said the same thing to him. When Kayeen remembered that other, the awe and humility he felt when thinking of the Creator was gone. All that remained was jealousy. Here was a God who could speak the universe into being with four words. That was true power. Kayeen envied it.

“I belong to nobody.”

Kayeen sensed a sadness. A presence he had not even realized was there suddenly was gone. Even as that light grew larger and larger right up to the moment it enveloped him, he was all alone.

 

–     –     –     –     –

 

She woke up shivering. Her body was as cold as ice. There was a blanket around her, but it was grossly inadequate to the task of giving her any warmth. Nadezha tried to force her body into stillness as she curled up as tightly as she could. It was no good. Every single exhale brought with it another shiver. The soreness throughout her body told her that she had been shaking for a while before rising to consciousness.

The blanket over her would not cover both her head and her feet when she stretched out. The tingling in her toes told her that they were the priority and she pulled the blanket down over her feet. That left her face was exposed to the icy air. Immediately, Nadezha’s nose and ears began screaming in protest. Nadezha opened her eyes. Nothing. She blinked. Still, there was nothing to see. Reluctantly she pulled one of her hands out from under her armpit and placed it in front of her face. There wasn’t even a shading of deeper blackness. She could see nothing.

“Good morning.”

The voice startled her and she scurried back under the blanket. When she curled as tightly as she could, the blanket did cover her entire body. Nadezha imagined what she must look like, a little mouse shivering under the blanket. She remained there as her fear was replaced by the silence and the cold. She could hear nothing beyond her breath and the shaking of her body against the blanket and the cold stone floor below her. Eventually, she did work up enough nerve to peak out from under the blanket.

‘I was wondering when you would wake up. You have been sleeping for days.”

At the first sound of that voice, Nadezha dropped her head back under the blanket. It wasn’t a frightening voice, rather, it sounded friendly and slightly amused.

“You do know that blanket does not hide you.”

The voice seemed to expect an answer and eventually, reluctantly Nadezha quietly answered, “Yes.”

“So why do you continue to hide?”

Nadezha thought about that for a moment. Slowly she poked her head back out of the blanket. The cold still beat at her face as she looked around. It was just as though her eyes were still shut tight. There was absolutely nothing to see.

“I can’t see you. I don’t know where you are.”

“Yes, the darkness is a problem, but what is the greater problem?”

Nadezha did not need to think before answering this time, “The cold.”

“Yes, the dark and the cold. I have given you an ability that can overcome both of these problems.”

Nadezha knew immediately what the voice was talking about.

“No.”

Her answer echoed into the darkness and for a time there was no response. “Why no?” She thought to herself. She had been taught that it was evil. She had been taught that it was an abomination. What had she done to become an abomination? She didn’t feel any different. She didn’t think she was any different. Then again, she was a murderer.

“You are not a murderer.”

The voice spoke into the darkness so quickly after her last thought that Nadezha wondered if she had voiced it out loud. The voice spoke again.

“If he had not died, where would you be?”

“I would be dead.”

“Just you?”

“No. Avril would have died as well.”

“That young man, Avril, willingly placed his life on the line to save yours, did he not?”

“He did.”

“In turn, you sacrificed something you value far more than life to save him, did you not?”

“I did.”

It was almost as if this mysterious voice was reading her mind when it prompted her to continue, “But…”

“But I killed a man.”

“Let me show you something.”

Before her, Nadezha saw the forest where the confrontation with the Drepti had taken place. With the view of a bird in a branch above, she watched as Avril and the Drepti squared off. Nadezha’s breath caught when she realized it was Davit. Twice Davit came at Avril and was thrown aside. The third time, he kicked Avril square in the chest and landed just feet from Nadezha. She watched with breath held as her image on the ground lit Davit’s face on fire. Then she was seeing what went beyond her memory. The Drepti continued moving forward through the pain, blindly trying to get at her even as the flames spread. She saw Avril jump to his feet and in one fluid motion draw his sword and take off Davit’s head.

“You did not kill him. In a way, Avril did not kill him either. Davit killed himself when he put on the cloak of the Drepti. More than that, he died when he chose to continue beyond any possible hope of success. Nadezha, my sweet child, you do not need to condemn yourself where I do not condemn you.”

At these words, Nadezha broke down and wept. She curled back into a ball under the blanket, brought her hands to her face, and sobbed. All the fear, all the condemnation, all the anxiety, and all the guilt came pouring out of her through the tears spilling from her eyes. For a time everything else was silence as the voice, the Creator, let her work through her sorrow. After what seemed like hours, the tears gradually stilled. As they did so, Nadezha noticed the cold coming back. Until then, she had not even noticed how much warmer the room had been as she wept.

“You can provide heat.”

“I can. Every day I provide that and so much more, but in this room so can you.”

“How can I light a fire when there’s nothing to burn?”

“There is something. I have created a fireplace ready to be set alight.”

Nadezha looked about almost expecting to somewhere see this fireplace. All she saw was the same darkness.

“I can’t see it.”

“No. With your eyes, you cannot. Close them. Look beyond your normal senses.”

Nadezha closed her eyes. She was about to speak again when she vaguely saw, no sensed, no… There was no way for her to describe the image growing in clarity and certainty. She just knew where the fireplace was.

“Good. Now set it ablaze.”

Nadezha reached towards the wood. There was a blinding explosion of light and heat and sound as the wood, the fireplace, and half the wall on that side of the room caught fire. From behind her, she heard a good-natured laugh. She did nothing but somehow the fire everywhere except where it should have been disappeared.

“Right aim, but we definitely need to work on that control. Here try this…”

Nadezha turned to see a man about the age of her father but with older eyes and a younger, more innocent smile looking at her. This man seemed to have a radiance of his own and Nadezha wondered how the room could have been so dark if he had been there the whole time. In this man’s right hand, held between thumb and forefinger, was a small twig.

“Try lighting this.”

“But I’ll burn you.”

That smile came back. “I am not too worried about that.”

Nadezha tried to create the smallest flame she possibly could. A tiny wisp of smoke appeared on the end of the twig.

“A little more.”

The twig, the hand, and half the Creator’s forearm burst into flame. He simply smiled and the flame somehow seemed to be swallowed up into the palm of his hand. Then he pinched his fingers back together and a new, different twig, was there.

“Try again.”

She did try again, and again, and again. Over and over she was creating either too much or too little flame. Occasionally she would do it just right but then the next time, it was off again. When she finally was able to create on the twigs a candle sized flame three times in a row the Creator suddenly disappeared. On the ground near where he had been was a large row of different sized sticks and twigs and even some twine.

His voice spoke into the room. “Now that you have learned control, practice turning these to ash without creating a flame. When you feel you are ready, wake up. Your friends have need of you. Nadezha, even though you do not always see me, I am always near.”

Nadezha set to work.

My Brother’s Keeper – Chapter 12 (text)

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.”

My Brother’s Keeper – Chapter 11 (text)

— 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.

My Brother’s Keeper – Chapter 10 (text)

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.

“Ship ho!”

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?”

“Yes.”

“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.”

“No. Now.”

Nicholai raised his bow and released. Varlam cursed then swung his bow toward the quarterdeck and fired.

 

“Duck!”

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.

My Brother’s Keeper – Chapter 9 (text)

Kayeen left the inn and walked at a fast clip towards the docks. His mind was racing and he needed to get alone. There was too much activity happening there so he chose a street that had warehouses lining each side and headed southeast along it. He continued on until he came to another alley that ended with a rock wall along the water’s edge. This wall was as high as his shoulders and Kayeen climbed up on it and sat down facing out toward the sea.

The young man’s mind was as numb as the fingers that held his cloak tightly against the wind. The cold air blowing in off the water battled to rip open that cloak held in check by frozen fingers. This elemental struggle went unnoticed by Kayeen. His mind was too wrapped up in the battle that raged inside. It had been only a short time since he had bound Damyan and the shock of what exactly he had done to him was just now setting in. Since first picking up his sword he had been reacting to ideas and instincts that he never knew had dwelt inside.

I am a murderer. Kayeen remembered well the shock he had seen in Damyan when he mentioned to the Ranger that first man he had killed. An image of that shocked face was superimposed over another of the unconscious man he had left to die in the frozen north. It was a face of accusation and what he had done back then came back flooding through him in an emotional surge that threatened to overwhelm him. Yes, he had killed again but that second killing was different. There he had been in a kill or be killed situation. That second man had held a knife to his own throat. It was a killing of an evil person in a moment of passion and confusion. The first killing was the deliberate abandonment of a Ranger who was only trying to help.

I am a thief. The sword he was carrying was itself a priceless treasure that must have once belonged to his father. It felt a part of him as much as his arm or leg but he never thought to ask where his dad first got it or why it had been buried all this time. The craftsmanship and the treasure embedded into the sword named it as the property of kings. He was just a jumped up trapper with dreams of being a pirate. He had laid claim to the Blue Spray as his own. Nobody had the strength or the courage to argue his claim, but that did not make it right. The captain and most of the crew still viewed him as a usurper.

I am a runaway. There had been no goodbyes. He had been planning it for months but his parents and his brothers must be devastated. There was no going back, he had seen too much and done too much to ever be content in their small world. He would not go back to frittering his life away in that little forest. Even still, it hurt that he had so abruptly burned that bridge in a fit of anger.

What have I become? Now, on top of everything else, he had forced a man into slavery. Worse than that, a slave might hold on to the hope that he can buy or escape to freedom. A slave might be able to steal a few moments of his own or perform small acts of rebellion to assert his will. Kayeen had just bound a man more tightly than any chain ever could. He had killed one and enslaved another man with Talent. There were certainly others out there. If the Society had survived his parents and what he kept hearing about these Troubles then surely they would be coming for him. The Blue Spray had owners and investors in the trading houses. The more he heard about the houses, the more he feared of having a run in with them. If they knew what he was doing and planning, they would also soon be coming for his head. The more successful he appeared to be, the more complicated his life became.

Kayeen’s old back home in the north was beginning to feel less and less confining and more and more idyllic the more he thought about it. It seemed so peaceful compared to the chaos that was swirling about him in an ever growing torrent. He remembered laughing with his parents and two brothers around the table back home. He remembered the reverence his youngest brother would show when he knelt down each night to say his prayers. As he looked out over the water, Kayeen felt that perhaps it was time to try one of his own.

“Creator, I’ve never been much for prayers. They always seemed like a ritual for me that I didn’t need to bother with. It always seemed I was on the outside looking in. Blood. I don’t even know if You’re real. But if You are, I could use some help right now. Cuz I don’t see a way out of this mess I’m making of things.”

 

As he was praying, near the docks far to the northeast, a dirty little boy in grimy clothes ran along as fast as he could. Every few steps he would look again over his shoulder to see if he was being chased. He spun around a corner, stopped and peeked his head back the way he had come. Once he was sure he had not been pursued the boy walked back into the alley and through the open door of a nearby warehouse. He began pulling at the tops of the wooden crates along the wall. When he found one loose enough, he pried it open, moved around its contents a bit, and climbed into it pulling the top down behind him.

 

Kayeen felt like he should pray something more but he couldn’t think of what. He picked up a chipped thin rock wedged near the top of the stone wall. With his right hand, he skipped it out across the water while the left came down to settle instinctively on the hilt of his sword. His thumb began rubbing the ruby distractedly while he sought for another stone to skip over the water.

Yes, back home was peaceful, but it was also boring. His parents always treated him with condescension and Avril was a nuisance he was glad to have left behind. Yes, he had taken the Blue Spray for himself but wasn’t everyone the better off for it? Yashin and his crew could make more now through his Talent than they ever could before. Yes, he had killed twice but both times it was a fight he hadn’t started. They hadn’t murdered those men so much as he had killed them in self-defense. If that man had been left unconscious to die in the elements, it was his own fault for being there and acting like he had. And Damyan, where did he get off just waltzing into an inn and making demands? Kayeen hopped off his perch on the rock wall. He sauntered back through the alley and began resolutely heading towards the inn he had left. It was time to get to work. There was a world to conquer.

 

–     –     –     –     –

Nadezha rolled over and opened her eyes with a start. Since the two men had not decided what to do with her in the short time she was out, she woke to find them still leaning over her. She quickly picked herself off the ground in wide-eyed shock and tried to scramble away. There was not much room to back up before running up against the cliff and she edged herself to her feet with her back against it without ever taking her eyes off the two strangers. She still held the sliced rope in one hand and she pulled on it until she came to the severed end. When she noticed how cleanly it had been cut, she threw it down as if it were a poisonous snake. In doing this she noticed blood and dirt on her torn shirt near her right arm but she saw and felt no injury. Her fear grew as realization dawned that she had been healed with magic and she frantically started rubbing the blood-stained shirt.

The young one pulled his cloak around to cover his sword and motioned for his older friend to stay back. Nadezha was on the verge of running and she could tell the older one was half hoping she would. She could imagine his logic in the thought. If they let her go, it might be possible for them to get away without bringing the Drepti down on them. If she went with them, surely her people would follow. Perhaps it was the Creator’s will that she ran into them. He allowed her to become an abomination so that these men might be caught.

“My name is Avril. This is Gavril.”

Nadezha turned to look at the younger one as he introduced himself. She quickly looked away so as not to blush. Something that evil should not be allowed to be so good looking.

“You could not let me die with honor, could you? Were you the one who cut the rope?”

“I was. I’m sorry. I…” Avril realized what he was apologizing for. “No, I’m not sorry. I acted in haste, but I would do the same a thousand times. Life is too precious to be wasted.”

“My life ended when I realized I was cursed,” Nadezha replied. “Like you, I’m an abomination.”

Gavril stepped forward. “All you are is misguided. We’re not…”

The older one cut off as Avril stared daggers at him. “I know little of your people. I have been raised apart from the world. Still, I know what it is like to feel as you do. The whole world believes my parents, good kind people, are an abomination. They even partly believe it themselves. It is a weight that has been heavy on me and my family for as long as I have known.”

“Then why would you not let me die with honor?”

“There is no honor in death.”

“You are a fool. There is a time when allowing yourself to die is the only honorable option.”

The young one tilted his head to one side as though he was honestly considering what she was saying. This knocked her off balance. Her whole life it seemed that nobody had ever truly taken her seriously. She didn’t even take herself seriously most of the time. Anyone of the Zingari would immediately shoot back with their own witty reply, but this boy, this abomination, was giving her words serious thought.

“You’re right. There might be a time when death could serve a greater good, but not when it is taken by your own hand.”

“I suppose that means that you won’t just let me try again, will you?”

“I’m afraid not.”

Nadezha shrugged. “If I go off on my own, I’ll just end up killing myself as soon as I know you won’t be there to rescue me again.  I guess that means you need me to lead you to Slobodsky.”

“You will?”

“My name is Nadezha, by the way.”

The older man stood back with folded arms and a frown on his face the entire time. She knew she hadn’t fooled him but was disappointed when he gave her game away to the younger one. “If I think for a second she’s leading us toward her people I’ll tie her up and drag her all the way. You two walk ahead a bit. I’ll stay behind to cover our trail a bit and cover up any breadcrumbs she might try dropping.”

Nadezha felt the heat rising to her face. The other one, Avril, at first looked confused and then there was a noticeable dawning of realization. How could he possibly be so innocent? He turned toward her with an openly hurt look and said, “You would go with us only to make sure that the White Knives would follow?”

She was ashamed of her unwillingness to meet his eyes as she nodded yes. He is evil. It doesn’t matter how innocent and naïve he seems to be. He… is… evil.

Avril took his cloak off and wrapped it around her when he saw her shivering. It was so warm. “I guess we’ll just have to hope the Creator can change your mind before our time runs out.”

They began to move southward and Nadezha continued to repeat the mantra in her head in an effort to silence her growing doubts. He is evil. He is…

 

–     –     –     –     –

 

“Sir, there’s someone at the door.”

“What? At this hour? Send them away.”

“Sir, its a guardsman from Takino. He says it’s urgent. Threatened to take out your door guards if we don’t let him through.”

“From Takino? Well, what is it that Mati wants us to know? Let him through.”

Krushev put down the book he had been reading and hefted his massive bulk up out of the padded chair. With a pained look on his face and a hand on his lower back, he waddled into the parlor. Almost at the same time, a man came into the room from another door led by Krushev’s steward and trailed by two of his guards. This man was wearing the traditional red and black of a city guard. He still had his katana strapped to his back and was still wearing his leather boots. He had the wearied look of one who had ridden fast and hard. Krushev’s curiosity was piqued. What had brought the man with such urgency that he forgot all proprieties?

“I am sorry for the intrusion, Overseer, but my captain ordered me to come to you with all haste.”

“Well, what is it that Mati wants me to know?”

If the guard was surprised at Krushev using his captain’s familiar name he didn’t show it. He answered, “Urnov has called a meeting of the houses in Takino. Apparently his ship, Blue Spray has been taken over and some of the crew murdered. Beyond that, the man who has led this mutiny has the Talent. A young Ranger met him at the Broken Nail. There was some sort of confrontation at the inn and now the Ranger is captured. Either that or he has been turned. Stories conflict”

Krushev leaned back in his chair to process this information. His shifting caused the poor chair to groan in protest but he paid it no mind. Some of what was said he knew. He knew that there was a man on the Blue Spray with the Talent. He had sent Foglaid after him. If this was not the man from the Prophesy then he was to be reeled in before he became useless. If he was the Prophesied…

Krushev had guessed that the Ranger had been pursuing him as well. The plan was for Foglaid to force a confrontation and for one of the two to die. In the worst case scenario, there would be one more thing with which to smear those with magic. At best, the Ranger would have died and Krushev would have strong chords tied to the other one. This mutiny and the fact that the boy was now with the Ranger was news to him. Soon Foglaid should be sending another message his way. The man was the worst coward he had ever seen. But he was an effective coward. More than once Krushev suspected that Foglaid’s apparent cowardice was mostly an act. If so, the man was a very good actor.

“So Urnov has called for the houses there to meet on these issues? He must not like losing the Blue Spray. Isn’t his second son the captain? Did Mati know what they are planning?”

“If so he didn’t tell me. He planned to attend the meeting himself.”

“Well, I’m sure he’ll send word at its conclusion.” The comment was meant for a command. The guard recognized it as such but had the tact not to say anything.

“I’ll begin composing a response to give to your captain. My steward will have food brought to you. Unfortunately, I must ask you to return to the city within the hour.” The guardsman bowed in acknowledgment and followed the two house guards out the door. The steward remained.

“Write a message to Aatzaz. Pass along what we have heard tonight. Also, where is Dahlia? I think she might be needed here.”

“Sir, Aatzaz has Dahlia in Artois snagging a couple boys.”

“The archer and his friend? They will have to wait. If she has them, she can drop them off with Acharn on her way up. If not, she is to ignore them for the time being. Send a message to her to that effect. Include that in your message to Aatzaz as well. It must rankle him that he has invested so much time in Tsyon and now it appears that the Prophesy is coming into play right here in our little corner of the world.

My Brother’s Keeper – Chapter 8 (text)

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.”

“Damyan, I want you to repeat back exactly what I say, understood?”

“Yes.”

“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.

“Stand up.”

Damyan was on his feet before the words even registered.

“Sit down.”

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?”

“Well, I…”

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.”

“You cheated.”

“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.”

 

My Brother’s Keeper – Chapter 7 (Text)

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.”

“The Zingari?”

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.

“Why?”

“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.