What Happened in Black River
Around five o’clock that evening, they reached one of the small towns where they had stayed on their way to Theraine. It lay half buried in the trees, and when Tell saw it, he pulled back on the reins and brought his horse to a halt. Gray stopped beside him.
“Well,” Tell said, looking ahead of them at the town and wrinkling his nose, “we are assuming our prophetic letter writer is correct, are we not?”
Gray sighed. “Yes, we are.”
“Then I suppose that if we decide to stay the night at this town, we will meet the thiever named Koss here. But if we continue to the next town in hopes of avoiding him here, then he will be there.” Tell sniffed and looked over at Gray. “So the question presented to you seems to be fairly simple: In which town do you wish to defeat your adversary? This one or the next one?”
Gray sat back in the saddle and gave the town his attention. It was an old town called Winter’s Point, named after a weathermaker. The descendants of the founding families still held power here. It made sense for Gray and Tell to stay here again because the inn was clean, which Gray appreciated, and the innkeeper was a healer who took special care to make certain all her guests were comfortable.
But as he considered their options, and what could happen based on a stranger’s letter, he thought about the innkeeper and the inn she had worked diligently to make into a home, and how he and Tell had sat in front of her fire and told stories. Tell had laughed here, truly laughed, and it had seemed almost like a new beginning with him.
So they could not stay here. Not if Gray wished to preserve the memory of Tell’s laughter, unhindered. He didn’t want anything to take that away—for either of them. Also, he would not willingly bring harm upon this specific innkeeper and what she owned.
“We can make the next town before dark,” he said.
Tell nodded. “If that is your decision.”
Two hours later, they reached Black River, a town named for the roiling currents that churned under the bluff on which the town was built. Gray could hear the river even from the town’s main street, nearly a hundred feet above the water. Turning down several meandering side streets, they finally arrived at the inn, a two-story building with lanterns hanging on the porch. All the lower windows glowed with lamplight.
As a groomsman hurried out of the stable to take their horses, Gray and Tell lingered in the courtyard. The inn sat on the edge of the bluff; in daylight the view from the back porch was likely spectacular.
“We weren’t attacked on the road,” Tell said after a moment or two.
“I noticed,” Gray replied.
“So it must be that the attack will happen here. At this inn.”
“So it seems.” Gray lowered his voice. “Listen, Tell. I’m not sure what will happen here tonight, but use your best judgment with what you see. You may not want to believe your eyes.”
Tell glanced at him. “I take it you mean something beyond the normal workings of the thiever gift. I know how thievers operate.” Shadow flickered through his eyes. “One of my former master’s sons was a thiever, and he took great enjoyment in showing me how his gift worked.”
Gray put his arm around Tell’s shoulders and walked with him across the courtyard. There had been a time when touching this boy was physically painful, enough to set the teeth on edge and drive despair like a spear through the heart. It could be like that with feelers sometimes, when their anguish was greater than their hope. But in the last two weeks, touching Tell had become much like touching anyone else. Perhaps this was because Tell was “focused” on Gray’s emotions, or however he put it. He was trying to feel what Gray felt and not what he himself was feeling. But whatever occurred here, it did seem to Gray that Tell was doing better.
“It seems likely that in the next few hours, I will somehow do something that offends Koss.” Gray pulled his arm off Tell’s shoulders and spoke quickly as they approached the front door. “Which will cause him to respond with aggression. Brace yourself and keep watch on your surroundings. Be aware at all times. But hear me as I say this, Tell—if mayhem occurs, I want you to stay out of it. Let me take care of it, by myself. I have a little more training in these things than you do.”
Tell glanced through the large window next to the door. “Is that the only reason? That you have more training than I?”
Gray paused. “No. But it is a primary reason.” He felt the frown that pulled his brows over his eyes. “Are you asking if I want you to stay out of it because of your gift? That is not my reasoning whatsoever.”
Tell smiled slowly. “I didn’t think it was.” And then he opened the door and went inside.
Shaking his head, Gray followed him.
The entrance smelled of cinnamon and soap, the latter of which Gray took to be a positive sign. They paid for a room, took their supper downstairs in the common room, and there discovered an interesting thing—they were the only guests that night. Koss wasn’t at the inn.
“Prophets aren’t known for making mistakes,” Tell said, looking around the empty room.
“Do you think the letter writer is truly a prophet?”
Tell turned to Gray in surprise. “You don’t think this?”
Gray shrugged. “There are only two prophets on, or near, the continent right now. One is the Prophet of Theraine, a man everyone knows about, and one is the e’nethaine prophet, a man very few know about. I have good reasons to believe neither of them sent that letter.”
“What if it is the new prophet?”
Gray looked at him blankly. “What new prophet?”
“The Prophet of King’s Barrow. The one you mentioned yesterday.”
“Ah, the prophet who does not exist.”
Tell frowned at him. “What? You made it sound like such a mystery yesterday, and the man isn’t even born yet?”
Gray held up his hand. “I said he doesn’t exist. That is a very different condition than someone who hasn’t been born.”
“You speak in riddles. And you enjoy it.”
Gray laughed. “I am having the same conversation with you that I was forced to have with the Prophet of Theraine. How can a man be born and yet not exist? I don’t understand it either, but the prophet was quite insistent that that is the case here. The Prophet of King’s Barrow has already been born…but not to the extent that he is the Prophet of King’s Barrow.”
“That is…very strange.”
“I agree and told him so. In reply, he said I would understand when I was older.”
Tell gaped at him. “But you are old.”
“Not compared to some, but thank you.”
“You know what I mean.”
The kitchen door swung open as a servant girl walked into the common room, her arms filled with towels. She dropped her load onto one of the empty tables, separated the towels into two piles, and began folding the pile on the right, pretending she didn’t see Gray and Tell at the table against the wall.
“If,” Tell whispered, “the letter writer is not a prophet, then what is he?” The boy paused. “Could he be a seer?”
Gray released his breath in a sigh. “That is a possibility, yes.”
“But seers see in pieces. They don’t typically see this much, in this much detail.”
GRAY WAITED UNTIL TELL was asleep. Then he climbed from the bed, pulled on his boots, and shifted.
The moonlight falling across the floor grew bright and silver where his shadow no longer interrupted its glow. To any lander who entered here, the room would appear empty, save for the boy snoring in the bed. Gray crept across the floor to the window and slid out into the night.
The back courtyard two stories below the window was quiet. After a brief glance, Gray headed for the wooden gate, sliding through the slats that offered no more space than a man’s arm.
It irked him that the seer—the letter writer was a seer; Gray was certain of this, despite the implications—had known he would do this, that the man somehow knew that if something didn’t come to Gray, Gray would go and find it. In this situation in particular, there was little else Gray could do. Tell was a prince of Rak-Min and the cousin of the king of King’s Barrow, Gray’s employer. It was imperative that he keep the boy safe. If that meant drawing the enemy away from him, so be it.
He remembered how Tell had described Gray’s emotions yesterday as “very, very annoyed.” Yes, he was. And when he was very, very annoyed, he climbed out windows late at night so he could go find thievers who wanted to kill him.
In the end, the thiever named Koss wasn’t difficult to find.
The town of Black River was home to no more than four hundred people, which meant that Gray could provide himself with a workable understanding of its buildings and inhabitants within a few hours. The baker, he discovered, had just given permission for the butcher’s son to marry his daughter. The carpenter who lived next door did not trust anyone living on this street, and that especially included the baker. The smithy two houses away was having an argument with his wife; Gray didn’t know what the argument was about, but the smithy was sleeping on a pallet in his workroom, and the door to his house was locked from the inside.
The next street overlooked the bluff and the river far below. The rapid water called to Gray as he slipped through the shadows and moonlight like a ghost that had no substance, but he ignored its voice as he came upon two men sitting in darkness on the second house’s back porch. Hearing the venom in their voices, he stepped up to the porch rails to listen.
The first man, a pipe in one hand and a mug of ale in the other, was saying in a tense whisper, “…can’t just make this kind of decision! You told me you weren’t going to do this anymore without discussing it with me first.”
“I haven’t done anything yet,” the second man protested.
“This is a small town. It doesn’t matter that we don’t have a justice here—a theft of this proportion will be discovered, and it will upend the town itself. What’s wrong with stealing from the administrator? We’ve been doing that for months, and he is none the wiser. Let us stay within our limits, Braidek. It would be unwise for us to venture beyond them.”
Braidek? Gray paused as that name hit upon a fading memory. Where did he know that name? He looked through year upon year of his business for the king and, finally, dragged to the surface the information he sought. Braidek was one of several names used by a thiever who had worked with Finniker Dreifen, a well-known highwayman in King’s Barrow. Gray and the king’s team arrested the highwayman, but one of the man’s captains, Braidek—or Therran, as he was calling himself at the time—managed to escape with the help of an alchemist with a hand cannon. Gray had caught a stomach-full of small steel balls and, unable to call upon any of the king’s healers accompanying him, had run to his friend Hamal to be put back together.
So Braidek escaped, but the king was pleased to have Finniker Dreifen in chains and considered the case closed, despite the loss of Dreifen’s captain.
Gray took a breath as he realized what this was. What Braidek was calling himself these days. What the seer had carefully arranged. As he saw the situation clearly for the first time, Gray swallowed a groan and rubbed his face with both hands, wishing he had a way of communicating his vast dislike to their unwanted benefactor. Tell was correct—the seer thought he was being helpful, didn’t he? What a horrible thing, to come across a helpful person.
Gray truly did hate sand spiders.
– H –
Comment below or click here to find us on Facebook. The next chapter will be posted on Friday, a week from today. Sign up for our mailing list below so you won't miss an installment.
Copyright notice: © 2018 by Lauren Stinton. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, events, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.