Keenin lay awake in Alaban’s guest room feeling the throb of every herb-smeared scrape and burn and wishing that nobody would come check on him. This was never the way that Keenin had wanted to be invited upstairs. And to be honest, he felt too awful to appreciate the change.
Between the guest room experience and the voices filtering in from the hall, he was more likely to survive the people. Whoever had put him here for recovery had made the wrong choice. The sinking feather mattress and itchy grey blanket were tolerable, but the well-intentioned open window was threatening to end him as the sun assaulted his already overheated body. At any moment he felt like he might turn over and vomit the soot that was churning in his stomach. This must have been how a dragon felt on a sick day.
Before he got a chance to become sicker Keenin pushed back the unbearable sheets and slid down to the floor. He immediately felt chilled, but his stomach started to settle as he continued to inhale fresh air and exhale the taste of smoke. Feeling that he was ready to stand, he got up from the floor and went out into the hallway. The hum of voices was loud here. There must have been a lot of people downstairs. That made Keenin feel more uncomfortable than the guest room. Alaban must not have been well for people to be let into the house. Who knew what they could be poking at or trying to steal? He saw that there was an open door at the very end of the hall and went towards it. He had intended to enter, but when he heard that Alaban was speaking to someone he wanted to wait and listen. He wanted to know how bad things were before he faced anyone.
“You should be able to stand in three days,” the stranger said, “Someone will need to look after you until then.”
“I can help if Keenin isn’t feeling well,” Lester said.
Why was Lester here?
“Does your friend have no family name?” Alaban asked.
“I’ve never heard of one. We just called him Keenin because he wouldn’t give us a name. Is it that strange?”
“What happened to his parents?”
“His dad never came back from the war with the giants. His mom must have left him to take care of herself. I just know that I visited his house one day and there was no mother, no food, no nothing.”
Keenin had heard enough. He wandered back down the hall. He wanted to go downstairs and pick leaves apart as always, but he could hear the visitors crowded into Alaban’s house, likely waiting for the news that their potion seller survived.
Keenin came to the closed door between his and Alaban’s room. Looking for a place to be alone he opened it to be faced with a heavier silence. There on the bare floor of an otherwise empty room lay two bodies covered in white sheets.
If only he had been there earlier, he told himself again. If only he had listened to the man warning him about opening that door. If only he had run to Alaban’s house instead of the fire then at least-
“It really wasn’t his fault,” Alaban’s voice filtered out to him.
“I’m the failure.” Lester was saying. “I ran as fast as I could. If I had been here sooner that guy would never have shot you.”
Keenin shut himself into the room. At least corpses couldn’t talk behind your back. At least, they weren’t supposed to. His gaze rested on the face hidden under the small sheet. He found it difficult to believe that it was her. A charred body might have belonged to anyone.
Leave, he thought he heard Tess say again.
He stared at the unmoving body.
“Tess?” he questioned the room.
“Leave!” Alaban said outside. “I’ll call you back when needed. Where is Keenin?”
Keenin’s heart raced. He had not expected someone to say that after he thought it. Two people walked past the room he was in. Then one came back and opened the door. It was a man he had never seen before. This man wore a white tunic under a simple padded vest marked with the double unicorn crest of a white knight.
“Make no mistake, she is dead,” the man told him.
“I’m not stupid,” Keenin said turning away from him.
“Your mentor would like to speak to you.”
“I heard him,” Keenin said, pretending to still examine the covered bodies.
“You should pay more respect to others.”
“I will pay respect when I see you there,” he said pointing at the dead. “Now would you leave me alone? My friend just died.”
The white knight backed off a few steps, but remained in the room. What is wrong with him, Keenin thought. Just because he was a royal peacekeeper didn’t mean he could act as though this concerned him. Or worse, maybe it did concern him. Keenin glared back at the man one more time before slipping past into the hallway.
Alaban’s room was much nicer: large oak bed, thin silk sheets, a lamp on the side table, and paintings of mountains on the walls.
“Your guest room is horrible,” Keenin complained.
Alaban started to laugh and stopped himself.
“Ah, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t laugh.”
Keenin’s expression had gone sour.
“Are you really not going to blame me,” Keenin asked.
He didn’t even feel sad. Tess was dead. That should have mattered.
“Ha,” Alaban said. “You don’t deserve all the blame. I set up this fight myself when I insulted that war criminal Merdoc. Your friend Lester came running to warn me while I was resetting the alarm to scare you two sneaks.”
“But you got injured.”
“Of course,” Alaban said. “Merdoc shoot my leg as we ran for the fire. Your friend stole my gun and nearly shot him back before the man ran like the coward he is. Then we had to get you so Lester started hauling buckets of water while I tried to knock down the door. The white knight arrived looking for the criminals.”
“Why is he still here?”
“He’s waiting for you.”
“It’s not what you think. His name is Renaldo Ecclestone, a White knight of Meladona and he wants to take you to the school of magic there.”
“For learning magic.”
“I don’t have magic.”
“He would think otherwise,” Alaban said. “You did come out of the fire remarkably un-burnt.”
Keenin remembered the flaming figure that had seemed to stand between him and Tess. Had it been the real culprit of his hallucinations?
“I think something else helped me,” Keenin said.
“Then you have a unique fortune to catch people’s attention, and very likely the attention of an elemental spirit of fire. I hear that spirits can take an interest in people and lend their magic, though not always in your favor.”
“Great. Then it’s no longer here. Tell that white knight that I’ll stay to take care of you so he can chase those criminals,” Keenin said.
“Keenin,” Alaban said. “That knight is here precisely because your elemental didn’t leave. Renaldo sees it as his duty to take magic users for training so they can control themselves.”
“I’m training to be a potion seller.”
“Yes. You don’t have to accept every new opportunity, but people like you are valuable. A man called Iscara is waging a war to the west and has spies hunting down gifted people like you. I’m afraid it’s safer sticking with that knight. And I can’t stop him from taking you.”
Keenin didn’t know what to say. He had never seen the old man so helpless. Alaban made a painful motion in which he pulled a gun from under his back and pushed it sideways against Keenin’s chest.
“I want you to do me this favor. I want you to run. I want you to keep this magic a secret until you can defend yourself.
Keenin instinctively held the gun before Alaban lost his grip on it and it could fall to the floor. He couldn’t refuse, not with knowing how much Alaban cared and knowing that the old hero didn’t want him to face a battle.
“Take the bag beside the bed,” Alaban instructed. “When you go downstairs pretend that you need to get something from the pantry, there’s a hidden door at the back. Go through and head for the oak tree to get the map.”
Footsteps could be heard coming down the corridor. Keenin grabbed the bag from the ground and shoved the gun into it. He turned to face the door with the bag in hand.
“Are you ready to go boy?” the white knight asked of him.
This was serious. He had not realized how serious.
“What about the funeral?” Keenin asked the knight.
Surely they could give him a few more hours, a few more minutes.
“You said goodbye didn’t you. I need to drop you off and get back on Merdoc’s trail. You don’t want to see Merdoc do this to another town do you?”
“No,” Keenin agreed automatically.
Renaldo Ecclestone walked away expecting him to follow.
“You don’t have to be so tense,” Lester said appearing. “Renaldo agreed to take both of us so we can go through this together. It’s not exactly the same, but we can finally get some respect. Want me to take that bag for you?”
Keenin looked at his friend Lestor as though he had never known him. Lester didn’t understand that this wasn’t the same for them both. It wasn’t an equal choice when Keenin had a gift that others wanted to use and abuse, but he had no time to explain.
“I can carry it,” Keenin said, tightening his grip.
“Well, hurry down,” Lester said going.
“I’m sorry,” Alaban said. “You can follow them if you want.”
This must have been what people called a change in fate. Finding his quiet life would need to wait.
“It’s ok,” Keenin told his mentor. “This is just a detour. I’ll find myself a decent magic teacher and come home as soon as I can. We can start where we left off.”
He slung the bag over his shoulder.
“This might even be fun.”
“Keenin,” Alaban said, stalling him. “You know that you don’t have to come back.”
Keenin smiled to himself. The old guy was too cynical for his own good. He looked Alaban in the eyes.
“Then give me a year. Don’t give away my spot till then. And if my mom shows up, you tell her she made the right choice.”
“So will you.”
“Keenin let’s go!” Lester called from outside.
By the time Keenin got to the bottom of the steps and saw Lester waiting by the front door beyond the gathering of concerned villagers, he had decided. He lifted a hand in acknowledgment and went to open the pantry door. He pushed aside some small bags of flour to reveal the latch in the rough plank wall and just like any other day he went out and quietly shut this door behind him. The tail end of the horse was two arm lengths away. He envisioned riding it. Instead, he moved on.
As Alaban had said the people didn’t pay him attention as he took his time and when he got to the oak tree sadness again filled his heart. He wanted to stay. His hand was shaking when he picked up a brach to start digging and every gouge into the earth was like a self-inflicted wound. At last he pulled out the red tufted Yan plant by the roots and clawed the dry earth until his hands couch the edge of a metal object.
It had taken too long to unearth and not wanting his final choice to escape to be undone Keenin recklessly stabbed around till he got the cylinder out and popped open the lid to see there was parchment inside. And this must have been the map.
“Is that something valuable?” a quiet voice asked behind him.
It was Keln, the leader of the thieves. Against the backdrop of houses, his former boss stood filing his nails with a knife as though the weapon was a joke.
“If you like dried pork,” Keenin noted. “Then I guess it counts as valuable.”
“Then what’s in your bag?”
“And your pockets.”
Keenin put the cylinder in his bag and gripped the handle of the pistol. He pulled out the gun and pointed it at his former boss.
“The war criminals were more honorable,” Keenin said. “They kept to their word.”
“Different profession,” Keln said. “But now I see you really are running away. If you hand that over you can come back. I’ll tell them your betrayal was part of our plan to get that old hero’s treasure.”
“You better let me go Keln. You aren’t the only one looking for me today. I’d rather see you arrested when the white knight comes to find me,” Keenin said.
“What a bluff,” Keln said. “I bet that gun isn’t loaded either.”
Keenin pulled back the loading lever on top.
“I won’t miss you,” Keenin said.
“Keenin!” Renaldo yelled.
Keenin and Keln looked to the side. The knight sat tall atop his white horse further down the tree line, looking unfairly imposing as the sunlight glinted from bits of metal armor on his shoulders and shins. Renaldo must have circled around the village.
Keenin forgot about shooting Keln. He plunged into the forest behind him, stuffing the gun back into the bag as he ran. He heard Keln curse and the pounding of a horse’s hooves, but focused on pushing through the brush.
Keenin heard the rustle and snap of twigs when the horse began maneuvering through the trees behind him. The trees weren’t thick enough to slow it down. Keenin had the urge to take the map from the canister so that he knew where he was going, but it would have slowed him. He knew that the forest was thicker deeper inside so he kept moving forward. He even changed his direction to throw the trail, but no matter what move he made the horse and rider followed. Either the man had amazing eyesight to pick out the fresh trail or he had the special ability to see exactly where Keenin had moved. Keenin started to think the plan was a failure until he charged down a slope and accidently walked into the Basalt River that ran west out of the mountains and past the farms. Keenin used the current to propel him downstream. His wet clothes and the sack were a drag, but he found some brush by the bank to hide in. The horse and rider approached the river.
Renaldo immediately turned his head to look downstream. He turned the animal into a slow walk near the bank, but soon stopped and retraced his steps.
“If you are here,” Renaldo Ecclestone said, “Know that your life will be as unpleasant as it is for all with the knowledge of magic. As you try to marvel in your gift people will hate you. As you try to bring balance people will use you. Our city would take care of you and your friend and provide you with peace. This is your last chance to reveal yourself.”
Keenin stayed still. It was time for others to stop controlling his life.
“You are lucky I don’t go back on my word,” Renaldo called. “I shall be taking your friend as he wished. See what treatment you receive and find us in Meladona if you will.”
Renaldo turned his horse from the bank and rode back through the forest. Keenin was alone. He swam to a clear part of the bank and climbed out of the river. He looked through the contents of the bag.
He pulled out the cylinder first and pried off the lid. Inside was a map kept dry and safe by its metal casing. When he unfurled it, ink bubbled to the surface. Alaban had been telling the truth.
It was time for him to go.