“Her heart is beating still,” he told Gabe. “She’s very close to death. But she is still alive. We have very little time, and I have very little left of the gift I once possessed. But I am going to use it. I am going to look beyond and try to see where he is. After that, it will be up to you. Your gift is still young.”
“Do you need to go to some special place?” Gabe asked, wiping his eyes on the sleeve of his shirt.
“No. I just need to gather my strength. And I need quiet, for concentration.
“Claire? Can you hear me?” Jonas said toward the old woman. She didn’t respond. She took a slow, deep breath.
“Gabe will sit here beside you. Gabe, hold her hand so that she knows you’re there.”
Gabe took the gnarled hand in his own.
“I’m going to close the door to the cottage so that no one comes in, so that it will be quiet. I’ll be here, by the window.” He was speaking to them both. “I’m told that this is difficult to watch, Gabe. But don’t be afraid. It’s not painful for me, just very draining. It shouldn’t take long.”
Jonas went to the front of the cottage, spoke briefly to the people gathered outside, then closed and latched the door. Gabe, watching him, could see that already he was changing in some way; he was becoming something different from the ordinary and pleasant man he had been. He went to the window and stood looking through it into the night, though his eyes were half closed. He was breathing deeply, in and out, very slowly. Suddenly he gasped, as if he were pierced by pain. He moaned slightly. Gabe found himself squeezing the old woman’s hand. He continued to watch Jonas.
On the bed, Claire breathed occasionally, with a tortured sound.
Jonas began to shimmer. His body vibrated and was suffused with a silvery light.
“He is beyond now,” Gabe said to Claire, hoping that somehow she could hear and know how desperately they were trying to save her.
Jonas gasped loudly again.
“I think he is seeing Trademaster,” Gabe whispered, and felt Claire shudder.
Then he fell silent and waited.
Afterward, Gabe had to help Jonas to the nearby rocking chair. He collapsed into it, panting and trembling. “What did you see?” Gabe asked. “Could you find him?” But Jonas was unable to speak. He closed his eyes and held up one hand, asking Gabe to wait. Finally, after resting for several minutes, Jonas opened his eyes.
“I don’t think I’ll be able to do that again,” he said hoarsely to Gabe. “It was the last time. It has become too hard.”
He turned slightly and looked toward the bed. “How is she?”
Gabe went to Claire and took her hand. There was no answering squeeze from her. Her hand and arm were limp. But he heard a long, slow breath.
“Alive,” Gabe told Jonas, returning to the chair where he was slumped.
“There’s not much time.” Jonas sat up a little straighter, still breathing hard. “But I saw him; he’s close by. It’s up to you now, Gabe. I’ll stay here with her.”
Close by? What did that mean? Gabe found himself looking around the room, and toward the window. Was someone standing out there in the trees? A closet door was open in the corner, the interior dark. Was someone in the closet? A board creaked, and Gabe jumped nervously. But it was just Jonas’s chair, its curved rockers moving against the wooden floor.
He found a pitcher of water and brought Jonas a cup. Jonas drank, and sat up straighter.
“I forgot to tell you something else that she and I both remembered. When you were a baby—a newchild—you had a stuffed toy.” He smiled. “It went everywhere with you. Your hippo.”
A blurred image appeared to Gabe. A soft, comforting object. With ears. He had chewed on the ears.
“Po,” he said.
“A fine water beast,” Jonas said. “You’ve always been attracted to water, Gabe. And now you must become like Po. Trademaster is on the other side of the river.”
It was dark when Gabe stood at the water’s edge, alone. He had begged Jonas to come with him. But Jonas had said no.
“Years ago, Gabe, when I took you and ran away, there was a man I loved and left behind. I wanted him to come with me but he said no.
“He was right to refuse. It was my journey and I had to do it without help. I had to find my own strengths, face my own fears. And now you must.”
Gabe had leaned down and kissed the papery cheek of the silent woman in the bed. There were long pauses between her breaths now, and occasionally a gurgle deep in her throat. Jonas moved his chair so that he could sit close to her. Then he told Gabe where he would find Trademaster—in a grove of birch trees on the far side of the river—and he grasped Gabe’s hand. “Go,” he said. “This is your journey, your battle. Be brave. Find your gift. Use it to save what you love.”
Now, standing barefoot in the pebbly sand, Gabe didn’t feel brave. It was very dark. Clouds covered the moon. There were no sounds but the rushing water, and though the river had always lured him, fascinated him, he had never been here before at night. Suddenly, in the dark, it seemed dangerous and forbidding.
Gabe was a good swimmer. But the place where he and his friends swam was farther down the river, a bend where the water, protected by encircling rocks, was calm, separated from the fast-moving water farther out. It was safer there, less treacherous. But Jonas had told him to cross the river here. The current would move him downriver and he would emerge at the other side very near to the wooded grove where Trademaster, gloating, was waiting for Claire to die.
“Why is he there?” Gabe had asked.
“I think he must feel a certain satisfaction at knowing how things end. He sets them in motion and then watches from a distance. He has probably been aware of Claire for all these years, since she made the trade.”
“Is it just Claire he’s been watching?”
“Oh, no, he must have many, many tragedies to keep track of. I suppose they nourish him in some terrible way.”
Gabe moved forward and felt the pull of the current against his ankles. He knew, from the disaster with his little boat two days before, how strong the swirling motion of the water was. But he was strong too, and he felt certain he could fight his way across the river. He was holding his cedar paddle. The mud-smeared boat, leaky and useless, was still tied to a tree. But he had run back to Jonas’s house and retrieved the paddle for the night swim. He thought he could use it to push himself away from rocks, and perhaps, when he reached the other side, he would need it as a weapon.
He wished he had the power that Jonas had used: the gift of seeing beyond. He would like to know what Trademaster was doing at this moment. Did such a man sleep? Eat?
He had no idea how he was to destroy this evil. Gabe knew—all village children had been taught—which berries, which plants, were lethal. Perhaps he should have crushed some leaves of oleander, or chopped up nightshade root, and somehow found a way to sneak the poison into Trademaster’s food. Of course there had been no time for plans like that.
If he were to find Trademaster asleep, then a heavy rock brought down on his head would do it, Gabe thought. Awake? He could use the paddle as if it were a spear or a bludgeon.
The thought made him feel sick.
He was now in the water to his knees, and he realized that instead of plotting how to do away with the enemy—and sickening himself at the thought of it—he must first concentrate on the dangerous swim he was about to undertake. The current pulled at him, and he waded deeper. Soon his feet would be lifted from the bottom and he would be fighting his way across. He held the buoyant paddle in both hands, crosswise in front of him. His feet lifted and he began to kick and move forward.
The speed with which the current caught him was frightening. He felt himself propelled downriver instead of across. The water rushed over his head and he forced himself up through it to catch his breath. In the darkness he could not see how far out into the river he had been swept, but he could feel the current; he continued kicking his way across it, even as it pushed him sideways against his will. Suddenly his paddle caught against two large rocks and he was held there, able to rest and breathe. The water parted and foamed around him and he waited, gathering his strength. He knew he would have to leave this wedged protection and enter the river’s surge again. But for this moment he rested. Then, as he pondered the mission that lay ahead for him, he realized, suddenly, he could not fulfill it.
I cannot kill someone, he thought.
As he had the realization, a cloud slid beyond the moon and pale light illuminated the river. He could see where he was, nearing the halfway point, and where he must aim for. The water between him and the other side was very turbulent, but in the gleaming moonlight, the grove of birches, his destination, was visible. Trademaster would be lurking there. He must pull the paddle free from the rocks now and force himself into that maelstrom. He would fight his way across, and—
I cannot kill someone. The unbidden thought was so strong the second time that he may have said it aloud, into the night, into the roaring sound of the turbulence.
Oddly, as if affected by his thought, the motion of the river subsided slightly. As he waited there, suspended from his paddle between the rocks, his legs could sense the change in the current. For a moment the water around him was still. The water ahead of him was calm. Then it began to move again, to swirl and suck at him.
What had changed?
Nothing, except that into the night breeze, into the noise of the river, he had whispered a phrase. He began to say the words again.
I cannot kill—
Three words was all it took. The three words that he had spoken soothed the sky, the river, the world.
He repeated them, like a chant. He loosened the paddle from where it was wedged. With his fingers he could feel the carved names in the smooth wet wood: Tarik. Simon. Nathaniel. Stefan. Jonas. Though she had not carved her name, he added Kira in his mind. Then little Matthew, and Annabelle. Finally he said his mother’s name—Claire—aloud, adding it to the list of those who cared about him. He shouted it—“Claire!”—into the night, begging her to live. Holding tightly to the paddle, he began to kick his way easily across the gently flowing water in the moonlight. While he propelled himself, he said the words in rhythm with the movement of his fluttering kick—I cannot kill, I cannot kill—murmuring them until he reached the opposite bank easily and pulled himself, dripping, ashore.
When he fell silent, he heard the river resume its relentless churn and pull. A brisk wind blew. Above him, the moon receded and disappeared again behind clouds. Around him the shadows darkened and enveloped the swaying shrubbery and trees. At the edge of the bushes stood a tall man wrapped in a dark cloak.
Gabe shuddered. Suddenly he was very cold. The wind that was rustling the bushes and making the trees sway was also causing his wet garments to feel icy against his skin.
But his shudder was more fear than chill. He could see the man standing in the shadows.
Somehow Gabe had anticipated that he would arrive on the river’s far side, catch his breath, get his bearings—he had never crossed the river before—and then begin to search. He had assumed his enemy would be hiding. He had planned to make his way with stealth to the place where they would encounter each other. He thought he would have time to prepare, though he had not known how.
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