Instead, the man was not hiding at all. He stood, wrapped in a dark cloak, in full view at the edge of the trees. Even through the darkness, Gabe could see that his eyes glittered. His face was expressionless, but his eyes—they were staring directly at Gabe—were excited. Then he spoke.
“What a pleasure,” the man said with an air of mocking hospitality. “Seldom do people come looking for me.”
Gabe didn’t reply. He didn’t know how to. Nervously, he clutched the slim stalk of the paddle, the only thing in this strange place that felt familiar and comforting. Beneath his thumb he could feel the ridge of the gouged J, the place where Jonas had carved his name.
“Are you not going to introduce yourself?”
Gabe cleared his throat. “My name is Gabriel,” he said.
There was a flurry of cloak and motion. The man, who had been standing some distance away, was suddenly so near that Gabe could smell the stench of him. Odd, as he looked very clean, Gabe thought. His clothes, visible in the parted cloak, were pressed, almost stiff with creases. His face was pale and seemed very white against the darkness. His dark hair was combed and oiled.
And he was too close. When he leaned forward and said harshly, “You fool! Did you think I didn’t know your name?” his rancid breath was hot against Gabe’s face. “And you, of course, know mine.
“Don’t you?” he sneered. “Don’t you?”
“Yes,” Gabe said. “I know your name, Trademaster.” He stepped back, slightly, away from the smell. The foul breath was making him feel nauseated.
“And we both know why we are here.” The voice had become soft, as if the man were confiding a secret.
Gabriel nodded. “Yes,” he whispered back. “I do.”
“You hope to destroy me, and I plan to destroy you.”
In a quick flash of memory, Gabe thought of Mentor, his teacher, standing in front of a class of restless children, teaching them about language. About verbs. Hope. Plan. How different the meanings were. Hope seemed tentative, uncertain—exactly how Gabe was feeling. He took a deep breath and tried to calm his own anxiety.
“What weapons do you have? Can they match mine?” Trademaster’s gloved hand reached inside his thick cloak. Gabe grasped the paddle more tightly, trying to steady himself. His knees felt weak.
“I see you have brought a crude stick. Pathetic. Is that the only weapon you have?” The voice was contemptuous.
“This isn’t a weapon,” Gabe confessed. “I didn’t bring a weapon. I cannot kill—”
He began to repeat the phrase that had mysteriously helped him cross the river. To his surprise, Trademaster winced. The wind stopped, suddenly. The restless movement of the trees ceased. Again the moon slid from the clouds and the night brightened slightly.
Back in the cottage, Jonas had been waiting in the rocking chair beside the bed. Earlier, Kira had brought him supper. Together they had moistened Claire’s dry lips with water and her tongue had moved slightly. But her eyes had remained closed and her breathing was irregular. Sometimes she gasped and her fingers plucked at the blanket. But mostly she was silent and still. He knew she would die during the night, unless—
He tried not to think of the unless. He had seen, when he looked beyond, that Trademaster was out there in the birch grove. He had seen too—but had not told Gabe—that Trademaster was waiting for the boy.
Gabe had always been a determined child. Even as an infant, when Jonas had brought him here after a long and torturous journey, Gabe had held out, had been strong, had stayed alive, when he, Jonas, had almost given up. It had always been clear to Jonas that Gabe had some kind of gift. And it might have been simply this: the tenacity of the boy, the stubbornness. Who else would have worked so hard at an impossible project like the doomed boat?
But now, waiting through the night, thinking of how Gabe had set out on another probably impossible mission, one that might well cost him his life, Jonas found himself hoping desperately that the stubborn energy would be accompanied by a deeper gift of some sort, something that would be able to pierce the very core of the creature he would be facing soon. Jonas shuddered. Trademaster was so inhuman, so dangerous. So evil. And Gabe was so young and vulnerable.
He would be across the river now, Jonas realized, checking the time. He is on the other side by now.
The shift in the atmosphere calmed Gabriel. It had happened the same way in the river: the moon had appeared and the rush of water had subsided; the world had been somehow soothed. Standing now in the moonlight, Gabe stroked the paddle, feeling the carved names, and wondered if perhaps Trademaster had felt the sudden shift.
But instead of calmed, his opponent was angered. The gloved hand emerged from the deep folds of the cloak and in the moonlight Gabe could see that it now held a gleaming knife with a long, very narrow blade and pointed tip. Frightened, he stepped back.
“Stiletto,” Trademaster hissed. “You don’t have one of these tucked away someplace? It would serve you well. Quite sharp. Quite deadly.
“Here!” he said suddenly, and tossed the stiletto to Gabe. “Take mine!”
Gabe dropped the paddle and caught the handle of the weapon awkwardly, relieved that the blade had not sliced through his hand. The knife was surprisingly heavy. He didn’t want it. But he seemed to have no choice. He tightened his grip on the cold steel handle.
“Now you can kill,” Trademaster said with a short, mirthless laugh. He reached again into the folds of his cloak. The sky darkened again and the wind resumed, whipping the tree branches back and forth. Gabe peered through the darkness, trying to see what weapon might appear. Another stiletto? Would the man lunge forward with his own narrow blade? Terrified, Gabe held his knife up, hoping to deflect the attack that was coming.
Then suddenly the stiletto was on the ground and Gabe’s hands were empty and defenseless. Trademaster was inches from him and had struck the knife out of Gabe’s hand with a larger weapon, something with a terrifying curved blade.
“Guan dao,” Trademaster whispered into Gabe’s ear, naming it.
The wind howled. The man held Gabe’s neck with one gloved hand, raised his weapon with the other, and touched the tender skin there with the blade. Gabe held his breath, afraid that the slightest movement would cause it to slice into his skin. He could feel the exquisite sharpness of the steel.
The two of them stood motionless in an embrace that was wrought by hatred. Gabe hoped that his death would be quick. It was the only thing that he could hope for now.
Then, to Gabe’s surprise, still with the knife poised, Trademaster began to talk. Gabe could again smell his foul breath. His voice was low, and he recognized the tone, superior and arrogant, as bragging.
“You’re such a small, unworthy opponent,” Trademaster taunted. “I’ve destroyed people far more important than you.”
Gabe said nothing. He barely breathed. He was motionless, still aware of the blade against his skin.
“Leaders. Whole families.” The voice was excited. “I’ve torn them to pieces. Left them in whimpering shreds!”
Gabe felt a sharp sliver of pain, and something trickled from his neck onto his bare shoulder. Trademaster had allowed the razor-sharp blade to make a shallow cut.
“Wars,” the voice went on. “I’ve caused wars!”
Gabe stood motionless, paralyzed, but sensed that the man wanted a reaction from him. Some kind of admiration, perhaps. He stayed silent.
“I’ve destroyed whole communities,” the man murmured gleefully into Gabe’s ear. “Do you believe me?”
“Yes,” Gabe whispered. And it was true. He did believe that he had such power. This was not a man, Gabe realized. It was a force disguised as a man. It was nothing human. It was simple evil, wearing a cloak. Jonas had told him this but he had not understood, not until now. He tried desperately to remember what advice Jonas had given him. How should he fight this battle? Finally he said the only thing he could think of to say.
“If you have such power,” Gabe whispered, still trying not to move, “why kill someone as unimportant as me?”
To his amazement, Trademaster withdrew. He lifted the blade from Gabe’s skin and tossed it to the ground, where it fell beside the stiletto. Then he smoothed the folds of his cloak. “I have other weapons,” he said. “Cutlass? Pole-ax? Machete? Cleaver? Pick one and we’ll duel.” He licked his lips and gave a harsh laugh.
Gabe could think of nothing to reply. He remained silent.
“No? Dueling doesn’t appeal? Forget the weaponry, then. I’ll make it more fun, the way Trade Mart was,” he announced. “I’m going to offer you a trade.”
Through the window, quite suddenly, the moonless night brightened. A pale golden stream of light appeared across the floor, reaching almost to the bed. At the same time, Claire’s hoarse, uneven breathing changed slightly. She seemed quieter, more comfortable. Jonas reached over and took her hand. He had been holding it, stroking it, off and on throughout the night. The veins had been thick and knotted under the thin, frail skin; the fingers were thickened at the joints.
Now, startlingly, the old woman’s hand felt different. Smoother. More pliant. In the sudden light he leaned down to look. But at that moment the moonlight disappeared; the night was dark again. He thought of going to relight the oil lamp in the corner, to bring it closer to Claire. But why? Let her sleep, he thought. She is at peace. Let her die without knowing the peril her son is in.
Perhaps this is what death does, he thought, still touching her hand. Smooths the skin, eases the painful joints. Yes, he thought. This must be death coming.
Jonas nodded off against his will and dozed fitfully. It had been such a long, exhausting day. He didn’t see the moonlight reappear, then recede, then reappear. Claire’s hand slid away from his. He didn’t see the skin clear, its dark spots fading, or how the thickened, discolored nails became shell-like and translucent.
“A boat.” The offer was abrupt and angry.
“I don’t need a boat.”
Trademaster looked at him slyly. “It’s not a question of need, my stubborn, stupid lad. It all has to do with want. It’s always want.”
Gabe stood there silently. He was cold. He was wet, still, from the river, and now the stiff breeze had resumed. He rubbed his own arms briskly.
“Chilly?” Trademaster said with a sneer, seeing him shiver. “I could loan you my cloak.” He twirled it. “You could come inside. I could envelop you.”
Gabe didn’t reply. The thought of being inside the dark cloak revolted him.
His eyes glittering, Trademaster said, “All right then, stand there and shiver. Let’s revisit the boat idea, shall we? Not need, but want. Do you want a boat? Wait—don’t answer yet. Let’s make it, oh, a fine sailboat. And part of the deal, guaranteed: billowing sails, a sunny day, a smooth lake, and a strong wind.”
He leaned forward and beckoned with a thin, gloved finger. “Want it?”
Not long ago Gabe would have wanted it very much indeed. But things had changed for him. A boat no longer held any appeal. He no longer needed a boat. His quest for belonging, for love, had ended when he had knelt by a bed and held his dying mother’s hand.
***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com