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The Boy and the Darkness

Sergei Lukjanenko

Part 1. The Winged.

Chapter 7. Caravan.

Shoki didn't visit us until three days later, the night before our second patrol was due. I can't say that we had spent this time being bored. I had read a whole heap of books, some of which had been really interesting; every day I trained with the Wing, taught Lan Aikido moves, and looked at the pictures that had been drawn by Lan's previous Elder, Kert. My newfound vision made this really interesting. For instance, I could read some ten times as fast as before, and I'd often guess how the book would end from the very first pages. I wouldn't bother reading such books to the end. And teaching Lan the moves, I could see all his mistakes so clearly that it was really simple to correct them. It was the most interesting with the pictures. I could see them for real, as open windows in the wall, and not as pieces of painted canvas. This Kert had been a wonderful artist, although, I think, not a completely wonderful person. He had one picture where, above a still black sea, under a sheet of grey cloud, there flew in two lines, Flying and Winged. In the distance, barely discernible in the painting, they merged into one formation, flying somewhere into infinity. The picture was called "Before the Fight"; only I could see that there was no fight there, and never would be. In another painting, a dead Flying was falling towards the cliffs, with a Winged hovering overhead that, according to Lan, looked like Kert himself. This painting was called "Victor". The Flying on it was proud and beautiful, even in death. And the Winged was drawn shoddily, as if the artist felt shy about drawing him. There was yet another painting that I liked but that Lan didn't. Unsurprisingly so; on it was painted Lan himself, curled up in an armchair and glaring to one side. A boy and a girl were painted there - in light, pretty strokes, clinking their wine glasses together. When looking at this painting, Lan would get angry and say that Kert was a rogue and a skirt-chaser, but that this didn't bother him, Lan, in the slightest, and it was really stupid to name the painting "Jealousy".

I kept wanting to ask how Kert had been captured, because I was already beginning to draw some conclusions. But I was putting off that conversation for now. Our next patrol was scheduled in the evening, and from very early in the morning all we did was to eat our fill, every so often fluttering across the room to warm up our Wings.

I saw Shoki through the door, and started to look for my black band, gave up, and just sat down in an armchair, having shut my eyes. Lan let Shoki in, and stood silently next to me.

- Hello, - said Shoki uncertainly.

- Hello. Who is this? - I couldn't restrain myself from a small revenge as I regarded Shoki through my tightly shut eyelids. Shoki bit his lip and turned his gaze away.

- It is me, Shoki.

- Why have you come?

- You have a sortie today... Patrolling the caravan path...

- We know, Elder Shoki, - I said calmly. - Everything is in order.

- You intend to fly? - He'd managed to hide the surprise in his voice, but not on his face.

- Of course. Do I have another choice?

Shoki had probably been about to suggest something, but he was certainly not going to now. I never found out just how he'd been intending to help me. Gaping, Shoki stupidly inquired:

- How are your eyes, Danny? Do they hurt?

- Quite indescribable, - I informed him honestly. - Care to try? Get your blade, it's already proved worthy for the purpose.

Shoki jumped to his feet and ran from the house. On the doorstep, he turned round and shouted:

- You yourself preferred this to death! And don't you dare accuse me! It's treacherous, Danny! I played along with you - you were left alive!

The door slammed. I opened my eyes and looked guiltily at Lan. He said firmly:

- Quite right, Danny. Exactly what he deserves. Guardian of order...

I didn't argue. But I felt that I had gone a little over the top. After all, Shoki really hadn't had any choice...

- Let's go to the tower, Lan.

Lan followed me up the stairs, put the black ribbon in my hands. Smiling wryly, I tied it over my eyes. What difference would it make? I could see to the horizon. Even the grey twilight was hindering me less and less.

True Light lived in my eyes.

- Let's fly! - I said, soaring into the low sky. The wind hit - tight, transparent jets, and I slid between them, just so, so the Wing had to work less.

Lan was desperately flying up in my wake. His Wing chopped across the air currents, ploughing through. How great to have True Sight!

- I have wings! - I shouted over the silent city. - I have True Wings!

Lan barely caught up to me. I could see drops of sweat on his face, and how heavily the Wings of my Younger beat against the air.

- Is it hard? - I asked. - Shall we race?

Lan folded his wings and slid towards the north, to the mountain ridge from which the traders' caravans came. Laughing, I followed him.

I caught up to him at the ridge, dived underneath him and caught his arms, folding my Younger's Wing. Lan hung limply, and I saw terror in his eyes.

Darkness and light! What am I doing?

- Lan! I've learned to fly! - I shouted, as though trying to justify my actions. - As flying ought to be! Now we need be afraid of no-one!

- I'm afraid of you, - said Lan quietly.

I hugged him silently and slid downwards, stopping just above the ground. I put Lan down and folded my Wing. Lan stood still at attention and stared at me, unblinking.

- Forgive me, - I asked. - You know, when you can fly like... like a bird... you're tempted to all sorts of stupid things.

- I know, - said Lan seriously. - Good Winged sometimes leave to become Flying of their own accord. They don't want to leave the sky when they become adult.

- Kert left thus? - I asked. Lan nodded.

- By that time he didn't have long left, perhaps a year, or even half. He ordered me to follow him, and we landed on the tower of the Flying. Then Kert grabbed me and said that we would become Flying. That there is no difference, only we would have wings for always and we would no longer be afraid of the dark. He always thought that he knew better than me what I needed...

- Lan...

- And I don't want to stop being afraid of the dark! I hate the dark!

Lan was crying, and I still couldn't understand what the matter was.

- And now you! - my Younger suddenly shouted. - You're deciding what's better for me too! How are you any different from the rest?

- I'm sorry, - was all I could say. - Lan, you fly better than anyone else. I just went a little wild at being able to catch you in the air.

Lan's tears dried instantly, and he smiled uncertainly.

- Don't be angry, partner - I begged. And I looked at him with a True gaze. Lan's face jerked and melted, changing. I saw him without the slightest disguise, and I felt a little ashamed at this, my ability. But I knew - of that, which I saw, I would not tell anybody, ever. Not for anything in the world.

Then I said that which needed to be said:

- Lan, you can hit me if you like. I scared you. Only let's still fly more races later.

- You'll be able to catch me now, - said Lan sadly.

- I'll try, - I said uncertainly. And Lan immediately cheered up.

- Go on, go on. Keep trying, I was just not flying my best that time.

We were standing in the middle of a narrow mountain valley; this was the very mountain crossing that the traders used. And we were about to take off when Lan grabbed my arm:

- Quiet!

Listening, I caught faint knocking and clinking sounds.

- Caravan! - said Lan firmly. - How lucky! They're hard to notice from above, the traders usually camouflage themselves.

- From the Flying?

- From everyone.

The first round the bend was a tall man, wearing beige clothes that exactly matched the colour of the cliffs. I became alert, but Lan calmly said:

- These are the caravan guards. Hi!

Resting his hand on his sword, the guard walked up to us. Three more followed him, then several animals that looked like bulls and were heavily laden with bags.

- Greetings, Younger, - said the man with a note of sympathy. - Why are you alone?

- I am Elder in our pair, - I interrupted. - How soon will you reach the city?

The man stared at me in surprise. He shook his head:

- How should we know? We're just the guards... like you, too, will be, if you live that long. Ask the traders.

Instantly losing interest in us, the guard walked on. His three friends stepped around us and walked on in silence.

- They already consider themselves above the townspeople, - sniffed Lan. - Pah! Caravan slaves... Look, the traders are there. Let's go!

The caravan was big - perhaps a hundred pack animals, a dozen guards, and only three traders. To my suprise I realized that they were a family - a man and woman aged about thirty, and a girl perhaps a year or two older than me, red-haired and tanned. Aha! I glanced at Lan, but he hadn't noticed the girl's tan. Never mind, I'd work it out myself. They weren't wearing glasses! How could they see?

- Greetings! - said Lan, clearly trying to look proud and important. - How fared you on your journey? The Flying didn't bother you on your way?

- We don't make war, boy. Not even with the Flying. - The male trader stepped away from the regularly plodding animals and walked beside us. - And how is your town? Still fighting?

Lan nodded. He was enjoying the trader's company. I just walked along, studying this family of merchants.

They were all dark-skinned, clearly tanned. The tip of the girl's nose, in fact, was peeling - she'd obviously been out in the sun too long. The bitch! And they were perfectly dressed, too - all wearing trousers that more than anything resembled jeans, and bright sweaters, and the girl and her mother also wore some sort of knitted caps. Well, yes, it was cold in the mountains. And they weren't used to cold - one could see that straight away. As for arms, only the man was wearing a short sword - either they trusted their guards, or they had something in reserve that was more powerful than steel.

What a dislike gripped me! Instantly and firmly. Especially the girl, who was smirking as she examined Lan - exchanging frequent whispers with her mother, and both tittering each time. Against the guards in their beige camouflage costumes, and Lan and I in our black Wings, these three looked like happy-go-lucky rich tourists in a war zone.

- Would you like a candy? - the male trader meanwhile inquired of Lan. The latter readily nodded. And the trader, taking from his pocket a sweet in a paper wrapper, threw it to Lan - even though they couldn't have been more than a foot apart. Lan jumped, caught the sweet, and turned to me:

- Would you like it, Elder?

The girl tittered again. I walked up to Lan, took the sweet from him, dropped it, and crushed it with my foot, then turned to the trader and said:

- What a pity. I dropped it.

The trader and I stopped and gazed at each other. The caravan kept moving. Lan stopped too, watching us fearfully.

- We rarely give gifts, - said the trader finally. - It makes sense to accept.

- I have yet to see any gifts, - I replied. - Only charity. Farewell, we shall meet in the city.

Stretching out my Wing, I swooped up. Shame - I hadn't looked at the traders with True Sight! Never mind, there'd be time yet.

Lan caught up to me some way back to the city, and asked, falling in beside me:

- Why were you so harsh, Danny? Their sweets are always nice.

- Child! - I said with unexpected anger. - Lan, wake up, you shouldn't let yourself be demeaned so!

- Put on your headband, somebody's flying towards us, - Lan said, quickly changing the subject. I almost punched him, but put on the headband anyway and let Lan lead.

When I saw who it was flying towards us, Lan and the traders completely fled my thoughts. It was Ivon. I recognised him by his flight - I could now distinguish between each person's Wingbeat, like a signature.

- Working as a guide? - shouted Ivon, hanging over us. - Perfect, Lan! You make a good partner for a coward. And what about you, Elder from another city? Headband not too tight?

I swooped upwards and touched his throat with the tip of my sword. How frightened he became!

- You're blind now! - shouted Ivon, without even tying to evade me. - You're blind!

- Hearing is enough for me, - I declared. - What do you think of my blade? Sharp?

- Winged don't kill each other! - shouted Ivon, with an unpleasant quaver in his voice. - Lan, stop him!

Lan hovered nearby, enjoying the sight.

- Ivon, you have a wonderful custom of punishment for cowards, - I said. - But now I shall introduce another. Punishment for [turpitude].

Hitting with all my strength, I slashed his right wing. Ivon tumbled, over and over, falling down. I followed him with my gaze for a second, then folded my wings and threw myself after him.

I caught Ivon very close to the ground. Grabbing his hair, I stopped his fall quite sharply - a lock was left in my hand, torn out with its root. Ivon was squealing like a pig.

- Remember, - I said, landing next to him. - [You can't be untrustworthy]. Not ever. Repeat that to yourself in the mornings. And then, perhaps, you will live to the day when your Wing stops carrying you.

I slashed Ivon's left wing, too, just in case, while he stood starting at me in horror and not even trying to draw his crossbow. Then I flew up. So fast that the arrow sent on my trail couldn't catch me up.

- What did you do with him? - asked Lan, who'd been waiting for me in the sky. - Is he dead?

- No, I slashed his Wing. Let him walk to the city.

- That is shameful, - said Lan seriously.

- I hope so. Do you think he'll make it back?

- Oh, nothing will happen to a piece of trash like him. He'll crawl on his own, or be picked up by the caravan. He's right in its path.

- Let's fly back, - I said, shaking off my deliberations.


We landed in the square - the place where I'd been blinded three days ago. And we walked in the direction of our house. People followed me with glances - some frightened, some surprised. We came across Shoki halfway back. Lan, adopting a sad look, touched my shoulder, and I stopped, watching through my black headband.

- I'm glad that your sortie was successful, - said Shoki, walking up to us. - You fly very well, I saw. Forgive me.

And my anger at him almost disappeared.

- Shoki, one cannot be enslaved to laws, - I said. - Otherwise you will be a slave in everything else too. We met Ivon above the mountains. He got some problems with his Wing, so he'll be returning on foot, and late. Don't worry needlessly.

- I don't understand... - admitted Shoki. - Danny, how do you do it?

- A caravan will arrive in the city tomorrow morning, - I informed him, as if I hadn't heard the question. - You can decide who will be recruited. And consider Lan and I already signed up to guard them from our city to the city of the traders.

- You're leaving? - exclaimed Shoki in disbelief.

- Let's go, Younger, - I commanded Lan, and we walked away. A few steps later, Lan could restrain himself no longer:

- Danny, were you serious?

- Quite.

- But you didn't even ask me! Maybe I don't want to leave!

I remembered Lan as I had seen him with True Sight. And inquired interestedly:

- You don't want to?

Lan was silent.

- We shall go to the city of the traders. We shall shake out of them all their secrets. We shall find out where they manage to get such wild tans, - I said, slowly heating up. - And don't you dare lie to me, that you're not dreaming of running away from your city!

Lan didn't answer me until we reached the door.

- Yes, I dream of it. I don't like my city! Only it would have been better if you hadn't got this True Sight of yours, and couldn't see through me! Danny, I don't want to have decisions made for me!

We entered our home in silence. Each alone. Lan took a loaf, cut it, and moodily chewed the stale bread. Choosing not to occupy myself with such martyrdom, I fished out a piece of smoked meat and bit into it hungrily.

It was while we were thus occupied that the Kitten found us. He had probably been sleeping peacefully upstairs, but, feeling our return, had come down.

- Whoah, - was all that the Sun Kitten said; climbing on the tabletop, he settled between us.

He was silent for perhaps a minute, glancing sometimes at me and sometimes at Lan. And with guilt I understood that he, of all people, would see through us. No hiding.

- Lan, I shall be talking to you, - began the Kitten sternly.

- Why? - piped up Lan. - It's nothing to do with me! And I'm not quarrelling with Danny at all!

- I shall be talking to you because, at this moment, it would be useless talking to Danny, - continued the Kitten just as sternly. He was beginning to feel a little like the all-knowing main characters in stories, who, seeing the whole truth, know better than anyone what everyone is to do. With his look of infinite patience, it seemed he could carry on handing out as many lectures as it took, bringing back light to the whole world in his spare time.

- Untrue! - I shouted. But the Kitten gave me a stern look and I shut up.

- You may leave, - said the Kitten. - I am speaking not with you, but with your only True friend. Lan, Danny's got the wrong end of the stick in his excitement. He thinks that if there is light in his eyes, then he cannot do wrong. But that is not so. Both Light and Darkness - they're merely forces. Of course, it is hard to do a black deed using light, or to highlight evil using darkness. Hard, but possible. Even if you glowed all over, that would still not be insurance against mistakes or a bad nature.

- So, what's to be done? - asked Lan quietly. - How can I help?

- Forgive Danny when he offends you. Understand that, in reality, he really wants to do what's best for everything. It's just that now he sees everyone the way they really are, and sometimes one needs to look at the way they'd like to be.

- Alright, - said Lan.

- And also. Don't argue with Danny just because he forgot to ask your agreement - he simply knew that you would agree. Argue with him when he really is mistaken.

Lan nodded silently.

- And now, - said the Kitten, getting up, - I shall leave, and enter once more. And I shall expect to find the situation here changed when I return.

When the Kitten returned, a saucer full of cream was waiting for him on the tabletop, and Lan and I were sharing the armchair opposite and watching him expectantly.

- Whoah, - said the Kitten once more. But with a totally different intonation. Giving the cream a trial lap, he nodded approvingly. - How did you manage that?

- You mean, the cream? - said Lan in mock surprise. - There's still most of a jug left.

- No! Meow! - shouted the Kitten. - Quit trying to confuse me. You know exactly what I meant!

Exchanging a glance, Lan and I burst into laughter.

- No particular trick, - I answered for Lan. - We just stared at each other, then Lan got the cream and I got the saucer. Then we sat down and waited for you.

- It'll do, - decided the Kitten. - At least you avoided the stupid apologies and oaths of eternal friendship. Anyhow, let us hold a council of war. And to you, Danny, a personal reminder: be more careful with True Sight.

- We found traders, - Lan spoke first. - They'll reach the city tomorrow, and Danny's already managed to quarrel with them.

- And rightly so, - I backed him up. - There're three of them, not counting the guards. A guy and his wife, and their daughter, nasty as a witch. The guy gave Lan a sweet, he threw it like Lan was a dog! I stamped on it. And the girl is suntanned, she's been in the sun recently!

- Are you certain this trader intended to offend Lan?

- No, but...

- And are you aware that these traders travel between different worlds in their ships, and their children are not at all obligated to be pale as fish?

I was silent. Then, lowering my gaze, I admitted:

- Basically, I've probably been really stupid. I decided that we need to get ourselves into the city of the traders and find out...

- ...where they're hiding our little sunbeams? - the Kitten completed my sentence in a sweet voice. - 'Cause we've been reading lots of ickle fairy tales. But we really do need to get to the traders' city.

- Yes? - I cheered up. - Why?

- To find out who bought the light from them. To find out why they don't fight with the Flying. To find out what it is that they sell to them or buy from them that they don't have to fear anyone. And why do they need guards, if that's true? The cities are all but praying to the traders, they've got it made with the Flying... but guards walk with the caravans.

- True, - I said. - Kitten, you've thought more clearly about this than I have.

- That's because I rely neither on appearance alone, nor solely on the nature, - explained the Kitten. - Whereas you first made all your conclusions from the traders' appearance, and then from Lan's nature. Therefore, a double mistake.

- Danny! - asked Lan unexpectedly. - Can you really see right through me?

He tensed as he waited for my answer, and I lied. Who could find it pleasant to be unable to keep anything secret from someone, even if they are a friend:

- What do you mean, see through you? You're in plain sight anyway. Not worth the effort.

Lan calmed down a little. Sighing, he said:

- Danny's right, we need to go to the traders' city. I, too, have been wanting to visit it for a long time... Only first, we need to ask Shoki not to give our house to anybody else, because I've become used to it, - he finished unexpectedly.

Talk to Shoki? I sniffed, imagining how such a conversation would go, after today's earlier exchange of fire. And Lan mercifully promised:

- I'll talk to him myself. I know he doesn't like me very much, but it will be an honest request... Shoki won't refuse. I'll go right away.

- Go on, go on, - the Kitten encouraged him. - I shall meanwhile ponder over what we ought to take with us. And dig about a bit in your wardrobes - no objections?

- You can dig through all of them for all I care! - said Lan happily, getting up. - And also... don't expect me to be back early. I'll drop into my mother's, to say goodbye.

- We're a right stupid pair, - mourned the Kitten after Lan left. - We've totally forgotten that he's still a child, with a mother... Danny, why are you crying? Eh?

- Miserable wizard! - I shouted, hiding my face in my hands. - I've got a mother too! And I can't even say goodbye to her!

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