The Traveler and the Searcher by Nicole DragonBeck

For Ayla S.

I knew it was coming, but every winter when the humans leave and the wolves come, I hope this year will be different.

This year it got worse, just as the giant, staring eye in her dreams had told Sabra it would, in so many horrible, silent pictures with no color and stark lines. She sat on the benched, pressed between the enormous bulk of Mother Hansom, and Josie, who was four years older than Sabra, but an orphan and under the care of Mother Hansom, just like Sabra. For a moment, Sabra wondered if Josie saw the eye in her dreams. She looked at the other girl’s face, and knew she did not. Josie had not known any of this was going to happen.

“We’re not going to make it,” Old Benston said. “Not this year.”

The whole clan was gathered in the tight, smoky meeting hall. The fires were choked and smoldering to preserve the little remaining wood. Sabra looked around at the gaunt and worried faces. A stirring in the back drew eyes. Several people stood up, faces now angry. Because Sabra was twelve, she had to stand up in her seat to see, and only when the man came closer could she tell who he was.

He was tall and dark. His face was covered by a black beard, and what was left free of hair was covered with pale scars. His eyes were blue and piercing. In his left hand, he carried a staff made of sliver-green wood. The wood ended in a cunningly carved claw, which held a golden orb.

Sabra was transfixed. It looks like the sun in summer time, she thought. Not the pale circle that passed for a sun in the depths of winter.

“You have no leave to be here!” Old Benston’s voice thundered through the hall.

Old Benston was old, but in his prime, he had been the strongest fighter and best hunter. Now in his elder years, his brawn still showed. Next to the other man, though, he appeared frail and bent.

“You have no power to command me.” The man’s voice was soft, yet compelling, and everyone quailed when they heard it. “Only the gods and the seasons can do that.”

“What do you want?” someone called from the gathering.

The man’s eyes swept over the assembled people. “I have come for the Searcher.”

“There is no one here who has shown the promise,” Old Benston declared, but there was a tremble in his voice.

“Let me be the judge of that,” the man replied in the same calm, certain tone.

His eyes passed from face to face, and over Sabra’s. He caught her gaze for half a second, and in that time, her heart sped up and a warmth grew in her stomach. Then his eyes moved on, and Sabra was left empty. A shadow fell over her, and she looked up. This close, the man was much taller than she had at first thought, and his eyes were brighter.

“What is your name, child?” he asked.

“Sabra,” she told him.

“And where are your parents?”

“They were taken by the winter,” she said. “Four years ago.”

He nodded, his face full of compassion. “And what of the dreams?”

Sabra paled. How could he see into her mind like that? “I don’t know,” she whispered.

“Have you dreamed of me yet?” he pressed.

Sabra looked closer, examining the lines of his face, the way his left eye squinted when he wanted something, the strong muscles flexing in his arms, and the scars that covered his body, as if an army of thorny creatures with tiny blades had attacked him. He wore no shoes.

She shook her head. “I have never seen you before.”

He signed, gave a single nod, and turned away. Her eyes widened. Sewn into the back of his cloak was the giant eye, white and ominous, taking in the whole of the world with an unblinking gaze. He turned at her inarticulate moan, his eyes questioning.

“The eye,” she mumbled, pointing with a shaking hand. “On your cloak.”

He looked over his shoulder, then turned fully so his back was once again visible. The eye was gone. Sabra frowned, suddenly confused. Had she imagined it? Was she dreaming while awake now?

“There was an eye,” she explained. He waited in serene silence for further clarification. Sabra looked up met his gaze. “The eye that shows me the things that have not yet happened in my dreams.”

His eyes lit up and his elated expression made him more handsome and less frightening. “I knew I would find you here!” he cried.

“How?” Sabra wondered.

“The eye told me,” he answered simply.

“What does that mean?” she asked, though she had no doubt as to the truth of his words.

“You must come with me,” he said and held out his free hand. The glowing ball upon his staff grew more luminous. “To the Land of Eternal Summer.”

Sabra swallowed. “I thought that was just a dream.”

He shook his head. “I have been there, once before, many, many winters ago. But I cannot return.”

“Why not?”

“I am the Traveler.” He smiled. “Only the Searcher can find the way back to the Eternal Summer.”

Sabra took his hand, and the light on his staff exploded, enveloping them in warm brightness, bleaching the details of their surroundings, the shock on Mother Hansom’s face, Josie’s scared expression, the bulk of Old Benston beside the fire slowly fading until there was nothing but light.

Then the light was gone and they were outside, on a low hill. The village was nowhere in sight. Only a few twiggy trees broke the icy flatness of the land. Overhead, a single black crow flapped away, leaving behind a harsh warning croak.

“How did you do that?” the young girl asked.

“I am the Traveler,” he answered with a shrug. “It is easy as breathing for me, and I do not know who I do that any more than I know how my heart beats.”

“Where are we?” Sabra said, gooseflesh rising on her arms.

The Traveler handed her a cloak like his. It was thin, worn, the patchwork of colors almost indistinguishable from one another. Sabra did not believe it would be able to hold off the cold, but when she put it over her shoulders, she could no longer feel the chill.

“Beyond the borders of the Westland,” he told her. “That way…” he pointed with his staff, “is the city-state of Doheedron, and that way,” he pointed in the opposite direction, “Is the realm of Jarmander.”

“And there?” Sabra pointed ahead of them, where great mountains rose up.

“That is the Stria, the end of the world,” the Traveler told her. “Beyond that, I cannot say.”

“Have you been that far?” Sabra looked at him with wide eyes.

“I have stood atop the highest peak and seen the horizons of all the realms of this world,” he said. “But no matter how I have tried, I cannot pass beyond the boundaries.”

“So the land of Endless Summer is somewhere beyond the end of the world?” Sabra reasoned.

“What will we do?”

“Once we have found a way there, we will come back and bring all the people to the land of Eternal Summer,” the Traveler told her. “Now, which way do we go from here?”

Sabra gazed around. The horizon beyond the mountains called to her, and she started in that direction with confident steps, the smell of warm grass and the drone of lazy insects pulling her onward. Eternal Summer awaited, the eye promised her, and for the first time, Sabra was not alarmed by the picture it showed her.

 

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