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Chapter One:

Homecoming

 

Four years had passed since Talasen last visited his home of Penril; a place he thought he’d escaped from.  Now he sat, astride on horseback, looking down on the valley he remembered so well.  Little had changed in all that time.  The Eytier River still coursed its way through the trees, appearing and disappearing in the thicker parts of the forest.  All that marked Penril’s existence, aside from the path he traveled, was a thin stream of smoke that rose above the canopy of trees.

Absently, Talasen adjusted the leather tunic that was starting to make him sweat heavily.  He reached down into his saddlebag and pulled out a blue headband, adorned with the crest of Drinia, and slipped it on.  The material itched horribly, but this was a time for making impressions, and every little bit added to his image.  Naturally he intended to make a dashing entrance and surprise everyone.  What would they think, seeing him in the clothes of a Guardsman? 

With a slight squeeze, he started his gelding down the path into the valley. As he neared Penril he gradually raced the horse onward.  The musty scent of wood and dirt overwhelmed his senses as he flew down the path. Old memories assaulted him, but Talasen pushed those aside with thoughts of Marin.

Gods, it had been so long since he last spoke to her and so much had probably changed.  No doubt she’d long since forgotten him, or assumed him dead along a road somewhere.  Indeed, most people probably fancied that outcome.  Saying Talasen was a troubled youth would be a bit of an understatement.  Countless times he’d been caught thieving some small trinket from the local merchants, but then countless times he hadn’t been caught.  A reputation was hard to forge and even harder to break.

Still, Talasen felt mostly calm as he approached the boundary of the town.  One of the first places to come into view was Thommael’s smithing shop.  His very first sword had been forged there and likely Thommael still remembered the debt owed for that blade.  Sadly Talasen couldn’t even remember what had happened to the weapon.  Most likely he’d sold it after nearly winning the Golden Saber tournament while in some drunken stupor.

Talasen slowed the gelding as they approached the center of the village.  A few people were already out running their daily errands and most stopped to stare at him.  Strangers were a slightly uncommon thing.  Talasen could remember gawking at the fancy carriages that had rolled through the village when a Noble had gotten lost and happened across Penril.

The Four Points Inn looked the same as always and Talasen stabled his horse in the back of it.  By now he’d attracted a fair amount of glances from faces he faintly recognized.  The stableboy who led his horse into a stall was plainly staring from fascination.  In all, Talasen was fairly pleased with the reception so far.  Surely everyone would be shocked by such a drastic transformation and that was the sort of attention he thirsted for.

For a moment he stood surveying the back of the Inn, a place he’d slept numerous times in the past.  But again, those were things he preferred to not remember quite so clearly.  Talasen casually brushed a smudge of dirt off his tunic and walked around to the entrance.  He kept a hand on the hilt of his saber, still feeling a bit uncomfortable with the way it hung against his legs.  To be truthful, the entire outfit made him uncomfortable and he made a point of not wearing it as often as he could.  What would Edan say if he saw him now?  He would probably double over laughing and wonder what could make him actually dress nice for once.

Well, special situations called for certain preparations, and Talasen was not about to slack on his visit home.  He pulled open the heavy oak door to The Four Points and wandered inside.  The common room was dimly lit and smoke hovered about in the air, mingling with the scent of meat and ale.  Four small wooden tables were spread unevenly throughout with three or less rickety stools at each one.  They might have looked unsteady, but in truth, he’d used a stool numerous times as a club and they still stood up to the abuse while his opponent, on the other hand, had not.

Tal?” Madric poked his head through the doorway that led back to the kitchen, a damp towel slung over his shoulder.  “Gods, is that you?”

Talasen grinned and stepped forward to embrace the young man.  Madric was only year younger, but he seemed to carry the weight of responsibility on his shoulders, which had broadened significantly in the past years.  “It has been awhile.”

“Half the village figured you dead.” The way Madric laughed while he said that unsettled Talasen a bit.  “But I had a feeling you would be back.”

“I traveled a good ways from here.  To the capital, no less.”

“The capital?  Did you see Lord Benric?” Madric eyes lit up, the way they had in the past whenever Talasen had shared his tales of troublemaking. 

Talasen shrugged, “I may have caught a glimpse of him in passing, but…no.”

“Pity.” He shook his head and went about wiping down the nearest table.  “I hear that he is quite the figure.”

“Win enough skirmishes and anyone will fetch the kingdom’s eye.”

“Here, have a seat.”  Madric kicked a stool toward Talasen and dashed off to the kitchen.   He had certainly become a peculiar fellow. 

Holding his saber to the side, Talasen carefully sat down and leaned against the table.  It was even more fiercely hot inside the inn and sweat was gathering under the headband.  Despite the lack of comfort, he resolutely kept it on, telling himself that it would only be for a little longer.  When Madric reentered the room with two large mugs brimming with ale, Talasen felt like hugging his old friend. 

“So why did you suddenly decide to reappear?” Madric asked, setting down the mugs and taking a seat.

“A friend requested that I meet him here.”  It was only a partial truth.  There were half a dozen other towns that were more conveniently located than Penril, but Edan had agreed when he suggested the small village.  “That and I guess I wanted to stop in.”  Talasen sipped at the ale, trying to resist downing it in a few gulps, but the dark amber liquid felt so wonderful and cold.

“You wanted to see Marin.”

Talasen almost choked on the ale, but recovered quickly.  “What would give you that impression?”

Madric took a swig of his own drink and chuckled.  “You may look a great deal different, but I am willing to bet your mind still works the same as it used to.”

“That obvious, is it?”

“You still have that same bloody swagger,” Madric said.

“Old habits.”  For a moment they sat quietly, each reflecting on their own cares.  Talasen had to admit that Marin was foremost on his mind.  What would she be like now?  Finally he worked up the courage to ask.  “How is she?”

Madric shrugged and dropped his eyes to the table.  He seemed awfully centered around the back of his hand.  “About the same as ever.”

“And where is your father?  Or did he leave you to manage this place for the day?”

Again, Madric stared at the back of his hand and tapped his fingers rhythmically on the thick wood.  “He crossed over two winters ago.  A sickness of some kind.”

“Oh.”  Talasen felt a little lost upon realizing that more things had changed than he had thought.  “I am sorry to hear that.”

Madric nodded and they both continued nursing their drinks.  It was slightly amazing that the two could fit back into their old roles so casually.  Of course it felt good bit sillier than it ever had in the past.  Most of the common ground between the two had vanished over time and Talasen found himself slipping into old tales of what they’d done in past years.  In all, it left a bittersweet feeling that Talasen wasn’t quite sure he liked overmuch.

“Where is Marin in any case?  Does she still help around here?”  It was hard to keep biting back questions about her, so in the end he gave up and just asked straightforward.

“She is most likely in her home, and no, she rarely comes here anymore since father passed.”  Although Madric was certainly being honest – Talasen had a feel for such things – he certainly was holding back.

“Why do you get that look about you whenever I ask after her?”

Unfortunately he never answered that question, for a few other men entered just then and occupied another table.  Madric excused himself and went to attend to them, leaving Talasen to brood over the last sips of his ale.

When Madric had disappeared into the kitchen for nearly half an hour, Talasen decided to venture out on his own.  It was more likely he would find his answers in that manner.  So he dropped a few coins on the table and stalked out of The Four Points.

Outside, the sun was starting to creep toward the horizon, throwing an orange hue over the village.  At that moment it seemed more alien a place than it had up to that point.  The light highlighted all the little differences that he had failed to catch before.  Indeed, a number of houses had been built and Talasen had to confess that he had no idea as to who lived in them. 

As he set out to explore, Talasen noticed his throbbing feet, rubbed raw in places from the unbroken riding boots he wore.  He hadn’t though about spare clothes, which were still packed away in his saddlebag, and the outfit was becoming more uncomfortable with every passing moment.  Finally aggravated by the headband, he slipped it off and tucked it away in his belt pouch.  He’d been a fool to dress so extravagantly, and now he was paying the price of it.

The first place to catch his attention was the first place he’d seen on the way into Penril.  Thommael, the blacksmith, was a man Talasen had clung to often as a child. There had always been rumors that the huge smith was descended from the giants of the north, and to this day, Talasen couldn’t decide, for Thommael was a bear of a fellow.  His arms were as thick as Talasen’s waist, and he made sure everyone knew it was solid muscle.  Stories of men who had cheated washing down the river were numerous, but those tales were harder to believe.  He wasn’t that mean a fellow, and only lost his temper for proper reasons.

Even outside of the thick walls, Talasen could hear the loud clang of metal coming from inside.  It was a faintly musical sound, pounded out in a steady beat that meshed with all the other sounds around him.  When he went to the door and pulled it open, a river of heat swept out and almost made him regret his curiousity.  Yet, he walked inside, ignoring the discomfort and taking a look around.  Thommael was bent over a small anvil, powerfully shaping a piece of red metal with his hammer.  The giant was wholly focused on his work and didn’t even notice Talasen enter.

“What sort of grand weapon are you designing now?” Talasen shouted over the ringing metal.

Obviously he had started Thommael, for the blacksmith nearly dropped his hammer and launched into a string of curses.  Then he recovered and placed the metal back into the furnace.

“Suppose I won’t get no work done with you around.”  Unlike Madric, he showed little surprise at Talasen’s sudden return.

“How goes business Sir Giant?”  Talasen leaned against the wall while Thommael checked on his tools and straightened up.  It was a rather bare workshop, with just a furnace, anvil and countertop.  Tools of all sorts hung on the walls along with unpurchased wares.  Mostly there were pots and pans along with a few farming tools, but one or two swords and an impressive axe were present as well.

“Well enough, young rat.  Supposin’ you brought payment for that beautiful blade I crafted for you.”

“Well,” Talasen stuttered, “Not quite, my dear friend--”

“Everyone is a friend to Talasen when he lacks money, is that right?”  The blacksmith let out a deep rumble of laughter.

“One should hope, lest I never have opportunity to repay those I owe.”

“I have doubts that such an opportunity will ever present itself.”

Talasen smirked.  “One day when I am king of the land it shall.”

“And when Aman dispels the world I shall await payment,” said Thommael.

“Sounds like a fair agreement,” Talasen replied.

Thommael took a seat on a stool set behind the counter and wiped off black grime from his hands and face with a damp piece of cloth.  “So where’ve you been, boy?”

“To the north, looking for more condescending adults to call me ‘boy’ or ‘young rat.’”

“Why travel all that way just for that?” Thommael asked.

“A good question.” Talasen wandered over to the counter and looked the blacksmith in the face.  “You’re one of the few who does not seem shocked that I am still alive.”

“Oh, I had faith you would survive,” Thommael commented.  “I figured you would end up in a dungeon, but I never doubted you would survive.”

“How optimistic.” Talasen chuckled.

“I must only wonder what trouble you’ve dragged back here with you,” Thommael said.

Talasen looked back at him and shrugged.  “That is yet to be seen.  I may be trouble enough on my own.”

The blacksmith glanced down and looked to ponder on the nature of his piece of cloth.  “You came to see your lady.”

“Am I so transparent?”

“Yes,” Thommael answered in short.

Maric avoided my inquiries, however,” Talasen said.

“As well he should,” Thommael grunted.

This signaled a few warnings in Talasen’s mind.  “And why should he?”

Thommael looked up and met Talasen’s gaze.  The blacksmith was as stern and formidable as always, but there was a touch of what could only be described as regret in his voice.  “Things change, boy.  And not always to our liking.”

“I know,” Talasen mumbled in response.

But the blacksmith shook his head.  “No.  Not yet, but I suppose you will find out soon enough.”  He hesitated for a moment and added.  “Your lady is no longer yours.”

It was a bit of a blow to the heart, Talasen had to admit, but he had secretly prepared for it in his mind already, so little registered on his face.  There was a sort of numbness that came over him, however, much akin to the feeling he experienced during the worst of battle.  It was a curious sensation that blotted out any trace of fear and signaled that there was little hope left.

While he’d had no physical response, Thommael was more perceptive that he had given credit to.  “She thought you were dead, boy.  Like most of the others.”

“Understandable,” Talasen replied.

“Why did you come back?” Thommael asked.  “You had to know things would have changed.”

Why had he returned?  Even in his mind, Talasen had not determined a reason he accepted to answer that question.  But one suddenly rang clear in his mind, and it rang of the truth.  “To say a last goodbye.”

Thommael nodded and offered no argument against his reasons.  And it all made too much sense.  Talasen had no illusions of staying in Penril.  Edan would likely arrive that night and tomorrow, they’d be on their way to some other town or city.  There were new purposes guiding him now, and new desires as well.  He dreamed of seeing all of Drinia and experiencing all its wonders firsthand.  But something told him he wasn’t ready to forsake Penril forever. 

The two men looked at each other, and suddenly Talasen felt the equal of Thommael; not in terms of strength, but rather minds.  He extended his hand to the blacksmith and they clasped briefly.  “Thank you, Thommael.  For letting me know.”

“Don’t let yourself fall into too much trouble.”

“I doubt I shall return any time soon.  Good luck, giant.”

“Safe travels, rat.”

Talasen smiled a little, even though he felt nothing like it at the moment.  But he turned and strode out of the shop and back onto the street, where it felt much cooler than before.  He unbuckled the leather tunic and removed it quickly.  Surely he looked a tad strange wearing an undershirt with padded trousers, but he couldn’t very well remove the latter item at the moment. 

Being near the edge of the village already, Talasen walked a little further out until he lost sight of the houses behind trees.  Then he cut off the path and ducked between the trees.  Before long he encountered a lone tree that looked as if it had pushed all the others away from it.  Perhaps that was one of the reasons he had always been so drawn to it.  The lowest branches started about a man’s height above the ground and he only had to crouch a little to fit.  When he reached the thick trunk, Talasen sank to the ground and rested with his arms on his knees.

It might have looked as though he was crying from a distance, but it was just a way of sitting that helped him clear his mind.  Edan had taught him the technique, telling him that there times when a person needed to look past the emotions he felt.  Most of the time it worked, and Talasen quickly found himself feeling much more peaceful than he had at the smithy’s shop. 

Many things became clearer in this state of mind and Talasen became aware of the thick pine scent that seemed to bind together the entire valley.  He closed his eyes and let the sounds of the wind wash over him.  The quiet rustle of the trees took away most concerns he possessed and left him free to reflect.

Why had he left Penril?  The reasons he sought were buried four years in the past, but they resurfaced quickly.  For most of his life, Talasen had despised the valley, the river, and even the people around him.  His mother had died when he was young, and his father had been the type of man who only noticed the fact in the one or two hours every day that he was sober.  Thankfully he’d died soon after and Talasen found himself alone.  Somehow he’d survived, with some moderate skill in hunting, but every day was spent dreaming of a way to leave Penril behind forever.

Well, before long the wind and the scents assaulting him forced him into a deeper trance.  Talasen was barely aware of it as he drifted off toward the ream of sleep.  But finally he gave up the battle and the sound of his snoring was added to the melody of the forest.

It was a dreamless sleep and when he finally awoke, much of light had gone and he knew the sun was dropping below the horizon.  A pale crescent moon hung in the sky overhead and peeked its way between branches to where Talasen sat.  He stood up slowly and stretched his arms over his head and nursed a little of the stiffness brought on by constant riding.  He felt remarkably refreshed after the brief nap and snatched up the leather tunic.  It took a moment for him to get his bearings once again, but he found his way back to the road and wandered back into sight of the village.

There were a few people still ambling around on the paths, but the village was decidedly quieter.  Talasen yawned and made his way back to The Four Points.  When he stepped inside, he found the inn much busier than before.  Nearly the entire common room was packed with villagers.  Familiar faces were mixed in with unfamiliar, and a few patrons looked at him with recognition.  Yet no one approached him, or offered even the slightest nod.  He shouldn’t have been surprised by it, though.  Most of them had figured him an outcast in his days living there.

A few women Talasen didn’t recognize were serving up mugs of ale and dinner.  Oddly enough he found that he wasn’t all too hungry and went to a solitary table in the far corner and laid his tunic up on nearby stool.  For some time he sat there, watching the others.  They laughed and told stories while sinking deeper into a stupor.  Snatches of conversation he overheard, and almost laughed along with them a few times.  But every now and then there were glances directed at him and their voices softened.  Talasen was slightly curious as to what they might be saying about him, but he made no special effort to overhear.

Madric eventually reappeared and once he noticed Talasen’s presence, made his way over to the table.  “Where did you run off to?” He asked.

“Nowhere special,” Talasen replied. “How much is board for the night?”

“One silver per night.”

Talasen reached into his belt pouch and drew out a gold coin.  He errantly flipped it across the table and watched Madric’s eyes light up.  Immediately afterward he felt a bit guilty, flaunting his little bit of wealth in front of a friend.  But Madric slipped it away discreetly and took a seat. 

“So what have you been doing, my mysterious friend?”

“Too many things to list,” Talasen said.

“Offer up at least a few.”  The way his eyes were gleaming with interest left Talasen with little choice in the matter.

“Fighting, mostly.”

“I see,” Madric said, “But I thought we were in a great age of peace at the moment.”

Talasen laughed quietly.  “There are always regional disputes.  Petty men who think to become rich by assaulting the trade caravans.”

Madric motioned a serving maid and a few moments later Talasen found himself faced with a pint of ale, which he gratefully accepted.  “You lead an adventurous life.”

Tiring and violent would be a better way to describe it, Talasen thought, but he allowed Madric to have his illusions.  It was exciting at times, for sure, but then there were the frequently cold and damp nights spent with Edan in random fields across the countryside.  It was not that Edan was a horrible traveling companion, but rather the old man had to be in the right kind of mood to hold a conversation.

“I hear Marin has become attached,” Talasen mentioned.

Madric frowned slightly and glanced around nervously.  “She walked the circle with Kiram two years ago.  She thought you were-”

“Dead.” Talasen shook his head.  “Just like everyone.”

“How can she help it that you just ran off?”

Talasen flinched slightly and took a gulp of ale.

“Besides,” Madric continued, “She’s quite happy.”  His voice trailed off toward the end.

“I will not do anything rash or dramatic, if that is what has you so worried, Madric.”

His friend looked slightly unsettled by the remark.  “It’s not that.  I worry what she will do now that she knows you are here.”

“She knows?”

Madric shifted uncomfortably on the stool.  “Word has traveled rather quickly, you know.  Aided by my own gossiping.”

“Wonderful,” Talasen muttered.

Again they dropped into silence and focused on their drinks.  Then they dropped into the familiar old stories again.  The peace ended abruptly when the door swung open and three more people ambled inside.  All of them looked rather familiar, but Talasen could only put a name to the one leading the way.  Garic and Talasen had never quite gotten along when they had coexisted in the secluded world of Penril.  Something about their personalities always seemed to clash.

“Could that be who I think?” Garic commented and approached the table where Talasen and Madric sat.  “I had you marked as dead or arrested two years ago.”

“Wonderful to see so many optimistic views,” Talasen responded.

This only fueled Garic’s tirade, however.  “What poor excuse of a Guard did you murder to steal those clothes?”

“A Captain,” he lied smoothly, “Care to see how I managed it?”

Including the hint of a threat was probably not the wisest of maneuvers.  Garic only became more smug and stepped closer.  “Care to go a round?  I wager I could plant a saber in your chest.”

Talasen rose from his seat with as much grace as he could muster. He was not there to fight, but his entire body was tingling with that faint excitement that preceded battle.  Even as he stood there, facing Garic, Talasen could feel his muscles tense and come to life. 

Maric was looking more nervous as the two exchanged pleasantries.  “Perhaps you should head outside, friends.  Or settle this over a mug.”

“I bet you have never even seen combat from a distance,” Garic taunted. 

“And I doubt you have the courage to step outside this tiny valley into the real world.”

“Strong words from a man who only left because he was chased from the village for theft.”  Garic grinned smugly.

From somewhere deep inside, Talasen quivered and lashed out.  In an instant he had his sword in hand and reflex replaced thought.  Garic was quick to respond, but nowhere near quick enough to match Talasen.  He tried to plant his fist firmly in Talasen’s face, but before that could happen, the hilt of Talasen’s sword thudded into the side of Garic’s head.  Almost he brought the blade to bear on Garic, but thank the gods his senses returned in time to prevent that horror. 

There was no way Garic ever knew how close to death he’d come, but he fell to the floor and tried his best to get up.  When it became evident that he couldn’t stand on his own, his companions finally bowed down and helped him up.  Untempered anger showed clearly on his face, but he left, being half carried out of the inn.

Silently the rage in Talasen dissipated, but he remained very still, aware that once provoked it could return in moments.  The knuckles of his right hand were white from clenching his saber so firmly and there was a faint throbbing in his right temple.  Indeed Madric had a look of terror on his face.

“I apologize for that,” Talasen mumbled.  All around him the patrons were staring.  Surprise registered on all of their faces mixed with a touch of awe and fear.  Then he took a seat once again and sighed deeply.  Madric looked at him across the table and must not have known what to say, for his mouth was open but no words followed for a moment.

“I thought you would kill him for a moment,” Madric said at last.”

“Perceptive,” was Talasen’s only response.

His visit was quickly becoming an unpleasant affair.  If he had known of the trouble waiting for him, he doubted if he would have chosen to meet Edan in Penril.  There were obviously some feuds that did not fade away with time, and Talasen was a little shocked to find such a loathing of Garic in his soul.  He thought he would have been better than that by now, but he still harbored the same pettiness that had caused him so much difficulty in the past.

“I need to think,” Talasen said as he stood up and walked to the door.  Madric nodded as if to say that he would watch his possessions.

The night air was welcoming as he stepped out of The Four Points and Talasen ambled around to the side of the inn.  He found his hand had once again crept back to the hilt of his saber, a sign that no matter how calm he appeared, anger bubbled under the surface.  He must have stood there for a good twenty minutes, just nursing his angers when a voice interrupted his thought.

Tal?”

He swung around and saw her, standing there at the corner of the inn.  “Marin,” he mouthed.

She came a bit closer and Talasen suddenly knew very truly what Thommael meant when he had said she was no longer his.  Her belly was slightly swollen in a manner too obvious to deny.  She was with child, and though most of his illusions had already been shattered, the last few disappeared in that moment.  But he smiled slightly at seeing her and pried his hand away from the saber.

Talasen stepped closer and they hugged fondly.  When he pulled back, he was a bit shaken to find her eyes filling with tears. 

“I was so afraid,” she mumbled.  “So afraid you would hate me.”

“Never,” he said as warmly as he could.

“I am sorry,” she said.  “I believed what they all said.  About you having probably died.”

He shrugged gently.  “It was not an unlikely thing.”

“Where have you been for so long?” She asked.  Madric told me you were in the north and then I heard about what just happened with Garic.”

Talasen laughed, and hoped it would lighten her mood.  “He always deserved a good crack to the head.”

Marin wiped her eyes and smiled.  “I guess you are right about that.”

“How have things been here?”

“About the same as always,” she said, “Nothing much ever changes in Penril.”

“That is a good thing,” he commented.

“You have to tell me all that you’ve seen.  Rarely does anyone leave the valley for long.”  She seemed a bit excited

“I guess I have a few stories of adventure.”  Talasen smirked.