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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 on horseback, looking down on the valley he remembered so well.  Little had changed in all that time and it felt as though no time at all had passed since he last witnessed that sight.  The Eytier River still coursed its way through the forest, winding along like a snake through the trees, but its venom was what gave life to the village.   All that marked Penril’s presence was a thin stream of smoke that rose into a light blue sky, twisting and curling from an errant breeze until it finally was welcomed by the clouds and vanished.

Talasen adjusted his thick 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, Wyrn, 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 stable boy 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 curiosity.  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.

“Madric 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 to be 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 smugger 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. 

Madric 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.

“Tell me some.”

But he didn’t have any desire to share tales of his travels with her.  There wasn’t any reason to share his life with her any longer when he would be departing so shortly.  And for just a moment Talasen felt like he had been betrayed, a wholly selfish thought that made him feel horrible the instant it appeared in his mind. 

“I guess stories are not really part of why I am here,” said Talasen.

She looked up at him, a confused look flashing across her green eyes.  “Something is wrong.”

Talasen shirked his shoulders and looked back at her, traces of guilt still playing through his mind.  “I doubt I will be returning after tomorrow.”

No emotion registered on Marin’s face and Talasen wondered if that knowledge somehow comforted her.

“I never expected to see you again,” whispered Marin.

“Didn’t you have the least bit of hope?” he asked.

“No.”

The moment expanded into an eternity in Talasen’s mind.  He struggled with the idea of being meaningless to her.  Where she had accepted his departure, he had never been able to leave thoughts of her buried in the past.  Could he have meant that little to her, while she had been his world?  It didn’t make any sense, and he didn’t want it to.  Talasen began to feel the first hot caress of anger building in his skin, and it felt wonderful at the moment.  All those feelings of sadness had been swallowed up and he found it possible to hold back all of his emotions.

“You were important to me,” she said, obviously sensing the change inside him.

“Yes, I was,” Talasen snapped.

Now Marin took on an indignant stance, as though daring him to provoke her further.  “What would you have had me do?  Count the days you were gone, begging the gods to let you be alive?”

“No,” he bordered on shouting.  “But to at least remember me.”

Her eyes glinted ominously.  “I thought of you more times than I care to recount.  But the man I imagined must have died on his adventures.”

“Perhaps you are right.  Now you can go back to your home and live your life in idle bliss now that you know that much.”

Without pause, Marin reached out and slapped him across the face.  He could feel the sting run up his cheek and felt blood rush to the spot.  She stalked away then, into the fading light and toward the center of Penril.  He wished he had not said such things, but nothing could have coerced him, in that moment, to go after her and apologize.  More than ever he wished to escape from the village.

 He ambled into the stable and found Wyrn near to the back, feasting on a bag of oats left hanging for him on the stall.  Talasen slipped around behind the horse and shuffled through his riding pack, pulling out a coarse brush.  With that, he began grooming Wyrn and tried to get his mind off Marin, though with little success.  The two lanterns hanging on opposite walls of the stable gave a feeble, flickering light that seemed like it might expire at any moment, but he stayed there awhile later.

Talasen lost his mind in the simple task until the sound of hoof beats drew him out of his self-pity.  The sound gradually increased until a brown gelding appeared through the gloom and pranced into the stable.  He wasn’t very surprised to see Edan astride the horse, as his companion had a notable history of arriving on time.  However, the old man looked a fair bit wearier than he had when Talasen last saw him.  Long and graying brown hair trailed behind Edan, strewn carelessly by the wind. 

The gelding was breathing heavily and danced around nervously and Talasen went to help Edan down.  The old man accepted his help in silence and stepped down from the saddle.  He stood about half a foot shorter than Talasen, but his shoulders stuck out broadly and his back was poised perfectly straight.  While he did look quite tired, a fierce light shone in his eyes that Talasen could not quite call natural.

“You appear in a rush,” said Talasen.

Edan glanced up at him with a sour expression and muttered, “Yes, and it is only a deep fog that has set at the valley pass which keeps me here for the night.”

Something was not right.  It almost looked as though Edan was scared, but that never happened.  Even in the face of a volley of crossbow bolts, the old man would stand firm and unafraid.  “What has you in such a temper?”

 “Odd things are happening to the south, boy.  Things which do not bode well.”

He couldn’t completely hide his annoyance at being referred to as ‘boy,’ but Edan often fell into the old terms when he was agitated.  “Strange things always occur down there.  Rumors of the Ekiel’Mara massing for war have spread far and wide the past few years.”

But the old man just shook his head.  “The Southlanders are not what worries me.  Much stranger plots are being formed in Gaelan.”

“A strange city if ever there was one, but loyal to Drinia.”

Edan busied himself, filling his pack with the contents of his saddlebag.  “Loyalty has little to do with the matter.  The resident Lord Elidor has been dabbling in some darker crafts.”

“The Elder sorcery?  Wouldn’t that leave him dead rather quickly?”

Edan shook his head and started walking toward the inn.  “He has not been personally attempting it.”

“Still, no one but a god could wield those powers.”

Edan made no response and the two headed inside The Four Points.  The old man arranged for a room and went there immediately.  Talasen, meanwhile, grabbed his tunic from off the table and followed.  Edan was often prone to bouts of imagination, but rarely did he become this worked up over his fancies.  Reputedly, he thought himself to be a great sorcerer, though Talasen had never seen him work any miracles.  Rather, he was a fine diplomat, with the courtesy of lord and the shrewdness of a businessman.  A reputation as a sorcerer did much to enhance his aura, but the only magic Talasen knew as being real were the darker arts; forbidden practices that almost always killed the practitioner. 

It was a small room that Edan had arranged for, with two small beds and little space for anything else. 

“Would you rather come and have a drink?” Asked Talasen.

“My nerves are too unraveled,” said Edan.

“And what unraveled them?”

The old man sat on the edge of the bed nearest a small window.  “Gaelan’s strange method of obtaining power has had an effect on places as far north as the capital.  In recent years it has been named the City of Storms, to good effect.”

“It’s a stark and rainy place,” Talasen smiled.

Edan glared at him for interrupting.  “Do you care to know, or not?”

Seeing as how Edan could be stubborn, Talasen nodded and remained silent.

“Well,” he continued, “The storms are by no means natural, and droughts plague nearly all areas of the north.  Meanwhile Gaelan itself starves since all of its farming lands have been turned into swamps.”

“How does that involve sorcery?”

Edan sighed heavily.  “It is unnatural, and I fear the least of our concerns.  Elidor hungers for power, and a strange force we cannot account for aids him.”

“Will it be war then?” Talasen asked.

“No, not yet.  We are going there before that happens.”

“To Gaelan?” He hardly could believe that.  “It is a good distance from here.”

“And we have other places we must visit beforehand.”

Things were all moving a bit too fast for Talasen’s liking.  They had traveled many places together in the past few years, but the thought of going to Gaelan left a sour taste in his mouth.  Once before they had visited the city, and it had given him strong feelings of dislike and discomfort.  It would get them out of Penril very shortly, but he wasn’t sure if it was worth the trade.  Whenever Edan seemed worried in the least, bad things were sure to follow along.  The last such time he’d had a feeling similar to this, he’d wound up with an arrow lodged in his shoulder.

“Anything else I should know?” Talasen asked, hesitantly.

The old man said nothing more.  He emptied his pack on one of the beds, grabbed a weathered journal, quill, ink, and began scribbling away furiously.  Talasen knew better than to interrupt Edan when he was in one of his writing moods.  There were times when the old man was almost giddy in a childlike way, but when Edan was serious, he was a grim fellow and could show a temper that amazed even Talasen.

Little else of interest was happening in the room, so Talasen flung his tunic on his bed and left the room.  He headed back downstairs and re-claimed a table near the rear of the common room.  Unlike many of the larger inns, The Four Points had no true entertainment.  Still, it was likely better in the end.  A screeching fiddle or squawking voice had the potential to give him a headache that night; he could already feel the slight pressure building behind his left eye.

Madric found his way back again with two more pints of ale, bless the fellow.  Drinking excessively might not have been the best idea for that night, but Talasen never liked following good advice.  In a few short minutes he had drained the mug and a serving maid was off to fetch another.

“Did she find you?” Madric asked, and shifted anxiously on his stool.

Talasen muttered a few words under his breath.  “Unfortunately.”

“None too smooth?”

Talasen answered with a grunt and took a swig of the pint of ale that had just arrived. “I have my usual stunning luck.”

Madric winced.  “Now that is particularly bad.”

Two hours later, the pair was sitting at the table laughing endlessly.  They were alone in the common room, except for a man who had fallen asleep at a table and been abandoned by his friends.  Talasen wasn’t quite sure what they were both laughing at, but it was funny in any case. 

“Your companion is a strange one,” Madric commented.

“Indeed,” said Talasen, “Even I do not quite know him yet.”

“How long have you traveled together?”

Talasen took a moment to think over the question since everything seemed a bit fuzzier now.  “Nearly three years now.”

“And you don’t know him?”

He shrugged.  “He caught me in an attempt to steal his coins.”

“And so you started traveling together?” Madric laughed.

“The bastard had me jailed.”

“So then you met in good terms.”

“Only the very best,” Talasen was finding it hard to breathe between the bouts of laughter.  “Turned out he was some sort of official for the empire, though I still do not know what that position would be.”

“Why do you travel then?”

Talasen shrugged.  “Well, he had me repay my little…theft by helping him on his trips between the northern cities.  Grew to like him, and, well, began training to become a Guardsman.”

“So stealing turned you noble.”

“In a sense,” Talasen replied.

“I have missed your civilized presence.” Madric sniggered.

“And I have missed your company, friend.”

“How long till you leave?”

“Tomorrow.” Talasen emptied another mug and decided it would be the last.

“And when will you pass this way again?”

“I’m not all too sure,” he answered honestly.

Madric smiled and nodded.  After all, there wasn’t much to say. 

Suddenly Talasen noticed a shrill whistle coming from outside.  “What is that?”

“I’m not sure.”

It sounded once more and then faded away.  Similar whistles were used by commanders, he remembered from his training.  Penril had no militia, though, and no reason for such things.

“I’ll go see what it is,” Talasen said, rising from the table.

Maybe he was being paranoid, but Edan had said he was most likely being followed.  Talasen wasn’t sure what to make of the old man’s words, but he would much rather be prepared in case.  He reached toward his hilt and made sure the saber was still hanging by his side.  It was, so he headed out into the night.  By that time, nearly everyone had gone to sleep and there was no light coming from any of the windows except for the inn.

It took a moment for Talasen’s eyes to adjust to the diminished light.  He could make out shapes, but not much else.  The sky overhead was mostly clear, but there was no moon, which certainly gave assistance to anyone sneaking around the village.  When he focused his ears, there were too many sounds echoing through the forest to name.  It was possible he’d only heard some sort of insect or bird, and the silliness of facing an owl with a sword almost forced him to laugh.  Clearly the ale had not quite worn off of him yet. 

He stalked out away from the inn and stood in the darkness.  Something still did not feel quite right, but he couldn’t name what it was.  When a brush of air passed his ear, he reacted in an instant, throwing himself backward into his assailant.  Clearly the man had not expected this, and he fell to the ground in a heartbeat.  But another figure appeared from the gloom, highlighted by the inn’s slight glow and rushed towards him.

Talasen wasted no time in bringing his saber to bear and met the second attacker with a powerful thrust.  However, the man dived aside and produced two rather nasty looking daggers.  One of them flew forward toward him and Talasen leapt aside.  But he’d forgotten the first attacker and tripped over the man.  He lost his grip on the sword and fumbled on the ground to rise. 

A cold anger began to sweep through his limbs, and the warmth of ale suddenly vanished.  Talasen rolled to his feet and launched himself at the knife-wielder.  There was a sharp pain in his upper left arm, but he ignored it and grabbed the man’s arm.  With all the strength he could muster, he planted the palm of his hand in his attacker’s face and watched as he crumpled onto the ground.  Meanwhile the other had regained his footing and rushed him.  But Talasen plucked the dagger from the fallen assailant’s hand and flung it at the other man.  It struck him in the chest and a moment later there was no more movement. 

Talasen kicked the knife-wielder in the face numerous times before he began to regain control again.  The first thing he noticed was warm blood pooling out of a gash in his left arm and he found he could hardly move the hand.  He staggered back to the door of the inn and reentered the common room.  His head was beginning to feel light, but he realized Edan and Madric were both there, staring at him. 

In battle, Talasen never felt fear, a blessing bestowed by his berserker curse.  Whenever his life was in danger, he switched into that other form of thinking, where nothing mattered except attacking.  But now he felt weak and cold.  Edan ushered him to a stool and produced a piece of cloth, which he used to bandage the gash.  He’d had worse injuries before, but not by much.  The cloth turned red and soaked up blood as soon as it was put in place. 

“We need to leave,” sad Edan, his voice sounding light and distant.  “They have tracked us here.”

“I killed them,” Talasen managed to say.

“There are more of them out there.”

“Bastards….attacked in pitch black.”

Edan nodded.  “Do not look for honorable men to be hunting us.”

But the entire room tilted and vanished in a gray haze.  Talasen thought he heard voices speaking, and there were vague shapes that seemed to pass above his face.  Yet the gray fog lasted into what felt an eternity, and he was greeted by a numbness that filled his whole body.  The unspeakable entered his mind, and he had to wonder if this was death that he was experiencing.  Terror filled his scope of comprehension and he fought desperately for something to grab onto.  When he at last began to lose hope, there was a warm surge that rippled through his body, and he became aware of his limbs once more.

Talasen tried to lurch upward, but Madric was holding him by the shoulders.  From somewhere it came to him that he was screaming out some nonsense.  Gradually he regained control over his voice and noticed Edan, standing nearby, his hands bloody and sweat pouring down his brow.  Madric was staring at the old man with an expression partway between terror and awe, but Talasen could no more make sense of that than stand up at the time. 

After several painful moments, Talasen managed to ask, “What was that?”

“Poison,” said Edan, his voice much more tired than before.

“Who attacked me?”

“Assassins.  You are fortunate to be alive,” Edan commented.

“Fortune has nothing to do with the matter,” Talasen argued, again healthy enough to defend his pride when the question arose.

“Foolish boy,” muttered Edan.  “We must leave tonight.”

Vaguely, Talasen wondered how that would be possible.  All of his limbs were still filled with a distant pain and fatigue.  Walking would be difficult enough; to say nothing of riding a horse through the night.  No doubt the ale in his stomach was doing no favors for him at the moment either. 

“I cannot move,” said Talasen.  The weakness in his own voice surprised him briefly.

“Allow it some time,” replied Edan, “Soon you will feel well again.”

And with that he fell into a light sleep.  He could still faintly notice what was going on around him, but the brief rest was wondrous.  How long he laid there in the delirium between sleep and wakefulness, he couldn’t tell, but when he finally pulled himself back into the world, all of their possessions were nearby and packed.

Oddly enough, he did feel a bit more energetic now, though pain still lanced outward from the wound to his arm.  The old man was nowhere in sight, but he had kindly enough left Talasen’s tunic nearby.  With a fair amount of effort, Talasen hefted himself upright, and was amazed by the amounts of blood that stained the wooden table beneath him and trickled off the edges.  Madric was seated on a stool nearby, still apparently shaken.

Talasen felt for his coin pouch and tossed a gold crown toward his friend.  “My apologies for the table.”

Madric hesitated in accepting the coin.  “No need for that.  I just…I have never seen anything of that sort before.”

Talasen grunted an agreement and slipped the leather tunic painfully over him.  He did his best to ignore the wound, knowing that if he saw it, he would probably only feel worse rather than better.  With the armor in place again, he felt a small measure more secure than earlier.  “Where is Edan?”

“The old man?  He has already gone to the stable to prepare your horses.”

It was hard for him to not curse upon hearing that.  There would be no easy night ahead for him.  He grabbed their meager belongings in his undamaged arm and made his way for the door.

“I wish I left in better circumstances, but, farewell Madric.”

Madric nodded softly and the two exchanged a brief glance.  “Goodbye, Tal.”

“Apologize to Marin for me,” said Talasen, and then he walked out the door and away from the Four Points.  He hurried through the dark, still unsettled by the sudden events of earlier.  Along with the fear that now lurked in his mind was a dull sorrow.  The venture at home had turned out nothing like he had expected.  Again he was leaving Penril in the night, fleeing from new fears.  Well, he vowed he would have their sly hunters running scared before the journey was over.  Grimly, he smiled a bit and knew that he would soon be returning to the world he had grown accustomed to.  It had taught him many things about fear.