In the Beginning
By Michael Richards
Tomas yelped with pain as, for the third time that day, the weaponsmaster sent his short-sword flying and followed up with a stinging slap to the ribs.
"Thomas, you would be better defending yourself with a stick! You haven't the slightest ability with a sword and show absolutely no sign of learning anything!" The weaponsmaster sighed, looking at the group of trainees in the salle. "And the rest of you are about as bad. Hopeless, the lot of you. Get out of here! Out, out!"
:You heard the man, Chosen,: came Arrant's familiar mind-voice, as Tomas scrambled to his feet and tried to ignore the pain in his side.
:I'm working on it. I just want to make sure I'm still in one piece first.: Tomas could not quite keep his bitterness at his lack of ability from his reply. He limped out with the rest of the class, and Arrant's voice softened.
:You are getting better, Tomas, and you didn't have the years of training he had. Don't let it get you down.:
Tomas sighed. :Yes, boss.: he replied, unconvinced.
A familiar voice interrupted his musing. "Are you all right, Tomas? That looked like a nasty hit you took there." Cara, a fellow trainee a year or so younger than Tomas, was waiting for him just outside.
He smiled at her. "I'm fine. I'll have a nice bruise for a few days..."
"...But it was delivered for your own good," she finished their tutor's favorite phrase, and smiled ruefully back. "Now if only we were skilled enough to appreciate that... Are you expected anywhere?"
Tomas shook his head. "Good!" she continued. "It's going to be a nice day, I thought I'd take Telver for a ride. Want to come along?"
He frowned, looking up at the cloudy sky. "You're sure," he asked doubtfully.
:She’s a ForeSeer, silly.:
“I’m a ForeSeer, remember? The clouds will clear up within the candle-mark and we’ll have a couple of ‘marks of nice warm sunshine.”
:Getting out would do you good, Tomas, you’ve been spending too much time in the records of late.:
:Better there than hearing that song again.:
:Well, you won’t hear it out in the country, now, will you?:
:I take it you want to go?:
:Well, I could be persuaded...:
Tomas chuckled. “I seem to be getting out-voted again... I’d love to, Cara, and so would Arrant.”
She grinned impishly. “I knew you would, so I took the liberty of packing some drinks,” she replied, grabbing his hand and pulling him toward Companion’s Field. “Telver and Arrant are waiting... let’s go!”
A candle-mark or so later, the four had reached some common grazing land on a hillside overlooking Haven. Arrant and Telver were wandering aimlessly round the field, while Tomas and Cara sprawled on the grass sharing a flask of grape juice. Cara tapped the bottle thoughtfully, then glanced across at the older trainee. “You know, Tomas, all I know about you is that you’re from up north somewhere. You never seem to mention your life before you were Chosen.”
Tomas shrugged. “Nobody was ever really interested before. It’s not a particularly exciting story.”
Cara shrugged in turn. “I’m not going anywhere,” she replied.
He smiled, leaning back against the grass, his mind roving back through his memories. “Well... I grew up in the very North of Valdemar, a bit to the west of Sorrows...”
Tomas sighed as he walked back to his village. “Another day checking the traps and nothing bigger than a tree hare,” he muttered to himself. “I hope the rest of the village has better luck with the crops than I’ve been having with hunting. It’s not like we have any more horses to sell this year.” He shook his head. “Still, I suppose I should be grateful I’m not needed in the fields now... anything beats spending all day working there, stooping over each plant... “ He had been out checking traps and rigging new ones for most of the day, and it was early dusk when he saw his village from the top of a hill.
Funny...” he mused, quietly. “No fires. I’d have thought... ah, I’m getting paranoid again. Still, can’t help to be careful.” He jogged quietly down the hill, his dark cloak blending in against the hillside and his hand resting near the long knife his father had insisted he take with him for protection. He crossed over one of the narrow rivers that were both the village’s defense and the source for it’s name. As he neared his home, his fears grew when he realized he could not hear anyone talking inside. A dreadful suspicion filled him, and he ran the last few lengths to his home, pulling open the door, all caution forgotten.
Inside, his father was collapsed across a table, along with his young cousins. Through the far door, in the kitchen, he could see his sister sprawled out on the floor.
“No...” he whispered, horrified. He grabbed for his father, and almost cried with relief as he felt the warmth of a living person. Tomas shook him, but the man just collapsed limply against the table again.
“Senna...” he muttered, turning for the door. “Got to get Senna.” If anyone could help them, the old village healer could. He found her slumped over in front of her tiny library: a book on herbs and one on healing. It looked to Tomas as though she had been reaching for one when she collapsed. Her long white hair lay limply over her face, and the woman who had taught Tomas much of the skills of the hunt suddenly looked her age.
How long he stood there staring at her, Tomas never knew. It felt like an age, though it could not have been more than a few moments. “Oh, Sun, what do I do... They must all be--I--I have to help them, but...” he whispered. “I’m no healer... and if Senna couldn’t save them, what can I do?”
Then he straightened so fast he hit his head against the door frame. He winced, but turned and ran from the house. He could not save them, perhaps, but there was another healer at the next village; the village they had sold their horses to. Maybe Darwaife’s healer could help him. He hoped so, because he knew there was nothing he could do for them. His best time to Darwaife was just over two candle-marks over the hills, and it would be dark long before he got there, but he had no choice. He turned and ran down the track, then stopped short, his face lighting up with sudden hope as he saw a horse on the track ahead of him.
As he got closer, he could make out some details. There was no rider in sight, though the horse was saddled. It was gray with dust, and seemed to be placidly waiting for him. He reached it, still without seeing any sign of the rider, and gently stroked the gray’s mane. For a moment he seemed to hear a faint noise in his head, but he shook it to clear it, too worried about his family to pay it any attention. He frowned, looking around. Still no sign of the rider, and this was definitely an emergency... Taking a deep breath, he swung himself up into the saddle. The horse seemed to wait until he was settled, then, before Tomas could encourage it, they were galloping along the hill-track to Darwaife, faster than he had imagined possible.
The sun was just dipping down below the Pelagirs when they reached the wooden palisade that surrounded Darwaife village. Tomas leaned forward and stroked the gray’s neck gratefully, then dismounted. A stocky, dark-haired man armed with a short-sword was waiting, and Tomas approached him. “Please... I need to speak with your healer. I’m Tomas Gildenvale, from Twin Rivers.”
The man glanced over his shoulder at a skinny youth playing with some stones behind him. “Let! Fetch your uncle. Now!” The youth sprang to his feet and disappeared into one of the houses, and the guard turned back to the waiting Tomas. “If the Elder says you can see him, then you can. If he doesn’t, you can’t.”
“No questions. It’s not my job. He’ll be here in a moment.”
Tomas sighed and fidgeted, wishing the man would hurry up. He was panicking about his family and friends and they would not even let him in! He was contemplating just mounting up and riding straight past the guard when the expected Elder arrived, smiling broadly. Tomas was surprised; the man was much younger than he had anticipated, no older than his father in fact, with fair hair and piercing, hungry eyes. “So you’re from Twin Rivers, boy?”
“Yes, sir.” Tomas replied. “I was out hunting and when I came back everyone had collapsed! I... I need to see your healer. Please. My family, they could be dying...”
The elder beamed. “Of course, of course! I’ll take you right to him.” He smiled, and something chilled Tomas, but the man carried on. “Come with me... Let, look after our guest’s horse.”
Tomas nodded, and followed the man, who led him to a small, but neatly-kept house built against the palisade. He unfastened the door and gestured for Tomas to precede him. Tomas nodded, and ducked through the doorway.
:No!: Something struck him on the back of the head and everything went black.
Tomas woke with a nasty throb in his head, and discovered he was lying flat out on something. He cautiously opened his eyes, to see a young man not unlike the Elder looking concernedly down at him. His head chose that moment to get worse again, and he could not help the groan that welled up from him. The stranger placed a hand on his forehead, and the pain eased, leaving him feeling drained.
“Thank you.” Tomas whispered. “Who are you? What happened?”
The young man moved back, and Tomas could see he was wearing a pale green tunic. He looked pale and drawn, but also relieved. “’Who’ is easy: I’m Merior Darwaife, the healer here,” he replied. “As to what happened... my dear uncle Laniar hit you on the back of the head with the pommel of his knife and locked the door behind you. I just healed what I could. Who are you?”
Tomas just stared. “Why would he do that?”
Merior sighed. “You’re from Twin Rivers, aren’t you?”
Tomas nodded, slowing sitting up on the bed as his eyes adjusted to the gloom. “Yes, so?”
“Well. Laniar decided he wanted more land. Specifically, your land. He wanted me to poison your well, then he was going to invade.”
“When I refused, he had me locked up in here, and turned his thugs loose on my things. He came here bragging this morning that his men had put something in your well to make you all helpless, and that by dawn tomorrow every Riversman would be dead, and every woman would be captive.”
Tomas shook his head. “No... no, we have to stop him...”
Merior sighed again. “How?” he asked bitterly. “They’ve already started walking to your village, they’ll be there in a couple of candle-marks. You wouldn’t be here if they hadn’t managed to down at least some of your people. The door’s locked on the outside, and there’s no guard to try the ‘look, he’s sick!’ routine on. Got any ideas?”
“There must be something we can do!” Tomas surged to his feet, then wavered from the reaction. He grimly shook his head to clear it, wishing frantically for a way out of the hut, out of the village, and back to home. “Sun help me...” he whispered as he surveyed their prison. Then there was a resounding crash of something hitting the door hard, and the entire hut shook. Riversman and Darwaifian stared at one another in surprise.
“What was that?” they asked in unison. A second crash rocked the hut, and then a third. Shouting from outside suggested that it was not part of the Elder’s plan. There was a fourth crash, and the door collapsed inward, the wood splintered from the impact of two hooves. In the doorway, Tomas recognized the dusty horse he had ridden to get here. His companion stared, first at the horse, then at Tomas. “How...” he began.
“Never mind how or why!” Tomas grabbed the stunned healer, wished the pain in his head to hell, and swung up into the saddle, pulling the healer up behind him. Two youths, armed with long knives, were running towards them, but once again the horse seemed to sense his need and was rushing for the entrance before they could be trapped. Someone tried to shut the gates, then dived to one side when they realized the horse had no intention of stopping. Moments later they were galloping back down the track to Twin Rivers - not the road, but the quicker hill-track which Tomas had used to get there.
“What are we doing?” yelled the healer in Tomas’s ear.
“Heading back to Twin Rivers! If we get there in time can you wake everyone up?” he yelled back.
“I can try - if we get there in time!”
“At the speed we’re going I don’t think you need worry about that!”
The next half-mark passed in a blur, a blur of low hills, narrow brooks, low branches, and steadily fading light. Tomas knew he was not guiding the horse; he was just holding on, and he mentally thanked whichever god or goddess had sent it to him. Then, dimly ahead, he could see the familiar sight of his village.
They galloped down the single street, confident that the attackers were far behind them, and dismounted outside Senna’s house. Tomas led the young healer inside. “This is Senna, our healer.” he whispered, but Merior was already reaching for the book on herbs.
He thumbed through the index, then glanced at Tomas. “Try and put her on her bed, then boil me some water.” he directed crisply. “But take it from the river, not the well.”
Tomas nodded, and half-carried, half-dragged the old woman the short way to her bed. He made her as comfortable as he could, then knelt by the fireplace. Her fire had long since died, of course, and it took long minutes to clear out the burnt wood and replace it with fresh kindling. He fumbled with the tinderbox, finally getting a spark to catch. With careful haste, he built the fire up until it was crackling merrily, then grabbed a pot and ran for the river, past the watching horse and down behind the village. He filled the pot, then hurried back and hung it from the hook above the fire. Merior was busy searching through Senna’s collection of dried herbs, and Tomas heard muttering as he looked for something. Then he grabbed a small jar, peered inside, and turned to Tomas, smiling grimly. “Soon as that’s boiling, we can wake them.” he said. “You’re lucky she had such an extensive collection, I didn’t think I’d find any bright snowlight here.”
“She traded some marsh grasses for it, two seasons ago,” Tomas replied absently, watching the water as it started to bubble. “Said you never knew when you might need something in a hurry.”
“She means a lot to you, doesn’t she?” Merior asked softly, and Tomas nodded.
“After my mother died, she... well, she became my substitute,” he replied as quietly. “She also taught me a lot about tracking, and hunting... said I wasn’t meant for a life in the fields.”
Merior started to say something more, then noticed the water was boiling. He carefully measured out a handful of the fine gray powder and added it to the pot, stirring it in. “Pass me a cup... thanks. Now we see if I guessed right about what they used. If I did, one sip of this should bring her round very quickly.”
“And if you’re not?”
“Then I’ve not the faintest idea how to wake them up and we’re going to face my uncle alone.”
“I hope you’re right.”
“So do I.” Merior replied, as he lifted the old woman’s head, raised the cup to her lips, and poured a small amount down her throat. For a long moment nothing happened, and Tomas despaired. Then her eyes fluttered open.
“Tomas?” she whispered weakly. “Poison... water... herb book...”
“It’s all right,” he replied quietly. “We’ve made the antidote. Take your time.” Senna nodded, leaning back against the pillow, and Tomas turned a grateful look on Merior. “One sip to wake them up?” he asked.
Merior nodded, already filling a second cup. “They’ll be groggy for a candle-mark, though.” he warned.
“Better groggy than asleep.” Tomas replied, and the two headed out, working down the street, administering sips of the herbal tea to everyone they found.
It took more than half a candle-mark to dose everyone in the village.
No one could assist them, since the revived people were still too weak to help. A few of the villagers were just managing to stand up unaided when the two youths finished, and they met up with them outside Senna’s house. Tomas was relieved to see both his father and Senna among them, looking woozy but getting stronger. Merior gestured to Tomas to explain the situation.
“Elder Darwaife put something in the well that knocked you all out. We’ve managed to counteract it but he’s on his way here now with the intention of taking over the lands... he’ll probably be here within the candle-mark.”
Tomas’s father frowned and swayed. “How many men?”
“At least a dozen, sir.” Merior replied, quietly. “My uncle has been planning this for a while.”
That drew a few angry mutterings from the villagers, but Tomas glared them down. “Merior was the one who mixed the antidote, if it hadn’t been for him you’d still be out,” he said sternly, and the mutterings dissolved into a shamed silence. “We have to decide how we’re going to, ah, discourage the Elder.”
“How long before we stop feeling dizzy?” a voice asked from the back of the slowly-growing group in front of them.
“About a day.” Senna replied. “And no, I don’t have anything that would help.”
Tomas turned to Merior. “What’s your uncle like?” he asked. “Would he attack if he thought we were ready for him?”
The youth shook his head. “My uncle is a coward; he only kicks people when they’re down.” he answered. “He won’t do anything unless he’s already rendered his opponents helpless and he has overwhelming force on his side... and he’ll leave at the first sign of opposition.”
Senna pursed her lips thoughtfully. “Suppose he saw a group of armed men waiting for him in the roadway... and someone lobbed off a few ranging shots to keep ‘em honest?”
Merior hmmmd. “Might work.”
“Anyone got a better idea?” Tomas’s father asked.
Senna shook her head, as did others in the crowd. “That’s what we’ll have to do, Matew.” she said. “Merior, I imagine you want to stay out of sight?”
He nodded. “Yes, ma’am. I think my uncle might react,” he paused as if searching for a word, “badly, to seeing me with you.”
Matew nodded. “Then you’re scout.” He gestured. “Go up that hill and light a torch when they get close to the bend, All right?”
Merior nodded, then hesitated. “You... you’re not going to hurt them, are you?” he asked. “I mean, they’re my family...”
“Don’t worry, Merior. We’ll stand outside the village and look impressive and nobody needs to get hurt.” Tomas replied, and Matew nodded. Merior looked relieved, then set off at a gentle pace for the hill. Matew watched him go.
“I hope you’re right, son.” he said softly.
“So do I.” Tomas replied.
Just over a candle-mark later, with the stars sparkling in the night sky high above, a torch flared up on the hillside. Matew and his kinsmen arranged themselves on the road before the village, knives and other weapons ready. From his position behind a bush, Tomas could see them steadying themselves, and he hoped the darkness would hide this sign of weakness. He readied his bow as the small group of Darwaifians came into sight and stopped dead before the Riversmen. Matew moved forward.
“You’re out late, Elder.” he said quietly. “And in considerable force, too. What brings you to Twin Rivers?”
Elder hesitated. “I... was looking for my nephew.” he said finally. “He assaulted one of my kin and fled in this direction.”
“You won’t find him here.” Matew continued in that same quiet voice. “Go home.”
The Elder glared at him. “You won’t mind me looking, surely.” he snarled.
Matew raised an arm, and despite the gloom Tomas sent an arrow thudding into the dirt at Elder’s feet. The Darwaifian stepped back in surprise, looking for it’s source. “Go home.” Matew repeated, no hint of weakness in his voice. Elder hesitated, then the gray horse that had carried Tomas to Darwaife moved out of the shadows of it’s own volition, standing next to Matew. Tomas thought he saw Elder pale, though it could have been the light. Then he sighed with relief as the Darwaifian turned and headed back to his men, leading them back down the road they had come from. He watched them head out of sight, stepping out from the bushes to rejoin his family. To his surprise, the horse moved to block his way.
:Now that you’re finally paying attention...: a dry voice spoke in his mind, and Tomas’s jaw dropped. :I am Arrant. I Choose you.:
Tomas did the only thing he could. He fainted.
Back on the hillside above Haven, Tomas finished his story, then drained the last of the grape juice. “And that was it.” he said. “Elder never did try again, Merior stayed to help Senna, and I rode Arrant down here to Haven.”
Cara was staring at him. “I thought you said it wasn’t exciting?” she said at last.
He shrugged. “I sometimes think Arrant only Chose me because I needed his help to get MeriorÐcertainly it can’t have been because of my Gifts or prowess with a sword.
:No, Chosen.: A voice spoke quietly in his mind. :I would have waited another season had the events not rushed things, but I knew your talents long before I Chose you, and your friend was right; you were not meant for fields. You make better use of your talents than many a person with stronger ones. I have never regretted my choice.:
Arrant moved closer and nudged Tomas gently, and the youth threw his arms around his Companion. “Nor have I, Arrant.” he smiled.
Cara cleared her throat. “I hate to break up this touching scene, but if we head off now we’ll just miss the thunderstorm that’s building in the west. You lead, Tomas; we’ll follow.”
Tomas grinned and mounted, stroking Arrant’s mane gently. “On one condition.” he smiled.
“You don’t whistle the tune to ‘Tomas Drakesbane’ under your breath this time!”
Go Back one poem: Twilight
Return to the Mercedes Lackey Faninze: Haven's Rest
Go Forward one poem: What Hapenned