Homecoming

by Michael Richards

:Tomas,: Arrant sent, for what felt like the twentieth time that day, :do we really have to visit your family this Midwinter? The festivities in Rethwellan at this time of year are famous.:

Tomas grinned. "Arrant, a few fingerwidths of snow are not going to hurt you. We're almost at the last Waystation and you can get warm there, and when we arrive there'll be warm stables, fresh straw," he paused, grinning, "and apples."

:Unfortunately, your three cousins will also be there.:

Tomas blinked. "What about them?"

:How would you like to have three young girls trying to braid your hair? And stop laughing, it's not funny.:

"Sorry," Tomas managed, fighting to bring his laughter under control. "I just hadn't thought of them like that before. No wonder you were so keen to get away last time."

:Exactly,: his Companion replied. :I think if I get the option of a locked stable, I'll take it.:

Tomas leaned forward to pat arrant's neck reassuringly. "Don't worry, I'll keep them away from you. Wasn't that the turn for the Waystation?" :No, but not far off. That's the one you took us down last time. We want the one just over this hill.:

Tomas glanced back over his shoulder, "Are you sure?"

:Yes, and I am not going back to prove it to you. It's too cold here as it is. Why anyone would want to live up here is completely beyond me.:

"Some of us like it up here."

:And some of us don't. Here we are.:

As Arrant turned down the path leading from Trade Road, Tomas had to admit that it did look like the right path. A short time later they arrived outside the neatly kept Waystation. Tomas dismounted and removed his light traveling pack from Arrant.

:Just let me get the brush and I'll have you warm,: he said, ducking into the Waystation. It was tempting to start a fire, but Arrant came first. "Good thing we weren't in a hurry," he muttered, burshing out the Companions's coat. "I wouldn't want a layer of sweat on you in this temperature."

Arrant turned his head to look at him. :You want to go south?:

"No!"

:Well, it was worth a try.: Amusement colored Arrant's mental voice, and Tomas smiled back as he finished grooming.

"I wouldn't go for a roll this time," Tomas warned.

:Don't worry, I won't. Why don't you get the fire going?:

It did not take Tomas long to get a cheery blaze going, and the Waystation warmed up nicely. The village he had passed through at midday had sold him some lovely meat rolls, and he devoured them enthusiastically while Arrant munched on some oats and the last of the apples which they had brought along. Tomas looked longingly through the window at the small river just beyond, but it was lightly frozen over.

:And would be an excellent way of catching a cold, Chosen.: Arrant noted. :You said, yourself, that we'll be arriving tomorrow.:

Tomas nodded, "You're right. Well, I don't know about you, but I'm tired. Let's call it a night."

:You're tired? Who's been doing all the work?:

Tomas laughed as he got into bed, watching Arrant settle down comfortably. "Well, I'm a little tired, so you must be very tired," he replied.

Arrant was silent a moment. :After a little stroll like that? Hardly. Of course, this is because I also have the stamina for it--unlike some people I could mention.:

Tomas wisely shut up.

The next morning dawned bright and clear. Replacing the firewood they had used the night before was a simple task, as there was wood aplenty lying on the ground nearby. The birds were still singing their morning chorus when Arrant trotted out to the Trade Road.

:Left or right?:

"North," Tomas said firmly. "I'll leave it to your better judgment, this time."

:A wise move.: Arrant replied smugly, turning to the left, and Tomas smiled.

It was a few candle-marks before Tomas saw that they had company on the road. They had passed any number of people further south, hurrying home for the holiday, but up here most people were already home. He hadn't seen anyone on the road for two days, and he watched with interest as the person ran toward him. Then he stiffened as the man came into earshot.

"Herald! Lord Herald! Blessed be the Lady... Sir!"

:Looks like trouble.: Arrant sent, and Tomas agreed. The stranger ran towards them, panting and gasping for breath. He was a large man, wearing a warm-looking woolen cloak with a long knife in a rudimentary sheath at his side. Tomas decided he was probably a farmer, and no stranger to the area.

"Oh, Herald, you are a most welcome sight for these sore eyes!" the man gasped out, making a curiously formal half-bow when he reached them. "I thank the Lady I chanced to see thee approaching--my daughter, sir, she has been kidnapped--kidnapped by a mage--a mage of terrible power!"

For a moment, Tomas froze in shock. He had been born and raised in this area, a day's ride from the Pelagir Hills, and he had heard any manner of stories. He also wielded what many folk would call magic, though unfortunately his gifts were weak. Real magic, though... He took a deep breath, calming himself. :Arrant, let me guess. No full Heralds within a day's ride, right?:

:I'm afraid so.: Arrant replied, his mind-voice unusually sober. :Looks like it's up to us.:

:And things were going so well. Call in the nearest, will you?:

:Done.:

Tomas sighed, and looked at the farmer. "Look, uh..."

"Dakar. Tari Dakar.”^

"Farmer Dakar, I'm only a trainee, not a full Herald."

The man's face fell.

"But I'll do what I can. Take us to your village and tell me the full story."

:Tomas,: Arrant sent quietly, :you know we don't stand a snowflake's chance in hell against a mage.:

:So we leave her?:

:Hellfire no. Just so long as you know.:

:I know,: Tomas replied, quietly. :I know.:

It was not far to the village, and they were spotted well before they reached it. The entire village was waiting by the roadside when they arrived--not that there were many people there. Tomas guessed there were about four different families.

:Three.:

:Pedant. And I wish you wouldn’t listen to my personal thoughts--it's rude:

After Tomas dismounted, one of the men stepped forward. He was dressed much like Dakar, and could have been aged anywhere from thirty to sixty. His voice, when he spoke, was unexpectedly deep. "Sir, I don't know how you knew, but--we were sitting in Dakar's house last night, sharing some brews, when there was this huge explosion outside. We all rushed out and there was this man there. He--"

"--He was about seven feet tall, dressed in deep blue, and he had fire dancing in his hand. He said he wanted my Teri and he'd level the village if we fought him." Tears glinted in the tall farmer's eyes. "She's my only child, sir, she's all alone..."

Tomas frowned. Even allowing for exaggeration... "So you gave her to him--then what?"

"Oh no, sir, we wanted her to flee but she insisted--said she wouldn't be responsible for the destruction of her village."

:They do talk pompously up here, don't they?:

:Hush.:

"Which way did he go?" Tomas asked, and was surprised by the shuffling and glances among the crowd.

"He...just vanished," Dakar finally admitted. "Touched my girl, there was another explosion, and they were gone."

Tomas swore. "Do you have any idea where he is? Who he is?"

:I can maybe answer the former.:

Tomas blinked. "You can?" he asked aloud, too surprised by Arrant's comment to use mindspeech. The farmers glanced curiously at him and at one another.

:I'm picking up the scent of a horse, and since I don't see any around...: Arrant replied.

Tomas looked at Dakar. "Do you have any horses?" he asked urgently.

Dakar stammered. "No, sir...I thought...you have one..."

"Not for me--are there any horses in the village?"

"No...no, not one."

Tomas smiled grimly. "Then I think we can find him. I'll try and get her back. There should be a real Herald here in a couple of days; if I'm not back by then, tell them what happened." Without wasting any more time, he jumped up onto Arrant's back.

:Can you follow the scent?: he asked Arrant.

:I think so. And if my guess is right, we'll see tracks...there. See?:

Tomas looked, and nodded. :You're right. Horse tracks, a day old. Another day and we couldn't have recognized them, though. Well, let's get following them.: He felt Arrant's agreement as the two followed the tracks down a narrow trail.

:So, here's what we have: Tomas mused. :A mage who can make big explosions and can disappear and hide a horse--but who needed a horse to travel.:

:And who wanted something from that girl,: Arrant agreed, then paused. :I don't need to tell you where this path is heading, do I?:

Tomas shook his head. :Straight out of Valdemar and into the Pelagirs,: he replied. :Arrant, up here there could be anything. Be careful.:

:You too, Tomas.:

The two rode in silence for much of the day, following the tracks. A few candle-marks down the trail, their quarry had clearly camped for a short time, and they pressed on, hoping they would catch up with him by dusk. Finally, just as the sun was beginning to set, Tomas saw a tower visible in the distance.

:A mage who lives in a tower. How...original.:

"So he's a traditionalist," Tomas replied. He knew Arrant had only made the comment because he was nervous, but still... "Hold still... I'm going to try and take a closer look at it."

Arrant obediently stopped, holding himself still, and Tomas concentrated on the distant tower, calling into play his weak gift of FarSeeing. He had practiced this particular trick with his trainer for many candle-marks, and he had nodifficulty shifting his viewpoint to show him the tower from close up. The vision held for a moment, then it was gone, and Tomas half-collapsed against his Companion.

"Gods, I hate doing that," he muttered, briefly nauseous from pushing his gift to it's limit.

:Did it work? You can throw up later.:

"Yeah. He can hold off an army there, even without using magic...and Arrant, I didn't see a door."

:Great. Well, that rules out both the lone cavalry charge and sneaking in. I don't suppose we could pretend to be selling old books?:

"I don't think so."

:Then we're left with bluff.:

Tomas sighed and nodded. "I suppose now is as good a time as any. Let's do it, before we get an attack of common sense."

Arrant waited a moment while Tomas adjusted his cloak, showing the gray tunic beneath, then walked deliberately along the track toward the tower, stopping a short distance from it. The silence was eerie.

Tomas looked up the smooth gray walls of the tower, then took a deep breath, "Mage! In the name of Queen Selenay of Valdemar, as one of her Heralds, I order you to let the girl go!"

There was a long silence, then a brilliant flash just in front of them. Surprised, Arrant took a hasty step backwards. their eyes cleared, they could see the mage. He was every bit as impressive as they had said, Tomas thought, still dazed from the explosion. Complete with the robes and globes of fire casually floating above his left hand. The one thing he did not look was cowed.

"The girl stays here," the mage said coldly. "We are not in your Valdemar, your Queen can do nothing to stop me, and you are less than nothing. Leave before I fry you."

:Tomas...:

:What?:

He's bluffing.:

:How do you know?:

:Because he didn't think to apply the illusion he's put on you to me. Take a look at what he's really like.:

Tomas's senses swam briefly as Arrant showed him a different view of a skinny youth, still dressed in blue, who would barely reach Tomas's shoulder, and who looked nervous.

:No wonder he needed the horse--Arrant, I'll bet illusion is all he's used.:

:It's possible. Doesn't mean that's all he could use, though.:

:True.: Tomas replied silently, his gaze never wavering from the mage. Reaching down to his saddle, he drew his bow and a single arrow, and nocked it.

"You will leave now or I will fry you," the mage's voice seemed to boom out from all around the area. Tomas's response was to point the arrow straight at him.

"Release the girl now," he replied coldly, hoping his fear did not show in his voice. The two stared grimly at one another for several moments, each waiting for the other to make a move. Then a figure stepped through the wall of the tower, and a new voice--a woman's voice--spoke.

"If you two have finished flexing your muscles at one another, perhaps we can talk?"

Sitting on a chair inside the tower a candle-mark or so later, Tomas was trying to organize his mind around their story. "Let me see if I've got this right. Dari, you grew up in that village and they threw you out when you started doing weird things; you found this tower and moved in. Teri, you brought him food when he needed it and kept him company, right?"

The young man sitting on the couch opposite him, looking just as he had to Arrant, nodded. "But they were going to marry her off to someone else, and she didn't want that, so I took her away from there."

"I hope you don't mind me putting you under Truth Spell to verify that?"

The young mage took a deep breath, "Will it hurt?"

Tomas shook his head, "You won't even know it's there."

"Go ahead then."

Tomas nodded, frowning in concentration, and recited the simple rhyme. The expected glowing shape appeared around the young man.

"I swear that I did not take Teri here against her will, I am not keeping her against her will. I have not harmed her in any way and have no intention of harming her."

:He's got to be from the village. Nobody else talks like that.:

:Hush, Arrant.:

Dari looked inquiringly at Tomas, "Anything else?"

Tomas shook his head and canceled the spell. "OK, so I believe you. Teri, you want to stay here with him?"

The girl, tall and clad in similar robes, nodded and hugged Dari's arm possesssively. "With all my heart."

Tomas sighed, "So why go through all the fuss?"

"They wouldn't let me come to him," she replied. "Said he was messing with things he should have left alone--" a loud noise interrupted her, "and what in all the hells was that?"

Tomas and Dari had leapt to their feet and run to the window before she finished the question. They too had heard the sound of something huge creaking just overhead. They looked out just in time to see something large and reptilian glide overhead, heading back along the track towards the village. Dari paled. "A--a--a--" he gasped.

" A what!?" demanded Tomas, shaking him.

"A colddrake!"

:Oh hell.:

Tomas's mind raced. He had heard of colddrakes; they were big, nasty, thick-skinned, and almost impossible to kill; they paralyzed people, and were supposedly attracted to sources of magic. :Sources of magic... Arrant, you don't think--:

:I'm afraid so. The illusions must have lured it here.:

"Dari," Tomas said quietly, "that thing is attracted by magic. Your little illusions must have drawn it."

The young mage shook his head. "No, I've been doing those for years, can't be that. I did put a new one on the tower and tied that into the line..." his voice trailed off.

"Does it matter?" the girl snapped. "The question is what can we do about the thing?"

"Kill it," Tomas replied promptly, "if we can. Teri, stay here; Dari, come with me--Arrant can carry double." He ran down the stairs to the warm stable where Arrant had been quietly munching wild oats, Dari right behind him.

"Climb up behind me...hold on tight...Arrant, go!"

"Herald, I can't hurt it," Dari shouted out over the wind of their passage. Arrant was pushing himself as fast as he could down the track, and the mage clearly was not used to such speed. "All I can do is illusion, and I think we have company anyhow."

"Company? Not more of them..."

"I don't know! Just--something watching us..."

:Arrant, are you picking up anything?:

:Only snow.:

:We'll ignore it for now.: Tomas sent. He shouted back, "We'll ignore it for now! Look, you think you can distract it and hide me or something? Maybe I can stick an arrow in a vulnerable spot--"

"--But they look at you and make you want to die!"

Tomas blinked. :'They look at you...' Arrant, it can't be that easy.:

:You mean cover up it's eyes?:

:Yeah.:

:Nobody said it would be easy, but it might work.:

:Have you got a better idea?:

:Nope. It's our best shot, Tomas.:

"Can you handle several illusions at once?" Tomas yelled, ducking to avoid a gorse branch and cursing as it ripped a long shred through his cloak.

"Yeah, just as long as they're not too complicated," Dari replied, holding on for dear life.

"Great! We've got a chance! Throw one over the drake as soon as we see it--cover up its head. Something, anything. Then try and have something spectacular appear on its far side to distract it. Lastly, can you make us invisible?"

The mage was silent for a moment. "I can try but you'll have to drop me off first," he yelled back. "I can't ride and do that much and I'd only be in your way, Herald."

"Okay--we'll drop you off here...the village is just over the next hill-"

Arrant and Tomas crested the rise at a gallop, not slowing down one moment. Ahead they could see the drake, crouching in the middle of the village, and the villagers standing in a loose circle around it, unmoving. There was no sign of Dari, and Tomas hoped he could do what he had said. Then there was no more time, as the reptile's head swung round at the sound of their approach. Cold eyes scanned the path, located them--and were abruptly covered by a huge blindfold.

:Score one for us,: Arrant sent, but Tomas was already getting ready for his next move, preparing his bow.

A plume of fire shot from the side of the village to impact against the drake. It hissed, swinging it's head round to look for the new enemy, and providing Tomas with a perfect target. :A few moments more...there!: he exclaimed. He rose up in the saddle, and sank an arrow forearm-deep through the blindfold and into one eye. Freed from the spell by the abrupt attack, the villagers, wisely, scattered. More blasts of fire targeted on the beast, distracting it, and Tomas fired arrow after arrow at it. Most bounced off the scaly armor, but some sank into soft flesh. Unable to see its attackers, the beast clawed at it's face, trying to pull off the blindfold but only succeeded in damaging itself more. Finally, with a high keening cry, leapt into the air, climbing rapidly.

:Tomas, it'll be back--:

:--I know! Stop.: Arrant jerked to a halt, and Tomas raised his bow, sighting his arrow as the beast climbed higher. He narrowed his eyes, pushing his gift of Farseeing once more to give him the perfect shot. He fired, and saw his arrow streak up and into the 'drake's primary wing muscle. Then the ground rushed up to meet him and everything went black.

When he came round, Tomas discovered he was lying flat on a bed. Several faces swam into view above him, and he recognized both Dari and Dakar, wearing almost identical looks of concern. His head felt like something was hammering to get out.

:Arrant..?: he sent, weakly.

:Easy, Tomas. Reaction headache. It's dead; you need to rest.:

He managed a faint smile, and the looks of concern changed to ones of relief. "Oh Herald, we feared you had taken some grievous hurt when you attacked the beast," Dakar said, and Dari nodded.

Tomas shook his head, then immediately regretted it. "No--I just pushed a Gift a bit too far. What happened?"

Dari spoke up, "Your arrow must have gone straight through the wing. Herald, I've never seen such a fine shot! It lost all strength in that side and crashed down to the ground, breaking its neck on a rock. We've cut it to pieces just to make sure, but you killed it, Herald... what did you say your name was?"

"Tomas. Herald-trainee Tomas."

Dakar smiled, "Herald Tomas Drakesbane, I think."

:Gods, the bards. Please tell me no bards ever come up here...:

:Don't bet on it, Chosen. Now rest.:

Tomas sighed and looked up at the two villagers. "Are things under control here?"

The big farmer nodded. "Aye. Dari has explained what happened and we're keeping watch for any more, just in case. My second cousin has gone to collect Teri from the tower."

Tomas sank back against the pillows. "Good," he said, then let the waiting arms of oblivion enfold him once more.

The next time he awoke, Tomas felt much better. His headache had subsided to an intermittent dull twinge, and he got out of bed, pulled on his tunic, and went out to the main room. Teri and Dari sat on a couch together, talking with Dakar and a tall silver-haired Herald whom Tomas did not recognize.

:That's Herald Talonis, technically retired, but he was the closest.:

Seeing Tomas in the doorway, Teri jumped up and helped him down to a seat. The older Herald turned to smile approvingly at him. "Well, young Tomas, I hear you've had an exciting few days. I certainly didn't expect to get called away from Midwinter festivities to find a dead colddrake."

Tomas smiled weakly, "I was lucky--and I had Dari's help."

"Lucky, aye, but you were intelligent and resourceful too. Well done, Herald- trainee Tomas, well done. I suppose you want to know what's been going on while you were out?"

Tomas nodded, "Yes, sir, I do."

"Well, Dari still thinks something is watching him, but none of the rest of us can see anything, so we think there was just the one in the area. He's going to live in the Tower with Teri. With her father's blessing."

Dakar glanced down. "Least I can do after he risked himself to save us," he muttered.

Talonis continued, "He's also going to protect the village from any more Pelagirs-spawned creatures, and they'll provide food and the like when he needs it."

Tomas smiled, "Good, that sounds fair to everyone."

Dari nodded, "Tomas Drakesbane, I can't thank you enough for what you've done for us, but nor, alas, can I reward you properly."

"I don't need rewarding--" Tomas began, but the young illusionist interrupted him.

"--Your cloak was ruined on the way here. Please, accept this one as a token of our gratitude. I found it in the Tower and Teri cleaned it up."

The cloak was warm wool, of the purest white, and incredibly soft to the touch, yet Tomas, for some reason, knew that it would not easily be torn or rent. "Thank you both," he said quietly. As soon as his gift was accepted, his solemn face was split by a bright smile.

"Will you stay for our festival, Heralds?" Dakar asked, but both shook their heads regretfully.

"No, I have to go see my family. If I don't, they start writing letters," Tomas replied, ruefully.

"And I had best return to my kin, lest they start to worry what could drag an old Herald out in such haste."

"Then we shan't keep you any longer, sirs. My wife took the liberty of stocking your Companions' saddlebags," Dakar replied, standing up with them. "The Lady bless you both and grant you a safe journey."

:Say, 'and may she in turn bless you,' Tomas,: Arrant sent, as Tomas shook the burly farmer's hand.

"And may she in turn bless you, Farmer Dakar," Tomas replied, noting the start of surprise and pleasure that flickered across the man's face at the correct reply.

:Thanks, Arrant.:

:Thank me by keeping your cousins away from me! Come on, Chosen, we can be there by nightfall if we set off now.:


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