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I finished the story with a shrug.  “Then I woke up here.”

The Landsmen had listened closely, never interrupting except when Tara asked an occasional question.  The looks on their faces were somber and kind, sharing my experiences with me.  I shook my head, smiling wryly and making a mental note to embellish more the next time I told the story.  My adoptive father had always said the key to any good story was being able to finish half a mug in the telling, but I had barely gotten a few sips from my water glass.  A deep resonating voice broke the silence from the side of the room.  “If the ghost gave this to you and I’ve gone to all the trouble to clean it, you should probably learn to use it.”

I twisted in my chair, startled by the new voice.  Leaning through the window at the rear of the house was a great beast of a man.  He was at least a foot taller than me, completely bald save for his eyebrows and great shaggy black sideburns running from his ears to the line of his chin.  He stood shirtless, his tan skin gleaming in sweat.  Dozens of very small, very old, scars scored his chest and arms and on the left side of his chest there were seven deep horizontal scars arranged like a ladder.  He stood with solid grace and radiated power, all of his body that I could see fairly rippling with muscle.  In one hand he held a long blanket wrapped bundle.

I’d seen dangerous men before.  Guards on caravan trains or the King’s patrol coming through the pass: men who looked like they could burst into a flying whirl-wind of destruction at any moment.  This was not one of them.  This man stood with a quiet softness that scared me more than any of the others could have.  I was easily ready to believe that when this man took action, it was no whirl-wind of chaos.  It was a calm, precise, relentless river of death.

His eyes took me in as I sat dumb in my chair.  Just one movement down and back up, locking my eyes with his own dark centered orbs.  “If you come with us, you’ll begin at first light.  Otherwise, find a teacher.”

He held the blanketed bundle outward, cradling it in both hands and nodding gently at it.  I got up quickly and crossed the room, instantly knowing it was my sword as soon as I held it.  There was strength to it, a sort of warmth while it was in my arms.  I held it dumbfounded for a split second while they all watched before turning to lay it gently on the bed.  Friss continued watching me a  moment longer before turning to walk out of sight.  “What did he mean, ‘if I come with you’?”  I asked, turning towards the others once Friss’ immense presence had finally faded.

Tara looked around the table and shrugged, hooking her thumb at the door.  Jason and Thomas both stood, sliding their bowls toward the center of the table and nodding at me as they left the room.  Serena rose and gathered the dishes, heading for the wash basin.

I watched them move and turned to meet Tara’s eyes, confused.  “You know many of the things a Messenger can do,” she said, “but you might not know that it is very, very, difficult to lie to one of us.  We remember what you sound like when you tell the truth and every inflection is matched against every other inflection.  Plus, often enough a person’s skin color and odor changes as well.  These are all very small changes, but to a Messenger’s senses any change can be noticed if we pay attention and I have been watching you very closely, Cary.

“You seem nice.  I like you and you haven’t lied to us yet, even about the more colorful aspects of your tale.  But we have a job to do and we can’t stop or slow down any more than we already have.  You may not have thought much about the future, where you’re going to go from here, but you need to start.  Now.  Staying here would be a bad idea.  In two days’ time this place will be crawling with every type of scavenger you can imagine; man and beast.

“Where you go and what you do, is up to you.  The landsmen don’t need you as a witness, the sheer carnage of the area is proof enough.  That being said, the nearest town is three days walk in the direction opposite of the one we’re going.  If you choose that option, we’ll give you all the supplies we can spare and wish you luck, but you’ll be on your own.

“The other option is an offer that hasn’t been made yet.  That possibility is coming with us.  If we make the offer and you accept, then we’ll be making all the speed we can.  We’ll move as long as there’s light enough to see; from before dawn till after dusk.  You’ll be on your feet all day and Friss will probably carry through on his threat to teach you while we move.  The New Gods help you if he does.

“What you need to know, before that offer is made, is that we are going after the people who did this, but we are going after them to gather information, not for vengeance.  We’re going to find them, not fight them.  Once we know who they are, where they are, and what’s going on, then we’re going to skirt around them and make it to the next town before they do.  From there it depends on what we find out.  Maybe we fight, maybe we run, but it’s a decision that others make, not us.

“So, before the offer is made, I need to know two things: Can you keep up?  And can you follow orders?”

I stared at her incredulously.  “Tara, what are you talking about?  Of course I’m going with you.  What else would I do, go back to wenching in an inn like nothing happened?  That life is gone.  I’m coming with you, whether you like it or not.  I’ll follow on my own if I have to.”

Tara raised an eyebrow and dropped her gaze, breaking eye contact.  She sat blankly contemplating the table, the slender index finger of her right hand resting gently on the tip of her nose as she thought.

I watched her for a moment and sighed softly, laying my hand gently on her arm.  “I’m sorry, Tara.  I guess you’re in charge of your mission, but this one isn’t your decision.  I’m going after them.  Alone if I have to.  These bastards burnt down my life, and I need to find them.  I need to understand what happened and why.  If you need me to just watch and learn I will, but if you leave me behind I’ll just follow you.”

She cocked her head at me and smiled, her eyes glimmering like they were trying to see straight through me.  “You really would too, wouldn’t you?”

“I need to find them.  They destroyed almost everything I’ve ever known, and I’ve lost too much already.  I know I won’t be able to find anything new until I face them.  I’m sorry that burdens you.  I really am, but I’m going to do it with or without you.”

She sighed, shaking her head again.  “Then you should do it with us.  It’s your only chance to survive.”

“I know.”  I said, letting out a breath.  “It’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever done in my life, but thank you.”

She laughed, standing to help Serena with the dishes and I followed along, smiling as a thought hit me.  “So…” I said slyly.  “What are sleeping arrangements going to be?”

Tara almost choked.  “Cary!”

“What??  Did you think one little kick would stop me?”

Tara looked confused until Serena’s barking laughter cut into ours.  “I’m the one who kicked you, Cary.  Honestly, I’ve seen starving dogs look less predatory.”

My eyes widened.  “It was not that bad!”

Tara had finally managed to catch her breath.  “You were almost growling!”

“I was not!” I almost shouted, my face reddening.

Serena’s harsh barking laughter erupted at my blush, and Tara and I joined her almost immediately after.  We laughed long and hard until we were spent, gasping for air and leaning against whatever would hold us.  I stood against the bed frame, smiling down at the blanket wrapped bundle for a second before reaching down to flip open the blanket and look at my sword.