Chapter Twenty-Four

You Can't Go Home Again

The dwarf Connor Longlaive wore his uniform as an Ideean patrol captain with pride. After nearly a century of service to the County of Idee, Connor's beard showed as much silver as gold. To Connor, his beard symbolized his sterling record and the golden opinions his superiors had of him. The Longlaive family had called the Iron Hills home for generations, although Connor's father had moved to Idee as a liaison to the human merchants his family dealt with. Connor preferred to enlist in the Count's army rather than become a merchant, and his family's fame in the Iron Hills made him an ideal scout and eventual leader of County's patrols there.

While some of Connor's human subordinates were grumbling about patrolling on a Godsday, it didn't matter to him. He revered Clangeddin Silverbeard, and if he found battle with the County's enemies today, he'd merely be doing his god's work. At the head of a good forty troops, evenly made up of dwarves and humans, Connor feared nothing the hills could offer. Unfortunately, the patrol had seen no action in the last several days, and Connor was bored.

When Connor's scouts reported a solitary carriage moving south through the hills towards the patrol, it was all the incentive he needed. Rallying his men, he set off to intercept the carriage, determined to find out what it was doing in the Iron Hills. With the threat of Aerdy always looming over them, the Iron League states had long ago learned that caution was wisdom.

The seven people traveling with the carriage, five humans and a gnome and halfling, immediately complied when Connor ordered them to halt. They stood calmly beside the carriage, some of them coming out to face Connor and his men as they approached. The seven travelers would have been fools to put up any resistance, as the patrol's archers were armed and ready.

As he approached the travelers, Connor raised a curious eyebrow. The bedraggled travelers had the exhausted look of people who'd recently fought a fierce battle and hadn't fully recovered from it. Connor realized they were likely adventurers, who weren't unusual in the hills, but their fancy wagon had the emblem of the Aerdy House Darmen on the side. His eyes narrowed at that, and he kept a firm grip on the handle of his warhammer as he came to a halt in front of the travelers.

"What's your business in these hills?" Connor asked, glancing from one to the other of the companions. "You'd best answer me, and answer honestly, if you hope to leave these hills alive."

A couple of the human travelers looked like they wanted to say something, but then the gnome stepped forward. The gnome was armed and armored much like Connor, and in spite of himself Connor admired the cut of the gnome's moustache and beard. He clearly had the mark of a soldier, and Connor immediately respected him.

"Our business is your business, if you're Ideeans," the gnome said. "We-"

"What's your name, then?" Connor interrupted him. "And those of your friends?"

"My name is Airk Venbelwar, of the Kingdom of Flinthold in the Lortmil Mountains," the gnome said, before he introduced his companions. "We come bearing news of a plan to attack the County and fracture the Iron League. We have-"

"-two women of Aerdi descent with you," Connor interrupted him again, gesturing at Luna and Seline. "You'll pardon me if I don't take your words at face value."

Airk's eyes flared at the accusation, and Connor was slightly startled at the haunted look in the gnome's eyes. It was quite unlike the often wry and humourous demeanor that most of the gnomes Connor knew displayed. For a moment, Connor thought he saw a seething anger boiling within Airk as the gnome stared at him, before Airk made a visible effort to calm down.

"We have ample proof of your claims," Luna said. "Check my pack if you don't believe me," she said, slipping it off her back and then holding it out.

At a gesture from Connor, one of his lieutenants stepped forward and took Luna's pack. Connor came over and took it, before rifling through its contents. Most of it was food and standard adventuring gear, but Connor was startled at the pile of parchments folded neatly into one pocket. The parchments bore stamps and seals of high-ranking House Naelax nobles, and Connor seized on them immediately.

Gathering them up, he tossed Luna's pack aside before spending several minutes going through the parchments. His eyes widened in shock as he read of the plot to murder Count Fedorik.

Finally, he glanced up at Airk and Luna.

"...You've clearly quite the tale to tell," Connor said. "I'll be taking these, and my men will search your carriage and the rest of your belongings." Connor knew he had to get these parchments back to the Count's court immediately, but he still wasn't convinced the companions were all they seemed to be. For all he knew, the parchments could be forgeries, or the companions could have another agenda.

The companions consented to let Connor and his men carry out their search. Some of Connor's men were suspicious of the Crown of Arumdina, but Connor allowed Airk to keep it, recognizing that it was of gnomish make. Almost everything else the companions carried was ordinary traveling gear, except for the items that convinced Connor they were telling the truth about the Aerdy plot.

The companions had a series of Aerdi nobles' medallions decorated with the heraldry of House Naelax, the medallions that no noble would ever willingly give up.

They also had the heads of several of the cabal's members, which the Ideean authorities would use to verify the companions' story by interrogating the spirits of the dead cabal members.

The people of Idee were often said to have a siege mentality. Out of all the Iron League states, they were the ones most vulnerable to a direct invasion from the Great Kingdom of Aerdy. They maintained a line of strong fortresses to defend against Aerdi attacks. While they were often inclined to 'live and let live' in other situations, many Ideeans were suspicious of outsiders and took a long time to trust them.

His Brilliant Lordship Fedorik Eddri, the Count and ruler of Idee, was no exception to that siege mentality. He was not particularly tall or physically imposing, but the piercing glare of his gray eyes and his thick, bearlike brown hair and beard made those he met think twice about crossing him. He was never without a full suit of splint mail and a large two-handed battleaxe, both of fine dwarven craft. He was reputed to be one of the finest warriors in the whole Iron League, and his men respected him for being blunt and to the point.

Eddri was inspecting Idee's westernmost border fortress when Connor Longlaive's messenger reached him. Normally a patrol captain wouldn't have been able to see Count Fedorik on such short notice, but he was on high alert after the defeat of House Darmen's plot to assassinate several of Idee's leading aristocrats. He was convinced the Great Kingdom had other plans brewing, and he'd issued a standing order to his officials that evidence of any other such plot was to be brought to him immediately.

That order allowed Connor to meet Eddri immediately, not even two days after he'd met the companions. It also allowed Eddri and his most trusted officials to review all the papers of the Naelax cabal's plot against Eddri's life. Eddri was furious at the plot, and he directed his officials to start taking appropriate countermeasures, including warning Count Hazendel, who ruled the County of Sunndi. He could review their actions later, but first he wanted a measure of the strange band of adventurers Connor brought him.

Finally, less than forty-eight hours after the companions met Connor Longlaive, Airk and Luna were brought into the fortress's dining hall to meet Count Fedorik himself. They were surrounded by guards, including a wizard who held his rune-carved staff in a tight grip and looked all too eager to use it. Airk and Luna were themselves unarmed, as they'd had to leave their own possessions with their friends.

Characteristically, Count Fedorik didn't wait for Airk or Luna to even introduce themselves before he spoke.

"You and your band clearly have an interesting tale to tell," Fedorik said, "and I'll hear all of it here and now. What business brought you to South Province, and what business led you to bring me everything you said of an Aerdi plot? If this is all some trick, you and your friends won't live to see the sunset."

Fedorik and some of his senior officials recognized the handwriting and seals of several prominent South Province nobles on the papers outlining the plot. That gave the companions' claims credibility, but Eddri wasn't entirely convinced they were what they claimed. He still wondered if this was part of some other plot.

Luna was about to say something, but Airk held up his hand to silence her. He stood up and locked eyes with Fedorik as he answered the count's question.

"I traveled to South Province for my own reasons," he said, "reasons that include a blood debt to a dead kinsman. Our only goal was the crown my friends are holding for me, a crown that's key to righting a centuries-old wrong."

"This woman," Airk continued, gesturing to Luna, "and her sister came at great personal risk because they could be claimed in the Aerdi's sick power games. I'm sure Your Brilliant Lordship knows all about them. Now, unlike you they don't have a home they can return to anymore, not with the disgrace they've suffered by our exposing the the noble cabal's intent on your life. We had no obligation to do that for you-and what have we asked for? All we want is to leave in peace! Surely you can grant us at least that?"

Several of Fedorik's guards shouted angrily at hearing their liege spoken to that way, but Fedorik silenced them with a wave of his hand. He and Airk stared into each other's eyes for several long moments, as he sought the truth of the gnome's words.

What Fedorik saw surprised him. In Airk's eyes, he saw guilt and shame that had been festering for decades, countless sleepless nights, and Airk seeing blood on his hands every time he looked at them.

Airk and Luna were surprised at how Fedorik's suspicious, angry glare almost seemed to soften.

"You can leave in peace, if you so want," Fedorik said. "If you prefer, though, you may remain in Idee as my guests in thanks for all you've done."

Luna's mouth fell open in surprise, as did those of several of Fedorik's guards, while Airk simply looked relieved.

"We wouldn't want to impose-" Airk said, before Fedorik interrupted him.

"At this time of year you'll likely find it difficult to travel," Fedorik said. "It's nearly the month of Sunsebb. There won't be a caravan or ship taking a long journey until after Needfest. I could arrange travel for you some time in early Fireseek, but not before that."

Luna was somewhat surprised at Fedorik's change in mood, but Airk less so. In Fedorik's eyes, he saw the fatigue of a man always waiting for disaster to strike, long and seemingly endless hours of strategizing, and constantly looking to the northeast, expecting the Aerdi war banners at any moment.

"Your Brilliant Lordship's offer is most kind," Airk said, "and we should like to speak with our friends about it."

Fedorik merely nodded, and Airk returned the gesture.

Man and gnome each found the look in the other's eyes to almost be a relief.

When the companions met to discuss Fedorik's offer, they decided to take it. For the past six months, they'd done almost nothing but travel and fight, pausing only to deal with the aftermaths of their adventures. The companions agreed they could all use a rest before they set out for Flinthold in the new year to bring the Crown of Arumdina home.

The next day, Revafour caught Seline as she emerged after studying her spells from the room she and Luna had been given. He was generally satisfied with how the quest to retrieve the Crown had gone, but he still had some questions he wanted answered.

Revafour frowned at the troubled look on Seline's face. A part of him wasn't sure if now was a good time to ask her what he wanted to, but he had to know. More than that, he suspected she'd probably feel better after speaking with someone about it.

"Are you alright?" he asked Seline as they walked down the corridor to the stairs that would take them to the fortress's mess hall.

Seline looked at Revafour and shrugged. She tried to smile, but they both knew she wasn't fooling him.

"We did the right thing, you know," Revafour said as they walked into the mess hall. "You did the right thing. The Iron League will be ready if South Province tries anything. How many lives do you think we'll have saved?"

"People are going to die anyway if South Province attacks," Seline said, shaking her head.

"Not as many as would if the Iron League was fractured," Revafour pressed. "We're the ones who enabled them to stay united, aren't we?"

Seline didn't answer until they'd gotten some food and sat down at a table. She took a long, hard drink of water before she spoke again.

"I know all that," she said. "My head knows it, but my heart just says I dishonored my heritage. I keep telling myself it's wrong to believe that, but then I think about how…" she trailed off.

"About how you never wanted to leave Aerdy in the first place," Revafour said.

The way Seline flinched showed Revafour he was correct.

"I know...with everything that's happened…" she said, visibly embarrassed and recalling their previous conversation about the subject.

"…Which you weren't a part of," Revafour said as he patted her arm. "And I think most of us know how you feel-I sure do."

Seline wondered what he meant by that, until she remembered the story Revafour told them about being banished from Tenh by his nemesis Tuomad Wolf-slayer's treachery.

"Even more than me, I think," Seline said. "Luna and I at least had the choice to return to Aerdy. I take it you never did?"

"No, I didn't and I don't," Revafour said. "I wish every day that I could go back, but I can't. All I can do is wander…but it hasn't kept me from finding another home of sorts."

Revafour loved it when Seline smiled, but the happiness she showed when she smiled in response to his words cheered him all the more.

"We did what we had to do," Seline said. "There wasn't any other way around it-people like Chelor and Xeravho made their own choices. I miss the performances, the balls, and the heritage…but if even if I can't return to that home, I can return to my other one can't I?"

Revafour returned her smile.

Airk stared long and hard at the Crown of Arumdina, which stood on the table in front of him. Once he returned the Crown to Flinthold, its old monarchy would be restored and the kingdom would regain Garl Glittergold's blessings. His debt to Trendin Bradon for killing Laessar would be fulfilled.

Or so everyone else said.

Gazing at the Crown, and then at his hands, Airk thought he could still see Laessar's blood on them. Looking at the fortress's stone floors, he thought he could see the blood of his brothers in arms running over the stone as the Steelheart dwarves butchered them.

The voice he'd first heard in the Wizard's Hat Inn began speaking to him again. He tried to ignore it, responding that his friends had all survived the battle. He knew his friends would see this quest through to the end with him, and that gave him comfort. If anything, his fellow adventurers felt more like a family to him than the kin he'd left in Flinthold. He'd stayed long enough after the Hateful Wars to ensure his relatives were financially secure and Flinthold wasn't in danger of falling. After that, he couldn't bear to stay, as he thought the guilt and despair would drive him mad if he did.

How can you go back? the voice said to Airk. If you weren't such a damned fool, you'd have seen through Kalrek's plotting. Your brothers in arms would still be alive, and so would all the Flintholders who died when the Steelhearts invaded.

And, more than anyone else, the voice continued, deliberately drawing out its words, Laessar wouldn't be dead by your hands.

Airk put his face in those same hands for several long moments.

He knew he would bring the Crown back to Flinthold, and that he'd have his friends beside him. He wondered what kind of reception would await him when he returned after nearly twenty years of being away.

He took heart, knowing that whatever he faced, his friends would help him through it.

The voice fell silent at that…

…but it continued to fester at the back of his mind, despite his efforts to ignore it.