The Triumphant Return
The cock crowing startled Roshan awake. Rubbing bleary eyes, he peered out his window shutters at the dark and sleepy village. The sun had not yet risen, but the mountains were crowned with fire. Muttering dire threats towards all rooster kind, he pulled himself out of bed and began hunting for something to wear amongst the clutter of his room. Any other day he would have preferred to simply roll over and pull the heavy down blanket over his head, especially since he had been busy in the lab until the wee hours of the morning.
Rummaging through a promising looking pile, Roshan pulled out a heavy woolen robe, dyed some sort of deep blue, and threw it on over a patched pair of pants and a heavy linen shirt. Not a very distinguished look, he thought, squinting at his small, cracked mirror in the pre-dawn light. Still, it’ll do to get breakfast.
The kitchens of the hall were already up and running, and Roshan flexed his cold fingers appreciatively as the warmth of the kitchens embraced him.
“Busy day,” he observed to one of the cooks, a tall, slender Crystalian man by the name of Evan.
Evan cocked an eyebrow at him. “You’re up early, I didn’t expect you to be here scroungin’ until the sun was well up.”
Roshan smiled. “A rooster woke me up, I don’t suppose that we can have chicken for dinner?”
Evan laughed. “Perhaps. But it does a fellow good to rise early.”
“Does you good maybe,” Roshan said, yawning. “Is there any chicory?”
“Not if you want to keep on tasting things,” Evan gestured toward a large kettle simmering on one of the kitchen’s several stove tops. “But if you insist, help yourself.”
“I will, thank you very much,” Roshan ambled over to the stove and took a deep breath, smiling as he inhaled the bitter fumes. For all he hated the stuff, Evan never slacked off on the brew. Roshan ladled the steaming chicory into an earthenware mug and sighed deeply as he took an exploratory sip. “Perfect,” he clutched the mug with both hands, feeling the heat erase the remaining chill in his hands. Taking a hand off for just a moment, he pocketed a spare roll and headed out back into the lodge, raising the mug in salute to Evan as he left.
The halls of the lodge were quiet and shadowed, just tinged with the daylight. For all Roshan had complained to Evan, he was no stranger to this time of day. Since his uncomfortable conversation with the Don, Roshan had been keeping odd hours. Part of it was the pressure to complete his research before Rika and Isa returned with the Foinse-stone, but he had been uncomfortable around the other resistance members since then as well. He moped around the kitchens more often, making friends with the head cooks so that he could beg food and avoid the main hall.
Roshan made his way slowly to the library, stopping every so often to sip from his chicory. He smiled as he approached; the thick oak doors of the library were slightly ajar and the orange glow of a Fòrsic lantern spilled into the corridors. One perk of being an early riser was that Eithne was one too, and Roshan pushed his way into the room with a cheery “good morning!”
“Good morning,” said Alistair Gaunt.
Roshan stopped dead in his tracks, almost spilling his chicory. “Oh, uh, hello sir. I did not see you there.”
The Don of the Resistance smiled, “No worries, Roshan. It is still early. Besides, I dare say you were expecting someone else, hmm?” He winked, resembling nothing so much as a kindly old uncle, and Roshan flushed at the teasing tone.
“I do not know what you mean.”
“Come now, we are all adults here. You do not need to worry, Eithne should be back soon, she went to kitchens to fetch some food for us,” Alistair glanced at Roshan’s mug. “I am surprised that you did not see her.”
“I must have just missed her.”
“I guess you must have,” there was long pause. Alistair leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers. The twinkle in his eye was gone. “You have been avoiding me, Roshan,” he said finally.
Roshan tried not to gulp. “I have been busy, sir,”
“The research, of course, but that is no excuse to hole up in your room,” he smiled. “A young man like you needs plenty of companionship.”
“I will try to get out more, sir,”
Alistair waved a hand. “As long as you are happy here. Now, tell me of your research,” he leaned forward, eyes intent on Roshan, “Harshun tells me it has been going well.”
Is Harshun an informant? Roshan wondered, or just making reports like me? Instead, he settled down into a seat near the Don. He placed his mug on a nearby table, and leaned forward too. “It has indeed been going well. Luckily, since the rumor is that Rika and Isa are returning today?”
“Rika and Isa? Oh, yes, Syd’s rambunctious team. They are due home soon, it might even be today. However, I assume what you really mean is that the Foinse-stone will be coming here.”
Roshan cared about Syd’s team as well, but he wasn’t sure that he wanted the Don to know that. He had heard nothing from the team except for a terse note from Syd, brought by messenger pigeon, saying that they were on their way back to Alsce. “It is true then, they have it?”
Alistair shrugged. “Syd would not return without a success,” he stared hard at Roshan, and then added, “and you have succeeded, too, yes?”
“Oh… uh, yes, we think so.”
“You think so.”
Roshan drew in a deep breath, “well, we can effect a transference of Fòrsic energy between crystals without everything exploding.”
“But,” he held up a hand, “the whole process is vastly inefficient. It takes a handful of crystals to repower even some of the smaller ones. It’s only potentially viable with the Foinse-stone, and I have no idea if that will work.”
Alistair stroked his moustache, his brow furrowed in thought. “Which glyph sets are you using? It must be quite complicated.”
Roshan grinned, “you could say that. Together Eithne and I must have poured over a thousand scrolls. We used runes dating from the discovery of Fòrsic energy to glyph sets invented just this year, and everything in between.”
The Don’s eyes sharpened, and he leaned forward. “You went that far back, hmm?”
“Uh… yes,” Roshan shifted uncomfortably. There were some dark places in the early history of Fòrsa, full of things that only the most dedicated Fòrsic historians and theoreticians remembered. Or the most desperate, he thought with a twinge of guilt. [SL1]
“I see. I was not aware we had tomes of that nature in the public library,” Alistair gestured to the room.
“Er, Eithne keeps a restricted list of more archaic scrolls. She calls most of it superstitious twaddle, though,” Roshan added hurriedly, not wanting to cast aspersions on his friend, “but some of the early rune formations were helpful with some of the energy transfer glyph aspects.”
Alistair stared at him for a few, hard seconds, and then smiled. “My dear boy, I know precisely where Eithne gets her books. There is no need to worry on her account. Besides,” he laughed, “most of it IS superstitious twaddle.”
Roshan was not reassured by the Don’s show of camaraderie. There weren’t that many shipments of rare books coming into a tiny mountain town, headquarters of the resistance or no. Eithne’s books had to come from somewhere, and if Alistair knew all about them, it was probably his private collection. Despite having used some of the runes in his own research, Roshan found some of the details of the early experiments with energy transference to be very discomfiting. Almost as soon as the first Fòrsic crystals had reached Fòirceann, people had been attempting to bring the energy back, and not all of them had been scrupulous about where the replacement energy came from. Maybe he was being paranoid, after all, Alistair Gaunt was a man of many talents, and was almost certainly a Theorist at one point, but Roshan didn’t feel like he could trust a man with an extensive collection of scrolls about blood magic. Still, he managed a smile at the Don’s laughter.
“Now,” the Don said, “have you given any further thought to my suggestion?”
Here it comes, Roshan thought. “You mean, draining energy?”
“I cannot say that I have given it much thought,” Roshan lied.
Alistair cocked his head, looking at him. “Why not? It could be a powerful weapon against the Prime. Their stock of Fòrsic weapons is formidable, without them, we would be on an equal footing.”
“Is open revolution your goal, then? Civil war?”
“My goal,” Alistair said, his voice hard, “is nothing more and nothing less than for the Prime and his cronies to pay for their crimes. The method is immaterial.”
“Síosar is a threat to everyone, sir,” Roshan reminded him heatedly. “Everyone. Including us and including the Prime.”
Alistair chuckled, Roshan thought it sounded forced. “My dear boy, do not be so limited in your thinking. There are two Foinse-stone’s, you know. After the Prime is dealt with, you would be free to do as you wish with the other.”
“We do not even know if this one will work! This could be our only chance, I will not throw it away. I sacrificed…”
“and I have sacrificed everything,” Alistair cut in. “Do not presume to dictate terms to me, boy. This is a more complex situation than you realize.”
There was a hot, heavy silence. Roshan was breathing heavily, his cheeks flushed.
Alistair checked his Fòrsic pocket watch, a heavy, golden piece. “Eithne must have been delayed,” he said with an eerie calmness. “I have to go. Do tell her sorry for me,” he arose from his chair and strode out of the room, pausing at the doors. He turned back to look at Roshan, “Someday soon you will have to show me your research. We are running out of time,” and then he was gone.
Roshan let out a breath. He hadn’t meant to get that worked up, but by Alos that man made him jumpy. Like a rabbit when a great, big eagle stared at it, but instead of fleeing he fought. He slumped down into his chair, determined to enjoy his now thoroughly lukewarm chicory, and to not think about the shouting match he’d just gotten in with the Don of the Resistance. Not five minutes later though, the library door banged open and Eithne entered brightly, carrying a heavily laden breakfast tray.
“Oh, Roshan, good morning! Did the Don already leave?”
“Morning, Eithne,” Roshan said. “He just left. He left his apologies.”
Eithne made a moue, “why did he send me to get breakfast if he was not going to wait around for it?”
Roshan shrugged, “he is a busy man, maybe he forgot about a meeting he had?” Or he only wanted a chance to talk to me alone, he thought darkly.
“More for us then, Eithne shrugged. “Are you hungry?”
“Famished,” Roshan smiled, he’d forgotten about the rolls he’d stuffed into his pockets and now he was suddenly starving.
“Well dig in then,” Eithne said, setting the tray down between them. “We have a busy day ahead of us.”
“I hope so. The Don would not say whether Rika and Isa were returning today or not,” he buttered a thick hunk of bread and took a large bite.
“He is not one to share information unless absolutely necessary.”
“Frustrating, that, especially since that only goes one way.”
She smiled. “Yes, but you cannot deny his effectiveness. I would not be too hard on him, the Don is a man under immense pressures.”
“I know,” but it doesn’t explain everything. Roshan decided to change the subject. He had been doing that a lot, lately, when it came to discussing Alistair Gaunt or the Resistance. “Did I tell you Harshun and I had a successful test?”
Eithne grinned and rolled her eyes at him. “You told me that yesterday!”
“Ah, but did I tell you how?” he tapped a slim, moldy looking scroll on the table next to him.
“No, but I think I can figure it out,” she said dryly, “considering I found that scroll for you.”
“Well,” Roshan said, striking a pompous pose. “After I discovered this scroll…” he laughed and ducked as Eithne threw a roll at his head. As he came back up, another roll bounced off his nose. “Mercy, mercy, I surrender,” He said, still laughing. “I give you full credit,”
Eithne paused, her arm cocked back and ready to throw a third bread roll. Her blue eyes gleamed at him. “You had better!”
“I bow to your superior skill at arms. But throwing food in a library?” he shook his head and tsked. “What kind of historian are you?”
She struck her own haughty pose. “The best kind,” and they grinned at one another.
They relaxed into breakfast and talking Fòrsic research, and Roshan tried to put his unsettling conversation with the Don from his mind.
Several bells later, he had been mostly successful. Being with Eithne was an easy camaraderie, and he felt he could put his troubles behind him. He had even found time to change into something less rumpled. But his ears still perked up at the ringing sound from the Alsce’s only watchtower. Someone was approaching.
Eithne looked at him as he cocked his head toward the sound, “are they coming?”
“Someone is,” Roshan put his head down. Suddenly he felt very shy. He had been looking forward to seeing his friends ever since he heard they were returning, but it had been a half a year since he had last seen Rika and Isa, and he had only been with them for a brief period. What if they no longer liked him?
Correctly interpreting his look, Eithne grabbed his arm and pulled him up. “Let’s go meet them! Rika and Isa are my friends too, you know.”
“Right,” He shook his head, clearing his thoughts. He took Eithne’s hand, and then, tentatively, kissed her on the cheek. “Thank you.”
She smiled, he could see the faintest hint of a blush. “Are we going or what?”
He nodded, “let’s go.”
The weather outside was still frosty, even past midday. The last vestiges of winter holding on with gnarled fingers. There was a small crowd gathering near one of the entrances to the village when Roshan and Eithne hurried up. “Excuse me,” he said, as they wove their way to the front of the crowd.
Eithne tapped a man on the shoulder, “who is coming?” she asked. “We heard the bells.”
The man shrugged. “There’s a wagon and some people on foot, but they’re still too far away to make out,” he grinned, “first visitors of the spring though, means the passes are open and we can celebrate the end of another winter.”
Roshan peered outward. There was indeed a group of riders approaching, with horses pulling a small wagon. “They did not have a wagon when they left,” he said doubtfully.
“Maybe they picked one up!” Eithne said, her tone bright.
“Or someone is injured,” his mind shied away from that possibility.
Eithne patted his hand “I am sure it will be fine. But the only way to find out is to wait.”
Roshan nodded. It wouldn’t be long now. They stood with the crowd, swapping observations and pleasantries with them until the approaching figures became close enough to make it out. As soon as recognized Syd, Simon, and Trentor, he hurried out to meet them, Eithne behind him. A knot began to form in his stomach, where were Rika and Isa?
Trentor was the first to notice him approaching. He looked haggard, and was clearly favoring one of his legs. Roshan guessed it might be the foot that was injured when they first brought Roshan to Alsce. Despite his evident exhaustion, he smiled broadly as Roshan reached him. “Roshan! How lovely to see you, out for a stroll?” He noticed Eithne behind Roshan, and winked broadly, “still keeping good company I see.”
Roshan smiled back, glad to see the talkative little man again. “Better company, I would say, since the last time I saw you.”
Trentor chuckled and clapped him on the shoulder. “Our wayward theorist returns to us!” he said to Syd and Simon. Simon was driving the wagon, with Syd pacing him.
Simon smiled and waved, while Syd favored Roshan with a nod of acknowledgement. The two of them looked tired as well, Simon especially had dark circles under his eyes, and his complexion was rather more freckled than when Roshan had last seen him. “You all look like you have had a hard road,” Roshan observed to Trentor.
Trentor snorted. “You don’t know the half of it, sonny boy. Our full report should wait for the Don, but Rika and Isa are in the back of the wagon and they can catch you up.”
Roshan felt the knot in his stomach relax a little. “They are fine, then? I must admit, I was worried when I did not see them.”
“Rika is doing fine, but Isa…” he shrugged, and Roshan’s heart dropped, “well, she’s had a hard trip. It’s hard to describe, best you just see for yourself.”
Trentor smiled at his expression. “Ease your mind, she’s not dying. She’s just… strange.”
“Go see for yourself.”
“I will,” Roshan headed off, and then, pausing, turned back, “and Trentor…”
“It’s good to be home, kid, it’s good to be home,” Trentor said as Roshan headed off towards the wagon.
Rika and Isa were both in the back, heavily bundled. Rika was trying to feed Isa something from a thermos, but it didn’t appear to be going well. “I’m not an Alos damned infant, Rika,” Isa said as Roshan rounded the corner. She dodged a spoon full of liquid and it splattered on the wagon bed. “I can feed myself.”
Rika clucked her tongue impatiently. “Can you? Can you? What makes you think this time will be different from the hundred other times?”
Isa stuck her lower lip out, pouting.
“I’ll tell you what makes you think that. Pure stubbornness.”
“It is how I have kept going so far,” Isa said. She was aiming for a bantering tone, but it came out subdued.
Rika softened and gave her a hug, “I know, love. And you should not have to grin and bear it much longer, we are almost home.”
Isa said nothing, but she smiled.
“You are home,” Roshan said, taking the exchange as his cue to enter.
“Roshan!” Both girls exclaimed.
“And Eithne,” Eithne said, coming up to join him.
“Eithne!” Rika said, “you too!”
“I see you two are keeping… close,” Isa winked and Roshan blushed.
Eithne just laughed. “Someone had to keep an eye on this lug after you two left,” she leaned into his shoulder and he put his arm around her.
“Awww,” Isa said, “now come up here the two of you and give us a hug. I’d hug back, but…” she shrugged. Looking closer, Roshan saw that both of her arms were in slings.
“Oh no, Isa!” Eithne said. “What happened?”
“She broke both arms getting us out of the Crystalis mines,” Rika said.
Isa glared at her, “you mean, broke both my arms saving all your lives!”
“Right, that too,” Rika turned to Eithne and Roshan and said, sotto voce, “she has been insufferable ever since.”
Roshan smiled as Isa stuck her tongue out at her friend. “Naturally,” he paused, thinking, “But they are still broken? Why didn’t you use Fòrsic healing?”
The two women shared a look. “Well, uh, that is problem number two,” Rika said finally.
“Show them my arms,” Isa said.
“Do it, they might be able to help.”
Rika nodded, and beckoned Eithne and Roshan forward. As she unwrapped Isa’s arms, she explained, “Do you remember the scars on Isa’s arm from her staff breaking last summer?”
“Vaguely,” Roshan said, nodding.
“Well, she took some blasts of weird Fòrsic energy in the mines and it… did something to them.”
“Weird energy?” Eithne asked.
“Blood magic,” Rika said, her tone was flat.
Roshan snorted, and then caught himself at their expressions. “Blood magic does not work though,” he paused, guiltily aware of his own use of the forbidden runes. He took a breath, and continued, “I mean, the whole principle of drawing Fòrsic energy from living things is faulty…”
“Funny you should say that, you see…” Rika told him about the Choisant woman in the Overseer’s quarters.
At the end, Roshan’s expression was ashen… “but… blood magic?”
“I know,” Rika laid a hand on his shoulder. “It is contrary to everything we were taught, but, well, it seemed very real.”
“Too right it did,” Isa muttered. “Look at my arms!” she said as Rika unveiled them.
Eithne gasped, and Roshan felt like doing so as well. Isa’s arms were glowing. Faint Fòrsic tracings swirled their way up both of her arms in a spiral pattern that would have been beautiful, if it wasn’t so disturbing.
“Pretty impressive, right?” Isa said.
“That is not quite the word that I would use,” Roshan said.
“What does it mean? How, why did this happen?” Eithne asked.
Both Rika and Isa shrugged. “Dar-Alos knows,” Isa said.
“All we know is that using Fòrsic energy near it makes them grow,” Rika shrugged. “And we found that out the hard way. We have hardly used any Fòrsic technology since Crystalis. It has been a pretty miserable trip.”
“I can imagine,” Roshan squatted next to Isa and held out his hands. “May I?”
She nodded. “Go ahead, it doesn’t hurt, but my arms feel tingly most of the time.”
Roshan traced the faint patterns with the tips of his fingers. “These almost look like runic formations. Have there been any other effects?”
“Just one,” Rika said.
“I still think you made that up.”
“Just because you do not remember does not mean it did not happen,” Rika said. She looked at Roshan, “as soon as we were clear of the city, I tried to use some of my healing crystals. As soon as I did, her eyes started glowing a bright green and a small, localized earthquake almost took out our horses.”
“Huh,” Roshan said, “That is… wow. I realize what Trentor was saying now when he said Isa had been strange.”
“That hairy bastard said that, did he?” Isa said. “I’ll be sure to get him back.”
Rika rolled her eyes. “He was only telling the truth, love, it has been a weird few months.”
“Well,” Roshan said, putting his arm around Isa. “You are both back now, and that is what counts.”
“We can solve the problem of your arms in the morning,” Eithne added. “For now, the whole town wants to throw a party welcoming you.”
Eithne smiled. “Not only are you returning heroes of the Resistance, but you are the first travelers of the season! Everyone wants to celebrate the beginning of spring.”
Roshan smiled too, “Welcome home!”
Chapter 21 is here.