"Right, be home with you," said Axbrand.

"If you think I'm going home -" Will protested, but -

"You're going home, son, and that's that. This meeting is no place for a teenager."

"Why? I was the one who found the sword, I was the one who fought off that mental bloke -"

"I'll explain everything tomorrow, you can be sure of that."

Will turned away reluctantly, and set off down the Bottom Bridge high street, towards the Rushwater that could be heard gurgling faintly in the half-light. Axbrand watched him for a while before turning and heading back into town.

Will looked discreetly over his shoulder and saw Axbrand retreating towards the town square. He ducked behind the daubed butcherhouse, waited for a while, then started following Axbrand down the street.

Axbrand was heading to a slowly swelling group of people waiting outside the Farmers' Guildhall, which in times of need was designated as the village's meeting point.

Will hung in the shadows, too far from the group to make out any particular conversations. Then, they started to file into the hall, still talking nonchalantly.

He sneaked up to a window, feeling the heat seeping from the fire inside through the wooden slats, and every voice echoed and amplified by the stone walls so he could hear every word.

"Oi! Oi! Shut it!" called a gruff male voice.

Will had been to meetings before, though he hadn't had a clue what was happening. All he knew was that voice belonged to Doroon, who was unspokenly agreed as the "master of ceremonies" as he was such a respected man in the community.

"I'm sorry it's late, people, but you know me - I don't hold with keeping people up for the hell of it. I called a meeting about half an hour ago 'cos some disturbin' news just reached me ear at the Old Slip -"

A little ruckus rumbled under his speech at these words.

"Anyone know young Will Millerson? Well, he just came out of Combs Wood with the ol' Sword of Belendar."

Several women gasped. The men remained grimly silent. Will could tell they would be exchanging nervous looks.

"Well, that sword belonged to the Hermit of Highland, as he was known," said Axbrand, "an' you older generations know how much trouble he gave us when he changed his - nature."

Will heard a few mutters of that hated name - Wolfram, the "true" name of the Hermit of Highland, or the one he had given himself when he had restylised himself.

"If we have the sword, he will want it back for himself!" cried an old woman. "He will return from where we banished him!"

"My dear woman, if Will was able to find him in Combs Wood he has left that prison already," said Doroon loudly. "He could be as free as he likes to nip down here and cause chaos."

"And of course he's going to want it back," Axbrand added. "He's probably spent a good deal of time improving it."

"Why did this boy steal it from him anyway? Why couldn't he have just let him alone?"

"Will tells me he beat Wolfram in single combat."

"Rubbish! Who does he think he's kidding?"

"How else could he have stolen the Sword?" Doroon challenged. "Wolfram would not simply have handed it over."

And Will heard the scraping of steel as Doroon removed the sword from its sheath, as if seeing the sword would satisfy as evidence. Mild mutterings of awe reached Will's ears.

"You see?" said Doroon. "The very founder of the East Riding, Head of the Bluecoats, defeated by Wolfram! And a mere fourteen-year-old boy goes for a stroll and steals it again!"

"Sixteen," Will grumbled indignantly. Doroon just didn't want to admit Will was old enough, and had banned him from the meeting so he could not object to any of his claims. Will hated this about Doroon - he had to be in control all the time.

"Alright then, what are we to do?" said the same old woman.

"We should get him to take it back!" roared a hotheaded young man Will recognised as his old friend, Lori. His stomach sank - but then, defence of Bottom Bridge was more important to Lori than anything else - he had come from a village which had been sacked by the Bandits in the West Riding, seeking a new life in the peaceful East. Will still felt a mild sense of betrayal, however.

"It was not Will's fault that he got into that situation," insisted Doroon, over a wave of concuring jeers. "If he had been warned properly, told the stories of old -"

"Don't bring that into this!" shrieked the old woman. "We decided long ago that our children didn't need to know about the Hermit! They should be told incredible stories about the Dragons in the south, of centaurs and elves who live in the forests - not about some corrupt, power-crazy outcast and the cruelty he endowed on these here streets."

"Yes, but madam, don't you understand? Making the woods and the mountains out of bounds only makes hotheaded young adolescents to explore those places! I don't think Will ever took our warnings seriously."

"This is no-one's fault," shouted Will's father, a brawny man named Grisham. Will had expected him to talk in his defence before now. "I'll not have you blame my son for a bit of innocent wandering! Remember, we've all believed that Wolfram's been shut in Winterealm for years."

"I agree, there should be no spacegoats, leastwise an innocent teenager. The question we should be asking ourselves is - how did he manage to defeat Wolfram?"

A ringing silence fell. Will could tell that everyone in the hall knew the answer, even though he did not. And no-one seemed to want to voice it.

"He has the Gift," said Doroon, into the frigid silence. And it is our best hope that he doesn't go the same way as Wolfram."

The End

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