Axbrand was the last one to leave the Guildhall. He was carrying the  Sword of Belendar carefully in both hands, encased in its simple but stunning scabbard. The other villagers were milling around the square, heading off to their sleeping families in the outskirts of Bottom Bridge. Will waited patiently at the door to the Guildhall, sticking to the shadows, determined to follow Axbrand to find out where he hid the sword.

And, to his delight, Will clearly heard Axbrand saying:

"I'm going to go and shut this thing up tight, lads - don't want this going missing, do we?"

Will was not surprised to see the men of the village were not worried by this suggestion - trust for Axbrand was such in Bottom Bridge that most villagers would trust him with their lives.

Axbrand set off a silent side street, the wooden planks of the close-set walls leaning ominously over the cobbled street in the half-darkness. The sword was Will's guide, scintillating in the moonlight, however Axbrand tried to hide it. The hustle and bustle of the emptying square died out behind them as Axbrand strolled purposefully and Will crept stealthily towards the hiding place.

Axbrand turned into a dead end, a "bottom-of-the-bag" containing nothing but the battered back door to a run down tavern and a few scraggy cats bedding down in piles of rags. The cats rose squealing from their refuge and clawed their way over the nearby picket fence.

Then Axbrand stopped, looking around. This didn't seem to be the hiding place he had in mind. Then, too suddenly for Will to hide, he turned - and saw Will standing openly in the middle of the alley.

"What do you take me for, son? A hunk of lifeless pork?"

Will stood there, dumbstruck.

"I knew you'd watch the meeting through the window. And I knew you'd follow me when I came out of the Guildhall. I'm getting old, son, but I ain't that old."

"I just wanted to know why you wanted to hide the sword," said Will quietly.

"Ah, I thought you might, but that's the thing - I don't want to hide it. I only said that to make sure you followed."

"What are you talking about?"

"I need you to take the sword. If it stays here in Bottom Bridge people will get scared and jealous. And that's the last thing we need if Wolfram's supposed to have escaped from the Winterealm."

"Look, I still don't understand any of this. Why was everyone so up their chimneys when they heard I had this Gift - and what is it?"

"I dunno, son ... 'tis less a blessing than a curse, 'nmy opinion. But if you stay here, you'll be persecuted. The Gifted haven't been welcome in the Four Ridings since Wolfram's reign of terror."

"What is the Gift?"

"How'm I supposed to know? Am I supposed to be the Oracle of Mount Stonegard or something? I have no idea what the Gift is, son - you'll have to find that out for yourself."

"So you're kicking me out of Bottom Bridge then?" said Will indignantly. What had he done to deserve this?

"No, no, no, it's your choice if you go or not. I reckon it's best if you do go though - I reckon you go south to Hathenford, there's quite a lot of -"

"Whoa, whoa, rein your chargers a minute. I'm fifteen, I'm supposed to ride for a week on my own with a sword I can barely use to a town I've never been to or don't know the way to -"

Axbrand actually chuckled.

"I never said you were going alone, laddie! I'll be coming with you, 'course. And if your old man was still here today, he'd be coming with us as well, there'd be no stopping him."

"And why are we going to Hathenford?"

"I have a useful contact there, someone I haven't met for twenty years but we were best mates as kids ... he'll know what to do about the Gift, although he might take a bit of encouraging."

Axbrand fell silent, waiting for Will to speak.

"Well, boy, there's no point looking at me like a frozen oak, get you goin' and get a pack ready! I know you know what you're doing, you go hunting often enough! I'll get the food, I've got plenty of dried meat we can take -"

He continued in this vogue for quite a while until Will assured him that he did know what he was doing. He set off for home and his waiting mother.

Unbeknown to them, a raven sitting in the tavern's rafters cocked its head, picking up the last dregs of the conversation. With a silent stretch of handsome wings it broke cover and soared across the width of Bottom Bridge in three flaps, heading towards Combs Wood and its waiting master.

The End

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