The steady beating of hooves was all Will had heard for almost the entire week. The excitement was overwhelming, and he knew it would be many more weeks before he'd ever come to miss Bottom Bridge. Will felt as if he'd finally come of age, and set off from home.
And so naturally, he had mating on his mind. He'd had much practice of late day-dreaming on horseback. In his thoughts, he pictured no sublime maiden, no pristine beauty. Will hoped for only an average young woman, not perfection. But the more he thought upon this, he came to realize that he himself was no longer average. And this frustrated him, as the precise nature of his abnormalities, the precise nature of his Gift, eluded him.
Axbrand's voice had grown hoarse from singing. He now rode alongside Will with grim silence. Nearly as deep in thought, Axbrand was trying not to miss his family. He wanted this journey to be quick and clean, like a good cut of meat. However, something about the air seemed stagnant.
The sun was just beginning to fall west. It was mid-afternoon. Still and quiet autumn, few remaining leaves clinging tenuously to their branches.
After wiping the sweat from his brow, Will blocked his view of the sun with one hand and looked up where he thought he saw a bird in the sky.
At that moment, a man fell from the sky. It was quite peculiar. He landed ahead of them, at the roadside, in a cloud of dirt. Undoubtedly, he would be injured.
"For the land's sake, did you see that, lad?!" exclaimed Axbrand
Will nodded, mouth agape. He'd completely lost sight of the bird.
Williard and Axbrand slowed their horses and stopped beside the fallen man. The butcher dismounted and knelt down beside the fallen man.
Lifting the black hood away from the man's head, Axbrand recognized him, "I dare say I have seen this poor bard play in Bottom Bridge. His harp nearly stole your mother's heart, lad."
"Is he awake?"
"No, but he's alive," said Axbrand as he noticed the man's shallow breathing. "With those dark features, I'd say he's from northern Skathain. As much as I pity the man, we'd best be on our way, Will."
Will looked down from the sky he was scanning, "Aye. But what do you suppose dropped him here?"
"I don't know, and I don't want to. Best I can reckon, other than magic and unseemly beasts, is that someone catapulted him out of Hathenford... with a full bag of coins?" Axbrand paused. "That doesn't seem right. We'd best be scarce."
Will urged his horse forward as Axbrand remounted and then whistled sharply to his horse in an attempt to catch up with Will.
Both of them remained unaware of the older man who stood a dozen yards behind where they had stopped, attempting in vain to cast a spell. His anger seethed through him, and yet never served to fuel his magic.
When they were gone, he approached the fallen man. And with great focus and desperation, he barely managed to cast a healing spell upon the black-garbed man who had fallen from the sky.
A hand to his head, the man stirred. Black eyes opened and stared into gold ones.
"What Gift is this, Vollomeer, that sends you falling from the sky and fizzles my casting?" demanded the older man. He was outraged, and had been unable to pour any of his anger into his healing spell.
Vollomeer frowned wearily as he rose to his feet. "Master Wolfram, I sensed an aura about that boy. The same thing that sapped you of your vigour when hunting, and allowed him to physically overpower you, is what stops our magic. Tell me, my master, what feelings willfully powered your callow healing spell?"
"My appreciation of your loyalty," hissed Wolfram.
"We cannot cast with negative, malignant sources around that young man. Our traditional means of destruction are... useless."
"The Paladin's Gift," said Wolfram with disgust. "I thought it was an old wives' tale. And to think, it crops up in your bloodline, amidst darkness."
"Light is always brighter amongst darkness, Master Wolfram," rasped Vollomeer, before jumping into the air and never falling back. Feathers fell in his wake, as his cloaked form contorted into that of a raven in flight. Then the raven croaked words, so inhuman and ominous, "And that makes the shadows darker."
"Enough of your petty relativity!" Wolfram waved his hands, and the dirt of the road swept forth into the shape of a ghostly horse where there had been nothing before. "We too ride to Hathenford, if we must."
The horse nodded, as if it understood.
Wolfram mounted his summoned steed, and it soon kept pace with the raven flying overhead.
"If you had stuck to Gifted women, instead of wowing simple folk with your talents, I'd still have the sword. And now that Winterealm knows I've escaped and lost the sword, the others will be alerted to the fact that I let it slip my grasp."
"That's plenty of time," said Vollomeer. "He's just a miller's son, Gifted or ungifted."
"I don't care! I should be helping the others recover the shield from Summerealm!" Wolfram yelled into the air. "That's why I beckoned you to set me free."
"You're actually afraid of the others, aren't you?" ventured Vollomeer.
"Yes," admitted Wolfram. "They know how to kill me. Even without the sword."
"Hmmm... so the gift-stealing Sword of Belendar isn't the only thing that can kill you?"
"No," said Wolfram with disgust. "Given the way I feed my Gift, I think that miller's son's aura may be yet another. Stealing my invulnerability, or suppressing it."
"What's the other way?" croaked the raven.
"Not for you to know," snarled Wolfram. "I was content when the sword was safely imprisoned with me in Winterealm. And I'd still be there if the Shield of Belendar wasn't missing."
"Ah, Belendar, Belendar, Belendar!" said Vollomeer. "The last known manifestation of the Blacksmith's Gift."
"He made my prison bars," said Wolfram. "The black ones. Not even the sword can break them. They were made in his later days, when he got really good. When he stopped making weapons."
"I think I have one of Belendar's earlier works," said Vollomeer. "Nothing powerful enough for your order to keep track of. Just a scepter."
"Oh, that one. I saw it once. Bit of a showpiece, ain't it? Not much power to it, far as I was told."
"It only responds to women," Vollomeer crowed with disgust. "He made it for his fiancé, Elder Gwydion's great-grandmother. I was ordered by Gwydion to confiscate it from one of my students, for reasons unknown to me."
"How'd a student of yours get her grubby hands on it?" asked Wolfram.
"It's a pity I didn't ask. A useless pity, that's what that scepter is. Powerless. It's still sitting in my bedroom in Winterealm."