“Home,” Deren answered.
The Sargon’s smile faded. His brows drew together. “Oh, dear, dear Deren, I would give you kingdoms and blessings beyond imagining for what you have done for us. I would give you a story that would end in glory. You have given so much and given up so much more. But I cannot give you your home. I fear it is no longer what you think it was.”
Golden sunlight shown through the columns in the room that overlooked the turbulent Endless Sea. The gleaming city of Chariis, where every story is true, shone. Scars from the recent battles still showed. Many worked hard to wipe away the ashes and the blood. But here, in the Sargon’s colonnade, the arrayed kings waited to heap treasure on the hero that had saved them all.
Deren didn’t care about their thanks. He had only one desire: “Sargon, give me leave to return to my village. The land calls. It is all I desire.”
The Sargon’s smile was so sad. “I know your deepest desire, Deren. You will always have a home here, but journey away now. Go. Whenever you wish, we will welcome you back. Leave with our blessing.” And he placed a hand on Deren’s forehead in benediction. What he whispered next only Deren heard. “And I am sorry for what you will find.”
Deren gave his bravest smile, and then turned and strode from elves, dwarves, griffins, and men. And those that came before the elves, too, and perhaps they looked saddest of all.
He gathered his provisions. He made sure he packed two horns full of ashes; one a friend, the other family. He took some small part of the treasure he’d been given; enough to pay his way home, and hopefully purchase land once he got there.
Already some whispered the story of the hero who turned his back on glory to return to a simple life. Their tales, though, never gained life. A story without an ending cannot live long, and Deren’s end had not yet been reached.
Without looking back, without sighing at its beauty or mourning its scars, the hero left the regal splendor of Chariis.
Something more beautiful called to him. The land summoned him home.
As he rode through the ashes of the battles he won, he didn’t notice the crows still feasting. He paid no heed as he began to cough. Why would he? Home beckoned. He guided his mount through forests burned black. They didn’t bother him. His home was far, far away, far from the war that had destroyed so much.
His scars ached as he passed Gorrad Moor. He paused at the single tree that rose over the marshes, allowing himself at last to weep for what he had given up there.
For weeks he rode on, through devastation after devastation, past mourning widows and towns abandoned. All he saw was a little cottage with a woman he had promised himself to. The two streams that met at the center of town, burbling over the dam his grandfather had built before his father had drunk away their wealth. The mayor’s home, bright with laughter. Banden and Gorash, the two innkeepers who hated each other and anyone who dared visit both of their taverns.
He remembered his childhood. He remembered the ranger who trained him, half in jest. He remembered Vena’s eyes. He remembered what it was like before his blood had bonded to the land, before he had learned that the land flowed through his veins, before he learned that the greatest warrior longed only to protect, not to battle for battle’s sake.
He planned on how to tell the village of the sacrifices that led to the horns filled with ash.
He paid so much attention to what he would do, he was blind to the changes in the land around him.
Until at last he came to the valley between the Carig and the Woll, the gentle rises that protected the valley that should be golden with grain. Until at last he came to the place where two streams joined.
The Sargon had wanted to give the hero all he desired.
He could not give what had been taken by the war the hero fought.
And the day that Deren returned home, on the day that he rode into that valley, he found that the ashes in those horns fit better that place than he did.
He never found the people that had fled. He never learned what happened to his dear Vena. He never left his home again.
He was tied to the land.
He built his cottage. He buried the ashes. Grain grew almost without his bidding. Apples fell from trees, ripe and juicy. He had all he needed. He welcomed travelers as best he could, but they were few in those days after the war. Years and years later he was still alone in that valley between the Carig and the Woll, in the place where two streams met and burble over an old, old dam.
And if you visited him there, and asked him how he lived there all alone, this hero who had kept the mortal lands free, he would answer, “I am tied to the land. I wish I had more to share it with me. But this, this is home. And it will be enough. The land provides all I need.”
Deren learned the lesson: The peace you find is never the peace you seek, but the land will take care of her own.