Byron Thorn ran through the darkness, dodging from tree to tree. He paused often to watch and listen, clutching the monocle that hung from a silver chain around his neck. A warm breeze was blowing. Cricket and frog song filled the forest and the blink of fireflies flecked the near and far. Lush, leafy trees hissed and waved in the wind, letting the stars peek through. The sounds of Midsummerfest were faint behind him.
Cresting a low hill, Byron looked back. The glow of the fires and the huge dancing shadows of the Woodren, the people of Hiding Wood—centaurs and humans, woodland animals, and Byron’s own people, the satyrs—leaped and loomed atop Summercrest Hill. They were gathered for the shortest night of the year, dancing and singing, feasting and playing the music of celebration.
Byron’s hand strayed to the silver horn on his head. He rubbed the sharp tip as one might stroke his chin in thought. The wind came stronger, making the sounds from the firelit hilltop louder for a moment. Byron frowned and rolled his eyes at the thought of Edgar Burcatcher insisting the silver tip was an ornamental cap that Byron was trying—without success—to bring into fashion.
“Stupid Edgar,” Byron said.
And he thought of his friends: Dindra, daughter of the great centaur Palter Thundershod; Shilo Prinder, a human girl who could speak to animals; Rufus and Raefer, the dryad brothers; Quill, a griffin princess; and Nosh, the prince of the dwarves.
Shilo had just moved to Hiding Wood with her family the previous spring. That very night she was to leave for Bilérica, the Place of Summer, to begin her Warra training. Raefer was visiting from the great oak forest of Ghostwood, where Rufus had stayed behind to further his training as a dryad scout. Quill was at home in the mountain aeries of the griffins, under the strict and watchful eye of her mother, Queen Gulthenna. Nosh was in Bilérica with Hixima, the Warra priestess, and Thúmose, the Unicorn, who was none other than King Silverlance himself.
All six of them had been with Byron the previous winter, when he’d gone off to find Silverlance, high king of the legendary realm of Everándon, journeying east by the light of the mysterious Midwinter Star. Arden, poet of the Woodland King, had written a series of ballads about the journey. Raefer had memorized them in full, and took every chance he got to sing one of them, or as many as he thought there might be time for. But nobody, not even Rufus, had the heart to tell Raefer he couldn’t sing. Still, the feat of memorizing the whole Wander Cycle in just under three months had earned Raefer the respect of Arden himself.
Byron looked up at the waxing moon, still early in its first quarter. Cryolar and the griffins’ll be here soon. Don’t want to miss Shilo’s farewell. Come on Thorn, Raefer can’t cover for you forever. Byron pressed on down the hillside, silent, creeping. The lake was near, his task at hand.
He crouched and listened. Laughter and the sound of splashing reached him.
“Elpinor,” said a giggling female voice, trying not to be too loud. “You mustn’t!”
“Never mind that!” came the voice of a man, less concerned with silence.
“Oh, hush!” said the woman. “Someone will hear!”
“Who can hear over all that music and dancing?” said the man.
He gave a loud cry. Then there was a heavy splash, followed by a stifled shriek of delight and more laughter. Byron crept closer, alert to the giggling and whispers that followed the calming of the splash. Toward the bottom of the slope the trees ended in a line, giving way to an open space. Byron stopped and hid behind a tall maple. He poked his head out and took the lay of things.
Twenty paces below the slope leveled off into a lawn that continued to the lake’s edge. Byron could see the discarded clothes— tunics and kirtles, belts and shoes—scattered about on the grass. A picnic was spread on a blanket with an empty wine bottle wrapped in a wicker sheath and two glasses standing near. The moon shimmered on the lake, lighting the beads of water that leaped from a playful splash. There they were: a human man and woman, flopping and floating in the dark, treading water in the lake. Byron measured the open span between the edge of the trees and the lakeside.
“Oh, they’re gonna see me,” he whispered, smiling as he pulled back into his hiding place. “There’s no way they’re not gonna see me.”
He peeked out again and looked at his targets: Elpinor, the king’s chamberlain, and Oleander, the barmaid from the Sickle and Sheaf, frolicking in the water with Midsummer gladness under the light of the young moon. Byron stepped from his cover and, keeping to what shadows he could, hugger-muggered his way forward onto the grass.
“Oh, Elpinor, you’re wicked!” Oleander said, laughing. “Don’t say such things!”
“More wine?” Elpinor asked.
“No, I couldn’t,” Oleander said. “I’ve had too much already.”
Elpinor responded with words Byron could not make out. Oleander giggled and cooed a little and laughter welled up in Byron as he crept along. He stopped and crouched, slapping his hands over his mouth, striving against hysterics. His whole body shook with the struggle.
Oleander turned. “Did you hear something?”
“What?” Elpinor said. “No, nothing. There was nothing.”
Giggles and whispers resumed. Byron held his nose until his ears popped but a single laugh snorted through. Both heads turned at the sound. Byron could no longer contain his laughter. He broke from the shadows and ran about the lawn, laughing and leaping, gathering everything but the belts and shoes. Elpinor gave such a cry that Byron nearly dropped all the clothes.
“Thorn!” the chamberlain shouted. “Byron Thorn you bring those back! Byron Thorn!”
Oleander put her hands to the sides of her face and gave another shriek of delight. She beamed with a great, wide smile and soon she was laughing harder than Byron. Elpinor looked at her in complete shock. She tried to stop herself when she saw his face, but that only made things worse. He was back into the shallows down to his chest when he realized where his clothes were. He started shrieking and slapping the water as Byron turned and fled into the trees with the pile of stolen garments under one arm and the last of the roasted pheasant in the crook of the other.
“Byron Thorn get back here!” Elpinor shouted again, nearly losing his voice. The last thing Byron heard was Oleander’s merry, high-pitched laughter and Elpinor shouting, “This isn’t funny!” with all the power in his lungs.
Byron’s eyes were wide and searching. Leafy twigs and branches lashed his chest and legs as he darted among the trees, eating the roasted pheasant. After a hundred yards he stopped to listen and look back.
“He’s not gonna follow,” Byron panted. “But I’ll confuse the trail a little, just in case.”
He climbed the root claw of a great wind-stricken tree, and ran along its mighty trunk to where it lay across an old stone wall. At last he came to the remains of a small bridge that spanned a narrow brook. Byron hopped down into the water and waded upstream to a hawthorn thicket that overcast the brook like a natural tunnel. He stood for a moment, cleaning the drumstick of the stolen pheasant, then stepped beneath the dense weave of the hawthorn.
“Can’t see a blind thing in here,” he said. No light penetrated the overarching thicket. It was in full bloom. He put his monocle up to his eye and looked around.
As always, darkness became clear as noon on a sunny day. The trunks of the hawthorn mixed with grasses and thorny shoots to make two thick side walls. Above, the overgrowth was dense as a basket. There were no leaves, only gray spiny branches that had not seen sun for years. The floor of the brook bed was sandy and strewn with stones. The water rushed past, and Byron could see fish holding their place as they swam with just enough strength against the current. Once he was deep inside, Byron let the monocle drop and rubbed his eye with a knuckle. After a rest and a drink, he put the monocle back in place and started forward.
The flowing water, the dark mud of the banks, the trunks and close-woven branches of the hawthorn did not appear. Instead there was firelight. Byron heard shouting and the sound of metal striking metal. Startled, he let the monocle drop again and tipped his head to listen.
“What was that? ” he whispered, frowning into the darkness.
There was no sound at all except the water flowing.
“It sounded like—oh, forget it, the griffins’ll be here soon.”
He put the monocle to his eye aand started forward.
A vision appeared through the monocle, but it felt to Byron like he was actually in it. There were torches and he could feel the wind blowing. The hawthorn and the brook disappeared and Byron saw a giant sky filled with stars. All around him swords and spears glinted with firelight. Metal clashed on metal and harsh voices shouted. A huge creature clad in battered chain mail stepped up beside Byron, holding an enormous axe. Byron cried out and fell back. Then he was in the hawthorn tunnel again, in the utter darkness, lying on his side in the flowing water with the monocle trailing at the end of its chain. It had fallen from his eye.
“What—what the —?” he said, groping for the monocle. “What was that thing?” Dripping and dizzy, Byron stood. “It was huge.” Byron followed the chain to the monocle and held it in his fist. Then he shook his head and set the round glass to his eye.
At once the vision returned. A new moon reigned and the sky was full of stars. The air was cold and Byron stood on a high mountain. The battle continued. Shadowy shapes moved all around Byron in the firelight, shouting and growling, wielding cruel, jagged weapons. Five feet away a large man in a shirt of scale armor drove a broken spear into a horrible, shrieking creature that had fallen to the ground.
There were dwarves, humans, satyrs, centaurs, dryads, and strange dark creatures with kettle-like helmets. Several huge, lumbering forms roamed about, swinging clubs.
In the middle of it all was a wide stone basin filled with ashes and dead embers. Ankle deep in the ashes, three enormous creatures strove to work a single white-hot coal the size of a rain barrel. The air around it shimmered with heat. The creatures rolled it forward with long, heavy rods of some dark metal. In a circle around them was a gathering of dark forms, each wrapped in a cape. One of them stood apart. A dim red glow filled the face of its hood. It held its gloved hands out before it, fingers splayed, as the workers strove with the coal.
The fighting stopped and the victorious warriors approached the basin, holding up torches as they marched in out of the darkness. Centaurs and satyrs stood side by side with the clubwielding brutes. There were humans and dryads, gnomes and salamanders, and many terrible-looking folk the likes of which Byron had never seen. They watched in silence as the hulking workers labored. When everyone was still, Byron could hear a voice. It spoke in a strange, sinister language.
Then one of the other caped forms turned and gave a shout. The voice was cool and rich, a woman’s voice that made Byron want to hear more. The crowd parted at the far end of the fire pit. Six more of the huge workers stepped up, carrying a great metal vessel. It swung on chains between two stout poles which lay across their shoulders. They set the vessel down in the ashes and two of them removed the top and put it aside.
When the giant coal was near enough, three of the vessel bearers joined the laborers in the task of moving it. Standing one on each end of the long metal rods, they lay the rods across each other in a triangle beneath the coal. Then, with a mighty heave and great shouts of defiance, they lifted it and dropped it into the vessel. All the while, the figure with the glowing hood muttered the harsh, throaty words and held out its hands. But when the lid was secure on the top of the vessel, it stopped its incantation. All at once, many strange symbols, cut into the lid for air slits, filled with blinding white fire.
The glowing hood went dark and the figure spoke.
“The Balefire is ours,” it said. “Borántu will not have his feast.”
It strode across the ashes with the entire hooded company behind it. The crowd parted. Those closest to the hooded figures averted their eyes and stepped on each other in their efforts to back away. A whip cracked. A small, angry fellow with a loud, shrill voice stepped up and began to lash the vessel bearers. He shouted a few harsh words and the bearers took up their poles. With shouts and loud growls they lifted the vessel. The poles flexed and creaked. The chains stretched and clinked. Then, in perfect step, the six bearers set off, slow and steady, moving through a gap in the crowd. Three on each side they went, with the strange brazier swaying between them.
Byron opened his eyes to darkness and heard the sound of underwater. He thrust with his hands against the bed of the brook and broke the surface with a sputtering cry. The vision was gone and he was back in the hawthorn tunnel.
“What—what’s happening?” he said with a gasp as he choked for breath and coughed the water from his lungs. He gaped around, searching for the people and the mountaintop. Then Byron stopped and locked a gaze of understanding on the darkness.
“The monocle!” he said, reaching for it with both hands. He snatched up the chain and pulled until the monocle snapped into his grip. “I have to see what happened!” He thrust the monocle up to his eye, and paused. Byron bit his lower lip, then slowly, cautiously, he set the monocle in place.
Again, the vision returned, but it was a different place. The air was crisp with autumn and Byron was standing in a wood, on a path covered with new fallen leaves. A small band was gathered in torchlight—satyrs and centaurs, dwarves, humans and dryads— standing in a circle. A tall man stood in the middle holding a torch in one hand and a long, heavy sword in the other.
“I’m glad to see you alive, Rayla,” he said. “I’m told your Firedrakes have suffered great losses.”
“Four of us are dead,” said the satyress to whom he had spoken. “Jaric, Mintel, Jenna, and Arcánadin.”
“Arcánadin Thorn slain?” said one of the dwarves. “Do you have a new leader?”
“Arcánadin’s daughter, Erolyn Thorn, has led three successful forays of her own design,” Rayla said. “It was she who discovered Wytherban’s plan for the Balefire.”
“And now his plan will fail,” said a dwarf with a firm nod to the group.
“Why would the Dragon permit such treachery?” the tall man asked. “His intentions for the Balefire have long been feared. Has Wytherban grown so strong as to steal his master’s prize?”
“I think not,” Rayla said. “Rather, Borántu has grown weak. Something has happened to him. The Unicorn is behind it.”
“And no one knows where he has gone,” the tall man said.
Rayla shook her head. “Erolyn was the last to see him.”
“And where is she?”
“Dead, maybe,” Rayla said. “We’re scattered all over. Rumors are all I have.”
A centaur holding a long spear trotted up to the group. “Thane Belemere,” he said, “The outer watch has reported torches. They are coming!”
“Very good,” said the tall man. “Go and make ready. Let them pass and close on them from the rear when you see the signal.”
The centaur nodded and galloped away into the darkness.
“All right then,” said the tall man. “Borgelf, are the grunks ready?”
“They’re not far, Thane Belemere,” said one of the dwarves. “I’ll go and alert them now.”
“Good,” Belemere said. “We’ll need them to handle the trolls. Very well, you all know what to do. Go with the strength of the Unicorn. Bold strokes for the light!”
“For the light!” each one said, and they all went off into the trees.
Soon Byron heard the faint sound of a whip and a shrill, angry voice. A dim glow appeared through the trees in the distance. As it drew near, Byron heard the grunts and snorts of enormous creatures laboring under some heavy burden. At last he saw the vessel bearers marching along, three on each side of the glowing coal, with their little taskmaster driving them on with his whip.
Leading the company was a band of strange dark warriors. A foul smell went before them. In the glow of the coal Byron saw that they had no flesh, only rotted, broken bone. Their armor and weapons were rusted and decayed, and in their eye sockets burned a faint red glow.
A flaming arrow appeared above the forest and a war-horn sounded. A swarm of shadows flew from the trees and fell upon the guardians of the vessel.
Only around the vessel itself was there light enough for Byron to see by. The trolls set down their burden and took up the huge, studded clubs they carried at their belts. They stood and waited by the vessel, watching. Their little taskmaster moved among them, shouting and putting up his hands. The trolls did not move, but stood in a tight circle around the vessel.
Battle raged in the dark all around. A pair of fighters appeared —a dwarf and one of the dark warriors—silhouetted against the glow of the coal. The dwarf fell with a muffled cry as his helmet came down over his eyes and split beneath the blow of the warrior’s sword. The warrior lifted a splayed, bony hand. The red glow in its eyes burned brighter and it gave a terrible cry. Then the tall man, Belemere, stepped up to meet the dark warrior.
They crossed swords again and again, each with incredible strength and speed. They ducked and crouched and circled until at last, in a burst of agility, Belemere came on too strong for the dark warrior and it fell beneath his sword with its head severed from its shoulders. In the place where the sword passed through the bone, a small red light flashed in the darkness.
Hooves galloped down the path and the centaurs charged in behind the vessel bearers, the tips of their spears afire. The whole group of trolls turned to face the attack. The centaurs hurled their spears with all their force, but those that were not swatted aside simply glanced away or shivered to splinters on the thick hide of the trolls. Their little taskmaster shouted his shrill commands and they hoisted their clubs.
Centaur after centaur fell to the ground, killed or wounded hard by the terrible force of the blows. Still they came, bounding around the circle of trolls, leveling spear after useless spear. The vessel bearers swung their clubs and thwarted attack after disastrous attack until the ground was strewn with broken centaurs, whose efforts fell more to dragging their comrades out of harm’s reach than to furthering the assault on the coal.
A shout went up and there was a great crack of wood that shook the trees. A huge shape appeared, black against the darkness. It moved slowly and swayed from side to side. Four more shapes followed it, each one as big and lumbering as the first.
The trolls craned their necks and peered into the darkness, wringing their clubs in their huge, four-fingered fists. Their taskmaster looked also, fidgeting and shifting his weight.
“The grunks!” shouted a voice.
As the dark shapes drew near, the trolls began to growl and brandish their clubs. The grunks made no sound except for the heavy thud of their falling feet. The little taskmaster gave a slobbering shriek and cracked his whip. Without looking at him, one of the trolls swatted him into the trees with a sweep of its club. Six trolls and five grunks fell upon each other in a ground-shaking bout of crushing blows with club and fist.
The grunks were larger and slower than the trolls. They endured the mighty club blows one after another. Byron watched in horror as a troll whacked one of the grunks seven times before the grunk responded. When it did, it struck the troll with a fist the size of a large pumpkin. The troll fell to the ground, never to rise, for the grunk followed through with a single swipe of its club.
When the battle ended, the warriors of the Unicorn came in from the forest. One grunk was wounded, four trolls were dead, and the other two fled into the woods. The grunks set down their clubs and took seats on the ground around their wounded companion.
“Wülken,” Belemere said, kicking the severed skull of a dark warrior. A group had gathered around him.
“They seem to be everywhere these days,” said one of the satyrs. “Whatever the fate of the Dragon, Wytherban has grown strong.”
“He’ll soon know of his defeat here,” said Rayla the satyress. “His servants are his eyes and ears. We must get the ember away before the wyverns come.”
“Where can we take it?” asked a centaur. “What place can contain it? The vessel is already beginning to fail.”
“The vessel will hold a while longer,” said Borgelf the dwarf. “Its make is evil but masterful.”
“There is a place we can go, where it will be safe,” another dwarf said. “Perhaps the only place in Everándon, besides its rightful place, I mean.”
“By now it’s sure to be hazardous,” Borgelf said. “Who can say what we’ll find there.”
“There’s no other way,” the other dwarf said. “The ember must be hidden before the vessel fails and no one can approach it. Wytherban must not have it back.”
“Where then?” asked Rayla. “Where shall we take it?”
“Byron? Byron!” cried a voice. “Raefer! Shilo! Come quick!”
Strong hands pulled Byron from the water and frightened voices called his name.
“Byron! Byron can you hear me?”
“Turn him over, get the water out of ‘im!”
“Dindra—” Byron moaned. “Raefer —” A fit of coughing seized him and for a long time all Byron could get out was the water in his lungs. He gagged helplessly as it found its way up and out. His friends pounded him on the back until he finished with a final fit of coughing and tears.
“Oh, Byron,” Shilo cried when at last he opened his eyes and looked around. She was there with Raefer and Dindra, all three hovering over him with stricken faces, holding torches against the dark. “Did you hit your head?”
“Byron, what happened in there?” Dindra asked, moving her torch toward the opening of the hawthorn tunnel. “You came staggering out like you were being chased!”
Byron sat up and looked at the tunnel. He’d found his way clear to the other end without knowing it. “I—” he said, looking from the tunnel to his friends, one by one. “Shilo—Din—”
“Oh, Byron,” Dindra said. “Oh, that was close.”
“It’s sure lucky you told me your plan, By,” Raefer said, clutching Byron’s arm. “You’d have been drowned for sure. Can you stand? Here, lean on me.”
Raefer helped Byron to his hooves. Dindra crouched down and Raefer and Shilo helped Byron onto the back of her horse’s body.
“You and your pranks, Byron Thorn,” Dindra said with a mix of worry and adoration.
“The monocle,” Byron said. “I saw it in the monocle.”
“Saw what, Byron?” Shilo asked, sharing a frown with the others.
Byron blinked and looked at the hawthorn tunnel. “I’m not sure.”
“Byron, we’ve got to get you back to the fire,” Dindra said. “You need to get warm. And the griffins will be here any minute.”
Byron blinked and looked at Shilo. “It’s time? Shilo’s leaving?”
Shilo nodded. “Soon, anyway. That’s why we came to find you. I was afraid I wouldn’t get to say goodbye.”
Raefer, Dindra, and Byron all looked at Shilo.
“It hasn’t seemed real,” Raefer said, “you leaving. I mean, until just now.”
“You just got here,” Dindra said, swishing her tail.
“Let’s not,” Shilo said. Her voice cracked and she looked away. “Not until they come, okay?”
A silence followed, broken by the sound of Byron’s teeth chattering. Shilo took off her cape and threw it around him. “Come on, then,” she said. “Let’s get you to the fire. I could do with a little cider myself.”