A circle of fire was burning. The Woodren danced around the great central fire while the Woodland Knights performed their ceremonial duties of maintaining the smaller fires that formed a ring on Summercrest Hill. Many small picnic fires burned just inside the ring, and the space around the central fire was filled with dancing and reveling. A firm wind wafted through the summer trees. The shadows of the Woodren leaped weird and huge in the leafy, wagging boughs.
People laughed and sang in small groups, lying and sitting on the ground. Children screamed and ran through the crowd, playing hiding games. Young couples hushed each other as they snuck away into the dark of the trees, looking over their shoulders at the fire as they disappeared onto the hillside paths where fireflies blinked and the night creatures of the wood hid and watched the summer feasting.
Dindra strode out onto the hilltop with Byron on her back, Raefer and Shilo each to one side. Byron shivered with cold and wet, but already the warmth reached him from the great circle of fire. As they approached, they found Shegwin Reed, a tall human boy, and his father Sir Durmidere, the Woodland Knight, chatting with Arden, the king’s poet.
“Byron!” said Shegwin. He clasped hands with Raefer. “He’s all wet!”
“Occupational hazard,” Raefer said with a laugh. “He stops at nothing, as you know.”
“You can say that again,” Shegwin said. “Hello, Shilo.”
“Hello,” Shilo said. She rolled her eyes a bit and did not look at Shegwin. Dindra shrugged when Shegwin looked to her for an explanation.
“Well, Byron,” said Sir Durmidere, Shegwin’s father. He wore a heavy sword at his hip and the green wreath of the Woodland Knights on his high, proud head. “Back from another quest I see. Companions and all.”
Arden smiled and nodded to Raefer. “And even a poet handy to tell the tale.”
Dindra winced a little and avoided Raefer’s triumphant smile.
“Hello, Sir Durmidere,” Byron said.
“Hello to you all,” said the Woodland Knight. “A splendid evening.”
“Yes, sir,” Dindra said.
“I’m helping father keep the fire tonight,” Shegwin said, with a glance at Shilo. “No time for dancing.”
“Macy Turncart is out there, Sheg,” Arden said. “You’ll never win her hand unless you give her a dance or two.”
“Just like a poet,” Durmidere laughed, “always thinking of love and singing.”
“War and ceremony have their place, Sir Durmidere,” Arden said. “I don’t deny it. But a young heart must have its fill, especially at Midsummer.”
“I want to be a Woodland Knight,” Shegwin said.
“And a fine knight you’ll make,” said Arden. “Just don’t forget what it is you hope to defend.”
Durmidere nodded. “Well said, Arden, well said.”
Arden clasped his hands behind his back. “Will you give us a bit of the Wander Cycle tonight, Raefer?”
“Oh, no, not—” Dindra began. Everyone looked at her. “I mean—good!” Dindra continued. “Yes, Raefer, would you?” She glanced at Shilo who avoided her eyes. “But make sure you tell me a few minutes before you do, okay?”
Raefer frowned. “What for?”
“Well,” Dindra said. Everyone looked at her with expectant grins. “So I can get a good seat, of course.”
“Oh, well, sure Din,” Raefer said. “You’ll know as soon as I do.”
Byron looked out across the hilltop. “I’ve never seen such a crowd. Where’d they all come from? I don’t think I’ve ever seen most of them before.”
“Yes,” Durmidere said. “You wouldn’t. Most are from the hinterlands. The migrations have been going on since the thaw but you don’t really see the numbers until a festival like this when everyone gathers together.”
“What’s the news from the border country?” Arden asked.
“The wolves are at bay in the west,” Durmidere said. “Has your father returned, Dindra?”
“Oh, yes,” Dindra said. “This morning. He’s off again tomorrow for the northern marches.”
Durmidere nodded. “There is much there that wants his attention, reports of wild centaurs and other strange, dark creatures. It isn’t safe for any peaceful-minded Woodren. Only a hearty few are maintaining their steadings in the farther reaches of the realm.”
“You’d hardly know it from a sight like this one,” Arden said, nodding to the dancing on the hilltop. The revelers were wild with summer glee. Drums and flutes and fiddles filled the air. Tall shadows wagged and the stars burned bright and high. The moon ran westward into the treetops.
“It’s good that they can dance,” Durmidere said with a sigh. “It’s as you say, after all.”
“Byron,” Shegwin said, “if you’re looking for Gradda, he’s with Shilo’s family. Her mother puts on some picnic.”
Shilo smiled and nodded at Shegwin, who stood a little taller.
“Thanks, Sheg,” Byron said. “See you later, huh?”
“Sure, sure,” Shegwin said, grinning at Dindra. “I don’t want to miss the Wander Cycle.”
Dindra glared back at Shegwin as the companions passed on. They set off toward the hillcrest, and Arden followed with a nod to the Woodland Knight and his son. “I believe I’ll find out for myself why Mrs. Prinder’s picnic is the talk of the hilltop.”
The sounds of music grew louder and the heat of the central fire set the sky and stars to shimmering. A pair of large centaurs galloped up and pitched a huge tree limb onto the great flaming heap. There were cheers and the centaurs went away congratulating each other.
“Call that a branch?” one satyr shouted. He took a deep pull from his mug and his companions laughed. “Find one with a little girth next time!”
The centaurs stopped and turned. “Satyrs burn better than wood!” one of them called back with a smile.
“And they’re easier to get your hands on!” shouted his friend, standing with his arms crossed. He spotted Arden and the companions and pointed. “Hoy! Byron!” he shouted. “Found any more flaming birds?”
The satyrs turned also. “What say, Byron?” one of them called. “How ’bout a nice two-headed wolf pup for your birthday this year, eh?”
Byron rolled his eyes.
“It’s good you’re here, poet!” one of the centaurs called. “We’ll need a song about how Byron finds his way across the hilltop!”
“Not a bad idea, Grashen,” Arden shouted with a smile. “But dealing with witless banter is hardly the stuff of legends!”
The centaur blinked and looked at his companion, who shrugged uselessly. The satyrs all laughed and tipped their cups in each other’s direction.
“They still don’t believe it,” Raefer said, shaking his head. “All these weeks and months and they still think it’s just a story we made up.”
“I believe it,” Arden said. “Every word. I could never have composed the Wander Cycle if I didn’t. And there are others.”
“Gradda believes it,” Byron said.
“So does my Grappa,” Shilo agreed.
Raefer did not hear them. “They saw the star, they’ve got Byron’s horn. Didn’t the wolves come tearing through? Didn’t Ravinath and those painted centaurs try to take over this place before the Woodland King drove them out? They saw Cryolar and the griffins. And they’ve all seen Shilo talk to animals by now.”
Arden smiled. “Raefer, you will have to get used to telling tales for people who cannot really hear them.”
Raefer shrugged. “They’ve got me. How many dryads have they ever seen? I’m even blooming for sap’s sake.” He held up one of the thin, purple flowered vines that grew in his hair. “What’s wrong with these people?”
“Raefer,” Dindra said, “Byron doesn’t listen to them, why should you?”
Byron patted Raefer on the back and smiled. As they came to the far side of the fire they found a young satyr and satyress, Gretchen and Edgar Burcatcher, standing with a tall, slender human boy, Ulwyn Garnet, who was wearing a toga. When Ulwyn saw Byron he pointed at him so that the satyrs both turned around.
“Hello there, Byron,” Ulwyn said. He raised an eyebrow and sucked his cheeks in a little.
“Hello, Ulwyn,” Byron said without turning.
“Still wearing that ridiculous silver cap on your horn?”
“Will you be dazzling us with one of your glorious capers tonight, Byron?” Gretchen Burcatcher said. “It’s been months and months you know. What would a high festival be without one?”
“Yeah,” Byron said. “Uh-huh.” He kept walking.
“Don’t forget to have Arden make up another song about your mysterious Midwinter adventure,” Gretchen said. “Or maybe Raefer could do it. Too bad he can’t sing.”
“Ha,” Raefer said under his breath, shaking his head with a laugh. “Can’t sing.”
“Whatever,” Byron said. Dindra smiled and nodded and walked on beside him. Shilo just rolled her eyes.
“What’a’ya mean, Gretch,” said Edgar Burcatcher. “The Silverlance story is true. I found him hiding under my bed last night.”
Ulwyn and Gretchen burst out laughing. Edgar stood there with a wide smile on his face. Dindra looked down at Byron with an eyebrow up. Raefer and Shilo glanced at each other in mild alarm and looked at Byron. Byron stopped and turned.
He walked back and stood hoof to hoof with Edgar Burcatcher, who, though younger, was quite a bit larger than Byron. Byron looked up at him with fire in his eyes. “Say that again,” Byron said.
Edgar stopped laughing and cleared his throat.
“Say it again,” Byron pressed. A small flash of light glinted off his horn as if the silver had caught sunshine. Edgar blinked at the horn, leaning away and turning a little. Byron looked up at him, clenching his fists. “You watch yourself, Edgar,” Byron said.
Edgar looked at Gretchen and Ulwyn. They glanced at each other with cautious eyes. Byron did not blink or break his stare. Edgar wrinkled his nose and looked away from Byron. Byron turned and walked on.
On the far side of the hill, apart from the crowd, there was a small group gathered around a picnic fire. Shilo’s parents, Filo and Fidelia Prinder, were ladling out cider and preparing plates of food on a large, red-checked blanket. Byron’s grandfather, Darius Thorn, and Shilo’s grandfather, Milo Prinder, stood side by side smoking their pipes, laughing and talking.
“But you must tell me more about your days in solitude, Darius,” Milo was saying. “Sometime, when it’s right. I’d dearly love to know.”
“Maybe, Milo, maybe,” Darius replied. “I’ve not spoken of those days to many, it’s true.”
The two huge grizzleback bears, Lucia and Manakar, sat among a company of smaller animals. A red cardinal dropped down out of a tree at Shilo’s approach to perch on her shoulder, and a raven cawed from some dark place in the branches.
“There you are, Byron,” Fidelia Prinder said. “I thought you weren’t coming! Happy summer to you.” She set down the ladle to give Byron a hug and touch his silver horn. “You’re all wet! What have you—well never mind, this is Byron Thorn I’m talking to. Come and have a plate for yourself and stand by the fire.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” Byron said. “Don’t worry, I wouldn’t have missed it.”
“Thank you Mrs. Prinder,” Raefer said, taking a cup from Fidelia.
“Happy summer, Byron,” Milo Prinder said.
“Hoy, Byron,” Filo Prinder said. “Where’ve you been?”
Byron looked at his Gradda. The old satyr was observing Byron with a deep squint. Byron felt his heart leap and he wanted to tell Gradda everything. “Oh, uh, I had—that is —I forgot something.” Then he sipped his cider and attended his plate.
“What was that between you and young Burcatcher?” Filo Prinder asked.
Byron shrugged, forking in a mouthful of food. “Nothing much.”
“Still getting the occasional teasing about your story?” Fidelia asked.
“Sometimes,” Byron said.
“They never bring that to me,” Dindra said.
“Nobody would doubt the word of Palter Thundershod’s own daughter, if she could hear them do it,” Gradda said.
“That shouldn’t make a difference,” Dindra said.
“Just be glad it does,” Byron said, glancing back at the central fire. “I’m sick of it.”
“You sure gave Edgar something to think about,” Filo said.
“Say what you want about Byron Thorn,” Arden said. “But leave the Unicorn out of it.”
“Is that so?” Shilo’s grandfather said. “Well done Byron, well done.”
“Don’t bring trouble on yourself, Byron,” Fidelia Prinder said. “Just ignore them, whatever they say.”
“I doubt if Silverlance needs any of us to protect him,” Filo Prinder said, nodding in agreement to his wife.
“Yes ma’am,” Byron said. “Yes, sir.” Then he sighed and looked at Shilo. “It’s sure been good having you here, Shi. I’m gonna miss you.”
“Thanks Byron,” Shilo said. “I’ll miss you, too. But I’ll see you soon again, I’m sure.”
“I wish I was coming with you,” Byron said. “I’d love to see Mr. Thúmose and Hixima again.”
“So would I,” Dindra said.
“And Lukos,” Byron said. “And Baruwan. I wonder what became of him.”
“Baruwan,” Gradda said with a laugh. “Now there’s a tale I’d never have guessed. Well, if he’s half the friend he was an enemy, then we’re twice lucky Thúmose got to ‘im.”
“He’s so beautiful when he smiles,” Dindra said, touching her throat. Shilo smiled and clutched Dindra’s arm. Dindra shrugged and looked at the ground. She swished her tail. “My father still doesn’t believe he’s to be trusted.”
“He sure can throw that net of his,” Byron said.
“Do you suppose Nosh has got himself kicked out of the kitchen a hundred times yet?” Raefer said.
Dindra smiled and shook her head. “The prince of the dwarves.”
“Maybe Oatencake’ll be there, too,” Byron said. “Tell ‘im I said hello, will ya, Shi?”
Shilo nodded. “Of course I will, Byron. I wonder what Bilérica looks like now.”
“Nosh said in his letter that they planted birch saplings all over Standing Stone Hill,” Byron said. “Well, what’s left of it I mean.”
“Is he still having that dream he mentioned?” Dindra asked.
“Your friend must be lonely living in that place away from home,” Filo Prinder said. “It’s good of you all to take the time to write.”
“He sounds like he’s having a pretty good time,” Raefer said with a shrug. “Silverlance is teaching him all sorts of dwarvish history. But come to think of it, I haven’t had word from him in about a month.”
“Me neither,” Byron said.
“I still can’t imagine it,” Darius Thorn said. “That old centaur Ravinath was always mighty in his way. I saw him fight in many battles. Remember it, Milo? When we fought the wolves together? How terrible he was to see? And I knew he was a delver of magic and hidden ways. But I’d never have guessed he wielded so great a power as to knock down a whole hillside with a blast of wizard-fire.”
Milo Prinder nodded over a long take from his pipe. “It’s true and no denying, we may never have had a greater centaur in all of Woody Deep than Ravinath, and I have in mind even your grandfather, Dindra, the great Madican Thundershod, and your father, the chief at arms, whose test is coming I daresay.
“But what stops me most, apart from the return of the Silverlance of course, is this Lukos Wolfen King. Now that was a surprise to an old tracker. To think, he was driven off by his own people for following the Midwinter Star. And to think it was the Unseen Pack itself, with Lukos at their head, who pulled Byron out of harm’s way when the wolves attacked the Thorn family all those years ago. Why, we never feared anything so much from the wolves as the Unseen Pack. And now they run for the Unicorn? Well, I . . .”
Milo Prinder shook his head and his voice trailed away as he followed his thoughts into silence. Darius looked up at his friend and shook his head also, joining him in silent recollection. The two old fellows stood there smoking their pipes, remembering.
“I’m just glad Ravinath is gone,” Byron said, doing some recollection of his own. “I’ve had a bad dream or two myself, and he’s been right there at the middle.”
“Well, he’s gone as gone,” Raefer said. “I’ll never forget the phoenix fire as long as I live, even if I forget the rest, which I won’t.”
“The molting phoenix,” Arden said. “I’ve read only a few accounts of it in all my studies. One of them even had a picture. What a thing to witness. No, I don’t suppose we’ll ever see Ravinath again, or anyone else who’s ever been caught within fifty feet of the phoenix pyre.”
“It was almost us,” Byron said, sipping his cider.
Raefer laughed. “Do you remember Quill’s face as she came flapping through that window? There was nothing funny at the time, but I laugh now, every time I think of it.”
Byron laughed and slapped his goatish thigh. “Remember the pitch of her voice? ‘Look out! Look out!’ ”
“Ravinath never saw her coming,” Dindra said.
“I felt the very same way when I met her the first time,” Byron said.
“Oh, I’ll never forget that moment,” Shilo said, laughing. “Not ever.”
“I won’t either.” Byron said. “Me with that giant bandage still on my head, no solid food for days. And here comes the daughter of the griffin queen right in time for breakfast! I’m just sitting there in that big wooden chair and whammo! Quill drops out of the sky like a rock. I’ve been flattened by her horrible landings twice now.” Byron set about the picnic flapping his arms and hopping up and down. “Look out!” he cried, cupping his hands to his mouth. He bugged open his eyes and bumped into Raefer. “I can’t stop, look out!”
Raefer fell to his knees and covered his mouth, shaking with silent guffaws. Dindra held her belly and laughed out loud, but her wide smile faded just a little and she peered into the sky beyond Byron.
“Look out! Everyone look out!” Byron managed to say through his laughter, nearly tripping over the salad.
Raefer blinked and calmed a little. “That’s pretty good, By.”
Dindra stopped laughing all together. A hint of a smile lingered on her face, but she blinked, peering into the nighttime sky.
“Look out!” Byron cried. He stopped in his tracks facing the group, smiling and blinking with amazement at what seemed a keen likeness in his voice to that of his good friend, Quill. “Wow,” he said, “that sounded good.”
“Byron,” Dindra said, taking a step forward.
“It sounded just like her,” Raefer said.
“Byron, look out!” Shilo cried, pointing.
Raefer shook his head and touched his windpipe. “More of an ‘aaaggg,’ Shi, from the back of the throat.”
“Byron, look out!” Dindra shouted.
Raefer nodded, “Dindra’s getting it.”
“Everyone look out!” cried a voice.
“Yeah, wow, Din,” Raefer said. “She’s as good as you, Byron.”
Byron looked at his friends in confusion. Raefer smiled back at him, but Dindra and Shilo stared, agog, above his head. The voice cried out again, very clear, and the look shared by Shilo and Dindra crept across Raefer’s face also. “Everyone look out!” cried the voice.
Byron blinked and started to turn. “Quill?”
“Byron, look out!” Raefer cried.
Princess Quill hammered into Byron just as he came full face to her. She was far larger than he and engulfed him in her flailing efforts to right herself. Together they tore through the picnic like a gust through autumn leaves. There was a shriek and a sickening crunch, and when at last the two came to rest, they were wrapped together at the feet of the grown-ups in a red and white checked tangle of feathers and horns and potato salad.
Quill’s head and nearly all of Byron were tucked away in the twisting folds of the blanket. Byron squirmed and reached, searching for a gap to breathe through. He followed the cries of alarm and managed to surface, spitting a feather from his mouth. Two beautiful grinning eyes stared into his, and he found he could only grin back.
“Hello, Byron!” the griffin princess said. Her eyes brightened. “You’re not hurt are you?”
“No,” Byron said with a laugh. “But you got bigger!”
“Still working out the bugs, I see.”
“Nearly had it that time, though.”
“You’ll get there.”
“Quill!” Raefer cried as he came up with Shilo.
“Are you two all right?” Dindra asked.
“Sure we are,” Quill said. “What’d you think? Hello, everybody!”
Gradda and the Prinders gathered around the companions. Fidelia crouched down to help Byron untangle his limbs from the knotted blanket.
“Gosh,” Quill said. “I’m awfully sorry about your picnic, ma’am.”
“Never mind that,” Fidelia Prinder said. “Just so no one’s hurt is all. Broken crockery can be fixed or found new. There now,” she said to Byron, dusting him off, “all well?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Byron said.
“Gosh, Quill,” Dindra said. “You really are bigger.”
Quill stood up and shook herself out. She opened her wings and folded them against her sleek body. “Big enough to make the journey,” she said. “With a stop or two—or five.”
“It’s so good to see you, Quill,” Shilo said. “Your flights are beautiful. Is that a bit of green I see?”
“And a bit of red, too,” Quill said, opening a wing to show her feathers off. Nearly all of the mottled, downy brown fluff was gone and her mature feathers were emerging. “I can land well enough if I haven’t been flying long. Seems to be a matter of not getting tired out. Cryolar has been coaching me.”
“Cryolar?” Byron asked. “How is he?”
“Well, you can ask him yourself,” Quill said. “Here he comes now.”
Six vast, dark shapes appeared in the eastern sky, black against the stars. As they approached, the treetops swayed under the force of their beating wings. The Woodren all stopped their dancing and turned. The hilltop fell silent, except for the musicians, who played on until the last drummer, eyes tight shut and deep into his rhythm, was roused by the wide-eyed fiddler who sat beside him. One by one the griffins swooped in, hovered just above the grass, and landed on their great hind legs with smooth, effortless ease. They folded their majestic wings and looked around with smiling eyes at the dumbfounded Woodren.
“Cryolar!” Byron shouted. “Cryolar, over here!”
“Silverthorn!” the griffin called as he bounded toward the little group at Fidelia Prinder’s picnic. “How are you, three months later?”
“Just fine, Cryolar,” Byron said.
The griffins were enormous creatures with rich coats of shiny fur on their lion flanks and tails. Their forelegs were like the legs and talons of eagles, only much larger. In their vast, fabulous wings they had long shimmering feathers of many colors, which they preened with great beaks of silver, bronze, or gold. The Woodren had parted to give the griffins room to land, but the gap was quickly filled. Fear of their winged visitors gave way to curiosity and awe, and they crowded around the majestic creatures with wide eyes and open mouths. Cryolar’s flightmates continued to preen and make friendly jokes at the expense of the stupefied Woodren.
Cryolar crouched and touched the tips of his wings to the ground in greeting. “Hello, Dindra and Shilo and ah! One of the ghostling brothers! Which are you, fellow? Rufus or Raefer, for you two are as alike as eggmates!”
Raefer smiled. “I’m the one who wouldn’t let you eat the horses.”
“Ah, Raefer!” Cryolar said. “You’re blooming!”
“Of course I am,” Raefer said. “It’s summer.”
Cryolar laughed. “The wondrous dryads! How have you fared living among such outlandish folk as these satyrs and centaurs and humans, eh?”
Raefer only laughed in response.
“Hello to you, sirs,” Cryolar said to Gradda, and Milo, and Filo Prinder. “And hello, madam,” he said to Fidelia Prinder, “happy feast to you. Happy feast to you all!”
“Happy —happy feast —sir,” Fidelia said, breathless and wide-eyed. She gaped at the enormous winged creatures and curtsied.
“It is twenty-four days now since I received word to assemble my griffins and make for Woody Deep,” Cryolar said. “Glad I was to hear that command, knowing you and your people would be celebrating the Feast of Herne, the Green God of Middlesummer.”
“Received word?” Dindra said. “From whom?”
“Why, from the Unicorn,” Cryolar said. “I have been far afield of late, as have all the scouts of the Unicorn, and the Unicorn himself. Long to the north I was, and east—almost to the sea—when Peter Oatencake found me and told me of the Unicorn’s command. And now here we are all, or soon will be. Twenty-one of us, when all together. Fifteen more are expected.”
“Thúmose sent twenty-one griffins to escort Shilo back to Bilérica?” Dindra said.
“Twenty-two if you count Quill,” Shilo said.
Cryolar gave Dindra a quizzical look. He turned to Quill. “You haven’t yet told them, then?”
Quill only looked at Cryolar, returning his look of confusion. Then she blinked. “Oh! Oh my goodness! How could I forget?”
“I can’t imagine, your highness,” Cryolar said with grinning eyes. “Perhaps now would be a good time?”
“Tell us what, Quill?” Dindra asked.
“I’m sorry everyone,” Quill said. “Seeing you all again drove it right out of my mind!”
“Drove what out?” Raefer asked.
“Yes, Quill,” Shilo said. “What’s going on?”
“You’re not going to Bilérica after all, Shilo,” Quill said.
Quill shook her head. “No. There’s been a change of plans of some kind. A big change apparently.”
“Then why are you here?” Raefer said. “Why are Cryolar’s griffins coming to Hiding Wood?”
“They’re all coming,” Quill said.
“Who?” Byron asked.
“Everyone,” Quill said. “Well, not everyone. But Nosh and Hixima, Lukos and Baruwan, and a whole gang of dwarves.”
“Mr. Thúmose?” Byron said.
Quill’s eyes lit up, and she nodded her beak up and down.
“Silverlance is coming?” Raefer said. “Wait till Rufus hears this!”
“He already knows, Raefer,” Quill said with a laugh. “He’s coming too, and Rifkin and Resh, even Jevén. I think there are about fifteen dryads in all. It’s quite a big group.”
Gradda and Milo Prinder whispered to each other, glancing at Quill and the companions. Filo and Fidelia held each other by the forearms, looking at Shilo with a mix of concern and relief.
“Pardon me, your highness,” Darius Thorn said to Quill. “But did you say the Silverlance was coming? Here to Hiding Wood?”
“That’s right, sir,” Quill said.
“Welcome!” called a voice. “Step aside now, step aside. Welcome!” A gap opened in the crowd and the Woodland King emerged, tall and sturdy, clad in deepest green. On his head he wore the summer crown and around his neck hung the medallion of his kingship, a silver disc stamped with a unicorn rampant. He approached the little fire with his arms open. “Welcome back to Hiding Wood!” he said to the griffins.
“Hail, Woodland King,” Cryolar said, bowing his head. “Your fire is burning brightly. We saw it from beyond Rathrâgodrak.”
“The Old Mountain,” said the king, looking south and east. “You are welcome indeed. Have you come to enjoy the feast?”
“Indeed yes, sire,” Cryolar said, “and to bring you tidings.”
“Tidings?” King Belden asked.
“Silverlance is coming!” Raefer said.
Byron joined his cry: “Coming here to Hiding Wood!”
The Woodland King blinked, looking back and forth from Raefer to Byron.
“He will be here this very night,” Cryolar said. “He has chosen the Green Feast to come among you.”
“Tonight!” Byron cried.
“Tonight?” asked the Woodland King, fingering his medallion. “I—we must—”
“Prepare your house, thane of the Woodland Realm,” Cryolar said. “The high king approaches, indeed he may already be here. And he has in his train a great many who will be weary with travel. Sound a trumpet. Send runners to the very fences of your domain. Make it known to all: this Feast of High Summer will be as none before. I for one will wait for him on the very porches of your hall. I beg your permission, for I will not keep my lord waiting!”
Manakar, the great grizzleback bear, rumbled to his feet. His mate Lucia joined him. They set off across the hill toward the house of the Woodland King, and all the animals in their company followed.
“I—” King Belden said, watching them go, “yes —yes, of course.”
“Byron Thorn!” shouted a voice from the silent, gaping crowd.
Byron jumped and looked around. “Uh, Cryolar’s right,” he said. “We shouldn’t keep Mr. Thúmose waiting.”
“Thorn!” shouted the voice. “Byron Thorn, I say!” A lone shape emerged from the crowd, black against the fire.
“Can I go with you, Cryolar?” Byron asked. “Let’s get in the air, shall we?”
Gradda peered into the shadows out on the slope as the dark figure marched forward. “Is that Elpinor?”
“My chamberlain?” said the Woodland King.
“Good grief, what’s he wearing?” Milo Prinder asked.
“Nothing,” Cryolar said. “Nothing but a pine frond that is. You really do put on a feast around here.”
“He looks like the Green God himself!” Milo Pinder said.
“I really think we should go,” Byron said. “Right now.”
“Byron what’s going on?” Arden asked.
Byron shrugged. “I came across Elpinor bathing out at the Crystal Pools.”
“You came across him?” asked the King.
“Well, more like I followed him there—him and Oleander.”
“The barmaid from the Sickle and Sheaf?” Raefer asked. “You didn’t tell me that part.”
“How do you know her? ” Shilo and Dindra said together.
“Well,” Byron said. “I sort of took their clothes when they’d swum out too far to stop me.”
Gradda started laughing and shaking his head. He stopped long enough to light his pipe, then started laughing all over again with Milo Prinder joining him.
“Byron Thorn, there you are!” Elpinor shouted, stepping into the first reaches of the firelight. He held pine fronds in front and behind, and crouched as he approached.
“Don’t look Shilo!” Fidelia said, covering her mouth. Shilo and Dindra failed to hold back their laughter.
“Looks like you left him his shoes,” Gradda said.
Byron nodded. “I guess he gave Oleander the picnic blanket.”
“Well mannered of him,” Cryolar said.
“Stay put where I can get you!” Elpinor growled at Byron.
“I see we have greater need of haste than first we reckoned,” Cryolar said. “Come, Byron. I will pluck you from the jaws of calamity. Get ready!”
The griffin reared onto his hind legs and spread his wings. He clutched hold of Byron in his great front talons and lifted off. The wind of his wings nearly doused the fire and sent sparks into the air. Everyone covered their eyes, including Elpinor who let go of his pine fronds to do so. When he looked down, Byron saw Elpinor trying to collect the branches and shake his fist at the same time. Within a moment, Cryolar had gone too high for Byron to hear what the chamberlain was saying, but he could see Elpinor looking up at him, shouting. Gradda, Milo Prinder, and even the Woodland King shook their heads with laughter.
The great Midsummer fire and the whole ring of flame stood bright in the black of Hiding Wood. The stars came near and the wind watered Byron’s eyes. In the east, the dark Crestfall Mountains cut the stars with a jagged line—the Old Mountain, tallest and sharpest of all.