Cryolar swept low above the treetops, soaring over the Hidden Hills. Byron could hear the deep drone of Whistletop Hill as the wind played upon openings of its stone-lined tunnels like the holes in a flute. Westward, the lights of King Belden’s house flickered in the deep trees.
It was a low, rambling domicile of wood and stone, with many windows and porches and outdoor stairways. Water flowed through in places, filling fountains and pools, channeled in from the river Gladwater by many sluices and culverts. Bridges forded the winding paths and covered ways of Arbor Hall, the house of the Woodland King.
“We are late!” Cryolar called to Byron. “Thúmose is already here!”
Byron strained to see clearly as Cryolar banked to the north. Torches were burning in the courtyard of the king’s house. A tall pavilion stood there, from the top of which flew a long, slender flag. A single large fire burned and dark shapes moved about. Byron heard the sound of fiddles and flutes and drums, and above it all there were voices singing.
Cryolar gave a mighty, shrieking roar and pulled once with his great wings, snapping them like whistling sails, pulling himself earthward. Beat after beat pulled him faster and faster until the griffin tucked his wings away. Byron twisted his face in horror as his throat constricted and his stomach rebelled. The ground appeared out of nowhere. Cryolar heaved once more on his wings, arresting their fall, and set his passenger to ground on wobbling legs.
Byron collapsed and lay on his back. His whole body trembled. The stars were bright above him, but all he could think about was drawing his next breath.
“I forget,” Cryolar said, “that not all creatures share my taste for a spirited fall. Indeed, not all griffins even. Forgive me, Silverthorn!”
“F-f-fall?” Byron said, turning over and pushing himself up onto his palms. “A fall would have been fast enough without your wings going.”
“Dive then,” Cryolar said. “I got you away from Herne, didn’t I?”
“Byron!” cried a voice. “Byron Thorn!”
“Hixima?” Byron said. He looked up from the ground.
“Byron!” called another voice, and a great many other glad voices took up the call. “Byron’s here! Byron!”
He was still glaring at Cryolar, who noticed and looked away with a final shift of his wings, when gentle hands were on him. Byron looked up into the smiling face of Hixima, the Warra priestess.
“Byron!” Hixima said. “Oh Byron, can you stand?” Hixima stooped and helped Byron to his hooves.
“Hello,” Byron said as Hixima crouched and embraced him. The spinning in his head was winding down.
“Really Cryolar,” Hixima said, steering Byron toward the pavilion. “Were you trying to make him sick?”
“He was in as big a hurry as I was,” Cryolar said.
Hixima shook her head at the griffin. “Come along Byron.”
A crowd gathered. Foremost was a young dryad clad in deep green, grinning and shaking his head. He had tanned brown skin and silvery eyes. Fine green vines with tiny leaves and purple flowers grew in his hair. He wore a long bow wrapped in dark cloth slung on his back. For a moment, Byron thought he was looking at Raefer.
“Rufus!” Byron cried, rushing forward. Rufus stooped and the two friends embraced.
“At least Quill doesn’t get dizzy when she lands!” Rufus said.
“Look at your uniform!” Byron said as they stepped apart. “You’re a dryad scout!”
“Not quite,” Rufus said with a shrug. “But I’m getting there. I still have some catching up to do. Our little jaunt over the winter set me back a few steps.”
Byron marveled at the longbow Rufus carried. “Have you figured out which end of the arrow goes on the string?”
“Like it?” Rufus asked. He shifted the bow from his shoulder and handed it to Byron. “That’s the one place I’m ahead of the others. I’m shooting at full scout proficiency and I’ve got the black flights to prove it.” He turned his shoulder to reveal the quiver that hung on his back. It was full of stout arrows fletched with stiff black feathers. “I made them myself. Even Resh has asked me to borrow a couple. He’s still the best bow-maker, though. He crafted that one.”
“Gosh,” Byron said. “Wow, Rufus. Way to go.” He handed the bow back to the dryad. “It’s sure good to see you.”
“You too, Byron.”
Looking around at the gathering crowd, Byron found a great many faces he had never seen before: dryads and dwarves, even centaurs and satyrs who were not from Hiding Wood. They all gazed at him and whispered, glancing at the silver horn on his head. At last he found three faces he recognized, the dryads: Rifkin, the scout captain who was Rufus and Raefer’s older brother; and their cousins Resh and Jevén.
“Hello, findrel!” Rifkin said, smiling.
“You look well!” Resh added. “Better than I did the last time Cryolar bore me any distance!”
“Oh, for—” Cryolar said, rolling his eyes.
“Little Byron,” Jevén said. She crouched down and kissed his forehead. “It’s good to see you well again.”
“Come, Byron,” Hixima said. “There are others who are eager to see you.”
She led him through the crowd. The onlookers parted and—to Byron’s amazement—bowed or gestured in the fashion of their kind as he passed. Few would look into his eyes when he returned their gazes. A wide way opened before him, and quickly closed behind. Cryolar, Rufus, and the other dryads came after Byron and Hixima, followed by the murmuring company.
“How did this pavilion get here so fast?” Byron asked. “I was here this afternoon and there was no sign of it.”
Hixima smiled and looked down at him. “The magic of the Unicorn.”
Atop the pavilion, the long banner wafted on the summer breeze. Byron peered up at it.
“I can’t make out the crest,” he said.
Hixima shook her head. “There is none. It is plain, dark black. The war banner of the Unicorn.”
Two tall pikes held open the flaps of the pavilion, and the entrance was filled with lamplight. Byron stepped into the yellow glow. Those who followed allowed him to proceed many steps before they entered. The center pole of the pavilion was wrapped in garlands and lights. The whole place was arranged for a feast, with blankets spread out on the grass, set with pitchers and covered platters and trays. Beyond the central post, at the far end of the tent, a group of creatures took their ease on the ground.
Byron recognized his friends all at once and didn’t know who to greet first. Nosh was there, seated among a band of dwarves, and beside him sat Lukos, the wolf with one blue eye, rightful king of the western packs. Then Byron caught his breath and stopped in his tracks, old familiar fear seizing him, for here was Baruwan the centaur, net slung across his shoulder, spear leaning along the length of his body. But the fear left Byron when he saw the smile on the centaur’s face. Byron remembered the day when Thúmose himself had broken the spell of Ravinath that held Baruwan in its grip, turning Baruwan back from his choice to join Ravinath in his plot of destruction.
Manakar, Lucia, and their company of animals were already there. Byron looked into their midst and all fear and uncertainty left him. Reclining among them, nose to nose with Brace the raccoon, was the Unicorn himself. To his own surprise, Byron’s eyes filled with tears at the sight of the shining white coat, the yellow mane and tail, the yellow tufted fetlocks, the great black burnished hooves, and the long, terrible, spiraling silver horn.
“Mr. Thúmose!” Byron cried, and he broke into a run with all his great satyr speed.
“Byron!” Thúmose said. Brace peddled backward and the other animals cleared away as the Unicorn came to his hooves. He bobbed his head and swished his yellow tail, nickering as he approached. “Hello, Byron.”
“Hello, sir,” Byron said. Thúmose stopped a few paces from the satyr and the two beheld each other. Then Thúmose lowered his head and walked forward. Byron reached his arms up and around the Unicorn’s mighty neck as far as they would go. A deep thunderous nicker sounded in Thúmose’s chest.
“What’s going on, sir?” Byron asked. “Why have you come?”
“Of that in time,” Thúmose said. “Tonight is for friendship and feasting.”
A wet nose and muzzle poked Byron in the neck. He laughed and pressed his shoulder to his ear, turning. The wolf with one blue eye stood wagging its tail. It licked Byron once on the face.
“Lukos!” Byron cried, throwing his arms around the wolf’s neck.
“Byron!” shouted a voice.
“Nosh!” Byron replied as the prince of the dwarves grabbed him and lifted him off the ground, squeezing him so tight he couldn’t breathe. Then he put the satyr down and stepped back.
“Hello, Nosh!” Byron said. He looked his friend up and down.
“You’re wearing armor!”
The dwarf prince turned full around. “Thúmose says I have to. I don’t get a sword until Thrym’s done training me. But look at the symbol!” he said, lifting the edges of his dark blue tunic with his thumbs. On it was set the device of a silver hammer. “It’s the ancient symbol of my house.”
Byron gazed at his friend.
“What?” Nosh said with a smile.
“Is everything okay?” Byron asked in a whisper. “That dream you mentioned in your letter?”
Nosh’s smile dimmed. “Yeah, the dream. Well, I’ll tell you all about it.”
“Nosh, my young cousin, where are your manners?” said one of the other dwarves. The whole group of them had drawn near. Many were dressed in the same gear as Nosh. Some wore less lavish array, and some had only simple traveling clothes, but all of them were heavily armed.
“Oh,” Nosh said. “Uh, sorry.”
“Unbecoming, unbecoming,” the dwarf continued. He was old but sturdy and seemed still to have terrible strength in his limbs. His beard was braided and lashed down with leather thongs, and he had a heavy golden ring in his ear. With a hand to his chest he bowed before Byron and spoke. “I am Thrym of the house of the Hammer,” he said. “I, my kin, and my companions are at your service. We are the Sons of the Hammer.”
As one, the other dwarves bowed low. “The Hammer,” they all said together at the bottom of their bows. All of them, including Thrym, glanced at Byron’s silver horn. They gazed at him with keen appraisal, some murmuring to each other and nodding.
“Byron Thorn,” said the centaur Baruwan. “Hello.”
Byron looked up and his jaw fell open. “Hello, Baruwan.”
There was the familiar net and the long sharp spear. Baruwan’s hair was tight to his head in braided rows, bound by a leather thong that hung down his back. A strange mark was painted on his tanned muscular chest. For a moment Byron’s fear of Baruwan swept over him. But he looked at the scar on the centaur’s neck and remembered the day on the seashore when Thúmose had won Baruwan’s loyalty. “Did you get bigger?” he asked.
Baruwan laughed. “Leaner perhaps. I have wandered far these last three months. It is good to see you, little one. I look forward to our friendship.”
Byron nodded. “Me too. Where’s Peter Oatencake?”
“On an errand of great importance,” Thúmose said. “He would have been here, had greater need not pressed him. There is much that needs doing in these days.”
The crowd outside began to murmur and voices were raised.
“Very well, very well, please step aside,” said a voice. “Yes, welcome to my home, you’re very welcome, but may I please pass through?”
“Ah,” Thúmose said. “The Woodland King.”
Through the flaps came King Belden, followed by Sir Durmidere, four other Woodland Knights, and four centaurs—including Palter Thundershod himself. All of the knights and centaurs glanced back and forth between Lukos, the wolf, and Baruwan, the centaur. Palter fixed a venomous look on the net-wielder. King Belden set his eyes on the majestic Unicorn and did not break his gaze, except to blink.
“Hail, Woodland King,” Thúmose said.
“Hail,” Belden said. He stared for a moment in wonder and then bowed. As he stood, his hand took hold of the medallion that hung from his neck. “Welcome to my home. To what do I owe the honor of this . . . visit?”
Thúmose strode forward. “According to prophecy, I come, having been sought and found by one of your folk. For is it not so written?”
“I—” Belden said. “Is it?”
“It is indeed,” said Darius Thorn. He, Milo Prinder, and the poet Arden came through the flap and stepped aside. They all stared with wide eyes at the Unicorn. Milo gripped his cap in white-knuckled hands.
Behind them came Filo and Fidelia Prinder, then Rufus, Raefer, Shilo, Dindra, and Quill, who all rushed over to Nosh and Byron. The silence in the tent and the dark looks of the Woodland Knights and the chief at arms, who stood glowering at Baruwan and the wolves, kept the companions from greeting Nosh with laughter and glad shouts. Instead, they came together in a tangle of embraces and clasped hands, whispering their hellos. Byron stood back while Nosh collected his hugs. Once again the Wanderers were together, their company unbroken for a time.
Darius Thorn cleared his throat and spoke:
When heritage of flesh and bone
A spark of hope has born through time
To quicken one from hearth and home
By starlight of the heart and mind
Eastward, through danger to the quest’s up-taking,
Let chance and circumstance conspire
With hidden craft of secret spells
And bestow the Inheritance of Fire
Where the favored bloodline dwells
For there will the high king begin the Waking.
“Indeed,” Thúmose said. He strode up to Darius Thorn and lowered his head. “So the magic was forged, according to the design. The measured time has passed. Chance and circumstance have indeed conspired, and the long sleep is broken.” He looked from Darius to Byron. “The Inheritance of Fire. And so it is from your home Byron, that the Waking will commence.”
“Please sir,” Darius Thorn said, “and forgive my foolishness, for anyone can see who you are. But if I could hear you say it I’ll believe it straightaway. Are you the Silverlance?”
“I am,” Thúmose said. “Have no doubt of it, Darius Thorn. But what is this I’m told that Misrule’s Day has been abolished and forbidden? I will have that tale from you when the time is right.”
Byron and Darius Thorn both looked at the Woodland King. He looked up and down and everywhere but at the satyrs. A murmur outside the tent bespoke the numerous other satyrs who were gathered there and had heard what Thúmose said. Darius grinned and cast his smiling eyes to the ground.
King Belden shook his head. “Once again,” he said, “I welcome you and your company to my hall. I suppose it would’ve been best if you’d asked permission before setting up camp in my courtyard, but I understand my chamberlain was not to be found.”
“I beg your pardon, sire,” Thúmose said. “But we have been eager to feast with you, and we are nearly ready. Let us be merry tonight, for Herne the Green God asks only that of us, and this is his day.”
“Make merry?” Palter Thundershod said. He pointed a finger at Baruwan. “Not with that jackal in our midst.”
“And a pack of wolves?” said another centaur. “My father died in the Wolfen War.”
“Father, please,” Dindra said.
“Lukos saved my life,” Byron said. “And so did Baruwan.”
Baruwan shifted and dropped a hoof. “I do not deny wrongdoing. I have come in supplication for the Woodland King’s pardon.”
“You were driven out for attempting murder and overthrow,” Palter Thundershod said. “And you return in company with wolves and outlanders.”
“We lost good Woodren,” Durmidere said, “centaurs and no few satyrs, to your master and his rabble.”
“And still more,” said another centaur, “keeping our borders secure from this very sort.”
“It is dryad arrows that keep your eastern border safe,” Rifkin said. “Or have you not noticed the quiet in those woods?”
“This doesn’t concern you, tree-man,” the centaur said.
“Father!” Dindra said. “These people are our friends! Sire, where is the courtesy of your hall?”
Palter Thundershod looked at his daughter. Silence fell and even the crowd outside was quiet. Belden stepped forward and stood before the Unicorn.
“My apologies for the words spoken against those good folk of your train who are guests of my house,” Belden said with a bow to the Unicorn. “But it goes hard with some of us to have wolves and traitors take their ease on the steps of Arbor Hall. However, the wolves are protected by truce. We honor that even if they do not, for it was they and not we who broke faith at Midwinter, and we lost good folk to that marauding pack. More than one account of that night has mentioned the wolf with one blue eye. Even so, truce is truce. Perhaps by giving these wolves leave, we might move toward fonder bonds between ourselves and our neighbors to the west. But Baruwan . . .”
“Baruwan’s life is forfeit,” Palter Thundershod said. The knights and centaurs around him nodded and grumbled their agreement.
Thúmose strode forward and spoke.
“As for the Western Wolves,” he said, “you have here in your midst members of the Unseen Pack.”
“The Unseen Pack!” one of the centaurs said, leveling his spear. “Darius, it was these vermin who took your son away from you! Byron, what of the memory of your family!”
Byron frowned. “I just tried to tell you. King Lukos is the only reason I wasn’t killed along with them!”
“King Lukos?” Belden said, regarding the wolf with new respect.
“That’s right sire,” Byron said without breaking his glare at the centaur who had spoken to him. “And I’ll decide for myself how I honor the memory of my family.”
“The lad speaks for me,” Darius said with a nod at Byron.
Lukos simply sat, watching.
“The Wolfen King is perhaps less welcome in his own regions than anyone gathered here,” Thúmose said. “The people of Woody Deep have never had a greater ally, except perhaps the dryads to the east. It is division among the western packs that keeps them from roaming and spoiling your woods at will these days, division over loyalty to their king. They are quite busy fighting among themselves. To welcome Lukos is to win friendship with perhaps half the numbers of your old enemy.
“As for Baruwan,” Thúmose continued, turning to Palter Thundershod, “he has sworn and proven his loyalty to me. And he has come before you offering friendship and seeking pardon. It is in his mind to make up doubly in service any harm he may have done. Nothing more can be asked. To reject him is to choose hatred. Palter Thundershod, what you do to Baruwan, you do to me. Is it your wish to make me your enemy?”
The chief at arms lifted his chin and looked the Unicorn up and down. His eyes rested on the spiraling lance of silver, before fleeing again to the safety of the ground. “I think not,” he said, with a glance at the Woodland King. “I would hesitate to enter into sport with such a creature, let alone conflict.”
“That is good, Palter,” Thúmose said, “for I have no heart for conflict with you. It is your friendship I seek. Any who turn to me in earnest will be received and I alone will decide if they are true. I tell you this,” he continued, raising his voice so that all might hear. “Though now we may feast and make merry, I come among you tonight with war. The past is past. The time ahead will make all that has gone behind seem as dust and straw, all wrongdoings as the wants of children, all war and harm the nagging of a fly. Do not believe that you are spotless in my sight because the slights of others redound more loudly than your own. No matter who you are, no matter what your mettle, you have yet to be proven. But your test is coming—it is coming.”
“I’m hungry,” Nosh said, intending to whisper. But in the silence his voice carried.
Thrym frowned at him. Nosh shrugged.
“Me too,” Byron said.
“Then let us begin,” Thúmose said with a laugh. “And put aside for tonight at least any differences you may suffer. The Green Feast is upon us! Your highness, I hope you will take the high seat and allow me to sit beside you?”
King Belden sighed. “Certainly, certainly.” He glanced at Palter Thundershod and Sir Durmidere.
“Delightful,” Thúmose said.
“With your permission, sire,” Palter Thundershod said, “I will return to my own house.”
“As will I,” Sir Durmidere said.
“And I,” said each of the knights and centaurs in turn.
“Very well,” Belden said with a nod. Then each of the departing warriors threw dark looks at Baruwan and the wolves.
“How disappointing,” Thúmose said as they went. “Darius Thorn and the Prinders will join us, I hope?”
“Join you, indeed,” Darius Thorn said with a nod. “And not just for this feast you’re giving.”
King Belden looked at Darius with amazement.
“He’s come back, your majesty,” Darius said. “It’s as simple as that.”
Thúmose gave a rumbling nicker, as he turned and headed for the far end of the pavilion. The little group followed him.
“Open wide the sashes,” the Unicorn said. “Let them come to me who will. There is feast and friendship for all. Raefer, I’m told you’ve learned the Wander Cycle in full; I will have it from you if you are willing.”
“Oh, he isn’t—” Dindra said, but she stopped herself. Raefer looked at her. So did everyone who heard her, including the Unicorn.
“Well, I . . .” Dindra said. “That is—won’t you be nervous? It’s such a big crowd.”
“Heck no!” Raefer said, putting his hands on his hips. “What’s with you, Dindra? You’d think you didn’t like hearing it. Sure, I’m willing, sir!”
“Very good,” Thúmose said.
The Unicorn strode in among the curious and frightened Woodren, and took his ease at the far end of the tent. The companions followed, along with Gradda, the Prinders, Arden, and the Woodland King, and joined the whole company of outlanders in the finest Midsummerfest anyone who attended could remember.