Business was never better in the public houses of Hiding Wood than in the days following the arrival of the Unicorn. Even the primmest goodie-matrons turned out for “a bit of conversation,” and “perhaps just a splash in my tea, if you please, to steady my nerves.” Talk and rumor were rampant, and the Sickle and Sheaf was especially lively.
“I say he’s up to no good,” Grubber Dillfarm, a short, thickchested human said over the top of his foaming mug. It was a larger than usual crowd in the front room that afternoon. “Those outlanders—dwarves I make ’em—and those tree-folk. King Belden has his eye on this Thúmose, and rightly so.”
“No good?” Darius Thorn said, setting down his own leatherhandled tankard. “What is it about the three days of feasting and laughter that speaks wickedness to you, Grubber Dillfarm?”
“Well, where’s he been since?” Dillfarm demanded. “Coming and going by night, meeting with outlanders and what all.”
Darius shook his head and looked into his mug. “That’s none other than the Silverlance, right as rain.”
“He knows everyone he meets by name!” Dillfarm said. “That can’t be right or natural.”
“What are you afraid of, Dillfarm?” Oleander, the barmaid, said, rubbing the inside of a mug with her fist wrapped in a cloth. “One glance at him is all it takes to know he means you well. Or have you not had the pleasure of looking him in the eye?”
“There, you see?” Dillfarm said. “Half the wood is under his spell. Camped out all around Arbor Hall on the lawns and porches, not a bare patch of ground to be found, they say. There’s even talk that your Byron might not have been telling such a tall tale after all, Darius, about his journey over the winter.”
“High time,” Oleander said, turning her back to hang the mug on a peg.
“High time indeed, and talk there should be!” Milo Prinder said. “Tall tale? My granddaughter was with him. A finer, truer girl did never speak a word. If she tells a story at all it’s to be trusted.”
“I meant no disrespect, Milo,” Dillfarm said, putting up his hand. “I’ve met your Shilo, lovely girl. But young Byron, now he’s another sort entirely. He’s known for trouble and tricks and all, Misrule’s Day and such. Why, I lost a sledge full of hay to one of his capers, and my mules have never listened to me the same since, always with a mind to run off with young Thorn—no disrespect intended, Darius.”
Darius Thorn shrugged. “None taken.”
“If Palter Thundershod doesn’t trust him, then neither do I,” Barkin Shackelwell said, wiping tables and righting chairs. “And with that Baruwan in his confidence!”
“If that’s the feeling in this house,” Darius Thorn said, “I might have to retire over to Birchbow Tavern with my thirst, and my money.”
“Now, Darius,” said Abner Finch from behind the bar. “Young Barkin there doesn’t speak for everyone. But it’s all a bit of a portion to swallow, you’ve got to see that.”
“I do,” Darius said with a nod. “I do.”
“And what’s all that he said about coming with war?” Barkin Shackelwell said.
“And being tested,” said Dillfarm.
Milo Prinder squinted and listened, sipping at his mug. “I hear he’s called a council.”
“A council?” Barkin Shackelwell said. “What sort of council?”
Milo Prinder nodded. “A council in the Hall of Shields.”
“The Hall of Shields!” said several voices together. Darius Thorn nodded and sipped his brew.
“Whatever for?” Abner Finch asked. “There hasn’t been a war council since the day you lost your son, Darius.”
Thorn nodded again. When he’d finished another sip he said, “And even that wasn’t held in the Hall of Shields.”
“I tell you this Thúmose fellow is trouble!” said Barkin Shackelwell. He slapped his hand on the table.
“Make friends with trouble, Barkin Shackelwell,” Darius said without looking at anyone. “It might be staying a while.”
“Well, Darius,” Milo Prinder said. “I’ve a mind for the Birchbow just the same. I’m told that gang of dwarves has made themselves at home over there, some of the dryads too. Friendlier talk and all.”
“Have they?” Abner Finch asked.
“Let ’em stay there,” said a voice from across the room.
“I’ve a mind to tip a mug or two with those fellows,” Milo said.
“As have I, Milo,” Darius said. “As have I. But I’ve got somewhere to be this night. I’ll be round your place in the morning.”
The two old friends left their drinks unfinished. With a scrape of chairs they stood and headed out, leaving the others to gawk and shake their heads.
That night Byron woke to the sound of the front door closing. He crept out into the front room and by the light of the waxing moon he saw Gradda headed off down the lane, wearing a cape and hood. Byron was halfway through his breakfast when Gradda finally came home. Darius Thorn smiled at his grandson, then went into his room and closed the door. Byron did not ask Gradda where he’d been. He’d learned very young not to ask Gradda about his nights abroad. Instead he cleared away his dishes and headed off to meet his friends in the birch grove. When he got there he found Nosh waiting for him.
“Hello, Byron,” Nosh said.
“Hey, Nosh,” Byron said. “You’re early, too.”
“Well, I knew I’d find you here,” Nosh said. “I wanted a word with you, alone.”
Nosh looked off into the trees. “It’s this dream I’ve been having. It’s driving me crazy. I haven’t been sleeping.” He crouched down and plucked a bit of grass from the ground.
Byron shrugged. “What’s the dream about?”
Nosh looked at Byron and took a deep breath. “There’s this silver fire burning. In front of the fire there’s this black throne made of stone, and there’s this little dwarfling boy sitting there all smiling and reaching out. ‘Nülfa!’ he says.”
“Nülfa?” Byron asked.
“It’s Old Dwarvish,” Nosh said. “It means father.”
“This dwarf baby called you father?” Byron asked.
“Yeah,” Nosh said. “And in the dream I am his father. And he’s my son. You know how it is in dreams. Well, I reach out for him and the silver fire surges up all bright and warm. But then there’s this whisper from the darkness behind the throne. The child pulls his arms away and cowers against the back of the throne, keeping away from the arms and edges.
“I can see movement back there, dark shapes in the dim light from the fire, so I step around the throne for a closer look. I’m standing there with my fists clenched, see, because it seems like the child, my son, is in danger. ‘Who’s there?’ I say, but all I hear are whispers in the darkness, all muddled. The dwarfling on the throne behind me starts whimpering. ‘What do you want?’ I shout into the shadows. I can see shapes—lots of them—moving away from the firelight, and the gibberish starts to sound further off in the darkness.
” ‘Nülfa,’ the child says again.
” ‘Where are you going?’ I shout at the shapes in the darkness. I hear more gibberish, faint and distant, so I set off toward the voices.
“Away from the fire, it’s really dark. ‘Hello?’ I say. And this time someone replies. ‘Nosh,’ says a voice—just a whisper, but it’s clear enough. I take one step and I pull up hard because right there in front of me there’s a dwarf with this shriveled, withered face and he’s wearing the crown of the dwarven king. He just stares at me with unblinking eyes. ‘Nosh,’ he says. ‘Another step, come closer.’
” ‘Father?’ I say, ‘is that you?’
” ‘Come closer,’ he says, and it’s my father’s voice all right, but it’s not his face. Still, it’s a face I’ve seen before, you know? ‘Come closer,’ he says again.
“Then, behind him I see another dwarf. He’s got this thin film of red glowing over his eyes. He’s staring at me and I recognize him. It’s my grandfather, King Dornguild. He’s leaning forward, whispering in the ear of the first dwarf, the one who sounds like my father.
“So then, behind Dornguild there’s this old dwarf matron, all tired and worn-looking. It’s my great grandmother, Queen Helna. She’s whispering in the ear of her son, King Dornguild.
“Then the voice of my father speaks again. ‘Nosh,’ it says, ‘come closer,’ only now it’s harsh, like he’s getting angry.
“So, there’s another dwarf behind Helna and he’s whispering in her ear. There’s this long line of shadowy figures stretched out behind the throne. That’s when it hits me: this is the line of my ancestors, all the queens and kings. There’s a whole room devoted to them in the old hall of my father’s keep. I had to memorize their names when I was little. I used to get thwapped if I missed one.
“So I start walking down the line, looking at each face. They’re all leaning forward, whispering into the ear of the one in front of them. I follow it all the way back to Queen Rendegard. She isn’t much more than a legend. But there’s one more, behind her, and there’s this tall figure standing with him. It’s wearing a dark cloak with a deep hood and the face of the hood has this red glow coming from it.”
“Red glow?” Byron asked. “Filling its hood?”
“Yeah,” Nosh said. “Why?”
Byron frowned, remembering the vision he’d seen through the monocle. “No reason. Sorry, Nosh. Go ahead.”
“Well, so, I take a closer look at the final dwarf. It’s standing there wearing a shirt of blood-smattered rings, holding a great bloody sword in its hands. The sword tip is resting on the ground, and the dwarf is swaying as if it might fall. The hooded figure reaches out to steady the dwarf. But here’s the worst part. In the place on the dwarf’s shoulders where its head should be there’s only this bloody stump of a neck. It’s Rendegard’s father, Garrowthelf, the Suicide King.
“And then I see what’s going on. Well, I just turn and run all the way back to the throne, remembering the portrait of the Suicide King in the Hall of Sovereigns. I reach the throne and the first dwarf in the line, the one speaking with my father’s voice.
” ‘Garrowthelf,’ I say, and there it is: the withered face of the Suicide King.
” ‘Nosh,’ my father voice says, ‘come closer.’ Then it reaches up, grips its head at the ears and lifts it off like a helmet. There underneath it is the face of my father all red with the smeared blood of the Suicide King. Then my father holds out the head out to me.
” ‘My son,’ he says, ‘receive your crown. Prosper the legacy of Garrowthelf.’
“Then the dwarfling on the throne speaks again. ‘Nülfa?’ he says.
“I look, but all I see is the back of the throne, with the light of the silver fire burning on the other side.
” ‘Reject the brat!’ my father shouts.
” ‘But that’s my son!’ ” I say.
“So, behind my father, the entire line of dwarves starts shouting: ‘Reject the brat!’ Some just growl and make these senseless noises. But the crowned head, still up there in my father’s hands, screams loudest of all: ‘Take your crown!’ it shouts. ‘Take your crown and prosper my legacy!’
“And that’s it. Then I wake up.”
Byron sat there looking at Nosh with a stricken face. “Nosh, that’s horrible.”
“Tell me about it,” Nosh said.
“How often do you have that dream?”
“Often enough to have it memorized,” Nosh said. “It’s exactly the same every time. It’s like—it’s like there’s something calling me, trying to find me—invade my head or something. Anyway, for some reason I thought I should tell you, Byron. I don’t know why.”
“Have you told Thúmose?” Byron asked. “Or Hixima?”
“No, no. I—it seems like I shouldn’t, like I’d better not.”
“What are you talking about, Nosh?” Byron said. “They could help you.”
Nosh shook his head and closed his eyes. “No, I said. They can’t know.”
“But why—” Byron began, but he stopped himself. “Well, all right, Nosh. When you’re ready, huh? But that glowing red hood —I think I’ve—”
“I love a picnic,” Raefer said, entering the clearing with a wicker basket in his hand. Behind him were Rufus, Dindra, Shilo, and Quill.
“Not a word,” Nosh said, whispering hard at Byron. “Me, too,” Nosh said to the approaching group, forcing out a laugh. “I haven’t eaten since this morning.”
Shilo looked at Nosh sidelong. “I thought I heard the muffin jar a little before sunrise.”
“Well,” Nosh said. “Living with humans has affected my appetite.”
Dindra laughed and pinched Nosh’s cheek. “I’m sure you fit right in at mealtime.”
“How is it, staying with the Prinders?” Rufus asked.
“Who but the best cook in Woody Deep could hope to keep Nosh happy?” Quill said, laughing.
“I should’ve moved in weeks ago,” Nosh said. “The sticky buns alone are enough to make you forget your lineage.” Then he glanced at Byron, who was staring at him.
“What’s wrong, Byron?” Shilo asked.
“Nothing,” Byron said, breaking his stare to look into the trees. He clutched his monocle. “I forgot the cups.”
“No problem,” Shilo said. “I brought extras. Come on, help me spread the blanket.”
They ate in laughter and conversation, but soon fell to dozing and relaxing in the climbing sun. Quill crept up beside Raefer and peered at his hair. She let the tip of her talon hover above one of the little purple flowers blooming on his gossamer vines.
“Quill,” Shilo said, “why are you squinting?”
“I’m not,” Quill said.
“Yes you are,” Dindra said.
Quill looked away. “Well, these flowers are so tiny.”
Raefer smiled. He plucked one and handed it to the griffin. Quill recoiled in horror.
“Yuck, no!” she said.
“It’s all right,” Raefer said, laughing. “It doesn’t hurt, honest. I’ll have a new one in a week or so.”
“I don’t want it,” Quill said, crouching and backing away.
“Come here, Quill,” Dindra said. “Shilo and I will decorate you.”
“Not with one of those,” Quill said, looking sidelong at Raefer.
“Now I know what to give Quill for her birthday,” Rufus said.
Raefer laughed. “Yeah, when is that, Quill?”
“Come on,” Dindra said. “We’ll take turns. Then we’ll do Byron and Nosh.”
“Hey, what about me?” Rufus asked.
“You’ve got some already,” Quill said.
Byron smiled and kept on chewing the bit of grass that stuck out from his teeth. “How’s the flight practice coming, Quill?” he said.
“Well enough,” Quill said. “Keeping up with Cryolar is hard.”
“A good way to learn,” Rufus said.
“I guess,” Quill said. “The landings are still kind of bumpy.”
“Kind of?” Raefer said. “I saw you on the Moondance Lawn. That was awful.”
“Well, there’s a lot of pressure with everyone watching all the time,” Quill said. “The people around here are always staring.”
For a long time no one spoke. Shilo sat with a pile of plucked flowers on her lap, weaving ringlets.
“Did you hear about the vandalism at the Lore Pavilion?” Dindra asked.
“No,” Byron said as Shilo crowned him with a wreath of forget-me-nots. “What happened?”
“All the doors and windows were painted red,” Dindra said. “And on the floor of the Story Well someone wrote Lord Misrule was here.”
“Gosh,” Byron said, avoiding Dindra’s gaze. The image of Gradda sneaking off down the lane flashed through his mind. “Uh, do they know who did it?”
“Well, Matron Farlow and the other gossips are blaming the visiting satyrs,” Dindra said. “There are so many of them.”
“They just keep coming and coming,” Shilo said. “Humans too, and centaurs.”
“They all want a look at the Unicorn,” Rufus said.
“Can you blame them?” Quill said.
“Not me,” Raefer said. “I went a whole lot further for a look myself.”
“Well,” Dindra continued, “my father has another idea. I heard him talking to one of his lieutenants. He thinks it was the satyr scouts.”
“The scouts of the Woodland King?” Shilo asked.
Dindra nodded. “That’s right. The centaurs on watch said whoever the vandals were, they were definitely satyrs and they knew Hiding Wood like the backs of their hands. And the Story Well wasn’t all. Several cottage doors were painted red and fires were started on the front porches. All of them at houses where the occupants are known to be anti–Misrule’s Day. That means whoever the culprits are, they know the sentiments of the locals.”
“Gosh,” Byron said, looking everywhere but at Dindra. “Your father figured all that out?”
“Well, that is his job,” Dindra said. “Some of the king’s best centaurs actually chased them. They got away and left the centaurs completely confused. It was embarrassing. But it meant they had a high level of training. They were using expert tactics and obviously practiced a lot.”
“My grandfather told me that the satyr scouts have always had a secret society,” Shilo said. “Do you know anything about it, Byron?”
Byron shrugged and laughed a nervous laugh. “Me? No. I’m not a scout.”
“But Gradda was,” Raefer said.
“Well,” Dindra said, with a sidelong glance at Byron, “the scouts are pretty much left to themselves as far as training and discipline. They handle their own on their own. They’re so good at what they do that the king leaves them alone, as long as they follow orders.”
Suddenly Nosh sat bolt upright. “Oh!” he said. “That reminds me!”
“What reminds you?” Byron asked, throwing himself onto the change of subject like a cat onto a mouse.
“Huh?” Nosh said.
“You said, ‘That reminds me,’ ” Byron said. “What reminds you?”
“Reminds me of what?” Nosh asked.
Byron shrugged. “I don’t know, you haven’t said.”
“Nosh,” Dindra said, holding up her hand. “Just say what you were about to say.” But she looked at Byron who avoided her gaze once more.
“Right,” Nosh said. “Well, it seems Ravinath wasn’t alone the night he attacked Bilérica.”
“Of course not,” Raefer said. “There were a dozen painted centaurs with him.”
“No, no,” Nosh said. “Remember all that fire Ravinath made, how it cracked the magic dome that Hixima cast? Well, it seems there was some kind of wizard thing helping him do it. Baruwan saw it but—” Dindra straightened a little and Nosh paused to look at her. “But it was that other fellow,” Nosh continued, still looking at Dindra, “Miroaster, who figured it out for certain. Seems he knows about these things.”
“Hixima said he’d turned up,” Byron said. “Who is Miroaster, anyway?”
“Thúmose calls him the Lore Tracker,” Nosh said. “So, he drove off the shadow thing, or whatever it is. Hixima says if it wasn’t for Miroaster we never would’ve got away.”
“So, whatever it was is still out there?” Byron asked.
“Looks like it,” Nosh said. “The scouts were out running all spring, searching. Miroaster found its trail in Faerwood. That was a strange night, the night he returned to Bilérica. He brought someone back with him and left him there. Nobody would tell me who it was. I heard the Warrians running about, whispering. There was a lot of commotion and water being drawn. I thought I heard someone crying but I’m not sure.
“All the night creatures were spooked—the owls and whippoorwills and flying squirrels. The woods were full of sounds. Thúmose was summoned—I know that for sure. After that there was no rest for any of them. They were on the go constantly, especially Baruwan. They say he covers more ground than any of the scouts, even Lukos. Well, maybe not Cryolar. Anyway it was about a week later, after that night, that Thúmose told everyone to get ready for the journey to Hiding Wood.”
“Did you see Miroaster?” Byron asked.
“Nope,” Nosh said. “Like the darkness itself, that fella. Didn’t even meet him that time he rescued you, Byron. He came and went before anyone but Hixima knew it.”
“I knew it,” Quill said. “I led Miroaster to the spot.”
“What’s he like?” Byron asked.
“He’s—well—he’s human,” Quill said, “you know, carries a sword.”
“Thanks, Quill,” Byron said. “That helps.”
“Well, they all look alike to me,” Quill said.
“He’s out there.” Nosh said. “Somewhere, keeping watch.”
“Keeping watch for what?” Shilo said.
Nosh shrugged. “Nobody’s saying. But oh! They recovered the Standing Stone.”
“How?” Rufus asked.
“When they were tilling the UnMagic out of the soil on the hilltop,” Nosh said. “It was buried pretty deep. Thúmose had my cousin Thrym take it somewhere safe. It’s in one piece, though.”
“Nosh,” Dindra said. “Tell us about your new clothes. What’s that symbol all about?”
“Isn’t it great?” Nosh said. “It’s the symbol of my house, the ancient symbol. I learned it in my studies.”
“Studies?” Byron said. “You?”
“Yep,” Nosh said. “It’s a regular education, Byron. All kinds of maps and histories. Mostly of my family and the ancient home of the dwarves, Showd something, it translates as Dwarvenhearth. Anyway, this is my house, at least the legend says so, the house of the Hammer. We stopped using that name a long time ago, I forget why. But Thúmose had Thrym and my relatives take up the old titles again. From what I’ve read, the Hammer is Harkatan itself, which means Fist of the Maker.”
“Mazark,” Quill said. “Showd Mazark. That’s the name of your oldenhome.”
“That’s right,” Nosh said. “I always forget you griffins and your lore vaults. I bet you’ve got more scrolls than the Warrians.”
“Who are the Warrians anyway?” Byron asked.
“The Keepers of Warra,” Shilo said. “Hixima’s order.”
“When are you going to begin your training?” Byron asked. “Is that still on?”
Shilo reached into her bag. “Yes,” she said with a grunt. “I have this book to read. Ugh, it’s heavy.”
The companions gathered around and Shilo opened the book. Inside there were thousands of colorful pictures and words and diagrams, lines and figures. It was bound in tarnished plates of silver metal, engraved all over with leaves and curling vines. The front and back covers were hinged and a great clasp held it closed. Inside, the pages were thick and the ink was raised so it was bumpy to touch.
“What’s in it?” Quill asked. “It looks old.”
“It is,” Shilo said. “It’s got everything: old names for animals and plants; weather patterns; the moon and sun and stars; the constellations. Things about the water and the earth, even fire. I’ve been skipping ahead to the fire parts. Hixima says Warra comes from ‘beyond all knowledge.’ ”
“So then what’s the point of reading some old book?” Byron asked.
“Because it only comes if you seek it,” Shilo said. “Even if you have the gift. And you seek it through loving the world. And you can’t love what you don’t know, so you learn about it.”
Dindra clutched a fistful of Shilo’s hair. “You’re a priestess already.”
Shilo smiled. “Well, I just know I can’t stop reading this book.”
“I’m glad I’m not training to be a Warrian,” Byron said. “That thing is huge.”
The day passed in sunny quiet. Byron sat studying his monocle. Rufus mended the black flight on one of his arrows, while Raefer admired the long, camouflaged bow. Dindra was lost in the colors of Quill’s wings and Quill sat unblinking, looking into the sun. Shilo sat before her open book, chin in fist. Nosh lay flat on his back with his fingers laced across his chest. His eyes were closed and after a while he began to snore. Shilo smiled and threw a flower at him.
“It’s sure good to see you all,” Shilo said. “I was expecting to say goodbye.”
“We’d have come visit you,” Byron said.
Dindra nodded. “Sure we would.”
“But who knows when?” Shilo asked.
“It’s great we’re all here together,” Raefer said. “Don’t get me wrong. But why? What’s going on?”
“If you will all follow me,” said a voice, “you may well find an answer to that question.”
“Hixima!” Shilo said.
“Hello, everyone,” Hixima said, walking across the clearing. “Ah, Shilo, I’m glad to see you with your book. How is it?”
“Wonderful, ma’am,” Shilo said. “I like the fire parts best.”
“Read as you will,” Hixima said. “Let your interests guide you. I’m sorry to have been absent to you, to all of you, these past few days. I have been much occupied. But I will take you now, if you will come, and show you why. Thúmose is waiting.”
“Thúmose!” Byron said. “Where has he been?”
“Ranging far,” Hixima said. “Come, we all have things to talk about.”
Hixima led the companions along a path through the forest, out beyond the birch trees, into the open wood. In a while the forest grew thick with pines and hardwoods. Soon, however, they entered a grove of colorful dogwood and cherry trees. Byron and Dindra shared a look of confusion.
“Where did these dogwoods come from?” Dindra asked.
“Yeah,” Byron said. “This was never here before.”
“Thúmose put them here,” Hixima said. “We have need of a hidden place. His magic for such things is not so strong as it was. He needs it for other uses. But he can still spare a little when the need for healing calls.”
“Healing?” Shilo said.
“Indeed, yes,” Hixima said. “Deep healing. We are keeping a secret here, a secret in which you are about to share.”
“I love secrets!” Quill said.
“You will not love this one,” Hixima said. “But you must know it, just the same.”
At the center of the dogwood grove there was a pavilion set up, very like the one in which the Midsummer feast had been held but much smaller. Its flaps were thrown back and it stood on a little rise, gathering as much sunlight as the day could afford it. Thúmose was there with a young woman, dressed as Hixima was, in green and brown linen. She was seated beside a large white bed, plucking a harp, singing a song in some strange language to a human boy of six or seven years who lay upon the bed. On the other side of the bed, looking down on the child with a grim face, was the Woodland King.
“Thank you for coming,” Thúmose said as they drew near. He strode out onto the grass to meet them. “Have you been enjoying the day?”
“Yes, sir,” the group said, almost together. Their voices were distant; their eyes and thoughts wandered to the boy on the bed.
“Come and see,” Thúmose said.
As they entered the open tent, the woman looked up and stopped singing. The Woodland King smiled a little and nodded, but it was clear his heart was heavy. Byron stood beside him.
“Are you a Warrian, too?” Shilo asked the woman who had been singing.
“Yes,” she said. She reached down and scooped a spoonful of incense onto a small brazier that had gone low. A stream of lavender-colored smoke flowed up, swirling on the faint breeze of the dogwood grove. Then the woman began to pluck her harp again. “Sounds and smells from the world around him may help lead the boy back to us.”
The child was awake but he stared into the air above him. Sometimes he reached out as if groping in the dark. He muttered to himself and there was constant fear in his face. The woman began to hum softly, lifting her voice into song. Then the boy sat up and looked around.
“What is your name?” Hixima asked him, but he only looked through her with wide, searching eyes.
“What’s wrong with him?” Byron whispered to the Woodland King. Belden sighed and shook his head.
“He wanders in darkness,” Thúmose said.
“Will he die?” Raefer asked.
“Perhaps not,” said the Unicorn. “He is searching for a way back.”
“Back to where?” Nosh asked.
“Here,” Thúmose said. “To where we are now. Can’t you see that he is elsewhere?”
“Where did he come from?” Dindra asked.
“Faerwood,” Thúmose said.
The boy lay back upon the bed. He looked around as if none of them were there. He started to smile, but at once his face crumpled into deep sadness. “No,” he said, and it sounded as if he were defending himself from accusation. “No,” he insisted, shaking his head.
“When Miroaster brought him in,” Hixima said, “the boy was covered with spider bites and web-shaped rune markings, and he was pale from want of sun. We fed him and bathed him and have remained with him constantly.”
“Spider bites?” Rufus said.
“Mr. Thúmose,” Byron asked, “what’s happening?”
“The answer to that question,” Thúmose said, “is very old and very long.”
“Why have you come?” Dindra asked.
“Because there is work to be done,” said the Unicorn. “It begins with Thrudnelf, king of the dwarves.”
“What about him?” Nosh asked, raising his eyebrows.
“I mean to invite Thrudnelf to Bilérica for a feast of friendship and oath-taking. I mean to show him his place among the dwarven kings of old. I wish to restore to him the banner of his greatness, to bring him back at long last from his exile and install him again in the oldenhome of his people, where the Granite Throne of his ancestors awaits him.”
Nosh took a step forward. “Dwarvenhearth?”
“Yes, Nosh,” Thúmose said. “Showd Mazark itself.”
Nosh stood for a moment with his mouth open. He stared into the air before him. Then he blinked. “What if he says no?”
“Then we shall see what we shall see,” Thúmose said. “Great and terrible days have come. Heavy wheels long motionless are beginning to turn again. The dwarves are a people in exile, though they have forgotten it. Thrudnelf has a chance to reclaim his oldenthrone.”
“I can tell you right now he’ll say no,” Nosh said.
“In that case,” Thúmose said, “another way will be found. An evil tide is rising, an evil very old. We have found one of its engines in the Faerwood.”
“A Lychgate,” Hixima said.
“Yes,” Thúmose said. “Primitive and crude, for its master was no great hand at the craft. But there can be no mistaking it.”
“What’s a Lychgate?” Rufus asked.
“A vessel for the darkest UnMagic,” Thúmose said. “Very, very old and dreadful. It is used to create life where life should not be. It reanimates the dead by stealing life from the living, and it is best served by the young.”
Everyone looked at the boy lying under the bed linens. He was reaching into the air before him as if to fend away some unseen terror. His face was desperate and his mouth was open in a silent cry.
Thúmose spoke and his great voice was almost a whisper. “This boy is struggling against the evil of which I speak. He struggles with all the courage born to him. We must join him in his struggle, help him if we can and others like him. For if the true master of deathmagic is moving, there are sure to be many, many more.”
“Who is this devil?” Belden asked. “Where can he be found and how killed?”
“I will speak no more of these things here,” Thúmose said. “Not in this place of healing. All will be made plain at the council of which you and I have spoken, Woodland King.”
“I will attend you, Thúmose,” King Belden said. “I, and what knights and warriors are not needed elsewhere.”
“I ask it,” Thúmose said. “But knights and warriors are not all. Bring also those elders and matrons who you trust to be still and heed, and to bear forth truly what they see and hear. All your people must know of these things and it is best they hear it from ones entrusted with the task of telling, not by gossip and rumor. What is more, I ask that at the start of the council you announce Baruwan’s pardon, for he must be present. He was among those who found the child. His presence in the Hall of Shields must be tolerated by all.”
“I will make the arrangements as you say, Lord Thúmose,” the Woodland King said. “Those elders will be summoned who best will serve. As for Baruwan, his presence will be tolerated at the council, but only under guard. Nothing more will I promise now.”
Thúmose lifted a hoof and dropped it. There was a long pause while the two lords looked at one another.
“So be it,” Thúmose said. “In five days. That will be time enough to make ready. You may send griffins to collect those elders who you must call from far away.”
In the world outside the healing glade, it was nighttime when the group set out for home. They walked in silence. Nosh and Shilo headed off toward the Prinder house. Dindra wanted to see if her father was home as expected. Rufus and Raefer went to stay at the dryad camp, and Quill joined them. Byron and King Belden went together as far as the crossing at Barton’s Bridge. Byron was thumbing his monocle, running over in his mind all that he had seen and heard since Midsummer’s Eve. He could not escape the memory of the terrified boy on the white bed in the dogwoods.
As they reached the far side of the bridge, the Woodland King turned. “If I may speak?”
Byron stopped and looked up.
“I admit,” the king began. “I admit, I never really believed your tale of unicorns and minotaurs and two-headed giants. I did not think you were lying. I suppose I didn’t think much of it at all. I was just glad you came back safe, Byron. I see now that you were telling the truth. I see now that I should never have doubted you. I am sorry.”
“That’s all right, sire,” Byron said. “I mean, I forgive you.”
“But as for this Thúmose,” the king continued. “He is clearly a great lord and warrior, but Silverlance returned? I must wait for further proof. I would be remiss as king in my own country if I simply took him at his word on that, would I not?”
Byron looked at the Woodland King. He was talking to himself.
“And I am king here,” Belden continued, turning to go his way. “Am I not? Great lord or no. Still, he never speaks a word that does not feel true.”
Byron watched him go. Belden continued muttering to himself until he was out of sight around the bend. Byron stood for a moment, listening to the night. Then he set off for his own house, walking slowly and stopping often, clutching the monocle in his fist.