It was a great chamber of hewn stone with many dark alcoves. Large wooden chairs were arranged in a partial circle in the middle of the hall. By each chair stood a little table with a pitcher and goblet. High above the floor, beneath the great beams and rafters of the ceiling, tall clear windows let in light, while further down but still higher than a centaur, panels of stained glass threw spots of color all around, letting in still more light while protecting the chamber from spying eyes. Already, however, a living ladder had been formed at several of the windows as Woodren attempted access or eavesdropping. Angry centaur voices could be heard outside, pushing the people back from the building.
Each wall was hung with many shields. These were the shields of the fallen, and on them the martial history of Woody Deep was kept. For each carried with it a song, though few but the poet Arden knew them all, and many delved deep into the distant past, where fact and legend overgrew one another like the leaves and branches of trees.
Some of the shields were round, others square, some flat along the top and rounded to a point at the bottom. Some were of wood, others leather, and many were wrought of iron or bronze. Some were so large that only the strongest centaur could have borne them, others so small that only a satyr could have hoped to gain cover behind them. Many, though not all, had the crest of the Unicorn painted on them. All were battered and chipped with the harrowing of dart and blade and claw.
The ordering of the seats had the king at the top of the circle. To his right were some of his knights, then the elders, who were already seated. Next came the dwarves of Nosh’s ilk, beside a single, handsomely carved wood podium at which stood Palter Thundershod. Next to the podium stood the Unicorn himself, and beside him were two more podiums. The first had not been claimed; at the second stood Dindra Thundershod. Beside Dindra sat Quill who, like the Unicorn, needed no podium.
After Quill, the chairs began again. In these sat the rest of the Wanderers, then the others of Thúmose’s company: Darius Thorn, Hixima, and the dryads Jevén and Rifkin. After Rifkin were seated the remaining knights, and so back to the Woodland King. Elpinor showed the guests to their seats, deliberately ignoring Byron, who could not take his eyes from the Unicorn.
King Belden stood and waited for silence.
“A tale has been told to me in part,” he began, “and a sight I have seen that prompts me to bring you all to council at the request of Lord Thúmose, the Unicorn. We come to this place, where from of old have been discussed only matters of war. And so it may be, for that which I have seen has filled me with a dread that I recognize as evil and a threat to us all. But the greater knowledge in this lies with Lord Thúmose. I command you all, as your king, to heed the Unicorn closely, whatever your opinion of him. And so, Lord Thúmose, to you.”
“First, your highness,” Thúmose said, “there lies before us the question of the unclaimed podium.”
The Woodland King lifted his chin. “Forgive me. I had forgotten. Let the podium be claimed and by my command let none so much as even voice his disapproval. I leave it to you, Thúmose, to summon him, for he is yours, not mine, to command.”
Thúmose strode out into the circle and turned to face the empty podium. “Baruwan,” he called, “come forth.”
From a dark alcove behind the seat of the Woodland King came the sound of hooves clopping. A large form appeared in the shadows of the low arch, ducking as it came, and Baruwan appeared in the broken, colored light.
“Remember my command,” Belden said.
No one spoke. Byron looked around at all the knights and centaurs. All their faces went dark and grim. Jaw muscles clenched. Lips were pursed tight. One or two centaurs closed their eyes and breathed hard through flaring nostrils. All eyes flashed back and forth between Baruwan and Palter Thundershod. The war chief made no sign of surprise or discontent. He looked with an unblinking stare at Baruwan, who made his way around the circle, coming up behind the Wanderers to the empty podium between Dindra and the place set apart for the Unicorn.
Thúmose stood in the middle of the circle. “I ask you all to remember my words of Midsummer’s Eve’n. Baruwan has sworn and proven his loyalty to me. He has served me in many perils already. And now, King Belden, there is the matter of Baruwan’s pardon before us.”
Belden stood. “I have considered this matter as well as I might have, given that there was none from whom I could seek counsel who does not justly hate this centaur. At the bottom of the facts lies a simple truth. Baruwan has striven for the harm of my people and myself. I cannot extend pardon to such a one without turning my back on justice. And that I may never do, as king, as knight, or as a man, not on the word of a stranger, however worthy that stranger may seem.”
A great clamor of approval erupted among the knights and centaurs gathered in the hall. Byron caught Gradda’s eye. The old satyr looked grave, but he did not stir or lift his voice. Instead he fixed his eyes on the Unicorn. The Woodland King raised his hands for quiet and received it at once. Palter Thundershod, the king’s chief at arms, stared, still unblinking, at the centaur Baruwan. Baruwan stared hard at the Woodland King, patient and waiting.
“What do you say, Baruwan?” the king asked.
“I have asked for pardon,” Baruwan said. “I will be content with justice.”
“No—” Dindra whispered, but in the silence that followed Baruwan’s words, it sounded loud and echoed off the rock and shields of the hall. Byron glanced up at her and saw Palter Thundershod looking at his daughter, the first light of realization glowing in his face.
Thúmose rumbled inside, and spoke with a deep, low voice. “As high king in Everándon,” he said, “I will respect the court and justice of a true thane, such as you are to me, Woodland King. I will not contest any judgment you render, but let all know this: I am Baruwan’s champion. Any who would seek satisfaction from him by test of arms will have it only by facing me. In this Baruwan has no choice; it is my command.”
Thúmose walked the entire line of the circle, meeting every eye he passed, until he came full around and stood before the Woodland King. “So it must be,” said the Unicorn.
Every eye turned to Palter Thundershod. The great centaur stared hard at Baruwan. “It will be long before you prove yourself to me, boy,” Palter said. An angry murmur arose among the knights and centaurs. They shook their heads and glared at Baruwan, though few dared direct their anger at the Unicorn. The Wanderers looked around at each other. Byron looked across at Gradda, who remained still, deep in thought.
“Lord Thúmose has made known his intentions,” the Woodland King said. “Should it be decided that Baruwan must face a court of arms, he will have a champion. That is just. But such a contest is not yet my will. For as I have said, we have the word of one who seems worthy, that Baruwan is not as he once was, that he is deserving of pardon. While I cannot take the word of Lord Thúmose without questioning it, I cannot dismiss it either, out of hand, for in this strange, noble lord, I feel truth which I cannot explain, though neither can I deny it.”
Dindra looked up at the side of Baruwan’s face, then glanced at her father and looked down. Byron watched the exchange and met Palter Thundershod’s stern, wondering gaze.
The king returned to his chair and from beneath it he took out a cloth sack. Inside the sack was a heavy leather case, which he let slide out onto the floor. Two clasps held the case shut. Belden opened the case; inside was a great ironclad book etched with markings like spiderwebs and eight-legged insects.
“Baruwan, come forward,” King Belden said with a stern nod of his head and he stooped to lift the book.
Baruwan approached. The sound of his great hooves echoed in the silence. Byron peered at the book in King Belden’s hand. He felt sickness behind his eyes and his stomach churned. He glanced at Nosh. The dwarf prince had his head in his hand. The Woodland King himself took a deep breath, as if to fend off a fit of nausea. Byron watched Baruwan as he drew near the Woodland King. The centaur’s gaze fell upon the book and he slowed to a halt.
“Come forward,” the Woodland King said, his voice deep with command.
Baruwan obeyed, but his chest began to heave and he stared in grim wariness at the book in King Belden’s hands. The king’s knuckles were white and he clenched his jaw. Byron felt a vast, hideous power growing between the centaur and the Woodland King. Belden’s hands trembled as he held the book up. His face was pale and sweat dotted his brow. Byron glanced at Hixima. The Warra priestess was on her feet, staring with horror at the book in Belden’s hand. Thúmose made no sign, but watched closely the exchange between the centaur and the king.
“Hold out your hands, Baruwan,” the Woodland King said. Baruwan flinched and looked at the Woodland King with shock in his eyes. “Hold them out!” the king shouted, straining for words as if some great struggle engaged him. Baruwan lifted his open hands. The Woodland King thrust the book into Baruwan’s grasp and fell back into his chair, spent, sweating, gasping for breath. Baruwan held the book before him, every muscle on his great frame flexed and laboring.
Byron stared at the mighty centaur. Baruwan’s hands went white with exertion. His chest heaved and his body glistened with sweat. He labored for breath and great veins stood out from his temples. A look of hatred and anger swept over his face and he stared at the book in his hands with disgust and utter contempt. A deep frown furrowed his brow and he began to growl, low and violent, baring his teeth. His whole body shook until at last he threw the book to the floor.
“No!” he cried.
It struck and did not move. The sound smote the ears of all there gathered. There was a moment of utter darkness in the hall and in it Byron saw hideous faces. He heard cackling and shrieks of pain and it seemed that a thousand spiders fled the place where the book had landed, scurrying into the corners of the hall. He cried out and looked away, covering his head with his arms, and then the day returned. A crack appeared in the stone of the floor beneath the book. Baruwan, the centaur, backed away, stumbling on his hooves, staring down at it where it lay.
“Did anyone else see that?” Byron whispered. No one answered. He looked down and clutched the monocle.
Every eye was wide, staring at Baruwan or the Woodland King or the book on the floor. King Belden stood from his chair, still tired and shaken, and went to stand before Baruwan, who struggled for breath and balance. The book lay on the floor between them. Belden looked up at the centaur and spoke.
“You reject it,” he said, but it was not a question, it was a statement of truth.
Baruwan snarled at the Woodland King and at the book. “Utterly,” he said with furious contempt.
King Belden nodded. He turned full circle as he made his weary way back to his chair. “Then Baruwan,” Belden said through the weight of his own breath, “I pardon you in full and declare you free in the realm of Woody Deep.” He took his seat again and for a long time only stared at the book on the floor.
At last he spoke, looking around at the frightened, bewildered faces. “I do not know how he came to possess it,” the Woodland King said, “but this book I found in the cave of Ravinath, after I drove him out of Hiding Wood on Midwinter’s Eve’n. I have spoken of it to none, and looked on it only once, just long enough to put it in that case and stash it safe. It felt evil and I could not abide it. As for Baruwan’s pardon, there in that book is the very power by which he was made strong in the service of Ravinath. Is there any here who could not feel it?”
At the king’s words, everyone—even Palter Thundershod—shook their heads in silent acknowledgment, each stealing furtive glances at the book on the floor.
“And yet here, before us all,” the Woodland King continued, “Baruwan has repulsed and reviled it, despised it and hated it. I tell you he could not have done so if it still held any sway over him. I have myself felt the allure and revulsion of that book, and was tempted by it. And I have not the past intimacy with its power that Baruwan has. If he were still in the service of Ravinath’s evil, he would surely have made some strong attempt to possess it.”
“You are wise, Woodland King,” Thúmose said. “Wise indeed.” Then the Unicorn strode over to the book and there were gasps and whispers of horror and concern as he lowered his nose to the ironclad tome, and nickered. “Deathmagic,” he said. “Here is a book of Wegga to be sure.”
Thúmose lifted his head and walked a space away from the book. “Hixima, if you will.”
Hixima crossed the floor to the book. She crouched before it with her eyes closed, singing to herself in a quiet voice. Then she opened her eyes with a fierce look. To the murmured concern of the assembly, Hixima lifted the book and clutched it to herself. At once Byron felt the sickness inside him disappear. Nosh lifted his head, blinking and looking around. Belden, Baruwan, and the whole assembly stirred as if waking, as if the air had cleared of some heavy fog. Hixima turned and walked back to her seat with slow, considered steps. Shilo looked at the Warra priestess in alarm.
“It is only a book,” Hixima said, but her face was grim and already weary with struggle. “It is now in the keeping of Warra.”
Thúmose strode out into the circle once more.
“Long ago,” he said, “there was a dragon. Not one of the Judges of yore, who served in benevolence as the stewards of the free people of Everándon. No, this dragon was altogether evil. It hunted and murdered all the Judges and took for itself the rule of the land. So began the Years of Shadow and Fire.
“This dragon had in its mind and heart a single purpose: to reduce to smoking stubble every inch of our country, to hunt out and end all life. Its deeds have passed even out of song, for those who knew them were loath to remember, and more loath still to forge for them words of lore. No fouler, more powerful evil has ever moved in flesh. Its name was Borántu.
“Most Everándons served the Dragon, paying him tribute of hideous sacrifice, keeping his feasts, and spreading his shadow, out of fear of his wrath. But no one was safe, for Borántu was a monster of madness and deceit, killing at will even those who served him best. Yet a remnant people stood against him, fighting as they could, and under my leadership took war to the Dragon. In the end, I went out to meet him in single combat. And so the Dragon was put down, for a time.”
“You—you vanquished this foe?” Palter Thundershod asked with awe in his voice and eyes.
Thúmose lowered his head. “My joy would be great, War Chief, but I can tell you that it is not so.”
“Then what happened?” King Belden asked.
“No story tells that tale,” the Unicorn said.
“But you were there,” King Belden said. “Will you not tell us how it was?”
“I cannot,” Thúmose said, “for I have no memory of it. I suffered wounds, wounds of body that until recently were not fully healed.”
The Unicorn turned to look at Byron. Byron glanced at the spiraling lance of silver, and remembered the scar that had marked the Unicorn’s forehead before his horn was restored.
“And I suffered wounds of mind and heart that are not fully healed even now, scars of forgetfulness. I have no memory of that day, of my encounter with the Dragon, Borántu the Terrible, Borántu Shadowbreather. And what is worse by far, I have lost all memory of what it was I intended by it.
“It is the way of Wegga, of the Dragon, to destroy hope and all of its wellsprings, to stifle the workings of the heart before a dream can take shape in the mind. It must surely have been with one last, impossible hope that I went before Borántu, but what that hope was I can no longer conceive. For even I, Thúmose, have been wrapped in the shrouds of deathmagic.”
“Yet you live,” King Belden said.
“Yet I live,” Thúmose said. “And whatever was the hope that led me into the Dragon’s reach must remain, or Borántu would have triumphed.”
Palter Thundershod frowned. “You say you did not vanquish this Borántu, yet you live and the Dragon is gone. Is it not possible that you accomplished your task, though you have no memory of it?”
“I know the Dragon lives, War Chief,” the Unicorn said. “I know this because of what Miroaster found in the Faerwood, far from here, east of the great mountains, north of Rathrâgodrak, the Old Peak.”
“Who is this Miroaster?” Belden asked.
“A friend,” the Unicorn replied. “One who has wandered far and suffered much in the cause of the Light.”
“Where is he now?” Palter Thundershod said.
“I do not know,” Thúmose said. “It is many weeks since our parting. And no one here, not even myself, can say where he is, for he has gone dark and cannot be perceived in Everándon. Indeed, for the first time since I have known him, I am concerned for his safety.”
“What did he find?” Sir Durmidere asked.
Thúmose sighed. “I was returning from the South when the owl Jyro, flying on weary wings, found me. He carried a message tied to his leg, a message from Miroaster. Thúmose, it read, Make haste to Bilérica, a child is in dire need. I have been again to Faerwood. I have found Weg-sign.”
Hixima closed her eyes and rested her head in her hand. A murmur swept the room, and looks of confusion were passed from one face to the next. Belden motioned for silence. He looked at the Unicorn. “What is Weg-sign?” he asked.
“Borántu had minions,” Thúmose said. “Agents of evil that roamed in Everándon, wreaking havoc. Strong among these were the Wegs, his marshals and greatest servants. There were many, though many are now dead. It has been the business of Miroaster, Weg Hunter, to pursue them through the long years. He has found and destroyed them relentlessly, to his own great peril and harm. At his bidding I returned to the Faerwood and saw for myself the place in question.
“Long had Miroaster suspected a Weg presence in the Faerwood. Long had the owls of that wood spoken of a malice living there. But the Wegs are crafty, and this one remained hidden, even from Miroaster, though he watched and waited, searched and listened. There was no mistaking it. One of the Wegs has stirred and abandoned its lair in the Faerwood. There we found its Lychgate, Weg-sign clear and unmistakable, for only a Weg can build a Lychgate and set it moving upon its foul purpose. Miroaster rescued the harrowed child by which the gate was powered, and delivered him into Hixima’s care at Bilérica. It seems the Arachnamancer has quit his lair and one Weg at least now moves in Everándon. Therefore we know that the Dragon lives, for no Weg can survive unless the power of Borántu sustains it.”
“The Arachnamancer?” Matron Farlow asked. Her voice trembled and her face was pale. She sat in her chair, gripping Milo Prinder’s arm.
“One of the greater Wegs,” Thúmose said. “The Spider King. His is a special brand of UnMagic. He crosses spiders with the dead and creates creatures of particularly foul design and purpose. Indeed, if I am not mistaken, the book that Hixima now guards once belonged to the Arachnamancer. And so his power is now much less than it might have been. In this there is cause to take heart.”
Belden looked with a grim face into the near distance. People shifted in their seats and at their podiums as the grim light of unhappy understanding dawned. Byron looked left and right at his companion Wanderers, and found in their faces the fear he felt in himself. Then Palter Thundershod spoke into the silence.
“Harrowed child?” he asked, glancing at his daughter, Dindra. “What do you mean? What isa Lychgate?”
Belden spoke. “An engine of deathmagic,” he said. “It puts life where it does not belong, and so perverts and enslaves the dead.” Every face in the room turned to the Woodland King. The only sound from the world outside was the shimmering call of a hermit thrush, far off. “By some dark craft and hex work,” the Woodland King continued, “a child is… fed to it—over time.”
“You have heard of this, sire?” Palter Thundershod asked.
Belden sighed. “The Unicorn himself told me as much. But I have been little away from the lore books since my last meeting with him. I have learned all I could since then of the things of which he speaks. Tell me, Lord Thúmose, the child who this Miroaster recovered, was he the same child I met in your place of healing among the dogwoods?”
“He was,” the Unicorn said. “The very same boy. Stolen from his home and used to fuel the dark engine. Who can say what agents of brutality were conjured during that child’s time of torture, or indeed how long he suffered at the hands of his captor.”
Palter Thundershod crossed the chamber and stood before his daughter. Dindra looked up at him with shining eyes. Her mouth trembled. Palter took a lock of her hair in his great, gentle fingers.
“How old is this boy of whom you speak? Tell me, Lord Thúmose, how old?”
Byron gazed at the great centaur, Palter Thundershod, who had always been a symbol of strength and safety, and Thúmose, the Unicorn, larger and stronger than a farm horse, gleaming white with a golden tail and mane, and shocks of the same golden hair at his hooves. The terrible spiraling horn stood from his forehead, gleaming, proud, fierce. Both creatures were mighty, but in that moment Byron saw the war chief as a frightened child, willful and fierce, yet turning to Silverlance for answers and comfort.
“I have no certain answer for you,” Thúmose said to Palter. “The boy stopped aging when he came beneath the hex of Wegga, for that is the way of the Lychgate. But I can guess at the years he had reached before he was taken, though his body was spent. Like a feather he was in the arms of Miroaster. He was seven, perhaps eight years old, but no more.”
Palter looked long and deep into his daughter’s eyes. “You have seen this boy?”
“Yes, Father,” Dindra said and nodded.
“I want to see this child,” Palter said, turning to the Unicorn. “I want to see the boy.”
Thúmose strode forward, swishing his tail. “I’m afraid that is not possible, War Chief.”
“And why not?” Palter asked.
“Because,” Thúmose said, “he died two days ago and now sleeps beneath the ground.”
“Oh!” Shilo cried. “Oh, no!”
Byron’s mouth fell open and his eyes filled with tears. The Wanderers looked to each other, only to find one companion after another weeping and aghast. Hixima, to whom the news was well known, did not weep, for she had spent her tears already. Darius Thorn shook his head with grim bitterness and the rest of the council fell again to murmuring. King Belden leaped to his feet and strode out into the circle.
“Dead?” he said with a cracking voice. “That young boy?”
Thúmose did not speak. Belden’s face was torn with sorrow. His chest heaved in a great, deep sigh. He looked down at the ironclad book on the floor. “What evil—” he said. “What evil has come?”
Thúmose went to stand before the king and the two were face to face in the middle of the circle. A long silence followed. The wind whispered through the upper windows. Outside, the throng of Woodren was utterly still. Byron looked around at all the faces. Shilo was still weeping openly beside him. She looked at him with red, tear-filled eyes and he took her hand.
“Remember when Rufus dropped his mitten in the woods?” Byron asked.
Shilo blinked and looked at him. “What?”
“Rufus’s mitten,” Byron said. “Remember? And he said, ‘How’d you know I dropped it?’ and you said, ‘It’s one of the things the squirrel didn’t tell me, because I can’t speak to animals.’ Remember? He sure believed you after that.”
Shilo blinked again, and looked at Byron with question in her eyes. Then she smiled and her smile gave way to laughter, though it was sad and quiet. Dindra laughed too, through her own tears. Quill rustled her feathers and preened.
“That was great,” Raefer said with a sniffle. “And just after he’d barked at us all for not paying attention to our tracks.”
“All right,” Rufus said. “We were all there.”
“No we weren’t,” Nosh said. “Quit telling stories that don’t include me.”
“I’m sorry, Nosh, did you say something?” Byron asked. He started laughing in his belly and just sat there in silent shakes.
“Stop it,” Dindra said, beginning to giggle with him. “I mean it.” Byron shook even harder. “This is serious, Byron,” she said, but she fell right in with him. Soon the companions were laughing together and they seemed to forget the presence of the council.
Raefer leaned on the arm of his chair, glancing furtively at the grown-ups who looked at him and his friends with confusion. “Perfectly—” he said, struggling to get the words out. “Perfectly good mittens!”
“All right, I said!” Rufus insisted, but his face was twisted between a frown and a smile. “I got ’em back, didn’t I?”
“Hey, Rufus,” Byron managed, “how many missing socks does it take to be a dryad scout?”
The Wanderers all fell to laughing. The new cheer spread throughout the room and the stern looks of the council softened, or gave way to smiles and even laughter. King Belden gazed across at the companions with wonder in his face. It lasted for a long time, and in the end they all fell quiet again.
“Well done Byron,” Thúmose said. “Well done. Let the seeds of cheer and gladness grow, always. But we have much left to consider. What I have told you is only the beginning.”
Thúmose strode about the circle, clopping his hooves against the stone.
“To build a Lychgate,” he said, “is a long and rigorous task. Its maker must invest a great deal of power, and then make constant use of the gate for a very long time, before that power is recovered.
“A Lychgate has many uses for its master. One use is to keep its master safe, hidden for as long as he stays within. In this way the Wegs have stayed hidden through the long years, tracked and ambushed by Miroaster only when they emerged to find children on which to prey. Will you not wonder then, Woodland King, for what reason this Weg might quit the safety of its lair, even with such a one as Miroaster lurking?”
Belden only stared in exasperation at the Unicorn.
“There can be only one reason,” Thúmose continued. “The Damarung. Perhaps that is a word you have come across in your recent search through the catalogues of lore?”
“No,” the Woodland King said. “No, I have never heard that word, but it has an ill ring to it.”
“Ill indeed,” Thúmose said. “It is the Dark Summons, the gathering of the Wegs. Long has it been foretold as the sign of the second coming of Borántu. That is why the Weg quit its lair, and it has made its way south. It seems the long sleep has ended at last. The Damarung is about to begin.”
King Belden shifted in his seat, and passed his hand over his face. Palter Thundershod stared at him with deep, loyal, mutual concern. The whole gathering fell to murmuring. Byron kept his eyes fixed on the Unicorn, who paced about, meeting the eyes of each person in the hall.
“I told you the trail of the Arachnamancer led south,” the Unicorn said. “The Weg Hunter tracked the creature for many days to the valley of Wodys Mara, where dwarves of the old kindred still dwell. They have forgotten, except in rare song, their relatives to the north at Valleygate where Nosh’s father, Thrudnelf, is king.
“There is a mountain in that valley. It was once called Ratheméndurin, which means mountain of the king. Within that mountain is a cluster of mansions that belonged to the ancient dwarf people. It is called Showd Mazark, which means hearth of the dwarves.
“But the dwarves of the valley have not wholly forgotten their devastation at the fall of Showd Mazark, long ago. Superstition has evolved. Tales of the ghosts in the mountain are told at fireside in the autumn, when the death of the year draws near.
“They now call the mountain Rathpálamar, which means haunted mountain. Those who venture its slopes, they say, do not return. Yet they live beneath its shadow. The fear of it is buried in their minds, as the love for their oldenhome is buried in their hearts. Haunted Mountain and Mountain of the King. That pain, that hope, can be heard in their songs, and seen in their crafts of metal and stone, where they remember that the two are one.
“The Weg Hunter has traveled far and learned much of the movements of his prey. But as I said, he is helpless to do little but watch until one comes forth. And so he has watched. Longest of all, he has watched the Haunted Mountain, prowled its slopes, for it is not superstition alone that breeds the fear of that place. Dark deeds and happenings have always surrounded that mountain, some rumor only, but not all. Miroaster is certain that Weg power inhabits the ancient halls of the dwarves.
“And of late the signs are more clear. The dwarves there now speak of shadows in the woods, cries in the darkness of night. Children go missing in broad daylight and the Fell Clans are entering the valley in numbers never before seen. It is Miroaster’s belief that the Damarung has its center in the Mountain of the King.”
No one spoke. They stared at the Unicorn in rapt silence. Byron leaned forward on the edge of his seat. He looked across at Gradda, who gazed at the ground in deep thought, remembering.
“Two things now press us,” the Unicorn continued. “Our first business is with King Thrudnelf of the dwarves. He must be won to the cause of taking back Showd Mazark. It is his alone for the taking, for he is of the line of sovereigns who once ruled from Dwarvenhearth. What is more, he has an army that could face the growing horde in Wodys Mara if he moves soon.
“And that is our second task. We must meet the foes of Dwarvenhearth and beat them. If they are not checked, they will gain an edge we may never win back in the days ahead. Their plan is clear enough: to make of Showd Mazark a Weg fortress. That must not happen.
“At the time of the Dragon’s fall, a war was raging in Everándon. The war of the Dragon is waking again. It will begin at Showd Mazark. Woodland King, I ask you to come with me, you and all your strength, to face our common foe.”
Belden looked at Thúmose. “March south?”
“Yes,” Thúmose said. “To stem the tide that will find you in the end, no matter where you go.”
Belden was silent.
“Our first business is with King Thrudnelf of the dwarves,” Thúmose said. “And he is pressed with trouble of his own. Grudner, the young prince of the giants, has been kidnapped.”
“Kidnapped?” Hixima said.
“And Grudnevar, the giant king, places blame with Thrudnelf.”
“My father?” Nosh asked. “A kidnapper?”
“Not likely,” Thúmose said. “But the old enmity between dwarf and giant has warped the giant king’s perceptions. He arms for war with King Thrudnelf even now, unless young Grudner is returned to him.
“We must go at once to Thrudnelf. For this task, I require an emissary, and I have chosen Byron Thorn.”
Hixima gasped. Every face turned to Byron, who gaped back at them unsure of what he had heard. He sat there blinking with his mouth open.
“Oh, no,” Nosh said. “You’re joking, Mr. Thúmose, right? You can’t mean to send Byron before my father to ask him to swear loyalty to you, can you?”
“I will make that request myself when I see him,” Thúmose said. “Byron will only deliver an invitation.”
“But—” Byron said, “but why can’t you go? He’ll listen to you, Mr. Thúmose.”
“I am high king, Byron,” Thúmose said. “Thrudnelf must come to me.”
“But you came here,” Raefer said.
“And so the prophecy was fulfilled,” Thúmose said.
“Mr. Thúmose,” Nosh said. “They must know all about Byron by now. They’ll know he was with me when we traveled east. You can’t send Byron there, he’d be—well—you just can’t send him there.”
“Thúmose,” Hixima said. “Do you mean for Byron to go alone?”
“Yes,” Thúmose said. “Cryolar will carry him as close as he safely may. The dwarves have been ordered to kill Cryolar for a traitor. Therefore, Byron will have to go alone along the Winding Way.”
“What’s that?” Rufus asked.
“The avenue leading to the gates of my father’s hall,” Nosh said. “Count on being greeted, Byron.”
“Oh,” Byron said. “Mr. Thúmose, couldn’t you send a letter?”
“King Thrudnelf would toss it in the fire,” Thúmose answered.
“Well shouldn’t you send a warrior, or—or a wizard?” Byron asked, wringing his hands.
“The Damarung has begun,” Thúmose said. “We must begin a gathering of our own. Byron Thorn, I am sending you before the king of the dwarves. Will you go, or won’t you?”
Great tears welled up in Byron’s eyes. He looked around at his friends and found fear in their faces. Then, in his mind, Byron saw the boy in the white bed beneath the pavilion among the dogwood trees. He frowned, and except for the tears still falling down his face, he stopped crying. For a moment Byron stared into the air before him, the sight of the boy so clear in his mind. Then he looked across the circle and found Gradda gazing at him with fire in his eyes. Byron blinked, and for a moment he could not believe he had ever hesitated. “Yes,” Byron said, still looking at Gradda. Gradda gave him a firm nod. Byron nodded back. “Yes, Mr. Thúmose, I’ll go.”
Thúmose gave a snort and swished his tail. “Well done, Byron,” he said in the same deep whisper. “Remember, my dear friend, wherever you go, I go with you.”
Then there was a sound like crackling and bells, very faint. Byron’s silver horn tingled and his skin went bumpy. He looked at Thúmose through his glistening eyes.
“I go with you,” Thúmose said. “And when you need me, I will come.”
Byron looked out the highest window at the sun in the willow trees. He sighed a deep, heavy sigh and settled into his chair.
Belden stood and looked at Byron. He stared for a long time, until it seemed he couldn’t see the satyr at all, but was deep in thought of other things. Thúmose moved out into the circle again.
“Baruwan,” the Unicorn said. “Will you address the Woodland King?”
“Yes, Great One,” Baruwan replied. He strode out and stood beside Thúmose.
“I thank you, Woodland King,” Baruwan said. “For your clemency. To come and go freely in Woody Deep is a great boon. To do so with the good will of the king is greater still. But I will leave you for a time at least. It is the will of the Unicorn that I should go among the wild centaurs of the north, to my own tribe and perhaps to others.
“You see, Byron,” Baruwan said, turning, “all of us who serve the Unicorn will face risks we feel we are no match for. It is my task to bring my own tribe into the service of Silverlance. To do that, I must defeat their chief. I may die. But my tribe is strong, so it is a risk worth taking. And if it can be done, others may follow.”
“You are of the Hesbáni centaurs, are you not?” Palter Thundershod asked. “Ixion is your chief.”
Baruwan nodded. “That is so.”
Palter regarded the younger centaur with respect, and nodded his head. “Ixion may be the fiercest centaur now living. In his veins runs the blood of Koa the Strong.”
Baruwan smiled. “Perhaps there is one fiercer still.”
Palter smiled back. “Your mastery over the book of Wegga has won you the pardon of my king. If you do this thing, and we meet again before I die and go to roam with the herds of Epona, you will have my pardon, also.”
Baruwan bowed his head and stepped back.
“Much good has come from this council,” Thúmose said. “I am glad, though the days darken. Woodland King, there is little time for deliberation. My company is small and stands ready to depart. In three days, we will do so. It is my will that Byron Thorn depart then also. Cryolar has been summoned.”
Belden stood before the Unicorn, arms akimbo. He nodded. “I will take counsel in my house with my warriors and elders. In three days time you will have my answer.”
“I am content,” Thúmose said. “For my part, this council is over. May our road be made of turns well chosen.”