Three nights out they built a fire. Byron dreamed. Shadows lurked in the trees and wolves howled. A terrified child called his name. Byron called out also.
He woke with a jump and looked around. Shilo and Dindra were fast asleep. Byron turned over and looked at the star. In the morning they woke to find they had camped on the edge of a vast snowbound grove of ancient oaks.
Stout gray trunks stood in line from north to south as far as anyone could see. Facing the mighty trees was a row of posts stuck into the ground, each as tall as a man, thick as a spear shaft, with an animal skull fixed to the top. Just below each skull was a crosspiece adorned with feathers and furs. On the forehead of each skull was painted a strange mark. Morning grew in the forest. Daylight recovered the enormous trees and the strange fence from the shadows.
Byron peered at the mark on one of the skulls. It made his stomach tremble to look at it. “I’ve seen that mark before,” he said.
“Tharnis Micktern,” Shilo said. “He made this fence.”
“Who’s Tharnis Micktern?” Dindra said.
“He’s the chief hunter in Branchbrook Village. I remember hearing of this fence, now that I see it. All the young men who want to become hunters have to spend a season out here maintaining it. It marks the edge of his hunting grounds. It’s an initiation, and sometimes a punishment.”
“What’s so hard about tending a fence?” Byron asked.
“Well, because of what’s beyond…” Shilo said. “In the oaks.”
“Why, what’s…?” Byron began. Then he blinked and looked into the trees. “Ghostwood,” he whispered.
“Ghostwood,” Shilo said with a nod.
“Ghostwood,” Dindra agreed.
They all peered into the depths of the ancient grove. The morning grew bright, but it didn’t chase out the silence of the oaks.
“Where’ve you seen that mark, Byron?” Dindra said.
“Ravinath,” Byron said, still peering into the oaken deeps.
Dindra frowned. “Ravinath?”
“Uh-huh,” Byron said. “He wears it painted on his flanks.”
Dindra stepped up and took a closer look at the skull. “You’re right,” she said. “I think Baruwan had it too, at the bridge, remember?”
“I remember he had paint on his face,” Byron said with a shrug. “I couldn’t really see.”
“I don’t like it here,” Shilo said. She looked up and down the length of the strange fence. “Let’s get moving. We shouldn’t waste the daylight if we’re going… in there.”
“He had that mark,” Dindra said. “I’m sure of it.”
“Just look at all those oaks,” Byron said. “Gradda says oaks are the last stage in a forest. They take over slowly and change the soil so nothing else can grow.”
“It sure is quiet,” Dindra said. She squinted a little. “The trees seem… watchful.”
“Watchful?” Byron whispered. He looked about sidelong, wide-eyed.
“This is silly, scaring ourselves,” Shilo with a laugh. “Come on you two, let’s pack up and…”
There was a singing sound above their heads and a loud thud as an arrow struck the bole of an oak tree, the shaft of it quivered.
Everyone jumped and looked around.
“You can’t escape!” shouted a voice. “Stay where you are!”
In the woods behind them was a band of horsemen, spread out in a line, trotting forward as one. The deep snow muffled the sound of the hooves to a whisper. The men held spears and drawn bows. Horse and rider wore white pelts and blended with the snowy woods. One very tall man came in before the rest and leaped from his horse. He marched straight up to the little fire and kicked snow over the embers. He put his hands on his hips and glared at the companions.
A semicircle of riders formed around the camp, closed against the boundary fence. Byron noticed the fellows closest to Ghostwood fidgeting and eyeing the oaks with caution.
“Mr. Micktern,” Shilo said.
“My fence menders saw your fire, Miss Prinder,” Micktern said. “Friends of yours, I think.” He motioned to four young men near to Shilo in age. They smiled at her and sat taller in their saddles.
“Very foolish,” Micktern continued. “Winter isn’t the time for escaping in secret. You should have waited for summer. You’d have had less need of warmth and your tracks would have taken some skill to follow.”
“The star didn’t rise in summer,” Byron said.
“The star,” Micktern said and he spat on the snow-covered campfire. “As it is, I have saved you from yourselves. No one passes through Ghostwood without dying or losing his mind. Bind them.”
Five men dismounted and took coils of rope from their saddles. Tharnis Micktern headed for his horse. Dindra trotted forward a few steps and called out to him. “Are you taking us to Ravinath?”
Micktern stopped. He lifted his hand and the advancing rope men halted.
“What can you mean by that, girl?” Micktern said.
“When you see him,” Byron said, “tell him I’m sorry about Baruwan.”
“Baruwan is alive and well,” Micktern said with a laugh. “The fool galloped into Ghostwood two days ago, well ahead of you, blind as a bat with no trail to follow. He’s as thick brained as his master is arrogant.”
Micktern sneered at Dindra. “Yes,” he said. “Ravinath wants you. But I don’t take orders from anything on four legs. So, watch what you say. There are no bridges to cut here.”
“We’ll tell Silverlance about you when we see him,” Dindra said. “You and all your friends.”
Micktern’s face darkened and he started toward her. As he came he drew a long hideous knife and raised it. “That moment will never come,” he said. “Forget the ropes. We’ll finish this here!”
Byron stepped back. Shilo screamed. The knife flashed in the sun. Dindra whirled and shot her rear hooves backward. Micktern let out a kind of shout muffled by all the wind that emptied from his lungs as Dindra’s kick landed on his chest. Byron winced at the sound of it. Micktern flew backward and landed flat in the snow.
Dindra crouched low. “Get on!”
Shilo caught hold of Byron and pulled him up behind her just as Dindra sprang forward and bolted into Ghostwood.
“Get after them!” someone shouted. There was a jam up around Micktern. He didn’t move. Horses were neighing and rearing. Several riders gave chase for a few paces, but halted at the skull fence.
“After them, I said!” shouted one rider as he broke free from the knot. He galloped past one of the young fence menders and struck the boy across the head with an open hand. The boy lurched forward and rolled out of the saddle. “Fool of a squib!” the rider shouted and he charged into the oaks.
Looking back, Byron saw the young hunter standing by his horse, red-faced, staring at the ground, striving to keep the tears from his eyes. Byron almost fell as Dindra made a sudden turn. He clutched Shilo’s cape with all his might and pressed his face into her back.
Dindra hurtled breakneck among the trees, swerving and darting. The forest shot by. Shilo screamed as Dindra leaped over a ruined stonewall without slowing. They came to a long straight stretch through the trees and Dindra galloped as fast as she could. She tore clear through the snow to the dark soil beneath. It wasn’t long, with the weight of two riders on her back, before she began to tire. Dindra veered right and took to the trees again.
“Where are you going?” Byron cried.
“Away from them!” Dindra shouted back.
Shilo looked back. “They’re coming up beside us!”
In the trees to the right, two riders gained pace with Dindra. To the left, still charging along the lane she had abandoned, were three others. The shouts of several more came from behind.
“Just stay on!” Dindra cried and there was fear in her voice. Byron and Shilo clung tight.
A dry streambed cut across their path. Dindra turned to the left and headed up the winding course of the stream. She passed under an arched stone bridge just as the pursuing riders on the open lane thundered across it.
It was rough and uneven beneath the snow. The river turned and wound and the banks were steep. Dindra struggled over hidden rocks, ducked fallen braches. The banks grew higher until they deepened into a narrow gully.
“Are they back there?” Dindra called.
“I don’t see them,” Shilo answered.
“They’re back there all right,” Byron said.
A lakebed opened before them. The banks were even higher, though not so steep. Ahead of the group stood an enormous mound of branches and twigs, covered with snow.
“A beaver dam!” Shilo cried.
“We’re trapped!” Byron answered.
Dindra charged ahead and stopped at the foot of the dam. She stood there, swishing her tail, panting with smoky breath. They all turned at the sound of hooves thundering into the gully behind them.
“I’m sorry,” Dindra croaked and her shoulders heaved a little as her fear and exhaustion gave way to tears.
Byron watched as the hunters arrived and took their posts. Silence filled the place, broken by the snorts and jingling tack of the horses. The lead hunter ordered the others to string their arrows and bend their bows.
“Well run, centaur,” the leader said. “A chase worthy of your father’s daughter. A pity he will never hear of it. And now, as we have already come deeper into this wood than I like, you die. On my command,” he said to his hunters and he lifted his arm.
Wood and strings creaked as the hunters tensed their bows. Another sound followed, a small whirring followed by a thud. The lead hunter swayed in the saddle. He pulled the reins with one hand and clutched his neck with the other. His horse reared beneath him and the man fell to the snow.
Another hunter jolted back and shot his arrow wild into the beaver dam, then another fell and then a fourth. The other hunters turned their arrows on the woods, searching for the source of the attack. There was laughter from the trees on every side.
One by one the hunters fell, clutching neck or thigh or shoulder. Three tried to escape up the banks and fell backward off their horses. One sped away down the mouth of the stream and his horse returned riderless. Soon the lakebed was strewn with white-clad hunters, lying still.
“Look!” Byron whispered. He blinked and rubbed his eyes and looked again.
It seemed that they stepped right out of the trunks of the trees. They came in great number, five or six to every fallen hunter. They were nearly as tall as men, and from a distance seemed to be men. But there was something strange about them.
First they collected the darts they had used to fell the hunters. Then each of the hunters was gathered up by four of the strangers and borne away into the oaks. A group of the strangers took the reins of the horses and led them away. Shilo, Byron and Dindra watched in silent wonder.
“Have no fear for the horses,” said a voice. A group of the strangers approached, led by one bright-eyed fellow. “Or their riders for that matter. The horses we will keep and their lives will be much improved. Tribute for trespass, call it. And your pursuers? What shall we do with them? Hmm?”
Like his companions, the stranger had dark skin and deep, silvery eyes. There were tiny, leafy vines, dried and gray with winter, mingled in his hair. A single vine came out from under his sleeve, wrapped around his wrist and disappeared into the flesh at the base of his thumb. He had a long bow as tall as himself, which he leaned on as he gazed down at Byron.
“You are a wondrous pair,” the stranger said with a glance at Dindra. “Jomalla din thad na Findrelene!”
His remark was answered with laughter and more comments in the same strange language. Byron looked at Dindra. Dindra shrugged.
“Wondrous indeed,” the stranger said. “They are only sleeping, your pursuers, not killed. They will wake up outside that fence of theirs with a tale of ghosts to tell. And you? What shall we do with you? You are trespassers also.”
“You should let us go,” Shilo said with a firm nod.
The remaining strangers had gathered round and gave a mighty laugh.
“Very reasonable, Rifkin,” one fellow said. “Wouldn’t you say?”
“And shall we freshen your stores as well?” said another.
Rifkin smiled. “Why were they hunting you?” he said.
No one spoke.
“What can you tell me of the centaur band that passed through this wood two days ago?”
“You let them go?” Byron said, smacking his own forehead.
“One shouldn’t tangle with such as they without great need. Might it be that they too were hunting you, but lost you in the storm and snows of late?”
No one spoke.
“Well,” Rifkin said, “there are ways of gaining the cooperation of the unwilling. In this case I think we shall try the fabled torments of rest and food. Come, you are the prisoner guests of the dryad folk. You owe us your lives already, a bit of comfort and provision won’t tip the scales too greatly in your favor.”
* * *
At dusk they reached the guard fires. Sentinels greeted them from platforms in the trees and waved them in. Rifkin led the companions up onto the hanging walkways and a pair of young dryads approached.
“Rifkin!” they called together.
“Well,” Rifkin said. “Rufus and Raefer! Look what the woods have given us today!”
“Welcome back, Rifkin,” said the younger fellow.
“Hello,” said the older boy. He held out his hand to each of the companions. “I’m Rufus. You’re very welcome.”
“Raefer,” said the younger one. He greeted Shilo, but never took his eyes off Byron and Dindra.
“I will leave it to you both to see our prisoners tended,” Rifkin said. “I must go and report. We needn’t bother about a guard. Escape would do you more harm than good, I think. Farewell,” Rifkin said and he left them.
Rufus and Raefer looked very much alike. They wore the same cloaks and tunics and britches all in wintry colors. Each carried a long knife and a sharpened twig stuck in his belt. They both had the same fine, leafy vines, gray with winter, mingled in their hair. Rufus had one around his neck and Raefer had one under the corner of his jaw, behind his ear. Their eyes were silvery and their skin dark and clear.
“Rifkin is our brother,” Raefer said. “He’s a scout captain. Rufus is training to be a scout. I start next year. It takes a long time but I’ll make it.”
“It’s lucky he found you,” Rufus said. “There were wolves spotted south of here a little while ago.”
“How many?” Byron said.
“Eight,” Rufus said. “And the centaurs didn’t just pass through as we’d hoped. They spent some time at the eastern fence of the grove hunting around. They split up into two bands and went north and south.”
“Gosh,” Shilo said. “That is lucky.”
“That’s not all,” Rufus continued. “The southern band met up with the wolves and had some sort of meeting.”
“What?” Dindra said.
“The centaurs hate the wolves more than anyone,” Byron said.
Raefer shrugged. “These centaurs were strange for lots of reasons. They were all painted with odd markings and symbols, even on their faces.”
“Did the wolves and centaurs leave the grove together?” Dindra said.
“No,” Rufus said. “The centaurs regrouped to the north and the wolves continued east.”
“So,” Dindra said, “nobody has any idea where we are.”
“That Tharnis what’s his name does,” Byron answered.
“But the hunters are afraid of this place,” Shilo said. “As far as they know we’ve been murdered by ghosts.”
“Is that what happened?” Rufus said with a laugh. “Well, we’d better get you to your houses. Even ghosts need what’s left of the daylight to get their chores done.”
“I’ll show Byron the way and settle him in, Ruf,” Raefer said. “Dindra and Shilo are in your direction anyway.”
“All right, then,” Rufus said. “Follow me you two. You’ve got beds and supper waiting.”
Raefer lit the lamps inside Byron’s hut. There was a bucket full of steaming water, a basin, a cot with fat pillows and a pile of thick, soft blankets. The floor was covered with heavy mats. A deep bowl of hot stew, a plate of bread and a small crock of butter waited on the table. A fire burned in a small brazier in the middle of the floor and everything was warm and dry. Byron dropped his pack and sighed.
“Well, thanks, Raefer,” he said. “I’m really tired, so…”
“You’re following the star!” Raefer cried.
“Shhhh!” Byron hissed. “Not so loud!”
Raefer winced and made a fist. He looked behind him at the closed door. “Sorry!” he whispered. Then he smiled. “So it’s true!”
Byron frowned and narrowed his eyes. “Maybe.”
“Of course you are. You’re a findrel, that’s how I knew. I won’t tell anyone, I swear. I mean, that would be bad for both of us.”
“Both of us?”
“Well sure, I’m going with you. Me and Rufus, only he doesn’t know it yet.”
“You and… hey, hold on Raefer,” Byron said.
“I can’t stay,” Raefer said, holding up his hands. “I’ve got fire duty. This is gonna be great! Don’t tell anyone, right? We’ll find a way to have a meeting. Gotta go!”
Before Byron could speak, Raefer was gone into the full fallen darkness. Byron sighed and shrugged and sat down at the table. When the bowl was clean and the bread was gone, Byron threw himself on the bed and didn’t bother about the covers until hours later when the fire was down and the cold of night came and found him.