Byron woke to snow falling. The sky was dark. From the window by his bed he watched the dryads going about their morning business. Smoke from the chimneys told him that most of them were snug at home, enjoying the deep hush of the oak grove in heavy snow.
Just after lunch a sharp knock sounded on his door. Byron rolled over, snuggled down and yawned.
“Come in,” he called.
Rifkin Nimbletwig walked in and took off his cloak. “You mustn’t let your fire die,” he said, placing a chunk of wood in the brazier. “That’s a cold day out there.”
“Mm,” Byron said.
Rifkin smiled. “You need rest more than you know. You’re wise to take it so seriously.”
“I’ve been out watching the woods. I’ve never seen so much traffic. Centaurs and wolves.”
Byron sat up and wrapped the blanket around him.
Rifkin nodded. “So, you’ve set out to follow this new star of ours.”
Byron was silent.
“Fair enough,” Rifkin said. “Keep your secret. But there are some who want to stop you, these strange centaurs for instance. And you have led them to my home.”
“We didn’t mean to,” Byron said.
“Can you tell me what they want with you?”
“I guess they don’t want Silverlance to come back. At least that’s what my gradda said.”
“And you? Do you want Silverlance to return?”
“Really? What can you tell me about him?”
Byron frowned and looked out the window.
“Yet you set off to find him without a moment’s hesitation.”
“Well, I wanted to go before I even heard of him.”
“To follow a star? Why?”
“It felt like… like the only thing to do.”
Rifkin nodded. “Little is remembered about Silverlance except his name. But we dryads still tell what stories remain. His lance could bestow the Silver Wound. It was feared by his enemies.”
“Enemies?” Byron said.
“Indeed, powerful enemies. Long ago they waged war on Silverlance. One story tells that his return will bring a time of darkness and danger and that war will erupt again.”
Byron looked at Rifkin with wide eyes.
“You have become involved in something very old,” Rifkin said, “something that began long, long ago. The days ahead may require things of you that you are not prepared to give. This is where the star has led you.”
Byron looked into the fire.
“Perhaps you’re beginning to understand, Byron, why the name of Silverlance might be a fearful thing? But you’re not alone. Much will be required of us all. If that star is what it seems to be, even good people will have cause to be afraid.”
Sparks rose up in a small cloud as the fire collapsed in the brazier. The wind sighed against the window next to Byron’s bed. Rifkin rose.
“No one will hinder you when you decide to continue. As my companion said at our meeting, Shilo’s request was reasonable, though it needed testing. And we will fill your skins and top your packs. In the meantime, rest and eat well. Stay no longer than you think wise, but don’t go without saying goodbye, if it can be helped.”
Rifkin went out. Byron leaned back on his elbow and gazed into the gray day. A moment later there was a knock. Byron opened his mouth to respond as Raefer walked in.
“What did he ask you?” Raefer said without pulling back his hood.
“Who?” Byron said.
“Who? Who’ve you been talking to in the last hour?”
“Well, he asked me what I was up to… and he said a lot of things I don’t really understand. But he seemed right, I guess.”
“Never mind that, did he say anything about me going with you when you leave?”
Raefer took a deep breath. “Good,” he said and he sat down in the chair. “I had kind of a close call. Well, listen, come with me. The others are waiting in Shilo’s house. We’ve got some things to talk over.”
“Like what?” Byron said.
“Like the Griffin Stair, for instance.”
“Come with me and I’ll tell ya.” Raefer said. He stood and handed Byron the cape that hung beside the door. Byron put it on and they went outside into the snowy gray of morning.
“There’s an old rhyme about you satyrs,” Raefer said as they walked along the wooden platform, “and how Silverlance was so fond of you. It goes like this:…
“Moila Nene tognethen wain nafald
Dun preshen alma burn…
Wethel prene gobalan culkenald…
Mignifin durmalantha jenma thurn.”
Raefer gazed into the wood with a faraway look on his face.
Byron looked at him with his eyebrows up. “Well?” he said.
Raefer blinked. “Hmm? Well, what?”
“What does it mean?”
“Oh! Right! Sorry. Well, let’s see… Silverlance loved his… loved the satyrs… for the way they danced under the moon… for the way they loved the stars and… came to him however far they had to walk… something like that.”
“That’s a poem?” Byron said.
“I guess it loses something in the translation.”
Smoke was rising from Shilo’s chimney. Reafer led the way up to door. Inside they heard laughter and talking. “First the star and now a real live satyr,” he said. “That’s more proof than I need. When I heard you’d been found I was sure it was the star of Silverlance.”
“You got all that from some old rhyme?”
“Well, yeah,” Raefer said with a shrug. He gave a scouting glance around and knocked twice on the door. Inside, they found Shilo, Dindra and Rufus gathered around Shilo’s fire, sipping cider and eating some sort of cake.
“Good,” Raefer said. “You’re all here.”
Byron took off his cape and hung it on a peg. Shilo handed him a steaming cup as he sat down satyr fashion beside her. Raefer remained standing with a wide smile on his face.
“Well, I can’t stay long,” Rufus said. “I’ve got fire duty.”
Raefer lifted an eyebrow and smirked. “Fire duty? Did you say fire duty? Rufus, my dear fellow, I’ve asked you here today to talk about adventure.”
“Oh, all right,” Rufus said, rolling his eyes. “Half an hour.”
“So what about this Griffin Stair?” Byron said.
“The Griffin Stair?” Rufus said. “Is that part of your plan, Raef?”
“How else do we get across the mountains?” Raefer said.
“That’s just it,” Rufus said. “You don’t. Those mountains can’t be crossed. Everyone knows that.”
“Except by the Griffin stair,” Raefer said.
“If it even exists,” Rufus said.
“Sure it does,” Raefer said. Then he turned to Byron. “It winds up through the Crestfalls somewhere near the Old Mountain. They say there’s never any snow on the stair, or very little, because of the wind. We just have to find it.”
“How do we do that?” Dindra said.
Raefer smiled. “That’s where Shilo comes in. I figure she can ask the cardinal to scout around.”
“Oh, right,” Rufus said with a laugh.
“What’s funny about that?” Shilo said.
“Nothing,” Rufus said, still laughing.
“Have you got a better idea?” Dindra said.
“Yeah,” Rufus said. “How ’bout not going?”
“Oh, come on Ruf,” Raefer pleaded. “You said you were in. All we have to do is reach the platform and wait.”
“I can talk to animals,” Shilo said.
“Of course you can,” Rufus said.
“Wait for what?” Byron said.
Raefer shrugged. “Well, the griffins, I guess.”
“Griffins?” Shilo said. “Do you really think there are any?”
“Why not?” Raefer said. “They’re in lots of stories aren’t they?”
Shilo shrugged. “Well, yes.”
“And all we need to do is find the stair,” Rufus said. He shook his head.
“That’s the best we can do, Ruf,” Raefer said. “If we want to find Silverlance.”
Rufus leaned back on his elbow. “And how do we get away from camp without Rifkin finding out?”
“Good question,” Raefer said. “Now, the moon will be dark in three days. That’ll be the best time to go. Shilo, Byron and Dindra announce they’ll be leaving. When the time comes they head out south. Using that as a distraction, you and I will go out to the north where the guard is lightest. Then we all head east and meet up at the broken road.”
“Why is the north end guarded so lightly?” Shilo said.
“Because of the marsh,” Raefer answered.
“It’s very hard to cross and there’s really only one way through,” Rufus said. “The most we need up there is a watcher and a messenger to send word if anyone approaches.”
“Won’t that make it difficult for you to get out?” Dindra said.
“Mm-hm,” Raefer said. “But it’s our best chance of any. Hopefully you leaving to the south will keep everyone busy.”
“What about the horses?” Shilo said.
“Well, that’s the hard part,” Raefer said. “Rufus and I would never get through leading horses. We’ll have to come up with a reason for you to need two extras.”
“Why do we need two?” Dindra said.
“Yeah,” Shilo agreed. “We can take a pack horse and a horse for me to ride. Then when we meet up, you and Rufus can ride together while Dindra and I handle the supplies. That is, if that’s alright with her.”
“Sure it is,” Dindra said. “Byron, you’ll just have to get comfortable back there with the rest of the baggage.”
“Just wake me when we get there,” Byron said.
“Oh, will you stop it?” Rufus said. “Raefer this is crazy. You want to sneak out past a dryad sentinel, cross the northern bog in the middle of winter, then march all the way to the Old Mountain to find some passage you heard about in a campfire story? And you want to put all your hopes of finding it on a girl who claims she can talk to animals? What is it about that plan that doesn’t seem crazy?”
“Nothing,” Raefer said. “But not trying would be even crazier.”
“Raefer,” Rufus said with a sigh. “I mean… What sort of person is this Silverlance, I’d like to know. Seems to me he’s asking an awful lot.”
“Well,” Raefer said, “are you coming or not?”
“Alright, alright,” Rufus said. “But only because you’re my brother. I can take Silverlance or leave him, if he exists at all.”
* * *
Three days passed. In the dark of the moon Shilo, Dindra and Byron gathered at the stables to meet Rifkin and pack the horses. New snow was falling.
“Where are those brothers of mine?” Rifkin said as he placed a saddle on the wooden rail. He smoothed the blanket on the horse’s back and lifted the saddle into place.
“They’ll be here,” Shilo said with a glance at Byron. “They promised.”
“Well,” Rifkin said, patting the horse’s neck. “This is Old Weatherby. The pack horse is called Melody. They’re both warmed and ready, though a bit uneasy. I can’t say I blame them. Dark of the moon is an ill-chosen time for setting off. I wish you’d reconsider.”
“Well,” Dindra said. “We want as much cover as we can get.”
“I suppose that’s wise,” Rifkin said with a nod. “And the choice is yours to make. Still, my heart stands against it.”
“Thank you for all your help,” Shilo said. “And for the horses.”
“I’m sorry we couldn’t give you a more fitting farewell,” Rifkin said. “The comings and goings of late have us occupied and watchful.”
“Have the wolves been seen again?” Byron said.
“No,” Rifkin said. “And neither the centaurs. What that may mean I can’t say.”
“One never knows what a wolf’ll do,” Byron said, looking out the stable door into the darkness. “Least my gradda says so.”
“So does my father,” Dindra said.
Rifkin raised an eyebrow. “If blood runs true it speaks well of your kin that daughter and grandson should undertake the quest you’ve chosen. And you Shilo, courage must flow in your veins from of old.”
Rifkin smiled. “It must be so. Great hearts are handed down. Into the saddle with you and I’ll adjust Old Weatherby’s stirrups.”
Rifkin slid the stirrups into place and Shilo nodded when they were set to her liking. A dryad woman ran in from the darkness carrying a torch.
“Rifkin!” she said. “The wolves have returned. They entered the northern marsh headed south. Two runners just reported!”
“Wolves on the marsh,” Rifkin said. “And centaurs?”
“Not by the last report,” she said. “But runners are moving as we speak.”
“The northern marsh,” Shilo said.
“Rufus and Raefer,” Byron said.
Rifkin’s face flashed in alarm. “What about them?”
Byron looked at Dindra.
“Come, come, what about them?” Rifkin demanded.
“They’re headed for the marsh,” Dindra said.
“What?” Rifkin said. The messenger gasped and her eyes went wide.
“They were coming with us,” Byron said.
Rifkin blinked. “They were…” He paused to think and then turned to the messenger. “Jevén,” he said. “Yandara nell si nofathan… Dona Resh… fineliden fin.” The messenger nodded and turned to go. “Jevén,” Rifkin said and she looked back. “Fineliden fin.” The woman’s face calmed and she nodded, then she turned again and was gone.
“We’re sorry, Rifkin,” Shilo said.
“You can’t have known about the wolves and my brothers have chosen for themselves. You are not to blame. It seems courage flows out of my past also. Well, I can do no more for you. Good luck. Blast you Rufus and Raefer! You little brigands!”
Rifkin wheeled and ran out into the night. Shilo, Dindra and Byron stood there in the stable, gaping at each other.
“What’re we gonna do?” Byron said.
Shilo shook her head. “We have to help them.”
“How?” Byron said, throwing up his hands.
“By sticking to the plan,” said Dindra. “That’s what they’ll do, if they can.”
“What if the wolves get ’em?” Byron said.
“We can’t help them better than Rifkin can,” Dindra said. “And we can’t help them at all unless we know where to look for them, which we don’t.”
Shilo nodded. “Jevén said the wolves had entered the marsh. It might take some time before they’re close enough to catch Rufus and Raefer… maybe enough time.”
“Maybe not,” Byron said.
“We just have to hope they make it through,” Dindra said. “But let’s get to the broken road as fast as we can. We may be able to help them yet. Come on.”
* * *
A wide swath of white cut through the trees from north to south. Dindra halted at the roadside holding Melody’s reins. Byron sat upright and alert on Dindra’s back. Shilo came up behind, riding Old Weatherby. No one spoke. The horses stood still and quiet. Then in the distance to the north, they heard the sound: shrill and numerous, the howling of many wolves.
“Have they reached the camp?” Dindra said.
“Rufus and Raefer still might’ve got out,” Shilo said.
“Where are we supposed to meet them?” Byron said.
“We figured on running into them,” Shilo said, “headed toward us.”
“We still may,” Dindra said.
She set off north along the road. The snow was unbroken. Byron trained his eyes left and right into the forest and on the road ahead. Without warning Dindra broke Melody into a gallop. Shilo snapped Old Weatherby’s reins and followed. Byron leaned out and looked ahead. Two shapes were standing in the middle of the road.
“They made it!” he whispered, clutching Dindra’s arm.
A moment later they drew up beside the figures. Byron dropped to the snow and waded over to them.
“Byron, wait,” Dindra said, lifting a hand.
“I knew you’d get through,” Byron said. He slapped one of the figures on the arm and the cape gave way like a window curtain on the breeze. Byron frowned. “Rufus… Raefer?” He drew back one of the capes and saw that it was draped on a gibbet made of tree branches tied together.
Then Shilo gasped.
Byron turned to see an enormous dark shape standing among the trees. It was a centaur and it swished its tail as it stepped out onto the road.
“You must try not to blame your friends,” the centaur said. “They would have warned you if they were not bound and gagged.”
Seven more centaurs, all holding long spears, moved in from the trees and stood in a circle around the companions. Rufus and Raefer were tied and slung over one fellow’s back like a pair of saddlebags.
“Baruwan has commanded you be brought to him alive,” the first centaur said. “I would sooner kill you now and not be bothered with tending you on a day’s southward journey. Only Baruwan’s orders have saved you. Bind them. Leave the horses for the wolves.”
Raefer started to squirm. His muffled voice cried out in protest. The centaur who bore him reached back and slapped him on the head. Then Rufus started to squirm and shout through his gag. The centaur reached back and slapped him also. He turned at the waist, slapping the brothers one then the other, laughing with the other centaurs.
There was a singing sound.
The centaur leader jerked his head back and gave a choked grunt. He coughed once, clutching at his throat, then buckled to the ground with an arrow through his neck. A moment later a dozen dryad fighters came running in from the east side of the road.
Three dryads went straight for the centaur that carried Rufus and Raefer. He spun his spear into a jabbing grip and countered them as his companions moved to his aid. They reared and gored with their hooves, thrust and slashed with their spears and flailed with their great fists and the dryads darted among them, slashing and stabbing. An archer stood off to the side taking aim, unable to loose the arrow she’d notched for fear of hitting one of her own.
“To me, Shilo!” she called.
“Jevén!” Shilo said, prodding Old Weatherby toward the archer. A centaur moved to stop her and was felled by the dryad’s arrow. When Shilo looked Jevén had notched another and was already taking aim.
“Dindra!” Byron said, tugging her cape and pointing to the centaur who bore Rufus and Raefer. “Get along side ‘im!”
Dindra started forward. A pair of dryads fighting another centaur stepped in front of her. Clutching her cape, Byron choked her as he pulled himself to his hooves. He jumped from Dindra’s back onto the back of the centaur who blocked them. The fellow turned when he felt the prick of Byron’s hooves. As he did, the dryads moved on him and brought him down. Byron drew his knife and leaped again, landing between the brothers on the back of their captor.
At once he attacked the ropes, hacking and slashing. He cut the flesh of the centaur’s back. The centaur cried out and wheeled, rearing high. Byron caught hold of the ropes and kept cutting. The dryads on the ground came at the centaur with their swords raised and he turned to face them. The ropes came loose. Rufus and Raefer dropped into the snow. Dindra and Jevén dragged them to safety as Byron waded out behind them.
“Who is it, Jevén?” Rufus said as she pulled the gag from his mouth. “Is it Resh?”
“Resh and ten of his fellows,” Jevén said, cutting away the ropes. “Rifkin sent me for him. No time now, get going!”
“You’re letting us go?” Raefer said, rubbing his wrists.
“No questions,” Jevén said.
“What about Resh?” Rufus said.
Jevén sheathed her knife. “Resh doesn’t need your help.”
“When we get back I’ll marry you, Jevén,” Raefer said. “I promise.”
Jevén smiled and kissed Raefer on the top of the head. Then she stood and notched an arrow. “I’ll guard your backs,” she said. “Get moving!”
“Byron and Raefer, climb on!” Dindra said. “Rufus, ride with Shilo. We’ll rearrange the horses when we’re clear of here.”
They mounted up and set off east. Byron peered into the woods to the south. A shadow was moving among the trees. He put in his monocle and saw a huge wolf stop and look at the group. Byron watched it turn and bound away south into the deep of the forest. As Dindra moved out, a stand of shadowy oaks blocked Byron’s view. He craned his neck to see around or between and when at last they came clear of the trees, the wolf was gone.