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Chapter 9: Into the Southwood

The King’s foresters did more than simply guard the woods against poachers and hunt the odd wolf unwise enough to attack a farmer’s livestock. Among other duties, we also escorted occasional parties of royally sanctioned huntsmen come to seek their sport in our woods. I endured much mockery at their hands, even when it became clear I knew my business better than most of them, and could almost always find them the game they sought. In exchange, I learned a measure of contempt for these tall, strong men. One or two would face wild boar or a stag on foot, armed with a boar spear, but most stayed a safe distance back and took their trophies with crossbows or—rarely—longbows while I stood before them in case the doomed animal made it through their first volley. It became all too clear that some felt the need to slay something weaker than themselves to feel like men; others simply felt the need to kill something.

An imprudent contempt for these men remains part of me today, though it was sometimes justified. Yet at the time, any sense of superiority I could make myself feel, no matter how spurious, helped me endure their taunts.

Perhaps it would have been easier had their mounts not shared the contempt the men showed me. Many of our visitors came astride large, powerful horses worth more than a lifetime of my earnings, and such mounts are a breed apart from your ordinary horse: a good one receives more and better combat training than most footsoldiers, and is more than a match for the average unmounted man. And those horses are wary, allowing none but their masters to approach, and very leery indeed of one such as I who fell below their line of sight and who obviously had no other purpose than to sneak past their guard and slip a knife into an unguarded belly. So whenever a visitor arrived astride such a horse, I walked with care and always kept an eye cocked backwards in case one took it upon himself to trample me.

Don’t get me wrong—they were beautiful animals, and I admired them for their untiring strength and proud spirit, even when one appeared to escape its master’s control and pursued me until I found refuge in a tree. Laughing at me from the saddle, my superior would apologize for his horse’s indiscretion, but the skill with which he subsequently handled his mount told me it was no accident I’d become the subject of the hunt, however temporary. I suppose it’s to be expected that from those days onwards, I always carried within me a deep and abiding mistrust for horses, and somehow they sensed it in me and returned my mistrust.

Years later, I stood tall enough to look Orgrim’s horse in the eye, but some of that apprehension still remained. When I called for my horse after breaking my fast, I was unsurprised to discover her awaiting me—though I hadn’t come to the inn with a horse and had no idea how the stablehands would know which horse was mine. I was also unsurprised, though not pleased, to find Grey awaiting me atop the saddle that lay amidst a pile of new gear on the immaculate stable floor. As before, he greeted me as if I’d been gone for years rather than what had been little more than an hour. I felt an almost overwhelming urge to simply be rid of him, then felt bad about it and resisted the temptation. How could I abandon something as defenseless as a cat just because it was proving inconvenient? I could always find it a safe home later if it became an unbearable nuisance. Moreover, I reflected, the cat seemed to provide a foolproof warning of Orgrim’s imminence, and I had a feeling that would prove useful.

I surveyed my horse with some trepidation, and she returned my gaze with even less confidence, well able to see the dwarf within. We were off to a fine start already, and it would grow worse; I’d never gotten a horse ready for riding before, and had only ridden a pony a few times in my life—not often enough to be any good at it. The former alone would have posed an insurmountable problem, save that the stablehands were familiar with rich guests and willing to do the work for a few small coins. I watched them work as carefully as possible without being obtrusive about it, realizing I’d soon have to be doing this myself with no one to help. They even found a safe place to secure my lute, wrapped in oilskins. The riding part I planned to figure out as I went along, for I was confident I could keep my seat at a walk for as long as necessary, and confident there’d be no immediate need to make haste.

The lad who’d prepared my steed handed me the reins, and I slipped a coin into his palm as he did. He smiled and maintained a diplomatic silence as I crossed to the right side of the horse and tossed the reins up over its head and onto the saddle. Seizing the pommel with both hands, I placed my right foot into the stirrup and gathered my other leg beneath me to push myself up into the saddle. But as I did, the horse flattened her ears against her head and began sidling clockwise away from me. The stablehand, having seen my obvious hesitation, was ready for her, and stepped in to grasp her bridle without being asked. He held her head down, and stood close against her shoulder to stop her evasions. I smiled my gratitude and pulled myself up with both hands as I thrust upwards with my leg. My strong new body was proving increasingly agile as I grew more accustomed to it, and I’d reached enough of an accommodation with it that I didn’t vault right over the horse and onto the other side. Grey joined me atop the saddle almost before I noticed his absence from the floor, and settled atop one of the saddle bags with a look of acute displeasure.

The stirrups were poorly placed, and I had to rely on the servant to lengthen them for me. The fact that I was so much larger than average was a never-ending source of amazement, and it took some fussing with the gear until I could sit comfortably. Next, he adjusted the reins to an appropriate length, and double-checked the girth strap before stepping away to open the stable doors. With some trepidation, I removed one hand from the pommel and saluted him, but he failed to notice, as his back was to me. My fears proved groundless, for the horse hadn’t moved, and showed no signs of doing so. I had vague memories of how to get her moving, so I slapped the side of her neck with the reins. She put her ears back and took a sideways step. Undaunted, I dug in my heels and loosened the reins, and that did the trick. Up went her ears, and she began moving forward at a comfortable walk.

Riding was uncomfortable at best, but I managed a credible walk—or so I assume, for no one laughed where I could hear. Of course, given my size and what might have been a well-swaddled greatsword strapped to the back of my saddle, fear was undoubtedly a more persuasive factor than any skill at managing a horse. By the time I reached the town gates, I was over my fear of falling from the saddle, and beginning to relax. Oddly enough, that made it easier for me to move along with the horse’s gait, and I grinned in pleasure. Maybe I’d make a horseman after all!

That optimism waned as I made my way westward towards Belfalas. The horse showed a distressing tendency to bolt once she saw the open road ahead, and I had to keep a firm hand on the reins and a vigilant eye to keep her in check. Fortunately, horses are not subtle beasts, and it was soon possible to discern the signs that indicated my steed’s intentions. But once I’d begun learning how to keep the horse in check, there were countless details I’d never before pondered: Where would I find food and water for my steed? How would I keep her from wandering off while I slept? How often would the two of us need to rest? Did I do the right thing by removing that pebble from her hoof with my dagger when she appeared to have gone lame? Was it really necessary to punch her hard enough to numb my fist to get her to stand still long enough for me to mount once again?

It was becoming clear that there was far more to being a horseman than sitting atop one’s mount and watching the miles roll past underhoof.

It also became clear after my first rest stop that sitting a horse involved more muscles than riding a chair. By the end of that first day, my thighs had been chafed into an exquisite tenderness and the stiffness of my muscles as I dismounted warned me of pain yet to come; indeed, the next morning I could scarcely force myself to rise from my blankets and set about readying myself for another day’s ride. But my horse had wandered off some time during the night, and it was agony to force myself to track her up into the foothills, where she’d gone in search of water. At least that solved one problem, for she’d managed not to foul the stream beyond hope of replenishing my own supplies. Yet if my face looked anything like I felt, it was no wonder she was unwilling to be caught, and it took me most of an hour to get close enough to seize her bridle. About the only thing that stopped me from killing the creature on the spot was the fact that the exertion loosened my muscles enough to make the concept of riding merely unpleasant; earlier, it had seemed unthinkable.

When I returned to camp with my prize, Grey was just rising from amidst the blankets, and eyed me with obvious amusement. Don’t ask me how I knew the cat was laughing at me; I just knew. It took a conscious effort to dump him from the blankets when I gathered them to stow in the saddle bags. By the time I’d struck camp and gotten a fire started, the horse had wandered off again. This time, though, I was better prepared. I took a carrot from my supplies and used that to lure her closer, and this time, I forced my belt knife into the rocky ground, heedless of the damage I was doing to the blade, and tied her to the hilt. That worked well enough I could enjoy a warm breakfast of bacon, cheese, and coarse black bread while the horse ate some of the fodder I found in a saddlebag. That meal further revived me, along with the crisp, clean air that was such a pleasant change after months spent breathing the stale, reeking air of Ankur.

Saddling the horse was easy enough, for I have a good memory and I’d watched as the stablehand did the job. Moreover, with my new size and muscle, it was easy to position the saddle and tighten the girth strap. Too easy, as it turns out, for I half strangled the poor horse in my first attempt and had to loosen the saddle. Now the problem became how to get back into the saddle again. I guess I must have loosened the saddle too much, for the first time I tried to mount, the saddle slipped beneath my weight and rotated nearly all the way beneath the horse, taking me with it and spilling me to the ground with a thud! that knocked the breath from me. I was sweating more than the horse by now, and it took an effort of will to calm down enough to start over again.

Eventually I discovered a level of tension that both let the horse breathe and supported my weight in the stirrups. But my problems were not over—far from it. No matter how I tried to mount, the horse sidled away from me in a tight semicircle every time I managed to get my right foot into the stirrup. Hopping along on one foot with the other poised above waist level in the stirrup while I pursued the horse was painful enough that after a time I abandoned the whole notion and simply led the horse by the reins. I could have punched her again, but mistreating an animal just to soothe my anger at my own incompetence was not my way. It felt odd to be walking when I could be riding, but in fact my legs proved grateful for the rest. In any event, riding was not to be an option unless I found someone willing to hold both the horse and their tongue while I mounted. That combination proved lacking, though many a traveler cocked a skeptical eyebrow at the sight of me leading my horse through the mountain pass, Grey riding atop the saddle with a superior air I found increasingly injurious to my dignity.

Most of that journey to Belfalas is best left undescribed. Suffice it to say that by the time we arrived in the rich farmlands surrounding that city, I’d decided that henceforth I would fare better wandering about the land on my own two feet. I’d be happy to sell the horse for what would be a scandalously low price and use the proceeds to book passage on a boat heading downstream towards the Southwood, or perhaps a coach if any ran in that direction. There was a strong temptation just to walk, but had Orgrim intended me to take my time, he’d never have bothered providing me with a horse in the first place. Given how poorly I’d handled the first task the mage had set me, it seemed unwise to tarry about this new one.

As I’d come down out of the hills, through rich farmland filled with fat and happy farmers, I’d been surprised at the extent of the city: Belfalas was huge, and lay nestled in the fork of two rivers larger than any body of water I’d ever seen. I confess that I hadn’t traveled enough to claim any expertise in such matters, but Belfalas seemed the largest city in the world, even in comparison with Ankur, which had left me speechless the first time I’d seen it. Belfalas was surrounded by an awe-inspiring expanse of wall, and was filled with broad, winding streets visible even from this distance. As I drew closer, though, it became obvious the city’s walls were in sad shape, far more impressive from a distance than up close. Belfalas had suffered grievously during the recent conflict with Amelior, and the walls remained unrepaired even though the war had ended nearly a decade ago. I knew too little of that war to be sure whether leaving Belfalas thus defenseless had been a condition of the peace treaty, caused by a lack of funds, or the result of simple carelessness. Given the magnitude of the task, I would have bet the war had taught the townsfolk how indefensible their city was and persuaded them to rely on things other than walls for their security.

Whatever the reasons, a large gap nonetheless remained between the walls and the nearest habitations. Long ago, when the city had been much smaller and nearer the frontier, the first farmers had needed a place of refuge from the Goblins said to have periodically invaded these lands from the west. As the city had grown, new walls had been thrown up to contain it and offer shelter in time of need, and though the old walls were still visible here and there, mostly they’d been incorporated into buildings or pulled down to provide building materials for newer structures. Judging by the obvious age of the current walls, there had been no new wall-building for half a dozen generations. At some point, someone had decided that it would be more cost-effective to simply restrict the city to its current size and keep all new construction a safe distance from the walls in the unlikely event a war came and that distance became necessary to protect the inhabitants.

The few parts of the walls that had been repaired were those necessary to control traffic and collect tolls. This I observed while I awaited my turn at the gates, which had been repaired well enough to bar the passage of commercial traffic but by no means well enough to hold determined attackers outside. I watched with some discomfort as a caravan of carts bearing night soil blocked the road and fouled the air; a city with that many people generated an impressive stench, and though a different city might have been content to dump the wastes into the river, Belfalas had been founded by farmers; those same wastes would make their way back into the city in a few months in the region’s rich harvests.

When my turn came, I paid the entry fee, which—presumably because I had enough money to own a horse—was steep. Had I been here at my own expense and planning to stay, I would have pursued the matter to learn whether they’d flagged me as wealthy and inflated the fee accordingly, or whether people really spent their entire lives within these walls, unable to afford the cost of leaving and returning. Even without these tolls and with the roads increasingly safe for travel this long after the war, only wealthy merchants or minstrels such as myself could afford the luxury of travel. Yet with the current tolls, someone in Belfalas was growing wealthy indeed.

When I emerged from beneath the shadows of the walls, the pungent odors of massed humanity assaulted me. On top of the aroma the carts had left in their wake, there was the scent of far too many unwashed human bodies packed into too small a space; after several days in the wilderness, I’d forgotten just how bad that smell could be, and did not look forward to reacquiring my tolerance for it. At least it was still early spring, and not yet warm enough to magnify the stench to truly numbing levels. And despite my displeasure, there were also pleasant smells drifting amidst that heavier stink: as I paused to get my bearings, I could smell occasional wafts of fresh-baked bread, the heavy perfumes of incense and spices, and a faint, half-imagined scent of flowers. Grey rode atop the horse, nose wrinkling as he tried to take in the barrage of smells.

Many of the buildings around me still showed signs of damage from fire or catapulted rocks. Unlike the walls, however, there’d been repairs on the city itself, because such repairs were a more immediate need to people who required shelter more than walls now that the war was long over, presumably forever. Some repairs were obvious, in the form of patches of new construction that contrasted with the age-worn original stones, but even the poorest of the buildings had long since been repaired with scraps and odds and ends.

It didn’t take long to learn there was no coach traffic from Belfalas. Not surprising, given that this was a recent innovation even in Ankur, whose coaches traveled almost exclusively between Ankur and Volonor in the east, and were an expensive and uncomfortable means of travel. That left travel by river my best option—unless, of course, I was willing to reconsider selling the horse. The fading ache in my thighs made it easy to choose, and I set about finding a stable. Given that I was unwilling to haggle and merely wanted to see the last of the beast, the sale took less time to accomplish than to describe. I’m not sure which of us was more relieved when I patted the horse a final time on the flank and left without a backwards glance, ignoring the ostler’s pleasure. I already had more money than I needed, and wasn’t displeased if I could do an honest tradesman a favor while ridding myself of an unwanted burden.

On foot, with Grey riding atop my shoulders, I set off towards the western end of Belfalas, which fronted on the river. It was easy to find my way, for unlike the few cities I’d been in, there were broad east–west avenues leading through Belfalas. By the evidence at hand, these were designed to facilitate the passage of carts bearing produce offloaded from river barges towards the caravans that would bear this material east and west to where it was needed. On my way, I passed through an immense marketplace, still mostly empty. I could imagine the throngs who would be here when the harvest was in and the large, empty areas were filled with the fruits of these lands.

The western walls of Belfalas, which loomed directly above the river, were in far better shape, for much of Amelior’s assault had focused on the landward side of the city. Although a fresh breeze blew in across the walls, any benefits it might have brought to the quality of the air were far outweighed by a broad expanse of warm, no-longer fresh fish drying in the sun, their odors carried inwards over the walls from the fish market. I’d eaten fish before, reluctantly, and not been fond of it even cooked. This was worse. I made my way past the market as swiftly as possible, heading towards a large barnlike structure with the sign of a barge hanging from its open door.

Inside the building, it was cool, and there was a strangely pleasant, humid smell of decay. As I approached the small office, I looked around, noting the heaps of rotting ropes and the young man who was busy cutting out such portions as he could salvage. One old boat, irreparably damaged, lay forlorn against a wall where it had been stored for the winter; had it been serviceable, I imagine it would have been on the river even now, earning its keep. In the office, a bored-looking clerk sat playing with a pile of parchment sheets, trying to look busy and failing. He greeted me as I entered.

“Welcome, Sir.” His gaze swept me from head to toe, noting the quality of my garb and the huntsman’s knife I bore at my belt. “Would I be correct in assuming you need to hire a boat?”

I smiled back. “No, merely passage south.” He did not appear disappointed, so I imagine the lute and the cat had already told him I was no wealthy merchant come to make the man’s fortune.

“Very good, sir. And how far south would you be going?”

“As close as I can get to the Southwood.”

His eyes narrowed as I said that, and he took time to appraise me more closely. “Not an auspicious destination, but then I’m sure you knew that. You look to be a man who knows his way in the world.”

I nodded, and there was a moment of silence as if he’d been expecting more. Then he shrugged. “Very good, sir.” He named a price, and as it seemed fair, I agreed with no hesitation and counted out the requisite number of coins. In exchange, he pressed a token into my hand, told me when the boat would be leaving and from where, then repeated himself to be sure I understood. We parted with smiles, and he returned to toying with his papers.

It would be a day before the boat left, so I took the opportunity to wander the city and spend some of Orgrim’s money. It was still early in the day, far too early for the more interesting night spots to be open, so I instead took the time to provision myself for the journey. All my life I’d carried a sack slung over my shoulder, and I was surprised and pleased to find a large packsack that hung by straps over both shoulders and left both my arms free, unless I chose to carry my lute rather than slinging it. This device was so efficient that I could fill it with far more supplies than would otherwise have been possible; in addition to standard things such as dried meat and unleavened waybread, I had room for luxuries such as mixtures of nuts and dried fruits, clay jars of preserves, and two large metal flasks of strong drink. Moreover, the pack included fasteners that let me carry my sleeping bundle and an oiled cloak on the outside. I even found a cobbler who was willing, for a small additional fee, to set aside all his other work and make me some new boots before I departed.

I ate my lunch at an inn that would have been far beyond my means, bribing my way in past a door-keeper who’d glanced over my attire until I erased his skepticism with appropriate doses of coinage. The food and wine were uncommonly good, and I toasted my former equine companion, whose sale had funded both my feast and my journey south. Afterwards, I reserved a room for the night and settled down to nap a while and digest my meal. A voice within my head had been whispering certain suggestions on how I could spend the night, and as I would soon be leaving all human companionship behind for an unknown period, I began to feel I should heed that voice and seek the companionship of a woman.

When I rose from my nap, I found it near enough to dinner time that there was little point in exploring Belfalas further. I went down to the common room for a meal and more wine, and as the waiter served me, I let it be known that I would also want a woman’s companionship that night. He resisted until I slipped him a few more of my still plentiful supply of coins; that persuaded him, and he disappeared for a time before coming back and nodding me in the direction of my room. By then I’d finished my meal, so I headed upstairs to wait for a bedmate, bringing a bottle of wine and a growing need with me.

I’m not sure how long I waited, but the wine was a good companion, enough so that I almost missed the first tentative knock on the door. I staggered to my feet, then bade whoever it was enter. The woman who came in was attractive enough in a worn sort of way, flaxen-haired like most of the farmers who’d settled in this area and big bosomed, and she had an attractive affected shyness. She pulled the door shut behind her, almost catching Grey’s departing tail, and crossed over to join me by the bed. The part of me submerged beneath the warm heedlessness of the wine felt appalled at my recklessness, but the voice that had urged me to this form of recreation was stronger and I surrendered to its urging and began to enjoy myself. It was a nice change to be wanted for myself, instead of the novelty of spending the night with a dwarf, and that combined with the soft, warm pleasure of the woman in my arms distracted me enough that I almost failed to notice the door opening again.

The big man who slid into the room and bolted the door at his back was disappointed I’d noticed him, but his gaze took in the empty bottle of wine and a confident grin grew on his coarse features as the woman slipped from my arms and moved to the far side of the room with a knowing smile. I rose to my feet, noting as I did the truncheon in his meaty fist.

“Sorry to be spoiling your evening, Sir, but there’s been a slight change in plans. The fee for the evening’s entertainment will be the contents of that fat purse you’ve got over there on the chair.”

“And if I choose not to pay?” I tested my balance surreptitiously, and found my legs grown steady beneath me.

“Then I’ll be the one who gets the entertainment and you’ll still lose your purse. I’d actually enjoy it more if you don’t pay willingly.” The truncheon smacked into his free palm with a thwak! that echoed in the room.

I hesitated, unsure how well I’d be able to fight in my new body. Though I suspected that I had strength and speed on my side, what little weapons skill I’d possessed had been acquired against beasts armed with natural weaponry, and skills I’d learned with much shorter arms and legs. In consequence, I had no idea of how well those skills would translate to my new dimensions. In fact, the results of my one test thus far of my new body’s martial skills, and that against the kitchen help, did not inspire confidence about the outcome of this match. The big man took my silence as refusal, and his grin broadened as he raised his weapon and advanced upon me.

Rather than waiting for him to strike, I closed as his arm began its downwards arc, and caught his wrist before the blow had fairly begun. I was pleased by my speed, and even more so by the strength that let me stand that way for a moment, evenly matched. He broke that deadlock by sinking his free fist deep in my belly with a force that brought up all my dinner and the fine wine that had washed it down. He stepped back for a moment, freeing himself from my weakened grip, and when I raised my head from where I’d gone down on one knee, tears in my eyes and not yet finished gasping and heaving up my dinner, he was standing ready to resume. It’s not that he was giving me a chance to fight fairly; his look told me he was enjoying this and wanted to prolong his pleasure. I knew I’d never block the next blow, and I steeled myself as best I could for the impact.

Then all at once, the fear that had taken the place of dinner in my belly and begun clouding my mind was swept away by a wave of rage such as I’d never before experienced. It was almost as if I retreated behind my own eyes and let that rage seize control of my body.

Everything slowed and grew clearer. I watched without alarm as the truncheon descended, and felt a savage joy as I surged to my feet and caught his wrist once more in my hand. This time I didn’t feel the impact of his fist in my belly, other than as a dull sensation far away at the edge of my consciousness; in its place, I felt a burst of strength that woke me from my wounded lethargy like a bucket of icewater dashed in my face. I had strength enough to whip his descending weapon arm to the side, then rotate it in a vicious arc down and across his front. I felt my snarl of joy as his shoulder dislocated and he screamed his agony and fear, dropping the truncheon and going to his knees before me, his wrist still in my grip. From my vantage point behind my eyes, I began to relax, confident the fight was now over, but to my horror, the part of me that was in control had no such intentions. Maintaining my grip on the man’s arm, I forced him to bend at his hips, and as he folded before me, I began kicking him in the belly, continuing even after his screams stopped and he hung limp in my grasp.

Then my world went bright as something crashed down upon my head. I released the unconscious man, swinging about to confront my new assailant, the whore who’d planned this robbery. As she met my eyes, she screamed; with an odd detachment, I noted that the man’s scream had been higher pitched even as my fist snapped her head back and flung her across the bed, where she lay unmoving. By now, I’d begun to feel sick at what I was doing, but that didn’t stop me in the least from proceeding, as if the me who recoiled from what was happening was no longer the me who seized the woman and ripped her threadbare shift from her body. I don’t like to think what would have happened had it not been for a pounding on the door that distracted me.

“Open up in there—open or we’ll knock the bloody door down!”

The murderous rage that had driven me thus far retreated sullenly, and I found myself in control of my limbs once again. The rage vanished as abruptly as it had arisen, leaving a faint residue of unclean pleasure and an echo of mocking laughter. I shook my head, feeling the blood trickling down the back of my neck and the growing ache in my gut, and there came a series of heavy thuds against the door, as if whoever’d been shouting had begun to follow through on his threat.

“Wait!” I bellowed. “Half a second, I’ve been beaten half to death here!” As I said it, I realized it wasn’t true. Though I was indeed bleeding, the blow to my head and the second and subsequent punches had left me somehow unharmed. I had little time to ponder that, though, for if I didn’t open the door soon, that excuse would no longer hold any merit. I drew the bolt, opened the door, and stepped back.

Two men in the uniform of the town watch stepped across the threshold, short swords drawn and angry looks turned towards me, as if I’d interrupted their dinner. Behind them, the innkeeper stood clutching a club. “Just what in the name of the Council has been going on here?” The three men took in the scene that confronted them, the naked, unconscious woman sprawled across my bed, her partner in crime lying moaning on the floor in a pool of our mingled vomit, his arm stretched out at an unnatural angle.

“Ask our host. Apparently, the entertainment he arranged for me tonight included robbery and a beating.” I put my hand to the back of my head and removed it, covered in blood. Even then, my wound did not hurt, but I kept my eyes and thoughts on the two guards.

The two men turned on the innkeeper, who’d gone pale and stepped back a pace as if he had no liking for the turn of events. “I... I know nothing of this!” he protested, though it was evident he lacked conviction.

“So it would appear,” the second guard observed.

“Sirs, I must protest this treatment,” I went on, seizing the initiative. “I insist that you take these two men away at once and visit upon them whatever punishment Belfalas reserves for such villains!” The innkeeper made as if to flee, but the first guard had anticipated that and caught him by the arm.

“And the girl?” the guard inquired, an eyebrow raised.

I smiled back at him, trying to look as cold as I could. “Leave her to me. We have a business arrangement to conclude.”

“Just see that she can walk home after you conclude your business,” the guard cautioned. “Under the circumstances, we’ll look the other way if you want to play rough, but we won’t tolerate murder or anything that prevents her from doing business. This isn’t Somorrah, you understand.”

“I understand. The guard needs its taxes, after all.”

His look hardened at that, but he sheathed his sword nonetheless and with the aid of his partner, bent to pull the unconscious man to his feet. The innkeeper fled the scene, though not before pressing something into the hand of the other guard, who took a moment to fumble at his purse before lending his companion a hand. It was unlikely the innkeeper would be spending any time in the town lockup that night, and equally unlikely that this was the first time he’d escaped that fate.

I closed the door on their departing backs, and bolted it. A part of me wanted to make the woman pay for what she’d done and what she’d tried to do, but that part was no longer in control. I forced it down, and instead, crossed to the room’s one table to moisten a cloth in the basin of cold washwater and return to rinse her face. It took a few repetitions before she woke.

When her eyes focused on me, she gathered her legs beneath her and recoiled across the bed. She made no effort to scream, nor did she reach for any blankets to conceal her nakedness. The coyness she’d displayed earlier was long gone, replaced by weary anticipation and the growing bruise on her cheek, as if she’d been in this or a similar situation enough times before to know what came next. That and the horror of seeing on another face what I’d far too often imagined on my own banished what little lust was left in me. I forced myself to smile at her, concealing as best I could the revulsion I felt for what I’d done and had been intending to do.

“Never mind, girl. You’ve spoiled the mood for me. Just gather your things and get out of here before I change my mind.”

With a certain dignity, she covered herself with one of the blankets we’d knocked from the bed before her partner arrived, and strode to the door, without looking back, though the stiffness of her shoulders told me she wanted to. I sat alone on the bed for a long moment before I thought to rise and close the door behind her. I almost caught Grey’s tail in the closing door, and he shot me a reproachful look. The wound from her blow had ceased bleeding, and still didn’t hurt, so I took some time to lave it from the washbasin, knowing what it would be like to have to deal with blood-clotted hair in the morning and not wanting that additional work. When I was done, I bound the wound as best I could with bandages ripped from the bedsheets. I doubted the innkeeper would object.

As I worked, I recalled something that Orgrim had said before he left: “I have given you that which lies within and which will provide you with resources you can draw upon in time of need. Should it become necessary, rely on your inner voice for advice.” Surrounded by the sour smell of vomit, my own blood still on my hands, the memory of what had just transpired under the urging of that inner voice provided little comfort.

***

The next day, I woke with a mild headache, an unpleasant taste in my mouth, and the room’s vile air in my nostrils. I used the chamber pot, then gathered my belongings and set out for the river, bearing the token the riverboat’s master had provided as my proof of payment. My gut ached enough to discourage me from breaking my fast at the inn, but once I got myself moving, my head wound was only evident in the gentle tugging of the bloodied bandages as I moved my head and the dried blood I’d missed tugging on my hair. Though I shuddered at how I’d lost control of myself the previous night, it appeared my newfound inner strength had at least one advantage: I was quite certain that had I been myself when the woman struck me with her partner’s truncheon, I would still have been unconscious, if not dead.

The riverboat that awaited was not much more than a large raft with sides, and the unpeeled logs that formed the flooring were awash by the time I’d boarded along with the rest of the cargo, an anonymous collection of sacks, barrels, and crates, as well as two tired drafthorses that undoubtedly found this part of the trip easier than the task of drawing the boat back upstream against the current. I took some faint pleasure in watching Grey’s evident distaste for his new environment, but his distaste faded soon enough when he found a warm, sunlit spot atop some crates in which to curl up. The two burly men who crewed the boat were not prone to conversation, and ignored me once I’d proved my right to passage by surrendering my token. The river was no longer swift now that the spring rains had ceased, and the boat drifted downstream, often propelled by the poles of the boatmen on flatter stretches of the river. It was a peaceful time, for I had naught to do but examine the two scrolls Orgrim had left me and watch the countryside roll past.

The land south of Belfalas was nothing remarkable, mostly low, rolling farmlands at first, then later, flat fields of some short grass separating the tended fields. It was pleasant enough if you like fields, but I prefer forests and mountains. Farms covered the land as far as the eye could see, with their fields radiating outward like the spokes of a cartwheel from small fortified manors that had a tangible feeling of age and disrepair. Neat lines of fencing made from the fieldstones that heaved their way to the surface every spring imposed a certain regularity upon the land, which was bright green with the new crops, not yet begun to tarnish brown from the coming summer’s dry heat, and relaxing to my eyes after so long amidst the city’s grey and brown stone.

The sun had not yet grown hot enough to make the journey unpleasant, nor was there enough breeze to cool me, so on the whole, it was a pleasant time. It was far too easy to lie atop a pile of sacks, well above the water swilling around the bottom of the boat, and smell the clean country air washing away the city’s stench. The lap of water against the hull, the gentle swaying of the boat, and the grunts of the men as they used the poles to keep our course straight and the boat free of the shore were lulling, and it was easy to fade away and simply exist for a time.

When I’d slept my fill and begun to grow bored, there were plenty of workers in the fields to watch. Indeed, there were enough laborers it was rare for us to proceed unremarked; like all workers, these men and women were more than happy to have an excuse to pause in their efforts and wave or watch us out of sight. I could see a few carts headed north or south along the muddy tracks that passed for roads in that region, but we were alone on the river. The people here weren’t so fat and happy as the ones I’d seen on my way through the more prosperous lands east of Belfalas, but neither did they appear to be suffering. Evidently, the life of the Belfalasian farmer wasn’t nearly so hard as I’d heard.

Towards the end of the day, we came to a large fork in the river, where a smaller but faster-flowing stream joined its waters, and the men began poling our boat towards shore. The town that lay at that confluence was nothing much to look at, perhaps two-score buildings surrounded by a low palisade of sharpened logs. There was a guard tower on the side facing south, towards the Southwood, but it was unmanned, and indeed, there were no guards to be seen anywhere. I collected Grey, who hadn’t stirred a muscle throughout the trip, and left the boat without a word to my hosts, who were busy enough unloading their cargo that they would not have noticed, nor replied if they had.

One building just inside the gates had the look of an inn, with a hitching post and water trough outside, and shuttered windows overhead that suggested the availability of guest rooms. As I drew nearer, the sun-faded sign by the door, two crossed sheaves of ancient wheat over a battered pewter mug, confirmed my suspicions.

None of the other buildings looked either promising or interesting, and there were no people wandering the streets, so I entered the inn without a backwards glance. Early as it still was, there were no farmers or other townsfolk in the inn, and I had to pound on the bar for almost a minute before I caught the attention of the innkeeper, a fit-looking man with plenty of grey in the mane of hair caught up in a tail behind him.

That worthy looked me up and down before deciding a smile was in order. “Good day, lad, and how might I be helpin’ you?”

“A drink first, then a meal and a room.”

He nodded, and turned to the kegs behind the bar. “I see you’re a minstrel,” he shot back over his shoulder. “Would that be meanin’ you’ll want to play for your room and board instead of payin’ for it?”

I hesitated. Having once nearly been robbed of all my money, I had no desire to announce my wealth and invite a repetition. On the other hand, I’d had little chance to try out my voice of late, and had no idea how well I could sing. While I weighed the two options, he returned with my beer.

“Don’t you be worryin’ yourself, lad. There’s no shame in honest poverty, and we get few visitors here. People will be happy to pay your score for some songs of the old days and gossip of the new ones.” He winked, and headed for the back room. “Pick any room you’d like upstairs. I’ll be callin’ you when dinner’s on, and I’ll send the lass with a washbasin.”

The amber beer was cool, and very hoppy, but tasted just fine. When I’d drained the mug to the thick, yeasty dregs, I headed upstairs and had a look at the rooms. After my previous night’s accommodations, they were a decided disappointment. No beds, but rather heaps of what looked to be straw in large, disheveled burlap bags, and coarse blankets folded at the foot of each bed. I picked the room that smelled cleanest, and flung the shutters wide to let it air. In the soft light that flooded the room, it was obvious there’d been no recent visitors, and there was enough dust on the one piece of furniture, a small table, that I had some hope the bedbugs had grown bored with waiting and had sought better foraging elsewhere.

As I inspected the room, I heard footsteps in the corridor, and turned to see the maid entering with the washbasin I’d been promised. She was plain but presentable, with the flaxen hair so common in that region. A faint aroma of flowers entered the room with her. In response to a sudden whim, I let my gaze dwell on her curves, feeling more lust than awkwardness at the way she blushed. My reaction puzzled me enough I almost didn’t notice my hand emerging from my purse with a coin and proffering it and—to my horror—feeling myself winking. The girl’s blush turned to anger, and I got the impression that if her hands hadn’t been full with the heavy basin, she’d have either fled the room to summon help or crossed it to slap my face. Yet her eyes watched the coin like a hawk, and I knew I’d caught her interest. Mustering such of my resources as I could, I regained control of myself and scrambled for an excuse.

“Hold, lass, don’t be angered. We city folk have different customs from you in the country. I was merely readying myself to ask if you could help me wash myself; a childhood injury prevents me from reaching my back, and it grows mighty itchy some days. That, and I’ll need your help to change my bandages.” I pointed at my head.

The anger eased into a skeptical look as she lowered the basin to the table, gracefully avoiding spilling the water. “Then you’d be havin’ a strange way of expressin’ your wishes, Sir.” Taking her eyes off me only briefly, she glanced back to the open door, and some of the tension left her. “I suppose it’d be doin’ no harm for me to help you, provided you mind your manners. I’ve a loud voice, and the men of the house can be here before you could be silencin’ me.”

I laughed, moved to the far side of the basin from her, and began removing my shirt. “You have the better of me, then. Don’t worry a hair on your head—I won’t take anything not freely offered.” I laid the coin on the table and let my shirt drop to the floor. Fighting a fleeting urge to reach for her despite her warning, I turned my back to the basin and waited. I heard her sharp intake of breath as she saw the old scars, which had not been erased by my transformation. There was a brief pause, then I heard the splash of water and felt her give a tentative scrub at my back, the water dripping down and pooling at the top of my breeches. It felt good, but it also awoke lustful feelings I had to struggle once more to force down. By the time I’d succeeded, she was done, and had replaced the washcloth in the water.

“And my bandages?”

“Calm yourself, sir. I’ll be returnin’ in a moment with fresh cloth for your head.” She was long enough at her task that my back chilled as the water evaporated. But return she did, with a heavy pair of scissors, and after soaking the bandages, she cut them away, taking no small amount of hair with them.

“Tsk,” she chided. “Your hair’s a proper mess. Would you be havin’ me cut it for you?”

“If you feel you could do that, then by all means. But mind you: don’t go making me look the fool.”

She laughed, at ease now, and set about evening out the wounds she’d made in my hair when she removed the bandages. Then she took the clean new cloth and wrapped my head once again. “There. Now you’ll be on your own for the rest, Sir.” The coin was gone from the table, and her face showed more mirth than anger.

“Sadly, lass, that I will be. Thank you for your kindness.” I felt the beginning of another wink, and closed both eyes to forestall it, but her eyes had gone wide and she was no longer paying attention.

“What a lovely cat you have. Is he friendly?”

“His name’s Grey.” I opened my eyes again, saw her squatting down by the bed stroking the cat, and forced my eyes closed again. I was beginning to scare myself, for the urges that were building within me had grown unpleasantly demanding. I’d felt those longings before my transformation, many times, but they’d never been this insistent; my larger body had larger appetites. I took a deep breath and clenched my hands into fists, opening my eyes and focusing them on my cat. “You’d best leave now, lass, for I’ll need to wash myself and have a nap before I play for my dinner.” I managed to pick up the washcloth without knocking over the basin and began scrubbing at my chest.

With a last caress of the cat, she rose and curtsied. “Have yourself a pleasant rest, Sir. I’ll be lookin’ forward to hearin’ you play tonight.”

The door closed behind her, and I opened my eyes once again. Grey sat on the edge of the bed, looking as smug as I’d ever seen him. “And well you might wear that look, you foul beast. I paid more for less attention.”

Grey shot me such a scornful look I was taken aback. Then the look faded and he curled himself in the middle of the mattress while I set about washing myself. I patted away the last of the water with one of the blankets, then set it in the window to dry. Grey sniffed fastidiously at my hand as I sat on the bed beside him, then butted his head against my hand. I stroked him and he purred, a soothing sound that rumbled so deep in his throat it might have been coming from somewhere else. I picked him up, set him at the foot of the straw bag, then lay down beside him to collect my thoughts. I could not sleep, for I had much to think about.

My recent behavior alarmed me. In the past, I’d not been too proud to seek out a whore when my needs grew great, but I’d not believed myself to be in that condition now, and never had I considered forcing a woman, particularly one who was not in the business of being forced. Then there was that killing rage that had risen in me, and even though it had saved me from a beating or worse, the lack of control was something I’d grown not to expect from myself. Something had changed in me since Orgrim had transformed me, and not for the better.

***

When I came down to the common room, drawn from my room by the delicious smell of fresh stew, there was a smallish crowd, perhaps three dozen men and women, all waiting patiently. The girl who’d brought me the water also brought me my meal, a large earthenware bowl of steaming broth plus a chunk of coarse black bread covered with some kind of runny cheese. I ate a large quantity of the food, relishing every mouthful, for it was tasty and I was hungry, and I smiled at my audience in between mouthfuls. No sooner had I finished than the girl was at my elbow with a large mug of the inn’s ale. Grey had found his way downstairs and settled himself atop the bar, from which lofty perch he allowed the innkeeper to feed him scraps of meat.

I took a long swallow of the bitter drink, then cleared my throat. “Good evening to you all, and my thanks for your hospitality.” They nodded at that, some smiling but others too shy to do more than look away. Wiping my hands on my shirt, I took my lute into my hands and began tuning it; despite its oilskin wrappings, the dampness of the air this near the river had let some of the gut strings stretch enough to throw it out of tune, and I was grateful for the chance to try out my voice as I tightened the strings, humming in time to the chords and feeling myself beginning to slip into the mood. The fingering was different from what I’d learned, for the strings were much closer together now, but my fingers knew where to seek each string and adapted with gratifying speed. It was a relief to note that my voice remained strong, though it emerged deeper from the much larger chest that was now mine. When I was done delaying, I played an old tune my foster father had taught me, seeking across the strings and letting my fingers recall the old patterns.

I felt the familiar nervousness that always woke in me during those first moments before I found myself drifting into the rhythms, letting them erase all else while the audience relaxed along with me. I was by no means a true musician or singer such as came sometimes to Court, but music had been part of what strengthened me through my youth, and brought ease and reassurance. It showed when I played, both in the music and in my voice, and that compensated for myriad musical sins. Of course, it helped that these villagers had never heard the Court’s better musicians. There was polite applause when I’d done, and a few more smiles.

“What would you have me play for you?”

“Sing us somethin’ of the war,” called one man, who was missing most of his right arm below the elbow.

I nodded. “This song is called The Soldier’s Lament.” I picked up a minor key and worked my way through the opening chords twice while I called the words to mind and let my fingers find the old patterns.

“When the sunlight fails and the clouds roll in
And the shadows fade to black
Then our hearts grow cold and we’re not so bold
As the dark comes creeping back...”

I sang of the minstrels who came, paid by the generals to sing songs of valor and heroism and the joys of war, leaving the gullible vulnerable to the recruiters who followed in their wake bearing bright coins and brighter promises, leaving no need for pressgangs. Then I carried them through the disillusionment of the young soldiers, and the deaths and horrific wounds, and the final painful homecoming of the survivors, trailing off on a mournful note. The veteran across the room nodded, remembering.

But another voice rang out. “Enough of that, minstrel. Sing of the glory. Help us remember our heroes.”

I nodded. “They were, my friend, they were. But not for the reasons we were told.” I played with a few chords, then took a long drink of the ale. “Very well. This one’s about what happens when we forget the only good reason for war.” I flexed my fingers and set up a faster rhythm, moving into the angry words.

“In our hubris we made peace
Oh so sure we’d found surcease
From the pain of war released:
No more need to conquer...”

I sang of what happened when we forgot what we won through those sacrifices, and the cost of forgetting those who preserved what we’d built. I worked in a few sly digs at Amelior, our erstwhile foe with a thirst for empire, and had many heads nodding before I ended the song with a flourish. There were even a few hoots of appreciation. I smiled at the man who’d asked for that song, gratified by his shy smile in return, and had another sip of my drink. My fingertips were beginning to feel sore, for I’d not practiced as much with my lute as I should have, and the transformation of my body had thinned the calluses on my fingers enough that playing was mildly painful. But there was a warmth spreading in me from more than the ale, and I found myself at peace, comfortable as I’d not been in a long time and basking in the acceptance of those around me.

“Enough of all this man’s talk of fightin’ and killin’,” laughed the maid who’d helped me bathe. “Let’s have a song for the ladies.”

I smiled back at her, hoping for but not getting any encouragement. “And would that be for the unwed ladies?” She colored prettily, and as the others laughed, I sought out chords for a song that might grant me a break from playing when it was done and offer an opportunity to seek some answers as to what lay ahead of me once I moved on to the south.

“This one you may have heard, for it’s called The Song of the Elf Maid.” I found a slower rhythm and played with it until I could feel it moving within me, guiding my fingers the way a song did when I had it moving clean and clear in my head and my heart and in whatever linked the two.

“ ’Twas just past dawn by Glimmermere, the moon yet in the sky
And not a sound was there to hear, except a maiden’s cry.
She sang a song of loud lament, a tale of lover’s woe
Her man had left without consent, and none had seen him go...”

It was an old and entirely implausible tale of the romance between an Elven maid and a mortal man, something from the early days when we’d first arrived on these shores and not yet earned the enmity of the original inhabitants. It was pretty and wistful and right at the edge of my skills, for the old musicians had been far more sophisticated than we were. Yet I thought I did a credible job of it, and the audience’s awkward silence as I set aside my lute told me I’d captured some of that ancient beauty for them.

“Thank you,” the girl spoke into the silence. “That was beautiful.”

“You’re quite welcome.” I sipped the ale again, keeping my eyes as guileless as I knew how. “It’s a silly sort of song, though, for as we all know, the Elves were never more than a fable for children.” Most heads in the room nodded, but there was one older woman at the back of the room whose distant gaze and haunted eyes spoke of some memory. I resolved to talk to her later. As I planned what I would ask her with one part of my mind, I chatted with the rest of the people, telling them choice bits of gossip from Ankur between sips of my drink. Ankur was a place so far away that none had ever been there. The tale of the marriage of the commoner general, John, to the princess Amanda after the old King died on the eve of war with Amelior was so popular I had to tell it twice, the second time in tedious detail. I had little news of Belfalas, which though a short journey upstream by boat, was farther than most had traveled in their lives.

I played a few more songs as the night closed in around the inn, letting each one carry me somewhere different that I might strive to bring my audience along with me. I took long breaks between each group of songs to rest my fingertips, then in response to the maid’s request for a song from the Exodus that brought us to these lands, I found myself fingering a tune that had been lurking at the back of my mind for weeks now. Playing it while in this contemplative mood might help me discover why it had haunted me for days now, when I hadn’t thought of it at all for years. Once again, I set about finding the right chords, and though it had indeed been long, I found what I sought and felt myself drawn right into it.

“Let me talk a bit of malice, let me speak a while of wrong
Tell a tale of so much ill—let me spin for you a song.
There was once a man of learning, one whose knowledge spanned all time
And whose knowledge brought him power that erased our peace of mind...”

The song was awkward and unsettling, striving to convey at once the seductive power of magic and learning and all the good things they’d brought our ancestors, while reminding us of the consequences of that learning and why it was now forbidden to us. The deeper meanings that lay behind these contradictions eluded me, the more so now that I’d made them tangible once more, but the surface meaning was clear: it had echoes of Orgrim and his mysterious past in every note.

Sharp claws on my leg interrupted my thoughts as Grey climbed until he could rest his hind legs on my thigh, then sprang up onto my shoulders, purring. Some of my audience smiled, others yawned, but all drained their drinks and began the familiar motions that told of preparations for leaving. It was still early, but farmers work while they have light and rest while they have time. Resting my lute against the bar, I rose and crossed the room to the old woman.

She looked up as I approached. “That was a fine evenin’, lad. You have a lovely singin’ voice. It’s a gift you’ve given us, for sure.”

“Thank you.” I started to bow, felt claws sink into my shoulders as Grey struggled to retain his perch, and thought the better of it. “I know it’s late, but I wonder if we might talk a moment.”

Her eyes narrowed, but she nodded and gestured for me to be seated. “Speak your mind freely, and I’ll answer as I can.”

I paused, uncertain how to begin, then settled for the direct approach. “I couldn’t help but notice your reaction when I sang of the Elf maid. It seemed almost as if you knew of such folk.”

She snorted. “The Elves? Naught but fairy tales, lad, naught but that, though you’re not nearly the first who’s come here seekin’ such things.”

“And?”

“And you’ll not be the last neither, nor will you be havin’ more luck than any of the others.”

“What happened to the others?”

“Will you be wantin’ me to tell you that few came back, and the few who did were changed?” She laughed with both her mouth and her eyes.

“Were they?”

She met my eyes then, and a solemn look replaced the mirth. “I apologize for teasin’ you, which is a poor way to repay the gift you gave us this night. No, lad, they all came back, and as for the ones who didn’t, I’d wager they simply chose another path home rather than bidin’ another night in our poor village. The only changes I could honestly say I saw were from fatigue, exposure to the wind and rain, and a certain gauntness that comes when a city man tries to live in the woods without enough rations or wit. Nothin’ strange about that.”

“So you didn’t see any of the Elves either? Then I’m sorry for keeping you from your bed.” I began to rise.

“Bide a moment, lad. I didn’t say that at all, now did I?” A touch of strangeness entered her eyes. I sat again, excitement growing. Knowing the forest folk existed was a different thing from knowing that they existed.

She took a deep breath, and continued. “When I was a young girl, I did what many did in those days. There was a fairy ring by the edge of the forest, toadstools and the like that formed a circle in which the grass grew greener than anywhere else, round the year, never covered by the snows of winter or the leaves of autumn. I went there to spend the night, for we all believed that doin’ so would reveal our own true love, and perhaps even an Elven prince. A silly thing, mayhap, but we were young and it was excitin’ to disobey our parents and go in search of magic.

“I found the ring easily enough, for there was a well-worn path to it leadin’ from some ruins that lie by the river near the forest; you can follow it tomorrow should you like. I spent the night there, bedded down in amidst the toadstools; to be honest, the ruins scared me. The grass was warm despite the chill beyond the ring, and it was temptin’ to close my eyes, but I was too excited to sleep. Some time ’round moonrise, I felt sure I was bein’ watched, but the harder I looked, the less I saw. Yet there was motion at the corner of my eyes, and after a time, I realized it was the turnin’ of my head that made it go away. The next time I saw the motion, I stayed where I was, and looked at it sideways like.”

“And what did you see?”

“One of the Elves, naturally. He was beautiful far beyond the way of our folk, and strange, as if he were equal parts moonlight and flesh, and he moved as if he never touched the ground. He was smaller than we are—you bein’ a strappin’ young lad, you would dwarf him—and finer of feature, and had great glowing blue eyes that saw everythin’. And that’s all I know of him, for he knew I’d seen him and he smiled and was gone in an instant, as if he’d never been there.”

“Were you dreaming?”

She smiled. “Some would say I was, for there was much of the dream in him. But I know it was not so.” She put her hand to her throat, and I noticed the thin leather cord that went around it and vanished into her bosom.

“You have proof?”

“Aye, that I have.”

“Would you show me?”

She hesitated, distrustful, then reached a decision. “Aye, that I will, providin’ you be willin’ to look without touchin’.”

I nodded assent, and she drew the necklace from within her clothes. There was a small leather bag there, sweat-stained and worn until it was well-nigh translucent, and she worked at the straps until it opened. As it did, a faint silvery light emerged, like the glow of the moon seen through clouds. She left it open long enough for me to see, then closed the bag and concealed it once again. “It only does that at night, long after sunset, as it did that first night when he left it for me.”

I smiled, excited again at what lay ahead. “I thank you for your kindness and for sharing that special gift with me.”

She smiled in return, rose, and left the inn without another word.

I gathered my lute and with a nod to the innkeeper, returned to my room. I was tempted to pursue the maid who’d helped me bathe earlier, but I resisted the temptation—not without effort. I had things to think about, for tomorrow I’d be entering the woods and would have my own chance to seek the Elves. Knowing that I would have a much better chance of meeting with the legends than any who had gone before me was far more stimulating—if less pleasantly so—than bedding an inexperienced country girl, particularly with her kin likely to hound me out of town the next morning. I put aside the disappointment my decision awoke within me, and lay down upon the lumpy, uncomfortable mattress, covering myself with the coarse blankets.

I slept without dreaming that night, as was my wont, though it disappointed me that I hadn’t dreamed of what the woman told me. They say that dreams reveal insights hidden to the waking mind, and perhaps their absence explains why my insights always seemed to take more physical forms by day.

***

The next morning dawned bright and clear, and I lingered over my breakfast. When I was done, I took such fresh provisions as I could carry and set out southward at a comfortable, sustainable pace, following the river towards the point where it entered the woods. With my long legs and the gentle contours of the land, the walking was easy at first, though the wild grasses that sprang from the earth beyond the farthest of the outlying farm fields were taller than my waist and caught at my feet as I walked. About the time we reached those grasslands, Grey began tugging at my breeches with his claws, wanting to be carried, so I slowed and bent down to seize him. As I did, he clambered up me to reach his perch on my shoulders before I could make a move to stop him. His claws drew blood several times along the way, and his weight lay heavy across the back of my neck. I could feel the sweat pooling there and growing itchy, and I was half tempted to remove him from his perch by main force, but when I tried, he mewed so piteously I lacked the heart to continue.

Around noon, when my hunger and fatigue began to get the best of me and the edge of the forest had risen from the grass to form a green wall that spanned the horizon, I paused by the riverbank to eat. I sat myself down on a flat rock by the stream, laid my boots beside me, and set my feet to dangling in the cool water once I saw it was moving fast enough there’d be no leeches. Across the stream, a sleek-coated fisher paused to assess me and my cat, then seeing we posed it no threat, continued its hump-backed progress, turning over rocks and darting its nose beneath the water to grasp at something. Grey took the opportunity to spring from my shoulders and seek his own meal. As he vanished into the grass, I filled my cup with water and poured it over my head, cooling me and washing the sweat and cat fur off my neck.

Grey returned with a tailless mouselike thing that he proceeded to devour daintily. I ate, watching the world going about its business around me. The grass swayed in a gentle breeze that carried countless fresh scents and the shrill buzz of grassland insects, loud enough to ring in my ears, while the river murmured to itself. There were birdsongs, some of which I recognized, and a hawk soared high overhead, wingtips spread like fingers against the sky. Grey finished his meal first, and began cleaning himself without taking his eyes off me. When I’d done eating, I brushed the crumbs from my lap, then gathered the cat up and placed him back on my shoulders before he could inflict any more damage climbing there himself. Once he’d settled into place, I continued my walk.

It wasn’t long before I’d come close enough to the woods to make out individual trees and the ruins the old woman had mentioned. In broad daylight, and from a distance, these were unintimidating, but I kept an open mind and watchful eyes, just in case. My legs and endurance had both been hardened by my passage through the mountains, and I was pleased at how tireless I’d grown; the woods came closer with each stride, and my anticipation of what lay ahead began to feel well-nigh irresistible.

It was still mid-afternoon when I arrived where the woods met the grassland and the river rushed past the ruins, and it was then I felt my first hint of strangeness. The ruins themselves held little interest, as they were nothing more than a jumble of weathered, lichen-encrusted rocks perhaps a hundred paces across and rising from little more than head-height above the grass to at least four times my own height in places; they might once have been anything from a small castle to nothing more than an immense cairn, for whatever structure they’d once possessed was nothing but a faded memory. Though there were hints of an open area at their center, I saw nothing that encouraged me to explore. I did climb a few feet up the tumbled stones to survey the lie of the land, but I felt nothing out of the ordinary as my hands sought and found purchase on the rocks.

The strangeness came when I scanned the broad sweep of forest that stretched to both horizons. The trees extended into the distance until they butted up against lowering mountains to the east, which I knew from studying maps swept southward to the sea. But to the west, the trees vanished against the featureless horizon. It was a humbling vista, for I’d never seen such a broad expanse of open, empty land, but that was not what bothered me: it was the boundary between the woods and the grassland, straight as a sword blade, with not so much as a shrub reaching out to extend the forest’s dominion over the plains. At first glance, it might once have been farmland cleared by human hands, but apart from the ruins, there was no sign my kind had ever imposed our will: no stumps—though they might have rotted after the passage of enough time—but also none of the heaped fieldstones that defined farms throughout this region.

After a time, I turned my gaze upon the forest itself, and the sense of strangeness deepened. The woods were thick with oak, pine, and a sprinkling of other trees I was familiar with, but despite that diversity, there was a curious absence that took me a few moments of concentration to discern. The problem was there were no trees smaller than a double hand-span in diameter, and most were large enough I could not have reached around them to touch fingertips on their far side. There was little understory vegetation, though enough light filtered through to the forest floor to illuminate the mosses and ferns that grew there in profusion. The woods were silent and motionless, with not so much as a bird call or squirrel scolding me from the leafy canopy overhead. Even the insects had gone quiet—not silent, but rather hushed—and though I was grateful for the respite from their shrill chorus, I’d failed to notice when their voices had been muted.

After a time, a peculiar feeling came over me. I’ve often been watched before, whether by boars and other forest animals intent on doing me no good or by the men and women of the Court with even darker motivations, but this was nothing like that sensation at all. There was something in that feeling of nights spent alone in the forest when I was younger, practicing the wilderness skills my foster father had taught me; I remember the mistaken feeling of being watched by the trees themselves, being less confident in my skill and less comfortable with solitude and stillness than I’d eventually become. But what I felt wasn’t exactly like that either. Neither was it like the sense of brooding animosity you hear about in fairy tales, right before the hero vanishes for good or meets the monster he’s set out to slay. It was... I guess the closest I can come to describing it was that I sensed an otherness with something other than the five familiar senses.

Shrugging, I shook off the feeling. Nothing the old woman had said gave me cause to fear for my safety, and all the tales I’d heard of the Southwood emphasized that a cautious man had nothing to fear. Besides, during my survey of the ruins I’d spotted the fairy circle the woman had described—it would have been difficult to miss—and I wanted to gather firewood and investigate the circle before night fell. When Grey saw my intent, he leapt from my shoulders and settled himself on a fallen stone that had spent the day warming in the sun. I laid my backpack on the ground beside him, and entered the woods.

The first task took no time at all, for there was plenty of wood scattered beneath the trees, much of it dry despite the shade. The strangeness was more intense beneath that shade, but not hostile. Having piled my wood near a small angled opening in the rubble that would help reflect the heat, I turned my attention to the fairy ring, which lay beneath the boughs of an enormous oak. It was an impressive thing, nothing like the humble rings in my familiar forests to the north. Here, the circle was broad enough for two of me to lie stretched out within it, with no fear of touching either side even with arms and legs stretched to their limits. The toadstools that marked its boundary were enormous, some the size and solidity of a wheel of cheese, and even the smallest was as big as a man’s head. Within the circle lay close-cropped grass of a vibrant green that made the grass outside the ring, though still in the flush of its late-spring vigor, pallid by comparison. The final noteworthy aspect of the circle was that it shared the sense of otherness projected by the forest.

I stepped into the circle, then out again, but nothing happened apart from a momentary intensifying of the sensation. Unlike the old woman, though, I had no intention of spending time within the circle. I’d heard—and sung about—far too many tales of those who’d spent the night in a circle and awoken to find weeks or even months vanished like the morning dew. No, I’d observe from a safe distance, hoping but not really expecting to meet my first Elft while I stayed in the comparative safety of the grassland. After a last look around me, I returned to my piled wood to nap and prepare myself for dinner and a night’s vigil.

Some restless part of my mind woke me around sunset, though not with any sense of alarm. Rather it was a sense that something had changed in my environment beyond the fading of the light and the decreasing warmth. While my sleep-dulled mind began to function again, I used my firepot to kindle a cook fire; the coals in the pot were almost extinguished, but I’d done this enough times before to succeed in coaxing them to more vigorous life with gentle breaths. Soon the fire was strong enough to cook the fresh meat and toast the bread I’d brought with me. I ate slowly, relishing the good food and the clean, still air, and watching with considerable pleasure as the sun set in a red sky that limned the wall of the forest running off to the west. Grey stalked about the fire, chasing shadows and trying to catch my attention, but he distracted me only briefly, for as the food worked its magic on my hunger, something else worked another magic on my senses, sharpening them and leaving me alert.

It wasn’t a worried alertness—more the sort of anticipatory feeling that presages a thunderstorm, though the clear depths of the sky told me no storm was in the offing. Although Grey still hunted shadows, these were innocent and harmless, not the shadows I remembered from the nightmare of my transformation. I’d felt no sense of being watched earlier in the day, and there was still no sense of hostile intent around me. Yet the birds remained silent, and the only sounds were the crackle of the fire, the soughing of the wind along the edge of the forest, and the susurrus of water a stone’s throw from where I sat. It was that sense of otherness that worked on me, the same one I’d recognized when I first arrived here but now grown stronger with the fading of the sun, grown to the point where I fancied I could reach out and touch it if I tried.

That sensation extended to the heap of stones that faced me across the fire, for now that the sun had disappeared, their appearance changed subtly. I had to step beyond the circle of light from my fire to understand what had happened, and when I did, the change was obvious even to human eyes. Earlier, there had been naught but sun-warmed stone, solid enough to stand on and not obviously different from any other rock; now, there was a strange feeling of absence, as if I could reach out and pass my hands through the stones. The sensation was sufficiently odd that I tried this, and though the stones remained solid beneath my probing fingers, there was a curious sensation in my fingertips as if the stones were only feigning solidity—almost the way the vibrating strings of my lute were there, yet not there, when I played. I rested my hands against the stone, which was still warm from the sun, trying to understand what I was feeling, and all at once, the moon rose. The change was sudden and complete: the stone softened beneath my touch as if it were nothing more than unusually dense cobweb.

I pulled my hand back, having no desire to become as insubstantial as the stones, and no sooner had I done so, than the feeling of cobwebs vanished. Intrigued, I moved my hand closer to the stone once again, and as my fingers came in contact with it, that clinging feeling returned. With a shudder, I withdrew my hand.

The moon had wrought another change. The forest at my back, gone monochrome now beyond the circle of warm light cast by my fire, had come alive. The quiet calls of nocturnal birds drifted out of the woods, and bats began hunting overhead, their shrill squeaks clear against the gentle background noise of the wind. Things moved in the shadows beneath the trees, but normal forest things—a raccoon on its way to the river, eying Grey with a hungry look before spotting me and thinking the better of it, and a small, short-eared rabbit with ginger fur and the perpetually terrified look of its kind. I half reached for the large stone I’d carried against just such an occasion—fresh meat would be a pleasant change from hard jerky tomorrow—but something distracted me. The fairy circle drew my eye, for the grass within caught and held the moonlight, as if dipped in silver, and the toadstools had begun glowing with a golden light all their own.

Placing my back to the fire, I sat down and prepared myself to watch the circle and the forest beyond it; I had no idea what to expect, but the feeling of magic was so strong I was certain something would soon happen. My companion was oblivious; Grey, bored, slipped off into the grass to hunt up his own dinner, perhaps even the rabbit. By the time I remembered the raccoon, the cat was long gone. I called his name, but he didn’t return. I hoped he’d be all right.

I watched until the waning moon had risen nearly straight overhead, but saw nothing I could claim as evidence I was no longer alone. I’d sat with the patience I’d learned as a hunter, and had watched from the corner of my eyes as the old woman had advised, yet still I saw nothing. I was beginning to resign myself to having spent a fruitless night when a commotion erupted beneath the trees. A small patch of ferns began thrashing to and fro, as if a silent hunter had caught its dinner, and I narrowed my gaze, curious to see what had drawn so close unseen. To my surprise, the thrashing stilled, to be replaced by a thin wailing noise, as if a child had been caught out after dark and feared both what the dark held and what its parents threatened when they returned. I shuddered at the memories.

All at once, Grey emerged from the patch of ferns, carrying something limp in his mouth, and no longer able to restrain my curiosity, I hastened to investigate. Head held high, he glided across the short distance between us and proudly deposited his burden at my feet: a beautiful woman, but one so tiny she would have fit in my hand with room to spare for her twin. A fairy! The wailing stopped as she struck the ground.

Knowing something of the ways of cats, I knelt to determine whether she’d been damaged; I had no idea what aid I could have given, but it would have been wrong not to at least try. But before I could touch her with my fingertip, the fairy gave a start and opened her eyes. They were a pale and luminous blue, with no whites and no pupils, and held infinite depths. I withdrew my hand.

“Save me, Man, and all my considerable resources shall be thine!”

I blinked, but was speechless with surprise; the fairy’s voice had been faint and tremulous with fear, and bore an archaic accent, but the words were in my own tongue. I was at a loss for words, overcome with the wonder of what I was seeing.

The fairy mistook my intent. “If you lack greed, then have you no pity in its place?” There was angry pride now in that voice, beginning to cut through the obvious terror. I shook off the spell that had fallen upon me and hastened to reply.

“My apologies. I have normal amounts of both. But you startled me so, I could find no words to respond.”

“Abandon then this wordplay, and restrain your beast before it makes a meal of me. If neither greed nor pity can move you to intervene, then perhaps the threat of my death curse will move you!”

Although I’d heard more than my share of stories of fairy gold and fairy magic, I had until tonight been sure they were nothing but the tales simple folk told to explain the many things beyond their ken. I no longer knew what to believe, and whether any of what the fairy promised or threatened could be real. What was foremost in my mind was that having often been in the situation of a small creature at the mercy of far larger tormentors, my heart went out to her even as my hand went out to Grey. Grey arched his back in pleasure at my caress and began purring, but his eyes remained fixed upon the fairy.

“Have no fear, small one. You’re in no danger.”

“And you who had me brought here in the mouth of that great hunting cat would have me believe that?”

I laughed, overcome with the novelty and strangeness of the situation, and beginning to feel pleased that fairies did exist. “Your point is telling, but as you have little alternative than to trust me, it’s moot. I want none of your treasure, and I fear none of your magic. What I do want of you is easy to give.”

“You fear not my magic?” The voice, grown less fearful now that I’d restrained Grey, held a certain disbelief. The fairy’s eyes unfocused as she looked at me, then a look of horror transformed her face. “Woe! You have reason indeed to have no fear of me nor yet desire aught that I could provide. I would have better remained in the cat’s mouth.” There was a tremor in her voice again.

“What do you mean? You have my word I mean you no harm; indeed, I’ve saved you from my cat and offered you no threat of harm nor any other sort of insult. Neither am I playing with you, ready to betray your trust upon the first opportunity.” For the second time in less than a week, I felt the first stirring of a deep anger within me, and it surprised me, for I’d never been one quick to rage, and that emotion clashed with the wonder I’d been feeling until then.

“So you say, and were I one to listen to your words, that would reassure me. But it would seem I have scant choice other than to trust. Very well, Man; ask of me what you will, and for the boon of my life I shall essay to provide what you require.”

Though I was tempted to ask what she’d seen that scared her so, the anger that had risen in me would brook no further delays. “Done. I require only that you bring a message to the Elves.”

“A message? That is all you require of me?”

“Nothing more. I ask for your word that you will find the Elves and tell them that I come bearing a message from one Orgrim, a powerful sorcerer. When you have told them that, you will have discharged your service.”

“Only that?” There was skepticism in her voice.

“Only that. But I do require your word—and my companion and I shall take it amiss should you choose to violate that word. My companion knows your scent now and might be far less gentle next time he finds you.”

She shuddered from head to toe, and a part of me enjoyed that unaccustomed power over another. “It shall be as you say. You will await them here, should they choose to come?”

I felt certain they would so choose. “I will await them here. Now begone, and bear my message.”

The fairy rose, tiny translucent wings unfurling from her back. With a last terrified glance at Grey, she turned and fled into the cool night air, vanishing into the dark woods like a bat that had flown into a chimney in pursuit of moths. All of a sudden, my anger departed, and I found myself fatigued, despite my long nap; evidently I’d not grown as strong as I’d believed. I banked the fire with dry stones, and laid myself down to sleep beside it. Grey came to lie close against me, between me and the warmth of the fire, but that was the last I remember.

***

In the morning, I woke to find the cat gone again. The silence of the previous day was back, the inanimate noises of the river and the breeze reminding me I’d not gone deaf. I was stiff from my vigil the previous night, as my long time spent in the city had softened me more than a few days’ hike could cure. Moreover, I could smell myself over the clean smell of the grasslands and my skin itched from insect bites and perhaps from small guests I’d picked up at the inn. I would need to bathe soon. Fortunately, the sun had already begun to burn the dew off the grass, though it was yet early, and it had all the makings of a warm day. I broke my fast on cold cheese and bread, not yet gone stale, and set about stretching to rid myself of the night’s stiffness.

When I’d done with those exertions, I approached the stream with trepidation. The water had been cool but not cold near Belfalas, but here, south of the fork where the eastern stream from the mountains had merged with the river, it was icy cold—delightful to drink, but quite another thing to wash in. I knelt to splash some on my face, and it was brisk. No, I would wait until much later in the day, when the sun would be hot enough to warm me afterwards.

I had little to do but wait, for there was no sign of any of the wildlife that had emerged last night, my gear was too new to need repairs, and my fingertips were still sore from their work at the inn. It was too soon after my waking to have another nap, and nothing I’d heard of the Elves led me to expect a visit before sunset, so all that was left was to have a closer look at the heaped stone. To my relief, the stone was solid once again in the bright daylight, with nothing to remind me of its disturbing behavior the previous night. It was perhaps five minutes’ effort to climb to the top of the heap, and it took that long only because I trusted no stone until I was certain it would not roll beneath me and deposit me ungently upon the ground.

I gained the topmost part of the heaped ruins, glorying in the reach of my new arms and the powerful thrust of my legs. Once there, I sat upon a level floor some twenty feet above the ground and about the same size across, and save for the gaps between the sagging stones, that floor was as featureless as the stones themselves. There was nothing here that told me anything about what this heap of stones had once been, save for one clue: the too-regular shape of the stones told me they had not formed naturally, nor had any natural mechanism deposited them here in such a quantity this near to the river and this far from the mountains. Someone had carried them here. It was a mystery, for certain, and one I would love to have solved.

There was nothing to be done atop the piled stones, and the view was no better than what I could see from the ground, so I descended the way I’d come and set about busywork. I had enough firewood for another night’s fire, but I collected several more armfuls anyway. There were mushrooms I recognized as edible, and I gathered them too, along with fiddleheads I spotted when I knelt by the ferns to set a rawhide snare for the rabbit who’d happened along last night. Then I returned to the woods to look around and try to better understand what felt so strange about them.

The woods retained that sense of otherness, more obvious now I’d become more familiar with it and could feel it like a tickle in my mind. It was easy to ignore, though, once I began exercising my woodcraft and watching for signs of life. The light was dim beneath the forest canopy, but there were nonetheless obvious signs that I’d not dreamt the awakening of the woods last night. There were faint tracks here and there, the feather of a chickadee next to the seeds it had tucked into crevices in the bark and forgotten last fall, the remains of a wide variety of defecations, and once, the cracked and dried bones of some small animal who’d fed a predator; there were even the marks of a buck who’d rubbed the velvet from his antlers on the seamed bark of an old pine. But despite these signs, nothing alive moved through these woods save me.

The sun had risen high enough in the sky that I could no longer delay the inevitable, so I returned to the stream, gathering my bedclothes along the way. With a quick, reflexive look around to ensure I was alone, I began removing my clothes. My gear needed a good washing, so I soaked it well and left it under water, weighted down with several rocks. I moved as fast as I could, but by the time I was done, my hands were numb from the cold. I warmed them by holding them in my armpits, clutched tight to my side, until feeling returned. That done, and before I could think the better of it, I stepped into the stream and flung myself flat into the water. Had I been any weaker of will, I’d never have done it, and I’d never have stayed long enough to scrub myself from top to bottom. It was cold enough that I soon had not one, but two, lumps in my throat, and it took a good hard swallow to return them to their proper position in my loins. But I kept at it until I was done, and emerged to stand dripping on the mud of the riverbank. Grey lay atop the bank, smug and dry amidst the tall grass, watching me with evident amusement.

“Be glad you can bathe yourself, cat, or you’d be next.”

His gaze dripped contempt, and he rose and padded away in the general direction of our camp. I turned back to the river, shaking from the chill, and recovered my soaking gear, careful lest my numbed hands slip and send it on a long ride downstream. With my damp gear in tow, I returned to the sunwarmed ruins by my camp, where I wrung out the clothes and blankets as best I could and hung them to dry. That done, I climbed back to the top of the rocks with my lunch. The breeze was chill at first, but the sun soon warmed my skin, after which the breeze became a comfortable respite from the warmth. When I’d done with my lunch, I stretched myself full-length across the stones and closed my eyes. It was not comfortable, but a full belly and the absence of my former itch—the icy water had done its work nicely—combined to lull me into a light sleep.

I woke towards sunset, the sun’s warmth having faded but the light still good enough for me to climb down and retrieve my gear. I was stiff from my uncomfortable bed and from the sunburn that had grown over the course of the day, but those complaints notwithstanding, I felt wonderful; my swarthy complexion had spared me any serious hurt, and the warmth had penetrated right into my bones. The clothes were dry and warm from the sun, though stiff and scratchy across my pink shoulders. Grey awaited me at the camp, and after a cautious sniff, came to lie in my lap to be petted and fussed over. When he’d had enough of that, he left me in search of his dinner and I set about getting the fire going again. There were still coals smoldering where I’d banked them beneath the ashes, so that took little effort.

I ate my evening meal and savored another glorious red sunset. And as the light faded, the sense of otherness I’d grown accustomed to during the day strengthened, becoming a tangible presence again. This time, I resisted the temptation to touch the rocks, for my memory of the feeling was not a pleasant one. Once again, the forest came alive as the moon rose from behind the eastern mountains, and I watched and listened with pleasure as the animals whose traces I’d seen earlier in the day began moving about their usual business. It was a simple show after the frenzied entertainments of the city, but it repaid one’s patience.

After a time, I grew certain I was being watched, yet I could see and hear nothing to confirm that it was so. Despite the moon, it was dark, and my night vision was no better than that of any other man, so the fact I could not see my watcher meant nothing; there was not even movement at the corner of my eyes, as the old woman had led me to expect. I thought of several strategies, then settled on the first one I’d come up with. Keeping my hands well away from the weapons I’d left in plain view atop my blankets, I cleared my throat and raised my voice. “I know you’re watching me,” I spoke to the forest. “I mean you no harm, and have a message to bring you.” Then I waited.

Almost immediately, my watcher rose from behind the ferns I’d inspected earlier that day. The Elf stood a foot shorter than me, just over five feet tall, and his two most obvious features were his hair and his eyes. His golden hair glowed with an inner luminance tinged with the moon’s silver, until it seemed almost more aura than hair. His eyes were the green of day-old leaves, and like those of the fairy I’d rescued from Grey last night, they were a single, solid color, with no trace of pupil or white of eye. The combination was unutterably strange, and yet beautiful. I’ve called the Elf “he”, for such was my first impression, but his was an equivocal beauty, and it was mostly the absence of obvious female characteristics that suggested his sex. That same otherness I felt surrounding me was magnified a hundredfold in him, and he moved as a shaft of moonlight, leaving no trace as he parted the grass with his small feet. The grass closed behind him as if he’d never been there—indeed, as if he came out of dream rather than existing in the same reality that was my home.

The other things that caught my eyes were the long, thin sword that swung at his waist and the strung longbow clutched in his right hand, the silver-tipped arrow resting beneath his right thumb while his two left forefingers gripped the bowstring and fletching loosely. I watched him, but made no effort to reach for my own weapon nor to gather my feet beneath me. I had worked with master archers before, and knew from the casual ease with which he held the bow that I’d not live to complete either motion should I alarm him. His own eyes roved about, as if seeking something, though without pupils for me to watch, it was difficult to be sure where he was looking.

“My name is Modred. Be welcome to my camp,” I said, making a conscious effort not to scan the woods at his back to determine whether he was alone.

When he spoke, he used my own tongue, and like the fairy, the words rolled smoothly off his tongue, freighted with an antique accent. “This is not about welcomes, for you are not welcome here, but circumstances nonetheless force me to accept your hospitality.” He folded himself into a crouch, on the far side of the campfire, squatting and letting his bow rest across the front of his thighs, the arrow pointing more or less in my direction and his fingers relaxed upon the string.

“You have my apologies. As it happens, I’m not my own agent in this matter.”

His eyes sought my own then, and the relaxing of the small muscles around them made them seem unfocused, as if he were seeing through me more than looking at me. After a moment, his eyes widened in shock, and though he mastered himself, his fingers tightened again around the bow. “So I see. You should know that this makes you less—not more—welcome here, for it is painful for us to deal with such as you.”

“If I’m not welcome, then why are you here?” I watched him carefully as he replied.

“To determine whether you pose us any threat.”

“And if I do?”

“That will become clear once I understand the nature of the threat.” He smiled coldly. “I have come to receive your message and to bear it back to my elders.”

I shook my head: no. “I’m afraid my message is not simply verbal. I have that with me which I must carry to your leaders.”

His eyes widened and he surged to his feet, bringing his bow to bear on me. It took all my courage to remain seated, immobile, though I couldn’t quite prevent myself from flinching. After a moment, he relaxed and let his aim drift aside. “My apologies. My misgivings led me to mistake your intended meaning.”

There was no warmth in his voice, but at least he’d not slain me where I sat. I forced myself to release the breath I’d found myself holding and took in another deep breath, equally slowly, to calm myself as I’d learned to do before other, far less important performances. “It is my turn to ask your forgiveness. I know not what it was that worried you so; please believe me. We speak different languages, though you use the same words I do, and we can expect other such misunderstandings... I truly mean your people no harm, and should my words give you cause for doubt, please reinterpret them in that light.”

“I shall endeavor to do so,” he said. “You claim you bear that which must be brought before my elders. I must see it before I can permit that.”

“That’s a fair request.” I tried to meet his eyes, and though I succeeded, I wasn’t sure what I saw there; it was disconcerting to gaze into those green depths and have none of the normal clues to tell me what he was thinking. Nonetheless, his body language told me he remained under as much tension as his bow, and that caution was recommended. “I’m going to reach into my backpack now, and remove a scroll. Please don’t mistake my intentions.”

Without rising, I eased my arm towards my backpack, hoping he didn’t catch the faint tremor I couldn’t conceal, and opened the top flap. Then, using my fingertips, I teased the two scrolls free of the smooth leather until I could see the colors of the seals. When I was sure he’d seen they were scrolls, I removed the one with the green seal and swung it in front of me until I was holding it towards him, but not pointing directly at him; I had a strong premonition that doing so might have been more than his forbearance would permit.

“I have two such messages: one for your leaders, the other for someone else who need not concern you.”

His head turned towards the scroll and his eyes unfocused once again, then he frowned and looked again at me. “I sense no ill intent, yet there is nonetheless a powerful magic in that scroll. There is something here I understand not at all, and that the elders shall have to deal with. Very well. Yet there is one more thing I must ask before I can bring you with me.”

“Ask, and if it is within my power, I shall comply.”

“You are nothing if not courteous, Man.” There was the slightest hint of irony in his voice, and I began to relax. “Very well. You must leave your weapons here, both as an act of good faith and as a courtesy, for your iron is uncomfortable at best to my folk.”

I fought down the unease that rose within me, vanquishing it with the realization that I was no great warrior anyway, and that even were I such, I’d be outnumbered beyond even a hero’s ability once I found myself in the Elves’ home. Should they want me dead, my knife would do little good against one or more bowmen firing unseen from cover. “I accept your conditions,” I replied, “with two conditions of my own. First, I must put aside my weapons so they will remain safe against my return. Bide here a few moments.”

I gathered my weapons, careful not to make any moves that might be misconstrued as hostile, and wrapped them in a spare oilskin I’d carried with me as a shelter against the rain. When I’d done, I forced myself to overcome my revulsion as I forced the bundle past the cobwebby cling of the ancient ruins and left it deep beneath their surface, where it would be concealed from a casual search. Moreover, I had the suspicion that nothing short of magic would permit its removal from beneath the stones by day, while no wanderer by night would think to seek them there. The Elf unstrung his bow and began extinguishing my fire, careful to ensure it wouldn’t spread. He turned at my approach.

“You mentioned two conditions.”

“Yes. The second is that you must arm me so I can defend myself should we encounter something wild with even less liking for humans than your kind feels.”

He laughed, a brittle sound that only hinted at true mirth. “You will be safe enough with me, but if it will ease your fears, I shall provide you with a means of protection.” He reached a hand behind him and unclasped a leather belt sling that held a hand axe. He tossed it gracefully, and I caught it by the haft, grateful I hadn’t humiliated myself by missing or grabbing the head. The axe head was light and made of an unfamiliar metal, but felt sturdy for all that. I hooked it to my belt.

I reached to collect my backpack. “I thank you for your trust.”

“See that you justify it.” He turned his back on me and moved off towards the forest, flowing across the grassy ground like a moon shadow. I followed as best I could, conscious of how graceless my movements were by comparison. He paused at the edge of the woods.

“Take my hand for the crossing.”

I looked about me as best my human vision permitted, but saw nothing to cross. I shrugged, and took his hand. It was cool and dry, and when I squeezed harder than necessary to let me gauge his strength, he returned my grip without wincing. I relented, remembering what I’d done to the man in the inn and not wanting to hurt him despite my impulse to test his strength; he was more graceful than any dancer I’d seen, but by no means a weakling.

Something had changed in that moment of contact. The Elf stepped between the trees, drawing me with him, and in an instant, the sense of otherness vanished. He relinquished his grip immediately, as if my touch were unpleasant, but the world had already changed, and it was not until I paused to finish what I’d started that I noticed the nature of the change. As we came abreast of the cluster of ferns in which I’d set the rabbit snare, I paused and knelt beside it.

“Why have you halted?” His tone was impatient.

“I set a snare here earlier, and must remove it so no animal will come to harm in my absence.” That was true enough, but it also provided an excuse for me to cast a look first backwards at the camp and then another downwards at the ground, where the Elf had hidden. The yellowish flash of moonlight in a cat’s eyes met my first look, and I knew that Grey had seen me and would follow. I was more interested, though, in the ground around the snare. Though the Elf had lain here to watch my camp, and must have crawled or wormed his way on his belly to reach this position, even my wood-wise eyes could see no sign he’d been here.

“You surprise me, Man. Few of your kind would bother to make such an effort, and I had particular cause to doubt you.” He looked troubled, as if I puzzled him.

I smiled at him, friendly as I could. “I remember what it was like to be small and powerless before my tormentors, and would not wish that even on an animal.” He missed the deeper meaning in my words, and I duly noted that; whatever it was he’d seen when he’d first appraised me and grown alarmed, he couldn’t read my thoughts.

The change in my circumstances now became clear, for try though I might, I could see but not touch the snare. It was as if I were brushing my hand through cobwebs, though the ferns were solid enough beneath my touch. I heard a snort of laughter and turned to meet his amused gaze.

“You are in Eald, now, Man. That which you left behind you is beyond your grasp.”

“And the snare?”

With a motion too rapid to follow, his silver sword cleared its scabbard and flashed in the moonlight. The rawhide snare parted beneath that stroke. “Some things there are that exist in both worlds at once.”

Not trying to hide his amusement, he resheathed the sword, turned away from me, and glided deeper into the woods.

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Continue reading: Chapter 10

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