Towards sundown they pulled the horses to a halt in a small gully, only a depression, really, defined by a series of low tummocks on the plain.
Dave was a little unnerved by all the openness. Only the dark stretch of Pendaran brooding to the west broke the long monotony of the prairie, and Pendaran wasn’t a reassuring sight.
The Dalrei were undisturbed, though; for them, clearly, this exposed spot on the darkening earth was home. The Plain was their home, all of it. For twelve hundred years, Dave remembered.
Levon would allow no fires; supper was cold eltor meat and hard cheese, with river water in flasks to wash it down. It was good, though, partly because Dave was ravenous after the day’s ride. He was brutally tired as well, he realized, unfolding his sleeping roll beside Tore’s.
Overtired, he soon amended, for once inside the blanket he found that sleep eluded him. Instead he lay awake under the wide sky, his mind circling restlessly back over the day.
Tabor had still been unconscious when they left in the morning. “He went far,” was all the Chieftain would say, but his eyes could not mask concern, even in the dark of Gereint’s house.
But then the question of Tabor was put aside for a moment, as Dave told his own story of the night glade and the Huntress, except for the very last, which was his alone. There was a silence when he was done.
Cross-legged on his mat, Gereint asked, “ ‘Courage will be needed’—she said exactly that?”
Dave nodded, then remembered it was the shaman, and grunted a yes. Gereint rocked back and forth after that, humming tunelessly to himself for a long time. So long that it startled Dave when he finally spoke.
“You must go south quickly, then, and quietly, I think. Something grows, and if Silvercloak brought you, then you should be with him.”
“It was only for the King’s festival,” Dave said. Nervousness made it sound sharper than he meant.
“Perhaps,” Gereint said, “but there are other threads appearing now.”
Which wasn’t all that wonderful.
Turning on his side, Dave could see the raised silhouette of Levon against the night sky. It was deeply comforting to have that calm figure standing guard. Levon hadn’t wanted to come at first, he remembered. Concern for his brother had left him visibly torn.
It was the Chieftain, asserting himself with absolute firmness, who had settled the issue. Levon would be useless at home. Tabor was being cared for. It was not, in any case, unusual for a faster to sleep a long time on his return. Levon, Ivor reminded his older son, had done the same. Cechtar could lead the hunt for ten days or two weeks—it would be good for him in any case, after the loss of face caused by his failure two days ago.
No, Ivor had said decisively, given Gereint’s injunction as to speed and secrecy, it was important to get Dave—Davor, he said, as they all did—south to Paras Derval safely. Levon would lead, with Tore beside him in a band of twenty. It was decided.
Logical and controlling, Dave had thought, and coolly efficient. But then he remembered his own last conversation with Ivor.
The horses had been readied. He had bidden formal, slightly stiff farewells to Leith and then Liane—he was very bad at goodbyes. He’d been embarrassed, too, by the knot of girls standing nearby. Ivor’s daughter had been elusive and remote.
After, he’d looked in on Tabor. The boy was feverish, and restless with it. Dave wasn’t good with this, either. He’d made a confused gesture to Leith, who’d come in with him. He hoped she’d understand, not that he could have said exactly what he’d wanted to convey.
It was after this that Ivor had taken him for that last stroll around the perimeter of the camp.
“The axe is yours,” the Chieftain had begun. “From what you have described, I doubt you will have great use for it in your own world, but perhaps it will serve to remind you of the Dalrei.” Ivor had frowned then. “A warlike remembrance, alas, of the Children of Peace. Is there anything else you would…?”
“No,” Dave had said, flustered. “No, it’s fine. It’s great. I’ll ah, treasure it.” Words. They had walked a few paces in silence, before Dave thought of a thing he did want to say.
“Say goodbye to Tabor for me, eh? I think… he’s a good kid. He’ll be all right, won’t he?”
“I don’t know,” Ivor had replied with disturbing frankness. They had turned at the edge of the camp to walk north, facing the Mountain. By daylight Rangat was just as dazzling, the white slopes reflecting the sunlight so brightly it hurt the eye to see.
“I’m sure he’ll be fine,” Dave had said lamely, aware of how asinine that sounded. To cover it, he pushed on. “You’ve been, you know, really good to me here. I’ve… learned a lot.” As he said it, he realized it was true.
For the first time Ivor smiled. “That pleases me,” he said. “I like to believe we have things to teach.”
“Oh, yeah, for sure,” Dave said earnestly. “Of course you do. If I could stay longer…”
“If you could stay,” Ivor had said, stopping and looking directly at Dave, “I think you would make a Rider.”
Dave swallowed hard, and flushed with intense, self-conscious pleasure. He was speechless; Ivor had noticed. “If,” the Chieftain had added, with a grin, “we could ever find a proper horse for you!”
Sharing the laugh, they resumed their walk. God, Dave was thinking, / really, really like this man. It would have been nice to be able to say it.
But then Ivor had thrown him the curve. “I don’t know what your encounter last night means,” he had said softly, “but it means a good deal, I think. I am sending Levon south with you, Davor. It is the right thing, though I hate to see him go. He is young yet, and I love him very much. Will you take care of him forme?”
Mean, unbalancing curve ball. “What?” Dave had exclaimed, bridling reflexively at the implications. “What are you talking about? He’s the one who knows where he’s going! You want me to guard him? Shouldn’t it be the other way around?”
Ivor’s expression was sad. “Ah, my son,” he had said gently, “you have far to go in some ways. You, too, are young. Of course I told him to guard you as well, and with everything he has. I tell you both. Don’t you see, Davor?”
He did see. Too late, of course. And clearly, he’d been an idiot, again. Again. And with no time to make it up, for they had looped full circle by then, and Levon, Tore, and seventeen other Riders were already mounted, with what seemed to be the whole third tribe turning out to see them off.
So there had been no last private word. He’d hugged Ivor hard, though, hoping the Chieftain would somehow know that it meant a lot for him to do that. Hoping, but not knowing if.
Then he had left, south for Brennin and the way home, the axe at his saddle side, sleeping roll behind, a few other things behind as well, too far behind for anything to be done.
On the starlit dark of the Plain, Dave opened his eyes again. Levon was still there, watching over them, over him. Kevin Laine would have known how to handle that last talk, he thought, surprisingly, and slept.
On the second day they started just before sunrise. Levon set a brisk but not a killing pace; the horses would have to last, and the Dalrei knew how to judge these things. They rode in a tight cluster, with three men, rotating every second hour, sent ahead a half-mile. Quickly and quietly, Gereint had advised, and they all knew Tore had seen svart alfar heading south two weeks before. Levon might take calculated risks on the hunt, but he was not a rash man; Ivor’s son could hardly be so. He kept them moving in a state of watchful speed, and the trees at the outreaches of Pendaran rolled steadily by on their right as the sun climbed in the sky.
Gazing at the woods, less than a mile away, Dave was bothered by something. Kicking his horse forward, he caught up with Levon at the head of the main party.
“Why,” he asked, without preamble, “are we riding so close to the forest?”
Levon smiled. “You are the seventh man to ask me that,” he said cheerfully. “It isn’t very complex. I’m taking the fastest route. If we swing farther east we’ll have to ford two rivers and deal with hilly land between them. This line takes us to Adein west of the fork where Rienna joins it. Only one river, and as you see, the riding is easy.”
“But the forest? It’s supposed to be…”
“Pendaran is deadly to those who enter it. No one does. But the Wood is angry, not evil, and unless we trespass, the powers within it will not be stirred by our riding here. There are superstitions otherwise, but I have been taught by Gereint that this is so.”
“What about an ambush, like from those svart alfar?”
Levon was no longer smiling. “A svart would sooner die than enter Pendaran,” he said. “The Wood forgives none of us.”
“For what?” Dave asked.
“Lisen,” Levon said. “Shall I tell the story?”
“I’m not going anywhere,” said Dave.
“I have to explain magic to you first, I think. You were brought here by Silvercloak. You would have seen Matt S"oren?”
“The Dwarf? Sure.”
“Do you know how they are bound to each other?”
“Haven’t a clue. Are they?”
“Assuredly,” said Levon, and as they rode south over the prairie, Dave learned, as Paul Schafer had four nights before, about the binding of mage and source, and how magic was made of that union.
Then as Levon began his tale, Tore came up quietly on his other side. The three of them rode together, bound by the rhythm and cadence of Lisen’s tragedy.
“It is a long story,” Levon began, “and much of import comes into it, and has grown out of it.I do not know nearly the whole, but it begins in the days before the Bael Rangat.
“In those days, the days before magic was as I have told you it now is, Amairgen, a counselor to Conary, the High King in Paras Derval, rode forth alone from Brennin.
“Magic in that time was governed by the earthroot, the avarlith, and so it was within the domain of the Priestesses of the Mother in Gwen Ystrat, and jealously they guarded their control. Amairgen was a proud and brilliant man, and he chafed at this. So he went forth one morning in the spring of the year, to see if it need always be so.
“In time he came, after many adventures that are all part of the full tale—though most of them I do not know—to the sacred grove in Pendaran. The Wood was not angry then, but it was a place of power, and never one that welcomed the presence of men, especially in the grove. Amairgen was brave, though, and he had been journeying long without answer to his quest, so he dared greatly, and passed a night alone in that place.
“There are songs about that night: about the three visitations he had, and his mind battle with the earth demon that came up through the grass; it was a long and terrible night, and it is sung that no man else would have lived or been whole of mind to see the dawn.
“Be that as it may, just before morning there came a fourth visitation to Amairgen, and this one was from the God, from M"ornir, and it was beneficent, for it taught to Amairgen the runes of the skylore that freed the mages ever after from the Mother.
“There was war among the gods after that, it is told, for the Goddess was wrathful at what M"ornir had done, and it was long before she would let herself be placated. Some say, though I would not know if it is true, that it was the discord and the chaos of this conflict that gave Maugrim, the Unraveller, the chance to slip from the watch of the younger gods. He came from the places where they have their home and took root in the north lands of Fionavar. So some songs and stories have it. Others say he was always here, or that he slipped into Fionavar when the Weaver’s eye was dimmed with love at the first emergence of the lios alfar—the Children of the Light. Still others tell that it was as the Weaver wept, when first man slew his brother. I know not; there are many stories. He is here and he cannot be killed. The gods grant he be always bound.
“Be all of that as it may, in the morning when Amairgen rose up, the runes in his heart and great power waiting there, he was in mortal danger yet; for the Wood, having its own guardians, was greatly angered at his having dared the grove at night, and Lisen was sent forth to break his heart and kill him.
“Of that meeting there is one song only. It was made not long after, by Ra-Termaine, greatest of all singers, Lord then of the lios alfar, and he crafted it in homage and remembrance of Amairgen. It is the most beautiful lay ever fashioned, and no poet since has ever touched the theme.
“There were very mighty peoples on the earth in those days, and among them all, Lisen of the Wood was as a Queen. A wood spirit she was, a deiena, of which there are many, but Lisen was more. It is said that on the night she was born in Pendaran, the evening star shone as brightly as the moon, and all the goddesses from Ceinwen to Nemain gave grant of their beauty to that child in the grove, and the flowers bloomed at night in the shining that arose when they all came together in that place. No one has ever been or will be more fair than was Lisen, and though the deiena live very long, Dana and M"ornir that night, as their joint gift, made her immortal that this beauty might never be lost.
“These gifts she was given at her birth, but not even the gods may shape exactly what they will, and some say that this truth is at the heart of the whole long tale. Be that so, or not, in the morning after his battles she came to Amairgen to break him with her beauty and slay him for his presumption of the night. But, as Ra-Termaine’s song tells, Amairgen was as one exalted that morning, clothed in power and lore, and the presence of M"ornir was in his eyes. So did the design of the God act to undo the design of the God, for coming to him then, wrapped in her own beauty like a star, Lisen fell in love and he with her, and so their doom was woven that morning in the grove.
“She became his source. Before the sun had set that day, he had taught her the runes. They were made mage and source by the ritual, and the first sky magic was wrought in the grove that day. That night they lay down together, and as the one song tells, Amairgen slept at length a second night in the sacred grove, but this time within the mantle of her hair. They went forth together in the morning from that place, bound as no living creatures to that day had been. Yet because Amairgen’s place was at the right hand of Conary, and there were other men to whom he had to teach the skylore, he returned to Paras Derval and founded the Council of the Mages, and Lisen went with him and so left the shelter of the Wood.”
Levon was silent. They rode thus for a long time. Then, “The tale is truly very complex now, and it picks up many other tales from the Great Years. It was in those days that the one we call the Unraveler raised his fortress of Starkadh in the Ice and came down on all the lands with war. There are so many deeds to tell of from that time. The one the Dalrei sing is of Revor’s Ride, and it is very far from the least of the great things that were done. But Amairgen Whitebranch, as he came to be called, for the staff Lisen found for him in Pendaran, was ever at the center of the war, and Lisen was at his side, source of his power and his soul.
“There are so many tales, Davor, but at length it came to pass that Amairgen learned by his art that Maugrim had taken for his own a place of great power, hidden far out at sea, and was drawing upon it mightily for his strength.
“He determined then that this island must be found and wrested away from the Dark. So Amairgen gathered to him a company of one hundred lios alfar and men, with three mages among them, and they set sail west from Taerlindel to find Cader Sedat, and Lisen was left behind.”
“What? Why?” Dave rasped, stunned.
It was Tore who answered. “She was a deiena,” he said, his own voice sounding difficult. “A deiena dies at sea. Her immortality was subject to the nature of her kind.”
“It is so,” Levon resumed quietly. “They built in that time for her the Anor Lisen at the westernmost part of Pendaran. Even in the midst of war, men and lios alfar and the powers of the Wood came together to do this for her out of love. Then she placed upon her brow the Circlet of Lisen, Amairgen’s parting gift. The Light against the Dark, it was called, for it shone of its own self, and with that light upon her brow—so great a beauty never else having been in any world—Lisen turned her back on the war and the Wood and, climbing to the summit of the tower, she set her face westward to the sea, that the Light she bore might show Amairgen the way home.
“No man knows what happened to him or those who sailed in that ship. Only that one night Lisen saw, and those who stood guard beside the Anor saw as well, a dark ship sailing slowly along the coast in the moonlight. And it is told that the moon setting west in that hour shone through its tattered sails with a ghostly light, and it could be seen that the ship was Amairgen’s, and it was empty. Then, when the moon sank into the sea, that ship disappeared forever.
“Lisen took the Circlet from her brow and laid it down; then she unbound her hair that it might be as it was when first they had come together in the grove. Having done these things, she leaped into the darkness of the sea and so died.”
The sun was high in the sky, Dave noticed. It seemed wrong, somehow, that this should be so, that the day should be so bright. “I think,” Levon whispered, “that I will go ride up front for a time.” He kicked his horse to a gallop. Dave and Tore looked at each other. Neither spoke a word. The Plain was east, the Wood west, the Sun was high in the sky.
Levon took a double shift up front. Late in the day Dave went forward himself to relieve him. Towards sunset they saw a black swan flying north almost directly overhead, very high. The sight filled them all with a vague, inexplicable sense of disquiet. Without a word being spoken, they picked up speed.
As they continued south, Pendaran gradually began to fell away westward. Dave knew it was there, but by the time darkness fell, the Wood could no longer be seen. When they stopped for the night, there was only grassland stretching away in every direction under the profligate dazzle of the summer stars, scarcely dimmed by the last thin crescent of the moon.
Later that night a dog and a wolf would battle in M"ornirwood, and Colan’s dagger, later still, would be unsheathed with a sound like a harpstring in a stone chamber underground beside Eilathen’s lake.
At dawn the sun rose red, and a dry, prickly heat came with it. From first mounting, the company was going faster than before. Levon increased the point men to four and pulled them back a little closer, so both parties could see each other all the time.
Late in the morning the Mountain exploded behind them.
With the deepest terror of his life, Dave turned with the Dalrei to see the tongue of flame rising to master the sky. They saw it divide to shape the taloned hand, and then they heard the laughter of Maugrim.
“The gods grant he be always bound,” Levon had said, only yesterday.
No dice, it seemed.
There was nothing within Dave that could surmount the brutal sound of that laughter on the wind. They were small, exposed, they were open to him and he was free. In a kind of trance, Dave saw the point men galloping frantically back to join them.
“Levon! Levon! We must go home!” one of them was shouting as he came nearer. Dave turned to Ivor’s son and, looking at him, his heart slowed towards normality, and he marveled again. There was no expression on Levon’s face, his profile seemed chiseled from stone as he gazed at the towering fire above Rangat.
But in that very calm, that impassive acceptance, Dave found a steadfastness of his own. Without moving a muscle, Levon seemed to be growing, to be willing himself to grow large enough to match, to overmatch the terror in the sky and on the wind. And somehow in that moment Dave had a flashing image of Ivor doing the selfsame thing, two days’ ride back north, under the very shadow of that grasping hand. He looked for Tore and found the dark man gazing back at him, and in Tore’s eyes Dave saw not the stern resistance of Levon, but a fierce, bright, passionate defiance, a bitter hatred of what that hand meant, but not fear.
Your hour knows your name, Dave Martyniuk thought, and then, in that moment of apocalypse, had another thought: I love these people. The realization hit him, for Dave was what he was, almost as hard as the Mountain had. Struggling to regain his inner balance, he realized that Levon was speaking, quelling the babble of voices around him.
“We do not go back. My father will be caring for the tribe. They will go to Celidon, all the tribes will. And so will we, after Davor is with Silvercloak. Two days ago Gereint said that something was coming. This is it. We go south as fast as we can to Brennin, and there,” said Levon, “I will take counsel with the High King.”
Even as he spoke, Ailell dan Art was dying in Paras Derval. When Levon finished, not another word was said. The Dalrei regrouped and began riding, very fast now and all together. They rode henceforth with a hard, unyielding intensity, turning their backs on their tribe without a demur to follow Levon, though every one of them knew, even as they galloped, that if there was war with Maugrim, it would be fought on the Plain.
It was that alert tension that gave them warning, though in the end it would not be enough to save them.
Tore it was who, late in the afternoon, sped a distance ahead; bending sideways in his saddle, he rode low to the ground for a time before wheeling back to Levon’s side. The Wood was close again, on their right. “We are coming to trouble,” Tore said shortly. “There is a party of svart alfar not far ahead of us.”
“How many?” Levon asked calmly, signaling a halt.
Levon nodded. “We can beat them, but there will be losses. They know we are here, of course.”
“If they have eyes,” Tore agreed. “We are very exposed.”
“Very well. We are close to Adein, but I do not want a fight now. It will waste us some time, but we are going to flank around them and cross both rivers farther east.”
“I don’t think we can, Levon,” Tore murmured.
“Why?” Levon had gone very still.
Dave turned east with Levon to where Tore was pointing, and after a moment he, too, saw the dark mass moving over the grass, low, about a mile away, and coming nearer.
“What are they?” he asked, his voice tight.
“Wolves,” Levon snapped. “Very many.” He drew his sword. “We can’t go around—they will slow us by the rivers for the svarts. We must fight through south before they reach us.” He raised his voice. “We fight on the gallop, my friends. Kill and ride, no lingering. When you reach Adein, you cross. We can outrun them on the other side.” He paused, then: “I said before there would be war. It seems that we are to fight the first battle of our people. Let the servants of Maugrim now learn to fear the Dalrei again, as they did when Revor rode!”
With an answering shout, the Riders, Dave among them, loosed their weapons and sprang into gallop. His heart thudding, Dave followed Levon over a low tummock. On the other side he could see the river glistening less than a mile away. But in their path stood the svart alfar, and as soon as the Dalrei crested the rise a shower of arrows was launched towards them. A moment later, Dave saw a Rider fall beside him, blood flowering from his breast.
A rage came over Dave then. Kicking his horse to greater speed, he crashed, with Tore and Levon on either side, into the line of svarts. Leaning in the saddle, he whistled the great axe down to cleave one of the ugly, dark green creatures where it stood. Lightheaded with fury, he pulled the axe clear and turned to swing it again.
“No!” Tore screamed. “Kill and ride! Come on!” The wolves, Dave saw in a flying glance, were less than half a mile away. Wheeling hard, he thundered with the others towards the Adein. They were through, it seemed. One man dead, two others nursing wounds, but the river was close now and once across they would be safe.
They would have been. They should have been. It was only sheerest, bitterest bad luck that the band of svarts that had ambushed Brendel and the lios alfar were there waiting.
They were, though, and there were almost a hundred of them left to rise from the shallows of Adein and block the path of the Dalrei. So with the wolves on their flank, and svarts before and behind, Levon was forced into a standing fight.
Under that red sun the Children of Peace fought their first battle in a thousand years. With courage fueled by rage they fought on their land, launching arrows of their own, angling their horses in jagged lethal movements, scything with swords soon red with blood.
“Revor!” Dave heard Levon scream, and the very name seemed to cow the massed forces of the Dark. Only for a moment, though, and there were so many. In the chaos of the melee, Dave saw face after face of the nightmare svarts appear before him with lifted swords and razor teeth bared, and in a frenzy of battle fury he raised and lowered the axe again and again. All he could do was fight, and so he did. He scarcely knew how many svarts had died under his iron, but then, pulling the axe free from a mashed skull, Dave saw that the wolves had come, and he suddenly understood that death was here, by the Adein River on the Plain. Death, at the hands of these loathsome creatures, death for Levon, for Tore…
“No!” Dave Martyniuk cried then, his voice a mighty bellow over the battle sounds, as inspiration blasted him. “To the Wood! Come on!”
And punching Levon’s shoulder, he reined his own horse so that it reared high above the encircling enemy. On the way down he swung the axe once on either side of the descending hooves, and on each side he killed. For a moment the svarts hesitated, and using the moment, Dave kicked his horse again and pounded into them, the axe sweeping red, once, and again, and again; then suddenly he was clear, as their ranks broke before him, and he cut sharply away west. West, where Pendaran lay, brooding and unforgiving, where none of them, man or svart alfar or even the giant, twisted wolves of Galadan, dared go.
Three of them did dare, though. Looking back, Dave saw Levon and Tore knife through the gap his rush had carved and follow him in a flat-out race west, with the wolves at their heels and arrows falling about them in the growing dark.
Three only, no more, though not for lack of courage. The rest were dead. Nor had there been a scanting of gallant bravery in any one of the Dalrei who died that day, seventeen of them, by Adein where it runs into Llewenmere by Pendaran Wood.
They were devoured by the svart alfar as the sun went down. The dead always were. It was not the same as if it were the lios they had killed, of course, but blood was blood, and the red joy of killing was thick within them all that night. After, the two groups them, so happily come together, made a pile of bones, clean-picked and otherwise, and started in, letting the wolves join them now, on their own dead. Blood was blood.
There was a lake on their left, dark waters glimpsed through a lattice of trees as they whipped by. Dave had a fleeting image of hurtful beauty, but the wolves were close behind and they could not linger. At full tilt they hurtled into the outreaches of the forest, leaping a fallen branch, dodging sudden trees, not slacking pace at all, until at last Dave became aware that the wolves were no longer chasing them.
The twisting half-trail they followed became rougher, forcing them to slow, and then it was merely an illusion, not really a path. The three of them stopped, breathing with harsh effort amid the lengthening shadows of trees.
No one spoke. Levon’s face, Dave saw, was like stone again, but not as before. This he recognized: not the steadfastness of resolution, but a rigid control locking the muscles, the heart, against the pain inside. You held it in, Dave thought, had always thought. It didn’t belong to anyone else. He couldn’t look at Levon’s face very long, though; it twisted him somehow, on top of everything else.
Turning to Tore, he saw something different. “You’re bleeding,” he said, looking at the blood welling from the dark man’s thigh. “Get down, let’s have a look.”
He, of course, hadn’t a clue what to do. It was Levon, glad of the need for action, who tore his sleeping roll into strips and made a tourniquet for the wound, which was messy but, after cleaning, could be seen to be shallow.
By the time Levon finished, it was dark, and they had all been deeply conscious for some moments of something pulsing in the woods around them. Nor was there anything remotely vague about it: what they sensed was anger, and it could be heard in the sound of the leaves, felt in the vibrations of the earth beneath their feet. They were in Pendaran, and men, and the Wood did not forgive.
“We can’t stay here!” Tore said abruptly. It sounded loud in the dark; for the first time, Dave heard strain in his voice.
“Can you walk?” Levon asked.
“I will,” said Tore grimly. “I would rather be on my feet and moving when we meet whatever is sent for us.” The leaves were louder now, and there seemed—or was that imagination? — to be a rhythm to their sound.
“We will leave the horses, then,” Levon said. “They will be all right. I agree with you—I don’t think we can lie down tonight. We will walk south, until we meet what—”
“Until we’re out!” Dave said strongly. “Come on, both of you. Levon, you said before, this place isn’t evil.”
“It doesn’t have to be, to kill us,” said Tore. “Listen.” It was not imagination; there was a pattern to the sound of the leaves.
“Would you prefer,” Dave snapped, “to go back and try to make nice to the wolves?”
“He’s right, Tore,” Levon said. In the dark, only his long yellow hair could be seen. Tore, in black, was almost invisible. “And Davor,” Levon went on, in a different voice, “you wove something very bright back there. I don’t think any man in the tribe could have forced that opening. Whatever happens after, you saved our lives then.”
“I just swung the thing,” Dave muttered. At which Tore, astonishingly, laughed aloud. For a moment the listening trees were stilled. No mortal had laughed in Pendaran for a millennium. “You are,” said Tore dan Sorcha, “as bad as me, as bad as him. Not one of us can deal with praise. Is your face red right now, my friend?”
Of course it was, for God’s sake. “What do you think?” he mumbled. Then, feeling the ridiculousness of it, hearing Levon’s snort of amusement, Dave felt something let go inside, tension, fear, grief, all of them, and he laughed with his friends in the Wood where no man went.
It lasted for some time; they were all young, had fought their first battle, seen comrades slaughtered beside them. There was a cutting edge of hysteria to the moment.
Levon took them past it. “Tore is right,” he said finally. “We are alike. In this, and in other ways. Before we leave this place, there is a thing I want to do. Friends of mine have died today. It would be good to have two new brothers. Will you mingle blood with me?”
“I have no brothers,” Tore said softly. “It would be good.”
Dave’s heart was racing. “For sure,” he said.
And so the ritual was enacted in the Wood. Tore made the incisions with his blade and they touched their wrists, each to each, in the dark. No one spoke. After, Levon made bandages, then they freed the horses, took their gear and weapons, and set forth together south through the forest, Tore leading, Levon last, Dave between his brothers.
As it happened, they had done more than they knew. They had been watched, and Pendaran understood these things, bindings wrought of blood. It did not assuage the anger or the hate, for she was forever lost who should never have died; but though these three had still to be slain, they could be spared madness before the end. So it was decided as they walked, oblivious to the meaning of the whispering around them, wrapped in it, though, as in a net of sound.
For Tore, nothing had ever been so difficult or shaken him so deeply as that progression. Over and above the horrors of the slaughter by Adein, the deep terror of being in Pendaran, there was another thing for him: he was a night mover, a woods person, this was his milieu, and all he had to do was lead his companions south.
Yet he could not.
Roots appeared, inexplicably, for him to stumble over, fallen branches blocked paths, other trails simply ended without apparent cause. Once, he almost fell.
South, that’s all! he snarled to himself, oblivious in his concentration to the aching of his leg. It was no good, though—every trail that seemed to hold promise soon turned, against all sense or reason, to the west. Are the trees moving? he asked himself once, and pulled sharply away from the implications of that. Or am I just being incredibly stupid?
For whichever cause, supernatural or psychological, after a little while it was clear to him that hard as he might try—cutting right through a thicket once—to keep them on the eastern edges of the Great Wood, they were being drawn, slowly, very patiently, but quite inescapably, westward into the heart of the forest.
It was not, of course, his fault at all. None of what happened was. Pendaran had had a thousand years to shape the paths and patterns of its response to intrusions such as theirs.
It is well, the trees whispered to the spirits of the Wood.
Very well, the deiena replied.
Leaves, leaves, Tore heard. Leaves and wind.
For Dave that night walk was very different. He was not of Fionavar, knew no legends of the Wood to appal, beyond the story Levon had told the day before, and that was more sorrowful than frightening. With Tore before and Levon behind, he felt quite certain that they were going as they should. He was blissfully unaware of Tore’s desperate maneuverings ahead of him, and after a time he grew accustomed to, even sedated by, the murmurings all around them.
So sedated, that he had been walking alone, due west, for about ten minutes before he realized it.
“Tore!” he cried, as sudden fear swept over him. “Levon!” There was, of course, no reply. He was utterly alone in Pendaran Wood at night.