Old Dark Things

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A BEGINNING

His name in the old tongue was Kveldulf.

And he was dying.

The snow in the pale cast of the moon was stained deep and crimson-black wherever he touched it. His fingers, trembling and sticky with blood, clawed at the air and closed on nothing. Shuffling forward one last step, he found his legs unwilling to bear weight any farther, and he sank to the ground. Numbing cold enveloped him.

He thought how strange it was that the whole world was silent. Not a squirrel or snow-jay stirred. It was as if the forest was withholding its judgement, watching as he lay in wet red snow. In the heavy stillness the curling phantom of his breath might have been the last warm issue of any living thing. But he was not the last.

There was one other, and it was following close behind.

He heard the swift whisk-whisk of the paws through snow. The sound sapped the last of his hope. By dying strength and final will, Kveldulf heaved his body upright. His heart was pounding in his chest and shivers were passing through his skin as he crawled about to face it. He could run no more.

It loomed through the thin flurries of snow, great, black and shadowy. In Kveldulf’s swimming vision the thing seemed to swell to unnatural size as it stalked closer. Now certain he was dying, Kveldulf gazed up at the creature without fear. The mist of their two breaths mingled in the cold air.

Could it truly be called a wolf, this creature of black and silvered fur? No. Better to call it an enemy of the gods, he thought. A begotten of Old Night and Chaos–for that was what it must be. With that thought in his head, Kveldulf was not surprised when the enemy of the gods of mortalkind fixed its eyes of frozen gold on him, licked its waxy black lips and spoke.

“I shall eat you now, I think.” The breath was not rank with offal, but sweet, almost perfumed; and the voice not merely female, but feminine, filled with secrets and hints and subtlety. “But you have one last right,” she said, “there is nothing like the memory of my kind. I will go walking in dreams where I recall of the taste of your flesh and the crunch of your bones when the world has turned to ash and dust. So tell me, little one, mortal one, what is your name? Tell me, so that I may say to other wolves that I grew fat and sleek off your flesh, and you were a dangerous and crafty prey.”

Mouth clotting, the answer was a labour. “Kveldulf.”

There was no sound but the heave of wind through the snowy boughs of the woods. The wolf blinked–just once–ponderously, slowly.

“Kveldulf,” she said, and rolled the sound about her throat as if it had some meaning. “I know that name. You are he who hunted and murdered my sisters a year ago. How many times have I cursed that name? My sisters were beloved.”

Kveldulf was beyond thought now. Beyond understanding. The words of the wolf fell from the air as cold and meaningless as motes of snow.

“So this is the night of revenge. This is the hour of justice.” She grinned and showed sharp, glistening teeth. “You killed them with that knife of yours? That weapon that bit me too, but an hour ago. It was made from the bone of a thing of elder power, I think. It hurt me. You hurt me. No one has caused me pain in a dozen lifetimes. But that hateful thing is gone now. I have ridded the world of it. And you cannot harm me now. You are a child. Without weapons. Without runes. Without hope.”

The blood in Kveldulf’s throat was making it difficult to breathe. “Be done with it.”

She laughed and it was the sound of shadows laughing, of mocking snow and storms at play. “You misunderstand me, Kveldulf, sister-killer. No, no, my revenge is not so easy, nor so simple. My revenge shall be much finer, more beautiful, for I shall let you live.”

She got up from her haunches. A ripple of movement passed down her spine as she shook the snow from her black and silvered fur, and then lazily, silently she padded away and disappeared into the everlasting gloom of the forest.

Kveldulf was only dimly aware that he was alone. He did not stir for a long time. Then he let himself down into the snow and allowed the falling flakes to cover him.

He was as close to death as the living can be when the snow-hunters found him. He should have been dead. He did not understand why he was not. The hunters would have left him to the winter night if they had known it was the wolf of black and silvered fur who had left him there, for they worshiped her and feared her.

But they gathered about him and spoke their strange song-tongued language, and bound his worst wounds and bore him away on a sledge drawn by reindeer.

And so it was that he lived that night in the care of snow-hunters.

And he lived a week.

And he lived a year.

And then he simply lived.

And lived.

And lived.

CHAPTER THE FIRST

Two hundred years later

Even in an age of petty kingdoms and vast wilds, the Eorldom of Veld was old and small and secluded. Snug between forest and mountains, it was little more than a rustic hamlet of slate and thatch, a few farms–and louring above all of this, the ancestral home of the Family Vaunt, a grey and age-worn fortress crouched on a limestone spur.

It was the day of the cornfest and the great hall was crowded with people, young and old, men and women, all sitting in circles and weaving autumn garlands. The finished wreaths were being hoisted to the rafters, and already the hall was dripping gold and fire. A few workers sung oddly cheerless songs as they set out the tables or swept the floor. Costumed and masked players practiced before the high dais, but not with much life. It should have been noisy, happy, confused. Instead the preparations were perfunctory and silent.

At the heart of the bustle, a middle-aged woman was shaking her head and rolling her eyes. “No, the Seneschal and the Mareschal must be seated the same number of places from the Eorl’s throne. A daughter on each side of the throne. Put up more wreaths there. Straighten those two tables. Bread and butter, smoked goose and pickled mushrooms? Is that all there is for the first course? Tell the kitchens to prepare something more. I don’t know what, anything. Has someone found Lilia yet? No?” She threw up her hands. “Such a shambles! Such a shambles!”

The nearest girl grit her teeth into a smile. Fingering her apron, she curtsied. “Shall I go and look for Lady Lilia?”

“No, no, no. I will go. She is my niece and who knows, she may listen to me. She ought to.” The woman left the hall, her hem sweeping a path as she went. To meet the Eorl’s sister, Ermengarde, in the halls of Toren Vaunt was to meet a force of nature. Stern-faced and bright-eyed, she never walked but strode, and her billowing dresses had a habit of knocking over chairs, baskets and small children.

After poking her head into three rooms where Lilia sometimes hid, Ermengarde remembered the walled garden below the north wall. A few minutes later, the dappled sunlight forced her to squint as she stepped into the open air. Built on an escarpment of stone, the garden was rife with weeds and ivy. A single gnarled willow stood at its heart and behind the trunk an edge of white fabric fluttered.

Emengarde tramped towards the willow. “Lili!” Her voice sounded a little harsher than she’d intended.

Lilia was standing in a slant of sunlight that gilded her mousy hair and shot her dress with the palest glow. “Good morning, Aunt Erma.”

“And good morning to you. Were you practising?” Ermengarde gestured towards a shawm that Lilia was holding close to her chest.

The young woman nodded. “But, I was distracted by the sparrows. I think life as a sparrow would be fun.”

“Yes, well unless Piebald were about. He may be lazy and spoiled, but a cat is a cat. He’d eat you all the same.”

Lilia laughed. It was a light, nervous sound. “If he could catch me.”

Ermengarde found her niece frustrating, and though she did not fully admit this to herself, this was partly because she saw in the young woman a reflection of her own solitary life; although where Ermengarde’s isolation had always been fiery and wilful, her niece’s was painfully shy. It was a pity. The girl was pretty in a melancholy sort of way, and Ermengarde supposed that she would be appealing to a husband if she were not so lean. It would help if she would smile a little more often, too. And stood straighter. And wore a little more in the way of jewellery. And pinched her cheeks now and then.

“Lilia, have you selected a dress for tonight?”

She shook her head and smiled at the sparrows. “I was thinking of taking supper in my room. I hope you do not mind.”

“Lili, please, have some sense. Tonight needs to be a happy occasion. Everyone is scared. People are talking. There are rumours, Lilia. Whispers. The way your father is now, people are talking about witchcraft. They need to see that the Heir of Vaunt is not afraid.”

“Then they can see that when they pass me in the halls.” Lilia’s eyes, still bright and remote, shone with an angrier light. “And let them talk. Or be afraid. Or huddle in a cupboard, for all I care. Am I not heir? Should I not be allowed to do as I please? When I please? How I please?”

“Really Lili, how old are you?” Lilia opened her mouth to speak but Ermengarde cut her off. “No, not a word. Behave like a child, and I will treat you as one. With your mother dead, rest her poor soul, and your father’s failing health, you have to behave in a manner that befits you. And part of being a Lady of Vaunt, part of being an adult, is to do things one might rather not do.”

“Yes, but…”

“No, Lilia, listen to me. Your sister, Rosa, she has worked very hard to make tonight a pleasant diversion for the household. In fact, many, many people have worked hard.” Ermengarde breathed a sigh that puffed out her cheeks. “Be present in the great hall this evening, sit with your sister, laugh, smile, drink, talk, show some kindness. Or so help me–“

The sparrows fought and fluttered in their canopy of gold.

Lilia’s lips were pressed into a thin line. Eventually she nodded–slowly–almost with pain. “Very well.”

“Thank you.” Ermengarde shrugged and left Lilia to herself.

Upon returning to the great hall, Ermengarde found an entirely different scene to the one she had left–the disarray was resolved, the tables were set, the trenchers and platters were all laid out. The younger of the Eorl’s two daughters, Rosa, stood watching the players. She held a bouquet of barley and the last of the autumn wildflowers. On her brow was a matching harvest crown.

As soon as she saw Ermengarde, Rosa smiled and her eyes brightened. “Erma, how are you? I have been organising the churls. I hope you don’t mind. Most everything is set.”

“Mind? Don’t be silly. You’re a blessing. Are the players ready?”

“Yes. It’s a lovely tale. I chose it myself. Very beautiful. Very tragic.”

At length Rosa gave Ermengarde a curious look. “You found Lilia?”

“I did.” She shook her head. “That sister of yours…”

Rosa turned to Ermengarde and laid one hand across her left shoulder. Her fingers felt soft and warm through the linen.

“She will grow up in time.” Rosa’s gaze was drawn suddenly to the other end of the hall. “Oh, I think I see Sigurd. Will you excuse me?”

Ermengarde’s eyes weren’t what they had once been. By squinting, she could just make out the young man standing at the far end of the hall. He seemed to be talking to a grim, foreign-looking stranger “Go, go. I’ll look after things here.”

“Thank you.” Rosa gave her a quick hug.

“Oh, leave an old woman to her cross temper. Go.”

Ermengarde turned back to watch the actors and was soon lost in her own thoughts. She remembered two sisters playing. That had all been so long ago. She heard the sounds of giggling an chatter, and wondered at how things had been allowed to come to this strange place.

-oOo-

Kveldulf’s immediate impression of the Toren Vaunt was of a fortress so often rebuilt that it had become a rambling magpie nest of limestone. The whole fortress looked as if it might have grown out of the earth after a fresh rain.

Once inside its walls, the fortress succumbed a little to proximity and lost some strangeness, though, seemingly to balance this out, it gained some shabbiness. Guards in the oxblood livery of Vaunt stood wrapped in cloaks against the cold under old, smoke-blackened timbers. Children played with dogs in the courtyard. In one hall a workman was repainting a carved pillar. In another, a man was repairing a leaking roof with tar, and doing a poor job of it. Black splotches were already dribbling the floor and walls where he worked.

Kveldulf followed his host and would-be employer, their feet drumming a rhythm on the old stone and timber floors. They climbed a flight of stairs and entered the inner hallways, twisting this way and that.

It was plain in Sigurd’s voice that he was happy to be home. They had been on the road for five days, through forest and meadow and forest again. “We are almost at the great hall.”

Kveldulf nodded but said nothing.

They were passing now through a barrel-vaulted chamber, crammed with pillars. Kveldulf glanced up and stopped, arrested by a bas-relief above the door. A serpentine creature with two foreclaws and a head something like a monstrous shaggy lizard was sprawled over the wall. It reared itself over a small rider. The man was dressed in the armour of Kveldulf’s father’s father’s time, and the surface of the stone was pitted and old. Though the horse was turned away from the creature, the rider sat twisted, with an arrow notched. There were old runes running along the length of the serpent.

“A lindorm,” said Kveldulf. “I haven’t seen one of those for a long tell of years.”

Sigurd stopped also. He looked up at the creature. “You’ve seen similar carvings?”

“Carvings?” said Keveldulf. He cleared his throat. “Yes. Carvings.”

“Lindorm? Hmm. Is that some old word for dragon? It is very old, you know. The carving. As old as the fortress they say. Older maybe. I suppose it’s the oldest thing in the Veld. That…” and he pointed at the man, “is Feold, the first Eorl of Vaunt, slaying the worm Andreki. There are caves in the spur, and the Toren Vaunt was built over Andreki’s lair.” He shrugged. “Or so the story goes. In the tomb-shrine there is a yellow bit of bone that supposed to be a last piece of Andreki. It’s thicker than my arm.”

Kveldulf’s eyes danced along the runes. “Let all know that Farold, son of Feold made this.”

“Sorry?”

“The carving was the work of someone named Farold. Or paid for by him.”

“You can read the heathen letters?”

“Yes.”

“The Freer has puzzled over those marks for years. He thinks they tell of a secret treasure. He’s spent hours tapping on walls. And it’s just a stonemason’s boast?” Sigurd laughed. “All those nights squinting at books! All for a crafter’s mark! What a fool he’ll feel. Oh, he’ll squirm.”

They passed through the doorway and into a world aglow with autumn. Sigurd waved at two women who were standing at the receding end of a long hall. His smile grew. “The Lady Rosa.” He indicated the other, beside her. “And Ermengarde. Her aunt. The Good Eorl’s sister.” The slender young woman, Rosa, waved back. She hugged the older woman, and then started towards them. Sigurd stood transfixed.

The woman was graceful, clearly self-possessed and quite beautiful. As she approached she threw a furtive smile to Sigurd. He in turn straightened his back and raised his chin; the way men in the presence of a pretty woman will tend to do. Standing next to the young knight, with his well-arranged features, Kveldulf felt clumsy and rustic. His three-day beard suddenly itched and he was sure his doeskin cloak smelled worse than usual. The three longknives dangling from his belt, and all the other other odds and ends, bags and pouches, made him feel as if he were some common tinker come begging for work.

“You have returned, and so soon.”

Sigurd sketched a bow. “For you… how shall I say it? I am winged in your service.”

“And I am as undeserving of your service as ever.” She turned to Kveldulf. A strand of blonde hair fell across her face. She brushed it behind an ear. “And this must be the… ah… huntsman that so many travellers have spoken of.” Her eyes lowered. She looked around, surreptitious. Quietly, she said, “So long as rumours are kept in check, we shall keep your work here a secret. But look at this. I am being impolite.” She extended a pale hand palm-down and Kveldulf took it in his callused fingers. “I am Rosa of Vaunt, Second daughter to the the Eorl Fainvant, and Lady of the Veld.”

“Kveldulf Kaldulfsson.”

“Consider me honoured.” She let go, and glanced again at Sigurd with her bright, dark eyes. “Shall we walk? I will explain a little of our troubles along the way. My father,” began Rosa in her restrained voice, “is ill. Deathly ill. The sickness came upon him about a month ago. One day he was hale enough to hunt boars, the next he could barely stand. My dear mother–may the White Goddess cherish her–fell sick with a illness a year ago.” Rosa paused then, added, “A very suspiciously similar illness, I’m afraid. Mother took a long time to die. The suffering was…” Rosa cut herself off, forced a smile, and said good evening to a passing maid.

Kveldulf waited until they were out of earshot of the servant. “And you suspect witchcraft?”

“She touched a hand to her throat. “I am not acquainted with witch-lore. It is the churls who are whispering it. They are afraid, and before fear turns to accusations and accusations to nooses, I would like to find out the truth. One way or another. Hence, when we heard traveller’s weaving tales about your work at Muschenbroek, Sigurd and I decided that he should fetch you. For even the Goddess’s own Freer will not linger in the Eorl’s bedchamber now. He fumbles and mutters his prayers just long enough to say a few benedictions each day, and then off he hurries himself off.” She shook her head. “Feeble little man.”

Sigurd scowled. “That man is a coward. Scurrying about with his robes flopping between his legs like a dog’s tail. He should stand by your father’s bed and aid the Eorl in his hour of need. But no, he is off hiding in his shrine.”

“Sigurd.” Her voice had a note of restraint. “We state our thoughts too boldly sometimes. He is the Goddess’s man.”

“And what of that? A man, is a man, is a man. We are born, we eat, we drink, we love, we bleed, we crap, and we die. He is no closer to the Lady than you or I.”

“Heresy,” whispered Rosa. “Many would call that heresy.” She frowned. “Be careful, Sigurd.” Casting a look at Kveldulf, she added, “We do not even know what company we yet keep.”

“Company that is trustworthy,” said Kveldulf. “You may speak as it pleases you. I’m not one for screaming about heretics. Not me.”

“I see,” she said. “Well, as it was, initially, I suspected poison. But my father is guarded morning, noon and night. His food is tasted always before serving. There are always four guards around his bed. And yet he withers and withers.” A door came into view in the hall ahead of them. “But we are here now and you can judge for yourself.”

The smell was strong, wafting down the hall before they had even passed the guards on the door. Rosemary, garlic, and vinegar mixed in the air, not quite concealing a diseased under-odour. From the ceiling’s timbers hung a hundred folk charms and amulets tied up with twine and ribbons. From the doorway, the Eorl’s skeletal form was visible in bed, his ribs wheezing up and down, under a thin sheet, ghost-like behind gauze bed-curtains that stirred in the cloying air. The guards who stood around the bed in the room looked tired, and not a little anxious themselves.

A small man, heavily hidden under furs despite the clammy air, left the Eorl’s bedside and started towards them. His bald brow wrinkled and his eyes blinked furiously. “Lady Rosa,” he hissed, “this is no time for you to fuss over the Eorl. Come in the mornings. In the afternoon he needs his rest and…”

“My father’s tongue is not rotted off yet, August. Let me speak with him.”

“Though I apologise, I must also point out that your father requires his utmost repose. I really cannot allow you–“

A thin voice rasped out in a high, cold note. “Apothecary, let my daughter to my bedside come.”

The short man tugged at a silver necklet he wore, before stepping aside saying in a clearer, louder, humbler voice, “As it pleases you,” and then leaning close to Rosa, he nearly spat: “Please, please come only in the morning from now on. You will kill him with your attentions.”

Rosa’s lips curved with a smile. “Of course.” She moved smoothly past him and to a gap in the curtains. Kneeling there, she took one of his blue-veined hands in her two.

The Eorl’s voice rattled. “And what brings you to an old man’s deathbed?”

“Father, please. You are not dying. We have brought a man. He will help. Are you feeling better?”

“Better?” The old man began to laugh, then coughed. “Do not lie to me. Do not lie to yourself, sweet daughter. I am dying. The Lady knows it. I am no longer of the mortal earth.” His words dwindled away then, but came back a moment later. “I have been dreaming. I hear the voices of the dead. My mother and my father too… my wife… old friends, long lost to wars, and some I did not know are dead. They scold me for holding onto life. They scoff at my fears. I am not long for this world, dear daughter.” With a trembling hand he reached out and stroked her hair. “Pray for me, my beauty. My treasure.”

She said something in a low, soft voice.

Sigurd stood by the door, his arms folded, staring bleakly. “Will you help us? Truth be told, I fear for Rosa. Her mother first and now her father… who next?”

Kveldulf breathed the air, tasted it, a little surprised: there were scents of something unnatural. Not the charms or the tokens left about the room; a few of the amulets did possess smalls scraps of magic, like watered blood smeared into dead wood, but for all that, the folk-charms remained weak and clumsy. More or less, ineffective. There was something else hiding in the air. Kveldulf had assumed that there would be no sorcery at work here. He had been planning to sniff the air, look about, declare the illness natural, and be on his way. It was the usual way this sort of job played out. Desperate people look for a desperate remedy. But more often, in Kveldulf’s experience, death was the world’s way of cleaning house. Disease’s don’t have to be malign and witch-sent to kill. But not here. Not now. He was forced to wonder. He decided to stay for a night, and look about the room with his other eyes. It was the only way he could be sure.

Rosa was over by the beside, but Sigurd was still standing near enough to ask a question of. “What of the other sister? Has she shown any signs of illness?”

Sigurd looked at the floor. “Lilia? I do not know. I don’t know anyone who would, except, maybe the lady Ermengarde. As I said, I fear for Rosa. It is not for me to say more.”

Kveldulf studied the man’s expression, which remained uncomfortable. “I shall need a private place, a room to myself. Somewhere near these chambers would be best. I work my best finder’s craft in the nighttime, and it will be easier if I am near the Eorl.”

“I think the groomsmen’s rooms are empty. No one wants to sleep near the bedchamber anyway. And to be honest, if nothing can be done until later tonight, then I guess I’d rather not stay here too long either. So, perhaps, I’m no better than the priest, eh?”

Kveldulf looked over a the bed. “The Lady Rosa will stay?”

“She will. For an hour or two. She tries to keep up his spirits, when she can.”

They left the sickroom and walked away in silence. Passing a window, Kveldulf slowed his pace and paused. A distant, familiar sound drifted to him in a few snatches, dim-heard. The window was covered with a greasy leather curtain to keep the cold out, and Kveldulf pulled it aside so he could look into the dusky afternoon light. Smoky fires in the hamlet below threw drunken shadows. Somewhere a dog barked. A little farther off a smith hammered at his anvil. Cowbells clanged. And beyond it all, over hill and gully, somewhere in the autumn wood a wolf was howling.

Sigurd peered around Kveldulf’s shoulder. “Is something amiss?”

“No,” said Kveldulf. “I was just listening to the wolves. I’ve been in the south and east so long. I’ve not heard wolves in quite some years. ” He let the curtain fall back, and kept walking.

BEFORE THE VELD

It can weary a man, to live for two hundred years, but this city, just entering it gave Kveldulf a flickering, smouldering moment of life and hope.

It was almost a year to the day before he would set foot in the Veld, and the night of the wolf was just a black memory.

The city had grown and shed many names over the years, but was currently going by Pyreathium. Crammed with humanity from every corner of the world. Dusty. Hot. Rich with splendour. The monuments to countless, unnamable Pyrentine emperors lay here and there like children’s toys. There were spices from Bara-Hagadh. Slaves from Cashel. Merchants from Caithroth. And even a few Northingmen, like himself. Not many, but enough that no one stared too long at the wild and bearded hunter.

He went dreaming through the markets beneath the gazes of dead emperors and forgotten priestesses. He looked at the vases and perfumes, the wines, cloth and jewellery. He spoke to people. Kaikos wasn’t a language he knew, but his Lethrine was passable and a few people spoke Fraenk too.

“Do you know where to find Auxentios?” he said.

“Auxentios, that is a common name,” they would reply. “And this is a vast city.”

“Auxentios the sage. The healer. The miracle-worker.”

“Ah, that Auxentios. No. You don’t look for Auxentios, he looks for you.”

Again and again. The same question, the same answer. And then Kveldulf came to a stall with red canvas and pillows and a blind man who was telling fortunes. But as Kveldulf thought about asking the old blind silver-palm about Auxentios, the man began screaming. He pointed an arthritic finger at Kveldulf and yelled, “Nosophoros! Nosophoros!” People were starting to stare. Kveldulf stepped away and vanished himself into the crowd. He found out later that the word meant literally plague-carrier. But sometimes also, witch. Or demon. Or monster.

CHAPTER THE SECOND

Men and women crowded the long tables. Children chased each other around the hall or teased the tangle of dogs that lay beside the fire. The chiefs of the household sat at the high table, their conversations mingling and grating. At the heart of these well-dressed lords and ladies, the throne stood, conspicuously empty.

Kveldulf watched from beside a pillar, about halfway down the length of the hall. There was a smell here he could not quite pick. Something faint. It put him in mind of the Eorl’s sickness. It was making Kveldulf grow steadily less certain of the situation. Something was moving beneath the normality of the place, like worms beneath skin.

Whatever that creeping under-thing was, he tried to put it out of mind. Tried not to let it worry him. It was something for the night. For the dreaming. There was little enough Kveldulf could do about it now, except note its existence and wonder. For the time-being, he satisfied himself by observing the household as they argued, laughed and drank. He watched them, as they watched each other, playing their games of words and power. Who was trying to outwit whom, he wondered. And to what end?

“Excuse me.” Kveldulf motioned over a passing kitchen boy. The lad was carrying a pitcher of ale; foamy suds wet the floor as the he walked over. “Yes?”

“I am a stranger at court. Could you point out the Lady Lilia for me?”

“That’s her. By the throne. In the white.” He raised a greasy finger and pointed at a pale, thin creature. All the other women at the high table wore elaborate and embroidered gowns, their hair done up in complex arrangements with nets of gold and silver. Lilia’s hair was little more than a plain plait, her dress very simple. The simplicity was not elegant, so much as it was featureless. It was as if she had dressed in an attempt to draw as little attention to herself as possible.

“Thank you.”

The boy hurried away.

Lilia, it seemed, barely exchanged a word with anyone around her. Whilst Rosa, on the other hand, seemed recovered from her earlier tears. She smiled and chatted while sipping from her horn, all charm and pleasantries. Of the two, Rosa was clearly more comfortable at the head of a table. How much of her performance was exactly that–a stately act–remained unclear, but she lit up those around her all the same. The contrast to her pallid older sister could not have been more striking.

“Enjoying yourself?”

Kveldulf looked over his shoulder. “Sigurd? Shouldn’t you be at the thane’s table?”

He shrugged. “The mood I’m in, I’d just as soon be alone. This feast, though, it’s quite something, and there is better to come, dancers and jongleurs. Even if the Freer condemns the lavishness of it, all the churls love it.”

Kveldulf looked around the hall. “I think the lords and ladies quite love it to.”

“Quite. Yes.”

He nodded then, towards the high table, at a man in white and yellow robes wearing a necklet of gold suns. “The Freer? He would be the priest at the high table?”

“Third man to the left of Rosa, yes. Fat-faced cretin.”

“You don’t like him.”

Sigurd darkened. “I am too plain with my words, aren’t I? Ah, but everyone already knows.” A shrug. “There is not much point in keeping a secret that never was. Some months ago I went to the Eorl with an offer to take Rosa for wife. I could offer only my family’s holdings, a few hides of farmland.” His smile twisted into a frown. “Rosa is the second daughter, so, the way I see it a good marriage to a good family of the Veld wouldn’t be too awful a thing. The Eorl has always been kind to me. He smiled and mumbled and went off to consider the matter. Ermengarde approved. The Mareschal thought it a fitting match. Most of the Toren Vaunt saw no harm in the marriage. Except for the Freer. He argued for a more… advantageous marriage. The man has his eye on a son of Lord Theosdrine, a man well known for his ample patronage of temple and shrine. In time the Freer won over the Eorl. And so I… we… were denied.”

Kveldulf narrowed his eyes. “Indeed. And Theosdrine’s son?”

“No agreements are yet made. And if the Eorl dies before a marriage is arranged–and it looks as if he likely might–then it will fall to Lilia to carry out his wishes. And she does not care one whit, not one way or the other.”

“And so you and Rosa might then marry?”

“If the Eorl dies.”

“Which does not look so good for you and Rosa.”

“No. It looks quite bad. You can understand why Rosa sent me to find you, I suppose. People will wonder.”

Kveldulf nodded. “Or already are wondering.”

“Or already are,” conceded Sigurd.

Sigurd excused himself and went to the nearest table. When he returned he had a plate filled with pork and a mash of swedes, sweet apple and raisins.

“Here now,” said Sigurd through a solid mouthful. “The players are entering. The harvest play. I’ve been looking forward to this. Rosa chose the play. It should be good–you–scruff–quiet!” He prodded a child with his elbow.

The hall fell to a hush and the first player walked to a space cleared of straw before the high table. Dressed in a costume of leafy green and fake silver, he wore a garish mask that covered his face from the nose up. He bowed first to the empty throne, then to the two daughters of the Eorl, and then to each ranking kinsman in turn. Finally, he bowed to the other tables and then to the children, then to the dogs, which raised a few half-laughs.

Other players entered. These were dressed up like a woodland–leaves and bundles of twigs made up their costumes and their masks were cut from birch bark.

As the tree-folk began a circling dance, the first player stood deathly still and hung his head. Measure-by-measure, he raised his face and addressed the audience. “What spirits are these, who are but eyes among the trees? Do you know me, a merry spright? I, who wander noon and night, and grin with mischief and delight? I am that so-called irrlicht spright, the Poukling Hob. Fair warning then–kings and maids alike, do I bewitch, afright and rob.”

Rosa was beaming, and leaning attentively forward. Lilia looked more distracted, more remote.

The forest stilled and moved inwards while the Poukling looked about himself, and cupped a hand to an ear, as if straining to catch a faint noise.

“But hark! I hear a voice upon this air. I’ll creep in shadow and hide me there.” Hunching down, he slid behind a tree and waited.

Into the hall danced a new player; a woman dressed up in a mockery of a courtly gown. Her mask was smooth and bright, and clearly meant to be youthful and pretty. Beneath it, her lips were painted bright crimson.

She started to sing a bucolic song. It had a catchy air, though the words were simple nonsense.

The Hob now moved through the forest. He followed her, and hid whenever she looked his way. Touching a hand to her breast the young woman stopped singing. “Who lurks and rustles in the dark? Art thou raven, wren or lark? Art thou a wight whom I ought flee, or but the wind, that flit-to-flit, from tree-to-tree?”

With a sudden, unearthly shriek the Poukling leapt out at her. Several in the audience jumped. A babe started crying. No sooner had the Poukling’s harsh cry died, than the actress began to scream herself. She ran from the woods, and out of the hall.

The Poukling feigned laughter and held his belly.

“Oh how I laugh to see them run through glen and glade, stumbling in fog, in shadow and shade. A mortal is a doltish a thing. And yet, such merriment can such things bring.”

“Hob-Gobling!” This voice rang clear through the hall. The speaker strode onto the floor. He was dressed much like the Poukling, but taller and grander and with a crown of yellow-red-gold leaves upon his head.

“The Gobling King! I bow to you, o’ lord. Welcome to mine humble sward.”

“Hob-Gob, you cruel and impish spright, what mischief do you work tonight? Who was that mortal maid thou’st put to fright? Tell me every detail clear, of her fear, of her flight. For I have a wish to delight, to laugh tonight, at your pranks, at your spite.”

The trees all moved outwards as if they feared the Gobling King, but the Poukling, rather than respond to the king, raised one crooked finger and spoke to the audience. “A thought in mine head has begun, and here I think I’ll have some fun.” And with many fawning bows he turned to the king, “Lend me your ear and I will tell you all I know of that lovely beauty so, of the maiden fair. Did you not hear her sweet evensong? So clear, so charmed, and sung so strong, that e’en the rude wind grew calm at her voice, and night-birds stilled, and I rejoice, to recall that once-heard song. Hark to me. She lives, I’ve heard, with brothers three, in a castle wooded-gird, Unwed, unwooed, unplucked… I’ve heard.”

At the last line more than a few in the audience smirked, some blushed, and a few banged their tables with mugs and yelled out suggestions.

The trees all rustled together once, then fled from the hall, followed soon after by the Poukling and his lord. The young woman returned and, glancing about, she fetched a stool and sat down. Miming weaving now, she hummed the same tune as before.

Behind her, into the hall, crept the Gobling King, his cloak wrapped tight about him. She did not notice him until he was beside her, and when she looked up, she jumped to her feet. “Who are you to come to my bower, upon this late and lonely hour?”

“I am the spright and Gobling King, of whom priests fear and minstrel’s sing.”

“What dost thou want then?”

More sniggers from the audience.

“Come away with me o’ mortal fair, to woods of green where I do lair, to my court and gobling fair, where the Faer folk trip, and dance and dare, wherein you’ll know no mortal care.”

“I want thee not, therefore pursue me not.”

She stepped away.

He reached out a hand for her.

“O’ lovely creature beset by weight of years, you’ll not misthink hopes and fears; I go tonight, but mark my vow, I’ll yet be he who masters thou.”

He turned and left. After putting the stool to one side she followed him out of the hall. The forest returned, and then into the glade of dancing trees strode the Gobling King and at his side the Poukling.

“What say you, lord?”

“You spoke aright, she is a beauty fair and bright. And I will make her mine.”

The king departed but the forest stayed, and so did Hob. He wandered this way and that, and pointed out into the distance, laughing to himself.

“The lord, dost thou see him not? He steals to the maiden’s bower, and each night, hour-by-hour; he wins her heart, string-by-string, with charms and gifts that he doth bring.” With a shrug the Poukling returned to the thick of the trees; the forest crouched down so that he could be more clearly seen and heard. “Now nights go by, a week, a year, and what is that I think I hear? Their laughter haunts the evening sky? So she is his at last? Hark! Hither they fly.”

All of a sudden the Gobling King returned, leading by the hand the young woman. They danced together among the tables. All the while the Poukling followed them, grinning. They embraced, and the forest clustered around, hiding the two lovers from view.

With a toothy smile the Poukling paced about and spoke to the audience again. “She who is fair-fresh and sweet, lays now her heart down at his feet. To the gobling court he did bring, this mortal maiden changerling. And there she will stay, his pleasure–forever and a day.”

There was then a cry at the door, and the Poukling looked towards it, pointed. A hush went through the audience as three men entered. Dressed in painted wickerwork armour, each wielded a wooden sword. Their masks scowled, knotted at the brows.

“Now what is this? Something in my sward’s amiss. Three mortal men who this way hunt. The eldritch realm they confront, with petty swords of blackened steel that no gobling flesh would even feel.” With a dismissive wave of the hand the Poukling turned his back to them,  “Ah, what care I, forsooth these fools will soon die–but–a thought in mine head has begun. And here I think I’ll have some fun.” Twirling about on the spot, the Poukling crouched low, then crept up to the men. Leaping out at them, shrieking and laughing, the Poukling pointed a sharp finger and spoke. “How now, mortal men, why come you to the folksfire fen?”

They huddled together with swords drawn, and the tallest of the three spoke. “Beware! An elfin thing, of which priest’s fear and minstrels sing.”

The Hob shrugged with complete ambivalence. “I will not harm thee, for thou cannot injure me. With swords of unenchanted metal, you could not cut a gobling petal.”

Speaking his line the second man shook his head. “Then woe is ours, and sorrow, and wrath, for an evil spirit from this wood hath stolen our dear sister in the night, and taken her, forever and ever from our sight.”

Now no one spoke. The hall was silent except for the crackling fire and the breathing of the audience.

The Hob at length replied. “I know of only one who would do such a thing, the master of the eldritch realm himself: the grand and gracious Gobling King. But… I feel some pity for you, three brothers, whose hearts are true. Give me your swords and I will work some gobling wards, so that your blades will with enchantment gleam and lead you through forest, grove and stream.

From a pouch at his waist the Poukling drew out a bough of oak leaves and a stone painted scarlet. Stepping close to the first brother he stroked one edge of his sword with the oak, and began to chant, “I mark one edge with leaf-of-holm, the other with a ruby stone. Now this edge will cut gobling flesh, and you, no sorcery will enmesh.” One after the other he enchanted all three swords in this way. The brothers brandished their weapons before stalking into the wood that sheltered the lovers.

All at once the forest leapt to attack the brothers. But the enchanted swords make quick work of elfin trees, it seemed. The brothers then attacked the Gobling King and wounding him, took their sister by the wrist and dragged her screaming from the hall.

The trees, the king and Poukling fled the hall a moment later. The maid returned and sat again on her stool, but was now guarded on three sides by her brothers. She begged them in a sobbing voice, “O’ let me go back to the green, green wood, where I knew love, and joy, and stood, in a world where grief is forgotten, and winter unknown, and spring begotten.”

The brothers answered in one voice. “You are bewitched and cursed and wrong. The gobling’s charms had you too long. The beast that made thine flesh his cell, would take you hand-in-hand to blighted dell. If we should falter, if we should sleep, your soul is his to ever keep.”

Cradling her head in her hands she spoke in hushed words–almost too quiet to hear–the audience strained forward. “No, for I fear that afore the morrow I will be dead of grief and sorrow.” On the last word she slumped to the floor and lay in a twisted velvet heap.

The brothers stood their vigil and did not notice the Poukling sneaking back into the hall. “Oh what delightful mischief. I have here worked a lovely charm, and now the Gobling King, marches here, fulsome with rage, a brim with harm.” He snapped his fingers. “And so my enchantment ends, as all things must, that in their time will turn to dust.”

The Gobling King and the forest, now armed with mock swords of their own, rushed into the hall. In a mob they attacked the brothers and the mortals’ swords failed; each of them was cut down where he stood. The Gobling King crouched over the crumpled form of the young woman and stroked her hair. “She sleeps my beauty fair, I’ll take her now, so when she wakes, I will be near.” Lifting her up in his arms, followed by a column of trees, he left the hall.

The Poukling watched all of this and slowly shaking his head, threw out his arms and bowed to the audience, before saying a final line: “For the Gobling King knows not of death, and though the maid stirs not a breath, my king waits by her bedside still, waiting for her to wake–she who never will.”

The Poukling bowed to the high table, to the low tables, to children and then to the dogs. The audience began to stamp their feet and bang their trenchers for only a moment before everything stopped. There was a sudden, choked-off silence.

Faces were turned to the high table. Lilia was standing. She’d accidentally knocked over her goblet, and the red wine was bleeding through the white table linen. Her eyes were filled with a cold, intense light. Without a word she left the table, knocking over her chair and pushing aside a page who was too stunned or clumsy to get out of her way. Gathering her skirt she ran from the hall. As she passed the place where Kveldulf stood, he could clearly see tears on her cheeks.

She left a stunned silence behind her.

But not for long. At the high table the wide-eyed Freer was muttering to the mistress-of-chambers, the Seneschal covered his mouth and spoke to the Chamberlain, who nodded gravely in turn. Only one person did not seem shocked by Lilia’s sudden departure. Rosa sat calmly, sipping from her own vessel, and Kveldulf could not help but notice a slight smile on her lips.

CHAPTER THE THIRD

Ermengarde waved her hand at the gossip as if hoping to swat the words dead. The Freer was grinning his stupid, half-in-doubt smile as he tried to get her attention.

“Not now, not now.” Ermengarde left him looking shocked and offended. She squeezed past the chairs. “Excuse me… pardon me… very sorry.” By the time she reached the great doors, Lilia’s footfalls were already fading.

She listened and followed. Shaking her head, Ermengarde began to mutter as she paced; wording and rewording what she was going to say. The first reprimand was too harsh. The second too lenient. Rejecting one after another, she was already at her wit’s end as she stepped into Lilia’s walled garden. Dim, cloudy moonlight chased over the ground. The air was full of the strains of a shawm, notes that mingled with the rustle of the old willow. It was a strange melody, wandering and haunting, despite being difficult to catch.

“Lilia.”

The music stopped.

The young woman lowered the shawm from her lips. Her voice shook. “Please, Aunt Erma, just go away. I want no company. I want no kind words. I want no angry words. And most of all I want no questions. I want to be alone.”

“To do what?” Ermengarde placed her hands on her hips. Stand in the dark and play your songs and forget yourself?” Shaking her head, she crossed the garden, swishing through the autumn leaves, and put a hand on Lilia’s arm. “Poor child. Here, look at me. You’ve been crying.”

Lilia turned to her slowly. Her hair was loose and a handful of mousy brown strands crisscrossed her eyes.

A sound that began a wordless whisper formed into “Ermaermaerma,” and then trailed away. Lilia took a deep breath and used it to say: “Erma, you’re far to good for me. You’ve always been far to good for any of us. You don’t understand. You should leave me alone. For both our sakes.”

That was a strange thing to say. Ermengarde put her other hand on Lilia’s shoulders.

The young woman began to tremble. Drawing her niece closer, Ermengarde found herself in an accustomed role. The child and her aunt. So much had changed and so much had not.

The moment stretched, and the wind whispered to the shadows. Sniffing and regaining composure, Lilia pulled away. She was still shaking, and still clutching the shawm to her chest. “Erma?”

“Yes, dear?”

“I do not want you to worry about me. If something should happen, it will not be your fault. It will never have been your fault. We are all masters our own lives. I want you to understand that. Never blame yourself…”

“I’m sorry if I don’t follow you, dear.”

“I sometimes feel life is an illusion. As if I am watching someone else’s story. I sometimes think that the fortress, the riches, the wealth and power are nothing more than fakeries. I run and pick things up and hold them to make sure they are real. Do you ever feel that way?”

If Erma ever did, she certainly didn’t want to admit it. She tutted instead. “Don’t talk nonsense, Lili. Look, we’ll clean you up, and I’ll tell everyone you were just feeling a turn of illness. We can say it was women’s problems. That will stop the men from asking about it, at least. And your poor sister… I am sure she is very worried about you.”

“Yes,” said Lilia her voice colder. “Rosa. My poor sister. My poor, poor sister.” When Lilia suddenly titled her head and laughed at the cloudy sky, Ermengarde took an involuntary step back.

“Dear child,” she whispered.

“Dear, poor Rosa. So sad, so helpful and so worried about me. I had almost forgotten about poor Rosa. Thank you, Aunt Erma.  I am sorry for you. Sorry for all of you. I want to be alone. I will not return to the feast. That is the last thing I will say about it.”

“Very well.” Ermengarde opened her mouth to add something else, then held the thought, so that, with a shrug, she said instead, “but I will go back to the hall. What shall I tell your sister?”

“Tell her I enjoyed her play.” Lilia looked down and kept her gaze fixed there. “I found it illuminating.”

“Goodnight, then.” Ermengarde turned, hesitated and marched away. Lost in thoughts, she did not notice the shape waiting in the shadows just inside the corridor.

-oOo-

Kveldulf stood perfectly still. As soon as the middle-aged woman was out of earshot, he edged towards the open doorway to the garden. He could smell the crisp night. Who was the older woman? A relative? An advisor? He would ask Sigurd. He risked a glance into the night air.

Framed by the stone archway, the eldest daughter of the Eorl knelt in the autumn leaves, clutching a woodwind of some sort. Something like a flute, he guessed. It seemed to Kevldulf that she was crying. The folds of her ivory dress were rucked about her legs, and spread over the ground like spilled moonlight. Staring past her, he searched each shape and shadow. For sometimes shadows are more than shadows and the sough of wind is more than the sough of wind.

The air of the garden had a powerful and strange smell to it. Different to the Eorl’s room. Older. Wilder. And yet Lilia was alone.

He could wait, and perhaps he would discover what else was haunting the garden, but there was a strong risk of discovery. He was not well concealed and the Eorl’s daughter would only have to look up to see him. He felt a frown crease his face. It would not do to be found spying on the heir of the Eorldom.

As he was about to go, Kveldulf’s gaze happened to glance again passed the instrument.

He paused.

In the moonlight the pipe was a delicate strand of rock crystal and silver paint. Too fine. Too flawless. Only twice before in his long life had Kveldulf seen craftsmanship to match the instrument. He stared hard at its lineaments.

As he stepped away from the doorway, thoughts pattered around in his head. He would have to see the object closer, touch it, perhaps smell it, even press his tongue to it to get a true sense of its materials. The question lingered. If it were not the work of mortal hands, by whose hands was it made?

-oOo-

Lilia dried the tears with the back of a hand.

Running her numb fingertips along the length of the shawm she smiled sadly and lifted it up. Wetting her lips first, she blew a long, noteless breath to warm the pipe before letting her fingers draw out a melody. She played her strange notes, wandering and haunting, despite being difficult to catch. She imagined that the song held yearnings… hopes… dreams… needs… and because she imagined it, it did.

In the garden, in the darkness, he appeared, at first a shadow, then a dream limned in starlight, then real. A gentle hand reached out and brushed her cheek. She let the song ease away, let the shawm stray from her lips. She stared into his deep, bright eyes.

“I…” she began.

He crouched down so that she could lean into his arms. “I know.”

They held together in the garden while the leaves of the willow swarmed around them. Their breath blended together; she could still taste the after-taint of wine on her own, even as she inhaled his, sweet and wild.

“When will you come to me?” his voice was wind in the trees. “When will you give up this filthy hovel? Please. Please. Give yourself to me.”

“Soon.”

“Recall the vow I made when we first met. I am impatient. You haunt me day and night. I can remove you from all cares. And death. And age… sickness… regret. Those things are nothing to me. They will be nothing to us. Let me be your king and I shall take from everything that has ever made you weep.” His thumb touched a tear away from her cheek.

The wind stroked the willow.

“No. Not yet.”

“When?”

She shrugged in his arms. “My father will soon be dead. All the healers in the world cannot save him. Soon I shall be the Lady of Vaunt and there shall be no voice in the Veld stronger than mine. If I should choose a lover… a husband… who would say a word against me? Who could say a word against me. You might walk in my house, openly. You could yet sit upon a throne beside mine. Your kingdom and mine… we could be one.”

His eyes flickered with an unknowable light of thoughts.

Sometimes she found his expressions difficult to interpret. Occasionally it seemed to her that he mimicked joy, or love, or laughter–as if he could not quite feel these things, but had studied them assiduously. She shook the thought away. Searching his face with hunger, she wondered what emotion filled his eyes now? What was writ across his timeless face? Fear? Mistrust? Confusion? Hope? She wanted to know him deeply enough to read the truth.

“But you could come away with me tonight. Away from here forever.”

“No.” She said. “Not today. I cannot run away tonight. If we wait, then we can be together. Joyful and freely. Together we can be happy here.” She straightened her shoulders and said more firmly, “I cannot go with you now. Not yet. There are things I must yet do.”

“What things?”

“Secret things.”

“Secret from me?”

“Secret from everyone.”

He held back his answer a long time before saying, at last. “I understand.” He stroked gentle fingers over her cheek. Though, as he held her, Lilia worried if he ever understood anything she said at all.

And so they stood awhile in the hushed night, alone but for a gathering of small nocturnal things. Wild creatures were always drawn to him; there were mice in the leaves, two pale owls on the wall and on top of a stone urn, there was an old, fat, raven, black as the spaces between the stars.

BEFORE THE VELD

“No,” they said, “Auxentios? Never heard of him”–“The old hierophant? Just a pilgrim’s story”–“There’s a good herbal two streets down, the best in all Pyreathium maybe, go there”–“Don’t go chasing shadows.”

By evening Kveldulf had given up. He was in an inn, drinking–getting drunk, really. He did that a lot these days. It chased away the dreams, sometimes, if he drank enough.

Things swayed when he got up, but not too badly. The stairs were steep, though he still was able to scale them to the top, then stumble along the corridor, turn into his room. He locked the door of course. He always did. Even in remote and peaceful places. He was still just sober enough to take the chalk and stones out of his bag. Black dyed chalk and old stones cut with runes. He drew things on the floor and put the stones in particular places. It would hopefully be enough to keep her at a distance for one night. The power of the symbols and runes was weak, and couldn’t banish her completely, but at least with the ward laid out, she was often held back, forced to hunt somewhere else, somewhere, anywhere, away from Kveldulf. It was the best he could do.

Drunk, he ignored the bed and lay down in the middle of the chalk and stones. Spittle gathered in his beard as he began to snore.

He was too deeply asleep, too miserably drunk to hear the cat. It was hungry and quiet as it came in through the window. It nosed about the room, looking for mice, then sniffed his satchel and found some smoked meat wrapped up in greased skin. As the cat dragged the meat towards the window it knocked two stones out of place and erased one of the chalk symbols. The cat escaped with its stolen banquet.

Minutes passed.

He woke.

The night was black.

There was a scream. Somewhere. Down below. In the taproom, he thought.

Kveldulf crawled to his feet. His head hurt. In the glisten of starlight from the window he could just see that something had broken the ward. He gathered his things in a just-woken haze and packed them quickly, before gingerly opening the door.

Blood. Too recent and too thick to even begin congealing. All down the hall. Wet. Slippery. Kveldulf was too drunk for this. The hall looked like a well of darkness with fire at the end. There was more blood on the stairs, and in the taproom there were bodies. A fallen cresset had set fire to a rug. The flames were already licking up the far wall. Near the door were a set of clear paw prints marked out in red. Huge. The size of a bear’s feet, but they didn’t belong to a bear. They belonged to her.

The red prints went out through the front door and Kveldulf went after them. He drew his silver dagger. It would not kill her, but it might wound her just enough to chase her off. He’d chased her off before.

There was a smell outside, lavender and stranger spices. It whispered away down the road.

Then came more screaming. A man’s voice, then a woman’s. Bells starting tolling, heavy, clanging temple bells and reverberating gongs. Kveldulf followed the sound, but he stopped when he saw the men-at-arms, a dozen of them in the purple and gold of the Emperor’s service. He didn’t want to be caught or questioned. That always went badly. They never did let him lay out the wards once he was locked in a gaol. And there were always more deaths when the wards weren’t set down right. She would run wild every night, free from all bindings, savage, killing and devouring whatever she pleased. Then she would come and kill the gaolers and tear open the iron bars and laugh her wolfish laugh at Kveldulf as he chased after her into the night screaming at her to kill him too. Screaming with wretched, pathetic impotence until his throat was so ragged the words croaked.

So Kveldulf did what he’d done so many times before. He turned and he walked away. There was no point in this.

Two hundred years ago, when they’d first met, he’d lost the knife of old bone, the one weapon that he knew could have killed her dead. And then, for two hundred years she’d followed him. A nightmare that chased him through places where even demons daren’t go. Two hundred years of this. Unable to run from her. Unable to hide. Unable to even die. She had done something to him to stop even that escape. And tonight he was too drunk. Too tired. Too sick of it all. Tonight was her night. He accepted this and stumbled off.

CHAPTER THE FOURTH

The hall was still in a state of disorder when Kveldulf returned. Rumours flitted from table to table. He found Sigurd talking with two householders, and waited for the conversation to pause before politely clearing his throat. “Do you know which room is to be mine tonight?”

“Yes. I asked the chamberlain to have one cleaned out for you near the Eorl’s chambers. I can find someone to show you the way.”

“If it is not too much to ask, I have some questions. Can we talk?

“There is more to the night,” said Sigurd. “Dancers and jongleurs.”

“I am weary. And I need to see to some things.”

“Of course, of course. The practise of your… er… trade.”

“Yes.”

Sigurd excused himself from the conversation. As he and Kveldulf left the hall, the young man glanced at the high table. “They are all fools, you know. The kinsmen and Chamberlain and Seneschal. As bad as the troubadours and jesters who act the fool to amuse. Worse, for at least a fool-by-trade is honest. These men… they play at being wise and are the more foolish for it. Look at the Freer, wriggling his hands and flapping his jaw and rubbing his scalp. All of them bickering and stammering and smiling to hide their fear.”

“Except for Rosa.”

“Yes, she is the only one of them who has command of her senses.” A shrug. “Or at least as far as concerns doing anything useful. Ermengarde is quite steady, but too much involved in the day-to-day life of the fortress to see that there is something deeply foetid in the Toren Vaunt.”

“Ermengarde?”

“The older lady. She’s the Eorl’s sister. At dinner she was sitting next to the Freer.”

Ah, good. That was the older woman who went after Lady Lilia then. Kveldulf nodded. “Tell me Sigurd, does Lilia ever vanish from time to time?”

The thane’s brow knotted. “I suppose so… yes, but whenever she hides herslef, Ermengarde ferrets her out.”

“I mean, for longer than an hour or so? Afternoons… days… weeks?”

“I don’t know. I don’t think so.” Each word was slow and considered, “But I don’t think that anyone really keeps a strict thumb on her. Not as strict as they ought to. She takes meals by herself. She seldom spends time with her ladies-in-waiting. And if she did wander off for a day or more, well, Ermengarde would no keep it quiet. It would be quite a scandal, after all.”

“Yes. I suppose it would.”

“Why? Do you suspect her? She is a strange one, but if you are suggesting something more sinister…”

“Deceit? Almost certainly. The shadowy arts? Murder? No, she does not have that air about her. Unless I am tricked.” Kveldulf smiled. “Which is not unknown. One other thing, the pipe of hers, how long has she owned it?”

“The shawm? Hm. Oh, I suppose a year or two. I think Rosa said that Lilia found it somewhere. In an old chest or wardrobe?” Sigurd stopped at a square, practical looking door. “Here we are. The Chamberlain said you could use this cell for the night. Actually, for as many nights as you want. No one else wants it.”

Dry, leathern hinges creaked. Light from the hall chased into the room but didn’t seem to like what it found, and kept as near the doorway as possible. They stepped into the bare spare space.

Sigurd coughed. “Still dusty, I’m afraid. No one has slept here since the Eorl’s illness. At least the pallet should be free of bedbugs. The scurff will be starved by now. I asked the Chamberlain to order up some new straw, a wisp-lantern, chamber-pot and rug.” Sigurd looked around. “Everything looks to be in order. Rest well.”

He shut bid goodnight to Sigurd and shut the door, then listened in darkness as lonely footsteps receded. He did not bother to light a lamp.

Undressing slowly, he ran a hand over his face and decided that tomorrow he would make an effort to trim his beard. He kept it short so as not to catch food, but could not quite bring himself to shave it off entirely, as was the current fashion. Still living in the past, he thought. As Kveldulf took off his jerkin the room was suffused by a glow. Around his neck was a gold chain and hanging from this was a feather–the colour of fire and purple sunsets and warm brass–gleaming just enough to throw dull light into the corners of the room. Kveldulf hung the feather from a peg on the door. By the light of the uncanny feather he sorted through his things, careless with most of his belongings but very careful with his knives, which he laid out near the bed.

He did not set out his wards though. The problem was that the wards worked both ways. He could not go walking in the night himself, not if the wards were there. So, on nights when he needed to go night-walking, he had to take a risk on his preternatural defences.

Before climbing into the bed, Kveldulf took out the three knives he always carried. He set them down on the floor, within easy reach. The knives were a matching set, made in Temask and worth a prince’s ransom. The first was a knife of cold iron for faer things, then a knife of steel for more mortal enemies, and finally a knife edged and coated with silver, for darker creatures.

The warm smell of dry, fresh straw filled his nostrils as he lay down on the wooden pallet. Grass stalks poked him through the wool blankets. He sneezed, closed his heavy eyes, and eventually he found sleep… and dreams.

Kveldulf dreamed that he got up and stretched an imaginary body. Stepping lightly to the timber floor, he shivered in the cold. The stale air smelled of nothing unusual. The darkness was a muted grey through which he could see every stone and plank. It was impossible to know how many hours had passed since he fell asleep. Sometimes he dreamed at once. Sometimes he lay asleep hours before the dreaming came. On rare nights no dreams came at all. Enough wine could keep the dreams away, but ever since Pyreathium he’d given up on that. Better to use the dreams. Better to make the night-walking his ally, rather than run away into a stupor each night. Crouching, listening, he decided the household sounded and smelled thoroughly asleep.

The door was difficult to open. When he dreamed Kveldulf found it hard to manipulate things. It always took effort and time and far too much focus.

When he finally got the door open he peered out into the empty corridor.

Nothing but shadows and silence.

Creeping out, he stole down the corridor. At the Eorl’s bedchamber a light flickered under the door. Armed men would be keeping vigil within. He could not risk nudging open this door, but as it was, he didn’t need to.

The air was thick with the stench of sorcery. It hung in greasy, clammy coils, too faint for a living, waking man’s nose, but now as obvious as the plaster on the walls and planks of the floor. Dogs can smell faint scents like sorcery. Cats too. And sometimes dreams.

The reek of witchcraft flowed like a thin, broad stream under the door. It eddied away from the Eorl’s room, down the hall, and around a corner. It was an easy trail to follow.

The tainted air led first to the great hall, then beneath the carved dragon and then through the chambers beyond. Those too drunk or too poor to find a bed after the feast lay slumbering on the floor. No one woke as Kveldulf passed, although the more sensitive stirred as they were visited by a brief flicker of a nightmare.

Now stalking the courtyard, Kveldulf breathed in lungfuls of the witched air. It flowed out of the fortress. Into the woods perhaps? Or to the hamlet below?

Though he was careful to avoid the kennels and stables, Kveldulf’s presence still made dogs whine and horses stamp. A sleepy voice cursed somehwere in the darkness. A dog barked. Kveldulf edged a little deeper into shadow.

Nosing along the east wall, he found a small sally door. The place reeked of rotting cabbage and offal. Kveldulf guessed that it was a shortcut to a midden outside the walls.

He leaned against the door, putting force into it until he felt it give. It buckled slowly, creaking and groaning, then, with a crack, it splintered. Somewhere on the battlements someone heard the sound and gave a short, hard yell. A moment later a horn bleated from the nearest watchtower. Torches were being lit.

Kveldulf stepped through the remains of the broken door. He skirted the base of the fortress and descended the jagged rocks, until he was on the road, and then in the village. Near the outer gates of the fortress he paused and sniffed the air again. The smell of magic snaked away into the forest.

It took all his will to ignore the sounds of the wild wood, the small scurrying of animals and the wonderful breath of cold air. The woodland taunted him, it begged to him. “Come, Kveldulf”, the wind said. “Hunt the wild groves”, cried an owl. “I’m fat and slow”, said the scuffle of a boar. But he ignored the voices.

Through dark and misty glens he went, into a rugged landscape of mossy stones and trees. Other, stranger smells drifted here. Things he had not smelled in a hundred years, not since he’d wandered from the faraway north.

As he came to a rushing stream the smell of magic grew pungent. Leaping from glistening rock to rock, he came to a small cataract and above that a lazy, midnight pool. Leaning close to the mirrored surface he sniffed. The magic was as thick and tangible as mist from a corpse-choked swamp.

“I have a friend who will be very unhappy if you upset his work. He takes such pride in it.”

Stepping away from the water Kveldulf hunched up and snarled. “Who spies on me?”

“Now, now, now, no need for that.” A sleek shape glided to a tree that overhung the pool. The thin branch it landed on bobbed twice under the raven’s weight. It a fat, old bird, as black as the spaces between the stars. Eyes glittering, it poked its beak forward.

“Who are you?” said Kveldulf.

“What a fine fool you’re making of yourself. Running around without a body. Very unnatural, if you ask me, not that a raven knows much of such things.”

“And what does a raven know much of? How to crack snail shells and steal pies from windowsills?”

“And how to find robin nests. And which feathers need smoothing in spring. And more. Tell me, what do they call you?”

“Kveldulf.”

“Well then, Kveldulf, a name deserves a name, and though birds do not have much need of such things, others call me Gnissa.”

“Spectre,” said Kveldulf.

“Your name is of the old tongue, and you speak it too. You are older than you look.”

“Older than you.”

“But of course.” And the raven stretched its wings. “Ravens do not live so long as men. And we certainly do not live as long as men who turn into shadows at night. What a cruel, cruel world it is. Even eagles live longer than ravens. Those ugly creatures think they are so grand. A moult on them.”

“And this friend of yours? “

“Now, a name for a name is fair, but two for one?” The raven croaked, as ravens do when they laugh. “Follow the stream past the boulder cut with old carvings. Then go to the pool of midnight revels. There you will find him, the master of curses, the dark heart of the woods. Or maybe not. Maybe he is elsewhere tonight. But on tomorrow eve you may find him at the pool. Or maybe on the tomorrow after. Give him time. He will be there.”

“And will you tell him I have found his little black charm?”

“Maybe, maybe not. I am a raven, and ravens keep secrets. It is what we do best. Or second best, perhaps. After all, as you pointed out, I am rather good at cracking open snails.” With a croak the raven took to the air and circled the small pool. Its reflection skimmed the starry waters. Then, beating its wings, it climbed into the night sky.

Kveldulf sat for a time beside the pool. He wanted to be sure he could find the place by daylight. As he sat and stared, he also listened. The woods called to him again, stronger now. He was about to give in and let himself be carried away when the distant strain of a new sound caught his ears. Deathly still, he strained to hear the faraway notes of a fluting instrument: a strange melody, wandering and haunting, despite being difficult to catch. The music was coming not from the fortress, but from the woods.

Thinking for a moment to follow the song, Kveldulf shook his head. No, that would be dangerous. He was not ready for that yet. He gave into the subtle hints and suggestions of the woodland and let the wild take him instead. The voice of the wild was plaintive now, demanding. It consumed him. Leaping into the night, his instincts wrapped about and subverted his conscious thoughts.

He wore shadow-flesh more fleet than all the creatures of night. He was made to hunt. Under mossy roots, in the hollows of trees, among a bed of reeds, these were the haunts of all the skulking creatures of the night. When one sensed him it would wriggle deeper in its burrow, or slither away, or bristle and turn gleaming eyes to him and snarl.

Though he stalked them for fun, each held his interest only briefly. It was the nameless thing in the forest. The darker, ever elusive shadow that he sought. Her scent was thick in some places. Her presence strong. But he never caught her. She was always too quick. Always too stealthy.

It was not like before. She did seem to have become more cautious since Pyreathium. There was a time when she would have tread like a taunting ghost on his heels, kill in his footsteps, and leave bloodied gifts for him in his path. But now… now she was less bold. Some days he couldn’t smell her at all, and he even wondered if she had given up torturing him, no longer following him at all. And then he’d find a body of a sheep, a deer or a child, and he would know that she was still here, somewhere, hiding in the night. Pyreathium had been the turning point, but the game was not totally yet swivelled against her. Not yet.

As her scent seemed thin and occasional, Keveldulf allowed himself to delight in the woods instead. He ran himself weary and enjoyed it. He splashed through a misty stream. He chased small, bright-eyed things and sniffed at standing stones and ancient idols buried in the forest.

Then he caught a new smell, cocked his head and wondered. Sweat and toil. Burnt wood and dried straw. A human smell. Curious, he followed it. In a hollow behind a thorny hedge he discovered a small cottage, standing alone and apart from the rest of the village. It was some way into the forest, and built of whitewashed wood, capped with thatch. Strange plants grew about its walls. No light flickered in the windows. No smoke wisped from the chimney. The cottage seemed dead.

He ghosted closer, curious. The place did have a smell of magic to it. Could he have lucked upon the house of the curse-maker? There was a presence in the air–he was sure of it–and the smell of old blood, dried foxglove and elderberries. Intrigued now, he edged past the prickling hedge-thorns, and into the moonlight shadow of the house. And closer still.

Closer, closer.

Too close.

There was nowhere to run, no place to hide, when the night air flared with yellowish light.

“Good evening,” she said, and the light that came from everywhere and nowhere faded a little.

She sat on the threshold. Her face, emaciated by age, was made thinner still by the furs and shawls that she had wrapped herself in. The sallow light glinted off her left eye, but where the other should have been, there was only a pucker of scarred flesh.

“I felt you. When you came a wandering, la-de-da, through the woods. Felt you from a long way off. Heard you talking to Gnissa, too. Be careful of that one. He’s more dangerous than he looks.” Raising a bone pipe to her lips she sucked noisily, then with a smile blew a ghost of smoke skywards. “Knew you’d find me eventually. Just had to wait in the miserable cold,” and she huddled up a little more. “Kept me waiting long enough though. No respect for the cares of an old woman, have you?”

“I wasn’t looking for you.” When Kveldulf spoke in his dreams it was with the inner voice we all know but never articulate. That surer, stronger, more charming sound that echoes in the skull.

“Ah, but yes you were. You just didn’t know it. Helgathusa.” She leaned forward, extending a hand. “No. No, I suppose not. But, it is a rare thing to meet one who wears his soul at night. I’ll shake your hand some other time, my rare fellow?”

“As rare as witches.”

She shrugged.

“Yes, and no, I cast the bones now and again. I can summon up a little corpsefire light. I might see visions in fires. I know how to dig up mandrake. I can tell you the uses of moss scraped from gravestones in moonlight.” She took another draught from the pipe and let the smoke seep from her nostrils. “So, call me a witch if it pleases you. But, my arts are earthier than that. And more cunning.”

“So why summon me here, Helgathusa?”

She rolled her eye. “Helg, please, just Helg. I had unkind parents. And, as for your question, I didn’t. You brought yourself here. Like I said, you were looking for me. Foolish pigwiggenry if you ask me. A man your age ought to know better than to go looking for things he doesn’t want to find.” Hunching her shoulders a little, she glanced skyward. A fat sleek shadow winged through the stars and landed in a tree. “Humph,” said Helg.

“I wasn’t looking for you. I was hunting a wolf. An unnatural thing. An old demon.”

Her voice was flat. “Bah. What did I just say about things you don’t want to find?”

“I would escape her if I could, but she is elusive. I would kill her, but she cannot die.”

“Is that so? Tell me what does this wolf look like?”

“Unnatural. As large as a small horse, with silver-black fur, and…”

She gave a quiet snort, “Fearsome eyes that glow with fire? Teeth like daggers? A voice that makes the soul tremble? Am I close?”

“You have seen her? Is she about?”

“No.”

“Then how…”

“Seems to me that you should not ask questions that you do not want to know the answer to either.” With the mouthpiece of her pipe she jabbed the air, punctuating each word. “Damned good advice. You should listen to it.” She adjusted her skirt. “So now that you are here in our little valley what will you do with yourself?”

“A man, Thane Sigurd, has hired me to protect the Eorl.”

“Oh, yes, terrible thing that. Bah and Bah. Someone’s put a curse on the Eorl. La-de-da, how awful.” Helg shrugged. “But if someone cursed me, would anyone go and fetch me a nice strong witch-hunter. No, course not. Must be nice, being an Eorl. And after the Eorl, what then?”

“Follow the road north. Find somewhere peaceful and remote. Maybe in Goathland or Sorthe. Somewhere to while away time. I am tired of the road. Maybe she will give up following me if there is no one around me to kill.”

She grinned. Her teeth looked too sharp and grey. “No one, but no one, ever just passes through this valley. It has a way of getting to people, especially folk like you. Folk like me. Unusual sorts.”

“I will be here a day, two at the most, and after my work is done, I leave.” His voice lowered. “I never meant to come here. I was drunk when Sigurd found me. I agreed out of pity. I can see why no one travels here, shabby old forests and crazy old women.”

“Call it what you will. I call it home.” She took a last drag on the pipe, and tapped the oily smelling ash out into the dirt. It burned briefly then died. Kveldulf had last smelled that greasy reek in Pyreathium and he wondered how the old woman had obtained something as rare as gid-leaf in these foggy forestlands. “It has been delightful, but my old bones are telling me it’s time for bed. And you look as if you are itching to get off and do whatever it is you do at night. It’s been lovely chatting. Stop by for tea tomorrow, if it pleases you. I’d like to talk to you with your body on. A bit unsettling speaking to you like…well…” she waved a hand in his general direction, “And here I am forgetting my manners. I never asked your name.”

“Kveldulf.”

“Really?” She ran a finger over her chin. “Now there’s a funny thing. I’ve heard of you. You’ve quite a reputation. There are witch-hunters, and there are witch-hunters, and then there is you. Humph. Well, I’m pleased to meet you, Kveldulf.” She got to her feet. “And do be a bit more cautious. If I felt you from so far off, then others will know about you too. And mark my words: I may be a cantankerous old woman who practises the arts, but I’m still the nicest thing in this forest. Nighty-night.”

While Helg had been talking, the woods were silent. Once she scuffled herself inside and shut the door the forest awakened again. Chirrups and peeps drifted through the canopy.

Kveldulf waited, sitting in darkness and in thought. A mouse scurried through the leaf litter. A moment later a fox stepped out of the thickets, started when it saw him and bolted away. He didn’t feel like giving chase. His delight in the wilds was quite ruined for the evening.

“So will you sit there all night?” he said, at last.

“No,” said the raven. “Just long enough to see what you’re really up to. My friend, he will ask questions, and it will go better for me if I have some answers.”

“I’m not up to anything more or less than doing what I am doing. Tell your friend that, and tell him that I will be looking for him.”

“Indeed, I will.”

Kveldulf could not sit still. And he didn’t feel much like chasing any night-prey. The joy of the night was receding from him. He prowled off into the darkness, almost with a sulky air. He would slip back into his body. It was easier going back than coming out. He just had to decide to return.

And.

He.

Woke.

CHAPTER THE FIFTH

Ofrah lived in a little cottage at the edge of the Hamlet of Veld. She thought of herself as a sound sleeper, but tonight lay restless. Her sleep, when it came, was shallow. When she woke suddenly, she sat bolt upright in bed, not knowing why. She rubbed a hand over her flabby, wrinkle-trenched cheeks and squinted into the shadows. The bedroom of her house was as black as any tin-mine, except for one thin knife of moonlight, let in by a knot in the shutters. At the foot of the bed two growls thrummed. Trotter and Waggen were snarling, and though Ofrah could not see them, she could imagine their black muzzles all wrinkled up and their canines bared.

“Good dogs,” murmured Ofrah. “Is there a fox outside?” The low rumbles continued and Ofrah lay down, shutting her eyes, trying to drift herself back to sleep. Having been alone since her husband died, the two dogs were her closest family. “There, there,” whispered Ofrah as she let her breathing slow. “Only a fox.”

The shriek that split the night sounded like a devil. Ofrah’s eyes opened wide. She clutched the edge of her quilt to her chin. Trotter and Waggen were pacing about the room now, their yelps and snarls were becoming frantic. It took a moment to think what the sound could possibly have been. Then the squabbling and clucking began. The henhouse… someone had torn the iron bolt from the henhouse and now they were in with the chickens.

Ofrah cursed and climbed out of bed. She wrapped the quilt about her shoulder and went to the window. The floor beneath her bare feet was icy cold. Trotter and Waggen were barking. Leaning up to the bar of silver light, peeping through the hole, it was hard to see much more than shapeless shadows and the ghostly outlines of flapping chickens.

Must be a chook-thief. Anger flushed her face. How dare they? How dare someone prey on a poor widow? With trembling fingers Ofrah undid the window catch and opened it a little. The beam of moonlight widened like a spreading fan.

“You there! Hoy! I’ve two big pig-hounds here! Halloo! Get away! I’ve got me dogs here and I’ll let them at you. Hoy!”

Just as she finished saying this a horse came into view. It looked at her. No. Not a horse. Ofrah stumbled backwards.

She tried to shut the window but was too slow and was knocked off her feet by something heavy. It took her a moment to realise that Waggen had leapt out the window. A moment later a second shape followed.

“No, no, no…” Ofrah crawled up to the windowsill. Peeking over it she watched as Trotter and Waggen went at the beast. Trotter’s neck made a sickening crunch as the creature’s jaws closed on it. Waggen was barking and barking as Ofrah slammed the shutters. A moment later and the barking ending with a high-pitched yelp.

On hands and knees Ofrah crawled across the floor. She was looking at everything at once. Breathing hard and erratic, she crawled under her bed. With the quilt still bunched up, now cocooning her, she lay there trembling.

The window shutters thudded as something violent struck them from the outside. They shook again, and Ofrah retreated a little further under the bed.

As the windows thudded with a third time Ofrah began to cry.

-oOo-

Kveldulf rose earlier than usual. He splashed cold water from a wooden basin over his face and chest, and then set about trimming his beard with a pair of shears. Before leaving the room, Kveldulf put the feather back around his neck and hid it under his shirt.

The fortress was hushed throughout. A lot of people would be feeling under the weather. He saw no one as he walked, though heard now and again a scuffle, or cough, or closing door–small signs of a household beginning the day. In the great hall, most of the revellers were still asleep, the few who moved about were groggy and silent.

Though Kveldulf blinked against the brighter light outside, the sun was little more than an orange orb above distant mountains. The morning half-glow lent everything a jewel-like quality. It was too early. He yawned and thought about how his eyes felt as if they were packed with sand.

A crowd of early-risers were gathered by the shattered door, staring and pointing. Kveldulf walked up to them.

“Look at the grooves, there and there, those are claw marks.”

“What would break the door from the inside?”

“A bear?”

“What about Toothless Bertha, has anyone checked to see if she hasn’t gone and escaped?”

“She’s almost too old for baiting now, let alone knocking down doors. And she’s locked by bolt and chain in the east tower.”

“All the same, someone ought to check.”

Kveldulf added nothing and waited only long enough to look over the door. It was a heap of kindling.

As he walked away the voices faded to a murmur. At the gates three guards in their tabards of deep red stood in a knot, whispering to one another.

“Good morning,” said Kveldulf as he passed.

Once out the gate, he ambled, stopped and rested his hands on the low wall that snaked like an endless grey caterpillar beside the cliff-cut road. From here he could take in a fine view of the forest, fields, and distant hills of the Veld. The air was still warming, and mist hung in the deeper hollows and gullies. The hamlet below was just beginning to wake.

It would be a long walk to the pool. At least two hours. And then what? Kveldulf traced his gaze from the tranquil millpond to the stream that fed it, and then the wispy pennants of fog that marked a river’s course through the woods.

He would find the pool first, fish up the curse and have a good look at it. It may be something he had seen before. A simple charm. Something he could counterspell. But the reek of sorcery had been very strong. It was more probably a thing of more than moderate power. Something born of old magic. Care would be needed.

He decided to cross that bridge when he came to it.

Farther away, some distance from the road that cut through the autumnal canopy, a pale minaret of chimney smoke threaded the air. Kveldulf remembered the small cottage, and an old woman who could set the air on fire with yellow light.

Adjusting his doeskin cloak, and checking over the pouches and scabbards that hung from his belt one last time, Kveldulf set off.

-oOo-

If anything, the pool was deeper in the forest than Kveldulf remembered. His memory of the dreams was always hazy, sometimes he recalled only a sense of exquisite freedom, on other nights he recalled nothing at all. The stretch of water was wide, but shallow. It formed a mirror for the autumn canopy above. Rubbing grit and moss from his hands, Kveldulf crouched at the edge of the pool.

He rolled up a sleeve and reached into the icy water. Ripples spread through the reflections. His fingers glanced over smooth rocks and slick mud. Grit and pebbles. An old rotten branch.

And something sharp.

A rock. He felt it again. The edges were all jagged and split. It was new to the river. He overturned the stone and touched something fragile and slippery that had been pinioned beneath it. Immediately he withdrew his hand. Cold water ran down his arm.

That slight brush of his finger had allowed a whisper of magic to leap and crawl along his skin. It was bleak magic. Cold. Clammy. Rotten.

Gingerly, Kveldulf reached back into the water, grit his teeth and lifted the soft thing out of the water. He laid it on a dry flat stone. It did not look like much. A manikin, no larger than a child’s doll and crudely made from clay, moss and twigs. Tufts of grey hair stuck out of the head at all angles and what looked like half-moon fingernails jutted from the torso.

Kveldulf pressed a cold, wet hand to his beard and wondered what to do. A witching doll was a common enough curse, but a dangerous thing to simply destroy. The violence of the destruction could convey harm to the victim. And this one stank of magic something powerful. The spells that bound the doll and man wasn’t familiar to him. When he thought about it, the sorcery didn’t quite smell human.

Too wet to be moved for now, the manikin would have to dry in the sunlight. Kveldulf, still tired from the night, looked about. A nearby aspen looked like an inviting place to rest. He sat down and made himself comfortable. His eyelids drooped. Reassured by the sound of wind and water he began to doze. When Kvedulf slept by day he did not dream. His sleep was peaceful. When the dreams had first come to him, he had tried to stay awake at night, sleeping by day. But that had only lasted a year or so.

He woke slowly.

Stretching, yawning, he sat upright. How long had he been asleep? The sun was sitting more or less at noon and the shadows of the forest were all short and stubby.

He sat upright, and feeling a twinge of stiffness in his left leg, began kneading the sore muscles. As he was doing this Kveldulf looked at the manikin.

It was gone.

He leapt to his feet, and cursing himself he prowled about the stony riverbank. There were no footsteps in the marshy soil, no traces at all in the leaf-litter.

Then he looked up.

“You.”

“Me.” The raven flapped its glossy wings, and craned its head to one side, fixing Kveldulf with one golden eye. Beside the raven, resting in a crook of a branch, was a small clayey lump. Grey hair fluttered in the wind.

“If you do not return that to me…”

“You will do what?” The raven’s voice was taunting. “Yell curses? Throw sticks and acorns? Chatter like an angry squirrel?”

“I’m going to turn you into a feather collar for my cloak.”

“Oh. Well, in that case here you are.” The raven stooped down, and plucked up the clay doll up.

Kveldulf looked at the distance. “No! Don’t drop it.”

“Mwhat?” mumbled the raven. He put the manikin down. “Now he wants it, now he doesn’t want it. Make up your mind.”

“I am going to wring your neck.”

“I doubt it.”

“So what do you want?” said Kveldulf.

“A nice nest, a witty talkative wife, two chicks, a…”

“From me.”

“Ahhhh,” said Gnissa, “the question.” He ruffled his feathers, and quirked his head to one side. “You know, I had not really considered it. It just seemed like a good idea at the time. Tell you what, promise me a favour, and I’ll give you back the clay toy.”

“A favour? That is always the worst sort of bargain. I’ll end up married to your sister.”

The raven croaked and flapped his wings. “If I had a sister she would have better taste than the likes of you. Take it or leave it. Me? I don’t care one way or another.”

Kveldulf brow darkened. “Very well, then.”

Gnissa scooped up the manikin, spread his wings, and fell from the branch. He swept in a low, swift arc and beat his wings furiously as he neared the ground. At the point where he was a few feet above Kveldulf he dropped the clay manikin.

Kveldulf watched it tumble towards him and cupping his hands, he caught it. Touching the doll caused a chill to itch across his skin. The magic tingled and pricked. Night-begotten bird.” In the cloud-streaked sky a black blotch was already vanishing. “Damned creature.”

It was early afternoon by the time Kveldulf arrived at the cottage in the woods. Smoke was still leaking from the chimney, and he could also hear the clattering of a pot and spoon and mingled with that a woman’s voice shambling through a folksy song.

He went to the door and raised his hand to knock, but Helg’s voice called out, “Come in,” before he had a chance to. Not really knowing what to expect, he pushed open the door.

The place was more spacious than most cottages. The walls were daubed with white plaster and the rafters dripped with dried herbs, flowers and cuts of meat, all airing in the smoky space.

Helg was crouched over a pot by the hearth. Fixing her one eye on Kveldulf she said, “Ah, come to visit already have you? Here sit yourself down. I’ve pottage on the boil, and eggs frying in goose fat. Get some food into you–that’s what you needs after a long night in the woods, I ‘spect?”

As he sat at the table, Kveldulf noticed knife scores and bloodstains on the wood. A moment later they were covered up as Helg laid a trencher down and heaped it with old bread, pottage and greasy eggs.

“Eat up, eat up. It only gets colder.” She laid out a something for herself and sat down. “You know,” she said as she poked at a yolk with a hank of bread, “Don’t believe that I’ve ever met anyone with your particular, um, talent. I was hoping you’d come back with your skin on. The other you, the nocturnal you, it gives me the creeps, so to speak, so to speak.”

“I did not mean to scare you.”

“No harm done. Now, I’ve been thinking about your particular problem. I presume that is why you’re here. Try the eggs. They’re good and fresh.” She sat back and cleared her throat, “Now where was I? Yes. I was trying to dredge up all the odd bits and pieces I know. There is a belief that some are born accursed–you know them by the membranous caul they are born in, or a blood clot held in their fist, or their long fingernails–sharp and unnatural for a babe.”

“Indeed? I was born quite normal, so far as my mother ever mentioned. Yourself?”

“Quite normal. Thank you for asking. Such courtesy. Such courtesy. It is of course just what they say. And you cannot really trust them at all, not at all, not at all.”

“Who?”

“Oh,” she waved a hand, “all of them really. There is also a belief that any curse can be lifted by flogging the poor person with a rod made of nine new birch twigs, and then scrubbing all over in a tub of year-old whey, then a tub of butter-milk, then a tub of new milk.”

“Does it work?”

She shrugged her shawl-wrapped shoulders,  “Don’t know. Don’t know. Never tried it. An awful lot of scrubbing if you ask me. And expensive. I ‘spect it’s one of those curse-cures that were invented for the amusement of observers. Or to increase sales of milch-cows. Hmmm, now some say there are charms that can be whispered to calm a wolf. Wolves teach the words to their wives so that the wife can command the wolf to not kill her in a rage. I have also heard of a man of the south, in a city called Rjenburg who makes his entire living going from house to house and whispering mysterious words to horses and kine to protect them from wolves.” Helg blew on the pottage and smacked her old, puckered lips before tasting it and smiling. “Ah the rhubarb makes the difference. Always make pottage with rhubarb. That being what my mother used to say, so she did. Have you considered drinking rainwater from the paw prints of a hundred wolves?”

“No, I hadn’t thought of it.”

“Or if you were given a girdle of wolf-skin leather by the Winter King, you could burn it. Some say that will do away with the curse.”

“I wasn’t. Who would put on such a belt?”

“True, true. I suppose the Goddesses of Night and her children are a little after your time anyway, eh?” She tched. “I don’t know enough about the very oldest gods: those who walked the earth before the gods who were before the gods. I suppose you must remember them though, with their bloodstained groves and their hanging trees?” She slurped up some pottage. “You need an old fix for an old ailment. How old are you, if a rude woman may ask?”

“Older than you and younger than the Clay-o-the-Green.” Kveldulf stirred the pottage and tasted it. “Old enough to have grown a little tired of living.”

She nodded. When her one good eye blinked the flesh around the other scarred socket twitched. “Lay it on the table then. That present you’ve brought me. I can feel it from here. It has a greasy, slimy power to it. You couldn’t have just come by to say hello could you?” She sighed. “No one ever just stops by to have tea with one-eyed Helg. Always have to have to bring something nasty for me to fix.”

Kveldulf laid the bundle of linen, now muddied and stained, on the table. He unfolded it corner-by-corner, until the whole crumbling doll lay supine on the table. Helg leaned forward and licked her withered lips.

“Humph,” she said, “an old charm and an ugly one. There’s hair and blood and nails of the victim bound up in the clay and moss. It’s a man yes? The Eorl? I think there may be semen in this too.” She sat back and waved a swollen-knuckled hand over the manikin. “Ugly, ugly magic.”

“It was hidden in the river.”

“As the water eats away at it, devouring it a smidgen at a time, the victim rots away just the same, just the same. Until the doll withers away to a skeleton of twigs and the victim…”

“Can you undo it?”

“Yes. I can remove the sorcery in a gentle fashion. Hum and humph, but someone is playing with fire, they are. Putting curses on Eorls is a dangerous hobby. There may well be necks stretched.”

“Perhaps. Can you tell whose work it is?”

“I can guess. Snoro, most likely. He traffics in this sort of thing, petty charms and simples and cantrips which he calls his great magic.”

“Why would he want the Eorl dead?”

A shrug. “Gold, probably. Someone’s put him up to it no doubt. That creature does nothing for nothing.”

“That raven that was lurking about last night, Gnissa, you saw him in the trees, I think. Is Snoro his the owner?”

“Owner?” A trickle of pottage ran out of the corner of her lips as she laughed. She wiped it away. “Excuse me. By the two great goddesses, no. No one owns old Gnissa. I suppose you could call them friends, if such creatures have friends. They are odd sorts. Snoro is among the last of the Nibelung, the heirs of the malformed and hunchbacked king Alberich. There are rumours Snoro was banished from his homeland in the north because of some crime. Me? I prefer not to make guesses about his sort. In the old legends, his kind were born from maggots in the flesh of the earth. Who can fathom the mind of a maggot?” She cleared her throat. “But as for his little charm? I will grind it to dust and cast the filth into the night wind to scatter and cleanse. And no fee, either. I won’t take a copper gawn, not for this. “Helg smiled. “Let him stamp his feet and curse me for a has-been whore. I’m not afraid of that one. It’s time he learnt that there are deeper magics than his. Mine are the secrets taught from mother to daughter since thrice-born, thrice-burned Gullveig. My arts are stronger than anything that shall ever be written in sorcerer’s books. Harumph. Books? Whoever heard of learning sorcery from a book?”

Kveldulf’s walk back took him through woods thick with autumn russet. The track he followed was narrow and overgrown. It was used by no one except Helg and her occasional visitors.

When he returned to the village, he found an air of worry there. People were going about their errands quickly. The guards on the gate had been doubled, and were now armed with boar-spears, sturdy weapons with a crossbar to prevent a skewered animal from struggling up the shaft. Milling about in the cobbled enclosure of the fortress courtyard more armed men stood by, while carpenters worked on a new ironbound door.

Kveldulf entered the keep. He wondered who had gathered the hair, nails and blood necessary for the curse. Or had the corpora been taken innocently but fallen into the hands of ill-wishers? His footsteps changed from thin stony patters to resounding echoes that went deeper ahead of him.

All of a sudden Kveldulf turned a corner and found that his way was blocked by a small crowd. Above the rise and fall of conversation there was a shriller wail; a middling-to-old woman was leaning and sobbing, into the arms of a plumper, younger one. The two bore enough of a resemblance to suggest to Kveldulf that they were blood relations.

Among the onlookers was the old matron who’d gone after Lilia last night. The Eorl’s sister, according to Sigurd. Kveldulf edged around the crowd, then approached her. “Excuse me? Lady Ermengarde?”

Only glancing at him briefly, she replied, “That’s right. Though I’ve only the faintest idea who you are. Some hireling of Sigurd isn’t it? What’s your trade? Hunting?”

“Hunting, yes. I am Kveldulf Kaldulfsson, huntsman and hireling to Sigurd.”

“Strange accent you have. Northern?”

“I was born in the far north and a long way west.” He paused. It might not be what he was afraid of. “Has something happened here?”

“In Sorthe?” she asked, suspiciously.

“Beyond Sorthe actually. The name won’t mean anything to you, but I was born in the town of Lithrasir.” He nodded towards the small gathered crowd. “Has there been a death?”

“No.” She smiled, wryly, sadly. “Well, not quite.” She spoke a little quieter. “It was a wolf. Seems that last night Ofrah woke to a terrible din. She peeked out her window and saw a great, black wolf in her yard. It tore up her coop and slaughtered every last hen. Killed her two dogs, too. Poor things. They were her children.” Shaking her head slowly she said, “She was always spoiling them. Well, the wolf bit through both their necks as easily as that.” She snapped her fingers. “Ofrah hid under her bed the rest of the night, and most of the morning too. She came tottering in the gate a little while ago, all teary and dirty, looking for her sister.”

“A wolf,” said Kveldulf. He would have to move on if she was growing bold again. Soon.

“Yes. You’re a huntsman, you say? Well, your timing is good. Mareschal Alaric has called a hunt for this afternoon. This wolf will have to be found and killed. I’m sure you would be much appreciated.”

“Yes. Perhaps. Sigurd. I ought to find Sigurd. Is he about?”

“Sigurd will be in the yards somewhere. Helping with the harness or hounds, I expect.”

“Thank you.”

He found Sigurd in the stables, working a bristly brush over the pelt of a slightly skittish, very lively gelding the colour of smouldered oil. His crisp blond hair was sweaty and dusty.

“Good afternoon,” said Kveldulf.

Sigurd looked up. “Good afternoon to you. You must have been out since dawn. No one could find you anywhere. If you hadn’t left things in your room I might of thought you’d run off.” He wiped sweat from his brow. The tunic he wore was damp and covered with fine dark horsehairs. “Have you heard about the wolf? The hunt should be something.”

Kveldulf nodded. “I’m afraid I do not think I will be joining you. There is something else I must attend to.” Sigurd was about to protest when Kveldulf cut him off. “We should talk. Alone.”

Sigurd nodded and they went a little farther into the stables.

“I have found the root of Eorl’s curse. The sickness should be lifted soon.”

Sigurd’s mouth twitched into a smile. He laughed out loud, throwing his head back, and laid a hand on Kveldulf’s shoulder. “But that is wonderful. We should tell Rosa at once. She will be delighted. We should tell the whole of the Toren Vaunt.”

“No.” Kveldulf lowered his voice. ” What matters now is this: the charm needed blood, hair and nails of the victim. It was a powerful hex and the would be murderer must have a powerful reason to want Eorl Fainvant dead. This won’t be the end of it.”

“But… whoever fashioned the curse must have taken those things from his body.”

“And so the murderer is close to the Eorl. Possibly very close. And with the curse broken, the assassin may well fall to less subtle methods. Does the Eorl have any bastard children? Disowned cousins? Unhappy kinsmen? Mistresses?”

“Most lords leaves a litter of bastards. He’s had his share of young things to warm his bed, I wager, but he has treated each fairly, far as I know. I’ll ask the chancellor quietly, but I believe there’s coin set aside to provide a little here and there for any of his, er… begotten. Displeased cousins then? Jealous kinsmen?” Sigurd made a show of shrugging. “There may be. I don’t pay a lot of attention to the gossips.”

They stood in silence then. Kveldulf looked at his feet, in thought.

“Is Rosa in danger do you think?” said Sigurd.

Kveldulf shrugged and attempted something like a reassuring smile, though suspected that he only managed an uncertain sort of expression.

BEFORE THE VELD

He pushed a pebble, cut with runes, across a filthy table. Back and forth.

It was another inn. Another tavern. Another dink. But it was all so much the same. The search for Auxentios was going badly. No one wanted to talk about the sage, if the man even existed.

There had been just one boy, a dirty skeleton of a lad, who’d told Kevldulf that he knew where to find someone who knew where to find the miracle-worker. Kveldulf paid the boy more silver than a merchant would demand for a pot of myrrh resin, and then he waited in the appointed tavern. It was a sign of his desperation and the level of exhaustion to which he had sunk that he was even half-hoping the child would not return.

He just wanted to give in and walk away.

Instead, he took a drink.

His hands were clean but he checked them again. He looked at the mountains and valleys of his knuckles. It was a fear that was always with him now; a strange little idea that there was blood caked somewhere on his hands. Of course, he knew that it was the idea that he was somehow at fault for what she did in his wake.

When the man sat down beside him, Kveldulf nearly got up and moved to another table. It wasn’t the disease that bothered him, or the ruinous skin that could be seen between the rags that bound his hands. It was the smell. Kveldulf had a very powerful nose, even when he awake. Sometimes people were simply covered with too many sickly layers of smell for him bear. Kveldulf couldn’t see much under the wool, rags and hood. Was he one of the afflicted? Plagued? A leper? It didn’t matter. The diseased man would no doubt be chased off by the bar’s owner soon enough. But then a minute passed, and then two, and nothing happened.

There was a wheezing of breath. A cough that was wet and pained.

“Auxientios,” said the man. “I am told you ask for Auxentios.”

Kveldulf looked up, attentive. He nodded.

“Then come with me.”

Slowly, frustratingly slowly, the man got up. Kveldulf had more than enough time to finish the rest of his drink. As he followed, he had to walk with small, measured steps. Worry fluttered in him as the ragged man took a path into the twisting and narrow guts of the city. Down bleak streets where washing hung on lines strung from house to house, past children playing in the dirt and around a drunken, fighting man and woman. They went into a piteous ruin of a place, down some stairs and then up again, emerging into a broken-roofed temple to some forgotten god that was filled with what must have been a thousand pigeons.

Scattered everywhere that the pigeon were not, were books: hundreds of them, covered with feathers, dust and droppings. Kveldulf’s ciphering was poor, but he recognised a few of the titles. They were invaluable works of mages and scholars, lying here, mouse-chewed, in piles. The only light came from holes in the roof and three grotesquely malformed candles that the ragman lit from a pot of coals. The smell that carried here was stomach-turning and the sound of wings was like a parody of the Day Queen’s loyal host of spirits.

The ragman took off his hooded coat and dropped it on the floor. He didn’t seem to care at all about what it landed in.

He should have been dead. Disease in every colour rode him. His eyes were a blind white haze, his mouth was rotted, his fingers were without nails and ended in bloodied stubs.

“To utterly banish disease and ills,” said the man, “that I cannot do. The miracles visited upon me, the powers for which I am the vessel, they do not give free and wondrous cures without payment. No. I can only take other people’s sicknesses and curses upon me. That is all. So, knowing this, what, my friend, can do you seek of me?”

CHAPTER THE SIXTH

The raven glided through a tangle of branches, and claws outstretched, found a perch. From here, he could fix an amber eye on the scene below.

He waited.

A piecing shriek jarred Gnissa from beak to feathers. Swine must love life to resent giving it up so much. This one struggled against the rope and squirmed as the knife cut.

The raven disliked the shrieking. Undignified.

Ruffling its glossy feathers, it waited. In time, the struggles ebbed away. The swineherd stuck his knife tip-first into his butchering block with a solid thud. He used a smaller knife to gut the pig and then began piling steaming offal into a wicker basket.

Now.

The raven swept out of the trees. The lumbering fellow stood no chance. Before the swineherd could even look startled the raven swooped to the basket and snatched up a kidney. As the thief climbed into the air, the knife was jerked out from the block and sent sailing after him. It whistled harmlessly by, scattering a few autumn leaves.

Finding a perch where he knew the swineherd could plainly see him, Gnissa tore up the kidney and ate it bit-by-bit. Once he’d swallowed the last of it, Gnissa considered stealing another. The problem with kidneys is that eating just one is never enough. Gnissa considered it an oversight of creation that animals only had two. But the swineherd worked with more vigilance now, looking up to check where Gnissa was every few seconds.

With a croak, the raven took to the air, flapping over the swine-hut and sties, above the rusty forest. He stretched its wings out until the feathers splayed like fingers.

Woodland and marsh and glen passed away. The land arose and formed hills through which the bones of the earth thrust. Among these rocks was a craggy mound and in the mound, a cave.

Directly in the mouth of the cave stood a man. The raven circled. Some person from the Veld, he guessed. And just on the threshold of the cave, in front of the villager, sat what looked like a shaggy, dishevelled creature dressed like a man, but not quite managing the pretence.

The raven’s circle narrowed, and became a downward coil. He landed on a finger of stone that pointed accusingly at the sky. White-black droppings stained the rock and a few bits of unfinished bone lay about its base. It was a favourite perch.

To the raven, the hairy thing looked mostly human, but stouter, more hunched, and ganglier in the arms and legs. For clothes, it wore rudiments of fur and linen and cord. Thick, wiry hair sprouted wherever a hem or cuff ended.

There was a small heap of copper and silver on the ground. As the man gibbered and clasped and unclasped his hands, the thing narrowed its bright black eyes and nodded just once, waggling an unkempt beard as it did. The man sank to his knees and reached to kiss the creature’s hairy hand. Looking both disgusted and pleased the creature allowed this to go on–briefly–then, withdrawing its hand, it produced a satchel, which it threw into the dirt.

Snatching up the leather bag and dusting it off, the man backed away while bowing. He went a few paces, turned and ran. For a few moments the hairy creature watched the visitor run. Then, shrugging, he turned his intent, bright eyes to Gnissa.

Suppressing a shiver, the raven ruffled its feathers. “You should get yourself a fat gold ring to kiss, Snoro. I hear that is how the priests and priestesses of this age make grovelling more dignified.”

Snoro sneered in his dour, resentful way, but said nothing. The raven hopped from the rock and glided a little closer, landing just out of the reach of those gangly, long-clawed fingers. “I don’t know why you make them do that. Or at least, I cannot decide if it is pride or self-pity.”

“What do you know of either? It pleases me, and it reminds them I am better than a brewer of potions to seduce smelly milkmaids, or cure gout, or mend a sick ewe.” Snoro hunched his shoulders and pointed one crooked finger. “Look at him run.” He smiled showing sharp, yellow teeth. “And besides, they pay me with old copper pots, and curds, and offal. This here is a good haul for this lot, and it’s nothing but trinkets and a few pieces of silver. Silver. Silver! Once I was paid with skins full of gold. Now I get copper pots and tarnished earrings. I deserve something more for my services.”

“You have some offal?”

“No.”

“A moult on you then. Teasing your only friend like that.”

With a dismissive wave, Snoro got up. “If you’ve nothing worthwhile to say, I am going inside to consult the book. I think that one of these days I’ll cut out that tongue of yours and use it to brew a broth to make the drinker rude and ineloquent.”

The raven croaked out a laugh. “But, as it happens I do have something worthwhile to say.” Snoro paused, looked back. “There is a stranger in the Veld,” said Gnissa. “I saw him last night, walking about happy as you please without his body. A cursed soul if you ask me, not that a simple bird knows much about it.”

“Not that a simple bird knows much about anything.” Snoro drummed his fingers on his chin. “A name?”

“Kveldulf.” The raven pecked at a passing beetle. He missed, and the beetle spread its wings and flew away. “But, here is the fun part. He went and chatted to that old witch in the woods and before that he found your curse. He’s probably undone it already.”

“–What?–When?–“

“Oh, he found it last night while prowling about. I told him you’d be down at the dark pool tonight… or tomorrow night… or sometime. I was meaning to fly here and tell you straight away, but, well, then I forgot. Curse my bird brain.” And with a squall of flapping wings, the raven was airborne and beyond the reach of spitting, angry Snoro the Nibelung.

CHAPTER THE SEVENTH

The low moan of a horn resounded through the courtyard. At the gate, hunters stood by their shaggy ponies. Each of the trackers wore the pelt of a bear, wolf or boar with the dome and snout of the skulls forming rough hoods. Behind them, the men of the Eorl’s guard shuffled into a column, their boar spears waving like a stand of glinting rushes.

Sigurd patted the firm neck of his horse, and he ran fingers under the warm mane. “Calm, calm, Rauthus. We’ll be riding soon enough.” Stepping up into the saddle, he tested his balance. Nudging Rauthus, he moved past pages struggling with leashed hounds and elderly thanes, too grey and grizzled to take a place at the fore of the hunt, but too vain to admit their better years were gone.

The Mareschal, commander of the Eorl’s men, sat near the gate. He sat atop a massive hairy-hocked courser, brooding, cloaked and frowning under a peppered beard.

“Alaric, hail.”

“Sigurd. Good day. Have you no lance? You, page, bring Thane Sigurd a hunting lance. Be quick.”

“My thanks. Have the trackers found any trace of this monster wolf?”

“Only a few footprints.” The Mareschal looked over the thanes and hunters. “Your huntsman, the northman, he is nowhere about? We could use another man.”

Folding his arms under the Mareschal’s steady gaze, Sigurd shifted about in the saddle.

“He has another matter to attend to.”

Alaric said nothing but his face became a frown. “Well, if the hunt proves fruitless today I shall expect him to join us tomorrow.”

“Of course, Mareschal.”

“By the way, I have been meaning to ask.” His voice dropped a note. “Why have you hired him? He seems a strange sort.”

“He is an expert in hunting certain beasts. I’m, er, I’m hoping to learn a few of his tricks and arts.”

“Indeed? Certain beasts? Be careful, Sigurd. I’ve a feeling you’re dabbling in affairs that have nothing to do with you. That’s all I’m going to say on the matter. Be careful.”

-oOo-

Kveldulf leaned against a battlement and looked down into the courtyard. Only a few wind-tattered clouds hung in the sky and the cold sunlight gilded the edges of helmets and spears.

His hand ran absently over rain-worn stone. The moss seemed to cement each block. He watched as men filed through the gates. He listened to the lonely cries of the hunting horns and the baying of hounds.

And he waited.

A simple thought had occurred to him. If someone wished to sneak out of the fortress, perhaps to visit a sorcerer, perhaps to gather witch’s herbs, then this would be a very good opportunity. The fortress was all but emptied of guards. He watched people come and go. None of them seemed suspicious.

Then he noticed a woman wrapped in an ivory hood and cloak. Looking left and right, she stole down the steps from the keep. But instead of heading towards the gate she paused, looked around again and turned in another direction. She was coming closer to Kveldulf’s battlement, walking slowly and carefully so as to avoid sods of wet hay and horse droppings. She didn’t want to leave footprints. He edged back.

The hood worked both ways. It concealed her face, but also hid Kveldulf from her view. She was heading towards a narrow roof of blue slate that covered a low shed. As she laid a hand on the door she paused again and looked about the courtyard. No-one else seemed to have taken any notice of her. Pulling the door open, she disappeared within.

As soon as she vanished, Kveldulf went down the nearest flight of steps and across the courtyard, dodging. He nudged the door open and peered inside. The shed was filled with smells of dry rot and mildew. Though the interior was thick with darkness, Kveldulf could make out the far wall. The cloaked woman was gone.

About half-way along the room, he stopped. He could feel a cool, damp draught coming from somewhere deeper. He smiled to himself. As he walked, he began tapping barrels and moving crates.

Finally he came to a lone barrel that wallowed in muck against the back wall. The nearby flagstones were scored with arcs of rust and mud. Placing both hands on the lip of the barrel, he dragged it away from the wall. It shifted easily, much lighter than it looked. What was revealed, was a low stone arch, little more than an oversized drain. Fortresses, magiasteries and grand temples: they all tended to have at least one bolt-hole for times of siege, and Kveldulf guessed that he’d found of one the Toren Vaunts tunnels for just such a secret egress.

He shuffled into the hole, doubling up to avoid knocking his head on the low ceiling. It took time drag the barrel back into place from what was now quite an awkward position. Once done, he turned towards the dark tunnel. Raked by tendrils of wet mould, Kveldulf descended deeper. He stopped when it became too dark to see, fumbled about and opened his shirt just enough to let some light shine from the feather that hung around his neck on its fine gold chain.

As soon as the unearthly fire filled the air with dull light, he moved on. He was soon coughing under showers of dislodged the dusty muck, and wondering when the hole was going to end, or what he would find, when a faint gleam of light appeared in the distance air. It was a grey thornprick at first, then grew stronger, before turning into a flood of daylight spilling into the tunnel mouth.

Kveldulf stumbled into the open air coughing from the grit. He stretched his back. This hole ended below the limestone crag. It looked like he was on the east side of the fortress. Around him was forest. Craning his head back, he strained his eyes up at cliffs. Crows circled at a dizzying height. Kveldulf re-buttoned his shirt, and scanned the ground.

Small, delicate footprints cut a trail through muddy leaves and into the trees. She was clearly no longer worried about leaving footprints. It was an easy trail to follow, and quite well worn too. The cloaked lady had walked path among gloomy pines and old oaks quite often. Careless, thought Kveldulf, and eager.

The forest grew thicker. The hooked, tangled branches became a canopy so tight that daylight turned to rich amber. He went silently on, listening to the wind and birds and then suddenly something else.

He stood still.

At first vague, then clearer, now quite distinct: the silvery tune of a pipe: a strange melody, wandering and haunting, despite being difficult to catch.

Kveldulf stalked closer. He stooped behind a stand of birch and peered into a shady glen. Trees encircled and sheltered this hollow. At its centre was a circle of stones. Each dolmen was no taller than a child and stood half-buried in the autumn drift. Lilia sat on one of the old stones. Her white, flowing dress was stained about the hem with mud, and the hood of her cloak was thrown back. She piped her tune and swayed gently in time to unearthly song.

As Kveldulf lay hidden he felt another presence. He felt it in the pit of his stomach. It seemed to him that the whole forest felt this new thing coming closer. Birds chirruped and squirrels chattered in alarm. Then everything fell silent.

He recognised the feel of it, and gently laid fingers on the hilt of his iron knife.

A cloud of thistledown drifted into the glade, a cloud of sun-struck white motes. And then, just as lightly as the thistledown, the wild thing appeared. Like all the Faer and Midsummer Folk he was a creature of the dreaming earth. He was handsome, perhaps even beautiful, despite his face being both rather austere and harsh. His eyes were a silver twilight. The cloak about his shoulders was trimmed with rose gold leaves. On his head was a crown of autumn.

The pipe-song ended abruptly. Lilia lowered the instrument. Dim sunlight flashed along its length. The wind toyed with her hair. “I was afraid you had not heard.” Her lips formed a shy smile. “Or forgotten me.”

“Don’t say such things.” He replied in a voice made up of the mingled sounds of wind, and bird-song and rain on stone. “I do not forget, my beauty.” Reaching out with a pale hand that might have been flesh and might have been the polished wood, he stroked Lilia’s hair.

“Alraun,” she said in a small voice. “I have missed you.”

“My beauty, come away with me.”

She clasped his hand and held it to her cheek. “Soon. Soon. I still have my work to do, but soon there will be little left for me in that world. Soon.”

The Alraun creature moved nearer, until the two of them were so close that she must have felt his breath on her lips. As they were about to kiss the faer man tensed and stared straight at where Kveldulf was hiding. His eyes flared so bright they gave the impression that sunlight was filtering through his skull.

Lilia turned her neck and searching in vain said, “What is it?”

“A wild beast. Nothing more. Come away with me…”

Kveldulf crawled back an inch, retreating low to the ground and watching as Alraun took Lilia’s hand. She slid down from the stone. They were walking deeper into the woods; Kveldulf decided to follow.

As he did this, the air around him stirred. The leaves and branches began to bend and shake, brushing Kveldulf. The wind grew more fierce, as Lilia and Alraun disappeared from view. The trees near Kveldulf now began to lash and swish and writhe.

Too late, he realised the movement of the trees had changed. The swish-brush-flutter of limbs had gained purpose. Taken by shock he stumbled dumbly to his feet as branches like convulsing serpents lashed out and entangled him. Rough bark clawed his skin and wrapped his limbs. The trees began to constrict.

On instinct, he dragged his steel knife from its sheath he slashed at the trees. But a knife is neither axe, nor saw, and the whip-like birch, the ivy and the holly just grew tighter. There were scurrying things in the branches now too: mice–ferrets–voles. One of them bit his hand with little sharp teeth. Several others crawled down into the collar of his shirt. Dropping the steel knife, Kveldulf wrenched his arm until he felt as if he were going to pull out his socket, but he managed to draw the blade of cold iron. This was the knife he should have drawn first. Stupid. Desperate now, barely able to breathe, he thrust the dagger into the pith of a branch. The whole tree quivered and then grew still. All the enchanted mystery fell away from it. The branches turned limp and spiritless. He stabbed again and again, killing the wild magic in the trees with the touch of iron. The small animals fled then too, leaping into the leaf-litter and then gone.

He dug the blade into the bark of the last two of the quickened trees, twisting it into the enchanted flesh. Though he cut each tree only slightly, he heard weak moans as he pushed the knife in, and thought he saw ghostly shapes blow free and wither. Kveldulf untangled himself. He took a moment to enjoy being able to breathe again and check that he had suffered nothing worse than cuts and scrapes.

As he knelt down and picked up the steel blade, Kveldulf felt a trickle of blood on his brow. He touched his fingers there and came away wet with blood. He could feel the wounds knitting already, closing up and sealing. That was worse than the injuries. It made him feel inhuman, somehow monstrous.

A glance around the woods.

Alraun and Lilia were long gone, and their trail had been well hidden. Snarling to himself under his breath, Kveldulf went back to the hollow where she had been playing her songs. The stones looked like hunched, frightened creatures. At the centre of the circle Kveldulf stood and listened. “Lilia!” He called out and heard only echoes. Then holding his hands about his mouth cried out still louder, “Lilia!”

Silence.

With a low groan Kveldulf eased himself onto one of the stones and with each movement discovered the meaning of pain as each fresh bruise started to heal itself. He sat there listening to the far off cries of crows and breathing in the fresh smell of earth and last night’s rain. SLowly, he realised, something else was mingled in that smell. An undercurrent that was barely perceptible. He would never have noted it, if he hadn’t sat here for the time it took his body to heal.

A chill scurried over his neck. His fingers felt hot and cold.

Dropped from the stone, falling to his knees, Kveldulf began to spread the golden leaves aside with his hands. Then taking his steel knife he hacked at the soil, scraping aside humus, rot and wriggling earthworms. Eventually, he uncovered something worn and yellowed.

Lifting it up carefully, and brushing soil away he found the eyes of a human skull staring back at him. Other remains jutted through the disturbed soil.

Golden scraps of light moved up the trunks of trees as the sun melted into the west. Kveldulf dug. His fingernails were chipped and blackened and his tunic was stained black by the time was finished. Breathing hard, he stood back and surveyed the glade. In the leaf litter sprawled six corpses, two of which were recent enough to still have their sparse strands of long hair. One still wore the remnant of a dress.

-oOo-

The twilight was rich and cool as Kveldulf trudged into the courtyard. Guards, standing about and relaxing against spears, greeted him with smiles and good evenings.

He growled.

Soaked, muddy from head to toe, cut, itchy where scratches were still healing, and with twigs and leaves stuck in his hair, Kveldulf didn’t walk, he plodded. His frown turned to a grimace as he found himself blocked in the courtyard by a crowd. It was impossible to sneak past. Then he saw Sigurd striding towards him.

“Kveldulf! Come see! We flushed the beast out of the woods. It’s a monster, a true monster. It took a dozen arrows and killed five dogs before we brought it to ground. Largest wolf I’ve ever seen.” Taking Kveldulf by the shoulder Sigurd pushed through the throng, puasing long enough to look him up and down. “Damn the Night Queen, you look and smell like a pigsty. What have you been out hunting? Moles?”

“The dead.”

Sigurd looked momentarily uncomfortable, then without another response to fall to, he smiled and said, “Yes, yes, of course… here… we have slain the wolf. Come see and tell me it isn’t the greatest wolf you’ve ever seen.”

It was hanging from a scaffold. From its jaws crawled snakes of blood. Raw injuries tore its flanks. Flies droned about the corpse. A lot of the householders held cloths or sleeves over their mouths. Children pointed and threw sticks at it.

Without a word Kveldulf went up to the beast and pushed open the eyelid. He stared at the clouded yellow orb beneath.

“That’s not it.”

“What?”

“You have a wolf but not the wolf.” Kveldulf rubbed his temple. “Now, if you want me I will be in my cell with a basin of hot water. Goodnight.”

“But what makes you think this isn’t the wolf? Ofrah swears it’s the same beast that murdered her dogs and…”

“Cut it open.”

Sigurd was now following him as the mud-stained huntsman shoved through the crowd. “Sorry?”

“Cut it open. If there are chicken feathers and dog-bones in that gut you’ve got your wolf. But I am telling you, you haven’t.” Kveldulf fixed Sigurd with a solid stare. “You won’t catch that one with dogs and spears. Not that one. Not so easily. Goodnight.”

“Wait, before you go, I almost forgot, Rosa wants to speak with you. Today, if possible, she said, but if not, then tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow, I’m afraid. I’ve already had enough of today.”

Sigurd looked back at the crowd. With deliberate care he drew his knife and ran a finger down the blade. His eyes on the carcass of the wolf, he bit his lip. “Ah, he’s just jealous. Wishes he’d killed the damnable thing himself.” With a shrug he put the knife away. Someone was yelling after the chamberlain about fetching some barrels out of the cellars. Sigurd thought about the curse, and Kveldulf’s warnings about the murder. And there was the hunter’s odd behaviour just now. Sigurd supposed that men in Kveldulf’s trade either started out odd or end up that way, but still. During the hunt, he’d been trying to avoid thinking about it all. But now he had little choice. Without any immediate problems to deal with, his more general worries started circling around and around in his thoughts.

-oOo-

Kveldulf pushed open his door with an elbow. Stream gusted from the basin he held in his two hands as he moved into his room. Putting down the bowl, he stripped off, hung the feather on the wall, and began to work his fingers through the water. As he sat there something struck him as wrong. Missing. But whatever it was, he couldn’t quite place his finger on it. Perhaps he was just on edge.

Then a scuffle in the shadows took his attention. Kveldulf’s hand went to his knife belt.

“Courteous salutations from the King of the Weird Woods.”

The voice, though quiet, had depth and a rushing sound that no human tongue could quite manage. In the shadows by the bed two gleaming eyes lit up.

Kveldulf knew what was missing. His bag of chalk and stones for making wards was gone. “And good day to you, little one.” His felt as naked as he was. All his knives were out of reach too. “A mortal house is no place for a spirit of the wilds. Be off with you.”

“Oh ho, you’ve no sigil-cut rocks to threaten me with. No salt from the sea. No midnight chalk. No iron-girt amulet to ward your room with. And still you threaten me?” A grin. “I can go away, but I can come back again. In the night. When you are insensate.”

Kveldulf said, after a moment’s thought, “Ah, I see now. The mice in the woods.” He smiled. “While I was fighting with the spirits of the trees.”

“Not all of mine master’s servants are of enchanted flesh. And a mouse has no reason to be afraid of spirit-cages and such things, no, no. But I dither. I have a message.” The eyes blinked. “The lord of all that lies beyond the lands of mortal men has sent me. He hath spied you in the woods…”

“Yes, yes. I know that bit. Hurry up.”

It hissed. “Ineloquent mongrel. Fine. Mine king warns you, quit your meddling. His wrath is the storms and the rivers and all the wild things. Obey, mortal, or mine master’s wrath will be swift and wicked.”

Kveldulf lunged, grabbed, and the black knife slid from its sheath. He stood. Naked, with nothing but an iron knife he advanced. The shapeless, little creature withdrew deeper into its shadows. Sharp teeth glistened as it gave a nasty snarl.

“Kill me and mine master will have your soul.”

“Tell your lord I have heard his message.” Cooling suds were running down his cheeks and over his chin. “Now get from my sight.”

The creature narrowed its pale eyes.

It leapt forward and as it leapt it grew. It swelled and bloated. Thin gangly limbs turned massive and knotted. Kveldulf looked up into its face. A wide muzzle with bear-teeth and flaring nostrils smiled down at him. It had a mane that was both fur and ferns. Its voice was rumbled. “Quit your meddling.”

“No.”

“I shall rend you limb from limb.”

“Unlikely.”

Reaching out with one paw it made as if it would tear a hole in Kveldulf’s throat, but stopped a hair’s breadth away. Short, harsh breaths hissed through its teeth. It tensed its claws. Kveldulf did not move. He stared, almost bored, at the creature. Its fingers began to tremble, then with a sneer, it withdrew and hunched up.

“I am not afraid of illusions, forest thing. Tell your king he will have to do more than send an ugly spright dressed up in a coat of glamour next time.”

“So kind was mine lord to send me, a messenger with no power to kill, but now I must tell him you are not swayed. You ask for more than mere illusion? I will tell mine master that, most gladly, and you shall see what powers he commands.” A flicker of faer-fire grew about the hairy creature and with an angry growl it shrunk as quickly as it had grown. Within a heartbeat it was small and spidery again. Following with intent but impassive eyes, Kveldulf watched the creature as it darted to the door and then crawled under it, all sprawling limbs.

Even as he watched the creature vanish a jab of pain shot through the knuckles of his right arm. He realised that he’d been gripping the knife so hard his muscles had gone rigid. “Queen of Night and Chaos.” He put down the knife.

This was bad. He still had feather, but it worked as a power to feed his scribbled charms and wards. The wards would work, if less well, without the feather. The feather would not work without the charms.

Kveldulf threw the bowl across the room. It would be just like before Pyreathium again. She would truly grow bold again if she realised that he could no longer make night-wards against her. And it wouldn’t be just dogs and chooks. Looking at his hands, he sighed. He sat down on the bed and decided that the best thing he could do for now was dry off and get some sleep, despite it being only late afternoon.

The warm light of the feather that he had grown used to, did not give him the reassurance it used to. Maybe, he thought, Helg would have some tools of the art she could spare. Even just some cleansed chalk would be enough to work up a rude charm.

Sleep came only slowly for him. Worry gnawed him. Like a wolf, he realised, and smiled bitterly.

CHAPTER THE EIGHTH

Ravens, like most birds, love to fly. A large part of a raven’s brain is dedicated to enjoying the swoop and the dive, the wheel and the powerful beating of wings. Ravens dream about flying, just like people, only when a raven wakes up, it keeps dreaming.

And Gnissa loved to fly for one further reason. He took unending pleasure in soaring above the two-legged earth-bound folk in order to mock them with his command of the skies, to remind them, whenever he could, what they were missing out on. He would dive at the children who watched the fields, and then joyfully dodge their clumsy sling-stones. He would cry out in jeering, raucous croaks at men on lumbering wagons pulled by dull oxen. He would turn on his wings as they watched him with envy.

Gnissa was a firm believer that it is the small things in life that brought joy.

Sweeping through the rich red air of a very fine twilight, Gnissa burst out of the forest of the Veld and wheeled upwards. A climb that set him on a line for Snoro’s house in the hills.

Orange firelight bloomed about the entrance of the cave. The door was open, so that only a curtain of rank hide stood against the night. As soon as Gnissa hopped under the hide he felt hot air press him like a pair of clammy hands.

“You are letting the chill in.” Snoro was hunched over his stone-cut desk at the far end of the cave, pondering his one great treasure: The Book. The cave had once, long ago, been just that, a cave. Muddy, and uneven, narrow, damp and generally miserable. But like all his folk, Snoro had a knack for chipping away at stone to make a place more pleasant, and the small cavern was now a den of comfort. Heavy rugs and furs of the best and plushest sorts strewed the floor. The walls were cut straight and smooth, and hung with tapestries to trap the warmth. By the massive desk, itself cut from the bedrock, Snoro had constructed a comfortable cot. Food, tools and the necessities of life were locked up in the lean-to outside the cave.

“You should bar your cave, Snoro, with that heavy oak door of yours. One of these days the folk of the village will grow tired of you, or less afraid, and you’ll wake up with a slit throat and warm blood all over your chest.”

“But how would you come and go and bother me as you please if I shut the door?” Snoro twisted about on his stool and the firelight danced in his glistening eyes as he showed a sharp, toothy smile. “Then, again maybe I should? Keep the pests out.”

“Nasty creature. Got anything to eat?”

With a wave of long fingers Snoro resumed his studies and said, “By the fire. I left you a plate of scraps.”

On the earthenware plate was a pile of bones, some fat and gristle, a strip of meat. Gnissa gulped down a piece of fat with three uncomfortable throws of the head, “I meant to ask you, has the bodyless hunter undone your little curse. I expect he’s nutted out a countercharm by now.”

“Yes. I felt it tatter apart this morning.”

Gnissa pecked at a grisly joint. “Not in a stamping, beard-pulling rage, then? Not thumping your feet and dancing an angry gig? You’re getting old, Snoro. Maybe you’ll die before me after all. Just so you know, I’ll be sure to peck your bones clean. It is a great honour among ravens, you know.”

“And if you die first I’ll have you stuffed and mounted for my desk. A great honour, you know.”

“Thank you.” Gnissa stretched his wings and beat them. “Are you going to go down and meet the bodyless one? He’s probably looking forward to it.” A croak of a yawn. Snoro just nodded and hummed under his breath. “You know, it’s rude to keep a creature like that one waiting. And dangerous.”

“Perhaps.” Snoro shrugged and made a note with a scratch of his quill. Gnissa tried stripping the feathery tatters of flesh and sinew from a bone but soon gave up and hopped nearer the fire, where he began smoothing and grooming his feathers.

“You know, Snoro?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t understand you. Perhaps it is not for a bird to understand your sort.”

“Well, I am very mystical.”

“Hmph. You remind me of the story of the crow and phoenix feather.”

Snoro turned a page, stirring up a soft creak of vellum, but said nothing.

“It’s a little old tale my grandmamma told me. You see there was once this crow.”

“What was his name?”

“It doesn’t matter. It is not that sort of story. It is… what is the word?”

“Nonsense?”

“No. Allegory.”

“Of course.”

“So the crow, yes, the crow he was out flying about one day doing what crows do, which is to say mostly grubbing for carcasses, and cawing from tree tops, and he sees this brilliant shimmering thing down on the ground. Swooping down he finds that it is a feather: fiery all over and gold down one side and the colour of starlight down the other.” Gnissa narrowed his eyes and lowered his harsh voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “He knows at once that it must have fallen from the tail of the lord of birds, a phoenix. Now, this crow thinks to himself, I can be just as regal as a phoenix, so he takes the feather and sticks it in his rump. So off he flies at once, back to his flock, and he struts about and calls himself a phoenix and won’t talk to anyone. Growing tired of mere crows for company he flaps off to the mountains of the east-most south, where phoenixes live. But, when he flies up to them, all roosting in their glowing, sun-like beauty they all laugh at him. “Why, you are nothing more than a silly crow with a bright feather in your tail,” they say. And as cruel as kings, they rip the feather from his tail. So, miserable, he flies back to his flock. But after all that strutting about and mocking, the crows won’t have him either. He had to go off by himself, and live by himself, and die by himself. Least, that is how my old grandmamma told it when I was just an egg.”

The pine popped on the hearth and Snoro turned another page. Breathing a sigh, he closed the book with a heavy hand, got up, stretched his curved back and scratched the line of hairy belly that protruded between his jerkin and belt. “Reminds me more of you,” he said.

“The crow? How?”

Snoro fossicked through a heap of clothing on the floor. Finding a cloak, he fastened it around his shoulders and said, “When was the last time you spent some time with your feathered friends? When was the last time you even spoke to another raven?”

Shifting from foot to foot Gnissa said, “I haven’t see a raven for a while, and I won’t go talking to rooks or magpies. Charmless creatures.”

“Bah,” spat Snoro, “The woods are full of ravens. You’d rather spend time talking to me.”

“I would not.”

“Suit yourself,” said Snoro with a shrug. His lips curled into a leering grin and he licked his uneven teeth. “I think that I shall wander down to the pool tonight after all. It’s high time that I met this interloper, this bodyless freak, so that I may take stock of him myself. I may as well get there early and have some fun. Make yourself at home.”

Gnissa watched with unblinking eyes as Snoro shambled into the night. “Fool,” hissed Gnissa. “What does a Nibelung know about ravens anyway?” He ruffled his feathers unhappily, hoped over the plate and pecked a few more half-hearted times at the marrowbones before flapping up onto a bookshelf to wait for sleep.

-oOo-

Snoro knew the path from his cave to the pool well; over a ferny heath, through forest and gorse the colour of rotten bronze, then down to the banks of the forest stream.

The ruins of a long-dead priesthood still littered the forest here and there. Snoro knew of a field where very old bones were often turned up by the plough, still charred from the bonfires, ox and horse and dog and sometimes human. There were certain rituals that demanded the bones of a sacrifice. Snoro paid a copper coin a bone and kept a sack of them in case of needful times. The bones of the sacrificial still held a little of the sacred magic.

He passed some standing stones that had been chiselled into lumpish men with hollow eyes. The boulders that overhung the stream were cut with intricate, knotted serpents too. All part of the dead religion, its god dead and forgotten, long passed to dream and dust. Snoro did not know the exact meaning of any of the river markings, but he could hazard a reasonable guess. Danger. Trouble. Beware. Turn back.

Groping for handholds, Snoro climbed up on top of one carved rock and swore as he scraped his left knee. He stood, winced at the dull pain and hobbled to the edge of the rock. From here he could stare down into a deep pool where the stream lingered for a while before tumbling down a little waterfall and going on its way. Stars shone feebly through rags of clouds and the moon had not yet risen. The only light was the dance of the year’s last fireflies among the rushes, mirrored in the waters.

Limping along the edge of the rock, Snoro made for an old willow that clung to the overhang with desperate roots. Leaning against the willow, he sat down and let his shoulders relax. He watched and he waited.

Snoro did not know their individual names. In truth he did not care. But, he knew their habits. He licked his lips in anticipation as beneath the waters the first dim spark grew into a sheet of dead light. At first, no brighter than the fireflies above, the light swelled until the fireflies whirred away in fright. Soon the whole glade was shot from below with the light.

The first of them rose from the pond like a beautiful wraith. As she stretched her slender arms, water in luminous drops rolled over skin that was naked and pearly. Others emerged from the waters too, their wet hair shining, their green eyes glistening. Though their eyes were filled with bewildering power, Snoro always thought they had a perfect sort of loneliness in them too.

He did feel some sadness as he watched them. He couldn’t help it. But the sadness sort gave way to hungry, leering thoughts. His lips curled into eager curl and he wetted them with the tip of his tongue. “Hello, my pretties, my lovely, lovely pretties. Has your king left you alone tonight? Has he gone off chasing some other pretty thing? Well Snoro does not forget. Snoro remembers. Dance for Snoro, pretties, dance.”

There were six of them now, each with skin as white as the feathers of a swan, with bodies perfect in every curve. As soon as he spoke, they saw him and stretched to their full height, reaching for him with delicate fingers. But they caught only air. Snoro always made sure to sit in a place that was out of reach. He knew full well that the young ladies in the water could not leave the water. “Now, now,” he said, “none of that, look but never touch. Dance for me, dance and Snoro will watch, and Snoro will make himself happy. Snoro does not want to wet himself in your pool. He does not like to be dragged down to drown. Dance for Snoro.” And as he relaxed against the tree he began running his long, hairy knuckles between his legs.

Snoro had barely started to enjoy himself, when the women stopped abruptly. They all dove together, like ducks, almost comically, and vanished beneath the black waters. Their light though faded more gradually, the way a candle does when it is slowly suffocated under glass. Something dark and huge crept up to the far shore of the pool. It made Snoro squirm in his gut to look at it too closely. He grit his teeth into a grin and pretended not to be afraid. “By Grim’s hairy breeches,” said Snoro, “you could have waited a bit longer. Now you’ve gone and scared them away.”

“Why not splash in the water with them?” The voice was deep and had a weight to it. “Or are you afraid of the cold?”

“You jest, shadow-thing. Unless you are mad or foolish or a god.”

“Mad? Perhaps. Foolish, almost certainly. I’ve never been called a god before. A demon on occasion, but never a god. No. What are they then, your water spirits? They smell like ghosts and dead bones buried in the snow, but they’re something else, I think. They’re not alive, but they’re not really dead either. Smells something like faer tricks to me.”

Snoro let out a snort. “Undine, river woman, rusalky,” he said. “Call them whatever name you will. Cold spirits. The forest king made them out of mortal souls. They are not dead, not quite, but nothing that touches them will live. It’s his way, you know… his way to make sure they keep their fingers and lips for him.”

The shadow crept along the water’s edge. It looked into the pool, and sniffed. It tasted the water with a pink tongue and the darkness rippled.

Snoro laughed, he couldn’t help it. “Not only do you step into their reach, but you taste their water and they do nothing? They must be terrified of you, to hide so deep. And you act like a madman. No one has drunk water from this pool for a thousand years or more.” He looked at the shadow-thing more carefully, tried to pick out its details. “You’ve never met water women?”

“Rumours. Only ever rumours. I thought they were all gone perhaps to wilder places. Or the deathly magics needed to make them were all forgotten.”

“There are very few left, I suppose. And in Spring and Summer you’d never know you’d seen one at all. In those months the undine wander the woods. If you did see one of the river woman in summer, you’d think it was some woodland faer lady, at least for the last few seconds you had alive.” A considering pause. “But, in winter they cannot leave the water. Alraun keeps them here. So, for a time each year we are safe to taunt them and tease them and enjoy their beauty.”

The shadow moved as swift as the stars still rippling on the pool’s surface. Snoro yelped as it leapt towards him, clearing the pool and landing silently nearby. Two eyes, cold and shimmering, fixed on him, and that voice, that unnerving voice, spoke again. “I have been told you are very likely the hexmonger who has recently put a curse upon the Eorl of Vaunt.”

He kept his voice level. “I am.”

“Honest.”

Snoro made a show of examining his clawed fingernails. “I take some pride in my work. Now a little bird has told me that there is a great wolf in the woods. A terrible creature that runs bloody-mawed through the Veld.”

“That one has followed me a long, long passing of years.”

“The bird? How odd. He never mentioned it.”

“No,” the shadow-thing seemed puzzled, and then irritated. “The she-wolf.”

Snoro leaned forward and grinned, “Dishonest.” He grinned. “Dishonest with me, dishonest with yourself, I think.” A growl like the rumble of a wounded thunderstorm came out of the thing’s throat. “Ah,” said Snoro, “Don’t get yourself all twisted up. It’s been a long, long time since I set eyes on one of the ulfhednar. The wolf-souled folk. Why, I thought your kind were reduced to stories long ago.” Snoro forced his grin to slacken into what he hoped was a casual smile. He hoped the thing could not smell the cold sweat that was gathering under his armpits and down his back. “Let us chat. We are brothers. Creatures of an age gone by. We linger on in this weary world with its goddesses, bright and shadowy, and their new ways. Let us speak freely to one another as equals.”

“You ask for moot?”

“I do.”

“Granted.” It was difficult to read those cold eyes, but after a few moments of silence–in which Snoro became aware of his rapidly beating heart–the shadow-thing spoke again, “So then, tell me Nibelungr, who paid you to murder the Eorl?”

“Now that would be tattle-telling on a faithful employer. Professional confidentiality, you understand. I couldn’t say and thing. And what do you care. He’s not exactly a golden lord. What is that saying? “A man shows what he is when he does what he wants.” Or is it put differently? You show your true self when you can do what you please.” The shadow creature was sitting down now, resting on its haunches and listening. “I’ve heard stories, you see. Dark stories. That man made more than a few enemies for himself in the act of fulfilling his pleasures. Let him suffer. Let him die. It’s better than what he’s done to some.”

“I haven’t heard anything of the sort.”

“Of course you haven’t”. But, as they spoke, Snoro was forming an idea. He looked at the shadow and glanced casually at the tree above him. “Oh,” he said, waving a dismissive hand. “It’s all a matter of who you talk to.”

“Is that so?”

“Yes. I can tell you some names. But,” said Snoro, “I have a question. You seemed quite interested in the undine. Now why is that? What are they to you?” He glanced around, and looked at the next highest willow branch, appraising it, and deciding whether or not it would be easy to climb.

“What are they to me? Bones under the leaves, Nibelungr. No more, no less.”

Snoro spoke without allowing himself a moment to think. The shadow-thing was so close, temptingly close. He reached down from where he sat above the creature, snatched out his claw-nailed hands and then jolted back.

Swift and black, it sprang straight for him. He barely scrambled out of the way as the snapping jaws almost had his foot.

Snoro leapt, then heaved himself upwards. The rough bark of the willow cut his palms, and he fought desperately to get into the thinner, high branches. Once he was safely perched, his head poking out above the leaves and below the stars, he hissed and spat at the shadow-thing. It was prowling and growling, circling the base of the tree.

“Ugly, savage, monster,” said Snoro, “Hex-begotten of Lady Night’s children, you loathsome worm-bedder. You limp-cocked, misbegotten muck-swine. You want Snoro’s hide? You want my blood? Well how is this?” And in one claw-tight hand he waved a fistful of black fur. “I tore it from you… you… you… slathering, child-eating devil. You rustygutted, old shark-toothed night-hound. Come near me and I’ll use this tuft o’ fur to lay a curse so thick you’ll wake up in the morning just as you are now. How would you like that? No more human body at all. Just one big, evil wolf. Forever and ever. Until the world ends, or you are finally dragged off to the icy halls of Old Lady Night by your tail. I hope she cooks your balls on a rock and eats them for dinner.”

The shadow-thing jumped up at Snoro and nearly reached him. The jagged teeth bit the air and the creature fell heavily and badly back to earth. It snarled. “I’ll tear out your innards.”

“Wolfy, wolfy, can’t get me! Wolfy wolfy can’t climb my tree!”

“I am no wolf.”

“Wolf,” snarled Snoro.

The shadow leapt and tried to scramble into the branches. Snoro hocked saliva up in his throat again, taking some care, he rolled the wad around in his mouth and spat. The wolf stepped aside.

“Be off with you, ulfhednar. And never, ever dare to threaten Snoro. Snoro the Great, Snoro the Bewitcher, Snoro the Dark Heart of the Woods. He commands it. Obey or be cursed.”

A deep rumbling growl of discontent stretched long and thin. Eventually the sound submerged into a shallow whisper. The man whose soul was a wolf, the wolf who walked as a man, leapt easily to the far bank again. He paused and looking once at Snoro, seemingly caught a moment in indecision. “Oath-breaker,” said Kveldulf, “Moot-betrayer. Don’t think this is the end.” With that he vanished into the dark night.

Snoro relaxed a little and scratched his nose. His heart was thudding against his ribcage. “Stupid ulfhednar.” He brought the tuft of hair up to his nose and sniffed it, squinting his eyes, and scrunching his nose. It smelled like lavender and rosemary and certain eastern spices.

With a shrug he stuffed the fur into his satchel and sat patiently, watching the surface of the pool below. He would have to wait until dawn before he could be certain that the shadow-thing was gone. There were all manner of magics in the world that allowed a person to change into other forms. There were skinlingers who changed, wholly and physically into wolves or bears, boars or otters. There were hobs who knew how to turn into huge owls. But the ulfhednar were something else again. Their mortal self never shifted. The spirit came out of them at night, and only at night. Which meant that the dawn would signal safety. Snoro would have to just wait patiently for the sun. Beneath the surface of the water the luminous figures of the river woman began to swim again, their bodies as sinuous as eels.

As Snoro’s heart eased, beating a little calmer. If they were coming back to the surface, then the wolf-shade maybe had just run off. He grinned at his own cleverness.

-oOo-

The night was cold and suffocating in the forest. The demonlike claws of birches crowded the glade, waving to and fro in the breeze. Their bark was the colour of old bone.

A small, red squirrel went scurrying through the canopy, from trunk to trunk. He was only a year old, and rather rash. Having boasted to his brothers that he would go and look at the thing-of-shadow that was sitting in the glade, he was now living up to his bragging. All the more sensible creatures, the owls and nightjars, field mice, badgers and foxes, had fled, and only the one squirrel moved in the trees. He ran along the branches, and, clinging tenuously to an impossibly thin branch, he crawled forward.

In the glade, silvered by the starry sky, sat the massive wolf, seemingly cut out of a heap of shadows. It was, to the squirrel’s thinking, no normal wolf, for normal wolves smell of urine, and fleas, dead rabbits or chewed up grasshoppers or snails, and the rancid fat of deer. Wolves eat anything, after all, even squirrels. But this wolf had an intoxicating, heady smell. It smelled of fresh springs and old summers. This was a god of wolves. A god who sat in pain, occasionally shivering, in the darkness.

Absorbed by curiosity the squirrel barely noticed the shape that blotted out the stars above. It was only the rush of air that warned him in time. In a frantic scurry, the squirrel jumped out of the way of the snapping beak of a large raven, and bolted away.

Gnissa snickered to himself as he alighted on a branch above the wolf. As the branch bobbed with his weight, he crooked his head and with a golden eye, he fixed the wolf in his view.

“I was trying to sleep,” he said, “but your howling and raging woke me. If I were you, and I am not saying that to be a wolf is better than to be a raven, for everyone knows that is simply ridiculous, but if I were you I would forget about it. Just leave this place behind you and head off to wherever you were going. This valley is bad for your sort. It drags you in and tries to keep you. There’s a lot of strange things wandering around these forests, and not all of them can leave. Something odd about the land keeps your kind here. It collects you. I’d leave now, if I were you.”

At that the wolf trembled, and raising his head he opened two eyes of ash flecked with fire, and said, “Raven?”

“Oh, no, we are on first name terms now. Call me Gnissa.”

“I am not a wolf.”

Gnissa clucked his tongue several times and turned his head looking at the wolf with one eye, and then the other.

“Yes you are. I look with my right eye. I see a wolf. I look with my left. I see a wolf. Or at least I see shadows shaped into a wolf. So perhaps I see the soul of a wolf trapped in a man’s body and able to assume its rightful form only at night. Or perhaps I see a wolfish demon who takes the form of a man by day. Or perhaps you’re an old wolf god some ancient tribe made out of the bones of sacrificed slaves and an old wolf skull.” Gnissa flapped his wings lazily. “Don’t know. Snoro will know the deeper truth of it. But me? I’m just a bird.”

“I am not a wolf.”

“That so? Then what are you, Lord Not-wolf?”

At that the shadow-thing paused, and closed its glimmering eyes tight, perhaps thinking about the answer, perhaps dwelling on what he felt in his body of darkness. The cool night whispered around them both.

“I am… how can I explain it? I am like a dream… only not a dream. I am more real than that, but I am not a wolf. How can I be a wolf? I am a man. I was born a man and shall always be a man. I am at this moment asleep in my bed. I can feel the prickling straw. I shall die a man. One day” He shook his head and shook the thoughts from his skull. “It is true that I am haunted and shadowed by a wolf. A great she-wolf who will not leave me alone. She has followed me through the years, followed me as the decades rolled into centuries… but I am not a wolf. She is the wolf.”

“Men do not live for centuries.”

“Nor do wolves.”

“Men don’t walk about at night as dreams. Men do not leave their bodies to hunt the wild woods. Perhaps you were a man once, but now? Now, I am not so sure what you are. And this other wolf? This wolf that you claim follows you?”

“I hear of her wherever I go. From frightened widows and tearful farmers. A great evil beast, she murders babes, and slaughters dogs and tears the throats from horses. And she very nearly killed me long ago. She murdered my family. Everyone I loved. She has followed me ever since.”

Gnissa narrowed his eyes in thought, and as he looked up at the stars that sparkled beyond the beards of cloud he said, “Now a bird doesn’t know much more than the chattering of finches, and the wisdom of foxes, but, it occurs to me that I have not heard rumours of two strange wolves in the Veld. Either this other wolf is very crafty, or there is no other wolf. Just you. Do you remember everything you dream each night?”

Somewhere deep in the throat of darkness a low growl arose and deepened. “I am not a wolf.” The voice made Gnissa shiver.

“Very well then. Perhaps I shall call you unwolf, as that is what you seem to have named yourself. So, unwolf,” said Gnissa with a hoarse snicker, “why don’t you go off and hunt this other wolf? This she-wolf who follows you?”

“Do you not think I have tried? I have followed her tracks and been led in circles. I have set snares during the dusk and found them empty every morning. I have followed her scent in the dreaming. And to no avail. She is like a ghost. Unhuntable. Unsnareable. Unkillable. There are no other wolves. Just her. And if in a hundred years I cannot kill that one? What hope have I ever?”

Gnissa coughed a raven-laugh. “Those who chase their tails are prone to falling down, unwolf.”

The creature hung its head and shuddered with each breath it drew and exhaled. Gnissa thought he could hear the beast’s strange, primeval voice whispering and repeating something over and over. But soon, he grew bored by this self-pitying, self-denying creature. As he spread his wings, he said, “I will bid goodnight to you, unwolf. I will go back to my place above the fire and sleep. Properly this time. Please don’t go off howling again.” He was quiet for a moment. “Though I am hungry now too. A midnight snack would be nice. Hm. There is a cellar in the village full of drying sausages and guarded by a bolt I know how to slide free. I’ve a mind to go raid it,” and he took to the air, climbing lazily. “Goodnight, unwolf. I wish you luck.”

-oOo-

Kveldulf listened to the heavy beat of the raven’s wings until they dissolved away. He sat alone in the hollow long enough for the moon to rise above the autumn canopy and cast shafts of wraithlike light across him.

And as he sat, he forgot. The blessing of the dream was that, like all dreams, it allowed the dreamer to turn over thoughts, pick this one to keep, and this one to drop into oblivion’s waters. The dream let him sift away unwanted memories, including the dream itself. By dawn, he would remember only a little of the night, and then only vaguely. He would remember the Nibelungr and his threats, the pearl-skinned, nymphet river women, the raven perhaps. But, that the Nibelungr and the raven alike had called him a wolf? That he decided to forget. He let the memories fall away, let them uncoil into the dream and felt them wash away, and crumble, until eventually each stinging thought fell into blackness and was gone.

Whenever the forgetfulness consumed him, his thoughts ran to other things. Something had to fill up the space left in his mind. He thought about the night, the wind and the open air. His thoughts turned to hunting among the knotted roots of trees and splashing through cold streams. To wolfish things.

And in that moment he was more wolf than man, and the wolf with a body of shadow and eyes like burning green candlelights stood, stretched his long powerful limbs, and licked his sharp teeth. The hunt called him, and he could resist the call no longer.

He bounded away.

He was too self-absorbed to notice that something else had been watching all of this for some time now. Something subtle and tall and elfin. A shadow among the shadows, with stars for eyes and a crown made of autumn.

As the wolf-thing leapt off into the forest the king of the hereabouts Faer Folk watched him go, and turned over in his thoughts what he had just observed.

-oOo-

Deep in the forest, hidden behind a stand fir and pine, birch, oak and stony-skinned beech, there stood a farmstead.

An old woman lived in the farmstead with her youngest son, Gunther. He was much like the farm: simple, and pleasant, and not a little rustic. He was out early most mornings, before the sun had even got up, to see to the few goats and fewer sheep he and his mother owned. Being alone in the wooded fields, he had the habit of talking to whatever was at hand that might listen, be it a curious jay or a crow or his good-for-nothing rabbiting dog.

“Hello,” said Gunther, resting his shepherd’s stave over one shoulder and putting one thumb inside his cord belt. One of the older goats, Crookhorn was missing from the herd and Gunther had been trudging around searching the gullies and fields for about an hour. He hummed to himself before stopping, listening and saying to a nearby blackbird, “What’s that then?” Gunther listened for the sound again. From somewhere in the grey of the predawn there was an anxious bleating and then the goat-bell. “Gone and got her horns caught in the blackberries again, I reckon,” said Gunther to a tree that looked vaguely like an old man. He trudged up the slope towards a line of tall, black beeches. But as he reached the trees he stopped in his tracks. There was a crash of something large and heavy moved in the forest, not close, but not very far away either. Gunther searched the dim grey scene, and took a firmer hold of his stave.

And then, everything was silent. The air turned heavy with it. No bleats. No clangs. He held the stave out like a spear and began whispering a prayer to the Goddess. Was that something moving in the shadows? There, by that rotten stump. Or had the stump itself moved?

Gunther turned and ran. He could hear it now, running through the underbrush close behind. Beating the earth with his feet, Gunther threw the stave aside, ducked, wove and stumbled. Leaves blinded him, thorns tore at his arms and legs, and gasping for breath he tripped as he ran out into a turnip field that was just filling with the first light of the sun. He rolled onto his back, sweating and winded, and looked at the woods, expecting Old Alraun himself, King of Ghaists and Fears, to come screaming out. But there was nothing.

“The wind.” He said. “Nothing but the wind chasing me through the woods.” He let out a shudder of nervous laughter. “Given meself a fright, I did.”

But even so, he decided he could go back for his stave and the missing goat after the sun was peaking a little higher in the sky. Though he searched the whole afternoon, and for two days afterwards too, and though his old mother browbeat him for it, he never did find any trace of Crookhorn or what might have happened to her.

BEFORE THE VELD

“Perhaps,” said Kveldulf, “it would be better for you to judge.” Although he had no reason to mistrust this man, he had been tricked by charlatan healers and fake curse-breakers before. It was always better to let self-proclaimed sages prove their own insight.

“Yes,” said the ruinous skeleton that stood before him, a sough in his voice. “Yes. Perhaps that is best.” Auxentios scuffled closer, and reached out for Kveldulf, placing one of his boil-covered hands gently against each temple. He closed his eyes and muttered to himself, eyeballs flicking and moving behind closed lids. Then, with a shudder, he removed his fingers and recoiled. Auxentios looked terrified as he backed away. “Not that,” he said, “I’ll not take that curse on myself. I cannot.” He was trembling.

“I couldn’t ask you to,” says Kveldulf. “I would not.”

Auxentios was panting now, trying to catch ragged breath in his ragged lungs. “Then what do you want? What can I do?”

Kveldulf could feel his head bow forward a little under weary weight. He breathed a sigh. “I don’t know. You are spoken of, in story, in song. I hoped… I don’t know what I hoped, but I had hope for something.”

They were both silent for a time before Auxentios replied. “Let me sit. Let me think.” As slow as a risen corpse, Auxentios shuffled over to a huge, carved-wood chair that looked as if it might have once served a king for a throne. He sat down in it with a weary out-breath. “There are some other magics about you too. Small, but hard and flinty. I had a sense of them when I toughed you.”

“Yes. I know a little sorcery.”

“As witch-hunters often do,” said Auxentios.

Kveldulf nodded, and took out his bundle of small charms. He spread the materials out on the floor in front of the hierophant, the chalk and the stones, the iron amulet, three balls of amber.

The diseased old man huffed at them. “Nothing but heathen magic, and weak at that. Do these actually do you any good? Do they suppress the curse?”

“No,” admitted Kveldulf. “Or, only sometimes. The wolf that follows me is mostly quiet when I perform the rites, chalk the runes and circles, but not always. I don’t have any real power of my own. I can draw a little essence from my own blood and life, but that is all.”

Auxentios deliberated then. He rolled some guttural, mumbling noises around in his throat, then rose and fetched a sandalwood box from one of the shelves. He held the box in his hands a long time before saying, “I suppose the time has come to part with this. I am reluctant. It has been a powerful charm of aid for me, time to time, but I have also grown to know when someone else needs one of my humble treasures more than I do.” He opened the box and took out a single gold-purple-red feather. It shone with its own light. With a sigh, he held it out for Kveldulf to take. “It is a feather from the wing of the arch-godling Israfel, lady-in-waiting and sword-champion of the White Goddess herself. Or so I was told when I acquired it. Regardless, it has burning and brightness and power in it. Keep it close to your skin”, said Auxentios, “and it will ward away shadows. In your case, not totally. Not completely, but it will help. And, it will put a warmth of power into you too. Your petty charms,” he waved a withered hand, “you may find they have more strength with this fragment of old potency to give you succour. A whisper of breath came from the man. “It’s all I can do, I’m afraid, master wanderer. I wish I could do more, but, well, I cannot. I’m sorry. I always knew I would find the level of my weakness, my fear, and here it is. I cannot take your curse onto my own self. I dare not. Look at me tremble just thinking about it. I am too afraid.”

Kveldulf reached out and took the feather. A beautiful warmth trickled through his fingers. He looked at the play of light and colours, saying, “This is a gift beyond measure. You give too much just with this.” He then considered the feather for a time, and asked, more softly, “Auxentios, could you teach me a little of your healing magic? Teach me how to take other people’s curses and ills. I know too many of the bleaker arts. I can send night-spells over the moors, raise dead men’s wraiths, or put them to rest. But I know little of the kinder magics. I think I would like to be able to heal as efficiently as I can kill.”

Auxentios laughed. “No. Please, do not mistake me for being rude, but I will not. For mine is no ‘kind’ magic, I am afraid. No. I will not teach you my art. I will not teach anyone my art.”

“Why not?”

“Because, though I choose to take on the illness of those who come to me, the art I weave allows a person to take anything from another. Health. Beauty. Artful skill. A good voice. Love. A whole life. It is only in the choices I make, that my arts are good and not ill.”

“I see,” said Kveldulf. “Much as with life, then. I can see how such a thing could be turned to unpleasant ends.”

“Unpleasant, yes, indeed yes. Unpleasant indeed.” He bustled over the carven chair and sat down again. “Now, if I could ask you a favour?”

“Of course. I need to pay you something for the feather.”

“And what could you possibly pay me that was of equal value? No. Don’t talk nonsense. A gift given is not to be haggled over after the fact. But, on the other hand, my pantry is low, and I would enjoy having some bags of beans, beats, some flour, milk and butter. For obvious reasons,” he gave a mottle-gummed, largely toothless smile,” the local food-merchants do not much like me fingering the produce.”

“Very well,” said Kveldulf with a smile, as he slipped the feather away. “I will go to the markets and buy whatever you want. But I will also come back tomorrow morning, and the morning after, if I have to, and ask you again what I can do. The gift demands something more than a few sacks of flour.”

“Good master wanderer, I suspect you have never gone often without your dinners.”

CHAPTER THE NINTH

The morning light that scattered through the narrow windows of the Toren Vaunt was feeble and chill. Lilia walked alone down one quiet corridor. Under one arm she carried her shawm wrapped in velvet. The walls, plastered in a dull eggshell white, remained stark in the uncertain light.

Entering her father’s bedchamber was always a distinctly unreal experience for Lilia. The guards in their oxblood livery stood just as always. Their faces, which Lilia knew on a rational level changed day-to-day, always looked the same to her, and always wore the same resigned expressions. She had a secret little imagined idea that the new guards marched in when no-one was looking, swapped their faces with the old guards, and assumed the exact same stances so that it would always seem that nothing had changed. Though the apothecary was absent this morning, his prentice–a youth with too much untrimmed black hair and a boy-sized potbelly–slouched in the bedside seat. He glanced up, and moved to stand when Lilia shook her head and said, “No, I’m just here to pay a short visit.”

With a shrug he relaxed once more. “If you want the seat, m’lady…”

“Thank you.” As she unwrapped the velvet, Lilia listened to the hollow rattle of the charms that hung from the rafters.

“Rosa?” Her father’s voice wheezed.

“No. Your other daughter.”

“Oh.” He closed his eyes. “My vision grows dim.”

“Yes.” She did her best to show a warm, ironic smile. “It must be dim for you to mistake me for her. Very dim. I thought that I would play a tune.” She took the shawm in a delicate grip, as if it were alive and easily bruised. “Is there a song you would like to hear? Some chantey from the seas? Some melody from your childhood? A jig or canticle? An aubade or a nocturne?” But he was no longer listening. Her father flickered his eyes and roved his gaze over the room, to the windows, looking, thought Lilia, at something only he could see. “You’re still here.” It was less a question than a statement, and Lilia wasn’t sure if he was addressing her or something else. Although he had improved somewhat these last few days, his mind had been wandering a lot lately.

“Shall I pick a tune, then?”

The apothecary’s prentice nodded, while the guards smiled in a sad, agreeable sort of way. Lilia imagined that any distraction from standing watch over her slowly decaying father must be welcome.

“Very well.” Raising the shawm to her lips she blew warm air into it. In that moment she felt both remote and graceful. Not elegant exactly, but beautiful the way wavering, unsure sunlight on water is beautiful, or the fragile song of a robin, or the hesitant grace of a deer. It was silly to think, and sounded like the doggerel of a talentless poet, but it was how she felt.

When the first notes of her shawm flowed, they greeted her like the first glimpse of an absent friend. The song that she played was the past brought eerily to life. It was a song of forgotten joy and promises broken. Of lost ideals and childhood dreams.

She played a strange melody, wandering and haunting, despite being difficult to catch.

The guards, the prentice and even her father, widened their eyes. All of them were soon wearing sweet, childish smiles. She played with the music, toyed with it, teased it out here, ran it dashing through chords there… until gradually… note by charmed note… the song died away.

The room was in a hush. Only the rude talismans and amulets dared to clutter the air with their noise.

“Now,” said Lilia, “was that not worth a little of your time?”

The guards blinked vacantly. Their eyes were still with the song, distant and glassy. Walking up to one of the guards Lilia passed a hand in front of his nose. He did not so much as twitch. Slowly, carefully she rewrapped the shawm and then went to her father’s bedside.

“What did you think of my song?”

His old man’s mouth was hanging open. He started at her, not quite able to meet her eyes. “Lilia? How long have you been here? I was thinking of your mother.”

“Yes. You were. You always do when I play for you.”

“She was beautiful. When she was young. She looked so much like Rosa.”

“I know.”

“Oh.”

“You tell me every time I play for you.”

“I do not think you have never played your pipe for me before. I don’t remember… or have you? It seems…” He wasn’t able to find the words he wanted, his sunken face and red eyes became confused.

“I have often played for you, father. Every day. But you don’t remember. Don’t worry. No one remembers.” Laying the shawm on his bed, she opened a kid-leather purse and drew out a small wooden vial. As soon as she uncorked it the air thickened with a rich smell like crushed rosehip.

“I have a potion for you. A curative.”

His round watery eyes flickered briefly to the vial. “It smells like perfume. You mother wore some beautiful perfumes. Sometimes a musk. When she was young. When she looked like Rosa.”

“Here.” She held it under his nose. “It tastes sweet too. So I am told.”

“Told by who?”

“You. Now, you need only a little of it, a drop or two, so open your mouth.”

Lilia’s tapped three droplets of a slippery, red-black liquid into his mouth. He smacked his lips.

“Very sweet,” he said.

“Still, it’s good for you.”

“Where is it from?” He smirked. “Old August? I didn’t think he made anything sweet. All his medicines taste like bile.”

Lilia looked at the vial cupped in her palm. “No, this comes from someone else. But let’s not talk about that.” She leaned forward and kissed him lightly on the forehead. “I shall have to go now.”

“Yes,” said the Eorl, “go now… of course…”

Lilia left the room. While the music had been drifting around her, she had felt beautiful and happy, and better. Now, without the music, she found herself self-conscious again, nervous and full of awkwardness. Of course, there was one other thing that made her feel beautiful and calm, and he was preying on her mind now too. The music brought him to her mind, just as it seemed to bring back old, innocent days of love for her father. She decided that she would go to him.

Soon her footsteps were vanishing down a flight of stairs leaving the white-walled halls of the upper keep behind her.

During idle moments of the day, when thoughts wander, the guards and prentice and their lord occasionally recalled snatches of a song, difficult to follow, yet haunting. And although each of them tried, not one of them could recall exactly where he’d last heard it. All of them assumed it must have been some half-remember air from childhood.

And if anyone that day had asked whether Lilia had visited her father, the guards, and prentice and Eorl alike would have looked about in a confused sort of way, feeling uncertain and looking to one another for an answer. Eventually one of them, perhaps the prentice, perhaps a senior guardsman, would say that, yes, she had visited, but it was only a brief visit, to stand beside the bed and say very little.

But no one ever did ask.

Although, now and again, a few visitors did wonder aloud why the room seemed to smell strongly of rosehips.

-oOo-

Rosa was by herself, carefully tending her own thoughts. She moved in the twisted halls of the Toren Vaunt, through a chamber of square pillars, beneath a row of arched windows and then between two grim statues of ancestors frozen in silent contemplation of their own prayer-clasped hands.

Just past the statues Rosa heard a familiar scrapping gait. With a smile dashing warmth on her lips, Rosa picked up her pace to chase after the limping footsteps. She found Margit emerging from a bedchamber that belonged to one of the under-seneschal’s. Her face vexed by an ugly frown.

“Good morning, Margit,” said Rosa, “I have been meaning to have a word with you.”

“M’lady?” She attempted a curtsey and achieved only her usual awkward stumble.

“What is that stench?” Rosa wrinkled her nose. “Is it…”

Margit nodded and gently shut the door. “No offence by my saying, but the under-seneschal Frahard ought to seek advice from the apothecary. No healthy man ought make a smell like that.”

“Well, between you and me, I try not to sit near him when meals are set for the household.”

“You should try emptying his chamberpot.”

Rosa laughed, then laid a hand to her mouth to conceal it, blushing. “Come,” she whispered through her slender fingers, “walk with me.”

Margit fell into step beside Rosa, who led the way towards her chambers. I want to know if you’ve been hearing rumours about Sigurd’s hired man, Kveldulf?”

“The northman?”

“The northman, yes.”

Margit’s face curled into a glow of curiosity. “He’s barely spoken to anyone. Seems grim and full of black humour. And…”

“And?”

“Well, if I may be so bold, he strikes me as a dangerous man, but no one is saying much to that end, or anything else about him, really.”

“You may be so bold and I hope he is dangerous. It is the reason he has been hired. What is the point of a toothless hunter? You’ve heard no other rumours?”

“Oh,” said Margit in a small voice. “No. I don’t think so. Why do you ask?”

“You know me. I just like to hear what the gossip is. No one would tell me anything if it weren’t for you.” There was a certain enjoyment in leaving people guessing about things. “But Kveldulf has work to do for me, and I hope for all our sakes he does it well.” Just as she said this, one of the kitchen pot-boys appeared around a corner and ambled towards them, hauling water. Rosa silenced herself and smiled pleasantly at the lad, then remained coolly quiet until he was out of earshot.

“Would you like a cup of tea, Margit? I could do with some company and perhaps a chat. I would go to the woman’s room, but the ladies are always talking about such dull things. Stitching and knitting, whose child has got up to what mischief, and whose husband is good for nothing, or something, or everything. I would much rather hear some interesting things.”

“Of course, m’lady. You are too kind to me. Far, far too kind.”

“No, dear, not at all.” She leaned close. “I like the gossip. And you always know something new. I bet the churls are saying interesting things about Lilia running out of the feast.”

“To tell truth, m’lady, yes. Strange rumours. She’s an odd one.”

“You see. The others, the householders and ladies, they never think about who really knows what’s going on in the castle. About the people who are in everyone’s bedchamber, and who serves dinner, who hears things, who knows what doors are opening and closing in the early hours.”

“M’lady, when you put it like that…”

“No, no. I don’t mean anything by it. It’s just a bit of fun isn’t it? Talking about the life in the castle? What else would keep us from dying of boredom? We need something interesting to whittle away the hours.”

Rosa stopped at the door to her chambers and stood waiting. Margit with a flustered “Pardon me,” limped forward and opened the door.

“Thank you,” said Rosa. She smiled with an ambiguous air as she watched Margit limp inside after her. She noticed that Margit glanced both up and down the corridor before shutting the door firmly behind her. The poor woman was always terrified that someone would see her speaking to Rosa, though she could never provide a rational reason why. The churl-woman seemed beset by ambiguous fears that somehow it was wrong to talk with a lady of the household. At times Rosa found their conversations were like talking to a badly beaten dog, a creature so afraid of doing the wrong thing that a simple friendly conversation was terrifying.

But it was always worth the effort to coax Margit into conversation. It was true, what she’d said. It was the churls and the servants who really ran the whole fortress, and who knew what was really going on in the Toren Vaunt. And Rosa very much liked to stay informed.

-oOo-

Some time later, Margit scuffled out of Rosa’s chamber. She limped through the narrow halls and visited a dusty storeroom on the second floor. From here she went on, carrying a woven basket that was covered with a brightly chequered kerchief. As she walked, she hummed to herself and her pockmarked face wore an abstracted smile, although her eyes were quite sharp and full of thoughts.

Margit made her way to the lower levels of the keep, then through the great hall and out into the muddy light of day. A harsh fit of rain had recently passed over the Veld, leaving everything dewy and wet. Puddles filled with delicate lacy patterns of mud dotted the courtyard. As she walked the steep road that led from the keep to the hamlet below Margit had to hobble and hop over rivulets of rainwater that cut across the cobbles just to keep her feet dry.

She nodded a greeting to the watchmen as she passed, and broke from hum to whistle as she crossed the bridge that looked over the millpond. It was only a brief glance that she cast at the water, but it was loving all the same, a quick embrace that took in the reeds and ripples, the reflections of clouds and the water-lilies that she could see beneath the surface of the water, brown and torpid, waiting for summer.

And her own face, reflected, also waiting for summer. Longing for it.

She crossed the barely fields–now stubble–and at the edge of the forest she stopped and sniffed the air, breathing deep. Nothing too strange was about. Nothing powerful anyway. There might be a boggelmann or puckrel hiding in the trees, but they were nuisances at worst, not really a threat to anyone. Still, it was some caution that she trod into the embrace of the forest. At the tangled roots of one twisted pine she found a few withered caps of fly agaric. The bright red mushroom with its white flecks had faded to an rotten tawny-grey but she picked them all nonetheless. A little farther on, she cut away a few branches of hawthorn, and found some cowbane and knitbone. Coming to a large and woven-branched elder that Margit had harvested before, she took out a knife and began slicing away twigs and leaves.

“That’s a witching tree.”

Margit spun around and quite forgot to limp as she took two swift steps forward. She narrowed her eyes and let her suddenly tight grip upon the hilt of the knife relax. “Good day, child.”

The young girl who stood at the edge of the glade clasped her hands behind her back and bobbed a couple times on the heels of her feet. She looked to Margit like the very picture of young mischief. “Mamma says that one should not cut the elder tree, for she’s a witch in disguise or has a witch-spirit in her, or something of the sort. She’ll bleed if you cut her, and come looking for you at night.”

“Rot and cock-a-ninny,” replied Margit. “Wood is wood, not flesh, not blood. No one can turn into a tree. And I need kindling for my fire and this tree is as good as any other.

“And Mamma says that witches make wands and staves from elderwood.”

“I thought elders were witches. Why would witches make wands from themselves? That doesn’t make sense does it now?”

“I suppose not.”

“Doesn’t your mother ever tell you not to talk to strangers in the woods?”

“She tells me to beware of witches,” said the girl. Her lips curled into a sly smile and she skipped a few steps away and hid behind an oak. Peeking out, her smile was playful and impish.

“Beware of witches? Indeed? And what is there to beware of?”

“They in the service of the Night Queen. They’ve sold their souls and will eat up little girls.”

Margit cut away a nice, supple branch of elder and admired it. “Silly child. Do you think that is where magic comes from? The Night Queen and her children?”

The young girl nodded.

“Well perhaps,” said Margit, “magic doesn’t come from goddesses and godlings? Perhaps it can come from within, perhaps it is somewhere deep in us all? Like the songs or art or laughter. Perhaps it just has to be awakened.”

“How’s that?”

“How is what?”

“How would you wake up magic then?”

“How do you learn to sing? Would you ever know that songs were even possible if you didn’t know such things existed? If you lived in a deep dank hole with no birds or music or minstrels would you ever learn to sing? No. How do you learn it? You watch someone else very carefully. Now away with you.”

The girl poked tongue out. “Shan’t. Or maybe I will. Maybe I will run away and tell Mamma and Papa that there’s a witch in the forest.”

“I know another thing about elder trees young girl… A child that’s beat with elder withe, will fade away and ne’er thrive.” Margit slashed the air with the elder branch. It made a snickering whisper and then a thud as it hit the ground.

The girl shrieked, hitched up her skirt and scampered away through the undergrowth. Margit calmly collected some leaves from a low hanging sprig of mistletoe that was growing on a nearby birch, then proceeded back the way she’d come. As she neared the verge of the forest the sound of a young girl’s shrill tantrum split the air.

Closing her eyes and drawing her lips back over her teeth, Margit hissed out the names of seven old and nasty beings, forgotten ancients and strange spirits. As she mumbled, she walked and opened her eyes just enough so that she could see the world as a grey haze through her lashes. The words were sharp and dry, they clawed her throat and squirmed out of her mouth. The magic was already eating away at her. There was only so long she could hold the hush-breath chant.

At the eves of the wood grey sunlight spread its wet silk rays over everything. A hay-harvester was wiping his brow with one hand while leaning against his heavy scythe. His ruddy cheeks were set in half-a-frown and half-a-smirk as he listened to the little girl cry and spill out something about a witch.

Margit walked right past them both, mumbling under her breath as she went, but all they saw was a gust of wind and all they heard was a dry flutter of autumn leaves. She crossed the field and turned east, taking a path that lead away from the castle and into the hills.

As soon as she was out of sight of the fields and cottages, Margit let go the chat. She had to rest a while before going on. There was spit and blood caked into the corners of her mouth. She smeared it away with a corner of the chequered kerchief.

-oOo-

With a sideways half-skip, Gnissa hopped through Snoro’s door and into the middle of the cave. “There’s someone coming up the hill. That woman with the pretty scarf and the ugly face.”

Snoro did not try to hide his wide, nasty grin. “Mmmmn? So soon? I wonder how she found out the curse was broken? How far away is she?”

“Oh, a good way. Down by the big rotten oak.”

Snoro drummed his fingers on his stone desk. “I hate waiting.”

The cave was dark and musty. In Gnissa’s opinion it needed a good cleaning out, but he never could convince Snoro of that. The hunchback liked the crowded darkness. All his shelves were crammed with objects that to Gnissa were useless rubbish: vinegar-filled bottles containing shrivelled lizards and toads and stranger things (inedible), old moth-eaten animal feet (inedible), two human hands (dried and tasteless), the skull of an animal that Snoro called an Elraby mimicker-dog (inedible) and the ingredients of every potion and unguent Snoro knew how to concoct (mostly bitter, sometimes poisonous, generally inedible).

Gnissa’s definition of useful was relatively narrow.

Snoro returned to leaning over his desk. His quill scratched out a few more notes. Feathery grey ringlets of smoke curled from a candle beside him. Beside the candle, tied up with a red thread, was a tuft of dark and shadowy fur.

“Strange things are out in the woods today. Big, savage things. The wild spirits are restless I think,” said the raven. “Alraun is up to something.”

“Mmnhmm.”

“You studying your seeing-book?”

Snoro did not bother to look around. He simply nodded his heavy, hairy head.

“Been at it all day I suppose?” Gnissa skipped twice and then fluttered up to the desk, where he perched awkwardly. Squinting at the little scratches on the vellum he said, “You ought to take a walk. Get some fresh air. A walk, it’d be good for you. Flying would be better.” Gnissa stretched his wings. “You’d love flying. But everyone would, as a matter of truth.”

“Hmmmmn.”

Gnissa turned one eye, then the other to study the confusing jumble of sharp little shapes. They looked like a hundred thousand spiders. Gnissa felt hungry. Once, when drunk, Snoro had told him that all the tall stories he told about the book were just to keep away thieves. “In the old days I used to say it was a gift from the horn-crowned storm god,” he’d slurred, “but now folk have mostly forgotten that particular god. I tell them the same thing, but I tell them the Night Queen gave me the book instead. Shtupid foolsh.” Gnissa suspected that Snoro had stolen the book from some doddering warlock. Or murdered someone for it. Or won it on a bet. Something much more dull and dishonest.

Licking one long, hooked finger, Snoro turned a page. The air above the book smelled dryly dusty. “Can birds sneeze?”

“What?” said Snoro.

“Do bird’s sneeze? The air is quite dusty, and I feel like I ought to sneeze. But I never have sneezed. Maybe because I don’t know how?” Gnissa made three unconvincing attempts to sneeze.

“Isn’t there a rotting carcass anywhere in the forest?”

Gnissa ruffled his feathers. “Thought you’d like a bit of company.” A few moments of silence passed, during which Snoro concentrated on his book.

Gnissa preened a wing. “Have you found what you are looking for yet?”

“In the book, all is writ. One third writ by Debt, one third writ by Happening, the last third writ by Fate.”

“She who was, she who is, and she who is yet to be,” said the raven. “Blah, blah, blah.” He had heard this before. “So what are you looking for then?”

“Maybe how to make raven stew.”

“Boil a raven.” Gnissa flapped his wings lazily. “That being how I would make raven stew. Feather him first, maybe. Much like duck or chook stew, I should assume.” Gnissa worried an itch on his leg. “How about sparrow stew instead? I do like a nice bit of sparrow, now and then. Hard to catch, though. Fluttery, swift little things. Do let me know if you decide to make sparrow stew. That’d be lovely.”

Snoro let his shoulders fall and slouched in his seat. “Perhaps if I tied your beak shut. Tiresome creature.”

“Yes. It’s taken a lot of work to become so. I’m also annoying. And repetitive. Speaking of which, what are you looking for?”

“I am looking for curses, or more particularly uncurses.”

“Ahhhh,” said Gnissa knowingly. “Kveldulf. Looking for a way to cure him? And here I thought your old heart was nothing but withered coal. Come here, Snoro, give an old bird a hug, you scoundrel.”

“You’ve been eating green meat again, haven’t you?” Snoro rolled his tongue over sharp little teeth, and then leaned back in his chair. “I’m not going to cure that wolf-thing monster. Why waste such a beautiful creature? No. I already know how to lift the curse. That is easily enough done. All he needs to do is kill the one who bite him.”

“Oh, that sounds easy then, doesn’t it?” said Gnissa. “I’m assuming that if Kveldulf can’t be killed, whoever bit him can’t be killed either. Unless you go and kill whoever bit them, and that feels rather recursive.”

Snoro whispered in a sort of frustrated snarl. “There are ways to an ulfhednar. One just has to know how it is done. And I know how it is done. I could put an end to Kveldulf tonight, if I chose to–or his sire for that matter. Why, there’s at least one thing that could end his life lying right under his nose in that nasty fortress, but no, that is not my plan.” He dug a finger into one nostril and wriggled it around, balled the yellowish stuff that came out and flicked it away.

“And you would do it ‘easily’ then? I hope you know how to sneak up on a spirit-wolf then.”

“”Well–no, not easy, exactly. Not exactly. If you put it that way. But, the ways and means are written in The Book, so at least I do know how to kill him, if the need presents. But what I really want is a way to suppress the curse temporarily. Something that will keep him coming back for more. I want something to dangle above him. I want the proverbial fox will leap for his grapes. I suspect he’ll be a very useful servant, once I’ve got him to heel.”

“Alright. Tell me one of your curse-cures then, go on.”

“Frggmn, well, a poison made from the blood of three of the garmbrood and the spit of a giant with a dog’s head–moss scraped from the gates of the Fortress of Ice and Shadow ground up with the powdered teeth of nine wolf-skulls–a weapon made from bronze and quenched in the venom of a moor-wurum–any of those things might kill him–to be more sure, then a blade made from bone of–“

“Ooh, ooh, I have one, he could balance of pea on his nose under moonlight on the third day of the month while the constellation of The Chalice is in the house of the five legged dragon.”

Snoro’s voice was flat. “Do not mock the rituals.” He then continued, reciting a few more means by which Kveldulf or anyone of his sort might be killed, though the rattled through the list with irritation, stiffly and formally.

When he was done Gnissa piped up. “Or, he could dance naked around a pile of mackerel while whistling a furore of Fraenkish sea chanties.”

“Don’t mock the rituals.”

“Well the rituals shouldn’t be so silly if they don’t want to be made fun of. So what’s next then? What was it a bone of? A whale beached in Autumn and fed seagull pies to keep it alive until spring?”

“I’m not discussing this with you.”

“It does involve a Fraenkish sea chanties doesn’t it?”

“You will be laughing on the other side of your beak when I’ve an ulfhednar at my beck and whistle.”

“Oh.” Gnissa glanced around the corners of the ceiling, scanning the spider webs for any scuttling back shapes. He was still feeling hungry. “Don’t know about that.” he said absently. “He doesn’t seem the sort. Seems to me he’s more dangerous than that. More like a wolf than a man. He might not even want to be free of the curse, you know, not even for a little while. He might just kill your and eat you. Or piss on you. Wolves piss on things a lot. Maybe he’ll piss on you, then kill you then eat you. Or he might eat most of you, then piss on what’s left, then–” Gnissa spotted a spider, took off and snapped it up.

“No, my feathered corpse-picker. I think there is still enough of a humankind soul in him to make him want a little peace, and I suspect he’ll be willing to pay for it. Quite willing to pay. And that in the end is all that matters; who is willing to pay for what.” Snoro made a sound like as if he was choking on tar and Gnissa realised he was clearing his throat. The Nibelung turned a page. Gnissa was looking for more spiders. “It is a quandary. Not a simple matter at all. For he has not, exactly, been changed by the curse. Rather something within him has been brought into being. In the old tongue it is his flygeur. His fetch. It’s an aspect of the soul. The Leth called the hidden soul the genius. Sometimes, the folk today call ’em guardian spirits or familiars without fully understanding that the spirit is not truly external to the self. The flygeur is not something comes from without. It is something from within,” he tapped his chest, “in here. Awakening ones flygeur needs powerful magic, but everyone has something deep inside waiting. Well, all of us who have souls anyway.” He shot a brief, nasty smile at Gnissa.

“Raven’s don’t need souls. We know that a raven’s life is the best life there is.” There didn’t seem to be any more spiders. “The souls of kindly men and women and Nibelungs are reborn as ravens, don’t you know? That is what my grand-mamma always used to say, back when I was…

“An egg, yes, yes, back when you were an egg.”

“Mark my words: once you’ve been a raven you don’t need to go off to any paradise or otherworld.”

Snoro scratched his bulbous nose. “Of course, cunning-men and wizards have found out a number of ways to bring out the flygeur.”

“Are you even listening to me?” said Gnissa.

“Desperately trying not to.” He stretched and scratched. “And there are ways to summon the selfsame spirit into the waking world, and shape it into a beast or spirit or demon. Woods-witches do it, if clumsily, and make toads and snakes and spiders.”

“Could you make a spider?”

“Yes, Gnissa, I’m going to conjure up a piece of my unawakened soul in the shape of a spider so that you can eat it.”

“That’d be lovely. You are a real friend.”

Snoro folded his fingers over his tub-belly and stared up at the drunken shadows on the ceiling. “I once knew a warrior-shaman in the north. He’d go into a trance and a bear would leap out of thin air. He never used to fight. He’d just fall into a fit and let the bear run mad.” Snoro turned a page. “The wolf-walkers were a similar cult of shamans. But their rituals were peculiar. By design or accident their sorcery turned contagious.” He stretched his arms, yawned and sniffed. “I wonder? Was it was a part of the initiation?” His face screwed into a muddle. “Perhaps a would-be ulfhednar had to survive the savaging of his fellows to be counted strong enough? Or did the magic need to worm its way in through the wounds?” He pinched his brow. “I will never know, I suspect. Whoever did write The Book was more interested in the means by which the ulfhednar could be killed, than with any sort of history about their magic. Or perhaps it was all secret? That might well be one reason why the ulfhednar are no more? Their shrines are nothing but rot and ruin. Their practises are gone. But, the sorcery still lingers on in a few feral tatters, and Kveldulf’s got it in him.”

Gnissa hoped onto the desk, and fixed Snoro with one of his eyes. “I think you’re wrong. There ought to be a lot more of them then, shouldn’t there? If the magic’s just in the bite, well, then there’d be big, nasty shadow-wolves everywhere, wouldn’t there? I bet Kveldulf’s bitten a hundred people just on his own. He loves biting. It’s probably his favourite hobby. Next time you see him at night poke him with a stick, and see. I bet he’ll bite you. Bite-bite-bite-chew-chew-chew.” Gnissa sighed. “Do you know bird’s can’t chew? We have to eat everything whole.”

“Don’t you ever shut up?”

“Okay, I’ll be quiet.” A pause. “There see, I was quiet. I could hear my heart beating. It was awful. Anyway, what’s your answer, smart-britches?”

“Well, Gnissa,” said Snoro, gritting his teeth, “seeing as you have asked, Gnissa, and I don’t have the energy to throttle you right now, Gnissa, most of the poor folk Kveldulf’s savaged probably never survived. Perhaps the attack has to be at the right time of the year, or day, or night? Perhaps one has to already be a dabbler in sorcery to contract the curse? Perhaps there has to already be magic awakened in one’s blood? Who knows? Kveldulf was certainly using the arts and the runes back in his day. He was hunting dark creatures centuries ago. His name is not unknown to me, though I thought him long dead.” Snoro grinned and all his sharp little teeth glowed as bright as polished pearls in the firelight. “How strange to meet him here and now.”

Gnissa looked up. “She’s here. I hear shoes upon the dirt.”

Snoro craned his head about. The crunch of feet on loose chips of rock was indeed growing steadily louder. “Ahhhh, so finally she arrives.” He got up from his stool and stood, twitching his fingers and grinning and scowling all at once. The door opened and daylight wriggled into the room, followed by a young woman in a heavy cloak. Her dishwater hair was tied up with a scarf, and her chicken-pocked cheeks were sunk into an unhappy mess of lines and shadows.

“Well, well, well,” said Snoro with a brief, knowing smile. “I am most honoured to host a visitor from the Toren Vaunt.” He mocked a bow, but remained seated. “Delighted. Overjoyed. Charmed.”

“Good day, Snoro.” She limped into the cave, crouching a little to avoid the low ceiling. “I am sure you know by now–“

“Yes, yes, yes. Someone has gone and hired a witch-hunter. But this one is not the usual pathetic man with his needles and ropes and perverse ideas. This one knows what he is doing. The Eorl? He is feeling better by now, I expect? Having a curse lifted will that do that to a man.”

“He has shown some small recovery, now that the curse is gone. Yes.”

“How good for him.”

She came a step closer. “I will need a method that is… swifter. Suspicions are growing. I do not want a lingering illness this time. Better to put the fear into all. I have brought silver.”

“Ahhh,” said Snoro, “you forget so quickly? Your coin is no good here. I will have but one payment from you, my pretty.” Snoro slid from his seat and swaggered closer. She was tense, shivering. Though he stood only as high as her shoulder his arms were long and lanky. He easily reached up and undid the clasp at her throat, then ran a sharp fingernails over her neck.

“You are trembling. My bed is warm. The furs will stop those shivers.”

“Not so warm, Snoro, as I recall. And if I hope to forget, then it seems that so do you. For that price we agreed on something more valuable than a simple curse. We agreed that you would teach me more of your arts.”

“And I have.”

“And yet, I would know more, if I am to give you that price again.”

His smile was toothy and slick with saliva. “Very well. Fine. Whatsoever pleases you. After all, it is a pleasure to teach such a willing student.”

Gnissa edged warily along the edge of the desk, watching with his restless eyes. There were many things about creatures with the shapes of men and women that he did not understand, and some that he liked not at all. This was one. Birds were sensible. A bird’s choice of a mate always had something to do with eggs and chicks. And birds got it over with quickly, the final act–after the dancing and fluttering and singing, which was always fun–but the final act for a bird was always just a brief touch of bodies. It wasn’t a matter of pleasure, it was a final step of a timeless dance. Not that Gnissa thought the female took much pleasure in this. He wondered, as he had wondered more than once, if Snoro had made a mistake when he forced this desperate, angry woman into a bad bargain.

Gnissa spread his wings, flapped through the doorway and into the sky before Snoro had time to begin his grunting and sweating.

CHAPTER THE TENTH

The knock at the door was suffocated by thick wood.

Kveldulf opened his eyes long enough to stare at the darkness. It was probably some servant with chores to do. “Come back later.”

“Some greeting.” The voice sighed. “You come to my house and I boil you a nice pot o’ hot tea, I do. But, when I come a-visiting what do I get? Some greeting?”

“Helg?”

“Yes, it is Helg. Who else would have Helg’s voice? Except maybe a magpie? Magpies can mimic voices quite well, but why would a magpie come a-visiting? I s’ppose there might be a reason. Do you know many magpies? “

“The door is unbarred. Come in.”

A wide flush of light spread over the room as Helg opened the door.

“Phew. You like it dark and dank. Ever thought of paying someone to rinse out some of those furs of yours? Probably turn the water brown a league downstream. “She put her load on the floor so that it propped the door open. Kveldulf sat up, newly awake, his head filled with tangled shadows. His mouth was dry and his tongue felt like sharkskin left out in the sun. He looked about for water. Finding his jug, he drank clumsily, dribbling water down his chin, then looked at Helg, and winced a little at the light that silhouetted her.

After giving the room a glance over, Helg settled with a huff and a rustle on top the only stool. “Now,” she said, “Tell me, how are things?” She paused then, looking around more carefully. “You are a creepy one. The things you keep about yourself.” She nodded at the feather hanging from the wall. “I won’t even ask about that. I doubt I’d get anything like an honest answer. Anyway, I hear the Eorl is saved. His sickness is cured. All tidied and dusted. La-de-da, and hoop-de-hooray, and so on.” She waved an old vein-streaked hand in a lazy circle. “You’ll be off soon, then? Looking farther afield for a cure for your own little curse, I s’ppose?”

Kvledulf squinted into the general halo of light as he shook his head. He ran a hand through his unkempt hair. “Yes and no. Part of me wants to forget this strange little place, move on, and then… and then my better nature tells me I owe a little more.” Thoughts darkened his face. “What seemed a simple plot to murder is ravelling into something more tangled. What do you know of the wild spirits who dwell in the woods?”

“Ahhh,” said Helg knowingly, and her one eye glittered, “Lilia.”

“You know.”

“I can guess. That one has the look of the faer-touched all about her. The same look as poets and lovers and the moonstruck. I have wondered awhile. Have you noticed whether she ever carries about an eating knife… ever goes near horses… or if she uses only silver at the table? I’m tempted to give her a gift, something made of cold iron dipped in water of foxglove, just to see what happens.”

Kveldulf nodded. He leaned forward and cradled his head in his hands. He felt as if he had been up all night running madly. But it always felt like this after a full night of dreaming. It was the counterbalance of the dreaming. Sometimes he would end up so tired he wouldn’t get out of bed until after midday. Somewhere deep in his head a small demon seemed to be hacking away with a pick. “A ward against the faer folk,” he muttered. “The mortal metal. I have a knife of iron for hunting midsummer beings.”

“Iron which bleeds rust, and withers, and ages and dies. That which the old ones could never tame. That which reduces their majesty to illusions.”

“Lilia has been trafficking with a spirit of the woods. I have seen him, a tall regal-seeming thing.” He sniffed. “Long fair hair and bright eyes. She called him by a name… Alrhun, I think. Allarun? Aldarun? Do you know him?”

“Yes,” said Helg and she ran her tongue over yellowed teeth. “Alraun, Alraun, Alraun. In the forests hereabouts the wild spirits are mostly a harmless pack of thieves and rascals. The sort of creatures who might scare lonely travellers for laughs or steal cream or turn toadstools into loaves of bread and leave them beside the road for a prank. But, there are a few who are more ambitious, and more dangerous. Alraun? What a preposterous name. He dubbed himself that, I wager. Folk call him the Alder King.” She snuffed and smiled a thin, hollow smile. “And I s’ppose he is as much a king of the elbgasts and wood-geists and wichtlein as their kind ever will tolerate, to tell true… and yet he’s as cruel and petty and nasty as any of them.” She glared at Kveldulf and for a moment an angry memory fought across her face, “Here, let me tell you a tale about so-called Alraun. The so-called all-wise. Once, long ago there was a young midwife. She lived not far from here. She was very beautiful, and much-loved and had not only a great deal of business but several suitors.” Helg discretely drew a pouch from her belt, and began packing a pipe the oily, aromatic leaves. A smell like over-cooked cheese and sweat filled the room. Kveldulf considered asking if he could have a puff of the stuff, but decided that his head wasn’t quite up to it. “You see, her mother had been a midwife of some fame and had taught to her daughter those charms and simples that are needed to ensure easy childbirth.” She looked about and scowled at Kveldulf. “Not even a tray of charcoal in here, is there? Couldn’t go a fetch a cresset from the hall could you? So as I can have a small puff of the pipe?”

Kveldulf nodded and did so.

“Now, where was I? “Ah yes, the midwife. This happened very long ago, and I’ve half-forgotten what she even looked like, so you’ll excuse me if I fumble for details. So. Now. Let me see. It happened that one night, late after dusk, there is an urgent knocking at her door and who should be there but a dark stranger? And in those days strangers hereabouts were rare and dangerous.” She smiled. “I suppose they still are, I dare say. This stranger was odd looking, with an ivory delicacy to his face. His eyes seemed to glimmer as if he had gazed too long at the stars and caught a little of their light in his pupils. He was dressed well enough, almost lordly, and after she says good evening to him, the stranger says, “My wife is with child. She is in the throes of labour. The midwives of my folk tell me she must die for the babe to live. They will cut her open. I have heard of your skills and I ask you to tend to her. I promise you a sack of gold, should you save both babe and mother. Gold and silver if you save only the babe. Silver if you save only the mother.”

Now you may think this seemed odd, and the midwife ought to have been suspicious, but she was young and naïve. She agreed to go with him.” Helg spat out a wraith of smoke. “As soon as she had her bags in hand and her cloak tied about her neck, he led her to a great black horse that was waiting in her yard. It was frightening thing, pawing the ground and rolling its eyes and snorting. But he bade her to mount it behind him. And so she did. And what a ride it was. Like riding all the way to the castle of Old Night and Chaos, through the dark forests, leaping rivers and bounding up hills and galloping through blinding mists. Until at last they came to a small hut woven together from living willows. Shaken, the midwife clambered down and followed her employer into this small house. It held nothing but a strange bed, a great flat stone piled with moss and straw on which there was a woman. She was thin and pale and pretty. But still it was clear to the midwife that the young woman was as mortal as the father was not. In the shadows lurked three crones with unnatural bright eyes. Each of them eagerly fingering a flint knife. That sight made the midwife shudder. So without a second thought she set about her work. In time, with effort–and a little magic–the babe was born, and though the mother was feverish and had lost blood, both babe and mother lived. The old hags skulked off, grumbling to themselves.”

“As soon as the babe had gasped his first breath, the father came out of the shadows, where he had been fretfully watching the whole affair. He gave the midwife a small vial of ointment and told her to rub it in the babe’s eyes. She didn’t think it wise, but he demanded this odd ministering, over and over,” Helg shrugged, “so in the end thinking it both harmless and silly she did as he wanted. But, some of the salve was left on her fingers. And she was tired and worn out. It’s strange to think how a small and unconscious gesture can lead to things. A cough. A twitch. A rubbing of a finger across the eyes when tired.” Helg looked at her pipe, twisting it between finger and thumb. “Once the mother and babe were settled and resting, the father offered to take the midwife home. The ride back was as wild as before. Once home, happy and with the promised payment resting by her hearth the midwife slept a deep, welcome sleep.”

“It was some weeks later that the midwife was about her business when she spied the peculiar stranger again. She was in the village market. The stranger in his finery was going from stall to stall, picking up this, taking that, secreting away a bauble or an apple, and all the villagers apparently none the wiser. She called out to him and he, with a curious look in his eyes, came striding towards her. “You’ve no right to take what you’ve not paid for,” she scolded him. Oh, she was so bold! So righteous! So stupid! He just smiled and asked, as sweet as rich brown honey, “Tell me, midwife, which eye do you see me with?” She wondered at that, but closed one eye and then the other. Much to her shock she found that the stranger was invisible when looked at with one eye, yet visible with the other. “This eye,” She said, and as quick as a ferret he leapt at her, and with a flint knife he gouged out the offending eye. She felt the wet blood cake her face even as she heard his ghostly laughter, peal upon peal of it, vanish away down the road.”

Stiffly, awkwardly Helg stretched her legs out and breathed a deep sigh. The pipe, leaking thin, curling wisps of smoke, lay now forgotten in her lap.

“They found her screaming alone and all bloodied. After that, there was less work for the midwife. The town gossips said she had gone mad and plucked out her own eye. There were no suitors for the disfigured woman with her gaping eye-socket. But, that wasn’t the worst of it. The stupid young woman had been suspicious of the stranger when he asked which was her seeing eye and so she lied to him.” Helg shrank in her shawl, bit her lip and looked down at her knees. “Stupid, stupid girl. He took her other eye, the eye that saw only what mortals were meant to see. She was left with the charmed eye, the one that the faer ointment got caught in. From then on, she could see all things invisible and the deeper meaning of secrets and the hidden things that are in shadows and fires and the flight of birds. In fact, she could see nothing else.” Helg stared at him. “All the time. All the damned time.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Enh…” Helg’s screwed her face into a bewildering pattern of trenches and lines. Her one eye was wet. “Times heals all wounds… so to speak… so they say. The midwife has gone on to a different life, I dare say, and when you get to her age, regrets do nothing but make you miserable. So you just get on with things.”

“And the stranger was Alraun?”

Helg nodded. Gingerly lifting her pipe, she took one careless breath of the smoke, briefly firing the ashes in the cup into a volcanic light.

“Who was the young woman? The one who gave birth to the child?”

“Don’t know.” She drew out the words, “Don’t know. Some mortal lass stolen from her family. A travelling gypsy who took the Alder King’s fancy. Just guesses in the dark. He will have long forgotten that one by now. Such a fickle, fickle creature.”

“Forgotten,” said Kveldulf, “or put aside.”

“How do you mean?”

“Have you met Snoro’s river woman?”

“The nixies?” She frowned in thought. “Now and again. They’ve been in the valley a long time. Long before Snoro came to our little eorldom, if I recall. In the old tales they’re suicides who drown’d ’emselves–just poor lost souls. Why? In winter they are quiet and don’t hardly step from their grotto.”

“Lost souls,” said Kveldulf. “But not suicides.”

“What do you mean? You’re worryin’ me, huntsman.”

“I met Snoro in the woods and he told me a thing or two.” He thought back to the conversation and the night. It seemed to Kveldulf that there was something else worming under the surface. Something he’d forgotten. He suddenly realised that he’d been quiet for a good minute or longer. Helg was staring curiously. He shrugged. “Snoro claims the river woman are mortal girls tortured and changed by Alraun. And there are bones in the woods too. Very old and decayed, but human. One still wore a rotten dress. It seems to me that Lilia is in peril.”

“You surprise me.” Helg laughed. It was a frail old noise but had a twist of hard iron in it. “You act grim and nasty, but you’re not really are you? Goin’ to put an end to Alraun’s ways, eh? Goin’ to stop him taking ‘nother one away to the wild woods? I s’ppose you must have one hell of a nasty life, if you’re always actin’ like a mooncalf hero, chasing off after every stupid quest you find, I s’pose, I s’pose.”

“It’s a living.”

She snorted. “Good luck. Still, if you do get an opportunity to stick it to Alraun… hrumm… I’m not saying that I wouldn’t be interested in having a piece of that…” The pipe was dead now and Helg hid it away in her stained purse.

“What about the child? Alraun’s child.”

Helg pursed her lips and huffed out a noncommittal noise. “The babe grew into a boy, a lad, a young faer man. But I haven’t seen him about in years. He wandered off on his own roads long ago. The faer lords are like roosters. They can tolerate another rooster only so long, even their own spawn.” She was distant for a moment. Thoughtful. “But, here now, I’m forgetting why I came. I’ve been thinking about your problem. One method I forgot about is to try throwing a piece of iron over a hare or wolf that is a man who has changed his skin, then the naked man will appear. They call that ‘making blank’ the witched. The pelt bursts crosswise at its forehead and the mortal steps from the wound, nude as a baby. So it is said.”

He stared at her for a moment with dark, distant eyes.

“I guess if I hunt her down, anything’s worth a try.”

“Her? Ah yes, your lady wolf. The one who is following you.” Helg smiled as if she was enjoying a private joke at his expense. “I hope one day you will learn to master yourself, Kveldulf.”

“I am already my own master.”

She shrugged. “Shall we go and find something to eat then, master-of-thyself? I had only two eggs and a crust of bread this morning. Oh, and a nip of herb brandy, but that doesn’t count, doesn’t at all.”

“I’m not often hungry in the mornings. Perhaps just some wine or a mug of ale for me.” A pain twisted his skull. “Or even just some water with a bit of chicken boiled in it.”

“Not hungry in the mornings? I wonder why ever that could be? Humph. But let us find out what fine fare the Toren Vaunt can offer us.”

“Yes. I should get up anyway. There’re a few people I’d like a quiet word with before the day is out.”

Helg thrummed her agreement. “I’m sure you do. But will they be wanting a word with you?”

-oOo-

The day had crept through a number of hours when Helg left and Kveldulf and Kveldulf was able to make his way to the Rosa’s chambers. He knocked, then stood and waited, tapping time with his foot. He was about to give up and look for Rosa elsewhere when the door finally opened a slit. Through the shadowy light a weak female voice whispered, “She’s sound asleep.”

“Asleep?” Kveldulf had to check himself. “It’s late to be asleep. Or early to go to bed.”

“She’s been up all night fretting about her father, she has.”

“The Lady Rosa asked that I call upon her. Does she often sleep so late?”

The woman was a long time silent before answering. When she spoke, her voice sounded irritated. “She must have changed her mind. Who are we to question the indulgences of the high born, anyways?” A pockmarked face with a brow tattered by an untidy fringe of curls emerged from the dim light.

Kveldulf was about to apologise and ask when would be a better hour to return when he noticed a faint scent of enchantment. Drifting on the air, as subtle as the scent of rain or cobwebs. It was not the gossamer, elfin magic that he noticed in the woods, but a darker, earthier sorcery. It was something akin to Helg’s magic, but bloodier and older. It reminded him of Snoro.

“Yes?” The chambermaid was brisk. She stuck her face a little farther out so that the light in the hall scoured shadows into her pocks. “Well?”

“Hm? Um. Sorry. Just thinking about something else. When will the Lady Rosa be receiving guests?”

“Not tonight, I’ll wager, she’s right tired, she is. Maybe tomorrow morning.” She then spoke abruptly. “Who can say?”

“Yes. Who can say. Thank you.” He threw a slight nod to the maid, before walking off. He didn’t go far. As soon as he heard the door creak shut and the lock snap, Kveldulf stopped and looked over his shoulder. Then he looked around the hallway. He tried two doors before he found one that was unbarred. It was little more than a cupboard, a tiny room for storing pales, blankets, soapwort and mops, but it would do. Kveldulf left the door open a fraction and waited.

There was a fly buzzing lazily around his ears. Kveldulf wasn’t sure where it had come from. He swatted at it without any real determination. Time passed. The fly went away. A few people walked up or down the hall. Kveldulf was beginning to feel tired. A bit foolish. Maybe he had been mistaken? His left leg was cramping up.

And then Rosa’s door creaked open. Kveldulf snapped awake. It was the same maid Kveldulf had spoken with. She looked up and down the hall before stepping out of Lady Rosa’s room and shutting the door. Although the halls were bright, she carried a lit candle. She started limping in his direction. Kveldulf held his breath as he watched her pass.

He waited. When the scuffle-thump-scuffle receded to only a faint sound, Kveldulf edged out of his cupboard. He stretched, cursed the smallness of the space, and then he skulked after her, always a good distance behind. He tracked her by sound and smell alone. The magic was subtle, but just noticeable. To anyone else it would have been the smell of rain on hot clay, or thistle flowers or an Autumn evening. A memory. A recollection. Barely noticed, and then disregarded and forgotten.

He followed the woman though the fortress and then down a dusty servant’s stairwell. They were the sort of spiralling steps that are so impossibly tight and steep that descending them felt more like sliding into the gut of a stone worm than descending plain ordinary stairs. Kveldulf held a firm grip on the hand-rope that was threaded through iron eyelets on the wall. The constant step-scuffle-step of the chambermaid echoed up from below. She was moving slowly. The descent was giving her obvious difficulty.

The stairs passed several doors that presumably would open into cellars and storerooms, before ending at a tunnel that burrowed into solid bedrock. Kveldulf peered around a corner; the woman’s candle threw weird shadows and amber splashes against the walls here. He thought about how the flame looked like a ghost drifting in gloom.

The candle vanished into one of the squat doors that lined the way, there was a sound a little like a well-crank turning, and the light disappeared completely. Kveldulf was left suddenly groping around in the darkness.

He felt his way along until he found the doorway. He could smell the woodlouse, mice droppings and mildew. The air was cold. Kveldulf waved his arms out in front of his face and felt nothing.

He didn’t want to do it. It was uncomfortable. Sometimes painful. But he didn’t see any other way. Closing his eyes, Kveldulf steadied his breathing and reached out with his dreaming thoughts. Doing this while awake was taxing, but he could manage it for a while. He touched the air around him, prodding and teasing, looking here and hunted there. For a moment he thought that it had been too long. Years had passed since he’d last attempted to bring up the dream while awake. And then he found it: the gap between the worlds. The place that hung between the waking world and the dreaming. He let himself slip into it.

To see through the dream’s eyes while in a trance was disorientating. The first time he had done this was an accident, years and years ago. Once at the threshold, the trick was to relax just right way… so that… then you were there…

In the dream.

Everything was cast in shades of red and ochre and brown.

It looked like a disused servant’s room. Kveldulf moved away from his body, now slumped uncomfortably against a wet wall. He could smell his own meat. It stank. The room perhaps once belonged to some cellarkeep, charwoman or ratcatcher. It was now just a ruin of rotten furniture and cobwebs. The woman was nowhere to be seen, but between the far wall and the floor there stirred a faint waft of air.

Kveldulf listened. The dream had good ears. It could hear a mouse in the walls. The halting limp was a resounding stride now, and she was moving away rapidly. He could smell iron and oil; there were hinges buried in the wall of stone.

It was a dizzying, bile-raising feeling to open his eyes and wrench his consciousness back into his living, breathing body. Sharp ice crawled up Kveldulf’s back, and he had to rest on his knees while blood rushed into and then away from his skull.

Finally, he roused himself, and moved forward in the dark, towards the hidden door.

Fumbling in this pitch blindness, he was aware of the thing, following him, unseen but present. It was all too easy to forget it was there most days, but when he used the trance he became suddenly, alertly and painfully aware that the dream was always with him. It was never more than a few paces away while he groped in the darkness.

Hands ran over the false wall, working fingertips between the stones, probing the grooves and cracks, and there… his fingers traced back to something smooth and metal. He pulled at the little flange. Nothing. Then he pushed and heard a sharp click. The wall shifted on well oiled wheels, but still made a series of too-loud clanking sounds. He felt a gust of colder, staler air as a massive door of stone opened.

Kveldulf advanced a step. The walls here dripped with sorcery. Kveldulf felt the back of his neck crawl. Taking another step, trying to make out some detail in the dark, he drew his silver knife.

The chamber ran deep into the bedrock and as it became both narrow and uneven, Kveldulf had trouble feeling his way along. Twice the ceiling unexpectedly dropped low, bruising Kveldulf’s head each time. It was a cramped, hurried, winding tunnel, cut in haste and not for ease of use. As he walked, Kveldulf caught a new sound, a reverberating strain that rolled and lilted and swayed in the darkness. A voice as chanting in a weird and wild tongue.

Soon the air began to grow warmer, then stuffy and sickly with a thin wreath of smoke that stank of juniper and pine resin. All of a sudden there was light. Kveldulf had to stop and squint his eyes, blinking into the firelight glow. One outcrop of stone still stood between him and what must be a great bonfire. On the wall of the tunnel opposite, Kveldulf could see a flare of dancing orange light and shadows. He realised that one shadow among them was being cast by a something solid, a body–only there was no shapeless cloak or dress to it. The shadow was naked and lithe. It swayed as the voice ululated.

Kveldulf crept around the jut of stone. His fingers tightened around the hilt of his knife. Steeling himself, not knowing what to fully expect, he crouched, tensed and leapt, rounding the corner at a run. The room was ablaze with blinding light. A huge bonfire roared in the centre of the room. Most of the smoke was bleeding out through a hole in the ceiling, but a lot of the sooty cloud still clung to the innards of the chamber. The woman was standing between the fire and Kveldulf. She was black and willowy, silhouetted by the flames. She turned to face Kveldulf immediately, her hair flagging around her shoulders For a moment he could have sworn that her eyes glowed with the same heat and ferocity as the fire behind.

“Let go your sorceries,” said Kveldulf. “I warn you just once.”

She paused. All her detail was hidden by the contrast of light and shadow. Kveldulf found it difficult to tell what she might be thinking or if she in fact wore any expression at all.

He could smell it when the magic fell away from her, as the sorcery slid from her body, uncoiling and turning to nothing.

“Robe yourself.”

She crouched down and reached for the heap of wool and linen. But as she rose, skirt draping in front of her, a black shadow before a fire before a blacker darkness behind, her other hand flicked out at Kveldulf. The swirl of magic that danced from her fingertips came too sudden for him to dodge. A charmed wind caught up soot and ashes and twisted them into a spear.

Kveldulf raised a hand to cover his face and staggered back as his eyes stung under the cloud of grit, and his mouth and nose filled with ash. There was a scream from the woman, though Kveldulf couldn’t tell why. Barely able to draw breath, he wildly attacked the air, slashing at nothing, and cursing as a quick, pattering sound of footsteps edged around him and then diminished down the hall. He thought for a moment to trance himself and go after her in a dream-made body, but the pain was too much for him to be able to concentrate. Almost as soon as she was gone, the soot and ash in the room began to settle. The sorcery had not been skilfully woven, it wasn’t able to keep itself alive after its maker was out of the space. It squirmed and died on the air too quickly for Kveldulf to understand in his mind what the spell had been meant to do beside blind him, if anything.

When Kveldulf was finally able to wipe and blink away most of the soot from his face and watering eyes, he stumbled after the woman, down the rough-cut hall and to the black chamber beyond–a pause–the air was a hush–the woman was gone. He swore.

Turning back, he retracted his way to the ashen room, eyes still painful. He looked it over, turning over some ritual objects, picking up tools of the art and discarding them. There was nothing here he could use unfortunately. It would have been too much of a stroke of luck for him to be able to refill his own charmer’s kit. The fire guttered while he searched, and now smouldered rather than blazed; she must have been feeding it with sorcery rather than wood. That was lazy and dangerous. Or maybe just arrogant. Whoever had taught this woman her tricks had not bothered to teach her the perils. The witch-fire could easily have leapt the distance to her flesh and set her on fire too.

He continued to search. Under the thin blanket of soot he found several uneven shapes. Kicking the ash off them, he found a broad, short dagger; a noose stained black with old blood; a crude piece of parchment with a skull drawn on it and words in a language Kveldulf didn’t recognise scribbled around the periphery of the dead face.

Clearing his throat, he spat away some of the taste of charcoal and soot. So it was a death sorcery. And this witch who was weaving a clumsy, hasty death spell had just minutes ago been in the chambers of her Ladyship Rosa.

What did that mean?

Something else in the room gnawed at him too. There was too much disturbance in the ash. He squinted and studied the ground. There were footprints, his, the witches, but also one other set. Something very large with massive paws had entered the room after him, leapt at the woman, then abruptly vanished. Was that the cause of the scream then? Wondering, he looked at the pawprints for a while. When his eyes began to hurt from the strain and the grit he decided he had to go.

Once he was out in the hall, he discovered that the witch had left no footprints at all–more magic it seemed. Kveldulf, meanwhile, tramped a long train of sooty prints through the halls and corridors of the Toren. Having stopped at a barrel of water, his face was now wet and chill, streaked with runnels of grit, but cleaner. He could at least keep his eyes open without feeling the dust swim around his eyeballs. He arrived at the door of Rosa’s chamber and began immediately hammering his fist into the wood. He got no response after eight knocks. On the ninth a pale, round face with clear worried eyes peered around a corner down the hallway. He didn’t recognise her. Some other chambermaid.

Kveldulf was feeling rather tired of chambermaids.

“Good sir?” said the maid, though it didn’t seem that she thought he was either good or a sir.

His reply was a snarl. “Yes?”

She opened her mouth to say something, then bobbed her head and turned and vanished. Kveldulf resumed pounding at the door.

Some minutes later an echo of purposeful footsteps appeared and began moving steadily closer.

“Dear Queen of Brightness. What are you doing?”

The maid had returned, trailing meekly behind a larger, square-shouldered woman. Kveldulf took a moment to recognise Ermengarde. Also accompanying her was a pinch-faced, sneering-lipped man who was presumably a chamberlain, given his clothes and grotesquely heavy chain of keys.

“I am knocking on the door of Lady Rosa.”

“Yes,” said Ermengarde folding her arms, and staring with a practised air of disbelief and acumen. “That is plainly obvious. But why are you knocking on the door of Lady Rosa? And for that matter why are you covered in cobwebs and filth from head to toe?”

“I have been attacked by an assassin. Not an hour ago the same assassin came out of this room.” Kveldulf slammed his fist into the door. The whole thing shook in its arch. “Do you have a key? Otherwise I’m going for an axe.”

Ermengarde considered this a moment. She held out her hand, palm up. “Hefort. The key please.”

The chamberlain fumbled with his jangling ring and unfastened one iron key, then handed it to Ermengarde. “Step back. I shall look in on the Lady Rosa myself. Then, assuming my niece is alright we shall talk, you and I. Hefort, you will say nothing of this to anyone until I tell you otherwise.” She glanced at the chambermaid. “You too Stefi, not a word. Understand?”

They both nodded.

Ermengarde bustled forward, cracked the door only enough for her to enter the room, and then shut it soundly behind her. Kveldulf was left standing in an uncomfortable silence outside. Hefort cleared his throat once, and tried a reluctant smile. Stefi just stood very still chewing on her lower lip, staring at the door.

When Ermengarde appeared she was frowning but in a thoughtful way. She didn’t seem either panicked or upset. “Herfort, stand guard here. I am going to fetch the apothecary. I was hard pressed to rouse Lady Rosa. She seems dizzy or faint or drunk to me. Once I was able to wake her and make her understand the question she told me that no one came or went from her room all day. You, huntsman, walk with me. You too, Stefi.” They began in a direction that would take them to the apothecary’s rooms. “Tell me about this assassin.”

“I don’t know her name, station or rank. She was dressed as a chambermaid, but that may not mean anything except that she knows that people hardly ever glance twice at servants. She had a pocked face and walked with a limp, or at least does when around people. The moment she was sure she was alone, her limp was gone.”

“And what evidence do you have to accuse her?”

“There is a chamber in the underhalls of the fortress. I can show you it. Within, you will find the tools of warlockry that are needed to work a death spell on a person. You have only my word that I surprised her in the midst of the ritual. After all, it could be that any number of persons in this accursed place are working dark magic in your cellars.” He glared at her. “I am beginning to wonder.”

Although Stefi had gone quite pale, Ermengarde was calm and stern. “And you think you could recognise this woman?”

“I can.”

“We’ve dozens of chambermaids in the Toren. And many of them go about their chores like mice in the walls. Unseen. Unnoticed. You’re quite right. No one ever sees a servant. But pockmarks and a limp? That sounds like Merta. Wouldn’t you say, Stefi?”

“Margit, m’lady.”

“Where is Merta now? In the kitchens I think. Yes, I am quite sure of it.”

“Yes, m’lady. Scrubbing the stoves, m’lady. Though, it’s Margit.”

“Did I ask for your interjection, Stefi?”

“No, m’lady.”

“But it is Magirt you say?”

“Yes, m’lady.”

“Fine. Run and fetch the apothecary. The huntsman and I shall proceed to the kitchens.”

With a dutiful, if harried, curtsy, Stefi scurried off through a door to the left. Ermengarde led Kveldulf through a different archway, down two flights of narrow stairs and then into the steaming, mildew-rank air of the kitchens. Blistering air churned out of stoves and fire-pots. The kitchen was a riot of tables piled with food in various states of preparation. Stockpots steamed and from the next room drifted the teasing smell of baking bread. The chief cook, overseeing the making of pastries on one table and cabbage mash on another, looked up with an unpleasant smile and trotted over. “What brings Madame Ermengarde to our little kitchen? Unexpected guests? A special request for the noble table?”

“No. Is Merta here.”

“Margit,” said Kveldulf.

“Margit,” repeated Ermengarde. “Sorry. Too many names.”

The cook shrugged. The fat about his face swung about in loose folds as he did. “Over there.” He gestured.

“And she has been here scrubbing for how long?”

“Well, let me see? Two hours, I would say, at the least. And before that she was mopping the floors and plucking hens.”

Ermengarde turned to Kveldulf. “Well?” she asked.

“It can’t be the same woman if she has been here under the eye of the cook.”

“Still,” said Ermengarde, “best take a look at her face and be sure.”

Half buried headfirst in the innards of a huge, cold iron stove-front the young woman almost as sooty as Kveldulf was scrubbing furiously. Ermengarde stood over her as she said, “Margit. Come out from there and present yourself.

The maid scrambled out backwards and stood up. “M’lady?” she stuttered. “I haven’t done nothing wrong. Honest, if there’s trouble about I’ve nothing to do with it.”

“Hold your tongue and be still,” then, to Kveldulf, “Well?”

Kveldulf stepped closer. He could see that the young woman was trembling. Her eyes were darting about, looking from him to Ermengarde and back again. Her face, her hair, her voice were the perfect match for the witch, but the smell was wrong. She didn’t have the slightest trace of sorcery about her, and after working such witchery she should be stinking of spells. But not just that. It was also her basic smell too, her sweat and the dirt ground into her smock. It was all wrong.

“Have you a sister?” asked Kveldulf.

“Two, sir. Both married away and living in Wenderholme.”

“Wenderholme?”

Ermengarde hummed to herself. “Two days ride to the north. I take it that this is not who we are looking for?”

Kveldulf shook his head. His next words were barely above a whisper. “Though the resemblance is uncanny.”

Margit was wringing the end of her apron. “M’lady? Am I in trouble for somewhat?”

It was Kveldulf who answered. “No.”

“Return to your duties, Merta.”

“Margit,” said Margit, small as a mouse.

They were well out of the kitchens before another word passed between them.

“I’ve never heard of that one causing any trouble. I’d be shocked if she had anything to do with grim arts and murder.”

Kveldulf did not answer. This was troubling. Whoever… whatever… Kveldulf had followed into the depths of the under-caves had been wearing an illusion. But would she, or he, or it, be careless enough to wear the same disguise again? Probably not. Probably the thing was walking about now disguised as someone entirely different.

Ermengarde poked at Kveldulf with her voice. “You mentioned sisters? There may be a cousin or other relation in the Toren. I will pass along some quiet words and have my chief-chambermaids keep an eye out for anything strange. Can you direct me to this chamber in the underhalls?”

“Yes.”

“Now would be best.” When Ermengarde spoke again it was with an almost casual air. “Who really hired you? Not Sigurd. That man is in many ways pleasant and charming, but he is not very bright. He wouldn’t concoct a plan before crossing the room to piss.”

“Madame?”

“Please. Do not take me for a fool. I have many flaws. I am stubborn and harsh, sometimes cold and often ill tempered, but I am certainly not a fool. You don’t hunt deer or swine do you. Who hired you?”

“You must be mistaken.”

“Must I? Well, have it your way then. But, I should thank you in future not to go stirring up fear and rumours. If you’ve suspicions, come to me first. We might have resolved this far more quietly. Now tongues will be wagging before dusk. No matter what Hefort said, the man is a terrible gossip, worse that a washerwife with three heads and five tongues.” She looked at him with an unfriendly, professional eye. “What will you do now?”

“Wait. Bide my time. The assassin will show herself again.”

“Good luck.”

Kveldulf walked by himself for a while in the gloomy halls. Grit and ash still stung the inside corners of his eyes where the tear ducts were trying to wash themselves out. He found his way back to his room, thinking of a bowl or water, or possibly even a few minutes in the icy stream below the castle.

He walked inside, looked about for a bowl and had a terrible streak of pain tear down his back. Claws, cold and hairy grappled his face. There was a snickering laughter in the air as his head was pounded into the stone. Kveldulf bucked, kicked and threw the thing off his back. He got up and drew both his iron dagger and his silver, not knowing what to expect.

The thing that was clinging to the wall looked like a nightmarish child, eyes of narrow moonlight, teeth of sharpened flint, its ears ran up to a point and its body was scraggly and elfin. It launched itself at Kveldulf again, shrieking.

Kveldulf dropped his silver knife and caught the faer creature by the throat. They struggling and screamed and spat. The creature pressed close, and with a voice of storms and hail on water said, “King Alraun, bids you leave his realm. Now. Forever. Every day you dally another of us will come for you. And we shall be worse and worse, nightmare piled upon nightmare.”

Kveldulf said nothing. He managed to free his right hand from the creature’s grip, and thrust the dagger, twisting the iron blade into the faer-thing. It screamed. Silver blood poured out and evaporated into a choking mist. Suddenly Kveldulf was holding nothing but air. It was dead.

At that moment the door swung open.

It was Ermengarde. There were three or four frightened faces behind her.

Kveldulf was alone in the room, covered in his own blood, fog wreathing his feet, his skin torn and scratched. He had a dagger in each hand, and, no doubt, a manic look on his face too. He took a moment to catch his breath.

He stood up and squared his shoulders as he put away his knifes.

“I’m going for a wash in the stream.” He picked up a rag to use as a towel, stepped around the speechless Ermengarde and servants. “And then after that I’m going to have a long chat with someone.”

He was halfway down the corridor before they started whispering.

CHAPTER THE ELEVENTH

Wind from the west battered her face. The black clouds that had covered everything for the last few days were gone and a pale dome of grey overarched the world, pocked with stars.

Lilia stood with her back up against the willow, her willow. She let her fingertips trail over rough bark. With eyes part-shut she listened to the wind hushing through the branches. She remembered. His touch. His laugh. His eyes full of life. An evening spent in idleness. But she’d had to return. She always had to come back, eventually. A few hours snatched. A small time in happiness.

A long, languid patchwork of black and white meandered into view.

“Hello, Piebald,” said Lilia as she widened her eyelids and gazed down at the cat. “Does Ermengarde know you are out stalking the gardens and walls so late?” She crouched down, smiling as the cat let her scratch his chin. “You know,” said Lilia, “I am not sure I will be living in the Toren much longer. So you will have the garden all to yourself soon. How would you like that?”

Piebald purred and bunted his head into her, then dragged the length of his body against her knee.

“I miss him you know. Already. It’s a strange feeling. It can be painful, almost tormenting, and it does not pass until I see him again. He is always with me.” She ran a hand along Piebald’s hard spine and stroked his tail. “I used to think it was the pain of love. Perhaps it is, but it is more beautiful than that. And I think more powerful too.” With a shrug she gave up trying to explain it to the cat. “Don’t worry,” she said, “no one else understands either. At least you don’t pretend to… or look worried, or mistrustful, scared.”

The cat lounged to the ground and rolled onto his back, letting Lilia tickle his chin and the tufted soft fur of his belly. He closed his eyes slowly, indolently, and purred louder.

For a while Lilia was happy.

Quite suddenly Piebald tensed all over. His tail curled at the tip and he pricked his ears. Rolling over and looking about he hissed in alarm and with fur now on end and tail all bushy he shot from the garden up and over the brick wall. He paused on top of the wall. His sharp little teeth were bright in the starlight, before vanishing over the wall.

Lilia stood up, her heart suddenly racing. She looked about the garden and then her eyes flickered to the door. There was a shadow there.

“We have not been properly introduced.” The voice was rough and harsh, and as he stepped into the light she could see, so too was he. A tall man with a close-cut, but grizzled beard. His eyes had small lines about them and looked older than the rest of his face. He wore a doeskin cloak and had hunter’s knives at his belt, but this uncouth, unkind, savage sort of man sketched a bow. “I am Kveldulf son of Kaldulf.”

Lilia turned to him slowly and edged uneasily a step away, until she was half-hidden by the willow. “I have noticed you in Rosa’s company, and talking to her pet thane. That blonde one with the smile fixed always so idiotically on his face. You know me already, no doubt.”

“Lilia. Daughter of the Eorl Fainvant.”

She nodded. His stare was so careful, as if those deep eyes were hunting for something. “As long as we are talking about company kept, I mean to warn you about your choices in the area.”

For a moment confused, Lilia knotted her brow, glanced at the leaf-strewn ground and then raised her eyes to him. She understood. Her voice, for a moment tremulous, dipped into anger. “So Rosa has a new pet then?”

“I’m not here to discuss your sister.”

“What did she tell you to do to me? Are you to just threaten me? Or worse? Will she laugh and smile when you tell her what you did, detail for detail.”

“No. This is my business, not hers.”

Lilia stalked around the tree like a white shadow, an omen presaging death. “You lie.”

“I do not lie. I am too simple and too plain-speaking. You are in danger, and it is not just your life you have to lose. Other less tangible things can be taken from you.”

“So you do threaten me?”

His voice was edging into frustration. “I am doing my best to warn you.”

“The same.”

“I won’t stand here bickering with you. Take my advice or leave it. It’s all much the same to me.”

“Oh how very chivalrous of you. How wonderfully paladin. I must seem a small slip of a thing for you to threaten me with such disregard. Everyone thinks that. Everyone knows Lilia is nothing. Small. Hopeless. Helpless.” Her voice was thick with venom now, and it gave her a perverse pleasure to make herself even more malign. “Get away from me. Take your threats back to Rosa, and when she has the courage to command you to take out those knives of yours, then come back. Then see if I am such a desperate, floundering weakling.”

He did not move but stared at her so long that she began to shiver. Darker, more scalding words simmered up in her mind.

“Alraun is dangerous. Forsake him.”

Feeling pale and shaken now, she said, “Get away from me.”

“Well, I tried,” said Kveldulf to no one in particular. But before he turned his back and was gone he added one last thing. “Once you understand the meaning of my warning you can come to me. I will help you as far as I can. That, I promise.”

And she was alone.

Lilia was trembling. She leaned against the willow and her face became wet. She shook, embarrassed, angry, frustrated.

Eventually her tears ebbed to sniffles and something soft touched her leg.

“Piebald,” she whispered, “you came back. He scared you didn’t he?” and she picked up the fat, black and white cat. “What has happened to me? When did the house of my birth become something so hateful and hated?” She cradled Piebald and scratched him around the chin. “I don’t suppose you understand,” and breathed a sigh, “Perhaps,” she said, thinking immediately of the sweet, memoryless, senseless pleasure of him, “perhaps I shall go for a walk tomorrow.” She shook her head. “But not in the morning. It is too soon. I should spend some time in the fortress. An hour or two with father, perhaps. But I have barely been back in the Toren really, and yet has anyone missed me?” She sighed, knowing even as she argued with herself that the decision was made.

“I should choose a dress. Something pretty. It wouldn’t do for him to see me in the same old dress I wore today, would it?”

Piebald purred.

BEFORE THE VELD

That night, Kevldulf locked his small inn room, and took the feather out of the wood case. The air was charged with a woodsy, sweet smell from the box. There was a small chain in the box too, and a eyelet at the pinion end of the feather where the chain could hook through and make a sort of necklet of it.

The feather was warm in his hands, and it gave off a faint light. Kveldulf had no illusions about his place in the cosmic dance of the Sister Queens of the Sun and the Night. His blood was of the north, of the shadow-lands, of the darkness. No radiant being would want Kveldulf in any sort of blessed host. But, the she-wolf was also a creature of the benighted northlands, and she might well feel an instinctive fear of such a potent bit of corpora, taken from a sacral spirit.

He drew the symbols in chalk, arranged the stones and hung the feather over the head of his bed.

That night he rested easily, dreamed easily and was not woken. His chalk and rune charm had more strength in it than he had ever been able to put into it before.

He woke rested, head clear. Birds were singing outside his window, and he opened the shutters. How many years had passed since he last rose early enough to hear the dawn chorus? A hundred years? Two hundred? He had lost count of the summers and winters of his unnatural longevity.

That morning, Kveldulf returned to Auxentios’s house to return the feather.

As he listened to the birdsong, as he watched the dawn rise, he realised that he could not in good conscience keep the feather. The object ought to be in a temple somewhere, or passed quietly about the streets and hovels of this city, curing ills and blindnesses. It felt like avarice to keep it all for himself.

He would find some other way forward. There had to be some other way.

Perhaps, he thought, Auxentios might have thought of something overnight even.

But when Kveldulf entered the ruined building, he found it in disarray, even more than the day before. Bookshelves were toppled, and there were raking claw marks on the floor. He found Auxentios in a pool of his drying out blood at the far end of the room, dragged bodily from the small cot he evidentially slept in, and torn, gutted.

There was a smell of honey, and strange spices and lavender in the air above the corpse.

Kveldulf knelt down beside Auxentios, and moved his fingers to close to old sage’s eyes. “Well,” he said, “I suppose she was following me more closely than usual.” Although he had seen so much death in his life, this sight, the old man strung out and savaged like an old starved deer in the woods attacked by a pack, this still stung him inside.

He knelt beside the dead man and closed his eyes, considering what to do.

Leave.

Go far away.

Enough is enough. He would leave the cities and the towns, the fields and the villages, and walk north. Eventually, he would be able to find somewhere remote and wild. Perhaps if there were no prey for her to hunt, she would grow bored and leave him alone. Perhaps. It was a small hope, but all he had.

CHAPTER THE TWELFTH

Wrapped in cloak that was warm and heavy and cloudy along the trim with fur, Lilia wove a path through the woods. A cold wind coughed and wheezed through treetops. Ranks of bleak clouds blackened the west.

“Good day, mistress.”

Looking up from her reverie, Lilia tensed, then scanned the woods: nothing but numberless trees and grey light.

“I say again, good day.”

And there she saw him. Hidden amongst a tangle of holly, all in shadow, two eyes like polished beads of jet.

“And good day to you.”

A scuffle came from the undergrowth and a face peered out that might have been carved from the sort of lignin-tough mushrooms that grow on old oaks. His hair, if it could be called that, was a mass of thorny, twisting leaves.

“Lord Alraun awaits you.”

“He does.” Her thoughts brightened. The stormy air seemed suddenly lighter. “So he does. And yet… I think I would like to walk alone a while. Tell him I shall meet him soon. At his wild court. I will meet him there.”

“To walk alone. To think. To wonder. To dream,” said the small voice, its rounded tone like water rushing over pebbles. “They all do. They all take to silent wanderings in the gentle places once his touch goes deep.” The voice grew mischievous. “Those Alraun has loved.”

She caught the implication and threw it back. “He has lived a long roll of years. I do not hold his past against him.”

“More than that. He still has others.”

Lilia turned her chin up and glared. “Nonsense. Where are his others then?” In her experience the smaller spirits of the forest enjoyed capricious lies.

“Ah,” said the creature with a blink of those dark glassy eyes. “About. Hither and thither. Everywhere if you know where to look. Or how to.”

“Nasty cretin,” said Lilia and then was silent for a while before saying with mock gravity, “Go then. Tell Alraun to hide his others, for I will be joining him shortly.”

“As you wish,” and there was a passing rustle in the underwood, not as if something were moving through it but rather as if the ferns and gorse had come briefly to life.

She walked for a while in circles alone just to spite Alraun a little. Let him wait, she thought. She would go to him in her own time. Eventually, of course, the irritation subsided and her boredom grew, as well as her sense of longing. She turned towards the place in the woods where she knew Alraun kept his faer court.

As she stepped through the stand of beeches that enclosed Alraun’s court, Lilia found a strange sight. Not only did the Alder King slouch in his weather-bitten stone chair in an uncharacteristically tired, thoughtful pose, but he was surrounded by others of his kind. Many others. Far more than Lilia had ever seen together in one place. The others were neither as tall nor quite as regal as Alraun, but they still possessed some of his elder menace, grace and beauty. In among the usual grotesque dancers and jesters Lilia was accustomed to, it appeared that there was a formal gathering. It looked to her as if Alraun had called all his lords and ladies, dukes, duchesses, knights and champions. Many eyes turned to look at her.

The mood of the place stitched an icy needle into her gut.

As soon as his bright, gold-flecked eyes meet hers, he smiled a fraction, and dismissed his court with a subtle wave of the hand. For a moment, the courtiers milled and the focus of their proud, cruel eyes was wholly fixed on Lilia. Then, with smooth bows the faer creatures ghosted away, to fade amongst the shadows of the wood.

“Lilia.” Though Alraun smiled, she thought she sensed something of a strained note in his voice. “You come late, and now arrive at a difficult time. I sent for you hours ago.”

“I was delayed.” She felt self-conscious. “I am sorry, Lord Alraun.”

“Hm. If you had been here an hour ago I would have been merry with music. But, I have since learned that a messenger of mine has been murdered by a dark sorcerer, or so we guess. My servant was sent to deliver some advice, and has not returned. The sorcerer makes himself at home in your house of stone and towers, this killer. I am saddened, and my children are worried.”

“Who?” said Lilia, “who would… who could do such a thing?”

“His name is Kveldulf, and he is not what he appears. Avoid him, my beautiful. Should he speak to you, do not heed his poisonous tongue, and beware his subtle lies.”

“Kveldulf,” she murmured, “I have already spoken with him. A warlock is he? I would not have thought my sister so brazen.” She paused. “I could order him away, or have my father’s guards chain him hand and foot and throw him in a deep hole beneath the fortress. Rosa would protest but I am the elder sister. Soon enough I shall be Mistress of all the Veld and ruler over the Toren Vaunt. Everyone knows that, even her.”

The smile he wore was both angry and amused. Rising from the throne and then gliding forward on long, gentle steps, he stroked her hair and spoke with a lulling voice. “No dear, sweet Lilia. No bars, nor chains, nor proud men of war could hold this warlock. You would risk your lovely neck to try it. Let him believe himself undiscovered for now, and I will see what I may do about him.” In the shadow of the ruined court she leaned into him, let him caress her neck with gentle fingers, let him hold her. “Lilia…” his voice was faraway, “perhaps… There is another thought that has been playing in my mind. A matter you must settle. Would you still have what you once asked for, if it might be possible? What if I could bring my kingdom to marry yours, and I could make you not merely my lover, but my wife? Say it, and it might be.” He breathed a warm sigh. “I have put the notion to my courtiers, and it is currently being discussed.”

Lilia pulled her head back a little and gave him an uncertain look. His words had more the tone of a consideration spoken aloud, than a proposition for her benefit. “I do not think I understand.”

“So many times, when we were alone in your garden you wished for me and mine to come to you,” his eyes shone with an inner fire. “That I might fill your fortress with my magic and throng the great hall with bright-eyed spirits and grow glamour over every stone, thick as ivy. So that mortals everywhere will hear of the Veld and tremble to know that it is a land ruled by a enchantress-queen and her one master.”

“I…” she could not think of anything to answer with, “I… no… I don’t want to stay in the Toren Vaunt–not for much longer. I need only a little more time now. Father is very weak. It’s just–that is–I cannot leave him. The hour father dies, I shall leave. You have my word. I’ll have nothing more to do with the place. I will come into your realm.”

“A moment ago you said that you were going to soon be the Lady of the Veld, and I think there was more than a small note of anticipation in that. Do you really want to leave the Veld?” He was scrutinising her, looking for her reaction.

She shut her eyes and looked down. “Just wait a little longer.”

“Wait.” He spoke in a flat, dead voice. “I am eternal, but even the eternal have an end to their patience. Wait. Wait. Wait. That is all you ever ask of me, and I am growing bored of it.”

“I will come to you.”

“Why do you deny my kingship of this land out of hand?” There was suspicion in his voice now. “Why should I not rule faer and mortal alike? Who is more rightful in this land than the ancient inhabitants who first ruled here?” He squinted. “Do not turn your face away from me. You are not telling me the whole of your thoughts.”

“I didn’t really think you would want to take the whole of the Veld. I was joking, dreaming. Please, put the thought out of your mind.”

“I am afraid.”

After a long lingering stillness he said,”Afraid? Why? The magic I would bring to your little stone hovel would suffuse the blood of your folk.” He shrugged. “What is there to fear in joy eternal?”

“I am not a fool, Lord Alraun. I have looked into the eyes of your servants and folk. I know that no free will flickers there. You would not rule a kingdom. You would rule a puppet-show.”

“But you would give yourself to me?”

“I can make that choice.” She pushed herself a little bit away from him. A gap of uncomfortableness appeared between them. “What if I do want to give away my decisions and responsibilities? What if I want to just be happy and let someone else rule me? I don’t see anything wrong in that, but–“

“But?”

“But I do see something wrong in forcing that on people who never made that choice. Making people into dancers for you to command and master on whim. I cannot allow it.”

“Really? You. Cannot. Allow. It.” He reined in some of the anger fuming behind his calm expression. “Your mortal folk, they would live in a world untroubled by pain or worry. Would you deny your subjects that?”

“When they must give up their own free self for the price, yes.” It was the gleam in his eyes that disturbed her. She added. “What would they become under your rule? Honestly?”

It did not seem that he understood. When he waved a hand about he did it casually. “Well, look about, Lady Lilia, my love.” At the edges of the ruined court the trees blinked with liquid eyes. “They would become my subjects. Many of those you look at were once mortal. In a manner of thinking, we all were once. Even me.”

Lilia felt a scuttle of fear crawl up her spine then. She had never thought he would really want to seize the whole of the valley. She looked around. These creeping shadows were once human. She had suspected that some of them might have been, but so many? All or nearly all? Were they netted souls given some misty form, or flesh withered by magic to a bloodless shadow? She forced a smile and put a hand on Alraun’s arm. “It was silly. A mere whim. I was upset.”

“Speak not of mere whims. Mine is a kingship of whim. Am I not good to the good, and evil to the evil? Do the cottage-maids not both loathe and love me? Do I not protect and hunt the wild beasts? Am I not the very caprice of nature?” He moved closer, brushed his fingers along her brow, and let his hand caress the bare skin of her neck. “Let us cast open the boundaries of this, my realm.” He stepped back violently and threw his hand to encompass the court and woods beyond, “This, My dark and dreaming wood: let it be a realm to encompass all, invite all, and seduce them. Oh, Lady Lilia. Do not think I am upset with you. I understand. You are mortal. Mortals are made of fear. But soon, I will extend my rule a dark and dreaming fortress too, and a whole realm of mortal souls to dance in my midnight revels. I have decided it. The argument is over.”

“We,” said Lilia. “Don’t you mean to say, soon we might rule…”

He stared at her, coolly, silently.

She wavered a moment, hesitant. When she managed words it was simply to say, “You are frightening me.”

His eyes were bright with an unnatural light. “Think of it. Think of what you might become. Yes, I had my plans for you.” His voice trailed away to softness. “But now I see you are worthy of so much more. When was the last time anyone, mortal or faer-folk dared to argue with me.” He considered her. “You are something much greater than you pretend to be. And I think you could be greater still.”

She took a step back, even as he reached out for her. “Alraun. I think that–“

“No,” he said, “do not think… see.” and his eyes flashed like the last light of a sinking sun.

She stepped from the forest, a presence, a young woman in silvery satins, stitched with glittering frost. Her hair was not a lacklustre off-brown, but a rich honeyed gold, and shone so brightly. Her face was so very pale that she had something of the look of a beautiful, romantic ghost. Indeed, a wraith she might have been, were it not for her eyes. Those eyes betrayed bright, powerful life.

“She is beautiful,” said Lilia, though she found it hard to look at the vision without letting tears wet her eyes.

He was near her now, and circling around behind her, tailing fingertips against her throat. She could smell his scent as he whispered in her ear; she could feel the warmth of his breath. “She is what you have the power to be,” and the apparition dissolved and blew away like so much mist.

“No… bring her back.” Lilia stopped herself short when she realised that she sounded like a spoilt child.

“Give me your hand and the seat by your throne, and I will bring her back. Forever.”

Through trembling lips she tried to speak, but managed only a vague murmur.

“Beauty Lilia… youth and beauty. Your face, now so pale, so pretty, is already touched by the first faint line of age. How long before your face turns old and haggard? How many years do you have left before your hair will be as thin and grey as smoke? Your sweet voice will someday be a rasping wheeze to frighten babes. Your whole body will wither away.”

There was a tear against one of her cheeks now. “I need time to think.”

“Time? Time? Time is your enemy, not your friend. All mortals think they want more time, but time kills your folk. More time will only kill you faster. Have I not given you time enough? Have I not been patient with you, as I have been with no other? Why do you deny me now, at this threshold?”

She looked at him, in all his majesty towering over her, and felt his presence. She drank the sight and smell of him, and considered it. For the first time she wondered if she had fallen in love with an illusion. Only then did she speak. Her voice was low but steady. “There were others. The spright wasn’t lying. How many, Alraun? How many have you had over the years? How many do you still keep somewhere, secret from me?”

He was distracted. “How many?”

“You mentioned others.”

“You have always known. You just did not want to ask.”

“Did you make them the same promises? Where are those promises now?”

“You treat me unfairly, Lilia. I have treasured you above any of my dalliances. I have made promises to you that I never laid before any other. You are more than any of them.” He brushed away the tear on her cheek, “You will be so much more than all of them.”

“Where are they then? What did you do with them?”

His eyes narrowed into thin slits of rose and gold. “Very well, I shall indulge you once more, my beauty, though you try me.” He turned and his cloak of otherworldly cloth swirled about him like the clouds in the winter sky. As he strode away from, the court in the woods bowed to him. The trees rustled and moved aside for him. A path cleared. “Well?” he called back to her, “Do you follow me or frustrate me again? You have such changeful moods. Sometimes, I think you would make a better lord of the wild things than me.”

“I will follow.” And she did, though under her breath she said to herself, “for now.”

-oOo-

They stood together at the edge of a deep pool, the water tinted black by the shadows of a ferny grotto.

“There,” said the Aldar King, pointing one firm finger at the water. “Look and know what has become of the others.”

Lilia thought for a moment that he meant that he had drowned them. “I do not understand.” As she said this Lilia caught the gleam of something moving deep in the pool. Something sinuous and pale that rose to the surface. She stared at it, and then saw other shapes. When she realised what she was looking at her blood turned icy. Her fingers itched and burned.

They burst up through the water, in showers of glittering water. Their limbs were long and nymphet, their skin white, their eyes cold and flashing. They made no sound, but wore expressions that were at once sad and hungry.

“They’re beautiful,” she whispered, as the sleek, silvery women rose from the water.

“They greet their master,” whispered Alraun in her ear, “I am the only being who can touch them. Any other who goes into their arms embraces only death.” He moved behind her, and whispered in the other ear. “For they hunger for warmth, they are cold as ice and forever so. And forever mine. In summer I let them out to wander in the woods and serve me in my leafy bed.”

“They look so sad.” As she spoke, one of the lost souls reached out with her thin graceful fingers, and came very close to touching Lilia’s face. Alraun’s arm caught her shoulders and drew her back from the pool’s edge. “Be wary, my beauty. For if you should slip then they would take you deep into the pool. They would tear off your clothes and run their cold hands over your naked body, stealing your warmth. Eventually you would realise they had not stripped off your clothes at all, but your flesh. I would have to lift your lifeless bones out of the water and bury them in the circle of dancing stones. The old priests used to make sacrifice to me there.” He let out a soft, silvery peel of laughter. “I have to leave my own sacrifices, now that the priests are gone. And though I treasure you, I would have to treat you equally after you fell, or my other beauties would be jealous. I would have to educate you in the manner in which it is fit to serve a king. I promise, you would beg me to educate you further.” His strong grip tightened a little about her shoulders. “You are in a precarious place to stand, my beauty, dear Lilia. Be very, very careful.”

She strained to move back from the pool, twisted and buried her head in his cloak. She had had enough of looking at the terrible, beautiful creatures in the water. “Why did you show me this?”

“Because you asked me to. How am I ever to please you?” He breathed a sigh. “Still, let us not waste the moments we have. We can return to my court at once. I will summon those playful, joking sprights who you love to laugh at.” His brow darkened. “And I need to confer further with my retainers and knights on the matter of the dark sorcerer too. He troubles us, and must be dealt with.”

Lilia forced her gaze to the pool and wondered who the dancing, writhing creatures had once been. What were their names? Did they remember their lives?

“Yes,” said Lilia at last, “that would be–” and her voice slackened into a single whispered word.

“I did not hear you, my beauty.”

“No. I said, no.”

“Then where will you go?”

“Home.”

“Back to that old grey ugliness of stone where the people despise you and laugh behind your back? That place you hate?”

“Yes.”

“You intrigue me. You frustrate me. You make me wonder. There is no spright in my court so changeful as you.”

With a violent flail of her arms she tore away from his hold and broke away from the edge of the pool. Falling, slipping and leaning against the rough bark of an old, hoary oak she stared up at him. “I do not know you.”

“Now you speak riddles. Of course you know me, as a lover knows a lover.”

“What are you beneath all your magic?”

“I am the king of all the wild things. I am wonder. I am joy. I am majesty. I am the beautiful, wonderful sense of peace that comes from never having to make any choices ever again.” He moved towards her. She scrambled back, away from him, further away from that pool. “No, you are none of those things. You are small and ugly and petty and a hundred other evil things I can not think of right now.”

His expression froze. “You wound me to the heart.”

“Go away, and do not come to me again. Ever.”

At that he laughed. Peel upon peel of his musical laughter shook the trees. “You would forsake me? I think not.”

“I will. No,” she said, “I think in my heart, I already have.”

“Have you indeed?” and now his eyes burned dully. “Then I take back all the gifts I gave to you.” His eyes flared with light. The shawm, which she always carried with her, gave off a strange noise, plaintive and pained, as if it had been alive and someone had stuck a dagger through it. “Though because I am a forgiving king I will leave you with one last promise. When your need for me gnaws at you, for certainly it shall, when next you are sobbing alone, for certainly you will, remember this: should you but call my name I will take you back and you shall be glad of it. That, I avow. There is no promise more kind.”

He turned his back and vanished into the woods, laughing as he faded into the shadows. The sound of it rang in Lilia’s ears, and laced into her mind, into her very soul. She stumbled to the lip of the pool again, and standing there, stared a long time at the pitiable, distant creatures who now huddled in the water.

“I am sorry,” she said not knowing if they could hear her, or if they cared. “I do not think there is any way to free you. I am sorry.”

-oOo-

He did not go very far into the woods. Instead, he let himself vanish from mortal eye, so that he could stand in the shadows, watching her. She took a long time to stare at his beauties in the water. She cried.

The shadows were lengthening and the moon rising, a ghostly spectre sailing far above the forest canopy, when she finally turned, and walked away.

When she was a distant rustle moving away through the trees, Alraun returned to the pool himself. It was black and still, but soon a light began to grow in the depths. Gleams like the vague ghosts of stars grew, then swelled, until they turned a livid, unearthly shade of blue and formed into bodies. Long, thin, sinuous as willows, and as beautiful.

“My beauties.”

They arose from the water, wetness dripping from their naked skin and long grey-blue hair. They did not speak but laughed, and their laughter was like a brook tumbling over ice.

“It been so long. I had forgotten you a little…” And he drew his silken cloak about his shoulders until it seemed he was a half-carved statue of rippled, folded marble.

Reaching up to him with long fingers one brushed his cloak and then, with a suppressed giggle, drifted back among her sisters.

“Dream of summer, my lovelies. Dream of the season when you will again walk the woods, and be mine to love. Dream of when you may make a languor of yourselves in my court. When again the warmth will fill you.” Letting his cloak fall open he reached out and traced his fingers over the face of the nearest of them. “Only for me.” He was silent for a while. “Until then… until then, I have another to grace my side.”

“So they were mortal once?”

Throwing his arms back he looked suddenly up, and his cloak swirled like the wings of a startled owl. With blazing eyes he searched the darkness, and all the ondine crowded below him, unable to leave the water, their wordless voices murmuring fear.

“I can see it in their eyes.” It seemed that it was the night who spoke. The voice tumbled out of the shadows. “There are mortal souls there in the colour of their eyes, and yet they have been changed. A change that is reflected in those same pupils.”

“Show yourself. Or I will summon every weird spirit in my realm to tear your from the shadows.”

Across the bank, among the ferns a hunched shadow moved. It had eyes like two small angry coals.

Alraun’s smiled.  “A fellow dream. How long have you been lingering here?”

“A while.”

“And so, tell me, dream in shadow’s clothing, what right have you to press company upon the lord of all which is green and wild in this fair land?”

“Lord?” said the shadow. “Lord? I know you for what you are, Lord. Illusion. Glamour. Nothing. I have met other ‘kings’ and ‘queens’ of your kind. Every one of them thinks they are the one true master of all the faer. And you? What are you? You are a swirl of colour and noise, at the heart of which lies a pit so deep it leads to oblivion.”

“Watch your tongue, little dream.”

The voice now lowered until the syllables were not so much spoken as growled. “I know you in all your names. Faer. Fay. Feerie folk. Fata regaliarum. Waldgeist. Ghost of the Wilds. But at the heart of it all? Beneath all those names? You are an illusion concealing a small, ugly nothing.”

“Who sent you? What great monarch or old power of the earth has commanded you to annoy me?”

“None.”

“Then be gone. I have no need of one more wolf in my woods.”

“Not before I deliver a small message to you. A message for a message. It seems fair, only I do my own talking. Quit your meddling in the affairs of mortals. Forget Lilia. Leave her be, and go back to your deep woods, and mists and illusions. Content yourself with the souls you have already stolen.”

He raised himself taller, prouder. He would not let himself be anything less than the very shape of majesty before this… this… thing.

“Be gone.”

“No.”

The shadow leapt. Its great, coiled muscles heaved with surprising speed. The ondines screamed in thin, wordless voices, and vanished into their pool. Alraun staggered back, weaved and moved away from the water’s edge. The shadow lighted on the ground with casual ease. It bore around, snarling through teeth like jagged shards of moonlight.

Alraun’s hand went for the obsidian dirk he kept always at his belt, and the black blade licked out and cut the air. Circling, leaping and dodging, they moved like savage dancers. The dagger drew a thin line of blood from the wolf-wight, but even as the dark crimson appeared it blackened, and the wound healed.

For the first time in an age, for as long as Alraun could recall, he felt a flush of trepidation. There was magic here that was older and stranger than he had assumed. While losing none of his grace, the king of woods and wilds gave ground, and used the knife that could cut a hair in two to guard himself from a shadow that would not be cut.

“What are you?” He stared through level, slit eyes. “What are you?”

The shadow-thing shook his head and blinked his coal-harsh eyes. The question seemed to rankle it. It held a moment, silent, before prowling closer and replying, “I am a dream. Like you.”

“No,” said Alraun, and after a silence in which they eyed one another, “there is more to you. You are like my beauties I think. Like myself even, aeons and aeons ago. You were once mortal, but now? What are you now?”

Angered, the creature leapt again–its slaver flecked Alraun’s cloak as he barely moved out of its way.

There were eyes appearing in the trees, small blinking eyes, and slits of fire and great orange orbs for seeing in the dark. Narrow eyes. Bright eyes. Watchful eyes. And all of them were fixed on the two creatures circling: one a monster of tooth and claw, and the other possessing the halting grace and dignity of a stag.

The thousand eyes stirred and their voices rose in a restless whisper. As the wolf leapt once more, Alraun fell back and spoke, his breath haggard and hissing. “Enough.” He lowered his knife and said, “My children, my subjects, my fellow creatures of woods and waters wild, have now your revenge on the forest prowler.”

And from every scrubby bush, from every leafy branch, in every dark hollow beneath roots the eyes all blinked together, in synchronistic motion, at once, and then filled with flame. They crept forward, and flitted from the trees, the multitudes of the forest. Their wild forms were full of sharp angles and ferret-quick teeth and badger-sharp claws. The swarm flew at the feral dream, clinging, pulling, biting and pinching. The wretched creature thrashed about, its shaggy hair caught by a hundred small clinging fingers.

Alraun watched with a paternal pleasure.

“I asked you before. I put it to you again. Who are you to threaten the king of the weird realm? Who are you to command me? You understand nothing of me. I would take Lilia to be my paramour, to dwell forever in the lands of midsummer twilight. She would know not of age, nor of death. She would wet her lips on my wine, and sate her hunger on the sweetest of my fruits, and dance with the fireflies under the moonlit sky, forever. Who are you to lurk at the gates of paradise and growl insults?”

The shadow-thing struggled, caught an enraged polecat in its mouth, and snapped it completely in two. The rest of the horde broke off and backed away a little. They were rethinking their attack. “And if she will not give herself to your realm? I was watching, Lord of Beetles and Sparrows. I saw her deny you. She doesn’t want you any move, King of Earthworms. Let her be.” Silvery moonlit blood dripped from his jaws as he spoke.

“She will come back to me. And then I shall bring my realm to hers. No one, not you or her shall deny me that.” His voice broke suddenly into silvery laughter. “She dreamed of it herself, and what is my world but that which springs from hopes and dreams and wishes.” Alraun’s voice became menacing, “Now, my subjects, destroy this thing.”

And again the creatures flew at the shadow-thing. Blood in small trickling snakes wetted the creature’s fur. From under a mass of flailing limbs and devilish snarls and bright, bright eyes it threw back his jaw and howled. It gave one last attempt to shake off the little wild beasts the way a dog shakes off water, then turned and bounded away. In one leap it cleared the pool, and ran with the cloud of little fluttering, sneering, snickering creatures trailing him like a cloud of gnats.

-oOo-

Pain and panic drove Kveldulf through the night. He ran past old, gnarled oaks, fighting back as he sprinted, snapping and snarling, splashed through a black river and fled through the woods. More and more of the woodland creatures attacked him, joined soon by a thousand little shadowy sprights too, mindless in their own tiny howling rages. He was soon running without thought or reason. Wounds, weeping, glistening in the moonlight, cut every inch of him. Struggling under the weight of the swarm, he howled and bit and threw himself about in a frenzied attempt to throw them off. But, though many of the small creatures were crushed in his jaws and others thrown to the ground, the horde would not give up.

Through glens, over streams and down the winding paths they fought and brawled, then past the first sleeping cottages of the village. No one who woke dared to open a door or peek out a window. The noise of the struggle was terrifying.

Kveldulf was in a small field behind a copse of trees when he felt himself turning faint. Soon all that gave his body substance and form was the power of his will, and his will wavered.

Strained.

Faded.

Gone.

And in that moment he was nothing more than a shadow. His body fell from him and turned to a black mist. All the little creatures of the forest laughed and danced about him, but none could touch him now, and he could not touch them either. He was a ghost in the night.

As he stood amidst the leaping, cavorting creatures he felt a gentle urge that grew to urgency. A sensation like being caught in a fast, chill river. He did not resist. Allowing himself to be caught by the flow he was swept away through the air. Some of the creatures flew after him, their eyes like pricks of fire in the night, their mouths like smouldering hearths. The world turned vague, as if the colour had all drained from it. He was unsure if he was carried over the walls of the castle or speed right through the stones.

Still a few of the sprights followed.

His body lay asleep on the cot and seemed uncannily at ease. The face, to look at, from above, was a mask of gentle repose. The tide lulled him back into his body. Warm blood flowed again in his veins, and the nerves tingled and twitched.

Kveldulf awoke to convulsions. Sharp pains scythed through him. Gashes burst open as if torn by invisible knives, scrapes and bruises spread like spilled ink on his flesh. Rolling from the bed he hit the cold stone floor on hands and knees and opened his mouth to cry out but found only blood bubbling from his mouth.

He heard dimly, as if from far away, a small ugly snickering in the dark. Looking up with bloodshot eyes he saw them. Squeezing under the door, and crowding into the dark spaces, a dozen gangly creatures with bright eyes and sharp, grinning mouths. The most persistent, the most hateful of the wild horde were now slowly, very slowly, inching closer.

He tried again to shout at them, but only coughed up something wet and dark. With tremendous effort he raised himself up on one knee and drew from the belt that hung over the stool a pitch-black hunting knife. Then he stood, and grabbed at the feather, talking it from the wooden peg on the wall. With the knife in one hand and the feather hanging by a chain in the other, he glared at the things.

The sprights all stopped. Hunching their shoulders, they snarled through bright, needle teeth, retreating from the warm glow of the spirit’s feather.

Kveldulf barley managed to speak through a mouth of tacky blood. “I’ll send you to the darkest pits of the Lady Night.” Half collapsing, half lunging, he slashed at the nearest of the creatures. An arc of shimmering blood spilled and evaporated as soon as it touched cold stone. The creature opened its mouth, issuing a silent scream, then writhed and dissolved away. Cursing him with wordless, harsh little voices the others withdrew, scurrying and creeping under the door like a dozen spiders.

Kveldulf fell to his hands and knees, and prayed for morning.

CHAPTER THE THIRTEENTH

As Kveldulf splashed icy water from a basin onto and over his face he let his mind wander around the fiery itching of knitting flesh. He existed between two sensations; the chill of water; the seething pain. Weeks worth of the pain and swelling that comes with healing were running wild along his nerves in a matter of hours. He grit his jaw, clenched his fists and waited. There was little else he could do.

Drops of water hung on his cheeks and chin and slowly rolled earthward. As each fell to the floor it hammered the stone. Each thunderous droplet rocked his brain.

And the hours passed.

Sunlight, little more than a pale, second-hand ghost from a window somewhere down the hall began to wash beneath the door. Kveldulf stared at the puddle of feeble light. Hour by hour the light swelled, until Kveldulf guessed that the morning was nearly gone. As noon lazed nearer, the itching subsided into a dull ache. Gingerly, Kveldulf brushed fingers along the thick scabs that clasped his throat like a necklace of wine-dark amber. He toyed with the edge of them. No fresh blood welled up. He peeled a little of it away. Then more. Underneath the flesh was still tender and slick, a blossom of scar tissue. In an hour he would not even be left with that.

He was starting to feel hungry. It was always like this after being badly hurt. He growing hungry for meat. The redder and rarer the better, from past experience of similar defeats.

A knock at the door disturbed his thoughts.

“Yes?” he hazarded, but found even the small word rough in his healing throat.

The voice that answered was muffled by the door. “I’ve a missive from thane Sigurd.”

“Come in.”

The door creaked open but the young servant, a boy with a nebulous shock of red hair and a round face, did not fully accept Kveldulf’s invitation. Only his face entered the room, the rest of him stretched to remain outside it.

“Thane Sigurd asks if you’d be pleased to go a-hunting. A few fellows are heading out this afternoon for some sport. He’s sent me once already, earlier, but you were asleep. He’ll be in the great hall after the noontide hour. What shall I tell him?”

Kveldulf considered this, but did not dare say more while his throat still throbbed. At length he nodded. The boy was about to shut the door, when he mouthed a silent self-admonishment and added, “and he told me to say you were right. About the wolf the thane’s speared. It’s not it, not the beast of the woods. Two children saw it last night. It killed three of the sheep they were watching. And their dog. Foolishness take me if I would go into the forest now. Folk are all a’feared. Some are saying that the beast is a night-devil out of the north. Some servant of the Night Queen, or her children. Others reckon he’s a warlock. There was howling in the village last night, and some folk’s are saying that a whole gang of demons tore through the town.”

So she was hunting sheep and dogs still. Or were the children just lucky to have escaped her notice? As Kveldulf waved the boy away he felt a deep, cold knot settle in his gut. With each day she would grow more bored and more bold. Until…

But there was no point in thinking about that. Not now. Time remained yet to move on before she grew bold. She’d follow him when he left, she always did. There was still time.

A little while later, Kveldulf managed to get to his feet and dress. He left his room and walked through the rank and dusty innards of the keep. He stopped on the way to raid some shanks of mutton from the kitchens, and ate them despite the cook’s protestations that the meat was mostly raw. After that, he went looking for Sigurd.

He tried first in the great hall, glancing about and taking in the high, rough-hewn timbers and tapestries that were faded to old rose and dusty gold. All the feasting tables and benches were stacked along one wall, and the whole echoing place had an empty, sad feeling, as if the life that charged the hall in times of banquet and wine had died and turned stagnant.

Old men, the thanes of yesteryear, their faces stitched with the scars of hard lives, still lurked about their dead hearth and murmured to one another, evidentially reminiscing about long gone triumphs and days of youth. If any of them carried on the same conversation, Kveldulf could not hear it. Each spoke to the others in their own wandering monologues.

Hunkered down in the warmth of a slant of sunlight, a ring of children laughed and chatted. They were of an age too young to be put to serious work, and too old to be kept easily at the skirt. Kveldulf walked towards them. The laughter of children. That was a simple thing. He should try to enjoy simple things more.

As he passed near them, he slowed and said, “Good morning, what game are you playing?” His question generated a sudden, serious silence. Many round, bright-eyed faces looked up. One girl, her face half hidden by unruly curls said, “How’s-e-Born, good sir,” and then, “Just a silly little game.”

A younger boy said, “No ;tis not. Its magic, a little magic anyways.”

“Magic?” Kveldulf smiled. “So, how is How’s-e-Born played then?”

“Well, the rules are like this,” said the boy who had spoken before. “You name all the names of all the animals you know. And we all hold this little whittling knife wrapped in a kerchief. When it falls out you know the name of your pet.”

“Numbskull,” said the older girl, “you’re muddling it all up. There is a rhyme to say, and the animal isn’t like a pet. It’s your double-walker,” she explained with exact slowness.

“Really,” said Kveldulf. “What’s a double-walker?”

Mostly the children looked confused, some shrugged, one boy said, “The Freer says its an old word for guardian spirit. Like the heathens used to call it.”

“I have a goat,” said one sniffling, red nosed boy.

“I’ve a starling,” said a little girl shyly, “but I don’t like starlings. I wish I had a dog. I like dogs.”

Kveldulf glanced down at the ragged kerchief and the blunt copper knife that rested on it.

“May I play?”

Children’s games always have a certain solemnity to them, and the girl conferred with some of the older children a moment before giving Kveldulf a grave nod.

“So what do I do?”

“We need to know your name,” said the older girl.

“Kveldulf.”

“Right. Sit in the circle and hold a bit of the kerchief. We’ll sing the rhyme, seeing as you don’t know it.”

The voices of the children rose in discordant chant. The song swam and rolled in the air.

Higgeldy piggeldy niggeldy norn,

Kveldulf, Kveldulf,

To what was he born?

Has he the dog who hunts the hog?

Has he the sparrow who flies o’er farrow?

Has he the stoat, or has he the goat?

Has he the bear, or has he the hare?”

The voices raised, shrill with excitement, and the knife stayed in its sheath of rags. Little hands trembled and faces shone, smiling.

“Has he the hawk, who hunts the stork?

Has he the mouse who raids the house?

Has he the fox, or has he the ox?

Has he the crow, or has he the doe?

Has he the cat, who hunts the rat?

Has he the owl, who raids the fowl?

And the knife slipped. Kveldulf knew he was holding it as firmly as before. The children must have conspired to all let go all at once, for it slipped and fell so suddenly.

Has he the culver, or has he the wulver.”

On the very last word it struck the ground like a bell ringing one clear note, before clattering and skittering on the bare stone. There were sniggers and giggles and some pointed fingers. “Wolf, wolf, wolf, wolf,” all the children began to chant together. One of the brats snatched up the knife and rag, and they all scrambled to their feet before sprinting from the room, catcalling and laughing as they went, “wolf, wolf, wolf, wolf… wolf… wolf… … wolf,” until their small voices were muffled by the stone of the keep and faded to nothing.

He stood alone for a moment, blinking in the warm light, considering the rhyme as the laughter tumbled away.

“And what in all the Clay-o’the-Green is a culver?” The voice came from over his shoulder. “That is what I always wondered.”

Kveldulf craned his neck about and smiled as he rose slowly to his feet.

“Good morning. Been lurking long, Sigurd?”

“Oh, a few moments. You looked happy entertaining the children. Strangers are rare in the Veld. They must poke fun at them when they have the chance.It’s good of you to humour them. Would you like to go hunting this afternoon? A few of us are going to meet in the yards soon. Though,” he added, considering, “you look a bit worse for wear, though. Are you not sleeping well?” The next sentence was delivered as a good-natured challenge. “Perhaps you would rather stay home?”

“No, my friend, not today. I’d not miss a hunt today for all the world.” He glanced briefly at the great hollow door through which the children had run. “A breath of fresh air is always good for clearing the head.”

“Excellent. Hawking? Dogs? Bows?”

“Bows,” said Kveldulf. “Horses and dogs do not take well to me.” He smiled.

“Is that so?” said Sigurd with his usual happy, blank smile. “They must sense the huntsman in you.”

“Perhaps. By the way, it’s an old word for a dove.”

“What?”

“Culver. Haven’t heard it used for, oh, a very long number of years now. Funny how old words get caught up in the net of children’s rhymes and nursery songs.”

“A dove? Well, I never would have guessed. We used to play that game as children. The nonsense means as little now as it did then.” He shook his head and affected a smile. “Foolish games. Foolish games.”

“And yet, do we grow to adulthood and play less foolish games?”

“No,” said Sigurd, his smile growing waxen. “No, I suppose the foolish games stay with us. It is only the risks and rewards that become more serious.”

-oOo-

It was the sort of afternoon when the light of the sun is more pewter than gold, and the shadows more blue than grey. Day by relentless day, the season was turning from the brilliant fire of autumn to ash of winter, and the weather would not let the hunters forget it. Not long after joining the river a little way upstream of the millpond, a tattered cloak of drizzle set in. The hunters drew their cloaks tighter and pulled up their hoods as they skirted the riverbank.

For a long time the only one of them who seemed to have the energy to speak was an old thane, Radewin. He walked alongside his son, Radulf, still a boy really, and told him about a magical white deer he’d seen in the forest when he’d been about his son’s age.

Mienard, a moon-faced fighting man about Sigurd’s age scoffed and snorted at the story. He earned unhappy glances from both Radewin and his son. The only other man with them, aside from Sigurd and Kveldulf, was Lothar, a leathery-skinned hunter with driftwood hands.

An occasional blackbird rummaged the leaf litter near the path. Now and again a wren cried out in the deep hollows. Small red squirrels bickered in the trees. But those small creatures were the only wild things they found until Lothar, who was a few paces ahead, stood as still as a hunting cat and raised a hand and spoke. “Hush.” He stood a moment full of intent energy, before crouching down.

The others crept up beside him. Between the trees and ivy they could see the dark stream rippling over an area of wide pebbly shallows. In the ford stood three fallow deer, two does and a buck. Black water and gold willow leaves swirled about their legs.

“That doe is a bit on the pale side,” said Mienard with a slight wheeze as he suppressed a laugh. “Must be one of them enchanted deer.”

“Fine sport,” said Radewin scrunching up his whiskery chin, “teasing an old man.”

The deer looked up, almost as one. Their ears twitched and their dark eyes blinked uncertainly.

Lothar was notching his bow and the others were still readying theirs when the deer started. Their legs sprang under them and all three bounded for the other bank. Mid-air, the kicked the air and twisting its spine into an unnatural shape. The crash of its body into the water sent an explosion of foam up into the air. The two does jinked off and escaped.

Standing a little to one side, quite forgotten until now, Kveldulf stood with a quivering bowstring and a rather flat smile.

Sigurd stood at his shoulder, pointing. “There will be a fine roast tonight.” He drew out a long, slightly tarnished hunting knife. “Well, let us dispatch the fine fellow.”

But as they trudged and slipped down the bank to the shallows, the buck, still alive despite the arrow that was buried in its neck, began to struggle out of the stream. Even as blood coiled over its hide and streaked the river red, it fought and flailed free of the stream and up the riverbank.

Kveldulf put a second arrow into it. This shaft struck the base of its neck but barely caused the deer to falter.

Mienard and Sigurd splashed eagerly through the river, their knives out.

Radewin hesitated and puckered up his old dry lips. “I have an ill feeling. That deer should be twice dead by now.”

Lothar shrugged. “Sometimes arrows just miss the vital bits inside a beast. I’ve seen a bear with twelve broadheads in it, still thrashing about and killing dogs.”

“A bear’s life is buried deep down. They’ve got layers of fat and meat and gristle ’till you get anywhere near their heart and gut.” Radewin frowned. “Damn. I’ve got water in my boots. A deer is not a bear. That buck should be dead.”

The deer was half-staggering, half-hobbling into the undergrowth now, and though the sound of its snorting and wheezing was easy to hear it was fast disappearing from view. Sigurd and Mienard were chasing after it like children.

“Onward, quick,” called Mienard waving his hunting knife. “It can go no more than a few paces before its heart gives out. If we lose the tracks only wood-rats and crows will dine on venison tonight.”

Kveldulf stepped into the cold river, he felt the water soak into his calfskin boots and smelled the rich flavour that always drifts over sluggish, leaf-stained water. A new breath of faint rain arrived and spotted the water with a thousand shifting rings. The gold willow leaves spun and twirling around his ankles.

Radewin remained moving forward only slowly. “I think that perhaps the wolves can have their flesh, and we can keep ours. I have never liked this other bank. No good comes of going too deep into the woods hereabouts. Come, let’s turn back. We can find another deer.”

Mienward stopped, snorted and waved a heavy, dismissive hand at Radewin. “Quit your doomsaying, old man. Come on now, hurry, or we’ll lose the game.”

Lothar’s voice was less certain. “The desperate and the poor sometimes scrounge fire-wood or wild honey or forest fruits from across Weird Wood. Most return safely, but more than one has vanished over the years. There are worse thing than bears and wolves across the waters. We should at least leave someone here to call out a way back in case we lose our way.”

An exasperated sniff. “Very well then,” said Mienard. “Young Radulf, you stay and guard this bank. Go fetch help should… well… should five strong men find themselves outmatched by a half-dead buck.”

Radulf touched his hunting knife and his eyes tightened into angry narrow lines.

“No, Radulf, do as he says.” Radewin laid a hand on the young man’s shoulder. “When I was young and rash I went over to that bank more than once. I have seen strange things there, and I do not like the place, but I always found my way back. The deer is not far off. Just stay here and wait for us. We shan’t be long.”

The young man loosened his fingers from the knife. “Very well, father.”

So, watched by the hunch-shouldered, still somewhat unhappy looking Radulf, the rest of the company climbed up the far bank and tracked into the ferny undergrowth. Sigurd was waiting for them beside a patch of red-spotted mud. The blood that dappled the ground and leaves made for an easy trail. Soon the heaving rasp of dying lungs could be heard.

They came upon the buck without warning on the other side of a stand of holly. It was lying on its side, blood bubbling from its flared nostrils, its legs struggling against the dishevelled soil.

Lothar held it down while Radewin quickly slit its throat.

Kveldulf watched this with a distracted air. He occasionally looked up. No birds sang. No squirrels romped or leapt through the canopy. The forest was deathly quiet here, and would have been deathly still except for the ceaseless patter of light rain. Sigurd and Mienard wandered away from the deer, talking about how best to season venison while Lothar and Radulf set about gutting the beast.

Meinward’s voice lingered on the air. “This should do.”

“No, no, this other one.” Sigurd’s voice sounded lightly happy. “It is green, and long, and stout. It should make a fine stave.”

“Do you have a hatchet?”

“Yes, here. We can hack at it near the root.”

Kveldulf’s eyes widened. It dawn on hims what they were about to do. With a heavy, sickening knot in his stomach he took to a run in the direction of the voices.

“Yes,” said Mienard, “this should do.”

“No,” cried out Kveldulf, “stop.”

But, even as he stumbled closer, Mienard was already hacking away at a stout sapling. His third stroke cut through most of the tree, leaving just stringy bark to be sheared away.

Kveldulf stared, horrified. “What have you done?”

Sigurd looked up. “Oh, hello, come to help? We’re cutting a pole to truss the buck and carry it back. Couldn’t find a good stout fallen branch so we’ve made one. Just need to strip the leaves.”

As he spoke, the rain, which had been coming and going steadily, died and the whole forest seemed frozen in time. Kveldulf cast his eyes about. It felt as if the trees were sneakily spiralling around him, as if the branches were moving whenever he wasn’t looking at them, reaching out with claw-like fingers. The whole wood felt as if it recognised him and hated him.

“Fools. Shooting a deer on the other side of the river and following it is one thing. Cutting green-wood is another. He will know we are here now. One of his creatures is dead already and another screams in pain.” He felt the last word hiss in his throat. “We go back, now.”

“What are you babbling about?” said Mienard, wiping sweat and earthy grit from his brow with the back of one thick hand.

“The Alder King.”

As the words left his mouth, wind struck the forest like the beat of a winged monster. The trees thrashed and creaked. Kveldulf turned around and took to a sprint though the red-brown-gold forest, back into the grove where the deer lay. As he broke into the clearing he found Lothar and Radewin looking up at the sky with wide, nervous eyes.

“A storm’s coming,” said Lothar. “Sprung up right quick.”

Radewin nodded and whistled under his breath, then scratched a hand through the thin, white hair on his head. “If we want this buck then we ought to take it up between us and haul it back over the river, innards or no innards, truss or no truss. I was wrong. We should not have come into these woods, not even for a few moments. The things that live here are upset already today, and easily angered.”

Lifting his face to the sky, Kveldulf said, “Yes. We have overstayed what little welcome mortalfolk may have here.”

Lothar, who it seemed was too sensible not to be superstitious replied. “That we have,” and slapped his butchering knife into its sheath.

Sigurd came crashing into the glade, followed shortly after by Mienward, red faced, his cheeks heaving with each heavy breath.

“By the white, hairy arse of the Old Winter himself,” gasped Mienward, “Are you all gone mad? When did a turn in the weather make grown men turn to children?”

A moment after Mienward’s spoke all eyes turned towards the unseen distance. From somewhere off in the forest, there came an eerie, enraged cry. The sound rolled through the trees and lingered as a long and painful note.

“No one,” said Lothar, “can tell me that was the wind.”

They began to frantically hoist up the buck, but it was heavier than it looked, and now soaked with slippery blood. Grunting and sweating together Lothar and Kveldulf managed to half-carry, half-drag it between them. They dragged it past the holly grove, among trees, over a rotten log, around a stretch of blackberry, down a muddy track, out to where the river ran its lazy course.

Only the river didn’t run it’s lazy course.

The only man not to whisper some curse or make some superstitious gesture was Kveldulf. He stared, then broke in a hoarse chuckle that rolled gradually into a laugh.

Before them stretched no sign of a river, or bank, or even a clearing, but more and more endless trees. Beech after beech waded through their own dead leaves up hills, silver birches stretched their long deathly white fingers, and oaks, old as rock and just as grey, stood over everything.

“The river was here. By the names of the Queen’s Twelve Children, where is it?” said Mienward, “There,” and raising his arm to point at a gleam of something like late afternoon light on water, he ran off into the woods.

“Mienward!” Radewin cupped bloodstained hands around his mouth. “Stop, come back. Argh, swive me. Swive us all. Forget the buck.”

They dropped the carcass, and chased after the ambling bulk of Mienward as he pounded ahead of them through the woods. He vanished momentarily from view as he plunged down a slight slope. Coming to that same slope in the earth they found him on his knees in front of a shallow puddle.

“A puddle… a puddle… not the stream?” He looked at them with eyes that were wide and dark as they gathered about him. “Streams do not just disappear. We can’t mislay a small river.”

Just then the woods stirred more strongly against the wind, and the canopy trembled with that unearthly, rolling cry again.

Lothar unslung his bow and tested the gut cord. “It comes this way.”

Radewin, walking a few paces from the group, obviously weary, rubbed his hands over his wrinkled face, leaving streaks of blood and black soil. Taking a curved goat-horn he put it to his lips and let loose a violent blast.

The resounding note trembled on the air, and it seemed might have been swallowed whole by the storm. As it faded from somewhere, in fact seemingly from everywhere, came a faint reply.

“Radulf. He is still by the river, but he sounds a long way off.” Then he cried out as loud as his old lungs could, “Radulf! Where are you?”

Silence.

Then softly, from another world, came a reply. “Father?”

“Radulf, go for help. Do not cross the river.”

The reply was more still more distant. “Father?”

Lothar fingered his great curved bow with uneasy hands. “Is the boy moving away or is the forest stretching?”

“What kind of help can he fetch?” asked Meinard. No one answered.

As they spoke the savage storm slackened to rolling wisps of wind, and the air became charged, the way it does just before thunder. Then, just as quickly as the wind had come, it died and out of the hollows and dark places formed thin tendrils of damp mist. Soon, the air was thickening into wreaths of fog. Radulf cried out again and again, and blew his horn in vain. It wasn’t long before the whole world was wasted away to the colours of charcoal and chalk.

“I’ve never seen weather change so rapidly as this,” said Sigurd. “It’s unnatural.”

“One of us could climb a tree,” suggested Mienard, “and scan the forest for the river.”

Lothar shook his head. “No good with this fog,” he said. His beard was beading full of moisture droplets. “We would be wiser to make a bad fire out of damp wood, be ready, and watch, sing a few drinking ditties, do whatever we can to keep spirits up and last out the cold and wet.”

“Or the night,” added Radewin with a glum frown. “I never thought I’d be so foolish as to let meself be caught in the Weird Woods for a night. My old father must be laughing at me from beyond the grave.” His face wrinkled with sad lines. “And to think of that. A grave? What hope have we for graves? Our bones will end up chew-things for bear-cubs.”

Mienward smiled, and put on a hearty though not very convincing voice. “Don’t tie yourself in ringlets of despair. We will be back at the Toren before long, and all this forest of fear will go up in smoke. Hearth-smoke. We shall knock open a cask of good ale and sit about the great hall, drinking and laughing at ourselves yet, eh? Soon as the damned fog clears, we’ll find our way out of here.”

Standing apart from the group, Kveldulf let his gaze rove over the forest, along the tangles of trees, among the mossy boulders, and rolling ferny dells.

Sigurd walked over to him. “What are you thinking?”

“That there is no wild fennel growing in this wood. Or foxglove. Or clover. All the plants that the hedge-wise will tell you are effective charms against the unearthly ones and the faer, they do not grow here. Do you have anything wrought of iron?”

“My knife is steel.”

“No. It has to be simple iron, solid and cold. Steel is not good enough. It is too diluted.”

“Perhaps we should go back for the buck? Then, if we can spark a fire in the shelter of some hollow tree, we might roast the flesh and have something of a merry night. I have a skin of spiced wine here that I have barely touched. We could have a happy old night of it.”

Kveldulf looked away, out into the darkening woods, and after a while staring peacefully he spoke. “That might be best. But we all stay side-by-side. There can be no going off alone in this wood. Not in this,” and he waved a hand through the mists, “not with twilight falling on us so quickly now too.”

They tramped back as a group, retracing their steps, through the wet undergrowth. Pushing aside one last branch of dead, papery leaves they broke into the glade where they had left the dead buck.

“May the Lady of Brightness guard us,” said Mienard, “it has risen and walked away.”

Kveldulf and Radewin waded a few paces into the drifts of dead leaves. There was an impression in the mould, above which the air was thick with the coppery scent of blood.

“Here,” said Radewin pointing, and crouching down, “did you ever see the like? The deer ain’t gone and walked off. Its been dragged off. There, through the woods. Must be a pack of wolves, or a big she-bear?” He gave a harsh whistle. “Look at the size of these prints in the mud.”

The laugh of leather on metal cut the air. Kveldulf stood tense, moving his hands in a fluid motion, he had two curved knives poised before him: one the colour of a silvery dawn, the other black as midnight. “No,” said he said in an odd, small voice, “it was neither many wolves, nor one bear. It was one wolf. We are caught between the Alder King and the wolf.”

As Kveldulf’s spoke it seemed that the air turned momentarily to a brilliant, burning grey as the last light of evening stroked the mists. The trampled earth and tall trees were black as pitch by contrast. Then, the sun dipped finally away, either behind some distant hill or black thunderhead. It didn’t matter which–the effect was the same.

Night.

-oOo-

The mist shrouded everything. It no longer rolled on the air. It hung in thick, wet coils. The only sound profaning the silence was the incessant–tap–tap–tap–of a flint and steel. Five men hunched beneath the skeleton of an ancient oak that was grown to ruinous age and hollowed by rot into a chimney with one open face. Kveldulf had gone to the trouble of making absolutely sure the oak was dead before he would let them start a fire inside it. They had since made a miserably small pile of the kindling that Lothar and Radewin carried in oilskin bundles for emergencies. What half-damp wood they could find lay in an untidy heap with them inside the old tree. As Lothar tried to nurse a flame from the kindling the rest of them stood or crouched, miserably wet, trying to keep out of the rain and passing Sigurd’s wineskin from one white-knuckled hand to another.

Kveldulf felt his mouthful of the spiced wine warm the inside of his ribs, then passed the skin to Radewin who eyed it with a mixture of stoniness and solace. “Wish we could get the fire going.”

“Yes,” said Lothar, “the smell of smoke might scare off whatever it is out there.”

“Whatever is out there?” mumbled Radewin. “We know what it is. Kveldulf named it and we all know it. It’s the demon wolf. The thing that is hunting the valley, killing sheep and deer and anything else unlucky enough to be out at night. But it’s not a friend of the Alder King, that I can tell you. We have that at least. Maybe they’ll fight one-another.”

Kveldulf’s voice came out of the darkness. “What makes you say that?”

“I’ve seen it. That ungodly scream that was up on the air last night. Didn’t any of you hear it? Hmm. No? Well I was up at that hour. I was down the village and I was walking home–not quite sober mind, but not too piss-headed either. And you know what I saw coming across the fields out of the woods?”

Lothar grinned and his teeth shone under his beard. “The Eorl’s taxman coming to collect on the secret grog you’d been swilling all night?”

Radewin smirked. “Worse.” His voice turned low and hissing. “I saw it. Screaming and bounding over the grassy fields like all the demons of the frozen north were after it, but it weren’t any ice-demon. No. It was the others. The good neighbours of the forests. The faer. The Alder King’s subjects biting and scratching, nipping and clawing and chasing the wolf-thing through the night.” Radewin hunched his shoulders and wrapped his long, thin arms around himself to keep warm. “So the way I see it, is this: the wolf, it’s just come into the Veld hasn’t it? Its an interloper, and probably come out of the old bleak north. So the Alder King must be right peeved. Cause he’s used to getting all the souls of the unshriven dead and the unbaptised babes for himself. And he doesn’t want any princeling of the dark night taking them instead. So they got into a fight. That’s how I see it anyways. They’re fighting over who gets to takes the souls of the unhallowed.” His voice trailed off.

Everyone around the tree muttered. All but one. Kveldulf stood very, very still and was very, very quiet. So still that his breathing was almost imperceptible. When, after a time, he spoke his voice was hollow. “This wolf you saw? Was it injured at all?”

“Aye. Did you see it too? It was terribly hurt,” replied Radewin. “Bloody and gashed, but especially about the muzzle and eyes. The left side of its throat was a matt of blood.”

Kveldulf brushed fingers along his neck and felt the remnants of the long scab. Felt the tacky, malleable surface and the line it made. Felt it tingle and itch as even now it was healing.

He was good at forgetting. He had made an art of it, well practised. Good at self-deception and delusion. Good at pretending that the plainly obvious was not true. Mostly, though, he did his forgetting in the dreaming. When someone clearly and plainly stated the obvious to him while he was awake: that was harder to ignore and dismiss into the shadows of the under-mind. It was difficult to push the thoughts into the dark forgetful places. “By the gods, old and young,” he whispered. “By all that is holy and unholy.” He stood and stared at the shadows while he considered what he had just heard. When Kveldulf looked up from his thoughts, he cast a furtive glance over the group. If anyone noticed that his face was empty of blood and his skin goose-fleshed, they said nothing. He turned around, then sat down with them again, and listened to the grumble and murmur of conversation as it filtered around the circle.

About an hour passed.

They glimpsed it several times over that time. A great shadow, slinking from cover to cover, a thing that was big and swift and black. Perhaps she was afraid of the scent of sweating men, or smell of leather and steel. Perhaps she was just mocking them and biding time.

Kveldulf eased himself away from the group once again and surveyed the shapes and shadows of the forest. He was not surprised to hear Sigurd’s distinctively firm footsteps approach him.

“It seems that this creature of the night is a little more timid that we thought, eh? Let it lurk, I say. We’ll fill it with arrows and make a rug of its pelt if it comes any closer.”

“No,” said Kveldulf, “it has never been timid.” He could not quite bring himself to call it she in front of him. That implied too much familiarity. He was still having difficulty denying what he’d heard–after the last few days, after the things Helg had said, and Snoro, and Alraun also–he was confused. What was it in the forest? He shook the thoughts clear of his head. “It is intrigued by us perhaps… and watchful.” He shrugged. “It will come closer eventually. Too close for our comfort. Be assured of that.”

They stood without speaking for a time then, searching the misty night. At last, Sigurd spoke. “You seem to know the thing. It is no natural pup of a wolf, is it?”

Kveldulf nodded slowly. “No. It is not.” He forced himself to say, “She is not. She is a witch in the shape of a wolf, or a demon, or a forgotten goddess. I don’t know for certain.”

“It is a creature of Old Night and Chaos, then.”

“Perhaps, but not quite you imagining of it. A very old night, indeed. Cold and forgotten and never truly alive. No, this wolf is not ruled by the Night Queen, as you think of her.” As he looked at Sigurd’s plain, honest gaze, Kveldulf felt a sense of guilt at not having explained what he might have about the wolf. “Shall I tell you a little of my story and hers?”

Sigurd nodded, not knowing what he was agreeing to hear.

“We were all young once,” Kveldulf’s words wandered, “and when I was young, I had a wife and two sons and a beautiful daughter. We had a humble but pleasant house in the north. My wife made a modest living by fishing, and weaving baskets from reeds. But I had a darker trade, even then I was a hunter of old, dark things. One winter’s day I was out setting snares and tracking when she came upon me. As swift and terrible as a demon loose from the north’s weeping halls. She could have killed me… she should have killed me… she had reason to, as I had already slain several of her sisters. She was the last of her tribe, I think.”

“But you out-witted her?”

“No. She spared me, so to speak.” Kveldulf forced himself away from old habits of thinking. He tried to remember the day clearly.

“The beast showed mercy?”

Kveldulf laughed a bitter, sad laugh. “Ah, I wish that she had. If she had shown mercy she’d have killed me then and there. If she had shown less mercy, then I suppose she might have let me die slowly. But she showed the least mercy of all. She let me go on living.”

“From that day to this I have been a haunted man. Mercy? There was no mercy for my wife and children, nor the hundreds of other innocents. But I am making no sense. Let me say it plainly. From the day when we first met she has followed me close behind, like a dog following a master. Over rocks, mountains and wave-tossed seas. At first I tried to flee her, but she follows always, somehow she finds a way. And every step I have taken she has left a bloody trail behind me. It is very the reason I became more and more learned in witch-lore. I thought at first that I could turn on her, hunt her down. I have sought out the famed witch-hunters of two dozen lands and learned their arts. But nothing I have learned has availed me. I know the charms to counter endless spells and curses. I can undo the magic of the heathen priests. I know the blessings by which the restless dead may be made to go back to the grave. I know how to raise those same dead up again, and ask them who murdered them so that justice can be done. I know the names by which twenty-eight shadow-demons may be commanded to dance in a ring until dawn. But I cannot be rid of one wolf. So now I spend my years wandering from holy-man, to mad prophet, to sorcerer in search of some secret lore that might allow me to finally be rid of her.” He shrugged. “Or to be rid of life. That egress is denied me too. A part of the wolf’s curse is that I seem to have misplaced my mortality. I guess I left it in the bloody snow all those year ago.”

Sigurd’s lips were pressed to a thin line. His expression was heavy about the lips and eyes. Twice, he opened his mouth to say something but shut it firmly and shook his head.

“I am sorry, Sigurd. I have brought a curse to your country. I was planning to be back on the road within a few days, well before she would start her killing. But I have lost some of the charm-tools that used to keep her distant and more docile. She is emboldening herself again. I think I must take myself away from your little valley. As soon as I can.”

Drumming his fingers on the shaft of his bow, Sigurd raised his clear, oddly innocent face and said, “I will speak with the Mareschal. We will call another hunt. This time you must help us. Together we can cut through every dell and overturn ever rock and smoke out every cave until we find that creature and have her witch-corpse on a stake.”

Laying his cold hand on the thane’s cloaked shoulder he said, “Brave words. You are a good man. But she is not easily slain.”

Sigurd lowered his voice and shot a glance at the others. “There must be some way. Look, say nothing more of this, not to anyone. Others may not understand, but, I think where spells and sorceries may fail brave hearts may yet succeed. Let us try, Kveldulf. For you have saved the life of our Eorl, and none but Rosa and I even know. You are close to finding out who the would-be murderer is too. I can feel it. I trust you in that. The Veld owes you a great deal already. Let us repay some of that debt.” Sigurd then cleared his throat and smiled. “Ah good, the fire is lit.”

A small stream of blue smoke drifted up from the kindling, but only two men tended to it. Sigurd’s brief smile stuck to his face and faded. “Where is Meinard?”

Radewin looked up from under a knotted brow. “I don’t know. He was just here two blinks ago,” he said. “Where’s he upped and offed to then? Maybe he’s taking a piss behind the tree?”

Sigurd was cupping his hands about his mouth to call out to the darkness when a cry that was loud and shrill enough to make them all stop dead still shook the air. Meinard came tumbling out of the shadowy undergrowth his face pale and frightened. He struck the ground with a half-screamed curse and struggled to get up, slipping in his own slick blood. Meinard’s cries of pain were echoed by an inhuman howl from somewhere far too close.

Struggling and heaving, Sigurd and Kveldulf dragged Meinard towards the dead oak. He was just as heavy as the buck and just as wet with crimson-black. Shuddering and groaning, he managed to speak.

“The fiend… fiend… the fiend had me… it had me… it had me…”

They leaned closer to hear more but already his eyes were seeing what no living man could see.

“Why did you go into the bushes?” said Sigurd. “Are you mad?”

“I saw it. Its eyes were so beautiful. I just wanted to see the gold a little closer.” With a last flicker of life he reached out a hand and grabbed Sigurd by the cloak, “Run… flee from here… leave me… it hunts us… it will devour us all… it will take our souls… it will…” His hand tightened, twisted loose of the folds of Sigurd’s cloak and then fell limp to the leafy soil with a light thud. His breathing turned ragged, slowed, then gurgled as blood began to seep up from his mouth and nose.

“What in Winter’s name were you doing?” yelled Radewin. “What in all the Winters were you doing?”

“Shut up. He is dying,” said Sigurd. “Let him rest.”

Kveldulf leaned closer then, running a hand over injuries. “Silence is the best thing you can give him now. Pray if you think it will help. We can’t do any more.”

No sooner had he spoken, and all their attentions were drawn to the clump of hooked and woven undergrowth from which Mienard had just tumbled, flailing. A deep, rumbling growl rolled out of the darkness as something huge loomed into view. It took a step closer. It didn’t seem to shy anymore. Gold eyes lit up in the dark.

Lothar drew his hunting knife, quick, and leapt up with a defiant holler. Sigurd and Kveldulf raised their bows. It was a mountain of tangled fur with dripping teeth and eyes that blazed and burned. As it stared at them, panting, a smell of strong spices and lavender washed around them. Arrows thudded into it uselessly. Lothar attacked it, but was snatched up in massive jaws immediately, and lifted off the ground. More arrows sung and bit. The creature barely twitched. Lothar, pinned between sharp jaws, twisted about and thrust his knife between the creature’s shoulders, but this seemed to achieve nothing.

Radewin had thrown himself to the ground, and was crawling to the edge of the clearing. The last they heard of him was a shaken voice crying out, “Sweet blood of the bright mother. I will take me chances with the Alder King,” as he scrambled to his feet and sprinted off into the woods.

The arrows achieved nothing. Lothar was soon limp in the bloodied jaws. Casting his bow to the ground, Sigurd’s face turned from grim to mad. He drew his own hunting knife, fumbling with the leathern scabbard, perhaps only dimly aware that Kveldulf’s hand had just settled on his shoulder. He looked at the witch-hunter with bright, manic eyes.

“No,” said Kveldulf. “Your knife is a toy. We’ve nothing that can do more than scratch her. Run. Follow me. We can do nothing for the others now… run!”

“Honour,” said Sigurd.

“No,” replied Kveldulf, “Life.”

“We cannot leave them.”

“Think of Rosa.”

“We…”

“Sigurd!”

The shadowy monster was for the moment ignoring them as it tore Lothar apart. Sigurd nodded and the madness faded a little from his eyes. “Very well then,” he whispered, “For Rosa’s sake then.”

They turned and ran into the benighted forest, not daring to look back. There was a pause and then a howl as the creature gave chase. The sounds that followed them were more like the cries of a lunatic than a wild beast. Although Kveldulf didn’t think clearly what it meant, he noticed that the creature didn’t sound like it had a woman’s voice. They struggled into the misty night, scrambling over logs, thrashing through stinging nettles and sharp holly, sloughing through stinking mud and cutting their hands and knees on rocks. The sound of something wild and huge moved through undergrowth close behind.

“Dear Lady,” cried Sigurd, “look… men…”

Kveldulf paused. He felt his lungs burning with each breath. Sigurd was right. Outlined against a patch of silvery mist stood two darker figures on a ridge. They were very close.

“We should warn them,” and Sigurd cut across the mossy ground, and began stumbling up the hill yelling as he ran, “Ho there! ‘ware… run friends… run,” as loud as his exhausted voice allowed.

But the two men stood as still as statues.

“Are you deaf?” yelled Sigurd.

Kveldulf threw a glance over his shoulder. Something down in the dells was moving swiftly closer. Three grouse scattered from a clump of gorse screaming their shrill, plit plit plit, warning calls.

Renewing his weary ascent Kveldulf cried out, “She is upon us.”

When he reached the crest of the hill his eyes swam, his head pounded with blood, and his body was hot with reeking sweat. Yet he found to his mingled shock and surprise that Sigurd had stopped and was laughing and clutching his sides.

“Not men,” said Sigurd with a slight note of insanity, “not men at all. Maybe we can stand in a row with them and the fiend will prowl right past.” He let out a shuddering laugh.

Looking again at the two shapes Kveldulf saw the cause of Sigurd’s mad laughter. They were relics of the ancient religion that must have long ago ruled the Veld. Two idols, half-featured lumps of stone with holes for eyes.

“Wait,” said Kveldulf, “wait, I know these two. I remember them from… it doesn’t matter where from, but I know them. This way, we have a chance yet.” Kveldulf leapt down the slippery slope, through a screen of leaves like flakes of shadow and then out into a wide glade. “The river.”

It lay like a gash in the earth, a black flow of blood seeping out of the wounded soil. They splashed across the shallows, then scrambled awkwardly through the knee-deep, churning flow. Kveldulf was across and about to make a dash into the woods when the sounds of a slick scrape, a splash and then a hoarse curse forced him to stop and turn about.

Crawling on hands and knees and soaked through, Sigurd inched up the bank.

“No farther… I cannot go any farther. I fell and cut myself a way back… in the woods… didn’t want to say anything… too much… I can’t go any farther.”

Kvelduld dragged the limp man out of the water. In the dim light he could just see that what he had mistaken for an odd sign of mirth earlier was actually Sigurd pressing shut a wound in his side. How deep it went, he could not tell, but there was thick blood in a red blotch down his shirt.

Sigurd looked down at his chest. “Damn. Rosa sewed this for me. It is my best hunting shirt,” he ran a hand over the wet blood, “Now I’ve gone and ruined it.” His voice had a distracted air to it.

“Get up.” Said Kveldulf. “Stand and run or you will die.”

Something like a flash of black and heaving mist moved past the two stone statues on the hill, and vanished as soon as it was briefly visible.

“Get up,” and Kveldulf and he strained at Sigurd’s shoulders, trying to lift him to his feet. He was a dead weight and sank back onto the mud and pebbles.

“Leave me,” snarled Sigurd.

“Walk.”

“You are throwing your life away. You can still run. Take your own advise and flee.”

At that Kveldulf gave a dry, ironic laugh, “If only. Sigurd, the years have rolled into centuries and still she refuses to kill me. I told you I had misplaced my death. I am old, Sigurd. I am older than you. I have lived a long score of years, too long. I will put myself between you and her and she will not kill me because she has never killed me. Have heart and you will see Rosa again. She will yet chastise you for ruining that shirt. I avow it.”

“Riddles and nonsense,” spat Sigurd, but still he rose unsteadily to his feet, and put his weight on Kveldulf’s shoulder.

They took a clumsy step.

“It comes,” said Sigurd, “I can hear it on the other bank. Will it cross the river? I have heard that bleak spirits fear moving water.”

“She will cross it. She has no fear of anything.”

Sigurd’s voice was wandering and dreamy. It had the tone that fills men’s voices when they are pushed beyond weariness into grey, dead cold exhaustion. “It seems so strange, all of this, so strange.”

Kveldulf grunted as he almost lost his footing. “Keep up the pace. I cannot carry your whole dead weight.”

They did not look around, but took a few more painfully slow steps. The sound of breath hissing into a deep and predatory growl arose behind them. They did not look about.

“Walk,” said Kveldulf. “Walk.”

“It is behind us, my friend, I want to look at it before it is upon us.”

“Walk.”

“Walk? Walk to where? Why not sink down here in the ferns and die with our knives drawn?”

“There is more than one realm in this forest, Sigurd, and more than one power…”

Stumbling another half-a-step, Kveldulf was now slowly fighting an irrevocable weight drawing him downwards. He could sense Sigurd’s will gradually abandoning him. The young thane twisted as he fell so that he could see past Kveldulf and over his shoulder. He smiled.

“It has beautiful eyes, Kveldulf. You should look at its eyes.”

Kveldulf turned then and drew his silver knife. It was all he had, and though it would not kill her, it would hurt her a little at least, maybe enough to drive her off. He tore his shirt open then too, so that the warm rich light of the feather spilled from his chest as if his heart was on fire. “Come to me!” The wolf-shape was huge, easily as tall as his own height standing, and it bore down on him with prowling speed. Kveldulf waited, timed his attack, and drove the silver knife into its side. But the knife just seemed to glance off as he stepped away from the beast. The wolf turned to look at him, and there was a strange, eerie chuckle from inside it. It barely even tried to move out of the way when he dealt it another blow with the silver knife. For two or three long draws of breath he didn’t understand, and then all of a sudden, in a rush of realisation, he swore. “Gut you, Alraun! Gut you, and curse you, you filthy trickster!” He dropped the silver knife then, and took up the iron knife instead. This time, instead of glancing off the creature, the black blade sunk deep, so that fiery silver and green blood flew into the air. There was a weird shivering of the skin, and the whole of the creature twisted up and fell apart. Five ugly little faer sprights fell out of what had been the wolf, and tumbled over the ground. They were startled by the attack, but shook their heads, snarled and hissed at Kveldulf, before scampering away.

“A glamour,” said Kveldulf. “It just just Alraun’s cretin servants pretending to be her under a wolfskin.” He picked the old dry pelt that was now crumbled up on the ground. He screamed into the night, “I will wring your neck, Alraun! Do you hear me?”

There was then a scuffle of noise behind him, and he turned around, suddenly worried that some other creature might have snuck out of the woods and attacked the prone Sigurd while he had been distracted.

For a brief moment the world stopped. Everything, the trees, the wind, the faraway calls of night birds froze as if caught in a sudden flood of amber, and then life and movement and cold returned. And so too, did light. In a sickly green cast, seemingly from everywhere and nowhere, the night air lit with a powerful flickering glow.

Kveldulf blinked into the glow. Standing a few paces away, absently sucking on her outlandishly long pipe, was a crook-backed old woman. She blinked her one good eye, and without hurrying blew out a wisp of smoke that seemed to glow like burning chalk.

“Hello, Kveldulf. Would you like to come in for a nip o’ tea? I see you have brought a friend.”

From the shadows several guttural snarls rose and fell and submerged into an unearthly hiss of breath.

Glancing up at the lurking creature she hummed and said, “Many friends,” and took a leisurely puff on her pipe before addressing the creature. “I think you know what I will do to you should you come a step closer. This is my domain, all the woods and air and waters from here to there bend to my will and no other. Go away.” She hobbled around and clasped her arms about her frame. “Sure is cold and damp out tonight. Come on then, deary. Get your friend on his feet. My little cottage is just over there.”

The threatening growl remained a constant menace as Kveldulf used the very last of his strength to lift Sigurd up.

“Is she a witch?” said Sigurd.

Kveldulf nodded.

“Is she a good witch?”

“There is no good or evil in magic. Only power.”

Sigurd blinked confusedly. “So is she a good witch, or not?”

“If you like to think of it in those term, yes. Helg is a good witch.”

“Oh. That’s good.”

Half-dragging, half-shambling over the leafy ground, they passed the thorn-hedge and trudged inside the cottage. As the door shut, they could hear the first strains of a howl of rage and frustration.

CHAPTER THE FOURTEENTH

Helg’s little house was much as Kveldulf remembered it. The thatch still smelled of warm, damp straw, the many bottles and jars that lined the shelves still exuded every imaginable perfume and tang and reek. There were dried animal skins hanging from the rafters, and several cutlets of mutton and pork smoking over the fireplace.

As soon as they got Sigurd laid out into a small cot of straw, Helg began looking him over, checking his injuries, acting the herb-nurse.

As she worked she spoke in a low, friendly murmur. “Best get those wet rags off. Here’s a nice warm blanket. Fancy a bit of tea? Now where does it hurt?” After wrapping his gashed chest with a thick gauze bandage that was wet with something pungent, she took the now drained mug from his white hands. “Feeling a bit warmer?”

He nodded.

“Good, good. You’ve lost a lot of blood, but by the time the birds are singing tomorrow morning you will be as right as rain, or nearly so. For now, the best thing for you to do is sleep.”

“Yes,” said Sigurd, with a sudden weariness. “Sleep.” He lay his head on a pillow stitched together out of pieces of felt, and was soon snoring.

“Bless him, sleeps like a babe.”

With his dripping cloak left by the door Kveldulf now warmed himself at the fire. “I suppose he must have a good conscience.” He looked at Sigurd with a cool detachment. “What did you put in his tea?”

“A bit of this. A tad of that. Just to help him sleep. So as we can have a good private chat. We need to, I think.”

Kveldulf stood, stretched his shoulders, and walked over to a stool beside the rough and time-stained table. A copper pot of steaming tea sat on the bench and two leather mugs.

“No, don’t worry,” said Helg, as Kveldulf eyed the steam. “I haven’t sprinkled any sleepworts in your brew. Fill your mug, warm yourself. Let’s talk.”

Kveldulf took the mug and sat down. He stared at the rising steam and took a deep breath. “I am troubled. Troubling thoughts have entered my mind.”

“Being chased though the night by an eerie creature will so that, or so I imagine.”

“No. Or, yes, but that’s not the trouble.” Kveldulf looked about the room. It seemed empty but for himself, Helg and the slumbering Sigurd.

Helg watched with intense interest. “Do tell?”

“What did you see that night, Helg? When I spoke to you from the shadows. What did you see there?”

Helg was silent. She took a sip of her tea and at length replied, “I think you know.”

“I recall a story from my youth. A lad named Edgierr was always in a rush and always clumsy. One day he wanders into the hearth-room where his father is entertaining guests. Not unusually, he trips over nothing and one of the guests bursts into laughter. Now, no one wants to say anything because although it is impolite to laugh at someone stumbling the guest was a seer. A soothsayer. When Edgierr can’t bear the laughter any more he says, “Why do you mock my poor clumsiness?” But the seer rubbed a tear from his eye and said, “I am not laughing at you, I am laughing at what everyone else cannot see. You were in such a hurry to come into the room that you tripped over your own fylgiar. You should see what you look like stumbling into a goat.”

With a thrumming in the back of her throat Helg laid down the mug of tea. “The follower. The double walker. It is said by some that a few ‘lucky’ folks are followed through life by an attendant spirit. Invisible but helpful.”

“And in the shape of a beast,” said Kveldulf. “And there are those who know magic to make their fylgiar solid and real. Shamans who can conjure up a fearsome beast to slaughter foemen. Bear shamans. Eagle shamans.”

Helg looked at the table and stretched her old, thin fingers out on the wood. “And wolf shamans too, so I have heard.”

“Have I been deluded all this time? Did the she-wolf go off on some other path, long ago? Or did I already kill the she-wolf, and taken her curse from her, like a cloak about the shoulders? Is there no worker of slaughter but me in my own fevered dreams?” Kveldulf rose unsteadily to his feet. He looked at Helg. “Who is the wolf that follows me? Is it me?” As he began to pace his voice strained. “Did I kill my own wife and children? Dear Ladys of Bright and Dark,” said Kveldulf, “but there have been attacks when I was not spirit-walking. I’m sure of it.” He hung his head and held his forehead against his palms.

“That faer glamour that was chasing you just now, you did not look very closely at it, did you?”

“It was swift upon us and we had little time. I saw it as a black shape. I smelled lavender. Alraun must have made it into a seeming to trick me.”

“Kveldulf, Kveldulf, Kveldulf. You did not want to look at it. Believe me. I know more than a little about self-deception. If you do not want to look at it, then why?”

Kveldulf found himself unsure of the answer.

Helg snorted. “Now, I looked, really properly looked at that creature in the shadows before you plunged your little iron knife into it. Know what I saw?”

He answered stiffly. “A wolf. Alraun’s illusion.”

“No. I saw a great shaggy, shambling monster. But, at its heart nothing more than one of Alraun’s concoctions of magic, swollen to terrible size by his anger, and glamour, and fear. If you had only looked at closely you would have seen through all the layers of illusion and magic with ease. You might have reduced it to whatever Alraun made it out of before it was even upon you. Truth can have a great deal of power over englamoured things.”

“But I wasn’t willing to look at it closely,” he said. “I was afraid that it might not be the other wolf. I was afraid of seeing the truth. I wanted it to be her. It would mean I was not mad. I was not the murderer… if she were really here.”

Helg shrugged and let her brow draw into a dark knot. “Perhaps… and yet…”

“And yet?”

“You may not be mad, Kveldulf. There is another presence in the forest. A shadow that has passed into the Veld. It is old and elusive, but I have sensed it.”

“Demons of air and darkness will wander. It could be any old wayward wild spirit or wandering shadow.”

“Or it might be your she-wolf. I cannot say. Whatever it is, it goes too quietly among the shadows for my scrying eyes to see. It is clever and subtle.”

“Helg, tell me truthfully, without evasion, what did you see that night you spoke to me?”

“Bah. I’ll do better than that. I’ll tell you what I can see this very moment. Do you know what I see when I look at you with my one sharp eye?” She blew one long, cool breath across her piping tea and then gingerly took a sip of it. “I see this: I see a bedraggled man who looks as if he has walked the line between life and death too long. But, I see something else too. Behind him, right there,” and she pointed one swollen knuckled finger, “I see a monstrously large, black wolf. He is scratching his left ear with a paw as we speak. His tongue is lolling out.”

He looked over his shoulder. The room was empty but for shelves and sacks and dust.

“I bet you frighten dogs and cats. Bah, I say. They are not frightened of you.” She pointed. “They are frightened of him. Now he is sniffing about the room.”

“How can I have lived this long and not see the truth of this? Not understood?”

“Oh, don’t give yourself so little credit. Of course you understood. You understood long ago. You’ve simply not wanted to accept it. The power to believe a reassuring lie is a powerful thing. And who would want to believe in an invisible tag-along wolf the size of a bear? Who could see the reflection of that thing, and not deny the truth of it. Who could see it, and not pretend that it isn’t quite what it appears to be? Oh no, that can’t be my other-soul. It must be some other demon-thing.” Helg began to nonchalantly stuff her pipe. “You have known all along, Kveldulf. Deep down in your gut, I think you have always known that when you go dream-walking, you do so in the shape of a wolf. So, what if you did choose to push it all into the back of your skull, and pretend, and hope? You know what, deary? That doesn’t sound mad. That sounds human.” She jabbed the pipe at him, “but enough is enough. Now, you must learn to master yourself,” and then pointing at nothing, “and him.”

Kveldulf felt his blood seethe with a chillness, he sank slowly to the floor and for the first time in two hundred years his eyes began to wet with tears. “She said she would be revenged on me. Well, she has had that, and more.”

“Her revenge on you will only last so long as you do not master yourself. Learn to control the beast within and the beast without, Kveldulf, and you will throw off her vengeance.”

Rising on unsteady feet he trembled for a moment, emotions chasing thoughts after memories through his mind. “I am a fool,” he said. “I have lived in the belief that I was the only living person who might yet end the bloodshed of the she-wolf. Now, this? After so many years? After so many lives? Now, I am not even sure that she really was following me at all?” His voice shook with rage. But as he spoke, there an eerie howl arose outside the cottage, some short distance away. Kveldulf stopped short, stared at the door, and said, “Alraun’s glamoured beast?”

“Presumably,” said Helg. “You didn’t kill it, I think. Just hurt it a bit. Broke it apart, so to speak. The creatures that were concealed in the pelt may well have regathered themselves. You left the skin outside, didn’t you?”

“Yes.” He waited for a minute, and listened as strange noises grew stronger, as the weird voice bayed and snarled in the woods, somewhere not very far away. “I have to see it. This faer thing, to be certain in my own heart. I need to look at it, and see what it really is, and see how badly I was deluded.” He took to a brisk pace, and, flinging the door open with a loud thud, he walked into the night with a stricken purpose in his strides.

The door swung on the hinges a few gentle creaks before Helg got to her feet, shuffled over and shut it. “Well, I s’pose I should keep the tea hot for when you come back, all wet and miserable then.”

-oOo-

The night was a myriad tangle of woven shapes and darkness. Lurid, ghastly trees clawed at his face and clothes. He had not paused to pick up his cloak from its hook on the wall, and soon, he was streaked with wet earthy stains.

At the place where he had left the wolf pelt on the ground, it was gone. The faer creatures had returned and stolen the skin back into the woods. He stood, listened, then turned, and picked a new direction, towards the strange predatory noises in the dark.

Striding into an open clearing at the river’s edge, he saw it. Lurking on the far bank. It was much as Helg had said. Not a wolf at all. Yes, there was something wolfish in it. But also something of the bear, and fox, and perhaps even the stoat and hawk. Lurching its great head up its eyes flashed beautiful gold-flecked red. From jaws that issued a long, snarl there dripped poisonous looking saliva mingled with darker blood.

It cleared the stream in one powerful leap as Kveldulf let himself sink to his knees. He did not close his eyes to pray because he did not want to pray to civilised gods or goddesses anymore. He sought in his heart the old, half-forgotten patrons of his father. Those dark, doomed gods. He wished above all else to be taken away to the past, where all things seemed in his memory to be simple, and happy.

As he knelt, a wet drop cleared a furrow on his dirt-rubbed face, and the monstrous creature advanced, one careful paw after another. It lowered its head and its breath made a snickering, expectant sound. He took his iron dagger in hand, intending to kill the creatures that made up the illusion rather more permanently this time. There were only a few more paces for those long loping strides to cover when the creature stopped, and then sprang back. Suddenly, the fearsome creature enacted a comical mime. It bit, and leapt, tore and slashed with those curved talons. But what it fought, only it could see. Great gashes opened on the creature’s flanks, and blood, shimmering like moonlight, spattered the air and earth. With wide, unbelieving eyes, Kveldulf stared as Alraun’s pet force of nature was lifted clean off the ground, and held there, like a prop in some cheap conjurer’s trick. Magical, living blood fell in a rain, and it howled and shrieked and writhed in pain. It had taken too much punishment it seemed, and disintegrated into the same five smaller creatures from before, as well as the flapping and empty pelt. But now, when the creatures tried to run or creep away, they did not escape. One after another, the small faer creatures were quickly and cleanly dispatched, each of them torn apart by something huge and invisible.

Kveldulf stood up, one trembling leg at a time, and forced himself closer to the carcasses that were now scatted in the leaves. Their skulls were crushed, their ribs torn open, and blood, rich and pale, matted the ferns and fur they had instead of hair.

“Dear gods,” said Kveldulf.

A strange gleaming flicker sprang up all over the corpses and Kveldulf shielded his eyes from the glare. With a blaze, and a whisper, and a plaintive suffocated sound like chiming bells, the dead faer creatures shrank, and withered and turned back into the mist and magic from what they had been conjured. All that was left were five impressions in the ground, a torn skin, and the quickly fading, faintly glowing spatters of blood.

A moment later, Kveldulf felt something warm and wet pass along his fingers. Still in the company of nothing but empty, cold air he looked at the back of his hand, and stretched it out in front of him. A streak of pale faer blood ran along the skin, much as if the arm had been licked by a very large, very bloodied tongue.

-oOo-

Two hours later and it was raining. The drum of water falling on the thatch of the cottage and the irregular drip-drop of runoff made for an almost musical sound. Helg sat in her chair, a tangle of forgotten knitting on her lap, and listened to the lull of the rain. The shawl she was knitting had not proved much of a distraction while waiting for Kveldulf. After making three mistakes in one row she gave up. Perhaps she could mix some blue in with the pattern? Helg did like blue, though any blue dye that held better than wode was expensive.

When a knock rapped on the door, she craned her head briefly around before turning here gaze back to the fire. “Just about nodded off to sleep waiting for you. It’s not locked.”

The door creaked open, but no footsteps heralded his entrance. A chill draught guttered the flames and Helg had to turn about again. “The door is not locked against shutting it either.” Kveldulf’s hair and skin glistened with rain. There was no movement about him but for the purls of rain that rolled over his skin. He did not even shiver. His eyes stared with a haunted intensity.

“Come in, come in.” Helg frowned. “You’ll catch your death’s cold out there.” Then knotting her brow, she checked herself. “Or in your case, I suppose not. You’ll be miserable with cold anyways, and you are letting a chill in. And maybe I’ll catch my death’s cold, eh? Try not to track mud onto my floor.”  She watched in silence as he stepped across the threshold, pulled off his mud-streaked boots. Each of his movements was perfunctory. She tutted her tongue with exasperation. “Men, always making a mess and never cleaning up after themselves.”

When he spoke, his voice was clear but devoid of emotion. “I have been thinking.”

“Good. Now there is something you have not been doing enough of, eh?” The knitting she heaped into her wool basket. “Spot of tea?”

Without seeming to hear her, Kveldulf paced across the room. The sodden soles of his hose left wet footprints on the floor. The cottage allowed him only a dozen steps before he had to turn and pace back again. “I should go away. Lose myself deep in the wilds. Find some place where no one else lives. Some place where I will not be a threat to anyone. Perhaps, eventually, I will grow old and die. Given enough time.”

“No.”

“What?” Kveldulf stopped and looked both angry and amused. “It seems the best thing to me.”

“It seems the worst thing to me. How long have you been running, Kveldulf? How long have you been denying yourself? And now you want to run farther and further? Deny yourself to the point of living like a beast in some godforsaken wilderness? No, that is wrong.”

He neither moved nor let his face express anything other than grave attention. “Then tell me, what would you suggest? That I go on happily as I am? My hands are stained with enough blood, I think.”

She gave a small, dry chuckle: “Then it is time to unstain them.” She ran her fingers over her skirt. “Now where’s the kettle-snatch? Ah, where I left it of course.” Using a crooked length of iron she hooked the kettle off the hearth and set it on a worn old potholder. Steam boiled out of its mouth. “Running,” said Helg, more to herself than to Kveldulf, “always running. When will you stop running? Here now, get this down your gullet,” and she held out a mug of tea.

He took the mug in two hands, and inhaled deeply, evidently savouring the rich steam. The tension in his face drained away a little. His shoulders sagged. “What can I do then?” Sitting down on one of the stools, he took a sip. “What can I do?”

“Take off your wet shirt for a start. Here, I’ll get you a blanket.”

He laid the mug aside and removed his jerkin before wrapping his shoulders in the rough blanket of grey wool that Helg offered him. She watched him fidget against the wool. “It itches,” he said without much emotion. “So all these years have I been chasing myself? Running from myself? It does not seem right. It does not seem real. How can I have been such a blind fool? What am I to do?”

“Learn to master yourself. Didn’t you yourself tell your friend there that there is no good or evil in magic? And don’t go denying it, I heard you. If you had mastered yourself years ago, you would not be in this situation. But no. You let you magic run wild, like a dog off a chain, and it did what it did best. It hunted. And when it was bored with hunting deer and sheep, maybe it did hunt dogs? And when it was bored with dogs–” Her voice trailed away. “You are quite the silly ninny. What have you been doing all these years?”

With an icy smile he said, “Killing, it seems.”

“Granted. But, more to the point, you have been denying what is as plain as your nose, and just as much a part of you. How many mornings did you wake up all cut and scratched? How many sheep and horses have turning up dead when you pass through a town? How many people?”

He set the tea down, sat for a moment deathly still, then leaned forward and held his head against a balled fist. “I cannot recall…”

“Because you have worked very, very hard to forget. Well, if you are going to keep on running, then that is just fine and dandy.” She waved a finger at him. “But I will not be here in another century to come crying to. Oh dear-oh-me-oh-my, good folks keep getting themselves slaughtered around me. Whatever am I to do?” The last words she spoke were almost cruel with sarcasm “Woe. Is. Me.”

With a trembling hand, he picked up the mug of tea again. “I just need to think.” Two rust hued drops spilled on the wood as his grip faltered.

“No, what you need is sleep. You look like the Night Queen herself has been riding your shoulders.”

“She has.” He took a sip of the tea. “Or have I been riding hers?”

Helg sat back by the fire and folded her hands over her lap. “Oh, whoop de do. Poor dramatic you.”

As Kveldulf sipped the tea, his eyes grew steadily swollen and red-rimed, until they looked boiled. Soon he was desperately blinking back sleep.

Helg raised a querying eyebrow. “There’s a nice pile of furs over there. You can stretch out, drop right off I warrant.”

Through a stifled yawn he replied, “not tired.”

“Yes you are.”

She watched the realisation dawn on his face. His weary gaze fell to the mug of tea, now almost empty. “Oh,” he said before slouching forward. As his brow touched the table his eyes shut and his breathing turned deep and steady.

In the moment that sleep took him, the air all about his body began to simmer. A gust of wind ghosted through the house, billowing the hearth-fire into a roar of flames and clattering through the pots, salted meats and charms that hung from the rafters. As the wind died, and the blaze turned back to a steady smoulder, a shadowy apparition appeared in the room. It solidified as if it approached through a blanket of fog. It was, thought Helg, quite a regal beast, in its own, predatory way, with its eyes like frozen dawn and its sleek black fur. Turning a long muzzle to Kveldulf’s sleeping body it sniffed, once, profoundly. “A mean trick,” said the wolf and its voice was the sound of wild hunts from time out of mind.

“I still had some of my sleeping draught left,” and she snuffed indignantly. “And clearly, you were going to try and stay awake until you fell over from exhaustion. Now, I’ll have to lug him… you, I suppose… over to the furs. You show no respect for the work you give your elders by just dropping off where-so-ever you likes.” She fixed a questioning gaze upon the wolf. “Would you like to see yourself? I’ve a mirror hereabouts.”

Indecision hung in the air. The wolf sniffed again the sleeping Kveldulf and said eventually, “Yes.”

The mirror was an old oval piece, with a frame of filigree wood. It clinked as Helg picked it up from a shelf near a window.

Pawing closer, the wolf narrowed its firelit eyes, stared into the reflection, and made a throaty sound that was half-growl, half rumination. As his eyes danced from mirror to Helg, his voice turned deep, primal and velvety: “But you not afraid of me?”

“No. Anywhere else in the Veld, and yes, I would be knocking my knees together. But here? I am no petty hedge-witch, Kveldulf. This is my domain.” She waved a roving hand to take in the room. “Here is the seat of all my charms and powers. I have my arts, and you should not think to test them. You would find it unpleasant, I think.” Bu then Helg sighed, put the mirror back on the table, and let her voice relax into something friendlier. “So, what will you do tonight? Go play in the dark woods?”

“The wilds would be pleasant. Cold air, and clear, fresh rain. I smell deer.”

Helg shambled past the wolf, and with her skeletal, mottled hand, she eased open the door. “Then go, if you want it. Take the night. Do as you always do. Hunt and forget.”

The wolf stood poised, as if ready to spring forward and pounce on the night itself. All the hair along his back bristled. “I was trying to remember something. Trying to keep something in mind when I feel asleep.”

“Really? Well I don’t suppose it matters much. You can go and hunt, and remember it tomorrow, yes?”

“No. It was important.”

“And what was it?”

The wolf shook its head and its mane, not quite grey, not quite black gleamed and shone as it did. “Perhaps a hunt… perhaps…”

The sound of the door slamming shut was enough to cause Sigurd to stir, but not wake. The wolf hunched back like a dog with a cat on its nose.

“I really tried to give you a chance, Kveldulf. I let you make a choice. Let you decide. But again, you choose the hunt, the wild night, the forgetting. Again you choose to shirk you mortal soul.” Helg began advancing on him, her one eye a tight slit, her weak fists trembling. “How can I hope to help you, if you will not help yourself?” She saw the thought occur to the wolf, spied the gleam in his eyes. It looked from to the closed door to her again. Quick as a shadow it leapt the table and landing lightly, bounding for the door. Helg raised an old hand and snarled out an old name of power. The wolf never made it to the door. It crashed mid-air into invisible hands and was forced, struggling, to the floor of the humble cottage. Snarling and biting, it let out a scream. “Let go of me. Let go! I will tear you limb from limb. I will kill you, rend you apart.”

“I doubt that very much, Kveldulf.” Helg was standing over the wolf now, glaring. “Quit your struggling. What were you trying to recall? What, Kveldulf? What?”

Dishevelled and panting, the wolf stilled. Its great eyes like liquid amber turned distant. “I was trying to remember something. A decision.”

“Yes?”

“I had decided something. Before I fell asleep.”

“And?”

The wolf shook its head, and firelight cast an orange sheen over its fur, a glow that rippled with each small movement. “I promised myself that I would not go hunting. I would not give in to the lure of the hunt. Not tonight. Not ever. I would control myself.”

Helg grinned and all her old, yellow teeth shone in the light. “The wild night beckons. You said it yourself, pup, it calls you.”

“I am not listening.”

“The wild, Kveldulf, it calls to you. There are swift deer nibbling the last shoots of autumn, and fat swine munching acorns. The rain sings in the trees. The stream burbles music, tra-la-la-de-la. Do you not want all of that for your own?”

“No. Not ever again.”

Slowly, very slowly Helg let the sorcery ease from the wolf’s back. “So, maybe there is some humanity left in you after all? I was beginning to wonder. Are you a man who walks as a wolf, or a wolf who walks as a man?” She shrugged. “But there may be some hope for you.”

“I will not hunt.” The words sounded more hopeful than certain.

“Good. You can spread yourself by the fire if you like. Just don’t get too close. There is pine on the hearth, and it does tend to spit and pop.” She shook her head. “No wait, on second thought it would not do to have Sigurd wake up during the night and find a great, shadowy wolf lounging in my cottage. Best if you go out and spend the night in the woodshed, I think.”

“I would rather stay here.”

“Of course you would. Away from the temptation of the night?”

“Yes.”

“You will have to face it sooner or later, Kveldulf. Better sooner than later.” Helg did not bother to walk to the door. She reopened it with a wave of the hand and then said, “out you go, boy.”

The wolf snarled and said, “call me that again and I’ll,” but Helg breathed a sigh and cut him off. “Really, I haven’t got all night, and now, I am letting the cold in. The way you disregard the trouble it takes to keep a house warm, I half think you were born in the snow.”

With reluctance in every movement the wolf that was Kveldulf’s other self rose to its feet and padded to the door. He stood frozen and sniffed the air.

“The woodshed is over there. To the right.”

“Thank you.” And he trotted into the inky black of the night, and disappeared into the shed.

Helg sighed and shut the door.

CHAPTER THE FIFTEENTH

A resounding crack split the air.

Kveldulf opened his eyes.

He lay sprawled on the pile of rugs, shirtless but otherwise still clad in clothing that was half-damp from last night. Wan morning light stabbed through holes in the weave of the curtains. Throbbing pain pulsed in his forehead. Gently touching fingers to his scalp, he found the waxy scar. By noon even this trace of his fight with the faer-thing from the night before would be gone. He brushed a lock of hair over the injury to make it less obvious.

The air shook again with a violent crack.

Kveldulf found his shirt on a wicker rack that was set near the hearth. The coarse linen was washed and dry, if stiff, and smelling slightly of smoke. Helg had been busy. Pulling the shirt over his head, he then wrapped his cloak about his shoulders. The doeskin cloak had not been washed, and still smelled of wet and mud. The mustiness of the cloak made Kveldulf forcibly recall the night. Up until this moment he had been drifting in the half-awareness of a person only somewhat awake. But now, memories came surging back to him like a black river. He recalled the river, the deer, the campfire in the woods. A shadow moving in the trees. The death of the faer creatures who had been pretending to be a great beast. The mirror, reflecting his own eyes. Wolf’s eyes.

Still, very still, he stood for some time. The muscles around his eyes clenched tighter and tighter, until his vision turned from black to red and then fiery. He did not want to remember. He tried to block it out, forget it, as he had a hundred times before. He tried to make the sharp, bright pain blur into forgetfulness.

And for a moment he was winning.

Forgetting.

But through it all came his mind’s own voice. His promise to himself. I will not hunt. I will not forget. It had been important to swear to that. Something about the night had made a change in him. Two needs warred. To remember or not? To be aware of the pain, or forget? And at the point where he wanted to remember just a fraction more than he wished to forget, it became clear.

Too clear.

The realisation came back to him. The understanding. There was but one wolf, and it was he. It was some minutes before he could summon the energy to walk to the door.

The sunlight forced Kveldulf into a brief fit of blinking, as his eyes adjusted. Morning shone over a forest filled with a hundred thousand branches glittering with drops of last night’s rain. The air smelled richly of wet leaves, and was heady with thin steam that rose from the warming soil.

More memories came back to him, not just from last night, but from the roll of years. He pushed them aside. Later, he told himself. Later. He would think about it later.

“Kveldulf. You’re up at last.” Sigurd stood in the yard, breathing deeply, his arms slick with sweat. He had an old, slightly rust-spotted axe in one hand that gleaming along one recently sharpened edge. Before him stood a chopping block, to its left, a pile of kindling and also some half-hewn logs. Indulging in the effort Sigurd took the axe up in his two hands, swung it in a arc over his shoulders and then brought it down on the block with all the power of his arms and chest. The air shook with the impact, and the log on the block split cleanly in two.

“What a helpful lad he is.” Helg was standing in a patch of sunlight, leaning on her crooked walking staff, her pipe gripped firmly in a smile. “Such a helpful lad.”

Kveldulf nodded and let his expression mellow from grim to merely grave. “If you are weary, Sigurd, I can take a turn at the block.”

“Not at all.” Sigurd’s voice rang with the sort of thoughtless contentment some people find in a simple task well done. “Not since I lived on the family steading have I had a chance to do such good, earthy work.” He picked up one of the offcuts and balanced it on the block. “Besides, Helg was saying she wanted a word with you when you woke.”

“Such a kind lad.” She blew a wisp of smoke into the air, where the sunlight set it ablaze. “You know, usually I have to hire old-man Horst’s good-for-nought son to chop my firewood over the winter. That lad is as lazy as a pig, and charges a me a two of the Eorl’s copper gawns for the job.”

“Shameless,” said Sigurd before another blow fell.

Agreeing with a slight nod, Kveldulf turned to Helg. “A word?”

“Yes. Let’s go indoors. You can help me get the breakfast ready. I’ve a hankering for pottage, mutton, mushies and black sausage, all in a good fry-up. Nothing better than that for breakfast, eh?”

“I can almost taste it already,” said Sigurd cheerfully.

Kveldulf’s knotted his brow a little, but managed another polite nod all the same.

Once inside, Helg piled cabbage and mutton onto a chopping board. Soon her dull knife was working rhythmically. Kveldulf took up the chore of stoking the smouldering hearth into a decent fire. All the while, he bit his tongue, waiting for Helg to say something. As the silence stretched he asked, in an offhand way, “Has Sigurd forgotten the creature in the woods?”

“Sigurd? No, but in the plain light of day he can see that it was obviously a wolf. Maybe an unusually large wolf, but a wolf nonetheless. He is happy I think to be alive. Being so near death will do that to a man.”

“So I am told.” The twigs began to curl in the heat. Soon small tongues of fire licked along them.

“Here, help me with this.” Helg had set out a big copper pan on the table. “Can you peel an onion and chop it up. Then I can fry it with the pottage. So you remember?”

Kveldulf leaned heavily against the table, and fixed her with a distant gaze. “Why?”

“Why, what? You have to be more specific, lad.”

“Why make me face… it.”

Helg was hesitant, sounding almost guilty when she answered. “Yourself? The truth? Well, would you rather live a lie?”

“Perhaps.”

Helg breathed a sigh. “Hm, be that as it may, I couldn’t have it. Other folks couldn’t have it, neither. Is not your soul crimsoned enough by blood? Would you put more lives at risk by letting your wild half run free and untamed forever?”

For a while, a silence stretched between them, and the only sound was that of the snick of the knife through a fat black sausage.

“Besides,” said Helg, “I think we may need you in full command of all your powers, both the corporeal and incorporeal, before long.”

“And why is that?”

“Hrmmm.” She shrugged. “Oh, this reason, that reason, a number of reasons, really. Cut the onion a little thinner, deary.” With a sigh she laid the dull knife down on the block and said, “Look, there is trouble in the Veld, and I fear what may come of it. There has been too much meddling with troublesome things, and now those same things are turning their eyes to the lands of mortalfolk.”

“You speak of Alraun?”

“I do. Mortal folk may wish for magic in their lives, but you and I know that magic has a price. Oh, by my mother’s grave, does it have a price, and the price is seldom worth the paying. How many times have I wished I lived a life never knowing so much as a half of my wisdom? Humph. Bah and humph. It is all a crock of bah and humph. Alraun’s price would be dear indeed.”

“He would steal souls to swell his court?”

“No. More ambitious than that, I am afraid. One hears rumours, if one knows the right languages. The sparrows and foxes and jays are all terrible gossipers and they go where you and I do not. They overhear the wild spirits. Alraun is dreaming up some strange plans.”

“Lilia.” Kveldulfs voice dropped to a hush. He laid the knife down. “No doubt, he plans to enthral her with magic and make her his. In truth, he said as much to me. When last we met he sent a hundred of his woodland imps and beasts at me. But you think he is setting his eye on the whole valley?”

“I believe so.” Helg picked up her short, blunt knife, stirred the pot with it, then used the point to drive home her words. “Alraun is a danger to us all, you, me, everyone.”

“Perhaps. But Alraun’s folk are fickle. One moment he may summon an army, the next he will dismiss it to listen to his poets. You cannot tell with the Midsummer Folk how their whims will play out.”

“But should the whim hold,” mused Helg, “Should Alraun raise an army of faer creatures, and make himself master of all the Veld? Well, I will be packing my belongings on a mule. I’ve no wish to be ruled by a king who did this to me.” She raised an arthritic finger and pointed at her puckered eye-socket.

“Aye,” conceded Kveldulf. “Nor would I.” Although, a touch of suspicion then crept into his voice. “Of course, you would have special reason to dislike Alraun. If I were to offer to help you, for I think that is what you are hinting at, how do I know it is not just some elaborate plot for revenge?”

“After all these years? If I were a vengeful sort, I’d have my revenge already. No, Kveldulf, take my advice, folk like you and I ought not dwell on the past. Madness lies that way.”

“He is powerful in his wild woods. Revenge would have been hard won. This might be your first chance at it?”

Helg’s worn, old face frowned. Her cheeks sunk, and her watery eye stared at him. “Look at me Kveldulf. Though not so ancient as you, I feel my years. These hands…” She held out one crooked hand, and her voice grew rich with memories, “Look at my hands. These were once the hands of a midwife. Of a healer. They were soft and agile and beautiful. Now, they are no more than trembling bone and gristle. As twisted and knotted as any branch of ivy.” She was right; her fingers were arthritic twists, scored with scars. “It takes a young heart to plot revenge and young hands to exact it. Anger? Rage? Vengeance? No. Not for me.” Her hands fell to her side, and her shoulders sagged a little. “You know what would happen if Alraun cast his net of enchantment over the whole Veld?”

“I have some idea. It would not be pleasant for anyone who lives here now.”

“The land would bloom with beauty, but it would all be illusion. A red apple hiding worms within. And ruling above it all a king of worms, with no care for the pains or joys of lesser things. Travellers would not come here. Our mortal neighbours over the hills would soon fear the Veld, then forget it. In time this little Eorldom would become a fabled memory. The dead would wake and dance with the living. There would be no endings or beginnings, and no free will, just living dolls dancing on strings of magic. And in time, one day, we of the Veld would awake and wonder who among us were the faer folk, and who were the mortals, and then, eventually, we would not even care.”

“And all those within would no longer know what it is to be human. They would be his playthings, in the end.”

Helg nodded, “Hope… love… free will, that what makes the human heart humane, would cease to be. The Veld would be no more than a wild, shaded valley full of wild, shadowy spirits. Spirits who once laughed with human voices. Spirits that would dance and die for their king’s amusements.”

They worked in silence for a while. The only sound was the repetitive, spit and thud of Sigurd working his axe outside.

“I should perhaps have a word with Lilia.”

“I think that would be wise.”

CHAPTER THE SIXTEENTH

As Kveldulf and Sigurd tramped over the small bridge that leapt the reedy bed of the river Woodbourne a cheerful greeting went up on the outer gates of the Toren. Guards brandished sun-glittering spears, as they called to one another on the battlements. A horn sounded. Three short, awkward blasts like goose-calls. Sigurd put his hands about his mouth and called out, “Halloo.” Immediately, several guards ushered themselves out through the gate, their faces beaming smiles.

“Sigurd! You fiend-defying dog.” A man with a heavy, dour face that was moulded into an oafish smile came striding ahead of the rest. “We feared the worst. As soon as Rosa heard you were missing she went to her room, and has stayed there all morning.”

“Ekard. How glad am I to see you!” And the two men clasped hands.

“Radewin came back a little after his son.” Ekard’s hairy eyebrows rose into arches. “The old hunter spun an unlikely story about a great hairy beast. The Gloaming Beast the churls are calling it now… if it be the same wolfish monster that has been savaging the stock.”

Kveldulf wondered if anyone noticed his own smile turn frigid at the mention of the beast.

“Yes. We barely escaped its jaws. It is a wolf grown to monstrous size. Old gap-toothed Radewin and his son escaped then? That is good.”

Kveldulf forced his smile to warm a little as he watched Ekard’s expression shift into an uncomfortable frown. “To tell the truth I suspected the old huntsman of having gone mad, and inventing some tale of strange beasts to hide an accident or crime. I owe him an apology. “Where is Meinard?”

Sigurd frowned. “Dead. The wolf got him.”

“And Lothar?”

Sigurd said nothing then, but shook his head, losing some of the gleam in his eyes. Finally, he muttered, “The same.”

“Blackest ice.” Ekard shrugged, “Meinard didn’t have much family, but someone is going to have to tell Lothar’s wife… weeping halls of the frozen.”

“They both died well.”

“He who dies well, is still dead,” said Kveldulf. It was the first thing he’d said. Many curious glances took him in as he spoke.

“True,” said Sigurd. “You are right. Whoever tells Lothar’s wife that her husband will not be returning needs to remember that.”

“Yes,” said Ekard, true enough. But, Sigurd, you need to go to Rosa. She was in a terrible worry over you… I have sent one of the men to her room, but she will want to see you.”

“Rosa,” said Sigurd, “Yes.” He and Kveldulf, and a few accompanying guards, walked through the gateway into the mud-and-straw courtyard beyond. Sigurd started to say something about going into the keep, but it turned out that Rosa was quicker than they were. Standing on the steps of the keep, her velvety, deep red dress was dull in the cloud-grey light. Her face was a little paler than Kveldulf recalled, and her eyes were blinking rapidly. She started forward at the same moment that Sigurd met her eyes, before stopping and affecting an air of forced nonchalance. “You are well,” she called out to them, in a rather formal, if trembling voice, as soon as they were near enough to hear clearly.

Kveldulf walked off a little to one side, and, glancing about, was immediately aware of the many eyes that furtively watched every gesture and expression of Rosa and Sigurd. The guards and the courtiers, stable-hands and servants alike knew about them. That much was obvious. The rumours about them must be thick as wet fog.

“I am well.” Sigurd stepped a little closer to where she stood on the stairs, and then taking one of her slender hands in his, he said, “That a lady of the Vaunt should worry for one of her humble thanes…”

“It is but my duty to care for my father’s men.”

“Yes,” said Sigurd and his smile seemed a little more tired as he murmured, “your duty. Yes.”

“We are both aware of this,” she said, quietly enough that most of the lingerers and eavesdroppers wouldn’t have been able to hear. “You must be weary and cold. You should come indoors.”

“Not at all. Kveldulf helped me safe to a cottage in the woods that he knew of. A kindly old spinster let us stay the night, and there we were quite safe, warm and well fed.”

Rosa’s eyes glistened, and she daubed a hand against one cheek. “Then, Kveldulf, if you would kindly accept my thanks, as I seem to owe you thanks again. And Sigurd, you should kindly let the treasurer know to whom of my father’s subjects he may direct a gift to, this spinster in the woods.”

“Of course.”

Turning from Sigurd, she touched a hand to Kveldulf’s arm and glanced a light kiss on his rough, bristly cheek. “It seems,” she whispered, “I now owe you two lives. We have much to talk of. Call upon me in a few hours. I should like to speak with you, and may need both your witch-lore and your knives. The witch who was in my rooms, the one you followed. I have heard some whispers of who she may be. It is, how can I put it? Unexpected, if true.”

Before Kveldulf could answer, Rosa withdrew and said to Sigurd, “Perhaps you are hungry then? Tired? In need of sleep, or medicines?”

“No,” his voice lowered to a gentler, reassuring tone, “I am neither hungry, nor tired, nor badly injured. That is the truth.”

“Then I am happy.”

Sigurd turned his bright eyes to Kveldulf and with an apologetic smile said, “I would like to spend some time with Rosa. Do you mind? We could meet over a mug of ale later?”

“Do I mind?” His mind elsewhere, Kveldulf had to repeat the question to understand it. “No, of course not. Not at all.”

“Shall we meet this evening, in the great hall?”

“I look forward to it.”

Rosa smiled. “And if you will call on me in the afternoon perhaps?”

“Certainly.”

-oOo-

There lingered a moment of silence, as Kveldulf climbed the steps, and then vanished into the yawning arch of the keep. Sigurd watched him leave, then turning to Rosa said, “Shall we walk to the millpond and talk for a while? We used to spend so many hours there in summer, but recently–“

“Yes,” said Rosa, “I think I’d like that.”

Close enough to brush one-another’s shoulders, they strolled out through the frowning gates, then down the road to vale and village below. All the while, Sigurd savoured her silent presence. He felt that nothing in the world, not the icy sky, or the leaden stone of the fortress, or the winter-blackening woods could sap his contentment in this moment. Rosa, though, remained wrapped in her own private melancholy. She would not smile at him, and kept her bright black eyes turned down and fixed on the flagstones of the road.

Sigurd gazed at her long enough to trace his eyes over every curve of her face and neck, and, receiving only the briefest flicker of an acknowledgment in return, began to worry. “Are you troubled? You seem somewhat–how do I put it? Your mind seems elsewhere. Your eyes are sad.”

“Oh, I am but worn and spent from a morning of fitful tears and dark worries. All morning I imagined I heard strange, wild cries on the air.” She shot him a brief ironic smile, “and all the while you were eating a fine breakfast in a warm cottage.”

Sigurd did not quite know how to respond to that. He watched her intently as she adjusted and readjusted the thick ermine-trimmed cloak that was wrapped about her shoulders. Try as he might, he could not fathom her mood. Her face was anxious and beautiful and pensive all at once. The complexity of her expression was confusing for him.

As they passed over the grassy sward that separated fortress from millpond, Rosa said, “You cannot imagine what it is like to be such a helpless thing. Some of the thanes went into the woods to look for you with pitch-torches and spears. But I? I, who love you more than anything else? I was left in a cold room, alone, fearing the worst. I would have given all I own and shall ever own to simply have been allowed to go looking for you.”

“I am sorry,” said Sigurd, with the feeling that he ought to apologise, but without clearly knowing why, or for what.

Rosa laid her hand on his arm and said, “No. It is enough for me that you are here alive, safe. Let us speak of other things.”

The stony presence of the Toren Vaunt slowly ghosted away as they walked. The wide slope of muddy grass, rich with the fresh smell of rain, spread out all about them then. At the bank of the millpond, the grass was wild and tufted. Beyond the last grassy tuffets, the gusting wind ruffled stands of bleak reeds and grey waters alike.

Sigurd’s brow knotted as he lowered his voice. “What would you speak of?”

“Perhaps that which we have not spoken of since spring. That which we must not speak of. Us.”

That made Sigurd pause in mid-step. “Your father has made himself clear on the matter.”

Rosa’s head jerked suddenly around, her eyes glistened with emotion, but before Sigurd could say anything more she looked up at the sky. “Of course, I love him dearly, and yet…” She wrapped her fur trim a little tighter. They were still perhaps just within earshot of Finold’s Gate, and the men who strode its battlements. Sigurd looked over his shoulder at those outer gates, and thought he caught the guardsmen momentarily forgetting pipes, their attention caught by Rosa’s raised voice.

“And yet?” whispered Sigurd. He lowered his voice still further to encourage her to do the same.

“Even though our witch-hunter has drawn out the poison of the curse, I still fear that the harm has been done. Father is not long for this world. His soul will fly, as sure as the last of the summer butterflies will die come winter.” She stepped across a hoof-churned tract of grass, hitching her skirt as she did. “If he should die before any formal arrangements are made–“

“Everyone knows who he intended you to marry. Our damned Freer has been sure of that.”

“And yet father has sent no formal messengers. No wax-sealed offer has been dispatched. No treaty signed. No replies in kind. Never in words so clear has he said: “Rosa is offered in marriage to the son of the Lord of Alebrand”. Unless you have heard different?”

“No.”

“I wonder if he has not delayed because of guilt? I wonder if he has not seen the error in his judgement, but been too proud to take back his first decree?”

“It is possible,” said Sigurd. “People might see it that way, if we suggested it.”

“And if my beloved father should die, then it will fall to whomsoever rules the Vaunt to decide our fate.”

“Lilia.”

A furtive smile curved on her full lips. “Perhaps.”

“But Lilia is…”

Rosa’s eyes dared him to speak. “But Lilia is what?”

Sigurd licked his lips. “No doubt your sister will be more inclined to allow you your own free choice in the matter.” He creased his brow. “I have vested too much faith in the word of the Freer. I see that now.”

“Blame not yourself. What a poor priest he would be if he were not able to make people place their faith in him?”

They wandered to the rushy banks of the millpond. The water looked cold. It smelled cold. Like a mirrored bowl of ice and iron matching the grey sky above. Reflected along the far shore, a line of old, bent willows stood with barely a leaf left to them. Over it all, watched the old mill with its walls of stained stone and its windows like eyes. Cobwebs as thick as clouds were slung under its eves and billowed in the wind. The grim, tireless wheel dipped and turned as waters sluiced past, as it always had, as it always would.

Rosa stepped a little closer to him, but Sigurd still felt too aware of the gaze of the men on the outer gate, or the possibility of passers-by. He used an excuse of examining the millpond and forest beyond to step away.

“The willows are as bare as bone, now. And even the oaks are less russet than brown. Winter’s first days are truly upon us soon.”

“How the village and land look so different season to season,” said Rosa, though she was looking nowhere but at Sigurd.

“I already long for the buds and flowers of May.”

“I remember laughing in the warm sun on this bank. And you, with me.” She paused and looked out over the waters with fond eyes. “Last summer.”

Sigurd smiled and looked down at the mud and dewy grass. “And we talked.”

“And dreamed.”

“And once or twice, I think we kissed.”

“Four kisses” said Rosa. “I remember each of them.” Peace filled the air for a time, the wind caressed only the thinnest branches of the trees, and all else was still. “Look.” Rosa pointed at the reeds of the far bank. Something sleek and white and graceful glided through the draping willow branches.

“A swan,” said Sigurd.

“I have always loved swans,” said Rosa. “They are such delicate, beautiful creatures to look at, and yet grown men are often afraid of them. I have heard it said that swans sometimes attack and drown swimmers. Just think of that: a fragile looking swan can kill a full-grown man.” She clutched her arms tight about her shoulders. “They seem such frail things.”

Sigurd stared for some time at her. He let his eyes wander over the detail of her beautiful face. A few stray strands of her ash-fair hair caught in the breeze and drifted free. Though he felt he loved her, and though he felt he knew her better than anyone alive, he found himself wondering what she was thinking about behind those dark, sparkling eyes. When he spoke he said, “And so swans are not so well loved by many. Admired? Yes. Feared by small children? Certainly. But seldom loved. If they were not such nasty, hissing creatures, more people might love them. Fear or love? I know which I would choose.”

“Choice,” said Rosa beneath her breath. “You, who have free will in this, choose lightly. I, whose life is chosen for me, have spent hours dreaming of the choices I might have made.”

“My choices have not always been easy or wise.” Sigurd gave a cold, dry laugh. “The life of a thane is not so enviable. It is cold, and dull, and wet with mud and blood and the stinking gore of stupid, pointless fighting. And when there is no fighting, then there exists only endless boredom. No, do not envy my lot, Rosa.” He shifted his shoulders uncomfortably and looked across the iron-cold pond with its one white swan drifting like a ivory ship behind the tangle of branches. “Come, let us not speak of such things. I do not know why you even want to bring this up. Let us speak of happier things: of summers to be, wines yet undrunk, and songs yet unsung. Though the days seem dark, we may find some happy thoughts to enjoy.” He searched for something else to say, and alighted again upon the ghost that had haunted them for so long, “Your father… you are right. Something has held him back from marrying you off. His conscience? You are right to say nothing firm has been set. Perhaps there is hope if he passes soon.” It was as Sigurd said this that he realised just what he had said. In words as plain as day he had told Rosa it would be a good thing for her father to die, and quickly too. He waited for the inevitable admonishment, the angry disbelief, but she did neither. Instead she stared at that swan. Perhaps she had not even heard him?

They stood for a time by the lake, as the clouds thickened overhead, and the wind chased ripples over the waters, and ruffled the swan’s immaculate plumage. After dipping its foraging head into the cold depths one last time, the swan looked once at Rosa and Sigurd, water dripping from its neck. Then it spread its bright wings, and flapping and pushing its legs awkwardly through the water, it climbed to flight. It circled higher, and then glided away southwards, Rosa craned her head back, watching it until the blaze of white was reduced to a grey speck. As the swan vanished, Rosa’s hand sought Sigurd’s, and clasped his fingers tightly.

“It flies south,” said Rosa. “Gone.”

“The swans will return in summer. They always do. And we can spend all the long lingering days here feeding them scraps of bread from the kitchen floor. The summer will be just as it was.”

“No. You are only half-right. The summer is eternal. But are we as timeless as the turn of seasons, Sigurd?” She breathed a sigh and shook her head. “You are too kind. Too kind with everyone, but especially with me. Maybe the summer will be as it was, be we shall not.”

They stood by the pond for a while longer, their fingers twined together, their breath mingling upon the cold air.

“There,” said Sigurd, pointing at the far bank. “By the bridge. I see another swan. Our summer is not gone yet.” Rosa looked up in time to hear Sigurd say, “No. I was mistaken.”

A trace of white moved swiftly beyond the willowy tangle where the bridge met the wooded road. As the white spectre moved into view, it did so not with fragile elegance, but with a quick, awkward gait that took her up the rise of the stone bridge in a few hurried steps. At the crest of the bridge she stopped, and looked at them, her pale dress falling still about her in many silken folds.

“Lilia,” said Rosa in a curious tone. “I wonder where she has been this morning to be hurrying around on her own?”

For a moment all three stood motionless, aware of each-other, but seemingly unwilling to acknowledge it. Standing deathly still Lilia, held them in a distant stare, just as Rosa gazed back across the corrugated waters. Just when it felt to Sigurd that the sisters’ silent glares must be about to fracture, the pale apparition that was Lilia broke off her gaze, and made a bolt quickly for the gates to the Toren Vaunt.

They watched her go.

“Let us return to the Toren,” suggested Rosa. “I am exhausted and need rest… and…” She gave Sigurd an apologetic smile, “there is something I have to do before meeting Kveldulf this afternoon. I’m so sorry. You’re barely back and I am making excuses to be alone. Sometimes I mistreat you.”

His first reply was a plain smile and a slight shake of the head. “Not at all. Shall we return then?”

“Yes. Yes, that we should. Thank you, Sigurd. Sometimes I do not think you know what you mean to me.”

“Oh, well,” he waved a hand and tried to joke. “I only mean to mean what I mean.”

“Yes,” she said. “But don’t we all?”

And they walked back to the fortress with Lilia, a pale slip of a shade, diminishing swiftly ahead of them.

CHAPTER THE SEVENTEENTH

He waited for her.

Deep in the garden, her garden, behind curtains of willow and hanging woodbine, he waited. Occasionally he imagined he saw something move out of the corner of his eye. Something large and dark, lurking in the overgrown tangle. But whenever he turned his gaze to stare straight at the thing that crept at the edge of his vision, he found nothing but air and leafy shadows.

“Can you hear me?” he said and reached out his fingers. For the briefest of moments his touch brushed along airy warmth. “Are you half solid then? Half real. Waiting for me to fall asleep.” As he said those words an abrupt, cold sensation pricked along his spine much as he imagined a dog might feel when its hackles raise. Starting at once, he laid a hand on the hilt of his steel knife and peered past the overgrown garden to the archway that lead into the Toren. Ghostly and pale, she drifted out of the dark portal. Her thoughts clearly elsewhere, Lilia walked towards him, almost blindly. At the trunk of the willow she sunk to her knees and covered her face with her hands. Many strands of her plain brown hair had come away from their braiding, and now streamed in the uncertain wind. He took a soft step closer, and realised she was shuddering beneath her heavy cloak. A step closer again, and he could see and hear that she was sobbing.

“Lady Lilia?”

She jolted like a deer struck by an arrow, and looked up at him with bewildered, wet eyes.

“You.”

“I am sorry. I was enjoying the air in the garden, but you did not see me. I have been meaning to have a word with you, though. Perhaps we might talk?”

“And what is it you want to tell me now, huntsman?” She rose unsteadily to her feet and bunched her cloak about her shoulders as if it were a protective shroud. “You pick a poor time.”

“I say again, I am sorry. I only mean to–“

But before he could say more, she advanced at him, her voice full of accusation. “Has Rosa sent you?” There was a light in her eyes he had not seen before. The shy glances and half-hearted tones were swept away under a torrent of emotion. “Well, huntsman, did she? Has she sent her new pet henchman to harass me now?”

“I come of my own accord.” Kveldulf felt an urge to step away from her, but kept himself planted firmly where he stood. “I mean only to warn you.”

Her eyes now looked as full of the promise of storms as the sky above. Kveldulf wondered at the change in her. He was about to speak, then paused, then said, “You have denied him.”

She lifted her chin and in a venomous voice said, “What do you know of it? Are you hunter and spy and sorcerer now?”

“I have no answer to that. In my life I have been called all three afore, and perhaps I am all three, and far worse, too. But, please, Lady of Vaunt, I wanted only to warn you about him. About all his kind. But–” Kveldulf knotted his brow. “I think I have misjudged you. Know this then. I have had dealings with the faer ones, and I know a little of their powers. You are not free of him. Not by a long measure. You will have to be strong, and sure, and wilful, if you are to be your own master again.”

She rolled her eyes and her mouth twisted into a strange smile. “Oh, what an insightful warning. How very insightful.” Her eyes shone with ironic light. Kveldulf thought for a moment she was about to burst into laughter. “So, you have known a little of that power? Well I assure you, my sorcerous hunting spy, I know a great deal of that power. Even here… even now… I want him. My soul craves him. Hungers for him. You cannot imagine. You cannot even fathom what it feels like. I feel like a wormwood-dreamer who, once benumbed by that drug, is now painfully awake and bereft of all their blissful dreams.”

“It will be difficult.”

“You know nothing of difficult.” She shivered and wrapped her arms around her chest. “My blood runs with pain.”

With a mirthless smile he said, “Do not mistake me for a man of easy life. I have lived a long and painful time of my own, Lady of Vaunt. Do not think to lecture me about the nature of pain.”

“Then we are done sorcerer. If you are quite satisfied with your warnings? I would now be alone. Scurry back to Rosa and tell her I am in tears. Tell her my heart is broken. Tell her I am in pain now. Tell her whatever you think will bring a smile to her face.”

Kveldulf looked at her, and made as if to answer, but then stopped, and stepped away from her. He glanced up into the flowing branches of the willow, and the dark clouds beyond. She watched him intently with an angry, hopeless expression. Finally, before he left he said, “If you want help from me before the end, you only need to ask.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

CHAPTER THE EIGHTEENTH

For the last months, Lilia had been planning to go away with Alraun on the moment of her father’s death. After her father was gone, after all, there was nothing left in the Veld to keep her. But now? If she were to stay, then she was also to rule. At that thought she shivered, not in excitement but in terror.

Lilia passed through the Toren’s winding, narrow corridors feeling as if she were seeing and smelling anew a half-forgotten world. From the musty scent of human occupation, to smoothness of clean white plaster, to the streaks of pink and black mould that grew where water had seeped between stones and through slate shingles. How had she once known all these sights and smells and forgotten them so utterly? Had Alraun and his dreaming engulfed her so completely?

She passed people in the hall and showed them each a wan smile. She stepped around two children who ran helter-skelter, slapping their hands on the walls. She wrinkled her nose as a churl passed her, carrying a pot of stinking tar, probably to patch up a leaking roof. So many people. People who a day ago would have seemed to her mere phantoms now passed her as solid and real, with their own potent whirring inner lives. The small quirks that are so very human took on a special significance. A gap-toothed smile. A curl of unruly hair escaped from a headscarf. A laugh. A swollen boil on the neck. Everything fell into sharp focus. The lives swarmed about her. Each so real and so unknowable, gave her a sense of being one small mote in an infinite universe. Lilia found herself overwhelmed by all the small details. Blinking rapidly, fighting for short, shallow breaths, she forced her way on. Desperately, she paced faster, looking for a way out. Lilia strode, then jogged, throwing frantic glances left and right.

Return to the garden. No. Not in the storm. Then where? Away. Anywhere. Away.

She picked up the hem of her dress and dashed forward as if she were late for church. The people she shoved passed were gawking at her now. Wondering faces. Bemused faces. All passing by in a blur… too much, too much, too much…

She careered into something solid, yet yielding, which held her and put tight fingers about her arms. She fought blindly for a moment, fought as an urgent unthinking need surged through her blood. She realised only too late that her thoughts were falling from her mouth. “Too much… too much… too much. I need my peace. Quiet and shadows. Need him. Need.” Her last words were simpered, “This is too much.”

The voice crossed a wide chasm to reach her. “There, there. Calm down.” Then slightly more firm, “People are staring.” Lilia searched for the speaker, and her panic settled a little. She focused on a matronly face, weary with cares, and stern about the eyes.

“Erma,” she said, “I… I am sorry… I am not myself.” There was no disguising the fear in her voice. Not from her aunt.

“I can see that, Lili dear. Have you already heard? You are acting like you have. We all understand of course. It must be terrible.”

Lilia took a small step back and wrapped her arms stiffly about her shoulders. Ribbons loosened in her haste now left her hair slightly bedraggled. She brushed a lock of her mousy hair from her eyes. “Heard what?”

“Oh dear,” Ermengard paused unsurely.

“Yes?” Lilia heard in her own voice a quavering note that surprised her. Firming her voice she said, “What is it?”

“I was looking for you and Rosa. Your father…”

“Father?”

“He had a turn for the better, had. August was hopeful, Lili, he really was.” Erma pressed her lips together and her eyes lost a little of their stern smoulder. “But now? The illness has worsened again, and swiftly. Your father shan’t suffer much longer. You should go to him now. While there is time.”

“But he yet lives?”

“For now.”

“Then there is yet hope.” Swallowing hard Lilia felt a cold knot sink into her gut. “I should go to him. I have been forgetting about father. These last days, I have been away in my own world, but he needs me. Now, more than ever.” Moving to walk away she paused, and stepped back to Ermengarde to kiss her lightly on the cheek. “Thank you. You have helped me just now, Aunt Erma. Helped me more than you know.”

Ermengarde’s face was curious. “Of course. I’ll be along soon. I need to find Rosa, too. Sigurd says that she went to her room to be alone, but she’s not there at all. Where has she got to?”

Leaving her aunt to puzzle over Rosa’s whereabouts, Lilia walked purposefully now.

Two steep staircases, and five sharp corners later, and she was pacing down the last hallway that led to door to her father’s room. The undertones of a low chant in the priest-tongue reverberated through the stone. She recognised the shrivening. Rites for the dying. With her attention focused so tightly, Lilia barely noticed a door opening to her right, and she only just scraped past the door in time to avoid being caught painfully on the shoulder.

“My apologies, m’lady.” A flustered pock-faced maid, balancing a heavy bowl of steaming soup on a platter, made a rushed apology as she came limping out of the doorway.

“Not at all,” said Lilia, “I should have been looking where I was going.”

“Thank you. Oh, but it was my fault. I’ve work, work, work. Endless work. The Eorl’s meal to deliver, not that he ever drinks much of it, begging your pardon for saying so, and then shirt’s to mend, then chooks to feed. But I’m boring you. You do not want to hear about my poor day.”

“That soup is for my father?”

“It is.”

“Here, I’ll take it too him.” Lilia smiled.

The maid hesitated, her eyes looked both suspicious and curious, but eventually she held out the bowl. “If you Ladyship insists.” As Lilia took the platter the maid’s expression turned grateful. “Thank you, m’lady. Too kind. Too kind.” She then vanished back the way she had come.

The oak-carven platter was smooth and warm in her hands. The steam wafting from the soup bowl was savoury, though the broth itself was thin, and had nothing more substantial than a few grains of barley floating on its oily surface. Lilia wondered briefly if the kitchens had not heard of her father’s turn for the worse. Why make up some soup for a dying man? Still, if Lilia could administer some of Snoro’s potion, and if her father would take just a few mouthfuls…

At the door to her father’s sickroom, Lilia listened to be sure no one was moving towards the door, then snuck a glance down the hall. With as much haste as she dared, she laid down the soup, and tipped in a few drops, about half of what remained. Restoring the vial to her belt-purse, she had to nudge forward with her shoulder to avoid spilling the soup. As soon as she stepped into the rank air of the room Lilia was struck by the mood.

The spectre of death hung over the Eorl’s sickroom. It rasped in his rotten lungs. It haunted the hopeless faces of the guards. It was there in the gentle, but resigned, ministering of the apothecary August, and in the nervous eyes, and white knuckles of the Freer.

And standing over all of this were three acolytes of the Freer, their dun-hued robes with the gold sun-embroidery as loose as dead flesh, their cowls pulled low. Silver incense burners swung from their pale hands, and it was these three monks who issued the unearthly chant.

Eorl Fainvant, her father, was a living corpse. Slick sweat shone on his gaunt and blue-tinged flesh. What remained of the greyed wisps of his hair lay wet on his scalp and pillow. But his eyes… his eyes were bright. Unnaturally, piercingly bright. He stared into space and mouthed thin, whispered words that no one but the Eorl alone could hear.

Lilia stole silently to the foot of the bed, and stood silent, watchful.

August looked up, and rubbed his purple-ringed eyes. His small smile was kind. “Is that for his lordship, m’lday?”

“The soup? Yes. A churl was bringing it for him. I took it and let her go on her way.” As she spoke, she did not remove her eyes from the skull-like face. “Father? Can you hear me?”

August was apologetic. “He is beyond hearing very much at all now, m’lady. Here, if I may? Perhaps he will take some broth.” He stepped around the bed and held his hands out for the bowl. Lilia handed it to him her eyes still trying to meet her father’s fever-bright stare.

“This smells good, lord Eorl,” said the apothecary. He took a small sip from the spoon. “Tastes good too. Not too peppery. Good, I keep telling them to put in less pepper, but they never seem to.” If the Eorl heard any of this he made no sign of it. Each breath rasped and shook in his lungs. August measured a steaming spoonful of soup into the Eorl’s mouth. The old lips smacked, but most of the brown liquid ran over his chin.

“Has he long?”

“Very hard to say for certain, Lady Lilia. Your father has always been strong. Why there was that time with the boar, and I thought for sure he’d walk with a game leg the rest of his life, but no, he would not have it. Up and about, no limp at all, in no time. Amazing.” He dribbled some more of the soup into the sagging mouth. Lilia watch her father’s abnormally protruding neck apple dance as he swallowed.

“Be truthful,” she whispered.

August nodded. “He may last the night. Though, more likely it will be only a few hours.”

“A few hours.” The words were hollow in her throat. Then even if Snoro’s potion were a curative, it might be too late. Already tears of futility and visions of loss were forming in her thoughts. She blinked rapidly to clear her vision.

“If you do not mind me saying, m’lady, I have seen many, many men die. And death now sits at your father’s bedside, as surly as you and I do. We can make him more comfortable. Ease his pains, but there is little else that…” Suddenly August stopped speaking, the spoon that was about to tip broth between the Eorl’s slack lips, froze, then trembled. Standing straight rather jerkily, first August’s hands then his arms, then his whole body began to tremble. The sound of the wooden bowl clattering on the stone floor rung through the room, as soup splashed in a puddle of steaming brown and fatty grey.

“Apothecary!” Lilia stared in disbelief as the elderly healer doubled up violently and fell to his knees. Two convulsions shook him. When the vomit came it was streaked with red.

One of the guards stooped down and put an arm around August. “Someone fetch some clean water.”

“Milk,” croaked August through a sticky mouth. “Milk, not water. Milk helps the stomach fight poisons. Milk… milk,” he rasped.

Lilia stood dumbly and stared at the ground. Sticky, hot liquid pooled around one of her feet, and as he lifted his heel to step out of it he said without expression. “The soup? Dear Ladies of All Things, the soup was poisoned.”

Even as the breath left her mouth, her father began to tremble on the bed. Scarlet streaks appeared at the corners of his mouth, and bubbles of blood gathered between his lips. One of the guards moved to hold the Eorl’s convulsing limbs to the bed and began screaming, “fetch the prentice! Fetch the apothecary’s prentice!” over and over.

Lilia took a step away from the bed, shaking her head and staring.

This could not be real. None of this could be real. Why would someone poison a dying man? Did the murderer not know? Had could they not realise he was dying anyway?

“Lilia.”

Whirling about with such shock that soup splashed at her feet, Lilia suppressed a startled cry that choked and squeaked in her throat.

“Sister?” said that sweet, strange voice.

How long had Rosa been standing in the doorway? Tilting her head, Rosa glared with those deep, beautiful eyes, and her voice danced from confused to accusing. “You brought father the soup.”

Long enough, thought Lilia, as she said “No, I… a chambermaid gave it to me.” It sounded a clumsy attempt to explain herself.

While chaos reigned in the bedchamber Rosa advanced her eyes smouldering with rage. “You,” she muttered, “you, you poisoner!”

“No.” Lilia made to step back but Rosa was too quick. They struggled briefly while the whole room erupted with yells and movement. Rosa’s one hand was clawing at Lilia’s hair and the other striking two ineffective, but vicious blows. Lilia stumbled back, raised her arms in defence and slipped on the pool of hot soup. Flailing wildly she fell and landed as if she had simply sat down with a strange violence. But as she hit the floor her belt purse sprung open and contents spilled over the woven reed flooring. A handkerchief. A few small trinkets. A small locket gold that belonged to her mother. A wooden vial.

A vial that rolled and ended its wandering journey across the floor just left of where Rosa was standing.

As Rosa stood fuming, her fists clenched by her side, her eyes wandered and set on the vial. Lilia realised too late what was about to happen. Stooping down and snatching it away before Lilia could move, Rosa stepped back, and gazed into the palm of her hand. Gazed at a roughly cut, corked vial. There were tears glistening in her eyes now. Real tears. This was not faked. Her reaction to seeing the vial had triggered something deep and enraged. The cork came off with a nudge of one thumb. When she sniffed it, she screwed up her face at the smell. “I recognise this. The hill-witch Snoro makes these.”

“No, Rosa, you misunderstand. It is a curative potion.”

“A potion? A potion snuck into father’s food no doubt? A potion that smells as sickly sweet as any venom?”

“No. The soup was given to me by a chambermaid. Her name was,” Lilia fought to recall. “She did not tell me her name.”

Rosa’s voice was a snarl. “How terribly convenient” With a glance at the vial she rounded her shining, black eyes on Lilia, and said, “and where did this phantom maid run to, dear sister?”

“I will show you, dear sister.” Lilia narrowed her eyes, and let indignation suffuse her voice. Everyone in the room was staring now. Everyone but their father. He was still trembling and stared at nothing but the ceiling. Let the rest of them stare. Let them see Rosa make a fool of herself.

Tilting her chin back, setting a bold stare at Rosa, Lilia strode out of the room, and turned right, sharply back along the chalky hall. At the far end, the apothecary’s prentice was now running towards them, his robes flapping about his feet as he ran in the tow of a guard who lugged a pale of sloshing milk.

Lilia reached the door just as the prentice and guard passed them. Wrenching the door open Lilia froze. The doorway led to nothing but a small, bare room. One of those vacated by the frightened courtiers or servants, perhaps. It was empty from floor to ceiling.

“She must have come in here only to slip out again once I was gone. She must have been waiting for me…” her voice trailed off, turning small and worried. “Oh, Goddess of Brightness. She was waiting for me.”

A strange expression played across Rosa’s face but vanished as she said, “I… I see it all now. All this time, others have pitied you for your tremulous, shy nerves. And I, I simply grew used to those tremors. I thought you trembled from weakness. Or from fear. But now I see. You trembles were of jealousy, and anger, and greed. You want the Eorldom now. And not content to wait, you have poisoned first our mother and our dead father too, to have it.”

“No. Rosa, think what you are saying.”

“Poisoner,” she hissed. “Witch. Murderess.” Her voice began as a low hiss. “Someone fetch me Kveldulf,” then she said louder and louder, “Someone fetch me Kveldulf. Kveldulf! Bring me my hunter.”

“Rosa,” Lilia raised her hands and tried to calm her own voice, “Stop yelling. The churls will all think you’ve gone mad.”

“Kveldulf!” screamed Rosa. One of the Eorl’s guards, the quicker witted man who had gone for the milk and prentice, his oxblood livery now spattered with the real blood of poor August, appeared at the door to their father’s room.

“My Ladies,” his voice was strained. “You father is dying. I apologise for my plainness but…”

“Fetch me Kveldulf. Now!”

His face slackened into an expression of bemused shock.

“Kveldulf, you simpleton. My huntsman, he has a room along the corridor, look for him there. If he is gone from his bed, then hunt the Toren Vaunt from spire to dungeon. Bring him here, immediately.”

She raised her hand to point. The guard paused, his brow darkened and knotted, and his eyes flickering from Rosa to Lilia. At length he nodded, if a little stiffly, and walking briskly down the hall in the direction that Rosa was pointing.

“Fifth door on the right, after the corner,” said Rosa, chasing her voice after him.

They stood in silence for a few moments then, the awful tension stretched taunt between them.

“I suppose,” said Lilia, “that we ought to go back to father.”

“So that you can gloat over his death?”

“Rosa!” I… I did not murder father. How can I make that more plain?”

“Liar. Deceiver. Oh, but I am sure Kveldulf will have his ways to make you spill the truth.”

“You would put your trust, the innocence of your very own sister, in the callused hands of a vagabond huntsman? Rosa? Please?”

“Vagabond huntsman? How foolish you are. Let me say this plain, now–witch-hunter.”

A profound silence clung to the inside in Lilia’s throat. She opened her mouth to speak but nothing, no stream of words, nor even a chocked cry of shock came out. When her voice recovered she said only, “you have hired one of those filthy, twisted men? No Eorl in all the roll of years that our family has ruled the Veld has allowed witch-hunters and hex-tellers to ply their trade in our valley. They are frauds, Rosa. Tricksters who feed off the fear of others. They murder more addled old crones than actual warlocks.”

“Brave words now, Lilia, but how brave will you be when he is done?”

“You are insane.” Lilia stepped away.

“Guardsmen!” screamed Rosa, “the murderess seeks to escape.”

But before guardsmen of the Eorl’s chamber could do more than appear, with their stricken faces peering at the door, a new presence entered the space. Did they all feel it as Lilia felt it? A cold chill that crawled along her spine.

His footsteps sounded loud and hollow through the stone and appeared long before he did. When he stepped into the hall, Lilia felt she did not recognise him for the change in his face. The old-fashion trim beard, and unruly black hair, that before had seemed merely incongruous on such a young man now looked threatening. The cloak he wore billowed about him like grey wings of a hawk. She had spoken with him only an hour ago, but now he looked so much darker. His eyes shone, even from a distance with intense contemplation.

Like a fat, satisfied cat, Rosa almost purred his name. “Kveldulf. We have need of your counsel.”

Still walking swiftly towards them he replied, “I heard.”

“The guard found you.”

“No, I heard.” His smile seemed to Lilia a little ironic as he said, “I’ve very good hearing.”

Taken aback a little, Rosa fumbled for her next sentence, saying at last, “I have found out who has been poisoning the Eorl.”

“Indeed?”

“It was my very own sister, my flesh and blood, who has betrayed the family, for greed and avarice and hunger for the throne.”

“Lies!” Lilia realised everyone was looking at her. Some worried, others curious, but Kveldulf’s gaze was inscrutable. “I mean, Rosa is mistaken. She thinks I’ve been slipping poison into father’s food when…” suddenly it seemed a difficult thing to try and explain.

“When?” said Rosa.

“When I have done nothing of the sort.”

“Accursed, ill-begotten whore!” Rosa’s balled fist swung out and struck Lilia just above the brow. Reeling and enraged, Lilia struck back, then pulled at Rosa’s hair, then clawed at her and screamed.

Half blinded by anger and struggling hopelessly, Lilia was barely aware of being dragged away. Staring through dishevelled hair and blurred eyes she slowly understood that Rosa too was being held by one of the Eorl’s guards. Kveldulf stood close by, his arms crossed firmly in front of his chest. His cold gaze flitting from Lilia to Rosa and back again.

“What in the nine names of night are you two at?” Kveldulf’s face was a mask of just restrained fury. “You father is dying, and you are here cat-fighting in the hall?” Taking two deep breaths, he then said slightly more calmly, “apologies, m’ladies, but you scream at one another like common brothel girls, drunk on sour ale.”

“She is the poisoner,” shrieked Rosa. “She delivered father’s soup. The soup that poisoned the apothecary. I was watching from the doorway. I saw it all. And she carries a vial of venom in her belt. It is one of Snoro’s. Look at it.” Turning to Lilia she spat, “Murderess.”

Lilia found herself barely able to string simple words together. All she could stammer was, “I did not poison father,” over and over. “It is a curative. I swear.”

“Whoever heard of the hill-witch making ‘curatives’? Here! This is it.” Rosa still held the vial in her fist and unfurled her fingers, to show it to everyone present. There was a bit of a murmur of voices. Apparently, Snoro’s vials were recognisable and he did not have a good reputation.

Kveldulf held out a hand and took the wooden vial from Rosa, then looked at it held between thumb and forefinger. He sniffed it tentatively, then shrugged, before asking Lilia, “Is this yours, my lady?” He held at arm’s length the wooden vial. Some of its contents had spilled, wetting the wood with oily red-black liquor.

How could the truth could hurt her? It was not a poison, after all. She had even drunk it herself to test it, not fully trusting Snoro. “It is. I bought it off of the dwarfie in the hills. But I swear again, it medicine only. For father.”

“Consorting with witches,” said Rosa. “A witch. A venomous servant of the serpent of darkness. That’s what she is. Poisoner. Witch. Murderess.”

One of the guards hazarded to say, “Many of the villagers buy potions from Snoro. Not everything he brews is a poison.” That drew an icy glare from Rosa, and he fell quiet.

Kveldulf took a resigned breath and narrowed his eyes, studying the vial. “My ladies, I am but a man of the hunt. I only hunt those things that other men fear, and some call me wise for it. Yet I am also a man who has had his full share of the dying, the vengeful, and the hysterical.” He nodded the Eorl’s man who had spoken before, standing tensely by. “You.”

“Yes?”

“Take what remains of this and spread it over a piece of raw mutton. Mind not to get any on your fingers. Feed the mutton to one of the kennel hounds. We shall see how poisonous it is.” Turning to the two sisters he frowned and his weary face creased with a few wrinkles. “As for the two of you? Freer, come forward.”

The small man blinked furiously. He looked horrified that someone had noticed him hiding near the corner of the door. He shuffled into the corridor. “You ask for me?”

“You are the keeper of the laws of the Veld?”

“As is the way of the Temples of the Glorious Sun, I am.”

“What say the elder laws of the Veld? Should the right of rule fall into doubt? One heir accuses the other of murder. What say you?”

The Freer did not want this. It was clear in his face, in his eyes. Lilia imagined from his expression that he was wailing inside his skull: why me? Why can I not just read my prayers and be left to my peaceful, full-bellied life?

“Well,” he said tentatively and licked his thin, chapped lips, “well, I suppose it would be right to confine both daughters. Until we are sure about the vial.”

“No.” screamed Rosa, “She is the poisoner. You show now the hatred you have always had for me. Always whispering to my father. Always trying to make my life a misery. You hateful creature.”

The guards looked surprised. Some seemed shocked. The man who was still holding Rosa’s arms said, perhaps without thinking, “My lady! The Freer has said his piece. It would be best if you both spent some time apart from each other.” He looked at the Freer. “At least for a few hours?”

The Freer was toying with the hem of his robes. “For a few hours at least. Yes, a few hours.”

“And as for me,” said Kveldulf, “I think it is high time that I paid a visit to Snoro at his house.”

“No.” Rosa looked almost as shocked as everyone else that she had said this. “I forbid it.”

“Forbid it?” asked Kveldulf, in a somewhat more troubled voice. Then, more pryingly, “why?”

“It is a waste of time. You might be gone hours, perhaps a day or more. When the dog dies, then all will know the guilt of my sister as surely, as I know it now. And where will you be? Off in the woods. We would have to wait for you to return, and in that time–you know what might happen.”

“Elaborate,” said Kveldulf.

“We both know it. I have been told by… a friend… but you know it too. She is consorting with him. In the wild woods. If he catches wind of this, he will come as surely as the wind and break her free. And then, the murderer will be gone, laughing at us. You cannot leave the Toren. You are needed here, for when he comes. Don’t chase after old hermits in the hills.”

Kveldulf took a long, considering sigh. So, Rosa knew about Lilia and Alraun then. But who had told her. Suddenly, the choice of play, with the Pouckling, the Faer King and the maid, seemed less innocent and more calculating. “I think Snoro may have something of importance to say on this matter. I will return what coin you have paid me. I am not a seeker after wealth. I am a seeker afer truth.”

“No. You will not leave the Toren. You are needed here. What if he comes? You cannot pretend he won’t. Who hear could do anything to stand against the wild king, save you?”

A slight shrug registered Kveldulf’s disinterest. “I have lately had a conversation that makes me think that is unlikely.” He shot a cool glance at Lilia. “Is’t that so?”

She nodded. “We argued. I did not leave him in good grace.”

Whispers started to stir around the hall. People were clearly running and jumping in their heads to work out what was being discussed. The words ‘Alder King’ were skipping around the circle of watchers.

Kvedulf frowned, and his eyes turned pensive. “So you may keep your silver, and I will go and have myself a chat with Snoro.”

The guard who had taken it upon himself to speak before, spoke now. “Johannes, Gohart, take the Ladies Lilia and Rosa to their respective rooms. Watch their doors and let neither of them leave their chambers. And you,” he pointed at another guard, “find the mistress of chambers and ask her if she has any suspicions about churl-maids in her employ. I would be glad of a word with her.”

-oOo-

“You took a great risk on you shoulder’s, just now,” Said Kveldulf. He stood just under the shelter of the great entrance to the keep. Miserable, cold rain swirled out of the sky, brushing over the courtyard and sometimes flying up at unlikely angles to strike Kveldulf and the guard, Loer, on their bare faces.

Loer stood further back in the shadow of the door, trying to avoid the wet.

“You don’t think I should have sent them off. I did treat them both like naughty children.” A sigh. “No matter the truth of it, neither of the ladies will quickly forget it. I may be looking for a different way in life soon. Perhaps it was a mistake.”

“I did not say you did not do what was right, only that you did what was dangerous.” Loer was a young clean-faced man, who wore the self-proud sort of expression that made Kveldulf suspect he had not yet fully realised that it is possible to commit both good and evil in a single action. “How far is the cave?” said Kveldulf, as a brief memory of the Nibelungr’s threats whispered through his mind. Snoro still had a piece of his night-wolf hair. Confronting him was dangerous, to say the least.

“Not a long way. Less than few hours to walk there and back. Are you sure you don’t want a horse?”

“No.”

“Hm. Then ask at the village, someone will know the way by foot more properly. The churls often go to him for amulets, potions, and charms…” His voice darkened. “And if rumours tell true, unkindly spells too.”

Kveldulf nodded and said, “I will do that.” He turned away from Loer, glancing up at the old grey fortress that towered above. Breathing deep, he smelled the stormy air, the dark earthy scent of the forest rising from the trees that swarmed like an ocean of black in all directions.

“Fare thee well, Loer. I hope your choices today come back to roost with more good for you than evil.”

“And so to you.”

-oOo-

As the storm weighed in the sky, Kveldulf drew forward his hood, and wrapped his cloak tight about his chest. He found a curly bearded, broad-shouldered townsman on the road, lugging a bundle of kindling over one shoulder.

“Good day,” called out Kveldulf.

The man looked up and blinked through the rain. With one free hand he clutched a rain-beaded sheepskin cape tighter about his shoulders. He smelled of lanolin and strong pipe-smoke.

“Not really,” he muttered.

Kveldulf smiled. “Do you know the way to Snoro’s hermitage?”

“Why ever you want to go to visit him on a day like this?” He brushed a stubby hand under his nose and sniffed. “Going to be a blasted wet, cold afternoon it is. He hates folk visiting at the best of times. He won’t want to see you.”

“It is a matter too needful to wait.”

The townsman shrugged. “As you like. As you like. There are a few paths. This is not the quickest I suppose, but the easiest to take without getting lost. Follow the left bank of the Woodbourne upstream from the millpond. Go over the bridge, past the willows. You will come to an old silver birch tree with five trunks. It looks a bit like an old pale hand. To the left of the birch is a rough path leading off into the woods. Pass along that track, through the woods and over the heath beyond. You will see his cave sure enough. Look for the smoke from his chimney. Been up there a few times myself. Just to buy remedies for the sheep mostly.” He huffed out a little breath. “Just mind that you keep your temper with him. He is more dangerous than he looks.”

“My thanks, I will.” Kveldulf paced along the road, and onto the spongy grass just on the town-side of the old moss-encrusted bridge. The water looked unusually cold in the dismal light and was already rain-swollen.

An hour later, the half-hearted showers gave way to chill, wind-chased flurries and violent winds. The occasional boom of thunder ruled the air, but Kveldulf trudged on, ignoring the wet and cold, as he had ignored many storms before. He passed the five-trunked birch, and found the narrow path. ‘Rough’ was an understatement, being little more than a wild-grown goat-track, choked with wet ferns and autumn-brown bracken. As Kveldulf walked along the path, he noticed that now and again a low branch would rustle in the woods, or a twig would break, or a bird–startled by something unseen–would fly into the air crying out in alarm. Small disturbances that until now he had always attributed to the ever lurking she-wolf. At times, the invisible presence became almost comforting. As if he wended along the path with an old friend. But whenever he recalled the haunted and bloodstained years, he shuddered and wondered how he might ever learn to live with himself, let alone the thing that walked unseen beside him.

Disturbed from mid-thought by an unnatural shiver, Kveldulf stopped where he stood. He looked about coldly, something else unseen was with him. He laid a hand on his iron knife just as the wind arose and surged through the forest, before falling away into a rippling sound that became a peal of laughter. “Good gods and ill. Really? Again?” The last leaves of autumn were falling in swarms. They fluttered together in mid-air and became first a face, then a small, scraggly body with clawed fingers and a wicked smile. The spright blinked eyes like slits of stormy light, and spoke. “Mine lord and master Alraun, king of the woods and all within, bids you greeting, spirit-wolf-man. I am his herald and his humble messenger.”

“I have no time for you, or your master.”

“Then I shall be less eloquent and more pertinent.” His leaf-shaped claws flickered in constant movement. “Thou hath slain one of my master’s favourite pets.”

“One or five?” Kveldulf said. “It was a gaggle of creatures pretending to be a large beast.”

“Be that as it may, my master is wroth with you. And yet he is majestic in his forgiveness. For his court and lords suggest to him an accord may yet be struck between you and he. We see now your torment. We understand. For you have more in common with us than with the mortals of this valley.”

“You prattle. State your message.”

“Mine master offers but this: that he will take you into his realm, to be his lord-protector.” The eyes shone briefly as a flicker of lightning that rent the sky above. “You have slain his most terrible guardian; hence this right to succeed is yours by the oldest laws of our kind.”

“A fool’s bargain, to be a king’s dog.”

“Speak not in haste. For think upon this. Within mine master’s realm all truth is his to reshape. You wish to be free of yourself? For him, all truth is pliable. Age is youth. Ugliness is beauty. Sorrow is joy. He can make oak leaves into gold or bitter toadstools into loaves of warm-white goodness. He can do this and so, so much more. He can remake you, too. Man and soul could be one, at long last. Think of it. Think of the peace that the magic of my master’s dreaming could bring you.”

“No.”

“You refuse so quick?

“He can no more lift the curse from my soul than make any of those tricks more than illusion. Alraun all is mirage. Naught is truth. And the day he grows weary of me and forgets to work his charms, any illusions he wove about me would melt away, and I would be left the same as I am now–but worse–for I would remember what it was to be something else. Something more. Something happier.”

“Lies.”

Kveldulf threw his head back and gave a long, humourless laugh. “Everyone seems to be accusing everyone else of lying today. And so, say you, a figment of his illusion? But, I tire of this. Tell your master: no. I go on my way. I have great need and purpose and will not be delayed.”

The spright’s voice turned to a snickering sound, like branches lashing about in the wind. “As you wish, spirit-wolf-man.” A moment later he was a half-human seeming swirl of leaves, and then just a scattering of rust and brown, and then nothing. In that moment a power infused the air. Something that wailed as loud the storm above passed close by Kveldulf, striking him on the side of the head, before dancing away into the woods, bounding from tree to tree, leaving a sound that, though it was only wind howling in the woods, might easily have been mistaken for rills of inhuman laughter.

Kveldulf rubbed the new bruise on his temple, then with a shrug resumed trudging along the path.

-oOo-

The rains fell more like mists now, wetting the whole forest but for one small and solemn glade. For in the dell where Alraun and Lilia had so often met, within the circle of brooding monument stones, now gathered a council of the faer folk. And the rain would not fall on a council of the eldritch. Their king stood among them, just as the tallest and proudest of the standing stones loomed over the other less noble rocks. Though he still wore an autumn crown, it was bejewelled with wintry frost now. His cloak and garb were the mingled grey-brown-black of the first months of winter.

Into that circle came a swirling presence, and all talk fell to silence. The presence paused for a moment to take up a handful of fallen leaves and fashion for itself a body: small, sharp-edged and clawed. All the council, a moment ago filled with the musical voices of the wild, fell at once to whispering three words. “The herald returns.”

“Well, how doth the warlock-wolf answer?” asked Alruan his dawn-bright eyes were narrowed and curious.

The scrawny spright bowed his head and through the sharp-toothed smile that was forever fixed on his face said, “Not well, mine master. He is uncouth, and a fool. Not only has he refused your offer, but scoffed at you, and calls you a master of naught but illusion.”

“He refuses,” Alraun whispered darkly. “Very well, then. The offer has been made and he has given his answer freely. The old laws of our folk are satisfied.” He opened his eyes wide and stared up into the rain-washed sky. His thin, delicate lips curved with a smile. In a clear voice he began to intone words that shook the air like thunder. He spoke to the trees, to the earth, to the stones and waters, and all the wild things. He spoke the oldest secrets he knew and recited all the names that had in them a little of the elder power. When he was done the green trees shivered at the passing of his artistry.

He bowed his head. His eyes, a moment ago lustrous and golden, had dulled a little. “I am spent and must rest now,” he said, so softly that many of the court had to lean closer to hear his whispered words. “But it is done. The path he follows has been utterly cast from the earth, and the forest has wrought for him a new track to take him… elsewhere… through darker hollows, where the shadows are hungry. Let him scoff at those illusions.” He looked up at his gathered host and saw smiles growing among the crowd. He was pleased. “And now another matter moves me.” Gazing past the wild folk, above the crowns of trees, up at the distant and bluish outline of a great stony crag surmounted by a fortress of dreaming spires. “The mortal maiden Lilia has denied me, but when did I ever require the consent of mortalfolk to do as I please? I think I have been a king without a castle for too long.”

-oOo-

It was a powerful, invisible presence that rolled through the woods and swept around Kveldulf where he stood. His cloak was caught up by it, and flapped like the wings of a storm-battling bird. Kveldulf stopped and focused on the sudden river of power that eddied about him. A noise? A smell? Tiny hints of old and earthy things swirled about him. He looked back down the gloomy brown tunnel of trees and earth. Seeing nothing that way, he cast his gaze about the dreary forest of ghost-white birches and claw-branched oaks. Walking a few paces forward he paused and looked again over his shoulder. Slowly, he turned around and stared. Where, not two heartbeats ago, the path had lain, there was now only an endless wall of woodland. Heaped with fallen trees and twisted tangles of gorse, there was no way to cut back through it.

He scowled.

“Alraun.” And for a moment he imagined he heard low, faintly perceptible growl that rang with agreement. “So the Weirdwood King does know some tricks that are not illusion?” He looked around himself again. There was still a path ahead, but it looked changed too. “Well, as there is no going back, we might as well go forward. No doubt, we will find whatever it is that Alraun wants us to find.”

The path cut deeper into a tract of forest that was thick with thorns and dark with shadows. As Kveldulf moved along the way, he became increasingly aware of a stillness and silence. No blackbirds scuffled in the fallen leaves here. No magpies mocked one another with their rattling calls. The only sound was the cold quiet misery of rain and wind lashing the canopy. The trees grew more rotten and lifeless with each passing step. Even the rainwater that ran in rivulets was grey and sluggish.

Kveldulf considered turning around but was quite sure he would end up back here again. The spell that Alraun had worked was sending him to where it wanted him to be and he would have to pass through it to pass on.

Only a little farther along the path, something grey and unnatural caught Kveldulf’s eye. He crouched by the side of the road, and examined the stone. It was about knee high, and raised upright. He brushed a gloved hand over its pitted surface, scraping away moss and leaves and two fat, yellow snails. In a snaking ribbon was writ a sentence in gaunt runes, faded to shallow scratches by time. They were carved in the old tongue, and tracing his fingers over the letters, Kveldulf muttered the words to himself. These letters were old, perhaps older than the Eorldom of Vaunt. With some difficulty, he worked over the lines, making out each word in turn.

“This ward hath fine powers,

and each power hooks and locks another,

and each power is everlasting,

this the endless knot that binds,

and will not suffer harm to pass.”

Getting up and rubbing grime from his hands he scanned the forest from under a knotted brow. An old charm? A ward? Perhaps to guard a sacral ground, or keep at bay evil spirits? There were probably more stones set here once. Stepping back onto the path, Kveldulf laid a hand on the hilt of his iron long-knife and he trod carefully. Who knew what “harm” once wandered here, and perhaps still did, along this mud-riddled track?

The air now noticeably smelled of decay. Most of the trees where split and blackened, and wriggling with masses of grubs. He breathed shallowly to avoid taking too much of the stench. And the trees grew worse as the walked. First they were rotted, then they became twisted, unnatural, almost tortured shapes. They looked like dancers made into wood through painful curses.

When the path widened into a clearing, it certainly smelled as if the wellspring of all the malice that fed the roots of the wood had come to its source. The air was putrid, and the few leaves that clung to the trees were blotched black and sickly yellow. The storm rain that fell was oily as soon as it touched the dirt, and formed small cesspits in the earth. And across the ground were scattered the old, splintered remains of bones.

But it was to the middle of the clearing that Kveldulf’s eyes were drawn, to an old rot-thatched hut with crooked walls that were sour with mould. The whole thing was built into the side of one massive, twisted dead old oak. He drew both the iron and the silver knives, unsure of what exactly he was going to find, but certain enough that it would not be harmed by steel. The silver blade was a beacon of light that shone as bright as dawn in this dismal glade. The black iron was like a cool cloudless midnight.

He stepped towards the hut and crazily tilted tree.

The shadows about the dell stirred and whispered.

And then the thing at the heart of the rot emerged from its hut. At first, it seemed no more human than a huge, fat bear shambling along on hind legs. But as it drew itself upright and moved a little closer the human features became clearer. Under that tangle of grey-green hair was a face, old and ugly with sharp yellow teeth–but human in general outline nonetheless. There were hands too, clawed, twitching and never staying still, but also, otherwise human. The body, though studded with white outgrowths and sharp spikes, was it appeared, still a human body. Kveldulf stood his ground. He let his gaze search over this shambling creature. Was this hunched misshapen thing once mortal? Or was it a mockery of the human form made out of tortured souls and dreams?

Its eyes were screwed tight as it walked, snuffling the air and licking its lips. Only when it stopped did it open those eyes and look right at Kveldulf. The eyes were as dark and hollow and endless as night. When she spoke it was in high, hissing, lisping voice that resembled, at least vaguely, that of an old woman. “By yarrow and yew, some flesh for my stew.”

Kveldulf positioned himself into a ready stance, and raised his iron knife, planning how to hook the curved tip of it into her bloated flesh. But as he stood, he shuddered as something invisible, clammy and grasping heaved itself against him. Casting about wide-eyed, he realised that the very shadows were seeping out of the forest and swarming towards him. One had already grasped at him with phantom hands. Soon, chill wispy hands were everywhere, grasping and holding. He struggled against them as a fly thrashes against a web. And all the while she moved closer.

“Come to me little tasty one. Let me embrace you. Come… come… Let go of your dreams and your struggles. Come mortal. Embrace me. It is warmth and peace to be one with me.”

Through gritted teeth he said, “I am no more or less than mortal than you, old crone-thing. I will not die easily.” Lashing out he buried the knife of silver in one of the shadows. It shrieked, and withered, and faded to nothing. But already two others crowded to take its place. He steadied his voice as best he could. “Let me pass, and I will do you no harm.”

“Silly little delicacy. There is no death here at all. No one dies to feed my hunger, for it never has pleased me to eat dead flesh but ah, to swallow the living. I feel them now, wriggling, wriggling deep inside me.”

Kveldulf looked again at the hag, and realised with a shudder that the spikes protruding from her flesh were bones. Sharp fragments of ribs, legs and arms all jutting out, as if every creature she had ever eaten struggled to worm a way out of her.

And still the rain lashed down and the wind howled through the dead glade, though it sounded like a cry from another world.

He could smell her retch-inducing breath now. Reaching out with her chipped and blackened claws, she made a snatch at his throat. Bringing up the silver knife he tried to slash at the claw, but was held back by the clammy grasp of shadows. Four razor sharp points sliced his throat. Warmth and wetness flowed down his neck and soaked his shirt. She leaned closer and opened her mouth until it dislocated with a pop. Thick saliva dripped from roof to mottled tongue. The stench of her breath engulfed him.

Dizzying. Dizzying. Dizzying. His blood drained away and his skin pricked, and tingled and crawled. He could taste the shadows now. Dizzying. All became wild hunger. Dizzying. His teeth were the fangs of the old, old gods, his eyes were the stars, and his tongue was hot as flame.

He could see past the gloom and into the wide-eyes and sad faces of the eaten. It was they who lurked in the shadows. Taken by her hunger and consumed by it. Each fleeting ghost a part of her and trapped in her hollow. A shadow to do her bidding. The dead grasped at the one thin strand of life in the hollow. A strand of life that was beating weaker and weaker, spilling out hot blood with each slackening breath. She leaned over that body and touched it gingerly. Perhaps to be sure the limp, bloodstained form was truly unconscious.

Her back, hunched and covered with protruding bones, was turned to him. Totally unaware, she had no idea of what stalked up behind her. If wolves could smile he would have.

He struck the ground hard with his paws and sprang. The hag screamed as the shock of the impact hit her. Forgetting her prey she thrashed about to throw him off, but he held tight with his jaws. It became a dance. A dance among shadows and rain, watched by the tormented dead. He tore at her. He bit, and struggled, closed his jaws and felt bits of her shred and rend.

Though he held tight, her arms were long, and when she got a hold of his thick fur in her claws, she gave a powerful wrench and threw him to the ground. He hit the ground hard, but rolled immediately to his feet. Growling, snarling, with hackles raised, he edged towards the prone body. His own prone body. The shadows spread apart like ripples in a disturbed pool. They were afraid of him. He stood over the barely alive flesh that lay sprawled on the ground.

“Ugly dog,” she hissed. Blood, black and thick as pitch, oozed from wounds all over her back and arms. “Wicked trick,” she screamed. “I should have looked at you twice. Ought to have looked at you with the other sight. Too hungry. Too hungry. Too eager. It has been so long since I last fed.” She grimaced “Wicked, wicked trick to wear your soul like that, with teeth and claws. Wicked trick to prowl unseen, to wear a soul on the outside. Wicked sorcerer.” She squatted down outside the door of her hut and the shadows gathered thick about her and moaned with their only cold voices. It looked like a mass of children swarming about the skirts of a fat old grandmother.

And she waited.

How many hours passed before he crossed into the nothingland between bodies? Where time stretched thin and the dead were clear and bright and shinning, and the stars could be touched if one stretched out just enough…

-oOo-

Slowly, resentfully Kveldulf opened his eyes. Wet through from the rain. Cold. Stiff. Muddy. He reached up and felt his throat. The wound was already crusting over. But it was deep and foetid. It would take a day to heal cleaning to a scar. The scar might stay with him for a week or more.

Twilight had suffused the dead glade, and the storm had lost some of its bluster. He had been unconscious some hours then. At first glance, Kveldulf had a strange notion that the stars, blotted out by the storm, had fallen to earth. A hundred cold, twinkling lights stared out from the darkening wood. It took him a confused moment to realise that they were the unblinking eyes of the dead. As faint and sickly as corpse-candles.

Sitting with her long talon-tipped hands restlessly dancing before her, the raw-boned hag rocked back and forth. She murmured to herself and occasionally wetted her dry, blood-crusted lips with her tongue.

Pain shot through his legs as Kveldulf rose unsteadily to his feet. “Let me pass,” Kveldulf wheezed. “Have I not bested you?”

“No,” she spat, “Never. You will starve, grow old and die eventually. I can wait.”

“I will destroy you if you do not move aside.” He fumbled around the ground for his knives. Brushing rotten leaves from the blades he slid them away in the sheaths.

“Nisss, nisss. Poor, foolish little soul-wearer. Destroy me? I was a goddess once, and I shall be again… when enough time has passed, when the moon has fallen from the sky, when this valley has been forest and waste nine times each. Then I shall be beautiful again. But from this day to that, I shall never be bested by a hedge-wizard who has a dog for a soul.” And she sneered showing rows of crooked, black and yellow teeth.

“What sort of goddess lurks in a small blighted hollow?”

“A goddess dwells where she must when she is trapped… tricked… snared… by a piss-poor magician, long since dead. His name forgotten. How fair is that? A snivelling little charm-peddler traps me with a sorcerous spell, and then goes off and dies before I can even get my revenge on him. But the runes will fade. In time, I shall be free, and glorious to behold.”

“So what? Shall we wait here until time stops and the earth ends?”

“Nooo, oh nooo my self-sure titbit of a man. I am endless. Without flesh to devour I grow merely hungry. And hungrier.” And she winced. “Burning, burning hunger, but you…” she pointed one bloodied finger, “I have met your sort before. Yes, you do not die easily, but with naught to eat, you will weaken and slacken. Until you and your soul are so weak I will be able to cram both of you into my mouth. Eat, eat, eat. Gobble you up, smack my lips, feel you squirm in my belly. Eat, eat, eat. Down you will go, all wriggling in my tummy forever.”

“It will be a long for both of us wait then.”

“So be it.”

“Your hunger will only grow.”

She snarled but said nothing.

“There are other ways. You are one of those who were born out of the Old Night and Chaos, I think. Your kith have laws to settle disputes, do they not? Contests that may be played out. Riddles that may be asked. Gifts that may be given. We might come to some other agreement?”

“Oh ho? You wish to play a game with me? I, who am older than the hills? I, who will yet live to see this forest grow nine times and turn nine times to ruin. I, who have seen the acorn before the sapling, and the sapling before the oak, and the oak before the acorn? I, who could baffle you with truth?”

Kveldulf ran his hand over his stubbly face and nodded very slightly.

“And what are the rules, little snippet of flesh-for-stew? What are the stakes, my morsel,” she smiled and flickered her fingers, “if you should lose?”

“Should I lose? I forfeit myself.”

“And should I lose, my lovely blood-and-butter loaf?”

“Free passage through and safely out of your realm.”

“And the nature of the contest? Strength? Guile? Sorcery?”

Taking in a deep breath, and suppressing the urge to gag on the reek of the stale air, Kveldulf considered his chances. He did not think he could outmatch her for brute strength, and in that last moment before she tore at his throat, she had moved with preternatural speed.

“A game of riddles.”

“Very well. But three riddles only, and I will ask them. If you fail to give even one correct and proper answer, the game is mine. Are we agreed, my succulent marrow-fat bone?”

He had no other choice that he could see. “Agreed.”

With a delighted smile, she shifted about on her haunches. Her deep black eyes glittering, she said, “Here now. I have one… ah how I look forward to savouring your tender flesh. How does it riddle?”

“I am old, broken and cold,

Though once thoughts I did hold,

And though eyeless I may be,

Through me once a man did see.”

Edging forward and smacking her lips she said, “Well? Answer quickly for I am hungry, hungry as fire for wood, hungry as sea for cliffs.”

Kveldulf looked down at the earth, at the soil and rotten leaves. His foot touched something solid and he turned it over with his toe. It made a sucking sound as it came out of the mud. Maggots wriggled beneath it. Grimacing, it stared back at him.

“A skull.”

With a hiss of indrawn breath, her face scored with angry lines, and her eyes burned briefly with rage. “True. Hmmmm. Then another… my second riddle…”

“I burn flesh and blood like fire,

I devour but not with teeth,

All fear me from churl to sire,

To put your kiss to me is grief.”

“What am I?” she snickered. “A tricky one, eh? An old, old rhyme this one is. The King of Ashes once knew it well, too well for his tastes.” She snickered and her fingers waved rhythmically each small sharp point dancing like lustrous fly. “Well my crumb-of-flesh? Well my sweetmeat? What sayest thou? One answer, mind. Just one…” As she spoke, saliva gathered at the corners of her blue lips and one tiny thread fell from her chin.

Kveldulf watched that black spittle fall. He allowed a small smile to shine in his eyes.

“You are poison. Poison burns but has no flames. It devours but has no teeth. And who does not fear poison? He that drinks of it has much to grieve.”

All manner of deep, unnatural, twisted sounds came issuing out of her throat. Spitting and cursing, she rolled her eyes about and her face twitched with spasms. “So, a clever-clogs are you? Smart as a fox think you? Knowing as an owl? Bah! Well, try this then. Try this little puzzle… What–is–my–name?”

“That,” said Kveldulf, “is not a proper riddle. It has no clues hidden in it.”

“Am I not a clue enough for you, my little blood-pudding?” She raised one fleshless finger and wheezed. “But I am fair. I give you three guesses. And on the third guess…” she patted her swollen belly between the sharp, protruding bones.

“Very well.” Kveldulf laid a hand on his knife half absently, and looked about the glade. Names of forsaken goddesses and old bloodstained ogresses ran through his mind. “Your name? Is it Hunger?”

“Ah, no it is not, my toothsome sweet.” Still crouched, she scuffled a little closer and her eyes grew eager and bright.

“Is it Raw-bones?

“Never so poor a name for me.”  Her voice rang with delight and all her sharp-clawed fingers were trembling, trembling, trembling.

Kveldulf felt a tightening of the muscles in his throat. He reached his hand up and touched the clotted scab only to wince at the pain of it. He could still break his vow and fight her. Or could he? Had just making his offer to this old hag put him in her power? Bargains with old powers of the earth are often bound by more than mere promises. He felt already transfixed where he stood. He thought back to the charm written on the stone. Was there maybe power in that to harm her?

And then he smiled, looked down at the ground, then up slowly, knowing in his eyes.

“Your name. I have one last guess.”

“Yes, yes, yes?”

“Is it Skadi?”

He knew the truth of it by the slackening of all the loose flesh of her face. All the wrinkles turned to a trenched web of bafflement and fury. “How?” she gasped, “How? I demand to know.”

“The ward upon the path, Skadi.” He said the name with cold ice, and she shrank back a little, even as Kveldulf took a step forward. “I misunderstood it. Harm shall not pass. Skadi shall not pass. Names were always so much more literal in the old tongue. Skadi. Harm. Fitting.”

For a moment, all the shadows at the edge of the glade stirred and whispered and trembled.

“Will you allow me to pass then, Skadi? It was our bargain.”

“You were going to try and break you word if you lost. Why should I keep my word?”

“Don’t play the fool with me.” He shook his head. “Your kith live and die by your old laws. You must be scrupulous in your oaths.”

Hunched now, and wrapped in her long, bone-thin arms she nodded. Malice dripped from her lips with each word. “You are right. I have no choice. The old laws bind me yet. Go.”

Kveldulf felt her eyes bore into his flesh and bones as he walked past. It took all his sheer force of will not to take to his heels as fast as he could, and just bolt from that withered glade. But he had his self-respect, and he would go slowly and calmly.

As the dead trees rolled away, as the glade fell away behind him, the air grew less thick with her stench. Kveldulf glanced back once, over his shoulder, and let out a deep breath that billowed and clouded in the chill air. The way grew paler with each passing moment. The darkness and murk of the rotten forest was lifting. The air was soon threaded with fog and alive with the sounds of the early evening.

He must have been in the glade for hours at least. It had been early afternoon when he embarked on the track.

By the time he emerged from the woods onto the grassy hill where Snoro had his house, it was almost the dead of the night. The moon, ghostly pallid behind thick clouds, cast only a thin glistening of light over the scrub and heathland. Tall grasses thrashed in the wind like waves on a rolling sea.

At the peak of the hill, rose a small, black crag, darker than the dark sky behind. At the base of the rocky outcrop was a flickering orange glow. A promise of warmth and a fire, though perhaps not of cordial welcome.

Wrapping his cloak about his shoulders, Kveldulf began the long, slow trudge through the sodden heath that would take him up the slope to Snoro’s cave.

CHAPTER THE NINETEENTH

Rosa’s chambers were plush with velvet curtains, sheepskin rugs and tapestries. Dried aromatic leaves, scattered on the woven-reed matting, leant the air a heady power. In the outer room, where guests were received, a fire crackled and popped on the hearth. There was only one window in this room, though it was a singular piece of dazzling beauty, unique in all the fortress. It had been a gift from her father, years ago now. An expression in glass of his love for his favourite daughter: Gazing down upon everything with tranquil, impassive eyes, a prisoner in glass, an image of the Day Queen in blue knelt in the window, holding a rose. Whenever Rosa looked at it she remembered the timeless hours of youth. Sometimes it took only a momentary glance at the window to become once again a wide-eyed girl, wondering at that delicate tracery of colours and curves.

Tonight, Rosa stood once again below the window, tracing her eyes over the lead filigree, the subtle hues and the small smile on the goddess’s face that seemed to hint at secrets unknown and untold.

After a span of some minutes of silence, Rosa spoke, talking to the image as if it could reply. “I have been betrayed. Betrayed by my sister. Betrayed by that ugly monster Snoro. Even betrayed by a rank, tangle-haired hunter. Betrayed by everyone. The Freer… it is obvious to me now. All those cunning words he worked to have me married to a rich prince and patron of the temples. Falsities. Lies. Deceits. It was all a ruse to have me cast out and sent leagues away. Away from the Veld, my home, all those I love… He knew. He must have known all along. How many others know?”

“Rosa. You make no sense.”

She turned about slowly but looked at him with firm, unflinching eyes that softened just slightly at his sight. “Sigurd. I am sorry. I forget myself, forget my company and rant in anger. You are the last thing in the world I care for. You are the last thing I love that has not turned against me.”

“You don’t know that Lilia poisoned your father.” He checked himself and said, “Eorl Fainvant. I… I… know we have suspected her in secret, but it is so cold. Too cold, surely, even for her. There is too little to gain.”

“Sigurd?” There was disbelief in her voice.

“No, Rosa I mean only that–“

“Is this is how it is to be?” She pointed at the door, “Then leave.”

“Rosa…”

“Leave.”

He shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot. “I… very well.”

She turned to gaze again at the stained glass goddess, and only knew Sigurd left by the soft footfalls, the creak of the door, and the latch clicking into place. Through the window, she could see, just faintly, the stormy light of afternoon fading moment-by-moment into shadowed dusk. The howling of the skies and the flicker of distant lightning promised that the storm would continue, and perhaps grow all the worse, perhaps shake the very roots of the Toren Vaunt.

So Kveldulf goes to hunt Snoro? She thought. What if the hunchback spills his secrets before Kveldulf spills the dwarf’s guts?

“Betrayed.” The word echoed through the dark places of her mind. “Betrayed by them both, then.”

-oOo-

“Good ev’ning, lady Rosa.”

Rosa glanced over her shoulder. “Margit, how are you today?”

The woman shuffled through the door, and her small, blinking eyes flickered about rapidly. “Well, this wet weather is no good for my knee. I will be sore as sore tomorrow. The joint is already turning puffy and red. But, I am just a-popping in to bring some edibles for you and do a bit of tidying up.” Margit was old before her time. Her lank hair was quite lustreless, her face marked with pox scars, and her knee injured in a tumble down the stairs a few years back.

“Of course.” Rosa smiled. “I have been expecting you. You do always call about this hour to do your quiet work. Here, I have a kettle of tea on the hearth. I would so like to talk for a bit. I need to talk to someone. Please, take some weight off, enjoy a little mug of tea.”

“So kind of you, miss. So kind. That is what I always say. M’lady Rosa, she is the kind one. Always offering to have a chat over a sip of tea. So kind.”

Rosa lifted the copper kettle from where it hung, hissing and pipping, from a hook above the fire, and poured out two cups of hot tea. The steam that boiled up in a cloud smelled of rich and aromatic.

“Here, let me take that shawl. No need for it in my cosy little room is there?”

“Thank you m’lady.”

Rosa took the woollen shawl, and draped it carefully over a stool as Margit eased herself down into the one of the high-backed chairs in the room, then vigorously rubbed her swollen knee through a threadbare stocking. The chambermaid took the tea gratefully in thin, pale hands, and her face became a smiling pattern of fine lines; a map of deep wrinkles yet to come.

“Ever so kind of you. Ever so kind of you.”

“Now, tell me Margit, what is the gossip? How is my father faring?”

“Ah, not good m’lady. Not good.” She took a sip from the tea and smacked her lips. “Ooh, too hot. Let it cool a little. But, as to the flapping tongues: we all heard about you and Lilia having a… er… falling out. And you accusing her of trafficking with unwholesome things in the woods. Some say you caught her adding a suspicious liquor to the Eorl’s food. There are three guards down in the kennel’s watching an old mutt like hawks right now, even as we chatter away up here in the tower. They have gone and given Lilia’s potion to the dog, as I’ve heard it. Funniest sight you ever did see. Regal thane’s in their livery standing guard over a mongrel. Tch, tch, tch.”

“And Lilia?”

“In her room. Sobbing. Poor soul.” She hurriedly added, “Not to say I am sorry for her, should it turn out… well you know… the darker truth of it. Always been something quare about your sister. Like she was never quite present. I mean no offence by that, mind.”

“None taken.” Rosa toyed with the velvet folds of her dress and ran a long graceful finger around the rim of her mug. Threads of steam twinned in the air and vanished like so much smoke.

“Oh dear,” said Margit. “I am far too tired at the end of a day, you know. Ought to go and live out my days with my brothers on the family farmstead. I sit down for a moment and I begin to fall asleep.”

“Ermengarde works you too hard. She may be getting on a bit, but she can still run up and down the stairs like a deer.” Rosa leaned forward and laid a gentle hand on the maid’s arm. “She forgets the difficulties of others.”

“She does, she does, and here I can barely keep my eyes open.”

“Well then, here let me take that tea from you before you spill it over yourself. Maybe you should rest for a bit?” Rosa leaned forward and gingerly lifted the earthenware mug of tea from between Margit’s slack and soap-abraded fingers.

“Too kind,” murmured Margit, “too kind, that is what I always tell ’em. That Rosa, she is the kind one…” and her eyes slowly closed.

Rosa stood, laid the mug aside, and walked with delicate care to the mirror. She stared at the silvery reflection, an intensity grew in her eyes. “Now”, she said to herself, “now is the hour that I must go in secret,” and slowly, very slowly, she felt the fist twinge of enchantment running through her blood.

CHAPTER THE TWENTIETH

Chill draughts thrummed through the long stone corridors of the Toren Vaunt. The two men standing guard outside Rosa’s door were wrapped up in their cloaks and breathing on their white knuckles, now and again shaking their shoulders against the cold.

When, some time after entering, the chambermaid Margit scuffled out, carrying a reed-woven basket covered with a rag, and said, “It sure is cold this even.” They smiled and nodded in sad agreement.

“Ah yes,” said Margit raising a finger as if in recollection, “M’lady Rosa is gone to bed and asked not to be disturbed on any account. “Not anything,” she said. Poor lass, her nerves are getting to her. I’ll be back later to bring up few things she asked for.”

“Couldn’t bring up a bit of something hot could you, Margit?” asked one of the guards. “Some mulled wine or cider?”

“I’ll see what I can do for you,” she called back as she limped off down the hall.

Cracked plaster, stone stained with smoke and soot, timbers old and sagging: these all rolled by as Margit shambled, hampered by her rolling gait, along corridors, down stairs and deeper, deeper into the underhalls of the Toren Vaunt. Gradually, the stone became rougher to touch. Scents became danker and darker and colder. In time, the blocks of stone laid carefully one atop another gave way to raw bedrock, chiselled and hewn into squat, rounded tunnels. Storage mostly. Filled with casks, and barrels and sacks and scurrying rats. But it was past the last cellar, and down the most dirt-encrusted of the holes, from which emanated a smell of rank human filth, that Margit went.

Until, at last, she came to the end of her errand: a rusted, but very solid iron grill, heavily riveted, and guarded by a miserable looking man who sat wrapped in a thick, fur cloak and hunched over a small charcoal burner.

He looked up with sudden, bright, expectancy when Margit rounded the corner, but soon his shoulder’s sagged and his jowls sunk again.

“I thought it were the change of guards.” He rubbed his nose and snuffed, drawing a loud rasp of air through blocked nostrils.

“No, ‘fraid its only me, Margit. Bringing down crust and rinds for the Eorl’s guests.”

“Here, I thought they been fed today?”

“Brought you a little somewhat, too.”

He smiled and his teeth shone bright in the faint glow of the burner. “In that case, by all means.”

Margit lifted back a corner of the stiffly woven fabric that covered the basket and drew out a small clay bottle sealed with a cork.

“A bit of hot tea for you. Just been brewed up.”

Taking it in grateful fingers, he uncorked and sniffed at the mouth. “Phew, got a smell to it. What’s in it?”

She shrugged. “The usual scraps of poor-mans tea. Not my fault if it smells worse than usual.”

Taking a tentative sip he dried his lips on a sleeve and said, “Actually, it tastes alright. And it’s good and blessed hot.”

“Mind if I goes in?”

“Sure.” Corking the bottle, he got to his feet and ran a finger over a set of heavy, clumsy looking keys that dangled just below a slight paunch. “Here we are.” Choosing one nondescript key, he unlocked the iron grill with a heavy clunk, then heaved at the grinding, protesting rusty hinges. Slowly, almost painfully, the grill dragged open. After the tooth jarring shriek of iron, silence resonated as a powerful presence.

Margit grinned a weak smile and limped through the portal, then up onto a wooden walkway. The air was so rank as to almost be unbreathable. To either side cowered forgotten, chained semblances of human beings: some curled into foetal positions, some rocking back and forth, others simply sitting and staring into space. Most lunged greedily at the crusts of mouldy bread she threw to them. Two did not respond, apparently divest of any further interest in living, they let the big, black rats steal off with bread that landed near them.

There were no more than a dozen men imprisoned by the Eorl, and only this many because he had been taken ill and so was unable to pass judgements of execution or banishment. It was, after all, a small eorldom. Coming to the end of the rather pathetic row Margit shook her head, and in a disappointed voice said, “Well, beggars ne’er are choosers.” She pointed at one thin, man whose eyes were beady and narrow. “What was your crime?” Her voice sounded suddenly peculiar, as if it belonged to another face, if not another world.

He spat at her, then said, “I didn’t do nuttin to no one.”

“Suit yourself. You then, what was your crime?”

A man who once must have been as powerful and dangerous as an ox looked at her from under shaggy black locks. Lice ran in his beard. “I got drunk one night and got in a ruckus with old Ewald Hobleg. Gave him a crack on the skull. Killed him dead.”

“Your name?”

“Kail.”

“Good enough,” said Margit and she drew from her basket a soft leather wineskin stitched with waxy red thread and tooled with a pattern of roses. The smell that came from the bottle, as it was uncorked, was both strong and unpleasant. Kail screwed up his face and tried to edge away. Bound and fettered as he was, he had, however, little choice in the matter. Margit was merely all the more forceful as she jammed the wooden mouthpiece between his teeth and forced him to take several gurgling swallows. Sticky green-brown ooze encrusted his beard when she was done.

Standing fully upright again Margit looked about and found another man who pleased her. His name was Burchard and he struggled more than the last: kicking and clawing and crying out. The last one she choose was a tremulous, desperate looking man, with a face knitted by the scars of a hard life–he remained grimly silent when Margit questioned him. Kail sneered, and muttered that he was a sheep-thief named Anno. At first, the sheep-thief appeared to take the drink willingly, but then spat the fluid out. So Margit held is nose and mouth shut until his eyes bulged and he swallowed. Wiping her hands on her apron she strode, without a trace of a limp, to a place where all three could see and hear her.

“Now,” she said, “You have all drunk poison. A tincture of black crone’s root, with a little scrimlock, and fewbane, and a few other favourite little leaves and berries. Before the dawn comes you will notice an icy tingling in your fingers and toes. Then you will break out in a cold sweat. At that point, you may begin to convulse and vomit.” She shrugged, “By then, any antidote will come too late.”

“Cruel execution,” hissed Kail, “and an odd choice of executioner.”

She smiled and her eyes shone with a brief, forceful light. Her eyes were not the eyes of the worn out, slack-lipped, dour woman who had walked into the under-dungeons. They were eyes that were full of life and anger. “No, there you are wrong. For I have an unpleasant task that must be done, and so I need some unpleasant help. The guard who watches this filthy pig-pit is, by now, quite dead. I know a little about swift poisons, too. I have in my basket a cloak and shirt for you each. I will leave them here. No weapons though. You may take the guard’s or pilfer what you can, if you want.”

“I think I know where to get hold of some arms. Used to be on the guard, I did. And this task?” asked Burchard, his eyes barely visible under heavy brows.

“Do you know of the creature Snoro? Where to find him?” There were some general nods. “Good, then go to his cave. Kill him and any you find with him. Bring me the head of Snoro and you will drink deep of the antidote, and find a hefty mark of gold ready for each of you. And your freedom too. Fail in this?” she purred, “Well, I am sure I do not need to belabour the point.”

“Are you not forgetting somewhat?” and Kail raised his shackled hands and let the rust-spotted chains clunk and clatter.

“Do we have an agreement?”

“What choice have we?”

“Good. Then the bargain is struck.”

Margit turned and vanished from the small, black hole, soon to reappear with the heavy ring of keys. Letting them fall to the floor with a clink and splatter in the wet filth, she turned to go.

Kail reached for the keys and picked them up clumsily with his bound hands.  “How shall we find you?”

At that she gave a loud humourless rill of laughter. “Dear, faithless Kail. Should you succeed, be assured that I shall find you.”

With that, she turned and left.

There was one task left now, and this was a simpler one. She hurried through the dark tunnels, through dim undercrofts, and then out into the upper lived-in chambers.

Through the pale, flickering light of cresset-lit halls she walked, once again taking up her rolling limp and wearing a mask of waxen, staring simplicity upon her face. The air of the winter-shuttered chambers was hazed with wood-smoke, and thick with the heavy scent of pine and juniper, burnt to mask the odour of cramped, ill-washed humanity. Now and again the harsh air raised a cough from her chest, and as she struggled on faster she cursed the haste that forced her to rush and breathe so deeply from the stale air.

At last, she stepped outside, into cool winds.

The night air was pure relief after smoke and rank smells. Looking up at the black spires of the Toren, Margit paused for a moment to gaze beyond at the turbid clouds, churning, and ready to shed their full weight of rain. Drizzle fell in a constant patter, but there was a much worse storm coming. Somewhere very distant, thunder swayed the sky. Rain would soon be falling here in tattered curtains.

Staying a step inside the shelter of the great doors Margit drew out her soft leathern wine-skin, now half-empty. Upending the skin she let some its black contents trickle down her left hand, let it flow over the swollen, work-callused fingers, and as it seeped she rhythmically rubbed her fingers against her palm to work the sticky liquid over all the whole surface.

“There,” she said, “done,” before corking the wineskin and stuffing it in her satchel.

Across the courtyard the blacksmith’s workshop rung with the monotonous pound of a long hammer. An open door of bright fiery light showed the smithy in the night. No other life stirred in the courtyard, and so pausing just once to set straight in her mind what she must do, Margit limped out onto the mud and straw of the open court.

The kennel stood against the east wall. Only a little way from the small door that had been so recently destroyed by an unknown thing. It was rebuilt twice as thick now, but even so a guard still stood miserably against it. Passing the guard and door without a second glance, Margit closed on the kennels from which arose the occasional muffled yap. Closer still she could smell the unmistakable and nose-turning scent of the cramped dogs. The door stood open and three men lounged within. One had a pipe buried in his thick beard and puffed at it with full, fat cheeks. The second, a freckle-faced younger man, stood wrapped in his cloak and spoke softly with thin frowning lips. A third man stood further back in the shadows, his face puffy from lack of sleep.

“Good even’, lads.”

“Evening,” said the younger one, while the fellow with the pipe remained unmoving, silently puffing, and getting one sickly curl of thin smoke for his trouble.

“What brings you out here then?”

“Afraid I drew the short straw. Damned my poor luck, and on such a night as this.” Margit hunched her shoulders and shivered a little. “Still you’ll know about short straws, eh? Given the dog-watch, so to speak. In the kitchen everyone’s all a-nattering, and we’re right curious to know ’bout the dog. So I’ve been sent to wade through muck, and come and have a peeksy. Supposed to report back, I am.”

Chewing on his pipe with an expression that stood on the edge of turning thoughtful, the older man frowned, then nodded, then said, “It’s all about the Toren already, then? Can’t say as I am surprised, but here I hoped there would be a bit more time before the word spread.” He shrugged. “In case it all comes to aught. Or maybe more importantly, in case it doesn’t.”

Margit stepped out of the cold and into the warm, but musty, no doubt flea-ridden kennels. From somewhere down in the darkness she caught the snatches of dog-whines and tail-thumping upon dry, packed earth.

“And is this the poor mongrel then?”

Tied by a nicely braided but very old and stained leathern cord to an iron ring on the wall, sat an equally old, ribbed, and thin-gutted dog. It looked at Margit with rheumy eyes and became slightly excited at the sudden interest she showed, wagging its tail and licking its nose.

“Here now, good dog.” Going up to it, she felt very aware of the guard’s keen eyes as she let it lick her outstretched hand. “He looks famished. Couldn’t let him eat anything?”

“He’s already had a full, big bloody cut of mutton,” replied the younger man with a sneer. “More than we got to sup on tonight. Blessed, toothless thing probably thinks it has died and gone to the host of the goddesses.”

“Well, not yet,” said Margit with a smile as the patted the dog’s thin, bony head.

“Sorry?”

“Hmmm? Oh just me mumbling to meself. Suppose I ought to totter back, and tell the folk in the kitchens that the dog is as right as rain. The head cook with be right angry at having given up that nice bit o’ mutton to it.” She smiled as she limped past the guards. “We’ll hear soon enough should the worst happen, I suppose?”

“I am sure you will,” muttered the older man through clenched teeth, his pipe dipping with each word.

And with that, she hobbled out into the cold night, soon vanishing among the thin wreaths of mist and mizzle.

Walking as quickly as she dared while people might see, Margit stole through the servant’s corridors to the kitchens, where she procured a jug of mulled cider. With the cider cradled under her arm, she did a quick mental check. There was nothing else she could think to do, except return to the upper chambers.

-oOo-

“Here you go me lads. With all this waiting about in the cold you must be chilled through and through.” Margit held out an earthenware jug, glazed with mottled ochre, and steaming with a rich, powerful, wonderful smell. “Spiced cider, hot as hot. As you asked for it. Just fetched it from the kitchens meself, I did.”

“Thank you kindly, Margit.”

“My pleasure.”

“Back to see to Rosa then?”

“That I am.”

“What did she want anyway?”

“Sorry?” said Margit.

“You said you went to get her some things. What did she want?”

“Oh, um, some lady’s things. You know.” She gave a sort of scrunched up wink, and pushed inside the room before he could ask anything more.

She was back inside the long, luxuriant room, piled with the best velvets and tapestries that wealth could buy in such a remote and seldom visited place as the Eorldom of Veld. Among these draperies, resplendent with leafy wreaths and garlands, and thick rugs of every soft-furred winter beast, there were several plush chairs. And in one of the chairs, asleep with her head titled to one side, was a woman of middling years and sallow pock marked skin. Her one good leg was stretched out in front of her while her lame leg rested in a twisted shape beneath it.

Margit paused for a moment to gaze at herself, so out of place in this soft, subtle and tasteful room. Without much more than a brief flicker of a smile, she walked swift across the rug-strewn floor, and tossed the leather wineskin onto the blazing fire. It began to smoke and crackle immediately, and soon erupted, boiling, hissing black fluid. It took some time to burn away utterly and the lingering smell was repulsive, but eventually even that blew up the chimney, leaving nothing but glowing embers.

As soon as the air was clear of the foul vapours Margit leaned over the sleeping body in the chair and gently nudged her. “Time to wake up dear. You must have chores to get on with.”

In the first moments of bleary, blinking eyed waking confusion Margit might have thought she caught sight of herself looking back, as if from one of the finely framed mirrors that noble ladies adore so lavishly. But her vision would have wavered and settled, and she would have realised that she was mistaken of course.

She yawned. “Deary me oh my. Must have dozed off, and just kept dozing. How long have I been asleep, m’lady? I can hardly remember a thing… I…” In her eyes, confusion danced a moment. “No, I barely remember even coming up here to see you. My head is going soft, I’m afraid.”

“Ermengarde really is working you too hard.” Rosa’s voice was melodious. Margit, you have already been and gone, and done all sorts of chores, and then you came back again. I thought it was only right to let you catch a bit of sleep. Now that everything is done. Surely, you remember. When you have been so useful.”

“Oh,” said Margit, “No… I mean I think its coming back to me I think. All a little hazy. Must have knocked my head or drunk too much of… erm… somewhat.”

Rosa’s voice turned gracious and beautiful and a little teasing. “Well, we did enjoy a tiny tipple of wine togther too.”

“That must be it then. I should be on with the rounds. Too much to do. No rest for the wicked. That’s what they say isn’t it?”

“It is what they say, and it is too true.” Replied Rosa, “too true.”

Rosa waited impatiently as Margit eased herself out of the chair and, after picking up her things, she shuffled out of the room. The chambermaid took a tediously long time about doing everything, and once or twice Rosa imagined she caught the woman glancing about, trying to remember perhaps. Was there suspicion in the young woman’s eyes? Did she think something wasn’t quite right here? The potion should leave the woman foggy and confused for hours, willing to accept any story told to her, yet there was always a chance that some odd and stalwart memory would burn thought the fog. Was there an inkling of mistrust in those dim, dull eyes?

Rosa grew steadily more anxious watching Margit dither and faff in aimless circles before finding her way to the door. Nodding, perhaps a tad over-enthusiastically, smiling, perhaps a inch too wide, Rosa ushered the befuddled maid out, gently and hastily, and then closed the door behind her. Throwing the bolt, she sunk against the hard, polished wood and breathed a heavy sigh. For a long moment she stood there, all but motionless and struggling with vague, yet troubling emotions. How had she come to this? Had all her life’s dreams soured into nightmares without her even noticing?

An ugly thought.

No. It was more than that now. She had to be more than a creature of fear, or anger, or revenge, those simple, base emotions. Could she yet save herself from pride, passion and pain? She thought of Sigurd and wondered if he might be able to save her with little more than his simple love for her. His was a deep, good sort of love, she felt sure of that. He might have taken her away from here. Away from the Toren Vaunt. Away from father. Perhaps they ought have done that. Just eloped, months ago. But, even now, she felt she was slipping beyond Sigurd’s reach. Lost to him. Lost to everyone, maybe.

CHAPTER THE TWENTY-FIRST

“Who is it? Who is it? Who disturbs the all-powerful Snoro at such a rude hour?” Shambling towards the door, Snoro dragged a rough-woven cloak of wool about his bony shoulders. The loud, impatient knock came again, an insistent thud-thud-thud. It was like a small echo of the hammering thunder that still rattled the night. “Alright, hold your horses.” Snoro gurgled a displeased snarl under his breath as his unnaturally long, nimble fingers drew back the bolt and then opened the door a small breadth. He was still considering what vile curse he would visit upon the idiot swineherd, shepherd or milkmaid who dared to upset his sleep when his eyes settled on a familiar shadow. “You?” He grinned and opened the door an inch more. “You. Well, well, well, now here’s a pretty surprise. Of course, can’t say as I haven’t been a anticipating your, hmmmm, visit.” He wormed his tongue over his sharp teeth. “Seeing as how everyone who’s got an ill to cure comes to me in the end. Everyone.”

In the rain-drenched night he was little more than a broad shouldered, dripping shadow. An explosion of lightning tumbled through the heavens and painted everything in a thin pallor of white. In that moment Kveldulf’s eyes looked darkly black and hungry.

“An ill to cure? Even if that ill is another mortal life?”

“Even if so,” sniggered Snoro. “Who am I to argue with the troubles and obsessions of your folk?”

“Will you admit it then? The poison that saps the Eorl’s life is yours?”

“Yes, yes, yes,” Snoro waved a hand at him. “And what of it? Do I slip the venom into boorish husband’s ale? Do I powder my neighbour’s cabbages with poison, a neighbour whose paddocks I covert? Am I the malefactor, who wishes the Eorl dead? No. Of course not. I am no guiltier of murder than the blacksmith, the sword-grinder, the fletcher of war-bows. For I am but the purveyor of a weapon for the weak.” He even allowed himself a flourished bow as he said this, as the best, most grandiose of merchants do. “The great equaliser that none are strong, powerful or rich enough to cheat.”

“Who has paid you to poison the Eorl. Tell me, hunchback.”

“Or what?” spat Snoro. He ran a finger over his crooked nose and through the tangle of the hair on his lip. He bit at the thick nail briefly, then, slowly let a smile creep over his lips. “Remember, Kveldulf, I’ve a bit of your dream-self in a pot on my shelf. Anger me, and you will never walk on two legs again. Stupid ulfhednar. You come here. You make demands of me? What then has happened to you? What makes you so bold?”

“Not bold. Just weary. Weary of tricks and riddles. Weary of much more. I used to think myself a cursed man. Now I wonder if I am a man at all. So I am weary of myself, and perhaps I am a little reckless because of it. So, tell me, Snoro, who has paid you to murder the Eorl? I will not ask again.”

Lifting his heavy brow and wetting his lips with a brief dab of the tongue Snoro grinned maliciously. “Why, if you must know, it was the Eorl’s daughter.”

“Which daughter, Snoro.”

Snoro could see violence building up like storm clouds behind Kveldulf’s eyes, and quickly mollified his words, “But, perhaps I must be more honest, eh? Perhaps I must salve my painful conscious?”

“I will not listen to your worming words, Snoro. Tell me: who have you been selling the poisons to?”

“Now that was you asking again. You told me you wouldn’t do that.” He shook his head. “What is a man worth, if he cannot keep his word?”

Kveldulf’s eyes narrowed to two staring points, enkindled red by the firelight that spilled through the narrow gap in the doorway. He said nothing then, but his right hand fell upon the hilt of one of the wicked looking knives that hung at his belt.

Snoro sneered. “You are right huntsman. You are no longer human.” Kvedulf winced. That stung him. “It is said by some that a man who wishes make his heart cold for battle or murder should drink a potion brewed from adder flesh and wolf’s blood. There is more than a little wolf’s blood throbbing in your veins now, I think.”

The shadow took a step back and hunched its shoulders. His breath made heavy, ghastly clouds upon the crisp air as rain pattered about him. Not a word was spoken, as he stood, staring, angry and seemingly lost in his own thoughts.

“Oh dear,” taunted Snoro, “You are troubled.” Snoro gazed up and met Kveldulf’s staring, angry glare, but as soon as their eyes meet it felt like looking at the bleak, starved eyes of a hungry beast. Snoro shuddered and looked away. Suppressing a sudden rising twinge of fear, he said, hurriedly, “do you know what I feel for you? Pity. You are nothing but a sad, misery of a creature… and yet… and yet I am not without kindness.” There was no flicker of change on that grim mask, so, with no way to know how well his words were working, Snoro dug out his most charmed, most wise, most benevolent of tones. “I have been busy. I have read through all the old tales, and scoured my doomsayer book. And I have found a… how shall I put it… a remedy for your particular condition.” There was a slight tremor about Kveldulf’s eyes. A minuscule focusing of attention. “Aha, I see I’ve your ear. Now, I think we should talk. Of curses. Of hopes. Of dreams. Of prices to be paid.” Snoro shut the door, only to open it a heartbeat later, “I’ll be back in a twinkle.”

He almost hopped with delight over the musty old floor rugs to the sagging, warped wooden shelf that was thickly laden with crude clay jars, and turquoise vessels, small black and gold-dust boxes. Running his finger delicately along the shelf he found what he wanted. An unassuming and very small clay bottle. He cradled it in his thin hands like a newborn kitten. Going back to the door he nudged it open and peeped out.

“Ah, how good of you have decided to be civil and stay waiting. No one ever said of Snoro that he does not strike useful bargains.” Tentatively, slowly, Snoro reached out his long-boned hand and slid the pot out into the cold, night air. He dangled the bottle between pinched fingers, letting it sway back and forth. “This is it, but what is it? It is a cure for all that ails you my friend. All that ails you. For a good swallow of this little nostrum will be enough to give you one night of wondrous, beautiful, godlike… humanity. Sleep, huntsman. Sleep, but without the dreams. And you know what dreams I speak of.” He thrust the bottle out a little farther. “It will draw you back into yourself, and keep you there. Here, take it, it’s yours. The first bottle is free. Given of my own free will. The ugly business of haggling over further medicinals? Well, let us leave that for later, hmmmmm?.”

Slowly, like a wolf sniffing a baited trap Kveldulf reached, carefully, tentatively his fingers brushed the vessel and began to close on it.

Snoro’s breath grew heavy with anticipation as the word, “Lovely, lovely, lovely,” slipped from his misshapen mouth. “And there is more. Yes, you could drink this potion and suppress the magic that courses in your blood, but there is another way to be free of your demons forever. The curse was given to you by another.”

Kveldulf’s eyes lit with weighty interest. “So it was.”

“And this other one. This sire, it is still alive.”

“Perhaps.”

“Ah,” Snoro wagged a finger in the air. “But the other, the curse-giver must be alive for if the curse-giver were to die–if your sire were to die–then you would return to your own mortal self. But, I hear you ask, how can you kill that which cannot die. How can the curse be broken?” He grinned and let show all his sharp teeth. “I have that answer too, my friend. With my help you can track down the curse-giver, the progenitor of your hex, and then, well, all we need then is a way to kill the unkillable. Only–nothing is unkillable, not really. I have found a way to put an end to her too. Hey presto, poof!” Snoro mimed an explosion with his thin, dancing fingers, “Death. And the sorcery is then lifted from you. Hmmmmmmm?”

Kveldulf was caught in thought. He held the bottle in his hands and ran a thumb over it, feeling it as if to make sure it was still real.

“If you really do have a way to kill her, then you also have a way to kill me.”

“Now, now,” said Snoro, “this is all quite unexpected, and of course you’ll need time to think things over. Should we meet again? Say in a day’s hence? Two? Three?” But as he licked his dry lips, and waited for an answer, his attention was drawn to a movement outside, down the hill a ways. Two birds flew crying and flapping into the air from where they had been roosting in a small leaf-barren tangle of hawthorn. Something had disturbed them. Snoro had no more than a moment to look in puzzlement at the black shapes wheeling away, squawking, before something else, a swifter blur, long and narrow, shot from the sky, and struck the door.

Quivering from point to goose-feathers, a sturdy arrow was protruding from the wood. That arrow had been meant for Kveldulf, but the huntsman it seemed had caught some sense of the danger before Snoro had, and dodged aside. In a blink he flashed out a knife and vanished into the night. There was a sudden cry of human voices in the dark, a clamour of struggle and a shriek of pain. Snoro stumbled back from the door in bewilderment, forgetting entirely to bolt it. When it swung open violently to let in a dishevelled, stinking, filth-stained man, Snoro gave a short, startled squeal.

“You,” snarled this wiry-haired, desperate-eyed madman. That one word was forced through a mouth that was a waste of rotted teeth and blood-raw gums, couched in a blackish beard grizzled by grey. “Squirm and the end will only take longer and be more painful.” In one hand he held a heavy, clumsy looking mattock with a head of black, flaky iron on the end of an grey haft.

“Kveldulf,” shrieked Snoro, “Murderer, murderer! Help me.” But perhaps the huntsman was unconscious, run off, or simply just struggling with some other assailant. Snoro realised that the dirty madman at his door had no bow or quiver. There must be at least two of them, then. Dimly, Snoro realised he was hearing other cries in the night. The sounds of other harsh-throated men. The madman with murder glowering in his eyes stalked closer.

“Blood and venom,” spat Snoro as he scrambled away, then stood wriggling his claw-nailed fingers anxiously, and casting his gaze about for some weapon. He edged farther into his cave buying precious moments as he did. “What riches have you come here to steal?”

“Nothin”, least you can offer the juice of life itself, or a cure to all poisons.”

That confused Snoro. Backing up against a table he disturbed several bundles of parchment and an ink-jar, and together they went tumbling to the floor. The ink was ox-blood red and left a vivid mock-wound in the stone where it shattered.

“I might,” mumbled Snoro.

“I doubt I ought believe you, seeing as you’ll say right anything to live.” The man raised the mattock over his head and brought it down. Snoro leapt away from the heavy arc and the mattock’s blade gouged a great chunk out of the rocky floor. For a dark moment, Snoro gawped at the hole in his floor and imagined that had been his head instead. Anger bubbled and churned.  “Get from my house,” screeched the Nibelung, “Be gone, cretin, least my wrath be stirred to sorcery. For I know more than herb-charms and bile-cures. I know the oldest runes taught by the gods to their children. Anger me not.”

Heedless, the attacker came on, and raised his mattock to his chest. “Make it easy on yourself beardling. One clean blow, and it will be over. Squirm, and I will cut you up a bit at a time.”

Hissing like a cornered ferret, Snoro scuttled back and bared his sharp teeth.

Hefting  the mattock once to adjust its weight, the madman leapt into an onrush and bellowed. But it was the curve of pitch-black iron that Snoro watched with horror, as it rose up into the air.

Muttering and snarling, Snoro trembled. His eyes rolled back in his head until only the bloodshot whites would have been visible. His crusted lips began to issue sounds that no mortal tongue should. The words were cat-wails. Raven-hisses. Crow-caws. Wolf-howls. Each piled one on top of the other, and each a burning mote of power that left strands of pale smoke that smelled of juniper as it struck the air.

Foam and spittle dribbled from his lips as the blind-staring Snoro pointed one very hairy, very trembling finger at the oncoming man. A force passed between them. Power, from deep in Snoro’s soul, poured out and spanned the distance. For a moment the assassin simply stopped dead still. His arms felt lank. The mattock hung limp and useless at his side. Then as Snoro watched, his body thrashed as if unseen talons struck and clawed him. Darkness as hot and flickering as fire began to consume his flesh and smoke gathered in a sickly, burnt-smelling mist. The madman managed only one hoarse-croaked cry of pain. A moment after Snoro’s chant subsided something scorched, and withered and lifeless fell to the floor in front of him.

Just vaguely, through watery eyes, Snoro made out the silhouette of another man lurking just beyond the doorway. This one did not charge headlong, he prowled forward as careful as a cat. This one no doubt had just seen Snoro put an end to his friend. But now the Nibelung was hunching forward, shuddering and spitting up blood. He was weary, but not quite spent yet. Not yet lost. Opening his bloodied mouth Snoro snarled and raised one veiny hand. The door flung shut with a great thud at the touch of his power and the latch dropped into place.

Haggard, panting, Snoro stumbled over the last few moments in his head. He saw what had happened. Kveldulf must have had men with him. Hired killers? Perhaps they had betrayed the huntsman and prey alike? It didn’t matter.

The first blows rained down on the door. A timber splintered and gave, allowing something black and heavy and sharp to sink an inch through the wood.

No time, no time, he repeated this over and over in his head as he found a sack in which he threw a small strongbox of valuables and his heavy tome of leather clasped with brass. The Book must be saved, even if nothing else could be salvaged. The various things he picked up at first seemed oddly slick and wet before he realised with a dry smile it was his own blood and saliva that wetted his chest and hands. Never being a fool in a trade where fools die young, Snoro had in his early days, fallen back on the earthy-skills of his kind and chiselled out a bolthole, concealing it behind a small chest. It would take the axeman some time to hack through the door, and more time to realise the quarry had slipped out the back. Snoro allowed himself a grin. Like a big, stupid dog barking down one hole, while the fox sneaks out another. But who had sent the assassins? Where could he turn?

Pausing briefly, before crawling into the bolt-hole he took one last look about. He would miss the old place. “Ah,” he spat. “I was getting restless anyway.” With a swift kick he overturned the iron fire grill from the hearth, tipping hot coals and burning logs over the floor. Smoke curled immediately from the rugs and scattered parchments.

As he crouched down, going on hands and knees into his bolthole, he gathered together and tried to calm his thoughts. Rosa. She would conceal him from would-be killers. That one was greedy and too deep in his debt. To the Toren Vaunt then. To Rosa.

-oOo-

Evening was just two hours off. Outside, the rust-eyed owls who hunt the small, tremulous creatures were flitting back to their nests; the earth-mist crept from the streams and hollows; the night-dew pearled each leaf and blade; and within the Toren, Rosa lay asleep.

For sorcery wearies the soul.

And so she slept, sprawled upon a pile of furs and feather pillows, her dress a spread of crimson velvet folds, her hair, still bound, was tied with ribbons of a matching red. And she dreamed. Her dreams were not the dreams that walked with bodies of their own, but still her dreams could wander to all the haunts, and far places that any person’s dreams may go.

Her dreams that night wandered far afield, to illusory lands where lady musicians play shawms carved from the bones of fabulous beasts. To mist-haunted mountains, and over stormy seas, to ivory-sanded deserts, and to temples in which golden bells hang by delicate chains, and priests recall in song their timeless prayers. She dreamed of herself in enchanted halls, and strange, terrible darkness, and there in that shadow her dreams were caught up upon a sullen wind that stalked those dark places, and she imagined herself back in the Toren Vaunt, up, up, upon a wind that wished to join its brothers squalling about the spires. And there her dreams lingered, and though perhaps her soul felt chill and ill at ease, and wished to leave for illusory fields again, the dream thought it better to linger in the storm-wracked airs awhile, and revel in the night.

“Rosa.”

She spun about. Where was he? His voice was hollow and distant, as if heard wandering through a curtain of something thick, soft and drowsy. She dreamed she stood out upon the dizzying edge of the Toren above a sea of wind, below an ocean of clouds. The wind tore through her dress and tangled her long pale hair. He came to her out of the storm. His face was drawn, pallid and sunken, and glistened with a cold, slick sweat. He moved painfully, agedly, his skeletal fingers were knotted by swollen knuckles and his ugly, old man’s mouth opened again, and said her name. “Rosa.”

“Father,” she replied and wondered in the dreamer’s confusion how he could be out of bed. A snake of lightning rent the stormy air, and gave his eyes that odd, unnatural brightness that she so well remembered from his sickbed stare.

“Rosa. I would be with you.”

“No Father. I think you should go. I know not where, but go, and far away. Forever.”

“I love you.”

“Not a father should love a daughter.”

“I would be near you.”

“Too near. Always too near.”

“I would have you, and treasure you.”

She turned her face from him and shut her eyes tight, but dreams cannot cry.

“Do not pretend me to be nothing.” His voice rose to fury now, angry like the storms, raging like the sky, it became shrill, shrieking, filled with a venomous violence that made her suppress a shiver. “I am not to be disregarded. I am Fainvant, the Eight Eorl of Vaunt. Master of all that lies between the River Weeping and the Hills of the Deepling Dusk. Take no heed of me? Close your eyes to me? No, I’ll not have that. I will be near you, Rosa. You will be ever at my side.”

“Keep away from me. Do not touch me, do not touch me ever again.” Gathering together all the strength of mind she had, Rosa said, “I forbid it.”

He was imploring. “Rosa!”

She said nothing, but closed her mind to him, and slid away from that strange nightmare voice. Back through the layers of dreaming, through the colour of the childhood songs, through the hue of summer days, through the shape of moonlit clouds until weakly, grudgingly she awoke trembling.

The fire had burned low, and the feeble glow cast neither warmth nor good light. Rousing, she clutched her arms about her body and gritted her teeth. Cold, she thought, the room is too cold. So, getting unsteadily to her feet she resolved to go to the guards by the door, and ask that they bring up a bucket of hot coals from the kitchens to put under a heap of good dry wood on the hearth.

Before she could do so, he mind began to clear and she realised with cold, blistering clarity that her father was dead. For a moment, she was numb, not sure what to think about this. Then, she shuffled through her halls and took herself to the small room where the stained glass window was just gleaming in the first light of a new day. Casting around, she found a block of stone that she used to prop open one of the heavier doors, and without even thinking, she threw it at the window. It exploded in shards of colour, flying out into the dawn air.

“Good riddance,” she hissed to herself. His gift to her was smashed, tinkling and dribbling bits of glass. Her fathers gifts had never been without expectations, and he had wanted more from Rosa than a father should. The hate was churning and raging in her gut.

Let left the small room then, shut the door on it, and decided to go and ask for coals, as she had first planned to do. But as she pushed open the door, an unexpected sight meet her. The two men who stood by the door were deep in conversation with Ermengarde, who, it struck Rosa at once, looked paler, and greyer and older.

Ermengarde raised red-edged, swollen eyes to Rosa and shook her head. “Oh dear,” she said, “oh dear, you have been crying.”

Rosa brushed a finger to her cheek and found a trench of dampness there.

“I have terrible news, Rosa. I knew not whether to wake you, but, now… well… your father… the Eorl… into the arms of the Lady of Sunlight and Brightness.”

“Father is dead.” She said it so flatly, that she was worried the guards and her aunt might be suspicious. She tried to pretend some emotion and found that she could not stomach the pretence.

Ermengarde nodded. “Yes. Just a short time ago. The Eorl is dead… and… and so too is the hound to which Lilia’s… curative… was given. My brother, your father is dead,” said Ermengarde in a voice that strained to hold steady, “so too is the hound. And Lilia…Lilia, oh my poor little girl. My poor little niece… she,” but she did not finish the sentence. Instead she made a hasty curtsy, and said almost too quiet to hear, “The Eorl is dead. Long life to Rosa, Lady of Veld.”

CHAPTER THE TWENTY-SECOND

It was the sort of wet, miserable dawn in which even the wren, who sings all winter long, sits silent amongst rain-beaded leaves. The rain had turned to a grey, awful mist that lay in the gullies and hollows of the heath.

From the chiselled terrace of Snoro’s hermitage, Kveldulf gazed out over wild scrub and rocks, the forest beyond, and the leaden sky above. There was blood on his hands, and he could feel the stickiness of it smeared on his brow where he had held his head as he sat alone in that rocky place. Twisted on the ground before him was a filthy, tangle-haired man, his skin slightly blue, his eyes filmy slits, his nerveless fingers clutched at a hunting knife protruding from his chest. A little further down the hill was another corpse, half hidden by tussock. The stone, the bodies, even the blades of grass were limned with soot. The door, the entrance, the cave itself, all guttered by a fire that still smoked, and throbbed with warmth. Ash stung his eyes, and clogged his nostrils, and covered his skin in wet off-white streaks. An ashen axe lay forgotten among charred splinters of the once strong door.

He stretched his fingers now, and felt tingling blood slug through the flesh. They were healing. By evening there would be no trace of blisters or scorched flesh.

He closed his eyes and heard again Snoro’s shrill, panic stricken voice, over and over: Kveldulf, murderer, murderer. Help me.

So, Snoro was dead, and the bottle of hope, Snoro’s nostrum, lay where it fell and shattered during the brief struggle. Its wine-dark blood formed a sticky pool over the rock. Of Snoro’s remains there was not even a trace among the rubble. He thought about Rosa and Lilia too, and the Toren Vaunt. If he had not been distracted by Snoro waving a potion in front of his nose, then maybe the attackers would not have surprised them both. Maybe, Kveldulf thought, he would have some answers about the witchcraft and murder at the fortress. But not now.

“Death-bringer, nest-robber, egg-snatcher!”

Kveldulf looked up in time to shield his eyes. Something swift, black and rife with sharp points fell from the sky. It beat and flurried at his face.

“Home-burner, friend-slayer, murderer!” shrieked the voice.

Kveldulf flailed a hand and batted at the heavy mass of feathers and beak and claws.

“What have you done with Snoro!” cried Gnissa, “Where is he? Where is my friend? Killer, fox, ferret, hawk, bloody-beaked eagle! Chick-eater. Mate-killer. Wolf,” cried the raven, “Wolf, wolf, wolf, wolf.”

The last of his self control boiled away. Kveldulf felt his legs stiffen and stretch, and he leapt up. He drew a knife, he didn’t care which, and struck wildly at the raven. Blindly, he cut and hacked at the air. One cut must have come too close. The black wings flapped away and vanished from his ash-stung sight. For a moment there was silence, then from up high, on a sharp finger of craggy rock where Kveldulf could not reach him Gnissa’s voice hissed, “Kill me too then will you? That is all you are. All you all ever will be. Killer. Egg-eater. Friend-hunter. Monster.”

“No,” his fingers felt numb now, and the knife fell and clattered on the rock. “No. I tried. I tried.” He stretched his hands out and stared at them. “My fingers are burnt. Burnt black and cracked with blood. Look at the burns! I swear it. I tried to pull him out of the flames.”

Gnissa sat silent for a moment, twitching now and again, and fixing Kveldulf with one bright amber eye.

“This makes no sense.” Kveldulf hung his head. “Who are these men, and why did they come with knives and axes and murder in their hearts?

“Dead?” said Gnissa.

Kveldulf nodded, but said nothing more.

“Dead. My friend is dead?” With a snap of the beak Gnissa threw back his head and croaked out one long, low, mournful hiss. “Ravens do not live as long as Nibelung,” he said. “I always thought… always knew Snoro would be the one to find me dead, and pathetic and bedraggled one day stretched on the earth. Always knew.” He shook his head unhappily, “Always thought I knew”

Kveldulf’s muscles gave up then, he sank slowly to the earth. Again he hung his head, and said nothing.

The raven ruffled his feathers and shook off some beads of rain. “He was my friend. Poor Snoro. He will never see his homeland again. He used to get drunk on mead, and tell me about distant lands. Crisp, snowy mountains, marbled with veins of gold, and tunnelled with halls hung with wreaths of gems like liquid fire. He used to tell me all about his homeland… I used to mock him for a liar. “You’re making it all up,” I’d say, but I think he told the truth when he drank himself into a talking mood. Really.”

Distant winds howled.

“In mead there is truth,” mumbled Kveldulf.

“Last night upon the storm I thought I heard violent voices,” croaked the raven, “and clashes of steel. I spied a blossom a flame in the night. Now, I find ashes and smell bones and, and, you tell me I have lost my only friend.” He shook his wings and beat against the cold wind. “But what am I to do? A little black bird. Am I to rage and spit and mourn like a human? Ravens do not mourn the dead.” He said this quite sadly, and not altogether convincingly. “Ravens eat the dead. We all must die,” he hissed, “we are all mortal, that is our particular lot. And ravens accept it.”

And with those words something peculiar wormed its way into Kveldulf’s thoughts. His chest felt heavy and cold. He felt a shuddering in the pit of his stomach, and began to gasp and choke, and then to laugh. He threw his head back and his laughter rode the air.

“We are all mortal?” cried Kveldulf between fits of laughter, “We are all doomed to die? We are nothing of the sort.” He raised tremulously to his feet, and began to pace to and fro, like a wild animal kept too long in the confines of rusted old cage. Back and forth. Back and forth. We do not die. We live on.” He was shaking his head now, a little too violently. “Our father dies. He died in his bed a long time back, and we wept and cried because we were just a boy. Our mother dies of the winter blight and we try to be more stoic because we are older, but in the end we weep a little. Our wife and children die. Poor loving Yrsa, she loved little Kalv, and Joar, and pretty, bright-eyed Dotta. But they… they were all killed by a wild animal. And did we weep for them? I don’t even remember. Were we already running out of tears so long ago.” He laughed again, “Killed by a wolf, you see. A Wolf. Only I was not there to save them. Or was I? Now I wonder. Was I both murderer and mourner? And when they died we left, and walked the world, and it seemed that the wolf followed after me. Others died around me. Some of old age, of sickness, but others, others were killed by that wolf.” He tilted his head to the sky and bitterness crept into his voice. “And did we weep? I do not know. Always, it was that wolf that has followed us, the whole of our unending life.” He began to rub his face as if it burned or itched.

With an intent, unblinking stare he looked up at Gnissa, “These long years we have wandered the earth, beseeching the white wings of arch-spirits in the halls of the priest-kings of Leth. At Sorcery Tor where the wizards meet and haggle. Even in the shadow lands of Sorthe, where there are more necromancers than wizards.” His eyes shot wide and staring. “But, but, it is not the white wings of the sun-blessed that have come to me, but the black. We see now, we know you now: what name is yours? Which raven are you, Sorrow or Memory, Dream or Thought, or Inkling or Desire? Which messenger-spy of the old bloodstained gods are you?” He shuddered with a half-laughing, half-sobbing, choking on it. “We had forsaken the old, old gods, but, now, now we see they have not forsaken us. One of those ancient name-lost ones has sent you to remind us of ourselves. I think you are either Memory or Thought… let us think… Every dawn Memory and Thought fly over the wide world. The gods seldom worry that Thought will not return come dusk, but they worry more, more for that other one, Memory.”

“How do you know I am not Sorrow or Dream?”

“Sorrow and Dream fly at midnight. Inkling and Desire fly at dusk. Only Memory and Thought come in the morning, and you are a morning raven.”

“Kveldulf,” hissed Gnissa, “You are babbling like a stream in flood. I am a bird. I eat grubs and worms. I pick flesh from rotting, dead lambs. I am no messenger of forsaken gods. Or any gods for that matter. Forsaken or otherwise.”

Kveldulf laughed at that, laughed and laughed till tears began to mark the ash-and-blood mask on his face “You are Memory then, though you admit it not for Thought would be honest and return to his master. Memory, Memory is a less reliable servant.”

“As mad as a magpie.”

“No, no, no… I… I understand now, I think.” He bowed low to Gnissa. “Memory, I greet you as the wolf greets the raven. Here waits for you a sacrifice,” he waved a hand at the dead bodies. “May the blue-black Memory sip blood from the wounds of the sacrificed.”

“Mad,” hissed the raven, “mad, as a rabid, a rabid…”

“A rabid what o’ messenger of dead gods?”

“Nothing.”

“A wolf, for that is what we are, no?” He began to cry it out. “And a wolf, a wolf, a wolf we are…”

Gnissa ruffled his feathers, hopped a little way down the perch, and said, “Keep your bodies, Kveldulf, they stink of poison. I will not touch them, and keep your madness. You know, Snoro said there was a way to end you life lying about somewhere in that grim grey fortress. I don’t know what it is, exactly, but maybe you should go and look for it. I think I will go find a wild, silent place, where the ivy and holly grow thick and glossy and green all year round, and there I will sing some songs for my only friend.” He flapped his wings and stirred up a tiny storm. “Though ravens have not fair voices. Farewell, Kveldulf. I know not if we will meet again. Birds often die in harsh winters. And madmen too, sometimes.”

As the raven beat his wings and glided away over the wet earth, beneath the washed out, rained out sky, Kveldulf leapt after him, scrabbling down the slope stumbling, laughing, crying and yelling, “We thank you Memory, we thank you. We had forgotten ourselves for so long, but Memory has reminded us. We thank you.”

Soon the raven was no more than a black speck drifting on high winds, turning with each gust, and sailing into the dawn-grey forest.

Kveldulf sunk to his knees and knelt for some time, trembling and mumbling under his breath. “O’ a wolf, a wolf, a wolf we are, we are… a wolf, a wolf, we are…”

-oOo-

Even in death an Eorl makes life hard for his subjects.

This was the opinion Snoro formed as he stood in the same grey dawn some distance away. He was wet through, his toes were swollen and wrinkled in his boots. The cloak he wore lay heavy over his back, wrapped tight over his head like a shawl. Everything was rank with the smell of sodden wool.

He stood ankle deep in mud, near the rushy millpond, and watched the funerary preparations. Barrows of food were being hauled up the narrow path to the Toren Vaunt. Men and women tramped this way and that, carrying heavy loads past the stone and daub cottages. Here and there, older, wrinkled, sour-mouthed men, who perhaps had known the Eorl in youth, gave one another grim, dismal nods and muttered quiet things.

Snoro shrugged his shoulders and rubbed his arms with stiff fingers, cold to the point of being white and bloodless. He hunched himself up a little more, pulled his hood as far forward as it would go, then stooped his spine, and mock-hobbled towards the outer gate of the Vaunt.

“Might a humble man pay respects to a beloved lord?”

One of the spear-guards gave Snoro a distasteful glance up and down, and frowned.

“Get off with yer. The kin of the Eorl want no beggars in the great hall. Not today.”

Snoro rubbed his hands together, forming nervous, twitching knots of fingers. “Please, have some kindness on me.” He coughed and hacked, then spat into the mud. “For I may be telling the Eorl how his servants treat the meek and luckless in person, soon enough.”

The man stared impassively for a moment. In the end he seemed to decide that he didn’t care. “Mind you go about the business of paying respects only. No begging.”

“That I will, that I will.”

With a nod and a shrug, the spear-guard motioned Snoro through the gate. “In with you then, and watch your manners around the begrieved.”

Snoro nodded and shuffled on.

The great hall was hung with the deathly white of gauze, last summer’s dried lilies and sprays of silver birch, satinwort and whitethorn. At the head of the hall, upon the dais where the throne normally rested, lay instead an open casket of polished ivywood, wrought about with bearded faces in bronze. In the casket lay a lifeless corpse, and though the lips were waxen and the flesh a little sunken, the face expressed that pretence of peace and enlightenment that sometimes seems to take over the faces of the dead.

All about the casket a crowd of servants, subjects and thanes knelt and cried and whispered prayers. But, though this ugly, shabbily dressed crowd moved a vision of beauty, a young woman like a creature from a finer world.

Rosa.

Snoro limped forward, shambling between sniffling cow-maids, and wide-eyed children, pushing past a brawny, pot-bellied tradesman who smelled of sawdust, and finally to the feet of this tall, regal lady in her dress of delicate ash and frost, trimmed with red.

“M’lady, have pity on your most humble of subjects.”

She looked down at him with beautiful eyes filled with exquisite disdain. There was, he thought, something new there, some emotion or fire he had never perceived before.

Raising her head, and calling quietly, “Guards”, she stopped suddenly and looked a second, longer time at Snoro.

“M’lady,” he hissed.

“You have need of us?” A spear-guard, dressed in burnished mail, and resting a hand meaningfully upon the hilt of a dagger, now stood by her side.

“No,” she waved a hand, “I have had a change of heart. Wait.” There was that light in her eyes again, but was it playful, or plotting? “Mercy has moved me. Take this beggar to a servant’s chamber and treat him to food and warm woollen garb. There are plenty of empty rooms near my father’s chamber still.”

“Just a small bit of stale bread would do me,” Snoro hacked a cough. “Just a nip of last year’s worst ale.”

“On no,” said Rosa and her voice sounded smooth and cool as ivory, “Only the best for you. You who are no doubt my most… humble… and loyal… and trustworthy of subjects.”

Good, thought Snoro as he was led away, Rosa will protect me. She is the Lady of Veld after all, and she has me to thank for that. She must be most grateful. Most grateful.

He dimly wondered how Rosa had dealt with her older sister, the pale sad one, but decided it might be better not to ask.

-oOo-

A while later, Snoro sat lounging in a chair pulled close to a small, but warmth-giving hearth. Hours had passed in this small, dusty, unused room. There was very little here. A cot with straw, a pauper’s tin lamp, a shabby old chair, and a table on which Snoro had left his now-meagre possessions. The only nod to decoration was one small, rug of woven reeds beside the fireplace. There was not even a window. It felt as if no one had lived in this servant’s room for years, and all the rooms on either side were silent.

The door opened softly.

“Are you well rested, Snoro?”

“My lady.” She was wearing over her dress of ashen white and red thread a thick cloak of a darker, almost black material. Her mouth moved into a smile as she stepped lightly into the room.

“Why have you come here?”

“I wished to pay my respects to the Lady of Veld.”

“Indeed?” She moved closer. “You have brought a small satchel I see. Do you plan to stay with the Lady of Veld long?”

“Ah… yes, a few paltry possessions, things I would rather not be without, even for a few hours.” Then added more harshly, as Rosa began to reach out an idle hand for the satchel. “Dangerous things, best not meddled with.”

She withdrew her fingers only slowly, and her eyes shone with that peculiar, proud, curious expression again. Snoro bit his lip as he watched her now step closer to him, letting his eyes linger over her throat, graceful as the curve of any flower. Her hand stretched out and brushed his neck. It felt just as gentle.

“You had no trouble getting here?”

“No trouble at all.”

Her expression darkened, but then as she looked squarely at him she smiled and stepped closer. “Poor Snoro you have had a harsh night, I think. You put a brave face on it, but… there has been trouble for you.”

He sighed, “I try to protect you from worrying, but you see so clearly through my artless lies. There has.”

“Tell me.”

“That troublesome witch-hunter, Kveldulf, him and some friends of his came a knock-knock-knocking at my door last night. All threatening, and brandishing unkind weapons.” He paused and looked up at her dark eyes. “I had to kill one of them, of course.”

“Kveldulf?” she said, and Snoro thought she sounded almost hopeful.

“No, another.” He shrugged, “and here I was about to make Kveldulf a bargain, a deal to be rid of some of his demons, but now? No, now I have a better plan for him.”

“Do tell.”

“He has sorcery in his veins, and I know how to get it for myself. An old trick. One of the oldest.” Rosa’s fingers seemed to tense a little as they stroked the hair over his left ear. “No rituals. No talismans. No spells or words or runes. No messing about. I will just kill him and eat his roasted, filthy heart. It is an old way to thieve power. The gods of old did it to steal magic from still older gods.”

“How will you kill him?”

“Oh, that’s easily done. Your damned fool of a Freer has the key to that, and no one even knows it.” Harsh shallow breathing gave way to a tense sigh on his part. “Ah, but I forget my delicate company. My apologies.” He breathed deeper still, taking in the scent of her.

“Thank you.” She spoke in an odd distracted tone. “And yes, I almost forgot I have a present for you, Snoro.” Her toned was making him edgy. Nagging worries were starting to gather.

She fished something small out of a purse at her belt. She held it for him to take, and reaching out he took a small, wooden vial between his clawed thumb and forefinger.

“One of mine.” He said feeling a twinge of confusion. His nostrils flared as he sniffed it. “But, this is…”

“Lilia’s. Yes.”

Snoro has a sudden sensation of being a confused, like a trapped animal. He wanted to get up from the stool and back away, but made no sudden movements. She didn’t know anything really. She couldn’t know anything, not really.

“Why are you showing this to me?” he asked, keeping his voice calm and incurious.

“You must have laughed yourself to sleep so many nights, dear Snoro.” She stroked his hair. “Selling one daughter the poison, and the other daughter the antidote. Oh, my father grew ill, but he lingered, never quite dying. I should have seen through you. Lilia should have seen through you. But, we were both fools. You played with us both.” Her lovely, dark eyes were wide and trembling, and her sensual mouth was twisted into a cold smile. “Did she cry when you named the price, Snoro? I never let you see me shed a tear. Tell me, did she cry?”

Snoro swallowed hard, and began to search his heart for the runes of elder and harmful things. “No,” he said, “No, she refused, and refused, and refused. She said she loved another. In the end I satisfied myself with mere gold from your sister.”

“I see.” Her voice sounded dangerously unstable.

“But that is over with.” He felt his expression squirming about, his lips smiling too hard. “All done with. This petty little potive I sold you sister. It was never very powerful. It would never have saved the Eorl in the end–just prolonged things a little. Rosa. Beautiful Lady Rosa. I was always on your side in this. The Eorl is dead, is he not? It has worked out for the best.”

He could see hatred in her stare now, “Yes. Yes, I suppose it did.”

He cast his eyes wildly around as he reached inside for sorcery. The sound of words, gurgling, charmed and inhuman, began to well in his throat. Something gleamed in her hand. His eyes set on it, and he saw it clearly: a long, vicious knife. He squirmed to get up, and opened his mouth to pour out accursed and powerful sorcery.

But he was too late.

He felt the force of it dig into the side of his throat; felt it slice through muscle, and a vein; felt the heat and the wetness flow all down his neck, his shoulder and belly; felt himself choking on his own blood. She stabbed again and again, but by now he felt no pain. He felt dizzy, as if he were floating adrift from his own body.

And then he felt nothing at all.

-oOo-

There was no sound now but a steady, drip, drip, drip on the cold floor.

Her hand still clutched the knife, though it trembled. Possessed by a sudden urge to be rid of it she threw it upon the table next to Snoro’s bag. It skittered and left a scarlet streak on the wood.

The remains of his last meal still sat on the table. A pewter mug of ale, half empty, and some crumbs on a trencher. She poured some of the beer over her hands and the blood diluted a little, and trickled away. The dress and cloak? Those, she would have to burn.

But then another, darker thought entered her mind. Screwing up both fists, and taking harsh, short breaths she forced herself to look at the thing hunched in the chair. Its long arms were stretched grotesquely out, and the ugly swollen mouth was parted as if it were about to offer a kiss.

She took two steps to the table, pressed her own lips into a thin line and kissed the corpse lightly on the forehead. “One last kiss for Snoro,” she said. Then, turning to the table and extending a shivering hand, she took up the knife again. As she stood over him she looked at the fingers and eyes for any familiar twitch of life. It was over so much faster than she had imagined. One moment he was alive, and talking, and thinking his awful, lecherous thoughts… and the next…

Crouching over the body she dragged it from the stool, and let it fall to the floor, which it struck with a muffled thud. At least now the dripping stopped. She suppressed a shudder as the tip of the knife slid under the fastenings of his jerkin, snapping each. She steeled herself, and cut deeper into his chest.

She had seen chooks butchered and gutted, sheep too, and even once a steer. But it was harder than it looked. There were ribs to break and cut through, and the blood, there was so much of it.

At least when she was done the clotted black pool had stopped spreading on the floor.

Cutting out the red lump, she laid it upon Snoro’s trencher. It looked little different from a pig’s heart… maybe somewhat smaller, but not much. No one who looked at it would suspect.

That drained the last of her self-control. She stumbled to the far corner of the room and retched. Her eyes stung with tears. She knelt there for some time alone, frightened and afraid to turn back and look at the remains on the floor. Time slowed and distorted. It might have been minutes or hours that she spent sitting and watching fantastic fire-cast shadows play on the wall. She imagined she saw faces in them, laughing, jeering, and staring at her.

When she stood it was on unsteady feet. She walked around the thing on the floor, careful not to look at it. Taking up the satchel and the trencher she stopped at the door. It would be impossible to walk the halls of the Toren Vaunt covered in scarlet stains and carrying a heart on a platter.

Concentrating, steadying her mind she cast her thoughts back to the small tricks that Snoro had taught her for amusement. She searched around and gathered a little illusion from the air, wove it about her like a cloak and let it hang there obscuring the crimson and black. The bag and the heart? She could explain those if need be. No need to expend herself too much on too much sorcery.

When she was done, she looked at herself and realised that she looked clean but was leaving bloody footprints inside the room. She could not fix the footprints with magic, so, carefully, she took off her shoes. The hose underneath was not bloodied. Good.

A little additional weave of magic hid the shoes in her hands, and concealed the fact that she was now only wearing hose on her feet. Ready, she left the room.

Having closed the door behind her, she locked it, and ghosted down the hall. The narrow, ill-smelling corridors of the Vaunt were all but silent. Somewhere far away, an echo of chanting stirred the air. The Freer and his monks singing a dirge for their dead lord.

Once, she paused, hearing the slow, heavy tread of a guard scuffing along on his patrol. The sound receded, and she pressed on.

There was no guard on her door. She had sent them away as soon as she anticipated the need to come and go unseen tonight.

She slipped back into her warm, safe room, threw the bolt and let out a small wincing sigh. The bag she dropped by the door. She would look in that later. The heart she could cook now or later. There was a spit over the hearth in the chamber.

“Rosa.”

She shrieked and nearly dropped the platter.

Sigurd rose from the chair he had been resting in.

“There was no guard on your door, and no one could tell me where you were. I was worried, Rosa.” He crossed the floor quickly. “With so much death and suspicion.” He held out his hand to her.

“Do not touch me.” The spell she had used was the thinnest of illusions, a mere spiderweb of trickery. If his hand brushed hers it would come away red. The near-screaming pitch of her own voice startled even herself.

Sigurd was taken aback. His mouth fell open a little, and he blinked his frank blue eyes. “I… I am sorry. My apologies. I should have waited outside your door. I presumed too much.”

“No,” said Rosa backing away, “I mean only that… that…”

Sigurd’s expression turned into a curious frown, as he glanced for the first time at the trencher.

“Rosa, why do you have a cut of raw meat with you?”

“I…” she was about to say that she had been hungry. That the scullions were all busy or in mourning, and this was all she could find to cook, but she licked her lips and said instead, “You have often said fine words to me, but I must be sure, not hope but know, and now: do you love me, Sigurd?”

He stepped a little closer and brushed away a rogue strand of her dark hair. She took the risk that there was no blood spattered there. The illusion held.

His face was pained. “Rosa? Need you even ask? I love you. I love you with all my soul, heart and being. With my everything. How can you possibly ask me that and not know the answer?”

“And you would do whatever you could to prevent me… coming to harm?”

“I… yes.” He sounded puzzled. “Of course. Yes. Rosa, why?”

“Swear to it. Vow an oath upon your own life, or else I shall send you from my chamber now, and you will never set foot in here again.”

He looked hurt, and those clear blue eyes were perhaps a little frightened now too. “I swear it.”

“No, say it all. Swear all of it.”

“I swear upon my honour, upon my life, that I will allow nothing to harm you, Rosa. No danger will visit you while there is breath in my body.” He added, “I love you.”

She nodded, and felt her eyes threatening to cry. “There has been an accident Sigurd.” She breathed deeply. “No, I lie. A murder. The hedge-wizard of the hills, the ugly little hunchback, Snoro came to the Toren Vaunt this very morning in disguise. He came to me and gloated that he and Lilia worked together to murder my father. He threatened me. He said horrible, horrible things. Things I will never repeat. I… I tried to call for help. He attacked me and we struggled. I killed him Sigurd. I stabbed him again and again, with his own knife.” She held the trencher at arm’s length as if she were afraid of it. “But, then I panicked. He was a witch, and witches, it is said, can work harm from beyond the grave. Everyone knows that if a witch’s heart is cut out and burned, then what power they had to do harm by curse and ghost burns too. So…”

“The hunchback’s heart,” said Sigurd grimly. He seemed less shocked than Rosa expected. Was this the sort of thing that men did to one another on the field of battle?

She nodded.

He took a purposeful step towards her. “I know nothing of witchcraft or warlockry, but if it eases your troubled mind I will throw it upon the hearth now, and heap burning logs upon it.”

“Yes, yes, soon enough” she held up a hand, to stop him coming closer. “But I can do that. There is a larger problem. We must be rid of the body. Secretly. Quietly. No one can know. That filthy Snoro must be taken to the crossroads, south out of the village, and buried there. Then his accursed soul will be unable to find its way back here to work vengeance even if the burning of the heart to cinders is of no avail. And we must never speak of it again.”

His face was now pale and drawn looking. His eyes were more watery than bright or lively. “I can call on at least two men who I trust, and will ask no questions. I will go and fetch them.” His eyes turned thoughtful. “A pale of water, some rags to wrap the witch-corpse in. We can be done with it tonight.”

“Yes,” said Rosa, “Yes, yes. And chains to bind the body. The room is the third down the hall where my father’s chambers were. A small servant’s room, it has a grey painted door. Fishing around, she took out the key. “Here. The mess is terrible. It is quite frightful.” She laid the platter down, seemingly forgotten, on a table.

“I am sure I have seen worse.”

“I forget myself. You are no craven.” She showed him a coy smile. “You are my protector, my sworn hero, my paladin.”

With that, he took the key, said once more, “I love you, Rosa. Do not ever wonder if I am true.” And he left the room.

Rosa was left alone, her shoulders sagging. She barred the door again. Now what? “Heart and spit and fire,” she said to herself. “Heart, spit, fire.”

-oOo-

“Open the gates.” Sigurd’s voice rung clear in the late afternoon air, out-thundering even the clatter of hooves on slate. A yawning spear-guard ambled out of the squat gatehouse. His eyes were red and weary, and he rubbed his neck as if it were sore and stiff.

“Who goes there?”

“Thane Sigurd, on business of the Lady of Veld.” It had taken all morning and most of the afternoon to clean up the body, fetch chains and blankets and iron pinions.

The guard looked at him, and then at the two other riders, one young, one old, both stern-faced men, armed with bows, and bearing smoking, pitch torches. Between their restive horses was a pony loaded with a heavy bundle of white rags and gauze, bound with thick hemp cord and iron chains. There were mattocks and spades strapped to the pack frame too.

Sigurd narrowed his eyes. “Fedor, is it not?”

The guardsman nodded, “Yes, Thane Sigurd.”

“Fedor, I have urgent business on Her Lady’s command. We will return before the midnight hour. Have a hot kettle of spiced wine ready, will you? Now, by my command, raise the portcullis. We must make haste.”

Fedor said, rather quietly, “I was expecting there to be a trial.”

“What?” said Sigurd.

“For the Lady Lilia. I was expecting a trial.”

Sigurd let out a small bark of a laugh without meaning to. “This is not Lady Lilia.” Then after a momentary pause, he added, “It is a thing that was aiding her. But it is dead now, and we must be rid of it.”

“I see,” said Fedor. “Then go swiftly, Thane Sigurd, and with my blessing.”

“Do not speak a word of this to anyone. There is no reason to make people more afraid than they already are.”

“Of course.” Fedor stood aside, and gave the order to men in the room above the gate to open the gates.

The three riders went swiftly out as the grinding, clanking portcullis heaved up, not even waiting for it to fully open. They looked as grim and black as phantoms, the ghosts of the dead themselves, bearing away a soul of the newly slain.

Sigurd clutched his reins tighter, and leaning forward in his saddle, he dug in his spurs.

Turf flung up from the rain of hooves, the cold air, now wet with half-frozen sleet, stung their skin as it swirled about them. The night forest rolled away on either side, an endless mass of dancing black trunks and branches. They rode hard, the horses began to wheeze and falter, the pony kicked and protested, and they pressed on. They rode and rode. Until the flanks of their horses were slick with foam from the bit and blood from the spurs. They rode until the wending highway widened and sprawled into a meeting of ways.

As they cantered to the crossroads, a bitter wintry bluster stirred the air and churned the mouldy smelling leaf litter into small dancing whirls.

Sigurd leapt from his horse, and tethered the reins to a low branch. Together he, Radewin and Radulf took up their sharp mattocks and cut into the cold earth by the wavering fiery light of the torches. They dug with frantic determination. The air was soon thick with the scent of wet earth and hot sweat.

Sigurd stopped, held his breath, and looked about. “Did you hear that?”

The old man, Radewin, wiping beads of moisture from his face and smearing earth across his brow at the same time, glanced up. “A noise in the night?” He shook his head. “Let us be done with this and gone. I’ve had enough of darksome terrors for a lifetime.”

His son, Radulf, who was resting for a moment, and holding a torch over them, seemed even less certain. He held the torch up higher, and began to walk a circle about the makeshift grave, peering into the shadows. In the seething wind it would be near impossible to hear the subtle, creeping things of the night.

Sigurd climbed out of the grave. “Deep enough,” he said, and cast his eyes about. He stared hard at the black canopy, at the weird twisted fingers of branches, at the shadows beneath. “I swear, I heard something again.”

“Yes. I did too. Hopefully nothing but wind and badgers,” said Radewin as he also climbed out of the hole. “Be quick. Be fast. And let us be done with this.”

Together Sigurd and Radewin heaved the body down from the trembling, jittery pony, and laid it on the ground. Clots of red were now visibly streaked the white gauze and linen.

Radulf had walked back over to them now. “More chains,” he said, as he handed Sigurd a jangling loop of blackened iron. “And the pinions.”

Radewin rubbed his fingers over his old wrinkled chin. “This witch-corpse is restless, I can feel it. Hammer it down quick.”

The was another, closer and louder noise in the gathering gloom of evening.

“There again.” Sigurd dropped the chains and stood up. His sword slid from his side, and gleamed dully in the fickle light.

“Sigurd,” hissed Radewin in his low, base voice, “We are a long way from the weird woods here. Most likely, there is nothing out there but small wild creatures and leaves and wind. It is the hex of the corpse already working on us.”

“No,” Sigurd raised his hand, “Quiet, listen…” Leaves stirred and skipped through the air, branches tossed back and forth and creaked. “Wrap the corpse in chains quickly and fasten it tight. Here, Radulf, give me your torch.” He moved a few steps away into the darkness. “Quickly,” he yelled.

They hammered the chains tight over the body in the grave, fastening it down, then heaped dirt back on the body like men possessed. Sigurd stood with his sword tense in one hand and the torch held up high in the other, guttering in the wind.

No sooner had they piled one last heap of leafy sods onto the grave than there arose a sudden clamour of whinnies and scuffs. The horses and pony were rolling their eyes, snorting, prancing in place and kicking wildly. It was a good thing they were tied up, or they would have bolted.

“Calm them,” yelled Sigurd, “Calm them!” Tightening his fingers about the smooth hilt of his sword Sigurd began walking towards the beshadowed scrub and trees. They were a long way from the wild woods, here on the main south road, over millpond and past the village. His eyes were wide, yet he moved on, as if he were being drawn to see the presence he was now sure was stalking the night.

He was at least twenty paces away when one of the horses began to scream as if it were in a barn-fire.

“Sigurd.”

He spun towards the point in the blackness from which the voice had arisen. Nothing stirred. Irrationally, Sigurd noticed a pungent aroma on the air, like lavender and crushed cinnamon.

“Know this and beware,” he said. “I am a thane of Vaunt, my sword is sharp, my honour true. Keep to the shadows, fell ghaist.” As he said this he brandished his sword and the now distant torchlight turned its edges to a molten glow.

“Please, Sigurd, let us talk awhile. I have been hunting all day and all night and I am lonely. What are you digging in the dark? It smells ill.”

“Back demon, back. I will not let you pass.”

The voice was lazy. “You could not stop me.”

“My courage will protect me. My vows will protect me. Blessed of Goddesses, Lady in Brightness, deliver me from shadows and the chaos-things of old night.” As he said this, a voice, vague and diminished by the storm, called out, “Sigurd.” It was Radewin. “We are done. Your horse, here, take your horse.”

Quickly he made a decision. Turning, he ran through the heaps of leaves, and sheathed his sword. Without hardly a glance back, he clambered into the saddle. His charger was fidgeting, dancing in place. The pony, held by Radulf, was almost crazed with fear now, and the other horses were little better.

“There is a voice in the night,” cried Sigurd.

“I hear nothing but the winds,” said Radewin struggling to control his mount, “But I think the horses have more wits than you or me. Let us flee! You are right about one thing. This is an ill-haunted place.”

Radewin and Radulf had to do little more than stop holding back the reins. They were at once off at a gallop up the dark, dark road, beneath the tunnel of branches with the pony kicking and galloping behind them. Sigurd paused only a moment longer. He was about to kick his heels, just as something huge, featureless and swift jumped out of the trees, and landed right in the road in front of him. It barred his way.

“I would have a word with you, Sigurd.”

Barely controlling the panicking horse, Sigurd screamed back, “I will not listen to your lying, worming tongue, ghaist. I know you for what you are. Shadow of the dead hex-worker. You are buried under chains. Your heart will already be burned to ash. You cannot hurt me.”

It laughed. It laughed. Its maw, when opened, was so bloody a red it almost looked like it was on fire.

“You think I am a ghost? No. My words are full of truth now. I am no longer denying myself, Sigurd. I am wild, and free, and… and… perhaps I am no more, nor less, than a wild demon.” It laughed again. “A raven told me so.”

Squinting through the darkness and a few spits of dribbling rain, Sigurd stared at the heap of shadows with its two burning eyes. “You… you are the great wolf,” said Sigurd his voice still holding steady. “The beast that has been slaughtering goats and chooks and dogs.”

“Yes, slaughtering,” agreed the wolf, but with an ironic hint to its answer that defied Sigurd’s understanding. You are right though: there is also a ghost with you, Sigurd. A feeble, moaning, unhappy soul, and though it is thin as mist, I can see it. It cries out for revenge, but you hear only the wind whispering in the trees. It weeps and moans, and you hear only the distant call of an owl. I know it though, I can hear those things that you do not.”

“The warlock’s shade,” said Sigurd.

“Snoro. And here, I thought he was burned to ashes in his own house, but no. No. Do you know what he wails, Sigurd?”

“Kill me or be gone. Trouble me not with your poisonous lies.”

“No, but a fine guess. He would say something like that.” The wolf smiled and showed sharp, glistening teeth. “But no. He cries this: beware of Rosa, beware, for she has murdered me in cold blood.” The wolf-shadow snarled. “Oh, he wails so.”

“No,” said Sigurd, “you lie… the warlock attacked her. She was lucky with a knife.”

Again the monstrous wolf laughed and the air pricked with the sound of it. 

“You are blinded, dear Sigurd. Why did she cut out the heart then? The ghost knows. Even now he shrieks in pain.”

That made Sigurd pause. The wolfish thing couldn’t have known that Rosa had cut out the dwarf’s heart unless… well… unless he actually could hear Snoro’s dead voice. Sigurd managed to say, eventually, “To burn it. To put an end to the curses of a bedevilled old curse-wright.”

“No. She plans to eat it, Sigurd, so the shade says. Why? So that she may devour his sorcery too. And become him. So to speak.”

“Lies,” yelled Sigurd. He was having more trouble controlling his mount now. The horse’s nostrils were flaring, and there was a stink of lathered sweat, and horse urine in the air as it pissed in fear.

“Lies? Perhaps. Snoro never had a truthful tongue when alive. Perhaps dead he is just as bad. All the same, you are a good man, Sigurd. I thought I should warn you. There is an old saying in the lands of my birth: Apples and beauty, both may have a worm in them. I see that now. I hope that you can bring yourself to see it.”

Just then Sigurd’s horse gave up being controlled. It stepped jerkily sideways and snorted. Sigurd looked left, and caught another dark shape stirring in the shadows.

“Goddess of Brightness,” he cried, “there are two of you.”

“What?” The wolf swung its heavy head around and peered with blazing, gleaming eyes at the dark woods. The other shadowy wolf, which had been lurking in the woods with its glowing eyes, was watching intently. As soon as it realised it had been seen, it turned and fled. With no more than a whisper of sound the first wolf bounded off the road and was gone after it.

The horse needed no more prompting than relaxing the reins. He flew headlong over the road surface, hooves pummelling the earth. As darkness, and cold spits of rain eddied about, Sigurd’s mind began to calm a little, and all of a sudden, he was struck with a strange question. How did the wolf know his name?

-oOo-

At the gate, Radewin and Radulf were already off their horses and drinking steaming hot wine from mugs, held tight in trembling hands. They both looked up when Sigurd rode under the gate. Radewin smiled and called out, “Ho there. We were worried we might have to go back for you. Thought you might have fallen from your horse.”

He barely glanced at them. His eyes were intent and staring and blurred by cold and wet. His poor horse, Rauthus heaved, and dug his hooves into the hard stone, and stumbled weakly past the upper gatehouse and into the courtyard.

“I am fine,” said Sigurd. “I was delayed, that is all. He turned to the stables. “You,” he yelled.

Two boys were sheltering from the endless thin rains under the eves of the stables. They looked at him with sudden resigned expressions.

“Take my horse, and see he is well groomed and rested.” He swung out of the saddle, and impatiently handed the reins to the first boy, before taking himself up the stairs and through the grand entrance of the keep.

He lost count of how many men and women had to step aside to let him pass. They were all a blur, just as the stairs and ceaseless plaster walls were soon a blur.

“Rosa, Rosa.” He hammered at the door, and it swung open on oiled hinges. Sigurd stepped breathless into an empty room. It took him a moment to remember that Rosa had locked the door when he left. Why was it unlocked now? The hearth was bright with coals and there was the now empty platter, and the knife beside it on the largest table in the room. Sigurd stepped gingerly towards it, almost fearing to make a sound. The platter was smeared with the grease and juices of cooked meat. He could smell the rich, persistent aroma.

“Rosa,” he called out, more softly.

“She is gone, Thane Sigurd.”

“What?” He spun quickly on his heel. It was the chambermaid, the one who limped about like an old woman. The one who Rosa had taken a liking too. “Where?”

“Gone to the north tower, she said. Now, don’t yell at me. I tried to tell her that a storm’s not a good hour to be wandering about high places, but well, the Lady can be stubborn at times. She got in an odd mood after she was done with her supper, too.”

His voice was low, flat, more a demand than a question.

“And what was supper?”

“A pig’s heart, Thane Sigurd.” She must have seen a crawl of horror on his face. “Hey now,” she stammered, “What are you looking so stricken for? There’s naught peculiar in that. A little tough, mind, heart-meat, but they say it’s good for one’s strength.”

But she might as well have been chattering to herself for all that Sigurd heard her. The world began to feel distant. The maid’s voice was a suffocated whisper, and Sigurd found his throat constricting, as sharp, short breaths struggled through his windpipe. Out the door, and running, running, running. He nearly knocked over an old washerwoman carrying a heap of laundry as he careered down the hall.

There were one hundred and forty two narrow, treacherous steps to be climbed by anyone who had an urge to see the view from the north tower. Sigurd had counted them as a boy, long ago on a visit to the Toren from his family home. Now he scrambled up them faster than he had ever done, his legs straining, his lungs threatening to burst.

Slamming the oaken door open he stumbling out, barely able to wheeze, “Rosa, Rosa? Are you here?”

“Sigurd. You have come to me?”

She was standing by the lichen and bird-stained parapets. She had changed clothing since he last saw her, and a long, velvety dress of midnight red, danced and fluttered around her. Through her hair ran beads of sleet and rain, and her face was white with cold.

“Rosa,” he stumbled forward. “The witch-corpse is buried, but… but… we met a creature there. A shadow. It said some things. Troubling things.”

She turned back to the storm, tilting her face up into the wind.

“You should not believe words spoken by apparitions of the forest, Sigurd. They are fibbing spirits. I know that now. I understand that and so much else.”

“Rosa?”

“I understand the patterns in the flight of crows. See there below us,” she pointed a graceful hand at the darkness below. “They fly for me on the wind. I called them. They would not normally fly in the night. I understand the weave of clouds, and the wheel of stars, even the dance of cold rain on the wind. I see it all, all the mystery of night, day and earth is laid bare for me, Sigurd.” She began to cry. “It is beautiful. I wish you could know.”

Opening his mouth to speak, Sigurd found he had no words, and fell back to silence.

“Father is here too, Sigurd.” She paused and turned her glistening eyes to the empty air. “No father, he cannot see you. You are nothing but mist to him.” Then she turned slightly towards Sigurd and smiled over her shoulder. “He will not leave me alone. He loves me, you know. Too much. Always too much. I wonder if we should bury him at the crossroads too.”

“Rosa?”

Hanging her head she looked suddenly weak. “Sigurd,” she whispered, “I never imagined it would be like this.” Then drawing a deep breath she turned, and walked towards him. Her dark eyes were wet now. “Hold me.”

Stepping forward a few swift paces he met her half way. She clung to him so close he could smell her perfume, and when she breathed deeply he could detect something else: something warm and roasted lingering on her breath. Her hands and face were cold, chilled through, and she was trembling. He put his arms tighter around her, unsure.

“It will all be different now, Sigurd. We will live in laughter, and we will be together. I will make the court a place of wonder and beauty. I will have jugglers and troubadours and tumblers. We will feast every day. The hall will be hung with gold and fiery lights.”

He nodded. Lightning flashed in a pale, distant blaze, and a few heartbeats latter thunder rolled in like a stormy wave upon the air. The foggy clouds and rain soaked them, and water trickled over clothing, skin and hair.

“Say you love me, Sigurd. I just want to hear it.”

“I do.” His voice trembled, “I have already sworn that once tonight: I love you.”

“I know.” She clung a little closer. “I just needed to hear it. I am scared of what is to come. There are others, you know. I understand now. I was such a fool. They knew what was happening. They knew about father and his attentions. Did they not, father?” The wind moaned low and whispery around the tower. “He says that they did not, but that is his pride.” She tilted her chin up, and frowned, whispering as if someone else were there with them, on the tower, eavesdropping. “He thought he was being secretive. But they all suspected at least. And they let it happen. Mother suspected, and she did nothing.” That last word was a violent hiss. “But I knew about her. I knew all about her tremulous, weeping inability to protect me, long ago. There is nothing so poisonous as the betrayal of one’s own parents.” All of a sudden she laughed, and throwing her head back she smiled bitterly.

“Father says that a daughter’s betrayal is just as poisonous.” She kept clinging to Sigurd. Of course, they will have to be dealt with, all of those who knew and did nothing.” She smiled almost slyly. “But the Freer. Of his fate, I am still unsure. He was not trying to keep you and I apart, he was trying to keep me apart from father. So, now I am unsure. He acted wrongly, but perhaps the Freer’s heart was in the right place after all. I will have to think on it, make up my mind, but for now–“

“I do not understand.”

“Of course you would not.” She smiled and brushed his lips with her fingers. “You are such a sweet, good man, Sigurd.” She hugged him. “So simple, in your way. For you, the world is full of plain-speaking, dull, happy things. In your world, no problem is too sinewy for your sword. That is why you do not understand. If you were a wicked man, then you would guess.”

“But, I–“

“Hush,” and she raised a finger to his mouth, “hush. I will take care of everything. No need for your strong sword. I have means of my own now, Sigurd. There will be only a little more suffering, and then everything will be beautiful. But now… I am so weary. So tired. The art drains so much out of the blood you know. Saps you of warmth and life and wakefulness. Snoro said once that a person needs to draw on something–a spirit, a demon, object of power, place of enchantment–or working sorcery will kill you. Sooner or later. I think Snoro drew on his book somehow. It is an object of power. I will have to understand how he used it.”

She said nothing more, but they stood for how long? Sigurd could not know. The rain grew in intensity until it lashed around them. The moss-encrusted eves of the slate roof dripped like a waterfall. He wondered if he had ever been so thoroughly soaked by rain. It was some time before he realised that she had fallen half-asleep in his arms.

She murmured happily as he lifted her up. For a brief moment he stood there with her cradled in his arms staring out at the tumbling darkness beyond the parapets where the rain-winds howled. Then, slowly, he turned about and began the long, dark descent down one hundred and forty two stairs.

-oOo-

Kveldulf sped through the night on dream-made paws, a silent shadow with hunting, searching eyes. There: a crack of lightning rent the skies, and in that brief moment he saw it: a huge, sleek shape, outlined in silver-white against the stormy air. Pausing gracefully in mid-step, she stared back at him, and her eyes were lit like two reflective moons.

Branches snapped and thrashed aside as he sped through the forest. Now a hint of lavender came to him on the wind, now a muddy print stood out in a shimmer of storm-lit puddles, and now a tangle of underbrush rustled farther up the slope.

He was gaining on her.

“I have seen you,” he cried out to her, “I know,” he screamed and wondered if he was losing not only his last shreds of humanity, but also his last dregs of sanity.

He sprang out into an open glade. Through the curtains of pouring rain he glimpsed a shadow of something black ghost away deeper into the farthest knot of undergrowth.

He leapt in pursuit, and the cold, wet air crashed about him. Into the dark tangle, he bounded, over fallen logs and under heavy, wet branches. Waiting for him, in the next glen, unexpectedly, there she was: Sitting poised on the bole of a huge mossy, tumbled oak watching the clouds churn above them both. She was like a portrait of shadows, barred here and there with darker inks of black.

“I know you,” he said, and padded forward. Wind turned her fur to tassels. Her amber eyes, which slowly, languidly lit upon him, were rich with secrets and answers.

With a voice that shivered and caught in his throat he spoke.  “I have hunted you since that day when first we met. I have doubted you, and then doubted myself.” A hundred years ago, when he had not quite given up all hope of this moment, he had practised the words in his head every night, “You murdered my wife, my children, and now… now, I…”

“And now?”

He shook his head exhausted, “Why? Answer me that. Why?”

Her expression filled with a strange kindness, and her voice grew almost motherly. “At first? Because, you are my death. I knew it then, years and years ago in the snow. I know it now. When I tire of this existence, then it will be pleasant to know I have a death to call upon. What would you give to have a death of your own?”

He was silent. Stunned. Wordless. He shook his head and said, “For that, you have done this to me?”

“Do you not crave death too, my lovely child? Would you not treasure an end to the eternal hunt? You, if anyone, should understand. You know this is true. You have lived, as I have lived. You know.”

“No. No matter how deeply I might desire death, no matter how long I have sought an eventual end, I would not, would never do this to another.”

“You would not? Brave words. Fine words.” Her voice turned rich with tempting, knowing tones. “But do not speak those words too soon. I can show you how to find your own death, if you wish.” Those eyes of storm-lit gold narrowed. “What price would you pay for it? What price might you make another pay, so that you might have an end to the everlasting hunt, ready and waiting for when you want it? Ready for the moment you grow tired of this existence?” She breathed out a whisper of a sigh. “But has it not been interesting? We have wandered the world together, you and I. We have shared in so much. You always forget–always make yourself forget–but this is not the first time we have spoken. We have hunted together, run together, loved together in the wild.” A silence. “So many times. And you always forget. I might, in time, feel slighted, dear one.”

He swallowed hard. Hesitated. “I…” but finding no answer said instead, “Lies.”

“I speak only the truth.” That voice was so self-sure now. “You are fun when you run feral and wild. And you have been pleasant, and convenient. But I am not yet weary of the great and endless hunt–though I think you are.” She shook her head, blinked her amber-gold eyes. “I can find another death, given time. I know that now. Fate is not so immutable as I once supposed. I can find another one to be my lover and my killer.”

“No.”

“Come with me, my hunting wolf. Run with me. Let us sprint wild in the night, hunt and tear and rend. And then, in the morning, you can make yourself forget again. Give into the call of the wolf.”

“No.”

She narrowed her eyes. “Then say the word, and I will teach you how to find your own death. The arts and secrets needed to find it. Release… my fine, would-be death… release.” She paused. “If you want it.” She was enjoying this. He could hear it in her velvety voice, and smell it in the scent of breath.

“Finally, again. No. I will not run wild with you. I will not be with the creature who murdered everyone I ever loved.”

Licking her red tongue over waxy lips she shook her silver-black fur. “How long will you cling that particular falsehood? How long will you imagine me to be the root of all your evil? Dear heart and beloved,” her voice turned poisonous, “I never touched your family.”

Stepping forward, a low shudder of anger rumbled in his throat.

Jerking her nose up, she blinked twice: “Too late, my death” she whispered, “I wake.”

It was as if in one moment a net, which had held her in shape, was let loose and the wind, finding a new plaything, took her away. Fur like old silver, eyes like gold and amber, teeth like ivory, all of it turned to spidersilk and smoke, and blew away on the air.

Kveldulf threw himself upon the oaken bole, thrashing and biting. He tore at the silken mist in vain. Anger swelled in him. His skull was pounding with it.

There were watchmen upon the gates of the Toren Vaunt who heard the howl as it rolled through the endless night, and their eyes widened, and their voices dropped. Men and women in warm beds were awoken by it. Babes, shaken from sleep, in their cots. And more than one soul wondered if the Night Queen’s children themselves had come to the Veld.

CHAPTER THE TWENTY-THIRD

Days passed, and so too did the storm. A colder, harder, calmer air settled across the Veld, and it seemed to Sigurd that not only did the birds and beasts grew quieter, but the people too. Eyes that had been wet with mourning were dryer now. Everyone seemed to speak in a strange, hushed undertone, as if they did not wish to disturb something indefinable that hung in the air.

Those days passed much as the sun passes through winter skies: too fast, too dim, too grey.

Dusk came too soon each day. And today evening light meant that an hour Sigurd had been trying not to think about had arrived.

He had clothing to pull on. There was a cloak and tunic that Rosa had ordered made for him. A fine velvety show of wealth, stitched with lapis from the east, and blue glass and embroidered with cloth-of-gold from northern seas. And then there was the feast to attend. All movement, all action slowed to a morass for him. His thoughts stretched long and ponderous. He imagined himself elsewhere as he dressed. Imagined himself in the saddle and cantering out of the Veld, riding away to… he wondered where in the world his imaginary self was riding to.

  Stepping into the great hall was much like stepping into a world of foreign beauty. The wreaths of ivy and holly that hung from the rafters were not merely green, but emerald, and the berries a fiery red. The bunches seemed to bright to look at. It was as if the air were painted with a thin veil of glistening light and everything–the flames in the hearth, smoke darkened timbers, the plastered walls, the rich scent of food, the scrubbed-clean churls–all of it, were somehow finer for a touch of charm.

The illusion though, if it were not purely Sigurd’s own imaging, was not spread evenly. It grew thicker and denser about one person, a graceful young woman. She moved with such an otherworldly grace that once Sigurd put his eyes on her, he found it painful to remove his gaze again. It frightened him that her piercing, knowing eyes seemed to blaze with that englamoured charm whenever she laughed.

He watched Rosa glide through the slowly filling hall. He edged closer to her, circuitously, like a puppy circling something strange and curious it has found in a field. He was not close enough to draw her attention yet, but near enough to hear as she greeted her subjects. “Dear, Anno,” she said touching a jittery churl lightly on the shoulder, “How is your wife? Good? So pleased to hear it. And, Hincmar,” she turned to a merchant whose belly was so wide it pulled at the buttons of his jerkin. “How is business? Wonderful. Hrothar, how are the hounds? Lummerslint. So long since I saw you last. You are well?” The monger nodded, and shrugged, and murmured, “Very good,” said Rosa perhaps not even hearing him, “Wonderful.” Moving on with raw self-assurance. “Are the men-at-arms in good order, Mareshal? Excellent. And Ermengarde, how has the kitchen performed? Very good then. We shall look forward to a grand feast.” Passing her aunt with a cordial, if to Sigurd’s mind uneasy, smile, Rosa strode to her place at the head table and paused by her seat. She smiled and sat not in her comfortable oaken chair, but for the first time in the throne of her dead father.

If this surprised anyone in the hall other than Sigurd they dared not show it. Sigurd himself glanced about, and noted barely a flicker of raised eyebrows or clandestine frowns. He steeled himself in his mind, adjusted the brocade on his cuffs and proceeded to the throne.

“Sigurd, dear thane.” Rosa’s voice danced across the air.

He nodded and increased his pace a degree.

“You may sit,” she extended a hand to the seat on her right, at the chair that was once hers.

“My lady, it would be improper.”

Laughter arose in a golden note, and her eyes lit up with intricate joy. His heart beat faster just to hear the sound of it, just to watch her laugh. How could he not fall completely in love with this woman if he were not already there?

“Freer? Where is he?”

The balding little man, with his restless hands, and worried face appeared. He was making of pretence of not hurrying, but Sigurd could still see a tense jerk in his stride.

“My lady?” He did not bow. It would not befit a man of the temple to do so. That at least gave Sigurd some hope. Even if every other subject were to be swallowed up by the glory and fear of Rosa, the man of the temples and Bright Mother, he would not falter.

“What was it you said earlier, that clever little turn of phrase about whims?”

“Oh yes, eh, Lady of Veld, your whims are law unto everyone but yourself.”

Sigurd felt his blood run into coldness.

“Yes, delightful, do you not think so, Sigurd? What is propriety beside a whim of the Lady of Veld?”

“I see,” said Sigurd. He adjusted his cloak on his shoulders and took the seat.

A fine selection of dainties–cuts of bread, apple butter, fruit minces, medlars and nuts–were laid out for the privileged to pick at. With an absent mind Sigurd sampled this, or that, or drank a swallow of sticky sweet white. He did not have a strong appetite tonight.

When all the guests, thanes, courtiers, and damosels had arrived Rosa stood. “Welcome,” she said, “Lords and ladies of mine father’s blood, retainers, thanes, householders, churls and strangers alike. Let the Feast of Samenight begin, for it has been overdue, and we’ve a good end of harvest to celebrate. Let this be a feast like no other that has ever graced our fine hall. Let there be dancers to amuse you. Let there be wonders to baffle you.” Her eyes gleamed with passion, “Let there be magic.”

There was food and drink of course, but the richness of it was startling even for those well-travelled wanderers who had been to kingdoms beyond. Honey beer, cowslip wine, three-spiced mead, mulled red, expensive cheeses, boulbelier of wild pig, veal, venison, and a dish called heathen pie–beef, bacon, apples, pepper and eggs.

As the night drifted itself into the deeper hours, the promised entertainment filtered into the hall. Men and women dressed in an elaborate, sometimes scandalously revealing richness of silks and silver bells. There was singing, dancing, riddles and games. Through all of this, Sigurd felt increasing unease. He ate the food without tasting it. Drank the mulled wine without noticing the warmth of it.

He was silent as Rosa laughed and chatted and admonished those performers who did not meet her expectations.

Spotting something that displeased her, she said just barely loud enough for Sigurd to catch, “No, it will not do. I will have nothing near me that is not beautiful.” Then louder with a pointing finger. “You there, dancer.”

The woman stepped toward the high table, reluctantly it seemed. She must have known she was doing poorly. Where had she come from? This stranger, with odd, red ochre looks, copper hair, and the silvered bells, and a flowing white skirt. Was she one of the rootless folk who occasionally passed through the Veld, selling the odd treasure, scrounging the odd coin, thieving the odd trinket. Rosa’s eyes slid subtly to Sigurd. “I have sought hungrily and paid handsomely for dancers and troubadours fit to make the Veld a place of wonder.” Then, turning those jet-dark eyes back on the dancer, “You dance well enough, but I would have more from you.” Come closer. Leaning forward Rosa brushed her red lips across her fingertips, then reached out lightly to touch the dancer upon her forehead.

The stranger’s pale reddish coloured eyes widened, then grew vacant, then full of a drifting, pleasant glow. Something that Sigurd did not fathom had passed between the two. With a thick accent, and layered with hints of campfires, and wending caravans in wild places, and nights under stars she said simply, “Yes, my lady.”

Returning to the floor she began to sway slowly, then faster, then she became a graceful storm of swirling, leaping, and twirling. Eyes were drawn to her. Mouths formed hollow circles.

Soon the troubadours and minstrels were each summoned to Rosa, and each bowed or curtsied before her. There passed again some whispered encouragement, and a kiss-by-hand. The music grew note-by-note more powerful, and bar-by-bar, it demanded greater self-will to resist getting up and giving into the urge to dance. Old men who had not capered for twenty years, tottered to their feet to spin and whirl like youths. Matronly ladies, their bodies hefty with the fat of many past pregnancies and births, too dour now to smile at a jest, were soon up on their feet, cavorting like drunken revellers.

And Rosa clapped and laughed at them until her eyes watered.

There grew a strange fixated look in the eyes of the young maids and men, too. They began to dance shamelessly. Sigurd licked his dry lips, and lets his eyes flicker over the hall. There were stranger things now. A juggler passed the high table keeping what looked like glowing orbs of soft light in the air. In one moment the masks the tumblers wore took on a life of their own. Weird eyes squinted and weird smiles bore sharp teeth for a flicker of a moment. But, in the next heartbeat those masks were masks again–plain, lifeless leather. Another dancer’s eyes changed colour as she whirled by, filling with a bright sky blue, before clouding back to their original hue. Sigurd felt dizzied. Everything moved too fast. He looked up, hoping to take a gulp of clean, cool air and his eyes widened. A hundred unearthly lights were dancing in the beams of the hall, black and red and white.

Did no one else see it? Did no one else care?

Snatching at a goblet of wine, Sigurd drank deep, swallowing gulp after gulp. It did not help. There were things swirling through the air. Snowflakes? Crystalline flames?

With trembling hands he blundered for some food, taking a ripe medlar, Sigurd bit into it. The crisp fruit was bitter. Screwing up his face Sigurd spat out rotten flesh and stared at a squirming worm in the core.

Rosa was seething with joy now. Her laugh infected everyone who heard it. Everyone except the one man she had left to himself. Sigurd stared at her, gazing from under knotted brows until she noticed and turned those bright, powerful eyes on him.

“Sigurd, what is wrong? Would you like to dance? I can teach you how to dance as fine as anyone in the room.”

His eyes worked over her, up and down, her skin was the white of moonlight, her hand stretched out and caressed his face. Pleasure tingled in his skin.

“Danger. There is danger here.”

The words cut the air like a sickle, leaving harsh and bitter tatters in the gauze of lights and shadows. Sigurd wondered for a moment who had been so piggish that he would disturb the feast with such a tone before he recognised his own voice. Stumbling awkwardly to his feet he wavered, both in mind and in body, and his numb hand sought his sword and lay heavily upon the hilt.

He felt drunk, and sickened, but the wine could not have worked so fast.

“Sigurd?” Her voice sounded hurt. There were tears beginning behind those black, bright eyes. “Sigurd?”

He set his fingers firmer about the hilt, and took a step back, but in that moment several things happened.

All the flames and fires in the hall guttered, and turned to low flickering tongues of burning roan as a wind burst through the hall–there were cries of alarm from somewhere beyond the great arch, away down at the furthest reaches of the great hall–the doors to the hall, shut tight against chill winter, shuddered as something heavy struck them from the outside.

Eyes shot to the archway, and the folk that crowded hall began to fall back from it, crushing into to the tables and walls. Something on the other side of the door collided with it again, and the heavy wood trembled and groaned again.

“There is something at the door.” Sigurd said this to himself, but Rosa, mistaking it for a warning, looked at him with a curious expression.

“There is. But, how did you know? Sigurd, why did you not warn me clearly, rather than leap to your feet and scare me. For a moment I thought… I was afraid of you.”

And the doors burst inwards.
Cold wind swirled in with the night air, and hair and dresses, hanging sleeves, and leafy garlands all fluttered, and then it came.

“Dear Ladies of the Bright Host deliver us,” whispered Sigurd, and his sword slid forth from its scabbard.

Rosa had hoped aloud that this would be a feast unlike any before in the Veld. She was getting her wish. All eyes fixed unblinking on this new and uninvited guest as it trotted haughtily into the hall. Mostly it was built like a stag, but silver and dapple in colour, and married, much the same as a mythical centaur, to a manlike torso, head and arms. His hair was a tumble of moss and raw silver, his face, more deerlike than human, was set with moonlight eyes and crowned with the spreading horns of a hart. In one inhumanly graceful hand he held a bow of ivory. Over his shoulder was slung a quiver bristling with green-fletched arrows.

Rosa rose languidly, and without so much as blinking an eye, she let a smile play on her full lips and said: “I do not recall inviting the faer folk to our joyous feast.” A graceful curtsey. “But, and yet, all are welcome. All are welcome here tonight. Will you drink wine with us, and dance to my minstrel’s revelry? Or challenge one of my thanes to a friendly contest of strength?”

Every other face in the hall was fixed with awe and fear.

It pawed the reed-strewn floor with one hoof, and shook its mane of silver-green hair. “I thank you for your grace in welcoming me, Rosa, Lady of Veld. I cannot tarry. I will not drink of your wine, nor of your song.” That voice, thought Sigurd, the voice was half the sound of a herd of deer splashing through a stream, half a huntsman’s horn. “I am the Hunter of the Hollows, and I am a newly appointed herald, sent by mine King Alraun, Lord of the Green.”

“Newly appointed?” said Rosa.

“His previous herald ran into some trouble, recently.”

“Pray tell then, herald, what regal proclamation does the king of faer and weird folk see fit to make? He, who has never afore sent a messenger to this, the hall of my ancestors.”

“Alraun, King of all that lies within reach of the shadows of the trees of Veld wishes to advise you to make ready for his coming.”

“King of the wild woods only, you mean.” Rosa’s voice was now perilous with a creeping irritation. “King of the squirrels and jays and blackbirds. King of wild sprights and wood-ghaists?”

“No,” said the herald calmly. “King of all betwixt Weeping River and the Deepling Dusk Hills. King of the Veld. King of you. For Alraun claims again that realm that was once his, long ago. All of it.”

Rosa gripped the table, her nails dug into the wood. “Impudent spright. Do you think I am unwise in the ways of glamour and shadows? Look in my soul. I know you for what you are. I will not quail before an airy nothing such as you.”

He was dismissive. “Mark this as truth. Alraun is more than glamour and shadows. Your magics are petty to him.” He looked around then. “But where is the other?” He threw his gaze about the hall, and men and women shrunk under it. “The mortal Lilia, for I was told to speak with her too.”

“You may tell to me, that which you would tell to my dear sister.” An uneven smile passed over her full lips. “We have no secrets.”

The hunter of the hollows blinked the great pools of silver that served him for eyes, and his brow barred with lines. “Very well,” though confusion rifled his voice, “My Lord, King Alraun wishes that Lilia make herself ready to be his wife. Once the marriage is made, he will then rule over the whole of the valley. The world of mortals shall be one with his timeless magic. It is a great honour.”

“Is there nothing else?”

He attempted a mockery of a bow, crooking his front legs. “That is all.” And with that, the Hunter of the Hollows turned about, and pranced away, as proud as any stag.

Amongst the rising tide of wondering conversations, the sobs, the whispered words, Rosa stood like a statue of an ancient queen carven and painted and still as stone. She raised a hand and whispered, “Hark.” Though she said it almost too hushed for even Sigurd to hear, who sat beside her, every last set of bewildered eyes in the hall was drawn to her.

“Smith Lummerslint,” she said. The stout man, about the girth and general build of a barrel, came tentatively forward, cap in hand.

“Yes, my Lady.”

“Make for me swords and spears of cold iron. No steel or other metals. Just iron. Arrowheads too and barbed darts. Get every hand you can to help you. Melt down the pots and pans, the nails, the horseshoes, any scrap of pig-iron you can find.”

“Yes, my Lady.” He began to edge away.

“I am not done yet. No overgrown spright will wear for himself a better crown of words than I. King Alraun,” she sneered, and then was thoughtful. “I think,” her eyes deepened as her thoughts wandered,” I think that I shall no longer be your lady, and the Veld shall no longer be an Eorldom. You may address me hence forth, as her regal ladyship, if you please. But, for title, I shall be Rosa: Princess of Veld,” Sigurd caught her glancing furtively at him, though he pretended not to notice. “And in time… in time, I will be queen.”

-oOo-

“You nasty little whore.”

Lilia started. She dropped the shawm she had been running an idle finger over, and it clattered on the wooden floor. Without thinking, she stooped down to pick it up and check that it was not damaged. Standing up quickly then, turning about, she found that the door to her chamber had been swung open. A shadow from the ill-lit hall beyond stepped into the room and resolved into her sister, Rosa. With burning eyes she looked Lilia up and down: once, slowly, coldly.

Lilia held the shawm close to her chest. “I did not hear you at the door. Nor did I hear the door open. I…”

“You snivelling, craven little vixen.” Rosa’s skin was paler than usual. She began to tread closer. Her breath came in short, sharp gasps between words. “Why? Why, Lilia, why? Must you soak your hands in so much blood to revenge yourself on me?”

Lilia took a small step backwards. “What are you speaking of?”

But Rosa cut her off. “Oh, you know perfectly well, you ill-begotten, heartless she-pig. You ugly little peddler of your own flesh.” Lilia moved away in a curve, trying to keep the distance between her and Rosa, trying not to back into a wall. But Rosa adjusted her stride mid-pace, and rounded on her, Lilia froze. She was fixed by her sister’s glaring eyes. “I’ll have you burned for a poisoner. I should have ordered it done as soon as the mutt died, but I thought… I thought, maybe I could just forget about you. Leave you to your childish daydreams behind a locked door. With your toys, and yours songs. Just forget about you. Until you turned grey and old and harmless.” Her eyes looked momentarily distant. “It would have been one less shade to haunt me.” With trembling lips she let each word form into a droplet of venom, “But no, no you were not happy in your little tower, not even when I told them to bring up all your dresses and playthings. No, my dear sister, you had to get your revenge.”

Lilia looked down at her hands and was surprised to see the knuckles clenched white about the shawm. It felt like her blood was slowly turning thinner. Biting back anger, she strained to ask calmly, “And what is it that you suppose I have done, dear sister? I suppose a woman capable of murdering her own father will sink to anything?” It came out sounding too polite, sarcastic.

Her cheek stung with a flash of pain, and Lilia stumbled backwards. Putting out a hand she leaned against the bed for balance. She was shocked. “You slapped me.”

Rosa held up a finger as if she were lecturing a child on manners. “I will not see the Veld crumble to ruin. I will not see it overrun by weeds and sprights. I will not see this land, the work of our forefathers and great grandmothers, slip away from the minds of mortalkind, and be lost from history.” She almost screamed the last words. “I will not have it.”

Staring blankly, Lilia began to grasp what must have happened. “Alraun,” she said. “Oh, goddesses both. It was Alraun, wasn’t it? What has he done?”

Rosa was already walking towards the door. Before she left she stopped and turned partly about. Her beautiful face, half-hidden in shadows, turned icy and her eyes lit up with exquisite anger.

“Have you ever seen a murderer burned at the stake, Lilia? Have you ever gone down to the town square and watched?”

She shook her head.

“There was a murderess caught when we were children. She stabbed her drunken husband one night, and left him retching blood for hours before he died. I suppose you were hiding in your daydreams and games, but I went with father to watch. I wanted to see what it would be like. I begged him to take me, and in the end he did. He relented. He never could deny me.” She sniffed. “First the flames caught the slip they gave her to wear and every man there leered at her naked shame. Then her hair singed away, and she was as nude as the day the Mother of Brightness gave her into the world. She screamed like a babe too, Lilia.” She held a breath. “Like a scared, frightened, tortured baby.”

Echoes flapped about the room as the door slammed shut.

Trembling, and leaning against the wall, Lilia listened as her sister’s quick strides faded away. Her mind felt dumb, cold, almost devoid of conscious thought. Shaking all over, she went to the window and looked out at bleak, cloudy sky, and the benighted castle below. The pitch-blackness was dotted here and there with the orange glow of windows. For some reason the smithy was hard at work, and a steady hammer of metal-on-metal clamoured through the air.

The noise pained her. As if they were hammering her skull.

“Well Lilia,” she said to herself, and the sound of her own voice made her feel sick and repulsed by the fear in it. “What a fine fix you are in now? And here you sit, all day, all night. Too afraid.” She looked at the drop. The tower was tall, the second tallest that the Toren Vaunt could boast, only the North Tower would have been more precarious.

“But I must make a decision, she thought. I must be brave, and not let fear rule me, or make me hesitate, or give in to hopeless hopes. No one is going to rescue you, Lilia.” There was an edge of regret in her voice now. It would be nice, and warm, and comforting to expect rescue. She had dreamed of it for hours each day. Let the fantasy carry her away from this place. “There is no handsome knight in burnished mail riding to save you, Lilia. No help. No rescue. Just you… just Lilia the timid. Lilia the mousy.”

Taking a deep breath, she crossed the room and carefully made sure the door was as secure as she could make it. There was no bolt on this side, but after scraping a heavy chest inch-by-inch up against it, she could be reasonably sure that any visitors would need a few minutes to get the door open. It wouldn’t keep her safe for long, but it would buy her time if someone came calling at the wrong moment.

Tall, and curved and lovingly carved and polished, a wardrobe of antique manufacture stood up against a wall opposite her bed. Its doors opened on protesting copper hinges, and the smell of lavender to keep the moths away wafted around her. Stooping quickly into the darkness Lilia drew out, length-by-coil-by-loop, a rope of silks and sheens, of pearly whites, dark twilight greys and ivories. All her dresses knotted and tied together, one to another, to another, so that when had finished the work she had what looked like a white and silver hued snake twisted at her feet. It had taken almost a full night of work to knot and twine them together. And hours of fretful indecision followed, only to cram the makeshift rope back into the wardrobe.

There was a satchel in the wardrobe too, bulging with crusts of bread, and cheeses and a bottle of wine. All smuggled away, a bit at a time after every meal. She tucked the shawm into her belt too, not quite able to leave it behind.

Going to the window she put hands on the sill for support and looked out, and down. Heights always look greater from above than from below. She repeated that several times, but couldn’t quite convince herself.

She had already planned it in her head. There was a ledge just down there, and then a little farther below that, a battlement, seldom if ever patrolled, looking, as it did, over the insurmountable cliffs of the southern flank of the Toren. All day, she had stood at the window as hours of indecision wallowed by. Hours of painful planning, imagining her escape, just on the chance she might actually find the nerve to do it. Then what? Flee? To where?

“Well, Lilia. This is it, I think.” It was clear that Rosa was not joking. There had been a sort of madness in her eyes. Lilia sighed. “Escape now, or burn tomorrow. Which is it?” Finally, with a long out-breath she said. “If I slip. Well, a fall at least would be quick.”

She paced around the room then, fretting. There were a few things she would need. She strapped a belt around her waist, and a satchel over her shoulder, and then over it all, a cloak with a big hanging hood to conceal her features. Alraun’s shawm she tucked under the belt.

The rope of silk and velvet was smooth and cool to touch. It tied easily to the bedpost with enough knots that it looked like the knot of a wagon-joint. Then, casting the coils out, over the window ledge, she listened as it slid and roiled into the shushing winds. Edging up onto the window, she paused and almost lost nerve, retreating like a hurt animal. She paced back across the room twice more. The window looked like a gaping mouth, with a throat of tattered clouds and a black, jagged line of distant towers for teeth. She didn’t like heights. Never had.

“There is no rescue, Lilia,” she said once more, “No rescue. No strong arms. No happy ending unless you make it for yourself.”

It was like walking through a morass of dreamstuff, just to make it to the window. Without looking out at the blackness again, without giving herself a chance to give into fear, she hitched her dress, and slowly, with shivering arms, with fingers clenched like steel around the rope, she climbed over the stone windowsill, began to lower herself over the edge.

Despite being a waif of a girl, as Ermengarde so often put it, and therefore not weighing much, her arms burned and strained with every moment. Her knees and feet scuffed painfully on the uneven stonework, sometimes finding purchase, sometimes flailing free like the limbs of some mock marionette. When she found the small ledge she had gazed at optimistically from above Lilia was overwhelmed with a shocking, profound relief. She clung there to the wall, shivering and huffing for breath. The brief rest was made bittersweet by a knowledge that there was still farther to go. Collapsing a little, she was able to rest on her knees and peek over the edge. It was still so far. She wanting to do nothing more than nurse her sore arms and weep. Every muscle in her arms and shoulders was shivering with hot pain.

But there was no time to wait.

If she was found on the ledge, they would pick her off with arrows, or climb up here and toss her down like a sack of wheat. The wind was striking up a chorus of despair now. It flicked hair into her eyes, stinging them.

“Do not give in,” she whispered the mantra through clenched teeth, “do not give up now.”

One last glance, and she suppressed a twinge of fear. It was difficult to see if the silk-tied rope dangled all the way to the battlement below. What if there was a gap? A fall?

Even if there was, she still had to make the attempt.

Clumsy with exhaustion, Lilia began the second span of the descent, inch by inch, with worn-out arms, clinging to each knot as she lowered herself. When her feet found no more knots, she shut her eyes tight. This was the end of the rope. She didn’t know how far there was, but there was nothing else for it. She forced her fingers to loosen just a little, just enough to slide, then fall. A moment of freefall passed in which the world turned to pure, crystalline calm, and then swiftly to sharp, red-black pain.

She lay there for some time, the wind stoking her hair, the tears bleeding over her face. There was relief at first, then a strange, sharp, wakefulness. Her teeth chattered in occasional spasms, her breath came in short, rapid wracks. Rolling onto her back she looked up at the tower. It looked like a cascade of rock falling out of a hole in the sky. The knotted silks writhed and danced on the wind.

She had been wrong. It did look a long way from below, too.

Wind. Storm. Stone. Emptiness. She heard, felt, smelled and saw these things. But she listened as the weary man listens to music in the high winds. She saw as a sick man sees faces in the knots and grain of floors and timbers. She smelled as the daydreamer will recall scents of long lost days. All was illusion. Naught seemed to be solid for a long span of moments.

Pushing herself up, testing one uncertain foot at a time, she stood, and tottered on her feet. As she wondered which way to go, a sound crept suddenly and softly upon the air. It was a noise that sent a lizard of fear crawling up her spine.

Footsteps.

CHAPTER THE TWENTY-FOURTH

It was too late now to do more than grope at the drawstring about her throat, and bring up the hood. Strange that no wash of torchlight spilled over the stone as the guard paced out of the shadows. Strange that no horn sounded. Nor was there even a jingle or clatter of arms. Just a few storm-hushed footfalls. So quiet. If he had been walking any fast he’d have come on her completely unawares.

His head was bent low, and he walked while gazing at nothing but the flagstones. He seemed to be careless that his cloak flailed open on the wind, letting the sharp wind bite him. Perhaps she might easily melt away from him? Slip into the shadows, and pretend to be nothing more than a lonely chambermaid half-glimpsed, soon forgotten. But even as she thought this he looked up.

His reverie was startled. “I’m sorry. I didn’t see you. Good even.”

She wet her lips and replied, trying to disguise her voice a little. “Good even to you,” and adding as an after thought, “good sir. I was merely,” but she shied here, “was on my way to the high chambers, I…”

A smile touched his lips, and his eyes seemed to turn from an absent and inward gaze to a bright, knowing one.

“I am sorry. I disturbed you, I see. We all need a place to think, eh? A time to be alone.” He gazed for a moment into the endless night. “I was lost in my own thoughts too, good maid?”

A name. A name? “Liesl.” It was a name suitable for a churl, and she tried to roughen the sound in her throat. “Liesl, daughter of Lea, from Natthing Veld. The north of the valley,” she added weakly.

With a nod, his brow knotted, and the skin about his eyes tensed a little. “Liesl.” There was new interest in his voice. “Have we met before?”

It took every fibre of her will to stay exactly where she stood and reply calmly, “The Toren Vaunt has so many serving folk. Too many for a thane to recall all, I think. We have perchance meet. I know not.”

“True. I spend as much time as any weary-worn thane in the kitchens with drink and hot stew. But your voice… your voice is familiar to me.”

She risked a slight, tentative step away. “I rarely frequent the kitchens, good thane.”

Pale light broke free from the clouds as the moon, a ghastly sphere above, slid into a rift between banks of frozen clouds. His features where clear for an instant. His eyes, clearly suspicious and watchful, had a frank blue colour, and his hair fell in crisp ringlets of gold. But it was his mouth that struck Lilia. For it was so unusual to see this man without a smile, so that when he wore a serious expression, his mouth had a cast of unfamiliar sadness to it.

Oh Goddesses. It was Rosa’s pet. She had been cornered by rosa’s pet.

She tried and failed to calm her breathing.

What was his name. Sigurd?

Oh by the Goddesses.

Before she knew what she was doing, she felt an instinct to distance herself. Lilia let her façade crumble without thinking, and took several swift paces aback. He did not break off his stare, only edging closer. It was a dance now.

“I do know you.”

She moved away, and he moved to match the distance. Lilia bowed her head a little and glanced at him from hooded eyes. “You are mistaken.”

“No,” there was strong suspicion in his tone now. “I am not mistaken. Your voice…”

“Is alike to many of mine sisters.”

“Your sister.”

“A slip of the tongue. I mean only my sisters-in-trade. I have no sister by blood.” She could hear the tension in her throat turning to anxiety now. “My fellow churlwifes. My–“

“Sister.”

In that moment something long and silken whipped the air, thrashing in the wind, and barely whisking above their heads. The wind laughed and soughed. Looking up, he stared at a long dangle of knotted silks that was drifting free from the window high above.

She turned to run, but he was faster, and stronger.

It was as if her dress snagged on an iron hook. “Let go of me!” She struggled, but his hand snatched out and took a firmer grip on her left wrist. “Let go, I command it,” she cried as he dragged her about to face him.

“And who is a chambermaid to give orders to a thane of the Toren? Let me see the hooded face of bold Liesl.” Though she flailed at his groping fingers, he found drawstring of the hood and dragged the whole hood back over her shoulders.

There was no point in wasting energy now. Dishevelled, angry, fuming, she held still under his gaze. She let him stare at her face. Hair, light and billowy, now floated on the wind about her neck and shoulders. He was leaning in so close that she could feel his breath warm the skin of her cheeks.

“Will you drag me before her? Will you throw me at her feet like a doe you have shot through the heart, good thane? I think she will be pleased with you.”

“Be quiet.” Tilting his head back, he stared up again at the rope-of-silks, perhaps at the storm above, perhaps at the tower. Lilia could not quite tell from the angle of his eyes. “You climbed down that?”

“No, I flew.”

“Please. I am trying to think.”

“Think? Think? You? You, who have never had a thought or word in your head that was not to her liking? Lapdog,” she spat, “Grovelling, fawning, lapdog.”

His eyes flared with a violent intensity. “Is that what you think of me?”

She only laughed at that. Laughed, and laughed, and let all the tension of the descent, the fear, the thwarted escape, let it all fall tumbling out in one insane peal. When she could laugh no more she wheezed. “It is what everyone thinks of you. Dog.”

“Be quiet with you.” A scowl shadowed his fine features. “If any other man or woman in all the Vaunt, from the lowliest pock-ridden filth-raker, to the golden-mailed Mareshal, had found you, any of them! Mark my words, you would be on your knees before her now, and begging for mercy. Be quiet. Let me think.”

“I can smell wine on your breath.” Mocking words embittered her lips. “Are you drunk, good thane?”

“No. Well. Acutally, yes. Perhaps a little.” His concentration lapsed a moment.

It was now or never. With her free hand she made a tight ball of a fist, and brought it up in an arc into his temple. The sudden shock of the attack was just enough, and she slithered free and ran.

He gave a violent roar. “Wench!”

There was no time to breath, nothing existed but the pounding of her soft feet on hard stone, and the night like a tunnel whisking by. He came after her, and from the sound of his thundering chase he was gaining. Risking a glance over her shoulder, Lilia saw him almost upon her, his eyes intent, his fingers reaching for her. It was a mistake to look. Misplacing a foot, she wavered clumsily, then stumbled, fell.

He came down like a heavy blanket upon her. At first she thrashed, struggled, eventually she fought back only weakly. He rolled her onto her back, and put hard, strong fingers to her jaw hurting the flesh under her chin, and pushing her head back. His other hand, he raised into the air, and there it hovered, clenched into a trembling fist.

With wild eyes he looked at her eyes, to her neck, her breasts, and back again to her own cool glare. Giving one last bodily protest, she gave in to sheer exhaustion, and lay perfectly still. All she could do was hiss at him through her clenched teeth.

“Do what you will then.” Her breath snagged and gurgled. “Give me to her, or claim whatever choice titbits of my flesh she tosses you. Be a good little lapdog.”

How long did he kneel over her with his fist poised like a hammer, his gaze full of wild fury? It felt to Lilia like an hour went by, but it could not have been more than a few heartbeats before his fingers unknotted. She pushed him off easily, almost without effort. Crumpled to one side, he sat down on his rear, legs akimbo, not even bothering to even look up at her as she scrambled out of reach.

“What has become of me?” The high wind churned between the battlements half-drowning his words. “What will become of me?”

“Dog,” and she put her back flat up against the nearest wall.

“Do not tempt me.” He pointed an accusing finger. “Why do you mock me? I want only to do what is right.” He paused. “It is not easy.”

“Has Rosa’s pet a troubled mind?” She was cruel, and in the same breath incredulous. “Does he know guilt? Remorse?” With a shake of her head, and wild stare she added, “Do you take me for a fool?”

He leaned forward, and shut his eyes in thought, before standing. “Forgiveness, my lady?” he said without emotion, “I do not know my own mind.” He got up then, and took a step towards her, and bizarrely, he offered a hand to her.

“Keep away from me.” Though needles of pain shot through her legs, she eased herself along the wall, trying to edge closer to the one door that might let her escape. She held herself stiffly straight as she did, watchful.

He gave a curt nod, stepped back, and turned away from her. With sagging shoulders he half-strode, half-stumbled towards the parapets. He looked for a moment as if he was going to throw himself off. He stopped short and lurched forward instead, retching over the side until thin stingy loops of saliva were all that came out of his mouth. He wiped a hand over his lips, and said, “I’m sorry, Lilia. I’m sorry. I will not raise a hand to you again. I think you have the right idea, running. It is more than I am free to do. But you can still run. It is wise of you.”

Silence stretched between them. “I did not poison father,” said Lilia. “If that is what they say of me, I did not.” She paused. “It is a lie.”

“I am beginning to think we are made of lies,” he muttered.

“I will not beg, or grovel, or bribe you.”

“I know. Only ask, and I will let you go.”

“I told you, I will not beg.”

“Just ask.”

Rosa’s pet looked neither proud, nor wicked, nor even dangerous. Merely sad. His eyes were bleeding with wet streaks, his was face a gleam of pale skin in the night. Wind shushed around his hair and cloak, making him look like a lank-limbed ragdoll, left for the wind to play with.

“Then I ask. Thane Sigurd, let me go free.”

He hung his head a little more. “Very well. I will not follow. I will not raise the alarm.”

“You know I am not the poisoner.” There was a strange twinge of hope in her throat. “You know it could not be me, you could do something, you know–“

“What do I know, really? I only suppose… I suppose it must have been a natural disease. A cold-borne illness.”

“You do not believe that.”

“Do not tell me what is fit for me to believe.”

Though it made her heart cold and her skin shiver, she forced herself to take a few steps closer to him. Close enough, to see that he was trembling and that his hands were clawed on tightly to the stone parapet. Closer still. She reached out, gingerly, and touched him, just lightly, on the upper arm.

He flinched slightly.

“You suspect her then,” said Lilia. Remaining as still and hunched a gargoyle, his fingers gripped the parapet. She spoke on. “I know of a secret way out of the Toren Vaunt. You could come with me. There is nothing here. Nothing but blood and madness.”

“There is Rosa.”

“You would stay for her?”

“I would lay down my life for Rosa,” he said sharply. He twisted and looked around at her then, his eyes were blinking fast, though if it were because of tears, or the stinging wind, or cold she did not know. “I love her. I will not betray her twice in one night.”

She had no answer to that. Letting her hand slip free, she stepped away, and drew forward her hood. But before she went she paused, and said, “Though I have so often seen you in my sister’s company, I do not even know your full name.” A wan, humourless smile passed over his lips, and Lilia felt suddenly apologetic and foolish. “I never asked, you see. In all the years, I never asked.”

“Sigurd. My name is Sigurd, son of Sigold, of Siffolk Farmstead.”

“Thank you then.”

“No. Give me no thanks. Just go.”

With one last glance at Sigurd, she pulled the hood right over her features, and hurried away. She ghosted along the dark battlement, alone and into the shadows, into the open door and down empty stairs.

-oOo-

Lilia had spent so many hours creeping like a mouse around the Toren Vaunt, it was second nature to her. To do it again, now, seemed almost a game, almost soothing. To shrink from footsteps echoing on stone. To catch the round, delicious chatter of churl-wives, and go down another slightly more circuitous corridor. To drift through rooms unwatched, unnoticed, unmissed. To slip silent into the benighted courtyard.

A quick glance about. There were lumpish black silhouettes on the parapets, with heads and shoulders bent together, and pinpoints where the embers of their pipes burned. The forge was still aflame and hammering. Otherwise, all else was still and devoid of life.

She stepped quickly down the flight of steps that went from the great entrance to the yard, and then out onto the flagstoned yard. With a glance left and right, she turned towards the narrow muddy way that led to the storage sheds. A few hurried paces, and she was through the door and had it shut safely behind her. With no light to guide her, Lilia had to fumble past barrels, boxes and rusted tools. Scraping the barrel against stone made a sound like claws on slate. It was enough to make her flesh creep with the fear of discovery. Her ears pricked and she looked up, blinking into the marl-pit darkness, listening. Somewhere in the distance… what was it? A muffled shout in the night? A few heartbeats of silence passed and then a sudden clamour of horns and voices of alarm echoed through the rough stone walls of the little shed. Watchmen cried from parapet, to court, to gate. She could not make out the roll of syllables, but guessed them well enough.

She breathed a sigh, “Hurry, or all is lost,” she told herself, and then, with a half-hearted smile, “or I am lost, anyway, I suppose. More to the point.” She crouched into the hole, dragged at the rusted lip of the barrel with her fingertips, and wrenching at it, concealing the hole behind her.

Down into the darkness on hands and knees, she crawled. Jagged edges cut and chaffed her fingers. Tangles of roots choked her. The air grew stifling, then hot, and cold by turns. The tunnel seemed endless, a downward, ceaseless descent into the bowels of the world. Inch by inch, the closeness, the tightness began to play on her mind. Scrape, scrape, scuffle, and scrape, and claw, and scrape, and gasp for air, and scrape again.

She had no warning when the blackness changed from close, wet and cold, to airy, wet and cold. Her eyes blinked franticly to take in the new dim, feathery grey of trees, and the trickle of cloud-dapple moonlight. Her lungs enjoyed long draws of sweet air.

Up above her, the Toren still rang with bells and horns.

She began to weep. A few soft sobs, and then a halting trickle of tears over her cheeks. Anger. Misery. Fear. Hope. It all fell away from her like leaves from an autumn tree. She curled up in the earth, and she was nothing more or less than alive. The tears trickled and soaked into the earth.

She remember that there was a ferny dell a little way off. Close enough to walk to in a daze, far enough that the men of the keep might take hours to hunt so far into the forest, assuming they thought she had gone out the front gate. Even if they had dogs and horses she should be safe for a few hours at least.

She stumbled to her feet and shambled through the wooded landscape.

The dell was over-canopied by holly, and enwalled by ivy and stood over by several grand old pines. The bracken scratched her skin, the earth smelled musty, the air was cold, but for beds Lilia would not have given up that wooded glen for the best silk and down-stuffed thing in the best chamber of the Vaunt.

Lilia found a place where the pine needles were dry under one great spreading tree, and she hauled herself into the resin-smelling space there. For the first time in days, she could let herself rest.

The night passed her by, over and around her. On tiny padded feet it scurried near her. On lacy wings it fluttered above her skin. With a damp, and sensitive nose, it sniffed the cuff of one sleeve, then ambled away to root for grubs in some other corner of the night.

-oOo-

She was sitting up, awake in the morning light, when the first snowflake touched her cheek, vanishing the moment it did. Wrapping her cloak a little tighter, Lilia sat with her knees tight up to her chest. The snow came only lightly at first, like stars falling one by one from the sky.

The light was greyed by the banks of clouds. And cold. So very cold. There was no warmth in it at all.

Looking this way and that, Lilia stared aimlessly into the middle distance.

Remembering her stolen food, she undid the satchel with numb fingers, and drew out a red napkin-wrapped parcel. Laying each fold of the napkin open she danced her fingers above the small morsels, touching this, hovering about that. Choosing a round of savoury cheese she lifted it to her lips, bit, smiled, and closed her eyes as she chewed slowly, so slowly. Licking her lips she picked up a slice of salted mutton.

Nearly half the bread, and almost all the strips of died meat were gone when Lilia realised that she was going to eat everything in one sitting. She forced herself to wrap up the package again. There was the obvious problem of where to go, of survival, and the next few days ahead. Worries and fears danced in the front of her skull. It was easy to get lost in the maze of tomorrows. As easy as it is to get lost in a forest.

As she sat there in the cold, shivering, she noticed something faint and far away.

At first she thought the sound was no more than wind or her own imagination playing tricks. Then, it came again. Clearer. Nearer.

Lilia sat bolt upright, her eyes wide open, her mind turning over every scrap of sound that came drifting through of the woods.

Again, there is was.

How far? Not more than a few hundred paces perhaps? Tense in every fibre and muscle, Lilia felt a shiver that had nothing to do with the wintry air.

With some difficulty, she persuaded her weary, stiffened legs to take her weight. Her toes were numb and painful.

There was a light dusting of snow on everything. Sparkles of ice flecked her eyelashes, and made it difficult for her to see. She had to blink faster and faster to clear her vision. The snow would make her unfairly easy to track.

There was no time to wait. Not even time to think. The barking and baying of the dogs echoed again. This time, she made note of the direction, and turned her back to it. Fragile snow shook loose and showered her as she shoved through branches. Again, the cry filled the air.

In all her life, in all her dreams, in all her fantasies, Lilia had never been so sickened, and nerve-wracked by the howl of dogs and the blare of a hunting horn.

The next few moments would forever fix in her memory as a headlong flight through a coldly beautiful world of white, holy green, and charmed ice-glitter. The snow grew heavier with every passing moment, and soon formed itself into small drifts that were hard to plough through.

She ran. Until her feet were filled with pain. Until her arms were cut by gorse, her shins by sharp stones, her fingers by rough bark. Until she felt she could run no farther. And then she stumbled a little farther still.

Yet the dogs that bayed on her trail had gained on her. They were close.

Hard-pressed muscles gave up on her. She fell and felt her fingers sink into the crust of snow. Her hair fell in a loosened veil about her face.

The howls grew steadily louder. Harsher, more excited. She knew her mind was surely retreating behind walls of insanity when the bays and barks began to sound like laughter. At first mocking, then strangely pleasant, then it sounded like the air was full of peal upon peal of silvery laughter.

When the touch of gentle fingers pressed her cheek, and warmth flowed into her flesh, she did not understand. When the cry of hunters and hounds faded away to another world, she did not know why. Only when she looked up, did it all fall into stark, terrible relief. Where had the hounds gone? Who was caressing her cheek? Why had the air turned warm? It all made sense when she gazed up into those eyes of green shadow, and autumn gold, and winter silver.

He had changed his autumn garb of fiery colours for silken greys with snowy trims and a crown of glorious ice. He smiled at her with his knowing, beautiful face.

“I knew you would return to me,” he said. “I knew your heart was true to me. I never doubted.”

Lilia could but whisper one word through her cold chapped lips. “Alraun.”

-oOo-

“The hounds had her scent, my lady. They shall have her trail again soon. That I assure you.” His faintly pocked skin looked bloodless beneath ill-trimmed black stubble, and he shivered visibly now. Sigurd wondered if he trembled from the cold, or from the glare of Rosa. They had hunted together many hours, Hrothar and he, and Sigurd knew the man well enough. Superstitious, for one. Not good around women. In fact, a little afraid of them. Though he was usually never worse than nervous, when Rosa set her dark eyes on the Master-of-Hounds, he shivered as if the Night Queen herself had breathed into his soul.

She sat in the saddle of a palfrey, its coat so dark a roan it almost looked black. A dress of scarlet, velvety cloth, trimmed with the plush red of squirrel, hung luxuriant about her. The air seemed lighter where she sat, as if sunlight struggled through the clouds just to bathe her face. And yet despite the glow of sunlight, the snowflakes that fell on her blonde, ribbon-bound locks refused to melt.

All of the hounds were circling a patch of snowy ground in front of them, snuffling, and burying their noses in the leaf litter and thin crusts of snow. Occasionally one howled in frustration. Now and again, one of the dogboys let the air resound with a crack of a whip. But nothing could press the pack on any farther.

This went on until the air was thick with the rising smell of horse sweat, steam from the flanks of the coursers, and the white breath of hunters.

“And what of the tracks, my huntsman?” said Rosa after a span of heavy silence. “Or has your lumbering about muddied her footprints as well as her smell?”

“No, m’lady.” Although Hrothar replied quickly he would not step any closer. He looked at Rosa as Sigurd imagined a man like him might stare at a kennel puppy that had been born with a green pelt. She fixed him with her bewildering eyes. He managed to stammer, “I mean only that, that, the tracks, m’lady. The tracks, they do not go on, you see. They stop right here. No farther, m’lady.”

“Your majesty.”

“M’lady?”

Your majesty.”

“Of course, your majesty.”

Calm lay on the forest for miles around it seemed, disturbed only by the din in this small glade. “Sigurd,” she said at last, “what do you think of this?”

He held his face impassive, perhaps too consciously so. He must have almost looked waxen.

“The scent is cold, the hounds are baffled.” He paused, then added, “your majesty. There are no tracks to follow.” Out of the corner of his eye, Sigurd caught Hrothar shrinking away from them.

“Has she turned into a sparrow and flown off? Has she shrunk into a field mouse and scuttled into a hole? Has she become mist and vanished on the wind? How can hounds, which can hunt a deer over bare rock, not follow my clumsy sister through… through… this muck.” She waved a hand at the snowy landscape.

Sigurd nodded, but said only, “Was not your sister familiar with the wild sprights? I only wonder–“

At that Hrothar nodded vigorously. “All know of your sister’s witching ways. All know sprights will steal mortal girls. The air here is accursed. I feel it in my bones, I do.”

“That may well be.” Rosa tightened her grip on the reins, and nudged her heels into the palfrey’s flanks. “But, Sigurd, if you do wonder…” Her eyes settled on him, but he could not read their black depths, “well, if you do wonder, I consider, and think, and I worry deeply. If she has gone to that woodland ghaist, the Alder King, then the whole Veld may yet be in danger. Still, we have clearly lost her train. Let us ride back to the Toren. I have no wish to freeze any longer in this weather.”

“That would be sensible,” said Hrothar, his voice tempered with cautious gratitude.

“I neither addressed you, Master-of-Hounds, nor did I suggest that you and your dogs, and kennel-reeking hunters should return. Persistence is a quality no hunter should lack, I think. Perhaps a few more hours in the cold will teach you something about it.”

His voice became small and withdrawn. “Your majesty.”

Turning to Sigurd she said. “If my sister has gone back to that heathen spright, then let him have her. We are done with her. We want nothing more to do with Lilia. Her name shall be struck out. All records of her scoured. It will be as if she was never born.” She reined the palfrey a little too roughly, and caused it to stamp and resist the bit, before giving in, and stepping lightly about in a circle. “Come, Sigurd. Ride with me. Master-of-Hounds, see to your charges and continue the hunt, if you please.”

Sigurd shot a look at Hrothar. There was a look of real fear in those grey eyes of his.

Sigurd made sure he rode just a pace or so behind Rosa, and always to her right. It was his proper place, and he was determined to remain proper. He looked straight ahead, at the trees in their growing cloaks of white, at the earth, and the muddy path they picked along, through the wild woods.

When Rosa spoke it was with a voice so low that Sigurd had to strain to catch the words. “This bodes ill for the Veld.”

Glancing at her, Sigurd had the momentary impression that he rode with a stranger. Who was this woman? Straight of back. Bright of eye. Her skin so soft and white. Her hair so combed and blonde and glossy. She did not look like the happy, blush-cheeked Rosa he had fallen in love with. She looked like something else. Something more than herself. Something regal and powerful, and perhaps, something that was forever beyond his understanding.

At last he found an answer. “How so, your majesty?”

“Oh Sigurd, not you.” She looked down at her hands clasped over the saddle. Blinking rapidly, she fixed him with eyes that were wide, glistening. “Not you. When we are alone, just you and I, do not make me rule over you. I cannot be that alone.”

He nodded, and said, “Rosa.”

“Thank you. Oh, goddesses, thank you. But how so, you asked before? How so? She will goad the wildwood king. He has already threatened the Veld with his messenger. She will beguile him with stories of injustice. Of a throne rightfully hers. Of a sister who cheated her out of her riches, and dutiful churls, and soft beds.”

“You think so? Lilia… she always seemed to me such a… how can I put it? A shy and trembling thing. Surely, she is without ambition to rule. Perhaps she will be happy to hide away in the lonely wilds?” A thought occurred to him. “Maybe she will goad the Alder King the other way?” The idea brightened him. “Maybe she will persuade him to give up any pretence of rulership over the Veld altogether?”

“No. Oh, Sigurd, you’ve such a fine heart, and such innocence. You do not know how bitterness can blacken the soul. No. If I were her?” And Rosa seemed to consider this a moment. “If I were her, I would prod the Alder King with every hint and veiled whisper, and word-by-word, I would inch him into revenge.” Her voice deepened. “Even to war, if it took that. It may come to that. War.” That last word hung like a spectre in the air, which neither Sigurd nor Rosa were willing to look at squarely. “We must be ready, dear Sigurd. We must, for our lives and so many other lives depend on us. There may yet be harsh, strange days ahead for the Veld.” She furrowed her brow. “To rule is a heavy burden.”

“The folk will love you, Rosa. They will follow you in whatever you choose to do.”

“Yes.” She smiled and the air briefly rippled with the glow of her presence. “Yes, absolutely, they will.”

-oOo-

Alraun.

How could one name resound with both joy and horror? Hope and fear? Love and loathing?

A hand of bone-ivory grace reached for her, fingers extended, waiting… expectant.

“You have your shawm too, I see. Would you like me to return the charms to it, or would you rather have a newer toy? I can weave something wonderful for you out of morning mist and cobwebs.”

She shook her head at him, swallowed hard a few times.

“Lilia, my dear, my beautiful mortal. Why are you greeting me with such silence? Why do you cower there unmoving? Have they tortured you? Hurt you? You know you are safe with me. Here.” He gestured. “In my domain, nothing would dare harm you. I would not allow it. Come then. Stand. Put yourself in my sheltering arms.”

Slowly, Lilia did rise to her feet, but she did not take his hand. Certainly, a part of her desperately wanted to. Instead, she held herself as self-sure as she could manage. It was painful, just looking at him. She closed her eyes to block him out.

Still his voice sang on. “Come to me. Be mine, forever and ever.” Now the inflection turned a little more hurt, a touch petulant. Like a child scolding an uncooperative toy, he said, “Why do you defy me with this silence? End this foolishness. Come to me. Now.” He grabbed her. Warmth flooded into her through his fingertips. Her wrist tingled, her fingers felt alive, her blood ran hot.

When she opened her eyes, she was staring right into the depth of his. Those bright, silvery-green orbs were without whites or pupil. They looked as if they were entirely iris. He was closer now. His breath excited her lips. It was not quite right to say they kissed. He kissed her, and she did not do a good job of resisting. She gave in to him. Let him slide his arm about her waist. It was all there for the taking. Comfort. Shelter. Eternity. Love too, at least, after a fashion.

“I am sorry, Alraun. I did not come looking for you. I will not go with you.”

His voice was amused. “What?”

Twisting, and then putting some force into the movement, Lilia squirmed out of his grip. Two quick steps put some distance between them. “I will not. No.”

“Lilia, my queen-to-be, why these games?”

“No.” The word wavered a little, but she shook her head and said more firmly, “No.”

At that, he cocked his head to one side, and his eyes studied her with curious intensity.

It took a moment to fumble with her belt, but soon enough she was able to wrap her fingers around it. A long graceful thing, cold and metallic. The shape of it was so familiar it was like clutching a memory.

“Your shawm,” said Alraun. “Your lovely shawm. Would you want me to fix it for you after all?” He really didn’t understand. There was no comprehension in his eyes. He was all games and trivialities and nothing underneath.

“No. I do not.”

“But, you love your shawm, my lady Lilia. I know you do.”

“I do.” She shook her head. “No, perhaps I did. Your gift to me. It was love when I needed it. It was you when I needed you. It was all the things I’d ever hoped for. It was.”

“Let me make it so again.”

“No. You are not listening. It was. It is not now. Here,” and she thrust it at him, held on outstretched fingers. “Take it back. I want it not.”

“It is yours. The Alder King has never taken back a gift, once given.”

“You already took all the magic from it.” She almost snarled this. “If you will not have it back, then let a magpie have it.” Before he could do anything, before she could think about what she was doing, herself, she screwed her fingers tight about the silver pipe, arched her shoulder back, and put all her strength into one twirling movement. It was not much more than a vanishing sparkle of silver as it sailed on the air, then was swallowed by snow. There was not even any sound as it landed and vanished.

All was silence.

It started first in his eyes. It spread over his face, to his skin and hair. It infused his crown of ice turning it sharp and prickly, it made his hair lash as if the air were full of wind. It washed over him like a tide, but Lilia did not step back. She stood in the face of his anger.

“No mortal in a hundred lifetimes has dared throw aside a gift of mine.” He reached out for her again, but his fingers did not close on her flesh. The tips of his fingers twitched, mere inches away, as if in indecision. “Troublesome girl. Contrary creature. No mortal has ever so obsessed and frustrated me.”

“I want you not,” said Lilia. “I need you not. You may have me not.” She remembered then the line from the play, and with an odd, half-mad smile she added. “Therefore pursue me not.”

“I shall destroy you.”

“No. You will not. I deny you, Alraun, prince of wild nothings.”

“I shall ruin all you ever loved.”

“Then ruin yourself, for you are all that I have loved.”

“I shall rain wrath on the homes of your friends. Your family. Your folk. I shall take every pretty mortal maiden in all the Veld for my pleasure. I will torture and twist every child, man and old elder into misshapen, laughable jesters fit only to dance in my court.”

“None of them want me, or love me. You would revenge yourself on them?” She laughed, right in his face. “Besides, have you even that power? How long has it been since you walked from your wildernesses and glades. I don’t think you have the potency that you remember. You have faded, Alraun, and are fading even now as I look at you.”

“Are you so sure? Perhaps we shall see.” And he reached for her again, but she did not flinch. She would not let him see her tremble, nor cringe. Standing fast, she only stared furiously at him. The touch seared her arm. She gritted her teeth against a scream.

“The lass said, no.”

And the burning was gone. Eyes now wide open, Lilia saw Alraun edging away from her, his cloak of woven snow drawn suddenly tight, as if it might shield or hide him. Glancing about, and blinking furiously, Lilia knew she must have looked a confused idiot.

Alraun was incredulous. “You were not alone? I see. You came here to trick me. Betray me. Trap me. With him.”

“No,” said the other. He stepped closer, passing under the shadow of an old oak. A doeskin cloak fell in dull curtains from his shoulders. In one lazy hand he held a knife of black iron. “I am hunting other prey. But you were shining with enough magic to attract the wandering dead.” He grinned as if he had cut a bad joke. “But, the lass did say, no. So, king of the faer of this woodland, let me be blunt. Bugger off.”

Touching a hand to the burn on her arm, Lilia twisted her neck to look at him clearer. She gave a start of surprise. The witch-hunter. Rosa’s hired man.

“Very well then,” said Alraun and he turned his fiery eyes on Lilia. “Your curse shall be to see my revenge destroy all that you once knew, and know you are the root of it. Your curse shall be to hear the wailing of your kin, as I make their souls my playthings. Yours will be the life lived in shame and self-loathing. I will be revenged upon you, through the misery of everyone you ever knew.”

“And what of him?” She felt her face twist into an ugly expression. “How can you threaten to ruin the Veld if you have not the power to overcome just one mortal man?”

“That one?” A cruel smile lit his wild eyes. “My dear Lilia. That one is no more mortal than I am. Trust him, and you trust to the kindness of wolves.”

With a rustle of leaves, a swirl of snow, and a twist of scornful laughter, the king of the faer folk was gone, and Lilia was alone in the woods with the hunter.

Turning to him, she held her chin up a little, and with all the defiance she could gather, she said, “Will you slit my throat here, or drag me back to her, kicking and screaming? For that is how I shall go.”

“Her?”

“My sister.”

“Rosa? That one did her best to have me killed, lass. The men she sent to kill Snoro did their best to do it for me too.”

“Oh.” Then feeling absurd she added, “I’m sorry.”

He shrugged. “I know of an old woman. She seems kind enough, and her home not far from here. She’d be pleased to have some help about the cottage over winter, I expect.” His smile was strangely ironic. “Indeed, I think you may be safer with her than anywhere else for a hundred miles.”

“Wait. What did Alraun mean when he said you are not mortal?”

“She’s a bit of a handful, at times. But she cooks a nice stew. Brews good tea.”

“You look normal enough. What did he mean?”

“Well, are you coming?”

“Not until you tell me. What did Alraun mean by that?”

“Helg. Her name is Helg.”

“Well?”

He frowned. “You should not ask questions that you’d rather not hear the answers to. That’s as wise as I ever get, lass.”

Lilia pursed up her lips and put on her best displeased expression. “Very well then,” she said at length. “Then I suppose I am not going with you.”

He pinned her with a stare. “I have been alive two hundred years. At night, a huge spectral wolf comes out of my soul while I sleep and runs wild, savaging anything it feels like savaging. Including faer kings. Including weird witch-dwarves. Including obstinate ladies.”

“You could at least try to make something up that was more plausible.”

“Grief be on me.” He rolled his eyes. “Come on. Helg’s place it not far off, and if you stay out here you will freeze to death.”

She considered that and accepted the truth of it. “Very well. If that is how you will be. Lead on, brave hero.”

His voice turned a note colder. “You can call me a lot of things, but never call me that.”

“You saved me did you not,” she smiled, almost playfully, “heroically I’d have said?”

He stalked off into the woods without another word. A deep sense of relief suffused Lilia as she watched the hunter walking off. Somehow, she had escaped both Rosa and Alraun, though how far she could trust this wild man she had no idea. For now it did not matter. Any port in a storm, as they say. She hurried after him.

“Wait,” she said, running to catch up, and to her surprise, he did.

-oOo-

“Well, look what the wolf dragged in.”

Lilia stretched up on tiptoes, and peeked around the hunter’s shoulder. The cottage was cramped, but filled with a warm flame-hued light. A shambling, crooked old body filled up the lower half of the doorway.

“Well my, if it isn’t a lady of the Veld come to have high tea with Helg? Come in, come in. No use letting the north wind in while you’re at it either. He’s a bad guest, and never cleans up after himself.”

Following Kveldulf, Lilia found the hut both stifling and enlivening after the brisk winter air. The door shut with a dull click of its wooden latch.

“So, Kveldulf, you any closer to catching your own tail?”

“Somewhat.”

“Bah.” The woman waved one swollen-knuckled hand at him. “What am I to do with you?”

“I’ve something that may interest you.”

“Hmmm?”

Kveldulf turned and looked at Lilia. The elderly woman, too, turned her one eye on her.

“Perhaps later,” said Kveldulf.

“What? Is it somewhat you will not speak of in front of me? Does it concern me then?”

“No,” said Kveldulf. “But it may very well frighten you.”

“So,” said Helg. “To what do I owe the honour of this little get-together?”

Lilia let her shoulders heave with a sigh, and opened her mouth, but before she could utter a word, Helg cut her off, “No, no, wait. On second thought, just let me get some tea pipping and poured. Talk’s always better with a nice nip of tea to mull over. I’ll be just a bit.” She began clattering about with a kettle and some clay mugs and in short time three mugs of steaming tea were laid out on the table.

Lilia sat down, and lounged forward, enjoying being warm, absently tracing her fingertips along the grooves and cuts on the old table. When the tea arrived, she blew steam from the lip of her mug before taking a sip. The gust of hot vapour almost seemed to make phantom shapes in the air. Then, taking occasional mouthfuls of tea to wet her throat, Lilia recalled the last few days in words. She drew for them word-pictures of Rosa in her rage, the cell, the descent, and Sigurd with his drunk, sad eyes. Of Alraun she said less. That was more personal, more painful, something she needed to think about herself before she spoke more than a few scattered words about it.

When she was done she let the last of the tea trickle into her mouth and, after putting the mug down, she said, “and so, now I am here.”

“Better than alone in the wild woods with that Alraun, missy,” said Helg with a sad shake of the head, “or up in the Toren, with your moonstruck, power-hungry peacock of a sister plotting to burn you alive. Siblings these days, eh Kveldy?”

He looked at her as if she were mad, but said, after settling himself a bit, “It sounds to me that we need something with a little more fire than tea.”

“I’ve a jug of Jon-o-Lotho’s herb brandy.”

Kveldulf smiled. “That would do.”

“Over on the shelf. By the pot of rosemary. And Kveldulf, when did you last trim that beard of yours? It’s beginning to look like a pair of wrens could make a nest in there.”

“A few days back. Lilia?” He proffered the brandy jug. She nodded, and he poured a measure into her now empty mug. “I have been… distracted.”

“No man should ever be so distracted that he lets himself look like a wild trolde.” Helg drained her tea, and smacked her lips. “Here, I’ll have a bit of that, too.” She took the jug in one gnarled hand, and filled her mug almost to the brim. “So, what’s been eating you?”

“That is what I’d like to discuss alone.” He looked squarely at Lilia. It was not an unkind expression, but there was little warmth in his eyes.

“Very well,” cut in Helg before Lilia could raise her voice, “we’ll chat about it later.”

“There is this something else I’d like you to look at,” and Kveldulf began to root through his beltpouch. “Ah, here it is.” Onto the table he laid a small bundle wrapped up in a piece of soft goatskin. Untying it revealed several broken sherds of pottery.

“You have the oddest hobbies,” said Helg. Her one eye lazed over the fragments, but it was her nose that began to twitch. The skin about her nostrils wrinkled. “Here now. What is it you have there? Smells strange and bleak.”

“This is all that remains of Snoro’s last potion.”

“Ah, yes. Poor Snoro,” said Helg. “Can’t say I’m going to miss him, but you know. Still, bad way for things to turn out.”

“You know?”

“You are not the only one who can see the unseen, Kveldulf, nor hear the unheard.” Lifting one pottery sherd gingerly, as if afraid of poison, Helg held it above her hair-specked upper lip, and sniffed. “Wormwood,” she said, “some hensbane, lacehouse, nightsorrel, cat’s gallows… hmmmm… swamp-mallow too, some other scents mingled in there.”

“Could you brew a similar potion?”

A shrug. “Perhaps. Anything I made is unlikely to be exact. Why?”

“This,” and he traced a finger over one of the sherds, “is my cure. Or so Snoro claimed.”

“Why not go just back to the little hunchback?” asked Lilia suddenly. Both Kveldulf and Helg looked at her, and she retreated a little into her chair. “It’s no secret now, I got my father’s medicine from him, though he was selling the poison and curses to my sister, as it turns out.”

“The poison sold to one. The antidote sold to the other.” Helg sighed. “Clever little bastard. Too clever by half, though”

But Kveldulf was blunt. “The little hunchback is dead.”

Lilia nearly dropped her mug. Some drops sluiced onto her fingers, and she wiped them away. “Snoro, dead?” She felt her face blanch. “How?”

“Your sister. His ghost was wailing about it. Still is, probably. Ghosts can take a while to go to forget themselves and go to sleep in the earth. Decades, sometimes centuries.”

Helg snorted. “Well, the way I see it, good riddance.” Kveldulf and Lilia both raised quizzical glances at Helg. She took a sip of the brandy. “Don’t look at me like that. Snoro sold more curses than he did cures. Eventually, something that wasn’t his pet raven was going to come home to roost.”

“And it has,” said Kveldulf.

Helg turned squarely to Lilia then. “The truth of it is that your sister clearly wanted your mother and father dead. Why? I don’t know. Lacking other means, she went to Snoro and bought his poisons and curses. But when you turned up on his doorstep innocently looking for a cure, Snoro got greedy. If he could sell you just enough nostrum to keep your father alive, he could keep stringing you both along.” One eye squinting at the bottom of her mug, Helg made a sour face. “Finished already. Not bad stuff this.” She poured herself another measure and offered the bottle around. “So if you’ve worked out that Snoro must have been double dealing, then it is very probably that someone else did too. Someone who had a great deal to lose, if Snoro should spill his secrets.”

With a hand raised to her mouth Lilia said, “Can I have been such a naïf? And poor Snoro. How did she kill him, I wonder?”

“With a knife,” said Kveldulf.

Lilia’s expression turned from worried to a little bit sickened. “And how do you know that?”

“Questions, Lilia.” He raised a finger. “Questions that you don’t want to hear the answer to, remember. I heard his ghost wailing about it. That is enough to know. She slew Snoro, cut out his heart, and had him buried at the crossroads.”

“That is a cruel way to treat a soul,” said Helg, and she narrowed her one eye. “Perhaps he deserves it. “He was a monstrous little filth-worm,” she muttered, “a real misery heart. But all the same, it is a cruel way to do to a soul.”

Kveldulf nodded in silent agreement. “Could we have that word now? I am keen to be out and hunting. Every hour is pressing.”

“Very well, very well. Let’s go out by the hedge, if you are so keen, and then you can be on your way.”

Lilia started. “Wait. You’re just going?”

“I must. I have things to see to.”

“But I thought–“

He shook his head, and said, “Helg will look after you better than I could.”

The door shut behind Helg and Kveldulf when he gave it a good, solid jerk. The building had settled and the lintel was slightly askew from the door. Lilia stared at the door, considered for a second whether it would be polite to eavesdrop, then got up, crept to the door and put her ear to it.

The conversation was hushed, as if they were afraid of being overheard by birds and insects. There was a roll of low sentences that she could not catch.

“It is true,” said Kveldulf in an insulted, and louder voice, “I am not deluded.”

“Are you really sure of yourself?”

“I am. I have spoken to her. All these years I have swung from sureness to doubt, but now I am in no doubt. Her scent grows stronger every day since that night. She hides herself form me no longer. She takes greater risks and chances. Already she is hunting cattle and horses, and soon she will begin hunting people again. It is the same as before. I shall either have to move on… or be done with her, once and for all. I am tired of the endless hunt.”

“And how do you propose to be done with her, as you put it?”

“I’ve an idea.”

“Really? A whole idea rattling around in that wildman’s skull of yours? Do tell.”

His tone was tainted with affront as he replied. “To this day I have hunted the wolf. Always seeking. Always tracking. Always a few moments, hours, days too late.”

“And?”

“When I was speaking to her, she woke and vanished.”

“So?”

“Do you not see what that means. All this time I believed she was somewhat else. A demon. A spirit. A god. But she is no different to me.”

“And that would mean what?”

“Somewhere, hidden away in the Veld, she sleeps in human form. This must be why it sometimes took her days or weeks to catch up with me. Somewhere, there is a woman, older than I maybe, but without a wrinkle on her, who sleeps away the hours so that her soul can stalk the night. It is the sleeping woman I must hunt. Not the wolf. It is the woman who must die, for the wolf cannot.”

“And how will you kill her. Your human body doesn’t seem easy to kill.”

“That I’m unsure of. I thought Snoro’s potion might help. Gnissa said something too, about the Freer knowing how to kill her. I don’t know what he meant by that though. The Freer doesn’t seem very likely to know much that is useful at all. It surprises me.”

There was a stretching silence then, and Helg spoke more hushed, “Be careful, Kveldulf. And come to me when you need food.” A chuckle. “Or water to wash with. You smell like you’ve been sleeping in a hole with a family of badgers.”

“Aye. Farewell for now. And please… consider the potion. If you can fathom how to make it…”

“I will, but I cannot make promises. Now, off with you.”

Lilia scrambled away. No sooner had she settled herself on the stool, smoothed her dress and straightened her back, than Helg eased open the door.

“That one’s heading for a bad end. A bad end I tell you.” She seemed to be talking more to herself than to Lilia. “Well?”

“Sorry?”

“Oh, play not the fool with me. You were at the door listening. How much did you catch?”

Lilia felt a blush chase over her face. “I… enough to be a little afraid of Kveldulf. Not enough to know what exactly I should be afraid of. He is a strange one. Much stranger than I thought.”

“Humph,” and Helg sat herself down at the table. “Oh, deary me. What a place this has become. When I was a little girl, the Veld was such a quiet vale. In your grandfather’s time we saw barely a glimpse of Alraun and his ilk, and Snoro had not yet come wandering, la-de-da, out of the north to set up his shop. Your grandfather, you know, he was a good man. A good Eorl. Did you know him?”

“No. He died befoe I was born.”

“Hm. Hm and so. Well,” said Helg, with a resigned breath, “can you weave?”

“I usually tangle the shuttle,” Lilia admitted. “I spent very little time at the loom.”

“Do you stitch? Churn butter? Mend buckets?” To each she got a slight shake of the head. “Dear Ladies of Dark and Light, girl, what have they let you do in that fortress, run around with the dogs all your life? Do you even know how to cook a chicken?”

“I’m fairly sure I’ve seen it done. In the kitchens.”

“Ladies both, do save me,” said Helg. “Well, I am old and frail, so whatever you can do to help will be much appreciated. I’m afraid we can’t have no prissy ladying about here. You’ll need to help me with some of the chores.”

“I will.” Lilia nodded. “Whatever I can do.”

“Good. Good.”

“That is, so long as you will also help me.”

“Help you?” Helg’s eye turned suspicious. “To do what? Keep you fed? That might already be more than you are worth from the sounds of it.”

“To reclaim my rightful place as the Lady of Veld. The throne is mine. I will have it back.”

“Dear ladies, deliver me again. I’ve a mad witch-hunter to the left of me, and a would-be queen to the right. Whatever happened to the nice old days when a old woman could have a well-earned nap in the afternoons?”

“The Eorldom is mine. I will have it back.”

“Dear Queens of Night and Day.” Helg rolled her eye. The flesh about the other socket twitched in time. Where has that brandy got to? I need another good, strong drink.”

Lilia smiled, and drained her cup. “You haven’t said, no.”

“What?” said Helg.

“I note that you haven’t said, no.”

“Hm. Noted that, did you? Well, we shall see. First, pass the brandy.”

CHAPTER THE TWENTY-FIFTH

Four days passed and the first solid snows of winter covered the earth in an even blanket, covering hill, wood and rock, hanging heavy on boughs, nestling in the crooks of trees.

Kveldulf hunted through the winter landscape, returning to the cottage in the woods to take meals with Helg in the evenings, and sleep in her woodshed. Each morning, there was a limp and bloodied deer, or boar, wild goat or goose left for her on the front step. He slept late, as always, but by midmorning, he was gone, into the woods to hunt with his more human eyes. If Lilia ever wondered why he hunted so obsessively, or why he slept in a sawdust-strewn shed outside, she never asked.

Well, that was good, he thought. Let that one keep herself to herself. Let her keep out of trouble, at least for as long as she could.

When they did speak, it was always about the Veld, or whether he’d seen any sign of Alraun. Whenever Kveldulf might appear to have more than a moment to spare, she began goading him for rumours about Rosa too. He told her what he could, which was never much. Rosa seemed to be preparing for war behind her walls, and the forges were hammering day and night. Alraun was quiet. There were no faer folk anywhere in the woods, as far as Kveldulf could find out, and that made him suspicious. Probably, Alraun was also preparing and gathering his folk to him.

Troubling days were ahead.

After three days and nights of hunting in the snows he found the first sign of one of her kills. It was a deer, and had been dragged away–the snowy mud was streaked with blood, marking a trail into the deeper woods. When he followed the trail, though, he found at the end a shallow hollow with a smell of an unwashed human lingering in it. But of her, there was no other trace. She had been here, but moved on. The scent was fading already. He realised that she must be moving about, never sleeping very long in one place, hiding herself away in the trees. If she slept only a single night in each glen, hollow or shallow cave, then she would be difficult to find. Very difficult indeed.

Today was the fifth evening of his hunt. It was the darkest hour of the night, and Kveldulf was sniffing about the gore of a recent kill. Steam still rose from the torn entrails. He was so close behind her, but not close enough. It would not be so easy to follow her tonight. She had taken only a piece of the meat and ghosted away, leaving little in the way of evidence behind her in the snow. She must be aware that he was hunting her, and aware of her. She was now concealing herself more carefully.

“Hunting so often? I see you out all night, every night now-a-days.”

He tried not to seem surprised as he looked up.

“You. I thought you had taken yourself away from the eyes of humankind for good.”

“A raven has to eat. And your friend, that one, she provides a fine banquet. Every night.” His eyes turned beady as they roved over the ground. “Now, there’s a fine bit of kidney. Do you mind?”

Kveldulf padded a little distance away, and lounged lazily down in the snow. The cold chill of it was a balm to his out-stretched paws. “How long have you known? About her?”

Gnissa fluttered down, out of the black tangles of the canopy, spread his wings and landed, with a few hops, near the carcass.

“You do not want a bite to eat? Me? I prefer the wild swine she kills, but beggars can’t be choosers, eh? And mutton is nice, just for the variety.”

“Gnissa? How long?”

“Long enough. Not so long as you might suppose, but long enough. After Snoro… went away. I worked it out. The last time I spoke to you, I didn’t know.” He swallowed a chunk of sheep kidney, then ruffling his feathers he said, “I’m sorry about that. I was upset. Obviously.”

“Obviously,” said Kveldulf. “Don’t worry about it.”

“So you don’t think I’m a messenger of old dead gods any longer?” Gnissa did eye him then, a little suspicious.

Kveldulf laughed and the snow and the ice rang with the chime of it. “No. I have regained my senses. A little.”

“A little,” agreed Gnissa. Tearing a chunk of flesh away, with a toss of the head, the raven caught it and then swallowed with a single gulp. Fixing one of his amber-gold eyes on Kveldulf, he puffed up his feathers a little more, and said, “You should try some. It’s fat and fresh.”

“I have no need of flesh when I dream.”

“But, the other. She hunts. She devours when in the dream-shape sometimes. Is she more wolf than you? Older, I think. And more powerful.”

“Does she? No. I doubt it. Flesh and shadow do not mingle. I think she just rends up the carcass, and carries off what she can. I have followed her and tracked her, but always, always she slips away from me and her scent turns cold.” After a moment he asked, “You don’t know where she is keeping her mortal body? She must be somewhere, hiding in the wilds.”

“No. Sorry.” He considered this for a moment and said, “I did notice she was carrying flesh away. I wondered if she had cubs to feed. Now there’s a fine puppy I’d stay clear of. Oh, who is a cute little pup? Oh! You’ve bitten my wing off. Nasty cub. Nasty.”

“Gnissa? Might I ask something of you. A favour.”

Gnissa to struggled with a grisly strip of flesh, and then pecked and scattered some wool from the carcass before deigning to answer. “Now, that I do not like the sound of. Nobody ever asks nice things of Gnissa. Nobody ever says to Gnissa, here is a nice fat squirrel pie. Eat it for me. Go ahead. Please. No. It’s always something unpleasant whenever anyone wants the slightest favour of Gnissa.”

“Hm. Yes. I suppose you must miss Snoro?”

“What of it?”

“Well?”

“Ah, stupid wolf. Asking stupid questions.” And he preened a wing before hunching his back. He looked for a moment like a large, shapeless mass of shadow with a glossy beak. “I suppose. I suppose. I did get used to having a warm cave, and food whenever I was a little peckish. He always had a soft spot for me. And it was nice to speak with him now and again. The crows and magpies in the Veld, a flock of fools, you know. Not worth two words. I’d half forgotten that while I was with Snoro. Haven’t so much as seen another raven for ages and ages. We are, after all, rare birds, my dear wolf-of-shadows.” He dwelled on silence for a while. “Snoro and I… we were friends. Yes. I miss him.”

“If I could convince someone else, someone who owns a warm house, and plenty of ready food, to put up with you, do you think you might consider doing that little favour for me?”

“Maybe. Maybe.” He was beginning to sound irritated. “All depends on if I live more than another day in this blasted winter cold. I should be migrating, I think. Do ravens migrate?”

There was a growl of wolfish humour in his voice. “Not that I’ve ever heard of.”

“But tell me, what is this little favour? How little?”

“Oh, I’m sure it will be a trifle for one as cunning as you.”

“Flattery, Kveldulf, flattery.” And he gulped another hunk of flesh. “I’m not very prone to that. You’re thinking of poor Snoro. He was the one who liked lickspittles.”

“I want you to follow the other one to her den. I need to know where it is.”

“And you cannot do this… hm… trifle.” Gnissa’s eyes looked amused.

“I have tried, and failed. She moves too swift, and never stays long in the same place. She knows too many tricks. She hides herself well.”

“Older than you,” purred Gnissa. “Wiser. More powerful. Just as I said.”

“But, she would not suspect a raven following her for scraps. And what wolf can follow you up a tree? As I said, it would be only a small task, but would mean a great deal to me. I would be indebted.”

“Perhaps.” Gnissa stretched his wings and said, “If I am bored, or hungry enough to follow her “for scraps”, as you so eloquently put it.”

“Look for me at the cottage where you spied on me before. The cottage of Helg.”

Gnissa did not bother to answer. He was already burying his heavy beak into the ewe’s skin, deep into the flesh beneath.

CHAPTER THE TWENTY-SIXTH

Years from now, Eda would someday recall her childhood, and remember a carefree time. Days when running barefoot in snow, through woods bewintered never chilled her feet, nor ached her bones. There were mushrooms to collect for mother in spring, and beechnuts and blackberries in summer. But winter was her favourite season, for in early winter there were snowberries and nothing tasted quite as good as her Momma’s snowberry pie.

Today, Eda had a good half-basket of berries and only a handful of them were bird-pecked. She was idling away some time watching a wren sing his winter song on the south road when another note, a less natural note, caught her ear. The drab little bird flew away into the undergrowth, as this new, peculiar melody swelled, and grew, and drew nearer. A melody that was hard to follow, yet eerily difficult to ignore.

Eda stood fixed in place, her eyes wide and watching, as a host of riders upon horses the colour of snow at midnight appeared some distance down the road. Banners of silver-trimmed green snapped in the air, spears glittered like icicles, and the bells that hung upon the harnesses tinkled with every canter. At their head, rode a man whose face was quite stern, like her father’s when he’d been working in the fields all day. He wore a crown, like Princess Rosa’s. Only prettier.

It did not occur to Eda to do more than stand in the road clutching her basket in her two hands, and watch the riders advance. There were a great many of them. Many more than she imagined could live in the woods. When he spied Eda, the ice-crowned man, with his unhappy green-blue eyes, reined his horse to a stop, and held up his hand. The songs stopped. Eda tried to get on tiptoes to see the musicians, and wondered briefly if she might be allowed a ride on one of those beautiful horses.

“Good even, little one.”

“Good evening,” said Eda, for a moment forgetting her manners, she blushed, then curtsied. “Are you the king of the forest?”

“That I am.”

“I thought so. Momma has told me stories about you.”

“Indeed? What manner of stories?”

“Oh, you know, stories. With heroes, and ladies, and waldersprights.”

“Really. Well, would you like to come away with us, and play in my court? You could see the home of your Momma’s tales with your own lovely eyes, and dance forever in my woods and waters wild. The world of mortals is no place for one as charming and young as you, I think. For it is a world too full of ageing, sickness and woe.”

Eda considered the offer, then shook her head. “Not today. Momma is making snowberry pie, and I must bring her the snowberries. She makes a very fine snowberry pie. If you would like a slice I am sure she’d not begrudge you.”

He smiled, but it wasn’t a warm smile. There was something in that expression that made Eda remember the time when one of the town dogs began frothing at the mouth, and killed another dog. They had to kill that dog with a pig-sticker. There was something in the smile she did not like at all.

“Well,” said the king of the woods, “perhaps you should run along and tell everyone that we are coming then instead. For they should make ready to welcome us.”

Nodding, Eda clutched her basket a little tighter, and then ran off down the road. Her callused feet pattered on the stone of the bridge. Momma was near the gate of the Toren, talking with Meritha’s mother.

“Momma.”

“Not now, Eda. Put away the snowberries, and then you can help me with some chores. Have you gathered enough? It looks like you could fill the basket a little more.”

“But Momma…”

“Really, Eda. We’re talking. Not now.”

“Momma, please. There are waldersprights coming down the road. Their king told me to tell folks. They’ll be here soon.”

“Really, Eda. Don’t make up stories. It isn’t nice to tell fibs.”

Just then Meritha’s mother let out a startled sucking noise through her teeth, and pointed with a chubby finger. Beyond the little stone bridge, in the fields between, road, river and wood, were rising two minarets of soot-black smoke. It looked like farm houses were on fire. In the fields things moving now too. Glittering, silvery, white things. Like snow and ice come to life, and given grace.

It was then that Eda heard the strange, wandering music.

And a moment later that she heard the first of the cries and yells. Bells rung on the gates. Horns called. People were hollering and running. The whole world turned to chaos.

-oOo-

Rauthus was nervous. His tail flicked about, and he stepped lightly from foot to foot. Sigurd edged him forward a little, out of the shadow of Finold’s Gate. The sunlight was warming, but the horse began flaring his nostrils, and throwing his head just slightly. There was a scent on the air he did not like. As if he were smelling wolves or the greasy musk of a bear.

Men and women, children, carts, barrels, livestock, all were flowing in a stream through Finold’s gate, into the safety of high stone walls. There were frightened faces, some that looked stern and determined, some teary, but Sigurd had little attention to spare for them. His eyes were set on a lone rider clattering over the bridge. It was Mannard, a wiry man, with a good knack for horses, and coursing.

Sigurd raised his hand and cried out, “Halloo, friend.”

Reining his sweat-flanked horse to a halt, Mannard leaned forward in his saddle, and fixed fever bright eyes on Sigurd. “The king of the forest’s wrath must be sore upon us. A powerful host of unearthly things have swollen from the woods.”

“How many?”

“Too many. Where is Alaric? I must speak with him.”

“He is giving orders to the archers and spear-guards. The household thanes are to ride out and keep the bridge.”

“We will be damned before this day is out, then. There are strange, ungodly things in the fields beyond the bridge.” Mannard shook his head, and his neck apple bobbed with a thick swallow. “Ungodly creatures.” Although, he then seemed to consider this a moment, and his voice grew more weary. A sigh issued from him. “Though, you know, Sigurd, truth be told–I’m not very unhappy that the Alder King’s wrath has taken this particular turn.”

“How so?”

“Well, we knew he was going to turn up here sooner or later. Talk is, we were all going to wake up turned into newts, or frogs or something ungodly ourselves… something cold and clammy. Talk was, that the Alder King’s curse would come in the night.” His voice quietened. “Invisible. Choking.” A shrug followed. “But a host of those things in the fields–at least we can fight them. We can stand before them, and lower our spears, and shake our axes.” He rubbed his grey-black beard with a scarred hand, “Least we’ve half-a-chance.”

Not able to dredge up anything really hopeful to say, Sigurd allowed himself to nod once in agreement. Finally, he managed to murmur some words. “If we are to meet them at the bridge, I must ride out soon. Go find the Mareshal Alaric.”

Mannard spurred his horse then, and the click and clatter of the hooves passed away from Sigurd, soon lost among the noise of the creaking cartwheels, unhappy babes and braying donkeys.

Rauthus was happy enough to turn and trot back through the moss-flecked tunnel. He stopped sniffing the air so violently as soon as they were in the walled-in courtyard beyond.

“Put archers on the outer gates. Are the thanes readied?” The Mareshal had come down from the battlements it seemed. He made for a proud sight in the morning light. His beard, ever so slightly more peppered with grey over the last few months, bristled about a grim-set mouth. A sword of iron, black and polished, served him for a rod of command.

“Mannard?” The sword waved at the thane who was still in the saddle, still keen-eyed.

“Yes, Alaric?”

“How many then?”

“A hundred, two hundred or more. I cannot say for sure. They move always and are hard to count.”

“Hm. Well, they will stop moving when hard cold iron is put through them. Sigurd, are you ready? You men are ready?”

“Yes,” said Sigurd. “Almost three score of thanes are ready to ride. More are mounting and arming in the yards.”

“No time to wait. No time. We should ride now. We must meet them with iron at the bridge.” Mareshal Alaric gave one last order to the captain of the guard. “Sound the gate horn when all are within. And hurry the folk along. We cannot hold the bridge for long I suspect. Our best hope is to get everyone inside, then wear the faer down, or wait them out, by storm or by siege.” Sheathing his sword, he put a foot up into the stirrup. His horse, Hamablack, arched his neck, and twitched his tail as Alaric settled himself in the saddle. The mareshal turned only briefly, enough to yell to the thanes arrayed in the courtyard, “I am told the faer folk do not bleed red as you and I. Their blood is silver. Let us be rich men.” With a sweep of the hand he drew his weapon again, and brandished it above his head. “Onward then!”

A rally of voices rose in a jumble of cheers, some heartfelt but none fearless.

The confusion of carts, scrambling feet, reluctant goats, and oxen was still pressing through the gate. The parted only uncomfortably before the pounding column of riders. Out of the gate horses and riders flew, spreading onto the narrow sward that ran beside the lake and up to the one small bridge that leapt the icy river.

Already, on the bridge stood three eerie creatures. Numberless others were mustering in the fields beyond. They moved like leaves caught on the wind. Their skin was a dapple of old silver and winter white, their hair was leaves and ferns, their eyes shimmered with uncanny light. The mareshal threw his sword forward, and yelled out a cry as he goaded his horse forward.

The thanes trampled the grassy sward, mud and grass flew up in a rain, and the world swirled by them in a blur. It was as a wall of iron and hooves, that they crashed headlong into the first of the creatures. Swords of black iron bit pale flesh. Sigurd thrust and struck with his sword, and an arc of silver blood beaded the air. For him everything narrowed, and then slowed to a heart-pounding crawl.

The first impact of the riders crushed and scattered the thin defense of the bridge. They had a respite then, but it could not last long. Other creatures, some more human looking, some more like beasts lumbered or sprinted down the slope of the fields towards them. The eldritch things closed on them and the press turned hot, choked and crowded. There was little room to move and a lot of the men were crushed into each other, or into one of the strange creatures.

Sigurd had pulled towards the fore, which gave him a little more space to move, though still not much. His sword fell in sweeps. Unearthly blades sliced at his skin. Spears snickered out and left long, blistering, cold gashes in his flesh. He struck back, left and then right, and right, and left again. Gore purled in silver and red rivulets down his legs, and over the flanks of snorting, stamping Rauthus. The blood of mortal and immortal running together and turning grey.

In the brief pauses when he gasped for breath between personal melees, and cast about for another creature to meet, he saw only carnage. Injured horses screamed and scrambled and found no purchase on stone and earth, wet with their own blood. Hergard was crawling over the earth clutching his innards. he saw Mannard on his back with his head split from his left eye to the neck. Young, always-joking Ermnit was on the ground, crying, bent to his knees, and clutching his neck, though the blood down his face was clogging his mouth and slurring the words.

Sigurd threw himself back into the affray with renewed, cold, violence. He realised dimly that he was fighting harder and further into the throng than the others. The silvery, graceful host of Alraun were overwhelming the bridge now, but he was digging into them, allowing them to spread around him. Spears waved and glittered in the morning sun. He slashed and struck. Blades flashed red in the air. Faintly, remotely, he realised that there was perhaps a purpose to his maddened attacks. In one instance of clarity, he realised that he was acting like a man who didn’t want to survive this fight.

Life the keep had grown strange for him. It was harder and harder to watch Rosa grow more remote, more powerful, while everyone around her seemed to fall into a trance at the sound of her voice. Guilt about little Lilia go ate at him, but he knew the guilt would have been so much worse had he not let her go. He was tired of feeling like there was no way out of things.

But then, he thought of what it would do to Rosa to hear he had been killed.

He could not bear it. No, he could not let himself die here.

Striking at one overbold faer creature, Sigurd put the point of his sword into its throat. The silver blood gushed down his arm. Dragging the blade free, he looked up to see the mareshal in the thick of a knot of white and silver and green.

“Alaric!” Sigurd glanced back at his just-slain foe, but found only bare ground. The flesh and blood were evaporating before his eyes. Looking about frantically he glanced at his arm, found it spattered only with his own red now. Gripping the hilt tighter, and giving Rauthus a good kick, horse and rider waded towards the mareshal. “Alaric!”

Struggle as he might, it was hopeless. The host was a tide washing between them–endless spears–countless swords–numberless shields.

Though the air rung with the sound of it once, and again, and again, Sigurd only understood the meaning on the fourth trumpet.

“The gate-horn. Alaric! The gate-horn calls us.”

“Then away with you.” Between avoiding blows, the mareshal yelled, “ride, ride, rally to the Vaunt. Defend the Toren Vaunt!”

As Sigurd dragged at Rauthus’s reins he caught a glimpse of Alaric pressed up by attackers and thrashing crabbedly with his sword. A broken fragment of a shield hung on his left arm. Half his face was a smudge of scarlet. Alaric looked back with the one good eye that was left to him, furious. “Ride!”

“Aye!” yelled Sigurd. “Ride! Ride! Retreat to the Toren!”

The first inches were hard won. The next few paces he paid for with at a cost of two deep gashes. And then he broke free. Rauthus galloped as if the hounds of winter nipped his hocks.

Two thanes were at the gate before Sigurd. Three more rode in shortly after him. As the gates ground down, Sigurd felt confusion and anger well in his gut. “Cowards! There are men out there. Leave the gates until the last thane rides in.”

“My pardon, thane Sigurd.” The captain’s face was drawn, stricken. “But there are no more. That was the last of you. Only the other folk are out there now.”

A cold shock moved in his gut, crawled up his skin, over his neck. That glimpse of Alaric was the last memory Sigurd would have of the man. And all the others of his friends too. He never saw Alaric fall. He never saw Brethar fall either. Nor Varulf. Nor Aleard. Nor many many others. He slumped out of the saddle and leaned into a cold stone wall, panting, trying to regain some breath. For a long time, he knew nothing at all except that of the thirty-some men who had ridden to the bridge there were now six, slouching exhausted in their saddles or on the ground, more or less whole. The six of them were wordless, and staring at one another’s bloodied faces with unblinking eyes.

And then the arrows came.

-oOo-

The sky turned dark with the feathers of the first shower. Arrows whispered and thudded as they struck stone and earth and flesh. Shields, held to the sky, were soon needled with shafts. Men and women cowered under the eves of the outbuildings, or in doorways, while archers on the gate returned a volley of twanging shots.

The rain fell thicker. Bowmen slumped over the parapets, or fell limply to the earth, convulsing weakly were they lay.

Sigurd sought shelter under the thatch of an outbuilding, but Rauthus could not fit through the small door. Despite the overhanging eaves, the horse was struck by two shafts. Struggling to control the gelding, Sigurd strained his feet to the earth, and cupping his hands close to Rauthus’s ears he tried hushing the horse and comforting him. This helped little. Nostrils still flaring and eyes turning bloodshot, Rauthus became more frantic moment by passing moment. A hoof kicked out and nearly took a spear-guard by the chin.

“Let that damned horse go.”

“He’ll be struck dead,” said Sigurd.

“Then let him die.” The man’s eyes were cold. “Better that, than have my skull caved in.”

“I will not…” but Sigurd never finished the sentence. Rauthus kicked with his hind legs again. A scuffle, and a curse came from somewhere near those hooves, and a guard struck the horse with the tip of a spear. That was all the goading the gelding needed and Sigurd had no hope of controlling him now. It was either be dragged out into the open courtyard, or let go of the reins.

Rauthus wheeled and kicked and bucked out into the open air of the yard. Two arrows struck his neck immediately. A third ploughed deep into his left shank and stood there. Sigurd tried to look away, but could not. He watched as the thick, dark horse blood pooled and ran over the road. He watched until Rauthus slipped to his knees, then his flank, then eventually, stopping kicking.

“It had to be,” said the spear-guard. “We couldn’t all crowd in under here. Not with that beast.”

“Damn you. Damn…” Sigurd watched the arrows fall and felt himself in a trance. His world was crumbling a little-by-little with each singing volley.

“They’ll be on the walls soon,” said a small, pot bellied man. “He ran the back of his meaty hand over his brow, and came away with more red than sweat. Once the arrows stop, they’ll be here.”

Another man cut in. “Dear Lady of Brightness, but look.” He was not pointing at the walls.

There was column marching brazenly down the path that wound from the upper fortress yards above to the lower gate. Men in the oxblood livery of Vaunt, ranks of spears, shields rimmed in burnished copper. Their feet fell in a rhythmic drum on the stone. At their head, she strode looking like some warrior queen out of ages past. In her right hand she carried a footman’s lance the colour of ivory. A war-harness of scarlet and gold enrobed her, a tall, crowned helm restrained straying blonde locks, and in her eyes was a glint of fire.

And without flinching she led the men into the heart of the arrow storm. Into the heart of what ought have been their death. More than one face turned up to the sky with large eyes and a whispered prayer. But the arrows did not bite. What fell on the men and their sorcerous queen was a shower of thin ash. Tendrils of powdery white drifted out of the sky and stuck to clothing, and clogged eyelashes.

She noticed him then, hiding under the thatch roof. “Sigurd.” Her expression was marked with both delight and trepidation. “I feared for you.”

“Rosa,” Sigurd held his tongue, and then whispered a word of prayer, before saying again “Rosa?”

“Yes?”

“The arrows.”

She looked up, showed an irritable frown, and said, “Yes. They are bothersome, the ash is so fine.” She shrugged her shoulders uncomfortably. “It it get down the collar. I shall have to wash my hair later.”

Sigurd took a tentative step into the open. Grey dust wisped around his head. “I… I have never… never in my life…”

But other men were not so timid. One held his hands up like a child catching snowflakes. “Queen Rosa,” he called out, and others answered him in an echo of a hundred voices.

“Queen Rosa!”

“Come Sigurd,” she said. “I would have you at my side.”

Falling into step beside her, together they climbed the creaking, wooden steps that led to the top of the gatehouse battlements. Guards and thanes filed up behind them, grinning, and laughing at the pale soot that dusted their skin. But Sigurd now had eyes only for the dead. They had not been dead long. Lying almost languidly, as if each were drunk with a the red liquor of intoxication seeping from their mouths.

When they reached the top of the wall, he could see that gorecrows blackened the trees above the far fields now. They looked like dark, distended fruit on winterbare branches. On the flagstaff above the battlements perched one unusually large, and cunning-eyed raven. It had a finger in its beak, and studied the newly arrived living with suspicion. Had it swooped in as soon as the arrows had turned harmless?

Rosa arranged herself at the heart of the battlement. She gripped the ivory spear lightly in her hand and narrowed her attention to the road below. Arrows from the field still rose in a flock, but came no closer than half an arc before dissolving into a grey haze.

“Dear Goddesses both,” whispered more than one voice, as eyes set upon the field. Rank upon rank of faer creatures were marching over the snowy grass. White and green banners drifted and snapped in the air.

But Rosa’s face expressed less awe, more anger. “Phantoms,” she said, “illusions, and daydreams.” Then she threw her head back and cried out for all the world to hear, “You besiege my lovely home with these shadows.” She thrust taut fingers at the nearest column of archers. The score of creatures bleed together, before turning into weightless spectres that billowed away on the wind.

“Not all my subjects will be so easily dispelled.” His words rang clear, and set every tongue to silence. He sat on a horse that was whiter, more radiant and prouder than any earthly creature. Wearing no armour, he had on his head a crown of icy jewels trapped in a filigree of frost, a cloak of pine needles and snow around his collar, and in one hand a sword like a jagged icicle. His eyes did not merely glint, but shimmered with light.

Rosa was breathing heavily, as if she’d just sprinted a hundred paces, and tiny flecks of spit were caking the corners of her mouth.

“You!” spat Rosa. “You have done this?” She waved a hand over the fields of slaughter. “All this for the sake of mine sister.”

He looked for a moment puzzled but answered all the same. “I have.”

“You shall never have the Toren Vaunt. Not by war. Not by trickery. Not by marriage.”

“Think you so?” His eyes looked for a moment red, as if the blue-silver of the orbs were stained with blood.

“Look at me forest spright. Look in my eyes, and tell me you are sure of victory.”

The Alder King paused, and his face lined with concerted thought. “Sorcery…” he pressed his lips together and scowled, before saying, “Sorcery of war seethes on your battlements.”

“I will blast this land barren to be rid of you.”

“You would wilt your own fields? Wither your own woods? Turn streams to dust, and reduce your earth to salt and waste?”

“Look in my eyes, and tell me I will not.”

He paused for a moment then, considering this. “I will not retreat. I have sworn that I would march on the Veld. My folk cannot betray their word. We are bound by old laws.”

“Then we are at an impasse.” Her delicate chin tilted back, and her eyes looked down on him with fine contempt.

“It seems so.”

For a time then, the faer host withdrew out of the range of bows, and the squall of arrows ceased. Men milled uneasily on the battlements. Barrels, planks and wagons were set against the gates. Rauthus’s corpse was butchered for the horseflesh. It might be a long siege.

Sigurd was looking out over the stone of the battlements, at the weird creatures making a vast camp. “What shall become of us?” he said.

Rosa was standing stiffly, her eyes distant, her face just slightly taunt with concentration. “I can go a night without sleep. Perhaps two. No more.”

“And then they will be on us?”

“Perhaps. Perhaps I can raise walls of sorcery to guard against the faer king’s petty phantoms. Perhaps. But he is right. He has other creatures in his host–more substantial creatures–and no weaving of spells will keep those things out.”

“I fear for us, all of us,” said Sigurd, and he reached out a hand to gently caress Rosa’s. “And I fear for you.”

Her gaze, when it rounded on him was at once bewildered and a touch gentler. “Do not fear for me Sigurd. I am beyond fear. Beyond hope. Whatever you do, do not waste fear on me.”

A heavy silence hung between them for a while, before Sigurd, searching for something to say looked up again at the flagstaff. “That damned raven,” said Sigurd. “It just sits there watching us, hoping we’ll soon be dead. I feel as if it’s decided my eyes are tasty enough to wait for.”

Rosa arched an eyebrow, but said only. “Loose an arrow at it.”

“No.” He breathed a sigh. “No. I will not kill any more this day. No more than I must.”

“Then loose an arrow at it tomorrow.”

He looked up. The raven’s bright, beady eyes of gold blinked once, and then thought, hungrily. The finger was gone. “I just might, you know. I just might.”

It ruffled its feathers and croaked as if it were laughing.

The sun sank hour by hour into a bed of scarlet haze. Sigurd smiled when he saw the first star of evening. Not for the coming night, but because it reminded him of making greedy wishes on the sight of the dusk’s first star in happier, milder days. It was nice to reflect for a moment, to lose oneself in dreaming thoughts.

“Sigurd?” Her voice was plaintive, a rustle in the night.

“Yes?”

“Sigurd, I need you.”

He reached out to take her hand, but she shook her head.

“No. Your council. If I were to give you a task? An important task, in which the lives of many might depend?”

“Without question. Without pause.”

“It might be the death of you.”

He nodded. “To the ends of the whole of this Clay-o-the-Green.”

“Of course. I didn’t need to ask, but still, somehow I needed to hear you say it.” She cleared her throat, and without taking her eyes off the bright, wide gleam of white that was the faer host, she said, “Sound the gate horn.”

One long, profound note rolled out over the land, fading at last to a handful of distant echoes.

“Alraun! King of the Sprights. I would speak with you. Under banner of peace and parley. I vow it.”

In short time, a pool of starry light blazed to life before the gates. Though no torch or lantern was obvious, Alraun stood alone upon the sward, cleanly bathed in the brilliance.

“My Lady? A surrender?”

“No.”

“Then you waste my time.”

“Perhaps. Perhaps not. I propose that the old and binding laws you spoke of may avail us yet. There are… promises that can be made. Oaths that can be sworn. Deeds that can be done. Wagers that can be made.”

“You speak of wagers and oaths but what can you wager that I could possibly want?”

“That which we both want.”

“The crown and lordship?”

She nodded. “At stake, the Veld.”

“That would satisfy my vow. A battle of two champions, mayhap? That is an ancient settler of wroth.”

“No. You would outmatch my champion with a creature out of a nightmare dream. I have in mind something more,” she licked her lips, “testing. It is said, in ages past, that Feold the first Eorl of Vaunt took this land from the rule of a cruel worm.”

“I recall,” and he smiled darkly.

“Then recall that Eorl Feold is entombed with other pagan Eorls in a cave deep in your woods. Centuries have passed since my line sent its dead to be buried there. The Bright Goddess now rises above our graves, but, they say, dark spirits still haunt the pagan dead. Spirits that neither you, nor I could master. So it is said.”

“I am master of all between…”

“Yes.” Her smile was vixenish, “Then it would be no great feat for you to send a champion to fetch the crown of Feold?”

His eyes narrowed. He opened his mouth to answer but became reticent, only nodding briefly.

“So,” she let her voice honey with allure, “is this too easy a task? Then this I propose too. We avow that no more blood be spilt twixt your folk and mine. That the lordship of the Veld, the folk, and the land will fall to whomsoever stands first on the village green, bearing the crown of Feold.” He was about to raise a word as she cut him off. “And! And no man, woman or creature but a single appointed champion of a claimant to the throne may fetch, and then present that crown. Think you this too easy?”

“It will be,” he pulled his lip back in a sneer, “but a small thing, for such as I.” The boast sounded fragile despite his efforts to keep his calm.

“Then also this I put to you. That we, in seeking lordship may also put upon the road of the champions one,” she lowered her voice, “danger. You have your charms, and I have mine. Let it be a danger of no earthly sort, or none at all.”

“Of no earthly sort?” It was more a mull of consideration than a question.

“These are words from the songs of the oldest laws. Do you deny their truth?”

“The bargain is well spoken,” he admitted.

“Well?”

“It is an old bargain. A fair bargain.” His voice still sounded uncertain.

“Do you avow to abide by the ancient oaths? That he–or she–who first holds the crown of Feold int he village sward shall rule unchallenged over all usurpers?”

Men held their breath on the battlements, all men but Sigurd. He found himself breathing shallow, and quickly.

Alraun paused for a moment. His brown creased with a frown. “Very well. To this, so swear I.”

“To this, so swear I.” Rosa let herself smile. “I have already chosen mine champion.” His hand fell lightly on Sigurd’s shoulder. “Now, choose yours.”

-oOo-

The word went round the Vaunt quicker than a whirlwind, and collected more debris. By the time Sigurd was stepping into the fire-lit glow of the keep’s ante-hall, crowds were gathering, whispering, and pointing.

“They say you are to fight a worm,” said one kitchen scullion whose face was glossed by a small burn. He pointed at the bas relief crouched in the arch of the farthest wall. “For the right to rule the Veld.” The twining worm, and the proud horseback archer never looked so starkly real to Sigurd.

“No, not a worm. There are no worms left int he Veld, boy.” He tried to smile. “Thanes slew them all long time passing, else there’d not be so many stories of worm-slaying, I think.”

“Yes, Thane Sigurd,” conceded the lad.

Talk hushed to whispers as he passed. He walked dreamlike through the crowd, but stopped before the graven worm and grey, staring-eyed warlord. Rosa still sentried herself on the battlements, “to ensure Alraun keeps his word, and to make some last arrangements” she had said, “and conjure up an obstacle for his champion. For I’ve more magic than Alraun suspects, and I’ve been hunting through the cellars of my mind, and Snoro’s book for a sorcery this evening long. Think you that I would be so foolish as to make such a bargain before having decided that I knew already for certain how to do away with any wood-spright that Alraun may put to the task?”

The memory shook free of his mind and left Sigurd with a cold shiver.

“I have precious little time,” said Sigurd while catching a random young guard by the shoulder. “Fetch for me clean, oiled armour. Send for food, a good day’s worth,” he swallowed and said the next words quickly, “and ready a horse. A good courser, with swift hooves.”

“As you command.” The guard stood caught in a moment of indecision, his brow twitching, perhaps wondering what to see to first.

“With haste,” said Sigurd again. Though he was gentle in tone, not just the guard, but four others who were in earshot, jumped and then took off in various directions. All of them were calling ahead of them, Thane Sigurd needs this, Thane Sigurd needs that, and so on.

Sigurd stood where he was and waited. To distract himself, he counted his breaths. Counted to nine… ten… eleven. At twelve he wondered briefly how many he might have left, and kept counting.

-oOo-

The night had an edge of cold to it so sharp it deadened the skin. Sigurd looked up. There was a good show of stars. A hundred thousand points of distant light were strewn through the skies. It was so odd. The ride with Rosa to the appointed place wherefrom the champions would depart was almost pleasant.

“I have a pendant for you.” Rosa’s voice was velvet, and sounded self-assured. Sigurd only fixed a dutiful expression all the tighter on his face. “It is all I could scavenge together in so few hours, but it should see you through Alraun’s attacks, whatever they may be.” She held out to him a talisman, wrought of a serpent and man in burnished iron. It spun on its cord as Sigurd gazed at it. “Take it. As a token, if nothing else.”

Reaching out a hand, Sigurd caught the amulet in his palm. It was heavier, and warmer than he had expected. Fumbling with one cold-numbed hand to fasten a pendant is not the easiest thing to do while riding, and in the end they had to stop so that Rosa could tie it about his neck. “There,” she said. “Better.” Her hands brushed his cold skin, and transferred some of her flush of warmth to him. It was one of the most strangely intimate experiences Sigurd could recall.

“No, I am worried about you. I have asked too much,” said Rosa without warning. “Always asked too much, but you are then always there for me.”

Sigurd looked at her, traced his gaze over her starlit eyes, the curved mouth, the sad lines of the otherwise smooth face.

“No,” he said. “You could never ask too much of me, no matter what is ever asked. And this is what must be done. There was no other way, I think.”

“There may have been. I worry that I was too hasty.” Her brief glance at him was cheerless. “Come back to me, Sigurd. I care not for anything else. Do not spill your blood for this rotten joyless keep and fortress. Come back to me, and then, even if we no longer may have the Veld, we will have one another. We can wander through the lands. A lady and her champion. We could visit distant lords. Partake of feasts, and friendly contests of arms. I think I would like that.”

A smile touched Sigurd’s eyes. He felt it creep to his mouth. “I would like that, too.”

Rosa suddenly seemed to remember where they were, and she drew herself up a little stiffer. “We must make haste and talk carefully now. We are nearly at the appointed place.”

They came to a glade embraced by a few old trees near the south end of the town fields. This was the last open and airy glen before the road turned into a tunnel, roofed with bare branches, and floored with thin snow.

Alraun was already here, flanked by two of his eldritch creatures. They stood a few paces back, and their silver-green eyes narrowed intently as they watched Rosa and Sigurd ride closer.

“You have chosen your champion, King of Sprights?” More than a little brusqueness suffused her words. “Is it one of these two?”

A prideful smile chased over Alraun’s face. “My champion is chosen. You know him, for you have met my herald afore. The Hunter of the Hollows presented himself to your hall.”

Rosa frowned. “He is late.”

Alraun’s smile broke into a wide, and indulgent grin. “No, not late. Early. He is already in the woods. Galloping towards the cave of your ancient dead.”

“That was not in our agreement.” Rosa’s face twisted into a pale mask of anger. “We agreed…”

“That we, that you and I, would meet here to formally begin the challenge. There was no agreement that the champions would accompany us, or that they would begin together. Mine has chosen to take his leave early. I hope you have had time to set you own, how did you put it? You danger on the road?”

“I have.”

If the Alder King was disappointed he hid it well. His smile danced in his eyes, and his poise remained prideful and unruffled.

“Sigurd, I am sorry. I did not foresee this.”

“Then I shall but ride only all the faster.”

She reached out for him, perhaps meaning to give him a kiss, or at least take his hand, but he pretended not to see. Digging the spurs a little too hard into the horse’s flanks, he took off at a canter. Past Alraun’s smug face, past his two guards, and into the woods.

Moonlight lanced the canopy, and limned everything with shades of black-silver-grey. Horse sweat steamed and warmed the air a little. Familiar smells rolled against him. Old leather. Horses and stable. Damp wood and earth. For the first time in days, Sigurd’s shoulders relaxed. As he crested one small rise, he reined his mount to a stop, and looked back down, to the vale below. Over it all towered the Toren Vaunt, its spires and walls lit with a hundred fiery coloured slits. A black shadow snaked along the road. Rosa was riding back. Her head was bowed, the pace of her mount was slow.

With one last cast of his eyes back over the whole scene, Sigurd urged the horse on, into the shadows, upon a path that led to darkness.

CHAPTER THE TWENTY-SEVENTH

Helg looked up from her knitting, and screwed up her liver-spotted face. “Did you hear something?”

Lilia glanced up. “No.”

Easing to her feet, Helg took hold of a walking stick and shuffled to the door. Opening the latch, she gave a startled cry and fell back, almost tumbling on her rear. Something large and black swept into the room, flapping about madly.

Lilia waved her arms over her head, and crouched down. Patting a hand across the floor, she found a rolling pin that had fallen from the table, and leaping to her feet, hefted it at the intruder. It dodged the missile, before alighting on the rafter, out of reach.

“Where is Kveldulf, where is the wolf-be-man?”

“Snoro’s crow,” said Lilia.

“Crow? Crow! Call me a crow? I am a raven. No crow was ever this grand and glossy.” He stretched his wings as if to illustrate the point. “No crow ever wore so many fine feathers, no crow crunched so many bones of men, as I.”

“Bones of men?” Helg sounded more impatient than angry. She’d shut the door and was now lowering herself gently into a seat, while guardedly watching the heap of black feathers perched on the timber. The two bright eyes lit up and shone with greedy vigour.

“Oh it was like the grand old days of warring. Blood, salty-sweat blood. And carnage, and flesh, and enough gore to feed a nest brimming with chicks,” he threw his head back and began, much to Lilia’s shock, to sing. “There were three ravens in a tree, ha-raefn, ha-roc, ma-crawe; There were three ravens in a tree, ha-raefn, ha-roc, ma-crawe; There were three ravens in a tree; And they were black, as black could be; And they all flapped their wings, and cried, Ha-raefn, ha-roc, ma-crawe,”

Stunned silence.

The raven beat his wings again, ruffled his feathers out, and croaked a few more bars. Lilia was about to raise her voice to say something, anything, when he broke into more of the hissing verses, louder and more insistent. He sang until he ran out of song, then repeated that last line, “Ha-raefn, ha-roc, ma-crawe,” over and over, quieter by degrees.

“You’ve missed him. He’s out.” It was Helg, slicing through the raven’s voice. “Kveldulf, that is. And what nonsense is this of slaughter? Have you been into a pot of some farmer’s ale?”

“No, no, good lady fair.”

“Good lady, fair? Now I know you’ve been into ale. Or something stronger.”

“No, I swear it, and plague me with nest-ticks if I’m lying. Kveldulf told me to come to you. Come here, should I have whim to share a stale, warm house, and talk of sweet nothings with friends and buffoons. And so I have.”

“But the slaughter?” said Lilia.

“Ah,” said Gnissa, “the slaughter,” and his voice slid lower. “It was beautiful, blood ran red in rivers, tasty morsels piled heap, upon heap. If I had lips I’d lick “em.”

Lilia knotted her brow. “It sounds more ghastly than beautiful.”

“Ghastly for you, as a banquet is ghastly for the pig. But I am a raven, and a raven is what I am. No raven anywhere, ever gave up a good meal of meat. And what a meal it was.”

“The battle,” said Lilia, with a small note of worry. “Who fought?”

“It were the wights of the woods, the weird ilk of Alraun, come out of the wild to seize the mortal throne.” He hoped excitedly from one rafter to the next, and danced on it. “But they were met. By men with flashing swords of iron. And what a battle. What carnage. What a feast.” He wobbled a little. “I confess I did eat a little morsel of faer flesh before it evaporated away. I do feel a little light-headed.”

“Has the Veld… the Toren Vaunt?” Lilia touched her throat, “are they fallen?”

“No. Your folk have a sorceress-queen upon the throne now it seems, and her magics are strong. As strong as Alrauns. Maybe stronger.” He narrowed his eyes in thought for a moment. “As strong as Snoro, I think.”

Lilia let her shoulders relax. A frown of thought lined her brow. “So Alraun’s ilk have been scattered?”

“No, no,” for that was beyond the power of the queen.

“So?” said Helg. “What then?” She looked at her door. “Odd that we’ve not heard a pip of it. I suppose my wards and warnings must work better than even I thought.” Returning her attention to the raven, she asked again, “So what happened?”

“They have struck a bargain. There I was, watching it all from the flagpole. They struck a deal. “Go do this, and that, and we will do this, and whosoever wins shall rule the Veld.” Or something like that.”

“What was the bargain?” Lilia felt the knot tightening in her throat. “Tell me. By what words does my homeland hang?”

Gnissa shook his head as if it itched, gave one long hoarse croak and then in a perfect mimicry of Rosa’s voice he recited everything, word for word. At Alraun’s interjections, he mimicked the Alder King’s words so well that Lilia shivered.

“A talent for voices,” said Gnissa, when he was done. “It runs in the family. Magpies are better with voices, you know. Never trust a magpie. You’ll never know when he is speaking his mind, or just repeating something clever he’s heard. Stupid birds.”

“Lilia?” Helg’s eyebrows were drawn into a frown, and her mouth was twisted down at the corners. “Lilia? Are you all right? You look pale, dear.”

“Yes.” She pressed her fingers to her brow, took a measured breath, smiled and began to pace. “That was exactly the bargain? Word for word?”

“It was, it was.” Gnissa fanned his tail feathers, and leaned forward. “It still is, unless one of the champions has got the crown already.”

“Do you realise, Helg?” She could feel her face twitching with the urge to grin. “Do you see? We need Kveldulf. Raven?”

“Gnissa.”

“Gnissa, could you fly and fetch Kveldulf? Would you?”

He gave out a low thoughtful croak. “There’s a nice bit of ham hanging over the fireplace. Promise me a gulletful of it, and I’ll see if I can find him.”

“You’ve stuffed yourself to bursting with meat already today, you greedy little pig-bird,” said Helg.

“I’ll be hungry again before long. And the meat on the field of slaughter will not keep long. I will not eat maggoty flesh. Leave that for the magpies and crows.”

“Yes,” said Lilia, “yes, just go and find Kveldulf.”

Helg was indignant. “Harrumph, Lilia. Just whose house do you think this is? Promising my food to vermin.”

But the raven ignored her. “Fling open the door, good maiden, let the door fly wide for your winged messenger.”

Lilia crossed to the door before Helg could object. She threw the latch, and swung the door wide. A spread of black feathers swooped out into the deepening afternoon light.

“And what, may I ask, has got into you, deary?” said Helg.

Lilia began pacing immediately.

“The vow they swore. It never made mention of Rosa, or Alraun, or anyone by name. Do you not see? It was all “whomsoevers”. A vow that binds them both.”

With a weary sigh, Helg arched her old brows, and expressed bewilderment. “You’re words are dancing circles around me, deary. Crazed circles. What do you so urgently want with Kveldulf, then?”

“Because, Helg, according to the terms of the bargain, I need a champion.”

-oOo-

The paw print sank deep in the mud, and was pocked with snow. Letting his fingers trace over the shape of the hollow, Kveldulf squinted into the early night of the forest.

Recent.

And heavy. She was carrying something then. Not far away he found a slight splatter of congealing red. He crouched low and sniffed. Deer. Standing over the path, he let his eyes follow the trail, away, off into the murk. But in the moment that he chose to put a foot after her something stirred at the edge of his vision. He froze. He drew two knives, one iron, one silver, even as the rustling grew in power, and moved towards him… closer… closer.

But it wasn’t her.

It was not anything he had expected.

A force struck the forest like an explosion of thunder in a gale. It flowed about him. As if there were a river in the air. Strange shapes towered out of the forest, and drifted by, one by one, twirling away into the dusk.

All was still.

“Sorcery roams this night.” The croaking voice defiled the silence that had grown up out of the river of power’s passing.

Without deigning to so much as glance up, Kveldulf sheathed his knives. He did not reply, but instead watched the passing presence with his eyes.

“Well?” said Gnissa. “Acting the sullen sod today are we? No word of welcome for your favourite raven?”

“That troubles me.”

“That I am your favourite raven? Well if you only made more friends. Got out more. Tried to meet a few like-minded souls. Maybe take up a hobby.”

Kveldulf scowled up at the feathery shadow in the canopy.

Gnissa’s voice turned throaty and concerned.  “Have you considered knitting?”

“You know of what I mean. That,” he paused and knotted his brow, “that… presence. There was old magic in it. Where was it going? And what was it? A spell? A demon?”

“Shapes and shadows,” said Gnissa and he flapped his wings idly, “shapes and shadows. Me? I’d have thought you would be well used to a life full of shapes and shadows.”

“Shapes and shadows?” He smiled. “Yes, but whose?”

“To the caves of the dead pagan Eorls.”

Kveldulf had nothing immediate to respond with. He stared up at the raven, perched amongst the weave of moonlit sky and black branches. Raising his brow and cleared his throat, he said, “And how does a raven come to this knowledge.”

“I have my ways.”

“I don’t suppose you have anything useful to tell me then? For instance, whether you might have found out where the she-wolf is lairing herself?” The tone in his voice made it sound like he was telling off an ill-mannered and bothersome child.

The raven ignored him. “It is cold out here, I’ve had to puff my feathers out just to stay above freezing. How’s about we go back to that little cottage you’ve been spending evenings at? Might be nice to be inside for a bit.”

“Gnissa? Please explain what you are up to.”

“Helg is home. And that other one. The forest king’s mate. The quiet, pale one.”

“There is sorcery unlike anything I have felt in two centuries drifting on the air tonight. What do you know about it?”

Flapping his wings, the raven said playfully. “Ah, to feather-rot with you then. You are summoned, Kveldulf. Summoned by a once-was-lady and a witch o’ the woods. Come at once, for who could deny such a summons as that?” With that Gnissa stretched his frame, and dropping from the branch, he flapped away into the night.

Kveldulf stole a glance back into the growing shadows, his eyes following after the pawprints, then back, the other way, after Gnissa. With a heavy shrug he trudged after the bird.

“This had best be worth my while,” said Kveldulf to himself. “Or damned be that bird, I’ll make myself a raven feather trim for my cloak.”

Gnissa’s distant voice was mocking. “You’d have to catch me.” A raucous caw of laughter rolled away into the night.

-oOo-

In the warmth of Helg’s cottage, the stiff leather of Kveldulf’s boots softened, and became a musty heap around his feet. Hanging by the door his doeskin cloak was beginning to steam, giving off a smell of sweat and melting frost.

“Well?” said Lilia.

He stared at her for a hard moment. Unblinking. “You are quite crazy,” said Kveldulf after a time. “And I’ve no interest in playing childish games.”

“Games?” said Lilia. “Games? The future of my people, of my homeland, hangs in the balance, and you call it a game?”

“And childish,” added Kveldulf.

Lilia cast a hot glare at Helg, but the old woman made a frail defensive gesture with her bone-thin hands, and shook her head. “I’m staying well clear of this.”

Kveldulf got to his feet, and made to put on his cloak. “If you want this crown so sorely, go and fetch it yourself.”

“I will. I would. I’ll go with you every step of the way if you will let me. In the letter of the agreement, there was nothing to forbid us going together, but someone must come with me or else I won’t fulfil the oath. You think I would put the Veld into the hands of the likes of you, had I a choice?”

“So?” said Kveldulf. His fingers were still numb from the cold, and he was fumbling with the catch at his throat. “If you prefer someone else, find someone else.”

“Who else is there? Helg? She can’t walk the distance? Gnissa? I don’t even want to think about how that would turn out.”

“Hoy!” said Gnissa. “I am sitting right here.”

“Aurg! Do I have repeat the whole thing again!” She was pale and trembling now. “Don’t you understand? How can I get through your thick skull? The terms of the bargain. I need a champion to retrieve the crown for me. As far as the letter of the vow, all you need to do is reach out and pick up the damned thing from Feold’s rotten, dusty skull.”

“And, no doubt, also sneak or fight you safely past whatever perils Rosa and Alraun have set in one another’s way, not to mention a the shadows of the dead. Gnissa, how was it put?”

Gnissa mimicked Rosa’s voice. “Dark spirits haunt pagan graves. Spirits that neither you, nor I could master.” A soft croak. “So it is said.”

“Wild, savage pagan ghosts,” said Lilia, and her lips pressed into an angry pout. “Not friends of yours then? What a surprise.”

He raised a finger and pointing it at her said, “that, young woman, is no way to speak to me if you want my help.”

“Please,” said Lilia. Her eyes sought his, wide, and plaintive. Her hands were balled up into small fists, clenched in frustration.

“No.”

Lilia grit her teeth. Looking down once, she said, “How can you say that? I remember that once in my garden you said that if I needed help, I only had to ask. Were those words utterly meaningless?”

“I have my own woes to mend now.”

There came a small huff of a laugh from the rafters. “A shadow to hunt, to hunt, a tail to chase about the mulberry bush.” The hoarse sniggers were replaced slowly by light scratches of claw on wood. Looking up at Gnissa, Lilia’s gaze shaded for a moment with puzzlement. Her lips pressed to a thin frown, as she cast her eyes back to Kveldulf. “I will promise you vast treasures,” her voice hardened, “once I am Lady of Veld.”

“That, I recall your sister once promised me. One sister tricks me. Shame on you. Two sisters trick me. Shame on me.”

“A rank among my thanes.”

“No.”

“I will drape your shoulders with velvets, hang a jewelled sword on your belt, heap gold into your hands.”

The silence that hung between them was awful and lingering.

In a small tired voice Lilia just said, “please. Please. You are my last hope. The last hope of my people. Please.”

He turned his back to her. But though his fingers closed on the doorknob his hand did not pull the door open.

A flutter in the cobwebbed rafters. “Ask me? I think its been long years since our dear wolf-be-man wanted anything but revenge.”

He looked over his shoulder, up at Gnissa. The raven had his neck drawn in, but his beady eyes were bright and amber-gold. He shrunk smaller under Kveldulf’s gaze. “Or maybe not. No need to get angry with poor little me. Nice, silent, quiet Gnissa.”

“Please,” said Lilia.

“I must see to my own worries.” He found himself staring into the distance without anything to look at. His lifted his hands then and stared at them as if his finger’s dripped blood. “She kills every night now. Each night I smell blood on the air, coppery, sticky and sweat. It is a matter of days before she takes another human life. I must hunt her. Trap her. And be rid my demon. Helg, you know of this. Of her. Tell you little girl-child here. Tell her that I cannot give up the hunt.”

Helg was silent, but her eyes looked sad.

“Kveldulf,” said Gnissa, “He is a little obsessed.”

“There is something, a creature you hunt?” Lilia’s voice was tentative. She licked her lips. “I will make you the chief of all my hunters, hounds and hawks. You will have a hundred spears at your command.”

“They would do me no good,” said Kveldulf. “Hawks and hounds will not fell her. ” Scowling, he wrapped his cloak about his shoulders, and turned to go. His hand was on the door when he paused. She was still standing there. Waiting in silence. He could almost feel her stare boring into his neck. The door creak a little ajar. He held his hand.

“Then what would kill this monster you’re hunting?”

Kveldulf shook his head. “I don’t know yet. Maybe Helg can brew something from the last of Snoro’s potion?” He sounded faintly hopeful. “Or maybe not. Who can say?”

“I can.”

They all looked up at Gnissa.

“What?” said Kveldulf.

Gnissa was preening himself. He was hardly concerned or bothered. “Snoro told me. He rattled off a whole list of ways that you could kill the she-wolf, and then be rid of the curse. He reckoned killing on of your kind was easy enough, but he was looking for a way to control you, not kill you.”

“What?” said Kveldulf. He stepped back into the house, and glared. “And you’re telling me this now?”

“Well,” said Gnissa. “Most of the rituals are too stupid for words. Balance a pea on your nose at midnight. That sort of thing. But there is that bit of bone in the temple, isn’t there? He did go on about that a bit.”

“That’s actually real?” said Kveldulf. “I just assumed… bits of old dragon bone in temples are never real. I’ve looked at dozens of them over the years.”

“How would you know what dragon bone looks like?” asked Helg.

“I once had a knife carved from it. I used that knife to kill the she-wolf’s sisters, long ago, but lost it when she came after me. Gnissa, the bone fragment in the temple is genuine?”

“Snoro seemed to think so.”

“Then it is yours,” said Lilia, quickly. “If that is you price, it is yours. Please.” Her voice was breaking with an edge of tears.

Kveldulf looked at the floor. “I am the grandest fool in the world.” His brow felt heavy, his fingers felt numb. Then, as if in a dream, without saying a word, Kveldulf turned, and walked up to Lilia. She was so slight, this woman, and young, and pretty, and sad. But her stance, her gaze were both unflinching. And though her eyes seemed stern, she was clearly holding back her tears.

“A king of fools,” said Kveldulf. “Helg? Will this work? This plan of Lilia’s?”

Lilia leapt at Kveldulf as if she meant to hug him, then stopped short, held herself in check. She smiled. “Thank you.”

“I haven’t said, yes.”

Her smile was knowing. “Still, thank you.”

Helg breathed a sigh. “Alraun is bound by his word. Old laws hold his folk. But Rosa? She may break her word. It may go hard on her heart, but she could break her word, all the same–if she was pushed to do it.”

Lilia was stoic. “I must risk it. It is all the hope I have.”

“Hope,” and Kveldulf let a bitter smile creep over his face. “Now there is a word I’ve not allowed myself for a long time.”

Hurriedly looking around, Lilia picked up from the table a half-full bottle and two brightly glazed earthenware goblets. She splashed red wine into the cups, and plonked the bottle back on the wood. “Then let us drink, to the crown, to your hunt, to hope.”

Kveldulf’s smile shifted about on his face, not quite settling into anything permanent, “To hope.”

And Lilia repeated, “To hope.”

-oOo-

Despite all her words of desperation, it was Lilia who took her time getting ready. Kveldulf was standing silent and ready by the door, as soon as the doeskin cloak was wrapped about his shoulders.

He shut his eyes. Bumps. Clatters. Ruffles. Helg saying, “Will you need more food? A flagon of wine? Put on something warmer, dear.”

And Lilia rushing about replying with many an, “mhmm,” and “yes.”

Finally, she hurried herself to the door and said, “Well?”

Kveldulf opened his eyes. She stood there, bundled in a sheepskin cloak, trimmed with plush white fur. A satchel was slung over one shoulder, and in her other gloved hand she held a stout walking staff.

“Well?” she said again.

“Are you sure of this?” he said.

“Yes.”

“There is a good chance you’ll be injured. Maybe worse.”

Taking a deep breath, Lilia nodded and said, “I might not come through this. I know. But it is something I must do. What good is a ruler who will not risk herself for her land? What use is a ruler who thinks her subject’s lives are less important than hers? From the moment I fled the Toren Vaunt, I have felt a worm of unease. I know why now. I abandoned them, my people, my family, my home. I just gave them all to Rosa on a platter. I think from that moment, this had to happen. I had to face her, eventually.”

Kveldulf raised a palm, and nodded with a slight smile. “I can only ask.”

“So, shall we go? Time is pressing.”

He turned and looked at the shawl-wrapped woman in her chair by the fire. “Helg. Thank you. We may not see one another again. You have been a help to me. Thank you.”

“Yes, yes, get off with you.” said Helg. “As the young lady said, time is short.”

Kveldulf pushed the door open, and made a slightly mockery of a bow.

“M’lady.”

“My brave champion,” said Lilia, with perhaps slightly more of an ironic twist to her voice than she might have intended. She followed with a flash of a smile, though.

“You’re welcome,” said Kveldulf.

“Goodbye,” said Gnissa as they stepped through the doorway. “Enjoy yourselves off with the heathen dead and eldritch faer monsters.”

Helg’s piping voice was the last thing they heard before the door slammed shut. “Oh shut up, you flea-bitten feather duster”

CHAPTER THE TWENTY-EIGHTH

Dull drifts of snow snaked through he woods and formed white hills against the windward side of everything: the trees, the rocks, the little cottage they left behind. Even, thought Kevlulf, against his own boots if he stood still much longer. “The cave?”

“About half a day’s walk along the Woodbourne, so the old stories go,” said Lilia.

“East then, along the riverbank. We should keep to the south shore, for Alraun’s ilk haunt the other bank. And the other two champions have quite a head start?”

She nodded, and wrapped her arms a little tighter about her chest. “They will have left hours ago, I expect.”

He was quiet for a time before saying, “You know, we may have to take it from one of them? The crown. If it comes to that.”

Her voice was small. “I know. Let’s not speak of that for now.”

They found the rivulet and followed it. The course cut lazily through snowy mounds and swirled beneath thin crusts of glassy ice. There was a path along the southern bank–an old, narrow, muddy track that was often eaten away completely by the stream wherever it ran up to the outer edge of a bend. Several times they had to make a path by clambering over roots or a clayey bank, or descending to the stream and jumping from rock to slippery rock. It would have been sort of fun in summer. Kveldulf shook the thought away. It was not summer, and this was not some outing in the woods. He was finding that his mind was sliding back to old memories more than usual lately.

A summer day. The sound of children’s laughter. Odd, how he had not thought of that day for so long. So many years ago. Strange to think of it now.

“Kveldulf, look.” Lilia was a little way ahead, and standing lopsided on the slope. Kveldulf blinked, and pulled his mind out of past.

Up the bank, through a carpet of dead, brown bracken Lilia was pointing at two great shadows. At first glance, Kveldulf thought he saw some sort of guardians lurking in the woods, looming watchers, powerful and hunched.

“Kveldulf?”

A voice from somewhere.

“Kveldulf?”

He shook his head. The feeling was gone. It was just a rock. Two towering stones set in the earth.

“This place feels bad.” Lilia shivered. “Cold. I think we should move on, quickly.”

“That would be wise. This is an old path they were on now. A way for the dead to walk, and there are more guardians upon it than your sister or your lover could conjure.” Kveldulf did not dare take his eyes from the stones. He watched for the slightest sign of life as they walked nearer the rocks.

“Please don’t call him that.”

“What?”

“Alraun. You called him my lover. If you must make fun of me, then, past-lover. One-time lover. But he is not that now. Don’t call him that.”

“I’m sorry. I wasn’t making fun of you. I just didn’t think?”

“That’s alright,” she said, then, pausing for breath, she added, “Kveldulf? Look.”

Kveldulf looked up at the stones, blinked, and the vision of the guardians appeared and flickered away again. It was disconcerting, and he did not like the feel of the two stones at all. “Yes? What is it?”

“There is a path between the standing stones. It follows the stream. It is a little overgrown, but…” her voice trailed off.

“But?”

“It is trampled. They have come this way. Sigurd and Alraun’s champion.”

Kveldulf caught up with her, then stopped on the slope and looked down at the pair of standing stones. His insides felt like they had shrivelled into a frozen ball of ice. He noticed that Lilia’s teeth were chattering too. Scanning the ground, Kveldulf knelt, then ran a hand over the muddied path.

“You’re right. Two went this way. A horse and rider, and…” his brow knotted, “a deer perhaps? But a deer like none that I have ever hunted. It was huge. As large as a big plough horse. Hm. Well, whatever left these tracks, they moved with swift abandon, not caring to conceal themselves. Should be easy to follow.”

They moved on, passing between the two stone guardians. Kveldulf kept a hand on his silver knife while they were under the shadow of the looming stones, but nothing untoward happened. Soon enough they were past the twin stones and following the river path. Without encountering any immediate barriers, they wandered on, keeping the river on their left. Beneath a forest grown old, and hung with the rot of years, the hoof-prints were etched into the snowy soil. Soon, flagstones began to appear, now and again, though mostly they were overgrown with last summer’s brown weeds. This had been a paved way once, if very long ago.

Kveldulf detected an odd sensation, and turned his eyes to the woods, paused.

Something quick and small passed from behind one tree to another. Kveldulf said nothing, but as he followed Lilia he kept a more careful eye on the shadows. Then, glancing at his feet, Kveldulf nearly tripped over with surprise.

Around one of his feet was a patch of grass. Green as emerald, and studded with small flowers. Daisies.

“Lilia?” he looked up, but she was gone. Winter was gone. Summer clothed every tree, birds preened, and bickered, and chirruped in the branches.

A step forward. Where was she? Where was he for that matter?

On the path ahead, another small and darting shape appeared, only to vanish.

Kveldulf took off at a sprint. Laughter tumbled on the air–sly, happy, childish laughter. There, he spotted a stir in the green leaves. Breaking through a tangle of honeysuckle Kveldulf leapt out into a sun-shot glade. “Where are you, what manner of sorcery are you…” But he stopped. And he stared. And then, his lip trembled, and a tear gathered at the edge of his eye.

“Father?”

“No,” he stepped back. “No.” Little Dotta stood in a blaze of sunlight. She was wearing her blue dress, the one embroidered with a pattern of flowers and bees. Just as he remembered her, before… “Dotta?”

“Yes, father.”

“I…”

“Kveldulf, always lazing about. Did you even think to start a cooking fire.” Yrsa stepped lightly between two silver birches, carrying a basket in one arm. Kalv, and Joar were jostling one another behind her. “Stop that,” said Yrsa to the boys. “Anyone would think you two were uncouth little monsters.”

“Father, father,” cried Kalv. “Did you bring a deer? You did.”

He looked down. At his feet was a gutted, but not yet skinned carcass, of a large doe. Just as he remembered. He would skin it now, and they would roast the meat and eat it with chunks of Yrsa’s thick grainy bread, and he and Yrsa would drink from a skin of mead, and they would all laugh, all afternoon. Yrsa would make the doeskin into a cloak for him. And he would wear it for years to come. It would be the last gift she would give to him before–

“No,” he said. “No, this is not the summer of my youth. You, you are all–“

“Father?” said Dotta with a worried voice.

“You are scaring the children, Kveldulf. Can you not let bygones be bygones. Let us rest for a bit. Let us enjoy being here, with you? We’ve been so long apart.”

“You are not real.”

“I know not how,” said Yrsa, “I know not why, but we are here. We are real. With you. I remember nothing since… since, the last day we were together. Nothing since then, but here we are. Can’t you just be happy. You cannot have soured so much over the years. Look at you. She walked up to him, touched gentle fingers to his cheek. Your lovely face is all marred with permanent scowls.”

“This is a trick.”

“You would send us away? You would send away your children? Into darkness? Into cold?”

“You are not real,” said Kveldulf. “Oh by the old gods and new, you cannot be.” But his defences crumbled a little inside then. What if they were real? What if the magic in this place wasn’t weaving illusions, but had actually summoned their shades? They looked so much like he remembered. Come here.” He gathered Yrsa in his arms, he smelled her. Surely illusions did not smell like that. Not so good. “Yrsa,” he whispered.

“I know, I know. I have missed you too. We all have.”

“Where have you been?”

“I told you. I cannot remember. A moment ago, everything felt clear, but now, all I can feel is this, here, now. You and me, and our perfect summer, and the children.”

“I want this so much. I have wanted this for so long, but–“

“But what?” She leaned back a little and brushed a stray lock of hair from his brow. “What could be more important than what you have here?”

For a long time Kveldulf looked in her eyes. Searched her greens and golden browns. He looked over at Dotta, drawing a butterfly in the dirt with a stick. Looked at Kalv and Joar tussling on the grass.

“Hold me,” she said gently. “Just hold me.”

“No.”

“Kveldulf?”

“I want too.” He ran a finger down her cheek. “You cannot fathom how much I want to. But this is not real. Maybe you are, in some strange way. I hope to the ice and high sun that you are real, but this,” he waved a hand at earth and sky, “this day, this summer, this is memory. This is no longer real. It is all gone. Years and years ago.”

“Don’t leave us. I am real, Kveldulf. Put your hand to my chest. My heart beats there.”

Placing his hand to her chest, he gazed at her and his face expressed a sad smile. “No,” he said, “you are mistaken, no heart beats there.” It was true. He couldn’t feel a heartbeat. “Goodbye, my wife. I love you, Yrsa. I will love you until the world ends in brimstone and storm. My heart bleeds for you.”

“Bleeds?” said Yrsa. Her voice shook with fury. “Bleeds, Kveldulf? You talk of love and devotion, and yet you shirk your family off so easily? You know nothing of bleeding, Kveldulf. Nothing.” Her whole body was tense, her hands were fists. “Look at what it is too bleed.”

Everything changed.

The air turned from clean and warm, to musty and smoky. They were inside their little cottage. Inside the cottage Kveldulf built with his own hands from golden yew and coppery rope. And everything was red. Soaked with crimson. Spattered with it. Even Yrsa. No. Especially Yrsa.

He looked away.

“Look at me.” Look at what you did to us. Look.”

Dotta, and Kalv, and Joar were there too, huddled together, with red streaks clotting their skin, running in sluggish ribbons over their whole bodies.

“Dadda?” said Dotta, “why?”

“No,” said Kveldulf, holding his voice level. “I did not do this. I would never have done this. Never. Not in my most fevered dreams. It was her. It was the other. The she-wolf. She came here, into my home. It was she who killed you.”

“You don’t believe that.”

“Yrsa would know.” He fixed his wife with a firm gaze, and laid a hand on her bloodied, torn open shoulder. “She would know that I would never have done this. She would know there is more good in me than this. I am not evil.”

Her eyes were cruel. “So say you.”

“You,” said Kveldulf, “are not my wife. Perhaps you once were. Perhaps you are nothing but englamoured memories and doubts.” Kveldulf stood back from her and turned his anger to the sky. “Alraun,” yelled Kveldulf, “Alraun, call off your glamours. I will not lie down and die of cold, thinking I am warm in the arms of happiness. Nor will I crawl up in a ball of terror and self-loathing. Call them away.”

He waited a moment. Nothing happened.

Kveldulf laid a hand on the iron knife. “I warn you, Alraun.”

And with that all the red bleed away, drifting on the air as blood would in water. Little Dotta, curly-haired Kalv, smiling Joar, and Yrsa, beautiful, caring, gentle Yrsa–they all blew away on the wind. And all he could hear for a moment was their cries of pain, and sobs of tears.

Kveldulf fell to his knees. He was shivering terribly. It took a while to realise that he was doubled up in the snow. He was cold. Blue tinged the tips of his fingers, and frost whitened his beard. He wanted to retch.

Lilia was nowhere to be seen.

-oOo-

“Yes?” Lilia turned about and took a step back to reply. The path was empty but for shadows and mud-blackened snow.

“Kveldulf?” She put her hands on her hips. “Where in the Night-Queen’s hall has that man got to?” Turning back to the path, she was assaulted with an almost overpowering wall of warmth. Rich smoky air eddied around her; air that arose from a blazing hearth.

A hearth? Lilia shook her head, tried to clear her vision, and looked around herself again. A small, comfortable room. A tapestry of horsemen and greyhounds splashing through a ford, with hills rolling behind them. A rug of bearskin stretched by the fireplace.

“I know this place.”

“Of course you do, love. Come and sit awhile. I am feeling a little better today.”

“Maybe you will be well again soon, mother.” It was what she said the first time, so long ago. It seemed like the only right thing to say now.

“I hope so. Oh, I hope so.” He mother was rocking in a chair, with some embroidery heaped, forgotten in her lap. The smells were so warm and inviting. Dried sage and rosemary hung in bundles from the rafters.

“Is father here, too?”

“No, love. He had taken Rosa out hunting.”

“He does like to take her hunting, mother. Very often.” She was departing the memory now. She had not said that last time.

For a moment, her mother looked away. When she turned back, her expression was uncomfortable. “Let’s not talk of it. Let’s speak of more pleasant things, shall we, you and me. I can send for some wine. Do you prefer white or the poorman’s red? Dear me. I do not even know what my own daughter likes in a drink. You keep yourself to yourself too well, Lilia.”

“Yes, I get shy sometimes. It is easier to be away from people.” This was back in the rut of memory. Just exactly what they had said the first time. Now mother would send for the wine. And they would drink. Then talk. Then another bottle. They would talk some more. Talk as a mother and daughter ought to. Talk about hopes, and dreams, and gossip, jokes, thoughts and idle reflections. It would be the first time Lilia would feel close to her mother since the day she stopped hanging from her skirts. And tomorrow, mother’s unnatural illness would take a sudden turn for the worse. It would be over very soon then.

“Mother?”

She looked up, taking her gaze away from the smouldering flames. Her eyes looked older, more watery than Lilia remembered. Was this how her unconscious mind’s eye recalled her? Sad. Old. Withered. Her hair had grey in it that never streaked the memories. Yes, thought Lilia, this is how she had really looked. Lilia had spent so much time making herself forget.

“Yes, love?”

“Rosa is not a good child,” it was she who poisoned you and father.” Her face flushed hot, as if she were a tattletale, with stories about her sister stealing apples from the orchard, “I mean, I’m sorry. I don’t know why I said that. It was cruel. I just…”

Sadness spread over her mother’s lips. “I know dear. I know. But, please, remember its not all her fault, and also remember that I loved you both.” She let her hands run over the embroidery. “I still do. Did anyone finish this? There are two birds left to stitch into the pattern. One white, one red. It’s probably lying dusty in my keepsake chest, isn’t it?” The embroidery took on a terribly stark aspect to Lilia’s eyes, as if the birds and beasts were outlined in shadow and fire, and ready to leap from the cloth. “You must know. You cannot blame her, not truly, not bitterly. She would be angry, after all. Angry with your father. Angry with me, for though I suspected, I did nothing. I said nothing. It is not an easy thing to discuss.”

“Know what?”

“Oh, it is better this way, love. Better not to know.” Her smile was warm, but waxen. “Better this way. Here. Sit. Drink. Lets us talk, you and me. Talk like we did that night. A strange thing–that night, I realised I’d spent so much time worrying about one daughter, that I had entirely forgotten that I had another.”

“You didn’t seem to be very worried about me.”

“No, of course not. I was worried about Rosa.”

“I see. I have to go, mother.”

“One drink? Please. I am so lonely here.”

“No. The Veld is in peril, mother. There is no other. No one but I can save it, the people, your home. My home. Do you understand?”

Her mother breathed a sigh. Her thin shoulders sunk with it, her once-full lips saddened. “Yes,” she said. “I think I was not such a good choice for this. Whoever conjured me out of the past to keep you here, they made a mistake. You never loved me very much, Lilia. I suppose that is fair. Why would you love a mother who never really looked at you? Never.”

Lilia held back an urge to tears. She bit her breathing, short, sharp, truncated little huffs of air. She could only say, “I’m sorry. Truly, sorry, mother,” and then, “goodbye.”

Like smoke rolling over water it all fell apart. Every last stone of the room. The colours of the tapestry. The hot embers in the hearth. Her mother. Soon it was nothing but mist and memory, and she was standing in a drift of snow with pines around her.

-oOo-

Kveldulf found her standing there, staring into the deepening night air. She had not walked off the path at least, but her cloak had fallen open around her shoulders, letting in the cold, and her hands were lax at her side. Her staff lay where it had fallen, forgotten in the snow. The wind must have been chilling her bitterly about the neck and chest, but she hardly shivered.

“Lilia?” He touched her arm.

“Yes.” When she turned to answer her eyes were wet and red-rimed.

“Where are you?”

“Here, with you. In this accursed wood, at night, in the snow. Damn this. Damn Rosa. Damn Alraun.”

“Your staff. You left it on the ground.” He scooped it up and held it out.

She took it and clutched it in white knuckles before shutting her eyes. “Thank you.”

“Do you need to talk? Do you want to?”

“Do you?” The reply was scathing.

“No.”

“Then good. Let us be going. The lady and her champion. The loveless two. Oh, how they shall remember us. Lilia, oh Lilia, oh who would champion Lilia? Lilia the cold. Lilia the alone. Lilia the aloof. She had to buy her champion, that one, bought him with promises and bargains.”

Kveldulf narrowed his eyes. “It was Alraun’s peril, I think.”

She said nothing. Just stared into the night.

“I could smell his charms on the air as the visions faded away.”

“Where they real?” asked Lilia.

“I thought you didn’t want to talk about it.”

She looked down. “I don’t”

“Good. You were right. We should be moving, or else the cold will kill us before Alraun or Rosa have a chance to.”

“Yes.”

They moved on, shushing through the now thicker snow. The path became wider, and though rife with overgrowth, also easier to follow. It was a tunnel, roofed with the myriad hands of a thousand trees, edged with a hundred thousand fingers of frost. In places they had to really slough through the dunes of snow. Putting one weary foot after another. Even following the mess of hoof marks, trailing after the two champions who had tramped down the snow ahead of them, it was hard going.

“Do you smell that?”

Lilia breathed deeply and tilted her head, as if she were indulging in a heady perfume. “Yes. There is something. How odd. The air smells of flowers.”

A little way ahead, the path shrunk down into a hollow of shadows, and a gap where the air looked open. As they drew nearer, the lines of the trees began to edge with small scratches of light that flickered. But they were not the hue of flames. They were whiter, and more eerie.

“I think we may have found Rosa’s peril,” said Lilia, then her lips curved with a wry smile. “Or maybe a roadside campfire, with grinning traders, and liberal barrels of wine.”

“I would say the former, Lilia. Though I’d not mind the latter.”

“You? Laugh, sing and dance? No. That, I would have to see to believe.”

“I was happy once, Lilia.” The words were difficult. They dredged up too much with them. “Once.” He shrugged and put the thoughts out of his mind. “But it was a long time ago.”

“It is growing brighter.”

“We are closer, m’lady.”

The forest dwindled away on both sides of the path, and turned to a low scramble of gorse, and great snow capped boulders. A huge gash tore through the earth here, a rocky crevice, and from deep in this blackness arose the tumbling noise of rushing water. Spanning this gap was a bridge, old and made of roughly cut slabs of slate packed tightly together.

The thing that was giving off the light and smell of roses was on the bridge, a burning, towering pillar, a white torchflame seven or eight feet tall. No. Not a torch. Something else. They edged closer on careful feet, and Kveldulf did not take his eyes off the blaze of light. Somewhere in there was a shape that might have been human, and behind it fanned out two great wing-like flares that beat rhythmically. Light played all about it, and rippled, liquid lightning brushing on the stone of the bridge.

A sudden, forceful grab at the arm took Kveldulf’s attention back to Lilia.

“Look,” she said, “dear Ladies both, look.” Where she pointed, there was a heap on the road before the vision of wrought-light. Two legs that looked something like a horse stuck into the air, and the rest of the body was twisted into an uncomfortable mangle. For a moment Kveldulf thought it might be Sigurd and his horse, and he was surprised by the relief he felt when he saw that the blood that seeped and pooled was silver, and sparkled in the fiery light. As they stared it twitched.

“Alraun’s champion,” said Kveldulf. “And not quite dead.

“No sign of Sigurd?” said Lilia.

“No, he must have passed by.”

“Perhaps Rosa told it to only stop Alraun’s ilk? We might be able to pass it without it even raising a glance.” She peered at the pillar of light. “What is it?”

Before Kveldulf could answer, the being of light seemed to decide that they had come close enough. It raised a hand and spoke. It was as if everything, every crystal of ice in the trees, every rock, the air itself reverberated and formed a voice for it.

“I am Etheram Lo Ethastaroth, and I am set to guard this bridge.”

Kveldulf bowed to it, and husking his voice said to Lilia, “Be polite. If there is one way to treat with spirits, it is with politeness.” Then raising his voice a little, he said, “Good day to you, Etheram Lo Ethastaroth, and well met. May we not pass over your bridge? We were not sent by Alraun of the woods. That is true and my oath is given.”

Though the spirit owned no eyes, its graceful head turned once to Kveldulf, then once to Lilia, before he said, “She may pass. You may not.”

“Why?” said Lilia, strangely calm.

Kveldulf looked at her with as much seriousness in his gaze as he could muster. “Do not anger it,” he said through gritted teeth.

“I have been set here to prevent any that is not of mortal soul from passing this bridge. She is of mortal soul. You? You were once mortal, I think, but I am unsure as to what you are now. Therefore you may not pass. That is my decision.”

“What are you?” said Lilia, then looked down, and cleared her throat. “I was wondering, are you one of the host of herself, the Brightness Queen? Are you a godling?”

“Men have called me both godling and demon in the pages of their countless foolish scriptures. I am both, and I am neither. I am spirit. I am outside this world. I am before all, and after all. I am glorious, and wrathful. I am spirit.”

“Damned spirits,” said Kveldulf, “always speaking in bloody riddles. So, you must wait and guard this bridge–until?”

“There was no stated end to the sorcery that chained me here. I await until I am released by she who bound me.”

“Ros-” but Kveldulf put his hand up to Lilia’s mouth. For a brief moment she glared at him as if he had assaulted her in a drunken rage, then slowly, she pushed his hand away and said, “What?”

“Do not say her name. Names have power, and spirits and sorcerers both know this. Your sister might not have given the spirit her real name.” Kveldulf ran a hand over his trim, stubbly beard, and licked the inside of his teeth. “She who bound you here? How she is known? “

“She is known as the Lady of Veld. By that I am bound.”

Kveldulf smiled. “I thought as much. She would not tell it her real name. Too risky.” He spoke more loudly. “And you are bound until the Lady of Veld releases you?”

“I am.”

“Lilia?”

For a moment her eyes remained confused, then she understood, and gave a tremulous smile. Wetting her lips she said, “You may go free. I release you.”

“You did not bind me.”

“No, but I am a Lady of Veld. Listen to my words, if you have that power. You will know the truth of it.”

Etheram Lo Ethastaroth was silent for some time, and the floating wisps of light that tasselled his body fell to stillness too. “Tricks of words, though I am bound by them. I am free then, no more bound to my charge, no more shall I do what I was bid.” Its voice was level, devoid of even the slightest hint of emotion as he said this. “But this I will ask. For I am said to be both kind and vengeful, and it is right to seek revenge on any sorceress who binds me on a whim. I see no love in your soul for the other, the sorceress who bound me. Tell me, what is her true name, for I could work great misery on her, if I but knew that.”

Kveldulf remained silent. When Lilia looked at him, he merely shrugged. This was her decision.

“No,” she said at length. “I know not what you would do to her, but… yes, I may not love my sister, but I do not hate her either. Not that much,” she said in a smaller voice.

With a slow nod of his head, Etheram Lo Ethastaroth’s body began to drift away, caught up on the wind.

“Should you not return to whence you came?” said Kveldulf as the spirit lifted higher in the air.

“No, for I am now free in this world, and have wont to wander for a time. There is a village where folk curse me for a demon, and another where they worship me for an god. I must visit blessings on one, and pestilence upon the other.”

“Just because some people fear him, he is going to set a plague upon them?”

“Perhaps,” said Kveldulf, “or maybe the thing means to plague those who love him, and bless those who hate him. Spirits are like that.” He folded his arms and looked up at the fast vanishing phantom of light, “Come, Sigurd must have already passed the bridge. We’ve precious little time. That is, unless–“

“He is already dead. In the caves somewhere.”

“Yes. Unless that.”

Their feet scuffled the stone as they crossed the bridge. There were fewer trees on the far side of the defile, just small scrubby hawthorns and gorse, mostly. The path grew wider again here though, and it was lined in places by small standing stones. Some were toppled. Some still stood upright. Many looked as if they had been purposely brought down, and a few were broken and cut as if someone a long time ago had taken to them with a pick.

“You know,” said Lilia, “I have no wish to hurt him. Sigurd, I mean.”

“And you think I do? He is a kind man. A good man. He reminded me for a while what is was to have something like a friend. A pity how things turn out sometimes.”

“Yes. Do you know, in all the years that he courted my sister, I never knew his whole name. Never asked, not even once.” A moment of thought. “No wonder she hates me so much. She must think me cold and unfriendly.”

“I doubt she hates you,” said Kveldulf. “She may resent you, or feel she has reasons to be upset. But hate?”

“You do not know Rosa very well, do you, Kveldulf? Ah, what does it matter? She was the one everyone in the Veld loved, you know? They all thought I was a poor excuse for a noble daughter. They all thought the inheritance should have been the other way around. No one wanted me to ascend the throne. I could hear it in their voices, whenever I spoke to anyone. Eventually, it was too much. I hid to stop them judging me.”

“And now you desperately want the throne?”

“To stop Rosa or Alraun ruling? Yes. Both of them are too much in love with having power over others.”

“And what if your people are unhappy with you? You said yourself, they probably prefer her.”

She nodded. “I will make amends. I will work for the Veld. I know that I am not a very lovable person, but will convince the Veld, in time, that at least I have their interest to heart. I hope.” She looked at the path in front of them. “Are those Sigurd’s tracks?”

“Yes.” Kveldulf stopped to look closely at the ground, then said, “Sigurd rode this way, but he has not yet come back by it.” He paused. “And you should not say such things about yourself. You are still young, and alive, and, well, someone who others might love too, in your way. You’ve still time yet to make others see that.”

“In my way? What a fine compliment.”

“Don’t unpick a complement. Life is to be lived, Lilia. Seize it. Enjoy it. That is all I can say. I’ve walked a long time among shadows. So long, that I have almost forgotten what it is to stand in the sunshine, and just laugh for the sake of it. Laugh to be happy. Like I said, you’re thoughtful, even tempered, clever. Sometimes even funny, too.” He smiled. “Maybe not wise, but I’m sure what friends you will make in life will be very happy to share their wisdom with you. Most people are happy to do that.”

She kissed him politely on the cheek without warning. He stopped and looked at her with a puzzled expression clouding his face.

“Thank you.” Her smile was shy.

“For what? If you are thanking me for getting you this far, it might be better to wait until we are done.”

“Yes,” and she began walking, “well, for that too.”

They walked together around one of the more massive, weather-pocked standing stones, and then over the crest of a small stone rise. Stretching before them was a low expanse of snowy earth spreading up to the foot of a high-peaked hill. The hill was crowned with a ring of broken stones. The sky behind was grey and boiling with thick cloud, making bold the hill, so that it seemed almost silver and unearthly. There was a small trickle of water snaking beside the path. It twined across the ground before disappearing into the gaping mouth of a large, black cave that stood like a gash, torn into the base of the stone-topped hill.

“Look,” she pointed. “It’s Soothoof.” Lilia broke into a short run, and threw her arms about the horse’s neck. Soothoof whisked his tail, and folded his ears back. “This used to be Thane Hergard’s horse. Not Sigurd’s. I wonder where Rauthus is?” She patted the horse behind the ear. “I used to go down to the stables with apples now and again. You like half an apple, don’t you?” She scratched his chin.

Kveldulf walked towards the cave, circling a little away from the horse, while keeping a good distance from the beast. Still, the animal looked at him as he approached, and scraped the ground with one hoof.

“He is worried.”

“He would be. But it’s nothing to trouble us.” He nodded at the hill. “The cave. I presume that is where Sigurd has gone, and where we will find the crown.” Kveldulf peered at the inky interior. “Perhaps he is in there still?”

“Yes. I have a wisp-torch. Three actually. Helg thought to pack them. Will they be enough?”

“Hopefully.”

Kveldulf worked with a flint and a small pile of dry tinder until he had a flicker of flame dancing for him. As soon as they put the straw and resin torch to flame, it crawled greedily.

“The smoke is going to make it tricky to breath,” said Kveldulf, “and caves are not kind places. They are cold, and damp, and muddy. There are deep chasms, which may not even have a bottom.”

“Then you had best lead.”

“Are you sure you would not rather stay here? With the horse?”

“I have come this far, Kveldulf. If you think that here, now, I will slink off to cower, and wait for someone else to risk their life and–“

“Merely asking,” said Kveldulf.

He held the torch in his right hand, and used the left to steady himself as the trudged past ferns, then onto the slope that led down into the maw of the cave. There was a pool of water in the throat of the entrance. A little stream of water flowed into it from above then trickled away deeper into darkness.

“Careful,” said Kveldulf, “the mud is treacherous here. Step where Sigurd has stepped.” His footsteps were clear and sunk deep in the silty cave-mud.

“You know, I can barely see anything with you waving the torch about.”

“You can still go back?”

“No.” She slid once on the mud, and then walked half-stooped past the pool. “This reminds me of the fine clay potters use.” She sniffed her grey-caked fingers. “It has such a strange smell.”

“Hm? I suppose so.” He held the torch up and cast light around the dripping stone of the tunnel. “I don’t think there are any side tunnels. Old tombs are often entered by crawl-spaces. Just as the babe crawls out of a womb, the shamans of the dead used to crawl with the dead back into the earth. But there is only one main passage. I suppose the dead were brought down here, and carried along this way?”

Kveldulf walked up to a surface and held the torch close to it. It guttered and flared as he waved moved it. “There are carvings here. Old carvings. Men and horses. Battles. Hunts.”

“If there is just one path, then it should be easy to follow, then?”

“Well, ‘easy’ is a relative term, but yes.”

They had not gone far when they found the first of the alcoves. It was little more than a nook carved into the wall of the cave with a heap of ash-blackened bones and a human skull. More and more of the alcoves appeared as they moved deeper.

“So many of them,” said Lilia. “I feel as if they are staring at us.”

Kveldulf glanced back at her. “You’re shivering.”

“I’m cold.”

“Of course.”

“Look, a bracelet.” Lilia was reaching out for the gold band. It lay in a jumble with its former master’s bones. Her fingers were almost brushing it when Kveldulf’s hand grabbed at her wrist.

“Let the dead keep their treasures.”

When he let go, she rubbed her wrist, and frowned.

“Sorry,” said Kveldulf, “I did not mean to hurt you.”

“And I did not mean to keep it.”

“And how would the dead know that? If there are shades in these caves, they will be shrivelled, ugly, jealous things. They’ll only remember what is was to be human in the saddest, most distant and miserly way. The dead who do not sleep turn either wild or bleak in time. It is the good who sleep in the earth.”

“And how would you know this?”

“I know what it is like to have been human, Lilia. Believe me. Nothing that has ever lost its humanity can be the better for it.”

“Even you?” she said.

“Even me.”

The rows of stone-cut graves thickened until the cave was a honeycomb of dark spaces spotted with skulls. Some were very old, yellowed, and little more than dry bone. Others, although still ancient, seemed more recent. A few still had hair, or small clinging tatters of armour.

“Steps,” said Kveldulf holding the torch so that it cast a wide pool of sputtering light and shadow. “Cut into the bedrock.”

“And a door,” Lilia pointed up at an arch of stone, also carved into the living stone, and graven deep with a riot of serpentine patterns, and deep angular runes.

“Here enter the dead,” said Kveldulf.

Lilia looked at him with a peculiar smile. “Suddenly poetic?”

“The runes read that. Here enter the dead.”

They descended the steps, and trod lightly into the cavern beyond. It was an echoing hole, too tall for the light of the torch to reach the roof, and as wide as the great hall in the Toren. Every inch of the walls was now incised with an alcove, and from every alcove stared two black eyes. Somewhere in the distance the melodic drip of water from the roof pervaded the silence.

“There,” said Kveldulf. “The lordly dead.”

Made murky by distance and smoke form the torch, there stood fourteen low plinths of rock, not limestone as with the rest of the cave, but marble. The marble must have been quarried in distant lands, imported, and hauled into this place from above.

“Fourteen,” said Lilia, “the fourteen heathen Eorls of the Veld. Buried here before Erhath the Devout threw the idols of the old gods into the river and commanded that all worship the Sun Queen. But where is Sigurd? He should have found his way here, and we could not have missed each another on the way.”

The first of the plinths was the resting place for a man dressed in the rotting, rusted links of an old hauberk of steel. A knotted sword lay on his legs, and a shield was his pillow. Kveldulf brushed some mud and dust from the base of the plinth.

“Erhald.”

“Erhath the Devout’s father,” said Lilia. Her arms were wrapped tight about her chest and she was trembling visibly. “The farthest of the dead must be Feold.”

“Let us hope he is still wearing his crown.”

Kveldulf turned his startled face up–a thunder of echoes had just flitted about the cavern–it was Lilia. She had leapt into a sudden sprint, but not towards the last plinth.

“Lilia? Lilia!” Kveldulf took off after her. The cave must have once, long ago, been cut smooth or laid with flagstone, for though it was still slippery with mud, it was as flat as any courtyard. Sprinting into the darkness, Lilia was a receding white ghost.

“Lilia! What is the name of the Old Night Crone are you doing?”

She stopped, and for a moment Kveldulf thought she was going to fall forward on her knees. Instead she crouched over something. It was a something that glinted whenever the torchlight fell on it. A burnished sword.

And not more than a few paces on she stopped again. Kveldulf stood behind her, and waited.

“I heard him groan. He is deathly blue and cold, but alive. Sigurd? Sigurd, do you know me. It is Lilia.”

His gaze was distant but his fingers grasped at her voice, stroked her neck and fumbled to hold onto her.

“Help me, Kveldulf. Help him. He is dying. I do not know what is killing him, but he is dying.”

“Lilia. You should look up.”

“Kveldulf, damn your cold soul. Help me.”

“Lilia. I do think you should look up.”

Lilia froze.

Encircling them on all sides, creeping closer and closer was a wall of faint grey shadows. And in the nearest wall glimmered a hundred pairs of corpse-candle eyes. The eyes of the skulls had all lit up with tiny flames. Whispers rose and fell, hateful things, said with dead tongues in an ancient language.

Kveldulf moved the torch in an arc and it burned brighter as it devoured the air but the light was still poor. The host of shadows edged nearer.

“What are they saying? What are they muttering?”

“Black tidings in an ancient tongue.”

“Did they do this to Sigurd?”

“Yes. They say he was here to steal their treasures. To take their gold and silver and jewels.” Kveldulf switched to the old tongue. “Your treasures are rotted, dead shadows. Like you, they are gone, and nothing, and worthless. Keep them, and go back to your mouldering graves. Let alone the living, and the living will let you go in peace, too.”

“This one speaks our tongue.” This voice was strong, though still as cold and dead as the others. “Though he speaks it with no beauty, nor eloquence.”

“What place is this for beauty? Bring a flower here and it will wither. Bring the living here, and they will die. If I have no beauty, nor do you. Go back, ghaists. Go back and lie down in your graves.”

“So if not to rob me and my subjects, why would the living come to the Tombs of the Everlasting Lineage.”

Kveldulf swallowed, and felt the hard knot sink into his gut. His fingers pricked, and turned hot and cold. They were here to steal, of course. “This is not going well,” he said to Lilia, then again, stalling for time, he said in the old language, “And who am I speaking with.”

Out of the misty throng of bodies one resolved into a clearer form. Lilia gave a slight, startled gasp. His ash-grey face was puckered and sunken, his eyes half-glued shut by death, his hands long and withered. Over his shoulders hung a too-loose mantle of armour, and in one pallid hand he held a ghostly sword. When he spoke his lips did not move.

“I am the first Eorl of Veld. Eorl of all who have followed me into the dark earth, and though none have come to mine shadowy realm for centuries now, I still rule here. So tell me, why do the living come to speak with the dead? If not to thieve? If not to rob?”

“We seek a crown.”

“Ahaaa,” whispered the voices all together, “the truth–the truth–thieves indeed–robbers–make them cold–keep them here with us.”

“Silence,” said the first Eorl. And there was. When Feold spoke again his voice was stark and alone, “We have no crowns of gold. You speak aright when you say that nothing here is worth a grave robber’s life. You waste yours in vain.”

“No,” said Kveldulf, “for we want no treasures. The Veld hangs in the balance. It depends on a bargain struck by a sorceress and the king of the faer wilds. A bargain to end a bloody war, but a bargain that may well see your home slip into the hands of those who were never meant to rule mortal souls. Whomsoever owns the crown of Feold will rule the Veld. This, here, is Lilia, Lady of Veld. Eldest of the Eorl’s children. Rightful heir to the throne. She is your descendant, Feold Wormslayer. She comes to claim your crown, for it is her crown, truly.”

“Ahh,” said Feold, “family? I am so lonely for family,” and the shade reached out his empty hand, and formed a grasping claw, slowly he edged a single step closer to Lilia. She did not cry out. Instead she pulled Sigurd closer to her, and stared back at the shade with seething defiance. Not understanding what he had said, she mistook his action and said, “You will not have him. He is of the Veld. You will have to kill me first.”

The shade did not come closer, but held himself about a foot off, his fingers clawing the air. He was poised, seemed to be considering.

Lilia was frantic. “What is he saying, Kveldulf. What?”

Kveldulf gave a quick explanation. She was silent for a moment. “Tell him that I am the last of his bloodline who can save the Veld from faer creatures and sorcery. Tell him if I die, then the world of the living will forget his name. Forget his legacy. They will come to forget that the Veld even existed. Gone forever. Tell him that.”

“Wait,” said Kveldulf holding his hand up to the gleaming eyed shade, “do not end your bloodline like this. Do not let your legacy turn to dust. Do not let the name of the Veld be forgotten.”

His fingers hesitated then withdrew and formed a loose fist. He seemed less interested in what Kveldulf had said, but kept his eyes locked on Lilia and Sigurd. “Is he sworn to her, too? Why does she shelter him from me?”

Kveldulf answered carefully. “The thane belongs to another faction in this. He is, in a fashion, her enemy. But the Lady Lilia says she will not let you harm him. He is of the Veld still.”

The shade was more thoughtful now. “She would rule the Veld. My Eorldom? She would have my name sung and honoured?”

“Yes. She would. Gratefully, I expect.”

“And for this, she needs my crown?”

“She does.”

A moment of heavy silence stretched, in which the grey shadows began to stir and grow restless.

“Then I demand a sacrifice. She may take the crown and go. You may leave too, for I think you are not of mortal kith, and this is a place for the dead, not for demons. Your soul is a wolf that walks beside you. No one who is mortalkind lets their soul wander about like that.” He seemed to sneer. “It is undignified.” He pointed at Sigurd again. “But he must stay. I demand it. Tell her so.”

He turned to Lilia. “The ghaist says he will let you have the crown, but only if Sigurd remains here.”

Lilia did not hesitate. “No. Tell him, no.”

Kveldulf did.

“She would give up rulership, the riches of an Eorldom, the throne, all the pleasures of court, and her own life, to defend the life of one subject?”

“She says so,” said Kveldulf. “I believe her.”

Feold stared at her with his eyeless sockets, and bowed his head once. “It is right that an Eorl would say thus. To rule the land is to be the land. To rule the people is to be the people. It is right that she knows this. You may go. All of you. None of mine will harm you, for I will forbid it.”

“And the crown?”

But the shadows were already receding, their eyes guttering and fading to pinpoints of nacreous yellow before snuffing out, one by one. On the ground, where Feold had stood there lay a rusty old helm. Fashioned of steel, inlaid with ribbons of gold, and studded with rotted iron, it was a fragile looking thing.

“Feold’s crown,” said Lilia. “What did you say to convince him?”

“Nothing. It was what you said.”

“What did I say?” At that moment Sigurd shook with a spasm and rasped with several dry coughs. “Explain it to me later. He is growing weaker.”

“Fine with me.” Kveldulf went to the helm, lifted it up, gently in his fingers, and returned to Lilia. “Your champion presents you with the crown of Feold. May you rule wisely.”

“The Lady Lilia thanks her champion.” She pulled out a small sack from her belt and he gingerly lowered the helm into it. Knotting the mouth, she tied the sack to her belt again. “We must bear Sigurd out of this cave. If he dies here,” she peered at the dark walls, “I hate to think.”

It was a struggle, but at least the effort was keeping him warm, thought Kveldulf, as he stumbled under Sigurd’s weight. The man in his armour was not light, and of course, someone had to carry the torch. So it was left Kveldulf to heave Sigurd’s dead weight over his shoulders.

“We have the crown now. We are probably safe to go back to Helg’s first, recover a little and then go to the village green. Will you join me, Kveldulf?” She was already bubbling with plans. “You deserve to be there. But–?

“But what?”

“What am I going to do with Rosa. I can’t have her killed. I can’t. Locked up? Exiled? I don’t know. It all feels so cruel.”

As Kveldulf staggered up the last slope, past the small, cold pool, and into the open air, he locked his eyes with profound relief on the first grey light of a rising dawn. They must have gone into the caves near enough to midnight, he thought, and then been in the darkness for the whole night through. Mists still lingered in the hollows, but where the winter sun grazed the hills, the fog was burning away.

Laying Sigurd on the ground, Kveldulf patted him lightly on the face, and lifted one eyelid. “Sigurd? Sigurd do you know my voice? Can you ride?”

“Maybe we should set a fire for him. And warm some tea. Helg gave me some leaves and a pot for something to brew, in case we were trapped out in the night.”

Lilia soon put the smoking torch to a pile of dry kindling that she had in an oiled calf-skin. The fire soon blazed. When the dried leaves plopped into the boiling pot, they stained the water immediately, creating a swirl of rich rusty red that spread, becoming eventually a deep hazel. And though the smell was bitter, when he was offered it Sigurd drank the hot tea greedily.

All the while, Kveldulf stood watching the dawn transcend the sky, watched the clouds turn from black to grey to silver. He watched the first light of the dawn appear in a blaze of rays, and then the sun peek up above distant mountains.

“Kveldulf,” his voice was weak. “Kveldulf? I dreamt I was dead and in the grave already. I dreamt terrible, nightmarish things.”

Kveldulf turned to Sigurd and knelt down. His felt his expression shifted into something a little more serious. “Not a dream, my friend. But you are safe now.”

“Here,” said Lilia, “have another swallow of this.”

He gulped it down, then sputtered, and coughed. “The cave. I must go into the cave and fetch the crown of Feold. Rosa has demanded it. I must.”

Kveldulf shook her head. With a sad guilty feeling in his heart he said, “We have the crown, Sigurd. It is safe and sound.”

At first he seemed pleased, perhaps not fully understanding, then, his eyes widened. An expression of wretched horror crept over the thane’s face. His lip trembled as he said, “Then I have failed, but Rosa will be happy with you.”

“No, Sigurd. No she will not.”

“But the crown.”

“The crown is not for Rosa.”

It was not that Sigurd’s blue eyes focused properly on Lilia, her hair limned by morning sunlight, her eyes, wide and worried. “You,” he said. His face hardened. “I see.”

“Sigurd,” said Lilia, “you saved my life once. We have saved yours now. Let that be enough, for now.”

“I… I… cannot blame you in this, Lady. You have a right to want what is yours, but Kveldulf?” He got up on one elbow. “How? How can you have done this to me? To Rosa? Have I not been a friend to you? Have we not been through some bleak hours together, and lived by one another’s good luck and skill. This is treachery. How, Kveldulf? Why?”

He was stony in his silence. For all that his heart still beat he might have been a statue carven of rock and set to stare forever. Slowly he shut his eyes and shook his head. “No, Sigurd. You cannot call me that. You cannot name me betrayer. The treachery did not start with me. Rosa sent you to hire me because she thought I would be a charlatan. She wanted a foul-minded witch-hunter to set on Lilia. When she understood that I was not that–that I knew witchcraft from trickery and would not be bought… well, Rosa did her best to have my throat slit, my friend. If you want to put treachery at someone’s door, look to her.” After a moment, he said, “I’m sorry. I know you love her.”

“Liar!”

Sigurd’s fist swung up and had an unexpected strength behind it. Kveldulf’s jaw caught the first squarely, and he felt a snap of pain as his head was knocked backwards by the blow. The world spun for a moment and turned grey with sharp pain. When he next knew what was happening, Kveldulf was somehow struggling to fight off a wild fury of fists and bitter, half-hissed words.

“Liar,” screamed Sigurd, “Traitor!”

Kveldulf managed to snare his fingers about Sigurd’s throat. He struck back twice, but did not put his full force into the swing and felt no give at all. Somewhere above the scuffle, Lilia was yelling, scolding them both like a mother trying to break up two brawling boys.

“Get off me,” cried Kveldulf, but it did not good. He threw a solid punch into the side of Sigurd’s temple. It was enough to stun him. His face twisted up in startled pain and he collapsed, actually pinning Kveldulf down by accident. Kveldulf had to push and scramble out from under the man and his heavy coat of mail. Only then was he able to clamber to his feet.

Sigurd now lay rather unceremoniously sprawled in the snow and mud. He wrenched himself up on his arms, trembling with exhaustion and rage. “So this is how it ends, friend?”

“No, Sigurd, I will not have you think this of me. I am no oath-breaker. I am no betrayer. Listen to me. I know things, Sigurd. I see things. I was there that night in the storm. The night you buried Snoro. I was there in the shadows when the demon in the dark spoke to you.”

“You… you saw that? How?”

Kveldulf drew himself a little taller, made his gaze more stern. “I know what the shadow said to you. I know that you rode like the wind to return to her, Sigurd. But what did you find? That, I do not know. What did you find?”

He hung his head. “That sometimes demons have truthful tongues.”

“And so the worm of guilt, of unease, and suspicion gnawed at you. When you might have stopped Lilia escaping, you let her go. That is not the action of a man whose heart is filled with unquestioning trust.”

“Do not tell me what my heart feels.” Sigurd began to groan, and then, his shoulders shuddered. “And even if that were true, a person may love without trusting. Will not love bear out? It must in the end.”

“And so it will,” said Kveldulf. “I think so.”

Lilia, who had stepped away from them now that they had stopped fighting like boys in the dirt. She stood now silent, and watchful, through all of this. When she spoke, her voice was both quiet and commanding. “This is the end of the scheming, Sigurd. By this evening all of Rosa’s ambitions will have turned to so much dust. Whether you choose to abandon her, or stand by her, well, that is your choice to make. But with all her plots reduced to ruin, there will be no more secrets between you. You will have that, at least.”

“And what will you do with her, Lady? What will you do to revenge yourself upon the one who imprisoned, and…” he swallowed, “falsely accused you of murder? Rosa would have had you burned.”

“I think my sister will be banished. That is all. And maybe not even forever. Just for a time–enough time for matters to heal between us. They will, I hope. Eventually.”

“And then, so I with her. I will not abandon her. We will be two lone beggars, turned out on the cold winter road. You should have left me in that tomb with the mournful dead. How can I face her, like this, in defeat? How can I go to her with my back bowed, and my head hung, and tell her I have failed her?”

Lilia was apologetic. “I don’t know. But, it seems clear that you must.”

“Or lie here and die.”

“Or lie there and die,” echoed Kveldulf. “Life is full of choices, Sigurd. But Lilia and I must return to the Veld. And I do not think you truly want to lie down and die. Surely, it is better to be a pillar for Rosa to lean against in exile.” He shook his head, huffed out a breath and changed the topic. “Are you steady enough to sit in a saddle? The heat from the horse will warm you too.”

Sigurd hung his head for a time, but eventually, he nodded.

Kveldulf helped him into Soothoof’s saddle, but took the reins to lead the gelding. Lilia put out the fire, and packed away the pot and other things. When she was done, she lifted up the helm and cradled it gently in her arms. All the while, neither Sigurd nor Lilia looked at one another. It was as if they were afraid of what they might see in the other’s face.

Kveldulf could only watch, and wait, and then lead the horse at a gentle walk along the ancient path of the dead, over the mossy bridge, and then back, deep into the forest.

“Kveldulf?” said Lilia as they wove between a stand of old oaks. “Do you think Rosa will keep her word. Will she let me take the throne?” It was the first thing she since leaving the cave.

“I do not know,” he replied. “I don’t know her well enough. Sigurd? What do you think?”

He shrugged, at first seeming determined to say nothing. Then, with a sigh he said, “She will keep her word. Rosa does not break promises. Or, at least she never has to me.”

“Ah,” said Lilia, “but she loves you.”

“Yes, she does. She did. I do not know now.”

“She does,” said Lilia, “I am naive, but I’ve have to be blind and a fool to not see how much she cares for you. She loves you. She will love you. Even in this.”

“Perhaps it would be best if she did not. I brought her to ruin. If I had not let you go that night, you would not be here now, stringing this fine dolt Sigurd along on his own horse. You would not be claiming the crown.”

“And if I had not come for the crown, you would be dead. No one would have it. The agreement would come to moot and naught, and war would boil up again. A terrible war. This is the best way. The only way.”

Again, a shrug. “But Rosa might have still had some chance at happiness, in time. Better than this.” He shifted uncomfortably in the saddle. “I do not know what I am going to say to her at all.”

“You could try the truth.”

“And watch her collapse into tears? Watch her lose all faith in me? Watch her realise the depth of my uselessness? The depth of her own misplaced trust in me?”

Lilia walked in silence then, and Sigurd didn’t seem inclined to break it.

Kveldulf glanced over his shoulder, looking first at one, then the other. Sigurd with his golden hair, and blue eyes, and a face so used to smiling. Lilia, sad, pale, Lilia. Still young. Strong and proud in her own shy way. Two human beings who, for all the world, should not have ended up as enemies, but did. After tonight, they would very likely never exchange another word. After some hours of tracking along the river path, Kveldulf led them away into the woods, and then overland, into the trackless forest. Another hour passed, and the woods grew lighter and thinner, more dominated by beech and alder than the gloomy frost-needled pines and old bare oaks.

“We are nearing Helg’s cottage,” said Kveldulf. “There is wisp of smoke ahead,” he pointed, “And it is nearly noon, too. Perhaps she’ll have something on the hearth?”

“Or baking,” said Lilia. “I have found that Helg makes a good loaf of bread. Full of grains and with such a thick crust.”

“I recall enjoying her ale.”

They both looked at Sigurd.

“I am hungry too. And thirsty. And I’ve been here before, remember? Maybe Helg has some wood that needs cutting, eh?” There wasn’t much humour in the joke. It came out flat and seemed more resigned than good-spirited.

But Lilia laughed softly all the same. Her laugh was brief, gentle and had a kindness in it. As her laughter faded, it felt to Kveldulf that something precious in the moment had been lost.

-oOo-

Helg came with them to the village green. So too did Gnissa, though he kept to the branches and insisted that he hoped merely that the bargain would be broken, so that there would be more slaughter. When Kveldulf chuckled at him, the raven hissed with offence and wouldn’t come down from the highest branches. Still, he followed along with them, all the same.

Below the Toren Vaunt the parties of the two folks of the Veld stood ready to bare witness to what may come. Armed thanes arrayed themselves behind Rosa and a small encampment they had set in the field. Their array of spears and gleaming shields shone in the fitful light, and Rosa herself stood dressed in the full regalia of a warrior queen. Pennants snapped at the end of lances, and oxblood flags billowed lazily on the wind. The heraldry of the Toren Vaunt was everywhere, a man killing a twisting worm, both of them tangled together, black on oxblood.

Of Alraun’s folk there were just as many, and they stood in their own beautiful ranks, wearing a wintry raiment of white and silver and blue. They raised no tents, nor pavilions. Presumably they needed none. Or could simply conjure up such things, if required. Alraun still wore his crown of ice, but though his eyes were proud and cruel, he held himself rather rigidly. Perhaps he had sensed the death of the herald and already knew his claim was dashed?

When Sigurd broke free of the woods, nudging his mount’s flanks, to trot along the road, then over the stonebow bridge, Rosa’s followers gave a great cry of hurrahs and cheers. Many waved flags or brandished swords or axes. Some whooped, stamped and clapped.

But he did not ride fast and he carried no bundle under his arm. There was no easiness to his movement as he dismounted and then swept his cloak out of the way to kneel before her.

From a distance Kveldulf could only see the cheerers turn limp, and Rosa let her head fall forward. He listened as the cries dwindled and died.

“Now?” said Lilia.

“As good a time as any. Helg?”

“I can watch from here. Too much walking about already for my taste. My old legs are not what they were, and what they are is weary. I’ll just sit down here on a log and light myself a pipe.”

The air was crisp for a winter evening. Clouds scudded in papery, torn fragments over the sky, and the intermittent sun shot the patches of snow with a lukewarm glow. At first, no one other than Sigurd noticed the two small figures walking out of the woods.

There was bickering already. Alraun was demanding something of Rosa, and she was refusing. Men were yelling at the faer creatures, and those strange spirits now shook their fists and weapons, and spat back insults. Only Sigurd stood and watched the two lone figures draw nearer. When they were crossing the bridge he leaned forward and gently touched Rosa on the shoulder.

Within moments all was silent.

Kveldulf allowed Lilia a few extra paces on him. He had his right hand lounging on the hilt of his knife of iron. With narrowed eyes he scanned the two throngs for any sign of mischief. Any sign that the oath would be broken.

When they were close enough to speak, Rosa titled her head and affected a somewhat haughty expression. Her eyes glittered. “My sister?” she said, “so your lover has failed you, and you come a walking out of the woods like a wild mongrel bitch, trailing… and what is this?” Her face paled just a fraction. Her voice wavered for just a moment. “Witch-hunter. I thought you were dead. And so, now you too betray me?”

“Rosa. Dear sister, well met. I hope you are well. Are you?” Lilia laboured a smile.

“Yes, dear sister. I am very well.”

“I am no lover of Alraun’s. Not now. Nor evermore.”

Alraun’s implacable face wore a curious sneering smile, but he nodded all the same. “This is true. This one has forsaken me. I will have nothing to do with her. Let her go back to the woods and starve, or freeze, or sleep with dogs, for all I care.”

Rosa’s expression was for a moment confused, “But then why all this?” She shook her head. “You said that you made your war for her sake.”

“For her sake, yes. For no mortal has ever denied me, and I must be revenged upon that she loves, for such an insult.”

Rosa laughed a bitter, ironic laugh before saying, “Oh, what a fool am I? But it matters not. You, dear Sister, matter not. Things have come to pass as they have come to pass. Perhaps you should do as the Alder King suggests and get from all our sights. Go away. Starve. Sleep with dogs. I do not care. I want you not in my household.” A cruel smile. “Not now. Nor evermore.”

“No sister. My household.”

Lilia undid the cord of a satchel that hung at her waist and from it drew an old-fashioned, rust-mottled helm. She said not a word as she lifted it and put it on her head, but Kveldulf said, “whomseover wears the crown of Feold int he village green, shall also rule the Veld.”

Rosa’s face was a mask of beautiful spite. “The bargain was never meant for you. Give that to me at once, or I’ll have you cut down.”

“Whomsoever,” and Alraun threw his head back and laughed his own a silvery peel of ironic mirth. “Whomsoever, does mean the likes of her. It means the likes of whomsoever. Oh, how delicious. How wonderful. Lilia, my dear, I never meant a word of what I said. Let us be happy, as we were. Let us rule the Veld together. This must all have been terrible for you, but now we can be together again, happy forever.”

A stir of uneasy voices arose in the crowd.

“Sister,” said Rosa, “you would not dare…”

“Be silent. The both of you. Alraun, Rosa. All of you mumblers and whisperers, too”

Alraun was still chuckling under his breath. She glared at him. “All of you, I command it.” She took a deep breath. “I wear the crown of Feold, and Feold gave it to me. Eldest in our lineage, the first Eorl of Vaunt chose me for his living heir. Know that. I am now the ruler of the Veld. Does any here dispute this?”

“How do we even know, this rusted obscenity is Feold’s crown, let alone that of our cherished forefather?”

“It is.” All eyes turned to Sigurd. “I was there. I failed you, but this is true. They hold the crown of Feold.”

Rosa was incredulous. “Sigurd? How could you say this? Why?”

“It is the truth, Rosa. That is the crown of Feold, and the dead shade chose to give it to Lilia. I would have been dead in that tomb, but Lilia and Kveldulf saved me. I will not lie in this. I cannot.”

“Then you murder me with your words. You think that little whore will let me live?”

“You will live, sister. But you have until dawn tomorrow to gather all that you can load onto a good horse. Gold. Jewels. Strongboxes if you like. I care not. On tomorrow’s dawn, you are banished from the Veld for nine years. That is the traditional punishment. It will be enough for me. You may not dwell in my Eorldom, nor may you have any recourse to my good laws. Any person may commit crime or harm against you within the Eorldom of Veld, and it will be neither crime nor harm in the eyes of my law. You are thus outlawed. This I command. Nine years, Rosa. If in nine years you think you may be able to live peacefully with me, under my rule, then you may return. And I will welcome my only sister home with open arms, and tears. For I think I shall miss her, though she does not know it.”

Rosa’s curved lips hung open, her beautiful eyes stared unblinking, unthinking. “I… I cannot believe this. Sigurd? Will you forsake me too.” There was a tear crawling down her cheek now, and her voice was choking.

“I will not forsake you. Rosa, let us leave this place together. Let us leave behind the place that forbade us be married. Let us be happy. Elsewhere. Anywhere.”

She hung her head and put her hand in his. But without replying she slid into his arms, and began sobbing. What words she said were stifled beneath tears.

Now Alraun was grinning, horribly, greedily.

“As for you,” Lilia turned to him. “Do not think you will escape lightly. You are bound by your word. I now rule you?”

“Gladly, my love. Rule me and I shall be your devoted servant. Lead us to your great hall, and announce for all the world to hear: Lilia and Alraun rule the Veld.”

“No, Alraun.” Lilia’s head was shaking now, her eyes were sad. “You misunderstand me. I will not permit glamour in my realm. Strip yourself of your enchantments, lay aside your illusions, and shed all your powers. This I command.”

“But, my queen, my love, my heart’s desire? That would make me into nothing more than a small and wild thing. A spright unfit to be your husband, your king…”

“This I command.”

His mouth was a curve of horror. He seemed unable to speak a word as flakes of light peeled away from him. Mists like shimmering silks unfurled and dissolved and vanished. With each layer of charm he shrunk and became ganglier, uglier, less human.

When all the magic was gone, Lilia stood over him.

“This? This is all you ever were? An troublesome little spright, with too-long limbs, and claws, and needle teeth?”

The scraggly little creature that had been Alraun snarled at her.

“Get from my sight.” She waved a hand at the faer host, which now crowded back, hushed, with fearful silver eyes. “All of you. Get from my sight, and never ever again darken the lands of my people. Never harm a mortal, never mislead or beguile a traveller, never do anything but live very far away from me.” They drifted away then, fading into the woods.

Turning back to the gathered thanes and spearmen, Lilia folded her arms, and said in a quieter voice, “Lies have been told of me. I am no witch. I am no murderess. But, I am now the Lady of Veld, and I will be as kind and fair and just a ruler as I can be. If you have ever done anything against me, know this now. You are forgiven. I want no revenge. I seek none.”

There was no great roar of approval. There was not even a murmur. Several of the folk whispered hurriedly to one another. But there was one who stepped forward.

Dressed in a drab red-brown dress, she had been hidden towards the back of the fighters. Ermengarde shot a sad glance at Rosa and Sigurd with his arm around her. Walking up to Lilia, she extended an open palm and smiled.

“Erma,” said Lilia.

Lilia laid her hand in hers, and Ermengarde leaned forward, and gave her cheek a light kiss. “Welcome home, niece. We seem to have come here by the long road around, but, I think things will be good. I think we can find a way to make this work.”

“Thank you.”

It was small show of trust, just a little seed of faith, but it was enough. Kveldulf could see it in eyes of the gathered crowd. There was some hope there now, faint but real.

“Let’s get you up to the Toren Vaunt. Your rooms are just as you left them.”

They filed away, over the frostbitten, foot-trodden village green, to Finold’s gate, and then to the Toren above. But Kveldulf waited behind, watching. He looked over his shoulder once, trying to spot Helg and Gnissa, but they both seemed to have vanished too. Gone back home, I supposed, now that the show was over.

As the last of the humble pages went by, Kveldulf looked back at the only two people left on the green. Sigurd held Rosa close and she sobbed heavily against him. She couldn’t have seen what Kveldulf saw then. Sigurd turned a glance to Kveldulf. Would she have even understood why her lover let a sad smile spread on his face?

Kveldulf smiled back. Good luck, thought Kveldulf, and he too tramped over the grass, and followed the rest of the host.

-oOo-

At the edge of the wood the ground arose to a small embankment. It provided a good view over the ploughed fields, the river, the village, and the crag with its brooding fortress and grey spires. Helg had moved from her log, where she had sat to watch the exchange, to this lip of earth, finding a place to sit under the shadows of the trees. She shifted her rump against rough wood of the thick stump she sat on. Woodchips still lay scattered in the snow about her feet and the air was pleasantly resinous.

She sipped at the end of her pipe, letting the smoke seep out languidly between her lips, watching it curl. Now the smoke was the minarets of a fabled city. Now the flowing hair of a goddess. Now the souls of the dead rising to the sky and sun.

Insubstantial things flitted about her. White shadows skulking back to their woods.

“Good evening,” said Helg as one wraithlike creature, scrawnier than the rest, crept closer. “I was wondering when you’d make your way back.”

It hissed at her, then said in a weak, high voice, “Beware of me, for I am the king of the Faer Folk. I am the Alder King. I am power and dreams made real.”

“Sure. Of course you are.” Her chapped lips pulled into a smile. “Or were. Do you remember me, Alraun? Do you remember putting this out with your fingernails?” She laid a tip of an index finger to the welt of scar tissue under her missing right eye. “Do you?”

“Leave me be, leave me be. I am the master of the wilds. The king of all the shadowy realms and secret things.”

“Yes, deary. Seems to me you are already forgetting yourself. I can almost see right through you. Soon you’ll be no more than a shadow. Here though, I’ve a gift for you. It will keep you as you are now. Stop any more of the magic leaking out.” Fussing about in a purse, which hung from leather cords over one shoulder, she drew out a small glassy, blue-glazed jug, with a wide cork for a stopper. Angular symbols, the colour of rust, were marked about the belly of the jug. Teasing out the cork, she held the bottle forward. “Here, have a looksy.”

Peering forward the scraggy creature hooked thin fingers over the lip of the jug and sniffed. “Musty. What is it?”

At that moment Helg’s one eye rolled back and she stared at the sky. Her lips fell lank, and spittle formed at the corners of her mouth. A wetness gathered in her eye, and the other hollow socket twitched. She spoke a single name of power and the air shook with the force of it. As the echo of power rolled away down to the village below, she slapped the stopper back into the jug’s mouth.

From deep within the jug came a clamour of scratching and mewing.

“No, no, deary. You’ll not be getting out that way. Not at all. There will be no more harvesting of power. No more souls of the newborn for you. You will not be building yourself back up into a thing of power. Ho hum. Just a nice shelf above my fireplace. Nice and warm, deary.”

Popping the jug back in her purse she eased herself up, using her hands for support, tottered just once, she began to amble homewards, singing a nonsense song as she went, “La de da, ho de hum, la dum de da,” and so on. Soon enough, the ground was a foot deep with snow, and the trees were a ceiling of lacy shadows, dripping, thawing. “Dear me,” she said, “I am not so young as I once was. All these aches and pains. You know Alraun, there was a time when I would spring about like a doe. And all the men in the village fancied me. And I was so very, very happy. That was before we met of course, so, no, you could not know anything of that.”

The jug shook and whined.

“And then there was what’s-‘s-name. Gannuld? He was a lovely sight to see. So handsome. Oh my heart used to go all fluttering when he called. Course, he’s been dead of the plague a long time now. Never did call on me after you took the eye out of my face. Once, I called on him, but he was just so afraid. I couldn’t bear to talk to him after that. It made me sad.”

The jug trembled and moaned.

“I’m not boring you am I? Well you know. Old folks do go on and on about the good old days. On and on.”

“How about that pork? Promises, promises.”

Helg looked up and blinked her watery eye. “What do you know, Alraun? Here, we’ve a friend asking to come over to tea.” Then speaking up into the trees, “I suppose you may have earned some keep.”

Gnissa flapped down from the canopy, and with the flurry of black wings he alit on a low branch. He shook a few droplets of water from his wings. Fixing his head sideways, he set a gold-flecked eye on her, he said, “Earned my keep? With me about you’ll never be bored again. I know fifteen songs, six ditties, and eight chanties, and that is just my winter repertoire.”

“Not all about the eating habits of ravens, I hope?”

Gnissa ruffled his feathers. “Well, some are. Perhaps a few. Most, actually. Pretty much all of them, truth be told. One is a love story, about a beautiful glossy feathered raven and her mate. You’d like it.”

“You know,” said Helg with a smile, “I guess I could use the company. Snivel-in-the-pot just isn’t going to be much of a talker, I expect.”

And a small, enraged mewling pipping up from the stopped glass jar, fading away into a barely audible whimper.

CHAPTER THE TWENTY-NINETH

It was the deep of winter. The flurries were heavier now and persisted longer. The sky never ceased being a petulant grey.

It was two weeks since Rosa and Sigurd piled furred cloaks on their shoulders and rode resolutely, silently out onto the high road. The memory of the brief rule of Rosa, though not much diminished was already fading about the edges. The people of the Veld were warmer with Lilia now, too. Though if it were merely their duty to smile, or a growing understanding that she had been lied about and maligned, she did not know. Time would let her heal matters. Give it time.

“Still spending your days here?”

Lilia looked about, not in fright, but sharply all the same. She was bathed in the grey light of a winter noon, and the wind stirred the loose strands of her hair. Strewn about her feet lay the suggestions of a slumbering garden: old pots, a broken trowel, heaps of frozen manure. Here and there, the walls were still greened by ribbons of moss but there was a shimmer of frost lacing them too, and icicles clung anywhere one thing overhung another.

“Kveldulf.” Lilia’s expression wavered from one of wandering reflections to more serious thoughts. “Yes. But seldom.” She considered her own words. “And only to be alone. To have time to think. I don’t want to remove myself too much. That was a part of my mistake in the first place.”

“I’d have thought you’d be done entirely with hiding away in corners.” Though he did not mean it to be harsh, his voice lacked humour, and he found himself sounding cold rather than joking.

When she answered, it was only after staring at him for some few moments with her forehead drawn in thought. “A sparrow can no sooner change the dun of its feathers than I can change who I am.” A snowflake landed on one cheek and she brushed it away with a smile. “So what does bring you out in the cold in search of me? I think I remember asking you something like that once before. When we first met.”

“I remember. Yesterday I had word from one of your hunters. He found a carcass, torn apart and dragged deep into the woods.”

“Another sheep or goat?”

“No. An ox this time. There were clear gouges in the snow, so he says, and deep paw prints.”

“There are bears in the woods. Father killed one when I was a girl and the pelt is still on the floor of Rosa’s old room.”

“Bears sleep over winter. And a whole pack of wolves couldn’t drag off an ox.” Kveldulf looked up at the willow branches drifting on the air. “There were other things. Strange sounds the man could not explain, and markings on the ground, and cut into the trees. He was shaking and pale as a ghost when I spoke with him. So I asked Gnissa to follow the tracks this morning. He has been spying for me.”

Lilia looked at him with a curious gaze.

“The greedy little raven is just holding up his end of a bargain we made.”

“Oh,” said Lilia. “And?”

“He found her.”

Her voice lowered, but had a playful touch to it as she said, “So you’ll be off to trudge through the snow?” There had been a distinct change in Lilia’s tone over the last two weeks. She no longer shied or withdrew from people. She smiled more often. She joked. And it was a sly, knowing sort of smile that suggested there might be more changes to come.

“Yes. I think things here are settled. And you are doing well. Happier now.” A moment after saying this, he wondered if he was being too familiar, shifted uncomfortably, and said, “In your rule, I mean. I was worried that some of the folk of the Veld might make trouble for you, but I don’t think that is likely. Not now. It’s safe enough for me to take myself away.”

“Thank you.” She walked slowly about the thick trunk of the willow touching it lightly with her fingers as she did. I think I know what you mean. Thank you.” She moved as if she were marching lazily through cobwebs. Peeking around the willow, an expression of curiosity lit her eyes, “so will you go and hunt your she-wolf now?”

“I will. Though, for what I have in mind I must see Helg first. Pick up a few things from her. I’ve been in contact over the last few days.” He looked up. The sky was an inter-bleeding of greys and black.

Her eyes darted to his belt. “And that will not be sufficient?” He had four knives now, not three. The fourth knife had been added three days after Lilia was crowned. The blacksmith had to grind the bone fragment into a fine edge for hours–he destroyed four whetstones doing it–and even then he had to burn it with forge-fire to scour away some of the excess bone. But in the end, he was able to make the piece of bone into a dagger. The Freer had not been happy about giving up his relic, but he had grudgingly accepted the helm of Feold to put on display in the shrine instead–after some protracted squabbles, of course.

Kveldulf glanced down at the bone dagger. “This will deal the last blow, I think. But I need to get close enough, and I worry she will vanish as soon as she scents me. I’ve been stopping by Helg’s cottage now and again. She has been brewing up something for me. Here’s hoping it works.”

“Her tea no doubt.” Coming out from behind the tree she grinned, “or the herb brandy. Nice stuff, that.”

“Have you any word of your sister?”

Leaning against the tree and folding her arms she let the wind play with her hair, let strands of it float about in front of her eyes. “Maybe you can get me some. A bottle, if Helg can spare it. I did like her brandy. Sweet, but with a rough edge.” She turned to look at Kveldulf seemingly caught up in a daydream then whispered suddenly, “Ah yes, my sister. I have been trying to forget. I do not suppose I shall ever see her again.”

If you are lucky, is what Kveldulf almost said. Instead he nodded and sucked cold air in through his nose, a deep draught that he exhaled out in a long moment of thought. “Perhaps she will return. You gave her nine years to mend her heart. Time heals wounds. All wounds. So I am told.”

“So you are told. So I am told. There are some wounds that go too deep for time. What heals those?”

“An end, I suppose,” and Kveldulf thought about this for a moment. “Death.”

“Death. How cheery you are. Death? An end to earthly woe. Though, I hope Rosa and Sigurd… I hope they are able to find a happier way to heal their wounds. I hope that I may meet my sister again before we do grow old and die. I hope our wounds do not go too deep for healing. That is all the thought I can spare for my sister without having to stop myself breaking into tears. I have always found it too easy to waste hours in self-pity. It is a habit I mean to break. If I dwell on her too much, I will be right back there again.”

“Then hope for them, and be ready to welcome them back, if they return and Rosa is mended. And if they should disappoint you…” Kveldulf made to add something to this. Lilia looked at him expectantly. There had been rumours. Had Lilia heard them? Had anyone told her? It didn’t matter. A rumour, that was all.

“Yes?”

“Nothing. I want to see those markings in the woods. I will be gone tonight. A few days, perhaps.”

“Goodbye, Kveldulf. Have I thanked you?”

“You have. A number of times,” he smiled, “but do not shrug me off so quickly. I will be back no doubt, hungry and cold from the hunt.”

She looked at him and her eyes met his and searched. “No,” she said, “if you have found what you are hunting you’ll not be back.”

He was going to dispute that. No, of course he would return, if only to say goodbye, and wait out the winter. He was about to say so, but decided that it wasn’t worth getting indignant.

“Goodbye, Kveldulf. And thank you.” She gave a soft laugh, “another time. I don’t think you have known what you have meant to me.”

He nodded, and turned to go, then paused. “Lilia?”

“Yes.”

“You should not mistake me for that.”

“What do you mean?”

“I am not that thing in your head. Whatever it is, I am not that.” He looked at her sadly. “There is no way I could ever be that.”

She was quiet for a time, and said in the end only, “I know.”

At the door to the garden he stopped, kicked some snow and sludge from his feet, and cast a glance over his shoulder. Lilia was watching him. The angle at which the sunlight struck her emblazoned the folds of her dress and her hair with white fire. She smiled and waved at him.

He nodded to her, turned and left.

-oOo-

Helg’s cottage was stuffy from being shut tight against the cold for days on end. Rich, flavoursome smells mingled with subtler, acrid scents, and the throat-itching hearth smoke. Although Helg was home, Gnissa was absent. He was not on his perch, a favourite rafter where could sit, sometimes with one eye open, watchful, although more typically, he simply slept away the fire-warmed drowsy hours.

It took a moment for Helg to pour a greasy black soup into a waterskin, cork it up and then grease the seal to keep it from leaking. “Just finished it this morning. Not sure how well it’ll work, or if it’ll work at all, but far as I can tell everything that Snoro put in his little potion, is in this. The amounts and quantities?” A shrug. “That I cannot say more than, well, I put as best a guess into it as I could.” Handing the waterskin to Kveldulf she patted him on the arm and said. “It took me a while to nut out all the smells, you know. A dash of wormwood. A taste of vetch. A smidgen of monkshood. I hope I’ve got it right, but… well, you know. Maybe. Maybe not.”

“It will do.” He took the waterskin as if it held the blood of a saint. With a protective care he tucked it away in his satchel. “And my thanks.”

“Thank me not. Just come back to tell the tale. And, good luck. Don’t want to imagine what you’ve got in mind.” She waved a hand at him, “probably some silly fool of an idea,” and she sat down on one of her short, worn stools. “Me, I think I’m going to take up a few more hobbies in my old age. Nice safe hobbies. Something harmless and quiet that doesn’t attract odd sorts like you. Here, do you need a wool jerkin? I think I’d enjoy doing a bit more knitting. Gnissa suggested it.”

“No, thank you.”

“Hmmm.” Her small shoulders heaved with a round shrug, “Shut the door behind you, when you go.”

The door creaked slightly and a shower of snow from the thatch above shook loose, sprinkling Kveldulf’s face, and shoulders as it closed. A fur-trimmed hood drawn tightly forward and a scarf about the face made the cold a little more bearable. Jogging his shoulders and rubbing his arms to work some warmth into them, Kveldulf looked up into the trees. In the nearest oak a black shape huddled.

“Well? Time to make good on our bargain. I found you a nice, warm house. Now if you’ll lead the way?”

“Reduced to a common guide for a filthy, hairy human.” Gnissa ruffled his feathers. “If my poor mother and father saw me now.”

Kveldulf smiled without replying, and set off into the woods. Gnissa swooped ahead, a silent black shadow among the trees.

The world had turned to white. Hazy mist lazed through the hollows and left feathers of ice where it touched Kveldulf’s skin and clothing. The crunch of snow beneath his feet became a constant rhythm. H