"There is food in Gosli," I told those who stood before me, men and women who led packs of fighters and who had answered the Greenmaster's call. As I had been taught to long ago, I watched their faces and posture, noticing once more the marks of long winter famines and regular hunger. "Cows rich with fat, fields of grains, vast orchards, ponds of fish. Fine weapons, iron and steel, and smiths to create and repair them at need. Gold, silver, platinum…" I smiled the sharp smile of the Wild folk. "And if you help me gain my throne back, I will give you all you can hold and more. I have been promised it by a Dreamer, and I can promise you this."
The Wild folk had come from the north and the south, some told of the invasion by the Greenfolk, others simply drawn to battle like a moth to flame. Most would never have gone to the Tamelands on their own, being wary of crossing Those Damn Places and the mountains beyond. Others were originally Tame, and would not, or could not, return. They slept at the Greening while they amassed, sleeping wherever they could find the space—bedrooms, bathing rooms, the great common room, the stables, even the grass outside—they had dominated the area for an afternoon's leisurely walk in any direction but west. And still more came…
Greenfolk came too, sent from those Greenings nearest the Goslian border. Distinct in their green-lined coats and tattooed forearms, they tended to stay with their kin, looking oddly professional compared to the others. Not all were as standoff-ish as the Greenmasters; indeed, many seemed quite pleased by the chance to visit the Tamelands. But they were led by older men and women, aged and wary and quiet, who would only speak on rare occasion. If not for them, I thought, they would have integrated themselves smoothly into the group.
We had traveled for a five days across the Damnably Cold and Dry Place, until those who rode with me muttered about the cold, present even at the beginning of summer, and the haunting wind that never fully died. The Wilds were far from certain, they complained, but at least they were mild in the summer.
"Think about it. You can turn back now, return to your wandering. Or you can continue on with me for a day more and see the Tamelands. Can you imagine passing the summer with more than just lukewarm water to quench your thirst, or winter without wondering how many days you will go without food?"
There was a moment of near-silence, the wind refusing to cooperate for the sake of mere drama, before one of the Greenfolk asked, "Only a day more?"
"Only one," I assured them.
She nodded briskly. "Then we'll continue for that long. After that, Tamen, you're on your own."
As the Wild folk began to ride once more, Captain Res came up to me, frowning. Though he said nothing until those who remained nearby were Goslians, I was surprised by how flat his tone was when he said, "We should have waited another week."
"Why? We have more than enough people to take on the border guard, and the Westercross Greenmaster knows the route we're taking."
"It would have been warmer in a week," he muttered, rubbing his wrist absently. "They're only here for the novelty, Tamen. You're only lucky it doesn't rain here, or else they'd likely have deserted the second a cloud drifted overhead. There's nothing to keep them with you, Tamen, and you should have realized that by now. No sense in risking their leaving before you can even take one town."
Looking down at the pommel of my saddle, I considered not what Res had said, but why he'd chosen to say so now. Jealousy? No—I had promised him his position back, and perhaps even a promotion if an opening were available. What had I promised the Wild folk that he could want? And I had not forsaken his advice for that of the Greenfolk, though perhaps that would have made them love me better. Nerves, then, now that we were finally returning to Gosli.
"We are a day away from Gosli's border," I said mildly. "We've ridden the distance before, and you know we'll arrive by midday tomorrow at the latest. When we get there, they will remain. Most of them want food and security, and they'll get far more of that in Gosli than they could in the Wilds without Taming it. Once we meet the Lone Guard, the Greenfolk will stay—they have to fight the Lone Guard. They always have." I smiled at him. "There's no reason to worry about desertions, Res. Anybody who is willing to leave now will likely become a liability when we're in Gosli."
"Then I hope the Lone Guard arrive soon," Res replied softly. "Eskide of the Greenfolk is getting impatient, and most of those among us are kin and friend to her. Where she leads, they will follow."
"We'll keep Eskide entertained, then."
As the sun began to set, we approached one of the rare dry oasises that hid in the Damnably Cold and Dry Place. This was smaller than most, even for this windy place, simply three twisted and stunted trees whose leaves were prematurely red around the edges. While we set up fire pits and, for those who had them, tents, a woman in a long russet coat pulled herself up into the branches of the tree nearest me. She smiled broadly when I looked up at her and gave a little wave. Her fingers were ringed with what looked to be slices of the tip of a krakadern's horn.
"This is a bit of good luck for you," she said as she patted the rough bark almost affectionately.
"It's a velch, the original diranallae. Fiacra's Sister was the first to find one."
Oh, wonderful. Even if I hadn't seen the eagerness in her posture or the admiration in her voice, the fact that Fiacra's Sister and the Marquis were the Greenfolk's idols would have told me that a story was coming. With Res's words fresh in my mind, though, I attempted to look interested instead of sighing or changing the topic.
"It was long ago, when the Wilds were no longer young, and the Tamelands were as new the leaves on this tree, that Fiacra's Sister had left her people in order to find aid against the Lone Guard. She had walked for a long time, over the tallgrass prairies that were her home and through the floodplains that would nurture great nations, until she finally came to the first hills she had ever seen. As she was weary, and tired, she headed for a tree in the hopes of finding a suitable place to sleep.
"Just she reached the tree, however, a pack of diranelle set upon her. One of them bit her hand when she tried to shove its muzzle away, like so, and that is why Fiacra's Sister only had three fingers on her right hand. And then she pulled herself into the lowest branches of the tree with her other hand, though she knew she would be unable to climb quickly with only one hand. Yet the diranelle would not touch her when she stood on the branch, and did not attempt to knock her down when she climbed further up.
"Fiacra came to her then, they say, and told her to break off a twig." She demonstrated, and then nicked her finger with her short knife. "She put the sap that came out onto her wound, and the bleeding first slowed, then stopped when she did the same with another twig." Sure enough, the Greenfolk's finger was no longer bleeding, but it was far less impressive than having two fingers bitten off. I eyed the tree dubiously. It didn't seem likely to drive the diranelle away, either. Then again, the stories of Fiacra's Sister were so old that the original truth was lost.
"There would likely be velch trees all over the world if it weren't for the fact that they're near impossible to grow. They're only ever found in places like this, and those are few and far between. Still, a trio of velch trees is a good sign, and you led us to them. The Greenfolk will remember that."
She broke off a twig and jumped down, and the last I saw of her was her tying it to her necklace of bear claws and krakadern horn as she walked off to find her kin. I stared after her for a long moment, feeling uneasy, before I finally remembered where I had seen her before. She'd led the largest group of Greenfolk to Westercross, nearly a hundred, her russet coat flapping in the wind as she dismounted to embrace her Greenmaster uncle.
I helped Res finish setting up the large tent we had brought from Gosli, fully intending to spend the rest of the night in it. Cool enough during the summer days, the wind of the Damnably Cold and Dry Place had bordered on icy these past few nights. The smoke hole in the top of the tent permitted a fire and the warmth it would give off, not to mention a warm meal. But once I had finished eating and had laid my blanket down, I heard a furious scream and the clash of metal on metal. I grabbed a torch, stuck the end into the fire and rushed outside. I was not alone—dozens of Wild folk were flocking to the trees where the Greenfolk had settled down to sleep, and it took some shoving to get through to the centre of the crowd.
Six people stood calmly, though Eskide's kin had swords drawn and ready, simply looking about curiously. Their clothing looked to have been scavenged from anyone who'd crossed over from the Tamelands, the edges visibly past ragged even in the flickering firelight. Yet the woman who appeared to lead them met my gaze proudly, forcing me to look down, where I noted the rapiers they carried. Far better quality than many Wild folk would ever seen, I knew, and wondered where they had gotten the blades from. A trailwalker? Or had they braved the Tamelands?
"I am Halest," the woman announced, "and I have come to join this Tameland prince in his quest to reclaim his home. I bring my sisters with me."
"We have no need of your kind," Eskide snapped. "Go back to your mistress."
Halest bared her teeth in an expression that no one could mistake for a smile. "She was our sister, not our mistress," she snarled, "and now she is no more. Not that you would care, Greenfolk; if your kind had had their way, she would have been dead many years ago. We have come to join the Tameland prince—let him decide if we are worthy to come along."
I made my way to Eskide's side. "Is there any reason why she should not come to Gosli?"
"She served a Swan Sister. She and her kind have killed many over the years, for no better reason than to serve a petty monster, and her kind will kill many more. Killing these six would serve the Wilds best." Her pale eyes stared into mine. "Well, prince? Is that reason enough?"
I considered what she had said. I considered what Res had said. And then I considered Halest.
"If we kill them," I said slowly, "we risk angering anyone else who has served a Swan Sister, or any Swan Sister we might encounter; if we refuse to let them join us, they might choose to work with the Lone Guard. If we take them with us, though, they will be obligated to fight against the Lone Guard, who would actively seek out your kin."
Lips pursed, Eskide nodded shortly. "Take them, then. Any sword against the Guard is one that I'll accept alongside me. But if any of them harm my kin, I will kill them myself and you, prince, will have to retake Gosli without the Greenfolk." And with that she turned on her heel and set off to where I assumed her fire was, taking a great many of the Greenfolk with her.
When I strode up to Halest she was smiling sharply. "You are the Tameland prince?"
"I am. You are welcome to join us, so long as you do not harm any who are here."
"We will not." She touched her the ring and little fingers of her right hand to her collarbone in what had to be a salute of some sort, albeit a queer one, then took the nearest of her sisters by her elbow. "We are pleased to have caught up to you, prince. My sisters and I have long wished to see these Tamelands." Then she too left.
"That was not well done," Res noted that morning as we ate a breakfast of cold hare. "You need to keep Eskide happy, not the servants of a deceased Swan Sister."
"I will do whatever I need to reclaim my throne," I said coldly. "Eskide will remain with us, as will Halest's sisters. If they were such a danger that the Greenfolk never lead a march against them, then they will be useful against Miskavel's men."
I finished my meal in silence, and did not speak again until we had come to the foothills that divided Gosli from the Wilds. To the south they grew tall enough to pierce through the clouds, or so my tutors had taught me long ago, but even here they were enough to keep any halfhearted party from crossing. Yet it was not difficult to find the narrow canyon that wound its way through the hills, without any leaves or branches to obscure it like on the Stancorrie side. The width of the passageway was deterrent enough, for only two could ride abreast, making it easy for those who guarded the entrance to hold off a large party until Goslian reinforcements arrived.
"We will go first," Halest informed me. Eskide looked about to protest, but the Swan Sister's servant cut her off. "You do not believe that we will fight for you. Let us go first and prove ourselves."
I waited by the entrance to the canyon, intending to see at least twenty Wild folk through before crossing over, but I rested my hand on Halest's shoulder before she set off.
"Eskide calls you the Swan Sister's servant. What did you call yourselves, back when you served?"
"She called us her gefiedres." Her lips twitched in a slight smile. "Our Sister said it meant feathers once, back when Tyhrne was green. It was a true enough name—she needed us to fly, though none of us could fly on our own. We still are gefiedres, just lacking a wing."
I stared at her back as she rode down the passageway, incredulous. Feathers? Hardly a name to inspire terror in the hearts of children, much less any adult. Then my stomach tensed, and I was distracted from that line of thought. What did Halest's title matter? I would soon be in Gosli once more, and by the end of the year I would be the king. I watched impatiently as the Wild folk approached the foothills tentatively, some of them having never seen such large hills before, and abandoned all pretense of patience after the tenth had headed in warily. I rode down the narrow passage, wishing the two before me would hurry their pace. I couldn't see Halest's sisters, or even Captain Res, who had gone after them to ensure that they did not set up an ambush. What were they doing? Had they met any Goslians? Were the Lone Guard there already?
I glanced down and realized that I was clutching the reins so tightly that my knuckles were white. Taking a deep breath, I forced myself to relax. I would get there. That was all that mattered.
But would it hurt the two Greenfolk who rode before me to ride just a bit faster?
Eventually we came to Stancorrie, and I saw what the gefiedre had done in the brief amount of time their lead had given them. Four men wearing the sun-and-hazel crest of the throne had been bound at wrist and ankle, though they didn't appear to have been harmed. Halest smirked at me—no, not at me; Eskide had just emerged from the canyon and was gazing around her with disdain.
"They were asleep," she told me gleefully, "and they did not wake until my sister had finished tying the last knots." She took her sister's hand in her own and gave it a quick squeeze as she spoke.
"It looks like the Wilds," Eskide noted.
"It is the border. I will take you to a town. But first…" I walked over to Halest's prisoners, attempting to look both reassuring and princely. "I am Prince Tamen Faerwald, your rightful ruler. Aid me and I will release you of the wrongs Miskavel has imposed upon you, no matter what they might be."
"You don't have to," Eskide added. "Especially if you're Lone Guard. Then we'll just kill you."
Shooting an angry glance would be undignified, I decided, so I simply ignored Eskide. But perhaps her words were not necessary, for already they were nodding slowly.
"The Lone Guard took away Damis," one finally said. "And his wife and daughter were forced into the Wilds before that. Who knows what will happen to any of us under Miskavel's reign?"
"I will drive the Lone Guard from Gosli," I promised, smiling. I would have done so in any case, but if they thought I did it for them alone it would give them all the more reason to aid me.
Soon I would be home, I thought as we rode to the town of Stancorrie, biting my lip to keep from crying. Soon.
He sits, watching the waves crash into the cliffs his tower perches upon precariously. Hissing and sighing in the wind, the trees behind him provide a comforting background of noise that does a little to relieve the aching loneliness that haunts him. A glance downwards reveals that nothing has changed since he has come to sit—dark shadows still wrap around the base of the tower, making no noise as they stalk about. He wonders, vaguely, what they are doing there, and then flinches as he always does when he thinks. Then, biting his lower lip, he does so anyways.
At first he cannot remember anything but sitting, staring, the shadows and the desperate loneliness, and a sharp twinge in his mind makes him bite his lip harder than he'd intended. But a time passes, and he remembers more—a mirror, climbing through a tower, a forest with a dusky dark sky, a plain with a vivid blue sky, a path leading from nowhere to nowhere. And before that—
He tries to remember, he really does, but he cannot. If there was ever anything before the path, it is gone now. So he stands and climbs downwards through the tower, glancing at the mirror as he passes through the upmost room. Only his reflection, gaunt and tired, looks back. He walks down the carpeted staircase and studies the table once more. A sword, a goblet, a ring, a bowl. And then he knows…
Slowly, as not to spill the contents of the bowl, he descends to the last chamber, and then out into the dawn light. At once, the shadows race towards him, at least a hundred, possibly more, yet they do not tread close enough that he might touch them. Without expression, he places the silver ring in the bottom of the goblet, and then pours the crimson liquid over it. The shadows watch, or at least he thinks they watch, and a susurration far louder and deeper than those of the trees rises up as he carefully unwraps the pale leather from the sword.
It is not a remarkable sword, of average length and what he assumes is the proper weight. No jewels set in its pommel, no ancient letters etched in the hilt, no gold or silver. He smiles, and the unfamiliar expression makes his cheeks ache. Then, as quickly as he can, he cuts his ring finger and sticks it into the cup. Perhaps the crimson colour changes slightly, perhaps it does not. No matter.
With his right hand, he lifts the goblet, ignoring the blood that trickles down his arm and stains his sleeve. Never taking his eyes off of the shadows, he takes a sip. Icy cold runs down his throat and into his stomach, the expected flavour of blood drowned under the taste of, not ice, but Ice. Then he passes the cup to the shadows, and they each take a sip before handing it to the next. As they drink they change, shifting from indistinct shapes to people who are not quite human, their eyes too pale, their hair the colour of sun on ice, their features so fine and sharp that they might be sculpted from ice.
The last to drink smiles at him, and he calmly notes the diamonds set into its teeth as he accepts the goblet. Reaching inside, he pulls out the ring, once silver but now brighter and oddly malleable. When he slides it over his wounded finger, the bleeding stops.
He returns the smile and sets off on the path once more, followed now not by shadows, but by these people of Ice. And this time the path does not lead from nowhere to nowhere, but from the tower to—somewhere. Tightening his grip on his black bead, he nods to the person of Ice who has caught up to him, the one with diamonds in its teeth. Soon, he will know where the somewhere is. Soon, he will remember what came before the plains.
Longer chapter than usual to apologize for the long delay. Another should be up by the 10th of January.