I scooped the last of the sweet corn from my bowl, but only because Leil forgot to eat if he didn't see anyone else doing the same. My usual hunger had deserted me, even when confronted by the plenty of the palace, replaced instead by an everpresent unease. Most of the Goslians seemed unaware of the tension that haunted me and mine, but the guards spent a great deal of time staring over the city gates and the walls of the palace. They knew something was coming, if not what. I did. All of the Lone Guard did.
Not Greenfolk like those we'd found in those towns and hamlets bordering the Wilds. They shared a superficial resemblance, perhaps even knowing of the Greenings and their beloved Marquis. But they were not Greenfolk, didn't awake the oath-curse so much as make it shift sleepily, didn't disturb the Lone Guard any more than their neighbours and concerned me far less than the Mad Prince. Greenish folk, Leil might have called them. Or not; Leil's behaviour was far from certain.
True Greenfolk were coming, fierce and Wild, as much our curse as we were theirs. From the east, of course: No whisper of true Greenfolk had come from the Tamelands in many years. They were coming, and the Lone Guard would fight as we did with no one else, for they dared step on land that was once Tyhrne.
As though sensing my unease, Leil sighed and put down his plate, rubbing the bowl of his wooden spoon as he stared out the window. I glanced to my left to see what it was that fascinated him, but as always I only saw the ordinary: Building tops and sunset sky, the silhouette of a small bird fluttering by. Then he turned to look at me, not with his usual expression of slight bemusement and sorrow, but one that alarmed me. Recognizing the expression didn't soothe me: It was the sharp one he gained when he said his most baffling statements, one that bordered on sanity. Yet I had never heard of anyone regaining their sanity on their own…
"I don't want to go to sleep," he said softly. "Can I stay with you?"
"Because," he said, frowning as though puzzling out every word before saying it, "there's someone there."
Ah. "Bad dreams?"
"Yes. No. I mean…" He waved a hand hopelessly. "It's not a dream," he finally said, voice slow and frustrated. "Every time I dream, I dream of the same place, and I see the same person. He's tall, taller than either of us, and he has antlers. And he is trying to kill me."
I stared at him.
He'd never mentioned this before, and I was uncertain if it were a good sign or not. If he were remembering more, and that it was a dream, perhaps he really was becoming sane once more. But he was the Mad Prince of Gosli—he could easily have awoken one night and seen one of the Lone Guard watching over him and, in his confusion, remembered it as part of a dream afterwards. The antlers, though, were inexplicable.
"I'm not mad." His fists were tightly clenched.
"Yes, you are. That doesn't mean you're wrong, though." There were stories passed down from those lost and returned, and of what they had seen and done. Reports of strange creatures were amongst those tales, but I couldn't remember anything about what they were supposed to do or how to drive them away. With a shrug, I stood. Improvisation worked as often as not with the Mad Prince. "Get your feathers," I told him.
Leil bounded up and took his box from the shelf. Over the weeks since I'd become responsible in part for the care of the Prince, he'd filled it with feathers collected during the many walks he seemed fixated on. Dumping the contents of the box onto the table, feathers of every colour drifted out; white from the swans sometimes roasted in the kitchens, red and blue from roosters, green and brown from mallards, yellow and orange from finches—any colour but black. Upon encountering a black feather, he would stop and stare at it forlornly before finally turning his back to it.
"What are you going to do?"
"There are many stories about people like you, so of course the Lone Guard knows how to deal with this sort of problem," I lied blithely. "We're going to make you some protection."
"How?" Despite his dubious tone of voice, he was picking out some of the larger feathers.
"Because they do."
Only Leil, I reflected as I prepared vague references to the role of feathers and winged creatures in old stories, would accept that as an answer.
"I think the Silver Queen used feathers," he observed.
Perhaps not, then. I tried to remember the tale of the Silver Queen, but so many variations existed that I wasn't sure which he knew.
"Feathers," I said simply, "are special. Ravenwings had his feather coat, the Lords Burnt had the feather-pines, the edask, and the Silver Queen used feathers when she went to find her consort. If you use them the right way, they'll keep you safe."
Leil picked one up and studied it, twirling it slowly. "Can I cut them?"
"You can't eat them."
"I know that," he snapped indignantly. "So what do we do with them?"
"Just leave them in the sun while its up, and them around you when the sun's down." There was, I felt sure, something more to what the Silver Queen had done, but as I doubted it would really make a difference either way, I didn't try to remember.
"Sun's setting. Probably won't work very well tonight." He turned his attention back to the feathers as a knock sounded on the door and a young girl entered.
"Guard Elsed, Guard Arlet needs to speak with you. She says it's very important." From her posture, I wasn't the only member of the Guard my aunt had sent her to find. I stood, closed my eyes and felt the thrumming pull in my veins. No false call here.
"Greenfolk," I said with a content sigh. "Took them long enough. Would you watch Prince Leil for me? This shouldn't take very long." And she looked like she could use a rest.
"Yes, Guard Elsed." She bowed without hesitation to Leil, who was contemplating the way the sunlight looked through the differently coloured feathers.
"Can I cut them?" he asked again.
"She can cut them for you."
As I left the room, I heard him absently ask if she had any cord with her. Poor messenger—hopefully she was familiar with the Silver Queen's riddle; little else would distract him.
My aunt, Guard Arlet, was not my aunt as the Goslians knew it—to them, she would have been my mother's cousin. Over my life, though, I'd been to a great many places, though I had yet to reach the rumoured Tameland on the other side of the Wilds, or the Ice, and had heard at least five different ways of naming my relation to Guard Arlet. In the end, I'd settled for calling her my aunt. It was simpler.
First and foremost, though, she led our band of the Guard.
"Greenfolk," she announced happily when I arrived, the tension of waiting dispersed. Though her quarters were small—tiny compared to Leil's—and plainly decorated, they still awed me, for it was one of the few private rooms in the palace with windows. A small fortune in glass allowed the sunset to cast long shadows in the room, and gleam off of the polished glass mirror. "By the Wilds, in some town called Stancorrie." She indicated the map spread out on her desk. "King-Regent Miskavel is letting us go first. We leave tomorrow."
I nodded; the Regent was a reasonable man, and understood the drive of our promise. "Would you like me to organize the others?"
"I've already told most of them. Actually, I wanted to talk to you about Avendurst."
Uneasy now, I sat and gazed at her map. It was a finer thing than the ragged parchment that the Lone Guard used, with cities picked out in fine black ink and roads patiently drawn, and if, perhaps, it wasn't completely accurate, it was far better than mine. To the east of the capital, near the Wilds, was a red marker; I assumed that was Stancorrie. I already knew where Avendurst was, yet checked the location of the green button reflexively, imagining my map at the same time.
"Avendurst isn't—wasn't Tyrhaine. It's no concern of ours unless King-Regent Miskavel wants us there."
"The almost-Greenfolk we collected are there. All imports of wine and grain that normally go to Avendurst and the surrounding, non-Tyrhain area have been cut off since S'raethi began selling her people again. There have already been bread riots, rumours of mass executions, and now there are reports of plays where Tamen returns to claim the Faerwald name and throne." She leaned forward, brushing back hair gone grey with age and worry, and said, "Avendurst won't fall to the Wildlings. Avendurst will desert. And the almost-Greenfolk are there."
"We didn't hurt them. They're probably better off in Avendurst."
Arlet smiled wryly. "Tamelanders—even those so close to being Greenfolk—are fond of their homes, Elsed. You should know that by now."
"Are you suggesting that we set up a trap? I don't think we have enough people for that…" I didn't even know how I would go about making a city the size of Avendurst into a trap in the first place. More often the Lone Guard were the ones evading the traps. With an experienced garrison to help, though, it might be possible…if they were willing to help. "Why did the King-Regent even close the S'raethi border? It's just slavery."
"He doesn't like slaves, though it didn't stop him from buying us."
"We're not slaves. We're just keeping to our oath."
"And what an oath it is." Silent for a moment, she stared out the window the gardens below. Wildwards, where the sky burnt orange like dragonfire.
"Aunt? Is something wrong?"
"No. Nothing at all. It's just…" She attempted to smile, and then shrugged. "Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to be a Tamelander. To succeed where Ebrelle of World's End failed. But unless we find a Tyrhaine—no, a ruler of Tyhrne, we'll be Wild for at least another handful of days."
At World's End, there was nothing but edask-pine, which required a Lord Burnt's touch to be able to move, and the crumbled remains of the tower Ebrelle had built. I had no desire to go there, either to visit once more or to live, even if it meant I would never have to follow the oath again.
"We could become Goslians," I offered lightly. "They could call us the Green Guard—keep the Greenfolk out of what used to be Tyhrne and be Tamelanders the rest of the time."
"We are the Guard." Standing, she donned her heavy coat, more suited to the Sea Wild's cool summers than Gosli's warmth. "We can be friends and lovers and even Lord Burnts on occasion, but we are, first and always, the Guard." She shook her head. "Go back to your princeling, nephew, and say your farewells. Tomorrow will come soon enough, and we'll be true to our oath one way or another."
"He's not my princeling," I retorted mildly.
"You should say goodbye all the same."
I would miss Gosli, I thought as I made the short walk back to Leil's quarters. It was a softer place, a greener place than the Wilds. Was this what had attracted Brannen Ravenwings to Tyhrne 'old and green'? Still, Ravenwings had never known anyone like Leil. I was uncertain how he would deal with the news of my leaving. Would he just ignore it? Be upset? Offer to come with us? The idea of Leil as one of the Guard made me smile—he would certainly baffle the Greenfolk.
There was a strange silence when I pushed open the door, knocking lightly to make sure Leil didn't panic at the sudden appearance of another person. I had half expected to hear him asking countless questions, or telling one of his rambling stories. Yet—
"Elsed, come here. Please." His voice was strained, bordering on panic; I hurried into the room where I had left him, wondering if the girl had been called away on some other duty.
Instead, I found Leil standing over her with a knife in his hand, arms shaking.
"Elsed, she attacked me," he whispered, voice cracking. "She tried to kill me. I didn't even do anything, she just…" Trailing off, he waved his empty left hand at her arms and legs, which he had bound with the curtains. "I didn't mean to hurt her badly, but she had a knife, and I didn't know what to do." He was all but wailing now, knife pointed at the ground, body shaking like an exhausted horse.
"Leil, look at me," I said as calmly as I could. Breathe in, I told myself. If you panic, he might snap.
He met my gaze with a queer expression that hit me like a punch to the gut. It was the stare of someone a hairsbreadth from sanity, someone who risked losing their third soul. But Leil was already mad… This was the sanest I'd seen him.
"I need help. Please."
Finally, I nodded. This was Leil. He might ramble, he might have been the Mad Prince of Gosli, but he was Leil nonetheless.
"Did she hurt you?"
Letting out a shaky sigh, Leil relaxed visibly. "A little. There's a cut here…"
I spoke in as soothing a voice as I could manage as I bound the small cut—really no more than a scratch—and tried not to wonder just why anyone would want to attack Leil. The answer was far too obvious to be ignored, though.