New snow fell and the moon was far west. The star filled the eastern clouds with light. Dim strips of shadow fell across the white forest floor. Byron struggled through the deep snow. At Old Fellow Rock he stopped to catch his breath.
“Should’ve taken the road,” he said, panting. “It’s too deep out here.”
He stood for a while eating snow, looking east above the trees.
“Keep going,” he said. He turned to set off again and as he did he heard a voice.
“Byron!” it said in a loud whisper. “Byron, is that you?”
“Sheg?” Byron whispered back. “What are you doing here?”
Footfalls crunched in the snow from the other side of the rock. Byron waited, peering into the dark, listening. Two figures approached, keeping to the shadows: a tall human form, Shegwin Reed, followed by the much smaller shape of a satyr, Jolik Burrow. Byron smiled. He threw open his arms.
“You’re coming with me!” he cried.
“Not so loud!” Shegwin whispered.
Byron frowned. “Aren’t you?”
“You must be out of your tree, Byron!” Jolik said. “Do you know what you’re doing?”
“Sure I do! It’s the Misrule Magic!”
“This is crazy,” Jolik said with a glance toward the star. “Ravinath will never let you go.”
“And Baruwan,” Shegwin added, “with that awful net.”
“They say Ravinath coaxed him in from the wild,” Jolik said. “No even knows where he came from.”
Shegwin shook his head. “Byron, you’ll never get away from him.”
Byron looked at the star through the clouds.
“That’s what we came to tell you, Byron,” Shegwin continued. “Ravinath sent Baruwan to cut the bridge. He’s supposed to catch you and take you to Ravinath’s cave.”
“How do you know that?” Byron said.
“Gradda told us. He overheard Ravinath talking to Baruwan as they left Winter Hill. Ravinath is mixing a special hexmask to help him. They’re serious, Byron. Gradda wanted you to know. We volunteered.”
Byron pursed his lips. “Well, thanks for that, I guess. But I’m going. I’m following the star.” He looked at Jolik and Shegwin. “With or without you.”
“Forget it, Byron,” Shegwin said. “No way.”
“Me too, By,” Jolik said. He took a step back. “Whatcha think you’ll find out there, anyway?”
“Something,” Byron said. “Something I won’t find by staying here with you.”
There were hoofbeats in the snow.
“A horse?” Jolik whispered.
“A centaur!” Shegwin hissed.
“Scatter!” Byron said. But it was too late. From the other side of Old Fellow Rock came the tall, dark shape of a centaur.
* * *
Byron stood trembling, eyes fixed wide on the figure. When he noticed that the centaur was tall, but not fully grown, Byron’s shoulders sagged and he let go his breath.
“Is that you, Byron?” said the centaur.
“Dindra,” Byron said. “Yeah, it’s me.”
“Are you still planning to follow the star?”
“What’s it to you?” Jolik said. “Are you gonna go with him?”
“That’s the general idea,” Dindra said.
“Huh?” Jolik said with an astonished glance at Shegwin.
Dindra crouched down to the ground and threw back her cape. “Climb on, Byron,” she said. “We have to hurry.”
Byron stared at her.
“Byron, I can run like the wind,” Dindra said, “even in this deep snow. If you climb on now, we’ve got a chance. You’ll never beat Baruwan to the bridge alone.”
Byron looked at Shegwin and Jolik, then again at Dindra. He bounced in place for a moment, looking up at the glow of the star. Then he leaped forward and sprang onto Dindra’s back.
“Good!” Dindra said. “Put your arms around my waist and stay small!” She threw her cape over him and stood. “Not so tight!”
“Sorry,” Byron whispered.
“Stay against my back and no one will know you’re there,” Dindra said. “You two can shut your mouths now.”
Shegwin and Jolik stood slack-jawed, staring.
“And keep them shut until morning, right?” Dindra said, pointing at them. Then she shook her head. “Byron finally gets an idea worth doing and you just stand there gawking. Well, wish us luck at least. Goodbye.”
Dindra wheeled and bolted into the darkness.
* * *
Byron squirmed a little in the stuffy heat beneath Dindra’s cape. At the Fathom Oak he pushed the front of it open to let the air in and have a look around.
“Nearly there,” he said when he saw the tree.
Moonlight shone through a break in the thickening clouds. The Fathom Oak stood tall in the center of the field, washed in the bright glow, casting an enormous claw of a shadow on the snow. Dindra quickened her pace. Byron pushed his head through her cape and looked back in time to see the last of the cottage lights vanish into the trees. Snow fell again. Another storm came down from the north, eating the stars in its path as it advanced on the full moon. Blue lightning flickered in the clouds, striking the snowflakes black.
Soon they entered the Pine Belt, a strip of evergreen forest that ran north to south along the river Gladwater. The mat of needles muffled Dindra’s hooves. Weird shadows leaped around them, cast by the flickering blue light.
“I never saw lightning in the snow before,” Byron said.
“Me neither,” Dindra said.
They went on without speaking. At the big rock Dindra went north and broke into a trot. Byron nestled down beneath her cape and hid. “See you when we cross the bridge,” he said.
Soon the snowy woodland floor was beneath them. Strong wind blew, but the snow was light. The strange lightning blinked.
“Should be at the bridge,” Byron said to himself. He relaxed and closed his eyes. Dindra opened her pace to a full gallop, but a moment later she halted. “Why’ve we stopped?” Byron whispered.
“There’s a fire burning,” Dindra said. “It looks like centaurs …guarding the bridge…”
“Turn around!” Byron said.
Dindra started forward.
“Stop!” Byron hissed. “What are you doing?”
“They’ve seen me,” Dindra said.
“Run!” Byron whispered and he started to squirm free of the cape. Dindra pulled it tight and he was pinned against her back. “Dindra!” Byron growled.
“Shut up, Byron!” Dindra said. “And don’t move!” She drew the cape tighter to herself until the side of Byron’s face was pressed against her tunic, between her shoulder blades. “I have an idea,” she said and she broke into a trot.
Byron gaped into the darkness of the cape. Soon he heard voices and the crack of a fire. Dindra stopped.
“A dark night to be abroad,” said a voice.
“And late,” said another.
“Yes,” Dindra said in a stern voice.
“Who is it?” Byron whispered. Dindra replied with a jerk of the cape.
“What brings you all the way out here?” said the first voice.
“I am taking news to my father, across the Ravine,” Dindra said.
“Strange they don’t send a hunter.”
“It’s a personal matter, regarding my family.”
“Strange your mother sent you. Why not one of your brothers?”
“My brothers are all occupied with the wolves. If you will excuse me, Baruwan…”
Byron gasped. He tensed against Dindra and held still, listening.
“What is this message you bring, girl? What’s so important?”
“My mother has taken sick.”
Dindra shifted her weight. Byron felt her muscles tense. He didn’t like the tone in Baruwan’s voice and could tell that Dindra didn’t either.
“M… my father would want to hear of it,” Dindra said, but the certainty had left her voice.
“Indeed,” Baruwan said. The snow crunched as he strode forward.
“At once,” Dindra said.
“Of course,” Baruwan replied. He had drawn near. “What can you tell me of Byron Thorn?” he said.
“I… nothing, Baruwan,” Dindra said. She shifted her weight again. “He’s a festering little boil, if that’s what you mean.”
Byron scowled. The certainty was back in Dindra’s voice.
“Yes,” Baruwan said. “That is precisely what I mean: Little Lord Misrule. But, I wonder if there are others who share his… interes… in the star.”
Dindra shifted heavily. “Others?”
“Others who don’t enjoy Misrule privileges, perhaps?”
“I suppose…” Dindra stammered, “there might be… that is…”
“What is your father doing east of the Ravine when the wolf threat is from the west?”
“I don’t question my father’s movements Baruwan. Neither should you. For that matter, what are you doing out here? You should be helping with the wolves. I’ve told you my business, now stand aside.”
“Very well, very well, don’t be angry,” Baruwan said with a laugh. “After all, the daughter of the Chief at Arms needn’t explain herself to a rabble like us. I’ll tell you my business, since you ask. I’m waiting for Byron Thorn to show his face. When he does I mean to cut the bridge before his eyes and watch him scurry upstream to the fords as the minutes bleed from the final hour of his Misrule’s Day. Then I’m going to take him and pitch him into the Ravine. Since you have business beyond the river, I shall step aside and let you cross.”
Dindra took a step and stopped.
“Your father is waiting, Dindra,” Baruwan said.
“Go, Dindra!” Byron whispered. “He’s gonna figure it out!”
Dindra jerked her cape again and started forward. She’d gone ten paces when Baruwan flung her cape aside, dragging Byron to the ground. Byron saw the blue lightning flash in the snow. A fire was burning near and there were angry voices all around.
“Throw them in!” Baruwan shouted. “Both of them!”
Byron looked up at Baruwan as the huge centaur slid the net from his shoulder. There were strange, terrible markings painted all over the centaur’s face. Baruwan spun the net around and it whistled as it spread out in the air above him.
“Run, Byron!” Dindra cried.
Byron ducked as she leaped over him, crashing into Baruwan with her shoulder. The painted centaur lost control of the net. With one hand he grabbed her by the hair. Dindra screamed. Byron snarled. He leaped up and bit Baruwan’s arm. Baruwan howled and released Dindra, but struck Byron with his other hand, sending him to the ground. Dindra sidled away.
Byron groaned with his face in the snow, but managed to roll out from under Dindra’s stomping hooves. Then a cry sounded in the distance. Byron looked up to see Baruwan peering north into the darkness on the edge of the ravine. The lightning blinked, blue in the black snow. A crowd of dark shapes was bounding toward the fire. The wind was full of whining growls and hushed footfalls.
“Wolves!” someone shouted.
A huge gray wolf bounded through the firelight, into the shadows beyond. Through the sparking flames Byron saw two eyes, glowing green on the other side of the fire.
As the centaurs turned to fight, Byron and Dindra fled into the shadows across the fire. They watched in horror. Spears rose and fell, teeth and claws snapped and tore. A din of growls and whines and shouts arose. Baruwan trampled one wolf with his hooves and flung another howling into the ravine. Near the fire a centaur fell to a throng of wolves and screamed his last beneath them. Baruwan cried out, charging in to avenge him.
Lightning flashed. When it was gone, a pale white glow remained. It lit the falling snow and set shadows all around. Everyone stopped, locked in struggle and looked up. The star was shining through a hole in the clouds. Byron caught his breath. He took three steps toward the star before he heard Dindra calling him.
“Byron!” she cried, pointing to the shadows.
Byron gasped. Ten paces away the gray wolf emerged from the darkness. It stood for a moment, panting, with its tongue dangling from the side of its mouth. The wolf was enormous and had one blue eye. It looked at Byron and Dindra, then up at the star, then back again. The sound of hoofbeats came from the north.
“Look!” Byron yelled.
A swarm of torches was coming fast.
Dindra crouched to the ground and he climbed onto her back. She set off for the bridge at a trot. Byron looked back to see Baruwan fighting his way toward them. He looked for the wolf but it was gone.
“Hurry!” he shouted and kicked Dindra with his hooves.
“It’s so narrow!” Dindra shouted back as she approached the bridge.
It swayed in the wind and snow piled on the tight planks. Dindra stepped out and screamed as she slid down the length of the bridge to the bottom of the curve. Byron’s breath stuck in his chest as he gaped into the darkness that swallowed them. When they stopped, Dindra’s front legs had buckled to the knees and she was slung on the ropes to one side of the bridge.
“Look!” Byron shouted.
At the top of the bridge, against the fire, stood the silhouette of a centaur. It slung something over its shoulder, then disappeared toward them into the darkness. Dindra felt the bridge shift beneath her.
“Baruwan,” she said.
“You get us to the top,” Byron said. “I’ll take care of Baruwan.”
Dindra struggled on and leaped onto the snowy ground across the bridge. Byron dropped from her back and slid Gradda’s knife from its case. The star was still shining and the wind carried shouts from across the ravine. The torches had reached the fire.
“Father!” Dindra cried.
Byron looked up to see Palter Thundershod and King Belden himself, arrayed for battle. With them was a band of knights and centaurs and armed woodren. The bridge swayed. Byron looked into the darkness where the bridge vanished from view and heard the ropes creaking. He set to work with Gradda’s knife.
“These are wolf tracks,” Dindra said, looking around by the light of the star. “Some of them got across.”
Byron kept cutting. The last of the ropes came apart and the bridge slipped away into the darkness. Byron and Dindra watched and listened. The wind and the faint sound of the firelit battle were all they could hear. They stood for a moment looking at the star. Dindra crouched down and Byron climbed onto her back. The snow came harder. Clouds had covered the star. Dindra lifted a hoof to set out and stopped.
“Listen!” she whispered. They both leaned forward to hear the sound of hushed footfalls bounding away into the dark.
“Let’s go!” Byron said.
“We’ll get lost without a reference,” Dindra said. “Let’s head south, along the river, until the weather breaks.”
* * *
For six days the storm raged on. Strange blue lightning flickered in the dense clouds. The wind bore strange sounds like voices. Byron and Dindra slept huddled together under pine trees and ate from the stores Dindra had taken from the hunting cellar in the compound of the Thundershods. It was late in the afternoon on the sixth day when Byron broke another of the long silences that passed between them as Dindra followed the banks of Gladwater.
“Is it time to stop?” he said.
“A little longer,” Dindra said. “Just a while.”
“I’m hungry,” Byron said.
“We’ve only got one meal left,” Dindra said. “And it won’t be the biggest one yet.” Then she stopped. “What was that?”
“What was what?” Byron said, rousing himself. The wind covered the sounds of the wood. Then, in the distance, wolves howled. Byron snapped his head around. The howling came again.
“Behind us!” Byron said.
“But the storm’s covered our tracks!”
“Wolves don’t need tracks to follow!”
A large bird swooped into Byron’s face and beat him about the cheeks with its wings. Byron cried out. It flapped around front and did the same to Dindra. Then it swooped into a nearby branch and cawed.
“A raven,” Byron said.
Howling filled the air again, closer by. The raven dropped from his perch, bounced off both their heads and back into the tree. Then it flew away south into the woods.
“He wants us to follow,” Byron said.
Dindra nodded and set off.
Cawing and flapping from branch to branch, the raven led them on. The lightning blinked, showing a stone bridge arching across Gladwater with the raven winging above it. Beyond the bridge they came into a grove of fat beech trees. There the raven came to rest on the broken wall of a ruined stone tower.
A tall tree grew up through the open top. Inside, the corners of the tower were deep with drifted snow, but most of the floor was only dusted. Fallen branches littered the place. Byron dropped to the ground.
“Gather the wood!” he cried. “We need fire!”
“Fire?” Dindra said.
“To fight the wolves! Look for wood!”
“We can’t fight a pack of wolves! We need to block the doorway!”
Byron straightened up with a bundle of sticks under his arm. He looked at Dindra, then at the fallen branches scattered around. “We’ll never keep them out for long,” he said. “First the door, then the fire!”
* * *
Three stout branches reached across the doorway, bolstered with stones. Two more branches lay near as replacements. Byron tended the small fire he’d started with the last of his matches. Dindra chose out a bunch of branches and set them aside.
“Give me your knife,” she said.
“What for?” Byron said without looking up.
“We’ll have to defend this fence, you know. I’m making spears.”
Byron looked at the bundle of branches in her hand. “We can burn those.”
“And have nothing to fight with? Fire won’t save us, Byron. Give me the knife.”
Byron sighed. “All right,” he said. “But save the shavings for me will you?”
They worked until they could think of nothing more to do. The dark before morning drew in and there was no sign of the wolves. Byron sat with his back against the tree trunk. Dindra stood by the door. Firelight danced orange inside the tower and cast shadows into the branches of the tree.
“Where’s the raven?” Dindra said.
“Flew off somewhere.”
Dindra lifted a hoof and let it drop. “Maybe they won’t come. Maybe they kept going south.”
“Ya’ think?” Byron said.
Dindra hugged herself and pulled her cape tight around her. The lightning flashed again. The snow had stopped. Inside the tower they could hear the wind, but it was quieter.
“The storm is passing,” Byron said. “I’m hungry.”
Dindra turned to face the doorway. “Me, too. I don’t like this quiet. Why don’t they howl or something?”
“Gradda says we satyrs used to ride on wolves like horses. I wonder what happened.”
“My grandfather thought they were under a spell,” Dindra said.
“A spell?” Byron said.
“Mm-hm. He kept a journal. Some of the entries mention a pair of old gray females he saw during the war. Witches he called them. They’d stand apart from the battlepacks, silent, watching. He wrote about one wolf that threw himself in front of a centaur charge so the witches could get away. The entry swears they made the wolf do it. What did he write? ‘If I’m to believe my own eyes … the witchwolves commanded… and he obeyed. Others would have followed, had there been a need.’ ”
Byron’s eyes were wide. “I didn’t know the wolves had witches.”
“Mm-hm,” Dindra said.
And then she screamed.
Through the barricade of branches blocking the doorway, Byron saw the eyes glowing with firelight, the bared fangs and the dangling tongue. The wolf was glaring up at Dindra. It ceased its panting long enough to give a low growl. It was huge and stood so close that Dindra could have reached out and touched it.
It started snapping and tearing at the branches. Byron took a stick from the fire and threw it. Sparks flew. The wolf yelped and when the air cleared it was gone. A howl went up, echoed by another, then another and still a third. The howls lingered and rose together for a moment, then faded. From the darkness outside the door came the sound of many quiet feet bounding through the snow. There were muffled growls and whines. A pair of firelit eyes appeared between the branches and disappeared. Then all was still.
Dindra clutched a pointed stick and stood back from the door. Byron stayed close to the fire. Both of them watched and listened. Silence. And then the wolves, three of them, biting and tearing at the barricade. Byron lifted a branch and charged the door. Dindra stepped up and thrust her stake through the tree limbs. Sparks exploded, wolves yelped and barked and there was silence again, except for the sound of Byron and Dindra breathing hard. They looked at each other, wide-eyed, breath like smoke in the cold.
“We can’t keep this up,” Dindra said.
Byron gaped into the fire. He shook his head.
The wolves came again. Two terrible snouts poked through gaps between the branches, snapping and barking. They tore at the wood and the whole barrier shifted.
Dindra gasped and lunged forward. “No!”
She jabbed her stake into the snapping jaws and one wolf withdrew. But another took its place. Byron struck with fire once more and again the wolves backed off. Again they came on, hurling themselves against the barrier. It shifted again, scraping against the stone of the tower and a wolf head poked through the side. Dindra wielded her stake and the wolf scrabbled back. There was a pause.
“Oh, how many are there?” Dindra panted.
Blue lightning flashed. They came again. The barrier lurched and bounced away from the wall. Two wolves tried squirming through and a third attacked the side. Byron raised his flaming branch and then something caught his eye. The dirt floor beneath the barrier fell away and two paws worked to widen the gap. A snout appeared for a moment, sniffing. Then the paws returned.
“They’re digging!” Byron cried. He leaped forward jabbing and swinging with his flaming branches. “They’ve been digging!”
Dindra screamed and jabbed her stake again and again. Byron echoed her cry and raced from wolf to wolf, brandishing fire. The barrier shifted and a huge gap opened above Byron’s head. A wolf appeared. It glared down, snapping and growling. Byron stared up at it, clutching two smoking stumps in his hands.
The wolf’s eyes went wide. It yelped and cried and tried to turn its head around. Then it flew back from the barrier altogether, scratching and clawing for a hold. The night was filled with growling and yelping. The wolves were frenzied, berserk in the darkness outside the door. Dindra and Byron listened, gaping at each other. The sounds moved all around, into the distance then close at hand. Byron peered through the branches.
“Byron, get back!” Dindra said, moving to the far side of the fire. Byron kept looking. Dindra frowned. “What do you see?”
“Darkness. Nothing but darkness.”
A loud fit of growling broke the silence very close to the door. The barrier lurched with the weight of a wolf thrown against it. Byron staggered backward, reaching for balance. Dindra caught him and lifted him over the fire. The mayhem of the wolves stopped. Dindra and Byron listened. Quiet paws in the snow faded and were gone. For a while, the only sound was the fire popping until, in the tree above them, the raven cawed. Nothing stirred again in the darkness. Lightning flickered in the south. The storm had moved on. Byron and Dindra stayed awake all night, listening. They did not speak, they only sat, huddled together looking about with wide eyes, keeping the fire high.