Four dead wolves lay twisted in the red snow. A jumble of tracks circled the tower, wandering about the beech ring that surrounded the place. Dindra crouched down to let Byron on and together they scouted the area. The wolves had approached from many different directions. Nine sets of tracks came in from the forest and five led away, one trailing blood.
“What could’ve done this?” Dindra said. “And not leave any tracks?”
“Maybe some giant bird,” Byron said. “Or, something from the sky.”
“Gradda told me once about a tribe of huge owls. Maybe they live around here somewhere.”
Dindra shook her head. “But why didn’t they take the bodies? And why did they leave us alone?”
“Let’s just be glad for it and hope they’ve gone to sleep for the day.”
“Maybe it was a ghost,” Dindra said, gripping her chin.
“This is an old beech grove, have you noticed? Somebody planted these trees in circle on purpose, probably for magic. This is just the sort of place you’d find a ghost living in. Maybe maybe the shade of some wizard or priestess, or, or the restless spirit of some hapless sacrificial victim.”
Byron frowned and thought for a moment. “No, I think it was owls.”
“Suit yourself,” Dindra said. “Whatever it was, it’s gone.”
The raven perched in one of the mighty trees. He shifted back and forth from one foot to the other and cawed at them. A cardinal was perched beside him. As Byron and Dindra came near the cardinal sang out and shot away, bright red against the gray and white of the forest. The raven dropped out of the tree and bounced from Dindra’s head to Byron’s, then flapped away with whistling wings after the cardinal. Dindra looked back at Byron with her eyebrows up.
Byron shrugged. “He got us out of one fix.”
“But they’re going the wrong way,” Dindra said. “That’s southwest.”
“Seems like he knows what he’s doing.”
Dindra shrugged. Byron settled in on her back and they set off after the birds.
* * *
All the wood sparkled with a mild thaw. The sun was bright in the blue sky. The raven was nowhere in sight. Winging from branch to branch the cardinal guided them along. Sometimes he flew off into the woods and brought back a tiny pine cone or a seed, which he dropped on somebody’s head. The sun was low in the west when the cardinal flew in and dropped something from his beak into Dindra’s hair.
“This is chestnut meat,” Dindra said, tasting the morsel.
“Mm-hm,” Dindra said. “And it’s warm.”
Byron sniffed the air. “Do you smell that?”
“A wood fire,” Dindra said.
Byron rubbed his belly. “And spiced apples.”
As evening deepened, they spotted a cottage light away in the trees. The cardinal called again and led them into the small clearing where the cottage stood. The star hung above the house, bathing the snow-covered roof with light.
Smoke billowed from the chimney and the smell of apples baking was strong on the cold air. An old man made his way along a well-trod path in the snow. He carried an axe in one hand and a bundle of logs under his arm.
“Ah,” he said as he reached the porch. “There you are. Supper’s almost ready. There’s a tubful of water hot for washing up.”
They peered at the man but couldn’t see his face for the shadows on the porch.
“Well, come along, come along,” he said, laughing.
Dindra didn’t move.
“No wolves to fear here,” the man said.
Dindra remained still.
“See you inside, then,” the man said with a shrug. “Don’t bother about knocking.”
He set the axe by the door and went in. A warm glow splashed onto the porch as the door opened. The cardinal sang from the roof peak.
“I guess we’re here,” Byron said.
“Wherever it was we were going.”
“He’s a wizard of some sort,” Dindra said.
“Why do you say that?”
“How’d he know about the wolves?”
“Hmm,” Byron said with a nod. “Maybe it was him who drove them off.”
“Do you think?”
“I don’t know.”
Dindra sighed. The snow came on very strong and clouds covered the star. “Well, we’re pointed in the right direction anyway,” she said, pulling up her hood. “Let’s get out of this, at least.” They both snugged their capes tight and set off toward the house.
Inside, a tall fire burned. The bundle of wood the man had been carrying was there on the hearth. A table, lit with candles, stood set for five, with a whole side arranged for a centaur’s use. A door swung open and in walked a woman carrying a covered platter.
“There you are,” she said as she set the platter on the table. “Decided to come in from the night, I see. Shilo!”
Through the same door came a yellow-haired girl of about twelve. She stopped and stared at Dindra and Byron and nearly dropped the bowl she was carrying.
“Come, come, girl,” the woman said. “This is no surprise, we’ve been waiting all day for them. Take their capes and offer them cider.”
Shilo set the bowl on the table. She approached Byron with wonder in her face and lifted her gaze to Dindra. She looked over her shoulder as her mother went into the kitchen.
“You’re following the star,” Shilo whispered.
Byron and Dindra looked at each other.
“How did you know that?” Dindra said.
“The cardinal told me.”
They looked at each other again.
“My ma and grappa don’t know. I didn’t tell them. I only said the cardinal was bringing you this way.”
“Shilo!” the woman called from behind the kitchen door. “Will they have something hot to drink?”
“Give me your capes,” Shilo said. “Go and warm yourselves at the fire. Don’t mention it,” she whispered, “it isn’t safe!”
Above the mantelpiece hung a black shield with a red unicorn rampant. It was well beaten and scratched with clear claw marks. Byron stared up at it. The old man came in from a shadowy hallway, wearing a housecoat and a pair of heavy slippers. A large pipe stuck from his teeth. He smiled at his guests, looking them over through a pair of thick glasses.
“Milo Prinder is my name. The two of you are most welcome.”
“Thank you, sir,” Dindra said.
“It’s a long time since we had visitors from Hiding Wood,” Milo Prinder continued. “Not since before the Wolfen War. You’re the first findrels little Shilo has ever seen.”
“Findrels?” Byron said.
“That’s the old name for you centaurs and satyrs. Used to be common as nightfall to have a centaur drinking cider by this fireplace. Not anymore. Long time.”
Milo Prinder shook his head and glanced at the shield above the fire.
“My gradda has one just like it,” Byron said.
“Does he now?” Milo Prinder replied. “A scout was he? For Queen Belma? You satyrs were great ones for scouting.”
“Yes, sir,” Byron said.
“And what’s your gradda’s name?”
“Darius Thorn, sir,” Byron said.
Milo Prinder blinked at Byron. He caught his pipe in one hand and set the other on his hip. “You don’t say, Darius Thorn?”
“Yes, sir. I’m Byron.”
“Pleased to meet you, Byron. Darius Thorn Well, that’s a name I’ve not heard He went away after the war didn’t come back until” Milo Prinder stopped and set a soft gaze on Byron. “Ah, yes,” he said. “I remember now. He came back to care for his grandson.”
“Yes, sir,” Byron said, looking into the fire.
“Well,” Milo said. “How is the old fox, eh?”
“Just fine, sir,” Byron said.
The old man shook his head and tapped his pipe out on the hearth. “It’s been too long.” Then he reached into his housecoat pocket for a satchel of leaf and stuffed his pipe again. “Too long. Well, life takes over after all.”
“Yes, sir,” Byron said.
“Darius was my good friend long ago. What about you, miss?” Milo Prinder said to Dindra. “What’s your name?”
The kitchen door swung open and Shilo came in carrying two steaming mugs. “Dindra, sir,” Dindra said. “Dindra Thundershod.”
“Thundershod?” Milo Prinder said. “Does that make Palter Thundershod your father?”
“Yes, sir,” Dindra said.
“And that makes Madican Thundershod your grandfather, I suppose.”
“Madican was mighty centaur,” Milo Prinder said. “A great warrior. I was there that day in the birch grove when the wolves finally took him. I saw him die.”
“I never met him,” Dindra said.
“No,” the old man said. “I suppose not. Though your father is as like him as any could be, so I hear.”
“Yes, sir,” Dindra replied.
Shilo stepped up and handed the visitors their mugs. Milo smiled at her. “Shilo told us to expect you,” he said. “She speaks with animals, you know. A wonder. Who knows what all they tell her.”
Shilo glanced at Byron and Dindra. “Supper’s ready,” she said.
* * *
Milo and Fidelia Prinder nodded and frowned as Byron and Dindra told the story of the ruined tower.
“A mystery,” the old man said. “Sounds like a story from the Ghostwood.”
“Ghostwood?” Byron said through a bite of dumpling. He nodded to Shilo as she filled his cup with steaming cider.
“East of here, nearer the mountains,” Fidelia said. “Some say the woods there are haunted.”
“East?” Dindra said. “That’s where we’re headed.”
As soon as she said it she winced. Byron’s glance ricocheted off Dindra, hit each of the Prinders and landed back on Dindra. Shilo froze with the cider pitcher hovering over Byron’s cup. She stared at his hand.
Milo Prinder raised an eyebrow. “You don’t say.”
“Anyone for pie?” Shilo said and she ran off into the kitchen.
Milo Prinder sat back in his chair and looked at Dindra. “What might you be headed east for, youngster?”
“I” Dindra said. A pot clanged in the pantry.
“Oh, just tell them,” Byron said. “They’ve guessed it already. We’re following the star.”
Fidelia Prinder sat up stiff. Several pots clamored to the kitchen floor.
“And with King Belden’s permission,” Byron said.
“The king?” Milo Prinder said. “Is that so?”
“Well,” Dindra said, “Byron has permission. It’s his Misrule’s privilege.”
“Ah,” Milo said with a nod.
Fidelia pursed her lips and frowned. “That silly tradition,” she said.
“And you decided to go along with him, is that it?” Milo said.
“Well, you see sir, Byron needed help and well”
Byron and Dindra told the whole story from the beginning. When it was over, Milo lit his pipe.
“Ravinath,” he growled.
Fidelia shook her head. “Shilo,” she called. “Won’t you come in, instead of listening by the door?”
Shilo came in, smiling, carrying a plate of pie wedges. “Here you are,” she said without looking at anyone. She put the plate on the table, turned on her heel and headed for the kitchen again.
“Just a moment, young lady,” her mother said.
Fidelia Prinder locked eyes with her daughter. “You knew,” she said.
“Knew what, mamma?” Shilo said. She smiled, but her eyes were wide and cautious.
“Don’t hand me a ration of feathers,” Fidelia Prinder said. “You knew what these two were up to. Tell me I’m wrong.”
“You’re wrong,” Shilo said and bolted for the kitchen again.
“Shilo, come back here,” Fidelia Prinder said.
Shilo stopped and turned. Her eyes were rimmed with tears and she wrung her hands.
“Shilo, why didn’t you tell us?” her mother said. “You know the danger around here and with your father gone to the king. These two might have ended up at any house in the village.”
“No they wouldn’t,” Shilo said. “Not with the cardinal guiding them.”
Fidelia let her shoulders sag. “Shilo, if we’d known we could have been more secret. We could have hid them, or at least warned them away. Why would you keep something like that from us?”
“Because because I want to go with them!”
Fidelia Prinder gasped. “Shilo, no!” she whispered, putting a hand to her mouth.
“I thought you’d try to stop them us” Shilo said.
“Shilo! Oh, not my Shilo!” Fidelia said. “Say something, Milo! The villagers!”
Milo looked into the candle flame.
“How did some cardinal know what we were doing, anyway?” Byron whispered to Dindra.
“Byron, hush,” Dindra said, looking around at the Prinders.
Byron shrugged. “Well, how’d he know?”
“Shadetree told him,” Shilo said, “the raven who led you to the tower.”
“Oh,” Byron said. “Well, where is he now?”
“Gone back to Manakar, I suppose,” Shilo said.
“Manakar?” Byron and Dindra said together.
“The old grizzleback bear,” Shilo said. “And Lucia, his mate.”
“From Hiding Wood?” Dindra said. “What about them?”
“They’re following the star, they and some others: Shadetree, Onya the doe, Bard the Owl, Milly and Brace, the badger and the raccoon. A flying squirrel has joined them also but he won’t tell anyone his name.”
“Stop this at once,” Fidelia cried, “all of you! I’ll not have it, not in my house! Milo will you say something!”
“But we have to go, ma’am,” Byron said. “It’s the call of Silverlance.”
Milo caught his pipe from his mouth. “Silverlance is it? Who says so?”
“My gradda,” Byron said.
“So,” Milo Prinder said, “that’s why young Belden gave his leave.”
“Milo,” Fidelia pleaded. She clutched the old man’s wrist.
Milo patted her hand and stood from the table. At the fireplace he reached up and lifted the shield from its hook. “Darius Thorn bid his own grandson go, Fidelia. He stood hoof to hoof with Ravinath himself. What if he’s right?”
“Could it be, Milo?” Fidelia said. “Silverlance is just a legend after all.”
“A legend indeed,” Milo said. “But what if Silverlance really did come back and no one went out to meet him?”
Fidelia clutched her apron and looked at Shilo. “I wish your father were here.”
“Well he isn’t,” the old man said. “He’s gone to the king to seek an answer to this very question. Seems it snuck in behind his back. I’m afraid it’s for you to say, Fidelia, whether Shilo goes or stays. Whatever else, we’ve got to help these two any way we can.”
* * *
Byron lay awake in his room. He remembered the pouch Gradda had given him and fetched it from the chair in the corner. He took it back to the bed with him and nestled in to examine it.
“His monocle,” Byron said as he emptied the pouch into his hand. “He never even let me touch it before. There’s a note.”
Byron unrolled the small paper and read the greeting.
To Lord Misrule,
Greetings on your big day, Byro. It’s time you had this. It’s served me well, but it’s yours now. I won’t tell you how it works, you’ll have to find that out on your own. Here’s a clue: Don’t look at the light.
Happy Birthday, Byron.
Byron frowned. “Don’t look at the light,” he said. Then he put the monocle in his eye and looked straight into the lamp.
Everything went white and a cruel pain jabbed through his head. Byron dropped the monocle, jammed the heel of his hand into his eye and buried his face in the pillows. When the pain stopped Byron opened his eye. The light from the lamp was still very bright and it was some time before the eye could adjust. He peered down at the monocle in the folds of the bedcovers.
It was a ring of brass with raised marks all around it. There was smoke swirling around in the glass. Byron turned his back to the light and put the monocle in. It didn’t stab his eye with pain, but the light was irritating and itchy. He hung the monocle around his neck by its leather strap, blew out the lamp and put the monocle back in his eye.
He saw the room as clear as day. Byron opened wide the eye without the monocle and everything went black. He closed the eye again and the room returned, clear and bright through the monocle.
“Wow, Gradda!” Byron said, waving his hand in front of his face. “This is… this is… wow!” He dropped to the floor and went out for a prowl.
He crept down the hall to Dindra’s room and listened. Nothing stirred. The next door was Shilo’s. Byron could hear her moving around, opening and closing drawers, muttering. Two doors further on and across the hall, he had to cover his eye. Lamplight streamed out at the bottom of the door. Inside Fidelia and Milo Prinder were talking quietly. Fidelia was weeping and Milo was hushing her.
Byron moved on, making for the kitchen and the last piece of pie left from supper. Standing there on a chair next to the counter, Byron set to eating. Then there was a knock at the front door of the cottage. He jumped down from his pie and peered out through the swinging door.
Lamplight appeared from the hallway. Milo Prinder emerged wearing his housecoat and a flat cap on his head. He carried a lamp before him. Byron snatched the monocle out of his eye before the light could hurt it.
“I’m coming, I’m coming,” Milo Prinder shouted. “What can you possibly want?” He opened the door and lifted the lamp. “Tarn Greeley, is that you? What can the matter be at this hour? And with the snow falling?”
“Nothing, I hope,” said a voice. “May I come in?”
“I think not. What do you want?”
“Very well. There is some concern among the villagers regarding the business of your visitors.”
“They’re only youngsters. What business of theirs could concern the village? And since when is it your business to begin with?”
“You’re aware of the recent precautions taken by the council to ensure the peace”
“I got the letter,” Milo said. “Curfews and house calls after dark. Nonsense. All over some silly tale of shadows and death.”
“The council has considered the matter very seriously.”
“And sicced Tharnis Micktern on Jaspin Fairbriar for going hunting after Midwinter? Same as he’s done for thirty years?”
“Fairbriar was expressly warned”
“And where is he now?”
“Here’s your answer, Tarn Greely. These children have come for the Twelve Days of Midwinter. When I take them to the village square tomorrow to show them around I hope the people of Branchbrook will put on a bit more polish than you’re showing tonight. These youngsters are from the king, after all.”
“The king … ”
“Good night to you, Tarn Greeley,” Milo said and he slammed the door.
He turned and headed for the hallway where the bedrooms were, lifting the lamp toward the kitchen door as he went. “You might as well come along, Byron,” he said. “I’ll wake the others, meet me in Fidelia’s chamber. You can bring your pie if you want to.”
* * *
Byron sat chewing as Milo told Fidelia of the encounter with Tarn Greeley. Dindra was rubbing the sleep from her eyes and Shilo had a wide cautious look on her face.
“You shouldn’t have been so cross with him, Milo,” Fidelia said. “You’ll make them angry.”
“Cross was called for,” Milo said. “Besides, cowing would have made them suspicious.”
Fidelia clutched her nightgown. “We’re lucky they didn’t burst right in! Oh, I wish my Filo were here.”
“It hasn’t come to that, yet, surely?” Milo said.
“It will, Milo,” Fidelia said. “They’re afraid of the stories.”
“What stories?” Byron said.
“An old cycle of tales,” Milo said. “About the Weg.”
“What’s that?” Dindra said.
Shilo cleared her throat and spoke:
“The voice that hides
in the creaking of the cemetery gate
it creeps among the tombstones
where it lurks and broods and waits.
It watches you and hates you
from the corner of your eye,
When ghostlight climbs the Weg will come
and get you by and by.”
Milo Prinder frowned and nodded. “A rhyme to frighten children,” he said. “But the Weg was real, whatever it was, long ago. And that bit about the ghostlight well, that’s what all the panic is about.”
“Jaspin Fairbriar is only the beginning,” Fidelia said.
“I’d say you’re right,” Milo Prinder said with a sigh. “Well, you two will have to leave tonight, right now and no stopping.”
“Who are they?” Dindra asked.
“The villagers,” Milo said. “The townsfolk. That star has them scared to the bones.”
“The whole village?” Byron said.
“No,” Milo said, “not everyone, but a good many and some not to be dallied with. They’ve made no end of commotion over what that star could mean.” The old man sighed. He looked at his daughter-in-law and fell still.
Fidelia held Shilo in a teary gaze. “Shilo,” she said. Shilo ran into her mother’s arms. “Be careful, child.”
“I will, Mamma,” Shilo said and she buried her face in Fidelia’s breast.
Milo clutched his nightcap in his hands and his lip quivered. “Are you sure, Fidelia?”
With a single firm nod, Fidelia released her daughter and stood up. “The child speaks to animals, after all. So, we must be very brave. There’s work to do. Byron, Dindra, follow me. You mustn’t go off as empty-handed as you arrived. Shilo, go and get that bag you’ve been packing and meet us out front.”
Shilo looked at her mother with her mouth open.
“Did you think you had me fooled?” Fidelia said. “Hurry on now, no time to lose.”
Milo Prinder sighed. “It’ll be hard going for a while, but if you move quickly for a few days you should get there ahead of anyone who might follow.”
“Get where?” Byron said.
“Why, the only place between here and the mountains where the villagers won’t have the nerve to look. Ghostwood. It’s your only chance.”
* * *
Snow and darkness swallowed the house. Dindra clutched the stout hickory staff Fidelia had given her. Byron sat on her back wrapped tight against the cold. Toward dawn the sky cleared to fading stars. The one star blazed in the east. In the afternoon they passed the ruined tower. A blanket of snow covered every sign of struggle. As the sun set, they reached the stone bridge and crossed Gladwater together.
“Here we part,” Milo Prinder said. “March all night. I know you need a rest, but you can’t risk it yet. Eat as you go and keep on until the sun goes down. Don’t make a fire unless you’re desperate.”
“What’s going to happen to you?” Shilo said.
“It’s not safe in Branchbrook Village,” Milo Prinder said. “There’s some mind poison at work there, I’m sure of it people not acting right. We’ll keep the river between us and them and make for the king. That’s where your father is and it’s the safest place for us now. You watch for those centaurs, you hear?”
“We will,” Dindra said.
“Don’t worry, Shilo,” Fidelia said. “We’ll get there safe. Look to yourself and your friends.”
“I will, Mamma,” Shilo said. “Tell Dadda I love him.”
“I will,” Fidelia said. “Too cold for tears, now.”
She clutched Shilo to herself. Shilo hugged her grandfather and the Prinders turned away, heading north up Gladwater. Shilo, Dindra and Byron watched them until they blended with the dusk and were gone.
Twenty paces on, hidden at first by the trees and darkness, the snow was broken with the tracks of many hooves. A wide swath had been cut, moving from west to east.
“Centaurs,” Dindra said. “Six or more. They must’ve tracked us to the stone bridge.”
“These tracks were left in falling snow,” Byron said. “They’re partly filled in.”
“They missed us in the storm,” Dindra said. “They’re ahead of us.”
Byron looked back. “It’s lucky we went back across the river or they’d have had us.”
“Let’s get going,” Shilo said. “I never thought I’d say it, but I’d like to get to Ghostwood as quickly as we can.”
Byron settled in on Dindra’s back and the three companions set off again, marching east, more easily in the trail broken by the centaurs.