Mist curled over the quiet hills of Vinwen. Somewhere a bird trilled, prophesying the coming dawn, and the sun answered with a ring of gold spilling over the horizon as it peeked at the slumbering world. Lazy clouds drifted by, grey, dappled with faint pinks and yellows.
Sitting on the wooden fence, Gwynter ren Terare squinted against the hovering gloom in the valley below, eyes fixed on the road. He strained for any sound beyond the faint chirrup of crickets, the song of birds, the gush of the nearby stream. A crow cawed as it landed on the fence.
There. Just there. A faint neigh. The rattle of a wheel against a stray stone. A cracking whip. Gwyn shoved against the rough wood post, leapt to his feet atop the fence, and wobbled once before he caught his balance. Perched, he soon made out the distant shape of the coming carriage, a single lantern bobbing to pierce the predawn shadows.
Gwyn grinned and jumped from the fence. The crow screamed and flew off. Gwyn loped along the streambank up toward the manor house. His shoulder-length hair flounced in his eyes, but he ignored it as he cut through a protesting gaggle of geese and threw himself against the kitchen door to stumble inside.
“Mercy, child!” cried Mavell, spoon in hand. “You look a sight. What awful trouble could there be so early as this?”
Gwyn shook his head as he gasped for air, leaning forward, hands on his legs. He gulped a few times before he could utter a word. “Lawen’s coming. Almost here. Down the road a bit.” He straightened and headed for a bucket of water on the table, took up a ladle, and helped himself to a long, cool drink.
The cook grabbed the ladle, poured water into a cup, and handed that to Gwyn. “Master Lawen, already? Surely not. He’s not to come until tomorrow, so his letter said.”
Gwyn drained the cup. He held it out to let Mavell ladle him another. “But he’s always early. I had a feeling to watch for him, and here he comes.”
“And how do you know it’s Master Lawen?”
Gwyn smiled. “I always know.”
She pursed her lips but didn’t argue. There seemed no point, they both knew that.
“Well,” the slender woman said, rubbing her hands against her apron. “If it is Master Lawen, oughtn’t you go off and clean yourself up for his arrival? Your mother will have a fit if you greet him looking like a shepherd’s boy.” She swatted Gwyn’s backside with the ladle. “Off with you, go on.”
Gwyn chuckled and trotted out of the kitchen and into a long gallery. His feet echoed against the flagstones. He cast a glance out the windows to find that full dawn had banished grey in favor of a thousand shades of green and brilliant gold. He could hear the geese and chickens griping and dogs barking as the carriage rolled along the private drive leading to the house. Gwyn thought he heard the crunch of gravel and his heart leapt.
Lawen! Home, at last. How long had it been? A year or longer. Mount Vinwen had felt hollow in his absence, though none of the others appeared to notice.
Gwyn reached his room, brushed off his trousers to dislodge any dirt or wood splinters, and changed his coarse shirt for fine woven linen. He slipped on stockings, yanked on a pair of polished boots, then caught his hair in a ponytail. A last inspection in his mirror. Gwyn awarded himself a curt, militaristic nod. He tugged one last time on his long shirt front, wrapped his belt atop it, clicked his heels, and headed downstairs.
In the main vestibule he found the rest of the ren Terares assembled, even Mother, though her lips pressed tight and her eyebrows arched above eyes sharp as needles. She turned toward Gwyn as he reached the bottom of the sweeping staircase and her gaze softened.
“Gwyn, dearheart. Thank you for not looking like a peasant this morning.”
He kissed her cheeks. “Good morning, Mother. I thought this occasion warranted the change.”
She sighed. “Yes, I suppose the master is home today.”
Gwyn brushed off her tone, not willing to let it seep in. He could understand her resentment in a way. Last year Tynveer ren Terare, Gwyn and Lawen’s blood father, had been killed in a skirmish against the savage Ilidreth. Now Lawen was the master of Mount Vinwen, and Mother, Tynveer’s second wife after Lawen’s mother had passed, now suspected her stepson would soon send her and her three children to live at another of his estates, but Gwyn knew better. There was no kinder soul in all Simaerin than his elder half-brother.
The sound of crunching gravel outside the front doors ceased as the carriage bounced to a stop. Gwyn’s younger sisters laughed and tumbled forward as the servants pulled the manor doors aside to admit the Master of Vinwen.
“Sila, Neirin,” said Mother. “Do try to behave like human beings.” Though her tone was harsh, she wore a fond smile as she followed them out onto the wide porch.
Gwyn came last, clamping down on an urge to rush forth and barrel into Lawen as soon as he descended from the carriage. He couldn’t wait to see Lawen in full dress: that rich red tabard bright over the full armor worn in the Crow King’s service. The silhouette of a crow in profile painted against the gleaming breastplate. A broadsword strapped at the hip, heavy and sure in the possession of Lawen ren Terare.
The footman jumped from his perch behind the carriage and came forward to open the door. Lawen unfolded himself from within, and Gwyn felt his excitement crescendo—then die on a sour note. Indeed, it was Lawen, though he wore no armor; instead, a shawl wrapped around his shoulders, plain travel garb beneath that. His complexion was pale, his green eyes sunken, black hair lank and damp with sweat. Even so, a smile adorned his ashen lips as he took in the sight before him.
“My beautiful family.” He extended his arms to greet them. Gwyn’s heart wrung in his chest and he sprang forward to catch Lawen as the man staggered. Gwyn steadied him, feeling the brittle thinness of his half-brother’s arm in his grasp.
“My dear Lawen!” exclaimed Mother. “Are you wounded? We heard nothing of any battle.”
Lawen shook his head. “Only a little ill, that’s all. I’ve been granted an extended leave to care for myself until this passes. Don’t fret over me.” He turned to Gwyn. “My word, little brother. You’ve outgrown me, and only fourteen years of age. That should be against some ancient law of birthright.” He coughed; a throaty, ragged sound. “I could do with a little water.”
“Of course,” Mother said, motioning inside. “Gwyn, take him into the parlor. I’ll have Cook bring water and something to eat.”
Gwyn guided Lawen inside and past the staircase into a parlor off the main gallery. He helped Lawen to sink into a plush wingback chair. Lawen panted and his hands trembled. Gwyn stared at those thin fingers as his chest tightened around his heart.
Sila and Neirin hovered at the door, wide-eyed and speechless. Lawen smiled at them, then dropped his head against the chairback. He closed his eyes. “Needn’t worry so much. Just a bad cold.”
Gwyn arched an eyebrow. “I’ve never seen such a cold as this.”
Lawen’s smile stretched. “You worry too much, Gwynny.”
He drew back. “I’m not six anymore, Lawen. It’s Gwyn now.”
“Such a grownup.” Lawen coughed until the fit doubled him over. Gwyn watched with humming fear as his heartbeat raced in his ears. At last the man sat straight and let his head fall back and roll to the side. He gasped. “You…really need to…enjoy your childhood a little…a little bit longer…you know…”
Gwyn tried a wry smile. “I’ll not take that advice from a man who joined the Crow King’s army to escape growing crops.”
Lawen rasped out a chuckle. “Very well, very well. Your point is made, although one might argue that my advice is now the voice of experience. Enjoy your crops, Gwynny. Killing people isn’t…quite the glory…our Sovereign King would like us to believe…”
Gwyn rested a hand on his brother’s thin arm. “Enough of that for now. Just rest. You’ve come home to recover, not to pawn your estate off on me.”
Lawen laughed again. “Justly rebuked. I shall repent by taking a nap.”
Gwyn backed away from the chair, his smile warming. “Just so. But first, here’s Mavell with your water.”
Four days after the Lawen’s homecoming, Gwyn stood with the house steward and family physician on the landing of the manor’s second floor. He listened to the rumble of the steward set against the treble of the physician, as they discussed the health of their master.
“I’ve bled him,” the physician said. “But he only grows weaker.”
Gwyn rubbed an itch on his neck, turning from the two men to study the world outside the nearest window. Little Sila chased the geese down in the courtyard, while Neirin looked on, laughing. Several milkmaids swept past them on their way to the barn. Gwyn’s eyes traveled to the forest beyond the estate’s cultivated fields. A half dozen crows rested on the far fence. His neck itched again.
Mother’s voice. He turned to find her cresting the staircase and offered a solemn smile. “Yes, Lady Mother?”
“A letter has arrived from Lawen’s commanding officer.” She held aloft the folded parchment. “I thought you and Doctor Hesegg should be aware of its contents.” She swept forward, skirts rustling against the stone floor. “According to General Cadogan’s personal physician, Lawen is dying.”
Gwyn’s heart convulsed. His light eyes danced between Mother and the physician, both shorter than him, and he felt as though they shrank in his sight, farther, farther. He was floating away. Not Lawen. Please not Lawen too.
“Lawen knows,” Mother went on. “He knows and he’s said nothing.”
Gwyn’s feet found solid ground again. “He doesn’t wish to worry us, Mother.”
Her grip tightened on the letter, crinkling it. “Doctor Hesegg, is there anything you can do?”
He shook his head. “I’ve tried every treatment I know, my lady, and none have aided him in the least. All that is left in my power is to keep him somewhat comfortable until he either recovers or…” He offered a gentle shrug.
Gwyn slipped away from Mother, from the physician, and the steward, to approach Lawen’s door. He entered the darkened room and choked on the close air. It smelled of sweat, blood, sickness. It reeked of death, just as when Father lay so still in his coverlets, ghost departed.
“Gwyn?” came a harsh whisper from the dark lump in the four-post bed.
He padded nearer. “Yes, Lawen. I’m here.”
“You sound so grim. Is the doctor taking my cold too seriously?”
“General Cadogan sent a letter to Mother. We know how sick you are.”
A deep sigh sounded in the gloom. “I am sorry he did that, Gwyn. I didn’t want to worry you.”
Scalding heat speared Gwyn’s heart and pounded through his head. He fisted his hands and trembled against an outburst. When he spoke, his voice hung low and soft. “Did you think to deceive us until the very end, Lawen? Did you think the truth would be easier to bear when it became too late for farewells?”
The coverlet rustled and a thin hand rose from the darkness. “Come here, little brother.”
Gwyn’s fists loosened and his shoulders drooped. He knelt beside the bed and clasped Lawen’s hand, seeking his brother’s face in the gloom. There. Gaunt and tight, a sheen of sweat on his brow.
“Forgive me the coward’s path,” Lawen whispered. “I didn’t think I could abide seeing my death reflected in your eyes. In truth I’ve been sick a long while; Father alone knew of it, but I begged him to say nothing. I’ve sought help from all sorts of healers, some less than reputable, but to no avail. And then Father was killed by the Ilidreth, and—” His voice broke. “Oh, Gwyn, I nearly died of guilt when we got word. Father went to the Ilidreth for my sake. He heard they could cure what others can’t, but of course it was folly to try. The Ilidreth hate humans too much to hear a desperate man out.”
Gwyn stared, a chill shooting down his spine as he imagined how Father must’ve begged to be spared, if only long enough to save his son. Rage rang in his ears, but he swallowed hard and urged it to be silent. Anger, Father had often told him, should never be given purchase in a man’s mind; not if he wanted to be respectable. Not if he wanted to be wise.
When the fury stilled enough, Gwyn squeezed his brother’s hand. “I would forgive anything of which you’re guilty, Lawen, but I don’t see how you could be. I’ve never faced death for myself. How can I know how it feels?” He bowed his head to rest his brow against his brother’s knuckles. He trembled. Lawen was so strong, so noble, an officer in the Crow King’s army, yet…
He swallowed hard. “By Afallon, the Ilidreth are so cruel!”
“Not without reason,” Lawen said with a sigh. “We’ve stripped them of their pride and forced them deeper into the woods as we’ve cut down their forest. We’ve been cruel to them, far more so than they to us.”
“But the Ilidreth are a savage race. Had we not driven them back, they would have killed every last one of us.”
Lawen shook his head. “Would they, Gwyn? Or does the Crow King merely tell us so?”
Gwyn startled. He had never heard his brother speak of the king with anything other than the deepest respect. “Don’t say such things. If the king—”
“If the king weren’t so blind, perhaps we would live in harmony with the Ilidreth. Perhaps our lands wouldn’t be so impoverished. Perhaps the sun would be just a bit warmer, a bit brighter, because those who live under it would do so without the eye of a tyrant bearing down on us.”
Gwyn shuddered. “You mustn’t—”
Lawen jerked his hand free and gripped Gwyn’s shoulder with brittle fingers. “Listen to me, Gwynter. It seems a bittersweet gift is born in a dying man to see what he couldn’t before. But perhaps my newborn sight will aid others where it avails me naught. The Crow King is not the great man we thought.”
“Lawen, you’re ill. You’re not thinking right.”
Lawen’s hand fell to the bed. He dragged in a rattling breath. “I served him…Served him with high honor…Drove Ilidreth to their deaths, and—and did so many other horrible things. Things…I would undo if I possibly could. The Crow King is mad, Gwyn. Mad.”
Gwyn’s throat constricted. He fought to swallow and took Lawen’s hand. “Hush, brother. You mustn’t speak like this. ‘Tis treason.”
“What can the Crow King do to me now? I am dying.”
Gwyn bit his lip. A crow beyond the curtained window gave a sharp caw; wings beat hard against the air as it flew off, perhaps to the nearby wood. Gwyn let his mind’s eye imagine the tall, ancient trees of that wood where the Ilidreth dwelt. Father thought they had the cure.
He turned back to Lawen, but his brother had grown still, breaths deeper, though still so weak.
“You cannot die, dear brother. I won’t let you die.”
Perhaps Lawen’s reckless words against the Crow King were infectious. Gwyn felt nothing whatever about the king himself, but that defiant spirit filled his being like the low flicker of hot embers. Was it possible? Were the Ilidreth misunderstood — those strange, ethereal beings who dwelt in the wooded vales of the world?
Father must have thought so, and he’d perished for it.
But if there was a cure, dare Gwyn not risk it?
He rested Lawen’s hand on the coverlet, stroked his fingers once, and rose. Gwyn was only fourteen years of age. But he was tall and strong, accustomed to hunting and riding, and he knew a fair stretch of the woods and how to navigate untamed lands.
Mother would never let him go, especially to save the life of Father’s first wife’s son. But Gwyn loved his brother more than anyone in the world. If there was a whisper of hope, he must answer.
Time stretched out of mind as Gwyn stared out at the distant trees and weighed the risks. Should he leave Lawen now, so frail and faint, when he chanced never seeing him alive again? Or should he remain here to watch Lawen fade, helpless, hopeless?
Gwyn curled his fingers into fists.
He would leave at once, under the pretense of the morning’s chores. It would be hours before anyone missed him, and then Mother would search and discover a message explaining his departure. By then it would be too late to stop him. None of the servants, none of the serfs or slaves, would venture into the woods even for their master.
Gwyn left Lawen’s room and made for his own to pack and to scrawl a hasty note.
Woodland chatter filled the trees as Gwyn guided Tia, his dappled mare, along the well-worn path. No Ilidreth would dwell so near cultivated lands; thus, humans used this stretch of the woods for lumber, trapping, hunting, foraging, or whatever else they could to secure a trade. Gwyn often came to hunt, or to learn the lay of moss or the turning of a leaf, as Father had taught him. Gwyn had wanted to be a guide when he was younger, but when Lawen joined the Crow King’s army, Gwyn decided to follow in his brother’s footsteps when he came of age. That would require many of the same skills he had spent his childhood honing.
It would be very handy now, when he left the path and entered less hospitable realms.
Gwyn had packed light, only carrying two extra sets of clothing to make more room for food and medicinal herbs, a hunting knife, bow and arrow, and a short sword. Tia bore her burden well, content to walk the old familiar path as she had countless times, oblivious of their objective.
It was midday before Gwyn eased Tia off the path and into the thick canopy of towering trees. Everything gleamed vibrant green after the night’s spring rain, and rich loam taunted Gwyn’s senses like a heady wine. Tia left prints in the soft soil for anyone to follow, but Gwyn knew they wouldn’t.
Another twenty minutes passed with nothing but a distant wind sighing against the branches and the prattle of scampering squirrels. Tia nickered and shifted her hooves, ears flicking.
“Easy, girl,” Gwyn said, running a hand along her neck. “Easy.” He searched the surrounding trees but saw nothing strange. He urged her on. She tossed her head but obeyed.
Minutes later she faltered again and backed up with a snort.
“Whoa, Tia. What is it?” He leaned forward to pat her neck and stiffened as movement caught his eye. There, right of his course. A flash of color slinked behind a tree.
Gwyn straightened in the saddle and reached down to finger his hunting knife, wishing he’d had the sense to unstrap his bow from his pack before he entered the deeper wood. A stray breeze rustled the leaves overhead and tugged against Gwyn’s ponytail. Something stirred behind the tree he studied, and he thought he smelled blood.
Movement came again. Red cloth. The fine cloth of an army tabard. There was no arm attached to that tabard, and it hung too high to belong to a man. Hair rose against the back of Gwyn’s neck as he understood. He dismounted, wrapped Tia’s reins around a branch of the nearest sapling, slid his hunting knife from the saddle scabbard, and crept toward the tabard.
He knew what to expect before he saw it. Rounding the tree, he lifted his gaze to find the empty red cloth pinned by arrows to the gnarled trunk.
Despite its color, Gwyn recognized the dark stains on its front for what they were: Blood. Lots of it, especially near the heart and neckline. Lowering his eyes, Gwyn discovered the telltale signs of a burial at his feet, where the ground had been raised and packed down under dancing feet.
The message was clear: Go no farther.
Gwyn returned to Tia, sheathed his blade, and swung into the saddle. He urged her onward again, grim but resolute. He knew the risks. The warning of the Ilidreth made no difference.
Despite the gruesome sign, there was no incident as the day stretched on toward evening. Dusk settled over the wood early, stretching shadowed fingers across the green world. Gwyn knew better than to travel by night in this foreboding realm, and he set up camp at the first decent site he found. It was a wide dip in the earth, whose far side opened to reveal a trickling stream. Fallen moss-plagued logs and dead branches littered the ground. He gathered the branches, along with what dry kindling he could find, and used his flint and steel to make a flame. Soon a fire blazed, chasing off the growing chill.
Gwyn tied a canvas from the nearest limb of an old oak and stretched it down to the ground, pinned it, and unfastened his bedroll to spread out beneath the canvas shelter. He plucked a long, straight stick from the ground to draw a circle around his little camp, then fingered a leathern cord at his throat and murmured a prayer of protection to Afallon.
It wasn’t much, perhaps superstition tied to faith, but Gwyn couldn’t be too careful. Not in the territory of the Ilidreth.
He checked on Tia tied to a nearby tree, fed her a few oats and what wild grass he could find, and drew a circle around her to be safe.
A quick cup of hot tea, a few bites of bread and cheese, then Gwyn curled up for the night. Despite how weary he felt from the day’s ride, his thoughts churned. For the first time he doubted himself. What had he been thinking, going off on his own in search of the enemy? Yes, perhaps the Ilidreth did have a cure that would save Lawen’s life. What good was that if Gwyn died here alone?
He turned onto his back and sighed, letting his thoughts drift out with his breath. The decision was already made, the journey begun. He couldn’t turn back now; not when this was his last hope. If he succeeded, he would not only save Lawen’s life, but in some sense he would be rescuing Father from this ancient wood.
No, Gwynter ren Terare would not return home empty-handed.
At the first hint of dawn Gwyn rose and broke camp, saddled Tia, and moved out.
Tia walked at her ease, untroubled by the memories of yesterday. Gwyn let her have the reins and she followed the stream until it disappeared underground around noon. Gwyn halted to let her enjoy the water at its end, while he ate an early dinner and filled his water flask before they started on again.
The sky darkened. Soon it began to rain, but the storm was fleeting, leaving the wood fresh and verdant as the grumbling clouds rolled away.
He drank in the scents, enjoying the solitude. He was accustomed to the lively sounds of the farm, the workers singing in the fields, the laughter of Sila and Neirin, the clucking of chickens, the rattle of wagon wheels as slaves and servants milled about performing their duties. So much hustle and bustle. Here, in this realm as old as life itself, the noise of wildlife, scampering or buzzing by, permeated the wood but it was ancient, hallowed. Somehow wise. I could learn more about life in this place than I ever could in the busy streets of Crowwell or the thriving fields of Vinwen.
A startled sparrow fluttered from a flowering tree as horse and rider strode past. Gwyn tensed, hands clutching the reins. He must remember why he’d come here. Not to learn from the trees, but to bargain with the Ilidreth. Keep your head. The woods, some said, could bespell you and make you lose your way.
He checked his bearings and sighed. He wasn’t lost.
Tia halted, her body quaking. He patted her neck as he glanced around. Tia whinnied.
There. Gwyn sat up straight. This was no tabard pinned to a trunk, but a tall figure mostly hidden by the drooping leaves of a willow tree.
He swallowed to find his voice. “Hello?”
Gwyn licked his parched lips. “I-I seek the Ilidreth.”
The leaves whispered and the figure stepped into view, an arrow nocked and pointed at Gwyn’s heart. The boy lifted his hands to show he held no weapons, eyes wide as he stared for the first time upon a fae creature.
It was beautiful; tall and lithe, slender, with long hair of glossy black and slanted eyes of purest blue. High cheekbones and pointed ears framed the Ilidreth’s face. He — for Gwyn thought it was a man — wore close-fitting clothes, deep greens and browns and reds in motley patterns made from a material not unlike silk, though sturdier.
The creature glided forward, making the barest hint of noise. His arrow never strayed from its target and he halted several yards away, blue eyes burning into Gwyn.
“Were you but a year or two older you would already be dead, young one,” the being said in a melodic tone that brought to mind twinkling stars and a burbling stream. “Why do you seek the Ilidreth?”
Gwyn steeled himself. “I seek a cure for my dying brother.”
The being’s eyes narrowed a little. “You would ask for our aid?”
Gwyn nodded. “I would and I do.”
The being canted his head. “So bold. What is your name?”
“Gwynter ren Terare.”
“Ren Terare? I know the name. Another of your kin came here not many seasons past, seeking the same. He demanded we save his heir and when we refused, he tried to kill us.”
Gwyn bowed his head. “Is that the truth of it? Yet you confess you would have killed me were I fully grown, before I had even a chance to speak. Did my father know better courtesy than this?”
The being’s gaze softened, or perhaps the light overhead changed. “You ask a fair question. I did not expect such from ren Terare’s ilk. Dismount and I shall show you courtesy, young Lord Gwynter ren Terare of Vinwen.”
Gwyn hesitated. “What is your name, if you please?”
The being studied him for a moment. “Celin, perhaps, in your tongue. Come.” He gestured for Gwyn to follow and glided back toward the tree where Gwyn had first seen him. The boy dismounted and followed, leading Tia. “Leave her,” Celin said without glancing back. “Tamed beasts are not permitted in the glade beyond. She will be safe enough here.”
Gwyn hesitated to leave Tia and his weapons behind but followed the Ilidreth past the vine-like branches of the willow.
Before him stretched a vale, wide and bright with white light emanating from the sentinel trees whose crystal flowers shone in full bloom upon the twigs and branches. Celin stood before him, but where before his hair shone black, now it gleamed white, and his raiment had become an intricate robe of woven silver. His eyes, however, were the same pure blue.
Celin wore a faint smile. “Welcome to the Vale of Life, where dwell the Ilidreth. Tell me, young lord, is this courtesy?”
Gwyn tried to drink in every detail. Water flowed like liquid silver, cascading down from a waterfall and into a glistening pool. Though moments before it had been daylight, here a black sky sparkled with myriad stars burning brighter than any Gwyn had ever seen. Strange constellations hung against the heavens, yet foreign names tumbled into his head as he stared at the shapes they sketched. Did something above whisper them to him?
“We cannot be in the same place.”
Celin’s smile grew. “We are not. The Vale is not of Simaerin, but of another Realm.”
Gwyn took a step forward. “I don’t understand. How can this be so?”
“It is magic, young lord. A thing humans have proclaimed as witchcraft performed by sorcerers. Yet the Ilidreth weave magic, no matter your commands, no matter the commands of your king.” Celin’s eyes narrowed, sharp as daggers; then his gaze softened. “Your father was not shown this sight, for he was forceful and impolite. Had he conversed with the Ilidreth as one man to another, as you have done to me, he might have lived.”
Gwyn’s heart constricted. “Did you—”
“Blow out your temper before it flames. I did not slay your father. ‘Twas the deed of another, more prone to violence. Alas, there are many Ilidreth now aligned thus. That is the doing of man.”
“We’ve been taught to fear and hate you. I believed you to be savage.” He searched the Ilidreth’s face.
Celin lowered his eyes. “And so we are becoming, one Vale at a time. Many of my kin are Fallen.”
“But if humans knew of this beauty, surely they would believe you mean us no harm.”
Celin laughed lightly. “Most would not see this even should I lead them here. You, young lord, I have shown because your eyes are willing to see truth where others’ are not. But I see that field of vision narrowing even now. A year or two more and you shall see as other men: a vision tainted by shades and shadows.”
Gwyn bristled and heat bloomed against his cheeks,
“You see?” said Celin. “If an Ilidreth speaks truth, will you, so nearly a man, pay heed? Or shall you deny what you do not think to be right, proving thereby what I say?”
Gwyn bit his lip and shook his head. “I didn’t come to argue, and I didn’t come to learn your ways. I came to ask whatever price you require in exchange for a cure for my brother.”
Celin canted his head. “And if my price were that you learned the ways of the Ilidreth? Or perhaps, the taking of one life in replacement of another? What if I should require the Crow King’s head in order to save your brother?”
Gwyn’s eyes widened. “That would be impossible!”
“It may be indeed. You are fortunate that I do not require such a weighty price.”
“What then is your price?” asked Gwyn. “Will you help me after all?”
“I may, young ren Terare. But the cure is not so obtainable as you appear to assume. Have I a magic plant that would heal any disease? Even the Vales of Life are not so powerful. I do not know what ails your brother. How can I administer a cure?”
Gwyn’s heart clenched. “Human healers have already tried everything. My father believed you possessed something special. Was he wrong?”
“I do not possess any such thing. But I begin to understand what it is your father sought.” Celin turned east, eyes boring into the trees, as though he saw something in the darkness. He lifted a hand, finger stretched forth. “Travel by way of the Serethenwé, the ancient path of shades, until you come to a road of crystal. Follow that northward and you shall reach Shaeswéath, in your tongue called Swan Castle.”
“But Swan Castle is just a myth.”
Celin smiled. “To many, young Gwynter ren Terare, so are the Ilidreth.” He lowered his hand. “Only in Shaeswéath may you find a cure so potent as you need, and then perhaps not. Beware: the road ahead is filled with snares.”
Gwyn let his shoulders slump as dread raked its cold fingers through his limps. “How far is Swan Castle? My brother won’t last much longer.”
The Ilidreth frowned. “Even should you ride without rest and encounter no dangers, it would take two of your human months to return to Vinwen with the cure in hand.”
Dismay tumbled over Gwyn, dragging his shoulders down. “That’s far too long!” He clenched his hands as they trembled.
“In truth, it will take much longer, for your mare will not survive the journey,” said Celin. “Nothing so tame can long last in the True Wood.”
“Then I must go on foot?” Gwyn breathed through his tightening ribcage. He lifted his head. “Due east will bring me to my destination?”
“Never stray and, should you prove as resourceful as an Ilidreth, you might make it all the way. But afoot, never.”
“Yet I cannot bring Tia.”
Celin nodded. “Just so.”
“You give me little cause for hope.”
“I mean not to. You should return home and make your brother’s passing as comfortable as possible. This is wisdom.”
Gwyn shook his head. “No. If I don’t try, I will always see myself as a coward. I cannot live with regret, knowing I turned back at the first difficulty.” He held Celin’s gaze. “What price do you ask for the information you’ve given me?”
The Ilidreth blinked at him, slow, deliberating. “You have but one task to perform. Upon reaching Swan Castle, you must kill someone.”
Gwyn recoiled. “Kill?”
“There is a creature there, once of the Ilidreth but far Fallen. His name is Kive, though he probably does not remember it. Among all the Ilidreth, he is most foul. Your strike would be a merciful one. Kill him, if you can. In exchange I shall provide a mount swifter than the fastest horse, and your journey there will take but a fortnight, provided you are not waylaid by the True Wood.” Celin lifted his hand. A rustle came from behind him. Before Gwyn could respond to the Ilidreth’s offer, his mouth fell open as into view trotted the fairest horse Gwyn had ever beheld. No, not a horse. A white deer.
No, he realized with a jolt and a shiver. “A unicorn!”
The fair, lithe creature glowed a white purer than the Vale itself. Its horn was of gold and silver twined into a deadly point; its hooves, golden and flecked with silver; its eyes, opalescent, filled with every color. It gazed at Gwyn with an expression not animal, nor human. Gwyn thought perhaps the unicorn held the world in its gaze and understood far more than any human ever could.
Celin rested his slender hand on the unicorn’s head. “This is Aluem, my very good friend. He shall be your guide and your mount, for he chooses so to be. My advice remains that you should return home, but Aluem feels otherwise, and thus he undertakes to aid you. Treat him with respect, for he is no common beast.”
Gwyn caught Celin’s gaze. “I treat all beasts with respect, but I understand that this is no beast at all.” He turned back to the unicorn and bowed his head. “I am Gwynter ren Terare.”
Rushing wind filled Gwyn’s mind, followed by flute-like words both familiar and strange. ‘I am Aluem in your tongue, young Gwynter. I journey with you now because the Weave has called you. Shall we go?’
The wind ceased, the world stilled, and Gwyn caught his breath. His wits returned to him. “What of Tia?”
“I shall see her to the edge of Vinwen province,” said Celin. “Look to yourself. Your danger grows, while your mare’s has ended.”
Gwyn nodded. “Then I just need to gather my supplies.” He turned to head back to Tia, but hesitated, and turned again to peer one last time at the Vale of Life.
“Look well,” said Celin. “You are unlikely to see a Vale again while you yet live. Though perhaps that is not so long a wait as you would wish.”
Gwyn removed his packs from Tia’s back and set them aside. He paused as he fingered the saddle strapped to the mare. Would he require it, or would that offend Aluem? It felt wrong to confine the unicorn at all, even in order to ride him.
The wind rushed through Gwyn’s mind again, and Aluem’s clarion voice flowed into his thoughts. ‘There will be no need of your saddle or reins. I am not a beast of burden, and you shall not direct my steps. Hold fast to my mane and all will be well. Never has anyone fallen from the back of Aluem, unless I desired it.’
Gwyn nodded, strapped his hunting knife and short sword to his belt, and quiver of arrows to his back. He glanced at his packs as he adjusted his bow against his shoulder. “How will we carry these?”
‘Take from them what you need but leave food behind. I shall provide you with sustenance. Bring nothing you cannot carry in a single pack.’
Rummaging through his meager possessions, Gwyn chose to keep only one extra set of clothes and the medicinal herbs. He hitched the pack to his shoulder, repacked the food, and tied it to Tia’s back. On a slip of parchment, he scrawled a swift note for Mother to find: ‘I am well.’ Satisfied, he came around to rest his hand against the mare’s head. “Be brave a little longer, my friend. Celin will take you safely home and, Afallon willing, I shall return to greet you once again.”
The mare nickered and rubbed against his face. He laughed and stroked between her eyes, patted her neck, and turned to the unicorn named Aluem.
“I’m ready to depart.”
‘Very good. Climb upon my back, young Gwynter, and we shall run swifter than the wind against the treetops.’
Tentative, Gwyn reached out to touch Aluem’s back. He started as his fingers brushed against the unicorn’s coat. It was nothing like a horse’s coarse hair at all, but soft as velvet and cold as silk. Finding purchase, Gwyn pulled himself onto Aluem and gingerly gripped the mane.
He glanced at Tia one last time and found Celin standing beside the mare, hair black again, his lean frame draped in motley hues, one hand on Tia’s neck.
Celin dipped his head. “May the sun shine upon your purpose as the Weave directs your course.”
Before Gwyn could reply, Aluem bounded forward, muscles taut, and the trees became a blur. Gwyn clutched the mane with all his strength and bent forward to keep astride. The world became a swirl of colors, faraway, filled with scents too fleeting to catch.
Cool relief surged through Gwyn’s veins as he raced due east upon Aluem. He really might have a chance to save Lawen. But he frowned as a thought invaded his mind.
Celin had asked him to kill someone. Could Gwyn do it? He had never killed a man before, and while most would call Ilidreth animals rather than men, and though an Ilidreth himself had asked the price, Gwyn doubted it would be so easy as hunting food.
I never agreed to the price. I never gave my word.
But was he honor-bound just the same?
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