I woke up.
The sun beat down on my face. I felt around – I was on the bed, still dressed as I had been that morning. Someone was sitting by the bed, pressing a cloth dripping with cold water on my cheeks and forehead.
The Juniper Branch. The inn where I had been staying in Wanechester. How the hell did I get back here?
Trying to move set off waves of nausea and dizziness. I felt exhausted. If it were up to me, I would lie back down and sleep for a few more days. The remains of the summons still echoed through my mind, though, that urgent need to be in Caerlyons pulling on me like a boarhound at a cat's guts.
"What… happened?" I managed to stammer.
The figure by the bed moved into the light. Mistress Joclyn, the innkeeper.
"They carried you in an hour past," she said, pressing the cloth against my cheek. "You were running a fever, mumbling something about Caerlyons and a mistress." She looked at me, as if she had no doubts what kind of mistress I had been talking about. "I made them bring you up here straight sharp and got some cold water from the well put in a bucket. You looked half the ghost."
I tried to struggle up. "I… I have to go."
"None of that now," she said, her voice hardening. "This is no time to be playing the man. What you need is to have a good night's rest and a proper breakfast in the morning. That'll be more than enough time to- -"
"Where are my gloves?" Sheer panic slipped into my voice. Seeing my hands, red raw and skin flaking, bare against the white sheets, though… My heart was beating so hard, I was surprised that Mistress Joclyn couldn't hear it.
"Your gloves? They're over there by the window."
"I need them." I forced my voice to calm. "Please."
Mistress Joclyn looked at me again, as if wondering what kind of strange things I was hiding in those gloves. She peered inside each one before picking them up and bringing them over to me. I let her drop them on the bed before picking them up.
By the Goddess’ blood, what if she had taken my hand while I was out? I shuddered to think what people would have thought if they found me unconscious and her body dead and cold by my side.
"You see?" she said, mistaking my shiver. "You've still got some kind of fever. Never mind the state of your hands. Now, you lie back and…"
"No!" I growled. She jumped, her eyes widening. I softened my voice. "I need to leave, ma’am. I got some… bad news from home. My mother she’s…” My voice broke. “I have to be back in Caerlyons by night fall."
I felt a whoreson for playing on her mother’s instincts, but if I didn't get on the road soon that summons would start to have some… unfortunate side effects.
It worked. She frowned at me a number of times, but she also let me sit up and then helped me to stand. I waved off her offers for help dressing and asked her to have one of the boys prepare my horse to leave. I travel light,so I was ready to go in a matter of minutes. I hobbled downstairs in time to see Ancel being led out by the reins.
The moment my money bag appeared Mistress Joclyn was all business, calculating time and food and water so that I left with my bag a good five silver coins lighter.
Ancel had not liked my reaction to the summons – he danced away the first time I tried to mount him. Setting a firm hand to his bridle, I whispered a few fae words in his ear. He calmed down. Waving a hand to Mistress Joclyn, I pushed my hat down on my head and we left.
The sun beat down, leaving me covered in sweat within moments. Ancel lumbered along, listless. The sounds of the city were overwhelming, hiding even the sound of his shoes on the cobbles.
We passed over Kings Bridge, the towers of Our Lady's Cathedral and the rose-thorn flags flying above Wanechester Castle visible off to the side. As the walls drew closer, farmers, clerks, lawyers and apprentices surrounded us. A few minutes more and we were at the Iron Gate, framed on either side by the statues of the two ancient kings, Ban and Bors. A quick show of my papers and we were out on the Road.
As soon as we were out of the bustle that surrounds any city, I gave Ancel his head. He sprang forward like a pitbull in a bear pit, and by the time we reached the clearing where the farmer had been left that morning, we were going too fast to hear his screams.
By late afternoon, we were a few miles from Caerlyons. For a moment, we left the woods, cresting the Crelterns. I could see down to the Slate Sea and the dancing lights of the city out on the water. Caerlyons. Capital of the Kingdom of Isles. One of the Seven Cities that survived the Great Change.
I guided Ancel back into the Woods. Goddess, it had felt good to be out of those cursed trees. Riding back into them felt like riding into a furnace. Still, a small sea breeze managed to force its way beneath the canopy. I enjoyed the brush of it on my face until a stray gust caught up my hat.
I reached out to catch it, my fingers brushing the felt, then the wind had it. It tumbled through the air and landed a few steps away. Just on the other side of the iron posts.
I bought Ancel to a stop. He whinied, reluctant. I patted him on the side, then slid off. A few steps brought me to the edge of the Road. I stopped, thinking back to the farmer's screams that morning.
Twilight reigned in the dominion of the trees. Trunks rose like columns in some ancient temple, bark the colour of rich earth. Moss covered the branches that twisted and turned into semblances of limbs, joints giving way to smaller and smaller tributaries, like the Tinian estuary. Rocks littered the forest floor, otherwise barren and devoid of life. A quiet world, silent as the grave.
- Now why would you want to go in there?
"ss'Blood, Lucan," I hissed.
- It is only a friendly warning, Daniel.
- Next time, warn me before you sneak up on me like that, I responded, in my head this time.
I sensed more than heard his amusement.
- Perhaps you would prefer I announce myself with drums and trumpets.
- Next time, keep your comments to yourself until…
- Until you make a big mistake.
- Leave me alone, Lucan.
Shaking my head, I turned my attention back to my hat. The wind had caught it up again, rolling it a few steps further into the Woods. Ss'lud, I loved that hat. Telling myself that only a fool would risk leaving the Iron Road for a hat, I stepped off the road and into the Woods.
A sudden stillness marked my passage into the fae world, as if the trees had held their breath the moment I set foot on the earth. The only sound was a faint whispering that buzzed in my ear. Then came the indefinable sense of power running in the soil. Magic lived here. Powerful magic.
I knew what waited if I stayed here long enough. I would begin to feel the magic more clearly, I would begin to hear the whispers properly. I shouldn't linger.
I scrambled over to my hat, bent down to pick it up and set it firmly on my head, screwing it down until the felt almost touched my ears. I straightened, ready to return to the Road. And I saw her.
A little girl stood barely ten feet away from me. She wore a green dress that shimmered and shifted like water. Sucking her thumb and holding a ragged old doll loosely in her arms, she stared at me with big eyes, green as her dress. And she smiled.
I just stood there for a moment, looking at her. A little mortal girl, alone in the Woods.
I opened my mouth to say something, but nothing would come out. Her smile widened. I realised suddenly that I couldn't move. This tiny little girl had cast some kind of spell on me! I struggled, managing little more than a grunt.
Then, as quickly as it had come over me, the binding vanished, leaving me free. I stumbled and fell. Catching myself with my hands, I scraped my knees and felt the fabric of my gloves rip on the rocks. I cursed. By the time I looked up, the girl had disappeared.
In her place were two fae. They were naked and obviously female, their breasts dropping ponderously. Red mottled skin clashed with their yellow eyes. Sharp orange teeth showed through cracked lips as they smiled at me.
One of them opened her mouth.
"Brother," she hissed and opened her arms to embrace me.