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A Way through the Woods

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The painted, carved shutters of the great hall of the tower of Ali'inel were thrown open to the late spring air, and Tamas heard the clatter of iron-shod hooves in the courtyard below. Stout Dezda, clearing the platters and crocks from breakfast, nodded at him as he looked up. "You'd best be off, then. Should I call m'lady?"

Ela, she meant. Ela kept her own time, as always. But it was true that they needed to get on their way before the day grew much older. "As you say, Dezda."

"D'you want more milk, master? Bread?"

"No, I'm fine." Dezda was a worrier, and she tended to fuss over him like his old nurse. He pushed back his chair. It was carved and painted also: all the woodwork at Ali'inel was beautiful. It was still strange to him that the tower and all its furnishings - even to the clothes in the oak chests in the bedchambers - had come back together at the end of the long night last year, but the people had not. "Living things aren't so easy," master Karoly had told him. And anyway, the people arrived on their own in the months after that night, drifting back to the land beside the lake, building houses and clearing the land that the woods had taken back. Their people had come from Ali'inel, they told him, and master Karoly said it was only natural and right that they should be here now.

He wished master Karoly hadn't gone back to Maggiar. It was hard to be the master of a tower and lord of a growing town. It was hard to calm the villagers' and servants' fears of the goblins, despite the stories they had heard from their grandparents. Karoly hadn't been any better at it than Tamas was, but it was still easier to make decisions with a wise old man behind him.

But now he would see master Karoly again, and Yuri. And face his mother and father. He was not sure, yet, how he felt about that.

Out in the courtyard, Ruslan and his sister Rika, who were to accompany their master and mistress across the mountains, were already setting their gear onto white-patched Nedko and bay Zorya. Elbek the stable boy was holding the reins of Tamas' stolid brown Tsimi and Ela's dappled Iva. They were good horses - astonishingly good horses when one considered that no one at Ali'inel had paid as much as one copper med for any of them. Tamas had not liked that, but Karoly and Ela had agreed with the villagers and the new folk of the tower that the master and mistress should have horses. Tamas suspected that the goblins had been involved: now that merchants were passing between Albaz and Ali'inel once more, someone might have been willing to buy the silver armrings and steel daggers that so many of Azdra'ik's folk had.

Zadny came romping over, and Tamas rumpled his ears. "You stay with Mitri, hear me?" Zadny wagged his tail, likely anticipating a hunt in the woods with his master: It was the departure from Maggiar all over again, save there were no mother and father standing in the courtyard, waiting to bid them farewell.

Mitri the castellan came up from the stables with a rolled canvas over his shoulder. "All ready then, young master?" he asked genially, as he handed the tent to Ruslan. Tamas nodded. Mitri turned away as Dezda came out with a last basketful of food. "I hope they'll return at least handfasted," he muttered to her.

Tamas heard, as did Ela, who had just arrived in the doorway. It was no more than Tamas had overheard at least every third or fourth day since Dezda and the others had joined them. The witch with the wizard consort. He would wager what little money he had that the tower's folk had learned that from Azdra'ik's folk. But Ela's scowl at the back of Mitri's head was thundercloud black.

"Don't," he said, softly. "They mean no harm."

"Nor do rats or crows. Chitter chatter, caw caw caw."

Tamas looked around . This was the sort of thing that wearied him more than he would have ever imagined. How had he ever thought that restoring the land and defeating the goblin queen would be the end of his troubles? Dezda and Mitri were giving each other knowing glances. "Young," said Dezda, fastening the last buckle on Rika's saddlebag. "Very young."

"We'd best get on the road," said Tamas, as firmly as he could. He took Tsimi's reins from Elbek, who led Iva over to Ela. She mounted without a word and started off with not one backward glance. "Ela -"

Ruslan swung into his saddle and clattered off after her. Tamas leaned his head against Tsimi's shoulder for a minute before he mounted up and followed, with Rika on Zorya at his heels. "Be careful," called Mitri, struggling to hold Zadny by the collar, and there were other well wishes called after them, none of which Tamas could make out over the noise of the horses' hooves on the cobbles of the courtyard.

They caught up with Ela and Ruslan on the brow of the first foothill. Ruslan's face was flushed and Ela's stony. "Don't run off like that," said Tamas.

"I can take care of myself. I don't belong to you!"

"Well, since we're both traveling to Maggiar, we might as well stay together. Right?"

"I should never have agreed to this."

"But you did. Ela - please."

She stared at him a moment longer and then bowed her head. Tamas did not feel any sense of victory: it was all too humble for Ysabel's Ela, the Witch of Tajny Wood. "Come on," he said at last to all three of them, and they rode on over the hill.

After a few hours, they had traveled farther from Ali'inel than Tamas had been since the defeat of the goblin queen. The bright sky clouded over, but there was nothing odd or threatening about it. The surviving trees all had fresh young leaves, and there was a constant chatter of birds. When they stopped for the night, he realized they must be on the fringes of the Wood, but there was no feeling of hostility or even regard. He glanced over at Ela. "Are any of them here?"

She shook her head. "Not even my mistress."

Ruslan gathered dead wood from the stark skeletons of the trees that had been partially burned last year, and Rika soon had a cheerful fire burning. They had hot tea, that morning's bread, roasted turnips, and the fresh meat from their supplies, broiled over the glowing coals. When Ruslan was finished eating, he brought out his little four-stringed gittern and played for them. Tamas was just thinking he was ready for sleep when they heard something coming through the undergrowth.

Rika leapt to her feet, her short sword drawn. The firelight showed a creature four legged and long jawed, with a fringed tail waving. Ruslan swore, exasperated. Tamas dropped his face into his hands. "Zadny."

The yellow hound clearly knew that he was in disgrace, but he was also overjoyed to have found them. He capered like a pup and bounded from one person to another. Rika laughed aloud, and even Ela smiled. "Mitri was no match for him," she said.

A fine rain was starting to fall, so they set up the canvas and slept warm until the morning.

*   *   *   *   *  

By the next evening, they had reached the waystone that had been marred with goblin markings when they passed it on the journey from Maggiar. Tamas was suprised to see that it had been scrubbed as clean as Dezda's kitchen table. Young vines were growing over it, and the ground below was dotted with small blossoms of palest pink.

"Well met," said a familiar voice.

Azdra'ik, afoot and leading his goblin horse, was on the trail ahead of them. Zadny barked once in surprise and then wagged his tail. "Lord Goblin," murmured Rika, and Ruslan nodded earnestly. Tamas patted Tsimi's neck in reassurance as the horse started and tried to back away. Ela tightened her grip on Iva's reins and scowled. "Ng'Saieth."

Az'draik grinned. "How pleasant to see such joy on my grandchildren's faces."

"Grandchildren!"

"Well, great-great-great grandchildren." Azdra'ik was as sleek and well turned out as ever, his armor gleaming in the soft light of dusk, silver shining in his ears and at his wrists. Tamas gathered his wits and his courtesy. "Good evening, Azdra'ik ng'Saieth. How may we be of service?"

"Why, young wizard, I simply mean to ride with you a while on your journey."

"I think we have enough escort to get to Maggiar, ng'Saieth."

"Not 'grandfather'?"

"That would be hard to explain in Maggiar."

"That's your concern? Be untroubled, then: I don't intend to follow you to your old home."

Ela nudged her mare into motion, so that she started to sidle around Azdra'ik and his mount. Ruslan and Rika exchanged glances. "Ela," said Tamas, as firmly as he could. "We don't even know what he wants."

"He wants to make trouble. What else does he ever want?"

"Last year, I saved a young witch and her consort," said Azdra'ik. "Not to mention that you now have servants, and a growing village to help feed you at Ali'inel."

"What did that have to do with you? Master Karoly said that those people came to Ali'inel because their ancestors belonged there."

"There are other perils than goblins in the wilds between Ali'inel and Albaz. Yet that road has been safe for travelers."

Tamas sighed. "Thank you, Grandfather Azdra'ik. I didn't know we had rangers. I didn't know we needed rangers."

Azdra'ik bowed, elaborately. "I merely wish to speak with you. There's an admirable spot for a camp, here, just off the trail."

The meal was not as convivial as the previous evening's, but there was plenty to eat: Azdra'ik had his own supplies. Tamas gravely accepted some smoked venison for his party. When they had all eaten their fill, and Rika and her brother were settled watchfully a short distance away, Tamas looked expectantly at Azdra'ik.

His goblin forefather - and Father Sun, wasn't that a strange thought - settled his back more comfortably against the tree trunk behind him. "Why are you going to Maggiar?"

Tamas felt a stir of resentment at the inquiry, but there were a number of bonds between himself and Azdra'ik, whether he liked to think of them or not. "I know that my brother wants to see me again."

"And your honored father and mother?"

"Well. Of course."

"And what of the young mistress, here?"

Across the fire, Ela's back was stiff with outrage. "Don't speak of me as though I'm not here, ng'Saieth!"

"Peace, ng'Ysabela. The young wizard is the one who has kinfolk that still worry about these matters."

"And whose fault is that!"

"Which of your mothers' mothers should I name?"

Silence from Ela, but Tamas was glad that she was not aiming that glare at him. Azdra'ik nodded at her, his expression serious now.

"You could have made this journey without my many-times granddaughter. What are you two to each other today, ng'Stani?"

Ela hissed like a cat. Tamas' face was hot, and not from the fire. He poked at the coals with a stick. "What you see. What we have been since last year."

"Are you traveling to gain your parents' blessing on your union?"

"And what would you say if we were?"

"That it was time, and past time, for that to happen."

Silence from across the fire, and then Ela smacked the ground with her palm. "'The witch with the wizard consort!' That again! Why did my mistress never tell me that, ng'Saiech? Why did I have to hear that first from you and yours?"

"There were many things she did not have time to tell you. Is that not so?"

If Ela were some other girl, she would be weeping with vexation and loss. But she only closed her eyes for a moment and then turned away to rummage in her saddle bags for her cloak. "I hope you two are not planning to stay up all night talking," she said coldly. "We have a long road ahead of us."

Azdra'ik bowed his head to her with seeming courtesy. "I will share the watch with your guards."

That was unexpected. Tamas realized that it was up to him to issue the order. "Rika, Ruslan. Lord Azdra'ik here will take the first watch. "

They looked surprised. Rika seemed about to protest, but Ruslan thumped her lightly on the shoulder, and they turned away to fetch the bedding.

The night was cool, but Tamas found himself unable to sleep, despite Zadny's warmth beside him. Finally, he sat up. "Azdra'ik."

"Tamas." Azdra'ik seemed to be looking off into the woods, back toward where the ruins of Kruczy still stood.

"Why is it so important? Ela has had a bellyful from the folk at Ali'inel."

"What - that you become each other's mates in truth?"

"Yes. That."

Azdra'ik turned to look at him for a moment. "Your master told you, did he not? One thing touches everything."

*   *   *   *   *  

They were less than two days from Maggiar when Azdra'ik left them. He did not mention the issue of Tamas' family or his intentions toward Ela - or hers toward him - but instead passed the time telling them tales and histories of the witches of the Wood. An hour or so before noon, when they were plainly past the highest point in the mountains and heading down again toward Maggiar, Azdra'ik simply halted his beast and waved one elegant hand at the way ahead of them. "This is as far as I go."

Ela shrugged. Her visible resentment of Azdra'ik's presence had faded to occasional skeptical glances. "We will manage without you."

"It is my fondest hope that you will. Fare you well."

Tamas shifted uneasily in the saddle. He didn't want to have to explain Azdra'ik to anyone they might encounter near Maggiar, but traveling had felt safer with him along. "Sun and Moon on your path, grandfather Azdra'ik."

Azdra'ik smiled at him: his real smile, which Tamas had only seen once or twice. "My thanks, my many-times grandson." And with no more than that, he rode back the way they had come.

After a few minutes, Ela made an exasperated noise.

"What?"

"Don't we need to move on? Why are you gathering cobwebs like that?"

Reluctantly, Tamas urged Tsimi forward. "Why do you suppose he left - just like that?"

"I don't care." Ela's head was high, and she kicked Iva into a trot. After they had jogged along in silence for several minutes, she sat back and let the mare walk. The rest of the party slowed down to match her pace. "I don't know," she said then. "But ... you know, I never saw this far myself, in the mirror. Only through your eyes."

By the time they finished their midday meal, the morning clouds had burned off, and despite the fact that they were still well into the mountains, the air was almost warm. Tamas blinked sleepily at Ruslan's back and was glad that it was still too early, this high up, for gnats or midges. The horses' hooves clopped quietly on the dirt and stones of the way, and he heard someone yawning behind him. All the landscape was fuzzed a soft green with new leaves, the wind was gentle and damp, and the sounds of the busy birds seemed very far away.

Suddenly Zadny, who had been running ahead of them, barked once, loudly. The breeze stopped. All the horses halted, and Tamas felt as though something was rushing toward him, something large and furious. He faintly heard Ela behind him, calling his name, and then Nedko galloped past him, a blur of black and white heading uphill off the path, with Ruslan clinging desperately to his back. Tsimi was trembling beneath him and seemed about to bolt. There was a crashing of branches on the downhill side of the path, and Tamas looked about him just in time to see Zorya's black tail vanishing into the woods. Zadny came pelting back toward them, whimpering.

"No!" said Ela, tightly, behind him. He slid down from Tsimi's back, holding the reins firmly, and saw that Ela had Iva under control, her face taut with concentration. Zadny was behind them, all four paws braced, claws digging into the soil. Tsimi seemed to be calming, and Tamas remembered at last that he was not only the middle son of Lord Stani, but also master Karoly's pupil. He took a deep breath, meaning to use his mind's eye to look for Rika and Ruslan, and saw the man standing on the path ahead of them.

He was a tall man, strongly built, with brown hair that showed a gleam of red in the clear light and eyes that seemed a dark grey. He wore a clean white shirt beneath a jerkin of green, trousers the color of earth, and grey felt boots. His head was bare, and his white teeth flashed as he smiled. "Greetings. What brings you here?"

His voice was deep, and his tone was proud and confident. Tamas found himself reminded of Bogdan. He looked around at Ela, who was frowning. "Who are you?" she said.

"My name is Volkha."

"You give your name freely."

"I have nothing to fear. What of you? State your business."

Tsimi mouthed his bit and tried to toss his head. Tamas pulled at the reins, trying to keep the horse still. Volkha's very presence seemed to beat against his mind in a way that reminded him uncomfortably of the ghost who had bedeviled him a year and more ago. Yet Volkha himself seemed to be there in body, and powerfully so: perhaps moreso than anyone Tamas had ever met. "We're traveling on our own business."

"Yet the way you travel is not your own."

"What do you mean? Of course it's our own way!" said Ela.

"Never think it. This way is mine, and these woods are mine. If you and your man and your servants mean to pass, you must pay my toll."

His voice seemed to echo in Tamas' head. Tamas looked back at Ela, who seemed no more afraid of Volkha than she had been of Azdra'ik. Tamas reached inside himself for the memories and visions that Gran had granted him and turned again to face Volkha. "What sort of toll, master Volkha?"

Volkha's eyes flared green in the sunlight, and he grinned unpleasantly. "Oho, like that, is it? A witch and a wizard. Well then: your firstborn child."

Tamas stared at him, horrified. Ela said coldly, "There is no such child. And I wouldn't promise you such a thing in any case."

"Then you may not pass."

"Tamas," said Ela, her voice firm, and closed her eyes. Tamas had no idea what she intended to do, but he set his mind on giving her his strength, remembering the road to Maggiar, adding the new leaves of the trees and the song of the birds. Volkha staggered, as though a powerful wind were blowing him off the road. "No!" he roared, and his form wavered in the sunlight and stretched upward.

A bear stood on the road, nearly two times Tamas' height. Its fur was the chestnut brown of Volkha's hair, and its open mouth showed white teeth as long as Tamas' little fingers. Its massive forepaws had gleaming claws as long as Ela's hands. It bellowed, and from its mouth came a dark cloud. The thing buzzed as it came, a menacing sound that filled Tamas' ears and then his head. The whole cloud was bees, tens of thousands of bees, and there was no way to stop them.

"Tamas!" cried Ela, behind him. She sounded desperate. He dragged Tsimi toward her, and then the bees were all around them, buzzing and circling so that his eyes as well as his ears were bewildered. He flinched, feeling the memory of a bee's sting, that lick of fire like a drop of the sun, and it was all too easy to imagine feeling that again, and again, until his body burned with the venom and he died.

And then he realized that the bees were not able to come at them. They swarmed and darted and kept hitting something that he could not see. Ela was holding them off.

He could not, would not pay them any more heed. He had his own work to do. Remember! Gran had told him, when they faced the goblin queen. Now, in his mind, the road was clear, and Ruslan and Rika were beside them, and Zadny pranced ahead of them, and they were going back to where he was born. Maggiar, woods and fields, castle and farm, family and villagers: Maggiar, blooming with the spring.

His ears stopped ringing. The bees were flying off, away into the woods. Volkha stood at the edge of the road, a man once more, his bright shirt begrimed with sweat, his big hands clenched in his lank hair. "Who are you?" he groaned, and his voice was full of pain.

Tamas heard Ela gasp behind him, as though she had been holding her breath. He ran his hand along Tsimi's trembling neck, heard the birds begin to sing again in the woods around them. "We are Tamas and Ela of Ali'inel."

"Ali'inel? Ali'inel fell."

"Ali'inel has risen again," said Ela. "Who are you, Volkha, that you trouble us this way?"

"I am who I am. This - this is my place. I am its master."

Tamas shook his head. "I came through this place with my brothers last year. We didn't see you. How long have you been master here?"

"Forever."

Ela pursed her lips. "Volkha. You weren't here last year. You didn't see Tamas. Did you know Azdri'ak ng'Saieth?"

"Azdri'ak the goblin. Yes," said Volkha, and he looked at them sharply. "I feel him on you, in you. And over the mountains. Yes. You are of Ali'inel."

"You must have slept, Volkha."

"I have slept," he said, at last, his voice faint. "Yes. I saw the seasons as a dream. The rain did not touch me, nor the sun. Why did I wake again?"

And Tamas knew what they had to do. "We woke you, Volkha, when Ali'inel rose again. I swear, on the name of the Lord Sun, that it is so."

Volkha swayed, and then he knelt on one knee, his head bowed. "You have done me a great favor."

"Then you owe us a boon."

"I do, and I will pay it."

"My bargain ... ," said Tamas, and he glanced at Ela. She rode forward, so he could see her as he spoke. "My bargain is that anyone who has the permission of the rightful keepers of Maggiar and the rightful keepers of Ali'inel may travel this road safely as long as they pay you the proper price."

Ela nodded.

"And that price?" Volkha's voice was a little stronger now.

And Tamas said, carefully, "One loaf of bread. One pinch of salt. And one pot of honey. And I will pay that price as soon as our servants return."

Volkha looked up. "You would break bread with me?"

"We will," said Ela.

"Then I agree. I swear by my name, and the trees of this wood, and the Lord Sun, that all travelers favored by those of Maggiar and those of Ali'inel may travel here in safety, for as long as I am master here." Volkha rose to his feet. His shirt was almost as bright as it had been when they first saw him, and he smiled, and it was a smile of friendship. "Now it is up to you, young master, young mistress, to see that I am always here to fulfill my oath."

*   *   *   *   *  

They all slept heavily that night. Ruslan and Rika, scratched and battered, had limped back a couple of hours later, leading tired horses whose manes and tails were thick with briars and twigs. It was Ela who brought out the loaf, the jar of salt, and the pot of honey, and she served Volkha with more courtesy than Tamas had ever seen her show. Volkha had bidden them farewell after that and disappeared into the woods.

"He was a leshy, I think," Ela said, after nightfall, as they stretched out on their blankets. "Mistress told me once."

"A leshy?"

"He's of the forest, the way that Kruczy and his brothers are of the towers. They love the woods, but sometimes they don't like people much."

"Oh," said Tamas, and then he remembered. Gran had told him that tale, and he had forgotten. Maybe that's why Volkha had not wanted to let them walk the way: Tamas had not pictured him and his kind when he made the image in the mirror whole again. "Do you know any more stories like that?"

"Maybe. But I'm tired now and want to sleep."

"Good night, Ela," he said, cozy with the fire at his back and Zadny warm between them. And then was shocked a moment later when she whispered "Good night, Tamas," in reply.

The morning was still and sunny and frostbitten, a gentle late spring frost that would likely leave the fields of Maggiar untouched but that brought a sheen of ice to the stones in the stream alongside the camp. Rika joked about eating Zadny as she laid out the sparse breakfast: they had packed lightly and were now short one loaf. But Tamas reckoned that Volkha had deserved it, and tonight they should be feasting in the great hall of Maggiar.

For now, the way down grew steeper, and the horses went cautiously, twitching their tails with vexation. Birdsong was loud in the trees, and Tamas saw squirrels frisking among last years' leaves and the spring wildflowers: celandines, small speckled lilies, and in sheltered spots by the streams, wild iris. They came down into the foothills and caught their first sight of the river. Ela, who had been talking readily enough of her mistress' lore about wood and water guardians, grew silent. After their noontime way-meal - the final one, Tamas very much hoped - they traveled on for barely two hours more and came at last around the softly curved breast of a hill. And there, below them, was Maggiar.

It looked so tiny from up here, so vulnerable, that Tamas caught his breath. It might so easily have been lost in the strange battle for the goblin mirror. The fields had been plowed for the spring planting, and he could see people and horses at work there, and in the kitchen gardens, and in the courtyard of the castle. He could hear Ruslan and Rika behind him, praising the busy and prosperous look of the place. Ela was looking down at Iva's mane, plaiting a bit of it, and her fair hair hid her face. "Ela? There it is. You'll eat well and sleep in a bed tonight."

"That doesn't matter," she said, so softly that he barely heard her. He moved Tsimi closer.

"Ela. We defeated the goblin queen, and yesterday we escaped death yet again. Why are you so skittish about the end of this journey?"

She raised her head at that. Her face was patched red and white as though she had been weeping, although her eyes were dry and stony. "I'm not afraid!"

"What, then?"

"Tamas ... your mother and father will hate me."

"What? No, they won't!"

"Yes, they will. I'm not a lord's daughter. I'm a witch, and I'm taking away their precious Tamas."

"They won't hate you," said Tamas - with great patience, he thought. "My father never thought I would be able to rule Maggiar anyway, and you're pretty. He'll like that. My mother ... well, no mother ever thinks anyone is good enough to marry her child. But you're the one I want, Ela."

Her pale eyebrows drew together sharply. "So now we're getting married?"

"What did you think we were doing?" said Tamas, not so patiently. He recalled, abruptly, how he had informed Azdra'ik that Ela had not one shred of romance in her. It was still true. He pushed on, because he had come too far to go back. "I need you, Ela."

"When you see your home again, you'll want to stay."

"But I won't. People are waiting for us back in Ali'inel. Our work is waiting there. It takes both of us, Ela."

"You made the land whole again last year. You knew what to say to the leshy."

"You gave me the space to do what I needed to do. You pointed the way with Volkha, so I could think what to say. I can't do it without you, Ela."

Now her face was just pink. She looked down at the mare's neck again, and began to pick out the tiny plait she had made. "When I return, you will come with me."

"I will. We will return to Ali'inel together, before the harvest."

"Such a mooncalf," she said, apparently to Iva. She sighed, and combed her fingers through the coarse mane. "Well. The day is fading, while we waste our time talking here."

She wheeled the mare around and kicked her into a trot. Head high, she led them down the way to Maggiar.