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A Place in the Choir

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The great Forest is silent, save for the sound of his breathing, the rustle of leaf litter beneath his paws. The silence that has crept in like fog over the last six turnings of the year (the silence that has crept in since the soldiers, smelling of metal and diesel and the stink of winter-soul men, dragged Grandfather from his little house in the meadow and filled him with killing lead) is complete.

No children's voices.

No birdsong.

Not even the buzz of a fly, or the sound of mice skittering through the underbrush. All gone now. All Bound.

When the moon is full and bright, he shows himself to the two-legged guards at the edge of the Cold Place.

Then he waits.

This last Hunt is all that is left to him.

~ * ~

At three in the morning, John Taylor is awakened by two men and a woman in the black wool and silver braid of State Security. All of them wear gloves of fine black leather and knee-high boots polished to a mirror-bright shine. The gloves alone surely cost more than John makes in a month at the factory. Their breath steams in the frigid air of John's cramped little attic room. Someone has switched on the flickering overhead bulb.

The woman hauls the pile of patched and threadbare woolen blankets off of him. She has dark hair, dark eyes. On her left lapel perches a tiny silver pin in the shape of an owl. John knows what that means.

It isn't the sudden shock of cold against his bare chest that makes him shudder.

"I haven't done anything wrong," he says, sitting up. It's a pro forma protest. He's always known this day would come, just as it came for his grandfather. Just as it's come for all the others (even for little Yakov, with whom he shared midnight confidences in a frigid little dormitory once upon a time; even for Eva, who had done her very best to forget Grandfather). How could it not?

"Get up," says the man with the silver handlebar moustache. The skinny redheaded boy beside him prods John with his baton. It's tipped with iron, just as they all are.

John could protest that he sees his Proctor once a week, that he hasn't missed a day of work at the factory, save when the doctor sent him home for influenza. He knows it wouldn't matter.

He thinks of Eva's blood spreading across the snow in Finist Park. Some photographer named Gorsky won a prize for the photo.

They let him dress, which seems strange. The woman watches him expressionlessly as he slips his feet into two pairs of wool socks and pulls on a cotton shirt full of holes, and over it a green sweater. He feels naked and shabby beneath her gaze, but he supposes it's hardly important. He laces up his old workboots, and stands, folding his arms across his chest.

The redheaded boy steps forward, baton at the ready, but the moustached man stops him with a hand on his shoulder.

Through the thin walls of his little room, John can hear doors opening and closing, heavy booted footsteps, the voices of his neighbors on the landing. Of course they've come to watch the spectacle. Mrs. Rosenblum, curlers in her hair and that horrible paisley robe with the frayed satin collar cinched around her considerable girth, is surely at the front of the pack. She'd never held with having one of Them in the building, suitably re-educated or not.

One of the Lost Boys.

The woman holds out a leather jacket. It smells of cigarettes and diesel fuel and sweat, and almost certainly belonged to some soldier or other. John can't help grimace with distaste, but he takes it, shrugs into it. It's cold out after all, snowing, and he doesn't suppose he'll be wearing it for very long anyway. He feels the phantom ache of the registration tattoo across his ribs, the ink impregnated with tiny iron filings.

They lead him down the rickety wooden staircase while the neighbors – in threadbare robes, or sometimes checked pajama pants underneath state-issue greatcoats – stand on the landings and stare. The woman and the man with the moustache lead the way, and the boy follows, the iron tip of his baton pressed against the small of John's back. "Good riddance," says Mrs. Rosenblum, and spits.

There's a truck waiting in the filthy snow in the forecourt, belching diesel exhaust. Two soldiers in green caps and greatcoats, rifles resting across their knees, are sitting in the back. When they see the woman, they stand and salute.

"At ease," she says. Her voice is a crisp rich alto. She turns to John. "Don't look so glum, Mr. Taylor," she says with a tight, sardonic smile. "You're about to have a chance to be very useful to the State."

One of the soldiers leans down and offers John a hand up into the bed of the truck.

~ * ~

The operation – General Lazarov's folly, some of the men call it under their breaths (when they can be fairly sure there are no Proctors around to hear) – has been planned practically since last Binding Day. Until six hours ago, they'd been waiting (mustn't spook the prey).

The news bureaus, of course, have been trumpeting the plan's imminent success for months. Smith supposes it doesn't matter; Forest Spirits hardly read The People's Voice, after all.

And he must admit, it sounds so simple. So very simple.

Lure Fox in.

Bind him.

Tame the Eastern Forest (the last Forest; General Lazarov's magnificent obsession) once and for all.

And now – finally – Fox has shown himself to the waiting sentries and the game is afoot.

Peter Smith (Forestry Specialist, First Class) arrives at Foxcote just before sunrise, still bleary-eyed from having been dragged out of bed [where had he been?] and hustled onto a waiting air transport with an entire strike force of Amazons. From the air transport there was another jeep (the Amazons had filed, silently -- they always filed silently; that was the worst part -- onto the back of a waiting truck), and treacherous backcountry roads in the near-darkness and blowing snow.

"Ah, Specialist Smith, how good it is to finally meet you." General Lazarov's aide de camp – Smith is pretty sure his name is Miller -- is short and jolly, with a fringe of salt and pepper hair and a faintly rumpled army uniform. He wears the insignia of a Captain. "News of your exploits has even reached us here at the ragged edge of civilization."

"Thank you, but I'm afraid my legend is a more than a little exaggerated," Smith says, stepping into the spacious foyer, still gray and colorless in the predawn light. "I owe much of our success in Myrkvior to the Amazons, and most birds are easy enough creatures to Bind."

Smith expected Foxcote, where General Lazarov's Hunt was headquartered, to be like every other frontier House: rustic and faintly rundown (or perhaps even worse, given that it rested precariously at the edge of the last truly wild Forest). Some of the Forest Houses, after all, were no more than the cottages that had once been tenanted by dwarfs or gnomes or the local Forest witch, damp and drafty and still reeking of herbs.

He has always hated those places. The way they make him feel. The things (dangerous things; fatal things) they make him think.

But to Smith's surprise and relief, Foxcote is a clean, modern structure, all terraces and flat roofs and immense glass windows. It's filled – from what he can see – with graceful minimalist furniture and the smell of floor wax.

Captain Miller (if that is in fact his name) seems to sense Smith's surprise at the nature of the house, because he says, "General Lazarov spent his own money to have the Baba Yaga's house demolished and build Foxcote. I suppose," he adds with a trace of amusement, "that the chicken feet didn't do much for him."

Smith conjures up a laugh. The captain's comment is meant to be funny, after all.

A lieutenant, so young his cheeks are still dotted with acne, holds out his hands for Smith's uniform coat, and the specialist surrenders it gratefully.
There's a foot of snow on the ground at Fort Helios, but the Eastern Forest is still wild. Winter has never touched this place. "By next Friday," Smith says, glancing out the window at the wild profusion of greenery, "it will be snowing."

And he can go back to winter and the reassuring glass and metal and concrete of the base.

~ * ~

The truck rumbles and bounces and slides along rutted, icy country roads. John Taylor pulls the leather jacket closed (it still stinks) and hunches his shoulders against the wind and stinging snow. The stygian blackness of the middle of the night has given way to a insipid grayness; he imagines the sun must have come up by now. There isn't much to see, regardless – just snow, and larger piles of snow that are probably haystacks, and fences and scrubby bushes. Once in a while a there's barn with peeling whitewash, or a gray stone house with closed curtains (and probably carefully incurious inhabitants). The structures are bland, uniform, shabby. They don't do much to relieve the monotony.

There aren't any road signs. John tries not to wonder where they're going.

The two soldiers, both identically blond-haired and blue-eyed, are still expressionless, still sitting in exactly the same position as they were two hours ago, their rifles held stiffly across their knees. In their own way, they're as unnerving as the Amazons. Wrapped in their greatcoats (fine, heavy wool; a year's salary for a factory workers), they seem impervious to the cold. Perhaps they are; perhaps that's the prerogative of winter-soul people.

John knows it's not safe to think (he's known since he was a boy; the Proctors, with their owl-eyes and owl-ears, hear everything), but in this endless swirling grayness, he can't help remembering his first taste of winter.

He can't help remembering he once had another name.

Bard, he whispers to himself.

It's a good name. A spring-soul name. A Forest name.

~*~

He lifts his nose and scents the night air. The smell of diesel fuel and leather and harsh lye soap drifts on icy streamers of wind. They are coming.

~*~

The Avatars come to Foxcote just before midday. There are at least twenty of them.

Even in the General's windowless wood-paneled office with all its little iron accents, Specialist Smith knows the instant they arrive.

He can't help the shiver of revulsion that runs down his spine.

Involuntarily, Smith pictures the last Avatar he made in Myrkvior – little Robin, with the slender body of a teenage girl and the bright black eyes and slender bill of the Forest Bird she'd once been. Her throat had been fringed with rosy feathers. He supposed she was lovely.

He remembers the alarm cry of the Bird blending with the scream of the human Vessel (the spring-soul girl, the Forest girl; they were worse than vagrants, worse than trash) as Smith Bound them.

It was some of his best work. The General in charge put him up for a commendation.

(The girl's name had been Mary. She had red hair and green eyes. He thought she’d had another name before. In his mind, he’d called her Hanne.)

"The briefing didn't say there were going to be Avatars other than Horse," Smith snaps, forgetting himself.

General Lazarov's bushy salt-and-pepper eyebrows lift, and his mouth quirks with the sort of amusement that leaves Peter's mouth dry and turns his bowels to water. "You don't approve of Avatars, Specialist Smith?" His tone is gentle, grandfatherly. Peter Smith swallows hard. "That seems hard to believe, given everything."

"With respect, General, considering the current undertaking –"

He takes a deep breath, willing his heartbeat to slow, his palms to stop sweating. For a perilous moment, he thinks of rabbits and wolves. It's an effort to force his thoughts on to acceptable paths. Six times eight is forty-eight. Seven times eight is fifty-six. Eight times eight is sixty-four. The Binding of the Forests is the foundation upon which modern civilization rests.

"Ah yes," the General says, steepling his fingers thoughtfully. "The current undertaking. But tomorrow is Binding Day, as you undoubtedly know. It seems inappropriate to let it pass without the proper observances, don't you think?"

"Of course, General," Smith says. "You're right." There's no other safe answer, and he knows it. He can feel the sweat pooling beneath his arms, and curses himself for a weakling.

"Besides, my good lad," General Lazarov says, still in the same affable tone, "You're going to make me another. It's only right that the others be on hand to welcome Fox into the family." He stands up, and claps Smith on the shoulder.

Smith doesn't want to ask where the General found him a Vessel.

~ * ~

The journey drags on, a sort of endless plunge into unchanging frigid grayness. Occasionally the truck slides around a curve. John can see the Security officers through the tiny back window of the cab; they look warm and comfortable. He supposes he should hate them, but it seems like too much effort.

After a few hours, or perhaps a thousand years, John decides that wherever they're taking him, they must need him too badly to shoot him in the middle of the trip (he's made it this far, after all), and asks one of the soldiers where they're going. The soldier ignores him and stares straight ahead, as expressionless as the golem that knocked in the wall of Grandfather's living room on the night of the Equinox.

John tries not to remember.

He tries not to remember the blank face of the golem's handler, the ranks of identical Amazons (dark hair, dark eyes, sharp faces, white shirts) in the moonlight. He tries not to remember the gunshots, or the dull heavy sound of a body hitting the Forest floor. He tries not to remember being herded into the back of a truck, much like this one, with a dozen other terrified boys.

(He would find out later, at the School, that the dark-haired, brown-eyed boy was called Vegard.)

He tries not to remember his first taste of winter, the aching shock of icy wind and stinging snow.

He tries not to remember thinking that the dark-haired lad was the most beautiful boy he'd ever seen. He tries not to remember hating himself for forgetting – just for a second – that Grandfather was dead, that the Forest was falling.

The dark-haired boy had smiled at him. It was a heartbreaking smile, full of understanding and grief.

For a moment John forgot the snow and the killing cold.

The woman turns and looks at John through the window. The owl on her lapel glints. Her eyes are knowing. John supposes it doesn't matter. He closes his eyes and thinks of trees.

Bard, he whispers to himself again. My name is Bard.

~*~

Smith doesn't like the way the General looks at him. Amused. Knowing. As if Lazarov is privy to some vast cruel joke at Smith's expense. He grits his teeth and looks around the conference table, trying to ignore the General's gaze.

The people here are all strangers to him.

Artemis and Athena are the Amazon commandants. On such short acquaintance, Smith can't even begin to tell them apart, and he wonders if he'll ever stop being surprised that the Amazons take individual names. Colonel Vanzin, the man who will operate the Barrier should Fox get close enough, is brown-haired and rat-faced and wears his uniform with fastidious care. Smith doesn't bother to remember the golem handlers' names.

Smith doesn't like it (he'd rather have his own people, and says so), but General Lazarov insists that it's safer if there's no unity for Fox to take advantage of (Fox is tricky after all). It sounds like a half-truth, which is the worst kind of lie.

The door to the conference room is shut tight, but Smith can hear the noise outside anyway: clanks and the clatter of rattling dishes and the murmur of conversation. Foxcote is preparing for Binding Day.

Smith tries not to think of the Avatars, standing (as they must be) in dejected knots on the lawn, talking of nothing (the weather is fine today; perhaps it will be fine tomorrow), waiting for sundown. Seven times nine is sixty-three. Eight times nine is seventy-two.

"We will partially unbind Horse," General Lazarov says. "That should get the damned Fox's attention, especially if we do it at moonrise. And Horse is weak-minded. He shouldn't be too much trouble for one of the apprentices to get wrapped up again."

"And when Fox comes sniffing," Sergeant Vanzin says with a certain satisfaction, "I'll put up the Barrier. He won't be going anywhere for awhile."

Smith carefully avoids thinking of beams of blue light. He doesn't think of the screams of a trapped animal, the sizzle of the Barrier, the reek of burning fur. Nine times nine is eighty-one.

Still, he can't help shaking his head. No wonder they'd called this op Lazarov's folly! "With all due respect, General," he says (he's proud his voice is measured and even), "this isn't Lemming or Mouse we're dealing with. This is a Sprit that's held out longer than even Wolf and Raven. Even the Barrier won't hold him long enough for me to Bind him."

Lazarov laughs. Smith feels the hair on the back of his neck prickle "My dear boy," he says, his lips twisting with quiet amusement. " Or course it won't. You underestimate me. I'm bringing you a Vessel who knows Fox's True Song."

Ten times nine is ninety.

~*~

Finally, in spite of the biting wind-driven snow and the soldiers and the bone-rattling bouncing of the truck (and the woman's dark, unreadable glances through the frost on the back window of the cab), John falls into the exhausted doze he's spent the last hours fighting.

With sleep comes dreams.

For a hazy terrified moment he remembers lying in the dark in the long dormitory room with its cracked linoleum floors (institutional green and sickly pink, no particular pattern) and its double row of rusting iron bedsteads. He remembers the endless sound of dripping water.

He remembers holding utterly still, eyes squeezed shut, trying to think of nothing, nothing, nothing. He remembers listening to the tap and squeak of the Proctor's sensible shoes as the fat little man with the narrow metal rod in his left hand paced up one narrow little row of beds and down the other. Twelve strides, with a pause in the middle for the rod to come down hard across Vegard's ribs (the whistle and the crack and the soft gasping cry in the dark), then twelve strides more. Vegard hadn't yet learned not to dream.

Dreams are dangerous (it was one of the first things the Lost Boys learned).

John (Bard) supposes it doesn't matter anymore.

He unclenches his fists and lets his head drop forward onto his chest. He closes his eyes, and lets the dreams well up.

The broad leaves of maples, glowing softly green in the early afternoon light.

The smell of wildflowers and mud and sun-warmed grass.

A circle of yellow lamplight, and a worn wingback chair. Grandfather's voice, warm and rich, reading from Grimm's. When he wakes, John will remember that they threw the much-mended book into the fire, but for now it's just lost girls and Wolves and Foxes; Witches and Geese and Dwarfs, and Grandfather's voice, full of the oldest secrets.

Later (after the Amazons and the golems and the burning book and the truck full of terrified boys), Bard and Vegard would hide in cramped, moldy-smelling closet, whispering the old stories to each other in between stolen kisses.

Until their Proctors came, with their owl eyes and their rods and even worse things.

He wakes with a start, and for a moment (despite the tooth-rattling jouncing of the truck) he thinks he's dead or still dreaming.

It's warm.

~*~

He spends the daylight hours in his den. It seems almost silly, today of all days, but old creatures are creatures of habit, and the scent of roots and earth is comforting. He rests his head on his paws and closes his eyes.

The wind brings him hints of snow and metal and exhaust, just as it has for days. But something else, as well.

A sharp smell of hay and sunlight and warm animal. The smell of his first failure.

How stupid he had been!

How easily, in his desire to do good, he had opened the door to the hunters on two legs!

Now, he supposes, it will be his turn to join the rest of them. He wonders if it's less lonely there.

He turns his head away from the entrance of his den, and misses another scent, riding on the wind.

~*~

Smith ignores the so-called festivities as long as he can. There is equipment to check, preparations to make. He rehearses the words of Binding. They feel bitter on his tongue.

He stands at the window and watches as two columns of Amazons, fierce and silent in their fox-eared masks, moving precisely in step, file into the woods. Colonel Vanzin's men follow them, towing heavy equipment on pallets.

He hears the rumble and rattle of an ancient army truck as it labors up the drive. A few minutes later, two men and a woman in the black and silver of State Security prod a man in a leather jacket and threadbare clothes up the back steps and through the terrace entrance.

The man is looking at the ground. Smith can't see his face, but he catches a glimpse of unkempt, too-long blond hair before the Security officers herd him into the house. (He can't help but notice that the bedraggled throng of Avatars parts to let the little party through.)

Mouse (tall and lithe and sensual; whoever Made her had an awful sense of humor, Smith thinks) looks up at the blond man with a mix of pity and some emotion Smith can't quite parse. Cow nods. Elephant smiles.

One of the Handlers, a short-haired woman in green velvet, sets her mouth and glares.

The image of a skinny blond boy, all blue eyes and elbows and full sensual lips, skitters through Smith's mind.

Ten times twelve is a hundred and twenty. Ten times thirteen is a hundred and thirty.. He turns away from the window. In another hour, when the sun sets, they'll raise their glasses and toast their own Binding.

A few hours after that, it will be moonrise.

~*~

They put John in a second-floor room overlooking the garden. The room is empty, save for a couch and a little table and an enormous window. The whole house is full of windows. "You'll be able to see all of the festivities from here, Mr. Taylor," the woman says, in a tone that suggests that he's supposed to thank her.

He doesn't.

A young man in a private's dress uniform brings a tray of refreshments, sets it down, salutes the Security officers. Backs out of the room without looking at John.

"I'm not contagious," John snaps as the door closes behind the mousy little private.

The red-haired security officer fingers his iron-tipped baton, but doesn't move. The woman gives John a measuring look, and finally shakes her head and smiles sardonically.

"Enjoy your evening, Mr. Taylor," she says. "We'll be just outside if you need us."

(Or even, John thinks, if you don't.)

Outside the window, little groups of Avatars form and disperse, a slow dance of feathers and fur and scales and unnaturally graceful limbs. Handlers move among them, keeping glasses filled, soothing discontent.

The scene is calm and orderly, like a kaleidoscope pattern or the arcing spray of the fountain in Finist Park.

"On each Binding Day, we celebrate the partnership between human and Avatar that broke the tyranny of the Old Ways and laid the foundations for order and progress,", Dr. Harrow's voice intones in memory. "Boys, you must always remember that no matter how cruel our methods seem, the Sprits are more content and safer under our care. Why else would Fox have given the first Woodsman the gift of Horse's True Song?"

"Because he didn't know better!" John remembers Vegard shouting. "Because he thought winter-soul people were just like spring-soul people! Because he knew Horse was old, and he thought the Woodsman would help!"

Vegard was still Vegard, even though Bard had become John and Erling had become Peter and Oddvar, George. Vegard was the last of them to still refuse the gift of a new name, a clean name, a safe name. (A name it didn’t matter if they stole.)

(A name that didn't carry with it the memories of golems and Amazons and fire in the night and Grandfather's body falling to the forest floor.)

"Oh, my darling boy," John remembers Dr. Harrow saying (his voice was gentle infinitely sad). "The Woodsman did help poor Horse."

John wishes he hadn't looked away piously, refusing to meet Vegard's eyes, when the Proctors came (slender metal rods in hand), and led Vegard from the room.

After that, there were no more stolen glances, no more whispered tales in the broom closet.

After that, John Smith slept, and didn't dream.

~*~

He can smell them. All of them. Fur and feathers, skin and scales, and the cold iron tang of Binding. They are waiting for him. Waiting for the very last of their number.

He supposes they'll welcome him in their own way.

He smells the Amazons too; forty identical scents, touched with strange chemicals he has no names for.

The air crackles with static. Ozone tickles his sensitive nose. He sneezes, shakes his head, paws at his muzzle. He supposes the hunters are readying their nets.

He will not let them set the terms. It will be his last act of defiance.

He slips from his hiding place in the underbrush, lets the dying sunlight touch his red coat with phantom fire.

Lets the Hunters see him, just for a moment, before he dashes up the hill in the gathering darkness.

~*~

Only when he can no longer avoid it does Smith go down into the garden. The sun is setting, edging fur and feathers with gold. The Toast, thank God, has already ended. Somewhere out of sight, there's a quartet playing something Baroque. The garden is thronged with officers in dress uniforms and Handlers in satin and velvet. Conversation ebbs and flows. He thinks of the ocean.

For a moment, he remembers the sound of the wind in the pines.

Twelve times twelve is a hundred and forty-four.

He passes through the crowd, silently and unremarked, holding the champagne flute Lazarov handed him ("I think you'll like the Vessel I've brought you, my boy.")

Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Duck, the breeze ruffling his feathers, deep in conversation with Cat. He wonders what they talk about, now that their Songs have been stolen by Binding.

The people of the true world, the rational world (the winter-souled, Forest-dwellers called them) knew of True Songs and True Names long before Fox gave them Horse's Song. They'd known these last three hundred years and more, ever since Queen Christina Bound the dwarf Rumplestiltskin by speaking his name three times aloud beneath the light of the moon.

At the edge of the garden, a shadow falls across Smith, startling him from his reverie.

Horse. First-Bound, the eldest of all the avatars. He's tall, misshapen, ungainly. Unlike most of the others, he cannot speak. The Woodsmen hadn't yet mastered the art of Making when Fox delivered Horse into their hands, and with him, the secret to binding entire Forests. (The secret of humankind's freedom from the Old Ones, an old teacher's voice whispers in Smith's memory).

Now it's Fox's turn to be Bound.

Soon snow will come to the Eastern Forest.

Smith presses the glass of champagne into Horse's hand. He swallows he suddenly finds on the tip of his tongue: I'm sorry.

For a fleeting moment, he remembers the mocking children's rhyme:

Dog goes woof
Cat goes meow
Bird goes tweet
And Mouse goes squeak

Steal their Songs and their Names and you steal their souls.

Forest Spirits aren't the only things that can be Bound, Smith thinks. All the spring-souled have True Names. This is a secret the Proctors know well.

Thirteen times two is twenty-six.

He meets Horse's liquid brown eyes just as a shout goes up from the Forest. "Tally-ho!"

Things happen very quickly after that.

~*~

It's nearly dark when the Security people, accompanied by two Amazons, drag John from the room overlooking the garden. His skin crawls at the Amazons' touch, at the faint scent of lye soap and disinfectant that always seems to cling to them, but he doesn't try to pull away, even as their fingers dig in to his arms hard enough to leave bruises. He knows the red-haired boy is lurking in the shadows, iron-tipped baton at the ready.

Neither of the Amazons is smiling (they don't), but the dark-haired woman with the owl insignia is; a grim little smirk that chills him to the core.

"Cheer up, Forest boy," she says brightly. "You have a very important job to do."

"My name is Bard!" he shouts. He doesn't mean to (he knows better. His name is John Taylor), but the anger wells up from somewhere deep inside him. He doubles over, gasping helplessly as the red-haired boy jabs him hard in the kidneys with his baton. Inside him, he feels something give way.

The Amazons shove him down the stairs toward the garden. He stumbles, but catches himself before he falls to his knees. In the silvery half-light, he can sense the eyes of the Avatars on him. He drags himself to his feet, takes an agonizing breath. The pain in his back is nearly unbearable.

"It won't be for much longer," the woman with the owl insignia says cheerfully.

~*~

The General is waiting for them in the clearing, holding a glass of champagne whistling cheerfully as he watches Horse's Handler drive a stake into the ground and then tie the shivering Avatar's manacled hands to it with a length of chain.

"Don't worry," the woman -- still dressed in ceremonial blue velvet and a stiff lace ruff -- says, stroking Horse's face with a gentle hand. "It's only for your protection, my precious one. We wouldn't want you forgetting yourself and running off with Fox into the dark woods, now would we? It's not safe out there, darling."

The worst part, Smith thinks, is that the woman sounds like she actually loves him.

Horse stamps his feet uncertainly, and tosses his forelock out of his eyes. His wide eyes stare out into the darkness.

"Almost ready," the General says with satisfaction, setting his glass aside on a boulder and rubbing his hands together. "Your Vessel will be along presently, Specialist."

Around them, narrow beams of light flicker to life as Colonel Vanzin tests the Barrier. Smith tastes ozone and smoke on the back of his tongue.

"I can't wait to see it snow in the Forest," General Lazarov says brightly. "Can you?"

~*~

He can feel John Taylor falling away by inches as the Amazons drag him through the forest. He stumbles over roots, falls against the trunks of ancient trees. Time and again , the Amazons haul him upright, shove him forward. His back flames with agony, and he fights against whimpering like a wounded animal. 'Never show them weakness,' Grandfather always said.

The smell of earth and leaf mould reaches out to envelop him like a welcome home.

~*~

There's another scent on the wind now. One he hasn't smelled since the night of golems and fire. One he hasn't so much as hoped to smell since they bound little Shrew, the last other voice in the forest.

It smells like sun, and springtime.

And it has a twin. Faint, and overlaid with the scent of diesel and leather, but there.

He turns, whiskers quivering, then lifts his tail and runs into the wind.

~*~

The Amazons bringing [the] Vessel burst into the clearing with no ceremony at all, but that's no surprise; none of them has the least bit of delicacy. Their masks, in the cold actinic light of the Barrier beams, cast strange shadows. Smith feels his stomach twist with contemptible apprehension. There are two of them, holding a man between them. He's wearing a leather jacket, battered clothes. He's stumbling as if he's either injured or drugged, but when they haul him into the clearing, he tries to straighten.

"There's my prize," the General says, smiling his awful little smile. "Your Vessel, specialist."

The other man lifts his head, smiles raggedly.

Blonde hair. Blue eyes. Angular features that Peter Smith shouldn't remember.

Fourteen times five is sixty.

"Ducks say quack," the General says mockingly, as his smile broadens "And fish go blub. And the seal goes ow ow ow."

Smith's mind, treacherously, supplies the rest of the words. But there's one sound that no one knows. What does the fox say?.

"Behold," General Lazarov says, with a grand gesture at the staggering man, "John Taylor, last of the Lost Boys. I thought you'd like a chance to say goodbye to your past once and for all, Specialist Smith. Even better that you can be of service to the State at the same time."

~*~

"Vegard," John (no, Bard) whispers. The Amazons let go of his arms, and he falls to his knees, panting.

"My name is Smith," the dark-haired man says, in a voice that's empty of music.

Bard breathes hard, gritting his teeth against the tearing pain in his back.

The Avatar in the center of the clearing strains at his bonds. For a moment, like a mirage or a hallucination, Bard can see the shadow of a mighty Horse where the Avatar stands; long flowing mane and broad back and powerful hooves, then the vision is gone again and all that remains is the shivering, mute Avatar.

John (Bard) had thought Vegard merely dead. Shot through the back, perhaps, like Grandfather (or if the Proctors were kind, once in the head). But this is worse. "You Bound him!" he cries. Someone's foot connects with his ribs, and he chokes, feels blood in his mouth, gasps for breath.

"Even Lost Boys can be of some use to the State," says the man standing beside Vegard-that-was. He's a big man. Snow-white hair (it gleams in the harsh light of the beams that crisscross the clearing), an army dress uniform with insignia of a General and the left breast encrusted with medals.

~*~

The smell of springtime is strong in the little clearing.

It draws him, helplessly. (He thinks of moths and flames. He thinks of chasing prey, when there was still prey, through the snow.)

He runs until he is panting with exertion, desperate to taste that warm smell on the back of his tongue.

And with them, he smells Horse; dung and warm hay and something uniquely his.

And he feels something stirring within him that he barely recognizes anymore.

Hope.

It isn't until the beams of energy sizzle to life around him that he realizes his error.

~*~

The sound of the Barrier rising shakes Smith from his daze.

(Tangled limbs and the musty, moldy smell of a tiny closet, the feeling of warm lips against his throat. Once upon a time, a voice whispers; memory that can't be his.)

He is Specialist Peter Smith, Woodsman.

The Vessel lies panting in the leaves, where the Amazons let him fall. Smith looks away, resolutely.

"Bring that Barrier down, Colonel!" he shouts, taking a step forward before something crashes into him and knocks him to the ground.

The smell of wet loam fills his nostrils.

He rolls onto his side.

Something hard and cold presses against the base of his skull.

"Belay that," the General's calm voice says from somewhere above him. "I have to thank you, Specialist," he says. "You've fulfilled your purpose even better than I'd imagined possible."

There is a flash, and a sizzle, and the smell of burning hair. Something yips in pain.

Smith opens his eyes.

Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow his treacherous memory whispers.

~*~

All Bard can do is lie curled against the pain and fight for breath as he watches Vegard-that-was fall to the ground, watches the man in the General's uniform press the barrel of his gun against the dark-haired man's skull.

There is a flash of blue and a sizzle as the shadow of an animal throws itself against the glare of the Barrier.

Horse strains against his bonds.

Bard imagines he hears the ghost of a whinny.

"Now," General says, "if you'll be so kind, my dear Lost Boy, the Fox's Song." He settles the shining barrel of his gun more securely among Vegard's curls.

The animal-shadow freezes, turns its pointy muzzle toward Bard, toward the General, toward Vegard-that-was.

Vegard's eyes flicker open. They meet Bard's without fear. In them is a flicker of recognition.

"Open your sack, Mr. Fox, open your sack," Vegard whispers, before the General strikes him. "The Song, boy," the General snaps, his finger tightening on the trigger.

Bard smiles. "Ring-ding-ding-ding-dingeringeding," he whispers.

Fox's mouth opens in a silent grin.

"Wa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pow," Bard says, struggling for breath.

The sharp retort of a gunshot echoes through the clearing. Something wet splatters against Bard's face. He closes his eyes, draws another agonizing breath.

"Hatee-hatee-hatee-ho!" he says, and he hears Fox's yipping laughter.

"The Barrier's not going to hold much longer, General!" someone shouts. Grayness creeps in around the edges of Bard's vision.

A-hee-ahee ha-hee Grandfather's laughing voice says in memory. A-oo-oo-oo-oo-ooo. Bard laughs, wheezing with the effort.

There's another gunshot.

Then nothing. Sunlight. The sound of birds singing.

Morning.

Spring.

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