Twenty caravans were arranged in a wide, somewhat disordered circle around the forest clearing. Hetman O'Garretty's people were just rising for their regular morning routines of tending their horses, preparing breakfast and checking the camp's perimeter. This activity was accompanied by the complaints, curses and outright blasphemies about the freezing weather, iced-over water buckets and iron-hard ground.
The girl watched from the far side of the encampment as the young man packed a rucksack. Of average height, he was slimly built with short, jet-black hair, and, she knew, eyes of the richest, darkest brown. He moved with grace and precision, a fluidity she had seen in few of the Gypsy men in the band. Though, of course, he was not wholly of Gypsy blood, was he?
Oh Theo, she sighed inwardly.
Theo Mistmoon was dressed in rough but functional clothes of heavy, blue cotton. A travelling cloak and hat were laid to one side, ready for departure. Into the rucksack went spare clothing, flint and tinder, cutlery and a small pan. These were all wrapped in the clothing to prevent rattling and the sharp objects digging into his back. A bedding roll, wrapped in an oiled sheet, was strapped to the bottom of the rucksack. She watched him test the weight and comfort before laying the rucksack back on the ground and hefting another, smaller case. This had a rather round body and a long, slender neck. This was Theo's most prized possession, his lute, which he played with consummate skill, and used to accompany many of the songs and stories he had collected on his travels with the Gypsy band.
"What are you watching him for?" The rough voice was instantly recognisable as was the distaste the speaker had for Theo.
The girl was rudely jolted from her heartsick gazing. "Oh!" she blurted. "Anders. I was just off to collect water." She held up the pail and smiled weakly.
"The river's thataway, Tess," Anders said, jerking a thumb over his shoulder. "You shouldn't be mooning over that puke when there's real menfolk in your family need their breakfast."
Tessamarie O'Garretty, daughter of the Hetman, bridled at Anders' use of her nickname. His family was of lower standing within the band and he should treat her with a little more respect. He was brutish, coarse and not a little stupid but Anders had the strength of a carthorse and, Tess had to admit, a bravery that her father admired. That allowed him to get away with his crude behaviour, even in front of her father.
Tess swallowed her pride and turned towards the river. In his own rather blunt way, Anders was right and she did have responsibilities to meet. She had walked barely ten feet, however, when she heard Anders move off towards Theo, obviously intent on causing trouble. The pail hit the ground as Tess dropped it, spun on her heel and dashed after Anders.
"Where're you off to?" Anders growled. "Running away, Mistmoon?"
Theo straightened as the bully approached. He could see Tessamarie closing the distance rapidly, a worried frown on her face.
"Anders, stop it!" the girl called. She reached out her hand and placed it on Anders' right arm. Tess had seen how much damage he could do with that hand.
"Stay out of this, Tess," snarled Anders as he snatched his arm from her grip. "This yellow dog's running away before the weather turns nasty, so he can stay soft and warm playing his little songs in the inns."
Theo looked over Anders' shoulder into the worried eyes of Tessamarie. He pointedly ignored the brute in front of him. "Hetman O'Garretty has asked me to deliver a message to Mandel's band," Theo said calmly. "I'll be away two, maybe three days." He looked up at the sky. "Should be back before the snow hits, hopefully."
Anders smiled cruelly. "Then you're in for trouble. There are wolfpacks down from the hills and Goblins have been seen around here as well. And," he paused and his smile grew even more vicious, "they say Elves are moving through here too."
Tessamarie gasped and her eyes widened in shock. "That's too much, Theo. I'll speak to Father. We're supposed to be meeting Mandel in a few days. You don't need to risk yourself against ..." Her voice trailed off as the superstitious awe in which the Gypsies held the Elven-folk brought back all the campfire tales. Elves could move almost silently and steal livestock, treasure, even children, from under their parents' noses. Some were killers, assassins in the shadows. And their magics were said to be the blackest sort imaginable."That's why the old man's sending this puke!" Anders said with a laugh. "He's not really one of our people, is he? Least he's not a full-blood Gypsy like you and me, Tess. Our band can afford to lose him." Anders finished with a sneer, as if Theo was something he'd trodden in.
Theo saw the shock on Tessamarie's face turn to anger. He knew her temper was almost as volatile as her father's and sought to calm her. "He's sending me because I at least have the manners to speak with Hetman Mandel without getting a whipping for speaking out of turn." Theo had raked up ancient history with that remark. Ten years before, Anders had been beaten by Mandel's son for calling the Hetman an "old git".
Anders well remembered that beating and the bruises and humiliation it had left him with. He snarled and in the blink of an eye, balled his right fist and swung at Theo.
"Don't!" shrieked Tessamarie, a second too late.
Theo blocked Anders' haymaker with his left arm and jabbed a punch at the other man's exposed stomach. It hit with a satisfying thump but, to Theo, it felt like he had hit a steel breastplate rather than flesh and left his hand numb. He took a step back, narrowly dodging Anders' next anger-fuelled swing, and suddenly Tessamarie was between the two of them.
"Stop it, both of you!" she yelled. But Anders did not heed her and stepped around the scared young woman and advanced on Theo, mayhem in mind.
"Theodoric Mistmoon!" The voice, clear, calm but as loud as a thunderclap echoed around the camp. Anders was brought up short and Theo spun on the spot to see his mother, standing on the steps of their caravan. "That's better," Sherilynn said as the two men calmed and the girl placed herself firmly between them.
"He started ..." Theo began but his mother held up a hand for silence and was duly obeyed.
"You two," Sherilynn said to Anders and Tessamarie, "have tasks to perform for your families, do you not?" Tessamarie nodded quickly and Anders grunted, still glaring at Theo. "Then I suggest you go about them, quickly and quietly."
They turned and went their separate ways, Tessamarie back to where she had dropped the pail and Anders off on errands of his own. Theo caught the word "witch" as Anders stalked off past him.
Theo looked up at his mother who had not moved from the caravan steps. He felt ashamed that he had lost his temper and come to blows with Anders but he was also relieved that his mother had saved him from the pounding Anders would surely have given him. He shrugged, feeling helpless.
"You've finished packing?" Sherilynn inquired as she came down the steps and walked over to her son. Theo nodded. "Good. Then I have something for you." First, she produced a food parcel, bread, cheese, meat and fruit. "This should see you through your first day," she said quite brightly, "after which you'll have to fend for yourself. Remember, do not eat any red fruits you may find on the bushes. These are likely to be poisonous at this time of year as it is Lady Varna's way of ensuring greedy men leave some food for the animals under her care." Theo nodded again at a lesson he had heard many times.
"I will, Mother." Theo stopped in some surprise. His mother looked somehow older this morning. While still undoubtedly beautiful in his eyes, and the hot-eyed leching of some of the menfolk in the camp, he was sure there were grey strands in her hair and lines around her eyes that had not been there the previous morning.
Sherilynn examined her son's face intently. He can see it, she thought. The Gift is there but buried so deeply it can barely make itself heard to his heart and mind. But buried beneath what? She took a deep breath, reached under her shawl and brought out a slim, leather-covered wooden case. "You may also need this."
Theo took the case. About three feet long and fastened with brass hinges and hasps, the leather looked newly polished, indeed, it even smelled of lacquer and beeswax. His mother nodded and Theo opened the case.
Inside was a short sword, about two and a half feet long from pommel to point. The steel blade was polished almost to a mirror shine and the hilt was inlaid with bronze, copper and silver filigree. Beside the sword lay a scabbard of leather and brass. Theo was not a warrior and, aside from playing with wooden swords as a child, he had never held a real weapon larger than a dagger in his life. He looked questioningly into his mother's eyes.
"It was your father's," Sherilynn said simply. "He left it here when he ..." After an uncertain pause, during which the words betrayed, deserted, abandoned flashed through her mind, she finished, "left us. I suppose it is yours by birthright." I hope you never have to use it, she did not say.
Sherilynn drew her shawl tighter around her shoulders as she watched Theo walk off, west, along his planned route to Mandel's encampment. His step was light, almost jaunty, and he did not seem uncomfortable with the extra weight of the sword. Thankfully, his cloak hid the weapon quite well, so he might not be taken as a wandering bandit or rogue on his travels.
The mother watched until the son had disappeared from view, then straightened and said, "You can come out now."
Tessamarie O'Garretty emerged from behind the Mistmoon caravan where she had been hidden, watching the goodbyes. Suspicion flashed across Tessamarie's eyes, which were reddened with barely restrained tears. "How did you know?" she asked falteringly. The Mistmoon women were well known for their powers of foresight. Could Theo's mother have predicted her presence by cards or crystal?
Sherilynn turned and smiled. To an outsider or a villager seeking her services she would have revelled in the mystery and hinted at signs and portents. Tessamarie, a clever young woman of eighteen, would have seen through all that, so Sherilynn told the truth. "Nell snorted as you walked past her. I could have heard her a mile away."
They shared a laugh and stood side by side, gazing in the direction Theo had taken. "He will be safe, won't he, Madam Mistmoon?" Tessamarie used Sherilynn's more formal name.
Sherilynn spoke, almost into thin air. She could not bring herself to look at the younger woman for she knew that suspicion, fear and sadness had been replaced with a look of hope on the clear complexion. "This journey is not without its dangers. Theo is brave but not stupid. You will see him again. You may be assured of that, young lady." Though what you see when he returns, you may not like.
Theo waved goodbye one last time then set off purposefully along a narrow, westward bound forest track. Within a few minutes, the camp was out of sight, hidden by a screen of leafless, frost-coated trees.
He could feel the unfamiliar weight of his father's sword swinging at his side. Though perhaps he should begin thinking of it as his sword now? The mere thought brought back painful memories and posed even more disturbing questions.
What had he done to drive his father away? Where had he gone? Was he even still alive?
These questions swirled around Theo's mind as they had over many years of tear-filled nights in the caravan. His shoulders slumped and his once-confident stride slowed to a more laborious trudge, almost a limp, as the weight of the sword on his left hip spoiled his balance.
"Why?" he asked the empty air. "Wasn't I good enough for you? Did you not love Mother as much as she loved you?" She still loves you, Theo thought. I still love you.
Theo choked back a sob and leaned against the trunk of a tree. His thighs were trembling and he felt close to vomiting as his grief and guilt surged through him. These feelings were familiar to Theo; grief at the loss of this father, guilt that he was the cause. Now, however, there was something else: anger. Rage roiled in his stomach. You bastard! he thought. A vision flashed into his mind's eye. His father dying on the point of his sword as Theo laughed with demonic fury.
No! No! NO! I will not let that happen, Theo railed inwardly. He closed his eyes and struggled to still the anger in his heart, disciplining his mind and spirit as his mother had taught him. The ritual of calming, as Sherilynn had called it, was supposed to soothe the restlessness in his spirit in preparation for a card reading or crystal-gazing, talents which Theo had never mastered. Instead, it brought Theo's desire for a bloody reckoning under control.
He pulled himself upright and stood with his head held high and a look of determination on his face. The time for self-pity was over, Theo thought. He drew the sword and held it up to his eyes. "If you still live, I'll find you. I'll make you answer for the years of misery you inflicted on Mother!"
Theo swung the sword in an arc. It made a satisfying swoosh as it cut through the air and even in Theo's inexperienced hand, it seemed a beautifully balanced weapon. He tried more practice swings, thrusts and parries but after a few minutes he stopped and shrugged. It was a weapon, nothing more, and a tool to be used by those better trained than himself, unless as a last resort, of course. He sheathed the sword and reached for his own tool of the trade.
Theo uncased his lute and strummed it gently. It sounded rough. The cold weather was playing havoc with the strings and he spent a few moments re-tuning it to perfect timbre. Then he set off again, playing as he walked, drawing solace and comfort from his sadness in the lonely winter forest.
Early that afternoon, Theo stopped for a meal by a small brook where ice had formed a thin veneer at the waters edge. Even at this time of the day, the ice had not melted, a fact which promised a cold night to come. He unwrapped the food parcel and chose a hearty wedge of bread, a slice of cured beef and a glossy green apple. The last, of course, was something of a rarity at this time of year, so Theo murmured a grateful thanks to his mother, and devoured the apple to the core, which he then planted in an open space near the brook. After refilling his canteen with the icy spring water, Theo pressed on, making good time in the quiet solitude of the forest.
As dusk settled, Theo began looking for a suitable campsite. It seemed fortune was with him as he found a spot between two old beech trees, the ground strewn with dry leaves. Here he spread his blanket and bed roll and kindled a small fire which he fed with fallen twigs and leaves. Despite Anders' malicious rumours of wolves, Goblins and, worse still, Elves in the woods, Theo felt safe enough to risk the fire. There had been precious few signs of animal or bird life during the day, let alone armed bands of raiders, and Theo had learned over the years to trust his own instincts.
Theo put Anders' warnings down to mere bluster and a desire to unnerve him in front of Tessamarie. Theo knew Hetman O'Garretty's daughter had feelings for him and Anders resented that with a passion. The bully felt Tessamarie should be his betrothed by the coming Spring and his wife by Summer and Theo was an obstacle to getting what he felt was his right as a full-blood Gypsy male who had won the favour of the band's Hetman. Tessamarie's feelings in the matter were largely ignored by both Anders and her own father. Such a triangle of base desires, traditional rights and unrequited love could only end in tears, Theo knew. Many of the songs and stories he had learned on his travels told much the same tale over and over again. He shook his head sadly. So why did so few of those stories describe a solution where they could all live happily ever after. Perhaps there was no such solution?
Theo devoured the last of his mother's food parcel, toasting some of the bread over the campfire and adding a knob of butter from the small pot she had provided. Then he settled back against the trunk of one of the trees and re-tuned his lute.
His music floated through the forest. Spring Will Be Here. This was one of his favourite songs. After all, being a Gypsy, Theo was accustomed to preparing for Winter and enjoying the bounties of Spring. Spring, when Lady Silfa ran through the world, was a time of relative ease for the Gypsy band.
In the song, Lady Silfa had defied her mother and raised her first child! That flower had spread its green shoots through Lady Varna's blanket of snow and the ice white of winter was now sprinkled with a dusting of fresh green. Of course, Varna could not allow her daughter to rebel so strongly, and so, as legend decreed, each green shoot would wear a hood of white until Silfa's rebellion overwhelmed the land. Silfa herself would be supplanted by her own daughter, Nyssa, and then Summer would reign, until the Lady Cayla brought the earth under her control. Cayla was no murderess. She made the earth rid itself of its old poisons (and even some of those could be of use), save those good things and, eventually, give some creatures the wit to sleep away the worst of Varna's icy fury.
And so the cycle of life would repeat.
What was that? Theo snapped back from the chorus of Spring Will Be Here.
There was something rustling in the bushes nearby. Theo stood and loosened the sword at his belt. "Who's there?" he called.
The rustling became more agitated and, without warning, a figure, plainly panicked by something, burst through the undergrowth, calling in some incomprehensible tongue. Scant seconds later, the "something" came scuttling from the bush. The spider was huge, its bloated body at least two feet across and its leg-span over twice that. It raised its forelegs and bared its fangs, clearly aiming to bite at the fleeing figure.
Without thinking, Theo drew his sword and ran at the hideous creature. Spiders were regular visitors to the caravan, in fact, his mother refused to break their webs as they kept flies and other noxious pests out of their home. This beast, however, was something Theo had heard of only in stories: spiders as big as dogs, or even larger, known to trap humans in their webs and string them from branches of trees or imprison them in caves so they could be digested later! Theo screamed as he ran at the spider, brandishing his sword.
The spider whirled at this new threat. With surprising speed, it snapped its mandibles at Theo, narrowly missing as he dodged to one side. Theo backed away from the fallen figure, taunting the spider which advanced on him quickly in a flurry of flailing legs and snapping fangs.
Theo blocked the first attacks from the spider's front legs and hacked back with his sword, nicking the creature's front claw. It backed off a few paces and began to circle around Theo. He kept his sword level and pointed at the spider's head, realising for the first time just how out of his depth he was. Play fighting with wooden swords had not prepared him for this!
The spider sprang forward, leaping towards Theo with bared fangs. Theo lashed out, swinging his sword in an arc which took the creature's front leg clean from its body. The spider fell in a heap of disorganised limbs and scuttled backwards, pressed now by Theo who swung again and again. While most of his blows were wide or failed to harm the spider, fear of the sharp steel drove the creature back.
It backed up against a tree and began to climb, plainly trying to escape. Theo yelled some obscure battle cry from a song centuries old and slashed at the spider. Then the monster turned and leapt at Theo from the tree, perhaps attempting to squash its attacker. Panicked, now, Theo backed away as the spider flew at him. It hit him full in the chest, knocked him backwards and to the ground. The weight of the spider pressed him down and Theo squirmed frantically, kicking and screaming in terror. The spider bit down and Theo barely moved his head out of the way in time to avoid the fangs.
There was a resounding thump and the spider whirled, distracted by the figure it had been chasing, brandishing a tree branch as a club. Theo drove upwards with his sword and took the spider in its abdomen. Thick, greenish ichor spurted from the wound. With all his strength, he twisted his sword in the wound, widening it further and coating himself with the foul-smelling blood. The spider tried to flee but Theo found his feet, straightened and drove his sword into the creature's head, between its several sets of eyes. The beast shuddered once and lay still.
Theo looked at the figure and, in a staggering display of bad manners, his mouth dropped open in surprise. An Elf! he thought. A living, breathing Elf ... This idle thought was brought to an abrupt halt when the Elf smiled weakly, then fainted to the forest floor.
Theo warmed his hands over the campfire before turning to the fallen Elf. He had found a safe place for them to rest and, he hoped, recuperate from the spider attack. Undoubtedly, the Elf had saved Theo's life with his timely strike against the spider; he could do nothing else but try to save the Elf. His "patient" had remained unconscious even while Theo had dragged him to the campsite and now was lying, pale and breathing shallowly but otherwise apparently unharmed, near the fire, covered with Theo's blanket.
Food could be an issue, Theo thought. He had used the supplies his mother had given him and should really be at Hetman Mandel's caravan before nightfall the next day. There was little hope of that, he reflected, if he had to carry the unconscious Elf with him. And Theo would be damned if he would leave the poor boy alone in the forest.
Was he really a "boy" though? Theo wondered. After all, the Elves were known to be extraordinarily long-lived. The Elf could easily be one hundred years old by human reckoning, yet looked scarcely a day older than Theo himself.
Theo's train of thought was interrupted by a low groan from the Elf. He lunged over to the Elf's side. "Easy," he said, soothingly, not knowing if the Elf could understand him. "Here, take this," added Theo, placing a canteen of water at the Elf's lips. The Elf drank quite sparingly and then lay back with a relaxed sigh. He smiled weakly.
"Thank you," he said, his words in the common tongue of mankind strangely accented but carrying an almost musical quality Theo had never heard in a human voice. The Elf reached for the canteen again and drank more deeply. "That's good," he said appreciatively.
"There's a clear stream about fifty yards that way," Theo said, gesturing with a thumb over his shoulder, "I'll get more before we run dry." He paused before adding, quite formally, he thought, "I'm Theodoric Mistmoon of Hetman O'Garretty's gypsy band, and you?"
"Reolin Iathello of the Diatheru Clan. My friends call me Reo." The Elf held out his hand, which Theo took and shook firmly.
"Theo, to my friends," he said.
"Theo and Reo," laughed the Elf, "what a pair we would make in song, yes?"
Theo laughed as well. "Songs are sort of my business. The gypsy band travels widely and I pick up songs from all over."
"I heard," said Reo. "The battle cry you shouted at the spider. Did you know that was part of Elvish history?" An astonished Theo shook his head. "Hundreds of years ago, the Elves were aided by some of your people in a battle against an evil sorcerer and his armies. One of your heroes, Byorn Hallsson I think he was called, yelled that cry as he rode into the wizard's command post. A suicidal gesture, I fear, but one that turned the tide of the battle in our favour. We call that battle the Battle of Daggerfell."
"I thought Daggerfell was a myth," replied Theo, mystified, but then he remembered: Daggerfell was a story told to him by his father before he disappeared. He had obviously discounted the story as the lies of a deceitful bastard.
"It most assuredly is not a myth, friend Theo. Our scholars say losses to both the Elven and Mannish contingents numbered into the thousands." Reo paused sadly but then rallied with, "The evil was vanquished, so the sacrifice of those brave warriors, Hallsson among them, was surely worth it, was it not?"
"I suppose so but the loss of life on both sides was tragic. Hopefully the lesson was learned and, in future, peace can be brought about through negotiation and treaties, rather than open war."
"Friend Theo, the Idealist," laughed Reo.
"Yes, I suppose I am," Theo joined in with the laughter.
"So what brings you to the heart of the forest, Theo?"
"I'm being a messenger, another of my roles for the gypsy band. We're meeting with Hetman Mandell and my Hetman has a message he needs before we get there." Theo shrugged. "Why it can't have waited a couple of more days is beyond me."
"Maybe it's a diplomatic message to avoid the bands coming to blows?" Reo opined. "Surely the idealist in you can see the sense of prompt communication?"
"Could be," admitted Theo, "but I know both Hetmen. It's more likely a wager about who can drink the most ale." The friends shared more laughter. "I could ask the same question of you, Reo. How did you end up being chased by that beast?"
Reo's laughter died away. "I lost a wager of my own. The forfeit was to spend a night in the forest by myself. The spider found me first and I fled." Reo became serious. "You saved my life, Theo. For that, I am eternally grateful."
"It worked both ways," Theo replied. "If you hadn't walloped the spider with that tree branch, it would surely have bitten my head off!"
"Or stung you and dragged you away to devour later." Both friends shuddered at the thought.
The night passed uneventfully, with Theo taking first watch to allow Reo to rest for longer. In the morning, they breakfasted on the small amount of trail rations Reo had brought with him. The nuts, berries and strips of dried meat were all that was left of Reo's camping equipment.
"We could find the place the spider attacked you and pick up your gear from there," suggested Theo. "Would that be on the line of travel back to your own clan?"
"That would be a good start," agreed Reo. "I'm not much of a tracker but I must have made a real mess when I ran from the spider, my route should be easy to follow."
They found the site where they had fought the spider and carefully skirted the beast's body before plunging into the bushes from which Reo had emerged. Following his panicked flight was easy: twigs were broken, undergrowth trampled and they found two places where Reo had fallen, recovering his small dagger from the brush.
As they walked, something occured to Reo. "Won't you be late to deliver your message?" he asked.
"I was given two or three days to reach Mandell's band, so helping you out here is no real delay. I might need to push myself a bit on the third day."
"I'm sure my people can help, Theo."
Reo's camping gear was scattered around a small clearing. Between them, they recovered his bedding, backpack and shortbow and a dozen arrows. Of his original food supply, nothing was found, presumably it had been eaten by scavengers.
Reo tested his bow, shooting one of his arrows into a tree stump, which, to Theo's judgement, was less than four inches across. "Excellent shot," Theo said.
"It's fortunate it was not damaged by the animals who scavenged the food. With this, I might be able to bring down a wood pigeon or rabbit," returned Reo.
"How far is your camp from here?" asked Theo.
Reo considered this. "The condition of the wager was that I travel at least a day's march from our camp. When the spider found me, I fled, so I'm unsure how far it is. By my reckoning, though," he added brightly, "the camp is in that direction." The Elf gestured in a roughly southerly direction.
"Then let's get moving," said Theo. "The last thing we want is more spiders on our trail."
"I should keep this ready, just in case," replied Reo, nocking an arrow to his bow.
Theo took an instant to look over the bow. The wood was stained red and lighter oranges showed the direction of the grain. The hand grip was tied in soft leather and bone marked the tips of the bowstave. It's a fine piece of work, judged Theo, though he was no expert archer. He said so to Reo.
Reo replied. "I'm in training to be an archer for Clan Diatheru. It will be my role to stand sentry, make sure no creature prowls too close and kill anything that does." He pointed the bow menacingly at Theo, who stepped back with his hands raised.
"So it's the tool of your trade?" Theo asked, as calmly as he could manage. Reo might just be playing games with him but one slip coould put an arrow through Theo's heart.
Reo relaxed his pull on the bow. "Yes!" he said brightly, "I suppose you could call it that, though for us it's something more than that. I made this bow, you see, and will carry it with me throughout my training."
"It's certainly a work of great skill," replied Theo, relaxed now that the bow was no longer pointing at him. "I wish I could have made my own tools." He unlimbered his lute from its case on his back. "This is mine, though I don't know exactly who made it. My mother said it came from her visit to a city years ago, before I was even born." He strummed the lute for a few seconds and let the notes drift away through the forest.
Reo applauded then his eyes fell to the sword at Theo's hip. "And that? I don't think your trade really involves swordplay, Theo."
"This?" Theo unsheathed the sword and handed it, hilt first, to his friend. "It was my father's. He left it when he ... left us," Theo ended on a mumble.
"Left? Dead?" inquired Reo, suddenly concerned for Theo's loss.
"No, not dead, just gone. He left one night while I was still young. I mean to find him and find out why he left." He finished with determination in his voice.
"My sympathies, friend Theo," replied Reo. "I hope you find what you are looking for and that it does not need this," he handed the sword back to Theo, "to come to some agreement with the man."
Theo sheathed the sword. "I hope so, too, Reo," he said grimly.
They walked further through the forest, occasionally spotting signs of Reo's original journey, a broken twig, scuff marks in the grass, even footprints in the soil. As he had admitted, he was no tracker, nor was he a scout. Reo stated that the Elves had their own scouts, one of whom could be walking beside them now and they would never know unless he or she revealed themselves. Theo was reminded of the ghost stories that had frightened him as a child and wondered how much was fact and how much fantasy.
It was around noon when they heard horns blowing in the distance. The blasts were unlike any Theo had heard from mannish instruments and he mentioned this to Reo. The Elf replied, "That is because they are Elven horns. My people are looking for me!" Then he looked crestfallen. "I am in a world of trouble now."
Theo was sitting by the campfire, thinking over what he had just experienced. The Elves had given him a guarded welcome, even had him covered with nocked arrows at first, until Reo's father, Tarastor, evidently an Elf of some importance, had come forward trailing a sheepish Reo in his wake. Reo had apologised for leading Theo astray from his mission and for risking his life fighting the spider. There were gasps when Theo had said no apology was necessary and that, indeed, Reo had saved his own life against that foul creature.
"You are clearly a man of ideals, young though you may be, Theodoric Mistmoon," said Tarastor, "but do not reject my son's apology for his foolhardiness which put your life at such risk."
Theo thought for a moment before replying. Clearly, despite the childhood ghost stories he had been told about them, at least this clan of Elves were people of honour and pride. To belittle Reo's apology could be construed as an insult to his family and even, perhaps, the whole clan.
"Reolin Iathello, I accept your apology," said Theo, "and extend my own thanks to you for saving my life." Theo held out his hand which, after a nod from his father, Reo took and shook firmly.
"I name you an Elf-friend, Theodoric Mistmoon, holder of this small token of our gratitude and thanks," declared Tarastor, and handed Theo a green gem, about the size of Theo's thumbnail. "It is a waystone," continued Tarastor, "if held just so," he demonstrated placing the gem into Theo's open palm, "it can help you find your way home."
Theo was taken by surprise. This gem was magical! "I thank you," he stammered, "in the name of my family and my own band, I thank you."
His reverie was interrupted when a small finger prodded his shoulder.
"Are you really a man?" said the Elf-child, a girl of maybe six human years, though possibly much older, realised Theo.
"There are some who think I'm a man," replied Theo, "some who think I'm just a worthless boy," he added a little sadly, remembering the bullies in the Gypsy band.
"But what do you think?" she asked, pointedly, "Do you think you are a man? Or a boy?"
"I don't know what to think, really," Theo answered, somewhat taken aback by the girl's precocious manner. "My mother says I'm at that awkward age, not quite man but no longer really a boy."
"I think your mother is wise," she replied, then looked directly into Theo's eyes. "You have a long way to go, Theodoric Mistmoon. I see friends, enemies and even lovers," she looked a little embarrassed, "in your path. Cherish them, for even enemies, in their own way, will have something to teach you."
There was a long silence between them. Theo had heard his mother's stories many times, some of them even concerning him, but they had all involved her use of cards, crystals or the palm. This girl had no such tools but had still moved Theo with the power of her words. Whether she is accurate or not remains to be seen, thought Theo, but if she had the "Gift", as her mother would say, it was certainly strong.
"Still," the girl went on, more brightly now, "you don't take the first step until tomorrow. Tonight, you rest, eat and play." she gestured towards Theo's lute. "Sing me a song," she demanded.
So a slightly mystified Theo began playing, nursery songs in the mannish tongue to begin with and much to the girl's delight, then to a rousing tune about the Gypsy's life on the road.
The girl was dancing on the spot. "Sing about the spider!" she said mid-pirouette.
"Reo ran from the raging 'rachnid," Theo sang, with a smile, which faded slighty as he realised another six or so Elves had joined him at the fireside, and begun tuning up their own instruments, "tripped and tumbled tail-over-toes. To Reo it seemed it was over and done but Theo leaped in, sword swinging, everso scared but he would not run!"
The rest of the impromptu orchestra chimed in at that point, picking up the song and following through to the end of the battle. They carried on playing, harps and lutes, drums and flutes, applauding Theo's skill with his own instrument. The concert lasted well into the night and drew in many more of the clan's people who joined in with the singing. Theo learned some new songs, in mannish mostly, but leavened with lines of Elvish in places. All the while, Theo looked for Reo but his friend was nowhere to be seen.
The girl saw the look on Theo's face and said "He's on sentry duty and will be for at least a month if his father has his way." She giggled naughtily, clearly enjoying the punishment being visited on Reo.
The following morning was bitterly cold and low clouds threatened snow before noon. The Elves were preparing for the day ahead. Despite Anders' scare stories, they were not "moving through" the region. They had, in fact, elected to winter here in the woods. While the trees were becoming bare of leaves, the branches would still afford plenty of cover against the coming snow.
Theo shared breakfast with Reo and the Elven girl, whose name was Irielle and who turned out to be a cousin of Reo's. Despite her appearance, she was nearly sixteen summers old and would not "come of age", in the mannish parlance, for another sixteen years. Reo himself was over thirty years old by human reckoning, just come into manhood according to Elven tradition, and, after his recent recklessness, it might be another ten years before he was considered an adult by his kin. Theo listened in rapt fascination. Clearly, mannish superstition, fear and hatred had coloured the stories he had been told about the Elves and painted them all as irredeemably evil, whereas, for this clan at least, that was patently untrue.
"This is where I leave you," Reo said. The pair had walked for a few miles through the woods. "Our domain, as you might call it, comes to an end just at that rise," Reo gestured to a small hillock about fifty yards away. "Beyond that, we have no power."
"Power for what?" asked Theo, intensely interested. Would this be more Elvish magic?
"We can protect ourselves well enough," replied Reo, "so long as our scouts and sentries remain in this area. It is as far as our swiftest runners can get back to camp should danger threaten." He smiled. "We're surrounded by a dozen Elves, though they are well concealed."
"What about wolves and Goblins?" Theo asked
"We're not concerned about wolves. Some of our people have a certain empathy with wolves which allows us to steer them clear of camp. As for Goblins," he added with some distaste, "it's unlikely any would make it from that rise to where we are standing." Reo finished with a somewhat grim smile and extended his hand.
They shook hands and Reo nodded in the direction of the rise. "By my father's reckoning, it's about ten miles to where your Hetman Mandel is camped." Theo looked surprised. "We have ways of knowing what is beyond our borders, Theo," Reo explained, mysteriously.
"Magic," said Theo, "like the way-stone."
"I can't say," said Reo, "such things are beyond me, Theo. Just know that we will spend the winter here, safe under the trees. Take care of yourself and your loved ones."
With that, they parted. Theo set off, strumming his lute, in the direction of the Elven border. As he topped the rise, he turned back, raised his hand and shouted "Farewell, Reolin."
Reo had vanished.
Feeling somewhat lost and empty, Theo turned away. He continued playing, singing the Song of the Spider as he walked. The music lifted his mood and soon Theo switched to a jauntier ballad, more suitable for marching to. The miles fell away beneath his feet.
As he had suspected, the snow began around noon. He was resting on a fallen tree trunk, eating the provisions Irielle had given him, and felt the first flakes of winter brush his cheeks. Looking up, through the nearly-leafless tree branches, he could see the grey snow-clouds and scraps of watery blue sky. Thankfully, there was not far to go to Mandel's encampment now. He should reach it before the snow became heavier. Theo packed up the remains of his lunch and marched on.
A further hour or so of walking through the forest brought Theo to the edge of Mandel's camp. Two sentries approached him, one aiming a crossbow at his chest. Theo slowly raised his hands.
"Who are you?" asked one of the men.
"I am Theodoric Mistmoon of O'Garretty's band. I have a message for your Hetman."
There were mutterings between the men and the shooter tightened his grip on the crossbow. "Mistmoon, eh?" said the first, uneasily. It seemed to Theo that his family name was regarded with a certain suspicion, even in a different Gypsy band.
"I have the message in my pack," Theo said helpfully, with his eyes on the crossbow-man. "It carries Hetman O'Garretty's seal." He made to unsling his pack.
"Whoa there," grunted the crossbow-man, raising his weapon threateningly. "Step back over there and open your bag," he ordered. The other man nodded in agreement at this precaution.
Plainly, the men, and likely Hetman Mandel, were on edge about something, Theo realised. He kept his hands raised and backed ten paces away. Slowly he bent and undid his pack, rummaged for a moment, and found the message. It was a red leather folder sealed with black wax bearing the imprint of O'Garretty's seal: an arm, crooked and raised as if preparing for an arm-wrestling match. Theo tossed the package towards the men who could clearly see the seal.
"Keep him covered," said the first man, and bent to pick up the package. "Seems legit," he added. "I'll take this to the boss man and see what he says." He looked sharply at Theo. "Don't let him move from that spot."
Theo remained calm for the seemingly interminable time it took for the sentry to return. Standing in the freezing cold, with a wicked-looking crossbow pointed squarely at his chest, did not make his wait any easier.
When the sentry did return, he still looked suspiciously at Theo, but said to his partner, "He's clear. Boss Mandel has apparently been expecting him." He pointed at Theo. "You, come with me," he said, tersely.
Thus was Theo ushered into Mandel's camp. Many questions were on his mind, not least among them was why the Gypsies were on tenterhooks? Was there a hitherto unknown disagreement between Mandel and O'Garretty? Or could Mandel's band have heard that Elves were in the area and were guarding against such a mysterious threat? Had he walked into a war between the Gypsies and the Elves? Such wild speculation, Theo reasoned as he walked through the camp, was pointless. Relations between Gypsy bands were notoriously hard to govern, let alone predict, and if deep-seated distrust of the Elves was also a factor, then things could spiral out of control.
Whatever came to pass, Theo had an uneasy feeling he would be caught in the middle of it.