"Where is this?" Ranulf whispered, holding tight onto the hands that held his; Crowe ahead and Giles behind, with, he hoped, Rob at the rear and holding onto Giles' other hand. Though he had spoken softly, his voice echoed in a strange fashion, and as he spoke the deep crimson almost-dark around them sparkled with streaks and spatters of polychrome light. The air of this place tasted ashy and smelled of blood and rust, and the icy chill that he had felt when they had come through the gate had been replaced by an uncomfortable heat that made him sweat and his clothes stick to him.
Crowe squeezed Ranulf's hand, and Ranulf barely suppressed a shudder at the idea that Crowe was touching him. "The Between, as I know it. Others call it otherwise; the Throughway, the Via Occulta, the Trods, and so on. Many names, but the same place." He squeezed again. "It is not always thus here; today being the day of Tiw, the red and martial star now rules these paths, and so they bear his touch. Follow me, and be of stout heart." His words also cast their glittering traceries and vanished, leaving only the cold red of a dying hearth behind them.
Ranulf passed the squeeze back to Giles, then looked around as they walked onward. Wherever it was that they were, whatever name it bore, it was like nowhere that he had ever seen. Distances appeared to change even as he watched; sometimes the undarkness pressed around him so closely that he felt it might brush against his face and smother him like velvet or thick cobwebs, and sometimes it seemed as though they walked through a great vaulted hall where the walls were dim in distant shadow. His guts felt strangely unanchored within him, and he was suddenly glad that he'd eaten scarcely anything that morning; as Rob had intimated to Giles, this means of travel induced more than a little queasiness. Above, around and below them a pulse throbbed through their surroundings like the slow beat of a giant's heart, and as his eyes grew accustomed to the strange dimness Ranulf could see that each beat drove a wave of temporary brightening through the world, the faint increase of light following a delicate tracery across the undulating surfaces. He looked down and, though he could barely see his feet, he was only a little surprised to discover that their footsteps closely followed one glowing branch of this network.
Time passed as they made their way forward, to be sure, revealed by the periodic pulse of the landscape and by his own heartbeat and breath, but somehow it was hard for Ranulf to know how long they had walked. When he started counting his steps to gauge the time, after a while he would forget where he was in his counting and have to begin over again, though he had learned his numbers perfectly well.
"How much further?" That was Giles' voice from behind him, and then Ranulf heard Rob's rumbling reply from further back.
"Crowe can tell. He and his kind travel this way, not I. Not by choice, at least."
Crowe stopped suddenly and Ranulf almost thumped into his back, but he caught his balance and didn't stumble. Tilting his head to one side, Crowe whistled, a long shrill note that that sent a corona of ruby sparks shooting off from him out into the surrounding redness. He watched the sparks as they faded, then nodded judiciously.
"Another hour at most, I think," he said. "There are speedier ways herein, but not for such as you. Not safely, at least. Better for us to keep to this path. It is not quick, but it is sure..." Then his voice died in his throat, and the almost darkness closed in again.
"What's amiss?" Ranulf whispered, for he could feel the swift clench of Crowe's hand around his.
Crowe's breath hissed between his teeth and he stooped to brush the pulsating surface on which they walked with the fingertips of his left hand. "Pursuers," he said as though it were an oath, and spat. "One of us stays to anchor you; the rest shall scout." A curious shuddering spread through his body, and then Ranulf's hand held only a loose feather as several large black birds hung for a moment in the space where Crowe had stood. One hovered, then perched on Ranulf's shoulder as the others wheeled and flew off.
Ranulf felt first Giles and then Rob draw close to him. Shocked as he was by Crowe's sudden transformation, he looked back into Giles' ruddily-lit face, a face which mirrored his own disbelief and fear.
"How... how did he do that?" Giles stammered, his voice higher than usual and threatening to break into tears.
"How did I do what?" the bird on Ranulf's shoulder responded in Crowe's hoarse voice, its head on one side and its eyes glittering. Then it chuckled drily. "Ah, that. None of your business, as it happens. Only be glad that I can, for it gives us a little advantage. Can you fight?" it snapped, swiveling its head so that it looked straight at Ranulf, its bright eyes reflecting the surrounding redness balefully.
"Shall I have to?" Ranulf asked nervously. He'd never done more than brawl with other boys his age.
The bird coughed. "I take it you can not, then. Nor Giles either, and I doubt Rob's skills with the bow are of much use here." Ranulf couldn't see Rob's face, but he was sure that he could feel the man's embarrassment.
"I would if I could," Rob said, his tone defensive, "and you know it, but the way this place shifts about I might as well shoot at hazard. But I have fists and a poniard, and they may be some small service." Then his voice brightened, and he sounded almost cheerful as he added, "Mind you, I have fern seed, and that may grant us benefit of concealment."
"Fern seed?" the bird mocked. "Perhaps in your woods and pastures, Robin, but not here, nor amaranth nor chicory."
"Nor moly?" Rob sounded defeated.
"Nor even moly. Had you any," said the bird, his words harsh and glittering in the red air, "which you have not. War rules here today, and so in this place work cold iron, hot blood, and the force of spirit; and those three things alone. All of which we lack somewhat in, I'll wager. But hist," he interjected, "they come!" And in that instant down flew those birds that had gone in espionage, and the bird on Ranulf's shoulder flew up and joined with them, and Crowe stood beside them again, his breath coming fast and hot.
"We are in luck," he panted, reaching again for Ranulf's hand. Ranulf absently tucked the feather that Crowe had left in his hand into his belt, then gave the man his hand, albeit reluctantly. "In luck, I say," Crowe repeated, "for but two of their harriers are summoned in pursuit of us, and perhaps we may withstand them. If not, we shall sell our lives dearly."
"I have faced them once before," said Rob, "though that was many years ago." He shuddered. "I wish I had your confidence, Crowe. They are savage brutes, and clever. But if we must stand and fight, then we should see what we have for our defence."
They counted their weaponry. Rob had his poniard, and a smaller knife that he handed to Giles; from somewhere - Ranulf was sure that he had seen neither scabbard nor war belt about him - Crowe produced a thin glittering sword, from which the palpable twilight seemed to shrink as he brandished it, and a shorter blade he offered to Ranulf along with a caution that the edge was exceedingly sharp, and that he should use it only if sorely pressed.
And then their adversaries were upon them. Half hound, half lizard, high as a horse, eyes rolling ghastly in their sockets and foam splattering from their champing jaws, the two fell beasts seemed to come from nowhere and were at once no more than five yards away. Gaunt about the ribs but well-thewed elsewhere, their shag-furred and scale-headed bodies blazed with a sickly bluish glow, and Ranulf could have sworn that their teeth and their claws were of cold metal.
One hung back and the other advanced, seeming wary of Crowe's blade. Eyes filled with a malevolent intelligence, it spoke in a chill voice.
"Yield unto us," it rasped, and Robert Hod cried "Never!" The beast tossed its head and snarled, then spoke again.
"Give us the boys, little men, and ye shall go free." And this time it was Crowe that shouted his refusal into the bitter air.
"Three times I ask, by ancient law. Three times, and no more," the beast growled, and its companion pawed restively. "Refuse us not, or it shall go ill with you. The boys, or all your lives fall forfeit."
And now the men and the boys replied not at all, but readied their blades in defiance, and in an instant the beasts sprang howling at them. The men fought bravely, but it was obvious that the fight could not last long. Crowe, having already been wounded by his pursuers before he opened the gate into the Between, was tiring rapidly, and Rob, though fresher and unhurt, was hampered by the relative shortness of his weapon. A claw raked seemingly out of nowhere, and Crowe fell back, clutching his chest and cursing. Rob pushed forward, thrusting the boys behind his considerable bulk, but there was no way that he could defend them against both attackers.
I'm going to die, Ranulf thought, more in wonderment than in fear. Then anger flooded through him as he felt Giles trembling at his side, and he sprang in front of Rob and slashed viciously at the nearer creature. He had never used a blade in anger, though, and his hand was slick with the sweat of fear; the blow went wide, and the blade slid out of his grasp and fell to the ground.
The creatures laughed at his mortification, and the one that had spoken before signalled to its companion to draw back. It tossed its head disdainfully at them and snorted as it stepped forward to claim its prize. The bitter shame and fury that consumed Ranulf at the ignominy of their defeat was equalled only by that which he'd felt at his stepfather's abuse. He shut his eyes at the memory, a livid flame of anger licking at his heart. Suddenly there came a wave of heat and a light bright enough to dazzle his eyes, even behind closed eyelids; then, as from a great distance, he heard a hideous screaming and he knew no more.
Ranulf awoke to the sound of a voice murmuring gently and the touch of something cool and moist on his forehead. For a few moments he remembered nothing, and was content simply to lie there and be comforted; then, quite suddenly, he hurt all over and memories of what had passed came to him. He opened his eyes in panic, but the room was dark, and he would have sprung up had a hand not pressed him insistently back onto the bed on which he was lying.
"Peace, little one," said a soft alto voice. "You're safe here. A little hurt, but nothing that won't mend soon enough, I think. Drink this."
He felt the rim of a bowl touch his lips as a hand raised his head a little so that he could sip from it. The liquid was cool and smelled of herbs and honey. He sipped, and choked a little as the liquid went down his throat. "Slowly, now," the voice said. "The infusion is strong."
He drank again, this time without choking, the liquid aromatic and bitter behind the honey's sweetness. The bowl was taken away from his mouth and he was lowered back onto the bed. "What's happened?" he whispered. "Where am I? Where are Crowe and Giles and Rob?"
"Hush," the voice said, and he felt the gentlest of kisses on his brow. "Rest now, explanations later. I'll stay by you, I promise."
He would have protested, but sleep pulled him down once more.
How long he slept he could not have said, but when he woke again the chamber in which he lay was bright with sunshine from the unshuttered window. A young woman clad in a plain brown homespun robe was sitting on a stool by his bed, watching his face as his eyes opened, and then smiling when she saw that there was no fear in them. She had lustrous brown hair worn in ringlets down to her shoulders, an oval face with clear smooth skin as pale as milk, and mild blue eyes that reminded him of the springtime flowers that grew in the woods near his home.
"Good morning, and welcome to Blacktoft, Ranulf," she said in the deep and sweetly modulated voice he dimly remembered from his last waking. He tried to answer her smile with his own, but the skin of his face and, indeed, the rest of the front of his body seemed tight and sore, as though he'd lain down to sleep in front of a fire and singed himself on its heat. He contented himself with nodding and reaching out a hand in salutation. She took it in hers and inspected it gravely, then smiled at him. "You heal well, young man. Of course, magic helps, but I've seen many others hurt less that took longer to be restored. Next time, though," she chuckled, "you should remember to put up your defences before you let fly. The aim must be to consume one's enemies, not to imitate the phoenix."
Ranulf had no idea what she was talking about. All that he could remember was being in that puzzling place that Crowe had called the Between, and then their attack and defeat by those two foul creatures. "Tell me what happened," he begged. "Please?"
She chuckled at his eagerness. "Of course," she said, "I wasn't there, but I've heard your praises sung sufficiently since to have a fair idea, and Crowe certainly isn't one to give praise where it's not due. Oh, you can rest easy," she continued with a smile, "they're all well enough, though Crowe will have a few more scars to add to his collection. Robin thinks you quite the young hero, and as for Giles..." She laughed merrily. "Well, I suppose you did save his life, so he's entitled to be a little round-eyed when he speaks of you."
He blinked. "I don't know that I did anything," he said slowly. "I dropped my sword; that I remember..."
"And then, according to Crowe, who knows these things," she answered, her voice grave for once, "you called spirits of fire to your aid and burned the balehounds until they were consumed entirely to ashes." She withdrew her hand to pour water from a jug into an earthenware beaker. "Would you like to sit up to drink? If you can, you'll spill less and be more comfortable, I think."
The seamless shift from the incomprehensibly odd to the sensibly practical bewildered him, but he nodded assent and the woman's strong arms lifted him in his bed as effortlessly as if he were a baby. The linen sheet fell down from his chest, and he realised to his chagrin that under the bedclothes he was quite naked. His chest and his arms were pink and a little shiny, as though they had indeed been scorched, and then they flushed a deeper pink with embarrassment. The woman laughed indulgently at his mortification and pulled the sheet back up for him a little.
"No need to be shy with me," she smiled. "You're certainly not the first man I've seen naked, and, I hope, not the last. Who do you think's been taking care of your body's needs these past three days?" She settled him against his pillows and passed him the beaker. He hid his face against the beaker as he drank from it; his mother had taught him to be always modest, and the casual way in which this woman spoke of such things was disquieting.
"Three days?" he said in confusion, when he had done drinking and passed the beaker back to her. She nodded and set it next to the jug on the table by his bed.
"They brought you here unconscious on Tuesday, an hour or so before noon," she said, "and it's Friday morning now. You slept deeply, and you needed it for your body to heal. Never mind the burns, a summoning such as you're said to have done would weaken even a trained mage. Still, it saved your life, so I suppose that I shouldn't be too stern with you."
"Trained mage?" he said perplexedly, and she chuckled.
"You really don't know anything, do you?" she laughed. "Don't worry, the Magister will explain it all to you, I'm sure. He's been pacing up and down waiting to talk to you, but I had to be quite firm and tell him that you were in no condition to be disturbed. I may have exaggerated somewhat when I warned him that if he roused you too soon you might die, but he can be so obstinate and wilful when he has his mind set upon something that sometimes the truth does need to be stretched a little."
He smiled at that, even though the skin of his face pulled a little uncomfortably when he did so. "Rob did say that the Magister could be quite determined. But, my lady..."
She looked at him, then grinned. "None of that, please. Call me Jess, if you will."
Ranulf coloured again. "Oh... if it please you, Jess, I have so many questions, I don't know where to begin, but... are you a, you know, a mage?"
Jess chewed thoughtfully at a knuckle as she looked at him, and then she shrugged. "Many people might say so," she said slowly, "for I have some knowledge and talents that the Church, among others, wouldn't approve of, and for which many would be happy enough to see me burn, I don't doubt. But if you're asking whether I'm one who does formal magic, in the way that the Magister or Daniel or the others you'll study under do, then no, I'm not. I've tried, believe me, but I have no talent for it." She favoured him with a considering smile. "If you want to think of me in formal terms, I'm the Infirmarer here at Blacktoft; I grow herbs, make medicines, treat sicknesses and injuries, and so on, which I'll be teaching you something of. And," she added almost as an afterthought, "I'll also be teaching you the use of arms. When I've finished with you, you'll know how to handle a sword without dropping it at the crucial moment."
His eyes grew round at that. "But... but you're..."
"A woman, and women don't bear arms?" Her voice was still kindly, but Ranulf felt that he'd trodden on perilous ground.
"I suppose, yes," he admitted shamefacedly, and she laughed and patted his head.
"Appearances can be deceptive, Ranulf, and deception can be one of the deadliest weapons when used well. Don't ever forget that. Still, that's for another day. Are you hungry?"
Ranulf thought for a moment, and then a rumbling from his belly answered the question without need of words. He blushed and nodded. "I think I really am quite hungry," he admitted, and then he scrunched up his face and bit his lip. "And... and I think I need to go outside, Jess. Quite soon."
She looked perplexed for a moment, then chuckled. "Ah. We don't 'go outside' here - see that curtain?" She pointed to a cloth hanging that screened off an alcove in the far wall. "The garderobe's behind that, and there's a bowl and ewer for washing your hands afterwards. I'm most particular about cleanliness, especially in sickrooms. When you're done, get back into bed, because I don't think you're really well enough yet to be wandering around. I'll bring you some lunch up on a tray in a while, and then perhaps this evening you can come down to supper and meet the rest of us, if you're feeling sufficiently recovered. Do you think that bread and cheese and apples, and a little ale, will stave off your hunger until then?"
His belly growled once more, and she giggled. "I have my answer. I'll leave you a while, then." She stood up, smoothing down her robe with practised hands, then bent and brushed his brow with her lips. "I'm glad you're well again," she whispered.
Ranulf didn't know what to say, if anything, and by the time his face had finished flaming she had gone.