A Beth-Hill Novel: Jacob Lane Series Book 5: The Sixth Stone by Jennifer St. Clair
Are creatures of the night and all manner of extramundane beings drawn to certain locations in the natural world? In the Midwestern village of Beth-Hill located in southern Ohio, the population is made up of its fair share of common citizens…and much more than its share of supernatural residents.
Jacob Lane has spent her life unaware of her magical heritage. After being sent to Darkbrook, a school of magic, supernatural mysteries seem to spring to life all around her and her new friends.
Jacob Lane, supernatural sleuth, and Danny, her werewolf friend, stumble across an alternate world where the Wild Hunt was never bound, and Darkbrook, the school of magic they attend, was abandoned a hundred years ago.
But when the Hounds of the Hunt wish to surrender, the two students are swept up in a whirlwind of heartbreak, betrayal, and the discovery of a lost treasure.
GENRE: Fantasy/Young Adult Word Count: 30, 575
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(ebooks are available from all sites, and print is available from Amazon and Barnes and Noble)
Continue the Series:
“Healers go where they are needed,” Sennet said.
“You’ve said that before.” Jacob sat down on the mis-matched couch and folded her arms. “What does that mean? Exactly?”
“I took you to meet Espen a week ago,” Sennet said, joining Jacob on the couch. “Through the portal, not by mundane means. Why do you think we went that way?”
“Because–” It sounded stupid to say it out loud, but Jacob couldn’t think of any other reason why they’d go through a portal and not in a car. “Because she lives too far away?”
Sennet smiled. “Yes and no,” she said. “You could get into a car and drive for the rest of your life and still not find Espen’s house.”
“She lives in Faerie?” Jacob guessed.
“Not exactly, but you’re closer,” Sennet said. “What would you say if I told you that she doesn’t live in this world at all? That there are other worlds–other realities–out there, where Healers can go if they are needed?”
Jacob sat and thought about that for a moment. Her first reaction was to deny it, but Faerie existed, after all. She couldn’t deny that. And if Faerie existed, then why not other worlds? Why not?
“Does anyone else know about these other worlds?” she finally asked.
“They know, but they don’t really think about them all that much,” Sennet said. “There’s enough trouble in this world, after all. And it’s easier if you just go where you are needed and don’t really worry about where you are. Or when.”
“When?” Jacob asked. It wasn’t that she hadn’t learned a lot from the Healer; she had. But the suddenness of her talent appearing, and how she had saved Danny’s life was still too new for the numbness to wear off. She hadn’t quite gotten used to the fact that she was a ‘Healer’–in training, yes, but a Healer nonetheless.
“Sometimes, yes,” Sennet said, and a look passed across her face; a mixture of sadness and regret. “Hopefully, I’ll be with you the first time you’re called somewhere.”
Jacob hoped so, too. She had none of Sennet’s calm, none of her quiet strength.
“All you have to worry about is the person who called you, and that Healers are neutral,” Sennet said. “If someone harms a Healer in the line of duty–”
“I’ve been meaning to ask you about that,” Jacob said, thinking of Danny. “Why didn’t the Healers withdraw when Genevieve was killed?”
“Danny’s life and Gen’s life were tangled together when he killed himself,” Sennet said. “Someone had to sort it out, but not just anyone can approach a mess like that, much less make sense of what had happened.”
“You’re going to say that I was the only person who could have–” Jacob shook her head before she could finish the sentence. “I don’t believe you. Stuff like that only happens in stories!”
“No. You were in the right place at the right time, that’s all,” Sennet said, and smiled. “It’s not at all unusual.”
This whole conversation was unusual. Jacob couldn’t quite relax in the Healer’s presence; she thought she would feel the same way if summoned to the private chambers of a Queen. Healers were important people, after all, quiet and resourceful, but important.
And Jacob was–well, just Jacob.
She’d tried to explain this to Sennet once, and the Healer had smiled, and nodded, and completely failed to understand. And then she’d taken Jacob out into the forest where a tiny little fairy had gotten caught in a spider web, and Jacob had cupped the fairy’s body in her hand and she had healed the creature’s broken wing–and for a moment, she had felt–different.
Almost–connected. To something more vast than the bulk of a dragon looming over her head.
She’d been too intrigued by the feeling to mention it to Sennet, and now, after weeks had passed without its mention, she hesitated to bring it up. But it wasn’t ever far from her mind.
“What are you planning to do today?” she asked.
“I thought I’d take you shopping,” Sennet said. “It’s almost the holiday season, after all, and the holidays are stressful for most people. I want to show you something I think you’ll enjoy.”
So they had walked to the bus stop–Sennet didn’t own a car–and they had taken the bus to the nearest mall, a world away from Darkbrook even though it was only–in truth–less than fifteen miles. Despite the fact that it was November, holiday music blared from the speaker, the stores were selling everything under the sun, and while the music spoke of peace and goodwill and happiness, Jacob only saw a handful of people who were actually smiling.
“Sometimes I come here just to people watch,” Sennet said, and sat down on a nearby bench. She patted the seat beside her, and Jacob sat down. “To remind myself that there are other things than magic. That most of these people would never believe that the Wild Hunt once terrorized this town, or that Darkbrook actually exists.”
“There are more people who are hurt in this world than one network of Healers can heal,” Jacob said softly, watching a girl on crutches maneuver her way past two strollers piled high with bags and packages.
“We tend to stick to the fringes of what everyone else would call society. Those who cannot risk taking their wounded to a doctor–especially in this day and age–come to us. We don’t ask questions.” She smiled. “Well, not that many, and not always.”
“If that girl came to you, would you heal her?” Jacob asked.
“Of course,” Sennet replied. “But she wouldn’t come to me, or to you either. And if you approached her and offered to heal her, what do you think would happen?”
There were–stories, after all. From places the Healers had withdrawn from; horrible stories of wards in which Healers were imprisoned and forced to heal well beyond the last reaches of their strength; well beyond their sanity.
Nowadays, according to Sennet, no Healer followed a call without informing another Healer of their whereabouts. There were portals for Healers to use, and no one was ever more than a call away. The advent of cell phones had helped a lot.
“And there are some things that healers cannot heal,” Sennet said. “More things than you might think. We aren’t omniscient. We aren’t perfect, or infallible in any way.”
“That’s not what everyone seems to think,” Jacob said.
“Yes, I’ve noticed that, especially recently. I’m not sure that’s a good thing at all.” Sennet nodded to a group of women huddled around a crying child. There were other children present; bored and restless, but their parents weren’t paying them any attention. One little girl caught Jacob’s gaze and smiled quizzically, almost as if she knew who Jacob was, but couldn’t quite remember where she’d seen her before. “There are some things we can do for them,” she said, and quite suddenly, the music changed.
It was still the same song; a familiar one Jacob had known since she was small. But there was something different about it now; something almost glittering, a sparkle of goodwill that buoyed the people around them and put a spring into their steps. Strangers held doors open for other shoppers. People waiting in line stood up straighter, and smiled. Two women, strangers until now, turned to each and started talking about cats. A man, who had been scowling at the lady with a cartload of books at the bookstore, actually helped her unload her cart without a single unkind word.
“You can’t fix everyone, but you can make everyone feel a little better?” Jacob asked. The group of women had soothed the child, and three of the children now played on the concrete animals that stood in the middle of the mall. Someone had put a Santa hat on the giraffe and wrapped a long scarf around its neck.
“You also can’t help those who don’t want to be healed,” Sennet said quietly. “Are you hungry?”
The music was back to normal now; no sign of glitter or sparkles anywhere. But as they walked away from the middle of the mall towards the food court, Jacob realized that the people weren’t returning to their frustrations. Sennet had unlocked something inside of them; or awakened something that had been asleep, perhaps, and while Jacob knew the feeling wouldn’t last forever, perhaps it would–at least–last the rest of the day.
“Watch,” Sennet said, and waved her hand in front of Jacob’s face. “Here is the best lesson you can learn from me or anyone else. Everyone–and everything–you encounter is connected.”
A web of light sprang from Sennet’s fingers and spread out to touch the people around them -the kids on the carousel; the baby asleep in a stroller almost toppling with the weight of bags; the old man sitting alone at a table, forking the last bit of rice from the Chinese restaurant into his mouth; the group of teenagers dressed all in black with chains and piercings and skin almost pale enough to pass as vampires.
“If you help one person and they are a good person, then they will, in turn, help someone else,” Sennet said. “If you help one person and they are a bad person, all you can do is hope that the good will outweigh the bad. But each person you heal, each life you touch, will touch you in turn, and you will, perhaps, know more about that person than you ever wanted to know. That’s not a bad thing. Healers are neutral for a reason.”
Jacob stared around her at the light that connected each and every person she saw; one with the other, their auras–for want of a better word–merging as they passed, even if they did not speak to one another, and then separating again with some of their colors mixed as they moved on their way.
The only two people who were not connected to anyone else were–of course, she thought–Sennet and herself. Although there were tendrils, here and there, that formed a sort of mesh as Jacob watched.
“Healers aren’t connected?”
“Healers stand outside,” Sennet said, and from her tone of voice, Jacob realized that ‘outside’ meant quite a bit more than walking to the nearest door and stepping through it. “We are connected to each other. It isn’t called a ‘network’ of Healers for nothing, you realize.”
Jacob shook her head. “I didn’t realize. No one said anything about all of this–” There was another person seated at one of the food court’s tables who wasn’t–at least at first–connected to anyone else, either. But as Jacob watched, that same glowing mesh appeared between Sennet and the lady at the table, and then Jacob found herself joined with them both.
Sennet smiled. “Ah, there she is,” she said, and waved across the crowd to where Espen sat, looking more like royalty than an ordinary shopper. But there was a bag by her chair, and she had an actual mug of tea in one of her hands. She waved with the other hand, motioning them over.
“They serve tea here? In mugs?” Jacob asked, and wondered if anyone else thought that was suspicious.
“They serve tea here in mugs if you know where to find it,” Espen said as clearly as if she stood next to Jacob. And then, as they joined her, Jacob saw another lady–another Healer she hadn’t met–winding her way through the shoppers with a tray holding three mugs and a steaming teapot, which she poured with some finesse as soon as she reached the table.
“I’m Minerva,” the other Healer said, and handed Jacob a mug of tea. “I’m visiting.”
Minerva wore her pale–almost white–hair in a braid down her back, and a colorful scarf as a headband of sorts. She had elvish features, almost, but her ears weren’t pointed like Kyren’s–Jacob tried to imagine Kyren in a mall and had to hide a smile in her tea. Minerva’s clothing didn’t really fit in at a mall, either, but no one seemed to notice she wasn’t wearing any shoes, and that her dress seemed more homespun than store-bought.
“I’m Jacob,” she said. “Nice to meet you.”
“It’s always nice to meet a young Healer,” Minerva said, and smiled at Jacob. “There are so few new Healers nowadays–”
“Hence the reason why periodic vacations are important,” Espen said. “When is the last time you left your post?”
Minerva sat down. “Oh, it must have been at least a century,” she said, waving away a hundred years as if it were a day. “But Bets is coming along quite nicely, and I thought now was as good of a time as ever.” She smiled brightly and sipped her tea.
“Elizabeth is two or three years older than you,” Sennet said before Jacob could ask. “And she’s Minerva’s apprentice. I’m sure you’ll meet her one day.”
“Where is your post?” Jacob asked, remembering what Sennet had said about Espen’s house.
“Oh, it’s far from here,” Minerva said vaguely. “And a bit of a hot button site at the moment, although I never would have left Bets in charge if I thought she was in danger.” She hesitated, glanced at Jacob, then asked, “Any word from–”
“No,” Espen said, and it was the finality in her voice that caught Jacob’s attention.
Jacob glanced at Sennet, who seemed a bit annoyed that Minerva had even asked. And she wondered what they weren’t saying–any word from whom? Another Healer? Did she dare ask?
“There are alternate places, Jacob, different than the ones I’ve mentioned,” Sennet said after a long moment of silence. “Places like this, only different in some special way. Many hundreds of places.”
“And the person who hasn’t sent word is in one of these places?” Jacob asked.
“In all usual circumstances, we don’t cover the alternates,” Espen said. “We work with the actuals; those worlds that exist in a bubble of their own, not the ones that are twisted copies of this one or another. Every once in a while, though, a Healer will contact us from one of those places. That’s what happened years ago when Freda contacted me with a bit of a situation on her hands. We helped, and stayed in contact, but–”
“But you don’t live in this world,” Jacob said before she could stop herself. “Why did she contact you and not someone here?”
“Either way, where I live and this place are as similar as here and Faerie,” Espen said. “There’s not much difference. But in Freda’s case, there’s quite a large anomaly–”
“You know of the Wild Hunt, I presume?” Minerva asked before Espen could continue.
“Yes,” Jacob said. “I’ve–spoken with them.”
“You know they were bound by the Council a hundred years ago and recently freed from the binding,” Espen said.
“Yes, and I know their names,” Jacob replied. “Josiah comes to Darkbrook sometimes, to help my Uncle Lucas.” She hesitated. What did you call the Master of the Wild Hunt? It didn’t seem right to call him ‘Gabriel’. “I have a standing invitation to visit their home. And–”
“Gabriel’s daughter Erianthe has enrolled in Darkbrook,” Sennet said. “I think she’s supposed to start soon. And if you remember, Espen, I wasn’t there to help you before. I think that was around the same time as the war.”
Jacob opened her mouth to ask, but Espen spoke first.
“In Freda’s world, the Hunt was never bound,” she said. “The Council tried a hundred years ago, but they failed.”
“They–they failed?” Jacob asked, and quite suddenly, the fact that they sat in the middle of a mall food court seemed all the more strange. “But–if the Hunt was never bound–”
She’d read the stories, after all. Everyone had. Some of the stories were obviously myth, but most of them held more than just a grain of truth. And once, not that long ago, she’d found the diary of her great-great-uncle Peter, who had been one of the Council members to attempt the binding, and one of the few to survive.
What would the world be like if the Hunt was never bound?
“We helped corral the Hunt,” Espen said quietly, as if she sensed some of Jacob’s thoughts. “We roped off the forest with magic; Darkbrook was abandoned, and the Hunt left to starve or fade away. No one was quite certain what would happen.”
“Our spells have not failed, so we know they haven’t escaped,” Minerva said. “But we haven’t heard from Freda for almost three months. And after weekly letters–”
“It does seem a bit suspicious,” Espen admitted. “Even though there’s a bit of a time lag between this world and that one.”
“Darkbrook was abandoned?” Jacob repeated.
“Without a Council, that was really the only thing that could be done,” Espen said, watching her closely. “We couldn’t negotiate with someone willing to murder anyone who set foot in his path, after all.” She smiled. “Don’t worry about it, Jacob. That isn’t your place, after all.”
“But still–” Jacob didn’t want to argue with a Healer, but she couldn’t help it. Josiah was nice. Even Gabriel had not been a monster. And what about his daughter? What about herself? If there was no Council, was there no Jacob Lane in this alternate world? Or Uncle Lucas? Or her mother and father?
“If the Hunt exists in this other world, do I exist too?”
“I doubt it,” Espen said. “The alternates tend to break off during some terrible struggle; perhaps in one, someone who died would then live, or vice versa. In this one, among other things, the Hunt was not bound. In some, wars were not fought or they were; kings were not murdered or they were. Do you understand?”
“It’s like a nightmare,” Jacob said. “Or a horror story. I like the Hunt. At least, the Hounds I’ve met.”
“And there is no reason not to,” Minerva said. “It’s like a nightmare, yes, but it’s also real. If you go looking for alternates, child, you’ll find them, but its best to stick with what you have here.”
But even after their conversation veered off into another direction, Jacob couldn’t stop thinking about it. The Hunt, never bound. Or, bound to the forest, but Darkbrook abandoned? That was almost too terrible to contemplate.
And later, as she walked back to Darkbrook from Sennet’s house, she wondered if another Jacob Lane in another alternate reality was walking home from someone’s house, and maybe, just maybe, in one alternate world, her parents really had been killed by the dragons.
And maybe that thought was the worst of all.
Arlen had–somehow–broken off from the main body of the hunt. For a while, he was content to ride by himself and away from the others, despite what his uncle had said was grave danger.
After all, it had been weeks since his uncle had brought back a kill.
He heard the sounds of the rest of the party for the longest time before he realized the noise had grown fainter and fainter as his horse picked through the thick underbrush of the forest.
And even then, Arlen wasn’t frightened until he reached a wide creek–with a sturdy bridge across its width–and saw the decaying bulk of what had to be Darkbrook standing alone in a clearing, broken out windows glittering dully in what weak sunlight managed to pierce the forest canopy.
Half the building had been smothered by ivy over the years; what remained free of ivy had been touched by fire sometime in the past century, but was largely intact.
Just the sight of the castle was enough to freeze Arlen into place–at least, until the Hound growled behind him and he remembered the hunt and why he was in the forest in the first place.
Arlen’s breath caught in his throat. He fumbled for a weapon–his uncle had refused to allow the hunters to carry guns–but it was too late even then. It had been too late–probably–since he saw Darkbrook and realized how far he had come.
His horse was no help; it sat quiet and unperturbed as the Hound wrested the crossbow from Arlen’s hands and pulled him to the ground. For a moment, with the Hound’s knee on his back and the crossbow bolt cold against the back of his neck, Arlen breathed in leaf mold and dirt and wondered if his uncle would miss him once he was dead.
And then, the Hound’s weight lifted from his back. Arlen did not dare move until he heard the creature curse. Even then, when he glanced up and saw the Hound standing over him with the crossbow in one hand and the horse’s reins in the other, he found himself frozen in place, still waiting to die.
“Get up.” The Hound’s voice was perfectly modulated and completely civilized, a far reach from the picture of the ravening monsters his uncle had painted.
Arlen scrambled to his feet and stood in front of the Hound, panting and frightened, bracing himself for the cold steel of the crossbow bolt as it slid into his chest.
Or maybe the Hound would shoot him in the stomach and leave him to bleed to death on the forest floor.
“How did you get past–” the Hound broke off whatever he intended to say and shook his head. The crossbow wobbled in his hands. Arlen flinched.
“Walk,” the Hound growled, and started forward. “If you try to run, I will shoot you.”
“W…walk?” Arlen stuttered. “W…where?”
“To the castle, of course,” the Hound said impatiently. “I believe you humans called it Darkbrook?”
Arlen stopped so quickly that he almost collided with the horse. “Inside?” He spoke without thinking. “But–monsters live inside Darkbrook!”
The Hound bowed, sardonically. “So they say.”
Arlen stared at the Hound for a moment, panic casting out any remnants of sense. He fell to his knees. “Please…please don’t eat me!”
The Hound snorted. “Don’t be silly,” he said. “Despite the stories you may have heard, we don’t eat children.”
Arlen staggered to his feet. “You don’t?”
“Never once,” the Hound said, and tugged on the horse’s reins. “Are you very fond of this horse?”
“What?” Arlen took a step backwards, closer to Darkbrook and his doom.
“The horse. Are you fond of the horse?”
“It’s…it’s my uncle’s horse–”
The Hound nodded. “Good.”
This time, when he started forward, Arlen managed to stay on his feet. “Good?” His voice barely quivered.
“We may not eat children, but we do have to eat,” the Hound said, and motioned with his weapon. “Now walk.”
In a daze, Arlen let the Hound push him forward until–after no time at all–they stood in front of Darkbrook’s double doors, locked and barred against everyone, especially the hunters.
The Hound prodded Arlen’s back when he stopped again. “I would hate to shoot you,” he said, far too polite for a Hound.
“But I…I had every intention of shooting you,” Arlen whispered, staring back at him.
The Hound’s gaze went blank and cold. “I know.”
“My uncle said–”
“Your uncle says we are beasts,” a different voice said, and when Arlen turned around, a boy who seemed only a year or so older than him stood just inside the open doors, staring at him.
This Hound had blond hair and gray eyes and wore clothing just as worn as the other Hound’s rags.
“I thought you were,” Arlen whispered, and would have backed away if the older Hound had not prodded him forward.
As Arlen stumbled through the doorway, he heard a raucous cawing from behind them, in the forest, and watched as a cloud of crows billowed out of the treetops.
“The meadow,” the older Hound said, sounding almost worried.
“They will not pass through our wards,” the younger Hound said firmly, but the older Hound did not look convinced.
“Come with us, please,” the younger Hound said. “We mean you no harm.”
Arlen followed the younger Hound while the older one brought up the rear of the group. He had lowered the crossbow, at least; and he seemed much less frightening since he had not–yet–tried to eat Arlen or the horse.
There was a courtyard past the front doors and down a short hallway. The older Hound left the horse there, tied to a post.
“Why did you bring the horse?” the younger Hound asked.
“Meat,” the older Hound said in a tone that brooked no argument. “And if they found an empty horse–”
The younger Hound nodded. “Point taken.” He glanced at Arlen. “May we have your name?”
Arlen had to swallow twice before he could speak. “My name is Arlen. Arlen–”
“Your uncle is Simon Parker,” the older Hound said in a voice that said all bets were off; all promises forgotten.
Arlen did not ask how the Hounds could know such things while bound inside the forest, nor did he try to deny the truth. Instead, he held himself very still and tried not to flinch as the older Hound brought the crossbow up again. “Yes. He is.”
“Robin, don’t,” the younger Hound said. “Don’t.”
“Give me one good reason why,” the older Hound snarled, and the civility was gone now, the mask of politeness just that – a mask.
“Because it will not change anything,” the younger Hound said. “He will still be dead.”
“Dead–?” the older Hound whispered, and choked on his next breath. The crossbow wavered.
Arlen knew he wouldn’t have a chance to live if he tried to wrest it away, so he held still, his hands empty, and closed his eyes. If he died in the next few minutes, he thought he would not rather see his death coming.
“He died an hour ago,” the younger Hound said, and some bottomless sorrow rode the backs of his words now. “Kris is with him still.”
“Don’t give him our names!” the older Hound shouted, and Arlen heard him pull the trigger. He flinched back as something whooshed past his face–a spell?–and cracked open his eyes just in time to see the crossbow bolt clatter to the ground from where it had been hanging right in front of his face.
And for a very long minute, all he could do was gasp and gurgle as he tried to wrap his mind around the fact that one Hound had saved his life while the other one had sought to end it.
“You–” He managed to force one word out, at least, and backed against the wall as the younger Hound approached. The other Hound stood stock-still, as if he had been frozen, staring at something Arlen could not see.
Gently, the younger Hound removed the crossbow from the older Hound’s slack grasp. He seemed to take care not to touch him, perhaps for fear of what would happen when he emerged from his daze.
The older Hound took a step backwards, blinked, and bared his teeth. And then, he shifted shape into a menacing white Hound, favored Arlen with a look of pure malice, and ran off down the hall.
No less than a minute later, Arlen heard the horse scream. He started forward, as if intending to follow the Hound, but the younger Hound stopped him.
“Let him have this death,” he said.
Arlen stared at him. “Since you thwarted him of mine?”
The Hound shook his head. “He did not mean to kill you,” he said. “And you don’t understand what’s going on.”
“What is going on?” Arlen asked. “My uncle–”
“Your uncle is hunting us to extinction,” the Hound said. “And we wish to negotiate our surrender.”
“Your surrender?” Arlen repeated. “But–”
“It is either that or die,” a new voice said, and a girl–an actual girl–appeared from another room, her eyes red-rimmed, but clear.
There was a streak of blood across one of her cheeks and blood on her hands, but she didn’t seem to notice.
“We wish to negotiate our surrender to the Healers who bound us here,” the younger Hound said.
Arlen stared at him. “But–your Master agrees to this? Why do you need me?”
“If one of us appeared to your uncle and declared our intent to surrender, what would happen?” the girl asked.
“He would–” Arlen felt sick. He would have liked to say that his uncle would have listened, but ‘surrender’ wasn’t anywhere in his uncle’s vocabulary. “He would kill you,” he said miserably.
“The Healers are said to be honorable,” the younger Hound said. “Would you contact a Healer on our behalf and deliver our request?”
He asked this as if Arlen had experience in this sort of thing, this negotiation of lives. And was there a hint of desperation in his voice? Neither Hound had mentioned their Master–was this a mutiny?
“What does your Master say about this?” he asked.
“Our Master is dead,” the older Hound said from the end of the corridor. “Your uncle killed him eight months ago.”
Arlen’s uncle had suspected something, but he’d only worked in his methodical way to attempt to discern why no one had seen the Master of the Hunt for almost a year. He had boasted that the Hounds seemed easier to kill lately, and he’d even mentioned that they had become harder to find.
“How many of you are left?” Arlen asked.
The Hounds exchanged glances.
“We would prefer that your uncle not know that he is so close to his goal,” the younger Hound said into the silence.
“There were four of us yesterday,” the older Hound said.
“Now do you understand why we wish to surrender?” the younger Hound asked.
“Do you know the Healer?” the older Hound asked.
“I know her,” Arlen said and folded his arms, suddenly cold. “Her name is Freda.”
“Will you take her our request?” the younger Hound asked softly.
“Do I…do I have a choice?”
“I could have killed you,” the older Hound said.
“You nearly did!” Arlen pointed out, his voice rising on the last word.
“But he did not, and you still live,” the girl said. “And we will deliver you to the edge of the forest–safely–if you agree to do this for us.”
“And if I refuse?” Arlen asked. “And if I agree, and then do not deliver your request?”
“If you refuse, we have failed and we will die,” the younger Hound said. “If you agree, and then go back on your word, then we have failed and we will die.”
He said this without emotion; without any sign of sadness. Just stating the bare bones of simple fact.
And perhaps it was this that convinced Arlen they were telling the truth. They didn’t try to convince him, or debase themselves to beg. They only waited, patiently, for his decision, their fate in his hands.
“I will take your request to the Healer,” Arlen said, and his voice barely shook.
The younger Hound stood for a moment with his eyes closed.
“Thank you,” the girl said.
After a moment, the younger Hound pulled an envelope from his pocket and held it out for Arlen to take.
“This should convince the Healer that you are telling the truth,” he said. “Our wards will allow the Healer inside–and you, if you decide to come with her.”
Arlen opened his mouth to tell the Hounds that he had no intention of ever setting foot in the forest again, but he nodded instead and tucked the envelope away.
“You have wards,” he said slowly, the fog around his brain struggling to dissipate as he finally began to believe they would not kill him. “But–wouldn’t that make one of you a wizard?”
The younger Hound smiled faintly. “Yes. It would.”
“And you cannot break through the Healer’s binding?” Arlen asked.
“Not yet,” the girl said. “And not now. Not if we can end this without shedding any more blood.”
Arlen nodded. “I will deliver your request, then,” he said, and then, since they had left him with his life, “My uncle–this is the last hunt for a week. My uncle is going away for a short time. He won’t tell anyone where he is going.”
“He won’t tell you, you mean,” the girl said.
“No one seems to know,” Arlen replied. “I’ve asked.”
“Then we have a week to end this,” the younger Hound said. “You should go now, I think.” He did something with his hands, grim-faced and silent, and a portal appeared in the doorway on the other side of the corridor, pulsing blue and green and gold.
“Go,” the girl said, and took the younger Hound’s arm as he faltered.
Arlen hesitated. “Is he–”
The younger Hound’s eyes slid shut and he sagged in the girl’s arms.
“It is too much for him to hold at once!” the older Hound shouted and appeared beside Arlen, his teeth bared. “Go!”
With one last glance back at the three Hounds, Arlen stepped through the portal and fell to his knees onto the forest floor, where he stayed, huddled and shaking, until he heard the sound of horses behind him, and then, after a moment, his uncle’s voice.
“Where is your horse?”
Arlen glanced up at him. “There–there was a Hound–”
The two men behind his uncle broke away from the group; the others stayed.
“The Hound is gone,” Arlen whispered. “He took–he took the horse–”
“It,” his uncle snapped.
Arlen stared up at him, confused. “What?”
“Are you wounded, boy?” one of the other men asked.
“N…no, I–” Arlen wobbled to his feet. “I think I hit my head,” he said, which wasn’t the truth, but might get him to see the Healer sooner.
“You should not have brought him,” one of the other men said.
Arlen’s uncle ignored him. “And your weapon?”
“H…he took that, too,” Arlen whispered, and burst into tears.
Disgusted, Arlen’s uncle spurred his horse past his nephew. One of the other men stopped, and helped Arlen onto the back of his horse, and he sat there, sniveling and shivering as the hunting party moved out of the forest, past the boundary and into civilization again.
Arlen’s uncle did not speak, but Arlen felt his fury from the front of the group and dreaded the thought of facing his uncle at home.
But at least they didn’t refuse to deliver him to the Healer, and he did not have to pretend to cry when she enveloped him into her arms and led him into the safety of her house, away from Hounds and hunting and the last desperate plea of the dying.
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