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By Anne Kelleher
LunaCopyright © 2005 Anne Kelleher
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The gremlin's howls filled the forest. Like an avalanche, like a tidal wave, the sounds of rage and anguish and despair too long checked, exploded through the silent Samhain night, unleashed in earsplitting shrieks that continued unabated far beyond the physical capacity of such a small being to sustain such unbroken cacophony. Delphinea crumpled to her knees, crumbling like a dam against a sudden thaw, and pressed her head against the horse's side, trying to stifle the wails that wrapped themselves around her, first like water, then like wool, nearly choking her, crushing her with their weight of unadulterated sorrow, anger and need. The moon was hidden and the still sky was only illuminated by silver starlight. The night condensed into nothing but the blood-wrenching screams and the slick salt smell of the horse's coarse hair beneath her cheek. She felt subtle tremors beneath the surface of the leaf-strewn ground as if the great trees all around them shuddered to their roots. The horse trembled and shook, and Delphinea wrapped her arms as best she could around the animal's neck, murmuring a gentle croon more felt than heard, trying to create a subtle vibration to act as the only shield she could think of under such an onslaught of sound. But there was nothing, ultimately, that could stand against it, and finally, she collapsed against the horse's side, the mare's great beating heart her only anchor.
It was thus, curled and quivering, that Vinaver's house guards found her shortly before dawn, palms plastered against her ears, the horse only semi-aware, its eyes rolled back, its ears flattened against its head. Petri's cries showed no signs of diminishing. The orange torchlight revealed the gremlin flopping on the forest floor like a fish caught in a net. As he is, mused Delphinea, within a net of Samhain madness. Every Samhain the gremlins all went mad, and usually they were confined. But nothing seemed to be happening quite the way it usually did.
It took all six guards to overpower him, despite the fact that he was less than half the size of Delphinea. Even the thick gag they improvised from a strip of hastily cutoff doublet sleeve barely stifled Petri's cries. When at last Petri was subdued, his howling reduced to smothered moans, they turned their attention to Delphinea, sitting quiet and disheveled beside the near-insensible horse.
"My lady?" The dark-haired sidhe who bent over her wore a gold breastplate emblazoned with the Queen's crest, and for a moment, Delphinea was afraid the soldiers had been sent out by the Queen and Timias to drag both of them back to the palace under arrest. She scrambled back-ward, as the flickering torchlight gleamed on the officer's insignia embroidered on his sleeves. But his next words made her nearly weep with relief. "The Lady Vinaver sent us out to find you. I am Ethoniel, a captain in the Third Company of Her Majesty's Knights. If you would be so kind as to come with us, we will escort you to her Forest House." "How'd that thing get out?" asked one of the other soldiers, with a jerk of his thumb over his shoulder in Petri's direction. "Petri is not a thing," she sputtered, even as the captain extended his hand and helped her to stand. Two of the others coaxed her mare onto her feet.
"We'll take you both." The captain spoke firmly. "It doesn't look as if it'll give us any trouble now. We can't leave it here." Indeed, Petri lay in a forlorn little heap, his arms bound to his sides, one leathery little cheek pressed to the pine needles and leaves that carpeted the forest floor, eyes closed, breathing hard, but every other muscle relaxed. "For-give me for taking the time to ask you, lady, but how did this happen? Did it follow you, my lady? How did it get past the gates?"
She knew that for any other sidhe, the presence of a gremlin leagues away from the palace of the Queen of Faerie, the one place to which they were forever bound, at least according to all the lore, was surprising to the point of shocking. But how to explain to them that despite his incipient madness, it was Petri who'd guided her through the maze of the ancient forest, close enough to Vinaver's house that they could be rescued? Surely Vinaver, herself outcast by the Court, would understand that Delphinea could not leave the loyal little gremlin behind, for it was abundantly clear that Timias and the Queen intended to lay at least part of the responsibility for the missing Caul on the entire gremlin population. But now was not the time to explain how or why the gremlin was with her. For, if it were possible, there was something even more unnatural within the forest, something she knew these soldiers must see for themselves to believe.
The torchlight illuminated the clearing, but it was not just the broken branches and torn undergrowth alone that made her certain of the direction in which to lead the guards. "The magic weakens as the Queen's pregnancy advances, Captain." Surely that explanation would have to suffice. "But I have to show you something," she said. "Please come?" She gathered up her riding skirts and set off, without waiting to see if they followed or not. It was like a smell, she thought, a foul, ripe rot that led her with unerring instinct back through the thick wood. Once, she put her hand on a trunk to steady herself and was disturbed to feel a tremor beneath the bark, and a sharp sting shot up her arm. The branches dipped low, with a little moaning sigh, and for a moment, Delphinea thought she heard a whispered voice. She startled back, but the captain was at her elbow, the torch sending long shadows across his face.
"Where are we going, lady?"
For a moment, she was too puzzled by this sense of communication with the trees to answer the question, for she had never before felt any particular connection to the trees of Faerie. Indeed, in the high mountains of her home-land, trees such as these primeval oaks and ashes were rare. "This way," was all she could say. And with a sense as certain as it was unexplainable, she led the grim-faced guards through the forest, to where the slaughtered host of the sidhe lay in heaps beside their dead horses and golden arms that gleamed like water in the gray dawn.
The guards gathered around Delphinea in shocked and silent horror, surveying the carnage. The corpses lay like discarded mannequins after a masque, armor all askew, swords and spears and broken arrows sticking up in all directions like bent matchsticks, impotent as mortal weapons. A mist floated over all, and from far away Delphinea could hear the rush of water. Without warning, a banner stirred and flapped on its staff, blown by a ghostly breeze that whispered through the trees, and as the mist moved over the remains, it seemed for one moment, the host might rise, laughing and whole. The captain raised his torch and Alemandine's colors—indigo and violet and blue on gold-edged white—flashed against the backdrop of the black trees.
Excerpted from Silver's Bane by Anne Kelleher Copyright © 2005 by Anne Kelleher. Excerpted by permission.
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