The Perilous Realm Online

Book One: The Endless Road

Chapter Six

 

The wolf followed Will and Rowen through the streets, staying right behind them but not uttering a word. As they made their way back to Pluvius Lane, passersby stopped in their tracks and stared uneasily at the alarmingly large creature padding along the paving stones.

When a messenger wisp zinged overhead, the wolf grunted.

“I remember that one,” he said, a trace of annoyance in his voice. “That one was always going too fast. Always hurrying.”

“You know that wisp?” Rowen asked.

“Wisp?” the wolf said, as if he’d never heard the word before. “Yes, I know that one.” He halted suddenly and raised his head.

“The Old Ones,” he said. “Have you seen them? Are they …”       

“The Old Ones?” Rowen asked. “I don’t know who you mean.”

“My friend told me it would be that way,” the wolf said sadly. “He said we would not see each other again.” 

 

The wolf’s voice was unlike anything Will had ever heard. It was made, he thought, with many sounds: water trickling over stones, leaves stirring in the wind, the rustle of animals through the grass. It was not a frightening voice, Will realized now, but there was power in it. Power that he somehow knew came from far away, and a long time ago.

 

“Do you have a name?” Will asked.

 

 

“Shade,” the wolf said. “The Old Ones called me Shade.”

 

 

***

 

If Edweth was fritghtened to see the wolf, she did her best to hide it. She merely gave the three of them a stern look when they came in the door, then returned to her kitchen. Will cleaned himself up and then sat down with the others to a quick meal of stew and bread.He was famished and tucked into his food eagerly. Then he looked up and saw Shade, who sat calmly watching him from the kitchen doorway.

 

“I wonder if he’s hungry,” Rowen said. “I wonder if he even eats at all.”

 

Edweth regarded the wolf with her hands on her hips.

 

“Now that’s the strangest thing I’ve seen in a good while,” she said. “Something four-legged that doesn’t hang about the table begging. Maybe that’s why he looks a little underfed. You can offer him something, Master Will.”

 

Will took a chunk of bone from Edweth’s chopping board and carried it over to Shade. The wolf cautiously sniffed the offering, then took the bone in his jaws and gnawed at it energetically.

 

Pendrake arrived home then. Will could see the old man was displeased to learn that he and Rowen had disobeyed him, but he was more interested in what they had brought home. Once he had heard Will’s story of the visit to the archive, he began to question the wolf.

 

“How did you come to Fable?”

 

“I have forgotten many things,” the wolf said, and for the first time Will heard doubt in his voice. “It is hard. I … walked. Sometimes I slept. Everytime I woke, the world was different. The Old Ones … they told me it would be this way. They told me I would travel a long road, and sleep on the way, many times.”

 

“These Old Ones. Who are they?”

 

“They are the Old Ones,” Shade said. “They made many good things. They gave me speech.”

 

“And they sent you to find someone who was lost.”

 

“When I parted from them they told me I would not see them again, but that I was still needed for a task.  They said that I would wander for a long time, alone, but one day I would come to a strange place, and be woken by someone who was lost. They told me I should go with him. I should stay with him, until he found his way to the gateless gate. Then my task would be done.”

 

“The gateless gate?”

 

“The Old Ones made it, in the long ago. And now I’ve found the one who is lost. The not-wolf called Will Lightfoot. I will stay with him, until he finds the gateless gate.”

 

When everyone was finished eating, Pendrake had Will and Rowen come with him to his study. Shade followed, and lay down in the doorway. It was clear that was not going to let Will out of his sight.

 

“I believe he was a companion of the Stewards,” Pendrake said softly, when they were all seated. “Or as he calls them, the Old Ones. He is one of the Speaking Creatures, birds and beasts with the power of speech and understanding. There aren’t many left, at least in this part of the realm. He must be very old himself. From the time of the War, or soon after, when the Stewards worked to heal the land.”

 

“What is this gateless gate he was talking about?” Will asked.

 

“I have no answers about that either, Will. A few lines in the old histories speak of such a thing, but in riddles. It is said that there were once doorways, called farholds, made by the Stewards. You could use them to transport yourself anywhere in the Realm, just by wishing to go there.”

 

“Maybe the Hidden Folk know about these gates,” Rowen said eagerly. “People say the Lady knows all the secret paths and doorways.”

 

Will said nothing. He was thinking that if this gateless gate was a way out of here, maybe the wolf could take him to it.

 

“For now these questions will have to wait,” Pendrake said. “Will, you’ve been summoned by the Marshal of the Errantry. I’ve told him about you, and he wants to meet you.”

 

“Now?”

 

“We’ll go this evening, when there are fewer people in the streets. The less attention we attract, the better.” He frowned. “Which is why I asked the two of you to stay at home in the first place.”

 

***

 

When the time came to set out for the Errantry, Rowen wanted to come along but Pendrake would not let her.

 

“You’ve done enough for one day,” he said drily. Rowen looked about to protest, but she crossed her arms and said nothing. 

 

There were few people in the street at this hour, and Appleyard was only a short distance up the hill from the toy shop. Sooner than Will wished it they came to the ivy-covered walls he had seen the day before. One of the larger doors of the gate was open, and as they approached a file of four riders on horseback came out. There were three men and one woman, all wearing long grey coats.

 

Inside the enclosure was a wide lawn, dotted with apple trees, that sloped gently up toward a building unlike any Will had ever seen. It was more than a house, and not quite a castle. Its peaked roofs, slender turrets and many arched doorways looked as if they had not been built but had grown from the earth. And in fact four great trees grew right up against the corners, so that it was hard to say where their massive grey trunks ended and the building stones began.

 

“The Gathering House,” Pendrake said. “Home of the Errantry.”

 

They followed one of the paths, which took them past a fountain where several men and women were gathered, talking in quiet, serious tones. Some of them nodded to Pendrake as he went by. Further in the distance Will caught sight of a fenced circular enclosure where a young woman was riding a dappled brown-and-white horse. Mount and rider were trotting in tight circles around the enclosure, watched by a man with a long stick who pointed out the way they should go. From somewhere unseen came a ringing sound that Will guessed must be a hammer striking metal. He wondered if swords or armour were being made, and if all this activity was the result of the hollows.

 

Reaching the hall, they climbed a wide staircase to a high arched entryway. Here at last there were guards or sentries, one on each side of the doorway. At least Will thought they were guards. They wore no helmets or armour, but were dressed in the same long grey coats as the others Will had seen.

 

At the door Pendrake paused and turned to Shade.

 

“You’ll have to stay here, I’m afraid,” he said. “You were not summoned. I will make certain Will is safe until we return.”

 

The wolf made a low growling sound deep in his throat, but did not protest. He gave Will a long look, then sat down in front of the doorway, immediately becoming as still and unperturbed as a statue. The door guards looked inquisitively at the toymaker, who gave them a nod of reassurance and then beckoned Will to follow him.

 

They went down a long corridor lit by many candles, and up a short flight of stairs to a wide, high-ceilinged hall with pillars down its length. Low wooden benches lined the walls, and tapestries hung from the roofbeams. On each tapestry was a woven image of a man or woman. Many were dressed in long coats, but some wore clothing and armour that made them look more like what Will thought of as a knight, from the pictures he had seen in books back home.

 

“Renowned riders of the Errantry,” Pendrake said, noticing Will’s gaze. He gestured to the image of a woman with long red hair. “That is Gildred of Blue Hill.”

 

“She has the same last name as …” Will began.

 

“She was my daughter,” Pendrake said. “Rowen’s mother.”

 

Wll noticed that Pendrake had used the word was, but he could not bring himself to ask the old man what had happened.

 

They walked on, and the toymaker led the way straight through the hall and across a narrow corridor to a much smaller room. Here the walls were bare except for a large framed map. There was a small fireplace in one corner and a tall cabinet in the other, stacked with scrolls and bundles of paper. In the centre of the room, at a wooden desk, sat a man with cropped silver hair, studying a sheet of parchment. On the desk sat a glass of what looked like red wine, a loaf of bread and a wedge of cheese, none of which appeared to have been touched.

 

“Lord Caliburn, Marshal of the Errantry,” Pendrake said. Will was startled. He had thought the man was the marshal’s assistant or secretary.

 

Caliburn’s steel-grey eyes flicked up and then back down to the paper he was reading.

 

“Thank you for bringing the boy, Loremaster,” he said in a low, clipped voice.

 

“This is Will Lightfoot,” Pendrake said, gesturing for Will to come forward.

 

“From Elsewhere, yes,” the Marshal said, his eyes still on the parchment. “I have the report here. And another that came in just now from ArrowCompany which tells of ghostly shapes seen at dawn in the fields near Deeve Holm. These creatures are still prowling on our borders, it would seem.” 

 

“I didn’t bring those things here,” Will blurted out, then regretted it. He had just admitted what he secretly feared to be the truth, that he was somehow responsible for putting everyone here in danger.

 

Caliburn set down the document he had been reading and looked at Will.

 

“You’re certain of that, are you?” he said. “A lot has happened in the short time since you arrived. Strange things. Unlikely things. I’ve already been informed about your trip to the archive, and what you brought home with you.”

 

“I didn’t ask Shade to follow me,” Will said. The Marshal’ssuspicious tone angered him. Everything that happened here seemed to draw him further into this strange world and deeper into trouble.“I didn’t ask for any of this. I didn’t even want to come here in the first place.”

         

“Yet here you are,” Caliburn said. “Master Pendrake is fond of telling me that very little happens by chance in the Realm. These hollows are seeking something or someone, and your arrival here at the same time seems unlikely to be a coincidence. But do not mistake me, young man, I am not accusing you of anything. It is clear from what the Loremaster has already told me that you had no intention of setting all this in motion. You lost your way, and stumbled into all of this without meaning to.”

 

“That’s right,” Will said. “I know I don’t belong here, and I’m going to leave, as soon as I can. Then maybe those things will go away, too, and you won’t have to worry about them.”

 

“Again I think you misunderstand me,” Caliburn said. “The Errantry is sworn to help those in need. You will have sanctuary here in Fable, for as long as you wish, while we deal with the hollows, if we can.”

 

Will was surprised at the relief he felt hearing the Marshal’s words. He had been expecting to be sent away, back out into the pathless forest.

 

“We will do our best to help you, Will.” Pendrake said. “You are involved in all of this, whether you wished to be or not. Along with the rest of us.”

 

“Involved in what?” Will asked. “That’s what I don’t understand.”

 

The Marshal turned to Pendrake.

 

“How much have you told him?” he asked.

 

“I didn’t wish to trouble you needlessly, Will,” Pendrake said. “But it happens you’ve come to the Bourne in a troubled time. The hollows and their master are not the only threat we face. The wild lands beyond the Wood have grown more dangerous of late. Creatures far worse than hollows roam freely, preying on the defenseless. Peoples who once lived peacefully side by side are going to war. Something, some power without a name, is spreading like a shadow of fear and tearing the Realm apart.”

 

“And now,” the Marshal said, “we hear from travellers who pass this way that one of the Stewards has returned.”

 

 

“That’s a good thing, isn’t it?” Will asked. “The Stewards helped before when things were bad, didn’t they?”

 

“They did,” Pendrake agreed. “But we have only vague rumours from distant places that this being is indeed a Steward. Whoever he may be, his followers call him the One, or the Lord of Light. He is said to command many men, and many creatures. Those who speak for him claim that his only desire is to complete what the Stewards did not finish. To bring all peoples and lands together, to stand against this nameless darkness, so that the Realm can be healed and made whole again.”

 

 “If he’s that powerful then maybe he can do something about the hollows,” Will said.

 

“I suspect he already has,” Pendrake said. “It is possible that whoever led the hollows here was sent by him.”

 

“You mean … he’s the one who’s after me.”

 

“I have only suspicions, and many doubts,” Pendrake said. “Wherever this Lord of Light dwells, his land is far from here and unknown to me. But I know that what he seeks to do, to unite the Realm into one, is against everything the Stewards believed in and set out to accomplish. From what we have heard, his servants have been seeking out the storystuff that the Stewards left behind, and seizing it, claiming that their master needs these ancient artifacts in the struggle against the darkness. They say he is calling great warriors, mages, loremasters, anyone with power and knowledge, to come to him, and aid him in the struggle. But those who set out to find the Lord of Light are never heard from again.”

 

“We sent out riders of the Errantry to discover where his country lies, if they could,” the Marshal said. “None have yet returned.”

 

Will remembered the eyes watching him in the mirror shard, and a shiver of dread passed through him.

 

“So you think he sent the hollows … for me?”

 

“That is what Master Pendrake suspects,” Caliburn said. “There is no proof of it as yet, however.”

 

“But I’m nobody,” Will said. “I don’t have anything someone like that could want.”

 

“Yet he, or someone, appears to believe otherwise,” Pendrake said. “The wise course, then, would be to keep you here in Fable, Will. Guarded behind strong walls, until we know more. But in doing so, this out-of-the-way little land of ours may well come to the attention of great powers, not all of which would wish us well.”

 

“We may already have come to their attention,” the Marshal said. “The hollows, after all, are still out there, still attempting to find their way through the Wood. They seem to knowsomething is here, even if they cannot find us, as yet. Whoever leads them, we must assume, knows we are here too.”

 

Will thought of Rowen, and their meeting in the forest. He remembered the terror in her voice when she urged him to run from the dim figures in the shadows.

 

“I’ll go,” Will said. “I’ll leave, if I have to. I don’t want to put anyone else in danger.”

 

“That’s commendable of you, Will,” Pendrake said. “However, I think we should wait before making any decisions. There is a new wrinkle in all of this now, of course. Your friend the wolf.”

 

“Shade said he was supposed to go with me, to find a gateless gate,” Will said. “I don’t know what that is, but maybe it means I’m supposed to leave Fable.”

 

“Perhaps,” Pendrake said. “There are also the Hidden Folk, Moth’s people. As Rowen mentioned, they are said to know many hidden paths in and out of the Realm. But they are just as elusive as this Lord of Light. No one knows where to find them, not even Moth.”

 

“Then what am I supposed to do,” Will said despairingly. “I can’t stay here, not forever, and if I go out there …”

 

“You mustleave Fable, Will,” Pendrake said. “And soon. I see no other way. You must set out into danger, in order to make it safely home. But if it’s any comfort, I will be going with you on your road.”

 

“You’ll come with Shade and me?”

 

A smile flickered across Pendrake’s face.

 

“And Rowen, as she has been hoping,” he said. “It’s the only way I’ll know for sure what she’s up to.”

 

“I would prefer that you stayed in Fable, Master Pendrake,” Caliburn said. “The Council needs your wisdom and guidance more than ever now. And I’m afraid that given the present threat to the Bourne, I cannot spare any riders to escort you. There are precious few of us in the city now as it is.”

 

“The Errantry has never refused help to those in need,” Pendrake said.

 

“And we’re not refusing it now,” Caliburn answered sharply, shuffling through the documents on his desk. “I will send someone with you. But it will be a scout or a rider-in-training. I will look over the roster and select someone who –”

 

Just then came a sound from the doorway, a quiet cough. Will turned to see a young man with cropped ash-blond hair and a rolled parchment under his arm. He was very young, not much older than Will, it appeared. His coat was shorter than those Will had seen before, and light brown rather than grey.

 

The young man looked directly at the Marshal without seeming to take notice of Will or the toymaker.

 

“What is it?” the Marshal said without looking up, and the young man quickly entered the room.

 

“The report from Owl Company, sir,” he said in a low voice. “You asked–”

 

“Yes.  Good,” the Marshal said curtly. “Leave it on the desk.”

 

The young man did as he was told. As he set down the parchment Will noticed a silver ring on his finger, with a bright green stone. Then the young man bowed slightly and turned to leave.

 

“Finn,” Pendrake said quietly to him as he passed.

 

“Wait,” Caliburn commanded. The young man stopped and turned again to face the Marshal.

 

“Madoc, isn’t it?”

 

“Finn Madoc, sir. Candidate in Owl Company.”

 

“How many outer patrols have you been on, Madoc?”

 

The young man hesitated a moment before answering.

 

“Four, sir,” he said.

 

“How far afield?”

 

“On our last patrol we reached the edge of the Screaming Wastes. An unthunk attacked our camp on the first night. We drove it off, but the next –”

 

“Thank you, Madoc. Yes, you will do.” The Marshal dipped a pen in ink and wrote hurriedly on a piece of parchment. “ I’m assigning you to escort this boy, Will Lightfoot, out of the Bourne. As you are still a candidate, I’m authorizing you to stay with his party for seven days and no longer.Report to the duty officer and prepare your gear. Master Pendrake will call for you when it is time.”

 

Caliburn rolled up the parchment and handed it to Madoc.

         

“Thank you, sir,” the young man said. He still had not looked at Will or the toymaker, and now he bowed again to the Marshal and strode swiftly from the room.

 

Will watched him go, then turned quickly as the Marshal spoke again.

         

“Will that do, Master Pendrake?”

         

“Yes, he will do very well, thank you.”

         

“I wish you a safe and fortunate journey, Will Lightfoot,” Caliburn said, without a hint of warmth in his frosty voice. “And I hope that your land, wherever it lies, is never darkened by the shadows that threaten ours.”

 

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