Learning Maybe

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Learning Maybe

Samuel Marshall

Tahki pounded along the uneven footpath, westward up Near Hill. Wheatfields sloped away to either side, gleaming faintly as the moon’s rays reflected from water-droplets on the crop. It had rained earlier but now the autumn sky was clear. Stars peeked faintly through twilight, and the moon shone bright and full.

The youth followed its radiance, keeping a steady pace as he ran. Ahead lay the healer’s house, near the top of the hill and over two miles from the rest of the village. Tahki had no idea why she lived apart, but it didn’t matter; he – long-legged and swift – had been sent to fetch her urgently. So he continued running as Grytha’s house came into view, until finally he reached the firm wooden door. There he paused briefly, because the healer was a formidable old woman and he had better have his speech ready when she answered. As soon as his mind was settled, he knocked firmly.

‘What is it, boy?’ Grytha’s voice called from inside. Evidently she’d seen him approach. ‘If it’s another death, then there’s nothing I can do and I’ll not waste my energy this night…’

‘No death,’ Tahki shouted back, resisting the urge to angrily qualify, ‘yet’. ‘Leena has a fever, and she’s worsening fast.’

There was a moment’s silence, a moment that stretched into a minute and left the youth standing nervously; he knew time was wasting but had no opening to say more. Finally, the door-latch rattled and Grytha the healer let herself out. She didn’t stop but shoved a basket into Tahki’s arms.

‘Carry this.’

He had to hurry after her. The small, thin old woman walked surprisingly fast for her age, not hesitating to pick her way over the stones that littered the path. Catching up, Tahki glanced at the basket he was holding. It clinked slightly as he moved, full of glass jars all packed tight, but that was all he could discern; the night seemed darker than a moment ago. He looked back. Sure enough, a small cloud had appeared from nowhere to shroud the moon.

‘It’s dark,’ Tahki offered. ‘You won’t fall at this speed…?’

‘And if I would?’ She didn’t bother to look at him. ‘You’ve not thought to bring a lantern, have you?’

‘No…’ Feeling awkward, yet still annoyed at her for pointing out his lack, he lapsed into a safe silence. They kept up the hurried walk as the path became less steep, crossing farmland on the hill’s low slopes, until finally it reached the old moss-covered stone bridge into the village. Tahki glanced aside as they crossed the arch, admiring the River Rhee’s waters: shimmering lines of soft-edged gray under the shaded moon. Then they went among buildings, dark piles of wood or stone showing only an occasional spark of candlelight. Eventually they passed Tahki’s own home, a solidly-built stone dwelling with its large-windowed workshop for the loom, and then ahead was a scattering of smaller wooden houses. The third of these was Allyn and Leena’s.

Grytha swept in without knocking, leaving Tahki to close the door more carefully behind them. Inside a pair of candles burnt dimly, lending a flickering sense of comfort to the small room. There was little furniture, only a simple table, a couple of stools, and shelves cluttered with utensils for cooking and cleaning and working with plants.

A patterned curtain, well-made by Tahki’s mother and something of which Leena was justly proud, provided the only decoration in the room. It hung across an entryway to the back room where the couple and their baby slept, and it was from there that Allyn emerged hurriedly, surprised by their arrival.

‘Oh, thank you for coming, healer–’

‘Don’t thank me,’ Grytha said roughly, ‘you’ll likely regret it.’ She pushed past him and Tahki followed with her basket, into the sleeping area. Here a fire burned in the grate, filling the room with reassuring warmth. Even so, Leena’s flesh was pale. The young woman lay asleep on a pallet, covered over with blankets so that only her face and one outflung arm were visible. As Tahki watched, she gave a quiet groan, turning over to the other side while she slept.

Grytha bent down to the patient, placing her wrinkled hand firmly onto Leena’s smooth skin.

‘Cold,’ she said to Allyn, straightening up. ‘And breathing too shallow… I think it’s the damp-fever. She might survive it normally, but her with child and all…’

Allyn gaped. ‘She’s…How did you…’

‘She didn’t tell you yet?’ Grytha asked. At his nod, she shrugged. ‘Regardless.’

‘Can you cure her?’

‘That I can.’ The old woman glanced about the room, her small dark-brown eyes taking in the bareness and poverty of the scene. ‘Can you pay me?’

He paled, looking – Tahki thought – almost as if the fever had suddenly struck him down as well. ‘We don’t have anything now… but I can promise, I’ll get what you ask for, soon…’

‘Just how are you planning to do that?’ Grytha asked sharply. ‘You’ve trouble enough even surviving, and then later with one more mouth to feed… no.’

‘I could work for you…’

The healer shook her head. ‘Little use my saving her now if you all starve. It takes two to work your plot of land.’

Defeated, Allyn looked down. When he raised his eyes once more, his face showed simple desperation. ‘Please…

Grytha met his gaze firmly in silent refusal. Disgusted, Tahki looked away. How could she be so hard? This was a couple who were poor even by the standards of the village, always on the knife-edge between survival and starvation, and yet this healer would not help them, would condemn the pretty young wife and soon-to-be mother to a likely death.

Pretty… Perhaps that was it – the old woman felt affronted by youth’s beauty. She refused assistance from simple spite.

Allyn was saying something about begging from others, but his voice held a tone of despair. The last few years had been hard and many in the village were little better off than this young couple. Even those who were relatively wealthy – such as Tahki’s family – hardly had an excess that they could afford to gift away. No, he would meet with little success there, and Grytha knew it.

Tahki looked at the man’s face, normally open and easy-going but now gaunt and creased with worry. He looked at Leena, almost angelic as she slept, but so pale… He looked at Grytha’s lined, craggy face; her small deep-set eyes did not blink and her mouth was fixed in an unrelenting line. And he decided.

‘Grytha,’ he almost-shouted, using her name rather than the honored title, ‘I’ll work for you. If you’ve no charity, at least take that as payment.’

Surprised, the old woman turned to face him. She stared at him carefully, measuring him up. Then she half-shook her head in refusal, turned away–

–and said, ‘Yes.’

He blinked in surprise at her change of heart, but she left him no time to ponder.

‘I’ll want you for a week. I need to travel cross-country and you know what that’s like these days. Two’s safer than one.’

‘Okay–’ he began to say, but she’d already dismissed him from her notice, bending over her patient once more and reaching for a jar of some salve or potion. From Allyn she demanded heated water, and Tahki was sent to fetch more firewood, leaving after the man’s grateful backwards glance. They were kept busy that evening, but by the end of it Leena seemed more peaceful, and the healer assured them that she was safe.

As Tahki left for his own bed, Grytha glanced from her place beside the patient. She said only one word of farewell.


Tahki looked out across the wilderness, shading his eyes with one hand. The landscape below shone with color, bright and glossy in the morning sunshine. A gently rolling expanse of grassland and bracken-covered hills lay ahead, speckled by the occasional copse of trees. Tiny brooks and streams trickled in the valleys, returning to life after a dry summer. In the distance, deep green forest blanketed the land. The scents that floated up to these heights today were the last of summer, vibrant and fresh in the warm breeze.

Even so, he was aware that the idyllic scene was fraught with danger. Brigands and the unscrupulous preyed on wanderers, even on the well-traveled roads. Here the two followed no road, no path, only animal tracks at best. They struck southeast without regard for such things, making a direct line for their destination. Wherever that was. Grytha wouldn’t tell him and he knew nothing of the lands beyond Ilsha Village, never having left it save once to visit the nearest market town. Springmead – an ugly, dirty, smelly place by his estimation – lay northward, so even that single journey provided no help.

‘Enough gazing,’ the healer snapped, startling him out of contemplation. ‘No need to look for landmarks, I know the way well enough.’

Acquiescing, he followed the old woman as she picked her way carefully down the hillside, watching out for rabbit holes that could cause a fall. He hadn’t thought of landmarks in any case. Of course, that was one of the things that travelers would do when they had a chance – when they could clearly see the way ahead, they would pick out markers to follow later. He filed the information away for later use.

The ground was damp from yesterday’s rain, hills too parched from months of summer to soak it in. Several times he almost slipped, catching himself just in time. He noticed resentfully that Grytha had no such trouble, continuing carefully but without pause. She held a firm oak walking-staff to ensure her balance, and perhaps her boots provided a firmer grip… or perhaps she just knew better than he where to tread.

Tahki sighed. His opinion of the old woman hadn’t improved since last night, even though she seemed strongly competent. She had come to his house at dawn and complained immediately when he was not quite ready for travel. Since then they had exchanged words only a handful of times, and she had said nothing at all that was polite, kind, or helpful. He liked the healer even less than he had after last night’s display.

Feeling sorry for himself, he allowed his concentration to lapse. Without looking, he trod heavily on a sodden patch of grass. His feet slipped from beneath him and he landed on his bottom with a bump, sliding a short way down the hillside before he regained control.

He got back to his feet and wiped ineffectually at soaked clothing. To one side, Grytha continued relentlessly on her way, not even glancing to see if he was hurt. I’ve got to live with this for the rest of the week, Tahki thought, sighing. Dampness reached his legs and bottom, and suddenly the day felt chill.

Day faded gradually into dusk and still Tahki followed the healer. She walked a few paces in front, close enough that he needed to lower his eyes to watch her. The sun’s last rays glittered on the few silvery strands within her thin grey hair.

Finally, when the pinkish illumination from behind had grown so faint that Tahki half-tripped over a branch for the third time, his patience wore out.

‘Where do we camp?’ he asked.

For a moment Grytha said nothing, a sharp exasperated sigh being the only indication she’d heard him. They continued among the trees – not yet the large area of woodland Tahki had seen from the hill, one of the smaller patches, but gloomy enough in this light to feel like deepest forest. The path, if you could call it that, was relatively clear but scattered with light undergrowth and the roots of larger trees. Despite this, the old woman had not missed her footing even once. She seemed to feel none of the weariness that suffused Tahki’s body.

Finally, ‘Here.’

Here looked to be a tiny clearing, with a slight gap in the canopy overhead through which starlight shone. The earth floor and surrounding trunks were barely visible in the faint glow. A breath of cool night wind brought only forest smells, leaves and grass and dampness. Tahki shivered, glad to have thick blankets in his pack.

‘Will we build a fire?’

She didn’t answer right away. He could barely see the expression on her face, or even its angle – perhaps she was gazing upward, perhaps not.

‘D’you know how to use that thing?’ she asked finally. She might have pointed, but he guessed what she meant anyway; the sword he wore. Her voice had been doubting and sarcastic, as usual carrying no respect whatsoever. And she hadn’t answered his question.

‘I’ve practiced,’ he said, a little defiantly. ‘With Barre.’

‘That braggart?’ She dismissed it. ‘He’s skilled as a goblin child, without the brains.’

‘I usually beat him!’

‘Then we’re safe against halfwit goblin infants. Usually.’

Tahki forced himself to breathe deeply for a few seconds, calming himself. Getting angry would achieve nothing, and in any case he was beginning to see her point. Though she could have expressed it in a million less offensive ways.

‘You’re saying a fire would be too dangerous.’

She nodded, or he imagined it, it was hard to tell in the dim light. ‘Goblins see well in the night, and they can follow a scent. If any are in the area, campfire smoke will bring them from miles away.’ A thought struck her and she chuckled briefly, a harsh sound from her aged throat. ‘And they don’t bring their children to fight…’

The youth reddened slightly, thankful that his face would be near-invisible. He began to make a response but she chose that moment to sit down, easing herself gradually onto the ground with the help of her staff. Tahki suddenly remembered how tired he was, exhausted from a full day’s walking with few breaks. Staring at the earth beneath his feet, he picked a spot that looked reasonably clear and knelt. Carefully, he brushed aside twigs and larger stones to provide a smooth patch, on which he sat. He stretched out his legs and sat quietly for a moment, enjoying the chance to relax.

‘Eat some trail-bread,’ Grytha advised. ‘Cold and dull-tasting it may be, but you need food.’

Tahki did as she suggested, sipping water from his bottle so that he could chew the dry, solid bread. Though it quickly assuaged the worst of his hunger it tasted foul, like hard-packed sand with lumps. He wondered what it was made of; perhaps he didn’t want to know.

‘How do you know so much?’ he asked instead. ‘About goblins and such.’ As soon as he’d asked the question he regretted it, expecting an unhelpful answer or none at all.

But she seemed in good humor. ‘I haven’t lived in your village all my life. Not even all yours. Before that, I traveled.’

‘Oh,’ Tahki said doubtfully. He didn’t remember a time without the healer as a part of Ilsha Village, though a rather peripheral one. But she didn’t act much like one born in the village; that explained a lot.

‘Given any thought to moving around yourself?’ Grytha asked, surprising him. Since when did she care what he thought? In any case, it was an odd question.

‘I’ll be a weaver with my parents. There’s work enough for three.’

‘Mmm. Well, good night.’

She lay back, wrapped in her blanket. Tahki followed suit doubtfully. ‘If it’s dangerous, shouldn’t one of us stand guard?’

‘You want to stay awake all night,’ Grytha said, ‘be my guest.’

Within a few moments, her breathing had settled into the slow rhythm of sleep. Tahki lay awake for a while, assailed by doubts. If goblins roamed this area as she’d hinted, then surely it would be dangerous to sleep? Or would they be unlikely to cross paths without the telltale smoke of a fire? What about other creatures, worse creatures he’d heard of, that roamed the wilderness? Eventually he decided that since the experienced healer had judged it safe, it most likely was, and he managed to sink into a fitful sleep.

Vicious goblin children plagued his dreams.

Tahki plodded doggedly along behind the healer. His pants dripped water and hung unpleasantly close to his skin, helping the cool evening wind to steal his body-warmth. Earlier they had forded a river, although it was only knee-deep after the dry summer. Grytha had advised him not to remove his clothes for the crossing, warning of various unpleasant small creatures that could lurk within the murky water. It wasn’t cold enough for the resulting damp to be a danger, she had said. But today was markedly cooler than before, autumn setting in at last, and he was beginning to doubt her opinion.

They were passing through grassland, an enormous meadow of shoulder-high fronds that swayed and bent in waves with each gust of wind. It continued as far as the eye could see, though Tahki knew that was an illusion formed both of night’s encroaching darkness, and the fact that they traveled the bottom of a slight dip in the land. In reality, the great forest that he’d seen from the hilltop yesterday morning could only be a few miles away at most.

Walking was a constant battle against weak but persistent forces; as the grasses began to sway back into place after Grytha, he would once more shove them aside. Although most of the plants recovered their position behind, the two walkers still left a clear trail for anyone who took time to look. So the old woman was anxious that they reach the woodlands before camping tonight. Tahki saw her point, but he was exhausted and cold. She won’t let us have a fire tonight, either, he thought gloomily. He took another step, his sodden boots squelching slightly beneath his feet. If it’s not goblins, it’ll be–

A faint noise caught his attention, a murmur on the wind. Voices, perhaps, though it sounded a little high-pitched. ‘Healer,’ he said quietly. She stopped and turned towards him. He put a finger on his lips and she was silent for a moment, listening.

‘Goblins,’ she pronounced finally, in a whisper. Her old voice cracked and rasped at the low level, so that it was difficult to understand. ‘Just over that ridge, I think. Bend low, so that you’re completely hidden beneath the grass, and hurry. We can get past without attracting their attention.’

He crouched as she’d advised. ‘Shouldn’t we at least check which way they’re going? They might be going to raid the village. We’ve a duty to make sure.’ It wasn’t unknown, though the last such attack had been before Tahki’s fourth birthday.

‘My duty is as a healer,’ Grytha hissed testily, ‘not a scouting patrol. But if you must, we’ll climb to the ridgetop for a closer look. Keep silent.’

Keeping low, she crept to the right of their previous course, following the land upwards. Tahki followed, trying at least to squelch quietly. Together they reached the top of the rise and, cautiously, rose to peer above the enveloping grasses.

In the past few minutes the moon had risen, casting a silky sheen over Tahki’s shoulder to supplement the dying twilight. Any night-sighted creatures looking their way from below might be dazzled by its brilliance and fail to spot the two watchers, Tahki hoped. And he hoped most fervently, because some way down the slope twenty or so goblins stood in a rough group. They were discussing something, or arguing, in their slightly high-pitched voices. Some sounded higher still, females perhaps. All wore metal helmets, blackened in goblin fashion. Several spearpoints could be seen above the grass, as well as the tips of bows that were slung on the warriors’ backs.

Then the argument must have been resolved, because the creatures ceased their talking and turned almost to face the two watchers, beginning to march. Immediately, in a burst of adrenaline, Tahki dropped to a crouch once more beneath the concealing grass. Grytha came down too, almost as fast, and they paused a heartbeat. There was no outcry.

‘A raiding party!’ Tahki breathed. ‘We have to warn–’

‘They’re headed east,’ Grytha interrupted in her cracked whisper. ‘Nowhere near Ilsha Village.’

‘And is there another human settlement out that way?’

She shrugged. ‘Not our business.’

‘Just like Leena’s illness wasn’t your business, when she couldn’t pay?’ Tahki hissed angrily.

Nobody in that village has any spare money or produce, fool boy.’ Grytha’s whisper held the ferocious, dismissive tone she used so often. ‘But when they need, they can still find it, somehow. If they don’t need to, if they know that in a desperate situation I’ll help regardless, then they won’t find the payment. And I’ll need charity myself, else I starve.’

‘That doesn’t excuse–’ he retorted, then stopped, horrified. He’d forgotten to keep his voice down. Scant hundreds of yards away downslope, goblin exclamations further disturbed the quiet of the night.

Grytha glared at him for an instant, contempt and anger showing in the curl of her lip and the flash of her eyes. Saying nothing, she began to run down their side of the ridge, following an angle that would lead back to their route. Tahki followed hurriedly, half-dazed by the situation. One minute they were arguing ethics, the next they were in mortal danger, and it was entirely his fault.

Absently, he realised how fast a pace the old woman had set, not far short of his own optimum speed. If she could keep it up, that was incredibly impressive for somebody her age. Perhaps, as a healer, she knew precisely the best way to keep herself fit. She might even have magical means of preserving her health. That was a thought.

‘Healer, have you… magic that could…help?’ he called softly, between breaths.

‘In the forest.’ Grytha got her words out quickly, so that they stole as little air as possible. Her voice was neutral; perhaps she lacked the energy to waste on castigating the youth, even though this time he deserved it.

They pounded through the grass with little attempt at stealth, following the straight line they’d taken all day. The goblin pursuit was some distance behind and did not seem to be getting any closer. Goblins were shorter than humans, Tahki had noticed, none of the warriors standing more than five feet tall. Perhaps that meant they could not move as fast. But if they slept during the day (did they? He wished he knew more about goblins) they might be fresh now, whereas he was exhausted. The initial burst of adrenaline was fading, leaving him drained.

At least there was moonlight to see by, nullifying the goblins’ sight advantage. The light fell clearly on one side of Grytha’s wrinkled face as she glanced behind at the goblin band. A glimpse of their quarry caused excited cries among the pursuers, more than Tahki would have thought warranted, and the creatures increased speed, redoubling their efforts. Grimly Tahki continued. There was no use trying to match the increase; he didn’t think the old woman could keep a faster pace, he would be hard pushed to manage it himself. The goblins were catching up quickly now, already only a hundred yards behind. It wouldn’t be long before their bowmen were in clear range, and then…

But the raiding band evidently could not maintain their rate of progress, and – following shouted orders from the leader – slowed back down. Now Tahki and Grytha were pulling away once more, ever so slowly. He began to think they might make it. It surely could not be much further to the woods. If Grytha’s magic could see them safe once there… Except she was only a village healer, not a powerful wizard. She could, perhaps, confuse pursuit, nothing more. Tahki cast a worried glance at the figure ahead. She still seemed to be running smoothly, but for one who’d seen – he guessed – sixty summers, that couldn’t continue much longer. Would she even have energy to use her magic?

They crested another ridge, and ahead of them, at the bottom of a short slope, was the forest. It began with scattered saplings but quickly became more dense. Moonlight glittered green from the leaves, which were not due to fall for some time yet. Something about the pale light sent a shiver through Tahki, and he had brief doubts about entering the forest. They’re only trees, he reminded himself. It’s dark, that’s all. Without slowing, he followed the healer in among the trunks.

For a minute they blundered through light undergrowth: thick grass and low, wiry bramble vines that clutched and tore at Tahki’s boots, threatening to trip him. Then the healer found a path – an animal track, most likely – and the going became easier. As they forged deeper into the forest, the dark gradually crept in, flooding Tahki’s senses until the moon and stars overhead were little more than an occasional fleck of light on the leaves, and the branches of passing trees were a deep shade of black against black. He could hardly see Grytha in front of him, though she seemed to find the path easily enough. Perhaps her eyes were augmented in some way.

They kept a fast pace, though by now it was closer to a jog than a run. Tahki hoped the goblins were similarly slowed. There had been no sign of them since entering the forest, but he would hardly have been able to see them and the damp air seemed to deaden sound. It bore a rich scent of green, growing plants, another reminder of summer. The smell unnerved Tahki further; he was unused to woodland, and had certainly never been in any as deep and old as this was becoming.

After a few more minutes they approached a small stream. Its waters shimmered softly in light that escaped from cracks in the forest canopy above its course, and it trickled gently, peacefully across its rocky bed, as if nothing violent or alarming could happen this night. It would continue just the same, Tahki thought, while the goblins were chewing on their bones…

‘Stop here,’ Grytha ordered softly.

Tahki stopped, just in time to avoid running into her. Silently, he listened to the sounds of the night. Slight cracks and rustlings in the undergrowth as forest creatures went about their business… the sighing of trees in the breeze, and an occasional creak of branches… their own breath, ever-so-gradually slowing… and, caught by a brief gust of wind, goblin voices. A long way off, but within the woods, Tahki judged.

The healer sighed quietly. ‘I’d hoped they would stop at the boundary.’

‘Why would they?’ Tahki wondered.

‘Elves protect this forest, and they have little love for war parties within their lands. Some months ago, I acted as lure to draw such a band into an elven trap. A few survived.’ She shrugged. ‘I think some of those survivors must be in the group out there.’

So that explained the creatures’ interest: revenge. They’d hesitated at the edge of the woodland, perhaps to decide if this were another trap, but had chosen to continue anyway. At least that should mean they moved more slowly and cautiously than they would otherwise have done.

He realised suddenly that the healer had, by her own words, acted to help the elves, or perhaps a human village that the goblin band had been marching to attack in their shortcut across the forests. ‘You helped the elves? Wasn’t that none of your business?’

‘Of course, boy,’ Grytha’s voice hardened, ‘but they gave me something I needed in return. Nobody does anything for nothing in this world. Remember that.’

Tahki disagreed, but it didn’t seem worth arguing about. Meanwhile the old woman had been rummaging through her pack. Eventually she extracted a small pouch – visible in the faint light flickering from the stream and from above – and hung it around her neck by the drawstring. She replaced the pack on her shoulders.

‘Come on. We’ve rested enough.’

She matched actions to words, stepping straight into the middle of the stream and splashing along in it, downstream to the right. Confused, Tahki followed suit, silently cursing his luck as he hurried through the water. After the last minutes of running, his boots had almost dried out. The stream was not much more than ankle-deep, but it would soak through in time. Already, his much-abused feet felt blue with imagined cold.


‘They track by smell, fool,’ Grytha interrupted his question. ‘Like dogs. This’ll slow them down.’

Tahki had to be careful of his footing as they rushed along the rocky stream bed. At least there was more light here, the break in the trees providing a welcome glimpse of sky above. He could see the healer quite clearly, a dim shadow ahead of him, continuing in a smooth gait that belied her age. At one point she seemed to fling something to the left.

‘What’s that?’

‘A pinch of leth root, dried and powdered. Once the creatures get a sniff of that, they won’t be able to smell anything else for hours or maybe days.’

Suddenly Tahki felt optimistic about their chances. They continued along the stream for what must have been several miles, the healer throwing out some of her powder to either side at irregular intervals. Finally, she stopped.

‘Wait here. I’ll hurry ahead and sprinkle the root twice more.’

She vanished into the shadows, the quiet splashing of her feet fading into the distance. Tahki listened carefully, but couldn’t yet hear any sign of the goblin pursuers. Even so, he doubted they had given up. He felt grateful, for once, that he was traveling with the healer. Kind and generous she might not be, but at least she seemed wily. He might not have thought to lay more false trails, in case the goblins were still in a condition to search for them and assumed the last pinch of root to be the point where they had left the stream.

As he rested – he stood still on the bank, not daring to sit down in case his legs refused to lift him again – he wondered why she had wanted him on the journey. He’d been far more of a hindrance than a help. Even where youth should have been an advantage it seemed she could run almost as fast as he could, and match him on stamina – and here he was resting while she carried on. Perhaps she had misjudged and thought him more useful, although she didn’t seem one to make mistakes often.

After about ten minutes, long enough that he began to worry and at least imagine goblin voices northwards, Grytha returned. Silently she led them away from the stream – flicking a final sprinkle of the root over the bank at their exit point – and into the trees once again. Tahki’s eyes saw only darkness and shadow, but the healer seemed able to manage.

After half an hour, she stopped to spread the powder once more at what might have been a junction of paths. Tahki followed her blindly past this and several similar points, his route based only on the sounds of her passage. Twigs from overhanging branches scraped his face constantly, even though he held his arms ahead to protect against them, and several times he stumbled and fell, either simply from tiredness or by tripping over some tendril on the ground. It must be well past midnight, he judged, picking himself up once more after yet another fall. We can’t go on much longer.

Eventually, when the youth felt ready to collapse, Grytha called a halt. Tahki waited while, as several times previously, she shook a little powder over the area – though he could see nothing, he thought that her pouch must be almost empty – and then the healer reached into her pack once more. This time she drew out a lantern and tinderbox. Carefully she lit the lamp and, all at once, Tahki could see. The flickering yellow radiance covered a small circle of forest, highlighting contrasts in the bark of trees and casting shadowy patterns over the undergrowth on the ground. Nothing looked at all unusual or distinct; just another patch of forest. The tiny half-trail that they’d been following passed through, qualifying as a path only because its undergrowth was less deep than on the surroundings. There was no clearing; the canopy above was as dense as ever.

‘Why here?’ Tahki asked, begrudging even the effort it took to utter those words.

‘Because we can’t get much further and this place shouldn’t draw anyone’s attention.’ She gestured at a stand of low bushes by the trail. ‘Get behind those, get out your blankets and lie down. That’s where we’ll be sleeping.’

He didn’t question it, ask what would happen if the goblins came through here in the night and spotted them. He was too tired. Instead, it took all his concentration to step around the bushes without damaging them. Once there, he wrapped himself in blankets and lay down. It was uncomfortable – the ground beneath him was covered with plants of various types – but he didn’t care.

‘I’m going to mark a circle around you,’ the healer said through his haze of weariness. ‘While you stay within it, nobody can see or hear or smell you, unless they know well you’re there. Just don’t move outside the circle, not even a finger, or you’ll break it.’

Oh, he thought dizzily, the magic she promised. And, without considering it further, he slept.

Tahki’s legs ached. The scratches and bruises on his face and arms ached. His feet ached, his head ached, all of him ached. He was cold, and he felt like sleeping for a hundred years at least. But, for some reason, he was awake. No morning light brightened the forest, only a ghostly kind of radiance that might, in here, pass for pre-dawn. At least he could see.

Had the healer woken him? He looked around but did not see her. For a moment he was alarmed, until vague memories from late last night returned: oh yes, some kind of invisibility magic.

Then a babble of goblin voices jerked him into full awareness. They were here! Had they found the hiding place? He listened carefully. The sound seemed to come from directly opposite the bushes behind which he hid, but the greenery obscured his vision. If he pushed a leaf aside, he might be able to watch through a crack. Slowly, carefully, he reached out with one hand–

–and, suddenly, realised his mistake. The healer’s words came into sharp focus for the first time. Not even a finger… Immediately he withdrew his hand, hoping that perhaps her circle had been wide enough to include it. But then he noticed that the goblins had all gone silent.

He didn’t have time to think before a pair of the creatures burst through the bush and stood over him. Smaller than him they might be, but with their swords drawn, their tattooed and painted war-markings over every visible inch of green flesh, and the glimmer of their sharp, pointed teeth, they scared him rigid. He couldn’t move, even if his stiff muscles had let him.

One of them bent down and took his sword. The other sneered at him, grabbed him by both wrists, and pulled him to his feet. Tahki staggered and almost fell over again, but when the goblin scowled and shouted something incomprehensible but menacing, he managed to make the effort to remain standing. The goblin took a loop of rope from its belt and bound Tahki’s hands tightly behind his back.

Then he was shoved forwards, onto the path. Goblins stood around, some watching him, some checking the surrounding area for signs of the healer. They weren’t having any luck; she had, unsurprisingly, had the sense not to break her own spell. The goblins probably didn’t even realise that he’d been magically hidden, perhaps just thinking they’d taken a while to notice his human smell because of the leth root they’d inhaled.

He counted only six here; evidently their raiding band had split up to search. Two were female, the other four male, although it was quite hard to tell since they all wore the same kind of tattered cloth garments and rough leather armour. How strange that their women fight alongside the men, Tahki thought. He wondered who did the cooking and cleaning in goblin homes, assuming they had homes. Looking at the creatures, he suspected cleaning and tidying wasn’t a particular priority.

Then he remembered the danger he was in. What did they want with him? He was surprised they hadn’t killed him already.

Gradually, those who had been sent to search the area for Grytha came back unsuccessful. There was a brief conference among the goblins, although at all times one of them was keeping a careful eye on Tahki. As if I could run, Tahki thought, keeping a hopeful eye out for an opportunity to do just that.

None came, and eventually the goblin patrol reached a decision. One of them, perhaps the leader, took a step apart from the others and shouted, in a strongly-accented version of the human language, ‘If’n ye went yuir syn, cym get ’im!’

Tahki took a moment to translate. If you went – no, want – your sin… come get him? Then he realised: not sin – son. They thought he was Grytha’s child.

A reasonable assumption, at least if you knew as much about the aging and childbirth of humans as he knew about the goblin equivalents. So he was a hostage, or bait. But he was under no illusions that the healer would take it. She would have no interest in rescuing him at all. It wasn’t her business.

He pushed aside pointless resentment – after all, it was his fault that he was in this mess – and waited to see what would happen when she didn’t appear. Would they kill him?

Finally the goblin leader turned to look at Tahki. ‘Where is she?’ he asked in his strange-sounding voice. He gestured to another of the patrol, and immediately Tahki felt a sword blade against his neck.

‘Don’t know.’ He struggled to get the words out without moving his throat. ‘I slept first.’

His answer was true enough. The leader considered it and shrugged, looking to his patrol for suggestions. Various goblins spoke, but the gist of it as far as Tahki was concerned was that his captor removed the blade.

Instead, he was shoved along with the group as they made their way through the forest. His legs ached and protested and twice he fell, each time to be prodded with spear butts until he struggled to his feet once more. Finally the little procession reached its destination: a large cave, one of numerous openings in the side of a cliff. They were still within the forest and trees grew all around, though there was a clearing here. Dawn’s pinkish light shone a little way into each grey rock opening, and Tahki was pushed and shoved deeper into one of the tunnels and into darkness.

Inside, once his eyes had adjusted, he realised it wasn’t completely black: a faint glow of the light from outside remained perceptible. The cave didn’t go back very far but twisted around, joining numerous other passages in a complex pattern. Most of the tunnels seemed to lead to similar exits, since daylight was faintly visible from each one.

He was led past numerous other goblins – evidently they were using this honeycombed cliff face as a temporary base – to what seemed an arbitrary location in one tunnel, where he was told to sit down. His guard, the goblin male who’d held a sword against his throat before, sat down beside him. The rest of the patrol headed in another direction which, to judge from the sound, was the location of some heated discussion.

Tahki wondered if he should catch some sleep. The idea tempted him, but in the end he judged it unwise. If an opportunity for escape should arise, he didn’t want to miss it. He leaned back against the cave wall, though–

–and sat forward again, witholding the surprised yelp his mouth wanted to make. There was a sharp, painful protuberance from the stone wall. A surge of hope flooded through him. Maybe he could use it to gradually cut through the bonds on his hands… and then escape. Somehow.

When he thought about it, he realized that whether or not his hands were free made little difference when an armed guard stood beside him. Even so, it was better to have them loose than not. Carefully, trying to move his body as little as possible, he positioned himself so that his bound hands touched the obstruction.

Pressing his flesh against it, he found that it felt like a stone half-embedded in the wall, probably a flint. It wasn’t sharp enough to cut rope. Disappointed, he sat still for some moments, wondering if there was another way to use it. Eventually he came up with an idea. He would try to press the knot of his bonds into the stone, and twist, so that the stone might loosen it. It had been tied in a hurry and the goblin had not seemed to take any particular care, so there was a hope…

He spent the next half hour gradually working at the knot in this way. It was difficult, because he couldn’t move his hands very far, since they were bound, and he couldn’t move the rest of his body, since the guard would notice. But he felt that, finally, the outer part of the knot was coming loose.

It took another hour before the rope finally succumbed to his efforts. During that time his guard had been relieved, another goblin – female this time – taking over. Outside it must be full daylight, and even in the caves it was relatively bright. Tahki could hear the trills and squawks of birdsong. He sighed, and wondered for a moment if Grytha would come to rescue him after all, then put the thought aside as wishful thinking. No, he would need to escape on his own.

But there seemed no hope of that at present. Even if he somehow managed to rush past his guard – who was armed with a ferocious-looking curved sword, held loosely at her side – she would simply alert the other goblins and they would swarm on him before he could even get out of these caves. Most of them might be asleep, but several probably remained, and there was just one of him, unarmed. His only chance was if his guard left him alone for some reason.

That chance appeared a few minutes later. His guard stretched herself, looked down at him, and spoke in a high-pitched but reasonably accented voice, ‘You smell.’ Tahki blinked, then realised she wasn’t intending to insult him, but stating a fact. She continued, ‘I just round corner. You try go, I notice no smell. Then you dead.’

She was explaining her sense of smell to a member of a lesser race who might not know about it. But why did she have to leave… oh, of course. Modesty. She didn’t have any problems with pissing on the floor of a cave – it was only a temporary camp – but she wasn’t going to do it in front of him.

She almost certainly hadn’t exaggerated the powers of her nose, though, he thought frantically, hearing a rustle from a few yards away round the corner, presumably as she removed some item of clothing. How was he going to leave without his scent vanishing and alerting her within seconds as it faded…?

Oh, of course, he echoed. Modesty. Or the lack thereof.

Silently he removed his tunic and the vest he wore underneath. Then the noise of water on stone offered a little cover for his actions, so he worked a little faster. He held onto his boots and carefully yanked out his feet. He pulled off socks, pants, and remaining undergarments. With any luck, his scent and sweat would cling to the pile of clothes more strongly than his body’s actual smell, so that his guard would not instantly notice anything wrong.

Entirely naked, he got quickly to his feet and padded silently off in the opposite direction to the goblin. A right-branching tunnel which he’d noticed earlier led outside. He entered it, inwardly rejoicing at the success of his trick, and began quietly to run. The fresh air passing around his body felt cool but not cold, warmed by his excitement. Ahead, a cave mouth loomed, and he broke into a full sprint. He passed under the rocky mantel, daylight spreading itself invitingly over his body, and he felt ecstatic at its slight warmth. He was free!

Then he glanced behind. The clearing wasn’t empty. Two goblin guards had probably been half-asleep or concentrating on possible danger from outside, but were now fully alert. Of course, Tahki thought. They didn’t waste the men to guard umpteen little tunnels, when all the exits go to the same place.

But his realisation came too late, because one of the guards wielded a bow. The goblin had nocked an arrow and was angling round towards Tahki. There was no chance that the boy could reach the cover of surrounding trees. Range was short, and he wore no clothes, let alone armor. The archer could not possibly miss. Tahki faced forward again, not wanting to watch, and continued to run, just on the offchance of a miracle. He waited to die–

–and the miracle arrived with a solid thunk and a surprised goblin squawk. Tahki looked behind again to see his would-be killer staggering backwards, an arrow neatly through the throat. He faltered in his running, scanning the surroundings, thinking: where the hell did that come from?

‘Run, fool!’ came a laughing call from somewhere ahead. It was a female voice, but one that sounded forty years younger and an infinity sweeter than Grytha the healer’s. ‘The swordsman follows!’

The youth looked round again, feeling as if his neck was going to break from overuse. Sure enough, the other guard was chasing towards Tahki, screaming warning to the rest of the band as he run. Tahki broke into a sprint and charged willy-nilly into the forest, ignoring the way thorned plants tore at his feet and ankles. From somewhere ahead, his unknown savior shouted directions.

‘Left a bit… follow that track… turn right past the oak – no, not you!’ This last was directed at the sword-waving goblin, who was managing to keep surprisingly close on Tahki’s trail. Then the youth caught his first glimpse of the woman who’d rescued him, a small, lithe figure standing by a tree ahead and sighting along her arrow. She let it fly, but the goblin had seen her too; the creature had already dodged, and the arrow hissed harmlessly into a bush.

‘Next time’s the charm,’ the elf warned – she was an elf, Tahki knew, even though he’d never seen one before. This time the laughter had gone out of her voice, and it was clear she meant what she said. She’d nocked another arrow, almost unbelievably quickly after the last, and stared deeply at the green-skinned creature, who had frozen still. ‘There’s others following me, too.’

The goblin hesitated, glared balefully at her, but finally broke and ran. Tahki caught up with the elf, breathing heavily – partly because of the brief exercise, but more with released tension from the narrow escape.

Thank you,’ he said, heartfelt. ‘How close are the others of your party?’

She smiled, a slight smile from her thin lips, but expressive. ‘I lied. There’s only me, on patrol.’


‘Do you normally dress like that?’

Gods, he’d forgotten. He made a futile attempt to hide the appropriate parts, and felt himself blushing.

She giggled, sounding a little like a young human girl, but more musical somehow. ‘I was only kidding, it doesn’t bother me. Come on, we’d better leave.’

‘I, uh, I need to, um, relieve myself,’ he muttered, realising it suddenly.

Her voice became serious. ‘Do, then, and be quick. I’ll use the time to cut strips from my cloak. You need to bind your feet, or you won’t run much further.’ As an afterthought, she added, ‘And you can wear what’s left.’

When he was finished, he put on the now-somewhat-ragged cloak, which was grayish green in colour and had a belt around the waist. Then he held up his feet, each in turn, while she tied a strip of cloth around and knotted it on top.

‘Now,’ she said, ‘quickly.’

Goblins could be heard behind, and Tahki willingly began to run. At first he moderated his speed for the benefit of the smaller woman, but soon he found she could easily match his pace. It was because she was so light, he supposed. She took large half-jumping strides and seemed almost to glide through the air.

He liked the forest much better in daytime. Bright sunlight shone through in blinding shafts, the illumination bouncing from shiny leaves to diffuse over everything. Birds sang and fluttered from branch to branch, insects buzzed busily, and small animals scrabbled about in the undergrowth. It would have been pleasant if he hadn’t had to watch so carefully where he trod in his makeshift shoes, and if he hadn’t ached as much. At least his legs were rested a little after the few hours’ sleep and the later captivity.

Before long they left behind the goblin band, and not solely due to their speed. The elven woman clearly knew this part of the forest very well, and she consistently took them along paths that were ill-defined and easy to lose, so that the goblins would constantly need to backtrack and check their position.

Eventually they came to a grassy clearing, unusually bright as the sun’s rays found unobstructed passage for once. A tiny brook ran across the center, throwing splashes of light in random patterns as water trickled downstream. Several moss-covered treestumps jutted from the grass, perhaps the casualties of a long-ago lightning strike. The place seemed far removed from rampaging goblins.

Evidently his elf guide agreed. She stopped in the clearing, gracefully drifting to a halt.

‘I think they’ll have given up by now. They don’t like being about in daytime.’

‘Okay,’ Tahki agreed, deferring to her knowledge.

She sat down by one of the treestumps, leaning back against it and stretching her legs out in front of her. Wearing faded brown against her pale brown skin, she matched well with the forest surroundings, reminding Tahki of a sparrow. Though she looked drab, her large eyes, delicate face, and pointed ears gave an outlandish edge to her appearance. Her alien appearance gave Tahki a twinge of unease.

‘Sit down,’ she said. ‘Let’s talk.’

Putting aside that worry, he found a comfortable place on the grass, facing her. Wrapping the cloak around himself, he regarded his situation glumly. Though it seemed he was safe, he’d lost all his posessions, and his parents would not be amused. He would have to find something to wear on the journey home, too, since he’d need to return this cloak before he left the elves. And it was all his fault, too… He sighed.

‘You’ve just escaped the goblins’ clutches, and already it’s that bad?’ the elf asked, clearly amused.

He looked down, embarassed. ‘Well, I left my clothes and my sword. And it was all my fault, I kept acting without thinking…’

‘It’s a good thing you did, there at the end,’ she said seriously. ‘I have the opposite problem, I can never make my mind up what to do… I couldn’t decide whether to make a rescue attempt myself, though there were too many goblins and I didn’t know where you were within the caves, or run for help, which would have taken too long. So I did nothing, until you removed the choice.’

‘Actually, I did think that through a little,’ Tahki said, ‘just not far enough.’ He explained how he’d escaped.

She laughed. ‘I rubbed my body with a particular plant that grows here, to disguise my scent. That way I could trail the goblins without being spotted.’

‘Something called… leth?’ Tahki hazarded.

‘Lethweed, yes.’ She seemed a little taken aback. ‘That’s unusually knowledgeable.’

‘Well, I came across it before.’ He summarized the last few days’ journey.

After he had finished, she was silent for a moment, considering. Finally, ‘You haven’t yet told me your name. I’m called Breeze.’

‘Oh – sorry. I’m Tahki.’

She nodded, staring at him as if to evaluate the name and check how well it suited him. ‘Well… What are you going to do now?’

‘Uh – I don’t know.’

‘That’s my line,’ Breeze said, smiling. ‘But still. Do you think Grytha might go looking for you, or should we just meet her at the village?’

‘At the village?’

‘That’s where she’s headed. She occasionally stops by to trade for certain herbs and the like.’

Nice of the healer to tell me, Tahki thought. Everybody in the whole damn forest is fully aware of her destination, except her traveling companion.

‘I don’t think she’ll go out of her way to help me.’ He felt bitterness edge into his voice.

‘Try not to judge her too harshly,’ the elf said gently.

Tahki remembered once more that the whole situation was his fault; the healer had provided adequate protection against a pursuit brought on by his own carelessness. Reluctantly, he allowed his anger to subside.

‘But, I agree,’ Breeze continued. ‘We should make for the village. If we leave now, we should arrive by sundown. Unless you would like to rest this morning?’

He longed to stay seated for a month, or at least take the sleep she offered, but he forced himself to shake his head. ‘I’ll be okay.’ He didn’t want to arrive days after the healer, giving her the opportunity to look down on his stamina as well as his common sense.

She bunched in her legs and stood up, in one smooth motion. ‘Then let’s get started.’

Tahki got to his feet more carefully, trying not to wince at the renewed ache in his legs. He glanced at his guide, and suddenly remembered that she wasn’t supposed to be his guide, she was just doing him a favour, one which he didn’t really deserve.

‘I’m sorry – I should have thought. You must have better things to do. I can find my own way…’

But she was shaking her head. ‘I doubt that, and I am happy to lead you.’

‘You said you were on patrol. It’s okay for you to leave that?’

For a long moment she paused, then – still silent – she gestured at a path leading out of the clearing. They set off walking, the elf slightly ahead, and he thought she would ignore the question.

Eventually, after several glances back at him as if to judge something, she said quietly, ‘In truth, my patrols serve little purpose, beyond keeping me occupied. The village is well protected by magical wards and the like.’ She shrugged, keeping her face forward so that he saw only the back of her head. ‘Today was the first time I’ve been truly useful for several years. Just don’t tell anyone I said that.’

Tahki caught hold of a branch that she’d been holding back for him, stepped around and then released it to swing back across the path. ‘Then why do you keep it up?’

‘I told you I was indecisive. I’ve a choice to make – either to leave and live somewhere far away, or to stay here and take a – well, a kind of apprenticeship. I really want to do both, but that can’t happen.’ Again she shrugged her shoulders. ‘So I do neither, while I decide.’

‘For years?’ He couldn’t conceive of it.

‘Three so far.’

‘That’s crazy.’ Internally he winced at his bluntness, reminded himself he ought to be especially nice to this elf.

In a sudden shift of mood, she laughed briefly. ‘Is it? From your tale, I’d judge you might spend a little longer thinking before you act. Maybe you can learn from my example.’

Often he should take a little more time for consideration, he admitted to himself, but not three years! Still, she obviously wanted to leave the subject, and her attitude unsettled him a little, so he was silent.

They traveled for the rest of the day, making good time along cool, shadowy paths. Breeze spoke only to warn of thorns and spines that might pierce his makeshift footwear, or to respond briefly to his comments. The rest of the time, though she picked their way unerringly, her mind seemed far away. Tahki wondered if perhaps she normally avoided her village for some reason.

But his mind spent little time on such concerns, being somewhat distracted by a ravenous hunger that had revealed itself soon after the tension of danger had receded. They had stopped a few times to drink from small streams that cris-crossed the forest, but neither of them had any food. The elf judged time too short for hunting, and since Tahki knew nothing about either their route or the killing of small furry woodland creatures, he accepted her judgment. His stomach was not so magnanimous and insisted on complaining with frequent and embarassing empty gurgles, much to his guide’s sympathetic amusement.

‘Not far now,’ she reassured him after one such occasion. It was the first time she’d spoken in at least an hour, and he was almost startled by her voice. She still walked ahead of him, leading the way along a narrow but easy-going trail. For some time the light had been fading, but he could still make out the plants around, and the small twists of cloth knotted into Breeze’s dark plaited hair.

‘Will there be food, and a place to sleep?’ A thought struck him. ‘I have no money…’

‘There will be. Don’t worry.’ She glanced back at him curiously. ‘You could have slept earlier today. I would have found some food by the time you woke, and we would have reached the village tomorrow. Why…?’

Uncomfortably he shrugged. ‘I guess I don’t want the healer to think I’m completely useless.’

‘Why do you care about her opinion?’

‘Well, I–’ He paused for a minute, thinking, while the elf walked ahead in patient silence. It was a question he hadn’t considered. Self-analysis wasn’t really his forté.

‘I think,’ he said finally, ‘it’s because she knows so much more than I do, and she thinks more quickly than I do, and she expresses herself more clearly than me. I dislike her attitude, but–’ he thought back to the conversation on the hillside, abruptly ended after he’d attracted the goblins’ attention– ‘I can understand her reasons.’

‘You respect her,’ Breeze summarized. ‘That’s a good beginning.’

Beginning to what? Getting to know the old woman better, Tahki supposed. But at that point a fallen tree blocked the path, and they paused to negotiate it. The trunk was thick, forming a five-foot barrier that loomed ahead, a solid incarnation of the approaching darkness. But it was easy to scale. Tahki reached up and across it with both hands, found good purchase in the rough, ridged bark, and heaved himself up. He balanced across the top on his belly, and twisted around in this rather undignified position, so that he could drop feet-first on the other side.

Belatedly he wondered if he should have given a hand up to the elf, who was after all female and also rather smaller than him, but he needn’t have worried; she pulled herself smoothly up, almost stepping onto the top of the trunk. For a moment she paused on her perch, gazing ahead, before jumping down. She landed gracefully on both feet, bending her knees to absorb the shock and springing lightly back up in near-silence. A shaft of dim twilight from overhead highlighted the points of her ears, bright against black hair, and Tahki was struck by how alien she seemed in that moment. He shivered in a pulse of irrational fear.

She set off along the trail, taking the lead once more, and he shoved down the recalcitrant emotion and followed. It was becoming more and more difficult to see overhanging branches and tendrils of undergrowth, but the path was a little wider here and by walking in its center, Tahki could avoid most obstructions.

‘Are you yet considered adult?’ Breeze asked some time later, by way of conversation. Her soft voice filtered back through the cool evening air, seeming to blend smoothly with the evening calls of birds and the light hiss of wind among the leaves high above.

‘Not quite. Why do you ask?’

‘I wondered, then, what you plan to do with your life when you grow older.’

‘I will be a weaver, like my parents,’ Tahki said, in some surprise. ‘Grytha asked me the same thing a few days ago.’

‘Hmm. It is a natural question.’

She fell silent. Tahki wondered why she had asked, regardless. He seemed to feel a touch of dissembling in her last response – and then he lost his thoughts as he bumped right into the elf.

Immediately he stepped back, strangely shaken by the contact. ‘Uh – sorry.’ She must have stopped walking suddenly.

‘There’s no need for apology. It was a test. Better you walk into me – I am softer than most trees.’ A quiet tone of laughter bubbled into her voice, then subsided. ‘But it is too dark for you here, and the path ahead twists about.’

The forest around them was particularly dense, barely allowing any glimpse of the sky. Tahki guessed that clouds obscured the moon and stars in any case; it could not possibly have been so gloomy otherwise. Now that he knew where the elf was, he could see her outline if he concentrated carefully, as a slightly darker shade of black.

‘I will take your hand,’ Breeze said matter-of-factly. ‘There is room, and then–’

Tahki recoiled in fear. It was instinctive; he couldn’t help himself. He had been startled to come into contact with her a moment ago, and that combined with the sound of her soft, silvery, strange voice in the complete darkness touched some nerve within him, emphasising that this was not a human. For a moment he could only think of her ears, smooth and pointed, halfway to animal, of her large, deep, angled eyes…

‘–you will not poke out your eye on the next twig–’ The elf stopped, evidently seeing his reaction. It was silly, he knew. Unfair. Impolite. Regaining some control, he lowered his head in shame. But he still shivered at the thought of touching her again.

Breeze was silent for a moment. She’s going to be offended, Tahki thought. And with justification.

‘Then I shall sing for you,’ the elf said finally, with no hint of reprimand, ‘and you can follow the sound. Stay close.’

He nodded, gratitude overlapping with fear. Quietly she began to sing, wordlessly following a tune, as he then followed her voice while she navigated the twists and turns of the dark path. Her song was not as outlandish and different as he had half-expected, and gradually his taut, irrational fear loosened. She was singing a variation on something he’d heard before, he realised, a human song, chosen for his benefit. Mentally he castigated himself for his behaviour; here was one of the most generous people he had ever met, who had saved his life already and now helped him further, and this was how he repaid her. And yet, in the blackness, he was still conscious of that frightening difference.

They continued in that way for about quarter of an hour, the elf twisting and embellishing her song around the same theme all that time. Then he saw a flickering of light ahead, and an overall brightening, and they must have emerged into some kind of a cleared area because the sky overhead was grey instead of black from the forest canopy, and Tahki’s eyes could now pick out the trees which were far fewer and less dense. The yellow light seemed to be lanternlight from a window in some kind of building a few hundred yards ahead.

At the end of a measure, Breeze let her voice fade away. Most of the bards Tahki had heard would have ended with some kind of flourish, he was sure, but this was no less appropriate.

In the light, dim though it was, his fears now seemed more foolish than ever. ‘Thank you,’ he said, not quite ready to apologize.

‘You are welcome.’ She pointed ahead, at the building. ‘That is the guest hut, and it seems that Grytha is still awake.’

Tahki nodded.

‘One thing intrigues me,’ the elf commented. ‘Why do you think Grytha asked you to accompany her on this journey?’

‘I don’t know,’ he admitted. ‘I haven’t been very much help to her. Actually, I wondered the same thing myself, a while back.’

‘I see,’ Breeze said neutrally. But the tone of her voice gave Tahki the feeling that actually, she did see, that she had guessed the answer to her own question and was merely checking whether he had any idea.

He might have asked, but they were at the door of the hut. The elf knocked carefully, waited for the cranky, muttered response, and then let herself and Tahki inside. It was a small wooden building, with a boarded floor scattered liberally with cushions large and small. Grytha the healer sat on one pile of cushions, her legs pulled up at a taut angle in front of her.

She turned her wrinkled face towards them. ‘Take your shoes off, boy. Don’t go tracking mud around in here.’

Some welcome, Tahki thought. He bent down and unwrapped the ragged, dirty remains of cloth that had protected his feet all day.

‘I’ll bring you some proper clothes tomorrow morning,’ Breeze said to him aside, as she loosened her boots and stepped free. Tahki was about to mutter surprised thanks, or to explain once more that he couldn’t pay, but his thoughts were interrupted.

‘I see you broke off your lovesick dithering long enough to rescue this idiot,’ Grytha said to the elf. ‘Waste of good dithering time, if you ask me.’

‘I would differ,’ Breeze responded, grinning. She took no offense at the insult that had made Tahki bristle – naming him an idiot was admittedly fair enough, but there was no call for abusing the elf. ‘In any case, he rescued himself. I just helped out a little afterwards.’

‘Is that so?’ Grytha queried thoughtfully.

‘I didn’t think it through quite far enough,’ Tahki found himself admitting. ‘Breeze saved my life.’ He knelt down and then sat back against the wall on some of the cushions. Oh, that felt good. But getting up again to find food would be so difficult…

‘Even so,’ the elf said to Grytha, ‘you made a good choice.’ She glanced down at the youth. ‘I’ll bring something to eat soon.’

The healer stared intently at Breeze, ignoring the last exchange. ‘You really think he’ll do?’

She inclined her head. ‘I think he’ll do.’

Tahki had followed the conversation with some bemusement. Finally, understanding dawned. He looked at Grytha incredulously. ‘You want me to apprentice with you?’

‘Of course not, boy.’ She scowled. ‘But I have to teach someone before I keel over, and it looks like that’s you.’

‘No,’ Tahki said, dazed. ‘I can’t. I’m going to be a weaver. I have to.’

‘Do you?’ The healer looked at him, and he flushed at the beginnings of contempt that glinted within her eyes.

Uncomfortably he looked away, seeking respite. His gaze caught on Breeze the elf, leaning – silent now, having said her part for the moment – against the wall of the small hut. Half her face was in shadow, but he could tell that she was no longer paying much attention to the situation around her, instead staring into an unseen distance and worrying at some problem. Perhaps he should be like her, he thought, dither and delay for three years before making a decision.

But that wasn’t his way. He sighed, inhaled a deep breath, and looked at the floor. Subconsciously, he supposed, he’d known something like this would be coming, expected and – he admitted – welcomed it, almost from the start of this trip. Maybe even his initial offer of help, rather than a charitable gesture, had simply been a pretext to break the inevitability of his mapped-out life.

‘No, I guess I don’t,’ Tahki muttered.

For a brief moment, there was silence. Then the youth felt air move in front of him, saw something in the corner of his vision. He looked up. Breeze had moved from by the wall, knelt down directly in front of him. She looked straight at him, her large brown eyes teasing at his mind. Her alien closeness sent his heartbeat racing once more with renewed fear.

‘When Grytha finishes teaching you, come to this village for a time. Some here will teach other skills that you should have.’

‘No!’ He tried to cool down, moderate his ragged breathing; failed miserably. Lanternlight seemed to glimmer from the points of the elf’s strange ears, and her deep calm eyes pinned him rigidly to the spot when his instincts urged him to break and run. ‘I can’t. There’s no way I can work that closely with your people. You know that.’

From one side he heard a contemptuous snort from Grytha, but all his attention was focused on the elf. Breeze looked at him steadily, firmly. ‘You can. I know that.’

She released him then, stood up and went away, and though his tension only gradually faded, he found himself thinking: maybe. Maybe he could. Maybe he could become a healer, maybe he could even learn to live and work with these alien beings.

It was a far cry from his optimism and self-confidence at the beginning of this journey, just a few days ago. But… maybe.

Maybe that meant he was growing up.