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Authors: Laura Anne Gilman

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BOOK: The Shadow Companion
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“Ailis—”

“No!”

As she shouted it, an unexpected clash of thunder split the heavens. They both stopped and stared at each other.

“I didn’t make the storm,” she said in a much quieter voice. “But I can make it stop. That should make everyone happy, right? And nobody will ever know. Just the way you all want it.”

She turned and stalked out into the rain, not bothering with her shoes or jacket or the oiled tarp.

Gerard sighed, picked up his stew bowl, and started eating his dinner. If she was going to be like that, there was nothing he could do to stop her.

 

Elsewhere in the camp, Newt had his hands full with a different kind of argument.

During the storm, one of the flimsier pavilions had blown over, exposing a knight’s belongings to the weather and resulting in the hapless squire responsible having his ears boxed.

Newt had come along while the boy and two of his friends were trying to get the fabric back up, while the knight took refuge with a neighbor, drinking wine and watching the boys struggle.

“Fine example of chivalry,” Newt had said, but only to himself. Out loud, he had ordered the smallest boy to collect all of the objects still lying in the grass and place them under a small, oiled tarp.

Meanwhile, he and the two other boys began replacing pegs, careful not to trip over or stumble into any of the neighboring tents in the dark. The rain finally let up just as he was about to tell them to bring out the top-most fabric. They were able to unfold the cloth and set the ropes without too much difficulty, despite the lack of light beyond the torches the knights had put up.

“Down, boy,” Newt said now, holding his hand at hip level to illustrate what he wanted, the way he would if working with a half-trained dog. His voice was soothing, gentle, and shaking with laughter, as he teased the younger boy who held the other end of the rope.

“Grrrr.” The boy at the other end of the rope bared his teeth and growled, but obediently went down onto his knees in order to tie the rope to the peg without losing any of the tautness.

“You pull a good rope,” one of the squires called. “Pity it’s bound to end up around your neck.”

Newt laughed and went to the third rope, making
sure it had been tied properly. There were few things you learned faster working in the kennels, the way he had as a young boy, than how to tie a secure knot.

“Up the tent!” Newt called, and they hauled on the ropes until the pavilion cover was upright once again.

“Good, dog-boy!” one of the squires called, continuing the rough-handed teasing. “Say woof!”

“That’s horse-boy to you, and I say to you ‘neigh.’”

“Four legs, a tail, and no brains—not so much of a difference between horse and dog.”

“You take that back!”

Newt looked up from tying off the final rope only to see the squire flat on his back in the mud, Gerard looming over him, holding him down. “You don’t speak to him like that—not until you’ve done as much as he has,” Gerard growled.

“Ger!” Newt knew that Gerard had a temper—he had, in fact, been at the receiving end of it many times—but this seemed extreme. “Gerard, it’s okay!” He hauled Gerard off the now muddy squire, shoving him, gently, to arms’ distance away.

“What was that all about?”

“He said—”

“I heard what he said.”

“He—it doesn’t bother you?” Gerard looked at Newt, then up at the now clear sky as though there might be some answer up there.

“It would have if it meant anything.” Newt knew that he had sore spots, things that riled him when poked, but he very rarely got angry. His mother had taught him to let things slide off his shoulders, and working with animals sensitive to your moods had set the lessons in stone. Anger had no place in his life, especially over such a foolish thing as name-calling.

“I appreciate the championship,” Newt said. “But I don’t need it.”

He was tired of Gerard always playing the squire role no matter what, as though that were the only thing that mattered. He was tired of hiding his participation in events, of staying quiet in order to keep any rumor or hint of trouble at Camelot from spreading.

“If you’d fought like that when we first met, you might actually have won,” he said instead.

“If Sir Lancelot hadn’t shown up to save you, you’d have been wearing your face backward,” Gerard retorted, reaching to help the squire he’d just
tackled up from the mud. “Callum, isn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“Sorry about that, Callum. Newt’s a friend of mine, and I don’t take well to him being mocked. Even in jest.”

“I’ll remember that.” The boy was unhappy, but clearly unable to find fault either with Gerard’s apology, or his reasoning.

Gerard glanced up at the sky, then turned to Newt, his face serious again. “We need to talk about Ailis.”

“Ailis? Is she all right?” Newt looked around, as though expecting to see her in the crowd gathering around them.

Gerard looked up at the sky again and found the moon that was beginning to rise. “We need to talk,” was all he said.

“Gather!”

The call came from the center of camp, and everyone turned to hear who was yelling.

“Gather!”

“That’s Tom,” Gerard said, relieved at the interruption. Tom was Sir Matthias’s squire, the one who actually
was
stuck polishing gear and minding the horses. “Something must have happened. Come on!”

The two friends pushed through the crowd, slipping occasionally on the mud-slick grass, to where Sir Matthias was standing. A young, nervous-looking monk was beside him. There were torches set up to hold the darkness at bay, but even with them, everything had a strange, shadowy cast. It caused Newt to look around nervously, waiting for something to jump out at them.

“Nobody else feels it.”

“What?” Gerard said.

Ailis had appeared next to Newt, looking straight ahead, watching not Sir Matthias, but the monk with him. “The darkness. Nobody else feels it.”


You
do.” Newt’s words were less a statement than a question.

“So do you, don’t you?” Ailis said, looking at Newt closely. They were feeling the same strange tension in the air, a tension which seemed to be increasing, rather than fading.

Gerard had stopped listening to them. Instead he watched Sir Matthias and the monk.

“Which means…?” Newt wasn’t sure what he was asking.

“I don’t know. There’s something about that
monk. The darkness, it has been placed on him, somehow, as though…”

“Shhhh,” Gerard hushed them as Sir Matthias began to speak.

“This is Brother Jannot. He—”

“The Grail hides.” The monk had a deep voice, deeper than his body should have been able to produce, and it carried even into the darkness. “The Grail hides in shadows, in long dark shadows. Bring the light, and dispel the shadows. Find the Grail.”

“A prophecy,” one of the knights muttered. “He’s been gifted with the art of prophecy.”

“A miracle,” another said. “The voice of God speaks through him!”

Slowly, the mood of the gathered men changed from irritation and exhaustion to exultation, with Sir Matthias and the now silent monk at the heart of it. Even Gerard and Newt got caught up in the energy, Newt totally forgetting his earlier unease.

Only Ailis, pushed to the side by the crowd of people trying to get close enough to touch the monk’s robe, looked distressed, not uplifted, by the prophecy.

“Something’s wrong,” she whispered, feeling it in her bones, in her blood. There was a sense of the world being twisted somehow. She could feel it, taste
it, in the monk’s words.

But nobody heard her; everyone was so caught up in the monk’s revelation. He gave them exactly what they wanted to hear.

T
he next morning found them riding out of sunlit fields and into a dark, shadowed forest. The road narrowed so that they could not ride more than three abreast. The supply wagon came perilously close to overrunning the cleared area and tipping into the narrow rainwater-carved ditch on one side.

“I don’t like this.” Ailis kept looking back over her shoulder, her hand reaching to stroke her horse’s neck for reassurance. The gelding was one of Arthur’s own with the royal brand on its hindquarters. It was trained to carry messengers, lads about Ailis’s size and weight. That familiar weight, Newt had said, would keep the horse calm and steady no matter how far they traveled, or under what conditions. So far that had been true, and Ailis was thankful for it. She was a better rider now than she had ever dreamed of
being before all this began, but it still wasn’t natural to her the way it was for the boys.

“Which
this
would that be?” Gerard asked. “The fact that we’re chasing after a rumor based on something a half-mad monk said, the fact that we’re riding into a big dark forest everyone calls the Shadows, because the word has ‘shadow’ in its name, or—”

“Or because everyone around here says that this forest is haunted with evil spirits?” Newt added.

“I don’t believe in ghosties,” Callum said stoutly, but he was a little paler than normal as he looked around nervously. He’d chosen to ride with them this morning, despite or perhaps because of the fight the night before. His mount, a delicate-boned mare with a lovely gait, was taking her cue from him, shying and snorting at every bird or small beast that moved. Newt would have felt sorrier, except for Callum’s stubborn determination to outdo Gerard in every way, including his casual disregard for anything not sword or shield. It was annoying enough to have one adventure-hungry squire around—two was
exhausting
.

Newt didn’t like magic. He didn’t trust magic. But he wasn’t fool enough to deny it existed. He’d never seen a ghost before. But he’d seen a dragon, a bridge troll, a sea serpent…after that, unquiet
spirits weren’t so difficult to imagine.

“Why would the Grail be hidden in a forest?” Ailis asked for the seventh or eighth time since Sir Matthias had announced their destination that morning.

“Why would the Grail be hidden anywhere?” Newt asked, feeling the urge to be difficult. He wanted to show Gerard and Ailis that they weren’t the only ones with brains. “Why not just leave it in a house of worship on an altar, have something built for it to show it off for the true believers….”

“Because it’s too powerful to be left in plain sight.” In the morning sun, Gerard looked as exhausted as Newt felt—Sir Matthias had had him running all night after the monk’s revelation, ensuring that everyone would be ready to leave first thing in the morning.

“And it is especially too powerful to put in a house of worship, with access given to men of faith—men to whom the power of the Grail might be an eternal temptation.” Callum was green, but not stupid.

“So it makes sense to hide it,” Newt said, his agreement clearly confusing to Callum and Gerard. Ailis, he noted, was shooting him a look that said she knew what he was doing, and while she was amused, she didn’t quite approve. Their bickering felt familiar.
It felt like comfort. It felt like
family.

“And to hide it somewhere with a reputation, so nobody will come looking, poking around…” he continued, despite her look.

“Somewhere with a reputation that would explain anything strange that might happen around such a powerful object!” Gerard finished the thought triumphantly.

“I hate it when you two make sense.” Ailis managed a faint imitation of her old, cheerful smile. “Fortunately it doesn’t happen often.”

In the daylight, with the mud, confusion, and lack of direction left behind them in the old encampment, the three friends plus Callum, who seemed to have attached himself to Newt, were able to pick up some of the anticipation, if not the high spirits, of the rest of their caravan. It was enough, at least, to bring back some of their old banter, the back and forth that had gotten them through difficult times before.

There was an edge to it now though, one that Newt was slowly becoming aware of, mostly from Ailis: She was sharper, more brittle with Gerard, as though trying to defend herself against attacks that never actually came. He wished he could feel more regret for that, but instead found himself taking
advantage of it, agreeing with Ailis more obviously, just to rile his friend and see the flash of gratitude on her face. He knew it was small and petty, but he didn’t stop doing it.

“Did you see that?” Ailis asked suddenly.

“See what?”

If Callum were any more fidgety, Newt thought, he was going to twitch himself right out of his saddle.

“Behind Sir Matthias,” she said, indicating the direction with her chin, so as to not be too obvious about it. Newt looked but couldn’t see anything in the forest.

The knight in question reined in his horse—a great muscled beast—from the front of the line letting his knights continue on past him. Then he walked the massive charger back to where the four of them were riding.

“Gerard.” He acknowledged the others with a nod of his head, but his attention was solely on the older squire. “We will be coming to the place the monk spoke of, perhaps by midday. I will want to camp there, at least until we have some sense of where the Grail might be. I want you to take the northwest quadrant of camp, make sure it is set up properly, and let me know if there are any problems.”

It was an important job for a squire. Gerard sat up proudly in his saddle despite the weight of this responsibility.

“Sir, I—” Ailis began, then stopped when Sir Matthias turned a gentle eye on her.

“My dear, I want you to promise me you’ll stay close to one of the squires at all times. This is a rough place, and I would not wish to regret allowing you to come with us.” He patted her kindly on the cheek then, with another nod to Gerard, turned his horse and rode back to the front of the line.

The good mood among the four of them had been broken. Ailis was fuming once again, the paternal warning another reminder that she was only a girl and therefore of no use to the Quest.

Meanwhile, Callum felt slighted not only by Sir Matthias’s focus on Gerard, but by the dismissal of his new hero, Newt. Gerard, basking in the trust given him by the brave knight, was aware of their dissatisfaction but, not knowing how to deal with it, chose to ignore it instead.

“You saw something?” he said to Ailis.

“Never mind,” she said. “It’s gone now. It was probably just a haunt, nothing that would bother a mighty warrior like him, who doesn’t have to worry
about things not of the mortal,
ordinary
world.”

“Ailis…”

She just looked at him, daring him to push the matter. He sighed, letting it drop.

“Hoy!”

Two of the other squires rode up alongside them, waving to Callum. With a sideways glance at Newt, the younger squire peeled away from their group, clearly pleased to be leaving the sudden tension to rejoin his old companions.

“Horse-boy!” one of them called. “You, too!”

Newt didn’t hesitate turning his horse off the path to join the three waiting for him. He didn’t particularly want to spend time with the rougher-edged squires, whose idea of fun was uncomfortably close to that of the dogs he used to tend. But anything was better than sitting between Gerard and Ailis when they were upset with each other, as seemed to be the case too often these days.

“Ailis…” Gerard tried again. “I’m sorry. Sir Matthias is so…” he floundered, looking for a word. “Old-fashioned,” he said, finally. “He doesn’t believe…”

“No, he doesn’t,” she said shortly. “And neither do you, apparently.” She would have ridden off, but
unlike Newt and Callum she had nowhere else to go. Instead, she settled for watching the tall, dark-columned trees that lined the narrow road, noting with great intensity the colors of the leaves, the texture of the bark, and where it had been eaten away by deer and other grazers. And all the while the sense of something just out of sight, something following them, persisted. That and the eerie feeling she’d had during the monk’s prophecy…

“Don’t bring attention to yourself,” Merlin had said. “Stay quiet and out of sight.” If she brought her suspicions to Sir Matthias’s attention, she would have to explain why and how she knew what she knew—and that would involve mentioning Morgain. And Ailis wasn’t
certain
, after all…so she said nothing.

 

Newt was dizzy. The whirlwind of the past several days swam through his mind. His feet were slightly uncertain as he walked under the trees back to his bedroll.

There was no room to erect the pavilions of the previous camp, but tarps had been raised, and some semblance of comfort established. Many of the squires had decided to sleep under their masters’
roofs while they were in the Shadows, but Newt preferred the fresh air, even if he couldn’t see the sky through the thick branches overhead. The trees between him and the main camp gave him the illusion of privacy, something he had missed since leaving his horse-charges back at Camelot.


Chhhhheeereeeee.

So far tonight, he had heard three different calls, none of which he had encountered before. Some might claim the howls and whoops were the voices of unrestful souls, but Newt knew they were merely night-birds, flitting and hunting low overhead.

He came to the open space in the center of four great tree trunks where his bedroll had been placed. Callum had left a small fire burning in the fire pit, and Newt held back a sigh of exasperation. The boy should have known enough to bank the flames before he fell asleep, especially in such a densely wooded area.

Newt stepped over Callum’s blanket-covered form and went to rearrange the wood so that the flames would die down again, leaving only smoldering coals that could be restarted come morning.

As he bent over the flames, he heard another noise, this one more of a yelping sound—the sort a
fox kit might make when excited or alarmed. Only it was too narrow and thready to be a fox’s call. Newt looked over his shoulder into the night-dark surroundings, but saw no telltale glow of eyes, and heard no rustle of leaves that might indicate the passing of such a creature. Callum slept through it all, not even shifting at the disturbance.

Foxes, no matter how odd-sounding, were neither interesting enough nor worrisome enough to keep Newt from his bed any longer—not after a long day of riding. So without further hesitation, he slid off his boots and jerkin, put them within reach, and went to sleep.

 

Sir Thomas wiped a cloth across the toe of his boot and admired the shine, then looked up as Gerard walked by. “Ho, Gerard! You weren’t at the fire last night.”

Gerard paused when the young knight called his name, and said, “No.” After dinner the knights and squires had gathered to share stories. Sir Matthias encouraged it, to a certain level.

Gerard had wanted to join in, but he was still smarting a little from the comments made during the
day’s ride, and the thought of dealing with Newt and Callum, both of whom were part of the gathering, had seemed too much to bear. Instead he had taken a turn around the campsite, so spread out as to barely deserve the name, and then gone to bed.

“Pity. Sir Ruden was telling us stories of the Northern Campaign, when Merlin tamed that so-called monster and banished it to the lake.”

“It was a monster, nothing so-called about it!” Sir Ruden had a thick northern accent, but his indignation was clear. “Ah, that was an adventure, it was. Not like this.” He spat once, indicating his opinion of the Quest.

“We’re about to do some training with swords before Sir Matthias decides to move us out again,” Sir Thomas went on. “Care to join us?”

“Us” was Sir Thomas, Sir Ruden, who was from the Highlands, Sir Brand, and Sir Daffyd, both of whom were from Camelot proper.

Sir Brand and Sir Daffyd were also two of the least-experienced knights on the Quest and, in Gerard’s opinion, not the sharpest men in the group. But they were knights.

Thomas had been made a knight only just before the Quest rode out. Gerard had, in fact, worked with
him years ago, when both their masters were at Camelot at the same time. Thomas had not been in Camelot when the sleep-spell was cast. If he had been, perhaps Gerard would not have been the oldest squire left awake in the castle, and perhaps none of what had followed would have happened at all.

Thomas didn’t seem to hold this against Gerard. He was secure in the status of his newly granted spurs, polished and gleaming against his boots. Not that there had been very much glory: Merlin and Arthur had specifically asked Gerard not to speak to the other knights about his adventures, for fear of raising the very doubts and questions about Arthur’s kingship that Morgain had intended to create by her spells.

“All right, let’s get started,” Sir Brand said, getting into his saddle. He reached down for the long, blunted lance Daffyd handed him. “Thomas, you and Gerard—”

“Oh, please!”

At the sound of a woman’s voice, Gerard spun around, even as his ears told him that it wasn’t Ailis. The voice was too high, too breathy, too delicate.

“Please, good sirs, help me.”

She was tiny, barely as tall as Gerard’s shoulder,
with a round, flushed face and a mass of dark curly hair that had twigs and leaves in it, as though she had just come crashing through the undergrowth.

“Milady?” Thomas said, gallant as though he were the eldest of King Arthur’s knights, and not the latest and most recent. She was no lady—her drab homespun kirtle and scuffed boots made that clear—but her distress was real, and the knights responded to that exactly as they had been trained.

“Milady, how may we help you?”

“My village. Back that way,” and she waved a vague hand northward. “Terrible—terrible!” Her nut-brown eyes were bloodshot and showed tremendous fear, lending force to her jumbled, breathless words. Her hands, scratched and bleeding, rose to clutch at Sir Ruden’s sleeve, as he leaned down from the back of his horse to hear her words better.

BOOK: The Shadow Companion
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