“What do you think you’re doing, boy?”
A boot kicking the fire, smoke and ash scattering across the altar, and a wiry hand grabbing his tunic and shoving him back. Rob went sprawling, as much from shock as the strength of the shove, and rolled to his hands and knees before Cernun.
With uncanny speed and strength, the old druid lurched forward, grabbed Rob’s tunic front, and yanked him close. “Are you now thinking to tell me, boy, what I can and cannot do?”
Before the rage in those clear eyes, Rob had no answer.
“Did you really think you could do this, on my doorstep, and I would not know?” Cernun growled, and shoved Rob back. “You are powerful, young stag, but not that powerful. Do you think there is anything—anything!—that happens in my forest of which I am unaware?”
“Then where were you two nights ago?” Rob shot back, stumbling to his feet. “Where were you when Will needed you? When I….” He choked off.
“Will is no longer of our covenant.”
“And what happened between you and the young lordling ‘twas what brought me here!”
Rob fell silent, trembling all over, gripping tight the hilt of Gamelyn’s dagger.
“What were you thinking?” Cernun gave a snort. “Now that I ponder it, you weren’t thinking, two nights ago or now. Unless what’s in your cod-wrap now does your thinking for you! You would call a blood rite… you? A stripling barely come to his power would think to hold the Wheel still or even turn it back!” He leaned forward, roared, “Why?”
“I want answers!” Rob snarled back. “You speak in riddles, my father waint speak of this to me, my mother canna even See my future…!” Rob’s voice cracked, uncertain.
Cernun crossed his arms, gave Rob somber regard. “What would you ask of Him, then?”
“He speaks to me. More and more. And Gamelyn has seen the king stag, an ivory one. He saw what you See.”
“Nay, lad.” Softer. “What the nobleman’s son sees is very different.”
“But no one Sees him as I do. Do they?” Rob shot back.
“None ever sees the Horned Lord the same.”
“That’s no answer and you know it!” Three quick steps, and he was standing a hand’s width from Cernun. Rob was so much taller than the old man—he didn’t remember that before, and it both gratified and disturbed him. “Tell me, then. Can you See what lies ahead for me?”
“The future is never easily kenned, young stag. To have the uncertainty of a rent in Time’s fabric is not unknown. Particularly when things have so recently come adrift—”
“But me mam couldn’t See before, either. Come adrift? Because of Gamelyn…?” He trailed off, then said, “And why would it be because of him?”
“I think you know the answer to that,” Cernun said, almost gentle. “Or you would not be here now.”
Rob closed his eyes, brought the heels of his hands up as if he could scrub away both sight and Seeing. “I… know him. I… touched him, and I never meant it for owt. It was just a lark, just a possibility… but then it lit somethin’ beneath my skin and in my veins, cold fire… sweet Lady, I’ve never known the like!”
“Did you think the winter does not love the summer? And the summer the winter? They are a part of each other; how could it be otherwise?”
Rob snorted; he couldn’t help it. It sounded so suddenly and inexplicably mad. If there was such a thing as mad in a world of magic, of gods that walked the earth like strange half-beasts. “You talk like I’m part of some story. Like what me mam used to tell me for bed.”
“Your father did you no service by only giving you truth in careful and chewed mouthfuls.” Cernun opened his hands as if to hold the weight of air and earth upon them. “We are the story, young stag. You know the spirits live amongst us; they also live through us. It is all one.”
“Not to him. I know what his people are. I never mean for it to be like… this. I didna want this. I know what stands behind him, what I should run from, never think to touch… but that’s not all of it. I know it. I know him.” Rob clenched his fists, slid them down to his breast, thumped. “It’s here, in me. I canna get away from it. I can still feel him, breathe the breath of him, close my eyes and see it, swirling, in my Sight. He’s in my blood.”
“You are two edges on a spinning triskele, flung apart yet held together. You are not the first, nor the last, not even the only in this story, this time. All of us have this knowledge, deep within us, like a seed. Few of us see it sprout, much less bear fruit. But those of us in which it does?” The old druid shrugged. “It is never easy, and there are not always easy answers.”
More riddles. Rob hunched his shoulders, took a few half steps toward the altar, looked down at it. Ash and grit and a few embers, dying. “Easy or no, I have to know, Cernun. I have to know what this is, and I know the Horned Lord knows. He’s… watching me. Waiting. I have to know what I must do. I have to know why.”
“You can’t help but understand the attraction of it, the knowledge that one doesn’t exist without the other… but you.” Cernun shook his head. “You are a mystery, wrapped in a riddle, and there’s not a one of us who can pace you, find you before you act. And now you would scorn a Maiden’s touch, would spin the Wheel widdershins, take your rival as your lover. Rob, you cannot.”
“It seems,” Rob said, wavering, “I already have.”
“And so you have given him the means to betray you. To betray us all.”
“I will not believe that.”
“He is of the ones who’d see us dead. ‘Tis time for waking, aye, and you have set it spinning wild as any storm. You have waked the Oak, tangled and twined him in Holly, but neither of you, in the end, can deny what you are. He is your rival. It is what he was born to be and there is nothing you can do about it.”
“Are these your words?” Rob asked. “Or the Horned Lord’s?”
“Are we not the same?”
“Not always,” Rob whispered, and the moment he spoke, he knew it for truth. “Not anymore.”
Cernun was staring at him, almost puzzled, and he seemed… vulnerable, for the first time since Rob could remember. He was an old man, growing worn, growing hag-ridden with the unchancy nature of his god’s power.
“There may be truth in what you say,” Rob persisted. “But you canna answer with His truth. Not without Him.”
“He comes, possession or visitation, when and if He chooses. One does not bid the Horned Lord to heel like a hound.”
“He shall answer me.” Rob brought up the knife, put the edge to his palm.
“Datgelu’r eich hun,” Rob growled—
And all the sound went away. Time filled, then spilled out from behind his eyes, timing itself to the beat of his heart, then slowing it to a slow thrum and thud. The blood welled through his fist; Rob turned it, squeezed. Watched it drip down, dance and steam on the altar stone as if it were an iron pan over roasting coals. Leaned forward to place the blooded knife upon the stone. His hand, extending, was slowed to a quarter of normal. Pressure laid itself upon his skin, popped his ears, pressed behind his eyes. As if he were swimming deep underwater….
Underwater, with echoes and ripples and the ever present echo and hum of sensing, and space.
The knife tried to slip from his fingers; he held to it, forced control, set it lightly as a feather on the stone. The stone gave, wove and wobbled, shimmering like threads in a loom, floating.
A blood rite sinister, eh? You want this badly, youngling.
Rob looked up. Across the altar stone, the trees had gone black, and there were no stars. A shape, both beast and man. It dropped before him, swift as arrow flight, to crouch on the south edge of the altar, a hooded, faceless figure with ivory horns and eyes that glimmered hot.
You have courage. That has never been in doubt. But did your rival steal what sense you were born with? The black fingered itself toward him, tynged silk-weave turned deathly web.
“He’s not my rival,” Rob husked. “You canna make me fight him.”
A glint of eyes within the hood, and a mocking chuckle. And there speaks your ignorance, Princeling.
“If I know nowt, ‘tis because you’ve not told me!”
And why should I tell you anything?
Rob opened his hand, laid it, bloodied palm down, upon the knife blade.
Said again, “Datgelu’r eich hun.”
Watched with dry eyes as the Horned Lord shuddered, gleaming eyes drawn to the altar.
“I will know,” Rob said. “No more riddles. No more half-truths. You say he is my rival, but you will tell me why.”
I think you already know that, little pwca. The new religion would crush the old, and how fitting is it that the two born into this breath of the Wheel would be on opposite spokes? Yet you. A chuckle, grim, then almost sung. ‘You would scorn a Maiden’s touch, would spin the Wheel widdershins, take your rival as your lover…’ The Old One has it right, you are Fool, indeed! Again, the mocking singsong: ‘A mystery, wrapped in a riddle, and there’s not one of us who can pace you…’ The Horned Lord bent
closer. I will pace you. I will ride you until you drop.