In the middle of Pesme Avantur was a low, pathetic rise of ground that might be considered a hill by sentient ants. On top of it the large house rambled to itself quietly, dark and dreary in the evening dusk. One light shone out of an upper window. A crooked tree grew out of one side of the roof, twisted by the wind.
Claris stared at the building and unwound the whip from her hip. "You're lucky I found you when I did."
"Lucky?" Yvan was confused. "Have you had experience with haunted houses?"
"I don't believe in ghosts. Which means I won't put up with any nonsense from them."
Luan nuzzled Yvan's hand, realised what he was doing and dropped it. "Sorry."
"Here I leave you," The Kendra intoned, and did exactly that.
They approached the entrance. The door was in two leaves, made of dark wood, heavy and engraved with a design of foliage and faces. The man who opened the house to them was a smart, polite butler, except what he said was:
"May your stay be very cursed."
He led them through a dimly-lit hallway into a poky courtyard. The house was built around the yard in a square, and in the middle of the yard was a silver cage containing a collection of women, some older, some younger, all wearing white dresses and nothing else, exposed to the elements, their hair like robin's nests. Some were crying, but most stared into nothing, retreating somewhere deep inside themselves.
"Are those the White Ladies?" Luan said.
Claris snorted. "Who else would they be?"
The man who spent three hundred years as a lion peered at the cage with an unreadable expression. "Silver is an important metal, for trapping..."
He shook his head. "Never mind."
The butler carried on, leading them through another set of engraved doors, through a dining hall and outside, into a private garden surrounded by high stone walls. It was a busy garden, flower-and-plant-wise, until there came a break in the shrubbery. A family sat on the lawn beyond, and they smiled at the three newcomers in an unnerving way. They seemed a little too pleased to have guests, and they didn't blink enough.
"May I present," the butler said, "Mr. and Mrs. Nice, their daughter Miss Nice and their son, Mr. Nice."
"Nice to..." Yvan stopped. "Pleasure to meet you. I am the Knight of Lions. These are my companions, Claris and Luan."
The grins of the Nice family didn't alter. Mr. Nice senior stepped forward.
"You must stay one night in the attic of our house. If you manage to live until morning, you will be paid. Firstly, however, you have to guess which pair of us are demons and which aren't."
"Why not just tell us?" Yvan said.
"Er...we don't know."
"You don't know whether you're a demon or not?" Claris laughed. "OK. That means you're one of them. You pick the other one, Yvan. Or Luan?"
Luan watched the Nice family with his eyes narrowed. Yvan detected a faint rumbling coming from the man's throat. Then the shape-shifter pointed to the daughter, a girl barely twelve years old.
"That one. She smells wrong."
The thing calling itself Mr. Nice removed his coat, and with it his skin. "Now you must defeat us. Which you will die trying to do."
Yvan stood for a second in consideration. "Then we won't try."
"The objective is to stay one night here so we will be paid. This means I don't have to kill demons if I can't be bothered. And I can't, because I'm knackered."
"Then how will you free the White Ladies, and destroy the curse?" the boiled-looking creature that had been wearing Mr. Nice demanded.
"With a key?" Yvan shrugged. "Anyway, we're going to bed. See you in the morning."
Luan and Claris ran to catch up with him.
"What do you think you're - " Luan started to protest.
"I'm tired," Yvan said. "And anyway, one of those demons is a young girl. I don't go around slaughtering children."
"But it's a demon-"
"It's a child demon. The same principle applies."
The butler was waiting in the dining hall. Without a word, he took them back across the courtyard, where the White Ladies in the cage were gulping and sobbing and raking their nails down their faces. Yvan heard some of what they were calling out in grief and a tremor shuddered down his spine.
"He was the friend of Lions!"
"Lost his heart to a woman and left his life to a ghost!"
"Yvan son of Uhrience is dead!"
"Blimey," Luan mumbled. "They're...keen."
The attic room was furnished with a warming fire and three beds, almost as if they had been expected. On a table by the door was an assortment of fruit, chicken, bread and wines.
"Perhaps we'll be preyed on by hungry ghosts," Claris said with dry humour.
"Don't," Luan moaned. "In my day I had a lot of bother with ghosts. We never got on."
Yvan turned his back, too tired to make conversation, and unfastened his armour, letting it clang to the floor. It was the armour of a dead man, the late husband of a sorceress, and he was glad to shuck its weight. He fell like a fresh-cut tree onto the nearest bed, heaved a long sigh and sank into sleep.
"I'll keep watch," Claris said, sitting opposite the doorway with her whip in her hand. "You're both exhausted. Go to sleep, Luan."
Luan was already unconscious.
At midnight, Claris roused the shape-shifter, who took over the vigil. At three in the morning, he woke Yvan.
At some point on his watch, Yvan fell asleep. His armour picked itself up off the floor and walked around for a bit, empty. Then it had a food fight with itself.
In the morning, Yvan shook Luan by the shoulder until he groaned and opened one eye.
"Can you still shape-shift? Do you remember how?"
Luan gave a long, low yawn, all tongue and teeth and bad breath. "I suppose so."
"I need you to change into a key that fits the lock on that cage."
Fifteen minutes later, the silver cage stood open, and the White Ladies filed out. As they came free of the bars each one stretched, sighed, sang and drifted into the sky like dandelion seeds, dissolving as they went. The last one brushed Yvan's cheek with a kiss like a warm breeze.
"What do you know," the key in his hand said weakly. "Looks like they were ghosts, too. I thought there was something odd about the cage."
The grey morning light began to grow yellowed by the sun, and out of one of the doors leading into the quadrangle came Mr. Nice, Mrs. Nice, and their two children.
"How are we this hideous morning?" Mr. Nice said. "I notice you're still alive."
"Yes," Yvan said acidly. "How are you?"
"Very evil, thank you."
"Still a demon?"
"I have a favour to ask."
"That's interesting, because I have a proposition for you. Perhaps we can make a deal."
Yvan felt Luan nudge him. The lion-man whispered in his ear, "You don't want to be bargaining with these creatures. They stink like the groundwyrm that was biting my tail."
"I need a heart," Yvan said. "I don't care who I have to ask. So long as it's a human heart, preferably my own or one so similar to mine I can't tell the difference."
Mr. Nice, who was thankfully in his human guise again, bowed and said, "You shall get your desire, if you remain here and marry my daughter. Be my son-in-law. We always could use human allies here on Earth. It's not as easy as Hell."
"Let me think..." Yvan said. "No."
"Then you won't get the gold."
"You would sell your twelve-year-old child to the first eligible older man that comes along? You're right, you are still a demon."
There was no butler to show them out of the house. They made their way back onto the streets of Pesme Avantur and a throng of people welcomed them by the forest road.
"We're sorry we threw stuff," said a gawky, freckled boy.
"Sorry for calling out things," an old man mumbled, red-faced.
"Don't apologise," Yvan said. "Because I have no wish to recollect your faces at all. In fact, I've never seen any of you before in my life. If you can call it life."
Claris located a nearby inn, and came out with three fresh horses.
"Animals aren't cheap," Luan said as they rode out of town. "How did you...?"
"I borrowed them."
Luan's blond eyebrows furrowed. "Ah. And you're not going to give them back?"
"They'll find their way back when we let them go," she said as if Luan was concussed and unable to understand simple financial transactions.
Near midday, they were deep into the trees. The earth smelled damp and cool, and they let the horses amble.
"Now you must help me," Claris said, breaking the friendly quiet. "You promised."
"Do you know where King Arthur's court is now?" Yvan checked, his stomach clenching when the white-headed woman nodded. His last memory of the King and Queen and the other knights had been his humiliation when Lunette told of how he'd broken a promise to Lady Lauden. Though he knew the promise was a trick, guilt still gnawed at his insides. He wasn't sure he wanted to return to Arthur and Gwenevere again.
They moved into single file, Claris in the lead. Yvan kept his doubts to himself, but when he spotted a plume of smoke in the distance he pointed to it and spurred his horse into a gallop, not waiting to see if the others would follow. Luan was cautious and gentle with his horse, afraid that being sat on was somehow harming the creature.
The smoke came from a blacksmith's forge. It was tiny, and very dark apart from the fire grumbling to itself at the front.
"Hello?" Yvan called.
A spindly, dark figure separated from the blackness. It came to stand by Yvan's boot. The face attached to it was soot and little else.
"Funny place to trade," Yvan said.
The figure blinked like a bored cat.
"I suppose you can do armour?" Yvan said. "I need a new suit, particularly a full helmet with a visor. And a shield, but make it a blank one."
The figure gestured for him to dismount, and once he did so, it darted all around him taking measurements. Yvan couldn't tell if it was a man or a woman. It disappeared back into the smithy without a sound.
"Yvan?" Claris called, and Luan rode up with her a couple of heartbeats later. "What are you doing? Forging an entire suit of armour will take him at least two weeks!"
Yvan opened his mouth to explain himself, but was interrupted by the return of the figure, who carried a pile of strange metal, still partly molten yet retaining its shape. From the way the blacksmith walked, Yvan thought he was wearing heat-proof gloves, but he wasn't.
"Here." The voice was inky and deep as the earth they stood on, and somehow brown in its tone. "Try it on."
Yvan remembered he still wore the enchantress' salve. He reached out and took the metal. It unfolded like mercury silk, and when first next to his skin it felt like a distant furnace, cooling into a shell around him. He placed the helmet on his head and took the blank shield last.
"How much shall I pay you?"
"I am seeking the Moon."
Yvan understood. "Are you the person coming to see her about the end-of-curse contract?"
"Are you of the Faerie?"
"No. I am far older than that race."
Yvan was quick to give the blacksmith directions to the valley of Brocelliand, then he cantered away. The strangeness of the figure gave him the creeps.
King Arthur's court was camped around the base of a short waterfall, brightly-dyed tents waving in the breeze. Spray decorated their faces as they rode down a rise in the ground. A warrior in green armour waited on a chestnut horse. A woman was with him who had similar features to Claris, but she stood a head taller and had a bulbous nose.
"Claris," she said. "You've found a champion, then?"
"Yes," Claris spoke tersely. "This is the Knight of Lions. Knight of Lions, this is my older sister Cloudia."
Yvan bowed, but did not bother to get off his horse.
The green warrior spoke, voice muffled by his helmet. "We are in agreement, I suppose? We fight, and the victor gives his woman the spoils."
"No, no," Claris said. "If the Knight of Lions wins, I will take half the inheritance, and Cloudia can keep her half. I'm not greedy, unlike some people."
Cloudia gave her sister a poisonous stare for a moment, until Yvan cleared his threat and gruffly asked where they would fight. The green knight stabbed a finger at an empty field across the stream. A farmer might have used it to graze his sheep, but no animal stood in it now.
They crossed the water in single file, horses wading in up to their necks, and once in the field Luan kissed his horse and let her go. Claris followed his example, minus the kiss, and the two beasts wandered off, munching. Cloudia joined her, and several metres away Yvan and the green knight faced each other.
Claris brought two short lances out of one of the tents. Yvan and his opponent each took one, and the combat began.
Yvan knocked the warrior to the ground on his third attempt, leaped from his horse and drew his sword. It sang like the chain Lunette was tied to the stake with, and he had two seconds to wonder if they were forged by the same being, before the green knight's broadsword clashed against his.
The fight was at first full of fury and sparks. After mid-afternoon there was still no winner or loser, and swordplay became more like sword-work, each man only doing what was dutiful without showing off or expending too much energy. After sunset Yvan entered a fugue state, eyes burning, suffocating in his helmet. He could hear the other knight breathing fast and ragged.
"Shall we rest?" he croaked.
The green helmet gave one nod, and they broke apart. Looking to where Claris, Cloudia and Luan were, or rather had been, Yvan saw they had lost interest hours ago and gone into one of the tents, most likely for food and conversation. He was jealous.
"Typical. They've gone."
"Your voice is familiar," the green warrior said.
"Is it? I'll let you catch your breath, then we'll continue."
"Must we? There's nobody watching. Punters have all toddled off, it's getting dark, and I'm famished. Tell you what, why don't we go in and say you won?"
"No, we'll say you won. You're the better swordsman."
There was a fresh flurry of activity between them after this short argument, then they fell down, panting. Yvan wished he could take his helmet off to cool down, but seeing as his opponent hadn't removed his helmet, he couldn't. It would be impolite, and possibly dangerous.
"Funny," he said at last. "You look a lot like the Green Knight my friend Gawain had dealings with a couple of years ago."
The armoured figure froze. "Erm. I am Gawain."
"Who are you?"
The pair of them stood, leaning on each other to support their trembling knees, and unlaced their helmets. Night air flowed around Yvan's stifled head, and he gazed all agog at his best friend's square face and thick eyebrows.
"I don't believe it," Sir Gawain muttered. He huffed a suppressed laugh. "After so many months, you turn up and I almost kill you. Do you know how long the King's been searching for you? Since Merlyn told us you ran into the woods naked, there have been daily search parties. You gave the Queen her first grey hair!"
Gawain grabbed him in a bear hug, and led him to the royal tent. Inside, Gwenevere, Arthur, Claris, Cloudia and Luan were lolling about on cushions, eating cold meat and drinking red wine.
The King glanced at the two shaking, perspiring men.
Then his eyes widened as he recognised Yvan. "You!" He sprang to his feet. "It was you! You're the Knight of Lions? Incredible!"
The Queen saw Yvan framed in the tent-flap, nonplussed, and began to cry tears of relief, while her husband dissolved into laughter like an aspirin in champagne.
"Haven't you won?" Cloudia asked Gawain, oblivious to the occasion.
"No," King Arthur hiccuped. He composed himself. "No, I'm afraid you're going to have to share with your sister."
Cloudia folded her arms. "What if I don't want to?"
"Then your sister can have all the money, and you'll get nothing."
"OK, OK. Yeah yeah yeah," the large-nosed woman said quickly. "She can have it. Hers, I mean. Her half."
Claris smiled. "I'd like to have that in writing."
Yvan opened his eyes to find himself lying on a pallet in the physician's tent, though he did not feel injured.
He propped himself up on his elbows, and the blankets fell from a large bandage walled around his chest.
The physician, tall, hook-nosed and bald as an eagle, was by his side in seconds.
"Rest. You've had a grievous hurt. You have to let yourself heal."
"Did you...?" Yvan tried to clamp down on the hope rising inside him. He put a finger to his neck. No pulse. "You didn't."
"I grafted some skin from your leg over the, er...cavity," the physician explained. He was new. Yvan didn't know what happened to the old one.
"Callum would have done more."
"I'm afraid Callum travelled on to other lands," the physician said. "I am Rhys, and this is the best I can do, I'm afraid. I can't use magic to cure, only science."
Yvan closed his eyes and pretended to sleep. He heard Rhys leave the tent for something, waited for a few minutes, not hungry, not thirsty, not tired, not hurting, not caring. Then he swung his legs out of bed, pulled on his clothes and walked out.
The horse Claris had "borrowed" from Pesme Avantur was still there, cropping the grass. He didn't bother to saddle it. He just left. There was no place for him among the mortals any more, and the one place he wanted to be was denied to him, but he rode for Brocelliand forest anyway.
The spring was exactly how he'd left it. He scooped water into the bowl and tossed it over the rock, convincing himself he still didn't care. The misery he felt was so ingrained into his soul that he didn't know what it was any more.
The storm passed over him, dashing branches and small dead squirrels to the earth. He was numb to it.
A shadow slipped out of the bracken.
"You're still here?" Yvan said in disbelief, his voice like a dry reed. "Hasn't the blacksmith released you yet?"
Lunette cocked her head to one side. "I wondered why you were wearing star-armour. You met my father. He is the Forger of Night. I can't leave Earth until I've found a mortal virgin and married him to the woods."
"I thought you'd done that, with me and Lauden?"
"Yes, but then you split up."
"Oh." He was about to say he was sorry, and tried to find the best words for an apology, but the silhouette of the Moon carried on.
"Lady Lauden was terrified by that storm just now. She asked for my advice. I was able to tell her there was someone who can help, though he is dying of grief over his ex-lover. She said she would help him in the matter if he came to her to defend the woods against whatever caused the storm."
Yvan looked around. Nothing but trees.
"Who is it?"
"But..." A bemused, bewildered happiness flooded him. "But I'm the one who brought the storm."
"Ah," Lunette laughed. "My lady didn't know that, and what she doesn't know can't offend her. Come with me."
Yvan seized the shadow and kissed her face, where he guessed her forehead should be.
"That was my eye," she said.
She led, and he followed. The valley opened itself before him, and he rode down it, the trolls and creatures and eyes in the shadows feeling like home. Nobody came out to welcome him, and nobody stared. It was the sort of return he liked best.
Lunette yanked open the door in the oak. He entered the enormous hall he thought he'd never tread in again, and Lady Lauden was sitting on the lip of the cracked stone fountain, which was no longer dry but running with water.
"It's not done this in years," she said, not turning around. "Did you find him, Lunette?"
Lunette said nonchalantly, "Oh...he's already here."
Lady Lauden glanced over her shoulder and straightened hurriedly. "Yvan."
"You said you'd help me if I protected you from the attacker at the spring," he said, and sighed inside at her green-gold eyes. "I can best do that if you give me back my heart."
The ivy tapestries craned forward to listen.
Lady Lauden looked at Lunette. Did she know her decision affected her servant's life, and if so, did she realise how deeply?
"You returned to me, though you are very late," she said. "Ten years late, to be precise. Though neither of us has aged much, if at all." A tiny furrow appeared between her brows, and she drew a pendant from the front of her dress. It was the size of an apple, and when she opened it there was something red inside, beating rather fast. "It's yours. Take it."
Yvan pulled the wizened thing out of the necklace. "You've, er...kept it safe. That's...good."
"It shrank when I sent you away. And kept shrinking. Perhaps you should keep it from now on."
"How do I..?"
"The wound is closed, so you'll have to swallow it. I can't say it will taste very nice."
"And," Lunette interrupted, making Yvan almost drop his own heart, "you have to swear you'll stay to guard the forest, until such time that you are overthrown."
Yvan swallowed his heart whole, and a warm tingling spread throughout his body, along with several kinds of cramp and a slight migraine. The headache grew, and grew, pushing, twisting, splitting.
"Oh, great," he groaned. "Antlers." He had forgotten about growing a pair of those.
"I rather think they suit you," Lunette said, and spun around to stare at the doorway at the same moment that the mysterious blacksmith walked in.
"Daughter," he said. "I've found you. The conditions of the curse of Eros have been met."
"Yes. I am come to take you home." The inky figure of the Forger of Night appraised Yvan with cool eyes. "That armour served you well. Take care of it."
Yvan blinked, and they were gone. There was no smoke, no explosion, nothing to show that magic had occurred, except perhaps for a faint ripple in the air, the sort of mirage which appears above roads in the distance on hot days.
Lady Lauden put her arm around his waist and smiled up at him. To all intents and purposes it was a loving smile, but he knew there was no trust in it. He would have to earn her trust again, and she his.
"You don't seem surprised," he said.
"Hmm? Oh, I knew she didn't belong here. She flickered all the time, like something belonging to the sky."
"Yes," Yvan said sadly, remembering how it felt to kiss a shadow on the eyelids. "Yes, I thought so too."