Kitsune smiled at him, tugging him toward the river.
Then Oliver understood. He stopped, trying to pull her back. “Kit, no. It’s freezing.”
“Public space, remember?” she said. “Do you know Vienna well enough to find us a place to cross through the Veil before dawn, before the police catch up with us?”
Oliver sighed. “You know I don’t.”
Kitsune raised her hood, jade eyes gleaming in the dark. “I’ll keep you warm,” she said.
Together, they leaped into the Danube, and through the Veil.
Oliver lay in a shallow creek, barely more than a trickle, his clothes soaked through from splashing into the Danube. Back on the mundane side of the Veil—the place he thought of less and less as his own world—it had still been dark, the sky that pure indigo of the hour before dawn. But in the realm of the legendary, it was midday and the sun shone, drawing rich colors out of the landscape. Trees seemed remarkably green, the sky extraordinarily blue, and the coppery fur of Kitsune’s cloak a brighter red than ever before.
It occurred to Oliver that perhaps this sharpness of color, the vividness of the world around him, might well be an aftereffect of the exultant feeling of escaping with his life. If so, he appreciated that there was at least one benefit to their circumstances.
The air felt cool, the water outright cold, yet he lay there and shivered, feeling the stones beneath him, even through his clothes, and the little rivulets that streamed around him.
Oliver let his head loll to one side and glanced at Kitsune. She shook herself, water spraying from her fur cloak. The absurdity of it and the exultation of their escape must have touched her as well. Giddy, they began to laugh.
“That…was a close one,” Oliver managed.
Kitsune sighed, corners of her lips still turned up in a broad smile. The sun lit her features so that it seemed she had her own internal luminescence.
“Far too close. When you finally get all of your troubles sorted out and go home, you’re going to have quite a time explaining yourself.”
Oliver’s laughter died. Thoughts of home led to thoughts of Julianna, and he stared at Kitsune—her beauty painful to regard—and any trace of humor died.
“What is it?” she asked, still lying there beside him in the small brook.
“I’m not sure what ‘home’ even is anymore,” he said, surprising himself with the honesty of his answer. “After all of this, I don’t know what’ll be left to go back to. If Julianna’s gone…”
His time with the Borderkind had irrevocably altered him. There was no denying that. And with all that had happened, there were a great many people who had questions for him that he would find impossible to answer. Trouble waited for him back in his world. But his house, his childhood home, that waited as well. And his job. His friends.
But without Julianna, none of that mattered.
Kitsune reached out until her fingertips grazed his, the water rushing over their hands. “Then don’t go back.”
Oliver stared at her, letting her fingers play against his.
“I love her, you know,” he said softly.
Her eyes narrowed and she pulled away. Tendrils of her hair streamed in the brook, and as she lifted her head, water dripped and ran down her cloak, which glistened with droplets.
“Yes,” she said. “I know.”
“And I’ll find her.”
Kitsune moved away from the brook a few paces and thrust out her tongue as though using it to test the wind—or taste the wind. Oliver watched the stiffness in her manner, the formality that seemed to have returned to her every gesture, and he rose from the brook in a cascade of water and regret.
He had survived this long partly due to Kitsune’s help. Had she not accompanied him, he surely would have been long since dead. But for the first time he began to think that it would be best if he and Kit parted ways. Traveling with her clouded his mind, when he desperately needed focus.
To think he didn’t have a home to go back to—that was pure foolishness. When Collette had been in the midst of her divorce and things had gotten ugly, both financially and personally, she’d called the process triage. In catastrophic circumstances, doctors had to make hard decisions, focusing first on the patients who were horribly injured, but not so far gone that they were likely to die even with treatment.
You saved what you could, one problem at a time.
Oliver knew that his homecoming would be problematic when the time came, but between then and now he had to do triage. Save Collette. Save himself. Help the Borderkind if he could. Then get himself home to Julianna and whatever else awaited him.
So, much as he hated the chill that had just descended between himself and Kitsune, Oliver only followed as she walked away.
For nearly an hour they wandered across fields and along cart paths lined with delicate-looking trees and low shrubs with tiny leaves. Kitsune seemed unsure of their direction, but Oliver dared not question. At length they came to a small settlement not large enough even to warrant the word village. Most of the dwellings appeared to be temporary, some no more than tents. Herds of sheep and cows grazed freely on the surrounding hills, not penned but guarded by shepherds with a distinctly eastern aspect. They wore wool vests against the chill, and some had headgear fashioned from fur that reminded Oliver of nothing so much as warriors who would have bowed to the commands of a sultan.
As they made their way into the settlement, men and women alike watched them warily. Oliver saw no weapons, but the Sword of Hunyadi hanging at his hip gave him great comfort.
Kitsune walked ten steps ahead, as though she were his mistress and he some lowly servant. This might have been some affectation for the benefit of their observers, the haughty Borderkind keeping the ordinary man in his place, but Oliver did not think so. The hood of her cloak framed her face, casting her features in shadow so that for once he could not even see the jade gleam of her eyes. He was quite sure this was precisely the effect she desired.
Oliver rested his palm upon the handle of his sword. If she wished for him to appear as though he was some servant or bodyguard, he would. The mid-afternoon shadow stretched before him, making a pantomime of his actions, transforming him into a fierce warrior giant. Yet Oliver knew that shadows were only strange contortions of the truth.
After they had passed through the entire encampment, Kitsune waited on the far side. Oliver thought for a moment she was waiting for him, but then an old woman emerged from one of the large tents and began to shamble toward them, accompanied by a pair of men in horned fur caps. These two carried spears, the first weapons he’d seen.
Kitsune and the old woman greeted one another in a sharp-edged language Oliver did not understand. The nomadic matriarch studied Kit warily as they spoke, and after a few moments, the fox-woman nodded her head in apparent gratitude and then started off again, this time at an angle that would take them past a herd of sheep and into the sunless shade of those delicate, unfamiliar trees.
For a moment, Oliver stared at the nomad woman and her two guards, with their grim eyes and pointed beards.
“Good-bye, Mischief,” the old woman said quietly, staring at Kitsune’s back as the Borderkind strode away from the encampment.
She’d spoken English. Oliver wanted to know what she’d meant and started to ask, even as the woman turned and made her way back to her tent, the guards at her sides. One of them raised his spear in both hands, hardly paying attention to Oliver and yet menacing him with its point at the same time.
Feeling the fool, he glanced back and forth from one retreating woman to the other, and at last hurried to catch up with Kitsune. As she passed the sheep, the creatures bleated and milled away from her. The sight disconcerted Oliver for a moment, until he realized that of course sheep would shy away from a fox wearing the skin of a woman.
His throat felt dry.
Two wizened old shepherds muttered to themselves as they caught up with their charges. Oliver felt he ought to apologize, but what could he say that they would understand? Instead he hurried on and at last caught up with Kitsune at the top of the slope, just as she stepped into the shade of those strange trees, which looked to him like giant bonsais.
“What did she say?” Oliver asked.
His eyes were still adjusting and in that moment Kitsune existed merely as a hooded outline in the shade. Then Oliver blinked, and the rich color of her fur came into focus. From beneath the hood she gazed at him without malice. A sadness lingered in her features, but otherwise she was only Kitsune, his friend and companion, the only one who had stuck with him.
“The Orient Road is near now. My instincts were correct. We’re less than an hour’s walk from it. By nightfall, we should reach the stone circle where there is an entrance to the Winding Way.”
“But you still don’t think I’ll be able to walk the Winding Way.”
Kitsune cocked her head. “We shall see. Though, yes, to my knowledge, only the legendary can travel that way.”
She waited for him to say more, but Oliver feared opening his mouth just then. If he did, he could only say something that would hurt her more. Or, conversely, betray Julianna further than he already had. Neither option appealed to him, so he kept silent.
Kitsune turned and started off through the trees, and soon they found themselves on a narrow trail that led up the hill, across sun-splashed clearings and through copses of trees. On the other side of the hill the land stretched out in a long plain that descended so gradually it could barely be considered a slope.
They walked in silence, so that it seemed to Oliver much more than an hour before they reached the Orient Road. When at last it came into sight, a broad avenue of hard-packed dirt, he saw beyond it a long, rough-hewn post-and-beam fence, and within those confines a handful of tall, proud horses—the largest horses he had ever laid eyes upon.
In the distance, to the east, the road wound toward a mountain range whose snow-capped peaks scraped the heavens. The mountains were far away, but even from here Oliver could make out some kind of long, rambling structure that ran along the edge of a steep cliff. Its isolation and formidable construction made him think it a fortress, but then he thought again, studying its location.
“A monastery?” he asked.
Kitsune glanced at him. “Yes. There are many to the east. It is a quieter life.”
She said nothing more, but Oliver felt a great weight lifted from him as they continued on together. Along the way they passed several dwellings and an aged, rickety wagon, with peeling paint and a broken wheel, abandoned on the roadside.
When they came upon a small shrine on the side of the road—really no more than a rabbit hutch full of candles, painted tiles, and small jade figures—Kitsune paused and bowed her head in a silent moment. Respectfully, Oliver did the same. Though he had no idea to what or whom he appealed, he prayed for his sister’s life, for the Borderkind’s fate, and for his safe return home.
After a moment, Oliver just stood and watched Kitsune.
“The old nomad woman spoke English,” he said when she looked up. “Just after you walked off, she said good-bye, but she called you a different name. I can’t help thinking if she spoke English, it was for my benefit.”
Kitsune gazed at him. “What did she call me?”
The fox-woman laughed softly, shaking her head. Oliver swallowed, his chest strangely tight.
“Why did she call you that?” he asked.
Kitsune gave him a sidelong glance. “You know my kin and I are called tricksters, Oliver. Mischief is what we are.”
“See, that’s what I thought, too. But if I think about all of the people I’ve met since crossing through the Veil, the tricksters are the only ones who really seem to be what they appear to be. No bullshit.”
“At the moment, true enough,” Kitsune replied. “With all that the Borderkind are suffering of late, there is little call for mischief.”
Kitsune did not try to take Oliver’s hand as they forged ahead along the Orient Road, but she seemed more at ease.
Oliver was grateful. Now that they were on their way again—and with a promise of help from the Dustman—his thoughts were centered on Collette and the monster who had abducted her. His mind worried about the conflict that lay at the end of their travels and its outcome. Finding Collette was only the beginning.
For hours they walked, passing through a small village where the rice harvest was under way and a larger town whose buildings had a distinctly Asian flair. The geography on this side of the Veil might be quite different from that of the other, but clearly this region’s Lost Ones and legends corresponded in some way to Asia.
In time, the fields and hills gave way to a tangled forest, and the Orient Road became narrower and more rutted. Several times it snaked to the left or right without any apparent topographical necessity. As the late afternoon shadows grew longer, they saw through the trees a broad expanse of silver lake, its mirror surface reflecting back the beauty of the forest and the sun where it hung low in the sky.
The lake seemed perfectly still, as though it were a sheet of ice. That reminded Oliver of Frost, but he quickly pushed such ruminations away. Questions about the winter man’s friendship and loyalty—about his motivations—had plagued him since Twillig’s Gorge, but entertaining them now would be a distraction he could ill afford.
The road curved around the lake, and on the far side the giant bonsai forest—as he had begun to think of it—thickened once more. They strode past a knot of thick trees that leaned in over the road, and then came to a clearing.
Since the moment that Kitsune had mentioned the stone circle they were meant to seek, Oliver had held a vague impression of Stonehenge in his mind. But this was no feat of ancient architecture. These stones were as black and smooth as onyx and jutted from the earth as if they had grown there, like the teeth of some giant, burrowing beast attempting to eat its way to the surface.