He cocked his head, watching the serpent-people as they came nearer. His icicle hair made a familiar clinking noise and a white-blue mist rose from the corners of his diamond eyes.
Oliver nodded. If Frost had the strength, he could stop them. With a wave of his hand, he could turn the air so cold around their arrows that they would shatter. Perhaps, he might even momentarily freeze the river around them. But Frost looked just as drained as the rest of them, and Oliver did not share the certainty in the winter man’s voice.
He raised the Sword of Hunyadi.
“Oliver, no!” Kitsune shouted.
Blue Jay burst from the river, spraying water across the rocks and his companions. In a blur of motion he became a bird, crying out as he darted forward, then he spun in the air, ready to block the arrows of the Nagas.
Not a single arrow flew.
Oliver frowned, staring, sword still at the ready as the Nagas turned to one another, whispering. Their serpentine lower halves undulated beneath the water, keeping them from drifting.
Frost and Kitsune exchanged a look of confusion, and then the winter man gestured for Oliver to lower his sword. Reluctantly, he did so.
“We are travelers in search of brief sanctuary,” Frost announced. “We come openly and without pretense. I am Frost of the Borderkind. My companions and I need rest, and they need food as well. Legend says that Twillig’s Gorge is a place of safe haven for travelers of any allegiance, so long as their intentions are peaceful. Is the legend false?”
The Nagas rose up from the water, swaying cobralike for a moment. They opened their mouths and hissed, but their arrows still did not fly.
“Time changes even legends,” one of the females, perhaps the leader, said. “Perhaps legends most of all. You know that very well, Cailleach Bheur, just as I am certain you know that these are perilous times in the Two Kingdoms. Perilous for Borderkind most of all. There are others of your kind in the Gorge, but they have lived here for many years, and we protect our neighbors. We will fight for them. Risk all for them, just as they would for us.
“But you are not our neighbors,” the Naga said, nodding her head first toward Frost, then toward Kitsune and Blue Jay. “None of you. The company of myths is a danger to us all, when so many want you dead. Why should we risk it for strangers?”
Kitsune growled at the use of the word myth, a term the Borderkind despised. She might have attacked them then, but this time it was Oliver who held her back.
“You’ll turn us away out of cowardice, then?” Frost demanded.
Blue Jay landed atop the rock Oliver had crashed into, changing again into his human shape. He crouched there, glaring down at the Nagas.
“I never would have believed it,” the trickster said. “The world really has changed.”
“Better allies than strangers,” Frost said, voice low. Mist drifted up from his mouth. The light from along the tunnel made the sharp angles of his icy body and face even more severe. “Better friends than enemies. Now more than ever. If you have Borderkind amongst you, the Hunters will come for them. We mean to stop them before they ever get here. That serves us all.”
The Nagas watched them carefully for several long, tense moments, and then the leader raised her bow, let the pressure off of the string, and returned the arrow to its quiver. The others followed suit.
The leader bowed, then looked at Frost, her smile savage. “I ought to kill you just for calling us cowards. But this is not a time for those with no quarrel to slay one another. It may come to pass soon enough that we will all be short of friends. But you understand we must be wary. In these times, visitors to the Gorge are scarce and mostly unwelcome.”
Kitsune squeezed Oliver’s hand but stared at the Nagas. “But you will let us in?”
“To rest. To eat. You will be gone by dawn. And if others of your kin leave to join you on your quest, all the better.”
Oliver felt the tension go out of him. He slid his sword back into his belt and then stretched, feeling every one of the bruises he’d gotten when he slammed into that rock.
He waded downriver toward the Nagas, not liking the way they watched him. Though he was the least dangerous of the group, the sentries of Twillig’s Gorge seemed unduly focused on his movements. Blue Jay, Kitsune, and Frost joined him and the four of them strode to where the Nagas slithered in the water.
The leader, sleek and beautiful from the waist up, her hair cut short and ragged, gazed at him with wide, green eyes.
“That does not apply to you, brother. You are welcome to stay as long as you like. You have a home with Nagas, wherever you find us.”
Oliver stared dumbly at her. She turned and swam away down the river, the other Naga sentries following her. With the undulating of their serpentine bodies, they rode the current, and were out of the tunnel and into the sunlight of the gorge in moments.
“What the hell was that all about?” Oliver asked, glancing around at his friends.
Kitsune frowned. Beneath her hood, her expression was as puzzled as Oliver’s own. “I have no idea. ‘Brother’? Who do they think you are?”
Oliver opened his mouth to repeat the question, but Frost and Blue Jay had already set off after the Nagas, wading toward the end of the tunnel, where the river flowed into the gorge. They must have heard the Naga’s words, and his own reaction, but neither of them slowed or looked back.
“Could it be just that I’m not Borderkind? That I’m no danger to them?”
Kitsune smiled. “I suppose. If they only knew that having you here is even more dangerous than harboring us…The Hunters stalking the Borderkind are working in secret. You’ve got the whole of the Two Kingdoms after you.”
Oliver laughed softly and they set out together. But as they went, he watched Blue Jay and Frost, up ahead. They walked quickly and did not so much as glance at one another, as if neither one of them dared to speak.
It troubled him, though it seemed more strange than important. Idly, he slid his hand into his pocket and touched the seed given to him by the Harvest gods. Though it clung wetly to the damp fabric inside his pocket, he was strangely reassured that it was still there and seemed undamaged.
Then they emerged from the tunnel, and all other thoughts were banished instantly.
In his mind he had pictured Twillig’s Gorge as a river canyon lined with caves, in which its residents would dwell. That much was true. But it was also far more than that. The walls of the gorge were several hundred feet high and as sheer as the cliff face on the ocean bluff behind his father’s house. The village that had blossomed there in the gorge went on for a mile or more before the river disappeared into the face of another cliff. Twillig’s Gorge was closed in on four sides. From what Oliver could see, the only way in was down one of those sheer cliff faces or through a river tunnel.
There were caves, as he’d imagined. Most of them had balconies built on the outside, some with beautiful awnings. The caves were connected by ladders and walkways fixed to the gorge walls, somehow bolted into the stone, and the gorge itself was spanned by arched, stone bridges of elegant, ancient construction, and by nearly primitive hanging bridges of wood and thick rope, strung at odd angles.
From the look of it, that was how Twillig’s Gorge had started. But there had to be a limit to the number of cave dwellings, and so they had built out from the walls. Oliver gaped at the sight. He had seen homes on steep hillsides in his own world—some of them the product of sheer madness, in his opinion. Much of Southern California, or so it seemed, had been built with the front of a house on solid ground and the back on stilts. In comparison to the houses of Twillig’s Gorge, those homes were on bedrock. Some of them spanned the whole gorge, right over the river, and those seemed the safest. Others, though, were so precarious as to defy gravity. They clung to the stone cliffs with only struts beneath them, braced at angles against the rock face.
It was impossible. But Oliver had grown used to the impossible.
Twillig’s Gorge was alive with motion. People moved across bridges and up ladders. Fishermen cast their lines out of cave mouths and sat on balconies awaiting a bite. There were a great many humans of varying race and origin—Lost Ones who had passed through the Veil at a place and time where it had worn momentarily thin and been trapped here. Perhaps two-thirds of the population looked ordinary enough.
Then there were the legendary. A crew of dwarves was excavating a section of the eastern gorge wall. On the western wall, two others, seemingly ignored by the main crew, were carving an enormous tableau, an image of mermaids sitting upon a rocky outcropping in the midst of the ocean. There was something about the image that chilled Oliver. The mermaids were elegant, but looked cruel. Sailors flailed in the water not far away, and the fragments of a shattered sailing ship thrust from the waves.
That was what gave it away. They weren’t mermaids at all. They were Sirens, luring men to their deaths. It was a warning, but he did not know if it had any significance beyond its artistic merit.
There were other legends as well. On either side of the river was rough terrain, perhaps thirty feet on the eastern bank but over one hundred on the western. Nothing should have grown there, but still there were crops, coming right up out of what seemed like gravel. A farmer drove an ox-drawn plow through solid rock, churning it up, ready to plant more seed. The ox was blue.
As Oliver and his companions waded past the field of wheat and corn and toward what appeared to be a boat landing up ahead, he scanned the bridges and ladders. A minotaur crossed a hanging rope bridge above and he flinched as it passed over them, the clop of its hooves making him feel certain the bridge would give way under its weight.
There were boggarts and sprites tossing one another about in what appeared to be a playful manner. Lithe figures that seemed made of water rose out of the river and watched them as they passed. Twillig’s Gorge also had dozens of varieties of animal-people. Oliver had come to group them all together, though he was sure those legends would have been deeply offended. Some had the heads of birds or jungle beasts, others the heads of men with the bodies of horses or apes or alligators. And those were only the ones he saw.
Oliver tried not to stare at the griffin that sat curled upon a rocky ledge on the eastern wall. He ignored the strangely ephemeral people, tall and thin and clad in gauzy colors, who seemed almost invisible unless he stared directly at them. Fairies, or something like them, he was sure.
What he could not ignore were their kin, the tiny little figures that darted all through the gorge like butterflies and dragonflies. Whatever they were—pixies, or peries like the ones he’d seen in the Oldwood shortly after first crossing the Veil—they were beautiful. And there were hundreds of them, perhaps thousands. The pixies needed no caves or houses or bridges. They flitted through the air, alighting only for an eyeblink before setting off again, their colors like the petals of a million flowers cast into the air.
“Wow,” Oliver whispered.
Kitsune laughed in delight beside him. For a few moments, as he took this all in, he had forgotten she was there. Now she looped her arm through his and leaned against him, and he liked the warmth of her there.
A pair of men sat together on a high balcony, a hundred feet or more above the river, but they had bodies and limbs as thin as sticks and faces like anteaters, and their legs hung all the way down to the water, their feet curved as though they might hook an enemy, or simply prey, and bring them up to their cave.
Of all the things he had seen thus far, they were the only ones that frightened him.
At the river landing they climbed a set of stone stairs out of the water. Frost and Blue Jay waited for them there, but the two Borderkind were alone. Lost Ones went by without sparing them a glance. Humans on this side of the Veil had lost any sense of awe. Some of them were dressed in strange garments that he thought might be Aztec or Mayan, for he knew that those ancient peoples had ended up on this side of the Veil long ago.
No one stopped. Legends averted their eyes as they passed, not wanting to get involved. The Nagas had presumably returned to their sentry duties, leaving them to fend for themselves. A woman whose body was knotted wood and gnarled, cracked bark, and who had tiny leaves sprouting from her flesh, paused and smiled.
“Welcome,” she said, spreading her hands with their thin, spidery, branch fingers, and offering a small bow.
Frost and Blue Jay returned the bow.
“Our thanks,” Blue Jay said. “You seem the only one willing to make us welcome.”
“Strangers pass with the river. They’ll pay little attention to you unless you stay.” The woman, whose teeth were tiny thorns, smiled. “Are you staying, then?”
“No. Only passing through,” Frost said.
“Pity. But you’ll want the inn, then. Shouldn’t be any trouble getting a room. Very few visitors, these days.”
Oliver leaned in to whisper to Kitsune. “With their hospitality, it’s no wonder.”
Kitsune bumped him playfully. Frost thanked the tree-woman, some kind of forest spirit, Oliver assumed, and they started off along the landing, continuing southward. Oliver noticed that the cliff face on the eastern wall had been carefully carved, transformed so that it almost resembled the façades of old European rowhouses. It was not a city, but the illusion of one, and it chilled him.
There were shops in caves both natural and excavated, all along the landing. A butcher, a bakery, a market, and several little clothes boutiques. Of all the things he had seen in Twillig’s Gorge, that seemed strangest to him. Almost too civilized.
Atop the shops, and below the dwellings that were higher up on the gorge walls, there were stone figures carved and standing sentinel above the river. Gargoyles. Not one of them looked alike, but they were hideous, terrifying to look at. The demonic stone figures had also been placed atop some of the bridges, and one of the homes that spanned the river. It made Oliver think of Venice, in Italy, and some of the beautiful architecture that went into arched passages above the canals.