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First ~ Second

The Marquis sat on a bench in the corner, hunched with his elbows on his knees and his hands clasped in front of his face, and said for what felt like the hundredth time, "Tell me again. How did you know to bury the walker?"

"It's like I said," Taryn said again, exasperation coloring his voice. "He looked sad, so I just tried to think of what I would want if I was dead. If I was a rotten dead body walking around the place, why would I do that? And I thought, 'maybe he doesn't have anyplace to go.' And Miska told me that ghosts only come when they're unhappy or not finished, and I thought, well, a dead body is sort of like a ghost, so it made sense."

The Marquis stared at him, as though he didn't believe him, and Taryn felt his face heating up. The elf's unnatural golden eyes only seemed brighter by the light of the hearthfire to the side of them.

They were in a little room Taryn assumed was some sort of kitchen, or spare kitchen-- which was an odd enough thought alone to him. There was a large stone fireplace that bulged out rounded from the wall, and the ceiling was lower here than in other parts of the castle he'd been in. There was a long wooden counter and some stools, a couple tables and chairs, and a door to the outside that he and the knight had come through. Against the back wall, behind the counter, there was a stove, and cabinets that he assumed were for storing dry goods. Though cramped, the place felt more lived-in than any other part of the castle he'd seen thus far.

The Dead Man’s sword was resting on one of the tables, and though he wasn’t looking at it, he felt its presence strangely in his mind.

"And you just came up with the idea to bury him?" said the Marquis.

"Yes. I mean, if he wanted me to. I wasn't entirely certain he'd want that."

"And you simply. . . asked him." The Marquis’s voice was flat.

"Yes! I said, 'Do you want to be buried?' And I had a shovel, and he led me to the tree."

"He led you to the wood!" the Marquis growled. "He led you into the haven of rabid beasts, of monsters and near-certain death--"

"It looked nice while I was there," Taryn said defensively, crossing his arms. "I'm not stupid! If it had looked like there was monsters everywhere, I would have run away."

The Marquis looked skeptical, though he said nothing.

"I'm telling the truth!" Taryn snapped.

The Marquis drew in a long breath, then said, "I cannot doubt that you are."

Silence stretched between them for a moment, broken only by the crackling of the fire.

"You were lucky this time," the Marquis said eventually. "But luck is fickle and fleeting. I would ask that you not press it again."

Taryn opened his mouth to argue, then stopped.

"Why do you care?"

The Marquis tilted his head.

"About my going into the forest," Taryn said. "What's it to you if I get eaten or mauled or cursed?"

The Marquis glowered. "It is shame enough to have been subjugated by a mortal child. I'll not have my honor stained further by allowing the death of the one who holds my life debt, and certainly not after I have vowed their safety and secured them into my keeping."

"You could let me go home."

"No."

His tone left no room for argument, and Taryn let it drop.

“What now?” Taryn said.

“Now? Now you return to your room and sleep,” the Marquis said.

Taryn thought of the bed upstairs: softer than anything he’d ever touched before and the cleanest thing he’d ever had the opportunity to sleep in. Then he looked down at his clothes, felt the stiffness of the dried mud caked all over him, felt the dirt coating his skin, and sighed.

“Here,” he said, emptying the strange seed from his pocket and putting it beside the sword on the table. “Can you watch this for me?”

“What are you doing?” said the Marquis.

“Going to the water trough,” Taryn said, heading for the door.

“What?”

The Marquis rose from his chair, but Taryn was already outside.

* * * * *

The water trough wasn’t too far, and the early dawn light painted the world in misty shades of blue and gray. The water looked dark, but then so did everything. It was shockingly cold, and there were leaves floating in it, slippery to the touch when he fished them out.

Taryn sighed and started pulling his shirt up.

“What are you doing?” said the Marquis, coming up to him.

Taryn blinked. It seemed self explanatory.

“I have to wash my clothes,” he said.

“Now? Out here?” The Marquis was looking at him as if he’d suddenly sprouted another head. ­

“I’m too dirty to go to bed. I’ll ruin the blankets.’

The Marquis stared, like that was the dumbest thing he’d heard. “So you think to wash them yourself, before dawn, in an animal trough? If you must have your things washed, give them to one of the servants and wear something else.”

“I don’t have anything else,” Taryn said. “This is all I have.”

The Marquis looked at him blankly for a moment.

“Ah,” he said eventually. “I hadn’t considered-- No, stop that!”

Taryn had began pulling off his shirt again.

“Why?” said Taryn, starting to get frustrated.

The Marquis rubbed his temples. “Go upstairs. I’ll have them bring you clothes and a bath. And-- are you hungry? Have you been fed?” There was suddenly worrying concern in his voice. “Surely someone has been feeding you, yes?”

“Yes. Briar and Holly have.”

“Who?”

“Briar and Holly.” Taryn said, a little more slowly. “The servants who help me. I know you all don’t like people knowing your names, and they said I could call them anything, so I’m calling them that.”

The Marquis stared.

“What?” Taryn said. “They said it was alright! They didn’t mind!”

“I am sure they didn’t,” he growled. “Fine. It is no matter. Do not concern yourself, though I ask you to be cautious of naming my staff in the future.”

“Oh.” Taryn frowned. “Is it bad?”

“This is a conversation for another time,” he said. “Come.”

He gestured for Taryn to follow, and then waited until he was certain he was, then led him back to the castle.

The bath was the strangest thing, but far from unpleasant. Back home, he normally dunked himself in the river, or sometimes had water in a wooden tub. This bath took place in its own special bathing room, a room that wasn't the largest he'd seen in the castle, though it was by and far larger than his entire hut back home. The walls and floors were made of the same warm-looking, pink and brown stone shot through with lines and flecks of gold. There was pool carved into the floor filled with steaming hot water, and rock tables along the wall with towels and aromatic soaps that smelled like flowers and strange lotions made just for hair.

He'd been hesitant at first-- bathing in hot water? Unheard of. Probably bad for the humors-- but after Holly talked him into it, he found he liked it and wound up staying in the water until his fingers and toes were shriveled, and Briar was knocking at the door, asking if he was alright.

When he had finished, a set of bedclothes was waiting for him; they were too large, but they were well made and far softer than anything he'd ever worn, and when it was well and truly time for bed, they had to carry him there because he was near dead on his feet. Holly tucked him in and said goodnight, and for the first time since he'd come to the castle, he fell asleep feeling warm and cared for.

* * * * *

The sun wasn't yet entirely over the horizon when Holly and Briar woke him the next morning. They bustled into the room, cheerfully leading a troupe of other elves who were carrying furniture and looking far more sour.

"Good morning, young lord," Holly chirped. In her arms was a bundle of folded cloth.

"Over there," Briar said to the others, directing where furniture should go. "No, but the bureau over there-- more left--"

"What's happening?" Taryn said, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.

"Lord's orders," Holly said, radiating cheer. "And about time, if you ask me. This should have been done as soon as you got here, but later better than never, and who am I to question the Marquis?"

"No!" Briar snapped at one of the movers. "If you put it facing the wall like that, then the drawers can't open, can they?"

"Here," said Holly, passing Taryn the bundle. "Today's clothes."

"Where are mine?" said Taryn.

"Don't block the window! Put it over there--"

She wrinkled her nose. "I think the cleaners are trying to salvage them, but I wouldn't hold out hope. They were very dirty, and near tatters.”

“What’s this?” Taryn said, holding up a long coat. It was cut in the eleven style, and was the same deep greens and browns that everyone seemed to wear.

“The Marquis sent it over,” said Briar cheerfully, leaving the movers to their work. “Seeing as you’re a member of his House now, it only seems right that you’d get your colors. Here," he took the coat and held it up for Taryn to wiggle into.

It was a little too large, and he felt a little silly wearing an elven coat, but Briar assured him he would grow into it.

"It’s very handsome," Holly said, smiling. "And fine enough to be fitting of your station. Though not appropriate for bedclothes."

Taryn giggled and slipped out of the coat. He took the rest of the clothes Holly had given him and went to the next room to change and when he returned, the last of the movers were leaving, and the room was fully furnished. Special cabinets Briar told him were called armoires and chifferobes and dressers, and night stands, and, to his relief, a recognizable and simple chest for good measure. There was a rug on the floor now-- Taryn had never seen one so large and decorative: at home there was just the little one by the door to wipe away mud-- and Holly promised to return with cushions and wall hangings once Taryn told her the kinds he liked.

“But that’s something for later,” she said. “Go downstairs, m’lord. The Marquis wanted to speak with you before he goes out on patrol, and I fear we've kept you long enough.”

Taryn followed Briar to the foyer and found the Marquis, already fully armored, speaking to a cluster of servants and one irate looking knight. When the Marquis saw him, he dismissed them all gestured for Taryn to step outside. In the courtyard, the rest of the Knights were readying themselves for patrol, filling the air with the noise of metal and leather.

The Marquis cleared his throat and avoided looking at Taryn when he spoke, preferring to look at the flagstone instead.

"Well. Last night was certainly eventful, and clearly our luck was with us. However I cannot but blame myself that such. . . unpleasantness should have happened at all. You were never, to my knowledge, properly informed of the dangers that lie beyond the wall, so I tell you now; beyond the wall are monstrosities I and my forebears have warred against for centuries. Creatures that would rend you to pieces and think nothing of it, save to praise their good fortune. I trust that after yesterday's excursion, you now know better than to try wandering the woods alone--"

Taryn briefly considered mentioning how nothing actually bad had happened, but thought better of it.

"-- and so today I expect that you will stay within the confines of the wall. You may wander the gardens and select sections of the castle itself, though I do not permit you to have run of the village below. I shall be gone until evening, but if there is an emergency, one of my staff will contact me via magic and I will be here shortly. Have you any questions?"

Can I go home? popped immediately into his mind, but he knew the answer to that one already.

"No, sir," he said instead.

“Excellent. I had thought as much. However, for the sake of prudence, the castle gate will remain closed today until I return."

And with that, the Marquis turned hurriedly away and went to join the rest of the waiting knights.

Taryn watched glumly as the knights tore down the road, and the gate came down behind them, the spikes lowered from the gateway arches by guardsmen turning wheels and pulling levers. There was still the wall-ladder, he thought, but then he saw the knight the Marquis had spoken to earlier was posted there. The elf didn't say anything to him, but when he saw Taryn looking, he scowled and averted his eyes.

Taryn's heart sank; while the others might have been fine letting him wander around, he got the feeling this knight would put up more of a fuss.

The strange thing was, Taryn thought as he scanned the wall for other, unguarded exits, was that he didn’t even particularly want to leave today. Oh, of course he would gladly go home if given the chance, but the burning drive to return from yesterday was gone, and he couldn’t figure out why he should have been in such a hurry about it, anyway. He might’ve been content to wander the castle and wait for a convenient time to escape to present itself naturally, instead of seeking it out. However, now that he’d been actively forbidden to leave, leaving was the only thing he wanted to do.

He sighed. It was no use trying to leave through the front. He turned and went through the gardens, towards the backmost part of the castle he could reach.

The further away he got from the front, the more untamed the wall became. Untamed plants started to sprout at its base, missed or ignored by the gardeners, and once he was past the first garden gate-- still following the stone wall-- the wall became thick with flowering ivy that climbed all the way over. In a few places, where the ivy was sparse, he found long-forgotten trellises tangled with the dried vines of dead creeping roses. It seemed that the ivy had been intentionally cultivated some time ago to decorate the wall, and now it had run wild and untended.

Beyond the first, the second, and the third gated garden, well out of eyesight from the guards at the front, he looked around. nobody near enough to stop him, or, for that matter, anyone paying him the slightest bit of attention.

Is it really that simple? he thought. He approached the wall, and nobody shouted at him to stay away.

The climb over had an awkward start; a lot of the ivy was weak and tore at his grasp, but he got the hang of grabbing handfuls of the stuff and digging his feet through the plants, catching the jutting parts of the stone wall. With a bit of effort, he was up and over the wall.

He landed softly in the grass and waited. He expected something to happen-- the call to go out, a group of guards to appear, for something. But the only sound was the distant activity beyond the wall, and the quiet noise from the forest behind him.

The forest loomed, tantalizing, a short distance away. The nearest trees had been cut down, and a strip of grass served as a barrier between the woods and castle. For a moment, he considered trying to get home again. Yes, the last time hadn't gone to plan, but it wasn't as though things had gone so terribly wrong. . .

He found himself ambling closer to the trees, as though he could peer inside and see if there was any danger lurking there before committing.

It certainly appeared safe enough, though last time, it wasn't as though the dead elf had been at the onset to greet him. And the dead elf had been friendly, in a way. If there were other creatures in the forest who were less amicable...

He hung around the place between the grassy plains and the forest and paced, moving down along the tree line, occasionally stopping to check the odd copse sticking out beyond the forest proper. It became quickly clear that by following the edge of the forest, he was going around the side of the castle, as though the land for the castle had been carved out of the forest.

Well, he thought, thinking of the tree from the previous night. That might explain why they're having trouble. In all the fairy stories he'd ever heard, chopping down magical forests never went well for those who'd done it. Apparently, that even included if other magic things were doing the chopping.

As he continued to follow the outer wall of the citadel, an achingly familiar sound met his ears: the babble of flowing water.

Taryn rushed forward, following the sound with a desperation he couldn’t name, and soon found the source: a small creek spilling in from the forest. The creek fed into a pond that wasn’t too far away from the castle wall. The pond was much larger than the one back home, but seeing it filled him with a sense of nostalgia; if he closed his eyes, he could almost believe he was home again, out tending the birds.

But, no. The illusion was broken almost as soon as it started. The noise of the water was there, but there was nothing else, no geese splashing, no ducks garbling among themselves, no distant sound of hens or songbirds. Aside from the quiet babble of the creek, the world was quiet and still; he couldn't even hear the elves on the other side of the wall anymore.

And then a small sound joined the babble of the creek: a faint, yet insistent peeping.

Taryn scanned the area, looking for the source of the noise. He moved forward slowly, careful to check each footstep lest he step on it, and the sound of chirping grew louder and louder.

It’s got to be close, he though. It’s got to be-- there. A little bird, a fledgling, half-sunk in the marshy water, held up by a cluster of grass. It chirped in a consistent pattern, cheep cheep cheep, and when Taryn reached out to it, it did nothing to resist him.

"It's alright," Taryn cooed. He clutched the bird to his chest and looked around, wondering if its parents were near. Though he heard the distant noise of birds, there appeared to be none nearby, and no nest in the trees for the bird to have fallen out of.

The little bird continued to chirp.

“Hello there,” Taryn said. He held the bird up, gently looking for any obvious injuries. “What are you doing down here?”

He turned the bird over, and the problem became immediately clear: the bird's foot seemed to be malformed, with the center large and swollen.

"Oh," said Taryn, recognizing it instantly. "Bumblefoot."

He felt the bird's foot with an experienced hand; bumblefoot was a common ailment for the ducks, geese, and hens back home. At the bottom, beneath the center of the swollen area, there was a tell-tale bumblefoot scab.

Gently, he placed the unresisting bird into his coat pocket, then clambered up the ivy wall, taking the utmost care not to let the bird come to harm. At the top of the wall, he removed it, cradling the bird in his hands and ensuring it was still safe. Then, rather than climbing down again, he let himself fall through the piling Ivy, landing softly on the courtyard grass.

A couple of gardeners off in the distance watched him, but when they saw him looking, they quickly busied themselves with their work. Taryn sighed inwardly and decided to find Holly or Briar; they would know where he could take the bird.

He was just coming through the stone arches of the second garden when he was accosted by a knight. It was the same one set to guard the front, apparently now having left his post. He had a hard jaw and a stern expression, and a long white scar that cut across his face, from his left temple downwards, barely missing his eye, and cutting into his cheek and mouth. Despite this, Taryn was surprised to see that he was also one of the younger looking elves around-- though maybe that didn't mean anything; the Gentry were supposed to live for hundreds and hundreds of years.

"Where have you been?" the knight snarled.

Taryn stepped back, startled by the open hostility. "I was looking around," he said. "The Marquis said I could go in the gardens--"

"And he told me to keep you out of trouble. I don't care what underhanded thing you've done, I still value his word against yours. Come on."

He grabbed Taryn's arm, the metal of his gauntlet pinching the boy's skin. Taryn clutched the bird to his chest, one-handed while the knight pulled him forward.

"Stop, let go of me!"

"Stop fussing," the knight said, dragging him towards the castle. "You can entertain yourself inside--"

"I order you to let me go!" Taryn shouted.

A few heads turned towards them, stopping whatever work they were doing. A few guardsmen started over warily. The knight, seeing their audience, swore and released Taryn's arm.

Taryn, feeling bolder, held out the bird. "I order you to help me."

The change in the young knight's demeanor was immediate. His jaw dropped, and he took a half-step away before catching himself. The other guards came up behind him, wondering what had happened, and they, too, froze upon seeing the bird.

"What?" Taryn said.

“Don’t move,” the knight said hoarsely, his face gone gray with fear. “I will-- I will defend you.” His voice cracked at the words, but the knight drew himself up and began to draw his sword.

“Are you mad?” Taryn said. He glanced down to ensure the little bird had not turned into some kind of serpent while he wasn’t looking, and found it looking up at him with a guileless expression. Just a little bird.

“He’s hurt,” Taryn said. “I’m going to help him, but I need a place to do it. Is there anywhere--?”

“The surgeon,” a guard said. "Inside. Down the South Wing.”

"We cannot allow you to bring that into the--" began the knight.

"I have to see the surgeon!" Taryn said, fed up.

The guards and knight exchanged glances.

It’s got some sort of magic,” a guard said abruptly. “It’s the only way.”

“It’s a bird,” Taryn said. But they ignored him.

“It’s a trick,” said the knight.

“I heard that it calmed one of the dead walkers in the forest,” said another guard, and Taryn realized that they weren’t talking about the bird at all, but about him.

“Impossible,” said the knight, but he sounded less certain.

“You call me a liar?” the guard growled.

No, I call you mistaken,” the knight said stiffly.

“He’s not,” said Taryn. “The dead elf just wanted to be buried properly, so I helped him. Now I’m going to help the little bird, so show me where the surgeon is, or I’ll go find him myself.”

The knight glowered at him, but bowed his head. Without a word, the knight strode towards the castle fast enough that Taryn had to run to keep up.

Inside, the knight led the way, making sure there was a wide berth between Taryn and any of the other elves.

“Return to your rooms,” the knight told them. “Stay inside until we have passed. Then, if you are able, run to the village.”

The elves took one look at Taryn and the bird, and did as he said, scurrying away from the duo, peeking from behind doors and from corners as they walked by. The knight called out the alarm all the way into the castle, even as they traveled further and further into its bowels, down stairs Taryn hadn’t known existed and into an entire lower level that must have been dug into the earth like a cellar. The walls and floor were rougher here, oddly earthy, and lit only by torches spelled with some kind of magic to keep burning indefinitely.

Eventually, the knight stopped at the very end of one hallway, in front of a large door with a scrap of paper tacked onto it. On the paper were several looping and overlapping circles, like some kind of drawing. The knight, already frowning, frowned deeper and banged his fist on the door.

“Wake up,” he said. “There’s work for you.”

There came a grumbling from inside the room, and the sound of shuffling and things being knocked into.

“I’m comin’, I’m comin,” came a voice from inside.

The knight made a disgusted noise, then stepped back. As he did, the door creaked open just enough to reveal a short, stocky elf squinting at them from the doorway. The elven surgeon was dressed in a white robe, a beige scapular, and a white and brown habit that covered his hair and ears entirely. He was also very, very drunk.

"Yes?" he slurred.

“The Marquis’ guest--” the knight only barely faltered on the word, “--has need of you.”

“I have to use your tools,” said Taryn, immediately deciding that he didn’t trust the man to wield a butterknife, much less a scalpel. He’d do it himself. “I have an injured bird.”

The surgeon squinted at him. “So?”

“So I have to treat it,” Taryn said. “I don’t have anything to treat it with.”

“If it let you catch it, it’s gonna die anyways,” the surgeon said. But he opened the door wider and stepped away to let Taryn enter. He turned his back to Taryn, instead heading for a small bed in the corner of the room.

“Tools’s in the cabinet over there, clean wash cloths in th’ left drawer. Water in the pot was boiled this morning, so it’s prob’bly fine enough for a bird. When it dies on you, don’t wake me up about it.”

And with that, the surgeon collapsed into bed.

“You can wait outside,” Taryn said to the knight. “I know you don’t like us.”

The knight’s jaw tightened.

“I will not sully myself by letting my lord’s charge come to harm under my watch. I will accompany you.”

That sounded like something the Marquis had said. Taryn shook it off as another piece of elven strangeness and went inside.

The room was longer than wide, but plenty spacious. Half of it seemed like a living quarters, with a bed and a rug and a hearth for the fire, but the other half was meticulously clean, with a long stone table in the center and cabinets and counters all along the walls.

Taryn found the bin of clean rags and nestled the little bird in one, wrapping it so it hopefully wouldn't flutter around when he set it down. The bird submitted to the attention agreeably, and when Taryn placed it on the table, it merely watched. The knight took up position at the exit, blocking the door. Taryn didn’t question it.

"Where are your cutting things?" Taryn said instead.

The surgeon snorted from his side of the room. "I'm not a surgeon," he said, his back to Taryn. "I am a physician. If you want someone cut open, get a barber."

"So you never cut anyone?" Taryn said.

"Oh, fine, there might be a scalpel in one of the drawers. That’s a doctor’s blade, in case you didn’t know. Bit’a vocabulary for you.”

Taryn glanced at the knight, who still stood at the exit, barring the way out. He looked directly ahead of him, as though he could bore a hole in the wall with enough concentration. No help from him, then. Taryn went to the drawers and began rooting around.

“You better not be making a mess,” said the physician.

“I’m not,” Taryn said. He lifted up an off looking, bladed tool. “Is this a scalpel?” It looked sharp enough, at least.

“Cut yourself with it. If you bleed, it’s a scalpel.”

Now it was Taryn’s turn to glare. The physician didn't notice; he was still in bed, back to the rest of the room.

Taryn went to the little bird on the table and tried to figure out how to do this. He’d done it before, he knew. With chickens-- oh, bumblefoot was a very chicken sort of problem-- but now that he’d gotten this far, he wasn't entirely certain how to work the bird alone. It was so small.

“It would be nice to have some help over here,” he said.

The doctor sat up in bed, already mid-glare and ready to say something that was likely rude, but then he caught sight of the bird, and the words died in his throat, his expression rapidly transforming from disdain to astonishment.

"What?" Taryn said. "What's wrong with everybody, have none of you ever seen a bird before?"

“That’s no bird,” the doctor said, his voice low and hoarse.

Taryn looked at the bird again. Still a little bird. Both the doctor and the knight were watching him.

“Fine, if you’re both so frightened of it, I’ll do it myself.”

It was just a tiny bird, after all. Not like tending a chicken or goose-- which was definitely a two person job. Which was strange, actually, because while he certainly remembered dealing with bumblefoot before, he didn’t remember who it was that had helped him. . .

He pushed the thought aside and focused on the task at hand.

A little awkwardly, he plucked the bird up with one hand and tried to hold it in such a way that its foot was in clear view, but the rest of it was still secure. Then he realized he was holding it too tight, and had to adjust. When he finally got the bird right, he put the blade of the scalpel to its foot. In quick, practiced movements, Taryn sliced open the bottom of the bird's swollen foot, cutting around the blackened scab. The blade was marvelously sharp, and he hoped it hadn't hurt the little bird too badly.

He worked slowly, terrified he’d cut too far deep on accident, and when he’s made a circuit around the swelling, he pulled out the scab, and a wet globule of puss followed it out. The stink of infection filled his nostrils, but he tried to ignore it and pressed on.

He peered into the wound and saw the yellow-white head of the infection, now hardened to a rancid-smelling kernel. Taryn gagged a little, then gently squeezed the kernel out of the bird's foot. It popped out easily, and made a small tink as it hit the tray.

There, he thought, relieved. He lifted the bird, intending to look it over once more before washing the foot in the water, but a flash of silver inside the wound caught his eye.

"Hey, Oleander," Taryn called. "Can you help me?"

The doctor jolted at the nickname, but came forward to see.

"There's something else inside its foot. Do you have anything to get it out?"

Oleander mutely went to one of the many shelves, then returned with a small set of tweezers.

"Hold it still," the doctor said hoarsely. He approached Taryn and the bird slowly, as though he were afraid it would strike him like a viper.

“I’m holding him!” Taryn snapped. “He’s not going to bite you!”

"Just hold him!" Oleander snapped back. But he finally peered at the tiny wound and, with a quick upward glance to the ceiling, held the bird’s foot up so that he could see. He quickly placed the tip of the tweezers into the wound and finagled them around, jerking and twisting them in what Taryn was certain had to be a painful way, but the little bird sat stoic through the whole procedure.

Finally, Oleander managed to catch whatever-it-was that was causing him so much difficulty. He pulled the sliver out, and, to Taryn's astonishment, the small sliver transformed as it left the bird's foot, growing, elongating even as part of it was still being drawn out. Even the knight came closer to watch, his eyes wide. Oleander pulled and pulled, and the enormous piece of metal kept coming out of the bird's tiny foot. Just looking at it made Taryn's head hurt trying to understand how it was happening; there was clearly no way all that metal could fit inside the bird, much less its foot!

When the end of it came out at last and thunked onto the table, the boy, knight, and physician found they were staring down at half of a broken blade of a sword.

The little bird chirped.

“We must clean the wound,” Oleander said abruptly, breaking the silence. “With water. I don’t want to hear about any backward yokel human way of doing things.” He continued to grumble, even as he turned to get the pot of water and new washcloths. “You mortals out there, thinking soap is the devil and urine cleans wounds. Black bile this, leeches that, enough to drive a learned elf mad--”

He returned and together, the two of them washed out the bird’s foot, then carefully bandaged it with special strips of thin cloth.

“There,” Oleander proclaimed. “If it didn’t die from a sword breaking off inside it, it’ll probably be fine with all this.”

Taryn gently set the bird on the table, upright with its feet beneath it. The bird took a shaky step forward, then began to hop around the table ecstatically. Then it began chirping and flapping its wings madly. Both knight and doctor hastily backed away.

"What?" cooed Taryn, putting his face close. "Are you happy to have your foot all better?"

When he leaned forward to see it, the bird hopped onto his shoulder with a flutter of wings.

"Oof!" Taryn said. The little bird was heavy. Not just on his shoulder, where it perched, but the pressure seemed to spread all across his shoulders, as though the bird were much larger than it appeared.

But he already knew the little bird was strange, and heaviness didn't seem very concerning, so Taryn scritched its head and called it a good bird.

Oleander and the knight watched, pale, as the bird began preening Taryn's hair.

"I'm going to put him outside somewhere," Taryn said. "If his mama and papa are around, then they'll take care of him, right? If they don't come by sun down, then I'll take him back inside." He brightened a little at that. Having a pet would be nice.

"For your sake,” said Oleander, “I pray that his parents are not around."

"Do you think the Marquis would let me keep him?" Taryn said.

Oleander barked out a laugh. "I think he'd sooner set fire to the entire castle.”

“I must agree,” the knight said, his voice strained.

Taryn sighed. Maybe the Marquis would be more reasonable that the rest. Or maybe he could hide the bird somewhere-- set up a place for it in one of the empty rooms near his own. . .

He pushed the thought aside and headed out. The knight hastened in front of him, checking the hallway for other elves before letting Taryn and the bird out and only letting them pass when he was sure the way was clear.

"Oleander, are you coming?" Taryn said.

Oleander emphatically shook his head. "No, no thank you. I'm not drunk enough to deal with this, and it seems to like you better. Go, go on, take it outside and get rid of it."

Taryn rolled his eyes and followed the knight back down the halls. To the little bird, he said, "Ignore him. He doesn't mean to be rude, I'm sure. The people around here can be very strange."

He gently picked the bird off his shoulder and carried him instead. The bird cheeped and hopped out of his hands, trying to crawl up his arm and back onto his shoulder. Taryn giggled and took him back.

"No," he said. "I know you're feeling better now, but you've been through a lot, and I don't want you falling down."

The bird peeped some more, but it contented itself to stay inside his hands for the rest of the walk through the castle.

The halls were empty as they passed, and every door was closed. Sometimes, one would open, and a face would peer out, but then they'd see him and slam the door shut, even before the knight could call out a warning. They made back up to the main floor, and to the foyer.

“Where, exactly, did you find him?” the knight said. It sounded like each word had to be pried out of him.

“Somewhere behind the castle,” Taryn said.

“There is no ‘behind the castle’. It’s built into the wall--”

“I climbed over the wall,” Taryn said.

“Then we’ll find a spot and toss him over.”

“We can’t do that! He can’t fly!”

The knight pushed the castle doors open and stopped short, causing Taryn to nearly run into him.

Outside, the Marquis and his other knights were dismounting their deer while a cluster of servants spoke to them earnestly. Taryn couldn’t make out what they were saying-- they were all speaking at once-- but when the door boomed shut behind them, all fell silent. They stared at the bird in Taryn’s hands with varying degrees of horror and awe. Even the Marquis looked pale.

"Child," the Marquis said, his voice low. "Be very. Very. Still."

"Not you too!" said Taryn. "Why does everyone here hate crows? I know they pick at crops, but you're all acting ridiculous!"

He held his hands out, careful to still cup the bird and stop it from falling, but open enough so they could see. As one, the other knights jerked backwards. Even the Marquis flinched, though he stayed put.

"Look! He's just a little one. And he had a-- a magic sword in his foot, or something, so he's probably not feeling well, and now everybody's wanting to kill him, or wanting me to throw him over the wall."

“Is he well?” the Marquis said. “Has he been harmed?”

“No,” the young knight said.

“This is nonsense. I’m going to find the bird’s nest and put him back, or I’m going to keep him.”

And with that, he started forward, trying to appear confident. He half expected the marquis or someone to grab him, but nobody did; they all stood back as he walked right through them, then down the path that led through the gardens. Behind him, he heard the hasty clanking of armor as the Marquis barked out orders and the knights scrambled to obey.

As subtly as he could manage, Taryn stole a glance behind him and saw the Marquis leading a small troupe of knights-- including the younger one who’d been his chaperone all day. He picked up the pace and not-quite-ran to the place in the ivy where he’d climbed over before.

The bird in his hands gladly fluttered its way to his shoulder, and Taryn grabbed the first fistful of ivy.

“Child!” The Marquis shouted, coming up towards him, but stopping at a distance.

“I’m not going to help you hurt a little bird,” Taryn said.

“But that is not a--”

But Taryn was up and over the wall already.

He giggled on the other side, hearing the Marquis swearing. For a second, he was afraid they’d come up over the ivy, too, but though there was the sound of rustling plants, there was also the sound of more swearing and people falling down, and the Marquis ordering people to go around the castle wall.

Smiling widely, Taryn went off, looking for the pond where he’d first found the bird. Hopefully, there would be a nest nearby. Or maybe even his parents returned, looking for him. They did that sometimes, he knew.

But if there’s not, or they didn’t, then I can see about keeping him, he thought. Wild birds didn’t like coops or houses like hens and ducks did. He’d heard of some people keeping birds in cages, which seemed a little cruel, but maybe a cage would suffice until it was well enough to fly properly. Oh, there was a thought; teaching the bird to fly around and bring him things, like a falconer. Though who knew how big it would get--

It didn’t take him long to find the pond and copse again, but the sight of it jerked him out of his reverie. The pond and the grasses were the same, but the trees had changed in his absence. No longer were the leaves a spring green, but instead an inky black, giving the impression that the tops of the trees were cut out of the universe.

He stood a moment, frowning, but the bird on his shoulder began to peep incessantly. It flapped and hopped and tried to fly away, and Taryn had to catch it before it landed in the pond again.

“Child!”

Taryn turned and saw the Marquis several feet away, looking bedraggled, with tendrils of ivy stuck to his armor.

"Child!" the Marquis said, voice strained. "Go no further."

Taryn frowned and looked back to the trees. The black leaves shifted, though there was no wind, and only then did he notice that the black was dotted with burning specks of red. What he had taken for black leaves were actually crows, hundreds and hundreds of crows watching him with smoldering red eyes.

Taryn tried to feel happy as thoughts of keeping the bird as a pet evaporated. He smiled up at the trees and called out, "Hello! I've got your baby!" To the little bird in his hands, he said, "Look, your family is here."

"Taryn!"

Taryn glanced back at the Marquis; it was the first time he'd said his name.

"Taryn," the Marquis said, his voice commanding. "I order you to return to me at once!"

Taryn considered it a moment, then turned away. The Marquis shouted, "Stop!"

"He's really bossy," Taryn said to the bird. "I don't know why he has to be stiff all the time."

When he was within several feet of the nearest tree, the little bird leapt from his shoulder, and he nearly fell over from the sudden weightlessness. The bird fluttered into the tree, settling between two birds that immediately started preening it-- its parents, he assumed.

He bowed to the birds in the tree and said, "I’m happy to have helped."

Then he faced the Marquis and started towards him, eyes on the ground, grimly wondering how badly he'd be in trouble. For all the horror stories he'd heard of the Gentry, so far the Marquis hadn't done anything to hurt him, and he didn’t really think he would. But who knew how it was with elves?

He heard a gasp and snuck a look at the Marquis, expecting him to look furious. But no. The Marquis was no longer looking at him; instead his eyes were fixed somewhere above, his face drawn in horror, his hand on the hilt of his sword.

Taryn tried to turn around, to see what he was staring at, but before he could, something heavy pummeled into his back. He hit the grass hard enough to knock the wind out of him, and an enormous weight pressed him down so he couldn't get up.

“Taryn,” the Marquis said. “Don’t move.”

The creature on his back was growling. Taryn felt a hard muzzle nose the back of his head, and it took him a moment to realize that the creature was preening him. Slowly, scarcely daring to breathe, he awkwardly lifted his arm. The creature didn’t stop him. He moved his hand above, out of sight, and felt for the creature. He expected feathers-- it was supposed to be some kind of bird, after all-- but all he felt was a strange and oily smoothness, cold to the touch.

What he could only assume was the creature’s muzzle found his hand and poked itself into his palm, rubbing against him like an affectionate cat.

“It’s alright,” Taryn said.

The Marquis crept forward, but as soon as he did, the growling grew louder, and he froze again. Taryn felt talons digging into his shoulders, and he grit his teeth to keep from crying out.

“It’s alright,” Taryn said again. “You don’t like the Marquis? I understand. I'm not too fond of him, either. But I don't think he's bad, just rude, and he's taking care of me until I can go home, so please don't hurt him."

The creature on his back seemed to relent. The smoothness Taryn felt warmed beneath his fingers, then closed around them, as though he’d suddenly submerged his hand in warm water. The warmth receded after a second, leaving him holding something small and rough.

“Thank you,” he said.

The creature shifted its weight, and Taryn felt both the weight of clawed feet, and the faint touch of feathers. Then, in a sudden gust of wind and a sound that filled his ears, the creature took to the air, and the weight was gone.

Before he had even properly sat up, the Marquis was there, yanking him to his feet, and pulling him towards the castle wall.

“What?” Taryn said. “What's The problem?”

He looked behind him and stared.

Black shapes that almost looked like birds flew from the trees. Hundreds and hundreds of them merging into one enormous black cyclone in the air, with only those on the outskirts of the mob distinct against the sky. They merged and melted in the darkness, until it was impossible to tell where one began and another end, though he saw the flash of claws and occasional burning, red eye.

He stood, gawking, until the Marquis scooped him off his feet and ran with him towards the ivy wall. Still, Taryn stared at it all from over his shoulder.

The dark cyclone was growing larger and larger, blotting out the sun. Sometimes a black shape would fly by overhead, so close its talons brushed against the ivy or scraped the stone wall. There was no way they could climb over. The Marquis shoved Taryn up against the stone and stood in front of him, trying to put himself between the boy and the birds.

He needn’t have bothered; the swarm soon spiraled upwards, higher and higher until they formed a black, twirling ribbon in the sky. Higher and higher they flew, until there were nothing but a thread moving towards the sun. Only after even that trace of them was gone did the Marquis allow Taryn to leave the scant shelter of the wall.

The two of them stood in silence, looking at the sky, for a long while.

“He gave me something,” Taryn said, suddenly overcome with the urge to break the silence.

The Marquis looked at him in a vacantly, as though Taryn, too, was some kind of strange creature.

“Oh?” he said.

Taryn opened his hand for the first time-- he’d kept it clutched tight through the entire ordeal-- and found himself holding a piece of lumpy coal.

“What is it?” Taryn said.

The Marquis looked at the coal, then abruptly turned away, trudging for the ivy. “It is a gift for you,” he said. “Come. Your clothes are filthy, and we need to return home.”

Taryn stuffed the lump into his pocket, then hurried after the Marquis.

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