Rain drummed on the terra cotta tiles of the hold-house. Fabiom listened to the rhythm as he went through the ever-growing lists of people who had been forced to place themselves into service to pay off debts. He had been doing so since Ravik’s envoys had left at first light, three hours ago – or so he estimated, for there was no light breaking through the clouds to illuminate the sundial in the courtyard. He had brought the papers home on the off-chance that Casandrina would be there. She was not.
Sighing, he reread one of the applications before stamping it as approved, noting his disquiet on a scroll. He would have liked to have refused, knowing the recipient of the service had misused others in the same position in past years, but the holding was not in a position to buy that service as well. He had already offered more positions than they could truly afford.
It was early afternoon by the time Casandrina came in. The rain had eased to a silent drizzle.
Fabiom put his work aside. “We need to talk.”
She shook the rain from her hair. “Yes.”
Surprised and relieved, he took her damp cloak from her and put another, lighter one, around her shoulders. “You do know you mean more to me than anyone or anything else? If I’ve given you reason to doubt that –”
“You have not! Why do you say so?”
“You’ve seemed distant – angry – with me.”
“Afraid, not angry.”
He pulled her close against his side. “I know you’re afraid. But I promise I’ll do everything in my power to keep you safe – to keep the wildwood safe.”
With her head resting on his shoulder she traced the lines of his collarbone. “I am not talking of greedy men and what they might do, that is something vague and distant. My fear is much closer, much more real.” She lifted her head. “I am afraid of being parted from you.”
Wanting to both laugh and kiss her, he tried to do both, which managed to make her smile – something she had not done for several days. “I don’t have to go to Varlass. I told you: Prince Ravik does not compel me, only asks if I am free to accompany him.”
“It is not your prince whom I fear.” As she spoke, her smile faded.
She looked away from him, towards the window. “We have been summoned. The other Silvanii would meet with us.”
She shrugged. “They cannot command either of us. Yet if we do not go, we will not be welcome in the wildwood.”
“Soon.” She traced the shape of his mouth with her fingertips. “Though maybe not immediately.”
Afternoon had turned to evening by the time they arrived in the Dancing Glade where Silvanii from all over Deepvale’s wildwood had gathered, and that evening became night, lit by phosphorescent fungi and glow worms, while they talked. A cold wind blew, stripping leaves and seeds from the trees, toying with them before letting them fall. Casandrina shivered. Had he been able, Fabiom would have wrapped her in his arms, though he knew it was not the chill that affected her.
“You must choose, Fabiom – the town or the woods; your prince or your wife.”
“It is not that simple!” he told them.
There were thirty or more Silvanii: ash, elm, beech, chestnut and oak. They had given him a draught of something bittersweet that had felled him to his knees and rendered him semiconscious yet able to see and hear them all clearly. He had drunk it willingly though now he was wondering whether coming here at all had not been a terrible mistake.
“It is simple enough: it is no longer safe for us to interact with mankind so closely. The bonds between Silvanii and men must be loosened; the bonds between men in authority and Silvanii especially so. If you wish to stay with Casandrina, you must renounce your holdership and dwell here, deep in the wildwood.”
“Listen to me, please,” Fabiom persisted. He could barely raise his head and his voice was weak. “Prince Ravik intends to go to Varlass. I will accompany him. We will discover what happened – exactly what happened – and what is happening now. At least give us time to do that!”
“You ask us to give you time? Have we not given you enough? We gave you silk, we gave you amber, we helped your crops grow, we gave you herbs for healing. All we asked in return was your protection and your respect.”
“I know.” Fabiom bowed his head. “And I’m sorry your trust has been repaid so poorly. I cannot promise all will be well; I am asking only that you give me a chance.”
There was some muted discussion, Casandrina did not take part. In the past several days she had done all she could, said all she could, to sway her sisters. She knelt beside her husband and held his hand and waited.
“I am sorry, Fabiom.” The Silvana who addressed him now was of an oak tree and her voice was deep and filled with sorrow. “We are divided in the matter. However, those who would agree your proposal do not number enough.” It was clear she was one such. “Will you accept ours?”
“No,” Casandrina said firmly before Fabiom could reply. “He cannot. Holdership of this land is more than mere title, as we all know. You cannot ask that of him.”
“Casandrina,” another ash Silvana interjected, “it is either that or renounce you. Surely you do not expect him to do that?”
At that, another spoke. “He will not have to. We can make him forget.”
“Forget!” cried Fabiom, aghast.
“Yes – forget – as if your marriage had never been. You will remember neither her face nor her name. There are songs that can strip a man’s mind – either completely or in part.”
There was whispered discussion among them, agreement, approval of the suggestion. Casandrina shivered again and a tear slipped down her cheek.
“You’re crazy! I will never forget her! How could I?” Somehow, he struggled to his feet, though without Casandrina’s support he would have fallen.
“You do not know our powers – you may think you do. But no man does.”
“No, I do not presume so much. You are powerful indeed, and mysterious. All I know for certain is that my love for Casandrina is as strong as your magic. I will prevail, or be broken in the trying.”
“Do not say so!” another insisted. “We wish you no harm. No, do not scorn, it is true. You are a good man, a fine holder and you were worthy of a Silvana’s love. Casandrina was not the only one here who would have left this life for you. Yet now – it cannot be. You must renounce her. You can leave here unharmed, if you leave here alone.”
“You ask of me the one thing I cannot do. I would sooner give up Deepvale!”
“No. Casandrina is correct. That is not an option for you. The land is in your blood. For the sake of your people, for Deepvale – for all of us, human and Silvanii who dwell here – you must give her up.”
Casandrina turned to face him, held his face between her hands. Her eyes were pools of sorrow from which tears flowed unchecked. “My love, my sweet love, you must. What they are otherwise proposing carries far too much risk. You must leave me here, Fabiom; for it is the only way that I can be sure you will be safe.”
“No! Casandrina, do not say so. I could no more stop loving you and live as I could stop breathing. I will always love you. And it will not destroy me.” He had fallen to his knees again, as much in supplication as from the effect of the draught.
“I truly hope you are right, Fabiom.” It was not Casandrina who said so but another ash Silvana. Her beautiful eyes were filled with sorrow and compassion in equal measure.
And then the song began. It was like nothing Fabiom had ever heard before and it tore his mind apart. Yet, somewhere, there was a counterpoint, a gentler song, and it was not Casandrina who sang. Her voice was silenced.
She was gone.
Totally lost, totally bereft, Fabiom staggered home. He could not have said how he got there. Perhaps his feet were so used to the paths that they took him automatically; certainly he had no recollection of having made the decision to go back.
Exhausted, he fell asleep on a settle in the day room. When he awoke, the quality of light suggested it was mid-morning. He could not even say if it was the same day. He was alone. The house was silent.
Sitting, disorientated, he was aware of a terrible loss, yet he had no idea what it was he mourned. Eventually he slept again.
Some hours later, Fabiom heard a door shut, his name being called. He frowned and shook his head: I know that voice. It was his first coherent thought since waking. With some surprise he found that he was standing in his library, leafing through a book. He could not recall having gone there. He put the book down and regarded it curiously – Treelaw – something nearly remembered then lost.
“Fabiom! Fabiom! Are you here? Are you all right? Fabiom?”
Tarison had entered the library. “Ramus said you were behaving strangely…. By all that’s sacred, what has happened? You look terrible!”
Fabiom stared at his uncle. “I don’t know.” He raked his hands through his hair. “I have no idea.”
“I think something has happened … something has gone. I remember singing, incredibly beautiful singing. I do not recall the words at all.” He closed his eyes and began to rock backwards and forwards, a low moan issuing from his lips.
A look of horror crossed Tarison’s face. “Come on,” he managed. “Sit down. We need help.”