Egelric walked quickly through the woods.

Egelric walked quickly through the woods, too winded from climbing the hill to continue the song he had been humming when he left the King’s castle. The night was as dark as sackcloth, and Egelric regretted not having taken a torch.

He regretted it all the more when he remembered that this night must have been the new moon. Of course, nothing had happened since they had shut the elf woman up in the crypt with Druze, but all the same, he would have felt safer at a fireside. He thought he might climb all the way to Alwy’s house and borrow a torch if the family wasn’t yet abed.

But when he reached a clearing and looked up, he saw the swan star overhead, and thought it too late. He would go directly to Nothelm castle.

He reached a clearing and looked up.

The ground leveled out as he reached the height of the downs, and he began to hum again to keep himself company. He should have stayed at the castle, as Sigefrith had offered. He hadn’t thought of the new moon. He wasn’t afraid, but he wasn’t a fool either.

It would take longer, but he decided to walk out of the woods and return home over the downs. There in the open, he might at least have a chance of seeing coming danger, and there would be the shepherd’s huts along the way.

But a strange, dark form moved against the patches of lighter sky as he reached the edge of the trees.

A strange, dark form moved against the patches of lighter sky as he reached the edge of the trees.

He froze and felt for his knife.

It stood upright like a man, but it was too dark—it had to be a man in a dark cloak. And yet the night was warm, and the figure was slender…

“Who goes there?” he called.

'Who goes there?'

“Your wife called me the Dark Lady,” a dusky voice said, “as do the elves. That will do for a name.”

Egelric felt the hair rise on the back of his neck. He had made a terrible, terrible mistake. He stood quite still, with his hand lying useless on the hilt of his knife, as the woman approached him.

She wore a dark dress, but there was no cloak—her very skin was blacker than the night. And as she passed before an expanse of sky, he thought he could see pointed ears at the sides of her head, but they were far longer than the ears he had seen on other elves, and he wondered whether they were not in fact horns.

He wondered whether they were not in fact horns.

“Are you an elf?” he asked, his voice gone hoarse with fear.

“I am no more elf than your angels are men.”

“Are you a demon then?”

“I am no more demon than you men are angels.”

She was tall and finely built like an elf, but her voice was low and cold and pitiless, as the voices of the snarling, sneering elves he had known had never been.

She was tall and finely built like an elf.

What had Elfleda told Baby about the Dark Lady? He fumbled around frantically in his memory. That she stole men away in the night? And he had told Baby it was a lie!

“How do you know of my wife?” he asked, still unable to move, though she stood closer to him than he would have borne even of a mortal woman.

“We have met.”

'We have met.'

“What did you do to her?”

“I did nothing to her. She was as she was.” She tilted her head and looked him over. “You are less than nothing. I am no longer accustomed to men.”

“What do you want?”

Her hands leapt out at him and closed around his throat.

Her hands leapt out at him and closed around his throat.

Oh, she was an elf! he thought. After a moment of struggling with her, he dropped one hand to his knife again, but it was not there. Panicked, he felt around his belt, looking for the knife, but knife and sheath were gone. He raised his hands to her arms again and held on, glowering at her as the buzzing sound filled his head, waiting for the rest of the world to go as black as her face.

He waited for the rest of the world to go as black as her face.

She released him before he was quite incapable of standing. She waited as he choked and caught his breath, and then she said, “I want you to tell me who has been helping you.”

“Who? Helping me do what?” he spat.

She pulled out a small object and held it up before him. “Who gave you this?”

'Who gave you this?'

He squinted at it. “What is it?”

“I forget you men are blind,” she said with disdain. The object she held glowed briefly like a firefly, and in that moment he saw it was the flask Baby had given him.

“I don’t even know what that is.”

“You lie. I found it in the crossroads after you took the elf Midra away.”

'You lie.'

“Is that her name?”

“Who gave you this?”

“Perhaps she dropped it.”

“The elf Midra would never have dared to carry such a thing.”

“Then I cannot enlighten you.”

“Do you believe that I may not hurt you?”

'Do you believe that I may not hurt you?'

“I believe nothing, but I shall probably learn, as I can tell you nothing about that object. I know nothing about it.”

“It is forbidden to hurt you. I believe you know this. It is also forbidden to help you. Yet I find that someone has. It would be just if I were then permitted to hurt you. But I am willing to let you go tonight if you will tell me who has been helping you.”

All he knew was that Baby had given him the flask, and this he would never admit. Therein he found strength. “I have nothing to tell. You must do as you will with me.”

'I have nothing to tell.'

“I can feel your fear.”

“I suppose you are accustomed to that reaction.”

“It is like men to mock what they fear most. I have seen many go laughing to their deaths. They would not be so merry if they knew what comes afterwards.”

'They would not be so merry if they knew what comes afterwards.'

“‘None who have gone to that place can come again to tell us that which is there,’” Egelric said slowly, these words of his dear grandmother floating ponderously to the surface of his thoughts for the first time in many, many years, and in her own slow, sing-​song rhythm. He must be close to death, indeed, he thought, if his grandmother was so close to mind.

“I could tell you,” the woman said, “but that too is forbidden.”

'That too is forbidden.'

“What does it matter, if I shall see for myself so soon?”

“I do not intend to kill you tonight. I want you to warn him who is helping you that he plays a very dangerous game. Or her.”

“If I ever meet this mysterious assistant,” he sneered, “I shall not fail to warn him. Or her.”

'I shall not fail to warn him.  Or her.'

“Your boldness belies your terror.”

“What matters it?”

“It does not matter. I only wish you to know that you are right, very right to fear me, and your ‘mysterious assistant’ more so. Tell him so.”

'Tell him so.'

“Again, I shall not fail.”

“Do not,” she said, and vanished.

In his surprise, Egelric’s hand went instinctively to his knife again, and found it at his belt. He drew it and held it menacingly before him, but she was gone.

He drew it and held it menacingly before him, but she was gone.