Shadowdancer the Second

by gwendolyn_flight

This is a re-write of Shadowdance by Robin Wayne Bailey, although, if you've read the book, be warned that this version doesn't turn out the same. In case you're curious, Mr Bailey seems to prefer simple sentences and minimal description interspersed with vivid imagery, while I run to complex sentences, and believe that if one descriptor is good, then two or three must be better. :)

Everyone got recast, so here's a quick run-down on ages:
Mulder: 18(1st half) 23(2nd half)
Krycek: 24(2nd half)
Spender: 28(1st half) 33(2nd half)
CSM: 46(1st half) 51(2nd half)
The Witch of Shanalane: 18(1st half) 23(2nd half)
Skinner: 38(1st half) 43(2nd half)
Teena: 35(1st half)
William: 43(1st half) 48(2nd half)
Diana: 13(1st half) 18(2nd half)
Scully: 24(1st half) 29(2nd half)

Chapter Two

MULDER SAT WITH his back against the trunk of an old tree. A thick, broken limb hung down to the earth, providing the only shelter he could find from the misty, intermittent drizzle and the wind that had turned so chilly. Droplets of water from the leaves above fell with annoying regularity in his eyes and on his face. He did his best to ignore them and to forget the cold muddy ground beneath him.

He gazed down at his father and brushed the damp, greying hair back from the lined forehead. The woodcutter stirred ever so slightly; the corner of one lip twitched, and a hand settled on Mulder's knee. His father slept in apparent peace, but the Witch had warned he would wake hungry. Mulder thought of the stew cancer man had prepared by the hearth. But the hearth was only a pile of stones now, scattered among the ruins of the cottage.

A dark blot in the greater darkness of the night marked where those ruins were. Mulder had dug among them, hoping to find some bit of fire in the fireplace to carry back to his shelter, just a small flame, a handful of coals even, to warm his father in his sleep. But the collapse had smothered the fire and his hope. He had only his body to keep his father warm, and he wrapped his arms and legs around the older man and hugged him close.

But slowly, a strange sensation crept into Mulder's legs. Dull needles prickled his flesh, a tingling that began at his ankles and spread upward. No matter how he rubbed and massaged, the sensation worsened until he could stand it no longer. He eased his father aside and leaped up, grabbing the tree limb for balance.

He took a hesitant step and fell with a sharp cry, fearing the numbness that filled his legs. Cautiously, he rose again, grabbing hold of the broken limb to support himself. If the Witch's magic had worn off, he would be a cripple once more. The thought terrified him. He took a couple of tentative steps, never letting go of the branch, begging whatever god had healed him not to turn away from him now. He curled his free hand into a fist and beat it desperately against his thighs, trying to stir up feeling.

Little by little, the tingling stopped and Mulder's fear subsided. He let go of the limb and walked around the tree until he was sure of his step again. Had the Witch's god heard his prayers? He glanced down at his bare toes and wiggled them in the silken mud and sharp-bladed grass, a marvelous feeling. A slow smile parted his lips; he delighted in the newness of such textures under the tender, thin-skinned soles of his feet.

A sheepish grin spread over his face, and he chided himself for his own ignorance. Now that his panic had subsided, he recalled how his father had occasionally rested from his work, settled back on his haunches to eat a lunch or to talk a bit, and how he would sometimes rise suddenly and complain that his legs had gone to sleep. The expression had never meant anything to Mulder before. The old man would beat and rub his legs until sensation returned, and he would smile and mumble about getting old.

That was all that had happened to Mulder. The Witch's magic had not deserted him. He had only sat too long in an uncomfortable position, and his legs had gone to sleep. There was a sweet pleasure in the discovery that his once-dead limbs could do that. He grabbed the branch again for balance, then lifted his right leg, pointed the toe, flexed the knee and pushed straight out.

He smiled. Then he let go a gleeful laugh that rolled through the forest. It felt so good to laugh and to move his legs. He sat down, marveling at how his legs folded so naturally beneath him, and cradled his father's head in his lap. If only his guardian would wake so Mulder could show him this miracle!

A sigh escaped his lips as he leaned back and stared at the sky through the leaves of the sheltering branch. Gray clouds raced bleakly across the heavens in a patchwork of midnight and ivory. The palest crescent moon dared to peep through, shedding bars and shafts of racing light that flitted briefly among the darkling trees. A few stars winkled briefly and disappeared.

'Beautiful and frightening,' he thought, 'like the Witch.' He couldn't stop thinking about her. Her voice whispered to him on the breeze. The moon was her smile, and the stars were her eyes watching him from behind cloud-curtained windows. The air smelled of her perfume. She had treated his father with kindness and mercy, and she had healed Mulder's legs.

Yet she had also destroyed their home and endangered William's life after she had saved it. He remembered her in the storm and the wind, seeming like nothing human, as she'd taunted and laughed at him. She'd seemed so gentle before, when she found him on the road.

Mulder didn't understand. He closed his eyes and rubbed them with the fingers of one hand, wishing that morning would come. Dawn couldn't be far off. He longed suddenly for the warmth of the sun and an end to the cold and rain.

A sound came abruptly from the path that led to the road. Mulder hesitated uncertainly, then untangled himself from his sleeping guardian and crawled from under his shelter. Five mounted soldiers rode out of the woods.

He leaped to his feet. "Help!" he called, waving his arms, partially to attract their attention but mostly to help keep his balance. "Please, help us!"

The riders halted, and five spears leveled on him as five heads jerked his way.

Mulder stepped forward into plain sight so they could see that he was weaponless. "Please help me!" he begged, lifting his empty hands toward them. "My father is ill, and the storm has destroyed our home."

The five riders approached him warily. Mulder could tell very little about them, since they wore cloaks and helms. They were big men, though, and obviously on edge. What were they doing on the road on such a night? And why had they turned off to take the trail that led to his cottage? Then he remembered the smoking man's apparent worry about pursuit. He looked at the points of the spears and swallowed.

One soldier nudged his horse ahead of the others and stopped again before Mulder, in a series of quick elegant moves that spoke of a lifetime ahorseback. The man stared downward without speaking. Mulder could barely see the gleam of eyes under the nose guard and the copper rim of the ornately fashioned helm. A crest of horsehair crowned its top and cascaded down the rider's back. Mulder stood before him, suffering the weight of that stare until the rider spoke at last.

"Where are your clothes, boy?" The voice was deep, yet gruff and tinged with weariness and a sort of habitual impatience.

Mulder felt the heat of embarrassment rise in his face. The cancer man had ruined his only tunic and taken his loincloth. "I was asleep," he lied shyly, "and naked when the cracking of the roof beams wakened us. Father took a snake-bite today, not a fatal one, but he was still sick, and I had to drag him out of the cottage. There wasn't time to dress."

"Your father?" The stranger's speech was like a rich, warm liquid. The sound of it fascinated Mulder, and he wondered at the face behind the helm. Never in his life had he met so many strangers in one day!

He pointed back to the broken branch that he'd claimed for shelter. "William, the town wood-cutter," Mulder explained. "He's under there. We took care of his bite in time, and he's breathing, but I can't wake him up."

The rider waved a hand. Two of his comrades slid down from their horses in response and crawled under the makeshift shelter. Mulder watched them disappear, then looked up again. The man seated above him unlaced his cloak and cast it down to him. He caught it in both hands.

"Cover yourself before you catch a chill," his benefactor instructed. He glanced toward the remains of the cottage and drew his shoulders back in what might have been a soundless sigh. "We'll take you with us to Whisperstone tonight and try to get you settled in Shandisti tomorrow."

Mulder took a step back. "Lord Skinner's keep?"

The rider squared his chin, the corners of his lips lifting slightly. "Are you afraid?"

"I don't know. I've never seen Skinner."

The man removed his helm and leaned forward on his horse's withers.

"Whom did you think you were addressing in this accursed drizzle?"

Mulder paled, taking sudden note of the man's exquisite garments -- the lacquered breastplate and the embroidered sleeved of a linen tunic, the short kilt similarly embroidered, and the sculpted metal greaves that covered his lower legs. Mulder should have noticed as soon as Skinner had removed the cloak, but he'd been too startled to receive it as a gift. He studied the lord as best he could in the darkness. Skinner was younger than his father. There was the barest hint of grey in the hair fringing his balding head; his face was rough-hewn but handsome, and his entire bearing conveyed strength and power.

A stray moonbeam rippled along the bronze point of Skinner's javelin as he balanced it across his bare thighs and rested his helm carefully on the shaft. "Now, I've got some questions, boy, and be mindful of my kindness as you answer."

Mulder bit his lower lip and nodded hesitantly, uncomfortably aware that he'd already lied to this man once. He was also aware of the veiled threat in Skinner's words. Of course, there had to be a reason for Lord Skinner's midnight presence.

There was a scuffling behind him, and he turned. The two soldiers emerged from under the overhanging branch bearing William by the heels and shoulders. The old man slept on, oblivious to everything. Even when they passed him up to one of the other riders, who draped him unceremoniously across the shoulders of his horse, he didn't stir.

Lord Skinner drew Mulder's attention back. "We've been following two fugitives," he said. "A woman and her champion. But this wretched storm has made a ruin of the roads and their tracks. As near as we can tell, though, they came down this path." His gaze bore into Mulder as he leaned even lower. "Did you see them?"

Mulder hugged the cloak around his shoulders and stared at his father, who hung limply across the horse between a soldier's thighs. He thought then of the warmth surely to be found at Whisperstone's hearths and the safety of its walls, perhaps some food, and the bed his father certainly needed. And he thought of the Witch, who had healed his crippled legs.

"What have they done?" he dared to ask, meeting Skinner's gaze as steadily as he could.

"Queen Cassandra was murdered two nights ago," Skinner answered sternly. "This woman and man are charged with the crime, and since they dwell within my borders I'm responsible for their apprehension." He straightened a bit, but his countenance was no less severe. "So tell me if they passed this way."

Mulder tried to hide his trembling. He owed a debt to Skinner for the cloak and for the care and shelter he had promised. Yet he owed a debt also to the smoking man and the Witch of Shanalane. She had saved his father from the serpent's venom, and she had made his legs whole again. Surely, that was the greater service, even if Skinner was the lord of the land.

He stalled while his mind raced. "Then Jeffrey sits on the throne of Ispor?"

Skinner snorted. "Cassandra's first-born sits safe and dry at my table in Whisperstone eating my larder bare while I hunt for his mother's killers. But never fear, he assures us of the depth of his grief. Now answer the question."

Mulder pulled the cloak tighter about himself to fight off a chill that had nothing to do with the weather. "How did Cassandra die?" he persisted. "You say it was two days ago?"

Skinner shifted impatiently. "You're too inquisitive, boy." he grumbled. "Nobody knows how she died, but they say there was such a look of terror on her face -- as if she'd seen into the Underworld itself -- that only the Witch of Shanalane could've done the deed."

Mulder gave no thought to his foolishness as he observed with an open scoff, "That's slight evidence, sir."

A hand seized him by the back of the neck and lifted him to the tips of his toes. He gave a half-strangled cry of pain before Skinner waved his hand, and he was released. He shot a hateful glance over his shoulder and stared into the face of one of the guards who had carried his father out from under the shelter.

"You've seen her, haven't you, boy?" Skinner's gaze brooked no argument. Abruptly, Mulder felt a strange weakness in his knees and thought he would fall down. But the guard behind him settled a hand on his shoulder, steadying him, and Skinner spoke again. There was no anger in his voice, though he was gruff and stern. "It's said that all who see her must love her." The barest hint of a sympathetic smile flickered on his lips. "And you have that look about you." The smile quickly vanished into a thinly pressed line. "Nevertheless, you must tell me the truth."

Mulder listened to the wind, hoping it would speak to him again, tell him what to do. But the air was silent, the night suddenly still, as if the world held its breath to see what he would do.

At last, he nodded. "She saved my father," he admitted as the slow fire of shame warmed his face and a last remaining defiance sparkled in his hazel eyes. Even as he betrayed the Witch, he tried to defend her. He clenched his fists in the fabric of the cloak and stepped up beside Skinner's knee. "Why would she murder Queen Cassandra and then take the time to spare an old woodcutter?" he said furiously. "Why would she do that?"

Skinner brushed a finger over his lower lip and gazed at him intently. "You say she saved your father?"

Mulder bowed his head and drew a deep breath. If he could do nothing more, perhaps he could gain time for the Witch by talking.

"He was stung by a serpent, but she drew out the poison. She bandaged him, too, and her man made a stew in the fireplace. Why would Cassandra's murderers delay their flight to show us mercy?"

The Lord of Whisperstone ran a hand over his balding crown. Then made that same waving gesture. A soldier rode up on his right side and wordlessly accepted Skinner's javelin and helm. Unburdened, Skinner threw a leg over the neck of his horse and slid to the ground. Folding his arms across his armored chest, he paced toward the ruins of the cottage. Mulder followed.

When Skinner spoke, it was half to himself. "Jeffrey said she fled when he sent his men to question her."

"Question her?" Mulder scoffed, "or apprehend her?" At once, he wanted the words back, wished to snatch them out of the rain-heavy air. But he didn't attempt the gesture. He stood silently, shivering within the folds of his interrogator's cloak, glaring rebelliously at the stony profile. He had dared too much, but something within wouldn't let him back down even as he begged for mercy. "You've shown me kindness, sir," he said softly, his voice rising with each word of his impassioned plea. "with this gift of your cloak and your offer of shelter. But she saved my father's life. The Witch of Shanalane can't be guilty of Spender's charge!"

Skinner looked at him from the slight difference in their heights, his greater bulk making him seem much more imposing; but his deep brown eyes were strangely kind, and filled with a sort of pity. "You have seen her, then, as I thought," he said. "And perhaps you do love her, even at your tender age." He released Mulder's gaze, turned, and walked back to his horse. "Well, it no longer matters. We'll not catch them tonight." He glanced up at the sky and wiped the drizzle from his forehead with the back of his brawny forearm. "Dawn can't be far off. My men are tired, and the rain has washed away any tracks." He took his reins, climbed astride his huge grey, and settled himself upon the animal's bare back. The soldier at his right side held out the javelin and helm. Skinner took them and set the helmet on his head. "We'll return to Whisperstone and face Spender's wrath," he announced, beckoning to Mulder. "Come, you'll ride with me. What's your name?"

"Fox," he answered without thinking, taking the lord's hand, allowing himself to be hauled upward. Skinner was strong indeed. He balanced Mulder between his thighs and wrapped an arm around his middle. Working the reins with one hand, he steered his horse around to face his soldiers.

"Forget what you've heard here," he told them. "We found these two in the storm, that's all. The Witch and her man are lost to us. If anyone questions you, shrug and blame it on her magic." He glanced at the clouds that raced overhead and again wiped the mist from his dampened brow. "I'm half-convinced she's responsible for this murk, anyway. Now, who's for food and a crackling fire?"

His four men grumbled assent, and with Skinner taking the lead, they started back up the narrow path to the main road. Low branches swatted them smartly, and wet leaves licked their faces. Mulder shuddered, remembering how strangely different it had seemed when he rode this way with the smoking man. But then he'd been slung over the horse like a piece of baggage. Maybe that was really why the limbs hadn't struck him, why the forest had seemed to shy away as they passed. But still . . .

He sighed and shivered and tried to adjust himself more comfortably on the horse's wet hide. Skinner's arm tightened about him, and he leaned back against his benefactor. There was warmth in the older man, and Mulder had been cold too long.

He had never been so far from home or so far down the forest road. To every tree and boulder there was a wonderful sense of newness that not even the darkness could dispel. When the road began to widen, Mulder leaned forward eagerly. Despite the hour, he was not tired. He looked about with excitement.

The clouds parted briefly. A slender moon and a few broken stars lit up the world ahead.

Mulder caught his breath. Slowly, he raised a finger to his mouth and chewed the tip as he stared at the dark, magnificent shape ahead. While he had never seen Skinner's keep before, he had heard tales among the villagers in Shandisti. However, none of those tales had prepared him for the reality.

Whisperstone reared defiantly against the heavens, hugging the moon's light to its silvered ramparts. Dim candles and lamps served to keep the night at bay, oozing dull amber radiance through the open shutters of the highest windows; the windows looked like glowing, slitted cat's eyes against the velvet curtain of the night. Turrets and towers loomed like jagged teeth or shattered mountains. Shadows shifted in the crenulations and among the battlements of its cubits-thick walls where small watch fires burned. Behind it, as if to provide an appropriate backdrop, rose the blacker bulk of a huge, rounded hill.

Impossibly, Whisperstone seemed to grow clearer to Mulder's vision as he gaped. He could make out the individual blocks of granite in the great defensive wall, the crumbling mortar, cracks that had become home to moss and lichen. He knew he couldn't possibly see so clearly in the darkness, yet the illusion persisted.

Then the clouds obscured the moon once more, and Whisperstone seemed to fade. Only the pitiful lights in the windows and the watch fires remained like pale, insensate eyes that, Sybil-like, measured their approach.

Mulder shivered.

"Cold?" Skinner asked, his voice breaking the silence as if it were an egg: careful of the shell. "We'll be there soon. Dry clothes and hot food will chase away the chills."

Mulder didn't answer, absorbed in the keep's forbidding ambiance. 'Not all the chills,' he thought, hugging himself. Whisperstone frightened and fascinated him, drawing him like a moth to a flame. He stared ahead, both hoping for and dreading another glimpse of their destination. The clouds granted his wish, in their fickle manner. The moon lit up the keep once more with a ghostly white light, but only briefly before darkness closed in again.

The night teased him like that. Several more times, the moon shone through only to be swallowed by the clouds. Each time, Whisperstone brightened and faded, as if it were not quite a part of this world, but on a misty boundary between earth and heaven.

The road grew wider still. They passed a house set back among the trees, then another with a small forge in a shed beside it; the coals still glowed with a dull red heat and exuded thin wisps of smoke. A little further along, several houses stood clustered together. There was a barn, and a corral of milling horses. The occasional moonlight glinted on their sleek backs as the soldiers rode by.

Mulder required no moonlight now to see Whisperstone. The road led straight ahead through its massive iron-bound gates. On either side of the portal, small shops and cottages stood darkly silent. Mulder peered for any sleepy faces that might peek out. But the village was still. No one and nothing stirred.

The immense gates stood open. A pair of guards kept watch at the entrance, clutching long, wooden-shafted spears with glistening copper leaf-shaped points. They looked thoroughly miserable in sodden cloaks, yet they pulled themselves to attention and saluted properly as their lord approached.

Skinner's small company passed through the gates and rode across a muddy expanse of courtyard that seemed to double as a training ground or common area. A few outbuildings, barely visible, nestled in the shadow of the great wall.

One of the gate sentries walked alongside Skinner's horse, lighting the way to the keep's entrance with a single oil lantern. Mulder caught his breath again when the dirty glow illumined a brief cascade of wide marble stairs that rose up between two huge, ancient, fluted columns. Just beyond the columns, a pair of ponderous doors stood shut. Hideous bronze visages peered back at him through the gleam, immense masks, he realized, hammered and embossed into the metal plating that strengthened and reinforced those doors. And there was more. Demons danced and wild spirits writhed obscenely in relief around the masks, as if the artist had sought to depict some hellish orgy. In the lamp's flickering, the figures seemed to move, and Mulder clapped a hand to his mouth.

Skinner gave a low chuckle and squeezed the boy's shoulder. "Nothing to hurt you, son," he said. "Whisperstone was built in another age, long before my father's fathers came to own it. Men were superstitious in those days, and our home reflects many of the old beliefs."

"You don't believe in ghosts, sir?" Mulder asked faintly, a mischievous grin twitching the corners of his lips. He felt Skinner's arm tighten around him briefly.

"No. Ghosts haunt the memory, not the night." He paused, and squeezed Mulder's arm again. "You're much too thin for your age, boy." It was a soldier's appraisal, and Mulder squirmed. "You need some muscle and meat on you."

Mulder drew his shoulders up around his ears and gathered the cloak tighter around his throat.

Skinner scratched his square chin, brown eyes thoughtful. "I'd heard that your woodcutter lived with a crippled lad. William, you said his name was? How did that rumor get started?"

Mulder only shrugged. How could he explain his newfound ability to walk? It was easier to let the Lord of Whisperstone wonder. Rumors were only rumors, and in time, Skinner would surely dismiss the story.

"You've turned sullen," Skinner observed. He waited, as if expecting Mulder to answer. When Mulder volunteered nothing, he continued. "I've shut myself within these walls too long. I barely know the people who dwell in my corner of Ispor anymore."

Mulder twisted on the horse's bare back to see Skinner's face. The regretful tone of Skinner's remark surprised him, and his mouth fell open as if to speak, but no words came. He thought of his lonely cottage in the woods and the years spent with only his father for company. Except for the rare times when he accompanied his guardian to Shandisti to sell wood, that isolated spot had been his world. But he'd been an invalid and a cripple. How could a man like Skinner, vigorous and healthy and whole, hide within his walls when the entire world sprawled at his feet?

He saw something suddenly in the older man's eyes, just a brief flash, something deep and sad. A memory, perhaps, or an old pain. Mulder bit his lip and turned away, knowing with a strange certainty that some mystery surrounded Skinner, something that haunted him heart and soul. He wished he hadn't seen it, that he hadn't looked into those deep brown eyes to find a soul as lost as his own was before the coming of the Witch. He had been healed, and yet Skinner, his benefactor, carried this ancient hurt beneath an armor of grim expression and stone.

He felt a sudden pity for Skinner, even in the midst of his equally sudden need to know why the Lord of Whisperstone sulked in his castle away from the people he obviously loved, or at least for whom he felt some concern. Why was the cripple healed and the lord left to suffer? What had happened to Skinner? What were these ghosts of memory the lord had mentioned?

He jerked his head back, shook it sharply, and frowned, pulling himself out of his own insatiable curiosity; the keep itself was fascination enough. No need to investigate the man who had shown him needless kindness. Although that too was curious . . .

He clenched his eyes shut and opened them, then he gazed again at Whisperstone, his lips forming a taut line. The keep was huge; he felt dwarfed and cold in its shadow. In the darkness, it seemed to breathe with a palpable life. Almost regretfully, he reminded himself that in the daylight, it would be just a pile of stones.

Skinner eased himself back onto the rump of his horse and slid down to the ground. Then he held his arms out to help Mulder dismount. As soon as his feet touched the muddy earth, Mulder pitched backward, over-balanced. The horse snorted nervously, sidled right, and started to bolt, but Skinner caught its reins and muscled the beast to a standstill. The gelding stilled at ponce, and Skinner reached down and lifted Mulder from the mud.

"You're a clumsy boy," he said with a grin, "but, I think, a likeable one."

Mulder could feel his face heat with embarrassment, and shifted to an intense study of the ground, avoiding Skinner's amused gaze.

"Don't worry about it," the lord said, laying a hand on Mulder's shoulder. He passed the reins of his horse to the sentry who carried the lantern, and guided his young guest up the steps toward the pair of doors. Two of his soldiers surrendered their reins to the same guard and followed, bearing William's unconscious form between them. "Gently," Skinner cautioned them.

The Lord of Whisperstone pushed open the doors and led the way inside. Mulder blinked as light spilled around him. The inner hall blazed with the brilliance of a thousand lamps, each hung before a plate of burnished copper that reflected and redoubled the rich, golden glow.

Skinner beckoned. "Come in, Fox."

He frowned and hesitated. His feet were muddy and his cloak dripped. Whisperstone's floor was made of beautiful marble. Skinner had left tracks, but then, it was his floor.

The lord shook his head with undisguised impatience, though his stern gaze was softened by a hint of laughter. He dragged the sole of his sandal on the floor, leaving a think smear. "I have many slaves and hired servants," he said. "Now come along."

Mulder swallowed, then stepped inside. The stone was cold beneath his bare feet. A small grin blossomed on his face. He'd never felt such a sensation against his feet before! Or any sensation until tonight. All the uncertainties of Whisperstone fled before this unexpected reminder that his body was whole, that he had feeling where none had been, that he could walk. He wiggled his bare toes on the marble, unable to hide his delight.

He looked up, and saw Skinner staring at him with a peculiar expression, part wonder and part concern, creasing the lines above his brown eyes. Mulder looked down at his own wriggling toes, and felt his face heat again.

He made a hasty excuse for his behavior as he went to Skinner's side. "I've never stood on such a fine floor." At least it wasn't a lie. He didn't want to lie to this man again. "We had a dirt floor in the cottage."

They walked down a long hall and turned into another. A petite woman with bright, silver hair of a color he recognized as red, clad in a belted linen gown, approached them with the apparent intention of claiming their wet garments. Though he stood nearly a foot taller than the flame-haired woman, Mulder cowered away rather than surrender his cloak. He was naked underneath. The servant tried to snatch it anyway, a determined look in her bright blue eyes.

Skinner saved him. "Scully, let him be," he ordered. "I gave him the cloak. Go, and have a room prepared for him and his guardian. The old man is ill, so prepare your things."

Scully shot a mildly annoyed look at Mulder, then turned and strode up a side stairway with a singularly determined gait for so small a woman. The two soldiers followed after her, bearing William between them by heels and shoulders, as if he were a sack of grain. Mulder started to protest, but then he caught a flashing glance of his father's face; it was composed in utter peace.

Mulder turned to Skinner, uncertain and feeling an unaccustomed diffidence. Was he supposed to go with his father or stay with his host?

"Are you tired?" Skinner asked.

He shook his head, not bothering to mention that he rarely slept anyway.

"Come with me, then. This is your chance to meet Ispor's new king." Skinner wiped a frown away with the back of his hand. "It's not the honor it should be, but young as you are, you may find some thrill in it."

He didn't miss Skinner's doubtful tone, and if the noble hid his frown behind a hand, he couldn't hide the creases that lined his brow when he spoke of Cassandra's son. But Jeffrey was king now, and respect was his due, if only to his face.

In their brief acquaintance, Mulder had come to respect Skinner. If the Lord of Whisperstone disliked his new monarch, then there must be good reason. He, too, would be wary then, and judge this young Spender carefully.

He wished, briefly, that he had better clothes, any clothes, in which to meet the king, but he had no chance to remark on it. Skinner had already started down the hall. Mulder clutched the corners of his cloak and hurried after him, his bare feet making a bare whisper of sound on the cool marble.

They turned into yet another corridor, into a long gallery with a high vaulted ceiling and parquet floors. The walls were hung with silk, and displayed several paintings and an impressive array of weaponry. Diluted moonlight poured in through the skylights that ran the length of the hall, providing the only illumination aside from the three massive chandeliers; the mixed lights glanced off the blades of crossed axes and stirred a soft glow in the oil paintings, some of which exceeded even Lord Skinner in height. The ceiling's exposed braces were carved with dragons and demons and mythical beasts, and painted in rich, dark colors that reflected the gleam of the candles. It seemed almost as though the eyes of the painted beasts followed him, leered at him with their copper-glinting eyes, startling shadows in the doors that lined the hall.

"Are there ghosts at Whisperstone?" he murmured softly, an inquisitive gleam lighting his hazel eyes.

Skinner didn't stop or answer, but his throaty chuckle started an irresistible curiosity that bubbled from beneath Mulder's breastbone and sent his gaze into the dark corners in search of things best left alone.

They passed through the hall into a series of ante-rooms, each more opulent than the next, that would apparently lead them to another section of the sprawling castle. Mulder could only stare in wonder at some of what he saw; one room was papered in rich brocade, another in yellow silk, and yet another was painted with a jungle scene of tropical birds and vines in shades of deep blue. One room had elaborate molding on the ceiling, another a painted scene of winged angels and saints, another an almost over-decorated gold chandelier that illumined a solitary wooden throne and a series of mirrored doors that probably led into even more opulence. They passed up a stairway that surrounded a tiny courtyard, filled to bursting with greenery, and passed through a hall of windows, four to a casement with carved window seats large enough for a family, and filled with gilt and stained glass in colors he knew would be incredibly vivid in the daylight.

A gentle music, the sweet high notes of a reed pipe, floated down the hall. It grew louder as they walked, and clearer. He couldn't help but listen to its enchanting purity. Each note was perfect. The tones rose and faded without wavering. Unthinking, he began to sway. He drew one arm gracefully up and over his head.

With a jolt of realization, he stopped himself. Because he walked a little behind Skinner, the lord had not seen, and he was thankful for that. Still, the music was lovely. He could barely keep from dancing; it was all he'd ever wanted.

He remembered where he was and put his desires firmly aside. There would be a time to dance. This was not that time, though. He distilled his excitement and curiosity into a pair of gleaming hazel eyes, his other features settling into a placid mask.

As he drank in the music, he swore he heard his name in the next two notes.

Skinner stopped abruptly, and Mulder ran into his broad back. Inwardly, he cursed himself and started to apologize. But the Lord of Whisperstone had not even noticed. Instead, he stood stiffly, with fists clenched at his sides, and glared at four sentries who blocked a pair of oaken doors.

Mulder studied the four, quickly noting the short grey-sleeved tunics under the leather breastplates on two of the men, which set them apart from Skinner's men, who wore chitons of blue with embroidered short sleeves under their armor. The pair in grey smiled with smug contempt, while the other two looked down at the floor, at the wall, anywhere but at their Lord.

A low, angry sound rumbled low in Skinner's throat. Ignoring their spears, he grabbed the greys by their collars and hurled them away from the entrance. Startled, Mulder jumped back and flattened himself against a wall. Skinner's two men stepped back with stricken looks on their faces, uncertain of what to do. Skinner scowled at them, and they bowed apologetically out of his way.

Skinner kicked open the thin, wooden doors; they rebounded on the inner walls with a crash, and Skinner smashed them back again as he stormed through.

Mulder quickly followed, ducking under the arm of a sentry who dared to make a grab for him. Apparently, the man lacked the courage to chase him. Or perhaps it was good sense that made him decide to remain at his post in the corridor.

This new hall was yet another amazement in a night filled with wonders. His entire cottage would have fit inside several times over, and it was even more lavish than the rooms they had just seen; a carved marble fireplace burned against an elaborately molded wall. Tapestries of history and hunting scenes were interspersed with yet more weaponry of exotic origin and several small idols and a shrine. Even the floor was inlaid with an eight-circle cross, a delicate pattern of interlacing whorls, discs, and dots. And the music! It swirled around him, overwhelming his senses. He spotted its source, a young girl at the farthest end of the room. She sat on a pillow playing her pipe at the feet of a man who he knew could only be Ispor's new king.

"What is this, Spender?!" Skinner's bellow rolled through the chamber. Mulder tore his gaze from the dais, turning his attention to his benefactor to nervously watch the evidence of Lord Skinner's rage. "Do you fear my warriors, that you must add your own guards to my doors? Do you doubt my loyalty?"

Jeffrey sat on an ornate, cushioned chair, which was positioned on a low dais against the room's far wall. He half reclined in it, with one leg thrown casually over an arm of the chair, and he peered at them over the rim of a flat-bowled kylix. "No insult was meant," he answered coolly, wiping a trace of wine from his lips with one finger.

To Mulder's surprise, Spender's voice carried with equal power, though he did not shout. The girl at his feet fluttered a note on her pipe suddenly, as if to draw his attention to the hall's nearly perfect acoustics. He looked at her, and their eyes met briefly before she glanced shyly away, lifted her instrument, and resumed her soft play.

"Unless it is to me," Jeffrey continued, straightening himself as he put both feet on the floor. "I ordered two of my men to stand watch so that yours could join the search for that cursed Witch."

Mulder stiffened. Cautiously, he moved from behind Skinner and found a place near the lord's right hand. He took a harder look at the king. A silver cloak lay discarded in a heap on the floor near the chair. Several trays and vessels were also scattered about. Mulder studied the fine sable robe that Spender wore, the short-cropped dark brown hair that crowned a narrow face, the eyes that glittered darkly even over the length of the hall.

Who are you, he thought with slowly growing contempt, to speak of the Witch and to dare to hunt her through rain and wind. Even if you were king of the world, you would pale beside her.

"But they refused!" Spender rose from the chair, his hand clenching so tightly on the supporting base of the kylix that wine splashed over its rim. "As if your order took precedence over mine!" As suddenly as he had sprung up, he seemed to relax again, and he forced a smile. "Still, because it is your house, I spared their heads. This time." He took a sip from his cup and wiped his mouth again with the back of one hand. "Well, did you find her?"

Skinner sighed and rubbed his eyes with a thumb and forefinger. "Except for the few who remain on watch, all my men are scouring the countryside. But this damned storm has spoiled any sign of a trail. The gods alone know where she is by now."

Anger flashed over Spender's face. With a visible effort, he mastered himself, bent down to the girl with the reed pipe, and placed a hand affectionately on her head as he whispered something in her ear. She put down her pipe and smiled up at him. He stroked her beautiful dark hair and returned her smile. Slowly, she got to her feet, made a delicate curtsy to him and then to Skinner, hugged her instrument to her bosom and left the room.

Mulder stared after her, painfully aware of the absence of her quiet piping. The room seemed cold and still without her music. Even the air went stale, and what had seemed splendid before became mere gaud.

"I ordered you to find the Witch!" Once the child was gone, Spender's rage returned. "I ordered you!" He rose to his feet and shook a fist at Skinner. "You dare face me empty-handed?"

Skinner sneered, a menacing snarl contorting his rough-hewn features. "You'll find soon enough, boy, that it's one thing to order men, and quite another to order fate! Are you such a great king? Go tell the storm to stop, and tell the rain to leave her tracks untouched! Go on, I'll wait here!"

Spender flushed. With a shout, he flung his wine cup at the Lord of Whisperstone. Mulder also gave a cry. Without thinking, he leaped in front of Skinner. The vessel struck him in the chest; red wine splashed his face.

A hand closed on his shoulder and pulled him out of the way, but Skinner spared no glance or thanks. He turned toward the doors instead, and called to one of his men. "Take him to Scully,"he instructed the blue-sleeved guard. "She has prepared a room. Make sure the boy and his guardian are comfortable."

"Don't turn your back on me, Uncle!" Spender bellowed. "It's a mistake to turn your back on me!"

"So I've heard," Skinner answered darkly, turning from Mulder and resuming his argument with Spender.

'Uncle!' Mulder watched over his shoulder as the guard led him out. Skinner and Spender faced each other. Like animals, they seemed to him, ready to bite and claw. The guard led him through the doors and out into the corridor. Shouting followed them and echoed through the keep.

"Is he really the king's uncle?" Mulder asked his guard. The soldier only grimaced and said nothing.

Whisperstone was a maze. One corridor turned into another. They went up, down, and under stairways. They met no other servants, and all but a handful of soldiers were looking for the Witch and her knight. The oppressive silence unsettled him. He found himself thinking of the girl with the pipe and of her music.

Ahead, a door eased open. Mulder recognized the healer who had met them earlier. "Oh, you're here, are you?" Scully said. "Well, good." She waved a hand at the guard. "Go on back," she said. "I'll take him from here." The guard departed, silent as ever.

Scully beckoned Mulder into the room. A rush of pleasant warmth swept over him. A fire crackled in the fireplace, and oil lamps burned in each of the four corners. The sweet scent of incense wafted on the air; he couldn't tell its source, but he inhaled deeply.

"Over there," Scully said, "You can wash in that basin." She indicated a low pedestal near the fire where a bowl and pitcher rested. "I've also brought up some fruit and strip-meats from the kitchen," she continued. "And there's fresh water to drink. Your father is in the next room." Mulder followed her through a narrow archway into another chamber. "Your bed is also in here."

He had never seen such finery on a bed before. The idea of stretching his body upon it, weary as he was, almost appalled him. It was too fine! Only a single candle lit this room, but it was enough to tell the quality of the rich spread and the lush pillows, and the thick carpets that surrounded it as the sea.

His father slept quietly on another bed on the shadowed side of the room. Mulder crept toward him, ran a hand over the beautiful quilt that covered the old man, and sat down gently beside him.

The dim candlelight glimmered on the flecks of gray in William's dark hair. The old man's lids were pale and blue-veined. His face, though, had been washed and the filth combed out of his hair.

"Did you do this?" he asked over his shoulder.

Scully let go a sigh. "I couldn't very well have him soiling Skinner's sheets, and there was no one else to do it this time of night." She sighed again. "Or morning, I should say. Now, if you have no other needs, I'll wish you pleasant dreams and seek my own rest."

"Wait," Mulder called softly. "I just . . . Thank you, for all you've done."

She turned laser-blue eyes on him, and smiled softly.

"I would have done as much for anyone," she murmured, pulled away the neck of her chiton to expose a medallion, shaped like a snake coiled about a cross, hung on a fine golden chain. "I but follow the nature of my calling. But you are welcome." Then she was through the archway and gone. In the other room, the door closed gently.

When Scully was gone, Mulder gazed down at his father and brushed his fingers over the old man's brow. The skin was cool and soft, a wondrous contrast to the woodcutter's rough features, the sharp bone lines, the traceries around his eyes and mouth. He sought his father's hand beneath the quilt and squeezed it. 'Get well,' he wished. 'Don't leave me alone.'

He rose from the bedside, went into the other room, and washed his body, running the linen rag over his leanly-muscled limbs. When he was clean again, he took a fruit from the table and drank water. The air was warm, too warm. The only window was in the bedchamber, and the shutters were closed. Would William get cold if he opened it? Perhaps he could risk just a crack. He crept over the carpets.


He turned away from the shutters at the sound of his name. His father stared at him from the pillow, smiling weakly.

"Father!" he exclaimed, hurrying to the bedside. He hugged the old man and leaned his head on William's chest. "I was afraid when you wouldn't wake up. But you're all right! This is a night of miracles!"

His father's voice was barely audible. "Miracles?" he managed. Then he touched Mulder's leg. Though his eyes were filmed and heavy, they suddenly lit up with wonder.

"Yes!" Mulder laughed, springing up and spinning on his heel. "I can walk! The Witch made it possible. She healed you, too." He slapped his thighs. "Father, she's such a beautiful lady, and she made me a whole man!" His whole face was engaged in the smile, as though the joy he felt were nearly unbearable.

William struggled up onto one elbow and swung a leg over the side of the bed. Tears misted his eyes as he rose and reached for Mulder. "The gods!" he cried. "Thank the gods!" He flung up his arms.

But Mulder caught his father's arms and pulled them down to his sides and intertwined William's fingers in his own. It startled him as he realized suddenly that he was taller than his father, and he bit his lip. "Stop," he said. "It wasn't any of the gods we know. It was the Witch and some strange god from another land." He swallowed, abruptly fearful. What if his father refused to accept his words? The old woodcutter could be somewhat set in his ways, and Mulder didn't want to anger him, not when he was so happy. Still, he dared to continue. "It is to that god I owe thanks, not to the gods of Ispor who made me lame."

William looked at him oddly. "Witch?" He shook his head slowly. "What are you ranting about, boy? I dreamed of a fire in my veins and a cool storm. There were voices. But a witch? The Witch of Shanalane?" They regarded each other uncertainly, and William's face clouded over. Abruptly, though, he visibly shook off his doubts and caught Mulder in a fierce embrace. "I don't understand, but it doesn't matter. You can walk! Praise whatever god for it!"

They held each other for a long moment, until William sagged back onto the bed. Mulder remembered that the Witch had said he would be weak upon awakening. And hungry. He went into the other room and hurried back with the platters Scully had left.

William waved them away. "I'm too happy to eat," he said, his voice only a whisper. "Perhaps later. But throw back those shutters, child. It's nearly morning. Let me see the first light of day."

Mulder obeyed, pushing open the shutters as far as they would go. The faintest hint of dawn colored the horizon. The sun promised to rise right in their window. They would watch it together.

For the first time in my life, Mulder thought, I will greet the day on my feet.

Slowly, the sun climbed over the edge of the world, spreading its brilliant fire. Never had it seemed brighter or lovelier. Higher and higher it floated. William reached out, caught Mulder's hand, and gave it an affectionate squeeze.

The sun sailed higher, chasing away the last vestiges of night. It lathed Mulder's face with a fine warmth that spread like a rich wave over his naked chest, down his stomach, down to his legs.

Suddenly, Mulder folded like a broken puppet, striking his head sharply on the floor. With a small, despairing cry he blinked away the red starflashes that filled his vision. He tried to get up.

"No!" he screamed; his legs refused to move, and he pulled at them, helplessly.

William dropped down beside him, placing his arms around the boy. The fear in his gaze mirrored Mulder's own. His lower lip trembled as he tried to pull Mulder to his feet.

"They won't move, father!" Mulder whispered, staring in horror at his useless limbs. "I can't move them."

Scully rushed into the room in a long nightshirt and belted robe. Skinner appeared moments later still in his wet riding garments. Together, they helped William lift him onto his own bed.

"What happened to the boy?" Skinner asked, getting no answer from William. Scully only shrugged, looking baffled.

Mulder clutched at his father's arm and pulled him closer, wide-eyed. "Don't leave me," he begged. "Please, don't leave me alone!"

"I'm right here," William assured him. The old man crawled onto the bed and curled his body protectively around Mulder. "I'll always be here. I'll always take care of you." Weeping silent tears, he kissed the boy's cheek and brushed a hand over Mulder's hair.

Skinner and Scully stood uncertainly at the foot of the bed, exchanging troubled looks, muttering words that Mulder didn't understand. He didn't care. He shivered against his father and stared at the window.

The beautiful sun sat perched on the sill, and he could hear it laughing at him.


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