He still dreams about them sometimes. Nightmares that leave him wide-eyed and gasping with fears sixty years old pounding fresh through his blood.
It is never the Gorm themselves, strangely enough. Those hulking, clanking monsters of iron and flesh with their blank red eyes. Anyone would think they would be the things to haunt him all the way to old age.
No. It’s always the crows that plague his sleep. The mindless servants of the Gorm. Simple birds, twisted by magic into jagged, flapping things with bladed beaks and torn iron feathers.
He sees the crows gathering in dark skies: swarms of them circling in a clashing, crashing mass of metal.
They caw and screech to one another in a chorus like a thousand hammers pounding on a thousand anvils.
Wheeling and spinning, they strike sparks off one another as their wings touch, and he stands—a small rabbit once again—staring up at them, praying they don’t spot him alone and helpless on the wide-open ground below.
But they always do.
One red eye at first, glaring at him from the throng. A single crow shrieks with horrible joy and peels off from its brothers and sisters, flapping toward him, making all the others turn and stare, their hungry, hungry beaks like razor-sharp shears . . .
And on a good night, that’s when he wakes up.
Thornwood Warren is still sleeping as the bard tiptoes out of his room, the crow dream still echoing in his head, making him twitch at imaginary creaks of iron wings.
The longburrow is empty but for the slumped shape of one lazy rabbit, snoring with his head on a table, an empty mead jug and a pool of drool in front of him. The fire is quietly smoldering, giving the place a dim orange glow as the bard pads silently past. He wraps his cloak about him and heads up the drafty entrance tunnel.
At the doorway, the usual guard, huge and annoying, is asleep at his post, blowing bubbles and twitching his ears as he dreams away to himself. Making a mental note to report him to Chief Hubert, the bard steps around him and opens one of the broad oak doors a crack—just enough to slip outside.
It is moments before dawn, and the brightening sky peeps out between the bare branches of the trees above. The snow has all but vanished from the ground, and here and there the bard can see a brave daffodil or snowdrop pushing its head out of the cold, hard earth to greet the coming spring. He follows the path between the trees, out to the edge of the Thornwood, where he can see the spine of the Razorback Downs stretching away to the east. A blanket of mist is draped across the valley, and the line of hills looks like a giant serpent, wriggling its way through a pale, smoky sea.
The bard stands and stares, breathing in the fresh new scents of the season. Soon, crinkly green leaves will be bursting from the branches all around, blazing away the last of winter with their bright, living colors.
Time for me to be on the move again, he thinks. It is not often he stays in one place for three months (and there are reasons it isn’t safe to do so), but it also isn’t often that he sees his older brother.
Podkin. The bard sighs. It will be a shame to leave him. To every other rabbit in the warren, he is just an old longbeard. A retired warrior, sitting in the longburrow corner every night, playing Fox Paw with the other veterans and dozing. If only they knew . . .
A twig snaps somewhere on the path behind, and the bard suddenly stops his dreaming. Tiny paws patter, and there is a rustle as something hides behind a bush.
“You might as well come out,” calls the bard. “You’re about as stealthy as an overweight badger with granite clogs on.”
The bush rustles again, and a small figure steps out, all huge floppy ears and brown speckled fur. It is one of the chieftain’s sons: the little lad who sits and listens to the bard’s tales so intently every night, chipping in with vivid observations and difficult questions. The sensible rabbit, the bard always thinks of him, although he has learned that his name is actually Rue.
“Sorry, sir,” Rue says, eyes on the ground. “I wasn’t spying on you, just . . .”
“Sneaking up behind me and watching what I was doing? I believe that is the actual definition of spying.”
“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.” The little rabbit looks as though he is about to cry. He has mentioned several hundred times how much he wants to become a bard, and now he probably thinks he has ruined his chances. The bard takes pity on him.
“Oh, whiskers, I wasn’t doing anything worth spying on, anyway. What I would like to know is how you managed to spot me coming out here at this time of the morning. Shouldn’t you be tucked up in your burrow, asleep?”
“I couldn’t sleep, sir. I’ve got six brothers in my bed, and they all snore so much, it keeps me awake. I was under one of the tables in the longburrow, practicing some of my tales, and I saw you walking past. I wondered if you might be doing something . . . bardy. So I followed you. I really would like to become a bard, sir.”
“So you’ve told me. At least half a million times. And stop calling me ‘sir.’ I’m not a chieftain or a knight. Just an old, tired storyteller.” The bard pulls at his beard, wondering how much to encourage the little rabbit. If he’s awful at storytelling, then there’ll have to be a very awkward conversation. And if he isn’t? All bards know there is a duty to train up newcomers with potential. And who will that fall on? It can’t be me, the bard thinks. Not now, with things as they are . . .
The bard notices Rue is still blinking up at him, the tender light of hope in his eyes. He’s left it far too long to just say “Go away” and be done with it now. He’ll have to do or say something. Preferably something encouraging.
A little test, then. Just like the bard’s old master gave to him. He wanders over to a fallen tree and makes himself comfortable among the moss and mushrooms. Rue follows, his huge brown eyes drinking in the bard’s every move. For a moment they stare at each other, and then the bard nods to himself.
“Very well, little one,” he says. “Let’s see what you’ve got. Why don’t you tell me a tale?”
“A tale? Here? Now?” Rue’s ears begin to shake. He has never imagined actually telling someone one of his stories, let alone the bard himself.
“Yes, on you go.” The bard’s eyes twinkle....