Note: This story was written in creative consultation with Higuchimon, as part of our shared "Order of the Outcasts" universe. This takes place after "A Job Worth Doing" but before "Origins".

The procession stopped just at the borders of the kingdom. It consisted of Prince Leonius, a trio of sympathetic guards, and Alit. Not that too many people had gotten a good look at him as he'd made this journey. He was ensconced in a prison wagon, with only small barred windows to give him a view of the outside world. He didn't mind that. If he could see out, it would mean that other people could see in, and that was the last thing he needed complicating his life. For one thing, he wasn't the most popular person in the kingdom right now, and judging by the thuds and splats he'd been hearing whenever they passed through a town, people had been throwing rotten vegetables and worse at him. He didn't want to leave his home, but he really didn't want to leave it covered in dung or bleeding from being pelted by stones.

The other reason he didn't want to be seen right now was because his situation wasn't quite what most people thought it was. Not even the prince had been able to get him out of a murder conviction. What he had done was arrange for Alit to be merely exiled instead of executed, and ensure that Alit's exile would be as comfortable as possible. For one thing, the cart was padded inside, so that at least Alit wouldn't be jolted to pieces by the time he reached the border. For another, he had some supplies with him. Leonius had given him some money, a bag full of food, a change of clothes, and a few other odds and ends that might, with some luck, keep him alive until he got settled somewhere. It wasn't much. It would have to be enough.

A stone archway marked the place where Leonius's kingdom officially ended and the next one began. The cart stopped, and the guards unlocked Alit's door before respectfully retreating a short distance, to give him and Leonius some privacy. They were all old friends of both Alit and the prince. They didn't believe Alit had killed anyone, any more than they believed he could flap his arms and fly like a bird.

Leonius stepped forward to help Alit out of the cage. Alit was grateful. Even with the padding, it had been a bumpy ride, and he wasn't used to being confined for so long. He was stiff and aching from the roots of his hair down. He gave his prince a weak smile.

"I guess this is it, huh?" he said.

"I'm sorry," said Leonius. "I wish I could have done more..."

Alit shook his head. "It's not your fault. You did the best you could."

"I'll make things right," Leonius swore. "I don't care what it takes - I'll find the real killer and clear your name. I'll find a way to bring you back."

"I know you will, Leo," said Alit. He smiled fondly. "I trust you. You've never let me down."

The two of them embraced, and Alit kissed him long and slowly. That kiss was going to be his last for a while. He needed to make the most of it. When at last they stepped apart, he looked into Leo's face, trying to memorize every detail of his features, so that he couldn't forget a thing. He knew Leo would do his best to fix things, but there were no guarantees that even he could make this situation right. It might be years before the two of them saw each other again. Alit wouldn't let himself think that they might not ever see each other again at all.

"I don't want to make this worse than it is," he said at last. "Maybe I'd better just get going."

"Do you want me to walk with you? Just a little ways?" Leo asked.

Alit shook his head. "Better not. You might not decide to come back. You go back to the capital and start working on finding the real killer. The sooner you sort that out, the sooner I come home. I'll be fine," he said, heading off anything that might have sounded like a protest, or a goodbye. "I'll see you again soon. You know I will."

"I know," said Leo. He swallowed hard. "I love you, Alit."

"Love you, Leo."

Alit turned away. He didn't know what else to say. Of all the futures he'd imagined, having to walk away from Leo was not one of them. He settled for raising a hand in a silent farewell. He didn't look back. He didn't think he could stand to see the misery on Leo's face.

It looked like it was going to rain.

Over the past month, Alit had decided that there were a great many more things in the world that he disliked than he'd ever imagined he would. Rain was at the top of the list. It never seemed to pop up when he was conveniently near a village, where he might barter a room for the night in exchange to lending the strength of his arms to some worthy task. No, it always rained when he was miles from anything resembling civilization, usually at night, so he'd be obliged to stumble around in the dark looking for a place to sleep.

Other things he disliked included being scowled at for being a foreign stranger, being dirty and footsore, and being hungry. Right now, being hungry was a serious contender for number one, almost as bad as being rained on. Before he'd set out on this journey, he had confidently assumed that his prowess in the arena would translate over to skill at survival. The reality turned out to be that being able to win against stronger human opponents in a controlled environment did not give him any kind of skill at tracking or setting snares, and he had no weapons with which he might even try to shoot at something. He'd been reduced to buying or working for food when he could, and scavenging for edible plants when he couldn't, and going hungry when he could do neither. He'd been going hungry a lot lately. It was starting to wear him down.

Right now, he was looking up at the sky and contemplating the odds that it would start to rain before he reached the next village. That was one thing he could say for living on the road: he was developing a pretty reliable sense for what the weather was going to do next. Right now, his best guess was that he still had a few hours before things got unpleasant. Going by the directions he'd gotten at his last stop, he had a good ways more than that to go before he reached the next village. He frowned up at the clouds and weighed his options.

His plan, as far as he'd worked it out, was to try to reach the capital city of this particular kingdom and try to get himself a job there as some sort of soldier or perhaps a bodyguard. Failing that, he would try to find a mercenary squadron and see if they would take him on. It wouldn't be as good as the arena - nowhere near as good, since as the prince's favored warrior he'd gotten all sorts of perks the normal fighters didn't get - but it would be better than wandering aimlessly. Unfortunately for him, this was a large kingdom, and he wasn't used to traveling such distances on foot, so his progress had been slow. He'd made it this far by following the meandering directions he'd gotten by asking at pubs. Those usually took him as far as the next town, which might or might not have been the most direct route to where he wanted to go.

In this case, he knew for a fact that it was not. The old man tending the bar at the last town had warned him that the road he was following curved around a patch of forest where something had moved in and taken up residence - according to the locals, anyway. The story was that there was a powerful Forest Guardian living there, one who did not take at all kindly to people trespassing in its woodland. A number of locals had, in fact, been quite happy to fill Alit's ears with horror stories of people who had dared to go hunting or chop wood or catch fish within the patch of land the Forest Guardian had marked out-of-bounds. No one seemed to agree on quite what the Forest Guardian was, but they all agreed that it was large and powerful and a terror to look upon, and that Alit should keep well away from it if he knew what was good for him.

Alit didn't believe in any Forest Guardian. What he did believe was that he was hungry and footsore, and that it was going to rain soon. He also believed that there would be edible plants in the forest, that soft leaves and moss would be more comfortable for walking on than hard-packed road, and that there would probably be places in the forest to hide that might keep him warm and dry during the night. Furthermore, he believed that taking a shortcut through the forest would put him in the next village that much sooner. That was enough for him. Even if there was a Forest Guardian, it wasn't like he wanted to hurt the forest. All he wanted was something to eat and a place to put his head down. Surely that couldn't be too much to ask.

Anyway, if he did run into the Forest Guardian, well... he'd never turned down a good fight.

With his mind made up, he left the path and plunged into the forest.

For the first hour or so, he felt sure that he'd made the right choice. He found a patch of wild mint right off the bat, and he picked a few handfuls of leaves to chew while he looked for something more substantial to munch on. He saw nothing else that was of any particular interest to him. Birds twittered overhead, small furry things rustled in the underbrush, and the trees whispered overhead. All in all, it was a pretty ordinary forest, and he began to think that the men he had spoken to were just pulling his leg.

After a while, though, he began to sense a change. It was so subtle that he didn't even notice where it began. It wasn't that there was anything wrong with the forest he was walking through. It was just that it was slowly becoming more... forest-like. The trees seemed taller and thicker, and yet somehow their foliage wasn't enough to blot out the slanting beams of late afternoon sunlight, and the underbrush was so thick and verdant that he was wasting a lot of time trying to find some way through or around it. The moss was as green as emeralds and as thick and soft as the cushions in the prince's own bedroom. The very air smelled alive with growing things. The lushness of it all was a bit overwhelming, as though at any moment the plant life might rise up and swallow him whole. It was, he thought, no wonder that this place had a reputation for being a bit uncanny. This had to be old forest, a place where human beings rarely set foot, and it had grown wild and strong without their interference.

Even as he was thinking that, a figure suddenly loomed up from behind a tree, and Alit revised his opion: Okay, one person's interference.

There was no doubt in his mind that he had found the Guardian of the Forest.

The men in the pub had been wrong about one thing: the Guardian was as human as anyone, at least to look at. He wasn't a handsome man, by any means - his brows seemed to be made for scowling, and he had a mouth like a fish and a nose you could have ploughed fields with, but it was only normal human homeliness and not the grotesquerie he'd been told to expect. One thing they had been right about, though: he was a massive man, both tall and broad, and apparently solid muscle. He was dressed in sensible homespun clothes with a tough-looking weatherproof cloak thrown over them, and he carried what appeared to be a crudely carved tree branch like a staff. Just now, he was looking at Alit with an expression of undisguised distrust.

"Who the hell are you?" he snapped. "Don't you know this place is forbidden?"

"I didn't see any signs posted," said Alit. "What's it to you anyway? I'm not hurting anything."

"This is my forest," the Guardian said. "You aren't allowed here."

"Well, I'm getting out as fast as I can," said Alit. "But if you have a problem with me, you're welcome to try to throw me out."

He fell easily into his fighter's stance and watched the Guardian with cool confidence. Sure, the man was easily twice his size, but Alit had made a good career out of fighting men much larger than himself, and most of them had been carrying weapons far more formidable than a stick. Even on short rations and with a long walk behind him, Alit thought he could take him.

Evidently, the Guardian was having similar thoughts about him. With a sudden lunge, he charged towards Alit, swinging his staff like a club. Alit saw it coming, ducked underneath it, and drove his fist towards his attacker's solar plexus. The blow stunned the big man, but not as much as Alit had hoped. He staggered back with a grunt, dropping his staff as he stumbled, and then dove back in swinging.

Well, this is going to be fun, thought Alit. He felt almost cheerful. This was what he'd been born to do. Everything was always very simple when it was down to just him and someone else, swinging their fists at each other until one of them dropped. In the past, "someone" had always been whoever Alit was trying to hit.

The two of them darted and dodged around each other, testing each other's defenses. Alit was forced to grudgingly admit that the Guardian wasn't just big - he knew his stuff. He was much lighter on his feet than Alit had expected, and he clearly had some training in how to fight. Alit ducked and dodged, avoiding swings from those huge hands, landing a strike here and there when he could. For all the good it was doing, though, he might as well have been punching one of the trees.

Suddenly, the Guardian moved, and Alit saw his chance. He brought his fist up in a swift uppercut, just as the Guardian came at him with a punch of his own. The two of them hit each other at the same time, and both staggered backwards from the force of the blows. Alit stumbled on a root and fell backwards onto a soft patch of moss. The Guardian, a little luckier, managed to brace himself against a tree trunk. The two of them paused a moment to catch their breath.

"You've got some swing for such a little guy," the Guardian admitted grudgingly.

Alit grinned, wiping away a trickle of blood from his lip. "You're not too bad yourself." He got up and offered his hand. "Come on. Let's call it a truce, huh?"

The Guardian thought about it a second before shrugging and moving to take the offered hand. He shook it firmly but not painfully so. Apparently he felt he'd made his point already.

"Truce," he agreed. "So... back to where we started. Who are you and why are you in my forest?"

"My name's Alit, and I'm just looking for a place to get in out of the rain," said Alit. "I really didn't know there was anyone here, or I would have gone around. I'm a stranger here, and I figured you were just... you know, a local legend to scare kids out of getting lost in the woods."

The Guardian looked slightly embarrassed. "Well, uh... the rumors might be a little out of hand by now, I guess. I'm Gilag. I'm a druid."

"No kidding?" Alit looked Gilag up and down. His idea of a druid was an old bearded man living in a cave somewhere, stirring up potions in a big cauldron. Not in a hundred years would he have dreamed up one that looked like Gilag.

"I'm still kinda new at it," Gilag admitted. He gave Alit a thoughtful look of his own. "You look like you're hungry. Haven't been sleeping much, either."

Alit was surprised. "How do you know that?"

"Druid," Gilag explained. "I can usually tell how healthy something is, if I'm paying attention." He shrugged a little. "I've got food, if you like vegetables."

"At the moment, I could eat a tree, roots and all," said Alit.

Gilag laughed as he bent to retrieve his staff. "You better not! Come on. My house is this way. You can tell me how you ended up here while we walk."

Alit obligingly fell into step with his new acquaintance and began to talk.

"I used to be a gladiator in the next kingdom over," he said. "You know gladiators, right?"

"Kinda like a soldier?" Gilag guessed.

"Not exactly. More like performers, I guess - we fight each other in the arena for the entertainment of the crowds," Alit explained. "The ones who win most often can become rich and famous."

Gilag nodded. "More like being in a tournament, then."

"More like that," Alit agreed. "Anyway, I was good. I was the best. I was the city's hero. I even had the favor of the prince..." He sighed. He missed Leo almost unbearably. "Then one morning someone banged on my door and told me I was being arrested for murder."

"You killed somebody?" Gilag asked, with a note of suspicion in his voice.

"No!" Alit protested. "I never killed anybody! What happened was, I went out into the city and had a couple of drinks at the public house, and this guy sitting next to me started talking politics. Well, we got into an argument, and it got noisy, so the bartender told us to take it outside. So we went out and started walking circles around the courtyard, and after a little while we both cooled off and settled our differences. I went back to my rooms, and he went off to wherever he went. Next morning he turned up knifed to death in an alley, and everyone who was at the bar remembered that he and I had been fighting. The thing is, though, I wasn't even carrying a knife when I went out. I'm famous for fighting with my bare hands. I might have knocked him out cold if I got mad enough, but to knife him, I'd have to leave, go find a knife, and then come back and find him again. It just doesn't work. But there were no other suspects handy, and he was important and I'm just a gladiator - in the social pecking order, I'm not much better than a slave, so I got to take the blame. The guy's family wanted to have me executed, but the prince managed to reduce the sentence to exile instead. So here I am."

Gilag gave him a speculative look. "I think I believe you. You don't have a killer's eyes."

"Thanks for the vote of confidence," said Alit.

They followed the edge of a stand of particularly dense shrubs, and found a gate made of large sticks held together in no fashion Alit could quite work out. It swung easily on its hinges, despite its ramshackle appearance, and Alit found himself being herded into a clearing unlike anything he'd ever seen before.

In the heart of the forest, there was a neatly tended garden - several plots' worth of gardens, in fact, each one full of healthy-looking vegetables, herbs, and flowers. Along one side of what Alit now recognized as a hedge-fence, there were a number of small trees, which he guessed provided fruits and nuts. There wouldn't have been anything too strange about that, except that he was fairly certain that some of the plants he was seeing weren't anything like native to the area, and all of them were fruiting, in defiance of the time of year. Some of them even had both ripe and green fruit, flowers, and buds all at the same time. On the side of the garden opposite the orchard, a little creek flowed by, with cattails growing along its bank. The strangest thing, however, was the house at the far end of the clearing. It appeared to have been thrown together much like the gate, out of whatever fallen branches had been lying around at the time, with twists of living vine holding it all together and patches of moss filling in the chinks. Only the roof was made of stone - flat irregular pieces of slate, with a river-stone chimney right in the center. Smoke drifted lazily up from it.

While Alit was taking in the scenery, a fat furry animal dropped down from a tree overhead and landed on Gilag's shoulder.

"You brought a stranger, da pon," it said.

Alit stared at it. The creature seemed to be a raccoon-dog, and he was reasonably certain that those animals didn't talk, yet this one had spoken quite clearly. Gilag saw his expression and grinned.

"This is my buddy Ponta," he exclaimed. "Taught me everything I know about magic. Ponta, this is Alit. I caught him wandering around the woods and decided not to turn him into anything."

Ponta sat up, apparently getting a better look at Alit. He tried not to squirm under that surprisingly sharp gaze.

"I think he's okay," the little animal declared. "Are we going to eat now?"

"Sure thing," Gilag said.

He gave Ponta's head a pat, and the raccoon-dog scampered down his back and went bounding towards the house. Gilag started walking after him, and Alit followed close behind, lured by the promise of food.

"Could you really have turned me into something?" Alit asked.

Gilag grinned. "Buddy, you're on my turf. I coulda done just about anything I wanted to, if I put my mind to it."

"And instead you decided to hit me?" Alit asked.

"Hey," said Gilag, looking affronted, "that usually works!"

They reached the door to the house, but Gilag held out an arm to stop Alit from going inside.

"You're a mess," he stated. "You can't come in like that. Hang on a sec."

He ducked inside, and came out a moment later with a clean rag and a lump of what looked like homemade soap. A sharp, clean scent of herbs wafted from it, which only served to remind Alit of how he must smell after days of walking and more than a few nights of sleeping in stables.

"Go down to the creek and clean yourself up," Gilag said, shoving both items into Alit's hands. "I'm gonna raid the pantry, see if there's anything else in there to eat. I wasn't planning on having a guest tonight."

Alit nodded and headed down to the creek. He found a conveniently bare patch of bank, stripped off his filthy clothes, and waded into the water for a good long scrub. The water was pleasantly cool, but not cold, and he enjoyed splashing around in it. His people were a cleanly culture, and he'd gotten into the habit of bathing once a day - more, if he'd been doing something particularly strenuous. After days of being filthy, being properly clean again felt marvelous. Minding what Gilag had said, he took his time, scrubbing himself thoroughly twice over and even ducking his head underwater to wash his hair, and then drying himself thoroughly with the cloth. Then he changed into his other clothes. They weren't exactly clean clothes, because like everything else he owned at this point, they had picked up their share of road dust, but they were markedly less sweaty and lacked the faint air of "stable" that the ones he'd been wearing had. The dirty clothes, he left spread out on the bank. Rain would be coming soon, and it would drum the filth out of them more thoroughly than he could. Once he was as clean as he could make himself and more or less dry, he headed back into the house.

"Oh, good, I was just coming to get you," said Gilag, meeting him at the door. "Soup's on."

That was a literal statement. When Gilag had mentioned vegetables, Alit had assumed that he was going to be handed, well, vegetables - a turnip or carrot pulled straight from the garden. That was what he'd gotten at most of the farms he'd managed to earn a meal from. The table in front of him definitely had raw vegetables, but they'd been tossed into a salad and dressed with oil and vinegar. There was also a large bowl of hearty bean soup, and roasted carrots glazed with honey and spices, and potatoes baked with cheese and green onions, and stuffed mushrooms, and...

His stomach gave a growl. Gilag laughed.

"Sit down and eat something," he said, and gave Alit a shove towards the table. "We're not worried about good manners in here."

Alit wasted no time in sitting down and filling a plate with some of everything. Gilag and Ponta sat down across from him, and the three of them settled in for some serious eating. The rain started coming down not long after they'd been seated, pattering on the slate roof, but inside the house it was comfortably dry and the fire warmed every corner of it. Bunches of herbs hanging from the ceiling gave off a pleasing scent. It took a while before Alit slowed down enough to really taste what he was eating, but once he'd taken the edge off his hunger enough to stop simply gulping things as fast as he could, he realized that the food was actually quite good. It appeared his companion had learned to make very effective use of the things he could grow or scavenge in his forest.

Of course, it took him a while to get used to the fact that one of his dinner companions was a talking animal, but once he managed that, it was one of the more pleasant dinners he'd ever had. Certainly it was several times better than anything he'd had since he left home. He wondered, as he filled his plate again, if being a druid gave a person some special insight into the best way to prepare vegetables.

While they ate, Alit made some effort to learn more about his host. It turned out that Gilag was willing enough to talk. Apparently he'd once been a warrior - not a gladiator, competing for honor and glory, but just one more soldier in an army, sent to fight and die for his master. He had nearly died, but apparently Ponta had saved him and put him on a path less likely to get him killed, tutoring him in the ways of magic and the forest. Alit could understand that. At least it explained why a man who was apparently a powerful magician had come at him with fists instead of turning him into a caterpillar or something. Alit got the impression he had only been doing this Druid thing for a year or two after spending the rest of his life as a soldier, and he hadn't fully acclimated yet.

Eventually, Alit finished off the last of his dessert - a slab of dense sweet bread, flavored with nuts and honey and spread thickly with wild berry jam - licked the berry juice off his fingers, and settled back in his chair with a contented sigh.

"Anything else?" his host asked.

Alit shook his head. "That was great, thanks. The best meal I've had in a long time, to tell the truth."

"Uh... this might be a stupid question," said Gilag, "but didn't you bring any food on this trip of yours?"

"Some," said Alit, "but it was only enough for a couple of days. I guess I figured I'd be able to get more later on, but it hasn't really been working out. I mean, I've lived all my life in a city. I don't know much about living off the land."

"Well, you're in the right place," said Gilag. "Stick around for a couple of days. I can teach you everything you need to know."

"Are you sure about that?" asked Alit. "I wouldn't want to be a bother." To tell the truth, he suspected that Gilag was right - he would benefit a lot from some lessons in how to survive on the road - but he wasn't sure he wanted to intrude on this private place. Usually when someone lived in the middle of a forest with a gate and a hedge around his house, it tended to mean that he didn't want company.

"It's fine," said Gilag. "It'll liven things up around here."

"Well, if you're sure," said Alit. He grinned. "All right. Sounds too good to pass up!"

Gilag smiled. Even on his homely face, it was a friendly expression. "Great. I'll fix a bed up for you."

Alit watched him as he got up and started doing exactly that. After a few moments, he decided he was really going to have to stop jumping to conclusions where his new friend was concerned. He'd assumed that making up a bed would involve spreading a blanket in front of the fireplace. Instead, Gilag took four sticks from the kindling pile and jammed them into the dirt floor, marking out a rectangle. Then he walked over to a shelf full of jars, investigated their contents, and finally selected a handful of seeds from a few of them. He carefully placed some of these at the base of each stick. Then he stood in front of his construction and set the tip of his staff firmly on the ground. Something in the earth thrummed. Instantly, the seeds began to sprout. Vines climbed up the sticks, reaching out tendrils and unfurling leaves, twining around each other until they had filled the space between the four posts, forming a surprisingly sturdy-looking hammock.

"Well, I'm impressed," said Alit.

Gilag grinned. "Heh, you should ask me to do something difficult next time. I'll show you impressive!"

Alit grinned back. "Maybe later. Right now, that bed is looking pretty good."

A few minutes later, the dishes had been cleared away, the lamps put out, and Alit was curled up in his new hammock-bed beneath a cozy patchwork quilt. He reflected that his day had ended a lot better than it had begun. He was warm, comfortable, and well fed. More importantly, he wasn't alone. At least for a few days, he had someone besides himself to rely on. He hadn't realized just how much of a relief that would be. He had always thought of himself as pretty independent, but really, he'd always at least known that Leo was there to back him up when he needed it, and having his support cut away had been a bigger blow than he'd realized it would be. Now, for a day or two at least, he wouldn't be going it by himself.

The rain still pattered on the roof, but the sound was soothing, and the warmth of the fire and scent of the herbs made him drowsy. Just before Alit dozed off entirely, it occurred to him that for the first time since leaving his home, he was happy.

For the next few days, Alit stayed with Gilag and Ponta in the little house of sticks, and he learned things. His two hosts taught him which plants were edible, which had healing properties, and which would keep insects off his skin and out of his food. They taught him how to recognize the signs that dangerous predators might be near, how to build a makeshift shelter that would keep him warm and dry overnight, and how to light a fire even when the wood was wet. In the meantime, Alit did his best to make himself useful around the place. Not that there was really very much - his new friends seemed pretty self-reliant. They appeared to have evolved an idyllic little retreat here in the heart of the forest where they had everything they needed and had no need of any outside help. Even the gardens practically took care of themselves, without the interference of weeds or insects.

Mostly what Gilag seemed to want was a sparring partner. That was fine with Alit; the last thing he wanted was to fall out of condition, and return home someday only to find that he couldn't hack it in the arena anymore. He also got the impression that Gilag chafed under his endlessly peaceful existence more than he'd thought he would back when he'd first taken up his new life. Furthermore, it seemed that he'd very rarely encountered anyone who could stand against his immense size and strength for any length of time, and he appeared to enjoy having a genuine challenge. So did Alit, if he was going to tell the truth. Gilag might not be a replacement for Leo, but he was a far worthier rival than most of the people he'd fought in the arena.

Still, Alit was a city boy at heart, and no matter how pleasant Gilag's forest retreat was, after a few days there, he began itching to see some other people.

"Don't you ever leave this place?" he asked.

Gilag gave him a quizzical look. The two of them had been in the process of gathering deadwood for the kitchen fire and chopping it up into manageably-sized pieces. Fortunately this was an old forest, and there were enough fallen branches and dead trees to keep their small kitchen reasonably well-stocked.

"What do you mean by that?" he asked.

"I mean, are you totally tied to this place, or can you get out of your own forest for a while, go visit other people?" Alit asked.

"Sure, I do that sometimes," said Gilag. "I go into the next town once or twice a month to get supplies."

"Then let's go!" said Alit. "No offense, but I'm getting sick of looking at nothing but trees all the time."

Gilag turned the thought over in his mind for a while, leaning on his axe as he contemplated.

"All right," he said. "I could stand a shopping trip. Just lemme get my stuff."

A few minutes later, Gilag was outfitted with his "stuff", which turned out to be a pack full of assorted charms, some bundles of herbs and jars of assorted powders. He also put on a long cloak and wound a scarf over his face.

"What's with the getup?" Alit asked.

Gilag shrugged. "It's what I always do. Come on. Let's get going."

Alit nodded and fell into step behind him. They cut through an area of the forest that Alit hadn't seen much of before. He was only mildly surprised when they jumped a dry gully, wound their way through a stand of beech trees, and struck a narrow path. From there, they picked up their pace and shortly ended up on the main road. Alit relaxed a little once he saw it, feeling secure in the knowledge that soon he would be back among humanity. He was surprised, therefore, when Gilag turned off the road onto a rutted path that turned out to lead to a farmhouse. Before Alit could ask what was going on, a stocky man with a round red nose and a woven straw hat came bustling out of the house.

"Oh, Gilag!" he said anxiously. "I sure did hope you'd show up today! You've gotta do something about my tomato plants!"

"No worries, Hosaku," said Gilag. "I'll fix 'em, don't worry."

He followed the man around to the back of the house, where a large field of tomato plants stood, rows of them stretching off in all directions. While the man wrung his hat in his hands, Gilag inspected them, turning leaves over and digging his fingers through the dirt. Eventually, he fished around in his pack, took out a bottle of something, and instructed the farmer to mix a few spoonfuls of it with water in a watering can and sprinkle some of the resulting mixture around the roots of the blighted plants every day for at least the next week. The farmer was almost tearfully grateful.

"Thank you so much, Mr. Gilag!" he blubbered. "You know how much these tomatoes mean to me!"

"No worries," said Gilag. "I'll be back in another couple of weeks to see how they're doing."

The two of them entered a round of negotiations that had the rhythm of long habit, debating how much the cure for root rot was worth in terms of bits of leather and pieces of metal and glass, things Gilag couldn't easily make by himself. In the end, they reached a bargain and shook on it, and Gilag put his new belongings in his pack and began heading towards the road again.

"What was that all about?" Alit asked. He'd been mostly ignored throughout the proceedings, and was feeling a little irritated about being left out.

"It's what I do," said Gilag. "Look - you heard the stories about the Guardian of the Forest, right?"

"Yeah," Alit admitted.

"So has everyone else," said Gilag, "and everyone knows that the Guardian of the Forest is big time bad news and nobody with any sense would get near him. That's how I like it. As long as everyone is scared of the Guardian, they stay out of my forest and don't cause trouble. That's why when I come into the village, I'm just Gilag. As far as anyone knows, I'm just a wandering druid who wanders through every so often to cure their sniffles and take blight off their rutabagas. So if anybody asks, you can tell 'em you're my apprentice or something."

"Got it," said Alit.

That was how he ended up following Gilag docilely through his rounds as he visited the various farmhouses that surrounded the village, and then worked his way into the village himself. Most of the people there treated him with all the excitement and respect they might have accorded to, say, a traveling tinker - someone useful and therefore welcome, but not of any particular standing. They also didn't seem to be any sort of particular friends. Alit wasn't sure whether to be saddened by this or not. Eventually, he decided that "annoyed" was the better response. He grabbed Gilag's arm.

"Come on," he said. "It's your turn to follow me now."

"What?" said Gilag, looking down at him in surprise.

"I've had enough of hanging around watching you play doctor," he said. "We're going to go find some real entertainment."


"Not listening," said Alit. He turned and began walking. "You coming or not?"

He heard the sound of Gilag spluttering behind him. Alit ignored him, and after a few seconds, he heard the sound of heavy footsteps coming up behind him. Alit smiled.

He had never been to this village before, but his wandering had taught him a thing or two about finding the important buildings in any town he visited. It didn't take him long to locate the public house and push the front door open, and he smiled as he slipped easily into the crowd, breathing in the scents of beer and cooking food. Behind him, he heard the door open and close again. He turned around and smiled at Gilag.

"Nice of you to tag along," he said.

"I just didn't want you to get lost," Gilag huffed. "You do know I don't even drink beer, right?"

"You still eat," Alit pointed out. "Relax a while. Have some food. Talk to people. Enjoy yourself. I don't care how good you've got it there in the forest, it's not natural for you to never come out and talk to people once in a while..."

He trailed off at that point, because he realized that Gilag was no longer listening to him. Instead, he was staring, wide-eyed, mouth slightly agape, at something over Alit's shoulder. Alit turned to look.

Near the fireplace at the back of the room, a young woman had gathered an appreciative audience as she played a rebec and sang in a sweet piping voice. She was, Alit thought, quite pretty, though not really his type. He would have been willing to bet money on her being Gilag's type, though. He grinned at the expression on his friend's face and patted his shoulder.

"See, buddy?" he said. "This is why we get out and socialize once in a while."

"Yeah," said Gilag. The tone of his voice implied that Alit could have suggested that they both turn into dragons and fly to the moon and gotten exactly the same reaction.

Alit just grinned, shook his head, and ordered a drink. He had a feeling the two of them were going to be there for quite a while.

It was, in fact, quite late by the time they went home, and Alit had a feeling that they were only leaving because the pretty bard had taken her final bow and gone to bed. All the same, it had been pleasant to listen to the music, get some gossip from the locals, have a hot meal that hadn't come out of a garden, and in Alit's case, drink a couple of pints of good beer. He was in a mellow mood as they walked home under the early stars.

"You know, that was fun," said Gilag. "We should do that again sometime."

"See, I told you it would be," Alit replied. "You should listen to me when I tell you things."

"Oh? Listen to you? Like the time you wanted to pick White Sleep mushrooms for dinner?"

"How was I supposed to know they were poisonous? They looked just like those other ones you said it was okay to eat!"

"Not if you look under the cap, they didn't!"

"Well, maybe if you hadn't flipped out about me touching them before I could look..."

"You still wouldn't have figured it out."

Alit gave Gilag a shove. Not that it did much good, of course - he might as well have shoved a house. Gilag laughed and shoved him back, making him stagger a few paces.

"Sheesh, Leo, cut it out," Alit blurted.

He realized immediately the slip he'd made and flushed with embarrassment. That would teach him to ask for another round. But he and Leo had bickered and play-fought like this so often that the words had become a habit too deeply ingrained not to say. Gilag noticed, too, and looked at him curiously.

"Leo?" he repeated. "Who the heck is Leo?"

Alit started to say something sharp, then changed his mind. It had been his own mistake, and Gilag had done nothing to deserve being yelled at.

"Leo is the prince," he said. "Prince Leonius - the one who got me exiled instead of executed. He and I... well, there's no point in hiding it. We were lovers." He closed his eyes, shaking his head. "I miss him like crazy. I never thought I'd have to be away from him like this."

"Wow," said Gilag, sympathetically. "That's rough."

"Tell me about it," said Alit.

"I guess it's not much consolation," said Gilag, "but I don't mind you hanging out with me as long as you want to. It won't be the same, but... at least you won't be alone."

Alit smiled. It was a forced smile, but it came more easily than he'd expected.

The evening had been a peaceful one. Alit sat on the floor near the fire, playing cards with Ponta. He'd been living in the druid's hut for a few weeks, and by this point, he'd long ago gotten over the idea that Ponta was a mere animal; if anything, he was probably smarter than Alit and Gilag both, in at least some respects, and more pleasant company than some humans Alit had met. He was also a pretty cunning card-sharp, and Alit had learned to watch him very carefully any time they were playing.

Gilag sat close by, under the light of his best lamp, carving a trinket-box out of wood. Alit had been to the village enough by now to know that the local courting customs involved an exchange of homemade gifts. The girls mostly gave textiles - embroidered handkerchiefs or bits of ribbon, knitted scarves or crocheted hats. If a young man was learning a trade, he might offer up some example of whatever it was he did all day, but the most common gifts were trinkets of carved wood. The larger and more complex the gift, the more serious the courtship was. Alit had learned this, luckily, before he'd had the chance to embarrass himself. It would have been a major faux pas if a young woman had offered him a handkerchief and he'd mopped his brow with it and handed it back.

The box Gilag was making was fiendishly complicated. He'd pieced it together out of several different types of wood, each with a different color or grain. The outside had been carved in a forest scene of trees, streams, animals, and birds. Moreover, it had been designed so that each of its drawers was fitted to a gear that made some detail on the outside of the box move: a fish leaped in a stream, birds flew from tree to tree, squirrels scurried over the forest floor. The lid of the box featured a tree with a gnarled trunk and a complex system of branches that formed multiple hollow spheres, one inside the other. Alit suspected that Gilag was using some sort of magic to force the wood to do what he wanted if the skill of his hands was insufficient, but there was nothing wrong with that. As far as he could tell, the point of these gifts was to prove that the giver would be of some use as a marriage partner, and Alit supposed magic was at least as useful a skill as carving wood, and probably more so.

One thing was for sure: the pretty bard at the pub couldn't possibly have gotten anything like this from one of her suitors. Alit could only wonder what she was going to think of it.

A scream rang out. Instantly, Alit was on his feet, scattering cards. Gilag surged out of his chair, setting aside knife and carving to lunge for his staff, and Ponta scampered up his robes with fur standing on end. When the second scream rang out, both of them were already out the door and rushing towards the source of the sound.

The forest was very dark, with only a thin scrap of moon and the rare glint of a star to show the way. In the dark, the trees seemed even denser and taller, the shadows teeming with half-seen and half-imaginary shapes. It was more obvious than ever why this place had a reputation for being an unchancy place. Alit soon realized that he wasn't going to get very far under his own steam and fell back a little to let Gilag take the lead. The druid didn't seem to mind the dark; he tromped through the woods as surely as if it had been noon, never so much as slipping on a patch of wet leaves. Alit did his best to avoid tripping over roots and tried to keep up.

They didn't have far to go. It was only moments later that they came to a bit of a clearing, where two men were standing over a sobbing young woman - a girl, really, probably not much more than fourteen. One of the men held a knife, and the other had a rough club in his hands.

"Please," the girl was sobbing. "Let me go! I don't have anything to give you. Let me go!"

The man with the knife leered. "Oh, I reckon if you thought about it, you could think of something to give us..."

Oh, hell, Alit thought, realizing what the man meant. She's just a kid!

He started to take a step forward, thinking of little more than of grabbing hold of both of those men and knocking them around until their own mothers wouldn't recognize them. Gilag blocked him with an outstretched arm. Alit looked at him questioningly. His friend looked even more furious than Alit felt.

"No," he said. "This one is mine."

The sound seemed to catch the attention of the two men, who turned and peered warily into the darkness. Gilag took a few paces closer, letting the moonlight fall full upon him. He slammed his staff onto the ground, making the men jump. The girl emitted a little whimper.

"You," Gilag boomed, "are trespassing in my forest! What right do you have to be here?"

"It's the monster!" the man with the club gasped.

"That's no monster!" his friend spat. "It's just the druid from the village. We can take him." He hefted his knife and started forward. "Back off if you know what's good for you, friend. This is none of your business."

"Help me!" the girl wailed. "These men captured me! They hurt my... my friend..."

"Nobody hurts anybody in my forest!" Gilag bellowed. His voice seemed to echo throughout the woods, and the trees whispered and shook with the force of his anger. The more cautious man, the one with the club, took a step or two backwards, glancing over his shoulder as if checking escape routes. The other man, however, just shifted his grip on his knife.

"You don't scare me," he said. "You're just some tree-hugging, squirrel-kissing bumpkin, and if you think I'm scared of some moss-eater with a stick...

He made a lunge forward, knife flashing. Gilag might well have blocked it, but Alit got there quicker. He darted out of his hiding place in the shadows, drove one hand up sharply to grab the man's wrist and twist it, forcing him to drop the blade. At the same instant, his other hand came up in a fist to catch the man with considerable force in the windpipe. The man lurched backwards, gasping and choking.

Apparently, the other man had some fragile sense of loyalty. He moved uncertainly towards Alit, holding up his club in what he probably hoped was a threatening manner. Alit just grinned and held up his fists: Come on, try me.

"That's enough," Gilag growled. "Alit, stand back. I don't like people hurting people in my forest, and I really don't like people hurting my friends."

The man with the club smiled, apparently sensing a bluff. "So what are you going to do about it, huh?"

Gilag didn't answer. He just took a deep breath, pulling himself up to his full height, holding his staff upright in front of him with both hands. Alit stared at him, amazed. Somehow, he seemed to be even taller than usual. It had to be only a trick of the light, but it seemed to him that Gilag was actually growing, or that the forest was shrinking away behind him, so that the tall trees came only to his shoulders and his head could have brushed against the moon...

...and the trees were glowing. Alit could see tiny ripples of green light, running from their leaves and down their trunks into their roots, rippling beneath the earth to pool at his feet. Tiny glints, warm red lights, flitted through the underbrush, making Alit think he was seeing the heartbeats of birds and small animals pulsing softly. Even the earth itself had a slow, rolling light of its own, seeping gently like water along hidden underground channels. All of it gathered beneath Gilag like some strange inverted shadow, as though he cast prismatic light instead of darkness. Even the two highwaymen stopped to stare.

That was a mistake. Gilag brought his staff down with a mighty thrust, burying the tip of it in the earth. There was a sound like a thunderclap, and light rolled away from him in a wave. The two men turned tail and ran, but it was too late for them. The lights caught them and swept them up, and then...

The forest went dark so abruptly that Alit was left blinking in sudden blindness. He could hear Gilag next to him, breathing heavily, as he never did even after their most strenuous workouts. A little ways away, the girl gave a confused little squeak.

"What happened?" Alit muttered.

Gilag gave a raspy laugh. "Go see for yourself." Now that Alit's vision was clearing a little, he could just barely see the outline of his friend leaning against his staff.

Then Alit turned and looked around for the two men. For a moment, he thought that they had gotten away after all. Then he thought that somehow Gilag had managed to obliterate them entirely. At last, his disbelieving eyes finally managed to pick up on what had happened.

Where there had once been empty space, there were now two trees. They were small, stunted things, not very much taller than Alit himself. They were ugly, too, with branches that seemed to writhe and contort, and prickly saw-toothed leaves. If he looked at the whorls of their trunks just right, he almost thought that he could see the shapes of faces in the bark. And didn't some of those branches look like outflung arms?

"You turned them into trees," he said wonderingly.

"Yep," said Gilag. "See? I told ya I could do it if I really wanted to."

Ponta scurried up to get a closer look at the trees, scuttling up and down their sides. Alit wondered irrelevantly if it tickled.

"You did that very well, da pon!" Ponta chirped approvingly.

Gilag looked pleased. "Pretty good for a first try, I guess."

"Are they just going to stay like that forever?" Alit asked.

"Nah," said Gilag. "They'll change back in... oh, fifty years or so, I figure. They won't be bothering anybody then."

Alit nodded wordlessly. He guessed the men had been about thirty or forty. In fifty years, they would be lucky if they could hobble to the village by themselves.

Gilag and Ponta conferred for a moment. Then Gilag turned to Alit.

"Talk to the girl, see if you can get her story out of her," he said. "Ponta and I are going to go find this friend she was talking about and see if I can patch 'em up."

"Got it," said Alit.

He eased his way over to the girl, who was watching him with wide eyes.

"It's okay," he said softly. "We're not going to hurt you. We'll get you somewhere safe, okay?"

She nodded timidly.

"Good," he said. "Can you tell me what happened?"

The story was not a surprising one. The girl had fallen in love with a young man, one of her father's apprentices. The two of them had wanted to be married, but their parents had been, if not dead set against the union, then at least concerned that they were rushing into things. The boy was only fourteen, after all, just barely into his apprenticeship, and hardly ready to care for a bride. The young couple had been determined, however, and had made up their minds to slip out of their houses together and travel by night to the next large city, where they hoped to find a hedge-priest who would marry them without too many questions. She seemed a little unclear about what was going to happen after that, but she radiated her determination to do something.

Poor kid, Alit thought sympathetically. This was probably first love for both of these two. Alit was by nature passionate, and had been through several relationships of varying durations before finally realizing that Leo was the one he wanted to spend his life with. These two were still young enough that they had probably never felt anything so powerful before, and were therefore certain that they never would again, and so they needed to grab for it with both hands before it could escape them. And who knew? Maybe they were right. It wasn't often that a couple got it right the first time, but it had been known to happen.

"It'll be okay," he told her. "My buddy and I will help you get this sorted out. I know he seems scary, but he's a good guy, really."

She nodded, looking a little more reassured.

A few minutes later, Gilag appeared leading a somewhat bedraggled-looking boy. There was blood on his clothing, and he looked a little dazed, but he didn't seem to be harmed. As soon as he saw the girl, he rushed over to her side, and the two of them began reassuring each other that they were all right. Gilag watched them, leaning on his staff, looking tired but pleased.

"Is the guy okay?" Alit asked, ambling over to join him.

"He got conked on the head, but I sorted him out," said Gilag. "And I set up a clear path spell for them. No matter which way they go from here, they'll get where they're going safely. And Ponta fixed it so by tomorrow they won't remember getting attacked or us helping them, so that's okay."

Ponta nodded from his perch on Gilag's shoulder. "They'll think they wandered into the woods and got scared and lost, da pon. They won't try to come back here again!"

Alit nodded. Even as he watched, the boy seemed to be encouraging his lady friend to hurry back towards the road. The two of them departed without even a second glance.

I guess that's typical, Alit thought. He doubted his friend was comfortable with letting these people thank him for saving their lives, or whatever else they might have to lose. He surely didn't want them giving away his secrets. It was probably best this way, but still...

"Okay, let's get you home," said Alit, grabbing Gilag's elbow. "You look done in. All that magic must have taken it out of you."

"I'm all right," Gilag insisted, but he didn't protest when Alit began dragging him back towards the cottage. He might put a good face on it, but he obviously was tired from all the spellcasting he'd been doing. It made a sort of sense. If you were used to thinking in terms of physical exertion, it was probably easy to forget how much effort magic took. As soon as they reached the cottage, Alit gave Gilag a little shove, and he more or less dropped onto his bed and was asleep almost instantly. Alit smiled as he watched Ponta curl up into his customary place, tucked cozily between his master's shoulder and his ear. He always looked very much as if he ought to be purring. Did raccoon-dogs purr?

I'm pretty tired too, Alit thought.

The adrenaline rush caused by the night's events was starting to wear off, leaving him feeling drowsy, making his mind wander. He settled into his own soft bed and closed his eyes, letting his thoughts drift. He wondered what would become of the two runaways. He hoped they'd end up with more of a happily-ever-after than he and Leo had gotten so far. It was already half a fairy tale already, meeting the Forest Guardian and seeing men turned into trees. It was too bad they wouldn't be able to remember it. It would have made a nice story to tell their grandchildren someday.

But it isn't going to get told. The thought was a bitter one. Poor Gilag. He did so much good and so few people noticed...

It was with a sense of dissatisfaction that Alit dropped off into sleep.

"You've got the map I made you, right?" Gilag asked. "And the extra firelighters? And the..."

Alit laughed. "I have everything! Really, you've given me way too much already."

Which was more or less true. Alit had decided that it was time for him to move on, and for the last couple of days, he and his friends had been preparing things for his journey. Gilag had constructed for Alit a very useful pack with lots of pockets and compartments for keeping all his things organized, and then had given him lots of things to put in it. Aside from spare food and extra waterskins, there was now a set of fish, hooks and twine, some flints for lighting fires and a bottle of mineral stuff that Gilag had promised would burn like crazy as soon as a spark touched it, a potion for purifying water, various salves for everything from hornet stings to sunburn, and a truly splendid knife that Gilag had somehow fashioned out of a flint and a piece of stag's horn for the grip. It was sharper than anything Alit had ever encountered, and the handle had been polished smooth as glass and carved with an image of a tanuki scampering through a forest.

"To remind you of us," Gilag had said gruffly, when he'd presented it.

Alit settled his bag more securely over his shoulders. "Don't worry about me. I'm going to be fine. With all the stuff you've been teaching me, I'm almost as much of a woodsman as you are."

"Well, be careful out there anyway," said Gilag. He looked down at him from his great height and set one heavy hand on Alit's shoulder. "Come back and visit sometime. You know, if you get the chance."

Alit mustered up a smile. "I'll be sure of it."

There hadn't been much to say after that. Gilag didn't seem to be the sort who handled sentimental goodbyes very well. He'd simply announced that he had work to do and stomped off, but Ponta turned around on his master's shoulder to give Alit one last wave. Then he'd flicked his tail, bounded onto a low-hanging tree limb, and vanished off on his own tanuki business.

And that had been that. Alit had stood a while longer, looking at the little cottage that had been home for the last few weeks, fixing it in his mind. He didn't want to forget anything about it. At last, though, he decided that he had better get going, before Gilag or Ponta came back and found him there. Saying goodbye once had not been fun; doing it a second time would be seriously uncomfortable.

At least it was a good day for traveling. He followed the well-worn path that led to the village, then made his way along the main road. It surprised him how many memories surged up as he walked. While he and Gilag had made their rounds among the village and its outlying cottages, he'd gotten to know nearly everyone by name - not a thing he could have done in his old home city. Many of the villagers greeted him as he passed. When he passed the tavern, he smiled a little, hearing strains of music drifting from inside and thinking of the pretty bard. Well, at least now Gilag would have a little privacy in his house if he ever worked up the nerve to invite her over for a visit.

He picked up his pace as he neared the farmlands that lay outside the village, occasionally waving to a farmer who'd had Gilag cure the mold on his vegetables, or to someone whose horse Alit had held steady while Gilag tended its swollen ankle. Then Alit passed out of farmland and into wild country, forests he'd never seen before. After so much time living in a supernaturally enhanced woodland, Alit found these looked rather thin and tame in comparison. Still, he minded what he'd been taught, and managed to find enough food along the way that he barely needed to touch the supplies of food he'd brought with him.

Two days later, the trees thinned out and he found himself back in pastureland again. Eventually, the road led him into a bustling town. This one was larger and more populous than the one he'd left behind, and the locals took little interest in a slightly travel-stained stranger turning up at their gates. All the hustle and bustle reminded him of Spartan City, but the thought didn't make him as homesick as he might have expected. He still loved the city and desperately wanted to go back, but he'd learned that it wasn't the only good place in the world.

He was still mulling over this when he walked up to a vendor selling meat pies and bought himself some lunch with a little of the money Leo had given him, what felt like forever ago. He sat down on the stone wall of a public flower bed and watched the people go by. Most of them looked extremely busy, caught up in whatever they were doing, and none of them spared a glance for him as they passed. At first, Alit could not think why this bothered him so much. He was a stranger here; he wasn't doing anything of interest; he wasn't bothering anyone. Why should they need to look at him? But in the other village, everyone had known him, if only as "the druid's helper". Now, for the first time in a long while, he realized that he was lonely.

I'll get over it, he told himself. Once he got to the capital city, he'd join a group of soldiers, and there would be people around him all the time. There was no reason to worry about being lonely for long.

While he was thinking this, a group of six or seven little boys came pelting up the road, chasing each other and shrieking with either fear or glee. A second or two of observation made it clear that they were playing some sort of rowdy game involving one of the boys chasing the others around, roaring and trying to grab at them. Alit laughed at their antics, feeling his mood lift. He'd always loved children.

"Hey, what are you supposed to be?" he asked the boy who was doing the chasing. "A bear or something?"

The boy shook his head, impatient as only a child could be at the stupidity of grown-ups.

"Nuh-uh," he said. "I'm the Forest Guardian!"

Alit felt his throat tighten. "Forest... Guardian?"

"Yeah!" said one of the other boys. "Don't you know who the Forest Guardian is?"

"He lives in the forest," said the first boy. "And he's really scary! He's ten feet tall and has big googly eyes!"

"And horns!" another boy piped up.

"And teeth like this!" said the first boy, holding his fingers up to his mouth, curving them downwards to make fangs. "And if you go into the woods, he'll eat you! Rawr!"

With that final roar, he lunged at the other boys, and they ran off shrieking again.

Alit sat very still, feeling his thoughts and emotions racing. The predominant feeling was anger. What was wrong with these people? Didn't they realize that something calling itself the Forest Guardian was a guardian, and not some sort of vicious monster? All Gilag ever did was protect his forest and take care of his people, and otherwise left everyone who wasn't causing trouble alone. He had saved those two runaways from being robbed and worse. He'd taken Alit in and helped him when Alit had been lost and heartsick. All the man really seemed to want was to be left in peace with his forest and his animals and his garden, and the rest of the world seemed to think he was some sort of mindless ogre.

Then he sighed, his anger draining out of him. Of course no one knew what Gilag really was. That was the way he wanted it. It was just as he'd pointed out: nobody would trouble the terrifying creature that ruled his mysterious patch of woods, but if they knew the guardian of the forest was a good-hearted fellow who spent most of his time picking herbs and pottering around in his garden while talking to fuzzy animals. The secret had to stay safe. It just wasn't fair...

He finished his meal, wiped his hands on his trousers, and took out his map to study it. At the rate he'd been going, he could reach another town in about four days, and another week after that would put him in a good-sized town. If the weather stayed good, he could probably get to the capital in a little less than a month, and then...

He folded his map up. And then what? Become a soldier in the army of a king he felt no loyalty towards, one he would cheerfully abandon the minute Leo sent for him? Take up the role of bodyguard to some rich man and risk his life to protect someone for the sake of a few coins? There were no gladiatorial arenas here, and that was the only life he'd ever known or wanted. Why had he thought he wanted to go to the capital, anyway? Only because it had seemed like the most likely place where he could find a place for himself.

But I found a place already, didn't I? Somewhere miles behind him, there was a little cottage hidden in the woods, and a man who had made him welcome there - a man who clearly needed a friend who appreciated him for what he was, and not just the fierce face he showed the world. What was Alit going to find in the capital that he hadn't already had back there?

"I'm an idiot," he said aloud.

Shifting the straps on his bag to rest a bit more comfortably, he turned on his heel and started back the way he had come.

The quiet had never bothered Gilag before. When he'd first moved to the forest, it had been a relief to have some time to himself, instead of being crammed into barracks with a dozen other men around him all the time. Even after he'd gotten used to the solitude, he'd never gotten lonely. He always had Ponta with him, and he could always chat with the local birds and beasts if he needed a little more variety in his conversation. He could even wander into the village if he felt the need for human company. He hadn't even done a lot of that before Alit came along...

He sighed, setting down the knife he'd been using and tipping the chopped vegetables into a bowl. He still hadn't gotten out of the habit of trying to make enough food to feed a second hungry man at each meal. He still couldn't quite get over the feeling that any minute now, Alit would walk in through the front door, probably proclaiming loudly that he was getting tired of vegetables and why didn't they go eat in town tonight? But he wouldn't, just like he hadn't for the last week and more. He wasn't going to come back - after all, he was a city man at heart, and he certainly didn't want to spend the rest of his life living in the middle of nowhere. Right now, he was probably halfway to the capital, dreaming of all the things he could see and do when he got there. He certainly wasn't missing small town life at all. Or him.

Ponta came skittering in through the window, grabbed a carrot stick from the bowl of vegetables, and perched himself on top of a shelf to eat it, all in less time than it took to sneeze.

"I know something you don't know, da pon!" he caroled.

Gilag raised an eyebrow. "You know a lotta stuff I don't know."

"True!" said Ponta, giggling. "But this one is new, da pon."

"Yeah, well, spit it out already. I'm not in the mood to mess around."

Ponta just continued giggling. "You'll see, da pon!"

Gilag grumbled something about stupid know-it-all tanuki and went back to chopping vegetables. Eventually, he decided he had enough and tossed them into a skillet with some oil and spices. Steam rose up into the air, filling the little cottage with scent.

The door opened and shut.

"Wow," said a voice behind him. "That smells amazing. What is it?"


Gilag whirled around, dropping his spatula and seizing on Alit in a bear hug, lifting him up off the ground. Alit laughed.

"Hey, it's great to be appreciated, but could you maybe let me down?" he asked. "Kinda hard to breathe..."

"Oh, right, sorry." Gilag gently set him back on his feet again. "What are you doing here? I thought you'd be halfway to the capital by now."

Alit shrugged. "Changed my mind."

"But I thought... I mean..." Gilag fumbled for words. "Why did you come back?"

"Well, you know," said Alit, "I just got to thinking... what do I need out there? My friends are here." He smiled, almost shyly. "I mean, if you'd want me to stay. I'm guessing you do, but..."

Gilag laughed. "Couldn't make it in the big wide world after all, could you? Well, it's a good thing I'm here to look after you."

"Yeah, it sure is," said Alit. He dropped into a seat at the table.

And a good thing I'm here to look after you, too, he thought.