And here's the last chapter! Although I might end up rewriting the last two paragraphs or so I confess that I am basically thrilled with how this turned out. It was fantastic to finish something again and I think it's given me the confidence boost I needed to start working on my next major project, which regrettably you will not be seeing on been a fantastic audience and I love each and every one of you truly and deeply and madly. I hope to see you again at some point.

Reviews are not at all like forgetting your umbrella, which is to say they're fantastic. On to the story!

The March-Stepper
Chapter Seven

Once upon a time there was a Blue Salamander in a wickerwork basket, and though his low-slung legs scuttled him fitfully from one side to the other and his sharp claws scraped against the rushes and his thorny feet dug out footholds in the powdery sand and his heavy tail battened against the woven reeds that hemmed him in he found that he could not escape his prison.

When this had become apparent to him he curled up on the ground and rolled his eyes, golden with silver flecks, up at the roof of the basket- convex with the weight of a Turk's round bottom. "I'm lissstening," he hissed.

"Glad to hear it," said the Turk, voice muffled by wickerwork. "I am Rostum of Samarkand, and I have seen the marvels of the world."

"Go on," muttered the Salamander, considering his options and finding them scant and limited at best.

"I have lived in Constantinople, where I swept the floor of Hagia Sophia, font of holiness and insight; I have sold sweetmeats from a wooden cart as far west as Rome, where once Caesar reigned under the auspices of the golden laurel crown. I have harvested adderswort and frogsliver in the dark dripping depths of the Afric and stood in the Ka'ba where the Arab nomads come to render sacrifice to their idols, which are carved most cunningly from stone."

"How very interesssting."

"And," continued the Turk, "I have, over the course of my lonely pilgrimage, acquired mighty magic- magic sufficient to impose a human consciousness on the body of the immortal Salamander, and vice versa."

"I too," hissed the Salamander, "have mighty magic. I could make it ssso your bonesss would be asss living fire, and your eyesss would roassst like chessstnutsss in your ssskull."

"So the sages tell us," whispered the Turk. "I had hoped that you might be- persuaded."

The laugh of a Salamander was a terrible thing, all papery and cold and cruel. "Persssuaded to give up the life eternal? To what end?"

"Men," said the Turk, "have thumbs, that can grip and prise and twist."

"And they ussse them to lift ssswordsss and ssspearsss with which to ssslaughter one another in the thirsssty desssert. Sssalamandersss have no ussse for thumbsss."

"Men," said the Turk,"have words, that can be scrolled on parchment or carved in wood or stone that we may be remembered."

"And if one wasss to know that one wasss going to die then perhapsss that would be a comfort. Keep your wordsss, Rossstum of Sssamarkand; wordsss linger on a year or two, but I go on forever."

Rostum fell quiet. "Men," he said, after a time, "have hearts, that can love, though mine be broken." And the rustling from within the basket was still.

"Then work your magic, oh man of Sssamarkand," said the Salamander, "for the life eternal wearsss thin after a time."

And there was a flash like a second sun blossoming in the sky and a crash like a battallion of angels warring in the sky and a snatch of strange sad music like a chorus of exotic songbirds chirping in the sky, and then there was only the Turk-Who-Had-Been-A-Salamander's hands, twining ecstatically through the black tangles of his heavy beard as he laughed and laughed, and the Salamander-Who-Had-Been-A-Turk, testing out his unfamiliar low-slung legs, blinking his golden eyes, searching for the something that was missing from his chest…

Now he stood on those glimmering legs in the shadow of the Vicar's lonely hut, trying not to hustle or bustle in the dried-up leaves, and braved the wandering eyes of the Wild Hart.

The girl (for it is her story, after all, even as it draws to a close; I just thought that perhaps you'd want to know what had befallen the Salamander in those far-off dusky days) stood transfixed in the gaze of the Hart's warm glowing red eyes and quite forgot what she had been about to say.

"Hello," said the Wild Hart, mercifully. His voice was like a piece of velvet abandoned for years in some fusty attic- a little dusty and a little crusty but still smooth to the touch.

"Hello," said the girl, who had after all been raised to be polite. The Wild Hart's powerful neck stretched luxuriantly up towards the sky.

"I see that the Vicar has left us," he said. "A pity."

"Is it?" asked the girl. "I don't think he would have been able to tellyou anything you didn't know already."

The Hart's laugh was gentle but unsympathetic. "You give an old beast more credit than he deserves. I know nothing but the rush of the breeze through the lantern woods and the taste of corn in the fall and the peculiar savor of salt… and, of course, the burden."

"You know Trolls," said the girl. "That's for certain."

The Wild Hart acknowledged this with a dip of his head. "I know Trolls," he said. "I know Salamanders, too, and pirates, to a degree, and dragons, and preacher-men. I know angels and devils and goats, djinns and drips, the fair folk and the tall folk alike."

The girl scowled accusingly. "Salamanders and pirates and dragons," she said, "you've been following me, haven't you?"

"I have," admitted the Hart, "but your companions have fled like mist from the morning, and I'll follow you no more, for that's my burden, you know. They have their world and you have yours, and they don't cross. They aren't meant to cross, you see."

"But I want them to cross," said the girl, stamping her foot petulantly. "It's boring being regular. All you're supposed to think about is the harvest, and grain, and- and- andchores. It's not fair. What's the point of life if you aren't allowed to have adventures?"

"Hasn't it been an adventure, though?" asked the Hart.

"It's not the same!" cried the girl. "I wasn't a part of it, not really. Not if I have to go home at the end. Not like this. It was hardly worth it."

The Hart pawed the ground. "But you go on, don't you?" he asked, softly. "There's your difference. You get to go home and do your chores and think about the harvest. They can't have that, you know. Storybook creatures never can- the story goes on even if you're not in it. You get to go home before the ending. They never can."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean that nobody will ever know whether or not the Vicar gets his Heaven. I mean that the pirates never do find another floating island, because they've used up all the stories they have and now all they have is stories. I mean that the Salamander-"

(Here the Salamander startled in the leaves to hear his name on the tongue of the Wild Hart, but try as he might he could not make out what the Hart had to say, something prevented him-)

"-and the Troll meets me in the end and turns to stone. That's what I mean. You never really were a part of their story, you know, and they were never really a part of yours. You'd know if you were. Being part of a story changes you, it blesses you and then it hurts you and when it's over you can never quite go back to the way things were before."

The girl was quiet for a moment. "And when all the Trolls in England are gone?" she asked.

"Then I am allowed to rest," said the Wild Hart. "That's my ending."

"But I don't want to go back to the way things were before."

"You haven't a choice," said the Hart, "you haven't suffered enough. 'And then she went home' isn't a proper ending. It's like a Troll story."

The girl scrunched up her face in a frown. "How is it like a Troll story?" she said.

"It's not finished," said the Hart. "You'd need a second Troll to tell you how it ended-"

"Oh, damn," cried the girl, and took off in a rooster-tail of dust and pebbles, the heels of her sensible shoes kicking up pine needles and clods of clinging black dirt, pattering pell-mell off towards home as fast as her limber young legs could carry her.

The Wild Hart bowed his head and nibbled tentatively at the crabgrass.

"And should she prevail," he said, after a while, "what then? More work, of course, but there again, when one has one's objective clearly in sight…" He chewed. "Well, it's a quandary."

"I would think," hissed the Salamander from the velveteen shadows, "that it would all be much the sssame to you."

The Hart didn't look around. "You would think so," he said, "those in your position often do. But after a time one grows weary, and one grows sick, and one wishes for- respite. I have been the Wild Hart a long long time."

"Ssso you would rather ssshe wasssn't fassst enough?"

The Hart laughed, not unkindly. "Let's just say I'm not quite ready for my ending yet."

"But-" said the Salamander, and shivered as a kind of creeping chill swarmed the clearing. The Wild Hart's head creaked slowly about to bear on him, and his antlers were bristling with knives, and his eyes were glowing like the very forges of Hell, and his breath spurted from his nostrils in plumes of stinking sulfur smoke.

"We are not friends," said the Hart, and with a high squeak of panic the Blue Salamander scuttled off, as quickly as his low-slung legs could carry it, to find his heart.

Once upon a time there was a Troll who lived under a bridge in Dyfed, making his home in a patch of riverbed where the cold clear water gurgled over the smooth black stones. Now, most people wouldn't be very happy if their houses were always just slightly submerged, but Trolls actually rather enjoy the damp and would probably be horrified if you were to suggest they move into a good stone garret or thatched hut.

This Troll, however, was not enjoying himself at all. To be fair, he had just recently lost the love of his life and so he was feeling quite understandably sad, but had he anyone to keep him company except sheep (or had the sheep been a little more self-aware) they might well have remarked that his sulking was beginning to verge on intolerable.

Of course the sheep were barely aware that the Troll was there. But if they had been they would have been alarmed to see that the Troll was doing what Trolls did when they were feeling very poorly indeed, which is to say he was turning very slowly to stone, from the mossy soles of his feet up.

From time to time he would sigh, in a voice which could only fairly be described as gravelly.

Once upon a time there was a girl who actually did have a name (a very lovely one, in fact) but had gotten into the habit of claiming she didn't due to her association with avery hungry Troll- for, you see, there are Rules that Trolls live by and daren't break, and one of these rules is that Trolls aren't allowed to eat anything that doesn't have a name.

But she would tell him her name a dozen times over (she promised herself as she came half-running and half-skidding down the steep embankment of the riverside) if he would only take her back. She knew now that she had been going about things the wrong way. It was a mistake she meant to fix, and fix it she would.

That's what the girl was thinking just before her sensible walking boot caught on a stone mortared in the sluggish mud of the embankment and sent her tumbling head over heels down the slope, through the mud, and into the river with a mighty splash.

A second later she broke the surface, gasping, sodden, muddy, but determined. She slogged grimly through the water, huffing from the exertion of moving at any speed in waist-deep muck, wringing out her hair with both hands, bound for the bridge where her lover waited.

"Troll!" she called when she thought she might be near enough. "Troll, are you there?"

She paused to catch her breath and wait for a response, but none was forthcoming. Spitting to get the taste of river water out of her mouth, the girl lunged resolutely forward and was immediately bowled over again by a falling sheep.

Once again she burst out of the water, wiping grit from her eyelids with the backs of her hands, and howled "It won't do you any good, stupid, he doesn't EAT them!" up at the sky. The sheep, bobbing woolily up and down in the trickle, baaa-ed in what sounded like agreement.

"Girl?" the quavering voice called faintly from the murk and shadow under the bridge.

"Troll?" called the girl, desperately, and waded forward in an ungainly sort of waddling gait.

Under the bridge there were dim tides of washed-out light, and a great big kettle with CHRISTOPHER carved on it resting on a scorched flat stone, and a flock of kine shuffled close together on a dry spar of limestone. In the middle of it sat the Troll, snuffling under a wet blanket and clutching a sheep like a stuffed bear.

"Oh, it's you," he said, throatily. "Come to have it out with me, have you? Well, get it over with, I'm busy. Gotta lot of cryin' to catch up on an' I think the tea's almost done."

"There's something I need to tell you," said the girl.

"Wot's that?" roared the Troll, squeezing the sheep in one warty hand and bunching the other in the sopping blanket. "Well, out with it!"

The girl hesitated and plunged on. "One day," she said, desperately, "one day a hunter came to the castle!" The Troll squinted suspiciously.

"Wot castle?" he demanded.

"The one with no walls," said the girl, "what castle do you think?"

Something flickered in the Troll's big wet eyes. "Go on," he said, suspiciously.

"Well, um," said the girl, stalling, "he- he told the king- that he could get rid of the deer!"

"The deer? Wot deer?"

"Well, the castle didn't have walls, did it, so there were always deer and things wandering in and out of it, weren't there, eating paintings and going to the loo on the divan and that. Drove the king almost to distraction, it did. He was a nervous sort of king."

The Troll caught himself nodding despite himself and scowled ferociously. "And then wot happened?" he asked, begrudgingly.

"Well, the king promised the hunter he would give him half his kingdom if he could drive the deers out, and the hunter set up in a little stand of trees just outside the castle with his bow and his special arrows."

"Wot made the arrows special?" demanded the Troll.

"They were carved from splinters of the Cross," said the girl, "which he bought from a peddler in the Holy Land."

"Go on."

"Well, the hunter lay in cover for three days and three nights, and whenever a deer would set foot in the castle he would shoot it with his bow and it would just fall to the ground, dead in a heartbeat. The king and his sons ate venison sausages and venison pies and smoked venison and venison bacon."

"And then wot happened?"

"The hunter shot every deer in the forest except one, which he missed on the first night and then again on the second night and the third. It vexed him, because he didn't like to miss and he had never missed before with his special arrows. So on the third night he hid behind a sofa and when the deer came trip-trapping through the palace he jumped out with his knife and-"

"And what?" asked the Troll, almost dancing with excitement.

"-and nothing, because that deer was the Wild Hart."

The Troll shivered. Far away in the quiet forests of Dyfed the Hart started and turned his powerful head with its thousand mile stair off to the west.

"Don't say his name here," muttered the Troll, but the girl pressed on.

"'Well now,' said the hunter to the Hart, 'I see we're at odds.'"

"'Seems that way,' said the Hart.'"

"'Don't suppose I could persuade you to take your business elsewhere?' asked the hunter."

"'It would take some persuasion,' said the Hart."

"'That's what I thought,' said the hunter, and with that they came down to terms."

"The next morning the king got out of bed and had his breakfast of venison. By twilight he was forced to admit that the hunter had filled his end of the bargain, and he signed over half of his kingdom to him right there and then."

The Troll scowled. "That don't make any sense," he said. "What could a low-down hunter have to offer the likes of the Wild Hart himself?"

"How should I know?" demanded the girl. "Anyways it's your turn."

The Troll considered this in silence for a moment. "That," he said, finally, "was a good story. Girl, I've got to tell you somethin'-"

"No, me first, it's important-"

"No, you don't understan', I need you t'-"

"Take me back," they said, at the same time, and after a minute they broke out into peals of laughter- hers high and faintly musical, his bearing more than a slight resemblance to the sort of sound a bullfrog might make if it was gargling in gravel.

"Ach," said the Troll, unlimbering his legs to stand, "I always knew that you was goin' to come back to me in the end."

"Oh my God," said the girl, horrified "your legs have turned to stone."

The Troll glanced down disinterestedly and saw that this was true.

"Well," he said, with an air of finality, "they'll keep." And with that she took his massive hand in hers.

And there, in the musty shadow of the bridge, she grew monstrous ugly. Her flesh grew knotty and blue-green and her arms grew long and skinny and down to her knees. Her hair grew oily in that place where there was no soap and her eyes grew big and black and wet from lack of light. Her nose grew blunt like an old hatchet, bulbous like a bit of potato, and her lips grew fleshy about her snaggle teeth.

But she was happy and he was happy and they told each other stories as the years wore on- stories about high-flying preachers, murderous fey, slumbering princes. In time their stories swept England, for Trolls tell the finest tales and the best epics, as every child knows, and although they were always hungry (as what Troll isn't?) they suffered enough shepherds to cross their bridge unmolested for their own grand tale to grow in spectacle and infamy. Perhaps the pirates heard it in their endless circuit through the lost woods and chuckled in amazement; perhaps the Salamander knew it from a pilgrim or a traveler in far-off Jerusalem, and smiled as Salamanders smile- quick and bright like the sun off a knife.

And they lived happily ever after until the Wild Hart came for them both.