She Who Would Have Been Queen

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Philomena looked around.

She could hear Rainhart giving quiet instructions to the local boy they had paid to guide them that he should stay with the horses. Rainhart joined her, and together they walked deeper into the forest. Deeper was the right word; the world seemed to darken around them, and there was no sound of any wildlife. Yet Philomena knew they weren't alone. The forest had the feeling of caged beast paused in the act of lashing its tail. Whatever spirits inhabited this place, their attention was now on her.

Good morning, she thought into the darkness in her mind.

There was no reply.

"I need your help," she said.

A sense of frustration. Of words spoken too softly or too far away to be heard.

Philomena sat down on the grass.

"What are you going to do?" said Rainhart.

"I need to go into the still place."

He didn't need to say anything; she could feel his worry.

"I'll be careful."

Rainhart sat down opposite and they linked hands. Philomena thought of the first time she had really accessed her gifts, in a roadside inn. Holle's voice: concentrate on the silence between breaths. I will be silent now; breathe with me.

She counted each breath: in, then out. The moments of stillness. The darkness.

Good morning, she thought again.

Little one, the forest replied. 

"Can you hear them?" Philomena said to Rainhart.

He shook his head. "A feeling, only."

You have strayed close to our domain, said the forest. Your companion stays closer to the above-world.

My friend was dying.

We know.

Who are you?

Here, we are the lesser gods. Elsewhere, the spirits of the forest, the gods of the hunt. Some people know us as the the world-makers.

You gave us gifts.

And you have used them well--for the most part. In tearing down our trees, Valdon of Traumwald doubted our power. We made you the instrument of our revenge. We hope that the new king will not be so foolish.

He will not. Philomena hesitated. I have another boon to ask of you.

Ask, little one.

Princess Holle is dying too. Using your gifts, I could help her.

You wish to reach through the still place to her mind.

I do.

We can do this, but there will be a cost.

What is it?

It will be borne by the Princess. If she lives.

"She will lose the gift."

Yes. And she will not get it back.

"That's not as important as her life," said Rainhart.

Philomena opened her eyes. "Is it our choice to make?"

Rainhart's brows drew down over his eyes. "I take your point, Mena," he said, "but as far as I'm concerned, it isn't a choice."

After a moment, Philomena nodded.

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