The next thing that Alvin was aware of was a great, black hoof by his face. Instinctively, he jerked away. He quickly became aware of another thing: the worst pain he had felt in his life. He closed his eyes.
"Well, well," said someone with a distinct Southlands accent. "We have a living one, eh?"
Alvin's eyes flickered open again. He was lying beneath a black horse with the wings of an enormous raven. The puzzle pieces snapped together in his brain. He was hearing the voice of the Lord of Carvil. Surely this was the end.
A black boot with silver buckles came down beside him as the rider dismounted. Alvin did not look up, fearful of the terrible, demonic face that he had heard so much about. His heart was jumping in his chest like a grasshopper in an escape-proof box.
"I'll fight you," he said through gritted teeth.
The Lord of Carvil laughed. "Really, my boy. In your condition? You aren't fit to fight a flea."
"Well, you're going to kill me anyway, aren't you? Why shouldn't I fight you?"
"Kill you? Why would I kill you?"
"You're the Lord of Carvil, are you not?"
"Why, yes, although I prefer Lord Henry Thomas Mantoux Edmund, thank-you-very-much, and you are...?"
"Alvin Morse," replied Alvin, befuddled. "But aren't you...?"
"Half demon? No. Have no idea how that rumor got out. And I do not eat hearts of any sort, in the case that you are wondering. Disgusting."
A glint of hope sparked in Alvin's soul. "Then may I go home?"
Lord Henry sighed and paused, searching for the words. "I'm afraid, if home for you is Rionnag, there is no home to go to."
"What do you mean?"
"Come and see."
With effort, Alvin crawled out from beneath the horse and looked.
"It's a pity, really," said Lord Henry. "But the King gave the orders to destroy it, so...well, orders are orders, y'know."
Rionnag was in flames. Thick, black smoke billowed up from it, staining the sky. He could hear the screams now, echoing out onto the plain. Alvin stood there, mouth ajar. He felt sick.
"I am sorry," insisted Lord Henry. "You must understand. If I had my way, this never would have happened."
Alvin did not reply. He thought of his mother. Dead.
"I never wanted to go to war with your Empire," Lord Henry explained. "My wife is of Sysaran blood. From Iliathor. It has been a bit...rough...at home, of course."
Alvin thought of Maili Mae Albright. He would never see her again.
"I really did try to stop this, you know. I almost succeeded."
Alvin thought of Jack, dead of exhaustion on the pass, sold to a war that almost never happened. But instead of mentioning any of this, he simply said, "I understand."
"Thank you," said Lord Henry, and Alvin looked at him for the first time. One of his eyes was blue and the other one brown, but both were bespectacled. His hair was graying. He was shorter than Alvin by several inches.
"Thank you," the Lord of Carvil repeated, patting him on the shoulder. He mounted his winged horse and flew off into the night.
And for the first time in a very long while, Young Alvin Morse really did understand.