"Very well," Elias grunted, and tossed the sword over his shoulder where it struck the ground and cartwheeled once, then fell flat. "Thank you for the exercise, brother." He turned and offered his arm to Pryrates. They moved away, scarlet and green. "What do you say, Josua?" Isgrimnur asked, taking the wooden sword from the prince's hand, "Shall we go and have some wine?" "Yes, I suppose so," Josua replied, bending to pick up the vests as Isgrimnur retrieved the sword the king had flung away. He straightened, staring into the distance. "Do the dead always stand between the living, Uncle?" he asked quietly, then drew his hand across his face. "Never mind you. Let us go and find someplace cool." ^ "Really, Judith, it's all right. Rachel won't mind..." Simon's questing hand was captured mere inches away from the mixing bowl. Judith's grip, for all her pinkness and plumpness, was quite strong. "Get on with you. 'Rachel wouldn't mind,' indeed! Rachel would break every bone in this frail old body of mine." Pushing Simon's hand back into his lap, Judith blew a strand of hair out of her eyes and wiped her fingers on her stained apron. "I should have known that the merest whiff of the Aedontide bread a-baking would bring you 'round like an Inniscnch camp-dog." Simon traced sad patterns in the flour-strewn counter. "But Judith, you've got mounds and mounds of dough—why can't I have a taste from the bowl?" Judith levered herself up from the stool and moved gracefully to one of the kitchen's hundreds of shelves, like a barge on a placid river. Two young scullions scattered before her like startled seagulls. "Now, where..." she mused, "... where is that crock of sweet butter?" As she stood, finger to mouth in a thoughtful pose, Simon edged nearer to the mixer bow!. "Don't you dare, laddie." Judith cast the words over her shoulder without even turning to look at him. Did she have eyes on all sides? "It's not that there's not dough to spare, Simon. Rachel doesn't want you spoiling your supper." She continued her perusal of the orderly shelves stacked with goods as Simon sat back and glowered. Despite the occasional frustrations, the kitchen was a fine place. Longer even than Morgenes' chambers, it seemed nevertheless small and intimate, full of the pulsing warmth of the ovens and the scents of good things. Lamb stew seethed in iron pots, Aedontide breads were rising in the oven, and papery brown onions hung like copper bells in the fogged window. The air was thick with the smells of spices, tangy ginger and cinnamon, saffron, cloves, and scratchy pepper. Scullions rolled barrels of flour and pickled fish through the door, or pulled loaves from the baking ovens with flat wooden paddles. One of the chief apprentices was boiling rice paste over the fire in a pot of almond milk, making a blanchesweet for the king's dessert. And Judith herself, a huge, gentle woman who made the giant kitchen seem as intimate as a farmer's cot, directed all without once raising her voice, a kingly but sharp-eyed sovereign in her kingdom of bricks and pots and firelight. She returned with the missing crock, and as Simon regretfully watched she took a long-handled brush and dabbed the butter over the braided Aedontide loaves. "Judith," Simon asked at last, "if it's almost Aedonmansa, why is there no snow? Morgenes said he's never seen it wait this late in the year." "That I don't know, I'm sure," Judith said briskly. "We had no rain in Novander, either. I expect it's just a dry year." She frowned, and brushed again at the nearest loaf. "They have been watering the sheep and cows from the town in the Hayholt's moat," Simon said. "Have they, then?" "Yes. You can see the brown rings around the edges where the water's gone down. There are places you can stand where the water doesn't even reach your knees!" "And you've found them all, I don't doubt." "I think so," Simon replied proudly. "And last year this time it was all frozen. Think of it!" Judith looked up from her loaf-glazing to fix Simon with her pale, kind blue eyes. "I know it's exciting when things like this happen," she said, "but just remember, laddie, we need that water. There'll be no more fine meals if we get neither rain nor snow. You can't drink the Kynslagh, you know." The Kynslagh, like the Gleniwent that fed it, was as salty as the sea. "I know that," Simon said. "I'm sure it will snow soon—or rain, since it's so warm. It's just that it will be a very strange midwinter." Judith was about to say something else when she stopped, looking over Simon's shoulder at the doorway. "Yes, girl, what is it?" she asked. Simon turned to see a familiar curly-haired serving girl standing a few feet away—Hepzibah. "Rachel sent me to find Simon, mum," she replied, giving a lazy half-curtsy. "She needs him to get something down from a high shelf." "Well, dearie, you don't need to ask me. He's just sitting here mooning over my baking, not being any help or anything." She made a shooing gesture at Simon. He did not see it, as he was admiring Hepzibah's tight-cinched apron, and the wavy hair which her cap could neither control nor contain. " 'Lysia's mercy, boy, get on with you." Judith leaned over and poked him with the handle of the brush. Hepzibah had already turned and was nearly out the door. As Simon scrambled down off his stool to follow, the kitchen-mistress laid a warm hand on his arm. "Here," "she said, I seem to have spoiled this one—see, ifs all crooked." She handed him a loaf of warm bread, twisted like a piece of rope and smelling of sugar. "Thank you!" he said, tearing off a piece and pushing it into his mouth as he hurried to the door. "It's good!" "Of course it is!" Judith called after him. "If you tell Rachel, I'll skin you!" By the time she had finished, she was shouting at an empty doorway. It only took a few paces before Simon caught up with Hepzibah, who was not walking very quickly. Was she waiting for me? he wondered, feeling oddly breathless, then decided it was more likely that anyone given an errand which took them out of Rachel's clutches would dawdle all they could. "Would you... would you like some of this?" he asked, gasping slightly. The serving-girl took a piece of the sweet bread and sniffed it, then popped it into her mouth. "Oh, that's good, that is," she said, then gifted Simon with a dazzling smile, eyes crinkling at the corners. "Give me another, won't you?" He did. They passed out of the hall and into the courtyard. Hepzibah crossed her arms as if to hug herself. "Ooh, it's cold," she said. It was actually fairly warm—blazing hot, considering it was Decander-month—but now that Hepzibah had mentioned it, Simon was sure that he could detect a breeze. "Yes, it is cold, isn't it?" he said, and fell silent again. As they walked past the corner of the inner keep that housed the royal residences, Hepzibah pointed up to a small window just below the upper turret. "See there?" she asked. "Just the other day I saw the princess standing there, combing her hair... oh, my, but hasn't she got nice hair?" A dim memory of gold catching the afternoon sunlight floated up in Simon's mind, but he was not to be distracted. "Oh, I think you have much nicer hair," he said, then turned away to look at one of the guardtowers in the Middle Bailey wall, a treacherous blush stealing up his cheeks. "Do you really?" laughed Hepzibah. "I think it's the worst tangle. Princess Miriamele has ladies to brush hers. Sarrah—you know her, the fair-haired girl?—knows one of them. Sarrah says that this lady told her the princess is very sad, sometimes, and that she wants to go back to Meremund where she grew up." Simon was looking with great interest at Hepzibah's neck, wreathed by the sprays of curly brown hair that hung down from her cap. "Hmmm," he said, "You want to know something else?" Hepzibah asked, turning away from the tower. "—What are you staring at?" she squealed, but her eyes were merry. "Stop it, I told you my hair was in a strew. Do you want to know something else about the princess?" "What?" "Her father wants her to marry Earl Fengbald, but she doesn't want to. The king is very angry with her, and Pengbald is threatening to leave the court and go back to Falshire—although why he'd want to do that, who knows. Lofsunu says he never will, since no one in his earldom has enough money to appreciate his horses and clothes and things." "Who's Lofsunu?" Simon wanted to know. "Oh." Hepzibah looked coy. "He's a soldier I know. He's with Count Breyugar's household force. He's very handsome." The last of the Aedontide bread turned to wet ashes in Simon's mouth. "A soldier?" he said quietly. "Is he... a relative of yours?" Hepzibah giggled, a sound that Simon was beginning to find a little irritating. "A relative? Merciful Rhiap, no, I should say not! Mooning around after me all the time!" She giggled again. Simon liked it even less. "Maybe you've seen him," she continued, "—he's a guard in the eastern barracks? Big shoulders and a beard?" She sketched in the air a man in whose shadow two Simons could comfortably have sat on a summer day. Simon's feelings were at war with his more sensible nature. His feelings won. "Soldiers are stupid," he grunted. "They are not!" said Hepzibah. "You take that back! Lofsunu is a fine man! Someday he's going to marry me!" "Well, you'll make a fine couple," Simon snarled, then felt sorry. "I hope you'll be happy," he finished, hoping that the reasons for his resentment were not as crystallinely clear as he felt sure they were. "Well, we will be," said Hepzibah, mollified. She stared at a pair of yeomen warders walking on the battlements above their heads, long pikes couched on shoulders. "Someday Lofsunu will be a sergeant, and we shall have a house of our own in Erchester. We'll be happy as... as can be. Happier than that poor princess, anyway." Grimacing, Simon picked up a round stone and rattled it off the bailey wall. Doctor Morgenes, pacing the battlements, looked down as Simon and one of the young serving girls passed beneath him. A dry breeze blew his hood back from his head as the couple passed below. He smiled and silently wished Simon good luck—the boy appeared to need it. His awkward carriage and bouts of sullenness made him seem more child than man, but he had the height, and showed the promise of growing into it some day. Simon was straddling the borderline, and even the doctor, whose age no one in the castle now could guess, remembered what that was like. There was a sudden whirring of wings in the air behind him; Morgenes turned, but slowly, as if it was no surprise. Anyone watching would have seen a fluttering gray shadow that hung in the air before him for the span of a few heartbeats, then disappeared into the spacious folds of his gray sleeves. The doctor's hands, which had been empty a moment earlier, now held a small roll of fine parchment bound with a slender blue ribbon. Cupping it in one palm, he unrolled it with a gentle finger. The message upon it was in the southern tongue of Nabban and the Church, but the letters were stark Rimmersgard runes. Morgen— The fires ofStormspike have been lit. From Tungoldyr I have seen their smokes nine days, and their flames eight nights. The White Foxes are awake again, and in the darkness they trouble the children. I have also sent winged words to our smallest friend, but I doubt they will find him unawares. Someone has been knocking at dangerous doors. —Jarnauga Beside the signature the author had drawn a crude feather in a circle. "Odd weather, is it not?" a dry voice said. "And yet so pleasant for walking on the battlements." The doctor whirled, crumpling the parchment in his hand. Pryrates stood at his shoulder, smiling. "The air is full of birds today," the priest said. "Are you a student of birds, doctor? Do you know much of their habits?" "I have some small knowledge of them," Morgenes said quietly. His blue eyes were narrowed. "I myself have thought of studying them," Pryrates nodded. "They are easily captured, you know... and they hold so many secrets that the inquiring mind would find valuable." He sighed and rubbed his smooth chin. "Ah, well, merely another thing to consider —my time is so full already. Good day, doctor. Enjoy the air." He moved off down the battlement, boots clicking on the stone. For a long while after the priest had gone Morgenes stood quietly, staring at the blue-gray northern sky.
8 Bitter Air and Sweet IT WAS LATE in the month of Jonever. The rains had still not come. As the sun began to sink behind the western walls, and insects gossiped in the tall dry grass, Simon and Jeremias the chandler's boy sat back to back and panting. "Come on, then." Simon forced himself to his feet. "Let's have another go." Jeremias, now unsupported, slumped backward until he lay outstretched in the scratchy grass like an upended tortoise. "You go on," he wheezed. "I'll never be a soldier." "Of course you will," said Simon, annoyed at such talk. "We both will. You were much better last time. Come on, get up." With a groan of pain Jeremias allowed himself to be tugged upright. He reluctantly took the barrel stave Simon handed to him. "Let's go in, Simon. I hurt all over." "You think too much," Simon responded, and lifted his own stave. "Have at you!" Stave smacked on stave. "Oucht" Simon yelped. "Ho, ho!" chortled Jeremias, much heartened. "A mortal blow!" The clicking and smacking resumed. It had not been just his unsuccessful flirtation with Hepzibah that reawakened Simon's old fascination with the glories of the military life. Before Elias had come to the throne Simon had felt sure that his true desire—the one for which he would give anything—was to be Morgenes' apprentice, and to leam all the secrets of the doctor's muddled, magical world. But now that he had it, and had replaced plodding Inch as the doctor's helper, the glory had begun to pale. There was so much work, for one thing, and Morgenes was so damnably rigorous about everything. And had Simon learned to do any magic at all? He had not. Placed against hours of reading and writing and sweeping and polishing in the doctor's dark chamber, great deeds on the battlefield and the admiring glances of young women were not to be sneered at. Deep in Jakob the Chandler's tallow-scented den, fat Jeremias had also been caught up in the martial splendor of the king's first year. During the week-long pageants that Elias seemed to hold virtually every month, all the color of the realm settled on the jousting lists, the knights like shiny butterflies of silk and gleaming steel, far more beautiful than any mortal thing. The glory-spiced wind that blew across the tournament field awakened deep longings in the breasts of young men. Simon and Jeremias went to the cooper for long slats to fashion into swords, just as they had in childhood. They traded blows together for hours after chores were finished, at first staging their mock battles in the stables until Shem Horsegroom threw them out for the peace of his wards, then moving to the unmowed grass just south of the tourney field. Night after night Simon came limping back to the servants' quarters, breeches snagged and shirt torn, and Rachel the Dragon turned up her eyes and prayed aloud for Saint Rhiap to save her from the blockheadedness of boys, then rolled up her sleeves and added some bruises to those Simon had already garnered. "I think..." Simon puffed, "that's... enough." Jeremias, pink-faced and doubled over, could only nod his agreement. As they trooped back toward the castle in the fading light, sweating and huffing like plow oxen, Simon noted with approval that Jeremias was beginning to lose some of his lumpishness. Another month or so and he would begin to resemble a soldier. Before their regular dueling began, he had looked more like something his master might put a wick into. "That was good today, wasn't it?" Simon asked. Jeremias rubbed his head through his cropped hair and gave Simon a look of disgust. "I don't know how you talked me into this," he grumbled. "They will never let folk like us be anything but cook-fire boys." "But on the field of battle anything can happen!" Simon said. "You might save the king's life from Thrithings-men or Naraxi raiders—and be knighted on the spot!" "Hmmm." Jeremias was not impressed. "And how are we going to get them to take us in the first place, with no families, nor horses, nor swords even?" He waggled his stave. "Yes," said Simon, "well... well then, I'll think of something." "Hmmm," agreed Jeremias, and mopped his flushed face with the hem of his tunic. The flare of torchlight sprang up before them in a score of places as they neared the castle walls. What had been open, grassy space in the shadow of the Hayholt's outwall was now an infestation of wretched huts and tents, piled together and overlapping each other like the scales of an old, sick lizard. The grass was long gone, cropped to the soil by sheep and goats. As the ragged shanty dwellers milled about, setting up their campfires for the night and calling their children in ahead of the darkness, the dust kicked into gritty plumes that swirled briefly before settling, dyeing clothes and tent-fabric alike a dusky gray-brown. "If it doesn't rain soon," said Jeremias, frowning at a pack of shrieking children who tugged at the faded garments of a faded-looking woman, "the Erkynguard will have to drive them away. We don't have enough water to keep giving it to them. Let them go and dig their own wells." "But where..." Simon started to ask, then broke off, staring. Down at the end of one of the squatter-town byways he saw what seemed a familiar face. It had appeared for only a moment in a crowd, then disappeared, but he was sure it was that of the boy he had caught spying, the one who had left him to the wrath of the sexton Barnabas. "It's that one I told you about!" he hissed excitedly. Jeremias looked back without comprehension. "You know, Mal... Malachias! I owe him something!" Simon reached the knot of people where he felt sure he had seen the spy's sharp-featured face. They were mostly women and young children, but a few older men stood among them, bent and withered like old trees. They had surrounded a young woman crouching on the ground before the opening to a half-tumbled hovel, which backed directly onto the stone of the great outwall. She held the pale body of a tiny child in her lap as she rocked herself from side to side, weeping. Malachias was nowhere in sight. Simon looked at the impassive, battered faces around him, and then down at the crying woman. "Is the child sick?" he asked someone next to him. "I am Doctor Morgenes' apprentice. Should I go and fetch him?" An old woman turned her face up to him. Her eyes, set in an intricate net of dirty wrinkles, were as harsh and dark as a bird's. "Get away from us, castle man," she said, and spat into the dirt, "King's man. Just get away." "But I want to help..." Simon began, when a strong hand gripped his elbow. "Do what she says, lad." It was a wiry old man with a matted beard. The look on his face was not unkind as he tugged Simon away from the circle. "You can do nought here, and people are bad angry. The child is dead. Go on with you." He gave Simon a gentle but firm push. Jeremias was still standing in the same spot when Simon returned. The campfires all around outlined his worried expression in flickering light. "Don't do that, Simon," he whined. "I don't like it out here, especially after the sun has gone down." "They looked at me like they hated me," Simon murmured, puzzled and upset, but Jeremias was already hurrying ahead. ^ None of the torches were lit, but strange, smoky light filled the long hall. He could see not a soul stirring anywhere in the Hayholt, but down every passageway echoed the sound of voices lifted in song and laughter. Simon moved from one room to another, pulling aside curtains, opening pantry doors, but still could find no one. The voices seemed almost to mock him as he searched—now swelling in volume, now diminishing, chanting and singing in a hundred different languages not one of them his own. At last he stood before the door of the throne room. The voices were louder than ever, all seeming to cry out from inside the great chamber. He reached a hand down; the door was not locked. As he pushed it open the voices stilled, as though startled into silence by the creak of the hinges. The misty light poured out past him like shimmering smoke. He stepped inside. The yellowing throne, the Dragonbone Chair, stood in the room's center. Around it danced a linked circle of figures, hands clasped, moving as slowly as though they were in deep, deep water. He recognized several; Judith, Rachel, Jakob the Chandler and other castle folk, their faces stretched with wild merriment as they bowed and capered. Among them moved dancers more grand: King Elias, Guthwulf of Utanyeat, Gwythinn of Hernystir; these, like the castle folk, wheeled as slowly and deliberately as ageless ice grinding mountains down to dust. Scattered about the silent circle were looming figures, shiny-black as beetles—the malachite kings come down from their pedestals to join the sluggish festivity. And in the middle bulked the great chair, a skull-peaked mountain of dull ivory that seemed somehow full of vitality, suffused with an ancient energy thai held the circling dancers by taut, invisible reins. The throne room was silent but for a thin thread of melody that wavered in the air: the Cansim Falls, the Hymn to Joy. The tune was stretched and discomforting, as if the invisible hands that plucked it out were not made to handle earthly instruments. Simon felt himself drawn toward the terrible dance, as to a whirlpool; he dragged his feet, but still moved inexorably inward. The dancers' heads turned toward his approach with a slow twisting motion like the unwinding of crumpled stems of grass. In the center of the ring, on the Dragonbone Chair itself, a darkness was coalescing—a darkness of many flittering parts, like a cloud of flies. Near the top of this swarming, rolling dark, two smoldering sparks of crimson began to brighten, as though fanned by a sudden breeze. The dancers were staring at him now as they swam by, mouthing his name: Simon, Simon, Simon... On the far side of the ring, beyond the crawling obscurity on the throne, a gap opened: two clasped hands sliding apart like the tearing of a rotted rag.