Young Ostrael of Runchester stood shivering on the curtain wall and reflected on what his



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That thou biddest us to thy hall?'
'I soon must die, my princely sons.'

The aged king he said.
'And would see peace between thou twain

When I at last am dead...' "
"I do not think I like the sound of this song," growled Guthwulf. "It has a mocking tone."
Elias bade him be silent; his eyes gleamed as he signaled Towser to continue.
" 'But father dear, why dost thou fear?

Prince Hemlock has the right.'

Said Holly. 'I could not counter him

And be a Godly knight.'
His mind thus eased, the King did bid

His sons go out again

And thanked merciful Aedon

That they were such goodly men.
But in the heart of Hemlock

Who was the king-to-be

Prince Holly's words so gentle

Sparked a fire of infamy.
"That speaks so sweet a princely tongue

Must wicked heart disguise.'

Thought Hemlock, 'Gainst my crafty kin

I must some scheme devise.'
So fearing then the gentle heart

That beat in Holly's breast

He took a draught of poison

From out the lining of his vest.
And when the brothers sate at meat

He poured it in a cup

And bade Prince Holly drink it down..."
"Enough! This is treason!" roared Guthwulf as he leaped up, knocking his chair back among the startled courtiers; his long sword hissed free of its scabbard. Had Fengbald not sprung up in befuddlement, entangling his arm, Guthwulf would have lunged at the quailing Towser.
Elias, too, was quickly on feet. "Sheathe that bodkin, you lackwit!" he shouted. "No one draws sword in the king's throne room!" He turned from the snarling Earl of Utanyeat to the jester. The old man, having recovered somewhat from the alarming spectacle of Guthwulf enraged, struggled to put on dignity.
"Do not think, dwarfish creature, that we are amused by your little song," the king snarled, "or that your long service for my father makes you untouchable—but do not think either that you can prickle the royal skin with such dull barbs. Get you out of my sight!"
"I confess, sire, that the song was a new-minted one," began the jester shakily. His belled hat was askew. "But it was not..."
"Get you hence!" Elias spat, all pale face and beast's eyes. Towser hobbled quickly out of the throne room, shuddering at the king's last, wild look, and the caged, hopeless face of his daughter. Princess Miriamele.

11
An Unexpected Guest
MIDDLING afternoon on the last day of Avrel, Simon was sunk in the stable's dark hayloft, comfortably adrift in a scratchy yellow sea, only his head above the dusty billows. The haydust sparkled down past the wide window as he listened to his own measured breath.
He had just come down from the shadowed gallery of the chapel, where the monks had been singing the noon rites. The clean, sculpted tones of their solemn prayers had touched him in a way that the chapel, and the dry doings within its tapestried walls, seldom did—each note so carefully held and then lovingly released, like a woodcarver putting delicate toy boats into a stream. The singing voices had wrapped his secret heart in a sweet, cold net of silver; the tender resignation of its strands still clutched him. It had been such a strange sensation: for a moment he had felt himself all feathers and racing heartbeat—a frightened bird cupped in the hands of God.
He had run down the gallery steps, feeling suddenly unworthy of such solicitousness and delicacy—he was too clumsy, too foolish. It seemed that he might, with his chapped scullion's hands, somehow mishandle the beautiful music, as a child might unwittingly trample a butterfly.
Now, in the hayloft, his heart began to slow. He buried himself deep in the musty, whispering straw, and with his eyes closed listened to the gentle snorting of the horses in their stalls below. He thought he could feel the almost insensible touch of the dust motes as they drifted down onto his face in the still, drowsy darkness.
He might have dozed—he couldn't be sure—but the next thing Simon noticed was the sudden, sharp sound of voices below him. Rolling over, he swam through the tickling straw to the loft's edge, until he could see down to the stable below.
There were three: Shem Horsegroom, Ruben the Bear, and a little man that Simon thought might be Towser, the old jester—he couldn't be sure because this one wore no motley, and had a hat that covered much of his face. They had all come in through the stable doors like a trio of comic fools; Ruben the Bear swung a jug from a fist as broad as a leg of spring lamb. All three were drunk as birds in a berry-bush, and Towser—if it was he—was singing an old tune:
"Jack take a maid

Up on the cheery hill

Sing a way-o, hey-o

Half-a-crown day..."
Ruben handed the jug to the little man. The weight over-balanced him in midchorus so that he staggered a step and then tumbled over, his hat flying off. It was indeed Towser; as he rolled to a stop Simon could see his seamed, purse-mouthed face begin to wrinkle up at his eyes, as though he would cry like a baby. Instead he began to laugh helplessly, leaning against the wall with the jug between his knees. His two companions tromped unsteadily over to join him. They sat all in a row, like magpies on a fence.
Simon was wondering if he should announce himself; he didn't know Towser well, but he had always been friendly with Shem and Ruben. After a moment's consideration he decided against it. It was more fun watching them unsuspected—perhaps he would be able to think of a trick to play! He made himself comfortable, secret and silent in the high loft.
"By Saint Muirfath and the Archangel," Towser said with a sigh after a few sodden moments had passed, "I had sore need of this!" He ran his forefinger around the lip of the jug, then put the finger in his mouth.
Shem Horsegroom reached to him across the smith's broad stomach and took the jug for a swallow. He wiped his lips with the back of a leathery hand. "Whur will ye go, then?" he asked the jester. Towser vented a sigh. The life suddenly seemed to drain out of the little drinking party; all stared glumly at the floor.
"I have some kinfolk—distant kinfolk—in Grenefod, at the river's mouth. Mayhap I will go there, although I doubt they'll be too happy with another mouth to feed. Mayhap I will go north to Naglimund."
"But Josua is gone," said Ruben, and belched.
"Aye, goon away," added Shem.
Towser closed his eyes and bumped his head back against the rough wood of the paddock door. "But Josua's people still hold Naglimund, and they will have sympathies for someone chased out of his home by Elias' churls—even more sympathy now, when people say that Elias has murdered poor Prince Josua."
"But other'uns say that Joosua has turn traitor," Shem offered, rubbing his chin sleepily.
"Pfagh." The little jester spat. In the loft above, Simon, too, felt the warmth of the spring afternoon, the drowsy, dragging weight of it. It lent the conversation below an air of unimportance, of distance—murder and treachery seemed the names of faraway places.
During the long pause which followed, Simon felt his eyelids creeping inexorably downward...
"Mayhap it been not sich a wise thing t'do, brother Towser..."—Shem was speaking now, skinny old Shem, as gaunt and weathered as something hung in a smokehouse—"... baitin' the king, I mean. Did ye need to sing sich a goadin' song?"
"Hah!" Towser scratched his nose busily. "My western ancestors, they were true bards, not limping old tumblers like me. They would have sung him a song to curl his ears up rightly! They say that the poet Eoin-ec-Cluias once made an anger-song so mighty that all the golden bees of the Grianspog descended on the chieftain Gormlibata and stung him to death... that was a song!" The old jester leaned his head back once more against the stable wall. "The king!? God's teeth, I cannot stand even to call him such. I was with his sainted father man and boy—there was a king you could call a king! This one is no better than a brigand... not half the man that his... father John was... ."
Towser's voice wavered sleepily. Shem Horsegroom's head slowly fell forward onto his breast. Ruben's eyes were open, but it was as though he looked into the darkest spaces between the rafters. Beside him Towser stirred once more.
"Did I tell you," the old man abruptly said, "did I tell you about the king's sword? King John's sword—Bright-Nail? He gave it to me, you know, saying: 'Towser, only you can pass this to my son Elias. Only you... !" A tear winked on the jester's furrowed cheek. " 'Take my son to the throne room and give him Bright-Nail,' he told me—and I did! I brought it to him the night his dear father died... put it in his hand just the way his father told me to... and he dropped it! Dropped it!" Towser's voice rose in anger. "The sword that his father carried into more battles than a brachet has fleas! I could scarce believe such clumsiness, such... disrespect! Are you listening, Shem? Ruben?" Beside him the smith grunted.
"Hist! I was horrified, of course. I picked it up and wiped it with the linen wrappings and gave it to him; this time he took it with two hands. 'It twisted,' he said, like an idiot. Now as he held it again the strangest look passed over his face, like... like..." The jester trailed off. Simon was afraid he had fallen asleep, but apparently the little man was merely thinking, in a slow, wine-addled way.
"The look on his face," Towser resumed, "was like a child caught doing something very, very wicked—that was it exactly! Exactly! He turned pale, and his mouth went all slack—and he handed it back to me! 'Bury this with my father,' he said, 'It is his sword; he should have it with him.'—'But he wanted it given to you, my lord!' I said... but would he listen? Would he? No. "This is a new age, old man,' he told me, 'we do not need to dote on these relics of the past.' Can you imagine the thundering gall of such a man!?"
Towser searched around with his hand until he found the jug and lifted it up for a long drink. Both his companions now had closed their eyes and were breathing hoarsely, but the little old man paid no notice, lost in indignant reverie.
"And then he would not even do his poor dead father the courtesy of... placing it in the grave himself. Wouldn't... wouldn't even touch it! Made his younger brother do it! Made Josua..." Towser's bald head nodded. "You'd have thought it burned him... to see him hand it back... so swift... damned puppy..." Towser's head bobbed once more, sank to his breast, and did not come up again.
As Simon came quietly down the hayloft ladder, the three men were already snoring like old dogs before a fireplace. He crept past them on his toe-tips, kindly halting to stopper the jug lest one of them knock it over with a sleep-flung arm. He moved out into the slanting sunlight on the commons.
So many strange things have happened this year, he thought as he sat dropping pebbles into the well in the center of the commons yard. Drought and sickness, the prince disappeared, people burned
and killed in Falshire... But somehow none of it seemed very serious.
Everything happens to someone else, Simon decided, half-glad, half-regretful. Everything happens to strangers.
^
She was curled up in the window seat, staring down through the delicately etched panes at something below. She did not look up when he entered, although the scuff of his boots on the flagstones announced him clearly; he stood for a moment in the doorway, arms folded across his breast, but still she did not turn. He strode forward and then stopped, looking over her shoulder.
There was nothing to see in the commons but a kitchen boy sitting on the rim of the stone cistern, a long-legged, shock-haired youth in a stained smock. The yard was otherwise empty of anything but sheep, dirty bundles of wool searching the dark ground for patches of new grass.
"What is wrong?" he asked, laying a broad hand on her shoulder. "Do you hate me now, that you should stalk away without a word?"
She shook her head, briefly netting a stripe of sunlight in her hair. Her hand stole up to his and grasped it with cool fingers.
"No," she said, still staring at the deserted acre below. "But I hate the things I see around me." He leaned forward, but she quickly pulled her hand free and lifted it to her face, as if to shade it from the afternoon sun.
"What things?" he asked, a measure of exasperation creeping into his voice. "Would you rather be back in Meremund, living in that drafty prison of a place my father gave me, with the smell of fish poisoning the air of even the highest balconies?" He reached down and cupped her chin, turning it with firm gentleness until he could see her angry, tearful eyes.
"Yes!" she said, and pushed his hand away, but now she held his gaze. "Yes, I would. You can smell the wind there, too, and you can see the ocean."
"Oh, God, girl, the ocean? You are mistress of the known world and yet you cry because you can't see the damnable water? Look! Look there!" He pointed out past the Hayholt's walls. "What, then. is the Kynslagh?"
She looked back with scom. "That is a bay, a king's bay, which waits passively for the king to boat on it, or swim in it. No king owns the sea."
"Ah." He dropped onto a hassock, his long legs splayed to either side. "And the thought behind this all, I suppose, is that you are prisoned here too, eh? What nonsense! I know why you are upset."
She turned fully away from the window, her eyes intent. "You do?" she asked, and beneath the scom fluttered a tiny breath of hope. "Tell me why, then. Father."
Elias laughed. "Because you are about to be married. It is not surprising at all!" He slid nearer. "Ah, Miri, there's nothing to be afraid of. Fengbald is a swaggerer, but he's young and still foolish. With a woman's patient hand at work he'll learn manners soon enough. And if he doesn't—well, it would show him a fool indeed were he to mistreat the king's daughter."
Miriamele's face hardened into a look of resignation. "You don't understand." Her tone was flat as a tax collector's. "Fengbald is of no more interest to me than a rock, or a shoe. It's you who I care about—and it's you who has something to fear. Why do you show off for them? Why do you mock and threaten old men?"
"Mock and threaten?!" For a moment Elias' broad face curled into an ugly snarl. "That old whoreson sings a song that as much as accuses me of doing away with my brother, and you say I mocked him?" The king stood up suddenly, giving the hassock an angry push with his foot that sent it spinning across the floor. "What do I have to fear?" he asked suddenly.
"If you don't know, Father—you who spend so much time around that red snake Pryrates and his deviltry—if you can't feel what's happening..."
"What in Aedon's name are you saying?" the king demanded. "What do you know?" He struck his hand against his thigh with a crack. "Nothing! Pryrates is my able servant—he will do for me what no one else can."
"He is a monster and a necromancer!" the princess shouted. "You are becoming his tool, Father! What has happened to you? You have changed!" Miriamele made an anguished sound, trying to bury her face in her long blue veil, then leaped up to dash past on velvet-slippered feet into her bedchamber. A moment later she had pushed the heavy door closed behind her.
"Damn all children!" Elias swore. "Girl!" he shouted, striding to the door, "you understand nothing! You know nothing about what the king is called on to do. And you have no right to be disobedient. I have no son! I have no heir! There are ambitious men all around me, and I need Pengbald. You will not thwart me!"
He stood for a long moment, but there was no reply. He struck the heel of his hand against the door and the timbers shuddered.
"Miriamele! Open the door!" Only silence answered him. "Daughter," he said at last, leaning his head forward until it touched the unyielding wood, "only bear me a grandson, and I will give you Meremund. I will see that Fengbald does not hinder your going. You may spend the rest of your life staring at the ocean." He brought up his hand and wiped something from his face. "I do not like to look at the ocean myself... it makes me think of your mother."
One more time he struck the door. The echo bloomed and died. "I love you, Miri..." the king said softly.
^
The turret at the corner of the western wall had taken the first bite out of the afternoon sun. Another pebble rattled down the cistern, following a hundred of its fellows into oblivion.
Pm hungry, Simon decided.
It would not be a bad idea, he reflected, to wander over to the pantry and beg something to eat from Judith. The evening meal would not be served for at least an hour, and he was uncomfortably aware that he hadn't had a bite since early morning. The one problem was that Rachel and her crew were cleaning out the long refectory hallway and chambers alongside the dining hall, the latest battle in Rachel's strenuous spring campaign. It would certainly be better, if possible, to circumvent the Dragon and any words she might have to offer on the subject of begging food before supper.
After a moment's consideration, during which time he sent three more stones tick-tack-ticking down the well, Simon decided it would be safer to go under the Dragon than around her. The refectory hall took up the entire length of the upper story along the seawall of the castle's central keep; it would take a very long time to go all the way around by the Chancelry to come at the kitchens on the far side. No, the storage rooms were the only route.
He took a chance on a quick dash from the commons yard across the western portico of the refectory, and made it through unobserved. A whiff of soapy water and the distant slosh of mops hastened his steps as he ducked into the darkened lower floor, and the rooms of stored goods that took up most of the area below the dining halls.
Since this floor was a good six or seven ells below the top of the Inner Bailey walls, only the faintest gleam of reflected light made its way in through the windows. The deep shadows reassured Simon. Because of many combustibles, torches were almost never brought down to these rooms—there was little chance he would be discovered.
In the large central chamber great piles of iron-banded casks and butts were stacked to the ceiling, a murky landscape of rounded towers, and close-hemmed passages. Anything might be stored in these barrels: dried vegetables, cheeses, bolts of fabric from years long past, even suits of armor like shining fish in casks of midnight-dark oil. The temptation to open some and see what treasures lay hidden privily inside was very strong, but Simon had no prybar to unlid the heavy, tight-nailed barrels—neither did he dare make too much noise with the Dragon and her legions dusting and polishing away just above like the charwomen of the damned.
Midway across the long, shadowed room, threading his way between barrel-towers that leaned like cathedral buttressess, Simon nearly fell down a hole into darkness.
Dancing back in heart-thumping surprise, he quickly saw that rather than a mere hole it was a hatchway that gaped in the floor before him, its door flung open and back. With care he could step around it, despite the narrowness of the path... but why was it open? Obviously, heavy hatch-doors did not swing open unaided. Doubtless one of the housekeepers had brought something up from a storeroom farther below, and been unable to both manage the burden and close the door.
With only an instant's hesitation, Simon scrambled down the ladder into the hatchway. Who could say what strange, exciting things might be hiding in the room below?
The space beneath was darker than the room above, and at first he could see nothing at all. His groping foot encountered something below him; as he gingerly lowered his weight it took on the solidity of familiar board flooring. When he took the other foot off the ladder, however, it met no resistance at all—only his tight grip on the ladder-rung kept him from toppling off balance. There was still open space immediately below the ladder—another hatchway to a floor even further below. He maneuvered his swinging foot until it found the lip of the lower hatch, then moved off onto the security of this middle room's floor.
The hatch-door above him was a gray square in the wall of darkness. By its faint light he saw with disappointment that this area was little more than a closet: the roof was far lower than that of the upper room, and the walls extended back only a few arm's lengths from where he stood. This small room was crowded to the rafters with barrels and sacks, with only a small aisle that reached back to the far wall separating the leaning dry goods.
As he surveyed the closet with disinterest a board creaked somewhere, and he heard the measured sound of footsteps in the blackness below him.
Oh, God's Pain, who's that?! And what have I done now?
How stupid of him not to think that the hatchway might be open because someone was still down in the rooms below! He had done it again! Silently cursing himself for an idiot, he slid into the narrow aisle between the packed goods. The footfalls below approached the ladder. Simon wedged himself back off the aisle into a space between two musty plaincloth sacks that smelled and felt like they might be full of old linen. Realizing that he would still be visible to anyone who stepped away from the hatch and into the pathway, he sank into a half-crouch, resting his weight carefully on an oak-ribbed trunk. The steps halted, and the ladder began to creak as someone climbed up. He held his breath. He had no idea why he was suddenly so frightened; if he was caught it would only mean more punishment, more of Rachel's hard looks and peppery remarks—why then did he feel like a rabbit scented by hounds?
The sound of climbing continued, and for the moment it seemed that whoever it was would continue up to the large room above... until the steady creaking stopped. The silence sang in Simon's ears. There was a creak, then another—but he realized with a heavy feeling in his stomach that the noises were coming back down. A muffled bump as the unseen figure stepped off the ladder onto the floor of the closet, and again there was silence, but this time the very stillness seemed to throb. The slow tread moved closer down the slender aisle, until it halted directly across from Simon's hastily-chosen hiding place. In the dim light he could see pointed black boots, almost close enough to touch; above hung the black-trimmed hem of a scarlet robe. It was Pryrates.



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