The icy claw of the North... the ruins ofAsu'a. And when he fell at last, tumbling, and his spirit fled from such horror, fled away into deeper darkness, it seemed that in the final instant he could hear the very stones of the earth moaning in their beds beneath him.
15 A Meeting at the Inn THE FIRST thing Simon heard was a humming noise, a dull buzz that pushed insistently against his ear as he struggled toward wakefulness. Half-opening an eye, he found himself staring at a monstrosity—a dark, indistinct mass of squirming legs and glittering eyes. He sat up with a startled yelp and a great flailing of arms; the bumblebee that had been guilelessly exploring his nose leaped away in a whir of translucent wings to search for a less excitable perch. He lifted a hand to shade his eyes, startled by the vibrant clarity of the world around him. The daylight was dazzling. The spring sun, as if on imperial procession, had scattered gold on all sides across the grassy downs; everywhere he looked the gentle slopes were rich with dandelions and long-stemmed marigolds. Bees hurried among them, nipping from flower to flower like little doctors discovering—much to their surprise—all their patients getting well at the same time. Simon slumped back down into the grass, clasping his hands behind his head. He had slept a long while: the rich sun was almost straight overhead. It made the hairs on his forearms glow like molten copper; the tips of his ragged shoes looked so far away he could almost imagine them the peaks of distant mountains. A sudden cold sliver of memory pierced his drowsiness. How had he gotten here? What...? A dark presence at his shoulder brought him quickly onto his knees; he turned to see the tree-mantled mass of Thisterborg looming behind him, not half a league away. Every detail was stunningly clear, a pattern of precise edges; but for the troubling throb of memory it might have seemed comfortable and cool, a placid hill rising through encircling trees, banded with shade and bright green leaves. Along its crest were the Anger Stones, faint gray points against the blue sky. The vivid spring day was now corrupted by a mist of dream—what had happened last night? He had fled the castle, of course—those moments, his last with Morgenes, were burned into his very heart—but after? What were these nightmarish memories? Endless tunnels? Elias? A fire, and white-haired demons? Dreams—idiot, bad dreams. Terror and tiredness and more terror. I ran through the graveyard at night, fell down at last, slept and dreamed. But the tunnels, and... a black casket? His head still hurt, but there was also an odd sense of numbness, as if ice had been laid on an injury. The dream had seemed so real. Now it was distant, slippery and meaningless—a dark pang of fear and pain that would drift away like smoke if he allowed it to—or, at least, he hoped it would. He pushed the memories down, burying them as deeply as he could, and closing his mind over them like the lid of a box. It's not as though I don't have enough things to worry about.... The bright sun of Belthainn Day had smoothed some of the kinks from his muscles, but he was still sore... and very hungry. He clambered stiffly to his feet and brushed the clinging grass from his tattered, mud-smeared clothes. He stole another look at Thisterborg. Did the ashes of a great fire still smolder among the stones there? Or had the shattering events of the day before pushed him for a while into madness? The hill stood, impassive; whatever secrets might lurk beneath the cloak of trees, or nestle in the crown of stones, Simon did not want to know. There were already too many hollows that needed filling. Turning his back on Thisterborg, he faced across the downs to the dark breakfront of the forest. Staring across the vast expanse of open land, he felt a deep sorrow welling up within him, and pity for himself. He was so alone! They had taken everything from him, and left him without a home or friends. He slapped his hands together in anger and felt the palms sting. Later! Later he would cry; now he had to be a man. But it was all so horribly unfair! He breathed in and out deeply, and looked again to the distant woods. Somewhere near that thin line of shadow, he knew, ran the Old Forest Road. It rolled for miles along Aldheorte's southern perimeter, sometimes at a distance, sometimes sidling up close to the old trees like a teasing child. In other places it actually passed beneath the forest's eaves, winding through dark bowers and silent, sun-arrowed clearings. A few small villages and an occasional roadhouse nestled in the forest's shadow. Perhaps I can find some work to do—even to earn a meal, anyway. I feel hungry as a bear... a just-woken bear, at that. Starved! I haven't eaten since before... before... He bit his lip, hard. There was nothing else to do but start walking. The touch of the sun felt like a benediction. As it warmed his sore body, it seemed also to cut a little way through the clinging, troubling pall of his thoughts. In a way he felt new-bom, like the colt Shem had brought him to see last spring, all shaky legs and curiosity. But the new strangeness of the world was not all innocent; something strange and secretive lurked behind the bright tapestry laid out before him; the colors were almost too bright, the scents and sounds over-sweet. He was soon uncomfortably aware of Morgenes' manuscript tucked into his waistband, but after he had tried carrying the sheaf of parchment in his sweating palms for a few hundred paces he gave up and slipped it back under his belt. The old man had asked him to save the thing, and save it he would. He pushed his shirttail behind it to ease the rubbing. When he tired of searching patiently for places to ford the small streams that webbed the meadows he took off his shoes. The smell of the grasslands and the moist Maia air, untrustworthy indicators though they were, nevertheless went some way toward keeping his thoughts from straying toward the black, hurting places; the feel of mud between his toes helped, too. Before long he reached the Old Forest Road. Instead of continuing along the road itself, which was wide and muddy and scored with the rain-filled ruts of wagon wheels, Simon turned west and accompanied its passage atop the high grass bank. Below him white asphodels and blue gillyflowers stood abashed and unprotected between the wheelmarks, as though surprised in the midst of a slow pilgrimage from one bank to the other. Puddles caught the sky's afternoon blue, and the humble mud seemed studded with shining glass. A furlong away across the road the trees of Aldheorte stood in endless formation hke an army asleep on its feet. Darknesses so complete that they might have been portals into the earth gaped between some of the trunks. In other places were things that must be woodcutter's huts, noticeably angular against the forest's graceful lines. Walking, staring at the interminable forest porch, Simon tripped over a berry-bush and painfully scratched both his feet. As soon as he realized what he had stumbled over, he stopped cursing. Most of the berries were still green, but enough had ripened that his cheeks and chin were thoroughly stained with berry juice when he continued on some minutes later, chewing contentedly. The berries were not quite sweet yet, but still they seemed the first serious argument he had found in a long time for the benevolent ordering of Creation. When he finished, he wiped his hands on his ruined shirt. As the road, with Simon for company, began to mount a long track of rising ground, definite evidence of human habitation finally appeared. Here and there in the southerly distance the rough spines of split-wood fences pushed up from the high grass; beyond these weathered boundary wardens were indistinct figures moving in the slow rhythms of planting, putting down the spring peas. Somewhere nearby, others would be moving deliberately down the rows plying the weed hooks, doing their best to save the fruits of a bad year. The younger folk would be up on the cottage roofs, turning back the thatch, beating it down firmly with long sticks and pulling off the moss that had grown during the rains of Avril. He felt a strong urge to head out across the fields toward those calm, ordered farms. Someone would surely give him work, take him in... feed him. How stupid can I be? he thought. Why don't I just walk back to the castle and stand shouting in the commons yard?! Country folk were notoriously suspicious of strangers—especially these days, with rumors of banditry and worse drifting down from the north. The Erkynguard would be looking for him, Simon felt sure. These isolated farms would be very likely to remember a red-haired young man who had recently passed by. Besides, he was in no hurry to speak to strangers, anyway—not so close to the Hayholt. Perhaps he would be better off in one of the inns that bordered the mysterious forest—if one would have him. I do know something about working in kitchens, don't I? Someone will give me work... won't they? Topping a rise, he saw the road before him intersected by a dark swath, a crease of wagon tracks that emerged from the forest and meandered south across the fields; a woodsman's road, perhaps, a route from the woodchopper's harvesting-place to the farmlands west of Erchester. Something dark stood, angular and erect, at the meeting point of the two roads. A brief twinge of fear passed through him before he realized that it was too tall an object to be someone waiting for him. He guessed it to be a scarecrow, or a roadside shrine to Elysia, the Mother of God—crossroads were infamously strange places, and the common folk often mounted a holy relic to keep away loitering ghosts. As he neared the crossing he decided that he had been right about it being a scarecrow—the object seems to be hanging from a tree or pole, and swayed softly, breeze-blown. But as he came closer he saw it was no scarecrow. Soon he could no longer convince himself that it was anything other than what it was; the body of a man swinging from a crude gibbet. He reached the crossroad. The wind subsided; thin roadway dust hung about him in a brown cloud. He stopped to stare helplessly. The road grit settled, then leaped into swirling motion once more. The hanged man's feet, bare and swollen black, dangled at the height of Simon's shoulder. His head lolled to one side, like a puppy picked up by the neck-scruff; the birds had been at his eyes and face. A broken shingle of wood with the words "IN THE KINGS LAND" scratched upon it bumped gently against his chest; in the road below lay another piece. On it was scrawled: "POACHED FRO." Simon stepped back; an innocent breeze twisted the sagging body so that the face tipped away to stare sightlessly across the fields. He hurried across the lumber-road, tracing the four-pointed Tree on his chest as he passed through the thing's shadow. Normally such a sight would be fearful but fascinating, as dead things were, but now all he could feel was sick terror. He himself had stolen—or helped to steal—something far greater than this poor sneak thief could ever have dreamed of: he had stolen the king's brother from the king's own dungeon. How long would it be until they caught him, as they had caught this rook-eaten creature? What would his punishment be? He looked back once. The ruined face had swung again, as if to watch his retreat. He ran until a dip in the road had blocked the crossing from view. It was late afternoon when he reached the tiny village of Flett. It was truthfully not much of a village, just an inn and a few houses crouching beside the road within a stone's-throw of the woods. No people were about except a thin woman standing in the doorway of one of the rude houses, and a pair of solemn, round-eyed children that peered out past her legs. There were, however, several horses—farm nags, mostly—tied to a log before the town's inn, the Dragon and Fisherman. As Simon walked slowly past the open door, looking cautiously all around, men's loud voices rolled out from the beery darkness, frightening him. He decided to wait and try his luck later, when there might be more customers stopping off the Old Forest Road for the night, and his dirty, tattered appearance would be less notable. He followed the road a little farther. His stomach was rumbling, making him wish he had saved some of his berries. There were only a few more houses and a little one-room cottage-church, then the road swerved up and under the forest's eaves and Flett, such as it was, ended. Just past the edge of town he found a small stream gurgling along over the black, leafy soil. He knelt and drank. Ignoring the brambles and the dampness as best he could, he took his shoes back off again to use for a pillow and curled up at the base of a live oak, just out of sight of the road and the last house. He fell asleep quickly beneath the trees, a grateful guest in their cool hall. Simon dreamed... He found an apple lying on the ground at the foot of a great white tree, an apple so shiny and round and red that he hardly dared to bite it. But his hunger was strong, and soon he lifted it to his mouth and set his teeth in it. The taste was wonderful, all crunch and sweetness, but when he looked where he had bitten he saw the thin, slippery body of a worm coiled beneath the bright surface. He could not bear to throw the apple away, however—it was such a beautiful fruit, and he was famished. He turned it around and bit into the other side, but as his teeth met he pulled away and saw once more the sinuous body of the worm. Over and over he bit, each time in a different place, but each time the slithering thing lay beneath the skin. It seemed to have no head or tail, but only endless coils wounq around the core, spreading through the apple's cool, white flesh. Simon awoke beneath the trees with an aching head and a sour taste in his mouth. He went to the streamlet to drink, feeling faint and weak of spirit. When had anyone ever been so alone? The slanting afternoon light did not touch the sunken surface of the creek; as he kneeled for a moment staring down into the murmuring dark water, he felt he had been in a place like this before. As he wondered, the soft wind-speech of the trees was overwhelmed by a rising murmur of voices. For a moment he feared he was dreaming again, but as he turned he saw a crowd of people, a score at least, coming up the Old Forest Road toward Flett. Still in the shadow of the trees, he moved forward to watch them, drying his mouth with the arm of his shirt. The marchers were peasant folk, dressed in the rough cotsman's cloth of the district, but with a festive air. The women had ribbons twined in their unpinned hair, blue and gold and green. Skirts twirled about bare ankles. Some who ran in front carried flower petals in their aprons which they cast fluttering to the ground. The men, some young and lightfooted, some limping gaffers, carried on their shoulders a felled tree. Its branches were as ribbon-festooned as the women, and the menfolk held it high, swinging it jauntily as they came up the road. Simon smiled weakly. The Maia-tree! Of course. It was Belthainn Day today, and they were bringing the Maia-tree. He had often watched the tree go up in Erchester's Battle Square. Suddenly his smile felt too wide. He was lightheaded. He crouched lower among the concealing brush. Now the women were singing, their sweet voices mixing unevenly as the throng danced and whirled. "Come now to the Breredon,
Come to the Hill of Briars!
Put on your merry flower-crown!
Come dance beside my fire!" The men replied, voices ragged and cheerful: "I'll dance before your fire, lass,
Then, in the forest's shadow
We'll lay a bed of blossoms down
And put an end to sorrow!" Both together sang the refrain: "So stand beneath this Yrmansol
Sing hey-up! Hey-yarrow!
Stand beneath the Maia-pole
Sing hey-up! God is growing!" The women were beginning another verse, one about hollyhock and lily-leaves and the King of Flowers, as the noisy band drew abreast of Simon. Caught up for a moment in the high spirits, his dizzy head full of the exuberant music, he began to push forward. Not ten paces away on the sun-blotted road one of the men nearest him stumbled, a trailing ribbon coiled about his eyes. A companion helped him to disentangle himself, and as he pulled the gold streamer loose his whiskery face creased in a broad grin. For some reason the flash of laughing teeth held Simon a step short of leaving the concealment of the trees. What am I doing!? he berated himself. The first sound of friendly voices and I go bounding out into the open? These people are merrymakers, but a hound will play with his master, too—and woe to the stranger that comes up unannounced. The man he had been watching shouted something to his companion which Simon could not hear over the din of the crowd, then turned and held up a ribbon, shouting to someone else. The tree jounced along, and when the procession's last stragglers had passed, Simon slipped out on to the road and followed—a thin, rag-wrapped figure, he might have been the tree's mournful spirit wistfully pursuing its stolen home. The lurching parade turned up a small hill behind the church. Across the broad fields the last splinter of sun was vanishing fast; the shadow of the church's rooftop Tree lay across the hillock like a long, curve-hilted knife. Not knowing what was planned, Simon hung well back of the group as they carried the tree up the slight rise, stumbling and catching on the new-sprung briars. At the to) the men gathered, sweaty and full of loud jests, and levered the trunk upright into a hole dug there. Then, while some held the swaying bulk steady, others shored up the base with stones. At last they stepped back. The Maia-tree tottered a bit, then tipped slightly to one side, drawing a gasp of apprehensive laughter from the crowd. It held, only slightly out of plumb; a great cheer went up. Simon, in the tree-shadows, gave voice himself to a small, happy noise, then had to retreat into hiding as his throat tightened. He coughed until blackness fluttered before his eyes: it had been nearly a full day since he had uttered a spoken word. Eyes watering, he crept back out. A fire had been kindled at the hill's foot. With its highest point painted by the sunset, and the flames jigging down below, the tree seemed a torch fired at both ends. Irresistibly drawn by the scent of food, Simon moved near to the gaffers and gossips who were spreading cloths and laying supper by the stone wall behind the little church. He was surprised and disappointed to see how meager the stores were—slim rewards for a festival day, and, dreadful luck, an even slimmer chance of him making off with any unnoticed. The younger men and women had begun to dance around the base of the Maia-tree, trying to make a ring. The circle, with drunken tumbling-down-the-hill and other impediments, never became completely joined; the spectators whooped to see the dancers vainly reaching for a hand to close on as they whirled giddily by. One by one the merrymakers reeled away from the dance, staggering, sometimes rolling down the low hill to lie at the bottom laughing helplessly. Simon ached to join them. Soon knots of people were sitting all about the grass and along the wall. The highest tip of the tree was a ruby spearhead, capturing the sun's final rays. One of the men at the base of the hill brought out a shinbone flute and began to play. A gradual silence descended as he piped, touched only by whispers and an occasional squeak of muffled laughter. At last the breathing blue darkness surrounded them all. The plaintive voice of the flute soared above, like the spirit of a melancholy bird, A young woman, black-haired and thin-faced, got to her feet, steadying herself on the shoulder of her young man. Swaying gently, like a slim birch tree in the wind's path, she began to sing; Simon felt the great hollowness inside himself open up to the song, to the evening, to the patient, contented smell of the grass and other growing things. "O faithful friend, O Linden tree." she sang, "That sheltered me when I was young,
O tell me of my faithless one
Befriend again to me. The one who was my heart's desire
Who promised all for all in turn
Has left me lorn, my heart has spurned
And made of Love a liar. Where has he gone, O Linden tree?
Into the arms of what sweet friend?
What call will bring him back again?
O spy him out for me! Ask me not that, my mistress fair
I'd fain not make answer to you.
For I could only answer true
And I would your feelings spare. Deny me not. O Linden tall
Tell me who holds him close tonight!
What woman has o'erthrown my right?
Who keeps him from my call? O mistress fair, then truth HI tell
He'll not to you come anymore.
Tonight he walked the river shore
And stumbled there and fell. The river-woman now he holds
And she in turn holds fast to him.
But she will send him back again
All river-wet and cold. Thus will he come from there again.
All river-wet and cold..." As the black-haired girl sat down again the fire crackled and spat, as if in mockery of such a damp, tender song. Simon hurried away from the fire, his eyes filling with tears. The woman's voice had awakened in him a fierce hunger for his home; for the joking voices of the scullions, the offhand kindnesses of the chambermaids, his bed, his moat, the long, sun-speckled expanse of Morgenes' chambers, even—he was chagrined to realize—the stern presence of Rachel the Dragon. The murmurs and laughter behind him filled the spring darkness like the whir of soft wings. A score or so of people were in the street before the church. Most of them, in knots of two or three or four, seemed headed through the settling darkness toward the Dragon and Fisherman. Firelight glowed within the door there, stippling the loiterers on the porch with yellow light. As Simon approached, still wiping at his eyes, the odors of meat and brown ale rolled over him like an ocean wave. He walked slowly, several paces behind the last group, wondering if he should ask for work right off, or just wait in the sociable warmth until later, when the innkeeper might have a moment to speak with him and see that he was a trustworthy lad. It made him fearful just to think about asking a stranger to take him in, but what else could he do? Sleep in the forest like a beast?