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



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At first he had pondered long over whether he should take the open roadway for speed and risk discovery, or try and follow it from the safety of the forest. The last had seemed the better idea, but he quickly discovered that the two, road and forest fringe, diverged widely at certain points, and in the thick tangle of Oldheart it was often frighteningly difficult to find the road again. He also realized with painful embarrassment that he did not have the slightest idea of how to make a fire, something he had never thought about as he listened to Shem describing droll Mundwode and his bandit fellows feasting on roast venison at their woodland table. With no torch to light his way, it seemed that the only possible thing to do was to follow the road at night, when moonlight permitted it. He would then sleep by daylight, and use the remaining hours of sun to slog through the forest.
No torch meant no cook-fire, and this was in some ways the hardest blow of all. From time to time he found clutches of speckled eggs deposited by the mother grouse in hiding-holes of matted grass. These provided some nourishment, but it was hard to suck out the sticky, cold yolks without thinking of the warm, scented glories of Judith's kitchen, and to reflect bitterly on the mornings when he had been in such a tearing hurry to see Morgenes or get out to the tourney field that he had left great chunks of butter and honey-smeared bread untouched on his plate. Now, suddenly, the thought of a buttered crust was a dream of riches.
Incapable of hunting, knowing little or nothing about what wild plants might be eaten without harm, Simon owed his survival to pilferage from the gardens of local cotsmen. Keeping a wary eye out for dogs or angry residents, he would swoop down from the shelter of the forest to rifle the pitifully sparse vegetable patches, scraping up carrots and onions or hurriedly plucking apples from lower branches—but even these meager goods were few and far between. Often as he walked, the hunger pains were so great that he would shout out in anger, kicking savagely at the tangling shrubbery. Once he kicked so hard and screamed so loudly that when he fell down on his face in the undergrowth he could not get up for a long time. He lay listening to the echoes of his cries disappear, and thought he would die.
No, life in the forest was not a tenth so glorious as he had imagined it in those long-ago Hayholt afternoons, crouching in the stables smelling hay and tack leather, listening to Shem's stories. The mighty Oldheart was a dark and miserly host, jealous of doling comforts out to strangers. Hiding in thorny brush to sleep away the hours of sun, making his damp, shivering way through the darkness beneath the tree-netted moon, or scuttling furtively through the garden plots in his sagging, too-large cloak, Simon knew he was more rabbit than rogue.
Although he carried the rolled pages of Morgenes' life of John wherever he went, clutching them like a baton of office or a priest's blessed Tree, less and less often as the days passed did he actually read them. At the thin end of the day, between a pathetic meal—if any—and the frightening, close-leaning darkness of the world out of doors, he would open the bundle and read a part of a page, but every day the sense of it seemed harder to grasp. One page, on which the names of John, Eahlstan the Fisher King, and the dragon Shurakai were prominent, caught his mayfly attention, but after he had read it through four times, struggling, he realized that it made no more sense to him than would the year-lines on a piece of timber. By his fifth afternoon in the forest he only sat, crying softly, with the pages spread on his lap. He absently stroked the smooth parchment, as he had once scratched the kitchen cat uncountable years ago, in a warm, bright room that smelled of onions and cinnamon....
A week and a day out from the Dragon and Fisherman he passed within shouting distance of the village of Sistan, a settlement only slightly larger than Flett. The twin clay chimneys of Sistan's roadhouse were smoking, but the road was empty, the sun bright. Simon peered down a hillside from the clump of silvery birches and the memory of his last hot meal struck him like a physical blow, weakening his knees so that he almost fell. That long-lost evening, despite its conclusion, seemed almost like Doctor Morgenes' onetime description of the pagan paradise of the old Rimmersgarders; eternal drinking and storytelling; merrymaking without end.
He crept down the hill toward the quiet roadhouse, hands trembling, forming wild plans of stealing a meat pie from an unguarded windowsill, or slipping in a back door to pillage the kitchen. He was out of the trees and halfway down the slope when he suddenly realized what he was doing: walking out of the woods at unshadowed noon, a sickened, feverish animal that had lost its self-protective instincts. Feeling suddenly naked despite his bramble-studded wool cloak he froze in place, then whirled and scrambled away, back up to the swan-slim birch trees. Now even they seemed too exposed; cursing and sobbing, he clambered past to the thicker shadows, drawing Oldheart around him like a cloak.
^
Five days west of Sistan the begrimed and famished youth found himself crouched on another slope, peering down into a forest dell at a rough split-log hut. He was sure—as sure as he could be with his thoughts so piteously scatted and fragmented—that another day without real food or another solitary night spent in the chill, uncaring forest would leave him really and finally deranged: he would become completely the beast he more and more frequently felt himself to be. His thoughts were turning foul and brutish: food, dark hiding-places, weary forest tramping, these were his all-consuming preoccupations. It was increasingly difficult to remember the castle—had it been warm there? Had people spoken to him?—and when a branch had lanced his tunic and scored his ribs the day before he had only been able to growl and flail at it—a beast!
Somebody... somebody lives here...
The woodsman's cottage had a front path lined with tidy stones. A stack of halved timbers nestled beneath the eaves against the side wall. Surely, he reasoned, sniffling quietly, surely somebody here would take pity on him if he walked to the door and calmly asked for some food.
I'm so hungry. It's not fair. It's not right! Somebody must feed me... somebody...
He went slowly down the hill on stiff legs, his mouth gaping open and closed. A flagging recollection of the social contract told him that he must not frighten these rustic people, these suspicious woodsfolk in their tree-tiered hollow. He held his empty palms before him as he walked, pale fingers thrust wide apart in a dumb show of harmlessness.
The cottage was empty, or else the inhabitants were simply not responding to his sore-knuckled knocking. He walked around the little hut, dragging his fingertips along the rough wood. The single window was shuttered with a wide plank. He rapped again, harder; only hollow echoes answered.
As he sank into a crouch beneath the boarded window, wondering desperately if he could batter it open with a piece of firewood, a rustling, snapping noise from the stand of trees before him brought him back upright so quickly that his vision momentarily narrowed to a core of light surrounded by blackness; he wavered, feeling sick. The tree-fence bulged outward as though struck by a huge hand, then sprang back with a quiver. A moment later the silence was skewered again, this time by a strange, staccato hiss. The noise was transmuted into a rapid stream of words—in no language that Simon knew, but words nonetheless. After a percussive instant the glade was quiet again.
Simon was stone-struck; he could not move. What should he do? Perhaps the cottager had been attacked by an animal on his way home... Simon could help him... then they would have to give him food. But how could he help? He could barely walk. And what if it was a beast, only a beast—what if he had only imagined hearing words in that abrupt spatter of sound?
And what if it was something worse? The king's guardsmen with bright sharp swords, or a starvation-slender, white-haired witch? Perhaps it was the very Devil himself, with ember-red robes and nightshade eyes?
Where he found the courage, even the strength, to unbend his rigid knees and walk forward into the trees Simon could not say. If he had not felt so ill and so desperate he might not have... but he was ill, and starved, and as dirty and lonely as a Nascadu jackal. Wrapping his cloak tightly about his chest, holding the furl of Morgenes' writings before him, he limped toward the copse.
In the trees the sunlight fell unevenly, strained through a sieve of spring leaves, dotting the forest floor like a scatter of fithing pieces. The air seemed taut as held breath. For a moment he saw nothing but dark tree-shapes and slivers of lancing daylight. In one spot the shafts of light were jigging fitfully; he realized a moment later that they shone on a struggling figure. As he took a step forward, the leaves whispered beneath his foot, and with that sound the struggling ceased. The hanging thing—it dangled fully a yard off the spongy ground—lifted its head and stared at him. It had the face of a man, but the merciless topaz eyes of a cat.
Simon leaped back, his heart tipping in his chest; he flung out his hands, fingers spread wide as though to block out the sight of this bizarre gallows bird. Whatever or whoever he was, he was not like any man Simon had seen. Still, there was something achingly familiar about him, as from a half-remembered dream—but so many of Simon's dreams were now bad ones. What a strange apparition! Although caught in a cruel trap, pinioned at waist and elbows by a noose of snaky black rope and hanging from a bobbing branch out of reach of the earth, still this prisoner looked fierce, unhumbled: a treed fox who would die with his teeth in a hound's throat.
If he was a man, he was a very slender man. His high-cheeked, thin-boned face reminded Simon for a moment—a horrifyingly cold moment—of the black-robed creatures on Thisterborg, but where they had been pale, white-skinned as blindfish, this one was golden brown like polished oak.
Trying to get a better look in the dim light, Simon took a step forward; the prisoner narrowed his eyes, then skinned back his lips, baring his teeth in a feline hiss. Something in the way he did it, something inhuman about the way his quite-human face moved, told Simon in an instant that this was no man trapped here like a weasel... this was something different....
Simon had moved closer than was prudent, and as he stared into the flecked-amber eyes the prisoner lashed out, bringing cloth-booted feet up into the youth's ribcage. Simon, though he had seen the momentary backswing and anticipated the assault, still received a painful blow in the side, so swift was the prisoner's movement. He stumbled back, glowering at his attacker, who scowled horribly in return.
As he faced the stranger across the span of a man's height, Simon watched the somehow unnatural muscles draw the mouth open in a sneer, and the Sitha—for Simon had realized suddenly, as if someone had told him, that this hanging creature was exactly that—the Sitha spat out a single awkward word in Simon's Westerling tongue.
"Coward!"
Simon was so angered by this that he nearly charged forward, starvation and fear and aching limbs notwithstanding... until he realized that this was just what the Sitha's oddly-accented jibe had been meant to accomplish. Simon pushed down the pain of his kicked ribs, folded his hands over his chest, and stared at the trapped Sitha-man; he had the grim satisfaction of seeing what he felt sure was a squirm of frustration.
The Fair One, as Rachel had always superstitiously referred to the race, wore a strange, soft robe and pants of a slithery brown material only a shade darker than his skin. Belt and ornaments of shiny green stone contrasted most wonderfully with his hair—lavender-blue like mountain heather, pulled back close against his head by a bone ring, dangling in a horse-tail behind one ear. He seemed only slightly shorter, although much thinner, than Simon—but the youth had not seen himself recently in any reflection but murky forest pools; perhaps now he, too, looked this scrawny and wild. But even so, still there were differences, not-quite-definable things: birdlike motions of the head and neck, an odd fluidity in the pivoting of joints, an aura of power and control that was discernible even while its possessor hung like an animal in the crudest of traps. This Sitha, this dream-haunter, was unlike anything Simon had known. He was terrifying and thrilling... he was alien.
"I don't... don't want to hurt you," Simon said at last, and realized he was speaking as though to a child. "I didn't set the trap." The Sitha continued to regard him with baleful crescent eyes.
What terrible pain he must be hiding, Simon marveled. His arms are pulled up so far that... that I would be screaming... if it were me!
Protruding above the prisoner's left shoulder was a quiver, empty but for two arrows. Several more arrows and a bow of slim, dark wood lay strewn on the turf beneath his dangling feet.
"If I try to help you, will you promise not to hurt me?" Simon asked, forming his words slowly. "I'm very hungry, myself," he lamely added. The Sitha said nothing, but as Simon took another step he coiled his legs up before him to kick; the youth retreated.
"Be damned!" Simon shouted. "I only want to help you!" But why did he? Why let the wolf out of the pit? "You must..." he began, but the rest of his words were snuffed out as a large dark form came swishing and crackling out of the trees toward them.
"Ah! Here it be, here it be...!" a deep voice said. A man, bearded and dirty, waded into the little clearing. His clothes were heavy and much mended: in his hand he swung an axe.
"Now then, you..." he stopped when he saw Simon huddled against a tree. "Here," he growled, "who be you? What are you about?"
Simon looked down at the pitted axe-blade. "I'm... I'm just a traveler... I heard a noise here in the trees..." He waved his hand toward the odd tableau. "I found him here, in... in this trap."
"My trap!" the woodsman grinned. "My damned trap—and there he be, too." Turning his back on Simon the man looked the dangling Sitha over coolly. "I promised I'd stop their sneakin* and spyin' and sourin' the milk, that I did." He reached out a hand and pushed the prisoner's shoulder, swinging him helplessly back and forth in a slow arc. The Sitha hissed, but it was an impotent sound. The woodsman laughed.
"By the Tree, they got fight in 'em they do. Got fight."
"What... what are you going to do with him?"
"What do you think, boy? What do you think God'd have us do with sprites an' imps an' devils when we catch 'em? Send 'em back to hell with my good chopper, that'll tell you."
The prisoner slowly stopped swinging, revolving in a lazy circle at the end of the black rope like a webbed fly. His eyes were downcast, his body limp.
"Kill him?" Simon, ill and weak as he was, still felt a cold wash of shock. He tried to marshal his straggling thoughts. "You're going to... but you can't! You can't! He's... he's a..."
"What he's not is no natural creature, that's sure! Get away from here, stranger. You're in my bit o' garden, as it were, an' you got no call to be. I know what these creatures are a-gettin' up to." The woodsman contemptuously turned his back on Simon and moved toward the Sitha, axe raised as though to split timber. This timber, though, suddenly heaved, became a struggling, kicking, snarling beast fighting for its life. The cotsman's first blow went awry, grazing the bony cheek and digging a jagged furrow down the arm of the strange, shiny garment. A ribbon of all too human-looking blood dribbled down the slender jaw and neck. The man advanced again.
Simon dropped down to his sore knees, looking for something to stop this ghastly struggle, to halt the man's grunting and cursing, and the scratchy snarl of the beleaguered prisoner that punished his ears. Groping, he found the bow, but it was even lighter than it had looked, as though strung on marsh reed. An instant later his hand closed on a half-buried rock. He heaved, and it broke free from the clinging soil. He held it over his head.
"Stop!" he shouted. "Leave him be!" Neither combatant gave him even a flicker of notice. The woodsman now stood at arm's length, swiping at his swirling target, landing only glancing blows but continuing to draw blood. The Sitha's thin chest was heaving like a bellows; he was weakening quickly.
Simon could not stand the cruel spectacle any longer. Setting free the howl that had been coiling itself within him through all the interminable, terrifying days of his exile, he sprang forward, crossing the tiny clearing in a bound to bring the rock down on the back of the cotsman's head. A dull smack reverberated through the trees; the man seemed to go boneless in an instant. He pitched heavily forward onto his knees and then his face, a surge of red welling up through his matted hair. Staring down at the bloody wreckage, Simon felt his insides heave; he fell to his knees retching, bringing up nothing but a sour strand of spittle. He pressed his dizzy head against the damp ground and felt the forest sway and rock about him.
When he was able, he stood and turned to the Sithi-man, who again dangled quietly in the noose. The snaky tunic was laced with streamers of blood, and the feral eyes were dimmed, as though some internal curtain had rolled down to block the light within. As haltingly as a sleepwalker, Simon picked up the fallen axe and traced the taut rope up from the prisoner to where it wrapped around a high limb of the tree—a limb too high to reach. Simon, too numb for fear, worked the nicked blade-edge against the knot behind the Sitha's back. The Fair One winced as the noose pulled tighter, but made no sound.
After a long moment of scraping and rubbing, the slippery knot parted. The Sitha fell to the ground, legs buckling, and tumbled forward onto the motionless woodsman. He rolled away from the mute hulk immediately, as though burned, and began gathering up his scattered arrows. Holding them like a clutch of long-stemmed flowers, he picked up his bow in the other hand and paused to stare at Simon. His cold eyes glinted, stopping the words in Simon's mouth. For an instant the Sitha, injuries forgotten or ignored, stood poised and tense as a startled deer; then he was gone, a flash of brown and green that vanished into the trees, leaving Simon gape-jawed and deserted.
The spotted sunlight had not finished rippling on the leaves where he had passed when Simon heard a buzz like an angry insect and felt a shadow flit across his face. An arrow stood out from a tree trunk beside him, quivering gradually back into visibility less than an arm's length from his head. He stared at it dully, wondering when the next one would strike him. It was a white arrow, shaft and feathers alike bright as a gull's wing. He waited for its inevitable successor. None came. That stand of trees was silent and motionless.
After the strangest and most terrible fortnight of his life, and after a particularly bizarre day, it should not have surprised Simon to hear a new and unfamiliar voice speaking to him from the darkness beyond the trees, a voice that was not the Sitha's, and certainly did not come from the woodsman, who lay like a felled tree. "Go ahead to take it," the voice said. "The arrow. Take it. It is yours."
Simon should not have been surprised, but he was. He dropped helplessly to the ground and began to cry—great choking sobs of exhaustion and confusion and total despair.
"Oh, Daughter of the Mountains," the strange new voice said. "This does not seem good."

17

Binabik
WHEN SIMON at last looked up to the source of the new voice, his tearful eyes widened in surprise. A child was walking toward him.
No, not a child, but a man so small that the top of his black-haired head would probably not reach much higher than Simon's navel. His face did have something of the childish about it: the narrow eyes and wide mouth both stretched toward the cheekbones in an expression of simple good humor.
"This is not a good place for crying," the stranger said. He turned from kneeling Simon to briefly survey the fallen cotsman. "It is also my feeling that it will not accomplish much—at least for this dead fellow."
Simon wiped his nose on the sleeve of his coarse shirt and hic-coughed. The stranger had moved toward him to examine the pale arrow, which stood from the tree trunk near Simon's head like a stiff ghost-branch.
"You should take this," the little man said, and again his mouth widened in a froggy smile, baring for an instant a palisade of yellow teeth.
He was not a dwarf, like the fools and tumblers Simon had seen at court and in the Main Row of Erchester—although big-chested, he seemed otherwise well-proportioned. His clothes looked much like a Rimmersman's; jacket and leggings of some thick animal hide stitched with sinew, a fur collar turned up below his round face. A large skin bag hung bulging from a shoulder strap, and he held a walking stick that looked to be carved from some long, slender bone.
"Please excuse my suggestions, but you should be taking this arrow. It is a Sithi White Arrow, and it is very precious. It signifies a debt, and the Sithi are conscientious folk."
"Who... are you?" Simon asked around another hiccough. He was wrung out, beaten flat like a shirt pounded dry on a rock. If this little man had come out of the trees snarling and waving a knife, he did not think he could have reacted any differently.
"Me?" the stranger asked, pausing as though giving the question much thought. "A traveler like yourself. I will be happy to explain more things at a later time, but now we should go. This fellow," he indicated the woodsman with a sweep of his stick, "will reliably not become more alive, but he may have friends or family who will be unsettled to find him so extremely dead. Please. Take the White Arrow and come with me."
Mistrustful and wary, Simon nevertheless found himself rising to his feet. It was too much effort to not trust, for the moment; he no longer had the strength to stay on guard—a part of him wanted only to lie down and quietly die. He levered the arrow loose from the tree. The tiny man was already on the march, climbing back up the hillside above the cottage. The little house crouched as silently and tidily as if nothing had happened.
"But..." Simon gasped as he scrambled up after the stranger, who moved with surprising quickness, "... but what about the cottage? I am... I am so hungry... and there might be food..."
The small man turned on the hillcrest to stare down at the struggling youth. "I am very shocked!" he said. "First you make him dead, then you wish to rob his larder. I fear I have fallen in with a desperate outlaw!" He turned and continued into the close-knit trees.
The far side of the crest was a long, gradual downslope. Simon's limping strides finally brought him abreast of the stranger; in a few moments he had caught his breath.



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