"Who are you? And where are we going?" The strange little man did not look up, but kept his eyes moving from tree to tree, as though looking for some landmark in the unremitting sameness of the deep woods. After twenty silent paces he turned his eyes up to Simon's and pulled his stretchy smile. "My name is Binbiniqegabenik, "he said. "but around the cookfire I am called Binabik. I hope you will honor me by using the shorter version of friendship." "I... I will. Where are you from?" He hiccoughed again. "I am of the troll-folk of Yiqanuc," Binabik replied. "High Yiqanuc in the snowing and blowing northern mountains. And you are?" He stared suspiciously for a moment before answering. "Simon. Simon of the... of Erchester." This was all happening rather quickly, he thought... like a marketplace meeting, but in the middle of a forest after a bizarre slaying. Holy Usires, did his head hurt! And his stomach, too. "Where... where are we going?" "To my camp. But first I must find my mount... or rather, she must find me. Please, do not be startled." So saying, Binabik put two fingers in his wide mouth and blew a long, trilling note. After a moment he did it again. "Remember, do not be startled or anxious." Before he could ponder the troll's words there was a crackle like wildfire in the underbrush. A moment later a huge wolf burst into the clearing, bounding past a shocked Simon to leap like a shaggy thunderbolt onto little Binabik, who tumbled end over end beneath his growling attacker. "Qantaqa!" The troll's cry was muffled, but there was amusement in his voice. Master and mount continued to wrestle across the forest floor. Simon distractedly wondered if the world outside the castle was always like this—was the entirety of Osten Ard but a playing field for monsters and lunatics? Binabik at last sat up, Qantaqa's great head cradled in his lap. "I have left her alone all the day, today," he explained. "Wolves have much affection, and they become easily lonely." Qantaqa grinned hugely and panted. Much of her girth was heavy gray fur, but still she was immense. "Make yourself free," Binabik laughed. "Scratch upon her nose." Despite the continuing unreality of his situation, Simon did not yet feel quite ready for that; instead he asked: "I'm sorry... but did you say you had food at your camp, sir?" The troll clambered to his feet, laughing, and retrieved his stick. "Not sir—Binabik! And as for food: yes. We will eat together—you, I, even Qantaqa. Come along. Being deferential to your weak and hungry feeling, I will walk and not ride." Simon and the troll were on the march for some time. Qantaqa accompanied them for stretches, but more often trotted ahead, disappearing in a few bounds into the dense undergrowth. Once she came back licking her muzzle with her long pink tongue. "Well," Binabik said cheerfully, "one is fed already!" At last, when it seemed to the aching, dragging Simon that he could walk no farther, when he lost the thread of Binabik's every sentence within a couple of words, they reached a little dell, empty of tree trunks but roofed overhead with a lattice of intertwined branches. Beside a fallen log lay a ring of blackened stones. Qantaqa, who had been pacing along beside them, bounded ahead to make a sniffing circuit of the dingle. " 'Bhojujik mo qunquc,' as my people say." Binabik made an expansive gesture around the clearing. " '—If the bears do not eat you, it is home.' " He led Simon to a log; the youth collapsed, breathing heavily. The troll looked him up and down with concern. "Oh," Binabik said, "you are not going to be crying again, are you?" "No." Simon smiled weakly. His bones felt cumbersome as dead stone. "I... I don't think so. I'm just very hungry and tired. I promise not to cry." "Look you. I shall make a fire. Then, I shall produce a supper." Binabik swiftly gathered a pile of sticks and twigs, hayricking them in the middle of the ring of stones. "These are spring wood, and damp," he said, "but luckily that is a matter easily dealt with." Sliding the skin bag from his shoulder, the troll placed it on the ground and began to rummage determinedly through it. To Simon, in his fatigue-bom whimsy, the small squatting figure looked more than ever like that of a child: Binabik stared into his sack with lips pursed and eyes narrowed in concentration—a six year old studying a limping beetle with high seriousness. "Hah!" said the troll at last, "it is found." He pulled from the sack a smaller sack, about the size of Simon's thumb. Binabik took a pinch of some powdery substance from it and sprinkled it on the green wood, then took two pieces of stone from his belt and struck them together. The spark that leaped down sputtered for a moment, then a slender curl of yellow smoke spiraled up. A moment later the wood puffed into flame, and within instants it was a merry, crackling fire. The pulsing warmth lulled Simon, despite the pangs of his empty stomach. His head was nodding, nodding... But wait—a rush of fear swept over him—how could he just fall asleep, all unguarded in a stranger's camp! He ought to... he should... "Sit and be warm, friend Simon." Binabik dusted off his hands as he stood. "I will return very quickly." Although a deep unease was fighting to make itself known in the back of his thought—where was the troll going? To get confederates? Fellow bandits?—still Simon could not muster the effort to watch Binabik leave. His eyes were again fixed on the wavering names, the tongues like the petals of some shimmering flower... a fire-poppy quivering in a warm summer wind…. He awakened from a great cloudy emptiness to find the gray wolf's massive head lying across his thighs. Binabik crouched over the fire, fussing at some project. Simon felt there was something slightly wrong about having a wolf in one's lap, but could not find the proper puppet strings in his mind to do anything about it... it didn't seem truly important, anyway. The next time he woke, Binabik was shooing Quantaqa from his lap to offer him a large cup of something warm. "It is cool enough now for drinking," the troll said, and helped Simon raise the vessel to his lips. The broth was musky and delicious, tangy as the smell of autumn leaves. He drank it all; it seemed he could feel it flowing directly into his veins, the molten blood of the forest, warming and filling him with the secret strength of trees. Binabik gave him a second cupful and he drank that, too. A dense, leaden clutch of worry at the juncture of his neck and shoulders melted away, swept aside by the rush of good feelings. A new airiness coursed through him, bringing with it a paradoxical heaviness, a warm, diffuse drowsiness. As he slipped away he heard his own cradled heartbeat, muffled though it was in the tickling wool of exhaustion. ^ Simon was almost certain that when he came to Binabik's camp it had been at least an hour short of sunset, but when he opened his eyes again the forest glade was bright with new-smithied morning. As he blinked he felt the last strands of dream pulling free—a bird...? A bright-eyed bird in a sun-catching golden collar... an old, strong bird whose eyes were full of the wisdom of high places and broad vision... from his chitinous claw hung a beautiful, rainbow-shimmering fish... Simon shivered, pulling his heavy cloak nearer about him. As he stared up at the overarching trees, their budding spring leaves picked out by the sun in emerald filigree, he heard a moaning sound and rolled over on his side to look. Binabik sat cross-legged beside the firepit, swaying gently from side to side. Before him an assortment of odd, pale shapes were spread on a flat rock—bones. The troll was making the unusual noise—was he singing? Simon stared for a moment, but could not puzzle out what the little man might be doing. What a strange world! "Good morning," he said at last. Binabik jumped guiltily. "Ah! It is friend Simon!" The troll grinned over his shoulder and quickly swept the objects into his open skin bag, then stood up and hastened to Simon's side. "How are you now feeling?" he asked, bending over to place a small, rough hand on Simon's forehead. "You must have needed a great sleep." "I did." Simon moved closer to the small fire. "What's that... that smell?" "A pair of wood pigeons who have stopped to dine with us this morning," Binabik smiled, pointing out two leaf-wrapped bundles in the coals at the edge of the campfire. "Keeping their company are some berries and nuts recently gathered. I would have been waking you up soon to help entertain them all. They are very good-tasting, I think. Oh, a moment please." Binabik walked back to his skin bag, drawing forth two thin packages. "Here." He handed them across. "Your arrow, and something else,"—that was Morgenes' papers—"you had placed them in your belt, and I feared they would be broken when you were sleeping." Suspicion flared in Simon's breast. The idea of someone handling the doctor's writings while he slept made him covetous, distrustful. He snatched the proffered bundle from the troll's hand and replaced it in his belt. The little man's cheerful look changed to one of dismay. Simon felt ashamed—although one couldn't be too careful—and took the arrow, which had been wound in thin cloth, more gently. "Thank you," he said stiffly. Binabik's expression was still that of a man whose kindness had been scorned. Guilty and confused, Simon unwrapped the arrow. Although he had not yet had a chance to study it closely, at the moment he was most concerned with finding something to do with his hands and eyes. The arrow was not painted, as Simon had assumed: rather it was carved from some wood as white as birch bark, and fletched with snow-white feathers. Only the arrowhead, carved from some milky blue stone, had any color. Simon hefted it, weighing its surprising lightness against its amazing flexibility and solidity, and the memory of the day before came back in a rush. He knew he could never forget the feline eyes and disturbingly swift movements of the Sitha. All the stories that Morgenes had told were true. All along the shaft of the arrow slender whorls, curlicues, and dots were pressed into the wood with infinite care. "It's all thick with carvings," Simon mused aloud. "They are very important things," the troll replied, and shyly reached out his hand. "Please, if I may?" Simon felt another wash of guilt and quickly handed him the arrow. Binabik tilted it back and forth, catching the sunlight and firelight just so. "This is an old-fellow." He squinted his narrow eyes until the dark pupils disappeared altogether. "It has been around for quite some long time. You are the holder now of a quite-honorable thing, Simon: the White Arrow is not given in lightness. It seems that this one was affletched in Tamet'ai, a Sithi stronghold long since gone below the blue ice east of my homeland." "How do you know all that?" Simon asked. "Can you read those letters?" "Some. And there are things an eye that is trained can see." Simon took it back, handling it with a good deal more care than before. "But what should I do with it? You said it was payment for a debt?" "No, friend. It is a mark of a debt that is owing. And what you should be doing is to keep it safe. If it has nothing else to be, it will be a beautiful thing to look on." A thin mist still clung to the clearing and forest floor beyond. Simon propped the arrow point-downward against the log and slid closer to the fire. Binabik pulled the pigeons from the embers, pincering with a pair of sticks; he put one bundle down on the warm rock before Simon's knees. "Remove the folded leaves," the troll instructed, "then wait for a short passing-time so the bird will slightly cool." It was very difficult to obey the last, but somehow Simon managed. "How did you get these?" he asked at one point, mouth full and fingers sticky with grease. "Later I will show you," the troll replied. Binabik was picking his teeth with a bowed rib bone. Simon leaned back against the log and belched contentedly. "Mother Elysia, that was wonderful." He sighed, feeling for the first time in a long while that the world was not an entirely hostile place. "A little food in your stomach changes everything." "I am glad your cure was so simple for effecting," the troll smiled around the slender bone. Simon patted his middle. "I don't care about anything right this moment." His elbow brushed the arrow, which began to topple. As he caught it and straightened it a flicker of memory came to him. "I don't even feel bad anymore about... about that man yesterday." Binabik turned his brown eyes to Simon. Although he continued to probe his teeth, his forehead creased above the bridge of his nose. "You do not feel bad about him being dead, or about making him dead?" "I don't understand," said Simon. "What do you mean? What's the difference?" "There is as much difference as between a big rock and a little, little bug—but I shall leave the pondering to you." "But..." Simon was confused again. "Well, but... he was a bad man." "Hmmmm..." Binabik nodded his head, but the gesture carried no suggestion of agreement. "This world is certainly filling itself with bad men, of that there can be no doubts." "He would have killed the Sitha-man!" "That is also a truth." Simon stared sullenly at the plundered heap of bird bones piled before him on the rock. "I don't understand. What do you want me to tell you?" "Where it is that you are going to." The troll tossed his toothpick into the fire and stood up. He was so small! "What?" Simon stared suspiciously as the import of the little man's words caught up at last. "I wish to know where you are going, so that perhaps we can be traveling together for a while." Binabik spoke slowly and patiently, as though to a beloved but stupid old dog. "I think that perhaps the sun is too young in the sky for the other questions to be troubled with. We trolls say: 'Make Philosophy your evening guest, but do not let her stay the night.* Now, if my question is not of a too-much inquiring nature, where do you go to?" Simon rose, knees stiff as unoiled hinges. Again he felt doubt. Could the little man's curiosity really be as innocent as it seemed? He had made the mistake of trusting at least once already, with that damnable monk. But what choice did he have? He did not have to tell the troll everything, and it was certainly preferable to have a companion versed in woodcraft. The little man seemed to know just what to do, and suddenly Simon longed to have someone to rely on again. "I am going north," he said, and then took a calculated risk. "To Naglimund." He watched the troll carefully. "And yourself?" Binabik was packing his few implements into his shoulder bag. "Ultimately, I expect to be traveling far north," he replied without looking up. "It seems that we have a coincidence of paths." Now he raised his dark eyes. "How strange that you should be traveling toward the Naglimund, which stronghold's name I have heard much in recent weeks." His lips quirked in a tiny, secret smile. "You have?" Simon had picked up the White Arrow, and tried to look studiously unconcerned as he pondered how to carry it. "Where?" "Time there will be for talking as we take to the road." The troll grinned, a full, friendly yellow grin. "I must call Qantaqa, who is without doubt spreading horror and despair among the rodents of this vicinity. Feel yourself welcome to empty your bladder now, so that we may swiftly walk." Simon had to hold the White Arrow between clenched teeth as he followed Binabik's advice.
18 A Net of Stars BLISTERED, sore-footed, and clothed in rags, Simon nevertheless felt the pall of despair begin to lift a little. Both mind and body were badly bruised by mischance, and he had developed a startled eye and reflexive flinch—neither of which escaped the sharp gaze of his new companion—but the brooding horror had been pushed back a short way; it had become, for the moment, just another painful half-memory. The unexpected companionship helped to ease the ache of lost friends and lost home—at least to the extent that he allowed it. A large, secret part of his thoughts and feelings he continued to hold back. He was still suspicious, and also unwilling to invest again and risk further loss. As they trekked through the cool, bird-trilling halls of the morning forest, Binabik explained to Simon that he had come down from his lofty home of Yiqanuc, as he apparently did once a year, on "business"—a series of errands that carried him to eastern Hernystir and Erkynland. Simon gathered that it involved some sort of trading. "But, oh! my young friend, what disturbances I find this springtide! Your peoples are very upset, very frightened!" Binabik waved his hands in mock-agitation. "In the outlying provinces the king is not popular, is he? And they are fearful of him in Hernystir. Elsewhere there is anger and there is starving. People are afraid to travel; the roads are no longer safe. Well," he grinned, "if you wish truth to be told, the roads never were safe, at least in the areas of isolation—but it is real that there is a change for the worse in the north of Osten Ard." Simon was observing how the noon sun had set vertical columns of light among the tree trunks. "Have you ever traveled to the South?" he asked at last. "If by 'South' you mean south of Erkynland, my answering is: yes, once or twice. But please remember: among my people almost any leaving of Yiqanuc is 'travel to the South.' " Simon was not paying very close attention. "Did you travel by yourself? Did... did... did Qantaqa go with you?" Binabik wrinkled another smile. "No. It was long ago, before my wolf-friend was born, when I was..." "How did you... how did you get this wolf?" Simon interrupted. Binabik gave an exasperated hiss. "It is a difficult thing answering questions when one is having continual interruptions with more questions'" Simon tried to look penitent, but he was feeling the spring as a bird feels wind in its feathers. "Sorry," he said. "I've been told before... by a friend... that I ask too many questions." "It is not 'too many,' " Binabik said, using his stick to push a low-hanging branch away from their path, "—it is 'piled on top of one and another.' " The troll barked a short laugh. "Now, which do you want for my answering?" "Oh, whichever you want. You decide," Simon replied meekly, then jumped as the troll smacked him lightly on the wrist with his walking stick. "It would please me your not being obsequious. That is a trait of marketplace people who are selling shoddy goods. I am sure to prefer endless, stupid questions to that." "Ob... obseek... ?" "Obsequious. Flattering with oiliness. It is not liked by me. In Yiqanuc we say: 'Send the man with the oily tongue to go and lick the snowshoes.'" "What does that mean?" "It means that we do not like flatterers. Never mind, then!" Binabik threw back his head and laughed, black hair swinging, eyes nearly disappearing as his round cheeks rose toward his brows. "Never mind! We have wandered as far as the wandering of Lost Piqipeg—wandered in our conversing, I mean. No, do not ask anything. We will stop here for a rest, and I will be telling you now about how I met my friend Qantaqa." They chose a huge stone, an outcropping of granite thrusting up from the forest floor like a speckled fist, its upper half painted by a swath of sunlight. The young man and the troll climbed up to perch on top. The forest was silent around them; the dust of their passage slowly settled. Binabik reached into his bag and produced a stick of dried meat and a goatskin of thin, sour wine. As Simon chewed, he kicked off his shoes and wiggled his sore toes in the warming sun. Binabik looked at the shoes critically. "We shall have to be finding something else." He poked the tattered, blackened leather. "A man's soul is in peril when his feet are hurting." Simon grinned at this thought. They spent a while in silent contemplation of the surrounding forest, the living greenery of Oldheart. "Well," said the troll at last, "the first thing that needs understanding is that my people do not shun the wolf—although we are not usually having friendships with them, either. Trolls and wolves have lived side by side for many thousands of years, and we are leaving each other alone most times. "Our neighbors, if so polite a term can be used, the hairy men of the Rimmersgard, think the wolf a dangerous animal of great treachery. You are familiar with the men of Rimmersgard?" "Oh, yes." Simon was pleased to be in the know. "They were all about in the Hay—" he caught himself, "in Erchester. I have talked to many of them. They wear their beards long," he added, demonstrating his familiarity. "Hmmm. Well, since we live in the high mountains, we Qanuc—we trolls—and we do not kill these wolves, the Rimmersmen think we are wolf-demons. In their frost-crazy, blood-feuding brains," Binabik put on a look of comical disgust, "it is their thought that troll-folk are magical and evil. There have been bloody fights, very many many, between Rimmersmen—Croohok we call them—and my Qanuc-folk." "I'm sorry," said Simon, thinking guiltily of the admiration he had felt for old Duke Isgrimnur—who, on reflection, did not seem like the type to massacre innocent trolls, testy though he was reputed to be. "Sorry? You should not be. Now myself, I am thinking that men—and women—of Rimmersgard are clumsy, stupid, and suffer with excessive tallness—but I do not think they are then evil, or deserving of being made dead. Ahhh," he sighed, shaking his head like a philosopher-priest in a dead-end tavern, "Rimmersmen are a puzzlement to me." "But what about the wolves?" Simon asked, then silently chided himself for interrupting. This time Binabik did not seem to mind. "My people live on craggy Mintahoq, in the mountains called Trollfells by the Rimmersmen. We ride the shaggy, nimble-footed rams, raising them up from tiny lambkins until they have enough bigness to bear us through the mountain passes. There is nothing, Simon, that is in this world quite like being a ram-rider of Yiqanuq. To sit your steed, to be wending the pathways of the Roof of the World... to be leaping in a single bound of greatness across mountain chasms so very deep, so exquisitely deep that if a rock was dropped by you it would take half a day to strike bottom..." Binabik smiled and squinted in happy reverie. Simon, trying to visualize such heights, suddenly felt a little dizzy and put his palms flat on the reassuring stone. He looked down. This perch, at least, stood only a man's height above the earth.