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



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"Qantaqa was a pup when she was found by me," Binabik continued at last. "Her mother had been probably killed, or from starvation had died. She snarled at me when I discovered her, a ball of white far given away in the snow by black nose." He smiled. "Yes, she is gray now. Wolves, like people are doing, often change their colors as they grow, I found myself... touched by her effort at defending. I brought her back with me. My master..." Binabik paused. The harsh cry of a jay filled the moment. "My master said if I would be taking her from the arms of Qinkipa the Snow Maiden, then I was assuming duties of a parent. My friends had thought that I was not being sensible. Aha! I said. I will teach this wolf to carry me just like a ram with horns. It was not believed—it was not a thing that had been done before. So many things are things not done before..."
"Who is your master?" Below them Qantaqa, who had been napping in a splash of sun, rolled onto her back and kicked, the white fur of her belly thick as a king's mantle.
"That, Simon-friend, is another tale to tell: not today. To finish, though, I will say that I did teach Qantaqa to carry me. The teaching was a very..."—he wrinkled his upper lip—"diverting experience. But there is no regret in me for this. 1 travel often, farther than my tribesmen. A ram is a wonderful jumping animal, but their minds are very small. A wolf is clever-clever-clever, and they are faithful as a debt unpaid. When they take a mate, do you know, they are taking only one for their entire lives? Qantaqa is my friend, and I think her much preferable to any sheep. Yes, Qantaqa? Yes?"
The great gray wolf sat up, her wide yellow eyes fixed on Binabik. She dipped her head and uttered a short bark.
"You see?" the troll grinned. "Come now, Simon. I think we should be to marching while this sun stands high." He slid down the rock, and the boy followed, hopping as he pulled on his ruined shoes.
As the afternoon passed, and they tramped on through the crowding trees, Binabik answered questions about his travels, displaying an enviable familiarity with places Simon had trod only in daydreams. He spoke of the summer sun revealing the gleaming inner facets of icy Mintahoq like a jeweler's deft hammer; of the northernmost regions of this same Aldeorte Forest, a world of white trees and silence and the tracks of strange animals; of the cold outer villages of Rimmersgard that had barely heard of the Court of Prester John, where wild-eyed, bearded men huddled-over fires in the shadows of high mountains, and even the bravest of them feared the shapes that walked the howling darkness above. He spun tales of the hidden gold mines of Hernystir, secret, serpentine tunnels that wound down into the black earth among the bones of the Grainspog mountains, and he spoke of the Hernystiri themselves, artful, dreamy pagans whose gods inhabited the green fields and the sky and stones—the Hernystiri, who of all men had known the Sithi best.
"And the Sithi are real..." Simon said quietly, with wonder and more than a little fear as he remembered. "The doctor was right."
Binabik cocked an eyebrow. "Of course Sithi are real. Do you suppose they sit here in the forest wondering if men are real? What a nonsense! Men are but a recentness compared to them—although a recentness that has terribly damaged them."
"It's just that I had never seen one before!"
"You had never seen me or my people, either," Binabik replied. "You have never seen Perdruin or Nabban or the Meadow Thrithing... is this, then, meaning that they do not have existence? What a fund of superstitious silliness is owned by you Erkynlanders! A man whose wisdom is true does not sit in waiting for the world to come at him piece by piece for proving its existence!" The troll stared straight ahead, eyebrows knotted; Simon was afraid he might have offended him.
"Well, what does a wise man do, then?" he asked, a little defiantly.
"The wise man is not waiting for the realness of the world to prove itself to him. How can one be an authority before the experiencing of this realness? My master taught me—and to me it seems chash. meaning correct—that you must not defend against the entering of knowledge."
"I'm sorry, Binabik," Simon kicked at an oak boll and sent it tumbling, "but I'm just a scullion—a kitchen boy. That kind of talk makes no sense to me."
"Aha!" Quick as a snake, Binabik leaned over and whacked Simon on the ankle with his stick. "That is being an example, exactly! Aha!" The troll shook his small fist. Qantaqa, thinking herself summoned, came galloping back to dan in circles around the pair, until they had to halt to avoid tripping over the frisking wolf.
"Hinik, Qantaqa!" Binabik hissed. She bounded off, tail bobbing like any tame castle hound. "Now, friend Simon," the troll said, "please forgive my squeaking, but you have made my point." He held his hand up to stall Simon's question. The youth felt a smile twitching his lips at the sight of the little troll so rapt and serious. "First," said Binabik, "scullion boys are not from fish spawned, or chicken eggs hatched. They can be thinking like the wisest wise folk, if only they do not fight entering knowledge: if they do not say 'can't' or 'won't.' Now, it was explaining that I was going to do about this—do you mind?" "
Simon was amused. He didn't even mind being struck on the ankle—it hadn't really hurt, anyway. "Please, explain to me."
"Then, let us be considering knowledge like a river of water. If you are a piece of cloth, how are you finding out more about this water—if someone dips in your corner and then pulls it out again, or if you are having yourself thrown in without resistance, so that this water is flowing all through you, around you, and you are becoming soaking wet? Well, then?"
The thought of being flung into a cold river made Simon shiver a little. The sunlight had begun to take a sideways angle: the afternoon was dwindling. "I suppose... I suppose getting soaked might make you know more about water."
"With exactness!" Binabik was pleased. "With exactness! Thus, you are seeing my lesson-point." The troll resumed walking.
In truth, Simon had forgotten the original question, but he cared little. There was something quite charming about this little person—an eamestness beneath the good humor. Simon felt himself to be in good, although small, hands.
It was hard not to notice that they were now headed in a westerly direction; as they tramped along the slanting rays of the sun were nearly full in their eyes. Sometimes a dazzling bolt would find its way through a chink in the trees and Simon would stumble for a moment, the forest air suddenly full of glittering pinpricks of light. He asked Binabik about their westward turn.
"Oh, yes," the troll replied, "we are heading ourselves toward the Knock. We shall not get there today, though. Soon we will stop to make some camp and eat."
Simon was glad to hear this, but could not forgo asking another question—it was, after all, his adventure too. "What is the Knock?"
"Oh, it is not a dangerous thing, Simon. It is the point at which the southern foothills of Wealdhelm dip down with a saddle-like air, and one can easily be leaving the thick and not-too-safe forest and cross to the Wealdhelm Road. As I was saying, though, we shall not reach it this day. Let us cast around for a camp."
Within a few furlongs they found a site that looked promising: a cluster of large rocks on a gently sloping bank beside a forest stream. The water splashed quietly along a course of round, dove-colored stones, eddying noisily around the twisted branches that had tumbled into the stream, disappearing at last into a thicket a few yards below. A stand of aspens, green coins for leaves, rattled softly in the beginnings of an evening breeze.
The pair quickly built a fire circle with dry stones found by the watercourse. Qantaqa seemed fascinated by their project, darting close at intervals to growl and lightly snap at the rocks as they were carried laboriously into place. A short while later the troll had a campfire flickering, pale and spectral in the last potent sunbeams of the fading afternoon.
"Now, Simon," he said, elbowing the intrusive Qantaqa into an unwilling crouch, "we find it hunting time. Let us discover some suitable supper-bird and I will show you clever tricks." He rubbed his hands together.
"But how will we catch them?" Simon looked at the White Arrow clutched in his own sweat-grimed paw. "Will we have to throw this at them?"
Binabik chortled, slapping his hide-suited knee. "You have some funniness for a scullion boy! No, no, I said I will show you clever tricks. Do you see, where I live there is only a short season for the hunting of birds. In the cold winter there are not any birds at all, except for the cloud-high-flying snow geese who pass our mountain home on their way to the Northeastern Wastes. But in some of the southern lands I have traveled, they are hunting and eating only birds. There I learned some cleverness. I will show you!"
Binabik picked up his walking staff and signed for Simon to follow. Qantaqa leaped up, but the troll waved her off.
"Hinik aia, old friend," he told her kindly. Her ears twitched, and her gray brow furrowed. "We are going on a mission of stealthiness, and your big paws will not be a help." The wolf turned and slouched back to stretch by the campfire. "Not that she cannot be deadly quiet," the troll told Simon, "but it is when she wants to only."
They crossed the stream and waded into the underbrush. Within a short time they were into deep woods again; the noise of the water behind them had faded to a murmur. Binabik squatted down, inviting Simon to join him.
"Now we are going to work," he said. He gave his walking stick a quick twist; to Simon's surprise it separated into two segments. The short one, he now saw, was the handle of a knife whose blade had been concealed within the hollow length of the longer section. The troll up-ended the longer segment and shook it, and a leather pouch slid out onto the ground. He then removed a small piece from the other end; the long segment was now a hollow tube. Simon laughed with pure delight.
"That's wonderful!" he exclaimed. "Like a conjuring trick."
Binabik nodded sagely. "Surprises in small packages—the Qanuc credo, that is!" He took the knife up by its cylindrical bone handle and poked for a moment in the hollow tube. Another bone tube slid partway out, and he finished the removal with his fingers. When he held it up for inspection, Simon could see that this tube had a row of holes along one side.
"A... flute?"
"A flute, yes. Of what good is supper without music following?" Binabik put the instrument aside and poked the leather pouch with the knife tip. Unfolded, it revealed a pressed clump of carded wool and yet one more slim tube, this one no longer than a finger.
"Smaller and smaller we go, yes?" The troll twisted this open to show Simon the contents, tiny needles of bone or ivory, packed close together. Simon reached out a hand to touch one of the delicate slivers, but Binabik hastily pulled the container away.
"Please, no," he said. "Be observing." He plucked one of the needles out with thumb and arched forefinger, holding it up to catch the dying afternoon light; the dart's sharp tip was smeared with some black and sticky substance.
"Poison?" breathed Simon. Binabik nodded seriously, but his eyes showed a certain excitement.
"Of course," he said. "Not all are so poisoned—it is not a necessity for the killing of small birds, and it has an unpleasant tending to ruin the meat—but one cannot stop a bear or other large, angered creature with only a tiny dart." He slid the envenomed needle down among its fellows and selected another, unstained dart.
"You've killed a bear with one?" Simon asked, extremely impressed.
"Yes, I have done it—but the wise troll does not stay in the area while waiting for the bear to know he is dead. The poison is not finishing its work immediately, you see. Very big are bears."
While talking, Binabik had torn off a piece of the coarse wool and unraveled the fibers with the point of his knife, fingers working as quickly and competently as Sarrah the upstairs maid going at the mending. Before this homely memory could summon any companions, Simon's attention was captured again as Binabik began wrapping the threads rapidly around the base of the dart, weaving them over one another until the butt end was a soft globe of wool. When it was finished he pushed the whole thing, needle and wad, into one end of the hollow walking stick. He wrapped the other needles in their pouch, tucked it in his belt, and handed the rest of the dismantled staff to Simon.
"Carry these, if you will please," he said. "I do not see many birds here, although quite often they are emerging now for feeding on the insects. It is perhaps we shall have to be settling for a squirrel—not that they are not tasting good," he hastened to explain as they stepped over a fallen tree, "but there is a certain more delicate touch and experience in the hunting of small birds. When the dart hits, you will be understanding. I think it is their flying that touches me so, and how quickly their tiny hearts are beating."
Later, in the leaf-whisper of the spring evening, as Simon and the little troll lazed by the fire digesting their meal—two pigeons and a fat squirrel—Simon thought on what Binabik had said. It was strange to realize how little you understood someone that you had grown to like. How could the troll feel such affection toward something he was going to kill?
I certainly don't feel that way about that bloody woodsman, he thought. He probably would have killed me as quickly as he would have killed the Sitha-man.
But would he have? Would he have taken the axe to Simon? Maybe not: he had thought the Sitha a demon. He had turned his back on Simon, something he would not have done had he feared him.
I wonder if he had a wife? Simon suddenly thought. Did he have children? But he was a wicked man! Still, bad men can have children—King Elias has a daughter. Would she feel bad if her father died? I certainly wouldn't. And I don't feel bad that the woodsman is dead—but I would feel sad for his family if they found him dead in the forest that way. I hope he didn 't have any family, that he was alone, that he lived all alone in the forest by himself... alone in the forest....
Simon started upright, full of fear. He had nearly drifted off, alone by himself and helpless... but no. There was Binabik sitting back against the bank, humming to himself. Simon felt suddenly very grateful for the little man's presence.
"Thank you... for the supper, Binabik."
The troll turned to look at him, an indolent smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. "It is happily given. Now you have seen what the southern blow-darts can do, perhaps you would like to learn their using yourself?"
"Certainly!"
"Very good. Then I will be showing you tomorrow—perhaps then you can be hunting our supper, hmm?"
"How long..." Simon found a twig and stirred the embers, "how long will we be traveling together?"
The troll closed his eyes and leaned back, scratching his head through his thick black hair. "Oh, a while at least, I am thinking. You are going to Naglimund, correct? Well, I have sureness I will travel at least the great pan of the way there. Is that a fair thing?"
"Yes!... ummm, yes." Simon felt much better. He, too, leaned back, wiggling his unshod toes before the coals.
"However," Binabik said beside him, "I am still not understanding why you are wishing to go there. I am hearing reports that the Naglimund stronghold is being garrisoned for war. I am hearing rumors that Josua the prince—whose disappearing became known even in the remote places of my travels—may be hiding there to make war on his brother the king. Do you not know these sayings? Why, if I may so presume, are you going there?"
Simon's moment of nonchalance evaporated. He's just small, he chided himself, not stupid/ He forced himself to breathe deeply several times before answering. "I don't know much about these things, Binabik. My parents are dead, and... and I have a friend at Naglimund... a harper." All true, more or less—but convincing?
"Hmmmm." Binabik had not opened his eyes. "There are perhaps better destinations than a fortress in caparison for a sieging. Still, you show quite the bravery for setting out alone, although, 'Brave and Foolish often live in the same cave,* as we say. Perhaps if your destination proves not likable to you, you may come and be living with we Qanuc. It is a great, towering troll you would be!" Binabik laughed, a high, silly giggle like a scolding squirrel. Simon, despite a certain rawness of nerves, could not help but join in.
The fire had burned down to a dull glow, and the surrounding forest was an indeterminate, undistinguished clump of darkness. Simon had pulled his cloak tightly about him. Binabik was absently running his fingers across the holes of his flute as he stared up into the velvety patch of sky visible through a gap in the trees.
"Look!" he said, extending his instrument to point up into the night. "Do you see?"
Simon tilted his head closer to the little man's. Nothing was in view above but a thin train of stars. "I don't see anything."
"Don't you see the Net?"
"What net?"
Binabik looked strangely at him. "Are they teaching you nothing in that boxy castle? Mezumiiru's Net."
"Who's that?"
"Aha." Binabik let his head fall back. "The stars. That drift that you are seeing above you there: it is Mezumiiru 's Net. They say that she spreads it to catch her husband Isiki, who has run away. We Qanuc call her Sedda, the Dark Mother."
Simon stared up at the dim points; it looked as though the thick black fabric separating Osten Ard from some world of light was wearing thin. If he squinted he could make out a certain fan shape to the arrangement.
"They're so faint."
"The sky is not clear, you are right. It is said that Mezumiiru prefers it that way, that otherwise the bright light that the jewels of her net are making warns Isiki away. Still, there are often cloudy nights, and she is not catching him yet..."
Simon squinted. "Mezza... Mezo..."
"Mezumiiru. Mezumiiru the Moon Woman."
"But you said that your people call her... Sedda?"
"That is right. She is the mother of all, as the Qanuc believe."
Simon thought for a moment. "Then why do you call that,"—he pointed up—" 'Mezumiiru's Net.' Why not 'Sedda's Net9?"
Binabik smiled and lifted his eyebrows. "A good question. My people do call it that—or, actually, they are saying 'Sedda's Blanket.' I travel more, however, and am learning other names, and, after all is said, it is the Sithi who were here first. It is the Sithi who were long ago naming all the stars."
The troll sat for a moment, staring with Simon up at the black roof of the world. "I know it," he said suddenly. "I will go to singing you the song of Sedda—or a little part, perhaps. It is song of great length, after all. Should I assay this singing?"
"Yes!" Simon snuggled himself even deeper in his cloak. "Sing, please!"
Qantaqa, who had been snoring softly across the troll's legs, now woke up, raising her head to look this way and that, giving a low growl. Binabik, too, stared around, narrowing his eyes as he tried to pierce the gloom outside the campfire. A moment later Qantaqa, apparently satisfied that all was well, poked Binabik into a more pleasing configuration with her huge head, then settled back down and closed her eyes. Binabik patted her, took up his flute, and blew several preparatory notes.
"Be understanding," he said, "that this can only be a shortness of the whole song. I will be explaining things. Sedda's husband, by the Sithi named Isiki, my people are calling Kikkasut He is the Lord of all Birds..."
Solemnly, the troll began to chant in a high-pitched voice—strangely tuneful, like wind in a high place. He paused at the end of each line to pipe skirling notes on his flute.
"'Water is flowing

By Tohuq's cave

Shining sky-cave

Sedda is spinning

Sky-lord's dark daughter

Pale, black-haired Sedda.
Bird-king is flying

On the star path

Gleaming bright path

Now he sees Sedda

Kikkasut sees her

Vows she'll be his.
'Give me your daughter.

Your daughter who spins.

Spins slender thread.'

Kikkasut calls then.

Til clothe her finely

All in bright feathers!'
Tohuq he listens

Hears these fine words

Rich bird-king's words

Thinks of the honor—

Sedda he'll give up

Old, greedy Tohuq."
"So," Binabik explained in his speaking voice, "old Tohuq the sky-lord is selling his daughter to Kikkasut for a beautiful cape of feathers, which he will use to make the clouds. Sedda is then going with her new husband to his country beyond the mountains, where she is becoming the Queen of Birds. But the marriage has not much happiness. Soon Kikkasut, he begins to ignore her, coming home only to eat and curse at Sedda." The troll laughed quietly, wiping the end of his flute on his fur collar. "Oh, Simon, this is always being such a length of story... Well, Sedda goes to a wise woman, who tells that she could gain back Kikkasufs wandering heart if she will be giving him children.
"With a charm the wise woman has given, made from bones and mockfoil and black snow, Sedda is able to then conceive, and she gives birth to nine children. Kikkasut is bearing, and sends word that he is coming to take them from her, so that it is properly raised as birds they will be, and not by Sedda raised as useless moon-children.
"When she is hearing this, Sedda takes the two most young and hides them. Kikkasut comes for taking away the others, and he asks of her the happenstances of the missing two. Sedda tells him they had become sick and dead. He goes away from her, and she curses him."
Again he sang.
"Kikkasut winging

Sedda she weeps

Weeps for her lost

Her children all taken

But for the hidden pair

Lingit and Yana.
Sky-lord's grandchildren

Moon-woman's twins

Secret and pale

Yana and Lingit

Hid from their father

Deathless she'll keep them..."



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