After some time had passed in silence, sullied only by the swish of their passage through the heavy grass and an occasional agitated bark from Qantaqa, Simon's empty stomach steeled him to ask again He had no sooner opened his mouth when Binabik astonished him by breaking into high, keening song "Ai-Ereb Ingu
Ka'ai shikisi aruya'a
Shishel, shishel burusa'eya
Pikuuru n'dai-tu." As Simon climbed that light-soaked, wind-rippled hill, the words and the strange tune seemed a lament of birds, a desolate call from the high, lonely, unforgiving spaces of the air. "A Sithi song." Binabik gave Simon an odd, shy look. "I am not singing it well It is about this place, where the first Sithi died at the hands of Man, where blood was first spilled by the warring of men on the lands of the Sithi." As he finished speaking he flapped a hand at Qantaqa, who was bumping his leg with her broad muzzle. "Hinik aia!" he told her. "She is smelling people now, and food cooking," he muttered apologetically. "What did the song say?" Simon asked. "The words, I mean." The strangeness still chilled him, but at the same moment it reminded him how big the world truly was, and how little he had seen even in the busy Hayholt. Small, small, small he felt, smaller than the little troll climbing beside him. "I doubt, Simon, whether the Sithi words can truly be made for singing in mortal languages—whether their thought is being properly passed on, do you see? Even worse, it is not the language of my birthplace that we are speaking, you and I… but I can try." They strode on some moments longer Qantaqa had grown bored at last, or had thought better of sharing her lupine enthusiasms with these cloddish humans, and had disappeared over the top of the rise. "This, I am thinking, is near in meaning," Binabik said at last, and then chanted, rather than sang. "At the Gate of the West
Falls a tear Track of light, track of earthward-falling light
Touches iron and becomes smoke…" Binabik laughed self-consciously. "Do you see, in the woodcrafty hands of a troll, the song of air is becoming words of lumpish stone." "No," Simon said, "I don't understand it, exactly… but it makes me… feel something..." "That is then good," Binabik smiled, "but no words of mine can be matching the Sithi's own songs, especially this one. It is one of the longest, I am told, and saddest. It is also said that the Eri-king lyu'umgato made it himself, in the last hours before he was killed by, by… Ah! Look, we are now at the top!" Simon raised his eyes, in truth, they had almost reached the summit of the long rise, the endless sea of Aldheorte's huddling treetops stretching before them. But I don't think he stopped talking because of that, Simon thought. I think he was about to say something he didn't want to say... "How did you learn to sing Sithi songs, Binabik?" he asked as they clambered the last few steps to stand on the hill's wide bask. "We will speak of it, Simon," the troll replied, staring around. "But now, look! There is the way down to Samt Hoderund's!" Starting barely more than a long stone's throw beneath them, clinging to the hill's sloping side like moss growing on an ancient tree, twined rows and rows of evenly spaced, carefully tended vines. They were separated one from the other by horizontal terraces cut into the hillside, edges rounded as though the soil had been shaped long ago. Paths ran between the vines, winding down the slope as sinuously as the plants themselves. In the valley below, sheltered on one side by this first, small cousin of the Wealdhelm Hills, and on the other by the dark border of the forest, a whole basket-weave pattern of farming plots could be seen, laid out with the meticulous symmetry of an illuminated manuscript. Farther along, just visible around thejut of the hill, were the small outbuildings of the abbey, a rough but well-tended collection of wooden sheds and a fenced-in field, empty now of sheep or cows A gate, the one small moving object in the massive tapestry, swung slowly back and forth. "Follow the paths, Simon, and it is soon we shall be eating, and perhaps also imbibing a small of the monastenal vintage." Binabik started down at a quick walk. Within moments he and Simon were threading their way among the grapevines while Qantaqa, scornful of the slow traverse of her companions, sprang down the hillside, leaping over the curling vines without touching a stake or crushing a single grape beneath her great paws. Watching his feet as he hurried down the steep path, feeling his heels skid a little on every long stride, Simon suddenly felt rather than saw a presence before him. Thinking that the troll had halted to wait for him, he looked up with a sour expression, about to say something about showing some mercy for folk who did not grow up on a mountain. Instead, when his eyes met the nightmare shape before him, he shouted in fear and lost his footing, tumbling back onto his rump and sliding two arm's lengths down the path. Binabik heard him and turned, racing back up the hill to find Simon sitting in the dirt beneath a large, tattered scarecrow. The little man looked at the scarecrow, hanging off-center on a wide stake, its crude, painted face all but wiped away by wind and rain, then looked down to Simon sucking his scuffed palms in the path. Binabik suppressed his laughter until he had helped the boy up, grabbing with his small, strong hands at Simon's elbow and levering him to his feet, but then could hold back no longer. He turned and started back down, leaving Simon frowning angrily as the smothered sounds of the little man's mirth floated up to him. Simon bitterly knocked the worst of the dirt off his breeches and checked the two packages tucked in his belt, arrow and manuscript, to make sure neither was damaged. It was obvious Binabik couldn't know about the thief hanged at the crossroads, but he had been there to see the Sithi strung up in the woodsman's trap. So why should it be so laughable for Simon to be startled? He felt very foolish, but as he looked again at the scarecrow he still felt a tremor of foreboding. He reached up to it, grasped the hollow sack of a head—rough and cool to the touch—and folded it over, tucking the top into the shapeless, tattered cloak that napped at its shoulders so that the blurry sightless eyes would be hidden. Let the troll laugh. Binabik, composed now, was waiting farther down. He did not apologize, but patted Simon on the wrist and smiled. Simon returned the smile, but his was smaller than Binabik's. "When I was here three moons ago," Binabik said, "on my trip passing southward, I ate the most wonderful venison! The brothers are permitted to take a very few deer from the king's forest for the succoring of wayfarers—and themselves, it needs no saying. Oho, there it is... and smoke is rising!" They had rounded the last curve of the hill; the mournful sound of the squeaking gate was directly below them. Just ahead and down the slope were the clustered thatch roofs of the abbey. Smoke was indeed rising, a thin plume floating up to whirl and dissipate in the wind off the hilltop. But it was not coming from chimney or smoke hole. "Binabik..." Simon said, surprise not quite turned to alarm. "Burned," Binabik whispered. "Or burning. Daughter of the Mountains... !" The gate banged shut and immediately popped open again. "It is a terrible guest who has come to Saint Hoderund's house." To Simon, who had never seen the abbey before, the smoking waste below seemed Binabik's very story of the Boneyard come to life. As in the terrible, mad hours beneath the castle, he felt the jealous claws of the past pushing through to drag present time down into a dark place of regret and fear. The chapel, the main abbey, and most of the outbuildings had been reduced to steaming husks. The charred roof beams, their burdens of wattle and thatch burned away, lay exposed to the ironic spring sky like the blackened ribs of a hungry god's feast. Scattered about the surroundings, as if dice-thrown by the selfsame god, were the bodies of at least a score of men, as rag-jointed and lifeless as the scarecrow on the hilltop. "Chukku's Stones..." Binabik breathed, still staring, and tapped himself lightly on the chest with the heel of his hand. He moved forward, pulling his bag from his shoulder, and hurried down the hill. Qantaqa, vindicated, barked and capered joyfully. "Wait," Simon said, barely a whisper. "Wait!" he called, and lurched after, "Come back! What are you doing? You'll be killed!" "Hours old this is!" Binabik called without turning. Simon saw him halt briefly to lean over the first body he reached. A moment later he trotted on. Gasping, heart racing with fear despite the obvious truth of the little man's words, Simon looked at the same body as he passed. It was a man in a black robe, a monk by his appearance—his face was hidden, pressed into the grass. An arrowhead had pushed violently out through the back of his neck. Flies walked daintily on the dried blood. A few steps later Simon tripped and fell, catching himself painfully with the palms of his hands on the gravel path. When he saw what he had tripped over, and saw the flies resettling on the upturned eyes, he was violently, excruciatingly sick. When Binabik found him, Simon had crawled into the shade of a chestnut tree. The youth's head nodded bonelessly as Binabik, like a tender but efficient mother, wiped the bile from his chin with a hank of grass. The carrion stench was everywhere. "Bad it is. Bad." Binabik touched Simon's shoulder gently, as if to reassure himself that the youth was real, then squatted on his haunches, narrowing his eyes against the last red rays of sunshine. "I can find no one that is living here. Monks for the greatest part, all dressed in abbey robes, but there are others, too." "Others...?" It was a gurgle. "Men in traveler's clothes... Frostmarch men, stopping here for a night perhaps, although there is a goodish quantity of them. Several are wearing beards, and to me have the looking of Rimmersmen. It is a puzzlement." "Where's Qantaqa?" Simon asked weakly. He found himself strangely worried for the wolf, although she of all of them was probably least in danger. "Running. Smelling. She is very excited." Binabik, Simon noticed, had his stick pulled apart, and had tucked the knife section into his belt. "I wonder," the troll said, staring at the rising smoke as Simon finally sat up, "what was bringing this on? Bandits? A kind of battling for religious matters—I hear that is not uncommon with you Aedonites—or what? Most curious..." "Binabik..." Simon hawked and spat. His mouth tasted like a pigkeeper's boots. "I'm frightened." Somewhere in the distance Qantaqa barked, a surprisingly high-pitched sound. "Frightened." Binabik's smile was thin as twine. "Frightened is what you should be." Though his face appeared clear and unworried, a kind of stunned defenselessness lurked behind the troll's eyes. That scared Simon more than had anything else. There was something more; a hint of resignation, as if the awful thing had not been entirely unexpected. "I am thinking..." Binabik began, when Qantaqa's yipping suddenly rose into a snarling crescendo. The troll sprang to his feet. "She has found something," he said, and pulled the startled youth to his feet with a strong tug on the wrist. "Or something finds her..." With Simon staggering behind him, impulses of flight and fear twittering through his skull like bats, Binabik dug away in the direction of the sounds. As he ran, he reached his finger into his blowpipe to push something into place. Simon knew—a heavy, forbidding realization—that this dart was black-tipped. They ran across the abbey grounds, away from the wreckage and through the orchard, following the sounds of Qantaqa's distress. A blizzard of apple blossoms fell all around; the wind prodded and pushed along the edge of the forest. Less than ten running steps into the wood they saw Qantaqa, hackles upraised, her growl so deep that Simon could feel it in his stomach. She had caught a monk, and had backed him against a poplar trunk. The man held his pectoral Tree on high, as if to call heavenly lightning down on the offending beast. Despite his heroic stance, the sick pallor of his face and his trembling arm showed that he expected no lightning to come. His pop-eyes, exaggerated by fear, were fixed on Qantaqa: he had not yet seen the two newcomers. "... Aedonis Fiyellis extulanin mei..." His wide lips worked convulsively; the shadows of leaves mottled his pink skull. "Qantaqa!" Binabik shouted, "Sosaf" Qantaqa growled, but her ears twitched. "Sosa aia!" The troll whacked his hollow stick against his thigh. The crack echoed. With a last hacking snarl Qantaqa dropped her head and trotted back toward Binabik. The monk, staring at Simon and the troll as though they were quite as terrifying as the wolf, swayed slightly and then toppled backward to land sitting on the ground with the stunned expression of a child who has hurt himself but has not yet realized that he wants to cry. "Usires the merciful," he gabbled at last as the pair hurried toward him, "Usires the merciful, the merciful..." A wild look came into his bulging eyes. "Leave me alone, you pagan monsters!" he shouted, and tried to struggle to his feet. "Murdering bastards, pagan bastards!" His heel skidded from beneath him and he sat down again, mumbling. "A troll, a murdering troll..." He began to pinken, his color coming back. He sucked in a great convulsive breath, then looked as if at last he truly would cry. Binabik stopped. Grabbing. Qantaqa by the neck, he gestured Simon forward, saying: "Help him." Simon walked slowly, trying with some difficulty to compose his face into something befitting a friend coming to help—his own heart, after all, was drumming at his ribcage like a woodpecker. "It's all well, now," he said, "all well." The monk had covered his face with his sleeve. "Killed them all, now you want us, too," he cried, his voice, though muffled, sounding more of self-pity than fear. "A Rimmersman, he is," said Binabik, "as if you would not be guessing already to hear him at slandering the Qanuc. Pfah." The troll made a disgusted noise. "Help him up, friend Simon, and let us take him out into the light." Simon got the man's bony, black-robed elbow and laboriously steered him onto his feet, but when he tried to guide him toward Binabik the man pulled away. "What are you doing?'" he shouted, feeling on his chest for his Tree. "Making me desert the others? No, you just get away from me!" "Others?" Simon turned questioningly to Binabik. The troll shrugged and scratched the wolf's ears. Qantaqa seemed to grin as if the spectacle amused her. "Are there others alive?" the boy asked gently. "We will help you, and them, too, if we can. I am Simon, and that is my friend Binabik." The monk stared at him suspiciously. "I believe you met Qantaqa already," Simon added, and immediately felt sorry for the poor joke. "Come, who are you? Where are these others?" The monk, whose composure was beginning to return, gave him a long, mistrustful look, then turned to stare briefly at troll and wolf. When he turned back to Simon, some of the tension had left his face. "If you are indeed... a good Aedonite acting in charity, then I ask your forgiveness." The monk's tone was stiff, as in one unused to apologizing. "I am Brother Hengfisk. Does that wolf..." he turned his gaze sideways, "does he accompany you?" "She does," Binabik said sternly before Simon could answer. "Too bad it is that she frightened you, Rimmersman, but you must notice that she did you no harm." Hengfisk did not reply to Binabik. "I have left my two charges for too long a time," he told Simon. "I must go to them now." "We'll come with you," Simon replied. "Perhaps Binabik can help. He is very gifted with herbs and things." The Rimmersman briefly raised his eyebrows, which made his eyes seem to bulge all the more. His smile was bitter. "It is a kind thought, boy, but I am afraid Brother Langrian and Brother Dochais are not going to be helped by any... woodland poultices." He turned on his heel and struck off", rather unsteadily, into the deeper forest. "But wait!" called Simon. "What happened to the abbey?" "I do not know," Hengfisk said without turning, "I was not here." Simon looked to Binabik for help, but the troll made no immediate move to follow. Instead, he called after the limping monk. "Oh, Brother Hangfish?" The monk whirled, furious. "My name is Hengfisk, troll!" Simon noted how quickly color came to his face. "I was merely making translation for my friend," Binabik grinned his yellow grin, "who is not speaking the language of Rimmersgard. You say you are not knowing what happened. Where were you when your brethren were being so very slaughtered?" The monk seemed about to spit back a reply, but instead reached his hand up to his Tree and clutched it, A moment later, in a quieter voice, he said: "Come, then, and see. I have no secrets from you, troll or from my God." He stalked away. "Why were you making him mad, Binabik?" Simon whispered. "Haven't enough bad things happened here already?" Binabik's eyes were slits, but he had not lost his grin. "Perhaps I am being unkind, Simon, but you heard his speaking. You have not been seeing his eyes. Do not let yourself be fooled by the wearing of a holy robe. We Qanuc have wakened too many times in the night, finding eyes like this Hengfisk's looking down on us, and torches and axes close by. Your Usires Aedon has not burned with success that hatred from his northern heart." With a cluck for Qantaqa to follow, the troll moved after the stiff-backed priest. "But, listen to you!" Simon said, holding Binabik's eye. "You're full of hatred, too." "Ah." The troll lifted a finger before his now-expressionless face. "But I am not claiming to believe in your—forgive the saying—upside-down God of Mercy." Simon took a breath to say something, then thought better of it. Brother Hengfisk turned once, silently taking notice of their presence. He did not speak again for some time. The light that filtered through the leaves was fast diminishing; within a short time his angular, black-robed form was little more than a moving shadow before them. Simon was startled when he turned and said: "Here." He led them around the base of a great fallen tree whose exposed roots resembled more than anything else a huge broom—a broom that would have fired the imagination of Rachel the Dragon toward heroic, legendary feats of sweeping. Simon's wry thought of Rachel, coupled with the day's events, brought on a pang of homesickness so intense that he stumbled, catching himself with a hand against the scaly bark of the fallen tree. Hengfisk was kneeling, throwing branches into a small fire that glowed in a shallow pit. Lying beside the fire, one on either side in the shelter of the tree's toppled length, were two men. "This is Langrian," Brother Hengfisk said, indicating the one on the right, whose face was largely obscured by a bloody bandage made of sacking. "I found him, the only one alive at the abbey when I returned. I think Aedon will take him back soon." Even in the fading light Simon could see that Brother Langrian's skin, that which showed, was pale and waxy. Hengfisk threw another stick on the fire as Binabik, without meeting the Rimmersman's eyes once, kneeled down beside the injured man and began to gently examine him. "That one is Dochais," Hengflsk said, gesturing to the other man, who lay as limply as Langrian, but without visible injury. "It was him I went out to find when he did not come back from his vigil. When I brought Dochais back—carried him—" there was bitter pride in Hengfisk's tone, "I returned to find... to find all dead." He made the sign of the Tree on his breast. "All but Langrian." Simon moved close to Brother Dochais, a thin, young man with a long nose and the blue chin-stubble of the Hernystiri. "What happened to him? What's wrong?" "I do not know, boy," Hengfisk said. "He is mad. He has caught up some fever of the brain." He returned to his search for firewood. Simon watched Dochais for a moment, noting the man's labored breathing and the slight trembling of his thin eyelids. As he turned to look over to Binabik, who was delicately unwinding the bandage around Langrian's head, a white hand came up like a snake from the black robe before him and caught his shirt-front in a horrifically powerful grip. Dochais, eyes still shut, had stiffened, his back so bowed that his waist rose from the ground. His head was thrown back, and snapped from side to side. "Binabik!" Simon shouted in terror, "he's... he's..." "Aaaahhhh!" The voice that pushed up from Dochais' straining throat was harsh with pain. "The black wagon! See, it is coming for met" He thrashed again, like a landed fish, and his words brought Simon a thrill of reawakening horror. The hilltop... I remember something... and the creak of black wheels... oh, Morgenes, what am I doing here?! A moment later, while Binabik and Hengfisk stared in amazement from the far side of the fire pit, Dochais had pulled Simon forward until the youth's face was almost touching the Hernystirman's own fear-stretched features. "They are taking me back'" the monk hissed, "—back to... back to... that terrible place!" Shockingly, his eyes popped open and stared blindly into Simon's own, a handsbreadth away. Simon could not struggle out of the monk's grip, even though Binabik was now at his side trying to help pull him free. "You know!" Dochais cried, "you know who it is! You have been marked! Marked like I was! I saw them as they passed—the white foxes! They walked in my dream! The white foxes! Their master has sent them to put ice on our hearts, and take away our souls on their black, black wagon!" And then Simon was loose, gasping and sobbing. Binabik and Hengfisk held the twitching monk until he finally stopped thrashing. The silence of the black forest returned, surrounding the tiny camp-fire as the gulfs of night embrace a dying star.
20 The Shadow of the Wheel HE WAS standing on the open plain at the center of a vast, shallow bowl of grass, a speck of pale upright life in the midst of an endless riot of green. Simon had never felt quite so exposed, so naked to the sky. The fields sloped up and away from him; the horizon on all sides made a tight seal of grass and stone-gray sky. After a span that could have been moments or years in such impersonal, fixed timelessness, the horizon was breached.