With the ponderous creak of a ship of war under heavy wind, a dark object appeared above the rim that was the outermost limit of Simon's view. It rose and rose, impossibly tall, until its shadow fell across Simon at the valley's depth—the shadow's impact was so sudden that it seemed almost to resound as it struck, a deep, reverberating hum that shook Simon's bones. The great bulk of the thing came clear against the sky as it stood for a long moment poised on the valley's edge. It was a wheel, a huge black wheel as tall as a tower. Sunk in the twilight of its shadow, Simon could only gape as it began to turn with excruciating deliberateness, to slowly roll down the long green slope, spouting flayed gouges of sod behind it. Simon stood frozen in its awful path as it ground on, as inexorable as the millstones of Hell. Now it was over him, rim foremost, a black trunk stretching to the firmament, raining turf down all round. The ground beneath Simon's feet pitched forward as the weight of the wheel tipped the bed of the earth. He stumbled, and as he found his balance the black rim was upon him. As he stared, mute and horrified, a gray shadow passed before his eyes, a gray shadow with a flashing core... a sparrow, flying madly past, with some bright thing caught up in its curling grip. He flicked his eyes to follow, and then, as if it had somehow caught at his heart in its swift passage, he flung himself after it, out of reach of the plunging wheel... But even as he dove, and the wall-wide rim smashed down, Simon's pants leg was snagged by a burning cold nail protruding from the great wheel's outer edge. The sparrow, only inches away, fluttered free, spiraling up gray on gray against the slate sky like a moth, its glinting burden disappearing with it into the twilight. A great voice spoke. You have been marked. The wheel took Simon and tumbled him, shook him like a hound breaking a rat's neck. Then it rolled on, yanking him high up into the air. Dangling, he was pulled skyward, the ground rocking and pitching beneath his head like a pulsing green sea. The wind of the wheel's passage was all around him as he rose, circling toward the apex; the blood sang in his ears. Scrabbling with his hands in the grass and mud that clotted the broad rim, Simon pulled himself painfully upright; riding the wheel as though it were the back of some cloud-tall beast. He rose ever nearer to the arching sky. He reached the top, and for a moment sat perched at the world's summit. All the spreading fields of Osten Ard were visible beyond the rim of the valley. The sunlight lanced through the dim sky to touch on the battlements of a castle, and onto a beautiful shining spire, the only thing in the world that seemed as tall as the black wheel. He blinked, seeing something familiar in its sweeping line, but even as it began to come clear the wheel ground on, pushing him over the top, then pulling him swiftly toward the ground so far below. He struggled with the nail, ripping at his pants leg to work himself loose, but somehow he and the nail became one; he could not break free. The ground leaped up. The two, Simon and the virgin green earth, were rushing together with a noise like the horns of the final day booming through the valley. He struck—the two came together—and the wind and the light and the music blew away like a candle flame. Suddenly: Simon was in darkness, deep in earth which parted before him like water. There were voices around him, slow halting voices that issued from mouths full of choking dirt. Who enters our house? Who comes to disturb our sleep, our long sleep? They will steal from us! The thieves will take from us our quiet and our dark beds. They will drag us up again through the Bright Gate... As the mournful voices cried Simon felt hands clutch at him, hands as cold and dry as bone, or as wet and soft as burrowing roots, stretching, twining fingers reaching out to catch him up to empty breasts... but they could not stop him. The wheel rolled, rolled, grinding him downward, ever farther, until the voices died behind him and he was sliding through gelid, silent darkness. Darkness... Where are you, boy? Are you dreaming? I can almost touch you. It was Pryrates' voice that suddenly spoke, and he felt the malevolent weight of the alchemist's thoughts behind it. / know now who you are—Morgenes' boy, a scullion, a meddler. You have seen things you should not have seen, kitchen boy—trifled with things beyond you. You know far too much. I will search you out. Where are you? And then there was a greater darkness, a shadow beneath the shadow of the wheel, and deep in that shadow two red fires bloomed, eyes that must have gazed from a skull horribly full of flame. No, mortal, a voice said, and in his head it had the sound of ashes and earth, and the mute, unvoiced end of things. No, this is not for you. The eyes flared, full of curiosity and glee. We will take this one, priest. Simon felt Pryrates' hold slipping away, the alchemist's power withering before the dark thing. Welcome, it said. This is the Storm King's house, here beyond the Darkest Gate... What... is... your... name? And the eyes fell in, like crumbling embers, and the emptiness behind them burned colder than ice, hotter than any fire... and darker than any shadow... "No!" Simon thought he shouted, but his mouth, too, was full of earth. "I won't tell you!" Perhaps we will give you a name... you must have a name, little fly, little dust speck... so that we will know you when we meet... you must be marked... "No!" He tried to struggle free, but the weight of a thousand years of earth and stone were upon him. "I don't want a name! I don't want a name! I don't..." "... want a name from you!" Even as his last cry echoed out through the trees, Binabik was crouching over him, a look of real concern etched on his face. The weak morning sunlight, sourceless and directionless, filled the glade. "A madman, and one near death I have already to nurse." Binabik said as Simon sat up, "and now you must start shouting in your sleep as well?" He wanted it to be a joke, but the morning was too cold and thin to support the attempt. Simon was shivering, "Oh, Binabik, I..." He felt a trembling, sickly smile come to his face, forced out by the simple fact of being in. the light, of being on top of the ground. "I had a terrible, terrible dream." "I am not very surprised," the troll said, and squeezed Simon's shoulder. "A terrible day yesterday would not by chance alone lead to less-than-restful sleeping." The little man straightened up. "If you like, be free to find something to eat in my bag. I am at tending the two monks." He pointed to the dark shapes on the far side of the campfire. The nearer one, who Simon guessed was Langrian, was wrapped in a dark green cloak. "Where is..." Simon remembered the name after a few moments, "... Hengfisk?" His head was pounding, and his jaw throbbed as though he had been cracking nuts with his teeth. "The unpleasant Rimmersman—who, in fairness it is necessary to say, did give his cloak for warming Langrian—is off searching in the wreckage of his home for food and such things. I must be returning to my wards, Simon, if you are feeling better." "Oh, certainly. How are they?" "Langrian, I have pleasure to say, is much improved." Binabik gave a little nod of satisfaction. "He has been sleeping quietly for some long time—a claim you cannot also be making, hmmm?" The troll smiled. "Brother Dochais, sadly, is beyond my help, but he is not sick except in his fearful thoughts. Him I have given something to help sleep also. Now please forgive, I must look at Brother Langrian's dressings." Binabik stood and stumped off around the fire pit, stepping over Qantaqa who lay sleeping near the warm stones, and whose back Simon had previously taken for another large rock. The wind lightly fingered the leaves of the oak tree above his head as Simon rimed through Binabik's bag. He pulled out one small sack that felt as though it might contain breakfast, but even before he opened it a clinking noise told him it held the strange bones he had seen before. A further search turned up smoked, dried meat wrapped in a rough cloth, but as soon as he had the package open he realized that the last thing he wanted to do was put food of any kind into his churning stomach. "Is there any water, Binabik? Where's your skin?" "Better, Simon," the troll called from his crouch over Brother Langrian. "A stream there is just a short walk down this way." He pointed, then reached down and tossed Simon the skin bag. "Filling this will be a help for me." As Simon picked up the skin, he saw his twin bundles lying nearby. On an impulse, he caught up the rag-wrapped manuscript and brought it with him as he walked down to the stream. The streamlet moved sluggishly, and its eddies were clogged with twigs and leaves. Simon had to clear a space before he could lean down and bring up handfuls of water to splash his face. He scrubbed hard with his fingers—it felt as though the smoke and blood of the ruined abbey's ending had worked its way into his every pore and wrinkle. Afterward he drank several great swallows, then filled Binabik's bag. He sat down on the bank, and his mind turned to the dream that had cloaked his thoughts like a dank mist since he had arisen. Like Brother Dochais' wild words of the night before, the dream had raised dreadful shadows in Simon's heart, but the daylight was even now melting them away like unquiet ghosts, leaving only a residue of fear. All he remembered was the great black wheel as it had borne down upon him. All else was gone, leaving black, empty spots in his mind, doors of forgetfulness he could not open. Still, he knew that he was caught up in something larger than just the struggle of royal brothers—greater even than the death of that good old man Morgenes, or the slaughter of a score of holy men. These were all but eddies of some larger, deeper current—or, rather, small things crushed by the heedless turning of a mighty wheel. His mind could not grasp what it all might mean, and the more he thought, the more elusive such ideas became. He only understood that he had fallen beneath the wheel's broad shadow, and if he were to survive, he must harden himself to its dreadful revolutions. Slumped on the bank, the thin fizz of the insects who hovered over the stream filling the air, Simon unwrapped the pages of Morgenes' life of Prester John and began to leaf through it. He had not looked at it in some time, due to long marching and early bed-time once camp was made. He pulled apart some of the pages where they had stuck to each other, reading a sentence here, a handful of words there, not caring so much what it said as indulging in the comforting memory of his friend. Staring at the script, he remembered the old man's slender, blue-veined hands, nimble and clever as nest-building birds. A passage caught his eye. It was on a page Following a crude, hand-drawn map that the doctor had titled at the bottom; "The Battle-field at Nearulagh." The sketch itself was of little interest, as for some reason the old man had not bothered to label any of the armies or landmarks, nor had he included an explanatory caption. The subsequent text, however, leaped out at him, an answer of a sort to thoughts that had been plaguing him since the awful discovery of the day before. "Neither War nor Violent Death," Morgenes had written, "have anything uplifting about them, yet they are the candle to which Humanity flies again and again, as complacently as the lowly moth. He who has been upon a battlefield, and who is not blinded by popular conceptions, will confirm that on this ground Mankind seems to have created a Hell on Earth out of sheer impatience, rather than waiting for that original to which—if the priests are correct—most of us will eventually be ushered. "Still, it is the field of war that determines those things that God has forgotten—accidentally or not, what mortal can know?—to order and arrange. Hence, it is often the arbiter of Divine Will. and Violent Death is its Law Scribe." Simon smiled, and drank a little water. He remembered very well Morgenes' habit of comparing things to other things, like people to bugs, and Death to a wrinkly old archive-priest. Usually these comparisons had been beyond Simon, but sometimes, as he strained to follow the twists and turns of the old man's thoughts, a meaning had come clear all of a sudden, like a curtain drawn from in front of a sunny window. "John Presbyter," the doctor had also written, "was without doubt one of the greatest warriors of the age, and without that ability would never have risen to his final, royal state. But it was not his battling that made him a great king; rather it was his use of the tools of kingship that battling brought into his hands, his statecraft and his example to the common people. "In fact, his greatest strengths on the field of combat were his worst failings as High King. In the pitch of battle he was a fearless, laughing killer, a man who destroyed the lives of those who came against him with the cheerful enjoyment of an Utanyeat hedge-baron arrow-feathering a buck deer. "As a king he was sometimes prone to quick action and heedlessness, and it was in that way he very nearly lost the Battle of Elvritshalla Dale, and did lose the good will of the conquered Rimmersgarders." Simon frowned as he traced along the passage. He could feel sunlight slipping down through the trees to heat the back of his neck. He knew he really should get the water skin back to Binabik... but it had been so long since he had sat quietly by himself, and he was most curiously surprised to read Morgenes apparently speaking ill of the golden, indomitable Prester John, a man who figured in so many songs and stories that only the name of Usires Aedon was better known in all the world, and that not by a long measure. "By contrast." the passage continued, "the one man who was John's match on the field of war was his virtual opposite. Camaris-sd-Vinitta, last prince of the Nabbanai royal house, and brother of the current duke, was a man to whom war seemed only another fleshly distraction. Astride his horse Alarm, and with the great sword Thorn in his hand, he was probably the most deadly man in our world—yet he took no pleasure from battle, and his great skill was only a burden, in that his mighty reputation brought many against him who would otherwise have had no cause, and forced him to kill when he would not. "It is said in the book of the Aedon that when the priests of Yuvenis came to arrest Holy Usires he went willingly, but when they purposed to take also His acolytes Sutrines and Granis, Usires Aedon would not have it, and slew the priests with a touch of His hand. He wept at the slaying, and blessed their bodies. "So it was with Camaris, if so sacrilegious a comparison can be made. If anyone approached the terrible power and universal love which Mother Church imputes to Usires, Camaris was that one, a warrior who killed with no hatred for his enemies, and yet was the most terrifying fighter of this, or probably any other..." "Simon! Will you please come quickly! I need water, and I am needing it now!" The sound of Binabik's voice, harsh with urgency, made Simon jump guiltily. He scrambled up the bank toward the camp. But Camaris was a great fighter! All the songs described him laughing heartily as he hewed the heads from the wild men of the Thrithings. Shem used to sing one, how did it go... ? "... He gave them the left side
Through the Battle of the Thrithings..." As he emerged from the brush Simon saw in the bright sunlight—how had the sun gotten so high?—that Hengfisk had returned, and that he and Binabik were crouching over the supine form of Brother Langrian. "Here, Binabik." Simon handed the skin bag to the kneeling troll. "It was a fine long time you were..." Binabik began, then broke off, shaking the water bag. "Half full?" he said, and the look on his face made Simon blush with shame. "I had just drunk some when you called," he offered. Hengfisk turned a reptilian eye on him and scowled. "Well," Binabik said, returning to Langrian, who looked much rosier than Simon remembered, " 'Climbed is climbed, fallen is fallen. I think our friend here is to be improving." He lifted the bag and squirted a few drops of water into Langrian's mouth. The unconscious monk coughed and sputtered for a moment, then his throat moved convulsively as he swallowed. "Do you see?" Binabik asked proudly, "it is the wound on the head that I believe I am..." Before Binabik could finish his explanation, Langrian's eyes fluttered open. Simon heard Hengfisk suck in a sharp breath. Langrian's gaze wandered blearily over the faces that hovered above him, then his eyes fell shut again. "More water, troll," hissed Hengflsk. "What am I doing here is what I know, Rimmersman," Binabik replied with icy dignity. "You were already performing your duty when you pulled him from the ruins. Now I am at performing mine, and need no suggestions." As he spoke the little man trickled water past Langrian's cracked lips. After some moments the monk's thirst-swollen tongue pushed out of his mouth like a bear coming up from a winter's sleep. Binabik moistened it with the bag, then dampened a cloth and draped it across Langrian's forehead, which was traced with healing cuts. Finally he opened his eyes again, and seemed to focus on Hengfisk. The Rimmersman took Langrian's hand in his. "Heh... Hen..." Langrian croaked. Hengfisk pressed the damp cloth against the skin. "Don't speak, Langrian. Rest." Langrian turned his eyes slowly from Hengfisk to Binabik and Simon, then back to the monk. "Others...?" he managed to say. "Rest, now. You must rest." "This man and I are agreeing at last on something." Binabik smiled at his patient. "You should take sleep." Langrian appeared to want to speak more, but before he could his eyelids slid down, as if heeding advice, and he slept. ^ Two things happened that afternoon. The first occurred while Simon, the monk, and the troll were eating a sparse meal. Since Binabik had not wanted to leave Langrian there was no fresh game; the trio made do with dried meat and the products of Simon's and Hengfisk's foraging, berries and a few greenish nuts. As they sat, chewing silently, each wrapped in his own very different thoughts—Simon's an equal mixture of the horrid dream-wheel and the triumphant battlefield figures of John and Camaris—Brother Dochais suddenly died. One moment he was sitting quietly, awake but not eating—he had refused the berries Simon offered him, staring like a mistrustful animal until the boy took them away—and a moment later he had rolled over on his face, quivering at first and then pitching violently. By the time the others could turn him over his eyes had rolled up, showing a ghastly white in his dirt-smeared face; a moment later he had quit breathing, although his body remained as rigid as a spar. Shaken as he was, Simon was certain that just before the final passion he had heard Dochais whisper "Storm King." The words bumed in his ears and troubled his heart, although he did not know why, unless he had heard them in his dream. Neither Binabik nor the monk said anything, but Simon was sure they had both heard. Hengfisk, to Simon's surprise, wept bitterly over the body. He himself, in some strange way, felt almost relieved, a bizarre emotion that he could neither understand nor quell. Binabik was as unreadable as stone. The second thing happened as Binabik and Hengfisk were arguing, an hour or so later. "... And I am agreeing we will help, but you are upon the wrong ledge if you think to order me." Binabik's anger was tightly controlled, but his eyes had narrowed to black slashes beneath his brows. "But you will only help bury Dochais! Would you leave the others to be food for wolves?" Hengfisk's anger was not at all controlled, and his eyes pushed out, wide and staring in his reddening face. "I tried to help Dochais," the troll snapped. "I failed. We will bury him, if that is what you wish. But it is not my plan to be spending three days to bury all of your dead brethren. And there are worse purposes they could serve than 'food for wolves'—and perhaps did while living, some of them!" It took a moment for Hengfisk to work out Binabik's tangled speech, but when he did his color grew even brighter, if such was possible. "You... you heathen monster! How can you speak ill of unburied dead, you... poisonous dwarf'" Binabik smiled, a flat, deadly smile. "If your God loves them so, then he has taken their... souls, yes?... up to Heaven, and to be lying around will do harm only to their mortal bodies..." Before another word could be spoken, both combatants were startled out of their dispute by a deep growl from Qantaqa, who had been napping on the far side of the fire pit, beside Langrian. In a moment it became clear what had startled the gray wolf. Langrian was talking. "Someone... someone warn the... the abbot... treachery!..." The monk's voice was a harsh whisper. "Brother!" Hengfisk cried, limping quickly to his side. "Save your strength!" "Let him speak," Binabik replied. "It might be saving our lives, Rimmersman." Before Hengfisk could respond, Langrian's eyes were open. Staring first at Hengfisk, then at his surroundings, the monk shuddered as though with a chill, despite being wrapped in a heavy cloak. "Hengflsk ..." he grated, tt... the others... are they...?" "All dead," said Binabik plainly. The Rimmersman shot him a hateful glance. "Usires has taken them back, Langrian," he said. "Only you were spared." "I... I feared it..." "Can you tell us what happened?" The troll leaned forward and put another damp cloth on the monk's forehead. Simon could see now for the first time, behind the blood and scars and sickness, that Brother Langrian was quite young, perhaps not yet twenty years of age. "Do not tire yourself too much," Binabik added, "but tell us what you know." Langrian closed his eyes again, as if falling back into sleep, but he was only marshaling his strength. "There were... a dozen or so men who came... came in, sheltering from... off the Road." He licked his lips; Binabik brought the water bag. "Many large... parties are traveling these days. We gave them to eat, and Brother Scenesefa.... put them up in Traveler's Hall."