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



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several of them looking in his direction. He smiled and nodded. The women blushed, covering their mouths with their flowing sleeves; the men nodded gravely and quickly looked away. He knew what they were thinking—he was a curiosity, a rustic and untutored westerner, even if he was an old friend of the duke's. No matter what he wore, or how perfectly he spoke, still they would feel the same. Suddenly, Eolair felt a deep longing for his home in Hernystir. He had been too long in foreign courts.
The waves rushed against the rocks below, as though the sea would not be satisfied until its monstrous patience had at last brought the palace tumbling down into its watery grasp.
Eolair spent the rest of the afternoon strolling the high, airy hallways and meticulous gardens of the Sancellan Mahistrevis. Although it was now the duke's palace and the capitol ofNabban, once it had been the seat of Man's whole empire in Osten Ard; diminished in importance now, still its glories were many.
Perched on the rocky knob of the Sancelline Hill, the palace's western walls overlooked the sea which had always been Nabban's lifeblood—indeed, all of Nabban's noble houses used water birds as the symbols of their power: the Benidrivine kingfisher of the current duke's line, the Prevan osprey and Ingadarine albatross; even the Heron of Sulis that had once, briefly, flown over the Hayholt in Erkynland.
East of the palace the city of Nabban itself spread down the peninsula's neck, a crowded, swarming city of hills and close quarters, thinning at last as the peninsula widened out into the meadows and farms of the Lakeland. From the known world to this peninsular duchy and bridal-veil of island possessions, Nabban's visits had narrowed, and its rulers had turned in on themselves. But once, not too long ago, the mantle of the Nabbanai Imperators had covered the world, from the brackish Wran to the farthest reaches of icy Rimmersgard; in those days the wrangling of osprey and pelican and the strivings of heron and gull had carried as their reward a prize worth any risk.
Eolair walked in the Hall of Fountains, where jets of glimmering spray arched up to commingle as fine mist beneath the open lattice-work of the stone roof, and wondered if there was yet the will left in the Nabbanai to fight, or whether they had simply come to terms with their own gradual dimunition, so that Elias' provocations only served to drive them further into their beautiful, delicate shell. Where now were the men of greatness like those who had carved Nabban's empire out of the rough stone of Osten Ard—men like Tiyagaris or Anitulles...?
Of course, he thought, there was Camaris—a man who, had he not found in himself a stronger call to serve than to be served, might have held the willing world in the palm of his hand. Camaris had been a mighty man indeed.
And who are we Hernystirmen to speak? he wondered. Since Hern the Great, what mighty men have risen up in our western lands? Tethtain, who took the Hayholt from Sulis? Perhaps. But who else? Where is Hernystir's Hall of Fountains, where are oar great palaces and churches?
But of course, that is the difference. He looked out past the streaming fountains to the cathedral spire of the Sancellan Aedonitis, the palace of the Lector and Mother Church. We of the Hernystiri do not look at the hill streams and say: how can I bring that to my home? We build our homes beside the stream. We do not have a faceless God to glorify with towers taller than the trees of the Circoille. We know that the gods live in the trees and in the bones of the earth, and in the rivers that splash high as any fountain, racing down from the Grianspog mountains.
We never wanted to rule the world. He smiled to himself, remembering the Taig at Hernysadharc, a castle made not of stone but wood: oak-hearted to match the hearts of his people. Really, now, all we want is to be left alone. Still, with all their years of conquest, perhaps these Nabbanfolk have forgotten sometimes you have to fight for thatt too.
As he left the room of fountains, Eolair of Nad Mullach brushed past two legion guardsmen coming in. "Bloody hillman," he heard one of them say, eyeing his garb and horsetail of black hair.
"Hea, you know," the other replied, "every now and then the sheepherders need to come and see what a city looks like."
"... And how is my little niece Miriamele, Count?" the duchess asked. Eolair was seated at her left hand near the head of the long table. Fluiren, as a more recent arrival and a distinguished son of Nabban, had the place of honor on the right of Duke Leobardis.
"She seemed well, my lady.'*
"Did you see much of her while you were at the High King's court?" The Duchess Nessalanta leaned toward him, raising an exquisitely drawn eyebrow. The duchess was a sternly beautiful older woman, although how much of that beauty was due to the skilled manipulations of her hairdressers, seamstresses, and lady's maids, Eolair had no way of guessing. Nessalanta was exactly the kind of woman who made Eolair—no stranger to the company of the fairer sex—feel completely out of his depth. She was younger than her husband the duke, but she was the mother of a man well into his prime. What here was lasting beauty and what was artifice? Then again, what did it matter? Nessalanta was a powerful woman, and only Leobardis himself held greater sway over the affairs of the nation.
"I was not often in the princess' company, Duchess, but we had several chances to speak at supper. She was as delightful as ever, but I'm thinking she was already very homesick for Meremund."
"Hmmm." The duchess popped a corner of her trencher-bread into her mouth and then delicately licked her fingers. "It was interesting you should mention that, Count Eolair. I have just had news from Erkynland that she has returned to the castle at Meremund." She raised her voice. "Father Dinivan?"
A few seats down a young priest looked up from his meal. Although his scalp was shaved in the monasterial style, the hair that remained was curly and rather long. "Yes, my lady?" he asked.
"Father Dinivan is His Sacredness the Lector Ranessin's private secretary," Nessalanta explained. The Hernystirman made an impressed face, and Dinivan laughed.
"I don't think it's accreditable to any great wit or talent on my pan," he said. "The lector also takes in stray dogs. Escritor Velligis gets very upset. The Sancellan Aedonitis is not a kennel,' he tells the lector, but His Sacredness smiles and says: 'Neither is Osten Ard a nursery, but the Benevolent Lord lets His children remain, for all their mischief." Dinivan waggled his bushy brows. "It's hard to argue with the lector."
"Isn't it true," the Duchess said as Eolair laughed, "that when you saw the king he said his daughter was gone to Meremund?"
"Yes, yes he did," Dinivan said, more serious now. "He said she had taken ill, and the court physicians recommended sea air."
"I am sorry to hear that." Eolair looked past the duchess to the duke and old Sir Fluiren, who were conversing quietly amidst the uproar of supper—for a refined people, he reflected, the Nabbanai certainly enjoyed loud table talk.
"Well," Nessalanta pronounced, sitting back in her chair as a page scurried up with a finger basin, "it just proves that you can't force people to be what they're not. Miriamele has Nabbanai blood, of course, and our blood is salty as the sea. We are not meant to be taken away from the coast. People should stay where they belong."
And what, the count wondered to himself, are you trying to tell me, my gracious lady? To stay in Hernystir and leave your husband—and your duchy—alone? To, in effect, go back to my own kind?
Eolair watched Leobardis' and Fluiren's discussion wistfully. He had been maneuvered, he knew: there was no gracious way he could ignore the duchess and insinuate himself into their conversation. Meanwhile, old Fluiren was at work on the duke, transmitting Elias' blandishments. And threats? No, probably not. Elias would not have sent the dignified Fluiren for that. He had Guthwulf the King's Hand ready for use whenever such a tool was called for.
Resigned, he made light talk with the duchess, but his heart was not in it. He was sure now that she knew his mission and was hostile to it. Benigaris was the apple of her eye, and he had been avoiding Eolair all evening. Nessalanta was an ambitious woman, and doubtless felt the fortunes of Nabban would be better assured if they were yoked to the power of Erkynland—even a domineering, tyrannical Erkynland—instead of the pagans of Hernystir.
And, Eolair realized suddenly, she has a marriageable daughter herself, the Lady Antippa. Perhaps her interest in Miriamele's health is not just that of a kindly aunt's for her niece.
The duke's daughter Antippa was pledged already, he knew, to one Baron Devasalles, a foppish-looking young nobleman who at this precise moment was arm wrestling with Benigaris in a pool of wine at the far end of the table. But maybe Nes&alanta had her eye on greater things.
If Princess Miriamele will not—or cannot—marry... Eolair mused, then perhaps the duchess has eyes for Fengbald to marry her daughter instead. The Earl of Falshire would be a much finer catch than any back-row Nabbanai baron. And Duke Leobardis would then be tied to Erkynland with cords of steel.
So now, the count realized, there was not only Josua's whereabouts to worry over, but Miriamele's as well. What a tangle!
Just think how old Isgrimnur would see this, with all his complaints about intriguing! His beard would catch fire!
"Tell me, Father Dinivan," the count said, turning to the priest, "what does your holy book have to say on the art of politicking?"
"Well," a look of concentration momentarily clouded Dinivan's homely, intelligent face, "the Book of the Aedon speaks often of the trials of nations." He thought a moment more. "One of my favorite passages has always been: 'If your enemy comes to speak bearing a sword, open your door to him and speak, but keep your own sword at hand. If he comes to you emptyhanded, greet him the same way. But if he comes to you bearing gifts, stand on your walls and cast stones down on him.' *' Dinivan wiped his fingers on his black cassock.
"A wise book, indeed," nodded Eolair.

23
Back into the Heart
THE WIND flung rain into their faces as they ran eastward through the darkness toward the hidden foothills. The clamor of Isgrimnur's camp receded, muffled in a blanket of thunder.
Coursing across the wet plain, Simon's panicked exhilaration began to recede as well; the ecstatic sensation of energy, the feeling that he could run and run through the night like a deer, was gradually cooled by the rain and relentless pace. Within half a league his gallop had slowed to a fast walk; soon even that was an effort. Where a bony hand had clutched his knee he felt the joint stiffening like a rusty hinge; bands of pain around his throat throbbed at every deep breath.
"Morgenes... sent you?" he shouted.
"Later, Simon," Binabik gasped. "All told later."
They ran and ran, tripping and splashing over the sodden turf.
"Then..." Simon panted, "then what... were those things...?"
"The... attacking things?" Even as he ran the troll made an odd hand-to-mouth gesture. "Bukken—'diggers' they are... also called."
"What are they?" Simon asked, and nearly supped on a patch of mud, skidding for a moment flat-footed. "Bad." He grimaced. "There is no more needs telling now," When they could run no longer they walked, trudging on until the sun edged up behind the wash of clouds, a candle behind a gray sheet. The Wealdhelm stood before them, thrown up in relief against the pallid dawn like the bowed backs of monks at prayer.
In the meager shelter of a cluster of rounded granite boulders, set starkly in the sea of grass as though in imitation of the hills beyond, Binabik made a sort of camp. After walking around the rocks to find the spot most sheltered from the shifting rains, he helped Simon down into a space where two boulders leaned together, forming an angle in which the boy could recline with some minimal comfort. Simon fell quickly into limp, exhausted sleep.
Flying raindrops skipped from the tops of the boulders as Binabik crouched, tucking in the boy's cloak—which the troll had brought with their other things all the way from Saint Hoderund's—then rooted in his pack for some dried fish to chew, and his knucklebones. Qantaqa returned from an investigatory tour of her new territory to curl up on Simon's shins. The troll took the bones out and tossed them, using his pack bag for a table.
The Shadowed Path. Binabik grinned a bitter grin. Then, Masterless Ram, and again, The Shadowed Path. He cursed, quietly but lengthily—only a fool would ignore such a clear message. Binabik knew himself to be many things, and foolish was occasionally one of them, but here, now, there was no room to take such chances.
He pulled his fur hood back up around his face and curled in beside Qantaqa. To any passing by—if they could have seen anything at all in the faint light, and with rain in their faces—the three companions would have looked like nothing so much as an unusual, dun-colored lichen on the lee-side of the rocks.
^
"So, what kind of a game have you been playing with me, Binabik?" Simon asked sullenly. "How do you know of Doctor Morgenes?" In the few hours he had slept the pale dawn had turned into a cold, gloomy morning, unredeemed by campfire or breakfast. The sky, swollen with clouds, hung close overhead like a low ceiling.
"It is no game I am playing, Simon," the troll replied. He had cleaned and bandaged Simon's neck and leg wounds, and was patiently seeing to Qantaqa's. Only one of the wolf's injuries was serious, a deep slash on the inside other foreleg. As Binabik picked grit from the skin, Qantaqa sniffed at his fingers, trusting as a child.
"I have no regret for not telling you; if I had not felt forced, still you would not know." He rubbed a fingerful of salve into the cut and then turned his mount loose. She promptly bent and began licking and biting at the leg. "I knew that she would do that," he said in mild reproach, then mustered a careful smile. "Like you, she is not thinking I know my work."
Simon, realizing he had been unconsciously plucking at his own bandages, sat forward. "Come, Binabik, just tell me. How do you know of Morgenes? Where do you really come from?"
"I am from exactly where I say," the troll replied indignantly. "I am a Qanuc. And I am not merely knowing of Morgenes, once I met him. He is a good friend of my master. They are... colleagues, I think the learned men say."
"What do you mean?"
Binabik sat back against the rock. Although at the moment there was no rain to shelter from, the cutting wind alone was reason enough to stay close to the outcropping. The little man seemed to be considering his words carefully. He looked tired to Simon, his dark skin loose and a shade paler than normal.
"First," the troll said at last, "you must be knowing something of my master. He was named Ookequk. He was the... Singing Man, you would call him, of our mountain. When we say Singing Man, we mean not someone who is just singing, but someone who is remembering the old songs and old wisdom. Like doctor and priest joined together, it seems to me.
"Ookequk was my master because of certain things the elders thought they were seeing in me. It was a great honor to be the one to share in Ookequk's wisdom—I went three days without eating food when I was told, just to make myself of the right pureness." Binabik smiled. "When I announced this priderully to my new master, he hit me on my ear. 'You are too young and stupid to be starving yourself on purpose,' he said to me. 'It has presumptuousness. You may only starve by accident...'"
Binabik's grin split open into a laugh; when Simon thought about it for a moment, he laughed a little, too.
"In any way," he continued, "I will be telling you someday about my years learning from Ookequk—he was a great, fat troll, Simon; he weighed more than you, and he was being my height only—but now the point must be reached sooner.
"I do not know with exactness where my master first met Morgenes, but it was long before I came to his cave. They were friends, though, and my master taught Morgenes the art of making birds carry messages. They had much talk in letters, my master and your doctor. They shared many... ideas about the world's ways.
"Just two summers gone my parents were killed. Their death came in the dragon-snow of the mountain we call Little Nose, and once they were no more, I devoted all my thinking—well, almost all—to learning from master Ookequk. When he told me this thaw that I was to be accompanying him on a great journey south, I was filled with excitement. It was clear-seeming to me that this would be my test of worthiness.
"What I was not knowing," the troll said, poking up the muddy grass before him with his walking stick—almost angrily, Simon thought, but there was no anger to hear in his voice—"what I was not told, was that Ookequk had more important reasons for traveling than the finish of my apprenticeship. He had been receiving words from Doctor Morgenes... and some others... of things that disturbed him, and he felt it was time to be returning the visit Morgenes had made on him long years before, when I first was with him."
"What 'things'?" Simon asked. "What did Morgenes tell him?"
"If you are not yet knowing," Binabik said serious, "then perhaps there are still truths you can do without. On that I must think, but for now let me say what I can—what I must."
Simon nodded stiffly, rebuked.
"I will not either burden you with all the long story of our south-ward trip. I was realizing quite early on that my master had not given me all the truth, either. He was worried, much worried, and when he cast the bones or read certain signs in the sky and wind he became even more so. Also, some of our experiences were very bad. I have traveled by myself, as you know, much of it before becoming a servant of my master Ookequk, yet never have I seen times so bad for travelers. An experience much like yours of last night we were having just below the lake Drorshullvenn, on the Frosttnarch."
"You mean those... Bukken?" Simon asked. Even with daylight around them, the thought of the clasping hands was terrifyingly vivid.
"Indeed," Binabik nodded, "and that was... is... being a bad sign, that they should attack so. It is not in the memory of my people that the Boghanik, which is our name for them, should assault a group of armed men. Bold it is, and frighteningly so. Their usual way is to be preying on animals and solitary travelers."
"What are they?"
"Later, Simon, there is much that you will leam if you have patience with me. My master did not tell me all, either—which is not saying, please notice, that I am your master—but he was very much upset. In our whole journeying down the Frostmarch I did not see him sleeping. When I would sleep, still he would be awake, and the morning would find him up before me. He was not young, either: he was old before I came to him, and several years I was by him studying.
"One night, when first we had crossed down into the northern parts of Erkynland, he asked me to be standing watch so that he could walk the Road of Dreams. We were in a place much like this," Binabik gestured around at the bleak plain below the hills, "spring arrived, but not yet broken through. This would have been, oh, perhaps around the time of your All Fool's Day or the day before."
"All Fools Eve... Simon tried to think back, to remember. The night that terrible noise awakened the whole castle. The night before... the rains came...
"Qantaqa was off hunting, and the old ram One-eye—a great, fat, patient thing he was to carry Ookequk!—was sleeping by the fire. We were alone with just the sky. My master ate of the dream-bark that came to him from the marshy Wran in the south. He crossed over into a kind of sleeping. He had not told me why he was doing this, but I could guess he was searching for answers that he could find no other way. The Boghanik had frightened him, because there was wrongness in their actions.
"Soon he was mumbling, as he was usually doing as his heart walked the Road of Dreams. Much was not understandable, but one or two things that he said were also said more lately by Brother Dochais, which is why you may have seen me show surprise."
Simon had to restrain a sour smile. And he had thought that it had been his own fear which was so obvious, sparked by the Hernystirman's delirious words!
"Suddenly," the troll continued, still poking fixedly with his stick at the spongy turf, "it seemed to me that something had caught at him—again, with likeness to Brother Dochais. But my master was strong, stronger in his heart, I think, than nearly anyone, man or troll, and he fought. Struggled and struggled, he did, all the afternoon long and into the evening, as I was standing beside him with no help to give but to wet his brow." Binabik pulled a handful of grass, tossing it into the air to bat at it with his staff. "Then, a little past the middle of the night, he said some words to me—quite calmly, as if he were at drinking with the others elders in the Clan cave—and died.
"It was for me, I am thinking, worse than my parents, because they were lost—just vanished in a snowslide, gone with no trace. I buried Ookequk there on a hillside. None of the proper rituals were correctly done, and that is a shame for me. One-eye would not leave without his master; for all I can know, he may be there still. I am hoping so."
The troll was quiet for a while, staring fiercely at the scuffed hide on the knees of his breeches. His pain was so close to Simon's own sorrow that the boy could think of no words to say that would make sense to anyone but himself.
After a while Binabik silently opened his bag and proffered a handful of nuts. Simon took them, along with the waterskin.
"Then," Binabik began again, almost as if he had not stopped, "a strange thing happened."
Simon huddled in his cloak and watched the troll's face as he talked.
"Two days I had spent beside my master's burial place. A nice enough place it was, lying beneath unblocked sky, but my heart was sore because I knew he would be more happy up high in the mountains. I was thinking of what I should be doing, whether to continue on to Morgenes in Erchester, or return to my people and tell them the Singing Man Ookequk was dead.
"I decided on the afternoon of the second day that I should return to Qanuc. I had no understanding of the importance of my master's talk with Doctor Morgenes—I am still not understanding much, sadly to say—and I had other... responsibilities.
"As I was calling Qantaqa, and scratching a last time between the horns of faithful One-eye, a small gray bird fluttered down, landing on Ookequk's mound. I recognized it as one of my master's messenger birds; it was very tired from carrying a heavy burden, a message and... and another thing. As I approached to capture it, Qantaqa came crashing up along the underbrush. The bird, it is not surpris- ing, was frightened and leaped into the air. I barely caught it. It was a nearness, Simon, but I caught it.
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