|"Blazes! It's gone right through him!" Simon thought frantically. "A moment... a moment..."
"Break the point off," Marya suggested, her voice now calm.
"Then you can pull it through more easily—if you're sure you should."
"Of course!" Simon was elated, and a bit dizzy. "Of course."
It took him no little time to cut through the arrow beneath its head; the little knife had been considerably dulled. When he finished, Marya helped him tilt Binabik into the position where the arrow was most flexible. Then, with a silent prayer to the Aedon under his tongue, he eased the arrow out through the wound made by its entry as fresh blood welled around it. He stared at the hateful object for a moment, then threw it away. Qantaqa raised her massive head to watch its flight, gave a rumbling moan, and slumped back down.
They wrapped Binabik in the rags from the White Arrow, along with strips cut from his ruined jacket, then Simon picked up the still faintly-breathing troll and cradled him.
"Geloe said climb the Stile. I don't know where that is, but we'd best continue on to the hills," he said. Marya nodded.
The glimpses of sun through the treetops told them it was near noontime as they left the overgrown well. They passed quickly through the fringes of the decaying city, and within an hour found the land beginning to slope upward beneath their weary feet. The troll was again becoming a difficult burden. Simon was too proud to say anything, but he was sweating profusely, and his back and arms had begun to ache fully as much as his wounded side. Marya suggested that he cut leg holes in the pack so that it could be used to carry Binabik. After some consideration, Simon discarded the idea. For one thing, it would mean too much jouncing for the helpless, unconscious troll; also, they would have to leave some of the pack's contents behind, and most of that was food.
When the gently rising land began to change into steep, brushy slopes of sedge and thistle, Simon at last waved Marya to a stop. He set the little man down and stood for a moment, hands on hips, sides puffing in and out as he got back his breath.
"We... we must... I must... rest..." he huffed. Marya looked up at his flushed face with sympathy.
"You can't carry him all the way to the top of the hills, Simon," she said gently. "It looks to get steeper ahead. You'll need your hands to climb with."
"He's... my friend," Simon said stubbornly. "I can... do it."
"No, you can't." Marya shook her head. "If we can't use the pack to carry him, then we must..." Her shoulders slumped, and she slid down to sit on a rock. "I don't know what we must, but we must," she finished.
Simon sagged down beside her. Qantaqa had disappeared up the slope, bounding nimbly along where it would take the boy and girl long minutes to follow.
Suddenly, an idea came to Simon. "Qantaqa!" he called, rising to his feet and spilling the pack out on the grassy ground before him. "Qantaqa! Come here!"
Working feverishly, the unspoken thought of Ingen Jegger a hovering shadow, Simon and Marya wrapped Binabik up neck to toe in the girl's cloak, then balanced the troll stomach down on Qantaqa's back, tying him in place with the last shredded strips of clothing from out of the pack. Simon remembered the position from his involuntary ride to Duke Isgrimnur's camp, but-he knew that if the thick cloak was between Binabik's ribs and the wolf's back, the little man would at least be able to breathe. Simon knew it was not a good situation for a wounded, probably dying, troll, but what else could be done? Marya was right; he would need his hands going up the hill.
Once Qantaqa's initial skittishness wore off, she stood passively as the boy and girl worked, turning occasionally to try and sniff Binabik's face where it bobbed at her side. When they finished and started up the slope, the wolf picked her way carefully, as if aware of the importance to her silent burden of a smooth ride.
Now they made better time, scrambling over stones and ancient logs molting their bark in peeling strips. The bright, cloud-blurred ball of sun that peered down through the branches had rolled far toward its western mooring. Scrabbling along, the wolf's gray and white tail floating before his sweat-smarting eyes like a plume of smoke, Simon wondered where the darkness would find them—and what might find them in that darkness.
The going had become very steep, and both Simon and Marya were beribboned with scratchmarks from the clutching undergrowth, when they at last stumbled across a clear, horizontal crease in the side of the hill. They sat down gratefully in the dusty track. Qantaqa looked as though he would not mind exploring farther up the narrow, grass-clotted trail, but instead she slumped down beside them, tongue lolling. Simon untied the troll from the makeshift harness. The little man's condition seemed unchanged, his breathing still terribly shallow. Simon dribbled water into his mouth from the waterskin, then passed it to Marya. When she had finished, Simon cupped his hands, which she filled, and held them out for Qantaqa to drink. Afterward he took several long swallows from the bag himself.
"Do you think this is the Stile?" Marya asked as she ran her hands through her damp black hair. Simon smiled weakly. Wasn't that like a girl, to be arranging her hair in the midst of the forest! She was very flushed, and he saw that it brought out the freckles across the bridge of her nose.
"It looks more like a deer path or some such," he said at last, turning his attention to where the track wandered away along the flank of the hill. "I think the Stile is a Sithi thing, Geloe said. But I think we might follow this for a while."
She's not really thin, so much, he thought. It's more what they call delicate. He remembered how she reached up and snapped off the overhanging branches, and her coarse river chanteys. No, maybe "delicate" wasn't quite it, either.
"Let's be off, then," Marya broke into his ruminations. "I'm hungry, but I'd rather not be out in the open here when the sun goes down." She stood up and began collecting the cloth strips to remount Binabik on his steed, who was using her last moments of unencumbered freedom to scratch behind one ear.
"I like you, Marya," Simon blurted out, and then wanted to turn away, to run, to do something; instead he bravely stayed where he was, and a moment later the girl looked up at him, smiling—and she was the one who looked embarrassed!
"I'm glad," was all she said, and then moved away up the deer track a few steps to let Simon, hands suddenly clumsy, bind Binabik into place. Suddenly, as he finished tying the last loop beneath the shaggy belly of the hugely patient wolf, he looked at the troll's bloodless face, as slack and still as death—and was angry with himself.
What a mooncalf! he thought savagely. One of your closest friends is dying, you're lost in the middle of nowhere, being chased by armed men and maybe worse—and here you stand moping over a skinny servant girl! Idiot!
He did not say anything to Marya as he caught up with her, but the expression on his face must have told her something. She gave him a pensive look and they fell into stride with no further conversation.
The sun had dipped down behind the ridged backs of the hills when the deer path began to widen. Within a quarter of a league it became a broad, flat path that might have once been used for wagon travel, although it had long since given over sovereignty to the creeping wilderness. Other smaller tracks wound alongside, distinguishable mainly as flaws in the smooth cover of brush and trees. They came to a place where these lesser pathways joined with theirs, and within a hundred ells found themselves walking again on ancient stone tiles. Soon after, they reached the Stile.
The wide, cobbled roadway cut across the track they had been following, switching back and forth up the hill in a steep traverse. Tall grasses pushed up between the cracked gray and white tiling, and in places large trees had grown right through the road surface, shouldering the stones up and outward as the trees gained size, so that each was now surrounded by a small slagheap of uprooted stones.
"And this will take us to Naglimund," Simon said, half to himself. They were the first words either had spoken for a long time.
Marya was about to reply when something on the hilltop caught her eye. She stared, but whatever had made the flash of light was gone.
"Simon, I think I saw something bright up there." She pointed to
the crest of the hill, a good league above them.
"What was it?" he asked, but she only shrugged. "Armor, perhaps, if the sun would reflect this late in the day," he answered himself, "or the walls of Naglimund, or, or who knows...?" He looked up, narrowing his eyes.
"We can't leave the road," he said finally. "Not until we get farther, not while there's light. I would never forgive myself if we didn't get Binabik to Naglimund, especially if he... if..."
"I know, Simon, but I don't think we can make it all the way over the top tonight." Marya kicked a stone, sending it rolling into the tall grass beside the paving tiles. She winced. "I have more blisters on one foot than I've had in my whole life before this. And it can't be good for Binabik to bounce on the wolf's back all night," she met his eyes, "he's even going to live. You've done everything anybody could do, Simon. It's not your fault."
"I know!" Simon replied angrily. "Let's walk. We can talk about it while we're moving."
They trudged on. It did not take long for the wisdom of Marya's words to become uncomfortably obvious. Simon, too, was so scratched and blistered and scuffed that he wanted to lie down and weep—a different Simon, the Simon that had lived his castle-boy life in the labyrinthine Hayholt, would have lain down—he would have sat on a stone and demanded dinner and sleep. He was somewhat different, now: he still hurt, but there were other things that were more important. Still, there was no good to be done by crippling them all.
At last even Qantaqa began to favor one of her legs. Simon was finally ready to give in when Marya spotted another light on the spine of the hill. This one was no sun reflection: blue twilight was settling over the slopes.
Torches!" Simon groaned. "Usires! Why now, when we're almost there?!"
"That's probably why. That Ingen monster must have headed for the top of the Stile to wait for us. We must get away from the road!"
Hearts stone-heavy, they quickly made their way off the Stile's paving and down into a gulley that ran along the width of the hill. They scurried on, stumbling frequently in the fading light, until they found a little clearing no wider than Simon was tall, protected by a stockade of young hemlocks. As he looked up one last time before ducking into the cover of the high brush, Simon thought he saw the gleaming eyes of several more torches winking on the hilltop.
"May those bastards burn in Hell!" he snarled breathlessly, crouching to untie Binabik's limp form from Qantaqa's back. "Aedon! Usires AedonI How I wish I had a sword, or a bow!"
"Should you take Binabik off?" Marya whispered. "What if we have to run again?"
"Then I'll carry him. Besides, if it comes to running, we might as well give up now. I don't think I could run fifty steps, could you?"
Marya ruefully shook her head.
They took turns swigging at the waterskin while Simon massaged Binabik's wrists and ankles, trying to get some blood back into the troll's chill extremities. The little man was breathing better now, but Simon did not feel confident that would last long: a thin film of Moody saliva bulged in and out of his mouth with each breath, and when Simon skinned back the little man's eyelids, as he had once seen Doctor Morgenes do with a fainting chambermaid, the whites of the troll's eyes seemed quite gray.
As Marya fished about in the pack for something to eat, Simon tried to lift one of Qantaqa's paws to see why she was limping. The wolf stopped panting long enough to bare her teeth and snarl at him in a very convincing manner. When he tried to pursue the investigation, she snapped at his hand, jaws clashing hard not an inch from his probing fingers. Simon had almost forgotten she was a wolf, and had grown used to handling her as though she were one of Tobas' hounds. He was suddenly grateful she had chastened him so mildly. He left her alone to tongue-wash her ragged pads.
The light dwindled, pinpoint stars blooming in the thickening darkness overhead. Simon was chewing a piece of hard biscuit Marya had found for him, and wishing he had an apple, or anything with juice to it, when a thin, clamoring noise began to untangle itself from the song of the evening's first crickets. Simon and Marya looked at each other, then, for the confirmation that they did not really need, to Qantaqa. The wolf's ears were swung forward, her eyes alert.
There was no need to name the creatures that made that faraway baying noise. Both of them were far too familiar with the sounds of hunting hounds at full cry.
"What should...?" Marya started to ask, but Simon shook his head. He banged his fist in frustration against the trunk of a tree, and absently watched blood rise on the back of his pale knuckles. In a few minutes they would be in full darkness.
"There's nothing we can do," he hissed. "If we run, we will only make more of a track for them to follow. " He wanted to lash out again, to break something. Stupid, stupid, stupid, this whole bloody adventure—and to what end?
As he sat fuming, Marya pushed in close against his side, lifting his arm and draping it around her shoulder.
"I'm cold," was all she said. He wearily leaned his head against hers, tears of frustration and fear welling in his eyes as he listened to the noises from the hillside above. Now he thought he could hear men's voices shouting back and forth above the din of the hounds. What he would give for a sword! Unskilled as he was, he could at least cause them some pain before they took him.
Gently, he lifted Marya's head from his shoulder and bent forward. As he had remembered, Binabik's skin bag was nestled at the bottom of the pack. He pulled it out and ran his fingers through it, searching by touch alone in the obscurity of the clearing.
"What are you doing?" Marya whispered.
Simon found what he was seeking and closed his hand on it. Some of the noises were now coming from the hillside north of them, too, almost at their level of the slope. The trap was closing.
"Hold Qantaqa." He got up and crawled a short distance, scouring the brush until he found a good-sized broken branch, a thick one longer than his arm. He brought it back and upended Binabik's bag of powder on it, then laid it down carefully. "I'm making a torch," he said, pulling out the troll's flints.
"Won't that just lead them to us?" the girl asked, a note of detached curiosity in her voice.
"I won't light it until I have to," he replied, "but at least we'll have something... something to fight with."
Her face was in shadow, but he could sense her eyes on him. She knew exactly how much good such a gesture would do them. He hoped—and the hope was very strong—that she would understand why it was a necessary gesture.
The ferocious uproar of the dogs was horribly close now. Simon could hear the sounds of the bushes being beaten down, and the loud cries of the hunters. The sound of branches snapping grew louder, just above them on the hillside and approaching rapidly—too loud a noise for dogs, Simon thought, heart fluttering as he smacked flint against stone. It must be men on horseback. The powder sparked but did not catch. The underbrush was crackling as though a wagon was tumbling through it end over end.
Catch, damn you, catch!
Something smashed through the thicket just above their hiding place. Marya's hand clutched his arm hard enough to cause pain.
"Simon!" she cried, and then the powder sputtered and flared; a wavering orange flower blossomed at the tip of the branch. Simon leaped up, swinging it out at the end of his arm, the flames rippling. Something crashed out of the trees. Qantaqa pulled free of Marya's grasp, howling.
Nightmare! That was all Simon could think as he lifted the torch; the light reached out, illuminating the thing that stood, startled upright before him.
It was a giant.
In the horrifying, static instant that followed, Simon's mind struggled to absorb what his eyes saw—the thing that towered above him, swaying in the torch glare. At first he thought it some kind of bear, for it was covered all over in pale, shaggy fur. But no, its legs were too long, its arms and black-skinned hands too human. The top of its hairy head was three cubits above Simon's as it leaned forward at the waist, eyes squinting in its leathery, manlike face.
The baying was everywhere, like the music of a ghastly choir of demons. The beast lashed out a long, taloned arm, tearing the flesh of Simon's shoulder, rocking him backward so that he stumbled and almost dropped the torch. The darting light of its flames briefly illuminated Marya, eyes wide with horror as she clutched Binabik's limp form, trying to drag him back out of the way. The giant opened its mouth and thundered—that was the only possible word for the echoing rumble that came out—and lunged at Simon again. He leaped away, catching his foot on something and toppling over, but before the thing could move toward him, its chest-rattling growl turned into a howl of pain. It fell forward, half-slumping to the ground.
Qantaqa had caught it behind a shaggy knee, a gray shadow dashing back to leap again at the giant's legs. The beast snarled and swiped at the wolf, missing her once. The second time its broad hand caught her; she tumbled over and over into the brush.
The giant turned back to Simon, but even as he hopelessly raised the torch before him, and saw its pulsing light reflected in the giant's glossy black eyes, a boiling mass of shapes came through the undergrowth, howling like the wind in a thousand high turrets. They seethed around the giant like an angry ocean—dogs everywhere, leaping and biting at the huge creature as it raged in its thunderstorm voice. It windmilled its arms and broken bodies flew away; one knocked Simon to the ground, his torch skittering, but five more leaped in to fill the place of each one dislodged.
Even as Simon crawled to the torch, his mind a jumble of insane, feverish pictures, light suddenly bloomed everywhere. The vast shape of the beast reeled around the clearing, roaring, and then men came, and there were horses rearing and people shouting. A dark shape leaped over Simon, knocking his torch away once more. The horse slid to a halt just beyond, the rider standing atop his mount with a long spear flicking in and out of the torchlight. A moment later the spear was a great black nail standing out from the breast of the besieged giant, who gave a last shuddering roar and slipped down beneath the convulsing blanket of hounds.
The horseman dismounted. Men with torches ran past him to pull the dogs off; the light revealed the horseman's profile, and Simon climbed to one knee.
"Josua!" he said, then pitched forward. His last sight was the prince's spare face limned in the yellow light of torch flames, eyes widening in surprise.
Time came and went in fitful moments of waking and darkness. He was on a horse before a silent man who smelled of leather and sweat. The man's arm was a stiff band around Simon's middle as they swayed up the Stile. The horse's hooves clopped on stone, and he found he was watching the swinging tail of the horse before him. There were torches everywhere.
He was looking for Marya, for Binabik, for everyone else... where were they all?
Some kind of tunnel was all around now, stone walls echoing with the rippling sound of heartbeats. No, hoof beats. The tunnel seemed to go on forever.
A great wooden door set in the stone loomed before them. It swung open slowly, torchlight flooding out like water through a burst dam, and the shapes of many men were in the spreading light of the entrance.
And now they came down a long slope in the open air, the horses single file, a glimmering snake of torches winding down the path ahead as far as he could see. All around them was a field of bare earth, planted with nothing but naked bars of iron.
Below them, the walls were lined with more torches, the sentries staring up at the procession descending from the hills. The stone walls were before them, now level, now slowly rising up past their heads as they followed the trail downward. The night sky was dark as the inside of a barrel, but salted with stars. Head bobbing, Simon found himself sliding back down into sleep—or the dark sky, it was hard to tell which.
Naglimund, he thought, as the light of the torches splashed on his face, and the men shouted and sang on the walls above. Then he was falling away from the light, and darkness covered him like a drift of ebony dust.
A Thousand Nails
SOMEBODY was breaking down the door with axes—hacking, chopping, splintering away the shielding timber.
"Doctor!" Simon shouted, sitting up, "it's the soldiers! The soldiers have come!"
But he was not in Morgenes' chambers. He was wrapped in sweat-drenched sheets, on a small bed in a small, neat room. The sound of blades splitting wood continued; a moment later the door swung inward, and the din rose in volume. An unfamiliar face peered around the edge, pale and long of chin, topped with a sparse crest of hair that gleamed as coppery red as Simon's own in the framing sunlight. His one visible eye was blue. The other was covered by a black patch.
"Ah!" the stranger said, "you're awake, then. Good." He was an Erkynlander by his accent, with a touch of the northern heaviness. He closed the door behind him, cutting off some of the noise of the work outside. He wore a long gray priestly cassock that hung limply on his slight frame.
"I'm Father Strangyeard." He settled into a high-backed chair beside Simon; other than the bed and a low table covered with parchment and odds and ends, it was the only furniture in the room. When he was comfortable, the stranger leaned forward and patted Simon's hand.
"How are you feeling? Better, I hope?"
"Yes... yes, I suppose so," Simon looked around. "Where am I?"
"Naglimund, but you knew that, of course." Father Strangyeard smiled. "More specifically, you are in my room... my bed, too." He lifted a hand. "I hope you found it comfortable. It is not very well-appointed—but, goodness, how foolish of me! You have been sleeping in the forest, haven't you?" The priest gave another quick, hesitant smile. "It must be better than the forest, hmmm?"
Simon swung his feet to the cold floor, relieved to find that he was wearing breeches, a little unsettled to see that they weren't his own. "Where are my friends?" A dark thought came up like a cloud. "Binabik... is he dead?"