After thinking for a while on Sangfugol's words, Simon stood and stretched; the sore spot on his ribs gave him a warning twinge. "So what will Prince Josua do now?" he asked. The harper scratched at his arm and stared down at the commons yard. "I can't even guess," Sangfugol said. "Prince Josua is cautious, and slow to action; anyway, they don't usually call me in to discuss strategy." He smiled. "There is talk that important emissaries are arriving, and that sometime within a sennight Josua will call a formal Raed." "A what?" "Raed. It's an old Erkynlandish term for council, more or less. People in these parts tend to cling to the older ways. Out in the country, away from the castle, most of them still use the old speech. A Hayholt man like yourself would probably need a local interpreter." Simon would not be distracted by talk of rustic foibles. "A council, you said—a... a Raed? Would that be a council of... war?" "These days," the musician replied, and his face was again somber, "any council at Naglimund will be a council of war." They walked along the battlements. "I'm surprised," Sangfugol said, "that with all the services you have rendered to my master he has not yet called you for an audience." "I've only just got out of bed this morning," Simon said. "Besides, he may not even have known it was me... in a dark clearing, with a dying giant and all." "I suppose you're right," the harper said, clinging to his hat, which was doing its best to take to the gusting winds. Still. Simon thought, if Marya took him the message from the princess, I should hope she would mention her companions. I never would have thought she was the kind of girl to just forget us. He had to be fair, though: what girl suddenly saved from the damp and dangerous wilderness would not prefer to spend her time with the gentlefolk of the castle instead of a stringy scullion? "You haven't by any chance seen the girl Marya who came with us?" he asked. Sangfugol shook his head. "People are coming in at the gates every day. And not just the ones fleeing the outlying farms and villages, either. The outriders for Prince Gwythinn of Hernystir came in last night, horses in a lather. The prince's party should be here this evening. Lord Ethelferth of Tinsett has been here for a week with two hundred men. Baron Ordmaer brought a hundred Utersall men just after. Other lords are coming in with their musters from all around. The hunt is afoot, Simon—though the Aedon only knows who's hunting who." They had reached the northeastern turret. Sangfugol tipped a salute to the young soldier who was walking sentry. Beyond his gray-cloaked shoulder rose the bulk of the Wealdhelm, the massive hills seeming close enough to reach out and touch. "Busy as he is," the harper said suddenly, "it doesn't seem right that he shouldn't have seen you yet. Do you mind if I put in a word for you? I'm to attend him at dinner tonight." "I would certainly like to see him, yes. I was... very frightened for his safety. And my master gave a great deal so that Josua could return here, to his home." Simon was surprised to notice a faint touch of bitterness in his own voice. He hadn't meant it to sound that way, but still, he had gone through a lot here, and it had been him and no other who had found Josua, trussed and hanging like a pheasant over a cotsman's doorway. The tone of the remark had not escaped Sangfugol, either; the look he turned on Simon was compounded of sympathy and amusement. "I understand. I would advise, however, that you do not put it to my prince in quite that manner. He is a proud, difficult man, Simon, but I am sure he hasn't forgotten you. Things have been, as you know, rather difficult of late in these parts, almost as harrowing as your own journey." Simon lifted his chin and stared out at the hills, at the strange shimmer of the wind-ruffled trees. "I know," he said. "If he can see me, it will be an honor. If he cannot... well, that is what will be." The harper grinned lazily, playful eyes drooping at the corners. "A proud and fair speech. Come now, let me show you the Nails of Naglimund." It was truly an astonishing sight in broad daylight. The field of shining poles, starting within a few ells of the ditch below the eastern wall of the castle, slanted up the slope and away for perhaps a quarter of a league, right up to the feet of the hills. They were arranged in symmetrical rows, as though a legion of spearmen had been buried there, leaving only their weapons protruding above the dark soil to show how conscientiously they stood their guard. The road that meandered down from a gaping cavern in the hill's western face wound back and forth between the rows as sinuously as the track of a serpent, stopping at last before the Naglimund's heavy eastern gate. "And whatever-was-his-name did all this because he was frightened of the Sithi?" Simon asked, bewildered by the strange, silvery-dark crop that stretched before him. "Why not just put them at the top of the wall?" "Duke Aeswides was his name. He was Nabban's governor here, and he was breaking precedent to place his castle on Sithi lands. As to why not on the walls, well, I suppose he feared they could find some way to get over a single wall—or beneath, perhaps. This way they would need to go through them. You have not seen the half, Simon—these things used to sprout on every side!" Sangfugol swung his arm in an encompassing gesture. "What did the Sithi do?" Simon asked. "Did they try and attack?" Sangfugol frowned. "Not as I've ever heard. You should really ask old Father Strangyeard about that. He the archivist and historian of the place." Simon smiled. "I've met him." "Interesting old scuffer, isn't he? He told me once that when Aeswides built this place, the Sithi called it... called it... damn! I should know these old stories, being a balladeer. Anyway, the name they had for it meant something like Trap that Catches the Hunter'... as if Aeswides had just walled himself in or some such: that he had made his own trap." "And did he? What happened to him?" Sangfugol shook his head, and nearly lost his hat again. "Damn me if I know. Probably got old and died here. I don't think the Sithi paid much attention to him." It took them an hour to complete the circuit. They had long ago emptied the jar of beer Sangfugol had brought to wash down their meal, but the harper had prudently brought a skin of wine as well, thus saving them from a dry hike. They were laughing; the older man was teaching Simon a bawdy song about a Nabbanai noble-woman when they reached the main gate and the winding stairs back down to the ground. As they emerged from the gatehouse they found themselves in a milling crowd of workmen and soldiers; most of the latter were off duty, to judge by the disarray of their dress. Everyone was shouting and shoving; Simon quickly found himself crushed between a fat man and a bearded guardsman. "What's happening?" he called to Sangfugol, who had been pulled a short distance away by the movement of the crowd. "I'm not sure," the other called back. "Perhaps Gwythinn of Hernysadharc has arrived." The fat man turned his red face up to Simon. "Naow, it ain't," he said cheerfully. His breath stank of beer and onions. "It's that giant, the one what the prince has killed." He pointed toward the pyre, which still stood naked at the edge of the commons. "But I don't see the giant," Simon said. "They're just a-fetching him," the man said. "I just came with the others, to make sure of seeing. My sister's son was one of the beaters what helped catch the devil-beast!" he added proudly. Now another wave of sound passed through the crowd: somebody up front could see something, and the word was hurrying back to those who could not. Necks were craned, and children were lifted to the shoulders of patient, dirty-faced mothers. Simon looked around. Sangfugol had disappeared. He stood up on tiptoe, and found that only a few in the throng were as tall as he. Beyond the pyre he saw the bright silks of a tent or awning, and before it the flashing colors of some of the castle's courtiers, sitting on stools and talking, waving their sleeves as they gestured, like a branch full of brilliant birds. He scanned the faces for a glimpse of Marya—perhaps she had already found a noble lady to attach herself to: surely it was not safe for her to go back to the princess at the Hayholt, or wherever she was. None of the faces was hers, however, and before he could look for her elsewhere in the assemblage a line of armored men appeared in one of the archways of the inner wall. Now the crowd was murmuring in earnest, for the first half-dozen soldiers were followed by a team of horses pulling a high wooden cart. Simon felt a moment of hollowness in his stomach but dismissed it: was he to go all queasy every time a wagon creaked by? As the wheels ground to a halt, and the soldiers gathered around to unload the pale thing humped high on the bed of the cart, Simon caught a glimpse of crow-black hair and white skin over where the nobles stood, beyond the stacked timbers; when he looked closer, hoping it was Marya, the laughing courtiers had closed in again and there was nothing to see. It took eight straining guardsmen to lift the pole on which the giant's body hung like a deer from the king's hunting preserve, and even so they still had to slide it from the wagon to the ground before they could get their shoulders comfortably under the bar. The creature had been trussed at knees and elbows; huge hands wagged in the air as its back bumped along the ground. The crowd, which had pushed forward eagerly, now began to fall back with exclamations of fear and disgust. The thing looked more manlike now, Simon thought, than when it had loomed upright before him in the forest of the Stile. With the skin of its dark face gone slack in death, the menacing snarl erased, it wore the puzzled expression of a man given unfathomable news. As Strangyeard had said, it wore a garment of rough cloth around its waist. A belt of some reddish stones hung dragging in the dust of the commons. The fat man beside Simon, who had been exhorting the soldiers to march faster, turned a merry eye his way. "Do you know what he was a-wearing 'round his neck?" he shouted. Simon, hemmed in on both sides, shrugged. "Skulls!" the man said, as pleased as if he had given them to the dead giant himself. "Wearing 'em as a necklace, he was. Giving 'em an Aedonite burial, the prince is—even though it's anyone's guess whose they be." He turned back to the spectacle again. Several other soldiers had climbed to the top of the pyre, and were helping the bearers move the massive creature into place. When they had wrestled it into place, lying on its back at the summit, they supped the pole out from between its crossed arms and legs and scrambled down in a group. As the last man leaped down to the ground, the great body slipped forward a little way, and the sudden movement made a woman scream. Several children began to cry. A gray-cloaked officer shouted an order; one of the soldiers leaned forward and thrust a torch deep into the bundles of straw that had been laid around the edges. The flames, strangely colorless in the late afternoon sun, began to bend around the straw, reaching upward toward more substantial food. Wisps of smoke twined around the form of the giant, and some current of air bent his shaggy fur like dry summer grass. There! He had seen her again, beyond the pyre! Trying to push forward, he received a sharp elbow to the ribs from someone fighting to retain their choice viewpoint. He stopped, frustrated, and stared at the spot where he thought he had spotted her. Then he saw, and he realized it was not Marya. This black-haired woman, wrapped in a somber, exquisitely-sewn green cloak, was perhaps twenty years older. She was certainly beautiful, though, with ivory skin and wide, uptilted eyes. As Simon stared, she in turn watched the burning giant, whose hair was beginning to curl and blacken as the fire climbed the mound of pine logs The smoke rose like a curtain, obscuring her from Simon's view, he wondered who she was, and why—as the Naglimunders all around shouted and waved their fists at the pillar of smoke—she looked into the blaze with such sad, angry eyes
31 The Councils of the Prince ALTHOUGH HE had been quite hungry while walking the castle walls with Sangfugol, when Father Strangyeard came by to take him to the kitchens—belatedly fulfilling his earlier promise—Simon found that his appetite had fled The stench of the afternoon's burning was still in his nostrils; he could almost feel the clinging smoke as he walked behind the castle archivist As they walked back across the misty commons, after Simon had picked ineffectually at a plate of bread and sausages thumped down before him by a stem kitchen woman, Strangyeard did his best to make conversation. "Perhaps you're just... just tired, lad. Yes, that's what it will be. Appetite should be back in no time. Young people always have an appetite " "I'm sure you're right. Father," Simon said. He was tired, and it was easier sometimes to agree with people than to explain Besides, he was not entirely sure himself what was making him feel so limp, so washed-out. They walked on a while through the twilit inner ward "Oh," the priest said at last, "I was meaning to ask you… I hope you don't think it's grasping of me…" "Yes?" "Well, Binbines… Binabik, that is, he told me… told me of a certain manuscript A manuscript penned by Doctor Morgenes of Erchester? Such a great man, such a tragic loss to the community of Learning..." Strangyeard shook his head sorrowfully, then seemed to forget what he had been asking, for he walked several more steps in gloomy contemplation Simon at last felt compelled to break the silence "Doctor Morgenes' book?" he prompted. "Oh! Oh, yes... well, what I wished to ask was—and I'm sure it is too great a favor—Binbines said it was saved, the manuscript, that it came with you in your pack." Simon hid a smile. The man took forever! "I don't know where the pack is." "Oh, it's under my bed—your bed, that is, for now. As long as you want, actually. I saw the prince's man put it there. I haven't touched it, I assure you!" he hastened to add. "Do you want to read it?" Simon was touched by the old man's earnestness. "By all means. I am too tired to look at it. Besides, I am sure the doctor would prefer it to be examined by a man of learning—which is certainly not me." "Truly?" Strangyeard seemed dazzled, fidgeting nervously with his eye patch. He looked as though he might pull it off and throw it into the air with a whoop of glee. "Oh," the priest breathed, composing himself, "that would be splendid." Simon felt uncomfortable: the archivist had, after all, moved out of his own room so that Simon, a stranger, could use it. It was embarrassing that he should be so grateful. Ah, he decided, but it's not me he's grateful to, I don't think, so much as it is the chance to read Morgenes' work on King John. This is a man who loves books the way Rachel loves soap and water. They had almost reached the low block of rooms along the southern wall when a shape appeared—a man, unrecognizable in the fog and fast-diminishing light. He made a faint clinking noise as he stepped in front of them. "I'm searching for the priest Strangyeard," the man said, his voice more than a little slurred. He seemed to waver, and the clinking noise came again. "He is I," Strangyeard said, a little more highly-pitched than usual, "umm... that is, I am he. What is your business?" "I seek a certain young man," the other said, and took a few steps closer. "Is this him?" Simon tensed his muscles, but could not help noticing that the approaching figure was not very big. Also, there was something about his walk... "Yes." Simon and Strangyeard spoke together, then the priest fell silent, plucking distractedly at his headstrap as Simon continued. "I'm the one. What do you want?" "The prince wants to speak with you," the small figure said, closing to within a few feet, peering up at Simon. He jingled faintly. "Towser!" Simon said happily. "Towser! What are you doing herel?" He reached out and clamped his hands on the old man's shoulders. "Who are you, then?" the jester said, startled. "Do I know you?" "I don't know—I'm Simon! Doctor Morgenes' apprentice! From the Hayholt!" "Hmmm," the jester said doubtfully. Up close he smelled of wine. "I suppose so... it's dim to me, lad, dim. Towser is getting old, like old King Tethtain: 'head snow-capped and weathered like distant Minari-mount,'" he squinted, "and I'm not so sharp with faces as once I was. Are you the one I'm to take to Prince Josua?" "I suppose." Simon's mood had lifted. "Sangfugol must have spoken to him." He turned to Father Strangyeard. "I must go with him. I haven't moved that pack—didn't even know it was there." The archivist mumbled an acknowledgment and scuttled off in quest of his prize. Simon took the elbow of the old jester as they turned back across the commons yard. "Whoosh!" said Towser, shivering; the bells on his jacket tinkled again. "Sun was high today, but the wind is bitter tonight. Bad weather for old bones—can't think why Josua sent me." He staggered a bit, leaning for a moment on Simon's arm. 'That's not true, really," he continued. "He likes to give me things to do. He's not much for my jesting and tricks, you see, but I don't think he likes to see me idle." They walked on for a while without speaking. "How did you get to Naglimund?" Simon asked at last. "Last wagon caravan up the Wealdhelm Road. Elias has closed it now, the dog. Rough traveling it was, too—had to fight off bandits north of Flett. Everything's falling apart, boy. Everything's going sour." The guards at the front of the residence hall scrutinized them carefully in the flickering torchlight, then knocked for the door to be unbolted. Simon and the jester padded down the cold, flagstoned corridor until they reached another heavy-beamed door and another pair of guards. "Here you are, boy," Towser said. "I'm off to bed, had a late night last night. It's good to see a familiar face. Come by soon and have a noggin with me, tell me what you're been up to—yes?" He turned and shuffled off down the hallway, the patchwork of his motley glimmering faintly until he was swallowed by shadows. Simon stepped up between the impassive guards and rapped on the door. "Who goes there?" a boy's voice asked. "Simon of Hayholt, to see the prince." The door swung silently in to reveal a solemn-faced child of about ten years dressed in the costume of a page. When he stepped out of the way, Simon moved past him into a curtained antechamber. "Come through," a muffled voice called. After some searching he found the entrance, hidden by a curtain. It was an austere room, scarcely better furnished than Father Strangyeard's. Prince Josua, in gown and nightcap, sat at a table holding a scroll open with his elbow. He did not look up as Simon entered, but waved toward another chair. "Please, sit down," he said, arresting Simon halfway into a deep bow. "I will be a moment, only." As Simon sat in the hard, unpadded chair, he saw a movement at the back of the room. A hand pulled the curtain there aside, revealing a sliver of lamplight beyond. A face appeared, dark-eyed, framed in thick black hair—the woman he had seen in the courtyard, watching the burning. She was looking intently at the prince, but when she looked up her stare met Simon's and held it, angry eyes like a cornered cat. The curtain dropped back into place. Worried, for a moment he considered saying something to Josua. A spy? An assassin? Then he realized why this woman was in the prince's bedchamber, and he felt very foolish. Josua looked up to the blushing Simon, allowing the scroll to curl on the table before him. "Now, forgive me." He rose, and pulled his chair nearer. "I have been thoughtless. I hope you will understand that I meant no slight to one who helped me escape my imprisonment." "No... no need to apologize, your Highness," Simon stammered. Josua spread the fingers of his left hand, a pained expression on his face. Simon remembered what Sangfugol had said, and wondered what it must be like to lose a hand. "Please. 'Josua' in this room—Prince Josua if you must. When I studied with the Usirean brothers in Nabban they called me 'acolyte,' or 'boy.' I do not think I have come so far since then." "Yes, sir." Josua's eyes nicked away, back to his writing table; in the moment of silence Simon looked him over carefully. In truth, he did not look a great deal more princely than when Simon had seen him in his shackles in Morgenes' chambers. He looked tired, worn by care as surely as a rock is worn by weather. In his nightclothes, high pale brow furrowed in thought, he looked more like a companion archivist to Father Strangyeard than a prince of Erkynland or a son of Prester John. Josua got up and walked back to his scroll. "The writings of old Dendinis," he tapped it against his leather-capped right wrist, "Aeswides' military architect. Do you know, Naglimund has never been broken by siege? When Fingil of Rimmersgard rolled down from the north, he had to detach two thousand men to keep this castle bottled up, to protect his flank." He tapped again. "Dendinis built well." There was a pause. At length Simon awkwardly filled it. "It is a mighty keep. Prince Josua." The prince tossed the scroll back onto the table, pursing his lips like a miser counting out his taxes. "Yes... but even a mighty keep can be starved out. Our supply lines are almost impossibly long, and where can we expect to find help?" Josua looked at Simon as if he expected some answer, but the youth could only goggle, without a thought of what to say. "Perhaps Isgrimnur will bring back cheering news..." the prince continued, "and perhaps not. Word is spreading up from the south that my brother is assembling a great force of troops." Josua stared at the floor, then looked up suddenly, eyes bright and intent. "Again, forgive me. I find I am awash in dark thoughts lately, and my words run ahead of my good sense. It is one thing to read of great battles, you know, it is another to try and plan them. Do you know how many things there are to think of? Mustering the local troops, bringing the people and their stock into the castle, foraging, shoring up the walls... and all these things useless if no one will fight at Elias' back. If we stand alone, we will stand a long time... but we will fall at last."