|"Did you have your hair dyed black?" he asked at last.
She smiled shyly. "Yes. I decided a long time before I ran away from the Hayholt what I needed to do. I cut my hair off—it was very long," she added proudly, "then I had a woman in Erchester make it into a wig. Leieth brought it to me. I hid my cut hair beneath it, which was dyed black so I could watch the men around my father unrecognized, hear things I wouldn't otherwise hear... find out what was going on."
Simon, despite his discomfort, was full of admiration for the girl's cunning. "But why were you spying on me? I wasn't important."
The princess continued to twine and untwine her fingers. "I really wasn't spying on you, not the first time. I was listening to an argument my father had with my uncle in the chapel. The other times... well, I did follow you. I had seen you in the castle, on your own, no one telling you what to do, where to be, who to smile at and talk to... I was envious."
"No one telling me what to do!" Simon grinned in spite of himself. "You never met Rachel the Dragon then, girl!" He caught himself. "Princess, I mean."
Miriamele, who had been smiling, too, again looked uncomfortable. Simon felt a surge of the anger that had burned in him all night. Who was she to be uncomfortable around him? Wasn't he the one who had plucked her out of a tree? Didn't she rest her head on his shoulder?
Yes, but that's a large part of the problem, isn't it? he thought.
"I have to go." He hoisted the scabbard as though to show her some detail of its tooling. "I've been swording it all day. I'm sure your lady friends are waiting for you." He started to turn, then stopped and bent his knee to her. Her expression became, if anything, more discomforted, more sad than before.
"Princess," he said, and walked away. He did not look back to see if she watched him go. He held his head up, and his back was very straight.
Binabik, wearing what looked like his good clothes, a white deer-skin jacket and a necklace of bird skulls, met him on his way back to the room. Simon greeted him coolly; he was secretly surprised to find that where there had been a vast store of anger only hours before, there now existed only a strange emptiness of spirit.
The troll waited as he scraped more mud from his boots at the doorstep, then followed him into the room while he changed into the other shirt Strangyeard had kindly left for him.
"I am sure you are now angry, Simon," Binabik began. "I am wanting you to understand that I did not know about the princess until Josua told me it the night before the last."
The priest's shirt was long, even on Simon's lank frame; he tucked it into his breeches. "Why didn't you tell me?" he asked, pleased with the light-headed, casual way he felt. There was no reason he should let the little man's bad faith trouble him; he had been on his own before.
"It was because a promise was made." Binabik looked very unhappy. "I was agreeing before I knew to what. But it was only one day you did not know and I did—would there have been much difference made? She should have been telling you and me her own self, that is my thinking."
There was truth to what the little man said, but Simon did not like to hear Miriamele criticized, even though he himself blamed her for vaster but more subtle crimes.
"It isn't important now," was all he said.
Binabik pulled a poorly-formed smile. "I am hoping that is so. For now, the important thing is certainly the Raed. Your story should be told, and I am thinking tonight will be the night. With your departure you did not miss much, mostly Baron Devasalles looking for assurances from Prince Josua, should the Nabbanai be committing themselves to his side. But tonight..."
"I don't want to go." He rolled up the sleeves, which hung halfway down over his hands. "I'm going to go see Towser, or maybe Sangfugol." He fussed with a cuff. "Is the princess going to be there?"
The troll looked concerned. "Who can say? But you are needed, Simon. The Duke and his Rimmersgarders are here. They have arrived less than an hour gone, cursing and dirty and with their horses blowing froth. There will be discussion of important things tonight."
Simon stared at the floor. It would be simpler just to find the harper and drink; it did seem to take one's mind off these kind of problems. Doubtless there would be some of his new guardsmen acquaintances who might be good company, too. They could all go down to Naglimund-town, which he hadn't really seen yet. It would be so much easier than sitting in that great room, that heavy room, with the weight of decisions and danger upon them all. Let others do the discussing, the worrying—he was only a scullion, and had been out of his depth for too long. Wasn't that best? Wasn't it?
"I'll go," he said finally, "but only if I can decide whether I want to talk or not."
"Agreed!" said Binabik, and offered a smile, but Simon was not in the mood to dole one out in return. He pulled on his cloak, clean now, but bearing the unmended scars of the road and the forest, and let Binabik lead him away toward the great hall.
"This is it!" shouted Duke Isgrimnur of Elvritshalla. "What more proof does anyone need! He will have all our lands soon enough!"
Isgrimnur, like his men, had not even taken time yet to shed his traveling clothes. Water drizzled from his sodden cloak, pooling on the stone floor. "To think that I once dandled such an unnatural monster on my lap!" He clutched his chest apoplectically, looking to his men for support. All but the expressionless, slit-eyed Einskaldir nodded their heads in bleak commiseration.
"Duke!" Josua called out, raising his hand, "Isgrimnur, please, sit down. You have been shouting since the moment you crashed through the door, and I still do not understand what..."
"What your brother the king has done!?" Isgrimnur purpled, and looked as though he might grab the prince and throw him over a broad knee. "He has stolen my land! He has given it to traitors, and they have imprisoned my son! What more would you have him do to be proved a demon?"
The assembled lords and generals, who had leaped to their feet when the Rimmersmen came tumbling and shouting into the room, began to drop back into the hard wooden chairs, muttering angrily, steel sliding back into a dozen scabbards with a tuneful hiss.
"Must I ask your man to talk for you, good Isgrimnur?" Josua asked. "Or will you be able to tell us what has happened?"
The old duke glared up the table at the prince for a moment, then slowly lifted his hand and drew it across his face, as though to wipe away the sweat. For a dangerous moment, Simon felt sure that Isgrimnur would cry: the duke's red face crumpled into a mask of helpless despair, his eyes those of a stunned animal. He took a step backward and lowered himself into his seat. "He has given my land to Skali Sharp-nose," he said at last, and as the bluster left Isgrimnur's voice the hollowness rang clear. "I have nothing else, and nowhere to go but here." He shook his head.
Ethelferth of Tinsett stood up, his broad face full of sympathy. "Tell us what happened. Duke Isgrimnur," he said. "Here we all share one grief or another, but we also share a long history of comradeship. We will be each other's sword and shield."
The duke looked over to him gratefully. 'Thank you. Lord Ethelferth. You are a good comrade, and a good northern man." He turned back to the others. "Forgive me. This is disgraceful, the way I'm going on. It's also no damnable way to give news. Let me tell you of some things you should know about." Isgrimnur picked up a stray wine flagon and drained it. Several of the other men, anticipating a long story, called for their cups to be refilled.
"Much that has happened you will know, I am sure, since Josua and many others here were aware already: I told Elias I would not stay at his bidding in the Hayholt any longer, now while blizzards killed my people and buried our towns, and while my young son must rule the Rimmersmen in my stead. The king had resisted me and resisted me for months, but finally said yes. I took my men and started north.
"The first thing was that we were ambushed at Saint Hoderund's; before we walked into the trap, the ambushers killed the keepers of that holy place." Isgrimnur reached up and patted the wooden tree swinging against his chest. "We fought them and they fled, escaping when we were slowed by a freakish rainstorm."
"I had not heard this," Devasalles of Nabban said, fixing Isgrimnur with a contemplative look. "Who ambushed you at the abbey?"
"I do not know," the Rimmersman replied, disgusted. "Not a single prisoner could we take, although we sent a fair lot of them down the cold road to Hell. Some of them looked like Rimmersgarders. At the time I was sure they were mercenaries—now I am not so quick to think I know. One of my relatives fell to them.
"Secondly, while camped not far north of the Knock, we were set upon by filthy Bukken, a great hive of them, and on open ground, no less. A whole armed camp they attacked! We fought them off, too, but not without great losses... Ham, Thrinin, Ute of Saegard..."
"Bukken?" It was hard to tell if Devasalles' arched eyebrow was a sign of surprise or contempt. "Are you telling me that your men were attacked by the little people of legend, Duke Isgrimnur?"
"A legend in the south, maybe," Einskaldir sneered from his seat, "a legend in the soft courts of Nabban; in the north we know them as real, and keep our axes sharp."
Baron Devasalles bristled, but before he would launch an angry reply, Simon felt a movement at his side, and a voice rang out.
"Misunderstanding and ignorance both north and south are having in plenty," Binabik said, standing on his chair with one hand on Simon's shoulder. "The Bukken, the diggers, are not extending their holes much past the northern borders of Erkynland, but what is good fortune for those farther south should not be mistaken for universal truth."
Devasalles openly gaped in amazement, and he was not the only one. "And is this one of the Bukken themselves, come as emissary to Erkynland? Now I have seen everything under the sun, and die happy!"
"If I am the strangest thing you see before a year is out..." Binabik began, when he was interrupted by Einskaldir, leaping out of his seat to stand beside the startled Isgrimnur.
"It is worse than a Bukka!" he snarled. "It is a troll—a hell-wight!" He tried to push past the duke's restraining arm. "What is this stealer-of-babies doing here?"
"More good than you, you hulking and bearded idiot!" Binabik snapped back; the assembly collapsed into general shouting and confusion. Simon grabbed the troll's waist, as the little man had leaned so far forward he threatened to tumble onto the wine-stained table. At last Josua's voice could be heard above the clamor, calling angrily for order,
"Aedon's Blood, I will not have this! Are you men or children?! Isgrimnur, Binabik of Yiqanuc is here by my invitation. If your man does not respect the rules of my hall, he may try the hospitality of a tower cell! I wish an apology!" The prince tilted forward like a stooping hawk, and Simon, clutching Binabik's jacket, was struck by the resemblance to the dead High King. Here was Josua as he should be!
Isgrimnur bowed his head. "I apologize for my liegeman, Josua. He is hotheaded, and not broken to courteous company." The Rimmersman turned a fierce look on Einskaldir who sat down again, muttering silently in his beard, eyes cast to the floor. "Our people and the trolls are age-old enemies," the duke explained.
"The trolls of Yiqanuc are no one's enemy," Binabik replied, more than a little haughtily. "It is the Rimmersmen who are so frightened by our great size and strength that they attack wherever they see us—even in the hall of Prince Josua."
"Enough." Josua waved his hand in disgust. "This is no place for the unstoppering of old bottles. Binabik, you will have your say. Isgrimnur, you have a story yet to finish."
Devasalles cleared his throat. "One thing only let me say, Prince." He turned to Isgrimnur. "Faced with the little man from... Yiqanuc?... I find your story of Bukken easier to credit. Forgive my doubting words, good Duke."
Isgrimnur's frown softened at the edges. "Say nothing of it, Baron," he grumbled. "I have forgotten it, as I'm sure you've forgotten Einskaldir's foolish speech."
The duke paused for a moment to marshall his scattered thoughts.
"Well, as I was saying, that was the strangeness of it all. Even in the Frostmarch and the northern wastes the Bukken are scarce—and we are thankful to God it is so. For them to attack an armed force of our size is simply unheard of. The Bukken are small," his gaze lit briefly on Binabik, and slid off onto Simon. Arrested, the duke frowned again, staring. "Small... they are small... but fierce, and dangerous when they attack in numbers." Shaking his head, as if to banish Simon's disturbing familiarity, Isgrimnur turned his attention back to the others gathered around the long, looping table.
"After escaping the hole dwellers, and making our way here to Naglimund, we quickly resupplied and headed north again. I was anxious to see my home again, and my son and wife.
"The upper Wealdhelm Road and the Frostmarch Road are not good places these days. Those of you whose lands are north of here know what I mean without any more talk needed. We were happy to see the lights of Vestvennby below us the night of the sixth day out.
"The next morning we were met before the gate by Storfot, Thane of Vestvennby—what you would call a baron, I suppose—and a half-hundred of his housecarls. But had he come to welcome his duke?
"Embarrassed—and well he should be, the treacherous dog—he tells me that Elias has called me the traitor, and given my lands over to Skali Sharp-nose. Storfot says that Skali wants me to surrender myself, and he, Storfot, will take me to Elvritshalla where my son Isorn is already being held... and that Skali will be fair and merciful. Fair! Skali of Kaldskryke, who slew his own brother in a drunken brawl! Would grant me mercy under my own roof!
"If my men hadn't held me back... if they hadn't..." Duke Isgrimnur had to stop for a moment, twisting his beard in fretful anger. "Well," he resumed, "you may guess I was all for disemboweling Storfot on the instant. Better to die with a sword in my guts, I thought, then to bow to a pig like Skali. But, as Einskaldir pointed out, best of all will be to take back my hall and make Skali eat steel."
Isgrimnur shared a brief, sour grin with his earl, then turned back to the assembly and slapped his empty scabbard. "So, that I promise. If I have to crawl on my old, fat belly all the way to Elvritshalla, I swear by Dror's Hamm... by Usires Aedon, I mean—your pardon, Bishop Anodis—I will be there to put my good sword Kvamir a yard into his guts."
Gwythinn, prince of Hernystir, who had been unusually silent, now pounded a fist on the table. His cheeks were flushed, but not, Simon thought, just by wine, although the young Westerner had been drinking that in plenty. "Good!" the prince said. "But see, Isgrimnur, see: it is not this Skali who is your greatest enemy—no, it is the king himself!"
A rumble went around the table, but this time it seemed mostly one of approval. The idea of having one's lands taken away and handed to a blood rival struck a deep and threatening spot in almost everyone.
"The Hernystinnan speaks rightly!" shouted fat Ordmaer, heaving his bulk up from his seat. "It is obvious that Elias only kept you at the Hayholt so long in order for Skali to work his treachery. Elias is the enemy behind it all."
"As he has worked through his only-too-willing tools, Guthwulf and Fengbald and the others, to trample on the rights of most of you here!" Gwythinn had the bit in his teeth now, and he was pulling hard. "It is Elias who is reaching out to crush us all, until there is no resistance to the reign of misfortune, until the rest of us are taxed into poverty, or ground beneath the heels of Elias' knights. The High King is the enemy, and we must act!"
Gwythinn turned to Josua, overlooking the proceedings like a gray statue. "It is for you, Prince, to show us the lead. Your brother doubtless has plans for us all, as he has shown so clearly with you and Isgrimnur! Is he not our true, and most dangerous enemy?!"
"No! He is not!"
The startling voice cracked like a drover's whip through Naglimund's great hall. Simon, with every other soul in the room, whirled to see who had spoken. It was not the prince, who stood as baffled as everyone else.
For a moment it seemed that the old man had materialized out of the insubstantial air, so suddenly did he step forward from the shadows into the glow of the wall sconce. He was tall, and almost impossibly spare; the torchlight cast deep shadows in the hollows of his cheeks, and beneath the bony ridge of his brow. He wore a cloak of wolfskin, and his long white beard was tucked into his belt; to Simon he looked like some wild spirit of the winter forest.
"Who are you, old man?" Josua called. Two of his guards stepped forward to stand at either side of the prince's chair. "And how do you come to be in our councils?"
"He is one of Elias' spies!" hissed one of the northern lords, and others echoed him.
Isgrimnur stood. "He is here because I brought him, Josua," the duke growled. "He was waiting for us on our road to Vestvennby—knew where we were bound, and knew before we did that we would return here. He said that one way or another he was coming to speak to you."
"And that it would only be better for everyone if I arrived as soon as was possible," the old man finished, fixing his luminous blue eyes on the prince. "I have things of importance to tell you—to tell you all." He turned his disturbing gaze along the length of the table, and the whispering ceased in its wake. "You may listen or not, that is your choice... that is always the choice in matters like these."
"These are children's riddles, man," mocked Devasalles. "Whoever are you, and what do you know of the things we debate? In Nabban," he smiled up at Josua, "we would send this old fool to the Vilderivan Brothers, whose purview is the care of lunatics."
"We are not speaking of southern matters here, Baron," the old man said, with a smile cold as a row of icicles, "though soon the south, too, will feel chill fingers at its throat."
"Enough!" Josua cried. "Speak now, or I shall have you put in chains as a spy indeed. Who are you, and what is your business with us?!"
The old man nodded stiffly. "Your pardon. I am long out of practice with the ways of courts. Jarnauga is my name, late of Tungoldyr."
"Jarnauga!" Binabik said, climbing back onto his chair to peer at the new arrival. "Amazing! Jarnauga! Ho, I am Binabik! I was for long apprenticing with Ookequk!"
The old man pinned the troll with his bright, steely eyes. "Yes. We shall talk, and soon. But first I have business in this hall, with these men." He stood straight, facing the prince's chair.
"King Elias is the enemy, I heard the young Hernystirman say, and I heard others echo him. You are all like mice, who speak in hushed tones of the terrible cat, and dream in the walls of doing away with him someday. Not a one of you realizes that it is not the cat who is the problem, but the master who brought him in to kill mice."
Josua leaned forward, displaying reluctant interest. "Are you saying that Elias himself is someone's pawn? Who? That devil Pryrates, I suppose?"
"Pryrates presumes to deviltry," the old man sneered, "but he is a child. I speak of one to whom the lives of kings are flitting moments... one who will take away far more than your lands."
The men began to talk among themselves. "Has this mad monk broken in upon us to lecture us on the works of the Devil?" one of the barons cried. "It is no secret to us that the Arch-fiend uses men for his purposes."
"I do not speak of your Aedonite master-demon," Jarnauga said, then turned his gaze back to the prince's tall chair. "I speak of the true master-demon of Osten Ard, who is as real as this stone," he squatted and slapped a palm on the floor, "and as much a part of our land."
"Blasphemy!" someone shouted. "Throw him out!"
"No, let him speak!"
"Speak up, old man!"
Jarnauga raised his hands. "I am not some mad, half-frozen holy man come to save your imperiled souls." He pinched his mouth in a bleak smile. "I come to you as one of the League of the Scroll, one who has lived his life beside—and spent that life watching—the deadly mountain called Stormspike. We of the League of the Scroll, as the troll can confirm for you, have for long kept vigil while others slept. Now I come to fulfill a vow made long ago... and to tell you things you will wish you had never heard."
A nervous silence fell over the hall as the old man walked across the room and pushed open the door that led to the courtyard. The howl of the wind, that had been only a dim moan, was loud in everyone's ears.
"Yuven-mouth!" Jarnauga said. "It is only weeks till Midsummer! Listen; can a king, even the High King, do this?!" A swirl of rain blew past him like smoke. "There are fur-clad Hunen, giants, a-hunting men in the Wealdhelm. Bukken crawl from the cold earth to attack armed soldiers on the Frostmarch, and the forge fires of Stormspike in the north burn all night long. I myself have watched the glow against the sky, and heard the icy hammers falling! How do you think Elias has caused all this? Do you not see that there is a black, fell winter coming down on you out of all season, beyond all your power of understanding?"
Isgrimnur stood again, round face pale, eyes squinting. "What then, man, what? Are you saying, Udun One-Eye help me, that we are fighting... the White Foxes out of old legends?" Behind him was a chorus of whispered questions and shocked mumblings.
Jarnauga stared at the duke, and his seamed face softened with an expression that might have been pity, or sorrow. "Ah, Duke Isgrimnur, bad as the White Foxes—who some know as the Norns—bad as they would be, it would be a boon to us if it were the whole case. But I tell you that Utuk'ku, the queen of the Norns herself, mistress of the dreadful mountain Sturmrspeik, is no more the guiding hand than is Elias."
"Hold, man, just hold your tongue a moment." Devasalles leaped up angrily, robes billowing. "Prince Josua, forgive me, but it is bad enough this madman walks in and disrupts the council, stealing away the floor with no explanation of who or what he is, but now, as emissary for Duke Leobardis, I must waste my time listening to northern bogey tales? This is insufferable!"
As the hubbub of argument rose again, Simon felt a strange, exciting chill. To think that he and Binabik had been in the center of it all, in the middle of a tale that would boggle anything Shem Horsegroom could devise! But as he thought of the story he might tell beside the fire one day, he remembered the muzzles of the Norn hounds, and the pale faces in the dark mountain of his dreams, and again, not for the first time or the last, wished desperately that he was back in the Hayholt kitchen, that nothing had changed, that nothing would ever change....