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



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"But even combined, their resistance could not last forever. Fingil, king of the Rimmersmen, swept down across the Frostmarch over the borders of the Eri-king's territory..." Morgenes smiled sadly. "We're coming to the end now, young Simon, never fear, coming to the end of it all... .
"In the year 663 the two great hosts came to the plains of Ach Samrath, the Summerfield, north of the River Gleniwent. For five days of terrible, merciless carnage the Hernystiri and the Sithi held back the might of the Rimmersmen. On the sixth day, though, they were set on treacherously from their unprotected flank by an army of men from the Thrithings, who had long coveted the riches of Erkynland and the Sithi for their own. They made a fearful charge under cover of darkness. The defense was broken, the Hernystiri chariots smashed, the White Stag of the House of Hem trampled into the bloody dirt. It is said that ten thousand men of Hernystir died in the field that day. No one knows how many Sithi fell, but their losses were grievous, too. Those Hernystiri who survived fled back to the forest of their home. In Hernystir, Ach Samrath is today a name only for hatred and loss."
"Ten thousand!" Simon whistled. His eyes shone with the terror and grandness of it all.
Morgenes noted the boy's expression with a small grimace, but did not comment.
"That was the day that Sithi mastery in Osten Ard came to an end, even though it took three long years of siege before Asu'a fell to the victorious northerners.
"If not for strange, horrible magics worked by the Eri-king's son, there would likely have been not a single Sithi to survive the fall of the Castle. Many did, however, fleeing to the forests, and south to the waters and... and elsewhere."
Now Simon's attention was fixed as though nailed. "And the Eri-king's son? What was his name? What kind of magic did he do?"—a sudden thought—"How about Prester John? I thought you were going to tell me about the king—our king!"
"Another day, Simon." Morgenes fanned his brow with a sheaf of whisper-thin parchments, although the chamber was quite cool. "There is much to tell about the dark ages after Asu'a fell, many stories. The Rimmersmen ruled here until the dragon came. In later years, while the dragon slept, other men held the castle. Many years and several kings in the Hayholt, many dark years and many deaths until John came...." He trailed off, passing a hand over his face as though to brush weariness away.
"But what about the king of the Sithi's son?" Simon asked quietly. "What about the... the 'terrible magic'?"
"About the Eri-king's son... it is better to say nothing."
"But why?"
"Enough questions, boy!" Morgenes growled, waving his hands. "I am tired of talking!"
Simon was offended. He had only been trying to hear the whole story; why were grown people so easily upset? However, it was best not to boil the hen who lays golden eggs.
"I'm sorry, Doctor." He tried to look contrite, but the old scholar looked so funny with his pink, flushed monkey-face and his wispy hair sticking up! Simon felt his lip curling toward a smile. Morgenes saw it, but maintained his stem expression.
"Truly, I'm sorry." No change. What to try next? "Thank you for telling me the story."
"Not a 'story'!" Morgenes roared. "History! Now be off with you! Come back tomorrow morning ready to work, for you have still barely begun today's work!"
Simon got up, trying to keep his smile in check, but as he turned to go it broke loose and wriggled across his face like a ribbon-snake. As the door closed behind him he heard Morgenes cursing whatever eldritch demons had hidden his jug of porter.
Afternoon sunlight was knifing down through chinks in the heavy clouds as Simon made his way back to the Inner Bailey. On the face of it he seemed to dawdle and gape, a tall, awkward, red-haired boy in dust caked clothes. Inside he was as warm with strange thoughts, a hive of buzzing, murmuring desires.
Look at this castle, he thought—old and dead, stone pressed upon lifeless stone, a pile of rocks inhabited by small-minded creatures. But it had been different once. Great things had happened here. Horns had blown, swords had glittered, great armies had crashed against each other and rebounded like the waves of the Kynslagh battering the Seagate wall. Hundreds of years had passed, but it seemed to Simon it was happening just now only for him, while the slow, witless folk who shared the castle with him crawled past, thinking of nothing but the next meal, and a nap directly afterward.
Idiots.
As he came through the postern gate a glimmer of light caught his eye, drawing it up to the distant walkway that ringed Hjeldin's Tower. A girl stood there, bright and small as a piece of jewelry, her green dress and golden hair embracing the ray of sunlight as if it had arrowed down from the sky for her alone. Simon could not see her face, but he was somehow certain she was beautiful—beautiful and forgiving as the image of the Immaculate Elysia that stood in the chapel.
For a moment that flash of green and gold kindled him like a spark on dry timber. He felt all the bother and resentment that he had carried disappear, burned away in a hasty second. He was as light and buoyant as swansdown, prey to any breeze that might carry him away, might waft him up to that golden gleam.
Then he looked away from the wonderful faceless girl, down at his own ragged garments. Rachel was waiting, and his dinner had gotten cold. A certain indefinable weight climbed back into its accustomed seat, bending his neck and slumping his shoulders as he trudged toward the servants' quarters.

5
The Tower Window
NOVANDER was sputtering out in wind and delicate snow; Decander waited patiently, year's-end in its train.
King John Presbyter had been taken ill after calling his two sons back to the Hayholt, and had returned to his shadowed room, again to be surrounded by leeches, learned doctors, and scolding, fretting body servants. Bishop Domitis swept in from Saint Sutrin's, Erchester's great church, and set up shop at John's bedside, shaking the king awake at all hours to inspect the texture and heft of the royal soul. The old man, continuing to weaken, bore both pain and priest with gallant stoicism.
In the tiny chamber next to the king's own that Towser had occupied for forty years the sword Bright-Nail lay, oiled and scabbarded, wrapped in fine linens at the bottom of the jester's oaken chest.
Far and wide across the broad face of Osten Ard the word flew:
Prester John was dying. Hernystir in the west and northern Rimmersgard immediately dispatched delegations to the bedside of stricken Erkynland. Old Duke Isgrimnur, John's left-hand companion at the Great Table, brought fifty Rimmersmen from Elvritshalla and Naarved, the whole company wrapped head to foot in furs and leather for the winter crossing of the Frostmarch. Only twenty Hernystiri accompanied King Lluth's son Gwythinn, but the bright gold and silver they wore flashed bravely, outshining the poor cloth of their garments.
The castle began to come alive with the music of languages long unheard, Rimmerspakk and Perdruinese and Harcha-tongue. Naraxi's rolling island speech floated in the gateyard, and the stables echoed to the singsong cadences of the Thrithings-men—the grasslanders, as always, most comfortable around horses. Over these and all others hung the droning speech of Nabban, the busy tongue of Mother Church and her Aedonite priests, taking charge as always of the comings and goings of men and their souls.
In the tall Hayholt and Erchester below these small armies of foreigners came together and flowed apart, for the most part without incident. Although many of these peoples had been ancient enemies, nearly four score years beneath the High King's Ward had healed many wounds. More gills of ale were bought than harsh words traded.
There was one worrIsorne exception to this rule of harmony—one difficult to miss or misunderstand. Everywhere they met, under Hayholt's broad gates or in the narrow alleyways of Erchester, Prince Elias' green-liveried soldiers and Prince Josua's gray-shirted retainers jostled and argued, mirroring in public the private division of the king's sons. Prester John's Erkynguard were called upon to break up several ugly brawls. At last, one of Josua's supporters was stabbed by a young Meremund noble, an intimate of the heir-apparent. Luckily, Josua's man took no fatal harm—the blow was a drunken one, and poorly aimed—and the partisans were forced to heed the rebukes of the older courtiers. The troops of the two princes returned to cold stares and disdainful sneers; open bloodshed was averted.
These were strange days in Erkynland, and in all of Osten Ard, days freighted with equal measures of sorrow and excitement. The king was not dead, but it seemed he soon would be. The whole world was changing—how could anything remain the same once Prester John no longer sat the Dragonbone Chair?
^
"... Udunsday: dream... Drorsday: better... Frayday: best... Satrinsday: market day... Sunday—rest!"
Down the creaking stairs two at a clip, Simon sang the old rhyme at the top of his voice. He almost knocked over Sophrona the Linen Mistress as she led a squadron of blanket-burdened maids in at the Pine Garden door. She threw herself back against the doorjamb with a little shriek as Simon pounded by. then waved a skinny fist at his fast-departing back.
"I'll tell Rachel!" she shouted. Her charges stifled laughter.
Who cared for Sophrona? Today was Satrinsday—market day—and Judith the cook had given Simon two pennies to buy some things for her, and a fithing piece—glorious Satrinsday!—to spend on himself. The coins made a lovely, suggestive clink in his leather purse as he spiraled out through the castle's acres of long, circular courtyards, out the Inner Bailey gate to Middle Bailey, nearly empty now since its residents, the soldiers and the artisans, were mostly on duty or at market.
In Outer Bailey animals milled in the commons yard, bumping miserably together in the cold, guarded by herders who looked scarcely more cheerful. Simon bustled along the rows of low houses, storage rooms, and animal sheds, many of them so old and overgrown with winter-naked ivy that they seemed only warty growths on the High Keep's inner walls.
The sun was glinting through the clouds on the carvings that swarmed the mighty chalcedony face of the Nearulagh Gate. As he slowed to a puddle-dodging trot, staring open-mouthed at the intricate depictions of King John's victory over Ardrivis—the battle that had brought Nabban at last under the royal hand—Simon heard the tumult of swift hooves and the shrill squeak of cart wheels. He looked up in horror to find himself faced with the white, rolling eyes of a horse, mud gouting from beneath its hooves as it plunged through the Nearulagh Gate. Simon flung himself out of the way and felt wind on his face as the horse thundered by, the cart drawn behind it pitching wildly. He had a brief glimpse of the driver, dressed in a dark hooded cloak lined with scarlet. The man's eyes raked him as the cart hurtled past—they were black and shiny, like the cruel button-orbs of a shark; although the contact was fleeting, Simon felt almost that the driver's gaze burned him. He reeled back, clutching at the stone facing of the gate, and watched as the cart disappeared around the track of Outer Bailey. Chickens squawked and flapped in its wake, except for those that lay crushed and bloody in the wagon's ruts. Muddied feathers drifted to the ground.
"Here, boy, not hurt are you?" One of the gatewarders peeled Simon's trembling hand from the carvings and set him back upright. "Get on with you, then."
Snow swirled in the air and stuck melting to his cheeks as he walked down the long hill toward Erchester. The chink of the coins in his pocket now played to a slower, wobbly-kneed rhythm.
"That priest is mad as the moon," Simon heard the warder say to his gate companion. "Were he not Prince Elias' man..."
Three little children following their toiling mother up the damp hillpath pointed at long-legged Simon as he passed, laughing at the expression on his pale face.
Main Row was roofed all over with stitched skins that stretched across the wide thoroughfare from building to building. At each waycrossing were set great stone fire-cairns, most—but certainly not all—of their smokes billowing up through holes in the roof-tenting. Snow fluttering down through the chimney holes sizzled and hissed in the hot air. Warming themselves by the flames or strolling and talking—all the while surreptitiously examining the goods displayed on every side—Erchester and Hayholt folk mixed with those of the outer fiefs, eddying together in and out of the wide central row which ran two full leagues from the Nearulagh Gate to Battle Square at the city's far end. Caught up in the press, Simon found his spirits reviving. What should he care for a drunken priest? After all, it was market day!
Today the usual army of marketers and shrill-voiced hawkers, wide-eyed provincials, gamblers, cutpurses, and musicians was swelled by the soldiery of the various missions to the dying king. Rimmersman, Hernystiri, Warinstenner or Perdruinese, their swagger and bright garb caught Simon's jackdaw fancy. He followed one group of blue and gold clad Nabbanai legionaries, admiring their strut and easy superiority, understanding without language the off-hand way they insulted each other. He was edging up closer, hoping for a clear look at the short stabbing-swords they wore scabbarded high on their waists, when one of them—a bright-eyed soldier wearing a thin, dark mustache—turned and saw him.
"Hea, brothers!" he said with a grin, grabbing at one of his fellows' arms. "Look now! A young sneaking thief, I wager, and one who has his eye on your purse, Turis!"
Both men squared to face Simon, and the heavy, bearded one called Turis gave the youth a grim stare. "Did he touch it, then I would kill," he growled. His command of the Westerling speech was not as sure as the first man's; he seemed to lack the other's humor as well.
Three other legionaries had now come back to join the first pair. They gradually closed in until Simon felt like a winded fox.
"What's here, Gelles?" one of the new arrivals asked Tuns' companion. "Hue fauge? Did this one steal?"
"Nai, nai..." Gelles chuckled, "I was but having sport with Turis. Skinny-one here did nothing."
"I have my own purse!" Simon said indignantly. He untied it from his belt and waved it in the soldiers' smirking faces. "I am no thief! I live in the king's household! Your king!" The soldiers all laughed.
"Hea, listen to him!" Gelles shouted. "Our king he says, so very bold!"
Simon could see now that the young legionary was drunk. Some—but not all—of his fascination turned to disgust.
"Hea, lads," Gelles waggled his eyebrows. " 'Mulveiz-nei cenit drenisend,' they say—let us beware this pup, then, and let him sleep!" Another round of hilarity followed. Simon, red-faced, secured his purse and turned to go.
"Goodbye, castle-mouse!" one of the soldiers called mockingly. Simon did not turn or speak, but hurried away.
He had gone past one of the fire-cairns and out from under the Main Row awnings when he felt a hand upon his shoulder. He whirled, thinking that the Nabban-men had returned to insult him further, but instead found a plump man with a weather-hardened pink face. The stranger wore the gray robe and tonsure of a mendicant friar.
"Your pardon, my young lad," he said, with a Hernystirman's crackling burr, "I only wished to find out if you were safe, then, if those goirach fellows had done you harm." The stranger reached out to Simon and patted him, as if searching for damage. His heavy-lidded eyes, fitted round about with wrinkles marking the curves of a frequent smile, nevertheless held something back: a deeper shadow, troubling but not frightening. Simon realized he was staring, almost against his will, and shied back.
"No, thank you. Father," he said, startled into the patterns of formality. "They were just making sport of me. No harm."
"Good that is, very good... Ah, forgive me, I have not introduced myself. I am Brother Cadrach ec-Crannhyr, of the Vilderivan Order." He pulled a small, self-deprecatory smile. His breath smelled of wine "I came with Prince Gwythmn and his men. Who might you be?"
"Simon I live in the Hayholt " He made a vague gesture toward the castle.
The friar smiled again, saying nothing, then turned to watch a Hyrkaman walk by, dressed in bright, disparate colors and leading a muzzled bear on a chain. When the duo had passed, Cadrach returned his small, sharp eyes to Simon.
"There are some that say the Hyrkas can talk to animals, have you heard? Especially their horses And that the animals understand perfectly " The friar gave a mocking shrug, as if to show that a man of God naturally would not believe such nonsense.
Simon did not reply. He, of course, had also heard such tales related about the wild Hyrkamen. Shem Horsegoom swore the stones were pure truth. The Hyrkas were often seen at market, where they sold beautiful horses at outrageous prices, and befuddled the villagers with tricks and puzzles. Thinking about them—especially their less-than-honest reputation—Simon put a hand down and grabbed his leather purse, reassunng himself by the feel of the coins inside.
"Thank you for your help, Father," he said at last—although he could not actually remember the man doing anything helpful "I must go now. I have spices to buy."
Cadrach looked at him for a long moment, as if trying to remember something, a clue to which might be hidden in Simon's face. At last he said, "I would like to ask you a favor, young man."
"What?" Simon said suspiciously.
"As I mentioned, I am a stranger in your Erchester. Perhaps you would be good enough to guide me around for a short while, just to help me. You could then go on your way, having done a good turn."
"Oh." Simon felt somewhat relieved His first impulse was to say no—it was so rarely that he got an afternoon to himself at the market. But how often did you get to talk with an Aedonite monk from pagan Hernystir? Also, this Brother Cadrach did not seem like the type who only wanted to lecture you about sin and damnation. He looked the man over again, but the monk's face was unreadable.
"Well, I suppose so—certainly. Come along… do you want to see the Nascadu-dancers in Battle Square…?"
^
Cadrach was an interesting companion. Although he talked freely, telling Simon of the cold journey from Hernysadharc to Erchester with Prince Gwythmn, and made frequent jests about the passersby and their various exotic costumes, still he seemed restrained, watching always for something even as he laughed at his own stones. He and Simon wandered the market for a good part of the afternoon, looking at the tables of cakes and dried vegetables that stood against the shop walls of Main Row, smelling the warm smells of the bread bakers and chestnut vendors. Noting Simon's wistful gaze, the friar insisted they stop and buy a rough straw basket of roasted nuts, which he kindly paid for, giving the chap-faced chestnut man a half-fithing piece nimbly plucked from a pocket in his gray cassock. After burning fingers and tongues trying to eat the nut meats they conceded defeat and stood watching a comical argument between a wine merchant and a Juggler blocking his wine-shop doorway while they waited for their purchase to cool.
Next they halted to watch a Usires Play being enacted for a gaggle of shrieking children and fascinated adults. The puppets bobbed and bowed, Usires in his white gown being chased by the Imperator Crexis weanng goat-horns and a beard, and waving a long, barb-headed pike. At last Usires was captured and hung upon the Execution Tree; Crexis, his voice high and shrill, leaped about poking and tormenting the tree-nailed Savior. The children, wildly excited, shouted abuse at the capenng Imperator.
Cadrach nudged Simon. "Do you see?" he asked, pointing a thick finger toward the front of the puppet-stage. The curtain that hung from the stage to the ground billowed, as if in a strong breeze. Cadrach nudged Simon again.
"Would you not say that this is a fine representation of Our Lord?" he asked, never once taking his eyes from the flapping cloth. Above, Crexis jigged and Usires suffered. "While man plays out his show, the Manipulator remains unseen, we know Him not by sight, but by the ways His puppets move. And occasionally the curtain stirs, that hides Him from His faithful audience. Ah, but we are grateful even for just that movement behind the curtain—grateful!"
Simon stared; at last Cadrach looked away from the puppet show and met his gaze. A strange, sad smile cnmped the corner of the friar's mouth, for once the look in his eyes seemed to match. "Ah, boy," he said, "and what should you know of religious matters, anyway?"
They strolled for some while longer before Brother Cadrach at last took his leave with many thanks to the young man for his hospitality. Simon continued to walk aimlessly long after the monk was gone, and the patches of sky that could been seen through the roof-tenting were filmed with early darkness before he remembered his errand.
At the spice-merchant's stall he discovered that his purse was gone.
His heart thumped triple-time as he thought back in panic. He knew that he had felt it swinging on his belt when he and Cadrach had stopped to buy chestnuts, but could summon no memories of having it later in the afternoon. Whenever it had disappeared, though, it was definitely gone now—along with not just his own fithing piece, but also the two pennies entrusted to him by Judith!
He searched the market vainly until the sky-holes had gone black as an old kettle. The snow that he had barely felt before seemed very cold and very wet as he returned, empty-handed, to the castle.
Worse than beating—as Simon discovered when he came home without spices or money—was the look of disappointment that sweet, fat, flour-dusted Judith gave him. Rachel also used this most unfair of gambits, punishing him with nothing more painful than an expression of disgust at his childishness and a promise that he would "work fingers to the nubbin" earning the money back. Even Morgenes, whom Simon went to half in hope of sympathy, seemed faintly surprised at the youth's carelessness. All in all, although spared a thrashing, he had never felt lower or more sorry for himself.
^
Sunday came and went, a dark, slushy day in which most of the Hayholt's staff seemed to be at chapel saying a prayer for King John—that, or telling Simon to go away. He had exactly the kind of scratchy, irritable, kick-things-across-the-floor sort of feeling that could usually be soothed by visiting Morgenes or trekking out of doors to do some exploring. The doctor, however, was busy—locked in with Inch, working on something that he said was large, dangerous, and likely to catch fire; Simon would not be needed for anything. The weather outside was so cold and dismal that even in his misery he could not convince himself to go a-roving. Instead, he spent the endless afternoon with the chandler's fat apprentice Jeremias, tossing rocks from one of the turrets of the Inner Bailey wall and arguing in a desultory way as to whether the fish in the moat froze during the winter or, if not, where they went until Spring's arrival.



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