|Vorzheva spun to face him. "The other ladies hate me!" she said, eyes narrowed, a lock of black hair dangling loose across her cheek. "I hear them whispering about Prince Josua's slut from the grasslands. And I hate them—the northern cows! In my father's marchland they would be whipped for such... such..." she struggled with the still unfamiliar tongue, "... such disrespect!" She took a breath to still her trembling.
"Why are you so cold to me, sir?" she asked at last. "And why did you bring me here, to this cold country?"
The prince looked up, and for a moment his stern face softened.
"I sometimes wonder." He slowly shook his head. "Please, if you despise the company of the other court ladies, then go and have the harper sing for you. Please. I will not have an argument tonight."
"Nor any night," Vorzheva snapped. "You do not seem to want me at all—but old things, yes, yes, those you are interested in! You and your old books!"
Josua's patience was wearing thin. "The events we will speak of tonight are old, yes, but their importance is to our current struggle. Damnation, woman, I am a prince of the realm, and cannot evade my responsibilities!"
"You do better at that than you think, Prince Josua," she replied frostily, throwing her cape about her shoulders.
When she reached the doorway, she turned. "I hate the way you think only of the past—old books, old battles, old history..." her lip curled, "old loves."
The door swung closed behind her.
"Thanks to you, Prince, for admitting us to your chambers," Binabik said. His round face was troubled. "I would not have been making such a request had I not thought this important."
"Of course, Binabik," the prince said. "I, too, prefer to talk in more quiet surroundings."
The troll and old Jarnauga had pulled up hard wooden stools to sit beside Josua at his table. Father Strangyeard, who had accompanied them, was walking quietly around the room looking at the tapestries. In all his years at Naglimund it was the first time he had been in the prince's private chambers.
"I am still reeling from the things I heard last night," Josua said, then gestured at the sheets of parchment Binabik had strewn before him. "Now you say there is even more I must know?" The prince gave a small, rueful smile. "God must be chastising me, taking my nightmare of having to command a castle at siege and then complicating it with all this."
Jarnauga leaned forward. "As long as you remember. Prince Josua, that it is no nightmare we speak of, but a dark reality. We cannot any of us afford the luxury of thinking this a fantasy."
"Father Strangyeard and I have been at days of searching in the castle archives," Binabik said, "since first I came, trying to find the meaning of the Weird of the Swords."
"The dream, you mean, that you told me of?" Josua asked, idly thumbing through the pages of writing on the table. 'The one that you and the boy had in the witch woman's house?"
"And not them alone," Jarnauga declared, his eyes sharp as chips of blue ice. "The nights before I left Tungoldyr I, too, dreamt of a great book. Du Svardenvyrd was written upon it in letters of fire."
"I have heard of the priest Nisses' book, of course," the prince said, nodding, "when I was a young student with the Usirean brothers. It was infamous, but it no longer exists. Surely you are not going to tell me you have found a copy here in our library?"
"Not for the lack of our searching," Binabik replied. "If it had been anywhere but perhaps the Sancellan Aedonitis, here it would be. Strangyeard has been assembling a library of great wonder."
"Very kind," the archivist said, facing the wall as though studying a tapestry so that his unseemly blush of pleasure would not imperil his reputation as a levelheaded historian.
"In fact, for all of Strangyeard's and my hunting, it was Jarnauga who has been partway to solving our problem," Binabik continued.
The old man leaned forward and tapped a skinny finger on the parchment. "It was a stroke of good fortune which I hope bodes well for us all. Morgenes had sent once to ask me questions about Nisses—who was, of course, a Rimmersman like myself—to help fill in some empty spots in his written life of your father. King John. I was of little help, I'm afraid. I told him what I knew. But I remembered his asking."
"And," Binabik said, excited, "another stroke of luckiness: the one thing young Simon saved from the destruction of Morgenes' chambers was... this book!" He grabbed a sheaf in his stubby brown hand and waved it. " "The Life and Reign of King John Presbyter, by Morgenes Ercestres'—Doctor Morgenes of Erchester. In another way still, the doctor is with us here!"
"We owe him more than we can say," Jarnauga pronounced solemnly. "He saw the dark days coming, and made many preparations—some we still do not know of."
"But the most important to this current moment," the troll burst in, "is this; his life of Prester John. Look!" He thrust the papers into Josua's hand. The prince leafed through them, then looked up, smiling faintly.
"Reading Nisses' tangled and archaic language puts me in mind of my student days, prowling the archives of the Sancellan Aedonitis." He shook his head regretfully. "This is fascinating, of course, and I pray that I have the time some day to read Morgenes' full work, but I still do not understand." He held up the page he had been reading. "Here is a description of the forging of the blade Sorrow, but I see no information that Jarnauga has not already given to us. What help will this be?"
Binabik, with Josua's permission, took back the manuscript. "We must be looking closer. Prince Josua," he said. "Morgenes quotes from Nisses—and the fact that he actually read at least some of Du Svardenvyrd only confirms for me Morgenes' resourcefulness—he quotes Nisses as speaking of two other 'Great Swords.' Two more besides Sorrow. Here, let me read what Morgenes tells us are Nisses' own words."
Binabik cleared his throat and began.
"The first Great Sword came, in its form original, from out of the Sky one thousand years agone."
"Usires Aedon. Whom we of Mother Church call the Son and Avatar of God, had hung for nine days and nights, nailed by His Hands and Feet to the Execution Tree in the square before the Temple of Yuvenis in Nabban. This Yuvenis was the heathen god of Justice, and the Nabbanai imperator was wont to hang such ayverse criminals as his courts convicted from the mighty branches of Yuvenis' Tree. So hung Usires of the Lake, guilty of sacrilege and rebellion for proclaiming the Single God. Heels above Head like a carcase of Beef."
"There came, that Ninth night, a great Roaring and a streak of fire, and a hurtling Bolt from the Heavens flew down from the sky and smote the Temple into a thousand shards, killing all the heathen judges and priests within. When the reek and fumes were dispersed, the Body of Usires Aedon was gone, and a great shout went up that God had restored Him to Heaven and punished His enemies, although others said that Usires'patient disciples had cut down His body and escayped in the Confusion. These naysayers were quickly made silent, and the Word of the miracle spread throughout all the quarters of the City. Thus began the downfall of the pagan gods of Nabban."
"In the smoaking rubble of the Temple there now lay a great and steaming Stone. It was proclaimed by the Aedonites that here was the heathen altar, melted by the vengeful Fires of the One God."
"I, Nisses, believe instead that this was a flaming Star of the heavens fallen to Earth, as happens on Occasion.
"Now, from this molten wrack was taken a great piece, and the Imperator's swordwrights found it Workable, and the sky-metal was hammered into a great Blade. In mind of the scourging branches which hadflaid Usires' Back, the star-sword—as I suppose it to be—was named THORN, and a mighty power there was in it..."
"Thus," Binabik said, "the sword Thorn, being passed down through the line of Nabbanai rulers, came at last to..."
"To Sir Camaris, my father's most beloved friend." Josua finished. "The stories of Camaris' sword Thorn are many, but I had not known before today where it came from... if Nisses is to be believed. This passage has somewhat the smack of heresy."
"Those of his assertions which can be measured against truth measure well, your Highness," Jarnauga said, stroking his beard.
"Still," said Josua, "what does it mean? Camaris' sword was lost when he drowned."
"Allow me to share more of Nisses' writing," Binabik replied. "Here, where he is speaking of the third part of our puzzle."
"The second of the Great Swords came from the Sea, traveling across the salt ocean from the West to Osten Ard.
"For some years the Sea-Raiders had come seasonally to this land from the far, cold Country they called Ijsgard, only to return across the waves when their pillaging was done.
"Then it was, some Tragedy or dire Happening in their native place caused the men of Ijsgard to abandon that land and bring their families in boats to Osten Ard, to settle in Rimmersgard in the North, the land of my Own far more recent birth.
"When they had landed, their King Elvrit gave thanks to Udun and their other Heathenish gods, and commanded that the iron keel of his Dragon-boat should be made into a sword to protect his People in their new land.
"Thus it went that the keel was given to the Dvemings, a Secretive and crafty race, and they separated out the Pure and Significant metal by means unknown, and smithied a long and shining blade.
"But in the haggling over the payment King Elvrit and the master of the Dvemings fell out, and the king did slay the smith and took the sword unpayed-for, which was the cause of much later Woe.
"In thought of their coming to this New country, Elvrit named the sword MINNEYAR, which means 'Year of Memory.'"
The troll finished, and walked to the table to drink from the water-ewer there.
"So, Binabik of Yiqanuc, two powerful swords," Josua said. "Perhaps this dreadful year has softened my mind, but I cannot think what significance they have to us."
"Three swords," Jarnauga offered, "counting Ineluki's Jingizu—what we call Sorrow. Three great swords."
"You must read this last part of Nisses' book that Morgenes cited, Prince Josua," Strangyeard said, joining them at last. He picked up the parchments that Binabik had laid on the table. "Here, please. This bit of rhyme from the end of the madman's writings."
"When frost doth grow on Cloves' bell..."
Josua read aloud,
"And Shadows walk upon the road
When water blackens in the Well
Three Swords must come again.
"When Sukken from the Earth do creep
And Hunen from the heights descend
When Nightmare throttles peaceful Sleep
Three Swords must come again.
"To turn the stride of treading Fate
To clear the fogging Mists of Time
If Early shall resist Too Late
Three Swords must come again..."
"I think... I think I understand," the prince said, with mounting interest. 'This almost appears to be a prophecy of our own day—as if Nisses somehow knew that Ineluki would someday return."
"Yes," Jarnauga said, combing his beard with his fingers as he looked over Josua's shoulder, "and apparently, if things are to be made right, Three swords must come again.'"
"Our understanding, Prince," Binabik said, "is that if somehow the Storm King can be defeated, it is by our finding the three swords."
"The three swords of which Nisses speaks?" Josua asked.
"So it would seem."
"But, if what the boy Simon saw is correct. Sorrow is already in the hands of my brother." The prince frowned, his pale brow creased with the lines of his thought. "If it were a simple thing to go and take it from him in the Hayholt, we would not be cowering here in Naglimund."
"We shall worry about Sorrow last. Prince," Jarnauga said. "We must move now to secure the other two. I am named for my eyes and my trained sight, but even I cannot see the future. Perhaps a way will come for us to take Sorrow from Elias. or perhaps he will make some mistake. No, it is Thorn and Minneyar we must now find."
Josua leaned back in his chair, crossing one ankle over the other and pressing his fingers on his lidded eyes. "This is like a children's story!" he exclaimed. "How are mere men to survive such times? Chill winter in Yuven-month... the risen Storm King who is a dead Sithi prince... and now a desperate search for long-forgotten swords—madness! Folly!" He opened his eyes and sat up. "But what can we do? I believe it all... so I must be mad, too."
The prince stood up and began to pace. The others watched him, grateful that despite the slenderness of their hope they had at least convinced Josua of the grim, strange truth.
"Father Strangyeard," he said at last, "would you go and find Duke Isgrimnur? I sent my pages and all others away so we would have privacy."
"Certainly," the archivist said, and hurried from the room, robes flapping on his lanky frame.
"No matter what happens," Josua said, "I will have much to explain at tonight's Read. I would have Isgrimnur beside me. The barons know him as a practical man, where I am still somewhat suspect for my years in Nabban and my odd ways." The prince smiled wearily. "If these mad things are true, then our task is more complex than even it was. If the Duke of Elvritshalla will stand behind me, then I think the barons will too—although I do not think I will share this latest bit of information, even if it does represent a thin shard of hope. I mistrust the ability of some of the lords to keep such amazing things a secret."
The prince sighed. "It was bad enough to have Elias alone for an enemy." He stood, staring at the blazing hearth. His eyes glinted, as if full of some reflecting moisture. "My poor brother."
Binabik looked up, startled by the prince's tone.
"My poor brother," Josua said again. "He must be riding the nightmare now in earnest—the Storm King! The White Foxes! I cannot think he knew what he was doing."
"Somebody had knowledge of what they did, Prince," the troll declared. "Stormspike's master and his minions do not, I am thinking, go dancing house to house like peddlers, a-selling of then-wares."
"Oh, I doubt not that Pryrates reached out to them somehow," Josua said. "I know him and his unholy thirst for forbidden knowledge from the old days, in the seminary of the Usirean brothers." He shook his head sorrowfully. "But Elias, although brave as a bear, was always mistrustful of secrets in old books, and scornful of scholarship. He also feared talk of spirits or the demonic. He became worse after... after his wife died. I wonder what he thought worth the terror he must reap for this bargain. I wonder if he now regrets it—what terrible allies! Poor, foolish Elias...."
It was raining again, and when Strangyeard came back with the duke, they were both soaked from their trip across the long courtyard. Isgrimnur stood in the doorway of Josua's chambers stamping like a nervous horse.
"I was just seeing to my wife," he explained. "She and the other women left ahead of Skali's arrival, and went to Thane Tonnrud, her uncle. She has brought half a dozen of my men and a score of women and children. She's got the frostbite in her fingers, poor Gutrun."
"I am sorry to call you away from her, Isgrimnur, especially if she is injured," the prince apologized, rising and clasping the old duke's hand.
"Ah, there's not much I can do. She has our girls to help her." He frowned, but there was pride in his voice. "She's a strong woman. She made strong sons for me."
"And we shall bring help to Isorn, your eldest, never fear." Josua led Isgrimnur to the table and handed him Morgenes' manuscript. "It may be, though, that we shall be fighting more than one battle."
When the duke had read of the Weird of the Swords, and asked some few questions, he read the pages again.
"This bit of rhyme, then?" he asked at last. "You think that's the key to the whole thing?"
"If you mean the sort of key that locks a door," Jarnauga said, "yes, we hope so. For that is what we must do, it seems: find the swords of Nisses' prophecy, swords that will keep the Storm King at bay."
"But your boy claimed Elias has the Sithi one—and in fact I saw him wearing an unfamiliar sword when he told me I could leave for Elvritshalla. A great, strange-looking thing it was."
"This we know, Duke," Binabik chimed in. "It is the other two we must first find."
Isgrimnur squinted suspiciously at the troll. "And what do you want from me, little man?"
"Only your help, in any way you can render it," Josua said, reaching out to pat the Rimmersman's shoulder. "And Binabik of Yiqanuc is here for the same reasons."
"Have you heard aught of the fate of Afinneyar, Elvrit's sword?" Jarnauga asked. "I confess I should know, since it is the purpose of our League to gather such wisdom, but Minneyar has gone out of the tales we know."
"I know this from my grandmother, who was a storyteller," Isgrimnur said, chewing his mustache as he remembered. "It went through Elvrit's line to Fingil Redhand, and from Fingil to his son Hjeldin, and then when Hjeldin fell from the tower—with Nisses dead on the floor behind him—Hjeldin's lieutenant Ikferdig took it, along with Fingil's crown of the Rimmersmen, and the mastery of the Hayholt."
"Ikferdig died in the Hayholt," Strangyeard said shyly, warming his hands at the hearth. " The Burned King,' he is called in my books."
"Dead by the dragon-fire of red Shurakai," Jarnauga said. "Roasted in his throne room like a coney."
"So..." Binabik said thoughtfully, while gentle Strangyeard shivered at Jarnauga's words, "Minneyar is either within the walls of the Hayholt somewhere... or it has been unmade by the red dragon's fiery breathing."
Josua stood up and walked to the fireplace, where he stood staring into the wavering flames. Strangyeard inched away so as not to crowd his prince.
"Two confounding and unhappy alternatives," Josua said, and grimaced, turning to Father Strangyeard. "You have brought me no good news today, you wise men." At this, the archivist looked morose. "First you tell me our only hope is to find this trio of legendary blades, and now you say that two of them are in the stronghold of my enemy brother—if they exist at all." The prince sighed in dismay. "What of the third? Does Pryrates use it to cut his beef at table?"
"Thorn," Binabik said, climbing up to perch on the table's edge. "The sword of the great knight who was Camaris."
"Made from the star-stone which destroyed the temple of Yuvenis in old Nabban," Jarnauga said. "But surely it went into the sea with great Camaris, when he was swept overboard in the Bay of Firannos."
"You see!" spat Josua. "Two held by my brother, and the third in the even tighter grip of the jealous ocean. We are cursed before we begin."
"It no doubt would have also seemed an impossible chance that Morgenes' work would have survived the destruction of him and his chambers," Jarnauga said, and his voice was stem, "and then would come safely through danger and despair to us here, so we could read Nisses' prophecy. But it did survive. And it did reach us. There is always hope."
"Excuse me. Prince, but there seems only one thing to do," Binabik said, nodding sagely atop the table. "It is back to the archives and searching again, until we find the answer to the riddle of Thorn and the other blades. And we must be finding it soon."
"Soon indeed," said Jarnauga, "for we are wasting diamond-precious time."
"By all means," said Josua, pulling his chair over by the hearth and slumping down into it, "by all means make haste, but I deeply fear that our time has already run out."
"Damn and damn and damn," Simon said, hurling yet one more rock from the battlement into the teeth of the wind. Nagumund seemed to stand in a great expanse of soapy gray nothingness, a mountain sprouting from a sea of swirling rain. "Damn," he added, as he bent to search for another on the wet stone wall.
Sangfugol looked over, his fine cap a limp, sodden mass on his head. "Simon," he said crossly, "you cannot have it both ways. First you curse them all for dragging you along behind them like a peddler's sack, then you blaspheme and hurl stones because you are not invited to the afternoon's deliberations."
"I know," Simon said, sending another projectile down from the castle walls. "I don't know what I want. I don't know anything."
The harper scowled. "What I would like to know is: what are we doing up here? Are there not better places to feel miserable and left out? It is cold as a well digger's privy parts on these battlements." He allowed his teeth to chatter for a moment, hoping to inspire pity. "Why are we up here?"
"Because it clears a man's head, a little wind and rain," Towser called, making his way back along the battlement toward his two companions. "There is no better cure for a night of drinking." The little old man winked at Simon, who guessed that Towser would have gone down long ago, but for the enjoyable sight of Sangfugol shivering in his beautiful gray velvet robe.
"Well," the harper growled, miserable as a soaked cat, "you drink like a man in his youth, Towser—or in his second childhood—thus, I suppose it is no surprise to see you prance on the walls for fun, just like a rascally boy."
"Ah, Sangfugol," Towser said with a wrinkly smile, watching another of Simon's missiles send up a gout of water from the rain-pocked pond that eddied where the commons yard had been, "you are too... Ho!" Towser pointed. "Is that not Duke Isgrimnur? I had heard he was returned. Ho. Duke!" The jester shouted and waved at the stout figure. Isgrimnur, squinting against the slanting raindrops, looked up. "Duke Isgrimnur! It's Towser!"
"Is that who it is?" the Duke cried. "Damn me, it is, you old whoreson!"
"Come up, come up!" Towser said. "Come and tell me what is the news!"
"I shouldn't be amazed," Sangfugol said sardonically as the duke ankled across the submerged commons toward the curling staircase in the wall. "The only person beside an old madman who would come up of his free will would be a Rimmersman. It's probably even too warm for him, since it's not actually sleeting or snowing."
Isgrimnur had a tired smile and a nod for Simon and the harper, then turned and clasped the jester's veined hand and gave him a comradely smack on the shoulder. He was so much taller and bulkier than Towser that he looked like a mother bear cuffing her cub.