|While the duke and the jester exchanged tidings, Simon threw stones and listened, and Sangfugol stood with a look of patient, hopeless suffering. Soon, unsurprisingly, the Rimmersman's talk came around from mutual friends and homely things to darker topics. As Isgrimnur spoke of the gathering threat of war, and the shadow m the north, Simon felt the cold that the chill winds had—strangely—helped dispel for a while come shouldering back. When the duke began to speak in hushed tones of the Ruler of the North, then sheared off, saying some things were too fear-fraught to speak of openly, the cold seemed to slide further into Simon's being. He stared out into the murky distance, at the dark fist of storm that hovered beyond the rain on the northern horizon, and felt himself slipping back into his journey on the dream-road...
... The naked thrust of the stone mountain, its halo of indigo and yellow flames. The silver-masked queen in her icy throne, and the chanting voices in the rocky fastness... Black thoughts pressed down on him, crushing him like the rim of a broad wheel. It would be so easy, he was sure, to go forward into the darkness, into the warmth beyond the storm's chill...
... It's so close... so close...
"Simon!" a voice said in his ear. A hand grasped his elbow. He looked down, startled, to see the edge of the battlement inches from his foot, and the wind-lashed water of the courtyard directly below.
"What are you doing?" Sangfugol asked, giving his arm a shake. "If you went over this wall, you would have more than broken bones."
"I was..." Simon said, feeling a dark mist still clouding his thoughts, a mist that was slow to clear, "I..."
"Thorn?" Towser said loudly, responding to something Isgrimnur had said. Simon turned to see the little jester tugging at the Rim- mersman's cloak like an importunate child. "Thorn, did you say? Well, then, why did you not come to me immediately? Why not come to old Towser? I know all there is to know, if anybody does!"
The old man turned to Simon and the harper. "Why, who was with our John longer than anyone? Who? I was, of course. Joked and tumbled and played for him sixty years. And the great Camaris, too. I saw him come to the court." He turned back around to face the duke, and there was a light in his eyes that Simon had not seen before. "I am the man you want," Towser said proudly. "Quick! Take me to Prince Josua."
The bandy-legged old jester almost seemed to dance, so light were his steps as he led the somewhat dumbfounded Rimmersman toward the stairs.
"Thank God and His angels," said Sangfugol, watching them go. "I suggest we go immediately to pour something inside us—a wetness within to make up for the wetness without."
He led Simon, who was still shaking his head, down from the rainy battlements into the echoing, torch-lit stairwell, out of the northern winds for a little while and into the warmth.
"We understand your place in these events, good Towser," Josua said impatiently. The prince, perhaps to ward off the all-pervasive chill, had wrapped a woolen scarf tightly around his throat. The tip of his slender nose was pink.
"I'm just setting the place, so to speak, your Highness," Towser said complacently. "If I might have a cup of wine to help ease the talk, I will get to the main course directly."
"Isgrimnur," Josua groaned, "would you be good enough to find our venerable jester something to drink, or I fear we shall be here until Aedontide waiting for the rest of the story."
The duke of Elvritshalla went to the cedar cabinet beside Josua's table and found a ewer of red Perdruin wine. "Here," he said, handing a filled flagon to Towser, who sipped and smiled.
It's not the wine he's wanting, the Rimmersman thought, it's the attention. These are grim enough days for the young and useful, let alone for an old trickster whose master is two years dead.
He stared at the jester's seamed face, and for a moment thought he saw the child's countenance trapped beneath, as behind a thin curtain.
God grant me a quick honorable death, Isgrimnur prayed, and never let me be one of those old fools who sits by the campfire telling the young men that things will never be as good as they once were. Still, he thought as he moved back to his chair, listening to the lupine howling of the winds outside, still, it may be true this time. Maybe we have seen the better days. Maybe there is nothing left now but a losing battle against creeping darkness.
"You see," Towser was saying, "Camaris' sword Thorn didn't go with him into the ocean. He had given it over for safekeeping to his squire, Colmund of Rodstanby."
"Gave away his sword?" Josua said, puzzled. "That accords with none of the stores I have ever heard of Camaris-sa-Vinitta."
"Ah, but you did not know him that last year... and how could you, since you had only just come into the world?" Towser took another swig and stared meditatively up at the ceiling. "Sir Camaris grew strange and fell after your mother Queen Ebekah died. He was her special protector, you know, and he worshiped the very tiles she trod upon—as if she were Elysia the Mother of God herself. I always thought he blamed himself for her death, as though he could somehow have cured her ill-health by force of arms, or by the purity of his heart... poor idiot."
Seeing Josua's impatience, Isgrimnur leaned forward. "So he gave the star-sword Thorn to his squire?"
"Yes, yes," said the old man testily, not liking to be rushed. "When Camaris was lost in the sea off Harcha-island, Colmund took it for his own. He went back and reclaimed his family's lands at Rodstanby in the Frostmarch, and became the baron of a good-sized province. Thorn was a famous weapon through all the world, and when his enemies saw it—for it was unmistakable, all shiny black but for the silver hilt, a beautiful, perilous thing—they would none of them face him. He seldom even had to draw it from its scabbard."
"So it is then at Rodstanby?" Binabik said excitedly from the corner. "That is near within two days' ride from where we are now sitting!"
"No, no, no," growled Towser, waving his flagon for Isgrimnur to fill again. "If you would only wait, troll, I will tell you all."
Before Binabik or the prince or anyone else could respond, Jarnauga stood up from his crouch by the fire and leaned toward the little jester. "Towser," he said, and his voice was as hard and cold as ice in the roof thatches, "we cannot wait on your pace. There is a grave darkness spreading from the north, a cold and fatal shadow. We must have the sword, do you understand?" He brought his sharp face even closer to Towser's and the little man's tufted eyebrows shot upward in alarm. "We must find Thorn, for soon the Storm King himself will be knocking at our door. Do you understand?"
Towser gaped as Jarnauga dropped back into his long-limbed squat beside the hearth.
Well, Isgrimnur mused, ;if we wanted the latest news shouted all over Naglimund, now we'll have it done. Still, it does look as though he's put a bit of a burr under Towser's saddle.
It took a few moments for the jester to be able to tear his startled, fascinated eyes from the glare-eyed northerner. When he turned, he no longer looked to be enjoying his status quite as much.
"Colmund," he began, "Sir Colmund heard traveler's tales of the dragon Igjarjuk's legendary hoard, in the heights of the mountain Urmsheim. It was a treasure said to be richer than any other in the wide world."
"Only a flatlander would be thinking of searching out a mountain dragon—and for gold!" Binabik said disgustedly. "My people have long lived near Urmsheim, and we are living long because we are not going there."
"But you see," old Towser said, "the dragon has been only a story for generations. No one has seen it, no one has heard of it... except for snow-maddened wanderers. And Colmund had the sword Thorn, a magic sword to lead him on a quest for a magic dragon's Hoard!"
"But what idiocy!" Josua said. "Did he not have everything he wanted? A powerful barony? The sword of a hero? Why should he go rabbiting off after such a madman's vision?"
"Damn me, Josua," Isgrimnur swore, "why do men do any of the things they do? Why did they hang Our Lord Usires topsides-down from the Tree? Why should Elias imprison his brother and make bargains with demons when he is already High King of all Osten Ard?"
"There are indeed things in men and women that make them reach for what is beyond their grasp," Jarnauga said from his hearth corner. "Sometimes the things they seek lie beyond the bounds of understanding."
Binabik jumped lightly to the floor. "Too much talk is this of things we can never know," he said. "Our question still is: where is the sword? Where is Thorn?"
"Lost in the north, I'm sure," Towser said. "I have never heard that Sir Colmund came back from his quest. One traveler's tale was that he had made himself a king of the Hunen, and lives there still in a fortress of ice."
"It sounds as though his story has been muddied and mixed with old memories of Ineluki," Jarnauga said thoughtfully.
"He made it as far as the monastery of Saint Skendi at Vestvennby," Father Strangyeard piped up unexpectedly from the back of the room. He had gone out quickly and come back without anyone's noticing; he wore a faint flush of pleasure high on his thin cheeks. "Towser's words sparked a memory. I thought I had some of the monastic books of Skendi's order, salvaged from its burning during the Frostmarch wars. Here is the household ledger for the Founding-year 1131. See, it lists the outfitting of Colmund's party." He passed it proudly to Josua, who held it up to the firelight.
"Dried meat and fruits," Josua read, straining to make out the faded words. "Wool cloaks, two horses..." He looked up. "It says here a party of a 'dozen and one'—thirteen." He passed the book on to Binabik, who took it back to pore over with Jarnauga by the fire.
"Then they must have run into bad luck," Towser said, refilling his flagon. "The stories I heard said he set out from Rodstanby with over two dozen of his hand-picked best."
Isgrimnur was staring after the troll. He's certainly clever enough, the Rimmersman thought, although I don't trust him or his kind much. And what's his hold on that boy? I'm not sure I like that either, although I think the stories they both tell are largely true.
"What good is all this to us now?" he said aloud. "If the sword is lost, it is lost, and we must simply make the best of our defenses here."
"Duke Isgrimnur," Binabik said, "you are not understanding, perhaps; there is no choice for us. If indeed the Storm King is our greater enemy—as I think we are all agreeing, now—then the only thing for hope, it seems, is that we acquire the three swords. Two are for now denied from us. That leaves Thorn, and we must find it—if finding is possible."
"Don't instruct me, little man," Isgrimnur growled, but Josua waved his hand wearily to forestall their argument.
"Quiet now," the prince said. "Please let me think. My brain is fevered with so many madnesses heaped one atop the other. I need some moments of quiet."
Strangyeard, Jarnauga, and Binabik pored over the monastery ledger and Morgenes' manuscript, talking in whispers; Towser finished his wine, Isgrimnur sipping moodily beside him. Josua sat staring into the fire. The prince's weary features looked like parchment pulled over bone; the Duke of Elvritshalla could hardly bear to look at him.
His father looked no worse in his last dying days, Isgrimnur brooded. Has he the strength to lead us through a siege, as it looks to come to soon? Has he even the strength himself to survive? He has ever been a thinker, a worrier... although, in fairness, he is no slouch with sword and shield. Without thinking he got up and stumped over to the prince's side, laying an ursine paw on Josua's shoulder.
The prince looked up. "Can you spare me a good man, old friend? Do you have one who knows the northeast country?"
Isgrimnur looked thoughtful. "I have two or three. Frekke, though, is too old for a journey such as I imagine you are thinking of. Einskaldir would not leave my side unless I pushed him out the gate of Naglimund at spear-point. Besides, I have a mind we will need his fierceness here, when the fighting grows hot and bloody. He is a badger: fierce-blooded, and best when he is backed into a hole." The duke mused. "Of the rest, I would give you Sludig. He is young and fit, but he is also clever. Yes, Sludig will be the man for you."
"Good." Josua nodded his head slowly. "I have some three or four I will send, but a small party is better than a large."
"For what, exactly?" Isgrimnur looked around the room, at its sparse solidity, and wondered again whether they were chasing phantoms, whether the wintry weather had somehow chilled their better judgement.
"To search for Camaris' sword, Uncle Bear-skin," the prince said with a ghost of a smile. "It is doubtless madness, and we have nothing better to go on than old stories and a few faded words in old books, but it is not a chance we can afford to ignore. It is storm-fraught winter in the summer month of Yuven. None of our doubts can change that." He looked around the room, mouth pursed in thought.
"Binabik of Yiqanuc," he called at last, and the troll hurried over. "Will you lead a party on the trail of Thorn? You know the northern mountains better than anyone here except perhaps Jarnauga, who I hope will go, too."
"I would be full of honor, Prince," Binabik said, and dropped to one knee. Even Isgrimnur was forced to grin.
"I am honored, too. Prince Josua," Jarnauga said, rising, "but I think it is not to be. Here at Naglimund I will best serve. My legs are old, but my eyes are still keen. I will help Strangyeard in the archives, for there are many questions still to answer, many riddles behind the story of the Storm King, and the whereabouts of Fingil's sword Minneyar. And there may yet be other ways I can serve, as well."
"Your Highness," Binabik asked, "if there is a place unfilled, may I have your permission to take young Simon? Morgenes was asking as his last wish that the boy be watched over by my master. With Ookequk's death I am master now, and would not be shirking this watching-over,"
Josua looked skeptical. "And you would look after him by taking him on a mad expedition into the unmapped north?"
Binabik raised an eyebrow. "Unmapped by big people, perhaps. It is the commons yard of my Qanuc-folk. Also, is it more safe to leave him shut up in a castle set for warring with the High King?"
The prince brought his long hand up to his face, as though his head pained him. "You are right, I suppose. If these slender threads of hope come to naught, there will be no safe places for those who have sided with the Lord of Naglimund. If the boy wishes to go, you may take him." He brought his hand down and clasped Binabik's shoulder. "Very well, little man—little but brave. Go back to your books, and I shall send you three good Erkynlanders and Isgrimnur's man Sludig in the morning."
"My thanks, Prince Josua," Binabik nodded. "But I think it is at night tomorrow we should be leaving. We will be a small party, and our best hope is in not attracting evil attention."
"So be it," said Josua, rising and lifting his hand as though in benediction. "Who knows if this is some fool's errand or the rescue of us all? You should be going out amid trumpets and applause. Instead necessity must override honor, and stealth must be the watchword. Know that our thoughts are with you."
Isgrimnur hesitated, then leaned forward and clasped Binabik's small hand. "Damned strange this is," he said, "but God be with you. If Sludig should get contentious, be forgiving. He is high-spirited, but his heart is good and his loyalty strong."
"Thank you, Duke," the troll said seriously. "May your god be blessing us indeed. We go into unknown places."
"As do all mortals," Josua added. "Sooner or later."
"What! You told the prince and everyone I would go where?" Simon balled his fists in anger. "What right did you have to do that?!"
"Simon-friend," Binabik calmly responded. "You are under no order to go. I was only asking Josua's permission for your being on this search, and it was granted. The choosing is for you."
"S'bloody Tree! What else can I do now? If I say no, everyone will think I'm a coward!"
"Simon." The little man put on a look of patience. "First, please do not be using your new-learned soldier curses on me. We Qanuc are a courteous folk. For second, it is not good worrying so on other's opinions. Anyway, staying at Naglimund will certainly not be for cowards."
Simon hissed a great frosty cloud of breath and hugged himself. He stared up at the murky sky, at the dull blur of sun secreted behind the clouds.
Why are people always making decisions for me without asking first? Am I a child?
He stood for some moments, red-faced from more than the chill, until Binabik reached out a small, gentle hand.
"My friend, I am sorrowful this was not the honor I was hoping it to be—an honor of dreadful, dreadful danger, of course, but an honor. I have explained of what importance we think this quest, of how the fate of Naglimund and all the north may hang on its accomplishing. And, of course, that all may be perishing without fame or song in the white northern waste." He patted Simon's knuckles solemnly, then reached into the pocket of his fur-lined jacket. "Here," he said, and put something hard and cold into Simon's fingers.
Momentarily distracted, he opened his hand to look. It was a ring, a plain, thin circlet of some golden metal. On it was inscribed a simple design: a long oval with a tipped triangle at one end.
"The fish sign of the League of the Scroll," Binabik said. "Morgenes tied this thing to the sparrow's leg, along with the note of which I was speaking before. The end of the note told this was for you."
Simon held it up, trying to catch a gleam of the dull sunlight. "I never saw Morgenes wear it," he said, a little surprised that it startled up no memories. "Do all the League members have one? Besides, how could I be worthy to wear it? I can hardly read. My spelling isn't very good, either."
Binabik smiled. "My master did not have such a ring, or at least I never was seeing it. As for the other: Morgenes was wanting you to have it, and that is permission enough, I have sureness."
"Binabik," Simon said, squinting, "it has writing on the inside." He held it up for the troll to inspect. "I can't read it."
The troll narrowed his eyes. "It is writing in some Sithi tongue," he said, turning the ring to peruse its inner rim, "hard to read for being very small, and in a style I do not know." He studied it a moment longer.
" 'Dragon,' that character means," Binabik read at last. "And this one means, I believe, 'death'... 'Death and the Dragon'?... 'Death of the Dragon'?" He looked up at Simon, grinned and shrugged. "What it might be meaning, I have no idea. My knowledge is not deep enough. Some conceit of your doctor's, is my guessing—or perhaps a family motto. Perhaps Jarnauga could read it with more ease."
It slid easily on the third finger of Simon's right hand, as though it had been made for him. Morgenes had been so small! How could he have worn this?
"Do you think it's a magic ring?" he asked suddenly, narrowing his eyes as though he might detect spells swarming around the golden circle like minuscule bees.
"If so," Binabik said, mock-somberly, "Morgenes included no grammarye for explaining its using." He shook his head. "I think it is not a likelihood. A keepsake, from a man who was caring for you."
"Why are you giving it to me now?" Simon asked, feeling a certain sorrowful tightness behind his eyes that he was determined to resist.
"Because I must be leaving tomorrow night to go north. If you decide for remaining here, we might not have opportunity to meet again."
"Binabiki" The tightening increased. He felt like a small child pushed back and forth between bullying elders.
"The truth it is, only." The troll's round face was entirely serious now. He raised his hand to forestall more protests and questions. "Now you must be deciding, my good friend. I go into the snow and ice country, on an errand that may be foolishness, and which may claim the lives of the fools who are following it. Those who remain are facing the anger of a king's army. An evil choosing, I fear." Binabik nodded his head gravely. "But, Simon, whichever it is for you, going north or staying to fight for Naglimund—and princess—we will be the best of comrades still, yes?"
He stood on tiptoe to clap Simon on the upper arm, then turned and walked away across the courtyard toward the archives.
Simon found her standing alone, tossing pebbles into the castle well. She wore a heavy traveling cloak and hood against the cold.
"Hello, Princess," he said. She looked up and smiled, sadly. For some reason she seemed much older today, like a grown woman.
"Welcome, Simon." Her breath made a halo of mist about her head.
He began to bend his knee in a bow, but she was no longer looking. Another stone rattled down the well. He considered sitting down, which seemed the natural thing to do, but the only place to sit was the edge of the well, which would either put him uncomfortably close to the princess or leave him facing in the wrong direction. He decided to remain on his feet. "And how have you been?" he said at last. She sighed.
"My uncle treats me as though I am made of eggshells and cobwebs—like I would shatter if I lifted anything, or if anyone bumped into me."
"I'm sure... I'm sure that he is only worried for your safety, after the dangerous journey you had to get here."
"The dangerous journey we had, but nobody's following you around to make sure you don't skin your knee. They're even teaching you how to fight with a sword!"
"Miri... Princess!" Simon was more than a little shocked. "You don't want to fight with swords, do you?!"
She looked up at him, and their eyes met. For an instant her stare burned like the noonday sun with some inexplicable longing; a moment later she wearily dropped her gaze again.
"No," she said, "I suppose not. But, oh, I do wish to do something!"
Surprised, he heard the real pain in her voice, and in that moment remembered her as she had been on the flight up the Stile, uncomplaining and strong, as good a companion as could be wished.
"What... what do you want to do?"
She looked up again, pleased by the serious tone of his question. "Well," she began, "it's no secret that Josua is having trouble con- vincing Devasalles that his master Duke Leobardis should support the prince against my father. Josua could send me to Nabban!"