|"Send you... to Nabban?"
"Of course, you idiot." She frowned. "On my mother's side I am of the Ingadarine House, a very noble family of Nabban. My aunt is married to Leobardis! Who better to go and convince the duke!?" She clapped her gloved hands for emphasis.
"Oh..." Simon was unsure of what to say. "Perhaps Josua thinks that it would be... would be... I don't know." He considered. "I mean to say, should the High King's daughter be the one to... to arrange alliances against him?"
"And who knows the High King's ways better?" Now she was angry.
"Do you..." He hesitated, but his curiosity won out. "How do you feel toward your father?"
"Do I hate him?" Her tone was bitter. "I hate what he has become. I hate what the men around him have put him up to. If he would suddenly find goodness in his heart, and see the error of his ways... well, then I would love him again."
A whole procession of stones went down the well as Simon stood uncomfortably by.
"I'm sorry, Simon," she said at last. "I have become very bad at talking with people. My old nurse would be shocked at how much I have forgotten, running around in the forest. How are you, and what have you been doing?"
"Binabik has asked me to go with him on a mission for Josua," he said, bringing the subject up more abruptly than he had meant to. "To the north," he added significantly.
Instead of showing the expressions of worry and fear he had expected, the princess' face seemed to light up from within; although she smiled at him, she did not truly seem to see him. "Oh, Simon," she said, "how brave. How fine. Can you... when do you leave?"
"Tomorrow night," he said, dimly aware that somehow, by some mysterious process, asked to go had become going. "But I haven't decided yet," he said feebly. "I thought I might be more needed here, at Naglimund—to wield a spear on the walls." He tacked on the last just in case there was any possibility she thought he might be staying behind to work in the kitchens, or something like.
"Oh, but Simon," Miriamele said, reaching up suddenly to take his cold hand in her leather-gloved fingers. "If my uncle needs you to do it, you must! We have so little hope left, from all I have heard."
She reached up to her neck and quickly unfastened the sky-blue scarf she wore, a slender gauzy strip; she handed it to him. 'Take this and bear it for me," she said. Simon felt the blood come roaring up into his cheeks, and struggled to keep his lips from stretching into a shocked, mooncalfish grin.
"Thank you... Princess," he said at last.
"If you wear it," she said, standing up, "it will be almost as though I were there myself." She did a funny little dance step, and laughed.
Simon was trying without success to understand what exactly had happened, and how it had happened so fast. "It will be, princess," he said. "Like you were there."
Something in the way he said it tripped up her sudden mood: her expression turned sober, even sad. She smiled again, a slower, more rueful smile, then quickly stepped forward, startling Simon so that he almost raised a hand to ward her off. She brushed his cheek with her cool lips.
"I know you will be brave, Simon. Come back safely. I shall pray for you."
Immediately she was gone, running across the courtyard like a little girl, her dark cape a smoky swirl as she disappeared into the twilit archway. Simon stood holding her scarf. He thought of it, and her smile when she kissed his cheek, and he felt something smolder into flame inside of him. It seemed, in some way he did not fully understand, that a single torch had been lit against the vast gray chill looming in the north. It was only a single point of brightness in a dreadful storm... but even a lone fire could bring a traveler home safe.
He rolled the soft cloth into a ball and slipped it into his shirt.
"I am glad you have come so quickly," Lady Vorzheva said. The brilliance of her yellow dress seemed reflected in her dark eyes.
"My lady honors me," the monk replied, his eyes straying about the room.
Vorzheva laughed harshly. "You are the only one who thinks it honorable to visit me. But no matter. You understand what it is you must do?"
"I am sure that I have it correctly. It is a matter difficult in execution, but easily grasped in concept." He bowed his head.
"Good. Then wait no longer, for the more wait, the less chance of success. Also more chance for tongues to wag." She whirled away to the back chamber in a rush of silks.
"Uh... my lady?" The man blew on his fingers. The prince's chambers were cold, the fire unlit. "There is the matter of... payment?"
"I thought you did this as honor for me, sir?" Vorzheva called from the back room.
"Welladay, madam, I am but a poor man. What you ask will take resources." He blew on his fingers again, then thrust his hands deep into his robe.
She came back bearing a purse of shiny cloth. "That I know. Here. It is in gold, as I promised—half now, half when I receive proof that your task is completed." She handed him the purse, then drew back. "You stink of wine! Is that the sort of man you are, trusted with this grave task?"
"It is the sacramental wine, my lady. Sometimes on my difficult road it is the only thing to drink. You must understand." He favored her with a diffident smile, then made the sign of the Tree over the gold before stowing it in the pocket of his robe. "We do what we must to serve God's will."
Vorzheva nodded slowly. "That I can understand. Do not fail me, sir. You serve a great purpose, and not just for me."
"I understand. Lady." He bowed, then turned and left. Vorzheva stood and stared at the parchments strewn on the prince's table and let out a deep breath. The thing was done.
Twilight of the day after he spoke to the princess found Simon in the chambers of Prince Josua, preparing to say farewell. In a sort of daze, as though he had just awakened, he stood listening as the prince had his final words with Binabik. The boy and the troll had spent the whole of the dark day preparing their kit, obtaining a new fur-lined cloak and helmet for Simon, along with a light mail shirt to wear beneath his outer clothing. The coat of thin ringlets, Haestan had pointed out, would not save him from a direct sword blow or an arrow to the heart, but would stand him in good stead in the case of some less than deadly assault.
Simon found the weight of it reassuring, but Haestan warned him that at the end of a long day's journey he might not feel so cheerful about it.
"Y'r soldier carries many burdens, boy," the big man told him, "an' sometimes keepin' alive's th'hardest one."
Haestan himself had been one of the three Erkynlanders to step forward when the captains had called for men. Like his two companions, Ethelbeam, a scarred, bushy-mustached veteran nearly as big as Haestan, and Grimmric, a slender, hawkish man with bad teeth and watchful eyes, he had spent so long preparing for siege that any sort of action was welcome, even something as dangerous and mysterious as this quest looked to be. When Haestan found out Simon was going too, he was even more adamant in his desire to join them.
"T'send such a boy's madness," he growled, " 'special when he's not finished learning t'swing sword or shoot arrow. I'd best go an' keep at teachin' 'im."
Duke Isgrimnur's man Sludig was also there, a young Rimmersman attired like the Erkynlanders in furs and conical helmet. In place of the longsword the others carried, blond-bearded Sludig had two notch-bladed hand axes thrust in his belt. He grinned cheerfully at Simon, anticipating his question.
"Sometimes one gets stuck in a skull or rib cage," the Rimmersgarder said. He spoke the Westerling tongue nimbly, with almost as little accent as the duke. "It is nice to have another to use until you get the first one out."
Nodding, Simon tried to smile back.
"Well met again, Simon." Sludig extended a callused hand.
"We met once before, at Hoderund's abbey," Sludig laughed. "But you spent the journey arse-end-up across Einskaldir's saddle. I hope that is not the only way you know how to ride."
Simon blushed, clasped the northerner's hand, then turned away.
"We have turned up little to help you on your way," Jarnauga was regretfully telling Binabik. "The Skendian monks left scant word about Colmund's expedition besides the transactions of its outfitting. They probably thought him a madman."
"Most likely they had it correctly," the troll observed. He was burnishing the bone-handled knife he had carved to replace the missing piece of his staff.
"We did find one thing," said Strangyeard. The priest's hair stood up in wild tufts, and his eye patch sat a little off-center, as though he had come straight from spending an entire night poring over his books... which he had. "The abbey's book-keeper wrote: 'the Baron does not know how long his journeying to the Rhymer's Tree shall last...'"
"It is unfamiliar," Jarnauga said, "in fact, it is probably something the monk misheard, or got third hand... but it is a name. Perhaps it will make more sense when you reach the mountain Unnsheim."
"Perhaps," said Josua thoughtfully, "it is a town along the way, a village at the mountain's foot?"
"Perhaps," Binabik answered doubtfully, "but from what I am knowing of those places, there is nothing lying between the ruins of the Skendi monastery and the mountains—nothing there is but ice, trees, and rocks, of course. Plenty of those things there are."
As final farewells were spoken, Simon heard Sangfugol's voice drift out from the room in back, where he was singing for the Lady Vorzheva.
"... And shall I go a-wandering
Out in the winter's chill?
Or shall I come now home again?
Whate'er thou sayest, I will..."
Simon picked up his quiver and looked for the third or fourth time to make sure the White Arrow was still there. Bewildered, as though caught in some slow and clinging dream, he realized that he was setting off on a journey once more—and again he was not quite sure why. His time at Naglimund had been so brief. Now it was over, at least for a long while. As he touched the blue scarf tied loosely at his throat he realized he might not see any of the others in this room again, anybody at Naglimund... Sangfugol, old Towser, or Miriamele. He thought he felt his heart trip for a moment, the beat stuttering like a drunkard, and was reaching for something to lean on when he felt a strong hand clasp his elbow.
"There you be, lad." It was Haestan. "Bad enow that ye've no leamin' with the sword an' bow, now we're goin' t'put you t'horseback."
"Horseback?" Simon said. "I'll like that."
"No y'won't," Haestan smirked. "Not for month or two."
Josua said a few words to each one of them, and then there were warm, solemn handclasps all around. A short while later they were in the dark, cold courtyard where Qantaqa and seven, stamping, steaming horses awaited them, five for riding and a pair for carrying heavy gear. If there was a moon, it was hidden like a sleeping cat in the blanket of clouds.
"Good it is that we have this darkness," Binabik said, swinging up into the new saddle on Qantaqa's gray back. The men, seeing the troll's steed for the first time, exchanged wondering looks as Binabik clicked his tongue and the wolf sprang out before them. A group of soldiers quietly raised the oiled porticullis, and they were out under the broad sky, the field of shadowy nails spread around them as they made for the close-looming hills.
"Good-bye, everyone," Simon said quietly. They started up the sloping path.
High above on the Stile, at the crest of the hill overlooking Naglimund, a black shape was watching.
Even with his keen eyes, Ingen Jegger could make out little more in the moonless murk than that someone had left the castle by the eastern gate. That, however, was more than enough to raise his interest.
He stood, rubbing his hands, and considered calling one of his men to go down with him and get a better look. Instead he lifted his fist to his mouth and hooted like a snow owl. Seconds later a huge shape appeared from the scrub growth and leaped onto the Stile beside him. It was a hound, bigger even than the one killed by the troll's tame wolf, shining white in the moonlight, its eyes twin pearl slots in a long, grinning face. It growled, a deep, cavernous rumble, and swiveled its head from side to side, nostrils wrinkling.
"Yes, Niku'a, yes," Ingen hissed quietly. "It is time to hunt once more."
A moment later the Stile was empty. The leaves rattled ever so gently beside the ancient tiles, but no wind was blowing.
The Raven and the Cauldron
MAEGWIN winced as the clanging began again, the doleful clatter that signified so much—and none of it good. One of the other girls, a small, fair-skinned beauty that Maegwin had assessed at first glance as a quitter, let go of the bar they were all pushing to cover her ears. The heavy piece of fencing meant to hold the gate closed nearly tumbled free, but Maegwin and the two other girls clung on grimly.
"Bagba's Herd, Cifgha," she snarled at the one who had let loose, "are you mad?! If this had fallen, someone might have been crushed, or at least broken a foot!"
"I'm sorry, I am, my lady," the girl said, cheeks flushed, "it's just that loud noise... it frightens me!" She stepped back to take her place again, and they all pushed, trying to get the massive oak bar over the top and into the notch that would hold the paddock closed. Inside the restraining fence a close-packed congregation of red cattle grunted, as unsettled as the young women by the continual din.
With a scrape and thump the log fell down into place, and they all turned, panting, to slump with their backs against the gate.
"Merciful are the gods," Maegwin groaned, "my spine is breaking!"
"It's not right," Cifgha opined, staring ruefully at the bleeding scratches on her palms. "It's men's work!"
The metallic clamor stopped, and for a moment the very silence seemed to sing. Lluth's daughter sighed and took in a deep breath of frosty air.
"No, little Cifgha," she said, '"what the men are doing now is men's work, and whatever is left to do is women's work—unless you want to carry a sword and spear."
"Cifgha?" one of the other girls said, laughing. "She won't even kill a spider."
"I always call Tuilleth to do it," Cifgha said, proud of her fastidiousness, "and he always comes to me."
Maegwin made a sour face. "Well, we had better get used to dealing with our own spiders. There will not be many menfolk around in the days to come, and those who remain will have much else to do."
"It's different for you. Princess," Cifgha said. "You're big and strong."
Maegwin stared hard at her but did not answer.
"You don't think the fighting will go on all summer, do you?" asked another girl, as if speaking of a particularly dreary chore. Maegwin turned to look at them all, at their sweat-dampened faces and their eyes already roaming, looking for something more interesting to talk about. For a moment she wanted to shout, to frighten them into realizing that this was not a tournament, not a game of some sort, but deadly serious.
But why nib their faces in the mud now? she thought, relenting. Soon enough we will all of us get more than we need of it.
"I don't know if it will last that long, Gwelan," she said, and shook her head. "I hope not. I truly hope not."
As she made her way down from the paddocks toward the great hall, the two men again started to beat the huge bronze cauldron that hung upside down in its frame of oaken poles before the Taig's front doors. As she trotted past, the noise of the men furiously ringing the cauldron with iron-tipped cudgels was so loud that she had to cover her ears with her hands. She wondered again how her father and his advisors could think, let alone plan life-and-death strategy with this awful ruckus just outside the hall. Still, if Rhynn's Cauldron was not rung, it would take days to warn each of the outlying towns one by one, especially those that clung to the slopes of the Grianspog. This way those villages and manor halls within earshot of the cauldron would send riders to those beyond. The lord of the Taig had rung the cauldron in times of danger since long before the days when Hem the Hunter and Oinduth his mighty spear had made of their land a great kingdom. Children who had never heard it sounded still recognized it instantly, so many stories of Rhynn's Cauldron were told.
The Taig's high windows today were shuttered against the chill wind and mists. Maegwin found her father and his counselors in earnest discussion before the fireplace.
"My daughter," Lluth said, standing. He expended visible effort to produce a smile for her.
"I took some women and got the last of the cattle into the big paddock," Maegwin reported. "I don't think it's right to squeeze them ail so tightly. The cows are miserable."
Lluth waved a dismissive hand. "Better we lose some few now than have to try and round them up if we must fall back to the hills in a hurry."
At the far end of the hall the door opened, and the sentries banged their swords against their shields once, as though to echo the piercing noise of the Summons of the Cauldron. "I do thank you, Maegwin," the king said, turning from her to greet the new arrival.
"Eolair!" he called out as the count strode forward, still dressed in travel-stained clothes. "You are swift in returning from the healers. Good. How are your men?"
The Count of Nad Mullach approached, dropped briefly to one knee, then stood again at Lluth's impatient gesture. "Five are able-bodied; the two wounded do not look well. The other four I shall call Skali to account for personally." He saw Lluth's daughter at last and smiled his broad smile, but his brow remained knitted in a weary, troubled study. "My Lady Maegwin," he said, and bowed again, kissing her long-fingered hand, which, she was embarrassed to notice, was smudged with dirt from the paddock fence.
"I heard you were back, Count," she said. "I only wish it were in happier circumstances."
"It's a terrible shame about your brave Mullachi, Eolair," the king said, returning to sit with old Craobhan and his other trusted men. "But thanks be to Brynioch and Murhagh One-arm that you stumbled on to that scout party. If not, Skali and his bastard northerners would have been on us unawares. After the skirmish with your men gets back to him, he'll make a much more cautious approach, I'm sure—he may even change his mind altogether."
"I wish that were true, my king," Eolair said, shaking his head sadly. Maegwin's heart softened to see how bravely he bore his weariness; she silently cursed her childish emotions. "But," he continued, "I fear it is not. For Skali to make such a treacherous attack so far from his home he must feel sure the odds are leaning his way."
"Why, though, why?" Lluth protested. "We have been at peace with the Rimmersmen for years!"
"I think, sire, that has little to do with it." Eolair was respectful but unafraid to correct his king. "If old Isgrimnur still rules in Elvritshalla, you would be right to wonder, but Skali is Elias' creature entirely, I think. Rumor in Nabban said Elias will go into the field against Josua any day. He knows we have refused Guthwulf's ultimatum, and he fears to have the Hernystiri unencumbered at his back when he moves against Naglimund."
"But Gwythinn is still there!" said Maegwin, frightened.
"And with half a hundred of our best men, worse luck," old Craobhan growled from beside the fireplace.
Eolair turned to give Maegwin a kind look, the condescending sort, she felt sure. "Your brother is doubtless safer behind the thick stone walls of Josua's castle then he would be here in Hernysadharc. Also, if he hears of our plight and can ride out, his fifty men will be at Skali's back, to our advantage."
King Lluth rubbed his eyes as though to wring out the dismay and worry of the last day. "I do not know, Eolair, I do not know. I have a bad feeling about this all. It takes no soothsayer to see an ill-omened year, which this has been from its first instant."
"I'm still here, father," Maegwin said, and went forward to kneel beside him. "I will stay with you." The king patted her hand.
Eolair smiled and nodded at the girl's words to her father, but his mind was obviously on his two dying men, and on the vast force of Rimmersmen moving down the Frostmarch into the Inniscrich, a great wave of sharp, sentient iron.
"Those who stay will perhaps not thank us," he said beneath his breath.
Outside the brazen voice of the cauldron sang out across Hernysadharc, shouting ceaselessly to the hills beyond: Beware... Beware... Beware...
Baron Devasalles and his small Nabbanai contingent had somehow contrived to make their row of chambers in Naglimund's drafty east wing into a little bit of their southern home. Although the freakish weather was too cold to allow the wide-open windows and doors so prevalent in balmy Nabban, they had covered the stone walls with bright green and sky-blue tapestries and filled every available surface with candles and guttering oil lamps so that the shuttered rooms bloomed with light.
It's brighter in here at noon than it is outside, Isgrimnur decided. But it's like old Jarnauga said—they won't be able to make everything else go away so easy as they have the wintry dark, not by half.
The duke's nostrils twitched like those of a frightened horse. Devasalles had set out pots of scented oils everywhere, some afloat with lighted wicks like white worms, filling the chamber with the thick smells of island spices.
I wonder if it's the smell of everyone's fear he doesn't like, or that of good honest iron? Isgrimnur grunted in distaste and slid his chair over by the hallway door.
Devasalles had been surprised to find the duke and Prince Josua at his door, unannounced and unexpected, but had quickly invited them in, throwing aside some of the multicolored robes that draped the hard chairs so his guests could seat themselves.
"I'm sorry to disturb you, Baron," Josua said, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees, "but I wished to speak to you alone before we conclude the Raed tonight."
"Of course, my prince, of course," Devasalles nodded encouragingly. Isgrimnur, disdainfully observing the man's shining hair and the glinting baubles he wore at neck and wrist, wondered how he could be the deadly swordsman his reputation declared him.