"For the hurt you have done to me, and maybe to my foolish niece as well, it is a small enough penalty. Come!"
He hurried her before him out of the chamber, Isgrimnur following. Their arguing voices echoed down the stone corridor.
Sangfugol, left behind, looked sorrowfully down at his lute. There was a long crack twisting the length of its curved, ashwood back, and one of the strings hung loose in a useless curl.
"Scant music but sour will be made tonight," he said.
It was still an hour before dawn when Lluth came to her bedside. She had not been able to sleep all night, stretched, tight inside with worry for him, but as he bent over to touch her arm she pretended sleep, wanting to spare him the only thing left from which she could spare him: the knowledge of her own great fear.
"Maegwin," he said softly. Her eyes shut fast, she fought the urge to reach up and hug him tight. Full-armored but for his helmet, as she knew from the sound of his walk and the scent of polishing oil, he might have trouble straightening up again if she pulled him down so close. Even the parting she could stand, bitter though it was. The thought of him showing his weariness and his age this night of all nights, she could not.
"Is that you. Father?" she said at last.
"And are you going now?"
"I must. The sun will be up soon, and we hope to reach the edge of the Combwood by midmorning."
She sat up. The fire had burned out, and even with her eyes open she could not see much. Faintly, through the walls, she could hear the sound of her stepmother Inahwen sobbing. Maegwin felt a twinge of anger at such a display made of grief.
"Brynioch's Shield over you, father," she said, reaching out a blind hand to find his battered face. "I wish I was a son, to fight at your side."
She felt his lips curl beneath her fingers. "Ah, Maegwin, you were ever a fierce one. Have you not duty enough here? It will not be easy being mistress of the Taig while I am gone."
"You forget your wife."
Lluth smiled again in the dark. "I do not. You are strong, Maegwin, stronger than she. You must lend her some of your strength."
"She usually gets what she wants."
The king's voice was gentle, but he caught her wrist in a firm hand. "Don't, daughter. Along with Gwythinn, you are the three I love most in all the world. Help her."
Maegwin hated to cry. She pulled her hand from her father's grasp and rubbed her eyes fiercely. "I will," she said. "Forgive me."
"No forgiveness necessary," he answered, then took her hand once more and squeezed. "Farewell, daughter, until I come back again. There are cruel ravens in our fields, and we have work to do chasing them out again."
She was up and out of bed then, and threw her arms around him. A moment later the door opened and closed, and she heard his steps going slowly up the hall, the clink of spurs like sad music.
Later, when she cried, it was with the blankets over her head so that no one would hear.
Fresh Wounds and Old Scars
THE HORSES were more than a little afraid of Qantaqa, so Binabik rode the great gray wolf well ahead of Simon and the others, carrying a hooded lamp to show the way in the blanketing darkness. As the tiny caravan made its way along the skirt of the hills the shuddering light bobbed before them like a corpse-candle.
The moon cowered within its nest of clouds, and their progress was slow and cautious. Between the gentle, jogging rhythm of the horse beneath him, and the feel of its warm, broad back, Simon nearly fell asleep several times, only to be startled awake by thin, scrabbling fingers at his face: the branches of close-hovering trees. There was little talk. From time to time one of the men whispered a word of encouragement to his mount, or Binabik called back softly to warn of some upcoming obstacle; but for those sounds, and the muffled percussion of hoofbeats, they might have been a gray pilgrimage of lost souls.
When the moonlight finally began to seep through a rent in the cloud ceiling, not long before dawn, they stopped to make camp. Vaporous breath caught the moon's glow, making it seem they exhaled silver-blue clouds as they tied up their mounts and the two packhorses. They lit no fire. Ethelbeam took first watch; the others. wrapped in their heavy cloaks, curled up on the damp ground to snatch what sleep they could.
Simon awoke to a morning sky like thin gruel, and nose and ears that seemed to have magically turned to ice in the night. As he crouched by the small fire chewing the bread and hard cheese Binabik had doled out, Sludig sat down beside him. The young Rimmersman's cheeks were polished red by the brisk wind.
"This is like our early spring weather, back in my home," he grinned, skewering a heel of bread on the long blade of his knife and holding it over the flame. "It makes a man of you quick, you will see."
"I hope there are other ways of becoming a man besides freezing to death," Simon grunted, rubbing his hands together.
"You can kill a bear with a spear," Sludig said. "We do that, also."
Simon could not tell whether he was joking.
Binabik, who had just sent Qantaqa off to hunt, came over and sat down cross-legged. "Well, the two of you, are you ready to be at hard riding today?" he said. Simon did not respond, since his mouth was full of bread; when a moment later Sludig had not answered either, Simon looked up. The Rimmersman was staring straight into the fire, his mouth in a set, straight line. The silence was uncomfortable.
Simon swallowed. "I suppose so, Binabik," he said quickly. "Do we have far to go?"
Binabik smiled blithely, as though the Rimmersman's silence were perfectly natural. "We will be going as far as we shall wish. Today it seems good to ride long, since the skies are clear. Sooner than we are wishing we may be found by rain and snow."
"Do we know where we're headed?"
"In part, friend Simon." Binabik took a length of twig from the outskirts of the firepit and began to scratch lines in the moist earth. "Here is standing Naglimund," he said, drawing a rough circle. He then made a line of scallop shapes starting at the circle's right flank and extending up for some distance. "That, the Wealdhelm. This cross is being us here." He made a mark not far past the circle. Then in quick succession he drew a large oval near the far end of the mountains, a few smaller circles scattered around its rim, and what seemed to be another line of hills out beyond.
"So, then," he said, hankering down close over his furrowed patch of ground. "Soon it is we shall be approaching this lake," he indicated the large elliptical shape, "which is called Drorshull."
Sludig, who seemingly against his will had leaned over to look, straightened up. "Drorshullvenn—the Lake of Dror's Hammer." He frowned and tilted forward once more, making a dot with his finger along the lake's western rim. "There is Vestvennby—the thaneland of that traitor, Storfot I would like very much to pass through there by night." He wiped the breadcrumbs from the blade of his dagger and held it up to catch the weak firelight.
"We will not, however, be going to there," Binabik said sternly, "and for you revenge must wait. We are passing to the other side, past Hullnir to Haethstad, nearby where is the Abbey of Saint Skendi, then most likely up across the plain of the north, toward the mountains. No stopping before for cutting of throats." He pushed his stick up beyond the lake toward the row of rounded shapes.
"That is because you trolls do not understand honor," Sludig said bitterly, staring at Binabik from beneath his thick blond eyebrows.
"Sludig," Simon said pleadingly, but Binabik did not respond to the man's baiting.
"We are having a task to perform," the troll responded calmly. "Isgrimnur, your duke, wishes it, and his will is not served with faithfulness by creeping off at nighttimes to slit the throat of Storfot. That is not a troll's lack of honor, Sludig."
The Rimmersman looked hard at him for a moment, then shook his head. "You are right." There was, to Simon's surprise, no sullenness remaining in his voice. "I am angry, and my words were poorly chosen." He got up and walked away toward where Grimmric and Haestan stood reburdening the horses; as he went he flexed his supple, muscular shoulders as though to loosen knots. Simon and the troll stared after him for a moment.
"He apologized," Simon said.
"All Rimmersmen are not being that cold one Einskaldir," his friend replied. "But, also, all trolls are not either being Binabik."
It was a very long day's ride, up along the flank of the hills under the cover of the trees. When they finally stopped for their evening meal, Simon knew for certain the truth of Haestan's earlier warnings: although his horse walked slowly, and their march had been over mild terrain, his legs and crotch felt as though he had spent the day attached to some dreadful torture device. Haestan, not without a grin, kindly explained to him that after a night's stiffening the worst would be yet to come; he then offered him as much of the wineskin as he cared to drink. When Simon eventually curled up that evening between the humped and mossy roots of a nearly leafless oak tree he was feeling a little better, although the wine made him think he heard voices singing strange songs on the wind. When he woke up in the morning it was to discover that not only was everything Haestan had claimed true tenfold, but snow was swirling down as well, covering Wealdhelm Hills and travelers alike in a cold, clinging white coverlet. Even shivering in the weak Yuven daylight he could still hear the wind-voices. What they were saying was clear they mocked calendars, and fleered at travelers who thought they could walk with impunity into winter's new kingdom.
The Princess Minamele stared with horror at the scene spread before her. What had been since the beginning of the morning's ride a not of colors and black smoke on the horizon now lay clear as she and Cadrach stood on the hillside overlooking the Inmscrich. It was a tapestry of death, woven in flesh and metal and shredded earth.
"Merciful Elysia," she gasped, reining in her shying horse, "what has happened here! Is this my father's work?"
The small round man squinted, mouth working for a moment in what the princess took for silent prayer. "Most of the dead are Hernystiri, my lady," he said at last, "and I'm guessing the others are Rimmersmen, from the look of them." He frowned on the scene below as a group of startled ravens all leaped up at once like a clutch of flies, circled, then settled again. "It appears the battle, or the retreating part of it, has moved away west."
Minamele found her eyes filling with frightened tears, and reached up a fist to scour them away. "The survivors must be falling back to Hernysadharc, to the Taig. Why has this happened? Has everyone gone mad?"
"Everyone was mad already, my lady," Cadrach said with a strange, sorrowful smile. "It is merely that the tunes have brought it out in them "
They had ridden swiftly for the first day and a half, pushing the Lady Vorzheva's horses to their gasping limit until they reached and crossed the Greenwade River at its upper fork, some twenty-five leagues southwest of Naglimund. They then slowed their pace, giving the horses a chance to rest in case they should again need to ride in haste.
Minamele rode well in the manly style, which was appropriate to the garments she wore, the breeches and jerkin in which she had disguised herself in her escape from the Hayholt. Her short hair was again black-dyed, although little of it showed beneath the traveling hood worn as much against the cold as against discovery; Brother Cadrach riding beside her in his travel-stained gray habit was no more likely than she to attract notice. In any case, there were few other travelers on the river road in such discouraging weather, and in the midst of such perilous times. The princess had begun to feel quite confident that their escape was safely effected.
Since the middle of the day before they had ridden along the dike road above the wide, swollen river with the braying of distant trumpets in their ears, shrill brazen voices that outstripped even the moan of the ram-laden wind. At first it was frightening, raising the specter of some vengeful troop of her uncle's or her father's at their heels, but soon it became apparent that she and Cadrach were approaching the source of the clamor, rather than the reverse. Then, this morning, they had seen the first signature of battle: lonely trails of black smoke inking the now-calm sky.
"Isn't there anything we can do?" Minamele asked, dismounted and standing beside her gently blowing horse. But for the birds the scene below them was as motionless as if carved m gray and red stone.
"And what might we do, my lady?" Cadrach asked, still a-saddle. He took a swig from his wineskin
"I don't know You're a priest! Mustn't you say a mansa for their souls?"
"For whose souls, princess? Those of my pagan countrymen, or those of the good Aedonites from Rimmersgard who have come down to pay this call on them?" His bitter words seemed to hang like smoke.
Minamele turned to stare at the little man, whose eyes now seemed quite unlike those of the jocular companion of the last few days. When he told stories or sang his Hernystiri riding and drinking songs, he fairly glittered with cheer. Now he looked like a man savoring the doubtful victory of a dire prophecy fulfilled.
"All Hernystiri are not pagans!" she said, angry with his strange mood. "You yourself are an Aedonite monk!"
"Should I go down, then, and ask who is pagan and who is not?" He waved a plump hand at the unmoving spectacle of carnage. "No, my lady, the only work still to be done here will be done by scavengers." He prodded his horse with his heels and rode ahead a short distance.
Miriamele stood and stared, pressing her cheek against the horse's neck. "Surely no religious man could stand by and see such a scene unmoved," she called after him, "even that red monster Pryrates." Cadrach hunched at the mention of the king's counselor as if struck in the back, then rode a few more paces before stopping to sit for a while in silence.
"Come, lady," he said at last over his shoulder. "We must get down from this hillside, where we are in such plain view. Not all scavengers are feathered, and some go on two legs."
Dry-eyed now, the princess shrugged wordlessly and clambered back into the saddle, following the monk down the forested slope that ran beside the bloodied Inniscrich.
As he slept that night in their camp on the hillside above the flat, white, treeless expanse of Drorshull lake, Simon dreamed again of the wheel.
Once more he found himself snagged helplessly, tossed about like a child's doll of rags, lifted aloft on the wheel's vast rim. Cold winds buffeted him, and shards of ice scored his face as he was drawn up into freezing blackness.
At the summit of the ponderous revolution, wind-ripped and bleeding, he saw a gleam in the darkness, a luminous vertical stripe that reached from the impenetrable blackness above to the equally murky depths below. It was a white tree, whose broad trunk and thin branches glowed as though stuffed with stars. He tried to pull himself free from the wheel's grip, to leap out toward the beckoning whiteness, but it seemed he was held fast. With one great, final effort he tore loose and jumped.
He plunged downward through a universe of glowing leaves, as though he flew among the lamps of the stars; he cried out for blessed Usires to save him, for God's help, but no hands caught at him as he plummeted through the cold firmament....
Hullnir, at the slowly-freezing lake's eastern rim, was a town empty of even ghosts. Half-buried beneath the drifting snows, its houses unroofed by wind and hail, it lay like the carcass of a starved elk beneath dark, indifferent skies.
"Have Skali and his ravens so soon wrung the life from all the northland?" Sludig asked, his eyes wide.
"As like they all fled th'late frost," Grimmric said, pulling his cloak tight beneath his narrow chin. "Too cold here, too far away from th'few roads open."
"It is probable Haethstad will be the same," Binabik said, urging Qantaqa back up the slope. "Good it is that we had no plan to find supplies on our way."
Here at the lake's far end the hills began to fade, and a great arm of the northern Aldheorte reached out to cloak their last, low slopes. It was different than the southern part of the forest Simon had seen, and not only because of the snow that now carpeted the forest floor, stealing away the very sound of their passage. Here the trees were straight and tall, dark green pines and spruce that stood like pillars beneath their white mantles, separating wide, shadowy corridors. The riders moved as through pale catacombs, snow sifting down from above like the ash of ages.
"There is someone there, Brother Cadrach!" Miriamele hissed. She pointed. "There! Can't you see the gleam—it's metal!"
Cadrach lowered the wineskin and stared. His mouth was stained purplish red at the corners. He scowled and squinted, as if to satisfy a whim of hers. A moment later the frown deepened.
"By the Good God, you are right. Princess," he whispered, drawing back on his reins. "There is something there, sure enough." He handed the traces to her and slipped down onto the thick green grass, then, with a gestured admonition to silence, he crept forward; using a broad tree trunk to shield his almost equally stout form, he moved to within a hundred paces of the glimmering object, craning his neck around to peer at it like a child playing hide-and-seek. After a moment he turned back and beckoned. Miriamele rode forward, bringing Cadrach's horse beside her own.
It was a man who lay half-propped against the sprawling base of an oak tree, clad in armor that still shone in a few spots, despite the fearful battering it had taken. Lying in the grass at his side was the hilt of a shattered sword, and a broken pole and green pennant which bore the blazoned White Stag of Hernystir.
"Elysia Mother of Godt" Miriamele said as she hurried forward. "Is he still alive?"
Cadrach quickly tied the horses up to one of the oak's arching roots and then moved to her side. "It doesn't look likely."
"But he is!" the princess said, "Listen... he is breathing!"
The monk kneeled down to look at the man whose breath indeed sounded haltingly within the chamber of his half-open helmet. Cadrach tilted up the mask beneath the winged crest to expose a mustached face almost hidden by runnels of dried blood.
"Hounds of Heaven," Cadrach sighed, "it is Arthpreas—the Count of Cuimhne."
"You know him?" Miriamele said, searching in her saddlebag for the waterskin. She found it, and moistened a piece of cloth.
"Know of him, really," Cadrach said, and gestured at the two birds stitched on the knight's tattered surcoat. "He's the liege-lord of Cuimhne, near Nan Mullacb, he is. His sign is the twin meadowlarks."
Miriamele dabbed at Arthpreas' face while the monk gingerly explored the bloodied rents in his armor. The knight's eyes fluttered.
"He's awakening!" the princess said, breathing in sharply. "Cadrach, I think he will live!"
"Not long. Lady," the small man said quietly. "There is a wound here in his belly as wide as my hand. Let me give him the last words, and he can die in peace."
The count groaned and a little blood ran over the rim of his lip. Miriamele tenderly wiped it from his chin. His eyes trembled open.
"E gundhain sluith, ma connalbehn..." the knight muttered in Hernystiri. He coughed weakly, and more blood bubbled onto his lips. "There's a good... lad. Did they... take the Stag?"
"What does he mean?" Miriamele whispered. Cadrach pointed to the torn banner on the grass beneath the count's arm.
"You rescued it. Count Arthpreas," she said, holding her face close to his. "It's safe. What happened?"
"Skali's Raven-warriors... they were everywhere." A long cough, and the knight's eyes opened wider. "Ah, my brave boys... dead, all dead... hacked up like, like..." Arthpreas gave a painful, dry sob. His eyes stared up at the sky, moving slowly as if tracing the movements of clouds.
"And where is the king?" he said at last. "Where is our brave old king? The goirach northerners were all around him, Brynioch rot them, Brynioch na ferth ub... ub strocinh..."
"The king?" Miriamele whispered. "He must mean Lluth."
The count's eyes suddenly lit on Cadrach, and for a moment were kindled as though by an inner spark. "Padreic?" he said, and lifted a shaking, bloodied hand to lay it on the monk's wrist. Cadrach flinched and made as though to draw away, but his eyes seemed caught, lit by a strange gleam. "Is it you, Padreic feir? Have you... come back...?"
The knight stiffened then, and gave vent to a long, racking cough which brought the red flow up like an underground spring, A moment later his eyes rolled up beneath his dark lashes.
"Dead," Cadrach said after a moment, a harsh note in his voice. "Usires save him, and God comfort his soul." He made the sign of the tree over Arthpreas' unmoving breast and stood up.
"He called you Padreic," Miriamele said, staring abstractedly at the cloth she held, now entirely crimson.
"He mistook me," the monk said. "A dying man looking for an old friend. Come. We have no shovels for digging a grave. Let us at least find stones to cover him. He was... I am told he was a good man."
As Cadrach walked away across the clearing, Miriamele carefully pulled the armored gauntlet from Arthpreas' hand, then wrapped it in the torn green banner.
"Please come and help me, my lady," Cadrach called. "We cannot afford to be spending much time here."
"I will come," she said, slipping the bundle into her saddlebag. "This much time we can afford."
Simon and his companions made their way slowly around the long circumference of the lake, along a peninsula of tall trees and drifting snow. On their left lay the frozen mirror of Drorshull; the white shoulders of the upper Wealdhelm loomed on the right. The song of the wind was loud enough to drown all conversation softer than a full shout. As Simon rode, watching Haestan's wide, dark back jounce along before mm, it seemed they were all solitary islands in a cold sea; in constant sight of each other, but separated by untrafficked expanses. He found his thoughts turning inward, lulled by the monotonous pacing of his horse.
Strangely, in his mind's inlooking eye, the Naglimund they had just left seemed as insubstantial as a distant memory of childhood. Even the faces of Miriamele and Josua were hard to recapture, as though he tried to summon the features of strangers whose importance had not been discovered until long after they were gone. Instead, he found vivid memories of the Hayholt... of long summer evenings in the commons yard, itchy with mown grass and insects, or of breezy spring afternoons climbing on the walls, when the heady scent of the rose hedges in the courtyard pulled at him like warm hands. Remembering the slightly damp odor of the walls around his tiny cot, pushed into a corner in the servant's quarters, he felt himself a king in exile, as though he had lost a palace to some foreign usurper—as, in a way, he had.