The others seemed just as enfolded in their own thoughts; but for Grimmric's whistling—a thin trill of music that only occasionally rose above the wind, but seemed nevertheless constant—the trip around Drorshull Lake was made in silence.
Several times, when he could make her out through the fluttering snowflakes, he thought he saw Qantaqa stop and tilt her head as though to listen. When they finally made camp that night, with the main body of the lake now lying behind them to the southwest, he asked Binabik about it.
"Does she hear something, Binabik? Is there something ahead of us?"
The troll shook his head, extending his now unmittened hands closer to the small fire. "Perhaps, but things that are before us, even in such weather, Qantaqa smells them—it is into the wind that we are walking. More likely it is she hears a sound from behind or to either side."
Simon thought about that for a moment. Certainly nothing had followed them from barren Hullnir, devoid even of birds.
"Someone is behind us?" he said.
"I am doubting. Who? And for what reason?"
Nevertheless, Sludig, bringing up the rear of the column, had also noticed the wolf's seeming uneasiness. Although he still was not entirely comfortable with Binabik, and certainly was not ready to trust Qantaqa—he rolled his sleeping cloak at the far side of camp when he slept—he did not doubt the gray wolf's keen senses. As the others sat eating hard bread and dried venison, he had taken out his whetstone to sharpen his hand axes.
"Here between the Dimmerskog—the forest north of us—and Drorshullven," Sludig said frowning, "it has always been wild country, even when Isgrimnur or his father ruled in Elvritshalla and winter knew its place. These days, who knows what walks the white waste, or the Trollfells beyond?" He scraped rhythmically.
'Trolls, for one thing," said Binabik sardonically, "but I can be assuring you there is scant fear of troll-folk descending upon us in the night for killing and plunder."
Sludig grinned sourly and continued sharpening his axe.
"Th'Rimmersman speaks sense," Haestan said, giving Binabik a displeased look. "An' tis not trolls I'm fearin' myself."
"Are we near to your country, Binabik?" Simon asked. "To Yiqanuc?"
"We will be approaching with more closeness when we reach the mountains, but the place of my birth is in actuality, I think, east of where it is we are heading."
"Do not be forgetting, we are still not sure with exactness where we go. The Rhymer's Tree'—a tree of rhymes? I know the mountain called Urmsheim, where it is supposed this Colmund went, is standing somewhere to the north, between Rimmersgard and Yiqanuc, but a big mountain it is." The troll shrugged. "Is the tree on it? Before it? Or somewhere else all together? I cannot know at this time."
Simon and the others stared glumly into the fire. It was one thing to undertake a perilous mission for your sovereign, it was another thing to search blindly in the white wilderness.
The flames hissed as they bit at the damp wood. Qantaqa rose from where she stretched on the naked snow and cocked her head. She walked purposefully to the edge of the clearing they had chosen. in a grove of pines on the low hillside. After a suspenseful interval she walked back and lay down again. No one said a word, but a moment of tension had passed, leaving their hearts a little lighter once more.
When they had all finished eating, more logs were fed onto the blaze, which popped and steamed in cheerful spite of the flurrying snow. As Binabik and Haestan talked quietly, and Simon used Ethelbearn's whetstone on his own sword, a thin melody rose up. Simon turned to see Grimmric whistling, lips pursed, eyes fixed on the wavering flames. When he looked up and saw Simon staring at him, the wiry Erkynlander gave him a snaggle-toothed smile.
"Put me mind of somethin'," he said. "N'old winter song, it was."
"What then?" Ethelbearn asked. "Sing it, man. No harm in quiet song."
"Yes, go ahead," Simon seconded.
Grimmric looked over to Haestan and the troll, as if fearing an objection from that quarter, but they were still enmeshed in their discussion. "Well, then," he said. "Suppose there's no harm in't." He cleared his throat and looked down, as if embarrassed by the sudden attention. "S'just a song my old father'd sing when we'd go out of a Decander afternoon t'cut wood." He cleared his throat. "A winter song," he added, then cleared his throat again and sang, in a scratchy but not untuneful voice.
"Ice is a-growin' in th' thatch
And snow is upon th' sill.
Someone's a-knockin' at th' door
Out in th' winter's chill.
Sing you hey-a-ho, an' who can it be?
Fire is a-bumin' in th' grate
Shadows is on th' wall.
Pretty Arda, she answers up
Inside her latchlocked halt
Sing you hey-a-ho, an' who can it be?
Comes then a voice from winter-dark,
'Open up your door.
Let me in for to share your fire
An' to warm my hands before.'
Sing you hey-a-ho, an' who can it be?
Arda, chaste an' chary maid
She answers. 'Tell me, sir-o,
Who can you be. who walks abroad
When nought outside should stir-o?'
Sing you hey-a-ho, an' who can it be?
'A holy man.' th' voice replies,
'Who has not food nor shelter.'
Th' words all spoke so piteous
If she were ice, 'twould melt her.
Sing you hey-a-ho, an' who can it be?
'Then I will let you in, good Father,
Old bones will soon be warmer.
A maid can trust a man o' God
That he will never harm her'.
Sing you hey-a-ho, an' who can it be?
Open th' door an' who stands there?
A man who's nothin' holy.
Old One-Eye with his cloak an' staff.
An' his wide-brim hat pulled lowly.
"I lied, I lied, t'get inside,'
Old One-Eye grins and dances,
"Th'frost's my home, but I love t'roam
An' a maid is worth th' chances'..."
"Holy Usires, are you mad?!" Sludig leaped up, startling everybody. His eyes wide with horror, he made the sign of the Tree broadly before him, as though to fend off a charging beast. "Are you mad?" he asked again, staring at the dumbfounded Grimmric.
The Erkynlander looked around at his other companions, shrugging helplessly. "What's wrong with this Rimmersman, troll?" he asked.
Binabik squinted up at Sludig, who was still standing. "What is the wrongness, Sludig? We are none of us understanding."
The northerner looked around at the uncomprehending faces. "Are you all without your senses?" he asked. "Do you not know of who you are singing?"
"Old One-Eye?" Grimmric said, eyebrow cocked in puzzlement. "S'just a song, northman. Learned it from m'father."
"That is Udun One-Eye you sing of—Udun Rimmer, the black old god of my people. We worshiped him in Rimmersgard when we were sunk in our heathen ignorance. Do not call up Udun Skyfather when you walk in his country, or he will come—to your grief."
"Udun the Rimer..." Binabik said wonderingly.
"If you don't believe in him any more," Simon asked, "why are you afraid to speak of him?"
Sludig stared, his mouth still taut with worry. "I did not say I did not believe in him... Aedon forgive me... I said we Rhymersmen no longer worship him." After a moment he lowered himself back to the ground. "I am sure you think me foolish. Better that than we call down jealous old gods on ourselves. We are in his country now."
"S'just a song," Grimmric said defensively. "I wasna callin' down anythin'. S'just a bloody song."
"Binabik, is that why we call it 'Udensday'," Simon began, then broke off when he saw the troll was not listening. Instead, the little man wore a broad, cheerful grin, as though he had just swallowed a draught of some pleasing liquor.
"That is it, certainly!" the little man said, and turned to pale, stern-faced Sludig. "You have thought of it, my friend."
"What are you talking about?" the blond-bearded northman asked with some irritation. "I do not understand you."
"What we are looking for. The place where Colmund was going:
The Rhymer's Tree. Except we were at thinking 'rhyme' like poetry, but you have now said it. 'Udun Rimmer'—Udun the Rimer. 'Rime' meaning 'frost.' It is a Rimer's Tree we are searching for."
Sludig retained his blank look for a moment, then slowly nodded his head. "Blessed Elysia, troll—the Uduntree. Why did I not think of it? The Uduntree!"
"You know the place Binabik is talking about?" Simon was slowly catching on.
"Of course. It is an old, old legend of ours—a tree entirely of ice. The old tales say that Udun made it grow so he could climb to the sky and make himself king over all the gods."
"But what good is legend t'us?" Simon heard Haestan ask, but even as the words came to his ears he felt a strange, heavy chill folding around him like a blanket of sleet. The icy, white tree... he saw it again: the white trunk stretching up into the darkness, the impenetrable white tower, a great, looming pale stripe against the blackness... it stood squarely in the track of his life, and somehow he knew there was no path around it... no way around the slender, white finger—beckoning, warning, waiting.
The white tree.
"Because the legend tells where it is, too," a voice said, echoing as if down a long corridor. "Even if there is no such thing, we know that Sir Colmund must have gone where the legend points—the northern face of Urmsheim."
"Sludig is correct," someone said... Binabik said. "We are needing only to go where Colmund was going with Thorn—nothing else is having importance." The troll's voice seemed very far away.
"I think I... I have to go to sleep," Simon said, his tongue thick. He got up and stumbled away from the fire, practically unnoticed by the others, who were talking animatedly of riding distances and mountain travel. He curled up in his thick cloak and felt the snowy world revolve dizzyingly around him. He shut his eyes and, though he still felt every pitch and yaw, at the same time he began sliding heavily, helplessly down into dream-thick sleep.
All the next day they continued along the forested bight of snow between the lake and the settling hills, hoping to make Haethstad at the lake's northeastern tip by late afternoon. If its inhabitants had not fled the harsh winter and headed west, the companions decided, Sludig could go down by himself and restock some of their stores. Even if it lay deserted, they could perhaps take shelter in an abandoned hall for the night and dry out their things before the long trip across the waste. Thus, it was with some anticipation they traveled, making good time along the lakeshore.
Haethstad, a village of some two dozen longhouses, stood on a promontory of land scarcely wider than the town itself; seen from the hillside above, the village seemed to sprout from the frozen lake.
The cheering effect of their first glimpse lasted only about halfway down the sloping road into the vale. It became increasingly obvious that although the buildings stood, they were no more than burned-out shells.
"Damn my eyes," Sludig said angrily, "this is not just a village abandoned, troll. They were driven out."
"If they were lucky enow t'get out at all," Haestan muttered.
"I think I must be agreeing with you. Sludig," Binabik said. "Still we must go and look there, to see how recent this burning is."
As they rode down to the bottom of the glen, Simon stared at the scorched remains of Haethstad, and could not help remembering the calcined skeleton of Saint Hoderund's abbey.
The priest at the Hayholt always used to say fire purifies, he thought. If that's true, then why does fire, does burning, frighten everyone? Well, by the Aedon, I suppose no one wants to be purified that thoroughly.
"Oh, no," Haestan said. Simon almost ran into him as the big guardsman reined up. "Oh, the good God," he added.
Simon peered around him to see a line of dark shapes filing out of the trees near the village, moving slowly into the snowy road not a hundred ells before them—men on horseback. Simon counted them as they made their way out into the open... seven, eight, nine. They were all armored. The leader wore a black iron helm shaped like a hound's head, showing the profile of the snarling muzzle as he turned to give orders. The nine started forward.
"That one—the dog-headed one." Sludig pulled his axes out and pointed at the approaching men. "He is the one who led the ambush on us at Hoderund's. He is the one I owe for young Hove, and the monks at the abbey!"
"Never'll we take 'em," Haestan said calmly. "They'll carve us up—nine men t'six, and two of us a troll and boy."
Binabik said nothing, but calmly unscrewed his walking stick, which had been thrust beneath the cinch strap of Qantaqa's saddle. As he reassembled it, a matter of instants only, he said: "We must run."
Sludig was already spurring his horse forward, but Haestan and Ethelbeam reached him within a couple of paces and caught at his elbows. The Rimmersman, who had not even donned his helmet, tried to shake them off; he had a distant look in his blue eyes.
"God damn't, man," Haestan said, "come on! At least we've got chance in 'mong th' trees!"
The leader of the approaching riders shouted something, and the others kicked their horses into a trot. White mist flurried up from the horses' hooves as though they ran on sea foam.
"I\im 'im!" Haestan shouted to Ethelbeam, grabbing the reins of Sludig's horse as he himself wheeled about; Ethelbeam gave a smart smack with his sword hilt to the flank of the Rimmersman's mount and they spun away from the oncoming riders, who were bowling along at full gallop now behind them, waving axes and swords. Simon was trembling so that he feared he might fall from his saddle.
"Binabik, where?" he shouted, his voice cracking.
"The trees," Binabik called back, as Qantaqa jumped forward. "Death it would be to climb back up the road. Ride, Simon, and stay to me nearly!"
Now the horses of his companions were rearing and kicking on all sides as they headed off the wide path, away from the blackened ruins of Haethstad. Simon managed to slide his bow from where it hung over his shoulder, then leaned his head down over his horse's neck and dug in the spurs. With a bone-jarring surge they were suddenly leaping over the snow and into the ever-thickening forest.
Simon saw Binabik's small back, and the bobbing gray of Qantaqa's hindquarters as the trees loomed up dizzyingly on all sides. Shouts echoed from behind, and he looked back to see his other four companions in a close knot, with the dark mass of their pursuers beyond, fanning out through the forest. He heard a sound like the tearing of parchment, and for a brief moment saw an arrow quivering in a tree trunk just before him.
The muffled drumfire of hoofbeats was everywhere, filling his ears even as he clung for his life to the pitching saddle. A whistling black thread was suddenly drawn out and snapped before his face, and then another: the pursuers were outflanking them, loosing their arrows almost broadside. Simon heard himself scream something at the plunging shapes flashing along beyond the nearer trees, and several more of the hissing darts snapped past. Clinging to his pommel, he reached the hand that held the bow back to draw an arrow from his jouncing quiver, but when he brought it forward he saw it flash pale against his horse's shoulder. It was the White Arrow—what should he do?
In a split instant that seemed much longer he pushed it back over his shoulder into the quiver, pulling out another. A mocking voice somewhere in his head laughed to see him picking and choosing arrows at such a moment. He almost lost bow and arrow both as his horse lurched around a snow-spattered tree that seemed to leap up in their path. A moment later he heard a shout of pain and the terrified, terrifying scream of a falling horse. He darted a look over his shoulder to see only three of his companions behind him, and—farther behind every moment—a thrashing tangle of arms and kicking horselegs and roiling snow. The pursuers went over and around the downed rider, undeterred.
Who was it? was his brief, flickering thought.
"Up the hill, the hilll" Binabik shouted hoarsely from somewhere to Simon's right. He saw the flag of Qantaqa's tail as the wolf leaped up an incline into heavier trees, a thick clot of pines that stood like uncaring sentinels as the shouting chaos slashed past them. Simon yanked hard on his right-hand rein, having no idea if the horse would pay him any heed at all; a moment later they canted to the side and bolted up the slope behind the bounding wolf. The other three companions rushed past him, pulling up their steaming horses within the sparse shelter of a crown of staff-straight trunks.
Sludig still wore no helmet, and the thin one was surely Grimmric, but the other man, bulky and helmeted, had gone a short way up the slope; before Simon could turn to see who it was he heard a hoarse shout of triumph. The riders were upon them.
After a frozen moment he nocked his arrow and lifted the bow, but the whooping attackers were moving in and out among the trees so quickly that his shot flew harmlessly over the head of the nearest man and disappeared. Simon let fly a second arrow, and thought he saw it strike the leg of one of the armored riders. Somebody shouted in pain. Sludig, with an answering howl, spurred his white horse forward, pulling his helm down over his head. Two of the attackers peeled off from the pack and angled toward him. Simon saw him duck the sword swipe of the first and, turning, crash his axe-blade into the man's ribs as he swept past, bright blood rilling from the gash in the man's armor. As he turned from the first man the second nearly caught him; Sludig had time only to deflect the man's swing with his other axe, but still took a clanging blow to the helmet. Simon saw the Rimmersman wobble and almost fall as the attacker wheeled around.
Before they came together again Simon heard an ear-piercing screech and pivoted to see another horse and rider stagger toward him, a troll-less Qantaqa teeth-clinging to the man's unarmored leg, scrabbling with her claws at the shrilling horse's side. Simon pulled his sword from the scabbard, but as the rider struck helplessly at the wolf his reeling steed plunged into Simon's own mount. Simon's blade spiraled away, then he, too, was briefly without weight or tether. A long instant later the air was thumped from him as though by a giant's fist. He skidded to a face-down halt a short way from where his horse struggled with the other in a panicked, whinnying knot. Through a biting mask of snow, Simon saw Qantaqa pull herself out from beneath the two horses and sprint away. The man, caught shrieking beneath, could not escape.
Climbing painfully to his feet, spitting icy grit, Simon snatched at his bow and quiver lying nearby. He heard the sounds of combat move away up the hill and turned to follow on foot.
Not twenty paces below him, seated astride a motionless gray horse, was the man in the black armor who wore the head of a ravening hound. A stark, pyramidal shape was blazoned in white on his black jerkin.
"There you are, boy," Dog-face said, deep voice tolling inside his helmet. "I have been looking for you."
Simon turned and dug up the snowy hill, stumbling, sinking into the knee-high drifts. The man in black laughed happily and followed.
Picking himself up yet again, tasting his own blood from his torn nose and lip, Simon stopped at last, backed against a leaning spruce. He grabbed at an arrow and let the quiver drop, then nocked it and pulled back the bowstring. The man in black stopped, still half a dozen ells below, tilting his helmeted head to one side as if imitating the hound he resembled.
"Now kill me, boy, if you can," he mocked. "Shoot!" He spurred his horse up the hill toward where Simon stood shivering.
There was a hiss and a sharp, fleshy slap. Suddenly the gray horse was rearing up, up, mane-flinging head thrown back, an arrow shuddering in its breast. The dog-faced rider was thrown down hard into the snow; he lay as if boneless, even as his twitching horse fell to its knees and rolled heavily onto him. Simon stared with fascination. A moment later he was staring with even more surprise at the bow he still held in his outstretched arm. The arrow had not left the string.
"H-Haestan... ?" he said, turning to look up the slope. Three figures stood there, in a gap between the trees.
They were none of them Haestan. They were none of them men. They had bright, feline eyes, and their mouths were set in hard lines.
The Sitha who had shot the arrow nocked another and lowered it until its delicately quivering head came to a halt pointed at Simon's eyes.
"re/m t'sf. Sudhoda'ya', "he said, his small, newly-formed smile as cold as marble. "Blood... as you say... for blood."
SIMON STARED helplessly at the black arrowhead, at the trio of thin faces. His jaw trembled.
"Ske'i! Ske'i!" a voice cried, "Stopi"
Two of the Sithi turned to look up the hill to their right, but the one coolly holding the bent bow never wavered.
"Ske'i, ras-Zida'ya!" the small figure shouted, and then, leaping forward, fell into a snow-chunung roll to stop at last in a flurry of gleaming powder a few paces from Simon.
Binabik got slowly to his knees, coated in snow as though he had been floured by a hurrying baker.
"W-What?" Simon forced his numb lip to shape words, but the troll signaled him to silence with an urgent flutter of his squat fingers.
"Shhhh. Slowly be putting down the bow you are holding—slowly!" As the boy followed this direction, Binabik spouted another rush of words in the unfamiliar language, waving his hands imploringly at the unblinking Sithi.
"What... where are the others..." Simon whispered, but Binabik silenced him again, this time with a small but violent head-shake.
"No time is there, no time... for your life we are fighting." The troll raised his own hands in the air, and Simon, having dropped the bow, did the same, turning his palms outward. "You have not, I am hoping, lost the White Arrow?"