"I... I don't know."
"Daughter of the Mountains, I must hope not. Slowly drop your quiver. There." He sputtered out a little bit more of what Simon took to be Sithi-tongue, then kicked at the quiver so that the arrows scattered across the broken snow like dark jackstraws... all but one. Only its triangular tip, pearl-blue like a liquid drop of sky, stood out against the surrounding whiteness.
"Oh, praise to the High Places," Binabik sighed. "Staj'a Ame inef" he called to the Sithi, who watched like cats whose avian quarry has chosen to turn and sing instead of fly away. "The White Arrow! You cannot be in ignorance of this! Im sheyis tsi-keo'su d'a Yana o Lingit!"
"This is... rare," the Sitha with the bow said, lowering it slightly. His accent was odd, but his command of the Western Speech very good. He blinked. "To be taught the Rules of Song by a troll." His cold smile returned briefly. "You may spare us your exhortations... and your crude translations. Pick up your arrow and bring it here to me." He hissed a few words to the other two as Binabik bent to the quiver. They looked back once more at Simon and the troll, then dashed up the hill with startling speed, seeming to barely dimple the snow as they went, so quick and light were their steps. The one remaining behind kept his arrow trained in Simon's general direction as Binabik went trudging forward.
"Hand it toward me," the Sitha directed. "Feathers first, troll. Now, step back toward your companion."
He eased up on the bow to examine the slender white object, allowing the arrow to slide forward until the string was almost slack and he could hold the nocked arrow and bowstave in one hand. Simon was aware for the first time of the shallow rasp of his own rapid breathing. He lowered his shaking hands a bit as Binabik crunched to halt nearby.
"It was given to this young man for a service he was rendering," Binabik said defiantly. The Sitha looked up at him and cocked a slanting eyebrow.
He seemed, at Simon's first glance, much like the first one of his kindred Simon had seen—the same high-boned cheeks and strange, birdlike movements. He was dressed in pants and jacket of shimmery white cloth, dotted at shoulders, sleeves and waist with slender dark green scales. His hair, almost black, but also with a strange greenish tinge, he wore in two complicated braids, one falling before each ear. Boots, belt, and quiver were of soft milk-hued leather. Simon realized that it was only the Sitha's position unslope, and silhouetted against the drab sky, that allowed him to be clearly seen: if the Fair One were to stand against the snow, in a copse of trees, he would be as invisible as the wind.
"Isi-isi'ye!" the Sitha muttered feelingly, and turned to hold the arrow to the shrouded sun. Lowering it, he stared wonderingly at Simon for a moment, then narrowed his eyes.
"Where did you find this, Sudhoda'ya?" he asked harshly. "How did one such as you come by such a thing?"
"It was given to me!" Simon said, color coming back into his cheeks and strength to his voice. He knew what he knew. "I saved one of your people. He shot it at a tree, then ran away."
The Sitha again looked him over carefully, and seemed about to say something more. Instead, he turned his attention up the hillside. A bird whistled a long, complex call, or so Simon thought at first, until he saw the small movements of the white-clad Sitha's lips. He waited, still as a statue, until there came an answering trill.
"Go now, before me," he said, swinging around to gesture with his bow at the troll and boy. They walked with difficulty up the steep slope, their captor moving lightly behind them, slowly turning the White Arrow over and over in his slender fingers.
Within the space of a few hundred heartbeats they reached the rounded top of the knoll and started down the other side. There, four Sithi crouched around a tree-rimmed, snow-blanketed gully, the two Simon had already seen, recognizable only by the bluish tint to their braided hair, and another pair whose tresses were smoky gray—although, like the others, their golden faces were unwrinkled. At the gully's bottom, beneath the menacing quadrangle of Sithi arrows, sat Haestan, Grimmric, and Sludig. They were each one bloodied, and wore the hopelessly defiant expressions of cornered animals.
"Bones of Saint Ealhstan!" Haestan swore when he saw the new arrivals. "Ah, God, boy, 'was hopin' y'got away." He shook his head. "Still, better than bein' a dead'un, I suppose."
"Do you see, troll?" Sludig said bitterly, his bearded face smeared with red. "Do you see what we have called on ourselves? Demons! We should never have mocked... that dark one."
The Sitha who held the Arrow, seemingly the leader, said a few words in his language to the others and gestured for Simon's companions to climb from the pit.
"Demons they are not," Binabik said as he and Simon braced their legs to help the others scramble up, a difficult task on the shifting snow. "They are Sithi, and they will do us no harm. It is, after all is said, their own White Arrow that is compelling them."
The Sithi's leader gave the troll a sour look but said nothing. Grimmric came gasping up onto level ground. "Sith... Sithi?" he said, struggling for breath. A cut just below his scalp had painted his forehead with a solid swath of crimson. "Now we've gone walkin' into old, old stories, an' that's sure. Sithi-folk! May Usires th' Aedon protect us all." He made the sign of the Tree and wearily turned to help the staggering Sludig.
"What happened?" Simon asked. 'How did you... what happened to...?"
"The ones who pursued us are dead," Sludig said, sagging back against a tree trunk. His byrnie was slashed in several places, and his helmet, which dangled from his hand, was scraped and dented like an old pot. "We did for some ourselves. The rest," he napped a limp hand at the Sithi guards, "fell with bodies full of arrows."
"They'd shot us too, sure, if the troll hadna spoken in their tongue," Haestan said. He smiled faintly at Binabik. "We didna think bad of ye when y'ran, Prayin' for ye, we were."
"I went for finding Simon. He is my charge," Binabik said simply.
"But..." Simon looked around, hoping against hope, but saw no other prisoner. "Then... then that was Ethelbeam who fell. Before we reached the first hill."
Haestan nodded slowly. " Twas."
"Damn their souls!" Grimmric swore. "Th'were Rimmersmen, those murd'rin' bastards!"
"Skali's," Sludig said, eyes hard. The Sithi began making gestures for them to get up. "Two of them wore the Kaldskryke raven," he continued, rising. "Oh, how I am praying to catch him with nothing between us but our axes."
"You are waiting with a host of many others," Binabik said.
"Wait!" Simon said, feeling terribly hollow: this was not right. He turned to the leader of the Sithi company. "You have been looking at my arrow. You know my story is true. You cannot take us anywhere, or do anything, until we see what has happened to our companion."
The Sitha looked at him appraisingly. "I do not know your story is true, manchild, but we will find out soon enough. Sooner than you might wish. As to the other..." He took a moment to survey Simon's ragged party. "Very well. We shall allow you to see to your other man." He spoke to his comrades, and they followed the men down the hill. The quiet company passed the arrow-plumed corpses of two of their attackers, eyes wide and mouths agape. Snow was already sifting back over their still forms, covering the scarlet stains.
They found Ethelbeam a hundred ells from the lake road. The broken shaft of an ashwood arrow stood out from the side of his neck below his beard, and his splayed, twisted posture told that his horse had rolled over him in its death throes.
"He wasna long a-dyin'," Haestan said, tears standing in his eyes. "Aedon be praised, 'twas quick."
They dug a hole for him as best they could, hacking at the hard ground with swords and axes; the Sithi stood by, unconcerned as geese. The companions wrapped Ethelbeam in his thick cloak and lowered him into the shallow grave. When he was covered over, Simon pushed the dead man's sword into the earth as a marker.
"Take his helmet," Haestan said to Sludig, and Grimmric nodded.
"He'd not want it t'go unused," the other Erkynlander agreed.
Sludig hung his own ruined helm on the pommel of Ethelbeam's sword before taking the one held out to him. "We will avenge you, man," the Rimmersgarder said. "Blood for blood."
Silence settled over them. Snow filtered down through the trees as they stood regarding the patch of naked ground. Soon it would all be white again.
"Come," the Sitha chief said at last. "We have waited for you long enough. There is someone who will want to see this arrow."
Simon was last to move. I scarcely had time to know you, Ethelbeam, he thought. But you had a good loud laugh. I will remember that.
They turned and headed back into the cold hills.
The spider hung motionless, like a dull brown gem in an intricate necklace. The web was complete, now, the last strands laid delicately in place; it stretched from one side of the ceiling corner to the other, quivering gently in the rising air as though strummed by invisible hands.
For a moment Isgrimnur lost the thread of talk, important talk though it was. His eyes had drifted from the worried faces huddled near the fireplace in the great hall, roving up to the darkened corner, and to the tiny builder at rest.
There's sense, he told himself. You build something and then you stay there. That's the way it's meant to be. Not this running here, running there, never see your blood-family or your home roofs for a year at a time.
He thought of his wife: sharp-eyed, red-cheeked Gutrun. She had not offered him a solitary word of rebuke, but he knew it angered her that he had been gone so long from Elvritshalla, that he had left their oldest son, the pride of her heart, to rule a great duchy... and to fail. Not that Isorn or anyone else in Rimmersgard could have stopped Skali and his followers, not with the High King behind him. Still, it had been young Isorn who had been master while his father was gone, and it was Isorn who would be remembered as the one who had seen the Kaldskryke clan, traditional enemies of the Elvritshallamen, strut into the Longhouse as masters.
And I was looking forward to coming home this time, the old duke thought sadly. It would have been nice to tend to my horses and cows, and settle a few local disputes, and watch my children raise their own children. Instead, all the land is being torn up again like leaky thatch. God save me, I had enough of fighting when I was younger... for all my talk.
Fighting was, after all, mostly for young men, whose grip on life was light and careless. And to give the old men something to talk about, to remember when they sat warm in their halls with winter moaning outside.
A damned old dog like me is just about ready to lie down and sleep by the fire.
He plucked at his beard, and watched the spider scramble toward the darkened roof corner, where an unwary fly had made an unexpected stop.
We thought John had forged a peace that would last a thousand years. Instead, it has not survived his death by two summers. You build and you build some more, laying strand over strand like that little fellow up there, only to have a wind come along and blow everything to pieces.
"... and so I have near-crippled two horses to bring these tidings as fast as I could. Lord," the young man finished as Isgrimnur turned his ear back to the urgent discussion.
"You have done magnificently, Deornoth," Josua said, "Please rise."
His face still damp from his ride, the lank-haired soldier stood, wrapping himself more tightly in the thick blanket the prince had given him. He looked much as he had that other time, when, garbed in the costume of the holy monk for the Saint Tunath's Day festivities, he had brought the prince news of his father's death.
The prince laid his hand upon Deornoth's shoulder. "I am glad to have you back. I feared for your safety, and cursed myself for having to send you on such a dangerous errand." He turned to the others. "So. You have heard Deornoth's report. Elias has at last gone into the field. He is bound for Naglimund with... Deornoth? You said...?"
"Some thousand knights and more, and near ten thousand foot," the soldier said unhappily. "That averages the different reports in a way that seems most reliable."
"I'm sure," Josua waved his hand. "And we have perhaps a fortnight at most until he is at our walls."
"I should think so, sire," Deornoth nodded.
"And what of my master?" Devasalles asked.
"Well, Baron," the soldier began, then clenched his teeth until a fit of shivering had passed, "Nad Mullach was in a mad uproar—understandably, of course, with what is happening to the west..." he broke off to look over to Prince Gwythinn, who sat a short way off from the rest, staring miserably at the ceiling.
"Go on," said Josua calmly, "we will hear it all."
Deornoth turned his gaze away from the Hernystirman. "So, as I said, good information was hard to come by. However, according to several of the rivermen up from Abaingeat on the coast, your Duke Leobardis has set sail from Nabban, and is even now on the high seas, probably to make landfall near Crannhyr."
"With how many men?" Isgrimnur rumbled.
Deornoth shrugged. "Different people say different things. Three hundred horse, perhaps, two thousand or so foot."
"That sounds correct. Prince Josua," Devasalles said, lips pursed contemplatively. "Many of the liege-lords doubtless would not go along, frightened as they are of crossing the High King, and the Perdruinese will stay neutral, as they usually do. Count Streawe knows he will do better helping both sides, and saving his ships to haul goods."
"So we may still hope for Leobardis' strong help, although I might have wished it stronger still." Josua looked around the circle of men.
"Even if these Nabbanai should beat Elias to the gate," Baron Ordmaer said, fear poorly hidden on his plump features, "still Elias will have three times our numbers."
"But we have the walls, sir," Josua replied, his narrow face stem. "We are in a strong, strong place." He turned back to Deornoth, and his expression softened. "Give us the last of your news, my faithful friend, and then you must sleep. I fear for your health, and I will need you strong in the days ahead."
Deornoth mustered a faint smile. "Yes, sire. The ridings that are left are not happy ones either, I fear. The Hernystiri have been driven from the field at Inniscrich." He started to glance at the place where Gwythinn sat, but instead dropped his eyes. "They say King Lluth has been wounded, and his armies have fallen back into the Orianspog Mountains, the better to harry Skali and his men,"
Josua looked gravely over to the Hernystiri prince. "So. It is at least better than you feared, Gwythinn. Your father yet lives, and continues the fight."
The young man turned. His eyes were red. "Yes! They continue the fight, while I sit here inside stone walls, drinking ale and eating bread and cheese like a fat townsman. My father may be dying! How can I stay here?"
"And do you think you can beat Skali with your half-hundred men, lad?" Isgrimnur asked, not unkindly. "Or would you seek a quick, glorious death, rather than wait to see what is the best policy?"
"I am not so foolish as that," Gwythinn replied coldly. "And, Bagba's Herd, Isgrimnur, who are you to be saying such to me? What of that 'foot of steel' you are saving for Skali's guts?'"
"Different," Isgrimnur muttered, embarrassed. "I did not speak of storming Elvritshalla with my dozen knights."
"And all I mean to do is steal around the flank of Skali's ravens, and go to my people in the mountains."
Unable to meet Prince Gwythinn's bright, demanding stare, Isgrimnur let his eyes slide back up to the roof corner, where the brown spider was industriously wrapping something in clinging silk.
"Gwythinn," Josua said soothingly, "I ask only that you wait until we can speak more. One or two days will make little difference."
The young Hernystirman stood up, his chair scraping against the stone flags. "Wait! That is all that you do is wait, Josua! Wait for the local muster, wait for Leobardis and his army, wait for... wait for Elias to climb the walls and put Naglimund to the torch! I am tired of waiting!" He raised an unsteady hand to forestall Josua's protests. "Do not forget, Josua, I am a prince, too! I came to you out of the friendship of our fathers. And now my father is wounded, and harried by northern devils. If he dies unsuccored, and I am become king, will you order me then? Will you still think to hold me back? Brynioch! I cannot understand such craven reluctance!"
Before he reached the door he turned. "I will tell my men to prepare for our departure tomorrow at sunset. If you think of some reason why I should not go, one that has escaped me, you know where I may be found!"
As the prince flung the door shut behind him, Josua rose to his feet.
"I think there are many here who..." he paused and shook his head wearily, "who feel the need of some food and drink—you not least, Deornoth. But I ask you to remain a short moment while these others go ahead, so I may ask you of some private matters." He waved Devasalles and the rest off to the dining hall, and watched them snuffle out, talking quietly among themselves. "Isgrimnur," he called, and the duke stopped in the doorway to look back inquiringly. "You stay also, please."
When Isgrimnur had settled himself in a chair again, Josua looked expectantly to Deornoth.
"And have you other news for me?" the prince asked. The soldier frowned.
"If I had aught else of good tiding, my prince, I would have told you first, before the others arrived. I could find no trace of your niece or the monk who accompanies her, but for one peasant farmer near the Greenwade fork who saw a pair of their description fording the river there some days ago, heading south."
"Which is no more than what we knew they would do, as the Lady Vorzheva told us. But by now they are well into the Inniscrich, and the Blessed Usires alone knows what may happen, or where they will go next. Our only luck is that I am sure my brother Elias will march his army up the skirt of the hills, since in this wet season the Wealdhelm Road is the only safe place for the heavy wagons." He stared at the wavering flames of the fire. "Well, then," he said at last, "my thanks, Deornoth. If all my liegemen were such as you then I could laugh at the High King's threat."
"The men are a good lot, sire," the young knight said loyally. "Go on, now." The prince extended his hand to pat Deornoth's knee. "Get some food, and then some sleep. You will not be needed for duty until tomorrow."
"Yes, sire." The young Erkynlander threw off his blanket and stood, his back straight as a gatepost as he walked from the room.
After he was gone, Josua and Isgrimnur sat in silence.
"Miriamele gone God knows where, and Leobardis racing Elias to our gates." The prince shook his head and kneaded his temples with his hand. "Lluth wounded, the Hernystiri in retreat, and Elias' tool Skali master from the Vestivegg to the Grianspog. And atop all else, demons out of legend walking the mortal earth." He showed the duke a grim smile. "The net grows tighter. Uncle."
Isgrimnur tangled his fingers in his beard. "The web is swaying in the wind, Josua. A strong wind."
He left the remark unexplained, and silence crept back into the high hall.
The man in the hound mask cursed weakly and spat another gobbet of blood onto the snow. Any lesser man, he knew, would now be dead, lying in the snow with his legs crushed and ha ribs collapsed, but the thought was only faintly gratifying. All the years of ritual training and hardening toil that had saved his life when the dying horse rolled over him would be for naught unless he could reach somewhere sheltered and dry. Another hour or two of exposure would finish the work his dying steed had begun.
The damnable Sithi—and their unexpected involvement was nothing short of astonishing—had led their human captives within a few feet of where he had lain hidden, buried under a half-foot of snow. He had summoned all his reserves of strength and courage to stay pretematurally still while the Fair Folk had scanned the area. They must have concluded he had crawled away somewhere to die— which, of course, he had hoped they would—and a few moments later they had continued on their way. Now he huddled shivering where he had dug out from beneath the obscuring white blanket, summoning his strength for the next move. His only hope was to somehow get back to Haethstad, where a pair of his own men should now be waiting. He damned himself a hundred times for ever trusting those louts of Skali's—drunken pillagers and woman-beaters that they were, unfit to polish his boots. If only he had not been forced to send his own off on another mission.
He shook his head in an attempt to clear it of the swirling, jiggling specks of light that floated against the gradually darkening sky, then pursed his cracked lips. The hoot of a snow owl issued incongru ously from the snarling hound muzzle. While he waited he tried once more, impossibly, to stand—even to crawl. It was no use: something was gravely wrong with both legs. Ignoring the scalding pain from his cracked ribs, he used his hands to drag himself a little farther toward the trees, then had to stop, laid flat out and panting.
A moment later he felt hot wind, and lifted his head. The black muzzle of his helmet was doubled, as though in some queer mirror, by a grinning white snout only inches away.
"Niku'a," he gasped, in a language quite unlike his native Black Rimmerspakk. "Come here, Udun damn you! Come!"
The great hound took another step closer, until he loomed over his injured master.
"Now... hold," the man said, reaching up strong hands to clasp the white leather collar. "And pull!"
A moment later he groaned in agony as the dog did pull, but he hung on, teeth clenched and eyes bulging behind the unchanging canine features of the helmet. The hammering, tearing pain almost pushed him over into insensibility as the hound drew him bumping across the snow, but he did not relax his grip until he had reached the cover of the trees. Only then did he at last let go, let everything go. He slid down into darkness, and brief surcease to pain.
When he awoke the gray of the sky had gone several shades darker, and the wind had swept a powdery layer of snow across him like a blanket. The great hound Niku'a still waited, unconcerned and unshivering despite his short fur, as though lounging before a blazing hearth. The man on the ground was not surprised: he well knew the icy black kennels of Sturmspeik, and knew how these beasts were raised. Looking at Niku'a's red mouth and curving teeth, and the tiny white eyes like drops of some milky poison, he was again grateful that it was he who followed the hounds, and not the other way around.