He pulled off the helmet—not without effort, since the fall had changed its shape—and pitched it into the snow at his side. With his knife he cut his black cloak into long strips; soon after he began laboriously sawing down some of the slenderest young trees. It was horrible work on his agonized ribs, but he did his best to ignore the flashing pain and go on. He had two excellent reasons to survive: his duty to tell his masters of the unexpected attack by the Sithi, and his own heightened desire for revenge on this ragtag lot who had thwarted him too many times.
The moon's blue-white eye was peering curiously through the treetops when he at last finished cutting. He used the strips of his cloak to bind a number of the shorter staves tightly to each leg as splints; then, sitting with his legs stiffly before him like a child playing noughts and crosses in the dirt, he bound short crosspieces to the tops of the two long staves remaining. Clutching them carefully he grabbed again at Nikua's collar, letting the long, corpse-white dog drag him up onto his feet where he swayed precariously until he could get the new-made crutches under his arms.
He took a few steps, swiveling awkwardly on his unbending legs. It would do well enough, he decided, wincing at the sickening pain—not that he had any choice.
He looked at the snarling-mouthed helmet lying in the snow, thinking of the effort it would take to reach it, and the now-useless weight of the thing. Then he leaned down, gasping, and picked it up anyway. It had been given him in the sacred caverns of Stunnrspeik, by Herself, when She named him Her sacred hunter—he, a mortal! He could no more leave it lying in the snow than he could leave his own beating heart. He remembered that impossible, heady moment, the blue lights flickering in the Chamber of the Breathing Harp, when he had knelt before the throne, before the serene shimmer of Her silver mask.
His excruciating pain lulled for a moment by the wine of memory, Niku'a silently padding at his heels, Ingen Jegger moved haltingly down the long, tree-covered hill, and began to think carefully about revenge.
Simon and his companions, now lessened by one, did not have much stomach for talk, nor did their captors encourage any. They trudged silently and slowly through the snow-carpeted foothills as gray afternoon edged into evening.
Somehow the Sithi seemed to know exactly where they wanted to go, although to Simon the pine-spotted slopes were featureless, one spot indistinguishable from another. The leader's amber eyes were always moving in his masklike face, but he never seemed to be searching for anything; rather he gave the impression that he read the subtle language of the terrain as knowledgeably as Father Strangyeard surveyed his bookshelves.
The only time the Sitha leader displayed any reaction was early in their march, when Qantaqa came trotting down an incline and fell in at Binabik's side, nose twitching as she sniffed his hand, tail nervously tucked. The Sitha raised a half-curious eyebrow, then looked around to catch the glances of his fellows, whose narrow eyes had narrowed further. He made no sign that Simon could distinguish, but the wolf was allowed to pace along unhindered.
Daylight was fading when the strange walking-party turned north at last, and within a short time they were slowly circling the base of a steep slope whose snowy flanks were studded with jutting, naked stone. Simon, shock and numbness worn off enough to make him all too aware of his achingly cold feet, gave silent thanks as the chief of their captors waved them to a halt.
"Here," he said, gesturing to a large outcropping that thrust up high above their heads. "At the bottom." He pointed again, this time to a wide, waist-high fissure in the face of the stone. Before any of them could say a word, two of the Sithi guards slipped nimbly past them and slid themselves headfirst into the opening. In a moment they had vanished.
"You," he said to Simon. "Go after."
There were angry mutters from Haestan and the other two soldiers, but Simon, despite his unusual situation, felt strangely confident. Kneeling, he poked his head through the opening.
It was a slender, shining tunnel, an ice-lined tube that twisted steeply up and away from him, seemingly hollowed from the very stone of the mountain. He decided that the Sitha who had gone before him must have climbed up beyond the next bend. There was no sign of them, and no one could hide in this glass-smooth, narrow passage, barely wide enough to allow him to raise his arms.
He ducked back out into the chill open air.
"How can I go through it? It's almost straight up, and it's covered in ice. I'll just slide back down."
"Look above your head," the chief Sitha replied. "You will understand."
Simon reentered the tunnel, pushing in a little farther so that his shoulders and upper body were inside too, and he could turn on his back to look up. The ice of the tunnel ceiling, if one could call something half an arm's length away a ceiling, was scored with a regular series of horizontal cuts that extended the visible length of the passage. Each was a few inches deep, and wide enough to hold both hands comfortably side by side. He realized after some thought that he was intended to pull himself up with his hands and feet, bracing his back against the floor of the tunnel.
Viewing the prospect with some dismay, since he had no idea how long the tunnel might be, or what else might conceivably be sharing it with him, he considered backing out of the narrow passageway once more. After a moment he changed his mind. The Sithi had shinnied up before him as quickly as squirrels, and for some reason he felt the urge to show them that, if not as nimble as they, he was still bold enough to follow without coaxing.
The climb was difficult, but not impossibly so. The tunnel turned often enough that he could make frequent stops to rest, bracing his feet against the bends in the passage. As he slowly grabbed, pulled and braced, time after muscle-cramping time, the advantage of such an entrance tunnel—if this was, as it seemed, an entrance—became obvious; it was difficult going to clamber up, and would be nearimpossible for any animal but a two-legged one; anyone who needed to get out could slide down it as swiftly as a snake.
He was just considering stopping for another rest when he heard voices speaking the liquid Sithi language just beyond his head. A moment later strong hands reached down, grasping him by the harness-straps of his chain mail and pulling him upward. He popped out of the tunnel with a gasp of surprise and tumbled onto a warm stone floor puddled with snowmelt. The two Sithi who had dragged him out crouched by the passage mouth, faces obscure in the near-darkness. The only light in the room—which was not really a room so much as a rock cavern carefully swept clean of debris—came from a door-sized crevice in the opposite wall. Through this gap spilled a yellow gleam, painting a bright swath on the cavern floor. As Simon pulled himself to his knees he felt a slender, restraining hand laid on his shoulder. The dark-haired Sitha beside him pointed up at the low ceiling, then made a waving motton and gestured at the tunnel mouth.
"Wait," he said calmly, his speech not as fluent as his leader's. "We must wait."
Haestan was next up, grumbling and cursing. The two Sithi had to worry his bulky form out of the opening like a cork from a wine jug. Binabik appeared on his heels—the nimble troll had easily caught up with the Erkynlander—followed within a short while by Sludig and Grimmric. The three remaining Sithi clambered lithely up behind them.
No sooner had the last of the Fair Ones issued from the tunnel than the party went forward again, passing through the rock doorway and into a short passage beyond where they could at last stand upright. Lamps of some kind of milky golden crystal or glass had been set into niches in the wall, and their flickering light was enough to mask the glow of the door at the far end until they were almost upon it. One of the Sithi stepped to this gap in the stone, which unlike the last was shrouded with a hanging of dark cloth, and called out. An instant later two more of their kindred pushed past the cloth. Each of them held a short sword made of what looked to be some dark metal. They stood silently alert, betraying no surprise or curiosity, as the leader of the captors spoke.
"We will bind your hands." As he said this the other Sithi produced coiled lengths of shiny black cord from beneath their clothing.
Sludig stepped back a pace, bumping into one of the guards, who made a quiet hissing noise but offered no violence.
"No," the Rimmersman said, his voice dangerously tight, "I will not let them. No man will bind me against my will,"
"Nor me," Haestan said.
"Don't be foolish," Simon said, and stepped forward, offering his own crossed wrists. "We will probably get out of this with our skins, but not if you start a fight."
"Simon is speaking rightly," Binabik said, "I, too, will let them tie me. You are not having sense if you do otherwise. Simon's White Arrow is genuine. It is being the reason they did not kill us, and why they brought us here."
"But how can we..." Sludig began.
"Also," Binabik cut him off, "what would you plan for doing? Even if these folk here you fought and overcame, and the others who most likely wait beyond, what then? Should you slide downward through the tunnel you would no doubt be crashing onto Qantaqa. who waits at the bottom. I think such a startling thing would give you little chance to tell her you were no enemy."
Sludig looked down at the troll for a moment, plainly thinking of the possibilities attendant on being mistaken by a frightened Qantaqa. At last he called up a weak smile.
"Again you win, troll." He put his hands forward.
The black cords were cool and scaly like snakeskin, but flexible as oiled leather thongs. Simon found that a couple of loops held his hands as immobile as if they had been caught in an ogre's fist. When the Sithi had finished with the others, the group was led forward once more, through the cloth-covered door and into a dazzling wash of light.
It seemed, when Simon tried to remember it later, as though they had stepped through the clouds and into a brilliant, shining land—some nearer neighbor to the sun. After the bleak snows and the featureless tunnels, the difference was like the wild carousal of the Ninth Day festival after the eight gray days that preceded.
Light, and its handmaiden color, was everywhere. The room was a rock chamber less than twice a man's height but very wide. Tree roots twined graspingly down the walls. In one corner, thirty paces away, a glinting stream of water ran down a grooved stone to arch, splashing, into a pond cupped in a natural basin of stone. The delicate chime of its fall wound in and out of the strange, subtle music that filled the air.
Lamps like the ones that lined the stone hallway were everywhere, casting, according to their making, beams of yellow, ivory, pale chalky blue or rose, painting the stone grotto with a hundred different hues where they ran against each other. In the center of the floor, not far from the edge of the rippling pool, a fire was animatedly ablaze, the smoke vanishing into a crevice above.
"Elysia, Mother of the Holy Aedon," Sludig said, awed.
"Never know there was a rabbit hole here," Grimmric shook his head, "an' they got a palace."
Perhaps a dozen Sithi, all male as far as Simon could tell on brief inspection, were ranged about the chamber. Several of them sat calmly before another pair seated on a high stone. One held a long flutelike instrument and the other was singing; the music was so strange to Simon that it took him a few moments before he could separate voice from flute, and the continuing melody of the waterfall from either. Still, the exquisite, quavering song they played tugged achingly at his heart even as it lifted the short hairs on the back of his neck. Despite the unfamiliarity there was something in it that made him want to sink down on the spot, never to move again while such gentle music lasted.
Those not gathered around the musicians were talking quietly, or merely lying on their backs staring upward, as if they could gaze out through the solid stone of the hillside and into the night sky beyond. Most turned briefly to survey the captives at the chamber's entrance, but in the manner, Simon felt, that a man listening to a good story might lift his head to watch a cat walk past.
He and his companions, who had been quite unprepared for this, stood gaping. The leader of their guards crossed the room toward the far wall where two more figures sat facing each other over a table that was a tall, flattened knob of shiny white stone. Both stared intently at something on the tabletop, lit by another of the strange lamps set in a niche in the rock face close by. The warder stopped and stood quietly a short distance away, as though waiting to be recognized.
The Sitha who sat with his back to the companions was dressed in a beautiful high-collared jacket of leaf-green, with pants and high boots of the same shade. His long, braided hair was of a red even more fiery than Simon's, and his hands, as he moved something across the tabletop, glittered with rings. Across from him, watching the movements of his hand intently, sat one wrapped in a loose white robe rucked up around his braceleted forearms, his hair a pale shade of heather or blue. A crow's feather, shiny black, hung down before one ear. Even as Simon watched, the white-gowned Sitha flashed his teeth and spoke to his companion, then reached out to slide some object forward. Simon's stare grew more intense; he blinked.
It was the very Sitha-man he had rescued from the cotsman's trap. He was positive.
"That's him!" he whispered excitedly to Binabik. "The one whose arrow it is!"
Even as he spoke, their warder approached the table, and the one Simon recognized looked up. The warder quickly said something, but the white-robed one only flicked a glance over toward the prisoners and waved a dismissive hand, returning his attention to what Simon had at last decided was either some kind of map or gaming board. His red-haired companion never turned, and a moment later their captor came back.
"You must wait until Lord Jiriki has finished." He brought his expressionless gaze to bear on Simon. "Since the arrow is yours, you may go unbound. The others may not."
Simon, only a stone's throw from the one who had made the debt-pledge but still being ignored, was tempted to push forward and confront the white-robed Sitha—Jereekee, if that was his name. Binabik, who felt his tension, bumped him in warning.
"If the others must remain tied, then so will I," Simon said at last. For the first time he thought he saw something unexpected slide across his captor's face: a look of discomfort.
"It is a White Arrow," the guard leader said. "You should not be prisoned unless it is proven you have come by it through foul means, but I cannot free your companions."
"Then I will stay tied," Simon said firmly.
The other stared at him for a moment, then shuttered his eyes in a slow, reptilian blink, reopening them to smile unhappily.
"So it must be," he said. "I do not like binding a bearer of the Staj'a Ame, but I see little choice. On my heart it will be, right or wrong." Then, strangely, he bobbed his head in an almost respectful manner, fixing his luminous eyes on Simon's. "My mother named me An'nai," he said.
Caught off balance, Simon let a long moment pass until he felt Binabik's boot grinding on his toe. "Oh!" he said, "I am... my mother named me Simon... Seoman, actually." Then, seeing the Sitha nod, satisfied, he hurriedly added: "and these are my companions—Binabik of Yiqanuc, Haestan and Griromric of Erkynland, and Sludig of Rimmersgard."
Perhaps, Simon thought, since the Sitha had seemed to place such importance on the sharing of his name, this forced introduction would help protect his companions.
An'nai bobbed his head again and glided off, once more taking up a position near the stone table. His fellow guards, after lending surprisingly gentle help to the bound companions so that they could sit down, dispersed around the cavern.
Simon and the others talked quietly for a long while, hushed by the strange twining music more than their situation.
"Still," said Sludig at last, after complaining bitterly about the treatment they had received, "at least we are alive. Few who encounter demons are so lucky."
"Y'r a top, Simon-lad!" Haestan laughed. "A spinnin' top! Got the Fair Folk bowin' and scrapin'. Let's be sure t'ask for bag o' gold 'fore we go on our way."
"Bowing and scraping!" Simon smirked in unhappy self-mockery. "Am I free? Am I unbound? Am I eating supper?"
"True." Haestan shook his head sadly. "A bit'd go down nice. And a jar or so."
"I am thinking we will receive nothing until Jiriki sees us," Binabik said, "but if he is indeed the person that Simon rescued, we may yet be eating well."
"Do you think he's important?" Simon asked. "An'nai called him 'Lord Jiriki.'"
"If there is not more than one living of that name..." Binabik began, but was interrupted by An'nai's return. He was accompanied by the selfsame Jiriki, who clutched in his hand the White Arrow.
"Please," Jiriki called two of the other Sithi over, "untie them now." He turned and said something rapid in his flowing tongue. The musical words somehow had the sound of a reproach. An'nai accepted Jiriki's admonishment expressionlessly, if such it was, only lowering his eyes.
Simon, carefully watching, was certain that minus that effects of hanging in a trap, and the bruises and gashes of the cotsman's attack, this was the same Sitha.
Jiriki waved a hand and An'nai walked away. Because of his confident movements, and the deference that those around him showed, Simon had at first taken him to be older, or at least of an age with the other Sithi. Now, despite the strange timelessness of their golden faces, Simon suddenly felt that the Lord Jiriki was, by Sithi standards anyway, still young.
As the newly freed prisoners rubbed feeling back into their wrists, Jiriki held up the arrow. "Forgive the wait. An'nai misjudged, because he knows how seriously I take the playing of shent." His eyes moved from the companions to the arrow and back again. "I never thought to meet you again, Seoman," he said with a birdlike chin tilt, and a smile that never quite reached his eyes. "But a debt is a debt... and the Staj'a Ame is even more. You have changed since our first meeting. Then you looked more like one of the forest animals than like your human kindred. You seemed lost, in many ways." His gaze burned brightly.
"You've changed, too," Simon said.
A shadow of pain crossed Jiriki's angular face. "Three nights and two days I spent hanging in that mortal's trap. Soon I would have died, even if the woodsman had not come—from shame, that is." His expression changed, as if he had shut his hurt beneath a lid. "Come," he said, "we must give you food. It is unfortunate, but we cannot feed you as well as I would like. We bring little with us to our," he gestured around the chamber while searching for the proper word, "hunting lodge." Although he was far more fluent with the Westerling speech than Simon would ever have dreamed at their first meeting, still there was something halting yet precise in his manner that indicated how alien that tongue was to him.
"You are here to... hunt?" Simon asked as they were led forward to sit before the fire. "What is it you hunt? The hills seem so barren now."
"Ah, but the game we seek is more plentiful than ever," Jiriki said, walking past them and toward a row of objects draped with a shimmering cloth, set along one wall of the cavern.
The green-clad, red-haired one stood up from the gaming table, where Jiriki's place had been taken by An'nai, and spoke in tones both questioning and perhaps angry, all in the Sithi-speech.
"Only showing our visitors the fruits of our hunt. Uncle Khendraja'aro," Jiriki said cheerfully, but again Simon felt something missing from the Sitha's smile.
Jiriki crouched gracefully beside the row of covered objects, alighting like a sea bird. With a flourish he pulled the shroud away, revealing a row of half a dozen large, white-haired heads, dead features frozen in expressions of snarling hatred.
"Chukku's Stones!" Binabik swore as the others gasped.
It took Simon a shocked instant to recognize the leathery-skinned faces for what they were.
"Giants!" he said at last. "Hunen!"
"Yes, " Prince Jiriki said, then turned. There was a flash of danger in his voice. "And you, trespassing mortals... what do you hunt in my father's hills?"
Songs of the Eldest
DEORNOTH WOKE in chill darkness, sweating. The wind hissed and wailed outside, clawing at the shuttered windows like a flight of the lonely dead. His heart leaped as he saw the dark shape looming over him, silhouetted by the embers in the fireplace.
"Captain!" It was one of the men, voice a panicked whisper. "There's someone comin' down on th' gate! Armed men!"
"God's Tree!" he cursed, struggling into his boots. Shrugging his mailshirt over his head, he snatched up his scabbard and helmet and followed the soldier out.
Pour more men were huddled on the top platform of the gate-house, hunkered down behind the rampart. The wind pushed him staggering, and he quickly dropped into a crouch.
"There, Captain!" It was the one who had awakened him. "Comin' up th' road through th' town." He leaned past Deornoth to point.
The moonlight, shining through the streaming clouds, silvered the shabby thatching of Naglimund-town's huddled roofs. There was indeed movement on the road, a small company of horsemen, perhaps a dozen in number.
The men on the gatehouse watched the riders' slow approach. One of the soldiers groaned quietly. Deornoth, too, felt the ache of waiting. It was better when the horns were shrilling, and the field was full of shouting.
It is this waiting that has unmanned us all, Deornoth thought. Once we have been blooded again, our Naglimunders will do proudly.
"There must be more, a-hidin'!" one of the soldiers breathed. "What should we do?" Even with the crying of the wind, his voice seemed loud. How could the approaching riders not hear?
"Nothing," Deornoth said firmly. "Wait."
The waiting seemed to last days. As the horsemen drew nearer, the moon picked out shining spearpoints and the gleam of helmets. The silent riders reined in before the massive gate, and sat as if listening.
One of the gatemen stood, drawing his bow and sighting on the breast of the leading rider. Even as Deornoth leaped toward him, seeing the straining lines on the guardsman's face, his desperate eye, there came a loud pounding from below. Deornoth caught the bow arm and forced it up; the arrow spat forth and out into the windy darkness over the town.