Young Ostrael of Runchester stood shivering on the curtain wall and reflected on what his



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The chill outside—as well as the different kind of chill in the servants' quarters—still prevailed Moonday when he arose, feeling weedy and unpleasant. Morgenes also seemed in a damp and unresponsive mood, and so when Simon had finished his chores in the doctor's chambers he filched some bread and cheese from the pantry larder and went off to be by himself.
For a while he moped by the Hall of Records in the Middle Bailey, listening to the dry, insectlike sounds of the Writing-Priests, but after an hour he begin to feel as though it was his own skin on which the scribes' pens were scratching and scratching and scratching....
He decided to take his dinner and climb the stairs of Green Angel Tower, something he had not done since the weather had begun to turn. Since Bamabas the sexton would as gladly chase him off as go to Heaven, he resolved to bypass the chapel route to the tower entirely, taking instead his own secret path to the upper floors. Tying his meal securely in his handkerchief, he set out.
Walking through the seemingly endless halls of the Chancelry, passing continuously from covered passage to open courtyard and back under cover again—this part of the castle was dotted with small, enclosed yards—he superstitiously avoided looking up at the tower. Eminently slender and pale, it dominated the southwestern corner of the Hayholt like a birch tree in a rock garden, so impossibly tall and delicate that from ground level it almost appeared to be standing on some far hillside, miles and miles beyond the castle's wall. Standing beneath he could hear it shudder in the wind, as though it were a lute string tight-cinched on some celestial peg.
The first four stories of Green Angel Tower looked no different than any of the other hundreds of varied structures of the castle. Past masters of the Hayholt had cloaked its slim base in granite outwalls and battlements—whether out of legitimate desire for improved security or because the alienness of the tower was unsettling, no one could know. Above the level of the encircling bailey wall the armoring stopped; the tower thrust nakedly upward, a beautiful albino creature escaping its drab cocoon. Balconies and windows in strangely abstract patterns were cut directly into the stone's glossy surface, like the carved whalefish teeth Simon often saw at market. At the tower's pinnacle shimmered a distant flare of copper-gold and green: the Angel herself, one arm outstretched as if in a gesture of farewell, the other shading her eyes as she stared into the eastern distance.
The huge, noisy Chancelry was even more confounding than usual today. Father Helfcene's cassocked minions dashed back and forth from one chamber to another, or huddled for shivering discussions in the chill, snowflecked air of the courtyards. Several, bearing rolled papers and distracted expressions, tried to commandeer Simon for errands to the Hall of Records, but he bluffed his way through, protesting a mission for Doctor Morgenes.
In the throne room antechamber he halted, pretending to admire the vast mosaics while he waited for the last of the Chancelry priests to hurry through to the chapel beyond. When his moment came, he levered the door open and slid through into the throne room.
The huge hinges creaked, then went silent. Simon's own footsteps echoed and re-echoed, then stopped, fading at last into the deep, breathing quiet. No matter how many times he snuck through this room—for several years he had been, as far as he knew, the only castle resident who dared enter it—it never seemed less than awe-inspiring.
Just last month, after King John's unexpected rising, Rachel and her crew had finally been allowed past the forbidden threshold; they had indulged themselves with a two-week assault on years of dust and grit, on broken glass and birds' nests and the webs of spiders long since gone to their eight-legged ancestors. But even thoroughly cleaned, with its flagstones mopped, its walls washed down, and some—but not all—of the banners shed of their armor of dust, despite relentless and implacable tidying, the throne room emanated a certain age and stillness. Time here seemed bound only to the measured tread of antiquity.
The dais stood at the great room's far end, in a pool of light that poured down from a figured window in the vaulted ceiling. Upon it the Dragonbone Chair stood like a strange altar—untenanted, surrounded by bright, dancing motes of dust, flanked by the statues of the Hayholt's six High Kings.
The bones of the chair were huge, thicker than Simon's legs, polished so that they gleamed dully like burnished stone. With a few exceptions they had been cut and fitted in such a way that, although their size was evident, it was difficult to guess in which part of the great fire-worm's mighty carcass they had once sheltered. Only the chair back, a great seven-cubit fan of curving yellow ribs behind the king's velvet cushions, reaching far above Simon's head, could be seen immediately for what it was—that and the skull. Perched atop the back of the great seat, jutting far enough to serve as an awning—if more than a thin film of sunlight ever penetrated the shadowed throne room—were the brain-case and jaws of the dragon Shurakai. The eye-holes were broken black windows, the teeth curving spikes as long as Simon's hands. The dragon's skull was the color of old parchment, and webbed with tiny cracks, but there was something alive about it—terribly, wonderfully alive.
In fact, there was an astonishing and holy aura about this entire room that went far beyond Simon's understanding. The throne of heavy, yellowed bones, the massive black figures guarding an empty chair in a high, deserted chamber, all seemed filled with some dread power. All eight inhabitants of the room, the scullion, the statues, and the huge eyeless skull, seemed to hold their breath.
These stolen moments filled Simon with a quiet, almost fearful, ecstasy. Perhaps the malachite kings but waited with black, stony patience for the boy to touch a blasphemous commoner's hand to the dragonbone seat, waited... waited... and then, with a horrible creaking noise, they would come to life! He shivered with nervous pleasure at his own imaginings and stepped lightly forward, surveying the dark faces. Their names had been so familiar once, when they had been strung-together nonsense in a child's rhyme, a rhyme Rachel—Rachel? Could that be right?—had taught him when he was a giggling ape of four years or so. Could he remember them still?
If his own childhood seemed so long ago, he suddenly wondered, how must it feel to Prester John, who wore so many decades? Mercilessly clear, as when Simon remembered past humiliations, or soft and insubstantial, like stories of the glorious past? When you were old, did your memories crowd out your other thoughts? Or did you lose them—your childhood, your hated enemies, your friends?
How did that old song go? Six kings...
Six Kings have ruled in Hayholt's broad halls

Six masters have stridden her mighty stone walls

Six mounds on the cliff over deep Kynslagh-bay

Six kings will sleep there until Doom's final day
That was it!
Fingil first, named the Bloody King

Flying out of the North on war's red wing
Hjeldin his son, the Mad King dire

Leaped to his death from the haunted spire
Ikferdig next, the Burned King hight

He met the fire-drake by dark of night
Three northern kings, all dead and cold

The North rules no more in lofty Hayholt
Those were the three Rimmersgard kings on the left of the throne. Wasn't Fingil the one Morgenes spoke of, the leader of the dreadful army? The one who killed the Sithi? So, on the right side of the yellowed bones the rest must be...
The Heron King Suits, called Apostate

Fled Nabban, but in Hayholt he met his fate
The Hernystir Holly King, old Tethtain

Came in at the gate, but not out again
Last, Eahlstan Fisher King, in lore most high

The dragon he woke, and in Hayholt he died...
Hah! Simon stared at the Heron King's sad, pinched face and gloated. My memory is better than most people think—better than that of most mooncalves! Of course, now there was at last a seventh king in the Hayholt—old Prester John. Simon wondered if someone would add King John to the song someday.
The sixth statue, closest to the throne's right arm, was Simon's favorite: the only native Erkynlander who had ever sat on the Hayholt's great seat. He moved closer to look into the deep-cut eyes of Saint Eahlstan—called Eahlstan Fiskeme because he came from the fisher-people of the Gleniwent, called The Martyr because he too had been slain by the fire-drake Shurakai, the creature destroyed at last by Prester John.
Unlike the Burned King on the throne's other side, the Fisher King's face was not carved in a twist of fear and doubt: rather the sculptor had brought radiant faith into the stony features, had given opaque eyes the illusion of seeing faraway things. The long-dead artisan had made Eahlstan humble and reverent, but had also made him bold. In his secret thoughts, Simon often imagined that his own fisherman father might have looked like this.
Staring, Simon felt a sudden coldness on his hand. He was touching the Chair's bone armrest! A scullion touching the throne! He snatched his fingers away—wondering all the while how even the dead substance of such a fiery beast could feel so chill—and stumbled back a step.
It seemed for a heart-seizing moment that the statues had begun to lean toward him, shadows stretching on the tapestried wall, and he skittered backward. When nothing resembling actual movement followed, he straightened himself with what dignity he could, bowed to Kings and Chair, and backed across the stone floor. Searching with his hand—calmly, calmly, he thought to himself, don't be a frightened fool—he at last found the door into the standing room, his original destination. With a cautious look back at the reassuringly immobile tableau, he slipped through.
Behind the standing room's heavy tapestry, thick red velvet embroidered with festival scenes, a staircase inside the wall mounted to a privy at the top of the throne room's southern gallery. Chiding himself for his nervousness of moments before, he climbed it. At the top it was a simple enough matter to squeeze out of the privy's long window-slit and onto the wall that ran beneath. The trick, however, was a little more difficult now than when he had been here last in Septander: the stones were snow-slippery, and there was a determined breeze. Fortunately the wall top was wide; Simon negotiated it carefully.
Now came the pan that he liked best. The corner of this wall came out within only five or six feet of the broad lee of Green Angel Tower's fourth-floor turret. Pausing, he could almost hear the bray of trumpets, the clash of knights battling on the decks below him as he prepared to leap through the fierce wind from mast to burning mast....
Whether his foot slipped a little as he jumped, or his attention was distracted by the imaginary sea-skirmish below, Simon landed badly on the edge of the turret. He caught his knee a tremendous crack on the stone, nearly sliding back and off, which would have dropped him two long fathoms onto the low wall at the tower's base or into the moat. The sudden realization of his peril spurred his heart into a terrified gallop. Instead he managed to slide down into the space between the turret's upstanding merlons, crawling forward to slip down onto the floor of long boards.
A light snow sifted down as he sat, feeling horribly foolish, and hugged his throbbing knee. It hurt like sin, betrayal, and treachery; if he had not been conscious of how childish he must already seem, he would have cried.
At last he climbed to his feet and limped into the tower. One piece of luck, anyway: no one had heard his painful landing. His disgrace was his alone. He felt in his pocket—the bread and cheese were rather nastily flattened, but still eatable. That, too, was a small solace.
Climbing stairs on his aching knee was an effort, but it was no good getting into Green Angel Tower, tallest building in Erkynland—probably in all of Osten Ard—and then not getting up any higher than the Hayholt's main walls.
The tower staircase was low and narrow, the steps made of a clean, smooth white stone unlike any other in the castle, slippery to the touch but sure beneath one's feet. The castle folk said that this tower was the only part of the original Sithi stronghold that remained unchanged. Doctor Morgenes had once told Simon that this was untrue. Whether that meant that the tower had indeed been changed, or simply that other unsullied remnants of old Asu'a still remained, the doctor—in his maddening style—would not say.
Having climbed for several minutes, Simon could see from the windows that he was already higher than Hjeldin's Tower. The somewhat sinister domed column where the Mad King had long ago met his death gazed up at Green Angel across the expanse of the throne room roof, as a jealous dwarf might stare at his prince when no one was looking.
The stone facing on the inside of the stairwell was different here: a soft fawn color, traced across with minute, puzzling designs in sky blue. Turning his attention away from Hjeldin's Tower, he stopped for a moment where the light of a high window shone on the wall, but when he tried to follow the course of one of the delicate blue scrolls it made his head dizzy and he gave up.
At last, when it seemed he had been climbing" painfully for hours, the staircase opened out onto the shiny white floor of the bell tower, this, too, constructed from the unusual stair-stone. Although the tower stretched up another near-hundred cubits, tapering to the Angel herself perched on the cloudy horizon, the staircase ended here where the great bronze bells hung row by row from the vaulted rafters like solemn green fruit. The bell chamber itself was open on all sides to the cold air, so that when Green Angel's chimes sang from its high-arched windows the whole countryside might hear.
Simon stood with his back against one of the six pillars of dark, smooth, rock-solid wood that spanned floor to ceiling. As he chewed his crust of bread he looked out across the western vista, where the Kynslagh's waters rolled eternally against the Hayholt's massive sea wall. Although the day was dark, and snowflakes danced crazily before him, Simon was startled by the clarity with which the world below rose to his eyes. Many small boats rode the Kynslagh's swells, lake men in black cloaks bent stolidly over their oars. Beyond, he thought he could dimly make out the place where the river Gleniwent issued out of the lake at the start of its long journey to the ocean, a winding course of half a hundred miles, past dock-towns and farms. Out of Gleniwent, in the arms of the sea herself, Warinsten island watched the river mouth; beyond Warinsten to the west lay nothing but uncountable, uncharged leagues of ocean.
He tested his sore knee and decided for the moment against sitting down, which would necessitate rising again. He pulled his hat down over his ears, which were reddening and stinging in the wind, and started in on a piece of crumbling cheese. To his right, but far past the limits of his vision, were the meadows and jutting hills of Ach Samrath, the outermost marches of the kingdom of Hernystir, and the site of the terrible battle Morgenes had described. On his left hand, across the broad Kynslagh, rolled the Thrithings—grasslands seemingly without end. Eventually, of course, they did end; beyond lay Nabban, Pirranos Bay and its islands, and the marshy Wran country... all places Simon had never seen and most likely never would.
Growing bored at last with the unchanging Kynslagh and imaginings of the unseeable South, he limped to the other side of the bell chamber. Seen from the center of the room, where no details of the land below were visible, the swirling, featureless cloud-darkness was a gray hole into nowhere, and the tower was momentarily a ghost-ship adrift on a foggy, empty sea. Wind howled and sang around the open window frames; the bells hummed faintly, as if the storm had driven small, frightened spirits into their bronze skins.
Simon reached the low sill and leaned out to look at the mad jumble of the Hayholfs roofs below him. At first the wind tugged as though it wished to catch him up and toss him, like a kitten sporting with a dead leaf. He tightened his grip on the wet stone, and soon the wind eased. He smiled: from this vantage point the Hayholfs magnificent hodgepodge of roofs—each a different height and style, each with its forest of chimney pots, rooftrees, and domes—looked like a yard full of odd, square animals. They sprawled half-atop one another, struggling for space like hogs at their feed.
Shorter only than the two towers, the dome of the castle chapel dominated the Inner Bailey, colorful windows draped in sleet. The keep's other buildings, the residences, dining hall, throne room and chancelry, were each one of them stacked and squeezed with additions, mute evidence of the castle's diverse tenantry. The two outer baileys and the massive curtain wall, descending concentrically down the hill, were similarly cluttered. The Hayholt itself had never expanded past the outwall; the people crowding in built upward, or divided what they already had into smaller and smaller portions.
Beyond the keep the town of Erchester stretched out in street after careless street of low houses, wrapped in a mantle of white drifts; only the cathedral reared up from their midst, itself dwarfed by the Hayholt and by Simon in his sky-tower. Here and there a feather of smoke drifted upward to shred in the wind.
Past the city walls Simon could make out the dim, snow-smoothed outlines of the Itch-yard—the old pagan cemetery, a place of ill repute. The downs beyond it ran almost to the forest's edge; above their humble congregation the tall hill called Thisterborg stood as dramatically as the cathedral in low-roofed Erchester. Simon could not see them, but he knew that Thisterborg was crowned with a ring of wind-polished rock pillars that the villagers called the Anger Stones.
And beyond Erchester, past the lich-yard and downs and stone-capped Thisterborg, lay the Forest. Aldheorte was its name—Oldheart—and it stretched outward like the sea, vast, dark, and unknowable. Men lived on its fringes, even maintained a few roads along its outer edges, but very few ventured inward beyond its skirts. It was a great, shadowy country in the middle of Osten Ard; it sent no embassies, and received few visitors. Placed against its eminence even the huge Circoille, the Combwood of Hernystir in the west, was a mere copse. There was only one Forest.
The sea to the West, the Forest to the East; the North and its iron men, and the land of shattered empires in the South... staring out across the face of Osten Ard, Simon forgot his knee for a while. Indeed, for a time Simon himself was king of all the known world.
When the shrouded winter sun had passed the top of the sky, he moved at last to leave. Straightening his leg forced out a gasp of pain: the knee had stiffened in the long hour he had stood at the sill. It was obvious that he would not be able to take his strenuous secret route down from the bell tower. He would have to chance his luck against Bamabas and Father Dreosan.
The long stairway was a misery, but the view from the tower window had pushed away his other regrets; he did not feel nearly as sorry for himself as he otherwise might have. The desire to see more of the world glowed within him like a low-banked fire, warming him to his fingertips. He would ask Morgenes to tell him more of Nabban and the Southern Islands, and of the Six Kings.
At the fourth level, where he had made his original entry, he heard a sound: someone moving quickly down the stairwell below him. For a moment he stood still, wondering if he had been discovered—it was not strictly forbidden to be in the tower, but he had no good reason for his presence; the sexton would presume guilt. It was strange, though—the footfalls were receding. Certainly Bamabas or anyone else would not hesitate to come up and get him, to lead him down by the much-handled scruff of his neck. Simon continued down the winding stairs; cautiously at first; then, despite his throbbing knee, faster and faster as his curiosity got the better of him.
The staircase ended at last in the huge entry hall of the tower. The hall was dimly lit, its walls cloaked in shadows and faded tapestries of subjects probably religious but long since obscured. He paused at the last step, still concealed in the darkness of the stairwell. There was no sound of footsteps—or of anything else. He walked as silently as possible across the nagged floor, every accidental boot-scrape hissing up toward the oak-ribbed ceiling. The hall's main door was closed; the only illumination streamed in from windows above the lintel.
How could whoever had been on the stairs have opened and closed the giant door without his knowing? He had easily heard the light footfalls, and had himself been worrying about the squeak that the large hinges would make. He turned to again scan the portal-hall.
There. From beneath the fringed trim of the stained silver tapestry hung by the stairs, two small, rounded shapes protruded—shoes. As he looked carefully now, he could see how folds of the old hanging bellied out where someone hid behind it.
Balancing on one foot like a heron, he quietly pulled off first one boot, then the other. Who could it be? Perhaps fat Jeremias had followed him here to play a trick? Well, if so, Simon would soon show him.
Bare feet nearly silent on the stones, he crept across the hall until he stood immediately before the suspicious bump. For a moment, reaching a hand out to the edge of the hanging, he remembered the strange thing Brother Cadrach had said about curtains while they had watched the puppet show. He hesitated, then felt ashamed of his own timidity, and swept the tapestry aside.
Instead of flying open to reveal the spy, the massive hanging tore free of its stays and billowed down like a monstrous, stiffened blanket. Simon had only a momentary glimpse of a small, startled face before the weight of the tapestry knocked him to the ground. As he lay cursing and struggling, badly tangled, a brown-clad figure shot by.
Simon could hear whoever-it-was struggling with the heavy door as he himself wrestled the dusty, enveloping fabric. At last he pulled free and rolled to his feet, moving across the room in a bound to catch the small figure before it slipped through the partially opened door. He got a firm handhold on a rough jerkin. The spy was captured, half-in and half-out.
Simon was angry now, mostly from embarrassment. "Who are you?" he snarled. "You spier-on-people!" His captive said nothing, but only struggled harder. Whoever he was, he-was not big enough to loosen Simon's restraining grasp.
Fighting to pull the resisting figure back through the doorway—no easy task—Simon was startled to recognize the sand-colored broadcloth he was gripping. This must be the young man who had been spying at the door of the chapel! Simon gave a fierce pull and got the youth's head and shoulder back through the doorframe so he could look at him.



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