"No, Prince Jiriki," Binabik said hastily. "Surely you are seeing we had no expectations of finding your people here. We are from Naglimund, Prince Josua's sending, on an errand of terrible import. We are seeking..."
The troll hesitated, as though afraid to say too much. Finally, with a shrug, he continued.
"We got to the dragon-mountain for searching Camaris-sa-Vuiitta's sword Thorn."
Jiriki narrowed his eyes, and behind him the green-clad one he had called his uncle let out a thin whistle of breath.
"What would you do with such a thing?" Khendraja'aro demanded.
Binabik would not answer this, but stared unhappily at the cavern floor. The very air seemed to thicken as the moments passed.
"It's to save us from Ineluki the Storm King!" Simon blurted out. None of the Sithi moved a muscle except to blink. No one said a word.
"Speak more," Jiriki said at last.
"If we must," Binabik said. "It is part of a story near as long as your Ua'kiza Tumefai nei-R'i'anis—the Song of the Fall of Tumet'ai. We will try for telling you what we can."
The troll hurriedly explained the main facts. It seemed to Simon that he deliberately omitted many things; once or twice in the telling Binabik looked up and caught his eye, seemingly warning him to silence.
Binabik told the silent Sithi of Naglimund's preparations and the crimes of the High King, he explained the words of Jarnauga, and the book of Nisses, reciting the rhyme that led them on toward Urmsheun.
The finish of the story left the troll facing Jiriki's bland stare, the uncle's more skeptical expression, and a silence so complete that the ringing echo of the waterfall seemed to swell until it filled the whole world with noise. What a place of madness and dreams this was, and what a mad story they were suddenly living in! Simon felt his heart racing, but not from fear alone.
"This is hard to credit, son of my sister," Khendraja'aro said at last, spreading his beringed hands in an unfamiliar gesture.
"It is, Uncle. But I think this is not the time to speak of it."
"But the other one the boy spoke of..." Khendraja'aro began, his yellow eyes troubled, his voice full of building anger. 'The black one below Nakktga..."
"Not now." There was an edge to the Sithi prince's voice. He turned to the five outsiders. "Apologies are called for. It is not good that we should discuss such things while you still have not eaten, You are our guests." Simon felt a wave of relief at these words and swayed a little, his knees suddenly weak.
Noticing this, Jiriki waved them toward the fire. "Sit down. We must be forgiven for our suspicion. Understand, although I owe you blood debt, Seoman—you are my Hikka Sta'ja—your race has done ours little kindness."
"I must be disagreeing with you in a part, Prince Jiriki," Binabik replied, seating himself on a flat rock near the fire. "Of all Sithi, your family should be knowing that we Qanuc have never brought you any harm."
Jiriki looked down on the little man, and his taut features relaxed into an expression almost of fondness. "You have caught me in ungraciousness, Binbiniqegabenik. After only the Western men, whom we knew best, we once loved the Qanuc well."
Binabik lifted his head, a look of astonishment on his round face. "How are you knowing my full name? I have not given mention of it, and my companions have not been either."
Jiriki laughed, a hissing sound, but strangely cheering, with not a hint of insincerity. In that moment Simon felt a fierce, sudden liking for him.
"Ah, troll," the prince said, "someone as traveled as you are should not be surprised that your name is known. How many Qanuc beside your master and yourself are ever seen south of the mountains?"
"You are knowing my master? He is dead now." Binabik pulled off his gloves and flexed his fingers. Simon and the others were finding seats of their own.
"He knew us," Jiriki said. "Did he not teach you to speak our language? You said the troll spoke to you, An'nai?"
"He did, my prince. Mostly correctly."
Binabik flushed, pleased but embarrassed. "Ookequk was teaching me some, but he never told me where he had been learning it. I had the thought perhaps his master had given it to him."
"Sit now, sit," said Jiriki, gesturing for Haestan, Sludig and Grimmric to follow Simon and Binabik's example. They came like dogs who fear a beating and found themselves places near the fire. Several of the other Sithi approached bearing salvers of intricately carved and polished wood, high-laden with all manner of things: butter and dark brown bread, a wheel of pungent, salty cheese, small red and yellow fruits that Simon had never seen before. There were also several bowls of quite recognizable berries, and even a pile of slow-dripping honeycombs. When Simon reached and took two of the sticky combs, Jiriki laughed again, a quiet sibilance like a jay in a distant tree.
"Everywhere is winter," he said, "but in the sheltered fastnesses of Jao e-Tinukai'i, the bees do not know it. Take all you like."
Captors-turned-hosts now served the companions an unfamiliar but potent wine, filling their wooden goblets from stone ewers. Simon wondered if some prayer might be said before starting, but the Sithi had already begun to eat. Haestan, Sludig, and Grimmric were looking around miserably, wanting to begin but still full of fear and distrust. They watched intently as Binabik broke bread and took a mouthful of buttered crust. Some moments later, when he was not only still alive but eating merrily, the men felt safe to attack the Sithi fare, which they did with the vigor of reprieved prisoners.
Dabbing honey from his chin, Simon paused to watch the Sithi. The Fair Folk ate slowly, sometimes staring at a berry between their fingers for long instants before lifting it to their mouths. There was little speech, but when one of them made some remark in their liquid tongue, or gave voice to a brief trill of song, all the others listened. Most often there was no response, but if one of them had some answer they all listened to that, too. There was much quiet laughter, but no shouting and no arguing, and Simon never heard anyone interrupt while another was speaking.
An'nai had moved over to sit near Simon and Binabik. One of the Sithi made a solemn statement that drew a laugh from the others. Simon asked An'nai to explain the joke.
The white-jacketed Sitha looked slightly uncomfortable. "Ki'ushapo said that your friends eat as though they fear their food might run away." He gestured to Haestan, who was pushing food into his mouth with both hands.
Simon was not sure what An'nai meant—surely they had seen hungry people before?—but he smiled anyway.
As the meal wore on, and a seemingly inexhaustible river of wine replenished the wooden goblets, the Rimmersman and the two Erkymandish guardsmen began to enjoy themselves. At one point Sludig stood, tumbler sloshing in his hand, and proposed a hearty toast to his new Sithi friends. Jiriki smiled and nodded, but Khendraja'aro stiffened; when Sludig swung into an old northern drinking song, the prince's uncle slipped quietly off to the corner of the broad cavern to stare into the rippling, lamplit pond.
The other Sithi at table laughed as Sludig sang the choruses in his braying voice, and swayed to his tipsy rhythm, whispering occasionally among themselves. Sludig and Haestan and Grimmric seemed quite happy now, and even Binabik was grinning as he sucked on a pear rind—but Simon, remembering the enthralling music he had heard the Sithi play, felt a glow of shame for his companion, as though the Rimmersman were a festival bear dancing for crumbs in Main Row.
After watching for some while he got up, wiping his hands on his shirtfront. Binabik rose, too, and after asking Jiriki's permission went down the covered passageway to have a look after Qantaqa. The three soldiers were all laughing uproariously among themselves, telling, Simon had no doubt, drunken soldier jokes. He walked to one of the wall niches to examine the strange lamps. Abruptly he was reminded of the glowing crystal Morgenes had given him— could it have been Sithi-work?—and felt a cold, lonely tug at his heart. He lifted one of the lamps and saw a faint shadow of the bones in his hand, as though the flesh was only muddied water. Stare as he might, he could not fathom how the flame had been introduced to the inside of the translucent crystal.
Sensing someone watching, he turned. Jiriki was staring, cat-eyes agleam on the far side of the fire circle. Simon started, surprised; the prince nodded.
Haestan, the wine gone to his shaggy head, had challenged one of the Sithi—the one An'nai had named Ki'ushapo—to wrist-wrestle. Ki'ushapo, yellow-braided, dressed in black and gray, was receiving drunken advice from Grimmric. It was clear why the skinny guardsman thought his aid well-directed: the Sitha was a head shorter than Haestan, and looked to be barely more than half his weight. As the Sitha, with a bemused expression, leaned forward across the smooth stone to clasp Haestan's broad hand, Jiriki stood up and edged past them, making his graceful way across the chamber toward Simon.
It was still difficult, Simon thought, to reconcile this confident, clever being with the maddened creature he had found in the cotsman's wire. Still, when Jiriki turned his head a certain way, or flexed his long-jointed fingers, it was possible to see again the wildness that had frightened and fascinated. And whenever the firelight caught the prince's gold-flecked amber eyes, they shone ancient as jewels from the black soil of the forest.
"Come, Seoman," the Sitha said, "I will show you something." He slid his hand under the youth's elbow and steered him toward the pool where Khendraja'aro sat trailing his fingers in the water. As they passed the fire, Simon saw that the wrist-wrestling contest was at full heat. The opponents were locked in struggle, neither with an advantage yet, but Haestan's bearded face was clenched in a lock-toothed grin of strain. The slender Sitha, by contrast, showed little effect from the standoff, except his gray-clad arm quivering with the tension of their striving. Simon did not think this boded well for Haestan's chances. Sludig, watching the small frustrate the large, sat open-mouthed.
Jiriki fluted something to his uncle as they approached, but Khendraja'aro did not respond: his ageless face seemed closed, shut like a door. Simon followed the prince past him along the cavern wall. A moment later, before his astonished eyes, Jiriki disappeared.
He had only stepped into another tunnel, one that hooked around behind the stone sluice of the little waterfall. Simon went in after him; the tunnel curled upward in rough stone steps, lit by a row of lamps.
"Follow me, please," Jiriki said, and began to climb.
It seemed they mounted far up into the hill, spiraling around and around for some time. At last they passed the last lamp, and traveled a careful way in near-darkness, until finally Simon became aware of the gleam of stars before him. A moment later the passageway widened into a small cave, one end of which was open to the night sky.
He followed Jiriki to the cavern's edge, which was a waist-high lip of stone. The rock face of the hill dropped away below: ten bare cubits down to the tops of the tall evergreens, fifty more to the snow-matted ground. The night was clear, the stars shining fiercely against the blackness, and the forest was all around, like a vast secret.
After they had stood some while, Jiriki said: "I owe you a life, manchild. Do not fear I will forget."
Simon said nothing, afraid to speak in case he should break the spell that allowed him to stand in the very midst of the forest night, a spy in God's dark garden. An owl called.
There passed another interval of silence, then the Sitha lightly touched Simon's arm and pointed out above the silent ocean of trees.
"There. To the north, beneath Lu'yasa's Staff..." He indicated a line of three stars in the lowest part of the velvety sky. "Can you see the outline of the mountains?"
Simon stared. He thought there might be a faint luminescence on the murky horizon, the barest hint of some great white shape so far away as to seem out of reach of the same moonlight that glowed on trees and snow beneath them. "I think so," he said quietly.
"That is where you go. The peak men call Urmsheim is in that range, although you would need a clearer night to see it well." He sighed. "Your friend Binabik tonight spoke of lost Tumet'aL Once it could be seen from here, away there in the east," he pointed into darkness, "from this very perch, but that was in my great-grandfather's day. In daylight the Sem'nzl't'n... the Tower of the Walking Dawn... would catch the rising sun in its roofs of crystal and gold. They say it was like a beautiful torch burning on the morning horizon..."
He broke off, turning his eyes finally to Simon, the rest of his face obscured by nightshadow.
"'Himet'ai is long buried," he said, and shrugged. "Nothing lasts, not even the Sithi... not even time itself."
"How... how old are you?"
Jiriki smiled, teeth glinting in the moonlight. "Older than you, Seoman. Let us go down now. You have seen and survived many things today, and no doubt you need sleep."
When they got back to the firelit cavern, the three guardsmen were wrapped in their cloaks, snoring lustily. Binabik had returned, and sat listening as several Sithi sang a slow, mournful song that droned like a beehive and ran like a river, and seemed to fill the cave like the thick scent of some rare, dying flower.
Curled in his own cloak, watching the firelight flicker on the stones above him, Simon was lulled to sleep by the strange music of Jiriki's tribe.
High King's Hand
SIMON AWAKENED to find the cavern light changed. The fire still burned, thin yellow flames among the white ashes, but the lamps had been extinguished. Daylight filtered down through crevices in the ceiling that had been invisible the night before, transforming the stone chamber into a pillared hall of light and shadow.
His three soldier companions still slept, tangled in their cloaks snoring, sprawled like battle casualties. The cavern was otherwise empty but for Binabik, who sat cross-legged before the fire tootling absently on his walking-stick flute.
Simon sat up groggily. "Where are the Sithi?"
Binabik did not turn, but piped a few more notes. "Greetings, good friend," he said at last. "Was your sleep satisfying?"
"I suppose," Simon grunted, rolling back over to stare at the dust flecks shimmering near the cavern's roof. "Where did the Sithi go?"
"Out for hunting, as it were. Come and raise yourself. I need your assistance."
Simon groaned, but dragged himself up into a sitting position.
"Hunting for giants?" he asked a short while later through a mouthful of fruit. Haestan's snores were becoming so loud that Binabik had put his flute down in disgust.
"Hunting whatever is threatening to their borders, I suppose." The troll stared at something before him on the stone cavern floor. "Kikkasut! This is making no good sense. I am not liking it one least bit."
"What doesn't make sense?" Simon lazily surveyed the rock chamber. "Is this a Sithi house?"
Binabik looked over, frowning. "I suppose it is good you have regained your ability for the asking of many questions at once. No, this is not a Sithi house, as such. It is, I am thinking, what Jiriki called it: a hunting lodge, a place for their hunters to stay while roaming afield. As for your other question, it is these bones that are nonsensical—or rather, too much sense they make."
The knucklebones lay in a heap before Binabik's knees. Simon looked them over. "What does that mean?"
"I will tell you. Perhaps it would be good your using this time to wash the dirt and blood and juice of berries from your face." The troll flashed a sour yellow grin, pointing to the pool in the corner. "There is suitable for washing."
He waited until Simon had ducked his head once in the bitingly cold water.
"Aaah!" the youth said, shivering. "Cold!"
"You may be seeing," Binabik resumed, unperturbed by Simon's complaints, "that I have been at throwing my bones this morning. What they are saying is this; The Shadowed Path, Unwrapped Dart, and Black Crevice. Much confusion and worry this is causing me."
"Why?" Simon splashed more water on his face and rubbed it off with his jerkin sleeve, which was itself none too clean.
"Because I was casting the bones before we left Naglimund," Binabik said crossly, "and the same figures I was getting! Exactly!"
"But why should that be bad?" Something bright lying at the pool's edge caught his eye. He picked it up carefully, and discovered it was a round looking glass set in a splendidly carved wooden frame. The rim of the dark glass was etched with unfamiliar characters.
"Bad it often is when things are always the same," Binabik answered, "but with the bones it is more than that. The bones to me are guides to wisdom, yes?"
"Mmm-hmmh." Simon polished the mirror on his shirtfront.
"Well, what if you were opening your Book of the Aedon to discover that all its pages suddenly were having only one verse—the same verse, over then over?"
"Do you mean a Book I had already seen? That hadn't been like that before? I suppose it would be magic."
"Well, then," Binabik said, mollified, "there you are seeing my problem. There are hundreds of ways the bones can find themselves. To be the same cast six times in running—I can only think it bad.
Much as I have studied, still I am not liking the word 'magic'—but some force there is gripping the bones, as a powerful wind is pushing all flags the same way... Simon? Are you listening?"
Staring fixedly at the mirror, Simon was astonished to find an unfamiliar face looking back. The stranger had an elongated, large-boned face, blue-shadowed eyes, and a growth of red-gold whiskers on chin, cheeks and upper lip. Simon was further amazed to realize that—of course!—he was only seeing himself, thinned and weathered by his travels, the first growth of man's beard darkening his jaws. What kind of face was this, he suddenly wondered? He still had not a man's features, worn and stem, but he fancied that he had sloughed off some of his mooncalflshness. Nonetheless, he found something disappointing in the long-chinned, shock-haired youth who stared back at him.
Is this what I looked like to Miriamele? Like a farmer's son—a ploughboy?
And even as he thought of the princess, it seemed that he saw a flash of her features in the glass, almost growing out of his own. For a dizzy instant they were meshed together, like two cloudy souls in one body; an instant later it was Miriamele alone whose face he saw—or Malachias, rather, for her hair was short and black, and she wore boy's clothes. A colorless sky lay beyond her, spotted with dark thunderheads. There was another, too, who stood just behind, a round-faced man in a gray hood. Simon had seen him before, he was sure, so sure—who was he?
"Simon!" Binabik's voice splashed him like the cold pool-water, just as the elusive name flitted within reach. Startled, he juggled the mirror for a moment. When he clutched it tight again, no face was there but his own.
"Are you turning sick?" the troll asked, worried by the slack, puzzled expression Simon turned toward him.
"No... I don't think so..."
"Then if you are washed, come to help me. We shall go to speaking of the auguries later, when your attention is not so delicate." Binabik stood, dropping the knucklebones back into their leather sack.
Binabik went first down the ice chute, warning Simon to keep his toes pointed and his hands close to his head. The headlong seconds rushing down the tunnel were like a dream of falling from a high place, and when he thumped down into the soft snow beneath the tunnel mouth, bright, chill daylight in his eyes, he was content to sit for a moment and enjoy the feel of his heart's rapid beating.
A moment later he was bowled over by a surprising clout on the back, followed by the smothering descent of a mountain of muscle and fur.
"Qantaqa!" he heard Binabik shout, laughing. "If it is your friends who are receiving such treatment, I am glad I am no enemy!"
Simon pushed the wolf away, gasping, only to face a renewed, rough-tongued assault on his face. At last, with Binabik's aid, he rolled free. Qantaqa sprang to her feet whining excitedly, circling the youth and troll once, then sprang away into the snowy wood.
"Now," Binabik said, brushing show from his black hair, "we must be finding where the Sithi have been putting up our horses."
"Not far, Qanuc-man."
Simon jumped. He turned to see a line of Sithi file silently out of the trees, Jiriki's green-jacketed uncle at its head. "And why do you seek them?"
Binabik smiled. "Certainly not for escaping you, good Khendraja'aro. Your hospitality is too lavish for us to hurry away from it. No, there are certain things only I wish to make sure we still have, things I was obtaining with some trouble at Naglimund that we will need on the roads ahead."
Khendraja'aro looked down on the troll expressionlessly for a moment, then signaled to two of the other Sithi. "Sijandi, Ki'ushapo—show them."
The yellow-haired pair walked a few steps along the hillside, away from the tunnel-mouth, then stopped, waiting for Simon and the troll to follow. When Simon looked back he saw Khendraja'aro still watching, an unreadable expression in his bright, narrowed eyes.
They found the horses put up a few furlongs away, in a small cavern hidden by a pair of snow-laden pine trees. The cave was snug and dry; all six horses were contentedly chewing away at a pile of sweet-smelling hay.
"Where did all this come from?" Simon asked, surprised.
"We often bring our own horses," Ki'ushapo replied, speaking the Western tongue carefully. "Does it surprise you to find we have a stable for them?"
As Binabik rooted around in one of the saddlebags, Simon explored the cavern, noting the light spilling through a crevice high in the wall, and a stone trough filled with clean water. Propped against the far side was a pile of helmets, axes and swords. Simon recognized one of the blades as his own, from the armory of Naglimund.
"These are ours, Binabik!" he said. "How did they get here?"
Ki'ushapo spoke slowly, as though to a child. "We put them here after we took them from you and your companions. Here they are safe and dry."
Simon looked at the Sitha suspiciously. "But I thought that you couldn't touch iron—that it was poison to you!" He stopped short, fearful that he had ventured onto forbidden ground, but Ki'ushapo only exchanged a glance with his silent companion before replying.