"So, you have heard tales of the Days of Black Iron," he said. "Yes, it was once thus, but those of us who survived those days have learned much. We know now what waters to drink, and from which certain springs, so that we can handle mortal iron for a little time without harm. Why did you think we allowed you to keep your coat of mail? But, of course, we have no liking for it, and do not use it... or even touch it when there is no need." He looked over to Binabik, who was still rummaging intently in the traveling bags. "We shall leave you to finish your search," the Sitha said. "You will find nothing missing—at least nothing you had when you came into our hands."
Binabik looked up. "Of course," he said. "I am only in worry over things that may have been lost during the fighting of yesterday."
"Of course," Ki'ushapo replied. He and the quiet Sijandi went out beneath the branches of the entrance.
"Ah!" Binabik said at last, holding up a sack that clinked like a purse full of gold Imperators. "A worry eased, this is." He dropped it back in the saddle bag.
"What is it?" Simon asked, irritated to be asking another question.
Binabik grinned wickedly. "More Qanuc tricks, ones that will be found very useful soon. Come, we should be returning. If the others wake up, stiff with drink and alone, they may have fright and be doing something foolish."
Qantaqa found them on their short journey back, her mouth and nose daubed with the blood of some luckless animal. She bounded several times around them, then stopped, hackles lifting as she sniffed at the air. She lowered her head and sniffed again, then went loping ahead.
Jiriki and An'nai had joined Khendraja'aro. The prince had shed his white robe for a jacket of tan and blue. He held a tall bow, unstrung, and wore a quiver full of brown-fletched arrows.
Qantaqa circled the Sithi, growling and sniffing, but her tail waved in the air behind her as though she greeted old acquaintances. She lunged forward toward the blithe Fair Folk, then dodged back, rumbling deep in her throat and shaking her head as though snapping the neck of a rabbit. When Binabik and Simon joined the circle, she came forward long enough to touch Binabik's hand with her black nose, then danced away again and resumed her nervous circling.
"Did you find all your possessions in good order?" Jiriki asked.
Binabik nodded. "Yes, with certainty. Thanks to you for seeing to our horses."
Jiriki negligently waved his slender hand. "And what now to do?" he asked.
"I am thinking we should be on our road soon," the troll responded, shading his eyes to look at the gray-blue sky.
"Surely not this day," Jiriki said. "Rest this afternoon, and eat with us again. We still have much to speak of, and you can leave tomorrow by dawn light."
"You... and your uncle... show much kindness to us, Prince Jiriki. And honor." Binabik bowed.
"We are not a kind race, Binbiniqegabenik, not as we once were, but we are a courteous one. Come."
After a splendid lunch of bread, sweet milk, and a wonderfully odd, tangy soup made from nuts and snowflowers, the long afternoon was spent by Sithi and men alike in quiet talk and singing and long naps.
Simon slept shallowly, and dreamed of Miriamele standing atop the ocean as though it were a floor of uneven green marble, beckoning him to come to her. In his dream he saw furious black clouds on the horizon, and called out, trying to give warning. The princess did not hear over the gathering wind, only smiled and beckoned. He knew he could not stand on the waves, and dove in to swim toward her, but he felt the cold waters, pulling him down, tugging him under....
When he fought free of the dream at last, it was to awaken in dying afternoon. The pillars of light had dimmed, and leaned as though drunken. Some of the Sitha were setting the crystal lamps in their wall niches, but even watching the process gave Simon no better understanding of what lit them: after being put in place they simply, slowly, began to glow with gentle, suffusive light.
Simon joined his companions at the stone circle around the fire. They were alone: the Sithi, although hospitable and even friendly, nevertheless seemed to prefer their own company, sitting in small knots around the cavern.
"Boy," Haestan said, reaching up to clap his shoulder, "we feared ye'd sleep all th' day."
"I would sleep too, if I ate as much bread as he," Sludig said, cleaning his nails with a sliver of wood.
"All here were agreeing on an early leave-taking tomorrow," Binabik said, and Grimmric and Haestan nodded. "There is no certainty this mildness of weather will continue long, and it is far we must still go."
"Mild weather?" said Simon, frowning at the stiffness in his legs as he sat down. "It's snowing like mad."
Binabik chuckled deep in his throat. "Ho, friend Simon, talk to a snow-dweller if you are wanting to know cold weather. This is like our Qanuc spring, when we play naked in the snows of Mintahoq. When we are reaching the mountains, then, I am sorry to say, you will be feeling real coldness."
He doesn't look very sorry at all, Simon thought. "So when do we start out?"
"First light in the east," Sludig said. "The sooner," he added significantly, looking around the cavern at their unusual hosts, "the better."
Binabik eyed him, then turned back to Simon. "So we shall be at putting things in order tonight."
Jiriki had appeared as though from thin air to join them at the fireside. "Ah," he said, "I wish to speak to you about just these matters."
"Surely there is no problem had with our leaving?" Binabik asked, his cheerful expression not entirely masking a certain anxiousness. Haestan and Grimmric looked worried, Sludig ever-so-faintly resentful.
"I think not," the Sitha replied. "But there are certain things I wish to send with you." He reached a long-fingered hand into his robe with a fluid gesture, producing Simon's White Arrow.
"This is yours, Seoman," he said.
"What? But it... it belongs to you. Prince Jiriki."
The Sitha lifted his head for a moment, as though listening to some distant call, then lowered his gaze once more. "No, Seoman, it is not mine until I earn it back—a life for a life." He held it up between his two hands, like a length of string, so that the slanting light from above burnished the minute and complicated designs along its length.
"I know you cannot read these writings," Jiriki said slowly, "but I will tell you that they are Words of Making, scribed on the arrow by Vindaomeyo the Fletcher himself—deep, deep in the past, before we of the First People were torn apart into the Three Tribes. It is as much a part of my family as if it were made with my own bone and sinew—and as much a part of me. I did not give it lightly—few mortals have ever held a Sta'ja Ame—and I certainly could not take it back until I had paid the debt it signifies." So saying, he handed it to Simon, whose fingers trembled as they touched the arrow's smooth barrel.
"I... I didn't understand..." he stammered, feeling as if he were the one suddenly under obligation. He shrugged, unable to say more.
"So," Jiriki said. turning to Binabik and the others. "My destiny, as you mortals might have it, seems strangely bound with this manchild. You will not then find it too surprising when I tell you what else I would send along with you on your unusual and probably fruitless errand."
After a moment, Binabik asked "And what is that being, Prince?"
Jiriki smiled, a feline, self-satisfied smile. "Myself," he answered. "I will go with you."
The young pikeman stood long seconds, unsure of whether to interrupt the prince's thoughts. Josua was staring out into the middle distance, knuckles white as he clutched the parapet of Naglimund's western wall.
At last the prince seemed to notice the foreign presence. He turned, revealing a face so unnaturally pale that the soldier took a half step back.
"Y'r Highness...?" he asked, finding it hard to look into Josua's eyes. The prince's stare, the soldier thought, was like that of the wounded fox he'd once seen the hounds take, and tear before it was dead.
"Send me Deornoth," the prince said, and forced himself to smile, which the young soldier thought the most horrible thing of all. "And send me the old man Jarnauga—the Rimmersman. Do you know him?"
"I think so, Y'r Highness. With th'one-eyed father in bookroom."
"Good man." Josua's face tilted toward the sky, watching the mass of inky clouds as though they were a book of prophecy. The pikeman hesitated, unsure of whether he was dismissed, then turned to sidle off.
"You, man," the prince said, stopping him in midstep.
"What is your name?" He might have been asking the sky.
"Ostrael, Highness... Ostrael Firsfram's son. Lord... out Runchester."
The prince looked over briefly, then his gaze flicked back to the darkening horizon as though irresistibly drawn. "When were you last home in Runchester, my good man?"
"Elysiamansa 'fore last, Prince Josua, but I send 'em half my gettin's. Lord."
The prince pulled his high collar closer, and nodded his head as though at great wisdom. "Very well, then... Ostrael Firsfram's son. Go and send Deornoth and Jarnauga. Go now."
Long before this day the young pikeman had been told that the prince was half-mad. As he clomped down the gatehouse stairs in his heavy boots, he thought of Josua's face, remembering with a shiver the bright, ecstatic eyes of painted martyrs in his family's Book of the Aedon—and not only the singing martyrs, but also the weary sadness of Usires Himself, led in chains to the Execution Tree.
"And the scouts are certain, Highness?" Deornoth asked carefully. He did not want to give offense, but he sensed a wildness in the prince today that he did not understand.
"God's Tree, Deornoth, of course they are certain! You know them both—dependable men. The High King is at the Greenwade Ford, less than ten leagues away. He'll be before the walls by tomorrow morning. With considerable strength."
"So Leobardis is too slow." Deornoth squinted his eyes, looking not south where Elias' armies crept inexorably nearer, but west, where somewhere beyond the late-morning mist the Legions of the Kingfisher were laboring across the Inniscrich and the southern Frostmarch.
"Barring a miracle," the prince said. "Go to, Deornoth. Tell Sir Eadgram to hold all in readiness. I want every spear sharp, every bow right-strung, and not a drop of wine in the gatehouse... or in the gatekeepers. Understood?"
"Of course, Highness," Deornoth nodded. He felt a quickening of his breath, a slightly sickening thrill of anticipation in his stomach. By the Merciful God, they would give the High King a taste of Naglimund honor—he knew they would!
Someone cleared his throat warningly. It was Jarnauga, scaling the stairs up to the broad walkway as effortlessly as a man half his age. He wore one of Strangyeard's loose black robes, and had tucked the end of his long beard under the belt.
"I answer your summons. Prince Josua," he said, stiffly courteous.
"Thank you, Jarnauga," Josua replied. "Go on, Deornoth. I will talk with you at supper."
"Yes, Highness." Deornoth bowed, helmet in hand, then was gone down the stairway two steps at a time.
Josua waited some moments after he was gone to speak.
"Look there, old man, look," he said at last, sweeping his arm out over the clutter of Naglimund-town and the meadows and farmland beyond, the greens and yellows dark-painted by the glowering sky. "The rats are coming to gnaw at our walls. We will not see this untroubled view for a long time, if ever."
"Elias' approach is the talk of the castle, Josua."
"As it should be." The prince, as if he had drunk his fill of the sights before him, turned his back to the parapet and fixed the bright-eyed old man with his own intent stare, "Did you see Isgrimnur off?"
"Yes. He was not pleased to be leaving in secret, and before dawn."
"Well, what else could be done? After we put about the story of his mission to Perdruin, it would have been difficult if anyone had seen him go in priest's robes—and as beardless as when he was a boy in Elvritshalla." The prince forced a grim, clench-jawed smile. "God knows, Jarnauga, though I made sport of his disguising himself, it is a knife in my guts to have pulled that good man from his family and sent him out to try and recover my own failing."
"You are master here, Josua; sometimes being master means less of some kinds of freedom than that given to the meanest serf."
The prince tucked his right arm into his cloak. "Did he take Kvalnir?"
Jarnauga grinned. "Sheathed beneath his outer robe. May your God save the one who tries to rob that fat old monk."
The prince's tired smile widened for a moment. "Even God Himself won't be able to help them, in the mood Isgrimnur's in." The smile did not outlast the moment. "Now, Jarnauga, walk with me here on the battlements. I need your good eyes and wise words."
"I can indeed look farther than most, Josua—so my father taught me, and my mother. That is why I am named "Iron-eyes" in our Rimmerspakk: I was taught to see through veils of deception as black iron cuts spells. But as to the other, I can promise no wisdom worthy of the name at this late hour."
The prince made a dismissive gesture. "You have helped us already, I suspect, to see much we would not have. Tell me of this League of the Scroll. Did they send you to Tungoldyr to spy on Stormspike?"
The old man fell in at Josua's side, his sleeves fluttering like black pennants. "No, Prince, that is not the League's way. My father, too, was a Scrollbearer." He lifted a golden chain out of the neck of his vestments, showing Josua a carved quill and scroll that hung upon it. "He raised me to take up his place, and I would have done no less to please him. The League does not compel; it asks only that one does what one can do."
Josua walked silently, thinking. "If only a land could be so ruled," he said at last. "If only men would do what they should." He turned his thoughtful, gray-eyed stare to the old Rimmersman. "But things are not always so easy—the wrong and right not always so apparent. Surely this League of yours must have its high priest, or its prince? Was that Morgenes?"
Jarnauga quirked his lips. "There are indeed times when it would benefit us to have a leader, a strong hand. Our woeful unpreparedness for these events shows that." Jarnauga shook his head. "And we would have granted such leadership to Doctor Morgenes in an instant if he had asked—he was a man of incredible wisdom, Josua; I hope that you appreciated him when you knew him. But he would not have it. He wanted only to search, and to read, and to ask questions. Still, thank whatever powers that we had him as long as we did. His foresight is, at this moment, our only shield."
Josua stopped, leaning with his elbows on the parapet. "So this League of yours has never had a leader?"
"Not since King Eahlstan Fiskeme—your Saint Eahlstan—brought it together..." He paused, remembering. "There almost was one, and within my time. He was a young Hernystirman, another of Morgenes' discoveries. He had nearly Morgenes' skill, although less caution, so that he studied things Morgenes would not. He had ambitions, and argued that we should make ourselves more of a force for good. He might have one day been the leader you speak of, Josua: a man of great wisdom and strength...."
When the old man did not continue, Josua looked over to see Jarnauga's eyes fixed on the western horizon. "What happened?" the prince asked. "Is he dead?"
"No," Jarnauga answered slowly, eyes still drawn out across the rolling plain, "no, I do not think so. He... changed. Something frightened him, or hurt him, or... or something. He left us long ago."
"So you do have failures," Josua said, starting to walk again. The old man did not follow.
"Oh, certainly," he said, lifting his hand as if to shade his brow, staring out into the dim distance. "Pryrates was one of ours once, too."
Before the prince could reply to this he was interrupted.
"Josua!" someone cried from the courtyard. The lines around the prince's mouth tightened.
"Lady Vorzheva," he said, turning to look down to where she stood indignantly in a dress of gleaming red, hair aswirl in the wind like black smoke. Towser skulked uncomfortably at her side. "What would you of me?" the prince demanded. "You should be in the keep. As a matter of fact, I order you to the keep."
"I have been there," she called crossly. Lifting the hem of her dress she ankled toward the stairway, talking as she went. "And I will soon go back, do you not worry. But first, I must one time more see the sun—or would you rather keep me in a black cell?"
Despite his exasperation, Josua was hard-pressed to keep his face entirely stern. "Heaven knows that there are windows in the keep, Lady." He lowered his frown to Towser. "Can you not at least keep her off the walls, Towser? Soon we are at siege."
The little man shrugged and limped up the stairs after Vorzheva.
"Show me the armies of your terrible brother," she said, a little breathless as she reached the prince's side.
"If his armies were here, you would not be," Josua said irritably. 'There is nothing to see, yet. Now please go down."
"Josua?" Jarnauga was still squinting into the cloudy west. "I think there is perhaps something to see."
"What?!" In an instant, the prince was beside the old Rimmersman, his body pitched awkwardly against the parapet as he strained to find what the man saw. "Is it Elias? So soon? I see nothing!" He slapped his palm on the stone in frustration.
"I doubt it is the High King, coming from so westerly a direction," Jarnauga said. "Do not be surprised you do not see them. As I told you, I was trained to look where others could not. Nevertheless, they are there: many horses and men—too far away still to guess how many—coming toward us. There." He pointed.
"Praise Usires!" Josua said, excited. "You must be right! It can only be Leobardis!" He straightened up, suddenly full of life, even as his face clouded with worry. "This is delicate," he said, half to himself. "The Nabbanai must not come too close, else they will be useless to us, caught between Elias and the walls of Naglimund. Then we shall have to bring them in, where they will be just more mouths to feed." He strode for the stairs. "If they stay too far, we will not be able to protect them when Elias turns on them. We must send riders!" He went down the stairs at a bound, shouting for Deornoth and Eadgram, the Lord Constable of Naglimund.
"Oh, Towser," Vorzheva said, her cheeks flushed with the wind and the pace of events, "we shall be saved after all! Everything will be better."
"Just as well with me, my lady," the jester responded. "I've been through this all before with my master John, you know... and I'm not anxious to do it again."
Soldiers were cursing and shouting now in the castle courtyard below. Josua stood on the rim of the well, his slender sword in his hand, calling instructions. The sound of metal on metal, as spear buns clanged on shields, and helmets and swords were hurriedly taken from the corners where they had been laid, rose past the walls like an invocation.
Count Aspitis Preves exchanged a few terse words with Benigaris, then pulled his horse up beside the duke's, matching him stride for stride through the high, dewy grass. The dawn sun was a shining smudge above the gray horizon.
"Young Aspitis!" Leobardis said heartily. "What news?" If he and his son were to be on better terms, he must try to show kindness to Benigaris' intimates—even to Aspitis, whom he considered one of the Prevan House's less impressive products.
"The scouts have just rejoined us, my lord Duke." The Count, a handsome, slender youth, was quite pale. "We are less than five leagues from the walls of Naglimund, my lord."
"Good! With luck we shall be there in early afternoon!"
"But Elias is ahead of us." Aspitis looked over to the duke's son, who shook his head and cursed beneath his breath.
"He has already laid the siege in strength?" Leobardis asked, surprised. "How? Has he learned to make his armies fly?"
"Well, no, lord, it is not Elias," Aspitis hurried to amend himself, "it is a large force riding beneath the flag of the Boar and Spears—Earl Guthwulf of Utanyeat's banner. They have a half a league or so on us, and will keep us from the gates."
The duke shook his head, relieved. "How many does Guthwulf have?"
"Perhaps a hundred horse, my lord, but the High King cannot be too far behind."
"Well, little should we care," Leobardis said, reining up at the edge of one of the many small streams that crisscrossed the meadowlands east of Greenwade. "Let the High King's Hand and his troop languish there. We are more use to Josua at a short distance, where we can harry the besiegers, and keep the lines of supply open." With a splash he rode down into the ford. Benigaris and the count spurred after him.
"But father," Benigaris said, catching up, "think now! Our scouts say Guthwulf has moved ahead of the king's army, and with only a hundred knights." Aspitis Preves nodded confirmation, and Benigaris drew his dark brows together in a frown of eamestness. "We have thrice that, and if we send fast riders ahead we can muster Josua's forces, too. We could smash Guthwulf against Naglimund's walls as between hammer and anvil." He grinned, and clapped his father's armored shoulder. "Think how that would sit with King Elias—make him think twice, wouldn't it?"
Leobardis rode silently for a long minute. He looked back at the rippling banners of his legions stretching back several furlongs across the meadows. The sun had, for a moment, found a thinner spot in the overcast, bringing color to the wind-bowed grass. It reminded him of the Lakelands east of his palace.
"Call the trumpeter," he said, and Aspitis turned and shouted an order.
"Hea! I'll send riders ahead to Naglimund, father," Benigaris said, smiling almost with relief. The duke could see how much his son longed for glory, but it would be Nabban's glory, too.
"Pick your fastest riders, my son," he called as Benigaris rode back through the lines. "For we shall move more swiftly than anyone dreams we can'" He raised his voice to a great shout, turning heads all through the field. "The legions shall ride! For Nabban and Mother Church! Let our enemies beware!"