"Very well," she said, wanting to get away from Lluth's dark bed, and hating herself for the wish. "Let me put on my shoes and I will come with you."
It took the better part of an hour to climb down the forested mountain side. The ground was wet and the air was chilly; Maegwin's breath rushed out in little clouds as she picked her way down the gullies after Eolair. The gray cold had driven the birds out of the Circoille, or numbed them into silence. No sound accompanied their passing but the shivering murmur of wind-raked branches.
Watching the Count of Nad Mullach making his nimble way through the undergrowth, so like a child with his slender back and shiny tail of hair, with his movements so quick and unthinking, Maegwin was again filled with a dull, hopeless love for him. It seemed such a ridiculous way for her to feel—tall, gawky child of a dying man—that it turned into a kind of anger. When Eolair turned back to help her over a jutting stone, she frowned as if he had offered her insult instead of his hand.
The men huddled in the copse of trees overlooking the long ridge called Moir Brach looked up in startlement at the approach of Eolair and Maegwin, but quickly lowered their bows again and beckoned the pair forward. Peering through the bracken down the finger of stone for which the ridge was named, she saw a milling crowd of antlike shapes at the bottom, some three furlongs away.
"He just stopped speaking a moment ago," one of the sentries whispered—a young boy, eyes wide with nervousness. "He'll start again. Princess, you'll see."
As if in planned confirmation, one of the figures strode out from the throng of men in helmets and capes who surrounded a wagon and team of horses. The figure raised his hands to his mouth and stood facing slightly to the north of the watchers' hiding-place.
"... the last time..." his voice drifted up, muffled by distance. "I offer you... hostages... return for..."
Maegwin strained to make out the words. Information?
"... about the wizard's boy, and... princess."
Eolair snapped a glance over to Maegwin, who sat stock-still. What did they want with her?
"If you do not tell... where... princess is... we will ... these hostages."
The man who spoke—and Maegwin was sure in her heart it was Skali himself, just from the wide-legged stance, and the sour, mocking tone that even distance could not wholly obscure—waved an arm, and a struggling figure in a rag of light blue was taken from the wagon and brought to where he stood. Maegwin stared, feeling an ugly pressure on her heart. She was sure that light blue dress belonged to Cifgha... little Cifgha, pretty and stupid.
"... If you do not tell us... you know... the princess Miriamele, things... poorly for these..." Skali gestured and the kicking, thinly crying girl—who might not really be Cifgha, Maegwin tried to tell herself—was thrown back onto the wagon, amidst other pale captives, lying in a row on the wagon bed like fingers.
So, it was the princess Miriamele they sought, she marveled—the High King's daughter! Had she run away? Been stolen?
"Can't we do anything?" she whispered to Eolair. "And who is 'the wizard's boy'?"
The count shook his head roughly, frustration in every line of his face. "What could we do, princess? Skali'd like nothing more than to have us come down. He has ten times the men we have!"
Long minutes passed in silence as Maegwin watched, fury tugging at her emotions like a demanding child. She was thinking of what else to say to Eolair and these others—how she'd tell them that if none of the men wanted to go with her, she'd go down to the Taig herself and rescue Skali's captives... or, more likely, die bravely in the attempt—when the thickset figure below, helmet off now, showing the tiny yellow smudge that was his hair and beard, walked back out to the base of the Moir Brach.
"Very well!" he roared. "... And Loken curse... stiff backs! We... and take these with..." The little figure pointed at the wagon. "But... leave you a gift!" Something was untied from one of the horses, a dark bundle, and dumped at Skali Sharp-nose's feet. "Just in case... waiting for help!... Little use against... Kaldskryke!"
A moment later he mounted his horse, and with the harsh rasp of a horn he and his Rimmersmen clattered off up the valley toward Hernysadharc, the wagon bumping along behind them.
They waited an hour before making their way cautiously down the bank, moving as watchfully as a doe crossing a clearing. Reaching the bottom of the Moir Brach, they scuttled to the black-wrapped bundle Skali had left behind.
When it was opened the men cried out in horror and wept, great racking sobs of helpless grief... but Maegwin did not shed a tear, even when she saw what Skali and his butchers had done to her brother Gwythinn before he died. When Eolair put an arm around her shoulders to help her away from the blood-soaked blanket she shook him off angrily, then turned and slapped hard at his cheek. He did not protect himself, but only stared at her. The tears that filled his eyes, she knew, were not from the blow—and in that moment it made her hate him all the more.
But her own eyes remained dry.
Flakes of snow filled the air—confusing vision, weighting garments, chilling fingers and ears to a painful tingle—but Jiriki and his three Sithi companions seemed not to mind it much. As Simon and the others plodded along on their horses, the Sithi walked jauntily ahead, often stopping to wait for the riders to catch up, patient as well-fed cats, an indecipherable serenity behind their luminous eyes. Walking all day from sunrise to twilight, Jiriki and his fellows nevertheless seemed as lightfooted around the camp that night as they had at dawn.
Simon hesitantly approached An'nai while the others hunted deadwood for the evening's fire.
"May I ask you some questions?" he asked.
The Sitha lifted his imperturbable stare. "Ask."
"Why was Prince Jiriki's uncle angry that he decided to come with us? And why did he bring you three along?"
An'nai brought a spidery hand up to his mouth as though to cover a smile, although no smile had been present. A moment later he lowered it again, revealing the same impassive expression.
"What passes between the prince and S'hue Khendraja'aro is not mine to hold, so I cannot share it, either." He nodded once, gravely. "As to the other, perhaps he can best answer it himself... yes, Jiriki?"
Simon looked up, startled, to find the prince standing behind him, thin lips taut in a smile.
"Why did I bring these?" Jiriki asked, making a sweeping gesture from An'nai to the other two Sithi, returning from a search around the thickly-forested perimeter of the camping-place. "Ki'ushapo and Sijandi I brought because someone must look after the horses."
"Look after the horses?"
Jiriki raised an eyebrow, then snapped his fingers. "Troll," he called over his shoulder, "if this manchild is your student, then you are a poor teacher indeed! Yes, Seoman, the horses—or did you expect to see them climb the mountains beside you?"
Simon was flummoxed. "But... climb? The horses? I didn't think about... I mean to say, couldn't we just leave them. Let them go?" It did not seem fair; he had never felt much more than a dangling tassel on his journey—except, of course, for the White Arrow—and now the Sitha was holding him accountable for the horses!
"Let them go?" Jiriki's voice was harsh, almost angry, but his face was bland. "Leave them to perish, you mean? Once they have been ridden far beyond where they would themselves go, we should free them to struggle back across the snowy wastes or die?"
Simon was about to protest, to point out that it wasn't his responsibility, but decided it was not worth arguing.
"No," he said instead. "No, we should not leave them alone to die."
"Beside," Sludig said, walking by with an armload of wood, "how then would we get back across the wastes ourselves?"
"Exactly," said Jiriki, his smile stretching; he was pleased. "So I bring Ki'ushapo and Sijandi. They will tend the horses and prepare things for my... for our return." He brought the tips of his two index fingers together, as if to indicate some kind of completion. "Now, An'nai," he continued, "is a more complex matter. His reason for being here is more like mine." He looked down at the other Sitha.
"Honor," An'nai said, eyes downcast, staring at his own interlaced fingers. "I bound the Hikka Sta'ja—the Arrow-Bearer. I did not show proper respect for a... sacred guest. Thus, I come to atone."
"A small debt," Jiriki said softly, "when compared with my great one, but An'nai will do what he must."
Simon wondered if An'nai had decided on his own, or if Jiriki had somehow forced him to join them. It was hard to know anything about these Sithi, how they thought, what they wanted. They were so damnably different, so slow and so subtle!
"Come now," Binabik announced. A tiny streamer of flame wavered before him, and he fanned it with his hands. "Now we are starting a fire, and I am sure you will all be interested in a little food and wine, for the warming of inner spaces."
In the next few days' riding they left the northern Aldheorte behind, coming down off the last decrement of the Wealdhelm hills onto the flat, snow-swept waste.
There was always cold, now, every long night, every dreary white day—bitter, biting cold. The snow flew continuously into Simon's face, stinging his eyes, burning and cracking his lips. His face reddened painfully, as if he had gone too long in the sun, and he could hardly hold the reins of his horse for shivering. It was like being thrown out of doors forever, a punishment that had gone on too long. Still, there was nothing he could do to remedy the situation but offer silent prayers to Usires each day for the strength to last until camp was made.
At least, he reflected sadly, his ears stinging even beneath the hooded cloak, at least Binabik is having a good time.
The troll was, indeed, in his very element—riding ahead, urging his companions on, laughing from time to time for sheer pleasure as he and Qantaqa leaped along the mounting drifts. Long evenings around the fire, while the other mortal companions shivered and oiled their sleet-saturated gloves and boots. Binabik detailed the different types of snow, and the various signals portending avalanches, all to prepare them for the mountains that loomed implacably on the horizon before them, stern and judgmental as gods in their crowns of white snow.
Every day the great range before them seemed larger without ever seeming a foot closer, no matter how far they rode. After a week in the warmthless, featureless wastes, Simon began to long for the ill-rumored Dimmerskog forest, or even the wind-lashed heights of the mountains themselves—anything but this endless, bone-chilling plain of snow.
They passed the ruins of Saint Skendi's abbey on the sixth day. It was nearly covered in snowdrifts: only the spire of the chapel protruded more than a short distance above the surface, an iron Tree encircled by the coils of some serpentine beast crowning its rotting roof. Rising up through the frost-laden mist before them, it might have been a ship near-sunken in a sea of purest white.
"Whatever secrets it may be holding—whatever it knows of Colmund or the sword Thorn—it is holding them too tightly for us," Binabik said as their horses trudged past the drowning abbey. Sludig made a Tree on his forehead and heart, his eyes troubled, but the Sithi circled slowly, staring as though they had never seen anything quite so interesting.
As the travelers huddled around the campfire that night, Sludig demanded to know why Jiriki and his comrades had spent so much time examining the lost monastery.
"Because," the prince said, "we found it pleasing."
"What does that mean?" Sludig asked in irritated puzzlement, looking to Haestan and Grimmric as if they might know what the Sitha meant.
"It is better not to speak of these things, perhaps," said An'nai, making a flattening gesture with his spread fingers. "We are companions at this fire."
Jiriki looked solemnly into the fire for a moment, then his face split in an odd, mischievous grin. Simon marveled; sometimes it was hard to think of Jiriki as being any older than himself, so young and reckless did his behavior occasionally seem. But Simon also remembered the cavern overlooking the forest. Youth and great age mixed confusedly together; that was what Jiriki was like.
"We stare at things that interest us," Jiriki said, "just as mortals do. It is only the reasons that are different, and ours you would probably not understand." His wide smile seemed completely friendly, but now Simon detected a discordant note, something out of place.
"The question, northman," Jiriki continued, "is why should our staring offend you so?"
For a moment silence descended over the fire circle as Sludig stared hard at the Sithi prince. The flames popped and sputtered on the damp wood, and the wind hooted, making the horses shift nervously.
Sludig lowered his eyes. "You may look at what you please, of course," he said, smiling sadly; his blond beard was flecked with melting snow. "It is only that it reminded me of Saegard—of the Skipphawen. It was as if you mocked something dear to me."
"Skipphawen?" Haestan rumbled, sunk in his furs. "Never heard oft. Is't a church?"
"Boats..." Grimmric said, screwing up his narrow face in remembrance. "There's boats there."
Sludig nodded, face serious. "You would say Ship-haven. It is where the longships of Rinunersgard lie."
"But Rimmersmen dunna' sail!" Haestan was surprised. "In all Osten Ard, no other race be so landbound!"
"Ah, but we did." Sludig's face glowed with reflected firelight. "Before we came across the sea—when we lived in Ijsgard, in the lost West—our fathers burned men and buried ships. At least, that is what our tales say."
"Burned men...?" Simon wondered.
"The dead," Sludig explained. "Our fathers built death-ships of new ashwood and put the dead to flame on the water, sending their souls up with the smoke. But our great longships, those that carried us on the world's oceans and rivers—the ships that were our lives as surely as a cotsman's acre or a shepherd's flock—those we buried in the ground when they were too old to be seaworthy, so that their souls would go into the trees, and make them grow straight and tall to become new ships."
"But that was across th'ocean y'said—long ago," Grimmric pointed out. "Saegard is here is't not? In Osten Ard?"
The Sithi around the fire were silent and unmoving, watching intently as Sludig answered.
"It is. That is where the keel of Elvrit's boat first touched land, and where he said; 'We have come across the black ocean to a new home.'"
Sludig looked around the circle. "They buried the great longships there. 'Never will we go back across that dragon-haunted sea,' Elvrit said. All along the valley floor of Saegard at the mountains' feet lie the mounds of the last ships. On the headland at the water's edge, beneath the biggest howe, they buried Elvrit's ship Sotfengsel, leaving only its tall mast thrusting up from the earth like a tree with no branches—it was that I saw in my mind when I saw the abbey."
He shook his head, eyes bright with memories. "Mistletoe grows on Sotfengsel's mast. Every year, on the day of Elvrit's death, the white berries of the mistletoe are gathered by young maidens of Saegard, and taken to the church..."
Sludig trailed off. The fire hissed.
"What you do not tell," Jiriki said after a while, "is how your Rimmersgard people came to this land only to drive others from it."
Simon breathed in sharply. He had sensed something like this beneath the prince's placid surface.
Sludig replied with surprising mildness, perhaps still thinking of the pious maidens of Saegard. "I cannot undo what my ancestors have done."
"There is truth to that," Jiriki said, "but neither will we Zida'ya—we Sithi—make the same mistake our kin made before us." He turned his fierce stare on Binabik, who met it solemnly. "Some things should be made clear between us all, Binbiniqegabenik. I spoke only truth when I gave my reasons for accompanying you: some interest that I have in where you go, and a frail, unusual bond between the manchild and myself. Do not for a moment believe that I share your fears or struggles. As far as I am concerned, you and your High King may grind each other to dust."
"With respectfulness, Prince Jiriki," Binabik said, "you are not examining the full truth. If it was only the struggling of mortal kings and princes that concerned us, we would all of us be defending Naglimund. You know that we five, at least, are having other goals."
"Then know this," Jiriki said stiffly. "Though the years that have passed since we were sundered from the Hikeda'ya—those you call the Norns—are as numerous as snowflakes, still we are one blood. How could we take the side of upstart men against our kin? Why should we, when once we walked together beneath the sun, coming out of the ultimate East? What allegiance could we possibly owe to mortals, who have destroyed us as eagerly as they destroy all else... even themselves?
None of the humans but Binabik could meet his cold gaze. Jiriki lifted a long finger before him. "And the one you whisperingly call the Storm King... he whose name was Ineluki..." He smiled bitterly as the companions stirred and shivered. "Ah, even his name is fearsome! He was the best of us once—beautiful to see, wise far beyond the understanding of mortals, bright-burning as a flame!—if he is now a thing of dark horror, cold and hateful, whose is the fault? If now, bodiless and vengeful, he schemes to brush mankind from the face of his land like dust from a page—why should we not rejoice? It was not Ineluki who drove us into exile, so that we must hide among Aldheorte's dark trees like deer, wary always of discovery. We strode Osten Ard in the sunlight before men came, and the works of our bands were beautiful beneath the stars. What have mortals ever brought to us but suffering?!"
No one could make reply, but in the stillness after Jiriki's words a plaintive, quiet sound arose. It hovered in the darkness, full of unknown words, a melody of spectral beauty.
When he had finished singing, An'nai looked to his silent prince and his Sithi companions, then to those who faced them across the dancing flames.
"It is a song of ours that mortals once sang," he murmured. "The western men loved it of old, and gave it words in their tongue. I will... I will try to give it words in yours."
He looked up into the sky as he thought. The wind was slowing, and as the snow flurries died the stars shone through, cold and remote.
"Moss grows on the stones of Sent Q'/hisd."
An'nai sang at last, the clicks and liquid vowels of Sithi speech muted.
"The shadows are lingering, still as if listening
The trees have embraced Da'ai Chikiza's bright towers
The shadows all whispering, dark on the leaves.
Long grass is waving above Enki-e-Sha'osaye
The shadows are growing, upon the sward lengthening
The grave of Nenais'u wears a mantle of flowers
The shadowed brook silent, and no one there grieves.
Where are they gone?
Now the woods are all silence.
Where are they gone?
The song vanished away.
Why will they come no more
Dancing at twilight?
Their lamps the stars' messengers
At ending of day...
As An'nai's voice rose, caressing the mournful words, Simon felt a longing such as he had never felt—a homesickness for a home he had never known, a sense of loss over something that had never belonged to him. No one spoke as An'nai sang. No one could have.
"Sea beats above the dark streets of Jhind-T'senei
The shadows are hiding, in deep grottoes slumbering
Blue ice freezes Tumet'ai, entombs its sweet bowers
The shadows have stained all the pattern Time weaves.
Where are they gone?
Now the woods are all silence.
Where are they gone?
The song vanished away.
Why will they come no more
Dancing at twilight?
Their lamps the stars' messengers
At ending of day..."
The song ended. The fire was a solitary bright spot in a wasteland of shadows.
The green tent stood by itself in the damp emptiness of the plain before the walls of Naglimund. Its sides heaved and rippled in the wind, as though it alone, of all the other things that might move unseen in that vastly open place, was breathingly alive.
Gritting his teeth against a superstitious shiver, although the dank, knifelike wind was reason enough to let them go a-chattering, Deornoth looked over to Josua, riding slightly ahead.
Look at him, he thought. It's as though he saw his brother already—just as if his eyes could see right through the green silk and the black dragon crest, right into Elias' heart.
Gazing back to the third and last member of their party, Deornoth felt his heavy heart sink further. The young soldier whom Josua had insisted on bringing—Orstrael, his name was—looked ready to faint from pure fright. His blunt, square features, their sunreddening faded now by the sunless weeks of spring, were screwed tight in barely-suppressed terror.
Th 'Aedon save us if he's got to be any use. Why on earth did Josua pick him?
As they slowly approached, the tent flap parted. Deornoth tensed, ready to grab for his bow. He had an instant to curse himself to allowing his prince to do such a foolish, foolish thing as this, but the green-cloaked soldier who emerged only looked up at them incuriously, then stepped to the side of the door, holding the flap open.
Deornoth signed respectfully for Josua to wait and spurred his horse into a quick circuit of the green tent. It was large, a dozen paces or more on each side, and the guy ropes thrummed with the wind-buffeted weight of it, but the flattened grass all around was empty of ambushers.
"Very well, Ostrael," he said, returning, "you will stand here, next to this man," he indicated the other soldier, "with at least one of your shoulders visible in the doorway at all times, yes?"
Taking the young pikeman's sickly smile for an affirmative, Deornoth turned to the king's guard. The man's bearded face was familiar; doubtless he had seen him at the Hayholt. "If you, too, would stand near the doorway, it would be better for all concerned."