The guard showed him a curled lip, but edged a step nearer the entrance.
Josua had already dismounted and moved to the door, but Deornoth stepped quickly through ahead of him with one hand resting lightly on his sword hilt.
"There is scarcely need for such caution, Deornoth," a soft but penetrating voice said, "that is your name, is it not? After all, we are all gentlemen here."
Deornoth blinked as Josua stepped in behind him. It was bitingly cold inside, and dark. The walls glowed faintly, letting in only a green fraction of the light outside, as though the tent's occupants floated inside a huge but imperfectly-cut emerald.
A pale face loomed before him, the black eyes pinpoint holes into nothingness. Pryrates' scarlet robe was rusty brown in the green murk, the color of dried blood. "And Josua!" he said, horrible levity in his voice. "We meet again. Who would ever have thought so many things would have happened since our last conversation...?"
"Shut your mouth, priest—or whatever you are," the prince snapped back. There was such cold strength in his voice that even Pryrates blinked in surprise, like a startled lizard. "Where is my brother?"
"I am here, Josua," a voice said, a deep, cracked whisper that seemed to echo the wind.
A figure sat in a high-backed chair in the corner of the tent, a low table resting nearby, another chair before it—the only furniture in the huge, shadowy tent. Josua moved closer. Deornoth pulled his cloak tighter, and followed, more from an urge not to be left with Pryrates than any hurry to see the king.
The prince took the chair facing his brother. Elias, sat, strangely stiff, his eyes bright as gems in his hawkish face, his black hair and pale brow bound by the iron crown of the Hayholt. Propped between his legs was a sword, scabbarded in black leather. The High King's powerful hands rested on the pommel, above the strange double hilt. Although he stared for a moment, Deornoth's eyes did not want to rest on the sword; it gave him a queasy, unwell feeling, like glancing down from some great height. Instead he looked back up to the king, but this was scarcely better: in the freezing cold of the tent, the air so chill that a mist of breath hung before Deornoth's own eyes, Elias wore only a sleeveless jerkin, his white arms bare to his heavy bracelets, the sinews pulsing beneath the skin as though they had a life of their own.
"So, brother," the king said, baring his teeth in a smile, "you are looking well."
"As you are not," Josua said flatly, but Deornoth could see the worried pinch of his eyes. Something was terribly wrong here; anyone could sense it. "You called for the parley, Elias. What do you want?"
The king narrowed his eyes, masking them in green shadow, and waited a long while before he replied. "My daughter. I want my daughter. There is another, too... a boy—but he is less important. No, it is Miriamele I chiefly want. If you hand her over to me, I will give my word of safe conduct to all children and womenfolk in Naghmund. Otherwise, all who hide behind its walls and thwart me... will die."
He said this last with such casual lack of malice that Deornoth was startled by the hungry look that flitted nakedly across his face.
"I do not have her, Elias," Josua replied slowly.
"Where is she?"
"I do not know."
"Liar!" The king's voice was so full of anger that Deornoth almost drew his sword, expecting Elias to leap from his chair. Instead, the king remained nearly motionless, only gesturing for Pryrates to refill his goblet from a ewer full of some black fluid.
"Do not think me a bad host for not offering you any," Elias said after he had taken a long swallow; he smiled grimly. "I fear this liquor would not agree with you." He handed the cup to Pryrates, who took it gingerly between his fingertips and lowered it to the table. "Now," Elias resumed, his tone almost reasonable, "can we not spare ourselves this useless byplay? I want my daughter, and I will have her." His tone turned grotesquely plaintive. "Does not a father have a right to the daughter he loved and raised?"
Josua took a deep breath. "What rights you have are between you and her. I do not have her, and I would not give her unwilling to you if I did." He continued hastily, before the king could respond. "Come, Elias, please—you were my brother once, in all things. Our father loved us both, you more than me, but he loved this land more. Can you not see what you are doing? Not just with this struggle—Aedon knows this land has seen war a-plenty. But there is something else here. Pryrates knows what I speak of. He it was that guided your first steps down the path, I do not doubt!"
Deornoth saw Pryrates turn, spewing a surprised cloud of breath at the prince's words.
"Please, Elias," Josua said, his stem face full of woe. "Turn back only from the course you have chosen, send that cursed sword back to those unholy ones who would poison you and Osten Ard... and I will lay my life in your hands. I will open Naglimund's gates to you as a maiden unshuts her window for a lover! I will turn every stone in heaven and earth to find Miriamele! Throw away the sword, Elias! Throw it away! Not by accident was it named Sorrow!"
The king stared at Josua as if stunned. Pryrates, muttering, rushed forward, but Deornoth leaped and caught him. The priest squirmed beneath his restraining arm like a snake, and his touch was horrible, but Deornoth held fast.
"Do not move!" he hissed in Pryrates' ear. "Though you blast me with a spell, still I will cut the life from you before I die!" He prodded the side of the scarlet robe with his drawn dagger, just far enough to touch cloaked flesh. "You have no place in this—neither do I! This is between brothers."
Pryrates became quiet. Josua was leaning forward, staring at the High King. Elias looked on, as though he had trouble seeing what was before him.
"She is beautiful, my Miriamele," he half-whispered. "In her I sometimes see her mother Hylissa—poor, dead girl!" The king's face, frozen a moment before in malice, collapsed into confusion. "How could Josua have let it happen? How could he? She was so young...."
Groping, his white hand reached out. Josua held his own out too late. Instead of catching it, the king's long, cold fingers alighted on the leather-bound stump of the prince's right wrist. His eyes flared into life, and his face stiffened into a mask of rage.
"Go to your hiding-hole, traitor!" he snarled as Josua snatched his arm away. "Liar! Liar! I will shake it down around your ears!"
Such hatred beat out from the king that Deornoth staggered back, letting Pryrates wriggle free.
"I will ruin you so completely," Elias thundered, squirming in his chair as Josua walked to the tent door, "that God All-powerful will search a thousand years and never find even your soul!"
The young soldier Ostrael was so terrified by the faces of Deornoth and the prince that he wept silently all the wind-wracked way back to Naglimund's brooding walls.
Cold Fire and Grudging Stone
THE DREAM gradually receded, melting like mist, a terrifying dream in which he was surrounded by choking green sea. There was no up or down, only sourceless light all around, and a host of slicing shadows, sharks, each one with the lifeless black eyes of Pryrates.
As the sea slid away, Deornoth broke surface, nailing up out of sleep into bleary half-wakefulness. The walls of the guard barracks were spotted with cold moonlight, and the steady breathing of the other men was like the wind pushing through dry leaves.
Even as his heart fluttered swiftly in his breast he felt sleep reaching out again to reclaim his exhausted soul, soothing him with feathery fingers, whispering voicelessly in his ear. He began to slide back, the tidal pull of dream gentler than before. This time it carried him toward a brighter place, a place of morning damp and gentle noontime sun: his father's freeholding in Hewenshire, where he had grown up working in the fields beside his sisters and older brother. A part of him had not left the barracks—it was before dawn, he knew, the ninth day of Yuven—but another part had fallen back into the past. Again he smelled the musk of turned earth, and heard the patient creaking of the plow traces and the measured chirp of cart wheels as the ox pulled the wagon down the road toward market.
The creaking became louder, even as the pungent, muddy smell of the furrows began to fade. The plow was coming closer; the wain sounded to be just behind. Were the ox-drivers asleep? Had someone let the oxen wander trampling into the fields? He felt a childish horror.
My Da'll be right mad—was't me? Was I s'posed to watch 'em? He knew how his father would look, the puckered, rage-mottled face that would hear no excuse, the face, young Deornoth had always thought, of God sending a sinner down to Hell. Mother Elysia. Da's goin' t' get th' strop to me, sure,...
He sat upright on his pallet, breathing hard. His heart was stumbling as badly as after the shark-dream, but it began to slow as he looked around the barracks.
How long have you been dead. Father? he wondered, wiping the swiftly-cooling sweat from his forehead with his wrist. Why do you haunt me still? Have not the years and prayers...?
Deornoth suddenly felt a cold finger of fear trace his spine. He was awake now, was he not? Then why hadn't the remorseless creaking noise disappeared with his half-dream?
He was on his feet in a moment, shouting, dead father's ghost blown out like a candle-
"Up, men, up! To arms! The siege is begun!"
Struggling into his mailcoat he went down the line of cots, kicking wakefulness into the groggy and wine-addled, calling instructions to those whom his first cry had brought suddenly to life. There were shouts of alarm from the gatehouse above, and the ragged bleat of a trumpet.
His helmet sat askew on his head, and his shield thumped his side as he trotted out the door struggling with his sword belt. Poking his head into the other barracks room he saw the denizens already up and swiftly arming themselves.
"Ho, Naglimunders!" he called, waving a fist while he held the belt closed with the other. "Now the test. God love us, now the test!"
He smiled at the ragged shout that answered him and headed for the stairs, straightening his helmet.
The top of the Greater Gatehouse, in the western curtain wall, looked strangely misshapen by the light of the half-moon overhead: the hoardings had been finished only days before, wooden walls and roof that would protect the defenders from arrows. Already the top of the gatehouse was swarming with partially-dressed guards, flitting forms weirdly banded by the moonbeams that bled past the hoarding-walls.
Torches bloomed along the wall as archers and pikemen took their positions. Another trumpet squalled, like a rooster who had despaired of dawn's arrival, summoning more soldiers out to the courtyard below.
The shrill protest of wooden wheels grew louder. Deornoth stared out across the denuded, down-sloping plain before the town wall, looking for the source of the nose—knowing what it would be, but still unprepared for the actual sight.
"God's Bloody Tree!" he swore, and heard the man beside him repeat the oath.
Moving toward them as slowly as hobbled giants, taking form out of the predawn shadows, were six great siege towers, their wooden summits fully as high as Naglimund's mighty curtain wall. Hung all over in dark hides, they slouched forward like tree-tall, square-headed bears; the grunts and cries of the hidden men who pushed them, and the screech of the wheels, big as houses, seemed the voices of monsters unseen since the Eldest Days.
Deornoth felt a not-unpleasant rush of fear. The King had come at last, and now his army was at their door. By the Good God, people would sing of this someday, whatever happened!
"Save your arrows, fools'" he shouted, as a few of the defenders launched wild shots into the darkness, the missiles falling far short of their still-distant targets. "Wait, wait, wait' Soon enough they will be closer than you'll like!"
Elias's army, in response to the flowering of fire on Naglimund's walls, let their drums thunder out through the darkness, a great rolling rumble that gradually resolved into a plodding two-part tread, as of titan footsteps. The defenders blew horns from every tower—a faint and tinny sound against the crash of the drums, but one that nonetheless betokened life and resistance.
Deornoth felt a touch at his shoulder and looked up to see two armored shapes beside him: bear-helmed Isorn, and glowering Einkskaldir in a cap of steel unadorned but for a metal beak that hooked down over the nose. The dark-bearded Rimmersman's eyes burned like the torchlight as he laid a firm hand on his master Isgrimnur's son, moving Isorn carefully but forcibly out of the way so he could stride to the parapet. Staring out into the dimness, Einskaldir growled doglike under his breath.
"There," he snarled, pointing to the bases of the siege towers, "at the big bears' feet. The stone-chuckers and the ram," He indicated other large engines moving in the wake of the towers. Several were catapults, long, strong arms cocked back like the heads of startled snakes. Others seemed merely hide-covered boxes, their workings hidden by their armor, designed to come safely like hard-shelled crabs through the arrows and stones to the wall, where they would perform whatever tasks they had been assigned.
"Where is the prince?" Deornoth asked, unable to tear his eyes from the crawling engines.
"Coming," Isorn replied, standing on his toes to try to look over Einskaldir. "He has been with Jarnauga and the archive-master since you returned from the parley. I hope they are preparing some wondrous device to give us strength, or to sap the king's. S'truth, Deornoth, look at them all." He pointed at the dark, swarming shapes of the king's army, numerous as ants behind the slow-rolling towers. "They are so damnably many."
"Aedon's wounds," Einskaldir snarled, and turned a red eye back on Isorn. "Let them come. We will eat them and spit them out."
"There," said Deornoth, and hoped he had made a smile come to his face, as he intended. "With God, the prince, and Einskaldir, what have we to fear?"
The king's army came onto the flatlands in the trail of siege engines, swarming over the mist-soaked meadows like flies on a green appleskin. Tents seemed to push up everywhere from the moist earth like angular mushrooms.
Dawn came quietly as the besiegers moved into place. The hidden sun peeled away only a single layer of night's darkness, leaving the world suspended in directionless gray light.
The great siege towers, which had stood in place for a long hour, like dozing sentries, suddenly moved forward again. Soldiers dodged in and out among the mighty wheels, heaving on the guy ropes as the massive engines rolled laboriously uphill. At last they came within range; the archers on the walls let fly, shouting with terrified joy when the arrows went hissing out, as though they let go the tight tethers on their hearts with the bowstrings. After the first wobbly barrage they began to find the range; many of the king's men dropped dead in their tracks, or lay wounded as the remorseless wheels of their own engines ground them screaming into the turf. But for every one who fell, arrow-pierced, another of the helmeted and blue-jacketed engineers leaped forward to take up his guy rope. The siege towers rumbled on toward the walls, undeterred.
Now the king's archers on the ground were close enough to return fire. Arrows flickered back and forth between the walls and the earth below like maddened bees. As the engines rattled and creaked toward the curtain wall the sun broke through for a short moment; already the battlements were red-sprinkled in places, as if with a gentle rain.
"Deornoth!" The soldier's white face, dirt-streaked, shone within his helmet like a full moon. "Grimstede bids you come, and soon! They have brought ladders against the wall below Dendinis' Tower!"
"S'tree!" Deornoth clenched his teeth in frustration and turned to look for Isorn. The Rimmersman had taken a bow from a wounded guardsman and was helping to keep clear the last few ells of ground between the nearest siege tower and the wall, skewering any soldier fool enough to come out from the stalled tower's protective skirts and try and take up the loose guy ropes fluttering in the wind.
"Isorn!" Deornoth shouted, "while we keep the towers at bay, they bring ladders to the southwest wall!"
"Go then!" Isgrimnur's son did not look up from his arrow tip. "I will join you when I may!"
"But where is Einskaldir?!" From the corner of his eye he saw the messenger jigging up and down in fearful impatience.
Cursing again under his breath, Deornoth lowered his head and ran clumsily along behind Sir Grimstede's messenger. He gathered half a dozen guardsmen as he went, tired men who had slumped down for a moment in the lee of the battlement to catch their breath. Summoned, they shook their heads regretfully, but donned their helms and followed; Deornoth was well-trusted; many called him the Prince's Right Hand.
But Josua had poor luck with his first right hand, Deornoth thought sourly as he hunched along the walkway, sweating despite the cold gray air. I hope he keeps this one longer. And where is the prince, anyway? Of all times he should be seen...
Rounding the great bulk of Dendinis' Tower, he was shocked to see Sir Grimstede's men falling back, and the swarming red-and-blue colors of Baron Godwig's Cellodshiremen pouring over the battlement onto the curtain wall.
"For Josua!" he shouted, leaping forward. The men behind him echoed his cry. They came against the besiegers with a tinny crash of sword on sword, and for a moment pushed the Shiremen back. One toppled from the walls, shrieking, windmilling his arms as though the chill wind might bear him up. Grimstede's men took heart and pushed forward. While the enemy was engaged again, Deornoth pulled a pike from the stiff grasp of a sprawled corpse, suffering a hard blow to his body from a stray spear butt, and pushed the first of the tall ladders away from the wall. A moment later two of his guardsmen had joined him, and together they levered the ladder out; it went shivering into open space as the besiegers on it clung and cursed, their mouths gaping like black empty holes. For a moment it stood free, halfway between earth and heaven and perpendicular to both; then the ladder overbalanced backward toward the ground below, shedding soldiers like fruit from a shaken branch.
Soon all but a pair of the red-and-blue lay in their blood on the walkway. The defenders pushed the remaining three ladders away, and Grimstede had his men roll up one of the large stones they had not had time to move at the assault's beginning. They tipped it over the low spot on the wall so that it went crashing down on the toppled ladders, splintering them like kindling and killing one of the laddermen who sat where he had tumbled, staring idiotically as the great stone rolled down upon him.
One of the defending guardsmen—a bearded young fellow who had diced with Deornoth once—lay dead, his neck broken by the edge of a shield. Four of Sir Grimstede's men had also fallen, crumpled like wind-toppled scarecrows among seven men of Cellodshirc who had also not survived the failed assault.
Deornoth was feeling the blow of his stomach, and stood panting as gap-toothed Grimstede limped over to stand beside him, a ragged, bloody hole in the calf of his boot.
" 'Tis seven here, an' half-dozen more toombled off th' ladder," the knight said, staring down with satisfaction on the writhing bodies and wreckage below. "All down th' wall it's th' same. Losin' far more than we, King Elias is, far more."
Deornoth felt ill, and his wounded shoulder throbbed as though a nail had been driven into it.
"The king has... far more than we do," he replied. "... He can... toss them away like apple peelings." Now he knew he would be sick, and moved toward the edge of the wall.
"Apple peelings..." he said again, and leaned over the parapet, too pained to feel shame.
"Read it again, please," Jarnauga said quietly, staring at his knitted fingers.
Father Strangyeard looked up, his weary mouth open to form a question. Instead, a bone-jarring thump from outside brought a look of panic to the one-eyed priest's face, and he quickly traced a Tree on the breast on his black robe.
"Stones'" he said, his voice shrill. "They are... they are throwing stones over the wall! Shouldn't we... isn't there...?"
"The men fighting atop the walls are in danger too," the old Rimmersgarder said, his face stem. "We are here because we best serve here. Our comrades search for one sword in the white north, against lethal odds. Another is in the hands of our enemy already, even as he besieges our walls. What little hope there is of discovering what happened to Fingil's blade Minneyar lies with us." His expression softened as he regarded the worried Strangyeard. "The few stones that reach the inner keep must come over the high wall behind this room. We are at little risk. Now please, read that passage again. There is something in it I cannot quite touch, but that seems important."
The tall priest stared down at the page for some moments, and as the room fell into silence a wave of cries and exhortations, muffled by distance, stole through the window like a mist. Strangyeard's mouth twitched.
"Read," suggested Jarnauga.
The priest cleared his throat.
"'… And so John went down into the tunnels beneath the Hayholt—steaming vents and sweating passageways alive with the breath of Shurakai. Unarmed but for a spear and shield, his very boot-leather smoking as he neared the firedrake's den, he was, there is little doubt, as frightened as he ever would be in his long life...' "
Strangyeard broke off. "What use is this, Jarnauga?" Something thudded into the soil a short distance away with a sound like the fall of a giant's hammer. Strangyeard stoically ignored it. "Do... do you want me to go on? Through all King John's battle with the dragon?"
"No." Jarnauga waved a gnarled hand. "Go to the ending passage."
The priest carefully turned a few leaves.
" '… Thus it was that he came out again, into the light, beyond any hope of return. Those few who had remained at the cave mouth—this itself an indication of great bravery, for who could know what might happen at the door of an angered dragon's tunnel?—swore great oaths of joy and astonishment; joy, when they saw John of Warinsten come up alive from the worm 's den, and astonishment at the massive claw, crimson-scaled and hook-taloned, that he bore upon his bloody shoulder. As they went shouting down the road before him, leading his horse triumphantly through the gates of Erchester, the people came gaping to their windows and into the streets. Some say that those who had loudest prophesied John's horrible death, and the dire consequences to themselves of the young knight's actions, were now most audible in their acclaim of his great deed. As word spread, the rows were quickly lined with clamoring citizens who threw flowers before John as he rode, Bright-Nail lifted high before him like a torch-flame, through the city that was now his own...' "