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



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Sighing, Strangyeard gently put the manuscript pages back into the cedar box he had found to house them. "A lovely and frightening story, I would say, Jarnauga, and Morgenes, hmmmm, yes, he puts things wonderfully—but what use to us?—no disrespect, you understand."
Jarnauga squinted at his own prominent knuckles, and frowned. "I do not know. Something, there is something there. Doctor Morgenes, whether he wished to or no, put something there. Sky and clouds and stones! I can almost touch it! I feel blind!"
Another wash of noise came through the window: loud, worried shouts and the weighty chink of armor as a troop of guards jogged past in the commons outside.
"I do not think we have long to ponder, Jarnauga," Strangyeard said finally.
"Nor do I," said the old man, and rubbed his eyes.
^
All through the afternoon the tide of King Elias' army dashed itself against Naglimund's stony cliffs. The weak sunlight struck glinting shards of reflection from polished metal as wave after wave of mailed and helmeted soldiers swarmed up the ladders, only to be repelled by the castle's defenders. Here and there the king's forces found a momentary breach in the ring of stem men and grudging stone, but they were always pushed back. Fat Ordmaer, baron of Uttersall, held one such gap alone for long minutes, battling hand to hand with the scaling-soldiers mounting the ladders from below, slaying four of them and keeping the rest at bay until help arrived, although he got his own deathwound in the fighting.
It was Prince Josua himself who brought up a troop of guards, securing the length of wall and destroying the ladder. Josua's sword Naidel was a ray of sunlight flickering through leaves, snicking swiftly in and out, making dead men from living while his attackers swung clumsy broadswords or inadequate daggers.
The prince cried when Ordmaer's body was found. There had been no love lost between the baron and himself, but Ordmaer's death had been a heroic one, and in the pulse of battle his fall suddenly seemed to Josua representative of all the others—all the pikemen and archers and foot-soldiers on both sides, dying in their own blood beneath cold, cloudy skies. The prince ordered that the baron's great, limp bulk be carried down to the castle chapel. His guardsmen, cursing silently, complied.
As the reddening sun crawled toward the western horizon. King Elias' army seemed to sag, to let up: their attempts to push the siege engines against the curtain wall in the hissing face of arrow-fire grew half-hearted, and the sealers began to abandon their ladders at the first resistance from the heights above. It was hard for Erkynlander to kill Erkynlander, even at the High King's command. It was harder still when those brother Erkynlanders fought like denned badgers.
As sunset came on a mournful horn blast floated across the field from the lines of tents, and Elias' forces began to fall back, dragging the wounded and also many of the dead, leaving the hide-covered siege towers and miner's frames where they stood awaiting the next morning's assault. As the horn sounded again the drums beat loudly, as though to remind the defenders that the king's great army, like the green ocean, could send waves forever. Eventually, the drums seemed to say, even the stubbornest stone would crumble.
The siege towers, standing like solitary obelisks before the walls, were another obvious reminder of Elias' intent to return. The damp hides hung upon them permitted no mere flaming arrow to do damage, but Eadgram the Lord Constable had been pondering all day. After seeking some advice from Jarnauga and Strangyeard, he had at last devised a plan.
Silently, even as the last of the king's men limped down the slope toward their encampment, Eadgram bade his men load oil-filled winesacks onto the throwing arms of Naglimund's two small sling-stones. Then the arms were released, and oilsacks whistled across the open distance beyond the wall to splatter over the towers' leather mantling. This done, it was a simple matter to send a few fiery pitch-tipped arrows streaking through the blue twilight; within moments the four huge towers had become billowing torches.
There was nothing the king's men could do to quell the blaze. The defenders on the walls clapped their hands together and stamped and shouted, weary but heartened, as orange light danced on the battlements.
When King Elias rode out from the camp, wrapped in his great black cloak like a man of shadows, Naglimund's defenders jeered. When he lifted his strange gray sword, and shouted like a madman for rain to fall and quench the fiery towers, they laughed uneasily. It was only after a while, as the king rode back and forth, crow-black cape flapping in the cold wind, that they began to understand from the horrible anger in Elias' echoing voice that he truly expected rain to come at his summoning, and that he was outraged it had not. The laughter faded into a fearful silence. Naglimund's defenders, one by one, left off their celebrating and climbed down from the walls to tend their wounds. The siege, after all, had barely begun. There was no respite in view, and no rest this side of Heaven.
^
"I've been having strange dreams again, Binabik."
Simon had ridden his horse up alongside Quantaqa, some yards ahead of the rest of the company. It was clear but terribly cold, this their sixth day riding across the White Waste.
"Dreams of what sort?"
Simon readjusted the mask the troll had made him, a strip of hide with a slit cut in it, to mask the fierce glare of the snow. "Of Green Angel Tower... or some tower. Last night I dreamed that it was running with blood."
Binabik squinted behind his own mask, then pointed to a faint band of gray running along the horizon at the base of the mountains. "That, I am sure, is the edge of the Dimmerskog—or the Qilakitsoq, as my folk properly name it: the Shadow-wood. We should be upon it with another day or so."
Staring at the dreary strip, Simon felt his frustrations boiling up.
"I don't care about the damnable forest," he snapped, "and I'm sick to death of ice and snow, ice and snow! We shall freeze and die in this awful wilderness! What about the dreams I'm having?!"
The troll bobbed along for a moment as Qantaqa had her way over a series of small drifts. Through the song of the wind Haestan could be heard shouting something to someone.
"I am already full of sorrow." Binabik spoke measuredly, as if matching his speech to the cadence of their progress. "Awake I lay two nights in Naglimund, worrying what harm I would do in bringing you along for this journey. I have to knowledge of what your dreams mean, and the only way for finding it would be to walk the Road of Dreams."
"As we did at Geloe's house?"
"But I am having no faith in my unaided powers for that—not here, not now. It is possible your dreams could give us aid, but still I do not find it wise to walk the dream-road now. Here we are all, then, and this is what our fate will be. I can only say I have been doing what seemed best."
Simon thought about this and grunted.
Here we all are. Binabik is right; here we all are, too far in to turn back.
"Is Inelu..." he made the sign of the Tree with fingers trembling from more than chill, "... is the Storm King... the Devil?" he asked at last.
Binabik frowned deeply.
"The Devil? The Enemy of your God? Why are you asking that? You have heard Jarnauga's words—you know what Ineluki is."
"I suppose." He shivered. "It's just that... I see him in my dreams. I think it's him, anyway. Red eyes, that's all I see, really, and everything else black... like burned-up logs with the hot places still showing through." He felt ill just remembering.
The troll shrugged, hands caught up in the wolf's neck ruff. "He is not your Devil, friend Simon. He is evil, though, or at least I am thinking that the things he wants will be evil for the rest of us. That is evil enough."
"And... the dragon?" Simon said hesitantly a moment later. Binabik turned his head sharply, presenting his strange, slitted gaze.
"Dragon?"
'The one who lives on the mountain. The one whose name I can't say."
Binabik laughed explosively, his breath a cloud. "Igjaijuk is its name! Daughter of the Mountains, you are having many worries, young friend! Devils! Dragons'" He caught one of his own tears on the finger of his glove and held up. "Look!" he chuckled. "As if there was need of making more ice."
"But there was a dragon!" Simon answered hotly. "Everyone said so!"
"Long ago, Simon. It is an ill-omened place, but that is being as much for its isolation as anything else, is my guessing. Qanuc legends tell a great ice-worm lived there once, and my people do not go there, but now I think it to be more likely a haunt of snow leopards and such creatures. Not that there will not be things of danger. The Hunen, as we are well-knowing, range far afield these days."
"So then, truly I have little to fear? The most terrible things have been running through my head at night."
"I was not saying you had little to fear, Simon. We must never be forgetting that we have enemies; some, it would seem, are very powerful indeed."
Another frigid night in the Waste; another campfire in the dark emptiness of the surrounding snowfields. Simon would have liked nothing better in the entire world than to be curled up in a bed at Naglimund, covered in blankets, even if the bloodiest battle in the history of Osten Ard raged just outside his door. He was sure that if just now someone offered him a warm, dry place to sleep, he would lie or kill or take Usires' name in vain to get it. He was positive, as he sat wrapped in his saddle blanket trying to keep his teeth from chattering, that he could feel his very eyelashes freezing on his lids.
Wolves were yipping and wailing in the unending darkness beyond the faint firelight, carrying on long and mournfully intricate conversations. Two nights before, when the companions had first begun to hear their singing, Qantaqa spent the entire evening pacing nervously around the campfire circle. She had since grown used to the night cries of her fellows, and only responded with an occasional uneasy whimper.
"Why dunna she talk b-b-back at 'em?" Haestan asked worriedly. A plainsman of the Erkynlandish north, he had no more love for wolves than did Sludig, although he had grown almost fond of Binabik's mount. "Why dunna she tell 'em t'go p-plague someone else?"
"Like men, not all tribes of Qantaqa's kind are at peace," Binabik replied, setting no one's mind at ease.
Tonight the great she-wolf was doing her stalwart best to ignore the howling—pretending sleep, but giving herself away as her pricked ears swiveled toward the louder cries. The wolfsong, Simon decided as he huddled deeper in his blanket, was about the loneliest sound he had ever heard.
Why am I here? he wondered. Why are any of us here? Searching through this horrible snow for some sword no one has even thought about in years. Meanwhile, the Princess and all the rest of them are back at the castle waiting for the king to attack! Stupid! Binabik grew up in the mountains, in the snow—Grimmric and Haestan and Sludig are soldiers—the Aedon alone knows what the Sithi want. So why am I here? It's stupid!
The howling quieted. A long forefinger touched Simon's hand, making him jump.
"Do you listen to the wolves, Seoman?" Jiriki asked.
"It's hard n-not to."
"They sing such fierce songs." The Sitha shook his head. "They are like your mortal kind. They sing of where they have been, and what they have seen and scented. They tell each other where the elk are running, and who has taken whom to mate, but mostly they are merely crying "I am! Here I am!'" Jiriki smiled, veiling his eyes as he watched the dying fire.
"And th-that's what you think we... we m-m-mortals are saying?"
"With words and without them," the prince responded. "You must try to see things with our eyes: to the Zida'ya, your folk often seem as children. You see that the long-lived Sithi do not sleep, that we stay awake throughout the long night of history. You men, like children, wish to remain at the fire with your elders, to hear the songs and stories and watch the dancing." He gestured around, as though the darkness was peopled with invisible revelers.
"But you cannot, Simon," he continued kindly. "You may not. It is given to your folk to sleep the final sleep, just as it is given to our kind to walk and sing beneath the stars the night long. Perhaps there is even a richness in your sleeping dreams that we Zida'ya do not understand."
The stars hanging in the black-crystal sky seemed to slide away, to sink deeper into the vast night. Simon thought of the Sithi, and of a life that did not end, and could not make himself understand what it might be like. Chilled to the bone—even, it seemed, to his soul—he leaned close to the fire, pulling off his damp mittens to warm his hands.
"But the Sithi can d-die, c-c-can't they?" he asked cautiously, cursing his frozen stuttering speech.
Jiriki leaned close, his eyes narrowing, and for a frightening moment Simon thought the Sitha was going to strike him for his temerity. Instead, Jiriki took Simon's trembling hand and tilted it.
"Your ring," he said, staring at the fish-shaped curlicue, "I had not seen it before. Who gave you this?"
"My... my master, I su... suppose he was," Simon stammered. "Doctor Morgenes of the Hayholt. He sent it after me, to B-B-Binabik." The cool, strong clutch of the Sithi prince's hand was unsettling, but he dared not pull away.
"So you are one of your kind who knows the Secret?" Jiriki asked, watching him intently. The depth of his golden eyes, rust-tinged by the fire's reflection, was frightening.
"S-Secret? N-N-No! No, I don't know any secret!"
Jiriki stared at him for a moment, holding him still with his eyes as surely as if he had grasped Simon's head in both hands.
"Then why should he give you the ring?" Jiriki asked, mostly to himself, shaking his head as he released Simon's hand. "And I myself gave you a White Arrow! The Ancestors have made for us a strange road indeed." He turned back to stare at the wavering fire, and would not answer Simon's questions.
Secrets, Simon thought angrily, more secrets! Binabik has them. Morgenes had them, the Sithi are full of them! I don't want to know about any other secrets! Why have I been picked out for this punishment? Why is everyone forever forcing their horrible secrets on me?!
He cried silently for a while, hugging his knees and shivering, wishing for impossible things.
They reached the eastern outskirts of the Dimmerskog on the afternoon of the next day. Although the forest was covered in a thick blanket of white snow, it nevertheless seemed, as Binabik had named it, a place of shadows. The company did not pass beneath its eaves, and might have chosen not to even had their path lain that way, so thick with foreboding was the wood's atmosphere. The trees, despite their size—and some of them were huge indeed—seemed dwarfish and twisted, as though they squirmed bitterly beneath their burden of needled branches and snow. The open spaces between the contorted trunks seemed to bend away crazily like tunnels dug by some huge and drunken mole, leading at last to dangerous, secretive depths.
Passing in near silence, his horse's hooves crunching softly in the snow, Simon imagined following the gaping pathways into the bark-pillared, white-roofed halls of Dimmerskog, coming at last to—who could guess? Perhaps to the dark, malicious heart of the forest, a place where the trees breathed together and passed endless rumors with the scaly rub of branch on branch, or the malicious exhalation of wind through twigs and frozen leaves.
They camped that night in the open again, even though the Dimmerskog crouched only a short distance away like a sleeping animal. None of them wanted to spend a night beneath the forest's branches—especially Sludig, who had been raised on stories of the ghastly things that stalked the wood's pale corridors. The Sithi did not seem to care, but Jiriki spent part of the evening oiling his dark witchwood sword. Again the company huddled around a naked fire, and the east wind razored past them all the long evening, sending great powdery spouts of snow whirling all around, and sporting among the Dimmerskog's upper reaches. When they lay down that night to sleep it was to the sound of the forest creaking, and the wind-ridden branches sawing one against the other.
Two more days of slow riding brought them around the forest and across the last stretch of open, icy land to the foothills of the mountains. The landscape was bleak, and the daylight glared off the snow-crust until Simon's head throbbed from squinting, but the weather seemed a little warmer. The snow still fell, but the harrying wind did not drive past cloak and coat as it did out of the'mountains' broad lee.
"Look!" Sludig cried, pointing away up the sloping apron of the foothills.
At first Simon saw nothing but the ubiquitous snowcapped rocks and trees. Then, as his eye slid along the line of low hills to the east, he saw movement. Two strangely-shaped figures—or was it four, oddly commingled?—were silhouetted on the ridgetop a furlong away.
"Wolves?" he asked nervously.
Binabik rode Qantaqa out from the party until they stood clear, then cupped his gloved hands in his mouth. "Yah aqonik mij-ayah nu tutusiq, henimaatuq?" he called. His words echoed briefly and then died amid the shrouded hills. "In truth there should be no shouting," he whispered to a puzzled Simon. "Higher up it might be the causing of snowslides."
"But who are you...?"
"Sshhh." Binabik waved his hand. A moment later the two shapes moved down the ridge a short way toward the companions. Now Simon could see that the pair were small men, each astride a shaggy, twist-horned ram. Trolls!
One of them called out. Binabik, after listening intently, turned with a smile to his comrades.
"They wish for knowing where we go, and if that is not being a flesh-eating Rimmersman is our midst, and is he a prisoner?"
"The devil take them!" Sludig growled. Binabik's smile widened, and he turned back to the ridge.
"Binbiniqegabenik ea sikka!" he shouted. "Uc sikkan mo-hinaq da Yijafjuk!"
The two round fur-hooded heads regarded them blankly for a moment, like sunbamed owls. A moment later one rapped his chest with his hand, and the other waved his mittened arm in a wide circle as they turned their mounts and rode off up the ridge in a cloud of powdery snow.
"What was all that?" Sludig asked, nettled.
Binabik's grin seemed strained. "I told them we were to go to Urmsheim," he explained. "One gave the sign to ward off evil, the other was using a charm against madmen."
After making their way up into the hills, the company made camp in a rocky dale gouged into the hem of Urmsheim's mantle.
"Here it is we should leave the horses, and those things we need not be carrying," Binabik said as he surveyed the sheltered site.
Jiriki strode to the mouth of the dale and leaned backward, staring up toward Urmsheim's craggy, snowcapped head, pink-tinged on its westerly face by the setting sun. The wind billowed his cloak and blew his hair up around his face like wisps of lavender clouds.
"It has been long since I have seen this place," he said.
"Have you climbed this mountain before?" Simon asked, struggling with his horse's cinch buckle.
"I have never seen the peak's far side," the Sitha answered. "This will be something new for me—to see the easternmost realm of the Hikeda'ya."
"The Morns?"
"Everything north of the mountains was ceded to them long ago, at the time of the Parting." Jiriki strode back up the gulley. "Ki'ushapo, you and Sijandi must prepare a shelter for the horses. See, there is some scrub growing here, under the leaning rocks, that may be a boon if you run short of hay." He lapsed over into the Sithi tongue, and An'nai and the other two began to set up a campsite more permanent than any the company had enjoyed since leaving the hunting lodge.
"Here, Simon, see what I have brought!" Binabik called.
The youth made his way past the three soldiers, who were splitting the small trees they had felled into firewood. The troll was squatting on the ground pulling oilskin-wrapped bundles from his saddlebag.
"The blacksmith at Naglimund thought me as mad as I am small," Binabik smiled as Simon approached, "but he made for me the things I was wanting."
Unlaced, the pouches disgorged all kinds of strange objects—spike-covered metal plates with straps and buckles, odd hammers with pointy heads, and harnesses that looked as though they might be made to fit very small horses.
"What are all these things?"
"For the wooing and winning of mountains," Binabik smirked. "Even the Qanuc, with all our nimblefootedness, do not go climbing to the highest reaches unprepared. See, these are for wearing on boots," he indicated the spiked plates, "and these are ice-axes—very useful they are. Sludig will have seen them, no doubt."
"And the harnesses?"
"So we may be roping ourselves together. Thus, if the sleet is blowing, or we are on dragon-snow or too-thin ice, when one falls the others can then be bearing up his weight. If there had been the time, I would have made preparation of a harness for Qantaqa, too. She will be upset at staying behind, and we will have a sad parting." The troll hummed a quiet tune as he oiled and polished.
Simon stared silently at Binabik's tools. Somehow he had thought climbing the mountain would be something like climbing the stairs of Green Angel Tower—steeply uphill, but essentially no more than a difficult hike. This talk of people falling, and thin ice...
"Ho, Simon-lad!" It was Grimmric. "Come make y'rself useful. Pick up some of th' chippings. We'll have one last good blaze 'fore we go t'killing ourselves up-mountain."
The white tower again loomed in his dreams that night. He clung desperately to its blood-slickened sides as wolves howled below him, and a dark, red-eyed shape rang the baleful bells above.
^
The innkeeper looked up, mouth open to speak, then stopped. He blinked and swallowed, like a frog.
The stranger was a monk, robed and hooded in black, his garb spattered in places with the mud of the road. What was arresting was his size; he was fairly tall but broad as an ale barrel, wide enough that the tavern room—not the brightest to begin with—had perceptibly darkened when he pushed through the doorway.
"I... I'm sorry. Father." The innkeeper smiled ingratiatingly. Here was a man of the Aedonite God who looked as though he could squeeze the sin right out of you if he chose. "What were you asking?"
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