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



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"The Greater Worm, the one that many stories say encircles the world. We Sithi, though, see the Worm as circling all worlds at once, those of waking and those of dreaming... those that were, and those that will be. His tail is in his mouth, so he has no end or beginning."
"A worm? Do you mean a d-d-dragon?"
Jiriki nodded once, an abrupt motion like a bird pecking grain. "It is also told that all dragons are descended from the Greater Worm, and that each is less than the ones that went before. Igjarjuk and Shurakai were less great than their mother Hidohehbi, as she in turn was not as great as her parent Khaerukama'o the Golden. Someday, if all this is true, the dragons will disappear altogether—if they have not already."
"That w-would be good," Simon said.
"Would it?" Jiriki smiled again, but his eyes were cold, shiny stones. "Men grow while the great worms... and others... diminish. That seems to be the way of things." He stretched, with the shuddering, slippery grace of a new-wakened cat. "The way of things," he repeated. "Still, I brought out this scale of the Greater Worm to show you something. Would you like to see, manchild?"
Simon nodded.
"This has been a difficult journey for you." Jiriki flicked a glance over his shoulder to where the others were gathered around Grimmric and the tiny campfire. Only An'nai glanced up, and some unreadable communication flickered between the two Sithi. "Look," said Jiriki a moment later.
The looking glass, cupped in his hands like a precious drink of water, seemed almost to ripple. The darkness it held—split by a jagged slash of light gray, the reflection of the sky above their crevice—seemed to slowly sprout points of green light, like strange vegetable stars germinating in the evening sky. "I will show you a true summer," Jiriki said softly, "truer than any you have known."
The flecks of shining green began to flutter and coalesce, sparkling emerald fishes rising to the surface of a shadowy pond. Simon felt himself sinking into the mirror, although he did not move from where he leaned above it. The green became many greens, as many shades and tints as ever were. In a moment they had resolved themselves into a startling confusion of bridges and towers and trees: a city and a forest grown together, sprouting as one in the midst of a grassy plain—not a city a forest had grown over, like Da'ai Chikiza, but a thriving, living amalgam of plant and polished stone, mrytle, jade, and viridian.
"Enki-e-Shao'saye," Jiriki whispered. The grass on the plain bent luxuriantly before the wind; scarlet, white, and sky-blue pennants fluttered like blossoms amid the city's branching spires. "The last and greatest city of the Summer."
"Where... is... it...?" Simon breathed, astonished and bewitched by its beauty.
"Not so much where, manchild, as when. The world is not only vaster than you know, Seoman, it is also far, far older. Enki-e-Shao'saye is long crumbled now. It lay east of the great forest."
"Crumbled?"
"It was the last place where Zida'ya and Hikeda'ya lived together, before the Parting. It was a city of great craft and greater beauty; the very wind in the towers made music, and the lamps of night shone bright as stars. Nenais'u danced under moonlight by her forest pool, and the admiring trees leaned down to watch." He shook his head slowly. "All gone. Those were the summer-days of my people. We are now far into the Autumn..."
"Gone...?" Simon could still not grasp the tragedy. It seemed as though he could reach into the mirror, touch one of the needle-sharp towers with his finger. He felt tears struggling to break free. No home. The Sithi had lost their homes... they were lonely and homeless in the world.
Jiriki passed his hand over the glass, and it clouded. "Gone," he said. "But as long as there is memory, Summer remains. And even Winter passes." He turned and looked long at Simon, and the agonized expression on the youth's face at last brought a small, careful smile to his own.
"Do not mourn so," he said, and patted Simon's arm. "Brightness is not completely erased from the world—not yet. And not all beautiful places have fallen to ruin. Still there is Jao e-Tinukai'i, the dwelling of my family and people. Perhaps someday, if we both come down safely from this mountain, you will see it." He grinned his strange grin, thinking of something. "Perhaps you will..."
The rest of the climb up Urmsheim—three more days on narrow, dangerous pathways scarcely more than ice-ribbons, over sheer, glassy sheets by laboriously hacked hand and footholds; two more nights of evil, teeth-grinding cold—passed by Simon like a fleeting but painful dream. Through the terrible weariness that beset him he held onto Jiriki's gift of summer—for it was a gift, he knew—and was comforted. Even as his numb fingers struggled to cling, and his numb feet to stay on the path, he thought that somewhere there would be warmth again, and something like a bed and clean clothes—even a bath would be welcome! All those things were out there somewhere, if he could just keep his head down and get off the mountain alive.
When you stopped to think about it, he reflected, there weren't many things in life one truly needed. To want too much was worse than greed: it was stupidity—a waste of precious time and effort.
The company slowly worked their way around the body of the mountain until the sun rose each morning to shine over their right shoulders. The air was growing painfully thin, forcing frequent halts for the catching of breath; even hardy Jiriki and uncomplaining An'nai were moving more slowly, limbs weighted as though by heavy garments. The human companions, except for the troll, positively dragged. Grimmric had revived, thanks to the potency of Binabik's Qanuc elixir, but shivered and coughed as he climbed. From time to time the wind increased, sending the clouds that hugged Urmsheim's shoulders flying like tattered ghosts. The mountain's silent neighbors would slowly materialize, jagged peaks holding lofty convention far above the surface of Osten Ard, indifferent to the sordid and minuscule landscape at their feet. Binabik, as comfortable breathing the insubstantial air of the Roof of the World as he had been sitting in Naglimund's pantry, pointed out wide, craggy Mintahoq in the east to his gasping companions, as well as several of the other mountains compassing the troll-fells of Yiqanuc.
They came upon it suddenly, while fully half the mountain's height still towered above them. Struggling over a rocky outcropping, the rope pulled taut as a bowstring between them, every breath burning their lungs, they heard one of the Sithi—who had climbed ahead and out of sight—let out a strange, whistling cry. The companions scrambled toward the top with all possible haste; the question of what they were hurrying toward dangled unspoken. Binabik, leading the line, stopped on the hillcrest; he swayed a little to keep his balance.
"Daughter of the Mountains!" the troll gasped, a plume of vapor rising from his mouth. He stood and did not move for long moments. Simon carefully mounted the last few steps.
At first he saw nothing before him but another wide valley of snow, its white wall rising across from them, open on the right to the air and sky and a succession of snowy cliffs that dropped away down the side of Urmsheim. He turned to Binabik to ask what had made him cry out. The question died on his lips.
On the left hand the valley dug deep into the mountain's face, the valley floor sloping up as its high walls gradually angled together. At their apex, stretching up from the ground to the triangle of gray-blue sky, loomed the Uduntree.
"Elysia Mother of God!" Simon said, his voice cracking. "Mother of God," he repeated.
At first, confronted by the vast, mad, implausibility of the thing, he thought it was a tree—a titanic tree of ice a thousand feet tall, myriad branches sparkling and coruscating in the noonday sun, shadowed at its impossible summit by a halo of mist. It was only as he finally convinced himself it was real—that such a thing could exist in a world that also contained such mundane objects as pigs and fences and mixing-bowls—that he began to understand what it was: a frozen waterfall, the accumulation of years of icy snowmelt captured in a million icicles, a crystalline tracery down the jagged stone-spine that formed the Uduntree's trunk.
Jiriki and An'nai stood transfixed a few ells below the valley floor, staring up at the tree. Simon, following Binabik, began struggling down the slope toward them, feeling the rope around his waist grow tense as Grimmric reached the summit and was himself struck motionless; Simon then waited patiently as the process was repeated two more times for Haestan and Sludig. At last they all made their stumbling, preoccupied way down to the deep snow of the valley floor. The Sithi were quietly singing, and paid no heed to the arrival of their human companions.
For a long while no one spoke. The majesty of the Uduntree almost seemed to suck the breath from their bodies, and for a great span of time the companions just stood and stared, feeling emptied.
"Let us be going forward," Binabik said at last. Simon started resentfully. The troll's voice seemed a rude intrusion.
"Tis th' d-d-damnedest sight my eyes have ever h-held," Grimmric stuttered.
"Here old black One-Eye climbed to the stars," Sludig said quietly. "God save me from blasphemy, but I can feel his presence still."
Binabik started out across the open valley floor. The others followed after a few moments, tugged along by the troll's harness rope. The snow was thigh-deep and slow going. After they had moved some thirty difficult steps, Simon finally tore his eyes from the spectacle to look back. An'nai and Jiriki had not joined them; the two Sithi still stood side by side, as if waiting for something.
They moved forward. The valley walls leaned ever closer above their heads as though fascinated by these rare travelers. Simon could see that the base of the ice-tree was a huge, jumbled, hole-dotted rockery sheltered beneath the arching lower branches—not true branches, but rather layer upon spreading layer of melted and refrozen icicles, each one wider than the one above, so that the bottommost branches made a ceiling half as wide as a tourney field over the strew of boulders.
They had come close enough that the great ice-pillar seemed to extend through the very roof of the sky. As he bent his neck painfully for one last glimpse at the near-vanished peak of the tree, a rush of surprise and fear ran over him, blackening his sight for a moment.
The tower! From my dreams, the tower with branches! Stunned, he tripped and tumbled into the snow. Haestan reached down a broad hand and lifted him without a word. Simon chanced another look up, and a frightening sensation that was more than mere dizziness sluiced over him.
"Binabik!" he cried. The troll, just passing into the violet darkness of the Uduntree's shadow, turned swiftly.
"Quiet, Simon!" he hissed. "We have no knowing if we may knock sharp ice loose, much to our regret."
Simon made his way forward through the clinging snow as quickly as he could.
"Binabik, this is the tower I dreamed—a white tower with branches like a tree! This is it!"
The troll surveyed the clutter of huge boulders and shattered rock in the tree's dark underside. "I thought it was your belief you saw Green Angel Tower, from the Hayholt?"
"I did—that is to say, it was part of both. But since I'd never seen this before, I didn't know that some of it was some of this! Do you understand?!"
Binabik cocked a bushy black eyebrow. "When we are next finding time, I will cast the bones. Now we have a mission still unperformed."
He waited until the others had straggled up before speaking again. "It is my thought," he said at last, "that we should be soon making a camp. Then we can spend the last hours of daylight hunting for some sign of Colmund's company, or the sword Thorn."
"Are them..." Haestan indicated the now-distant Sithi, "... goin' t'help?"
Before Binabik could voice an opinion, Grimmric whistled excit edly and pointed up at the jumble of rocks. "Look, you!" he said, "I think there's been someone stayin' here before. Look at th' rocks there!"
Simon followed the soldier's finger to a spot farther up the sloping pile of rocks, where several rows of stones had been piled in the mouth of one of the cavelike holes.
"Y'r right!" Haestan exiaimed. "He's right! Sure as Tunath's Bones lie north t'south, someone made th'selves a camp there."
"Careful!" Binabik said urgently, but Simon had already shed his harness and was making his way up the scree, setting off tiny avalanches where he stepped in cautiously. He reached the cave in short moments, and stood, teetering on a loose stone.
"This wall was made by men, that's certain!" he called back excit edly. "The cavern mouth was perhaps three ells wide, and somebody had hurriedly but not unskillfully set rock to rock across the front—to keep in warmth, perhaps? To keep out animals?"
"Kindly do not shout, Simon," Binabik said. "We will be up directly with you."
Waiting impatiently, all thoughts of thin air and killing cold in abeyance, Simon watched the company climb after him. Even as Haestan began his clamber up the pile, the two Sithi appeared beneath the eaves of the Uduntree. After taking in the scene for a moment they mounted up to the cave as nimbly as branch-leaping squirrels.
It took a moment for Simon's eyes to adjust to the more profound darkness inside the low cavern. When he could finally see, it took only a moment more for his eyes to widen with shock.
"Binabik! It's... they're..."
The troll, able to stand upright at his side where Simon crouched, brought the heel of his hand against his breastbone.
"Qinkipa...!" he said. "They have been waiting for our coming."
The cave was scattered with the brown bones of men. The skeletons, naked but for fittings and jewelry of corroded black and green metal, sat propped against the cavern's walls. A thin layer of ice covered everything, like preserving glass.
"Is it Colmund?" Simon asked.
"Usires save us," Sludig choked behind him, "get out, the air must be poison!"
"There is no poison here," Binabik chided him. "As to whether it is Sir Colmund's party—the chances seem to me good."
"It is interesting to wonder how they might have died," Jiriki's voice was startingly resonant in the small cavern. "If they froze, why did they not huddle together for warmth?" He indicated the scattering of the bodies about the chamber. "If they were killed by some animal—or each other—then why are the bones arranged so carefully, as if each lay down to due in turn?"
"There are mysteries here worth much talking someday," the troll responded, "but we have other duties, and light is failing fast."
"All of you," Sludig said, his voice strained with some terrible urgency, "come here! Here!"
He stood over one of the skeletons. Although the bones had collapsed into a madder-colored heap, still it had the look of someone caught in the act of prayer, kneeling with arms outstretched. Between the bones of its two hands, which lay half-submerged in ice like stones in a bowl of milk, was a long bundle wrapped in frosted, rotting oilcloth.
All the air suddenly seemed to leak out of the cavern. A taut, deadening silence fell on the company. The troll and the Rimmersman kneeled, as if in imitation of the ancient bones, and began chipping away at the frozen bundle with their ice-axes. The oilcloth came away in chips, like bark. A long strip splintered away to reveal a profound blackness beneath.
"It's not metal," said Simon in disappointment.
"Nor is Thorn made of metal," Binabik grunted, "or of no metal you have ever been seeing."
Sludig was able to wiggle the point of his axe in beneath the petrified cloth, and with Haestan's straining help they tore loose another strip. Simon gasped. Binabik was right: this thing emerging like a jet-black butterfly from its prisoning chrysalis was not only a sword, it was a sword like no other he had ever seen: long as a man's arms spread wide, fingertip to fingertip, and black. The purity of its blackness was unmarred by the colors that sparkled on its edge, as though the blade was so supematurally sharp that it even sliced the dim light of the cavern into rainbows. Had it not been for the silver cord wrapped around the hilt as a handgrip—leaving the uncovered guard and pommel as pitchy as the rest of its length—it would have seemed to bear no relationship to mankind at all. Rather, despite its symmetry, it would have seemed some natural growth, some pure essence of nature's blackness extruded by chance in the form of an exquisite sword.
"Thorn," Binabik whispered, a sort of reverence coloring his satisfaction.
"Thorn," Jiriki repeated, and Simon could not even try to guess the thoughts behind his naming of the thing.
"So this is it, then?" Sludig said at last. "It is a beautiful thing. What could kill them with such a blade in their possession?"
"Who can know what happened to Colmund?" Binabik said. "But even a sword like Thorn you cannot eat when there is being no food."
They all continued to stare at the blade. Grimmric, who was closest to the cave mouth, at last straightened out his crouch, hugging himself with thin arms.
"As th'troll says, y'can't eat swords. I'm goin' t'make fire for th'night." He stepped outside the cavern and stood, stretching. He whistled a little; the tune, weak at first, grew stronger.
"There is scrub brush in the rock crevices that might burn with our kindling," Sludig called after him.
Haestan leaned forward, then touched the black blade with a cautious finger. "Cold," he smiled. "No surprise that, is't?" He turned to Binabik, oddly diffident. "May I lift it?"
The troll nodded. "Carefully."
Haestan slipped his fingers gently under the cord-wrapped hilt and pulled, but the sword did not move. "Frozen," he guessed. He tugged again, harder, with no better result. "Frozen up hard, 'tis," he panted, pulling now with all his might. His breath rose in a cloud.
Sludig leaned over to help him. Grimmric, outside the cavern, stopped whistling and said something unintelligible.
As the Rimmersman and the Erkynlander both heaved, the black sword at last began to move, but rather than snapping free of prisoning ice the blade merely slid a little to one side, then stopped.
"It is not frozen," Sludig gasped. "It is as heavy as a millstone. We two together can barely move it!"
"How will we get it down the mountain, Binabik?" Simon asked. He wanted to laugh. It was all so silly and strange—to find a magic sword and then not be able to carry it away! He reached his own hand forward and felt the deep, cool weight of the thing—and something else. A warming? Yes, some indefinable life beneath the cold surface, like a sleeping serpent stirring into wakefulness—or was he imagining things?"
Binabik stared at the immobile blade and scratched his shaggy hair, thinking. A moment later Grimmric appeared in the cavern, waving his arms. As they turned to look at him, he slumped to his knees, then toppled over, limp as a sack of meal. A black arrow, a thorn of a different sort, quivered in his back.
^
Blue light bathed the silver mask, touching its contours with pale fire. The face beneath had once been the model for its sculpted, inhuman beauty, but what the mask now covered no living creature could say. The world had made uncountable revolutions since the face of Utuk'ku had disappeared forever behind its gleaming lines.
The blue-brushed mask turned and surveyed the giant, many-shadowed stone hall, eyeing her scurrying servitors as they labored to do all that she had bid them. Their voices were raised in songs of praise and remembrance; their white hair fluttered in the eternal winds of the Chamber of the Harp. She listened with approval as the clatter of witchwood hammers echoed through the endless maze of corridors riddling frozen Nakkiga, the mountain the Norns called Mask of Tears. The mortals called her home Stormspike, and Utuk'ku knew that it haunted their dreams... as it should. The silver face nodded, satisfied. All was in readiness.
Suspended in the mist that crowned the Great Well, the Harp suddenly moaned, a desolate sound like wind in the high passes. The Norn Queen knew it was not His voice—not He who could make the Breathing Harp sing and howl, not He whose wrathful song sent the entire well-chamber thundering with impossible musics. Some lesser voice was crawling through the Harp, trapped in its infinite complexities like an insect in a sealed maze.
She lifted a silver-and-white-gloved finger mere inches above the black stone of her chair and made a small gesture. The moan became louder, and something quivered into substantiality in the fog above the Well—the gray sword Jingizu, pulsing with painful light. Something held it: a shadowy figure, its hand a formless knot around Jingizu's hilt.
Utuk'ku understood. She did not have to see the supplicant; the sword was there, far more real than any mortal temporarily allowed to possess it.
Who comes before the Queen of the Hikeda "ya? she asked, knowing the answer full well.
Elias, High King ofOsten Ard, the shadowy figure replied. I have decided to accept the terms of your master.
The word "master" nettled her. Mortal, she said at last, with queenly languor, what you wish will be given to you. But you have waited long... almost too long.
There were... The shadowy thing holding the sword swayed, as if weary. How fleshy, how weak these mortals were! How could they have caused such damage? I thought, it continued,... that things would be... different. Now I submit.
Of course you do. And you shall receive what was promised to you.
Thank you, O Queen. And I shall give you what I have promised in return...
Of course you will.
She lowered her gloved fingers, and the apparition vanished. Red light bloomed deep in the Well as He came. As He took possession of it, the Harp vibrated to a note of perfect triumph.
^
"I... don't want t'die... !" Grimmric wheezed. A froth of blood on his chin and cheek, his crooked teeth standing in his gaping mouth, he looked like a hare caught and savaged by hounds. "It's... it's so bloody cold," he shivered.
"Who did it?" Simon squeaked, losing control of his voice in shock and panic.
"Whoever," Haestan muttered, ashen-faced as he bent over his stricken countryman, "they got us like coney up a plug-hole."
"We must get out!" Sludig snapped.
"Wrap cloaks around arms," Binabik said, assembling his blowpipe from the pieces of his walking stick. "We are having no shields against arrows, but that will be some help."
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