Without a word Jiriki stepped over Haestan and the fallen Grimmric, moving toward the mouth of the cave. An'nai, tight-lipped, followed.
"Prince Jiriki... ?" Binabik began, but the Sithi paid no heed.
"Come then," Sludig said, "we cannot let them go out alone." He snatched up his blade from the cloak where he had set it.
Even as the others followed the Sithi to the cave mouth, Simon looked down at the black sword Thorn. They had come such a long way to find it—were they to lose it now? What if they escaped, but were cut off from the cavern and could not come back? He put his hand on its hilt and again felt the strange, thrumming sensation. He tugged, and to his amazement it came up in his hand. The weight of it was tremendous, but using two hands he was able to lift it off the frozen cave floor,
What was happening here? He was dizzied. Two strong men could not lift it, but he could. Magic?
Simon cautiously carried the long, achingly heavy blade to where his companions stood. Haestan untied his cloak, but instead of wrapping it around his arm for protection he laid it gently over Grimmric. The wounded man coughed, bringing up more blood. Both Erkynlanders were crying.
Before Simon could say a word about the sword, Jiriki strode from the cave mouth onto the rocky porch, cocky as a juggler.
"Stand forward!" he shouted, and the icy walls of the valley sent the echoes tumbling back. "Who attacks the company of Prince Jiriki i-Sa'onserei, son of Shima'onari and scion of the House of Year-Dancing? Who would war on the Ziday'a?"
In answer a dozen figures clambered down the sloping valley walls and stood, a hundred ells from the base of Uduntree. All were armed, all wore glare-masks and hooded white cloaks, and each bore on his breast the triangular badge of Stormspike.
"Norns?" Simon gasped, forgetting for an instant the strange object cradled in his arms.
"These are not Hikeda'ya," said An'nai shortly. "They are mortals who do Utuk'ku's bidding."
One of the cloaked men took a limping, stiff-legged pace forward. Simon recognized the sunburned skin and pale beard. "Go away, Ziday'a," Ingen Jegger said. His voice was slow and cold. "The Queen's Huntsman has no quarrel with you. It is those mortals cowering behind who have thwarted me, and who cannot be allowed to leave this place."
"They are under my protection, mortal man." Prince Jiriki patted his sword. "Go back and sit beneath Utuk'ku's table—you will get no scraps here."
Ingen Jegger nodded. "So be it." He waved a negligent hand and one of his huntsmen swiftly drew his bow and fired. Jiriki sprang aside, pulling Sludig along, who had stood just at his back. The arrow shattered on a rock beside the cave mouth.
"Down!" the prince shouted, even as An'nai let fly an arrow in return. The huntsmen scattered, leaving one of their company face down in the snow. Simon and his companions went skittering down the slippery rocks to the base of the ice-tree as arrows hummed past.
Within minutes both sides' meager ration of arrows had been exhausted, but not before Jiriki had feathered another of Ingen's raiders, putting a barb in the running man's eye as neatly as shooting an apple balanced on a stone wall. Nearby, Sludig was stricken in the fleshy part of his thigh, but the arrow had caromed off a stone first and the Rimmersman was able to pluck the head out and limp to shelter.
Simon crouched behind a stone promontory, part of the Udun-tree's trunk, cursing himself for leaving his bow and precious arrows in the cave. He watched as An'nai, his own quiver exhausted, cast bow aside and pulled his slender dark sword from it sheath; the face of the Sitha was as implacable as if he had been mending fences. Simon was sure his own must be a mirror of his overwhelming inner fear, of his tripping heart and hollow stomach. He looked down at Thorn, and felt a pulse of life in it. The heaviness had become different somehow, animate, as though it were full of rattling bees; it seemed a bound animal, stirring as it breathed the enticing scents of freedom.
A short way to his left, on the far side of the stone trunk, Haestan and Sludig were slinking forward, using the great curving branches of ice for cover. Safe now from arrows, Ingen was gathering his huntsmen for a charge on the valley floor.
"Simon!" a voice hissed. Startled, he turned around to see Binabik crouching on the stone prominence above his head.
"What will we do?" Simon asked, trying to keep his voice level but not succeeding. The troll, however, was staring down at the black length of Thorn, nestled in Simon's arms like a child.
"How... ?" Binabik asked, his round face full of surprise.
"I don't know, I only picked it up! I don't know! What are we going to do?"
The troll shook his head. "You are now to stay right here. I am going to help with what I can. I wish that I had a spear." He sprang down lightly, his heel spattering Simon with a flirt of gravel as he bounded past.
"For Josua Lackhand!" Haestan shouted, and charged out from the eaves of the Uduntree onto the white valley floor, Sludig limping purposefully behind. As soon as they reached the deep snow they slowed as if running in treacle. Ingen's huntsmen slogged toward them, performing the same halting, deadly dance.
Haestan swung up his heavy sword, but before he even reached the attackers the first white-cloaked figure fell, clutching his throat.
"Yiqanuc!" Binabik shouted in triumph, then crouched to reload his blowpipe.
The clang of swords reverberated as the first of Ingen's men reached Haestan and Sludig. The Sithi were there a moment later, moving nimbly over the snow, but still the companions were far outnumbered. A moment later tall Haestan caught the flat of a blade on his hooded skull and went down in a puff of snow. Only An'nai leaping forward to stand over him prevented his being skewered on the spot.
Blades shimmered in the thin sunlight, and cries of pain and rage almost drowned the clash of metal. Simon saw with a sinking heart that Binabik, whose remaining dans had proved useless against the thick cloaks of huntsmen, was pulling his long knife from his belt.
How can he be so brave? He's too small—they'll kill him before he can get close enough to use it!
"Binabik!" he shouted, and climbed to his feet. He lifted the heavy black sword over his head, feeling its great weight dragging at him even as he stumbled forward.
The ground suddenly pitched beneath his feet. He staggered, spread-legged, and then felt the very mountain seem to sway. A rumbling screech pierced his ears, like the sound of a heavy stone dragged across a quarry. The combatants stopped, dumbfounded, and stared down at their feet.
With another horrible shriek of tortured ice the ground began to bulge. In the center of the valley floor, only a few cubits from where Ingen Jegger stood gaping in horrible confusion, a great slab of ice pushed upward, cracking and buckling as it came, snow sliding off in great drifts.
Propelled by the sudden shifting of the ground beneath him, Simon tripped and tumbled forward, holding tightly onto Thorn, and came to a stop virtually in the middle of the combatants. No one seemed to notice him: they were all frozen in place as if the very ice of the Uduntree had turned their blood to immobilizing frost, goggling at the impossible thing pushing its way up from beneath the snow.
The ice dragon.
A snakelike head as long as a man thrust out of the new-formed crevice, white-scaled above a toothy mouth, and staring eyes blue and occluded. It waved sinuously from side to side on its long neck, as though curiously observing the minute creatures who had awakened it from years-long slumber. Then, terrifymgly swift, it darted out and caught one of the huntsmen in its jaws, biting him in half and swallowing his legs. His crushed, bloodied torso fell into the snow like a discarded rag.
"Igjarjuk!—it is Igjarjuk!" came Binabik's thin shout. The gleaming ivory head snapped up another shrieking, white-cloaked morsel. As the rest scattered, their faces emptied by unthinking horror, splay-clawed white feet gripped the crevice's rim, and the dragon's long body, back covered with strange, pale fur, yellowed as old parchment, humped slowly up from below. A whiplike tail, long as a jousting run, swept two of the huntsmen wailing into the pit.
Simon sat stunned upon the snow, unable to force belief in the monstrous thing that crouched on the rim of the ice-crevice like a cat on a chairback. The long-snouted head dipped to regard him, and the murky, unblinking blue eyes fixed his with calm, ageless malice. His head throbbed, as though he tried to stare through water—those eyes, hollow as glacial crevices! It saw him, it knew him in some way—it was as old as the bones of the mountains, as wise and cruel and uncaring as Time itself.
The jaws parted and a sliver of black tongue knifed out, tasting the air. The head bobbed closer.
"Ske'i, spawn of Hidohebhi!" a voice shouted. An instant later An'nai had vaulted onto the creature's hindquarters, grasping the thick fur for support. Singing, he lifted his sword and hacked at a scaly leg. Simon got to his feet and stumbled back, even as the dragon brought up its tail and smashed the Sitha away; An'nai flew fifty cubits to land crumpled in the snow at the valley's exposed rim, nothing beyond him but mist. Jiriki ran after with a cry of anger and despair.
"Simon!" the troll shouted, "Run! We can do nothing!"
Even as he spoke the mist that had enshrouded Simon's wits began to clear. In a moment he was on his feet, flying after Jiriki. Binabik, who had been perched on the crevice's far rim, flung himself backward as the dragon lashed out, and the great jaws snapped shut on nothing with a sound like an iron gate. The troll fell into a rift in the ice and disappeared.
Jiriki huddled over the body of An'nai, motionless as a statue. Pelting toward him, Simon looked back over his shoulder to see Igjariuk slithering down from the broken battlement of ice and moving across the little valley, short legs gripping the ice as it wound along the ground, quickly narrowing the distance between itself and its stumbling prey.
Simon tried to shout Jiriki's name, but his throat caught; all that came out was a strangled grunt. The Sitha turned around. His amber eyes were bright. He climbed to his feet beside the body of his comrade, holding his long, rune-carved witchwood sword up before him.
"Come, Old One!" Jiriki cried. "Come to me and taste Indreju, you bastard child of Hidohebhil"
Simon grimaced as he dug toward the prince. No need to shout—the dragon was coming of its own accord.
"Get behind..." Jiriki started to say as Simon reached him, then the Sitha abruptly pitched forward; the snow beneath him had fallen away. Jiriki skidded backward toward the valley's edge and the empty distance beyond. Desperately, he reached out to grab at the snow. He stopped, clinging, his feet dangling over nothingness. An'nai, a bloodied tangle, lay undisturbed a cubit away.
"Jiriki...!" Simon stopped. There was a noise like thunder behind. He whirled to see the vast white bulk of Igjariuk bearing down, head flailing from side to side with the motion of the driving legs. Diving to one side, away from Jiriki and An'nai, he rolled and came up on his feet. The blue saucer-eyes tracked him, and the creature, now only a hundred paces away, swerved to follow.
Simon realized he was still carrying Thorn. He lifted it up; it was suddenly light as a willow-wand, and seemed to sing in his hands, like a wind-sawed rope. He glanced back over his shoulder: a few paces of ground was all, then empty air. One of the distant peaks hovered in the swirling mists across the chasm—white, quiet, serene.
Usires save me, he wondered, why doesn't the dragon make a sound? His mind seemed to float loose inside his body. One hand stole up to Miriamele's scarf at his throat, and then he grasped the silver-wrapped hilt once more. Igjarjuk's head loomed, the gullet a black pit, the eye a blue lantern. The world seemed constructed of silence.
What should he shout at the last?
He remembered what Jiriki had once said of mortals, even as the frosty musk of the dragon blew down on him, a stench like sour cold earth and west stones.
"Here I am!" he cried, and brought Thorn whistling toward the baleful eye. "I am... Simon!"
Something caught at the blade, and a gout of black blood spat at him, burning like fire, like ice, searing his face even as a great white something crashed through and carried him down into darkness.
THE ROBIN, orange breast glinting like a fading ember, lighted on one of the elm's low branches. He turned his head slowly from side to side surveying the herb garden, and chirped impatiently, as if displeased to find everything in such poor order.
Josua watched him fly away, dipping over the garden wall, then arching sharply upward to speed past the battlements of the inner keep. Within a moment he was a speck of black against the bright gray dawn.
"The first robin I have seen in a very long time. Perhaps it is a hopeful sign in this dark Yuven."
The prince turned, surprised, to see Jarnauga standing on the path, eyes fixed on the spot where the bird had disappeared. The old man, apparently unmindful of the cold, wore only breeches and a thin shirt; his white feet were bare.
"Good momingtide, Jarnauga," Josua said, pulling the neck of his cloak a little tighter, as if the Rimmersman's unsusceptibility increased his own chill. "What brings you out to the garden so early?"
"This old body needs very little sleep, Prince Josua," he smiled. "And I might ask you the same in turn, but I think I know the answer."
Josua nodded morosely. "I have not slept well since I first entered my brother's dungeons. While my comfort has improved since then, worry has taken the place of hanging in chains as a denier of rest."
"There are many kinds of imprisonment," Jarnauga nodded.
They walked quietly for a while through the maze of walkways. The garden was the lady Vorzheva's onetime pride, set out to her meticulous guidelines—for a girl born in a wagon, the prince's courtiers whispered, she was certainly a stickler for elegance—but had now been allowed to deteriorate due to poor weather, as well as an abundance of more pressing concerns.
"Something is amiss, Jarnauga," Josua said at last. "I can sense it. I can almost feel it, as a fisherman feels the weather. What is my brother doing?"
"It seems to me he is doing his best to kill us all," the old man replied, a tight grin creasing his leathery face. "Is that what is 'amiss'?"
"No," the prince said seriously. "No. That is just the problem. We have held him off for a month, with bitter losses—Baron Ordmaer, Sir Grimstede, Wuldorcene of Caldsae, as well as hundreds of stout yeomen—but it has been nearly a fortnight since he has mounted a serious assault. The attacks have been... cursory. He is going through the motions of a siege. Why?" He sat down on a low bench, and Jarnauga sat beside him. "Why?" he repeated.
"A siege is not always won by force of arms. Perhaps he is planning to starve us out."
"But then why bother to attack at all? We have inflicted terrible losses on them. Why not just wait? It is as though he seeks only to keep us inside, and himself outside. What is Elias doing?"
The old man shrugged. "As I have told you; I can see much, but the insides of men's hearts are beyond my vision. We have survived so far. Let us be thankful."
"I am. But I know my brother. He is not the type to sit patiently and wait. There is something in the wind, some plan..." He trailed off into silence and sat staring at an overgrown bed of mockfoil. The flowers had never opened, and weeds stood insolently among the twining stems like carrion-eaters mingling with a dying herd.
"He could have been a magnificent king, you know," Josua said suddenly, as if in answer to some unspoken question. "There was a time when he was just strong, and not a bully. That is to say, he was sometimes cruel when we were younger, but it was only that innocent sort of cruelty that big boys show to the smaller ones. He even taught me some things—swordplay, wrestling. I never taught him anything. He was not very interested in the things I knew about."
The prince smiled sadly, and for a moment a child's fragile look seemed to shine through his close-pared features.
"We might even have been friends..." The prince knitted his long fingers and blew warm breath into them. "If only Hylissa had lived."
"Miriamele's mother?" Jarnauga asked quietly.
"She was very beautiful—southern, you know—black hair, white teeth. She was very shy, but when she smiled it was as though a lamp had been lit. And she loved my brother—as best she could. But he frightened her: so loud, so big. And she was very small... slim like a willow, jumped if one only touched her shoulder..."
The prince said no more, but sat lost in thought. Watery sunshine broke through the clouds on the horizon, bringing a little color to the drab garden.
"You sound as though you thought much of her," the old man said gently.
"Oh, I loved her." Josua's voice was matter-of-fact, his eyes still firmly fixed on the tangled mockfoil. "I burned for love of her. I prayed to God to take the love away, even though I knew that I would be but a husk, the living core of me scooped out. Not that my prayer did any good. And I think she loved me, too; I was her only friend, she often said. No one else knew her as I did."
"Did Elias suspect?"
"Of course. He suspected anyone who as much as stood near her at court pageants, and I was with her constantly. But always honorably," he added hurriedly, then stopped. "Why should I be so earnest about that, even now? Usires forgive me, I wish we had betrayed him!" Josua's teeth were clenched. "I wish she were my dead lover, instead of only my brother's dead wife." He stared accusingly at the knob of scarred flesh protruding from his right sleeve. "Her death lies on my conscience like a great stone—it was my fault! My God, we are a haunted family."
He broke off at the clatter of footsteps on the path.
"Prince Josua! Prince Josua, where are you?"
"Here," the prince called distractedly, and a moment later one of his guards stumbled into view around a hedge-wall.
"My prince," he gasped, bending a knee, "Sir Deornoth says you must come at once!"
"Are they onto the walls again?" Josua asked, standing and shaking dew from his wool cloak. His voice still sounded distant.
"No, sire," the guard said, his mustached mouth opening and closing in excitement as though he were a whiskered fish. "It's your brother—I mean the King, sire. He's pulling back. The siege is ending."
The prince gave Jarnauga a puzzled, worried glance as they hurried up the path behind the excited guard.
"The High King has given over!" Deornoth shouted as Josua made his way up the steps, cloak billowing in the wind. "See! He turns tail and runs!"
Deornoth turned and gave Isorn a comradely smack on the shoulder. The duke's son grinned, but Einskaldir beside him glared fiercely at the young Erkynlander, lest he should think to try anything so foolish on him.
"What now, what?" Josua said, pushing up beside Deornoth on the sagging curtain wall. Directly below them lay the shattered ruins of a miner's box, evidence of a futile attempt to drop the curtain wall by tunneling beneath it. The wall had dipped a few feet, but held:
Dendinis had built for the ages. The miners, even as they had set fire to the wooden pillars shoring their tunnel, had been felled by the few stones they had themselves shaken loose.
In the distance lay Elias' camp, an anthill of scurrying activity. The remaining siege-engines had been toppled and shattered so that they would benefit no one else; the rows and rows of tents had vanished, as if swept up and carried away by gale winds. Thin sounds—the distant cry of drovers, the crack of whips—floated up as the High King's wagons were loaded.
"He is retreating!" Deornoth said happily. "We have done it!"
Josua shook his head. "Why? Why should he? We have whittled away a bare fraction of his troops."
"Perhaps he realizes now how strong Naglimund is," Isorn said, squinting.
"Then why not wait us out?" the prince demanded. "Aedon! What goes on here? I can believe Elias himself might go back to the Hayholt—but why not leave even a token siege in place?"
"To lure us out," Einskaldir said quietly. "Onto open ground." Scowling, he rubbed a rough thumb over the blade of his knife.
"It could be," the prince said, "but he should know me better."
"Josua..." Jarnauga was looking out beyond the decamping army, into the morning haze cloaking the northern horizon. "There are strange clouds away to the north."
The others stared, but could see nothing but the dim beginnings of the Frostmarch.
"What sort of clouds?" the prince asked at last. "Storm clouds. Very strange. Like none I have ever seen south of the mountains."
The prince stood at the window listening to the murmur of the trailing wind, his forehead pressed against the cold stone frame. The spare courtyard below was moonpainted, and the trees swayed.
Vorzheva extended a white arm from beneath the fur coverlet.
"Josua, what is it? It is cold. Shut the window, and come back to your bed."
He did not turn. "The wind goes everywhere," he said quietly. "There is no keeping it out, and there is no staying it when it wishes to depart."
"It is too late at night for your riddles, Josua," she said, yawning and running fingers through her inky hair, so that it spread upon the sheet like black wings.
"It is perhaps too late for many things," he replied, and went to sit on the bed beside her. His hand gently stroked her long neck, but still he looked out toward the window. "I am sorry, Vorzheva. I am… confusing, I know. I have never been the right man—not for my tutors, not for my brother, or my father... and not for you. I sometimes wonder if I was born out of my time." He lifted his finger to trace her cheek, and her warm breath was on his hand. "When I see the world as it has been presented to me, I feel only a deep loneliness."
"Lonely!?" Vorzheva sat up. The fur robe fell away; her smooth ivory skin was banded in moonlight. "By my clan, Josua, you are a cruel man! Still you punish me for my mistake in trying to help the princess. How can you share my bed and call yourself lonely? Go away, you moping boy, go sleep with one of those cold northern girls, or in some monk's den. Go then!"