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



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The prisoner was small, and his features were fine, almost sharp: there was something a shade foxlike in nose and chin, but not unpleasantly so. His hair was as dark as a crow's wing. For a moment Simon thought he might be a Sitha-man, because of his height—he tried to remember Shem's stories about not letting go of a Pookah's foot, and so winning a cauldron of gold—but before he could spend any of his dream-treasure he saw the fear-sweat and reddened cheeks and decided that this was no supernatural creature.
"What is your name, you?" he demanded. The captured youth tried to pull free again, but was obviously tiring. After a moment he stopped his struggling altogether. "Your name?" Simon prompted, this time in a softer tone.
"Malachias." The youth turned away panting.
"Well, Malachias, why are you following me?" He gave a little shake to the youth's shoulder, to remind him just who had captured whom.
The youth turned and stared sullenly. His eyes were quite dark..
"I wasn't spying on you!" he said vehemently.
As the boy averted his face once more, Simon was struck by a feeling that he had seen something familiar in this Malachias' face, something he should recognize.
"Who are you then, sirrah?" Simon asked, and reached out to turn the boy's chin toward him. "Do you work in the stables—work somewhere here in the Hayholt?"
Before he could bring the face around to look at it once more, Malachias suddenly put both hands in the middle of Simon's chest and gave a surprisingly hard push. He lost his grip on the youth's jerkin and staggered backward, then fell on his seat. Before he could even attempt to rise, Malachias had whisked through the doorway, pulling it shut behind him with a loud, reverberating squeal of bronze hinges.
Simon was still sitting on the stone floor—sore knee, sore rump, and mortally wounded dignity clamoring for attention—when the sexton Bamabas came in out of the Chancelry hall to investigate the noise. He stopped as if stunned in the doorway, looking from Simon bootless on the floor to the torn and crumpled tapestry in front of the stairwell, then turned his stare back to Simon. Bamabas said not a word, but a vein began to drumbeat high on each temple, and his brow beetled downward until his eyes were the merest slits.
Simon, routed and massacred, could only sit and shake his head, like a drunkard who had tripped over his own jug and landed upon the Lord Mayor's cat.

6
The Cairn on the Cliffs
SIMON'S punishment for his most recent crime was suspension from his new apprenticeship and confinement to the servants' quarters.
For days he strode the boundaries of his prison, from the scullery to the linens room and back again, restless as a hooded kestrel.
I have done this to myself, he sometimes thought. I'm just as stupid as the Dragon says I am.
Why do they all make such trouble for me? he fumed at other moments. Anyone would think I was a wild animal that can't be trusted.
Rachel, with a form of mercy in mind, found a series of petty tasks to which he could turn his hand; the days did not pass as excruciatingly slowly as they might have, but to Simon it seemed only more proof that he was to be a draft horse forever. He would fetch and haul until he was too old to labor any longer, then be taken out back and knocked on the head with Shem's splintered mallet.
Meanwhile the final days of Novander crept by, and Decander sidled in like a sneak thief.
At the end of the new month's second week Simon was given his freedom—such as it was. He was forbidden Green Angel Tower and certain other favorite haunts; he was allowed to resume service for the doctor, but given additional afternoon chores which required him to return promptly at dinnertime to the servants' quarters. Even these short visits, however, were a grand improvement. In fact, it seemed that Morgenes was more and more coming to rely on Simon. The doctor taught him many things about the uses and care of the fantastic variety of oddments littering the workshop.
He was also, painfully, learning to read It was infinitely more laborious than sweeping floors or washing dusty alembics and beakers, but Morgenes drove him through it with a determined hand, saying that without letters Simon could never be a useful apprentice.
On Saint Tunath's Day, Decander the twenty-first, the Hayholt was bustling with activity. The saint's day was the last high holiday before Aedonmansa, and a mighty feast was being laid on. Serving girls set spngs of mistletoe and prickly holly around dozens of slender white beeswax candles—these were all to be lit at sunset, when their flames would pour light from every window, summoning wandering Saint Tunath in from the midwinter darkness to bless the castle and its occupants. Other servants stacked pitchy, new-split logs in the fireplaces, or strewed fresh rushes on the floor.
Simon, who had done his best all afternoon to remain unnoticed, was nevertheless discovered and deputed to go to Doctor Morgenes and find if he had any oil suitable for polishing things—Rachel's troops had used up all the available supply putting a blinding gloss on the Great Table, and work had barely begun on the Main Hall.
Simon, who had already spent an entire morning in the doctor's rooms reading aloud word by boggling word from a book entitled The Sovran Remedys of the Wranna Healers, still infinitely preferred anything Morgenes might want of him to the horrors of Rachel's steel-glint gaze. He practically flew from the Main Hall, down the long Chancelry hall, and out into the Inner Commons beneath Green Angel. He was across the moat-bridge seconds later like a spar-hawk on the wing, only moments passed before he was at the doctor's doors for the second time that day.
The doctor did not answer his knock for some time, but Simon could hear voices within. He waited as patiently as he could, picking long splinters from the weathered doorframe, until at last the old man came. Morgenes had seen Simon only a short while earlier, but made no comment on his reappearance. He seemed distracted as he ushered the young man in; sensing his strange mood, Simon followed quietly down the lamplit corridor.
Heavy draperies cloaked the windows. At first, as his eyes adjusted to the darkness of the chamber, Simon could see no sign of any visitor. Then he made out a dim shape sitting on a large sea-chest in the corner. The gray-cloaked man was gazing at the floor, face concealed, but the boy knew him.
"Forgive me, Prince Josua," Morgenes said, "this is Simon, my new apprentice "
Josua Lackhand looked up His pale eyes—were they blue? gray?—flicked over him with an air of detachment, as a Hyrka trader might examine a horse he did not intend to buy. After a moment's inspection the prince turned his attention back to Morgenes as completely as if Simon had just winked out of existence. The doctor motioned for the boy to go and wait at the far end of the room.
"Highness," he said to the prince, "I am afraid there is nothing further I can do. My skills as a doctor and apothecary have been exhausted." The old man rubbed his hands together nervously. "Forgive me You know that I love the king, and hate to see him suffering, but… but some things are not to be meddled in by such as I—too many possibilities, too many unforeseeable consequences. One of those things is the passing of a kingdom."
Now Morgenes, whom Simon had not seen m this sort of mood, plucked an object on a golden chain out of his robe and handled it agitatedly. In Simon's knowledge, the doctor—who loved to scorn pretension and show—had never worn jewelry of any kind, either.
"But, God curse it, I am not asking you to interfere with the succession!" Josua's quiet voice was taut as a bowstnng. Having to overhear such a conversation embarrassed Simon tremendously, but there was nowhere for him to go without making himself even more conspicuous
"I ask you to 'meddle' with nothing, Morgenes," Josua continued, "—only give me something that will make the old man's last moments easier. If he dies tomorrow or next year, Elias is still the High King, and I am still liege-lord only of Naglimund " The prince shook his head.. "At least think of the ancient bond you and my father share—you, who have been his healer, and have studied and chronicled his life for scores of years." Josua swept his hand across his body to point at a pile of loose book-leaves stacked on the doctor's worm-bored writing desk.
Writing about the life of the king? Simon wondered. This was the first he had heard of such a work. The doctor seemed very full of secrets this morning.
Josua was still trying. "Can you not take pity? He is like an aged lion at bay, a great beast dragged down by jackals! Sweet Usires, the unfaimess..."
"But, Highness..." Morgenes had painfully begun when all three in the room became aware of the sound of running feet and voices in the courtyard outside. Josua, pale-faced and fever-eyed, was on his feet with his sword drawn so quickly it seemed to have simply appeared in his left hand. A loud pounding shook the door. Morgenes, starting forward, was restrained by a hiss from the prince. Simon felt his heart racing—Josua's obvious fear was contagious.
"Prince Josua! Prince Josua!" someone called. The rapping resumed. Josua scabbarded his sword with a flick and moved past Doctor Morgenes into the workshop corridor. He flung the door open to reveal four figures standing on the courtyard porch. Three were his own gray-liveried soldiers; the last, who dropped to one knee before the prince, was dressed in a shining white robe and sandals. Dreamily, Simon recognized him as Saint Tunath, long-dead subject of countless religious paintings. What could this mean...?
"Oh, your Highness..." said the kneeling saint, and stopped to catch his breath. Simon's mouth—which had begun to quirk upward in a grin as he realized that this was only another soldier, dressed up to enact the saint's part at tonight's festivities—now froze as he saw the stricken look on the young man's face. "Your Highness... Josua..." the soldier repeated.
"What is it, Deornoth?" the prince demanded. His voice was strained.
Deornoth looked up, dark, rough-cut soldier's hair framed in the white gleam of his hood. He had in that moment true martyr's eyes, blasted and knowing.
"The king. Lord, your father the kind... Bishop Domitis said... that he is dead."
Soundlessly, Josua pushed past the kneeling man and was gone across the courtyard, the soldiers trotting behind. After a moment Deornoth rose too and followed, hands clasped monkishly before him as if the breath of tragedy had changed imposture to reality. The door swung listlessly in a cool wind.
When Simon turned to Morgenes, the doctor was staring after them, his old eyes shining and brimful.
^
So it was that King John Presbyter died at last on Saint Tunath's Day, at an exceedingly advanced age: beloved, revered, and as thoroughly a pan of his people's lives as the land itself. Although it had been long expected, still the sorrow of his passing reached out and touched all the countries of Men.
Some of the very oldest remembered that it had been Tunath's Day in the Founding-year 1083—exactly eighty years before—when Prester John had slain the devil-worm Shurakai and ridden back in triumph through the gates of Erchester. When this tale was retold, not without some embellishing, heads nodded wisely. Anointed by God as King—they said—as revealed by that great deed, then taken back to the bosom of the Redeemer on its anniversary. It should have been foreseen, they said.
It was a sad midwinter and Aedontide, although people nocked to Erchester and the High Castle from all the lands of Osten Ard. Indeed, many of the local folk began to growl about the visitors who came to take up the best benches in church, and the same in the taverns. There was more than a little resentment of outlanders making such a fuss over their king: although he had been master of all, John had been more like a simple fiefholder to the townsmen of Erchester. In younger, haler days he had loved to go out among the people, cutting a beautiful figure all gleaming-armored and a-horseback. The citizens of the town, in the poorer quarters at least, often spoke with familiar, possessive pride of "our old man up to th' Hayholt."
Now he was gone, or at least out of the reach of such simple souls. He belonged to the history-scribes, the poets, and priests.
In the forty days mandated between the death and burial of a king, John's body went to the Hall of Preparing in Erchester, where the priests bathed it in rare oils, rubbed it with pungent herbal resins from the southern islands, then bound it up from ankle to neck in white linen, saying all the while prayers of overmastering piety.
King John was next clothed in a simple gown of the type used by young knights at their first vows, and gently laid on a bier in the throne room, slender black candles burning all around.
As Prester John's body lay in state. Father Helfcene, the king's chancellor, ordered the Hayefur kindled atop the rock-fortress at Wentmouth, something done only in times of war and great happenings. Few living could remember the last time the mighty torchtower had been fired.
Helfcene also commanded a great pit to be dug at Swertclif, on the headlands east of Erchester overlooking the Kynslagh—the windy hilltop, where stood the six snow-thatched barrows of the kings who had held the Hayholt before John. It was miserable weather for digging, the ground winter-frozen, but the Swertclif laborers were proud, and suffered the biting air and bruises and broken skin for the honor of the task. Much of the chill month of Jonever passed before the excavation was completed and the pit was covered with a vast tent of red and white sailcloth.
Preparations at the Hayholt proceeded at a less deliberate pace. The castle's four kitchens glowed and smoked like busy foundries as a horde of perspiring scullions prepared the funeral baked goods, the meats and bread and festival wafers. The seneschal Peter Gilded-Bowl, a small, fierce man with yellow hair, was everywhere at once like an avenging angel. With equal facility he tasted the broth billowing in giant vats, looked for dust in the cracks of the Great Table—thin chance, since that was Rachel's province—and threw imprecations after scurrying servitors. It was, all agreed, his finest hour.
The mourning-party gathered at the Hayholt from all the nations of Osten Ard. Skali Sharp-nose of Kaldskryke, Duke Isgrimnur's unloved cousin, arrived from Rimmersgard with ten suspicious, deep-bearded kinsmen. From the three clans that among them ruled the wild, grassy Thrithings came the Marchthanes of their reigning houses. Oddly enough, the clansmen put enmity aside for once and arrived together—a token of their respect for King John. It was even said that when news of John's death reached the Thrithings the Randwarders of the three clans had met at the borders they guarded so jealously against each other; weeping together, they had drunk to John's spirit all through the night.
From the Sancellan Mahistrevis, the ducal palace in Nabban, Duke Leobardis sent his son Benigaris with a column of legionaries and mail-clad knights numbering almost a hundred head. As they disembarked from the warships, each of the three with Nabban's golden kingfisher on its sail, the crowd at wharfside oohed appreciatively. A few respectful cheers were even raised for Benigaris as he passed, mounted on a tall gray palfrey, but many people whispered that if this was the nephew of Camaris, greatest knight of the age of John, then he was a cutting from his father's tree and not his uncle's. Camaris had been a mighty, towering man—or so said those old enough to have remembered him—and Benigaris, truth to tell, looked to run a little to fat. But it had been almost forty years since Camaris-sa-Vinitta had been lost at sea: many of the younger folk suspected that his stature had grown somewhat in the memories of gaffers and gossips.
Another great delegation also came from Nabban, one only slightly less martial than Benigaris': the Lector Ranessin himself sailed into the Kynslagh on a beautiful white ship, upon whose azure sail gleamed the white Tree and golden Pillar of Mother Church. The wharfside crowd, which had greeted Benigaris and the Nabbanai soldiers mildly—as if in dim remembrance of days when Nabban had striven with Erkynland for mastery—hailed the lector with a loud, welcoming cry. Those gathered on the quay surged forward, and it took the combined force of the king's and lector's guardsmen to hold them back; still, some two or three were crowded so that they fell into the bone-cold lake, and only swift rescue saved them from freezing.
^
"This is not as I would have wanted it," the lector whispered to his young aide. Father Dinivan. "I mean, just look at this gawdy thing they have sent me." He gestured at the litter, a splendid creation of carved cherry wood and blue and white silks. Father Dinivan, robed in homely black, grinned.
Ranessin, a slender, handsome man of nearly seventy years, frowned down in annoyance at the waiting litter, then gently beckoned over a nervous Erkynguard officer.
"Please take this away," he said. "We appreciate Chancellor Helfcene's thought, but we prefer to walk near the people."
The offending conveyance was hustled away, and the lector moved toward the crowded Kynslagh stairs. As he made the sign of the Tree—thumb and small finger as hooked branches, then a vertical stroke with the middle fingers—the jostling crowd slowly opened an aisle up the length of the great steps.
"Please don't walk so fast. Master," said Dinivan, pushing past reaching, waving arms. "You'll outpace your guardsmen."
"And what makes you think,"—Ranessin allowed a mischievous smile to cross his face, so quickly none but Dinivan saw—"that this is not what I am trying to achieve?"
Dinivan cursed quietly, then immediately regretted his weakness. The lector had gained a step on him, and the crowd was pushing in. Luckily, the dockside wind now sprang to life and Ranessin was forced to slow down, clutching with his unoccupied hand at his hat, which seemed nearly as tall, thin, and pale as His Sacredness himself. Father Dinivan, seeing the lector begin to tack slightly into the wind, struggled forward. When he caught up with the older man, he took a firm grip on an elbow.
"Forgive me, Master, but Escritor Velligis would never understand it if I were to let you fall into the lake."
"Of course, my son," Ranessin nodded, continuing to trace the Tree in the air on either side of their progress up the long, wide staircase. "I was thoughtless. You know how much I despise this unnecessary pomp."
"But Lector," Dinivan argued gently, lifting his bushy eyebrows in a look of mock-surprise, "you are Usires Aedon's worldly voice. It won't do to have you scrambling up stairs like a seminary boy."
Dinivan was disappointed when this raised only a faint smile. For a while they climbed in silent lockstep, the young man retaining his protective grasp on the older's arm.
Poor Dinivan, Ranessin thought. He tries so hard, and is so careful. Not that he doesn't treat me—the Lector of Mother Church, after all—with a certain lack of respect. Of course he does, because I have allowed it—for my own good. But I am not in a light mood today, and he knows it.
It was John's death, of course—but not merely the loss of a good friend and fine king: it was change, and the Church, in the person of Lector Ranessin, could not afford to trust change too easily. Of course it was also the parting—in this world only, the lector reminded himself firmly—from a man of good heart and intention, although John certainly had been at times over-direct in the fulfilling of those intentions. Ranessin owed much to John, not least that the king's influence had played a large part in the elevation of the former Oswine of Stanshire to the heights of the church, and eventually to the Lectorship that no other Erkynlander had held in five centuries. The king would be much missed.
Fortunately, Ranessin held hope for Elias. The prince was undoubtedly courageous, decisive, bold—all traits rare in the sons of great men. The king-to-be was also short-tempered and somewhat careless, but—Duos wulstei—these were faults often cured, or at least softened by responsibility and good counsel.
As he reached the top of the Kynslagh stairs and entered with his struggling retinue onto the Royal Walk that circumscribed the walls of Erchester,. the lector promised himself that he would send a trustworthy advisor to help the new king—and of course to keep a wary eye out for the Church's welfare—someone like Velligis, or even young Dinivan... no, he wouldn't part with Dinivan. Anyway, Ranessin would find somebody to counteract Elias' bloody-minded young nobles, and that blowing idiot. Bishop Domitis.
^
The first of Feyever, the day before Elysiamansa—Lady Day—dawned bright, chill and clear. The sun had barely scaled the steepled peaks of the far mountains when a slow, solemn crowd began to file into the Hayholt's chapel. The king's body was already lying before the altar on a bier draped in cloth-of-gold and black silk ribbons.
Simon watched the nobles in their rich, somber dress with resentful fascination. He had come to the unused choir loft straight from the kitchens, still wearing his gravy-stained shirt; even crouched hidden in the shadows he felt ashamed to be so poorly clad.
And me the only servant here, he thought. The only one of all who lived in the castle with our king. Where are all these fancy lords and ladies from? I recognize only a few—Duke Isgrimnur. the two princes, some others.
There was certainly something wrong, that those seated in the chapel below should be so splendid in their funeral silks while he carried the stink of the scullery on him like a blanket—but wrong in what way? Should the castle serving help be welcomed in among the nobles? Or was he himself at fault for daring to intrude?
What if King John is watching? He felt a chill as he thought it. What if he is somewhere, watching? Will he tell God that I snuck in wearing a dirty shirt?
Lector Ranessin entered at last, arrayed in the full circumstance of his holy office robes of black, silver, and gold. On his head he wore a wreath of sacred ciyan leaves, and he held a censer and wand crafted from black onyx. Motioning the crowd to their knees, he began the opening prayers of the Mansa-sea-Cuelossan: the Death Mass. As he called out the lines in his rich, but still ever-so-slightly accented Nabbanai, and censed the body of the dead king, it seemed to Simon that a light shone on Prester John's face, that he could see for a moment how the king must have looked when he had first ridden, bright-eyed and battle-stained, out of the gates of the new-conquered Hayholt. How he wished he could have seen him then!
When the numerous prayers were finished, the company of nobles rose to sing the Cansim Falis; Simon contented himself with mouthing the words. As the mourners sat down again, Ranessin began to speak, surprising everyone by abandoning Nabbanai to use the country-plain Westerling speech that John had made the common tongue of his kingdom.



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