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



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"It may be remembered," Ranessin intoned, "that when the last nail had been driven into the Execution Tree, and our Lord Usires was left to hang in terrible agony, a noble woman of Nabban named Pelippa, daughter of a mighty knight, saw him and her heart was filled with pity for His suffering. As the darkness fell that First Night, while Usires Aedon hung dying and alone—for His disciples had been scourged from the Temple courtyard—she came to Him with water, which she gave to Him by dipping her rich scarf in a golden bowl and then bringing it to His dry lips. "
"As she gave Him to drink, Pelippa wept to see the Ransomer's pain. She said to Him: 'Poor man, what have they done to you?' Usires answered her: 'Nothing that poor Man is not born to.'"
"Now Pelippa wept afresh, saying: *But terrible enough that they kill you for words, without also they hang you heels-high for the sake of humiliation.' And Usires the Reclaimer said: 'Daughter, it matters not which way I hang, top-first or the opposite—I am still looking full into the face of God my Father.'
"So, then..." the lector lowered his gaze to the assemblage, "... as was said by our Lord Usires, so may we say it is with our beloved John. The common people in the city below us say that John Presbyter is not gone, but remains to watch over his people and his Osten Ard. The Book of the Aedon promises that even now he has ascended to our beautiful Heaven of light and music and blue mountains. Others—our brethren, John's subjects in Hernystir—will say that he has gone to join the other heroes in the stars. It matters not.
"Whatever he is, he who was once young John the King, be he enthroned in bright mountains or stellar fields, we know this; he is happily gazing full into the face of God...."
When the lector had finished speaking, tears standing in even his eyes, and the final prayers had been recited, the assembled company left the chapel.
Simon watched in reverent silence as King John's black-clad body servants began their final services in his behalf, stalking like beetles around a fallen dragonfly, dressing him in his royal raiment and war-gear. He knew he should leave—this was beyond sneaking and spying; it bordered on blasphemy—but he could not make himself move. Fear and sorrow had been replaced by a strange sense of unreality. Everything seemed a pageant or mummer's play, the characters moving stiffly through their parts as though their limbs were freezing and thawing and then freezing once more.
The dead king's servants dressed him in his ice-white armor, tucking his folded gauntlets into his baldric but leaving his feet bare. They drew a tunic of sky blue over John's corselet, and pulled a shiny crimson cloak about his shoulders, moving all the while as slowly as fever victims. His beard and hair were knotted up in war-braids, and the iron circlet that signified mastery of the Hayholt was set upon his brow. At last Noah, the king's aged squire, brought out the iron ring of Fingil which he had been keeping back; the sudden sounds of his grief shattered the enveloping silence. Noah sobbed so bitterly that Simon wondered how he could see through his tears to slip the ring onto the king's white finger.
Finally the black-cloth beetles lifted King John back onto his bier. Draped in the cloth-of-gold mantle, he was carried out of his castle for the last time, three men on each side. Noah followed behind carrying the king's dragon-crested war helmet.
In the shadows of the loft overhead, Simon released what seemed an hour's worth of prisoned breath. The king was gone.
^
As Duke Isgrimnur saw Prester John's body pass out through the Nearulagh Gate, and the procession of nobility began to fall into place behind, a slow, fog-shrouded feeling overtook him, like a dream of drowning.
Don't be such an ass, old man. he told himself. No one lives forever—even if John did take a mighty swipe at it.
The funny thing was, even when they had stood side to side in the screeching hell of battle, the black-fletched Thrithings arrows whistling past like Udun's own—damn. God's own—lightning, Isgrimnur had always known that John Presbyter would die abed. To see the man at war was to see a man anointed by Heaven, untouchable and commanding, a man who laughed as the blood-mist darkened the sky. If John had been a Rimmersman, Isgrimnur smiled inwardly, he would have been a bear-shirt for certain.
But he is dead, and that's the hard thing to understand. Look at them, knights and lords... they thought he'd last forever, too. Frightened, the greater pan of them.
Elias and the lector had taken their places directly behind the king's bier. Isgrimnur, Prince Josua, and fair-haired Princess Miriamele—Elias' only child—followed closely. The other high families had taken their places as well, with none of their usual elbowing for favorable position. As the body was carried down the Royal Walk toward the headlands, the common people fell into step at the rear, a huge crowd quieted and overawed by the procession.
Resting on a bed of long poles at the base of the Royal Walk lay the king's boat Sea-Arrow, in which it was said he had long ago come to Erkynland out of the Westerling islands. It was but a small vessel, no more than five ells in length; Duke Isgrimnur was glad to see that its woods have been new-lacquered until they glimmered in the dim Feyever sunlight.
Gods. but he loved that boat! Isgrimnur remembered. Kingship had left him scant time for the sea, but the duke recalled one wild night, thirty years or more ago, when John had been in such a mood that nothing would do but that he and Isgrimnur—a young man then—must get Sea-Arrow rigged and go out upon the windlashed Kynslagh. The air had been so cold it stung. John, almost seventy years old, had whooped and laughed as Sea-Arrow bucked on the high swells. Isgrimnur, whose ancestors had taken to land long before his time, had held on tightly to the gunwale and prayed to his many old gods and his one new one.
Now the king's servants and soldiers were laying John's body into the boat with great tenderness, lowering it onto a platform that had been prepared to hold the bier. Forty soldiers of the king's Erkynguard picked up the long poles and placed them on their shoulders, bearing the boat up and carrying it forward.
The king and Sea-Arrow led the vast company half a league along the headlands above the bay; at last they reached Swertclif, and the grave. The covering tent had been removed, and the hole was like an open wound beside the six solemn, rounded barrows of the Hayholt's earlier masters.
On one side of the pit stood a massive pile of cut turves and a heap of stones and undressed timbers. Sea-Arrow was laid down on the grave's far side, where the earth had been dug down at a shallow angle. When the boat came to rest, the noble houses of Erkynland and the Hayholt's servants filed by to place some small thing in boat or barrow as a token of love. Each of the lands beneath his High Ward had also sent some thing of mighty craft, that Prester John might carry it with him to Heaven—a robe of precious Pisa-island silk from Perdruin, a white porphyry Tree from Nabban. Isgrimnur's party had brought from Elvritshalla in Rimmersgard a silver axe of Dveming-make with mountain-blue gems in its haft. Lluth, the Hernystiri king, had sent from the Taig at Hernysadharc a tall ashwood spear all inlaid with red gold, and with a golden point.
The noon sun seemed to hang too high in the sky, Duke Isgrimnur thought as he made his way forward at last; though it rolled unhindered across the gray-blue dome of the sky, it seemed to hold back its warmth. The wind blew harder, skirling across the clifftop. Isgrimnur carried John's battered black war-boots in his hand. He could not find it in his heart to look up at the white faces that peered from the crowd like glimmers of snow in the deep forest.
As he approached Sea-Arrow he looked one last time at his King. Although paler than a dove's breast, still John looked so stem and fine and full of sleeping life that Isgrimnur caught himself worrying for his old friend, lying out in the wind this way with no blanket. For a moment he almost smiled-
John always said I had the heart of a bear and the wit of an ox, Isgrimnur chided himself. And if it be cold up here, think how chill it will be for him in the frozen earth...
Isgrimnur moved carefully but nimbly around the steep ramp of earth, using a hand to steady himself when necessary. Although his back hurt him fiercely, he knew no one suspected it; he was not too old to find some pride in that.
Taking John Presbyter's blue-veined feet in his hands one at a time, he slipped the boots on. He silently commended the skilled hands in the House of Preparing for the ease with which his task was accomplished. Without looking again at his friend's face he quickly took the hand and kissed it, then walked away, feeling stranger still.
Suddenly it seemed to him that this was not his king's lifeless husk that was being condemned to the soil, the soul fluttered free like a newly-unfurled butterfly. The suppleness of John's limbs, the so-familiar face in repose—as Isgrimnur had seen it countless times when the king snatched an hour or two of sleep in the lull of battle—alt these things made him feel as though he deserted a living friend. He knew John was dead—he had held the king's hand as the last breaths fluted out of him—still, he felt a traitor.
So possessed was he by his thoughts that he nearly stepped into Prince Josua, who moved nimbly around him on his path to the barrow. Isgrimnur was shocked to see that Josua carried John's sword Bright-Nail on a gray cloth.
What happens here? Isgrimnur wondered. What is he doing with the sword?
As the Duke reached the first row of the crowd and turned to watch, his unease deepened: Josua had laid Bright-Nail on the king's chest, and was clasping John's hands about the hilt.
This is madness, the duke thought. That sword is for the king's heir—I know John would have wanted Elias to have it! And even if Elias chose to bury it with his father, why does he not lay it in the grave himself? Madness! Does no one else marvel at such a thing?
Isgrimnur looked from side to side, but saw nothing on the faces around him but sorrow.
Now Elias walked down, passing his younger brother slowly, like a participant in a stately dance—as in fact he was. The heir to the throne bent over the gunwale of the boat. What he sent with his father no one could see, but it was noted by all that although a tear sparkled on Elias' cheek when he turned, Josua's eyes were dry.
The company now made one more prayer. Ranessin, robes billowing in the lake-breeze, sprinkled Sea-Arrow with holy oils. Then the boat was gently lowered down the sloping pitfall, soldiers laboring in silence with their heavy staves until it lay at last a fathom deep in the earth. Above, timbers were raised into a great arch and workmen laid the turves about, one atop the other. Finally, as stones were being lifted into place to complete John's caim, the mourning party turned and made its slow way back along the dins above the Kynslagh.
^
The funeral feast that night in the castle's great hall was not a solemn gathering, but rather a brave and merry occasion. John was dead, of course, but his life had been long—far beyond that of most men—and he had left behind a kingdom wealthy and at peace, and a strong son to rule.
The fireplaces were banked high; the leaping flames threw strange, capering shadows on the walls as sweating servants hurried in and out. The feasters waved their arms and shouted toasts to the old king gone, and the new one to be crowned in the morning. The castle hounds, large and small, barked and scrabbled over discarded scraps and rooted in the straw that covered the floor. Simon, pressed into service bearing one of the heavy wine ewers from table to table, shouted at and splashed by roaring merrymakers, felt as though he served wine in some noisy hell from Father Dreosan's sermons; the bones scattered across the tables and crunching underfoot could be the remains of sinners, tormented and then cast aside by these laughing demons.
Not yet crowned, Elias already had the look of a warrior-king. He sat at the main table surrounded by the young lords in his favor:
Guthwulf of Utanyeat, Fengbald the Earl of Falshire, Breyugar of the Westfold, and others—each wearing some bit of Elias1 green on the mourning black, each vying to make the loudest toast, the sharpest jest. The king-to-be presided over all their striving, rewarding the favorites with his loud laughter. From time to time he leaned over to say something to Skali of Kaldskryke, Isgrimnur's kinsman, who sat at Elias' table by special invitation. Although he was a large man, hawk-faced and blond-bearded, Skali seemed a little overwhelmed at the crown prince's side—especially when Duke Isgrimnur had received no similar honor. Something Elias now said, though, struck home; Simon saw the Rimmersman smile, then break out into a great guffaw and clang his metal goblet against the prince's. Elias, grinning wolfishly, turned and said something to Fengbald; he, too, joined the merriment.
By comparison, the table at which Isgrimnur sat with Prince Josua and several others was much more subdued, seeming to match in mood the prince's gray raiment. Although the other nobles were doing their best to make conversation, Simon could see as he passed by that the two chief figures were having none of it. Josua stared into space, as though fascinated by the tapestries that lined the walls. Duke Isgrimnur was just as unresponsive to the table talk, but his reasons were no mystery. Even Simon could see the way the old duke glowered at Skali Sharp-nose, and how his huge, gnarled hands plucked distractedly at the fringe of his bear-skin tunic.
Elias' slight to one of John's most faithful knights was not going unnoticed at other tables: some of the younger nobles, although courteous enough not to make a show of it, seemed to find the duke's discomfiture amusing. They whispered behind their hands, eyebrows raised to signal the magnitude of the scandal.
As Simon swayed in place, amazed by the din and the smoke and his own confused observations, a voice rang out from a back table, cursing him and calling for more wine, stirring him into scurrying life once more.
Later in the evening, when Simon finally found a chance to snatch a moment's rest in an alcove beneath one of the giant tapestries, he noticed that a new guest was seated at the head table, wedged in between Elias and Guthwulf on a tall stool. The newcomer was robed in most unfunereal scarlet, with black and gold piping wound about the hem of his voluminous sleeves. As he leaned forward to whisper in Elias' ear, Simon watched him with helpless fascination. The man was completely hairless, without even eyebrows or lashes, but his features were those of a youngish man. His skin, tight-stretched on his skull, was notably pale even in the flaring orange rushlight; his eyes were deep-sunken, and so dark that they seemed only shiny black spots below his naked brows. Simon knew those eyes—they had glared out at him from the hooded cloak of the cart-driver who had nearly run him down at Nearulagh Gate. He shuddered and stared. There was something sickening but enthralling about the man, like a swaying serpent.
"He's a nasty looking one, isn't he?" said a voice at his elbow. Simon jumped. A young man, dark-haired and smiling, stood in the alcove behind him, an ashwood lute cradled against his pigeon-gray tunic.
"I... I'm sorry," Simon stuttered. "You took me by surprise."
"I didn't mean to," the other laughed, "I was just coming to see if you could give me a bit of help." He pulled his other hand from behind his back and showed Simon an empty wine cup.
"Oh..." said Simon, "I'm so sorry—I was resting, master... I'm very sorry..."
"Peace, friend, peace' I did not come to cause trouble for you, but if you do not stop apologizing, then I will be upset. What's your name?"
"Simon, sir." He hastily upended the ewer and filled the young man's flagon. The stranger set his cup down in a niche, readjusted his grip on the lute, and reached into his tunic to produce another cup. He proffered it with a bow.
"Here," he said, "I was going to steal this. Master Simon, but instead I think we shall drink each other's health, and the old king's memory—and please don't call me 'sir,' for that I am not." He bumped the cup against the ewer until Simon poured again. "There!" said the stranger. "Now, call me Sangfugol—or, as old Isgrimnur mangles it, 'Zong-vogol.' "
The stranger's excellent imitation of the Rimmersgard accent brought a tiny smile to Simon's face. After looking around furtively for Rachel he sat the ewer down and tipped back the flagon that Sangfugol had given him. Strong and sour, still the red wine rolled down his parched throat like spring rain; when he lowered the cup, his smile had widened.
"Are you part of Duke Isgrimnur's... retinue?" Simon asked, wiping his lips with his sleeve.
Sangfugol laughed. Mirth seemed to come quickly to him.
"Retinue! Quite a word for a bottle boy! No, I am Josua's harper. I live at his keep at Naglimund, in the North."
"Does Josua like music?!" For some reason this thought astounded Simon. He poured himself another cupful. "He seems so serious."
"And serious he is... but that doesn't mean he dislikes harping or lute playing. True, it is my melancholy songs that are most often to his liking, but there are times when he calls for the Ballad of Three-Legged Tom or some such."
Before Simon could ask another question, there was a great whoop of hilarity from the high table. Simon turned to see that Fengbald had knocked a flagon of wine into the lap of another man, who was drunkenly wringing out his shirt while Elias and Guthwulf and the other nobles jibed and shouted. Only the bald stranger in the scarlet robe was aloof, with cold eyes and a tight, tooth-baring smile.
"Who is that?" Simon turned back to Sangfugol, who had finished his wine and was holding his lute up to his ear, plucking at the strings as he delicately turned the pegs. "I mean the man in red."
"Yes," said the harper, "I saw you looking at him when I came up. Frightful fellow, eh? That is Pryrates—a Nabbanai priest, one of Elias' counselors. People say that he is a marvelous alchemist—although he does look rather young for it, doesn't he? Not to mention that it doesn't quite seem a fitting practice for a priest. Actually, if you listen closely, you may also hear it whispered that he is a warlock: a black magician. If you listen closer still..."Here, as if to demonstrate, Sangfugol's voice dropped dramatically; Simon had to lean forward to hear. He realized, as he swayed slightly, that he had just drunk a third flagon of wine.
"If you listen very, very carefully..." the harper continued, "you will hear people say that Pryrates' mother was a witch, and his father... a demon!" Sangfugol loudly twanged a lute-string, and Simon leaped back, surprised. "But Simon, you cannot believe everything you hear—especially from drunken minstrels," Sangfugol finished with a chuckle and extended his hand. Simon stared at it stupidly.
"To clasp, my friend," the harper grinned. "I have enjoyed speaking with you, but I fear I must return to table, where other diversions impatiently await me. Farewell!"
"Farewell..." Simon grasped Sangfugol's hand, then watched as the harper wound his way across the room with the nimbleness of an experienced drunkard.
As Sangfugol took his seat again, Simon's eyes came to rest on two of the serving girls leaning against a wall in the hallway at the room's far side, fanning themselves with their aprons and talking. One of them was Hepzibah, the new girl; the other was Rebah, one of the kitchen maids.
There was a certain warmth in Simon's blood. It would be so easy to walk across the room and speak to them. There was something about that Hepzibah, a sauciness in her eyes and mouth when she laughed.... Feeling more than a little lightheaded, Simon stepped out into the room, the roar of voices rising around him like a flood.
A moment, a moment, he thought feeling suddenly flushed and frightened, how can I just walk up and speak—won't they know I've been watching them? Wouldn't they...
"Hi there, you lazy clodpoll! Bring us some more of that wine!"
Simon turned to see red-faced Earl Fengbald waving a goblet at him from the king's table. In the hallway the serving girls were sauntering away. Simon ran back to the alcove to get his ewer, and fetched it out from a tangle of dogs fighting over a chop. One pup, young and scrawny, with a splotch of white on its brown face, whined piteously at the fringe of the mob, unable to compete with the larger dogs. Simon found a scrap of greasy skin on a deserted chair and tossed it to the little dog. It wagged its stub of tail as it bolted the treat, then followed at Simon's heels as he carried the ewer across the room. Fengbald and Guthwulf, the long-jawed Earl of Utanyeat, were involved in some kind of wrist-wrestling contest, their daggers drawn and plunged into the tabletop on either side of the combatants' arms. Simon stepped around the table as nimbly as he could, pouring wine from the heavy ewer into the cups of the shouting spectators and trying not to trip over the dog, which was darting in and out between his feet. The king was watching the contest with amusement, but he had his own page at his shoulder so Simon left his goblet alone. He poured Pryrates' wine last, avoiding the priest's glance, but could not help noticing the strange scent of the man, an inexplicable amalgam of metal and over-sweet spices. Backing away, he saw the little dog rooting in the straw near Pryrates' shiny black boots, on the track of some fallen treasure.
"Come!" Simon hissed, backing farther away and slapping his knee, but the dog paid no heed. It began to dig with both paws, its back bumping against the priest's red-robed calf. "Come along!" Simon whispered again.
Pryrates turned his head to look down, shiny skull pivoting slowly on his long neck. He lifted his foot and brought his heavy boot down on the dog's back—a swift, compact movement finished in a heartbeat. There was a crack of splintered bone, and a muffled squeal; the little dog writhed helplessly in the straw until Pryrates lifted his heel again and crushed its skull.
The priest stared for a disinterested moment at the body, then lifted his gaze, his eyes alighting on Simon's horrified face. That black stare—remorseless, unconcerned—caught and held him. Pryrates' flat, dead eyes flicked down again to the dog, and when they returned to Simon a slow grin stretched across the priest's face.
What can you do about it, boy? the smile said. And who cares?
The priest's attention was drawn back to the table; Simon, freed, dropped the ewer and stumbled away, looking for a place to throw up.
It was just before midnight; fully half the revelers had staggered, or been carried, off to bed. It was doubtful many of them would be present for the morrow's coronation. Simon was pouring into a drunken guest's cup the heavily watered wine that was all Peter Gilded-Bowl would serve at this late hour, when Earl Fengbald, the only one remaining of the king's party, staggered into the hall from the commons outside. The young noble was disheveled and his breeches were half-undone, but he wore a beatific smile on his face.



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