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



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As the opening moved around to him, one of the hands fluttered out in fishlike undulation. It was Rachel's, and as she neared she beckoned to him. Instead of her usual look of suspicion, her face was set in lines of desperate cheerfulness. She reached out: across from her fat Jeremias held the gap open, a dull smile on his pale features.
"Come boy..." Rachel said, or at least it was her lips that moved—the voice soft and hoarse, was a man's. "Come, can you not feel the place we have left for you? A place especially prepared?"
The grasping hand caught at his collar and began to pull him into the dance's orbit. He struggled, slapping at the clammy fingers, but his arms were strengthless. Rachel's and Jeremias' lips split in wide grins. The voice deepened.
"Boy! Don't you hear me?! Come on, boy!"
"No!" The cry came out at last, leaping from the prison of Simon's constricted throat. "No! I won't! Nol"
"Oh, Frayja's Garters, boy, wake up! You've woken everyone else!" The hand shook him again, roughly, and there was a sudden gleam of light. Simon sat up, tried to scream and fell back in a coughing fit. A dark shape leaned over him, starkly outlined by an oil lamp.
Actually the boy hasn't really wakened anyone, Isgrimnur realized. The rest of 'em have been tossing and moaning since I walked in—like they were all having the same nightmare. What a gods-cursed strange night!
The duke watched as the restless shapes around him slowly lapsed back into quietude, then returned his attention to the boy.
Look there—the little puppy is coughing something fierce. Truthfully, though, he's not so little—just thin as a starveling colt.
Isgrimnur put the lantern down in a niche, then pulled the sheet of homespun stretched across the alcove to one side, so he could get a good grip on the youth's shoulder. He pulled the boy upright in bed and gave him a firm swat on the back. The boy coughed once more and then stopped. Isgrimnur patted him a few more times with a wide, hairy hand.
"Sorry, fellow, sorry. Take your time, there."
While the youth regained his breath the Duke looked around the curtained-off alcove in which the boy's slat bed was set. From beyond the drooping cloth came the murmuring night-sounds of the dozen or so scullions bedded nearby.
Isgrimnur picked up the lantern again, peering at the odd shapes pegged on the shadowed wall: an unraveling bird's nest, a silky streamer—it looked green in the poor lamplight—that had probably come from some knight's festival gear. Nearby, also hanging from nails driven into cracks, were a hawk feather, a crude wooden Tree, and a picture whose ragged edge showed it to be torn from a book.
Squinting, Isgrimnur thought he could make out a staring man with wild hair standing out from his head... or were they antlers...?
When he looked down again, smiling to himself at the unholy clutter of younglings, the boy had regained his breath. He was looking up at the duke with wide, nervous eyes.
With that nose and thatch of—what is it, red?—hair, the boy looks like a be-damned marsh bird, Isgrimnur thought.
"Sorry to startle you," the old duke said, "but you were closest to the door. I need to speak to Towser—the jester. Do you know who he is?" The boy nodded, watching his face intently. Good, thought the Rimmersman, at least he isn 't simple-minded. *'I was told that he dossed down here tonight, but I don't see him. Where is he?"
"You're... you're..." The youth was having trouble coming out with it.
"Yes, I'm the Duke ofElvritshalla—and don't start in bowing and 'sir'-ing. Just tell me where the jester is and I'll let you go back to sleep."
Without another word the boy slid off his pallet and stood up, pulling his blanket free and wrapping it about his shoulders. The hem of his shirt hung down below, flapping against bare legs as he stepped over the slumbering men around him, some of whom lay wrapped in their cloaks in the middle of the floor as though they had not been able to make it all the way to their beds. Isgrimnur followed with the lamp, stepping carefully over the dark forms as though he followed one of Udun's ghost-maidens through a field of battle-slain.
They went through two more rooms this way, the big spirit and the small, the larger just as silent for all his bulk. In the last room a few dim coals sparkled in the fireplace. On the bricks before the grate, curled in a nest of coats and with a sheepskin winebag still gripped in his horny old fist, Towser the jester lay snoring and mumbling.
"Ah," Isgrimnur grunted. "Well, thanks then, boy. Go back to your bed with my apologies—although I think you were dreaming a dream you'd be just as happy to wake from. Go on now."
The youth turned and went back past Isgrimnur toward the doorway. As he brushed by, the duke was mildly surprised to note that the youth was nearly as tall as he was—and Isgrimnur was not a small man. It was the boy's slendemess, and the way he hunched when he walked, that made his size less evident.
It's a pity nobody's taught that one to stand up, he thought. And most likely he never will learn in the kitchens, or wherever.
When the youth had disappeared a moment later, Isgrimnur bent and shook Towser—gently at first, then with increasing vigor as it became apparent that the little man was well and truly swotted; even the firmest agitation produced only faint noises of protest. At last Isgrimnur's patience ended. He bent down, clutching one of the older man's ankles in each hand, and pulled them up in the air until Towser dangled upside down, only the crown of his bald head touching the floor. Towser's grumbling turned to gurgles of discomfort, and at last became good, understandable Westerling words.
"What...? ... Down! Put... down, Aed'n damn you..."
"If you don't wake up, old souse, I shall knock your head against the ground until you think wine is poison forever!" Isgrimnur wedded word to deed, lifting the jester's ankles a few hand-spans, then setting his head back down none too gently on the cold stone.
"Desist! Demon, I... surrender! Turn me 'round, man, turn me 'round—I am not Usires, to hang heels-o'er-head for the instruction of... of the masses!"
Isgrimnur lowered him gently until the little jester lay stretched full length on his back.
"Don't add blasphemy to besottedness, old fool," Isgrimnur growled. Watching Towser roll painfully onto his stomach, the duke failed to see a slender shadow take up a position in the doorway behind him.
"Oh, merciful, merciful Aedon," Towser groaned as he levered himself into a sitting position, "did you have to use my head for a digging stick? If it is a well you wish to scrape, I could have told you the ground is too stony here in the servants' chambers."
"Enough, Towser. I didn't wake you two hours before sunrise to bandy jokes. Josua is gone."
Towser rubbed his crown, searching blindly with the other hand for his wineskin. "Gone where, Isgrimnur? For pity's sake, man, have you broken my pate because Josua failed to meet you somewhere? I had nothing to do with it, I promise you." He took a long, self-pitying swig from the bag.
"Idiot," Isgrimnur said, but his tone was not harsh. "I mean the prince is gone. Left the Hayholt."
"Impossible," said Towser firmly, recovering some of his self-possession with his second trembling swallow of malmsey. "He is not leaving until next week. He said so. He told me I could go with him if I wished then, and be his jester at Naglimund." Towser leaned his head to the side and spat. "I told him I would give him my answer tomorrow—today, I suppose now—since Elias doesn't seem to care if I stay or I go." He shook his head. "And me his father's dearest companion..."
Isgrimnur shook his head impatiently, his gray-shot beard wagging. "No, man, he is gone. Left sometime after middle-night, as far as I can tell—or so said the Erkynguardsman I found at his empty chamber when I went to keep a meeting-time with him. He had asked me to come so late, though I would have rather been abed, but he said it was something that would not wait. Does that sound like a man who would leave without even a message for me?"
"Who knows?" said Towser, his wrinkled face screwed up as he pondered. "Mayhap that is why he wished to speak to you—because he was leaving secretly."
"Then why did he not wait till I arrived? I do not like it." Isgrimnur squatted down and poked at the coals with a stick lying there. "There is a queer air in the halls of this house tonight."
"Josua is often strange in his action," said Towser with calm assurance. "He is moody—by the Lord, is he moody! He has probably gone out to hunt owls by moonlight, or some other tricksy pastime. Fear not."
After a long moment of silence, Isgrimnur let out a long breath. "Ah, I am sure you're right," he said, and his tone was quite nearly convincing. "Even were he and Elias at open odds, nothing could ever happen here in his father's house, before God and the court."
"Nothing but you thumping me on the head in the middle-night. God seems to be a bit slow in doling out punishments tonight." Towser grinned a wrinkly grin.
As the two men carried on their talking, voices hushed near the dull embers, Simon stole quietly back to his bed. He lay awake for some long time wrapped in his blanket, staring up into the darkness; but by the time the cock in the court yard below finally saw the sun's first rising glow, he had fallen back into sleep.
^
"Now you just remember," Morgenes cautioned, wiping the sweat from his forehead with a bright blue kerchief, "—don't eat anything until you've brought it back and asked me. Especially if it has red spots. Understood? Many of the articles I've asked you to gather all direst poison. Avoid stupidity, if such a thing is possible. Simon, you are in charge, boy. I hold you responsible for the safety of the others."
The others were Jeremias the chandler's lad and Isaak, a young page from the upstairs residence. The doctor had picked this hot Feyever afternoon to organize a mushroom and herb-hunting expedition to the Kynswood, a small forest of less than a hundred acres that huddled on the high bank of the Kynslagh along the Hayholt's western wall. Because of the drought, Morgenes' supplies of important commodities had dwindled alarmingly, and the Kynswood, standing as it did beside the great lake, seemed a good place to search for the doctor's moisture-loving treasures.
As they fanned out through the forest, Jeremias hung back, waiting until the sound of Morgenes' crunching footsteps had diminished into the crackly brown undergrowth.
"Have you asked him yet?" Jeremias' clothes were already so wet with perspiration that they clung.
"No." Simon had squatted down to watch a press-gang of ants hurrying single file up the trunk of a Vestivegg pine. "I'm going to do it today. I just have to think of the right way to do it."
"What if he says no?" Jeremias eyed the procession with some distaste. "What will we do then?"
"He won't say no." Simon stood up. "And if he does... well… I'll think of something."
"What are you two whispering about?" Young Isaak had reappeared in the clearing. "It's not right to keep secrets." Though he was some three or four years younger than Simon and Jeremias, Isaak had already developed an "upstairs" tone. Simon scowled at him.
"Never you mind."
"We were looking at this tree," Jeremias offered, quick to feel guilt.
"I should have thought," Isaak said archly, "that there were plenty of trees to look at without skulking and telling secrets."
"Oh, but this one," Jeremias began. "This one is..."
"Forget the stupid tree," said Simon in disgust. "Let's go. Morgenes had gotten the jump on us, and will let us know if he outgathers us." He ducked a branch and waded into the ankle-high tangle of undergrowth.
It was hard work; when they stopped to drink water and rest in the shade some hour and a half later, all three of the boys were covered in fine red dust up to their elbows and knees. Each carried a small bundle of goods wrapped in his kerchief: Simon's the largest, Isaak's and Jeremias' of more modest size. They found a large spruce which they shared as a backrest, dusty legs fanning out around it like the spokes on a wheel. Simon tossed a stone across the clearing; it thumped into a pile of broken branches, setting dead leaves a-tremble.
"Why is it so hot?" moaned Jeremias, swabbing his brow. "And why is my handkerchief full of ridiculous mushrooms, so that I have to wipe the sweat away with my hands?" He held up slick, wet palms.
"It's hot because it's hot," Simon grumbled. "Because there's no rain. And that's that."
A longish stretch of time passed in silence. Even the insects and birds seemed to have disappeared, gone to dark places to sleep the dry, still afternoon away in silence.
"I suppose we should be glad we are not at Meremund," said Jeremias at last. "They say that a thousand have died there from the plague."
"A thousand?" said Isaak, scornful. The heat had brought high color to his thin, pale face. "Thousands! It is the talk of the residence. My master goes about the Hayholt with a kerchief doused in holy water clapped to his face, and the plague has not come within a hundred leagues of here."
"Does your master know what is happening in Meremund?" Simon asked, interested—Isaak did have his uses. "Does he speak of it to you?"
"All the time." The young page was smug. "His wife's brother is the mayor. They were among the first to flee the plague. He has gotten much news from them."
"Elias made Guthwulf of Utanyeat the King's Hand," said Simon. Jeremias groaned and slid away from the trunk, stretching out full-length on the pine needle-matted ground.
"That's right," Isaak replied, scratching in the dirt with a long twig. "And he has kept the plague there. It has not spread."
"What caused it, this pestilence?" Simon asked. "Do any of the residence people know?" He felt stupid asking questions of a child so much younger than himself, but Isaak did hear the upstairs gossip and was not reticent in sharing it.
"Nobody knows for sure. Some people say that jealous Hernystir merchants from Abaingeat across the river poisoned the wells. Many people in Abaingeat have died, too." Isaak said this with a certain air of satisfaction—after all, the Hernystiri were not Aedonites but heathens, however noble an ally the House of Lluth might be under the High King's Ward. "Others say that the drought has cracked the earth with dryness, and poisonous airs have escaped from the ground. Whatever it is, my master says that it spares nobody, rich man, priest, or peasant. You first become hot and feverish..."—Jeremias, on his back, groaned and mopped at his forehead—"... then you blister up, like you had laid on hot coals. Then the blisters begin to ooze..." He emphasized this last word with a childish grimace, fine blond hair hanging in his flushed face. "And then you die. Painfully."
The forest breathed heat around them as they sat without speaking.
"My master Jakob," Jeremias said at last, "fears that the plague shall come to the Hayholt, on account of all the dirty peasants living by the walls." The Kynswood took another slow breath. "Ruben the Bear. the blacksmith, told my master that he had gotten news from a mendicant friar that Guthwulf has taken very harsh measures in Meremund."
"Harsh measures?" Simon asked, eyes closed. "What does that mean?"
"The friar told Ruben that Guthwulf, when he arrived in Meremund as King's Hand, took the Erkynguard and went to the homes of the sick. They took hammers, nails, and boards, and sealed the houses up."
"With the people inside?" Simon asked, horrified but fascinated.
"Of course. To stop the spread of plague. They boarded up the houses so families of the diseased could not run away and spread the plague to others." Jeremias raised his sleeve and mopped again.
"But I thought the plague came from bad airs, from the ground?"
"Even so, it can be spread. That is why so many priests and monks and leeches have died. The friar said that at night, for many weeks, the streets of Meremund were... were... what did he say... ? 'Like the Halls of Hell.' You could hear the people howling like dogs in the boarded-up houses. Finally, when they all went silent, Guthwulf and the Erkynguard burned them. Unopened."
As Simon marveled at this last detail, there was a sound of breaking branches.
"Ho there, you lazy lumps!" Morgenes appeared from a knot of trees, his robes festooned with twigs and leaves, a fringe of moss clinging to the brim of his wide hat. "I should have known I would find you flat on your backs."
Simon struggled to his feet. "We have only been sitting a short while. Doctor," he said. "We gathered for a long time."
"Don't forget to ask him!" hissed Jeremias, pulling himself up.
"Well," Morgenes said, eyeing their bundles critically. "I suppose you have not done badly, considering the conditions. Let me see what you have found." He squatted like a farmer weeding a hedge-row and began sifting through the boys' collections. "Ah! Devil's Ear!" he cried, holding a scalloped mushroom up to the shaft of sunlight. "Excellent!"
"Doctor," Simon said, "I wanted to ask you a favor."
"Hmmm?" Morgenes was poking through bits of fungus, using an unrolled kerchief as a table.
"Well, Jeremias is interested in joining the guards—or trying to. The problem is. Count Breyugar knows us castle folk hardly at all, and Jeremias has no connection into such circles."
"That," said Morgenes dryly, "is no surprise." He emptied out the next kerchief.
"Do you think you could write him a letter of introduction? You are well known to all." Simon tried to keep his voice calm. Isaak looked at sweating Jeremias with a mixture of respect and amusement.
"Hmmm." The doctor's tone was neutral. "I suspect I am only too well known to Breyugar and his friends." He looked up, fixing Jeremias with a sharp eye. "Does Jakob know?"
"He... he knows my feelings," stammered Jeremias.
Morgenes bundled all the gatherings together in a sack and returned the boys' kerchiefs. The doctor stood, shaking the clinging leaves and tree needles from his robe.
"I suppose I could," he said, as they started back toward the Hayholt. "I don't think I approve—and I don't think a note from me will quite bring them to respectful attention—but I suppose if Jakob knows, then it's all right." They waded single file through the scratching thicket.
"Thank you, Doctor," said Jeremias breathlessly, struggling to keep up.
"I doubt they shall want you." Isaak sounded a little envious. As they moved closer to the castle, his haughtiness seemed to return apace.
"Doctor Morgenes," Simon said, mustering as best he could a tone of benign unconcern, "why don't I write the letter, and then you can look at it and sign it? It would be good practice for me, don't you think?"
"Why, Simon," the doctor said, stepping over a fallen tree trunk, "that's an excellent idea. I'm glad to see you take such initiative. Maybe I will make a true apprentice of you yet."
The doctor's cheerful statement, his tone of pride, weighed Simon down like a cape of lead. He hadn't done anything yet, let alone anything bad, and already he felt like a murderer or some worse thing. He was about to say something else when the stifling forest air was ripped by a scream.
Simon turned around to see Jeremias, his face white as wheat paste, pointing at something in a thicket beside the fallen log. Isaak stood beside him, frozen in shock. Simon hurried back, Morgenes only a step behind him.
It was a corpse, lying tumbled half-in and half-out of the thicket. Although the face was mostly covered by bushes, the near-fleshless state of the exposed parts showed that the body had been dead for some time.
"Oh, oh, oh," gasped Jeremias, "he's dead! Are there outlaws here? What shall we do?"
"Oh, hush," snapped Morgenes. "That will be a start. Let me have a look." The doctor picked up the hem of his robe and waded forward into the thicket, then stopped and gingerly lifted the branches that masked much of the body.
From the tendrils of beard that still clung to his bird-and insect-gnawed face, he seemed to have been a northerner—a Rimmersman perhaps. He wore unremarkable traveling clothes, a light wool cloak and tanned leather boots, rotting now so that bits of the fur lining showed through.
"How did he die?" asked Simon. The eyeless sockets, dark and secretive, unnerved him. The toothy mouth, flesh shrunken and pulled away, seemed to be grinning, as though the cadaver had been lying here for weeks enjoying a bleak joke.
Morgenes used a stick to pull the tunic aside. A few flies rose lazily and circled. "Look," he said.
From a puckered hole in the corpse's desiccated trunk rose the stump of an arrow, broken off a handsbreadth above the ribs.
"Done by someone in a hurry, perhaps—someone who did not want their arrow recognized."
They had to wait a moment for Isaak to finish being noisily ill before they could hurry on to the castle.

9
Smoke on the Wind
"DID YOU get it? Did he guess?" Still pale for all his hours in the sun, Jeremias bobbed along at Simon's side like the sheep's-bladder float on a fisherman's net.
"I've got it," Simon growled. Jeremias' agitation irritated him; it seemed out of keeping with the masculine gravity of their mission. "You think too much."
Jeremias took no offense. "As long as you've got it," he said.
Main Row, open to the harsh noontide sky, tent-roofing skinned back, was nearly deserted. Here and there the constabulary guard—yellow-liveried to show their immediate allegiance to Count Breyugar, bearing sashes of Elias' royal green—lounged in the doorways or diced with one another against the walls of shuttered shops. Even though the morning market was long over, still it seemed to Simon that there were fewer common people in the streets than was usual. Those to be seen were mostly the homeless who had been flooding into Erchester in the recent winter months, driven out of the countryside by drying streams and failing wells. They stood or sat in the shadows of stone walls and buildings, knots of indifference, their movements slow and purposeless. The constables pushed past or stepped over them as though they were dogs in the street.
The pair turned right off Main Row onto Tavern Way, the largest of the thoroughfares running perpendicular to the Row. Here there was more activity, although still the largest number of folk in sight were soldiers. The heat had driven most of them indoors; they leaned out of the low windows with flagons in their hands, watching Simon and Jeremias and the half a dozen or so other pedestrians with beery disinterest.



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