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

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Pondering, plucking absently at the dry, unbudded rosebushes, Simon pricked his finger on a hidden thorn. Cursing, he held up his hand. The bright blood was a red bead on his fingertip, a single crimson pearl. He stuck his finger in his mouth and tasted salt.
In the darkest part of the night, on the very cusp of All Fools' Day, a tremendous crash reverberated through the Hayholt. It rattled sleepers awake in their beds and drew a long, sympathetic hum from the dark bell clusters in Green Angel Tower.
Some of the young priests, gleefully ignoring midnight prayers on this, their once-yearly night of freedom, were struck from their stools as they sat swilling wine and insulting Bishop Domitis; the concussive force of the blow was so great that even the drunkest felt a wave of terror run through them, as though in a deep-sunken part of themselves they had known all along that God would eventually make his displeasure felt.
But when the ragged, startled crew milled out to the courtyard to see what had happened, shaven acolyte heads like so many pale mushrooms in the silky moonlight, there was no shape of the universal cataclysm they had all expected. Except for a few faces of other recently-wakened castle-dwellers peering curiously from the windows, the night was untroubled and clear.
Simon was dreaming in his spare, curtained bed, nested among the treasures he had so carefully collected; in his dream he climbed a pillar of black ice, every straining inch upward eroded by a nearly identical slip backward. He clutched a parchment in his teeth, a message of some sort. At the topmost point of the cold-burning pillar was a door; in the doorway a dark presence crouched, waiting for him... waiting for the message.
As he finally reached the threshold a hand snaked out, grasping the parchment in an inky, vaporous fist. Simon tried to slide back, to fall away, but another dark claw jabbed out from the doorway and caught his wrist. He was drawn upward toward a pair of eyes, red-bright as paired crimson holes in the belly of an infernal black oven...
As he woke gasping from sleep he heard the sullen voices of the bells, moaning their displeasure as they descended back into cold, brooding sleep.
Only one person in all the great castle claimed to have seen anything. Caleb the horse-boy, Shem's slow-witted assistant, had been terribly excited and unable to sleep all night. The next morning he was to be crowned King of Fools, and carried on the shoulders of the young priests as they marched through the castle singing bawdy songs and tossing oats and flower petals. They would take him to the refectory hall where he would preside over the All Fools' banquet from his mock throne built of Gleniwent river reeds.
Caleb had heard the great roar, he told any who would listen, but he had also heard words, a booming voice speaking a language that the stable boy could only say was "bad." He also seemed to think he had seen a great snake of fire leap from the window of Hjeldin's Tower, looping itself around the spire in flaming coils and then splintering into a shower of sparks.
No one paid Caleb's story much heed—there was a reason the simpleminded boy had been chosen King of Fools. Also, the dawn brought something to the Hayholt that eclipsed any thunder in the night, and even the prospects of Fools' Day.
Daylight revealed a line of clouds—rain clouds—crouching on the northern horizon like a flock of fat, gray sheep.
"By Dror's becrimsoned mallet, Udun's one dread eye, and… and… and our Lord Usires! Something must be done!"
Duke Isgrimnur, nearly forgetting his Aedonite piety in his wrath, brought his scarred, fur-knuckled fist down on the Great Table hard enough to make the crockery jump six feet away. His broad body swayed like an over-cargoed ship in a squall as he cast his eyes from one end of the table to the other, then brought his fist down again. A goblet teetered briefly, then surrendered to gravity.
"Steps must be taken, sire!" he roared, and tugged angrily at his belt-length whiskers. "The Frostmarch is in a state of bedamned anarchy! While I sit here with my men like so many knots on a log, the Frostmarch Road has become a byway for bandits! And I have had no word from Elvritshalla for two months or more!" The duke blew out a great gust of air that made his mustache flutter. "My son is in dread need, and I can do nothing! Where is the High King's ward of safety, my Lord?"
Reddening like a beet the Rimmersman dropped back into his chair, Elias raised a languid eyebrow and surveyed the other knights scattered about the circumference of the table, far outnumbered by the empty chairs between them. The torches in the wall sconces threw long wavering shadows onto the high tapestries.
"Well, now that the aged but honorable Duke has made himself known, would anyone else like to join his suit?" Elias toyed with his own gold goblet, scuffing it along the crescent-shaped scars in the oak. "Is there anyone else who feels that the High King of Osten Ard had deserted his subjects?" At the king's right hand Guthwulf smirked.
Isgrimnur, smarting, began to climb back to his feet, but Eolair of Nad Mullach laid a restraining hand on the old duke's arm.
"Sire," Eolair said, "neither Isgrimnur nor anyone else who has spoken is accusing you of anything." The Hernystirman placed his palms flat on the table. "What we are all saying then, is that we are asking—entreating, my lord—that you pay more heed to the problems of those of your subjects who live outside your view here at the Hayholt." Perhaps thinking his words too harsh, Eolair summoned a smile onto his mobile face. "The problems, they are there," he continued. "Outlawry is everywhere in the north and west. Starving men have few scruples, and the drought just ended has brought out the worst... in everyone."
Elias, unspeaking, continued to stare at Eolair after the westerner had finished. Isgrimnur couldn't help noticing how pale the king looked. It reminded the older man of the time in the southern islands that he had nursed Elias' father John through a bout of fever.
That bright eye, he thought, that nose like a hunting bird. Odd how these bits, these brief expressions and reminders, go on generation after generation—long after the man and his works are dead.
Isgrimnur thought of Miriamele, Elias' pretty, melancholy child. He wondered what baggage of her father's she would carry on, what disparate images of her beautiful haunted mother, dead ten years now—or was it twelve?
Across the table Elias shook his head slowly, as if waking from a dream or trying to dispel the wine fumes from his head. Isgrimnur saw Pryrates, seated at the king's left side, quickly withdraw his pale hand from Elias' sleeve. There was something abhorrent about the priest, Isgrimnur thought, not for the first time, something far deeper than merely his hairiessness and scratchy voice.
"Well, Count Eolair," the king said, an elusive smile briefly twitching on his lips, "as long as we are speaking of'obligations' and such, what does your kinsman King Lluth have to say about the message I sent him?" He leaned forward with apparent interest, his powerful hands folded on the table.
Eolair replied in measured tones, choosing his words with care. "As always. Lord, he sends his respects and love to noble Erkynland. He does feel, though, that he cannot afford to send more in the way of taxes..."
"Tribute!" snorted Guthwulf, picking his nails with a slim poniard.
"... In the way of taxes right now," Eolair finished, ignoring the interruption.
"Is that so?" Elias asked, and smiled again.
"Actually, my lord," Eolair deliberately misread the smile's import, "he sent for me to ask you for royal help. You know the troubles the drought has caused, and the plague. The Erkynguard must work with us to keep the trade roads open."
"Oh, they must, must they?" King Elias' eyes glinted, and a tiny throb began between the strong cords of his neck. "It is 'must' now, is it?" He leaned farther forward, shaking off Pryrates' serpent-swift restraining hand. "And who are you," he growled, "the weanling stepcousin of a sheepherder-king—who is only a king at all by my father's weak-willed forebearance!—who are you to tell me 'must'!?"
"My Lord!" cried old Fluiren of Nabban in horror, flapping his spotted hands—mighty hands once, now bent and curled like a hawk's feet. "My Lord," he panted, "your anger is kingly, but Hernystir is a trusted ally under your father's High Ward—not to mention his country was the birth-land of your saintly mother, rest her soul! Please, sire, do not speak so of Lluth!"
Elias swung his emerald gaze to Fluiren, and seemed about to focus his wrath on that diminished hero, but Pryrates tugged the king's dark sleeve again and leaned close to mouth a few words in Elias' ear. The king's expression softened, but the line of his jaw remained taut as a bowstring. Even the air over the table seemed pulled tight, a grinding net of awful possibility.
"Forgive me for the unforgivable. Count Eolair," Elias said at last, a strange, stupid grin stretching the corners of his mouth wide. "Forgive me my harsh, causeless words. It has been less than a month since the rains began, and it was a difficult twelvemonth for us all before that."
Eolair nodded, his clever eyes uneasy. "Of course. Highness. I understand. Please, you'll grant me your pardon for provoking you." Across the oval table Fluiren folded his mottled hands with a satisfied nod.
Isgrimnur now rose to his feet, ponderous as a brown bear climbing an ice floe. "I, too, Sire, shall try to speak in a gentle fashion, though you all know it is clean against my soldier's nature."
Elias' cheerful grimace remained. "Very good. Uncle Bear-skin—we will all practice gentility together. What would you of your king?"
The Duke of Elvritshalla took a deep breath, nervously finger-tangling his beard. "Mine and Eolair's people are in dire need, Lord. For the first time since the earliest part of John Presbyter's reign, the Frostmarch Road has again become impassable—blizzards in the north, highway robbers further south. The royal North Road past Wealdhelm is not much better. We need these roads open, and kept so." Isgrimnur leaned to the side and spat on the floor. Fluiren winced. "Many of the clan-villages, according to my son Isorn's last letter, are suffering for lack of food. We cannot trade our goods, we cannot keep contact with the more remote clans."
Guthwulf, carving at the table's edge, yawned conspicuously. Heahferth and Godwig, two younger barons wearing prominent green sashes, quietly tittered.
"Surely, Duke," Guthwulf drawled, leaning back against the arm of his chair like a sun-warmed cat, "you don't blame us for that. Has our lord the king powers like God Almighty—to stop the snows and storms with a wave of his hand?"
"I do not suggest that he should!" Isgrimnur rumbled.
"Perhaps," Pryrates said from the head of the table, his wide smile strangely inappropriate, "you also blame the king for his brother's disappearance, as we have heard it rumored?"
"Never!" Isgrimnur was genuinely shocked. Beside him Eolair narrowed his eyes, as if seeing something unexpected. "Never!" the duke repeated, looking helplessly at Elias.
"Now, men, I know Isgrimnur would never think such a thing," the king said, waving a listless hand. "Why, old Uncle Bear-skin dandled both Josua and myself on his knees. I hope, of course, that Josua has suffered no harm—the fact that he has not appeared at Naglimund in all this time is troubling—but if anything foul is afoot it is not my conscience that will need soothing " But as he finished, for a moment Elias did look troubled, staring at nothing as though he wandered through a confusing memory
"Let me get back to the point. Lord," Isgrimnur said. "The northern roads are not safe, and weather is not the only factor My earls are spread too thin. We need more men—strong men to make the Frostmarch safe again. The marchland is aswann with robbers and outlaws and... and worse things, some say."
Pryrates leaned forward interestedly, chin perched on long-fingered hands like a child watching ram through a window, sunken eyes catching the torches* gleam. "What 'worse things,' noble Isgrimnur?"
"It's not important People think… things, that is all You know how the marchdwellers are..." The Rimmersman trailed off, taking an embarrassed draft of his wine.
Eolair rose. "If he will not voice his thoughts, what we have heard in the markets and among the servants, I will. The northern people are afraid. There are things going about that cannot be explained by deadly weather and bad harvests In my land we do not need to name things angels or devils We of Hernystir—we of the West—know that things walk upright on this earth that are not men... and we know whether to fear them or not. We Hernystiri knew the Sithi when they still lived in our fields, when the high mountains and wide meadows of Erkynland were theirs."
The torches were guttering now, and Eolair's high forehead and cheeks seemed to shine with a faint scarlet radiance. "We have not forgotten," he said quietly. His voice carried even to half-sleeping Godwig, who lifted his drunken head like a hound hearing a distant call. "We, the Hernystiri, remember the days of the giants, and the days of the northern curse, the White Foxes, so now we speak plainly: evil is abroad in this ill-omened winter and spring. It is not only the bandits that prey on travelers, and who cause the disappearance of isolated farmers. The people of the North are afraid.
" 'We the Hernystiri'" Pryrates' mocking voice lanced out through the silence, skewering the spell of otherworidliness. " 'We the Hernystin.' Our noble pagan friend claims to speak plainly!" Pryrates traced an exaggerated Tree on the breast of his unpriestly red vestments. Elias' expression turned to sly good humor. "Very well!" the priest continued. "He has delivered us the plainest pack of riddles and shadow-talk I have ever heard. ' Giants and elves.'" Pryrates flicked his hand, and his sleeve fluttered above the dinner plates. "As if his majesty the king did not have enough to worry about—his brother vanished, his subjects hungry and frightened—as if even the king's great heart was not near-to-breaking' And you, Eolair, you bring him pagan ghost stones from the mouths of old wives."
"He be pagan, yes," growled Isgrimnur, "but there be more Aedomte good will in Eolair than in the pack of lazy pups I have seen lolling around this court..."—Baron Heahferth barked, drawing drunken laughter from Godwig—"lolling around while the people have been living on meager hope and less harvest!"
"It's all right then, Isgrimnur," said Eolair wearily.
"My lords!" Fluiren flapped.
"Well, I will not hear you insulted so for your honesty!" Isgrimnur rumbled at Eolair. He lifted his fist to hammer the table again, then thought better of it, bunging it instead to his breast, where it enfolded the wooden Tree hanging there. "Forgive my outburst, my king, but Count Eolair tells the truth. Whether their fears have substance or no, the people do fear."
"And what do they fear, dear old Uncle Bear-skin?" asked the king as he held his goblet for Guthwulf to refill.
"They fear the dark," the old man said, all dignity now. "They fear the winter's dark, and they fear the world will grow darker still"
Eolair turned his empty cup upside-down on the table. "In Erchester's market the few merchants who have been able to come south fill the people's ears with news of a strange vision. I have heard the same story so many times that I do not doubt everyone in the town has heard it, too." Eolair paused and looked at the Rimmersman, who nodded once, gravely, creasing the gray-shot beard.
"Well," said Elias impatiently.
"In the Frostmarch wastes at night, a wonderful thing has been seen—a cart, a black cart, drawn by white horses."
"How unusual'" Guthwulf sneered, but Pryrates and Elias locked eyes of a sudden. The king raised an eyebrow as he rechanneled his gaze to the westerner.
"Go on "
"Those who have seen it say it appeared a few days after All Fools' Day. They say the can bears a casket, and that black-robed monks walk behind it."
"And to what heathen nature-sprite do the peasants attribute this vision?" Elias leaned slowly backward in his chair, until he was looking down the bridge of his nose at the Hernystirman.
"They say, my king, that it is your father's death-cart—begging your pardon, sire—and that as long as the land suffers, he shall not sleep peacefully in his barrow."
After an interval the king spoke, his voice barely louder than the hissing of the torches.
"Well, then," he said, "we will have to make sure my father gets his well-earned rest, will we not?"
Look at them, old Towser thought as he dragged his bent leg and tired body up the aisle of the throne room. Look at them, all lollying and smirking—they look more like heathen chiefs of the Thrithings than Aedonite knights of Erkynland.
Elias' courtiers hooted and called out as the jester limped by, wagging their heads at him as though he were a Naraxi ape on a chain. Even the king and the King's Hand, Earl Guthwulf, whose chair was pulled up next to the throne, contributed to the rough jests; Elias sat with a leg up on the arm of the Dragonbone Chair tike a farm lout on a gate. Only the king's young daughter Miriamele sat stiffly silent, pretty face solemn, shoulders pulled back as if she were expecting a blow. Her honey-colored hair—which came from neither her dark father nor raven-haired mother—hung down on either side of her face like curtains.
She looks like she's trying to hide behind that hair, thought Towser. What a shame. They say that the freckled darling is stubborn and forward, but all I see in her eyes is fear. She deserves better, I suspect, than the swaggering wolves who prowl our castles these days, but they say her father's promised her already to that be-damned drunken strutter Fengbald.
He did not make swift progress, his path to the throne hindered by the hands that reached out to pat or lightly slap at him. It was said to be good luck to touch the head of a dwarf. Towser was not one, but he was old, very old, and bent, it amused the courtiers to treat him as if he were.
He reached Elias' throne at last. The king's eyes were red-rimmed with too much drink or too little sleep, or—most likely—both.
Elias turned his green gaze downward to the little man. "So, my dear Towser," he said, "you grace us with your company." The jester noticed that the buttons of the King's white blouse were undone, and that there was a gravy stain on the beautiful doeskin gloves tucked into his belt.
"Yes, sire, I have come." Towser assayed a bow, difficult with his stiff leg; a sputter of mirth came from the lords and ladies.
"Before you entertain us, oldest jester," Elias said, swinging his leg down off the throne arm and fixing the old man with his most sincere stare, "may I perhaps beg of you a small favor? A question I have long wanted to ask?"
"Of course, my king."
"Then tell me, Towser dear, however did you happen to be given a dog's name'*" Elias raised his eyebrows in mock puzzlement, turning first to look at Guthwulf, who grinned, and then to Miriamele, who looked away. The rest of the courtiers laughed and whispered behind their hands.
"I was not given a dog's name, sire," said Towser quietly. "I chose it for myself."
"What!" said Elias, turning to the old man once more. "I don't think that I heard you properly."
"I gave myself a dog's name, sire. Your noble father used to tease me for being so faithful, because I would always go with him, would be at his side. As a jest he named one of his hounds 'Cruinh,' the which was my given name." The old man turned slightly, so as to play to the crowd more fully. " 'So then,' quoth I, 'if the dog be given my name by John's will, then I shall take the dog's in turn.' I have never answered since to any name but Towser, and never shall." Towser permitted himself a tiny smile. "It is possible that your revered father regretted somewhat his joke thereafter."
Elias did not seem altogether pleased with this answer, but laughed sharply anyway and slapped his knee. "A saucy dwarf, is he not?" he said, looking around. The others assembled, trying to take the king's mood, laughed politely—all but Miriamele, who looked down on Towser from her high-backed chair, her face caught in an intricate expression whose meaning he could not unpuzzle.
"Well," said Elias, "if I were not the good king that I am—were I, say for instance, a pagan king like Hernystir's Lluth—I might have thy minuscule, wrinkled head off for speaking so of my late father. But, of course, I am not such a king."
"Of course not, sire," Towser said.
"Are you come to sing for us, then, or to tumble—we hope not, since you appear over-frail for such antics—or what? Come, tell us." Elias eased himself back in his throne and clapped for more wine.
"To sing. Majesty," the jester replied. He took the lute from off his shoulder and began to turn the pegs, bringing it into tune. As a young page scurried over to fill the king's cup, Towser looked up to the ceiling where the banners of Osten Ard's knights and nobles hung before the rain-splashed upper windows. The dust was now gone and the cobwebs dispersed, but to Towser the bright colors of the pennoncels seemed false—too bright, like the painted skin of a drab who hopes to mimic her own younger days, thus destroying what true beauty remains.
As the nervous page finished filling the goblets of Guthwulf, Fengbald, and the others, Elias waved his hand at Towser.
"My lord," he nodded, "I will sing of another good king—this one an unfortunate and sad monarch, however."
"I do not like sad songs," said Fengbald; he was, predictably, well into his cups. Beside him, Guthwulf smirked.
"Hush," The King's Hand made a show of elbowing his companion. "If we do not like the tune when he has finished, then we can make the dwarf hop."
Towser cleared his throat and strummed, singing then in his thin, sweet voice:
"Old King Juniper

Mickle old was he

Snowy-white his beard that hung

From chin to bony knee.
Noble old King Juniper

Sitting on his throne

Called: 'Now bring my sons to me,

For soon I will be gone.'
They brought him then his princely sons

They came with hounds and hawks

The younger hight Prince Holly

The older Prince Hemlock.
'We have heard thy summons, sire,

And left our hunt withal.'

So Hemlock said, 'What wouldst thou

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