As he drank water and talked, the monk seemed to slowly gain strength. "They were a strange lot... didn't come down to the main hall that night, except the leader—a pale-eyed man who bore... an evil-looking helm... and dark armor—he asked... asked if we had heard word of a party of Rimmersmen coming North... from Erchester...." "Rimmersmen?" said Hengfisk, frowning. Erchester? thought Simon, wracking his brain. Who could it be? "Abbot Quincines told the man we had heard of no such party... and he seemed... satisfied. The abbot seemed troubled, but of course he did not share his worry with... we younger brothers.... "The next morning one of the brothers came in from the hill-fields to report a company of riders from the south... the strangers seemed... very interested, saying that it was... the rest of their original party come to meet them. Their pale-eyed leader... took his men out to the great courtyard, to greet the new arrivals—or so we thought.... "Just as the new company had crested Vine Hill and been sighted from the abbey—they looked to be only a... head or two fewer than our current guests...." Here Langrian had to stop for a moment's rest, panting slightly. Binabik would have given him something to make him sleep, but the injured monk waved away the troll's offer. "Not much... more to tell. One of the other brothers... saw one of the guests come running out, late, from Traveler's Hall. He had not finished donning his cloak—they were all cloaked, 'though the morning was warm—and beneath it there was the flash of a sword blade. The brother ran to the abbot, who had feared something of the like. Quincines went to confront the leader. Meanwhile, we could see the men riding down the hill—Rimmersmen all, bearded and braided. The abbot told the leader he and his men must put up, that Saint Hoderund's would not be the site of some bandit struggle. The leader pulled his sword out and put it to Quincines' throat." "Merciful Aedon," breathed Hengfisk. "A moment later we heard hoofbeats. Brother Scenesefa suddenly ran to the courtyard gate and shouted a warning to the approaching strangers. One of the... 'guests'... put an arrow in his back, and the leader slit the abbot's throat." Hengfisk stifled a sob and made the sign of the Tree over his heart, but Langrian's face was solemn, emotionless; he continued his narrative without pausing. "Then there was carnage, the strangers leaping onto the brothers with knife and sword, or pulling bows and arrows from places of hiding. When the new arrivals came through the gate it was with their own swords drawn… I suppose they heard Scenesefa's warning, and saw him shot down in the gateway arch. "I do not know what happened then, for all was madness. Someone threw a torch upon the chapel roof, and it caught afire. I ran for water as people screamed and horses screamed and... and something hit me on the head. That is all." "So you do not know who was in either of these two warring bands?" Binabik asked. "Did they fight with each other, or were they being partners?" Langrian nodded seriously. "They fought. The ambushers had a much more difficult time with them than they did with unarmed monks. That is all I can say—all I know." "May they bum!" hissed Brother Hengfisk. "They shall." Langrian sighed. "I think I must sleep again." He closed his eyes, but his breathing did not change. Binabik straightened up. "I think I will be walking a short ways," he said. Simon nodded. "Ninit, Qantaqa," he called, and the wolf leaped up, stretched, and followed him. He had vanished into the woods within moments, leaving Simon with the three monks, two living, one dead. The services for Dochais were brief and spare. Hengfisk had found a winding sheet in the ruins of the abbey. They wrapped it around Dochais' thin body and lowered him into a hole the three able-bodied folk had dug in the abbey's cemetery, while Langrian slept in the forest with Qantaqa for a guardian. The digging had been hard work—the fire in the great barn had burned the wooden handles from the shovels, leaving only the blades to be wielded by hand—straining, sweaty work. By the time Brother Hengfisk had completed his impassioned prayers, coupling them with promises of divine justice—seeming to forget in his fervor that Dochais had been far away from the abbey when the murderers had done their work—it was the darkling tag-end of afternoon. The sun had dropped until there was nothing left but a bright residue along the crest of Vine Hill, and the grass of the churchyard was dark and cool. Binabik and Simon left Hengflsk crouching at the graveside, goggle-eyes tightly shut in prayer, and went to forage and explore around the abbey lands. Although the troll was careful to avoid as much as possible of the scene of the tragedy, its results were so widespread that Simon quickly began to wish he had returned to the forest camp to wait with Langrian and Qantaqa. A second hot day had done nothing to improve the condition of the bodies: in their bloated, swollen pinkness Simon saw an unpleasant similarity to the roast pig that crowned the Lady Day table at home. A part of him was scornful of his weakheartedness—hadn't he already seen violent death, a battlefield-full in a few short weeks?—but he realized as he walked... trying to keep his eyes ahead, to avoid the sight of other eyes, glazed and cracked by the sun... that death, at least for him, was never the same, no matter how veteran an observer he had become. Each one of these ruined sacks of bone and sweetbreads had been a life once, a beating heart, a voice that complained or laughed or sang. Someday this will happen to me, he thought as they threaded their way around the side of the chapel, —and who will remember me? He could find no ready answer, and the sight of the tiny field of grave markers, their tidiness cruelly lampooned by the sprawled bodies of slain monks, offered him little comfort. Binabik had found the charred remnants of the chapel's side door, areas of sound wood showing through the coal-black surface like streaks of new-cleaned brass on an old lamp. The troll poked at the door, knocking loose burned fragments, but the structure held. He gave it a more vigorous poke with his stick, but still it stuck closed, a sentry who had died on watch. "Good," Binabik said. "It is suggesting we may wander inside without the whole structure crashing upon our heads." He took his stick and poked it in through a fissure between door and frame, then used it like a mason's prybar, pushing and levering until, with a little help from Simon, it sprang open in a shower of black dust. After working so hard to open a door, it was truly strange to enter and find the roof gone, the chapel as open to the air as an unlidded cask. Simon looked up to see the sky framed above him, going red at the bottom and gray at the top with the onset of evening. Around the top of the walls the windows were blackened in their frames, the leading twisted outward, spilling its sooty glass as though a giant hand had pulled off the roof, reached down through the beams and poked out each window with a titan finger. A quick survey turned up nothing of use. The chapel, perhaps because of its rich draperies and hangings, had burned to the walls. Crumbled ash sculptures of benches and stairs and an altar stood in place, and the stone altar steps bore the ghost of a floral wreath, a perfect, impossibly delicate crown of paper-thin leaves and diaphanous gray ash-flowers. Next, Simon and Binabik made their way across the commons to the residences, a long low hall of tiny cells. The damage here was moderate—one end had caught fire, but for some reason had burned out before the conflagration had spread. "Be looking especially for boots," Binabik said. "It is sandals these abbey men wear mostly, but some of them may occasionally need to ride or travel in cold weather. Some that are fitting you are best, but in necessity settle for too large rather than too small." They started at opposite ends of the long hall. None of the doors were locked, but they were distressingly bare little rooms, a Tree on the wall the only decoration in most. One monk had hung a flowering rowan branch above his hard pallet; its jauntiness in such spare surroundings cheered Simon immensely, until he remembered the fate of the room's resident. On the sixth or seventh, Simon was startled when his pulling open the cell door was followed by a hissing noise and the blur of something whisking past his ankle. At first he thought an arrow had been shot at him, but one look at the tiny, empty cell showed the impossibility of such a thing. A moment later he realized what it was, and quirked his mouth in a half-smile. One of the monks, no doubt in direct contravention of abbey rules, had kept a pet—a cat, no less, just like the little gray scattercat he had befriended at the Hayholt. After two days locked in the cell, waiting for the master who would not return, it was hungry, angry, and frightened. He went back down the hall looking for it, but the animal was gone. Binabik heard him clomping about. "Is all well, Simon?" he called, out of sight in one of the other cells. "Yes," Simon yelled back. The light in the tiny windows above his head was quite gray now. He wondered if he should head back to the door, finding Binabik on the way, or go back and look some more. He was interested at least in examining the cell of the monk with the contraband cat. A few moments later Simon was reminded about the problems of keeping animals shut in too long. Holding his nose, he looked quickly around the cell, and spotted a book, small but nicely bound in leather. He tiptoed across the suspect floor, hooked it off the low bed, and stilted out again. He had just sat down in the next cell to have a look at his prize when Binabik appeared in the doorway. "I am having small luck here. You?" the troll asked. "No boots." "Well, it is fast becoming evening. I think I should be having a look around the Traveler's Hall where the murderous strangers were sleeping, in case there is some object there that will tell us anything. Wait for me here, hmmm?" Simon nodded and Binabik left. The book was, as Simon had expected, a Book of Aedon, although it was a very expensive and finely-made book for a poor monk to have in his possession; Simon guessed it was a gift from a rich relative. The volume itself was unremarkable, although the illuminations were very nice—at least as far as Simon could tell in the fading light—but there was one thing that caught his attention. On the first page, where people often wrote their names, or words of salutation if the book was a gift, there was this phrase, carefully but shakily written: Piercing My Hearte there is A Golden Dagger;
That is God
Piercing God's Hearte there is a Golden Needle;
That is me. As Simon sat looking at the words his newfound resolve was tested; he felt a wave wash through him, a staggering ocean breaker of remorse and fear, and a feeling of things that, though unseen, were nonetheless slipping heartbreakingly away. In the midst of his staring reverie Binabik popped his head through the door and tossed a pair of boots onto the floor beside him with a muffled clatter. Simon did not look up. "Many interesting things there are at Traveler's Hall, your new boots not least. But dark is coming, and I may take only a moment more. Meet with me before this hall, soon." And he was gone again. After long, silent moments in the troll's wake, Simon set the book down—he had planned to take it, but had changed his mind—and tried the boots on his feet. At other moments he would have been pleased to find how well they fitted, but now he just left his tattered shoes on the floor and walked down the hall toward the front entrance. The muted light of evening had descended. Across the commons stood the Traveler's Hall, a twin to the building he had just left. For some reason the sight of the door across from him swinging listlessly to and fro filled him with vague fear. Where was the troll? Just as he remembered the swinging paddock gate that had been the first signal that all was not well at the abbey, Simon was startled by a rough hand grasping at his shoulder, pulling him backward. "Binabik!" he managed to shout, and then a thick palm was clamped over his mouth, and he was crushed back against a rock-hard body. "Vawer es do kunde?" a voice growled at his ear in the stony accents of Rimmersgard. "Im tosdten-grukker!" another voice sneered. In a blind panic Simon opened his mouth behind the shielding hand and bit. There was a grunt of pain, and for a moment his mouth was free. "Help me! Binabik!" he screeched, then the hand covered him again, crushingly painful now, and a second later he felt a black impact behind his ear. He could still hear the echoes of his cry dissipating as the world turned to water before his eyes. The door of Traveler's Hall swung, and Binabik did not come.
21 Cold Comforts DUKE ISGRIMNUR of Elvritshalla had put a little too much pressure on the blade. The knife leaped from the wood and nicked his thumb, freeing a sudden stripe of blood just below the knuckle. He famed a curse, dropped the piece of heartwood to the ground and stuck his thumb in his mouth. Frekke is right, he thought,—damn him. I'll never have the knack of this. I don't even know why I try. He did know, though: he had convinced old Frekke to show him the rudiments of carving during his virtual imprisonment at the Hayholt. Anything, he had reasoned, was preferable to pacing about the castle's halls and battlements like a chained bear. The old soldier, who had served the Duke's father Isbeom as well, had patiently shown Isgrimnur how to choose the wood, how to spy out the natural spirit that lurked inside, and how to release it, chip by chip, from the prisoning grain. Watching Frekke at work—his eyes nearly shut, his scarred lip quirked in an unconscious smile—the demons and fish and lively beasts that climbed into being from beneath his knife had seemed the inevitable solutions to the questions the world put forth, questions of randomness and confusion in the shape of a tree limb, the position of a rock, the vagaries of rain clouds. Sucking on his wounded thumb, the duke toyed in a disordered way with such thoughts—for all Frekke's claims, Isgrimnur found it damnably hard to think about anything at all while he was carving: the knife and wood seemed at odds, in pitched battle that might elude his vigilance at any moment to slide over into tragedy. Like now, he thought, sucking and tasting blood. Isgrimnur sheathed his knife and stood up. All around him his men were hard at work, cleaning a brace of rabbits, tending the fire, getting camp ready for the evening. He moved toward the blaze, turned, and stood with his broad backside to the flames. His earlier thought of rainstorms came back to him as he looked up at the rapidly-graying sky. So here it is Maia-month, he mused. And here we are, less than twenty leagues north of Erchester... and where did that storm come from? At the time, some three hours gone, Isgrimnur and his band had been in hot pursuit of the brigands who had waylaid them at the abbey. The Duke still had no idea who the men had been—some of them had been countrymen, but none had familiar faces—or why they had done what they had. Their leader had worn a helmet in the form of a snarling hound's face, but Isgrimnur had never heard of such an emblem. He might not have even survived to wonder, but for the black-robed monk who had screamed a warning from the St. Hoderund's gateway just before toppling with an arrow between his shoulder blades. The fighting had been fierce, but the monk's death... God's mercy to him, whoever he was... had served notice, and the Duke's men had been ready for the attack. They had lost only young Hove on the initial charge; Einskaldir had been wounded, but killed his man anyway, and another beside. The enemy had not been looking for a fair fight, Isgrimnur thought sourly. Faced by Isgrimnur and his guard, fighting men all and itching for action after months in the castle, the would-be ambushers had fled across the abbey commons to the stables, where their horses were apparently saddled and waiting. The duke and his men, after a quick inspection found none of the monks alive to explain what had occurred, had resaddled and followed. It might have been more politic to stay and bury Hove and the Hoderundans, but Isgrimnur's blood had been fired. He wanted to know who, and he wanted to know why. It was not to be, however. The brigands had gotten a start of some ten minutes on the Rimmersmen, and their horses were fresh. The Duke's men had sighted them once, a moving shadow sweeping down off Vine Hill onto the plain, heading through the low hills toward the Wealdhelm Road. The sight had filled Isgrimnur's company with new life, and they had spurred their horses down the slope into the valleys of the Wealdhelm foothills. Their mounts seemed to have caught some of their excitement, drawing up reserves of strength; for a brief while it had seemed that they might run the waylayers down, coming on them from behind like a vengeful cloud rolling across the plain. Instead, a strange thing had happened. One moment they had been rolling along in the sunlight, then the world had grown perceptibly darker. When it did not change, when half a mile later the hills around them were still lifeless and gray, Isgrimnur had looked up to see a knot of steel-colored clouds swirling in the sky overhead, a fist of shadow over the sun. A dim, grumbling crack, and suddenly the sky was spilling rain—a splatter at first, then torrents. "Where did this come from?" Einskaldir had shouted across to him, a hissing mist now pulled like a curtain between them. Isgrimnur had no idea, but it had troubled him greatly—he had never seen a storm come up so fast out of a relatively clear sky. When a moment later one of the men's horses had slipped on the wet, matted grass and stumbled, throwing its rider—who, thank Aedon, landed safely—Isgrimnur raised his voice and bellowed his troops to a halt. So it was that they had elected to make camp, here only a league or so from the Wealdhelm road. The duke had briefly considered going back to the abbey, but the men and horses were tired, and the blaze that had been roaring from the main buildings when they rode off suggested there would probably be little to go back for. Wounded Einskaldir, however—who, though Isgrimnur knew better, sometimes seemed to possess no emotions save a general fierceness—had ridden right back to the abbey for Hove's body, and to pick up anything else that might give a clue to the attackers' identities or motivations. Knowing Einskaldir and his ways, the duke had given in quickly, stipulating only that he must take Sludig along, who was a slightly less ardent spirit. Sludig was a fine soldier, but nevertheless valued his own skin enough to provide some counterweight to bright-burning Einskaldir. So here I stand, Isgrimnur thought in tired disgust, baking my bum in front of the campfire while the young men do the work. Curse age, curse my aching back, curse Elias, curse these damnable times! He looked down at the din, then stooped and took up the piece of wood lying there which he had hoped some miracle would help him shape into a Tree, to lie against his wife Gutrun's breast when he returned to her. And curse carving! He gave it to the flames. He was tossing rabbit bones into the fire, feeling a little better for having eaten, when there came a sudden roll of hoofbeats. Isgrimnur dropped his hands to wipe grease on his kirtle, and his liegemen did the same—it would not do to have a slippery hand on axe or sword. It sounded like a very small company of riders, two or three at most; still, no one relaxed until Einskaldir and his white horse came clear against the twilight. Sludig rode just behind, leading a third mount across whose pommel were draped... two bodies. Two bodies, but, as Einskaldir explained in his terse manner, only one a corpse. "A boy," Einskaldir grunted, his dark beard already shiny with rabbit fat. "Found him nosing about. Thought we should bring him along." "Why?" Isgrimnur rumbled. "He doesn't look like anything but a scavenger." Einskaldir shrugged. Fair-haired Sludig, his companion, grinned affably: it hadn't been his idea. "No houses around. We saw no boy at the abbey. Where did he come from?" Einskaldir cut loose another piece with his knife. "When we grabbed him, he yelled for someone. 'Bennah,' or 'Binnock,' couldn't say for sure." Isgrimnur turned away to briefly survey Hove's body, now laid out on a cloak. He was kin, the cousin of his son Isorn's wife—not close kin, but close enough by the customs of the cold north that Isgrimnur felt a deep pang of remorse as he stared down at the young man's snow-pale face, at his thin yellow beard. From there he turned to the captive, still bound at the wrists, but lowered from the horse to lie propped against a rock. The boy was only a year or two younger than Hove, thin but wiry, and the sight of his freckled face and shock of reddish hair tugged at Isgrimnur's memory. He could not summon the reminder forth. The youth was still stunned from the tap Einskaldir had given him, eyes closed and mouth slack. Looks like any poor peasant lout, the duke thought, except for those boots—which HI wager he found at the abbey. Why in the name of Memur's Fountain did Einskaldir bring him? What am I supposed to do with him? Kill him? Keep him? Leave him to starve? "Let's get to finding rocks," the duke said at last. "Hove will need a cairn—this looks like wolf country to me." ^ Night had come down; the outcroppings of rock that dotted the desolate plain below Wealdhelm were only clumps of deeper shadow. The fire had been stoked high, and the men were listening to Sludig sing a bawdy song. Isgrimnur knew only too well why men who had been blooded, who had lost one of their own—Hove's undistinguished pile of stones was one of the shadow-clumps out beyond the firelight—might feel the urge to indulge in such foolishness. As he himself had said months ago, standing across the table from King Elias, there were frightening rumors on the wind. Here on the open plain, dwarfed but not protected by the looming hills, things that were travelers' tales in the Hayholt or Elvritshalla, ghost-fables to enliven a dull evening, were no longer so easy to brush aside with a laughing remark. So the men sang, and their voices made an off-key but very human sound in the night wilderness. And ghost-tales aside, Isgrimnur thought, we were attacked today, and for no reason I can fathom. They were waiting for us. Waiting! What in the name of sweet Usires does that mean?! It could have been that the brigands were merely waiting for the next group of travelers who might stop at the abbey—but why? If they were only after robbing and whatnot, why not pillage the abbey itself, a place likely to have at least a fine reliquary or two? And why wait for chance travelers at an abbey in the first place, where there would naturally be witnesses to any act of thievery?