Not that we've got many witnesses left, damn their eyes. One, maybe if that boy proves to have seen anything. It just did not make good sense. Waiting to waylay a company of travelers who, even in these times, might prove to be king's guardsmen—who had, in fact, turned out to be armed, battle-honed northerners. So the possibility had to be entertained that he and his men had been the targets. Why? And just as importantly, who? Isgrimnur's enemies, Skali of Kaldskyrke being a prime example, were well known to him, and none of the bandits had been recognized as members ofSkali's clan. Besides, Skali was gone back to Kaldskyrke long ago, and how could he have known that Isgrimnur, sick to death of inactivity and fearing for the safety of his duchy, would decide at last to confront Elias and, after an argument, receive his reluctant royal permission to take his men north? "We need you here. Uncle," he told me. He knew I had stopped believing that long ago. Just wanted to keep his eye on me, that's what I think. Still, Elias had not resisted anywhere near as strongly as the duke had anticipated; the argument had seemed to Isgrimnur only a matter of form, as though Elias had known the confrontation was coming, and had decided to accede already. Frustrated by the circles his thoughts were following, Isgrimnur was about to lever himself up and off to his bedroll when Frekke came to him, the fire at the aged soldier's back making him a gaunt, shambling shadow. "A moment, your Lordship." Isgrimnur suppressed a grin. The old bastard must be drunk. He only got formal when he was in his cups. "Frekke?" "It's that boy, sire, the one Einskaldir brought back. He's awake. Thought your Lordship might like to chat with him." He swayed a little, but quickly turned it into a gesture of pulling up his breeches. "Well, I suppose." The breeze was up. Isgrimnur pulled his kirtle tighter and started to turn, then stopped. "Frekke?" "Lordship?" "I threw another damned carving in the fire." "I 'spected you would, sire." As Frekke wheeled around to head back to the beer jug, Isgrimnur was positive the old man wore a tiny smile. Well, damn him and his wood, anyway. The boy was sitting up, chewing the meat from a bone. Einskaldir sat on a rock beside him looking deceptively relaxed—Isgrimnur had never seen the man relax. The firelight could not reach Einskaldir's deep-set stare, but the boy, when he looked up, was as wide-eyed as a deer surprised at a forest pond. At the duke's approach the boy stopped chewing and regarded Isgrimnur suspiciously for a moment, mouth half-open. But then, even by fireglow, Isgrimnur saw something pass across the boy's face... was it relief? Isgrimnur was troubled. He had expected, despite Einskaldir's suspicions—the man, after all, was as prickly with mistrust as a hedgehog—to find a frightened peasant boy, terrified or at least dully apprehensive. This one looked like a peasant, an ignorant cotsman's son in tattered clothes, covered in dirt, but there was a certain alertness to his gaze that made the duke wonder if perhaps Einskaldir hadn't been right. "Here now, boy," he said gruffly in the Westerling speech, "what were you doing poking about the abbey?" "I think I'm going to slit his throat now," Einskaldir said in Rimmerspakk, pleasant tone in horrid contrast to his words. Isgrimnur scowled, wondering if the man had lost his mind, then realized as the boy continued to stare blandly up at him that Einskaldir was only probing to find if the boy spoke their tongue. Well, if he does, he's one of the coolest wits I've ever seen, Isgrimnur thought. No, it beggared imagination to think a boy this age in the camp of armed strangers could have understood Einskaldir's chilling words and not reacted at all. "He doesn't understand," the duke said to his liegeman in their Rimmersgard tongue. "But he is a calm one, isn't he?" Einskaldir grunted an affirmative and scratched his chin through his dark beard. "Now, boy," the duke resumed, "I asked you once. Speak! What brought you to the abbey?" The youth lowered his eyes and set the bone he had been gnawing on the ground. Isgrimnur again felt a tug at his memory, but still could summon nothing. "I was... I was looking for... for some new shoes to wear." The boy gestured to his clean, well-cared-for boots. The duke picked him out by his accent as an Erkynlander, and something more... but what? "And you found some, I see." The duke squatted, so that he was at eye level. "Do you know you can be hanged for stealing from the unburied dead?" Finally, a satisfying reaction! The boy's heartfelt flinch at the threat could not have been studied, Isgrimnur felt sure. Good. "I'm sorry... master. I didn't mean any harm. I was hungry from walking, and my feet hurt..." "Walking from where?" He had it now. The boy spoke too well to be a woodsman's brat. He was a priest's boy, or a shopkeeper's son, or some such. He'd run away, no doubt. The youth held Isgrimnur's stare for a moment; again the duke had the feeling the boy was calculating. A runaway from a seminary, perhaps, or a monastery? What was he hiding? The boy spoke at last. "I... I have left my master, sir. My parents... my parents apprenticed me to a chandler. He beat me." "What chandler? Where? Quickly!" "Mo... Malachias! In Erchester!" It makes sense, mostly, the duke decided. Except for two details. "What are you doing here, then? What brought you to Saint Hoderund's? And who," Isgrimnur lanced in, now, "is Bennah?" "Bennah?" Einskaldir, who had been listening with half-closed eyes, leaned forward. "He knows. Duke," he said in Rimmerspakk, "he said 'Bennah' or 'Binnock,' that's sure." "How about 'Binnock,' then?" Isgrimnur dropped a wide hand on the captive's shoulder, and felt only a twinge of regret when the boy winced. "Binnock... ? Oh, Binnock's... my dog sir. Master's, actually. He ran away, too." And the boy actually smiled, a lopsided grin that he quickly suppressed. Despite his misgivings the old duke found himself liking the lad. "I'm heading for Naglimund, sir," the boy continued quickly. "I heard the abbey fed travelers like me. When I saw the... the bodies, the dead men, I was scared—but I needed some boots, sir, I truly did. Those monks were good Aedonites, sir—they wouldn't have minded, would they?" "Naglimund?" The duke's eyes narrowed, and he sensed Einskaldir grow a little more taut, if such a thing was possible, at the boy's side. "Why Naglimund? Why not Stanshire, or Hasu Vale?" "I have a friend there." Behind Isgrimnur Sludig's voice rose, careening through a final drunken chorus. The boy made a gesture in the direction of the fire circle. "He's a harper, sir. He told me if I ran away from... Malachias, to come to him and he would help me." "A harper? At Naglimund?" Isgrimnur stared intently, but the boy's face, though shadowed, was as innocent as cream. Isgrimnur suddenly felt disgusted with the whole business. Look at me! Questioning a chandler's boy as if he had single-handedly led the ambush at the abbey! What a damnable day it has been! Einskaldir was still not satisfied. He bent his face close to the boy's ear and asked, in his heavily-accented speech, "What is the Naglimund harper's name?" The youth turned, alarmed, but seemingly from the sudden proximity of Einskaldir rather than the question, for a moment later he blithely responded. "Sangfugol." "Frayja's Paps!" Isgrimnur cursed, and climbed heavily to his feet. "I know him. That's enough. I believe you, boy." Einskaldir had turned away, pivoting on his rocky seat to watch the men laughing and arguing at the fire. "You may stay with us, boy, if you like," the duke said. "We will be stopping at Naglimund, and thanks to those whoreson bastards we have Hove's horse going riderless. This is hard country for a stripling to cross alone, and these days it's near as much as slitting your own throat to travel out of company. Here." He walked to one of the horses and pulled a saddle blanket down, tossing it to the youth. "Bed down wherever you like, as long as it's close in. Easier for the man standing sentry if we're not strung out like a flock of straying sheep." He stared at the thistledown hair starting out in all directions, and the bright eyes. "Einskaldir fed you. Do you need aught?" The boy blinked—where had he seen him? In the town, probably. "No," the boy replied, "I was just hoping that... that Binnock will not get lost without me." "Trust me, boy. If he doesn't find you, he'll find someone else, and that's a fact." Einskaldir had already slipped away. Isgrimnur stumped off. The boy curled himself in the blanket and lay down at the foot of the rock. I haven't really seen the stars for a while, Simon thought as he stared up from his blanket. The bright points seemed to hang like frozen fireflies. It's just not the same looking up through the trees as it is out here in the open—like being on a tabletop. He thought of Sedda's Blanket, and doing so thought of Binabik. I hope he's safe—then again, it was him who left me to the Rimmersmen. It had been a stroke of luck that his captor had turned out to be Duke Isgrimnur, but still, there had been moments of real terror, waking up in the camp surrounded by hard-looking, bearded men. He supposed that, knowing the ill-will between Binabik's people and the Rimmersmen, he did not really hold it against the troll for having disappeared—if he had even known of Simon's abduction. Still, it hurt to lose a friend that way. He would have to harden himself: he had begun to depend on the little man to know what was right, what had to be done, just as he had once listened raptly to Doctor Morgenes. Well, the lesson was clear: he would be his own man, keep his own counsel, and make his way. In truth, he had not wanted to tell Isgrimnur his true destination, but the duke was sharp, and Simon had felt several times that the old soldier was balancing him on the blade of a knife—one false step would have tipped him over. Besides, that dark one who sat beside me all the time, he looked like he would kill me just like drowning a kitten if it suited him. So, he had given the duke all the truth he comfortably could, and it had worked. The question, then, was what to do now. Should he stay with the Rimmersmen? It would seem foolish not to, but still... Simon was not yet totally sure of where the duke stood. Isgrimnur was going to Naglimund, but what if it was to arrest Josua? Everybody at the Hayholt was forever talking about how loyal Isgrimnur had been to old King John, how he held the High King's Ward more sacred than his own life. Where did he fit in with Elias? Under no circumstances did Simon intend to tell what part he had played in Josua's departure from the Hayholt, but things had a way of slipping out, sometimes. Simon was dying to hear some news of the castle, of what had happened after Morgenes' last gambit—had Pryrates lived? Inch? What had Elias told the people had happened?—but it was exactly those kind of questions, no matter how guilefully asked, that could drop him into boiling water. He was too wound up to sleep. As he stared up at the scattered stars, he thought of the bones he had seen Binabik cast that morning. The wind brushed his face, and suddenly the stars themselves were bones—a wild array strewn across the dark field of the sky. It was lonely out here among strangers, under the limitless night. He longed for his homely bed in the servant's quarters, for the days when none of these things had happened. His longing was like the piercing music of Binabik's flute: a cool pain that was nevertheless the only thing he could cling to in the wide, wild world. He had dozed a little, but when the noise awakened him, heart thumping, the stars still burned deep in the blackness. A momentary panic constricted his throat as a dark shape loomed over him, impossibly tall. Where was the moon? It was only the man on watch, he saw an instant later, stopping for a moment with his back to Simon's blanket. The sentry had his own saddle blanket, and had wrapped it high on his shoulders, the dome of his unhelmeted head poking up through the folds. The watchman wandered past without looking down. He had an axe tucked in his broad belt, a wickedly sharp, heavy weapon. He also carried a spear longer than he was tall; as he paced, the butt end dragged in the dirt. Simon pulled the blanket closer, huddling himself against the sharp wind that was moving across the plain. The sky had changed: where before it had been clear, the stars picked out in brilliant detail against its unfathomable blackness, now it was sullied by streamers of clouds, milky tendrils reaching out like fingers from the north. At the far side of the sky they had covered the lowest stars like sand poured over the coals of a fire. Maybe Sedda will catch her husband tonight, Simon thought sleepily. The second time he awoke it was to a splash of water in his eyes and nose. He opened his eyes, gasping, to see the stars had been snuffed above him as neatly as a top closing on a jewel chest. It was raining, the clouds now directly overhead. Simon grunted, wiping water from his face, and turned on his side, pulling the blanket up to make a hood for his head. He could see the sentry again, a little farther away now, shielding his face and staring up into the rain. Simon's eyes were just drifting closed when the man made an odd grunting noise and dropped his head to look down. Something in the man's stance, something that suggested that though he stood rock-still he was nevertheless struggling, made Simon open his eyes wider. The rain began to sheet down, and thunder growled distantly. Simon strained to see the sentry through the boiling downpour. The man was still standing in the same place, but something was moving now at his feet, something active that had pulled free from the general blackness. Simon sat up, and the raindrops pounded and splashed on the ground all about. A flash of lightning abruptly lit the night, making the rocks glare forth like painted wooden props from a Usires Play. Everything in the camp came clear—the steaming remains of the fire, the huddled, sleeping forms of the Rimmersmen—but what leaped to Simon's eye in that split instant was the sentry, whose face was stretched in a hideous, silent mask of absolute terror. Thunder crashed, and then the sky was smeared with lightning again. The ground around the sentry was seething, gouting up in great sprays of dirt. Simon's heart lurched in his breast as the man fell to his knees. The thunder cannoned again; lightning flared three times in succession. The earth continued to fountain up, but now there were hands everywhere, and long thin arms, glinting slickly in the rain as they crawled up the body of the kneeling man, pulling him down, face forward into the black soil. The sky-glare caught a greater surge of movement as a horde of dark things pushed up from the earth, thin, ragged things with waving arms, staring white eyes, and—horribly revealed as the lightning leaped across the sky and the rain hissed down—matted whiskers and tattered clothes. As the thunder died out Simon shouted, choking on water, then shouted again. It was worse than any vision of Hell. The Rimmersmen, startled awake by Simon's terrified cry, were beset from all sides by hopping, flailing bodies. The things were boiling up from the ground like rats—indeed, as they scrambled through the camp the night was filled with thin, mewling squeals that rang of tunnels and blindness and cowardly malice. One of the northerners was on his feet, the creatures swarming over him. They were none of them as tall as Binabik, but their numbers were prodigious, and even as the northerner unsheathed his sword they pulled him down. Simon thought he saw the flash of sharp things in their hands, rising and falling. "Vaer! Vaer Bukkanf" one of the Rimmersmen shouted from the other side of the camp. The men were up now, and in the intermittent flashes Simon could see the pale fire of their swords and axes. Kicking away the blanket, he climbed to his feet, searching desperately for a weapon. The things were everywhere, prancing on their thin legs like insects, calling out, shrieking thinly when the axe of a Rimmersman bit. Their cries almost sounded like a language, and that, in the midst of nightmare, was one of the most horrible things of all. Simon ducked behind the rock that had sheltered him, circling around as he looked frantically for something to protect himself with. A figure hurtled toward him, tumbling to the ground only a pace away—one of the northerners, half of his face a wet ruin. Simon bolted forward to pull the axe from his convulsive grasp; not yet dead, the man gurgled as Simon dragged the weapon free. A moment later Simon felt a bony clutch at his knee, and whirled to see a hideous little manlike face behind the grasping claw, eyes staring whitely. He swung the axe down at the face, as hard as he could, and felt a crunch like a beetle ground underfoot. The stiff fingers fell away, and Simon leaped free, gagging. With the light from the sky alternately blooming and dying, it was nearly impossible to tell what was happening. The swaying figures of the Rimmersmen stood all around, but there was a far greater number of hopping, piping demons. It seemed that the best place to... Simon was knocked to the ground without warning, a gripping paw around his neck. He felt the side of his face go down into the mud, tasted it, then heaved up against the thing on his back. A crude blade whickered past his eyes and stuck with a sucking noise in the earth. Simon clambered to his knees, but another hand reached around his face, covering his eyes. It stank of mud and foul water, the fingers squirming like nightcrawlers. Where is the axe? I've dropped the axe! He clambered shakily to his feet, legs wide on the slippery ground, and tried to pry loose the clamping fingers around his windpipe. He stumbled forward, nearly falling again, unable to dislodge the awful, strangling thing from his back. The bony hand was cutting off his air, the sharp knees digging at his ribs; he thought he heard the ropy thing squealing in triumph. He managed a few more steps before he dropped to his knees, the din of battle growing fainter behind him. His ears roared; strength flowed out of his arms and body like meal from a torn sack. I'm dying... was all he could think. Before his eyes there was nothing but dull red light. Then the crushing, scratching grip on his throat was suddenly gone. Simon fell heavily on his chest and face and lay gasping. Wheezing, he looked up. Painted against the black sky by a sheet of crackling lightning was a mad silhouette... a man on a wolf. Binabik! Sucking air into his ragged throat, Simon tried to pull himself upright, but could get no farther than his elbows before the little man was at his side. A pace away the body of the earth-creature lay curled like a singed spider, blind eyes to the sky. '"Say nothing!" Binabik hissed. "We must go! Quickly!" He helped Simon to a sitting position, but the boy waved him away, batting at the little man with baby-weak hands. "Have to... have to..." Simon wagged a shaking hand toward the chaos that raged around the campsit, some twenty paces away. "Ridiculous!" Binabik snapped. "The Rimmersmen can fight their own battles. My duty is to get you to safety. Now come!" "No," Simon said stubbornly. Binabik held his hollowed stick in his hand; Simon knew what had felled his attacker. "We ha—have to he—help them." "They will survive." Binabik was grim. Qantaqa had followed her master, and now sniffed solicitously at Simon's wound. "You are my charge." "What do you..." Simon began. Qantaqa growled, a deep, threatening sound of alarm; Binabik looked up. "Daughter of the Mountains!" he groaned. Simon followed his gaze. A clot of the greater darkness had broken off from the swirling melee and was rapidly moving toward them. It was hard to tell how many creatures might be in the bounding tangle of arms and eyes, but it was more than a few. "Nihut, Qantaqa!" Binabik shouted; an instant later the wolf sprang toward them; they squealed in whistling terror as she struck. "We have no more time to waste, Simon," the troll snapped. Thunder caromed across the plain as he pulled his knife from his belt and dragged Simon up. "The duke's men are holding their own, now, and I have no way to afford your being killed in the last struggling." In the midst of the earth-burrowers Qantaqa was a gray-furred engine of death. As her great jaws bit, and she shook and bit again, thin black bodies hurtled away on all sides to fall in broken heaps. More were swarming over, and the wolf's buzzing snarl rose above the storm's rumble. "But... but .. ." Simon held back as Binabik moved toward his mount. "It was my bound promise to protect you," Binabik said, tugging Simon along. "That was Doctor Morgenes' wish." "Doctor...!? You know Doctor Morgenes...!?" As Simon stared, mouth working, Binabik stopped and whistled twice. Qantaqa, with a last ecstatic shiver, flung two of the creatures aside and bounded toward them. "Now, run, foolish boy!" Binabik shouted. They ran—Qantaqa first, leaping like a hart, her muzzle black with blood, Binabik after. Simon followed, tripping and staggering across the muddy plain as the storm shouted unanswerable questions.
22 A Wind from the North "No, I DON'T want a damned thingi" Guthwulf, Earl of Utanyeat spat citril juice on the tile floor as the wide-eyed page went scurrying away. Watching him go, Guthwulf regretted his hasty words—not out of any sympathy for the boy, but because he had suddenly realized that he might indeed want something. He had been nearly an hour waiting outside the throne room without a drop of anything to drink, and only Aedon Himself knew how much longer he might sit here rotting. He spat again, the pungent citril stinging his tongue and lips, and cursed as he wiped a line of spittle off his long jaw. Unlike many of the men in his command, Guthwulf was not accustomed to having a piece of the bitter southern root always tucked in his cheek, but during this strange, damp spring—one that had found him confined for days at a time in the Hayholt, waiting on the king's bidding—he had found that any distraction, even that of burning one's palate, was welcome. Also, and undoubtedly because of the wet weather, the halls of the Hayholt seemed to reek of mold, mold and... no, corruption was too melodramatic a word. Anyway, the strongly aromatic citril seemed to help. Just as Guthwulf had climbed to his feet, deserting the stool to resume the frustrated pacing that had occupied most of his waiting time, the throne room door creaked and swung inward. Pryrates' blunt head appeared in the gap, black eyes flat and shiny as a lizard's.