'When Camaris recovered, so awed was he by his new king that he was John's most faithful follower from that day forward...'" "Why did you read that to me?" Simon said. He felt more than a little insulted by the glee that Binabik had displayed while reading about the foul practices of the greatest hero of Simon's country... still, they had been Morgenes' words, and when you thought about them, they made old King John seem more like a real person, and less like a marble statue of Saint Sutrin catching dust on the cathedral facade. "It seemed to be interesting," Binabik smiled impishly, "No, that was not the reason," he explained quickly as Simon frowned, "truly, I was wanting you to take a point, and I thought Morgenes could do it with more ease than I." "You did not want to leave the men of Rimmersgard, and I understand your feeling—it was not, perhaps, the most honorable way of behaving. Neither, however, was it honorable for me to leave my duties unfulfilled in Yiqanuc, but sometimes we must go against honor—or, it is to say, against what is obviously honorable... are you understanding me?" "Not particularly," Simon's frown turned into a mocking affectionate smile. "Ah." Binabik gave a philosophical shrug. "Ko muhuhok na mik aqa nop, we say in Yiqanuc; 'When it falls on your head, then you are knowing it is a rock,' " Simon pondered this stoically as Binabik returned his cooking things to his bag. Binabik had certainly been right about one thing. As they crested the hill they could see virtually nothing but the great, dark sweep of Aldheorte stretching inimitably before them—a green and black ocean frozen a moment before its waves crashed at the feet of the hills. Oldheart, however, looked like a sea that the land itself might break against and fail. Simon could not help sucking in a deep breath of wonderment. The trees rolled off and away into the distance until the mist swallowed them, as if the forest might somehow pass beyond the very boundaries of the earth. Binabik, seeing him staring, said: "Of all times when it is important to be listening to me, this will be it. If we lose each other out there, there may be no finding again." "I was in the forest before, Binabik." "The fringes, only, friend Simon. Now we are going deeply in." "All the way through?" "Ha! No, that would take months—a year, who is knowing? But we are going far past her borders, so we must hope we are permitted guests." As Simon stared down he felt his skin tingle. The dark, silent trees, the shadowy pathways that had never known the sound of a footfall... all the stories of a town and castle-dwelling people were just at the fringes of his imagination, and all too easy to summon, But I must go, he told himself. And anyway, I don't think the forest is evil. It's just old... very old. And suspicious of strangers—or at least it makes me feel that way. But not evil. "Let's go," he said in his clearest, strongest voice, but as Binabik started down the hill before him Simon made the sign of the Tree on his breast, just to be on the safe side of things. They had made their way down the hill and onto the league of grassy downs that sloped to Aldheorte's edge when Qantaqa suddenly stopped, shaggy head cocked to one side. The sun was high in the sky now, past noon, and much of the ground-hugging mist had burned away. As Simon and the troll walked toward the wolf, who crouched motionless as a gray statue, they looked all around. No movement broke the land's static undulation on either side. Qantaqa whined as they approached and tilted her head to the other side, listening. Binabik gently lowered his shoulder bag to the ground, stilling the quiet clinking of the bones and stones inside, then cocked an ear himself. The troll opened his mouth to say something, his hair hanging lank in his eyes, but before he spoke Simon heard it too: a thin, faint noise, rising and falling as though a flight of honking geese were passing leagues overhead, far above the clouds. But it did not seem to come from the sky above—rather, it sounded as though it rolled down the long corridor between the forest and the hills, whether from north or south Simon could not say. "What...?" he began to ask. Qantaqa whined again and shook her head, as though she did not like the sound in her ears. The troll raised his small, brown hand and listened a moment more, then shouldered his bag again, beckoning Simon to follow him toward the murky breakfront of the forest. "Hounds, I am thinking," he said. The wolf trotted around them in erratic ovals, moving close and then bounding out again. "I think they are far away, still, south of the hills... upon the Frostmarch. The sooner we are entering the forest, though, the better..." "Perhaps," Simon said, making good time as he strode along beside the little man, who was going at a near-trot, "but they didn't sound like any hounds that I've heard... ." "That," Binabik grunted, "is my thought, also... and it is also why we are going quickly as we can." As he thought about what Binabik had said, Simon felt a cold hand clutch his innards. "Stop," he said, and did. "What are you doing?" the little man hissed. "They are still far behind, but..." "Call Qantaqa." Simon stood patiently. Binabik stared at him for a moment, then whistled for the wolf, who was already trotting back. "I hope that you will soon explain..." the troll began, but Simon pointed at Qantaqa. "Ride her. Go on, now, get up. If we need to hurry, I can run—but your legs are too short." "Simon," Binabik said, anger crinkling his eyes, "I was running on the slender ridges of Mintahoq when I had only baby-years..." "But this is flat ground, and downhill. Please, Binabik, you said we needed to go quickly!" The troll stared at him for a moment, then turned and clucked at Qantaqa, who sank to her stomach in the sparse grass. Binabik threw a leg over her broad back and pulled himself into place using the thick fur of her hackles for a pommel. He clucked again and the wolf rose, front feet and then hind, Binabik swaying on her back. "Ummu, Qantaqa," he snapped; she started forward. Simon lengthened his pace and began to lope along beside them. They could hear no sound now beside the noise of their own passage, but the memory of the distant howling made the back of Simon's neck prickle, and the dark face of Aldheorte look more and more like the welcoming smile of a friend. Binabik leaned low over Qantaqa's neck, and for a long time would not meet Simon's eye. Side by side they ran down the long slope. At last, as the flat gray sun was tipping down toward the hills behind them, they reached the first line of trees, a cluster of slim birches—pale serving girls ushering visitors into the house of their dark old master. Although the downs outside were bright with slanting sunlight, the companions found themselves passing quickly into twilit gloom as the trees rose above them. The soft forest floor cushioned their footfalls, and they ran silently as ghosts through the sparse outer woods. Columns of light speared down through the branches, and the dust of their passage rose behind them to hang sparkling between the shadows. Simon was tiring rapidly, sweat running down his face and neck in dirty rivulets. "Farther we must go," Binabik called to him from the pitching platform of Qantaqa's back. "Soon enough the way will be too tangled for speed, and the light too dim. Then we will rest." Simon said nothing but only dug on, his breath burning in his lungs. When the boy slowed at last to an unsteady canter, Binabik slipped down from the wolf's back and ran at his side. The angling sun was sliding up the tree trunks around them, the forest floor darkening even as the upper branches took on shining haloes, like the colored windows of the Hayholt's chapel. At last, as the ground before them disappeared in darkness, Simon tripped over a halfburied stone; when Binabik caught him up at the elbow, he held on. "Sit, now," the troll said. Simon slid to the ground without a word, feeling the loose soil give slightly beneath him. A moment later Qantaqa circled back. After sniffing the immediate area, she sat down and began to lick the perspiration from the back of Simon's neck; it tickled, but Simon was too exhausted to do much of anything about it. Binabik crouched on his haunches, examining their stopping place. They were partway down a small slope, at the bottom of which snaked a muddy streambed with a dark trickle of water at its center. "When you are again breathing," he said, "I think we might be moving just there." With his finger he indicated a spot slightly uphill where a great oak stood, its tangle of roots warding off the encroachment of other trees so that there was a stone's throw of clear ground on all sides of its massive, gnarled trunk. Simon nodded, still laboring for breath. After a while, he dragged himself to his feet and moved with the little man up the slope to the tree. "Do you know where we are?" Simon asked as he sank down to place his back against one of the looping, half-buried roots. "No," said Binabik cheerfully. "But tomorrow when the sun is up and I have time for doing certain things... then I will. Now help me find some stones and sticks and we will be having a bit of fire. And later," Binabik rose from his crouch and began foraging for deadwood in the fast-fading daylight, "later there will be a pleasant surprise for you." Binabik had built a sort of three-sided box of stones around the fire pit to shield its light, but still it crackled in a most heartening manner. The red gleam cast odd shadows as Binabik rooted in his bag. Simon watched a few lonely sparks spiral upward. They had made themselves a meager dinner of dried fish, hard cakes, and water. Simon did not feel he had treated his stomach as well as he would have liked, but it was still better to be lying here warming the dull ache in his legs than to be running. He could not remember a time when he had ever run so long or so far without stopping. "Ha!" Binabik chortled, lifting his firelight-tinted face from his bag in triumph. "A surprise I was promising you, Simon, and a surprise I have!" "A pleasant surprise, you said. I've had enough of the other kind to last for my whole life." Binabik grinned, his round face seeming to stretch back toward his ears. "Very well, it is for you to decide. Have a try of this." He handed Simon a small ceramic jar. "What is it?" Simon held it up to the fire. It felt solid, but the jar had no markings. "Some troll-thing?" "Open it." Simon stuck his finger into the top and found it was sealed with something that felt like wax. He scraped a hole through, then brought it up to his nose for a tentative sniff. A moment later he pushed his finger in, pulled it out, and stuck it in his mouth. "Jam!" he said, delighted. "Made from grapes, I am sure," Binabik said, pleased by Simon's response. "Some I found at the abbey, but the excitement of late had driven it from my mind." After eating several dollops, Simon reluctantly passed it to Binabik, who also found it rather pleasant. Within a short while they had finished it off, leaving Qantaqa the sticky jar to lick. Simon curled himself in his cloak beside the warm stones of the dying fire. "Could you sing a song, Binabik?" he asked, "or tell a story?" The troll looked over. "I am thinking not a story, Simon, for we need to sleep and rise early. Perhaps a short song." "That would be fine." "But, after thinking again," Binabik said, tugging his hood up around his ears, "I would like to be hearing you sing a song. A quiet singing, of course." "Me? A song?" Simon pondered. Through a chink in the trees he thought he could see the faint glimmer of a star. A star... "Well, then," he said, "since you sang your song for me, about Sedda and the blanket of stars... I suppose I can sing one that the chambermaids taught me when I was a child." He moved around a bit, making himself more comfortable. "I hope I remember all the words. It's a funny song." "In the Oldheart's deep dell,"
Simon began softly,
"Jack Mundwode did yell
To his men of the woods near and far,
He offered a crown, and the forest's reknown
To the one who could catch him a star. Beornoth stood first time, and he shouted: 'I'll climb
To the top of the highest of trees!
And I'll snatch that star down for the fair golden crown
That will soon belong only to me.' So he climbed up a birch to the highest high perch
Then he leaped to an old, tall yew.
But as much as he jumped, and he leaped and he bumped
Reach the star, that he never could do. Next gay Osgal stood, and he promised he would
And the crown will be mine by and by...' Twenty arrows he shot. Not a single one caught
On the star that hung mocking above.
As the arrows fell back Osgal hid behind Jack
Who chuckled and gave him a shove. Now all the men sought, and they quarreled and fought
And they had not a pinch of success,
Till the fair Hruse rose, and she looked down her nose
At the men as she smoothed out her dress. 'Tis a small enough task for Jack Mundwode to ask,'
She said with a gleam in her eye,
'But if none of you here hold a gold crown that dear
I will seek Mundwode's knot to untie.' Then she took up a net which she'd bade the men get
And she cast it full into the lake.
So the water did roil, and it almost did spoil
The reflection the bright star did make. But then after a while she turned 'round with a smile,
Said to Jack: 'Do you see what's about?
It is there in my net, all caught up and quite wet
If you want it, then you pull it out.' Old Jack laughed and he shouted to all those who crowded
'Here's the woman I must take to wife.
For she's taken my crown, and she's brought my star down
So I might as well give her my life.' Yes, she's taken the crown, and she's brought the star down
So Jack Mundwode has took her to wife..." From the darkness he could hear Binabik laugh, quietly and easily. "A song of enjoyment, Simon, Thanks to you." Soon the hissing of the embers quieted, and the only sound was the soft breathing of the wind through the endless trees. Before he opened his eyes he was aware of a strange droning noise, rising and falling close to where he lay. He lifted his head, feeling sticky with sleep, to see Binabik sitting cross-legged before the fire. The sun had not been up long; the forest around them was draped in tendrils of pale mist. Binabik had carefully placed a circle of feathers around the fire pit, feathers of many different birds, as though he had scavenged them from the surrounding woods. Eyes closed, he leaned toward the small fire and chanted in his native language, the sound that had pulled Simon to wakefiilness. "... Tutusik-Ahyuq-Chuyuq-Qachimak, Tutusik-Ahyuk-Chuyuq-Qaqimak..."On and on he went. The slender ribbon of smoke that rose from the campfire began to waver, as though in a strong breeze, but the tiny feathers lay flat on the ground, unmoving. With his eyes still closed, the troll began to move the palm of his hand in a flat circle over the fire; the ribbon of smoke bent as though pushed, and began to stream steadily away across one corner of the pit. Binabik opened his eyes and looked for a moment at the smoke, then stopped the circling movement of his small hand. A moment later the smoke resumed its normal motion. Simon had been holding his breath. He let it out. "Do you know where we are now?" he asked. Binabik turned and smiled, pleased. "Morning greetings. Yes, I think I am knowing to a nicety. We should be having little trouble—but much walking—to get to Geloe's house..." "House?" Simon asked. "A house in the Aldheorte? What's it like?" "Ah," Binabik straightened his legs and rubbed at his calves, "it is not like any house you..." He stopped, and sat staring over Simon's shoulder, transfixed. The youth whirled in alarm, but there was nothing to see. "What is it?" "Hush..." Binabik continued to gaze out. "There. Are you hearing?" After a moment, he did hear it: the distant baying they had marked in their journey across the downs to the forest. Simon felt his skin crawl. "The hounds again... !" he said. "But it sounds as though they're still far away." "You are not understanding yet." Binabik looked down at the fire pit, then up at the morning light bleeding down through the treetops. "They have passed us in the night. They have run all night! And now, unless my ears are playing tricks at me, they have turned back toward us." "Whose hounds?" Simon felt his palms go moist with sweat, and rubbed them on his cloak. "Are they following us? They can't hunt us in the forest, can they?" Binabik scattered the feathers with a scuff of his small boot and began packing his shoulder bag. "I do not know," he said. "I am not knowing the answer to any of those questions. There is power in the forest that might confuse hunting hounds—ordinary hounds. It is doubtful, however, that any local baron out for sport would be running his dogs through all the night, and I have not heard of dogs that could do so." Binabik called Qantaqa. Simon sat up and hurriedly pulled his boots on. He felt sore all over, and now he felt sure he would be running again. "It's Elias, isn't it?" he said grimly, wincing as he pushed his blistered foot down into the boot heel. "Perhaps." Qantaqa trotted up, and Binabik threw a leg over her back, pulling himself up. "But what is making a doctor's helper so important to him—and where is the king finding hounds that can run twenty leagues between dusk and sunrise?" Binabik put the pack on Qantaqa's shoulders before him, and handed Simon his walking stick. "Do not lose this, please. I wish we had found a horse for your riding." The pair started down the slope to the gulley, then up the far side. "Are they close?" Simon asked. "How far is... this house?" "Neither hounds nor house are nearby," Binabik said. "Well, I shall be running beside you as soon as Qantaqa is tiring. Kikkasut!" he swore, "how I am wishing for a horse!" "Me, too," Simon panted. They trekked on through the morning, eastward into deeper forest. As they went up and down the rocky dells the baying behind them faded for long minutes, then returned seemingly louder than ever. As good as his word, Binabik jumped down from Qantaqa when the wolf began to flag and trotted along beside, his short legs carrying him two steps for Simon's every one, his teeth bared as his cheeks puffed in and out. They stopped to drink water and rest as the sun neared midmorning. Simon tore strips from his two packages to bandage his blistered heels, then handed the bundles to Binabik so he could put them in the pack: Simon could no longer stand to feel them rattling against his thigh as he walked and ran. As they sloshed the last musky drops from the waterbag in their cheeks and tried to regain their straining breath, the sounds of pursuit came up again. This time the unmistakable clamor of the hounds was so much nearer that they immediately lurched into motion once more. Within a short while they began to ascend a long rise. The ground was becoming increasingly rocky as it mounted upward, and even the types of trees seemed to be changing. Staggering up the hilly slope, Simon felt a sickening sense of defeat spread through his body like a poison. Binabik had told him it would be late in the afternoon at least before they reached this Geloe, yet they were already losing the race, with the sun not risen to noon above the sheltering trees. The noise of their pursuers was constant, an excited howling so loud that Simon could not help wondering, even as he stumbled up the daunting slope, where they found the breath to run and bark at once. What kind of hounds were they? Simon's heart beat as fast as a bird's wings. He and the troll would get to face the hunters soon enough. The thought made him feel sick. At last a slender patch of sky could be seen through the standing trunks on the horizon: the top of the rise. They limped past the final line of trees. Qantaqa, who ran before them, stopped abruptly and barked, a sharp, high pitched sound from deep in her throat. "Simon!" Binabik shouted and threw himself to the ground, knocking the boy's legs from beneath him so he tumbled down with a huff of punched-out breath. When the black tunnel of Simon's vision widened a moment later, he was lying on his elbows looking down a craggy rock face into a deep canyon. A cluster of fragments broke loose from the stone beneath his hand and hopped and tumbled down the sheer wall to disappear into the green treetops far below. The baying was like the brazen flare of war trumpets. Simon and the troll edged themselves away from the canyon's edge, a few feet back down the slope, and stood. "Look!" Simon hissed, his bleeding hands and chin of no import now. "Binabik, look!" He pointed back down the long slope they had just climbed, through the clinging blanket of trees. Passing in and out of the clearings, far, far less than half a league behind, was a flurry of low white shapes: the hounds. Binabik took his stick from Simon and twisted it into halves. He shook out his darts and handed the knife end to Simon. "Quickly," he said. "Cut yourself a tree branch, a cudgel. If selling our lives we must be, let us keep the price high." The throaty voices of the dogs boiled up the hillside, a rising song of the closing and the kill.
25 The Secret Lake HE HACKED and chipped frantically, bending the limb down with his full weight, the knife slippery in his trembling fingers. It took Simon many costly seconds to cut loose a branch that would suit him—pathetic defense though it would be—and every second brought the hounds nearer. The limb that he finally snapped off was as long as his arm, knobbed at one end where another branch had fallen away.