The troll was rummaging in his backpack, one hand clutching the heavy fur at Qantaqa's neck. "Hold her!" he called to Simon, "If she is let go now, she will attack too soon. They will drag her down and be quickly killing her." Simon crouched with an arm around the wolf's broad neck. She was trembling with excitement, heart beating beneath his arm. Simon felt his own heart speeding in tandem—this was all so unreal! Just this morning he and Binabik had been sitting calmly beside the fire.... The cry of the pack intensified; they came surging up the hill like white termites fleeing a crumbling nest. Qantaqa lunged forward, dragging Simon to his knees. "Hinik Aia!" Binabik shouted, and flicked at her nose with his hollow bone tube, then dropped it as he pulled a length of rope from the bottom of his bag and began to make a noose. Simon, thinking he understood, looked over the canyon's edge behind them and shook his head despairingly. It was much too far to the bottom, more than twice as far as Binabik's rope could reach down the sheer rock face. Then he saw something, and felt hope still struggling inside him. "Binabik, look!" he pointed. The troll, despite the impossibility of a climb down, was looping his rope around a stump anchored not a yard from the canyon's edge. As he finished he looked up to follow Simon's pointing finger. Less than a hundred paces from where they crouched a huge old hemlock lay tipped downward, its bottom end balanced on the near lip, the tip lodged halfway down the far canyon wall, caught on a jutting ledge. "We can climb across to the far side!" Simon said. But the troll shook his head. "If we can climb down it with Qantaqa, then they can be doing it as well. And it goes to nowhere." He gestured. The ledge where the tree had caught was no more than a wide shelf in the rock face. "But it will be some help." He stood up and tugged at the rope, testing the knot around the stump. "Take Qantaqa down onto it, if you can. Not far, perhaps ten cubits only. Hold her until I am calling, understood!?" "But..." Simon began, then looked back down the slope. The white shapes, perhaps a dozen in all, were almost upon them. He grabbed the balking Qantaqa by the scruff of the neck and urged her toward the fallen hemlock. Enough of the tree had remained on the canyon's edge that there was space between the twisting roots and the rock rim. It was not easy to keep balance while clinging to the wolf. She shivered and pulled back, growling; the noise was almost subsumed in the clamor of the approaching hounds. He could not coax her up onto the broad trunk, and turned to Binabik in despair. "Ummu!" the troll called hoarsely, and a moment later she jumped up onto the hemlock, still growling. Simon straddled the trunk as best he could, his club a hindrance in his belt. He slid backward on his rump, keeping a grip on Qantaqa, until he was well out from the canyon's rim. Just then the troll cried out, and Qantaqa whirled toward the sound of his voice. Simon hung on to her neck with both arms as his knees gripped the rough bark. He was suddenly cold, so cold! He lowered his face into her fur, smelled her thick, wild smell, and whispered a prayer. "... Elysia, mother of our Ransomer, give mercy, protect us..." Binabik was standing with a coil of rope in his hand just a step before the rim. "Hinik, Qantaqa!" he called, and then the hounds were out of the trees and up the final slope. Simon could not really see much of them from where he sat holding the straining wolf—only long, thin white backs and sharp ears. The beasts moved toward the troll at a gallop, making a noise like metal chains dragged on a slate floor. What is Binabik doing? Simon thought, panic making it hard for him to breathe. Why doesn't he run, why doesn't he use his darts—something? It was like the recurrence of his worst nightmare, like Morgenes in flames standing between Simon and the deadly hand of Elias. He couldn't sit and watch Binabik killed before his eyes. As he started to pull himself forward, the dogs leaped toward the troll. Simon had only a moment's impression of long, pale snouts, of empty, pearl-white eyes, and a flare of red curving tongues and red mouths... then Binabik jumped backward, down into the canyon. "No!" Simon shrieked, horrified. The five or six creatures that had been nearest lunged forward, unable to stop, and tumbled over the cliff in a squealing tangle of white legs and tails. Helpless, Simon watched the clot of whinnying dogs bounce against the steep rock face and plummet down into the trees far below with an explosive popping of broken branches. He felt another choking scream rise in his breast... "Now, Simon! Let her go!" Mouth agape, Simon looked down to see Binabik's feet braced against the canyon wall, the troll hanging suspended from the rope about his waist not two dozen feet below the spot where he had jumped. "Let her go!" he called again, and Simon finally uncurled his restraining arm from Qantaqa's neck. The remainder of the dogs were milling at the rim above Binabik's head, sniffing the ground and staring down, barking savagely at the little man who hung so frustratingly near. As Qantaqa made her cautious way back up the hemlock's broad back, one of the white hounds turned tiny eyes like fogged mirrors toward the tree and Simon, letting out a great rasping snarl as he hurried forward; the others quickly followed. Before the yammering pack reached the hemlock, the gray wolf negotiated the last steps, reaching the rim with a magnificent leap. The first dog was on her in a heartbeat, two more right behind. The snarling battle song of the wolf rose, a deeper note among the barking and howling of the hounds. Simon, frozen for a moment of indecision, began inching forward toward the edge of the rim. The trunk was so broad that his spread legs ached, and he considered getting up to his knees to crawl for- ward, sacrificing his clutch on the tree for speed. For the first time he turned his gaze straight down. The tops of the trees were a bumpy green carpet far below. The distance was dizzying, much farther than the leap from the wall to Green Angel Tower. His head reeled and he looked away, deciding to keep his knees right where they were. As he looked up, a white shape bounded from the canyon's edge onto the wide hemlock. The hound growled and drove forward, talons catching at the bark. Simon had only an instant to pull out his knotted branch before the beast crossed the dozen or so feet and dove for his throat. For a moment the branch caught in his belt, but he had pushed it in narrow-end-down, which saved his life, As the club came free, the dog was upon him. Yellow teeth gleamed as it bit at his face. He got the branch up high enough to strike a glancing blow, turning the dog's lunge so that the teeth snapped on air an inch from his left ear, spraying him with saliva. Its paws were on his chest, and the awful carrion-stench of its breath blew in his face; he was losing his hold. He tried to pull the club back up, but it caught between the animal's extended front legs. He leaned back as the long, snarling muzzle once more snaked toward his face, and tried to twist the branch free. There was a moment of resistance, then one of the white hound's paws was knocked from his shoulder and the beast overbalanced. It squealed and tumbled away, scrabbling for a moment at the bark, then pulling the club from his hand as it slid from the tree trunk to fall end over end down into the canyon. Simon sank forward, catching at the tree with his hands, and coughed, trying to drive the fetid breath of the thing out of his nostrils. He was cut short by a low growl. He lifted his head slowly to see another hound standing on the log just below the roots, milky eyes glinting like a blind beggar's. It bared its teeth in a frothing, crimson-tongued grin. Simon hopelessly lifted his empty hands as the beast padded slowly down the trunk, ropy muscles bunching beneath the short fur. The hound turned to nip at its flank, worrying the skin for a moment, then returned its eerie, vacant gaze to Simon. It took another step, wobbled, took one shaky step more, then folded in place to slide off the hemlock into oblivion. "The black dart seemed the safest," Binabik called. The little man stood a few yards down slope from the tree's ball of dried roots. A moment later Qantaqa limped up to stand at his side, her muzzle dripping with dark red blood. Simon stared, slowly realizing that they had survived. "Go slowly, now," the troll called. "Here, I will throw the rope. It would be bad sense to lose you after all we were going through..." The rope arced out and fell slithering across the log where Simon sat. He took it gratefully, his hands shaking as though with palsy. Binabik laboriously turned the dog over with his foot. It was one he had killed with a dart: the cotton wadding sprouted from the smooth white fur of the creature's neck like a tiny mushroom. "See there," the troll said. Simon leaned a little closer. It was not like any hunting hound he had ever seen; the slender muzzle and underslung jaw reminded him more of the sharks that fishermen pulled thrashing from the Kynslagh. The opalescent white eyes, now staring sightlessly, seemed windows of some inner disease. "No, look there," Binabik pointed. On the dog's chest, burned black through the short hairs, was a slender triangle with a narrow base. It was a branded mark, like the kind that the Thrithings-men burnt into the flanks of their horses with flame-heated spears. "That sign is for Stormspike," Binabik said quietly. "It is the mark of the Norns." "And they are...?" "A strange people. Their country is north even of Yiqanuc and Rimmersgard. A great mountain is there—very tall and with a covering of snow and ice—called Stormspike by the Rinunersmen. The Norns do not travel in the fields of Osten Ard. Some are saying that they are Sithi, but I do not know if that is truth." "How can that be?" Simon asked. "Look at the collar." He leaned down, gingerly pushing a finger under the white leather to lift it away from the stiffening flesh of the dead hound. Binabik smiled sheepishly. "Shame to me! I overlooked the collar, white against white as it is—me, taught since child-age to hunt in snow!" "But look at it," Simon urged. "See the buckle?" The buckle of the collar was indeed an interesting thing: a piece of hammered silver in the shape of a coiling dragon. "That's the dragon of Elias' kennels," Simon said firmly. "I should know—I used to visit Tobas the houndkeeper often." Binabik crouched, staring at the carcass. "I believe you. And as for the mark of Stormspike, it is only necessary to look for seeing that these dogs are not things raised in your Hayholt." He stood up and stepped back a pace; Qantaqa moved in to sniff at the body, then quickly backed away with a rumbling growl. "A mystery whose solving must wait," the troll said. "Now we are very lucky to have our lives, with all of our limbs as well. We should be moving again. I have no wish to meet this hound's master." "Are we close to Geloe?" "Somewhat we have been driven off our route, but not beyond repairing. If we leave now, we should still Gutrun the darkness." Simon looked down at the long snout and vicious jaw of the hound, at its powerful body and filming eye. "I hope so," he said. They could find no way to cross the canyon anywhere, and reluctantly decided to move back down the long slope and look for another, easier descent than the sheer rock face before them. Simon was almost childishly happy not to have to climb down: his knees still felt as weak as if he'd had a fever. He had no wish to look down into the canyon's maw again with nothing beneath him but a long, long fall. It was one thing to climb the walls and towers of the Hayholt, with their square corners and mason's cracks—a tree trunk suspended like a frail twig over nothingness was another story entirely. At the base of the long slope an hour later they turned to their right hand and began to track around to the northwest. They had not gone more than five furlongs when a high-pitched, wailing cry knifed through the afternoon air. They both stopped short; Qantaqa pricked her ears and growled. The sound came again. "It sounds like a child screaming," Simon declared, turning his head to locate the noise's source. "The forest is often playing such tricks," Binabik began. The keening noise rose again. Quickly afterward came an angry baying that they knew all too well. "Qinkipa's Eyes!" Binabik cursed. "Will they chase us all the way to Naglimund!?" The baying rose again, and he listened. "It has the sound of one dog only, however. That is something lucky." "It sounds like it's coming from down there." Simon pointed to where the trees grew more densely some distance away. "Let's go and see." "Simon!" Binabik's voice was harsh with surprise. "What thing are you saying? We are fleeing to keep our lives!" "You said it sounded like only one. We have Qantaqa. Someone is being attacked. How can we run away?" "Simon, we do not know if that crying is a trick... or an animal it could be." "What if it isn't?" Simon demanded. "What if that thing has caught some woodsman's child... or... or something?" "A woodsman's child? This far from the forest's edge?" Binabik stared at him in frustration for a moment. Simon returned the gaze defiantly. "Ha!" Binabik said heavily. "So it will be, then, as you are wishing." Simon turned and began jogging down toward the thickening trees. " 'Afikmok hanno so gyiq,' we say in Yiqanuc!" Binabik called. " 'If you wish to carry a hungry weasel in your pocket, it is your choice!" The youth did not look back. Binabik slapped the ground with his walking stick, then trotted after him. He caught up to Simon within a hundred paces; within twenty more he had opened his staff to shake loose his dart bag. He hissed a command to bring the racing Qantaqa back, then deftly rolled coarse wool around one of the dark-tipped darts as he ran. "Couldn't you get poisoned if you tripped and fell?" Simon asked. Binabik shot him a sour, worried look as he struggled to keep up. When they came upon the scene at last, its appearance was deceptively innocent: a dog crouching before a spreading ash tree, staring up at a dark shape huddled on a branch overhead. It might have been one of the Hayholt castle hounds with a treed cat, except that both dog and quarry were far larger. They were less than a hundred paces away when the dog turned toward them. It skinned back its lips and barked, a vicious, raw bray of sound. It looked back at the tree for a moment, then straightened long legs and loped toward them. Binabik slowed and stopped, raising his hollow tube to his lips; Qantaqa trotted past him. As the hound closed the gap, the troll puffed out his cheeks and blew. If the dart struck, the dog gave no sign; instead it sped forward, growling, and Qantaqa charged to meet it. This hound was even bigger than the others, as large or even a little larger than Qantaqa herself. The two animals did not circle, but flung themselves together, jaws snapping; a moment later they tumbled to the ground snarling, a heaving, spinning ball of gray and white fur. At Simon's side Binabik cursed sharply; his leather packet fell from his hand in his haste to wind another dart. The ivory needles scattered into the leaves and moss underfoot. The snarls of the combatants had risen to a higher pitch. The long white head of the hound lunged in and out: once, twice, thrice, like a striking viper. The last time it came back with blood on its pale muzzle. Simon and the troll were trotting toward them when Binabik made a strange choking noise. "Qantaqa!" he cried, and sped forward. Simon saw the flash of Binabik's bone-handled blade, then a moment later, incredibly, the troll cast himself onto the writhing, snapping animals and brought the knife down, raised it, and struck again. Simon, fearing for the lives of both his companions, snatched the hollow tube from where Binabik had dropped it and ran forward. He arrived in time to see the troll brace himself, grab the thick gray fur of Qantaqa's back, and pull. The two animals slid apart; there was blood on each of them. Qantaqa slowly stood, favoring a leg. The white hound lay silent. Binabik crouched and put an arm around the wolf's neck, pressing his forehead to hers. Simon, oddly touched, walked away from them to the tree. The first surprise was that there were two figures up in the branches of the white ash: a wide-eyed youth who held a smaller, silent figure in his lap. The second surprise was that Simon knew the larger of the two. "It's you!" He stared up in astonishment at the grime-streaked and bloody face. "You! Mal... Malachias!" The boy said nothing, but gazed down with haunted eyes, gently rocking the small figure in his lap. For a moment the forest copse was silent and unmoving, as though the afternoon sun above the trees had been arrested in its progress. Then the blare of a horn shattered the quiet. "Quickly!" Simon called up to Malachias. "Down! You must
come down!" Binabik came up behind him with the limping
Qantaqa. "Huntsman's horn, I am sure," was all he said. Malachias, as if comprehending at last, began sliding up the long branch toward the trunk, holding his small companion carefully. When he reached the crotch, he hesitated a moment, then handed the limp burden down to Simon. It was a little dark-haired girl, aged no more than ten years. She was unmoving, eyes closed in her too-pale face; when Simon took her, he felt something sticky all across the front of her rough dress. A moment later Malachias lowered himself down from the branch, falling the last few feet and tumbling, getting up almost immediately. "What now?" Simon asked, trying to balance the little girl against his chest. The horn echoed again somewhere on the canyon rim they had left behind, and now there rose the excited squalling of more hounds as well. "We cannot fight men, and dogs along with them," the troll said, exhaustion plain on his slack face. "Horses we cannot Gutrun. We must hide ourselves." "How?" Simon demanded. "The dogs will smell us." Binabik leaned forward and took Qantaqa's injured paw in his small hand, bending it back and forth. The wolf resisted for a moment, then sat, panting, as the little man finished his manipulations. "Painful it is, but not broken," he told Simon, then turned to speak to the wolf. Malachias lifted his gaze from Simon's burden to stare. "Chok, Qantaqa my brave friend," the troll said, "ummu chok Geloe!" The wolf rumbled deep in her chest, then leaped away at once to the northwest, away from the rising clamor behind them. Favoring the bloodied front leg, she was gone from view among the trees in a matter of moments. "I am hoping," Binabik explained, "that the confusion of scents here," he gestured to the tree, and then to the huge hound lying nearby, "will distract them, and that the scent they will follow may be Qantaqa's. I think they cannot catch her, even lamed—too smart she is." Simon looked around. "How about there?" he asked, pointing to a crevice in the hillside formed by a great rectangle of streaked stone that had broken loose and fallen back, as though split by a vast wedge. "Except that we do not know which direction they will take," Binabik said. "If they come down the hillside, that will be luck for us. If they are descending farther back, they will ride right past the hole there. Too much risk." Simon found it hard to think. The din of the approaching hounds was fearsome. Was Binabik right? Were they to be chased all the way to Naglimund? Not that they could run much longer, weary and battered as they were. "There!" he said, suddenly. Another finger of rock thrust up through the forest floor some distance away, three times the height of a man. Trees grew close about its base, surrounding it like young children helping their grandfather hobble to the supper table. "If we can climb up that," Simon said, "we will be above even the ones on horses!" "Yes," Binabik said, nodding his head. "Right, you are right. Come, let us climb." He made for the outcropping, the silent Malachias just behind him. Simon readjusted the little girl against his body and hurried after. Binabik scrambled up partway, and clung to the branch of a close-leaning tree as he turned. "Pass the little one to me." Simon did, extending his arms to their full reach, then turned to put a guiding hand on the elbow of Malachias, who was looking for an initial toehold. The boy shook off Simon's helpful gesture and climbed carefully upward. Simon was last. When he got to the first ledge he picked up the still figure of the little girl and gently slung her over his shoulder, then made his way up to the rock's rounded top. He lay down with the others among the leaves and twigs, hidden from the ground by a screen of branches. His heart thudded from exhaustion and fear. He had, it seemed, been running and hiding forever. Even as they squirmed, trying to find comfortable positions for all four bodies, the yammering of the dogs rose to a hideous pitch; a moment later the woods below were full of darting white shapes. Simon left the little girl clutched in Malachias' arms and quietly pulled himself forward until he could join Binabik at the outcropping's edge, peering with the troll through a gap in the foliage. The dogs were everywhere, sniffing, barking; there were at least a score of them running excitedly back and forth between the tree, the body of their fellow, and the base of the outcropping. One of them even seemed to stare directly up at Simon and Binabik, empty white eyes gleaming, red mouth grinning fiercely. A moment later it trotted back to join its lathered companions. The horn sounded nearby. Within a minute a line of horses appeared, picking their way down the densely wooded hillside. Now the dogs had a fourth corner to their circuit, and ran braying between the stone-gray legs of the lead horse, who walked on as calmly as if they were moths. The trailing horses were not quite so sanguine; one immediately behind shied a little, and its master cut it out of line, spurring it down the last short slope to bring it to a pacing, sputtering halt near the outcropping. This rider was young and clean-shaven, with a strong chin and curling hair the color of his chestnut horse. He wore a blue and black surcoat over his silvery armor, with a design of three yellow flowers set diagonally from shoulder to waist. His expression was sour. "Another one dead," he spat. "What do you make of this, Jegger?" His voice took on a sarcastic tone. "Oh, pardon me, I meant Master Ingen." Simon was amazed at how clear the man's words were, as though he spoke directly to the hidden listeners. He held his breath.