The armored man was staring at something out of their view, and his profile suddenly seemed very familiar. Simon felt sure he had seen this man somewhere, most likely at the Hayholt. He was certainly an Erkynlander, by his accent. "It is not important what you call me," another voice said, a deep, smooth, cold voice. "You did not make Ingen Jegger master of this hunt. You are here as... courtesy, Heahferth. Because these are your lands." Simon realized that the first man was Baron Heahferth, a regular at Elias' court and a crony of Earl Fengbald. The second speaker rode his gray horse into the gap through which Simon and Binabik stared. Agitated white dogs twined in and out around the horse's hooves. The man called Ingen was dressed all in black, his surcoat, breeches and shirt all the same bleak, lusterless shade. At first he looked to be white-bearded; a moment later it was apparent that the close-cropped whiskers on the hard face were a yellow so light as to be nearly colorless—as colorless as his eyes, faint pale spots in his dark face. They might be blue. Simon stared at the cold face framed in the black coif, at the powerful, thick-muscled body, and felt a fear different than any he had felt this whole dangerous day. Who was this man? He looked like a Rimmersman, his name was a Rimmersgard name, but he spoke strangely, with slow, strange accents Simon had never heard. "My lands ended at the forest's edge," Heahferth said, and turned his balking mount back into place. Half a dozen men in light armor had filed down into the clearing behind and sat their horses, waiting. "And where my lands ended," Heahferth continued, "my patience did, too. This is a farce. Dead dogs scattered about like chaff..." "And two prisoners escaped," Ingen finished heavily. "Prisoners!" Heahferth scoffed. "A little boy and girl! Do you think these are the traitors Elias is so anxious to get? Do you think such a pair," he tipped his head toward the carcass of the great hound, "did that?" "The dogs have been chasing something." Ingen Jegger stared down at the dead mastiff. "Look. Look at the wounds. This was no bear, no wolf that did this. It is our quarry, and he is still running. And now, thanks to your stupidity, our prisoners are running, also." "How dare you?!" Baron Heahferth said, his voice rising. "How dare you?! With one word I could have you sprouting arrows like a hedgehog." Ingen looked slowly up from the body of the hound. "But you will not," he said quietly. Heahferth's horse shied back, rearing, and when the baron had mastered him the two men stared at each other for a moment. "Oh... very well, then," Heahferth said. A different note had crept into his voice as he looked away from the black-clad man to stare out across the forest. "What now?" "The dogs have a scent," Ingen said. "We will do what we must do. Follow." He raised the horn that swung at his side and winded it once. The dogs, who had been swarming about at the edge of the clearing gave throat and sped off in the direction Qantaqa had disappeared; Ingen Jegger spurred his tall gray horse after them without a word. Baron Heahferth, cursing, waved to his men and followed. Within the course of a hundred heartbeats the woods below the outcropping were empty and silent once more, but Binabik kept them all in place for some time before he would let them climb down. Once on the ground, he quickly examined the little girl, opening her eyes with a delicate, stubby finger, leaning close to listen to her breathing. "Very bad she is, this one. What is her name, Malachias?" "Leieth," the boy said staring at the pale face. "My sister." "Our only hope is to quickly get her to the house of Geloe," Binabik said. "And hope also that Qantaqa has led those men astray, so that we are reaching it alive." "What are you doing out here, Malachias!?" Simon demanded. "And how did you get away from Heahferth?" The boy did not answer, and when Simon asked again he turned his head away. "Questions for later," Binabik said, standing. "Quickness we need now. Can you carry this girlchild, Simon?" They made their way northwest through the dense forest, the lowering sun lancing through the branches. Simon asked the troll about the man named Ingen and his odd way of speaking. "Black Rimmersman, I am thinking," Binabik said. "They are a rare lot, not often seen except at northernmost settlements where they some times come to trade. They do not speak the language of Rimmersgard. It is said they live on the fringes of the lands belonging to the Norns." "The Norns again," Simon grunted, ducking beneath a branch that had sprung from Malachias' careless hand. He turned to confront the troll. "What is going on?! Why should such people be concerned with us?" "Perilous times, friend Simon," Binabik said. "Through perilous times we are passing." Several hours went by and the shadows of afternoon grew longer and longer. The patches of sky that glimmered through the treetops turned slowly from blue to shell pink. The three walked on. The land was mostly level, from time to time sloping away like a shallow beggar's bowl. In the branches above, squirrels and Jays carried on their endless arguments; crickets droned in the leaf-tangle at their feet. Once Simon saw a large gray owl scudding like a phantom through the twining branches overhead. Later he saw another, so like the first as to have been its twin. Binabik watched the sky carefully when they passed through clearings, and jogged them a little to the east; soon they reached a small forest stream that gurgled past a thousand tiny breakwaters of fallen branches. They walked through the thick grasses that lined its banks for a while; when the bulk of a tree blocked their passage, they stepped out and made their way past on the backs of the stones dotting the stream's gentle course. The streambed became wider as another small waterway entered, and within moments Binabik raised a hand to bring them to a stop. They had just rounded a bend in the watercourse; here the stream suddenly dropped away, rushing in a tiny waterfall down a series of rock slabs. They stood on the rim of a great bowl, a sloping expanse of trees leading down to a wide, dark lake. The sun had dipped out of sight, and in the insect-humming twilight the water looked purple and deep. Tree roots twisted down into the water like snakes. There was an air of stillness about the lake, of quiet secrets whispered only to the endless trees. At the far side, dim and difficult to see in the gathering darkness, a tall thatched hut stood over the water in such a way that at first it seemed to float on air; a moment later Simon could see that it was raised above the lake's surface on stilts. Buttery light gleamed in the two small windows. "The house of Geloe," Binabik said, and they started down into the tree-lined bowl. With a soundless rush of wings a gray shape tore loose from the trees above them and glided out to circle low over the lake two times, then vanish into the darkness beside the cottage. For a moment Simon thought he saw the owl pass into the cottage, but his eyelids were heavy from exhaustion and he could not see clearly. The crickets' nightsong rose about them as the shadows deepened. A bounding shape came speeding around the lake's rim toward them. "Qantaqa!" Binabik laughed, and ran down to meet her.
26 In the House of Geloe THE FIGURE that stood framed in the warm light of the doorway did not move or speak as the companions mounted the long board-bridge that slanted from the doorstep to the lake's edge. As Simon followed Binabik up, carefully cradling the child Leieth, he could not help wondering why this Geloe woman did not have an entranceway of a more permanent nature, something at least with a rope handrail. His weary feet were having trouble keeping to the narrow bridge. I suppose she doesn't gel many visitors, for one thing, he thought, looking out across the rapidly darkening forest. Binabik pulled up short of the front step and bowed, almost bumping Simon off into the still waters. "Valada Geloe," he announced, "Binbines Mintahoqis requests your aid. I bring travelers." The figure in the doorway stepped back, leaving the way open. "Spare me the Nabbanai constructions, Binabik." It was a harshly musical voice, heavily and strangely accented, but unmistakably a woman's. "I knew it was you. Qantaqa has been here an hour." At the shore end of the ramp the wolf pricked her ears forward. "Of course you are welcome. Do you think I would deny you?" Binabik entered the house. Simon, a step behind, spoke up. "Where shall I put the little girl?" He ducked through the door, getting a quick impression of a high roof and long, fluttering shadows cast by the flames of many candles, then Geloe stepped in front of him. She was dressed in a rough robe of dun cloth, clumsily tied with a belt. Her height was somewhere between Simon's and the troll's, her face wide and sunbrowned, seamed with wrinkles at both the eyes and mouth. Her dark hair was shot all through with gray and cut short, so that she looked almost like a priest. But it was her eyes that caught him—round, heavy-lidded yellow eyes with large, jet-black pupils. They were old, knowing eyes, as though they belonged to some ancient bird of the heights, and there was a power behind them that fixed him in his tracks. She seemed to measure him completely, to turn him inside out and shake him like a sack, all in a moment. When her gaze at last flicked down to the injured girl, he felt drained like an empty wineskin. "This child is hurt." It was not a question. Simon helplessly let her take Leieth from his arms as Binabik came forward. "She has been attacked by dogs," the troll said. "Dogs with the brand of Stormspike." If he expected a look of surprise or fear, he was disappointed. Geloe pushed briskly past to a straw pallet on the floor, where she laid the girl down. "Find food if you are hungry," she said. "I must work now. Were you followed?" Binabik was hurriedly telling her of the most recent events, Geloe all the while undressing the unresponsive body of the child, when Malachias finally entered. He squatted down near the pallet, hovering as Geloe cleaned Leietb's wounds. When Malachias leaned too close, blocking her movements, the valada gently touched the boy's shoulder with a sun-freckled hand. She held the contact, staring at him for a moment, until Malachias glanced up and flinched. After a moment he raised his eyes to Geloe's once more, and something seemed to pass silently between them before Malachias turned away and sat back against the wall. Binabik poked up the fire, ingeniously set in a deep well in the floor. The smoke—there was surprisingly little—rose up to the ceiling; Simon imagined there must be a chimney hidden in the shadows overhead. The cottage itself, which was really one large room, reminded him in many ways of Morgenes' study chambers. Many strange objects were hung on the clay-plastered walls: leafy branches tied in careful sheaves, bags of dried flowers spilling their petals, and stalks, reeds, and long, slippery roots that looked as though they had come grudgingly from the lake below. The firelight also flickered across a multitude of tiny animal skulls, limning their bright, polished surfaces without penetrating the darkness of the eyes. One entire wall was divided between floor and ceiling by a waist-high shelf of frame-stretched bark; it, too, was covered with curious objects: animal pelts and tiny bundles of sticks and bones, beautiful water-smoothed rocks of every shape and color, and a carefully stacked aggregation of scrolls, handles facing out like a cord of firewood. It was so cluttered that it took Simon a moment to realize it was not really a shelf at all, but a writing table; beside the scrolls was a stack of vellum, and a quill pen in an inkwell made from another animal skull. Qantaqa whined softly and nosed against his thigh. Simon scratched her muzzle. There were cuts on her face and ears, but the fur had been carefully cleaned of dried blood. He turned from the table to the wide wall that faced out on the lake with its two small windows. The sun was gone now, and the candlelight streaming out made two long, irregular rectangles on the water; Simon could see his own gangly silhouette in one of them, like the pupil of a bright eye. "I have warmed some soup," Binabik said behind him, and offered a wooden bowl. "I have need of it myself," the troll smiled, "and so do you and everyone else. I hope to never have another day the like of this." Simon blew on the hot liquid, then sucked a little past his lips. It was tangy and a little bitter, like mulled Elysiamansa cider. "It's good," he said, and sipped a little more. "What is it?" "Better that you are not asking, perhaps," Binabik grinned mischievously. Geloe looked up from the pallet, eyebrows slanting down to the bridge of her sharp nose, and fixed Binabik with a penetrating glance. "Stop that, troll, you'll give the boy stomach pains," she snorted irritably. "Honeylock, dandelion, and stonegrass is all that's in it, boy." Binabik seemed chastened. "Apologies, Valada." "I like it," Simon said, worried that he had somehow offended her, even if only as the recipient of Binabik's teasing. "Thank you for taking us in. My name is Simon." "Ah," grunted Geloe, then turned back to cleansing the little girl's injuries. Nonplussed, Simon finished his broth as quietly as he could, Binabik took the bowl and refilled it; he finished that one almost as quickly. Binabik began combing Qantaqa's thick pelt with his stubby fingers, tossing the burrs and twigs he worked loose into the fire. Geloe was silently applying dressings to Leieth while Malachias looked on, lank black hair hanging in his face. Simon found a relatively uncluttered place to lean against the cottage wall. A legion of crickets and other night singers filled the night's hollow spaces as Simon slid into exhausted sleep, his heart beating along in slow time. It was still night when he awoke. He bobbed his head stupidly, trying to clear away the sticky residue of a too-short sleep; it took a moment of peering around the unfamiliar room until he remembered where he was. Geloe and Binabik were quietly talking, the woman on a high stool, the troll cross-legged at her feet, like a student. Behind them on the pallet lay a dark, bumpy shape that Simon at last recognized as Malachias and Leieth huddled together in sleep. "It doesn't matter whether you were clever or not, young Binabik," the woman was saying. "You have been lucky, which is a better thing." Simon decided to let them know he was awake. "How is the little girl?" he asked, yawning. Geloe turned her hooded stare toward him. "Very bad. Badly wounded and feverish. The Nornhounds... well, it is not good to be bitten. They eat unclean flesh." "The valada has done all things that can be done, Simon," Binabik said. He had something in his hands: a new pouch that he was stitching out of skin even as he spoke. Simon wondered where the troll might find new darts. Oh, for a sword... even a knife! People on adventures always had swords or sharp wits. Or magic. "Did you tell her..." Simon hesitated. "Did you tell her about Morgenes?" "I already knew." Geloe stared at him, firelight reddening her bright eyes. When she spoke, it was with powerful deliberateness. "You were with him, boy. I know your name, and I felt Morgenes' mark upon you when I touched you as I took the child." As if to demonstrate, she held out her own wide, callused hand. "You knew my name?" "Where the doctor is concerned, I know many things." Geloe leaned over and poked up the fire with a long, blackened stick. "A great man has been lost, a man we can ill afford to lose." Simon hesitated. Curiosity at last won out over awe. "What do you mean?" He crawled across the floor to sit near the troll. "That is, what does we mean?" " 'We' means all of us," she said. " 'We' means: those who do not welcome darkness." "I have told Geloe what happened to us, friend Simon." Binabik spoke quietly. "There is no secret that I have few explanations." Geloe made a wry face and pulled her coarse robe tighter around her body. "And I have none to add... yet. It is clear to me now, however, that the weather signs I have seen here on my isolated lake, the north-flying geese that should have gone clattering overhead a fortnight ago, all of the things that have given me pause in this strange season," she pushed her palms together, as in a gesture of prayer, "they are real—and the change they augur is real, also. Terribly real." She dropped her hands heavily to her lap and stared at them. "Binabik is right," she said at last. Beside her the troll nodded his head gravely, but Simon thought he saw a satisfied glint in the little man's eyes, as though he had been paid a great compliment. "This is far more than the striving of a king and his brother," she continued. "The contendings of kings can beat down the land, can uproot trees and bathe the fields in blood," a log collapsed with a pop of sparks, and Simon jumped, "but the wars of men do not bring dark clouds from the north, or send the hungry bears back to their dens in Maiamonth." Geloe stood up and stretched, the wide sleeves of her robe hanging like the wings of a bird. "Tomorrow I will try and find some answers for you. Now all should sleep while they can, for I fear the child's fever will return strongly during the night." She moved to the far wall and began putting small jars back on the shelves. Simon spread his cloak on the floor near the edge of the fire well. "Perhaps you should not sleep so closely," Binabik cautioned. "A spark leaping out may set you on fire." Simon looked at him carefully, but the troll did not appear to be joking. He pulled his cloak back several feet and lay on top of it, rolling the hood into a cushion beneath his head, then carefully pulled the sides up and over himself. Binabik moved away toward the corner, and after a moment of rustling and thumping made himself comfortable as well. The song of the crickets had died out. Simon stared into the shadows that flickered in the rafters, and listened to the gentle hiss of the wind passing endlessly through the branches of the circling trees and out across the lake. No lanterns were burning, and no fire; only the mushroom-pale light of the moon filtered in through the high windows, painting the cluttered room with a kind of frost-sheen. Simon stared around him at the curious, unrecognizable silhouettes that littered the tabletops, and the blocky, inert shapes of books stacked in crooked piles, sprouting up from the floor like grave markers in a churchyard. His eyes were drawn to one particular book that lay spread open, gleaming white like the flesh of a bark-stripped tree. In the middle of the open page there was a familiar face—a man with burning eyes, whose head wore the branching antlers of a stag. Simon looked up at the room, then back to the book. He was in Morgenes' chambers, of course. Of course! Where had he thought he was? Even as the realization came to him, as the silhouettes took on the familiar shapes of the doctor's flasks and racks and retorts, there was a cautious scraping noise at the door. He started at the unexpected sound. Diagonal stripes of moonlight made the wall seem to lean crazily. The scraping came again. "... Simon...?" The voice was very quiet, as though the speaker did not wish to be heard, but he recognized it instantly. "Doctor?!" He leaped to his feet and crossed to the door in a few steps. Why hadn't the old man knocked? And what was he doing coming back so late? Perhaps he had been away on some mysterious journey, and had foolishly locked himself out—that was it, of course! Lucky that Simon was there to let him in. He rumbled with the shadowy latch. "What have you been up to, Doctor Morgenes?" he whispered. "I have been waiting for you for such a long time!" There was no answer. Even as he worked the bolt from the slot, he was filled with a sudden sense of unease. He stopped with the door half-unbarred, standing on his tiptoes to peer down through a crack between the boards. "Doctor?" In the inner passageway, splashed in the blue light of the hall lamps, the old man's hooded, cloaked form stood before the door. His face was shadowed, but there was no mistaking his tattered old cloak, his slight build, the wisps of white hair that straggled from his hood, blue-tinted in the lampglow. Why wouldn't he answer? Was he hurt? "Are you all right?" Simon asked, swinging the door inward. The small, bowed figure did not move. "Where have you been? What have you found out?" He thought he heard the doctor say something, and bent forward. "What?" The words that rose up to him were full of air, painfully harsh. "... False... messenger..." was all he understood—the dry voice seemed to labor at speech—and then the face tilted up, and the hood fell back. The head that wore the ragged fringe of white hair was a burnt, blackened ruin: a knob with cracked, empty pits for eyes, the spindly neck on which it wobbled a charred stick. Even as Simon staggered away, an unfreeable scream lodged in his throat, a thin red line spread across the front of the black, leathery ball; an instant later the mouth yawned open, a split grin of pink meat. "... The... false... messenger..."it said, each word a rustling gasp. "... Beware..." And then Simon did scream, until the blood pounded in his ears, for the burned thing spoke, beyond a doubt, with the voice of Doctor Morgenes. His speeding heart took a long time to slow. He sat, breathing raggedly, and Binabik sat beside him. "There is nothing of harm here," the troll said, then pressed his palm against Simon's forehead. "You are chilled." Geloe strode back from the pallet where she had replaced Malachias' blanket, kicked free when Simon's cry had startled him awake. "You had powerful dreams like this when you lived at the castle, boy?" she asked, fixing him with a stem eye as if daring him to deny it. Simon shivered. Faced with that overwhelming gaze, he felt no urge to tell anything but the truth. "Not until... until the last few months before… before..." "Before Morgenes died," said Geloe flatly, "Binabik, unless the learning I have has deserted me completely, I cannot believe this is chance, for him to dream of Morgenes in my house. Not a dream like that." Binabik ran a hand through his own sleep-tousled hair. "Valada Geloe, if you do not know, how can I? Daughter of the Mountains! I feel that I am listening to noises in the dark-1 cannot make out the dangers that surround us, but dangers I know they are. Simon dreams of a warning against 'false messengers'... but that is one only of too many mysterious things. Why the Norns? The Black Rimmersman? The filthy Bukken?"