Geloe turned to Simon and gently but forcefully pushed him back onto his cloak. "Try and go back to sleep," she said. "Nothing will enter the house of the witch woman that can harm you." She turned to Binabik, "I think, if the dreaming he has described is as coherent as it seems, he will be of use in our search for answers." Lying on his back, Simon saw the valada and the troll as black shapes against the firefly gleam of the embers. The smaller shadow leaned close to him. "Simon," Binabik whispered, "are there any other dreamings that have been left out? That you have not told?" Simon slowly wagged his head from side to side. There was nothing, nothing but shadows, and he was tired of talking. He could still taste the fear from the burned thing in the doorway; he only wanted to surrender to the sucking pull of oblivion, to sleep, to sleep.... But it did not come so easily. Although he held his eyes tightly closed, still the images of fire and catastrophe rose before him. Tossing in place, unable to find a position that would encourage his tight muscles to loosen, he heard the quiet talk of the troll and the witch woman scratch away like rats in the walls. Finally even that noise ceased, and the solemn breathing of the wind rose again in his ears; he opened his eyes. Geloe was sitting alone before the fire, shoulders up like a bird huddling from the rain, eyes half-open; he could not tell if she was sleeping or watching the fire smolder out. His last waking thought, which rose slowly up from deep inside him, flickering as it came like a fire beneath the sea, was of a tall hill, a hill crowned with stones. That had been in a dream, hadn't it? He should have remembered... should have told Binabik. A fire sprang up in the darkness of the hilltop, and he heard the creaking of wooden wheels, the wheels of dream. ^ When morning came, it did not bring the sun with it. From the window of the cottage Simon could see the dark treetops at the far edge of the bowl, but the lake itself wore a thick cloak of fog. Even directly below the window the water was hard to see, slowly swirling mist making all things hazy and insubstantial. Above the top of the murky treeline the sky was a depthless gray. Geloe had marched the boy Malachias out with her to gather a certain healing moss, leaving Binabik behind to tend to Leieth. The troll seemed faintly encouraged about the child's condition, but when Simon looked at her pale face and the faint movements of her small chest he wondered what difference the little man could see that he could not. Simon rebuilt the fire from a pile of dead branches that Geloe had stacked neatly in the corner, then went to help change the girl's dressings. As Binabik peeled the sheet back from Leieth's body and lifted away the bandages Simon winced, but would not let himself turn away. Her whole torso was blackened by bruises and ugly tooth-marks. The skin had been torn from under her left arm to her hip, a ragged slash a foot long. As Binabik finished cleaning the wound and bound her up again with broad strips of linen, little roses of blood bloomed through the cloth. "Does she really have a chance to live?" Simon asked. Binabik shrugged, his hands engaged in the making of careful knots. "Geloe thinks she may," he said. "She is a woman of a stern and direct mind, who places people not above animals in her esteem, but that is still esteem most high. She would not struggle against the impossible, I am thinking." "Is she really a witch woman like she said?" Binabik pulled the sheet up over the little girl, leaving only her thin face exposed. Her mouth was partly open; Simon could see that she had lost both her front teeth. He felt a sudden, bitter ache of empathy for the child—lost with only her brother in the wild forest, captured and tormented, frightened. How could the Lord Usires love such a world? "A witch woman?" Binabik stood up. Outside, Qantaqa clattered up the front door bridge: Geloe and Malachias would be close behind. "A wise woman she certainly is, and a being of rare strength. In your tongue I understand 'witch' to mean a bad person, one who is of your Devil and does her neighbors harm. That the valada is certainly not. Her neighbors are the birds and the forest dwellers, and she tends them like a flock. Still, she was leaving Rimmersgard many years ago—many, many years ago—to come here. Possible it is that the people who once lived around her thought some nonsense as that... perhaps that was the cause of her coming to this lake." Binabik turned to greet the impatient Qantaqa, scratching through the deep fur of her back as she wriggled in pleasure, then took a pot out to the front door and lowered it down into the water. Returning, he hung it on a hooked chain over the fire. "You have known Malachias from the castle, you said?" Simon was watching Qantaqa: the wolf had trotted back down to the lake and was standing in the shallows, lunging at the water with her snout. "Is she trying to catch fish?" he asked, laughing. Binabik smiled patiently and nodded. "And catch them she can do, too. Malachias?" "Oh, yes, I knew him there... a little. I caught him once, spying on me. He denied it, though. Did he speak to you? Did he tell you what he and his sister were doing in Aldheorte, how they were captured?" Qantaqa had indeed caught a fish, a shining silver thing that fluttered wildly but pointlessly as the wolf mounted onto the lake's edge, streaming with water. "More luck I would be having trying to teach a rock to sing." Binabik found a bowl of dried leaves on one of Geloe's shelves and crumbled a handful into the pot of boiling water. Instantly, the room was full of warm, minty smells. "Five or six words I have heard from his mouth since we found them up in that tree. He remembers you, though. Several times I have seen him at staring at you-1 think he is not dangerous—in fact, I have a real sureness of it—but still, he is in need of watching." Before he could speak, Simon heard Qantaqa give a short bark down below. He looked out the window in time to see the wolf spring up, her mostly-devoured catch left on the lakeshore, and bound away up the path; within a moment she had disappeared into the mist. She soon came trotting back, followed by two dim shapes that gradually became Geloe and the odd, fox-faced boy Malachias. The two of them were talking animatedly. "Qinkipa!" Binabik snorted as he stirred the pot of water. "Now he is speaking." As she scraped her boots at the doorway, Geloe leaned her head inside. "Fog everywhere," she said. "The forest is sleepy today." She entered shaking out her cloak, followed by Malachias, who again looked wary. The color was high in his cheeks. Geloe went promptly to her table and began sorting out the contents of a pair of sacks. Today she was dressed like a man, in thick wool breeches, a jerkin, and a pair of worn but sturdy boots. She exuded an air of calm force, like a war captain who had made all possible preparations, and now waited only for the battle to commence. "Is the water ready?" she asked. Binabik leaned over the pot and sniffed. "It is seeming to be," he
said after a moment. "Good." Geloe untied a small cloth bag from her belt and removed a handful of dark green moss, still shiny with beads of water. After dumping it unceremoniously into the pot she stirred it with the stick Binabik had given her. "Malachias and I have been talking," she said, squinting down into the steam. "We have spoken of many things." She looked up, but Malachias only ducked his head, his pink cheeks even reddening a bit further, and went to sit beside Leieth on the pallet. He took her hand and stroked her pale, damp forehead. Geloe shrugged. "Well, we shall speak when Malachias is ready. For now, we have tasks enough, anyway." She lifted some of the moss on the end of the stirring stick, poked it with her finger, then plucked a bowl from a small wooden table and scooped the whole sticky mess out of the pot. She carried the steaming bowl over to the mattress. While Malachias and the witch woman made poultices of the moss, Simon walked down to the lakeside. The outside of the witch woman's cottage looked quite as odd by daylight as the inside seemed by night; the thatched roof came to a point, like a strange hat, and the dark wood of the walls was covered all over in black and blue rune-paintings. As he walked around the house and down to the shore the letters disappeared and reappeared as the angle of the sun changed. Mired in the dark shadows beneath the hut, the twin stilts on which it stood also seemed covered with some kind of unusual shingles. Qantaqa had returned to the carcass of her fish, delicately worrying the last bits of meat loose from the slender bones. Simon sat beside her on a rock, then moved a bit farther away in response to her warning growl. He threw pebbles out into the swallowing mist, listening for the splash, until Binabik came down to join him. "Break your fasting?" the troll asked, handing him a knob of crusty dark bread liberally smeared with pungent cheese. Simon ate it quickly, then they sat and watched a few birds picking in the sand of the lake shore. "Valada Geloe would like you to join us, to be part of the thing we are to be doing this afternoon," Binabik said at last. "What thing?" "Searching. Searching answers." "Searching how? Are we going somewhere?" Binabik looked at him seriously. "In some way, yes—no, do not be looking so cross! I will explain." He cast a pebble. "There is a thing that is done sometimes, when ways of finding things out are closed. A thing that the wise can do. My master Qokequk called it walking the Road of Dreams." "But that killed him!" "No! That is to say..." the troll's expression was worried as he searched for words. "It is to say, yes, he died while on the road. But a man may die on any road. That is not meaning that anyone who walks upon it will be dying. People have been crushed by carts in your Main Row, but hundreds of others walk upon it every day without harm." "What exactly is the Road of Dreams?" Simon asked. 'I must first admit," Binabik said with a sad half-smile, "that the dream-road is more dangerous than Main Row. I was taught by my master that this road is like a mountain path higher than any others." The troll lifted his hand in the air above his own head. "From this road, although the climbing of it has great difficulty, you can see things that never otherwise would you have seen—things that from the road of every-day would be invisible." "And the dream part?" "I was taught that by dreaming is one way to mount up to this road, one any person can do." Binabik furrowed his brow. "But when a person reaches to the road by ordinary night dreaming, he cannot then be walking along the road: he sees from one spot only, and then must come back down. So—Ookequk told to me—this one does not often know what he is looking at. Sometimes," he gestured out at the mist that clung to the trees and lake, "it is only fog that he sees. The wise one, though, can be walking along the road, once he has mastered the art of climbing to it. He can be walking and looking, seeing things as they are, as they change." He shrugged. "Explaining is difficult. The dream-road is a place to go and see things that cannot be seen clearly where we stand beneath the waking sun. Geloe is a veteran of this journey. I have been given some experience of it myself, although I am no master." Simon sat staring quietly out across the water for a while, thinking about Binabik's words. The lake's other shore was invisible; he wondered idly how far away across the water it was. His tired memories of their arrival the day before were as hazy as the morning air. Now that I come to think of it, he realized, how far have I come? A long way, farther than I thought I would ever travel. And still have many leagues to go, I'm sure. Is it worth the risk to better our chances of reaching Naglimund alive? Why had such decisions fallen on him? It really was horribly unfair. He wondered bitterly why God had picked him out for such mistreatment—if indeed it was true, as Father Dreosan used to say, that He kept His eye on everyone. But there was more to think about than just his anger. Binabik and the others seemed to be counting on him, and that was something Simon was not used to. Things were expected of him now. "I'll do it," he said finally. "But tell me one thing. What really happened to your master? Why did he die?" Binabik slowly nodded his head. "I am told that there are two ways that things can happen on the road... things that are dangerous. The first, and it is usually happening only to the unskilled, is that if one tries to walk the road without proper wisdom, it is possible to miss the places where the dream-road and the track of earthbound life go separate ways." He skewed the palms of his hands. "The walker then cannot locate the way back. But Ookequk, I am thinking, was far too wise for that." Going lost and homeless in those imagined realms touched a responsive point in Simon, and he sucked in a breath of damp air. "Then what happened to Ook... Ookequk?" "The other danger, he was teaching me," Binabik said as he stood up, "was that there are other things beside the wise and the good that roam upon the Road of Dreams, and other dreamers of a more dangerous sort. It is my thinking that he met one of these." Binabik led Simon up the little ramp into the cottage. Geloe unstoppered a wide pot and stuck two fingers in, bringing them out covered with a dark green paste even stickier and stranger smelling than the moss poultice. "Lean forward," she said, and wiped a gob of it on Simon's forehead just above his nose, then did the same for herself and Binabik. "What is it?" Simon asked. It felt strange on his skin, both hot and cold. Geloe settled herself before the sunken fire and gestured for the boy and troll to join her. "Nightshade, mockfoil, whitewood bark to give it the proper consistency..." She ranged the boy, the troll, and herself around the fireplace in a triangle, placing the pot on the floor by her knee. The sensation on his forehead was most curious, Simon decided as he watched the valada throw green twigs onto the fire. White streamers of smoke went writhing upward, turning the space between them into a misty column through which her sulfurous eyes glowed, reflecting the firelight. "Now rub this on both your hands," she said, scooping out another gobbet for each of them, "and a dab on your lips—but not in your mouth! Just a dab, there..." When all was finished, she had them reach out and join hands. Malachias, who had not spoken since Simon and the troll had returned, watched from the pallet beside the sleeping child. The strange boy looked tense, but his mouth was set in a grim line, as though he willed himself to keep his nervousness hidden. Simon stretched his arms out on both sides, clasping Binabik's small dry paw in his own left hand and Geloe's sturdy one in his right. "Hold tightly," the witch woman said. "There is nothing terrible that will happen if you let go, but it will be better if you hold on." She cast her eyes down and began to speak softly, the words inaudible. Simon stared at her moving lips, at the drooping lids other wide eyes; again he was struck by how much she resembled a bird, a proud, steep-soaring bird at that. As he continued to gaze through the column of smoke, the tingling on his palms, forehead, and lips began to bother him. Darkness was suddenly all around, as though a dense cloud had passed before the sun. In a moment he could see nothing but the smoke and the red fireglow beneath it, all else had disappeared into the walls of blackness that loomed up on either side. His eyes were heavy, and at the same time he felt as though someone had pushed his face down in snow. He was cold, very cold. He fell backward, toppling, and the blackness was all around him. After a time—and Simon had no idea how long it might have been, only that through it all he could still faintly feel the grip on both his hands, a very reassuring sensation—the darkness began to glow with a directionless light, a light that gradually resolved itself into a field of white. The whiteness was uneven: some parts of it shone like sunlight on polished steel; other places were almost gray. A moment later the field of white became a vast, glittering mountain of ice, a mountain so impossibly tall that its head was hidden in the swirling clouds lining the dark sky. Smoke belched from crevices in its glassy sides and streamed upward to join the cloud-halo. And then, somehow, he was inside the great mountain, flying as rapidly as a spark through tunnels that led ever inward, dark tunnels that were nevertheless lined with mirroring ice. Uncountable thousands of shapes made their way through the mists and shadows and frostgleam—pale-faced, angular shapes who marched the corridors in moving thickets of glimmering spears, or tended the strange blue and yellow fires whose smokes crowned the heights above. The spark that was Simon still felt two firm hands grasping his own, or rather felt something else that told him he was not alone, for certainly a spark could have no hands to hold. He was at last in a great chamber, a vast hollow in the mountain's center. The roof was so high above the ice-glazed tiles of the floor that snow flurried down from its upper reaches, leaping, whirling clouds of snow like armies of tiny white butterflies. In the center of the immense chamber was a monstrous well, whose mouth flickered with pale blue light, and which seemed the source of a hideous, heart-squeezing fear. Some heat must have been floating up from its unguessable depths, for the air above it was a roiling pillar of fogs, a misty column gleaming with diffuse colors like a titan icicle catching the sun's light. Hanging somehow in the fog above the well, its shape not quite clear or its dimensions entirely guessable, was an inexplicable something: a thing made up of many things and many shapes, all colorless as glass. It seemed—as its lineaments appeared here and there in the swirling mist-pillar—a creation of angles and sweeping curves, of subtle, frightening complexity. In some not quite definable way it seemed an instrument of music. If so, it was an instrument so huge, alien, and frightening that the spark that was Simon knew he could never hear its awful music and live. Facing the well, in an angular seat of rime-crusted black rock, a figure sat. He could see it clearly, as though suddenly he hovered directly over the terrible, blue-burning well. It was cloaked in a white and silver robe of fantastic intricacy. Snowy hair streamed down over its shoulders to blend almost invisibly with the immaculate white garments. The pale form lifted its head, and the face was a mass of shining light. A moment later, as it turned away again, he could see that it was only a beautiful, expressionless sculpture of a woman's face... a mask of silver. The dazzling, exotic face turned back toward him. He felt himself pushed away, brusquely disconnected from the scene like a clinging kitten being pulled free from the hem of a dress. A vision swam up before him that was somehow a part of the wreath of fogs and the grim white figure. At first it was only another patch of alabaster whiteness; gradually it became an angular shape crisscrossed with black. The black shapes became lines, the lines became symbols; at last an open book hung before him. On its opened page were letters Simon could not read, twisting runes that wavered and then came clear. A timeless instant passed, then the runes began to shimmer once more. They pulled apart and reformed themselves into black silhouettes, three long, slender shapes... three swords. One had a hilt shaped like the Tree of Usires, another a hilt like the right-angle crossbeams of a roof. The third had a strange double guard, the cross pieces making, with the hilt, a son of five-pointed star. Somewhere, deep in Simon's self, he recognized this last sword. Somewhere, in a memory black as night, deep as a cave, he had seen such a blade. The swords began to disappear, one by one, and when they were gone only gray and white nothingness was left. Simon felt himself falling back—away from the mountain, away from the well chamber, away from the dream itself. A part of him welcomed this falling away, horrified by the terrible, forbidden places where his spirit had flown, but another part of him did not want to let go. Where were the answers?! His whole life had been caught up. snagged by the passage of some damnable, remorseless, uncaring wheel, and deep in the part of himself that was most private, he was desperately angry. He was frightened, too, trapped in a nightmare that would not end, but what he felt now was the anger; at that moment, it was the stronger. He resisted the pull, fighting with weapons he did not understand to retain the dream, to wring from it the knowledge he wanted. He seized the fast-diminishing whiteness and furiously tried to mold it, to make it into something that would tell him why Morgenes had died, why Dochais and the monks of Saint Hoderund's had perished, why the little girl Leieth lay close to death in a hut in the depths of the wild forest. He struggled and he hated. If a spark could weep, he wept. Slowly, painfully, the ice mountain formed again from the blankness before him. Where was the truth? He wanted answers! As Simon's dream-self struggled, the mountain grew taller, grew more slender, began sprouting branches like an icy tree as it reached into the heavens. Then the branches fell away, and it was only a smooth white tower—a tower that he knew. Flames burned at its summit. A great, booming sound came, like the tolling of a monstrous bell. The tower wavered. The bell thundered again. This was something of dreadful importance, he knew, something ghastly, something secret. He could feel an answer almost within reach.... Little fly! You have come to us, have you? A horrible, searing black nothingness reached up and engulfed him, blocking out the tower and the sounding bell. He felt the breath of life burning away inside his dream-self as infinite coldness closed around him. He was lost in the screamingly empty void, a tiny speck at the bottom of a sea of infinite black depths, cut free from life, breath, thought. Everything had vanished... everything except the horrible, crushing hatred of the thing that gripped him... smothered him. And then, beyond all hope, he was free. He was soaring, dizzyingly high above the world of Osten Ard, clutched in the strong talons of a large gray owl, flying like the wind's own child. The ice mountain was disappearing behind him, swallowed up in the immensity of the bone-white plain. In impossibly swift moments the owl carried him away, over lakes and ice and mountains, winging toward a dark line on the horizon. Just as it came clear to him, as the line became a forest, he felt himself beginning to slip from the owl's claws. The bird clutched him tighter, and dropped earthward in a whistling dive. The ground leaped up, and the owl spread her wide wings. They flattened out, gliding, and whirled across the snowfields toward the security of the forest.