And then they were under the eaves, and safe. Simon groaned and rolled over onto his side. His head was pound ing like Ruben the Bear's anvil during tournament time. His tongue seemed swollen to twice its normal size; the air he breathed tasted of metal. He pulled himself into a crouch, moving his heavy head as slowly as possible. Binabik was lying nearby, his wide face pale; Qantaqa nosed at the troll's side, whimpering. Across the smoking fireplace dark-haired Malachias was shaking Geloe, whose mouth hung slack, her lips gleaming wetly. Simon groaned again as his head throbbed, hanging down between his shoulders like a bruised fruit. He crawled to Binabik. The little man was breathing; even as Simon leaned over him the troll began to cough, gasped for air, and opened his eyes. "We..." he rasped, "we... are... all here?" Simon nodded, looking over to Geloe, still motionless despite Malachias' attentions. "A moment..." he said, and slowly got to his feet. He walked gingerly out the hut's front door carrying a small, empty pot. He was faintly surprised to see that, despite the pall of fog, it was still full afternoon; the time on the dream-road had seemed much longer than that. He also had the nagging feeling that something else had changed outside the cottage, but could not put his finger on what the difference was. The view seemed slightly off. He decided it must be some effect of his experience. After filling the pot with lake water and washing the sticky green paste from his hands, he returned to the house. Binabik drank thirstily, then gestured that Simon should take the container to Geloe. Malachias watched, half-hopeful, half-jealous, as Simon carefully took the witch woman's jaw in one hand and splashed a little water into her open mouth. She coughed, then swallowed, and Simon gave her a little more. As he held her head Simon was suddenly aware that, in some way, Geloe had saved him while they were all walking in dream. As he looked down at the woman, who was breathing more regularly now, he remembered the gray owl who had caught him up when his dream-self had been at its final gasp, and had borne him away. Geloe and the troll had not expected quite such a circumstance, he sensed; in fact, it was Simon who had put them in such danger. For once, though, he had no feelings of shame over his actions. He had done what needed doing. He had been fleeing the wheel long enough. "How is she?" Binabik asked. "I think she will be well," Simon replied, looking at the witch woman carefully. "She saved me, didn't she?" Binabik stared for a moment, hair hung in sweaty spikes on his brown forehead. "It is likely that she did," he said finally. "She is a powerful ally, but even her strength has been by this taxed to the limit." "What did it mean?" Simon asked now, releasing Geloe to the supporting arms of Malachias. "Did you see what I saw? The mountain, and... and the lady with the mask, and the book?" "I wonder if we saw all things the same, Simon," Binabik answered slowly. "But I am thinking it is important we wait until Geloe can share her thoughts with us. Perhaps later, when we have eaten. I am full of terrible hunger." Simon gave the troll a shaky half-smile, and turned to find Malachias staring at him. The boy started to turn away, then seemed to find some internal resolution and held his stare, until it was Simon who began to feel uncomfortable. "It was as if the whole house was shaking," Malachias said abruptly, startling Simon more than a little. The boy's voice was strained, high-pitched and hoarse. "What do you mean?" Simon asked, fascinated as much by the fact of Malachias speaking as by what he said. "The whole cottage. While you three sat and stared at the fire, the walls began to... to quiver. Like someone picked it up and set it down again." "Most likely it was only the way we were moving while we were... I mean... oh, I don't know." Simon gave up in disgust. The truth was, he didn't really know anything right at this moment. His brains felt as though they'd been stirred with a stick. Malachias turned away to give more water to Geloe. Raindrops suddenly began to patter down onto the windowsill; the gray sky could hold back its burden of storm no longer. The witch woman was grim. They had pushed aside the soup bowls and sat facing each other on the bare floor: Simon, the troll, and the mistress of the cottage. Malachias, although obviously interested, remained on the bed beside the little girl. "I saw evil things moving," Geloe said, and her eyes flashed. "Evil things that will shake the roots of the world we know." She had recovered her strength, and something else: she was solemn, and grave as a king in judgment. "I almost wish we had not taken the dream-path—but that is an idle wish, from the part of me that wants just to be left alone. I see darker days coming, and I fear to be drawn in by events so ill-omened." "What do you mean?" Simon asked. "What was all that? Did you see the mountain, too?" "Stormspike." Binabik's voice was strangely flat. Geloe looked over at him, nodded, then turned back to Simon. "True. It was Sturmrspeik we saw, as they call it in Rimmersgard, where it is a legend, as far as Rimmersmen are concerned. Stormspike. The mountain of the Norns." "We Qanuc," Binabik said, "know Stormspike to be real. But still, the Norns have not been intruding on the affairs of Osten Ard since time beyond time. Why now? It looked to me as if, as if..." "As if they were preparing for war," Geloe finished for him. "You are right, if the dream is to be trusted. Whether it was true-seeing, of course, would take a better-trained eye than even mine. But you said the hounds that pursue you wear the brand of Stormspike; that is real evidence in the waking world. I think we can trust this part of the dream, or at least I think we ought to." "Preparing for war?" Simon was already confused. "Against who? And who was the woman in the silver mask?" Geloe looked very tired. "The mask? Not a woman. A creature out of legend, you could say, or a creature out of time beyond time, as Binabik put it. That was Utufc'ku, the Queen of the Norns." Simon felt a chill sweep over him. The wind outside sang a cold and lonely song. "But what are these Norns? Binabik said they were Sithi." "The old wisdom says that they were part of the Sithi once," Geloe responded. "But they are a lost tribe, or renegades. They never came to Asu'a with the rest of their folk, but disappeared into the unmapped north, the icy lands beyond Rimmersgard and its mountains. They chose to separate themselves from the doings of Osten Ard, although that seems to be changing." For a moment Simon saw a flicker of deep unease cross the witch woman's sour, practical face. And these Norns are helping Elias chase me? he thought, feeling panic rise again. Why am I sunk in this nightmare? Then, as if his fright had opened a door in his mind, he remembered something. Unpleasant shapes climbed up from the hidden places in his heart, and he struggled to catch his breath. "Those... those pale people. The Norns. I've seen them before!" "What!?" Geloe and the troll spoke at the same time, leaning forward. Simon, startled by their intensity, backed away. "When?" Geloe snapped. "It happened... I think it happened: it may have been a dream... on the night I ran away from the Hayholt. I was in the lich-yard, and I thought I heard something calling my name—a woman's voice. I was so frightened that I ran away, out of the lich-yard and toward Thisterborg." There was a stirring on the pallet: Malachias nervously shifting position. Simon ignored him and continued. "There was a fire on top of Thisterborg, up among the Anger Stones. Do you know them?" "I do," Geloe's response was matter of fact, but Simon sensed some weight behind the words he did not understand. "Well, I was cold and frightened, so I climbed up. I'm sorry, but I was so sure that this was a dream. Perhaps it is." "Perhaps. Go on." "There were men on the top. They were soldiers, I could tell because they wore armor." Simon felt a thin sweat break on his palms, and nibbed them together. "One of them was King Elias. I was frightened even more, then, so I hid. Then... then there was a horrible creaking noise, and a black wagon came up the far side of the hill." It was coming back, all coming back... or, at least, it seemed like all... but there were still empty shadows. "Those pale-skinned people—the Norns, that's what they were—were with it, several of them, dressed in black robes." There was a long pause while Simon struggled to remember. Rain drummed on the cottage roof. "And?" the valada asked at last, gently. "Elysia Mother-of-God!" Simon swore, and tears started in his eyes. "I can't remember! They gave him something, something from the wagon. Other things happened, too, but it feels like it's all under a blanket in my head. I can touch it, but I can't tell what it is! They gave him something! I thought it was a dream!" He buried his face in his hands, trying to squeeze the painful thoughts from his whirling head. Binabik awkwardly patted Simon's knee. "This is perhaps answering our other question. I, too, pondered over why the Norns should be readying for battle. I wondered if they would be fighting against Elias the High King, as some age-old grievance against mankind. Now, it has the appearance to me that they are helping him. Some kind of bargain has been struck. Possibly it was that which Simon saw. But how? How could Elias ever make such compact with the secretive Norns?" "Pryrates." As soon as Simon said it, he was sure it was true. "Morgenes said that Pryrates opened doors, and that terrible things came through. Pryrates was on that hill, too." Valada Geloe nodded her head. "It makes a kind of sense. A question that must be answered, but one that I am sure is beyond our powers, is—what was the bargaining-tally? What could these two, Pryrates and the king, have to offer to the Norns for their aid?" They shared a long silence. "What did the book say?" Simon asked abruptly. "On the dream road. Did you see the book, too?" Binabik thumped the heel of his hand against his chest. "It was there. The runes I saw were of Rimmersgard: 'Du Svardenvyrd.' In your speech it means: The Spell of the Swords.' " "Or Weird of the Swords," Geloe added. "It is a famous book in the circles of the wise, but it has been long lost. I have never seen it. It is said to have been written by Nisses, a priest who was a counselor to King Hjeldin the Mad." "The one Hjeldin's tower is named after?" Simon asked her. "Yes. That is where Hjeldin and Nisses both died." Simon considered. "I saw three swords, too." Binabik looked to Geloe. "Only shapes was I seeing," the troll said slowly. "I thought they might have the look of swords." The witch woman had not been sure, either. Simon described the silhouettes, but they meant nothing to her or to Binabik. "So," the little man said at last, "we have learned what from the dream-road—that the Norns are giving aid to Elias? This we guessed. That a strange book is playing some part... perhaps? This is a new thing. We were given a dream-glimpse of Stormspike, and the halls of the mountain's queen. We may have learned things that we do not understand yet—still, I am thinking, one thing has changed not at all: we must take ourselves to Naglimund. Valada, your house will be protection for a while, but if Josua lives he has need to know of these things." Binabik was interrupted from an unexpected quarter. "Simon," Malachias said, "you said someone called you in the lich-yard. It was my voice you heard. I was the one calling you." Simon could only gape. Geloe smiled. "At last, one our mysteries begins to speak! Go on, child. Tell them what you must." Malachias blushed furiously. "I... my name is not Malachias. It is... Marya." "But Marya is a girl's name," Simon began, then broke off at the sight of Geloe's widening grin. "A girl...?" he said lamely. He stared at the strange boy's face, and suddenly saw it for what it was. "A girl," he grunted, feeling impossibly stupid. The witch woman chuckled. "It was obvious, I must say—or it should have been. She had the advantage of traveling with a troll and a boy, and the cloak of confusing, dangerous events, but I told her the deception could not last." "Especially not all the way to Naglimund, and that is where I must go." Marya nibbed her eyes wearily. "I have an important message to bear to Prince Josua from his niece, Miriamele. Please do not ask me what it is, for I may not tell you." "What of your sister?" Binabik asked. "She will not be able to travel for a long time." He, too, squinted at the surprising Marya, as if trying to discover how he had been fooled. It did seem obvious, now. "She is not my sister," Marya said sadly. "Leieth was the princess' handmaiden. We were very close. She was frightened to stay in the castle without me, and was desperate to come along." She looked down at the sleeping child. "I should never have brought her. I tried to pull her up into the tree before the dogs caught us. If I had only been stronger..." "It is not clear," Geloe broke in, "whether the little girl will ever be able to travel. She has not moved far from the brink of death. I am sorry to say it, but it is the truth. You must leave her with me." Marya started to protest, but Geloe would not listen. Simon was disturbed to see what he thought was a glimmer of relief in the girl's dark eyes. It angered him to think she would leave the wounded child behind, no matter how important the message. "So," Binabik said finally, "where is it we are now? We still must reach Naglimund, and we are blocked by leagues of forest and the steep slopes of Wealdhelm. Not mentioning those who will be in our pursuit." Geloe thought carefully. "It seems clear to me," she said, "that you must get through the forest to Da'ai Chikiza. That is an old Sithi place, long-deserted, of course. There you can find the Stile, which is an old road through the hills from a time when the Sithi regularly traveled between there and Asu'a—the Hayholt. It is unused now, except by animals, but it will be the easiest, safest place to cross. I can give you a map in the morning. Yes, Da'ai Chikiza..." A deep light kindled in her yellow eyes, and she nodded her head slowly, as if lost in thought. A moment later she blinked, and became her brisk self once more. "Now you should sleep. We should all sleep. The day's doings have left me limp as a willow branch." Simon didn't think so. He thought the witch woman looked strong as an oak tree—but he supposed even an oak could suffer in a storm. Later, as he lay curled in his cloak, the warm bulk of Qantaqa's somewhat intrusive presence against his legs, he tried to push away thoughts of the terrible mountain. Such things were too vast, too murky. Instead, he wondered what Marya must think of him. A boy, Geloe had called him, a boy who did not know what a girl looked like. But that was not fair—when had there been time to think about it? Why had she been spying in the Hayholt? For the princess, perhaps? And if it had been Marya who called to him in the lich-yard, why? How had she known his name, why had she bothered to learn it? He didn't remember ever seeing her at the castle—or at least not as a girl. When he at last floated off into sleep, like a tiny boat pushed out onto a black ocean, he felt as though he pursued a receding light, a patch of brightness just out of reach. Outside the windows, rain covered the dark mirror of Geloe's lake.
27 The Gossamer Towers HE TRIED to ignore the hand on his shoulder, but could not. Opening his eyes, he found the room still quite dark, two angular sittings of stars the only indication of where the windows stood. "Let me sleep," he moaned. "It's too early!" "Get up, boy!" came the harsh whisper. It was Geloe, her robe loosely drawn about her. "There is no time to waste." Blinking his dry and painful eyes, Simon looked past the kneeling woman to see Binabik quietly repacking his bag. "What's going on?" he asked, but the troll seemed too busy to talk. "I have been outside," Geloe said. "The lake has been discovered—I assume by the men who were hunting you." Simon sat up quickly and reached for his boots. It all seemed so unreal in the near-darkness; nevertheless, he could feel his heart beating swiftly. "Usires!" he cursed quietly. "What shall we do? Will they attack us?" "I do not know," Geloe answered as she left him to go and wake Malachias—no, Marya, Simon reminded himself. "There are two camps, one at the lake's far end by the inlet stream, one not far from here. Either they know whose house this is and are trying to decide what to do, or they do not yet know the cottage is here at all. They may have arrived after we put the candles out." A sudden question occurred to him. "How do you know they're out at the far end?" He peered through the window. The lake was again shrouded in fog, and there was no sign of campfires. "It's so dark," he finished, and turned back to Geloe. She was certainly not dressed to be out prowling in the woods. Her feet were bare! But even as he looked at her, at the hastily donned robe and the wet beads of mist clinging to her face and hair, he remembered the great wings of the owl who had flown before them to this lake. He could still feel the strong talons that had carried him away when the hateful thing on the Road of Dreams had been crushing out his life. "I don't suppose it's important, is it?" he finished at last. "It's only important that we know they're out there." Despite the faint moonlight, he saw the witch woman grin. "Right you are, Simon-boy," she said softly, then went to help Binabik fill two more bags, one each for Simon and Marya. "Listen," Geloe said as Simon, now dressed, came over. "It is obvious you must get out now, before dawn," she squinted out at the stars for a moment, "which will not be long in coming. The question is, how?" "All we can hope," Binabik grunted, "is to slip away and try and pass them in the forest, moving with great quietness. We with certainty cannot fly." He grinned, somewhat sourly. Marya, bundling into a cloak the valada had given her, stared at the troll's smile in puzzlement. "No," said Geloe seriously, "but I also doubt you could slip by those terrible hounds. You may not fly, but you can float away. I have a boat tied beneath the house. It is not big, but it will hold you all—Qantaqa too, if she does not frolic around." She affectionately ruffled the ears of the wolf, who reclined by her squatting master. "And of what good is that?" Binabik asked. "Shall we paddle out to the center of the lake, then in the morning dare them to swim and get us?" He finished the last bag and pushed one toward Simon, one toward the girl. "There is an inlet stream," Geloe said. "It is small and not very fast-flowing, not even as strong as the one you followed on your way here. With four paddles you can easily make your way out of the lake and up it some ways." Her faint frown was more contemplative than worried. "Unfortunately, it also passes by one of the two camps. Well, that is not to be helped. You must simply paddle quietly. Perhaps it will even help in your escape. Such a thickheaded man as your Baron Heahferth—believe me, I have had my dealings with him and his like!—would not credit that his quarry might slide by so near." "Heahferth is not giving me worry," Binabik replied. "It is that one who is truly leading the hunt—the Black Rimmersman, Ingen Jegger." "He probably doesn't even sleep," added Simon. He didn't like the memory of that one at all. Geloe made a wry face. "Never fear, then. Or at least, do not let fear overwhelm you. Some useful distraction or other may occur... one never knows." She stood up. "Come, boy," she said to Simon, "you are good-sized. Help me untie the boat and move it silently to the front door bridge." "Can you see it?" Geloe hissed, pointing at a dark shape bobbing on the ebony lake near the far corner of the elevated house. Simon, already knee-deep in the water, nodded his head. "Go quietly, then," she said—somewhat unnecessarily, Simon thought. As he waded around the side, head-high to the cottage's stilted floorboards. Simon decided that he had not been mistaken last afternoon, when he had felt that somehow things around the hut had changed. That tree there, roots halfway into the water: he had seen it the first day they had arrived, but then—he was sure, by Usires!—it had been on the cottage's other side, near the door plank. How could a tree move? He found the boat's tie rope with his fingers and slid them up until he encountered the place where it was tied to a sort of hoop hanging down from the bottom of the cottage. As he bent down at a back-aching angle to try and work the knot loose, he wrinkled his nose against the strange reek. Was it the lake, or the underside of the house itself that smelled so? Beside the odor of damp wood and mold, there was also a kind of odd, animal scent—warm and musky, but not unpleasant. Even as he squinted into the darkness the shadows lightened a bit; he could even see the knot! His pleasure at that, and the rapid untying that followed, was dashed by the cold realization that dawn would be coming soon: the fading darkness was his friend. After pulling the tie line loose, he began wading back, towing the boat quietly behind him. He could just discern the dim shape of Geloe standing huddled beside the long plank that sloped from the hut's entrance; he headed toward her as quickly as he could... until he tripped. With a splash and a muffled cry, he half-fell down onto one knee, then drew himself upright. What had caught at him? It felt like a log. He tried to step over the obstruction, but merely succeeded in putting his bare foot down directly on top of it, and had to stifle the urge to cry out again. Although it lay unmoving and solid, still it had the scaly feel of one of the pikefish from the Hayholt's moat, or one of the stuffed cockindrills Morgenes had kept perched on his shelves. As the ripples quieted, and he heard Geloe's quiet but wary voice asking if he had hurt himself, he looked down. Although the water was very nearly opaque in the darkness, Simon was sure he could see the outlines of some strange type of log, or rather a vast branch of some kind, for he could see that the thing he had tripped over, lying close beneath the surface of the water, joined two other scaly branches. Together they seemed connected to the base of one of the two pillars on which the cottage stood suspended over the lake.