Young Ostrael of Runchester stood shivering on the curtain wall and reflected on what his



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And as he stepped carefully over it, sliding silently through the water toward the shadow that was Geloe, he suddenly realized that what the tree roots—or branches, or whatever they were—what they truly looked like was... some kind of monstrous foot. A claw, actually, the claw of a bird. What a funny idea! A house did not have bird's feet, anymore than a house got up and... walked.
Simon was very quiet as Geloe tied the boat up to the base of the plank.
Everything and everybody was packed into the tiny boat: Binabik perched in the pointed brow, Marya in the middle, Simon seated in the stem with a restless Qantaqa between his knees. The wolf was obviously very uncomfortable; she had whined and resisted when Binabik ordered her into the little craft. He had finally needed to smack her lightly on the snout. The discomfort on the little man's face showed clearly even in the predawn darkness.
The moon had swung far into the blue-black vault of the lightening western sky. Geloe, after handing them the paddles, straightened up.
"Once you have gotten safely out of the lake and a bit upstream, I think you should probably carry the boat overland through the forest to the Aelfwent. It is not a very heavy craft, and you don't need to carry it far. The river is flowing the proper direction, and should get you to Da'ai Chikiza."
Binabik reached out with his paddle and pushed the boat away from the plank. Geloe stood ankle-deep at the lake's edge as they spun gently out from the shore.
"Remember," she whispered, "edge those paddles into the water as you reach the inlet stream. Silence! That is your protection."
Simon raised his palm. "Farewell, Valada Geloe."
"Farewell, young pilgrim." Her voice was already growing faint, with less than three cubits between them. "Good luck to you all. Fear not! I will take good care of the little girl." They slid quietly away, until the witch woman was only a shadow beside the house's near stilt.
The prow of the little boat cut through the water like a barber's blade through silk. At Binabik's gesture they lowered their heads, and the troll silently guided the craft toward the center of the misty lake. As Simon huddled into the thick fur of Qantaqa's back, feeling the pulse of her nervous breath, he watched tiny rings form on the lake's surface beside the boat; at first he thought it might be fish, up early to break their fast on mayflies and mosquitos. Then he felt a tiny drop of moisture splash on the back of his neck, and another. It was raining again.
As they neared the middle, cutting through swarms of hyacinths that lay scattered on the water before them as though cast in the path of a returning hero, the sky began to brighten. Dawn did not announce its arrival: it would be hours before the sun cut through the clouds and became visible in the sky. Rather, it was as if a layer of darkness had been stripped away from the heavens, the first of many veils. The line of trees that had been a blot of obscurity on the horizon became a thatch of distinguishable treetops profiled against the slate-gray sky. The water was black glass around them, but now some details of the shoreline could be seen, the faint, pale tree roots like the twisted legs of beggars, the dim silver shine of a granite outcropping—all standing around the secret lake like a court gallery waiting for the players to arrive, all slowly metamorphosing from gray night shapes to the vivid objects of day.
Qantaqa hunched, surprised, as Marya suddenly leaned forward to peer over the gunwale of the boat. She started to say something, checked herself, and instead pointed a finger out across the bow and slightly to the right.
Simon squinted, then saw it: an anomalous shape in the orderless but somehow symmetrical forest fringe, a square, blocky shape that was a different color from the dark branches around it—a striped blue tent.
Now they could see several more, a crowd of three or four just behind the first. Simon scowled, then smiled disdainfully. How typical of the Baron Heahferth—from what he had heard in his days at the castle, anyway—to carry such luxuries out into the wild forest.
Just beyond the scatter of small tents the lakeshore dipped back for several ells, then reappeared again, leaving a dark space in the middle as though a bite had been taken from the shoreline. Tree branches hung low over the water there; it was impossible to see if it was truly the river inlet, but Simon felt sure that it was.
Right where Geloe said! he thought. Sharp, sharp eyes she's got—but then, that's not much of a surprise, is it?
He pointed to the dark break in the lake's rim, and Binabik nodded; he had seen it, too.
As they neared the silent camp, Binabik had to paddle a bit harder to keep them scudding along at a good pace; Simon guessed that they must be starting to feel the push of the feeder stream. He delicately lifted his paddle to lower it over the side. Binabik, catching the movement from the corner of his eye, turned and shook his head, silently mouthing "not yet"; Simon stopped the small paddle just above the rain-puckered water.
As they slid past the tents, not thirty ells from the shore, Simon saw a dark shape moving among the walls of azure cloth. His throat tightened. It was a sentry: he could see the dull sheen of metal beneath the cloak. He might even be facing in their direction, but it was difficult to tell, for he had the hood of his cloak up around his head.
Within instants the others had also seen the man. Binabik slowly lifted his paddle from the water and they all leaned forward, hoping to show as little profile as possible. Even if the soldier chanced to look out onto the lake, perhaps his eye would pass over them, or see only a log bobbing on the water—but that was really too much to hope for, Simon felt sure. He could not imagine the man failing to spot them if he turned, close as they were.
Even as the progress of the little craft slowed, the dark gap in the shoreline came up before them. It was the inlet stream: Simon could see the water rippling faintly where it passed over the rounded back of a stone some few yards up the channel. It had also nearly stopped their forward motion; as a matter of fact, the nose of the boat was beginning to come around, rebuffed by the mild current. They would have to put paddles in the water soon, or be pushed into the bank just below the blue tents.
Then, finished with whatever had caught his attention at the far side of the camp, the sentry turned around to gaze out across the lake.
Within an instant, even before the mounting fear could truly take hold of them, a dark shape dropped from the trees over the camp and skimmed swiftly toward the sentry. It sailed through the branches like a huge gray leaf and fetched up against his neck, but this leaf had talons; when he felt them at his throat the armored man gave a shout of horror and dropped his spear, beating at whatever had clutched him. The gray shape fluttered up, wings churning, and hung over his head just beyond his reach. He shouted again, clutching his neck, and fumbled in the dirt for his spear.
"Now!" Binabik hissed. "Paddle!" He and Marya and Simon drove the wooden blades into the water, pulling desperately. For the first few strokes they seemed somehow snagged, water splashing purposelessly as the boat rocked. Then they began to ease forward, and within moments were pushing against the stronger current of the stream, sliding in beneath the overarching branches.
Simon looked back to see the sentry, head bare, leaping up and down trying to swat the hovering creature. A few of the other men sat up from their bedrolls, beginning to laugh as they watched their comrade, who had dropped his spear and was now throwing rocks at this daft, dangerous bird. The owl dodged the missiles with ease; as Simon lowered the curtain of leafy branches down behind the boat it gave a flirt of its wide white tail and circled up into the shadowed trees.
As they strained forward against the difficult current—surprisingly difficult, since on the surface it did not appear to be moving at all—Simon gave a quiet chortle of triumph.
For a long time they paddled hard against the river's flow. Even had they not felt the need for silence they would have been hard-pressed to make any conversation, the paddling was such strenuous work. At last, close to an hour later, they found a small backwater hedged in by a secretive screen of reeds where they could stop and rest.
The sun was now well up, a glowing blur behind a pearly, sky-wide canopy of clouds. A film of mist still clung to the forest and river, so that their surroundings seemed the landscape of a dream. Somewhere up ahead the stream was passing through or over some obstacle; the quiet purr of moving water was augmented by the chimelike tones of the watercourse leaping and splashing back upon itself.
Simon, panting, watched the girl Marya as she leaned on the gunwale, her cheek resting on her forearm. It was hard to understand how he had ever mistaken her for a boy. What he had seen as foxlike, as a sharpness of feature unusual in a boy, he now saw as delicacy. She was flushed with exertion; Simon stared at her ruddy cheek, and his eye moved down the white length of her extended neck, to the gentle but well-defined protrusion of her collarbone where the boy's shirt she wore gaped open at the throat.
She's not well-padded... not like Hepzibah, he mused. Huh! I'd like to see Hepzibah pass as a boy! Still, she's pretty in a kind of thin way. Her hair's so very black.
Marya's eyes fluttered closed. She continued to breathe deeply. Simon absently stroked Qantaqa's wide head.
"Well made, is she not?" Binabik asked cheerfully. Simon gaped at him, startled.
"What?"
Binabik frowned. "I am sorry. Perhaps you are calling them 'him' in Erkynland? 'It,' possibly? Still, you must agree that Geloe has done a job of great craft."
"Binabik," Simon said, his blush beginning to fade, "I don't have any idea what you are talking about."
The little man pounded the gunwale softly with the flat of his hand. "What a nice work Geloe has accomplished with bark and wood. And so light! We shall not have much trouble, I am thinking, to carry this overland to the Aelfwent."
"The boat..." Simon said, nodding like a village idiot. "The boat. Yes, it is well made."
Marya sat up. "Are we going to try and cross to the other river now?" she asked. As she turned again to look out across the thin strip of forest visible through the reeds, Simon noticed the dark circles under her eyes, her strained look. In a way, he was still upset with her for being relieved when Geloe volunteered to keep the child, but he was glad to see that this servant girl seemed concerned, that she wasn't just the kind of girl who laughed and teased all the time.
Well of course she's not, he thought a moment later. As a matter of fact, I don't think I've seen her smile yet. Not that things haven't been frightening—but you don't see me always frowning and moping.
"That might perhaps be a good idea," Binabik said, responding to Marya's question. "I believe that the noise which is sounding ahead is a gathering of rocks in the stream. If that is being the case. We would anyway have little choice but to carry the boat around. Perhaps Simon would go find out."
"How many years old are you?" Simon asked Marya. Binabik, surprised, turned around and stared. Marya quirked her lips and looked at Simon for a long moment.
"I am..." she began, then paused. "I will have sixteen years in Octander."
"Fifteen, then," said Simon, a little smugly.
"And you?" the girl challenged.
Simon bristled. "Fifteen!"
Binabik coughed. "Well and good that shipmates should have acquaintance of each other, but... perhaps later. Simon, could you go to see if those are indeed rocks ahead?"
He was about to agree, then suddenly did not want to. Was he an errand boy? A child, to run and find out things for the grown-ups? Who had made the decision to go and rescue this stupid girl from a tree, anyway?
"As long as we need to cross to the whatever-its-called, why bother?" he said. "Let's just do it."
The troll stared, then at length nodded his head. "Very well. I think it will do my friend Qantaqa good to be stretching her legs, besides." He turned to Marya. "Wolves are not sailors, you know."
Now for a few moments Marya stared at Binabik as if he were odder than Simon. Then she burst into ringing laughter.
"That's very true!" she said, and laughed again.
The canoe was indeed feathery light, but they still had difficulty carrying it through the clinging branches and creepers. To keep it at a height where both Binabik and the girl could help bear the load they had to hold the upside-down boat in such a way that the sharp angle of the stem kept thumping against Simon's breastbone. He couldn't see his feet as he walked, either, with the result that time and again he was tripped up in the undergrowth. Rain showered down through the overhanging net of boughs and leaves; with his hands occupied, Simon could not even wipe away the drops that ran into his eyes. He was not in the best of all possible moods.
"How far is it, Binabik?" he asked at last. "My chest is being battered to pieces by this by-Usires damnable boat."
"Not far, I am hoping," the troll called, his voice echoing strangely from beneath the stretched-bark shell. "Geloe said that the inlet stream and the Aelfwent run side by side for a long distance, being only a quarter of a league or so apart. Soon we should reach it."
"Soon it had better be," Simon said grimly. In front of him Marya made a noise that he was sure was a sound of disgust—disgust with him, probably. He scowled horribly, red hair stringy and wet on his forehead.
At last they heard another sound above the soft drumming of raindrops on leaves, a breathy rush that made Simon think of a room full of murmuring people. Qantaqa leaped ahead, clattering through the underbrush.
"Hah!" Binabik grunted, laying his end of the boat down. "You see? We have found it. T'si Suhyasei."
"I thought it was named Aelfwent." Marya rubbed the place where the boat had rested on her shoulder. "Or is that what trolls always say when they find a river?"
Binabik smiled. "No. That is a Sithi name. It is a Sithi river, in a way, since they used to be boating upon it when Da'ai Chikiza was their city. You should be knowing that. Aelfwent means 'Sithi river' in the old tongue of Erkynland."
"Then what does... what you said mean?" Marya asked.
"T'si Suhyasei?" Binabik thought. "Hard it is to say, exactly. It means something like: 'her blood is cool. ' "
"Her?" Simon asked, digging mud from his boots with a stick. "What's 'her' this time?"
"The forest," Binabik replied. "Come now. You can be washing that mud off in the water."
They carried the boat down the bank, pushing it through a thicket of cattails only with a great deal of stem snapping, until the river was before them—a wide, healthy expanse of water, far bigger than the inlet stream, and with what looked like a far stronger current. They had to lower the boat down into the gully carved by the river's passage; Simon, the tallest, wound up standing knee-deep in the shallows to receive the boat—his boots were indeed washed clean. He held the bobbing craft as Marya and the troll first levered a doubtful Qantaqa over the edge—without much help from the wolf herself—then followed after. Simon climbed in last, taking his place in the stem.
"Your positioning, Simon," Binabik told him gravely, "requires great responsibility. We shall find little need to paddle with a current of such vigor, but you must steer, and you must call out when there are rocks ahead so we can all help push away from them."
"I can do it," he said quickly. Binabik nodded and let go of the long branch he had been clutching; they eased off from the bank and out onto the surging Aelfwent.
It was a little difficult at first, Simon found. Some of the rocks that they needed to avoid were not even visible above the water's glassy surface; rather, they lay just below, only recognizable by the shiny humps made by the water above them. The first one that Simon did not see made a horrible noise scraping along the taut hull, giving them all a moment's scare, but the little boat bounded away from the submerged stone like a sheep fleeing the shears. Soon Simon had the feel of it; in spots the craft seemed almost to skim the top of the water, weightless as a leaf on the river's undulating back.
As they hit a stretch of smoother water, the clamor of the rocks falling away behind them, Simon felt his heart swell within his chest. The playful hands of the river tugged his trailing paddle. A memory of climbing on the Hayholt's broad battlements came to him—breathless with his own power, with the sight of the ordered fields lying so far below. He remembered, too, crouching in the bell chamber of Green Angel Tower, looking down on the huddling houses of Erchester, staring out over the broad world with the wind in his face. Now, in the stem of the little boat, he was again both of the world and above it, far above it, sailing like the spring wind gusting through the treetops. He lifted the paddle in the air before him... it was now a sword.
"Usires was a sailor," he abruptly sang, the words coming back to him in a rush. It was a tune someone had sung to him when he was very young.
'"Usires was a sailor

He went upon the ocean

He took the Word of God

And he went sailing to Nabban-o!"
Binabik and Marya turned to look at him; Simon grinned.
"Tiyagaris was a soldier

He went upon the ocean

He took the Word of Justice

And went sailing to Nabban-o!
King John he was a ruler

He went upon the ocean

He took the word of Aedon

And went sailing to Nabban-o!..."
He trailed off.
"Why do you stop?" Binabik asked. Marya still stared, a speculative look in her eye.
"That's all I know," Simon said, lowering his paddle back into the boat's rippling wake. "I don't even know where it's from. I think one of the chambermaids used to sing it when I was small."
Binabik smiled. "A good song for river travel, I am thinking, although some of the details have not much historical correctness. Are you sure you can remember no more?"
"That's it." His failure to recall troubled him little. Just a short hour on the river had redeemed his mood entirely. He had been on a fisherman's boat in the bay, and had enjoyed it... but that was nothing to this, to the forest rushing by, and the feeling of the delicate boat beneath him, as sensitive and responsive as a colt.
"I have no sailing songs to sing," the troll said, pleased by Simon's change of mood. "In high Qanuc the rivers are ice, and used only for the sliding games of trollings. I could be singing perhaps of mighty Chukku, and his adventures..."
"I know a river song," said Marya, running a slender white hand through her thatch of black hair. "The streets of Meremund are full of sailor's songs."
"Meremund?" Simon asked. "How did a castle girl ever get to Meremund?"
Marya curled her lip at him. "And where do you think the princess and all her court lived before we came to the Hayholt—the wilds of Nascadu?" She snorted. "Meremund, of course. It is the most beautiful city in the world, where the ocean and the great river Gleniwent meet. You wouldn't know, you haven't been there. " She grinned wickedly. "Castle boy."
"Then sing!" Binabik said, waving his hand before him. "The river waits to hear. The forest, too!"
"I hope I remember," she said, sneaking a glance at Simon, who haughtily returned it—her remark had barely touched the buoyancy of his mood. "It's a river rider song," she continued, then cleared her throat and began—tentatively at first, then more confidently—to sing in a sweet, throaty voice.
"... Now those who sail the Big Pond

Will tell you of its mystery

They'll brag of all those battles

And all that bloody history
But talk to any river-dog

Who sails upon the Gleniwent

He'll say God made the oceans

But the River's what he really meant
Oh, the Ocean is a question

But the River is an answer

With her rollicking and frolicking

As fine as any dancer
So let Hell take the shirkers

For this old boat won't carry 'em

And if we lose some crew or two

We'll drink to 'em at Meremund...
Now some men go away to sea

And they're never seen again

But every night we river-dogs

Are found down at the inn
And some may say we drink a bit

And punch it up a mite

But if the river is your lady

That's just how you rest at night
Oh, the Ocean is a question

But the River is an answer

With her rollicking and frolicking

As fine as any dancer
So let Hell take the shirkers

For this old boat won't carry 'em

And if we lose some crew or two

We'll drink to 'em at Meremund...
In Meremund! In Meremund!

We'll drink to 'em in Meremund

If we don't spy 'em floating by

It'll save the penny to bury 'em...!"
By the time Marya had gotten to the chorus the second time around, Simon and Binabik knew the words well enough to join in. Qantaqa flattened her ears as they hooted and shouted down the swift-racing Aelfwent.
"Oh the Ocean is a question, but the River is an answer..." Simon was singing at the top of his lungs when the nose of the boat dipped down into a trough and bounced up: they were among the rocks again. By the time they had negotiated the roiling waters and were out into the clear, they were all too breathless for singing. Simon, however, was still grinning, and as the gray clouds above the forest roof opened, showering down more rain, he tilted his chin up and caught the drops on his tongue.
"Raining, now," Binabik said, eyebrows arched beneath the hair plastered to his forehead. "I am thinking we shall get wet."
The brief instant of silence was pierced by the troll's high-pitched, gusting laugh.



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