When the light filtering down through the canopy of trees began to dim, they steered the boat to the side and made camp. After building a fire, using his sack of yellow dust to kindle the damp wood, Binabik produced a parcel of fresh vegetables and fruits from one of the packs Geloe had provided. Qantaqa, left to her own devices, went slinking off into the tall brush, returning some time later with her fur soaking wet and a few streaks of blood adorning her muzzle. Simon looked at Marya, who was meditatively sucking on a peach pit, to see what her reaction would be to this evidence of the brutal side of the wolf's nature, but if the girl noticed she showed no signs of unease. She must have worked in the princess' kitchens, he guessed. Still, if I had one of Morgenes' stuffed lizards to slip in her cloak, then she'd jump, I'll wager. Thinking about her working in castle kitchens set him to wondering just what it was she had done in the princess' service—and now that he thought of it, what had she been doing spying on him? But when he tried to ask her questions about the princess, she only shook her head, saying that she could not say anything about her mistress or her services until the message had been delivered at Naglimund. "I am hoping you will forgive my asking," Binabik said as he packed away the few supper things and took his walking stick apart, producing at last his flute, "but what is your plan if Josua is not at Naglimund, for receiving your message?" Marya looked disturbed by this, but still would not say anything more. Simon was tempted to ask Binabik about their plans, about Da'ai Chikiza and the Stile, but the troll was already tootling absently on his flute. Night pulled a blanket of darkness over all the great Aldheorte but their tiny fire. Simon and Marya sat listening as the troll set his music to swooping and echoing in the rainy treetops. They were on the river soon after sunup the next day. The rhythms of the moving water now seemed as familiar as a child's rhyme: the long idle stretches in which it seemed that their boat was a rock upon which they sat while the vast sea of trees marched by on either side, then the dangerous excitement of the fast-running rapids that shook the frail craft as though it were a hooked and wriggling fish. The rain let up in mid-morning, and in its place the sun sprinkled down through the overhanging branches, dotting the river and forest floor with puddles of light. The welcome respite from the weather—unusually wintry for late Maia, Simon couldn't help noticing, remembering the icy mountain of their shared dream—kept their spirits high. As they floated along through the tunnel of leaning trees, broken here and there by majestic sheets of sunlight that streamed down through gaps in the tangled branches to turn the river briefly into a mirror of polished, golden glass, they entertained each other with talk. Simon, reluctantly at first, told of the people he had known at the castle—Rachel, Tobas the dogkeeper, who daubed his nose black with lamp grease to more easily pass as family among his charges, Peter Gilded-Bowl, giant Ruben and the rest. Binabik spoke more of his journeying, of his youthful travels to the brackish Wran-country and the dismal, exotic wastelands east of his Mintahoq home. Even Marya, despite her initial reticence and the large area of unapproachable topics, made Simon and the troll smile with her imitations of river-sailor and ocean-mariner arguments, and her observations about some of the dubious nobility that surrounded the Princess Miriamele at Meremund and the Hayholt. Only once did the conversation of the second day's boating turn to the darker subjects that shadowed all the companions' thoughts. "Binabik," Simon asked, as they took their midday meal in a sunlit patch of forest-meadow, "do you really think we've left those men behind? Might there be others looking for us, too?" The troll flicked an apple pip from his chin. "I do not know anything with sureness, friend Simon—as I have already been saying. Sure I am that we slipped by, that there was no immediate pursuit, but since I cannot be knowing why exactly they seek us, I cannot know whether they can find us. Do they know we are bound for Naglimund? That is not a difficult thing to be supposing. But, three things are in our favor." "What things?" Marya asked, a slight frown on her face. "First, it is easier to hide than find in a forest." He held up a stubby finger. "Second, we are taking a back route to Naglimund that is not well-known for hundreds of years." Another finger. "Last, to find out our route, those men will have to hear it from Geloe," his third finger straightened, "and that is a thing that will not, I think, happen." Simon had been secretly worrying about just this. "Won't they hurt her? Those were men with swords and spears, Binabik. Owls won't scare them off forever if they think we're with her." A grave nod. The troll tented his short fingers. "I am not being unconcerned, Simon. Daughter of the Mountains, I am not! But you know little of Geloe. To think of her only as a village wise woman is to be making a mistake, a mistake Heahferth's men may regret if they do not treat her with respect. A long time Valada Geloe has walked Osten Ard: she has been many years in the forest, and many, many years before that among the Rimmersgarders. Even preceding that, she was coming up from the south into Nabban, and her travels before no one knows. She is one who can be trusted for taking care of herself—far more than I, or even, as was proved with such sadness, that good man Morgenes." He reached for another apple, the last in the bag. "But that is enough of such worrying. The river is waiting, and our hearts must be light, so we can faster travel." Later in the afternoon, as the shadows of the trees began to blend together into one large blotch of shade stretched across the river, Simon learned more of the mysteries of the Aelfwent. He was digging through his pack, searching for a bit of rag to wrap around his hands, to protect them from the blisters raised by the coarse paddle. He found something that felt like what he was searching for and pulled it out. It was the White Arrow, still bound in the tattered hem of his shirt. It was surprising to suddenly have it in his hand again, to feel its delicacy laying in his palm like a feather that might be swept away in the first errant breeze. He carefully unwrapped the shielding cloth. "Look here," he said to Marya, reaching past Qantaqa to show it nestled on its blanket of rag. "It's a Sithi White Arrow. I saved the life of a Sitha-man and he gave it to me." He reconsidered briefly. "Shot it at me, actually." It was a beautiful thing; in the dimming light it was almost luminous, like the shimmering breast of a swan. Marya looked at it for a moment, then touched it with a raised finger. "It's pretty," she said, but in her tone there was none of the admiration Simon had hoped to hear. "Of course it's pretty! It's sacred. It means a debt owed. Ask Binabik, he'll tell you." "Simon is correct," the troll called back from the prow. "That was happening just before we met." Marya continued to regard the arrow calmly, as though her mind flew elsewhere. "It's a lovely thing," she said, only slightly more conviction in her voice than the time before. "You're very lucky, Simon." He didn't know why, but that made him furious. Didn't she realize what he had been through? Lich-yards, trapped Sithi, the hounds, the enmity of a High King!? Who was she, to answer like one of the chambermaids absentmindedly soothing him when he had skinned a knee? "Of course," he said, holding the arrow up before him so it caught a beam of near-horizontal sunlight, the riverbank a moving tapestry behind it, "of course, for all the luck it's brought me so far—attacked, bitten, hungry, chased—I might as well have never got it." He stared at it crossly, running his eyes over the carvings that might have been the story of his life since he had left the Hayholt, complicated but meaningless. "I really might as well throw it away," he said casually. He never would, of course, but it was strangely satisfying to pretend that he might. "I mean to say, what good has it brought me...?" Binabik's warning cry came in midsentence, but by the time Simon could sort things out it was too late. The boat struck the hidden rock almost directly; the craft lurched, stem breaching the water with a sucking splash. The arrow flew from Simon's hand to go spinning through the air and into the water churning around the rocks. As the boat's rear smacked down, Simon turned to look for it; a moment later they skidded off another submerged stone and he was falling, the boat tipping, falling.... The water was shockingly cold. For an instant it was as though he had fallen through some hole in the world into absolute night. Then he was gasping, breaking the surface, whirling crazily in the turbulent water. He struck a rock, spun away and went under again, terrifying water pushing the air from his nose and mouth. Struggling, he got his head to the top again and tensed as the swirling current battered him against one hard object after another. He felt wind on his face for a moment and sucked in, coughing; he felt some of the praise-Usires air making its way into his burning lungs. Then, suddenly, the rocks were past and he was floating free, kicking to keep his head above the plane of the river. To his surprise, the boat was behind him now, just sliding around the last of the hump-backed stones. Binabik and Marya were paddling hard, eyes round with fear, but Simon saw the distance gradually growing wider. He was slipping downstream, and as he pivoted his head wildly to either side he saw the riverbanks were shockingly far away. He gasped in
another great clout of air. "Simon!" Binabik yelled, "Swim back to us! We cannot row fast enough!" Floundering, he tried to turn about and struggle back to them, but the river pulled him with a thousand invisible fingers. He splashed, trying to form his hands into the paddle shapes Rachel—Morgenes?—had once shown him as they held him suspended in the shallows of the Kynslagh, but the effort seemed laughable against the all-pervading power of the current. He was tiring fast; he could not find his legs anymore, felt nothing but a cold emptiness when he tried to make them kick. The water splashed up into his eyes, prisming the reaching tree branches as he slipped back under the surface. Something smacked down beside his hand, and he beat his arms against the cold water to climb back up one last time. It was Marya's paddle. With her longer reach she had pushed up to Binabik's place in the prow and stretched out, extending the flat piece of wood to within inches of his grasp. Qantaqa was standing beside her, barking, straining forward almost in mimicry of the girl; the canoe, with so much weight forward, was leaning dangerously. Simon sent a thought back to where his legs had been, told them to kick if they could hear him, and threw out his hand. He barely felt the paddle as he curled his numb fingers about it, but it was there, just where he needed it to be. After they had hauled him over the side—a nearly impossible task in itself, since he weighed more than any of them except the wolf—and after he had coughed out or thrown up great quantities of river water, he lay panting and shivering, curled in a ball at the bottom of the boat while the girl and the troll searched for a spot to make landing. He recovered enough strength to crawl out of the boat by himself on shaking legs. As he fell on his knees, spreading grateful palms on the soft forest floor, Binabik reached down and plucked something loose from the sodden, ragged mess that was Simon's shirt. "See what was caught up in your clothes," Binabik said, an odd look on his face. It was the White Arrow. "Let us make a fire for you, poor Simon. Perhaps you have had a lesson—a cruel lesson, but a serious one—about speaking ill of Sithi gifts while sailing on a Sithi river." Denied even the strength to be embarrassed as Binabik helped him shed his clothes and wrapped him in his cloak, Simon fell asleep in front of the blessed fire. His dreams were unsurprisingly dark, full of things that clutched and smothered. Clouds hovered low the following morning. Simon felt very sick. After chewing and swallowing a couple of strips of dried meat—against the protestations of his queasy stomach—he clambered gingerly into the boat, letting Marya take the stem this time while he huddled in the middle, Qantaqa's warm bulk pressed against him. He slept on and off throughout the long day on the river. The sliding green blur that was the forest made him dizzy, and his head felt hot and much too large, like a potato swelling on the coals. Both Binabik and Marya checked the progress of his fever solicitously. When he woke from the sludgy doze he had fallen into while his two companions ate lunch, and found them bending over him, Marya's cool palm on his forehead, his confused thought was, What a strange mother and father I have! They halted for the night just as twilight began creeping through the trees. Simon, swaddled m his cloak like an infant, sat close to the fire, unwrapping his arms only long enough to drink some soup the troll had prepared, a broth of dried beef, turnips and onions. "We must be getting up with the first footsteps of the sun tomorrow," Binabik said, proffering the stem end of a turnip to the wolf, who sniffed it with benign indifference. "Close we are to Da'ai Chikiza, but it would be senseless to come upon it at night when it could not be properly seen. In any way, we will have a long climbing up the Stile from there, and may as well undertake it when the day is warm." Simon watched bleanly as the troll pulled Morgenes' manuscript from one of the packs and unwrapped it, squatting close to the flickering campfire and tilting the pages to read, he looked like a little monk at prayer over his Book of the Aedon. The wind rustled through the trees overhead, knocking loose water drops that had clung to the leaves, remnants of the afternoon's shower. Mixed in with the dull rush of the waters below was the insistent piping of the tiny river frogs. It took Simon a while to realize that the soft pressure against his shoulder was not just another strange message from his sick, discomforted body. He laboriously turned his chin past the collar of his heavy wool cloak, freeing a hand to shoo Qantaqa off, only to see Marya's dark head resting on his upper arm, mouth slightly open, breath easing in and out with the rhythms of sleep. Binabik looked over. "It was a hard day of working, today," he smiled. "Much paddling. If it is not paining you, let her stay there a bit." He turned back to the manuscript. Marya stirred against him and murmured something. Simon tugged the cloak that Geloe had loaned her up higher; as it touched her cheek she half-muttered something, reached up a hand and patted clumsily at Simon's chest, then squirmed a little nearer. The sound of her even breathing so close to his ear threaded its way in among the noises of river and night forest. Simon shivered, and felt his eyes becoming heavy, so heavy... but his heart was beating swiftly, and it was the sound of his restless blood that led him down a path toward warm darkness. In the gray, diffuse light of a rainy dawn, with eyes still sticky with sleep and bodies queerly unresponsive from their too-early start, they saw the first bridge. Simon was in the stem again. Despite the disorientation of boarding the boat and joining the river in near-darkness, he felt better than he had the day before, still light-headed, but much more fit. As they rounded a bend in the river, which leaped along happily, careless of the hour, he saw a strange shape arched across the water ahead. Wiping his eyes free for a moment of the misty drizzle that seemed not so much to fall as to hang in the air, he squinted. "Binabik," he asked, leaning forward, "is that a..." "A bridge it is, yes," the troll replied cheerily. "The Gate of Cranes, I think it must be " The river bore them ever closer, and they shipped water with their paddles to slow down The bridge stretched up from the choking undergrowth of the river bank to extend in a slender arc into the trees on the other side. Carved in pale, translucent green stone, it seemed delicate as a span of frozen sea foam. Once covered with intricate carvings, now much of its surface was obscured by moss and twining ivy; the spots that showed through had been worn down, the whorls and curves and hard angles softened, rounded by wind and rain. Perched at its apex, directly over their heads as the little boat slid underneath, a cream-green, translucent stone bird spread its water-worn wings. They passed through the faint shadow in moments, and were out the other side. The forest suddenly seemed to breathe antiquity, as though they had slid through an open door into the past. "Long ago have the river roads been swallowed up by Oldheart," Binabik said quietly as they all turned to watch the bridge dwindling behind them. "Perhaps even the other works of the Sithi will be fading someday." "How could people cross over a river on such a thing?" Marya wondered. "It looked so... so fragile." "More fragile than it was once, that is certain," Binabik said with a wistful backward glance. "But the Sithi never built... never build... for beauty alone. Their works have strength. Does not the tallest tower in Osten Ard, the work of their hands, still stand in your Hayholt?" Marya nodded, thinking. Simon trailed his fingers in the cold water. They passed eleven more bridges, or "gates" as Binabik called them, since they had for a thousand years or more marked the river entrance to Da'ai Chikiza. Each gate was named for an animal, the troll explained, and corresponded to a phase of the moon. One by one, they drifted beneath Foxes, Roosters, Hares and Doves, each one slightly different in shape, made of pearly moonstone or bright lapis, but all unmistakably the work of the same sublime and reverent hands. By the time the sun had climbed behind the clouds to its midmorning station they were just slipping beneath the Gate of Nightingales. On the far side of this span, on whose proud carvings flecks of gold still glimmered, the river began to turn, bearing west one more time toward the unseen eastern flank of the Wealdhelm Hills. There were no surface-roiling rocks here; the current moved swiftly and evenly. Simon was in the midst of asking Marya a question when Binabik raised his hand. As they rounded a bend it was before them; a forest of impossibly graceful towers, set like a jeweled puzzle within the larger forest of trees. The Sithi city, flanking the river on either side, seemed to grow out of the very soil. It seemed the forest's own dream realized in subtle stone, a hundred shades of green and white and pale summer-sky blue. It was an immense thicket of needle-thin stone, of gossamer walkways like bridges of spiderweb, of filagreed tower tops and minarets reaching up into the high treetops to catch sun on their faces like icy flowers. The world's past lay open before them, breathtaking and heartrending. It was the most beautiful thing Simon had ever seen. But as they floated into the city, the river winding around the slender columns, it became apparent that the forest was reclaiming Da'ai Chikiza. The tiled towers, intricate with cracks, were netted in ivy and the twining branches of trees. In many places, where once there had been walls and doors of wood or some other perishable substance, the stone outlines now stood precariously unsupported, like the bleached skeletons of incredible sea creatures. Everywhere the vegetation was thrusting in, clinging to the delicate walls, smothering the whisper-thin spires in uncaring leaves. In a way, Simon decided, it only made it more beautiful, as though the forest, restless and unfulfilled, had grown a city from out of itself. Binabik's quiet voice broke the silence, solemn as the moment; the echoes quickly vanished in the choking greenery. " 'Tree of the Singing Wind,' they named it: Da'ai Chikiza. Once, can you imagine, it was full of music and life. All the windows burned with lamps, and there were bright boats at sail upon the river." The troll tilted his head back to stare as they passed beneath a last stone bridge, narrow as a feather quill, clothed in images of graceful antlered deer. "Tree of the Singing Wind," he repeated, distant as a man lost in memory. Simon wordlessly steered their little craft over to a bank of stone steps that ended in a platform, nearly flush with the surface of the wide river. They climbed out, tying the boat to a root that had pushed through the cracked white stone. When they had mounted up they stopped, staring silently at the vine-draped walls and mossy corridors. The very air of the ruined city was charged with quiet resonance, like a tuned but unplucked string. Even Qantaqa stood seemingly abashed, tail held low as she sniffed the air. Then her ears straightened, and she whined. The hiss was almost imperceptible. A line of shadow leaped past Simon's face and struck one of the attenuated walkways with a sharp crack. Sparkling chips of green stone exploded in all directions. Simon whirled to look back. Standing not a hundred ells away, separated from the companions only by the rolling expanse of river, stood a black-garbed figure holding a bow as long as he was tall. A dozen or so others garbed in blue and black surcoats were scrambling up a pathway to stand beside him. One of them carried a torch. The black figure lifted a hand to his mouth, showing for an instant a flash of pale beard. "You have nowhere to go!" Ingen Jegger's voice came faint above the sounds of the river. "Surrender in the King's name!" "The boat!" Binabik cried, but even as they moved to the steps black-clad Ingen reached out some slender thing toward the torch-bearer; fire blossomed at one end. A moment later he had nocked it on his bowstring. As the companions reached the bottom step, a bolt of fire leaped across the river, exploding into the side of the boat. The quivering arrow ignited the bark almost instantly, and the troll had time only to pull one of the packs from the craft before the flames forced him back. Momentarily hidden behind the leaping fire, Simon and Marya darted up the stairs, Binabik close behind. At the top Qantaqa was running from side to side, uttering hoarse barks of dismay. "Run now!" Binabik snapped. On the far side of the river two more bowmen stepped up to Ingen's side. As Simon strained toward the cover of the nearest tower he heard the awful hum of another arrow, and saw it skid across the tiles twenty cubits before him. Two more clattered against the tower wall that seemed so achingly far ahead. He heard a cry of pain, and Marya's terrified call. "Simon!" He whirled to see Binabik tumble to the ground, a tiny bundle at the girl's feet. Somewhere, a wolf was howling.
28 Drums of Ice THE MORNING sun of the twenty-fourth day of Maia-month beamed down on Hernysadharc, turning the golden disc atop the highest of the Taig's roofs into a circlet of brilliant flame. The sky was blue as an enamel plate, as though Brynioch of the Skies had chased the clouds away with his heavenly hazel stick, leaving them to lurk sullenly around the upper peaks of the looming Grianspog.