^ Count Eolair sat back in the deep-cushioned chair and looked up at the high ceiling. It was covered in religious paintings, painstaking renditions of Usires healing the washerwoman, Sutrin martyred in the arena of the Imperator Crexis, and other such subjects. The colors seemed to be fading somewhat, and many of the pictures were obscured by dust, as though draped in a fine veil. Still, it was an impressive sight, for all that this was one of the smaller antechambers of the Sancellan Aedonitis. A millionweight of sandstone, marble, and gold, Eolair thought, and all for a monument to something no one has ever seen. Unbidden, a wave of homesickness washed over him, as had often happened in this last week. What he would not give to be back in his humble hall in Nad Mullach, surrounded by nieces and nephews and the small monuments of his own people and gods, or at the Taig in Hernysadharc, where a bit of his secret heart always lingered, instead of surrounded here by the land-devouring stone of Nabban! But the scent of war was on the wind, and he could not lock himself away when his king had asked his help. Still, he was weary of traveling. The grass of Hernystir would feel fine beneath his horse's hooves again. "Count Eolair! Forgive me, please, for keeping you waiting." Father Dinivan, the lector's young secretary, stood in the far doorway wiping his hands on his black robe. "Today has been a full one already, and we have not reached the forenoon. Still," he laughed, "that is a terribly poor excuse. Please, come into my chambers!" Eolair followed him out of the antechamber, his boots silent on the old, thick carpets. "There," said Dinivan, grinning and warming his hands before the fire, "is that better? It is a scandal, but we cannot keep the Lord's greatest house warm. The ceilings are too high. And it has been such a cold spring!" The count smiled. "Truth to tell, I had not much noticed it. In Hernystir we sleep with our windows open, except in direst winter. We are a people who live out-of-doors." Dinivan wagged his eyebrows. "And we Nabbanai are soft southerners, eh?" "I did not say that!" Eolair laughed. "One thing you southerners are, you are masters of clever speech." Dinivan sat down in a hard-backed chair. "Ah, but his Sacredness the lector—who is an Erkynlandish man originally, as you well know—the lector can talk circles around any of us. He is a wise and subtle man." "That I know. And it is about him I would speak, Father." "Call me Dinivan, please. Ah, it is ever the fate of a great man's secretary—to be sought out for one's proximity rather than one's personality." He made a mock-downcast face. Eolair again found himself liking this priest very much. "Such indeed is your doom, Dinivan. Now hear, please. I suppose you know why my master has sent me here?" "I would have to be a clod indeed not to know. These are times that set tongues wagging like the tails of excited dogs. Your master reaches out to Leobardis, that they can make some sort of common cause." "Indeed." Eolair stepped away from the fire to draw up a chair near Dinivan's. "We are delicately balanced: my Lluth, your Lector Ranessin, Elias the High King, Duke Leobardis..." "And Prince Josua, if he lives," Dinivan said, and his face was worried. "Yes, a delicate balance. And you know that the lector can do nothing to upset that balance." Eolair nodded slowly. "I know." "So why have you come to me?" Dinivan asked kindly. "I am not quite sure. Only this I would tell you: it seems there is some struggle brewing, as often happens, but I myself fear it is deeper. You might think me a madman, but I forebode that an age is ending, and I fear what the coming one may bring." The lector's secretary stared. For a moment his plain face seemed far older, as though he reflected on sorrows long carried. "I will say only that I share your fears. Count Eolair," he said at last. "But I cannot speak for the lector, except to say as I did before: he is a wise and subtle man." He stroked the Tree at his breast. "For your heartsease, though, I can say this: Duke Leobardis has not yet made up his mind where he will lend his support. Although the High King alternately flatters and threatens him, still Leobardis resists." "Well, this is good news," said Eolair, and smiled warily. "When I saw the duke this morning he was very distant, as though he feared to be seen listening to me too closely." "He has many things to weigh, as does my own master," Dinivan replied. "But know this, too—and it is a deep secret. Just this morning I took Baron Devasalles in to see Lector Ranessin. The baron is about to set forth on an embassy that will mean much to both Leobardis and my master, and will have much to do with which way Nabban throws her might in any conflict. I can tell you no more than that, but I hope it is something." "It is more than a little," Eolair said. "I thank you for your trust, Dinivan." Somewhere in the Sancellan Aedonitis a bell rang, deep and low. "The Clavean Bell calls out the noon hour," Father Dinivan said. "Come, let us find us something to eat and a jug of beer, and talk about more pleasant things." A smile chased across his features, making him young again. "Did you know I traveled once in Hernystir? Your country is beautiful, Eolair." "Although somewhat lacking in stone buildings," the count replied, patting the wall of Dinivan's chamber. "And that is one of its beauties," the priest laughed, leading him out the door. ^ The old man's beard was white, and long enough that he tucked it into his belt when he walked—which, until this morning, he had been doing for several days. His hair was no darker than his beard. Even his hooded jacket and leggings were made from the thick pelt of a white wolf. The creature's skin had been carefully flayed; the forelegs crossed on his chest, and its jawless head, nailed to a cap of iron, sat upon his own brow. Had it not been for the bits of red crystal in the wolf's empty sockets, and the old man's fierce blue eyes beneath them, he would have been nothing but another patch of white in the snow-covered forest that lay between Drorshull Lake and the hills. The moaning of the wind in the treetops increased, and a spatter of snow dropped from the branches of the tall pine tree onto the man crouching below. He shook himself impatiently, like an animal, and a fine mist rose around him, momentarily breaking the weak sunlight into a fog of tiny rainbows. The wind continued its keening song, and the old man in white reached to his side, grasping something that at first appeared to be only another lump of white—a snow-covered stone or tree stump. He held it up, brushing the powdery whiteness from its top and sides, then lifted away the cloth cover Just far enough to peer inside. He whispered into the opening and waited, then knitted his brows for an instant as if annoyed or troubled. Setting the object down, he stood up and unbuckled the belt of bleached reindeer hide from around his waist. After first pulling the hood back from his lean, weather-hardened face, he stripped off the wolfskin coat. The sleeveless shin he wore beneath was the same color as the jacket, the skin of his sinewy arms not much darker, but starting on his right wrist just above the fur gauntlet the head of a snake was drawn in bright inks, scribed in blue and black and blood-red directly on the skin. The body of the snake curved round and round the old man's right arm in a spiral, disappearing into the shoulder of his shirt to reappear writhing sinuously about his left arm and terminate in a curlicued tail at the wrist. This fierce splash of color leaped out against the dull winter forest and the man's white garb and skin; from a short distance it appeared that some flying serpent, halved in midair, was suffering its death agonies two cubits above the frozen earth. The old man paid no attention to the gooseflesh on his arms until he had finished draping his jacket over the bundle, tucking the loose folds in beneath it. Then he pulled a leather bag from a pouch in his undershirt, squeezed from it a quantity of yellow grease, and briskly rubbed it over his exposed skin, causing the serpent to gleam as though newly-arrived from some humid southern jungle. The task over, he crouched back again on his heels to wait. He was hungry, but he had finished the last of his traveling rations the night before. That was of no importance, anyway, because soon the ones he waited for would come, and then there would be food. Chin tilted down, cobalt eyes smoldering beneath his icy brows, Jarnauga watched the southern approaches. He was an old, old man, and the rigors of time and weather had made him hard and spare. In a way he looked forward to the hour that was coming soon, when Death called for him and took him to her dark, quiet hall. Silence and solitude held no terror; they had been the warp and weft of his long life. He wanted only to finish the task that had been set before him, to hand on a torch that others might use in the darkness ahead;
then he would let life and body go as easily as he shrugged the snow from his bare shoulders. Thinking of the solemn halls that waited at the final turn of his road, he remembered his beloved Tungoldyr, left behind him a fortnight ago. As he had stood upon his doorstep that last day, the little town where he had spent most of his four and a half score of years had stretched before him, as empty as the legendary Huelheim that awaited him when his work was done. All of Tungoldyr's other inhabitants had fled months before; only Jarnauga remained in the village called Moon Door, perched among the high Himilfell Mountains, but still in the shadow of distant Sturmrspeik—the Stormspike. The winter had hardened into a cold that even the Rimmersmen of Tungoldyr had never known before, and the nighttime songs of the winds had changed into something that had the sound of howling and weeping in it, until men went mad and were found laughing in the morning, their families dead around them. Only Jarnauga had remained in his small house as the ice mists became thick as wool in the mountain passes and the narrow streets of the town, Tungoldyr's sloping roofs seeming to float like the ships of ghost warriors sailing the clouds. No one but Jarnauga had been around to see the nickering lights of Stormspike bum brighter and brighter, to hear the sounds of vast, harsh music that wound in and out through the din of thunder, playing across the mountains and valleys of this northernmost province of Rimmersgard. But now even he—his time come around at last, as made known to him by certain signs and messages—had left Tungoldyr to the creeping darkness and cold. Jarnauga knew that no matter what happened, he would never again see the sun on the wooden houses, or listen to the singing of the mountain rills as they splashed past his front door, down to the swelling Gratuvask. Neither would he stand on his porch in the clear, dark spring nights and see the lights in the sky—the shimmering northern lights that had been there since his boyhood, not the guttering, sickly flares now playing about the dark face of Stormspike. Such things were gone, now. His road ahead was plain, but there was little joy in it. But not everything was clear, even now. There was still the nagging dream to be dealt with, the dream of the black book and the three swords. It had dogged his sleep for a fortnight, but its meaning was still hidden from him. His thoughts were interrupted by a blotch of movement on the southern approach, far away along the rim of the trees dotting the Wealdhelm's western skirts. He squinted briefly, then slowly nodded his head and rose to his feet. As he was pulling his coat back on, the wind changed direction; a moment later a dim mutter of thunder rolled down from the north. It came again, a low growl like a beast struggling awake from sleep. On its heels, but from the opposite direction, the sound of hooves grew from a murmur to a noise that rivaled the thunder. As Jarnauga picked up his cage of birds and walked out to meet the riders, the sounds grew together—thunder tolling in the north, the muffled din of approaching horsemen to the south—until they filled the white forest with their cold rumble, like music made on drums of ice.
29 Hunters and Hunted THE HOLLOW roar of the river filled his ears. For a heartbeat it seemed to Simon that the water was the only moving thing—that the archers on the far side, Marya, he himself, all had been frozen into immobility by the impact of the arrow that quivered in Binabik's back. Then another shaft spat past the white-faced girl, splintering noisily against a broken cornice of shining stone, and all was frantic movement once more. Only half-aware of the insectlike scuttling of the archers across the water, Simon covered the distance back to the girl and troll in three steps. He bent to look, a strange, isolated part of his mind noticing how the boy's leggings Marya wore had tattered holes at the knee, and an arrow snicked through his shirt beneath his arm. At first he thought it had missed him completely; a moment later he felt a flare of pain sizzle along his rib cage. More darts skimmed past, hitting low on the tiles before them and skipping like stones on a lake. Simon quickly kneeled and scooped the silent troll into his arms, feeling the horrible, stiff arrow quiver between his fingers. He turned, putting his back between the little man and the archers—Binabik was so pale! He was dead, he must be!—then stood. The pain in his ribs burned him again, and he staggered, Marya catching at his elbow. "Loken's Blood!" screamed the black-garbed Ingen, his far-off voice a faint murmur in Simon's ear. "You're killing them, you idiots! I said to keep them there! Where is Baron Heahferth?!" Qantaqa had run down to join them; Marya tried to wave the wolf away as she and Simon lumbered up the stairs into Da'ai Chikiza. One last feathered shaft cracked into the step behind them, then the air was still again. "Heahferth is here, Rimmersman!" a voice shouted amid the clamor of armored men. Simon looked back from the top step. His heart sank. A dozen men in battle array were rushing past Ingen and his bowmen, heading straight for the Gate of Stags, the bridge Simon and his companions had passed beneath just before coming ashore. The baron himself rode behind them on his red horse, a long spear held above his head. They couldn't have Gutrun even the foot soldiers for long—the baron's horse would catch them in three breaths. "Simon! Run!" Marya jerked his arm, pulling him forward at a stumble. "We must hide in the city!" But Simon knew that was hopeless, too. By the time they reached the first concealment the soldiers would be upon them. "Heahferth!" Ingen Jegger's voice cried out behind them, a flat, small sound above the river's drone. "You can't! Don't be a fool, Erkynlander, your horse...!" The rest was lost in water sounds; if Heahferth heard he did not seem to care. In a moment the clangor of his soldiers' feet upon the bridge was matched by the pounding of hoofbeats on stone. Even as the din of pursuit mounted, Simon caught the toe of his boot on an uprooted tile and pitched forward. A spear in the back... he thought to himself in midfall, and: How did all this happen? Then he was tumbling painfully onto his shoulder, rolling to protect the cradled body of the troll. He lay on his back staring up at the patches of sky gleaming through the dark dome of trees, Binabik's not unsubstantial weight perched on his chest. Marya was pulling at his shirt, trying to get him upright. He wanted to tell her it was not important now, no longer worth the bother, but as he sat up on one elbow, propping the troll's body with his other arm, he saw a strange thing happening below. In the middle of the long, arching bridge, Baron Heahferth and his men had stopped moving—no, that was not quite correct, they were swaying in place—the men-at-arms clinging to the bridge's low walls, the baron perched atop his horse, his features not quite distinguishable from this distance, but his pose that of a man who is startled out of sleep. A moment later, for no reason Simon could discern, the horse reared and plunged forward; the men followed, running faster than before. Immediately after—a flicker behind the movement—Simon heard a great crack, as though a giant hand had snapped off a tree trunk for a toothpick. The bridge seemed to come unstuck in the middle. Before the shocked, fascinated eyes of Simon and Marya, the slender Gate of Stags plunged downward, middle first, stones crumbling loose in great angular shards to crash foaming into the water below. For a few pulsebeats it seemed that Heahferth and his soldiers would reach the far side; then, rippling like a shook-out blanket, the arc of stone folded in on itself, sending a writhing mass of arms, legs. Pale faces, and a thrashing horse toppling down amidst the ragged blocks of milky chalcedony, to disappear in gouts of green water and white froth. A few moments later the head of the baron's horse appeared several ells downstream, neck straining upward, then it slid back into the swirling river. Simon slowly tilted his head around to the base of the bridge. The two archers were on their knees, staring into the torrent; the black-hooded figure of Ingen stood behind them, staring across at the companions. It felt like his pale eyes were only inches away.... "Get up!" Marya shouted, pulling at Simon's hair. He freed his gaze from Ingen Jegger's with an almost palpable snap of separation, like a cord fraying through. He climbed to his feet, balancing his small burden, and they turned and fled into the echoes and tall shadows of D'ai Chikiza. Simon's arms were aching after a hundred steps, and it felt as though a knife was sliding in and out of his side; he fought to stay even with the girl as they followed the bounding wolf through the ruins of the Sithi city. It was like running through a cave of trees and icicles, a forest of vertical shimmer and dark, mossy corruption. Shattered tile was everywhere, and massive tangles of spiderwebs strung across beautiful, crumbling arches. Simon felt as though he had been swallowed by some incredible ogre with innards of quartz and jade and mother-of-pearl. The river sounds became muted behind them; the rasp of their own hard breathing vied with the scrape of their running feet. At last, it seemed they were reaching the outskirts of the city: the tall trees, hemlock and cedar and towering pine, were closer together, and the tiled flooring that had been everywhere underfoot now dwindled to pathways coiling at the feet of the forest giants. Simon stopped running. His eyesight was blackening at the edges. He stood in place and felt the earth reel about him. Marya took his hand and led him a few limping steps to an ivy-choked mound of stone that Simon, his sight slowly returning, recognized as a well. He set Binabik's body down gently on the pack that Marya had been carrying, propping the little man's side against the rough cloth, then leaned on the well's rim to suck air into his needy lungs. His side continued to throb. Marya squatted next to Binabik, pushing away Qantaqa's nose as the wolf prodded at her silent master. Qantaqa took a step back, making a whimpering sound of incomprehension, then lay down with her muzzle on her paws. Simon felt hot tears spring to his eyes. "He's not dead." Simon stared at Marya, then at Binabik's colorless face. "What?" he asked. "What do you mean?" "He's not dead," she repeated without looking up. Simon kneeled beside her. She was right: the troll's chest was moving almost imperceptibly. A frothy bubble of blood on his lower lip pulsed in time. "Usires Aedon." Simon wiped his hand across his dripping forehead. "We have to take the arrow out." Marya looked at him sharply. "Are you mad? If we do, the life will run out of him! He'll have no chance at all!" "No." Simon shook his head. "The doctor told me, I'm sure he did, but I don't know if I can get it out, anyway. Help me to take on" his jacket." When they had pried cautiously at the jacket for a moment, they realized there was no possible way to remove it without pulling on the arrow. Simon cursed. He needed something to cut the jacket away, something sharp. He pulled the salvaged pack over by a strap and began to rummage through it. Even in his sorrow and pain he was gratified to discover the White Arrow, still wrapped in its shroud of rags. He pulled it out and began loosening the knot that held the strips of cloth. "What are you doing?" Marya demanded. "Haven't we had enough arrows?" "I need something sharp to cut with," he grunted. "It's a pity we've lost part of Binabik's staff... it's the part that's got a knife in it." "Is that what you're doing?" Marya reached into her shirt and pulled out a small knife in a leather sheath, hung on a throng around her neck. "Geloe told me I should have it," she explained, unsheathing it and passing it over. "It's not much good against archers." "And bowmen aren't much good at keeping bridges from falling, praise God." Simon began to saw away at the oiled hide. "Do you think that's all that happened?" Marya said after a while. "What do you mean?" Simon panted. It was hard work, but he had cut upward from the bottom of the jacket and past the arrow, revealing a sticky mass of congealed blood. He pulled the knife blade up toward the collar. "That the bridge just... fell." Marya looked up at the light filtering down through the twining greenery. "Maybe the Sithi were angry about what was happening in their city." "Pfah." Simon clenched his teeth and split the last piece of hide. "The Sithi who are alive don't live here anymore, and if the Sithi don't die, like the doctor told me, then there aren't any spirits to make bridges fall." He spread the wings of the split jacket and winced. The troll's back was covered in drying blood. "You heard the Rimmersman shouting at Heahferth: he didn't want him to take his horse on the bridge. Now let me think, damn you!" Marya raised her hand as though to strike him; Simon looked up, and their eyes locked. For the first time he saw that the girl, too, had been crying. "I gave you my knife!" she said. Simon shook his head, confused, "It's just that... that devil Ingen may have already found another place to cross. He's got two archers, at least, and who knows what's become of the hounds... and... and this little man is my friend." He turned back to the bloodied troll. Marya was silent for a moment. "I know," she said at last. The arrow had entered at an angle, striking a good hand's length from the center of the spine. By carefully tilting the small body, Simon was able to slide his hand underneath. His fingers quickly found the sharp iron arrowhead protruding from just below Binabik's arm, near the front of his ribs.