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

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Simon was disconcerted. It was flattering to have Josua speak so openly with him, but there was also something frightening about a prince so full of foreboding, a prince who was willing to speak to a boy as though to his war council. "Well," Simon said at last, "well... surely everything will turn out as God wills it." He hated himself for such stupidity even as the words were out of his mouth.
Josua only laughed, a sour chuckle. "Ah, caught up by a mere lad, like Usires on the famous thombush. You are right, Simon. While we breathe there's hope, and I have you to thank for that."
"Only in part, Prince Josua." Did that sound ungrateful, he wondered?
The wintry look returned to the prince's stem face. "I heard about the doctor. A cruel blow to us all, but even cruder to you, I'm sure. We will miss his wisdom—his goodness, too, but his wisdom more. I hope that others can take up some of the slack." Josua pulled up the chair again and leaned forward. "There will be a council, and I think it must be soon. Gwythinn, Lluth of Hernystir's son, will be here tonight. There are already others who have been waiting several days. Many plans hinge on what we decide here, many lives." Josua nodded his head slowly, musing.
"Is... is Duke Isgrimnur alive, Prince?" Simon asked. "I... I spent a night with his men on the journey here, but... but I left them."
"He and his men were here days ago, stopping before continuing toward Elvritshalla. That is why I cannot wait—they might be weeks." He looked away again.
"Can you wield a sword, Simon?" he asked suddenly. "Have you been trained?"
"Not really, sir."
"Then go to the captain of the guards and have him find someone to work with you. We will need every arm, I think, especially strong young ones."
"Of course. Prince Josua," Simon said. The prince stood up and walked to his table, turning his back as though the audience was over. Simon sat frozen in his chair, wanting to ask another question, not sure of the propriety. At last he stood up, too, and backed slowly toward the curtained doorway. Josua continued to stare at Dendinis' scroll. Simon was a step from going out when he stopped, squared his shoulders, and asked the question he had been balancing.
"Prince Josua, sire," he began, and the tall man looked back over his shoulder.
"Did... did the girl Marya... the girl who brought you the message from your niece Miriamele..."He took a breath. "Do you know where she is?"
Josua raised an eyebrow. "Even in our darkest days, we cannot keep our minds from them, can we?" The prince shook his head. "I'm afraid I cannot help you there, young man. Good night."
Simon bobbed his head and backed out through the curtain.
As he walked back from his unsettling audience with the prince, Simon wondered what would become of them all. It had seemed such a victory to reach Naglimund. For weeks he had thought of no other goal, followed no other star. Torn away from his home, it had been something to pursue to keep the larger questions at bay. Now what had seemed a paradise of safety compared to the wild journey was suddenly yet another trap. Josua had as much as said it: if they were not overrun, they would be starved.
As soon as he reached Strangyeard's tiny room he crawled into bed, but he heard the sentries call out the hour twice more before he fell asleep.
A groggy Simon answered the rap at the door, opening it to discover a gray morning, a large wolf, and a troll.
"I am startled to be finding you abed!" Binabik grinned wickedly. "A few days out of the wilderness only and civilization has sunk its claws of laziness into you!"
"I am not," Simon frowned, "in bed. Not any longer. But why aren't you?"
"In bed?" Binabik asked, stumping slowly into the room and nudging the door closed with his hip. "I am better—or better enough. Things there are to do." He squinted around the room as Simon sank back onto the edge of the pallet and contemplated his own unshod feet. "Do you know where is the pack we saved?" the troll asked at last.
"Urrrh," Simon grunted, then waved his hand at the floor. "It was under the bed, but I think Father Strangyeard took it to get Morgenes' book."
"Likely it is still there," Binabik said, lowering himself gingerly to his hands and knees. "The priest seems to me a man forgetful of people, but who is putting things back in their place when he is finished with them." He scrabbled under the bed. "Aha! Here I have found it!"
"Isn't that bad, with your wound?" Simon asked, feeling guilty he had not offered to do it himself. Binabik backed out and stood up, very carefully, Simon noticed.
"Trolls have fast healing," he said, and smiled broadly, but Simon was still worried.
"I don't think you should be up and around yet," he said as Binabik rifled through the pack. "That's no way to get better."
"A fine trollmother you would make," Binabik said without looking up. "Will you be chewing my meat for me, too? Qinkipa! Where are those bones!?"
Simon got down on his knees to try and find his boots, but it was difficult with the wolf padding up and down in the narrow chamber.
"Can't Qantaqa wait outside?" he asked as her broad flank bumped him again.
"Both of your friends will be happy to leave if we are bringing you inconvenience, Simon," the troll said primly. "Aia! Here they have been hiding!"
Outdone, the boy stared at the troll. Binabik was brave, clever, kind, had been wounded at Simon's side—and even without these things was anyway too little to hit. Simon made a noise of disgust and frustration and crawled over.
"What do you need those bones for?" He peered over Binabik's shoulder. "Is my arrow still there?"
"The arrow, yes," his friend replied. "The bones? Because these are days of decision, and I would be a fool to avoid any wise advising."
"The prince summoned me last night."
"I know." Binabik shook the bones out of their sack and weighed them in his hand. "I was speaking with him this morning. The Hernystiri have arrived. There will be council tonight."
"He told you that?" Simon was more than a little disappointed to find that he had not been Josua's only confidante, but a little relieved as well to find the responsibility shared. "Are you going to go there?"
"As the only man of my people ever to enter the walls of Naglimund? As the apprentice of Ookequk, Singing Man of the Mintahoq trolls? Of course I will go. So also will you."
"Me?!" He felt caught off balance. "Why me? What in the name of the good God would I do at a... military council? I'm no soldier. I'm not even a grown man!"
"Certain it is you are not hurrying to be one." Binabik made a mocking face. "But even you cannot fight maturity away forever. Besides, your years have no meaning in this. You have seen and heard things that may be important, and Prince Josua would want you there."
"Would want? Did he ask for me?"
The troll blew the hanging hair off his forehead impatiently. "Not with exactness... but he asked me, and I will take you. Josua does not know all you have seen."
"God's Blood, Binabik!"
"Please do not be swearing Aedonite oaths at me. Just because you are having a beard... almost... does not make you a man to be cursing. Now please let me have some silence to throw the bones, then I have more news to tell."
Simon sat back, worried and upset. What if they asked him questions? Was he going to be called to speak in front of barons and dukes and generals and all? He, a runaway scullion?
Binabik was crooning softly to himself, gently shaking the bones like a trooper dicing in a tavern. They clicked and then tumbled free onto the slate floor. He examined their position, then scooped them up and tossed them twice more. He pursed his lips and stared intently at the last roll for some time.
'"Clouds in the Pass..." he said at last, musing, "'Wingless Bird... Black Crevice." He rubbed his lips with the back of his sleeve, then thumped the heel of his hand once on his chest. "What am I to be making from such a tale?"
"Does it mean something?" Simon asked. "What are the words you just said?"
"They are the names for certain fallings—certain patterns. Three times we throw, and each throw means different."
"I don't... I... can you explain?" Simon said, then almost fell forward as Qantaqa bulled past him to put her head on Binabik's squat thigh.
"Here," the troll said, "first: Clouds in the Pass. Meaning where we stand now it is hard to see far, but beyond is something very different than what is behind."
"I could have told you that."
"Silence, trolling. Do you wish to remain foolish forever? Now, the one that is second was Wingless Bird. The second is something of advantage, but here it seems our helplessness might be itself useful, or so I am reading the bones today. Last, what thing it is we should be aware of..."
"Or fear?"
"Or fear," Binabik agreed calmly. "Black O-ewe—that is a strange one, one I never have gotten for myself. It could mean treachery."
Simon took a breath, remembering. "Like 'false messenger'?"
"True. But it is having other meanings, unusual meanings. My master taught me that it could also be things coming from other places, breaking through from other sides... thus, perhaps something about the mysteries we have found... the Norns, your dreams... do you see?"
"A little." He stood up and stretched, then began looking for his shirt. "What about the other news?"
It took the troll, who was meditatively stroking Qantaqa's back, a moment to look up.
"Ah," he said at last, and reached into his jacket. "I have something for your reading." He pulled out a flattened roll of parchment and handed it up. Simon felt his bare skin tingle.
It was written in crisp but delicate script, a smattering of words in the midst of the unrolled sheet.
For Simon
Here are thanks for your bravery on our journey. May the Good Lord always give you luck, friend.
It was signed with the single letter "M."
"From her," he said slowly. He didn't know if he was disappointed or delighted. "It is from Marya, isn't it? Is this all she sent? Did you see her?"
Binabik nodded his head. He looked sad. "I saw her, but it was only of a moment. She said also that we would perhaps see her more, but there were things that must be done first."
"What things? She makes me angry... no, I don't mean that. Is she here at Naglimund?"
"She gave me the message, did she not?" Binabik got unsteadily to his feet, but for the moment Simon was too consumed to pay much attention. She had written! She had not forgotten! But she certainly had not written much, and she hadn't come to see him, to talk, to do anything....
Usires save me, is this being in love? he suddenly wondered. It was nothing like the ballads he had heard sung—this was more irritating than uplifting. He had thought he was in love with Hepzibah. He had certainly thought about her a great deal, but it had mostly been about the way she looked, she walked. With Marya, he certainly remembered how she looked, but just as much he wondered what she thought.
What she thinks! He was disgusted with himself. I don't even know where she comes from, let alone anything about how she thinks! I don't know the simplest thing about her... and if she likes me, it's certainly not something she bothered to write in this letter.
And that was only the truth, he knew.
But she said I was brave. She called me friend.
He looked up from the parchment to see Binabik staring at him. The troll's expression was morose, but Simon was not sure why.
"Binabik," he began, but then could think of no question whose answer would clear his muddy thoughts. "Well," he said at last, "do you know where the captain of the guard is? I have to get a sword."
The air was damp, and heavy gray skies hung over them as they walked to the outer ward. A pressing crowd of people streamed through the city gate, some bearing vegetables and flax and other things to sell, many pulling rickety carts that seemed to be heaped with the pitiful entirety of their worldly possessions. Simon's companions, the diminutive troll and the huge, yellow-eyed wolf, made no small impression on these newcomers: some pointed and cried out anxious questions in rustic dialect, others shrank back, making the protective sign of the Tree on their rough-suited breasts. On all faces there were signs of fear—fear of the different, fear of the bad days that had come to Erkynland. Simon felt torn between wishing he could help them and wishing he did not have to see their homely, fretful faces.
Binabik left him at the guardhouse, part of the gate building of the outer ward, then went on to visit with Father Strangyeard in the castle library. Simon quickly found himself before the captain of the guard, a drawn, harried looking young man who was several days unshaven. He was bareheaded, his conical helm filled full of tally stones with which he was counting the muster of the outland militias trickling into the castle. He had been told to expect Simon, who was duly nattered the prince had remembered him, and handed the youth over to the ministrations of a bearlike North Erkynlandish guardsman named Haestan.
"Ha'n't got y'r growth yet, have ye?" Haestan growled, tugging his curly brown beard as he eyed Simon's lanky frame. "A bowman, then, tha's the story. Get ye a sword we will, but it won't be big enough t'do much. Bow's the thing."
Together they walked around the outer wall to the armory, a long narrow room behind the ringing smithy. As the arms warden led them down rows of battered armor and tarnished swords, Simon was saddened to see the dregs of the castle armaments, slim protection against the shining legions that Elias would no doubt put into the field.
"No' much left," Haestan observed. "Warn't half enough in first place. Hope th'outland levies bring somewhat beside pitchfork and plowshare."
The limping warden at last found a scabbarded sword that the guardsman deemed to be of proper slenderness for Simon's size. It was crusty with dried oil, and the warden was hard put to mask his frown of distaste. "Polish it," he said, " 'twill be a fine piece."
Further search turned up a longbow that lacked only a string, but was otherwise in good enough shape, and a leather quiver.
"Thrithings work," Haestan said, pointing out the round-eyed deer and rabbits etched on the dark hide. "Make fine quivers, Thrithings-men do." Simon had a feeling the guardsman felt a little guilty over the unprepossessing sword. Back at the guardhouse his new tutor wheedled a bowstring and half a dozen arrows from the quartermaster, then showed Simon how to clean and care for his new weapons.
"Sharp it away, lad, sharp it away," the burly guardsman said, making the blade skitter across the whetstone, "lest otherways ye'll be a girl afore ye're a man." Somehow, against logic, he found a gleam of true steel beneath the tamish and grit.
Simon had hoped to start immediately with sword wielding, or at least some target shooting, but instead Haestan produced a pair of cloth-padded wooden poles and took Simon out the city gate to the hillside above the town. Simon quickly learned how little like real soldier-sparring his play with Jeremias Chandler's-boy had been.
"Spear work'd be more use," Haestan said as Simon sat on the turf, wheezing over a buffet to the stomach. "As 'tis, though, we've none t'spare. That's why arrows be y'r game, boy. Still, s'nice t'know some swording for close work. That's when ye'll thank old Haestan a hundredfold."
"Why... not... bow...?" Simon panted.
"Tmorrow, boy, for bow'n'arrows... or day after." Haestan laughed and extended a broad paw. "Get on y'r feet. Jolliness' just started for th'day."
Weary, sore, threshed like wheat until he thought he could feel the chaff trickling from his ears, Simon ate beans and bread at the guards' afternoon meal while Haestan continued the verbal part of his education, most of which Simon missed due to a low and continuous ringing in his ears. He was dismissed at last with a warning to be out sharp early the next morning. He stumbled back to Strangyeard's empty room and fell asleep without even pulling off his boots.
Rain spattered in through the open window, and thunder murmured in the distance. Simon woke to find Binabik waiting for him as he had that morning, as though the long, bruising afternoon had not occurred. That illusion was quickly dispelled when he sat upright: every single muscle was stiff. He felt as though he were a hundred years old.
It took more than a little work for Binabik to convince him to get off the bed. "Simon, this is no evening of sport for your attending or declining. These are things on which our lives will hang balanced."
He had returned to his back. "I believe you... but if I get up, I'll die."
"Enough." The little man got hold of a wrist, braced his heels against the floor, wincing as he slowly tugged Simon back into a sitting position. There was a deep groan and a thump as one of Simon's booted feet hit the floor, then a long interval of silence before the second joined it.
Long minutes later he was limping out the door at Binabik's side, into the gathering winds and chill rain.
"Will we have to sit through supper as well?" Simon asked. For once in his life he actually felt too sore to eat.
'That I do not think. Josua is a strange one in that way; he is not for eating and drinking much with his court. He has a desire for solitariness. So, I am thinking, all have eaten before. That is indeed how I am reconciling Qantaqa to staying in the room." He smiled and patted Simon's shoulder. Simon winced. "All that we will feast on this night will be worrying and arguing. Bad for digestion of troll, man, or wolf."
While the storm blustered loudly outside, the great hall of Naglimund was dry, warmed by three huge open hearths, lit by the flames of countless candles. The slanting beams of the roof disappeared in darkness high above, and the walls were thick with somber religious tapestries.
Scores of tables had been pushed together into the shape of a vast horseshoe; Josua's tall, narrow wooden chair stood at the apex of the arc, inscribed with the Swan of Naglimund. Already half a hundred men had installed themselves at different points along the rim of the shoe, talking avidly among themselves—tall men, dressed in the furred robes and gawdy trinkets of petty nobility for the most part, but some wearing the rough gear of soldiers. Several looked up as the pair walked past, viewing them with appraising eyes before turning back to their discussions.
Binabik elbowed Simon's hip. "They are thinking perhaps that we are the hired tumblers." He laughed, but Simon did not think he looked truly amused.
"Who are all these people?" Simon whispered as they sat down at the far end of the one of the horseshoe's arms. A page set wine before them and added hot water before shrinking back into the long shadows of the wall.
"Lords of Erkynland loyal to Naglimund and Josua—or at least undecided as yet in their loyalties. The stout one in red and white is Ordmaer, baron of Utersall. He speaks with Grimstede, Ethelferth, and some other lords." The troll hefted his bronze goblet and drank. "Hmmm. Our prince is not being profligate with his wine, or perhaps it is that he wishes appreciation for the fine local water." Binabik's mischievous smile reappeared; Simon slid back in his chair, fearing a similar reappearance of the small, sharp elbow, but the small man only looked past him up the table.
Simon took a long swallow of his wine. It was watery; he wondered whether it was the seneschal or the prince himself who was tight with a fithing piece. Still, it was better than nothing, and might serve to ease his aching limbs. When he finished, the page scurried forward and filled it again.
More men trickled in, some animatedly conferring, others coolly surveying those who had already arrived. A very, very old man in sumptuous religious robes entered on the arm of a husky young priest and began to set up various shiny articles near the head of the table; the look on his face was one of definite bad temper. The younger man helped him into a chair and then leaned down and whispered something into his ear. The elder made a reply of seemingly dubious civility; the priest, with a long-suffering glance at the roofbeams, strode from the room.
"Is that the lector?" Simon asked in hushed tones.
Binabik shook his head. "It seems very doubtful to me that the head of your whole Aedonite church would be here in the den of an outlaw prince. Likely that is Anodis, the bishop of Naglimund."
As Binabik spoke, a last clutch of men came in, and the troll broke off to watch. Some, with hair in slender braids down their backs, wore the belted white tunics of the Hernystiri. Their apparent leader, an intense, muscular young man with long dark mustaches, was talking to a southerner of some kind, an exceedingly well-dressed fellow who appeared only slightly older. This one, hair carefully curled, robed in delicate shades of heather and blue, was so neatly turned out that Simon felt sure even Sangfugol would be impressed. Some of the old soldiers around the table were openly grinning at the foppishness of his rig.
"And these?" Simon asked. "The ones in white, with the gold 'round their necks—Hernystirmen, yes?"
"Correct. Prince Gwythinn that is, and his embassy. The other, my guessing is, would be Baron Davasalles of Nabban. He has a reputation as a sharp wit, if a bit full of fondness for costume. A brave fighter, too, I was told."
"How do you know all this, Binabik?" Simon asked, turning his attention from the newcomers back to his friend. "Do you listen at keyholes?"
The troll drew himself up haughtily. "I do not live always on mountaintops, you know. Also, I have found Strangyeard and other resources here, while you have been at keeping your bed warm."
"What!?" Simon's voice came out louder than he had intended it to; he realized he was at least a little drunk. The man seated beside him turned with a curious glance; Simon leaned forward to continue his defense in a quieter tone.
"I have been..." he began, then chairs began creaking all over the hall as their occupants suddenly stood. Simon looked up to see the slender figure of Prince Josua, dressed in his customary gray, enter at the hall's far end. His expression was calm but unsmiling. The only indication of his rank was the silver circlet on his brow.
Josua nodded to the assembly and then seated himself; the others quickly followed suit. As the pages came forward to pour wine, the old bishop at Josua's left hand—Hernystir's Gwythinn sat at his right—rose.

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