"I said I've been to every inn on every street in the wharf district, and I've had no luck. My back aches. Give me a mug of your best." He stumped over to a table and lowered his bulk onto a creaking bench. "This damnable Abaingeat has more inns than it has roads." His accent, the innkeeper noted, was a Rimmersman's. That explained the raw, pink look of his face: the innkeeper had heard it said that the men of Rimmersgard had such thick beards they had to shave thrice daily—those few who didn't just let them grow. "We are a harbor town, Father," he said, setting a healthy flagon down before the scowling, rumpled monk. "And with the things that are going on these days—" he shrugged and made a face, "well, there are plenty of strangers wanting rooms." The monk wiped foam from his upper lip and frowned. "I know. A damnable shame. Poor Lluth..." The innkeeper looked around nervously, but the Erkynlandish guardsmen in the corner were paying no attention. "You said you have had no luck, Father," he said, changing the subject. "Might I be asking what you're seeking?" "A monk," the big man growled, "a brother monk, that is—and a young boy. I have scoured the wharf from top to bottom." The tavemmaster smiled, polishing a metal flagon with his apron. "And you came here last? Begging your pardon. Father, but I think your God's seen fit to test you." The big man grunted, then looked up from his ale. "What do you mean?" "They were here, they were—if it's the same two." His satisfied smile froze on his face as the monk lurched up from the bench. His reddened face was inches from the innkeeper's own. "When?" "T-two, three d-days ago—I'm not sure..." "Are you really not sure," the monk asked menacingly, "or do you just want money?" He patted his robe. The innkeeper did not know if it was a purse or a knife this strange man of God was patting for; he had never much trusted Usires' followers anyway, and living in Hernystir's most cosmopolitan town had not improved his opinion of them. "Oh, no. Father, truly! They... they were in a few days past. Asked after a boat going down-coast to Perdruin. The monk was a short fellow, bald? The lad thin-faced, black hair? They were here." "What did you tell 'em?" "To go see Old Gealsgiath down by the Eirgid. Ramh—that's the tavern with the oar painted on the front door, down near land's end!" He broke off in alarm as the monk's huge hands folded over his shoulders. The innkeeper, a reasonably strong man, felt himself clasped as securely as a child. A moment later he was reeling from a rib-crushing hug, and could only stand wheezing as the monk pressed a gold Imperator into his hand. "Merciful Usires bless your inn, Hernystirman!" the big man bellowed, turning heads clear out in the street. "This is the first piece of luck I have had since I began this God-cursed search!" He crashed out through the doorway like a man leaving a burning house. The innkeeper took a painful breath, and clutched the coin, still warm from the monk's great paw. "Mad as a mooncalf, these Aedonites," he told himself. "Touched." ^ She stood at the railing and watched Abaingeat sliding away, drawing back into the fog. The wind ruffled her close-cropped black hair. "Brother Cadrach!" she called. "Come here. Is there anything so glorious?" She gestured at the growing strip of green ocean that separated them from the misty shoreline. Gulls wheeled and screeched above the boat's foaming wake. The monk waved a limp hand from where he crouched beside a clutch of lashed-down barrels. "You enjoy yourself... Malachias. I have never been much of a seafarer. God knows, I do not think this voyage will change that." He wiped spray—or sweat—from his forehead. Cadrach had not touched a drop of wine since they had set foot on shipboard. Miriamele looked up to see a pair of Hernystiri sailors watching her curiously from the foredeck. She dipped her head and walked over to seat herself next to the monk. "Why did you come with me?" she asked after a while. "That is something I still do not understand." The monk did not look up. "I came because the lady paid me." Miriamele pulled her hood forward. "There is nothing like the ocean to remind you of what is important," she said quietly, and smiled. Cadrach's returned smile was weak. "Ah, by the Good Lord, that's true," he groaned. "I am reminded that life is sweet, that the sea is treacherous, and that I am a fool." Miriamele nodded solemnly, staring up at the bellying sails. "Those are good things to remember," she said.
42 Beneath the Uduntree "THERE'S NO hurrying it, Elias," Guthwulf growled. "No hurrying. Naglimund's a tough nut... tough—you knew it'd be..." He could hear himself slurring his words; he had needed to get drunk just to face his old companion. The Earl of Utanyeat no longer felt comfortable around the king, and felt even less so bringing him bad news. "You have had a fortnight. I have given you everything—troops, siege engines—everything!" The king pulled at the skin of his face, frowning. He was drawn and sickly, and had not yet met Guthwulf's eyes. "I can wait no longer. Tomorrow is Midsummer's Eve!" "And why should that matter?" Guthwulf, feeling chilled and sick, turned away and spit out the now-tasteless lump of citril root he had been chewing. The king's tent was as cold and dank as the bottom of a well. "No one has ever taken one of the great houses in a fortnight except by treachery, even if they were poorly defended—these Naglimunders have fought like cornered animals. Be patient, Highness; patience is all we need. We can starve them out in a matter of months." "Months!" Elias' laugh was hollow. "Months, he says, Pryrates!" The red priest offered a skeletal smile. The king's laughter abruptly ceased, and he lowered his chin until it almost touched the pommel of the long gray sword propped between his knees. There was something about that sword that Guthwulf did not like, although he knew it was foolish to have such thoughts about a mere thing. Still, everywhere that Elias went these days the sword was with him, like some pampered lapdog. 'Today is your last chance, Utanyeat." The High King's voice was thick and heavy. "Either the gate is opened, or I must make... other arrangements." Guthwulf stood, swaying. "Are you mad, Elias? Are you mad? How can we possibly... the miners have scarcely dug halfway..." He trailed off dizzily, wondering if he'd gone too far. "Why should we care whether tomorrow is Midsummer's Eve?" He dropped to a knee again, imploring. "Talk to me, Elias." The Earl had feared an explosive response from his angry king, but he had also, distantly, hoped for some faint return of their old camaraderie. He got neither. "You cannot understand, Utanyeat," Elias replied, and his staring red-rimmed eyes were fixed on the tent wall, or empty air. "I have ... other obligations. Tomorrow everything will change." ^ Simon had thought he had gained an understanding of winter. After the trek across the desolate blankness of the Waste, the endless white days of wind and snow and stinging eyes, he had been sure there were no further lessons winter could teach him. After the first few days on Urmsheim he was amazed by his former innocence. They traveled along the slender ice paths roped in file, digging in carefully with toe and heel before taking each step. At times the rising wind plucked at them as though they were tree leaves, and they had to shrink back against the Umisheim's icy side and cling until the wind subsided. The footing, too, was treacherous; Simon, who had thought himself quite a climber as master of the Hayholt's high places, now found himself skidding and clinging on narrow trackways barely two cubits from wall to precipice, a whirling cloud of powdery snow the only thing between the path and the distant earth. Looking down from Green Angel Tower, which had once seemed the world's summit, now seemed as childish and comforting as standing atop a stool in the castle kitchen. From the mountain path he could soon see the tops of other peaks, and clouds eddying about them. The northeast of Osten Ard lay spread before him, but so distant he turned away from the view. It would not do to stare down from such heights. It made his heart race and the breath catch in his throat. Simon wished with all his heart he had remained behind, but now his only hope to come down again was to keep climbing. He found himself often in prayer, and hoped that the loftiness of their location would speed his words to Heaven all the faster. The sickening heights and his own fast-failing confidence were terrifying enough, but Simon was also connected by the cord around his waist to all the rest of the party but the unbound Sithi. Thus, there were not just his own mistakes to worry over: misstep by one of the others could pull them all down, like a weighted fishing line, and send them plunging into the limitless, vertiginous depths. Their progress was painfully slow, but no one, Simon least of all, wanted it otherwise. Not that all the lessons of the mountain were painful ones. Although the air was so thin and achingly cold that he sometimes felt another breath might turn him to frozen stone, the very iciness of the atmosphere brought with it an odd exaltation, a sensation of openness and insubstantiality, as though a startling wind blew right through him. The icy mountain face itself was a thing of painful beauty. Simon had never dreamed that ice might have color; the tame variety he knew, that which festooned the roofs of the Hayholt at Aedontide and shrouded the wells in Jonever, was diamond-clear or milky white. By contrast, the icy armor of Urmsheim, warped, twisted, and buckled by wind and the seemingly distant sun, was a dream-forest of colors and strange shapes. Great ice-towers shot through with veins of sea-green and violet leaned out above the heads of the toiling party. Elsewhere the ice cliffs had cracked and fallen in crystalline chunks, gemlike raw edges etched in stormy blue, crumbling into tesselate confusion like the abandoned blocks of some giant architect. In one place the black bones of two frozen, long-dead trees stood like abandoned sentinels before the rim of a white-misted crevice. The ice sheet that stretched between them had been melted parchment-thin by the sun; the mummified trees seemed the gateposts of Heaven, the ice between them a shimmering, evanescent fan that shattered the dayshine into a glowing rainbow of ruby and nectarine light, into swirls of gold and lavender and pale rose that—Simon felt sure—would make even the famous windows of the Sancellan Aedonitis seem dull as pondwater and candle-drip. But even as its brilliant skin beguiled the eyes, the mountain's cold heart schemed against its unwanted guests. Late in the afternoon of the first day, even as Simon and his mortal comrades were trying to grow used to the strange and deliberate pace forced upon them by Binabik's shoe-spikes—the Sithi, who disdained such devices, nevertheless climbed almost as slowly and carefully as the others—darkness overtook the sky as suddenly and thoroughly as ink spilled upon a blotter. "Lie down!" Binabik yelled, even as Simon and the two Erkynlandish soldiers were staring up curiously at the spot where, mo- ments before, the sun had hung in the heavens. Behind Haestan and Orimmric, Sludig had already flung himself down onto the hard snow. "Down to the ground!" the troll shouted. Haestan pulled Simon down. Even as he was wondering if Binabik had seen something dangerous on the trail ahead—and if so what the Sithi were doing, since they had disappeared where the path bent around part of Urmsheim's southeastern flank—Simon heard the pitch of the wind, which had been a low, steady whistle for hours, rise to a shriek. He felt a tug, then a hard pull, and dug his fingers through the powdery snow into the icy pack beneath. A moment later a crash of thunder banged painfully in both his ears. Even as the first drumbeat was echoing down the valley below, another shook him as Qantaqa might a captured rat. He whimpered and clung to the ground as the wind raked him with bony fingers, and the thunder crashed again and again, the mountain they clung to an anvil for some gargantuan and terrible blacksmith. The storm halted as abruptly as it had descended. Simon crouched in place for long moments after the wind's scream had subsided, his forehead pressed against the freezing ground. When he sat up at last, his ears ringing, the white sun was emerging from the inksplatter of clouds. Beside him Haestan was sitting up like a baffled child, his nose bleeding and his beard full of snow. "By th'Aedon!" he swore. "By th' sufierin', bleedin', sorrowful Aedon and God th'Highest." He wiped his nose with the back of his hand and stared stupidly at the red streak left on his fur glove. "What...?" "Lucky we are we stood on a wide part of the path," Binabik said, climbing to his feet. Although he, too, was covered in clinging snow, he looked almost cheerful. "Here the storms come fast." "Fast..." Simon muttered, looking down. He had pierced the ankle of his right boot with the spikes strapped to the left, and the way it stung he was sure he had drawn blood. A moment later Jiriki's slender form appeared at the bend of the trail. "Have you lost anyone?" he shouted. When Binabik called back that all were safe, the Sitha gave a mocking salute and vanished again. "I don't see any snow on him," Sludig remarked sourly. "Mountain storms are moving quickly," the troll replied. "But so are Sithi." The seven travelers spent the first night together against the back wall of a shallow ice cave on the mountain's eastern face, with the far edge of the narrow path only five or six cubits away, the black abyss waiting below. As he sat shivering in the penetrating cold, comforted but unwarmed by the quiet singing of Jiriki and An'nai, he remembered something Doctor Morgenes had once told him in the heart of a drowsy afternoon, when Simon had complained about living in the crowded, unprivate servant's quarters. "Never make your home in a place," the old man had said, too lazy in the spring warmth to do more than wag a finger. "Make a home for yourself inside your own head. You'll find what you need to furnish it—memory, friends you can trust, love of learning, and other such things." Morgenes had grinned. "That way it will go with you wherever you journey. You'll never lack for a home—unless you lose your head, of course..." He was still not quite sure what exactly it was that the doctor had meant; more than anything, he felt sure, he wanted a home to call his own once more. Father Strangyeard's bare room at Naglimund had begun to feel like one in only a week. Still, there was a sort of romance to the idea of living free on the road, making your home wherever you stopped, like a Hyrka horsetrader. But he was ready for other things. It began to seem as though he himself had been on the move for years—how long had it been, anyway? As he counted carefully back by the changes of the moon, with help from Binabik where he had trouble remembering, he was dumbfounded to realize that it had been... less than two months! Astonishing, but true: the troll confirmed his guess, that three weeks Of Yuven had passed, and Simon knew for a fact that his journey had begun on ill-fated Stoning Night, the last hours of Avrel. How the world had changed in seven weeks! And—he reflected dully, as he tumbled toward sleep—mostly for the worse. In late morning the company was climbing a massive slab of ice that had slid down from the mountain's shoulder to lie athwart the path like a vast, discarded package, when Urmsheim struck again. With a horrifying, grating sound a long wedge of the icy slab crackled from blue-gray to white and broke loose, sliding away beneath Grimmric's feet to plunge, crumbling, down the mountainside. The Erkynlander had time only for a brief surprised shout; a moment later he had tumbled out of sight into the gash the wedge had left behind. Before he could think, Simon felt himself jerked ahead by Grimmric's fall. He tumbled forward, flinging out a desperate hand to catch at the ice-wall; the black crevice came ever closer. Helplessly horrified, he saw a thin slice of empty air through the crack in the path, and beyond that the dim form of the crags half a league below. He screamed and felt himself skid forward, his fingers clutching fruitlessly at the slippery path. Binabik was leading the rope, and his experienced swiftness allowed him to dive forward when he heard the shattering ice; he sprawled face down, clutching the ice with one gloved hand, digging his axe and spikes in as deeply as he could. Haestan's broad hand now caught at Simon's belt, but even the bearded guardsman's bulk could not halt their inexorable slide. Grimmric's hidden weight pulled them down, even as he cried piteously below the crevice-edge and swung from side to side, suspended by the rope above snow-swirling nothingness. At the back of the line Sludig dug in, temporarily halting Simon and Haestan's movement, and shouted anxiously for the Sithi. An'nai and Prince Jiriki came pelting back along the mountain path, touching as lightly on the powdery surface as snow hares. They quickly dug their own axes deep into the ice and lashed them to the end of Binabik's rope with swift knots. The troll, thus freed, edged around the crevice with the two Sithi, and back to help
Sludig. Simon felt the tug on his belt strengthen, and the crevice slowly began to recede. He was sliding backward. He wasn't going to die!—at least, it seemed, not this moment. As he regained his footing he bent to snatch up one of his fallen mittens, and his head pounded. With all the party now heaving at the ropes, they at last brought Grimmric—senseless now, his face gray within his hood—back up through the gap in the ice where he could be dragged to safety. It was long minutes after he awoke before Grimmric could recognize his companions, and he was shaking as with a deadly fever. Sludig and Haestan rigged a sling from two fur cloaks to carry him until they could stop and made camp. When they found a deep cleft that ran back into the mountain until it reached actual stone, the sun was only slightly past the midpoint of the sky, but they had no choice except to make early camp. They lit a small fire, scarcely more than knee-high, with kindling they had scavenged at Urmsheim's feet and carried up into its heights for just such a reason. Shuddering Gremmric lay beside it, teeth a-chatter, waiting for the troll-draught that Binabik, mixing herbs and powders from his pack with snowmelt, was laboring to prepare. No one begrudged Grimmric the precious heat. As the afternoon progressed, and the narrow sliver of sun that arrowed down into the cleft rose up the blue walls and then disappeared, an even deeper and more agonizing chill set in. Simon, his muscles trembling like lute strings, ears aching despite his fur hood, felt himself sliding—as precipitously and helplessly as he had slid toward the naked emptiness of the crevice—toward a waking dream. But instead of the bleak cold he expected, his dream reached out to welcome him with warm and fragrant arms. It was summer again—how long had it been! No mind, for the seasons had swung around at last, and the hot, expectant air was full of the sizzle of bees. The spring's flowers now hung swollen and overripe, crisping brown at the edges like Judith's mutton pies baking in the castle ovens. In the fields below the Hayholt's walls the grass was turning yellow, beginning the alchemical transformation that would end in Autumn, when it would be piled in golden, fragrant ricks, dotting the land like tiny cottages. Simon could hear the shepherds singing drowsily, echoing the bees as they led their bleating charges across the meadows. Summer! Soon, he knew, would come the festivals... Saint Sutrin 's, Hiafmansa—but first his own favorite. Midsummer's Eve... Midsummer's Eve, when everything was different and all was disguised, when bemasked friends and costumed enemies mingled unknowing in the breathless darkness... when music played all through the sleepless night, and the Hedge Garden was festooned with silver ribbons, and laughing, leaping shapes populated the Moon's flours... "Seoman?" A hand was on his shoulder, gently shaking. "Seoman, you are weeping. Wake up." "The dancers... the masks..." "Wake up!" The hand shook him again, more vigorously. He opened his eyes to see Jiriki's narrow face, all forehead and cheekbones in the dim, angled light. "You seemed to be having a frightening dream," the Sitha said as he sank into a crouch at Simon's side. "But... but it wasn't really." He shivered. "It was s-summer... it was Midsummer's Eve..." "Ah." Jiriki raised an eyebrow, then shrugged sinuously. "I think, perhaps you have been wandering in realms where you should not go." "What could be bad about summer?" The prince of the Sithi shrugged again, then produced from inside his cloak—with a gesture like a favorite uncle producing a toy to distract a sniffling child—a shiny object in a delicately-carved wooden frame. "Do you know what this is?" Jiriki asked. "A... a mirror..." Simon was unaware of what the Sitha was asking. Did he know Simon had handled it in the cave? Jiriki smiled. "Yes. A very special mirror, one that has a very long history. Do you know what can be done with such a thing? Besides shaving the face as men do?" he reached over and tapped a cool finger on Simon's furry cheek. "Can you guess?" "S-s-see things that are f-far away?" he replied after a moment's hesitation, then waited for the explosion of temper he was sure would come. The Sitha stared. "You have heard of the mirrors of the Fair folk?" he said at last, wondering. "Still they are the subject of tales and songs?" Now Simon had a chance to slide away from the truth. Instead, he surprised himself. "No. I looked at it when we were in your hunting lodge." Even more surprisingly, this admission only widened Jiriki's eyes. "You saw other places in it? More than reflection?" "I saw... I saw Princess M-Miriamele—my friend," he nodded, and patted her blue scarf where it wound about his neck. "It was like a dream." The Sitha scowled down at the mirror, not angrily, but as if it were the surface of a pool beneath which darted an elusive fish he wished to locate. "You are a strong-willed young man," Jiriki said slowly, "stronger than you know—either that or you are touched by other powers, somehow..." He looked from Simon back to the mirror, and was silent for a time. "It is a very old thing, this mirror," he said at last. "It is said to be a scale of the Greater Worm." "What does that mean?"