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



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It was quieter in the residence's maze of hallways. The Norns had broken in; a few bodies lay crumpled against the walls or splayed out on the stone flags, but most of the people had fled toward the chapel or the dining hall, and the Norns had not stayed to search. That would come later.
Isorn unbarred the door at Josua's shouted command. Isgrimnur's son, with Einskaldir and a handful of Erkynlander and Rimmersman soldiers, stood guard over the Lady Vorzheva and the Duchess Gutrun. A few other courtiers were huddled there as well, Towser and the harper Sangfugol among them.
While the prince pulled himself coldly from Vorzheva's weeping embrace, Strangyeard discovered Jarnauga lying on a pallet in the corner; a blood-soaked bandage was twined haphazardly around his head.
"The roof of the library fell," the old Rimmersman said, smiling bitterly. "The flames, I fear, have taken nearly all."
For Father Strangyeard this was, in some way, the worst blow of all. He burst out in fresh weeping, tears even trickling down from beneath his eye patch.
"Worse... it could be worse," he gulped finally. "You might have gone with them, my friend."
Jarnauga shook his white head and winced. "No. Not quite yet. Soon, though. I did save one thing." He pulled from out of his robe the battered parchment of Morgenes' manuscript, the top page now ribboned with blood. "Carry it safe. It will be of some use still, I hope."
Strangyeard took it carefully, tying it with a cord from Josua's table and slipping it into the inner pocket of his cassock. "Can you stand?" he asked Jarnauga.
The old man nodded carefully, and the priest helped him to his feet.
"Prince Josua," Strangyeard said, holding Jarnauga's elbow. "I have thought of something."
The prince turned from his urgent conferral with Deornoth and the others to stare impatiently at the archive-master.
"What is it?" His eyebrows singed away, Josua's forehead seemed more prominent than ever, a pale lunar bulge beneath his close-cropped hair. "Do you wish me to build a new library?" The prince sagged wearily against the wall as the clamor built outside. "I am sorry, Strangyeard. That was a foolish thing to say. What has come to your mind?"
"There is a way out."
Several of the dirt-streaked, desperate faces turned toward him.
"What?" Josua asked, bending forward to stare intently. "Shall we march out through the gate? I hear it has been opened for us."
Strangyeard's sense of urgency gave him the strength to stare the prince down. "There is a hidden passageway leading out of the guardroom to the Eastern Gate," he said. "I should know—you have had me staring at Dendinis' castle plans for months in preparation for the siege." He thought of the rolls of irreplaceable brown parchment, covered in the fading ink of Dendinis1 careful notes, ashes now, charred in the rubble of the library. He fought down more tears. "If... if we c-can get there we may escape up the Stile into the Wealdhelm Hills."
"And from there what?" Towser asked querulously. "Starve in the hills? Eaten by wolves in the Oldheart Forest?"
"Would you rather be eaten here and now, by less pleasant things?" Deornoth snapped. His heart had sped at the priest's words; the faint return of hope was almost too painful, but he would hear anything to get his prince to safety.
"We will have to fight our way out," Isorn said. "Even now I can hear the Norns filling the residence. We have women and some children."
Josua stared around the room at nearly a score of weary, frightened faces.
"Better to die outside than to be burned alive here, I suppose," he said at last. He lifted his hand in a gesture of benediction or resignation. "Let us go swiftly."
"One thing. Prince Josua." Hearing him, the prince came to where the priest was aiding struggling Jarnauga. "If we can make our way to the Tunnel Gate," Strangyeard said quietly, "we have still another problem to solve. It was built for defense, not escape. It can be as easily opened as closed from the inside."
Josua wiped ash from his brow. "You are saying that we must find some way to block it behind us?"
"If we are to have any hope of escape."
The prince sighed. A cut on his lip dripped blood onto his chin. "Let us reach the gate at all, then we shall do what must be done."
They burst through the door in a pack, surprising a pair of Norns who waited in the corridor. Einskaldir crashed his axe through the helmet of the nearest, throwing sparks in the darkened hallway.
Before the other could do more than raise his short sword, he had been skewered between Isorn and one of the Naglimund guardsmen. Deornoth and the prince quickly herded the courtiers out.
Much of the din of slaughter had died away. Only an occasional scream of pain or rising chant of triumph floated through the empty hallways. Eye-stinging smoke, licking flames, and the mocking songs of the Norns gave the residence the look of some terrible underworld, some labyrinth on the edge of the Great Pit.
In the savaged ruins of the castle gardens they were set on by cluttering diggers. One of the soldiers fell dead with a jagged Bukken knife in his back, and as the rest of the company fought off the others, one of Vorzheva's maidservants was dragged squealing down into a gash in the black earth. Deornoth leaped forward to try and save her, impaling a squirming, whistling black body on the end of his sword, but she was gone. Only her delicate slipper lying in the rain-spattered mud showed she had even existed.
Two of the immense Hunen had discovered the wine cellars, and were fighting drunkenly over the last barrel before the inner keep's guardhouse, clubbing and scratching each other in roaring fury. One giant's arm hung limp at his side, and the other had gotten such a terrible wound to his head that a flap of skin hung free, and his face was a sheet of blood. Still they tore at each other, snarling their incomprehensible language in the wreckage of shattered casks and the crushed bodies of Naglimund's defenders.
Crouched in the mud at the edge of the gardens, Josua and Strangyeard squinted against the driving rain.
"The guardroom door is closed," Josua said. "We might be able to get across the open yard, but if it has been bolted from the inside we are doomed. We would never burst it open in time."
Strangyeard shivered. "Even if we did, we would not then... not then be able to bolt it behind us."
Josua looked at Deornoth, who said nothing.
"Still," the prince hissed, "it is what we came for. We shall run."
When they had formed up the small company, they set out at a stumbling dash. The two Hunen, one of them with his great teeth fastened in his fellow's throat, were rolling on the ground, locked still in howling battle like gods of the primordial past. Oblivious to the humans passing by, one of them threw out a massive leg in a paroxysm of pain and knocked the harper Sangfugol sprawling.
Isorn and old Towser hurriedly turned back and picked him up; as they did so a shrill, excited shout came from across the courtyard.
A dozen Norns, two of them on tall white horses, turned at their fellow's call. Seeing the prince's party they gave a great cry and spurred forward, galloping past the now-senseless giants.
Isorn reached the door and pulled. It sprang open, but even as the terrified company began to push inside the first rider was upon them, a high helm upon his head, a long spear poised in his hand.
Dark-bearded Einskaldir dashed forward with a snarl like a cornered dog, ducking the serpentine strike of the lance, then leaping and throwing himself against the Norn's side. He caught the Norn's flapping cloak in his hand and pushed away, tumbling to the ground and bringing his enemy down after him. The riderless horse skidded on the wet cobbles. Kneeling over the fallen Norn, Einskaldir brought his axe down hard, then crashed it down again. Blind to all around him, he would have been pierced by the spear of the second Norn rider, but Deornoth hefted and threw the lid of a broken barrel, knocking the rider off his horse and into one of the hedges. The howling foot-troops were bearing down fast as Deornoth pulled the foaming Einskaldir off the Norn's hacked corpse.
They drove through the door moments ahead of the attackers, and Isorn and two of the other pursuers rammed it shut. Spears crashed against the heavy wood; a moment later one of the Norns called out in a high-pitched, clicking voice.
"Axes!" Jarnauga said. "I know that much of the Hikeda'ya tongue. They are going for axes.
"Strangyeard!" Josua shouted, "where is the damned passage-way?"
"It's... it's so dark," the priest quavered. Indeed, the room was lit only by the inconstant light of orange flames beginning to burn through the roofbeams. Smoke was gathering beneath the low ceiling. "I... I think it is on the south side..." he began. Einskaldir and several others sprang to the wall and began pulling down the heavy arrases.
"The door!" Einskaldir barked. "Locked," he added a moment later.
The keyhole in the heavy wooden door was empty. Josua stared for a moment, even as a sliver of axe-blade crashed through the door from the courtyard outside. "Break it down," he said. "You others, pile what you can before the other door."
In a matter of moments Einskaldir and Isorn had hacked the bolt right out of the jamb, while Deornoth lifted an unlit torch to the smoldering ceiling. An instant later the door was knocked off its hinges and they were through, fleeing up the sloping corridor. Another piece splintered out of the door behind them.
They ran for several furlongs, the stronger helping the weaker. One of the courtiers at last fell weeping to the ground, unable to go farther. Isorn went to pick him up, but his mother Gutrun, herself staggeringly tired, waved him off.
"Leave him lie," she said. "He can keep up."
Isorn looked hard at her, then shrugged. As they continued up the slanting stone pathway, they heard the man struggle to his feet, cursing them, and follow.
Even as the doors loomed before them, swart and solid in the light of the solitary torch, extending from the floor of the passageway to the roof, the sound of pursuit came echoing up behind them. Fearing the worst, Josua stretched out his hand to one of the iron rings and pulled. The door swung inward with a soft groan of its hinges.
"Usires be praised," Isorn said.
"Get the women and others through," Josua ordered, and a moment later two of the soldiers had led them well up the passageway beyond the mighty doors.
"Now we come to it," Josua said. "Either we must find some way to seal this door, or else we must leave enough men behind to slow our pursuers.
"I will stay," Einskaldir growled. "I have tasted faerie-blood tonight. I would not mind more." He patted his hilt.
"No. It is for me, and me alone." Jarnauga coughed and sagged on Strangyeard's arm, then straightened. The tall priest turned to look at the old man, and suddenly understood.
"I am dying," Jarnauga said. "I was not meant to leave Naglimund. I always knew that. You need only leave me a sword."
"You have not the strength!" Einskaldir said angrily, as if disappointed.
"I have enough to close this door," the old man said gently. "See?" He pointed to the great hinges. "They are wrought very fine. Once the door is shut, a blade broken off in the hinge-crevice will balk the stoutest pursuer. Go."
The prince turned as if to object; a clicking shout reverberated up the passageway. "Very well," he said softly. "God bless you, old man."
"No need," Jarnauga said. He pulled something shiny from around his neck and pressed it into Strangyeard's hand. "Strange to make a friend at the very last," Jarnauga said. The priest's eye filled with tears, and he kissed the Rimmersman's cheek.
"My friend," he whispered, and went through the open door.
The last they saw was Jarnauga's bright gaze catch the torchlight as he put his shoulder to the door. It swung closed, damping the sounds of pursuit. The bolts inside slid solidly into place.
After climbing a long stairway they emerged at last into the windy, ram-lashed evening. The storm had thinned, and as they stood on the naked hillside below the wooded Stile they could see fire flickering in the ruins of Naglimund below, and black, inhuman shapes dancing among the vaulting flames.
Josua stood and stared for a long while, sooty face streaked by the rain. His small party huddled trembling behind him, waiting to take to the path once more.
The prince raised his left fist.
"Elias!" he shouted, and the wind whipped the echoes away. "You have brought death and worse to our father's kingdom! You have raised an ancient evil, and shattered the High King's Ward! You have unhoused me, and destroyed much that I loved." He stopped and fought back tears. "Now you are king no longer! I will take the crown from you. I will take it, I swear!"
Deornoth took his elbow and led him away from the pathway's edge. Josua's subjects stood waiting for him, cold and frightened, homeless in the wild Wealdhelm. He bowed his head for a moment, in weariness or prayer, and led them into the darkness.

44
Blood and the Spinning World
THE DRAGON'S black blood had spilled over him, burning like afire. In the instant of its touch he had felt his own life subdued. The dreadful essence coursed through him, scalding away his spirit, and leaving only dragon-life. It was as if he had himself become—in the failing moment before darkness came—the Worm's secret heart.
Ifgarjuk's smolderingly slow and intricate life captured him. He spread; he changed, and the changing was as painful as both death and birth.
His bones became heavy, solid as stone and curvingly reptilian. His skin hardened into gemlike scales, and he felt his pelt sliding on his back like a mailshirt of diamonds.
The dragon's heartblood now moved powerfully in his breast, ponderous as the movement of a dark star in the empty night, strong and hot as the very forge-fires of the earth. His claws sank into the world's stony skin, and his age-old heart pulsed... and pulsed... and pulsed... He grew into the brittle, ancient cleverness of the dragonfolk, feeling first the birth of his long-lived race in the earth's infant days, then the weight of uncountable years pressing upon him, dark millennia rushing by like roiling waters. He was one of the Eldest of all races, one of the cooling earth's firstborn, and he lay coiled beneath the world's surface as the least of worms might lie hidden in the rind of an apple...
The old black blood raced through him. Still he grew, and he perceived and named all things of the spinning world. Its skin. The earth's skin, became his own—the crawling surface of which all living things were born, where they struggled and failed, surrendering at last to become a part of him once more. Its bones were his bones, the rocky pillars on which all things stood, and through which he felt every tremor of breathing life.
He was Simon. Yet he was the serpent. And he was nevertheless the very earth in its infinitude and detail. And still he grew, and growing, felt his mortal life slipping away...
In the sudden loneliness of his majesty, fearing that he would lose everything, he reached out to touch those he had known. He could feel their warm lives, sensing them like sparks in a great, windy darkness. So many lives—so important, so small...
He saw Rachel—bent, old. She sat on a stool in an empty room, holding her gray head in her hands. When had she become so small? A broom lay at her feet, an orderly mound of dust beside it. The castle room was fast darkening.
Prince Josua stood on a hillside, looking down. A faint flame-hued light painted his grim face. He could see Josua's doubt and pain; he tried to reach out and give him reassurance, but these lives were only to see, not to touch.
A small brown man he did not know poled his fiat boat up a stream. Great trees dangled their branches in the water, and clouds of midges hovered. The little man patted protectively at a sheaf of parchment tucked into his belt. A breeze rattled the trailing branches, and the little man smiled gratefully.
A large man—Isgrimnur? Where was his beard?—paced on a weather-warped pier and stared out at the darkening sky, at the wind-lashed ocean.
A beautiful old man, his long white hair tangled, sat playing with a crowd of half-naked children. His blue eyes were mild, distant, wrinkled in a happy squint.
Miriamele, hair close-cropped, looked out from the rail of a ship at the heavy clouds massing on the horizon. The sails snapped and rippled above her head. He wanted to watch her for a longer time, but the vision whirled away like a falling leaf.
A tall Hernystiri woman dressed in black kneeled before two cairns of stones in a grove of slender birch trees, high on the side of a wind-swept mountain.
King Elias stared into the depth of a wine cup, eyes red-rimmed. Sorrow lay across his knees. The gray sword was a wild thing feigning sleep...
Morgenes suddenly appeared before him, crowned in flame; and the sight drove an icy spear of pain even into his dragon's heart. The old man was holding a great book, and his lips moved in anguished. silent cries, as though he shouted a warning... beware the false messenger... beware...
The faces slipped away, but for one last ghost.
A boy, thin and awkward, made his way through dark tunnels beneath the earth, crying and crawling through the labyrinth like a trapped insect. Every detail, every twist and turn unwound tortuously before his eyes.
The boy stood on a hillside beneath the moon. staring in horror at white-faced figures and a gray sword, but a dark cloud covered the boy in shadow.
The same boy, older now, stood before a great white tower. A golden light flashed on his finger, although the boy stood in deep and darkening shadow. Bells were tolling, and the roof had burst into flames...
Darkness was engulfing him now, pulling him away toward other, stranger places—but he did not wish to go on to those places. Not until he remembered the name of that child, that gawky boy who labored in ignorance. He would not go on; he would remember...
The boy's name was... the boy's name was... Simon!
Simon.
And then his sight faded...
^
"Seoman," the voice said, quite loud now; he realized it had been calling him for some time.
He opened his eyes. The colors were so intense he quickly shut them, blinded. Spinning wheels of silver and red danced before the darkness of his closed lids.
"Come, Seoman, come and rejoin your companions. There is need of you here."
He unlidded halfway, letting himself grow used to the light. There were now no colors at all—everything was white. He groaned, trying to move, and felt a terrible weakness, as though some heavy thing pressed down on him all around; at the same time he felt himself as transparent and fragile as if he were spun from pure glass. Even with closed eyes he thought he could feel light passing through him, filling him with a radiance that brought no warmth.
A shadow crossed his sensitive face, seeming almost to have tangible weight. Something wet and cold touched his lips. He swallowed, felt a bite of pain, coughed, and drank again. It seemed he could taste everywhere the water had ever been—the icy peak, the swollen rain cloud, the stony mountain sluice.
He opened his eyes wider. All was indeed overwhelmingly white, except for the golden face of Jiriki looming nearby. He was in a cave, the walls pale with ash but for the traces of faint lines; furs and wooden carvings and decorated bowls were stacked along the edge of the stone floor. Simon's heavy hands, numb yet strangely acute, clutched at the fur coverlet and probed weakly at the wooden cot on which he lay. How...?
"I..." He coughed again.
"You are sore, you are tired. That is expected." The Sitha frowned, but his luminous eyes did not change expression. "You have done a very terrible thing, Simon, do you know? You have saved my life twice."
"Mmmmm." His head was responding as slowly as his muscles. What exactly had happened? There had been the mountain... the cave... and the...
"The dragon!" Simon said, choking, and tried to sit up. As the fur robe slid down he felt the chill of the room in earnest. Light was leaking past a skin hanging at the room's far end. A wave of dizziness left him limp, and set his head and face to throbbing. He sagged back.
"Gone," Jiriki said shortly. "Dead or not I do not know, but gone. When you struck, it tumbled past you and down into the abyss. I could not mark where it fell in the snows and ice of the great deeps. You wielded the sword Thorn like a warrior true, Seoman Snowlock."
"I..." He took a shaky breath and tried again. Talking made his face hurt. "I don't think... it was me. Thorn... used me. It... wanted to be saved, I think. That must sound foolish, but..."
"No. I think you may be correct. Look." Jiriki pointed to the cave wall a few feet away. Thorn lay cushioned there on the prince's cloak, black and remote as the bottom of a well. Could such a thing have ever felt alive in his hand? "It was easy enough to carry here," Jiriki said, "perhaps this was a direction it wished to go."
The Sitha's words set in motion a slow wheel of thought in Simon's mind.
The sword wanted to come here—but where is here? And how did we get... Oh, Mother of God, the dragon...!
"Jiriki!" he gasped, "the others! Where are the others?"
The prince nodded gently. "Ah, yes. I had hoped to wait longer, but I see I have no choice." He closed his wide, bright eyes for a moment.
"An'nai and Grimmric are dead. They have been buried on the mountain Urmsheim." He sighed, and made a complicated gesture with his hands. "You do not know what it means to bury a mortal and a Sitha together, Seoman. It has been seldom done, and never in five centuries. An'nai's deeds will live until world's end in the Dance of Years, the annals of our people, and Grimmric's name will now live with his. They will lie forever beneath the Uduntree." Jiriki closed his eyes and sat for a silent moment. "The others... well, they have all survived."
Simon felt a clutch at his heart, but pushed away thoughts of the fallen pair for later. He stared at the ash-painted ceiling, and saw that the lines were faint scribings of great serpents and long-tusked beasts, winding all across the roof and walls. The blank eyes of the creatures troubled him: when he looked too long, they seemed to move. He turned back to the Sitha.


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