“Get you hence!” Elias spat, all pale face and beast’s eyes.
Towser hobbled quickly out of the throne room, shuddering at the king’s last, wild look, and the caged, hopeless face of his daughter.
Princess Miriamele. An Unexpected Guest Middling afternoon on the last day of Avrel, Simon was sunk in the stable’s dark hayloft, comfortably adrift in a scratchy yellow sea, only his head above the dusty billows.
The haydust sparkled down past the wide window as he listened to his own measured breath. He had just come down from the shadowed gallery of the chapel, where the monks had been singing the noon rites.
The clean, sculpted tones of their solemn prayers had touched him in a way that the chapel, and the dry doings within its tapestried walls, seldom did – each note so carefully held and then lovingly released, like a woodcarver putting delicate toy boats into a stream.
The singing voices had wrapped his secret heart in a sweet, cold net of silver; the tender resignation of its strands still clutched him.
It had been such a strange sensation: for a moment he had felt himself all feathers and racing heartbeat – a frightened bird cupped in the hands of God. He had run down the gallery steps, feeling suddenly unworthy of such solicitousness and delicacy – he was too clumsy, too foolish.
It seemed that he might, with his chapped scullion’s hands, somehow mishandle the beautiful music, as a child might unwittingly trample a butterfly. Now, in the hayloft, his heart began to slow.
He buried himself deep in the musty, whispering straw, and with his eyes closed listened to the gentle snorting of the horses in their stalls below.
He thought he could feel the almost insensible touch of the dust motes as they drifted down onto his face in the still, drowsy darkness. He might have dozed – he couldn’t be sure – but the next thing Simon noticed was the sudden, sharp sound of voices below him.
Rolling over, he swam through the tickling straw to the loft’s edge, until he could see down to the stable below. There were three: Shem Horsegroom, Ruben the Bear, and a little man that Simon thought might be Towser, the old jester – he couldn’t be sure because this one wore no motley, and had a hat that covered much of his face.
They had all come in through the stable doors like a trio of comic fools; Ruben the Bear swung a jug from a fist as broad as a leg of spring lamb.
All three were drunk as birds in a berry-bush, and Towser – if it was he – was singing an old tune: “Jack take a maid Up on the cheery hill Sing a way-o, hey-o Half-a-crown day…” Ruben handed the jug to the little man.
The weight over-balanced him in midchorus so that he staggered a step and then tumbled over, his hat flying off.
It was indeed Towser; as he rolled to a stop Simon could see his seamed, purse-mouthed face begin to wrinkle up at his eyes, as though he would cry like a baby.
Instead he began to laugh helplessly, leaning against the wall with the jug between his knees.
His two companions tromped unsteadily over to join him.
They sat all in a row, like magpies on a fence. Simon was wondering if he should announce himself; he didn’t know Towser well, but he had always been friendly with Shem and Ruben.
After a moment’s consideration he decided against it.
It was more fun watching them unsuspected – perhaps he would be able to think of a trick to play! He made himself comfortable, secret and silent in the high loft. “By Saint Muirfath and the Archangel,” Towser said with a sigh after a few sodden moments had passed, “I had sore need of this!” He ran his forefinger around the lip of the jug, then put the finger in his mouth. Shem Horsegroom reached to him across the smith’s broad stomach and took the jug for a swallow.
He wiped his lips with the back of a leathery hand. “Whur will ye go, then?” he asked the jester.
Towser vented a sigh.
The life suddenly seemed to drain out of the little drinking party; all stared glumly at the floor. “I have some kinfolk – distant kinfolk – in Grenefod, at the river’s mouth.
Mayhap I will go there, although I doubt they’ll be too happy with another mouth to feed.
Mayhap I will go north to Naglimund.” “But Josua is gone,” said Ruben, and belched. “Aye, goon away,” added Shem. Towser closed his eyes and bumped his head back against the rough wood of the paddock door. “But Josua’s people still hold Naglimund, and they will have sympathies for someone chased out of his home by Elias’ churls – even more sympathy now, when people say that Elias has murdered poor Prince Josua.” “But other’uns say that Josua has turn traitor,” Shem offered, rubbing his chin sleepily. “Pfagh.” The little jester spat.
In the loft above, Simon, too, felt the warmth of the spring afternoon, the drowsy, dragging weight of it.
It lent the conversation below an air of unimportance, of distance – murder and treachery seemed the names of faraway places. — It seemed obvious now that his plan of the previous day – that of covering himself with a shallow layer of anonymity, becoming a turnspit or a scrubber at some rural hostel – was an impossible notion.
Whether the two guardsmen he had escaped would have known him was not the issue: if they hadn’t recognized him, someone eventually would.
He felt sure that Elias’ soldiers were already beating the countryside for him: he was not just a runaway servant, he was a criminal, a terrible criminal.
Several deaths had already been paid out over the issue of Josua’s escape; there would be no mercy for Simon if he fell into the hands of the Erkynguard. How could he escape? Where would he go? He felt the panic rising again, and tried to suppress it.
Morgenes’ dying wish had been that he follow Josua to Naglimund.
It seemed now that was the only useful course.
If the prince had made good his escape, surely he would welcome Simon.
If not, then doubtless Josua’s liegemen would trade sanctuary for news of their lord.
Still, it was a dismally long way to Naglimund; Simon knew the route and distance only by repute, but no one would call it short.
If he continued to follow the Old Forest Road west, eventually it would cross the Wealdhelm Road, which ran northward along the base of the hills from which it took its name.
If he could find the Wealdhelm way, he would at least be headed in the right direction. With a strip torn from the hem of his shirt he bound the papers up, rolling them into a cylinder and wrapping the cloth around it, tying it with a careful twist of the ends.
He noticed that he had neglected a page; it lay to one side, and as he picked it up he saw that it was the one his own sweat had smeared.
In the blur of ruined letters one sentence had escaped; the words leaped out at him. “…If he was touched by divinity, it was most evident in his comings and goings, in his finding the correct place to be at the most suitable time, and profiting thereby…” It was not exactly a fortune-telling or a prophecy, but it strengthened him a little, and hardened his resolve.
Northward it would be – northward to Naglimund. A prickly, painful, miserable day’s journey in the lee of the Old Forest Road was salvaged in part by a fortuitous discovery.
As he “tilted through the brush, skirting the occasional cottage that crouched within hailing distance of the road, he caught a glimpse through the chink in the forest cover of a treasure beyond price: someone’s untended washing.
As he crept toward the tree, whose branches were festooned with damp clothes and one rank, sodden blanket, he kept his eye on the shabby, bramble-thatched cabin that stood a few paces away.
His heart beat swiftly as he-pulled down a wool cloak so heavy with moisture that he staggered when it slid free into his arms.
No alarm was raised from the cottage; in fact, no one seemed to be about anywhere.
For some reason this made him feel even worse about the theft.
As he scrambled back into the trees with his burden, he saw again in his mind’s eye a crude wooden sign bumping against an unbreathing chest. The thing of it was, Simon quickly realized, living the outlaw life was nothing at all like the stories of Jack Mundwode the Bandit that Shem had told himIn his imaginings Aldheorte Forest had been a sort of endless high hall with a floor of smooth turf and tall treetrunk pillars propping a distant ceiling of leaves and blue sky, an airy pavillion where knights like Sir Tallistro of Perdruin or the great Camaris rode prancing chargers and delivered ensorcelled ladies from hideous fates.
Stranded in an uncompliant, almost malevolent reality, Simon found that the trees of the forest fringe huddled close together, branches intertwining like slip-knotted snakes.
The undergrowth itself was an obstacle, an endless humped field of brambles and fallen trunks that lay nearly invisible beneath moss and moldering leaves. In those first days, when he occasionally found himself in a clearing and could walk unencumbered for a short while, the sound of his own footfalls drumming on the loose-packed soil made him feel exposed.
He caught himself hurrying across the dells in the slanting sunlight, praying for the security of the undergrowth again.
This failure of nerve so infuriated him that he forced himself to cross these clearings slowly.
Sometimes he even sang brave songs, listening to the echo as though the sound of his voice quailing and dying in the muffling trees was the most natural thing in the world, but once he had regained the brambles he could seldom remember what he had sung. Although memories of his life at the Hayholt still filled his head, they had become wisps of remembrance that seemed increasingly distant and unreal, replaced by a growing fog of anger and bitterness and despair.
His home and happiness had been stolen from him.
Life at the Hayholt had been a grand and easeful thing: the people kind, the accommodations wonderfully comfortable.
Now, he crashed through the tortuous forest hour after bleak hour, awash in misery and self-pity.
He felt his old Simon-self vanishing away, and more and more of his waking thought revolving around only two things: moving forward and eating. At first he had pondered long over whether he should take the open roadway for speed and risk discovery, or try and follow it from the safety of the forest.
The last had seemed the better idea, but he quickly discovered that the two, road and forest fringe, diverged widely at certain points, and in the thick tangle of Oldheart it was often frighteningly difficult to find the road again.
He also realized with painful embarrassment that he did not have the slightest idea of how to make a fire, something he had never thought about as he listened to Shem describing droll Mundwode and his bandit fellows feasting on roast venison at their woodland table.
With no torch to light his way, it seemed that the only possible thing to do was to follow the road at night, when moonlight permitted it.
He would then sleep by daylight, and use the remaining hours of sun to slog through the forest. No torch meant no cook-fire, and this was in some ways the hardest blow of all.
From time to time he found clutches of speckled eggs deposited by the mother grouse in hiding-holes of matted grass.
These provided some nourishment, but it was hard to suck out the sticky, cold yolks without thinking of the warm, scented glories of Judith’s kitchen, and to reflect bitterly on the mornings when he had been in such a tearing hurry to see Morgenes or get out to the tourney field that he had left great chunks of butter and honeysmeared bread untouched on his plate.
Now, suddenly, the thought of a buttered crust was a dream of riches. Incapable of hunting, knowing little or nothing about what wild plants might be eaten without harm, Simon owed his survival to pilferage from the gardens of local cotsmen.
Keeping a wary eye out for dogs or angry residents, he would swoop down from the shelter of the forest to rifle the pitifully sparse vegetable patches, scraping up carrots and onions or hurriedly plucking apples from lower branches – but even these meager goods were few and far between.
Often as he walked, the hunger pains were so great that he would shout out in anger, kicking savagely at the tangling shrubbery.
Once he kicked so hard and screamed so loudly that when he fell down on his face in the undergrowth he could not get up for a long time.
He lay listening to the echoes of his cries disappear, and thought he would die. No, life in the forest was not a tenth so glorious as he had imagined it in those long-ago Hayholt afternoons, crouching in the stables smelling hay and tack leather, listening to Shem’s stories.
The mighty Oldheart was a dark and miserly host, jealous of doling comforts out to strangers.
Hiding in thorny brush to sleep away the hours of sun, making his damp, shivering way through the darkness beneath the tree-netted moon, or scuttling furtively through the garden plots in his sagging, too-large cloak, Simon knew he was more rabbit than rogue. Although he carried the rolled pages of Morgenes’ life of John wherever he went, clutching them like a baton of office or a priest’s blessed Tree, less and less often as the days passed did he actually read them.
At the thin end of the day, between a pathetic meal – if any – and the frightening, close-leaning darkness of the world out of doors, he would open the bundle and read a part of a page, but every day the sense of it seemed harder to grasp.
One page, on which the names of John, Eahlstan the Fisher King, and the dragon Shurakai were prominent, caught his mayfly attention, but after he had read it through four times, struggling, he realized that it made no more sense to him than would the year-lines on a piece of timber.
By his fifth afternoon in the forest he only sat, crying softly, with the pages spread on his lap.
He absently stroked the smooth parchment, as he had once scratched the kitchen cat uncountable years ago, in a warm, bright room that smelled of onions and cinnamon… A week and a day out from the Dragon and Fisherman he passed within shouting distance of the village of Sistan, a settlement only slightly larger than Flett.
The twin clay chimneys of Sistan’s roadhouse were smoking, but the road was empty, the sun bright.
Simon peered down a hillside from the clump of silvery birches and the memory of his last hot meal struck him like a physical blow, weakening his knees so that he almost fell.
That long-lost evening, despite its conclusion, seemed almost like Doctor Morgenes’ onetime description of the pagan paradise of the old Rimmersgarders; eternal drinking and storytelling; merrymaking without end. He crept down the hill toward the quiet roadhouse, hands trembling, forming wild plans of stealing a meat pie from an unguarded windowsill, or slipping in a back door to pillage the kitchen.
He was out of the trees and halfway down the slope when he suddenly realized what he was doing: walking out of the woods at unshadowed noon, a sickened, feverish animal that had lost its self-protective instincts.
Feel ing suddenly naked despite his bramble-studded wool cloak he froze in place, then whirled and scrambled away, back up to the swan-slim birch trees.
Now even they seemed too exposed; cursing and sobbing, he clambered past to the thicker shadows, drawing Oldheart around him like a cloak. Five days west of Sistan the begrimed and famished youth found himself crouched on another slope, peering down into a forest dell at a rough split-log hut.
He was sure – as sure as he could be with his thoughts so piteously scatted and fragmented – that another day without real food or another solitary night spent in the chill, uncaring forest would leave him really and finally deranged: he would become completely the beast he more and more frequently felt himself to be.
His thoughts were turning foul and brutish: food, dark hiding-places, weary forest tramping, these were his all-consuming preoccupations.
It was increasingly difficult to remember the castle – had it been warm there? Had people spoken to him? – and when a branch had lanced his tunic and scored his ribs the day before he had only been able to growl and flail at it – a beast! Somebody…
Somebody lives here… The woodsman’s cottage had a front path lined with tidy stones.
A stack of halved timbers nestled beneath the eaves against the side wall.
Surely, he reasoned, sniffling quietly, surely somebody here would take pity on him if he walked to the door and calmly asked for some food. — Simon curled himself in his cloak beside the warm stones of the dying fire. “Could you sing a song, Binabik?” he asked, “or tell a story?” The troll looked over. “I am thinking not a story, Simon, for we need to sleep and rise early.
Perhaps a short song.” “That would be fine.” “But, after thinking again,” Binabik said, tugging his hood up around his ears, “I would like to be hearing you sing a song.
A quiet singing, of course.” “Me? A song?” Simon pondered.
Through a chink in the trees he thought he could see the faint glimmer of a star.
A star… “Well, then,” he said, “since you sang your song for me, about Sedda and the blanket of stars…
I suppose I can sing one that the chambermaids taught me when I was a child.” He moved around a bit, making himself more comfortable. “I hope I remember all the words.
It’s a funny song.” “In the Oldheart’s deep dell,” Simon began softly, “Jack Mundwode did yell To his men of the woods near and far, He offered a crown, and the forest’s reknown To the one who could catch him a star. Beornoth stood first time, and he shouted: ‘I’ll climb To the top of the highest of trees! And I’ll snatch that star down for the fair golden crown That will soon belong only to me.’ So he climbed up a birch to the highest high perch Then he leaped to an old, tall yew. But as much as he jumped, and he leaped and he bumped Reach the star, that he never could do. Next gay Osgal stood, and he promised he would Loose an arrow up into the sky. ‘I will knock that star free so it falls down to me And the crown will be mine by and by…’ Twenty arrows he shot.
Not a single one caught On the star that hung mocking above. As the arrows fell back Osgal hid behind Jack Who chuckled and gave him a shove. Now all the men sought, and they quarreled and fought And they had not a pinch of success, Till the fair Hruse rose, and she looked down her nose At the men as she smoothed out her dress. ‘ ’Tis a small enough task for Jack Mundwode to ask,’ She said with a gleam in her eye, ‘But if none of you here hold a gold crown that dear I will seek Mundwode’s knot to untie.’ Then she took up a net which she’d bade the men get And she cast it full into the lake. So the water did roil, and it almost did spoil The reflection the bright star did make. But then after a while she turned ’round with a smile, Said to Jack: ‘Do you see what’s about? It is there in my net, all caught up and quite wet If you want it, then you pull it out.’ Old Jack laughed and he shouted to all those who crowded ‘Here’s the woman I must take to wife. For she’s taken my crown, and she’s brought my star down So I might as well give her my life.’ Yes, she’s taken the crown, and she’s brought the star down So Jack Mundwode has took her to wife…” From the darkness he could hear Binabik laugh, quietly and easily. “A song of enjoyment, Simon, Thanks to you.” Soon the hissing of the embers quieted, and the only sound was the soft breathing of the wind through the endless trees. Before he opened his eyes he was aware of a strange droning noise, rising and falling close to where he lay.
He lifted his head, feeling sticky with sleep, to see Binabik sitting cross-legged before the fire.
The sun had not been up long; the forest around them was draped in tendrils of pale mist. Binabik had carefully placed a circle of feathers around the fire pit, feathers of many different birds, as though he had scavenged them from the surrounding woods.
Eyes closed, he leaned toward the small fire and chanted in his native language, the sound that had pulled Simon to wakefulness. “…Tutusik-Ahyuq-Chuyuq-Qachimak, Tutusik-Ahyuk-ChuyuqQaqimak… “On and on he went.
The slender ribbon of smoke that rose from the campfire began to waver, as though in a strong breeze, but the tiny feathers lay flat on the ground, unmoving.
With his eyes still closed, the troll began to move the palm of his hand in a flat circle over the fire; the ribbon of smoke bent as though pushed, and began to stream steadily away across one corner of the pit.
Binabik opened his eyes and looked for a moment at the smoke, then stopped the circling movement of his small hand.
A moment later the smoke resumed its normal motion. Simon had been holding his breath.
He let it out. “Do you know where we are now?” he asked.
Binabik turned and smiled, pleased. “Morning greetings.
Yes, I think I am knowing to a nicety.
We should be having little trouble – but much walking – to get to Geloë’s house…” “House?” Simon asked. “A house in the Aldheorte? What’s it like?” “Ah,” Binabik straightened his legs and rubbed at his calves, “it is not like any house you…” He stopped, and sat staring over Simon’s shoulder, transfixed.
The youth whirled in alarm, but there was nothing to see. “What is it?” “Hush…” Binabik continued to gaze out. “There.
Are you hearing?” After a moment, he did hear it: the distant baying they had marked in their journey across the downs to the forest.
Simon felt his skin crawl. — “Don’t…” Haestan began, but Jiriki ignored him, producing instead from within his jacket the looking glass.
Simon sat up and took it, the fine carvings on its frame rough to his sensitive fingers.
The wind howled outside the cave, and cold air crept in below the door-cloth. Was all the world covered with ice, now? Would he never again escape the winter? In other circumstances he would have been quite taken with the reddish golden whiskers which were coming in thickly all over his face, but his attention was captured by the long scar running up from his jaw, over his cheek and past his left eye.
The surrounding skin was livid and new-looking.
He touched it and winced, then slid his fingers up to his scalp. A long swath of his hair had turned as white as the Urmsheim snows. “You have been marked, Seoman.” Jiriki reached out and touched his cheek with a long finger. “For better or for worse, you have been marked.” Simon let the mirror drop, and covered his face with his hands. Appendix PEOPLE Erkynlanders Barnabas – Hayholt chapel sexton Beornoth – one of Jack Mundwode’s mythical band Breyugar – Count of the Westfold, Lord Constable of the Hayholt under Elias Caleb – Shem Horsegroom’s apprentice Colmund – Camaris’ squire, later baron of Rodstanby Deorhelm – soldier at Dragon and Fisherman Deornoth, Sir – Josua’s knight, sometimes called “Prince’s Right Hand” Dreosan, Father – chaplain of Hayholt Eadgram, Sir – Lord Constable of Naglimund Eahlferend – Simon’s fisherman father, husband of Susanna Eahlstan Fiskerne – Fisher King, first Erkynlandish master of Hayholt Eglaf, Brother – Naglimund monk, friend of Strangyeard Elias – Prince, Prester John’s elder son, later High King Elispeth – midwife at Hayholt Ethelbearn – soldier, Simon’s companion on journey from Naglimund Ethelferth – Lord of Tinsett Fengbald – Earl of Falshire — Godstan – soldier at Dragon and Fisherman Godwig – Baron of Cellodshire Grimmric – soldier, Simon’s companion on journey from Nagilmund Grimstede, Sir – Erkylandish noble, supporter of Josua Guthwulf – Eari of Utanyeat, High King’s Hand Haestan – Naglimund guardsman, Simon’s companion Heahferth – Baron of Woodsall Heanfax – innkeeper’s boy Helfcene, Father – Chancellor of Hayholt Hepzibah – castle chambermaid Hruse – Jack Mundwode’s wife in song Inch – Doctor’s assistant, later foundry-master Isaak – page Jack Mundwode – mythical forest bandit Jael – castle chambermaid Jakob – castle chandler Jeremias – chandler’s boy John – King John Presbyter, High King Josua – Prince, John’s younger son, lord of Naglimund, called “Lackhand” Judith – Cook and Kitchen Mistress Langrian – Hoderundian monk Leleth – Miriamele’s handmaiden Lofsunu – soldier, Hepzibah’s intended Lucuman – stable-worker at Naglimund Malachias – castle boy Marya – Miriamele’s servant Miriamele – Princess, Elias’ only child Morgenes, Doctor – Scrollbearer, King John’s castle doctor, Simon’s friend Noah – King John’s squire
Read more about Jack : All three were drunk as birds in a berry bush….: