作者：残烟一缕 提交日期：2008-7-13 11:12:00 | 分类: | 访问量：7822
The White Arrow
"IT'S NOT FAIR!' Simon sobbed for perhaps the hundredth time, fisting the wet ground. Leaves stuck to his reddened knuckles; he did not feel the least bit warmer. "Not fair!" he murmured, curling back into a ball. The sun had been up for an hour, but the thin light brought no heat, Simon shivered and wept.
And it wasn't fair—it wasn't at all. What had he done that he should be lying damp, miserable and homeless in the Aldheorte forest while others were asleep in warm beds, or just risen to bread and milk and dry clothes? Why should he be hunted and chased like some filthy animal? He had tried to do what was right, to help his friend and the prince, and it had made of him a starveling outcast.
But Morgenes got far worse, didn't he? a part of him pointed out contemptuously. The poor doctor would probably shift places with you gladly.
Even that, though, was beside the point: Doctor Morgenes at least had possessed some idea of what was involved, of what might happen, He himself had been, he thought disgustedly, as innocent and stupid as a mouse who goes out of doors to play tag with the cat.
Why does God hate me so? Simon wondered, sniffling. How could Usires Aedon, who the priest said watched over everyone, have left him to suffer and die in the wilderness like this? He burst out in fresh weeping.
Rubbing his eyes some time later, he wondered how long he had been lying there staring at nothing. He pulled himself up, moving away from the sheltering tree to shake the life back into his hands and feet. He returned to the tree long enough to empty his bladder, then stalked sullenly down to the tiny stream to drink. The merciless ache in his knees, back, and neck rebuked him with every step.
Damn everyone to Hell. And damn the bloody forest. And God, too, for that matter.
He looked up fearfully from his chill handful of water, but his silent blasphemy went unpunished.
When he had finished he moved upstream a short distance to a place where the stream eddied out into a pool, and the turbulent waters were smoothed. As he crouched, staring at his tear-rippled reflection, he felt a resistance at his waist that made it difficult to bend over without steadying himself with his hands.
The doctor's manuscript! he remembered.
He half-stood, pulling the warm, flexible mass out from between pants and shirt-front. His belt had smashed a crease the length of the whole bundle. He had carried them so long that the pages were molded to the curve of his belly like a piece of armor; in his hand they lay bowed like a wind-breasted sail. The top page was smeared and caked with dirt, but Simon recognized the doctor's small, intricate script: he had been wearing the thin armor ofMorgenes' words. He felt a sudden fierce pang like hunger, and put the papers gently aside, returning his gaze to the pool.
It took a moment to separate his own reflection from the bands and blotches of shadow cast on the water's surface. The light was behind him; his image was largely silhouette, a dark figure with only the suggestion of features along the illuminated temple, cheek, and jaw. Twisting his head to catch the sun, he looked from the corner of his eye to see a hunted animal mirrored in the water, its ear tilted as though listening for pursuit, hair a tangled hedge of tufts, neck angled in a way that spoke not of civilization, but of watchfulness and fear. He quickly gathered up the manuscript and walked up the stream bank.
I'm completely alone. No one will take care of me ever again. Not that anyone ever did. He thought he could feel his heart breaking within his chest.
After searching for a few minutes he found a patch of sunlight, and settled down to dry his tears and think. It seemed obvious, as he listened to the echoing speech of birds in the otherwise soundless forest, that he must find warmer clothes if he was going to spend nights out of doors—and that he would certainly have to do until he got farther away from the Hayholt. He also needed to decide where he was going.
He began to leaf absently through Morgenes' papers, each one dense with words. Words—how could anyone think of so many words at one time, let alone write them down? It made his brain hurt just thinking about it. And what good were they, he thought, his lip trembling with bitterness, when you were cold, and hungry… or when Pryrates was at your door? He pulled two pages apart. The bottom one tore, and he felt as though he had unwittingly insulted a friend. He stared at it for a moment, solemnly tracing the familiar calligraphy with a scratched finger, then held it up to catch the light, squinting his eyes to read.
"... It is strange, then, to think how those who wrote the songs and stories that entertained John's glittering court made of him, in an effort to construct him larger than life. less than he truly was."
Reading it through the first time, puzzling it word by word, he could make nothing of it; but as he read it again the cadences of Morgenes' speech came out. He almost smiled, forgetting for a moment his horrible situation. It still made little sense to him, but he recognized the voice of his friend.
"Consider for example," it continued, "his coming to Erkynland out of the island of Warinsten. The balladeers would have it that God summoned him to slay the dragon Shurakai; that he touched shore at Grenefod with his sword Bright-Nail in hand, his mind set only on this great task.
"While it is possible that a benevolent God called him to free the land from the fearsome beast, it remains to be explained why God allowed said dragon to lay waste to the country for long years before raising up its nemesis. And of course, those who knew him in those days remembered that he left Warinsten a swordless farmer's son, and reached our shores in the same condition; nor did he even think on the Red Worm until he had the better part of a year in our Erkynland..."
It was vastly comforting to hear Morgenes' voice again, even if it was only in his own head, but he was puzzled by the passage. Was Morgenes trying to say that Prester John had not killed the Red Dragon, or only that he had not been chosen by God to do so? If he hadn't been chosen by the Lord Usires in heaven, how had he killed the arch-beast? Didn't the people of Erkynland say he was the king anointed by God?
As he sat thinking, a cold wind kited down through the trees and raised gooseflesh on his arms.
Aedon curse it, I must find a cloak, or something warm to wear, he thought. And decide where I am going, instead of sitting here mooning like a half-wit over old writings.
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 nings 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 strengthend him a little, and hardened his resolve. Northward it would be lorthward 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 tan-trees with his burden, he saw again in his mind's eye a crude den 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 him. In his imaginings Aldheorte Forest had been a sort of endless high hall with a floor of smooth turf and tall tree-trunk pillars propping a distant ceiling of leaves and blue sky, an airy paviUion 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.
Simon很快就发现，这种逃犯的生活，可真是跟Shem曾经讲给他听的、那个强盗Jack Mundwode的冒险故事，一点儿也不一样。 在他的想象中，Aldheorte森林，就象是一个一望无际的雄伟的大厅，以光滑的草皮为地板，以高大的树木为支柱，撑起遥远的上方、树叶和湛蓝的天空构成的天花板，这森林就是一个通风的大亭台，那些象Perdruin的Tallistro爵士、或是伟大的Camaris爵士这样的骑士们，在这里骑着欢跳的军马，将那些身遭不幸命运的、受了魔法诅咒的女士们，解救出来。而事实上却是，这森林一点儿也不安份，甚至称得上是心怀恶意，让Simon简直举步维艰，他发现，这森林边缘的那些树，挤作一团，枝条纠结着，就象打着花结的蛇。那大树下面生长的矮树丛，根本就是挡在他路上的障碍，根本就是一片怎么也走不完的原野，这原野的地表上，铺满了苔藓和腐败的树叶，而那些荆棘、还有倒下的树木，这儿一堆儿，那儿一块儿，总也没有个尽头。
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 honey-smeared 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. Feeling 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.
I'm so hungry. It's not fair. It's not right! Somebody must feed me... somebody...
He went slowly down the hill on stiff legs, his mouth gaping open and closed. A flagging recollection of the social contract told him that he must not frighten these rustic people, these suspicious woodsfolk in their tree-tiered hollow. He held his empty palms before him as he walked, pale fingers thrust wide apart in a dumb show of harmlessness.
The cottage was empty, or else the inhabitants were simply not responding to his sore-knuckled knocking. He walked around the little hut, dragging his fingertips along the rough wood. The single window was shuttered with a wide plank. He rapped again, harder; only hollow echoes answered.
As he sank into a crouch beneath the boarded window, wondering desperately if he could batter it open with a piece of firewood, a rustling, snapping noise from the stand of trees before him brought him back upright so quickly that his vision momentarily narrowed to a core of light surrounded by blackness; he wavered, feeling sick. The tree-fence bulged outward as though struck by a huge hand, then sprang back with a quiver. A moment later the silence was skewered again, this time by a strange, staccato hiss. The noise was transmuted into a rapid stream of words—in no language that Simon knew, but words nonetheless. After a percussive instant the glade was quiet again.
Simon was stone-struck; he could not move. What should he do? Perhaps the cottager had been attacked by an animal on his way home... Simon could help him... then they would have to give him food. But how could he help? He could barely walk. And what if it was a beast, only a beast—what if he had only imagined hearing words in that abrupt spatter of sound?
And what if it was something worse? The king's guardsmen with bright sharp swords, or a starvation-slender, white-haired witch? Perhaps it was the very Devil himself, with ember-red robes and nightshade eyes?
Where he found the courage, even the strength, to unbend his rigid knees and walk forward into the trees Simon could not say. If he had not felt so ill and so desperate he might not have... but he was ill, and starved, and as dirty and lonely as a Nascadu jackal. Wrapping his cloak tightly about his chest, holding the furl of Morgenes' writings before him, he limped toward the copse.
In the trees the sunlight fell unevenly, strained through a sieve of spring leaves, dotting the forest floor like a scatter of fithing pieces. The air seemed taut as held breath. For a moment he saw nothing but dark tree-shapes and slivers of lancing daylight. In one spot the shafts of light were jigging fitfully; he realized a moment later that they shone on a struggling figure. As he took a step forward, the leaves whispered beneath his foot, and with that sound the struggling ceased. The hanging thing—it dangled fully a yard off the spongy ground—lifted its head and stared at him. It had the face of a man, but the merciless topaz eyes of a cat.
Simon leaped back, his heart tipping in his chest; he flung out his hands, fingers spread wide as though to block out the sight of this bizarre gallows bird. Whatever or whoever he was, he was not like any man Simon had seen. Still, there was something achingly familiar about him, as from a half-remembered dream—but so many of Simon's dreams were now bad ones. What a strange apparition! Although caught in a cruel trap, pinioned at waist and elbows by a noose of snaky black rope and hanging from a bobbing branch out of reach of the earth, still this prisoner looked fierce, unhumbled: a treed fox who would die with his teeth in a hound's throat.
If he was a man, he was a very slender man. His high-cheeked, thin-boned face reminded Simon for a moment—a horrifyingly cold moment—of the black-robed creatures on Thisterborg, but where they had been pale, white-skinned as blindfish, this one was golden brown like polished oak.
Trying to get a better look in the dim light, Simon took a step forward; the prisoner narrowed his eyes, then skinned back his lips, baring his teeth in a feline hiss. Something in the way he did it, something inhuman about the way his quite-human face moved, told Simon in an instant that this was no man trapped here like a weasel... this was something different....
Simon had moved closer than was prudent, and as he stared into the flecked-amber eyes the prisoner lashed out, bringing cloth-booted feet up into the youth's ribcage. Simon, though he had seen the momentary backswing and anticipated the assault, still received a painful blow in the side, so swift was the prisoner's movement. He stumbled back, glowering at his attacker, who scowled horribly in return.
As he faced the stranger across the span of a man's height, Simon watched the somehow unnatural muscles draw the mouth open in a sneer, and the Sitha—for Simon had realized suddenly, as if someone had told him, that this hanging creature was exactly that—the Sitha spat out a single awkward word in Simon's Westerling tongue.
Simon was so angered by this that he nearly charged forward, starvation and fear and aching limbs notwithstanding... until he realized that this was just what the Sitha's oddly-accented jibe had been meant to accomplish. Simon pushed down the pain of his kicked ribs, folded his hands over his chest, and stared at the trapped Sitha-man; he had the grim satisfaction of seeing what he felt sure was a squirm of frustration.
The Fair One, as Rachel had always superstitiously referred to the race, wore a strange, soft robe and pants of a slithery brown material only a shade darker than his skin. Belt and ornaments of shiny green stone contrasted most wonderfully with his hair—lavender-blue like mountain heather, pulled back close against his head by a bone ring, dangling in a horse-tail behind one ear. He seemed only slightly shorter, although much thinner, than Simon—but the youth had not seen himself recently in any reflection but murky forest pools; perhaps now he, too, looked this scrawny and wild. But even so, still there were differences, not-quite-definable things: birdlike motions of the head and neck, an odd fluidity in the pivoting of joints, an aura of power and control that was discernible even while its possessor hung like an animal in the crudest of traps. This Sitha, this dream-haunter, was unlike anything Simon had known. He was terrifying and thrilling... he was alien.
"I don't... don't want to hurt you," Simon said at last, and realized he was speaking as though to a child. "I didn't set the trap." The Sitha continued to regard him with baleful crescent eyes.
What terrible pain he must be hiding, Simon marveled. His arms are pulled up so far that... that I would be screaming... if it were me!
Protruding above the prisoner's left shoulder was a quiver, empty but for two arrows. Several more arrows and a bow of slim, dark wood lay strewn on the turf beneath his dangling feet.
"If I try to help you, will you promise not to hurt me?" Simon asked, forming his words slowly. "I'm very hungry, myself," he lamely added. The Sitha said nothing, but as Simon took another step he coiled his legs up before him to kick; the youth retreated.
"Be damned!" Simon shouted. "I only want to help you!" But why did he? Why let the wolf out of the pit? "You must..." he began, but the rest of his words were snuffed out as a large dark form came swishing and crackling out of the trees toward them.
"Ah! Here it be, here it be...!" a deep voice said. A man, bearded and dirty, waded into the little clearing. His clothes were heavy and much mended: in his hand he swung an axe.
"Now then, you..." he stopped when he saw Simon huddled against a tree. "Here," he growled, "who be you? What are you about?"
Simon looked down at the pitted axe-blade. "I'm... I'm just a traveler... I heard a noise here in the trees..." He waved his hand toward the odd tableau. "I found him here, in... in this trap."
"My trap!" the woodsman grinned. "My damned trap—and there he be, too." Turning his back on Simon the man looked the dangling Sitha over coolly. "I promised I'd stop their sneakin* and spyin' and sourin' the milk, that I did." He reached out a hand and pushed the prisoner's shoulder, swinging him helplessly back and forth in a slow arc. The Sitha hissed, but it was an impotent sound. The woodsman laughed.
"By the Tree, they got fight in 'em they do. Got fight."
"What... what are you going to do with him?"
"What do you think, boy? What do you think God'd have us do with sprites an' imps an' devils when we catch 'em? Send'em back to hell with my good chopper, that'll tell you."
The prisoner slowly stopped swinging, revolving in a lazy circle at the end of the black rope like a webbed fly. His eyes were downcast, his body limp.
"Kill him?" Simon, ill and weak as he was, still felt a cold wash of shock. He tried to marshal his straggling thoughts. "You're going to... but you can't! You can't! He's... he's a..."
"What he's not is no natural creature, that's sure! Get away from here, stranger. You're in my bit o' garden, as it were, an' you got no call to be. I know what these creatures are a-gettin' up to." The woodsman contemptuously turned his back on Simon and moved toward the Sitha, axe raised as though to split timber. This timber, though, suddenly heaved, became a struggling, kicking, snarling beast fighting for its life. The cotsman's first blow went awry, grazing the bony cheek and digging a jagged furrow down the arm of the strange, shiny garment. A ribbon of all too human-looking blood dribbled down the slender jaw and neck. The man advanced again.
Simon dropped down to his sore knees, looking for something to stop this ghastly struggle, to halt the man's grunting and cursing, and the scratchy snarl of the beleaguered prisoner that punished his ears. Groping, he found the bow, but it was even lighter than it had looked, as though strung on marsh reed. An instant later his hand closed on a half-buried rock. He heaved, and it broke free from the clinging soil. He held it over his head.
"Stop!" he shouted. "Leave him be!" Neither combatant gave him even a flicker of notice. The woodsman now stood at arm's length, swiping at his swirling target, landing only glancing blows but continuing to draw blood. The Sitha's thin chest was heaving like a bellows; he was weakening quickly.
Simon could not stand the cruel spectacle any longer. Setting free the howl that had been coiling itself within him through all the interminable, terrifying days of his exile, he sprang forward, crossing the tiny clearing in a bound to bring the rock down on the back of the cotsman's head. A dull smack reverberated through the trees; the man seemed to go boneless in an instant. He pitched heavily forward onto his knees and then his face, a surge of red welling up through his matted hair. Staring down at the bloody wreckage, Simon felt his insides heave; he fell to his knees retching, bringing up nothing but a sour strand of spittle. He pressed his dizzy head against the damp ground and felt the forest sway and rock about him.
When he was able, he stood and turned to the Sithi-man, who again dangled quietly in the noose. The snaky tunic was laced with streamers of blood, and the feral eyes were dimmed, as though some internal curtain had rolled down to block the light within. As haltingly as a sleepwalker, Simon picked up the fallen axe and traced the taut rope up from the prisoner to where it wrapped around a high limb of the tree—a limb too high to reach. Simon, too numb for fear, worked the nicked blade-edge against the knot behind the Sitha's back. The Fair One winced as the noose pulled tighter, but made no sound.
After a long moment of scraping and rubbing, the slippery knot parted. The Sitha fell to the ground, legs buckling, and tumbled forward onto the motionless woodsman. He rolled away from the mute hulk immediately, as though burned, and began gathering up his scattered arrows. Holding them like a clutch of long-stemmed flowers, he picked up his bow in the other hand and paused to stare at Simon. His cold eyes glinted, stopping the words in Simon's mouth. For an instant the Sitha, injuries forgotten or ignored, stood poised and tense as a startled deer; then he was gone, a flash of brown and green that vanished into the trees, leaving Simon gape-jawed and deserted.
The spotted sunlight had not finished rippling on the leaves where he had passed when Simon heard a buzz like an angry insect and felt a shadow flit across his face. An arrow stood out from a tree trunk beside him, quivering gradually back into visibility less than an arm's length from his head. He stared at it dully, wondering when the next one would strike him. It was a white arrow, shaft and feathers alike bright as a gull's wing. He waited for its inevitable successor. None came. That stand of trees was silent and motionless.
After the strangest and most terrible fortnight of his life, and after a particularly bizarre day, it should not have surprised Simon to hear a new and unfamiliar voice speaking to him from the darkness beyond the trees, a voice that was not the Sitha's, and certainly did not come from the woodsman, who lay like a felled tree. "Go ahead to take it," the voice said. "The arrow. Take it. It is yours."
Simon should not have been surprised, but he was. He dropped helplessly to the ground and began to cry—great choking sobs of exhaustion and confusion and total despair.
"Oh, Daughter of the Mountains," the strange new voice said. "This does not seem good."