Excerpt: The Music of High Places

Even in the cave, where the crackling fire sent gray fingers of smoke up to the hole in the stony roof, and red light played across the wall carvings of twining serpents and tusked, staring-eyed beasts, the cold still gnawed at Simon’s bones. As he floated in and out of fevered sleep, through curtained daylight and chill night, he felt as though gray ice grew inside him, stiffening his limbs and filling him with frost. He wondered if he would ever be warm again.

Fleeing the chill Yiqanuc cave and his sickened body, he wandered the Road of Dreams, slipping helplessly from one fantasy to the next. Many times he thought he had returned to the Hayholt, to his castle home as it once had been, but would never be again: a place of sun-warmed lawns, of shadowed nooks and hiding-holes–the greatest house of all, full of bustle and color and music. He walked again in the Hedge Garden, and the wind that sang outside the cave in which he slept sang in his dreams as well, blowing gently through the leaves and shaking the delicate hedges.

In one strange dream he seemed to travel back to Doctor Morgenes’ chamber. The doctor’s study was now at the top of a tall tower, with clouds swimming past the high-arched windows. The old man hovered fretfully over a large, open book. There was something frightening about the doctor’s single-mindedness and silence. Simon did not seem to exist at all for Morgenes; instead, the old man stared intently at the crude drawing of three swords that stretched across the splayed pages.

Simon moved to the windowsill. The wind sighed, though he could feel no breeze. He looked down to the courtyard below. Staring up at him with wide, solemn eyes was a child, a small, dark-haired girl. She lifted a hand in the air, as if in greeting, then suddenly was gone.

The tower and Morgenes’ cluttered chamber began to melt away beneath Simon’s feet like a receding tide. Last to vanish was the old man himself. Even as he slowly faded, like a shadow in growing light, Morgenes still did not lift his eyes to Simon’s; instead, his gnarled hands busily traced the pages of his book, as though restlessly looking for answers.

Simon called out to him, but all the world had turned gray and cold, full of swirling mists and the tatters of other dreams….

He awakened, as he had so many times since Urmsheim, to find the cave night-darkened, and to see Haestan and Jiriki bedded down near the rune-scrawled stone wall. The Erkynlander was curled sleeping in his cloak, beard on breastbone. The Sitha stared at something cupped in the palm of his long-fingered hand. Jiriki seemed deeply absorbed. His eyes gleamed faintly, as though whatever he held reflected the last embers of the fire. Simon tried to say something–he was hungry for warmth and voices–but sleep was tugging at him again.

The wind is so loud…

It moaned in the mountain passes outside, as it did around the tower tops of the Hayholt…as it had across the battlements of Naglimund.

So sad…the wind is sad…

Soon he was asleep once more. The cave was quiet but for faint breathing and the lonely music of high places.


It was only a hole, but it made a very sufficient prison. It plunged twenty cubits down into the stone heart of Mintahoq Mountain, as wide as two men or four trolls lying head to foot. The sides were polished like the finest sculptor’s marble, so that even a spider would have been hard-pressed to find a foothold. The bottom was as dark and cold and damp as any dungeon.

Though the moon ranged above the snowy spires of Mintahoq’s neighbors, only a fine spray of moonlight reached down to the bottom of the pit, where it touched but did not illuminate two unmoving shapes. For a long while since moonrise it had been this way: the pale moon-disk–Sedda, as the trolls called her–the only moving thing in all the night world, crossing slowly through the black fields of the sky.

Now something stirred at the mouth of the pit. A small figure leaned over, squinting down into the thick shadows.

“Binabik…” the crouching shape called at last in the guttural tongue of the troll folk. “Binabik, do you hear me?”

If one of the shadows at the bottom moved, it made no sound in doing so. At last the figure at the top of the stone well spoke again.

“Nine times nine days, Binabik, your spear stood before my cave, and I waited for you.”

The words were spoken in a ritual chant, but the voice wavered unsteadily, pausing for a moment before continuing. “I waited and I called out your name in the Place of Echoes. Nothing came back to me but my own voice. Why did you not return and take up your spear again?”

Still there was no reply.

“Binabik? Why do you not answer? Surely you owe me that, do you not?”

The larger of the two shapes at the bottom of the pit stirred. Pale blue eyes caught a thin stripe of moongleam.

“What is that trollish yammering? It’s bad enough you throw a man down a hole who’s never done you harm, but must you come shouting your nonsense-talk at him when he’s trying to sleep?”

The crouching shape froze for a moment like a startled deer splashed by lantern-glare, then disappeared into the night.

“Good.” The Rimmersman Sludig curled himself up once more in his damp cloak. “I do not know what that troll was saying to you, Binabik, but I do not think much of your people, that they come to mock at you–and me, too. although I am not surprised that they hate my kind.”

The troll beside him said nothing, only stared at the Rimmersman with dark, troubled eyes. After a while, Sludig rolled over again, shivering, and tried to sleep.


“But Jiriki, you can’t go!” Simon was perched at the edge of his pallet, wrapped in his blanket against the insinuating chill. He gritted his teeth against a wave of light-headedness; he had not been off his back often in the five days since he had awakened.

“I must,” the Sitha said, eyes downcast as though he could not meet Simon’s imploring stare. “I have already sent Sijandi and Ki’ushapo ahead, but it is my own presence that is demanded. I shall not leave for a day or two, Seoman, but that is the utmost length I can put off my duty.”

“You have to help me free Binabik!” Simon lifted his feet off the cold stone floor back onto the bed. “You said the trolls trust you. Make them set Binabik free. Then we’ll all go together.”

Jiriki let out a thin whistle of air between his lips. “It is not so simple, young Seoman,” he said, almost impatiently. “I have no right or power to make the Qanuc do anything. Also, I have other responsibilities and duties you cannot understand. I only stayed as long as I have because I wanted to see you on your feet once more. My uncle Khendraja’aro has long since returned to Jao e-Tinukai’i, and my duties to my house and my kin compel me to follow.”

“Compel you? But you’re a prince!”

The Sitha shook his head. “That word is not the same in our speech as in yours, Seoman. I am of the reigning house, but I order no one and rule no one. Neither am I ruled, fortunately–except in certain things and at certain times. My parents have declared that this is such a time.” Simon thought he could almost detect a touch of anger in Jiriki’s voice. “Never fear, though. You and Haestan are not prisoners. The Qanuc honor you. They will let you leave when you wish.”

“But I won’t leave without Binabik.” Simon twisted his cloak between his fists. “And Sludig, too.”

A small dark figure appeared in the doorway and coughed politely.

Jiriki looked over his shoulder, then nodded his head. The old Qanuc woman stepped forward and set a steaming pot down at Jiriki’s feet, then quickly pulled three bowls out of her tentlike sheepskin coat, arranging them in a semicircle. Though her diminutive fingers worked nimbly, and her seamed, round-cheeked face was expressionless, Simon saw a glimmer of fear in her eyes as they rose briefly to meet his. When she had finished, she backed quickly out of the cave, disappearing under the door flap as silently as she had appeared.

What is she afraid of? Simon wondered. Jiriki? But Binabik said the Qanuc and Sithi have always gotten along–more or less.

He suddenly thought of himself: twice as tall as a troll, red-haired, hairy-faced with his first man’s beard–skinny as a switch, too, but since he was wrapped in blankets the old Qanuc woman couldn’t know that. What difference could the people of Yiqanuc see between himself and a hated Rimmersman? Hadn’t Sludig’s people warred on the troll folk for centuries?

“Will you have some, Seoman?” Jiriki asked, pouring out steaming liquid from the pot. “They have provided you with a bowl.”

Simon reached out a hand. “Is it more soup?”

“It is aka, as the Qanuc call it–or as you would say, tea.”

“Tea!” He took the bowl eagerly. Judith, Kitchen Mistress of the Hayholt, had been very fond of tea. She would sit down at the end of a long day’s work to nurse a great hot mug full of the stuff, the kitchen filling with the vapors of steeped southern island herbs. When she was in a good mood, she would let Simon have some, too. Usires, how he missed his home!

“I never thought…”he began, and took a great long swallow, only to spit it out a moment later in a fit of coughing. “What is it?” he choked. “That’s not tea!”

Jiriki might have been smiling, but since he had his bowl up to his mouth, sipping slowly, it was impossible to tell. “Certainly it is,” the Sitha replied. “The Qanuc people use different herbs than you Sudhoda’ya, of course. How could it be otherwise, when they have so little trade with your kind?”

Simon wiped his mouth, grimacing. “But it’s salty!” He took a sniff of the bowl and made another face.

The Sitha nodded and sipped again. “They put salt in it, yes–and butter as well.”


“Marvelous are the ways of all Mezumiiru’s grandchildren,” Jiriki intoned solemnly, “…endless is their variety.”

Simon set the bowl down in disgust. “Butter. Usires help me, what a miserable adventure.”

Jiriki calmly finished his tea. The mention of Mezumiiru reminded Simon again of his troll friend, who one night in the forest had sung a song about the Moon-woman. His mood turned sour once more.

“But what are we going to do for Binabik?” Simon asked. “Anything?”

Jiriki lifted calm, catlike eyes. “We will have a chance to speak on his behalf tomorrow. I have not yet discovered his crime. Few Qanuc speak any language but their own–your companion is a rare troll indeed–and I am not very accomplished in theirs. Neither do they like to share their thoughts with outsiders.”

“What’s happening tomorrow?” Simon asked, sinking back into his bed again. His head was pounding. Why should he still feel so weak?

“There is a…court, I suppose. Where the Qanuc rulers hear and decide.”

“And we are going to speak for Binabik?”

“No, Seoman, not as such,” Jiriki said gently. For a moment a strange look flitted across his spare features. “We are going because you met the Dragon of the Mountain…and lived. The lords of the Qanuc wish to see you. I do not doubt that your friend’s crimes will also be addressed, there before the whole of his people. Now take rest, for you will have need of it.”

Jiriki stood and stretched his slender limbs, moving his head in his disconcertingly alien way, amber eyes fixed on nothing. Simon felt a shudder travel the length of his own body, followed by a powerful weariness.

The dragon! he thought groggily, halfway between wonderment and horror. He had seen a dragon! He, Simon the scullion, despised muckabout and mooncalf, had swung a sword at a dragon and lived–even after its scalding blood had splashed him! Like in a story!

He looked at blackly gleaming Thorn, which lay partly covered against the wall, wailing like a beautiful, deadly serpent. Even Jiriki seemed unwilling to handle it, or even discuss it; the Sitha had calmly deflected all of Simon’s questions as to what magic might run like blood through Camaris’ strange sword. Simon’s chilled fingers crept up his jaw to the still painful scar running down his face. How had a mere scullion like himself ever dared to lift such a potent thing?

Closing his eyes, he felt the huge and uncaring world spin ever so slowly beneath him. He heard Jiriki pad across the cave toward the doorway, and a faint swish as the Sitha slid past the flap and out, then sleep tugged him down.

© 1990 by Tad Williams. All rights reserved.

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