By the fierce light of the Wolf Star, the sentinels watched them coming. Although it was the sixth hour of the night, the cold glow of the awful star cast a light as bright as the day upon the plain. The star had grown to fill the entire eastern sky, obliterating all lesser lights. And by the light of their savage star the Ningaal came to Askelon.
A messenger was dispatched to bring the king; he had ordered that he be notified, whatever the hour, when the enemy approached. The courier had scarcely left the battlements when he was back with Eskevar, grim and glowering in his sable-lined cloak, his golden dragon brooch and chain glittering in the streaming light. The embroidered silver figure of the dragon could be seen writhing on the back of the hooded cloak as it swirled out behind him. The king was wearing tall, red boots, and his sword hung at his side; those who saw him knew that he had not been to bed that night, but had been waiting and was ready to meet the enemy.
They were still a long way off as Eskevar glared defiantly out into the unnatural light. “Come to Askelon, you barbarian horde!” spat the king Eskevar. “Come and meet your doom!”
The commanders who had gathered around him exchanged worried glances, for Eskevar’s countenance burned with a feverish mien like that of a ravening wolf. He cocked his head to them and said, “Rudd, there. And you, Dilg, and Fincher. The dragon sleeps while the enemy draws closer. He is under the hill, sleeping in his hall of stone, but not for long. He will awaken and defend his home. Never has the hand of an invader touched these walls, and none ever shall. The dragon will stop them. Yes, the dragon!”
The lords nodded in silence, afraid to break in on the king’s ravings. Eskevar gripped the stone crenellation with both hands as if he were holding up the walls with his bare hands. “See how they come,” he said slowly, every word ringing clear. “I feel their hated feet upon the land. I feel their evil intent deep in my inmost parts. But the dragon’s heart is in me; it is of iron. I am not afraid.”
The lords shrank away from the Dragon King. Even those who had served in the wars against Goliah had never seen him so. His eyes started from his head and his mouth was taut; his high, noble brow shone smooth and tight in the starlight.
“This is a wonder, is it not, my lords? Look upon it. See how willingly they come to the slaughter. See the accursed marching to their destruction. But have no pity for them, my lords. They deserve what they shall receive. They shall be cut down.”
“This night is chill, Sire,” said Rudd. He spoke hesitantly, for a number of soldiers had gathered around and were murmuring over the king’s behavior. If it was to be whispered about that the king had lost his senses, their soldiers could not be expected to fight as they should when the time came. “Perhaps we should all wait within for a little. I would talk with you about our defenses.”
Eskevar turned to them as if seeing them for the first time. “Eh? What is that you say?” He passed an unsteady hand over his brow, now beaded with sweat. Rudd felt a shudder shake the king’s frame as he placed his hand on his elbow.
“Yes, come with us and tell us what orders you intend for us,” urged Dilg, taking the king’s other arm.
The two led him away from the battlements, and the other lords followed after dismissing the crowd that had gathered, saying, “Go to your posts. We will be in council with the king.” Then they hurried after Eskevar and his escort so as not to raise suspicion among those who watched them pass.
Upon reaching the turret of the western tower, they were met by Queen Alinea, stepping out from the deep shadow of the doorway. “My queen,” said Rudd. She read at once the sheepish looks of the nobles.
“Eskevar, I was just looking for you. Dismiss your commanders for yet a little while; let them go to their men. Or if you will, allow them to gather in the council chamber. I would talk with you, my husband. There is much to discuss before this night is through.”
“Yes, Sire. We will talk soon. Send us back to our men that we may stir them to boldness with high words.”
Eskevar did not notice what was being said. He only looked at his wife, who linked her arm in his and steered him back into the tower. “Yes, go to your men. Tell them we must be ready. We must be ready.” The king turned away, his face white in the glaring light of the star. The lords of Mensandor, glad to be relieved of the responsibility for the king, though sick at heart for his most unusual condition, hurried back to their posts to reassure their men that the king was sound and would lead them when the time came. But in their hearts they wondered.
They stood on the floor of an enormous vault at the very roots of the mountain. Quentin stared wide-eyed like a child, blinking in utter disbelief. The magnificence of the chamber was beyond his ability to form words to give utterance to his thoughts. Toli, too, stood by him in mute wonder at the splendor of the subterranean treasury, for treasure it was.
Inchkeith had shouted for joy and gamboled like a kid down the long, winding ledge where they had entered the vault. He still darted here and there examining first one kind of ore formation, and then another. Durwin, by contrast, seemed almost sedate and restrained. But he was as excited as the others, Quentin knew. His jubilance took the form of speech—Durwin had not stopped talking since they had entered the vault the second time, bringing Toli and Inchkeith.
Quentin turned to the hermit, who was babbling about the various devices the Ariga had used to mine the lanthanil, and asked, “What was that you said about some sort of collapse at the main entrance?”
“Collapse? Oh, yes. I found the main entrance to this room, this castle, with no trouble. Our path led straight to it. But it was blocked by a fall of stone.” He turned around, searching for the entrance, spied it, and pointed out across the expanse toward an opposite wall. “There, see all that rubble? It is there the entrance lies.”
Quentin saw a tumbled mass of rock slabs and boulders, some as big as houses, that looked as if the tunnel had collapsed. “What happened there?” he asked.
“I can only guess, of course, but I imagine the Ariga blocked it off for some reason. They were far too skillful as miners to have allowed such a catastrophe to happen accidentally. I think they intended it. There came a time when they decided to close off this particular part of the mine.”
“This part? This is where the lanthanil is.”
“So it is! They had a reason for it; of that you can be certain. What that reason was I cannot say, any more than I can say how the Ariga vanished, or where they went. But leave it they did . . . for us to find.”
“But it would have taken us years to dig through that confusion at the entrance. What made you think there would be another way in?”
“I do not think they determined to keep everyone out—just the curious, the fortune hunters and desecrators.”
“I would never have thought of trying that hole in the wall. It looked like a drop to certain death to me. How did you think of it?”
Durwin smiled and shrugged. “I do not know. But if you believe that it was meant for us to find it, then we would have found it in any case. If the Most High had so wished, the mountains would have opened up before us!”
Toli had been scraping around the mounds of stone that sloped up from the floor, and he came gliding back to where Durwin and Quentin were talking. “Come with me,” he said, pulling them away. “I have found something!” He ran away again with Quentin and Durwin tagging after him. As they rounded the heap of stone, Toli pointed to something that shimmered in the glowing light of the cavern.
“What is it?” asked Quentin, bending to get a better look.
“I think it is an anvil,” Toli answered.
“An anvil like none I have ever seen.”
“That is because it is gold! And look at these.” The Jher stooped and began picking up objects from the floor, where they were arrayed as if waiting for the master to return and take up his work once more.
“Let me see those.” Inchkeith pushed in and took two strange-looking objects from Toli. He turned them over in his hands and tested their heft.
“What are they? Tools?”
“Exactly,” replied Inchkeith. His face shone with excitement. “But such tools! These are the tools of a great master craftsman. And they are made of gold, too. Imagine—thinking so little of gold that you would make tools of it! They are of very old and unusual design, but I can readily perceive their purpose. And look—here is a hammer.”
“I recognize that at least. But it must be very heavy, and much too soft for a hammer.” Quentin took the hammer from Inchkeith and tried it. The golden hammer was not as heavy as he expected; in fact, it was only slightly heavier than a hammer made of iron.
“Lanthanil can be worked with tools of any kind,” the armorer explained. “It is wonderfully malleable. But gold does not diminish its power. Gold is the only substance which does not transmit the power of the metal. And the Ariga no doubt used a secret alloy to strengthen the gold for use as hammer and anvil.
“It was foolish of me to have brought those.” Inchkeith gestured toward the pile of baggage that lay stacked on the floor a few paces away. “Between these”—he shook the tools in his hand—“and the forge yonder, we have everything we need.”
“The forge?” Quentin looked around. “I do not see a forge.”
“There, set in the wall. Mind you, it does not look like one of our forges; it is more like a shrine. But I can tell what use it had. It is a forge.”
Quentin felt very small and insignificant in the magnificent chamber. He turned his eyes once more toward its huge dome, glowing amber and green, and to the walls streaked with blue and violet veins, and to the floors suffused with red-gold and rose. He felt like a thief in a king’s treasury, who might be caught at any moment and thrown out.
“Now, then. Here are the tools and anvil. The forge is close by. We lack only the ore and we can begin,” said Durwin.
The words shook Quentin out of his reverie. He had forgotten all about their reason for coming, so taken was he with the otherworldly beauty of the Ariga vault. “Begin?”
“Yes,” Durwin laughed. “We have a sword to make!”