I can scarcely believe it still,” Quentin said, flexing his arm. “It is as if it had never been injured at all. Better even! And look; the skin is not withered, and the muscle is firm.”
Toli, standing near as Durwin unwrapped the bandages and removed the splints, replied, “I can well believe it. The stories of old were true ones. The Healing Stone still exists.”
The two glowing lumps of rock shimmered like fiery white coals fresh from the fire as they lay beside the black pool. Durwin finished examining Quentin’s arm and satisfied himself that, indeed, it was whole and healthy once more. “So it is!” the hermit said, still prodding Quentin’s arm with his fingers. “Your arm is healed most wonderfully. If I had not set it myself, I would say that it was never broken.”
Durwin cocked his head to one side and observed Quentin closely. “I see nothing now that would prevent you from lifting the Zhaligkeer. Do you?”
With a thrill like the touch of a spark to the skin, Quentin remembered all his old misgivings, which he had succeeded in putting far out of his mind. In an instant they all rushed back upon him like a flood, quenching his excitement of the moment. Something like fear grabbed him in his gut and squeezed with an iron grip.
“Do you still think I am the one?”
“Why do you fear? You have already chosen to follow the Most High. This is the way he has set for you. Do not turn away from it.”
Quentin stood looking at the blazing stones. “But the prophecy . . . It is . . .” Words failed him.
“You think that you will be alone? Is that it? Ha! You will not rid yourself of us that easily. We will be ever at your side. Do not think the Most High makes his servants tread only lonely paths. His ways are more clearly seen with the help of others of like spirit. He has given us to you, as you have been given to us, that we might help each other.”
“Take it, Quentin. It is for you.” Durwin threw out a hand toward the white stones, and Quentin slowly, reluctantly bent toward them and picked them up.
“Yes, I will take it. I will claim the Zhaligkeer.” So saying, he lifted the stones high over his head as if he already had a sword in his hands. “Inchkeith! Let us begin. Time is drawing short. There is a sword to be made!”
But when they looked around, Inchkeith was not to be seen.
Boom! Boom! The sound of the ram against the gates thundered on and on. The peasants who had crowded into Askelon to escape the enemy screamed in terror at every dreadful knell. The outer wards were roiling in panic.
Archers had mounted to the gatehouse barbican and were endeavoring to pick off the Ningaal plying the massive battering ram against the drawn bridge of the castle. Occasionally an arrow would strike home, and an enemy warrior would tumble off the narrow plank they had thrown over the chasm that divided the end of the ramp from the castle; despite this annoyance the Ningaal were not greatly hindered. They were protected by the ironclad roof over their implement, and any unlucky wretch who chanced to show himself too openly was replaced in a trice by another. So the drumming continued on and on and on.
“Call off the archers,” said Theido, gazing down from the battlements. “We may as well save our arrows. They are not going to prevail against the gate. No one ever has.”
“We could pour fire down upon them,” suggested Rudd, wearing a worried expression. “That would get rid of them.”
“And it would also burn down our own gates!” snapped Ronsard irritably.
“I do not think even fire would harm those gates,” mused Theido, shaking his head. “But I could be wrong. Still, it would be better not to take an unnecessary chance. We will wait to see what they try next.
“They cannot tunnel beneath the walls, for they rise out of solid rock, and the mountain is stone as well. The postern gate is well protected, and the maze of walls leading to it prevents the use of a ram such as this. Our archers can keep them at bay there, too. My guess is they must find a way through that gate and that gate alone, for there is no other way into Askelon Castle.”
As he finished speaking, the Ningaal took up their pounding again. Boom! Boom! The timbers of the gate shuddered with each massive blow, but held firm.
Theido turned away from the battlement, and Ronsard followed him, after instructing his officers to bring him word if the situation should change in any way.
“Theido, I would talk with you awhile,” he said, falling into step beside his friend. “Let us go inside where we may speak freely.”
They strode to a nearby barbican and went inside, ascending to a higher platform of the round turret to look out over the plain and the city below. From that lofty vantage they could see the better part of one side of the castle and a portion of the second side. The Ningaal had indeed surrounded the castle on all sides, being most heavily deployed around the main gates and throughout the town. They had set fire to sections of the city, and the smoke swept up in black columns to streak the sky above.
“It is an evil day.” Ronsard turned a careworn visage to his friend. “How is Eskevar faring?”
“He is the same. No change.”
Eskevar had nearly collapsed when the sound of the ram commenced. It was as if each blow had been so aimed as to strike directly at the king’s heart. It was only with difficulty that the two knights had led their sovereign away without the soldiers witnessing his fall. Upon gaining the security of the tower, they had all but carried him to his chambers. Biorkis and Alinea had been in attendance since then, and the knights had returned to watch through the day-bright night as the Ningaal strove to batter down the doors.
“Will he ride, do you think?” asked Ronsard.
“Why do you ask me? You have stood with him in battle enough times to know. But we are under siege! Why does everyone insist upon talking about battlefields and riding?” Theido snapped. After a long, silent moment in which Ronsard merely looked back at him sadly, Theido sighed. “Forgive me, my friend. I am tired. I have not slept in three days—one cannot even tell day from night anymore! I am tired.”
“Go and rest. Let me take your watch. You yourself have said that nothing will happen soon. Have something to eat, and lay yourself down a little. You will feel better.”
“Yes, perhaps I should do that.” Theido turned his eyes away toward the north. “They should be coming. They should have been here by now.”
“They will come. And do not forget that Quentin, Toli, and Durwin are abroad. Theirs is some errand that will make good; of that I am certain.”
“So I believe. I only hope they are in time.” He smiled briefly and gripped Ronsard by the shoulder. “Thank you. I will rest a bit as you suggest. It has been a long time since I endured a siege. I have forgotten my manners almost completely.”
“You have forgotten nothing, my friend. Go now, and I will send for you if anything changes.”
When Theido had gone and his footsteps descending from the barbican could no longer be heard, Ronsard settled himself against the stone crenellation of the turret. He looked long and hungrily to the north for the shining armies he hoped he would see riding to their rescue. But the far vista shimmered instead with the heat of the summer sun. Nothing moved out on the plain.
Still, the knight watched and waited, and his thoughts became a prayer, turning toward the new god he had so recently elected to serve.
“God Most High,” Ronsard mumbled, “I do not have the knowledge of your ways that others do. But if you need a strong sword, here I am.” There was a long lapse before he spoke again. “I know not how to pray in seemly words. I have never been a man of prayers. But I believe you helped me once, long ago, so I pray you will listen to me once again. Lead us against this terrible host which gathers at our gates and seeks to destroy us. And if it is my lot to die, so be it. But let me face the moment like a true knight and seek to save another’s life before my own.”
He prayed on, pouring out his heart as the words came to him, and would have continued praying but for the alarm that brought him instantly to his feet and sent him off to meet a new disaster.