The blue, cloud-spattered sky had dissolved into a violet dome flecked with orange and russet wisps, and the shadows had deepened to indigo on the white snow before Quentin found his rest for the evening; the rough log hut of Durwin, the holy hermit of Pelgrin Forest.
The hermit was known among the lowly as one who gave aid to travelers and cared for the peasants and forest folk who often had need of his healing arts. He had once been a priest but had left to follow a different god, so the local hearsay told. Beyond that, nothing much was known about the hermit, except that when his help was required, he was never far away. Some also said he possessed many strange powers and listed among his talents the ability to call up dragons from their caves, though no one had ever seen him do it.
It seemed strange to Quentin that Biorkis should know or recommend such a person to help him—even if the aid was only a bed for the night. For Biorkis had given him a silver coin to give to the hermit, saying, “Greet this brother in the name of the god, and give him this token.” He had placed the coin in his hand. “That will tell him much. And say that Biorkis sends his greetings”—he paused—“and that he seeks a brighter light.” The priest had turned hurriedly away, adding mostly to himself, “That will tell him more.”
So Quentin found himself in the fading twilight of a brilliant winter day. The hut was set off the road a short distance but completely hidden from view, surrounded as it was by towering oaks, evergreens, and thick hedges of brambly furze. It took Quentin some time to locate the hut, even with the precise directions he had been given.
At last he found it, a low, squattish building that appeared to be mostly roof and chimney. Two small windows looked out on the world, and a curious round-topped door closed the entrance. The homely abode was nestled in a hillock at the far end of a natural clearing that gave way to a spacious view of the sky overhead. The ground rose to meet the house on a gentle incline so that one had to climb slightly to reach the front door.
Quentin rode quietly up to the entrance of the hut. Sitting on the horse, he could have leaped from his saddle onto the roof with ease. But he chose instead to slide off the animal’s broad back and rap with the flat of his hand on the heavy oaken door. He waited uncertainly; his hand had hardly produced any sound at all, and except for the smoke curling slowly from the stone chimney, he would have suspected the place abandoned. But someone had been there—the clearing was well trampled with the footprints of men and animals in the snow.
Quentin slapped the knight’s dagger from its place in his belt beneath his cloak. Holding it by the blade, he banged again on the door, this time with a more satisfactory result. He waited.
The sky was darkening quickly now; the sun was well down. He could feel the cold strengthening its hold on the land. No sound came from inside.
Plucking up his courage, Quentin tried the crude latch and found that with some force it moved. He placed his weight behind the door and shoved. The rough-hewn door swung upon its hinges and opened readily. Quentin stumbled quickly in with more ceremony than he had planned, bumping over the threshold as he entered.
The room was a good deal larger than he would have guessed from the outside, and it was sunken well below ground level. Stone steps led into the room, which was warm and cozy, lit by the flickering fire left burning in the wide, generous fireplace. About the room stood an odd assemblage of handmade furniture: chairs, tables large and small, stools, and a large lumpy bed. Also something that surprised Quentin and strangely delighted him: books. Scrolls were heaped upon the tables and stuffed into the latticework shelves. More scrolls than he had ever seen— even in the library of the temple.
All this Quentin took in as his eyes adjusted to the relative gloom of the dark room. He also saw the place was empty of its chief inhabitant. Durwin, apparently, was absent, perhaps on some mercy errand in the forest nearby. Quentin decided to slip in and await the hermit’s return, dragging a stool up to the fire burning low upon the hearth.
Quentin did not know whether he was awakened by the sound or the smell. Voices seemed to drone into his consciousness from far away. No words could be understood, only the monotonous buzz of two voices talking quietly but with some enthusiasm. Close by the smell of food, warm and heavily laced with garlic, drifted into his awareness. He opened his eyes.
He was covered by his own cloak and lying a little away from the hearth. Two large figures sat near the fire. One knelt at the edge of the fire, stirring a large black pot with a long-handled wooden spoon. The other sat on a stool with his back to him, revealing nothing of his features or stature. Both men were dressed in dark, flowing cloaks. As they talked, their long shadows danced on the far wall of the hut like the animated puppets in a shadow play.
Quentin rolled cautiously up onto his feet. The movement at once caught the eye of the man busy over the bubbling pot. “So it is! Our young friend lives. I told you, Theido.” He winked at the other man, who twisted round to regard the youngster with a quizzical eye. “I told you my soup would bring him round. Enchanted—bah!”
Embarrassed to have fallen asleep at his post and now to be the center of such attention, good-natured though it was, Quentin stepped timidly to the fire and addressed himself to both men simultaneously. “I am Quentin, at your service, sirs.”
“And we at yours,” came the standard reply.
He fumbled at his belt for the silver coin. “I bring this to you with greetings from Biorkis, senior priest of the high temple.” The greeting sounded very stiff and formal, which suited Quentin, unsure as he was about what kind of reception he should expect. Yet he knew as he placed the silver coin into Durwin’s hand that he had nothing to fear from this man.
Durwin’s face radiated a kindly light. Bright blue eyes winked out of a hide creased and lined like soft leather and browned by the sun. Great bushy brown eyebrows, which seemed to have a life of their own, highlighted the hermit’s speech and were matched brush for bristle by a sprawling forest of moustache and beard. Beneath his cloak he wore the simple robes of a priest, but gray rather than brown.
“So it is! The old weasel sends you with this? Does he indeed?” The hermit turned the coin over in his hand thoughtfully. “Well, I don’t suppose it can be helped, can it?” Then he turned to Quentin and said, “There is a wider path than many know, though I’m sure you don’t have an inkling what I mean.” Quentin stared back blankly. “No, of course you don’t. Still, he sent you here,” the hermit mused to himself.
“Did he tell you anything else?” the holy man asked.
“Only this: that he seeks a brighter light.”
At this both men exploded with laughter. The other, who had remained silent, was obviously following the exchange closely. “He said that, did he?” Durwin laughed. “By the gods’ beards, there’s hope for him yet.”
Quentin stood mystified at this outburst. He felt awkward and a little used, relaying jokes of which he knew less than nothing to strangers who laughed at his expense. His frown must have shown them that he did not approve of the levity, for Durwin stopped at once and offered the silver coin back to Quentin. “This coin is the symbol of an expelled priest. See?” He dug into his clothing and brought out a silver coin on a chain around his neck. “I have one too.”
Quentin took the two coins and examined them; they were the same in every detail except that Durwin’s was older and more worn.
“They are temple coins minted for special occasions and given to priests when they die or leave as payment for their service to god. Some payment, eh?”
“You used to be a priest?” Quentin wondered aloud.
“Yes, of course. Biorkis and I are very good friends; we entered the temple together and became priests together.”
“Enough of old times,” said the stranger impatiently. “Durwin, introduce me to your guest in a proper fashion.”
Quentin turned and eyed the dark man, ignored for the most part until now. He was above average in height, Quentin guessed, but since the man was on the stool, with his limbs folded across themselves, Quentin could not tell for sure. His clothes were of a dark, indistinct color and consisted of a long cloak worn loosely over a close-fitting tunic and trousers of the same dark material as the rest. He wore a wide black belt at his waist, to which was attached a rather large leather pouch.
But the man’s features commanded the better of Quentin’s attention. The face was keen in the firelight, bright-eyed and alert. A high forehead rose to meet a head of dark, thick hair swept back and falling almost to his shoulders. The man’s sharp nose thrust itself out over a firm mouth that opened upon a set of straight, white teeth. On the whole, the appearance bespoke a man of action and movement, of quick reflexes and perhaps quicker wits.
“Quentin,” the ex-priest was saying, “this man you are staring at is my good friend Theido, a much welcome and often missed guest at this humble hearth.”
The man dipped his head low in acknowledgment of the courtesy. Quentin bowed stiffly from the waist out of respect. “I am glad to meet you, young sir,” said Theido. “An expelled priest, I have found, makes a good friend.” At this both men laughed again. And though he did not know why, Quentin laughed too.
The three dined on a thick, tasty soup and black bread, washed down with a heady nut-brown ale that Durwin had brewed to perfection. After the day’s exercise, Quentin held his own in appetite with the two men and remarked on several occasions that he had never tasted food so good.
After they had eaten, they talked. The wandering conversations roamed the length and breadth of the world. It seemed to Quentin that no subject, from bees to bodkins and books, was left untouched. Never had Quentin been party to such fellowship; the temple’s strict regulations kept contact between priests very formal and extremely refined. Although he mostly just listened, Quentin found this new realization of friends around the board with good food and conversation fairly intoxicating. He reveled in it and soaked it up. He wished in his heart that the night would stretch on forever.
At last Durwin stood and shook his tired head. “Good friends! We must go to bed. We will talk some more tomorrow.”
“I must leave tomorrow,” said Quentin, having entirely forgotten his mission. He peered apprehensively into the faces of the two men, who regarded him carefully.
“So soon?” replied Durwin. “I thought you would stay a little. I would like to show you what I have been doing since I left the temple.”
“And how will you be going?” Theido asked.
“My horse!” Quentin shrieked. He had also forgotten about his animal in the friendly interchange around the hermit’s table. He dashed to the door and heaved it open, peering outside into the frigid black night. There was nothing to be seen of the horse. With a look of horror, he turned to the men. “I have lost him!”
“Can you describe him?” asked Theido.
“He was a chestnut, the most beautiful horse I have ever seen. Now I have lost him.”
“Follow me,” Durwin commanded lightly. “I think we will find he has not wandered far.” The hermit turned and disappeared behind a standing partition lined with scrolls. Quentin ducked behind the partition and discovered that it concealed another room, the entrance of which was draped over with an immense bearskin. The room was dark and quiet, but warm and smelling strongly of hay and horses. Durwin carried a stubby candle and with it lit a pitch torch leaning in its holder on the wall. The sooty flame guttered and smoked furiously, then took hold and threw a steady light into the room.
This annex to the hermit’s lodge was a small cave. Durwin’s house had been built right up against the cave’s entrance, which explained the smooth stone floor of the hermit’s cottage. In the pale light of the torch, Quentin could see his steed alongside two other slightly smaller animals, nose down in a heap of sweet fennel that had been thrown down for them. Relieved and somewhat embarrassed, Quentin thanked his host for his thoughtfulness.
“We guessed you were no true horseman,” remarked Theido good-naturedly, “when we saw him standing in the yard untethered. A lesser animal would have wandered off for good. Your horse is well trained, and I surmise you are not his master.”
Quentin shook his head sadly. “He belongs to another—or did . . .”
“Enough! We will sleep now and talk of these things in the morning —which, unless I miss my guess, is soon upon us.”