Bria lay for a moment, listening to the drip of the rain onto the bar-tizan outside their chamber. The doors were thrown open wide, and the gentle summer breeze blew in, bringing with it the fresh, clean scent of rain-washed air. Tiny bluebirds twittered on the balustrade, making joyful music to the morning.
The queen rolled over and flung an encircling arm to her side. Her hand patted the empty bedclothes where her husband would have been. He was gone. She opened her eyes lazily and murmured, “Oh, Quentin, do you never rest?”
She rose and threw on a robe. At once a maidservant came scurrying in with a fresh summer gown of sky-blue samite with a belt of finely wrought gold.
“My lady slept well?” asked the young woman.
“Well, thank you, Glenna. Isn’t it a beautiful day?”
“Yes, my lady. Beautiful.” She smiled, and light shone in her eyes. “Almost as beautiful as my lady.”
“Your flattery is as easily given as the bird’s song.” Bria laughed, and the room was brighter. “Have you seen the king?”
“No, my lady. Shall I send for the chamberlain?”
The queen shrugged. “There is no need. I know where he has gone.”
The servant helped her queen dress and then set about tidying the room. Bria went out from the royal apartments and made her way to the kitchens.
She passed lightly through a corridor and down a flight of steps to a banqueting hall. No sooner had she set foot in the hall than there was a squeal and a sudden flurry of motion toward her.
“Mother! Did you hear? Oh, did you hear the news?” Two young girls rushed up to her on prancing feet and grabbed her hands, pulling her toward the breakfast table.
“And what news have you heard, my darlings?” She smiled and stroked their golden heads.
The younger of the two children, Princess Elena, her hair in long braids woven with golden thread so that they shone and shimmered as she danced on her tiny slippered feet, smiled happily at her mother, her green eyes twinkling with the merriment of her secret. Her sister, Princess Brianna, slender as a new spring shoot and dressed in bright blue, like her mother, pressed the queen’s hand and said, “Come and sit with us, Mother. We have so much to tell you!”
Princess Elena shook her head vigorously. “Yes, oh yes. So much to tell you!”
“Very well,” said Queen Bria, settling herself lightly on the bench at the table. “What is your news? I cannot wait another instant!”
The older girl glanced at her sister, and both burst into laughter. The sound was pure delight. Several kitchen servants stopped to look on and smile, arrested by the little princesses’ happiness.
“Will you keep your poor mother in suspense? I confess I must know at once!” Bria took their hands and squeezed them both.
Still laughing, the words tumbled out. “Esme is coming! Esme! Isn’t that wonderful?” they shouted. “Esme will be here tonight!”
“That is indeed wonderful news!” cried Bria, hugging her daughters.
“Oh, but please don’t tell Father,” said Brianna. “We want to tell him. Please?”
“Yes, you shall tell him. It will be your surprise.”
“Oh, let’s go and find him!” cried Elena.
The two would have darted off at once, but the queen called them back.
“The king is not here, my doves. He rode out this morning early to the temple.”
“May we go, too? Please, Mother?” they asked excitedly.
“Come and eat a bite of breakfast first, and we shall see.” Bria glanced around the room quickly. “And where is your brother? Still abed? The day is fleeing!”
“Oh, no. He grabbed a seedcake and ran off a long time ago. He is meeting Toli in the stable yard. They are going riding.”
“Riding again! Always riding. It is a wonder the boy does not grow hooves and a mane.”
The girls giggled at the thought. The queen sighed. She did not relish the idea of one so young riding such big horses. Still, she thought, as long as he was with Toli, no harm could come to him.
“Now then, eat your breakfast. We have much to do this day to make ready for Lady Esme’s visit!”
They sat down to eat, but the girls were in such high spirits that they could only peck at their food. At last their mother dismissed them, and they ran laughing from the hall. Bria smiled, watching their braids flouncing as they went.
So Esme is coming. That is good news, she thought. How did the girls find out, I wonder. Well, however it is, she will be greatly welcome. It has been too long since she was in Askelon. Too long. I have missed her.
Quentin stood at a large, rough-hewn table in the center of a great rectangle of stone. His head was bent in concentration over a huge parchment roll that was weighted down at either end with a stone.
“See here,” he said, pointing to a place on the plan. “If we raise this wall within the week, we can begin laying in the beams. What do you say to that, Bertram?”
Bertram, the grizzled old master mason, squinted at the place where the king’s finger pointed, then raised his head and scratched his scruffy jaw, nodding at the wall before them across the way. “Aye, it is possible, Sire,” he replied diplomatically. “But the corbels must be set first, and they are not ready yet. Nor the trusses, neither.”
“Hmmm,” said the king, frowning.
“But we’ll see her raised soon enough, m’lord. Indeed we will. Count on it. Up she’ll go soon enough.” He nodded his head and then called over to one of his masons. “Excuse me, Sire. I must attend—”
“Yes, of course. Go on. I am returning to the castle soon.”
“Good day to you, m’lord.” Bertram bowed and hurried away.
Quentin stood for a moment with his hands on his hips and gazed at the work going on around him. The morning was clear and bright, the long grass still wet from the rain through the night. The masons and their many workmen toiled away with vigor. Quarrymen with sledges loaded with stone added their loads to the rock piles at either end of the rectangle, while laborers selected rocks from these mounds and tumbled them into wheelbarrows, ferrying them to the walls. Mortar makers and their carriers stirred the mud pits and loaded fresh mortar onto pallets, supplying the masons, who continually clamored for more.
In the midst of this ordered confusion, the walls of the new temple, the temple of the Most High, rose slowly and almost imperceptibly. The work was in its sixth year, and it sometimes seemed to Quentin that it would never end.
He was impatient for the temple to be finished, for its completion would inaugurate the new era; and in this temple he would lead in the worship of Mensandor’s new god. The temple would be a symbol to all the realm that the new age had dawned at last.
The old gods are dead, he would proclaim. Worship the new God, the Most High, Creator and Ruler of all!
Word of the new temple had quickly spread throughout the land since construction had begun. There was not a house in all the realm that did not know of the King’s Temple, as it was called. But six years had passed, and four more at least were needed before it could be completed. Until then . . . well, there was much work to do until then.
Quentin heard the jingle of bells behind him and turned to see Blazer tossing his head impatiently. The great horse had cropped all the sweet grass within reach and was ready to move on. He tossed his head restlessly, setting the little bells braided into his mane and along his silver bridle ringing, as if to say, “Away! The sun is up; the day is good. Let us run!”
Quentin smiled and walked to the animal, placing his hand on the horse’s broad nose. “You are impatient, and so am I, old friend. Very well,” said the king, raising his foot to the stirrup, “we will go. I have bothered these good men enough for one day.”
He swung himself easily up into the saddle and jerked the reins. Blazer lifted his forelegs off the ground and spun around. Quentin lifted his hand to Bertram, who waved back, and then Blazer leaped away. They raced along the road leading down the broad slope of the hill, dodging the ox-drawn wains bearing food and supplies to the workmen. Then, feeling the sun on his face and the beauty of the day springing up inside him, the king spurred Blazer off the road and let him run down the side of the hill and out onto the plain below Askelon.
The castle rose up on its crown of rock, shining like a jewel in the morning light. Red and blue pennons fluttered and snapped from a thousand spires. The high battlements soared above, topped with turrets and barbicans—strong, safe, forever secure.
Quentin enjoyed the strength of the animal beneath him; his heart raced as they thundered over the still-damp ground. Blazer’s hooves struck up muddy turf and flung it skyward as they galloped on.
Presently they came to a great stone cenotaph standing alone in the center of the plain. Quentin reined Blazer to a trot as they approached. They stopped in front of the cenotaph, and Quentin dismounted. He walked to the monument and knelt at its base.
Inscribed in stone on both sides of the slab were the words Quentin knew by heart. Yet he read them once again. They said:
Here upon this field did the warriors of Mensandor meet and defeat in battle the barbarian host of Nin, called the Destroyer.
Here Eskevar, Dragon King, Lord of the Realm, fell, and many brave men with him, nevermore to rise. Peace was purchased with their blood and freedom with their swords.
After reading the words he had read so often, Quentin stood and remounted and rode off once more toward Askelon.