It had been decided, quite without Quentin’s opinion but not altogether against his approval, that Theido would accompany him on the remainder of his journey. This had been discussed over a cheerful breakfast of hot porridge and milk, with bread dipped in honey. Quentin ate with unusual alacrity, his high spirits charged by a renewed sense of adventure.
The two men had shown considerable surprise that Quentin had made it this far through the forest without incident. Theido had said, “Hereabouts, Pelgrin shelters outlaws of every description. There are some who might set a high value on your horse.”
Durwin added, “And not so much on his rider.”
“They wouldn’t dare touch me,” Quentin announced carelessly, full of himself and his own high spirits. “I carry a letter for the queen.”
At this news, the first bare hint of Quentin’s clandestine errand, both men nearly jumped from their seats. Quentin’s jaw snapped shut in alarm when he realized he had ruined his secret. “The queen?” said Theido, recovering himself instantly. “What business might you have with the queen, boy?”
Now Quentin became guarded and secretive. “That is my affair and none of yours,” he said a little angrily, though the anger was for his own carelessness and not his questioner.
“This letter would not be from the king, would it?” Theido pursued.
“I’ll tell you no more about it, sir,” Quentin retorted.
Here Durwin interposed. “My boy, while it may not occur to you at once, my friend and I have known for some time that you were about an errand of some importance. Your horse, for example, is the mount of a champion and not the nag of an acolyte. I’ll wager that your expulsion from the temple was due not to the willful breach of your sacred vows, but rather out of necessity to the task you have undertaken.” Durwin paused to regard Quentin carefully. Quentin colored somewhat under the hermit’s scrutiny and the sudden knowledge that he was so transparent. “I see that I have struck close to the mark.”
“Lad, you can trust us. We mean you no harm. I think you will find no two better men who would hold your secret as though their own lives were forfeit.” Theido spoke quietly and with deep assurance. Quentin believed the tall stranger but sat in sullen silence, not knowing whether to speak further or hold.
“You possess a strength and bravery enough for two of your size,” Durwin continued. “But there are events afoot against which bravery and strength alone are no match. I think Biorkis realized this and sent you to me, hoping I would guess the seriousness of your mission and help you if I could. Perhaps the god himself prompted you to spill your secret in our hearing just now, to save you from harm.”
“Is it so dangerous, then, for a subject to confer with his queen?” Quentin asked sullenly.
Both men nodded in silence. Theido replied, “Seeing the queen is but a trifle, providing you were able to obtain entrance to the castle alive. There are those who would keep her ignorant of outside affairs, the better to plant their own evil seeds.”
“Without our help you might never reach the queen. Prince Jaspin would get you if an outlaw band did not.”
“Prince Jaspin?” Quentin wondered why he had never heard the name.
“Prince Jaspin,” Durwin explained, “is King Eskevar’s youngest brother. He desires the throne of Askelon; he incites treason and treachery with increasing boldness. Honest men are afraid for their land and lives if they dare stand against him. Many nobles have lost everything to Jaspin for refusing to join in his intrigues.”
Quentin turned all this shocking information over in his mind but found himself at a loss to know what to do. He at last decided to trust the former priest and his unusual friend and share with them the rest of his secret.
“I am going to see the queen,” he stated slowly, “to give her a message of importance. Two days ago a wounded knight came to the temple, demanding our aid. He had been set upon by outlaws and was dying. I volunteered to take the message, which was written in secret and sealed. It is his horse I ride, and this is his dagger.” Quentin drew back his cloak to reveal the knife’s gold handle.
“The knight—do you know his name?” Theido asked quickly.
“It was Ronsard.”
“Ronsard! You can be certain?”
“Yes, I saw everything. He said his name and asked for someone to take the message to the queen. I volunteered.”
“Then you are even braver than we thought,” said Durwin.
“The message—it comes from the king, then,” said Theido. “Ronsard is one of his personal bodyguards, a knight unequaled in strength and valor.” He looked at Quentin sadly. “He is dead, you say?”
“Yes—that is”—Quentin hesitated—“I think so. I dared not wait to see the end, but he was very near death when I left.” Quentin fell silent, remembering vividly the events that had brought him hither. He felt afraid and very alone. “I can trust you? You will not deceive me? I promised not to tell . . .”
Durwin rose from his seat and came around the table and placed his hand upon Quentin’s shoulder. “My son, you have done the queen a great service by sharing your secret with us. Quite possibly you have rendered your king an even greater service. Ronsard, I think, would be no less pleased with this outcome if he had thought of it himself.”
“The hermit speaks the truth,” said Theido. “But now we must make plans to deliver your message. The outlaws will be the least of our worries.”
Theido and Quentin left the hermit’s cottage about midday as a light snow of fitful flakes drifted down to lose themselves in the whiteness already deep upon the ground. Durwin remained behind to tend to his usual affairs, saying, “I shall be waiting with hot soup and a cold drink when you return; I would only slow you down otherwise.” As they led their horses back along the narrow track to the road, they heard his voice loud in the winter stillness, calling, “The god go with you, and keep you, and speed your safe return.”
“Who is the god Durwin serves?” Quentin asked after they had ridden several minutes in silence, each lost to his own thoughts.
Theido seemed to consider this question and answered at length. “I do not know that Durwin has ever spoken his name—it may be that he does not have one.”
A nameless god? The thought occupied Quentin for a long time.
They rode through the forest, a dense, old tangle of ancient oaks that wove huge branches overhead in a stark, intertwining canopy of bare limbs. Here and there a stand of finger-thin pines shot upwards through the spreading branches of the oaks to find the light above.
The horses moved easily through the snow, which had not drifted to any depth upon the forest floor. Theido rode ahead on his quick, brown palfrey, and Quentin, astride the mighty Balder, followed not far behind at his right shoulder. Quentin listened to the forest sounds: snow sliding off the branches of trees with a soft plop, the creak of a bough shifting in the cold, a lone birdcall sharp and distinct in the distance. Even the quiet was full of sounds when one listened.
“Do you think we will meet with any outlaws?” Quentin asked after a while, remembering what had been said earlier.
“We should hope that we meet nothing but the trees and the snow. But there are some outlaws here who are more honest than you or I, men driven to the refuge of the forest by Prince Jaspin and his thieving rascals.” This was spoken with a quiet defiance that Quentin could easily apprehend. However, there was something else in the dark man’s tone that he could not guess. “If we chance upon anyone in this wood, pray that he serves no lord but the Dragon King,” Theido continued. “I am not without reputation among such men.”
“Perhaps the snow will keep them inside today,” Quentin observed. Yet even as he spoke, the clouds overhead showed signs of scattering. The last few flakes drifted down slowly.
“Yes, perhaps. Although a traveler is a welcome sight these days. Many who once traveled on business have taken to hiring armed escorts or banding together in the hope that numbers alone will daunt the robbers. Most avoid the forest altogether, and those lucky enough to pass unharmed are nonetheless marked well. You, my young friend, were very lucky to have escaped notice thus far. Were you not afraid?”
“I did not know these robbers had become such a serious problem.”
“News does not travel to the mountaintop, eh? The gods and their servants care not what takes place in the world of men?” He laughed strangely. “Mensandor is besieged by trouble; once-honest men turn upon one another; innocent blood is shed by day. These are grave times.”
“I had not heard . . . ,” replied Quentin, as if to defend himself. Although from what he did not know.
“I suppose not. Maybe it is better that way—innocence is a gift. Who knows, you might never have volunteered for such an errand if you had known what lay ahead.”
At last, with only an hour of daylight left, the forest began to dwindle, becoming sparser and more open. Then, quite unexpectedly, the two riders were free of it. And there, across a broad valley cut through by a deep, narrow stream, rose the soaring battlements of Askelon.
The king’s stronghold sat upon the crown of a hill glittering in the fading light. Its tall towers commanded a view clear to the horizon and could in turn be seen for miles in every direction. With the crimson evening light behind it, the mighty fortress loomed dark and menacing, itself a fantastic dragon curled upon its stone couch. Quentin shivered in his saddle. Long had he dreamed of this sight; now he was seeing it.
“They say this castle is the oldest thing upon the land made by men,” said Theido. “Of all the ancient wonders, only Askelon survives. King Celbercor, when he came to this country, laid the cornerstone himself. It was not finished until a thousand years later. It will house fifty thousand fighting men, and horses for half that number; there is not another fortress made by man that is its equal. It has weathered siege upon siege and war upon war. Those walls stood when our fathers’ fathers were babes, and they will stand when we are dust in our graves.”
“Has it never been conquered?”
“Never, at least not from without, not by force. But intrigue—the fighting within—has laid many a king low. Even those great walls cannot stop deceit.”
The two descended the gentle slope of the hill and splashed quickly across the stream. Already the last light of the day failed them. But the lights were twinkling in the village that crowded close beneath Askelon’s protective ramparts. As they moved closer, the great, dark shape above them became lost to the night, a mountain vanishing behind a shadow. The lights showing rosy from the windows drawing nearer with every step threw warm light upon the snow. Quentin heard voices from within the houses they passed, and occasionally the yeasty smell of hot bread would meet his nostrils, or the tang of meat basted over an open hearth fire. Suddenly he felt very tired and hungry.
“Will we go to the queen directly?”
“No, I think not. Tomorrow will be soon enough. I want to find out how things sit at court these days. It has been some time since I was here.” He paused, reining up his horse so that Quentin could draw abreast of him. He spoke in a lowered tone. “Tonight, you are my nephew—if anyone should be curious. Speak only if spoken to, and say nothing about the queen or king to anyone at all. Watch me at all times, do you understand?”
Quentin nodded quickly.
“All right, then,” continued Theido in a more relaxed voice. “How about some supper?”
Quentin glanced up and saw that they had stopped outside an inn of some size. A weathered sign that bade travelers welcome hung over the door, and it sported the painted likeness of someone or something Quentin could not quite make out.
As they dismounted, the door burst open and a short man in a tunic and pantaloons with a white cloth wrapped around his bulging middle came bustling forward. “Welcome! Welcome!” the man chirped. “Supper is just being laid. If you hurry, you may yet find places at the board! Quickly now! Never mind; I’ll take care of your horses.”
“Very kind of you, Milcher,” said Theido with a chuckle. “You’re as blind as ever—you don’t even know who it is you’re dragging in out of the night. Nor do you care!”
“Who is that? Is that Theido?” The man came closer and peered into the traveler’s face. “Yes, of course. I knew it was you. Recognized your voice. Come in, come in. Too cold out here to be wagging your tongue. In with you! In with you both!” He took the reins from their hands and led the horses away behind the large rambling structure.
“Hurry now. Supper is just being laid!” he called out as he disappeared around the corner.
Theido and Quentin stepped up to the entrance, and as Theido shoved open the broad door, he placed a hand on Quentin’s shoulder. “Remember what I told you.” He laid a long finger to his lips. Quentin nodded with a furtive smile.
“Yes . . . Uncle.”