Away east of the city, in a meadow ringed with ancient oaks, secluded from prying eyes, Toli and Prince Gerin rode together. “Try it again, young prince,” called Toli, turning the cantering Riv toward a well-worn path where the great trunk of a fallen tree lay.
The prince, a hardy young boy of nine with a tousled mane of dark brown hair, studied the obstacle before him, his quick green eyes narrowed in utmost concentration, his mouth pulled into a pucker. Flushed with excitement, color rising red to his cheeks, Gerin thrust out his jaw earnestly. The act was such an exact parody of the king that Toli chuckled behind his fist in order to keep from laughing aloud.
Then, with a flick of the reins, the prince kicked his heels into his pony’s flanks and away they flew, back down the path toward the fallen trunk.
At the last second the little prince threw the reins ahead and leaned forward against the horse’s neck. The pony lifted its legs and soared over the obstacle with ease, landing with a bump on the other side. The young rider rocked forward in the saddle and bounced to one side, but retained his seat on his mount.
”Very good!” cried Toli. “Excellent! That is the way! Come here now and rest a little.” He beamed at his charge, nodding well-earned approval.
“Just once more, Toli. Please? I want to remember what it feels like.” He turned the horse again and started for the log.
Toli reined up and dismounted, watching the prince carefully. This time as the boy’s horse approached the obstacle, the animal hesitated, unsure of his rider’s command. He jumped awkwardly and late, throwing himself over. Prince Gerin slipped sideways in the saddle and hung on, trying desperately to stop the horse. But he could not; his grip failed, and he fell to the ground with a thud. The brown pony jogged on riderless.
“Ooof!” The prince rolled heels over head on the soft turf.
Toli rushed to him. “Are you hurt?” He picked up the boy and brushed him off. There was mud on his chin and elbows.
“No—it is not the first time I have fallen. That, at least, I seem to have the knack of.”
“I am sorry it will not be the last time, either,” laughed Toli. “But I must keep you in one piece, or your father will have my head!”
The prince looked up at his instructor, frowning, his smooth brow knitting in consternation. “Will I ever get it right?”
“Of course, in time—”
“But the hunt is less than a fortnight away!”
“Do not worry, young master. You are making good progress. You shall ride with the hunt, I promise. And your father will have his surprise. All in good time. But first you must learn not to hesitate when you approach a jump. It confuses your mount, and he will jump badly.”
“May I try it again?”
“We should be getting back. I’ve duties to attend to.”
“Please, Toli. Just once more. I would not like to end the day’s practice with a fall.”
“Well said. One more jump, and then we race for home.”
The prince dashed to his mount, Tarky, who had stopped to nibble the grass at the end of the path. Toli went back to Riv and remounted. “Think about what you are doing, young sir!” called Toli. “Concentrate!”
The boy climbed into his saddle, a look of dire determination on his face. He eyed the obstacle ahead, gauging the distance, then snapped the reins and spurred the horse ahead.
Away they galloped down the path. In a twinkling they were hurtling toward the log. Prince Gerin leaned low in the saddle, lifted his hands, and the horse flew up and over the log, as graceful and light as a deer. The prince pulled the reins and with a whoop of triumph wheeled the pony around and broke for the far trees across the meadow.
“Well done, Prince Gerin!” shouted Toli. “Well done!” Then he, too, spurred his mount for the trees and beyond them to the road leading back to Askelon.
The two reached the road side by side and raced, laughing all the way to the castle. The sun was high in the clear blue sky, and both felt the joy of life running strong in them.
Durwin’s worktable was stacked high with dusty scrolls and hide-bound volumes. He sat hunched over the table on a high stool, chin in hand, mumbling to himself as he read. His hair was long and almost completely white now, but his eyes were quick as ever and his limbs sound. He appeared a man half his natural age.
Abruptly he raised his head and sniffed the air. “Ah!” he cried, jumping up. He dashed at once to a small brazier where a black iron pot was bubbling away on the hot coals. It had boiled over, and black smoke rolled toward the rafters. He picked up a long wooden spoon nearby and was stirring the pot when a voice called out from the doorway.
“Phew! Good hermit, what is that prodigious stench? It is most foul!”
Durwin glanced up to see the queen dowager standing in his wide doorway watching him, her nose crinkled in frank disgust.
“Alinea! What! You do not care for my poultice? ’Tis a powerful curative for aches of the joints.”
“It is to be wondered whether the aches would not be more enjoyable.”
“My patients, I assure you, do not mind its aromatic qualities.”
“I call them patients, my lady. This is for Toli.”
“Certainly Toli has no need of this.”
“His horses, madam. I am making it for his horses, although it would not hurt the rider in any case, if need were great.”
“And nose were strong!” she said, laughing. “But mine is not. Come away from your labors a little, hermit. I would have someone to walk with in the garden.”
Durwin smiled and bowed. “I would be delighted. Just the thing. I have been too long among these vapors, or I would have thought of it myself.”
They went out together, through the castle, past the Dragon King’s Great Hall, and out onto the garden steps. “See how brightly the sun shines,” said Alinea, “and how fragrant the flowers.”
They walked down the steps and into the garden amid the fragrant offerings of roses of all kinds. The spring flowers were gone, but the blooms of summer were just opening, and everywhere one looked, the eye was filled with color.
“Ah! It is peace itself to be here,” sighed Durwin. He turned to regard his companion. The years had been kind to her. Her hair was long—braided, gathered, and bound in a snood. There was much silver now among the auburn tresses, and lines had formed around her eyes and lovely lips. But her eyes were still as green as forest pools, and her voice held the timbre of laughing water.
Yes, thought Durwin, the years have been good to us all. I would not trade them for any others. The God Most High is good; he has poured out a blessing on the land. We have much to be thankful for.
“What are you thinking, my friend?” Alinea asked softly.
“That these have been happy years, my queen, and full. I am content.” He paused, and his voice struck a faraway note. “Though I lay down to die tomorrow, I would have no regrets. None at all.”
“And I might say the same,” replied Alinea. “But come, let us not speak further of dying. That will take care of itself.”
“So it is! Aye, so it is.” Durwin nodded slowly. Brightening, he said, “Then tell me, what news do you have? I heard that a messenger arrived early this morning. He brought good tidings?”
“Yes! Yes, I was going to tell you. He brought word from Hinsenby—”
“Hinsenby? From Theido?”
“From Lady Esme. She is on her way here even now. She will arrive before dusk this evening. The day is good for traveling.”
“Ah, Lady Esme. I have not seen her for many years, it seems.”
“She has been missed within these walls. And, sad to tell, no one felt her absence as keenly as Lady Esme herself.”
“Yes, an awful business. Very sad. It bears remembering that there are some among us whose lives may not be as free of regret as our own. I am certain she would have chosen differently if she had known.”
Alinea was silent for some time. They paced the garden paths, each feeling the warmth of the day and of companionship from the other. “I wonder if any of us would choose as we do, if we knew the future.”
“Perhaps not. But it is a blessing nonetheless. The burdens of the day weigh heavy enough; we could not bear tomorrow’s as well.”
“Of course. How wise you are, hermit. Yes, it will be good to see Esme once more. Perhaps we may help heal old wounds.”
Just then they heard the happy twitter of childish voices and looked up to see Princess Brianna and Princess Elena running toward them as fast as their spindly little legs would carry them. Behind them Bria walked at a more leisurely pace.
“Grandmother! Oh, Grandmother!” called the girls. “We have a secret! A very great secret!”
“A secret. Whatever could it be?”
“You must guess it, Grandmother!” shouted Brianna.
“Yes, guess! Guess!” shouted Elena.
Alinea placed her hands together and raised them to her lips. “Let me see,” she said, her eyes shining at the sight of her beautiful grandchildren. “Are you going on a trip?”
Both little heads wagged from side to side, their braids flying.
“No?” continued their grandmother. “Then you have learned a new game and have come to show us!”
“That’s not it!” they cried, and burst into giggles. “Lady Esme is coming. She’ll be here tonight!” Both girls began hopping up and down.
“That is good news!” said Alinea.
“Did you hear, Durwin?” they shouted. “She’ll be here tonight.” Then they looked at each other as a new and better thought occurred to them. “Maybe she’ll bring us presents!” said Brianna.
They clapped their hands and then darted away among the rosebushes toward the fountain.
“Very like hummingbirds,” mused Durwin.
“There you are, Mother,” said Bria as she came to stand with them. “I see they have told you their secret.”
“Yes, dear. How happy you must be.”
“I am almost as excited as they are—if that were possible!” she replied and laughed, her eyes following the girls as they ran. “Good day, Durwin. I am glad to see Mother has dragged you from your noisome den. I was beginning to wonder whether you would ever come out.”
“Oh, in time, in time. But once this old head gets hold of an idea, it will not let it go.” He smiled broadly. “That is why I have you two to look after me. I know you will not allow me to remain too long alone. I thank you for that.”
“There is another who I wish were as easily persuaded,” said Bria.
Bria smiled a little sadly and nodded. “Oh, I know he is very busy now. He is preoccupied with his temple. But he is gone from morning until night nearly every day, closeted with his builders and architects. He never stops. I rarely see him anymore.”
Alinea looked longingly at her daughter. “With a king it is ever so. You must remember, my love, that he does not belong to himself, or even his family. He belongs to the kingdom, to the people. Quentin carries a very great burden in this temple. Old ways die hard, and he seeks to fulfill the god’s leading.”
Bria hung her head. “I know I should be more patient. But he has become a stranger in his own house.”
“Quentin is called to high deeds. Through him great things will be accomplished.”
“So it is,” said Durwin. “But my lady Bria speaks the truth. He also must look to the nurturing of his home. King or no, that is a man’s first responsibility. The Most High is happy in small deeds, as well as large. I often think he must care less for temples than for the simple strength of a family.” He paused and looked at Bria. “I will speak to him if you wish.”
“Thank you, but, no. I will wait. The temple is important—I know that. Perhaps when it is finished we will once again find time for ourselves. Until then I shall wait.” She smiled prettily and glanced at her mother. “The women in our family have had long experience with waiting. We are very good at it.”