The day of the King’s Hunt dawned with melancholy reluctance; low, dreary clouds spread over the Plain of Askelon, and gray mists draped the treetops. Those camped abroad and those boarded in the town and in the castle feared rain would spoil the day. But as a wan yellow sun climbed higher into the great vault of the heavens, it gathered strength, flared brighter, its white-hot rays burned away the clouds and warmed the air. Travelers and townspeople streamed into the streets and began the trek to the field. Those still abed in Askelon Castle awakened and rushed to ready themselves for the day’s festivities. Lords and their ladies—from as far away as Endonny and Woodsend, and all places in between—dressed in their finest. Knights donned riding clothes of leather and saw to the grooming of their horses, plaiting tail and mane with ribbons of gold and silver entwined with bells, or dressing their steeds in brightly colored caparisons: red and blue, gold and green, violet and yellow.
And everywhere, from the chamber of the king to the tents on Askelon Plain, excitement simmered beneath the surface, breaking out in laughter and song and impromptu games. Wagons and handcarts emerged from the castle keeps loaded down with foodstuffs and supplies for the makeshift kitchens arranged on the field under bright yellow canopies.
Everywhere around the sporting field colorful pavilions of red and silver, bearing the royal device, began filling. Smoke from cooking fires drifted lazily into the windless sky in silken threads. It appeared to anyone observing from the battlements of Askelon Castle that a bold, colorful army had encamped round about, an army whose numbers swelled by degrees ever greater as more and more people made their way to the field.
“Father! Father, come quickly! Look! Oh, look!” cried the children. They ran and seized Quentin’s hands and pulled him out onto the bar-tizan outside their rooms. “See! The hunt is almost ready! Look at all the people! Oh, I have never seen so many!” they cried.
“Can we play in the games, Father?” asked Princess Brianna.
“Of course,” said Quentin. “There will be games for you.” He reached out and patted her head.
“And watch the circus?” added Princess Elena.
“Yes! Yes!” laughed Quentin.
Young Prince Gerin did not ask a favor, considering himself too big for such childish pleasures. He looked out on the scene below and beamed, his face flush with excitement.
“And what about you, my son? What will you do today?”
Prince Gerin turned and smiled mysteriously. “I will show you— but not now. It is a secret! A surprise!”
“Very well,” said Quentin. “If I must wait, I must. But tell me soon, for I do not think I can endure the suspense for long!” He laughed again, then pulled the youngster toward him, rubbing his slim shoulders affectionately.
“There you are!” said Bria, stepping out onto the bartizan. “The sooner we have our breakfast, the sooner we will join the others, and the festival can begin!”
The princesses frowned disapprovingly. Prince Gerin whirled away and dashed for the door. “I cannot eat now!” he called. “I must find Toli!” He was gone before his mother could protest.
“Breakfast is an unwanted intrusion today,” said Quentin. “Besides, there will be time enough and food enough for eating at the field. If any goes hungry this day, it is their own fault and no one else’s.”
Bria sighed and herded the girls before her, and they went down to eat a hasty meal before departing for the hunt.
For many days the castle had been bustling with activity. There was food and drink to organize, folded pavilions to haul from storage, and the field to prepare. Minstrels and circus performers, some with trained dogs and bears, had begun arriving in the town. Merchants readied wares that they would offer to the crowds; food vendors prepared their special delicacies.
Toli and Prince Gerin had arranged their surprise in their own way, practicing the more difficult jumps time and again. The prince had, after many painful tumbles, learned to jump with ease, handling his horse with an expert hand at last.
“Very good! Excellent!” called Toli that final day. “You are ready for the hunt, young master. I have taught you all I can.”
“Do you really think so, Toli?”
Toli nodded solemnly. “A finer rider in this realm would be difficult to find. You are ready. Just remember everything we have practiced and you will ride with the best.”
“Father will be so surprised!” the prince shouted. “You will not tell him—”
“Never fear—I want him to be surprised, too.”
Those last days had been hard ones for the prince, trying desperately to keep his secret. It burned inside him, threatening to leap to his tongue each time he opened his mouth. But somehow he had managed; the secret was safe.
Now, as he dashed to the stables to find Toli and to see to his horse, he ran with the speed of his own racing heart. He found Toli saddling his mount for him, examining each tack item as he placed it on the horse. The prince slowed as he came up; Tarky nickered softly as the boy reached out and patted the sleek jaw.
“You will ride beside me, won’t you, Toli?”
“Certainly. I shall be right beside you all the way. How else am I to keep up?”
“Do you think we might find a trophy?”
“We have as good a chance as any, I’ll warrant. And better than some. We just might find a trophy.”
The hunters were allowed to hunt for game, but as an added reward there were prizes hidden throughout the forest: trophies of gold and silver, cups and bowls, and other objects of value. This heightened the competition and gave extra delight to the sport. Many of the hunters did not even carry weapons, preferring instead to concentrate solely on finding the valuable trinkets. This was what Prince Gerin had in mind as well; he wanted to find a trophy for his father. That would complete the surprise.
When all was ready the prince hoisted himself into his saddle, heart thumping in his chest. Together Toli and Gerin rode to join the others at the gate.
“Very well,” spat Nimrood from the shadows. “You know what to do. You have had a good look at him. There must be no mistakes.”
The six men gathered around him nodded silently. There would be no mistakes because they had come to fear Nimrood greatly and would not risk his disappointment, though none of them had much stomach for what was about to take place.
“Then disperse carefully. I will await you here. Remember the signal, and look sharp! I do not need to remind you that this is a most dangerous game we are playing. Most dangerous,” he hissed, his eyes darting from one man to the next. “Now, go. And be ready!”
The six men, the best chosen from among the order of temple guards, faded silently away, their dark clothing melding with the green leaves and deep shadows of Pelgrin Forest.
Nimrood’s cruel features creased into a malicious grin. “Now it begins. At long last, it begins,” he whispered to himself. “At long last I will have my revenge.”