The inner ward yard bustled with activity as the king assembled his family and friends. Bria and the princesses would ride to the field in a brightly festooned coach. Quentin and his son would lead the procession on horseback, followed by Durwin and Toli and as many of the noble visitors as had not already left for the field. Esme, however, would not be among them.
When all was ready, the armorer came hurrying up with a squire at either elbow. One lad carried the king’s shield, burnished bright as a mirror; the other carried, on a long satin pillow, the king’s sword, Zhaligkeer, the Shining One.
The armorer knelt and offered the king his weapons. Quentin nodded, and the squires helped their master fasten the great sword in place and then handed up the shield, which the king slung over his shoulder.
Word of the shining sword had long ago spread far and wide throughout the land. There was not a peasant anywhere who had not heard of its forging in the lost mountain mines of the Ariga out of the fabled glowing ore, lanthanil. Far beyond the borders of Mensandor, tales of the Shining One were told, and of the mighty priest king who had come to the throne by a strange and wonderful enchantment. Those who looked upon him now believed those stories more fervently than ever, because he appeared so strong and fearless.
Quentin mounted Blazer, and the milk-white stallion danced sideways, anxious to be off. He raised a gloved hand, the inner ward gates were opened wide, and the parade began. They passed into the outer ward and then through the gatehouse, over the huge drawbridge, and down the ramp into the city. And though many townspeople had already left for the festival site, there were still enough to line the streets to wave and cheer and welcome their king. The happy people fell into place behind the procession as it passed, and all made their way to the field.
Young Gerin, his heart fluttering within him like a captive bird, gawked openly at all around him, feeling proud and important. This day the hunt wore a different look; nothing appeared the same as he remembered it. All had changed, becoming more colorful, more exciting, more thrilling than ever before. For this day he would ride with the hunt!
He swiveled in his saddle and threw a conspiratorial glance back at Toli, who rode behind him. Toli was talking to Durwin, but saw the look and answered it with a wink.
Gerin turned his eyes to the sights around him. Jugglers tossed knives and hoops high into the air and caught them deftly; a man with a trained bear on a chain made it stand on its head; acrobats tumbled and threw one another spinning into the air; some boys had made a pair of stilts from the limbs of trees and were trying to master the art of walking on them; vendors cried over the shouts and laughter, hawking their trinkets: fancy ribbons, jewelry, and tiny lacquered boxes.
The world was alive with sound and color. Here and there music swelled as minstrels gathered small audiences to hear their newest songs; horses cantered and neighed, tossing their heads and setting their bells ringing; children ran laughing, their bare feet skipping over the grass.
The parade entered the field itself, and Gerin turned his eyes to the competition. Ranged around the long rectangle of the field were tents and small pavilions, each with a standard before the entrance bearing the banner of the lord or knight within. Some of the riders were outside their tents, seeing to the last-minute details of tack or weapons. Hunting hounds lay on the grass, waiting for the chase to begin, or strained at their leashes, yapping eagerly at one another as they sensed the moment of their release drawing near.
Gerin gazed among the pavilions, reading the devices and looking for those that he knew. There was the green oak on a barred field of azure and gold—that was Sir Grenfell. The boar and spear on scarlet belonged to Lord Bossit; and the silver lance and shield on checkered black and white was the blazon of Sir Hedric of Bellavee. There were also Benniot’s silver-and-blue double eagle, Rudd’s red ox on sable, and Fincher’s gauntlet clutching white thunderbolts.
There were more that he did not know—harts and hounds, mailed fists and morions, poniards and preying birds—but he did not see the two he hoped most to see: the black hawk on crimson, and the gray gauntlet clutching crossed mace and flail.
“Where is Theido, Father? And Ronsard? I do not see them,” the prince said, craning his neck around the perimeter of the field.
“They will be here before the hunt is through. Theido sent word that he will arrive tomorrow, and Ronsard likewise. They will not miss the hunt. Do not worry; your friends will come.”
They arrived at the king’s pavilion and dismounted. The ascending rows of benches were already filled to overflowing, and more people were crowding in. In the very front row, however, were chairs set up behind a banister for the royal family and their entourage. The queen took her place, and the princesses beside her, smiling and waving to all who greeted them. The king, instantly surrounded by well-wishers, slowly made his way to his chair, where he remained standing and signaled the herald.
A long, clear blast of the trumpet summoned the riders, who began filing onto the field, arranging themselves in ranks before the king’s pavilion. When all were ready, the king nodded to a man with a wide leather baldric from which dangled a hunting horn.
The man was the marshal of the hunt; he led his bay horse to the front of the assembled ranks and in a loud voice began reciting the rules of conduct. When he was finished, Quentin looked over the crowd and shouted, “Do you one and all pledge your oath to abide by the laws of the King’s Hunt?”
“We so pledge!” the riders shouted as one.
“Well said!” cried Quentin. “Let the hunt begin!”
A great hurrah went up from the hunters, and all the spectators gathered around the field. The marshal raised the horn to his lips, but before he could sound the note, someone called out, “We would have our king lead us!”
“The king!” someone else shouted. “Yes! The king!” the rest joined in. “We want King Quentin. The king must lead the hunt!”
Quentin smiled and glanced at his queen. “Oh, you must go, Father! You must!” cried Princess Brianna and Princess Elena.
“Yes,” agreed Bria. “Lead them, my lord.”
“Very well,” said Quentin. “I will ride!” He made to leave the pavilion and mount Blazer. Another hurrah went up from the throng.
“The king will ride!” they shouted. Actually Quentin rode every year, but it was always the custom that the contestants ask him to ride and offer him the lead. Usually he rode only for a short while and then returned to officiate over the other games.
“Are you coming, Durwin?” Quentin asked as he descended from the pavilion.
“I am getting too old for breaking my neck on horseback. Leave it to the younger men. I shall wait here for your return.”
“Durwin!” the crowd called. “Let Durwin ride with us! Durwin! Durwin!” The call became a chant.
“You see, they want you, Durwin. You would disappoint them?”
“Very well, I will ride. Lead on.” He followed Quentin down to the field.
As they were mounted and making ready to gallop off, Quentin looked to his side and saw his son beaming at him, his young face shining with anticipation. “What is this?”
“I am riding, too, Father. That is your surprise!”
Before Quentin could speak, Toli, sitting next to the prince, said, “We have been practicing for weeks, my lord. Your son has become a fine horseman.”
“Is it true?” He stared at his son.
The boy burst out laughing. “If you could see the bruises I have endured, you would know the truth of it!”
Quentin did not know what to say. He glanced to Bria, who was attending the scene from her seat with a worried look on her face. Quentin scratched his jaw and seemed about to overrule the enterprise. He looked to Toli. “Do you think it wise?” Prince Gerin bit his lip.
“Sire, I would not allow it if I thought he would be in danger. He can handle himself and his mount, never fear. And I will ride with him just to make sure. I will not allow him away from me for an instant.”
Quentin nodded, his eyes on the boy. The intense hope the youngster carried within him burned out of his eyes like a flame. How could he be denied?
“As you will,” said Quentin, breaking into a grin when he saw how much his approval meant to the lad. “You shall ride. And I hope you find the biggest trophy!”
“For you, Father. I want to find one for you!”
“Toli, watch after him. And you, young sir, do as Toli tells you.”
They made their way among the other riders to the end of the field—the king in the lead with Durwin on one side and Prince Gerin and Toli on the other. When they were in position, the king raised his hand and the marshal of the hunt blew his horn. “To the hunt!” they cried, and all at once the horses leaped away, thundering off across the plain toward Pelgrin Forest.
The thump of the horses’ hooves on the plain pounded out a drumbeat, and the people cheered as the hunters flew away into the forest. Once they reached the foremost fringes of the wood, Quentin hung back and let the others go ahead. Those after game dashed ahead first, lances at the ready, searching out trails among the dark branches. Hot behind them came the trophy seekers, who spread out to ride alone to secret places where they hoped a prize would be found.
“What are you waiting for?” shouted Quentin to his son, who also hesitated at the edge of the wood. “Away! Fly!”
The youngster snapped the reins, and Tarky dashed away; Toli was right behind him. “He is growing up, Sire,” said Durwin at Quentin’s shoulder.
“Too fast, I sometimes think.” He smiled after his son. “Look at him go!”
“He reminds me of another young man I met—could it be that long ago? Although he rode a chestnut stallion, as I remember.”
“But he did not ride that well—as I remember.”
“So it is! But he had the will to try, and a stout heart in his young frame.”
“Stubborn, you mean,” laughed Quentin. “How we have changed, old friend.”
“Yes, changed a little. But still very much the same.” The hermit snapped his reins. “Come along. Let us see how the young master fares. Keep up, if you can!” With that he darted off.
“Is that any way to speak to your king, you grizzled old hermit?” Quentin shouted after him. He spurred Blazer and sped into the cool, green wood.