It is such a lovely day, my lady. Do you not wish to join the others at the festival?” Chloe came quietly up behind Esme as she gazed unseeing out upon the plain, ablossom with scores of colored tents. “See, the hunt has already begun.”
They watched the lines of horses and riders galloping in a long, sinuous wave over the Plain of Askelon. After a moment Esme replied absently, “You may go, Chloe, if you like. I think I will remain.”
“Oh, do come, my lady. You would enjoy it. You would, I know.”
“Ah,” Esme sighed, “to please you. Very well, I will go.”
As the day was gentle, they decided to walk, making their way through empty streets to the festival field. Chloe kept up a running banter all the way, talking of this or that small thing she had noticed in the Dragon King’s household, comparing it to what she knew of other royal houses.
Esme listened with half an ear, letting her maid chirp on like a sparrow, happy not to have to think at all, but just listen. Her dark mood of the night before had returned with the morning. And though she tried to master it, she found it engulfed her more securely than she guessed. For try as she might, she could not banish it from her.
So, with no hope of ridding herself of it, and lacking the immediate strength to fight it, she merely gave herself over to the despair she felt and let it tug her along where it would.
What am I to do? she thought. What am I to do?
She had, with the death of her husband, inherited vast holdings of lands. Several small villages were under her protection, as well as a castle and a summer estate, each with a full complement of stewards, overseers, and servants. Her treasury was one of the largest in Elsendor. But all this she would have given up gladly, if only it would have offered her a glimmer of hope for happiness.
“Do not frown so, my lady,” said Chloe.
“What?” Esme pulled herself out of her gloomy thoughts.
“Promise me you will try to enjoy the occasion.”
Esme smiled. “I shall try. I know it is not seemly for a lady to scowl like a haggard.” She sighed again. “Oh, Chloe, what am I going to do?”
Once at the festival site, they made their way among the yellow-and-white-striped pavilions, now being jostled by the roaming populace. They walked toward the king’s pavilion, pausing to watch acrobats and jugglers, or to sample the treats of the vendors.
“Lady Esme! Lady Esme!” she heard a voice call out, and turned to see the two little princesses running to her. “We are so glad you came! Oh!” said Brianna breathlessly. “There is so much to see!”
“So much to see!” said Elena. “Come with us!”
“Do you want to watch us in a game?” asked Brianna.
“Oh, please,” cried Elena, “you must!”
“I would love to,” said Esme.
The girls were off again, quick as grasshoppers, darting toward a large ring of people gathered around a game of skittles.
“I am glad you changed your mind, Esme.” Bria fell into step beside her.
Esme dropped her gaze to her feet. “It was Chloe’s idea,” she said slowly. Bria heard the undertone of despair in her voice. “I must have gabbled like a fishwife last night.”
“What is a little gabbling between friends? I welcome your confidence. If you care to talk, I will listen.”
Esme did not speak again for a moment. The two women walked together in silence. “It is strange, is it not?” she said finally.
“Life.” Esme glanced at her friend and then turned away again quickly. “Only yesterday we had so much before us—so many bright hopes for the future, so many dreams, so much joy. Those were good days—”
“And will be again.”
“For others perhaps, but not for me. It seems my fate was cast from the beginning. I was never—”
“All were born for happiness, Esme. But you have seen much of pain and trouble, and it will take time to heal those inner wounds. You must not expect them to disappear in an evening.”
“I thought by coming here it would be different. But I have brought my trouble with me.”
“Then we shall do whatever can be done to free you—and you must also help.”
“I will try, Bria. I will try for your sake.”
“Not for me, dear friend. For yourself.”
The hunt moved through the thick-grown trails of Pelgrin Forest, and the wood rang with the voices of the hunters and the sounding of horns whenever beast was caught or trophy won. In a clearing, through which coursed a shining stream, Quentin and Durwin stopped to allow their horses to drink.
“Tired so soon?” asked Durwin. Other riders entered the meadows, also paused at the water, and then went on.
“I should return to the festival. My presence there will be required to judge the games.” He listened to the crash of horses and riders through the undergrowth, and felt the warm sun on his face. “It is a good hunt, eh?”
“So it is! I do not remember one better. But you go on; I will remain a little. I would like to see the young prince ride. It is a joy to watch him. I shall try to find them.”
Quentin turned Blazer and started back across the meadow; he waved to Durwin and galloped away.
Durwin struck off for the far side of the clearing, where a trail entered the wood. He knew the forest well, and had a hunch where he might find Toli and Gerin, for he had seen them pushing a southerly course just before he and the king had entered the meadow.
How long has it been since I have lived in the forest? he wondered. Ah, too long! I have forgotten how peaceful it is, and how fragrant and beautiful. Perhaps I should leave the castle and come back to my old home. But I am content to be where the king wants me.
These and other thoughts occupied his mind as he rode along the leaf-laden byways of the forest. The green shadows were cool; yellow sunlight struck through open patches in the leafy canopy, dappling the path with dancing light. Durwin savored the solitude of the wood and felt his heart soar like a hawk on an upward draft.
Just then the air shivered with a startled cry—a sudden, sharp yelp. It hung for a moment and then was cut off. The forest deadened the sound, muffling it so that Durwin could not discern the source. But it seemed to come from somewhere very close at hand.
He spurred his steed forward, heedless of the branches reaching out for him. There was another shout, closer this time.
Durwin threw the reins to the side, and the horse careered through the undergrowth. Nettles tore at his legs. He ducked branches and urged the horse to greater speed. He caught a fleeting glimpse of a horse rearing and dark shapes like shadows darting through the wood.
The next instant he was through the trees and pounding into a wider place in the trail. There before him he saw Toli and Prince Gerin on horseback, with three men in dark clothing around them. The men had short swords and were circling the riders, trying to get at them. Only Riv’s flashing hooves kept these assailants at bay.
Without thinking, Durwin loosed a shout and dashed forward. The men heard the whoop and turned to see a new threat bearing down on them. The circle broke as one of the foe turned to meet the hermit.
Before the man could raise his sword, Toli whirled Riv, and the warhorse’s shoulder knocked him to the ground. He yelled as he went down; his two companions bolted and ran, melding back into the forest.
The man on the ground looked up, fear twisting his begrimed features. He was bleeding from a cut lip. He spat once and then lunged between the horses, gaining his feet as he made for the trail’s edge. He dived into the brake and was gone.
“Who were they?” asked Durwin. He felt his heart racing in his chest.
“I do not know,” answered Toli. “We merely stopped here to choose a direction—they were on us in an instant.”
“Are you sound, young master?” the hermit asked.
Prince Gerin nodded slowly; his eyes showed white all around.
“What do you think they wanted?”
Toli squinted his eyes in the direction of the fleeing assailants. “That I mean to find out.” He glanced from the prince to Durwin quickly. “Stay with Durwin, young sir. He will look after you. I will be but a moment.”
The prince seemed about to protest, but shut his mouth and obeyed.
“Be careful, Toli. You have no weapons.”
“Return to the field at once,” ordered Toli. “I will meet you there directly.”With that he urged Riv forward into the undergrowth after the mysterious men.