Some wickedness is afoot,” said Durwin quietly. “I feel it. There is evil close about.”
Prince Gerin peered at the hermit closely. The boy set his jaw and stared ahead grimly. The act reminded Durwin of another who had faced trouble with the same silent resolve. How very like his father the young prince was.
They were riding back along the trail—the way Toli and the prince had come—when Durwin put out a hand and they stopped. “Listen!” he hissed. Both cocked their heads to one side. They heard a rustle in the bushes behind them along the path.
“Perhaps Toli is returning,” offered the prince.
Durwin felt the darkness around him increase. He could almost see it as a presence, feel its desperate strength. It occurred to him that he had encountered such a malignant force before, and in exactly the same way—a long time ago.
“We must run for it!” he whispered harshly. Gerin acted quickly and without question. With a snap of the reins, the two horses leaped away. They charged along the winding forest path toward the safety of the open plain. They had not run far before they met two men in the path ahead, wearing the same dark clothing as the others they had encountered. The men waved swords in front of the horses and shouted fiercely. The horses stopped and turned. Durwin pulled his mount around, and Gerin did the same, but as they made to retreat, two more ruffians stepped out onto the path behind them.
“There!” cried Durwin, pointing into the brush. He hesitated and allowed the prince to flash past and then darted after him.
But the pony became entangled in the undergrowth and went down. Prince Gerin yelped as he was pitched over his mount’s head to the ground, where he landed with a grunt.
“Hurry!” shouted Durwin. “Get back in the saddle! Hurry!”
The boy leaped back to his feet and grabbed at the dangling saddle even before the animal had regained its legs. “Ride!” shouted Durwin. “Ride!”
The hermit glanced down and saw hands reaching out for him. He slashed down with the reins and heard someone curse. He spurred his mount after the fleeing prince, but felt his arm caught and held. The horse jerked away, and Durwin was hauled from the saddle, struggling as he fell.
He landed on his back at the edge of the trail; there was a flash in the shadow, and he heard the air sing above his head. He squirmed and rolled to his knees and felt a sharp sting in his side. As he half-turned and threw himself backward toward the trail, he heard the rush of air through clenched teeth and saw the glancing light arc toward him. The blow caught him low in the back; his knees buckled, and he toppled onto the trail.
Durwin put his hand to his side and felt the warm wetness seeping through his clothes. When he brought his hand away, he saw it dripping red in the dimness of the forest. The wound burned now; flames spread through him from the throbbing pain just below the ribs. He tried to raise himself, but fell back—legs numb and unfeeling.
There was a quick movement beside him, a shout in the forest a little way off, and the thrashing of branches. He heard another shout farther away and then silence.
Time gathered itself into a ball, slowed, and hovered without moving. Durwin’s mind raced. He had been struck down by an unseen sword. Instead of finishing him, the attackers had gone after Prince Gerin. He must alert Toli, but how? He tried to call out, but the effort brought a flash of white-hot pain to his side. He coughed and spat. His spittle was flecked with blood.
The wound is bad, he told himself, but no matter. He lay back, panting. Toli must be summoned. The holy hermit of Pelgrin Forest closed his eyes and began to pray.
“God Most High, hear your servant in his time of need. Guide Toli here to save us. Bring him quickly before it is too late. Keep the prince safe, I pray. Keep him safe . . .”
Dark mist rolled over him, engulfing him, and slowly his lips stopped moving. He lay back in the soft, mossy turf of the forest pathway, an ugly red stain spreading slowly beneath him.
Quentin had reached the edge of Pelgrin and started back across the plain when he hesitated. Was that a cry he heard? He stopped rock still.
The air was calm and warm; light breezes waited idly, lifting the leaves and blades of grass around him. Nearby a skylark warbled a song to the sun.
But to Quentin it was as if the heavens had dimmed for an instant, as if a cloud had passed before the sun, blotting out its face for a brief moment. Then all was as before, except the king’s senses pricked and tingled to an unknown danger.
At once he turned Blazer back into the forest, sending his thoughts ahead to sift the wind for direction. He struck along a southerly path, sensing that the cry he imagined had come from that direction. The boles of trees, bands of light and shadow, blurred as Quentin flew along this dim corridor of Pelgrin. His heart thumped in his chest, and he urged Blazer onward ever faster, choosing his course on instinct alone.
Upon reaching a small clearing, he halted. A bundle lay ahead on the trail. Was that a body?
Quentin slid from the saddle and hurried forward. He knelt down and rolled the body into his arms.
The hermit’s face had gone as gray as ashes. His eyelids flickered, and he focused cloudy eyes on his friend. “Ah, Quentin . . .”
“What has happened? Who has done this to you?”
“The prince . . . your son. They have taken him . . .”
“Who? Here, let me help you—”
“No, no. Leave me. Find your son. They went through there.” He nodded his head weakly.
“Three or four. I did not see them clearly. Maybe more. Toli—ah!” Pain twisted his features; his limbs convulsed and then relaxed.
“Easy,” soothed Quentin. “We will find them. Rest now.” He struggled to remain calm.
“Yes, I will rest.” The hermit’s voice was thin, but his eyes looked deeply into Quentin’s. “We have traveled far together, eh?” He coughed, and his eyes squeezed shut.
“Yes, and we have many roads yet to ride.” Quentin held him tightly.
“You will ride them alone, I think. But I am content—I am not afraid to die.”
“You are not dying!” Quentin shouted desperately. Tears rose in his throat. “You will survive. Help is coming.”
“I fear it will come too late.” He gazed at Quentin again. “Do not blame Toli. It is not his fault.”
“I do not understand,” Quentin said.
“Be strong, Quentin. Remember, you are the king. You must lead your kingdom. This will be your sorest test, your darkest day.”
“No!” Quentin could see his friend was slipping away. “You will never die!”
“So it is! The spirit never dies . . . never. We will meet again, fair friend. I will wait for you. No pain, no fear . . .”
“Do not leave me!” cried Quentin.
A slight tremor passed through the hermit’s body, and then he lay still. His breath whispered away in a sigh. Durwin was dead.