Fools! Imbeciles!” Nimrood raged. “What have you done?” He whirled around the circle, thrusting a crooked finger into the grim faces before him. “You will pay for this with your lives.”
“We only did as you told us,” said the leader of the temple guards. “How were we to know he would leave the prince? They were together.”
“Silence! Let me think!” He stopped to glare down at Prince Gerin, who stared back defiantly. “I send you out to strike down a man, and you bring me a boy.”
“He’s the prince, I say!” maintained the man.
“Is this true?” asked Nimrood. His eyes bored into the lad. “What is your name?”
“Gerin,” he replied steadily. “Who are you?”
“Impudent cub!” The old man reached out and cuffed the boy, leaving a red welt on his cheek.
“My father will deal with you,” said the prince. “Let me go.”
“No,” said Nimrood slowly as an idea took shape in his mind. “Here is an opportunity I can turn to advantage.” He smiled cannily. “Oh, yes indeed.” He chuckled to himself and then snapped, “Bring him!”
They started off on foot, threading deeper into the forest. Two big men shoved the prince forward. When he fell on hands and knees, they hauled him up by his collar and shoved him forward again. Another guard seized Tarky’s reins and led the animal away.
“You two!” Nimrood said, pointing to the two behind. “Stay well to the rear of us. If anyone comes after, put them off the trail. Do you hear?”
The two men looked worriedly at each other, but nodded and dropped behind. Soon Nimrood, the prince, and the others were lost in the dense growth of forest. The two guards watched their comrades disappear. One muttered to the other, “I do not like this fool business. Not a whit, by Ariel! We are guards of the temple, but he has made us highwaymen and kidnappers!”
“I did not hear your voice oppose him,” the other replied nastily. “We are in it now and have no choice but to see it through.”
“Aye, but where is it going to lead in the end? That is what I want to know. There is death here—mark my words. Death. This will be the undoing of the temple.”
“Silence! There is enough to worry about as it is. If we are to get out of this with our skins, we need to keep sharp and stop mewling like sick cats.”
“He has taken the prince! By Ariel—”
“Shut up! We are in this as deep as he. No sense in yammering on about it. Come on, let’s be about our business.”
The two walked off in the direction the others had gone, listening nervously to the forest sounds, hoping against hope that no one would come after them.
Toli entered the trail and proceeded to the clearing. Before he even saw the huddled forms upon the ground, he knew something was very wrong. His heart jerked within him, quickening to the terrible apprehension that overpowered him.
He threw himself down from his horse and ran toward the place where Quentin held the body of Durwin in his arms.
“My lord! Oh!” He stopped short and knelt, knowing now what had happened.
Quentin raised his head slowly. His face glistened with tears. “Durwin is dead,” he said softly. “Dead. Toli, I . . .” His voice trailed off, and he clutched the body to him again, his shoulders shaking with the sobs that racked him.
Toli felt as if his heart had been cut in two. He sat back on his heels and raised his face to the sky, showing pale blue overhead through the trees. In a moment the quiet green glade hummed with a gentle sound as Toli raised the ancient Jher song for the dead.
Whinoek brea faro
Fallei sensi nessina wea.
The words were simple, and Quentin understood them. Toli sang, “Father of Life, receive our brother. Grant him peace in your great home.”
To the Jher people, who had no permanent home, roaming the northern forests as they did, Whinoek’s great home meant eternal joy and safety and comfort—and peace, which to the gentle Jher was the highest fulfillment.
After a time the song stopped, fading softly away on the air. Quentin lowered the body of the hermit carefully to the ground and, with Toli, arranged the limbs. He brushed a strand of hair away from the broad face of the man he had loved, and kissed the high forehead gently. Then he rose slowly.
“They will curse the day of their birth,” he murmured. “I am going after them.”
“No, let me, I—”
“I am going. Ride to the castle. Bring a bier for him, and take him back. I will join you there when I have found my son.”
“But—,” objected Toli. He stood and approached the king.
“That is all,” Quentin cut him off coldly. “You will do as I say. When you have finished, bring a company of knights and come after me if I have not yet returned.”
“What are you going to do, Sire?” Toli was frightened by the look in Quentin’s eyes.
“I am going to bring back the prince.” With that, he turned away and strode to where Blazer waited patiently. Snatching up the reins, he swung himself into the saddle, then glanced back once more at the body of the hermit on the ground. “Good-bye, old friend,” he said simply, raising a hand slowly in final salute. Then he was gone.
“What can be taking them so long?” wondered Bria aloud. “They should have returned long ago.”
Esme, sitting next to the queen in the royal pavilion, craned her neck and gazed toward the forest. “I do not see anyone coming. But you know men and their hunting. I would not wonder but that they became caught up in the chase and have forgotten everything else.”
“You are right. I am certain that is what has happened.” She spoke the words, but in her heart she was far from convinced. Bria turned her eyes once more to the costumed mummers performing before her. The bright disguises glittered in the sun, and the two young princesses giggled at the pantomime, clapping their hands with glee. Bria tried to maintain interest in the performance, but once and again her eyes stole back across the plain toward the forest, watching for the return of Quentin, Durwin, and the others. But she saw no sign of anyone, so at last forced herself to concentrate on the play.
“Look!” Esme whispered urgently. “A rider!”
The queen raised her eyes and looked where Esme was pointing. She could just make out the form of one rider approaching from across the plain.
“Oh! Only one!” An arrow of dread pierced her heart. “Something has happened!”
“We cannot be certain,” Esme said lightly. “Let us wait until we have heard what he has to say. Perhaps it is only a messenger on his way to tell us the king will be late—which we already know.” She laughed, but there was no happiness in her voice.
“Who is it? Can you see?” Bria stood.
“No, not yet.”
They waited. Tension drew taut as a bowstring.
Queen Bria crumpled the front of her gown in her hands as the rider drew closer.
“It is Toli!” cried Esme.
“Yes, I can see him now!” Bria stepped down from her chair. “Come. I cannot abide here another moment. Stay here with Chloe,” she told her daughters. “I will return in a moment.”
“I will look after them, my lady,” answered Chloe.
The two women dashed onto the field, scattering the actors, who parted to let them pass and then continued once more with their performance.
They met Toli at the edge of the festivities. “What is it?” asked the queen, her intuition already answering the worst.
Toli turned grave eyes on her. He did not look at Esme. Bria felt a thin blade of terror slide under her ribs. “The king—,” she whispered. “Not the king.”
Toli took the queen’s hand. “My lady, the king is well,” he said softly, searching her eyes, hoping to find further words there.
“Yes, continue,” said Bria. She stared steadily back.
“Durwin is dead.”
“How?” Bria gasped.
“They were set upon by kidnappers in the forest. He died protecting the prince.”
“And the prince? He is safe?” said Esme.
“Gone. The prince has been taken—”
“No!” murmured Bria. The clattering, noisy din around them faded, and she had the sensation of the world blurring before her as she staggered beneath the force of a killing blow.
“Where is the king?” asked Esme, fighting to keep her voice under control.
“He was with Durwin when I found him. He has gone after the prince.” He glanced briefly at Esme, as if noticing her for the first time. “I am to fetch a bier and bring Durwin to the castle, then return with a complement of knights to follow the king.”
“We will see to the bier,” said Esme. “You must go at once and assemble the knights as the king has ordered. Do not delay!”
Toli hesitated. Those had not been the king’s instructions.
Bria came to herself. “Yes, I agree. You must not waste a moment. Go now.” Bria placed a hand on his arm. “Please hurry.”
Toli still hesitated. “I should have been there,” he said. “I should have never left them alone.”
“No,” said Esme. “There is no time. What is done is done.”
“Go. He will need you with him,” Bria added.
“Very well. You will find Durwin in a glade along the southern trail. I will send someone to lead you.” Toli bowed his head, and then he was back in the saddle, racing once more for the forest, where he would find the knights he sought, for most were taking part in the hunt.
Bria turned to her friend. She tried to speak, but no words would come.
Esme put an arm around her shoulders. “Come. There is much to do. We have work to occupy us while we wait. And we must pray the wait is not long.”
“Yes, we must pray for Quentin and Gerin. They will need our prayers this day.”