Toli reached Pelgrin and struck out along the foremost trail leading into the heart of the forest. The hunt had moved deeply into the wood and scattered widely. He would have to keep a sharp eye for signs along the trail, and listen for any sounds of nearby hunters. He came to a place where a small stream trickled among the great trunks of ancient oaks. Along the low banks he saw the imprints of horses’ hooves where several had stopped to drink before pressing on. Without a second thought he leaped across the stream and into the forest after them.
Soon he was rewarded with the blast from a horn. The long, ringing note was sounded from far off, but the tone lingered in the air and gave Toli all the direction he needed. Alert to the minute signs of the hunters’ passing, Toli followed the party unerringly through the thick, woody tangle. Riv charged through the undergrowth, head down and ears laid back. The horse, so responsive to his master’s subtlest commands, passed like a glimmering shade between trees and outstretched branches.
And then, a little way ahead, Toli heard voices. He slapped Riv on the rump once more, and they jumped a fallen log, landing square in the center of a well-used path.
“Ho there!” one of the men cried when he saw Toli. “Toli! Look here!” The others with him looked up from their work. They were a party of four—Lords Galen and Bossit, Sir Hedric and Sir Dareth—and they were gutting a boar they had just killed. Toli thanked the Most High that these able and brave men were the first he met in his search for assistance.
“Lord Galen—good sirs . . . ,” Toli greeted them. He reined Riv to a halt, and the horse snorted loudly. The others saw the steed’s white-lathered flanks and shoulders and knew Toli had come on an errand of some urgency. “My lord, what is it?” asked Lord Bossit. A look of concern clouded his features.
“The king’s minister has been struck down, and the prince kidnapped,” said Toli, his breath coming hard from his ride.
“By the gods!” exploded Sir Hedric, jumping to his feet.
Toli took a deep breath. “We were set upon by assassins in the wood not far from here—only a short while ago. I went after them, but they doubled back and attacked the prince. Durwin fell protecting him.”
“The hermit dead? The heir gone?” They looked grimly at one another.
Toli continued, “Mount up at once and come with me. We ride to meet the king, who is pursuing them.”
“By Zoar, these rogues will pay for this outrage!” vowed Lord Galen. “We are at your command, sir!”
With that the knights abandoned their kill, mounted their horses, and fell into line behind Toli, who led them toward the place where he had encountered the attackers. They made their way as quickly as they could and at last reached the glade.
It was quiet and cool in the shaded clearing. A number of tiny yellow butterflies flitted among the leaves, darting in and out of the falling beams of light that slanted in through the trees. A hermit thrush sang in the high treetops—a clear, sparkling, liquid sound, pure and sweet.
Durwin still lay where they had left him, so still and peaceful he might have merely dozed off for a nap. No one spoke at first, overcome with the strangeness of the scene before them.
The hermit lay dead, and yet seemed in such perfect peace that those who looked upon him could but stare in awe. His presence was strong in the place; each one felt it as if he had touched them.
“Someone should stay with him,” said Lord Bossit. “I will.”
“No,” replied Toli quietly. “He is safe here in the forest. Nothing can harm him now. Go back to the castle and lead the others here. The queen is bringing a bier. See that all is attended to.”
“As you say, my lord.” He left at once.
“The king rode to the south,” said Toli. He turned Riv and took up the trail. The other knights followed without a word.
Quentin combed a wide swath through the forest, working first this way for half a league or more, and then cutting back the other way. But for all his care and vigilance, he failed to uncover any sign of the fleeing assassins.
Still he pushed on, bending ever southward, with a feeling that this was the direction the abductors had chosen, though he knew they might well have taken another. The forest was huge; to cover it all would take scores of men and many months of diligent searching. As he rode, Quentin fought down the growing sense of futility and desperation that swelled within him, building up inside like a vile black broth set to the fire.
He paused periodically to listen but detected only the normal, sleepy sounds of the wood. He went on.
Then, quite without warning, Blazer stumbled down a short, steep bank of a hill, and Quentin found himself on the well-used southern road that led to Hinsenby and then bent southwest along the coast. He sat still in the saddle for a moment, scanning the road both ways. When nothing out of the ordinary presented itself to his gaze, he turned once more southward and continued on.
After riding a little way he came to a dell where the road dipped to meet a stony-banked stream. Here he found his first clue, for in the dust of the road at the banks of the stream were a number of footprints, and the hoofprints of a horse.
Whoever made those prints had emerged from the forest at this point, having followed the stream until it met the road. Across the stream the tracks led off down the way. Blazer splashed across the water, and Quentin leaned low in the saddle to examine the marks. It was difficult to tell anything for certain from these prints, for there were others all along the road.
The hunt! thought Quentin. How dull I am. These and all the rest were made by people on their way to the festival. At once his hope, so quickly born, died and shrank away. But not entirely. Of all the various tracks in the dust, only a few were leading southward. All the others pointed toward the north and Askelon.
Seizing this meager scrap of evidence, Quentin once again urged the sturdy Blazer onward. The steed flew over the wide road, and the king searched along its length for any trace of his son’s passing.
“Listen!” said one temple guard to the other. “Someone comes.”
Both stopped and peered back behind them; on the road they could hear the tinkling jingle of tiny bells—such as a horse would wear on its tack.
“You get off the road. If they stop, draw sword and be ready,” said the first.
“But—,” protested the other. His hands trembled as they touched the weapon concealed beneath his cloak at his side.
“Quickly! I will stay here and try to put them astray.”
“Why were we chosen for this cursed task?” grumbled the other.
“Do as I say! Hurry! They are almost upon us!”
The frightened guard threw a dark look at his comrade, and then disappeared into the undergrowth at the side of the road. In a moment the first could see horse and rider approaching rapidly.
“You there!” shouted Quentin when he came. The nervous accomplice turned and stood blinking at him, pretending to be unsure as to whether it was he who had been addressed. Then his eye caught sight of the wrought gold clasp that secured the rider’s cloak—a terrible, twisting dragon, the royal blazon.
A shiver ran through the man as Quentin was recognized; color drained from his face.
“So you know your king when you see him, do you?”
The man licked his lips and said, “I am at your service, Sire.” His eyes shifted unsteadily.
“How long have you been on this road?” demanded Quentin.
“Well, we—that is, I . . . not long . . . I mean—”
“Where are you bound?”
“To Hinsenby, Sire.”
“Are you alone?” Quentin watched the man struggle under his questions.
“Yes, Lord.” The man’s eyes shifted again.
“Have you seen anyone on the way?”
The man thought for a moment and then said, “Yes, I did. Only a short while ago it was. Back there—back by the stream. A group of travelers. Merchants, I think.”
“Five, six maybe. Not more. They were bound for Askelon, I would warrant.”
Quentin turned in the saddle and looked behind them. No, the prints had pointed the other way. Then he saw the tracks leading away from the road. He turned back to the man just in time to see him glance to the side and then quickly back.
“Merchants, you said?”
“Sire, I believe they were.”
“And are you a merchant, too?” asked the king suspiciously.
“I am”—the man hesitated—“a pilgrim, Sire.”
“They were going to Askelon, you say? Was there a boy with them, a boy on horseback?”
The supposed pilgrim opened his mouth, but the words stuck on his tongue.
“Answer quickly, friend! I find your manner most peculiar.”
The traveler flushed. “No, there was no boy with them. I saw none, at least.”
“Liar!” shouted Quentin, scowling furiously. “In truth I saw the hoofprints at the water, and they continue this way.”
The temple guard stared at the king sullenly and said nothing.
“It is no small thing to lie to your king,” continued Quentin in a voice strained but in control. “I will give you one more chance. Where did they go?”
“I know not, Sire. Please . . . it is not—”
“Are you in league with them?” shouted Quentin. “Answer me!”
Just then there was a rustle in the bushes at the side of the road. Quentin whirled around as another man, dressed like the first, in dark tunic and long cloak despite the heat of the day, leaped from his hiding place, sword in hand. The second man lunged clumsily forward, eyes showing terror. “Strike!” cried this attacker. Quentin turned to see a blade appear in the first pilgrim’s hand as well.
Zhaligkeer sang as it slid from the sheath; the long blade shone forth with cool brilliance from its fierce inner fire. Quentin swung the mighty sword overhead. “You! You killed Durwin!” he cried.
The two men saw the terrible sword and fell back with a startled cry.
“Murderers!” shouted Quentin. “Cowards!”
“Mercy!” cried the first assailant. “Mercy . . . I beg you!”
Rage like molten metal seared through Quentin’s mind; its wild fury rushed through him with blinding force. “I will show you mercy,” he cried. “The mercy you showed Durwin!”
Before the man could turn and flee, the Shining One whispered in the air and flashed in a deadly downward arc. The would-be assassin quickly lifted his blade above his head to take the blow, but the sword shattered in his hand, and the pieces fell to earth. He shrieked and fell to his knees, the sound of certain death whistling after him.
“Mercy!” he screamed. “Forgive me!” Bright Zhaligkeer filled his horror-stricken eyes with its unearthly light, and he threw his hands over his face. The stroke caught him at the base of the neck, cutting short his last cry of remorse. The man pitched forward into the road, dead when he met the ground.
A thin crimson ribbon trickled along Zhaligkeer’s blade. Quentin swiveled in the saddle to meet the second villain, who threw down his weapon and dived headlong into the brush, disappearing into the forest.
The rage which had burned so hot in Quentin’s veins left him as suddenly as it had flared. The king stared at the misshapen heap in the dust, then at the sword in his hand, and his heart froze in his chest. Zhaligkeer’s fiery blade now appeared as any ordinary metal, glimmering darkly in the fading light of late afternoon.
The bright white flame of the Shining One had gone out.