Silently the women entered the glade—little more than a wide place in the trail. Esme swung down from her horse and Bria from hers. Lord Bossit halted the small, two-wheeled wagon that carried the bier. The wooden wheels creaked to a stop, the only sound heard in the place.
“Oh,” gasped Bria as she beheld the beloved hermit. She walked slowly but steadily forward and knelt beside the body. Quietly her tears began to fall.
Esme approached and put an arm around the queen’s shoulders.
“Good-bye, fair friend,” whispered Bria. Her outstretched fingers touched Durwin’s folded hands, now cold. She then turned to Lord Bossit, who stood reverently nearby. “My mother is waiting,” she said. “Let us take him back.”
Bossit nodded to the driver of the wagon, and the two men lifted the body onto the waiting bier.
When told of the tragedy, Alinea had said nothing, though her hands had trembled. When she had spoken, her voice was soft, yet steady; she had already mastered her grief, or had put it aside for the moment.
“Yes,” she had said, “you must go at once and bring him back. Take him to his apartments. We will prepare the body there. I will await your return, and while I wait I shall pray—for Prince Gerin, yes, but no less for Quentin and for the rest of us. Now go, and may the Most High be with you.”
Esme had marveled at the dowager’s quiet strength; her bearing calmed those around her, removing much of the sting of the bitter news. Esme recalled another dark day long ago now, the day Eskevar had fallen in battle. Days after the king’s funeral, Esme had asked the queen how she had been able to remain so strong, comforting all around her, yet seeming never to require comfort herself.
“No, I am not strong,” Alinea had told her. They were sitting in the garden among the primroses. Durwin was there, too. He had been the queen’s constant companion during those troubled days. “Though it is true I am no stranger to grief, one never becomes a friend to sorrow. But Durwin here has shown me the way of hope. This hope I carry within me makes the burden lighter, and I find I am able to help others who have not such hope.”
“Then tell me, my lady, for I would know. How can I obtain this hope of yours? Where is it to be found?” Esme had asked. She still remembered Alinea’s words.
And she remembered Durwin’s too. “The hope you seek is born of belief in the Most High, the One True God of all,” he had told her. “Seek him and you will find him. He is ever reaching out to those who truly desire to know him.”
“What must I do? Where is his temple?”
Durwin laughed. “He is not like other gods. He has no temple, and does not accept gifts of silver or gold, or sacrifices of helpless creatures.”
“No?” This she found most puzzling.
“No,” laughed Durwin again. “He wants you. All of you: your heart and spirit. He wants your love and worship, everything—he will not settle for less.”
“This is a demanding god you serve, hermit.”
“Yes, he is as you say—demanding. But the blessing he bestows on all who come near him is beyond all price. It is life he gives, and nothing less.”
Esme wondered at the words at the time. They sounded strange to her, and so unlike anything she had ever heard from any priest. She remembered how her heart had tugged within her as the hermit spoke. Ah, she thought, but I was younger then. So young. Still, I wanted to believe what Durwin said was true. Is wanting to believe the same as believing? Yet, the time passed, and I thought no more about it, until now. Why now? Is it too late?
Esme came out of her reverie and found Bria’s eyes upon her. “You are lost in thought,” said Bria. They had reached the edge of the forest and were staring across the plain. Askelon shone clearly in the light of the westering sun, throwing a great shadow toward them.
“I was thinking of another sad time,” replied Esme. “Of Eskevar’s passing.”
“Often I have thought of that dark day. When Gerin was born, how I wished he was there to see his grandson. It would have made him proud, I know. Yes, and no less proud to see his granddaughters.” Her features twisted in anguish. “Oh, Esme! My son is taken from me! What am I going to do?”
“The king is searching for him, and Toli brings help. They will find him. They will bring him back safely.”
“He is so young. I am afraid they will . . .” She could not bring herself to complete the thought.
“Do not think it! No one would dare harm the prince. No one. He will be safe.” Esme forced a smile. “You would not be a true mother if you did not worry after your son. But Quentin will find him.”
Bria nodded. After a time she said, “I am happy you are here, Esme. I will need a good friend in the days to come.”
“I am your friend always.”
They rode the rest of the way to the castle in silence, each wrapped in her own thoughts, but feeling the warmth of the other’s presence.
Quentin blinked his eyes in amazement at the sword in his hand. One fell thrust and the fire of the white lanthanil blade had been quenched. The awful significance of what had happened struck him like a thunderbolt. And he heard once more the words spoken at the anointing of the sword:
Never in malice, never in hate, never in evil shall this blade be raised. But in righteousness and justice forever shall it shine.
That was the promise of the Shining One, and he, in one flash of anger and hate, had broken that vow. And in breaking it, the hand of the Most High was removed from him. The magnitude of his crime overwhelmed him.
“No!” he cried. His own voice rang hollow in his ears, condemning him.
The strength seeped out of his arm, and he let go of the sword. The blade spun from his hand and fell to the dust of the road, not a pace from the body of the wretch he had cut down.
Murderer! The voice of the dead man screamed at him. Murderer! Then the forest rang with accusing voices. The king is a murderer! He has broken his trust! Murderer! Where is your Most High now? Murderer!
Quentin clamped his hands over his ears to stop the voices, but they had gotten inside his head. He could not shut them out. In horror he gazed at the Shining One, now lying in the dust, and at the crumpled body beside it. His stomach churned and heaved with revulsion; a spasm rocked him backward in the saddle.
“No!” he screamed once more, a cry of utter despair. “No!”
Then he turned Blazer, sank his spurs deep into the horse’s flanks, and fled down the road.
“What is that?” Sir Galen raised his hand toward an object in the trail ahead.
Toli looked up quickly. They were stopped at the stream, allowing their horses a quick drink before moving on. His eyes narrowed as he turned his gaze toward where the knight pointed.
Toli’s eagle-sharp vision recognized the shapeless form as vaguely human. “It is a body,” he said, climbing into the saddle.
When the others reached the spot, Toli was already stooping over the corpse. Toli turned it over, and the head lolled obscenely; it was nearly severed from the shoulders. The man’s shattered sword lay in pieces beneath him.
“Someone wanted this one dead,” remarked Lord Galen, “to strike such a blow.”
“Who could have done it?” wondered Sir Dareth. “There are no robbers abroad in this forest, surely.”
“Highwaymen would not have set upon such as this. See how he is dressed?” replied Sir Hedric. “Perhaps there was a falling out among thieves.”
“Or kidnappers,” said Toli slowly. “Yes, I would swear this was one I dealt with in the forest earlier this day. Or another of their company.”
“But to strike him down in the road—why?” Sir Dareth shook his head. “It makes no sense. They must have known we would find him.”
Toli made a quick search of the immediate area, sifting among the confused tracks in the dust for a clue to what had happened. But he gleaned little for his efforts. There were far too many prints—it was impossible to tell how many men had passed, or who among them had horses and who were afoot. Still, he counted tracks of at least two horses, and one rider had apparently been involved in the fight that had ended the kidnapper’s life.
“I believe,” said Toli, “the king might have passed this way.”
“You think this unfortunate attacked the king?” asked Lord Galen incredulously. “It was ill advised, though there must have been a reason.”
Toli nodded thoughtfully and cast a glance skyward. The sun stretched long shadows across the road. “We must bury him quickly. We are already losing light. I want to follow the trail as long as possible.”
At Toli’s command, the knights began hacking a shallow grave in the brush at the side of the road, using their swords for the task. Toli and Lord Galen examined the victim’s clothing for any clue of who he might have been, or where he might have come from.
When the corpse had been disposed of, the four set off again, though the sun was well down, and the first of the evening stars winked overhead. A chill seeped out of the wood as the sky deepened to twilight, but the riders pressed on, heedless of their fatigue or the hunger beginning to gnaw just behind their belt buckles.
I am certain Quentin was back there, thought Toli as he rode along. I can sense it. But there was something else, too. Something very powerful—more than the death of that unfortunate would account for. But what? What could it be?