Well, Tip,” the round little man said. “Here’s a comely spot to rest yer bones, eh? Or shall we walk a wee bit further?”
The dog looked at her master and wagged her tail.
“Oh, quite right, quite right. We’ve come fer enough today. No sense getting much away from the road. Quite right ye are.”With a clink and clatter, Pym the tinker began shaking off his burdens, loosening packs and sacks and strings of pots, pans, and tools, all of which he carried with him on his back.
But one package he placed carefully on the ground, propping it upright against a stone. His bright eyes glittered with glee, and he rubbed his hands with delight. “Now, Tipper, some firewood!” He clapped his hands. “Jest the thing, eh? Jest the thing. ’Twill be darking soon. First fetch the wood and the fire will follow, eh? Quite right.”
In no time the little tinker and his dog were curled before a cozy fire, drinking their soup, watching the stars come out in the sky as night settled peacefully over the land. Every now and then the man stole a look toward the slender, rag-wrapped package that he had propped up against the stone.
“See that, Tip? There’s our fortune,” he would say and then chuckle to himself.
When they had drunk their broth and sopped the last of it with hunks of dry black bread, the tinker reached for the bundle and laid it across his knees. “Lookee, Tip,” he said. “Old Pym has found our fortune. Yes, he has. I told ye he would. I told ye. Lookee, look!”
He carefully pulled the rags away with trembling fingers. And there revealed in the flickering firelight was a great sword: long and thin, tapering almost imperceptibly along its smooth, flawless length to a deadly point. The grip and hilt shone in the firelight as if cut from a gemstone.
“Sech a beauty, this ’un,” he said, his voice hushed in awe. “This are no common blade, no sir. Pym can tell, he can. I know a wee bit about swords, you see, and this ’un’s a royal blade if ivver I saw one. Yes, it is.” His fingers traced the fine markings along the blade, hardly daring to touch it. His eyes filled with wonder at the sight of the weapon.
The big black dog watched her master, head on paws, listening to the sound of his voice.
“Oh, yes,” he continued, “this blade’s a beauty. Nivver meant fer common hand. Some’un’ll give good gold fer this—a fortune, ye see. As much as ivver I ask. Why, Tip, we’uns’ll have enough to buy a little wagon. Oh, yes, and another sharping stone—a round ’un with a treadle foot ’twould be fine. I could sharp knives and shears and plowshares and . . . and anything that needs sharping. Ye know I could, Tip. Ye know it. Why, we’uns’d make our fortune!”
The tinker gazed at the sword happily, still not quite believing his good luck. Then a shudder went through him as he remembered how he had found the sword.
“A shame ’bout the body, Tip. Oh, terrible shame, that. But I had nothing to do with ’t—not a snip. Found him like that, you see. Come upon him in the road. Not long dead, I think.
“Ye saw him first, didn’t ye, Tip? Yes. When ye let out that growl, I knew something was amiss, didn’t I? Yes. Ye don’t growl without cause, and that were cause enough. Indeed. A man dead in the road. Terrible thing. Head cut near off, and this—this sword lying in the dust beside him.”
He took the sword in his hand and felt its quick strength. His face glowed with admiration. “Old Pym knows craftership when he see it. Yes, sir. Some’un’ll give good gold to get this back—as much as ivver I ask. Enough for a wagon and a sharping stone.”
A thought occurred to him. What if the one dead in the road was the owner? Who would give the gold then?
He frowned and turned the blade in the firelight, shaking his head. “That ’un nivver owned a blade like this,” he said at last. “No, sir. No one ivver did—but maybe a king.”
Another thought struck him, and his eyes grew round in fright. What if they think I stole it? What if they think it was Old Pym killed that man and took his sword?
“No! I nivver’d kill a man, nor take his blade. Old Pym’s a peaceable fellow. Every’un knows he is. ’Twas in the road. I found it there. How it got there, I cannot say.”
“But I must be careful now, oh yes. Very careful. There’s some as would steal this away from a poor old tinker. Then poor Old Pym would lose his fortune.” He stared woefully at his prize, and then his face brightened once more.
“We must hide it, Tip! That’s what we’uns’ll do—hide it! Wrap it up in rags and hide it somewhere so not a body can find it. We’uns’ll keep our eyes and ears open—look and listen, that’s right, and see what we can learn about this here sword. Yes, we’uns must hide it well, Tip. And so we will.”
Deep in the forest, night had become a black curtain that cut off all sight, save the occasional glimpse of the stars overhead through the interweaving branches. The moon had not yet risen, so the forest byways were difficult to follow. Prince Gerin, shuffling head down, exhausted by his long ordeal, longed to stretch out beneath a tree to rest, and let sleep steal from him the memory of this evil day.
“We will stop here to rest,” said Nimrood to the others. “We should have put them off the trail by now. We will not be found, but we must be careful not to be seen.”
The men were too tired to speak. They stood wearily on their feet and looked about them, wondering dully how the old man leading them found the strength to keep going. “Hate is what keeps him afoot,” whispered one guard to the other. “Look at him, old as he is, and still spry as ever. He’d walk all night.”
“He might, but I cannot,” answered the man next to him.
“You there!” snapped Nimrood. “Stop muttering and see to our prisoner. You will take turns guarding him. Remember, your heads are forfeit if he escapes.”
Prince Gerin heard only a part of what was said. The next thing he knew he was being half dragged, half shoved to a nearby tree, to be bound there with a cord for the night. He did not fight; he was too sleepy.
“There now,” said his guard. “Be good and give us no trouble, young sir. We do not wish to harm you, but you must not try to get away—that could be very painful indeed.”
Gerin only looked sleepily at the man, yawned, and lay back against the tree. In a moment he was sound asleep.
“Look at him,” said one guard, “not a care in the world.”
“He is the prince, by Ariel! No one would dare lift a hand against him,” answered his companion.
“Keep your voice down!” the other rasped. “Don’t let Longbeard hear you.”
“Ah, Longbeard. Now there’s a cold one. He is trouble—I said so from the start. Look what has happened: one dead, the prince kidnapped. This could bring down the temple.”
“Shh! He watches us! Remember, we are trying to save the temple.”
“This business is no good . . . no good at all . . . ,” the guard mumbled. He yawned and then settled himself to sleep.
The other sat down on a rock, chin in hand, to wait his watch. He glanced around at the others, already sleeping. Their snores droned softly into the night air. He rubbed his neck and shook his head as he felt the weariness engulf him. Yes, he thought, Ervis is right. This is a bad business. It could well bring the temple tumbling down about our ears. But I am not to blame. I only do what I am told. The high priest himself ordered it. What choice did I have?
He pulled his cloak around him and folded his arms over his chest; his head nodded, and soon he was sleeping like all the rest.
Quentin’s eyes burned, and his back ached; he had been in the saddle all day and was not accustomed to it. He could feel his sore muscles stiffening as the chill of night seeped into his bones. Ignoring his body’s pleas to stop and rest, he pulled his short cloak more tightly around him and plodded on.
The trail had grown too dark to see hours ago, but still he traveled on, hoping by some miracle that he would stumble across the kidnappers. Knowing that his son was still out there somewhere in the dark, frightened, held prisoner—that thought alone kept him going.
Heartsick, numb with misery and despair, Quentin wanted only to throw himself to the ground to weep at his misfortune. A few short hours ago he had walked in the light, his realm secure, the future a bright promise. Now there was only darkness. In the space of half a day he had lost his son, his trusted friend, and—worst of all—the favor of the Most High. His mind reeled at the enormity of his trouble; his heart ached with sorrow; his body throbbed with grief and exhaustion.
How was it possible? How could it happen so quickly? Why was there no warning, no hint at what was to befall him? He could only shake his head in mute wonder.
For an instant he imagined that all he need do was turn Blazer back toward home and all would be well once more. Upon reaching Askelon he would find Durwin alive and the prince safe in his bed. His sword would be found in his chambers, lying across its hangers below the royal device—the flame intact, the god still with him.
But it was a dream, and the grim reality remained unchanged. Hoping against hope, Quentin determined that somehow he would make everything right again. He could do it; he was the Dragon King. He would make it right. With that, he urged Blazer forward. The horse, head down, ambled on.