They are here, my lady; they have come.” The maid approached quietly, lest she disturb her queen’s vigil.
“What? Quentin is back? He has returned?” She jumped up, a brief light leaping to her green eyes. Then she saw the look the maid gave her, and the light dimmed. “Oh.”
“No, the king has not returned.” She shook her head, then added, “But Lords Theido and Ronsard are here. They are waiting in the hall.”
Queen Bria left at once and went down to meet her old friends.
“My lady!” said Ronsard when he saw her approaching from across the great room. They were the only ones in it except for a few servants readying the tables for breakfast, which would be served within the hour. “How lovely you look!” said the knight, smiling warmly.
“Just as I remember your mother,” added Theido. “How is Alinea?”
“Theido, Ronsard, I am glad you are here at last. Forgive me for pulling you from your warm beds at this early hour. My mother is well. I am certain she will wish to receive you soon, but I would speak to you first.”
Theido saw the dark shadows behind her smile and knew that the queen had summoned them on a matter of great urgency. “Perhaps this is not the place to discuss important things,” he said. “A more private chamber would be better.”
“Yes,” Bria agreed, “follow me.” She led them out of the hall and along the wide corridor to a small room, a council room that contained a heavy table with benches on either side, and a grouping of high-backed chairs in a farther corner. The three entered, closed the door quietly, and took their seats facing one another.
“Now then,” said Theido gently, “what has happened?”
Bria looked from one to the other of the two knights—men she had known all her life. Trusted friends of her parents, they had served the Dragon King’s throne numerous times and stood always ready to serve again. Their stalwart devotion and her own need overwhelmed her, and she broke down and cried.
“I hardly know where to begin,” she said, the tears streaming from her eyes.
The two glanced at each other helplessly, both feeling the depths of her sorrow.
“The words come hard, good sirs.” She sniffed and willed herself to stop the tears. The knights waited for her to continue. “Durwin is dead,” she said at last.
“By the gods, no!” said Ronsard. “Say it isn’t so!”
Theido held up his hand. Bria continued, “And my son has been taken.”
“When did this happen?” asked Theido. “And how was it accomplished?”
His stern tone helped Bria to calm herself. She began to speak more easily. “Yesterday, during the hunt. The prince was to ride in the hunt— he was so proud; it was his first. Toli rode with him. Quentin and Durwin went along, but were to return to join the festival after leading the hunt.” She sniffed again, but kept her voice steady. “The king was a long time returning; we thought he had taken up the hunt as well. Then Toli came and . . . he told us what had happened . . . Oh . . .” She paused, gathered her strength, and continued. “They were attacked and fought off their assailants. Toli followed, but lost the trail. When he rejoined Durwin and Gerin they . . . Durwin was dead and the prince gone. Quentin sent Toli for help. That was yesterday. I have not seen them since.”
Theido did not speak, but his dark eyes and the scowl on his face showed what he was thinking.
Ronsard smashed a clenched fist into the arm of his chair. “Who would dare such a thing? It is an outrage!”
“We must organize a search at once, though—I will be frank—too much time has passed already. If the kidnappers were on horseback, they could have ridden far.”
“Still,” put in Ronsard, “if ransom is their game, they may not have gone far at all. Indeed, they may be close at hand.”
Theido nodded sharply. “Yes, yes. There is something in what you say. But we must hurry in any case. My lady, in the absence of the king, will you give us the authority to command a body of knights?”
“Anything you require.”
“Good,” said Ronsard. “I know those well who served under me. We can start there.”
“Go,” Theido told him. “Roust them out, and see that they are outfitted for the trail. I will follow directly.”
Ronsard stood and gave a little bow to the queen. He smiled stiffly and said, “Take courage, my lady. We will find the boy.” He strode out of the room and was gone.
“Is there anything else you can tell us?” Theido asked Bria.
“I know so little. No . . . I have told you all I know. Toli could tell you more, but he is gone. Lord Bossit might know something.” She reached out and took Theido’s hand. “Find him, good friend. Save my child, as once you saved my father.”
Theido pressed her hand, and she felt his confidence flowing into her in that touch. “One way or another we will find him, I know it. I do not know how long it may take, but we will rescue him unharmed. You may believe it; you must believe it.”
“I do believe, and I pray that it is so,” she said.
“Yes, pray. Your mother has taught me the power of women’s prayers. The god, I think, does listen most intently to a woman’s heart.”
“Then he has heard mine through the night.” She bent her head. “Oh, Theido, if anything happens to him I do not th—”
“We will bring him back hale and whole,” he soothed. “You will see.” He stood slowly. “I must go now and find Lord Bossit. The sooner we make a start, the better.”
“Yes, go. And Theido . . . thank you for coming. You have no idea what it means to me.”
“Would that it were a happier time, my lady. But these days shall pass quickly, and all will be right again.” The lanky knight dipped his head to her and went out.
In the last hours of the night, when all the earth was still and waiting for the new day, Quentin had stopped along the road to rest and had fallen asleep beneath a larch tree, his cloak spread over him. Sleep offered no release or comfort; fitful, troubled was his rest, broken by dreams of futile chases and violent clashes with an unseen enemy. There descended upon him a helpless, hopeless feeling of dread and loss that pierced his heart as cruelly as any poisoned dagger, and though he slept he ached with the pain.
He awoke more wrung out than when he lay down, and rose wearily, stiff from his hard bed among the roots of the tree. In the raw, red light of dawn, Quentin rubbed his burning eyes and set about saddling Blazer once more.
“Quentin!” The king turned his eyes to the shout and peered into the dimness of the forest trail. The sun was not yet fully up, and the shadows still lay heavy along the road, but he perceived the forms of riders approaching some way off. He waited, then recognized Toli riding toward him out of the gloom.
“Sire, at last we have found you.” The Jher’s features bore the traces of a sleepless night, but his eyes were as sharp and quick as ever.
“Have you seen anything?” asked Quentin.
“No, my lord. Nothing, that is, except the body of an unfortunate lying in the road.” Toli’s eyes examined Quentin carefully.
“Yes,” said Quentin flatly. He turned away and put his foot in the stirrup, climbing back into the saddle. “I saw him too.”
Toli did not pursue the matter further, thinking it better to leave it for now. The others joined them, longing for an opportunity to dismount and stretch aching muscles. No one spoke directly to the king. His woeful countenance stilled their tongues.
Only Toli had the temerity to draw him aside to speak openly. “What would you have us do, Kenta?” He used the affectionate name of years past.
“Find my son!” Quentin snapped, his mood raw as the new morning.
Toli wisely ignored the remark. “We should return to the castle for more men; we could cover more ground that way. We need fresh horses and supplies.”
“Do what you will,” replied the king. His jaw was set. “I will continue the search alone.”
“Where will you go?”
“Why south? They could easily have turned off the trail anywhere. In the night we would have missed the track.”
“What else am I to do?” shouted Quentin. The others looked at him. He lowered his voice. “I have no better choice.”
“Return with us to Askelon. We will send messengers out to all the towns and villages to watch for the brigands. We can—”
“My son has been taken, Toli!” Quentin gestured wildly to the great forest. “I will not return until he is found. I cannot return until he is safe.”
Toli searched the face of the one he knew so well, and yet, at this moment, seemed not to know at all. Something has changed my Kenta, he thought. This is not like him at all. Durwin’s death and the abduction of his son had tormented him, twisted him. Yes, but there was something more. Then he saw it—the empty scabbard at Quentin’s side. At once he understood.
“Come back with us, Kenta,” he said softly. “Yesterday we had a chance of finding them quickly. But now . . . now they have had enough time to cover their trail, to double back—who knows where they may be by now? To find them we will need help, and a leader. You are the king. Who will lead if you will not?”
“Anyone!” snapped Quentin. “Anyone better than I. You lead the search, Toli!” The king’s eyes burned savagely; his mouth contorted into a snarl of hate. “Durwin’s blood is on your head, as is my son’s if anything happens to him. They would be safe now if you had not left them alone. You are to blame for this—it is your fault!”
Toli, speechless, stared at his king and friend. Never had Quentin raised his voice toward him; never had he shown anger toward him. But then, he reflected, the king was right. It is my fault; I am to blame. I should never have left them alone and in danger like that. I am to blame.
“I am sorry,” Toli started. “Sorry—”
“Find my son!” shouted Quentin, his voice shrill. “Find him, or never let me set eyes on you again!”
With that, the Dragon King slashed the reins across the stallion’s white neck and wheeled him around. Blazer tossed his handsome white head, and Quentin glared at Toli. “Find him,” he said softly, his tone a threat. “Just find him.”
Toli stood in the road and watched his king ride away. He watched until a bend in the road took him from sight, then went back and mounted Riv and turned toward Askelon. No one spoke. There was nothing to say.