Nimrood sat brooding on a rock, hunched like a bent old root, twisted with age and warped by the dark forces within him. He was waiting for nightfall to undertake the final leg of their journey, for they had reached the eastern edge of the forest, and the rest of the way to the temple lay through open ground. He did not want to risk traveling by day; so they waited, restlessly.
Prince Gerin, his young mind alert to all around him, was confident he would not be harmed; and since he appeared in no immediate danger, escape could wait for the right opportunity—if he was not rescued first. He also saw quite plainly that his abductors had little spirit for the task they were about. But the old one, the one with the wild white hair and the face as lined and creased as worn leather, he was one to watch out for.
Who was he? What did he want, and where were they taking him? These questions occupied the young captive as he sat on the ground beneath the tree, two guards with him at all times.
He shifted uneasily, trying to loosen the bonds on his arms. One of the guards eyed him suspiciously, glared, but did not say anything.
When my father comes for me, thought Gerin, you will be very sorry. I hope he comes soon; I am going to miss the rest of the hunt otherwise.
There was no doubt in the young prince’s mind that the king would come for him, would rescue him. All he had to do was wait.
There came a sound in the wood: someone approaching quickly on foot, and noisily, with much rustling of branches and cracking of twigs underfoot. Nimrood jumped up, his voice a harsh whisper. “We are found! Draw your weapons!”
The men jumped up and drew their blades, but before anyone had a chance to position himself for the attack, the intruder stumbled into camp. “Wait!” he said, startled. “No, wait!” He fell back and landed on his rump.
“You!” said Nimrood. The man was one of the two left behind to guard their escape.
He jumped up, glancing around quickly with frightened eyes. “I was not followed!” he cried. “Put away your swords!”
“You better not have been followed, or I will feed you piecemeal to the birds. Where is your friend?” Nimrood demanded, shoving aside the others.
“Dead.” The man cast a terrified look behind him, as if expecting his own death to come charging out of the woods at any moment.
“How?” Nimrood stood with his hands on his hips, eyes boring into the wretch before him.
“He found us on the road. He guessed all.”
“Who found you?”
“The king! He knew all about us!”
“Bah!” Nimrood’s countenance became threatening. The guard quaked with fear. “You said too much!”
“No, by all the gods, I swear it! We told him nothing. He knew— I don’t know how he knew, but he did. We did not have a chance.”
“How many were with him?”
“His Majesty—the king—was alone. I hid in the bushes in case we were forced to attack him.”
“And?” Nimrood stepped closer. The guard grimaced and hurried on with his story.
“Carlin pretended to be a pilgrim, but the king knew different. We tried to put him off, but—”
“You were two against one. What happened?”
The man’s eyes rolled with terror. “That sword of his—the Shining One! No man—no army is a match for that! You should have seen it flash. The flames! It blinded us, and I threw my hands over my eyes. When I looked, Carlin was dead. That sword . . .”
Nimrood’s demeanor changed abruptly; his tone became coaxing. “Ah, yes, I see. You did right to come here with the news. Yes. But tell me”—he placed a pale hand on the man’s shoulder—“tell me more concerning that sword. The king’s sword—what did you call it?”
“The Shining One—everyone knows about it. It is enchanted.”
“It is? How so?” Nimrood smiled a thin, sly, snaky smile. “I do not seem to recall anything about an enchanted sword. But then, I have been long away from Mensandor. Tell me more about it.”
Eagerly the men told Nimrood about Zhaligkeer, the king’s wonderful sword—about its burning brightness, about the magic mines wherein it was forged, about its strange and terrible powers. They told about how Quentin, still a young man, had come riding out of the mountains with the sword and, by his hand alone, had smashed the invasion of the horrible Nin and turned certain defeat into resounding victory when the Shining One quenched the fire of the Wolf Star.
Legends concerning the enchanted sword, and the king who wielded it, had already grown large in the land, and increased with every passing year. It was possessed of a holy power, they said. It was enchanted by a god—the one called Most High. Its flame was the symbol of the god’s presence with the king, and more.
Nimrood listened patiently to the various stories about the sword, letting the temple guards tell him what they knew. All the time the old sorcerer was thinking to himself, Yes, this enchanted sword is just the thing. “What you say is very interesting,” he said at length. “Yes, very interesting.” He turned to the man who had just joined them. “Do you have anything else to tell me?”
The guard thought for a moment, desperate to please the perverse Nimrood. “Oh!” he said, brightening. “Yes. The king said Durwin— the one called the hermit—was dead.”
“Oh?” Nimrood’s heart fluttered in his breast. “How is that?”
“I do not know. He only said, ‘You killed Durwin.’”
“No one meant to kill him, sir,” explained one of the temple guards who had been there. “It was an accident. He was in the way. We had to stop him to get the prince.”
This is working better than I hoped! thought Nimrood with glee. Durwin dead! Ah, that pesky hermit out of the way. My revenge will be complete. He nodded at those around him approvingly. “Yes, accidents happen. It could not be helped. But you must tell me these things in the future. I must know everything—it does not do to withhold information from me.”
“We thought you would be angry,” muttered one near him.
“Angry? Why should I be angry? Am I unreasonable?” Nimrood smiled again, his thin lips splitting his lined face. “No, you will find I am quite easy to get along with if you but tell me at once. I can be quite reasonable.” He clapped his hands. “Now, get some rest, all of you. We have far to go tonight. I want to be at the High Temple by first light tomorrow.”
All settled down to rest for their nocturnal journey. Prince Gerin, too, rolled up into a ball, though he did not feel like sleeping; he did so to hide his tears from those around him. He did not want his captors to see him crying for his friend Durwin.
At midday, Toli and the knights with him reached Askelon. Upon entering the inner ward yard, they found assembled nearly a score of knights with horses and squires darting here and there with provisions and equipment.
“What is this?” asked Toli. He slid from his mount and hurried to a cluster of men standing in the center of all this activity. The ring parted as the Jher came near. “Theido! Ronsard!” he shouted when he saw them.
Both men burst into grins and clapped him on the back. “We were hoping to see you before we rode out. And the king—” Theido halted, eyes narrowed. “You have seen him?”
“Yes,” replied Toli curtly. “He will not soon be returning.”
“I see.” Theido frowned. “We must hold council and agree upon a plan in any case. We should not delay.”
“With the queen’s permission we had hoped to leave at once,” said Ronsard.
“Yes, you must leave soon. I will join you as soon as I have eaten and washed.”
“I will have food sent to the council chamber,” Ronsard suggested, and left to arrange it. Those who had ridden through the night with Toli took their leave also.
Theido walked Toli a few paces aside to the massive inner curtain where they could talk more freely. The bustle continued in the yard around them. Theido leaned against the great wall and folded his arms across his chest. His black hair was threaded with much silver, and his eyebrows as well, but the years had not softened his sharp features—if anything, age had made his appearance even more commanding.
“There is trouble between you, eh?” Theido said calmly.
Toli looked across the yard, staring at the activity, seeing nothing. He nodded.
“He . . . my lord blames me for Durwin’s death and the loss of his son,” Toli replied simply.
“I see.” Theido spoke gently, trying to comfort Toli. “Certainly you know such accusations to be the temper of a distraught and frightened man.”
“No,” said Toli, shaking his head, “it is true. It is my fault. I left him alone. After the first attack I went after the assailants. I should not have gone. I should never have left the prince for a moment.”
“You did as you thought best. What man can do more? Durwin knew how to look after himself; he was no stranger to trouble. I am certain you did the right thing.”
Toli turned haunted eyes on the tall knight. “Durwin was an old man, Gerin a defenseless child. I failed, I tell you.”
“No! Think what you are saying. What has happened has happened. It cannot be changed. Durwin’s death is not your fault. No one could have known. If you had stayed, it might well have been you struck down to bleed to death.”
“Better my blood than his!”
“Never think that.” Theido placed a hand on Toli’s shoulder. “It is not for you to decide such things, my friend. We are all in the god’s hands. It is he who directs our steps. Durwin knew that as well—no, better— than any of us.”
Toli rubbed his hands over his face. He felt his fatigue descending upon him, covering him like a heavy cloak. “I am tired.”
“Yes, go to wash and change. You shall rest after our council. We will leave and begin the search.”
“No, I will go with you. I must.”
“You will need your rest. If I am not wrong, there will be plenty of searching for all of us. Rest while you can. Also, I would have you go with the queen and Lady Esme.
Toli looked up quickly. “The queen? Esme? Where are they going?”
“Durwin is to be buried tomorrow. In the forest. I would go, but now that you are here, I think it better that Ronsard and I lead the search.”
“I had forgotten about the funeral,” said Toli ruefully. “Yes. Someone should go with them. Very well, I will do as you suggest.”
He turned to leave, hesitated, and turned back. “There is something else.” Theido waited. The Jher lowered his voice and said, “The king’s scabbard was empty when I found him. The Shining One was gone.”