Pym, with his gray-muzzled dog beside him, stumped along the road toward Askelon. As he walked, he thought about one thing and one thing only: the magnificent sword he had hidden that very morning. Wrapped in its covering of rags, he had placed Zhaligkeer in a hole in a great old hazelnut tree whose heart had long ago been burned out by lightning. The ancient tree was hollow, but somehow still alive. He then marked the tree with a little pile of stones, and stood a long time looking at it from all directions, so he would remember it when he came back.
Then, collecting his tools and wares, he had rattled off through the forest to the road, heading once more for Askelon.
But his mind was uneasy. With every step he wavered. “Mayhaps I ought nivver have left it,” he mumbled to Tip. “Mayhaps I should fetch it back. A body might find it back there, and steal it from Old Pym. Then there’d be no gold, and wagon or sharping stone, neither. Oh, what to do? What to do?”
At midday he stopped in a shady nook of linden boughs to eat a few morsels. He carried a rind of hard cheese with him, which he cut with a knife for himself and Tip. They washed it down with some water and munched an apple from one of his sacks.
They were about ready to get back on the road when they heard someone approaching. “Listen there, Tipper. Some’un’s coming up the road, hear? Who could it be? We’uns best sit tight and see who ’tis.”
They waited, and the sound became voices—many voices, murmuring like a millrace—a whole throng of people traveling south, away from Askelon.
The first of the group passed by, glancing toward the tinker but hurrying on. These were followed closely by twenty or more travelers, whole families—men, women, and children, deep in conversation or exclaiming loudly to one another as they bundled along.
Pym stepped out onto the road. “I’ll be vexed, Tip. Where’s all these’uns agoin’?”
He hailed the nearest traveler. “Ho there! Ho!” The man halted and looked at him. Pym scrambled up. “Where ye bound? And what’s all the pother?”
“You have not heard? Where have you been, man? Asleep? The whole world’s aruffle!” Others halted with the man and added their voices. “Awful!” said one. “The gods are angry!” said someone else.
“Us’n’s been on this here road two days,” said Pym. “I met not a body, nor no’un to tell me nothing.”
“’Tis the prince! Prince Gerin,” replied the first man.
“His young lordship’s been nimmed and carried off aforce!” shouted someone from behind.
“Nivver say it!” cried Pym. “When did it happen?”
“Yesterday morning at the hunt. Thieves took him, and slew the king’s counselor!”
“Fifty men there were!” said a short man with a wart.
“A hundred, I heard!” yelled another. Everyone nodded.
“You seen anyone?” asked the first man suspiciously.
Old Pym blanched at the thought. “Me? I nivver did. No, sir. Nor heard aught neither. We’uns’d seen a hundred men. But neither hand nor hair have we seen till now. They kilt the king’s minister?”
“Dead, he is. Oh, the gods are wroth with the king for taking up after this new god of his, this Most High. They are angry, and they are showing their ire! This will teach him.”
Pym muttered morosely, “This be a dark day. A dark day indeed.”
“Aye,” they all agreed, and then hastened off down the road once more.
Pym started on his way again, stopping several succeeding groups to inquire of them also, and all told the same sad story. It was on everyone’s lips, and would surely be the topic of conversation for some time, upsetting the festival as it had.
“A deed most foul, Tip,” said Pym as they walked along, still proceeding toward Askelon, though all they met were going the other way, back to their villages and towns in the south, to spread the word. In a week there would not be a single man in all Mensandor who did not know what had happened. “Aye, a deed most foul.”
Quentin pushed relentlessly onward. Early in the day he had forsaken the road and begun combing the side trails—first this way and then the other—hoping to chance across some sign that the assassins had passed through. He found nothing, and with every league descended into a torment and anguish deeper than he had ever known. It seemed at times as if his spirit was tearing itself in two, as if his innermost self were being racked and tortured.
Why? he kept asking himself. Why has this happened to me? Help your servant, Most High! Help me! Why is there no answer? Why do I feel alone? He has left me; the god has cast me aside.
That thought alone might have crushed him, but fear for his son and grief for Durwin added their weight until he thought his heart would burst.
Still, he kept on, pushing himself, willing himself to go farther, stopping only to rest Blazer now and then, and to drink. He continued southward, and as the day bent toward evening, he smelled the salt air of the sea in the breeze and knew he must be nearing the coast.
At dusk he rode out of the forest and climbed a sandy bluff overlooking the sea. Gerfallon lay dark and wine-colored in the setting sun. Overhead, a bank of vermilion clouds scudded ashore on the landward wind. Behind them darker clouds gathered; tomorrow would see rain.
Quentin dismounted and allowed Blazer to crop the sweet green grass that grew long on the bluff. To the west lay Hinsenby, though he could not see it; and to the east the Sipleth slid darkly to the sea, its waters cool from the melt of snow on the high Fiskills. Ahead, out across the water, lay the hulking mass of the island—Holy Island it was called—rising dark from the water: mysterious, uninviting, the source of many stories and much speculation from times past remembering. The island, green with vegetation and dark with ancient forests, was uninhabited—though in older times there were those who attempted to make a home there. But those settlements never lasted long—a few years at the most, and then they were gone. The island was the dwelling of some local gods who did not wish to share their home with mortals, some said.
Local rumors maintained that the eerie island had once been a place of worship for the early inhabitants of Mensandor, the war-loving and blood-lusting Shoth who practiced their brutish religion of torture and human sacrifice within its cloaked forests, drinking the blood of their victims and eating their flesh. And it was widely believed that there were those who still followed the religion of the Shoth, that the weird rites still took place from time to time in secret. Voices were heard to emanate from the island’s night-cloaked shores, and sometimes the bloodred light of midnight fires could be seen.
Holy Island was also purported to be a place of power lingering from ancient days, when the gods themselves walked the earth in full sight of men, when the inexplicable was commonplace: dreams, disappearances, apparitions, and miracles.
Through the gathering dusk that island seemed to beckon Quentin. Its humped shape rose from the flat sea like the head and shoulders of a lordly sea creature, regarding the land with infinite patience. Come, it said. See what is here. Do you feel my power? Do you fear it? Come if you dare.
Quentin stirred and walked down the seaward side of the bluff, still staring at the island lying only a short distance out—less than half a league. He found a trail along the face of the dune leading down to the shore. Without a thought he followed the trail, weariness guiding his steps. And with each flagging footfall his strength ebbed; he had not eaten all day, and had rested little. He felt light-headed and weak, as if he were a husk, hollow and brittle and light, to be blown by the wind where it willed.
Yet he walked down the winding trail to the sea, letting his feet take him, his mind and body drained by exhaustion.
On the rocky shingle the waves lapped gentle, gurgling endearments onto the shore. Birds, searching for a roost for the night, swung through the air toward hollows and nests in the bluff ’s pocked face, their keening night calls shrill in the stillness. The sea wind freshened, and the clouds above darkened by degrees to violet. And evening mist clung to the upper heights of the island—a shroud to discourage prying eyes. High up on the dune behind him he heard Blazer whinny, but kept his eyes on the island as if mesmerized by its presence.
Quentin walked a little way along the strand, unaware of what he was doing or where he was going. He had no thought now except to walk, to go wherever his feet would take him.
He came to a smooth, rounded form on the beach, discernible in the dying light as a dark object against a slightly less dark background. He stumbled toward it, and his mind conjured up an image of the wretch he had cut down in the road. Slowly he approached, trembling at the thought of encountering that corpse again. Drawing near, he stooped toward the thing and put out a hand. Hair!
He recoiled from the touch. Was it an animal of some sort, dead and washed up on the shore?
But beneath the hair he had felt a hardness that was not like flesh, not even dead flesh. The shape of the thing was like no animal he had ever encountered. He put out his hand again and rubbed it along the hard, bristly surface, then pushed the object. It gave against the rocks and made a hollow sound. Then he knew what it was.
Quentin bent down and grasped the lower edge of the thing and flipped it over. The ox-hide boat, constructed of a design that went back a thousand years, rocked on its keel; its oar was tied with a leather cord to a crude rail in the center of the craft, and made a thumping sound.
He grabbed the bow of the boat and shoved it over the rocks and into the sea, then clambered in while the water splashed over his boots. He took up the oar and began paddling toward the island.
Out from land the sea was quiet, the only sound the dip of the oar as it swirled the water. A deep sadness welled up from inside him. It had been there all along, but now, as tired as he was, he could no longer keep it down, and it came flooding up like a spring. He looked into the deep blue water all around, so silent, so peaceful. How restful it would be to slip over the side of the little boat and drift down and down—beyond thought, beyond pain, beyond remembering.
But the king kept paddling, and the night gathered its velvet robes around him as the land fell away behind, still outlined by the steel blue of the sky above. In a little while he felt a scrape along the bottom of the boat, and then a jolt told him that he had reached the shore of Holy Island.
Quentin heaved himself out of the boat and pulled it well up on shore, then stalked into the forest, which came right down to the water’s edge, striking along an ancient trail through the trees and bushes.
How long he walked, he did not know or care. His legs moved of a volition all their own, pacing off the steps rhythmically and slowly. There was no hurry; he had no destination. Inside, his mind, benumbed with fatigue, churned lazily, functioning ever more slowly, offering no light, no insight.
His eyes stared straight ahead but saw nothing. It was dark, too dark to see anything except the branches of the nearest trees. He listened only to his own breathing and his own heartbeat, for the island was as silent as any tomb, and as full of unseen presences.
Quentin began to feel that he, too, was but a thing of insubstantial vapors: a wraith with no corporeal existence, doomed to roam the world by night, vanishing by dawn’s light; a vague, lingering presence consigned to a shadow-world where only shades walked, each wrapped in a private torment, alone and uncomforted for all eternity.
The moon rose in the trees, a cold, glowing eye that watched unkindly, shedding little light. Weariness draped itself over his shoulders like a leaden garment, awakening in Quentin a dull ache that throbbed through him with every step.
I must rest, he thought. I must stop soon and rest. I am tired. So tired. But he went on, not knowing where.
After a time he came to a place where the trees stopped, and ahead, shining with the moon’s silver light, spread a lawn that swept in a gentle downward curve to meet a lake. Where the lawn and water met there was formed an arcing crescent—a shimmering moon to mirror the heavenly orb.
Quentin marched down to the edge of the lake and stopped, staring across the glass-smooth surface. Here and there the water winked with the reflected light of a star. Quentin looked down into the water and saw only a forlorn and haggard face peering back at him.
A willow tree grew near the water; long, sweeping branches dipped down and limply, lightly brushed the surface of the lake. The leaves on the branches formed teardrops that fell in never-ending cascades into the lake, watering it as a fountain of sorrow.
Quentin went to the old willow and slumped down beneath the trailing limbs. It was dry here, and dark. He rested his head against the rough, knotted trunk and pulled his cloak more tightly around him.
Sleep claimed him then for its own. He did not feel his eyes closing, or mark his passing into sleep’s dark dominion. To Quentin it was all the same.