Apale moon poured molten silver into the bowl of the lake. The water shone hard and black like glass smoked in a fire, and the willow’s teardrop leaves pearled with dew. Above, the sable sky held sparks of diamond stars, tips of light as cold and sharp as ice.
Quentin awoke with a start out of a stony sleep and stared uncomprehendingly around him. Where am I? he wondered. How have I come to be here?
Then he remembered rowing to the island and walking and walking, then sinking into sleep. Though his mind was a jumble of half-formed thoughts and fragments of unfinished dreams, waking in this place, he felt strangely certain that he had been drawn here, summoned, and then awakened at the proper moment by the same force that had brought him.
His senses pricked. The place seemed alive with the presence of gods; if he listened very carefully, he could almost hear the murmur of their spirit-voices calling to one another as they plied night’s distant shores.
Quentin felt the nearness of these beings, and his blood quickened. The gods had gathered close about; they watched from every shadow as from behind velvet curtains, and Quentin imagined their dispassionate eyes upon him.
He rose, stiff from exertion, wrapped his arms across his chest, and gazed out across the lake. Mist rose like steam from the still water to thicken and drift in curling tendrils toward the crescent lawn like searching fingers. Quentin stepped to the water’s edge and waited. The ghostly white mist seeped and flowed and eddied on unseen currents in the air, spreading ever nearer. He waited, stomach taut, the night chill stinging his flesh, the sense of expectancy almost overpowering. Blood pulsed rapidly through his veins; he could hear it drumming rhythmically in his ears. All around lay deathly silent.
Quentin stood at the edge of the silver lake and watched as the shifting vapors erected lacework walls over the mirrored surface. As he gazed out over the water, the mist rolled and parted and there emerged a dark shape drifting slowly toward him across the lake. Quentin saw that it was a small boat gliding silently from the wreathing vapors.
No oarsman rowed the vessel; no pilot steered. Wide of hull and low in the water, it drew nearer and came at last to rest at the king’s feet, bumping softly against the grass-covered bank.
He lifted his foot cautiously and stepped into the mysterious craft—as if he thought that it might vanish into the mist once more. But the boat proved solid enough, and Quentin sat down amidships. Then, just as silently and mysteriously as before, the ghostly vessel floated away from the shore, bearing him back across the lake the way it had come.
Sitting stiffly on the wooden bench, Quentin watched as his ship entered the encircling mist. The solid world faded from view, and he was swallowed whole into a netherworld of cloud and insubstantial vapor. He might have been floating or flying, so softly and gently did the boat ride. Not a ripple marked their passage. Straining eyes and ears into the void, he saw and heard nothing.
After a time the mist thinned and parted, and the little craft drifted out into a shallow lagoon rimmed with the massive slabs of great standing stones.
There was some magic in this place; Quentin could feel it now, tingling over him, licking at his face and limbs with subtle fire.
Then he saw the figure.
Before him at the water’s edge stood a man clothed in a long white mantle that glowed in the moon’s radiant beams. He beckoned to Quentin to follow, and as the boat touched shore, Quentin stepped out and hastened after the figure.
They moved across the lawn to the giant stones, passing between them into a circle of smaller stones, many of them leaning or fallen. These stones, like others Quentin had seen in Mensandor, had once stood one upon another in rings at the worship sites of the ancients. The rings were erected in places of power where gods were said to touch the earth.
As they entered this sacred circle of stone, Quentin saw a fire burning brightly and meat roasting on spits. The white-clothed figure sat down on one of the tumbled stones that had grown thick with green moss and white-flecked lichen. The man smiled warmly and gestured for Quentin to sit. Though no words had passed between them, Quentin felt welcomed and unafraid. He watched while the man tended the spits.
The stranger was tall, his body well formed and fit, his features broad, but not coarse or heavy. There was strength in the cut of his jaw and chin. His long, dark hair swept back and was bound in a thong at the back of his head, in the manner of prophets or seers. The man’s eyes were dark, quick firebrands that sparkled in the light of the campfire as he adjusted the roasting meat on the fire with his strong hands.
The fire cracked and ticked, throwing grotesque shadows over the standing stones. A thousand questions boiled in Quentin’s mind, but he remained silent. No word seemed appropriate for this place. So he sat in the warm circle of light and waited.
At last the stranger reached for a nearby jug and poured from it into a wooden cup that he offered to Quentin. “Are you hungry?”
“Yes!” replied Quentin, startled that the man should speak.
“Good.” He laughed, the sound deep and resonant—an earth sound, the sound of forest and hill and streams rolling to the sea.
Quentin laughed too, caught up in the delight of that voice.
“I thought you might be hungry, so I made you something to eat,” explained the mysterious host. “It has been a long journey, and you have ridden far.”
“How did you know?”
His host only smiled and replied, “I know a great many things about you.”
There was something familiar, hauntingly familiar, about the man; his voice and manner Quentin was certain he had known before. But where? The memory eluded him. “There are many who might make a similar claim,” said Quentin. “My name is well enough known.”
“Well said,” replied the man. Mirth danced in his eyes. “You are the Dragon King of Mensandor, and truly many men know your name. But I know a good deal more.”
“Please continue,” said Quentin. Who was this man?
“I know that you are an honorable man whose friends are many. And that you recently lost a friend, one very dear to you. I also know that you stand in danger of losing another even dearer.”
“Is that all?”
“It is enough for now, I think. Here, the meat is ready.” He handed Quentin one of the skewers and kept one, took up his wooden cup, and drank.
Quentin drank too, and thought he had never tasted water so fresh and good. He pulled a piece of meat from the spit and ate it, all the while watching the stranger beside him. “What is your name?” he asked.
“Call me your friend, for friend I am.”
“Friend? Nothing more?”
“What more is needed?”
Quentin ate his food thoughtfully. Who was this friend? And why did he seem so familiar? He drank again and asked, “Where am I? What is this place?”
The man did not answer, but instead asked a question of his own. “You see these stones?”
“They were erected and stood for many hundreds of years. But now they lie abandoned and overgrown. The gods in whose honor they were raised come no more to this place. Why do you think that is?”
Quentin considered this for a moment and then replied, “Could it be that the old gods are dying, or that they never existed in the first place? There are those who say a new era has come upon us, and a new god is making himself known.”
“What do you say?”
“I believe,” Quentin said slowly, choosing his words carefully, “I believe that times change, yes, and new eras are born, but there is only one god who is God of all. Whether other gods exist or never did, I cannot say.”
“Strange words from an acolyte,” said the stranger. His smile was elusive and suggested he held some greater secret to himself.
But Quentin was stunned—it had been a long time since he had been called an acolyte. He had nearly forgotten that he ever served in the temple at all; that seemed long ago. “I was but a boy,” he replied.
“Times change, as you say. But old ways die hard, do they not?”
Quentin said nothing. The man looked around the ring of fallen stones. “Why do you suppose men honor their gods with stone?”
“Stone endures,” said Quentin.
“Yes, but as you see, even stone falls in the end. What is it that endures after stone has crumbled to dust?”
Quentin recognized this question as one that his old teacher Yeseph, the elder of Dekra, had asked him as a pupil many years ago. Old Yeseph, dead now and buried years before. “Man’s spirit endures,” said Quentin. That had been the answer Yeseph had sought.
“And love endures,” the man said simply. “Would it not make more sense to honor the god with love instead of temples made of stone?”
Again a pang of guilt arrowed the king. Who was this man?
“Quentin,” he said softly, “do not be afraid.”
“I am not—,” began Quentin. The man raised a hand and cut him off.
“And do not give yourself to despair. Your enemies seek to humble you, to mock the god you serve. Trust in the Most High, and he will raise you up.”
The man stood and smiled again. “The boat will take you back across the water.”
Quentin jumped up. “Do not go! Please—”
“I must. My time here is finished. I wanted to see you just one more time, to say farewell.”
“No!” cried Quentin, throwing himself to his knees. “Stay with me. I would hear more!”
“It is not to be. But never fear, we will be together again. I am certain of it.” The man smiled his gentle smile and laid a hand on Quentin’s head.
Quentin felt a rush of warmth flood through him at the touch. The panic that had come upon him ceased.
“Before, I did not get the chance to say good-bye as I would have wished.” The man raised Quentin to his feet and wrapped him in a hug. After a moment, clasping his friend’s shoulders with both hands, he held the king back at arm’s length and said, “Good-bye, my friend.”
“Good-bye,” said Quentin. He stood and watched as the man turned and walked toward the wood, passing between two great slabs of stone as through a doorway.
The mist rolled up and removed him from Quentin’s sight, and he was gone.