The prince . . . here? By the gods’ beards! It is a mistake. You have implicated the High Temple in your schemes. I will not have it! I will not have it!”
High Priest Pluell raved and tore at his hair as he paced back and forth in his chamber. Nimrood sat with hooded eyes, watching Pluell vent his anger, but saying nothing.
The high priest came to stand in front of the white-bearded old man, hands on hips. “The temple is in danger now because of you. This was not in our agreement. You never said anything about kidnapping. I will not have it!”
At last Nimrood had enough. He stood, shot a withering glance at the high priest, and stalked to the door.
“Wait! What are you going to do? Where are you going?”
“I am leaving. It is plain you have lost your nerve for our little diversion. I have no use for you. Good-bye.”
“No!” shouted Pluell. “You cannot do that! What about the prince? What am I to do with him?”
“Do anything you like with him. What do I care? He might make a serviceable acolyte, though I think his father might have something to say about that.”
“Stop! Come back. You cannot leave me like this. This was never my affair!”
Nimrood stopped with his hand on the latch. “Never your affair? Ha!” He turned suddenly, his eyes darting flames. Pluell saw the change and dropped back, his mouth gaping. Nimrood advanced on him, seeming to grow in height.
“Was it my idea?”
“Who else? You are not suggesting it was mine!”
“None other’s. I merely indicated to you the danger to the temple if you did not act at once. It was your men who took the boy. It was their mistake. You are the high priest—you are responsible.”
“No! You tricked me! I told you to . . . to—”
“Exactly. You told me to do what needed to be done. We would not be here now if your stupid men had done their duty. I certainly never wanted it this way.”
“You must help me!” wailed Pluell. The shock and rage at what Nimrood had done to him subsided in the new horror of perhaps facing the outraged king alone. Why, the Dragon King would hew him limb from limb for the attack on his son! “I am sorry. I apologize. I was not thinking clearly. Stay and help me think what to do.”
Nimrood pulled on his beard. He appeared to be contemplating what should be done. Ah! he thought to himself. So easy! This pigeon is so deftly caught. He has no nerve, no backbone. He deserves his fate. But I can use him; therefore I will save him. Oh, this is working much better than I could have hoped.
“Very well, I will stay. But you must stop whimpering and do as I say. I have a plan. A very simple plan. And if all goes well, in a short while you, my pigeon priest, will hold the king in the palm of your plump hand.”
Working outward from the place where the prince was last seen, Theido and Ronsard and their search party of knights combed the forest, fanning out from that central point, probing deeper into the heart of Pelgrin. The knights rode the shaded pathways and dimly lit trails; Theido and Ronsard rode with them, meeting at prearranged spots to confer and share any news.
There was precious little news to share. No one had turned up any sign of the abductors.
“They appear to have vanished from the face of the earth,” said Ronsard when they met for their final conference of the day.
“We should have seen some sign of them by now.” Theido gazed at the sky overhead. The clouds held an orange tint as the sun spun lower in the trees. “It will be dusk soon, and too dark to search any further.”
Ronsard scanned the sky through the open patches in the leafy canopy overhead. “Blast their bones! By the god, I had hoped to strike their trail today.” He looked at Theido, whose eyes held a faraway look. “What are you thinking?”
“Nothing—it was nothing.”
Ronsard shook his head. “I know that look of yours. Out with it, Theido.”
Theido nodded slowly. “I was thinking about what Toli said regarding Quentin’s sword.”
“Now, there is a puzzle. I wonder what is behind it.”
“Nothing good, you may be sure. I was thinking just now that it portends a greater evil than the prince’s disappearance, and that is bad enough.”
Ronsard stared at his friend knowingly. “Aye, the Shining One is not to be parted with lightly. I would have thought Quentin would fight to the death before giving it up.”
“You speak my thoughts to a word. And yet, when Toli met him in the road, he did not speak of it at all. Why, I wonder.” Theido glanced at the sky once more and said, “One problem at a time, eh? We will start again at daybreak.”
“Yes, tomorrow—and that is the last good day. The signs, if they are out there, are already disappearing.”
Theido turned his horse and made to move away. “Farewell, Ronsard. I will meet you tomorrow at the same time. If we have not found the trail by then, well—just pray that we find it.”
Ronsard raised his hand in farewell and watched the tall, lean knight ride away, back along the way he had come. Theido is right, he thought. Something is at work here that bodes ill for all of us. What it is we shall find out soon enough, I’ll warrant.
He sighed and moved off through the deepening shadows to meet with his men once more before he rolled himself in his cloak to sleep. All around, the wood lay still and silent, as if contemplating the coming of the night. Ronsard felt a chill creeping out with the shadows, and with it a sinister foreboding such as he had never felt in many years. He shuddered inwardly and rode on.
“If you think it unwise, Mother, or if you would advise a better plan, please tell me.” Bria watched her mother carefully, almost breathlessly. Hers had been a sudden thought, and she had gone immediately to her mother’s apartments to share her idea.
“I do not say it is unwise,” said Alinea slowly and with great concentration. “But I do have misgivings.”
Bria frowned at the word. But her mother continued. “However, I remember another time, years ago, when Durwin counseled the same plan. Then, too, it seemed a chancy enterprise. But it was the right course, as it turned out—though even Durwin could never have guessed the outcome.” She smiled at her daughter, and Bria saw the light in her green eyes. “It seems that the destinies of Askelon and Dekra are ever intertwined. Yes, my dear, go to Dekra. I will go too.”
“Mother, do you mean it? You would go?”
“Why not? I am fit for a journey. And now that the king’s road is complete to Malmarby, the trip will be an easy one most of the way. But we must leave at once.” She glanced at her daughter quickly. “What is wrong?”
“You spoke of misgivings. What are they?”
“Just that word may come to Askelon about the prince. If you were not here to receive it . . .” Her voice trailed off.
“I see. What should I do?”
“That I cannot tell you. You must do what any mother does; you must listen to your heart.”
“Then I will go to Dekra and speak to the elders there. We have often had reason to seek their wisdom, and their prayers may be most effective.” Her eyes held her mother’s. “I do so wish that Quentin were here, though.”
“Quentin will return soon. We will leave behind a letter telling him what we propose. He would wish to stay here in any case to aid in the search.”
“What about Brianna and Elena—I fear leaving them.”
“They will come with us. Why not? They have begged to see Dekra often enough, and they will enjoy the trip. As it is, I think it would be unwise to leave them. We will take a coach and a bodyguard of knights, and travel the safer.”
Bria smiled, feeling better for having talked with her mother. “Yes, naturally you are right.”
“It will be better for us to have something to do. The waiting would weigh heavily on us, I fear. If word was long in coming . . . well, we will go. We must not think of anything but Gerin’s welfare. The elders at Dekra will be able to help.”
Bria gazed at her mother admiringly, and then threw her arms around her neck in a hug. “Oh, thank you. I knew you would say the right thing.”
Alinea patted her daughter’s back. “Poor Quentin. I pray that the waiting does not distress him overmuch. I would feel better if Toli were here. Perhaps he will soon return.”
“When should we leave?”
“Just as soon as the horses and supplies can be made ready.”
“Tomorrow morning, then. We will rest better in our own beds tonight, and leave at first light.”
Alinea nodded her assent. Bria bent and kissed her mother and then hurried away, her mind already filled with dozens of details that would require attention before they could leave. Alinea watched her go, thinking back on a time when she had planned the same journey. She smiled, nodded, and went back to her prayers.