Quentin gave Blazer his head and let the animal take them home. The road was easy to follow, and the horse knew the way back to Askelon. Quentin rode without knowing or caring where they went, and Blazer unerringly led them homeward.
As the way through Pelgrin merged green and leafy with the cool blue shadows, Quentin, benumbed from lack of sleep, felt himself drifting back to the strange meeting on the island.
That he had been specifically summoned to Holy Island he had no doubt. By whatever subtle magic, he was drawn to the lake and was there waiting when the boat arrived to take him to the ring of stones. Enchantment, surely. But for what purpose?
Quentin could not say. As for the man—the mysterious stranger who spoke with him, knew him, called him by name—who was he? In some inexplicable way he felt he knew that man, had known him for a long time, even though he had never met him before that hour.
Or had he?
It was as if a friend had gone on a long journey to a country far away and returned after many years vastly changed, though still basically the same person underneath, and it was the change wrought in this man that shielded his identity.
“Call me your friend,” the man had said, “for friend I am.”
I am in need of a friend, thought Quentin. Sorely in need.
He felt a loneliness take hold of him he had not felt in many years— not since, as a young acolyte in the High Temple, had he experienced the same crushing weight of utter aloneness. In his mind he traveled back to that time, and once again he was that gangly young boy clinging frightened to the mane of the mighty warhorse Balder, setting out on an errand at which he could not possibly succeed, but going anyway.
Such hope, such blindness.
Oh, to be that trusting boy again, thought Quentin. He felt the weight of years upon him, and tasted the bittersweet longing for that simpler, better time. He let himself drift off on waves of longing and loneliness.
When he came out of his reflections, he saw that the sun was lowering over the road, and also that he was leaving the forest. Upon returning from the island, he had found Blazer waiting for him on the shore. He had beached the ox-hide boat and ridden away, not stopping all day. Now he felt the ache of the road seize him in an iron grip. His head throbbed.
He rode out of the forest and down a slight hill into a broad valley. Here in this valley were the farms of peasants and small landowners— those who sold their produce in the market at Askelon. Just a little ahead, Quentin saw the wattled house of a farmer, watched the man leading his team of oxen in from the field, and his wife at the well dipping water, and decided to stop for a moment to wash the dust of the road from his throat and to rest his horse. But only for a moment, because he wanted to be in Askelon by nightfall.
“Ho there!” called Quentin as he rode into the yard scratched bare by clucking chickens. “Good day to you!” He sat and waited for the farmer to show himself.
A face appeared at a dark window—just a fleeting glimpse, and then it was gone. A moment later the farmer came around the side of the house, carrying a two-pronged wooden pitchfork in his hand.
He stared at Quentin warily, but with a certain respect. “G’day to ’ee, sir,” said the farmer. His weather-browned face scrutinized the visitor frankly. If there was a trace of distrust, it was only the normal, benign distrust all simple people held for strangers who were obviously above them. Quentin smiled at the farmer and said, “It is a hot day for traveling, but good for the crops.”
The farmer squinted his eyes up to the sky and seemed to lose himself among the clouds scudding swiftly toward the horizon. At length he rolled an eye back to Quentin and said, “Trav’lin’s oft a thirsty bi’ness.”
“Now that you mention it,” replied Quentin, “I would like a drink of water.”
“Help ’eself,” said the farmer, nodding toward the well.
Quentin slowly dismounted and walked to the well, feeling every jounce of the road in each stiff step. He settled himself on the edge of the stonework and took up the dipping gourd. He played out the braided cord, filled the gourd, and then took the brimming vessel to his horse.
Blazer, his shining white coat now dusty brown-gray, plunged his broad muzzle into the water and drank deeply. As Quentin held the gourd he noticed a movement in the doorway of the house nearby. The farmer’s wife joined her husband, and Quentin fell under sharp scrutiny. There was a mumble of whispered words behind him. He wondered what the woman was saying to her husband. When he turned around, he understood, for he saw a look of awe blossom on their ruddy features—the look that accompanied him whenever he made his way in public. It reminded him that he was the Dragon King.
He looked at them, and they bowed low, both of them, awkward and self-conscious. “Rise, my friends,” he said softly.
“I—I did not know as ’twas ’ee, Sire,” stammered the farmer. “I be yer ’umble servant.”
Quentin patted his dusty clothes. “How could you know, good man?” Little puffs of dust accompanied each pat. “I look more a highwayman than a king.”
The farmer’s rawboned wife nudged her man with an elbow, and he jumped forward at once and took the gourd. “’Low me, Sire.”
Quentin was about to protest, but thought better of it and allowed the man his pleasure, knowing that for years to come the farmer would tell his friends and relatives of the day he had watered the king’s horse.
Sitting on the edge of the well once more, Quentin turned his eyes to the house and noted its rude construction. Though it was a most simple structure, made from the cheapest materials—mud daubed over woven sticks on a timber frame and topped with a roof of thatch—it was clean, and all was orderly in the yard. It was identical to any number of households that stretched from one end of Mensandor to the other—from Wilderby to Woodsend.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw a quick flick of a shadow as it darted and disappeared around the corner of the house. He watched the spot for a moment and was rewarded by seeing a pair of wide, dark eyes and a pale forehead poke around the edge of the house once more.
Quentin smiled and raised his hand, beckoning to the owner of those eyes to come out and join him. Presently, a grubby young boy stepped hesitantly around the corner, keeping his back pressed against the house, inching toward the stranger with the shyness of a wild creature of the forest. The dark-eyed youngster was dressed in a long, hand-me-down tunic resewn for him, no doubt, from one of his father’s. The edges of this garment were frazzled and frayed, and the threads blew in the breeze like tassels. He stared at the newcomer with open curiosity and admiration—as much for the great warhorse drinking from the gourd his father held as for the horse’s rider.
“Come here, boy.”
The lad’s mother rushed over to him and wiped his face with her dirty apron, rubbing spittle on his cheeks and chin. When the youth was presentable, she pushed him forward. The boy resisted, bashful before the king.
Quentin nodded and smiled. The boy was a little older than Prince Gerin, and though of more slender build, he had the same unruly, dark brown hair.
“It is the king!” his mother whispered harshly in his ear. “Show yer manners!”
Whether the youth understood who it was that waited for him or not, in his eyes it did not greatly matter. Anyone who rode a steed such as the one that stood in the yard before him qualified as royalty in his young opinion.
His mother prodded him to stand before Quentin, where he gazed at his unshod feet and drew lines in the dirt with his toe. Quentin put his hands on his slim shoulders. “What is your name, lad?”
The answer was some moments in coming. “Renny, Sire.” The voice was scarcely audible.
“Renny, I have a boy just like you,” said Quentin. A knife sliced his heart with the words, for again he remembered that his son was gone. “His name is Gerin,” he continued, forcing a smile, “and he is about your age.”
“Does he have a horse?” asked Renny.
“No,” replied Quentin. It was true, for although Gerin could well choose any horse in the king’s stable to ride, he did not have one of his own. “But he likes to ride. Do you like to ride?”
The youngster’s face suddenly saddened. “I—I’ve ne’er been on a horse, Sire.” The awful truth was out, and the boy felt better for it, for he brightened instantly and announced, “But when I get big, I’ll have a horse, an’ I’ll be a knight!”
Quentin chuckled at the certainty in the young voice. “I am sure you shall!” he agreed. Then he added, “Would you like to ride a horse?”
The dark eyes went wide and rolled toward the nearest parent for approval. “’Tis all ’ee’s ever wanted t’ do,” said the farmer. “’Tis all ’ee talks of.”
“Then today you shall have your wish, brave sir!” said Quentin. He led the youngster by the hand over to where Blazer stood quietly. The horse seemed to grow in size as they approached, and Quentin felt Renny’s hand grip his tightly. “This one is a well-trained mount. He will not harm his rider.”
With that assurance, Quentin picked the boy up and put him in the saddle. The boy wore a dazed expression, unable to fathom his immediate good fortune or sort out the innumerable sensations assailing him in this miraculous instant.
The king handed him the reins and placed them just so in his hands. Then, when Renny was situated, Quentin took Blazer’s bridle and began leading him around the yard. The farmer and his wife stood together, clutching each other, beaming happily as they watched their son ride the king’s own stallion.
Quentin, too, felt their joy, and he laughed out loud. It felt good to laugh, and so easy. He had begun to think he would never laugh again.
Renny, for his part, celebrated the occasion with all the solemn pomp his young frame could muster. He sat rigid in the saddle, his back straight as any lance, eyes level, shoulders square: the very picture of a knight riding into battle, full of courage, the victory sure, the foe all but vanquished.
Then Quentin showed the boy how to pull the reins to one side or the other to make the horse turn, how to make him stop and go. Renny took in this information gravely, studiously.
“Do you think you can remember all that?”
“Aye.” The boy nodded.
“Then he is yours to lead. Ride him, young master.”
Quentin stepped away from the horse, and Renny threw a half-worried, half-exultant look to his parents, kicked his heels gently into Blazer’s flanks, lifted the reins, and began to ride the horse around the yard.
Blazer, champion of battle, high-spirited and fleet as the wind over the plain, behaved as docilely as any plow horse. He stepped lightly around the yard, circling the three spectators, tossing his head and snorting now and then, to the delight of all.
When the ride was over at last, Blazer came to stand before his master. Before Quentin could reach up a hand, Renny threw his leg over the pommel and slid from the saddle as expertly as any knight. He wore a look of dazzled triumph that seemed to say, I have ridden the king’s horse! I will be a knight!
“Well done, lad!” shouted Quentin, clapping the boy on the back. “Well done!”
Renny’s parents ran forward to embrace him, as pleased for his good fortune as if it had been their own dream’s fulfillment. Quentin was moved by this spectacle of love between the members of this simple family. His heart went out to them.
“Thank ’ee, Sire,” said the farmer’s wife. She grabbed his hand and kissed it.
“This be a proud day, Sire,” crowed the farmer. There were tears of joy sparkling at the corners of his eyes. “Me son astride the king’s charger . . .” There were no more words to describe the pride he felt.
“Please, it is but a little thing,” replied Quentin. “I was happy to do it.”
“You must stay t’ supper, m’lord,” said the woman. Then she blinked in amazement, realizing what she had said. She had just invited the king to supper! In her kitchen! Oh, my!
Quentin began to make his apology, but stopped and turned toward the road. The shadows of evening were stretching across the land. The sun had grown into a great blazing red fireball as it touched the far horizon. He was tired, and the thought of climbing back into the saddle and riding on to Askelon seemed repugnant at the moment.
“Madam,” said Quentin, as he would address any noble’s wife, “I would be honored to partake of an evening meal with you.”
At once her eyes grew round and her jaw dropped; she turned to look at her husband, who merely peered back at her with the same expression of absolute astonishment. Then she gathered her skirts and dashed for the house to begin preparing the meal. Quentin smiled to see her go.
“M’lord,” said the farmer when she had gone, “’low me t’look after yer steed. ’Ee must be hungry after a long day’s trav’lin’.”
“Thank you, that would be most kind.”
The farmer led Blazer away to the small barn set alongside the house at the back. The horse, sensing food was close, picked up his hooves and fairly pranced away. Little Renny watched him go, his eyes sparkling like stars. He had relived his momentous ride a hundred times already in his mind.
Quentin sat back on the edge of the well, folding his arms across his chest. Perhaps he should not have accepted the invitation; maybe he should not delay on the road. Ah, but he could not go back on his acceptance now. Furthermore, he could leave before dawn and be in Askelon early in the morning, and he could use the rest. Here, perhaps, he could forget his troubles for an hour, eat and sleep, forget.
“Why are you sad?” chirped a young voice beside him.
Quentin stirred himself and looked up to see Renny studying him carefully. “I was just thinking, lad.”
“Thinking about your own little boy? He’s the prince!” Renny informed him.
“I suppose I was. Yes, he is the prince—”
“And you’re out searching for him,” said Renny, finishing his thought. “Bad men took him away, and we must all keep our eyes an’ ears open so’s to see or hear ’bout him.”
Quentin smiled sadly. Bad news does fly with eagle’s wings, he thought. Yes, they all know what has happened. All of Mensandor would know by now. His grief was not as private as he supposed. Nothing about him was private anymore. The Dragon King’s life was gossip, legend, and song to them.
What would they all think when they learned he had lost the flaming sword, Zhaligkeer, the Shining One, symbol of his authority and divine appointment? What would they say of him then?
“Don’t ’ee worry, Sire,” said the boy. “’Ee’ll find the prince! ’Ee’re the Dragon King! ’Ee can do anything!”
“Yes,” replied Quentin, ruffling the boy’s dark hair absently, “we’ll find him.” Please, let us find him!
When the farmer returned from tending to Blazer, he came to stand before the king, not daring to break in on his thoughts by speaking. He just stood there silently and waited. There came a call from the house, and when Quentin did not stir, the farmer announced, “M’lord, supper’s set’n.”
The evening sky glimmered with the sunset; the soft, white clouds were tinted with pink and orange. Crickets sang in the grass at the edge of the road, and swallows skipped and darted in the blue air.
The world seemed poised on a fine silken thread, perfectly balanced between night and day. Quentin sighed and stood. The thread snapped, and the world rolled on toward night.
They walked quietly to the house, dipped their hands into a basin sitting on a stool near the door, and then went in to their supper.