The knight, Sir Bran, after finishing his wine, exchanged a few words with the prince regarding the impending capture of the outlaw Hawk the next morning. The prince dismissed him then and waited until he had gone before calling his chamberlain and discharging him for the night as well.
As soon as he heard the door to the outer chamber creak shut, he got up and, taking the candle from the table, made his way to a darkened alcove across the room, hidden from view behind a lower portion of one of the giant tapestries. Slipping behind the tapestry, Jaspin entered the alcove and, fishing among the folds of his clothing, brought out a key with which he unlocked a private door set back and cunningly secreted at the farther side.
The prince stepped silently into his secret chamber, placed the candle upon a small table waiting there, and settled himself into a chair before the table.
Upon the table sat a small box resting on an elegant cloth of velvet. The box, richly enameled in fiery red and inlaid with gold tracery and pearls, gleamed, its fine artistry shimmering in the flickering light of the single flame.
Prince Jaspin wasted no time but placed his hands upon each side of the box and lifted it away. On the table before him remained a curious object resting on the cloth—a pyramid of gold incised with strange hieroglyphs. The entire surface of the pyramid had been inscribed with elaborate and fantastic runes that were, he considered, the source of its unusual power.
Prince Jaspin gazed upon his prize with an odd glint in his eye, as if lit by some unnatural source from deep within. The pyramid always had this effect upon him; he felt bold, invincible, and clever beyond human cleverness.
The golden pyramid was the gift of Nimrood, known as the necromancer, a cunning old sorcerer whom Jaspin employed as partner in skullduggery. Many a night did Jaspin draw upon the secret of his strange object and the knowledge of its inventor. But of late, Jaspin received less and less assurance from his accomplice and felt seeds of deep distrust beginning to sprout.
Placing his hands on two sides of the pyramid, Jaspin closed his eyes and murmured a soft incantation. Slowly the pyramid, pale in the dancing light, began to glow with a ghostly luminescence. The glow became brighter, casting Jaspin’s features into high relief and throwing shadows of his hunkered form upon the wall. As the unearthly illumination reached its apex, the sides of the pyramid began to grow indistinct and hazy, although they remained solid under the prince’s touch. The pyramid, now lit with an almost piercing light from within, became translucent; Jaspin could see his own hands dimly through the sides. In a moment the strange device had become completely transparent, almost invisible, and Jaspin looked long into its crystal depths.
A pale green mist shrouded the interior from view, but as Jaspin watched, the mist began to thin into stringy, straggling wisps. Now the form of a man could be distinguished, walking as if from a great distance, toward Jaspin. But even as the man walked, he drew closer with alarming speed so that instantly Jaspin was face-to-face, as it were, with his old sorcerer.
It was not a face to be admired. Twisted. Cruel. Two piercing eyes burned out from under a heavy, menacing brow. Despite the wizard’s obvious age, wild dark hair shot through with streaks of white formed a formidable mane around the man’s large head. The face was creased with interwoven wrinkles, each crevice representing an evil its owner had contemplated.
“Ah, Prince Jaspin!” the necromancer hissed rather than spoke. “I was expecting your summons. I trust everything is as I said it would be!”
“Yes, your information is always good, Nimrood,” the prince replied, his eyes gleaming. “The knight Ronsard appeared just as you predicted and was intercepted before his work could be completed. Unfortunately, we may never know what that errand was—he was killed in the ambush.”
“A pity. He could have told us so much, no doubt. But we have other ways.”
“And another of your seeds is about to bear fruit, wizard. The outlaw Hawk has surfaced again—as you suggested he would. This time we are ready for him. By midday tomorrow that irksome band of renegades will be without a leader.”
“Do not make the mistake of underestimating him once again,” the conjurer warned. “He has outfoxed you before, as you well know.” The necromancer grimaced, and his wrinkles deepened ominously.
“Do not think I will let him slip away again. My headsman’s blade is thirsty, and an outlaw’s blood is just the refreshment I shall recommend. His head shall adorn a pike in the village square. Those bandits will see how lightly I consider their threats.
“I shall have no opposition when the Council of Regents meets, and I shall be named king. The petitions are already signed.” The prince rubbed his hands in greedy anticipation of the event. “All is ready.”
“What about the queen?” the wizard asked slyly. “Will she agree to step down so easily? Is her power already so diminished?”
“The queen will agree to see things as I see them. She is strong, but she is a woman. Besides, if I offer the choice between Eskevar’s life or Eskevar’s crown, I rather believe she would choose his life.”
“She may lose both, however—as will Eskevar! Ha! Ha!” cackled Nimrood.
“That is your concern, not mine. Leave me out of it. You get the king, and I his crown—that was our agreement. I do not want any difficulties. I cannot afford to arouse the suspicion of the people; I need their support for a while.”
“I am your servant, Prince Jaspin,” the wizard replied. “Is there anything more you require?”
“No, I think not. All is ready now,” the prince replied. He added, “Is my brother comfortable?”
“Oh yes. Eskevar is, after all, the king.” The necromancer laughed suddenly, and Jaspin felt an unaccountable anger spring up inside his breast.
“But not for long!” he cried. “Soon there will be a new monarch on the throne. That I promise!”
The sorcerer appeared to bow low, and suddenly the pyramid went dim, its sides becoming once more opaque and cold. Jaspin replaced its ornamented cover and, taking up the candle, left the room at once. He did not know why, but the mere mention of his brother’s name upset him. That night it troubled his sleep with dreams of doubt and fear.
Quentin awoke with a start in a strange room. He glanced over to Theido’s bed and saw that it was empty. He threw off the coverlet and raised himself off the pallet and took up his cloak and went off in search of his friend.
He discovered Theido in the stable behind the inn, seeing to the horses. “Good morning, lad. I am glad to see an early riser. I have only just come down myself.” He straightened from his work of strewing fodder for the horses. “Well, that is done. Let us fend for ourselves as well.”
They ate together at the small table in the kitchen, for Theido wished to have privacy, although none of the other guests, if there were any, had stirred.
“I have a plan that will do for us,” Theido said, speaking in low tones. Quentin ate quietly and listened to the plan as Theido described it.
The plan was simple; they would enter as furriers just arriving from trading in the Wilderlands and would offer to show the queen the finest of the treasures they had obtained.
“We have no furs,” Quentin had objected, and Theido countered by telling him they would not need any. They were merely to be admitted in order to make a proper appointment and to receive any garments the queen might wish to have adorned with their wares. Such appointments were not uncommon with craftsmen of high repute. However, once in the queen’s presence, they would discard the ruse and make known the real purpose for the visit.
“Now, if something goes wrong,” Theido continued, his voice steady and his eyes hard in earnest, “you get out any way you can. Do not stop to think or look around; just run. Go back to Durwin and tell him what has taken place. He will know what to do. Hear what I say and obey. Understood?”
Quentin nodded solemnly. He had not considered the possibility that they might indeed fail. But Theido, noticing the boy’s somber mood, smiled and said, “Cheer up, lad. It is not the first time I have been hunted by Jaspin’s men. I can take care of myself. Besides, my plans seldom fail.” Quentin was not comforted by the thought.
They finished breakfast and left by the kitchen entrance, crossing the yard to the horses. Upon reaching the stables, Theido threw open the wide doors and froze in his tracks. “Run! Get away!” he shouted to Quentin, at the same time throwing his cloak aside and drawing out a short sword from a hidden scabbard. Quentin stood rooted in terror. Theido turned on him and shoved him away, saying, “Run! You must get free!”
In the same instant two riders bolted from inside the stable. Both had swords drawn and small arm shields, or bucklers, held at ready to ward off their captive’s blows. Quentin turned and fled, looking back over his shoulder as he ran. He saw Theido thrust beneath the shield of one of the armed men, who knocked the blow aside just as the other, while pinning the quarry between the two horses, raised his sword to deliver the fatal stroke.
“Don’t kill him, you fool!” a voice rang out in the yard behind Quentin. He turned just in time to avoid colliding with another man on a horse. This one was a knight, by the look of his finely wrought armor. The knight called out again. “He must be taken alive!” And the next instant Quentin felt a hand grab his cloak in a powerful grip, jerking him nearly off his feet.
Quentin, without thinking, lashed out at the horse’s leg and landed a sharp kick. The spirited animal tossed its head back and raised its forefeet off the ground as it jolted backwards. The knight instantly lost his hold on Quentin, and the boy dashed beneath the rearing horse’s belly and away. He gained the corner of the inn just in time to see one of the riders swing the pommel of his sword down upon Theido’s head. He heard a dull crack, and Theido slumped to the ground.