Blazer’s hooves sounded dull thunder over the great planks of the drawbridge; his iron shoes struck sparks from the stone flagging of the gatehouse road. Shouts of “The king is coming! Open the gates! The king is here!” preceded him, and startled gatekeepers leaped into action.
Horse and rider jolted to a stop in the inner ward yard. Squires dashed up to take the king’s well-lathered mount. Without a word Quentin went straight into the castle, through the banquet hall filled with people still lingering over their midday meal, and on to the throne room.
He flew up the steps to the Dragon Throne and threw off his soiled cloak as he collapsed into the throne. Quentin called angrily for his high minister, his voice booming out into the quiet of the deserted room. His call was answered with a flurry of footsteps, but no sign of Toli.
Quentin seethed inside. He had risen late—later than he had planned—and had started his journey to Askelon after the sun was well up. This put him in a raw mood. Every stride was too slow after that, and he arrived in Askelon harried, fuming, out of patience.
He had slept well enough, curled in his cloak on the farmer’s own bed—the farmer’s wife would not have it any other way but that the king should have their bed—and had awakened feeling better than he had in days. But his tardy start, and the dark thought of what awaited him in Askelon, soon destroyed the fragile peace he had achieved.
As a result, he now raged about the lack of respect for his person and the slipshod attention his interests received.
“Where is the high minister?” he bellowed. His voice echoed back to him from the far corners of the empty hall.
There was no answer.
Quentin sank deeper into his melancholy. He shouted again and this time heard answering footsteps.
“Well?” He looked down to see Hagin, the warder, coming resolutely toward him.
The man bowed when he reached the dais and said simply, “My lord, you have returned.”
“Yes, I have returned,” Quentin snapped. “Where is everyone? Tell me quickly, if you value your tongue.”
Hagin appeared unperturbed. His clear gray eyes regarded Quentin unflinchingly. He was man enough for any monarch’s moods. “They are gone, Sire,” he related simply. “All are gone.”
“All? What do you mean all?”
Quentin stared sullenly at the man. “What are you babbling about? Send for them at once.”
“It may not be, my lord.”
“The queen—where is she?”
“Her Highness and the dowager and the children have left Askelon, the Lady Esme with them. They ride for Dekra.”
“What?” He had not expected that answer. To Dekra? Why? “When did they leave?”
“Just before sunrise.”
Quentin struck the arm of the throne with his fist. While he had dawdled on the road, his wife had left the castle. If he had not stopped, if only he had ridden on to Askelon, he would have been here in time to detain her. She would not have gone if he were here.
“Where is the high minister?” Quentin growled.
“He has disappeared, Your Majesty.”
Again an unexpected reply. “Eh?”
“He was last seen in attendance at the hermit’s funeral, Sire. After the burial he disappeared. He did not return to the castle. It is believed he slipped away from the procession on the way back to Askelon. No one has heard from or seen him since.”
Toli had disappeared? Well he might. If the prince was not found, it would be better if he never returned.
Who else was left? “Theido and Ronsard—have they arrived?”
“They arrived, my lord, and immediately took responsibility for the search party for the prince. They have gone.”
That was it, then. All were gone—those he needed most to see. He was alone.
The gnawing loneliness he had felt on the road was upon him once more. It was true: everyone he cared about was gone.
Here was a loneliness deeper than that of the temple. Then he had not known any different life, but now . . . He had not been so deserted in years. Every day he was surrounded by his closest friends and loved ones—every single day. He had thought it would never end, that the closeness, the love, would go on forever. But he was sadly wrong. In three short days—already it seemed a lifetime—his world had been shattered and the pieces scattered by some cruel fate. Nothing remained now of the happiness he had so recently possessed.
Quentin stirred himself. The warder was looking at him strangely.
“I asked if that would be all, Sire.”
“Go now. Leave me.” He heard the man’s steps diminish as Hagin left the hall. A door closed, and the boom rang in the silence like a pronouncement of doom.
There in the dim interior of his throne room, the king gave himself over to the hopelessness that assailed him, sinking deeper and still deeper beneath the crushing weight of despair.
With a round wooden bowl tucked between his knees, Toli sat on a woven grass mat outside the summer hut of Hoet. The Jher went about their daily business around him, but he was aware of their constant sidelong glances that told him that he was still very much in their minds. No one would ask him about what had happened last night as he stood before the fire, unable to speak—that would be too impolite. Still, they would wonder, and the gentle Jher would watch him when they thought he was not looking. So Toli, aware of their scrutiny, pretended not to notice and slowly dipped his hand into the bowl of sweet mulberries that were his breakfast.
A shadow fell over him as he squatted in the sunlight listening to the chirp and twitter of the early-morning forest and the soft soughing of the upper branches in the breeze, drinking in the musty fragrance of earth and bark and growing things. Toli glanced up at the figure who had come to stand before him.
“You are leaving again,” Hoet observed.
Toli nodded. “I must.”
“I knew that you had not returned to stay. You are needed, for there is trouble in the land.”
Toli cocked an eye to the old chieftain. “You know about the white men’s trouble?”
“It is not only the trouble of the white race; when darkness falls, it covers all. Yes, we know there is trouble in the land. Wind is a swift messenger, and the forest holds no secrets from the Jher.”
“Then you know the king I serve needs your help. His son has been taken from him by force.”
Hoet nodded and leaned long on his staff before he spoke again. When at last he did, he replied, “And you carry the blame for this deed.”
Toli looked away. “How did you know?”
“How else can it be that you are not with your friend in his time of need? He blames you, or you blame yourself, and that is why you ride alone.”
“Yes,” replied Toli softly. “Your wits are as sharp as your eyes,Wise One.”
“When you did not speak last night before the fire, I knew— though I guessed even when you came riding alone to our camp.”
“Then you knew why I could not speak.”
“Come with me,” said Hoet, and started away.
Toli rose, set the bowl aside, and followed the aged Jher leader through the village among the trees. The glances of his kinsmen followed him as they walked the length of the camp to where Toli’s horse waited, already saddled, grazing in a clump of sweet clover at his feet.
“You do not belong here, Toli. Go now.”
Toli felt the color rise to his face; his shame burned within him. “You are right to send me away. I have dishonored my people.”
“It is not from dishonor that I send you, my son,” said Hoet gently. Toli’s eyes darted to his elder. “Why does it surprise you? You have not turned away from your friend—that would be dishonor. No, I send you for yourself. Go, my son, and find the white leader’s son. Your life will not be your own until you have found the boy.”
Toli smiled and gripped the old man’s arm. “Thank you, my father. The knife in my heart does not hurt so much now.”
“Yes, go. But come again one day, and we will sit together and share meat.”
Toli took up the tether peg and gripped the reins, swinging himself easily into the saddle. Riv snorted, eager to be off. “I will ride more swiftly with your blessing.”
“I have no blessing to give you that Whinoek has not already given.” Hoet paused, regarding the slim man before him. “It is said the king raises a temple to the One Most High.”
“Yes,” replied Toli. “The Father of Life is not widely known among the white race. Quentin seeks to make the name of the God Most High known to every man alive under the great heavens so that they may worship the only true God.”
“That is most worthy,” replied Hoet. “But it seems to this old one that where one temple stands, another may not also stand. Is this not true?”
Toli stared at his tribesman for a moment before the implication of what Hoet had said broke in on him. “Yes, your words are true, Wise One, and I would hear more.”
Hoet shrugged and lifted his antlered staff. “It has been reported to me that there has been much night traveling in the forest by men from the east, who also returned that way. I did not see them, so I cannot say how it is, but the white men’s great temple of Ariel lies to the east, does it not?”
“You know well that it does,” said Toli with a grin. “Thank you, my father. You have given your son a great blessing.” He turned Riv into the forest and stopped before entering the shaded trail to raise his hand in farewell.
Hoet raised his staff and said, “Go in peace.” He remained gazing into the forest long after Toli had disappeared, then turned and shuffled back into the Jher village.