Nimrood cackled with malicious glee at his good fortune as he flitted through the shadowy passageways of the High Temple like an overgrown bat, his black cloak billowing out behind him like wings. Such a stroke of luck! The gods had sent the meddlesome Jher to the very steps of the temple.
That ridiculous high priest wanted to turn him away, thought Nimrood. Would have turned him away! But I was there to stop it, and before the dog could run away I had him bound and beaten and thrown into the cell with that mewling prince. Ah ha! Ha, ha!
At first the sorcerer had to fight down the impulse to finish the deed begun in Pelgrin Forest on the day of the hunt—to strike down the Jher at once. Even now the old hatred fired his thin blood, but he was compelled by a greater prize to turn away from his long-nursed wrath at the one who had shorn him of his power, his precious magic, and had very nearly stripped him also of his life.
The image of that day still burned in Nimrood’s evil brain: Durwin, a far inferior wizard, stood before him and would not even protect himself, would not lift a finger to summon the power at his call— not that it could have saved him. No, thought Nimrood, nothing could have saved him.
And then, as Nimrood lifted his rod to deliver the lethal bolt and so blast that cursed hermit’s bones to powder . . . that arrow! From out of nowhere it had come, striking deep into his flesh, sending the rod from his hand. Then, there was the Jher, notching another arrow onto his bowstring. The sorcerer had pleaded for his life—those miserable pleas still echoed in his skull. “Don’t kill me!” he had screamed, and the words had mocked him every moment since that day. He had been humbled before the bow of the Jher, but the young warrior had withheld his pity, had sent another arrow into his enemy’s heart.
It had exhausted every last living spark of Nimrood’s power to transform himself into a raven and wing to safety. It was a long time before he could once again take mortal shape, for he had not even the magic left to change, but was forced to wait until the spell wore off of its own accord.
And a bitter exile it was, trapped in that feathered body, prey to the elements and living on scraps of dead, rotting meat. But though he regained but a thread of his former power—the rudiments of mere child’s dabbling still clung to him, the ability to make noise and light— yet he had returned to seek his revenge equipped with an older and more pernicious art: treachery.
The name of Nimrood the necromancer had perhaps died from men’s memory; so be it. His lies would do what enchantment could not—of that he was certain. Yes, at long last he would have his revenge.
Oh, the gods were fickle and full of mischief! It took all one’s cunning to outsmart them. Nimrood had done it all his life. And now they had finally delivered the victory into his hand. Yes, oh, yes. Soon the upstart whelp of an acolyte king would suffer as he, Nimrood, had been made to suffer all these years.
Nimrood allowed himself one whoop of demented joy at the impending consummation of all his dreams. Yes, the Dragon King would fall; and that barbarous god of his, that brutish Most High, would fall with him.
The wizened old sorcerer clenched his fists and laughed out loud, throwing his head back and letting the sound pour forth from his wicked throat. It was a sound to chill the marrow of anyone passing by. But no one heard it; he was alone and savored the moment to the full, his evil heart lifted in exultation.
Pym—a strolling heap of scrap metal and tools, bags and bundles and barter enough for any two tinkers—stood before the sign of the Gray Goose. The handpainted, long-legged, long-necked, plump gray goose wobbled on its chain. The windows of the inn were dark now; the door was open, but there was silence within.
“Tinker!” he cried. “Tinker, ma’am!”
He waited, winking at Tip. The dog winked back with both eyes.
In a moment he heard footsteps coming toward him across the planked floor. Then appeared a round, flushed face and the plump form of Emm, the innkeeper’s wife. She waved her apron when she saw him, exclaiming, “Pym! You are a sight, you are! Come around again, have you? Give me a hug.”
She threw her arms around him, and he around her. They were old friends and good ones. “It’s good t’see ye, Emm. You know me—I been afancy for one of yer meat pasties and a noggin o’yer best. We’uns jest had t’come back soon’s we’uns finished away south.”
“You missed Emm’s cooking, eh? Well, come in, come in with you. We’ll set a fork and trencher at the board and put you to it.”
Pym followed the matron inside, rattling like a calf in a cupboard with every step. “Milcher!” she called. “Otho! We got us a guest. Look lively, now!”
Milcher poked his round bald head out from behind a cask he was rolling across the room. “Oh ho! Pym it is! Oh ho! Pym, good to see you, old friend. Come to visit, eh? Glad to have you. Glad to have you!” He called over his shoulder, “Otho! Hurry up now! We have a guest!”
A tall boyish-faced man came into the room carrying two small kegs under each arm. He grinned at the tinker and put the kegs down, then went to the cask his father was straining at. With ease the overgrown Otho hefted the cask into place. “Pym and Tipper is it?” He grinned boyishly.
Milcher wiped his sweating face on his sleeve. “Whew! I’ve been at it since dawn this morn.” He shook his friend’s hand. “Come and sit down with me. We’ll drink a sip and fill our bellies.”
“Don’t you’uns trouble yerselfs fer we,” said Pym. Tip wagged her tail amiably, knowing that this was the place where she received those juicy tidbits and gristly beef bones. She barked once in anticipation of such a morsel.
“Yes, Tip,” laughed Otho, stooping to pat the dog. “We won’t forget you. Good old girl.”
Pym threw off his implements and wares and trundled them into a corner. He sat down with the innkeeper, and Emm served them up a little stew and bread. Otho fetched frothy ale in crockery jars and joined them.
They talked of all that had happened since Pym’s last visit, and all the customers who would need Pym’s services. Before long, however, their conversation turned to the one subject on everyone’s minds and on the tips of everyone’s tongues in every gathering place in Askelon.
“Shocking!” said Emm, clucking her tongue. “Simply shocking. I can’t imagine who would want to harm that beautiful boy, poor Prince Gerin!”
“Nor who’d be fool enough to go agin’ the Dragon King. There’s the mystery,” nodded Milcher knowingly. “Him and that sword of his, enchanted and all.”
They all shook their heads in bewilderment at the affairs that had befallen their king. “You were on the road,” continued Milcher. “Did you see anything?”
Pym merely shrugged. “’Pears I come too late.” He was of half a mind to tell them about the dead man in the road, and about the sword. But even though they were his friends, he thought better of it and kept that part secret. “’Twas over before we’uns got to Pelgrin, tho a’course we met lotsa bodies on the road to tell it.”
“Oh, there’s talk aplenty, there is,” agreed Milcher. “Most of it not worth a thimble o’mud. They say it was the Harriers got the boy prince. Others say it was some of that swill-belly Nin’s cravens who’ve been hiding up in the mountains all these years. Bah! That lot was driven into the sea at lancepoint—ever’ last one of ’em.”
“Strange, though, how nobody has seen hand nor hair of them that took him. ’Tis very like the earth opened up and swallowed them whole, quick as you please. Nobody seen nothing,” said Otho.
“I saw the king,” volunteered Pym. “This mornin’ on the road. Least I thought ’twas the king. Looked a king t’ me.”
“Likely did. Likely did,” said Milcher, slapping the board with his hand. “Ham the butcher says the king rode in this morning all a-lather. Been riding like a wraith for days.”
“Did he have his sword when you saw him?” Otho asked Pym.
“What a question!” Milcher cried. “Of course he did. The Dragon King never goes anywhere without that sword. That’s what makes him invincible.”
Otho did not back down. “That’s not what I heard.” He lowered his voice and leaned forward across the table so no one would overhear him, though there was no one else in the place. “I heard from Glenna, the queen’s maidservant—”
“Glenna’s his sweetheart,” put in Otho’s mother, smiling a knowing smile. “Works in the royal kitchen.”
Otho threw a warning glance in her direction but hurried on. “—that there’s talk in the castle that the king has lost his sword!”
“Lost his sword?” Milcher gasped, staring wide-eyed at his son. “Bah!”
“He never would!” said his mother in a hushed tone. “Lose the Shining One? Never!”
Otho only nodded, his eyes squinted. “He rode out with it the day of the hunt. Everyone in Mensandor saw it—its great golden hilt gleaming from the scabbard at his side. We all saw it.” He put his finger in the air for emphasis. “But no one saw it when he returned.”
“What happened t’ it?” asked Pym. His heart raced faster.
Otho licked his lips. “No one knows.” His voice was a whisper. “But they say that if the Zhaligkeer is gone, the kingdom is ruined.”
“Pshaw!” said his father uneasily. “Who would believe it?”
“It could well be,” maintained Otho. “Could well be.”
“The king is still king, isn’t he?” Emm glanced at her son apprehensively.
“Aye, as long as he holds the sword. That sword is his power. Without it he is doomed.”
“Doomed?” wondered Pym.
“Aye, and you would be too. There’s some as says that Quentin isn’t the rightful king, not being blood and all.”
“He was chosen, by the gods!” cried Milcher.
“Chosen he was. But it was the sword that backed it up.” Otho inclined his head conspiratorially. “It is the work of the gods. They are angry with this new temple of his; they don’t like his chasing after that new god—that Most High. The old gods are going to humble him as an example to the whole kingdom to return to true worship with gifts and supplications.”
Otho crossed his long arms and leaned back in his chair, smug in his rightness in the matter. The others looked at one another helplessly. Who was there to dispute what they had heard?
If this was a matter between gods, who could intercede on behalf of mere mortals? Who could contest the gods?
Once there was a resolute young man with a flaming sword who had the very hand of god upon him. He was strong, invincible. But he, too, had proven only human, subject to the wounds and errors of all flesh.
How fickle the gods were. They had allowed him to prosper for a season; now they wanted their tribute, and even the Dragon King would have to bend before them. Blazing sword or not, they meant to have their due, and the king could not refuse them.
The glittering dreams of the priest king and his wonderful City of Light were just smoke after all. Men were just the playthings of the gods.
So it had ever been, and so would ever be.