If not for the urgency of their errand, Bria would have enjoyed the journey to Dekra. The days wore the golden-green mantle of fair summer; peace clothed the land and seemed to blossom from every bough. The dark deed of only a short time ago—a few days—receded into the past, more and more remote with every league.
Only the throbbing ache in her heart reminded her that all was not well, that her son had been taken from her, that her world would never be right until he was returned.
By day she rode with the others, keeping her spirits high—talking, singing, or steeping herself in the beauty of the day. By night she prayed; her prayers were not for herself, but for her son and her husband, that the Most High would keep them safe wherever they were. And sometimes in the night, when no one could see her, she wept.
The queen and her companions, though unused to the rigors of the road, were well looked after by Wilkins and the other two knights, and were made as comfortable as possible. And owing to the smoothness of the king’s highway, they moved swiftly toward their destination.
“Today we will cross beyond Celbercor’s Wall,” declared Alinea. Several leagues from their camp of the night before, though the sun was only a few hours up, they had stopped to eat some breakfast, and to let the princesses gather wildflowers.
“Have we come that far?” asked Esme with some surprise. “I thought the journey would be much longer.”
“Before the King’s Road, yes. Quentin’s work in extending the highway has made travel to this part of the kingdom the easier and more quickly done. We may reach Dekra by evening tomorrow if we hurry,” said Alinea. She pointed to the east and south where the mountains lifted their heads to the clouds. “Celbercor’s Wall runs from the sea into those hills of rock. Once beyond it, Dekra is only two days’ ride.”
“Oh, then let us hurry, by all means,” cried Esme. “I have always wanted to visit Dekra. You have told me so much about it, I cannot wait to see it.”
“It is indeed a most remarkable place,” said Bria. She gazed into the distance as if she were looking for the sweeping towers of the city to rise above the horizon. “The Ariga were a noble and beautiful people. Theirs is a city like no other.”
“Yes, and much changed since I first saw it,” Alinea said, and began to tell them about the occasion of her first visit—the flight to Dekra in the dead of winter with Theido and Durwin, Quentin and Trenn; the wild midnight ride to the wall just ahead of the Harriers; Quentin’s near-fatal tangle with the poisoned talons of a Harrier’s hawk, and their anxious vigil over him as he lapsed into a deathlike sleep upon reaching the ancient ruined city; the extraordinary love and kindness of the Curatak who healed him.
When she finished, Esme’s lovely features held a mesmerized look. “I have never heard the story before—oh, a piece of it here and there. But to hear it now like this . . .” She turned admiring eyes upon Alinea. “You were very brave, my lady. You and the others. It is a most remarkable tale. Now I want to see Dekra all the more.”
They rode on, following the road through wooded hills and pleasant lowlands, green and fragrant in the sun. Sometimes they met farmers leading ox-drawn carts, or other travelers—merchants on foot or in wagons, riders speeding on hurried errands to distant parts of the realm. But most often they had the road to themselves for long stretches.
Celbercor’s Wall, that singular, enduring feat of strength and cunning, grew as they approached; first a line crossing the far hills, gray in the distance, with no more substance than a bank of low-lying clouds. Closer, it loomed high and strong, rising from the crown of hills with solid force, the sun shining full on its blank, stern face.
The road bent along the face of the wall toward the Malmar Inlet. The travelers rode down the long, wooded slope to the rocky shore of the inlet. There they stopped, watered the horses, and waited.
“How will the ferrymen know to come for us?” asked Esme.
“Watch,” replied Bria. One of the knights had made his way along the shore to a tall pine pole standing in a heap of stones. There he fastened a red pennon to a cord attached to the pole and raised the pennon to the top, where it waved smartly in the breeze. “You see? We have only to wait a little. The ferrymen will see the signal and come at once.”
“It was Quentin’s idea. When he used to travel frequently between Askelon and Dekra, it was often difficult to find a boat on this side of the inlet. So he established the ferry, hoping, I think, that one day travel to Dekra would much increase.”
They sat on the warm rocks, listening to the calls of seabirds wheeling overhead and the lap of water murmuring to the rocks at their feet. In a little while they saw a wide, flat boat plying toward them across the water.
“Good day, my ladies,” greeted the ferryman when he had brought the boat into the narrow, rock-lined channel that had been cut into the shore. “A good day for travel. Going to Dekra, is it?” He eyed them each with good-natured curiosity.
“Yes, we are,” replied Alinea.
“Allow me to fetch you across first, if you please. Then I’ll return for the coach and horses.”
“Thank you, Rol,” said Bria.
The man turned and looked at her carefully. “My lady? Do I . . . it is! I am sorry, Your Highness! I did not recognize you!” He bowed quickly, reddening with embarrassment.
“It has been some time,” laughed Bria. “And I am hardly dressed the part of a queen.”
“No, my lady.” Rol bobbed his head. He said no more, but went quickly to his work. In no time the passengers were sitting on the broad benches at the bow. Wilkins stayed behind with the animals and the coach.
Rol worked the long oar with his wide strong hands, and the ferry moved out slowly into the deeper channel, floating to meet the current that would carry them across the water.
At Malmarby their arrival was greeted by a score of barefoot children who had flocked to the docks to see the strangers. Travelers were still not so common an occurrence that they did not draw laughter from inquisitive youngsters, as well as amiable stares from their elders.
“I was deeply distressed to hear what happened to young Prince Gerin,” said Rol as he led them up a long, planked ramp.
“You have heard, then. Now you know why we ride to Dekra,” replied Bria.
“Everyone has heard, my lady. Some of us had gone to the hunt. I was there when . . . we know what you must feel. But the Dragon King will find the evil snakes that did this, I know.”
“We are praying for the prince every moment,” said Alinea.
“Yes, my lady,” said Rol. “Perhaps they can help at Dekra. There is much power there.”
“Thank you, Rol,” said Bria.
“If you would excuse me, my lady.” He bowed again and shoved the boat back into the inlet. In no time at all he was back with the coach and horses.
The queen and her entourage remounted and moved on. “I will be here when you return!” shouted Rol, who raised his arms and clapped his hands, shouting and scattering the children in front of him like chickens.
The travelers passed through Malmarby and entered the marshy lowlands beyond. The country in Obrey was wilder, more sparse and open. It changed at once from that on the other side of the inlet, becoming a more forbidding place so that the traveler might well feel he had left the hospitable world behind and entered a land untamed and unpredictable, where anything might happen.
“The coach can go no farther,” announced Wilkins. Little more than a league out of Malmarby, the track had all but vanished. Wilkins had just returned from surveying the trail ahead. “Even on horseback it will not be easy.”
“I had quite forgotten how wild this land is,” said Bria. “What do you advise?”
“Leave the coach,” the driver replied. “One of your bodyguards can ride one of the coach horses, and I the other. Alinea can take the knight’s mount, and the princesses can ride with me.”
“Let me take one of them, at least,” offered Esme.
“And I the other,” said one of the knights.
His comrade dismounted and offered his saddle to Alinea, who accepted. “Thank you. It has been too long since I have ridden bareback, and I do not think I could manage the feat now.”
Wilkins and the first knight began unhitching the horses, then rearranged the baggage, distributing the necessary items among the riders and abandoning the rest along with the coach, which they hid in a bower of young maple saplings and wild ivy. When they had finished, all were mounted once more, and they continued on their way happily, if more slowly.
“My lord,” said the chamberlain softly as he rapped on the door, “Lord Theido and Lord Ronsard have come. They ask that you receive them at once, Sire.”
Quentin sat slumped in his huge chair, staring into the cold ashes on the hearth before him. His eyes were red from lack of sleep. His hair was in disarray and his features coarse and haggard.
“Send them away,” he croaked. “I will see no one.”
“But, Sire, they insist!”
“How many times must I tell you?” the king shouted, seizing a silver cup from the table at his hand and heaving it at the chamberlain’s disappearing head. The cup struck the door, splashing red wine, like blood, over the embossed wood and onto the floor.
He heard voices in the anteroom and then quick steps. His door was flung open, and in came Theido, with Ronsard close on his heels.
“My lord, we would speak with you,” said Theido tersely.
“We do not think it right that you closet yourself, receiving no one,” added Ronsard.
“It seems you give me no choice,” said Quentin. He did not so much as turn his eyes toward them, but continued staring into the ashes as if they were the ashes of his own life, now dead and spent.
“This is not like you, Quentin,” said Theido, deliberately using his name.
This brought nothing but a mirthless smile to the king’s lips. “See? The truth: I am no king and never was. I only played at being king, and my friends humored me as they would a child.” He laughed, an aching, hollow sound. Then he turned his face toward them and asked, “Where is my son?”
One look at his fearful countenance and both men inwardly gasped —so great was the change that had occurred since they had seen their friend last. Gone was the youthful man full of vigor and quick strength, keen-eyed and alert, always sharp as the point of a lance and eagerly winging through life with the reckless vitality of an eagle soaring above the clouds for the sheer joy of soaring.
This man before them appeared as one who had lived in darkness for years, bereft of hope and brittle with despair. One wrong word and he might collapse upon himself in tears or fly into a foaming rage.
“The men are combing the hills and villages beyond Pelgrin. We will find him, Sire.” Theido tried to sound matter-of-fact, though the sight of his distraught king disturbed him greatly.
“We would have come sooner . . . ,” began Ronsard. His voice failed him, and he turned away.
“Go away,” said the king.
“My lord, we would speak to you as friends.” Theido took a step toward him. “Please, I ask as a friend, hear us.”
“Friends,” Quentin mumbled. The word was a curse upon his lips. He passed a hand over his eyes and then asked again, “Where is my son?”
“He will be found. Trust in it; he will be found.”
The Dragon King shot an angry look at the two knights. “Trust in it! He says to trust that my son will be found!” His voice rose higher as rage leaped up in him like a flame. “Trust, eh? Trust what? Trust you? Trust the Most High? Ha! There is nothing that a man can trust. Everything deserts him in the end. Youth fades. Love grows cold. The works of his hands disintegrate—or are torn apart by his enemies!”
The king lurched up out of his chair and took up the long iron poker from the hearth as he began to pace back and forth. “The gods, my friends, the gods! Sooner trust in the weather; it is less fickle than they. The gods taunt a man, build him up so that they may laugh at him when they dash him under the wheels of misfortune. Great sport! See how he writhes and tears at his flesh! See how his heart turns upon himself; see how his pain devours him!”
Theido and Ronsard could only stare at this tirade.
“The Most High!” continued the king. “Do not speak to me of the Most High. He is more subtle and more wicked than all the rest! He tortures his victims with dreams and visions of glory. He prophesies and promises. He delivers their enemies into their hands and raises them up far beyond their rightful place.
“And then he takes it all away. Takes the man’s very heart out of him, strips him of all he holds dear in life and casts him bleeding into darkness! That is the Most High, God of gods! And fool is he who trusts in him!”
With that Quentin threw the poker. It smashed into the table, knocking over a tray of food that had been sitting there cold and untouched. Silver utensils scattered and clattered to the floor.
Quentin staggered, holding his head, and fell back into his chair, exhausted.
A stunned silence hung like a pall over the room. Ronsard touched Theido on the arm, nodded toward the door, and the two left quietly, closing the door behind them.