To Pym, the inside of Askelon Castle was utterly and inexpressibly remote—like a castle of the gods in the far mountains. He had often seen the high, forbidding walls rising from the great crown of rock on which the castle was founded, and had as often wondered what the inside looked like.
Of course he had been through the gates on occasion—on his visits to the kitchens, where he did his business with the king’s staff. But never had he been invited into the castle itself, and the close proximity served to heighten, rather than diminish, his curiosity.
But now it appeared he would be allowed through the gates and into the halls and chambers beyond—perhaps even to stand in the Great Hall of the Dragon King. Reluctantly he said good-bye to Tip, being forced to leave the dog in the inner ward yard, and turned to wait for the chamberlain who would conduct him inside. He had come at dusk, after his day’s work was finished, thinking that kings worked sunrise to sundown like other men, and that he would have a better chance of an audience when the king’s daily labors were done.
Ordinarily Oswald—son of Oswald the Elder, who had died some years ago, following the death of Eskevar—would not have dreamed of letting the little tinker inside the castle, but would have sent him straightaway to the kitchens. But he was overwhelmed with anxiety for the king. Quentin had sunk further into depression and did not stir from his stuffy chamber, which he now kept sealed and dark as a tomb.
Oswald feared for the king. Even Theido had been powerless to effect any change in the king’s behavior. So anything was worth a try— even a tinker who had come to the gates insisting on seeing the king, saying he had important information for him, information that only the Dragon King himself could hear.
“I am Oswald, the king’s chamberlain,” he explained. “What do you want?”
Pym, sitting on a stone bench just under the archway of the main castle entrance, stood up quickly and came forward. “Good sir, if ye please, be s’kind as to bring me to the king. We’uns’ve a pressing matter t’ set afore His Highness.”
“The king,” informed Oswald coldly, hoping to draw information from the man, “sees no one who will not state his business to me.”
Pym scratched his jaw. “That I cannot say, sir. It is fer the king.” He leaned forward and confided, “But I kin tell ye this much . . .”
“Yes?” Oswald glared at the man, but he seemed not to notice.
“It be veery, veery important. That’s what ’tis, yes?”
“And what does this important information concern?”
“That be fer the king, sir. Not fer no’un else.”
Oswald could see that the man was adamant about an audience with the king. He looked harmless enough, and who could say but that the tinker might indeed have something that could be useful to his master, though that seemed highly unlikely. Still there was a possibility, and in this dark time even the minutest chances might be snatched at.
“What is your name, sir?” asked Oswald.
“Pym, sir. Pym ’tis, and Pym ’t always will be.”
“Very well, Pym. Although it is not my proper course to admit you like this, I will. But if you waste the king’s time and my own with worthless drivel or idle rumor such as is heard in any village market or inn, I will have you removed promptly. Do you understand? You will never be welcome in Askelon again!” He looked at the tinker sharply. “Now, then, do you still want to see His Majesty?”
“I do, sir.” Pym swallowed hard.
“Do you still maintain that your information is vital to his ears alone?”
With that, Oswald the Younger had turned on his heel and walked away. Pym hesitated. “Well?” Oswald asked. “Are you coming?”
Pym nodded and hurried after the chamberlain. They marched along a wide, polished corridor where servants moved, hurrying about their chores. To Pym, the smooth stone walls and oak-beamed ceilings seemed things of enchanted origin. He marveled at even the most commonplace furnishings he glimpsed along the way, for they were royal furnishings. This was the home of the Dragon King, and these were the Dragon King’s chattel.
Past countless doorways they went, past halls—each with huge carven doors—and galleries hung with giant tapestries of rich design. Up stairs and down stairs they went, deeper and deeper into the heart of the castle, and with every step Pym grew more excited. He was to see the king!
Finally they stopped in a short passageway of paneled oak—the royal apartments. Oswald led them to a door that bore the carved and red-lacquered figure of a terrible, twisting dragon. The chamberlain put his hand to the latch and said, “Wait here; I will announce you.”
Pym, with palms sweating now, wiped his hands on the backside of his trousers, shifted first on one foot, then on the other. Perhaps it was a mistake—perhaps it would be better to tell the chamberlain and let him decide if the king should hear his story. Yes, without a doubt. Let the chamberlain decide.
But before Pym could change his mind, Oswald reappeared, and he was yanked inside. Oswald took him through this first room—there were chairs and a great long table piled high with many scrolls of plans for buildings and a gleaming suit of armor standing on its frame—and to a door at the farther end, to the king’s inner chamber.
Oswald knocked softly, opened the door, and pushed Pym in. “Sire, Pym the tinker to see you.” The door closed quickly and quietly behind him, cutting off his only escape.
Pym tottered forward on shaky knees, his eyes unused to the darkness, his mind reeling in the awesome knowledge that he was in the presence of the mighty Dragon King. It was almost more than he could endure.
As evening came on, the inn grew crowded and the conversation more intense. Amid the clink of ale jars in the hazy, murk-filled room, Ronsard, in his disguise as an ordinary laborer, listened and watched all that took place around him.
Something was at work; he could sense it, feel it. All gathered at the Gray Goose could feel it too. A heightened impatience, a simmering restlessness seethed just below the surface. Expectation, at first casual, had been drawn tighter and tighter until it hummed like a bowstring. Anticipation quivered in every voice, danced in every eye.
Tonight there would be trouble.
Ronsard had seen moods like this before in crowds of men. On the battlefield it could send troops into a foaming fury to drive the enemy into flight. It could just as easily turn back on itself and ignite flames of fear, causing even field-proven veterans to abandon their arms in mortal terror. Which way it turned depended on the leader.
But who was the leader here? he wondered. That white-bearded traveler the innkeeper had mentioned?
Ronsard drifted unseen from table to table, listening here and there to what was said, trying to determine not only what sparked this unnatural mood, but also what course it would take when it broke.
“I tell ’ee,” said a man, “the gods er angered.”
“’Tis the fault o’ the king. Any man, blind or not, can see that plain enough,” said another.
“It is no good going against them. No good at all.”
“Dangerous it is! Dangerous!”
“Something must be done!”
“The sword is lost, did you hear? The Zhaligkeer is lost.”
“Aye, there’s trouble coming. It has brought us nothing but trouble. What’s wrong with the old ways?”
“Old ways are best! By the gods!”
“The Shining One gone? What can it mean?”
“The kingdom is without a king! That is what it means!”
So the voices went. And of all the gossip Ronsard heard, one item concerned him more than any other: they knew about the missing sword. The king’s enemies would know soon, if not already, and then the infighting would start.
Would Quentin be equal to it? Ordinarily, yes. But not now, not in his present condition.
Ronsard settled back along a rear bench and watched the room as one would watch a cauldron beginning to boil. Would this stranger, this Longbeard, show himself ? What if he did not come—what would happen? Ah, what would happen if he did appear? That was more to be feared.
Ronsard stood and was about to return his long-empty ale jar to the bar when Longbeard entered. Ronsard did not see or hear him. Rather, he knew the man had appeared by the sudden tension in the room, the thrill that tingled in the dank, smoky air.
The inn grew hushed.
“He is here!” said a voice close by.
“There he is. That’s the one I told you about.”
“Ah, yes. Here he is.”
“Now we will find out what to do.”
“Longbeard will tell us what to do!”
The whispers swirled around the gnarled old man like dry leaves around a bent old tree. Longbeard moved into them easily. If he understood the sensation his sudden appearance had caused, he showed no outward sign of it.
Ronsard watched him walk to the center of the room, making his way to the bar. The inn was completely silent now. All eyes were on the old man with the flowing white hair and beard. Watching. Waiting.
Then came a shout. “Longbeard! Have you seen him?”
Seen whom? wondered Ronsard.
Longbeard turned toward the voice and replied, speaking normally, but so every ear could hear him, “Yes. I have just come from his chambers.”
A man standing near him asked, “Will he change his mind?”
“No.” Longbeard shook his head slowly, with infinite sadness. “He will not change his mind.”
“Then we must take matters into our own hands,” shouted someone from across the room.
“Tell us what to do,” said another.
Longbeard held up his hands. “It is not for me to tell you what to do. I am a simple man like yourselves. I know not the ways and minds of gods or kings.”
The knowledge stung Ronsard like the blow from the flat of a sword. The king! He was talking about the king! Quentin was the “he” this Longbeard mentioned.
But how was this possible? It was improbable that this white-bearded old stranger had been allowed to see the king. The Dragon King had shut himself in his rooms and would see no one—not even his closest friends, as Ronsard well knew. Yet, the implication was plain: I have been to see the king, and he will not change his mind. Change his mind about what? What game was this twisted old root playing? What was his aim?
I must speak to him alone, thought Ronsard. I must get him out of here some way and take him where we can talk without being overheard. There are too many people here. The situation could get out of hand.
But before Ronsard could form a plan in his mind, someone shouted, “Tear the King’s Temple down!”
“By all the gods, yes. Tear it down!” answered another.
Other voices took up the shout and added their agreement. Benches were thrown over as men jumped up. In an instant every man in the room was on his feet, fists in the air, crying for the destruction of the King’s Temple.
This, then, is the spark that ignites the flame, thought Ronsard. But there must be a way to stop it. He glanced around for a place to stand, saw an empty table nearby, and jumped up on it.
“Friends, what you propose to do is wrong. It is very dangerous as well. Some of you could get hurt—hurt very badly. Maybe even killed. It is no small thing to go against the king. Do you think he will not defend his temple? How many of you would make your wives widows this night?”
Ronsard noticed that some of the eyes slid away from his uneasily. Good, he thought, this is working. But I must give them something now.
“Let us instead send a petition before the king,” suggested the knight. “We will demand that he account to us for the raising of this temple. The petition can be our voice.”
There were mutters of agreement all around. Hot heads were cooling under Ronsard’s sobering logic. He drew a sleeve across his face to wipe away the sweat.
“Please,” he continued in a more reasonable tone, “for your own sakes, and for your families, let us all sit down together and draw up the petition.”
“When?” said someone close by.
“At once—here and now!”
“And then?” the same voice asked.
“And then I will take it to the king personally.” Yes, thought Ronsard, this is working. A disaster had been averted tonight.
But just as he framed the thought, there came a shout from across the room. He glanced up to see old Longbeard standing on a table pointing at him.
“Lies!” Longbeard screamed. “Lies!” Before Ronsard could speak the old man shouted, “Do any of you know this man?”
The crowd grumbled its answer: no one knew him.
“Ah, you see!” shouted Longbeard. “He is one of the king’s men. I saw him when I went to see the king this evening. He was there. The king sent him here as a spy among us!”
“No! It is not true! I only want to help you.”
“King’s man!” a burly peasant shouted behind him.
“It is true: I am a friend of the king. But I am no less your friend. I am warning you: do not go against him in this matter. Do not take th—”
Before Ronsard could finish speaking, he felt the table on which he was standing rise up, tilting away from him.
“Lies!” they shouted. “Liar! We’ll do for you!”
The table tipped, and Ronsard was pitched to the floor. He landed on his side, and the fall knocked the wind out of him. He rolled to his knees, gasping for breath.
A boot lashed out and struck him in the ribs. A fist caught him behind the ear. He struggled for his feet.
The room spun crazily. The air was heavy, and Ronsard found it hard to breathe. Loud voices buzzed in his ears, but he could not hear what they were saying. Feet and fists pummeled him.
Ronsard rolled into a ball to protect himself, throwing his arms over his head. A table crashed to the floor nearby, scattering ale jars. A heartbeat later, light exploded behind his closed eyelids. His limbs jerked convulsively, and he lay still.