The meal had been simple, wholesome fare: brown bread and white cheese, braised meat, early vegetables, and fruit. Esme, enraptured with Dekra, thought each dish a delicacy, and savored every bite.
She spoke little during the meal, but listened to all that was said around her. There was a quality to the voices she heard—a song that rang in the air, faintly but noticeably; it was music to charm her soul. Upon reaching their rooms in the visitors’ quarters of the Governor’s Palace, they had bathed in fresh, sun-warmed water and changed clothes, accepting clean new gowns of white with light summer mantles of blue, tied at the waist with long blue sashes. They had rested then on clean feather beds, awaking refreshed when their young guides came for them.
When they reached Elder Jollen’s dwelling, the stars were beginning to light the twilight sky, and the sound of laughter drifted out of the courtyard adjoining his home. Many of Dekra’s people had been invited to make welcome the important visitors. There were candle lanterns all around—lining the tops of the walls and hanging from the trees. A long table had been brought outside where they could sit; others made themselves comfortable on cushions or benches along the wall. After they had eaten, songs were sung, and the elders told stories to the amusement of all.
The evening passed like a dream, a dream of happiness and light, of 973 fullness and peace. Flowing peace, thought Esme, like a river. Not merely the absence of care, but a deeper, all-absorbing trust in the ultimate rightness of things. Like a river that runs along its course, be it rocky or smooth, accepting both with equal ease, never allowing the rocks to stanch the flow, filling the deep and shallow places alike, covering all and flowing on.
All this Esme received from looking and listening: looking at those around her and listening to her heart.
When at last they were alone with the elders—the little princesses were carried back to their beds sound asleep—Bria began to tell them why they had come. Esme waited to see how the elders would receive this news, and what they would do about it.
They were unusual men, these elders, she thought as she watched them nodding their heads gravely; their very presence invoked an aura of wisdom and trust. Only moments before they had been telling funny stories and laughing the loudest of any. They sat or moved among their people without regard for their exalted position—indeed, more like servants than leaders. But now they sat in solemn council, entering into the troubled events that Bria described with empathy and compassion. Not as judges, but as sympathetic friends, they listened with all attention, sometimes nodding, sometimes shaking their heads sadly, but listening until the queen was finished.
“. . . And that is why we have come to you,” Bria was saying. “We did not know what else to do.”
Elder Orfrey, the man chosen to replace Yeseph, spoke gently in answer. “You have done well to come here. We will help you all we can.”
“Ah, the many shapes of evil,” said Elder Patur. “Darkness is most inventive in its combat with the light.”
“But powerless in the end,” added Elder Clemore.
“Yes, as long as men refuse to give in to it,” said Elder Jollen.
“The battle rages on all sides,” said Patur, “and men are drawn into the melee whether they will or no. I see that the battle has come once more to Askelon and to the king. But it is ever thus—darkness fears the places where light burns the brightest, and these the darkness would destroy.”
“What can be done?” asked Bria. Esme wondered the same thing.
“That is the responsibility of the Most High,” replied Clemore. “We will seek his guidance.”
“Yes, through prayer,” said Patur. “We will hold a prayer vigil for Quentin and young Gerin, Toli, and the others. Concerning Durwin, though we mourn his passing, we will rejoice in his entrance to the kingdom of the Most High, and pray that his reward is great. We will begin at once.”
With that the men joined hands with the women and began to pray. Esme, who had never prayed in this fashion, felt awkward at first, but relaxed and turned her mind to the prayers of the elders. As she listened, she felt a moving within her; her heart quickened, responding to the words, but also to something more: a presence unseen, but distinct. It was as if the Most High had come to sit among them, entering into their prayer.
Esme’s scalp prickled at the thought—a god who walks among his people! How strange. Gods were remote, disinterested, living in their mountains or in their temples, served by man, but never serving, as likely to harm as to help if it pleased them.
At that moment she gave herself to the God Most High, saying to herself, “I know not of your ways as others here; but, Most High, if you will receive me, I will follow you. For I, too, would learn of you and serve you.”
In response Esme felt a slight rising sensation, as if her soul were being lifted up. By this she knew that her prayer had been heard and accepted. She gripped the hand on either side of her more tightly, and felt life begin to trickle through her heart once more, after being dried up for so long.
Pym stood in the darkness of the king’s chamber. He could hear him breathing slowly, rhythmically, like an animal in its lair. Should he speak? he wondered. Should he wait until addressed?
The moment stretched to an awkward length, and still the king said nothing. Pym cleared his throat hesitantly. He waited.
“Well?” asked a voice out of the darkness. The voice rasped like the voice of an old man. “What do you want?”
“I’ve come—,” began Pym.
But before he could continue the king shouted at him, “I do not care why you have come! Go away and leave me!”
The tinker saw the hulking form before him suddenly lurch to its feet and stagger toward him. He took a frightened step back. “Sire, I meant no harm. I meant—”
“Get out of here! Can you not see I want to be left alone?”
Pym made a move toward the door.
“No! Wait! You have news of my son?” the Dragon King asked. He came near and gripped the tinker by his shoulders, blowing his breath in the man’s face.
Pym recoiled from the grasp and from the king’s foul breath. “Nay! I have no sech news,” Pym managed to stammer.
“Ach!” cried the king, and released him with a shove that sent him flying.
Pym slammed against the door and stayed there, petrified. Surely the king would not kill him, would he?
“What is it?” spat the king savagely. “Well? Tell me. Have you lost your tongue?”
Before Pym could reply, there came a hasty knock behind him, and the door was shoved open, sending the tinker sprawling.
“Sire! Come quickly. Something is happening! Trouble, Your Majesty! Come quickly.”
In the light from the open door Pym saw the king—face as gray as ashes, dark circles under his eyes, cheeks sunken and hollow. He looked like a wraith who had come back from the grave, not a flesh-and-bone man with warm blood in his veins. Was this the great Dragon King?
Without a second glance, the king swept by him and out of the door. Pym scrambled to his feet and peered through the doorway. There were other voices now ringing down the corridors. Pym paid them no attention; his only thought was to leave at once and get as far away as possible before the king came back and found him still there.
He crept out of the chamber and back along the now-deserted passageways of the castle, coming at length to the entrance. He stepped out into a cool night, bright with stars. Tip lay waiting for him with head on paw.
“It’s home fer we’uns, Tipper,” said Pym, still shaken by what had happened to him. Tip wagged her tail. “Back t’ the Gray Goose we go right enough.”
He cast a last look behind him and then made his way across the inner ward yard and through the gate into the outer ward yard and toward the castle gatehouse. The great gates were closed, but a keeper stood near the smaller door, which was still open within the larger.
Pym said nothing, but hurried on by, through the gatehouse tunnel, lit with torchlight, and onto the huge drawbridge. Upon reaching the ramp he slowed, feeling like a malefactor escaped from the castle dungeons to freedom. He walked along the streets and as he turned toward the inn, heard a rumbling like the sound of distant thunder carried on the wind. He stopped and listened.
A group of men came around the corner—a dozen or more, shouting loudly and carrying oily, smoking torches. They brushed by him in the narrow street, hurrying away. One look at their wild, twisted faces, and Pym knew that they meant no one any good.
He shivered as he watched the men disappear down a side street. Shouts echoed in the empty streets far off. Pym shook his head dismally. “Aye, there be trouble, Tip. Master Oswald spoke aright. Come along, old girl. ’Tis no night fer we’uns to be about.”
They hurried back to the Gray Goose. In the distance the rumbling could still be heard intermittently; not thunder now, but the drums of battle just before the inevitable clash.