By the time Theido reached the site with his small force of knights, the destruction was almost complete. Three walls had been toppled, and the fourth was wobbling under the stress of ropes and poles in the hands of scores of frenzied townspeople.
“My lord, we have come too late,” said the knights at Theido’s right hand. His face flickered in the blaze of torchlight around them. “Do you want us to disperse them?”
Theido watched the men screaming and leaping to their task, obviously caught in the rage of destruction. At that moment the upper layer of stones on the last wall gave way and tumbled to the earth—thudding with such force that the ground shook and reverberated like a drum.
“No, not yet,” replied Theido. “Someone could get hurt. I do not want anyone killed; the damage is done already.”
“We should do something,” the knight insisted. “The King’s Temple . . .” His voice trailed off as he gestured hopelessly to the ruin.
“What would you have us do?” snapped Theido angrily. “The deed is done! Broken heads will not save anything. Look at them out there— the whole town has gone mad!” Theido stared into the mob. Ropes snaked out through the air; poles thrust against stone; shouts became a growling chant as another whole section of the wall caved in. A cheer went up. It was the cry of a beast.
Theido said wearily, “Send the men around the perimeter to ring them in. When it is done, disperse them. We will not have this insanity spread. Do not hesitate to use the flat of your swords. But I want no unnecessary hurt done to anyone—is that understood?” The knight nodded. “See to it, then. I am returning at once to the castle.”
From the high battlements Quentin watched the assault on his new temple in mute agony. The hill on which the temple was being constructed blazed with torchlight, and he could hear the shouts of the townspeople clearly in the night air, though the building site lay some distance away from the castle. He saw the churning mass around the walls, and he saw the stones of his great temple fall.
Those around the king held their tongues, afraid to speak, fearful of what he might do. The cold, unnatural light on his haggard face created a ferocious, almost savage aspect. Muscles tense, limbs rigid, the veins in his neck and forehead standing out, eyes staring from his head in horror—he appeared ready to leap over the battlements at any moment, or of a disposition to tear the limbs from any who came near him.
Quentin stood as stone and watched the desolation of his dream take place before his very eyes. With every stone that fell to earth, a piece of him was laid waste, and he could do nothing but watch and feel the wound in his soul knifing deeper with every section of wall that thundered down.
When the last wall came crashing onto the pile of rubble, he turned without a word and went back to his chamber. Theido found him there, sitting in the dark.
Taking a candle from a holder in the outer chamber, the stalwart knight approached the king. He lit the candles on the table and several others on their stands around the room, moving quietly, as if he feared disturbing his monarch’s meditations.
When he had finished, he put his candle in a holder on the table and went to stand before the king. Quentin did not look at him; his eyes were trained upon a scene far away.
“There was nothing to be done,” said Theido gently. “They will be dispersed and sent home.”
The Dragon King said nothing for a long time. Theido waited, uncertain whether the king had heard him or not. Silence stretched between them like a web.
“Why?” asked Quentin at last. His voice was raw. The single word spoke volumes of misery.
Theido watched his friend, knowing that he was being devoured inside. When the hurt grew too much, the knight looked away. He could think of nothing to say that would ease the pain.
“Always before there has been a sign,” said Quentin, speaking more to himself than to Theido. “Always before the way was shown clearly— when I most needed to be shown. Always.” In the candlelight the years seemed to roll away from the king’s face. He appeared once more the young temple acolyte Theido had met in the hermit’s hut so many years ago. Even his voice took on the plaintive note of a young boy who had lost his way. “Where is he now? Where is the sign? Why has he abandoned me?” The words hung in the silence, unanswered.
“I saw it, you know, Theido.” Quentin glanced at his friend, acknowledging him for the first time. The next words were spoken in a rush. “I saw it all. In that moment when the Zhaligkeer struck the star, when the light of the new age blazed on earth, driving the darkness before it—I saw it.”
“What did you see, Sire?” Theido asked the question as one would ask a child.
“The temple. The City of Light which I was to build. The Most High showed me his Holy City. I felt his hand upon me . . .” He paused and looked at Theido forlornly. “But no more. He has gone from me. I am condemned.”
“Condemned? Who could condemn you, Sire? Certainly you have ever done what the god required. You above all others have lived according to his way. Durwin said you were chosen.”
“Marked, you mean! Marked for failure. Durwin is dead. The god is gone from me. I stand condemned by my own hand. I killed him, Theido. I did—I, the Dragon King, cut him down with as little thought as one would give a rabid dog. I killed him, and the Most High punishes me with my failure.”
Theido could only think it was Durwin that Quentin referred to. “Sire, you did not kill him. How can you think such a thing?”
“No, it is true! I am telling you the truth!” screamed Quentin, throwing himself from his chair. “I killed him, and the flame went out! The flame died in my hand! The light is gone, Theido. Gone.”
Theido stared at the king, mystified by the outburst. He could make nothing of it; it was the incoherent raving of a madman.
Quentin threw his hands over his face. His shoulders started to heave, but at first there was no sound. Then Theido heard the sobs come forth.
“Darkness,” he cried, “all is darkness!”
“Ooo!” Ronsard moaned. He tried to open his eyes. Only one would open; the other was swollen shut where he had been kicked. He ached in a dozen different places, and his ribs sent stabs of pain through him with every breath.
“There, now . . . take it easy. Do not be too quick to get up, sir,” said the voice in his ear.
Ronsard turned his good eye toward the sound and saw the face of Milcher the innkeeper bending over him. “The wife has gone to bring a cold cloth for your head. Don’t you worry, now. Just sit back.”
Ronsard looked around the room. Benches were overturned and tables stood on edge, but no one remained of the mob that had been there before. “Where are they? Where have they gone?”
“I do not know, nor do I want to know.” Milcher reached for a jar and held it up to Ronsard’s lips. “Drink some of this; ’twill clear the cobwebs from your head.”
Ronsard took the jar and sipped the cool ale and felt the tingle on his tongue. The drink revived him a bit; his head cleared. “Who was he?”
“Sir?” Milcher blinked back at him.
“You know who I mean—Longbeard. Who is he? Where did he come from?” Ronsard made to get up, but the effort sent pain booming through his head. “Ooo!”
“Careful there, sir.” Milcher held him under the arms and helped him to his feet.
Milcher’s round wife returned, sat the knight down in a chair, and pressed the cool cloth against his bruised head. Ronsard sipped some more ale. “Look at this mess!” She clucked her tongue in disgust.
“What happened ’ere?” a new voice asked. Ronsard looked up to see the tinker enter the inn and come toward him.
“There was a riot,” explained Milcher. “They worked themselves into a fit—a roaring fit! I never have seen a thing like it.”
Emm frowned. “And just the moment my back is turned, too.” She said it as if her husband was somehow to blame for all that had happened in her absence. “This gentlemen”—she indicated Ronsard—“tried to talk some sense into them, and look what happened. He got his head broken for his trouble.”
Pym only nodded sadly. Tip held her head to one side and whined sympathetically.
“Well,” replied Ronsard, “it will not be the first time I have had my head broken in the service of the king. Probably not the last time either, the truth be known.”
“How’s that, sir?” asked Milcher suspiciously.
Ronsard remembered his disguise, shrugged, and said, “I am a king’s man. My name is Ronsard.”
“Lord high marshal!” gasped Milcher. “I remember you.”
“No longer—but I am on an errand for the king. I meant no harm in my deception. I only came to hear the talk here in town and thought that tongues would wag more freely if there was not a nobleman about.” He fixed Milcher with a stern look. “Now, then, what of this Longbeard? I would hear all you know.”
“There is nothing you have not already heard, good sir. He came here much as any stranger might. Drank little, talked to some, and left, saying he might be back. He had business that would keep him in Askelon awhile, he said—as I have already told you.”
“Then what was that they said?” He jerked his head to indicate the now nonexistent crowd. ”All that about ‘Have you seen him? Did he change his mind?’ That referred to the king, I’ll warrant.”
“I do not know, sir. I only know what I have told you. An innkeeper cannot be responsible for all the talk that goes on within his walls. I keep a good house.”
“I am certain you do,” replied Ronsard. Milcher was getting worked up, and he saw no reason to keep at him; the strain of the night’s events was telling on them all. “I will inquire after this Longbeard elsewhere. But you must let me know if you hear anything more.”
“He will,” said Emm darkly, and helped Ronsard to his feet. “Never fear, he will. I will see to it.”
“I am sorry—,” Ronsard began.
“No damage done, at least none that cannot be fixed right enough. Get you home to bed and give your head a rest,” said Milcher, leading him to the door.
The knight stepped out into the cool night air. The street was empty and very quiet—an unnatural quiet, it seemed to Ronsard. He knew that some violence had been loosed on the world; he could feel it deep within him, as surely as he felt his bruises. He started off down the street and then remembered he had left his horse at Milcher’s barn behind the inn.