Quentin ran blindly down the narrow streets—some little more than footpaths between shuttered dwellings. He cast a hasty glance over his shoulder as he ran, expecting the man on horseback to come charging into view at every turn. His strong legs dodged and turned and flew as his fear carried him away from the scene.
Presently he became winded and ducked into a close passage between two buildings on what might have been the main street of the city of Askelon. He stood out of view of the street and waited to catch his breath and think.
“Go back to Durwin,” he remembered Theido’s voice saying. “He will know what to do.” But he had no horse, and Durwin was a day’s ride away. He could not make it on foot, alone, without provisions; those he would need to secure. He had no idea how or where that might be accomplished.
Not wanting to remain too long in one place, he began walking along the streets; he had not the slightest idea of where he was going— unaware that he was approaching the castle until he happened to look up and see its high walls, soaring above him. He seemed to be drawn to it. For although he twice changed his direction purposefully to avoid coming too near it, lest he be spotted and straightaway taken captive, each time he looked again, he was closer than the last.
In the meantime, the shops in the merchant district, through which he was walking, had begun to open to their daily trade. Although roofs hung heavy with snow and icicles dangled from the eaves, merchants threw wide their shutters onto a bright, cloudless morning and signaled the beginning of another busy day. Soon the cobbled streets echoed with the tramp of busy feet and the strident voices of shopkeepers, patrons, and street vendors exchanging greetings, hawking their wares, and haggling over prices. A number of farmers had braved the cold to set up stalls in which to sell their winter commodities: eggs and cheese, and several types of ale and cider. Large braziers filled with charcoal burned before the stalls. Quentin loitered before these, warming himself and trying desperately to come up with a suitable plan for outfitting his journey.
In the end he decided to risk going back to the inn to recover his horse, provided that it was still there and the kidnappers had not taken it. He turned down a street, by the look of it the craftsmen’s quarters; Quentin saw several artisans’ dwellings—a smith’s forge, the chandler’s, the furrier’s. The furrier—something drew him closer to the place. He stood at the entrance for some time, just looking, wondering why he felt as if he belonged there—an unaccountable feeling. He had never seen the place before in his life.
Quentin paced along the outside of the building and gazed at the brightly painted sign with the picture of a red fox with an exceptionally long, bushy tail. Finally, he turned to move on before someone within, noticing his shameless loitering, urged him away. As he swung away from the door, a small, two-wheeled, covered carriage drawn by a shaggy brown pony drew up. The coach wore a coat of shiny black paint with an insignia on the door—a red, twisting dragon outlined in gold.
The driver, walking ahead, steadied the horse, frisky in the cold morning air, and the hansom’s door swung open. A lady sat within, bundled in a thick robe with a hood over her head. The lady seemed about to disembark when she noticed Quentin standing just before her. She smiled and said, “Boy, come closer.” She threw back her hood to reveal a fine-featured face and long dark tresses spilling over her shoulders. Quentin thought he’d never seen anyone so beautiful in all his life. What is more, she appeared to be his age, for all that he could tell, or if not, only a year or two older. But her manner and bearing let him know that he was no doubt in the presence of royalty.
Quentin stepped woodenly near the carriage and placed his hand upon the door. “Yes, Your Majesty.”
The girl laughed, and Quentin’s face colored deeply. “I am not the queen,” the girl replied. “I’m only Her Majesty’s . . . companion. My lady wishes to be called upon this afternoon by your master.” The girl nodded to the furrier’s shop. “Take this,” she said, handing the surprised Quentin a small folded parchment enclosed by a ribbon and sealed with wax. “It will usher you directly into my lady’s apartment. What time shall I tell her you will call? She suggests after the midday’s repast.”
Quentin, remembering enough of his court etiquette, bowed low and replied none too certainly, “Your gracious servant will attend, m’lady.” He’d mixed the reply, but the spirit was right. The queen’s companion laughed again. Her voice was the joyous bubbling of a happy heart.
“I am certain you will bring your finest furs,” she said. Quentin bowed low again, and the driver, looking neither right nor left, took the bridle strap and led the carriage away.
Quentin stared at the summons in his hand, wondering at his remarkable fortune. The god Ariel, a deity among whose many attributes was serendipity, had fortuitously arranged for Quentin to have his audience with the queen after all. Quentin considered the serving maid’s mistake a miracle of the highest order and stuck the letter into his tunic next to his skin. He moved off quickly, with purpose renewed, forgetting altogether Theido’s command to seek help of the holy hermit Durwin.
With several hours to employ until he should have his audience, Quentin decided to make his way to the gates of the castle, there to be ready for the appointed hour. He planned to use the time to his benefit, arranging precisely what he would say and do in the queen’s presence: how he would confess his subterfuge, deliver his message, and most especially plead for the release of his friend—although he did not know why Theido had been taken, he assumed it to have some connection with the secret communication secured to the inside of his jerkin.
Quentin forgot his fear of the armed men and the skirmish in the stable yard at the inn earlier in the day, believing his mission to be aided by the gods. He strutted forth boldly as if wearing the invincible armor of a king’s knight. The sight of this young master in his ordinary brown cloak and dark green tunic, his slightly overlarge trousers and outer stockings with heavy peasant sandals laced high against the winter cold, swaggering down the center of the street like a whole regiment of king’s men, delighted the townspeople.
Had Quentin noticed the mirth that accompanied his sally to the gates of the castle, he would have slunk away embarrassed. But he did not, so occupied with the deeds and fair fortune that had come his way.
His attitude changed abruptly, however, upon reaching the gates of the fortress Askelon. They were mammoth iron-and-timber constructions wide enough for a whole company of knights to ride through a dozen abreast. They stood as a challenge to anyone who would make war upon King Eskevar to do his worst; the gates had defied fire, axe, and battering ram in siege after siege. From the foot of the long incline of the ramp leading up to the gates, Quentin stood with mouth agape in wonder at the magnificent sight. The castle rose in sweeping lines to tower high into the bright blue winter sky. Red and gold pennons fluttered in the breeze from a score of towers and turrets. Quentin heard the crisp snap of the flags in the icy wind.
Of the five ancient wonders, only Askelon remained. The others— the Fire Fountains of Pelagia, the Ice Temples of Sanarrath, the Cave Tombs of the Braldurean Kings, the Singing Stones of Syphria—all had crumbled away, lost in dim ages past. But Askelon, mighty city of kings, with its dragon curled and sleeping under the hill, stood and would endure forever.
Askelon’s foundations were carved out of the living stone of the hill upon which it rested, itself a mountain of strength and grace. The massive stone curtains had been raised by the brute effort of two thousand quarrymen and laborers under the direction of two hundred masons. That work progressed for one hundred years uninterrupted. Once the outer curtain was raised, the towers were completed and construction on the gatehouse was begun. The gatehouse, the most vulnerable point of the fortress, was itself a singular engineering feat, established and refined over the next fifty years. The work started on the inner curtain, the walls that would enclose the actual working and living spaces for the royal retinue of soldiers, servants, cooks, keepers, warders, stewards, and the whole host of functionaries necessary to the proper maintenance of the empire.
The inner curtain, like the outer curtain, was formed of a double wall; hollow, the interior was filled with earth and loose rubble to withstand the ruinous blows of the battering ram. Once the inner curtain and its towers were enclosed, work began on the apartments and barracks within. In time the configuration of these inner chambers was to change endlessly, each new occupant directing reconstruction to his own personal tastes and the fancies of the time. The outer structure changed also, if more slowly, as new innovations in offensive strategy demanded defensive updating as well. The castle had grown and changed over a thousand years to become the thing of dreadful beauty that Quentin saw as he stood gazing skyward, trying to take it all in with a single prolonged gape. It was all he had ever dreamed and more.
After a time he stepped onto the ramp and began the long, sloping climb to the gates themselves. On his upward journey he was passed by several ox carts and wagons bearing supplies to the castle. He noticed them not at all; his eyes were on the looming battlements and soaring towers of the fortress, which surpassed all his most daring imaginings and, in Quentin’s mind, rivaled the exaggerations men told about it. The walk took much longer than it might have.
When at last he attained the end of the ramp, right up to the end of the drawbridge—that retractable platform spanned a mighty gap from the end of the ramp to the gates at a bone-crushing height above the rocky rubble of the dry moat—Quentin paused. Not wanting to attract the attention of the fierce-looking guards of the gatehouse, he lingered in the shadow of one of the houses built along the ascending ramp in stair-step fashion. The last house furnished a shelter out of the wind, so he settled himself beside a friendly wall to wait.
People passed, hurrying to and fro on business of their own, but Quentin attended to nothing but the task before him. He tried to imagine what the queen would be like. He’d heard stories of the lovely Alinea, but with his extremely limited experience of women, he had trouble thinking of anyone who would be more beautiful than the maid he’d met just that morning. Queen Alinea was said to have long auburn hair that shimmered red in the sun, and deep green eyes the color of forest shade on a summer afternoon. Her voice was held to be an instrument of enchantment; when speaking, or singing, for which she had earned wide renown, it fell like laughing water to the ear. These and other details he’d learned around the priests’ table or from the talk of pilgrims he chanced to overhear when they camped on a summer evening outside the temple, awaiting their oracle.
Queen Alinea, it was said, formed the perfect complement in grace and beauty to King Eskevar’s strength and restless vitality.
When Quentin adjudged midday had passed, he stirred himself, glad to be moving again, for he had grown cold in waiting, and marched resolutely toward the gates. Although the main gates were closed, smaller gates—still wide enough to permit two wagons to pass one another— were open and attended by firm-jawed guards. Quentin did not know the proper protocol for presenting himself to the queen, but he supposed he’d tell the first person he met what he intended and let the natural course carry him along.
The first person, of course, was a guard whom Quentin dutifully approached. But when Quentin opened his mouth to speak, the man waved him on with his lance. He immediately found himself in a low, dark tunnel, the interior of the gatehouse through which the road led into the castle’s outer ward.
Quentin had expected, due to his lack of military knowledge, that upon passing through the gates he’d be inside the castle as one would be upon entering the temple. He found the gatehouse road to be disagreeably frightening; the dark and ominous feel was due to the massive portcullis with its sharp teeth of iron, under which he had to pass, albeit quickly.
Once through the gatehouse, he stood on the perimeter of the outer ward, gazing on another smaller castle surrounded by its own small city of houses, stables, kitchens, storehouses, and attendant buildings. Some of these were stone; others were made of timber and wattle, as in the town below. This inner castle had its own gatehouse, and Quentin made his way there at once. Here security was more stringent, and the guard at the gate demanded to know his business. Quentin produced the folded parchment. The soldier glanced at the seal and waved him on.
Upon emerging from the gatehouse passage, Quentin hesitantly entered a courtyard of some size. The whole of this inner ward was given over to elegant gardens that contained every known flowering plant and tree in the kingdom and beyond. In springtime the inner ward would burst in blooms of riotous color; now it was covered over with a still, white shroud of snow.
As Quentin watched, a man dressed in a long brocaded coat lined with sable—a lord or prince, by the look of his rich clothing—emerged from a stone archway to hurry across the garden to another part of the castle. Quentin waited until the nobleman had passed and then followed him. The man scurried across the snowy expanse and darted into the castle with Quentin right behind.
Once inside, Quentin lost the man when he disappeared into one of the many doors opening off the main corridor. He was standing still, wondering what to do next, when a gruff voice bellowed behind. “Stop! If you have business here, speak up! Well? Out with it!”
Quentin spun on his heel to see a square-built man bearing toward him menacingly. “I have come to see the queen.” He uttered the first words that sprang into his mind.
“Oh, have you, now?” The man frowned furiously. “Clear out! You should know better than to be lurking about my keep. Clear out, I say!”
Quentin jumped back and thrust the sealed packet before him as if to ward off an impending blow. “Please, sir, I have a letter.”
“What is the trouble here, warder?” The voice came from an open door, and Quentin looked up to see the nobleman he’d followed into the castle.
“This one says he’s to see the queen. I think he’s about mischief, I do.”
The man stepped up to Quentin. “Let me see your papers.”
Quentin swallowed hard and offered the sealed parchment to the man. He snatched up the letter and looked at the seal, broke it, and read the message with a cursory glance. “Where is your master?” the man demanded, eyeing Quentin closely.
“He—he could not come, so sent me ahead to beg the queen’s pardon.”
“Hmph—tell your master that he had better value Her Majesty’s requests more highly in the future or he will lose her favor—and the benefit of her trade.” He handed the letter back to Quentin. “Very well, follow me.”
The man was not a lord as Quentin had supposed, but the queen’s chamberlain, and he led Quentin through a maze of corridors and ante- rooms to a high-arched passageway on an upper level of the castle. “Sit down,” the chamberlain commanded at last.
Quentin took a seat upon a low bench across the corridor from a great carved wooden door. A window of thick, frost-covered glass looked out upon the inner ward, and Quentin gazed out blankly, trying to remember what he was going to say to the queen. He had forgotten it all.
The chamberlain entered and exited the apartment several times, as did others, mostly servants and other women. Once or twice Quentin thought he must be seeing the queen herself emerge from her chambers; these visions of beauty, Quentin discovered, were the queen’s personal attendants; however, all were arrayed and conducted themselves very much like queens to Quentin’s unpracticed eye.
After a time the chamberlain emerged once more and came directly to Quentin. “Her Majesty wishes to see you now,” he said and added a further word of instruction for Quentin’s benefit. “When entering the royal apartment, it is proper to kneel until Her Majesty has asked you to rise.”
Quentin nodded and followed the man through the door to her outer apartment. This was a large open room hung with tapestries and richly furnished. A few women sat at looms, weaving and talking as they worked. A minstrel played in one corner to the accompaniment of several ladies singing. The room seemed filled with charming activity. Quentin wondered which of the lovely women he saw was Queen Alinea. But the chamberlain marched him through this room to another, the queen’s private chamber.
The chamberlain knocked once upon the wonderfully carved door and opened it without waiting for a reply. He bowed low and ushered Quentin in. Quentin, not daring to raise his eyes, fell to his knees on the floor.
“Your Majesty, the furrier,” the chamberlain announced, then left at once. The next voice Quentin heard was the queen’s.