It is just as we feared,” said Theido. “They have come in force.”
“How many?” asked Ronsard. His cheek was purplish black from a bruise below his left eye. He held himself stiffly, for his muscles ached.
“Six. And they have ridden all night, by the look of them.” The tall knight spoke softly, though the door to the council chamber was closed and the guests within could not hear.
“They did not waste any time,” sneered Ronsard. “They are carrion birds, Theido—vultures come to feed on the flesh of suffering.” He shot an angry look through the stone wall to those who had just arrived and were waiting aside. “What are we going to do? The king cannot attend them; that is out of the question in his present condition.”
“Perhaps,” replied Theido thoughtfully.
“You cannot be serious! Are you thinking of allowing the king to face them?”
“It might do him good. A round with those jackals might shock him out of his despair.”
“It might crush what little is left of his spirit, too.”
Theido nodded gravely. “You could be right. But I do not know what else to do. We cannot keep them waiting in there forever. They will see the king sooner or later; we cannot prevent it. I am afraid Quentin has no choice but to face them.”
“He might succumb . . .”
“Not to them.” Theido jerked his head toward the council chamber door. “Not like this. But they have the power to convene a Council of Regents. If they sway but five more to their cause, it could be done.”
Ronsard nodded gravely. “Has such a thing ever been accomplished?”
“Not in recent memory—but yes. Once or twice. They would declare the king incompetent—”
“As of now that would not be difficult.”
“And they would have to join forces behind one of their own number. That might prove more difficult—getting them all to agree on who the new king should be. There are many proud lords who believe themselves the only reasonable choice.”
“We have an ally in vanity—thank the Most High for that!”
Theido nodded and ran his hand through his hair with the air of a man who does not welcome taking the next necessary, and possibly fatal, step across a treacherous bridge.
“Go on,” nudged Ronsard. “It must be done. I will wait here and keep an eye on them until you return.”
“And pray, Ronsard. Pray the king has enough wits about him to fend off this attack.”
Pym walked along more quickly for the lack of his usual baggage, but he missed the bang and clang of his pots and tools—his own musical accompaniment wherever he went. He wiped the damp from his face. At least the rain had stopped, and the sky showed signs of clearing before long; it was already shining blue away to the east.
“Ah, Tip, d’ye see?” said the tinker. “We’uns’ll have the sun soon enough. Yes, sir. Won’t have to walk in the rain no more, eh?”
The black dog raised her head to her master and barked once to show that she was glad to be traveling again.
“Yes, fearful it were, Tip. Fearful, I tell ye. You should’a seen the king—should’a seen him. All dark and broken was he, more monster than man to look at him. Nivver seen a body looked like that! No, sir. Never have, Tip. Him locked away in his own chambers a pris’ner. That’s what he were—a pris’ner.”
Pym’s eyes grew round as he remembered his audience with the Dragon King. “What could make a man like that, Tip? I ask ye, what could make him like that? I’ll tell ye—that sword! Yes. The loss of it drives him mad. I know it, yes, I do. Don’t I, Tip? Yes, sir.
“He’s lost his son and now his sword, and it drives him mad as a weasel-bit dog. Yes, it does. We’uns’ve got to bring the king his sword, Tip. The sword we found, it must be his—or, if not, mayhaps ’twill do fer another. We must bring it to him, Tip.”
The tinker and his dog had left the Gray Goose after one of Emm’s delicious breakfasts, and struck off along the southern road to Pelgrin and the place Pym had hidden the sword he found in the road.
“The king needs a sword, Tip. We’uns’ll give him a sword, won’t we? Yes, sir,” he said as they strolled along. He had heard that talk in the inn and around the town—about the king losing his sword—and had become convinced that the blade he had found in the road belonged to the Dragon King. Pym had known it to be a valuable weapon from the moment he had seen it glimmering in the dust of the road. Now he meant to retrieve the sword from its hiding place and carry it back to the king; that was the message he had meant to deliver to His Highness.
“But the king were in a state, Tip. He was. Couldn’t talk to him— raving mad, he was. Then Master Oswald come and told us there were trouble and I left. I got right out of there, Tip. ’Twere no place for a tinker. No, sir. Glad to go I was.
“And trouble, all right—hoo! They teared down the King’s Temple last night, Tip. Tumbled the walls to the ground, they did. That’s why we have to bring back the sword, Tip. The king needs it now, he does. He needs it now.”
Pym, in his simple way, blamed all the sorry events taking place in the kingdom upon the loss of the king’s sword. He reasoned that if he returned it, all would be made right again somehow. In this belief, he was no different from the rest of the common folk of Mensandor, who held that the king’s power lay in the Shining One and that possession of the flaming sword gave him the right to rule.
The fact that Eskevar himself had chosen Quentin as his heir and successor had long ceased to have any significance in the popular imagination. It was Zhaligkeer, the enchanted sword, that made Quentin king. Without the sword . . . well, who was to say what might happen?
Toli waited with his back to the door of the cell, watching the oblong patch of sunlight as it advanced across the floor. It was starting its climb up the far wall before he heard the footsteps of the guard returning. Prince Gerin sat dejectedly in the corner of the cell they used for their bed, his chin resting in his hands, shoulders rising and falling with every breath. “I will return shortly,” said Toli. “Perhaps with freedom.”
The bolt scraped and the hinge creaked, and the guard shoved his foot into the crack. “Stay back,” the guard warned. Toli stepped away from the door. “That is better. He will see you now. Follow me—and if you try any tricks, I have orders to stop you by any means. Hear me?” The temple guard rubbed his sore neck; there was a red welt where the door had squeezed it earlier.
“I hear you,” replied Toli. “Take me to the high priest now.”
The guard jerked his head for Toli to march ahead of him, waited behind to bolt the door once more when the Jher was out of the cell, and then led him off to Pluell’s chamber. Another guard had been sent to accompany them in case Toli entertained any notions of escape.
Through corridors cool and dank as a dungeon—for sunlight had not shown inside the temple in a thousand years—the guards pushed Toli, until at last they came to stand before a wide, arching door. The guard rapped once upon the door frame with an iron ring that was attached to a sconce. “Enter,” said a voice from within.
The guard opened the door and pushed Toli ahead of him into the chamber. Pluell waited for them, sitting in a high-backed chair, dressed in a priest’s robe of fine velvet with his hands folded meekly in his lap. “You wish to see me?” he asked. He might have been addressing one of his priests who had come seeking guidance in a matter of conscience.
“Do not think you can hold yourself above the treason, priest,” said Toli. He spoke firmly and with authority, and saw the effect of his words in the tightening of the skin around the high priest’s eyes.
“Leave us,” snapped Pluell to the guards looking on. “Wait outside, but do not wander away.” When they had gone, he looked at Toli with a long, appraising glance. “You cannot think that this is any of my doing.”
“Snake!” said Toli. “You would do well to abandon your disguise; I see through it. You are not an innocent instrument of your god. Your hands are as red with the blood of the hermit as those who slew him!”
Pluell stared in sullen silence, then heaved himself out of his chair as if it had suddenly become too hot to sit in any longer. “You do not know,” he cried. “You do not know . . . If he thought I was even talking to you, why, he’d—” The high priest broke off sharply and glanced around as if frightened that he had been overheard.
“Who is with you in this?” demanded Toli, taking a step toward the priest.
Pluell’s hands came up quickly as if to ward off blows. “No—I . . . there is no one.”
“Then you own the deed as yours alone.”
“No!” He shot a sly look at the prisoner before him and then seemed to remember who he was. “You forget the position you are in,” he said in a more subdued tone. “I am the high priest, and you are here under my protection.”
“Protection!” Toli exclaimed. “You dare to abduct the prince and hold the high minister against his will and call it protection?”
“None of that was my doing,” High Priest Pluell retorted. “Have you been harmed? Has the boy? No! You see—I have protected you.”
“Let us go!” Toli’s eyes kindled with a fierce inner flame.
Pluell turned away and paced slowly to one of his hanging tapestries as if examining it.
“You must know,” Toli continued, “that with every moment that passes, the king’s anger against those who have wronged him grows stronger. It is a fire that will consume all in its path.”
Pluell still stared at the arras, but said nothing.
“Think! You can divert some of the king’s wrath and lessen the severity of his judgment.”
“How?” asked Pluell, his voice soft and weak.
“Let us go,” said Toli simply. “Let us leave at once.”
“So you can tell the king where you have been and who has kept you? No! I would be a fool. It has gone too far.”
“Not too far—not yet. Let us go now. Do you think that the king will not soon learn where his son is hidden? His men are searching the hills and villages beyond the forest now. They will come to the temple as I did.” He waited for his words to have effect. “Let us go.”
The high priest seemed on the verge of making a decision and then drew back from the course he had chosen. “No,” he said again. “I dare not let you go.”
“Then let the prince go, at least. I will stay in his place. This the king will count to your credit; it will greatly appease him.”
Pluell considered this, but hesitated.
Toli pressed his advantage. “Set the boy free. Let him go now before the king learns where he is and comes with his knights in force. Free the prince. I will stay; I do not care what happens to me as long as the boy is freed safely.”
High Priest Pluell turned toward Toli once again; he had made up his mind. He opened his mouth to assent to Toli’s plan, but before he could speak a voice from the door scoffed, “A pretty speech for a Jher dog!”
Toli and the priest whirled around; neither had heard anyone enter the room. There stood a twisted old man whose face was as lined and creased as the back of an oak. White hair started out from his head, and a long white beard flowed down his thin chest.
“You worm!” shouted the old man at the priest as he approached menacingly from across the room. “You were about to let the princeling go, eh?”
“No! That is, I—”
Toli watched as the mysterious old man advanced on the priest and the priest shrank away. Who was this ancient who held such power over the high priest?
As if reading Toli’s thoughts, the stranger stopped and turned to him and gave him a flesh-withering grimace. “So? You do not recognize your old enemy. But then, you never thought to see me again, did you? Look at me!”
The realization struck Toli like the kick of a horse, rocking him back on his heels. His mind reeled.
“Yes, Nimrood! Ha, ha! Nimrood has returned to settle his accounts. And you will pay for the torment I received at your hands, Jher. Oh, yes. You should have killed me when you had the chance long ago, for I mean to kill you—but not before all Mensandor learns to fear the name of Nimrood!”
“The king will stop you. You will fail.”
“Oh, I have plans for the king. Great plans. His subjects will see him grovel on his knees before me; the whole world will see him humbled. Yes, your brave king will lick the dust from my boots; he will acknowledge me before his realm.” Nimrood threw back his head and laughed loud and long, then shouted, “Guards!”
Two temple guards burst into the room, fairly stumbling over themselves to obey the summons. “Take the prisoner away,” ordered Nimrood. “I have finished with him for now. Take him away!”
They seized Toli by the arms and hauled him roughly from the room and back through the corridors of the temple. Behind them Toli could hear the insane cackling laughter of the wicked old sorcerer ringing after them down the deserted halls.
Nimrood! thought Toli, still stunned by the knowledge. Nimrood has returned!