Renny, riding the prince’s brown pony, jogged along the well-used track leading to Askelon. He sat erect in the saddle, pretending to be a knight returning to the realm from quests and adventures in faraway lands. He fancied himself returning to the king’s service after a long absence to find his name on the lips of his countrymen and peers, his deeds sung in halls great and small throughout the kingdom.
Yes, to be such a knight, he thought, would be any man’s greatest dream. He would give his life for it—for one hour in the armor of a knight in the saddle of a genuine warhorse. Tarky trotted easily along, Askelon Castle showing misty in the distance over green fields. The world seemed calm and lazy in the warmth of the day, and Renny despaired of finding any adventure on the way, for with every step the castle and its city drew nearer.
Then, as horse and rider reached the bottom of a hill and started up the opposite side, they met another rider galloping fast the other way. The stranger passed by them in a flurry of hooves, his short cloak blowing out behind him, the charger’s tail streaming. He did not so much as glance in the boy’s direction, but thundered by, eyes ahead and hard.
“That’d be a nobleman most like,” said Renny to his mount. “An’ one fleeing something, by the look of it. Maybe highwaymen!”
At once his young head was filled with images of a fierce conflict with a band of ruthless robbers in which he, Sir Renny, bested the whole pack and sent the brigands scrambling back into the Wilderlands where the cowards belonged.
Enticed by such impossible heroics, Renny urged the brown pony to a faster pace as they climbed the hill. Then as they reached the crest and the road stretched out before them once more, Renny saw the scene he had just imagined: a group of brigands menacing a helpless traveler. The only difference he could see was that the highwaymen were on horseback and the poor traveler afoot. He loosed a wild yelp, kicked his heels into Tarky’s flanks, and galloped to the rescue, never thinking that he had no weapon and would not have known how to use one if he had it. Nevertheless, Renny dashed for the thick of the fray with visions of glory dancing before him.
It was about this time that Lord Ameronis and his friends heard the young rescuer approaching. Renny saw a sword lifted up about to strike and gave vent to another war whoop, urging Tarky to greater speed as they came flying down the hill, elbows flapping, legs akimbo.
Here it was that the lords prevailed upon their leader to spare the tinker and to make clean their retreat with the king’s sword. They all turned at once and galloped toward Renny, who swallowed hard, put his head down, and charged into them.
At the precise moment of collision, Renny squeezed shut his eyes. He felt the air buffet him as the riders swept by, and then heard the sound of their retreat behind him. When he opened his eyes again, he was alone in the road, the highwaymen sprinting away and disappearing over the hill. Ahead of him, the wayfarer lay in a heap at the side of the road. Renny clattered to a halt, threw himself from the saddle, and dived to the man’s aid, rolling him over in the dust. Blood ran freely from the cut on his mouth, and a raw bruise welted on his jaw. Tip licked her master’s face, cleaning away some of the dust and blood.
Pym’s eyelids fluttered open weakly. “Ohh . . . ,” he moaned.
“Good sir, are’ee alive?” asked Renny, eyes wide as pot lids.
“Ohh . . . me head. Ow! They’ve kilt me good,” he said, struggling to get up.
“Easy there,” said Renny, raising him to a sitting position. “I come to help ’ee.”
Pym, eyes watering from the throbbing in his head, squinted at his young savior. “Who are ye?”
“Renny, sir,” he replied, as if the name should have preceded him and would explain it all. “I came upon ’ee here beset by brigands.”
“Eh?” Pym turned his head and saw that his attackers were indeed vanished. “Ye saved my life! They meant to carve me to a treat. Yes, sir. Ye saved me, young master! Thankee, oh thankee!”
Renny glowed with this admission. Yes, he had saved the man’s life, just as a knight would have done. He had forced a band of cutthroats and, unarmed, routed them and sent them fleeing for the Wilderlands to escape his justice. “Who were they?” he asked seriously.
“Oh, a bad lot, young master. A bad lot they were—all of them evil. They were going to put me head on a spike, they were. Yes, I stood a dead man ’til ye came arunnin’. Oh, thankee.”
“Did they steal anything?”
At this the tinker began to tremble. “Ohh! They took the sword!”
“Not mine. No, nivver mine! Oh, no. The king’s sword! They took it—one called Ameronis; he’s the very one as did it. He wanted to carve me up and put me poor head on a spike.”
“Ameronis? Lord Ameronis? I have heard tell of him.”
“A bad one. Oh, yes. Very bad.”
Renny thought for a moment. “How could ’ee have the king’s sword?” he asked, scratching his head. “’Ee mean the Shining One itself ?”
“None other.” Pym nodded solemnly. “We’uns found it in the road a few days ago. Didn’t know it was the Shining One then and hid it. Yes, hid it in a tree. We’uns went back fer to fetch it early this morn and were bringing it back fer the king. He needs it something powerful.”
Renny studied the situation carefully, weighing what the man had told him. “Well,” he said at length, “there’s nothing for it but to ride straightaway to the king and tell him what happened.”
“I agree.” Pym rose unsteadily to his feet, placing a hand on the boy’s shoulder.
“Can ’ee ride? The pony is sturdy, and we’re not terribly far from the castle.”
“I think so.” Pym nodded, and then squeezed his eyes shut with pain. “Oww! He caught me a good’un then, he did. That’un I’d like to repay.”
With Renny’s help Pym clambered into the saddle, then let down a hand to hoist the boy up behind him. They swayed uncertainly and started off, Tarky bending his head low with the extra weight, but making sure-footedly for Askelon.
The shadows of the high curtain battlements stretched across the inner ward yard by the time Theido and Ronsard had assembled their men to begin searching for the sword. All afternoon the ward yard had been in turmoil as knights and men-at-arms were outfitted for a search such as Mensandor had never seen. Ronsard spared no one from the task, unless they could not serve better in some other way, and horses were saddled and provisions laid in for many days on the trail.
“This is war,” said Ronsard to Hagin, when the warder protested the plundering of his stores. “If we fail, the Dragon King falls. I see no reason to hold back a reserve—we would only be inviting our own defeat.”
“Do not speak of defeat,” replied Theido, overhearing. “It will be difficult enough as it is. War, you said? Worse than war—our foe is time, and time wins all in the end.”
“Not this battle,” replied Ronsard grimly. “I mean to win this one.”
Just then a gateman came running up, saluted Hagin, and blurted out a message. “Warder, sir, there’s someone at the gate demanding to see the king. I told them the king sees no one, but they insisted. I didn’t like to trouble you, but they will not go away.”
“What do they want?”
“They will not say, sir.”
“Then send them packing,” ordered Hagin, “with the edge of your sword, man.”
Theido and Ronsard, about to turn away, heard the gateman say, “There’s two of them on one brown pony, and—”
Ronsard spun around. “A brown pony?” His senses prickled.
“What is it, my lord?” asked Hagin.
“Bring them,” ordered Ronsard. “And the pony. At once.”
The gateman dipped his head and ran off to fetch the visitors as instructed. “You have a reason for this, I’ll warrant?” said Theido. Hagin looked on quizzically.
“It may be nothing,” replied Ronsard. “But I remember someone saying that the prince rode a brown pony on the day of the hunt.”
“Aye, he did. It was his favorite,” offered Hagin. “What of it? There must be dozens of brown ponies in the region hereabouts.”
“As you say, but two do not ride unless there is some urgency, and they do not arrive at the castle with demands for the king.”
“I can see what you mean,” said Theido. “But you think this can possibly have anything to do with us?”
“That we will quickly discover, I think.” He looked across the yard where the gatekeeper approached leading a pony; two hesitant figures trailed behind.
In a moment the gateman had brought the visitors—a thin, gangly boy and a slump-shouldered man—and their mount to stand before the knights and the warder. “Here they are, sirs. As you requested.”
“Tinker, we meet again,” said Ronsard. “Hagin, would you examine the horse? I think some of us may know this animal.”
“We’uns did not steal it, Yer Lordship,” replied Pym. “But how do ye know me?”
“I was the wretch whose head was broken at the Gray Goose the night the king’s temple was pulled down.”
Pym’s eyes opened wider in recognition; he nodded knowingly. “Same as what happened to me not three hours ago.”
“This is the prince’s mount and no doubt.” Hagin patted the pony’s neck. “That’s the prince’s saddle and tack. The animal came from the king’s stables—that is a fair certainty. If you like, I will call the stable-master. He would know better than anyone else.”
“That will not be necessary,” said Ronsard. He looked at the two before him. “Well? You had better tell us all about it.”
“I found him, sir,” said Renny in a small, awed voice. Here he was in the inner ward yard of Askelon Castle where knights and horses, squires, and men-at-arms hurried to ready themselves as for battle; he could hardly take it all in. “He came into our field below the forest. I caught him.”
“The pony?” Ronsard smiled; light twinkled in his eyes. “I see. And then what did you do?”
Before the boy could answer; Pym broke in. “I’ll tell ye what he did. He saved my life, that’s what he did. We’uns—”
“You and the boy?”
“Me, and Tip, sir,” said Pym, motioning to the dog.
“I see. Go on . . .”
“We’uns were bound fer Askelon and were set upon by highwaymen and brigands—leastwise I thought they were highwaymen and brigands, I did.”
“Highwaymen?” asked Theido. “In this part of Mensandor?”
Pym nodded vigorously. “They caught me and took the sword.”
“They took your sword?” asked Ronsard. “When does a tinker have need to carry a sword?”
“Not my sword, Yer Lordship,” explained Pym. “The king’s sword!”