Theido was the first to react to the news. “You found the king’s sword?”
Pym nodded solemnly; Renny nodded, too, and Tip wagged her tail. “We’uns found it in the road days ago now . . .” He lapsed into silence, remembering what else they had found.
“Next to the body of a man—isn’t that right?” prompted Ronsard.
Pym nodded slowly and thrust his hands out. “But we’uns had nothing to do with that! No, sir. Nivver lifted hand against any man me whole life long. No, nivver did.”
“We believe you, tinker,” said Theido. “What you have told us fits with what we already know. What did you do with the sword when you found it?”
“Hid it, sir. We’uns hid it in a hollow tree, we did. A hazelnut tree in the forest. But we’uns did not as much as know it were the king’s sword—not at first.”
“But when you found out, you went back for it. Is that right?” Ronsard had formed a picture in his mind about what must have happened—the tinker coming upon the sword in the road, frightened, hiding the weapon and coming to town, hearing the talk, and determining to bring back the sword. “You intended to give it back to the king?”
“Yes, sir, very much. That’s what we’uns planned all along—well, maybe not at first. Didn’t know it was the king’s sword at first. No, didn’t know that.”
“Who took it from you?” asked Theido. “You mentioned highwaymen.” “Six of them there were. Two passed while we’uns rested aside on the road. Then three more—nivver paid me no mind—but the last one nearly knocked me down in the road, he did—came a’charging along that way. We’uns nivver seen him ’til he pitched to a halt. Then ’twas he saw the sword and took it. I hanged on as might as I could, but he caught me a blow or two on the jaw.” Pym rubbed the swollen bruise gingerly. “This ’un here”—he indicated Renny—“saved old Pym’s hide, he did. He rescued me, and him just a lad—but with spunk, yes, sir! Lots o’ spunk has he. Yes, and he flew into them and sent them slinking away like a pack of mangy curs!”
Ronsard regarded the boy closely. “Is this true, young master? You defended the tinker here from the brigands?”
Renny nodded, too overwhelmed to speak.
“Brave lad,” remarked Theido. “Well done. Not many would take on six armed men alone and with no weapons. What made you do it?”
Renny opened his mouth, and the words tumbled out. “I’m going to be a knight, sir. Knights are brave and help those as needs help.”
“Indeed!” Ronsard agreed. “But were you not afraid?”
“No, sir. Not until Pym told me who they were.”
“Oh? You know who they were, Pym?” Theido leaned forward.
“We’uns heard a name—the one as took the sword. It was—”
“Let me guess,” put in Ronsard. “Ameronis?”
“The very one!” cried Pym. “That’s the very one. And a mean one he is, sir. Mean as the night is long. Yes, he is.”
“I thought so!” said Ronsard. “Well, here is our battle, already drawn for us. There can be no doubt where the rook has taken his prize.”
Theido pulled his chin and gazed out across the yard. “To that snuggery of his on the Sipleth.” He turned to Ronsard. “That is settled, then; we prepare not for a search but a siege!”
After receiving the letter of ransom, Quentin had taken to his bed in despair; he had not moved all day. Paralyzed by a crippling helplessness, he lay as one stricken with the disease that turns the limbs to stone. The letter had been his son’s death foretold, for he no longer had the Shining One to give the kidnappers, and not enough time to find it in any event.
Now, because of his transgression, because of his striking down the wretch in the road, he would lose his son and heir, and his throne as well. But what did that matter? He had already lost his truest friends: Durwin dead, Toli driven away and captured; even his queen had left him alone in his hour of greatest torment. But beyond all this, the pain that cut him deepest was the knowledge that the Most High had removed his hand from him and was now pouring out a heavy judgment upon him.
The judgment was more than he could bear.
There came a rap on his chamber door, and though Quentin did not move or attend the sound in any way, the door swung open. A tall, lanky figure entered the darkened room and came to stand beside the bed.
“Sire,” said Theido, “all is in readiness.”
The king did not answer.
Theido stood looking sadly down on his friend for a moment, then said, “We are waiting for you to lead us.” He had been about to say that they were leaving now, but Quentin’s condition shocked him and he thought to try to rouse the king. For an instant he thought the ploy might work.
Quentin turned his head on his pillow; his eyes focused on Theido’s face. “They are going to kill my son,” he said softly, “and I am to blame.”
“Nay, Sire. I have come with news: the sword has been found. We go now to claim it.”
“Lord Ameronis has stolen it from a tinker who found it in the road the day of Prince Gerin’s abduction.”
“Then he has won. He will never give it up.”
“Not without a fight, no. But we mean to give him a fight the likes of which he has never seen. In the end he will give the Shining One back, and gladly. That is why you must ride with us.”
“There is no time, Theido. No time. Already it is too late.”
“It is not too late, Lord. But it will be if you delay.”
“Go, then, and see what can be done.”
Theido was about to agree, hesitated, and instead replied, “I will not give the order, Sire. That you must do. And you must ride at the head of your troops if we are to show Ameronis and his friends that we will brook no treason in this realm.”
Again Quentin lay silent. Theido could not tell if his words were finding their mark or if his listener was so far given to his despair that nothing could reach him. The knight said a silent prayer to the Most High to move the king once more to action. “Defend your throne, my lord,” Theido said. “Come. Ride with us. Lead us.”
Quentin sighed and passed a hand before his eyes. “No, I am no king. Leave me.”
“Who will lead the troops if you will not?”
“You will lead them.”
“I will not.”
“Ronsard, then. Anyone. I do not care.”
Theido knew he was beaten then, turned away, and walked to the door. With his hand on the latch, he paused and said, “There are those who will give their lives for you and your throne. And many more will brave danger in service to you. Durwin did, and Toli—and others you know nothing of. Will you not lift a hand to save yourself ?” With that he closed the door.
The king heard his footsteps diminishing in the corridor, and lay staring up into the darkness of his blackened room. He did not move.
“Well?” Ronsard asked, already guessing the answer, for it was written in the gray, weary lines of his friend’s face.
“He will not ride. I fear we have lost our king even before a single blow has been delivered.”
“If our king gives himself over to defeat, then our kingdom is in disarray. The jackals will tear it to pieces.”
Theido drew a deep breath. “That, at least, we can hold off for a little longer. We will ride to Ameron-on-Sipleth and do what we can.” He cast an eye skyward. “If we ride all night, we can be there by morning.”
As twilight tinted the bowl of heaven the color of dark wine, the Dragon King’s army left Askelon. In all the times of leaving, in all the wars when Mensandor’s men-at-arms had answered the call and marched forth into battle, in all the frightful days when foe threatened and peace would be won only by lance and sword, there had never been a more silent departure.
The troops filed through the outer ward and gatehouse, over the immense drawbridge spanning the dry moat, and down the long ramp to wend through the streets of the city. The knights came first on horseback, their armor bundled beneath netting behind the saddles of their squires. The footmen were next, marching together in long ranks, not speaking—for word had spread though the file that the Dragon King had not the heart to lead his men. After the footmen came the heavy wagons loaded with provisions and weapons for the footmen and knights; smiths’ and surgeons’ wains with supplies and tools for mending broken men and their armaments formed the rear of the train.
The silent army passed through the streets of the city like a ghostly phalanx whispering off to some forgotten battle on the mists of time. No one came out to mark their passing; no citizen cheered their march. The streets remained empty of all but a few mongrel dogs, hungry looking and scabby, who ran yapping at the horses’ hooves.
At the head of the troops rode Ronsard and Theido side by side, upright in the saddle, eyes ahead. They did not speak, but wrapped themselves in their own thoughts like cloaks against the night. And though the night was warm, there was an atmosphere of melancholy and futility that chilled the air. All felt it who followed the banner of the Dragon King that night.