Elder Jollen sat stroking his beard in the firelight, staring into the glowing embers on the hearth; next to him sat his wife, Morwenna, and Alinea beside her. Bria and Esme, opposite the esteemed elder, watched him carefully, waiting for what he would say. Shadows flickered on the walls, and in one corner a cricket chirped its night song. Finally, his chest rising as he drew air deep into his lungs, he looked up and said, “Yes, I agree. You must go back at once. The dream, as Biorkis suggests, has been given as a warning for you to return—or a sign that you must be present to witness the event which is foretold and will take place soon. Either way you must go.”
“Thank you, Elder Jollen. Your words make my heart rest easier in its decision,” Bria answered.
“I could discuss this with the other elders if you like, but I have no doubt that they will say what I have already said. Yes, go. I know that you have hardly had time to rest from your journey and now must leave, but we will pray that the god will give you strength for your travels.”
“I hate the thought of leaving,” said Esme. “In so short a time I have come to feel very comfortable here—almost as if I belong here.”
Jollen looked at her, nodding to himself as if he could see something in her that no one else could. “Perhaps the god is speaking to you, Esme. It may be that he has a place for you here among us. In any event, you will always be welcome in Dekra. Return when you may, and stay as long as you care to; allow your heart to find itself again.”
The elder’s last words surprised Esme. “Did Bria tell you about my . . . my troubles?”
Jollen’s smile was gentle. “No, my lady. I did not need words to tell me that you have been a party to much pain and sadness of late. From the moment you came through the gate I saw much in you of the little child lost.”
Esme lowered her eyes and stared at her hands in her lap. “It is so apparent, then?”
“No!” replied Bria.
“No, no—perhaps not to everyone,” admitted Elder Jollen. “But it is part of my gift that I see most clearly the shape of the inner soul. I do not speak to shame you, Esme. Only to tell you that we know of your hurts and have been praying for you since you entered here.”
“I thank you for your prayers. And I have felt more at peace here than at any time since . . .” Her voice faltered and she paused, letting her words trail off.
Morwenna rose and put an arm around her. “Come back when your work is done, and stay with us. It would be an honor to have you here.”
“My work?” Esme looked around at the group. “What do you mean by ‘my work’?”
“Of us all, Esme,” replied Alinea, “you are the one who had the vision; you are the one to whom the Most High has spoken.”
“I have some part to play in this?”
Elder Jollen chuckled lightly. “We all do, to be sure. But yours is a special part. The Most High has revealed to you alone something of his plan. Yes, his hand is on you, Esme.”
They talked a little more then, about commonplace things and preparations that had been made for their departure early the next morning. But nothing more was said of Esme’s dream or its possible significance, though all knew that some word of power had been spoken among them and that it would result in some great deed as yet unforeseen, and that this was what sent the women hurrying off once more. When they rose reluctantly to go to their beds, Morwenna led them to the door, saying, “I will come to bring you breakfast and to see you away in the morning.”
“Please do not bother,” said the queen. “You have all done so much for us already.”
“It is no trouble.” Morwenna dismissed Bria’s comment with a whisk of her hand. “I only regret that I have not had the pleasure of spending more time with your little ones. They are charming! You must bring them back soon, and Quentin too. He has been too long away.”
“He would agree with you, I know.” Bria took Morwenna’s hands as Jollen came up to stand behind his wife. “Pray for him. Please . . . pray for him, and for my son.”
“You may trust in it that we will,” answered Jollen. “Our prayers have not ceased since you came to us. Yes, until we hear that all is well with you once more, we will remain in prayer.” He paused and regarded the women with a long, appraising gaze. “But be encouraged,” he said abruptly. “Your task here, the reason for your coming, has been fulfilled, and the Most High is pleased to give you his blessing. You have been faithful to your hearts, and even now the things which he has promised are coming to pass. Go, so that you may witness them and know that he is ever true to those who follow him.”
Silently the visitors embraced their hosts and stepped from the warm, firelit room into the cool summer night ablaze with myriad stars. They hastened to their beds, too full of private thoughts to speak, but feeling each one closer to the other, conjoined with a strength of love and purpose that held them secure. And though they might be forced to ride through the darkness of evil days ahead, none doubted the light that had been promised at their destination.
“Toli? Are you asleep?” asked Prince Gerin. The boy slid closer to the man’s huddled form beside him.
“No,” replied Toli, rolling over. “What is it?”
“I heard something; someone is coming.”
“I heard it as well. It is the guard again, making sure we are still here and have not vanished through the cracks in the wall.”
“They have been watching us closely this day, and the last—closer than before. Why?”
“They have sprung a trap, I believe. They do not want anything to happen to us until they know if they have caught anything or not.”
“But what do they want?”
“Revenge. Nimrood tried to steal the throne once before, and—”
Before Toli could finish, there came a scrape at the door and it creaked open. Flickering light from a torch thrust in through the crack illumined the room. Toli rolled to his feet. “What is it now?” he asked as the visitor entered the cell.
“Resting comfortably, my pets?”
“Nimrood!” said Toli darkly. “So you have slithered in to taunt your prisoners?”
“Oh my, no! I have come to tell you just how high a price I have set on your worthless heads. The ransom letter has been sent and received. The king has no choice but to comply.”
“What have you done, snake?”
“Merely suggested that I would be willing to free my captives in exchange for a certain object of value to the king.” Nimrood paused and laughed wickedly. “Ha! An object soon to be of little value to the king!”
“What are you talking about?” Toli took a step forward.
“Stay where you are!” Nimrood shouted. Then, in a calmer voice, “That is better. What object?” He shrugged, the torch throwing his black shadow huge against the walls. “I see no point in keeping it from you. His sword—that is the object I will have.”
“The Shining One!” gasped Prince Gerin, who had come to stand at Toli’s side.
“Yes, I believe that is what they call it. A fine weapon I am told, though I have never seen it myself.”
“No!” cried Gerin. “The king cannot give up the Shining One!”
“We shall see,” Nimrood chuckled. “We shall see.”
“The prince is right. The Dragon King will never surrender the Zhaligkeer. It would mean humbling the throne, and he will not do that.”
“Pity,” sniffed Nimrood. “But perhaps he will see it differently. What is a throne worth? The life of his only son and heir, and that of his closest friend as well?”
“I see,” replied Toli coolly. “You would force the choice. But you are forgetting that a king is a king first and a man second. He must do what is best for his realm.”
“In any event, the choice should prove interesting. And we will soon have the opportunity of finding out.”
“Five days’ time. At midday five days hence you will be led to the temple courtyard and bound. If the king does not bring this enchanted sword of his, you will be killed on the altar of Ariel. Oh, the gods do not require human sacrifices these days, I know. But this time I think the high priest will insist. What will the courageous King Quentin do with the blood of your deaths on his hands? How will he live with himself, I wonder?” Nimrood stepped back a pace and lifted the torch high. “And now you will wonder, too!”
Toli stood as one made of stone, fists clenched at his sides, muscles rigid, and watched the old sorcerer disappear. The cell door closed, the bolt scraped in the lock, and the room was dark and quiet once more. They heard Nimrood chuckling to himself as he stalked back along the corridor to his foul nest.
“Is it true?” asked Gerin when the wizard’s cackling could no longer be heard. His voice trembled as he spoke.
“Yes,” said Toli, wrapping an arm around the boy and pulling him close. “I am afraid it is true. He might have come here to taunt us with it, but I think not. The old vulture wants us to share the poison of fear between us; he hopes that this knowledge will fester in us like a belly wound. But we must not let it. We must not give up hope for a moment.”
“I am afraid, Toli. What will happen to us?”
“I cannot say, young master. It is out of our hands now.”