Quentin stalked the high wall walks of the castle. Restless, unable to sleep, he paced the bartizans and battlements, his short cloak flying out behind him like wings, his unkempt hair streaming back from his head in wild disarray. To any who saw him, the king appeared as one gone mad, roaming the high places in the dead of night like those unhappy spirits who haunted the desolate places.
The king himself was not aware of what he was doing. He only knew that he could not remain still any longer; he must move, walk, go, and keep going lest he fall under the weight of the darkness that had crept into his heart. He had wrestled with it often enough in the last days to know that he could not win against it. It held him in a death grip, and meant to drag him down into the dust of oblivion.
So, to hold the inevitable at bay yet a little longer, he prowled the walls by night, in the light of a pale half-moon, like an animal half-crazed with pain. Quentin felt the night press in upon him, enfolding him in its velvet embrace, smothering him. He stared out across the land eastward and saw the dark line of Pelgrin hedging the broad, flat plain. Beyond Pelgrin, farther east and north, lay Narramoor and the High Temple on its flat table of stone, overlooking the entire kingdom.
Somewhere within that temple his son waited for him to come and rescue him, waited as he himself had waited as a boy for someone to carry him away from that place. And he had been rescued—by a dying knight who had placed in his hands a charge that he alone could fulfill. In those days it had been easy—easy to believe, easy to follow without asking for signs or assurances, or at least without requiring them at every turn.
Now it was much harder. He was no longer the simple, trusting acolyte with neither home nor family, and nothing much to lose. He was the Dragon King, leader of his people, protector of the realm.
Sadly, he had not been much of a protector of late. He had not been able to prevent Durwin’s death, nor his son’s kidnapping, nor any of the host of problems that so beset him. The god had removed his hand from him and had departed, leaving him alone and helpless.
So be it. The god had moved away, had abandoned him as gods will. He could do nothing about that; he was only a man, after all. The business of the gods was for the gods; mortals could not influence or change affairs once the gods had spoken. And though Quentin had believed wonderful things, incredible things about the God Most High, and had trusted him with his life and the lives of those he loved, the god, like all gods, had ultimately disappointed him.
Still, he had a choice. He could abandon his faith in the Most High and reclaim his life for himself, or he could continue believing, continue serving and trusting, even though there was good reason to cast off the belief that had so long bound him in blind trust to a god who lied when he claimed to care about his children.
Where was there ever a god who so much as pretended to care for his followers? None of the old gods, surely. None that he had ever learned about in the temple. If the ways of the gods were beyond the reckoning of men, then at least it made more sense to believe in the only one who held out the hope of something greater than the pitiful rituals played out by the scurrilous priests of the High Temple.
The old gods? Those ancient ethereal impostors? Those vague, capricious forces men called upon, worshipped, and revered with the names of gods? How could he believe in them, knowing them for what they were? As an acolyte, he had served long enough in the temple to learn that a priest’s fleshy lips applied to a hole in the stone brought forth the god’s oracle, and a priest’s avaricious whim became the god’s demand.
At least the God Most High shunned oracles and objects of silver and gold as sacrifices to win his favor. When he spoke, it was directly, and with power. Quentin had felt the power. Even if he did not feel it now and would perhaps never feel it again, he would forever remember the time when he had known beyond all doubt that the god had spoken and empowered him.
This was more than mumbled words whispered through a speaking hole hidden in a stone. There was hope here, and that was something the old gods of earth and air, of crossroads and high places, of flowing water and seasons could never give. Quentin could still remember what it was like to live without that hope, could still remember the aching despair that would come on him when, as a boy, he lay on his straw mat in his temple cell and prayed in the night to be shown the truth. He would wait, listen, and wait some more, only to have his words fall back upon him, mocking from the silent void.
No, having the hope he had so long sought, Quentin would not abandon it now. He could not live without hope, for without it there was no life at all. Better a life without sight, or touch, or taste, or any of a dozen other facilities, including love, than a life without hope. He knew that road for what it was and would not travel that way again.
At Dekra he had seen the difference for the first time, had seen the sharp contrast between the hollow sham of the old religion and the true faith. Ah, Dekra . . . with her good, caring people and her quiet ways. Was he never destined to return and live out his days in peace, surrounded by love and beauty? Sadly, no. His course had been chosen for him, and it did not include Dekra; Quentin knew that now.
But somehow it was enough merely to know that such a place existed on the earth, and that he could go there on occasion to revive his spirit. Yes, that was enough; he could accept it. For he would always carry a part of Dekra with him wherever he was.
If the god chose to move in him or if he did not, so be it. He could not rule the Most High—what kind of god would allow himself to be so ruled? But Quentin could believe. That he could do, and even the Most High could not prevent it. He could believe and hope though it cost him his crown, though it cost his life!
In that moment the choice became clear. Quentin no longer cared what the god could do for him. He would believe though it proved to be his downfall; he would continue to trust though the god himself proved untrustworthy. Yeseph had believed, and he had died believing. Durwin had believed, and he, too, carried his faith to the grave. Very well; Quentin would do no less than the men he had loved, and who had shown him how to believe. He would believe and would follow with all the strength left in him.
That settled, Quentin turned his eyes once more toward the High Temple. Though he could not see it in the distance, he knew that it was there, perched on its plateau like a carrion bird awaiting its next feast of dead meat. Yes, his son waited within those walls, waited for him to come. He would go to him. Could he call himself “father” if he did not? He would first retrieve the sword from Ameronis, and then he would take it to the High Temple. What kind of king would he be if he allowed his only son, heir to the throne, to be killed while he had strength and will to prevent it?
The two large rafts, made of logs lashed together with rope, slid into the night-dark water of the Sipleth while a dozen soldiers clambered aboard each, taking with them weapons and tools for breaking through the iron portcullis and gate guarding the secret rear entrance to Ameron Castle.
Once each raft was loaded and the passengers settled in the center, the polemen shoved the ungainly vessels out into the river’s sluggish current. Traveling against the flow would not be easy, but along the bank the water’s pull was not strong, and the polemen were able to work their crude crafts slowly up the river.
Theido sat with his men in the center of the foremost raft as they laboriously made their way upstream to the place below the walls where the bank offered them a footing so they could disembark and make for the cave entrance.
Throughout the day the carpenters had slaved over the building of the rafts, and though they were far from elegant, Theido was relieved to discover that the crude, blockish platforms floated well enough. By nightfall they were ready, and he ordered them to be launched in order to take advantage of night’s protection to further veil their activities. He had no doubt that if even the smallest sound aroused the night watch posted on the wall, they would be discovered and their plans ruined. If Ameronis as much as suspected that they had discovered his secret tunnel, defending it would not be a problem: a trio of archers could keep any number of knights pinned down.
Now Theido crouched with his knights and listened to the water sloshing and splashing by them as they slid along the brush-covered banks, hoping against all hope that they would not be heard or seen passing beneath the walls. The polemen worked the poles and drove the rafts forward, keeping as close to the shoreline as possible. After what seemed like hours, they came to the place where the castle rock rose up and the river pushed its way around it, carving into the cliff of stone. Moving cautiously and with agonizing slowness—for the towers rose unseen directly above them—the rafts inched forward. Straining into the night, Theido scanned the cliff face for the sign he sought—the juniper bush concealing the cave.
As they rounded the bend of the rock, Sir Garth, who had been with him the night before when they discovered the tunnel, and had himself been inside it, raised an arm silently and pointed to a spot along the bank halfway up the cliff. There it was; Theido could just make out the place as a dark spot against the lighter stone of the cliff. He nodded silently. Yes, they were almost there.
The first raft nosed into the stony shingle, grating softly as it came to rest. The nearest men scrambled ashore and began unloading the weapons and equipment, and then the others followed. The second raft pushed up behind the first, and those aboard made to disembark, but an overanxious departure by the first soldiers dangerously unbalanced the craft and the raft tipped, throwing the remaining passengers into the river with a tremendous splash.
Those on the shore froze, hearts pounding, while their comrades swam to shore and dragged themselves out as quietly as possible. Each man held his breath and prayed that the sound would go unnoticed.
From somewhere high up on the wall above them they heard a shout that was answered by another shout. The words were not distinguishable, but Theido guessed that one watchman had called to another to ask about the commotion. Then there came the sound of voices drifting down from above—someone was leaning over the battlements to see what had caused the splash.
Theido raised his hand to indicate that everyone remain as still as stone. For a dozen heartbeats he relived his adventure of the night before when he had nearly been discovered. Then there came a call; those below heard it plainly. “All clear,” the voice said. The men huddled below breathed a sigh of relief.
Theido signaled for the men to resume their work, and the rafts, unloaded now, were poled upriver a little way and hidden among the brush of the bank where the shore flattened and the forest grew close to the water. The rest of the soldiers formed a human chain and began passing the equipment from hand to hand up the side of the cliff and into the mouth of the cave.
Sir Garth and Theido climbed to the cave and crawled inside. Garth produced a flint and steel and found one of the torches among the supplies being stacked at the entrance. In a moment he had the torch flaming brightly and said, “Now we will see what we are up against.”
Holding the torch high, he led Theido deeper into the cave. They passed along narrow walls—no wider than a gallery corridor—and came to the farthest wall of the cave. Here an entrance had been opened and a tunnel cut into the soft rock. “Ages past, the river hollowed this cave. When the castle was built here, someone discovered it and connected it with this passage,” said Garth, pointing to the smooth-chiseled surface of the stone.
He lowered his head and stepped into the tunnel. Theido followed. It was narrow—narrower than the cave, with room enough for only one man to pass comfortably. The secret passage led upward in a slight incline as it made for the castle above. The floor was dry and dusty for the most part, but as it neared the gate Theido noticed water seeping down the sides of the walls. Garth indicated this with his torch, saying, “We are passing beneath the castle cistern, no doubt.”
Presently they came to a place where the tunnel walls widened a span, and there just ahead stood the iron portcullis, glimmering darkly in the torchlight.
“There it is,” said Garth, placing the torch in a sconce set into the stone at the edge of the gateway. “And now that I see it in the light, I see that it is much sturdier than I had first imagined.” He ran his hand over the iron, feeling its thickness and strength.
“Yes,” agreed Theido, “it is well made, as anyone might have guessed who knew Ameronis and his kin. And it looks in good repair.”
“Not a speck of rust, my lord.”
“The smiths have their work ahead of them. All the more reason to get them at it.”
“Right away, sir.” Garth turned and started back through the darkened tunnel.
“And Garth,” said Theido, “have the weapons brought here. I would have them close to hand.” The knight left, and Theido returned to the scrutiny of the iron barrier before him. Could they cut through it in time? And once through, what would they find on the other side?