Bria had risen long before daybreak and roused their bodyguard to begin readying the coach and horses for the day’s journey. In two days they had made good time through the soggy moorland between the low mountains of Dekra and Malmarby, and by nightfall had reached the place where they had abandoned the coach. There they made their camp for the night.
Upon leaving Dekra, there had settled over the queen an unspoken urgency. With every step closer to Askelon, she seemed to hear a plaintive voice. Hurry! Hurry, it whispered, before it is too late! And Bria, heedful of this inner urging, pressed the group to a greater speed.
Alinea, sensing this change in her daughter, had questioned her about it when they stopped the day before to eat along the trail. “What is it, dear? What is wrong?”
Bria confessed, her green eyes staring off toward Askelon. “Wrong? I cannot say. But I feel as if something is about to happen, and I must be there to help it or prevent it somehow, I know not which. But my heart tells me to hurry, and I feel we must pay it heed. We must not be slow, Mother.”
“Is it Gerin?”
Bria considered this in the way of a mother who knows when something is happening to her child though he is far away and removed from her sight. “No, it is not Gerin. I am at peace with him. It is more Quentin, I think.”
“Has it to do with Esme’s vision, then?”
“Yes, that must be it—at least in part. But what I am to make of that I hardly know. Still, I feel we must go with all haste and return to Askelon as soon as we can.”
Now, at the dawn of a new day, the feeling of urgency pressed Bria even more strongly, causing her to awaken and rouse the others so that they might break camp the quicker. The little princesses, still yawning and rubbing sleepy eyes, splashed their faces with water and made a game of getting ready. Alinea herded them together and kept them out of the way of the men hitching up the coach. Bria flew to the task of repacking their sleeping bundles and helping the men stow the provisions on the coach once more.
Esme, for her part, helped too, if a little absently. Since leaving Dekra, she had retreated more and more into herself—brooding, contemplative, and given to long periods of silence, her lovely features wrinkled in fierce scowls of concentration. What it was she was feeling inside or so fiercely thinking about which made her seem so sullen and aloof could not be determined. For when Bria attempted to draw her out, she simply replied, “I am a bit preoccupied. I am sorry; forgive me.” But following an attempt at rejoining the conversation of the others, she would slowly drift off into her intense reverie once more.
When at last they were ready to travel again, the sun peeped above the rim of the mountains behind them. Esme turned and stared longingly in the direction of Dekra, then abruptly turned, mounted her horse, and fell in line behind the coach. By midmorning they reached Malmarby and, after greeting the entire village, arranged for Rol, the ferryman, to take them across the inlet to where the King’s Road awaited them beyond Celbercor’s Wall.
The coach was taken across first with the horses and two of the bodyguards, whereupon Rol returned for the remaining passengers. Esme took a seat alone at the bow of the wide boat and turned to face outward, staring across the water. The Malmar Inlet flowed deep and dark, its waters silent and clear. As Esme stared down she felt herself drifting off, floating on the water as it stretched its mirrored surface to the great wall rising out of its depths on the far shore.
The wall, she thought. There is something about the wall, but what? As she sat gazing at it the wall seemed to change, rising higher and higher, stretching across the entire realm, extending its mighty length until it encircled all Mensandor with a smooth, seamless face of black stone. And it grew ever higher and higher, blotting out the sun.
“Oh, no!” she gasped. “We are cut off. Trapped! Soon there will be no more light.” She looked again and saw robed priests walking along the top of the wall and realized that it was the priests themselves who caused the wall to grow, who encouraged its ever-increasing girth. She saw the wall change, forming other walls and pillars and a roof of stone—a temple, the High Temple. And there was a multitude of people moving along the road toward the temple, wending their way up the long, winding trail to the top of the plateau where the High Temple stood. Then there came a roar like a rushing wind, and smoke rolled up, blotting all from sight; she peered through the smoke and saw not a temple any longer, but a field of stones and rubble, a desolate place overgrown with weeds and thorn thickets, where owls keened their lonely, spectral call . . .
The lady started at the sound of her name. She turned and saw Bria sitting beside her; she had not noticed her friend approach.
“Esme! What is happening to you?”
Esme grasped Bria’s hands and held them, turning her eyes once more toward the wall. “I have had another vision; the god has spoken to me again.” She stared at Celbercor’s Wall rising bold and impervious before them and then shuddered as if with cold, looked around at Bria, and said earnestly, “We must go to the temple, Bria.”
Bria searched her friend’s face for a sign, for anything that would explain her words. “Are you certain? The temple? Why?”
Esme pressed Bria’s hands harder. “I am certain. Please, we must not return to Askelon. The temple—I saw it clearly.”
“What else did you see?”
“Just that. The wall changed and became a temple—and priests. Twice I have seen priests. This is the confirmation of my vision. Something is to take place at the temple, and we must be there.”
Bria nodded and said, “I, too, have felt uneasy since we left Dekra, as if I were being prodded along and urged to haste. But the temple— what about Quentin?”
Esme shook her head. “I do not know. I did not see him, but there was a throng assembled in the courtyard of the temple, and I know that we must be among them.”
Bria bit her lip, then weighed the decision.
“Please,” said Esme, “the certainty of what I have seen is strong in me. I know it is a sign from the Most High.”
“Very well,” replied the queen slowly. “We will turn aside and ride for Narramoor and the High Temple. And let us pray that we arrive in time to do whatever it is that the god intends for us.”
“Yes,” said Esme, “that will be my prayer.”
All day long Ronsard waited at his post on the edge of the field. He watched as the sun rose in the treetops, crossed the vault of the heavens, and began its downward descent toward evening, and still no word came from Theido. The main body of knights and fighting men waited restlessly, burnishing lance and sword and tending to their armor, making sure it was in good repair. When the signal came from Theido, Ronsard would lead his troops into battle to storm the walls of the castle.
For his part, Theido and his men were to come up through the castle by way of the hidden passage, sneaking in behind Ameronis’s troops to open the gates for their comrades. But the signal had not come, and that could only mean that the secret gate had not been breached.
So, as twilight lengthened the shadows of the forest encampment, Ronsard gave the order to stand down. “We cannot attempt the walls in the dark,” he said. “But tomorrow—secret gate or no—we must fight. There is no more time to wait.” He turned to his commander, gave him instructions for the men, and turned away from the field, saying, “I will be in my tent if any messages come.”
Throughout the camp men began taking off their armor and laying aside their weapons. Ronsard, too, removed his breastplate and gor-get upon entering the tent, went to the basin standing on its tripod, dipped his hands into the cool water, and splashed his face.
Another day gone, he thought, and now there are no more days. It must be tomorrow. Tomorrow or the king’s son will die. He stood over the basin, his hands dripping, and stared through the side of the tent, picturing the little prince captive in the clutches of the loathsome high priest. He saw the boy bound and placed on the altar and the dagger plunged into his trusting heart.
“No!” he cried aloud, slamming his hand into the basin. Water splashed everywhere and sloshed over the rim. “Not while I have breath in my body will they harm that boy!” he vowed. He heard a sound behind him and said to his squire, “Hand me a cloth,” putting out his hand to receive it.
“I, too, have made a similar vow.”
Ronsard looked up and noticed for the first time who his visitor was. “Quentin! You—Your Majesty! I thought—”
Quentin smiled thinly. “I know what you thought. But never mind. Here”—he handed the dripping knight a strip of clean linen—“dry yourself and we will talk.”
The king threw off his riding gloves and cloak and sat down on one of the benches at the table. Ronsard ran the towel over his face and dried his hands, all the while studying the man before him as a physician might study a patient who has suddenly and unexpectedly arisen from his sickbed. “I am tired, Ronsard. It is a long ride from Askelon. I wonder that Ameronis has the will to make the trip as often as he seems to. But then, he always did sit a strong saddle.”
“Sire, allow me to send for something to eat. I was about to get some food for myself.”
“Yes, do that. I am hungry as well. I have eaten nothing all day.”
“I will see to it at once!” Ronsard fairly shouted, for here before him sat the king, who to all appearances seemed in his right mind. Ronsard could detect none of the melancholy that he had so recently seen in his friend. True, his manner was grave beneath the forced civility of his aspect; clearly the king struggled to show himself composed. And fatigue sat on his shoulders like a burden, bending him over, draining his features of color.
But he had come, and he spoke as one who knew what he was doing, who had purpose and reason behind his actions. Surely this was the very best sign.
Ronsard crossed to the tent flap and called to a squire to bring food and drink, then returned a moment later. “Sire, it is good to see you. We thought . . . that is, we were afraid—”
“You were afraid your king had deserted you completely.” To Ronsard’s look he added, “Well, you were right. I had deserted you. I sent you out to fight my battle for me while I stayed within my own walls and ate out my heart with self-pity and grief. But no more. Though I have but one more day to be king, then king I will be—not a coward.”
It heartened Ronsard to hear Quentin talk this way—with fire in his voice, and his tone resolute. “Sit, my friend,” said Quentin, “and tell me how the matter stands.”
Ronsard lowered himself to the bench opposite, leaned on his elbows, and began to recite all that had taken place since they had come to Ameron-on-Sipleth. While they talked, the squire entered with their meal and laid it on the table before them. Ronsard motioned the young man away, indicating that they wished to be left alone and would serve themselves.
Quentin listened intently, nodding now and again as he ate, dipping his hand to his trencher. He raised his cup and drained it when Ronsard had finished and said, “You and Theido have done well. I am pleased.”
“Sire, will you lead the troops tomorrow?”
Quentin considered this and then inclined his head in assent. “Ameronis must be made to face his king if he would wear the crown. Yes, I will lead. He must see me riding at the head of my army, and know who it is he would overthrow.”
Ronsard smiled. “Excellent! Yes, that is the Quentin I know! Those jackals will turn tail and run!”
“You know that I would not lift blade against them if it could be avoided. I would not that a single man were hurt. But my son’s life is at stake, and I must not fail him.”
Ronsard opened his mouth to speak, thought better of it, and closed it again. But Quentin said, “What is it? Speak—we know each other too well to hold back.”
“As you say, my lord,” Ronsard began, then hesitated once more. “Sire, the words come hard.”
“They will come no easier for holding them.”
The stalwart knight turned his face away and then said, “What will you do if we fail to regain the sword?”
“That I cannot say. If I thought riding with an armed force to the High Temple was the answer, I would have done it without delay. But I dare not risk the danger to my son, Ronsard. We must in all events try to recover the Shining One.” He paused, adding in a quiet voice, “Failing that, we must trust in the Most High to work his will. That is all any man can do.” “How much longer?” Theido asked, sweat dripping from his forehead and running down his neck. Sir Garth looked back at him and shook his head sadly.
“No telling yet, my lord. Another few hours at least; likely more.” The brawny knight jerked his thumb over his shoulder to where men labored to cut through the iron bands of the portcullis with various implements.
“Put new men to the task, and spell them regularly from now on. We still have to fight once we are through the gate; I do not want the men exhausted before they must lift their swords.”
“It is the heat in this blasted tunnel,” said Garth. “It drains a man’s strength. We would have cut through long ago if not for that.”
Theido turned and walked to the barrier. For all their efforts, they had succeeded in removing only one small section of the thick iron gate. A second section was nearly freed, but a third and a fourth had to be cut away to ensure that an armed man could pass through quickly. There was nothing to be done but continue hacking away at the structure at the same maddening, slow pace.
Abruptly Theido left the chamber, passing back through the narrow tunnel to the cave mouth and the cool night beyond. The ping and chink of the workers’ tools echoed through the passageway as their chisels bit into the iron. Below the cave the soldiers whose services were not now required at the gate rested on the shingle beside the water. The moon had risen and shone sparkling on the dark river, illuminating the cliff and the castle walls above with a ghostly light.
The soldiers glanced up as Theido made his way down to them. Progress? the glance asked. None, Theido’s look answered as he sat down among them.
One of the men, a knight by the name of Olin, leaned close to Theido and asked, “What will happen if we do not breach the gate? What will we do?”
“The gate will be breached,” Theido answered stiffly.
“Yes, I know—eventually. But what if dawn comes first?”
Theido turned cheerless eyes upon the man and replied, “Ronsard will attack at dawn. He has no other choice. With our help or without it, he will go against the walls.”
Olin stared at Theido in silence.
“You asked for the truth; I told you.”
“It is a hard truth, my lord. It is sure death to go against those walls. Catapults and rams—”
Theido cut him off. “We have no time for catapults to wear down the walls or rams to splinter the gates. No time.”
“Then if we fail here, we die.”
“Yes, and more. If we fail, the realm dies with us; the kingdom is in ruins.” Theido nodded slowly, gazing out over the smoothly flowing water. “You did not know so much was at stake?”
“No, my lord,” answered the knight. “I thought it was just to save the prince.”
“The prince, ourselves, our nation.”
Sir Olin said nothing more for a long time. Then, without another word, he rose to his feet and climbed back up the side of the cliff to the cave and went back to take his place at the portcullis with the other workmen.
Then, as Theido watched, one by one the others who had been resting, having just come out from the tunnel, got up and climbed back to the cave to pick up their tools once more.