Rain pattered in the temple yard all through the night. Toli lay awake, listening, praying for deliverance for himself and the little prince, and for the courage to face whatever awaited them. When morning came, the sky remained dark and overcast although the rain had stopped and a fresh wind had risen from the west.
When Prince Gerin awakened, Toli stood over the place he had occupied all night during his long vigil. At the moment the boy’s eyes blinked open, he sat upright on his straw mattress and said, “Today is the day of our freedom! Isn’t it, Toli? Today my father will come for us!”
Toli nodded and smiled to see the faith of the boy, undimmed by the long, numbing days of captivity. “Yes, today we will be free.” He looked at the prince for a long while, then sat down beside him on the bed. When he spoke again, it was in a more serious tone.
“Gerin, I have something to tell you.”
The youngster waited for him to continue.
Toli turned toward him. “You know that I love you as my own son. That is why I would not have you ignorant of what may take place today.”
“I am no longer afraid, Toli. I was before, but only for a little while. But my father is king, and he will not allow anything to happen to us. I know it.”
Toli smiled again and said, “Yes, I believe he will come. But there are times when even kings are powerless over events. Your father is king, yes, but he is also a man and may not be able to change all that he would like. Sometimes things are done that no one can undo.”
Gerin remained silent for a time, thinking on Toli’s words. “Will they kill us?” he asked at last. Without waiting for an answer he blurted ahead, “I am not afraid to die.”
“There is no shame in being afraid. There have been times that I feared for my life. But courage comes in not allowing your fear to win over you.”
“Yes, but I am not afraid now. I have been thinking. The Most High has his purpose—that is what Durwin always said—and if it is that I must die so that the kingdom can be saved, then I will do it.”
Toli marveled at such simple, wholehearted trust. “Yours are brave words, young sir, and wiser than you know. And yes, it may be that our lives are required. I know that I will go easier with such a strong comrade beside me.” He pulled the boy close in a tight hug. “But we are not dead yet, and the end is not yet revealed. We must still believe that the king will save us, Gerin.”
“I know he will, Toli. He is my father.”
They talked no more of the impending confrontation, but turned to other themes, remembering happier times. When the temple guards came for them, they found the cell ringing with laughter as Toli recounted his recent recollections of the prince learning to ride and jump.
“How heartening to hear our prisoners enjoying their last moments so pleasantly,” said Nimrood, stepping into the cell. “Would you agree, Pluell?”
The high priest ducked in behind Nimrood. His face was white and his eyes and lips set in a fierce scowl. “This has gone far enough, Nimrood. Too far! Let them go now before the king gets here. There is still time.”
“Time, yes—time to groom our captives and make them presentable. We must not let anyone think that we have mistreated our guests. No, that would not do at all.” He beckoned to the guards still standing in the corridor, and they came forward carrying basins of water and clean linen towels and the prisoners’ clothes, which had been taken from them the day before. “See? Freshly laundered. Fit for the king himself. Oh, I hope he appreciates the trouble we have gone to on your behalf, Princeling. But then, I am certain he will understand.”
“Please,” begged Pluell, his face contorting in a grimace of pain, “please, let them go. There is nothing to be gained by going through with it!”
“Silence, fool!” flared Nimrood. “We have been through this time and again. You weary me with your whining. I will hear no more of it! Do you understand me? No more. It is decided.”
Toli watched the two warily as he washed himself and shed the filthy robe he had been given. “What does he mean—nothing to be gained by going through with it?” asked Toli as he pulled on his clothes.
“See?” said Nimrood, turning on the high priest. “You have ruined our surprise.”
Toli advanced on the old sorcerer. The guards drew their swords and held them at ready. “You do not plan to let us go whether the king meets the ransom or not, do you?” said Toli flatly. “You mean to kill us regardless.”
Nimrood leveled his eyes upon him, and Toli saw the depths of hate within them. He knew he faced a being of pure evil. Still, he did not shrink back. “You, Jher dog, should have known that I would never allow you to escape twice. I, Nimrood, will have my revenge—on you and that grasping, spineless king of yours. And it has not been magic that has overthrown you, no—you saw to that long ago when you robbed me of my powers. It has been my own cunning, my superior wits, that have brought you down.”
Nimrood walked across the cell to where Prince Gerin stood. Toli started to move toward him, but felt the sharp point of a sword in his back. The old necromancer placed his hands on the boy’s shoulders. “But you do not have to be sacrificed, boy. Look at me.” The prince raised his eyes. Nimrood gazed down at him, saying, “I will offer you a choice. Come with me. Become my pupil, and I will teach you secrets such as no man, save Nimrood only, has ever known. I could give you such powers, boy—power over fire and air, earth and water, life and death. Come with me, and let me be your teacher.” He raised a hand and stroked the youngster’s dark hair. “Eh? What say you, lad?”
“No! In the name of the Most High God!” cried Toli. “Leave the boy alone!”
Gerin shivered and, as if awakening from a lulling sleep, shook the sorcerer’s hands from him. “No!” he shouted and ran to stand with Toli.
Nimrood’s eyes narrowed to hate-filled slits. “I gave you a choice; remember that when your blood runs out upon the altar stone, impudent young cub. I could have given you powers and wealth unimaginable.”
“The Most High will reckon with you, Nimrood,” Toli said firmly. “He watches over his servants and remembers the injustices practiced against them. He will repay and bring you to account.”
Nimrood whirled on Toli, and his hand flashed out, catching the Jher on the side of the face. The blow resounded in the stunned silence that followed. “Shut up!” spat Nimrood savagely. Fire burned from his eyes; his lips dripped spittle. “Shut up! Do you think I care anything for your petty god? Ha! He is less to me than the worm that crawls through the dung heap. Little men”—Nimrood glared into every face before him—“today you will see how your little gods behave when challenged with true power!”
The necromancer turned and strode to the cell door. “I am finished, and it is time. Bring them.”
High Priest Pluell threw a frightened look behind him at the prisoners and then fled after his demented master. The temple guards, six of them altogether, some with lances and some with swords, prodded the captives with the points of their weapons and marched them off down the corridor.
“I do not know what will happen, Gerin,” whispered Toli as they walked along, guards ringing them in on every side. “But stay alert to any possibility of escape. I, too, will be watching, and if I say ‘run,’ you fly as fast as you can and do not look back. Agreed?”
“Agreed.” Gerin nodded resolutely, and Toli knew he would do as he was told.
When they reached the entrance hall of the temple, the great doors were thrown open and the prisoners were led out onto the steps. Before them on the flagging of the temple yard stood the great altar, which had been moved from its place in the temple near the sacred stone and established at the foot of the steps in full sight of the onlookers now crowding into the space within the walls.
People from as far away as Hinsenby, Persch, and Woodsend, and not a few from Askelon, streamed into the yard, jostling for a place to stand, for word had gone out that the prince was held in the High Temple and that the king would seek to ransom him there. And as many as could travel quickly on horse or on foot came to see their king humbled and the temple exalted and its supremacy reasserted. For though they loved their king, they feared their god more. The simple people believed that the Dragon King had angered the god Ariel of the High Temple by commissioning a new temple to be built to a strong new god; and for this the king, though king he was, must be punished.
Many, to look at them, had walked all night; their clothing was still wet from the rain they had endured to be present at the moment the king laid his enchanted sword aside. They waited reverently, whispering behind their hands to their neighbors, while others talked openly, laughing and joking about what was soon to take place.
But at the moment when the temple doors opened and the prisoners were led out to stand on the steps before the altar, a hush spread over the throng, and the people stared expectantly as the captives’ wrists were bound with braided rope.
Overhead the sky glowered down with dark menace, threatening more rain at any moment. The sun could not be seen at all, and its absence cast a heavy gloom over the scene in the temple yard. Thunder rippled in the Fiskills far off, growling ominously, like a hungry beast stalking its prey.
Toli and Gerin stood side by side on the temple steps surrounded by armed guards in scarlet cassocks. Below them, near the altar, stood the high priest and the white-haired, white-bearded Nimrood, his long black robes wrapped around him like a cloak of darkness.
“Make way for the queen!” called a voice. The populace shifted, and a pathway opened into the mass of people crowded to the very steps of the temple. Through this avenue came the queen, followed by Lady Esme and the dowager Alinea, with Princesses Brianna and Elena between them. With them were the knights who had accompanied them as their bodyguard. All came to stand before the high priest.
“Release my son!” demanded Bria. “For the good of the realm and the people of Mensandor, release him now.” Relief and anger roiled inside her, making her voice quaver; relief at seeing her son at last, safe and sound; anger at what he had been made to suffer.
High Priest Pluell threw up his hands and looked at her fearfully. “You do not know what you ask, woman. Stand aside.”
“If you will not release him, allow me to take his place.”
Pluell’s eyes darted toward Nimrood. The queen saw the look and turned toward the wizard. “I see that it is you who I must appeal to. Allow me to take the place of my son if you will not release him.”
“I am not inclined to accept a bargain at this late hour. Stand aside and watch with the others.”
“Sir!” said Bria, starting forward. The guards snapped to attention and lowered their lances toward her; others leveled swords at the prince and Toli. Instantly the swords of the knights came whistling from their sheaths and met the lances of the guards. “No!” shouted Bria. “I will wait if I must. I will not be the cause of bloodshed this dark day.”
Fearing for the safety of her son if she pressed her demand, she withdrew with the other women to stand off to the side. Afraid of what was to come, she asked one of the knights to take the princesses to the carriage and sit with them there. Temple guards were placed with crossed lances before them, ensuring that there would be no further interference from that quarter. The women joined hands together and bowed their heads silently.
“It is time,” said Nimrood. “The king is not coming.”
High Priest Pluell turned his eyes to the sky and said, “No, it is not time yet. It is not yet midday. You said we would wait until midday.”
Nimrood drew a breath and seemed about to protest, but held his tongue and instead said, “As you will, priest. We will wait yet a little longer. I am not so anxious that I cannot savor the waiting.”
The yard fell silent all around. Not even the wind stirred the leaves of the trees lining the wall—trees into whose branches the curious had climbed to better see what would take place.
Toli glanced down at Prince Gerin, standing beside him. He nodded as if to say, Courage; he will come. The boy returned it with one of his own, which replied, I know, and I am not afraid.
The clouds rolled overhead, angry and swollen, hard and black as smoked amber, flying away on swift storm winds. An unnatural twilight descended over the temple yard, as if the sun had withdrawn and refused to shed its warmth and light on the proceedings.
Still, they waited.
At last Nimrood could stand it no longer. “There is no more time. It is midday, and the king is not here. He is not coming. Bring the prisoners.” The guards looked at one another and hesitated.
“Bring them!” shouted Nimrood, his voice shrill. The high priest, shaking visibly now, nodded and turned his face away. The guards thrust the captives down the steps with their weapons.
Toli started forward, lifted his foot, and then stumbled, rolling down the steps. “Run!” he shouted to the prince as he went down. Young Gerin leaped down the steps and dashed forward into the crowd.
“Stop him!” roared Nimrood. “Bring him back!”
Before the knights standing with the queen could lift a hand, one of the temple guards whirled around and seized the prince by the nape of the neck, hauling the kicking lad off his feet.
“Gerin!” cried the queen. “Gerin!” She struggled forward, thrusting out her hands in a desperate attempt to reach him, but was stopped by the lance of the remaining guard. “My son!”
Toli was hauled to his feet and shoved forward. “A very clumsy effort for a nimble Jher,” clucked Nimrood. “For your trouble you will be allowed to witness the sacrifice of the boy. I had planned it the other way around.”
With that, Nimrood swooped down and lifted the lad onto the altar, where Gerin fought to free himself. One guard held his feet, and another pulled his bound hands over his head. Toli shouted and dived toward the altar, but the guards around him grabbed his arms and held him fast.
“No!” shrieked the boy’s mother, her features twisted in horror. Esme threw her arms around the queen and held her tightly.
“The knife,” said Nimrood to the high priest. “Take up your dagger.”