Dagger?” High Priest Pluell’s face blanched even whiter than before. He patted his robes absently. “I seem to have misplaced my dagger. I do not have it with me.”
Nimrood smiled maliciously. “I thought you might have forgotten yours—conveniently, too, I might add. So I brought my own.” He withdrew a long, thin poniard from beneath his robe and, taking the high priest’s hand, placed the knife in it. “Now then, High Priest. Do your duty!”
Pluell, eyes glazed and the sweat of fear glistening slick on his brow, turned a stricken countenance upon the queen, whose face was hidden in her hands, and upon his evil accomplice, who smiled thinly and nodded. “Do it!” Nimrood croaked, his eyes sparkling with glee.
The dagger shook in the high priest’s hand, but he turned to where the young prince lay on the altar and raised his arm above the boy’s heart. Gerin closed his eyes and drew his mouth into a tight pucker so that he would not cry out.
The knife hung in the air, hesitated, and—
“Stop! The king is here! Wait! The Dragon King is coming!”
With a sigh the air rushed through the high priest’s teeth; his arm wavered and dropped to his side, and he fell back away from the altar.
In a moment the crowd parted, and the king’s stallion came clattering into the yard. Quentin reined Blazer to a halt, the courser’s hooves striking sparks from the paving stones, and threw himself from the saddle.
He advanced toward the temple as those with him—Theido and Ronsard, Lord Edfrith, and a host of knights and men—came pounding from behind into the already-overcrowded yard. The people drew away from the king, giving him wide berth as he approached the altar.
“I have brought the ransom,” Quentin called out boldly. “Let my son go!” He directed his challenge at the high priest, who drew back among the other priests at the edge of the temple steps.
“That will not do, my king,” replied Nimrood coolly.
Quentin turned to face him across the distance between them. “Who are you?” He stepped closer, his eyes on the old man’s face, struggling to read some recognition there. “Do I know you?”
“We have never met,” the old man replied. “But I think you know me.”
“I ask again. Who are you?”
“A name? Very well, I shall give it. You see before you none other than Nimrood, known as the necromancer once long ago, before my power was shorn from me.”
“Nimrood!” It took all of Quentin’s strength not to stagger backward as the knowledge rocked him to the core. “You rise from the dust of death like one of your ghastly creations!”
“Yes, and I have come to claim my revenge.” He stepped behind the altar and motioned to the guards holding the boy to remove him. “Your sword, proud king, the Shining One—that was to be the ransom. Where is it?”
Quentin drew the sword; it whispered as it slid from the scabbard. He held it up for all to see and started for the altar.
Nimrood held up a hand. “Not like that!” he screamed. Quentin halted. “On your knees! I want all your subjects to see you bow to me. I want you to acknowledge me before all these witnesses.”
Quentin advanced two more steps and came to the altar.
“On your knees, proud king!”
“Never!” shouted Quentin. “You ask for the sword; here it is. You will get nothing more from me.”
“Bow to me on your knees, or the boy dies!” Nimrood whirled around and snatched the dagger out of the startled high priest’s hand. In a flash the knife blade lay against the young boy’s throat. “Kneel, Great King, or lose your son and heir.” The rasping voice dripped venom.
Quentin, every fiber of his being rebelling at the act, dropped slowly to one knee. He glared frightfully at Nimrood, who smiled wickedly as he held the knife against the prince’s neck. The people were silent as death, watching the humiliation of their king.
“Now the sword,” said Nimrood, breaking the unearthly silence. “Lay it on the altar.” His words stabbed like dagger points, penetrating to the farthest reaches of the temple yard so that every man there heard plainly what was said.
The Dragon King raised the sword once more and held it by the hilt. This sword, he thought, is the Shining One promised me in the dream long ago, and given to me by the hand of the Most High. It is the sword of the Most High himself; I cannot give it up to Nimrood. I cannot lay it upon that altar; to do that would be an act of worship to that depraved monster. I will not forsake the true God—not to save my life or the life of my son.
Quentin turned the sword in his hand and looked at it, and then at Nimrood. He rose to his feet once more.
“On your knees!” screamed Nimrood. “Bow down to me!”
Quentin raised the blade above his head in both hands and turned his face toward the heavens. “Most High God,” he said, his words ringing in the silence of the temple yard, “hear your servant. Show your power now; exalt yourself in the midst of our enemies. Let your justice burn like a flame in the land, that all men may worship the true God.”
“Your god is deaf, it seems,” scoffed Nimrood. “Ha! There is no true god. Pray to me, Dragon King! Perhaps I will grant your prayer!”
Quentin, eyes closed and face turned upward, did not listen to Nimrood’s mocking laughter, but instead prayed as fervently as he ever had in his life, pouring himself out before the Most High. And in that moment he felt the blade grow warm in his hand. He opened his eyes and looked skyward as the heavy black clouds parted and a single shaft of light fell upon him, striking the blade in his hand. He stood in a circle of golden light, and as he looked, the light played along the tapering blade, winking in the gems at the hilt. The light was alive, and out of it a voice spoke, saying, “Throw down the altar! It should have been thrown down long ago!”
Suddenly fire fell from the sky, dropping through the air like burning rain to strike the sword. Zhaligkeer flashed, its flame rekindled and blazing with white heat into the gloom round about. The people could not bear the piercing brightness and threw their hands over their eyes to shut out the awful splendor of that holy fire.
The flame is back in the sword! thought Quentin. The Most High has not abandoned me! He is still with me; he never left! The realization burned through Quentin just as the flame burned in the sword.
“The sword! The sword!” howled Nimrood. “Give me the sword!”
“No!” shouted Quentin. It flashed with terrible brilliance, and fire seemed to leap from the shimmering blade, scattering light all around. “You shall never hold this blade.”With that, the king raised the Shining One over his head and brought it down with all his strength onto the massive stone altar.
There came a blinding flash and the sound of hot metal suddenly plunged into cold water as the scent of burning stone seared the air. The ground rumbled deep in the earth, and the stone slab of the altar tipped, tilted, and then slid sideways, cloven in half, the stone jagged and smoking from the place where the Shining One had bitten deep into the rock.
A cry went up from the crowd, a gasp from a thousand throats, and they drew back as one from the sight of their king standing before the crumbling altar with the flaming sword in his hand.
The high priest threw his hands upward in horror and ran back up the steps into the temple, his priests fleeing with him. The temple guards threw down their weapons and ran after.
Nimrood’s arm went up; the dagger flashed in his hand. Toli, seeing his chance, lowered his head and charged into the sorcerer, knocking the boy from his grasp. Gerin sprawled forward, rolled to his feet, and dashed to his mother’s open arms. Bria swept him up and hugged the boy to her. The crowd surged forward around them.
“You!” screeched Nimrood at Toli. “Twice you have cheated me. Never again!” Toli leaped to the side, but with his hands bound could not keep his balance and fell backward onto the steps of the temple.
Like a cat the old wizard pounced on him and plunged the dagger into Toli’s chest, then fled up the steps to the High Temple.