The afternoon sun had set too swiftly, it seemed to Quentin. The queen’s apartment was growing dim; any minute servants would begin lighting the many candles that stood round the queen’s private chamber. The day had been a rush of activity, especially the last few hours.
Now, however, all was in readiness, and they waited. “You appear anxious, young sir.” The queen crossed the room to where Quentin was maintaining his vigil upon the window bench. She had been seeing to last-minute details and had just returned. “Do not be troubled, Quentin.” He smiled weakly and turned his eyes slowly away from the window, from where he had spent most of the late afternoon watching servants scurry across the courtyard in the snow on furtive business for the queen.
“I am not afraid,” Quentin lied, “only a little.” He looked at the beautiful Alinea in the dying light. She had vastly changed since he had last seen her. Where only a short while before she had been arrayed in regal finery, the fairest of the fair, now she stood before him in plainer trappings: a dark green tunic—not unlike his own—with purple cloak, very heavy, but finely made. She wore trousers with a man’s wide leather belt at her waist; tall riding boots completed her wardrobe. “So you approve of the queen’s attire?” She laughed, trying to put Quentin at ease. “We have the same tailor, you and I.”
Quentin forced a laugh and stood. “When will we be going? The sun is well down . . . Will it be long?”
“No, not long,” the queen reassured. “Oswald will summon us when all is made ready. We need not fret. Our preparations are in good care.”
Quentin was now more uneasy than he had been previously. He had had a taste of the danger of his mission and had witnessed its effects in Theido’s case. And that danger had been heightened and multiplied by all that had taken place in the last several hours: Ronsard’s message, the hastily conspired plot to free Theido, the feverish preparations for their journey—and now the waiting.
In the waiting Quentin found time to think about all that had gone before, to doubt his newly discovered bravery, to question again his omens and wish a thousand times that he’d never left the temple, and to curse the blind impetuosity that had propelled him into the midst of this dark adventure.
Quentin turned glumly once more to stare out of the window; the courtyard below lay deep in violet shadow, and a single star blazed bright as a beacon fire above one of the southern turrets. A good token, thought Quentin, and was himself brightened somewhat.
A quick knock sounded upon the queen’s chamber door, and Oswald entered at once. Quentin had trouble recognizing him, for he was dressed not as the queen’s chamberlain but as someone of much higher rank, although Quentin could not say who; he looked like a nobleman.
“You look a fine prince, Oswald,” said the queen. “Are you ready to play the part?” Oswald bowed again; turning his back to them, he shouted thickly, “You may go! Leave!” He turned again and asked blandly, “Would you say that was sufficient for our purpose?” There was just a hint of sarcasm in his voice, and Quentin realized with a start that Oswald was playing the part of the mysterious Jaspin.
“I think you will do nicely . . . I only hope I do not lose my chamberlain. He might like it as a prince—though not a rogue such as Jaspin, surely.”
With that, Oswald withdrew into the anteroom. Quentin heard the hollow echo of his summons to the warder. The queen turned to Quentin and said, “It is time to go. Follow the warder and he will lead you to the postern gate. The horses are waiting there with our provisions. We will come along as soon as may be. Go quickly now.”
Quentin followed the warder, a short, thick bull of a man with black eyes and curly black hair. He looked every inch the soldier he had once been. Quentin bobbed along in the man’s wake as they made their way along the back ways and little-used passages of the castle.
They walked quickly, stopping to look neither right nor left, although Quentin’s eyes caught flashing glimpses of rooms opulent and luxurious beyond his simple imaginings. He ached to be able to just stand and gaze upon them from the corridors. They passed various apartments, the armory, anterooms, and chambers. At one point they passed a great open entranceway with two huge carved oaken doors thrown wide in welcome. Inside a double colonnade supported an immense vaulted ceiling of concentric arches above a vast open room that seemed to contain the treasures of a whole kingdom. Quentin had never seen anything like it; the room seemed large enough to have swallowed the Temple of Ariel whole. Trenn, the warder, saw Quentin’s eyes grow round as they passed the room and explained, “That is the Great Hall of the Dragon King. There is none like it in all the world.”
Quentin believed him.
No sooner had the warder spoken than he turned like lightning upon Quentin and seized him by the tunic at the back of the neck. Quentin was surprised and shocked. He jerked like a loosely strung puppet and struck out with arms and legs flailing. “Come along, ruffian, or I’ll feed you to the dogs!” the warder roared.
“Do you require assistance, Trenn?” Quentin heard a voice behind him. He spun around and saw two men, richly dressed and proceeding into the great hall. One looked to be a knight by his armor, but he was no knight like Quentin had ever seen. His armor was silver and burnished to a glittering brightness; his cloak was crimson and lined with sable, as were his gloves and boots.
The man standing next to the knight wore a richly brocaded cloak of silk with gold drawn into fine thread and woven into the fabric. His tunic was royal purple, and he wore a large golden collar from which hung his insignia: a vulture with two heads, one facing right and the other left.
Quentin guessed it was the knight who had spoken, though he had no way of knowing. “I can manage, my lord,” said Trenn, dipping his head curtly. “We caught this one in the larder, stuffing his pockets.”
“Well, give him a taste of your strap,” said the nobleman impatiently. Both men turned away, and Trenn yanked Quentin behind one of the great doors, clamping a hand over the boy’s mouth.
“Quiet, young master!” he whispered hoarsely. “We dare not be seen lurking hereabouts.” Then he removed his hand with an additional caution not to cry out.
“Who were they?” Quentin whispered. Trenn rolled his eyes upward.
“Orphe, help us! It was Prince Jaspin and one of his nobles, Sir Grenett—a more foul gentleman I never want to meet.”
“Then let us get away!” said Quentin, seeing no good reason to linger in the vicinity any longer.
“We cannot—any moment Oswald will walk into a trap unaware! We must do something to prevent it.”
The plan had been simple enough, but not without its element of risk. The chamberlain, Oswald, was to impersonate Prince Jaspin after secretly obtaining some of the prince’s clothing. A forged message was delivered to the dungeon keeper to place the new prisoner under guard and bring him to the Great Hall, which was the only place the conspirators could think of where Jaspin himself would not likely show up. But their worst fears had, as on such occasions frequently happens, materialized in force.
Prince Jaspin and one of his noble knaves had chosen this time for a private parley in the Great Hall, where Oswald, in disguise, would momentarily appear. Only the doughty Trenn and Quentin knew of the serious mischance. “I fear the gods go against us, young master. Yonder comes Oswald, and too soon the prisoner will follow.” Footsteps could be heard far down the corridor; Oswald was hurrying to his place. “There is but one thing for it,” said Trenn. “A diversion.”
He peered around the huge door and pointed diagonally across the hall to the darkened arch of an alcove. “You see that door over there?” he asked. “That is the storeroom of tables, benches, and all that fills the hall on feast days. And also a quantity of banners and pennons and other such frippery—set them afire!” He thrust into Quentin’s uncertain hands a small flint and iron attached with a leather thong, which he carried in a pouch at his side. “I will be right after you, yelling to catch their attention. Mind, when you hear me call, leave all and come out. We will not have much time, but maybe enough.”
“Then go.” Trenn pushed Quentin forward with such force that the boy fell sprawling into the entrance of the Great Hall, dropping the flint and iron, which clinked dully as it skittered across the black marble floor not five paces from where Prince Jaspin and Sir Grenett had stopped to confer.
Quentin leaped to his feet and dived to snatch up the flint and iron. Trenn, behind him, shouted, “Stop him! Stop that thief!” Prince Jaspin and Sir Grenett turned just in time to see Quentin dash toward them, swoop to retrieve his lost utensil, and dart away. Sir Grenett, without thinking, made a swipe after the fleeing youth, but Prince Jaspin, considering this an ill-timed interruption in his important affairs, stood fuming in his place.
Quentin reached the door of the storeroom and smacked the iron latch with his hand. The door was secured from within. No, it gave somewhat, but Sir Grenett was upon him. Putting all his weight upon the effort, Quentin managed to force the latch and barely swung the door open, squeezing through and closing it again in almost the same motion. Sir Grenett’s heavy fist rattled the door as he threw the bolt.
The room was almost pitch dark; only a feeble light found its way in from an arrow loop set high up in the wall. With Trenn’s excited voice and Sir Grenett’s angry challenges and both men pounding upon the door, Quentin stumbled forward and found in a corner of the room banners on standards. He threw them down and set to striking the flint and iron.
The effort appeared futile; there was no edge or kindling that could catch a spark. Furiously he looked for something else to start a blaze. On the floor he spied a single piece of parchment, a proclamation of some sort that had been read at a feast now forgotten. He picked it up and ran back to the door, crumpling the parchment as he went. He threw it down just in front of the door and struck the flint and iron to it. The spark caught on the brittle old skin. He blew carefully, and the spark leaped to flaming life. Trembling, Quentin shoved the smoldering parchment to the threshold and blew his breath on it, sending the smoke streaming under the door.
“Fire!” he heard Trenn’s voice boom out. “The rascal’s set the stores on fire!”
Prince Jaspin, growing more and more impatient with the impertinence of the supposed young scoundrel, came steaming up to where Sir Grenett and Trenn stood beating the door with their hands. “Call the guards! I’ll have this door down at once!”
“The room will be in blazes before that,” Trenn objected. “My lord, allow me to remain here while Sir Grenett goes round to the other door through that anteroom.”
“The room has two such entrances, I believe,” explained the exasperated prince, quickly losing his temper.
“My lord could see to the other,” suggested Trenn.
The prince seemed about to overrule this plan, but the smoke was now curling about their feet. “By Azrael! I’ll flay his foolish hide myself,” he swore, trotting off to find the other door, a location he knew but imprecisely. “Sir Grenett!” he shouted. “Take your post! Let us end this vexation instantly!”
The two left to their appointed stations. As soon as they were out of sight, Trenn called, his face close to the door, “Young master, they are gone. Let us away!”
Hearing the signal, Quentin emerged coughing from the room. The parchment was now but ashes on the floor, completely consumed. Trenn grabbed his arm, nearly wrenching it from his shoulder, and pulled him across the floor and away. At the entrance to the Great Hall, they met a confused Oswald fearfully peeping in at the scene he had just witnessed.
“Our plan is discovered,” he said as they drew up.
“No,” replied Trenn in a hushed tone. “But you must not linger here all night. We have bought some time. See to your business and flee!”
Oswald appeared far from certain, but the noise or voices in the corridor behind, and a quick glance to see the dungeon keeper and his guards with their prisoner moving toward them, made up his mind. The chamberlain crossed to one side of the hall and took up his position, back turned toward the entrance.
Trenn and Quentin did not remain longer to see the drama to its end but hurried on toward their appointed place—the postern gate.
Quentin felt the sting of the cold night air upon his face as they dashed out of the castle and into the broad expanse of the outer ward. Trenn and Quentin flitted like shadows over the snow and, stealing through a low stone archway set in a low wall, entered the small postern gateyard. There in the whitened square of the gateyard stood three horses laden with provisions. Standing nearby was a member of Trenn’s gate watch who was checking saddle and tack for readiness.
“Everything is in order, sir,” the guard reported when the two came close.
“Good,” said Trenn. “Go and see that the plank is let down. The others will be here shortly.”
The man turned and hastened off. Trenn cast a worried glance back over his shoulder toward the castle and said softly to Quentin, “We have pushed our luck this far; the gods will have to see to the rest.” He paused and added in a hoarse whisper, “But listen! Someone comes!”