In the massive Great Hall, the Dragon King sat on his royal throne. Dressed in his most regal finery, he wore a royal blue cloak with the insignia of the dragon worked in gold; the cloak was secured by a gold dragon brooch and chain. On his feet were high boots of soft red leather; and his good ring—the ring Eskevar had worn—sat on his finger. Across his lap he held the Shining One in its sheath, his hand resting lightly on its bejeweled hilt. The great carven doors of the hall had been opened wide to allow all who would come to crowd in to witness their king dispensing justice. The people stood in ranks among the gleaming black columns, lined the balustrades of the upper galleries three deep, and pressed forward to the steps of the dais.
When all had gathered in, the trumpeter sounded a call. The noise died to a whisper in the hall, and Quentin said, “When I was a boy, I stood in the court of King Eskevar and watched him mete out justice and favor with a wise and generous hand. And I vowed that if ever such a task fell to me, I would try to be at least as righteous and good as Eskevar.
“A king does not often have the opportunity of rewarding those who serve him as they deserve. But today I will do my best. First, however, I will punish the offenders.” He nodded to the trumpeter standing on the dais, wearing a tabard emblazoned with the royal device. The youth blew a strong, clear note, which was answered by the sound of marching feet.
Into the great hall came a contingent of knights dressed in their best armor, their breastplates burnished bright and their long scarlet cloaks billowing as they approached. Between them marched Lord Ameronis and his friend Lord Lupollen, both in chains. Both were gray-faced with dismay and kept their eyes lowered, not daring to look at the king.
“Lord Ameronis,” said Quentin when the knights had pushed them forward to the foot of the throne. “Look at me, sir.” The chagrined lord raised timid eyes. “It is with a distinctly altered attitude that we meet again, eh? You have had time to think on your crimes, and so have I.”
At this Lord Ameronis trembled visibly, expecting the worst.
The king continued, “Your crime is one of ambition, which I can understand and forgive—for I, too, have been ambitious in my own way. You wanted this crown and throne for your own, but that is nothing more than any lord dreams of at one time or another, and so I forgive you there.
“You caused me anguish and inflicted hurt upon me while I was suffering under the grief of great loss. You took the sword, Zhaligkeer, which you knew to be mine and which you knew would have saved my son, and yet you withheld it. These are hurts practiced against me, and as one man to another I will forgive them, for you were blinded by your lust for power.
“But your actions caused great hurt and injury to soldiers who had no choice but to defend their king with limb and life. Many brave men fell in battle, some never to rise again; and their blood calls me to do justice.
“I could have you executed”—here Ameronis flinched—“but what would the shedding of your blood accomplish? Very little, I am persuaded, though there are those among us who would take some measure of satisfaction there.
“No, I have decided that you shall live, and that the support of all the aggrieved widows you have left without husbands, and all the children you have left fatherless, shall be placed in your hands.”
“Ahh!” cried Ameronis. “I will have to sell half my lands; and all my gain for the rest of my life will be forfeit!”
“So be it,” said the king flatly. “At least you will live to see the wrong you have done redressed. The families of the slain will become your families; the maimed will become your brothers. And so you will treat them, for if ever complaint is raised against you hereafter, your life will be forfeit.
“And you, Lord Lupollen,” continued Quentin, “you chose to throw your substance to the support of your friend Ameronis. As you thought to share in the spoils of victory, so will you share in the loss of defeat. For the sentence I have pronounced upon him shall be yours as well. I have no doubt that Ameronis will welcome your aid now and in the years to come.”
Next the remaining lords were brought before the throne. They paid homage respectfully, but remained grave and stolid. “My lords, I am of two minds about you,” said the king. “You had it within your power to turn Ameronis aside before he carried out his scheme, and you did not. Yet, unlike Lupollen, you saw clearly enough who to serve once the issue was forced.
“Therefore, Lords Edfrith, Gorloic, Kelkin, and Denellon, I do hereby condemn your disloyalty. But I stand ready to call you friends again if you will swear fealty once more to the throne.”
The lords went down on one knee and swore before all the assembly an oath of loyalty to their monarch. When they had finished, they took their places with the rest.
“As for the others,” continued the king, “Nimrood, the high priest, and their foul flock—their punishment has been delivered by the Most High, the final judge of all; and let no man say they received more than their due.” The pronouncement brought a murmur from all gathered there.
“Now then,” said Quentin, “bring forth my new friends that I may reward them.”
The trumpeter sounded his call again, and the onlookers craned their necks to see a small boy, not much older than Prince Gerin, approach the throne timidly, followed by Pym the tinker and Tip, his dog. Quentin beckoned to the youngster’s parents, who hung back meekly in the ranks. “Come closer, good people.” The farmer and his wife crept forward shyly and came to kneel beside their son and the tinker.
“Rise, my friends,” said the king. “For you are my friends—as true as any who have ever served the Dragon King’s throne.
“Renny, your young heart yearns for knighthood, but you have already shown yourself as brave as any knight in the realm, though you possess neither horse nor armor. Is it still your wish to be a knight?”
“Yes, Sire,” came the small voice in reply. “More than anything.”
“Then so be it. On this day your name shall be placed on the roll of the king’s knights. When you come of age, you will enter into the knighthood in service to the realm.” Quentin paused. “But a knight must learn to ride, and he must have much skill at arms. Therefore, you may keep the pony Tarky which you found and tried to return; keep him until such time as you are able to handle a charger from the king’s stables. Then you shall choose a mount of your own. What do you say to that, Renny?”
Words escaped the boy, but the light in his eyes said all.
“My son has asked that you be allowed to take instruction with him under the master-at-arms of Askelon Castle. A knight of the king, even a knight in training, must be housed and fed in a manner worthy of his master. So, Sir Renny, the crown will endow you with an annual stipend which your parents will use for you as they deem fit.”
The joy that shone on the faces of the three could not be contained, and they bowed their thanks again and again as they returned to their places in the crowd.
“And you, good tinker,” said the king. Pym folded his hands over his knee and gazed upward expectantly. “You found the Shining One and kept it safely hidden away, returning for it when you knew your king’s need. Doubtless you would have delivered it into my hand had you not been prevented.”
“Yes, Sire, it is a very fact, it is,” replied Pym.
“And it has reached my ears that you have long desired a horse and wagon to take your wares from town to village on your route.” At the tinker’s puzzled expression, Quentin asked, “Is this not true?”
“Oh, yes, Yer Highness. More than ye know . . . but—”
“Yes? Was there something else?”
“The sharping stone, Yer Majesty, Sire. We’uns had in mind a sharping stone on a treadle-foot fer sharping knives and shears and such like.”
“Of course, the sharpening stone! Such an oversight! Yes, you shall have the finest sharpening stone as can be found in all Mensandor. And Castle Askelon shall be your first stop whenever you pass this way.”
Pym clapped his hands at his good fortune, and Tip barked her master’s happiness. The two withdrew to the laughter and high acclaim of those gathered in the great hall.
“Lastly,” said Quentin when silence again reclaimed the hall, “I would reward my old friends. Come forward, Toli, Theido, and Ronsard.” He rose and descended from the dais to meet them at the foot of the throne. “No, do not kneel to me, brave sirs. Brothers do not kneel to one another, for your friendship has proven itself of highest mettle, stronger and more true than are the ties of birth and blood.
“How else can I reward your steadfastness and courage? What could I give you that you do not already have? Lands, position, title? And yet you stood ready to give these things and even life itself, for a friend—the more when that friend faltered. You did not abandon me, but acted for me with wisdom and courage, each one of you, in your actions, declaring yourself more noble than kings.
“So I give you these tokens of my esteem and gratitude.” Quentin beckoned to a page who came forward bearing a board covered with a runner of blue velvet on which rested three golden dragon brooches just like his own. The king took the first one from the board and fastened it at Theido’s shoulder, saying, “Theido, whose counsel is ever wise and good . . .” He took up the next, affixed it to Ronsard’s cloak. “And Ronsard, whose dauntless courage is matched only by the strength of his arm . . .” Quentin lifted the remaining brooch and placed it on Toli’s cloak—“And Toli, whose love and loyalty hold firm even unto death. From this day forth you are the princes of the realm.” After a pause, Quentin added, “Toli, you I would reward further by freeing you from your oath of service to me. Today and henceforth you are no longer a servant.”
Quentin turned to the assemblage and presented the three with a sweep of his arm. “Behold my royal friends,” he said. “Let all men pay each one the courtesy and respect due a king.”
At once the whole assembly made a deep bow and then affirmed the king’s reward with loud shouts of acclamation that rang to the vault of the Great Hall and throughout the corridors and galleries of Askelon Castle.
Quentin mounted to his throne again and proclaimed, “This day will be a day of celebration throughout all of Mensandor. Let there be feasting and music and entertainments for everyone!” The cheers that followed this address were drowned in the blare of trumpets that sounded their clarion call throughout the castle and from the high battlements to the town and countryside beyond. “The celebration has begun!” the trumpets said. “Come and share in the rejoicing!”
And the people who heard that happy sound left their work, put on their finest clothes, and started for the castle to join in the high merriment and festivities.
It was nearing dusk—the red-gold disk of the sun was lowering in the sky away westward over Gerfallon’s broad back—before Quentin found an opportunity to slip away alone. Blazer was saddled and waiting for him and bore him quickly through the deserted streets of Askelon and out onto the plain.
Quentin found the shaded bower without any trouble; he had been there before with Durwin and remembered the bank overlooking the forest pool as a place where the hermit loved to come and idle away the hours on a summer’s day. The grave mound was fresh and neatly overlaid with stones—a simple grave such as the hermit would have wanted—and already tender green shoots of new grass could be seen poking up between the rocks.
The king stood for a long time gazing reflectively at the grave, remembering the life he had known with the holy hermit of Pelgrin, as the simple folk called Durwin still. That temporal life had now ended, but another had begun; and Quentin knew that he would see his friend again, that they would be together in a place without separation or the painful intrusion of death, and he was content to wait until that time.
The sound of hoofbeats signaled the end of his quiet reverie, and he turned to see two riders approaching. He waited while they dismounted and tied their horses to a poplar branch beside his. “So, I have been followed. I thought you two might have found a better way to occupy yourselves,” said Quentin.
Toli grinned and took Esme’s hand. “We wanted to talk to you in privacy,” he explained. “I saw you leave the celebration, so we waited a little and came after you.”
Quentin nodded but said nothing, waiting for Toli to continue. Toli glanced sideways at the woman beside him and then back at the king, licked his lips, and announced, “We have made a decision . . .”
“Oh?” teased Quentin. “Was there a decision to be made?”
Toli dropped his eyes. “Please, it was not an easy choice to make.”
“I am sorry. Forgive me,” said Quentin quickly. “Of course—it would not be easy for either of you. And it will not be easy for me. If I make light of it, it is only because I shall feel your absence most acutely.”
“You will be going away. I know. But I could not be happier for either of you. It is the best thing—” He stopped when he saw the look that passed between Toli and Esme.
Esme laughed gently and replied, “We are not going away. At least not together. Not yet.”
“No,” said Toli firmly.
“I am going to Dekra,” said Esme. “I felt something there that I must search out for myself. I felt the spirit of the God Most High move within me; I had a vision. He may be calling me to serve him in a special way. I want to go back and find out—I must find out. I want to learn all I can of the one I have pledged my life to before I make a life with another.”
“I see,” said Quentin, nodding. “I know how you feel. I felt the same way, but it seems that Dekra was never chosen for me. My future lies on a different path.” He turned to Toli. “And you?”
“I will remain by your side, Kenta.” Toli looked lovingly at Esme and clasped her hand more tightly. “It is true that we love each other, and perhaps someday we will join our lives. But for now—” He smiled, and the light kindled in his deep, dark eyes. “For now you are still saddled with me, my friend.”
“And forevermore, so it would seem.”
“Come, then,” said Toli. “Let us return to the celebration together.” He glanced at the grave, and then at his master. “If you are ready.”
Quentin looked back at the simple mound and said, “Yes, I am ready. We have already said our good-byes. He came to me, you see. I did not realize it then; I was in no condition to know for certain.
“In those first black days when I was out searching for my son— insane with grief and exhausted beyond pain or sleep—I found myself on Holy Island. Perhaps I had been led there. However it was, Durwin appeared to me: I know now that it was he. He said good-bye and told me we would be together again. He knew how much it meant to me to see him one last time, and he came back to tell me to trust in the Most High. Had I but listened, I would have borne this trial more easily and accounted myself more worthily.”
Toli looked long at his friend and said finally, “Yes, Kenta, you have changed. I saw it when you stood in the temple yard, and again in the Great Hall. You have come to terms with your frailties as a man, and this makes you more of a king than before—a true priest king.”
Quentin shrugged. “I only know that I no longer burn to inaugurate the new era. The Most High will accomplish that as he will, and in his own time.”
The three rode back to Askelon across the plain, stopping at the site of the King’s Temple ruins, where inexplicably scores of people moved among the toppled stones, clearing away the rubble. Quentin recognized his master mason among them and hailed him. “Bertram! What is happening here? What are you doing?”
“Sire.” The man bowed. “We are preparing the site for building.”
“Why? Who gave the orders?”
The old mason scratched his jaw and cocked his head to one side. “No one ordered it, my lord. It was the townspeople’s idea; they insisted—said their new god ought to have a new temple. They aim to build one themselves. With your blessing, of course; we will follow the plans you have made.” Bertram scuttled away then, returning over the heap of broken stone to supervise the work.
“Do you see this?” said Toli. “The new era has come in force. It is here around us. Do you wish to stay and help?”
Quentin raised his eyes to the sky, where the first evening stars were already blazing like jewels in the clear, high dome of heaven, though away to the west the horizon still held the rosy tint of the sun. “No,” replied Quentin, lifting the reins and turning Blazer toward home. “Come. The Most High has chosen other hands to build his temple. That is as it should be.”
Bria met them at the balcony overlooking the garden. She wrapped her arms around her husband. “I wondered where the three of you had gone.” She glanced at Toli and then back to the king. “All is well?”
“It has never been better,” replied Quentin, kissing her lightly on the cheek. Throughout the enormous garden below, lanterns were being lit among the trees to twinkle like stars in a firmament of leaves.
“Then come in to the table; the banquet is about to begin,” said Bria, leading them across the balcony. The doors of the great hall had been thrown open wide to reveal long tables with food of every kind and description, and a host of eager guests waiting to be called to join in. Everywhere music played, and laughter drifted and mingled on the soft evening breeze, along with the sweet perfume of the garlanded flowers that bedecked the hall and garden.
“Yes, but the feast can wait a moment longer. First I want to see my children. Let me go and find them.”
Toli, Esme, and Bria watched him hurry down the steps into the garden, darting among the merrymakers in search of the prince and princesses. “I remember a night like this—exactly like this—when King Eskevar returned,” said Toli. “A celebration to rival this one, to be sure.”
“No, not like this one,” said Bria. Her voice held a trace of sadness. “My father even then did not care for his family as Quentin does.” She smiled and nodded to where the king returned bearing one youngster on his back and two others in his arms, all of them laughing happily. “You see? He has changed.”
Toli nodded slowly. “A new era is begun, my lady.”
“Indeed! Then let us hope it lasts a thousand years,” said Bria.
“Ten thousand!” added Esme.
“Let us hope it lasts forever,” said Toli.
“Come along,” called Quentin, striding past them. “We must not be late for our own celebration!” He marched through the doors with his young ones, and Bria took her place at his side; Toli and Esme came on behind. They all reached the high table to find Ronsard and Theido with Renny and his parents, and Pym the tinker with Tip at his feet, and all the other guests of honor already assembled and in their places.
Quentin seized his goblet and held it aloft, saying, “Welcome, fair friends one and all. Let the banquet begin!” And they all sat down to feast in the Hall of the Dragon King.