Quentin shivered in the cold. A large bright moon was beginning to show its silvery disk just above the eastern curtain between two towers. Quentin watched in nervous excitement, waiting to be off. He stood in the snow, holding the reins of his mount, none other than the stout Balder, rescued by the queen’s thoughtfulness from the stable at the inn. The ambushers, having captured their man, had given no thought to the horses left behind.
The queen stood nearby, talking quietly to Trenn, who was maintaining a thickheaded obstinance over something she was telling him. “Good warder,” she said, “I would not insist if I thought you were in but little danger. The prince rages from within, demanding an accounting. He thinks you have conspired some treason against him and likes not the trickery played out in the Great Hall just now. When he learns of the prisoner’s escape, he will demand your head.”
“How can he know that I had aught to do with his precious prisoner?” Trenn objected.
“He needs no reason to suspect anyone, who is suspicious of all. Jaspin will suspect and then, at very least, make an example of your death for those who trifle with him. It is not safe for you to remain behind.”
“I have borne the brunt of his anger before. I can withstand.”
“No, not this time. He will be satisfied with nothing less than your head upon the spike. You must come with us.”
Just then two figures darted forth from the low archway: the leading one tall and dark; the other, his cloak glimmering in the moonlight, following close behind.
“Theido!” cried Quentin when the two had joined them.
“Quentin, is it you?” the dark man asked in some surprise.
“Quickly now,” said Trenn. “Truly, there is not a moment to lose. You must be off.”
“Trenn, you are coming with us,” the queen said firmly and called to one of the guards standing close by. “Make ready another horse!”
“There’s no time, my lady,” the bullheaded warder protested. “I may be of more use to you here. Go now and do not worry after me.”
“Yes, you must go at once,” said Oswald. “The dungeon keeper will send for his prisoner soon and find him gone; then Jaspin will know that treason is afoot.”
Quentin was already in the saddle of the great warhorse. Balder snorted and shook his mane. The bridle jingled in the frosty air, reminding Quentin of tiny prayer bells heard from far away. Theido mounted his brown palfrey, and the horse tossed his head and stamped the ground repeatedly, as if to say, “The time has come! Away!” The queen climbed, with the help of Trenn’s steady hand, into the saddle, offering last instructions to Oswald.
“Jaspin must have no reason to suspect my absence for at least two days. Play out the ruse as long as you are able. Let everyone believe I have taken to bed with a sudden slight illness and will not be disturbed. My ladies must behave as they would under that condition. And you must forget you know otherwise yourself.”
Oswald bowed, and Trenn signaled one of his men to lift the postern gate, and the riders set forth. The hooves of the horses clattered upon the stone floor of the gatehouse road and thudded over the plank, the small drawbridge that had been put down over the broad ditch sep- arating the postern ramp from the gatehouse. They wound their way along the walled road of the postern ramp, which descended steeply down the rocky backside of the hill on which the castle was founded. When they had clattered over the final bridge, spanning the last dry moat, Theido turned in his saddle and halted briefly, allowing the others to draw up beside him. “Whoever else I have to thank for my freedom, I thank my friend Quentin,” he said, bowing in the saddle. He turned to Queen Alinea and said, “And I thank his influential friend.”
“We all have you to thank for our captivity if we do not leave this place at once,” she said with a laugh. Then she added in a more serious tone, “Good Theido, I am sorry for the abuse which has befallen you, but the gods may yet have some plan to undo all the evil Prince Jaspin has done. For my own part, I am glad that you are still alive and are now by my side. There is not another I would entrust my safety to more willingly.”
“My lady, we have not seen the beginning of our course. It may be that you will have reason to curse the one you so highly honor now.”
“No. I have too often seen your high mettle tested and shown true. I have no qualms whatever danger lurks at hand.”
“Still, it is not too late for you to go back. You—”
The queen cut him off, saying, “I have made my decision and will abide.” She took a deep breath and turned her face to the east. “No, my future lies elsewhere. My king is waiting.”
Theido snapped his reins. “Then we are off!”
The horses surged into the snow, striking up glittering diamonds in the silvery light. The shadows of the three riders wavered, sliding silently in the smooth void—three fleeting shades darting through a sleeping world. Away they flew to the east toward the darkly advancing line of Pelgrin Forest, their black shapes traced in the spun silver of a rising winter moon.
Quentin crouched low, clinging to Balder’s thick neck, abandoning any hope of remaining close behind the others unless he gave his mount free rein. He was not an accomplished rider—the temple had little use for horses. That part of his education had been neglected in favor of other, more priestly studies. So he leaned into the wind, lashed by Balder’s flying mane, squinting into the night and blinking back icy tears and enduring the string of snow loosed by the hooves of the horses in front of him.
The moon hovered at its zenith when they reached the first straggling forefringe of the forest. Theido pursued the dodging course among the small trees and shrubs until at last the riders entered the deeper wood. Here, at the forest’s edge, Theido reined to a halt to allow the horses a breather. All turned in their saddles to look upon Askelon, now many leagues behind them.
Quentin craned his neck to see the castle, dimly outlined in the moonlight, rising like a mountain, dark against an even darker night. Overhead a thousand stars shed brilliant pricks of cold light glancing down upon them. Pale wisps of steam rose from the horses.
“We should reach Durwin’s cottage with the dawn,” said Theido. He turned again toward the vast expanse of white they had just crossed. “I cannot see that we have been followed. But we should expect that, I think. They will try to stop us, you may be sure. Our only hope is to stay far enough ahead of them that their attempt comes too late.”
“We may be able to outdistance them or lose them along the way,” Alinea offered.
“It is possible; at any rate, it is our best course. Jaspin has many spies throughout the land and many who owe him costly favors. He will try to use them. If we can but elude them long enough, we may lose them when we leave this country behind.
“We shall ride as quietly through Pelgrin as a party may go with speed. There is, however, one stop I would make along the way, and that quite soon.” He swung his horse into the forest, and the others followed close behind.
Quentin found the going somewhat easier; he was able to sit more erectly in the saddle, although low-hanging branches kept him ducking and leaning constantly. Theido pursued a relentless pace for nearly two hours, as far as Quentin could guess by the position of the moon—which he struggled to glimpse from time to time through broken patches of clear sky overhead.
They stayed just off the main track through the forest and presently came to an ancient oak of immense girth, as large as any Quentin had ever seen. Theido called a halt and rode a few paces ahead by himself. Then he raised himself in the saddle and, placing two fingers of an ungloved hand into his mouth, gave a low whistle. He repeated it and then trotted back to where Quentin and Queen Alinea waited. He was just about to speak when a long, shrill whistle came in answer to his own.
“Come,” said Theido. “We may proceed.”
They turned off the path by the oak, and Quentin saw a narrow opening between two massive and impenetrable hedges. The gap was just wide enough to admit a rider or a man on foot—if they happened to be looking for the spot, for it was fully concealed behind the eldern oak.
Through the hedge wall the riders entered a clearing that was a bowl-shaped hollow. The ground sloped down just ahead of them and rose again opposite to form a rocky rim crowned with slim young birches on a small hill. All around the circumference of the hill grew holly bushes, thick and black in the moonlight.
Theido led the party to the center of the bowl and there waited. Quentin could not imagine why they had come here or who had returned Theido’s signal, for obviously, signal it was. He had not long to wait for answers to his questions. As he sat scanning the limited horizon of the bowl, he noticed nothing. And then, even as he watched, he perceived that the bushes themselves were alive—each one a man outfitted with a cunning camouflage of branches and twigs affixed to his back and shoulders. Quentin watched fascinated as these walking shrubs rustled to their feet and came forward. There were sixteen in all. Their leader seemed to be a large man with a hat of dry leaves pulled low over his face. He approached easily and came to stand directly in front of Theido, bowing low and saying, “Good evening to you, Sir Hawk. Your signal stirs us out of a long winter’s nap. But we are ever ready to serve you and yours whatever the time or need may be. How can we help you?”
“You are most gracious, Voss. I wish only to speak to you now, and then you shall all return to your cozy cave.” The man bowed again, and this time Quentin saw his broad, good-natured face full in the moonlight that filled the hollow, reflecting off the sparkling snow. Voss waved his men closer, and instantly the riders were surrounded by an odd assortment of heads, arms, and branches. Each man carried a short sword and a longbow. Quentin saw no arrows but guessed them concealed in the camouflage.
“I was taken prisoner this morning by men under Jaspin’s orders.”
“The dog!” spat Voss. The ring of bushmen murmured menacingly. Quentin got the impression that if Jaspin or any of his fifty men had been within bowshot right now, they would be wearing feathers. “How was the deed accomplished?”
“I do not know. But this is a matter of small importance. I am free now because of the quick thinking of my friends here.” Theido nodded to Quentin and Alinea.
The bushmen bowed together at this revelation, and Voss spoke for all of them, pledging, “Pelgrin will never hold ill for you while any of us are awake and breathing. A whistle thus”—he whistled—“will bring help and rescue from man or beast. And if food and shelter is your lack, you have bed and board with us as long as bellies need meat and eyes sleep.”
“We accept your most generous pledge, kind ranger,” said the queen. “You may be certain that if ever I am in such need, I will summon you at your word.”
“Please,” interrupted Theido, “we will trouble you no further tonight but to say that we go directly to the cottage of the holy hermit, Durwin. Most likely we will be followed—if we are not pursued even now. I would require a watch to be placed upon our path, and a fair warning to be given when any of the prince’s men enter these woods.”
“That is easily said,” replied the woodsman, nodding to several of his companions, who left at once, melting into the forest silently as shadows, “and done. Is there nothing else?”
“I may have need to put your craft to the test, but not yet, I think. We will take our leave and thank you now for your help. I may not have time to thank you later.”
“No thanks necessary,” replied Voss with a wide smile. His eyes glittered, and his teeth shone white in the dark. “We are only too glad to repay in kind what has oft been given us. Away with you!” he shouted suddenly, slapping the horses on the neck. “You may still dream before dawn.”
Theido saluted the stocky woodsman and bowed to the circle of men gathered about them. They returned his salute, raising their longbows high in the air and saying, “May Ariel guide you!” Three men jumped forward and seized the reins of the horses and led them off into the forest. Quentin looked back over his shoulder to where Voss and the rest still watched after them. He waved, and the bushmen’s leader waved back. Quentin watched until they were removed from sight by the forest closing once more around them.