The need is great—already it may be too late. If there were another way, or a lesser cost, I would not insist. But there—the choice is mine, and I say we must go to Dekra.” The voice was Durwin’s, and from what Quentin could tell, the discussion, which had started again as soon as the breakfast table had been cleared, was a continuation of the one he had interrupted earlier. He lazed in a patch of warm sunlight, half awake, sitting on the floor under a thick-glazed window that the low winter sun filled with streaming yellow light. Quentin basked in the light and let the warmth seep into his bones.
“No,” said Theido, objecting once again—and with, what seemed to Quentin, a god’s own obstinance. “We will find another way. We have time yet, and we do not know what Jaspin plans.”
“Precisely! We do not know what Jaspin plans, but it is certain to be nasty and cruel. Most likely his malice is already afoot. But what of that? He only wants a crown. Nimrood will not be so easily satisfied— he wants a world! We must go to Dekra.”
Who or what Dekra was, Quentin did not know. But the conversation had been going on so long he had lost interest in it and had retreated into the background to doze. The queen still sat at the table with the two men, but it had been a long time since she had had occasion to speak. Quentin knew that nothing would be settled until this impasse between the two men was resolved.
Presently he stood up, yawned, and wrapped his cloak around himself and slipped quietly outside. The cold air tingled in his lungs, and the piercing white light thrown up by the sun’s reflection upon the snow brought tears to his eyes, which he rubbed away with the back of his hand. For the first time since leaving the temple, Quentin wondered what the kindly and plump Biorkis, his only friend among the priests, was doing at this moment. Working among his medicines, no doubt, or blistering the ears of some poor acolyte over letters unlearned or scrolls unread.
Quentin heard the door creak open and turned to see Alinea slip out beside him. She was as lovely dressed in the attire of a ranger as in the fine raiment of a queen. Her hair gleamed in the sun, and the cold brought a rosy blush to her fair cheeks.
“Do you miss the temple, Quentin?” she asked lightly. Alinea regarded him with a warmth and understanding Quentin had only rarely felt from another person.
“In a way,” he replied, “but not so much. I have had but little time to miss anything.”
“Yes,” she laughed, and once again, the music was in her voice. He had not heard it since he had given her Ronsard’s message at their first meeting. “Yes, there has been little time for anything but escape.” She smiled and, drawing Quentin by the arm, began to walk. “Tell me about what you did in the temple. How did you come to be an acolyte?”
“I was very young. My parents were lost in the sleeping plague that swept over the land in the Spring of Death. I don’t remember them or much about my home. I see a face sometimes—it might be my mother’s. Mostly, I have always lived at the temple.”
“Why did you volunteer to leave it, then, since you have no other home?”
“I felt . . .” He hesitated, searching for the right words. “. . . felt something was pulling me. Like I was supposed to go . . . It was right for me. I have never felt that way about anything before.”
“It must have been a very strong feeling for you to forsake all that you had known—your home, your friends.”
“I have no friends in the temple. Only Biorkis, one of the elder priests.”
“Was it lonely for you?”
Quentin could not think how to answer her at first. “No—that is, I don’t think so. The temple is . . . The priests exist to serve the god. Acolytes serve the priests. There are rules and tasks. That is all.”
The queen nodded thoughtfully. Quentin had not been lonely because he had known nothing but the rigorous order of the temple, where each had his place and his task. “What would you be doing now if you were there?” she asked after a long silence.
“Oh, studying. I had much to learn—more than I could master, sometimes. And soon we would begin making ready to receive the god back from his winter journey. He will come in the spring as he always does, and the temple must be ready. Rites of purification must be performed: the sacred stones washed and anointed. There is much to do.”
“I believe you.”
“But then,” Quentin continued, his eyes kindling with excitement as he warmed to the story, “when everything is ready, the god comes, and there is celebration—it goes on for weeks. There are feasts and games and so much happiness. The temple is opened to the pilgrims who have gathered outside the walls, and all join in the celebration.”
“Yes, that is a good time for our people. I have attended some of those celebrations—when I was a little girl. I was always afraid of the priests; I thought they were the gods.”
“Sometimes they think they are too,” remarked Quentin. His face brightened momentarily with a grin. “Or they’d like to have you believe it. But I think there must be more to it somehow. I don’t know . . .” His voice trailed off, as he was unable to express what he felt. They had reached the foot of the hill below the hermit’s cottage.
“I know what you mean. I often think that the gods are not the least bit interested in us or our problems. And sometimes I think there are no gods at all. And yet . . . even in my doubting I feel a presence I cannot explain. A moving within. A longing in my spirit for something more.”
“You have felt it too,” said Quentin firmly. “Perhaps that is why I chose to leave; I could no longer stay.
“Often I would lie awake at night, burning with a strange fever. I would hear someone call my name, and yet the night was hushed around me. I used to tell the priests about these things, and they said that it was the god calling me, that he had something special for me. But deep inside I knew that wasn’t it. Finally, Biorkis told me not to speak about it anymore with any of the other priests.
“Still, whenever I heard the voice or felt the fire, I would go to Biorkis and we would talk about it. He would ask me what I thought it meant.”
“What do you think it meant?”
Quentin drew a deep breath and looked into the sun-filled sky. “I am not a priest, but I do think a god was calling me. But a god greater than any other. Higher, wiser. And he knew me.”
“You are a special boy,” Alinea said, raising her hand to his face. “I knew that the moment I saw you standing nervously in my chamber. I knew also that you were no furrier.” She laughed.
The air seemed to grow sharper as a gust of wind spun snow around the two figures. Without another word they turned and went back up the little hill to the cottage.
The prince slouched in his winged chair, fingering a soft leather pouch full of gold coins. Sir Drake and Sir Grenett stood on either side of him, and all three gazed with some trepidation upon the three visitors in front of them. Prince Jaspin said, after a moment’s deliberation, “I want them found and brought back—this Hawk and whoever his friends may be— however it may be accomplished. I do not care what means you use.”
Sir Bran and Sir Grenett, knights hardened in battle and fearless, shrank away from the sight of the Harriers, fierce and brutal men devoid of human compassion or mercy. The Harriers, as they were known in Mensandor, were the last descendants of an ancient people in the realm, the cruel Shoth: a savage, war-loving race who killed for the pleasure of killing and the twisted enjoyment of inflicting pain on another.
Over a long and unbroken history of war, the Shoth had developed special powers that enabled them to pursue their enemies with unerring accuracy, powers the simple peasants considered supernatural: the ability to see in the dark like cats, to scent a trail, and to home in on the intense emotions of their prey. It seemed as if they could snatch thoughts out of the air, and so many believed.
There were few of the Shoth left in the world; they were dying out stubbornly. But those who lived on employed themselves as mercenary soldiers or as trackers of outlaws. For either service they received high rewards from their patrons—as much as ever they desired, since they were not the kind of men one wanted as enemies.
The Harriers were greatly feared by everyone who knew of them or who happened to meet them upon those rare occasions when one or more might be seen in passing.
Two long braids from each side of their heads were woven together and fell down their broad backs. Their features, wolflike and hard as stone, were made more fearsome by the blue tattooed designs that covered their faces. Their clothing was rough, made of animal skins with the hair scraped or burned off; they wore soft boots made in the same fashion, laced on the outside from ankle to knee. Around their necks they wore necklaces made from the hair and finger bones of their victims. On their brawny arms were bracelets of human teeth.
To see a Harrier was to know fear. Their bizarre appearance was coldly ordained to inspire terror, to immobilize their hapless quarry.
They carried long, thin swords with serrated blades so that a wound from a thrust of a Harrier sword did not heal quickly or without difficulty. That mattered little since few who ever felt that dangerous edge remained alive to tell it. They also carried small wood-and-skin shields on which were painted crude symbols of their barbaric religion—said to include regular human sacrifice.
The Harriers who sold their services as trackers also used birds— most often hawks, but also small eagles or ravens—to help them locate their human game at long distance. These birds rode with the Harriers on the trackers’ peculiar, stout, short-legged ponies, upon ornate perches—usually of bones and hide, again the bones and hide of their victims—built onto their saddles. Some said the Harriers spoke with their birds mind to mind, so extraordinary was the communication between the two preying creatures.
“There are at least three of them, maybe more. I have a report from one of the guards who saw three ride off toward Pelgrin last night.” Prince Jaspin stood abruptly and tossed the bag of coins to the foremost of the Harriers, who deftly caught it and slipped it into an inner pouch in his clothing. “There will be more money when you return; you will be paid well.” He smacked his clenched fist into an open palm to add emphasis to his words. “I want them found!”
“So shall it be done,” said Gwert, the largest of the three. Then without another word or look, they turned and filed out as silently as smoke drifting away on the breeze.
When they had gone, Sir Bran let a deep breath whistle through his clenched teeth. “Fair prince, I do not like this turn. I would that you had requested me and some of my men-at-arms to bring back this prisoner for you. These Harriers—these barbarians—are not to be trusted. You will get your prisoner and his companions, if you care not how many pieces they are in.”
“I do not care,” said Jaspin angrily. “I only want them found and stopped.”
Sir Grenett interposed. “My lord, why is this man—this Hawk— such a menace to you? He is only an outlaw—and even if he were chief among them, he would account you no more loss than your bounty will cost in the end. Why do you seek his end so ardently?”
“That,” said the enraged prince, “is my own care, sir, and none of yours!” He turned on them threateningly. “You will both keep this to yourselves. Do you hear? Besides,” Jaspin continued in a softer tone, “it would not do for my new regents to entertain such troublesome pursuits. There are more important things to be done.
“Come, let us begin making plans for our next little surprise.” He led them to his table and a pitcher of wine and goblets on a silver tray. “My friends, I pledge your health and continued success,” he said, lifting his glass to theirs when he had poured them full. They all drank deeply, and when they rose from their cups, the knights returned Jaspin’s pledge.
“To Askelon’s new king!”