The old man lay upon the stone altar in a great darkened hall. Torches smoldered at each corner of the five-sided altar, casting a strange, flickering glow that curled and eddied like water over the man’s face. He appeared to be asleep or dead, yet even in deepest repose the fierce malevolence of the features did not abate. So bent was the black soul that inhabited that body, it twisted all it touched. The face was a mask of hate, the more terrible because it was also a face of keen intelligence.
Nimrood sank, as it seemed to him, through layers of smoke, as if falling from a great height. His head throbbed; dull pains shot through his limbs. But he willed himself to continue.
The smoke thinned and then scattered completely. He looked beneath him and saw the solid earth sliding away below. Still dropping rapidly but gliding now, not falling, the magician could make out detail in the land. Behind, a high range of snowcapped mountains, the Fiskills; to the right, the long silver ribbon of the Wilst River, now frozen in its wriggling push to the sea; ahead, but still too dim to see clearly, the dark, gray-green mass of the great forest Pelgrin, partially hidden by clouds. Farther ahead, but beyond sight, lay Askelon, the city on a hill.
Nimrood slowed his descent and heard the cold air rushing past him, but he felt nothing at all. He closed his eyes, and when he opened them again, he turned to see a black wing rising and falling rhythmically as the wind sang shrilly through his feathers. The sorcerer had taken the form of a raven. He flew swiftly on.
As he approached Pelgrin, Nimrood’s keen raven’s eyes could see the dim shape of Askelon rising in the distance. Light was falling as the world sank into the darkness of a long winter night. It would be dark by the time he reached the castle, but it mattered not. Nimrood was a friend of darkness and of all things that loved the darkness. He used the black of night as a cloak to hide his deeds.
Nimrood had delved deeply into the hidden arts; he had toyed with secrets veiled from the foundations of the world. He had traveled widely, learning the lore of magicians and sorcerers of every race. An insatiable pupil as a young man, he had studied with every occult master until he was as powerful as any who had lived before him. He had gazed upon the heart of the unspeakable and had bartered every human emotion to gain the power he sought, and which still eluded him: the power to bend all men to his will.
When at last he reached his destination, Nimrood circled over Askelon, descending in sweeping spirals. He dived for the tower where Prince Jaspin’s quarters lay and alighted upon the narrow ledge of an arrow loop high in the wall above Jaspin’s chamber. Prince Jaspin was alone, sitting in his great chair near the fire. Nimrood fluttered to the floor noiselessly, changing back into his human form as he lightly touched down.
“Prince Jaspin,” he said, enjoying the fright he gave the prince. “You are not expecting anyone, are you?”
“By Zoar! You startled me.” Jaspin threw himself back into his chair, clutching his heart. “No, by Azrael, I should say not. No one— least of all you, Nimrood. How did you get here?”
“That would not interest you very much, I am afraid. I am not really here at all. You see merely a phantasm, my projected soul-body, or what you will.” The sorcerer crossed the room, and as he passed in front of the fire, Jaspin could see the flames shining faintly through his ghostly form. He came to stand directly in front of the astonished prince.
“What are you doing here? If you will not tell me how you got here, you’ll tell me why, I warrant.”
“Indeed I shall.” The wizard folded his arms upon his breast and glared down upon Prince Jaspin, who sank in bewilderment farther into the cushions of his chair. “You let him escape!” he shouted. Jaspin fancied he heard thunder crack in the magician’s voice.
“He had help . . . friends within the castle. I have had the keeper of the dungeons and the guards beheaded . . . I have—”
“Silence!” Nimrood hissed. “Do you think spilling the blood of worthless guards will appease me? Will it bring back the prize?”
Nimrood frowned furiously and began to pace before the hearth. Jaspin watched in dread fascination. “He is mine! I want him! Twice you have let him escape!” he cried in anger.
“Twice?” Jaspin asked timidly. “Surely you are mistaken. We have only caught him once.”
“Nimrood mistaken?” The wizard’s eyes flashed fire, but he opened his mouth to a hollow, cackling laugh. “You little know me, Prince Jackal.
“You fool!” Nimrood shouted, suddenly losing his temper again. “Do you not know? This outlaw Hawk is none other than Lord Theido of Crandall, the greatest military mind of this age.”
“No . . . I . . . ,” the prince gasped, speechless.
“None other. You had him in your clutches when you arrested him upon his return from the wars. You let him slip away then too.”
“That was different,” Jaspin objected, starting out of his chair.
“You raise your voice against Nimrood?” the wizard cried. The fire in the hearth billowed forth with a roar, spilling a torrent of cinders and sparks into the room. Jaspin felt the heat on his face. “I shall reduce this pile of stone to smoldering ashes, my prince. Be careful.” Nimrood ran his long, slender hands through his wild hair and continued to pace.
“What do you intend to do about it?” he demanded.
“I have set Harriers upon the trail,” said Jaspin sulkily. “We shall have him back before too many days have passed.”
“Hmmmm . . . all right. I see you can use your head when you are pressed to it. But notify me at once when you have caught him. Alive or dead, I want him. You have bought yourself another chance and maybe saved your crown. But do not fail this time, or it will be your last living act!” the wicked Nimrood sneered.
He then turned and fixed Prince Jaspin with a terrifying scowl. Jaspin felt his limbs grow heavy, losing strength; his heart turned cold within his breast. “There are worse fates than death, I assure you. I know of several—all equally distressing. I reserve them for those who particularly disappoint me. You have one more chance . . . Do not disappoint me.” The sorcerer turned and stepped into the flaming fireplace. The deed brought Jaspin to his feet.
The wizard cackled and appeared to stretch, growing taller and more transparent. Just before he faded from view, he said, “Did you know that Ronsard lives? No? Well, not for long. I have sent men to capture him.” He laughed again and faded completely into the flames. Prince Jaspin heard only the thin echo of Nimrood’s depraved laughter, and then that, too, was gone.
Jaspin sank once more into the winged chair. His face had taken on the pallor of a dead man.
The fire on Durwin’s hearth had burned low. Quentin slept lightly, curled in a warm corner near the fire. He felt as if he had finally saturated himself with slumber; his mind drifted hazily through shifting dreams. It had been an uneventful day, spent in talk and minute preparations, of which Quentin had but a small part. He had mostly eaten and slept and cared for the horses, making sure they all had an extra portion in payment for their hard ride the night before.
Theido and Durwin sat near the fire, smoking long wooden pipes filled with aromatic leaves that Durwin cultivated. They sat in silence, all talked out. Puffing occasionally and grunting, they turned matters over in their minds.
Alinea slept comfortably, stretched upon Durwin’s low wooden bed. She had said little all day, but Quentin thought her emerald eyes spoke eloquently of the turmoil taking place within; they seemed to weep inside for the anguish she felt for her king. Still, she had put aside her own torment and had found kind words to say to Quentin in that moment when they were together. For that, Quentin had declared to himself, he would gladly give his life for hers at the first opportunity.
Durwin rose at last and stretched. He knocked his pipe gently against the stone mantel and turned to roll himself in his cloak in some farther corner, leaving Theido to his thoughts. Quentin, who dozed fitfully, thought he heard Durwin utter a shrill whistle and thought it extremely odd behavior so late at night.
Then he heard it again and stirred himself out of his half sleep, pushing himself up on his elbows. Durwin had stopped where he stood, listening. Theido, his chair tilted back, resting his long legs against the fireplace, stopped puffing and listened too.
The whistle sounded again, this time closer. Theido got up and went to the door and slipped out. A cold draft washed over Quentin, rousing him more fully awake. Another signal was heard, this time closer to the cottage; it was Theido replying to the sign.
Alinea was awake now and standing near Durwin. She bent her head and spoke to the hermit, but Quentin could not catch the words. He strained every sense to hear what was taking place outside. All he heard was the crackle and pop of the fire upon the hearth and his own breathing.
Then he became aware of the soft, muffled shuffle of snow-dampened footsteps returning to the cottage. Theido ducked in, rubbing his hands for warmth. “Voss and his bushmen have a visitor for us,” he explained. “They are bringing him along.”
No sooner had he spoken these words than a soft knock was heard at the door. Theido threw it open, and there stood the squat leader of the rangers. Behind him was another man held by two of Voss’s companions.
“Come in, Voss,” said Theido. “Let us see your catch.”
The hefty ranger strode into the cabin and waved his charge forward.
“Trenn!” the queen cried as her warder tumbled into the light. He swayed uncertainly upon his feet and looked about to topple over, but Voss put out a hand to steady him. Durwin whisked up a stool and sat the man down.
“We watched him as soon as he entered the wood. When he appeared to be heading in this direction, we took him,” said Voss casually.
“Trenn, what are you doing here?” Alinea’s eyes searched his face for a clue. “Has Jaspin discovered our game?”
“As I fear, my lady,” said Trenn, rising to his feet and bowing. “I came to warn you all: Jaspin has put Harriers on your trail. I prayed to every god I knew that I would not come too late.”
At the mention of the dreaded trackers, even Voss’s broad face blanched. “This is dire news,” he said.
Alinea’s hand went to her face. She shot a hasty look to Theido, who stood unmoved. “There is our answer,” said Durwin.
“How long ago did this take place?” asked Theido with forced calm. He spoke very carefully and smoothly, not allowing his voice to betray the alarm he felt.
“I saw them enter the postern gate this morning about midday, conducted by several of Jaspin’s knights. There was also much activity through the main castle this morning—knights and nobles, some from as far away as the flatlands. Rumor has it that Jaspin had called a hasty council to catch those who helped you escape.”
“What? The man is mad,” said Theido.
“That was just a ruse,” explained Trenn. “Prince Jaspin accused two nobles of lending aid to your escape. I got it from the jailer—the new jailer”—a quick chopping gesture showed what he meant—“that two nobles were being held—Lords Weldon and Larcott.”
“The snake!” said Theido quietly. “He is using my escape to alter the Council of Regents. I suppose he wasted no time in having two new regents enfranchised. Do you know who took the others’ places?”
“I cannot say positively, but I think Sir Bran and Sir Grenett,” answered Trenn. “It was said that Lord Holben stood up to him—saved the lives of the lords. The prince wanted them bound over for treason. Lord Holben appealed to the king’s law.”
“He saved their lives for the time being and probably lost his own,” replied Theido.
“Does Jaspin dare so much?” asked the queen, shocked that such bold effrontery should take place in her own court. “I had no idea.”
“We cannot help Weldon and Larcott,” said Theido sadly. “We must help ourselves now.”
“Trenn, how did you get here without the Harriers seeing you?”
“I left before they did and, as I knew where I was going, had little trouble in making good time, though I must have nearly killed my good horse.”
“They will have followed you,” pointed out Voss. “It’ll make their task so much easier.”
“I hope I have more wits about me than that,” sniffed Trenn. “I had some of my men ride out with me to muddle the trail. They rode with me a way, and then each split off to a different direction. It was all I could do in the time I had.”
“Good,” said Theido, jumping forward. That will buy us some time.”
“My comrades and I can purchase some more,” said Voss. “I will put them to work at once confounding the trail. We can lead the fiends through the forest for days.”
“These are Harriers, not ordinary hunters,” said Theido.
“And we are not ordinary game,” boasted Voss. “They will neither see us nor learn our trick until you are well away from here. Still, we will not be able to stop them forever.”
“We could fight them,” suggested Trenn.
“And die trying,” replied Theido. “No, our only hope is to stay ahead of them until we cross the Wall. I doubt if even the Harriers can find us once we have crossed over into the Wilderlands.”
“So it is!” replied Durwin triumphantly. “You admit it now. We are going to Dekra.”
“Yes, we are going to Dekra. You have your way, my friend. And it is our only hope. We go to Dekra . . . and we leave tonight.”