From Durwin’s cottage in the heart of Pelgrin Forest, under night’s dark wing, the unlikely rescue party set forth on their quest. They little dared hope for the success of their labors, nor scarce conceived a plan by which they might obtain their goal of freeing the king from the malignant magician Nimrood.
In a fortnight upon the trail, heading north and east through the farthest reaches of Pelgrin and the low foothills of the Fiskills, they had encountered no other living soul. This, however, was accounted as an auspicious tiding, for it meant they had not seen that which they feared most to see, and that which kept them all peering over their shoulders when they thought no one else was watching—the merciless Harriers.
Led by Durwin and urged on by Theido, they pursued a course that would skirt the treacherous mountains and lead them instead across the hilly woodland regions of Askelon, bending eastward toward Celbercor’s Wall.
Once over the wall—traversing the formidable obstacle would be an ordeal all its own—the rescuers would make straight for the Malmar inlet, crossing it on foot over the ice. Safely across Malmar, they would then have a brief rest in the small fishing village of Malmarby, one of the few outposts of human habitation in all of the vast peninsula of Obrey. They would have time, it was hoped, to replenish their supplies and to obtain a guide who could lead them to Dekra.
Quentin had at last learned that Dekra was not a person but a place: the forgotten city of a mysterious people long ago vanished. No one now remembered what had happened to the city’s strange inhabitants, but they had left behind a fantastic dwelling that had grown rich and wonderful in song and legend, although few men had actually ever been there to see it. Fewer still believed its existence, regarding it as a mere glittering fancy spun by bards and minstrels to tickle the ears of the gullible. Some, though, insisted that it did exist and was a very evil place where men were not welcome—those daring to search for it never returned, so it was told.
“Never heard of Dekra, my boy?” questioned Durwin. His bushy eyebrows arched in a quizzical look when Quentin ventured to ask him about it. “No, I don’t suppose you have. The priests of Ariel do not willingly admit that it exists. Well, you shall have a chance to do something most men never do: you shall see it with your own eyes.”
“Is it a very bad place, then?” asked Quentin. “Is that why Theido did not want to go there?” He was riding Balder abreast of the hermit, having left his usual position at the rear of the train, just ahead of Trenn. Quentin liked to ride ahead with Durwin when the trail permitted.
“No,” Durwin replied, after a pause in which he tried to think of the correct words. “Dekra is not an evil place, though many believe that it is. It is one of the seven ancient places of power on the earth. And though the power is mostly gone now, remnants still linger for those who know where to look.
“But it is not an evil place—that is not why Theido argued against us going. He knew it to be a dangerous journey and a long one for nothing if we should fail to obtain what we seek.”
Quentin had had to content himself with that answer, for Durwin would say no more about the ruined city or their reason for going there. Yet the hermit knew more than he would say—Quentin sensed it in his voice. There was something Durwin avoided telling, and Quentin, his youthful curiosity piqued, itched to find out what it was. So he listened constantly for any clue that Durwin or Theido might let fall at mealtimes or around the fire at night. He was most often disappointed.
Theido spurred the party forward at a relentless pace, never stopping long or allowing a fire by daylight. Nights were short by design—stopping at dusk, sleeping only a few hours, and then moving on well before dawn. Quentin had mastered the art of sleeping in his saddle when he could no longer keep his eyes open. In fact, he had found himself rapidly becoming a better horseman all round. He reveled in the new skills he was developing day by day and the woodland lore he was learning from Durwin, who proved to be an inexhaustible source of knowledge.
Quentin could now name thirty different kinds of tree and shrub. He could tell the tracks of every forest creature that stirred in the dead of winter. And he could read the weather signs with some small degree of accuracy. Quentin considered this far more useful information than anything he had learned in the temple, although he had to admit his temple training was useful in other ways.
For these and other reasons, arising mainly out of the kinship formed of a group dedicated to a common purpose, Quentin felt a deep sense of joy in the rigors of the journey, forgetting easily the innumerable discomforts of living on the trail. He had also quite nearly forgotten the danger dogging their every step—the Harriers. Yet there seemed to be nothing to indicate the presence of the hated trackers.
Theido, however, continually dropped behind the group, leaving it for hours at a time to watch and wait, scanning the forest for any sign that might indicate they were being followed. Each time he returned to report that he had seen nothing of the Harriers. But each day he grew more worried.
“I am afraid they are waiting for us to run out into the open,” Theido told them one night. The sun had just gone down, and they sat around the fire, wrapped in their cloaks and thick robes made of animal skins that Durwin had furnished.
“You don’t think we might have eluded them?” asked Trenn hopefully. “That Voss and his rangers put them off the trail?”
“No,” Theido replied gravely, shaking his head from side to side. “I fear not. Voss may have put them off for some short time, and by the fact that we are still awake and moving, I’d say that was likely.
“But each day I feel their presence stronger. I seem to sense the fingers of their minds reaching out for us, drawing closer. They may not have found our trail as yet, but they are closing upon us.”
“Why do you think they will wait for us to break and run into the open?” asked Alinea. “Why would they not take us in the forest?”
Theido again shook his head. “That I do not know. There is something preventing them, though what it is I cannot say. But once we are free of the forest, which we shall be in two days’ time, they will have no trouble seeing us. The hills beyond offer little cover in the summer, and less in the winter, for those who need shelter from preying eyes.”
“Yet if we can but cross the hill country as far as the Great Wall, we will then have a chance,” interjected Durwin. He alone looked hopeful.
“We still have to find a way to cross the Wall,” reminded Trenn. “That could take many days. Unless my horse sprouts wings, I do not see how we are to cross.”
“There must be a way,” said Alinea. “The Wall is old; perchance there is a breach . . .”
“Pray there is no breach, my lady,” said Trenn. “Any advantage we receive, our captors will benefit the more.”
“Harriers are not our captors,” said Quentin oddly. The others stopped and looked at him, raising their heads from the fire to see his face. He wore an expression of fear and wonder, his dark, round eyes looking beyond the circle of light thrown out by the campfire. “These men are.”
Theido was the first to follow Quentin’s gaze outward and to see what he saw: a ring of faces—almost invisible in the darkness but for the firelight glinting in large eyes—circled them in. They were surrounded.