In the four days since they had left the camp of nomadic Jher, Durwin’s party had covered ground at a tremendous rate. They were amazed at the skill and clear thinking of their guide, Toli—none so much as Trenn, who had severely doubted that they would last an hour more in the forest.
But Toli knew the land like his own skin. He knew instinctively when a trail would veer and when to abandon one path and choose another. The forest seemed to hide no secrets from his alert eyes: in fact, this slim, brown young man read it as easily as Durwin read the scrolls he collected in such profusion. Quentin suspected that generations of following the deer had made the Jher more at home in the forest among the wild things than in the world of men. In this he shared the conventional wisdom, for the wary Jher were widely considered a people sinking back into animal ways rather than arising out of them.
But a better guide they could not have found anywhere. And if there had been six like him, the company could not have been safer from discovery by the Harriers. Toli knew when to halt and when to move forward. He varied the times of their travel, never keeping to a determined pattern but moving more like a cunning animal might, though still chiefly at night.
Still, none of them doubted that the Harriers were yet behind them. Toli agreed that until they crossed the Wall there would be no safety. He and Durwin were often in consultation shortly before and after each day’s trek. Durwin began to grow visibly more apprehensive as they neared the great structure.
The ancient architectural wonder had protected the realm of Mensandor for a thousand years from marauders and would-be conquerors. Now it stood as a warning of the strength and determination of the people of Mensandor to live free, for no enemy had dared to cross it with an army in anyone’s memory.
Celbercor’s Wall, as it was known of old, rose to a height of fourscore spans from the rocky, uneven ground to the jagged merlons that formed its battlements. The Wall was wide enough at the top for three knights to ride abreast or a column of men to move along with ease. It spanned a gray, barren stretch of land a hundred leagues in length from the inlet of Malmar, where it jutted out into the water to the sheer rock curtain of Mount Ostenkell in the northernmost Fiskills.
Celbercor’s Wall was intended to separate Askelon from the entire Wilderland regions of the Suthlands, but it had never been finished. Only the northern extremity running south from Malmar’s icy finger to the treacherous Fiskills had been erected, and that at dear cost.
But it stood intact. A staggering achievement: seamless, without gap or breach imposed by the years, raised with such stonecutter’s art that no mortar was used—only stone fitted to stone, interlocked and assembled with exacting precision throughout its whole length.
Quentin had never seen the Wall but had often heard of it in stories. The thought of at last beholding it sent a tingle of excitement to his sandal-clad toes. But Durwin dashed any lighter mood when he announced to the assembled company, “Tonight we will cross the Wall, and most assuredly tonight the Harriers will try to stop us. Toli thinks they are not far behind, and they probably already sense what we are going to attempt. We will be vulnerable once we leave the shelter of the forest.
“The forest will end about a league before the Wall, but there is a valley which runs along our course. We shall enter it and follow as long as we may.”
“What then?” asked Trenn, his soldier’s ethics offended. He considered it a disgrace to slink away by night like cowardly dogs. Yet he did not relish putting his sword to test against three such formidable blades as those of the Harriers.
“What then? Why, Toli will lead us to the Jher’s secret crossing. If we make it, I doubt if the Shoth will pursue us further. It would take them weeks to find a means to cross the Wall without their horses, and months to ride around it.”
“How will we get our horses across?” asked Alinea.
“Yes,” said Theido. “Are we to take our horses or no?”
Durwin called Toli to him, and they spent a few moments together in discussion of this problem. Durwin turned with a grave look upon his face. “He does not know. The Jher do not have horses so have never considered whether it is possible to bring them through. You see, the secret way is not over the Wall, but under it—a tunnel.”
“Blazes!” muttered Trenn. He liked the scheme less and less.
“Is it so bad to continue without the horses?” asked the queen.
“It would be very difficult,” replied Theido.
“Impossible,” put in Trenn.
“Not impossible,” Durwin said. “Remember, Toli and his people live in the Wilderlands. He will show us how to get through them. They travel the land continually.”
“Even so,” put in Theido, “Dekra is still weeks away—longer if we must travel on foot.”
Quentin listened to this talk with a sorrowful feeling. He hated the thought of leaving Balder behind to become prey of wolves—or worse, the Harriers. He turned away and went to the animal he had grown quite attached to in the short time they had been together.
“They say you may be left behind, Balder. I would rather they left me behind,” he sniffed, a tear forming in his eye. “I don’t want to leave you.” He put an arm around the huge animal’s neck and pressed his cheek into the horse’s thick shoulder. Balder nickered softly and swung his head down to nip Quentin on the arm.
“You are fond of this animal.” Quentin turned to see Theido standing near him, reaching up to pat Balder’s white forehead.
“I did not realize it until just now.” He smeared a tear across his cheek with his sleeve.
“It is nothing to be ashamed of. A knight must have a thought for his mount—in battle you are partners. And this sturdy warhorse knows how to protect his rider in a fight, I’ll wager.”
“He will be able to fend for himself, won’t he? When we turn them loose?”
“Yes, he will manage—better than we will, I should think. But I have no intention of turning them loose if it can be helped. We need our horses desperately.” Quentin saw the look of strain in the tight lines around his friend’s eyes.
“Is it that difficult, this road through the Wilderlands?” Quentin had not considered that it would be very much different from what they had experienced in the forest.
“Yes. Worse than you can imagine if you have not seen it. There is no road nor path nor even trail. The whole region is naught but thickets of brush and bramble resting on a queasy bog. At least we shall have the benefit of snow to firm our footing. But even with that we must be careful—many of the bogs are fed by warm springs underground. They do not freeze in winter, though the snow will sometimes cover them over. There are few more hazardous places for a company of travelers.”
Quentin took this news glumly and wished the journey was at an end. He was beginning to tire of the constant making and breaking of camp and the long, cold intervals between. He had long ago stopped thinking about the Harriers and the terrors they held; after days of fretting constantly and lying awake through the night, clutching his dagger, he had simply refused to consider them anymore. Now he was once again forced to wonder what they might do to him if he were caught.
At dusk the party once more set out. The forest thinned around them as they pushed ever nearer the Wall. And so, too, did the awful dread increase. What lay behind them was not to be dwelt upon for any length of time.
Quentin felt only partly more secure. For this run to the Wall, Toli had been mounted with him on Balder, the largest of the horses. The two sat together comfortably, Toli occupying the place behind Quentin. Although the Jher had no horses of their own, they seemed to be unafraid of them and tolerably able to handle them when given the chance. But Quentin, being the better horseman of the two, held the reins, and Toli directed the course.
The group traveled a league and more single file behind Balder’s lead. The sky was dark overhead, moon and stars obscured by low, scudding clouds. So much the better, thought Quentin; maybe the Harriers would not see them at all.
Finally, they reached the edge of the forest, and without hesitation Toli led them out onto a wide expanse of barren hills where standing stones lurched out of the ground sharply and at odd angles. The landscape was a desolate waste, the exposed roots of the subterranean rock shelf that pushed up inland to form the Fiskills. To Quentin it appeared a lonely, forsaken place, bare and forbidding.
Picking up the pace, Toli led them down a steep incline to the bottom of a broad gully that had been formed by the icy waters of spring cutting through the loose soil. Above them on each side rose the banks of this dry streambed. Long icicles hung down from the lips of overhanging rock, and the slight wind that had risen behind them whispered over the craggy fissures.
Ahead or behind they could see nothing; overhead only the blank, dark sky. But each of them began to sense a deep foreboding, almost a loathing to continue. Each step became a labor, and each turn in the way a thing to be avoided. In spite of Toli’s urgings, the party slowed and began feeling its way along haltingly.
Quentin felt the fear wash over him and knew that it did not come from within. He had, as an acolyte, witnessed possession rituals in which a priest would call upon the god to inhabit his body for a brief time to espouse the god’s oracles. He had felt the same sensation on those occasions when the supercharged emotional atmosphere gave vent to the strange proceedings.
This impeding force Quentin knew was foreign, and with a jolt he realized its source: the Harriers. They were coming at last.
In the same instant Quentin framed the thought, he felt an icy tingle skitter along his ribs, and he swiveled in the saddle to peer behind him. He saw nothing; then, even as he turned to look away, he caught a glimpse of a dark shape melting into the background some distance away. What it was could not be seen, but Quentin knew in his heart that the Harriers were upon them. He jerked the reins sharply. Balder stopped dead, and Theido nearly collided with him as his animal lurched forward in the dark.
“I saw something behind us just now,” Quentin whispered hoarsely. He saw Theido’s face only as a dark mask in the darkness around it.
“How far back?”
“I cannot tell,” said Quentin breathlessly. “I only saw something move back there. Listen!” As he spoke there came the patter of a stone falling into the ravine, somewhere far behind them. The thin, rattling echo was lost instantly in the void.
“Away!” whispered Theido. The urgency in his voice made him sound small and far away. He wheeled his horse around and passed the word back. Quentin slapped Balder and let the animal have his head. They dashed into the darkness with a clatter.
Through the twisting gorge they rode, Toli holding on to Quentin with a stubborn grip. He shouted something unintelligible into Quentin’s ear, and Quentin looked forward to see the banks on each side sloping away as they began to climb a shallow incline. A final burst and they were out of the valley.
Rising in front of them was the massive, undulating shape of Celbercor’s Wall, a looming rampart of astonishing dimension. Quentin urged the horse forward as overhead the moon broke through the low overcast. Now he could see the vast bulwark of the Wall towering above them, although they were still some distance from the foot of it.
The moon disappeared again as they turned, following Toli’s instruction, and began running along the face of the Wall at an angle toward it. From the sound of hooves behind him, Quentin knew the others were close behind.
They galloped down another steep ravine and started up the opposite side. They had just gained the top of the farther bank when the moon peeped out, scattering light across the wild landscape. To Quentin’s horror, he saw in that fleeting stream the glint of steel and two riders wheeling toward him. Toli tugged at his arm, and he threw the reins to the side and headed straight for the Wall.
A piercing shriek cut the night; at first Quentin thought it was a woman’s scream and then recognized it as the hunting cry of a hawk. A rider bolted past him, and he heard Theido shout, “To the Wall! Lead the others to the Wall!” He saw the moonlight shimmer on the thin line of Theido’s uplifted blade.
Toli yelled and waved his arm for the others to follow as they started upon the Wall.
“They’re upon us!” cried Trenn. His horse stumbled on the loose rock, and he went down.
The queen, just ahead of him, turned and started back, but Durwin propelled her forward, saying, “I will help him—go on!” Her quick horse flew over the uncertain footing as nimbly as a shadow, and in an instant she was beside Quentin and Toli.
Just ahead, but hidden from them by an outcropping of rock, Quentin could hear the clear, cold ring of steel upon steel and the wild cry of the horses as they engaged one another. They reached a sheltered hollow, and Toli threw himself to the ground and ran directly up to the very face of the Wall. Quentin blinked his eyes, for in the shifting moonlight he thought he had seen the young Jher disappear right into the huge foundations of Celbercor’s Wall.
Toli was back almost at once, shouting and pushing them forward. Quentin heard the scream in the air above him once more, this time very close. He spun, instinctively throwing an arm over his face as Toli, leaping like a cat, caught his other arm and pulled him to the ground.
There was a rustle in the air and a tearing sound as he went down. Then he felt a sharp pain high up in the arm he’d thrown over his head. He saw Durwin come pounding in, and Trenn, hanging sideways over the back of his horse, slumped to the ground. Quentin rolled his eyes and saw two white wings lifting away in the night. He looked at his arm and saw that his tunic had been ripped and blood was oozing out of the wound.
“Here is the tunnel!” someone called. Quentin felt hands lift him to his feet, and then he was running for the wall. A rider thundered up from behind them, and he heard Theido’s voice bellowing. Quentin suddenly thought it strange that he should be running like a scared deer; he wanted to sit down. The voices around him buzzed, and the air became warm. He slowed and turned. Theido said something, and Quentin cocked his head, puzzled, for Theido had begun speaking in an unknown language.
He stopped and looked up at the twin moons hovering just overhead. He reached up to touch one, as if to pluck it and hold it in his hand. He heard music: the ringing of temple bells far away. Then the black sky turned red. Quentin blinked his eyes and sat down, marveling at this strange wonder. He felt his head slam against the smooth stone of the Wall, and the last thing he saw was Durwin’s face peering down upon him as if from a great height, speaking to him in a confused tongue. A tear rolled down Quentin’s cheek, and he knew no more.