The twinkling, shifting light spun in bright globes. Quentin could see them even though his eyes were closed. He traced their play on his eyelids for hours, half waking, half dreaming. From somewhere far away, in another room or in another world, perhaps, he heard music. High-pitched bells tinkled sharply, pricking his ears with their thin melody.
How long he had lain watching the dancing lights and listening to the crystalline song of the bells, he did not know. Maybe hours. Maybe days. Maybe forever.
Quentin, in his twilight world between darkness and light, drifted in and out of consciousness almost at will and was aware of nothing but the shifting globes of light, sometimes red or blue, but most often a rosy golden hue. He perceived nothing but the lights and the intonation of the tiny chimes.
The room where Quentin lay commanded a western view of a range of low, forested mountains. They rose and fell in gentle folds like the thick, bristly fur of some mythical beast sleeping peacefully through the ages. From the balcony’s high parapet, one could look to the west and view the fiery descent of the setting sun.
And every afternoon the earthward trail of the falling sun brought the light full through the arched double doors that opened onto the balcony. The light washed over Quentin’s inert form, transfiguring him from a pale, waxen image into a creature of living light. A wind chime hanging at the apex of the arch danced in the light breeze that capered now and then in through the open doors.
An old woman in a white woolen shawl sat near Quentin’s high, wide bed. She held in her hands a small jar of aromatic unguent that she periodically applied to a spot just over Quentin’s heart, and to his temples. At these intervals she whispered a few brief words under her breath, holding her hands over the young man’s still, barely breathing form.
A steady strain of visitors throughout the day came to stand at the foot of Quentin’s bed, or merely to step inside the door. They looked to the old woman, always with the same question in their eyes, and always they left with the same reply in kind: no change.
Durwin relieved the old woman from time to time, sitting for hours gazing upon the motionless body stretched before him. In the evening he brought a cup of lukewarm broth that he administered to Quentin by means of a short, hollow tube of bone. Durwin let the broth trickle slowly down Quentin’s throat, careful not to choke him. There was never any response.
Durwin had just administered the broth one evening when Theido came into the room.
“Still no change?”
“None. He hovers between life and death. Sometimes I think he might awaken; he looks about to rise up—but the moment passes away and he is the same.”
“Can he recover, do you think? It has been nearly two months.”
“I do not know. I have never seen this kind of illness before. Certainly no one recovers from the poison of the Shoth. Still, the people of Dekra have many powers unknown in the world abroad. And had his wound been deeper, or closer to the mark, this old woman’s art would not have mattered—he would have died within the hour, or out on the trail.”
Durwin sighed as he looked sadly at the boy’s thin body. “We came for nothing. It is my fault he is stricken so.”
“Do not blame yourself. If fault is to be found, we need look no further than Jaspin. After all, it was Jaspin who loosed the Harriers.”
Durwin paused, looked at the still form in the bed, and sighed. “Still, our purpose in coming here has come to naught. It was my willfulness and pride, Theido. That is why young Quentin suffers now.”
“It was your healing skill, good hermit. That is why he still draws breath.”
Theido did not speak again for a long time. Then, hastily, as if fearing what he must say, he blurted, “We cannot wait any longer, Durwin. We must leave. The ships will be sailing soon for their winter’s harborage. We must secure a ship to take us to Karsh.”
The hermit lifted his eyebrows in surprise. “You think you will find a merchant who will endanger his ship so?”
“For the king, yes.”
“For no king or kingdom. The fate of a king matters little to these sailors. They care nothing for the rise and fall of nations. Their loyalty swings by the heft of your purse.”
“Then the captain who casts his lot with us will earn a king’s ransom for his trouble. The queen herself will vouch for it.”
“Do not be so sure. They are a wild, superstitious lot. Worse than peasants when it comes to charms and sacrifices. Karsh may hold a power over them which even the love of gold cannot release.”
“We shall see. Anyway, we have no other plan—we cannot fly.”
“No, I suppose not. I doubt if even old Nimrood could foresee that.” Durwin laughed.
It had been meant as a joke, but Theido remained grave at the mention of the magician’s name. “Do you think the necromancer sees so much? Does he know of our enterprise?”
“Undoubtedly he knows—whether by art or by spies, he knows we are abroad. But I do not think he considers a party of five—”
“Four,” corrected Theido. Durwin was about to continue when he heard a rustle at the door and Alinea stepped into the room. She went to the bed and placed a warm hand on Quentin’s cool forehead. She looked sadly upon his upturned face and then stepped over to where the men were talking.
“Is there nothing more we can do?” Her voice lightly pleaded for the young man’s release; her eyes held a touching pity for her fallen friend.
“All that can be done has been accomplished. Now we must watch and wait,” said Durwin.
“Yes, I know. So you have told me often enough. I only wish there was something that could sway the balance. It is hard, this waiting.”
“Our wait is nearly at an end,” said Theido. He caught the queen’s questioning glance and explained. “We must begin our journey to the island of Tildeen. The ships will be sailing again soon, and I am anxious to secure our passage.”
“Then we must leave him?”
“I think it is for the best,” offered Durwin. “He cannot travel as he is; that much is obvious. Even if he were to awaken now, he would still be too weak to travel safely. We have no choice but to leave him here. The Curatak will take care of him. When he is strong enough, he can return to Askelon; Toli will bring him safely as far as Pelgrin.”
“Yes,” agreed Theido, “it is for the best. We do not know what awaits us in Karsh. No doubt, Quentin will be safer in Durwin’s cottage.”
“It will break his heart to find us gone,” said Alinea. “He has come this far only to be denied . . .”
“It cannot be helped, my lady,” said Theido. He, too, felt awful that Quentin, who had shown himself to be a stalwart and worthy companion, should now have to remain behind.
“I know,” she said, brightening somewhat. “I will compose a letter of safe conduct for him—should any of Jaspin’s men be roaming the way.”
“Do you think that will matter very much?” asked Theido.
The queen paused and looked at the other two men sorrowfully. “No,” she said quietly, “but it is the one thing I can do.”
“Yes,” agreed Durwin. “I shall compose a letter myself, explaining all that has happened and what we intend. That should help ease his mind that we have not abandoned him unreasonably.”
“Good! A fine idea. I will begin seeing to our provisions and equipment,” said Theido, feeling better about their leave-taking. As with most knights, he did not like leaving a fallen comrade behind in any circumstances that he could improve. He left the room with a more resolute tread than that which with he had entered it. His mind was at ease now.
“I do not know . . . ,” murmured Durwin into his beard.
“What troubles you, friend Durwin?” wondered Alinea. “Is there something more?”
“More than I am telling? Yes, I do admit it.” He moved to Quentin’s bed and sat down on the edge. He placed his hand upon the boy’s chest for a moment. “I told him once that he had some part to play in this— so I still believe. But beyond that, I cannot say. And the god I serve has not illumined me.” He gazed fondly down upon the motionless form beside him. “It could be this is the beginning for him, not the end.”
Queen Alinea nodded silently and placed her hand on the hermit’s shoulder. After a few moments of silence, they left together, leaving Quentin’s care once more to the old woman.