Quentin stood at the parapet of his room overlooking a dark, mist-shrouded forest, feeling useless and disgraced at being left behind. His hand hung at his side, still holding the letters left for him by his friends, which he had just reread yet again.
He heard a sound behind him and turned; it was Mollena, his aging nurse. She hobbled in, glancing at his empty bed and then out onto the balcony, and smiled a toothless grin when she saw him.
“Come in, young master. You will be chilled standing out there like that. Warmth comes to these old mountains but slowly. You’ll be needing your cloak a good spell yet.”
Quentin said nothing but came reluctantly inside and threw himself upon the bed.
“You are feeling stronger, I can tell. But so much is not good for you yet. Your feet are anxious, but your heart needs rest.” She paused and looked at Quentin’s fallen countenance. “What you have read troubles your soul, my bold young man?”
“They left me, Mollena. Why?” Quentin knew why; he merely wanted some other assurance that he had not been forgotten.
“It could not be any other way. That I know.” She spoke these words in a strange way. Quentin rolled over and looked at her. The Curatak were an odd people and knew many things by many strange ways.
“What do you know?” he asked, much as one would ask a soothsayer to divulge his future.
“I know that your friend Toli waits for you below. Come, the walk will do you good, I think.”
Quentin slid off the bed and shuffled to the door. “Here,” said Mollena as he stepped across the threshold, “remember your cloak.” Quentin took it and threw it across his shoulders and went with the old woman down to meet his friend.
Under the old healer’s ministrations, Quentin had revived and awakened three days after Theido and the others had set out. He had opened his eyes, as if from a long night’s sleep, hungry and not more than a little light-headed. He had lain for a long time trying to remember what had happened to him and how he had come to be where he was. But the attempt was futile.
Somewhere in the far recesses of his mind, a shadowy, indistinct dream still lingered—a dream in which he had a part. But it seemed long ago and far removed from himself, as if it had all happened to someone else and he had only read the account of it. He had—in the letters Durwin and Alinea had left behind for him.
Quentin had gotten up to walk around the room on the second day, and had explored the whole of the upper floor the day after that. Under Mollena’s tutelage he had learned something of Dekra and the mysterious Curatak who guarded the ruins.
Dekra was the last stronghold of a great and powerful civilization, a people who had vanished without trace a thousand years before Celbercor had come to forge his kingdom. The Curatak, or Caretakers, had long ago colonized the ruined city and fought back the ever-encroaching weeds and wildlife—and from time to time even discouraged squatters from settling there.
From the dust of the crumbling walls and columns in the once-proud city of a highborn race, the Caretakers had rescued the memory of Dekra and its inhabitants. They had delved deeply into their past, learned their ways and customs, and even effected restoration of much of the ancient city’s common square, or the seat of the government. It was here Quentin and the others had been housed, in the lofty, many-roomed palace of the governor of Dekra, which now served as the central communal dwelling of the Curatak.
Quentin had seen but little of the ruined city, but enough to know that the aura of fear that surrounded the mere mention of the name was totally unfounded. The legends that men told each other in the dark by firelight were assuredly false—if not outright fabrications designed to protect the privacy of the Caretakers and their mission to restore the city to its original splendor—a task that Quentin learned was, to the Curatak, the ultimate in devotion to a people they seemingly worshipped as gods.
The Caretakers believed that the Ariga, Dekra’s original tenants, would someday return to claim their city. The Curatak believed that on that day they would themselves become Ariga by virtue of their loving work.
Where the Caretakers had come from was less certain, for they seemed to care nothing of their own history, only insomuch as it helped them to remember Dekra’s. But the original number of a few score had grown into several hundred over the years. Outsiders still occasionally wandered to the city and stayed to embrace the work. The Curatak did not in the least discourage visitors who held nothing but honorable intentions toward them or who wished to study the ancient ways. In fact, they were always more than pleased to offer the arts of the departed Ariga to any and all who asked. This they also considered their sacred duty.
Durwin had visited the city on several occasions, staying once for over three years. He had seen and learned much in the ruins and had himself helped in the restoration of one of the main buildings—a temple to the god of the Ariga. A lone god with no name.
“Do you think I will be strong enough to leave soon?” asked Quentin when they had reached the lower floor. They entered a large area that had been partitioned off into smaller rooms but which retained an atmosphere of light and openness in what would have been a dark, solid basement in any structure he had ever encountered. Quentin, feeling winded from his walk down so many stairs, sat on a three-legged stool while Mollena stirred herself in another corner of the room. Toli, apparently, had darted off on another of his ceaseless errands.
“Leave soon? That is up to you. You can leave when you feel you must. Or you can stay as long as you wish,” Mollena answered finally. Quentin looked at the old woman’s gray hair and wrinkled, stooped appearance. Anywhere else the woman would have been regarded as one of Orphe’s daughters. But here she was as much a part of the natural surroundings as the strange architecture he saw and the exotic murals that lined the walls of nearly every building. And there was something in her spirit that made her seem as young and alive as any maid he had ever seen (although for Quentin, those were few indeed).
Quentin always had the impression that Mollena was refraining from telling him too much, that she knew more than she would allow him to hear. And not only Mollena—all the others he had met in the past few days spoke in the same cryptic way.
“Would you teach me something?” he asked after watching her busy herself with preparing some small morsel for him. She turned to eye him with a sideward glance, her head held to one side as if she was weighing her decision.
“There are a few things I might teach you, though there are others far more learned than I. What would you like to learn?” she asked.
“I do not know—I mean . . . I would not know where to start. Tell me what you think I should know of this place, of the world.”
“What I think does not matter a great deal. You must choose yourself how you will,” Mollena answered, setting a small table before him that contained a bowl of dried fruit and a cup with a warm yellow liquid. “Eat now. Regain your strength. Consider what will help you accomplish your purpose, and I will teach you.”
Quentin ate and did as she suggested, but at the end of his meal, he was no closer to an answer to his own question.
“It’s no use,” he announced, pushing the bowl away from him and wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “I do not know enough about this place or its people to decide what would serve me best to learn.”
“Well spoken,” said the old woman with a warm smile. “That is the first step toward knowledge. Come. I will guide you through the city, and we will find the answers you seek.”
Toli appeared at the doorway just as they made to leave, so the three started off together.
A firm friendship had grown up between Quentin and the quiet Jher, who seemed to hold his friend in reverential awe as someone who possessed strong mystical powers. Anyone who could survive the poisoned talons of a Harrier’s hawk qualified as a deity in Toli’s opinion. He seemed determined to serve Quentin as bodyguard and cupbearer, and he made a point of insisting upon learning Quentin’s tongue so that he might know how to serve his master more efficiently.
Quentin, for his part, considered Toli’s quick thinking and lightning reflexes in pulling him to the ground on that black night to be the only reason he still walked among the living. The hawk had barely scratched his upper arm with its hollow, poison-filled metal talons—the bird was trained to attack the throat.
So out of gratitude Quentin busied himself with teaching Toli and taking up the tasks of learning the gentle Jher’s lilting speech. He was surprised to find that after the rigors of the temple training in the official temple code language, the Jher tongue was not so obscure as he had feared. There was only a handful of basic sounds, which were combined to form more complex words and sentences.
With steady work and patience, Quentin and Toli began to eke out a method of communication with each other.
The old woman led them along wide, tree-lined avenues, which in another day Quentin imagined would have been jammed with carts and people bustling to and fro, buying and selling. He looked at tall buildings of ingenious design—lofty towers that rose with effortless grace. And although they used the same stone Askelon’s builders had later used, Dekra’s architects did very different things with it. Their skill was such that even the most solid, massive structure appeared airy and light, well proportioned and elegant. A city designed by poets.
Dekra’s only temple sat in the center of the city, and all lines focused upon this center. The streets ran in concentric rings and intersecting angles from the temple, which was large enough to accommodate all inhabitants of the city with ease.
It was toward the temple that Mollena directed them.
Quentin walked through the quiet streets, some of them more closely restored than others, in a kind of waking dream. The city of the vanished race was an exotic, alien place—itself a city of dreams. He stared in awe around him, gazing in wonder at the strangeness of the place. He wondered what the people themselves had been like.
“What happened to the people?”
“No one knows. Oh, we find things from time to time, and there are many theories among us, but the answer to our most perplexing question remains a mystery.
“But this we know: they left all together and all at once, very quickly. We have found pots still on the ashes of the fire that burned under them, with the charred remains of the meal which was being prepared still untouched. We have found, in the merchant quarters, money boxes left open and the contents inside and undisturbed. Once we found a table set with writing instruments and the fragmented remains of a letter in composition—the pen laid aside in midword, as if the writer had been called away suddenly and unexpectedly, never to return.”
The old woman stopped and looked around; her face revealed an excitement no less aroused than Quentin’s own. “The answer is here, within these buildings and walls. Someday we will find it.”
Quentin was silent as they continued their easy stroll. After a little time he ventured another question. “What were the people like, Mollena? Were they very different from us?”
“Not so much in appearance, maybe, though they were taller and stronger than our people are. That we know from the many murals which abound in every house and public building. Among them were many artists and writers of surpassing skill.
“One of the first buildings to be restored was the library of Dekra, a vast collection of writings. Many of the scrolls were in readable condition still; many others have been preserved and restored, though it is a long and often frustrating process. But we have learned how to read their words, and many Curatak engage themselves fully toward learning the teachings of the ancient scholars. What we have read reveals a wise and benevolent race of high intelligence; their teachings are not easy to understand, but we have learned much. Much more remains to be discovered.”
The three were moving toward the temple along one of the straight, bisecting streets. As Quentin listened to the old woman, he watched in fascination as the temple grew larger with their approach. The holy place rose majestically over the tops of the trees surrounding it—all clean lines and pinnacles pointing heavenward.
“Who were they?” Quentin asked, more to himself than to Mollena, experiencing a growing sense of suppressed excitement, mingled inexplicably with a grief he could not place, as if someone he knew did not exist might yet appear at any moment.
“Who were they?” repeated Mollena as the three stepped onto the broad plaza surrounding the soaring sanctuary. “They called themselves the Ariga—children of the god.”
“And who was their god?” Quentin asked. “Do we know him?”
“Many know him, but by no name. The god of the Ariga has no name. He is one, nameless and supreme. Their holy writings sometimes use the words Whist Orren, or Most High, and Perun Nim Gadre, or King of the Gods. Most often they called him Dekron—the One, or the One Holy. But his name, if he has one, is never written.”
Without another word Mollena led them inside the great temple. Quentin saw Curatak moving quietly about their work within the temple. One section of the west wall, opposite them, had given way. Scaffolding was erected around the damaged portion, and workmen were painstakingly laboring with the rebuilding. All moved about their tasks with great reverence, it seemed to Quentin.
“We Curatak,” explained Mollena, “have ourselves become Ariga in that we worship the nameless god as our own.”When she saw Quentin’s questioning glance, she continued. “We believe, as did the vanished ones, that their god has many children.”
“Where did the priests stay?” asked Quentin, looking around. Most of the inner temple was given over to a vast open area, raised at one end by a dais, which was reached by stone steps ringing its circumference. He saw no place where priests could live, unless their chambers lay underground somewhere.
“There were no priests—that is, not the way you think of priests. The Ariga approached the god alone, though they had readers—men who had studied the holy texts extensively, who spoke to them when they assembled, reminding them of the various tenets of their religion. But no priests interposed for the people.”
They turned to leave then, and when they had returned outside once more, Quentin was stuck by a thought suddenly remembered, a thought he had often wondered and had meant to ask Durwin along their journey to the ruined city.
“Mollena, why was Theido frightened of coming here? Why did he wish Durwin to stay away?”
The old woman wrinkled a squint upon him. “Who told you he was afraid?”
“I heard them talking about it. Durwin said from the beginning that we should come; Theido was against it. Then something happened— Trenn came with word that the Harriers were after us—and Theido relented. What was he afraid of ?”
“That is not for me to say, but you may ask Yeseph, one of our leaders. He may give you an answer to your question, for I cannot.”
Again a cryptic reply, thought Quentin. What was it these Curatak were withholding from him? Certainly he had seen nothing so far to be afraid of. He puzzled on this the rest of the day and far into the night before dropping off to sleep. The next day he awoke determined to seek out Yeseph and put the questions to him. Why was Theido afraid for Durwin? And why had he changed his mind?