Nimrood sat brooding on his great black throne, draped over it like a wind-tossed rag. Incensed at Prince Jaspin’s bumbling ineffectiveness, he nevertheless grudgingly considered that the chance encounter of Theido and Pyggin had brought about an even better possibility than he had planned—the opportunity of defeating that meddlesome hermit, that bone in his throat, Durwin, once and for all.
As he mulled over these recent developments, a new plan began to take shape. He called for his servants to bring him the keys, which they did, as they carried out all his orders, with stumbling haste lest they displease their perverse lord.
“Tell Euric I will see him in the dungeon at once,” snapped Nimrood to the quaking wretch who had brought the keys. He snatched the large ring from the servant’s trembling hand and flew like a bat from the throne, across the room, and out.
In a further part of the dungeon, Euric, a man almost as depraved as his keeper, found Nimrood unlocking the door to a special cell. “Allow me to do that for you, master,” the swarthy, gap-toothed Euric croaked. He took the keys and in seconds swung open the reluctant door. Nimrood stepped into the darkened room. He clapped his hands, and fire leaped from his fingers to a torch sitting in its iron holder on the wall. He handed the torch to Euric and indicated that he was to lead the way.
Through the chamber and a door at the opposite end they went. The second door opened onto a narrow hall lined with cells. They hurried past these cells and came to the end of the passage, which terminated in a narrow flight of stone steps twisting down into a black vault below.
The two entered the vault. Nimrood clapped his hands again, and torches all around the room flashed to life. There in the guttering glare of the torches lay nine massive stone tables in rows of three. Six of the tables were occupied by prostrate forms of six mighty knights bedecked in gleaming armor, with swords clutched over their chests and their shields across their loins. Each one appeared composed and serene, only sleeping, in an instant to join the call to arms. But their flesh bore the ashen tint of dead men’s flesh, and their eyes were sunken like dead men’s eyes.
“Death’s Legion,” hissed Nimrood. “Look on it, Euric. It is terrible, is it not? Soon it will be complete, and I will give the signal, and these, my army, will arise. With them I will conquer the world. Who can stand against such as these—the boldest knights the world has ever seen.” He moved along the slabs, calling out their names. “Hesterlid, Vorgil, Junius, Khennet, Geoffric, Llewyn . . .”
Euric indicated the three empty biers. “Who will occupy these places to complete the number?”
“One is for Ronsard, who would be here now if not for Pyggin and his men—but I have given them another chance. They bring him now by sea; the other is for King Eskevar, who shall be commander of my Legion. Very soon now he will join in his new regiment. His will is strong; he lingers yet. But my will is stronger, and he shall be mine ere long.
“Look how still they sleep; even death does not diminish them.”
The necromancer’s eyes glittered with excitement as he beheld his handiwork.
“And who is the last slab for, Great One?” asked Euric. He fully enjoyed his participation in the black arts as much as did Nimrood.
“The last I feared would have to remain empty. The great knight Marsant died in that petty war against Gorr, and the ignorant barbarians burned his body.
“But now it appears I shall not lack a full complement of warriors to lead my soldiers into battle. Theido, that troublesome renegade, will be joining us at last. He will no doubt thank me for the opportunity to serve his king in death as he once served him on the battlefield in life.”
“How will this be accomplished?”
“Did I not tell you? The gods decree that I am indeed fortunate. Pyggin found him wandering the wharf of Bestou where they await the sailing season. It seems the foolish knight wishes passage for himself and his companions to Karsh—they will come here!
“Since they are so eager to die, I will not disappoint them. Pyggin will deliver them to their destination, all right. And with a courtesy they do not expect. Ha!”
Euric’s face glimmered in the dim torchlight. His eyes rolled up into his head ecstatically as he contemplated his foul lord’s intricate machinations. He bowed low, saying, “You shall rule the world, Nimrood.”
The harbor of Bestou remained wrapped in rain and fog for several long and vacant days. Then, on a quiet afternoon of drizzling damp, the sun broke through in a sudden burst of beaming brilliance, and all the sailors abiding in the inns and taverns of the town streamed down to the quay with their scant belongings stuffed into rucksacks and canvas bags. They came as if on signal. That night they would sleep aboard their vessels and sail with the dawn.
When the rising sun was merely a dull promise on the eastern horizon, Theido and the others made their way down to the docks and boarded the wherry with a few other passengers to be delivered to various ships lying at anchor in the harbor.
Ships were already streaming toward the pinched opening of the harbor to be the first to take to the open seas. Durwin and Alinea could hear sailors calling to one another from ship to ship, captains cursing their crews’ winter-dulled skills as they made ready to put off, the splash of the oars in the green water.
As they pulled farther into the harbor, the humped back of Tildeen rose in the thin spring mist that hung over Bestou like a gossamer cloud. Gulls worked the air with their slender wings and complained of the activity in their harbor as they hovered and dived among the ships. Trenn stood in the front of the boat, directing the rowers to their ship, and Theido sat in the rear, pensively watching the land recede slowly behind them.
“You appear wistful, brave Knight,” observed Alinea. She had noticed Theido’s somber mien. “Tell us, what could trouble your mind on a morning such as this? We are on our way at last.”
“I slept ill, my lady. A fearful dream came over me as I tossed on my bed. I awoke sweating and cold, but of the dream I remember nothing. It vanished with the dawn.
“But the feeling of doom lingers, though the dream has departed.”
Durwin listened to his friend, nodding and rubbing his chin with his hand. “I, too, felt ill at ease last night. I take it to be a confirmation of our quest. Sometimes we must enter the course by the least likely gate—the god has his own way, often mysterious and always unpredictable.”
“Well, we go, and none will stop us,” replied Theido, squaring his shoulders. “Come what may, the gods will not find us sitting idly by. It is good to be moving again.”
“I only hope we may be in time,” said the queen. She turned her lovely face away for a moment and was silent.
“Yes, Jaspin and the regents will convene their council soon, I think. His crown is bought many times over; it only remains for him to lay his hand to it.”
“Time will not be hurried,” offered Durwin. “We can go only as fast as we may. I will pray to the god that our purpose will not be thwarted. He is a god of righteousness and loves justice. He will not see us fail.”
“Well said, holy hermit. I am always forgetting the god you serve is of a different stripe from the gods of old. But I prefer to trust my own arm for righteousness and the point of my sword for justice.”
“Arms lose their strength and swords their edge. Then it is good to remember whence came your strength and who holds a sword that is never dull.”
Alinea, who had listened closely to this exchange, said, “Holy hermit, tell me about your god. He seems to be far different from the capricious immortals our people have long worshipped. May I learn of him, do you think?”
“Why, of course, my lady. He turns away none who come to him, and it would honor me to instruct one as wise and lovely as you. This gives a purpose to the empty hours of our voyage,” said Durwin, pleased to have a pupil and an excuse to discourse his favorite subject.
As these last words were spoken, the rowing boat bumped against the side of Captain Pyggin’s ship.
“Passengers!” cried Trenn, grasping for the rope that dangled from the taffrail. A squinting face appeared over the rail; the man regarded them closely and disappeared again. A rope ladder then dropped over the side of the ship and was secured by the rowers. Trenn clambered up the ladder and reached a hand down to the others. When they had all assembled on the deck, Pyggin came wheezing up.
“Everyone aboard? Yes, well . . . excuse me; I did not know we would have the pleasure of a lady on our journey. I am honored.
“This way,” the captain said, bustling them off. “I will show you to your quarters.” As Pyggin herded his passengers before him, he gave the signal for the crew to cast off. Neither Theido nor Trenn saw the signal, nor did they see several crew members skulking along behind them, toting belaying pins in their thick fists.
“The Gray Gull is a small ship but a tight one. I think you’ll find your accommodations adequate.” Pyggin indicated a narrow door leading to stairs descending to the ship’s hold.
“Are there no other passengers?” wondered Theido aloud.
“No, we seldom take passengers—but we have made an exception for you, my lords.” So saying, he opened the door and ushered them down the stairs.
No sooner had Theido, being the last of the party to enter the hold, reached the bottom step than Pyggin threw the door shut, crying, “Enjoy your voyage, my lords!” And before Theido could hurl himself up the stairs against the door, the sound of heavy bolts being thrown and locks clicking shut let them know they were now prisoners.
Theido beat on the door with his fists. “Open this door, you scoundrel! In the name of the king! Open, I say!”
The sound of derisive laughter came through the fast-bolted door, and the prisoners heard footsteps departing on the deck, and they were left alone.
“Well, we are in it now,” said Theido. “It is my fault—I should have listened to the counsel of our good warder, Trenn.”
“If my wits had been sharper, my warning might have had some teeth in its mouth,” said Trenn. “But let us consider what is best to do.”
Just then a low moaning, barely audible, drifted to them from behind a wall of stacked barrels.
“A monster lurks among us!” said Trenn in a strained whisper.
“Listen . . . ,” said Theido.
The sound came again, starting low and growing louder, then trailing off at the end like a wounded animal exhausting the last of its strength.
“It is not a monster,” said Alinea. “It is a man, and he is hurt.”
Feeling her way in the dark hold, lit only by a few lattice-covered hatches cut around the center of the deck overhead, Alinea moved slowly around the musty kegs, followed closely by the others. There in the dim gray light she saw the form of a man bandaged, and upon perceiving his fellow prisoners, the man slumped back on his filthy bed in a swoon.
Something about the unconscious form struck the queen. “I know this man,” said Alinea, bending close to him. She took the bandaged head in her hands and peered intently into the insensible face.
Her eyes grew wide in recognition. “Can it be?”
“Who is it, my lady?” asked Trenn. “Do you recognize him?”
“Look,” she said, pulling Trenn down beside her. The ship, already under way, dipped and turned, and for the moment the feeble light from an overhead hatch fell full on the man’s face.
“It is Ronsard!” said Queen Alinea, cradling the great knight’s head lovingly in her arms.
“It is Ronsard!” shouted Trenn. “By the gods! It is!”