Jaspin called his hirelings together in the great hall of Castle Erlott. The sun was well up and warming the land to a fresh and early spring. The prince was growing more restive with each passing day—now pensive and brooding, now sweetly polite and even jovial in company. The tight little lines around his mouth told those who knew him best that the prince was deeply troubled.
“I have decided that the Council of Regents must be held within a fortnight,” Jaspin told the assembled knights and nobles. Many had taken their leave of Erlott Fields to attend to their own concerns, but many still remained at the prince’s pleasure. These murmured at the suggestion that the council should depart from its appointed time—midsummer.
“Sire, we must protest this alteration,” spoke Lord Naylor boldly. He and his neighbor, Lord Holben, alone dared to confront the prince openly. Naylor himself, chief regent of the Council of Regents, was no great friend of Jaspin. Others in the group demonstrated their agreement with Lord Naylor by nodding and nudging one another. “After all these years? The council will accomplish its duty in good time—and without undignified haste.” He laughed stiffly, knowing the danger he was in at the moment. “I see no reason to depart from our commission now.”
The prince rankled at this challenge to his ambition. “What I propose shall be done,” he said firmly. “And you, my lord, shall see that it is done according to my wishes.”
Jaspin fixed Naylor with an icy glare and then looked around at each of the others individually, defying them to challenge him. “And you shall have the letters drawn up and dispatched to all the members not in attendance here, that we shall hold council in Erlott, not in Paget.”
“And if I refuse your suggestions?” questioned Lord Naylor, his own temper rising. The prince little knew, or cared, that he was making the situation harder for himself by bullying the chief counselor of the regents. But Jaspin was a man whose mind seized upon a thing like a mongrel with a meaty bone and would not be put off.
“Refusal would be construed as a failure of your office. You could be replaced.”
Some who looked on, and who would have happily pledged their support of Prince Jaspin if allowed to do so with a show of free will, were now uneasy at the thought of electing him at his own direction— for so they surmised his plans. They were appalled at the idea of naming him king in his own castle and not, as tradition dictated, in the traditional setting of the Hall of Paget.
Jaspin only sought to hasten the appointed meeting. And since as the object of the meeting he would not be allowed to attend the council himself, he thought that by simply moving the designated meeting place to his own castle, he would then know the result much sooner and save himself a ride to Paget, a journey of several days.
His idea, however, was a solidly unpopular one. And if not for Lord Naylor’s challenge, Jaspin would have been persuaded by a cooler head such as Ontescue’s to abandon his scheme. But the matter had proceeded too far. Jaspin would have it no other way.
A hasty conference took place between Holben and the chief regent. “I will do as you bid, my lord,” said Naylor, his teeth set on edge. “But you may regret having pressed your way in this matter.” He turned and crossed the room under Jaspin’s dark look. “By your leave,” he said and walked out of the hall.
The captives heard nothing but the occasional curses of their captors going about their business on the deck above and the wash of the waves against the hull of the ship. In four days at sea they had been fed twice— a ration of coarse bread—but as they had access to all the water aboard ship, they lacked nothing for their thirst.
Queen Alinea had been able to nurse Ronsard back to his senses. With her kind ministrations and the help of Durwin’s healing power, the knight swore he felt better by the hour. Alinea insisted he remain reposed on his bed, but cheered by the nearness of his friends, Ronsard largely ignored her pleas. They had much to talk about and much to tell.
“It gives me no pleasure to say it, my lady,” said Ronsard, leaning upon his elbow, “but I fear for the king. Nimrood is a crafty snake; his plots are beyond reckoning. However, we may be certain there is mortal danger for any within his grasp.”
“He has induced Prince Jaspin to join his schemes of treachery— though little enough encouragement was needed there,” said Theido.
“And I have heard it voiced far and wide that Nimrood raises an army, though who—or what—would fight for him, I cannot but wonder. In Elsendor there are rumors of a Legion of the Dead.”
“No! It cannot be true,” gasped Alinea. “Oh, it is too horrible to contemplate.”
“He has the power to do such things?” asked Trenn.
“He has,” said Durwin, “and we do not have the means to stop him . . . ourselves.”
“We will find a way,” said Theido. His eyes kindled with fire against the wicked necromancer. “Nimrood will be stopped. My life is my pledge.”
“If only my arm had the strength to hold my sword,” moaned Ronsard. His stony features fought against the pain his companions could see hovering there; he sought to rise.
“Please, good Ronsard, you must rest while you can,” said Alinea, pressing him back down with her hands gently on his shoulders.
“Alas,” wailed Ronsard, “even if I could wield a sword, I have none in this time of need.”
“Soon—too soon, I fear—there will be no lack of blades, but of hands to hold them. You will have your chance, Ronsard. Only content yourself till then, and pray your strength recovers.” Durwin spoke softly and peered deeply into Ronsard’s clouded eyes. The knight shook his head, and his eyelids fluttered weakly. He laid his head back and slipped off to sleep moments later. “Would that I had such power over our enemies as I have over the wounds of brave knights.” Durwin sighed.
Trenn looked at the hermit with wide eyes full of awe. “There is power enough, I’ll warrant, for many purposes. Perhaps you could charm this Nimrood to sleep as you did Ronsard just now.”
“Would that I could. But no, the power that remains in me is of a healing kind—though it may be turned for other purposes in time of need. If I were to think of harming someone, even the evil Nimrood, this last remnant of my power would desert me instantly. It is a law of this healing power.” He paused, deep in thought, and then continued excitedly. “But what may be done with drafts and potions and the mixing of rare earths—that I may still do! Oh, I have been so slow. Gather round quickly! I have a plan!”
In a little while the captives heard the click of a key in a lock and the sound of rusty bolts thrown back. There was a rattle as chains dropped free and a blinding glare as the cargo door was opened wide, sending a shaft of light flooding into the hold.
A rough voice announced, “Get back! Get back! Ah, I trust my passengers are enjoying their fine quarters?” The voice was that of Captain Pyggin, whose portly form could now be discerned descending the steep stairs, followed by two of his ruffians. “Give them their food,” he ordered one of the men. The other stood guard.
“By Zoar! I’ll—,” swore Trenn, jumping to his feet. The guard’s long knife flashed in his hand in an instant.
“Make no threats you care not to die by,” warned Pyggin. “My men are less civilized than I. They kill to pass the time.”
Trenn backed away slowly. “What do you want, pirate?” asked Theido carelessly.
“Only to wish you well, my fine friends.” He cast a lustful eye over Alinea’s comely form. “We reach our destination in two days’ time.” He waved his hand, and the sailor carrying the food set down an iron pot and tossed a couple of loaves onto the filthy floor of the hold.
Pyggin turned to leave. “Enjoy your meal!” He laughed perversely and climbed the steps. The guard watched them with hooded eyes, daring anyone to try to rush upon him.
Then he was gone, and darkness returned as the door slammed shut. The locks and chains were replaced, and they heard the derisive call of Captain Pyggin through the lattice. “Two days—mark them well. They’ll be your last.”
“To think I paid him for our passage,” muttered Trenn when Pyggin had gone.
“He but takes us where we want to go,” observed Durwin.
“Yes, though not in the fashion we desired,” replied Theido. “But much can happen in two days’ time.”