The rain fell in a miserable drizzle from a low, gray, unhappy sky. The track underfoot had become a muddy rivulet that trickled slowly as it wound its way down the hill among the giant forest evergreens. Quentin, astride Balder, and Toli, mounted on a black-and-white pony left behind by the others, slid uncertainly down the trail in a muffled silence that hung on them like the heavy hooded cloaks they wrapped themselves in to keep out the rain. The trail from Dekra to the east was a much improved version of the boggy maze they had floundered through on their way to the ruined city. So Quentin let Balder have his head and allowed his mind to wander where it would. He thought again of their leave-taking from Yeseph, Mollena, and the others.
A sad parting it was, for in the short time he had been with them, he had grown very fond of them. They had said a few brief words of farewell—the Curatak do not believe in lengthy good-byes, since they consider that all who serve the god will one day be reunited to live forever together—and as the horses stamped the ground impatiently, Quentin embraced Mollena and hugged Yeseph a little clumsily.
“Come back, Quentin, when your quest is at an end,” said Yeseph. “We would welcome a pupil like you.”
“I will come back when I can,” promised Quentin, swinging himself into the saddle. “I am grateful for all I have received of your kindness. Thank you.”
“The god goes with you both,” said Mollena. She turned her face away, and Quentin saw the sparkle of a tear in the corner of her eye.
He looked on them for a lingering moment and then wheeled the big warhorse around and started down the hill into the forest. He looked long over his shoulder, etching the memory deep into his mind. He wanted to remember it always as it appeared then: the sun filling the sky with a joyous light; the high, bright sky scrubbed clean by white clouds; the red stone walls of the city rising gracefully into the heady spring air; his friends standing at the wide-open gates, waving him away until at last the slope of the hill cut them off from view.
Quentin had never experienced a more emotional departure. But then, he reflected, he had never known anything but the coldness of the temple priests, who never greeted nor bade farewell.
Inside, Quentin tingled with excitement; his heart soared like a bird freed at last from a long captivity. He quickly forgot his melancholy of leaving in the overflowing good spirits he felt at being alive, being back on the trail, and reliving again the vision of the night before.
He had found it extremely difficult to sleep at all the last night. After the feasts in his honor, where there was more singing and dancing and games, which lasted long into the night, he and Toli had returned to Mollena’s rooms in the palatial governor’s home. He had told them of the vision. Yeseph, and some of the other elders who had also gathered there, listened intently, nodding and pulling their beards.
“Your vision is a powerful sign. You are favored by the god,” he said. “He has special plans for you,” declared Yeseph.
“The Blessing of the Ariga,” mused Elder Themu, “is itself a thing of power, for it carries with it the ability to accomplish its own end. The Most High God grants to every pure heart a blessing in kind and the strength to carry out its purpose. In so doing you will find your own happiness and fulfillment.”
Quentin puzzled over this and asked, “Then what does my vision mean?”
“That is for you to discover. The god may show you in his own time, but most often knowledge only comes with struggle. You must work out the meaning yourself, for the interpretation comes in the doing.”
“This is indeed different from the ways of the old gods,” said Quentin. “In the temple the people come to the priest for an oracle. The priest takes the offering and seeks an oracle or an omen on behalf of the pilgrim. He then explains the meaning of the oracle.”
“That is because the oracles are but foolishness of blind men—the smoke without the fire,” said Themu.
That night, when the guests had departed and he was alone in his bed, Quentin had prayed for the first time to this new god, the one he had met in his vision. The vision seemed still more real to him than the vague dimensions of his own dark room and comfortable bed. He prayed, “Lead me in the discovery of your ways, God Most High. Give me the strength to serve you.”
That was all he could think of to say. After all the formalized prayers of the temple, written down to be memorized by constant repetition, Quentin’s simple prayer seemed to him ridiculously inadequate.
But trusting in Yeseph’s observation that the god regarded more the state of the heart than the length of the prayer, Quentin let it go at that. And he had the strong inner conviction that his prayer had been heard, and by someone very close.
Early that morning, before the sun peeped above the undulating horizon, Quentin and Toli had discussed their plans.
“It is my desire to follow Theido and the others and perhaps catch them if we can,” said Quentin, munching a seed cake. Toli looked at him with strange eyes, which Quentin found unsettling. “Why do you look at me so?”
“You have changed, Kenta,” he said in a low voice, struck with wonder. Kenta was the Jher word for “eagle”—and, by extension, seemed to mean “friend,” “master,” “lord”—all at the same time. It was also the closest approximation of Quentin’s own name that Toli would attempt, though to Quentin it seemed his friend did not try very hard. Toli fastened on this word for his own reasons.
“How have I changed?” Quentin tried to dismiss Toli’s observation with a smile, but it felt forced. “I am the same as I was.”
Toli saw it differently. He had watched the ceremony of the blessing with great admiration and respect. It had appeared to him as the coronation of a king, and he was proud that his friend, for so he considered Quentin irrevocably now, had acceded to such a high honor.
“No,” said Toli, “you are not the same.”
That was all he would say on the subject. So Quentin pushed on to other things. They would ride on to Tuck and then to Bestou, as the others had done (so Mollena had informed them).
All Quentin knew was that Nimrood could be found at Karsh, though where that might be, he could not say. Mollena refused to speak of the place, saying that it was an evil island not nearly far enough away though it was halfway round the world.
So they had struck out upon the trail to Tuck, a much-forsaken path through the northern forests that were home to a great number of red deer and wild pigs. The animals themselves kept the trail open, giving it the little use that it received; the Curatak had no need of it.
The second day out, Toli had awakened Quentin to a dismal dawn. Shortly after they had breakfasted on some of Mollena’s specially packed provisions, the rumbling clouds had begun to leak a fine mist of rain. They had thrown on their hooded cloaks and proceeded in a subdued and melancholy mood. The soaring high spirits of the day before were dampened in the cheerless rain.
As they rode along, Quentin became restive, his mind made uneasy by a thought that jabbed stubbornly at his conscience. He resolved to mention it to Toli at the first opportunity. So when they stopped by a small running stream to water the horses, Quentin spoke what was on his mind.
“Toli, do you know what is ahead of us?” he asked. The young Jher squinted his eyes and peered down the darkened trail.
“No,” he answered with typical Jher logic. “How can one know what lies ahead? Even well-known paths may change. The careful hunter goes with caution.”
“No . . . I mean something else. We go to find Theido and Durwin and the others—most likely we ride into great danger.” He watched Toli’s face for any sign of concern. There was none.
Quentin glanced down into the racing stream as his horse’s muzzle sank deep in the swirling water. “I have no right to ask you to accompany me any farther. Your people sent you as a guide out of friendship. Now that we have reached Dekra and, indeed, left it behind, your task is ended. You are free to return to your people.”
Quentin glanced up to see Toli’s bronzed features drawn into deep lines of sorrow. His mouth turned down sharply at the edges; his dark brown eyes had grown cold. “If that is what you wish, Kenta, I will return to my people.”
“What I want . . . that does not matter. But you must go back. This is my journey, not yours; you did not ask for it. I cannot ask you to risk your life—you have no place in this fight.”
“You must tell me what you wish me to do,” replied Toli, clasping Quentin’s hand tightly.
“I cannot,” pleaded Quentin. “Do you see?”
Toli did not see. He blinked back at Quentin gravely, as if to reproach him for cruelty unimaginable.
“You may be killed,” explained Quentin. His knowledge of the Jher speech was quickly becoming exhausted under the strain of trying to communicate this dilemma. “I cannot be responsible for your life if you follow me.”
“The Jher believe that every man is responsible for his own life. The Jher are free—I am free. We do not suffer any to be masters over us. But a Jher may serve another if he chooses.”
Toli’s voice rose, and the lines of his face began to ease as he continued. “For a Jher to join his fate with another who is worthy—this is the highest honor. For to serve a worthy master accounts the servant worthy. Few of my people ever find an opportunity as I have found.” He spoke this last part as a boast, his eyes sparkling.
“But the danger—”
“He who serves shares another’s portion—danger, death, or triumph. If the master receives honor, so his servant receives much greater honor.”
“But I did not ask you to be my servant.”
“No,” he said proudly. “I chose you.”
Quentin shook his head. “What about your people?”
“They will know and rejoice for me.” Toli’s face beamed with pleasure.
“I do not understand,” complained Quentin, though he did not much mind his lack of understanding.
“That is because your people are brought up to believe that serving another is a weakness. It is not out of weakness that one serves, but out of strength.”
“I would still feel better if I could ask you myself.”
“Ask, then, but I have already given my answer.”
“Is there no getting rid of you, then?” joked Quentin. The joke escaped Toli, whose face fell again momentarily.
“If you dismiss me, I will return to my people in disgrace.”
“That will never do,” Quentin said.
“You, Kenta, wear the look of glory. You will I serve. For only by your side will I find glory too.”
“Very well,” said Quentin at last. “Since I would really rather not go alone, and you are determined not to allow me to in any case, we will go together.”
“As you wish,” said Toli pleasantly.
“My wishes seem to have nothing to do with it,” remarked Quentin.
Toli ignored the remark and held Balder while Quentin mounted, then mounted his own black-and-white.
“To Tuck, then,” said Quentin. His heart was much lighter and his mind at ease. He had not wanted to give up Toli’s company and would have tried to persuade him to remain if that had been the case. This new relationship, however, would require some getting used to. He had not known the extent of Toli’s loyalty toward him and wondered if he was at all deserving of it. Already the responsibility weighed heavier than he would have supposed.
They rode along together through a wet afternoon and stopped to spend a soggy evening along the trail under the skimpy shelter afforded by a long-limbed evergreen whose branches brushed the ground.
Toli tethered the horses and allowed them to walk a short pace to graze on nearby clumps of grass and forest foliage. Quentin unrolled the packs under the evergreen boughs and made a dry, soft bed by piling up the aromatic needles. Toli gathered dry bark and stones and soon had a small fire going to warm them and dry out their sopping clothing.
Night fell quickly in the forest, and the two lay in the dark, listening to the drip of water from the high boughs and the small crackling of their little fire. Quentin stretched himself upon his bedroll and breathed the fragrant balsam deep into his lungs.
“What do you think of the new god?” Quentin asked absently, searching the darkness nearby for the glitter of Toli’s eyes.
In all the time they had spent at Dekra, he had not spoken to Toli about any of the Ariga religion. Now that oversight embarrassed him.
“He is not new. The Jher have always known him.”
“I did not know. What do you call him?”
“Whinoek,” Quentin repeated to himself. “I like that very much. What does it mean?”
“You would say it means Father . . . Father of Life.”