The sounds of men working, laboring to unload the ship’s stores, had died down. Quentin pressed his ear against the side of the barrel and listened. He could hear nothing but the gentle slap of waves against the hull of the ship, as if far in the distance, but no doubt very close by. Occasionally he heard the squawk of a seabird soaring high above. All sounds reaching him from outside the heavy oaken barrel were muffled and indistinct.
He had filled the hours aboard the ship dozing and waiting, listening in the dark of his small prison and aching to stretch his legs, but not daring to move a muscle. At last, when every nerve and fiber cried out for relief, he had allowed himself to change position. Finding room enough, and having once braved the move with no dire result, he allowed more frequent repositionings, still remaining as quiet as he could.
Periodically, he had pushed the cap from the bunghole and let fresh air rush into the stuffy confines of his barrel. He pressed his face to the hole and peered out but could see nothing of the ship’s activity. This was both good and bad, thought Quentin. For it permitted him to draw air more frequently without fear of anyone noticing the slight movement of the cap. But it also meant that he could have no hint of warning if he were discovered, and no view of the deck to see when they reached their destination.
So he relied upon his ears to tell him what was taking place around him. He had been sleeping when the barrel was heaved up and carried off the ship. The sensation of being lifted, without warning, and jostled awake while swinging through space so surprised him that he had stifled a startled shout.
But then he had been bumped down upon the beach—there had been no resounding thump, as on the deck of the ship when he had been thrown down—so he guessed they had unloaded the cargo upon the sand.
He waited then for sounds of unloading and the noise of men grunting and cursing their duty to diminish before plucking up his courage to risk another peep through the bunghole.
This new view from his tiny window was more encouraging. His barrel seemed to be situated close by a wooden ramp, seen from below as it slanted down from the top of his peephole. This, he guessed, was the crude dock that teetered out into the bay used by Nimrood’s men. Beyond the ramp he could see a length of shoreline where waves washed in gently amid the roar of breakers farther out. A few standing rocks marked the beach, and Quentin could see from the long shadows reaching out in the bay from these stones that the sun was well down and sliding toward evening.
He could see no sailors or guards nor anything that would indicate another human presence nearby. Very well, he said to himself, wait for darkness.
Quentin had just closed up the bunghole and settled back into his curled position in the barrel when he heard a slight jingling sound— which grew steadily louder—and then the dull murmur of voices. Two men, he imagined, talking together. Then the snort of a horse and the grinding creak of a wheel upon the sand. A wagon, he thought. They’ve brought a wagon.
“Well, let’s to it, then,” one voice said, muffled through the sides of the keg. Quentin removed the cap to hear them better.
“Not so fast!” said the other voice. “The others will be along in a little. They can help.”
“But it will be dark soon. I do not fancy driving this wagon back up there in the dark. It is bad enough in the daylight.”
“Then we’ll stay the night here. What difference does it make? Don’t be so skittish.”
“Brave talk! You’ve not been here as long as I have; heard the things I’ve heard; seen the things I’ve seen. I tell you—”
“And I tell you to shut your mouth! I don’t need to hear your tales. By Zoar! You’re a weak one, you are.”
“I know things, I tell you. If I’m afeared of this place at night, it’s because I’ve seen things—”
“You’ve seen nothing that can’t be seen anywhere else. Now shut up! I don’t want to hear it.”
The other man fell to mumbling to himself after that angry exchange. Quentin could not make out the words, but he knew that he now had to think quickly. He’d been offered a new choice. Either to wait and be loaded on the wagon with the rest of the supplies, or to try making an escape now before the others returned. He replaced the cap slowly and hung for a moment in indecision: wait or go.
Quentin decided to wait. A clean entrance into the castle unsuspected would be better than floundering around outside the enemy’s lair. But just as he reached this decision, the choice was snatched from him.
“Hey!” cried one of the men at the wagon. “Something moved over there by one of the barrels.”
“There you go again! Be quiet! I’m trying to sleep,” the other snapped angrily.
“It moved, I tell you! One of the barrels moved!” the first protested.
“To Heoth with you and your moving barrel! I’ll show you there’s nothing there. Which one was it?”
Quentin heard the tread of the man shuffling through the sand, coming closer. “There, that one on the end,” pointed out the frightened worker, following the brave one.
Three steps closer. Quentin’s heart pounded loud in his ears. He imagined a drumbeat that could be heard all along the beach.
He heard the man breathing. The footsteps had stopped right beside him. He could hear the rustle of the man’s clothing as he stood looking down upon him. “There’s nothing here, by Zoar!”
“I saw something. It was here a moment ago.”
“It was no shadow. There’s something strange about these barrels.”
“Look, will you! There’s not a blasted thing here! By the gods! Do I have to open the barrels and prove it to you?”
Quentin’s heart seized in his chest as if it had been squeezed in a giant’s fist.
He heard the scrape of something heavy on the lid of the keg. They were taking off the lid.
Quentin drew his feet up underneath him and crouched.
The lid wobbled loose.
“Well, look at that,” said the worker. “This lid is hardly fastened.”
At that instant Quentin shot up out of the barrel, throwing the wooden covering into the man’s face and shouting as loud as he could.
As he came leaping out of the barrel, he caught a glimpse of the terrified worker as he turned and tumbled over himself in an effort to flee. The other, startled almost as badly by this strange, screaming creature that leaped out of barrels, fell backward in the sand, the keg lid catching him on the side of the head.
“Toli!” Quentin yelled. “Run for it! We are discovered!”
Toli, well aware of what had taken place, burst from his keg in an instant and started across the strand and into the wooded tract ahead.
The worker sitting among the barrels came to his senses as the two raced off. The other cowered beneath the wagon, his head buried in the sand. “Here come the others! Nimrood’s soldiers—they’ll get ’em,” the first cried.
Quentin glanced over his shoulder as he ran. Marching down the beach he saw a dozen soldiers, some with long spears, others with swords drawn, not far behind the two workers who were now gesturing wildly and pointing in their direction.
He turned, put his head down, and sped into the woods. “Run, Toli. Run! They’re right behind us! Lead us away from here!”
With barely a pause in midflight, Toli’s quick eyes scanned the thinly wooded area. Then, like a deer before the arrow, he was off, heading into the deeper, more thickly grown regions beyond.
It was all Quentin could do to keep up. Toli, alert and every instinct keen, was back in his own element. He seemed to flicker through the dense undergrowth effortlessly, dodging, feinting, slipping through small openings and sliding over rocks and trunks of fallen trees.
At first Quentin stumbled and fell over his own feet, sprawling, lurching, and pounding along behind. But then, by imitating Toli, by dodging where he dodged and ducking where he ducked, Quentin found the going easier. He forgot his fear and ran completely free. His head soared with the cool exhilaration of flight.
Behind them he could hear the soldiers crashing through the woods after them. They had fanned out to keep better sight of their quarry. They cursed as they came, thrashing through thickets and brush, entangling themselves in briars and low-hanging branches.
Twice Toli stopped for a brief rest, and to listen. Each time the sounds of pursuit were farther away, receding into the evening sounds of the woods.
“It will be dark soon,” said Toli. He lifted his gaze to the sky, which still held a glimmer of light. But all around them the deeper woods were sinking rapidly into darkness. Already Quentin found it difficult to tell the column of a tree trunk from its dark surroundings.
“They cannot follow us much longer . . . We seem to be losing them.” Both thoughts were questions; Quentin asked for reassurance.
“They will not catch us now,” offered Toli. “But we must keep going. We will find a place to camp tonight.” He turned and swiveled his head this way and that. He listened for the sounds of their pursuers, cocking his head to one side. “Stay close,” he said and raced off again.
This time they changed directions and began ascending the rise of a hill. The path rose steadily, and each step grew a little shorter. Toli slowed to allow for the climb but pushed steadily on.
The noises in the woods behind them died away. Quentin guessed that either the soldiers had given up or they had lost them completely.
But now Quentin trained his ear on other sounds: the sounds of the deep woods coming to life with the night. For the greens of leaves and moss, the browns of trees and earth, and the blues of shadow had merged into one confused hue. He followed Toli now with his ears instead of his eyes as he trailed blindly along.
“Oof!” Quentin went down with a grunt. He had caught his toe on a root across the path and pitched forward onto his face. Toli heard him fall and came back. “Let us stop,” suggested Quentin. “Just for a little while. It is too dark to run like this.”
“I forgot, Kenta—you do not have night eyes.” Toli stood still and turned his head, listening. Quentin heard a strange snuffling sound. Toli seemed to be smelling the air.
“This is a very bad place. We cannot stay here,” the Jher said at last. He reached down a hand and hoisted Quentin to his feet and struck off again, but slower this time.
Still the path continued to climb; then, without any sign, it descended steeply. They reached the bottom of a gorge cut into the earth by the rain. A small, turgid stream flowed nearby. Quentin could hear it. A foul-smelling mist was beginning to rise, seeping out of the ground around them, clinging to their legs in tattered wisps as they moved through its grasping tendrils.
An owl called from somewhere overhead and was answered by its mate far away. Other sounds—sly chirruping, furtive rustles in dry leaves beneath bushes as they passed, the whirr of unseen wings—crept out of the woods as the night took hold of the land.
Once Quentin heard a faint whiz in the air close by and felt a flutter on his cheek. He recoiled from the soft contact as from a blow. When he reached his hand up to feel where the touch occurred, his cheek was wet with a sticky substance. He wiped it off with a grimace and trudged on.
The malodorous mist thickened and rose higher, swirling in eddies upon the pools of air. Quentin imagined that it dragged at his legs as if to hold him back. He could no longer see his feet below him.
He followed Toli, who seemed to take no unusual notice of all that went on around him, with a fragile resolve. He longed to turn aside from this wretched path and climb again into the woods.
But he moved on.
His foot struck a rotting limb, which snapped with a hollow crack that seemed to fill the gorge. Suddenly, from right beneath his feet, a wild shape came screaming up at him: white and formless as the mist and screeching in long, ringing cries that echoed through the woods. It flew straight up at him, and Quentin threw his hands in front of his face as the creature lunged at him. But at the moment of collision, Quentin felt nothing. He parted his hands to see the white wings of a bird lifting away into the gorge ahead.
“Toli, is there no better trail we can follow?”
Toli stopped and looked around, gauging the distance they had come. “Soon we will leave this path. Only a little farther.”
True to his word, in a short while Toli led them up a steep, vine-covered bank. They climbed out at a murky juncture where a small stream through the woods emptied into the gorge in a sickly trickle that dripped fetid water over stones slimy with black moss.
Quentin slipped, losing his footing in the muck. He caught himself and grimly dug in, pulling himself up by handfuls of weeds.
Then at last they were out of the gorge and standing on a broad level space rimmed in by trees. Behind them, the gorge, with its stinking mist; before them, a densely wooded hill.
Without a word Toli began the long climb up the hill. Quentin fell in mutely behind him. It was no use to ask where they were going or why. Toli would have his reasons, and anyway, Quentin had nothing better to suggest.
They had walked freely for several hours, the dark trees closing out the deeper darkness beyond, when Quentin saw something that startled him, though he did not know why.
He said nothing about it but walked on, his eyes fastened on the spot far up ahead on the hill above where he had seen this thing. Presently, he saw it again. Just a wink.
He bobbed his head and saw it again—a thin glowing in the air far up ahead. He bobbed his head, and it blinked. It flickered and danced and seemed to move away even as he approached.
The path mounted steadily upward, and soon Quentin was certain he was not seeing a ghost. “See there.” He pointed through the crowding branches. “Up ahead. Something glowing.”
In ten more steps he knew what it was: a fire. Someone had built a campfire.
They approached the campfire cautiously. Toli was all for skirting the area entirely, but Quentin felt differently; he wanted to investigate. So they crept in close, moving slowly with infinite care, making not the slightest sound.
After an hour’s aching crawl, they were right next to the cozy little camp, just beyond the circle of light. They watched and waited. There was no one anywhere to be seen. Whoever had started the fire was not around.
Toli shook his head. “Not here. The fire is too small for all of them.”
They heard the warning tread too late.
From behind them on the path came a rustle and a heavy footfall. Then suddenly a huge shape was upon them, forcing them forward. Toli dived to one side, but Quentin was caught and thrown forward into the camp. The monster roared, as if in pain, and Quentin went down as numerous blows rained down on him.
He twisted under the blows, his head close to the fire. He saw a flash streak by him—a face. And then a voice said, “Stay where you are!”
The command was stern and evenly spoken. There was a trace of fright, but that vanished quickly. Quentin slowly raised his eyes to meet the bulky form of a large man towering over him, with what appeared to be a club raised in his hand.
Quentin was struck by something that seemed somehow familiar about this imposing figure who stood over him and threatened to dash out his brains with the club.
He peered up again and sought the face, which wavered uncertainly in the light of the dancing flames.
Impossible! he thought. It cannot be! But he reflected in the same instant that encountering a ghost in this inhuman place was far from impossible; it was to be expected. Following hard upon that observation, so as to be almost one and the same thought, Quentin remembered that shades did not carry clubs or strike their victims, as far as he knew.
But the face . . . There was something very familiar about that face. He had seen it somewhere before. In another place long ago.
Then it came to him. He struggled with the memory, thrust in front of him; he fought to disbelieve it. But the recognition remained, though Quentin was far from certain.
“Ronsard?” he said softly, his voice quaking.
He heard nothing for a heartbeat but the crackle of the fire.
The man dropped to his knees beside him, bent his face toward Quentin’s. He reached out a shaking hand.
“Ronsard, is that you?”