I am Ronsard,” replied the man kneeling by the fire. “Who is it that knows my name in this forsaken place?” He spoke gently. But Quentin could see now, as he bent closer to the fire, the same angular features, the same jut of the jaw that told of strength and purpose. Yet the knight seemed tired and worn. Heavy lines of fatigue were drawn at the corners of his mouth and etched around his eyes.
“Do you not know me?” answered Quentin. “I am Quentin, the acolyte. You gave me the message for the queen . . .”
The knight’s face was suddenly transformed by a vigorous grin that banished the care and worry and sparked a light within his eyes.
“Can it be? Quentin . . . ? Yes, I remember . . . but how?” The questions came fast as the great knight, struck almost speechless, sought to make sense out of this apparent miracle.
“Come out, Toli,” Quentin called. He knew his friend was lurking close at hand, out of sight, ready to spring forth in an instant.
The thickets parted, and Toli stepped in to stand by Quentin. “All is well. This is Ronsard—the knight I told you about.”
“The message bearer,” answered Toli in his own tongue. “Yes, and a great warrior.” Toli bowed deeply as Quentin had instructed him for occasions such as these. But the formality of the greeting in the rough setting made Ronsard smile and Quentin laugh. “Welcome, friend of the forest,” said Ronsard. “I have never met one of your race. Truth to tell, I had heard many things . . . which turn out to be untrue.”
“We are both at your service.” Quentin laughed. He felt waves of relief running over him.
“And I at yours,” said Ronsard. “So, good friends, we have much to talk about, much to discuss. First, how did you get here? Theido told me that you had been left at Dekra, gravely ill. They were worried you would not recover at all.”
Quentin then launched into an account of all they had done since Dekra, and before that, right up to the time when he had left the temple. He thought even as he spoke that it all seemed slightly incredible, as if it had happened to someone else entirely and that he, Quentin, had remained at the temple. Thinking about the temple, and speaking about it again, made him a little wistful. Still, he knew in his heart nothing remained for him there.
Ronsard listened to all patiently and yet eagerly, mulling it over in his head with a look of rapt attention. “You are a special one,” said Ronsard when all was told. “You would make a fine knight.”
Quentin blushed at his high praise. “I am only glad to see you alive and whole.”
“Alive I am. Whole I shall be—and soon. I feel stronger every day. If it weren’t for shipwrecks and kidnapping, I would be as hale as I ever was.” Ronsard went on to tell how he had been snatched from the temple by Pyggin and his crew of scallywags right out of Biorkis’s healing hands. “I had been there some time and was just beginning to mend when they took me. The temple guards were no match for swordsmen; they scarce put up a fight, and I could not defend myself. I was thrust into a wagon and near jostled to death from Narramoor to Bestou, where their ship waited.
“How they managed to find Theido and Durwin and the others was an odd piece of luck—though I was grateful for the company.” He explained about the storm and the shipwreck and his lonely vigil on the island.
“And tonight I meet once more my friend from the temple.” Ronsard laughed. “To tell the truth, I thought I would never see you again—I was certain my message had miscarried. But it appears the gods have bound our fates together.”
Toli, listening to their speech, pieced together as best he could a vague idea of what they said. But at last he grew tired and, yawning, put his head down and curled up close to the fire and went to sleep.
“Yes, I am for sleep myself,” said Ronsard. “I was just collecting firewood to last through the night when I bumped into you on the trail. I did not see or hear you until I nearly fell over you—scattered all my firewood.”
“Was that it?” Quentin remembered being struck many times as he fell to the ground. “We did not hear you either, coming up behind us on the trail.”
“It bodes ill to let anyone know you are astir on this island. It is a strange place, far from safe.”
Quentin nodded. “What about the others?” He had been aching to ask that question all night but had not dared to. The thought shocked him back to the present and the task at hand.
“We will discuss that tomorrow in the clear light of day.” With that Ronsard yawned and laid himself down to rest.
“Good night.” Quentin paused and added softly, “I am very glad to have found you again.”
“No more than I. Sleep well.”
It was obvious as soon as Quentin opened his eyes that Toli had been up with the dawn, and probably before. Arranged around the campfire were leaf baskets full of berries and several kinds of edible roots that had been washed and neatly stacked. Over the fire two scrawny rabbits, skinned and spitted, roasted merrily away, neatly done. And, wonder of wonders, oozing out its golden nectar upon a fresh mat of leaves: a honeycomb.
“It seems your friend has made us a breakfast,” observed Ronsard.
Quentin rubbed his eyes sleepily and sat up. “So I see. Where is he?”
Just then Toli, balancing three oblong green objects in one hand and three apples in the other, stepped into the camp.
“Here is water,” he said, handing round cupfuls of clear, sparkling water in vessels he had made of large leaves, folded. He then swiftly attended to the rabbits.
They ate as if they had never seen food before, cramming their mouths full and savoring every bite. The honey, saved for last, drew the utmost commendation for Toli’s woodcraft. “Never have I feasted in the wild this well,” said Ronsard. “My strength returns on eagle’s wings. And I may well need it. Today we must go up to Nimrood’s nest.”
Quentin had forgotten all about Nimrood, or had shut the black wizard out of his mind. The mention of the black lord’s name sent an icy chill through his heart.
“Is the castle far from here?”
“It is of a distance, yes—though not more than a league or two, as the crow flies. It is on the top of a mountain, and there will be much climbing to reach it. The way is well marked, however. I have seen that much.”
“Then let us be off,” said Quentin. Toli was already on his feet, having doused the fire and scattered the ashes, removing any sign that they had been there.
They struck out along the path Quentin and Toli had followed the night before. In a short while it descended again and joined a wider way. This road bore the signs of recent use: footprints of soldiers going both ways, wheel marks of wagons, and hoofprints.
“I will send Toli ahead,” Quentin offered, “to watch for anyone coming this way. The trees are so close here that we would run smack into them before he could see them coming.”
“A good idea. I will keep a watch behind, though I do not think we will have to worry much for being chased.”
In this way they covered the distance quickly, reaching the mountain summit as the sun climbed toward midday. Then, as they rounded a last upward curve, Kazakh, the sorcerer’s castle, swung into view.
“There it is.” Ronsard shaded his eyes with his hand and took in the sight. “And a more miserable pile I never want to see.”
Quentin gazed upon it with the same dread fascination he would have felt in watching a deadly snake wreathe itself on a nearby rock. “It is awful,” he said at length.
Toli ducked back around the corner of a bluff covered with a heavy tangle of vines. “The evil one’s warriors come from the castle,” he told Quentin. Quentin translated for Ronsard.
“Let us get off the road and see what they are up to.” Ronsard leaped into the undergrowth beside the road, and Quentin found a well-covered place beside him that afforded a perfect view of the road.
There was a rustle beside him and then a rip, as of a branch being torn away. Quentin turned just in time to see Toli hopping back onto the road with a fern branch in his hand. He was wiping out the tracks where they had stood talking together in the trail. “Your friend leaves nothing to chance,” whispered Ronsard. “He is both cunning and quick. I like him.”
“The soldiers must be very close now.” Quentin fought down the impulse to yell at Toli, to warn him, but he resisted for fear that the soldiers would hear. He bit his lip as he heard the tramp of many feet in the dust and the jingle of a horse’s tack.
Then Toli was beside him again, and a second later the first soldier appeared on the road. He was riding a black horse, and as he turned in the saddle to call a command back over his shoulder to his men, Quentin saw a raking scar that seemed to divide the man’s face in two.
“Him I have seen before,” whispered Ronsard. “On the beach.” Following the horsemen came a horse-drawn wagon with high sides, and behind that a small force of perhaps forty men. The whole procession shuffled along carelessly. Two soldiers rode in the back of the wagon, with their feet hanging out.
“Undisciplined,” breathed Ronsard. “Cocky.”
“They are looking for us.” Quentin watched the company pass and remembered his fear of the day before.
“How do you know?”
“We were discovered on the beach last night and escaped into the woods.”
The soldiers moved off down the road at a leisurely pace. When they had gone, Ronsard waited a few minutes and, when no one else appeared, took the road again.
They came quickly to the long, winding road across the ridge. Ronsard, standing in the last of the protection offered by the trees, said, “I don’t like this at all. We will be seen the moment we set foot on the road.”
Ronsard studied the terrain carefully, measuring and appraising the distance to the foul lord’s den. “There is no other approach to the castle that I can detect.” He turned to Quentin and Toli. “We have two choices —wait until darkness can hide us, or go boldly in daylight and take the chance.”
“If we wait, the soldiers may come back. I would not like to be discovered in there creeping about by night.” Quentin shivered at the thought.
“Well said. And I would not wish to wait a moment longer to be free of that place if I were captive there,” Ronsard said. “That settles it, then. We go at once.”
Quentin’s hand sought the dagger at his belt. He clutched it as he hurried off to catch Ronsard, who was already striding toward the ridge.
“Well, so far, so good. Not a guard or watchman in sight,” observed the knight.
They were crouched in the shadow of one of the mighty drawbridge’s stone pylons at the end of the road where the bridge spanned the gulf between the castle and the ridge. There were two pylons, one at each side of the road, like the posts of a huge gate. Stone griffins smirked atop each pylon.
Sliding his head cautiously around the corner of the post, Quentin could see the black tunnel of the gatehouse across the bridge. It was, as near as he could tell, quite empty.
“No guards inside, either,” he reported.
“Then let us begin!” said Ronsard. “We may not have a better chance.”
Quentin wanted to protest. They should, after all, have a plan of some sort, he thought. That was the way to do it, not rushing in like this, unprepared. Who knew what they might encounter? Nimrood himself might be waiting for them as soon as they crossed the bridge.
But Ronsard was already away and dashing across the drawbridge. Toli, like a shadow, flew right behind. Quentin, in order to keep from being left behind, scrambled across too.
They inched their way through the gatehouse tunnel and peered into the courtyard beyond when they had reached the end. “No one about,” said Ronsard. “Strange.” He wrinkled his nose. “What is that smell?”
A slightly acrid odor could be detected over the dark mustiness of the gatehouse tunnel. It seemed to be coming from the courtyard beyond.
“Well, stay close. Here we go.” Ronsard darted out of the mouth of the tunnel and into the light. Quentin, running a few steps behind him, saw the knight suddenly stop. Quentin stopped, too, wondering what had gone wrong. Had they at last been discovered? Ronsard turned, his face contorted as with agony unbearable.
“What—?” Quentin began. Then it hit him—an overpowering stench like a massive fist. He felt his gorge rising and began to choke. His knees buckled, and he went down on his hands. As tears filled his eyes, he heard Ronsard retching and Toli gasping for air.
When the waves of nausea passed, Quentin raised his head slowly to look around. The courtyard was decidedly unkempt. Weeds grew through cracks in the stone flagging; filth accumulated in every corner; stagnant water stood in troughs where flies buzzed in thick dark clouds.
“Oh . . . no . . .” Quentin heard Ronsard moan and turned his head to where the knight stood gazing at some object. Quentin could not determine what it was. He crept closer.
“The foul fiend!” cursed Ronsard, turning away.
Quentin gazed down and saw the skeletal carcasses of two horses rotting in the sun. The horses were still tethered to iron rings in the stone; they had starved to death where they stood. Birds had been at them and had torn away huge chunks from their flanks. This, then, was the source of the festering stench.
Quentin turned away and pulled Toli with him. The Jher said nothing, but his eyes had grown hard and dark as stone.
Inside the castle it was the same—deserted and reeking with neglect. Everywhere they turned some atrocity met the eye. “Stupid waste!” spat Ronsard as the three inched along. Quentin’s skin crawled; he felt dirty, as if he had been contaminated by a wasting disease. He knew himself to be in the presence of impudent, arrogant evil, and it made his blood run cold.
They continued on in silence until they reached a great stone archway at the farther end of a long, crooked corridor.
“This is odd,” said Ronsard, shaking his head in disbelief. “Where is everyone?”
“Nimrood cannot have many friends,” quipped Quentin. Ronsard regarded him with a knowing look.
“The dungeon must lie beyond.” He indicated a heavy iron-banded wooden door with an iron bolt. “Let us see.”
Ronsard tried the bolt and found that it slid easily enough, if not as quietly as he would have wished. But the door swung open readily, and they saw a spiral of stone steps circling down into the blackness below. A torch stood ready in a holder just inside the door, with a candle flickering beside it. Ronsard seized the torch and lit it with the candle, leading the way down. Quentin followed, and Toli crept along behind.
Quentin thought the stairs would never end, but presently they came to a landing that opened onto a vast chamber. Below them the chamber was filled with stores and barrels, heaps of armor, and unused swords and spears.
“He must be outfitting an army!” said Ronsard. “This is the basement. The dungeon is below.” They continued down the twisting stairs.
The steps ended at an arched entrance. Ronsard paused, handed Quentin the torch, and peered around the arch. A low, wide passage ran to the left and right, lined with cells, and ahead of them a shorter passageway ended in darkness.
Ronsard took back the torch and said, “We will have to search every cell. I will go to the left. You two go to the right.”
It didn’t take as long as it might have: every cell was empty. The three met back at the place where the corridors crossed. “There is only—” Ronsard stopped short. “Listen!”
Footsteps could be heard slapping along just around the corner of the arch. Then a voice called out, “Euric! Is that you? Bring your torch, man! Euric!”
For two heartbeats Quentin stood frozen to the spot, then threw himself against the wall. Ronsard placed a finger to his lips and winked. Then, just before the man turned the corner, Ronsard stepped into his path and, holding the torch high, swung his other fist into the man’s face. The man went down and out cold. He never knew what, or who, had hit him.
“Must be the jailer,” offered Quentin, pointing to the large truncheon that hung by a leather thong at the man’s belt and next to it an iron ring with an assortment of keys.
“Yes, we are in luck,” said Ronsard, already lifting the man below the arms and dragging him into the nearest empty cell. “Now come along. The way should be clear.”
They dashed quickly and quietly down the shorter corridor ahead and descended the stone steps.
The narrow iron door was heavily locked; the bolt had been thrown and a great iron lock attached. The captives inside heard the fleeting steps in the passageway and then the scrape of a key in the lock, and then another, and others, and suddenly the bolt was flung back and the door heaved open.
“Ronsard!” The queen recognized him first and ran to him. “You have found us at last!”
“I knew you would come,” said Durwin. Trenn and Theido stood staring—speechless.
Then Quentin thrust his way in, followed by Toli. He stood looking down upon his friends, his eyes filling with tears.
“Quentin!” shouted Durwin. The hermit rushed toward him, his arms outstretched. The next thing Quentin knew, he was embracing Durwin as he would have embraced his own father. The others gathered around, pounding him on the back. Alinea kissed his cheek.
Everyone talked at once as the questions came tumbling out: How? When? Where? Quentin was oblivious to it all. He smeared the tears that splashed down the side of his face and considered this to be the sweetest meeting he had ever had.
It was a moment he would keep forever.