Escape from Nimrood’s castle could not have been easier or more quickly accomplished—to Quentin’s amazement. Up out of the dungeon and back through the castle corridors, across the stinking courtyard between the inner and outer curtain, into the gatehouse tunnel, and over the drawbridge to freedom.
Quentin kept expecting Nimrood to appear at any moment, to trap and imprison them or at least challenge their flight. But not a soul did they meet—though they did hear prodigious singing as they flitted past the corridor leading to the kitchens. “A revelry? Here?” questioned Ronsard.
“The snake is away,” said Durwin and explained that Nimrood had gone to attend the prince’s coronation.
“The prince? Prince Jaspin—king? Then it is even worse than I expected,” said Ronsard.
“So it is!” said Durwin.
“Well, it cannot be helped now,” said Theido. “We will have to deal with that in its time. Now we must find and free the true king.”
“Yes,” replied Ronsard. “Time for a council of war.”
They huddled under the pylons at the end of the drawbridge and discussed how best to locate and free the king. Quentin did not care much for his assignment, which was to lead the others back along the trail to where the woods joined the ridge and sheltered the road beyond. He was to wait there and offer a signal should the soldiers return before Ronsard and Theido could meet them.
“Waiting!” complained Quentin darkly to Durwin as they trudged back to the hiding place. “We have come all this way only to wait while they rescue him. It isn’t fair.”
Although he had not thought about it before, he had naturally assumed that he would be there when the king was rescued. Only now, when that prospect was denied, did he feel cheated.
“I daresay it isn’t fair at all,” sympathized Alinea. “But the queen is glad for the company of her protectors.”
“I am sorry,” blustered Quentin. “I did not mean—”
“I understand,” she said, cutting him off. “You had every right to be there. But we must all play our part as we are given it. And I am grateful, really. I could not have endured that dungeon cell a moment longer. You have rendered your queen a great service once again. I shall never forget it.”
At this Quentin brightened somewhat and took his task more seriously. But the walk back down along the ridge was uneventful, and they reached the shelter of the wood without incident. Trenn grumped along behind: he, too, was miffed at being led away with what he considered the old men, women, and children.
They stopped to wait in the small glade, off the road and well hidden but within easy sight of the dreadful castle soaring above on its crag of rock. The spot afforded a clear view of both the ridge and the road below. Each settled down, and Durwin closed his eyes and drifted promptly off to sleep.
They waited. The minutes dawdled along maddeningly. Then an hour. And another. It was too much for Quentin, who jumped out into the road at frequent intervals to see if anyone was coming. Trenn was certain something had gone wrong and that they should all go rushing back to the aid of their freshly captured comrades.
Gradually, the sun slipped lower in the afternoon sky. Quentin watched as a long caravan of clouds made its way in from the west. He had decided to give the rescuers until the last cloud had passed over the castle before going after them—against all orders to the contrary.
He was saved from this dereliction of his duties by the appearance of figures on the ridge.
“Here they come!” he fairly shouted. Toli, who had been scouting the road below, came running back, and Trenn and Alinea jumped back into the road to see.
“Yes, someone is coming, all right. But I cannot see—how many are there? Can you tell?” Trenn squinted his eyes against the sun, now shining level along the ridge.
Quentin could not see that far either, so he turned to Toli, who peered intently for a moment and then announced, “Lea nol epra. Rhunsar en Teedo.”
“He said there were only two. Ronsard and Theido. The king is not with them,” replied Quentin. “I am sorry, my lady.”
Shortly, Theido and Ronsard drew up. Theido, puffing from his run down the steep path, said between gulps of air, “He is not there. The king is gone. We searched the entire castle—even forced the chamberlain, who we caught napping, to open all the cupboards. He said they had gone, all of them, with Nimrood. Though who ‘all of them’ were, he did not know.”
“Are you certain?” cried Trenn. His anguish was real enough, and he spoke for them all. “There might be ten thousand places to hide a man up there.”
“And we searched ten thousand!” snapped Ronsard. Disappointment darkened his brow. “He was not there, I tell you.”
“Yes, you are right,” replied Durwin, who had been unusually quiet all this time. Quentin thought he had gone to sleep.
“I have been sifting the ether for a sign. I sense no trace of the king’s presence. The chamberlain, it seems, is telling the truth. The devious Nimrood has taken his prize with him. I should have guessed as much.”
“It makes sense,” Ronsard admitted grudgingly. “That is why we met with no resistance when entering the castle.”
“And none leaving,” said Theido. “Now we have to find a way off this accursed isle.”
“That, too, should not prove too difficult,” offered Quentin. “Perhaps the ship that brought Toli and me still lies in the bay.”
“Excellent! Quentin has provided us with a ship. To the beach.”
“It is not a large ship,” said Quentin apologetically.
“I don’t care if it is a bucket with oars,” crowed Theido. “As long as it takes us far away, it will suit me. Lead the way.”
Quentin and Toli led them off at once, Toli darting ahead along the trail to scout the path ahead, lest they meet the returning soldiers. But the path was clear, and by the time their shadows had grown long upon the dust of the trail, they reached the thinly wooded area rimming the bay.
“It is beyond here a little way,” whispered Quentin. “Just beyond those trees. Toli will go and see what is to be seen.” He threw Toli a quick sign, and the forest dweller vanished in the wink of an eye, melting into the dappled patches of light and dark thrown by the oncoming dusk.
In a moment he was back. He spoke a few words to Quentin while the others looked on anxiously. Quentin turned and said, “The ship is there.” Then he squelched the kindled hopes of the former captives. “But so are the soldiers. Toli says they have set up camp on the beach.”
“Strange,” Theido wondered aloud. “Why would they do that?”
“That at least is why they were not to be seen at the castle,” offered Ronsard.
“Hmph!” snorted Trenn. “How many are there? We are more than a match for them whether there are ten or one.”
“I would agree with you, but for the fact that we have no weapons.”
“The day is fading; it will be dark soon,” said Durwin. “Perhaps something will present itself between now and then.”
The fellowship settled down to await the cover of night. But no sooner had they made themselves comfortable than Durwin jumped up. “I have it! The perfect diversion!”
“Shhh! We won’t require a diversion if your shouting brings those beach rats,” snapped Trenn.
Durwin paid him no attention. He cast an eye at a patch of sky overhead. “Quickly! We have but little time. We need to gather some things.” He assigned each one an item to fetch from the woods: bark from certain trees, leaves of a certain type, stones that might be found, and other ordinary items. “Hurry now! And bring me all you find.”
By the time the sun had set, Durwin had amassed a small mountain of these raw materials. He set to work shredding and pulverizing, breaking and husking, mixing and sorting the substances into appropriate piles. As the first star of the evening appeared, he announced, “So it is! We are ready at last!
“Theido and Ronsard, creep to the edge of the wood, to the sand. Dig holes, so.” He indicated the size. “Three of them—one on each side of the path leading to the wood from the beach, and one in the center of the path.
“Quentin and Toli, each of you take some of this”—he scooped up an armload of the stuff—“and follow me. Trenn, Alinea—gather firewood and come to the edge of the beach where we will dig.”
At these words everyone leaped to action. When the holes were dug in the sand and approved by Durwin, the shallow depressions were filled with the things Durwin had requested, carefully arranged in layers with painstaking patience. Then Durwin took his leather pouch and emptied the contents over the three mounds.
On the beach, the soldiers had started a fire and were cooking an evening meal. Coarse laughter and snatches of their crude conversation drifted to where the party worked in silence under the watchful eye of Trenn, who had been posted to watch lest any of the men on the beach take it into their heads to pass into the woods.
“Now,” said Durwin, “to light it.”
“Wait a moment,” pleaded Ronsard. “Tell us what is to happen here.”
“Did I not tell you? We have created a dragon for the amusement of the soldiers yonder. It will send them screaming into the night, I assure you. Light the pyres we have made here, and then hide yourselves well away. When the soldiers scatter, make for the boat. I will join you there.”
“But where are you going?” Theido asked.
Just then Trenn sounded the alarm. “Someone is coming!”
“The dragon must have a voice!” said Durwin as he turned to hurry off into the woods.
“Wait!” Ronsard rasped, his voice a strained whisper. “We have nothing to make a fire with.”
“What?” cried Durwin with a startled expression. “Oh, very well. I suppose there are still some things I may do.”With that he stooped and removed a twig from one of the miniature pyres. He held the twig before him and raised his other hand high over his head, mumbling the words of an ancient charm with his eyes closed. He brought his hand down swiftly, and a blue spark leaped from his finger to the twig. The twig fizzled into flame.
“So it is! Light them with this at once. No time to explain. Get to the ship and cast off as soon as the way is clear.”
“Hurry!” warned Trenn. “They are getting closer. They will see us.”
Theido held the flame and lit the first pyre. “Hide, all of you! Get ready. When I give the signal, run for the boat.”
He lit the other fires and hid himself beside the trail. Raucous laughter floated up from the beach. It was quite apparent that the soldiers had helped themselves to a firkin of wine and were beginning to feel its effects. A few others had joined the first and were making their way to the woods to relieve themselves.
Quentin looked at the pyres in their dishes of sand. Nothing was happening that he could see. A few wisps of smoke drifted upward, all but invisible in the darkness that had settled over the wood.
Then, as he watched, a great bubble of smoke rose from the central pyre, followed by a bubble from each of the others. The bubble flattened and spread, snaking out over the sand toward the beach.
“Look!” said Quentin to Toli, who crouched at his shoulder. “The dragon’s breath!”
Bluish smoke now billowed from the pyres and poured onto the beach, creeping low along the ground like a mist spreading over the sand. The smoke boiled forth, lit by green fire from the burning pyre below. It writhed in curling tendrils as it stretched down along the slope of the beach reaching toward the water.
The first soldier, stumbling up the path, singing a rude ditty at the top of his lungs, stopped and peered drunkenly down at the path as the snaking smoke curled about his feet and licked at his legs. He stepped back, almost falling into the two coming up behind him. For a moment they all stood staring as the mysterious mist swirled about them, thickening, racing on.
Quentin felt it before he heard it—a low thrumming note that vibrated in his chest. He fancied the rock beside him quivered in response to the sound.
The note grew in volume, becoming louder and louder still. To it was added a shrill hiss, the sound of steam escaping from a fissure in the earth, or of a monstrous snake coiling to strike. Then all at once the woods shook with a roar. The bushes rustled as if in the wind, but there was no wind. Leaves fell from the trees.
A thrill of excitement raced along Quentin’s ribs. He turned wide-eyed to Toli, who returned his gaze with a grin. “The dragon’s roar!”
The three soldiers on the beach, at first puzzled and now alarmed, faltered and fell back. They turned as if to run but remained anchored to the spot where they stood. The singing around the fire by the shore had stopped. Several stood looking into the woods.
Again the roar. Louder this time. From somewhere back in the woods a great light flashed—a bolt of lightning out of a clear sky. In that brief flare Quentin saw the terrified faces of the men on the beach; the look of unspeakable horror that appeared magically upon each brow sent a tingle of fear through his stomach. What if there was a dragon?
The flash of light was followed by strange sounds: the weeping creak of trees snapping off at the trunk and the muffled crash as they fell to the earth.
“The gods save us!” came a cry of dismay from the shore. “The dragon is coming.”
The slithering smoke had reached the huddled knot of men on the beach. “The dragon’s breath! We’re doomed!”
Two who had been entering the woods ran screaming back to the campfire, leaving the other collapsed on his knees with his hands clamped over his ears and his eyes squeezed tight in terror. He sobbed mournfully and then pitched over, facedown in the sand.
“We’ll all be killed!” someone screamed. The horses, tethered to the back of the wagon, broke free and whinnied wild-eyed with fright, lashing out with their hooves at anyone who came near. Men began rushing to and fro upon the sand, arming themselves.
Then, from the smoking pyres, a weird glow went up, bathing the scene in a lurid green cast. The roar sounded again, rattling the branches overhead and, Quentin was certain of it this time, shaking the rocks in the earth. He cast a timid glance over his shoulder and fancied that he saw the huge black shape of a nameless dread moving through the deep shadow of the woods. The rending of trees and the crush of the undergrowth increased. The stench of burning sulfur filled the air.
The pyres, casting an eerie hue over all, now suddenly erupted in a shower of sparks and tiny cinders, becoming fountains of sparkling flame.
The soldiers, scattered and confused, shrieked as one. The horses bolted and ran down the beach. In an instant of hesitation, the men dropped their weapons and melted away, some to flounder in the ocean, calling for the waves to cover them. Others streaked away along the strand to hide among the rocks. Within the space of three heartbeats, there was not a man to be seen upon the beach save the soldiers who had collapsed in the sand.
“Move out!” cried Theido. Quentin found that when the call came, his legs were already moving as fast as they would go down the beach to the water’s edge.
He threw himself up the rickety wooden ramp and over the rail of the small ship. He floundered across the deck to the mooring rope, which he struggled to unloose from its post. He did not look up when he felt Toli’s hands upon the rope, working feverishly with his own.
“Are all on board?” called Theido.
Ronsard, standing at the bottom of the ramp, his arms holding a load of swords and a shield or two, hollered back, “I cannot see Durwin. He must be coming . . .”
Quentin glanced back up the strand toward the woods. In the green glare of the smoking pyres, he imagined he saw the great shape of a black dragon lumbering into the clearing. Two great circles of eyes burned into the night. Once more the water-freezing roar thundered. And then, inexplicably, Durwin emerged from the smoke, dancing down the path to the boat.