Quentin had slept but little, and that had been restive. He had tossed and rolled in his sleep as in a fever. He heard voices call his name, and when he awoke and sat up, the voices vanished, leaving only the splash of the prow slicing the waves.
He soon despaired of getting any rest and went to sit beside Durwin at the helm. “Steering by the stars is not difficult when you learn the knack,” Durwin replied to Quentin’s question. “Like everything else, it is all in knowing what to look for.”
“Was there really a dragon on that beach tonight? I mean, I saw something. I cannot say what it was.”
“It was an illusion. A vapor. Nothing more.”
“Only that? But the terrible roaring, the lights, the smell.” Quentin wrinkled up his nose at the memory of it. “How did you accomplish that?”
“As I said before—there are a few things a former wizard may do who has laid aside his power. It is permitted for me to intercede for good in times of need, but even then there is a price. Power always exacts its price. No, my greater powers are beyond my reach forever now, and it is for the best that I put them off.”
Quentin was silent for a time considering this. When he spoke again, he asked, “Why did you?”
“Lay aside my power? Very simple; a man may not serve two masters. The Power is a terrible master. It demands nothing less than the whole of your life.”
“Who is the other master?”
“That you already know. The other is the Most High God, the One. He demands your life as well. But in him there is life, rather than death—which is where the Power always leads in the end.”
“Cannot the Power be used for good? Like tonight on the beach?”
“Ah, yes. But that was only a very little power, that. The temptation is to use more and more, to give more and more of yourself to its mastery. But though you wield it, the Power is still your master. There can be no end but slavery and death. Sooner or later it destroys whatever it touches.”
“Will it destroy you?” Quentin hated the thought, but he had to know.
Durwin laughed softly. “Who knows? Perhaps.”
“But you said you had given it up.”
“So I have. But the Power was strong in me for many years. I used it as I desired for my own ends, and as I said, the Power exacts its price. I would have taken it again at Dekra, but wiser heads than mine counseled against this. They saw that even though a kingdom fell, it was not worth a soul. Even such a sorry soul as mine!” He laughed again.
“But if you have put it aside, how can it harm you?”
“Who is to say? Tonight on the beach I used but a remnant of my former abilities. Already I feel the urge to use more—it eats at your soul until there is nothing left. But the god is jealous. I have given over much that could have been his. Who is to say what I could have become if I had not wasted so much in the pursuit of the black arts.” Though Durwin spoke without sadness, Quentin thought he could sense a longing in the hermit’s voice. A longing for something once lost and never again to be recovered.
“Now you, for example,” Durwin continued. He held the tiller in his hand and rested both easily across his knee as he spoke. “You have the best opportunity—you are still young. For me it is too late.”
This saddened Quentin, but he knew what the hermit meant. “I know about the god,” he said. “The One.”
“Do you? How?”
“I met him in a vision. At Dekra. I received the Blessing of the Ariga from Yeseph and the elders. It was the night before we left.”
“Tell me about it.”
Quentin related all that had happened to him at Dekra, culminating in the ceremony of the blessing. Durwin listened to Quentin’s story with full attention, nodding and making sounds of agreement.
Quentin entered a second time into the feeling he had experienced that night. So long ago it seemed now. He described the Man of Light and the words he had spoken. “‘Your arm will be righteousness and your hand justice,’” quoted Quentin. In a sudden vivid flash, he entered again into the spirit of his vision. “‘I will be your strength and the light at your feet . . . Forsake me not and I will give you peace forever.’”
“So it is,” breathed Durwin at last. “You have seen him. Now you know. Any who truly meet him cannot go back to the way they were before.”
“Do you see him often?”
“I have never seen him,” answered Durwin simply.
“Never?” This shocked Quentin. He had assumed the hermit, of all people, to be on the most intimate terms with the Most High One.
“No, never. But I did not need to see him to know of his presence, to learn his ways. It is enough for me that he has accepted me to be his servant. I am content.”
“But I thought . . . You know so much about him.”
“I suppose I do—know about him. He gives each man a special task in life and a blessing to carry it out. You have been chosen for a great work, and yours is a special blessing. He has never appeared to me. Yes, yours is a Blessing of Power, as Yeseph would say.”
Quentin was dumbfounded. Durwin had never seen the god he served so faithfully. Durwin’s words echoed in his mind: It is enough . . . I am content.
Quentin wrapped himself in these thoughts. He stirred only when he heard the creak of footsteps coming up beside him. “You two must get some sleep before this night is through,” said Theido. “I will take over now. Go and get some rest. It will be morning soon, and we will enter the port of Valdai at midday.” He laughed. “That is, if this dragon-slaying hermit has not steered us out to sea.”
“Keep her bow aligned with that lowest star—that is our port star—and the moon over your right shoulder as it descends. That will bring us to our destination. Good night.”
Three great ships dwarfed the harbor at Valdai. Warships, Ronsard said, though who they belonged to he could not tell; they were still too far out to see anything but the tall masts and wide hulls silhouetted against the hazy background of the port. But Ronsard and Trenn hung eagerly over the side of the ship, anxiously watching for the first symbol to present itself: a pennon, a banner, some insignia of color or shape they could recognize.
“King Selric!” shouted Ronsard as they at last drew near enough to make out the flag that flew from the topmost mast. “That is his battle sign. I know it as well as my own.”
“Aye, it looks to be Selric’s,” affirmed Trenn. “How long has it been since I’ve heard that name?”
“What do you think?” asked Theido. “The first of the returning armies?”
“Yes, yes! I had nearly forgotten,” shouted Ronsard jubilantly. Quentin, though he did not know why, was seized by the same spirit of elation that swept through his comrades. He watched as their small ship came about and entered the mouth of the harbor and drifted to its mooring place. Alongside the mighty warships, their tiny vessel with the black sails seemed like a clumsy toy. Quentin gawked openly at the huge hull and at the towering masts. He had never seen anything in the water so big. And there were three of them, each an exact copy of the other, showing in every bold and graceful line the strength and prowess of their owner.
“How long have they been here?” asked Theido.
“Not long, I think,” replied Ronsard. “They could not have been here when Quentin was here. He would have remembered.” Quentin nodded his agreement.
“Aye, not long indeed!” shouted Trenn. “Look! The wherries are still unloading men. Selric’s army is going ashore.” He waved an arm, and those at the rail saw that he was right. The long rowing boats were still carrying soldiers to the wharf as the last ship was being unloaded.
“If I know Selric,” cried Ronsard, “that is where he will be!” He nodded at the farthest ship. “He will be aboard until the last man has gone ashore. A commander to the end.”
They made straight for Selric’s ship. And they found him, as Ronsard had predicted, watching over the disembarkation of his men from the taffrail of his ship. Upon seeing Theido, Ronsard, and the queen, he dashed down the ship’s ladder himself to welcome them aboard. At a word from Alinea, he invited them to join him in a conference in his personal quarters. There Alinea told him the story of Jaspin’s treachery and the king’s distress.
Although no one had spoken it aloud, all assumed that Selric would be sympathetic to their plight. He was very much more than sympathetic. Selric, king of Drin, was beside himself with fury when he learned what had taken place while he and his armies endured the winter on the coast of Pelagia, waiting for the first fair winds of spring to sail for home.
“The impudent rogue!” Selric shouted, smacking his fist into his outstretched palm as he paced about the commander’s quarters aboard ship. “His ambition has raced far ahead of his ability. This will cost him his head if I have anything to do with it!”
“Then you will help us, my lord?” asked Alinea.
“Help you! Of course I will help you, by all the gods of earth and sky!” Selric swore. The color had risen to his cheeks, matching his fiery red hair and inflaming his legendary temper.
He continued, pacing furiously all the while. “Do you not know that Eskevar saved my life and the lives of my men many more times than I care to remember? Not a man among us would stand idle while the king needed help.”
Quentin watched the drama intently. Selric was the first king he had ever seen. He was fascinated by this slim, commanding figure with the shocking red hair, who absolutely burst with restless energy. Selric could not remain still for an instant. Even when he was sitting, which he seldom did, his hands were reaching, gesturing; and all the while his eyes darted everywhere, never missing any detail, no matter how trivial.
Now Selric was an angry lion on the prowl. Quentin shuddered within, wondering what it would be like to face this intense commander.
“When can we leave?” asked Theido.
“Why—at once! We will leave at once! Tonight!”
“But your men have only just gone ashore,” observed Ronsard.
“Bah!” Selric snorted. “They have been ashore all winter! I will send my trumpeters to sound the call at once!”
The king moved to the door in two long strides. “Kellaris!” he called. Instantly a tall man with a deeply pockmarked face appeared at the door. He bent his head and entered the crowded quarters of his king.
“At your service, Sire,” he said, bowing with but a slight tilt of the head.
“Kellaris, I have just received dire news. Send trumpeters ashore to sound the rally call throughout the town. We must board the men as soon as may be. I will explain later. Bring me word when all is ready.”
“As you will, my lord.” Again the tilt of the head, and Kellaris was gone.
Quentin leaned close to Toli and whispered in his ear. Toli nodded, and both left the room unnoticed by the others, who turned again to discussing what lay ahead.