We should have done something,” insisted Quentin. “It was not right to let them die; we could have helped. We should have done something.”
“We did,” said Alinea gently. “We trusted Durwin.”
“But you did not hear it! Horrible! The cries of men . . .”
Quentin had found the queen emerging from the cabin below deck. Though her voice was strong and soothing, he could see by her red-rimmed eyes that she had been as much affected by the ordeal as anyone, though she had chosen to endure it alone in her quarters.
“Durwin had a reason for what he did; I doubt it not. Come, would you like to rest for a while?” Alinea had turned, about to usher Quentin to her own quarters where he might rest and relieve his troubled mind of its burden. “You need sleep.”
Quentin nodded as one in a trance. His limbs wore leaden weights, and his eyes burned in his head. Sleep. The word sounded so peaceful. Still, he wondered if any of them would find peace again. It had been so long since he had had any real rest, and sleep had become a torrent of dreams and half-real horrors.
But as he stepped across the threshold and started down to the cabin below, he heard the helmsman call out, “Clear way ahead! Clear way!”
He turned and saw the fog struggling in tatters, driven before a fresh wind. Stepping back on deck, he raised his eyes toward the heavens and could see the thinning vapors receding as if some giant hand were drawing aside a veil.
Overhead the stars shimmered merrily, and Quentin thought he had never seen them burn more brightly. Now the ship plowed through the last bank of trailing mist, and suddenly they were free.
Quentin filled his lungs with sweet, fresh air. He could not stop himself from grasping the queen’s hand and squeezing it hard as he fairly danced with joy. “The fog is gone!” he cried. “We are free!”
There was not a happier person on deck the next morning than Quentin himself. The hideous events of the day before had been wiped away with a solid night’s sleep and now, in the clear light of a crystalline day, seemed remote and unreal—shadows only. Dreams of a tired mind, he thought. And yet he knew it had happened.
The most surprising revelation, and the one that cheered him most, took place the moment he climbed on deck. He could not believe his eyes when, as he scanned the blue horizon, noting the few frothy white clouds puffing their way across the sun-washed dome of the sky, he fastened on the most remarkable sight: two ships trailing out behind them. King Selric’s ships.
For an explanation of this miracle, he ran to Durwin, whom he found at the taffrail over the stern, placidly meditating as he gazed out to sea.
“So it is! As you see, no ships were lost last night,” he replied to Quentin’s inquiry.
“But I heard it. The wreck, the pleas for help, the breaking timbers. I heard it all. Everyone did.”
“Yes, I should say we did. But, as the fog itself and the absurd screams, the shipwreck was sorcery. It was no doubt meant to draw us away from our course, to confuse us and bring about a real collision. If we had turned aside, we would have struck one of the other ships.”
“There was no wreck, and no rocks either.”
“Does that surprise you? Why were you so ready to believe the fog a work of magic, and the voices, but not the shipwreck?”
“That was different somehow—more subtle. It seemed so real.”
“And so did the dragon on the beach, to the soldiers.” Durwin smiled mysteriously. “Much lies in the willingness to believe.”
“I am sorry,” said Quentin abruptly after considering the sorcery at length.
“Sorry? Why should you be sorry?”
“I thought you were . . .” Quentin couldn’t make himself say it.
“You thought I was hard-hearted—not turning back after the drowning men. For a moment you thought me as loathsome as Nimrood ever was. So?”
Quentin nodded, avoiding Durwin’s eyes.
“Bah! Think nothing of it. You were right to want to help.”
“How did you know? How did you know it was sorcery?”
“I had a presentiment—a wizard can tell wizardry. It would be like Nimrood to throw something like that in our path. I trusted my heart to tell me the rest.”
“Then you did not know, not for certain.”
“No, not for certain. There is very little for certain in this world. But, Quentin, you must learn to trust that small voice inside you, to stop and listen. The god leads by such hunches and nudges. Very rarely by direct command.”
Quentin went away pondering Durwin’s words. So much to learn. This god was very different from those he knew well, who spoke in riddles, surely, but at least spoke in understandable words—and in signs, omens, and tokens. Not in nudges and vague hunches. At least when you received an oracle, there was something to point to.
But even as he held this thought, he remembered all the times in the temple when he had seen a priest give a hopeful pilgrim a false oracle, having fabricated it only moments before. Yes, he thought ruefully, very little was certain. Then he remembered Alinea’s words of comfort: We did. We trusted . . . Trust, then, was something one could do, no matter how one felt.
The rest of the day passed uneventfully. As did the next and the next, and the one after. More and more, Quentin felt that all that had happened to him since leaving the temple had been a dream or had happened to someone else. But he knew, from the firm feel of the deck beneath his feet, that it was all very real.
As time wore on and the ship plowed a wide furrow through many leagues of the sea, Quentin drifted into a moody humor. He alternated on a shifting course, rising to lofty lighthearted heights for the moment, then plunging into dark troughs of contemplation in which he imagined a host of horrors yet to face. Too soon the flights of gladness dwindled.
Though he did not know what to expect when they reached Askelon, Quentin guessed it would be unpleasant and, more than likely, deadly as well. Nimrood’s power had been defied thus far. Soon they would have to face him; the very thought filled him with ominous foreboding.
Toli followed him around the deck, a mute companion; the devoted Jher had given up trying to interest his master in any activity that might soothe Quentin’s troubled spirit. For as soon as they would contrive a moment’s respite, Quentin would lapse again into melancholy.
At last a faint, reddish-brown smudge on the horizon let them know that Mensandor lay ahead. Despite the fog, in which direction had become meaningless, they were right on course and had made remarkable time. The close navigation of the Seven Mystic Isles had proved again the truth of the proverb “The men of Drin are born of the sea.”
In the council of war that followed the sighting of land, it was decided that rather than landing and making the journey from Lindalia to Askelon afoot or continuing on around the peninsula and striking from Hinsenby, the best and most daring plan, and therefore the most unsuspected, would be not to land at all. They would come inland by ship up the wide sluggish west branch of the lazy Wilst.
“Can such a thing be done?” Theido asked. They sat in the king’s quarters, staring at a large map painted upon a parchment. Each face was blank under the pressure of heavy thought.
“By ordinary seamen, no. But with my sailors it is possible. My ships, though large and wide of hull, are shallow keeled. They are warships, after all. One never knows in war what will be required; there are times when river travel becomes necessary.”
“I will vouch for the skill of his sailors and the craft of his shipwrights,” said Ronsard. “I have seen much in the wars against Gorr to recommend them. There are none better.”
“So it is! We shall head inland along the river from Lindalia. But can we make the fork where the Wilst joins the Herwydd? If not, it would be better, though it would take time, to sail around and come up from Hinsenby.”
“I am confident it can be accomplished,” assured Selric.
“Yes,” offered Theido. “I know that region well. The Herwydd is old and deep. Where it joins the Wilst the waters have carved out a broad cleft. High cliffs rise up on either side. The waters mingle here”—he traced the route on the map—“stirred by deep currents. If we have no trouble reaching the fork, we will have no trouble after.”
Quentin, curled in a corner, said nothing, though it pleased him that at last something was being done, if only more talk and planning.
With every hour the coast of Mensandor became clearer and more distinct. The approach of land lifted his spirits, as did the council, but he still experienced great shudders of dread as he contemplated what lay ahead. In his mind’s eye he could see nothing but blood and doom; the clash of sword against sword; fire, pain, and death.
“Stop your whining! You are king—act like it!”
Nimrood waved a long, bony finger in Jaspin’s face. Jaspin cringed and fell back once more onto his throne.
Jaspin whimpered sullenly. “This would never have happened if—”
“You do not sit in judgment over me! It was that blasted holy man— Durwin. He ruined my spell. And he shall pay for it; you will see how he squirms. They will all squirm. They will wish they had gone to their graves at the bottom of the sea.”
Nimrood, his wild hair streaming, flew about Jaspin’s throne room in a maddened frenzy. He seethed and boiled, his temper finding imperfect vent in Jaspin’s spineless blubbering.
All at once he stopped and glowered at Jaspin, who returned the wilting glare with fearful, hooded eyes, not daring to look the angry wizard full in the face.
“What? Why do you look at me so? Stop it! I don’t like it!” bawled Jaspin. He shifted uneasily in his seat, hands gripping the arms of his golden throne.
“Let them come,” purred Nimrood. A snaky smile slid across his lips. His black eyes crackled with fire.
“What?” Jaspin was almost afraid to ask.
“Let them come. If we cannot stop them with magic, we will stop them with force. You, King Jackal! How many men do you have?”
“Why, only three thousand or so . . .”
“How many knights among them?”
“Forty, fifty, maybe more. I have not attended to details yet; there has been no time for—”
“Enough!” The malevolent sorcerer had begun pacing again. He called the questions over his shoulder. “How many nobles have you in your pocket?”
“A dozen could be persuaded, now that I am king,” Jaspin boasted.
“Save your idle vanity—it wearies me.” Nimrood crossed his arms over his chest and came to stand before Jaspin. “Now we have three days to marshal our forces. Gather your nobles and all their men-at-arms. We must have sufficient strength to crush them quickly.” He clutched up a large green apple from a bowl of fruit on a nearby table and raised it with his gnarled fist into the air. He squeezed it, and to Jaspin’s astonishment, the apple exploded into yellow flames. In moments ashes drifted down like snowflakes.
“Ha, ha! You see how it is!” The sorcerer dashed a shriveled, blackened cinder, all that remained of the shining apple, to the floor.
Jaspin had been doing some rapid calculating. “That would be over ten thousand men—knights and footmen. It cannot be done. There is not enough time.”
“It will be done!”
“But who would command such a force? I do not believe I—”
“No, not you, my worm. I have a commander at the ready. He has only to join my immortal Legion.”
At the word a ghostly pallor tinged Jaspin’s slack features; his flesh became mealy. “Not the Legion of the Dead; there is no need for that.”
“Silence! We will do this my way this time, and there will be an end. If I were to leave it to you, you would bungle it again.” The wicked wizard fixed Jaspin with his slithering smile.
“Yes, my little poppet,” Nimrood said, chuckling menacingly. “This time there will be an end.”