By nightfall the three warships had reached the ruddy coastline of Mensandor. The reddish color came from the rock cliffs rising abruptly from the strand on each side of the turgid Wilst. The smooth, red sandstone bluffs glimmered scarlet in the dying light as the chattering calls of gulls and terns echoed among the cliffs.
They anchored for the night just off the large triangular crag guarding the mouth of the river. The crag, Carthwait, or “the Guardian,” stood sentinel—a soldier standing eternal watch and providing refuge for countless seabirds. Around its base the dusky waters of the Wilst stained the green of the sea—called Gerfallon by the earliest inhabitants of the region.
The next day saw the ships slowly making their way upriver under the stares of the curious townspeople of Lindalia, who had come to see the spectacle of three warships pulling themselves along the cliffs by the straining muscles of the oarsmen.
By the end of the second day, Selric’s navy had reached the fork Durwin had described. They found it to be as Theido had said: the commingling waters of the two mighty branches had carved out a hollow bowl, rimmed around by high palisades. Plunging over the brink of these steep banks in green profusion, vines and vegetation splashed down like leafy waterfalls to trail away in the current.
One by one the ships turned into the deeper waters, shipped oars, and were carried along in the flow. Silently, along the wide expanse of the Herwydd, the invaders descended toward the plains. A calm hung over all—almost invisible—like the honeyed light filtering down upon them from above.
Gradually, league by winding league, the high banks receded back into the land from which they had sprung. The ships, keeping to the deep center channel of the Herwydd, passed in silence along far slopes crowded with trees. Occasionally, they slid by a cluster of rude huts where peasants peered fearfully out of darkened doorways while spotted mongrels barked their defiance from the shore.
To Quentin, time seemed to pass as a vision as he stood on deck, detached, watching the world wend away, feeling nothing in particular. The dull, aching dread had settled into a vague anticipation. He was being propelled toward something. Something he knew but could not name. He would catch glimpses of it in the way the light moved upon the water or through the trees. Golden light and silver-blue shadow. Darkness. Always darkness at the end.
He thought to watch for an omen, but he had given up reading portents. Or had he? He did not remember it as a conscious decision, but he could not think of the last time he had seriously considered seeking one. The practice had fallen from him without notice. And until now, he had not missed it.
So more had changed at Dekra than he had supposed. In what other ways was he changing? he wondered. Quentin spent the rest of the day in contemplation of the god who had the power to change his followers— a thing unique in the lore of all the gods he had ever known.
On the third day the ships reached the plains of Askelon. The level flatland ranged below the heights of Askelon Castle a full league to the river. It was a broad expanse, the scene of many battles, the cradle and grave of numerous campaigns.
Fringing the plain, bordering it to the south and along the Herwydd, stood the farthest reaches of Pelgrin Forest. It was here, under the protection of the trees along the river, that Selric determined to establish his base. They would camp just within the trees overlooking the plain.
When the vessels touched land, the days of waiting and inactivity were abruptly ended. Swarms of men boiled forth from the ships, carrying supplies, weapons, tents, and utensils. Horses were led ashore bearing large bundles of armor and weapons. As the ships gave forth their cargo, a small city sprang up in the trees. The woods rang with the calls of men working to raise tents and axes clearing the underbrush.
“This is a good place,” remarked King Selric to Theido as they stood watching the activity. “We are protected at our back with the river behind. There is only the plain ahead. We will not be easily surprised.”
“Walk with me a little; we may be able to see the castle from here.”
They walked through the woods a short way, amid the bustle of Selric’s men readying the camp. At the edge of the trees, they could see the plain; above it, hovering like a motionless cloud, the misty bulk of Castle Askelon stood on its mountain. But the two had scarcely arrived when they lost all interest in viewing the scenery. Before them lay the whole of Jaspin’s army deployed upon the plain.
“Azrael take him!” cursed the king. “The fox is waiting for us!” He turned eyes wide with shock and dismay toward Theido. At that moment they heard the snap of a twig behind them, and both men turned.
“So it is!” replied Durwin, taking in the sight of a thousand tents spread abroad and the twinkling of evening fires beginning to dance in the dusk. “It was to be expected. They have known of our coming all along.”
“We’ll not surprise them now,” said Theido.
“And we cannot go against a force that large with the men we have. How many do you think there are?” His eyes scanned north and south as far as he could see.
“Near ten thousand by the look of it.”
“To our thousand . . .” King Selric’s voice trailed off.
Without speaking further the three walked back to camp. Fires had been lit, and smoke, with the tang of roasting meat and bubbling stew, drifted throughout the darkening woods. Quentin and Toli, who had been strangely occupied from the moment the ships touched land, now came forward leading a great chestnut charger.
They found Theido, Durwin, Ronsard, and the others reclined around a crackling fire in front of King Selric’s blue-and-white-striped tent.
Quentin beamed brightly. “Is there a knight of this excellent fellowship who answers to the name of Ronsard?”
Ronsard raised his head, a questioning look in his eye. “You know that there is, young sir. I am he.”
Quentin laughed. “Then, Sir Knight, stand and claim your horse!” He handed the reins to the bewildered Ronsard and stepped back to watch the effect of his jest.
“Balder!” Ronsard shouted, his face shining with unexpected happiness. “Can it be?” He threw an arm around the horse’s thick-sinewed neck and slapped the animal’s shoulder affectionately. Then he stepped away and patted his charger’s forehead, saying, “You have cared for him all this time? You’ve kept him for me?”
Quentin nodded, for the first time feeling a twinge of loss at giving up the horse.
“But I have a secret to tell.” The rugged knight gazed steadily at Quentin. “Balder is not mine. My own courser was lost in the ambush of the king. This good mount belonged to one of my companions . . .” He faltered, but his voice was steady when he continued. “He will not be needing his horse anymore.”
“But you were his last master. He is yours all the more since the owner is gone.”
“No, I cannot take him. An animal like this one”—he patted the sleek jaw—“chooses his own master. I think he has chosen you.”
Quentin could not believe his ears. But the others sitting nearby agreed with Ronsard. Theido said, “Every brave knight should have a charger just as brave. Balder is the only horse for you, I think.”
Durwin added, “You have grown much and have become a real horseman—very different from the young acolyte I found curled up on my hearth”—he laughed—“who left his horse to fend for himself while he slept!”
Quentin colored with the memory, but he gratefully accepted the reins back from Ronsard and eagerly led his horse away to be bedded for the night.
The company ate a simple meal in silence, which Quentin thought unusual. There had not been a quiet mealtime among the high-spirited companions since they had sighted land. Queen Alinea did not even come out of her tent to eat, but remained within. Trenn ate quickly, grumbled, and left to attend her.
One by one the others went to their rest. Quentin knew something was wrong, but he did not have the heart or the nerve to ask outright what it was, feeling that it would only further dampen his already depressed spirits. He wondered if the mood around the campfire was a reflection of his own of the last few days. He turned this over in his head as he lay under the low evergreen where Toli prepared their places near the horses.
He rested, but he could not sleep. After a while the noises of the camp died down as the soldiers went to sleep. Quentin rose and returned to the fire, where he found Durwin sitting all alone, stroking his beard and gazing into the dwindling flames.
“What is it?” he asked the hermit softly.
“Do you not know?” asked Durwin. His eyes did not leave the fire. “Go and see for yourself.” He waved his arm toward the plain.
Quentin got up and made his way through the wood and came to stand at the very edge. There, spread out upon the plain, light from hundreds of fires twinkled like stars in the sky. For a moment he wondered what it could mean, but then the significance hit him. He felt a catch in his throat, and a sharp pang arrowed through his chest. He stumbled disheartened back to the place where Durwin kept his vigil.
“There are thousands of them. Thousands . . .”
“So it is. I should have foreseen this. I should have known.” He fell silent again.
“Why did they not swoop down upon us the moment we landed?” asked Quentin a few minutes later. He, too, had become absorbed in watching the fire, though his thoughts were very far away.
“I wondered the same thing. I have been thinking about it all night. Why not, indeed?
“I will tell you!” the hermit said suddenly. “They are waiting for someone. Yes, that must be it. They already possess the advantage of superior numbers; they could destroy us without delay. Yet they hesitate. Why? Because someone’s presence is required. A commander? Perhaps. But someone who must arrive before the battle begins.”
It seemed perfectly obvious the way Durwin had said it just then. Quentin wondered why he himself had not thought of it. His eyes sought Durwin’s face, red in the glow of the fire’s embers. Durwin seemed blind to the world as he sought an answer within the glowing coals. Quentin got up and placed another log on the fire, and presently yellow flames were flitting and crackling once more.
But the hermit remained unmoved, as if he were boring into the very heart of the earth for an answer. Quentin watched, his senses tingling. Gradually, Durwin’s calm features were changing, little by little becoming a mask of terror.
At that moment Quentin felt the tingle of a chill, as if an icy finger had traced the length of his spine. He shivered in spite of himself.
With an effort Durwin tore his gaze away from the fire. He turned a horror-stricken countenance toward Quentin—flesh pale from the exertion, eyes showing white all around. “There. You felt it, too, just then. They are coming . . . the Legion of the Dead. They come.”
Quentin’s heart fluttered in his chest. He glanced toward the moon hanging ripe over the treetops, spilling a cold, comfortless light down upon them. To Quentin it seemed to have shrunk inward, as if oppressed or drawn back by some unseen hand. He shivered again.
Then Durwin was on his feet, grasping a long, straight branch like a wizard’s staff, his face frightful in the red light. “King Selric!” His voice boomed a summons in the quiet darkness. He strode toward the tent, calling for the king and others to awaken.
“Send your swiftest rider to the south, to Hinsenby,” he told the king, who stumbled from his tent half asleep.
“What is it?” The question came from all who had gathered instantly around the hermit. “What have you seen?” asked Theido.
“The Legion of the Dead. Send your swiftest courier to the coast. Mayhap he shall meet with Eskevar’s returning forces. It is our only chance.”
“Help would be welcome in any case,” replied Selric. “But this . . .”
“I am not afraid of Nimrood’s foul Legion,” swore Ronsard.
“That is because you do not know them,” answered Durwin. He shook his head slowly, as if remembering a great tragedy. “They are terrible to behold: the greatest knights of the age. In death they serve him. Immortal. They cannot be killed in battle by blade or bolt. They fight and do not grow weary, for they are strengthened by the power of their dark lord.”
“Then what good are numbers against them? Were we ten times as many, could they be defeated?” Selric sighed, bewildered.
“With aid we may find an advantage. Without it we will not last long enough to try,” said Ronsard.
“Kellaris will go,” said Selric. “Call him.” He ordered one of his men away. And to another he commanded, “Make ready a horse. The swiftest. Better give him my own.” The man darted away, and Selric turned to the others. “The choice agrees with you?”
“I will go,” offered Ronsard.
“Stay, sir. We will need you here more, most likely.”
“If his horse had wings, I wonder if it would be fast enough,” said Theido. “How long do you think they will remain encamped on the plain yonder?” He turned to Durwin, whose brow wrinkled in speculation.
“I cannot say for certain. A day, I think. Yes, perhaps more. I can feel them coming, but they are a long way off. There is a little time yet.
“Then tomorrow at dawn Ronsard and I will ride out to scout the enemy’s position,” said Theido. “We may find a weakness in their defenses that we can turn to our advantage.”
“Yes, an excellent idea.” The impatient stamp of a horse and the jingle of his bridle interrupted Selric. “Ah! Here is Kellaris! Ride like the wind, man. Bring help.”
“I would rather remain here with you, my king,” the knight replied.
“And I would have no one else by my side. But the need is great. On your way, and do not fail.”
The knight raised his hand in salute and, turning the horse, leaped away and was lost in the darkness. For a long while Quentin imagined he could hear the horse’s hooves pounding away in the night.
The others dispersed then, each his own way. Quentin sought Durwin’s side as they walked back to the fire.
“What is the Legion of the Dead?” Quentin asked when they were once again seated before the dancing flames. “I have never heard of it before.”
“It would be better if no one had ever heard of it.” Durwin sighed. He had just about reached the depths of exhaustion. He drew his lips away from his teeth, as if he were about to bite into a bitter fruit.
“Nimrood’s sorcery knows no bounds. He dares all and fears nothing. Where others quail he treads boldly. He has looked upon the face of evil from the time he was young. He has delved to the very heart of evil itself and has grasped it in his hand.
“He has long been about his specialty: weaving spells over the dead. With this art he has assembled the most skilled warriors, the most courageous knights the world has ever seen. When they fell in battle he somehow knew of it and, by one means or another, spirited the body away to his castle. There he keeps them all, and has kept them ever ready, preserved in death to serve his will.
“There are six or seven of them, maybe more by now. I do not know. I have heard reports from time to time, but nothing for many years. I dared not even consider such a thing was possible—even for Nimrood. But when we were there, in his dungeon, I felt their presence. I knew then . . .” Durwin’s voice lapsed as he gazed into the fire, shrinking away from it as though from some hideous memory too horrible to contemplate.
“And you said nothing?”
“I said nothing. Selric, Theido, and the others already know about it, of course. There was no need to trouble anyone else. And I had hoped there was a chance that Nimrood would withhold them for some other purpose—though that, I admit, now seems rather foolish.”
“Is there nothing to be done against them?”
“If there is, I do not know it—that is, short of Nimrood’s death. If he were to die, they would perhaps be released. It is his power that binds them still to this earth. But as you saw yourself, the enemy is ten thousand strong. Against such odds—well, Nimrood is quite safe. Had I my power . . .” Durwin gazed forlornly into the fire. Quentin saw the depths of hopelessness written in the hermit’s face.
Then Durwin stirred himself and stood slowly, smiling wanly at Quentin. “Still, I will watch through the night. It may be that I will discover something”—he tapped his shaggy head—“that will be useful to us. Good night, Quentin.”
“Good night.” Quentin wanted to go to Durwin, to throw his arms around the priest’s knees, to cry with him, to comfort him and be comforted. But he remained seated by the fire, and the hermit wandered off, already deep in thought.
A loneliness crept over him as he sat before the snapping flames. When at last he arose to return to his bed, he felt more alone than he had ever felt in his life.