The sun was a hazy red globe, barely peeping above the far hills, when Quentin awakened. He lay and listened to the beginning day: the lone call of a bird to its mate, the clank and rattle of iron pots in the hands of the cooks, the swish of the horses’ tails and their gentle snuffling and snoring.
He lay and listened, stifling the sound for he knew not what, seeking an answer to the meaning of his dreams.
He had dreamed through the night. A strange, disjointed vision that he had dreamed before. But this time it was clearer, more distinct than before, yet he was no closer to an answer to its riddle.
He saw it mostly as a play of color: brilliant greens of all shades infused with sparkling gold; cool white flecked with green-gray splotches; silver-blue shadows deepening to utter black. The colors swirled and interchanged, mixing, melting into one another, but always ending in the deepest darkness.
Through it all he heard a kind of music, a high-pitched ringing. A bell? Perhaps. He was not certain. Beneath the sound there lay something vague and unsettling. He cared not to look too far for its source for fear of what he might find.
The dream also carried with it a sharp feeling of longing, a beautiful loneliness, a yearning unrequited. It was an emotion that left a hollow feeling in his breast upon waking.
After some minutes he rolled himself up and went down to wash in the river. The water’s chill sting quickened him fully, and he began by degrees to forget his dream, though the strange hollow feeling remained.
As Quentin dipped his cupped hands into the clear water, splashing it over his neck and arms, he heard a commotion in the camp behind him. He jumped up, dripping, from the flat rock on which he lay and hurried back along the trail.
He arrived as a large group gathered around a rider on a foaming horse. He could not see through the crowd who the rider could be. Then he caught sight of Toli hurrying away from the scene.
“Who is it, Toli? What is the news?”
His friend fixed him with a worried look. “It is Kellaris, King Selric’s messenger. He has returned.”
“But how? He cannot have come back so soon.”
“He did not get through,” said a voice behind him. Quentin turned and met Trenn shuffling away from the crowd. “Jaspin has forces moving in on all sides. Kellaris met them in the night. He was pursued— there is no way out. We are trapped.”
The words were a pronouncement of doom in Quentin’s ears. Trenn stumbled off to inform Queen Alinea. Quentin turned again to Toli, who merely stared back with his round dark eyes. What the Jher was thinking made no impression on his face that Quentin could read.
He was about to suggest they go find some breakfast when he remembered something that stopped him where he stood.
“Theido and Ronsard—where are they?” he asked.
Toli blinked back at him for a moment. “Why, they have gone to scout the enemy. They left before dawn with five knights. They rode to the south along the river.”
“But that is the way Kellaris went,” Quentin said, a note of alarm rising in his voice. “They will be ambushed and killed! Someone must warn them! Quickly, ready Balder!”
At first Toli hesitated, as if to object to his master’s command. He opened his mouth, then closed it again, turned, and hurried off, with Quentin on his heels.
In a twinkling Balder stood ready, and as Quentin bounded into the saddle of the mighty courser, he saw Toli spring lightly onto his own mount’s bare back. “Come along, then,” cried Quentin. “We will go together.”
They trotted through the camp from behind the ring of tents. Durwin and Selric were standing in conference with Kellaris, and Quentin called out to them as he spurred his horse away. “We go to warn Theido and Ronsard!”
“No! Wait!” shouted Durwin after them. King Selric barked an order. “Somebody stop them! Come back!”
But they were already bounding away through the woods and were gone. “The god be with them,” sighed Durwin.
Toli led the way, following the trail of the scouting party with his tracker’s sharp eyes. They rode, it seemed, for hours. The initial excitement of the moment quieted to a drumming sense of urgency. Quentin feared that if they did not find them soon, it would be too late.
The sun was up and throwing bright light into the woods, sending slanting rays of yellow beams through the ground mist that wafted over the path to vanish as it touched the light. The woods smelled of damp earth and growing things. A patch of mint grew somewhere nearby; its cool scent tinted the air as Balder moved on.
Then, just ahead, they heard a sound: horses moving through the underbrush, the clink of their harnesses and the creak of soft leather. The low tones of a rider talking with his companion came to them as Toli reined his spotted black-and-white to a halt. Quentin bumped up beside him. “Have we found them, do you think?” he asked hopefully.
Toli frowned. “We must find a place to see them where they cannot see us.” He led them off the trail and around to a place where the trail would again pass in front of them. They waited. The unknown party came closer. Quentin could hear their voices, though he could not make out the words.
Toli slid from his mount and crept to the edge of the trail. Then they were within sight. Quentin could see a white shape moving through the trees, followed closely by another, then another. As they approached, Quentin lost sight of them; the surrounding trees that protected him cut them off from view.
Quietly he urged Balder forward a few steps. The dark leaves shaded his face. Toli stood beside him.
The riders, four in all, had stopped in a small clearing along the trail. They seemed to be looking for something. One of the party was kneeling along the path, and the others swung their gaze through the surrounding trees, as if seeking a sign.
“The enemy,” whispered Toli.
They had run into a party of Jaspin’s men who were evidently searching for someone. “They are after Theido and the others,” answered Quentin. “Come. We may reach them ahead of these hunters.”With that he turned Balder and drew away from their hiding place along the path. They dodged along the track for a while and then rejoined it far ahead of the enemy soldiers behind them. No sooner had they joined the path and proceeded a little along it when they heard the sound of horses and men moving just ahead of them. “This will be Theido!” said Quentin, a smile lighting his face.
He spurred Balder ahead and came to a tree-lined bend in the trail. Suddenly they were face-to-face with five strange knights coming directly toward them on the trail.
Quentin froze. Toli turned his horse aside and pulled Quentin’s arm. At first the unknown knights did not seem to see them. They came on a pace or two, talking among themselves, eyes down along the track.
Then, even as Quentin turned Balder off the path, one of the riders glanced up. Quentin met the other’s eyes and in the briefest instant read the surprise there.
“Look!” the enemy knight shouted to his companions. But Quentin, with Toli ahead of him, was already dashing away. “Spies!” he heard another shout. A third yelled, “After them! Kill them!”
Toli was already a blur bobbing ahead of him as Quentin flung himself forward. Balder put his head down and leaped off the trail. Quentin ducked the branches that struck out to unhorse him, keeping himself low in the saddle, lying along Balder’s surging shoulders.
Behind him he could hear the sound of pursuit through the tangled wood. Voices rang out sharp and steel-edged in the quiet morning air. Toli shot fleeting glances over his hunched shoulders to make sure that Quentin was keeping up.
Balder’s iron hooves flung the soft turf high into the air. Brambles snatched at Quentin’s bare legs, scratching them, though he did not feel a thing.
On they rode, dashing ahead of their pursuers, flying over fallen trunks of trees and dodging the low-hanging limbs.
Quentin heard a crash behind him, the high whinny of a horse, and a curse. One of the knights had been swept off his horse by a branch. There was a shout as another knight sought to avoid piling into the sprawling rider. Quentin turned slightly to see a horse struggling to its feet and a knight rolling in the grass. He smiled darkly to himself.
But when he turned back, Toli was nowhere to be seen.
He reined Balder to a shuddering halt, almost pitching himself forward. For a heartbeat he stopped to listen and heard nothing. Then came a swish in the brush and the hollow clop of Toli’s mount darting through the woods just ahead and to the left. He had dodged onto another track.
Quentin leaned and threw the reins to the side, and Balder reared back, gathering his legs beneath him. He snorted and jumped. From somewhere Quentin heard a whistling in the air and suddenly felt a piercing sting in his leg. Balder screamed and jolted away.
He turned in the direction of the sound and saw one of the knights lowering a crossbow from his shoulder, making ready to load and shoot again.
He glanced down at his leg to see the crossbow’s bolt sticking out from the side of his leg. The vicious dart had arrowed through the fleshy part of his calf and had stuck in Balder’s thick-muscled shoulder. He was pinned neatly to his horse.
Balder, urged by the sting and lacking a direct command from Quentin, dashed off in the opposite direction from Toli. Quentin squeezed his eyes shut as the pain exploded in his brain in a burning flash of red brilliance.
Balder raced through the forest, his mane and tail streaming out behind him. Quentin fought to stay in the saddle. The great courser had his own head now and plummeted along a sharply descending trail.
The swiftly passing woods began to blur. The bright blue sky and yellow sun, the dark green earth and gray tree trunks all melded together. Behind him he could hear the shouts of the knights urging their steeds to the chase. But the sounds diminished and faded as Balder, running freely, outdistanced them with his great strides.
The trail turned and fell away. Quentin thought they must be near the river again, but he did not know in which direction they were heading. A narrow brook lay directly before him—he heard it rather than saw it as Balder sailed over it and galloped up the bank.
The charger pounded along the path, and through eyes bleary with pain Quentin noticed the forest deepen, becoming darker and denser. They were flying into the heart of Pelgrin. Quentin recognized the venerable old oaks spreading their branches above him. The light shone down green around them through the leaves, which formed a living thatch overhead.
Then, without warning, dead ahead of them in the trail, an earthen embankment jutted out of the forest floor like a green wall topped by thick, wiry holly hedge. There was no time to stop. Quentin threw himself forward and clenched the reins in his hands as he gritted his teeth.
Lightly as a deer Balder lifted himself up into the air and sailed over the top, the hedges barely brushing his belly. The animal recovered from the jump gracefully as he skidded down the opposite side of the embankment and into a large ringed depression, a vast hollow bowl carved in the middle of the forest. There he stopped.
Quentin hung limply to the reins, spun in the saddle, and with an effort seized the bolt projecting cruelly out of his leg.
He snapped the arrow in two and threw aside the winged end. Mustering all his strength, he pulled his pinioned leg free from Balder’s flank, drawing the broken bolt through his calf. Quentin straightened, and before he could see where he was, black, formless shapes gathered before his eyes. He felt suddenly light-headed. He could not breathe. He gasped, reeled in the saddle, and then toppled to the ground.
He saw Balder’s dark eyes regarding him with a calm, liquid stare. The sky spun. Then all went black.