From somewhere far away, Quentin heard the sharp tinkling of bells, high-pitched and floating overhead, as if the sound carried on the wind. And another sound—a low murmur, like laughter.
Light danced above him; he could trace its movement through his eyelids. He felt warm and dreamy and realized that something was tickling his cheek and the hollow of his neck.
He opened his eyes.
For the briefest instant he thought he must be back at Dekra. The feeling passed even as it formed. Above him a green canopy caught the sun and dashed its golden light into a thousand shifting patterns. The bells he had heard were tiny twittering birds flittering from branch to branch in the great spreading oak upon whose roots he lay. He absently placed his hand to his cheek and brought it away wet. Then he turned and saw Balder lower his nose to nudge him once more.
“All right, old boy, I am awake,” Quentin murmured.
He pushed himself up slowly on his elbows. In a few seconds the dizziness subsided, to be replaced by a dull, throbbing ache that spread throughout his body but seemed localized to his left leg. He felt the leg, suddenly remembering how he came to be lying on the ground, gazing up at the leafy roof above.
The wound had stopped bleeding and the blood had dried. Quentin surmised that he had been unconscious for some time. He reached out a hand and grabbed the strap of Balder’s harness and hoisted himself to his feet. With a little effort he found he could walk, though stiffly at first and with some pain.
He scanned the surroundings. Though utterly strange to him, he felt the place was familiar somehow. Yet he knew he had never seen it before. He was, as near as he could make out, at one side of a gigantic earthen ring. His eyes followed the smooth grassy embankment around its circumference until he lost sight of it behind a stand of ancient oaks that occupied the center of the ring.
All around the inside of the circle stood white carven stones, thick slabs as tall as Quentin, now pockmarked with age and flecked with green and gray lichen.
The standing stones threw shadows upon the lawn at odd angles, as some of the stones were tilted and leaning precariously.
His gaze swept inward, and only then did he notice the mysterious mounds standing like so many gigantic, grass-covered beehives. All was peaceful; all quiet. But Quentin felt a thrill of something like fear race up the back of his neck and set his scalp tingling.
He had been here before: in his dream.
He had seen it all in his dream; and not once, but many times. It appeared very different, to be sure; the reality formed the opposite side of the coin. But it was the same coin—of that Quentin was certain. The inner feeling of remembrance told him as much.
But where was he? And what were the odd-shaped earthen beehives?
All sense of urgency—still nagging at the back of his mind— diminished in light of the singular feeling that washed over him like a cold stream. Quentin stood gazing around him. “I am supposed to be here,” he thought aloud.
Leaving Balder to nibble the grass at the base of the oak, Quentin hobbled toward the center of the ring, descending down upon the bowl. It was ancient; he could see that. The cracked faces of the standing stones were worn, the inscriptions nearly obliterated by time and the elements.
Whoever made it, Quentin was sure, had lived long ago. Back in the age of the mysterious mound builders, perhaps. Remnants of the mound builders’ work still existed, tucked away in far corners of the land. Spirals, hillocks, rings—strange shapes all.
He heard a gurgling sound and the splash of water trickling over stone. He parted a leafy bower and stepped into a shaded spot where a small spring bubbled, pouring up its water into a clear, gemlike pool. Quentin knelt and dipped his cupped hand into the icy liquid. He drank and noticed the white stones placed around the perimeter of the pool, and just above the pool where the spring delivered its water, the shrine to the god of the spring. A carved stone image of the god the peasants called Pol stood in the shrine. Once he would have poured a libation to the god, but Quentin merely nodded to the idol’s perpetual stare and continued again on his way.
He made for the nearest mound and examined it carefully. Grass-covered, it stood twice his height, perfectly smooth and symmetrical on all sides.
Some of the mounds, he could see now, were larger than others. And some had a slightly flattened or sunken appearance at the dome, as if they had collapsed within—the way graves sometimes do.
Graves. He held the word on his tongue and turned it over as if hearing it for the first time. Then, as sunlight slowly chased the night, he knew where he was. Quentin had stumbled into the Ring of the Kings, or Kings’ Ring, as it was sometimes called in stories and songs. It was the ancient burial place of Mensandor’s first kings: the empire builders were buried here, their barrows dug within the ring. It was a most sacred place.
Quentin paused and then turned to make his way back painfully to Balder and then away. But something held him to the spot. He shrugged off his unaccountable reluctance and moved on, turning back again not four paces from where he had stopped before.
A thought came to him. If he was to make it back to camp alive, he would need a weapon of some sort, at least a shield. The kings were customarily buried with their armor and weapons—outfitted for their trials in the underworld.
Surely, he thought, there would be no harm in obtaining a sword or shield from one of the barrows. Though taboo and likely to upset the spirits of the dead—neither a problem Quentin held in any great regard—he decided to try to find a weapon.
The first barrow he examined had no entrance that he could find, nor did the second or third. Whatever means of entering the vaults had been contrived, they had long ago grown over or had been carefully erased.
He was about to give up and return to Balder when he saw a large barrow situated in the midst of the others. Very well, he would try just one more, he thought. He limped toward it, moving between the eerie mounds like a giant passing between green-domed mountains.
The barrow that had caught his attention was different from the others he had examined—rounder, a gentler arc all around, as if the tip of a large sphere bulged from below ground. He walked around it and neatly tripped over a small bush growing at the base of the shaded side of the hill.
He fell, plunging headlong into the turf and banging his injured left leg on the ground. Quentin winced in pain as he slammed down and felt something hard give way beneath him. There was an odd, muffled crack, like the tearing of a root, and Quentin tumbled into the yawning blackness that had suddenly opened up beneath him.
He let out a surprised yell as he landed on something hard. He coughed and sputtered in the dirt that caved in around him and wiped the dust from his eyes as small pebbles rattled away below him.
When the dust had cleared and he had taken stock of himself, Quentin saw that he had not fallen very far—less than three paces. The sunlight slanted down into the crevice he had opened up and illuminated a small patch of the floor on which he was standing. He saw one straight edge and then darkness: steps. He had stumbled into the entrance of the burial place that someone had been at great pains to conceal.
Steadying his quivering nerves, Quentin stepped cautiously down onto the step and then the next. The steps fell away sharply, and Quentin soon found himself in complete darkness, except for the patch of light through the hole where he had fallen. He thrust his hands out in front of him and continued.
The stairs stopped after only a few more steps, and Quentin, his eyes becoming used to the darkness now, perceived a stone door barring the entrance to a subterranean chamber. The door, black with age, was carved with the intricate designs and runes of the ancients. Yet from chips and scratches that showed white in the dim light along the left side of the narrow slab, he could see that someone had used tools to pry open the tomb’s door, and not so very long ago.
Quentin placed his palms on the cool, moist rock and pushed. Unexpectedly, the door moved with very little effort, grinding open on its unseen hinges.
He stepped into the tomb.
The interior of the tomb was cool and silent. In the feeble light of the open door, Quentin saw the glint of gold and silver vessels stacked along the walls. The dust of time lay thick upon the floor, dimming the colored mosaic tiles that proclaimed in quaint picture the exploits of the deceased monarch. Silver-tipped spears and bearskin shields—now moldering to dust—stood in ranks to his left. A saddle, with a horse’s bard and chamfron supported by crossed lances, stood on his right.
Whatever else lay in the ancient burial vault Quentin never discovered. For his eyes found the stone slab standing in the center of the chamber. And there, still and serene, as if in a peaceful slumber, lay King Eskevar, his form bathed in an eerie blue luminescence.
Though Quentin had never seen his king, he knew in his heart he had found him, for it could be no one else. The bearded chin jutted up defiantly; the smooth, high brow suggested wisdom; the deep-set eyes, closed in repose, spoke of character; and the straight, firm mouth, of royalty.
Quentin, in a daze of wondrous disbelief, slowly approached the stone bier as one walking in a dream. The figure before him, dressed in shining armor, his arms folded across his unmoving chest, appeared the picture of death itself. And yet . . .
Quentin, holding his breath, stepped closer, daring not to breathe for fear that the vision before him might prove to be insubstantial.
One step and then another and he would be there.
With a trembling foot he took a step. Shifting his weight, he raised his foot . . .
Something moved behind him. He felt the air rush by him, heard a metallic whisper, and caught the flash of two glowing points of yellow light arcing through the air as he instinctively turned to meet the blow, and then he was struck down.