The battlefield had grown as quiet as the dead men upon it. A hush crept over the plain, which still echoed with the ring of steel and the cries of warriors. The carrion birds soared above, searching for an opportunity to begin their gruesome feast; their cries pierced the silence that now covered Askelon Plain like a shroud.
In respite from battle, the wounded had been carried from the field and taken to the river, where Selric’s surgeons offered what aid and comfort could be given. Those still able to bear sword or pike were bandaged and returned to the ditch to await the next onslaught.
Durwin, arms bared and robes drawn up between his legs and tucked in his belt, hurried among the litters to aid with word or skill as many as he could. Wherever he went the pain was eased and the healing begun. Those who could not recover were comforted and their passage to the next world lit with hope.
As he bent over the unconscious form of a soldier lying on the grassy riverbank, Durwin felt a tug at his belt. He turned away from his patient to see a young man, sweaty and besmeared with blood, motioning him away.
“What is it, lad?” asked the hermit.
“A knight yonder would see you, sir,” replied the young physician.
“Then take me to him,” replied Durwin, and they both hurried off through the ranks of the wounded lying along the bank.
“Here is the holy hermit, sir. I have brought him as you bade me.” The boy bent close to the knight’s ear. Durwin, thinking that he had come too late, for so it appeared, was surprised to see the knight awaken and the clear blue eyes regard him knowingly.
“They tell me I will die,” said the knight. He was a young man, not yet beyond his twentieth year. “What do you say?”
Durwin bent to examine the wound, an ugly, jagged slash in his side where an axe had sliced through his hauberk and driven pieces of his mail deep into his flesh. He shook his head slowly.
“Yes, it is true. The wound is mortal, brave friend. How may I help?”
“It is as I feared,” said the knight. His voice was growing weaker. “I have watched you going among the wounded and have seen you comfort men in screaming agony and calm those who have no hope.”
“I do what I can,” said Durwin softly.
“Then tell me what I must know of death, for I am not a religious man. It is said that you can look into the world beyond, sir. Look for me and tell me what you see.”
Durwin, though he already knew what he would tell the young knight, bowed his head and closed his eyes as he placed one hand over the knight’s heart. After a moment he began to speak.
“I see two paths that may be taken—one into darkness and one into light. The dark path is an unhappy one. There is no peace to be found wherever it leads, and those who travel it never find rest or comfort for their soul’s pain. It is a lonely, bitter road.
“The other way, the road of light, leads to a magnificent city wherein all who come rejoice in the presence of a loving king who reigns forever without end. It is a realm of peace where hardship and death are conquered, and none who abide there know fear anymore.
“These two paths are open to you, but you must choose which one you will tread.”
“The choice is easily made, good hermit. I would go to the great city and there pledge my service to the honorable king. If he has need of men such as I, that is where I would be. But I don’t know how to accomplish that, and fear I may yet go wrong.”
“Do not be afraid. Only believe and it will be so. Believe in the king, the king of all kings, God Most High. He will meet you on the path and lead you himself into his city.”
“Sir, I do want to believe. But your words are strange. They are unlike any words I have ever heard a priest speak. Are you a priest?”
“Yes, fair friend. I am a priest of the king I have told you about. He turns none aside who would come to him; it is a promise he makes to all men.”
“Then I go to him at once.” The knight’s voice was a whisper. “Thank you, good hermit. I shall remember this kindness and greet your king for you. Farewell.”
“Farewell, brave sir. We shall meet again.”
At these words the knight closed his eyes and breathed his last. Durwin stood over the young man’s body and marveled at his courage and the firmness of his faith. “The Most High has won a faithful servant this day,” he said to himself. “And none more valiant.”
When Durwin had done all he could for the wounded and dying, he returned to the ditch where Selric, Theido, and Ronsard stood in council.
“We have lost many good men,” said Ronsard. “We cannot withstand another attack if they choose to make an end of it.”
“Why do they wait?” Selric wondered aloud. “Perhaps they will not challenge us again.”
“No,” said Theido. “They will come again. They are waiting for—”
“Waiting for Nimrood to bring his foul brood,” said Durwin as he joined them. “They have not yet come. But they are close by.”
“Then Jaspin hoped to win the day for himself without Nimrood?”
“So it is! But now he will be forced to acknowledge Nimrood as his master before all who call him king.”
“It is no better than he deserves,” observed Ronsard. “I believe he will yet rue the day he ever laid eyes upon the sorcerer.”
“This waiting is worse than fighting. Is there nothing we can do?”
“Yes,” said Durwin. “Pray to the Most High. He is the only one who can save us now.”
The unseen blow caught Quentin as he rolled away, grazing his shoulder and lifting him off his feet. He was flung headlong into the darkness to land sprawling on the floor of the tomb.
He squirmed to his knees in an effort to rise, pulling himself along the edge of the stone bier. But before he could regain his feet, he felt something pull him back, dragging him down with a sinuous weight. Something hard grasped him by the waist. Quentin grabbed at it and touched a smooth yet rigid surface undulating under his grasp.
A wave of horror and revulsion swept through him as he realized that he was locked in the crushing coils of a gigantic serpent.
A coil shot around his arms, binding them to his sides. Another loop wrapped itself across his chest, and Quentin, struggling feebly to free himself, saw the terrible angular head rise slowly up before his face.
Hideous yellow eyes burned with an unearthly light, regarding him with extreme menace. He could feel the coils tightening around him, squeezing the breath from his body.
His hands scrabbled for a hold on the heavy scales of the serpent’s skin; his nails raked the snaky armor ineffectually. Each breath was a labor fraught with pain now. Very soon he would suffocate. He heard the rasping hiss of the snake as it leered closer and squeezed tighter.
Quentin’s mind raced in a frenzy verging on panic. There must be a weapon, he thought. Lifting his eyes, which felt as if they would burst from the pressure of the serpent’s ever-tightening embrace, he chanced to see the shimmer of the king’s sword lying at his side along the slab.
Quentin, growing weaker by the heartbeat, threw himself on his side beneath the bier. The coils shifted momentarily as he went down. He gulped air and forced his arm free before the relentless coils squeezed again.
Slowly drawing his feet up under him, Quentin placed them against the stone trestle of the king’s bier. With a kick he sent himself tumbling heels over head as the serpent, hissing with a fury, struck.
Quentin heard the monstrous jaws snap shut just above his ear. But he had gained his objective. His free arm was now on top as he lay on his side. He raised it toward the sword.
The serpent noticed the movement. A lashing tail flicked out and lashed a coil around Quentin’s wrist and pulled it down in an iron grip.
In the shimmering glow of the blue radiance, Quentin saw the awful outline of the black head rearing again, readying for the killing strike.
Forcing every fiber of muscle to obey, he lifted his hand once more. His fingers ached as he stretched them toward the sword. He felt the serpent squeezing his wrist; his fingers became numb. He closed his eyes and cried out with the effort, feeling that his heart would rend. Then he felt the edge of the bier under his grasp. He held on.
Inch by precious inch he clawed forward, his fingernails splitting as they tore against the stone. He could no longer breathe. His arm shook violently. Dizziness overwhelmed him, but he fought to remain clearheaded. Then, miraculously, the sword was in his hand. He grasped the cold steel blade and pulled it down. But his strength was gone. He could not raise the sword or strike out with it. Instead, the honed blade lay in his benumbed hand, and he merely looked at it glinting in the darkness as he felt the black mists of death gathering over him.
He wanted to give up, to let go, to step into that peaceful calm that awaited him. He could hear a sound like the rush of wind or a thousand voices calling out. He had an image of clouds heaving up and then parting. He was moving through the clouds, falling.
The clouds parted and he saw below him the battle lines on the plains of Askelon. There were his friends, dug in behind their ditch. He saw the charge and heard a clash of arms. Then the vision faded and he felt a warmth bathe his limbs as a deep sleepiness overtook him. He felt himself slipping away.
“No!” he shouted, jerking himself back from the brink. “No-o-o!” his voice echoed back to him from the vaulted walls of the tomb.
The sword lay limply in his slack hand. He grasped it and felt the steel cut into the flesh of his fingers. The pain sharpened his mind.
He swiveled his head and saw the serpent’s head wavering above him. The monster moved, rolling him over to deliver the death blow. Quentin drew the sword to his breast.
The serpent’s glowing eyes stared into his own; the black forked tongue flickered as the wicked head descended. In the same instant Quentin raised the sword.
The head swung down. Quentin felt the sword suddenly wrenched from his hands. He heard a raging hiss and opened his eyes to see the sword sticking through the serpent’s mouth and out of the back of its head. The monster had impaled itself upon the sword.
The coils loosened as the snake began to thrash upon the floor. In an instant Quentin had another arm free and was on his knees. He dragged himself aside as the serpent rolled into a seething ball to crush itself in its own coils. The creature writhed and squirmed as its movements grew more and more erratic.
At last, with one final terrible convulsion, the serpent lay still.
Quentin knelt, hands on the cold stone, dragging the cool air into his lungs in racking gulps. He heard a strange bubbling sizzle and glanced up to see the monstrous creature begin to shrivel and wriggle, melting together. Quentin stared. Green smoke issued from its body, covering it, and then it was gone. A trailing tendril of smoke curled up where the awful serpent had lain. And then that, too, vanished.
Quentin rested, panting at the edge of the bier, and allowed life to return. His ribs ached, and his hand, where he had gripped the sword, stung. He looked down to see blood dripping from his fingers. He drew a long, shaky breath and turned toward the king. The eerie blue radiance that had surrounded the king’s body was gone—as if whatever life-force had clung to the remnant had been extinguished.
A pang of grief stabbed through his heart, for it appeared to him that now, beyond all doubt, the king lay dead. No breath stirred the great chest. No presence remained.
Quentin turned to go. There was nothing to be done.
But to have found him and then to leave seemed to Quentin grievously inappropriate.
Quentin bowed his head and offered up a prayer. “Father of Life,” he prayed, using Toli’s name for the god, “return the life of our king.” He thought for a moment and added, “Raise up a champion to lead us in victory over our enemies . . .” He stopped then because he could think of nothing more to say.
He stepped close to the king’s body and reached out to touch the cold, lifeless face. As he extended his hand, a drop of blood fell from his fingertip and splashed onto the king’s lip.
He stared at the crimson splotch.
In the faint light from the tomb’s entrance, he imagined he saw color seeping out from the drop of blood, spreading over the features of the king. He stared transfixed as a wondrous change occurred.
The king’s stiff features softened; the cold gray flesh warmed and took on the appearance of life. Quentin watched, not daring to move, not daring to blink or look away. He saw color return to the lifeless hands crossed upon the king’s breast. He saw the tiny beat of a pulse appear just below the jaw.
A silver light seemed to emanate from the king’s countenance—a radiance that quickened the still features. It grew until Quentin could not bear to look upon it. He threw an arm over his eyes, and when he looked again the light was gone and he saw the quiver of an eyelid and heard the long sigh of air drawn in through the nostrils.
Quentin dropped to his knees. Tears trickled down his cheeks to splatter in the dust of the vault. He bowed his head for a brief moment in silent thanksgiving, then heard a low moan and rose to his feet and bent over the king. Another sigh and King Eskevar opened his eyes.
In all that followed, Quentin could never be certain what happened or in what order it happened, who spoke first or the exact words—everything seemed to happen at once.
He remembered telling King Eskevar of the danger and of the battle taking place on the field. He remembered Eskevar rising off the slab unsteadily and falling in a crash to the floor. He remembered a feeling of inexpressible joy when the king placed a hand on his shoulder, gripped it tightly, and said, “Well done, brave knight.”
They were then out of the crypt and moving toward Balder, Eskevar growing stronger with every stride. The sun shone high overhead, a fierce, hard ball, filling Quentin with hope and determination as he strode somewhat painfully across the green expanse.
The two mounted Balder, Quentin sitting behind the king, filling in the details of his story as they rode off together.
“There must be some who are loyal to me,” the king cried, his deep voice booming through the forest. “We shall find them!”
Quentin could not help thinking that unless they found ten thousand who had not bowed a knee to Jaspin, their search was in vain.
“First to Askelon,” said the king. “The common people will fight for their king in need. We will raise an army of farmers and merchants if we must.”
They dodged through the forest and struck the road to Askelon. Eskevar rode easily in the saddle; Quentin bounced along behind, holding on as best he could.
It seemed only moments before they were clattering through the streets of Askelon below the castle. The king struck for the center of town and raised himself in the saddle, sword held high in the common square.
“Countrymen! Your king has returned!” His voice seemed to shake the very foundation of the castle rock itself.
“Follow me!” he called. “Our kingdom is in peril! Bring sword and shield; bring rake and pike, spade and pitchfork. To arms! For Mensandor!”
When the people heard this, they marveled and fell on their knees. The women cried and the men looked at him in astonishment. A great cry went up. “The king has returned! The Dragon King lives!”
Men ran through the streets, bidding all to join the call to arms. A smith came running up, leading a white horse, already saddled and prancing in eager anticipation. Eskevar leaped onto the horse and waved his rude army on.
They had scarcely left the city and taken up the road leading down to the plain before they met a large number of men dressed in dark green tunics and carrying pikes and longbows, with quivers full of new arrows slung about their shoulders.
Eskevar, with Quentin right behind him, stopped in the road as the men approached. Upon seeing the king, the leader of these men kneeled, crying out in a loud voice, “Your faithful servant, Sire. My men are at your command.”
The man and his manner seemed familiar to Quentin. Where had he seen them before? Then he remembered a night in Pelgrin, when the forest had come alive with bushmen. When the man rose again to his feet, Quentin recognized the tough, weathered face of Voss, but now the number of his brood had swelled to several hundred.
“We heard there was fighting yonder,” said Voss, approaching his beloved king. “We thought we would come strike a blow for king and kingdom. We did not expect to be led into battle by the Dragon King himself.”
“Your loyalty will be rewarded, for today you will see your king take sword against his enemies. Follow me!” The king wheeled his charger into the road and led his people into battle.
With every step their numbers grew. Twice Quentin looked around and was amazed at what he saw: a surging sea of rough wooden pikes and pitchforks bristled in the sun; rakes, hoes, and other implements turned for the present into weapons for Mensandor’s Dragon King.
A song soared up from bold and happy hearts and winged its way into the bright heavens:
See the armies so
Line on line, ten thousand strong.
See the Dragon King’s sharp blade,
Rising to a song!
See his enemies laid low!
Hear our voices sing:
Let glory crown the victor’s brow,
In the Hall of the Dragon King!