At the demise of Nimrood, an uncanny transformation took place. The Legion of the Dead, bearing down upon King Selric and his men with flashing swords and whistling maces, suddenly faltered in their swift course. Their black-gauntleted hands went slack at the reins; they swung weakly in the saddle and plummeted to earth in a tempest of dust and horses’ flying hooves. The six black stallions galloped away across the plain, free at last. The terrible Legion lay still upon the earth.
King Selric was the first to approach the six armored bodies as they lay. He crept close, his reddened blade held at the ready. Kneeling down over the first of the fallen knights, he glanced at the wondering faces of his men, now gathered around him, and slowly raised the helmet’s visor.
The empty sockets of a skeleton’s skull stared back at him. Death’s Legion was no more.
For a long time the battlefield lay wrapped in silence; a deep and reverent hush had fallen upon the ground hallowed with the blood of brave men. Then, one by one, all raised their heads to a jingling sound and beheld a sight that made their hearts soar with a happiness long denied: the Dragon King upon his great charger galloping into their midst, and Alinea his queen running to meet him.
Eskevar threw off his helmet, Alinea threw aside her shield and blade, and then he caught her up in his strong arms and lifted her off her feet and onto his horse in a long embrace.
The plain reverberated in tremendous, tumultuous, joyful acclaim. Tears of happiness streamed down besmudged faces. The Dragon King and his beautiful queen were at last reunited. The realm of Mensandor was secure.
To Quentin, who had followed in the king’s wake, the scene seemed to take on the quality of one of his dreams. There were the king and queen riding into the cheering throng of their most loyal subjects. She, sitting before him on his saddle, appeared more radiant and beautiful than any woman he had ever seen. And though her auburn tresses tumbled awry and her features were grimy with soot and tears, he thought she looked the more lovely for it all. And the king, armor shining in the golden light of a glorious afternoon sun suddenly burning through the gloom, held his great sword high overhead and proclaimed the victory in a clear, triumphant voice.
Then Quentin was in the arms of his friends. Toli was pulling him from his horse and crushing him in a fierce hug. Theido, one arm newly bandaged, was nevertheless pounding him on the back with the other, while Durwin gripped his face with both big hands and fairly danced for joy. Ronsard, Trenn, and King Selric shook hands and laughed until tears ran from their eyes and their sides ached.
Quentin, too overcome to speak—his voice seemed to have dried up—just beamed at them all, peering through bleary eyes that sparkled with happy tears. Never had he felt so wonderful, so complete.
The king raised his voice to speak; the glad companions turned to hear him. His voice echoed over the plain, saying, “Today will be a day of mourning for our fallen comrades. Tonight their funeral pyres will light their brave souls’ homeward way. The armies of Heoth have this day claimed many fine soldiers—we will honor them as is befitting men of high valor.
“But tomorrow . . . ,” the Dragon King continued. All eyes were upon him in rapt wonder; many still could not believe that he had indeed returned. “Tomorrow will be a day of celebration throughout the realm of Mensandor! The victory has been won!”
At this, all on the plain of Askelon leaped to a shout, and songs of victory poured forth from all assembled there. Far into the night the songs continued, muted only during the lighting of the funeral pyres of the fallen countrymen.
When at last the pyres had dwindled to glowing embers, Quentin and the others started back to Askelon. Quentin watched as over the darkened field the funeral fires twinkled and winked out one by one as if they were stars extinguishing themselves forever.
The next day was a day Quentin treasured forever. He awakened to fine bright sunlight streaming in through an open window on a breeze perfumed by the fresh scent of wildflowers. He rubbed his eyes and remembered he had spent the night in Askelon Castle.
Jumping up, he found that his clothes had been removed and in their place were the rich garments of a young prince: a tunic of white samite with silver buttons and royal blue trousers, and a richly embroidered cloak woven with threads of gold so that it sparkled in the sunlight as he turned it over in his hands. There was a golden brooch in the shape of a stag’s head and a golden chain to fasten the cloak. He had never seen clothes this wonderful. And shoes! Fine leather boots that fit him perfectly.
A servant brought rose-scented water and waited on him while he washed. Quentin’s hands trembled as he dressed himself and dashed out of his apartment, fastening his cloak with the golden brooch as he ran, quite forgetting the aching stiffness in his leg. Theido and Durwin, both looking nobler than he had ever seen them, were just emerging from their chambers, directly across from his own.
“Ho there, young sir!” cried Theido with a grin. “Who is this bold knight I see before me? Do you know him, Durwin?”
“Unless my eyes deceive me,” said Durwin, “this must be the king’s champion off on some new adventure!”
“It is wonderful! All this—” Words failed him.
“Yes, yes. Wonderful indeed.” Durwin laughed. “But you have seen nothing at all until you have seen the Great Hall of the Dragon King in high celebration!”
“Let’s go there now!” cried Quentin. “I do want to see it!”
“Not so fast,” said Theido. “Breakfast first—though I would hold back somewhat, for there are sure to be delicacies abounding throughout the day. We will join the others first.”
“Then can we go?” asked Quentin anxiously.
“In due time.” Durwin laughed. “You are impetuosity itself. I should have known when I saw you riding off into the wood after good Theido here that you would bring back the king. I should have seen it!”
At breakfast the three joined Toli, Ronsard, and Trenn, all bedecked in the appropriate finery. Toli looked the part of the royal squire and insisted on serving Quentin by his own hand. He would have attended Quentin in his chamber had he not been prevented by servants of his own—Toli, too, was a most honored guest.
Quentin blushed, faintly embarrassed by Toli’s enthusiastic ministrations; for although the Jher did not say a word, Quentin could see the light of a glowing pride kindled in Toli’s wide, dark eyes. To Toli, Quentin appeared at last to have taken his rightful place as a prince of the realm.
In the massive chamber of court, King Eskevar sat upon his high throne, looking grave and righteous as he heard the evidence of the misdeeds practiced against him and his people during his absence.
Lord Larcott and Lord Weldon were released from prison and restored to full favor with their monarch. In their places were Sir Grenett and Sir Bran, until they should have a change of heart and be willing to swear allegiance and fidelity anew to their monarch.
Jaspin appeared next before the throne. So feeble with remorse had he become that he had to be dragged forth by guards and propped up on a stool to hear his sentence.
“For your part, Jaspin,” said Eskevar, not without compassion, “I will be lenient, though you will no doubt perceive your punishment as more harsh than you can bear. Be that as it may, I have decided.
“You shall be banished from this realm to wander the world and make a home wherever you may find men to receive you. You will never trouble Mensandor again.”
Jaspin wailed as if he had been struck with a hot poker. He cried to his brother for mercy. “Allow me to confine myself to my own castle. In time you shall forget this unpleasantness.”
But Eskevar was firm in his resolve. “You may take with you one companion: Ontescue.” He nodded, and the wily Ontescue was brought forth, muttering darkly.
“Ontescue,” the king pronounced, “you, who would be the king’s companion, shall accompany your ‘monarch’ wherever he goes to guide him in exile as you sought to guide him on this throne.”
Ontescue blanched, but he bowed low and said nothing, grateful at least to have saved his head.
A whole host of nobles and knights, prisoners taken on the battlefield, were ushered in. They were each made to pledge their oaths of loyalty once more to the Dragon King, and each then promised a ransom for themselves and agreed to a levy on their lands. But they were released at once.
“I have served my enemies as the law and mercy allow. Now let my friends receive their justice as well,” announced the king.
King Selric was called first and came to stand before Eskevar, who, out of deference to his friend, stood as well. “I cannot reward your courage and valor upon the field nor repay the service you and your soldiers have rendered this crown. For this I shall call you brother, for you have shown yourself more true than any tie blood itself could purchase.
“But as a mere token of my gratitude, let me offer you the worthy ransom with which these nobles have redeemed themselves. Take it and divide it among your men and the families of the brave soldiers who died in this duty. Please accept it—it is but little recompense.”
“I thank you, good Eskevar. You are fair and just. But my men are my responsibility to reward, and I have means and plenty to do it. They will not want who have served in this campaign, nor families lack for the loss of a provider.
“For myself, I am content with your friendship and will rejoice to call you brother.”
At this, King Eskevar descended from the dais and hugged King Selric to himself in a fond embrace. Then the two men raised their clasped hands in the air to the loud acclaim of all who gathered there.
Trenn was called next and came to kneel before the throne. When he stood up to leave, the city of Askelon had a new sheriff. Ronsard followed and was made Lord High Marshal of the realm.
Theido received back his title, which Jaspin had plundered, and his lands as well as those of Jaspin’s at Erlott.
Then it was Durwin’s turn. “Sir, I would reward you with anything in my power to grant: title, position, gold. You only have to name your reward and it is yours,” said Eskevar.
“Your safe return to a just rule of your people is reward enough for me,” said the hermit of Pelgrin Forest. “For myself, I wish only to return to my cottage and live there in peace.”
“Only this: let me remain but a servant of a just and righteous king.” He paused thoughtfully and added, “But if I may request a small favor?”
“It is yours.”
“A promise then that the Dragon King will never again leave his throne empty for so long.”
Eskevar laughed and held up his hand. “So be it. I have promised.
“There is one more I would reward,” said the king, glancing down the assembled ranks of onlookers. Quentin was shocked to hear his own name called.
“Quentin, step forward.”
A thrill of excitement shot through him as he nervously stepped to the foot of the Dragon King’s great throne. He knelt there as had the others, hands folded on his knee.
“You I would reward most profoundly,” said the king, emotion rising in his voice. “For it was you who broke the bonds of sorcery that held me and snatched me back from death. Your blood and prayer freed me from the spell of the evil necromancer.
“All that I have, the treasures of my kingdom, are yours. For on this day you shall become my ward, my son.”
Quentin looked up in uncomprehending amazement, and then he saw Alinea, a queen once more, with her golden circlet upon her brow, approaching him, her emerald eyes sparkling. The king descended toward Quentin, and both then met him where he knelt. They raised him to his feet, and then the king proclaimed in a loud voice that echoed throughout the court and corridors beyond, “Let the celebration begin!”
All at once the doors of the court were thrown open, and trumpets blared the king’s proclamation. The clarion call echoed and reechoed through the castle and through Askelon itself and through the countryside, and anyone within earshot knew that today they would be welcome in the Great Hall of the Dragon King.
Then Quentin, walking between the king and queen, his feet barely touching the floor, was whisked into Askelon’s great hall.
To Quentin it was a dream come true. The hall was hung with ten thousand bright pennons of red and gold. Streamers of flowers formed varicolored canopies overhead, and the windows had been thrown wide to let the sun itself pour gold upon all it touched. The garden beyond had been transformed into a vast dining area where tables were set, and luscious food of every kind and description was being prepared in front of pavilions raised for the cooks and their scullions, who scampered along the tables with platters of meat and fruit and cakes.
A mood of joyous festivity floated on the breeze like the song of a lark. Then the gates were opened and the people flooded in to begin the most wonderful celebration any of them could remember.
The sun was beginning to set when Quentin and his personal shadow, Toli, at last had their fill of feasting and singing and laughing. In the glow of hundreds of torches flickering to light throughout the hall and on the lawn, Quentin sought Durwin, standing alone on the long balcony overlooking the merriment below.
“What is wrong, Durwin?” asked Quentin softly. He had seen a melancholy glimmer in the hermit’s eye when he approached. “Why do you not join in the festivity?”
“Ah, Quentin, it is you. Oh, I have enjoyed myself quite as much as I feel able.” He smiled a smile Quentin thought a little sad. He turned to watch the stars come out one by one in the vast blue vault of the heavens.
“We won,” Quentin breathed, his upturned face lit by glimmering torchlight. “We won at last.”
“So it is! We won the battle . . . but the war is not over, I fear.”
“Not over? What do you mean?”
“Look around you, Quentin. Think about all that has happened to you. The old gods of earth and sky are vanishing; the old order is passing away. The true god is making himself known; his rule is just beginning. But the old ways die hard.
“This is the twilight of the gods, and there is much darkness still ahead before the dawn comes. Ah, but the light will come. That I promise you!”
Then the hermit turned and fixed Quentin with a long and wondering gaze. “Remember your blessing, Quentin. You have some part to play in all of this—the god has his hand on you. Perhaps he has chosen you to help bring in his new order. What you have done is just the beginning; there is still much to do.”
Quentin stood blinking back at the holy hermit.
“Durwin,” he said with a sudden urgency, “I want to go back— back to Dekra. Is there anything to prevent me, do you think?”
“By no means. A ward of the king may go anywhere; all doors are open to you.”
“Would you go with me?”
“I would love nothing better. There is much I would show you.”
“Can we leave right away?”
“As soon as may be, my hasty young sir. However, it would be well to abide in Askelon for a time to allow Eskevar to express his gratitude. But we will go soon enough.” Then, noticing Quentin’s anxious look, he asked, “What? Is one adventure not enough for you? You have to begin another so soon?”
“But there is so much to do, so much to learn.”
“And plenty of time to accomplish what has been given us. We will think about all that some other time. Look! Here comes Toli with someone who would like to meet the hero of the day.”
Quentin turned to see Toli hurrying up; a young girl followed demurely behind him. With a start Quentin realized that it was the girl he had met outside the furrier’s shop that cold winter’s day that now seemed so long ago. She smiled shyly as she approached, and Quentin realized how very much like Queen Alinea she looked. Their auburn hair and emerald eyes were identical. Before Toli could make the introduction, Theido, who came strolling up along the balcony, called out, “Ah, Bria! There you are! After pestering me all day to introduce you, I see you have managed on your own.”
Quentin bowed low and said, none too certainly, “I am Quentin at your service, my lady.” The girl, her green eyes sparkling, rustled a deep curtsy in her pale blue beribboned dress.
“Well you say ‘my lady,’” said Theido, beaming. “Do you not know that you are addressing the princess?” He and Durwin both laughed, and when Quentin turned, they were already walking away arm in arm back to the garden, where music had begun to play under the stars.
“I am Princess Bria,” the girl confessed. “Would you like to listen to the music?”
Quentin was speechless, but his eyes spoke most eloquently for him. Toli fairly pranced for joy, his dark features shining with pleasure, as he ushered the bashful couple along. Bria’s warm hand closed upon Quentin’s as she drew him away into a night he suddenly wished would never end.