Quentin met Toli in the stables—the grouping of low stone structures Toli had turned to the purpose of breeding horses. In his time at Dekra, the Jher had become an excellent trainer and breeder of fine horses. In fact, with the help of Eskevar’s stablemaster, he was developing a remarkable strain of animals that were a cross between the heavier warhorses, such as Balder, and the lighter, more fleet racing stock that were the pride of Pelagia. The resulting breed would possess strength and stamina enough for battle, but would also have the ability to run fast and far without tiring.
Quentin passed under the stone arch and came to stand before Balder’s stall. The old warhorse whinnied softly when he saw his master approaching. Quentin held out his hand and patted the horse’s soft muzzle and stroked the bulging jaw.
“You may stay here this time, old boy. Take care of him, Wilton,” he called over his shoulder to the youngster who helped Toli. “Give him an extra carrot now and then.” Then, patting the horse’s white-starred forehead, he said, “We will go for a long ride when I come back.”
The stable smelled of sweet fennel and straw and the warm bodies of the horses. The smell reminded Quentin of traveling, and he reflected that he was indeed anxious to be off. He crossed to where Toli stood checking their mounts’ tack and gear.
“Good morning, Kenta. I was just about to come and wake you.”
“As you see, I am ready to go; I did not sleep much of the night. Is all prepared?” He turned to slap a milk-white stallion on the shoulder. “Ho, there, Blazer! Are you anxious to stretch those long legs of yours?” The horse tossed its flowing mane and rolled a blue-black eye at Quentin as if to say, “Why are we waiting?”
“I have only to charge Wilton with some final instructions,” remarked Toli. “Then we will go.”
Toli returned and took the reins of both horses and led them out into the quiet streets. Quentin followed at Toli’s right hand and listened to the clop of the horses’ hooves upon the cobbled stones of the ancient streets. In the east the sky shone with a violet haze that lightened into a golden-red hue as the sun rose higher.
Toli sniffed the air and announced, “The wind is from the west over the sea. We will have good weather for our journey.”
“Good. I am hoping to be in Askelon before the new moon. We should be able to manage that, aye?”
“It is possible. With good horses and the king’s road restored through Pelgrin . . .”
“We have horses with wings, my friend. And Eskevar’s road is now complete as far as the Arvin. We shall fly indeed.”
They reached the gates of the city and let themselves out. The gates were seldom tended, since Dekra had no fear of intrusion and no real need for defense.
At the small door that opened within the larger, Quentin paused and took a long last look upon the city he loved. The red stone glowed with the rosy hue of the rising sun. Towers and spires swept majestically into the clear, cool morning air, gleaming and glittering like radiant crystal.
The ordinary sounds of the city waking to life echoed out into the empty streets; a dog barked; a door opened and closed. Behind him Blazer and Riv, Toli’s sleek black mount, shook their bridles, impatient to be moving along. Quentin raised an arm in farewell to Dekra and then turned to his horse.
“It is time for speed,” he called as he swung himself up into the saddle. “On, Blazer!” The horse lifted his forelegs off the ground, gave a little kick, and leaped ahead to the trail.
Quentin pushed an eager course through the low hills and into the wretched marshlands. They planned to hold north as far as Malmarby, thus skirting the boggy wasteland as much as possible. At Malmarby they would hire a boat to cross the inlet and swing along the shore west past Celbercor’s Wall. Then the trail would become easier. They would make for the Arvin River where it came spilling clear and cold out of the Fiskills, ride through the wide foothills above Narramoor along the king’s new road, and speed along through Pelgrin to Askelon.
The days on the trail were uneventful. Game was plentiful, and thanks to Toli’s skill as a hunter, they never lacked for anything the hills could provide.
They arrived at Malmarby village one bright morning, picking the wider path toward the town out of the maze of bogs and wetlands that surrounded it.
As they approached the village, Toli stiffened in the saddle and reined his horse to a halt. Quentin mirrored his actions, wondering what had alarmed his friend.
“What is it? What do you see?”
“Something is amiss in the village yonder; I feel it.”
“It looks peaceful enough. But let us go with caution.”
They paced the horses slowly ahead, and both watched the thickets and dense shrubbery that lined the path for any signal that might confirm Toli’s apprehension.
They saw no one and heard nothing until just before reaching the village itself. Quentin stopped his horse and stood in the saddle, looking around. The muddy track that served as Malmarby’s main street was vacant. No living thing stirred among the rough wooden houses; no sound issued from doorway or window.
“There does not appear to be anyone around. I wonder where—”
He had not finished speaking when four men sprang out of the nearest thicket and grabbed the horses’ bridles. Two of the men were armed with spears and the others with short swords. All appeared very frightened, their faces grim with worry and pale from fear.
It was the look upon these sorry faces that made Quentin hold his hand. “Stay, Toli! We need not fear these men, I think.” Quentin spoke loudly and calmly so that their would-be attackers would know that they intended no harm.
There was a rustle in the thicket, and another man stepped out, or rather fell, into the road. Quentin recognized the thin, careworn face of the village counselor.
“Good morning, Counselor. Is this the way you treat strangers nowadays? Or perhaps you wished to invite us to breakfast.”
The thin, bald man blinked and rushed forward, squinting at the travelers with his one good eye.
“Quentin? Step back, men. It is the prince! Let them go!” Quentin smiled at the appellation. He was not the prince, but his legend had so grown among the simple people of Mensandor that he held that lofty position in their esteem. So they conferred upon him the highest title they could presume; to them he was, quite simply, the prince.
“Yes, it is Quentin. But tell me, Milan, why this rude reception? And where are your townspeople? The village looks deserted.”
“I’m sorry, good sir. We meant you no harm.” The village chief looked heartbroken. He wrung his hands over each other as he spoke, as if he feared some fierce retribution. “It’s just that . . . well, we cannot be too careful these days; there have been stories of evil deeds—we thought it best to post a watch on the road.”
“Robbers?” Quentin asked.
Milan ignored the question and asked one of his own. “You yourself have seen nothing?”
Quentin shrugged and looked at Toli. Toli studied the faces of the men before them and remained silent.
“Well, perhaps our fears are unfounded. Will you stay with us?”
“No, not this time. If we may have the use of one of your excellent boats, we will put off directly. We are going to Askelon as quickly as we can.”
The town counselor fixed Quentin with a strange, knowing look and turned away. “Go on ahead and tell the town. The way is clear; there is nothing to fear,” he called to one of his men. Then to Quentin he added, “The boat is yours. You may take mine; it is the largest by far; my son will go with you.”
“We are grateful for your kindness,” said Quentin as they moved off together.
They passed the simple dwellings that crowded one another all along the path right down to the water’s edge. Quentin saw an occasional fleeting face at a window or peering from a doorway, but by the time they reached the great wooden pier that served as a wharf for the town’s fishing boats, most of Malmarby’s citizens were going about their business as though nothing unusual had happened. Many followed them down to the pier, and many more hailed the regal travelers as they passed.
The boats of Malmarby were broad, boxy things—sturdy enough to withstand the anger of the harshest seas, which they never faced, since the bulky boats served but to ply the sheltered inlet from one end to the other along its length.
Milan’s boat was more than adequate for their need, though the horses showed some trepidation at being led aboard such a strange-looking vessel.
With Milan’s son, Rol, at the long stern oar, they waved themselves away from the throng on the pier. Rol’s strong hands worked the oar, and soon they had entered a deeper channel, where a swift current pulled them along. They raised the small sail on its stubby mast and drifted smartly away.
“Where do you wish to land, my lords?” called Rol from his seat at the tiller.
“Anywhere you think best, as long as it is west of the Wall.” Quentin paused and regarded the hardy youth, who had strong shoulders and a thick thatch of brown hair. He remembered when the good-natured young man had been a skinny little boy who ran alongside the horses whenever a traveler passed through the village—such as Quentin and Toli had often had occasion to do.
“What is it the village fears?” asked Quentin, stepping close to Rol. “What has come to pass since we have last come this way?”
The young man shrugged a muscled shoulder and continued working the oar. “I do not know. Stories, that is all. It does not take much to frighten such a small village.”
“What are these stories you speak of ? Why have they frightened everyone so badly?”
Toli stepped in to hear what Rol had to say.
“This spring some people came to us out of the Suthlands, saying they had been set upon by demons and their homes burned.”
“Demons do not burn homes,” remarked Toli.
Again the tentative shrug. “I do not know if they do or not; that is what the people said.”
“Hmmmm . . . that is strange. Did they say what these demons looked like?”
“They are giants. Fierce. Fire spewed from their mouths, and each one had ten arms with claws for hands.”
“Where did these demons come from? Did they say?”
“No one knew. Some said they came from beyond the sea. From beyond Gerfallon. Others said they saw the sign of the Wolf Star on their foreheads. Maybe they came down from the sky.”
“This is an odd tale,” said Quentin to Toli as they drew aside.
“Why would anyone burn a village of peasants in the Suthlands?” Toli asked. “There is little enough there, and nothing to be gained by such doings.”
“I cannot guess. The realm is at peace these past ten years. We will tell the king about this; they may have heard something in Askelon.”
Rol proved an able seaman, and the day’s end found them close to their destination. A faint mist gathered on the water at the shoreline and pushed out into the inlet. Through the gray mist they saw the dark plane of the Great Wall jutting out into the deep water as the shadows lengthened upon the land.
Rol steered the boat around the Wall’s looming edge and made for the rocky strand. No one spoke as they passed by the imposing shape. The steady slap and dip of Rol’s long oar was the only sound that broke the stillness of the water.
Quentin watched the mist curling around the base of the Wall and thought it made the Wall appear to be floating on a foundation of billowing clouds, while the deepening sky above seemed to grow hard and solid as stone as it darkened with the twilight. He started when he heard a hollow knock and felt the slight jolt that told him they had touched shore.
“Will you stay with us tonight, Rol? We will camp a little way along the trail, up there.” Quentin pointed to a tree-lined rise that bordered the shore. “Toli will have a fire going in no time, and we will have some hot food.”
“Thank you, my lord. I am tired—and hungry, too. I cannot say which I am the more.”
“Well, you have done us a great service, and it shall be rewarded. Here,”—Quentin reached into the soft leather pouch that hung at his belt—“a gold ducat for your trouble, and one for your kindness.”
Rol bowed low as he thrust out his callused hand. “Sir, it is too much. I cannot accept so much.” He fingered the gold coins and handed them back to Quentin.
“No, you have earned them both, and our praise besides. Keep them and say no more about it. But, look! Toli is already making camp. Let us hurry and join him, or we may be too late for our supper.”
The three reclined around the fire and talked as the stars came out in the immense black vault of the heavens. Below them on the strand, the water lapped gently against the smooth, round rocks, and above them, in the trees, a nightbird called to its mate. Tall pines stood over them, and the air smelled of fresh wind and balsam.
Quentin drifted easily to sleep, nodding in his place, until he at last bade his companions good night and rolled himself in his cloak. Toli added another log to the fire and got up to check the horses before he himself turned in. Rol already slept soundly, judging from the slow, even rhythm of his breathing.
Toli stretched and lifted his eyes to the night sky, now sparkling with tiny lights. As he scanned the heavens, his eye caught a curious sight. He stood for a moment, contemplating what he saw, and then he turned and crept softly toward Quentin.
“Kenta . . .” He nudged his sleeping friend gently. “Kenta, I want you to see something.”
Quentin turned and sat up. He peered intently into Toli’s face, lit on one side by the firelight. He could not read the expression there.
“What is it? Have you at last seen the White Stag?”
“No, nothing so important.” Toli dismissed the jest. “I thought you might want to see this.” He led Quentin a short space away from the fire and the overhanging boughs of the trees.
“Look to the east . . . there just above the Wall. Do you see it?”
“A star? Yes, I see it—that very bright star.”
“See how it shines. Do you think it odd?”
“It is the Wolf Star. But you are right; it does have a different look tonight. What do you make of it?”
Toli gazed upward at the brilliant star and at last turned away, saying, “I do not know what to make of it. I only wanted you to see it, so that we may be agreed about it.”
Quentin was not satisfied with this answer. Toli, who was evidently withholding something, declined to speak further. There was no use in pushing the matter further until the Jher was ready to say more. Whatever was tumbling around in that head, thought Quentin, would come out sooner or later, but only when Toli desired it so. He would wait. Quentin sighed and rolled himself once more in his cloak and fell to sleep.