From the sound of the gurgling crash that filled the rock-rimmed canyon, the Arvin’s first cataract lay just ahead. Blazer and Riv picked their way among the loose stones on the canyon floor as Quentin and Toli scanned the soaring cliffs above. All around them towered jagged spires of rock. They moved carefully, as through a giant’s petrified forest.
They passed between two large outcroppings of dull brown stone upon which rested a great slab forming the posts and lintel of an enormous doorway. “Azrael’s Gate,” muttered Quentin as they passed quickly through, and then, brightening considerably, “Look! Eskevar’s road.” He pointed across the Arvin’s racing headwaters to the other side, where the road began.
Without hesitation Quentin urged his steed forward into the frigid water. The swift stream splashed around the horse’s legs and wet his rider to the knees. Quentin found the icy tingle the perfect tonic to banish the oppressive foreboding that had settled upon him—as it always did— when he rode through the eerie canyon that ended in Azrael’s Gate. Now, with that behind and the clear, wide road ahead, his spirits suddenly lifted.
“It won’t be long now,” he called over his shoulder to Toli, just then splashing into the course. “Tomorrow night we will dine with Durwin, and the following will see us at the Dragon King’s table.”
“I thought you were the one for haste,” replied Toli. “We can do better than that!” At these words he slapped Riv over the shoulders with the reins and leaned into the saddle. The horse spurted ahead, sending torrents of icy water up into the air as he surged past Quentin and clattered up out of the stream and struck for the road.
“A challenge!” shouted Quentin at Toli’s retreating figure. He snapped Blazer’s reins as they clambered out of the water and dashed after Toli in chase.
High in the lonely foothills, the sound of their race echoed and reechoed from one blank stone face to another. Their jubilant cries sang through the rills and crevices, and rang in rock hollows and caves. The horses’ hooves struck sparks from the stone paving as they flew.
At last, exhausted and out of breath, the two trotted to a halt upon a ridge. Below them the foothills dropped away in gentle arcs, fading from violet to blue in the hazy distance. Away to the south stood the lofty, snow-wrapped crags of the Fiskills, where endless winds howled among the sharp peaks.
“Ah!” sighed Quentin as he drew a deep breath. “Such a sight! It is a beautiful land, is it not?”
“It is that and more indeed. My people have a word for the land— I do not think I have ever told you: Allallira.”
“No, I have never heard it. What does it mean?”
“I cannot be precise—there is no exact meaning in your tongue. But it means something like ‘the land of flowing peace.’”
“Allallira, I like that; it fits.” They started down together. “And it certainly is peaceful. Look out across those valleys. These years have been good ones. The land has produced full measure. The people are content. I cannot think but that the god has blessed the realm in recompense for the troubled times when Eskevar was away from his throne.”
“Yes, these have been good years. Golden times. I hope we will see them endure.”
Quentin cast a sideways glance at his companion. Toli’s eyes were focused on some distant horizon. He appeared as if in a trance. Quentin did not want to break the happy mood, so did not pursue the matter further. They continued down the slope without speaking.
The next day dawned fair and bright, warmed by soft winds from the west. The travelers were already well on their way when the sun popped over Erlemros, the Fiskills’ highest peak. The road made the going easy, and they pushed at a steady pace, reaching the lowlands by midday.
They ate a hasty meal among moss-covered stones in the shade of an ancient oak and started again on their way; they had not traveled far when Toli said, “Along the road, yonder. We have some company.”
Quentin raised his eyes and saw very faintly, and very far away, what appeared to be a group of travelers coming toward them on foot. There was just a glimpse, and then a bend in the road took them from Quentin’s sight.
“Merchants, perhaps?” Quentin wondered aloud. Often traders who sold their wares from town to town banded together in traveling companies for mutual entertainment and protection. “I would like to buy a trinket for Bria.”
They continued on, and Quentin thought of all the things his love would enjoy. They rounded the side of a grassy hill covered with scarlet wildflowers and approached the spot where they had first seen the travelers. “Odd,” said Quentin. “We should have met them by now. Perhaps they stopped up the road beyond that clump of trees.” He pointed ahead to where a bushy stand of trees overhung the road, sheltering all beyond from view.
They continued on with a growing perplexity.
When they reached the shelter of the trees, they could look once again far down the road; there was not a single person to be seen.
“This becomes stranger every step,” said Quentin.
Toli swung himself down from his horse and walked along the road, his eyes searching the dust for any signs that might explain the disappearance of the group they had both seen quite clearly only a short while before.
They moved forward slowly. Quentin watched the wooded area to the right of the road. Then Toli stopped and knelt down. He traced his finger around the outline of footprints in the dust.
“They stopped here before leaving the road . . . there.” He pointed into the trees.
“How many were there?”
“I cannot say from these signs. But there were men and women, children too.”
“Most peculiar,” mused Quentin. “What sent them scurrying into the woods? Not the sight of two horsemen, surely.”
Toli shrugged and climbed back into the saddle. “Here is something else we must remember to tell the king.”
“Indeed we will.”
At dusk they camped in a grassy glade just off the road. The sun sent ruby fingers sifting through the gossamer clouds that moved gracefully across the violet arc of heaven. Quentin stood in a meadow dotted with yellow flowers that brushed pollen-laden heads against his legs. With his arms crossed on his chest and a look of dreamy concentration, he contemplated the imposing shape before him: high up on its plateau, the thin trail leading up like a white wisp rising from the lower ground, stood the High Temple of Ariel.
“You miss your old home, no doubt,” said Toli, coming up behind him.
“No . . . ,” said Quentin absently, then laughed as he stirred and turned away. “No more than one misses a toothache. I was only thinking of the time when I lived in the temple. For me they were days of loneliness and frustration—endless studying, chores, and inscrutable rules. So many rules, Toli. I would never have made a good priest; I could never see the sense of anointing the sacred rock. It always seemed such a waste of time, not to mention expensive oil.
“And the sacrifices—the gold bracelets, silver bowls, and carefully groomed animals—simply made the priests wealthier and fatter than they already were.”
“Whist Orren demands more than bracelets, bowls, or flesh. And he lives not only in temples made by men, but in their lives.”
“Yes, the God Most High holds out freedom to men; the price is unbending devotion. The lesser gods do not demand as much, but who can know them? They are like the mists on the water—when the sun touches them, they vanish.”
They turned and went back to settle themselves for the night. They ate, and Toli turned the horses out to graze in the sweet grass as evening gathered its long purple robes about the quiet glade.
Quentin lay with his head resting upon his saddle with a clear, unhindered view of the spangled heavens. The stars never change, he observed. And then, even as he framed the thought, he remembered the conversation he had had earlier with Toli. He turned his head toward the east and saw the strangely glittering star Toli had pointed out to him several nights before.
“The Wolf Star seems to grow brighter,” observed Quentin.
“I have been thinking the same thing, Kenta.”
“I wonder what High Priest Biorkis would say to an omen such as this. The priests surely have their explanations.”
“Go and ask him.”
“What? Do you think I dare?”
“Why not? There is no harm.”
“I do not believe my ears! Toli tells me to seek an omen from an unholy source! You, Toli, of all people, know I have turned away from tokens and omens. I follow a different god—we both do.”
“I do not suggest you ask an omen of Ariel, or discard the truths you have learned. Only that you go to your onetime friend and ask his opinion of a strange event. There is no harm in that. Besides, Whist Orren, who holds the stars in their courses, sometimes declares his will through such portents. Any who will look may see what is written there.”
“You are right, Toli. Biorkis is still my friend. Besides, I would like to take a walk. Come along.” Quentin was on his feet and striding off across the meadow toward the temple trail, which showed in the bright moonlight as a silver thread winding its way up the side of the steep hill.
They reached the trail and began the circuitous ascent to the top. As they climbed higher, Quentin looked out into the moon-bright night. The valley glimmered darkly; every leaf of tree and blade of grass was traced in spun silver. Away in the distant hills, shepherds’ fires winked like stars fallen upon the land.
They gained the top at last and entered the expansive courtyard. In the center of the white, stone-paved yard stood a torch on a carven stone stanchion. Its fluttering flame cast a wide circle of light around its base and reflected on the closed doors of the temple.
“We will see if pilgrims such as we are made welcome by night,” whispered Quentin.
They crossed the courtyard and climbed the many steps to the main entrance. Upon reaching the huge doors, Quentin lifted his poniard from its sheath at his belt and rapped upon the solid beams with its handle.
He waited, knowing at this late hour he must rouse some nearby priest from his sleep. As he waited, an uncanny sensation came over Quentin—a feeling that he was once more the skinny temple acolyte of many years ago. For a moment he looked at the dark stone of the temple and the moonlight-filled courtyard through the eyes of his youth.
He knocked again and immediately heard the shuffle of someone on the other side.
“Be on your way, pilgrim. Come back tomorrow. The priests are asleep,” came the muffled voice from the other side.
“Yet there is one who will admit us if you take our names to him.”
“There is no one who would admit you but the high priest himself.”
“Excellent! He is the very man we seek!”
“No, go away! Come back tomorrow; I’ll not disturb him tonight.”
They heard the footsteps shuffling away again on the other side of the door.
“Well, he means to do us no favors,” said Quentin. “But there is another entrance at the rear of the temple. We will try that, since we have come this far.”
The two moved like shadows under the high portico of the temple and reached the far south side, that which overlooked the peaceful valley. They walked along the side of the temple, the moonlight falling in slanting rays, forming bands of light and shadow under the mighty eaves.
“Listen,” said Toli. “Voices.”
Quentin paused and cocked his head to one side. Voices from a little way ahead and below them carried on the still air. The sound was but a dull murmur, barely recognizable.
They continued more cautiously, and the voices grew louder. Soon the travelers were crouching behind the immense columns of the temple, looking down upon a small circle of robed men bent over a shining object.
“They are star searching,” remarked Quentin excitedly. “And look— that one in the center. I think I know that shape.”
Quentin stepped boldly out of the shadow of the column and descended a few steps toward the group. He took a deep breath and said in a loud voice, “Priests of Ariel, will you receive two curious pilgrims?”
The startled priests turned around quickly and beheld the figures of two young men descending toward them.
The priest in the center of the huddle stepped forward and replied, “Pilgrims are always welcome to the shrine of Ariel, though most choose to make oblations in the light of day.”
“We do not come to make oblations, or to inquire of the god Ariel, but of a priest instead.”
“Priests are but the servants of their god; it is he who declares his will.”
“Neither do we ask for the god’s interest in any affairs of ours,” said Quentin, approaching the priest. He could see the man’s face full in the moonlight now and knew that he addressed his old tutor. “We would speak to you man-to-man.”
Quentin smiled as a faint glimmer of recognition lit the priest’s visage.
“My heart tells me that I should know you, sir,” said the high priest slowly. The old eyes searched the young man’s features for a clue that might tell him who it was that addressed him. “But a name does not come to my lips. Have we met, then?”
Quentin moved closer and placed his hands on the priest’s rounded shoulders. “Is the life of a priest so busy that he has no time for memories?”
“Memories do not walk the temple yards by night, nor do they confront their bearers face-to-face.”
“Then perhaps you will remember this.” Quentin dug into his pouch at his belt and produced a silver coin. He handed it to the priest.
“This is a temple coin. Then you must be . . .”
“You gave me that coin yourself, Biorkis, many years ago.”
“Quentin? Is this Quentin the acolyte?” the old man sputtered.
“Yes, I have returned to see you, my old friend—for so I always considered you.”
“But how you have changed. You have grown up a fine man. You are well—as I can see. What brings you here tonight of all nights?”
The other priests looked upon this reunion in wonder. They gathered close around to see who this returned stranger might be.
“Can we walk a little aside?” asked Quentin. “I have something to ask you.”
The two moved off, followed closely by Toli. The priests fell to murmuring their amazement and talking among themselves.
“Your name has grown in the land,” said Biorkis as they walked to a rocky outcropping at the edge of the plateau.
“Oh? You hear the tales up here, do you?”
“We hear what we wish to hear. The peasants bring us no end of information. Some of it useful. But you are known as the prince who saved the Dragon King and defeated the monstrous sorcerer, Nimrood.”
“It was not I who defeated Nimrood, but my friend Toli here.”
Biorkis bowed to Toli and indicated that they should all seat themselves upon the rocks. “They also say that you are building a city in the Wilderlands which rises by magic from the stones of the earth.”
“Again, that is not my doing. Dekra is my city only in that the gracious Curatak have allowed me to join in their work of restoring it to its former glory.”
“This is what the people say, not I. As for myself, I surmise that the truth of the stories is to be found at the heart—like the stone of an apricot. But I know from this that my former acolyte is doing well and has risen in the esteem of his countrymen. But why should you seek me out now? The temple doors have not been closed these many years.”
“We come to ask your opinion of something we have seen.” Quentin turned toward the east and pointed out across the quiet, moon-filled valley. “That star rising yonder. The Wolf Star. Has it not changed in some way of late? Do the priests detect a waxing of its power?”
“So you have not forsaken your studies altogether. You still seek signs in the night sky.”
“No, I must admit that I no longer study the stars in their courses. This event was pointed out to me by Toli, who remarked on it a few nights ago.”
“Well, your Toli is right. In fact, we have been following this star with interest for many months. Tonight, as you have seen, we were once more examining the charts and seeking an answer to this wonder.”
“Then you do not know what this sign portends?”
“Does one ever?” Biorkis laughed. “Why do you look so shocked? A priest may have doubts—even a high priest. Ah, but we have our theories. Yes, many theories.”
“That is what we have come to hear—your theories. What do you think it means?”