Durwin’s long brown robes swept along behind him as he rushed through the darkened corridors of Askelon Castle. Torches lit the way, sputtering in the gusty air as Durwin hurriedly passed. Ahead of him he could see a pair of doors that opened onto a patch of the night sky infused with the moon’s radiant beams.
He stepped across the threshold and onto the balcony, then paused. There, a few paces from him, stood the slim figure of a woman; her dark hair tumbled down in shimmering ringlets and curls, and her face was averted, revealing the shapely curve of her slender neck. She was dressed in a loose-fitting gown of white held at her trim waist by a long blue sash that trailed nearly to the ground.
“Your Majesty,” said Durwin, softly announcing himself. “I am here.”
The woman turned and smiled.
“Good Durwin, thank you for coming so quickly.”
“Bria . . . I thought . . .”
“You thought I was the queen, I know. But it was I who sent you the summons.”
“You look so much like your mother standing there. With the moonlight in your hair, I thought you were Alinea.”
“I will accept that as a compliment, Durwin. For me there is none higher. But you must be tired from your journey. I will not keep you, but I must speak to you a little. Do sit down, please.”
She raised an arm and indicated a stone bench a short space away. Durwin took her arm and walked her along the balcony. “The night is beautiful, is it not?” he said.
“Yes, it is—very.” The young woman spoke as if she had just become aware that it was night. The hermit could tell she had something on her mind that disturbed her.
“I would not have troubled you, but I could think of no better help than to have you here. Theido is gone, and Ronsard with him.”
“It is nothing, my lady. I am only too glad to know that this old hermit may still be of some use to those who dwell in Castle Askelon. I would have come sooner if I had known—your courier had quite a time finding me. I was in the forest, gathering herbs and tending to the illness of a peasant’s wife nearby.”
“I knew you would come as soon as you could. I—” The princess broke off, unable to say what she felt in her heart.
Durwin waited, and then said, “What is the matter, Bria? You may speak freely. I am your friend.”
“Oh, Durwin!” Her hands trembled, and her head sank. She buried her face in her hands, and he thought she would cry. But she drew a deep breath and raised her face to the moon, clear-eyed. In that moment the young woman reminded him more than ever of another woman who bore an immense inner strength in times of great distress—Queen Alinea.
“It is the king,” Bria said at last. “Oh, Durwin, I am very worried. He is not like himself. I think he is very ill, but he will see none of his doctors. He laughs at any suggestion I make regarding his health. My mother is worried too. But she can do nothing either. And there is something else.”
Durwin waited patiently.
“I do not know what it is—trouble, I think. Somewhere.” She turned and fixed the hermit with a smile that, though it graced her mouth, did not light her eyes as it normally would. “Quentin is coming.”
“I have not forgotten. We are all going to celebrate Midsummer’s Day together.”
“No—he is coming now. Eskevar sent for him. Even knowing that he would come for Midsummer, the king sent a special courier to bring him. That is how I know something is wrong.”
“It could just be that he wishes to see him sooner—just a whim, that’s all.”
Bria smiled again. “Thank you for that, but you know the Dragon King as well as I do. He does nothing on a whim. He has some reason for wanting him here, but what it is I cannot guess.”
“Then we will wait and see. When will Quentin be here?”
“If he left upon receiving the summons, I believe he will be here the day after tomorrow—the day after that at the latest.”
“Good. That is not so long to wait—you will see. In the meantime I will try to discover what ails the king—in body or in spirit. Anything that may be done, I will do. Worry no more on it, my lady.”
“Thank you, Durwin. You will not tell them that I sent for you?”
“No, if you would rather not. I will just say that I grew weary of my books and medicines and desired the warmth of fellowship with my friends. I came early to the celebration, that is all.”
“I feel better already knowing you are here.”
“I am content. Though I imagine you would rather a certain young man stood here right now.”
Bria smiled, and this time the light sparkled in her deep green eyes. “Oh, I’ll not deny it. But I am content to wait. It does cheer me somewhat to know that he comes sooner.”
They talked some more and then rose; Bria bade Durwin a good night. Durwin escorted her to the door back into the castle and then turned to stroll along the balcony alone.
He leaned his arms on the parapet and looked into the gardens below. In the moonlight he saw a solitary figure pacing among the beds of ruby roses, now indigo in the moonlight.
He could not see who this person might be, but it was clear from the altered gait that the walker had fallen prey to a melancholy mood. He hunched forward and crossed his arms on his chest, stopped and started continually.
Durwin looked on, and then the figure seemed to sense that he was being watched. He stopped and drew himself up and turned to look quickly into the balcony. Durwin drew away, but he had seen what he had already guessed. In the moment the face swung around, the moonlight illumined it, and Durwin knew that it was Eskevar, the Dragon King.
Biorkis’s long, white-braided beard—the symbol of his office—glowed like a bright waterfall frozen in the moonlight. His wrinkled face, though still as round and plump as ever, looked itself like a smaller moon returning its reflected light to a larger parent. He gazed long into the sky and then said, “It may be something, or it may not. The heavens are filled with signs and wonders, and not all of them have to do with men.”
“If you thought that, would you be standing out in the night, stargazing?” “No, likely not. But this is a most peculiar phenomenon—one does not see such a sign but once in a lifetime, perhaps not even then. To chart its progress would be of value aside from any meaning we might derive from its study.”
“You evade my question, Biorkis. Why? Certainly the star is there for all to see and make of it what they will.”
An expression of great weariness appeared on the face of the high priest as he turned to regard Quentin. “To the best of my knowledge, this star is an evil sign.”
He had spoken simply and softly. But the words chilled Quentin to the bone; he shivered as if the night had suddenly grown colder.
Quentin sought to lighten the remark. “Omens are always either good or bad, depending on the reader.”
“Ah, but the greater the sign, the greater the consequence. And this is a great sign indeed. Surpassingly great.”
Quentin raised his eyes to the eastern sky and regarded the star carefully. It was bright, yes, but there were other stars nearly as bright. He looked back at Biorkis with a questioning glance.
“It has only begun to show itself,” said the high priest in answer to the look. “With every passing night it grows brighter, and so does the evil it portends.”
“What is the nature of this evil? Can you tell?”
“Evil is evil; you know that. What does it matter? The suffering will be great in any case. Flood, famine, pestilence, war—all are the same; all destroy in their turn.”
“Well said. Your words are true, but men can do much to prepare against an evil time, if they know its source.”
“Here is where our theories guide us. Some say that the star will grow and grow until it fills the sky, blotting out the sun and moon and stars. Then it will touch the earth and drive all living things insane before consuming them with fire.
“Others say that each nation has a star and that this Wolf Star represents a fierce and brutal nation that rises against other nations and seeks to extinguish them with its power.
“Still others regard this as the beginning of the end of mankind on earth. This star is the token of Nin, the destroyer god who brings his armies down to make war on the nations of the earth.”
“And you, Biorkis, what do you say?”
“I believe all are right. Some part of every guess will be shown in truth.”
“When may the truth be evident?”
“Who can say? Much that is foretold does not come to pass. Our best divinations are only the mumblings of blind men.” Biorkis turned his face away. “Nothing is certain,” he said softly. “Nothing is certain.”
Quentin stood, went to the old priest, and placed a hand on his shoulder. “Old man, come with us. You have lived long enough to see the gods for what they are. Let us show you a god worthy of your devotion. The Most High, Lord of All. In him you will find the peace you seek. You told me once that you sought a brighter light.”
Biorkis looked at him wearily. “You remember that?”
“Yes, and more. I remember you were my only friend in the temple. Come with us now and let us show you the light you have been seeking for so long.”
Biorkis sighed, and it seemed as if all the earth groaned with a great exhaustion. “I am old—too old to change. Yes, these eyes have searched for the truth, but it has been denied them. I know the hollowness of serving these petty gods, but I am high priest. I cannot go with you now. Maybe once I could have turned away as Durwin did, as you have—but not now. It is too late for me.”
Quentin looked sadly down on his old friend. “I am sorry.”
Toli had risen and was moving away. Quentin turned and looked back at Biorkis, who still remained perched upon a rock, looking out into the peaceful valley. “It is not too late. You have only to turn aside and he will meet you. The decision is yours.”
Quentin and Toli walked down the sinuous trail side by side without speaking. When they reached the meadow and the dimly glowing embers of their fire, Quentin said, “You knew the star to be an evil sign, didn’t you?”
“Yes, I considered it so.”
“But you suggested we go to the temple. Why?”
“I wanted to hear what other learned men might say. For all their spiritual uncertainties, the priests are still men of great knowledge.”
“And did Biorkis confirm your worst fears?”
“Biorkis spoke of what might be, not what will be. Only the God Most High can say what will be. His hand is ever outstretched to those who serve him.”
“Well, if Biorkis is right in his speculations, then we will have need of that strong hand before long, I fear.”