The earth moves through stages, epochs. The ancient legends tell of previous earth ages—four at least. We are living in the fifth age of man. Each age runs its allotted course and then gives birth to a new age.” Durwin spread his hands out on the table. Quentin, his chin in his hands, stared at the holy hermit in rapt attention. Around them in Durwin’s chambers, candles flickered and filled the room with a hazy yellow glow.
“These ages may run a thousand years or ten thousand. Of course, there is no way to tell how long it will last, but the ancients believed that before the end of each age, the world is thrown into turmoil. Great migrations of people commence; great wars are fought as nation rises against nation; the heavens are filled with signs and wonders. Then comes the deluge: all the earth is flooded, or covered with ice. Then fire burns the earth and erases all the signs of the preceding age. It is a time of chaos and darkness, great cataclysms and death. But out of it comes a new age, both finer and higher than the one before.”
As Durwin spoke, an eerie sense of dreadful fascination crept over Quentin. He shrugged it off and asked, “But must the earth be destroyed completely for a new age to be born?”
Durwin mused on this question, but before he could open his mouth to speak, Toli answered. “Among my people there are many stories of the time before this one. It is said that the Jher came into being in the third age, when the world was still very young and men talked with the animals and lived in peace with one another.
“These stories are very old; they have been with us longer than the art of our oldest storytellers. But it is said that the destruction of the world may be averted by some great deed—though what it is that may be done is not known.
“Tigal, the Star Maker’s son, is said to have saved the world in the second age by hitching his horses to his father’s chariot and carrying off Morhesh, the Great Evil One, after wounding him with a spear made of a single shaft of light. He threw Morhesh into the Pit of the Night, and Morhesh’s star was extinguished so the earth did not burn.”
Durwin nodded readily. “So it is! As I was about to say, it is believed that not every age must end in calamity. The destruction may be lessened or turned aside completely—usually by some act of heroism, some supreme sacrifice or the coming of a mighty leader to lead mankind into the new age.”
“Do you believe this?” Quentin asked.
“I believe in the truth of what has been handed down to us. Those who witnessed it explained it as well as they could with the words and ideas they had available to them. Certainly, much remains unexplained; but it seems strange that each race has somewhere in its past memories of this sort.”
Quentin leaned forward and placed his elbows on the table and clasped his hands. “I meant, do you believe that the star in the sky betokens the end of the age?”
Durwin pulled on his chin and scratched his jaw. He looked at Quentin with quick black eyes and smiled suddenly. “I believe a new age is coming, yes, such as the world has never known. A time of mighty upheaval and change. And I believe change does not take place without struggle, without pain. So it is!”
“It all seems very grim to me,” admitted Quentin.
“You should not think of the pain involved,” responded Toli. “Think of the greater glory of the new age.”
Toli and Quentin had ridden from Narramoor to Durwin’s cottage in Pelgrin Forest. They had made good time and arrived late in the afternoon, just as the sun slipped into the treetops.
“Durwin is not here,” Toli had said as they approached the cottage. They looked around before Quentin went inside. He returned without a clue to where the hermit might be.
“He may be away only for a short while, perhaps tending someone nearby. Maybe he will return by nightfall, but I think not. His cloak is gone and his pouch, though his bag of medicines is inside.”
They had then decided to ride through the night, and reached Askelon’s mighty gates as the moon set in the west. Not wishing to disturb the servants or awaken the king and queen, they went instead to the chambers kept for Durwin when he was in residence at the castle. There, to their surprise and pleasure, they found the hermit slumped in his chair with a scroll rolled up in his lap. He was sound asleep and snoring.
Upon their entrance, despite their attempts to be quiet, Durwin woke up and greeted them warmly. “You have ridden all night! You are hungry; I will fetch you some food from the kitchen.”
He hurried away with a candle in his hand while Quentin and Toli pulled off their cloaks, dipped their hands in the basin, and attempted to wash away their fatigue. They then settled themselves, exhausted, into the chairs and dozed until Durwin returned with bread and cheese and fruit he had filched from the pantry.
“Here, sit at this table and eat while I tell you what I have been doing since we were last together.” Durwin told them of his studies and his healing work among the peasants, and at last Quentin told him about their audience with Biorkis and their discussion about the star that nightly grew brighter.
They had talked long and late. At last they rose from the table and turned to curl themselves in their chairs to sleep. Just then a barely 414 audible knock sounded on Durwin’s door. Quentin said, “Durwin, you have a visitor, I believe. Do you entertain so late at night?”
“I, as you well know, did not expect a single person in my chambers tonight, and I find not one, but two. So now I entertain any possibility! Open the door and let them in, please.”
Quentin stepped to the door and opened it. He was not prepared for the greeting he received.
“Quentin, my love. You are here!”
Quentin instantly threw his arms wide, swept up a young woman in a long, white woolen robe, and buried his face in her hair.
“Bria! I did not know how much I missed you until this moment.”
The two lovers clung in a long embrace, breaking off suddenly when they remembered that they were not alone. Quentin gently set his lady back upon her slippered feet. Durwin and Toli smiled as they looked on.
“And what, I might well ask, brings you to this hermit’s chambers so late at night?” Quentin demanded, taking her hand and pulling her into the room.
“Why, I was passing by and fancied I heard voices. I fancied one of them was yours, my love.”
“Ah! Your lips utter the answer my ears long to hear. But come, I have much to tell you. Much has happened since I was with you last.”
“Not here you don’t!” replied Durwin. “In a very short time this chamber will ring with snores of sleeping! You two doves must take your cooing elsewhere.” He beamed happily as he shooed them out the door.
Quentin and Bria walked hand in hand along the darkened passageway and out onto the same balcony the princess and Durwin had occupied only a night earlier.
As Quentin opened the balcony door, the faint light of a glowing sky met his eyes. Dawn’s crimson fingers stretched into the sky in the east, though the sun lingered below the far horizon, and one or two stars could still be seen above.
“I have missed you, my darling,” sighed Bria. “My heart has mourned your absence.”
“I am here now, and with you. I find my greatest happiness when I am at your side.”
“But you will leave again—too soon, I fear. My father has a task for you, and we will be separated again.”
“Do you know what it is?”
Bria shook her head.
“Then how do you know it will take me away from you so suddenly?”
“A woman knows.”
“Well, then, we will have to make each moment we are together so much sweeter.” So saying, Quentin pulled her to him gently and kissed her. She wound her arms around him and rested her head upon his chest.
Quentin looked at the placid sky as its rosy red brightened to a golden hue. The mighty ramparts of Askelon Castle gleamed like burnished gold, magically transformed from their ordinary state of dull stone by the dawn’s subtle alchemy.
“Quentin . . .” Her voice was small and frightened. “What is happening? I am afraid, though I do not know why; the king holds his own counsel and will see no one. And when I ask him about the affairs of the realm, he only smiles and pats my hand and tells me that a princess should think of only happy things and not concern herself with mundane matters.
“I am worried for him. Oh, Quentin, when you see him, you will know—he is not well. He is pale and drawn. Some dark care sits heavily upon his brow. My mother and I do not know what to do.”
“Hush, my love. All will be well—you will see. If there is anything that can be done to ease his mind, I will do it. And if medicines have any effect, Durwin will know it and avail.
“And yet, I must confess that I am troubled, too. But by nothing so easily explained—though I wish that were the case. I would give a fortune to any who could calm the turmoil I feel growing inside me.
“There is trouble, Bria. I feel it, though all about me appears peaceful and serene. I start at shadows, and night gives me no rest; it is as if the wind itself whispers an alarm to my ears, but no sound is heard.”
Bria sighed deeply and clutched him tighter. “What is happening? What will become of us, my darling?”
“I do not know. But I promise you this: I will love you forever.”
They held each other for a while, and the new sun rose and filled the sky with golden light.
“See how the sun banishes the darkness; so love will send our troubles fleeing from us—I promise.”
“Can love accomplish so much, do you think?” Bria said dreamily.
“It can do all things.”