Listen, Theido; I say we should turn back. We have already come too far, and it is past the time when we should have been in Askelon. The king will be fearing our disappearance soon, if not already.”
“But we have not seen what we came to see: the enemy, if there is one. We would be remiss if we returned now. Our task is not completed.”
Ronsard sat hunched in the saddle, one arm resting on the pommel, the other bent around him as he pressed his arm into the small of his back. “If I do not get off this horse soon, I may never walk again.”
“Since when have you been fond of walking? The lord high marshal of the realm should set a better example for his men,” joked Theido, swiveling in his saddle to cast an eye upon the four knights behind.
“My men know me for what I am,” said Ronsard. “But I do not jest when I say that we should return at once. It is no light thing to keep a king waiting.”
“Nor is it acceptable to bring him useless information—the one would foil his purpose as easily as the other.” Theido turned his horse and brought himself close to Ronsard. “But I will tell you what we will do, so that I may hear the end of your complaining. We will send one of the knights back with a message of what we have discovered so far, and of our intention to continue until we are satisfied.”
“Fair enough. Also relay that we will return as soon as we can, by the most expeditious means, with a full report.”
“Agreed.” Theido turned his sun-browned face toward the place where the knights waited, resting their mounts before continuing their journey. “Martran! Come up here.” He signaled to one of them.
The knight approached his leaders on foot and saluted. “Martran,” commanded Ronsard, “you are to ride to the king at once and deliver this message: We are continuing on our mission and are sorry for the delay in returning to him sooner. Tell him we have seen nothing to occasion his concern. Tell him also that we will return to him as soon as we have found what we seek, or have some better report to give him. Do you understand?”
“Yes, my lord,” replied the knight crisply.
“Repeat the message,” ordered Ronsard.
The knight repeated the message word for word with the same inflection given to the words as Ronsard himself had used. “Very well,” said Ronsard. “Be on your way. Stop for nothing and no one.”
The knight saluted again and walked back to his horse. He mounted and rode off at once, without looking back.
“Now then,” said Theido, snapping his reins impatiently, “let us proceed. We have lingered here too long already.”
Ronsard raised himself in his saddle and called to the remaining knights. “Be mounted! Forward we go!”
Since leaving Askelon, they had ridden farther and farther south, first to Hinsenby and then along the coast as it dipped toward the Suthland region of Mensandor. They had passed through Persch and a host of peasant villages unnamed on any map.
Now they approached a rocky stretch of coastland that rose in sharp cliffs at the brink of the sea. This was where the Fiskill Mountains spent themselves in their southernmost extremity. The crags marched right down to the sea, and there the land dropped away as if it had been divided by the chop of an axe. The sea lay crowded with jagged teeth of immense rocks, some as big as islands, though they jutted sharply out of the ocean’s swell, bare and lifeless, uninhabited except as roosts for myriads of squawking seabirds.
A narrow, treacherous track climbed upward through the cliffs and entwined itself among the tors. Now it cut through a wall of rock so narrow that a man’s outstretched hands touched either side, and now it swung out upon the sheer cliff face, where one misstep would send horse and rider hurtling down into the churning sea.
“I suggest we stop here for the night. I would not like to trust that trail by night; it is bad enough in the daylight.”
“Very well,” agreed Ronsard. “A fresh start at it in the morning would not be disagreeable to me.”
They removed themselves but a little way from the trail and set about making camp for the night. As the sun slid down below the dark rim of the sea, the birds fluttered to the roosting rocks, and the evening trembled with their noisy calls.
After a while the moon ascended and cast its pale light all around. The tired men dozed and talked in hushed tones.
“Listen!” said Ronsard abruptly. All lapsed into silence and sifted the soft breeze for sounds. The only sound to reach their ears was the faraway roll of the waves crashing against the rocks and slapping against the cliff walls.
Theido cast a wondering glance toward his old friend.
“Well, perhaps I am hearing things,” said Ronsard, but he still peered intently into the night as if listening for the sound to repeat itself.
In a moment he was on his feet, pacing uneasily about the camp, just out of the circle of firelight. Then he walked a short way along the road and stood for a long time, looking toward the cliff trail. Theido watched him narrowly and was not surprised when the brawny knight came hurrying back.
“What is it?”
“Someone is coming! Up there in the cliffs—I am certain of it!”
He ordered his knights in a harsh whisper, “Put out the fire, and take the horses aside. Hide yourselves, and watch me for a signal!”
In the space of five heartbeats, the small camp was deserted, and no sign remained that only a moment before five knights had been encamped there.
Then Ronsard and Theido sat down to wait in the dark alongside the road, hidden from view by a low-lying clump of harts-tongue. Shortly there could be heard the minute sounds of a group of people hurrying along the path, desperately trying to pass unseen: the rattling echo of a stone dislodged by a careless foot, the muffled creak of a wheel upon the rock, a cough.
Then their murky shapes could be seen against the night sky as they drew nearer. They were on foot, and there were smaller shadows among the larger ones. They huddled together in a close knot, rather than ranging themselves along the trail; they evidently feared separation more than detection.
“It is no army,” breathed Ronsard between clenched teeth. He let his breath out slowly. “But now to find out who they are and why they risk the cliffs at night—the very thing we declined to do.”
“We had a choice; perhaps they felt they had none,” replied Theido.
Ronsard rose from his place and stepped near the trail, just ahead of the nocturnal travelers’ leader. When the man approached close at hand, Ronsard said in a loud, steady voice, “Halt, friend! In the name of the Dragon King!”
A shriek and a stifled oath came from the main body of the group. But the man stopped dead in his tracks and looked about him for the source of the unexpected command. Ronsard stepped closer, and the moonlight fell on his face. He smiled and held up his hands to show the frightened travelers that he meant them no harm.
“Wh-what do you w-want?” the leader managed to stammer.
“I wish to speak with you—that is all. I will not detain you long.” Ronsard still spoke in the same steady voice, loud enough for all to hear.
“Who are you?”
“I am the lord high marshal of Mensandor,” replied Ronsard. “Who are you, and what are you doing on this road in the dead of night?”
“Oh, sir!” gasped the relieved man. “You do not jest? You are really a king’s man?”
“At your service. Are you in trouble?”
At this all the people rushed forward, drawing close around Ronsard as if to seek the protection of his title, a welcome shield over their heads. They all began to shout.
Theido crept from his hiding place and came to stand beside Ronsard, who held up his hands and called for quiet. “I think I would better hear the tale from only one mouth at a time. You are the leader of this band.” He pointed to the man he had first addressed. “You begin.”
The man’s face shone pale in the moonlight, but Theido got the impression that it would be pale in the bright daylight as well. Deep lines of fear were drawn on the man’s countenance. His eyes did not hold steady, but shifted to the right and left and all around as if to warn him of the imminent approach of an enemy.
“I . . . we . . .” The man’s mouth worked like a pump, but his words were slow in coming.
“It is all right; you are safe for the time. I have soldiers with me, and we will defend you at need.” Ronsard raised his arm in signal, and his knights came forward to stand along the trail, their hands upon the hilts of their long swords.
Their presence seemed to frighten the man rather than calm him.
“Come, you may speak freely,” said Theido in a gentle voice.
“We are from Dorn,” the leader managed to wheeze at length. “We have left our homes and carry all our belongings with us. We are going to the High Temple of Ariel.” He paused, gulped air, and plunged ahead. “We do not know where else to go.”
“It is a strange pilgrimage you make, friend,” observed Ronsard. “Why do you leave your homes and flee by night?”
“Have you not heard? They are coming . . . a terrible host, terrible. They have landed at Halidom, and they are coming. Why, we are fleeing for our lives to the protection of Ariel! Only the gods can save us now.”
“Who is coming? Have you seen anyone?”
The man looked at Ronsard, wide-eyed with disbelief. “Do you not know? How is this possible? The whole land is in turmoil! We are fleeing for our lives!”
The people began to shout again, each pouring out his heart, beseeching the king’s men to help them escape. Ronsard and Theido listened and drew aside to confer. “Something has frightened these people; that much is clear. Though what remains a mystery. I can make no sense out of it.” Ronsard scratched his jaw.
Theido called the leader over to where they stood. “Tell us plainly, friend, who is it that you flee? What do they look like?”
The man hesitated. “Well . . . we have seen no one. But we dared not wait. Two days ago, men of Halidom in the Suthlands came to Dorn, and they told us of terrible things which had happened there. A mighty enemy has risen up and drives all before him. Their city was burned, and the streets ran with the blood of their children and women. Those that would save their lives fled to the hills. So we flee while we still may.”
“This enemy—did you hear a name?”
“It is too terrible to say!” The man threw his hands heavenward in supplication.
“Terrible it may be, but we will hear it. Tell what you know,” commanded Ronsard. His authoritative tone seemed to have a calming effect upon the frightened peasant.
He looked from one to the other of them and said, his voice now a strained whisper, “It is Nin the Destroyer!”