Theido looked blankly at Ronsard and then back at the frightened peasant. The man’s eyes glittered wide and round in the moonlight. He had scarcely dared utter his enemy’s name, and his tongue had frozen in his mouth, but as appalling as the name was to the peasant—enough at least to inspire a whole village to flight at the very sound of it—the name meant nothing to Theido or Ronsard.
“I have never heard of this name,” said Theido. Ronsard shook his head and looked hard at the peasant.
“Is there another name by which this enemy may be known? We know nothing of this Nin or his armies.”
“No, there is no other name I know.”
“Halidom was destroyed? These men that came to Dorn, they saw it destroyed?”
“Yes, so they said. Some of them had lost everything—home and family, possessions, everything.”
Theido turned to Ronsard. “There is where we will find our answer— at Halidom.”
“So it would seem. We will go there and see what may be seen. The king will want to know in any case.” He turned back to the leader of the fleeing people. “This Nin you speak of—he was moving toward Dorn, you say? How did you know if you did not see him?”
“The men of Halidom told us. The enemy ranges the whole countryside. No place is safe from him. That is why we go to the high temple at Narramoor to ask the god to protect us.”
“There may be a safer place than even the temple,” said Theido. “I have lands at Erlott which need the work of many hands. Go there and present yourself to my steward, called Toffin. Tell him his master sends you to him that he may give you shelter and food and land to work. And give him this.” Theido drew a small, round token from the pouch at his belt: a clay tile baked hard, with his signet pressed into it.
The peasant stared at the signet tile and then at Theido. He seemed as much dismayed by it as by Nin himself. “Are we to be sold into slavery because we have no place to go? We have left our home to become serfs of the king’s men?” He had spoken loudly, and there came a murmur from the rest of the group standing a little way off.
“My offer,” explained Theido, “is honorable. You may take it or not. I do not withdraw it. I keep no serfs; all who work my lands are free to enjoy the fruits of their labors in equal share. If you doubt my words, go there and see for yourselves. In any case, you are free to leave or stay once you have seen. No one compels you to do as I bid. Only know this: if you stay, you will be required to do your share and to work the land that is given to you. If you do not, your place will be given to another who will.”
The man looked at the token in Theido’s hand. He reached out for it hesitantly, casting a sideways glance to the others in his band.
“We, too, are honorable, though we are men of low birth.” He snatched the tile out of Theido’s hand. “We will go to your lands at Erlott and inquire of your steward; we will see how he receives us. If he bears the goodwill of his master, you will find us busy in your fields when you return from your duties.” He bowed stiffly from the waist and turned to go. He paused and turned again. “If it is as you say, you have our thanks, my lord.”
“I do not ask for thanks, but only that you will do as we have agreed. That will mean more to me than gratitude itself.”
The man bowed again and went to where his people waited to learn the outcome of the interview just concluded. Words were exchanged quickly; there were mumbled whispers all around, and suddenly the band was on its way again, but bolder this time and changed in mood. Several of the refugees waved their thanks to Theido as they passed, and all talked excitedly together as they moved hurriedly away down the trail.
“Well, you have done your fellows a fine service this night. I hope you will not have cause to regret your kindness,” said Ronsard when they had gone.
“One never regrets a kindness, my friend. But I have no doubt that I have gained as much as they in the bargain.”
“Good land needs the plowman’s hand to bring it to life, and a husband to care for it. If I did not have men to work my fields, they would soon become barren and worthless. These men do me great service by helping me care for my lands. Rightly managed, there is more than enough for everyone.”
“Well, I hope we may see your trust proved true. But why not? The realm has known nothing but peace these many years, and we are at peace still.”
“I wonder,” replied Theido. “I wonder.”
Quentin hastened along wide corridors lined with rich tapestries toward the Dragon King’s apartments. Upon rising, he had been summoned to meet with the king in his private council chambers, and had dressed in fresh garments—a new tunic and trousers of forest green and a short summer cloak of blue, edged in green and gold. The finely embroidered cloak, fastened with a brooch of gold at his shoulder, fluttered out behind him as he swept along.
Just as he stepped up to the door that opened onto Eskevar’s apartments, the door swung inward, and Oswald, the queen’s chamberlain, emerged. “Sir, if you would but come aside with me, my lady would have a word with you.”
Oswald smiled as he made his request, but his gray eyes insisted, so Quentin nodded his assent and followed the chamberlain.
They withdrew to a room just across the corridor from the king’s chambers. Oswald knocked upon the door and stepped in. “Quentin is here, Your Majesty.”
Quentin stepped into the room behind the chamberlain and saw Queen Alinea sitting on a bench in the center of the room, with her hands folded in her lap. She seemed to be staring at something that Quentin could not see: something far away. Quentin saw the lines of worry creasing her noble brow.
When the queen saw him, she straightened, and her face was suddenly transformed by a beautiful smile. Instantly the dim chamber seemed filled with light. She rose as he came to her and held out her arms to embrace him. Quentin hugged her and brushed her pale cheek with his lips; she kissed both of his.
“Quentin, you have come! Oh, I am so glad you are here. Your journey was not unpleasant, I trust? It is good to have you back. The months seem long when you are away.” She gripped his hand in both of hers and led him to the bench. “Please, sit with me but a little.” To Quentin’s glance she answered, “I know the king is waiting, but it is important. I would have a word with you before you see him.”
Her sparkling green eyes, deep and serene as forest pools, searched his for a moment, as if deciding whether the hearer would be strong enough to bear the words she had to say. “Quentin,” she said softly, “the king is very ill.”
“So I have learned from Bria.” He blushed. “We met this morning when I arrived. She told me of her concern for his health.”
“But I think even Bria does not guess how far he has fallen. She is devoted to her father and loves him with all her heart, but she does not know him as I do. Something consumes him before my eyes; it gnaws at him from within, stealing his strength and sapping his spirit.”
Again in answer to Quentin’s look, she continued, “Do not wonder at what I tell you; you will see for yourself soon enough. He has greatly changed since you last saw him. It is all I can do to keep from weeping in his presence.” She appeared to be on the verge of tears at that very moment.
“My queen, I am your servant. Say the word and I will do whatever you require.”
“Only this: take no unusual notice of him when you go in to him. It upsets him when people worry after him. Do not let on that you believe him ill, or that I have told you anything of his condition.”
“I promise it. But is there nothing else I can do?”
“No.” She patted his hand. “I know that you would if you could. But I have sent for Durwin and have placed a heavy charge on him. It may take all of his healing powers to restore the king—if he is not now beyond them.”
“I will pray to the Most High that Durwin’s cures have effect.”
“That is my course, as well.” The queen smiled, and again the room seemed lighter, for a dark cloud had passed over Quentin’s heart as they talked. He rose, more encouraged. “Go to him now, my son. And remember what I told you.”
“I will, my lady. You need not fear.”
Quentin quietly left the room, and when he had stepped back into the corridor, he found Oswald waiting for him. The chamberlain led him to the king’s chambers, knocked, and then admitted him.
“Your Majesty, Quentin is here.”
Quentin drew a deep breath and stepped across the threshold. In the center of the high-ceilinged chamber sat a heavy, round oaken table, shaped like the room itself, for it was a part of one of Askelon’s many towers. Small, round windows of amber glass tinted the afternoon light with a warm hue. Eskevar was standing in a shaft of light from one of these windows, his back turned, gazing out into the courtyard below.
There was an awkward moment when Quentin could not speak, and the king did not seem to have heard the chamberlain’s announcement. Quentin hesitated, feeling suddenly trapped. Then the king turned slowly and fixed his eyes upon Quentin. A thin smile stretched his lips. “Quentin, my son, you have come.”
If not for the queen’s warning, Quentin did not know what he would have done. He bit his lower lip to stifle a cry and then recovered himself and forced a grin.
“I came as soon as I could. Toli’s horses are magnificent. I believe they have wings. We flew over the land at an astounding pace.”
Still smiling—the sad, weak smile of a dying man, Quentin thought grimly—the king advanced slowly and offered his hand.
Quentin took it without hesitation and could not help noticing how weak the king’s grip had become, and how cold the feel of his hand.
Eskevar’s flesh had taken on a waxen pallor, and his eyes seemed to burn with a dull, feverish light; his lips were cracked and raw, and his hair—that crowning glory of rich, dark curls—hung limp and lifeless and had now turned almost completely gray.
Quentin found himself staring at the face of a strange man who looked at him intently with sunken eyes rimmed with dark circles. He looked away quickly and said, “This is a cheery room, Sire. Will we be alone, or are others expected?”
“Others will come, but not yet. I wanted to speak to you alone first. Please, sit down.” The king lowered himself slowly into a chair at the round table, and Quentin followed. He wanted to weep at the sight of Eskevar, the mighty Dragon King who was now tottering like an old man.
How could this be? wondered Quentin. How could such a change be wrought in such a short time? In a scant eight or nine months, the king had deteriorated to a shocking degree. Quentin wanted to dash from the room, to remove himself far away from the creature who sat beside him and who wore the king’s crown.
Eskevar gazed into the young man’s eyes with a look of inexpressible tenderness; a fatherly compassion that Quentin had never seen before suddenly flowered. Quentin was strangely moved and forgot for a moment the horror of the king’s shattered health.
“Quentin,” said Eskevar after a moment’s contemplation, “as you know, I have no son, no heir to my throne save Bria. My brother, Prince Jaspin, is banished, nevermore to return. I think it is time for me to choose my successor.”
“Surely, my lord is mistaken.” Quentin gulped. “Now is not the time to think of such things. You have many years ahead of you. You are strong yet.”
Eskevar shook his head slowly, frowning slightly. “No, it is not to be. Quentin”—again the sweet, sad smile and fatherly glance—“Quentin, I am dying.”
“Yes! Hear me!” The king raised his voice. “Slowly it may be, but I am dying. I shall not live to see another spring. It is time for me to set my house in order.
“I intend to choose you as my successor—wait! Since you are not in direct bloodline, it will have to go before the Council of Regents. I expect no problem there. As I have chosen you myself, they will ratify my choice gladly.”
Quentin sat gazing at his folded hands, speechless. The king’s words had stricken him mute.
After what seemed like hours, he looked up and saw Eskevar watching him quietly, but intensely. “You honor me greatly, Sire. But I am not worthy of such high accord. I am an orphan, and of no noble birth. I am not worthy to be king.”
“You, Quentin, are my ward. You have been a son to me as I have watched you grow to manhood these last years. I want you, and no other, to wear my crown.”
“I do not know what to say, my lord.”
“Say but that you will do as I command; ease my heart in this matter.”
Quentin stood up from his chair and then went down on his knees before his king. “I am ever your servant, Sire. I will obey.”
Eskevar placed a hand upon Quentin’s head and said, “I am content. Now my heart can rest.” He took Quentin by the arm; his grip was spidery and light. “Rise, sir! One king does not kneel to another. From this day forth you are heir to the throne of Mensandor.”
Just then there came a knock upon the chamber door and Oswald’s voice could be heard calling, “The others have arrived, Your Majesty,” as the door swung open.
In walked Toli and Durwin. Toli hesitated at the sight of the king, but Durwin did not flinch at all. He hurried to the table and, with a quick bow, began talking of his travels, all the while keeping a close eye on the ailing monarch as if weighing him for some remedy.
“Good, good. Be seated, both of you. We have a matter to discuss.”
The king looked at his comrades closely and drew a deep, weary breath before he began.
“For some time I have been of an uneasy mind. Restless, hungry, and uneasy. At first I attributed it to the illness which consumes me, but it is more than that, I fear. It is for Mensandor that my unease persists. There is some distress in the realm.”
The Dragon King spoke softly and distinctly, and Quentin realized that Eskevar had so long been the head of his land that he had developed a special feeling for it and knew instinctively when something was wrong. It was as if part of him were hurt, and he felt the wound. He had discerned trouble before anyone else had suspected even the slightest eddy in the current of peace and prosperity that flowed through the kingdom.
It struck him—absurdly at first, but with growing conviction— that perhaps what ailed the land was the cause of the king’s distress as well.
“To prove my intuition I summoned the faithful Theido and Ronsard to me and sent them with a small force to discover, it they could, whence the trouble came.
“The time for their return is now past. I have received no word or sign from them, and I am anxious for what may have befallen them. That is why I have summoned you.” He nodded to Quentin and Toli. “It becomes ever more urgent that we discover the source of our harm before it is too late. There is evil afoot; I feel it. Each day it grows stronger. If we do not find it soon and crush it out . . .”
“My lord,” said Toli, “we have seen portents which would indicate the prudence of your fears.”
“And I as well,” agreed Durwin.
Toli and Durwin shared with the king the signs they had observed, foreshadows of an impending evil they could not identify. Quentin noted that as his two comrades spoke, and especially when they mentioned the Wolf Star, Eskevar appeared to fall even further beneath the weight of his kingdom’s peril.
After a few moments of uncomfortable silence, the king spoke solemnly. “Quentin and Toli, my brave friends, we must discover wherein our danger lies. My people require your courage.”
“We will go at once and seek out this evil. And it may be we will find good Theido and Ronsard as well,” Toli offered boldly.
Quentin said nothing but stared from one to another of the faces around the table.
“Very well,” sighed the king. “You know I would not send you out thus if I thought it were but a small thing, or if another could serve as well.”
He turned and looked at Durwin thoughtfully. “You, sir, I did not summon, but as usual, one who knows me better than I know myself has doubtless interceded.” He smiled again, and Quentin saw a flicker of the former man. The king continued, “I will detain you, good hermit, that you may remain with me. I may soon have need of your ministrations, and perchance your arts will be better employed here than on the back of a horse.”
“So it is,” replied Durwin. “I will abide.”
The king rose with some difficulty and dismissed them, asking his two warriors, “How soon will you ride?”
“We will leave at once, Sire,” said Toli.
“It is well; but stay and share my table tonight, at least. I want to see my friends all together before . . .” He did not finish the thought.
The three arose, bowed, and went quietly out. At the door Quentin turned and was about to speak. He looked at Eskevar, and his eyes filled with tears; no words would come. He bowed quickly, then went out, too overwhelmed to say what he felt in his heart.