Heavy dew still clung to the leaves as the first rays of golden morning broke upon the countryside. Near the sea such dew was common, but it never ceased to delight Quentin when the sun struck each tiny droplet of moisture and turned it into a glimmering gem. Each hillock and bush seemed to acquire inestimable value.
Toli’s high-spirited horses, now well rested, pranced and jogged in the cool morning air. Quentin himself lifted his voice in a hymn to the new day. Toli, too, joined in, and their voices rang in the dells.
“Ah, it is good to be alive!” shouted Quentin, more for the joy of shouting than for the sake of conversation.
“This morning the saddle seems a friend to you,” called Toli, bouncing along behind. “That is not the impression you gave me last night.”
“In the morning the world is re-created. All things are made new— including saddles.”
“It is good to see you in such high humor. For the last three days one would have mistaken you for a growling bear—not that I noticed.”
Quentin seemed to ignore the remark, and they continued on as before, the trappings of the horses jingling brightly as they cantered along. “I have been under a shadow,” Quentin said at length. “It is good to be doing something—at least, I feel better for moving.”
“That is well for both of us,” replied Toli in his usual elliptic style.
The two riders approached and mounted the crest of a long, sloping hill. Here they paused for a short while and contemplated the road before them and the valley beyond, in the center of which lay the village of Persch.
“See how quiet it is,” remarked Quentin as he gazed at the scene below. “So peaceful. This is how it has been for a thousand years . . .” His voice trailed off.
“We will pray that it may remain so for another thousand,” answered Toli. He flicked the reins and started down the road, a thin dirt trail barely scratched in the long, thick green grass of the hills.
As they drew nearer to the seaside village, Toli grew tense with concentration. Quentin noticed the change in his companion’s attitude and asked, “What is it? What do those eagle eyes of yours see?”
“Nothing, Kenta. And that is what worries me. I see no one—no activity in the village at all.”
“Perhaps the people of Persch are late abed and late to rise,” Quentin said carelessly, attempting to maintain the mood of tranquillity that had just been shattered by Toli’s observation.
“Or maybe they have a reason for remaining behind doors on such a day as this, though that reason is certain to be born of fear.”
Quentin sighed. “It will not be the first time we have encountered such this trip.” He placed his free hand on the hilt of his sword and shifted it slightly to bring it into readiness. His eyes scanned the breadth of the town drawing slowly closer with each step. He saw not a sign of life, either human or animal, in the streets or on the road before them. Certainly that was strange. Ordinarily, the first rays of morning light would find the narrow little streets busy with citizens going about their daily chores. The merchants would be opening their stalls in the marketplace and the craftsmen their awnings. Farmers would be offering cheese and melons and eggs in exchange for cloth and various metal utensils. Wives would be carrying water from the well in the town square, and children would be scampering around corners and darting to and fro in noisy play while the village dogs barked and dodged their bare, sun-browned legs.
But this morning there was no such bustle and fuss. The empty streets seemed haunted by the echoes of childish laughter and the eerie absence of the villagers.
The riders entered the main street of the town, and Quentin heard the soft crush of horses’ hooves upon the tiny fragments of shells with which the people of Persch paved their streets. Quentin always thought that this gave all the seaside towns a fresh, clean appearance. This day, however, the whitened streets looked desolate, sepulchral.
No face appeared even fleetingly in a doorway or a darkened window. No sound could be heard, except the soft sea breeze blowing among the eaves; it whispered a note of utter loneliness.
“Everyone is gone,” observed Toli. His voice seemed to die in the empty air.
“I do not believe it. Everyone cannot have left. Someone must have remained behind. A whole village does not disappear—not without good cause.”
They reached the village square. It was an irregular rectangle formed by the fronts of Persch’s principal buildings: the inn, which was rumored to serve a most remarkable fish stew; the communal hall (since no noblemen dwelt in Persch, the citizens had erected their own great hall in which to observe feasts and holy days); the marketplace and the stalls of the vendors; the small temple and shrine to the god Ariel; and the dwellings of the craftsmen.
In the center of this rectangle stood a large well, and on a mound beside it an immense old cedar tree spread forth its shaggy limbs to offer shade to all who gathered there. Quentin and Toli drew up to the well and dismounted. Toli picked up a shallow wooden bucket which lay beside the stone rim of the well and dipped out water for the horses. Quentin filled a gourd and drank his fill of the cold, fresh water and then offered some to Toli.
“Hmmm,” Quentin mused, “not a sound, nor a sight. And yet, I feel that we are not alone.”
“Yes, I feel someone close by. I also feel their fear.” Toli replaced the gourd carefully and then motioned for Quentin to mount up again. Quentin did so with a questioning look, and the two rode the rest of the way through the village.
When they reached the last dwelling, Toli led them aside and whispered, “We were not entirely alone back there. I felt someone’s eyes upon us. Let us leave the horses here and go back by another way.”
They crept quietly along a pinched alleyway between buildings and soon made their way back to the square. There was nothing to be seen; it all looked just as it had only moments before.
“Well, it appears we should look elsewhere. Perhaps we should try one of the dwellings.”
“Wait but a moment and I will join you.”
Toli had no sooner finished speaking when they heard a slight scrabbling hiss, like that of a snake moving through dry sand. It stopped and started with a measured pace. They listened for a moment, and the sound seemed to diminish rapidly. It was then Quentin realized that someone had been very close to them, perhaps just around the corner of the same wattle-and-daub abode where they now crouched waiting in the shadows. The sound was the light, shuffling footfall of someone treading gently, cautiously along the shell-strewn path.
“He is getting away!” whispered Quentin harshly, and he dived around the edge of the dwelling in time to see a leg and a hand disappear behind an overgrown yew thicket.
“He is making for the basin!” shouted Toli. “We will catch him this way.” He pulled on Quentin’s arm and pointed behind them to where the narrow alleyway turned and started down as it became a path, like so many in the sea town, which led to the waterfront where the villagers kept their fishing boats.
Toli bounded away, and Quentin followed in his fleet steps. They tumbled down the path together and jumped down the rock steps placed in the side of the sandy hill that separated the town from the strand below. Ahead of them lay the basin, the small cove that formed the harbor of Persch; there, between two fishing boats resting with their black hulls skyward, a small skiff with a white, triangular sail had been thrust upon the sand. And hurrying nimbly along the sand toward the skiff ran the slight figure of a young man.
Quentin darted out onto the beach in pursuit. He ran a few paces, then stopped, raised his hand, and shouted, “Hold, sir! Stop! We mean you no harm! We only wish to talk.”
The figure half turned and only then saw the two men watching him. Though Quentin and Toli were still too far away to make out the features of his face, the effect of Quentin’s words was quite obvious. “You have frightened him!” called Toli as the figure on the beach lurched forward, stumbled, fell, picked himself up, and ran deerlike for the skiff. “Come on!” cried the quick-footed Jher, skimming over the sand.
The young stranger had reached the skiff and was shoving the boat into the water with all his might. It seemed to have caught on something, thought Quentin, or perhaps the tide had withdrawn somewhat since the boat had been left here, making it harder to push free.
But with the strength of desperation, the stranger succeeded in launching the small sailing boat and was thrashing through knee-deep water to turn the boat around before clambering in, fishlike, over the side.
Toli reached the water’s edge first and jumped in. Quentin plunged in after him, and both waded toward the boat. The stranger, paddling furiously with a long oar, cast a terrified look over his shoulder. Quentin noticed the compact frame and slim shoulders dressed in the leather vest and coarse-woven brown trousers worn by fishermen. The shapeless, floppy, soft hat, also traditional among the seaside dwellers of southern Mensandor, was pulled down low over the young face.
Quentin waded toward one side of the boat, and Toli splashed toward the other. The boat, despite the prodigious thrashings of its occupant with the oar, was not moving into the deeper water rapidly, and they had no trouble reaching it in quick strides.
Once they were within range, the oar whistled above their heads. Quentin tried to reassure the stranger, saying, “Be still, good sir! Desist! Ow!” as the wildly flailing oar came dangerously close. “We mean you no harm.”
As Quentin occupied the boy’s attention, Toli moved behind him toward the bow. The youngster turned and brought the oar down on the gunwale with a crack in the exact spot where Toli’s fingers had been only an instant before. Quentin, seeing the stranger momentarily off balance following the delivery of the blow, seized the stern with both hands and gave the boat a mighty, twisting shove. The young stranger gave a surprised yelp and, with arms flung wide and fingers clawing the air, toppled over the side headfirst into the water, the oar clattering to the bottom of the boat.
Quentin ducked the splash, and Toli swung himself around the side of the skiff to face Quentin. Between them floated the fisherman’s hat. Quentin reached into the shallow water, snagged a hold on the stranger’s collar, and hauled him sputtering to his feet.
“Well, what have we here?” asked Quentin amiably. “Toli, I think we have caught ourselves a . . .” He stopped abruptly. Now it was Quentin’s turn to be surprised.
“A girl!” cried Toli, finishing Quentin’s thought.
Quentin held the dripping hat, now a soggy black bag in his hands, and looked in wonder at the long, dark tresses, now wet and ropy, glistening in the sun. The young woman’s dark lashes blinked over clear, ice-blue eyes as she shook away the water streaming down her face. She had soft, well-shaped features, and her cheeks bore the ruby blush of excitement.
“Let me go!” she cried. “I am nobody. I have no money. Let me go!”
“Peace,” Quentin said softly. “We will do you no harm, my lady.”
The young woman looked from one to the other of her captors, eyeing them suspiciously. “We are not robbers, if that is what you are thinking,” replied Toli. “We are king’s men.”
“Since when do king’s men arrest innocent citizens and abuse them for no reason?” she challenged them haughtily.
“Innocent citizens have nothing to fear from us. Why did you run?”
The woman threw a furtive glance toward the village and murmured, “I was frightened. I found the village deserted and . . .”
“And then you heard us coming and hid.”
“Yes,” she said sullenly. She drew a soggy sleeve across her face and threw a defiant look at Quentin. “Now let me go!”
“We will let you go in good time. But you have pricked our curiosity, and we wish answers to our questions first. Now,” said Quentin, offering her his hand, “we needn’t remain standing in the water; let us all dry out on the beach.”
He turned and began sloshing toward the shore. Suddenly he felt his knees buckle, and he pitched forward into the water with a strange yelp. His back and shoulders were pummeled with fierce blows. He twisted underwater and was trying to haul himself back to his feet when the attack was broken off. He surfaced sputtering and shook the water out of his eyes. Toli was gripping the young lady by the arm, having pulled her off Quentin. Toli then pushed her, clawing and kicking, toward the shore.
Toli’s face wore a strange, ridiculous grin.