Durwin hiked his robe over his knees and waded into the reed-fringed pool. The afternoon sun fell in slanting shafts through broad oaks and silver-leaved birch to glint in shimmering bands upon the clear water. Tiny fish flashed away from Durwin’s intruding feet. The liquid, crystalline call of a lark on a nearby branch split the forest’s green silence into two quivering halves.
Durwin stepped carefully into the deeper water, scanning the pebble-strewn bottom as he splashed along. He thought for a moment to throw off his robe and submerge himself in the pool’s cool depths, as was his custom on a warm summer’s afternoon in Pelgrin Forest.
But he thought better of the notion, inviting though it was, and continued his browsing. He soon had reason to be glad he had kept his robe, for as he worked his way around the pool, dipping now and then into the water, he noticed something white shining there. He glanced again and realized that it was a reflection on the mirrored surface of the pool. With a start he looked up and saw a woman clothed all in white standing on the shaggy, grass-covered bank above him.
“My lady!” he exclaimed. “You made me jump! I did not know that I was being watched.”
“I am sorry, Durwin. I did not mean to alarm you,” laughed Alinea, her voice ringing in the hollow. It had been a long time since he had heard her laugh. “You appeared so deeply engrossed, I feared to disturb your thought. Forgive me!”
“Your consideration is most thoughtful, but unnecessary. I am only gathering some biddleweed for a tisane.”
“Water hemlock? That is a deadly poison, is it not?”
“You know the plants of the field and forest?”
“Only a few. My mother, Queen Ellena, knew many remedies and made our medicines for us. As a child, I helped her gather herbs.”
“Well, then you know that a plant is neither deadly nor dangerous, but the intent of the healer makes it so. Yes, some are very powerful. But in wise hands even the most poisonous may make a wonderfully potent cure.”
“Your hands are surely the wisest in the realm, kind hermit. Your medicines are most efficacious.”
“Oh, my lady! You do not know how sorry your words make me.”
“Have I said something wrong? Please tell me.” The queen drew a few steps closer to the edge of the bank. Durwin waded toward her.
“No, you intended no wrong. But your words mock my lack of skill. For the one patient I would above all heal with my humble craft lies abed—no better now than when I first began his treatment. His malady resists my utmost art.”
“Surely it is a most subtle cachexia.”
“So it is!”
Durwin peered into Alinea’s deep green eyes and read the heavy burden of care that grew there; every day added to the weight. He felt powerless to help her, as he felt powerless when he stood over the birth of a peasant baby born too soon and dying before it had begun to live. He would have taken the burden upon himself though it was a thousand times greater. But there was nothing he could do, save stand aside, humbled by his own uselessness.
“Do you think the Most High God hears our prayers for the sick?”
“He must, my lady. He hears all prayers and answers each in its own season.”
“Then prayer will do what potions cannot.”
“You shame me with your faith. In my search through all my medicines I have sorely neglected that remedy. But no more.”
The queen sighed and raised her eyes to the sky shining soft and blue and bright in the afternoon light. Clouds fair and far away drifted slowly on the breeze that rustled the trees gently from time to time. The little pond was a polished glass reflecting all that passed above. Alinea plucked a tiny purple flower from a cluster at her feet. She gazed into it as if seeking a sign from its maker.
Durwin continued wading, stooping now and then to snatch up a plant by its roots. When he had collected enough, he strode through the water and climbed the bank where Alinea had settled to wait in the shade.
“What is happening, Durwin?” Her question was softly spoken, but the uncertainty in her voice and the worry lurking behind her eyes gave it the impact of a shout. Before he could speak a reassuring word, she continued. “It seems to me that something very bad, some dark evil, is growing, drawing nearer. Sometimes I stop for no reason, and a cold fear passes over me. It is gone again as quickly as it came, but afterwards it lingers in the air like a chill, and nothing is the same.”
“I, too, have felt it. But I am at a loss to explain it. Something, I believe, is moving in the land—something evil, yes. It is unknown now, but will not so remain. Too soon we will know what it is.”
“To hear you speak so does cheer me, though your words are not happy ones. At least I know that a dear friend feels as I do and understands.” “I would reassure you if I could.”
“You have done your service well. I came here hoping to find you and to rest a little. I have seen naught of the hills and woods of late, and the summer is waxing full.”
“It is peaceful here. When I come here, I can almost imagine I am in the heart of Pelgrin itself, it is so quiet. I take heart that even in a storm-blown sea of troubles, there are still islands of serenity to be found. Nothing can touch them, and nothing will.”
The queen moved to rise, and Durwin offered his hand. “Stay a while longer if you wish, my lady. I must go and begin with these.” He shook sparkling drops from the biddleweed.
“No, we will return together. I must look in on the king once again.”
They moved to their horses and then rode back to Askelon Castle in the quiet warmth of each other’s company.
“Where do you come from, changeling?” Quentin asked, squeezing the water from his jerkin. “And what is your name?”
“I’ll not tell you until I know who it is that asks.” The young woman’s eyes flashed defiantly.
“Very well, a name for a name. I am Quentin, and this is my friend Toli.” As he said their names, Quentin thought he saw a flicker of recognition cross the girl’s comely features. “Do those names mean anything to you?”
“No. Should they?” she shot back.
“There are some who would have heard them spoken before, that is all.”
“I suppose there are some who have heard of most anyone as loud and quarrelsome as you two are.”
Quentin rankled at the girl’s sharp tongue. “You have not told us your name, though we have given ours,” he said crossly.
“I give my name to whom I choose. And I choose to be known only by my friends.” She shook her limp, wet hair and turned her face away.
“If you knew who it was that spoke to you . . . ,” Quentin began hotly. His temper was rising at the haughty spirit of this obstinate young woman.
“If you knew who it was you mistreated . . .” She turned on Quentin again and, quick as a cat, leaped at him with claws extended.
Toli caught her by the arms once more, saying, “Peace! What Quentin is trying to tell you, my lady, is that we are sworn to protect all subjects of the realm. We are at your service.” He spoke softly and released her when she grew quieter.
“Well, you need have no care for me,” she returned in a more subdued tone. “I am not one of your king’s subjects.”
“Not of Mensandor? Ah, now we are getting somewhere,” Quentin remarked sourly.
The girl looked up at each of them from beneath dark lashes, as if sizing them up. “Very well, I will trust you—but only because Toli has a mannered tongue.” She glanced darkly at Quentin. “I am Esme. My home is Elsendor.”
“Then you are very far from home. What brings you to Mensandor and to this modest village yonder?”
“The village was not my destination, I assure you, sir. But my tale is not for your ears, worry me though you will.”
“And who might best hear your tale if not king’s men?” Quentin asked.
“The king himself!” She folded her arms over her chest and glared at them both.
“Then allow me to offer you the king’s protection until you shall obtain audience with him,” said Toli, bowing low. Esme smiled triumphantly and nodded. Quentin rolled his eyes heavenward.
“I accept your protection; it seems a woman needs it in this rough land.” She straightened her clothes and looked at them squarely. “Take me at once to the king, I charge you.”
“Toli is right to offer you the king’s protection, and we will ride to the king—but not yet. We have a charge placed upon us by the king himself and cannot return until it is accomplished.”
The young lady frowned and seemed about to lash out angrily once more, but again Toli interceded. “Quentin speaks the truth; were it not for the urgency of our errand, we would gladly conduct you directly to the castle itself. We return there ourselves as soon as we can.”
“Then I will go myself. With or without your protection, my mission must not wait.”
“How will you go? In your boat? That would take far longer than you might think. The current of the Herwydd is strong; going against it is not easily done, and Askelon is far. Or perhaps you would walk all the way?”
“Or you could give me your horse,” she answered.
“Quentin is suggesting prudence, my lady. Our errand is perhaps of an end not many days hence. We have good horses that can reach Askelon swiftly at need. Come with us”—he hesitated—“for your protection and so you may reach the king the sooner.”
The fiery young lady stared from one to the other of them before she made up her mind. “Very well, I will go with you. There seems no better choice.”With that she turned and began walking back toward the abandoned village of Persch.
Toli and Quentin followed behind, and upon reaching the village square, Esme turned to them and announced, “I will attend directly.” She then disappeared into one of the dwellings.
“I will wait here for our proud companion,” announced Quentin. “Fetch the horses, and we’ll leave as soon as she returns.”
Toli brought the horses and set himself to redistributing small items of their traveling effects.
“What are you doing?” asked Quentin, looking on.
“I assumed that you would not care to have the lady share your mount, so I am making ready mine.”
“I will take responsibility; it is my place.”
“How so? It was my tongue which placed this burden upon your back. Therefore, I will help bear it.”
“If it pleases you, Toli, you shall carry her in your arms all the way. Have it as you will.”
“I am ready,” called a voice behind them. They turned to see a very different young woman from the one they had fished from the sea. She had gathered back her hair and bound it in a leather thong. She wore riding trousers, but of a finer cut and fit than a man’s, and embroidered with intricate designs along the seams. She wore a short cloak thrown over one shoulder; it, too, was carefully embroidered and matched her trousers. The cloak was a deep blue, as was the soft tunic under it. A thin belt of new leather held a long dagger at her waist. Soft leather boots covered her feet and reached almost to her knees.
A more remarkable transformation could hardly have been anticipated. Toli and Quentin blinked in wonder. Esme looked like a warrior princess, but such things were unheard of in Mensandor.
“Which horse will I have?” she demanded.
“Toli has agreed to share his with you.”
Without another word they climbed into their saddles. Toli reached a hand down and drew the lady up to sit behind him on Riv’s broad back. They soon left the silent village behind.
As the declining sun lengthened their shadows upon the green hills, they stopped for the night in a stand of thin aspens near a trickling brook. Quentin and Toli routinely began making camp, while Esme planted herself on a grassy knoll and drew her knees up to wait. Only when Toli had meat on the spit and broth bubbling in the shallow pot did she approach.
“We will eat better tomorrow, perhaps,” remarked Quentin. “We did not have the opportunity to gather provisions as we would have liked.” He inclined his head in the direction of Persch.
“It appears a banquet to me,” said Esme, her eyes glowing as she watched Toli turn the spits. “I have not eaten in two days.”
The confession shamed Quentin, who colored deeply. “I . . . I must apologize for my behavior back there, my lady. It was not right of me to judge you so.”
“And I have misjudged you,” she admitted. “But perhaps you will grant me my error. A woman must sometimes discourage untoward advances by strange men. I thought you would take advantage of me.”
“I would pity the man who tried.”
“No harm will come to you while you remain with us, my lady,” said Toli earnestly.
“I thank you, good sir.” When their eyes met, Toli looked away quickly and finished preparing the meal.
When it was ready, they sat down together. Toli handed a plate of meat around and filled their bowls with broth. He broke some crusts of hard bread that they each dipped into the broth to soften it for chewing. Esme ate with a most unladylike appetite that Quentin and Toli made certain not to notice.
“You are most kind not to scold my ill manners. The food does so warm an empty stomach.”
“How could we scold what we ourselves indulge?” asked Quentin. “Have more; you are welcome.”
“I have eaten quite enough, thank you. Toli, your way with simple fare is praiseworthy. I would care to see what you could do with more exotic victuals.”
Toli said nothing, but merely smiled mysteriously.
“Would you now tell us what you were doing in the village alone?” Quentin asked after some time.
Esme looked into her bowl of broth as if the answer might be read there. She cocked her head to one side and said, “That I was alone was no fault of my own. I went there, as you would surmise, to obtain the clothes you first saw me wearing. I found the village empty as you did; so I helped myself to the garments.”
“You wished to disguise yourself—why?”
“I have already told you—a woman cannot be too careful when traveling alone. It was a poor disguise, I know. But I thought it might serve until I could discover another or until”—she smiled broadly—“disguises were no longer necessary.”
“Do you know so little of Mensandor, then, that you think every man a rogue?”
“It is not Mensandor’s subjects that I fear, though I did not propose to put them to the test. But tell me of your errand. Something tells me that we may be of closer purpose than seems first apparent.”
“We go to see comrades long overdue,” offered Toli. “They were sent to—”
“To derive the truth from certain rumors now growing in the land,” said Quentin tactfully.
Esme’s brow became suddenly troubled. “They rode to the south, your friends?”
“Yes; south along the coast. Why?”
“Good sirs, I greatly fear for your friends.” Her voice held a note of sharp concern. “I do not wonder that they are long overdue. It is possible they will not return at all.”
Quentin leaned forward in keen attention. Toli laid aside the utensils as he watched Esme carefully. “What do you know about this?” asked Quentin calmly enough, but there was no mistaking his anxiety.
“Only this . . .” Esme saw the effect her words had had on them and chose her way carefully. “It was between Dorn and Persch that I lost my companions two days ago.”