There you are,” said Quentin softly as he moved quietly up to stand at Toli’s shoulder. “I should have known you would be stargazing.”
“I could not sleep, Kenta. The star is growing.” The light of the late-night sky gleamed on the Jher’s upturned face.
“It looks the same to me,” Quentin said without conviction. “It will be dawn soon; perhaps we should make ready to leave. Our new companion’s words have troubled me; it would ease my mind to be on our way. I would not like to think that Theido and Ronsard were trapped because we didn’t warn them and prevent it.”
“Yes, the star grows each night, and evil increases,” replied Toli. He turned and looked at Quentin, his large, dark eyes filled with a light Quentin had rarely seen. “I will make ready the horses and wake the lady. I fear the day is already far spent.”
He slipped away noiselessly to leave Quentin pondering his words and peering up at the star glowing brightly in the east. Quentin heard a soft tread behind him, light as a shadow, and Esme came to stand beside him.
“So you know about the star too,” she said.
“We have been watching it, yes—though what it betokens is not certain.”
“There is no need to spare me your worst suspicions. Our priests are well acquainted with heavenly signs and the reading of portents. I know what they say about the Preying Star. But I am not afraid.”
“Then you are braver than I, my lady. For I must admit that I sometimes feel very much afraid when I look upon it.”
Toli brought the horses, and the three mounted up. They left the shelter of the aspen grove, slipped out into the waning night, and moved across the starlit hills. Behind them rose the cragged walls of the Fiskills and the narrow trail beside the sea. They had come through the pinched corridor late in the afternoon and had pushed up into the sloping foothills on the other side to find their camp for the night.
Although extremely curious about his new charge, Quentin had not pressed her for details of her story. She did not seem inclined to talk about the loss of her companions, nor about the mission that took her to King Eskevar. But her fearful thoughts on the safety of Theido and Ronsard had unsettled him, for he had been feeling a vague uneasiness regarding them himself. She had put words to his doubt and had made it real and urgent.
“They must have gone south toward Halidom,” Quentin had reasoned as they sat around the campfire after their supper. “Otherwise, Esme and her party would have met them on the road between Dorn and Persch.”
“But why would they go so far?” Toli had asked.
Quentin had shrugged. “I will ask them that when next we meet. Perhaps they saw something which took them there. These empty villages are mystery enough for me.”
They had lapsed into silence and uneasy rest. Quentin’s restive mind gnawed at his unanswered questions like a hound with a twice-picked shank. He felt better now that they were moving again.
He listened to the cadence of their passing in the deepest part of the night. Soon the horizon would begin to lighten in the east as the sun rolled back the darkness for another day. But now they rode as night’s children, slipping unseen through the sleeping world.
Quentin struck out once more along the coastal road, a wide, rock-strewn path that linked the seaside villages. If Ronsard and his knights were to be found, it would likely be along this road, although there were other, more infrequently traveled routes to the north through the brown Wilderlands. These were tracks that the traders used to traverse the vast and empty Suthlands and bring them to the more populated regions of the north.
The empty villages—first Persch, then Yallo and Biskan—had greatly troubled him; though he sought time and again for a logical explanation, none was forthcoming. He wondered if Theido and Ronsard had discovered them as well. They must have if they had passed through, or the towns might have been abandoned after the knights had ridden on. There was no telling how long ago they had traveled the road, where they might have stayed, or who they might have seen.
Quentin hoped, though reason told him six armed knights were a match for anything, that they had not encountered whatever it was that had overtaken Esme’s party.
They rode for an hour or more, following the rising and falling trail as it climbed and descended the gently undulating hills along the coast. At each crest they could see the great sea, lying dark and still in the distance. Gerfallon was not troubled by the mere vexations of mortal men; he slept in his deep bed, and his creatures with him. Quentin stopped at the crest of the next hill and waited until Toli, with Esme sitting behind, hands on thighs, had drawn up beside him. Blazer jigged sideways, impatient with the delay.
“What do you think it could be?” asked Quentin, nodding in the direction of the northern hills. A faint, leaden smudge could barely be seen glowing in the sky far away. “If I did not know better, I would say that the sun was coming up in the north today. A false sun that would be.”
“I have seen such false sunrises, and you may suspect some misfortune is at hand.”
“What is it?” asked Esme.
“Fire,” said Toli.
“Are you certain? It does not look like fire to me,” said Quentin, leaning forward in his saddle for a better look. “Why, it would take a pile of wood the size of a—”
“Village.” Toli supplied the missing word.
“You do not think . . . ,” cried Quentin with growing alarm. “Illem lies in that direction!”
“Yes, a league to the north, I would say.”
“Then we waste time talking,” said Quentin as he turned his horse toward the glow in the sky. “We may be of some help. Let us go!”
“Hold tight, my lady,” said Toli as he snapped the reins. Riv leaped from the track and bounded after Quentin’s gliding shape.
As the horses galloped at full speed, the glow on the horizon brightened and spread. At half a league it covered the far hills and deepened with an ugly, reddish hue. The hanging gloom of smoke could be discerned against the darker curtain of night.
In the east the sky had grown pearly with the coming of the dawn, making the glow ahead seem ever more ominous and unnatural.
Quentin reined to a halt at the bottom of a deep ravine. In the spring the thaw from the Fiskills filled the dry bed with icy water. Now it was filled with weeds and brush, the waters having long since emptied into the sea.
“I think Illem lies just beyond the ridge,” said Quentin. The ravine curved its way through a long trough of a valley bounded on three sides by low ridges. From the bottom of the dry streambed, the sky to the north shone as rust, and the smoke rolled away on the landward wind.
“The fire rages,” said Toli. “I advise caution until we discover what caused it—or who.”
“I agree,” said Esme. “We are only three against—who knows how many.”
Quentin looked at her with surprise. She evidently counted herself as one of the protectors rather than the one protected. “Why must there be an enemy? Surely you don’t think . . .” Quentin stopped; he knew Toli’s uncanny instinct well enough to know that even his slightest whims should be taken seriously. He had seen them proven true too often to dismiss them lightly. “Very well, we will continue along the valley until we draw even with the town. Then we can climb out below it in the shelter of the ridge.”
They started off again, but at a more measured gait. Quentin led the way, scanning the tops of the hills for any signs of unusual activity. They had proceeded only a little way when the course wound around a sharp bend. “Wait!” said Toli in a sharp whisper. “Listen!”
Just around the bend could be heard an odd muffled sound, as if a large animal were rooting in the soft soil of the dry streambed. It shuffled along, breathing heavily, with an airy, bristling sigh. Blazer and Riv lifted their ears at the sound.
“What can it be?” wondered Esme, her whisper almost lost in the quickly growing intensity of the sound.
“Whatever it is, it is coming this way,” said Quentin. “Over here!” He spurred Blazer toward the near bank to escape the path of the oncoming beast.
But he was too late. As Blazer jumped forward, the thing came churning around the bend. Quentin had a glimpse of a vast, rippling body— shapeless and ill defined. The creature saw him too, and let out a yelp that seemed to come from a dozen throats at once. It was then that Quentin knew what it was.
“Hold!” shouted Quentin, laying the reins hard to his mount’s side, so that Blazer reared on his hind legs and wheeled about. His command echoed from the far bank. Toli was instantly at his side.
The beast screamed and broke into a hundred separate pieces, each one darting in a different direction. The strange beast was, in fact, the townspeople of Illem, fleeing their burning homes en masse. The sound had been that of many feet hurrying through the dry brush and the murmur of fear as they fled.
“Hold!” Quentin called again. “In the name of the Dragon King.”
The people stopped. The sight of the instantly appearing horse and rider rooted them to the spot. For a moment no one dared to move. Quentin judged them to be as many as fifty in all: men, women, and children.
One brave man stepped forward. “Do not hinder us, sir. Whoever you are, if you call yourself friend, let us go.” The man approached Quentin slowly. The others behind him were too frightened to speak or move.
“We will do you no harm; have no fear,” said Quentin.
The man looked over his shoulder and cried, “The Destroyer is upon us! We have only escaped with our lives—let us go! Even now he comes for us!”
“Who is the Destroyer? We will meet him and—”
“No, it is too late!” He made a quick motion to his followers, and as they started to move on, the man suddenly threw his hand in the air. “Ahh! They have found us!”
Quentin looked behind the man and saw something moving by torchlight down the sides of the ravine. He drew his sword from its place behind his saddle and heard the ring of Toli’s blade at the same time.
“Run for it!” Quentin cried to the townspeople. “We will protect your escape.”
Toli charged ahead, and Quentin saw more torches boiling down the side of the ravine. Quentin leaned forward on Blazer’s neck, darted toward the embankment, and drove straight to the nearest of them. He heard Toli’s blade sing in the air and the crash of metal followed by a stifled cry. With his own sword held high, he leaped across the flat bed of the stream and caught a confused group of mail-clad soldiers as they tumbled down the bank. Two of them felt the bite of his blade, and two others fled back up the bank.
Turning, Quentin found his way barred from behind. Blazer reared and lashed out with flying hooves. Quentin’s sword became a lashing shield before him as he fought to Toli’s side. Twice a lance head thrust out of the darkness, and each time the sword sliced through the shaft. Now a buckler was cleaved in two, and then a helm.
It was clear that the soldiers had not anticipated finding men on horseback. They were uncertain what to do and ran into each other in an effort to stay out of range of Toli’s well-trained steeds. This led Quentin to believe that, though greatly outnumbered, they would prevail.
But once over the initial surprise, the soldiers quickly regrouped and surrounded the riders. “We are cut off!” cried Quentin as he raced by Toli. “We must break through the line. Where is the weakest point?”
“There—see that gap?” Esme called. Quentin saw her point past him with her dagger.
He looked and saw a space between two soldiers who were hurrying toward them. “Good eye! Follow me!” He threw the reins ahead, and Blazer sprang for the spot. Closer, he saw that a wall of low bushes stood in the gap. Before he had time to think, Blazer was up and over it.
Toli was not so lucky. Riv, with the weight of an extra rider, charged up and cleared the shrubs with his forelegs, but his hind legs became tangled in the branches. Quentin saw all three go down as soldiers instantly converged on the spot.
Blazer thundered to a churning stop, and Quentin pulled him around and headed back into the fray. “Whist Orren, protect your servant!” he cried in desperation.
In the scant few moments of battle, the sky had lightened enough to see the soldiers distinct from the darker background. Quentin sounded a battle cry and prepared for the shock of the inevitable collision. He saw Riv thrashing his head as the horse regained his feet. Toli and Esme were lost beneath a dozen black shapes of soldiers swarming over them.
Quentin bore down and slashed out at the jumble of lances and swords. He heard the gasps of pain and felt the sword strike deep. He thrust and thrust again, and the roiling mass of bodies parted.
Then he felt something tugging at his cloak, yanking him back- ward. Hands reached out and grabbed his arms; his sword was struck from his hand. Blazer reared and jumped, but the grip on Quentin’s arms held firm, and he was hauled from his saddle.
As he tumbled to the ground, he saw Esme leap out of nowhere and dart past him. For one heartbeat their eyes met. In that same instant Quentin thought she would come to his aid. But she turned away and was instantly in Toli’s saddle. Then Quentin was on the ground, and a foot smashed into his throat.
As the world spun sickeningly before his eyes, he heard the sound of Riv’s hooves pounding away.