Heavy draperies were hung across the windows of the Dragon King’s chamber. The barest thread of light shone through a chink in the gathered cloth to fall in a single shaft upon the king’s high bed. Otherwise, the room was as dark as a cave deep under a hill.
Durwin entered quietly and stood for a moment by the door. He pressed a finger to his chin and then moved closer, listening to the irregular and shallow breathing of the still form on the bed. He stepped nearer the stricken king and stooped to peer into the sleeping man’s face. It was then that he detected the faint, putrid odor of death.
The holy hermit spun around and laid the wooden goblet he carried on a nearby table. He went to the high, narrow window and seized the draperies in both hands and pulled with all his might. There was a tearing sound and a crash as the stifling folds came tumbling down beneath an avalanche of dazzling morning light now streaming into the gloomy chamber.
Fresh air swept fair and warm into the night-chilled room and banished the foul stench. The man on the bed, pale and wizened amid his mounds of thick coverings, stirred feebly. A breathless moan passed his lips.
“My king, awaken!” shouted Durwin, bending close. “Do you hear me? Awaken, I say, and throw off the sleep of death!”
Durwin snatched up the goblet and, slipping his arm beneath Eskevar’s head, brought it close to the invalid’s lips. He poured, and the yellow liquid ran down the king’s chin and neck, staining his bedclothes.
But some of the medicine seeped into his patient’s mouth. The king gasped weakly, and the hermit poured again, emptying the goblet. In a moment the gray eyelids flickered and rose, revealing dark eyes filmy with stupor.
“Awake, Eskevar. Your time is not yet.” The eyes stared unmoving in their milky gaze. “Oh, have I come too late?” Durwin muttered to himself.
“What is it? Durwin? What has hap—” The queen appeared in the open doorway. She took two steps into the room, then saw her husband staring upward, motionless. “Oh!” she cried, rushing to the bed.
“He is with us still, my lady. But for how long I cannot say.” As he spoke, Alinea clutched his arm for support, then threw herself upon the bed, burying her face deep in the bedclothes. In a moment her sobs could be heard, muffled and indistinct.
Durwin stood aside, regarding the queen and her dying king. His own heart swelled with pity and grief. “God Most High,” he prayed, “you give men life and receive it back from them when their span is done. All things grow in their season as established by your command. Surely it is to you a hateful thing when life is cut short.
“An evil malady afflicts our king and crushes him in a deadly embrace. Release him from it. Turn his steps back from their downward path, and restore him once more to his loved ones and to his realm.”
Durwin’s quiet prayer lingered in the air like a healing balm. The breeze blew softly, carrying the scent of roses from the garden outside. It whispered softly in the stillness of the room. Then all was silent.
“Durwin—look!” Alinea exclaimed. In her hands she clasped one of Eskevar’s as she knelt at his side. The king was now gazing quietly at both of them; his eyes were moist with tears.
“Oswald!” Durwin called. The queen’s chamberlain, hovering near the doorway, stepped fearfully into the room. “Fetch me the jar from my worktable!” The worried servant disappeared at once and was back before Durwin could add, “And hurry!”
The hermit once more administered the liquid, pulling the seal from the stoppered bottle and pouring it down the king’s throat. This time Eskevar coughed deeply, closed his eyes as if in pain and said, in a voice barely audible, “Have I fallen so low as to be poisoned in my own bed?”
“The king complains—that is certainly a good sign.” Alinea turned anxious eyes to the hermit, who replaced the stopper in the jar. “My lady, he is safe for the moment, but not out of danger yet.”
Durwin moved about the bed and began throwing off the coverings of wool and fur. “I have been foolish and slow-witted, however. Perhaps the king would not have sunk so far, almost beyond return, if I had been more observant. Come, my lady, we must get him up.”
Alinea looked doubtful. “Do you think—”
“At once. He must save the strength he still possesses. He must use it to gain more. Help me to get him on his feet.”
They took the unresisting body of the king, now light as feather down, between them and raised him carefully. Supporting him by the arms, they pulled him from the bed gently and placed his bare feet upon the floor. “Ahhh!” Eskevar cried out in pain. The queen threw a worried glance at Durwin, who only nodded as if to say, “Continue; it must be done.”
Carefully they walked him step by halting step back and forth across the room, stopping to stand before the window each time to allow him to catch his breath. On and on they walked, the king with his head lolling on his shoulders, barely conscious.
By midday Eskevar could move freely, though he still required the arm of his queen for support. His brow was damp with sweat and his shrunken frame shaken by racking spasms of violent coughing. He swooned with exhaustion.
Durwin and Oswald carried him back to bed as Alinea looked on, wringing her hands. “He will sleep soundly now, I think. We will wake him again in a while to eat. And he must walk again before the sun sets. I will watch him through the night.”
Durwin turned away from the bed and shook his head back and forth slowly. “How could I have let him slip so far?”
“In truth, it is not your fault. You have done all that could be asked, and even now you have saved his life.” Alinea patted Durwin’s arm gently and smiled with calm assurance.
“The god has opened my eyes in time, my lady. That is something indeed to be thankful for. But we must not slacken our vigil again or he will be lost. He is very weak and his strength very fragile.”
“Come to the kitchen, Durwin, and refresh yourself. You, too, will be needing your strength in the hours to come, as will we all.”
Quentin twisted on the ground. A sharp pain seared through his side. One eye was swelling shut; and his mouth, tasting of blood, throbbed with a dull ache. He raised his head slowly and looked cautiously about.
Smoke from the burning town still drifted in hanging clouds that rolled along the ground, stinging his eyes and making his nose run. The sun was barely up, a fierce red ball burning through the black haze that filled the air and seeped down the slopes of the ravine where he lay.
A soldier nearby saw Quentin’s slight movement and jabbed him in the shoulder with the butt of his lance. Quentin put his head down again and lay still; he had seen what he wanted to see. The main force of the soldiers had moved off; only a few remained to guard the prisoners— if prisoners there were, for Toli was nowhere to be seen.
Quentin tried to wiggle his fingers, but they were numb; the ropes that bound him had been tied tightly and efficiently. Both hands were thrust behind his back and lashed together; a loop passed around his neck and one around his feet. To move hands or feet tightened the noose around his neck and strangled him. But periodically Quentin wormed this way and that in an attempt to better reckon his surroundings.
It was only by the hand of the god that he was still alive. In the chaotic moment of his capture, he had been instantly beaten senseless. As he lay bleeding on the ground, a scowling warrior had raised a double-bladed axe over him. Quentin had seen the blade flash on its downward arc toward his heart.
He was saved at the last heartbeat by a hand that had caught the axe-man’s arm in midstroke. An argument had broken out then. Although Quentin could not understand the slurred words of the rough speech, he knew that it concerned him and his probable fate. The soldier with the axe wanted to kill him at once. The other apparently insisted upon waiting, probably for a superior’s approval. Quentin was then bound up and left to wonder what awaited him.
He did not have long to wait.
He heard the hollow sound of a horse’s hooves. There was a sudden scurrying around him, a harsh voice barked out an order, and he was jerked urgently upward to his knees by two grim warriors grasping him by the arms. The voice uttered another command, and Quentin’s head was snapped sharply back by a hand thrust into his hair. His eyes squeezed shut with pain.
When he opened them again, he was looking into the cold, hardened eyes of a warlord of Nin.
The warlord regarded him coolly. He was wearing a strange form of battle dress made of bronze, which glowed in the rising sun with a reddened luster that matched the tone of his flesh. His arms were covered in sleeves of mail from his shoulders to leggings. He wore no helmet, and his long black hair was pulled back and bound in a thick braid that hung down his back. A long, curved sword hung from the pommel of his saddle, its thin blade besmeared with crimson ribbons of blood.
The warlord’s horse, wide of shoulder and heavy of flank, shook its braided mane and snorted loudly. One of the soldiers supporting Quentin began speaking. The speech was strange to Quentin’s ears; he could not think what language it might be, for he could not catch a word of it. But, he guessed, the soldier was telling his commander about how the prisoner had been captured.
The warlord listened intently, interrupting the discourse to ask a question at one point. Quentin then thought he saw a spark of interest light the savage countenance. He spoke a quick command, and two soldiers rushed forward and untied his legs. Then Quentin was hauled to his feet and marched away. The warlord watched him go, then spurred his horse and rode off down the ravine.
Quentin was pulled up the steep bank of the dry streambed. In the smoke blowing across the field he saw soldiers, all wearing the same coarse, dark clothing and carrying brutal-looking double-bladed battle-axes, clustered around several great wagons. At one the soldiers gave up their weapons, which were collected and placed in the wagon. At another they were given large baskets. They then hurried back into the smoldering remains of Illem.
Quentin was taken to one of the nearer wagons and placed up against one of the huge wheels, so large that it was fully as tall as he was. He was untied and then lashed to the wheel by his wrists and ankles. He had no choice but to watch the strange activity taking place in the ruins.
A line of soldiers emerged from the curtain of smoke, carrying sacks of grain and casks of wine. These and other foodstuffs, the provisions of the entire town, were heaped up into a great pile and then loaded into hand-drawn barrows that carted the provisions away.
Then soldiers with baskets began filing past, two by two, moving off into the hills. Quentin could not see where they were going, but knew the general direction to be north. The men carried the baskets on their shoulders, some bent low by the weight of what they carried. Quentin wondered what the baskets contained.
But as he watched the activity around him, his mind returned again and again to the one thing he feared most. More than about his own safety, he wondered what had become of Toli. His friend and companion was gone. There were two possible explanations, he knew. Either Toli had been killed in the attack, in which case his body lay unattended back down in the ravine; or the crafty Jher had managed somehow to escape in the confusion of the battle. Quentin prayed that Toli had escaped.
He heard a signal—a long blast on a horn—and a rank of men on horses moved past the wagons. Each carried an axe and a shield as well as the peculiar curved sword. The horses, too, were armored. Large discs of hardened leather attached with rings of iron and woven into strips were slung over the animals’ withers and rumps, trailing almost to the ground. Upon their hooves were bands of sharpened spikes; and two long, cruel spikes sprouted from each horse’s headplate as well.
Whoever they were, thought Quentin, they had come prepared for war.
When the riders had passed, he heard another blast on the horn, and to his horror, the wagons began rolling. Quentin, thinking they had forgotten about him, cried out as the wheel to which he was tied rolled forward. His cries brought nothing but laughter from the soldiers nearby. He knew then that they had not forgotten him. He was intended to travel with them in this torturous manner, battered slowly to death on the turning wheel.