The sleek black stallion seemed to flow down hills and through valleys like water. Esme had only to press with her knees or move a hand to the right or left and the horse responded, as if to her very thoughts. The animal was remarkably well trained—so much so that Esme began to fear for its welfare. Riv would run until his heart burst before slackening his pace in disobedience to his rider’s command.
The scene of the ill-fated flight lay far behind her now, and still the horse flew on, the lather streaming off his neck and shoulders in flecks whipped away by the wind. Esme saw the dark line of a creek snaking through the lowland valley ahead. Where the creek rounded the grassy base of a hill, there rose a stand of young birches, shimmering white in the morning light. That, she thought, would be a good place to rest.
“Whoa, Riv!” she called, leaning forward in the saddle. She pulled back the reins with the lightest touch, and the horse slowed to a canter and then a trot. Esme let him cool down before reaching the quiet stream, knowing that it would not be good to let him drink his fill while still hot from the chase and winded. She would need this horse to reach Askelon.
The birches ringed a shady hollow where long grasses grew, fed by the stream. It was secluded and invisible to any who might come after her. The stony feet of the hill lay exposed at one side of the hollow where the stream formed a shallow pool.
She slid from the saddle and led Riv into the shady grove, walking him slowly. The hollow was cool and silent and full of golden spatters of sunlight and green shadow. Warily, she advanced toward the running water heard spilling blithely over a rank of stones set in its course. She heard the call of a meadow bird above her on the hill and the swish of the horse’s legs moving through the grass. That was all, apart from the bubbling water. Yes, she was safe.
Esme led her mount to the edge of the pool and watched as he plunged his nose into the water. He drank deeply and pulled his head out of the stream to shake his gleaming mane in the sunlight. Glistening pearls of water were flung into the air, then splashed back into the crystal pool. She watched as the horse repeated the procedure several more times, and each time she was a little closer to forgetting that she had just barely escaped with her life.
Riv snorted and turned away from the water to stand looking at her calmly, as if to say, “You may drink—I will keep watch.” Esme knelt in the long grass, cupped her hands, and brought the clear water to her mouth. When she had finished, she led Riv to a patch of wild clover and let him eat his fill. She did not tether him, knowing that a horse as well trained as Riv would not abandon his rider to wander off.
She left the horse to crop the clover and turned her attention to the hill nearby. It presented to her the highest vantage for viewing her surroundings. Having left the fray at the ravine with little more thought than to come away with her skin, she had almost no idea where she might be. As much as possible she had tried to hold the direction whereby they had entered the ravine in the first place, her object being to regain the road they had been following. Once on the road, she would turn north and then hurry to Askelon.
Esme climbed the steep slope of the hill as it rose out of the vale and above the trees. Out of the shade, the air was warmer and alive with bees and butterflies beginning their daily chores. A fresh wind blew ruffles along the tall grass; the sky billowed bright and blue, unconcerned with the darker deeds of night and desperate men. Here she could almost forget what had passed just a few hours earlier.
But she could not forget the two gallant men who had so courageously flown to the aid of the helpless townspeople and who had, without question, offered her protection as well. As she reached the crown of the hill, she turned her eyes back toward Illem, now leagues behind her. There was nothing to be seen; not even a smudge of smoke on the horizon remained to mark the place.
For a moment she stood in indecision—should she return and try to discover what had become of her friends? Or go on, to complete her charge and deliver her message to the king?
It was an empty choice, she knew. The enemy that had overcome them in the ravine at Illem was the same that had surprised her and her companions on the road. Now the lives of two more had been added to the sum, for there was little doubt in her mind that by now Quentin and Toli were dead. And were it not for the importance of her mission, she would have stayed to share their fate.
There was nothing to be done but go on.
She gazed out over the land, her dark eyes sweeping the horizon for any recognizable landmark. Away to the south, she saw a thin slice of spangled blue that merged with the sky. The sea, she thought, I have not gone far wrong. By squinting up her eyes she could almost see the road itself as it hugged the coastal hills. She cast one look over her shoulder to see if the dark enemy had followed her, but saw nothing except the radiant sky and the hills of summer. So she turned with heavy heart to leave.
Clambering back down the side of the hill, Esme heard the excited whinny of a horse. Was it Riv, or some other? She stopped, her heart now fluttering in panic. She listened.
From beneath the leafy canopy directly below her she heard again the shrill scream of a horse in distress. In the tangle of leaves and branches, she could not see the animal, nor its assailant. As quickly and as quietly as she could, she slipped the rest of the way down the hill, careful not to show herself openly.
Once below the treetops she saw Riv, legs splayed, head down, backed against the rocks, shaking his mane and baring his teeth. But she could see nothing at all that should so upset him. All was as she had left it. Not a single intruder, man or beast, was in evidence.
Esme dropped to the ground and crouched in the grass for a moment. Hearing nothing and seeing nothing disturbing, she rose and went to the frightened animal to comfort it.
“There, Riv. Easy, boy.” She patted his sleek jaw and curled a slim arm around his neck. “Easy, now. What is it, Riv? Hmm? What has frightened my brave one?”
The horse calmed under her touch and soothing voice. He nickered softly, low in his throat, and tossed his head. But he continued to look away across the creek—at nothing Esme could see.
“There, now. See? All is well. There is nothing—”
Before Esme could finish, Riv tossed his head, eyes rolling white in terror, and broke away from her. She snatched at the dangling reins, but the horse leaped away and ran through the long grass to stand whinnying across the hollow.
“Riv!” Esme shouted impatiently. “You perverse creature! Come back here!” She stood with her hands on her hips as the horse bucked and shied, spinning in circles of fear as she watched. What had gotten into the animal? wondered Esme. She had seen nothing like it before.
“Away, foul beast!
And take your rider— Or be ye still,
And stand beside her.”
At the strange, singsong words spoken in a rasping babble of a voice, Esme whirled around. Her hand flew to the long dagger at her belt.
“Not a hangman’s knot.
Nor blade of knife
This sibyl’s life!”
Esme could not believe her eyes. For there, in a huddle of rags on a rock in the middle of the creek, stood a humpbacked old woman. She held a long staff in one hand and waved the other before her as if warding off bees. As Esme watched in mute astonishment, the old woman hopped as lightly as a cricket from stone to stone and so crossed the stream without so much as wetting a single tatter.
Upon landing on the bank, the old woman shook her rags in a flurry and stamped the ground three times with her staff. Then she proceeded to hobble toward the spot where Esme stood gaping in amazement. Where had she come from?
“Who are you, old mother?” asked Esme warily. The withered creature did not answer but drew closer in her peculiar hopping gait, swinging the staff and puffing mightily. Her hair hung in a mass of tangled gray snakes bedecked with bits of leaf and twig. The shriveled face looked like a dried apple, a mass of lines and creases browned by the wind and baked by the sun. When the woman moved, Esme imagined she could hear her brittle bones rattle; she appeared as old as the rocks under the hill.
“Who are you?” Esme repeated her question.
The hag made a pass in front of her with her wavering paw. Esme saw the rough hands and blackened nails and noticed, too, the scent of smoke and filth that billowed from the old woman.
“If rock and hill
And laughing water
Be hearth and home,
I’m Orphe’s daughter.”
She turned her weathered face slyly toward Esme and grinned a leering, toothless grin. It was then that Esme saw the sunken sockets where once eyes used to be. The old woman was utterly blind.
“You live here . . . in the hollow?”
“So ye say
And speak ye truth
And I would ask
The same of you.”
“Me? I am Esme. I did not mean to disturb your home. I heard the horse . . .” She turned and noticed Riv had calmed and now stood watching and cautiously nodding his head as if spellbound. “I will trouble you no further, but will leave at once.”
“Of leaving let
No more be spoken
Till I have known
You by your token.”
The ancient oracle held out her hand and propped her chin on her staff and waited. She looked like a bent and gnarled tree on a withered stump, offering a lonely branch. Her ragged clothing fluttered in the breeze like leaves.
“I do not have a token, old mother,” said Esme, thinking fast. It did not do to upset an oracle. Especially one of the caste who called themselves the Daughters of Orphe, for they were very powerful and wise. “But let me offer a blessing in your name when next I come to a shrine.”
The hag threw back her head and laughed, and Esme saw two lonely brown teeth clinging like lichen to their place in the elderly jaw. The old seeress’s laughter rang like the clatter of hail in an empty pot.
“Of blessings I
Have little need
Bless me instead
With a noble deed.”
Esme started at the old woman’s use of the word noble. She asked suspiciously, “What deed would you have me perform?”
“The rabbit caught
Within your briar,
Tastes the better
When aroast with fire.”
The old woman crooked a knobby finger along the stream behind them. Esme followed it with her eyes and saw a hawthorn thicket rustling vigorously as if something were indeed caught within it.
“You would have me cook you a meal? This is the deed you require?” Esme did not like the idea; she was anxious to resume her journey. The country was not safe; the enemy prowled the hills at will. She had had two encounters already and did not welcome a third. She wished she had some item of value she could give the hag and be on her way. “Very well,” she said slowly, and reluctantly went to retrieve the rabbit she knew she would find caught among the thorns.
Orphe’s daughter turned and followed her with sightless sockets. She smiled, and the wrinkled old face contorted in a shrewd, lipless grimace. She mumbled happily to herself and fluttered like a crippled bird to perch herself upon a nearby rock to wait.
Esme had no difficulty catching the rabbit. She could see it struggling in the thicket. Reaching in carefully, she pulled it out by the scruff of the neck. She could feel its tiny heart beating madly as she held it close. It gave a terrified kick and leaped out of her arms. Esme watched as it bounded away, afraid that she had lost it and would now be cursed by the oracle for failing in her deed.
But the rabbit, a plump hare, gave two faltering jumps, then pitched forward—dead. Esme ran to it and picked it up. The racing heart was still. She took her dagger and cut off its head to bleed it. She left it dangling by its hind legs from a branch while she went in search of wood to make a fire.
When at last the fire was crackling and the skinned rabbit gutted and roasting on a spit, Esme went to the seeress and announced, “Your meal will be ready soon, old mother. And I have found you an apple to eat with your meat.” The apple she had thoughtfully peeled and diced into a wooden bowl that she had retrieved from Toli’s pack behind the saddle. She had then ground the large golden globe to mash with the handle of her dagger.
The hag said nothing but hopped nearer the fire and seated herself. Esme went to the stream and filled a second bowl with water.
“Perhaps Orphe’s daughter would care to wash her hands before eating,” Esme said gently, holding the bowl before her.
The old woman nodded regally and dipped her hands daintily into the bowl and rubbed them together. The water turned murky with dirt. The old woman then wiped her wet hands on her filthy clothes and smiled.
Esme fetched her another bowl of water, took the cooked meat from the spit, and cut it into strips that she shredded and chopped. “Your meal, my lady,” said Esme, for the oracle had assumed a queenly air as she was presented with the bowl of apple and rabbit, thoroughly minced.
Esme withdrew to watch the old woman dine with obvious pleasure, licking her fingers and smacking her lips. When she had finished, she held out the bowl for more. Esme filled it again and sat down beside her to wait. The sun reached its zenith, dwindling the shadows in the glade to nothing, and still the old woman hunkered over her bowl. Esme clasped her hands around her knees and forced herself to wait as patiently as possible.
At last the old woman had eaten her fill. She placed the bowls on the ground beside her and rose up with much creaking and snapping of joints. She shook herself forward to stand before Esme and leaned once more on her staff. This she did with such surety of motion and without hesitation that Esme realized for the first time that the hag saw as much with her inner eyes as others did with perfect vision. She shuddered to think that as a child the woman had probably had her eyes put out to further enhance her strange gift.
“The deed was done
And with thoughtful art.
As best befits
A most noble heart.
By this I know
As by a gold ring,
Princess ye are
And your father king.”
Esme gasped and jumped to her feet. The hag had spoken rightly, but it frightened her to have her secret so easily known.
“You see much that cannot be seen with eyes alone, Priestess. Since I have served you as you asked, allow me to leave with your blessing.”
“A blessing ye ask
And this ye receive,
Your secret safe
If none ye deceive.
Full rare is she
Whose safety would spend
In risking death
For love of a friend.
But this ye do And this will be found:
Your errand done
When two are unbound.”
The old woman turned and scuttled away. Esme felt a nudge at her elbow and realized that Riv had come to her and was anxious to be off and away from the strange old woman.
Esme climbed into the saddle and watched the shapeless bundle of rags hop from stone to stone back across the stream. “Thank you for the blessing, Daughter of Orphe. May your prophecy be true.”
At that the hag stopped and turned once more toward Esme. She raised her crooked staff overhead with both hands and turned around three times very fast. Esme wondered that she did not fall off her precarious perch in the middle of the stream.
The old woman’s rasping voice rose to fill all the hollow.
“I speak what is,
And not what may be.
But since you ask,
Hear my prophecy!”
The oracle raised her face toward the sky and muttered a long incantation while the staff waved back and forth over her head. Then she brought the knobby head of the rod down with a crack upon the stone where she stood. Her hand shot into the air, fingers spread like a claw. Her words echoed in the dell.
“See ye the sword
And do not yield it!
If foe be slain,
A king must wield it.”
With a skip and a jump, the hag disappeared as quickly and as mysteriously as she had come. But long after she was gone, her words rang in Esme’s ears like the clear peal of a bell.