Quentin hung limply from the wagon wheel, his mind benumbed with the pain drumming through every extremity of his broken body. He whimpered softly, unaware that he was making any sound at all—unaware of anything but the throbbing, insistent agony.
All day long the wheel had spun—over rock and root, through dust and deep water. And Quentin, lashed to the wheel, had been slowly tortured into insensibility. He did not notice when the wheel finally stopped, nor when the sun set, nor when the night brought an end to his torture.
He hung on the wheel and whimpered softly and pitifully as darkness deepened around him.
Amid the ordered confusion of Nin’s army making camp for the night, the moon rose fair and full, and with it the Wolf Star. Quentin gazed unblinking at the moon with unseeing eyes. Some small part of his mind watched it curiously, a frightened animal peering out from a cave where it had retreated to escape the hunters.
After a long time it seemed to Quentin that the moon was coming toward him, leaving its course in the black dome of heaven to come closer and closer. He could see it weaving over him, shining with a gentle light. It had two dark eyes that watched strangely. He wanted to reach out and place his hand against its smooth, luminous surface, but his hands would not obey. Then the moon disappeared.
Years passed, or were they moments? Quentin next felt something cool touch his forehead. He opened his eyes and saw that the moon had come back. It was looking at him and whispering to him, but he could not hear the words, though they buzzed softly in his ears. He struggled to lift his head to speak, but lacked the strength, so simply allowed the moon to comfort him with its cool touch.
“Kenta, can your hear me? It is Toli. Kenta . . .”
Quentin blinked his eyes and peered dully back at the round, shining face of the moon. He opened his mouth to speak, but could not remember how to form the words.
“Do not try to speak. Just listen to me. I have come to free you. Kenta, can you hear me?”
Quentin moaned. Why was this moon so persistent? What did it want? He wanted only to drift back into the soothing void of unconsciousness. “Here is some water.” He felt something press against his lips, and cool liquid spilled gently into his mouth. He swallowed feebly and then again. “Drink it slowly,” came the whisper.
Next Quentin felt something tugging at his hand. He felt it, though it seemed to him that his hand was far away and no longer a part of him. When the hand was free, it fell limp and useless to dangle at his side. He watched as the moon stooped to slice through the cords that bound his feet. Then the other hand swung free, and he pitched forward onto his knees and into the solid arms of the moon, who whispered in his ear, “Can you move?”
Quentin made no answer. He felt himself rolled to the ground gently and then half lifted, half dragged under the shelter of the wagon. His head was raised, and the cool liquid poured into his mouth. Then he was laid back down, and Toli fell to rubbing some life back into his friend’s mangled limbs. He sank once more into peaceful oblivion.
“Kenta, wake up.” The voice was the barest of whispers. Warm breath tickled his ear. “It is time to go.”
“Toli?” The word was a slurred moan.
“Shh! Not so loud. I am here. Thank the God you are alive. I thought I had lost you.”
“What has happened! Ohhh . . .” His shoulder had begun throbbing again mercilessly and the pain and the night chill revived him somewhat. “Where . . . where am I?”
“There is no time, Kenta. It will be morning soon. We must get away now. Can you move?”
“I—I do not know. I do not think so.”
“You must try. Come, I will help you.” Toli gently lifted his master to a sitting position, but even this effort caused black waves of dizziness to wash over Quentin. He moaned again and could not restrain it.
“I think your right arm is broken, Kenta. Hold it close to your side, and try not to move it.”
“I cannot feel anything. But my shoulder . . . ahh!” Toli had placed his hands under Quentin’s arm to drag him from beneath the wagon.
“The soldiers are asleep, but there are sentries around the perimeter. They are careless, for they are not expecting an encounter this night. We have a chance. Can you stand?”
“I . . .” With Toli’s help he struggled to his feet, then swayed uncertainly. The pain took his breath away.
“I will hold you, but we must move now.” Toli guided his first faltering steps as Quentin stumbled helplessly forward, trying to make his legs move in harmony. It was no use—he collapsed not two steps from where they started.
“Good,” grunted Toli. “We try again. Lean on me.” He raised Quentin back to his feet, and they started off again.
Quentin tried to raise his head, but searing fireballs of pain burned through his brain with the effort. He let his head wobble upon his chest as Toli propelled them forward. The earth felt strange beneath his feet, as if it were rolling away from him with every step. His legs kept entangling themselves and tripping him, but somehow Toli kept them both upright and moving.
“Ahead is a gully—maybe fifty paces. We will be hidden there. We can rest before moving again. But we must be as far away from here as possible before daylight.”
They lurched through the darkness as Toli’s night-hawk vision kept watch for signs of discovery. They were moving away from the camp; the wagons stood between them and the huddled masses of sleeping enemy soldiers. But ahead lay the circle of sentries at their posts.
The gully, little more than a weedy depression carved in the ground, opened before them, and Quentin slid down the side to lie panting on his back when they reached it. His head ached, and dark shapes, like the wings of ravens, swarmed before his eyes.
“Listen,” Toli said. He crawled to the rim of the gully to look back toward the wagons. “I think they have discovered our escape. Someone is moving around the wagon. We must move on quickly.”
He lifted Quentin to his feet, and crouching as low as could be managed, they staggered off again.
Quentin concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other and staying upright; Toli bore the responsibility for keeping them moving. It was all Quentin could do not to cry out in pain when his shoulder was jostled.
“There are trees up ahead. If we can reach them, perhaps we can rest again.”
As Toli spoke, they heard a shout behind them and the rattle of men running. “They know!” cried Toli, pulling them forward.
The trees loomed up as a black mass hurled against a black sky. The moon had set long ago; Toli had chosen this, the darkest hour of night, for their escape. Twice Quentin stumbled and fell full length to the ground, and Toli could not prevent it. Each time Quentin gamely hauled himself back to his feet, though the agony blinded him.
Somehow they reached the trees. Toli propped Quentin up beside a formless trunk and left him there holding his arm with his good hand. Though the night was cool, Quentin swam in his own sweat and tasted its salty tang on his lips. He fought to remain conscious when he saw the black wings fluttering closer. He felt as if he did not have a single bone that had not been wrenched out of joint.
Toli was back beside him in an instant. “They are looking for us. They know you have escaped. They have not yet turned toward the trees, but it is only a matter of time. They will find the gully, and they will follow it as we have. We cannot stay here.”
Quentin gasped and nodded. His temples pulsed with the pain as it twisted deeper and deeper into him. He could feel his strength slipping away. With Toli beside him he started off again, blindly, for between the sweat running in his eyes and the darkness of the wood, he could see nothing.
There were torches wavering over the landscape now. The soldiers were searching for them in knots of three or more, spreading out over the land. Soon Quentin could hear their voices echoing behind them as they dodged and floundered through the trees. Once he thought he saw the flare of a torch off to his right, moving even with them. The voices of their pursuers, excited by the chase, sounded closer.
“I have a horse waiting,” Toli said, “down there.”
Quentin realized dimly that they were standing at the top of a low bluff whose slope was clothed in brambles. Before he could speak Toli had them plunging down the slope and into the thickets, heedless of the barbs tearing at their flesh.
Quentin fought his way through and, with Toli ever at his side, had almost reached the bottom when his foot struck against a root, and he was flung headlong down the slope. He landed hard, unable to break his fall with his hands, and heard a sickening snap as he felt something give way in his injured shoulder. Daggers of pain stabbed into the wound. A startled scream tore from his throat before he could stifle it.
Toli darted past him, and Quentin felt a rush of movement just in front of him and realized he had landed almost underneath the horse Toli had somehow acquired and hidden for their escape. Then he felt Toli’s strong hands jerking him once more to his feet. He was pushed into the saddle to hang like a sack of barley, head on one side and feet on the other. Toli was instantly behind him, holding him on with one hand and snapping the reins with the other.
The horse jumped away, and Quentin saw the earth spin aside in a jumble of confused shapes: branches, rocks, sky, and ground. He saw a light and then another. He heard a shout close at hand and an answer not far away. His teeth ground against each other as he clung helplessly to the saddle.
Now the shouts of the enemy were all around. A dark shape rushed at them from out of the brush. Toli slashed down at it with the reins. Suddenly the copse was ablaze with torches. Toli jerked the reins hard and turned the horse toward the slope, but it was too steep for the frightened animal. The horse struggled, slid, pawed the air, and then fell back, legs pumping furiously.
Quentin was flung to the ground and Toli on top of him. In an instant they were ringed by soldiers and seized. Quentin saw the flash of a torch and the awful scowl of a face leering over him; then black hands grabbed him and began dragging him away. He heard a voice shouting in desperation and realized it was his own, but he could not make out the words.
He jerked his head around to see what had become of Toli, but could only see the swinging torches behind him. How bright the flaming brands are, he thought. It hurt his eyes to look at them. Run, get away! another voice told him, this one inside his head. Yes, he must escape. If only they would release him, he would run and run and not stop running until he was far away.
Where were they taking him? he wondered. What would happen to him? The questions framed themselves in his mind, but no answers came. Very well, it did not matter. Nothing mattered anymore. He had ceased to feel anything at all. He felt consciousness slipping from him; he heard a furious buzzing sound loud in his ears.
There was a rush of black wings, and suddenly he was soaring, falling, tumbling, floating high above the earth. Quentin looked down and saw a strange procession of torchbearers marching through the wooded dell. They carried with them the bodies of two unfortunates. Who could they be? Quentin was sorry for them. Sadly, he turned his eyes away and saw the dark edge of the night sweeping toward him.
It was as if a silken veil had passed before his eyes, removing all from view. He let it touch him and enfold him in its dark embrace. Quentin felt the last fine threads of strength and will leave him, and he knew no more.