The candles burned low in their tall holders; several had sputtered out, and the inner chamber of the elders smelled of hot beeswax and tallow. The elders sat stonelike, each one hunched over, head bowed and hands clasped. All was silent but for the rhythmic sigh of their breathing.
The night had drawn full measure, and still they sat. Waiting. Listening. Searching within themselves for an answer to Yeseph’s dream— a most disturbing dream.
Then at last the waiting was over, for Clemore raised his hands and began to sing. “Peran nim Panrais, rigelle des onus Whist Orren, entona blesori amatill kor des yoel belforas,” he sang in the ancient tongue of the Ariga. “King of kings, whose name is Most High, your servant praises your name forever.”
The three others slowly raised their heads and looked at Clemore. His eyes were closed and his hands raised to either side of his face.
“Speak, Elder Clemore. Tell us what has been revealed to you,” Patur said quietly. The others nodded and leaned back in their high-backed wooden chairs; the vigil was over.
Clemore, eyes still closed, began to speak. “The river is Peace, and the water Truth,” he said. “And the river runs through the land, giving life to all who seek it, for Truth is life.
“But the storm of war descends, and its evil defiles the water. Truth is poisoned by the lie and is choked off. When Trust perishes and Peace dries up, the land dies. And the gales of war blow over the land, filling the sky with clouds of death, which is the dust. Then darkness—Evil— covers all, blotting out the light of Good.
“The child who cries out in the darkness is a Child of the Light, who has lost his father, the ways of righteousness. His father’s sword is the knowledge of the Truth, which has been destroyed.
“But there are some left who do not go down to death and darkness, who still remember the River and the Water and the Living Land. They are the man who weeps. The tears are the prayers of the Holy who mourn the coming of Evil.
“The prayers are poured out and become a Sword of Light, which is Faith. The Sword flashes against the darkness of Evil, because it is alive with the Spirit of the Most High. The Sword is to be given to the Child, but alas! The Child has been overcome by the Night and is carried off.”
When Clemore had finished his retelling of the dream, they all spoke at once, joining in agreement with the interpretation. Yeseph’s voice rose above the others. “Brothers! We must not forget that dreams may have several meanings, and all of them are true. I do not doubt that the interpretation we have just heard is truly of the Most High. But I am troubled by one thing.”
“What is it?” asked Jollen. He opened his hand toward Yeseph, inviting him to speak freely. “It was your dream, after all.”
“I feel as if there were some more present danger yet unspoken.”
“Certainly the dream is dire enough, Yeseph,” said Patur.
“And its interpretation is clear warning,” added Clemore.
“Yes, a warning of something to come,” said Yeseph slowly, “but also a reflection of something even now taking place.”
“Well said, Yeseph. I think so, too.” Jollen reached across and touched his arm. “The interpretation was given to us that we might be ready for what is to come. The dream was given to us that we might know there is peril even now upon us.”
Clemore nodded gravely, and Patur pulled on his gray beard. “What does your heart tell you, Yeseph? What are we to do?” asked the latter.
“I hardly know, Patur. But I feel a great torment in my spirit. It has grown through the night as we have sat here.” He glanced at the others. “I feel that we must even now pray for the Child of Light whom we have sent out from among us.”
“Who is that, Yeseph?” asked Clemore.
“Quentin? But he is in Askelon.”
“Quentin, yes, and Toli too. They are in desperate need; I feel it.”
“Then it may be,” replied Jollen, “that our prayers are needed at this moment if the dream is to have an ending.” He turned to the others. “I, too, am troubled about Yeseph’s dream. It does not suggest an end, which means that the end is still in doubt. Therefore, we must unite our spirits, and those of our people, to bring about the ending which the Most High will show us.”
“Your thoughts are mine,” said Yeseph.
“Then let us not waste another moment. Our prayers must begin at once.” Jollen raised his hands and closed his eyes. The others followed his example.
In moments the temple chamber filled with the murmur of the elders’ prayers ascending to the throne of Whist Orren. Outside the temple the silvery light of dawn was tinting the gray curtain of the night in the east.
Dawn brought with it a sudden chill. The horizon was an angry red, dull and brooding, though the sky seemed clear enough overhead. The wind had changed with the coming morning; Toli had noted it as he lay bound beside his master. Quentin hardly breathed at all. He clung to life with a tenuous grasp. Several times before dawn, Toli had had to place his ear against Quentin’s chest to see if he still lived.
In the camp the soldiers were busy making ready for their day’s march. Toli, whose eyes missed nothing, had a presentiment that he and Quentin would not be making the trip with them, for he had seen a group of soldiers readying the ropes and harness, and the three guards who now stood over them laughed and pointed at them. Toli knew that the means of their execution was prepared.
The cooking fires sent white smoke drifting through the camp. The guard on the prisoners was changed, so those who had watched through the night could be fed. When all the soldiers had eaten and were ready to march, reckoned Toli, they would be assembled to view the execution as an entertainment, something to dwell on as they marched that day.
Toli spent his last moments of life praying for Quentin, who could not pray for himself.
He was roused with a sharp kick to his back. The blow rolled him over, and Toli looked up into the hate-filled face of a giant who held a battle axe with a blade as wide as a man’s waist.
The giant, whose face was seamed with crisscrossing scars, pointed at the captives and growled. The guards seized them and dragged them out into the meadow where the army had camped, pushing through the mass of thronging soldiers who formed a solid wall around some object that held their attention.
Toli and Quentin were pushed through the assembled host and thrown down at the edge of a wide ring formed by the shields of the soldiers. In the center of the ring stood two horses, one facing east and the other west. Between the horses lay a tangle of ropes and two heavy yokelike objects. At the farther side of the ring stood the warlord’s black steed, tossing his head and jerking the arm of the soldier holding his bridle.
As Toli watched, a ripple coursed through the ranks at the edge of the ring, and a wide avenue opened, through which came a man wearing a breastplate of bronze and a helmet of bronze that had two great plumes like wings affixed to its crest. A cloak was clasped at one shoul- der, beneath which protruded the thin blade of his cruelly curved sword. Toli had no doubt that he was seeing the warlord.
The warlord approached his courser and paused momentarily while two of his men dashed forward and flung themselves at his feet. One lay prostrate, and the other crouched next to him on his hands and knees. The warlord proceeded to climb into his saddle upon the bodies of his men. He then raised his hand in signal.
Toli swallowed hard, inwardly shuddering. He cast one last look at Quentin, unconscious on the ground beside him. “Stay asleep, Kenta,” he whispered to himself, “and fear nothing. I will go before you.”
But it was not to be. Two soldiers came forward at the warlord’s signal; one carried a gourd full of water. They rolled Quentin over on his back none too gently; a moan escaped his lips. Toli struggled against his bonds and was struck on the head by a guard.
The soldier with the gourd knelt over Quentin and placed the vessel against his nose and poured.
“You will drown him!” shouted Toli, receiving another blow on the head for his trouble. He lunged at the soldier and was kicked in the ribs.
Quentin coughed violently and choked. Water spouted from his mouth and nostrils, and he awoke sputtering. His eyelids flickered, and he turned cloudy eyes upon Toli, who now knelt over him. “My friend . . . ,” Quentin gasped, “I am sorry.”
Quentin seemed to know what was about to happen.
Both prisoners were jerked to their feet; Quentin was made to stand supported between two scowling soldiers, one of whom grasped a handful of hair in order to keep the captive’s head erect.
The warlord gave a second signal, and there was a sudden scuffle behind the two captives. A third prisoner was flung forward into the ring. He was a soldier, bound hand and foot as Quentin and Toli were. “One of the sentries of last night,” whispered Toli. He guessed the warlord would make him the first victim.
The man’s face was gray; he trembled all over. Sweat soaked his hair and ran down his face—a hideous mass of purple welts, for the man had already received a sound beating. The luckless trooper was quickly wrenched to his feet by two other guards, who then stripped him naked, cutting away his clothing with their knives. The soldiers looking on laughed.
The unfortunate was marched to the center of the ring, where the giant with the broadaxe waited between the two horses. He was pushed to the ground, where he writhed in anguish as his arms and legs were securely tied to the heavy wooden yokes. Then, upon a signal, the two horses, harnessed to the yokes, were led slowly away in opposite directions.
The ropes pulled taut. The giant stepped into place over his prey. The victim was lifted off the ground to hang in agony while his body stretched by slow degrees. The horses leaned into the harness, and the man screamed terribly. The awful popping sound of joints and ligaments giving way seemed to fill the ring. As the victim screamed his last, the giant, quick as lightning, spun the broadaxe in a flashing circle about his head and with one hand brought the blade down with a mighty stroke.
The jolt of the blow almost felled the horses, who stumbled to their knees as the ropes suddenly went slack. The poor wretch was hewn neatly in half as the host wildly clamored their approval, rattling their weapons and cheering.
Toli glanced fearfully at Quentin, who stared emptily at the horrible spectacle; though Quentin’s eyes were open, Toli could not tell if they saw what had been played out before them. His look was vague and far away.
The warlord ordered the corpse to be removed from the yokes and then led his steed across the ring to where Toli and Quentin waited. Toli gritted his teeth and stared stubbornly ahead. The warlord glared down at his prisoners for a moment. He spoke something in an unintelligible tongue. Toli raised his eyes, snapping with defiance, and for a brief instant their gazes met. The warlord grasped his reins and struck down at Toli and slashed him across the face—once, twice, three times.
Blood spurted from a gash over his eye and ran down his face. The warlord barked at him and shot a quick glance at Quentin, who still seemed not to know what was happening around him. Then the warrior chief swung his mount around and trotted back to the center of the ring.
He looked slowly around the entire circle of faces in his army and then spat out a short speech to them which, from the somber mood that suddenly fell upon the host, Toli guessed to be on the order of an official reprimand. When he finished, the warlord nodded, and the soldiers began readjusting the yokes and harnesses. Toli believed the moment to be his last. He closed his eyes and sent aloft a prayer for strength and dignity in his moment of trial.
Across the ring a blast of a horn sounded. Toli opened his eyes to the far hills and trees, intent that his last memory should not be of his executioner or the grotesque corpse lying in two pieces beside the wicked blade. He felt a twinge of regret that he would not be able to comfort his master in his last moment, nor even say his leave as a man would, but he doubted whether Quentin would know or understand anyway.
The soldiers on either side of him tightened their grasp, and suddenly he was being dragged forward. His heart raced madly in his chest, and his vision suddenly became remarkably acute. He saw every blade of grass under his feet, and every leaf on every branch of nearby trees stood out in breathtaking clarity.
Time seemed to swell, expanding to immeasurable dimensions. He moved step by step, wonderfully aware of each moment as it slid by; he held it, savored it. Now he was raising his foot, taking a step—how long it took—now the other foot swung up. There were twenty more steps to go before reaching the axe-man, and each step seemed to last forever.
He was conscious of the air as it filled his lungs: the taste of it, the tingling freshness as it rushed in. He felt the sun on his neck and thought that if he tried he could count each single ray as it touched him. How strange, he thought, that every nerve and fiber of his being should be so fully alive this close to death.
Then he was struck with a horrible thought. In this heightened state, he would be able to see the executioner’s blade as it glittered in the air in its lazy arc. He would be able to feel each tiny fiber of muscle strength and pull; he would feel his bones wrenched leisurely from their sockets; he would hear his own spine snap.
He would see in that most hideous of moments—stretched out far, far beyond its normal length—the cruel blade bite deep into his flesh, cleaving bone from muscle. And he would see himself severed in half and feel the awful rush of his organs spilling out.
He would know his death in its most terrifying aspect. He would die not instantly, as it would seem to those who looked on. He would die with torturous slowness. Gradually. Bit by excruciating bit.