You look better this morning than you have in weeks, Sire.” Durwin had seen the king from across the garden and had watched him for some moments before approaching. Eskevar sat quietly on a small stone bench amid a riotous splash of color from flowers of every shade and description. Every variety of flowering plant and shrub from the farthest ends of the realm and beyond had a place in the Dragon King’s garden.
A shadow vanished from the king’s brow as he looked up and saw his physician coming toward him. “Thanks to the ministrations of my good hermit, I think I will yet trouble this world with my existence.”
Durwin cocked a wary eye at Eskevar. “How strangely you put it, Sire. I would have thought that today of all days, you would rejoice in your improved health and put gloomy thoughts far behind you.”
“Then little you know me, sir. I may not make merry when my— when men of my bidding are still abroad.”
“It is Midsummer!” said Durwin. His gaiety was a little forced; he, too, felt uneasy about Quentin and Toli and the others being so long away. “I would not wonder if they were enjoying the hospitality of one of the happy villages by the sea.”
Eskevar shook his head gravely. “You contrive to cheer me, but your words fall far short of the mark, Durwin—though I thank you for the attempt. I know too well that something is wrong in Mensandor. Something is very wrong.”
Durwin stepped closer to his monarch and laid a hand on his shoulder. The king looked up into the hermit’s eyes and smiled wanly. “Sire, I, too, feel a dread creeping over the land. Sometimes my heart flutters unexpectedly, or a chill falls upon me as I sit in my chamber before the fire, and I know something is loose in the land that does not love peace. Too soon, I fear, we will face a most loathsome enemy.
“But I also know that we stand in the light of the god’s pleasure, and no darkness can extinguish it.”
“I wish I had faith enough to believe in your god. I have seen too much of religion to believe.” Eskevar sighed and rose slowly to his feet. Durwin reached out a hand and steadied him.
The two old friends walked the garden paths side by side in silence for a long time; Durwin kept his hand under the king’s arm.
“I do not think I could survive another campaign, another war,” said Eskevar after they had walked the entire length and breadth of the garden.
“You are tired, Sire. That is all. You have been very ill. Take your time, and do not let such thoughts trouble you. When you have regained your strength, you will feel differently, I assure you.”
“Perhaps.” The king grew silent again.
The sun shone down in a friendly way, and all the garden seemed to shout with the exuberance of life. A fountain splashed in a shady nook near a wall covered with white morning glories. A delicate song floated on the perfumed air as the men strolled slowly by. They stopped to listen.
“How sweetly your daughter sings, Sire.”
“She cannot do else.” The king laughed gently, and the light seemed to rise in his eyes. “She is a woman, and she is in love.”
Seeing how his patient brightened at the thought of his daughter, Durwin turned aside and directed their steps toward the fountain and the young woman dressed all in white samite, glistening like a living ray of light.
“My lady sings most beautifully,” said Durwin when they had drawn close. Bria, her hands busily plaiting a garland of ivy into which morning glories were woven, raised her head and smiled.
“I would have thought my lords too preoccupied for a maiden’s vain utterings,” Bria laughed. Music filled the air, and shadows raced away. Eskevar seemed suddenly to become young again, remembering perhaps another whose laughter enchanted him. “Come, Father. And Durwin, too. Sit beside me, and tell me what you two have been talking about this morning.”
“We will sit with you, but it is you who must tell us what occupies your thoughts,” said Durwin.
They sat on stone benches near the fountain; Eskevar settled next to his lovely daughter and did not take his eyes from her. Bria began to relate the trivial commonplaces of her day, and her excitement at the approach of the evening’s Midsummer celebration. There was no hint in her voice of anything but the most joyful anticipation of delight.
How very like her mother, Durwin thought. How wise and good. Her heart must have been filled with thoughts of Quentin and consumed with longing for his presence in this happy time; yet she did not let on that she felt anything but the most perfect contentment and happiness. She was doing it for her father, he knew.
After a little while, Durwin slipped away and left his patient for the moment in the hands of an even more skilled physician, one whose very presence was a healing balm.
Arriving at the road, Esme had faced a hard decision. To the north lay Askelon and her goal; to the south, danger and the likelihood of being captured again. But she guessed that any help she might bring must come out of the south, too. That was the way her protectors, Quentin and Toli, had been heading when they encountered her. That was the way their friends were expected to return.
The choice had occupied her the greater part of the afternoon— ever since leaving the oracle. And upon reaching the seaside track, she was no further decided in her mind. Very likely Quentin and Toli were dead. And it was almost certain that their friends—whoever they were—had been ambushed and killed, as had her own bodyguards. It seemed a futile gesture to turn away from Askelon now; there was nothing to be gained by wandering farther afield.
And yet, the words of Orphe’s daughter still whispered in her mind:
But this ye do
And this will be found:
Your errand done
When two are unbound.
What else could it mean but that Quentin and Toli—the two— were still alive but would not remain so unless she went to free them? If she believed the prophecy at all, it would mean that her errand would only be accomplished in securing their release.
It made no sense. But when, thought Esme bitterly, did the gods ever make sense to mortals?
So, against all reason, she had turned Riv to the south. As their shadows deepened and lengthened in the late afternoon, they set off in search of friends in a friendless land.
A long night fraught with lingering chills had passed into a sullen morning in which an angry red sun glowered upon the horizon. Esme was up and shaking the leaves and dew from her cloak when she heard it: the crisp jingle of horses moving on the road. It was thin and far away, but it was a sound she knew well—the sound of men-at-arms moving with some speed and purpose, their weapons and tack clinking with every step.
She slipped from the bower that had been her bed for the night, slightly below the road and down an incline so that it was well hidden, and crept to the road’s edge to peer along its length. She could see no one coming, and for a moment the sound drifted away; she wondered if she had imagined it. But the road hereabouts ran over and around the many humps of this hilly region, and presently the sound came again.
She ducked away again into her leafy refuge and led Riv out and along a route parallel to the road. They descended into a small valley and rose again to the top of a little, tree-lined hill. From there Esme judged she would have a clear view of the road below without fear of being seen.
She waited. The resentful sun rose slowly, throwing off a sulky light; the air seemed dank and stale. The sky held the feel of a storm, though not a cloud was to be seen. Such days did often betoken ill, thought Esme, hoping that its end would not leave her with cause for regret.
Into the stillness of the morning came once more the jingling refrain she had heard before. This time it was closer and more distinct. Listening very hard, she thought she could hear the thump of horses’ hooves as the party, not large, moved along. Presently Esme saw the ruddy glint of a blade or helm as it caught the sun for a brief instant. Then, jouncing into view below her came two knights, three more following close behind.
Though she watched them for a while as they jogged along, Esme knew at once she had nothing to fear from these men. They were not of the destroying horde she had twice encountered. And from her secret perch she could barely make out the blazon of one knight’s shield as it hung beside him on his horse’s flank—the twisting red dragon of the Dragon King.
When the company of knights had drawn even with her hiding place, Esme urged Riv out gingerly and hastened down to meet them in the road. One of the knights saw her racing toward them, said something to his companions, and then broke away, galloping to intercept her. He did not speak as he joined her, but eyed her cautiously as he conducted her to where the others had stopped and were now waiting to receive them.
There was an awkward moment of silence when she finally reached them; the two foremost knights exchanged glances quickly. It was clear they did not know what to make of her, a young lady riding out of the hills alone.
“I am Ronsard, lord high marshal of Mensandor. I am at your service, my lady.” It was the knight whose blazon she had recognized.
The young woman spoke up without hesitation. “I am Esme—,” she began, but was interrupted by the second knight, a man of dark aspect whom she thought seemed somehow familiar.
“I used to know an Esme,” he said, “though she was but a slip of a girl and shy as a young deer.”
“It is a common name, sir,” she said guardedly. Who was this man? She was certain she had seen him before.
“Of course, you are right. The Esme I knew lived away in Elsendor and was never fond of horses, as I see you must be to ride as you do.” A secretive smile played at the edges of the knight’s mouth. Was he laughing at her? Esme wondered.
“Elsendor is a realm of some size,” she said. “Perhaps you would remember whose house it was wherein you saw the girl that bears my name.”
“I remember it well,” laughed the knight. “Often it was that I found lodging there and hospitality of the most royal kind.” He lingered on the word “royal” and gave it a peculiar emphasis.
Ronsard looked from one to the other of them curiously. “It is well that we have naught to do but pass the time wagging our tongues. Or perhaps there is some hidden jest which this dull head does not apprehend.”
“Sir, if it is a jest, it is not mine,” she said, a little confused. “I am on an errand of some importance concerning friends of yours, I think.”
“Then, my lady, I suggest you tell us plainly what you require of us. We are charged with an errand of importance as well.”
“Now, now, good Ronsard. Be not so hasty with this young lady. For though she is a stranger to you, I think her father is not.”
“You—you know my father?” She peered at him closely. “Your words addle me, sir. But there is something about you which seems not altogether unfamiliar.”
“Yes,” said Ronsard, growing impatient. “If you think you know something, then out with it!”
“Very well,” sighed Theido. “It may be that I am indeed mistaken. Yes, I’m certain I am. For any of King Troen’s offspring would know one whom they called Uncle.”
The young lady’s dark eyes opened wide in disbelief. Her head shook dubiously, wagging the sleek braid at the back of her head. “Theido?” A look of happy relief flooded her face as she saw the dark stranger throw back his head and laugh deeply.
Ronsard clucked his tongue and rolled his eyes. “What a meeting this is. It is not to be believed.”
“Believe it, Ronsard. Allow me to present Princess Esme of Elsendor. Far from home she may be, but far from friendless she is.”
“Theido! I do not believe it either, sir,” she said to Ronsard. “Upon my word, he is the last man I would have expected to meet this day.”
“Well might I say the same of you, Lady Esme. You see, Ronsard, I spent much time in the halls of King Troen when that craven Jaspin seized my lands. I was made an outlaw in my own country, but Queen Besmire took me in, though her husband was away in the wars of Eskevar.”
“However did you know me? I scarce but recognize you.”
“You have much of your mother’s look about you, and much of your father’s boldness. The name Esme is not so widely used as you would have us believe. When I saw you, I knew there could be only one.”
The other knights murmured their surprise. Ronsard turned to them and said, “Why do you wonder at this, sirs? You well know Theido is kith to every family in the realm, be they plowman or prince.”
They all laughed, including Theido, who said, “Friends I have many, and it is true few men in Mensandor have not heard of Theido— though that is more of my father’s doing than my own.
“But let us be once more on our way. Join us, my lady, and tell us of your errand while we ride. We are for Askelon at once.”
“That suits me well—”
“I believe you spoke just now of friends of ours? What news would you bring us of them?” The party started off again.
“Dreadful news, sir. I wish it were not mine to tell. If you are friend to ones called Quentin and Toli, then you must prepare for the worst.” She glanced fearfully at her two companions. Their faces clouded with worry when she pronounced the names.
“I see I am right.”
“You are. Tell us what you know.”
“We were riding in search of you, my lords, traveling by night. We saw a fire—they said it was Illem, burning—and we rode to give aid. We were met by a fierce enemy, and Quentin and Toli were taken. I escaped.”
Tight lines appeared around Theido’s mouth, and Ronsard’s jaw bulged. “I marvel at your fortune,” said Ronsard. “And more at the directness of your speech.”
“My father has often said that bitter news does not grow sweeter on the tongue, and is better said quickly. If I thought that you would have been offended by my manner, I would have spared you.”
“No, don’t spare us. But tell us if we may hope for them.”
“Yesterday I thought not, but I chanced to meet an oracle by a pool. She gave me reason to hope, and reason to try to find you.”
“An oracle, you say?” Theido shrugged his shoulders. “Where need is great, any hand will serve, I guess. But we must not linger one moment longer; I fear my idle jesting has caused too much delay already. We will pick up the trail at Illem. We will have to wait for the rest of your story, my lady. I do not wonder but that it is most remarkable.”
“We ride for Illem!” shouted Ronsard to his knights. Reins snapped, and spurs bit into flanks, and the horses raced off into the hills toward the burned and blackened ring that had once been Illem.