Evening light lingered golden in the trees as Durwin stood out on the great bartizan overlooking the king’s magnificent garden, now ablaze with a thousand lanterns. The music of the assembled minstrels floated over all, a delicate tapestry of melody woven as if from the petals of summer flowers.
Nervous young men escorted radiant young ladies along the garden paths. Children frolicked among the leafy bowers, their laughter clean and clear, sounding like music played on silver instruments. Fine lords and ladies in bright costume moved gracefully among blue-and-yellow-striped pavilions wherein dainties were served. The Midsummer celebration at Askelon Castle was a feast for the senses, thought Durwin, sniffing the fragrant, flower-scented air. A thing of rare beauty.
“Why so heavyhearted, good hermit?” The voice was as light as the breeze that gently lifted the leaves in the garden. Durwin turned and bowed to his queen.
“My lady, you are a keen observer. I’ll not deny it,” he sighed.
“What can trouble your thoughts on an evening such as this? It is the night when all good things are dreamed—and you know that dreams may sometimes come true.”
“I wonder. Good does often seem so fragile against evil, the light so powerless against the darkness . . .” His voice trailed off without finishing the thought.
“That is not the Durwin I know. You sound as if you have been taking the king’s counsel.”
“Ah, so it is! How fickle a man’s mind, ever prey to his emotions. A weathercock for whatever winds may blow.” He smiled gently, recovering something of his former cheer. “Ah, yes. You are right to reprove me. What good is a physician who does not take his own cure?”
Alinea smoothly linked her arm in his and turned him toward the sweeping steps to the garden below. “Walk with me, kind friend. For I, too, have need of some good word.” A shadow moved across her lovely face. Durwin felt it like a pang.
“If words can help, then rely on it that I will say them.”
“I have been troubled today myself. A subtle unease disquiets my inmost soul, and most elusive it is. No cause seems readily apparent. Often, I discover myself to be thinking of Quentin.”
“I would calm you if I could, but these are not the words for it. I, too, have been thinking of Quentin this day—and of little else. When you came to me just now, I was thinking again of him, and of Toli, though even then I did not know it.”
“Do you think they may be in some trouble? It seems silly, I know—”
“Not at all, my lady, not at all. The Most High often joins our hearts with our loved ones in times of distress as well as joy. I have been praying for them all this day, though my prayers are uninformed.”
“I wish that I had the knowledge of the Most High that you possess. Then I would not feel so disposed to the foolishness of a woman’s fears.”
“But you have something else that serves as well. You have the ability to believe without the need for reasons, or for great signs and wonders. Yours is a faith to endure.”
“Mine will endure, but it is born of years of struggling and vain striving. I have come to my belief over a most circuitous and rocky path, and I cannot say which is better. I think the god gives each soul what it requires, and there is the difference.”
“Still, I would know more of what you have learned in your quest. It cannot hurt to be informed.”
“Aye, my lady. You speak aright. I will gladly teach you what little I know. But do not be surprised if in your heart you already know the truth of what I would instruct. It is often thus.”
They were silent as they reached the last step and entered the festive world of the Midsummer revelers. Alinea turned and looked earnestly into Durwin’s broad and weathered face.
“What can be done for Quentin and Toli?”
“Nothing that has not already been done. Pray. It is no little thing.”
“Let me come to you when the celebration is over. We will pray together. If one heart alone may have effect, then two will speed the remedy. And your sure prayers will guide my own more directly to the mark.”
“As you wish, my queen. I will await you.”
Just then the blast of trumpets rang out above them from the bartizan they had just quit. They turned to see the king’s pages, their long trumpets in hand, snap to attention. Then King Eskevar himself was leaning on the stone balustrade, looking down upon the merrymaking. Silence descended slowly over the garden as all eyes turned toward him. Then the giggling children grew quiet as they sensed something important was about to happen, though they regarded it more of an interruption in their fun than an occasion of state. Their elders exchanged puzzled glances— it was not usual for the king to address his guests like this. But all waited to hear what he had to say.
“Citizens of Mensandor, my friends. I will not keep you long from your merrymaking, and I will join you soon. But I would tell you some things which have been on your king’s heart of late.”
There was a murmur of concern; some for the words, and some for the appearance of the king, whose haggard features were not at all disguised by his festive apparel.
“What I am about to tell you may cause you some concern. Please know that it is not my intention to worry you, nor cause you needless alarm.”
“What is he doing?” whispered Durwin.
“I do not know.” Queen Alinea shook her head. A line of concern appeared on her brow. “He discussed nothing like this with me.”
“But as your king,” Eskevar continued, his solemn tones descending like a leaden rain into the garden, “I would be less than just if knowing of the danger to our realm I did not at once warn my people to look to their safety.”
Now there was a general clamor, and a voice called out, “This is a poor jest for Midsummer!” Another said, “Let the king speak! I would hear him out in peace!”
“It is not a jest, my loyal friends. But my heart can no longer abide rejoicing while across fair Mensandor the wild, angry clouds of war are gathering.” He held up a hand to silence the outburst that followed this revelation. “Even now my marshals scour the land to bring me word of our enemy, that we might know his strength and so arm against him. We shall fight for our land against any foe, and we shall win!”
The king’s voice had risen to a rant; he sounded like a madman, though his words were sane enough. A stunned silence fell upon the Midsummer revelers. Eskevar seemed to come to himself again and realized what he had done. His hand trembled slightly as he said, “Return now to your pleasure. It may be the last we will know for many dark days.” He turned and walked away from the balustrade and disappeared into the castle, leaving his guests to mumble in confused alarm.
“What can he mean by this? Oh, Durwin . . .” Alinea turned to the hermit, eyes filling with tears. “Is he . . . ?”
“No, no. Do not be alarmed. He is as sane as you or I, perhaps the more. I believe that his great heart feels deeply for the land. Somehow it is part of him; when it hurts, he hurts. I am certain that I am telling you nothing you do not already know.”
“That may be, but it is good to hear another say it. I have long known him to be unable to enter into gaiety when there is any unhappiness he may cure. But he has never taken it to this extreme.”
“Pray that I am wrong, my lady. But it may be that we will have cause ere long to look upon Eskevar’s ill-timed warning as the act of a most brave and noble soul. I think he senses something that is not yet apparent to us. I fear we will share his forebodings too soon.”
“You will excuse me, Durwin. I must hurry to attend to him just now. He will be wroth with himself for his outburst. He will want a cool hand to soothe his brow.”
Durwin bowed, and the beautiful Alinea hurried away with a rustle of her silken skirts. He turned and saw that all eyes had been upon the queen in the moments following Eskevar’s strange address. Durwin smiled as broadly as he knew how, held up his hands, and shouted, with as much cheer as he could command, “Friends, let us enjoy our celebration! There may be trouble to come—so be it! But it is a good day, and we may have need of such joy ere long. So let us fill our hearts with happiness and let care belong to the morrow!”
His hand flourished in the air, and, as if waiting for his cue, the music swelled and filled the garden as the minstrels began to play once more. The children, sensing the momentary ban on their fun had been lifted, burst forth with pent-up high spirits, and their laughter sounded from every corner. In a short while the garden was transformed into a scene of mirth and merriment. The ominous cloud, so sudden and unexpected in appearance, had just as suddenly passed.
Night came on like a dream. Quentin had some vague recollection of a day that seemed to stretch out forever without end. He and Toli had been thrown into the back of one of the wagons to wonder at their fate. There was not a heartbeat throughout the interminable day that he did not relive the horror of their sunrise ordeal.
He had been pulled across the execution ring at the signal of the warlord. Halfway to the bloody spot, he had seen the deathman turn away. He looked around as the warlord was riding through the scattering throng of his soldiers; the ring was melting away. Suddenly he understood that the warlord’s order had been one of dismissal. The executions were over. For some reason, which he would not know until later, he and Toli had been spared. Relief, however, was slow in coming as he watched the giant axe-man walk away rubbing the cruel head of his broadaxe with shreds of the dead man’s clothes.
Shortly after the wagon had begun to rumble and jostle away, Quentin had slumped into a deep sleep, broken only by Toli’s persistent nudging and admonitions to eat. They had, by some chance, been bundled into a wagon bearing provisions taken from Illem. Toli, after managing to loosen his bonds somewhat, had gathered a few foods for them. He was adamant that Quentin eat and regain some small part of his strength for whatever lay ahead.
After a meal of dry grain, strong goat cheese, and hard bread, Quentin had fallen asleep again. It was nearly sunset on Midsummer’s Day before he stirred.
“You have decided to remain a little longer in this world?” Toli asked as Quentin’s eyes opened. They were now sitting amid a careless jumble of food stores in the half-light of the covered wagon.
“We have stopped!” Quentin struggled to sit up, but hot knives shot into his shoulder and arm. He ached all over. “Ow!”
“Rest while you may, Kenta. Yes, we stopped some time ago. I think they are making camp for the night. Soon they will come for provisions.”
“What will happen to us then, I wonder?” He shook his head as he looked at his ever-resourceful friend. “I thought you were dead. You should have escaped while you could.”
Toli smiled brightly back at him. “You know that was impossible. There could be no escape without my Kenta. It is fiyanash—unthinkable.”
“Well, we may both pay with our lives tomorrow, but I am glad you are here with me, Toli. At least Esme escaped.”
“Yes,” Toli said flatly, and Quentin felt as if he had touched an open wound.
“I thought—ahh!” Quentin’s face contorted into a grimace.
“Is there much pain?”
“It comes and goes. I feel as if my bones have been taken out, rumbled together, and replaced one at a time whichever came to hand.”
“I feared you dead when I saw you lashed to the wagon wheel.” He smiled again, and Quentin wondered how he could be cheerful at such a time. “But you were displaying more wisdom and restraint than you usually do. I would have had us free and away from here if not for that wretch of a guard.”
“His life was forfeit for his error.” Quentin paused, thinking again of the hideous spectacle he had witnessed and only narrowly avoided taking part in. “Perhaps it was meant to be a warning to us; perhaps he did not intend to put us to death—just yet anyway.”
“What is important now is that we have time to try again to escape. Tonight will be an excellent opportunity.”
Toli nodded. “Midsummer—they will occupy themselves with their revelry. The watch will be relaxed and inattentive. We may have a chance.”
Quentin’s head ached remembering their previous attempt at escape. He seemed to remember something else about Midsummer, something that stirred a brief flutter of pleasure, but it faded even as he struggled to grasp it. “Midsummer. Do you think these . . .”—he did not know what to call them—“these barbarians mark such occasions?”
“There is a fair chance, I would say. Even the Jher observe the Day of the Long Sun. It is so with most peoples; these would be no different.”
“Who are they? Why have they come to Mensandor?”
Before they could ponder the question further, two soldiers appeared at the back of the wagon and pulled out the gate board. The prisoners were yanked out of their nest and each one dragged to a wheel and lashed securely in place, arms outstretched, legs spread and bound to the wheel at the knee. They could not move, except to turn their heads and look at one another helplessly.
The two guards then took up a position close by to enable a tight watch to be kept on their charges. The guards sat a little way off upon a log and stared at them with cold malevolence. It was plain that neither of the guards relished the duty; possibly it was too risky, considering what had happened to one of their own that very morning.
With both soldiers watching them closely, Quentin decided that no movements to free themselves could take place, so he ignored the guards and tried to make sense out of the frantic activity taking place around them.
The army had chosen a flat lea overlooked by a long, low bluff of poplars and beeches on which to camp. Soldiers were busily dragging fallen trees down the hill and pitching them into a great heap in the center of the meadow. Small fires for cooking had already been lit, and the silvery smoke hung in the unmoving evening air. Other soldiers led horses away to a stream somewhere out of sight. Twice Quentin caught a glimpse of the warlord as he rode through the camp, directing the work of his men. He did not so much as glance toward his prisoners.
Soon the bustle throughout the camp decreased as the smell of cooking food wafted from the fires. Soldiers grouped around the fires in tight knots that slowly broke apart into smaller groups. The men sat on the ground with trenches of wood and dipped their hands into their meal. Quentin and Toli could hear their smacking lips and noisy slurping as they licked their platters.
Quentin decided to try to count the number of soldiers in the party. There were twenty cooking fires scattered across the lea, and by his best estimation each served a hundred or more men. There were more moving about the perimeter, employed in tending horses, gathering firewood, and various other chores. In this body there were at least two thousand soldiers, possibly many more.
He also noted that the warlord maintained a special bodyguard of fifty or so men who occupied themselves near his circular, dome-shaped tent. They sat apart from the others and did none of the menial duties of the rest of the soldiers.
As Quentin watched, a man emerged from the tunnel-like opening of the tent and came toward them. Even from a distance Quentin could see that there was something different about the man; he was vaguely unlike the other soldiers thronging the wide meadow. There was something in his bearing, something in his appearance that set him apart.
The man, tall and dressed in a loose garment of deepest indigo bedecked with chains of gold, wore an unusual soft, flat hat of a kind Quentin had never seen before. Beneath the hat a long face protruded, rimmed by a short, bristling beard. The beard was black as pitch, contrasting boldly with the lighter, somewhat sallow complexion of the emissary.
He strode with purpose directly to the wagon to stand with hands on hips, glaring the two prisoners. Quentin stared boldly back into the snapping black eyes as the warlord’s chief emissary—for so Quentin now considered him—spoke quickly to the two guards. He did not turn his head to speak to them, but kept his eyes on the captives alone.
The guards grumbled back an answer to the bearded officer. He barked at them once more and tossed them a hasty look over his shoulder. At once they jumped to their feet and, still mumbling, began to untie the prisoners from the wheels of the wagon. Then he turned and began walking back to the tent.
Quentin and Toli were jerked to their feet and pushed forward to follow him. Their guards seemed none too pleased to be about this duty. Quentin wondered what this summons could mean. Toli returned his questioning glance with one of his own as they marched through the camp. Quentin noticed that the eyes of the soldiers they passed followed them with looks of mingled fear and awe.
At the warlord’s tent the approach of the emissary and prisoners brought two soldiers to their feet to hold back the entrance flap. The tall man stooped and entered without a word; Quentin and Toli were pushed forward to follow him. Their guards, glad to be done with the detail, hurried away to find their supper.
Stooping so low brought a gasp of pain from Quentin, who stumbled and caught himself uncertainly. His hands had grown stiff and numb from his bonds. When he picked himself up, he saw that the inside of the domed tent was like the canopy of the night sky and just as dark. Tiny golden lamps suspended from golden chains burned brightly, each one a flaming star in the vault of the heavens. The robed emissary turned to them and held up his hand, indicating that they were to remain where they were. He turned and disappeared behind a richly embroidered hanging curtain.
“This is like no commander’s pavilion that I have ever seen,” said Quentin as his eyes took in the strange, slightly fantastic furnishings of the abode. Everywhere he looked, the soft glisten of gold and silver met his gaze.
“It is a king’s palace made to travel.” Toli, too, registered surprise at the contrast between the fierce warlord and his men, and the surroundings of his tent.
Just then the bearded emissary stepped back through the curtain and motioned them forward, and as he did so, the warlord’s seneschal cuffed Quentin sharply on the neck as an indication he was to bow in the warlord’s presence.
Quentin entered the inner sanctum with eyes lowered. He and Toli stood side by side for some time in silence. No one moved or spoke. Before them and a little above they could hear the slow, even breathing of the warlord, and Quentin imagined he could feel his cool gaze upon them as he pondered their fate.
The warlord grunted a command, and his servant came forward and bowed before him. The warlord spoke a low rumble in his unfathomable tongue. The seneschal bowed again and said, his voice smooth and cultured, “My lord has decided that you may sit in his presence. He wishes you to eat with him, but you are not to speak—unless he asks you a question, and then you are to answer without hesitation. If either of you do not answer at once, he will know that you are contemplating a lie and will have your tongue cut out that your friend may eat it and remember not to follow your example.”
He clapped his hands, and two servants brought cushions and placed them at the prisoners’ feet. “Sit,” came the order.
When they had seated themselves, with some difficulty in Quentin’s case, the bearded emissary said, “You may raise your eyes.”
When they had done so, he cried, “Look upon the immortal Gurd, commander of Ningaal, warlord of Nin the Destroyer!”
Quentin was not prepared for the sight that met his eyes.