They camped here last night, by the look of it,” said Ronsard, rising from the cold ashes he had been examining.
“And by the look of it, there must have been close to three thousand men with wagons and horses.” Theido’s gaze swept the wide meadow where the army had camped. All that was left now were scattered traces: matted grass where men had slept, charred patches where the fires had burned, broken turf where wagons had passed, and the crescent indentations in the earth where horses had walked. But the army had moved on.
“It will not be difficult to follow them; the signs are clear enough,” said Ronsard. He looked toward the westering sun. “How far do you think an army of that size could travel in a day? Four leagues? Five?”
“Four leagues, perhaps. Not more. They do not seem to be in a great hurry. It is strange . . .”
“That a force of such size should move through the land, driving all before them and yet . . .” He paused, seeking the words.
“Not appear afraid of being met and challenged.” The voice was Esme’s, who sat upon her mount, watching the two knights and following their conversation.
“Yes, that’s it. If I were invading a strange country,” said Theido, “I would have a thought for the resistance which must surely come sooner or later. There is an arrogance here which chills me to the bone.”
One of Ronsard’s knights hailed them from across the meadow. “He has found something,” replied Ronsard. He led them to where the knight knelt. Drawing closer, they soon noticed the look of frank disgust that contorted the soldier’s features.
“What is it, Tarkio? What have you found?”
“Lord Ronsard, I think someone has been killed in this place.”
The soldier was right. The deep red-black stain upon the earth could have been made in only one way.
Theido eyed the evidence, his lips pressed into a thin, colorless line.
“It could have been a stag,” suggested Esme. Her words lacked conviction; she, too, feared the worst.
“What would they do with the body?” Ronsard’s voice was strained and tight. He turned away from the ugly splotch in the grass, and Esme noticed the dark flame of anger that leaped into his eyes.
“I think I know what they did with the body,” said Tarkio in a tone devoid of all expression. He spoke so oddly the others looked at him and then followed his gaze to the nearby trees.
“Avert your eyes, my lady. It is no sight for a woman,” said Ronsard. He glanced at Theido, and his look was one of keen distress. For two heartbeats a question hung unspoken between them. “We must,” he uttered softly. “For I would know.”
“I will go with you,” said Theido quietly. “Stay here with Tarkio, Esme. We shall return at once.”
Theido dismounted and started off with Ronsard toward the tree, a great, spreading oak wherein hung the dangling corpse of the unfortunate soldier.
It did not so much resemble a human body as it did that of some animal carcass hung up to age. The birds had been all day at its face, and the entrails were but ragged shreds. It was hung from a low branch, both halves side by side, twisting slowly on the cord that passed through the bound hands and feet.
“One of their own?” Theido’s voice was thick and his features a tight grimace.
Ronsard nodded. “This one was never born in Mensandor.” He turned away from the gruesome token. “I am satisfied. Quentin and Toli may still be alive, but that is all I can say. I wish there were some clearer sign; I am not at all heartened by what I have seen here.”
“Nor am I. But it is enough, I think, to continue the chase.” Theido cast his gaze to the sky, now radiant with the gold of the lowering sun. “We still have a few hours’ daylight; we can go far.”
“And we will ride tonight. We should catch them before morning.”
Without another word they walked back to where the others were now waiting. Esme and Tarkio had been joined by the two remaining knights. “Be assured, my lady. Yonder wretch was never friend to us. One of their own, most likely.” Ronsard shot a questioning glance at the two who had, like Tarkio, been scouring the area for any signs as to the fate of the captives. Both knights merely shook their heads from side to side; they had seen nothing.
“Then we ride on. The trail is an easy one to follow. We shall stop at the next water to rest the horses. Nobren and Kenby go ahead, and then Tarkio and Esme. Theido and I will follow.” As the others took their mounts, he said to Theido, “We must have a plan before we reach the camp.”
Theido offered a nod. “We will pray that something presents itself along the way. For now, I am eager to put this cheerless place behind me.”
Two human skulls stared vacantly back at Quentin from where they stood affixed to long poles on either side of Gurd’s low dais. The warlord himself seemed only a slightly more animated skull. He sat unmoving, the soft lamplight filling the hollows of his keen face with shadow. That he was aware at all of their presence was shown by the two glinting orbs of his black eyes.
The warlord was seated, as were his reluctant guests, upon a cushion. His chest was bare, for he wore a short jacket open to the waist. It was of a very ornate pattern, brocaded in delicate figures foreign to Quentin’s eye. But it was the man’s chest that caught and held Quentin’s attention. For even in the glimmering light of the oil lamps, he could see that it was a mass of scars—long, jagged, nasty-looking scars. No accident or wound of battle could have produced them in such profusion; some were obviously more recent, for they overlaid the others, and some were freshly healed.
Quentin realized with a start that the wounds, these horrible mutilations, were self-inflicted.
The seneschal, now seated at the warlord’s right hand between the prisoners and his master, clapped his hands, and slaves bearing large bowls of food came hurrying in. Another slave set down smaller bowls, which the food bearers proceeded to fill from the larger bowls. When this was completed, the bowls were left before the diners, and the slaves withdrew hastily.
The warlord picked up his bowl and fell to eating at once, without another glance at his guests.
The food, an unfamiliar kind of boiled grain heavily spiced with chunks of meat in a thick sauce, was steaming hot. It tasted exotic and otherworldly to Quentin’s uninitiated palate, and once swallowed it left a lingering warmth on the tongue. They ate with fingers, bowls held to their lips. Quentin contrived to balance his bowl on the inner part of his knee, dipping with his left hand, his useless right arm cradled in his lap.
Midway through the meal, a slave appeared with a jar and began to pour out an amber liquid into golden cannikins. These, too, were placed before each one, and the slave departed. The beverage was a wine of some kind. Quentin recognized the slight metallic tang, but it was of a kind he had never encountered: smooth, almost thick, and wonderfully sweet. He found that a sip banished the warm tingle on his tongue produced by the spice of the food.
The warlord ate two bowls greedily without looking up. When he had finished, he laid down his bowl and placed his hands upon his knees. He belched once, and then said something very quickly.
“The meal is over,” the seneschal informed the prisoners. And though Quentin’s bowl was still half-full, he put it down and rested his hand upon his knee in imitation of his host.
“Lord Gurd wishes you to know that he only eats in the presence of those he respects, and that he will only share food with those he admires.” The emissary nodded to them, indicating that some response of like nature was intended.
“Who are we that he should respect or admire us, his enemies?”
The emissary translated Quentin’s question, and the warlord chuckled deeply and made a short reply.
“Lord Gurd says that your spirit has ennobled you. You, fair-skinned one, have survived the ordeal of the wheel. Had you been a coward, you would have died. You,” he addressed Toli, “risked death to rescue your friend. This deed has value, even though it is the act of a fool. The Lord Gurd admires such courage. He will be sorry to kill you when the time comes, but your blood will flow through him—as a most satisfying oblation for his immortality. This pleases him.”
This answer mystified and angered Quentin; he started to make a reply, but felt Toli’s light touch on his arm. Instead he said, “Why do you invade our land? Who are you?”
The seneschal spoke to the warlord, who smiled thinly, like a serpent. “I informed the Lord Gurd that you were honored that he should deem you worthy for such service.” To Quentin’s sharply angry look, he added, “It would not serve to anger him just now. He would have you disemboweled to return the food you have eaten with him.”
“What does he want with us?” asked Toli.
“He alone knows.”
Gurd picked up his goblet and drank deeply of the sweet liquor. When he had done, he rumbled a long discourse to his emissary, who interpreted. “Lord Gurd wishes to know how far is the great city—this Askelon—and how is it fortified and by how many soldiers is it guarded.”
“How is it that he believes I know the answers to such questions?” Quentin replied.
After a brief consultation with his lord, the man replied, “Lord Gurd knows that you have horses and therefore are not insubstantial men. He has seen your weapons and clothing and believes that you are of favored rank. The fact that you attacked his soldiers, the two of you alone, tells him that you are not unfamiliar with military matters and are in fact well trained for such purposes.”
Quentin hesitated. Toli’s thoughts could not be discerned.
“If you are wondering whether to answer or not, please allow me to remind you that Lord Gurd perceives any answers following such reluctance to be a lie, as I have already told you. Give me your answer at once, and he will be appeased.”
“Askelon is a far distance from here, many leagues. And he is right to call it a great city, for it is. There is none like it. No host has ever conquered Castle Askelon, and none ever will.”
“And how many soldiers defend this palace?”
“Tell your Lord Gurd that the Dragon King’s army is sufficient to any need.”
The warlord watched this exchange closely, not entirely pleased with Quentin’s response. But he nodded with satisfaction when his interpreter had finished his reply. Gurd beamed at Quentin and Toli and in his thick, incomprehensible speech addressed them both.
“The Lord Gurd is pleased with your answers. He has decided to allow you to live until we reach Askelon, where you will be sacrificed in order that he might win the city more quickly. He wishes to assure you that your blood will flow for him alone. This is a very high honor.”
“It is an honor we would rather forego,” Quentin said in a voice edged with subtle sarcasm, “but perhaps we may reciprocate the distinction at some future time.”
The emissary smiled slyly and began to offer Quentin’s remarks to his master, who bowed faintly and then yawned. He waved his hand toward his servant, who stood, saying, “The audience is now at an end. Bow to him and retreat; do not show your back to him.”
They backed away from the warlord’s presence and through the curtain. They crossed the tent and stepped once more outside. The evening was deepening, and Quentin felt the atmosphere in the camp pulsing with a barely contained excitement. The soldiers clustered together in knots, and coarse laughter could be heard on every side. The sun was well down, and the sky blushed crimson in the west. When the light finally disappears, thought Quentin, these barbarians will deliver themselves to frenzy.
As if reading his thoughts, the seneschal said, “This night there will be wild celebration, for it is Hegnrutha—the Night of Animal Spirits.”
“You speak our language well, sir,” said Quentin cautiously.
A sly look came into the dark eyes. “I speak eleven languages very well.”
“What did you say in there?” asked Quentin as his former guards hurried up to take them away.
The warlord’s personal servant smiled, revealing a row of fine white teeth that seemed to glow in the fading light. “I told him that it was an honor you would gladly repay in kind. He was flattered.”
“Why should you protect us?” asked Toli as the guards retied their hands. “What is it to you if we live or die?”
“There is no time to explain. I will come to you tonight when the chaos is at its peak.” The emissary spun on his heel and went back into the tent. Quentin and Toli were marched away to the wagon once more, but this time Quentin felt as if they moved in an aura of increased respect. The looks they received from the soldiers they passed were frankly awed to the point of reverence. He guessed that most who were summoned to the tent did not walk out, but they had.